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The Anniversary

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As Jenny pinned a rosebud cut fresh from the garden onto her frock, she remembered standing in this scullery for the very first time exactly a year ago. Then, she had been an excited bride clutching a posy of lily-of-the-valley tied up with blue haberdasher’s ribbon.

Now, she thought, Arthur and she were a very ordinary couple living very ordinary lives. But back then at the Locarno, a time that seemed so long ago, her first impression was that he was like a god, so tall and fair. Arthur, in reality a hardworking clerk for Henry Hughes & Hughes, had come along mainly to keep his friend Sidney company and it was he who suggested they ask the two laughing dark-haired girls to dance.

The band struck up ‘Happy Feet’ and Arthur asked his dancing partner if she’d ever heard Jack Hylton & His Orchestra play. She hadn’t but smiled anyway, a lovely, natural smile, Arthur thought.

For the rest of that summer, they walked out together and eventually Jenny took Arthur home to meet her parents. Her father, a porter at Covent Garden fruit market, took him out into their tiny back yard and, while puffing on a venerable pipe, grilled the polite young man before him on his intentions towards his eldest daughter.

The Dickens family was a large one and Jenny’s mother often struggled to keep poverty from the door. Arthur however was the only child of a comfortably off couple originally from Kent. Although his mother doted on him, Arthur Charlesworth Snr took care to instill in his son a keen awareness of life’s responsibilities.

Soon enough, they were officially engaged. Their world was bounded by the busy drag that was Streatham High Road. They saw a Jack Buchanan film in the Odeon’s cheap seats and caught the trolleybus to Streatham Hill to watch ‘Murder in Mayfair’ at the theatre. There were some half-hearted tennis lessons and long walks, hand in hand, with stolen kisses in the shrubberies of the Common. And on Jenny’s twenty-first birthday, they spent a magical evening at Crystal Palace where Jenny squealed with pleasure (and Arthur held her tight) as they rode the newest showground ride at Thurston’s Fair.

The wedding was a quiet affair but the men of both families rolled back the carpet at Leigham Avenue, the groom’s family home.

Arthur brought a blush to his new mother-in-law’s cheeks with an energetic foxtrot and Jenny thought she would never have a day so happy as this one in her whole life.

And now here she was, daydreaming, when she had still to make the sandwiches for today’s outing. Plain ham for her and some English mustard spread on top for Arthur. Two crisp green apples, along with a flask of tea, were already packed in the basket.

To celebrate their first anniversary, Arthur had suggested taking the early train down to Brighton and making a day of it at the coast. Jenny knew that the wind-up gramophone would accompany them, as it did everywhere, and she’d tucked a record of ‘Happy Feet’ into its lid. No matter if Arthur thought her sentimental – she still remembered that first dance.

She wore her favourite blue frock but had replaced the rather tired collar with one she’d sewn out of some pretty lace. And on her slim feet were new shoes bought at Pratt’s Department Store which she felt showed off her ankles to perfection.

Arthur’s colleagues would scarcely have recognised him. Day in and day out dressed in a drab grey suit, he was today resplendent in tan knickerbockers, matching argyle patterned socks and co-respondent shoes. Jenny thought what a very handsome husband she had and how lucky they were to have each other.

As they sat on the train together, she considered when the best moment would be to break her news to him. Perhaps after they’d had their first cup of tea on the beach or when the gramophone was playing their favourite song.

Catching her reflection in the window, Jenny saw that Arthur was smiling at her and as she turned, he reached out his hand to take hers.

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The Quack – Molly Mallard Speaks

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“Is it OK to take your picture?”

“Why yes dear, that’s fine.”

“Your mate seems a little disturbed by my interviewing you – he’s got his head stuck under his feathers.”

“Oh don’t mind him. I said to him not half an hour ago, I said ‘Maurice, it’s very nice being up high on this wall, but we’re only going to draw attention to ourselves.’ I mean, it’s not exactly natural is it? Ducks on walls?”

“Actually, retro plaster ducks are very – no, never mind – you’re right, it’s not very – usual.”

“I said ‘On the river, Maurice – that’s where we belong – high living isn’t for the likes of us’ but he’s got it into his head that he has to make a – what does he call it – a statement – I ask you. Anyway, here we are on this blessed wall and I don’t mind telling you, I’m starting to get a little dizzy.”

“You do look great up there though. Not many ducks have your natural composure.”

“Thank you dear. [Ruffles feathers proudly] Well, if we’re here for everyone to see, the least we can do is smile is what I say.”

“I do appreciate it.”

“Not at all dear – now would you like my other side? Maurice always says it’s my best.”

“I think I’ve got all I need now, thanks.”

Photo © Rachel Cowan

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After The Show

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Street theatre’s a hard gig, take it from me. The excited screams of children, photographers snapping away from every angle and traffic noise that can overwhelm the sound system. And the weather’s always a worry – will the gear stand up to a sudden gust of wind or downpour of rain?

Thank goodness the audience doesn’t realise all this. Of course, when you’re on, all of that vanishes. The body’s aches and pains, the worries of everyday life simply cease to exist. But now — after — the energy that you needed for the show slowly uncoils.

That aching shoulder makes presence known again and your costume feels itchy and heavy. Your make up runs streaky with sweat. And tired. God, you hadn’t realised how tired you were. That first ciggie feels blissful, even though you know it’s bad for you. You can finally let your face sink into repose. You don’t want to talk to anyone yet, just grab a moment for yourself to recover from all that intensity. Relief and resignation are washing over you. It’s done, over, nothing you can do about it now. Tomorrow’s another show, another day, another place. The doubts will come later: was it ok, was I ok? How was the audience, will we be asked back next year?

Your stomach starts to rumble. The set-up tonight took longer than expected, so you missed dinner. Now you’re longing for fast, greasy food. You could murder a long, cool beer too.

Then a couple of hours spent laughing and joking with your fellow performers, congratulating each other on your collective brilliance. Trying your best as always to ignore the producer who’s hell-bent on giving you notes on what “wasn’t quite as good as usual” in today’s show.

But for now, it’s just the moment. The moment that is after.

Photo © Rachel Cowan

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Ethel’s Book – When Ethel Saw God

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ETHEL

How was she to know if she’d really seen God? She couldn’t ask the vicar because they didn’t let her attend Sunday service any more. Just because she got muddled that once and went to the 11 o’clock with knit-lock knickers over her frock.

They’d be sorry, she told them. She was the only one who knew the words to the hymns and definitely the only one to applaud the sermon. So when God appeared to her in the bookies, she was sceptical. Reg had been the gambler in their family. He’d say that God was on his side when he made a bit of a killing, but she knew he didn’t really believe.

She had started going to the bookies after he died. He was taken sudden, just before his horse crossed the line at Aintree. She liked the overhead telly and the company of Doreen, who took the betting slips and gave her a cuppa sometimes. That day though, nobody was paying her any attention, although she’d worn her pink water wings especially.

But there He was, in a corner. Kind eyes and a full head of hair despite His age. He wasn’t performing miracles or anything like that, He was just stood there. Looking out the window. Nonetheless, she knew Him straightaway. Well, you couldn’t not, could you? She’d have liked to speak to Him really, have a bit of a chat, but the Carmen rollers that Rosemary had given her for Christmas were starting to dig in so it was probably time to head home.

Where was home nowadays? Reg would have known. Come to think of it, where was Reg? He’d only gone out for a pound of sausages and some dripping, he should have been back by now.

She went out the door and waved to God as she passed the window. He looked right at her and smiled. So that was all right.

DOREEN FROM THE BOOKIES

I don’t mind. It’s sad really. Her old man was one of my regulars – evil old sod he was. Nearly always half-cut when he come in – I had to show him the door more than once. A bookies isn’t a ladies tea shop but you’ve got to have some standards, haven’t you?

He hadn’t been dead that long when she started coming. He’d keeled over at Aintree, she said. Before the finish and all. His horse didn’t win anyway – I checked. At least she got to keep the housekeeping that week. I think she came out of curiosity – told me she’d never been inside a bookies in her life. Different times, I said. I suppose she wanted to see where Reg spent his time. Back then of course, she was all there. Sharp as a tack.

I never call her Ethel – she’s always Mrs Jenkins to me. And she calls me Mrs Thompson even though I said call me Doreen but she wasn’t having any. To be honest, she’s a bit of light relief. What with Mr Jack-The-Lad swanning off to meet his bit of stuff most lunchtimes and young Tracy with her head stuck in Hello magazine, it can get a bit lonely in here. I see her coming, usually with the shopping trolley trailing behind, and I put on the kettle. She never refuses a cuppa. Sometimes she brings biscuits with her, though I tell her she needn’t. What are they called – those biscuits – I had them as a kid – shortbread with jam in the middle – Jammie something or other.

She likes watching the big screen. I know she’s got a telly at home, because she told me, but I think it’s one of those little ones and her eyesight isn’t what it was. I help her up onto one of the stools in the corner and make sure she’s settled before I go back to work. If it’s quiet, we have a bit of a chat. I’ve told her about my Claire, how worried we are, and she talks about Eric, her son. He’s a soldier, she says, looks lovely in his uniform. My husband told me that Eric was killed in the ’70s, on one of those training exercises they have on Dartmoor. He says I shouldn’t encourage her, but I don’t see why not. He’s alive in her mind, isn’t he – what’s so wrong with that?

She’s started to dress a bit funny recently. We’re not quite at the knickers on the head stage but I can see it’s not far off. One day she was limping and I asked her what was wrong. She said she hadn’t been able to find the other shoe – and when I looked down, she was wearing one high heeled court and one slipper with a pink cat on it.

The other day, she was all excited. Asked me if I’d seen Him. “Him?” I said. “Who?” “Him” she said. “God”. I was taken aback, I don’t mind telling you. I knew she’d been a church-goer, but she never talked about that side of things. Then she said that He’d been here – in the bookies. I said “How did you know it was God?” She looked at me pityingly and said “You just know, don’t you?” Not a lot you can say to that. She said He smiled at her and that she gave Him a bit of a wave.

I hope it’s not going to be a pattern. This God thing. We had a punter, years ago, who thought he was Jesus Christ. Knew all the dead certs. Said that when his big win came up, he’d share it with us. Seeing as how he never won more than a fiver, I couldn’t see how that would work. Like the loaves and the fishes, he said. He came to a sticky end, that one. The pretend Jesus Christ.

THE REVEREND CLIVE

He rather missed Ethel and her lusty rendition of the old hymns. And was it prideful of him to admit that her spontaneous applause for his humdrum sermons gave him not only great pleasure but the courage to persist with his ministry in this city backwater?

When he arrived here sixteen years ago, she was among the first to welcome him with a chocolate cake of her own making, he remembered. He was a young curate then, too green to know that the consumption of parishioners’ baked goods was to be undertaken with caution. He was ill for three days and three nights. Although hardly on a scale with the tribulations of St John, he emerged from the experience feeling righteously purged.

Ethel had her troubles. That indolent husband of hers who ranged only as far as the pub or the bookies. And a soldier son killed in a tragic accident on Dartmoor. But she remained a lively and buoyant character. The ladies on the Church Flowers rota were however not fond of her and neither was his own dear wife, a rather unforgiving woman. He smiled as he remembered Ethel’s controversial Harvest Thanksgiving – Weeds Are Flowers Too.

When his conscience pricked him, he would pay a pastoral visit to the small terraced house she’d lived in for over fifty years. He made a point of wearing his clerical collar on these occasions since the time when Ethel mistook him for Reg, her deceased husband, and became disconcertingly flirtatious over a plate of Jammie Dodgers. He rather regretted that the collar was now considered unfashionable by most of his congregation.

He hoped that when her time came, as come it must to all souls, they would ask him to conduct the service, even if it took place at the council crematorium rather than in the arched Victorian splendour of St Michael’s. He would instruct the young organist engaged for these occasions to play two of Ethel’s favourites; ‘Fight The Good Fight’ and ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee’.

ERIC – THE SON

Hello Mum. I wish I could pick up the phone and talk to you like I used to – I miss that more than anything. I think you do too. But this’ll have to do. I see you’ve put that photo of me in Christmas Tree order up on the mantelpiece. That was taken in Aldershot, wasn’t it?

Bloody photographer took forever – I was sweating my guts out under those lights. It was like being on parade on a hot summer’s day. No wonder blokes pass out – it’s like a sauna out there in the ranks.

I’ve had a bit of time to think here, Mum. Not that they don’t keep you busy, but there’s still a lot of quiet – y’know. It’s good though. It’s like that quiet that we had, you and me and sometimes Dad, after you’d fed us your best Sunday dinner. A kind of full up quiet, content. You’d try to get me to have a second helping of pudding and I’d say “No Mum, just a cup of tea maybe?” If I’d eaten everything you wanted me to, I’d have been too fat to make it into the Army, wouldn’t I?

Oh sorry. Sore point eh? I know you blamed Dad for me joining up. Well, you were always mad at him for something or other, weren’t you? But the truth is, it was just as much my idea as it was his. I wasn’t going to get any sort of decent job on civvy street with no O-levels. The Army seemed like a good deal. And honestly Mum, I had a good time. I loved all that square-bashing, even though I wouldn’t have admitted it to my mates. Made you feel proud, belonging to something. And they taught me to drive – I wouldn’t have been able to afford lessons otherwise. The driving was a mixed blessing, mind you. If I hadn’t been driving, I wouldn’t have been upside down in that bloody tank, dead as a doornail.

Remember that first Christmas when I’d just finished basic and I came home in uniform for the first time?

Auntie Winnie and Uncle George came round and I got our David drunk on that sherry you kept at the back of the cupboard. That was a laugh, though Dad didn’t think so. He would have thumped me if he’d had the nerve. You got all the neighbours in, gave them some guff about Christmas cards, but truth was you wanted to show me off. “Eric’s learning to drive tanks, aren’t you, love?” I was a bit embarrassed to be honest, but as it was you, Mum…

I know you hoped I’d get together with Susie from Number 88, maybe even get married. We did have a bit of a fling (I kept that quiet, didn’t I?) but it wasn’t anything serious. She married my mate Dave in the end, remember him that came for tea once? Tall skinny bloke, you force fed him your fruitcake. I’m sorry you never got any grandkids though. I would have liked kids really, but it doesn’t matter to me now. I see Rosemary’s kids visiting you sometimes. She’s turned out all right, Rosemary, hasn’t she? Even if she’s a bit of a nag. First you have Dad on at you all the time then there’s Rosemary – poor old Mum!

I like sitting with you some nights, just you and me in the old house. That big tabby cat sat on your lap – he doesn’t like me much, does he? But Mum, you want to watch it. Talking about me to folk like I’m still – well – alive.

WINNIE – THE SISTER

I had set out the blue china for afternoon tea and my dollies were dressed in their best frocks when she ruined it all. She’d been playing with the dog in the garden and they came tearing into the lounge. The table went flying of course – the teapot and the slices of Battenburg with it.

Mother had warned her if there was one more incident with that dog, it would have to go. I for one was glad to see the back of it – smelly, noisy thing.

I was always careful with my belongings, especially my collection of books. Ethel would tell you she’s always loved books, but ask her how many of them she defaced when she was a child and that would be a different story. I opened my Grimms Fairy Tales one day to find things scribbled in the margin by ‘Miss Ethel Fletcher, age 10’. And between the last page and the back cover, there was a rosebud, half-pressed.

She wasn’t any better when she grew up. Her going-away outfit lacked a nice handbag, so I loaned her my best, as any good sister would. It was tan crocodile skin with a gold clasp and it had taken me months to save for. I should have known better. I got it back I don’t know how much later with the clasp broken and a scratch along the side. There was only the sketchiest of apologies from Madam.

Reg Jenkins was a common little man. Mother could scarcely credit that Ethel was intent on marrying him, but marry him she did. And, as the saying goes, repented at leisure.

Oh she pretended they were happy, but everyone knew how far from the truth that was. I was so lucky to have my George. He never caused me a day’s worry in all his life and he gave me two lovely children. But Reg? Died at a racecourse after gambling away everything they had. I only attended the funeral out of consideration for poor Ethel.

It’s been difficult this past year. With Ethel going a bit – funny. There’s never been a history of that in the family, I told them, Mother and Father were both sharp as tacks till the day they died. Rosemary’s been a great help – in her line of work, she comes across things like this all the time, she tells me.

Sometimes though, and I know as a Christian I shouldn’t say this, for Jesus was very keen on helping the unfortunates of this world wasn’t he, but sometimes, I wonder if she isn’t just making it all up, just to get the attention.

ETHEL

Her petticoats rustled and she felt as light as gossamer as they waltzed around the dancefloor. He was stoneyfaced, which was off-putting, but she put it down to his dance shoes being a bit on the snug side.

“Reg, d’you want to sit the next one out?” she asked. “Yes all right. Why don’t I get us some drinks from the bar?” he said. Half an hour later, he hadn’t returned. He’d probably found a new friend at the bar to talk to. He was always finding new friends, people she was never introduced to. She smoothed the red crepe-de-chine of her frock with gloved hands and waited.

When she opened her eyes, the red balloon was gone and Mother and Winnie with it. She scanned the beach and saw them in the distance, heading towards the promenade. She jumped to her feet and ran after them. Why had they left without her? And where was the red balloon?

She’d made a fuss earlier about getting that balloon and Mother had told her to stop drawing attention to herself, that there were to be no balloons until they got to the beach. She’d sulked then, something she was good at. Winnie never sulked. Ethel hated her sometimes.

“Are you all right, Ethel?” she heard a voice say. What did they mean, all right? She was here, wasn’t she? It seemed a long way to come just to get a balloon but she supposed they knew best. She was getting thirsty – Reg had been gone such a long time. “Can I have a drink of water?” she asked. Somebody made an impatient gesture and she saw that the tea in front of her had hardly been touched. She wished she’d stayed at home now.

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