120. Mixed Signals

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I can still remember the last moment we were a happy family, before I ruined it all. It was the Easter holidays, and I was six. I was busy drawing a picture at the kitchen table and Eileen, my baby sister, was asleep upstairs. My mother was washing up when my father came home early from work. Seeing his face appear at the window startled her, so she pretended to flick suds at him. 

“Hello Treacle,” he said to me, and kissed the top of my head.

“You’re home early love,” said my Mother. He put his arms around her waist, kissed the side of her neck and dabbled his dirty hands in the dishwater. After he had dried them, he flicked the teatowel on her backside, which made her squeal, then she turned around, cupped his face with her soapy hands and he bent her back right over to kiss her like they did in the films. Then they both laughed. 

“You might squeeze a cup out of that pot,” she said, so he took a mug from the draining board. He pretended to look down the spout of the teapot to check, which I thought was silly, then he poured a little bit more water from the kettle into it. While he was waiting for his brew, he sat down, lit a cigarette, took a drag and scratched his head. “We have to go onto short time, or some of us will be let go,” he said.

“Oh Fred,” sighed my mother, “We’ll manage. We always do.” She looked at me and smiled. “Don’t worry, Cyn, we could always sell some of your drawings. You’re quite the little artist.”

“She is that indeed. Let me see?” said my father. I held up my latest drawing. “You can sell some of my pictures but you can’t sell this one. It’s a present for Mummy’s friend, Mr Turner.” I said.

I never slept in my own bed again.

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When I was fourteen, I fell in love with the paper boy. We’d said fewer than ten words to each other in the six months that he’d been delivering Mr Crane’s newspaper, but I knew that I wanted to marry him. One Friday morning, I got up early to watch out for his bike, and I opened the front door just as he was about to post the newspaper through the letterbox. I grabbed it off him, pushed a letter into his hand and closed the door in his face. I was so embarrassed that I barely even glanced at him.

He was there outside the bakers at 11 o’clock the next day, just like I’d asked him to be in my letter. I could see he had made a real effort. Polished shoes, a neat parting and smelling of coal tar soap. His name was Brian and he was also fourteen. He said he wanted to work on the railways when he left school, so that’s where we went for our walk to find a nice picnic spot. I’d brought cheese and cucumber sandwiches and two apples. Our shoes soon got dusty from walking alongside the tracks and as it was a hot day, he decided to open the bottle of cherryade that he’d brought. Then he needed to pee. The other girls in the Home had warned me never to be alone with a boy or a man if he got his cock out. They told me that he would try to get me to touch it and if I did then I might have a baby, but if I didn’t, then I was frigid and was going to become a nun. I didn’t like the sound of either of those things, so I ran away from him.

I clomped up the wooden stairs of the signal box and opened the door. There was nobody in there. Three of the walls were made up of windows. It was stiflingly hot and smelled of BO and stale cigarettes. One long shelf at my eye level was full of polished wooden boxes and shiny bells that looked like the ones on a hotel reception desk, and there were a dozen big levers sticking out of the floor. In the corner there was a desk with two office chairs on wheels and two telephones. One black and one red. The wireless was playing music quietly. I rang one of the bells and it dinged, then I pressed the top of another bell but its ring sounded different to the first one, so I tried another, which sounded out an even higher note. They reminded me of when the Campanology Club was practising in church.  I turned a handle sticking out of one of the wooden boxes and tried to pull one of the levers, but I couldn’t do it because it was so stiff.

I heard Brian say, “you’re not supposed to be in here”.

Suddenly, the signalman started shouting at us. “What are you two doing in here?”, “I heard those bells. You better not have bloody touched anything. You could cause a crash,” then, “can’t a man have five minutes peace to go for a shit?” and “what did you touch?”.

When he had finished shouting, I pointed at the bells and told the signalman that I’d pressed those and turned that handle, but Brian said, “she moved one of those levers as well. I saw her do it.”

“No, I didn’t you liar!” I shouted back at him.

The signalman said, “You’re a cheeky little bitch, aren’t you? What’s your name?”

“Cynthia Archer,” I said. He said nothing but studied me for a moment, then said, “I know you. You’re Fred Archer’s girl. Do you give it away too just like your mother did? I bet you do. They all do in that Home. My mate wouldn’t be in prison now if she wasn’t such a dirty slut.”

“Don’t you talk like that about my mother!” I shouted back at him, and some of my spit landed on his jacket.

“Filthy little…” he began but was interrupted by one of the bells ringing on its own. “Oh shit. Get out, the both of you or you’ll feel the back of my hand. Go on, bugger off.”

The next morning, after church, I had to go to Mrs Crane’s office. “I have received a telephone call from a gentleman who says that he caught you and a boy up to no good in the signal box near to the top end of town. Is this true?”

“I was there with him but…”

“I don’t want to hear your excuses. I’m tired of your stories. This is a serious matter. You were trespassing on private property. Your actions could have caused a train crash. People could have died. Not only that but you were out alone with a boy. What were you thinking? The reputation of our Home is at stake.”

“Yes, Mrs Crane.”

“I am going to give you a choice. You can either help to clean the church for an hour every morning and evening for the next month or work in the laundry. So, you will have plenty of time to consider what you have done and what could have happened. You will also not be attending the fete next week and you going on the school trip to Whitby is absolutely out of the question. You will not see that boy again, or any other boy for that matter, as long as you are living under this roof. I am shocked that one of my girls is writing letters to boys and spitting on British Rail employees. That boy no longer delivers newspapers and I understand that his father gave him a good hiding. We do not condone corporal punishment here, but if we did, I would not hesitate. Do you understand how lucky you are?”

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After I saw my father kill my mother, he washed his hands in the bowl of still-warm water and told me that I had to be a good girl and go next door to tell Mrs Bailey to phone the police, and that I was to stay there and not come back. She made me a boiled egg, toast and Ovaltine for my tea and I thought I was going to have it in my new eggcup that I got with my easter egg, but I didn’t. Mrs Bailey gave me an a teddy bear that she said used to be her daughter’s and asked me to look after it, then a nice police lady took me to the Girls Home. My new bed was next to the window and there was a nightdress on the pillow. I liked it in summer because the window was open, but in winter I had to be careful not to burn myself on the radiator. I stayed there until the day after my 16th birthday, which was the earliest date I was permitted to leave. Mrs Crane told me that my sister was adopted straight away by a nice family who couldn’t have children of their own so this was really quite the blessing. 

After Eileen grew up, she found me with help from the Salvation Army and a woman at the Citizens Advice Bureau, and we finally met when I was 36. We have different accents but everyone can tell that we have the same mother. I’m still quite good at drawing but I’d never let anyone see them, and I sometimes drive past the Girls Home on my way home from work. It’s a hotel now. I haven’t been inside since it was refurbished, but I’ve seen the brochure that they have for weddings. The room I used to sleep in with five other girls is now the bridal suite.

Me? No, I never married.

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108. A-113

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The truth is that ordinary folk in the States don’t live in the perpetual autumnal town of ‘Stars Hollow’, nor is the opening shot of a fabulous Brownstone apartment in ‘You’ve Got Mail’ a realistic home for many. The closest us Brits get to wood panelled rooms and the servants quarters of ‘Downton Abbey’ is on a family day trip, visiting a National Trust property.

None of the characters on British soap operas could afford to buy the houses on the wages of the fictitious jobs they do. Even the ‘Friends’ characters wouldn’t have been able to rent their apartments back then, let alone now. Bridget Jones could only dream of her grubby, tiny Zone 1 flat as a single woman on an average salary. What would be the point? She’d never be able to socialise. No money.

When time was measured by pencil lines on the door frame, and the term ‘staycation’ hadn’t even been invented, DIY happened twice a year in our house. Spring cleaning meant that every Easter, the four days that the adults in the house had off work, were spent washing net curtains and sofa covers, dragging duvets to the launderette, pulling furniture out and hoovering with the nozzle on the brighter patch of compressed carpet behind the wardrobes or damp dusting of skirting boards with old vests cut up into cleaning rags. Every year my mother would comment on how many spiders must have lived behind her bedside table and if she’d known, she’d never have been able to sleep.

There was a wall-mounted telephone in the hall, which sadly lacked the extra-long cable you see in TV programmes. An old dining chair lived permanently underneath, which was more useful these days as a prop to rest alternate feet whilst tying shoelaces, than as a seat for long conversations. On it was a mint green floral cushion featuring a slightly cross-eyed appliquéd owl that I made in primary school. Another one of my creative endeavours survives in that hall to this day. I sprayed an ornate picture frame gold, then hot glue-gunned some circular slivers of wine corks from my brother’s wedding over the painting. I thought my notice boards were a winner and planned to sell them at a craft fair, but never got around to it. There’s probably a etsy shop now selling similar somewhere in rural America. For over twenty years, that corkboard has remained the hub of both equally vital and useless information for the house. A Snoopy pen with a neck ribbon hanging from a hook. Postcards from pre-Obama holidays in Miami and Florida, the Dr’s phone number and opening times, a yellowing newspaper clipping of one of the grandchildren in a local play, a dry-cleaning stub, a tiny pink scrap of paper congratulating you on winning £25 on the lottery, a torn-off piece of cardboard from a lightbulb box as a reminder to buy some more, a half-used book of first-class stamps, taxi business cards and a list of household jobs that need doing. Defrost the freezer. Clean the oven. Wash glass light fittings. Move bed. Sort bathroom cabinet. Sharpen knives. Declutter.

Declutter. It had to be done. Basically, for us kids, it involved spending a whole day pulling everything we owned out of our wardrobes and putting most of it back in again, but tidily. That or helping with some proper elbow-grease scrubbing downstairs. Windows open, music blasting, dusting. Dragging furniture around to change the feng shui of my bedroom. I never had Molly Ringwald’s room or any brat pack teen movie bedroom for that matter, and I always had this nagging feeling that there was someone out there who would judge my record collection and deem me unworthy.  I got to use the fancy, scented drawer liners that mum got me for Christmas, and spent the evening looking through her catalogues, writing up a list of clothes I thought I needed for the summer. By Saturday afternoon, there were library books to be returned, magazines to donate, black sacks for the tip, or the charity shop, and clothes to be mended. Everything back in its right place.

Easter Sunday obviously meant chocolate for breakfast. Hopefully, we would all get an egg in a mug which would become our new favourite. Other times, it was a smaller egg in a pretty eggcup, plus the promise of a day out at the zoo or theme park. My brother always hoped for a real ostrich egg but they cost £10 each, which seemed a bit steep. We were reminded that “an egg was a whole day’s work for a bird” and anyway, there weren’t enough of us to eat an ostrich egg, so it would go to waste.

Before lunch, I’d set the table with the fancy cutlery, that was usually kept in a shiny, heavily laquered wooden box, lined with red velvet, and, if we were having visitors, make name place settings using pinking shears, thick cardboard and felt tips. I liked to be quiet and still so I could see the motes hanging in the air in that cool dining room. Once we were all as small as those insignificant specks of human skin dust. I’d change the antimacassars from the armchairs to the Irish linen embroidered ones, polish the cut crystal glasses, and try to find the youngest mint leaves that had taken over the vegetable patch to mix with some malt vinegar. Roast leg of lamb for lunch. Being a teenage vegetarian meant I had the same meal as the rest of the family minus the meat, but I made myself some extra thick Bisto gravy, and possibly some bread sauce.

I hadn’t been a veggie very long, not even a year, so I was still experimenting with food. My mother said that if I got anaemic then I’d have to eat liver or beef once a week whether I wanted to or not, because I was still growing. When I became an adult, I could eat what I liked, so I decided very quickly that cavalo nero was going to be my favourite vegetable. I made my own humous, with chick peas from cans and tahini from the local health food shop. My worst purchase there was fennel toothpaste, but their falafal mix was quite good for my amateur palate. I invented something with red lentils, marmite and cheese, and begged my mother to fill the freezer with spinach and ricotta lasagnes.

It was a strange experience that made me turn vegetarian. The previous August bank holiday weekend,  I was given the job of repainting my bedroom window frames. A butterfly got stuck on the paint and there was nothing I could do to help it. I watched it hopelessly struggle for ages after it tore a wing, before it finally gave up. I felt guilty for not helping, but relieved that it was a cabbage white with a tiny wing dot in the shape of a black heart, and not the rarer, more dazzling, common blue. Did insects have feelings? Was my overreaction empathy? A few days later, the butterfly had gone. It had been wiped away. Where its leg and wing had been trapped, there were two tiny marks. I’d sometimes gaze out of the window, thinking about what my future would be like, and run my finger over them. The smallest reminder of a brief life lived.

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Photo by Aubrey Odom on Unsplash

105. A Road Not Taken

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Photo by Carl Raw on Unsplash

This was probably the twentieth taxi we’d been in on this trip, so we’d experienced a fairly mixed range of drivers, but this was by far the most enjoyable. It’s not often that the driver wants me to sit upfront, and I wouldn’t do it if I was on my own, but I guess it’s an easier audience. Saves my husband having to pretend to laugh at some potentially cheesy gags. He kept his Stetson on and drove quickly and smoothly. Automatic movements over and over down those same streets, leaning back in his seat, one arm straight, the other hand chucking printed laminated paper in my lap for me to read. His well-rehearsed speech about his comedy career, who he’d met and how surprised he was that we hadn’t seen him on TV. “Look at the pictures!”

When we got to the diner, which was one of the few places left in Vegas still with a parking lot in front of the building, he told me to wait while he got out and opened my door. Taking my hand, he swung me round and we danced for a few seconds. Then he kissed my hand and took a bow. I was giggling. My husband appeared bemused but never said anything. A few seconds later the driver was juggling. Actual juggling. This guy sure loves living his life. Joy comes easily to me, which, coupled with my baby-face, is often mistaken for sycophantic anxiety, but I’m no fool. He earned every penny of that tip.

When you’re spending over a hundred dollars on slot machines every day, and more than two hundred a day on food, a few twenty-dollar taxi rides won’t break the bank. it might sound extravagant, but doesn’t even touch what some people get through here in a week. People can spend their money on whatever they like. This took me a year to save up for, so I’m going to enjoy this week. A year of packed lunches and taking the last bus home to save the taxi fare. This week is not for skimping. We’re on holiday after all.

Even though the resort we want is less than half a mile away, we would still ask a doorman to hail us a cab. Who wants to spend an hour trying to cross the road, avoiding the attention-grabbing, persistent slap slap of the soft porn trading cards being handed out in the street? Sometimes they try to hand a card to him, when I’m right there. Holding out a prostitute’s card to my husband. In front of me. There’s no point saying anything. They’re just doing their job. The pavement is littered. The cards must work, or why would they keep doing it?

I saw a young woman walking quickly through the sauntering crowd. Long raincoat. Full make-up. Glitter and huge eyelashes. Hair tight in a headscarf. Possibly late for work. No time for any nonsense. Some young men, you know, those who sip all day from the big plastic, oddly shaped promotional glasses, wouldn’t let her pass. One said “How much do you charge?” to back slapping whoops from his friends. Quick as a flash, she replied, “Ask your mom. She’s my best customer,” then managed to hurry away whilst the youths laughed and high-fived their buddy’s backfired everyday sexism. If it’s funny, who cares which person is the butt of the joke?

Our first driver at the airport, told me that this was her last trip of the day. She chatted about her kids and how she had to go home and pick them up from daycare then study for her exams. That she’d never even stepped foot in most of these hotels, but one day she would take a vacation here. I’ve never hugged a taxi driver before or since.

Whenever they ask me what I do for a job, I find it’s easier to say I work in the DA’s office, but that’s just to get a conversation started. They usually like talking about themselves more. Like waitresses, this isn’t how they want to be remembered. It’s a side hustle, a way to make money. It fits in around their real lives.

The ex-marine with a red MAGA sticker on his dashboard, who wants to build the wall. The man who never showers. The one with the facial tic. Lots of students or men sending money back home. The woman with a faint London accent, who supported Chelsea, and talked only of “soccer” for the whole trip. The woman who told us that people still try to pay their fare in poker chips. She declines, saying her religion prevents her from gambling. Makes more sense that implying that those chips might be fake. The man who told us “you gotta take a tour” whenever you visit a new city. We still say that to each other.

The cabs here are way better than the yellow taxis in New York. Roomier, with a telly that shows adverts all day long. I think they all buy their air freshener from the same place. As if I’m going to know whether taking ‘Frank Sinatra’ is going to be quicker than Boulevard or we’re being taken for a long-haul ride. It’s a scam for a couple of bucks, not my soul. We certainly saw a different side of life just one street away from all the action. Those hot, tired, chefs and kitchen porters resting in the shade, with Gatorade and cigarettes. Admittedly I was a little scared when one driver took a service road as a shortcut. Then I saw a black limo, and realised that VIPs do these dimly lit side-roads all the time.

We’d never have gone to this diner if we hadn’t seen it in that film. Pink, neon, squishy purple booths, flamingo light shades, palm trees. Old school glamour. The familiar dimmed lighting of 24 hour restaurant/lounge bars. Giant cocktails to last all day, waitresses with 100 denier, flesh-coloured, shiny tights, pretty ankle socks and trainers. Sticky-out short french maid dress. Pencil poked into hair-sprayed rigid dos. I doubt they could be any quicker if they wore roller skates. Everyone had take-out boxes as the portion sizes were way off –  one plate could feed three. Out waitress was sweet as pie until someone didn’t tip enough, then I heard her say, “Was there something wrong with the food, honey?”, at which point my husband told me to stop being so nosy. When I looked again, the man was searching in his wallet for the right note to give her.

If this was my first day here, I would have left most of my three pancake stack , six rashers of streaky applewood bacon and three fried eggs. The jug of maple syrup was bigger than the bottle we had back home. As we’d been here for nearly a week stuffing our faces, I could manage most of this meal. The holes in my belt are an inch apart and the buckle was already straining at a new hole. There was plenty of time to sort all that out when we get home. We thought we’d walk everywhere to build up an appetite or burn off those calories. Then my husband got a blister. Plus, we are on holiday after all.

Time could very easily have no meaning here. I didn’t dare to try or I’d be worried about not knowing which day it was and missing my flight. Arriving mid afternoon when it’s already past my bedtime. I’m too cold and wired to eat. It’s not late enough yet to sleep. Strange how winning seventy dollars in the first hour made me believe that there might be a chance of leaving here with more money than I brought with me. I’d never even consider putting a tenner in a slot machine back home. Penny arcades all the way. But we are on holiday after all.