The clock in the front room had a very loud tick. Most of the time there was nobody there to hear it, but this was Sunday evening when the room had company. The fire had been lit and the shadows of the flames were playing over the thickly patterned wallpaper and bringing the dead faces in the large black and white photographs on the walls to life. Tiny signatures in their corners showed that they were something special, posed for, enlarged, and paid for at some expense. They were memorials to people who held fond memories for Edie, one of the daughters of the house, well mostly fond. There was Annie Maud, the great grandmother who always wore black and who would be tipping out her purse and counting her change out in her lap this very minute if she were sitting next to her granddaughter. Beside her was Esther the little sister who had died from meningitis, three months after her picture was taken, just when they all thought she was going to survive childhood, unlike little Sidney. She was eight years old and sitting in a big straight backed chair, so solemn, with the biggest bow in her hair you had ever seen. Edie could remember tieing that bow for her every morning. Esther had known just how she liked it even before she could do it herself. Something which, of course, she never did learn to do. On the right hand side of the mantlepiece Granddad Pearson was looking very happy on top of a hay cart, holding a huge pitchfork. Haytiming was fun and Granddad Pearson had always had something to say for himself. “You want some horse muck in your shoes!” he used to tell Edie when she was little, just to see her pull a face. All of them were watching, along with a whole battalion of first world war soldiers sitting in rows with her dad right in the middle. None of them had any idea what they were in for.
Edie wondered if the people in the photographs looked forward to Sunday nights when the corner cabinet was opened and the four biscuit tins full of pennies and the pack of cards were taken out. Four tins, one each for herself, her husband George, and her mam and dad. Playing whist was dad’s treat really, now he’d retired and they didn’t have the farm any more. Edie wasn’t that bothered, but at least it put time on, gave them something to do before they walked back home. Joyce wasn’t there. She never played whist, she never had. Joyce was usually somewhere else. Edie didn’t want to think about her. Her face fell and her wrist shook as she moved the cards in her hand around nervously, putting the suits in order. Joyce wouldn’t even go in the front room, she called it a morgue, but she was twenty years younger than Edie and spoiled rotten. A nice enough lass, but spoiled rotten. Just because she had turned up when mam and dad had given up hope of a little one to replace Esther. Now she was twenty five, looked just like Princess Margaret and was always out gadding, dancing to big bands and going after the blokes. She wasn’t even looking like settling down. Not even engaged at twenty three, never mind married, and she could have had her pick. Well she did have her pick, but she never kept any of them for long. She wouldn’t sit in here for longer than two minutes and she’d no idea about whist anyway. Nor had George. Edie looked at her husbands stolid, unmoving face as he studied the cards in his hand. He was never going to set the world alight but at least he was the sort to sit down and shut up. If you told him he was going to play whist that’s what he would do. He was reliable. It was a good job they’d brought the little wooden indicator back from Blackpool to show what was trumps. He’d never remember otherwise.
“It’s your turn Edie.”
Dad was looking at her sharply. He liked to play fast, he was used to whist drives and his tin of pennies was always the heaviest. Edie put down the nine of spades. He shook his head and scooped up the cards putting them carefully in front of him.
“You gave that trick away our Edie. You want to remember what’s gone.”
It hadn’t been fair of Joyce to tell her something like that and then expect her to keep her mouth shut. Edie might be twenty years older, a sister who was old enough to be her mam, but she wasn’t. Joyce’s proper mam was sitting there calmly with one hand in her lap, right next to the fire because she felt the cold, and she had no idea. It wasn’t right. This news was going to half kill her, and nothing should ever happen to hurt mam. Edie looked at the long brass poker lying next to the fire. You could do some damage with that and dad had a temper. Not often- but by God he could frighten you to death if it was something bad enough and this this was more than bad enough. All hell was going to break loose. She looked at the little pottery plaque covered in pink bubbly glaze that sat on the wall above the plastic flowers. Thou God Seest Me, it said. Well it wasn’t God Joyce was going to have to worry about. Not to start with any way.
The cards flashed back and forward and the piles of tricks grew longer. Edie leaned forward and picked out a log to mend the fire. It blazed up and a flash of sparks lit up the thin layer of black soot covering the fire back. Mam watched and nodded.
“That was a good sermon this morning.”
Edie couldn’t remember. She had been too busy inside her own head. Joyce had just sat there next to her, clutching her book of common prayer, as if she’d said nothing on the way to church. You’d never have known there was anything wrong. Edie would have called it brazen if she hadn’t seen her crying the night before. She pulled herself together and picked up the cards to shuffle them. Mam frowned at her.
“What’s up with you Edie? You’ve a face like thunder.”
Edie shook her head and dealt out the cards in a rush.
None of them believed that, other than George who hadn’t noticed anything wrong in the first place, but mam knew her daughter too well to ask again. They all looked at their cards, each of them keeping a straight face so as not to show their hand. Edie had two kings and an ace, and three trumps. Not bad. All the same she managed to throw away her ten of clubs when she should have kept it and won the next trick.
“Our Joyce usually brings a pot of tea in by now.”
Joyce was not going to be worrying about pots of tea. Edie got up.
“I’ll fetch one in.”
Dad looked up from the cards that he was all ready to shuffle.
“You’ll be holding things up.”
“I won’t be a minute.”
“You’ll sit yourself down.”
Edie did. You didn’t argue with dad when he looked like that, not about a pot of tea any road.
“She’ll be in afore long. She’ll be on with her magazines.”
Edie tried to concentrate on choosing how many pennies to put down for her next hand. Her tin would already be a lot more empty after tonight. She put down two and regretted it straight away. Dad laughed.
“Is that all?”
She just shrugged.
“You bloody are.”
“Come on Edie. Spit it out.”
All three of them stared at Edie, who immediately went bright red. George wondered whether he should tell her mam and dad to let her alone but after one look at his father in laws face he decided not to. Mam wished folks would just come straight out with it when they had something to say- she didn’t like upsets- and dad wiped his wrist over his moustache and wondered where his pot of tea was.
“Go and see what our lass is playing at then, if you must.”
Edie looked at him miserably.
“I think she’s gone upstairs.”
“Upstairs? What’s she done that for? Sunday Night at the London Palladium’s on soon.”
It was, they needed to put the new set on to warm up, but Edie had a feeling that none of them would be wanting to watch it.
“She said she were tired.”
“She’s nowt like tired.”
“That’s what she said.”
At that moment all three of them realised that Edie knew something and Edie realised that she couldn’t keep it to herself any more. She burst out crying but she managed to get the words out all the same. The clock chimed calmly, nine long strikes, resonating out through the stale air of the room, punctuating her tears.
“Our Joyce is expecting a baby.”