• 06 Apr - 12 Apr, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

The vicar of St Michael and All Angels was Mr Oswald, remote, tall, thin and grey like a heron in his black cassock with a melancholy long – beaked face. Mr Seabrook was the verger, an irascible character who shouted at the Sunday – school children if they set foot on the grass or dared to play leapfrog over the gravestones, and he would rush out cursing any wedding guests who disobeyed his injunction against confetti. Most sets of wedding photographs had one o two pictures spoiled by his demonic brisling face and witch’s broom.

The Sunday – school teacher was Mr Drew, a smooth plum of a man in suede shoes. His repertoire, like his class, was small and usually on Sundays we sang ‘Loving Shepherd of thy sheep’ and listened to the story of Blind Bartemeus or the Raising of Jairus’s Daughter. The collection was taken in a soft purple velvet pouched bag and some put money, or whatever they might have in their pocket, in and some took money out. Titchy Vinnegar was usually to be found at Beasley’s sweet shop and tobacconist after Sunday school.

One morning I plucked up courage to say to Mr Drew, remembering the beautiful Bible picture stamps I had collected in London, ‘Please, Mr Drew, at my last Sunday school we used to get coloured stamps and stick them in our stamp albums. When your album was full you got an Attendance Prize.’

‘We do things differently here,’ he said. ‘If we want stamps we purchase them at the Post Office or order them from Stanley Gibbons’s catalogue.’

Nevertheless, Hastings shimmered on the horizon, blue and seagull white.

The morning of the Sunday–school treat dawned bright and fair, as in the best story books. The sun was shining through the pink and yellow roses on my curtains. I had a white dress patterned with red cherries, white socks with a red stripe, plimsolls stiff with whitener and cherry-red ribbons in my hair. Granny Fitz had risen early to make my packed lunch and wave me off; as the church clock struck a quarter to eight we rounded the corner to see two ice – cream and seaside blue Bluebird coaches sitting outside the church. Our small Sunday school had suddenly spawned two coach–loads of supporters who were climbing in already to get the best seats. I looked anxiously for Ruby in the crowd. Everybody was dressed in their best clothes, some of the girls were wearing party frocks, hair ribbons fluttered like butterflies and the boy’s hair was Brylcreemed to their scalps; there were painted buckets and a tin spade had drawn the first blood. We realized that a sort of fracas was taking place. An adherent of a rival church had been caught trying to board the coach.

‘Sir! Please, sir! Mr Oswald. He can’t come, Mr Oswald, he’s a Baptist!’

‘Just a minute, you, boy.’ My Oswald pulled him off the steps by the back of his shirt.

‘Where is it?” I heard myself saying, far away.

‘Where’s what?’

‘The thing you wanted to show me.’

‘Over here.’

It was a lacquered cabinet standing on the crocheted runner along the top of the chest of drawers, an edifice of glowing wood inlaid with birds and leaves and flowers and mother–of–pearl, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and I wanted passionately to own it and for a second the hoe flared that he might give it to me.

‘Open the doors’, he said.

The two sides swung outwards releasing a strange old perfume faint and musty, to reveal little shelves, opening onto drawers with tiny mother-of-pearl knobs. A green Chinese scent bottle painted with flowers stood on one of the shelves in the doors and each shelf and drawer showed something magical and miniature; black elephants with tusks of ivory; a carved walnut that unscrewed and held a blue scarab, pins with heads of coloured glass, tiny Chinese or Japanese figures, a doll–sized fan, pencils no bigger than matchsticks, shoes that fitted on a fingernail, pink and gold rimmed cups that a raindrop would fill, more and more treasures that I gazed at with reverence and covetousness as they lay in the palm of my hand. How I wished Ruby were there to share them.

‘Come over here a minute.’ Mr Greenidge was sitting on the bed patting the pink eiderdown.

I stood awkwardly in front of him, holding a string of yellow beads like corn on the cob. He took the necklace from my hand and slipped it over my head and pulled me to him.

‘Lie down for a moment,’ he said.


‘Please. Just for a little cuddle.’

I was as wooden as a puppet as I lay on the high bed feeling silly.

‘Put your arms round me. There, that’s nice isn’t it?’

Mr Greenidge started kissing me.

‘Kiss me back.’

I kissed his cheek, above his beard, where his skin felt soft.

‘You don’t mind if I touch you, do you?’

He was out of breath.

‘Can I touch you there?’


He put his hand in the leg of my shorts. I was rigid with embarrassment. He touched the elastic of my knickers. I sat up my face on fire. Mr Greenidge groaned.

‘You know what I’d like to do if you were older?’ he said.

‘But you’re already married…’

‘Come on, you’d better be getting home.’

His hair was sticking up in white tufts and he looked upset. I slid of the bed, not liking to mention tea. I didn’t want any, anyway.

‘April,’ he said in the hall when we were downstairs, I’d don’t think it would be a good idea to tell them at home that I forgot that Mrs Geeenidge wouldn’t be here. They’d think me such a silly–billy, wouldn’t they?’

I nodded.

‘Will you come to see me tomorrow? Please.’

I nodded again, wanting only to be outside.


He looked so sorrowful and clutched my hands.

‘I promise.’

‘And you won’t say anything to Mrs Greenidge, will you?’

I shook my head.

‘We understand each other, don’t we?’

But I didn’t really understand. As I walked along the road I heard him shout. ‘April! You forgot your chocolate!’

I pretended not to hear. I had thisknowledge that Mr Greenidge wanted us to get married and I didn’t know what to do with it. Then I bean to feel so guilty for leaving behind the chocolate that he had bought me that I sat on the allotments gate, not knowing whether to go back for it, half–way between Kirriemuir and home, with tomorrow already a grey looming cloud.

I let myself in furtively through the back door and went upstairs to lie on my own bed with my rabbit Bobbity. Mr Greenidge loved me. I believed that, but I was tainted with the terrible shame I had felt when Titchy Vinnegar tried to pull down someone’s knickers in the playground or when the boys jumped up to look over the door of the girls’ lavatories. After a while I got up and found my paintbox and painted red spots all over my face and went downstairs.

‘Mum, I don’t feel well.’

‘Oh, hello, love. I didn’t hear you come in. What have you been up to, did you have a nice time?’

‘I think I’ve got chickenpox. I feel really ill.’

‘You’ll feel better when you’ve washed that paint off your face,’ said Betty. ‘What’s that?’

She poked my chest and a hard bead was impressed on my skin. I had forgotten to take off the yellow necklace. All the painted spots on my face ran together in a blaze of guilt.

‘Mrs Greenidge said I could borrow it. I’ve got to take it back tomorrow.’

Betty was looking at me sharply.

‘Are you sure she said you could? Let’s have a look.’

She pulled the necklace out of my T–shirt.

‘These are gorgeous. They look like real amber. Oh I do like pretty things! Still, diamond bracelets Woolworth’s doesn’t sell, as the song goes.’

‘I’ll buy you a diamond bracelet one day,’ I said. ‘When I grow rich.’

‘Say the bells of Shoreditch,’ said Betty.

Later, when she came up to ay good–night, I caught hold of her skirt and pulled her back.

‘Don’t go.’

‘I must. I’ve got a huge pile of ironing waiting.’

‘Just stay for a minute.’

I remembered Mr Greenidge wheedling at me to lie on the bed and shivered. Betty put her hand on my forehead to check if I really was ill.



‘Oh, nothing.’

Betty sat down on the bed.

‘Look, love, I know you don’t want to go to Granny’s when the baby’s born but…’

‘I do,’ I interrupted. ‘I wish I could go now!’

A hurt look shadowed her face, then she bent down and kissed me lightly on the forehead, saying, ‘Well, then, you haven’t got that long to wait,’ with a ‘Good–night’ that made me burst into tears as the door clicked behind her. I took Bobbity under the covers and tried to pretend that we were cosy in a burrow with turnips hanging from the ceiling as I had when I was little, but it didn’t work any more. Bobbity was named after a wild rabbit in a Ladybird Book The Runaway, who took Sandy, a pet rabbit, under his wing, or paw when he escaped from his hutch. In times of trouble I retreated underground:

Bobbity had lit the lantern,

Sandy caught his breath again:

So they finished tea in comfort,

Snug and safe, down Rabbit Lane!

Bobbity poured milk from a striped earthenware jug into the bowl which Sandy, sitting on his three-legged blue stool, held out trustingly; there were three fat red carrots on the floor and lettuce leaves for supper, but it was no good. I couldn’t be a rabbit any more. Foxey was waiting at Kirriemuir and a string of yellow beads lay on my dressing–table.

In the morning as we walked to school, the hedges were covered with glittering spider’s webs, exquisite nets and shimmering tents draped over leaves and twigs. We bent pliant privet twigs into loops called cobwebbers to capture them, but the webs never looked as beautiful once we had scraped them off the hedge. The diamonds fell from them, they became greyer and might hold a shoal of tiny dead flies and the cobwebber become a horrid gummy tap. I thought of the diamond bracelet I would buy for Betty one day.

‘Had a good day at school?’ Betty asked when I got home.

‘No’ I pulled a face.

It had been a grey unpleasant day. With the hands o the clock dragging inexorably towards the time when I must take back the necklace to Mr Greenidge, who probably thought I had stolen it.

‘Daddy, in scripture, Miss Fay said that she had a friend who was a prison chaplain and he said that he would rather see a man hanged than flogged because when a man is flogged he loses his self–respect.’

‘Ho, yes,’ said Percy, ‘I can just see some bloke walking to the gallows shitting himself with self–respect.’


Betty came into the kitchen.

‘Sorry, love. Sorry, April, but sit down, I want to tell you a story. There was a chap who used to drink in a pub called the Fox and Hounds where your mother and I were working. Jack Cornfield was his name and he was the mildest, gentlest fellow you could wish to meet. Well, to cut a long story short, this Jack Cornfield’s wife and daughters were murdered and Jack Cornfield was arrested and sent for trial at the Old Bailey. Now everybody at the Fox and Hounds knew that Jack Cornfield couldn’t have done it, he was a family man who wouldn’t hurt a fly, but they found him guilty and they hanged him. Six months later, the lodger, who had been living in Cornfield’s house, topped himself. They found him hanging in the cellar where the murders had taken place. So, you can tell your Miss Fay from me that capital punishment is a crime committed by the state, that no self–respecting country can justify. They put him in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s, Jack Cornfield.’

I said nothing. I saw again the flypaper, studded with winged corpses, that had hung in the tea–room when first we saw it, turning gently in the warm air and I saw a man dangling by the rope around his neck, twirling slowly from a beam in a blood–splashed cellar, and a convict in a suit of broad arrows stumbling towards the gallows.

‘And that goes for flogging too,’ Percy said. ‘It’s barbaric and obscene.’

The blood had all drained out of me as from the murdered woman and girls, leaving me waxen and weak. The very name, Chamber of Horrors, made my flesh creep.

‘Whatever was Miss Fay thinking of? In a scripture lesson too,’ said Betty.

I could not speak of the terrible cat–o’–nine–tails Miss Fay had swished verbally before our horrified eyes. The lone cry of a peewit cut through my blood–stained thoughts.

‘Come in, Ruby.’ Betty looked relieved at her arrival.