It was almost dark when Kate got out of Tomas’s car at the Finger-post. She walked away as fast and as best she could. Some of the men who had chanted, teased her when she had been waiting there before, were still hanging around the shelter, whispering to each other as she walked between them. Some moved to one side, the three of them stood up, tipped their hats, “Hello Kate,” She avoided their eyes, but she felt as if they were inspecting every part of her. Oh, God, they know. How do they know?
Once on the Aspull Moor, she focused her eyes on the huge black body and flapping arms of a poplar tree. Kate couldn’t stop thinking of his fingers fumbling with her buttons, her arm trying to sweep his away, “What are you doing? Please, don’t do that!” His clammy hand reaching for her skin. “Please…. Hail Mary full of grace…” Her skirt was wriggling up, his body moving on to her body. She felt a burning sensation like she’d never felt before.
The breeze which before had been blowing the red flags had dropped and the flag were now limp on their wooden poles. His handsome face was contorted. His breath of garlic and wine was again belting her in the face. As the burning between her legs intensified, she grabbed, tugged at her own hair. Holding her breath, she felt herself plunging through various layers of light, each one darker and more painful than the one before. Her arms fell to her sides. She prayed for some kind of strength. None came.
She walked straight through the large puddles in the cinder track, wind-swept, her feet soaked, finally stepping out onto cobbles which lead to Aspull Clinic. She leaned against its red wall, and took in deep breaths and cried. She imagined fingers pointing at her, heard taunts of “Kate Riley is a tart.” She lifted her skirt pulled off her knickers and fumbled them into a ball. Then with her back flat against the wall she inched her way round to rear of the building, stumbling over a large step at the back entrance. Lifting up her skirt again, she went down on her knees where lawn and flowerbeds meet. Between the daffodils, in the soft soil, she started clawing like a dog burying a bone. She stamped down her blood-stained knickers into the deep hole. Back-filling, she patted it down level as best she could. Between finger and thumb, she tugged at and ripped pieces of grass from the wet lawn and attempted to clean her knees, shoes and hands.
“Kate!” her mother shouted as she walked through the front door. “Now you’ve finished galavanting, you can go down to the farm for half-a-dozen eggs!”
She walked upstairs to her bedroom and undressed, hanging the borrowed clothes over the chair next to her bed. In the bathroom, she swilled her face and arms with cold water, trying to douse the burning and the bruising at the top of her thighs. Trying to wash away the stubborn memory. Soaping the cloth, she rubbed and rubbed.
“Did you hear me?” her mother shouted. “We’ve run out of eggs! And what’s all this about you going to some wedding?” There was a silence, then, “Did you hear me….and what’s all this about you getting into some fancy car?”
Her younger sister, Liz, barged in through the front door. Her mother jerked round,
“Have you heard about Kate getting into some fancy car?” Liz closed the door. “Mrs Brown’s just told me.” They glanced at each other, then towards the stairs making sure Kate would hear. “Mrs Brown asked if she’d become a tart. Well, who else gets into those sorts of cars? Not the likes of us. I’ve never been in one of those cars…I don’t need to.”
“Come here!” shouted her mother. Kate fell back on the bed, staring round at the plain green walls and at her sister’s bed a few feet away. The brown oil-cloth, and the grubby net-curtains! She jerked herself up from the bed. “How did those men know?” She reached over for the mirror, holding it up to her face. Her bright blue eyes looked back at her. She tucked the odd strands of grey hair behind her ears, tipping the mirror downwards. She held it at full stretch over her red locks, slowly. She moved it all the way down over her white full-length slip, till she reached her knees. Kate laid the mirror face down on the eiderdown. Wetting her fingers, she started rubbing hard at the last traces of green from her knees. She brought a wet cloth and started wiping away the brown water marks around her feet. Closing her eyes, she pulled the eiderdown into her, holding it tight to her breasts and started rocking gently.
She was crying, her breathing heavy, “What can they see that I can’t see?” The bedroom door burst open. “Did you hear me?” shouted Liz standing in the door, arms folded, “Everyone’s talking about you because everyone knows that only tarts get in those kind of cars!” Liz was leaning against the door-frame, watching as her older sister was rocking to and fro in some kind of trance. She unfolded her arms, running her palms over her blue apron straightening out the creases and walked over, sitting next to Kate. She placed her arm around her shoulders. “But I know you’re not like that.”
Liz ran her fingers through her sister’s red hair. “You have such beautiful hair.” She saw the dirt around Kate’s short finger nails, the smudged makeup, the tears, a rip at the bottom of her cotton slip. She kissed the top of Kate’s head, speaking in a whisper,
“I’m going to the Empress next week.”
“Have a good time.”
“It’s a new date, Mike Jones. You know Mike Jones? His father has the greengrocer’s on Smith Lane.”
“He seems nice.”
“I was wondering if I could have your clothing coupons?”
Kate saw through her sisters trickery. But what a cheek Kate thought. First she calls me. Then she want’s my coupons. But that’s her all over isn’t it? It’s some two-face game she likes playing. Kate was going to stay calm about it. Shrug her shoulders like she has always done in the past when her sister had tried taking liberties. Then it was a case of anything for a quiet life. But that was then, before all this had happened with Tomas. That was when every day was more or less the same. The time when there were no real traumas in Kate’s life. She was the older sister who would give in even though she knew her own sister hated her. But that was before, Liz was taken back at first when Kate shouted, “You’re the tart! No, you can’t have my coupons!” It was the last thing Liz was expecting. But she soon composed herself and came back at Kate with, “What do you want them for? You’re miles too old!”
“No!” screamed Kate. “Now leave me alone.”
Liz stormed out, slamming the door behind her.
Kate climbed into bed, crying, when after some minutes her mother burst in, walking past knickers, blouses, skirts dangling from Liz’s unmade bed. An empty blue perfume bottle lay on the pillow as though it had just been thrown there.
She sat down next to Kate. “Why won’t you give Liz your coupons? If she clicks with him, we wouldn’t have to pay for another thing.” There was no answer. She leaned over shaking Kate’s shoulders, “Are you listening to me?”
“No! I won’t”
“You’ll never see that fancy man again. They’re like that. Mike Jones could be the making of us.”
There was a knotted silence. Her mother inched closer, her eyes on the clothes hanging over the chair, the small blue bottle of Evening In Paris.
“Look, Kate, you’re stuck here. So why not give them to Liz?”
“I’m not saying you were wrong, but you could have had Bill Taylor.
You were always friends with him at school. Look where he is now!”
“I don’t care!”
Her mother fidgeted with her blue apron, “We could have been out of here but for you. You’ve always been bloody awkward and selfish!”
“I didn’t like Bill Taylor, like that!”
Mrs Riley stormed out slamming the door behind her.
Kate cried herself to sleep.
Diary entry March 28th: I’ve changed, but I don’t know how. It was awful. He hurt me. I don’t know why they crow so much about It. Everyone knows, I don’t know how they know, but they know. Cried all night.
Next morning when she set off for work it was still dark. Kate arrived at the Finger-post. Women were gathering in small circles under the sodium street lights. They moved forward into tiny scrums whispering. Kate ignored them, looking straight ahead at the black-and white-building of the Queen’s Head across the road. She recalled being
a little girl waiting for her dad to pop out with her halfpenny spending money.
Giggles startled her. She felt uncomfortable, dirty, as though she’d not bathed for weeks. She wanted to cry but didn’t dare.
“Why didn’t they tell me what was going to happen? Friends! They’re not my friends, they should have told me! He was just doing what men do.”
She moved awkwardly down the bus through loud barking coughs, heavy cigarette smoke, white faces and multi-coloured turbans. An arm pushed up and waved. It was Betty. Kate smiled. A big red-haired woman turned as Kate sat down and asked sarcastically, “What did you do over the weekend, Kate?” The other women were nudging each other.
“Just ignore her,” said Betty. “She’s had more men than we’ve had hot dinners.” Betty took a Woodbine from a green pack of five, coughed, then struck a single match on the grey steel striker fixed on the seat. Her chest wheezed as she took in a deep drag. Exhaling, she coughed again. Kate patted her back, stood and opened a window. As the fog cleared, she saw more and more white faces peering at her.
“Well,” said Betty, “Come on, I promise, I won’t tell a soul. What happened? Where did you go? Did he try anything?”
You could have heard a pin drop. Three dozen pairs of ears stretched into their conversation. Kate looked her best friend in the eye, “Nothing happened. We went for a picnic up Rivington. He was nice. We had ham butties with lettuce on. They were cut in quarters and everything was neatly packed in a proper basket. We even sat on a proper car-rug next to some people from Preston and chin-wagged with them all afternoon.”
A mass of turbaned heads and white faces turned back to the front. They were bobbing, and leaning into each. Kate turned and wiped the condensation from the window. Betty nudged her. “When are you seeing him again?”
Kate turned. “Er, Saturday, we’re going to watch Errol Flynn.”
“What are you wearing?”
“I don’t know.”
Betty’s brown eyes glinted. She took another drag from the cig held between her heavily-stained fingers. “I know!” she said keeping her hand up near her mouth, “You could borrow my green skirt.” She placed the fag in between layers of bright red lipstick. She wore no other makeup. Took another drag, and coughed again. She smiled, holding the cig between her yellowed teeth. “What do you think?”
“Don’t look so miserable!”
“I’m just tired.”
“God, if someone picked me up in a car, any car, I’d be telling everyone.”
“What was it like in that fancy car?”
“How do you know about the car?”
“Everyone in Aspull knows about that car. I can’t get over it. Your first date and it’s in a posh car. My first date was a ride on a coal barge up the canal. God, he was all over me. Now he did have desert disease!” She laughed.
“What’s the matter, Kate? Did something happen?”
The turbaned heads of those in front were wobbling as the bus drove over the cobbles leading into Langdales. Through the window, they watched hundreds of coloured turbans walking in lines, or side by side, fags dangling from mouths, women, men, already covered in cotton trudging up the wide stone steps into the mill.
“Did something happen Kate?”
“I’m seeing him next Saturday.” Kate stood and followed the other women. She went back in her mind to Scout Road, the gentle rocking of the car. The strange feeling of being pulled apart. Crying, mourning the body she had lost. And the frustration of not knowing why no one had told her what to expect, except to say that it was something
wonderful. She watched Tomas stepping out of the car, lighting his fag, then walking back to the car, packing the two empty wine bottles back into the basket, and looking at her as though everything was alright, as if he expected her to say thank you!
He smiled as he picked up the basket and lifted, threw it onto the back seat and coldly asked her, “Do you want me to drop you back at the Cenotaph?” Flicking his fag into the road, he stepped into the car and started driving. (Her Diary entry for 28th of March read: I was a piece of meat he dropped off. He never said a word. He wasn’t the man I saw on that dance floor. Or the man I met at the Finger-post. He really hurt me. I’m not seeing him again.)
The dinner-time hooter screamed, workers trudged away from the jungle heat of the mill towards the canteen. A small clique led by a tall thin woman with a gaunt face, tight lips, no teeth and blackened right eye, surrounded Kate. She tried to get out of the way, but they moved in tight, trapping her. Her chest tightened. This was the gang who got fifteen-years-old Johnny Banks down and greased his private parts in front of everyone and then stuck a milk bottle on him. Kate wriggled, squirmed, trying her best to free herself. Among the silent machines and the sweet smell of warm cotton, the thin woman shouted, “So he only kissed her hand, did he?”
Kate was silent.
“Well, Miss Prim-and-Proper, thirty-two and you only let him kiss your hand. We’ll see in nine months.”
She turned to her friends, “Tell me, Kate, did you say your prayers before or after he kissed your so-called hand?”
The clique cackled.
“Arthur!” shouted the thin woman. “Come and listen to this” The short thick-set man in the oily boiler suit, with grey hair and wire-rimmed glasses was splicing a rope on a broken-down machine. “Leave her alone!” he shouted back. Sticking close to each other, they all moved down to him like some giant centipede. He nodded and smiled
at Kate as they gathered around him. “But have you heard this?” said the thin woman. He ignored her and walked away.
“Miserable old bugger!” shouted the woman. “No wonder his wife went off!”
They looked down the line of silent machines, oil-soaked floorboards, where they could see men sitting around tea chests playing cards, some of them were eating from newspapers near huge bales of cotton fastened with chains and gently swinging eight feet off the floor. On the machines, lengths of stretched cotton were waiting to be twirled, and threaded through steel combs. There was a distant clatter. Kate shoved through the group of women. The thin woman chased after her, held her against a white-painted stanchion, “You think we’re muck, don’t you? Who do think you are? We had ham butties with lettuce on, all nicely cut into quarters!” Her voice changed, her face contorted, eyes narrowed, “You’re not and never have been one of us. From now on
you and your fancy man can piss off!”
Kate’s insides cracked open. Her hands grabbed hold of the iron pole behind her back, holding it for dear life. Warm bits of cotton fluffed her feet. The other workers who were eating or playing cards, glanced up and then carried on with whatever they were doing. Kate stretched up, broke free and walked out determined with her head held high.
Kate’s machine wouldn’t start. Others were running, working their section of five cardings, all of them covered in cotton and dust. The women wondered why she wasn’t working. Kate saw their arms lift, their pointing, mouths opening and closing like gold fish. Suddenly Arthur was walking up the line towards her. Turbaned heads twirled round. His bulging black leather tool bag banged against his short legs. He stopped, rested the bag. Swapping it to his left hand, he jerked it off the floor and carried on towards her.
The bag clattered as he dropped it. “Don’t worry,” he mimed. “It’s not your fault!”
He stood back and peered at the machine over the top of his glasses, took one step forward, then he bent down to check the hessian ropes attached to pulleys at the side. He stretched up over the cylinder, pulling out bits of twigs and leaves from the off-white cotton speckled with black seeds, he started singing, “Underneath the Arches.” Kate laughed at his out-of-tune voice. He looked up, blue eyes smiling. “You’ve got to be happy!” he said.
They were all gawking at her, hands working the cotton. He was sitting on his heels, fiddling with something. She noticed his blonde hair greying out through his basin hair cut. His neck was dirty, his shirt collar was threadbare, coal-dust clung to the oil on his
navy-blue overalls. He was pushing and pulling various buttons until eventually the machine turned over with bit of a whisper, the pulleys jerked, then died. He sat there for a few seconds whistling, “Don’t Go Under the Apple Tree With Anybody Else But Me.”
Down the line they were changing and moving the five-foot steel cans filled with white twirled cotton. He stood up with a groan, taking out an oily rag, wiping his hands. “This one’s buggered for today,” he declared.
He came closer . “Don’t let them bother you.”
He smiled, picked up his bag, and started walking away. She ran after him, “What shall I do?”
“Come and have a cup of tea? I’ll fix that tonight.”
She recalled Betty’s words, “They only want to get into your knickers!”
“No, I can’t”
He looked down the line They were smirking, laughing, “Do you want me to bring you a cup of tea then?”
“No, you can’t do that!”
He tilted his head. “Because of them?” he asked.
“It’s not that.”
“It’s alright.” He lifted his cap, scratched his head then slapped the cap back on, slanted.
“In that case,” he said, “you’d better get under the machine and clean all the fluff out Make sure you get as much dirt out as you can and look out for twigs and leaves. Them’s the things that buggers the machine up.”
“Oh!” said the woman. “I didn’t know you was under there?”
“Since when have you been sweeping the dirt under my machine?”
“I’m sorry it was an accident!” The woman smiled. It was a grotesque smile. One arm rested on the brush in front of her, the other rested on her hip. A wedding ring was half-swallowed by fat. Her dirty nails were down to the wick, strands of black hair dangled over her forehead. She wiped her brow with the back of her hand and pushed the sweat into her overalls.
“You’re not saying I did it on purpose, are you?”
“Why are you being like this?” Kate asked. “We used to be friends. You weren’t like this when you wanted me to baby-sit your Billy?”
“You know why!” The woman stepped into Kate’s face, “You’ll never baby-sit him again.”
“Why, what have I done?”
“You know what you’ve done.” Pat Fairclough turned and left Kate wondering. The others were laughing at her. She sat on a green wooden stool swinging the long hand-brush between her legs, her head down she was resting her chin on her right hand.
Betty appeared. “Are you alright?”
“I’m not talking to you,” the woman said.
A thin woman, five machines down was smirking.
“It wasn’t my fault. They made me tell them. You know what they’re like. I’m sorry.”
Betty averted her eyes from the women watching them both. She looked back to Kate. The silence between them was louder than the machines.
“Look!” said Betty. “They said if I didn’t tell them, they would make my life hell. You know they can do it. Look what they did to Sandra Bailey. That cow over there.” She nodded her head towards the thin woman. “Almost made her have a breakdown. My Frank would kill me if I had a breakdown. I’m sorry, Kate.” The thin woman was walking towards them. “I’ll have to go. See you on the bus.”
The thin woman stood over Kate, looking down to her. “Betty’s a good girl, she, married a spinner. She’d never get in a boss’s car!” She was staring at Kate walking away, and asked sarcastically, “ Has your machine broken down then ?”
On the bus home heads were turned to the front. The bus was silent except for a few subdued giggles. Betty whispered to her as they neared the Finger-post, “I’m still your friend and I’m really sorry. I never thought they’d be like this.”
After an awkward silence, Kate asked, “Can I still borrow your blouse?” Betty smiled, and squeezed Kate’s arm. “You will look gorgeous in it. He will go crackers when he sees you.”
“I tell you what, what do you think about us going on a foursome?”
She squeezed Kate’s arm. If you’re going to watch Errol Flynn we could all meet outside the Ritz, on Station Road?”
The turbaned heads were still bobbing under the green and cream ceiling. She turned, “I’m not sure?”
“Ah, come on, it’ll be belting!”
Kate averted her eyes from the heads wobbling just above the chrome handrails. They reminded her of some fairground game where people throw balls and win prizes.
“I’ll have to see.”
“I’ll write to him tonight. He’ll get it tomorrow.”
“Where does he live?”
“Doncaster. He lives with his mother.”
“How old is he?”
The thin woman squealed, looked round to Kate, waved an ironic wave.
“He’s, er, twenty-five.”
“You’ll have to be careful of him Kate!” she laughed.
“Eh, what’s matter? I was only joking.”
Kate looked down at her hands, the freckles, the hard skin and the red rash from working. Her mouth filled with the experience of Scout Road. She wanted to scream it out but she forced her lips tight and swallowed.
“What’s matter Kate? You’re not smiling?”
“Nothing. I’m alright, honest.”
“So?” asked Betty.
“Are we going on a foursome or not?”
“I said I’ll write.”
“That’s like saying you’re washing your hair when you’re not.”
She leaned closer into to Kate. “What’s he really like?”
“I’ve told you, nothing happened!”
“I think I’ll wear that blue suit, you know the one I had at Bobby Brown’s Christening.”
Kate was looking out the window: St. Elizabeth’s, Jones’ Greengrocer’s.
“He could be the making of us.” Where still ringing in her ears.
“You’ll not see that foreigner again. You’re too old.”
They alighted at the Finger-post.
“See you tomorrow.” No-one looked at, nor waved at Kate. They all linked arms in a long line. Kate walked faster than usual up the brew leading to the moor. (Dairy entry 30th March. How do they know. He did it to me. I didn’t do anything. He forced him self onto me). It was calm on the moor. The big poplar at the end of the track had its arms wide, still, as though welcoming them. The moon was sliding from puddle to puddle. In step, feet crunched the cinder path.
“You’ve not to let her upset you? One of these days she’ll pick on the wrong one.” “I hope I’m there,” said Kate.
“Let’s forget work,” said Betty. “Have you seen those Cuban heels? I’m going to see if I can get some for Saturday. They’ve got some in Peakers, in Wallgate. Everybody’s wearing them.”
Betty pulled them both to a stop, swivelled the ball of her foot round and looked down the back of her leg, “ Do you think they’ll make my legs look nicer than Betty Grable’s?”
“My legs are just as nice, that’s what Frank says. What do you think?”
Kate was looking ahead at the Clinic, the flower beds, mumbling to herself, “Oh, God, Bob Butterworth! If he finds them, when he’s digging out the bulbs? Did I sew my name in? If Liz didn’t pinch my clothes….”
“So what do you think, are my legs as nice as Betty Grable’s?”
Kate pulled her and started running past the Poplar tree and the blue Police phone box.
“What you doing, I nearly fell on my face? What’s wrong, what’s happened?”
Kate slowly walked round the flower-bed. She had a vision of herself crawling on her hands and knees, scraping the soil. The black was wet, shiny, beautiful. One or two of the stalks had been broken, some yellow trumpets were down, a few petals mingled in the soil. She picked them up, and one by one she placed them in to her pocket. She inched round to a small patch of soil humped up. She stamped on it.
Across the fields a gang of women from the bus were silhouetted against the evening sky. Her breathing eased. She turned and smiled at Betty.
“I’m sure,” said Betty. “that you are going crackers. It must be that bloke of yours!”
Kate forced a laugh.
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on?” Betty enquired.
Kate shook her head. “I can’t. Not yet!”
Betty stood back, “Well, are you coming on Saturday?”
She paused, looked her in the eye, “Yes, I’ll be there”
“With him? I want a ride in a fancy car.”
“What about them lot?”
“Bugger them !”
“I don’t know, Betty. They can be evil when they want.”
There was an awkward silence. The long grass was silent. It was a clear night. The odd sound of a car driving up Haigh Road echoed over the moor.
“Let’s go on our own!” said Betty. “It’ll be Ginger Rogers and Betty Grable in Wigan.” Laughing, Kate lapped her arms around her and squeezed.
“Will your Frank not bother?
“Don’t worry about him, I’ll give him what he wants,” Betty laughed.
“When you think of it, they’re a bit stupid, aren’t they? I feel sorry for them sometimes, well, they’re ruled by that thing between their legs. Let’s face it, would you like that thing springing up between your legs every five minutes?”
“Does it not bother you?”
Betty frowned, “Why should it? I’m used to it now. I just think about tea. He pulls my nightie down when he’s finished, and that’s it. It’s all over in a couple of minutes. That first time I saw him, my God, it looked like a giant worm throbbing. I’m telling you kid, it frightened me!”
Kate held her head down, silent, embarrassed.
“Are you alright, Kate?” In the darkness, the dim light on the Clinic wall cut a yellow wedge above their heads. A black figure on the cinder track was walking towards them. The fields down to the farm were still, silent. A motor-bike and side-car was parked half way up the cobbled lane to Haigh Road.
“What’s matter, Kate?”
Betty, put her arm around Kate’s shoulders. “I know there’s something wrong.”
“Is it like that for everyone?” Kate replied.
“As far as I know it is. Have you not heard them talking about lying back and thinking of England?”
“I thought it was some kind of joke.”
“Some bloody joke when they come home on a Friday night stinking of booze and pickled eggs and all they want to do is lift your nightie up. Christ, Frank can’t even see the nightie sometimes, never mind lift it up!” Kate started laughing.
“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, you’ve not missed anything.”
Betty lit a cig. Smoke mingled with her words. “He hurt you, didn’t he?”
Tears came into Kate’s eyes.
“I didn’t know what was happening. I told him to stop. I couldn’t do anything. I tried, honest I did, but he got me drunk. Before I knew it, he was on top of me.”
She was sobbing uncontrollably. “He really hurt me!” In her mind she saw his contorted face, the strands of greasy black hair over his face as he jerked into her. She sobbed louder as she remembered the heat of hell she would have to undergo for her mortal sin.
Betty hugged her, “Listen, kid, I’m here. It’s alright. Bugger that lot, if you want to tell me anything, anything at all. I promise, cross my heart, they’ll have to burn it out of me.” She lifted a corner of her apron wiping tears from Kate’s face. “I don’t understand them myself and I’ve been married for three years. But that’s how it is sometimes!”
Two women alone, in the blue of the night outside Aspull Clinic were hugging each other.
(Diary entry 29th March. Why has everyone started hating me? They were my friends. Still can’t sleep properly. Keep seeing his face. His thing. Said my Rosary twice. He won’t go away.)
(Diary entry for 11th May read: I’ve missed again. Please God, forgive me, I’m pregnant)
“You’re pregnant!” shouted her mother, pacing the worn carpet and shaking her head. She was walking round and round the brown leatherette settee. She sat herself on the barstool in the corner underneath a picture of her late husband. She was mumbling something Kate couldn’t hear.
“You weren’t like this when our Annie got pregnant and she was only twenty!” Her mother lifted and emptied the coal-scuttle, burying the flames. She slipped on her hat, dallying it into position, she then slipped her coat on.
“No daughter of mine,” she said, “is having a baby out of marriage.”
The mother was looking into the mirror hanging over the fireplace, shuffling her hat into place. “Mrs Brown on St. John’s Road will get rid of it!”
She walked over and suddenly slapped Kate hard across the face. The force knocked Kate backward onto the couch. “Annie went to America with her G.I.” She was a better daughter than you’ll ever be!” The mother said, going out.
Kate lay in a foetal position for a while crying, then running out of the room, she opened and slammed the door behind her. Her bare feet slapped the brown lino on the stairs. In her bedroom she jiggled out a drawer from the oak chest, rummaging, pulling to the front a set of black knotted rosary beads, a red Catechism, and a couple of frayed
prayer books. She held at arm’s length a black and white photograph of herself standing alone under the red sails of the windmill. She remembered the long white skirt, and the black blouse she had ran-up herself. “Eighteen,” she mumbled. The drawer was full with bent hair clips, empty blue perfume bottles, a length of green ribbon. She tested a pen, she found on her hand. Then picking out a notebook and a envelope she addressed a letter to Mrs Guerro, c/o of St. Luke’s Roman Catholic Church, Doncaster.
Dear Mrs Guerro,
I’ve never had to write a letter like this before. I don’t know what to do. I’m pregnant and your Tomas is the father. My mum is forcing me to get rid of it. I don’t want to. I’m sorry but I don’t what to do? Can you please help me?
She kneeled at her bedside and tried squeezing her mind into a prayer but, instead of seeing the face of Jesus, she saw the contorted face of Tomas, “Please, don’t leave me, not now, please, Jesus, I am so sorry. I will never do that again.”
Squeezing as tight as tight, she sighed,, and violently shook her head from side to side, “Please, Jesus.” Then she collapsed on the bed crying. Looking down from the top step Kate saw her mother and sister standing in the door-well, arms folded over their best Sunday clothes. “You look a bloody mess!” shouted her mother. “Hurry up and get dressed.”
Liz was smirking at her.
“I’m not going to Mass!” She turned back towards her bedroom and got back into bed. She heard footsteps thundering up the stairs, her bedroom door crashed open. There was her mother leaning over her bed.
“You will go to Mass!”
“I’m not going!”
“You are! You’ve showed me up enough!”
She grabbed hold of Kate’s arm and pulled her out of bed. “Liz! she shouted.
“I’m not coming!”
“Liz, did you hear me?”
She wriggling her arm free but before she could pull the blankets over her head again a slap burned the side of her face, crashing her back into the pillow.
“You are going to church!”
She put her arms over her face, screaming, “I can’t go!”
She was breathing heavily.
“What’s she to wear?”
“Just get anything.”
She saw her sister approach the wardrobe.
“You will go because Mrs Brown is coming tonight to sort it out.”
“She’s not coming near me.”
“Will this be alright?” A green dress landed on her.
“Put it on, or we’ll put it on for you.”
Hands on hips, her mother stepped back from the bed, her face white.
“Get it on!” She stepped closer, leaned on the bed. “I said, get it on!” Liz had stepped into the light from the landing window. Kate lay crying, “I’m not going!”
“We’ll see about that!” said her mother, storming out of the bedroom. Liz walked over to her, leaned over her. “Now you’re in for it! You did nothing to help me when I was in trouble!”
Kate sat up, “That was your own fault. You stole ten bob from the coal man!”
“I needed the money.”
“What, for nylons, and make-up? You tried blaming me for it!”
“God loves a tryer. By the way, you forgot to mention the perfume.”
Suddenly, they heard the clank of bathroom taps, the drumming of water into a bucket. They looked at each other. Then they fixed their eyes on the door. Kate turned white. She knew what was going to happen. Liz was watching the door, waiting for her mother to run in. “I can’t wait to see this,” she said.
Kate grabbed hold of the eiderdown and tried pulling it up to her chest. Liz pulled it away. “Why are you being like this?” said Kate.
Liz smiled. “Because now you know what it feels like: the wait, like somebody is going to take you away and that sick taste in your mouth.”
“We used to be friends. I let you sleep in my bed, when you got it.”
“That was your own fault. I didn’t ask you.”
“Go on, please.”
Liz sat on her own bed, “I’m getting out of the way!”
The tiny bedroom seemed darker than usual. Colder. She looked long and hard at the green dress, how it lay flat out on the bed, falling with the gold coloured zip down, the green A line fanned out, creased, with grubby marks down its front.
She looked across to Liz, “You’ve had this on!”
“Didn’t I tell you? I am so sorry!” she replied sarcastically.
“Why the hell didn’t you clean it?”
“Why should I?”
They looked to each other. Then waited with their eyes fixed on the door. Their mother trundled in wobbling the bucket in front of her.
“For the last time,” she asked, “are you coming to Mass?”
“Say no, please say no!” Liz urged her.
“If you don’t shut up,” she shouted to Liz, “you’ll get this!”
Liz ran from the room slamming the door behind her.
Kate stood with her arms out, pleading, “Please, mum, don’t make me go…I’ve committed a mortal sin. I can’t go!”
Her breathing was heavy, she was frightened. There was no pity, no sadness in the face in front of her. Her mother bent down with a deliberate slowness, groaning. She lifted the handle of the bucket.
She looked around for some place to run. Condensation ran down the green walls, mould was growing in the corner. While one hand grabbed the handle and lifted the bucket, the other reached for the bottom, at a slight angle, water fell, splashing the floor. The mother looked Kate in the eye. “Now are you coming to church?”
She swung back the bucket, more water spilled. Kate dived over her bed grabbing hold of the green dress, “Look, mum, I’m coming! Please, mum, I’m coming to Mass.”
She took a step back squeezing herself against the wall. She held the dress up. Then she threw it onto the bed, “Look, mum, I’m changing, I’m getting ready.”
She took off her white nightshirt, with her naked back to the window.
Her mother stepped forward, face contorted with anger as she swung back the bucket. Kate screamed as the cold water splashed all over her. She winced, tensed herself. A scream froze solid in her open mouth as the water slammed into her. She fell to the floor. Her mother stood over her. “When I say you’re coming to Mass, you come to Mass!”
Kate screwed herself up into a ball, crying.
“Be ready in five minutes.” She walked to the door, turned, and calmly asked, “ Are you having Communion?”
“Yes, mother,” She said meekly.
“Mrs Brown’s coming tonight. Don’t go out anywhere.”
Her Diary entry for 11th May read: Jesus has left me. Mother is being mother, but she’s not taking my baby. It’s mine! The three of them turned the corner out of St. David’s Crescent into Haigh Road. There was a weak sun yellowing the pavement. There was a cold tinge in the air, some elderly people wore winter clothes, kids were running about in jumpers. Little girls wore their Sunday frocks. Kate could see the rumour-mongers waiting outside the church in their Sunday hats, eyeing up the competition. Then they spotted Kate, they gathered in a tiny scrum with their prayer books in one hand, rosary beads in the other, whispering.
Some were standing outside the cemetery on the corner of Haigh Road and Copperas Lane where her father was buried. It’s where those same women had gathered around her then, saying how sorry they were and that if she needed anything….Her Diary entry for 11th May read: Church has become another place for showing off. They’re all two-faced. The same big gobs. All of them peeing in the same pot. I didn’t let mum read my letter. She’d have ripped it up.
The letter was in her pocket. Her mother’s arm was linking hers. Liz linked her other arm. Liz gave Kate a smug look, then looked straight ahead, “Hello Kate,” said a white-haired lady from St. Peter’s Road. “Mrs Riley, Liz,” without turning Kate said “Hello” She also wanted to scream out, I shouldn’t be here. They’ve made me come. I hate them. I wouldn’t do that to a dog! Her mind drifted off thinking of better times. Times
with her father, there’s was never ever any kind of abuse with him. There wasn’t the anger.
She looked past the rumour-mongers, down towards Copperas Lane. Kate somehow felt it was closer to her in every way than home, she couldn’t think why. She didn’t understand why the tiny cobbled lane was so dear to her heart. It was as if the whole place was some how more sacred than the church she was going into. But why should it be? She just didn’t understand it. It wasn’t just now. Even has a child she had felt drawn to the lane, then in her young Catholic mind, as though it was going against Jesus. She used to say sorry in her prayers because she felt better in the lane, than she did in church. She even asked Jesus to look after the lane for her. That was how much she loved it. Perhaps, the lane was what part of the trouble with Liz, and her father. Her father had always liked being in or around the lane. He had worked there for most of his life. It was where he wanted to be. Kate felt the same. But Liz had just thought of it as a lane and that was it. To her it was just a cobbled uncomplicated lane.
More church goers said hello to Kate and her mother and Liz. Who smiled back at the friendly faces as though butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths but Kate wanted to shout out that her mother, her mother had drenched her with cod water, that her own mother wanted her to have an abortion. She wanted to scream out that she hated her mother and sister, and that no-one should speak to them. She didn’t. But she could feel the hatred bubbling up inside of her.
She didn’t know why she mumbled “Mrs Guerro will help me, she won’t let them hurt my baby.”
The other churchgoers were like robots walking up the road towards the church. Every so often, someone would say “Hello” and Kate said “Hello” back. But secretly she wanted to scream out, “They want to take my baby!” She looked around at Mrs Jackson, Betty Simpson and Jane Smith. Then down Haigh Road, past the sycamore and the beech, down past the opening to Holly Road, but there behind everyone was Mrs Brown wrapped in her best shawl.
Kate was frog-marched into the church. There was no dipping their fingers into the stoop on the wall in the entrance. There was no making the sign of the cross. The mother swung open and pulled Kate in. She glanced over to the Confessional Box, a door was open, the orange light was off. She willed it to be on. She wanted, no, needed
the light to be on. So instead as she passed she whispered “Father, it is two months since my last Confessional, in that time I have committed a mortal sin.”
The rumour mongers, were on their knees praying.
“Dear Lord, why have you left me. Aren’t you supposed to be the all-forgiving God?”
There were rows of multicoloured scarves, hats, greasy plastered-down hair, furry hats and kids peeking over oak pews. There was the warm smell of candles mixed with the sweet smell of incense. Down the aisle, she was flanked by her mother and sister. Heads bobbed into each other, whispering. Her mother pointed for her to sit in the
fourth pew up from the front. Mr King, the butcher from New Springs, looked up, smiled and moved his legs to one side. His wife ignored Kate, making her shuffle awkwardly either side of the kneeler.
The priest dressed in a green and gold cope with two altar boys in attendance walked on to the altar. Everyone stood, except her. Her mother nudged and pulled her, “Get up!” She wouldn’t budge “Just wait till I get you home!” her mother snarled.
The shock of being soaked with cold water was still with Kate. It wasn’t so much the water or the trauma she was having to cope with. It her own mother’s act of betrayal towards her, her own daughter also her womanhood. It didn’t seem natural for a mother to want a daughter to abort her child. Grandchildren are a life times dream. So why
wasn’t this dream with her? Or was the problem another mouth to feed? Also she couldn’t get over how another woman least of all her sister, could, would want to harm not only her but possibly the baby as well!
The flashbacks Kate was experiencing where strong and vivid. Everything was there. She jerked back as she felt that water hitting her again and again. Over and over in her mind she could feel the cold of her screams.
She kept one hand in her pocket holding her letter to Mrs Guerro for dear life. She glanced round at the Stations of the Cross, fixing her eyes on the Crown of Thorns, the blood, the pain and His death for her sins. She looked away. Tears blurred her vision of the Virgin Mary and Jesus hanging on a Cross above the altar.
Mrs Brown’s head was down. All of the heads were down. She suddenly remembered Tomas plying her with the drink and heard her own pleas of “No! Please, don’t do that!” She sobbed, “Why did he do it? And him a Catholic too!”
She stood, fumbled along the line, forcing them to let her through. Her mother made a grab for her but missed. She didn’t look back. Kate kept walking, rows of white faces were watching her every movement. Her pace quickened until she was running out. She didn’t bother to dip her fingers in the stoop. That was the last thing on her mind.
Haigh Road was empty but for a horse and cart resting at the side of the road. A man was sitting on the pavement smoking his pipe. Behind her she could hear the congregation raising the roof with its first hymn. She ran across the road and fumbled the letter into the post box. Tears were streaming her face. It looks well she muttered. Asking a stranger for help, not just any stranger but his mother! Kate glanced over at the church, remembering her First Communion all pretty in her little white dress.
There were times she’d visited the priest for advice about becoming a nun. Jesus was all she ever wanted. The family had stopped that. Not enough money coming into the house, her mother had once said. But now, Jesus was gone, she felt she had somehow betrayed him. That was it. In her mind Tomas had taken much more than her virginity.
Her mind was all over the place. “Why did Tomas do that to me?” She leaned against the stone wall of the cemetery crying. “They are all blaming me for it. I did nothing wrong. I couldn’t stop him. Why will no-one believe me?” She wiped tears from her eyes. “I bet he’s swanning about with a smile on his face!” She blew her nose. “And you lot in there, you call yourself Christians. Well I’ve been with a Catholic, and look what it’s done for me!”
She wiped more tears from her eyes. “I did nothing wrong!”
Kate followed the stone wall round into the lane, she ran down to the line of mature beech trees linking arms high above the brown cobbles.
She hid behind one of the grey body’s, on her knees, safe, like a scared animal. Until she saw the stream of water leaving that bucket, slow, inch by inch, her body taut, waiting for the hit.
Kate was sobbing. There was a strong musty smell of wild mushrooms and rotted leaves. She rested for a few minutes. In the lane sun glistened on the leather leaves of the rhododendrons. Chickens were scrawling for food. A goat was wandering about outside the gamekeeper’s cottage.
The smell of manure wafted in from the farmer’s fields. Apart from the animals there was no movement in the lane. She stepped out from behind the trees. Nervously Kate made her way down the lane, wondering where to go, what to do? Most people would either be in church or working. She felt lost in a place she knew like the back of her hand. Then she stopped opposite the windmill that stood in the middle of the field where as a girl she used to run and hide behind the stacks of hay. She moved over back to the hedge, remembering that photograph she had earlier pulled from the drawer. The one her father had taken. It was the only picture she ever let anyone take. She was eighteen. He was fifty and on his last legs. She pushed through the hedge stepping into the field she had not been in for twenty years. It was a two-hundred-yard walk to the windmill that had been there for as long as she could remember. She took it slow, moving through the soft wet grass, that grabbed at and savoured her every footstep. She saw herself again in a white skirt and black blouse, bare-foot, as he asked her to stand under those large red sails. His blue eyes were sparkling, his pointed chin and grey stubble. He smiled, pushed, patted the grey waves back over his head.
It was the pause, the fiddling with something so alien she remembered, the look on his face, the puzzle of how in heaven’s name his daughter was going to fit into the camera. He had never seen a one before, not close up. Kate smiled, remembering his persistence. He was like that, and that’s a part of him she liked, that dogged persistence.
She tugged at her handkerchief and wiped away tears. It’s where as a child she always felt safe. To her it was more than a field it was like a sanctuary. She tried to think why she had not been amongst the wild flowers, and the birds before now. She shrugged her shoulders?
The fields humped and bumped away from her down to the big house, where she saw a fancy-looking car, glinting between the rows of sycamores, a black and silver one that resembled the one Tomas drove.
It was parked in front of the double front doors. She watched people get out and walk into the house.
She flopped on the damp grass, and drew her knees up to her chin. She was sobbing. In the warmth
of the morning sun Kate started floating on the parallels between sleep and awake, to distant sounds of horses clattering down the lane, a faint hum of flies, cows tails swatting, beating a slow easy rhythm. There were sky larks and thrushes and she could taste the sweet smell of new grass. Suddenly she was somewhere else, deep inside of something, something that was deep, black, no way out. She found herself running away from something……
“Kate!” she heard in the distance. “Kate!” She woke, lifted her head, shielding her eyes from the bright sun, she saw a woman, trudging towards her, up the slight hill. Squinting, Kate felt panicky, thinking it was someone from the house, shuffling to her feet. Kate shifted her head from side to side, “June! June! Is that you?”
The rosy face smiled, “Who do you think it is?” boomed the woman’s voice, “The Queen Of Sheba?”
She couldn’t hold herself any longer. Tears were streaming her face, she stood and then ran over to her close friend. June comforted her, “It’s alright Kate, I’m here. What on earth has been going on? I’ve heard some of the rumours, but you know what that lot in the mill are like. But I’m sorry I’ve not been here for you. I couldn’t get away from my sisters, she been going through it as well.”
They had been friends since well before the war. It was their families, their different religions and June’s husband that had kept them from seeing as much of each other as they had liked. All because Kate’s mother had said, “It’s not proper. She’s older than you and you are a Catholic, she’s a Protestant. It would be a sin!”
Kate composed herself. She didn’t know where to start. She tried in her mind to get all what had happened in some logical order. But she couldn’t it was too outrageous. It was like a nightmare, with her as the main character. She at first closed her eyes thinking, or hoping that it had have been the worst ever nightmare and that soon when she awakened everything would be all right. She could have coped with that. But this was real. The hatred Liz aimed at her, her sister was real. It had been bubbling for years, but why? And why had this hatred suddenly grown out of all proportion?
She started to tell, share her thoughts with June but it was all too much for her.
They stood and went and sat behind the sails of the windmill, they were hidden, in their secret childhood place, where they now leaned against the orange brick wall. June was silent. She didn’t want to push it. It was half an hour later before Kate began to confide in her friend. Occasionally breaking down, composing herself, and setting
off with the story. June listened intensely. she herself came close to crying at one time. There behind the sails, June comforted her friend. And then it was when she told her about the bucket of water. “She did what!” shouted June.
“I don’t understand, why throw a bucket of freezing water over me! What kind of a mother does that to her own daughter?”
It’s years since I heard of that being done!” June said. “God, that’s something my mother used to tell me about. But it was only ever done to the lads of the family. I’ve never heard of a daughter getting it. That’s awful!”
June comforted her. It was more than comforting she needed. It was to be free from her family all together. To get away. In the past Kate and June had spoken about it so many times. It had almost become some kind of joke they used to share when they were in the dumps. But deep down they both knew that Kate would never leave her mother’s house. Unless, it was something that was so out of the ordinary, something so radical that it would change Kate’s life forever. They bother knew that time had come. This was it. It was as though they were telepathic, they both said at the same, “We could live together!”
They both also knew that it was a short-term solution. They knew they’d set the tongues wagging,
two young women don’t live in a isolated cottage together. It wasn’t done. For the time being it was as though some massive weight had been lifted from Kate’s shoulders. She cleaned herself up.
It had been three months since they had, had real time together. They had said hello to each other at the mill. But with June helping her sister through a serious illness then the sudden death of her husband June had seen very little of her friend Kate.
“I’m sorry about Bert, he was really nice.” said Kate. They hugged.
“Fancy,” June said. “he goes all through Dunkirk without a scratch, then he gets himself killed, under a hay cart here on the estate!”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t get to the graveyard – you know what mum’s like about Protestants.”
“How are you?”
“I can’t get used to him not being around. It’s like I’ve had a leg cut off or something?”
Kate nodded to the big house. “What did that lot say?”
“They’ve been belting, I don’t have to pay any rent or anything.”
“God, it’s alright for some.”
June started tugging at the grass. “So what’s all this about this foreigner?”
Kate stared at her friend. “How do you know about him?”
She laughed. “ Everyone knows about him!”
Kate started crying. “I’m pregnant!” she blurted.
Her friend leaned away from her. “You can’t be! Not you!”
“Mrs Brown’s coming tonight!”
There was a cold silence.
Kate stood, leaning into June, she shouted, “Now you know everything
I’m not letting her anywhere near me!”
“You’ve no choice. Besides, you know what’ll happen if you don’t.”
Another set of horses clattered down the lane. The church bells were ringing.
“She’s in there having Communion. How can she?”
Now years later in their field, the field they used to sneak off to as children and disappear. Now they linked arms again, like they did when they used to walk around the Ammunition factory, laughing and joking with other girls.
“Come on!” June said. “Forget them. We’re both starting again. You’re with me now. It’s about time we had some fun. Where’s all the fun gone?” They walked down into Copperas Lane where once again they started playing their childhood game of jumping, splashing from one yellow beam of sun into the next. They lifted their skirts, tucking
them into their knickers and ran and ran. It had been two years since they had last been together. Everyone else on the estate thought Kate was a bit ‘odd’ because she had not married. June’s Bert, didn’t want his wife being tarred with the same brush. If one person saw them together, everyone saw them. It was that kind of place. Where the main past time was telling tales it was the village life. It was all to do with this thing about being in the clique. If you weren’t involved with that, then you were nothing, a nobody.
Out of breath, they started laughing. “We used to run down this lane,” said June, “from top to bottom, without taking a breath. Now look at us!”
They pulled their skirts out of their knickers ran their hands through the creased cotton and looking to each other, laughed. They linked arms and made their way down the lane towards Haigh Hall.
They stopped opposite the red-bricked farm buildings where an ash tree boasted its slim grey body to a line of fat limes. They inched their eyes over its smooth bark looking for something. June leaned on the tree, she pointed, “They were down here. June and Kate. “My name was on top, because I was the prettiest!” she said with a smile. Their hands traced over the grey bark. “We’ve been swallowed up,” said Kate. “Your name was on top because it’s age before beauty!” June tapped her arm gently.
“Five years that’s all!”
They strolled down the winding path in a gentle silence. Then there in front of them was the huge, white stone building, the giant ghost they used to call it, where they used to dare each other to sneak past the mass of windows when the swanks where having their big do’s. They would hide behind the large ash tree near the entrance, thinking they were safe, peaking at the fancy horse-drawn carriages, gasping at the flowing ball gowns, and the young men in their starched white shirts and white ties. Sometimes, a butler was sent out to give them each a shiny sixpence.
The building now had shrunk to a less awesome size. They stepped between the six pillars that held up their ghost house, trampling down dead sycamore leaves. They leaned against the glass double doors, shielding their eyes from the reflection. There were old newspapers stretched across the floor like stepping stones, cobwebs draping an
upright piano, tapestries hanging by a thread, shadows from the windows sliding across the floor. The double doors with the big brass knobs were closed.
“Who’d have thought,” said June, “that it would become a ghost house on a ghost estate? I used to dream I might be one of the swanks. Look at it now!”
They turned from the windows and sat on the stone step.
A tarmac path ran between wide grass verges, shrubs, rhododendrons, chestnuts and sycamores. June unfastened the top two buttons of her blouse. She folded the light blue cotton collar inward, “Look at you!” said Kate.
June was leaning back on her arms taking in the sun.
Kate rested her chin on her knees. “What happened to Ellen Healy? asked Kate. “I’ve not seen her since we finished on ‘munnitions. Do you remember, she used to pack the bullets on that top line. God, that was a job!”
Her friend sat up. “ That was her who put some bromide in Bill Baxter’s tea, God, that was funny, him thinking he was Gods gift to women.”
Kate started laughing, “That was when he was boasting about his date with the one who he said looked like Mae West. Then all the girls showed him their stocking tops, teasing him about being all mouth and no trousers.” They both started laughing.
“She moved to Atherton,” said June. “and married somebody with a good job on the Council.”
June leaned back on her arms, lifting her face into the sun.“ I saw him a few weeks ago. He still thinks he’s Gods gift. I just say bromide and he shuts up.”
Kate’s laughter turned to tears, screaming “I’m not going back!”
June stood, hugging her friend. “You have to!”
“I tell you, she’s not having my baby.”
Kate started pacing between the stone pillars ashen faced, crying.
“I’ve lost my Church, my home, I’m not losing my baby! This is mine, it’s the only thing that’s ever been mine. No-one is going to take it away from me!”
She placed her hand on her stomach, “This is mine, he is mine.”
“Oh, it’s a boy is it?”
Leaning with her back against the stone pillar, “Mother said Mrs Brown will get rid of it, as though she was talking about a chair or something. How can anyone be like that, especially my own mother?”
“That’s how it is,” June leaned back on the opposite pillar, silent. They stood facing
each other like book-ends. “I’ve written to his mother. If mine won’t help me, then maybe she will. I tell you kid, I’m desperate. It is her son’s baby as well. This is what’s making me so angry. No one is saying anything about him. He’s the one who got me so I didn’t know what I was doing.”
There was a strained silence before June leaned forward, “You never told me that! I just thought.”
Kate interrupted, “Everyone thought that I just gave in to him? Well it wasn’t like that. I told him to stop. I just didn’t know what was happening,” Kate started sobbing. “He was so angry. He wasn’t the man who asked me out. He forced me!”
June wrapped her arms around her. “It’s alright, Kate, I’m here, I understand, I’ll always be here for you. You need to tell someone!”
“Tell someone what? That a foreigner had his way with me?”
“No! You should tell them that a foreigner raped you!”
Kate was stunned. They stood facing each other with the wind blowing through their hair, the sun blazing down on their heads. They hugged. “No, I can’t tell anyone that!”
“Why not? That’s the truth. You could have him jailed.”
“They’d make my life hell. She’d say a Catholic wouldn’t do that!”
“Who’d say that?”
“Mother! Who do you think?”
“We need to sort this out!” said June.
“The likes of us can’t sort anything out! What can we do?”
“You can’t let him get away with this!”
“Anyway, what do you think his mum will do?”
“I don’t know but I had to say something!”
They left the stone pillars and walked past the boarded-up windows of the three- storey building. They sat on the grass verge facing the distant line of Billinge Hill.
Kate ran her hands over the coarse grass, “I don’t know what to do.”
June ripped up a piece of rye grass. “Why didn’t you say anything before?”
“I looked for you everywhere. No-one in the Spinning Room would talk to me. All because I got into his fancy car!”
June held her hand. “It’s the flash car that’s made everyone go against you.”
“Why for God’s sake? It was only a car!”
June threw her arms in the air. “This is what I’ve been trying to tell you. They think you’ve been telling tales. The likes of us don’t get into cars like that unless you are either one of those sorts of women or you’re telling tales.”
Kate started to move off.
“Kate!” June shouted. “Wait! Don’t run off like that!”
Kate was on the other side of the house by the time June caught up.
She held her arms out. “Why couldn’t anybody ask me?”
“They were too frightened,” said June, “in case you said anything.”
“Said anything to who?”
“To them lot!”
“He doesn’t even come from round here! He’s a Spanish Flamenco dancer!”
“He’s a what?”
“He’s a Spanish Flamenco dancer.”
June started laughing.
Kate’s arms fell to her side. She too started laughing.
“A Flamenco dancer? They’re frightened of a bloody Flamenco dancer! Did he have those tight black trousers on.”
Kate nodded. “ That’s why I couldn’t keep my eyes off him. He looked just like Tyrone Power. I’m sorry. I’m so angry. I’ve never been like this before. This is my punishment for the wicked thoughts.”
“Don’t be daft! That’s your Catholic guilt. Only Kate Riley could find herself a Flamenco Dancer in Wigan. I’ve heard of some things, but this takes the biscuit!”
“I didn’t know what was happening. One minute we were having a picnic with a glass of wine, the next thing I knew, he was dropping me off at the Finger-post. They walked the hill back to June’s house in silence, going past a line of rhododendrons interrupted by the odd lime tree”.
“I can’t understand why women want to do that. It was horrible. Why did no –one tell me how bad it was. As for his ‘thing,’ God, it frightened me.”
“It is frightening the first few times. I was lucky, Bert used to take his time and wait until I was ready.”
“What do you mean ready?”
“God, Kate, you don’t know anything, do you?”
Kate blushed, averted her eyes. She could feel everything coming in on her. It was the first time she had ever wanted to run away from her friend.
“I was told it was a sin before marriage and that I wouldn’t go to Heaven!”
“My god, Kate, and you believed them?”
“I had to. I’m a Catholic.”
June comforted her. “You were a Catholic.”
“I can’t go back now, I’ve committed a mortal sin!”
June put her arms around Kate, “You’ve not done anything wrong, Listen, kid, I’m here, don’t worry, it’s alright. I’m here. Come on, let’s go and have a cup of tea.”
Chickens flew up out of the way when June opened her front gate. They banged through the black wrought-iron gate leading to the end one of four black-and-white houses, named Gothic House. There were sycamores leaning over the fence. There was a sweet smell of ash burning, near to a wood-pile where June had been having a fire that morning. There were lawns either side of the small path. A wheel-barrow was leaning
against the front wall beside a pile of chopped wood.
They went in. Flames from a fire range flickered around the front room. June turned up the gaslight on two wall mantles which spluttered and hissed before settling down to a white flame. “They’re talking about putting electricity in. I wish they’d bloody hurry!”
Kate sat on a brown leather armchair with horsehair bursting from the right arm rest. She took off her shoes and rested her feet on a brass fender that was slotted around blue and white hearth tiles. There were pokers leaning against the black fire range. She saw a chest of drawers, a display cabinet half-filled with Willow Pattern plates, cups and saucers. On the middle shelf there was a glass gravy boat, two white china cups, a pint pot. Two of Bert’s old pipes, along with his pipe knife and tobacco pouch were next to each other on the bottom shelf. There was leatherette wallpaper on the lower half of the walls, the upper walls and ceiling had been distempered a pale yellow. Overcoats and macs hunchbacked the back of the front door. A grandmother clock stood in the corner. Family photos in groups of five, the centre one of June and husband smoking his pipe. Half-a-dozen horseshoes had been nailed on each side of the range.
“Have you heard about Arthur?” June shouted from the kitchen.
“Arthur who works in the fire-hole. His wife walked out on him.”
She stood in the door-way. “She’s never been in for her week-in-hand. Now that’s what I call funny!”
June stepped back into the kitchen.
“Do you think I should have left a note?” shouted Kate. June came back into the doorway, “Mind you, she always was a funny bugger!”
Kate started wondering what she was doing. When June walked in, carrying a tray with cups and an earthen-wear tea-pot. She was still wearing the cameo brooch she wore when they had worked in the Ammunition Factory all through the war.
There were still no traces of grey in her tight black curly hair. The same happy smiling face was there, the same sparkling brown eyes. It’s what Kate had always loved, and admired her for. No matter what problems she had, the smile was always there. June placed the tray on the floor to brew..
The grandmother clock in the far corner chimed three.
Kate was biting her lip, she folded her arms, unfolded them.
“For God’s sake Kate, keep still.”
“All the Masses will be over now,” said Kate.
“Get yourself sat down! So when are you due?”
“Jesus Christ!” They looked at each other and started laughing.
“I know where there’s a good barn,” said June. “But where are we going to find three wise men in Wigan?”
“My mother would hit the roof, if she heard….!”
June interrupted her. “There’s one half of a wise man in the King’s Head, he could bring a bottle of Guinness.”
“They’ll be looking for me!”
In the silence they could hear the creaks and groans of the house, the gaslight bubbling, the tick-tock of the grandmother clock. June poured the tea into the strainer. She didn’t say anything. Neither of them was uncomfortable with the silence. Holding her cup in her left hand, Kate stared into the fire. A popping sound from the gas light on the wall became louder, faster. June scrambled, But before she could stand they were in darkness. “How can one woman do that to another woman?”
“You mean Mrs Brown?”
“Her mother was worse. The house stank of Pennyroyal. She was like an old witch. I’ve never forgotten that strong minty smell. Sometimes I dream my baby is kicking me. That’s why I’ve never have kids. She ruined me down there.”
Kate’s mouth dropped. “Mrs Brown’s been here?”
“Like I said, it was her mother.”
She laid her head on June’s lap. The silence was heavy, painful. Flames covered, danced over them. June touched Kate’s hand. “Listen, kid, they’ll never look here!”
“What do you mean?”
“Stay here for a bit?”
“They’d kill me!” sobbed Kate.
“Kate, you’re thirty-two. Anyway, it’s about time you got away from them!”
(Diary entry for 11th May. Everyone has stopped talking to me. They won’t even look at me. Three women
I used to go to church with have spat at me. I did nothing wrong. It wasn’t my fault. Cold tea makes me feel sick).
Peter Street © 2009