Part One: London 1914 - 1921
With her blonde ringlets tumbling from the crown of her head and pooling on her shoulders Louisa Tavistock's pretty little face drew smiles from passers-by when they saw her gap-toothed, sunny smile. She was a few months short of seven years of age yet her short life had already been touched by tragedy. A baby brother, Timothy, just three summers old had succumbed to the flu that had taken so many souls this past winter.
Louisa herself had been perilously ill, but her sturdier constitution had served her well and seen her through the worst of the sickness that had visited her home. With the sun shining through her hair as she skipped merrily alongside her mummy the little girl looked ahead excitedly to the summer that was already lengthening the days and making it troublesome to sleep at nights.
She was a child born for the sunlight: her skin tanned easily and turned a pleasing shade of coffee-brown, a tan that lasted well into the dark and cold winter days. Louisa Tavistock was never happier than when she was out playing in the street with her neighbourhood friends, secure under the gaze of the women who smoked and gossiped standing on painted concrete doorsteps that shone wetly in the sunlight.
She was a little undersize for her age, but she was no different to her peers in that respect. None of her friends' parents were wealthy. The privations of poverty and the daily grind to make ends meet were never more evident than on the skinny frames of the little boys and girls who ran barefoot up and down the cobbled street chasing a tattered ball of brown paper, squealing their delight into the cloudless summer air as they played their innocent game.
Unknown to them – and why should they have been concerned about events that were taking place in impossible-to-imagine faraway places? - dark clouds were boiling themselves into a thunder-head that would blot out the brilliant summer sunshine and cast its evil shadow across a large swathe of the world before the summer was over and done with for another year. Before Christmas chimed its merry way onto the calendar Louisa Tavistock would experience tragedy for the second time in her young life.
Albert Tavistock had fallen in love with Dora Savage the first time he had seen her at the dance hall. He was just fifteen and she an impossibly older and sophisticated seventeen years of age. She wore light make up and nylons and smoked a cigarette through an ivory cigarette holder.
He watched -- and adored -- from afar as a succession of older boys approached her and asked her to join them in a dance. To each she politely declined with a gentle shake of her bouffant-haired head and a pretty smile. Her friends giggled and chided her for her refusal to dance with at least one, possibly two, extremely handsome boys. She was easily the prettiest girl in the group of six and the one to whom all the boys spoke first. It seemed that none of her friends were jealous of the attention she gained for one or two of them became the beneficiaries of her declined invitations.
The second time Albert had seen Dora he had plucked up the courage to actually speak to her. He was so much enamoured of her that he was quite prepared to suffer the inevitable shame and humiliation of being ignored by the girl who had been in his dreams in the week since he had first seen her. He made the most of an opportunity that presented itself when she was momentarily left alone. He strode confidently across the expanse of the dance-floor and asked her if he could buy her a drink.
He waited for the sneering dismissal and the mocking laughter he was sure would come. He was taken aback, when a polite, pleasant voice thanked him for asking and said that she would like a Coca-Cola, thank you very much. It was the spark to a romance that was to lead to eventual marriage and the birth of two much adored children. The tragedy of the younger child's death was the only blot on an otherwise idyllic, if somewhat financially straitened, relationship. The love between the couple gave each of them the strength and courage to carry on.
In August of nineteen-fourteen Lord Kitchener called upon the young men of Britain to fight for King and Country. Albert Tavistock answered that call. Dora, in tears, expressed her fears for his health and safety but was persuaded that her beloved husband had a moral duty to join up alongside most of his equally enthusiastic neighbours and work colleagues.
Dora's heart broke in two when, in mid-November, she sat her not-yet-eight-years-old daughter down and had to explain to her why her brave daddy would not be coming home for Christmas – or ever again. Christmas nineteen-fourteen was a dark and bleak affair that year for many bereaved families. Young Louisa Tavistock never, ever forgot the pain of those dark days and the pain of missing her father.
The pretty youngster danced and sang and celebrated with her neighbours on Armistice Day. At last the Great War was ended and things could start to get back to some sort of normal.
“Of course,” eleven years old Louisa Tavistock confided to her best friend, Margaret Courtney, “with our daddies gone it will never be the same as it was.”
“My mum is already looking for a new daddy for me and Dennis and Charlie.” Margaret said softly, twisting the end of the ponytail of blonde hair in her grubby fingers. “I don't want a new daddy!” she cried vehemently, and burst into tears.
“Please don't cry so.” Louisa comforted her friend. “I'm sure your mum means the best for you all.” the young girl consoled. With her head resting on Louisa's shoulder Margaret sobbed, heartbroken, scared and confused.
Louisa Tavistock sat patiently until her friend had cried herself out. She offered the tearful girl her handkerchief to wipe her face.
“It'll be alright, Mags, I'm sure it will.” Louisa assured her friend. “At least your mum is doing something.” she added ruefully.
Dora Tavistock had not fared well since losing her husband in the mire of the Ypres battlefield. A funeral and the attendant opportunity to say a proper and final goodbye to the only man she had ever loved was denied to her. Albert Tavistock's mortal remains lay in a field alongside hundreds of his comrades who had also perished in that awful war.
For the sake of her growing daughter the fragile and emotionally devastated young widow tried to carry on as normal a life as was possible during the war years. Her health began to falter and several of her neighbours became concerned about the health and welfare of the little girl with the blonde ringlets who seemed to spend and awful lot of time playing in the street at all times and in all weathers while her mummy was 'resting'. Many of the concerned mothers took the girl in and fed her and allowed her to remain with them for as long as she wanted to, in spite of their own grief and difficult circumstances.
Dora Tavistock took her own life in spring of nineteen-nineteen, unable to cope with her grief and loss any longer. Her twelve years old daughter was left bereft, heartbroken and very, very frightened. The spectre of the state-run orphanage and its inherent horrors loomed large on her horizon for a time until a previously unknown-about aunt came to her rescue.
Louisa Tavistock said tearful farewells to her friends and neighbours and to the only home she had ever known as she slipped into the back seat of the sleek black car that had transported her aunt. Louisa stared out of the window as the street she had grown-up on receded rapidly from view. The frightened teenager continued to stare long after there was no longer anything to stare at.
Sylvia Styles wasn't an unkind woman. She just lacked the maternal gene that her late sister and other women seemed to possess, that was all. When the message came to her that Dora had done what she did -- Sylvia refused to allow the word suicide to cross her mind -- and that she had left an adolescent daughter to fend for herself, Sylvia had been furious with her sister. She had at first resisted the burden of family obligation that had been so unceremoniously dumped on her broad shoulders. However, much to her surprise - - and no little disgust - - her husband, Percy, had told her that no matter what her feelings towards her dead sister were, family was family and that she, Sylvia, would bring the girl to live with them. So it was that the next day Percy drove the one hundred-plus miles to London to bring into their fold a girl they didn't know with the intention of making her part of their family.
Louisa had been thrust into hell. Life with her aunt and uncle was not the life of cosiness and loving warmth that she had experienced with her mother and father in the years before the Great War. Aunt Sylvie treated the young woman like a servant, ordering her about and heaping task upon task upon her, all of which had to be completed before bedtime. Louisa's day started at six o'clock every morning.
The copper had to be lit to heat the water for the tin bath Uncle Percy took without fail every day. There had to be hot water for breakfast, hot water to wash the dishes after breakfast and even more hot water with which to do the pile of laundry that Aunt Sylvie took-in to earn some pin money. Whereas she had done the laundry herself before bringing the youngster into her home Sylvie reasoned that expecting the girl to earn her keep was not unreasonable. Her husband concurred and the twelve years old girl worked herself into exhaustion six out of seven days a week.
Louisa's only surcease was weekly attendance at the nearby Baptist chapel with her aunt and uncle on Sundays. Her profusion of blonde curls had been brutally and unceremoniously clipped days after she had taken up residence with her aunt and uncle.
“Too much trouble and a magnet for lice and the like.” Aunt Sylvie had said as she used dressmaking shears to inexpertly hack locks of beautiful shiny blonde hair from her sobbing niece’s head. Louisa cried for two days at the loss of the hair her late mother had told her was a “special gift from God for a special little girl.” The first seed of doubt about her new domestic arrangements had been sown. She had little comprehension of what fate held in store for her.
To be continued...