Vikki Heywood

Vikki Heywood’s theatrical career spans forty years – culminating in her role as Executive Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Having recently completed her term as Chairman of the RSA she is dividing her time between continuing arts governance roles and completing her MA in Creative and Life Writing. This extract is the first chapter of a novel in development.

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Henrietta Veal woke with a start; through the floorboards she could hear someone banging on the shop door below. The dawn was creeping under the red velvet curtains and – good grief – the clock face said half past seven. Damn those curtains, she had repeatedly told Vera they were too heavy, Henrietta was all for moonlight and fresh air.

She turned and prodded the sleeping Vera Ham, whose helmet of curlers prickled under the pink silken eiderdown and hissed into her ear, as if her voice might carry to the street below.

“Wake up! Vera, wake up! It’s half past seven and someone is at the door. I thought you set the alarm?  Shake a leg!”

She lowered her feet to the bedside rug and slipped out of Vera’s bedroom as she did every morning. She had a quick rub down at the sink and brushed her teeth with an efficiency born from over seventy years of practice – she would hate to be like Vera, who’s ‘twin set’ spent a silent night suspended in pink solution. She dressed quickly, in the usual order of underwear, girdle, stockings, blouse, skirt, jacket, and finally brown lace-ups. Seams straight, brooch and watch on.

At the dressing table her steel grey hair was released from its night plait and up in a bun with three sweeps. Catching her reflection with its mouth full of hairpins, she wondered if some might think her striking rather than the more predictable stringy old maid. She pulled the lower jaw of her reflection down and gave her face the lightest touch of rouge on each cheek, then a dab of powder to nose and forehead, just enough to take off the shine.

Out of her window an early morning mist was hugging the allotments at the end of their small garden and the chalk lines, which dusted the Buckinghamshire ploughed fields beyond. She bent down and flipped over the little ivory day calendar on her dressing table, 19th October 1951. Forgive those that trespass against us and forgive us our trespasses – tomorrow was the meeting with the bank.

Leaving her room in a hurry she found Vera hovering on the landing, the folds of her nightgown still warm from her bed, her eyes cloudy without her spectacles, anxious to make amends.

“It’s all my fault. It’s Gregory – I asked him to come. Tell him I’ll be down in a jiffy.”

Henrietta felt brittle. In thirty-five years of running the village post office and sweet shop they had never missed being dressed, breakfasted and ready for the seven o’clock thump on the door from the post-bag, chucked from the van.

“I’ll deal with him. Just get dressed, put the bally kettle on and bring me a cup of tea in the shop,” she said.


Downstairs, twelve year-old Gregory Hodge stood outside whistling, in the hope it would conjure up at least one of the two old birds. He preferred Miss Ham all fluffy feathers, scented hankies and sweet treats. Miss Veal was the one to watch, long necked and eagle eyed, suspicious that your hand was about to pilfer her stupid stamps. He could hear the hum of early morning traffic winding its way into High Wycombe on the arterial road. The autumn chill penetrated his school blazer and the damp deflated his thin cap. His mum told him to wear the jumper she’d knitted for him, but all his pals wore shop bought ones.

What if they were both upstairs dead in their beds? What if a double murder? Or, one strangled the other and then stabbed themselves with a knife? Or, Miss Ham might have choked on one of her gob stoppers and Miss Veal died of a heart attack trying to extract it with her long bony fingers. Beaky Miss Veal would surely be the one to murder fluffy Miss Ham – yes that’s the way round it would be. If Miss Veal opened the door he’d better check for a glimpse of ankle, or feathers, floating in the stair well. He banged the door again and waited. Miss Ham had asked him to come at this time and he wanted that sixpence.


Henrietta descended the dark stairs and turned right into the shop, switching on the light as she passed between the two counters, the right for sweets, the left for the post office. Converted from their front room when they moved in thirty-five years ago, the entire space was traversed in twelve efficient paces. She snapped up the blind and light from within lit up the words etched on the glass, Post Office and Sweet Shop – Mesdames Veal and Ham. She opened the door and the bell jangled.

“Good morning Gregory. I am so sorry, dear me, we are running a little late this morning. Would you bring in the postbag and newspaper bundle and put them over here on the post office counter. Thank you dear, well…done…”

Silence from above.

“I’m not entirely sure what Miss Ham had in mind for you this morning. Would it be possible to come back after school today? What a bore for you I know – but might it be possible?” Henrietta checked herself, why on earth was she treating him as if he were a sugar-rationing inspector catching them on the hop?

Gregory’s eyes scanned the doorway to the dark little hall at the back of the shop. Really, the boy did have a very strange look on his face. She picked up a twist of toffee and shoved it into his cold hands.

“Now let me see. How about this, from Miss Ham for all your trouble?”

“Will it come off my ration?”

“Oh, don’t worry about that dear,” and she pushed him out of the door.

She checked her watch – William would be here in a minute and the post still sat in its canvas sack. She tipped the post onto the counter, used every day for this sorting; later her customers would rest their packages and wet their stamps. She divided up the typed bills and hand written letters, the periodicals and parcels. The usual houses got the usual assortment; she could almost do this without reading the address. Knitting and crochet patterns for Gregory’s mother Mrs Hodge, bills for Phil and George at the pub, legal documents for poor Mr Rickmansworth who lost his wife and can’t seem to get on top of things, something lovely in a purple envelope with a sweeping hand for her Thursday afternoon walking companion, Oliver Cotton.

She took her knife – worn to a wafer sharp steel – and sliced the red string that held the bundle of newspapers and sorted out those that were for the morning delivery with the mail. The Telegraph for Mr Worthington the Bank Manager, The Daily Mail for his wife and Mrs Martens the Verger, Women’s Realm and The Bucks Examiner for Mrs Hodge, The Times Literary Supplement and The Manchester Guardian for Oliver Cotton, The Sketch for the Vicarage, and the whole assortment for both the Pub and the Tea Rooms. She worked quickly, tying the divided post and newspapers with string drawn from a dispenser attached to the counter.

As she had time – William often cut it fine – she scanned the headlines whilst placing the remaining newspapers and magazines on the stand by the door.


“Lot of fuss about nothing,” her mother would have said, dismissing all politics – but Henrietta and Vera met marching for a woman’s right to vote. They enjoyed six years of reform after the war, but she knew Churchill would beat poor old Attlee and everything would be back to how it was before. Like a sea tide the election would come and go and whatever the result leave life in the village much the same; so perhaps her mother was right after all.

William drew up with a spray of little pebbles and pitched his bike at the flint-stone wall. His arrival into the shop filled the air with the aroma of testosterone.

“Morning William,” she said, hastily putting all the bundles and parcels into the bag for the lad.

“Enrumphmull snumple,” said William, whose words of greeting, or departure, were lost as he hoisted the huge bag onto his shoulder and seemingly gave her a beaming smile from under his scarf.

Henrietta pushed the door shut and bolted it. Never done once opened, but needs must. The back kitchen and parlour were still dark, the embers from the stove had kept the chill off, but had not yet been shaken into life and so absolutely no hope of that cup of tea. She headed up the worn red linoleum stairs and found Vera, sitting on her bed, still in her nightgown. She found the matches and lit the gas fire, which popped and glowed.

“Everything alright old girl?  What’s the matter?”

“It feels too much like hard work this morning. You are still cross with me, I know it and I can’t find my specs.”

“Take it slowly and I’ll help to sort your things. Perhaps you got out of bed too quickly – you really were fast asleep.”

“I do feel quite fuzzy.”

Henrietta found the spectacles amongst the bed covers and collected Vera’s favourite dress of purple silk, along with her stockings, stays, girdle and bloomers, which she placed beside her. She retrieved the button black shoes from under the bed; their heels were a good deal higher than was sensible for someone nearly eighty. Perhaps she should gently suggest a change of style when the time was right – God knows it was best to take things a step at a time with Vera.

“Have you considered the possibility that you might have taken your sleeping pill twice last night?”

“I suppose I might, how stupid of me,” said Vera, smiling and slowly shaking her head, as if her mind was as misty as the fields at the back of the house.

“Shall I dress you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“That’s the ticket, I’ll get the kettle on.”


Downstairs in the pantry, Henrietta prodded and fed the stove back into life, whilst keeping her ear out for the shop bell signalling the arrival of a customer. She was laying out their breakfast when there was a loud banging on the door –  in her distraction she had completely forgotten she had locked it.

As she unbolted, George Worthington pushed the shop door with a severity that matched the crime he needed to report; his pink cheeks were puffed up from the cold and his damp umbrella bristled every bit as much as his moustache.

“How unlike you not to be open at this hour,” he said, removing his hat at the last possible moment to remain civil.

“Well we are open – as you can see by the sign – it was just the door was bolted for a moment or two.”

“Letting that pass, there has been an error.”

“Didn’t you get your paper at the usual time? I hope William apologised, he may have been a little late.”

“He was and as a result so am I, but that is not the matter. I have been given the wrong paper, The Manchester Guardian, when you know perfectly well that I take The Telegraph.” He left out – “my dear woman” – but it hung between them, like a bad smell.

“How absolutely terrible. Please do let me change it at once.”

She grabbed the paper. Why was she pretending to be sorry? Gordon would be delighted to have the evidence that they were losing the plot. He was bound to believe that the older and daffier one was at the root of the problem – and perhaps he was not altogether so wrong. His snide asides over the years had made it perfectly clear he thought his old man had been bonkers to lend them the money on the terms he did thirty-five years ago. Now Gordon’s time had finally come with a letter and the demand for a meeting tomorrow at the bank. He will assert that the business will never turn a profit, even if sweet rationing finally comes to an end after the election. She supposed he would have the place declared bankrupt, possessed, sold at auction.

He snatched The Telegraph from her hand.

“My wife has kept The Guardian – for interest. I don’t expect there to be any charge. Good day.”

Henrietta grabbed the door before he slammed it and released the atmosphere with a couple of hefty wafts, which sucked wisps of mist into the shop.

“Pompous fool, not a patch on your father,” she said under her breath, as Vera arrived with a teacup and saucer in her hand, her round face peeping from a curtain of grey curls and wearing far too much slap. Henrietta bit her tongue, grateful that Gordon hadn’t seen anything of her and wondering how to rectify matters without causing an upset.

“I have left your favourite marmalade out in the parlour, dear,” said Vera, who spoke with a degree of conspiracy not entirely necessary. She tottered forward, managing to place the cup of tea on the post office counter, before settling on her own counter stool, a silken balloon.

“How kind.” Henrietta sipped her tea. “Pure nectar from the gods,” her father would whisper as he took his first sip of the day. That error with the paper was regrettable. Well, it was going to be a regretful day; she had not yet told Vera about the letter.

The shop bell rang.

“Ah now, Miss Mann, good day. Perhaps a small bag of dolly mixtures or some humbugs on your ration?”

Vera Ham was in her element. Never stirring from her throne – unless reaching a jar from the higher shelves – she chit chatted the days away, which began with a small number of children and commuters and ended with a sigh at 6 o’clock on the dot. Commuters like kiss curled Miss Mann, who collected her weekly romance magazine before catching the bus to High Wycombe to make the tea and sort the filing at Pimm’s the estate agency. She doesn’t sell the houses, but that did not matter one jot to Vera.

“Now, somebody told me that you’ve sold the big house in Penn Lane, my dear.   Tell me – will it be a very large family, I do hope so?”

Henrietta took the opportunity to get on with her delayed routine and release the poor old hens. She put on her apron and galoshes without bothering with her hen coat and hat or her fingerless gloves, she would not be long as it wasn’t wise to leave Vera holding the fort more than was strictly necessary.

She unbolted the back door and stepped out into the garden. The sun was gaining the upper hand, causing the mist to rise from the fields and making the copse on the hill look rootless as it hovered in an Elysium sky.

Opening the lid for the feed she scooped some seed into the metal pail. No time to bother searching for any eggs, she would do it later when she locked them in before sundown. Perhaps she would ask Gregory to help when he returned after school? What had Vera been thinking of when asking him to come?

She set off, bending her way between the vegetable patches that she had mostly cleared for the winter. The remaining carrots, parsnips and cauliflowers would need to be pulled soon; this weather couldn’t be counted on to last – it was not that long ‘till November. This year would be the first without them stocking any fireworks and it was a shame – she hoped the very last time had not already gone and without them noticing it’s passing.

She remembered the fireworks her father used to make when she was a child in Yorkshire. He befriended one of the men at the local pit and every year received a small amount of illicit gunpowder. He would spend hours mixing the granules into a special brew for his ‘cracker jacks’ as he called them, pouring minute amounts into twists of paper. The idiot would then hand them out like sweeties to boys in their village. Her mother finally put a stop to it after one blighter got their fingers so badly burned his father came round and had a quiet word – though her father protested that it couldn’t have been one of his making. “If you think I’m the only firework maker in this village then you’ve got another think coming,” he said to their mother, as she and her brother sat wondering if that was the last of it – which it was.

As she opened the gate to their fox free enclosure the hens sensed her arrival and began flustering about inside the hutch. She yanked up the wooden shutter and called for them to come out. “Here chickens, here chuck chuck,” and they slithered and fumbled and tumbled down the plank. Henrietta threw seed to the ground as they plucked and clucked in appreciation. What was it about a hen that was quite so pleasing? It wasn’t just the eggs and the Sunday roast – though heaven knows those had got them through the war and hidden the reducing income – it was the comforting noise they made and the company. To stand and look out over the fields with them at her feet, considering the day and the beauty of the earth with them as her companions was one of life’s great joys. The changing seasons were a clock face on which she could never resent time passing – appreciating the difference between an autumn night sky and a summer sunset was one of the great pleasures in her life.


When Henrietta returned the parlour was warming up nicely, so she put two slices on the stove hotplate to toast and warmed her hands. All was quiet in the shop; from the hall she could see Vera sitting at her counter reading Woman’s Realm. She glanced at the clock above the stove; she had half an hour to catch her breath before opening up the post office counter, which kept its own regulated hours. She was just buttering her toast when she heard the shop bell.

“Well, good morning girls, you on your way to school? Better hurry, or you’ll be late,” Vera could be heard in full sail. Henrietta abandoned her breakfast.

“I‘ve got my ration coupon and a ha’penny. What’s the most I can get?” said Molly Clutterbuck, her friend Mildred Brown giggling behind her. The girls looked as self-important as only small girls can.

“What can I get, PLEASE?” Vera cooed at them. “Well now, let me see…”

“I’ll have as many of those gob stoppers as I can on the very top shelf behind you,” said Molly, ignoring the correction.

Vera climbed off her stool, dragged the stepladder level with the shelves and tentatively climbed up beside the wall of dusty jars.

“Can I assist you at all, Miss Ham?”

“I’m perfectly able to cope, thank you, Miss Veal.”

The girls sniggered as Vera’s behind lowered itself down the steps, her one arm clutching the jar, her other clinging to the rail. Just as she placed it on the counter Molly piped up.

“Actually, I’ve changed my mind, l want a bar of chocolate.”

“Molly, you know perfectly well that we only sell loose sweets in this shop and a few pleases and thank-you’s would not go amiss,” said Henrietta from behind the post office counter, which was all of five feet from the sweet one.

“Give me my gob stoppers then,” said a mutinous Molly.

“I may have to have a word with your mother about your attitude young lady, the next time I see her,” said Vera dropping the paper bag of sweets down onto the counter as Molly threw the ha’penny and her coupon on the floor, snatched the sweets, grabbed Mildred’s hand and fled.

“Ghastly girl,” said Vera. “I short changed her, so that’s one for me and one in the eye for her,” and she put a gob stopper into her mouth before screwing the lid back on the jar.

Henrietta opened up the post office. She unlocked her counter drawer and pulled out the books of stamps, seals, date stamps and her two pads, one of ink and one a wet sponge. They sat quietly on their respective stools whilst Vera sucked her sweet and Henrietta considered how the day had started and where it had to go.

“Why was Gregory here this morning, what did you want him to do?” she asked, though she feared she had already guessed the answer.

“I need him to move things about in the store room in preparation for the delivery of the order of fireworks I will be making this afternoon.”

“For goodness sake Vera, you know perfectly well that we don’t have the money to order fireworks this year.”

“There is no call to be sharp with me, Henny, just because I made the smallest of errors about the alarm clock this morning. What is November without us selling fireworks? What is my job, but to boost sales and give people pleasure? You worry too much. We will get by, we always do. If you are not careful all this bile will give you a peptic ulcer.”

“Boost sales? Is that some kind of a joke?”

Henrietta crossed over to behind the sweet counter and placed her hand on Vera’s face. An electric shock passed between the two as thirty-five years of dissembling was broken by a forbidden gesture in the shop. Vera’s darkened eyes starred into Henrietta’s steel blue.

“Look, it’s my fault. I should have told you sooner, but we have been summoned to the bank tomorrow. We have had a letter and it is pretty clear that Gordon wants the loan – all of the loan – repaid and with immediate effect.”

“I see.” Vera deflated slowly on her stool.

“I’m sorry, but I didn’t want you upset for longer than necessary. I should have told you before, given you more time. More time to think it through, to prepare.”

“That’s it, then, game’s up?”

“I think it maybe so.”

“What shall we do? Where on earth are we to go?”

The doorbell jangled; the two women leapt apart.

“Good morning, ladies. I have brought you some more hand knits to sell for the poor Barnado’s Boys. I want you to know you are my very top selling shop!”

Vera Ham was up on her feet and marching to the old tune, like a well-drilled trouper.

“Well, dear Mrs Hodge, it must be such hard work for you, but they just fly off the counter. Such a lovely collection of colours as well – these fluorescent pinks and blues are very fetching, don’t you think, Miss Veal?”

Vera stroked a pile of multi coloured mittens, hats and bootees, each tied together by their woolly draw strings, her forced gaiety making her even pinker in the cheek – if that were possible.

“There must be a considerable collection in the box for the orphans, you’ll be needing to get Barnado’s to come and empty it, I fancy,” said Mrs Hodge, impressed by the popularity of her own knitting.

Henrietta looked anxiously over at the statue of the boy in the corner, his stick and calipered leg for all to see, clutching his empty collection box. Please God she does not go over and shake it. What was Vera doing with them all?

“We simply can’t meet the demand with supply. Now dear what else can I get you? Would you like to try some acid drops for a change?”

“No, just a quarter of dollies, if I may,” said Mrs Hodge handing over her coupon to be stamped. “Anyone would think the ruddy Germans won the war, this rationing can’t go on much longer surely. Can’t help your business much, now can it?”

“I must apologise because we gave Gregory the run around this morning. I do hope he wasn’t put out,” said Henrietta.

“I really have no idea, he didn’t say anything to me about it. That boy lives in a dream world of his own, must rush,” and with that Mrs Hodge was gone.

Vera opened her till, grabbed that morning’s miserable takings and stuffed the coins into the Barnado’s box.

“I’d much rather you have it, than bloody Gordon, dear,” she said, kissing the boy’s head and giving it a pat.

“Where in God’s earth have all the disgusting little woollen bobities been going?”

“I have an arrangement with the vicar, it’s probably best if you don’t enquire further,” said Vera in a high tone.

“Oh, please don’t tell me he is shipping them to orphanages in Africa?”   Henrietta had a vision of rows and rows of tiny, helpless black babies, dressed in nothing but disgusting luminous colours on every head, foot and hand. Do they even need warmers? Perhaps they might get badly overheated and die of thirst?

“Well, it doesn’t matter now does it? Now all the games are finally up,” said Vera, retiring to the parlour in tears.

Henrietta ran her fingers over the familiar wood grain of her counter, with its ink spots and scratch marks. Oliver Cotton would call for her at two o’clock, for their Thursday afternoon walk. A type of physical activity that Vera always went a very long way to avoid, her migraines having a particular love of early closing. Perhaps she should talk to Oliver, ask his advice? It would be out of the ordinary for her to do so and he might not welcome the intimacy. They never talked about anything other than appropriate subjects for light conversation – a shared loathing for village gossip and a mutual love of a good book, the plots of which they discussed at length. She looked around the shop wondering how much the stock might be worth as the voices of yesterday’s customers passed them by.