by Rosemary Johnson
a cup of weak tea in a flowery cup
‘Whatever would we be doing with that?’ asked Elsie, as she set the big brown teapot down on the tray.
‘We’d vote, Sis,’ said Clara, without looking up. She didn’t need to ask what the ‘that’ was because her sister got bees in her bonnet from time to time and this particular stripy yellow and black insect had been buzzing around Elsie’s cloche hat for several weeks. Clara laid the skirt she had been lining over her treadle sewing machine and drew her chair to the table. The mantelpiece clock had struck three several minutes ago and three was tea-time, but she’d need to make it quick. Mrs Greatorex wanted her outfit finished by tomorrow and, more to the point, Clara and Elsie needed Mrs Greatorex’s money to pay the gas bill. ‘We’d vote, Sis. Like the men.’
Elsie was using Mother’s best tea service, tiny china cups and saucers crazed with discreet cracks which no one mentioned, decorated with once-red roses, diminished by much washing-up. She passed the first cup of watery beveridge to their niece, Lily, who, being ‘family’, could not qualify as a proper visitor, but was given preferential treatment anyway. ‘A gentleman’s vote is for his whole household. Women have more important things to do.’ Elsie stopped what she was doing as she talked, the teapot poised in mid-air.
‘So,’ asked Clara, ‘who represents us single women, living in homes where there are no men?’ She indicated the empty place in front of her. ‘Elsie, dear, tea, please?’
‘I am not a single woman.’ Mrs Elsie Haynes snapped back at her almost before Clara’s words left her lips. ‘I am a widow. Relict of a gentleman.’
‘You are single, Sis. You could legally marry again. Er… tea, please, Elsie.’
‘All. Right. Dear.’ Elsie poured at last, shoving Clara’s cup half-way across the table and vaguely in her direction.
‘I hate being a widow,’ said Lily, helping herself to another jam tart. ‘Living with my Ma and Pa, I feel like a blooming schoolgirl again. Trouble is, after the war and everything, there’re no men. I’d take any bloke that’d have me, I really would.’
Elsie banged her cup down, causing seismic shocks in the saucer to which Mother’s ancient tea-set was not accustomed. She shook her head in infinitesimal shakes of disgust. ‘Lily, really. You are so vulgar sometimes.’ Elsie looked down on Lily. Her husband (of just six months and fallen at Ypres) had been a commercial traveller, and Lily herself worked. Clara also worked but Clara was an old maid.
‘Don’t you bother about our Else,’ Lily’s father, Luke, would say to her. ‘No reason for her to put on airs and graces. That Michael Haynes of hers, his family ran a little factory off Canal Street, making wire coat hangers. Nothing fancy.’
‘Pa voted Labour in the last election,’ Lily said in a careless tone, as she licked the last smears of jam from her fingers. She left the dried-up crusty pastry edges on her plate. Elsie had a habit of putting baking into the oven and forgetting about it.
Elsie jolted bolt upright in her hard dining chair. ‘Surely… my brother…’
Clara also felt her spine bracing, vertebra by vertebra. Their family had been blue for generations.
‘That’s what he said when he came back from the polling station. We ought to give Mr MacDonald a chance.’ Lily looked from one to the other then, her eyes widening. She sprung to her feet, the legs of her chair grating against the linoleum on the floor. ‘Er… I’d better be off. Thank you for tea.’
‘Lily, wait. Lily, surely… you are not…’ Elsie could hardly bring herself to say the word. ‘You are not Labour.’
‘No, Auntie. Er… I’m for Mr Baldwin. I think he’s good for Britain.’
‘And that,’ said Clara, ‘is exactly why women should have the vote for themselves.’