Lizzie Luck was in need of a good wash, she’d no knickers, and she was a bit sticky from being in the company of a half-eaten Mars Bar. Miss Bates paused and stared for a moment at the tiny doll, made from scraps of wool and cotton, and with a silly expression on its face. Then she slapped the 1961 GCE history O level exam paper down on to the desk in front of Lynda Collins.
Miss Bates wondered if she should confiscate the good luck mascot but decided she would prefer not to touch it. Barbara Bates didn’t like getting her hands dirty. She didn’t like Lynda Collins either, but seeing the fear in those usually defiant blue eyes caused the Geography teacher to have a rare, almost sympathetic thought. In her opinion, to have any hope of passing these exams Lynda Collins would need all the luck she could get.
Lynda knew she’d failed the Geography exam, but she was hoping to pass this one. She’d stayed up till two o’clock in the morning revising in bed, the faded pink satin eiderdown wrapped round her shoulders to deflect the draught from the disintegrating sash window. Her parents, Ray and Doreen Collins, had taken over the tenancy of The Black Bull in Milfield in 1956. They had no experience of running a pub, or anything else for that matter, but Ray, a swarthy, swaggering ‘man’s man’ had managed to wheedle the favour from the brewery owner’s son, one of his drinking pals from his days in the army.
It wasn’t a big favour, the Black Bull was in a downtrodden part of town where the loss of jobs in the cotton mills had shoved many families into hardship. The grime layered pub was still popular with the hard-up local population but, like its customers, had been getting shabbier by the day.
Sunshine was a stranger to the male preserve of the tap-room, the windows faced away from the sun most of the day and the window panes were, in any case, usually too dirty to let it in. The grey stone- flagged floor was littered with sawdust and cracked spittoons, and was brightened only by the reflected flames of the coal fire which was the pub’s big attraction in the winter. The seating consisted mainly of wooden backed benches screwed to the walls and coated in layers of varnish and nicotine. There were two long slate-topped tables for playing dominoes, and half a dozen round, heavy cast iron tables you couldn’t easily knock over in a brawl.
The snug, with its faded burgundy plush seats and a wood and frosted glass screen which kept out the draughts, was the warmest room in the building. It was treasured by the wives whose husbands were kind enough to let them come and enjoy a Pale Ale with their women friends. But the best room, in Lynda’s opinion, was the piano room.
The thinly padded benches behind the oblong tables along two of its walls were not very comfortable, and neither were the stools grouped round the smaller tables in the centre of the room, but the upright piano, bequeathed to The Black Bull by a former customer who had got away from Milfield and made a bit of money, gave the well-worn room and everyone in it a bit of life.
The happiest times Lynda could remember were in that room, with everybody singing old music-hall songs as well as the Guy Mitchell and Doris Day hits, and clearing a space for her to stand and sing solos. There’d been a row about it of course. She remembered Madge, her grandmother coming into the crowded bar to rescue her from pulling pints.
‘I’m not talking about a couple of bob spending money, Doreen, I’m talking about wages. Not even t’ bloody mill owners got away with what you’re doing, Ray!’ Madge snatched a ten shilling note from behind the bar and shoved it in Lynda’s hand. ‘That’s toward what you’re owed, love, and from now on, she gets paid, or else!’
So grudgingly Ray had started to pay his daughter a few pence an hour, and Doreen tried not to resent and envy yet another demonstration of her mother-in-law’s power over her husband. Any influence Doreen had once enjoyed in Ray’s world had faded as soon as he’d returned home after learning the meaning of mortality on the beaches of Normandy. Ray had vowed to make damned sure he enjoyed life to overflowing from then on, and not necessarily with his wife.
When Ray and Doreen Collins had moved into The Black Bull the brewery representative had talked about money for modernisation, but so far all that had been funded was a freezing cold bathroom and more efficient pumps in the bar. Lynda, sixteen, and long ago hardened to the realities of life in a family where talk of money always led to a row, reckoned she knew nearly all there was to know about running the pub now. It didn’t help her progress at school, of course, spending so much time serving pints but as far as Ray was concerned, exams weren’t as important as making sure the takings were high enough to keep the brewery from shutting the place down.
The pub would have been a lot more profitable if Ray, who liked to be popular, had been less flamboyantly generous when in the company of his ‘drinking pals’ - both male and female. In contrast to this, he could also be very tight-fisted, as his wife and daughter knew too well. All the time he was growing up Ray had been embarrassed and annoyed that, because of his father’s poor health, it was his mother who’d been the main wage-earner and had managed the money. All his friends’ families were run in the traditional way; the men had control over their wages and consequently their word was law. Ray had decided many years ago that when he married he would make sure he had that power.
The amount he paid Lynda, on a strictly hourly rate, was a fraction of the money he handed out to her brother. Terry was only a year older than Lynda, but he did less work and yet received more appreciation, and affection, from his father. Lynda knew she wasn’t being treated fairly and so, with only a little hesitation, she secretly topped up her ‘wages’ with three-penny bits, sixpences and the occasional half-crown from the piles of coins laid out on the shelf beneath the bar before opening time.
She didn’t regard it as stealing; to her mind it was money she’d earned serving drinks, washing glasses and filling up the shelves with Britvic Fruit Juices, Babycham and bottles of Guinness. Lynda, when she thought about it, resented having to help herself because her Dad was too mean to treat her fairly.
She remembered how he used to spend money on her when she was a golden curled little girl who adored her Daddy; but as soon as she learned to answer him back when he was unreasonable Ray had stopped buying her even a bar of chocolate. So Lynda took what she could, and was pretty sure God would forgive her; after all, the money was going to a good cause - she was saving up to leave home.
There was an old black cast-iron fireplace in Lynda’s bedroom, another of the promised ‘modernisation’ jobs still waiting to be done. It was on a ledge up in the chimney that Lynda hid her cash in a tin box, and it was mounting up nicely. She’d not spent any of the money she’d been given for her sixteenth birthday. There’d been no celebrating, of course, not in the circumstances.
Summer seemed to have developed a habit of flaunting its sunniest, most enticing, strawberry-laden days during the weeks of school exams. This was one of the hottest days this year, and at Milfield High School for Girls the sunshine had already streaked into the silent gymnasium, smoothing its warmth along the varnished wall bars. Specks of dust hovered above the tables and chairs positioned in strictly spaced, cheat-resistant rows below the coils of hanging-strength rope.
Lynda watched Miss Bates shuffling along the polished parquet floor in her black, tightly laced old maid’s shoes, her grey flannel skirt flapping wearily round her lumpy calves. She couldn’t imagine the cold-eyed woman ever having been a teenager. Well, Lynda thought to herself, she wouldn’t have been, not in her day. Teenagers were the new breed of youngsters and the stuck-up people were dead worried about them. Glad to switch her mind away from the exam, Lynda smiled for a moment as she thought about making a name for herself one day among this new generation that was going to turn the world into a different and much more exciting place.
Sometimes, she thought, it was great being sixteen. Looking in the mirror gave her the confidence of knowing she looked all right, even though her clothes were the cheapest you could get. She had blonde hair which curled itself casually over her shoulders and a figure that made boys turn and gawp when they passed her in the street. Lynda ignored their wolf-whistles, and to tell the truth was embarrassed by them. She and her best friend, Jean Clayton, had read the grubby ‘Facts Of Life’ booklet which had been surreptitiously passed around in the third form, but had postponed thinking about its contents in any detail. It was romance they were interested in, falling in love and having a big white wedding. And Lynda had already met the boy she was going to marry; his name was Daniel Heywood.
She’d fallen in love with Dan, a few months ago, the first time she saw him at an end of term football match between the Technical High School and the Grammar School. Terry was in the team, so she and Jean had used it as an excuse to go and survey the gathering of local male talent. Dan had been in the Grammar School team with his friend John Stanworth, who, with his dark brown, long lashed eyes and deep quiff of thick black hair, was the embodiment of the ‘tall dark and handsome’ women’s magazine cliché. Jean had a crush on John Stanworth, and at the end of the match she dragged Lynda over to stand with the rest of the girls who had swooped towards him and other members of the team. Jean knew the boy standing next to John and, keeping hold of Lynda’s arm, pushed her way into the centre of the group.
John could see that both girls were impressed, and so continued, ‘Yeah. They live in that big house on Wellington Road. Geoff Heywood’s a friend of my Dad’s. He’s offered me a job but I had to turn it down.’
‘I’d already got an electrician’s apprenticeship at Earnshaw’s,’ John announced proudly, and then raised his hand at his team-mates who were shouting at him to follow them. ‘I’ve got to catch up with them now. You two go to the Saturday dances at the Carlton, don’t you?’
She remembered that feeling of happiness and hung on to it like a lifeline as she struggled through the exams and the long hours at the pub. Dan hadn’t asked her out yet, but she’d seen the way he’d looked at her and knew he had fallen in love just as she had. She dreamed of their first date almost every night.
During the next weeks and months the two teenagers took every opportunity to contrive a blushing encounter in Alexandra Park, or in town, outside one of his father’s three baker’s and confectioner’s shops. They somehow didn’t manage to go to the dances on the same Saturday nights, mainly because Lynda always had to work, so they rarely came within touching distance.
When they saw each other on the opposite side of the street, Dan’s lack of confidence made his legs turn to lead and Lynda was still obeying the ‘rules of courting’. Rule number one was that girls didn’t make themselves cheap by making the first move. Anyway she’d worked out that Dan wouldn’t think it was fair to distract her from her exams, so was probably waiting till they were finished. So it wouldn’t be long now before they got together and started the romance of the century.
She knew there might be problems, of course, because of his mother, Ellen Heywood, a haughty looking woman whom Lynda had seen occasionally in town, getting into a sleek black Daimler. Bit by bit, she managed to gather information about Dan and his family from customers, and from her Mother, who wasn’t keen to talk about the subject, but told her that the car had belonged to Mrs Heywood’s father.
Lynda had even caught the bus to the high class part of Milfield and walked past the Heywood family’s home, Kirkwood House. It was an imposing, dark-stoned Victorian mansion which had also belonged, until his death the previous year, to Alexander Buchanan, Geoff Heywood’s autocratic father-in-law. In accordance with the terms of the Scottish banker’s will the house now, in law, belonged solely to his only child, Ellen Heywood, but in spirit it remained her father’s possession, just as she did.
It went without saying that Ellen Heywood would forbid her son to fall in love with a girl whose mother used to scrub the floors of the Buchanan residence. Lynda had faith, though, that such class prejudice could be charmed away. From experience, Lynda had learned to trust her intuition; she just knew that Dan was only waiting for the right moment, and the courage, to ask her for a date. She was so sure that Dan Heywood was the man she would marry that she had eventually even confided her dream to her mother, not long before she died; but she was taken aback at her reaction.
‘I know it’s not, love, but I hope you’ll change your mind. Geoff Heywood’s all right but Dan’s mother would make your life hell. She’s a Buchanan, and takes after her father. Dan Heywood’s not for you.’
Lynda had made up her mind not to be afraid of Dan’s mother; there was no doubt in Lynda’s mind that the adults of Mrs.’ High and Mighty’ Heywood’s generation, with their snobbery and prejudice, were on their way out. The confidence of being part of the modern new generation, and her anger at the way Ellen Heywood and her father had treated her mother would give her the courage to stand up to the old witch. And Lynda had already been trying out teenage rebellion. For example, she thought it was rubbish that she was now old enough to wash glasses in the pub, but not old enough to drink, so she quietly helped herself to half a pint of lager and lime whenever she felt like it. Her Mum had always obeyed rules, done as she was told without question, and Lynda had seen what kind of a life she’d had.
Doreen Collins had talked to her daughter more during the last few weeks of her illness than in all the years of Lynda’s childhood. She’d told her about the tough life she’d led, working on her grandparents’ farm where she and her mother, Elsie, were treated more like servants than family.
Little Doreen Bradshaw had been conceived out of pity and guilt; the pity Elsie Bradshaw, had felt for her husband, Robert, condemned to be shipped back to France in 1917; and the fear and guilt she felt about a mad moment of lust she’d shared with a married man only a week before her husband’s unexpected return home on leave.
A year later Robert Bradshaw had been killed, leaving his wife, young son and new baby daughter to live as unwanted dependents on the Bradshaw farm which was eventually to be inherited by Robert’s pig-headed younger brother. Elsie and her children were required to be grateful every day, and Doreen had been taught from early childhood that to survive she had to be obedient and to make every effort to please people.
She had pleased Ray Collins one weekend in Blackpool in 1939, a treat paid for by her brother Len, who’d already started making a bit of a name for himself as an early recruit to the R.A.F. Ray Collins had been smitten by the innocent, pretty young girl who was as different from his mother as anyone could be, and who instantly adored him in a way his ego could not resist.
He’d taken her back to Milfield with him, found her a job and lodgings and ignored his mother’s disapproval. He loved defying his mother, making her prove to him again how special he was. When Ray received his call-up papers, Madge Collins gave up trying to persuade her beloved only child to change his mind about Doreen Bradshaw, and let him, as usual, have what he wanted.
Lynda touched Lizzie Luck, and fought back tears as she silently prayed to her Mum for help. The poor scrap of a doll had been her mother’s. Lynda had dug it out of the bottom of Doreen’s sewing basket when she was a child and had claimed Lizzie Luck as her friend and mascot. It was only last November that Doreen Collins had given her last regretful little smile to her daughter, only two weeks before Lynda’s sixteenth birthday.
Lynda would never forget that smile and, as she’d walked behind her mother’s coffin in the ancient graveyard overlooking the Pennine hills, Lynda had vowed that she wouldn’t go through her life having regrets like her mother had. She’d get out of Milfield, move up in the world. She would make damned sure she’d have a good time, and above all, have her own money.
These flaming exams were part of all that. You had to have qualifications these days. Her brother, Terry, hadn’t been bright enough to go to the Grammar School but had got a place at the new Technical College. Terry was lazy, like his Dad, and had not seen the importance of doing any work at school until it was too late. He knew he’d been lucky to get the chance to train as a mechanic at Goodwin’s – thanks to his uncle Len.
Feeling guilty at emigrating to Australia and leaving his sister to a life which he knew wasn’t going to be happy, Doreen’s brother, Leonard Bradshaw had come to pay her one last visit. Doreen had been very worried about Terry, who was having trouble getting a job, but had had enough of working in the pub for his Dad, whose moods were becoming more and more unpredictable.
So Len, using his carefully acquired R.A.F old boys’ accent and manner, had persuaded the local garage owner to take on his nephew as an apprentice. Len had also sent Doreen money later when his business had started to do well, but Ray had quickly asserted his right to apply the ‘all my worldly goods’ vow to that.
Lynda had surprised everyone; she had passed the eleven plus exam and won a place at the girls’ grammar school. She’d walked on air for a few hours the day the results were announced, in spite of the realisation that she’d thus been condemned to wear the itchy brown woollen uniform of Milfield High School for at least five years. And here she was at the end of those five years, sitting her Ordinary Level General Certificate of Education exams, the first step to higher education and a whole new world. That was what she wanted more than anything, a chance to be somebody special, join the people with good jobs and smart clothes.
Except for Grandma Collins, who’d briefly enjoyed boasting about her grand-daughter being selected to go to Mifield Girls’ High School, no-one in the family had seemed particularly pleased. Ray wasn’t really interested, and Doreen’s first instinct when she heard the news was to worry about what the uniform would cost, and about Terry being jealous. Terry had been annoyed that Lynda had done better than he had, and even now would be relieved if his little sister didn’t pass these O level exams, but he’d also feel guilty.
Lynda knew she’d definitely failed Latin and would be lucky if she scraped through French. She just hadn’t had the time to revise for any of her subjects because her Dad had needed her to keep the pub going. Playing the landlord and over-generous host behind the bar of the Black Bull, Ray Collins had kept quiet about the fact that it was his wife who had dealt with the money and the weekly order for the brewery, as well as more aspects of managing the pub than he liked to admit, even to himself. When Doreen died Ray had panicked and then quickly started to depend on his daughter to take over her mother’s unappreciated duties. Lynda had said nothing at first but had begun to challenge Ray when his demands threatened to take over all the time she needed to revise.
Ray had ignored her, of course, but sometimes Lynda felt she would explode under the pressure of the resentment which for so long had been building up inside her. She had few illusions about her Dad, and had also worked out that Grandma Collins knew she had spoiled her only child; but no-one, not even Lynda, would dare tell her that.
Madge Collins had kept quiet about her son’s imperfections when Ray had brought little Doreen Bradshaw home to meet her and Alfred, the husband who had proposed to Madge just after she had resigned herself to remaining an old maid. Madge had been annoyed that Ray had chosen this wide-eyed young girl who hadn’t a penny to her name, but, as shrewd as always, she consoled herself with the knowledge that Doreen would do as she was told and give them no trouble.
Having met some of the hard-faced, flighty pieces her son had been trying his manhood out on before he met Doreen, she’d decided in the end that this quiet little thing might turn out to be her best option as far as daughter-in-laws were concerned. In fact, Madge had been very careful before the wedding, and had not let slip any hint that her son wasn’t cut out to be the strong, hard-working husband her future daughter-in-law had thought she was marrying. She’d felt sorry for the girl later, and had always been silently grateful that Doreen had not complained to her about Ray as most women would have done.
Question One was: ‘Describe and discuss the causes of the 1789 French Revolution’. ‘Thank you, God! Thank you, Mum! Thank you, Miss Lydia Mansfield, clever-guessing History teacher.’ Lynda gripped her Parker fountain pen, Grandma Collins’s birthday present, and began to write at a breakneck pace. She’d show them, she’d show all those tight-lipped, sniffy teachers that looked down their noses at her second-hand school uniform and broad Lancashire accent.
Lynda gritted her teeth at the diffident response that meant darling Elaine was expecting to get a Grade 1. Oh, yes, Tatty Sal was definitely going into the sixth form, and then perhaps even Cambridge if they could push her hard enough.
Lynda noticed that Elaine didn’t bother to ask what she had thought of the exam but walked away quickly to the main entrance to join the small select group of friends who were going for lunch at the Waring’s detached house opposite the school. Not for Sandra Waring and her cronies the crowded, clattering surroundings of the school dining room where the air was heavy with the stench of stewed cabbage.
Lynda was starving. She looked back through the slatted wooden doors to the gym. Where the hell was Jean? Miss Bates had got her. Some of the exam candidates had omitted to replace their chairs tidily under the desks, and Jean Clayton and Christine Greenwood had been dragooned into making sure everything was in regulated perfection ready for the next victims of the education system.
Lynda sighed as she saw Jean shuffling around with her head bowed as she moved chairs into the correct positions. Jean, in spite of obviously not being very strong, had an air of always hoping to be noticed, and so she was often picked on for jobs like that. It drove Lynda mad to see how willingly she would comply, as if she was flattered to have been chosen. She was almost bobbing a curtsey to Basher Bates as she finished the task and heaved open the door. Lynda grabbed hold of her arm. ‘Come on, we’ll miss seconds!’
The two girls sped down the corridor, their knees knocking together as they walked as fast as possible without being accused of running. They’d glanced over their shoulders and seen that Miss Bates was standing at the end of the corridor, watching and waiting for an excuse to call them back.
Jean paused only to tuck her straight, wispy hair behind her ears before shovelling her way through the stringy beef stew and mashed-up potatoes and carrots on her cold plate. Her habitually anxious brown eyes stared sorrowfully at the greasy glass salt-cellar. Jean ate carefully, she couldn’t risk spilling any food down her white blouse and brown cardigan. They had been loaned to her by her cousin Angela, after much bullying ‘persuasion’ had been delivered by Jean’s mother, Shirley, to the younger of Stan Clayton’s more fortunately married sister.
Lynda, who always ate faster than her friend, returned in triumph from the canteen serving area. She watched for Jean’s reaction as she placed two dishes of jam roly-poly pudding and custard on the Formica table.
She’d also told Mrs Cooper that the second pudding was for Jean Clayton, and this had had more influence than the flattery. Mrs Cooper had once had the misfortune to live down the street from Jean’s parents and knew how little food was shared out in that household. Dorothy Cooper felt so grateful that she’d managed, through her marriage to a man who had a reputation as a good worker, to move out of the slum area locally known as ‘The Clough’.
The rented accommodation for most of the population of Milfield consisted of rows of small, slate roofed terraced houses built in the nineteenth century for mill workers. They had been built of golden sandstone, but you’d never have guessed. Their walls had long ago been blackened with the soot from coal fires and industrial chimneys, so that from a distance the cobbled streets looked like thick lines of charcoal drawn close together on sheets of grey paper. There were hundreds of such narrow streets in Milfield, but none had a reputation for thieving and rough living to match the lawlessness of The Clough.
Milfield High School for Girls was several miles away from The Clough, or indeed any of the streets of terraced houses. It had been built only a few years ago as Milfield’s share of Harold McMillan’s prime ministerial ‘never had it so good’ Great Britain. Its smooth concrete walls were so often washed a drab grey-brown by the rain that its pupils had christened it Strangeways, after the Manchester prison, but the new school was looked upon with smiles of great satisfaction by the wealthier residents of the town.
The men of parochial ambition who inhabited the Town Hall had thought they were being both careful, financially, and ‘modern-minded’ when they accepted the plans for a two storey E shaped building with a flat roof, hundreds of metal framed windows, and even a gymnasium! This magnificent building was declared, at a ceremony given a photograph and a full page of praise and acknowledgements in ‘The Milfield Express’. It was assumed that the girls who passed the eleven plus examination would be mainly from a middle-class background, but the true socialists among the town’s dignitaries had hoped that a fair number of girls from the working class majority in the town would also manage to get places. As it turned out, there were surprisingly more ‘clever’ working class girls than had been anticipated, but this would make no difference to the vision of the headmistress, Miss Forsyth.
There was no doubt in her mind - a mind which rarely permitted itself any variation of thought - that the girls of Milfield High School would be young ladies who clearly belonged to the more refined strata of society. She was content to look out of the window of her study and fix her horizon along Gainsborough Avenue. This was where her girls came from, the road they walked along every morning before entering the gates of her school. This was their world, the avenue of detached and semi detached houses adorned with a careful geometry of lawns and colourful margins of well-tended roses, snapdragons and alternating cushions of blue and white alyssum. It was a comfortable vision, but an incomplete one as it blocked out the other world which was the all too real and grubby provenance of some of the pupils.
Miss Forsyth was determinedly unaware of the home circumstances of these working class girls. She had, she would admit, heard the name of one of them, Lynda Collins, and knew that she had a reputation for being bright but rather too outspoken, and altogether not well brought up. What she didn’t know was that this pupil, and her much quieter best friend, regularly sought refuge in a forbidden corner of Miss Forsyth’s educational establishment.
The bell rang to signal it was time for afternoon registration, and reluctantly Jean and Lynda stacked their empty dishes on to a trolley and wandered out of the canteen. This time they took the longer route to the classrooms, enjoying the sunshine in the gardens which were part of the vision of an environment suitable for the young people of a well-to-do county.
Both Jean and Lynda had told their parents that they weren’t allowed to go home early from school after the exams. This was true, but only because the privilege hadn’t been requested. A form had been issued for parents to give permission for their child to go home from school once they had finished their exam, but Lynda and Jean had made sure they’d lost that particular piece of paper. They both knew that in their homes they would be given neither the time nor the peace and quiet to do any revision.
Jean and Lynda hid in the toilets next to the cloakroom at the end of D corridor until ten minutes after the first of the afternoon lessons had begun. When the corridors were silent they quickly made their way to the English department store room on D floor. Pupils were forbidden to enter these store-rooms without permission, but Lynda and Jean had, in their need for a space in which to study, adopted the English store-room as their refuge. This small, narrow room was filled with old and new copies of novels and plays considered suitable for the education of young ladies, or selected for study by the Examination Board. The books were arranged on the overflowing shelves, or stacked up on the floor. Some recent arrivals were still in their large sturdy cardboard boxes and Lynda and Jean had dragged two of these boxes to the far end of the room, so that they could read by the daylight which managed to force its way in through the small frosted-glass window.
They spent the first half hour quietly reciting to each other the quotes from ‘Hamlet’ which Lynda had noticed Mrs Leighton had paid particular attention to in her lessons. Lynda was astute enough to realise that Mrs Leighton had studied past papers and made an educated guess at what aspects of the play might be taking their turn, in one form or another, in this year’s English Literature examination. Lynda loved the idea of taking a gamble on such guess-work, she loved the sense of risk, and the chance of, for once, being ahead of the game.
When the bell rang to signal the end of the first 40-minute period, Jean started anxiously watching the door. Sitting hunched and still, their hearing sharpened by the danger of being discovered, they listened to the sound of their fellow inmates hurrying to their next lesson. They heard their muffled voices as, shuffling in single file along each side of the corridor, they enjoyed a few moments of free speech, or even laughter, before being pinned down in submissive rows in front of chalk covered blackboards.
The two friends had just begun silently trying to memorise passages from ‘Pride and Prejudice’ when they heard the door-handle rattle. They held their breath, Jean terrified, Lynda trying to think of a plausible reason for their being there. Susan Robinson, a small, spindly-legged first-former staggered in with a pile of ancient copies of ‘David Copperfield’. Some of the books slid from her grasp as she gazed wide-eyed at the two fifth-formers. Lynda stood up, and fixed the small creature with a steady, commanding look.
Then she stopped being nervous; she’d remembered that she’d come across this older pupil before. Lynda had been the one who’d come to her rescue on her first day when, in a shadowy corner of the school grounds, Susan had been selected by a group of third-formers as one of their ‘new girl’ victims. They’d unfastened the buttons of her gymslip so that it had slipped from her shoulders, and were wrenching off her carefully knotted tie when Lynda had marched up and made them scatter.
‘Well, pick those up, and put them all on the shelf where they belong. It’s that one, third up on your left.’ Lynda had a detailed knowledge of the contents of the store-room, English literature was her passion, but not one she’d admit to anybody except Jean, who shared, and marvelled at, all her dreams.
‘Stop looking so worried. Just get ready for school as normal and then come round to my place. I’ve found a skirt and a little jacket that’ll fit you – you can’t celebrate the end of the exams in school uniform. We’ll have a great time, fish and chips at Duckworth’s and then ‘South Pacific’.
Jean smiled at the truth of that. Madge Collins wasn’t afraid to tell people what she thought, and even Shirley Clayton wasn’t bold enough to answer her back. When Doreen had died Madge Collins had resolved to honour her daughter-in-law’s memory in any ways she could, and one of those would be doing what she could for Jean Clayton.
Doreen Collins, perhaps recognising her own childhood in little Jean Clayton’s air of wistful resignation, had always welcomed Lynda’s timid friend into the ramshackle warmth of the kitchen at the Black Bull. To protect Jean’s pride, she had constantly invented excuses to give Jean what small treats she could. Madge Collins had noticed these small acts of kindness and now also tried to find small ways to help the girl, though privately she thought the only way Jean could get rescued from her family was for her to find a good man to look after her. She wasn’t bad looking, though nothing like Lynda, of course, but she might drop lucky one day.
Jean loved musicals and the thought of going to see ‘South Pacific’ on Friday was helping her through what was a tough week. There had been even more rows than usual at home, and last night her Dad had knocked her mother across the living room. Luckily her brother, Dennis, hadn’t been in, otherwise there’d have been another fight. Dennis got exasperated with his mother but didn’t think his Dad had a right to hit her. He ignored Jean, just as his father did, but sometimes would buy an ice-cream for her sister Marilyn. Marilyn, five years old and already, according to her mother, ‘a right little madam’, had just started school and Jean usually had to dash away as soon as the bell rang at four o’clock and go and collect her because her mother was ‘too busy’.
Jean was conscientious about getting to the infant school on time but today she found Marilyn already standing at the school gate. As soon as she spotted Jean in the distance, she began a wailing of such volume and intensity that the children hurrying through the gates were putting their fingers to their ears. A teacher spotted Jean and hurried forward, anxious that the older sister should immediately remove the embarrassment of this unfortunate, but nevertheless excessively noisy child.
Jean was careful to choose a route along the cobbled back streets. This was partly to avoid meeting anyone who might call out to Marilyn and start the hysterics off again, but also because the owners of the shops had a habit of watching from their doorways and grabbing hold of Jean to tell her to remind her parents that they owed them money. Jean hated getting home from school. Four thirty felt like the start of another working day. She was the one who, every afternoon, had to clean up before her Dad got home from work. Then she had to prepare the vegetables and if possible cook the meat for the following day. That was after she’d done the pile of washing up of course.
Jean’s mother, Shirley, was still bottle-feeding the youngest child, Peter, and constantly asserted, in many a slanging match with her husband, Stan, that her life was hell. There was no way she could look after him and his kids, do all the housework and cook meals. And what’s more, she was damned if she was going to kill herself trying. Shirley Clayton specialised in doing the minimum amount of work with the maximum exhaustion, and took it for granted that Jean would do the rest of the housework when she got home. Shirley’s evening was taken up with putting the two youngest children to bed before getting ready to accompany her husband to the pub.
Doreen Collins had never argued with the Claytons but they knew she had disapproved of their way of living, to the point of seeing the need to offer a refuge to their daughter. One evening, after they’d had more drinks than they could afford, Shirley and Dennis had suggested to Doreen that perhaps she was inviting Jean to the pub as unpaid help, and owed them some money. Doreen had not spoken a word in response, but the quiet judgement in her steady look had managed the almost impossible feat of making the Claytons feel embarrassed.
As a consequence, Stan and Shirley had crossed The Black Bull off their list of favourite pubs. They now usually went to The Fighting Cocks a few streets away from their house. The landlord there lusted after Shirley and would let the Claytons have a few free drinks in exchange for Stan playing dominoes in the tap room, and remaining carefully unaware that the landlord was in the back room showing his appreciation of Shirley’s soft, well-rounded warmth.
‘Will you go and get her? Please, Mum.’ Jean saw Shirley’s down-turned mouth and called in reinforcements, adding, ‘Mrs Collins says we have to have a treat as a reward for working hard for our exams.’
‘Yes, all right, all right, I know all about that!’ Shirley was terrified at any mention of death, and suddenly, with a rare stirring of guilt, she remembered that Jean also hadn’t had any treats on her birthday.
Lynda didn’t have any trouble getting permission, because she didn’t ask for it. She’d recently got into the habit of telling her Dad what she was going to do, she’d realised it was the only way to hang on to some freedom. He didn’t like it, and she didn’t always get her own way, but this was one of those times when Lynda reminded him so strongly of his mother at her most determined, that he knew that he’d be wasting his time to try to argue.
Madge Collins had tried to insist that her grand-daughter be named Margaret after her, but Doreen had begged that her child be given the pretty, fashionable name of Lynda. Madge had agreed in the end, but she took care to influence her grand-daughter’s development as much as possible; she wanted Lynda to grow up as strong and independent minded as she was. Madge was a tall, heavy-boned, intimidating woman, with a loud, forthright way of speaking which had impressed all the young girls who had worked under her supervision at the Victoria cotton mill.
It had been Madge’s experience that no-one looked after you, so you had to look after yourself, and she was relieved and pleased when she saw Lynda learning to fight for what she wanted. Madge, ever the realist, also knew that Lynda’s good looks would prove to be an advantage to her. Madge was less happy when she remembered whom Lynda resembled.
Madge’s flighty and much younger sister, Amy, had managed to inherit – no-one was quite sure where from - golden hair and a very desirable figure. It hadn’t taken Amy long to work out that these attributes could be made use of to facilitate her escape from Milfield. At eighteen she’d run off with a married man, but the affair had ended when the war began and he’d been called up to join the navy. Amy had trained as a driver, and from then on she’d had a marvellous time, especially when the GIs came on the scene.
She had only come back to Milfield once to visit her bossy, lip-pursing sister Madge. That was in 1954 when Amy had, she reckoned, finally achieved respectability by marrying a widower. He was quite a bit older than she was, but had plenty of money to make up for the age difference. With her new husband in attendance, Amy had turned up one day to show off her rings and smart new clothes to everybody in Milfield and then, having proved they’d all been wrong, she had said goodbye again and forgotten about them.
Lynda didn’t forget Amy, though. She’d been only nine years old when Amy had come back on that ‘flying visit’ and given her a beautiful bride doll and a frilly pink taffeta party dress. She’d soon grown too tall and well-rounded to fit into the dress but had cried when it had been sold to help pay for a new winter coat. Lynda had never understood why her mother and grandmother had disapproved of the dress, even though they’d let her wear it on special occasions.
She could still picture Amy as she had seemed then, a beautiful and glamorous creature, like a Hollywood film star. She also remembered, although she hadn’t understood the jokes at the time, that her auntie had had a sense of humour which made women blush and men smile. Amy was rich, confident, successful and adorable. She was the kind of woman that the nine-year old Lynda had dreamed that she, too, would one day become.
That Friday evening, as she and Jean emerged from the sunshine paradise of ‘South Pacific’ and back into the dusty, grey cobbled streets of Milfield, Lynda thought about her now more detailed dreams. It wouldn’t be long before she took her first steps into that future. Now that the exams. were over she was fairly confident that, in spite of all the problems, she would have scraped the five O-level passes needed to qualify to stay on into the sixth form. Somehow she’d stick it out at that horrible school and get two or three A-levels. Then she’d start her career.
She wasn’t quite sure what career yet, but it would be something glamorous which would allow her to travel abroad, to go to Paris at least once a year. It was going to be exciting, her future. Her poor Mother had had enough disappointments to make her give up hoping for anything. Lynda was determined that her life would be different, it would be what she wanted, not what other people made it.
After the delights of the ice cream, jelly and glace cherries that made up Milfield’s version of a Knickerbocker Glory, the two girls set off to walk to the bus station. They were silent for a while, both sad that their day-out was almost over. Then Lynda glanced up at the hills beyond the town and saw that a beautiful pink and gold sunset had spread itself across the evening sky. Suddenly she felt part of that golden world and, linking arms with Jean, she made her dance with her along the street, singing the bits they knew from the wonderful ‘South Pacific’ songs.
Lynda had danced away from Jean and was performing a loud and suggestive rendering of ‘Honey Bun’, belting out the line, ‘Get a load of Honey-Bun to- nigh ite!’ when she crashed into someone coming round the corner. She lost her balance and instinctively clung to the man to steady herself.
Dan Heywood felt his whole body move to kiss her passionately, and she would have let him. It was what she wanted, he saw it in her eyes, but he let his fear and embarrassment take over and move his body away from hers. Without daring to look back, and with tears of frustration in his eyes, he walked quickly out of sight before he could make even more of a fool of himself.
They were both silent again as they travelled back together on the grimy, draughty, rattling Number 10 bus. Jean was depressed at having to go back to her shabby, comfortless home after being in a tropical paradise. Lynda didn’t want to talk, she didn’t want to let her mind move away from what it had felt like to be in Dan Heywood’s arms.
She knew for sure now that she would give up her dream of being a fashion model, or an air-hostess, or the owner of a luxury hotel in the South of France – a fantasy which had come together after watching Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn films. She was in love, and would give up all those careers without a single regret, as soon as Dan Heywood asked her to marry him.