Everyone thought they knew the story of the old lady pushing a doll in a pram, but there was more to her than they thought…
Tom Draper blew on his fingers, began to pack the last carrots, then gave a groan.
From somewhere far behind him but growing nearer he heard the squeak of wheels that needed oiling.
There was no need to turn, Tom knew Maud Fletcher was approaching. She’d be pushing that ancient pram with, Tom had to admit, a very realistic doll inside.
Maud generally made an appearance as the market was preparing to close, and Tom’s stall was one of her regular ports of call.
Tom swung round as the squeak finally stopped. Maud was examining a box of sprouts. Tom nodded at her.
“OK, Maud? Cold enough for yer?”
“February, ain’t it? Frost’s got at these sprouts!” Her expression became pleading. “Could you spare some for an old lady?”
Tom scratched his chin as Maud watched him with bright eyes.
She was dressed in an ancient overcoat, a checked scarf wound several times around her neck.
On her head in startling contrast, was a red knitted hat. One of the stallholders had given it to Maud because it had a pulled thread.
Tom noted with a stab of compassion that Maud’s knuckles were knobbly and blue from the chill air. He sighed and reached for a paper bag.
“For yer dinner, are they?” He scooped up some perfect Brussels. “What yer ’aving with ’em?”
“Joe on the butcher’s van let me have a bit of mince.”
Joe Goodyear was as soft as he was, Tom thought. On impulse he reached for two carrots.
“’ere you are then, Maud. Mince is no good without carrots.”
Maud took the vegetables without comment and stowed them under the pram cover. Then she fussed over the doll, adjusting its shawl. It was a familiar procedure and Tom picked up the unspoken hint.
“How’s little Annabel Rose then?”
“Hungry, I reckon. Best get off home. Tata,” Maud replied.
The pram squeaked away, Maud limping in boots laced with string.
She’d not offered Tom cash or thanks, but he was used to her.
“I reckon the poor soul lost a babby years back,” he’d said to his wife Alice. “You’ve gotta feel sorry for ’er.”
The short February afternoon had faded into darkness by the time Tom reached home. He’d had a good day. People had bought his veg to go with stew and pies.
Tom went whistling into the house in search of his wife and three kids.
Maud had been home for some time. She’d had a bath and was toasting her toes in front of the fire. In her hands was a mug of tea, well sugared. The mince and chopped carrots were cooking gently, sprouts peeled and ready.
Annabel Rose sat opposite Maud in a highchair. Maud looked thoughtfully at her.
The doll was getting on a bit, one of those real old-fashioned ones with a soft fabric body but head and limbs made from china. She wore a pretty blue dress and white bootees.
Maud nodded affectionately at her.
“That’s it, me little darlin’, you warm your toes. You deserve it. You done me proud today!”
Maud grinned, wondering what the stallholders would say if they could see her now, in her own house, left to her by her mum and auntie. Maud knew they imagined she lived in a dismal single room somewhere.
She looked down at Annabel Rose’s hollow china head in her lap. Not a bad haul.
A silk scarf from that posh accessory shop in the High Street. A blue bracelet. A tiny purse that looked like leather with a unicorn picture on it. Maud could sell them all on eBay.
Her mum and auntie had taught Maud everything she knew. Annabel Rose had worked hard for them, too, but they’d had to sell in pubs or street corners.
Maud rose stiffly, went over to the highchair and slotted the doll’s head back on her body.
Maud could have sworn that the guileless blue eyes blinked twice in gratitude.
But that was daft. Annabel Rose was just a doll, a nice little earner. Maud must be hungry, that was all.
Good lads, Tom Draper and Joe Goodyear, Maud thought as she ate her dinner. They’d get a surprise one day when she was gone. She’d made her will. The proceeds from Maud’s house would be shared between them.