Beth ran, her breath rasping in her chest as she reached the path to Mrs Bond’s cottage. And then her legs turned to jelly.
The letters had been scrawled with a piece of coal on to the door. Beth had seen the word before – she’d learned to read well at school.
Everyone in the house was quarantined, it must be the outbreak of influenza Dad had talked about. Who could help Sarah now? The next cottage was Mrs Thacket’s, at least a mile on.
A terrible image flooded into Beth’s imagination, of her dad sitting by a bed weeping, and lying there was a woman, her face white as chalk. Was it Sarah? Or was it her own mother – the lady who Beth had never known but had only seen in a photograph, standing beside Dad on their wedding day.
“Sarah, please don’t die!” she whispered, and then suddenly she felt a hand on her shoulder. It was Mrs Thacket.
“Are you all right? I came to see how Mrs Bond was getting on. Whatever is the matter? Good gracious, is your stepmother needing her already?”
Beth nodded, her mouth trembling.
“Well, it seems there’s nothing we can do here. Come along, we’d best see to your stepmother, hadn’t we? I’ve had eight children of my own, so I expect I know what to do, or my name’s not Maisie Thacket!”
“He’s holding my finger, Sarah, and he’s looking straight at me!”
“No wonder, love,” Sarah said, a smile glowing from her pale face. “You helped bring him into the world. Didn’t she, Maisie?”
“She did, that’s the truth.” Mrs Thacket laid out a fresh nightdress for Sarah. “I’ll be on my way. You’re in fine hands with Beth; anyone can see that. Will Joe be in soon, or may I send someone to fetch him?”
Sarah had insisted no-one alert Joe earlier. His fears would have been too much to bear, for both of them. But then the sound of Joe’s stomping boots was heard. Mrs Thacket slipped out and seconds later Joe was at Sarah’s side, gazing in wordless wonder at the tiny baby nestling in the crook of her arm.
“We have a son, Joe,” Sarah said softly. “Isn’t he beautiful?”
Joe’s rapturous gaze was clouded with tears as he bent to kiss Sarah. Then he slowly reached out and stroked his little son’s cheek.
“What a sight to see, the three of you!”
Words failed him then, but his face was filled with rapture as his shining eyes moved adoringly from his wife to his daughter, and then to the little son who would be named after him.
“Beth was a wonder, Joe. Mrs Thacket did a fine job, but Beth gave me the strength.”
Joe leaned across and cupped Beth’s face in his hand.
“My baby girl’s growing up.”
“But not too fast.” Sarah smiled. “Still, I have no doubt she will be this little one’s favourite. Here, poppet, would you like to hold him?”
“Yes, please!” Beth felt herself swell with pride. It was going to be fun, having a baby brother to look after.
They heard Ben and Johnny coming in, and Joe tore himself away to tell them the news. Beth giggled as her little brother yawned, his red face wrinkling.
He began to fret and she rocked him back to sleep.
“You look like a little mother yourself,” Sarah said.
Beth’s smile faded into shyness as she looked up.
“Sarah,” she began slowly. “I know you’re not my real mother, but to me it feels like you are. I’ve been wondering. Would it be all right if from now on I called you ‘Mama’?”
“Darling Beth, of course it would. I’ve always wanted you to, but didn’t feel it was right to ask.” And Sarah felt the last cloud of worry lift from her heart with a burst of perfect joy.