The Watercress Girls

The Watercress Girls

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On a blazing hot day in late August 1914, twelve year old Mattie dances in the stream, spraying her little sister Evie with silvery showers of water. They have come here to cool off and to pick watercress for tea. They are unaware that their idyllic childhood in Suffolk is almost at an end, for as their mother says, 'all the world's gone mad'.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781846527869
Publisher: Library Magna Books
Publication date: 09/01/2010
Edition description: Unabridged, 7 CDs, 8 hrs.
Pages: 7
Product dimensions: 7.50(w) x 7.40(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Sheila Newberry is also the author of Hot Pies on the Tramcar and Knee Deep in Plums.

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The Watercress Girls

By Sheila Newberry

Robert Hale Limited

Copyright © 2009 Sheila Newberry
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7090-9545-3


Mattie was dancing about in the stream, spraying her sister with silvery showers of water. It was a blazing hot day in late August, 1914. The girls had come down to the meadow to cool off. Later they would fill the basket with watercress, but there was only one guest to enjoy it for Saturday tea, at present. The rest of the visitors had departed abruptly at the beginning of the month when War was declared.

Six-year-old Evie retreated from the bombardment, stumbled and sat down inadvertently in the water. 'Look what you've made me do!' she cried reproachfully.

'You've got your bloomers wet!' sang out her sister, but she waded over to help Evie up. She was twelve, twice as old as Evie, but her mother often reminded her that she didn't act her age. Lately, she'd added that it was time for Mattie to grow up 'now the whole world's gone mad'.

'We'll have to go home.' Evie sniffed.

'Not yet. Your clothes will soon dry out in this heat. Come on, we promised to take back some watercress!' She felt in her pocket. 'Here's a piece of toffee. It might have a bit of fluff on it, but you can rub that off, can't you?'

Mollified, Evie tagged along behind Mattie to the watercress bed.

Some of the young men of the village had already volunteered to join the army. Last week there had been a march of new recruits through the main street and everyone had emerged with flags to cheer them on their way. The lads of the Boys' Brigade had played their polished brass instruments and banged their drums. The girls had watched from the doorway of the Plough inn with their parents to wave a last, public goodbye to their two elder brothers. Afterwards they'd observed tears in their father's eyes despite his proud beam. Their mother, Sophia, whispered apprehensively, 'They won't take you too, will they, Will?' He patted her arm. 'Not at forty, old girl,' he said gruffly.

They both knew that difficult times lay ahead. They'd miss the support of their strong sons, although the bar was now half-empty each evening with the regulars gone.

Still, there was their paying guest, Mr B. They called him that because his name was difficult to pronounce. He had come to this country some forty years ago as a young man. He was an artist, quite a famous one, it was rumoured, whose pictures had been hung in the Royal Academy. He was a regular summer visitor, paying extra for the use of a wooden chalet in the garden as a studio where he could, he said, 'breathe in good, clean air, look out on pastoral scenes, paint in peace and quiet....'

Mr B had a hawklike profile, dark, oiled-back hair and deep-set eyes under beetle brows. Despite his stern appearance he was kindly, and tolerated the giggles of the girls when they counted under their breath the number of times he stirred the three sugar lumps in his tea. Fourteen twirls of the spoon, to be exact. He was very fond of watercress too.

'Thank you girls – thank you, Mrs Rowley,' he declared, in his slightly accented voice, when he joined Sophia and her daughters for tea. 'I tell my mother how very nice this is, the way you serve the watercress, with a touch of vinegar and a pinch of sugar.'

The girls were full of mirth again, thinking of one so old still living with an even more ancient parent.

Sophia's look quelled them. She said: 'Mattie, Mr B has asked my permission first, and now he has a question for you.'

Mr B dabbed at his mouth with a linen napkin. 'Yes, this is so. I have been commissioned to paint a portrait of a young girl, ah, about your age; my client has supplied me with a photograph and details of her colouring, but I am used to painting, ah, from life. It seems to me that you would be a suitable model, and, yes, in particular for the hair, which is described as golden, long and luxuriant. The eyes are blue —'

'But mine are green!' Mattie interrupted.

'I should explain – I shall not paint your face. Your figure only. The only requirement would be, you must wear a yellow dress. If you have not one suitable, it shall be provided. Would you like to sit for me?'

Mattie always made her mind up quickly. 'Oh, yes please!'

'What about me?' Evie asked in an aggrieved voice. She nibbled her watercress like a rabbit, which she had been told was impolite in company.

'You, my dear child, can act as chaperon,' Mr B suggested.

'What's that?' she demanded.

Mattie had the answer. 'You can watch and tell Mother if I fidget too much!'

Mattie could just about manage to keep her pose for one hour. She sat in a straight-backed chair with an uncomfortable rush seat, looking pensively into space. Her bright hair was carefully brushed, allowed to fall loose over her shoulders; the simple yellow dress, made by her capable mother, was smoothed over her knees. She wore dancing-pumps on her feet. Crossing her ankles was not permitted. Mr B looked pained when once she sneezed.

The chalet door was left open, at Sophia's request, which enabled Evie to go in and out – to sit on the lawn and make a long daisy-chain. Being a chaperon was somewhat tedious, she'd soon discovered. She envied her sister her role.

Mattie wasn't allowed to look at the picture until Mr B said it was finished, when there was a formal viewing by the girls and their parents.

There was a definite autumnal twinge in the air by then. After careful laundering, the yellow dress was folded in tissue and placed in the trunk with their summer clothes. Last of all, lavender-bags were tucked inside, ones that she and Evie had painstakingly sewn.

Today, like her sister, Mattie wore a warm, cinnamon-brown dress with a velvet collar, and a lace-trimmed pinafore over it, wool stockings and neat little boots. Her hair was restrained in a single plait which hung down her back, secured with a large satin bow. Mattie envied Evie's short, springy, black curls. Evie didn't have freckles – Mattie hoped hers were not evident on her portrait!

It was Evie who first realized that the girl in the picture had no discernible features. Her face was a perfect oval, with a hint of flesh-pink, but that was all. She opened her mouth to say something, and Mattie clapped her hand over it. 'Shush,' she hissed.

Mr B seemed preoccupied, not quite himself, but he essayed an explanation.

'I hoped to stay a few more days, to complete the painting from the photograph, but the telegram I received this morning ... I must return to London almost immediately.' He spread out his hands. 'I am required to register as an enemy alien.'

The family were silent, trying to take this in.

The artist added: 'I have a favour to ask of you, Mr Rowley. When I have packed the picture, with a letter of explanation to my client to say that when this matter is cleared up I will finish the assignment at his home – please would you arrange for the package to be collected by carrier, and taken to the address I shall give you? I will provide money to pay for this, and to settle our account.'

Will shook hands with Mr B. 'Of course I'll do it,' he promised. 'Good luck.'

They never saw or heard from the artist again. Had he been interned – or even deported? Surely, if he had been allowed to stay in his adopted country, he would have eventually got in touch....

* * *

Mattie didn't wear the yellow dress again. By the following summer she was thirteen and maturing rapidly. It wouldn't have suited Evie with her more sallow complexion. Also, it was a time for more sober clothes. Her elder brother, Robbie, had been lost in the battle of Ypres. In fact, almost a whole generation of village boys, for most were scarcely more than that, would not return home.

Within two years of the end of the Great War the Plough was forced to close because the brewery did not sanction credit. They were able to stay on in the house, where Will had been born, lived all his married life and which, later, he inherited from his own father. The lambs brought in a tiny income. Ronnie, who had come through the recent terrible conflict almost unscathed physically, joined an uncle employed by the railway as a crossing-keeper. Ronnie's wages as a trainee porter were a godsend to the family.

Mattie worked part-time in the village post office, as assistant to elderly, arthritic Miss Hobbs, selling stamps, weighing parcels and wiring telegrams. She doubled up as shop assistant, serving boiled sweets from glass jars, selling farm eggs and fresh local vegetables, which included, in season, bunches of their watercress. The rest of the day she helped her mother in the house. She yearned for more excitement in her life.

Sophia suffered from bouts of depression after losing her eldest child. Every afternoon she sat on the window-seat watching out for Evie returning from school, taking the short cut home across the field. It was Mattie who cooked their supper, who talked to her young sister about the day's events, for Sophia was also prone to long silences.

After her eighteenth birthday, when she had been at the post office for three years with no prospect of promotion, Mattie determined to venture away from home. If she had a better job, she reasoned, she could send money to help her family. She felt guilty that she would be leaving her sister behind but Evie, at twelve, was still at school. Mattie whispered that she might help out and perhaps gain a little pocket money by picking, then selling watercress at the gate.

Maybe, subconsciously, Mattie resented the arrival of Ronnie's young wife in the family home in the summer of 1920. She had been at school with Ena but they had never been close friends.

Ena ingratiated herself with Sophia and was pandered to, particularly since she announced that she was expecting a baby the next May. Ena took over the housekeeping purse and held out her hand each Friday for Mattie's contribution. It was understood that in due course Ena would be the lady of the house.

'I have expectations, you don't,' Mattie was told spitefully by her sister-in-law when they had a falling-out one day. Ena made sure Sophia was not in earshot, naturally.

This was true, Mattie acknowledged to herself. It was time to go.

As for the picture, it went down in family lore as the painting of an unknown girl – the only clue to her identity being the name and address to which the picture had been sent. This piece of paper Sophia locked safely away in her writing-box.



In April, Mattie went from her village in Suffolk to the west country. This momentous event was recorded simply in her diary on the appropriate page: Today I travelled by the GWR to Plymouth.

In fact, she made the journey over two days. When it came to it, Mattie was not permitted the excitement of setting out into the unknown and finding a job for herself. Her mother was suddenly galvanized into action. She and her husband both came from large families; they had relatives in what she termed 'far parts'. Although most of the siblings, cousins and in-laws were mere names to her own family, Sophia determined to get in touch with the more likely prospects. The Fulliloves, in Plymouth came up trumps.

Ronnie, recently promoted to railway-ticket clerk, was asked to make the travel arrangements and to accompany his sister on the train to London. 'Aunt Mary from Mitcham will meet you,' Sophia said. 'She has a bundle of baby clothing for Ena. Ronnie, of course, will have to return here by the next train.'

'What about me?' Mattie endeavoured not to sound resentful, but it was difficult.

'You, dear? Why, Aunt Mary will take you home with her, she'll provide you with a meal and a bed for the night. In the morning, your cousin Walter will escort you to Paddington to board the express train to Plymouth.'

'Then?' Mattie prompted.

'The Fulliloves will send someone with a conveyance to pick you up at Plymouth.'

Evie was listening in. 'I hope they are full of love, not the opposite!'

'Evie!' Sophia scolded. 'They have been kind enough to offer Mattie a position in their emporium, with free board and lodging.'

'I would have preferred to have made my own arrangements,' Mattie told her. She thought: free board and lodging likely means low wages.

* * *

'Goodbye and good luck, Sis,' Ronnie said, after they alighted from the train at Liverpool Street station. He hesitated. He had got out of the way of giving his sisters spontaneous hugs, with Ena looking on disapprovingly. 'Here's Aunt Mary,' he added.

'Thanks, Ronnie,' Mattie said, as a stout lady in black bore down on them.

'For the baby,' Aunt Mary puffed, handing over a large, ill-tied parcel. 'Ena's due next month, I understand. My Effie said a florin will suffice....'

Ronnie looked embarrassed. This was women's talk. 'Thanks,' he mumbled, feeling in his pocket for the coin, then slipping it to Aunt Mary. 'You'll excuse me – my train will be in, any minute now.'

'Fortunately I can see a porter with a trolley,' Aunt Mary said pointedly. She added, 'At least you've a free travel pass, eh?'

He nodded, suddenly grabbed his sister, held her close and hissed in her ear: 'If it don't work out, Mattie, don't be afraid to say, to come back....'

'I won't, don't worry,' she whispered in return.

'Nice lad,' Aunt Mary remarked to Mattie as Ronnie beat his retreat. 'Mind you, he's not as likely to succeed as Robbie would have been, if he'd been spared.'

Although, as a child she'd been closer to happy-go-lucky Robbie than Ronnie, Mattie wasn't having that. She flared, 'Ronnie looks after the family.'

'Now, now.' Aunt Mary looked amused. 'Quick to fly, like your mother. I don't know how your father's put up with it, all these years.' She was Will's eldest sister.

The house in Mitcham was beyond the common, nearer the cemetery than the lavender fields, a thriving commercial enterprise, but a tiring walk after their bus ride. Mattie carried her cases, while Aunt Mary led the way. There was an ominous throbbing in Mattie's temples. The roar of London's traffic was diminished here, but the rows of identical brick villas, in what had been known as a garden suburb at the turn of the century, seemed endless, to her.

Walter, Aunt Mary's only son, was on his Easter break from college. His books and papers were spread out all over the dining-room table. He was a lanky youth, with a pale face, fluffy moustache and protuberant blue eyes. He gave Mattie a friendly grin. She was wearing a neat grey costume, new lisle stockings, the toes and heels of which she'd rubbed with beeswax to prevent holing, and well-worn black shoes. Her mass of golden hair was hidden under a plain felt hat. It was an outfit more suited to a thirty-year-old.

'Coffee?' Walter offered. 'We seem to be out of tea.' He pulled out a chair for her to sit on. Aunt Mary had left her in the hall and disappeared upstairs.

Mattie paused for a brief moment. She'd never tasted coffee. Perhaps now was the time to try it. 'Please,' she said.

When he passed her a cup, it was full of black, strong liquid. She wondered whether to request milk, but decided not to. There was, however, lumpy brown sugar. Mattie tried not to make a face as she drank. She suddenly remembered she was still wearing the hat. She pulled out the hatpin, laid the hat on the table, and shook her head with relief. She didn't often wear her hair up, and it was her mother's hat, after all.

She suddenly caught Walter's eye. He winked, to show his appreciation of the transformation. Embarrassed, she tucked stray locks back behind her ears.

'The shingle hasn't reached your part of the world, then?' he asked. He idly picked at his frayed shirt-cuffs. What with his yellowing celluloid collar, he was shabby like his mother – like this house, Mattie realized.

'Father won't allow us girls to cut our hair,' she said primly.

'He'd think my sisters hussies, then. Our pa left us years ago.'

'Oh, I didn't know Aunt Mary was a widow – I'm sorry.'

'Left, I said, not died. Ma had to take in lodgers to make ends meet – she still does. My sisters married young, so she says she's investing in me and my education. It'll be my duty to look after her in her old age. That's why we couldn't do more for you. But you might have been better off here than with the Fulliloves. Long way to go, too.'

'You've met them, then?' Mattie felt even more apprehensive now.

'Put it this way – heard of them,' Walter said. 'Our rich relations, Ma calls 'em.'

'I wonder why it is that families became so spread out?'

'The younger members, particularly girls, left home to go into service, mostly. I am talking of thirty or forty years ago. They didn't have the chance of further education, instead they travelled miles away. In time, they settled or married where they'd landed, so to speak, but they kept in touch with their old home, even if they never saw it again.'


Excerpted from The Watercress Girls by Sheila Newberry. Copyright © 2009 Sheila Newberry. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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