My first words today are to those of you who have been adversely affected by the Corona Virus. I guess that’s most of you. Many lives have been changed by this. No work. No school. No visits to family and friends.
As writers, we are perhaps in the fortunate position of being able to use this time productively. With the availability of technology, I can research online and if I ring another member of my group for advice, inspiration or moral support, they answer the phone because they, too, are at home.
Yesterday the writing group held their first virtual meeting which is another skill learned out of necessity, (See Whittlesey Wordsmiths blog )
Two planned book signing events have been cancelled: the Octavia Hill museum in Wisbech at Easter, and March Library later this year and I have had to put on hold interviews that I had planned with the people who lived at King’s Dyke so that book is on hold for the moment.
On a more positive note, my novel, Goodbye Bella Blue, is benefiting enormously from the lack of distractions and now stands at 12,000 words.
Perhaps if you are housebound and running out of reading material, you would like to read an extract from my first book. I have chosen this particular piece as it may raise a smile – always good at times such as this…
I hope you enjoy it, Best Wishes and Stay Safe
Abridged from The Railway Carriage Child
High windows gave our classroom an ethereal light. In summer, bright shafts of sun pierced the air and an older boy from the class next door would be summoned to open the very top pane with a hook on a long, wooden pole. In winter, only the area nearest to the windows was illuminated by natural light, supplemented by electric lights suspended on chains from the lofty ceiling.
A boiler in the cloakroom heated pipes which ran along the outside walls. Glass bottles, containing a third of a pint of milk for each child, rested in rows along these pipes, waiting to be distributed by the milk monitor. As the frozen milk thawed, the rising column of ice pushed off the tops. Watching this slow process as I listened to the teacher, I remember the milk but not her words. At this time of year the aroma of summer flowers was a distant memory. Now the air was filled with the combined medications of winter; clove-oil, eucalyptus and mentholatum. We had chilblain cream on our feet and camphorated oil on the corners of our hankies.
On the coldest days it was not unusual to arrive to find the husband of our headmistress, who was also the only male teacher; already busy at work, not preparing the day’s lessons but shovelling snow from the path so that we could reach the door. We came in through the cloakroom, sat on wooden benches to pull off our wellies, and hung our coats and hats on rows of pegs. This cloakroom was like a communal airing cupboard, warmed by the breath of the huge boiler, in a wire enclosure.
I never felt at ease in this confined space, with a beast so fierce that it had to be caged. It rumbled and shuddered and I always watched it with one eye as I quickly put on my indoor pumps and headed for the safety of the classroom. Sometimes the teacher poked very wet gloves into the holes in the mesh to dry but I didn’t trust it not to eat them before playtime.
My other enduring memory of the boiler is that I was too scared to go near it while everyone else was in class. One morning, I was told to fetch a hankie from my coat pocket but fear held me in the doorway. I snuffled and sniffed and put up with the lecture when I arrived home with stiff-dried cuffs, where I had wiped my nose on my sleeve.
Another area of unease was the row of lavatories at the far end of the playground. We queued under the shadow of the brickyard chimneys, before entering the gloom of the poky cubicles with wooden seats and very hard paper. This was the first time I had ever had to shut myself in such a dark space. I was tormented by the fear that if I locked the heavy wooden door, I might not have the strength to unlock it again. As voices outside urged me to ‘’urry up, will yer’, I knew I could not perform under such adverse conditions; hence I developed excellent bladder control.
I loved playtime, with the hopscotch drawn in chalk and the brightly coloured hoops. We played lots of group games like ‘The farmer’s in his den’ and ‘What’s the time, Mr Wolf?’ and I relished all this company and interaction. My infant teacher was a lovely lady called Miss Steeper. She had no children of her own but mothered all of us. She had an open face and an honest expression. I would have trusted her with my life.
In her care, we were nourished, praised and encouraged. She instilled in us a love of words, numbers, colours and music, as we learned sums and spellings that would take us through life. We benefited from individual attention and a curriculum, although that sounds too formal, which was tailored to our abilities.
My only regret was the unfortunate timing of my Easter birth. In all the years of my schooling, I had only one birthday that fell in term time; just one occasion when I was able to have Miss Steeper read out my stack of birthday cards, and the class sung ‘Happy birthday, dear Wendy’, as was the custom for each birthday child.
Miss Steeper knew each child as an individual and had a good rapport with every family. Enveloped in this warmth, I developed my social skills and my imagination. There were times, however, when the easy familiarity between home and school could have disadvantages; especially for a child who was prone to confusion over where the boundaries lay between fact and fantasy.
One day she asked us what pets we had, and I had wanted a pet for so long. Mother, with her obsession for hygiene, thought otherwise. I had listened, with little regard, to her warnings that ‘Yer’d be catchin’ all sorts from dog shit’, and ‘How ’d yer like t’ get in bed at night wi’ a load a’ cat fleas?’
I had seen a photograph of Mother and Granny with a dog lying on the front doorstep and, under cross-examination, she had admitted that a dog had once been part of the family; years before my birth. His name was Rip and she then told me the story of how he had once jumped up at the kitchen door when he heard the dustman. This had been at a time, before the blight of black plastic bags, when a dustman came into the garden, collected the galvanised bin from the back of the carriages, hoisted it onto his shoulder and emptied it into the cart, before returning it to its home outside the wash-house. On this occasion the door had not been properly bolted and Rip escaped.
She described how he ‘Frit the dustman ’alf t’ death’, and added ‘Yer should ar’ ’eard the clatter when ’e dropped the bin an’ run’.
It appeared that this had caused her much amusement, but she would have been a lot younger at the time, perhaps a child, herself. It did not change her stance that I should have no similar tales to tell.
Eventually, I thought a compromise had been reached, with a pet who could live outdoors. Father built me a smart, detached residence for a rabbit. The front looked like a classic dolls’ house with windows on two levels and a door with a knocker and tiny letterbox. The back was a large hinged door, opening to reveal two floors connected by a ramp so the lucky occupant could reach the upper floor. The roof lifted, with storage space for hay and food in the loft. It stood taller than me, resplendent in doll’s house colours and was all ready for its first inhabitants.
Mother would not budge on her ‘no animals’ policy. I can only assume that Father had believed she would be won over by the regal house-hutch. His optimism was unfounded, his labours unrewarded. It stood at the back of the wash-house for years, deteriorating in the weather and was never occupied; a sad monument to the lack of communication between my parents.
Perhaps as some well-meant attempt at compensation, Father always let me bring home anything dead that we found on our walks. Despite Mother’s loudly expressed fears that I would catch some dreaded disease, I was never made to leave a body; be it a bird, a rabbit or a field mouse, to the mercy of predators. All were borne home and buried with sombre respect at the bottom of the garden in the shade of the hedge. We thought of names for each one, which Father carved with his knife onto little wooden crosses. My cemetery marked the resting place of Wanderlust, Beauty, Furry and a number of Brownies and Snowflakes, all of which I had never known in life but had cried for in death.
It was against this back-drop, that I listened to the other children answering Miss Steeper’s question about their pets.
‘A cat’ was a popular answer.
‘A dog’ claimed some of the luckier children.
So, as ever, when real life didn’t live up to my dreams, I invented an alternative. Miss Steeper reached me and, without blinking, I looked into her kind eyes and said, ‘A pig’.
She looked impressed, as I had known she would. She didn’t know that we kept pigs, of course, as we didn’t, but she was interested enough to approach Mother at home-time to have a chat.
I tried to pedal off, calling back to Mother to hurry, but she was happy to linger and I could only watch as the two women discussed my pet pig, or perhaps my loose relationship with reality.
I think I had an innate need to liven things up. If a drama wasn’t happening, I would invent one. During this same period in Infants; biking home one dinner-time, I allowed Mother to get a little distance ahead, just to the point where a high hedge obscured her view of the knot-hole. Then I called, excitedly, ‘Look. Did yer see that? There’s a plane crashed right in the knot-hole.’
‘Really?’ She called back. ‘I’ll ’ev a look later.’
Her pedalling never faltered. I think she knew me well.
The Railway Carriage Child is available on Amazon