Norah and Reginald meet at a tennis club in east London during the Great War. Reginald has an elegant backswing. Norah has a powerful serve. They play doubles. They play each other. They strike up a romance and get married. Reginald is a clerk in the Westminster Bank. He has a horsey face, long and sad, with spectacles. He is anxious by disposition. Norah is bossy. She has a swarthy complexion and volunteers for the National Relief Fund. She comes from a family who bettered themselves and lives in a house with three floors and two maids who sleep in the attic.
Reginald buys a large house in Blackheath with the help of Norah’s father. Beryl is born first, and then Ray in 1921, three years later. She is going to be named Pamela, but after she’s born she does not seem like a Pamela and so they name her after an uncle, Captain Wray, who was killed in Gallipoli. Ray contracts polio when she is a few months old. She is not too sick but her right leg is damaged and a physiotherapist called Miss Gedge visits once a week to do exercises with baby Ray on the billiard table. When she is two, Barbara is born. Ray’s earliest memory is of baby Barbara in her treasure cot. It has pearly white sides, a lacy canopy and trailing silk ribbons. It rocks gently on the floorboards of the nursery as Ray peers inside.
Barbara is her mother’s favourite. She is a timid child who carries her toy farm animals everywhere she goes, stuffed into the pockets of her cardigan. Ray is her father’s favourite. She is short-sighted, like him, and studious. Ray and Barbara are natural comrades, united by their fear of Beryl, who is stubborn and imperious. Beryl is nobody’s favourite, but she is the most beautiful of the sisters. She has her father’s height and her mother’s aristocratic features. Reginald is promoted to bank manager. He buys an old Crossley motor car and every summer they go on their holidays to Birchington-on-Sea. Norah is the driver; Reginald navigates. They always argue on the way. Norah knits beige bathing suits for her daughters and Reginald rigs up a curtain that can be pulled around all the windows of the car to hide them from sight while they are changing. Ray loves the sea – the sweeping strand, the smell of salt and weed, the vacillating tides.
Ray, Barbara and Beryl c. 1926
Ray is the only sister to win a scholarship to boarding school. Norah drives her down to Sussex with a small trunk of necessary possessions. Barbara waves ferociously out the rear windscreen of the car as it heads back to London. Ray is lonely at first and teased for being a scholarship girl. When her parents come for day visits she is embarrassed that they pack a picnic lunch instead of taking her out to a hotel. Beryl leaves school early. Reginald gets her a job in the income tax section of the bank and in her spare time she does in-house modelling jobs for a ladies’ clothing boutique. During the holidays Ray and Barbara dance to the gramophone in the dining room and play tennis at the club where their parents met, eyeing up the young men. By the time Ray is a senior her best friend is an Irish girl called Lana. In the evenings they play cribbage and Monopoly with the other senior girls in the common room. On the night that Edward VIII abdicates, they are allowed to gather around the wireless. Ray doesn’t approve, though she thinks Mrs Simpson is very chic.
At elevenses on Sunday the 3rd of September, 1939, Neville Chamberlain declares that England is at war. Air raid sirens sound across London immediately, and everybody scrambles for shelter, but there are no bombs. There are no bombs for almost a year. Beryl and Ray learn to drive and volunteer with the Young Women’s Christian Association to transport mobile canteens around the city. Hundreds of Zeppelins appear suspended in the sky over London, tethered to steel cables manned by members of the RAF’s barrage balloon squadrons who live in huts on-site. The canteens contain tea urns and currant buns and Woodbine cigarettes. Ray likes to prop the window open and lean out to chat to the men as they take their breaks.
Men are becoming scarce. The sisters are allowed to have their friends and boyfriends around for afternoon tea at the weekends and they play ‘sardines’ in the rooms of the rambling house, kissing in cluttered wardrobes. Barbara finishes school and follows Beryl into the bank and falls in love with a golden-haired Royal Engineer called Keith. Ray gets engaged to Ralph, who has a claw hand and a little green sports car that he drives too fast. On Christmas Day in 1940 he crashes into a delivery van on the way back from lunch in Blackheath. Ralph breaks his nose against the steering wheel but Ray, who is in the passenger seat, is flung through the windscreen and lands in shrubbery on the side of the road. Barbara and Keith ride with her in the ambulance. Barbara holds Ray’s hand and Keith holds Barbara’s hand. Ray is unconscious for three days. When she wakes up she finds that her two front teeth are missing and Ralph has broken off their engagement.
By then bombs are normal. When the air raid sirens sound the nurses on Ray’s hospital ward distribute enamel washbowls and push all the beds into the middle of the floor to make an island. Then the patients put their pillows over their heads, and the washbowls over their pillows, and the nurses clamber underneath the island of beds. Somebody tells Ray that if you can hear a bomb falling then it will not hit you, and so she tries to be comforted by this.
Ralph’s mother feels bad about her son’s behaviour and invites Ray to convalesce at their house in Hampshire, safe from the London bombs. Ray spends six awkward weeks in the wintery countryside. She sits up in bed looking out at a bare sweet chestnut tree and reading novels, Gone with the Wind, Tender Is the Night and Cold Comfort Farm. Every now and again a piece of her splintered jaw surfaces somewhere in her mouth and she spits it out like an apple pip. Spring finally comes and Norah arrives in the old Crossley to collect her daughter. Then she forces Ray to drive all the way back to Blackheath, so that she will not be afraid.
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