• 23 Mar - 29 Mar, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

A madman was hiding in the toilet or the garden shed with an axe, waiting to creep towards the back door. I tried to read. Valley of Doom by C. B. Rutley, Ruby’s and my favourite book, was not a wise choice for a person alone in the house. We had found this terrifying tale of espionage in the Balkans at a jumble sale and the adventures of the plucky English twins, Bob and Dick, who saved the world from domination by the arch–villain, HE, were scary enough reading in a sunny orchard under the plum tree. At night though, the forest pertified by HE’s nerve gas, where no bird sang, and the Schwartz Schloss bulking against the sky, became horribly real, and HE reared huge and invincible, ‘Evil personified’, in his crimson robe and mask. I closed the book, too frozen with fear to find another or to switch on the radio and flood the silence with music and voices.

Then I heard it. A noise I recognised at once as ‘the scrape of stealthy footfalls’. Any second now, the treacherous Carruthers would be tapping on the window with a long stick.

‘Hoo hoo’.

I jumped in the air and sank back into the chair with relief. Ruby.

‘Hoo hoo hoo.’

But was it Ruby, or Carruthers, a wolf or the madman with the axe? Or an owl?

‘Hoo hoo hoo.’

The back door rattled. I picked up the poker.

‘Hoo hoo open up, fathead! It’s me. Didn’t you hear me doing the low hoot of an owl?’ she accused when I unlocked the door and let her in.

‘Yes, but I didn’t know it was you. What have you done to your eye?’

A stain like ink was spreading down her cheek under swollen lids.

‘My dad did it. By accident. What’s the point of having a secret call if you don’t reckernize it? I bet you thought I was an owl, didn’t you?’

I could tell she was lying about her eye. It was shocking, ugly and painful–looking, nothing like the neat black eyes that people in comics got.

‘He’s evil personified,’ I said, adding quickly to forestall another quarrel about our parents, ‘what are you doing here? Won’t you get into trouble?’

‘They won’t know. I often come out at night and they never notice. I’m as stealthy as a cat.’

‘It was you the other night, wasn’t it? With the torch! Why didn’t you say? I was scared stiff. I thought it was a murderer, or your mum.’

Ruby shrugged. ‘I thought we could have a midnight feast. Anyway, mu mum wouldn’t really come round, she’s all mouth. Her bark’s worse than her bite.’

I imagined a snarling Gloria sinking her teeth into Ruby’s arm, and shivered.

‘Are you coming out? Your mum and dad won’t be back for ages. I saw them going into the George.’

‘I can’t. I’m not allowed.’

‘Coward. Cowardy cowardy custard, dip your nose in mustard. You’re scared.’

‘No I’m not.’

‘Yes you are. You’re even scared of an owl. And of your mum and dad.’

‘I am not. They’ll be back soon, they said so. You better go. You can have an ice–cream if you want.’

‘All right, but you’re still scared. I’m not scared of anything, even ghosts. I bet I wouldn’t be scared to spend the night in the railway carriage all by myself.

‘Bet you would.’

The very thought frightened me, and I was unaccountably nervous about Percy and Betty finding ruby here, but more afraid of her parents’ anger.

‘Here you are. Hurry up. Your mum and dad will kill you if they find you’ve gone out. Anyway, you were terrified when they shut you in the cellar, you told me.’

‘No I wasn’t and they won’t. Anyway, it’s only early yet.’

I locked the door behind Ruby, upset by her wounded eye, and feeling that I had let her down, and taking in the knowledge that a father could injure his child.

I woke the next day to unfocused dread, a wildly beating heart and disseminated anxiety, and wondered what I was afraid of. There was a trip to Hastings soon Ruby and I had joined the Sunday school for that reason but it couldn’t be that. School was far away over the horizon. Then I remembered. Ruby’s eye and her visit. Mr Greenidge’s kiss. Tea at the Greenidges’ on Sunday.

‘Come on lazybones,’ my father was calling.

‘We’ve got to help your mother all we can now,’ he said when I went down to the breakfast I couldn’t eat. It was raining. A day began of dreary responsibility with fear gnawing like the fox under the Spartan boy’s cloak, and my parents unusually snappy, when washing–up water splashed onto my legs and made them itch and a gang of cyclists burst through the door and took off their dripping capes, flinging raindrops every–where and making puddles on the floor. A day of sour milk and burned toast and broken–winged butterfly cakes. In the afternoon Mr Greenidge came in with Liesel in a little water–proof coat.

‘I can’t come on Sunday,’ I blurted out. ‘I’ve got to help in the tea–room. It’s our busiest day.’

‘What’s hat?’ Percy bustled with his note–pad.

‘I was just saying that I can’t go to tea on Sunday because I’ve got to work here.’

‘Never mind, perhaps another day,’ said Mr Greenidge, looking hurt. ‘I’m sure Mrs Greenidge will understand, eh Liesel? You were looking forward to a game, weren’t you old lady?’

Now Liesel was gazing up with reproachful moist eyes, and laid her head on disappointed paws.

‘Don’t be daft,’ Percy said. ‘We’ll manage without you. Just have to dock your wages.’

He winked at Mr Greenidge, who laughed.

‘That’s the ticket.’

In the kitchen Percy hissed at me, ‘What did you want to say that for? Making me out to be some sort of slave–driver. What are people going to think, eh? You’ll get me shot.’

It seemed that everybody was put out by my friendship with the Greenidges. Ruby was in a sulk at spending Sunday afternoon on her own, my parents run off their feet with ramblers wanting sandwiches, and flasks filled, when I set out, grey and leaden–legged for Kirriemuir. Passing Albie Fatman and Titchy Vinnegar going towards the river with home–made fishing rods, I envied them and felt self–conscious. They never had to go out to tea and they, and the girls playing five stones on the pavement, seemed so fortunate and carefree. Somebody shouted out after me. ‘There she goes, there she goes, all dressed up in her Sunday clothes.’

Mr Greenidge was in a faded green Aertex shirt. Again, he embraced me in a hard, silent squeeze at the door as Liesel leaped up scratching my leg with her claws. Mrs Greenidge was reclining in the conservatory as if she hadn’t moved since my previous visit. Our conversation was as strained as before and I didn’t know why she had invited me. I looked anxiously at the tea tray, and saw that the sugar basin was there.

‘Teaspoons, Clement,’ said Mrs Greenidge languidly.

‘I beg your pardon, dear?’

‘Teaspoons. You’ve forgotten them.’ In the silence that followed I had to offer to fetch them, like a polite child. The spoons were lying on the kitchen table and I had them in my hand when he came in.

‘Ah, good. You’ve found them I see.’ He pulled me towards him and kissed me when I stood trapped in his arms, as unresponsive as a spoon. My leg itched where Liesel had scratched it and my head was thudding in fear.

‘That was nice, wasn’t it?’ he whispered.

Liesel’s ball had been fished out of the pond and again we performed a game for our audience, tiring Liesel out. The only thing different from last time was that I discovered frogs hiding under the dank mats of plants near the pond, and I remembered my mother’s injunction to offer to wash up.

‘Just carry the tray through, thank you, April. Clement will do it later. I’m sure you must have quite enough of washing dishes at home.’

‘No, not really. I mean, I don’t mind. I like it it’s sort of my hobby.’ Trying to correct Mr Greenidge’s impression of my father as slave–driver, I stumbled over my words.

‘What a strange girl. When I was your age I’d much rather have been out playing with my friends. Well, if it would really give you pleasure, we mustn’t stand in your way.’

So I found myself at the Greenidges’ sink washing up through a blur of humiliated tears, a girl with no friends whose hobby was washing dishes, and Mr Greenidge pressing his body into mine from behind.

I still loved Liesel but now I wished I had never set eyes on her. The Liesel I had wanted would walk perkily on her red lead with Ruby and me, run with us along the path to the orchard and sit up sweetly in a doll’s dress and bonnet. Now, on my way home, I thought of her as sharp–muzzled, like Red Riding Hood’s wolf in her grandmother’s nightdress and lace cap.

It was about this time that my parents joined the local Labour party and the Copper Kettle became the venue for committee meetings. Normally, these were held once a month but there was some sort of election impending, to do with the Rural District Council, and evenings were taken over by party members, pamphlets and leaflets. As in our pub days, I was left to my own devices but now I was able to take advantage o the long summer evenings.

The big boys and girls used to sit on the bridge smoking and laughing, swinging their legs over the river, and sometimes calling out rude things to people who passed. Ruby and I had crossed over onto the other side of the road, nervous of what they might say but I thought the girls were like Shirley poppies in their summer skirts. Night–scented flowers in the gardens along the High Street were sweet on the heavy, mothy air, windows and back doors stood open, releasing a bray of laughter, a burst of music from radio or television, voices, as we drifted along.

‘Let’s spy on somebody,’ said Ruby.


‘I know! Major Morton.’

Fear stopped us on the pavement. Then we knew we had to do it.

The playground gate was locked of course. We climbed over the railings and dropped down onto the asphalt and tiptoed across to the school house, and keeping close to the wall, crouching down, crept round to the back of the house. The kitchen light was on. We peeped over the windowsill and saw a table with piles of dirty dishes and empty bottles. There was nobody there, but we could hear faint music coming from somewhere. We inched our way to the side of the house, then, standing on an overgrown flowerbed in the smell of bad drains, we stared into a lamplit room. A man and a woman in a pink petticoat were dancing, holding each other tightly, hardly moving. Her hair was uncoiled over bare shoulders. Major Morton’s eyes were closed. As they shuffled in a half–turn to face us we saw him, shockingly, grope blindly to clutch and nuzzle a breast with his mouth, and that the woman was Miss Fay. Her eyes were shut too and there was a dreamy look on her face. Ruby clutched my arm, pinching so hard I almost screamed, and then we turned and fled across the playground expecting at any second furious shouts and a slashing cane, as we scrambled over the railings and ran down the street.

In the safety of my back garden, lying panting on the grass I said, ‘I can’t believe it. Major Morton and Miss Fay dancing. Slow, slow, quick sharp, show.’

‘I know. Why do you think she took her dress off?’

‘Search me. Hot, I suppose. You don’t think they’re in love, do you?’

‘They must be. Only who could be in love with either of them? I wonder if they’re going to get married.’

‘We can be bridesmaids.’

The idea was so comic and yet so terrifying that we burst into slightly hysterical laughter.

‘Supposing his wig falls off?’

Our laughter was forced and shrill and I could not get the picture of Miss Fay in her pink petticoat out of my mind, with her hair released from its tight class–room fig and crinkling on her shoulders, Major Morton’s lips on her bosom.

A few days later the news spread through the village that Major Morton had been taken away in an ambulance. Their dancing was inexplicably connected with Major Morton’s departure and I was left with a queasy feeling at having spied on something secret and sad.


I was changing the tablecloths with Percy, singing along to ‘How Much is that Doggie in the Window?’ on the radio when, ‘Stone the bleeding crows!’

A tractor had stopped in the street outside the tea–room. A woman dressed in black, with a black hat, clutching a suitcase, an umbrella and a handbag was perched like a crow on top of bales of shining straw.