Gripping the two Kirby grips tightly between her lips, Matilda Mary Brogan or Mattie as she was known to all and everyone, carefully slid the comb of her sister Cathy’s headdress into place and then, taking each pin in turn, fixed it there.
‘There you go,’ she said, smiling at Cathy in the mirror.
Cathy, who at eighteen was two years Mattie’s junior, had hair the colour of ripe corn and storm grey eyes, like their father’s, while, in complete contrast, Mattie had inherited the dark chestnut locks and hazel coloured eyes of their mother.
‘It’s so pretty.’ Touching the wax orange blossoms with the tips of her fingers, Cathy turned her head from side to side. ‘I just hope it stays on in this wind.’
‘It ought to, I’ve anchored it with enough pins,’ Mattie replied. ‘Besides, it looks like it’s brightening up.’
Cathy gave her a wan smile. ‘You mean it’s stopped thundering.’
It was the first Saturday in September and instead of catching the 5.30 from London Bridge to Kent for the hop harvest, which is what they’d done on this day of the year ever since the girls could remember, the women of the family had been up since the crack of dawn preparing for Cathy’s big day.
Mattie lived with her parents, Ida and Jerimiah Brogan, at number 25 Mafeking Terrace which ran between Cable Street and the Highway in Wapping, just a few roads back from London Docks. Their road was lined with Victorian workers’ cottages and was just wide enough for two horse carts to scrape past each other. It had originally been called Sun Fields Lane but after Baden-Powell and his handful of troops were relieved at Mafeking, it was renamed in their honour.
With three upstairs rooms, a front and back parlour plus a scullery, the houses in the street were probably considered spacious when they were constructed a century and half ago but with seven adults and one child living under its roof, the ancient workman’s cottage was straining at the seams.
Mattie’s parents had the largest upstairs room, overlooking the street, her brother Charlie, who was three years older than her, and nine-year-old Billy-Boy squashed into the minute back room while Mattie shared the third bedroom with her sisters Cathy and Josephine. This was where she was now, standing listening to her mother and aunts bustling around downstairs as they prepared plates of sandwiches for the wedding breakfast.
As the women had used the facilities at the Highway’s public baths the evening before, they set to making plates of sandwiches still in their dressing gowns and curlers, to be taken around to the Catholic Club where the wedding breakfast was to be held.
While the women of the family worked on the refreshments, Mattie’s father and her brother Charlie changed into their Sunday togs and had left twenty minutes ago to sort out the transport. As chief bridesmaid, Mattie had been given the task of helping Cathy into her wedding dress while the rest of the family got everything ready.
There was a crash downstairs.
‘For the love of God,’ screamed her mother’s voice from the scullery below. ‘For once will you let up on your bloody fault-finding, Ma?’
‘Fault-finding, is it?’ trilled Queenie Brogan, Jerimiah’s sixty-two-year-old mother. ‘Sure, am I not just trying to stop you being the laughing stock of the street, Ida, with your—’
The kitchen door slammed.
In the reflection, Cathy smiled at her. ‘They still at it, then?’
‘When are they not?’ Mattie rested her hands lightly on her sister’s slender shoulders and smiled. ‘You look so beautiful and every bit the blushing bride.’
A pink glow coloured her sister’s cheeks. ‘I just hope Stan will agree.’
‘Of course, he will,’ said Mattie. ‘In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he fainted away at the very sight of you.’
Cathy giggled. ‘Did you ever think I’d be married before you, Mattie?’
‘I can’t say I gave it much thought,’ Mattie replied, poking a stray pin in a little firmer.
Cathy turned her head and fiddled with a curl. ‘Because I’m sure you’ll meet the right man someday.’
‘I’m sure I will, too,’ Mattie replied. ‘Someday, but I’m not in any hurry.’
Cathy spun around on the stool and took her hands.
‘And I don’t want you to worry that you might end up an old maid on the shelf, cos you won’t,’ she said, an earnest little frown creasing her powdered brow.
Mattie suppressed a smile. ‘I’ll try.’
Giving her hands a reassuring squeeze, Cathy turned back to admire her reflection again. ‘It seems wrong somehow to be so happy what with everything else that’s going on,’
‘Nonsense,’ said Mattie fluffing up the short cream veil again. ‘A wedding and a good old-fashioned knees-up is just what everyone needs to take their mind off things.’
Cathy bit her lip. ‘Do you think it will be war?’
Mattie sighed. ‘I can’t see how we can avoid it. And what with the blackout each night and trenches being dug in Shadwell Gardens, it’s not as if we haven’t been preparing for it for months, is it? I mean, we’ve had the Civil Defence up and running for over a year, the blackout curtains up since Whitsun and it must be costing the goverment a fortune in printing as every day the postman’s shoving a new leaflet through the door.’
‘But Stan says there is still a chance Hitler will think better of it and leave Poland,’ Cathy said.
Mattie forced a bright smile. ‘Perhaps he will. Now, you know how Rayon crumples, so if I were you I’d stand up for a bit to let the creases fall out.’
Cathy obediently got to her feet.
Mattie knelt down and tugged gently at the hem of Cathy’s dress to get the folds in the right place. The dress, with its padded shoulders, square neckline, cross-cut panels and high waistline, suited her sister to perfection. Cathy had fallen in love with the design two years ago and cut it out from the Spring Brides special edition of Woman’s Own; just after she’d turned sixteen and their father had agreed for her and Stan to start walking out properly. Mattie had sweet-talked Soli Beckerman, the elderly pattern-cutter at Gold & Sons where she worked as a machinist, to make it for her and he’d done a beautiful job.
Satisfied with her way the fabric was draped, Mattie rocked back on her heels and stood up, straightening the skirt of her own apple green bridesmaid dress. Bending forward, she checked her hair only to find, as always, several wayward curls had escaped.
The door burst open and their mother strode in.
Ida Brogan was halfway through her forty-fourth year and at five foot five could look all three daughters more or less in the eye. If the faded wedding photo on the back parlour mantelshelf was to be believed, two decades ago she would have comfortably fitted into any of Mattie’s size twelve dresses but now, as mother to a brood of Brogans, her hips had spread accordingly. That said, she could still sprint down the road after a cheeky youngster if the occasion arose.
With the exception of Christmas Day, Good Friday and Easter, her mother usually donned a wraparound apron and hid her silver-streaked dark brown hair that was once the same rich chestnut tone as Mattie’s under a scarf, but today Ida wore a navy suit and a smart pink blouse with a fluted front and a bow that tied at her throat. In addition, she’d bought herself a new felt hat which she’d decorated with a vast number of artificial flowers. However, in keeping with the government’s latest directive she’d enhanced her ensemble with the cardboard box containing her gas mask which was now hanging from her right shoulder by a length of string.
‘How are you two getting on . . . ’ She stopped as a rare softness stole across her rounded face. ‘Don’t you look a right picture?’
‘Thanks, Mum,’ said Cathy, smiling shyly at her. ‘Mattie’s done such a good job, hasn’t she?’
Ida nodded. ‘Turn around and let me have a gander at the back.’
Cathy did a slow turn on the spot.
‘Beautiful,’ said their mother with a heavy sigh. ‘You’ve done your sister proud, Mattie.’
‘Thanks, Mum,’ said Mattie, enjoying her mother’s approval.
Ida winked. ‘Good practice for when you and Micky get wed, isn’t it? I suppose he’s meeting us at the church.’
Mattie gave a wan smile.
‘Just as well,’ continued her mother. ‘The way Queenie’s been lashing everyone with that tongue of hers, she’d have given the poor boy the rough edge of it if he’d been here this morning.’
She caught sight of her daughters’ alarm clock on the bedside table and scowled. ‘Eleven-thirty! Where’s your bloody father?’
‘It’s all right, Mum, the church is only five minutes away so we’ve got plenty of time,’ said Mattie. ‘I’ll take a look to see if he’s coming.’
Going to the window, which had been criss-crossed with gummed-on newspaper, she threw up the lower casement and looked out.
Heavy grey clouds still hung low over the London Docks just to the south of them but, mercifully, there were a few blue patches forcing their way through.
‘Can you see him?’ asked her mother.
‘Yes,’ Mattie replied as she spotted Samson, her father’s carthorse, turn into the street. ‘He’s just coming.’
Her father, Jerimiah Boniface Brogan, sat on top of his wagon. He was wearing his best suit with a brocade waistcoat beneath, a red bandana tied at his throat. The wagon with Brogan & Son Household Salvage painted in gold along the side, which was usually piled high with old baths, bedsteads and broken furniture, had been scrubbed clean the previous day. It was now festooned with white ribbons and even Samson’s bridle had bows tied to either side. As the cart rolled over the cobbles, the neighbours stopped their Saturday morning chores to watch the bride set off to church.
Ida bustled over and, pushing Mattie aside, thrust her head out of the window.
‘About bloody time,’ she called as the cart with Mattie’s father sitting on the front came to a stop in front of the house.
Although Jeremiah was three years older than his wife, his curly black hair showed not a trace of grey and, with fists like mallets and forearms of steel, he could still wipe the floor with a man half his age. According to Grannie Queenie, her one and only child had been born in the middle of the Irish sea during a force nine gale and had had the furies in him ever since. As boisterous as a drunken bear and with a roar like a lion, Jerimiah Boniface Brogan wasn’t a man to mess but his yes was yes and his no was no and everyone knew it. But to Mattie he was a loving smile and a safe pair of arms to cuddle into and she adored him.
He stood up and whipped off his weather-beaten fedora.
‘And a top of the morning to you too, me sweet darling,’ he called, sweeping his enraged wife an exaggerated bow.
‘Never mind the old codswallop,’ Ida shouted back. ‘Where the hell have you been?’
‘Just socialising with a few friends in the Lord Nelson,’ he replied, setting his hat back at a jaunty angle. ‘Is the bride ready?’
‘Of course she’s ready,’ her mother replied. ‘She’s been ready for hours.’
Jerimiah jumped down. ‘Then her carriage awaits.’
‘Right, I’ll take Billy with me and I’ll tell Charlie when I see him to make sure he keeps an eye on Queenie,’ said her mother, hooking her handbag on her arm. ‘I don’t want her nipping into Fat Tony’s to place a bet on the two-thirty at Kempton Park on her way to church.’
She turned to leave, then stopped and gazed at her middle daughter.
Tears welled up in her grey eyes.
‘You look so lovely, sweetheart,’ she whispered.
Ida hugged her to her considerable bosom for a moment then, taking a handkerchief from her sleeve, hurried out of the room.
‘Ready?’ Mattie turned to her sister.
Cathy nodded. Her gaze rested on the double bed the three sisters shared. ‘It’ll seem strange not snuggling up with you and Jo each night though.’
Mattie smiled. ‘No cos you’ll be snuggling up to your new husband instead.’
‘But at least after today you won’t have to hear Ma and Gran arguing the toss from dawn to dusk,’ said Mattie.
‘Thanks be to Mary, for that,’ Cathy replied.
They exchanged a fond look, then Cathy threw her arms around Mattie. With tears pinching the corner of her closed eyes, Mattie hugged her back.
‘Let’s be off then,’ said Mattie, hooking both their gas masks over her shoulder. She picked up her sister’s white confirmation Bible and rosary, then handed them to her. ‘After all, you don’t want to keep that groom of yours waiting.’