Music burst forth and Hugh began a detailed demonstration of how to operate the wireless, and Jean glanced over her shoulder and gave her dad a cheerful smile, and that took a tiny fraction of the discomfort out of the situation.
After a while, Hugh turned.
“The wonder of modern science.”
“Aye the wonder,” Euan replied.
In the pause that followed he looked down and stroked Douglas’s face. Caitlin must have fed him well, he thought, because he’d slept all the way across town on the bus, and he was still asleep. Easier that way. Less upsetting for the girls if he wasn’t crying. For himself, as well. He lifted his eyes back to Hugh.
“I see you have a motor car.”
“Morris Minor. Nice little runner. We’re just getting used to it. That and the telephone. Marigold likes to have all the latest . . .” He stopped, as though a sudden awareness of social inequality had struck him.
“What’s a telephone?” Nell asked very softly.
Euan was about to explain it to her when Marigold swept into the room with the tea tray and an ear-to-ear smile.
“Here we are,” she gushed. “Girls, do you like Ovaltine? I hope so. And look what I have for you both ” She reached into her apron pocket and pulled out two bars of Cadbury’s chocolate. “A special treat!”
“Thank you, Mrs Pettigrew,” Jean said with a natural politeness that made Euan proud.
Marigold’s voice lowered.
“Nell, can I tempt you, dear?”
“Yes, please.” Nell accepted the chocolate, but rather than opening it straight away and eating it like her sister, she simply held it, her hand snaking its way under Euan’s arm and her hip pressing harder against his leg. He reached down and took her hand, and he squeezed it for a moment.
Euan loved both his daughters equally that went without saying but Jean, at ten years old, seemed better able to cope with what lay ahead than eight-year-old Nell.
There followed a half hour or so of casual conversation, tactfully steered on Marigold and Hugh’s part to avoid any mention of the adoption or of the two girls going to stay at the Dundee Orphan Institution where Marigold’s spinster sister-in-law, Gertrude, worked as a House Mother.
The day before, as instructed by Marigold, Euan had taken a suitcase containing some of Jean and Nell’s belongings to the children’s home. Gertrude showed him where they’d be sleeping in side-by-side beds, she promised and where they’d eat their meals with the 70 or so other children. It was clean and well-ordered, he conceded inwardly, and the thought of his bairns having decent food, hot baths and warm beds pleased him.
Still, when Gertrude handed him the paperwork, he baulked. Jean and Nell weren’t orphans. They were his precious lassies, and the love he felt for them made his hand shake as he prepared to scrawl his signature.
“I’ll be back to get them by this time next year,” he said.
Gertrude looked at him.
“Very good,” she replied mildly, not with compassion but efficiency.
“This time next year at the latest.” There was no way he was going to sign without making that point clear. “And you’ll keep them together the whole time?”
“Yes, Mr McIntosh. Jane and Helen will be kept together.”
“Jean and Nell.”
A cursory nod.
“Jean and Nell.”
When the clock on the mantle in the Pettigrews’ sitting-room struck four, Marigold rose to her feet and, in what Euan knew to be a carefully devised sequence of events, she suggested that Jean and Nell might like to help her put Douglas in the pram and accompany her and the baby on a short walk round the neighbouring streets.
It was time.
Euan swallowed hard. Marigold had vowed to allow him to see Douglas in the future and he would cling to that pledge. He would come back for Jean and Nell. He’d come back. This wasn’t for ever.
The kindest thing for the bairns, Gertrude had explained to him previously, was not to let them know what was happening. So he had encouraged them to go. Let it happen. Even though it was tantamount to his insides being ripped out.
“It’s not an easy thing for you to have to do,” Hugh said as he and Euan stood in the doorway and watched the small procession walking down the garden path. Euan couldn’t speak. Hugh must have understood why because he placed his hand gently on Euan’s shoulder.
Less than five minutes later, as he walked briskly towards the town, a car travelling in the direction from which he’d just come passed Euan. The driver was a rather stern-faced gentleman and Euan recognised the female passenger. Gertrude Pettigrew.
He watched the car until it had disappeared round the corner.
Then, as if in slow motion, the ground under his feet felt as though it was crumbling and he moved to a nearby wall and leaned heavily against it. He closed his eyes. He didn’t want to remember the looks on Jean and Nell’s innocent little faces when they’d waved goodbye to him.
“See you in fifteen minutes,” he had told them.
He gave himself up to the utter agony of what he had done.
“Forgive me, Colleen,” he whispered. “Please, forgive me.”
And, strangely, what came to mind then was the three shillings still sitting in that jar
at home. The money he had put aside for the midwife. I’ll keep those three shillings, Euan decided right then. And one day, when he was reunited with his bairns, he’d give them a shilling each.