• 02 Mar - 08 Mar, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

‘I’d get rid of them weeds if I was you, unhygienic.’

She squashed a greenfly with a fat fingernail rimmed in black.

‘How on earth did they all fit in?’ Percy asked me.

‘April! Someone to see you,’ my mother called.

It was Ruby at the back door in a pink dress with the hem coming down. We sat at a table in the tea–room and Percy served us a cream tea.

‘The full monty,’ he said, piling scones, jam, cream, cakes and ice–cream on the table.

‘Mr Harlency, this is the best tea I’ve ever had and this is the most beautiful room in the whole world.’

Ruby went as red as glace cherry and Percy gave a little bow, like a waiter with a tea towel folded over his arm. I couldn’t be perfectly happy because Betty was lying on her bed upstairs, but almost. Because I was so delighted with my new first, best friend and my funny father. After tea we went out to play, Ruby with a paper lace doiley folded in her pocket.

‘Oi, Ruby, oo’s that queer gink?’ one of the boys sitting on the steps of the rec called out as we went past.

In reply Ruby picked up a stone from the road and aimed it at him, causing a yelp.

‘That’s Titchy Vinnegar,’ she said. ‘He tries to pull the girls’ knickers down in the playground.’ My suppressed fear of school resurfaced. We were walking along the High Street and Ruby stopped outside a shop, T. D. Boddy, Butchers and Purveyors, it said in gold letters, and on the windows was painted Poulterer and Grazier. Hokme–killed meat. Sausages a speciality. It was there I learned the fate of Pansy Pig and all her pink litter and burst into tears.

‘I hate my dad,’ Ruby said. ‘He always kills everything. I’m going to kill him.’

She flung another stone, at the window of T. D. Boddy, and we fled.

‘But that would be murder, to kill your dad.

We were safe, lying in the grass beside the river, smoking, chocking, on cigarettes Ruby had pinched from the bar.

‘He’s a murderer. He deserves to die, with an axe, and be hung up on a hook. Doesn’t he?’

‘Yes,’ I said, although I was frightened.

‘Have you got an axe?’ I asked tentatively.

‘There’s one in the shed.’

‘When are you going to kill him then? Bet you don’t, really.’

‘You wait,’ said Ruby.

And when I thought of the twelve brothers and sisters and their mother, bleeding and skinned, I had to agree that Mr Richards did deserve to be condemned to death, even though I had been brought up to believe capital punishment was wrong. The wireless in our house was always switched off on the morning of an execution.

‘I was going to kill somebody once. This horrible man called Rodney Pegg, who said he was going to strangle me, but we moved here, so I didn’t have to. I had a knife under my pillow.’

‘Have you still got it?’

‘No. I had to give it back. It belonged to Mrs Pegg.’

‘Never mind. You can get another one. There must be hundreds of knives at your caff.’

‘Café. Anyway, I promise I’ll never go into that butchers as long as I live.’

‘Your dad’s nice isn’t he?’ she said wistfully.

I remembered the time I had come running home incoherent with grief and horror at a terrible scene I had witnessed. Some boys kicking around a dead cat, swinging it by its stiff tail. Its glassy eyes. Somebody’s pet. Percy went charging out and chased them away, buried the poor cat.

All the talk of knives, though, came to nothing. I met Ruby’s father, Lex, the pig killer, a gingery, fleshy, tattooed man in a vest, who had served in the Merchant. Navy, and Gloria, her mother, beetle–browed with bad temper and brush and dustpan out of hours, in petticoat and slippers, and sparkling darkly in a black and gold top behind the bar.

‘My mum could’ve been a film star,’ Ruby said.

We were not allowed in the pub but if Gloria was in the right mood she would slip us a pickled egg or a packet of crisps. Pubs held no glamour for me, who had been brought up on the smell of beer, and the morning smell of polish and wet ashtrays always induced a mixture of melancholy and apprehension in me as motes of depression swarm in the dusty curtains of a theatre robbed of illusion by cruel sunshine, The cellar where the intestines of the establishment snaked across the floor in tubes, running from barrel to tap, was a dank, fearsome place. Ruby’s parents had locked her in the cellar one evening for some misdemeanour and forgotten about her, and she had spent the night crouched in a corner in the dark with ghosts and rats and cobwebs. The Richards had a television which we could hardly ever watch because Ruby’s dad was often asleep in front of it in his vest, with a newspaper rising and falling over his face. Sitting on the green quilt of Ruby’s bed was her golden–haired walkie–talkie doll, who wasn’t allowed out because she had been so expensive. Ruby, who loved reading as much as I did, had no books except a few old Annuals and those she had borrowed form the library, which was opened one afternoon a week after school in the canteen. I had a bookcase made from an orange box in my bedroom and there was a shelf, in the sitting–room alcove, of green and orange Penguins and a jumble of old books. I never felt at ease in Ruby’s home, and I don’t think she did either. We both much preferred mine, where we pretended to be sisters, or brothers.

The first day at a new school is like a jigsaw tipped out of its box and scattered on the floor. You think you’ll never be able to fit the pieces together. You stand on the edge of the play–ground noise sick with fear, tasting the fried egg with burnt frilly edges and runny yolk, that your mother made you eat. You feel like a fried egg as you see, queasily, whirling skipping ropes and the chains and arches of bodies in some game such as In and Out the Dusty Bluebells, boys zooming round as spitfires, a chanting gang with linked arms, twenty abreast is converging on you, it will crash into you, and then a whistle blows, sharp blasts cutting through the din and sending every–body into lines and you are left alone and conspicuous on the asphalt trying not to cry or run out of the gate. Then the girl nobody else wants to play with claims you as her best friend. This time it was different. Ruby was waiting outside the railings when Betty left me at the top of the road.

My fantasy of sitting next to Ruby in class came true but the inkwells in our splintery desks were repositories of crumbled indigo blotting paper. Our teacher was Miss Fay whose hair was coiled in a dried fig on the nape of her neck, faded from teaching generations of girls to sew a run–and–fell seam and knit kettle holders. The boys did woodwork with the head–master, Major Morton, and we heard the whizz and crash of tools thrown across the class–rooms, and yelps as he lashed out with his cane. Major Morton had a steel plate in his head and was subject to terrible headaches and rages which shook the school. I was in terror of him and of his wig slipping to expose that shining circle screwed into his skull. If anybody was sick or one of the infants ‘had an accident’ a huge boy, Albie Fatman, was summoned from his desk to clear it up. It was assumed that Albie enjoyed the responsibility, the smell, and the disinfectant. The Vinnegars had their own peculiar musty odour.

‘Piss and biscuits,’ said Percy, when I told him, rudely but precisely identifying the scent of poor children I had known in London. The eldest Vinnegar girl, Charmaine, was an assistant at Boddy’s the butchers. Sack Vinnegar worked at the sack factory and Twin and Twin went to the secondary modern on the bus.

One afternoon I came home from school to find my mother in conversation with Mrs Vinnegar at our gate.

‘… bun in the oven,’ I heard from old Ma Vinegar Bottle who was licking a dripping Wallsy ice, purchased elsewhere. ‘When’s it due?’

A smell of baking was coming from our kitchen, an optimistic cake or pie, but for some reason I asked my mother when she came in, ‘When’s what due?’

‘Oh,’ she flustered about with a tea towel, red and white checked,’ Christmas. The baker’s van. I don’t know. There’s a gentleman coming through the door. Go and tell him I’ll be with him in a minute. U just want a word with your father.’

Percy was at the back, clearing the garden. The idea was to put white wrought–iron tables and chairs out there next summer.

It was the man in the white suit, with the neat salt and pepper beard, whom I had seen several times in the street, with a dachshund on a lead. He took off his panama hat, revealing thick white hair, when I approached, and the little dog was jumping up at me and I patted its squirming, hard yet silky brown body.

‘What’s his name?’

‘Liesel Otter. She’s a she. Sit, Liesel.’

‘I wonder if you’d mind if this charming young lady joined me in an ice–cream?’ he asked my mother when she came to take his order. ‘Unless she’s too busy, of course.’

The empty chairs and tables answered for me. The man’s face was tanned and he had very blue eyes under white eyebrows.

‘That’s very kind I’m sure. If she won’t be a nuisance.’

So I sat at a table with Mr Greenidge and Liesel sitting up so sweetly on a chair with his big handkerchief tied in a napkin round her neck, licking ice–cream delicately from a saucer.

A knickerbocker glory, and a half–promise that I might take Liesel for a walk one day, decided me, in my heart, that I loved Mr Greenidge almost as much as Grandpa Fitz.

‘Did you call her Liesel Outter because she looks like an otter?’

He laughed.

‘It’s Liselotte: German.’ He spelled out her name. ‘She’s my wife’s dog really. I should prefer something larger and preferably British, but Mrs Greenidge has a dicky ticker and doesn’t get about much. Liesel’s her companion.

You see, we weren’t blessed with children of our own.’

‘I’d rather have a dog if it

was me.’

A dicky ticker? I saw a mouse running up a grandfather clock. Hickery dickery dock.

After he left Betty said ‘What a charming man. He certainly seems to have taken a shine to you, though I can’t think why when you look like something the cat dragged in. I don’t know how you manage to get so dirty at school.’

Two women in divided skirts and hobnailed boots were waiting for their toasted crumpets. Passing trade, like all our customers so far, except Mr Greenidge.


A path of beaten mud, overgrown with nettles and flowers, ran between fields of blue cabbages and sugar beet and the river, past what used to be our secret camp under an elder tree where an icy spring welled up into a shallow pool of stones bright green with algae and rusty red. If you went under the barbed wire and over the crumbling bridge you were in a meadow edged with willows and alders overhanging the river, where cows graze and you can lift the dried lid off a cowpat with a stick, disturbing a buzzing cloud of yellow houseflies. A notice on a willow trunk says PRIVATE.

TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED, and you might pass an angle or two or old Mr Annett with Nip and Trixie at his heels and a bucket of crayfish or white–haired May Chacksfield with two heavy shopping bags full of sticks for the fire. Mrs Chacksfield was very deaf and, long ago,

she had slept in the same

bed as her dead husband

for weeks until they broke down the door and took him away. If you offered to help carry her firewood, whose weight bent her almost double,

she would reply:

‘Yes, it is rather damp down the meadows’,or ‘I always look nice’ or make some such remark and hobble on, head bowed, in her splitting black buttoned shoes.