Ahead of the publication of Gerard Woodward's Nourishment, we offer you a sneak peek at this unique and charming novel.
Tory did her best to conceal her dismay at her mother's return, and to hide the shock she felt to see Mrs Head looking so windswept and craggy as she stepped shakily down from a horse-drawn hackney (the last such vehicle to survive in London, so the cab driver claimed), clinging to her hat of bedraggled turkey plumage, parrying forth a tatty parasol, and bringing Tory's short reign as matriarch of the little house in Peter Street to an end.
In truth, Mrs Head was hardly needed. Donald had already been called up, and was receiving his basic training somewhere near Durdle Door; the children had been evacuated to a very pretty part of the Cotswolds, Lower Slaughter (or was it Upper? Mrs Head could never remember), and Tory might have joined them, had not her mother made her intentions known of returning to help with the battle on the home front. She'd said she would do all the cooking and shopping, all the cleaning and other domestic chores, while Tory got on with her war work in a gelatine factory (no one denied the importance of gelatine production in the war effort, though no one quite understood it either). Tory had written tactfully dissuasive letters, pointing out that with the prospect of air raids and gas attacks, she would be much safer staying put. Her mother had replied that she had no intention of biding her time on the Thames Marshes while London burned and, using a logic that would soon seem absurd, regarded the city as a sanctuary, imagining that the bombers, when they came, would pick off all the little villages one by one as they approached the capital. She would be much safer as one among the many millions. Furthermore, she seemed to regard the muddy shores of Waseminster Parish as an ideal landing spot for an invasion. 'Every time there's a knock at the door I wonder if it's Adolf,' she wrote.
Mrs Head had been a resident of Waseminster for little more than a year and was, she confessed, beginning to think that the move had been a great mistake. Despite the fervour with which she had described country pursuits in her letters - 'to see the pheasants falling as heavily as Christmas puddings is such a glorious affirmation of the superiority of man over nature' - she was not a proper countrywoman, and although she had connections to the area (it had been the birthplace of her late husband, Tory's father) she was not made to feel welcome. Few of Arthur's bloodline remained in the village, and her attempts at ingratiation were met with little warmth. No one really understood why a woman who'd lived in the city all her life should suddenly want to live in the countryside; her friends thought it faintly treacherous, while her new neighbours regarded her with suspicion.
'It is a lovely little house,' Mrs Head remarked gratefully as she walked up the path with her hand on Tory's arm (who was carrying her bag), as though she'd been debating this aspect of 17 Peter Street all the way up on the train from Kent. And so mother and daughter now lived alone in the house that had once been so busy and crowded, and each seemed more shocked by this fact than by the bombs that, some time after Mrs Head's return, began to rain down upon the city.
Mrs Head stuck to her word, shopping and cooking with heroic, redoubtable zeal. With the children gone, she had no other role, despite the fact that neither she nor her daughter had a great appetite, and Tory could obtain free meals in the factory canteen.
This was just as well, because there wasn't much in the shops for Mrs Head to buy. Good meat was soon scarce. But Mrs Head was a tenacious and dogged shopper, queuing for however long it took, remonstrating with shopkeepers (most of whom she believed were corrupt) and waving her ration book as a token of righteousness and entitlement.
She had a particularly troubled relationship with Icarus Dando, the butcher who had supplied her with meat for more years than she cared to remember. He was an outwardly jolly sort, with yellow mutton chops and watery, laughter-filled eyes, but she had never liked him. His talk could get too risqué, even for a butcher, so much so that she had been reluctant to take her children into the shop when they were little, in case they caught one of Dando's gristly innuendoes. He tried to soften these with displays of salty charm. He would claim to be in love with Mrs Head, would even serenade her, cleaver in one hand and steel in the other, handprints of blood all over his apron, as though he had been tickled by Lady Macbeth. But now that there was a war on, she realized she was many rungs down on his ladder of preference. There were younger mothers now, women of Tory's generation, whom he could woo and serenade anew, and who responded with far more favour than she would have thought seemly.
She had several times been told that he had no steak, and then later that evening had caught the pungent tang of a piece of rump frying in Mrs Richards' kitchen. Mrs Richards was a favourite of Mr Dando.
In fact, things had become so fraught between Mrs Head and Mr Dando that she couldn't help feeling rather pleased when his shop was bombed out of existence one Tuesday night.
Shortly after the outbreak of war, Emily Head, known by everyone, including her late husband Arthur and her daughter Tory, simply as Mrs Head, returned to London after a brief sojourn in the marshland village of Waseminster (Anglo-Saxon for the church in the mud, according to Tory's husband Donald), possessed of an unshakeable belief that her daughter, and London generally, needed her.
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