Steam hissed out of the huge, grey kettle; an angry spume of scalding vapour. A split second later the shrill note of the whistle in its spout announced that the water had boiled.
Come on, Ethel. Get on with it. I need three pots of India tea, one of Darjeeling and two orders of sultana scones, Madge said, her voice quivering with annoyance as she registered that I still hadn't made the tea. She'd left her orders on the table a good five minutes' ago.
She was right to be annoyed with me: I wasn't doing my job properly.
The truth was that my head was in the clouds. Today was St. Valentine's Day, and everyone else in the tea shop was eager to get off early to see their sweetheart. Everyone that is except for me, and they'd asked me to work a double shift instead.
My Alf, you see, was off at the war, so there was to be no celebration for me. Valentine's Day, 1915 was destined to pass unmarked and unobserved in the storybook of my life.
Missing in action they'd said in their last telegram to his mum, and now all I could think about was how we'd spent last Valentine's Day together. He'd bought us tickets to go down to Brighton on the train.
It was a funny old time of the year to go down to Brighton.
Don't worry, he'd said. It'll be a laugh. We'll have the whole place to ourselves. Just you, me and the seagulls.
And he was right. We had the whole promenade, the piers and the great pebbly beach all to ourselves. With the wind in my hair, the seagulls chasing the breaking waves and Alf's arm, a talisman against the future, wrapped protectively around my shoulders, I'd never felt happier or safer. We'd spent the day wandering around with not a care in the world. We'd planned our future: a nice little house just across the river in Battersea, three children, an allotment to grow our vegetables in and a dog with big floppy ears. It had all seemed so easy.
But what a difference a year can make. As soon as this stupid war had broken out he'd been one of the first to volunteer. He used to work on the railways, and so they said he'd make a great sapper, digging trenches under the German lines to spy on them and blow them up with high explosives. I never liked the sound of it, but he'd gone off with a song in his heart, happy that he was able to be of service to King and country.
Of course, I hadn't said anything at the time. It hadn't seemed right, what with him being so full of the whole idea of winning the war by Christmas and everything, but I'd always thought that he'd got the worst darn job in the whole British Army. I mean I'd have hated to have been cooped up in some damp trench with the German privies draining into the ground above me and only the rats for company, not knowing all the while when the whole thing might be blown sky-high. My heart stopped for a full minute every time I let myself imagine what it must have been like for him.
His mother felt the same. I knew she did. We'd never said as much to one another, but I've seen it written large on her face: Why can't someone else's son do this dismal thing? Why does it have to be my boy?
My eyes lingered on the large dent in the side of the kettle as my thoughts roamed free. It seemed to suck in all the light. Someone must have dropped it straight onto the flagstones. What a din that would have made.
Ethel, if you don't pull yourself together, Miss Bainbridge will be giving you your marching papers, Madge hissed in my ear, getting the scones out of their enamelled bin herself. Come on where's my tea. That old dragon on the corner table will raise the roof if we don't get her order sorted out soon.
I looked over Madge's shoulder, through the kitchen door, into the cafe beyond. I saw a tall, stern-looking lady dressed in a long black coat sitting in the corner, her back to the wall and a large Gladstone bag wedged between her lap and the tabletop. She was looking around as though she were watching out for someone, but she didn't seem to be upset or to be nursing a grievance.
Has she complained about something? I asked.
No. Not yet, Madge replied. But she's the type. Mark my words. She's the type to make a fuss if her order's not seen to in double quick time.
She didn't seem to me to be the type to make a fuss, but I didn't say anything. I was just the kitchen girl who made the tea. What did I know?
The stern-looking lady had ordered a pot of Darjeeling, with lemon and no milk, and a sultana scone with butter and damson jam. I busied myself getting it ready for her. I placed a the tea on a tray with a scone, a paddle of butter and a little pot of jam.
I watched as Madge carried the tray carefully to the corner table.
The lady looked up, and caught me scrutinising her. There was a flicker of something in those cold grey eyes. It couldn't have been recognition: we'd never met before. My heart stopped. She'd come to me with news about Alf. Bad news. I could feel it in my bones.
Panic rose in my chest. Feeling as though time had slowed down and expanded I watched as she asked Madge something. Madge nodded, then turned back towards the kitchen and pointed to me.
The lady and I locked eyes again. This time there was something appraising in how she looked at me. She must have been weighing up how I'd take the horrible news she’d come to deliver.
I couldn't stay. I had to go. If I ran away now before she told me it would mean that in some parallel universe Alf would still be alive. If I didn't know, my heart could carry on. I could just wait it out, and then it would all be over and he'd come home with all the other boys once this terrible, awful nightmare had ended.
Fumbling with my apron strings I pulled it over my head and stuffed it into the enamel bin with the sultana scones. Grabbing my hat and coat from the pegs by the back door I raced outside and up the back stairs that led up into Vigo Street.
I could hear Madge shouting at me in the distance.
Wait, Ethel. Come back.
I didn't wait. I couldn't. I ran off as fast as my legs would carry me. I could hear them both, running after me in pursuit. The hounds chasing the hare. Two sets of steps: one nimble and light footed, the other slower and heavier, but they had no chance.
I raced down Sackville Street, crossed Piccadilly, narrowly avoiding an omnibus and the rickety wheels of an organ grinder.
Oi! Miss! Watch where you're going! the omnibus driver shouted, pulling on the reins to bring the horse up short.
The blood was pumping in my ears, my heart felt as though it were about to burst through my chest, but I ran on down Pall Mall and into St. James' Park. I raced round the lake to our favourite spot with the wooden bench under the willow tree where we liked to sit on and feed the ducks. Alf and I used to go there every time he'd come to pick me up after work. We'd bring some left-over bread from the cafe for the ducks. It was a little ritual of ours; something we always did. We'd watch out for the Mandarin Ducks and tell each other that we'd stay true just like they did.
As the bench came into view I could see someone sitting on it. I huffed in annoyance, irritated that I wouldn't have it to myself. I slowed down, not sure whether to carry on or not, but I couldn't think of anywhere else to go.
A man was sitting at the far end. As I drew nearer I was able to make out that he was wearing an army uniform. My eyesight has never been great. I should probably be wearing spectacles, but, what with all the steam in the kitchen, they'd be no use to me, so I've never bothered getting any.
My steps dragged, growing slower and slower as my heart started to beat faster and faster. There was something familiar about the solider's profile, but he was shaking in a way that I didn't recognise. His head moved around as though he were following the trajectory of a manically erratic mosquito, and I noticed that his legs were also twitching involuntarily. He'd got them crossed one over the other with his left hand resting on top as though he were trying to hold them in place, but it wasn't working. I could see their busy, random movements.
For a moment I stood and watched him. Then he turned towards me, perhaps sensing my gaze lingering on him.
Our eyes locked. It was Alf.
I froze. He stood up and walked unsteadily towards me. Then I saw that his right arm was missing, and that down the right hand side of his face there was an angry mass of scar tissue as though he'd been burnt in a fire.
Alf? Is it you? I asked stupidly, too stunned to make one foot follow the other towards him.
It's what's left of me, Ethel, he said, making no attempt to come any closer. I'll totally understand if you'd rather I went away again. I'm not exactly the bloke I used to be.
It was then I realised that it really didn't matter what he looked like or how much he twitched. I was only glad he'd survived and come back to me. At least I'd been spared my very worst nightmare.
I asked Matron if she'd seek you out and break the news gently so you didn't have to lose face if you'd rather not see me.
But he didn't get any further with his fine speech. My legs suddenly remembered how to work again and I ran over to envelop him in my embrace.
St. Valentine had delivered me a miracle: an injured, wobbly miracle, but we'd be able to take it from there. I knew we would. Somehow we'd make things work.