Today's Reading

The kettle had boiled, so Ann went to the cooker and busied herself with making tea for them both. Only a scant spoonful of tea leaves for the pot, as the tin was almost empty. And no sugar, for she and Milly had both learned how to do without that small luxury long ago.

"I wonder if those girls know how lucky they are," Milly said.

"The princesses? You always say that. Whenever they're in the news."

"But they are. Just look at how they live. All those clothes and jewels, and never having to lift a finger to do anything. I should
be so lucky."

"They work. No—don't make that face. They do. Just think what it'll be like for them on that tour. Day after day of the same boring conversations with strangers. Being stared at wherever they go. People being struck dumb at the sight of them. I doubt they'll even see a beach, let alone have a chance to go for a swim."

"Yes, but—"

"And no matter how hot it is, or how much their feet hurt, or how bored stiff they are, they have to keep smiling and pretend there's nothing they'd rather do than cut a ribbon and declare that some little town in the middle of nowhere has a bridge or park named after their father. If that isn't work, I don't know what is. I do know I wouldn't trade places with them for all the well, for all the coal and tea and electricity in the world."

"Of course you would, silly. You'd be mad not to want to be rich like them."

"I wouldn't mind being rich. But for everyone to know my name and expect something from me? Watch every move I make? That'd be awful."

"I suppose."

"I've heard stories from the saleswomen and fitters at work. Some of our wealthiest clients are the rudest ones. Ever so demanding, and they never bother to say thank you, let alone smile, and they definitely never send gifts to the girls in the workrooms. Compared to the princesses, or the queen? Those are the people who have it easy."

"Fair enough," Milly acknowledged. "So let's be millionaires, and we'll winter in the south of France, or down in the toe of Italy,
and get suntans and be mistaken for American film stars."

Ann had to smile at the notion of her or Milly ever being mistaken for a film star. "Wouldn't that be lovely? To just hop on a ship or a train and go somewhere exotic." To see something beyond gray skies and soot-dulled bricks and the backs of winter-dead gardens from the window of a train.

"Not so far as that. A few days at the seaside would be enough for me."

Conversation faded as they set to work on the washing up, with Milly doing the washing to save Ann's hands from chapping. It was scarcely half-past seven when they finished.

"Do you think we can light a fire in the sitting room? Just for an hour?" Milly asked.

"All right. But only a small one. I checked the coal store this morning and it's almost empty. Goodness knows if the coalman will
even come by this week."

"A very small fire, then, and we'll sit close, and I'll read to you. I stopped at the newsagent's on the way home and got the new
People's Friend."

The fire Milly made was very modest indeed, but it warmed the sitting room by a degree or two. It was a pleasant way to end the week: sitting in her comfortable chair, her eyes closed, her feet warm at last, listening to one of the romantic short stories her
sister-in-law loved so much.

Milly was too young for a life like this. She and Frank had only been married a matter of months before he'd been killed, one of
those awful, senseless Blitz deaths that still upset Ann if she allowed herself to think about it. Her brother had been a firewatcher, not a firefighter, but when the factory down the road had been hit, he hadn't hesitated. He'd gone in, looking for
survivors, and had never come out.

But Milly was still young, twenty-six to Ann's twenty-five, and before she and Frank had married she'd been the sort of girl who
loved to go to the pictures on a Friday night, or out dancing with friends, and would have turned up her nose at an evening spent reading aloud in front of the fire.

When was the last time Ann herself had gone out, for that matter? It wasn't for lack of opportunity, for hardly a Friday went by that a group of girls from work didn't go to one of the West End dance palaces. They always invited her, and she always said no, thanks, perhaps another time. It was a habit, one she'd acquired when her mother had been alive and would respond to her rare requests for an evening out with variations of the same reproachful lecture.

"Might as well throw the money away. Clothes, shoes, paint for your face, food and drink that'll turn your stomach and your head, not to mention a shilling or more to get in," she would say, counting off on the work-roughened fingers of an outstretched hand. "And for what? So you can hold up the wall with the rest of the plain girls?"

Her mum hadn't said such things to hurt her, of course. She'd only meant to toughen her up. Make her aware of how pitiless the world could be, especially for plain girls. And she had been right, of course. There was little chance of anyone taking an honest interest in Ann, and it would be silly and self-indulgent to insist otherwise.

The same could not be said of Milly, however, who was young and pretty and never in her life had been described as plain. There was no reason Milly couldn't go out and have some fun. All she needed was something to wear and a little encouragement from Ann.

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