120. Mixed Signals

Photo by Harry Grout on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Max Harlynking on Unsplash

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?”

Photo by Krisztina Papp on Unsplash

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.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

The Museum of Ordinary People

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

I don’t know about you, but I’ve started deleting – without reading – the endless stream of emails about you-know-what. Unpresidented times indeed (not a typo). New York. My most frequent holiday destination. I will miss you.

My nephew simply posted the following word to his instagram.

INTERMISSION

Kids who thought the next six months were full of revising, exams, prom, the obligatory Leavers hoodie then travelling, and possibly University, are suddenly homeschooling themselves. Boomers, Gen X, Millennials; stand aside and make room for the Quarenteens, folks. And don’t even get me started on how long it took to convince the oldies in my life that they had to stay in, and they could not just “pop out” for a haircut or a newspaper for the next three months!

We’re all pretending we knew what furlough meant before a fortnight ago. We’ve stopped ironing our clothes. We eat more biscuits and some have taken up jogging. The local police use drones to monitor dog walkers who are driving to the countryside where they shouldn’t be. Our beloved pharmacy and toiletries store, Boots, had a virtual queue of 200,000 people last Sunday just waiting to be allowed onto the website. The postie now knocks on my door and leaves the parcel on the ground. I have The Guardian Live update on constant refresh and BBC1 at 5pm has become the place to be for the latest news from 10 Downing Street. I can see a school playing field from my house. The children may be gone, but a family of foxes and an eagle have taken up residence, along with a tiding of magpies, who enjoy jumping and hopping around chasing each other. I hope that grey squirrel made it.

I’m lucky. I was already working from home so have continued to do so in my slowed-down bubble of first world problems.  My worries and anxieties are trivial compared to most.

I’ve been keeping a daily journal for the Museum of Ordinary People (MOOP) of my thoughts, feelings, opinions, experiences and observations during the virus. Along with the other participants, these diaries may provide an insight into the personal, social and cultural impact of the Covid-19 outbreak. Who knows what will happen in the future? Life is very different now to what it was a month ago and will never be the same again.

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Keep safe, and stay at home.

Nicola x

July 2020 UPDATE.

Three months from a shiny new Leuchtturm 1917 notebook to a plague journal.

112. Touch Wood

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Photo by Zbysiu Rodak on Unsplash

You know when you’re on a long journey and although you’ve done nothing but sit and eat all day, you’re utterly spent? Those times when you reluctantly allow permission to let yourself wander into those dusty, little crevices of your mind that you usually ignore or forgot you ever knew? Or when you’re in a strange place and you see memories of features or expressions of people you used to know in the faces of strangers? I hugged someone I’ve never even met before, at Chrissie’s funeral because she looked so much like her. I thought this holiday would relax me but I’m still so tightly wound and raw. I cry whenever anyone touches me. I hope it doesn’t put off the new kitten from loving me. I need a new friend.

Four hours into an overnight, trans-atlantic flight from JFK to Heathrow, it hit me. I’d worked it all out. It was so simple that it couldn’t possibly be true. The realisation almost winded me. I felt like a nervous tourist who kept patting their pocket to check that their passport and foreign currency were still there.

“Are you awake?” I whispered.

“I am now,” he replied, opening one eye. “What’s up?”

“I think the chest of drawers in the spare room is haunted.” I blurted out.

He breathed out heavily, opened both eyes and wriggled in his seat. “Is there any of that pepsi left?”

“Yeah, it’ll be a bit flat though.” I said, reaching into the seat back pocket. He yawned, scratched his head, gulped some of the sweet black liquid then said,

“go on, then. You’ve woken me up now, so you have to tell me.”

“Ok, right, so the people who lived in Mum and Dad’s house before them were Russian. She was called Joan but her real name was Zia. Josef was actually called Yosef and their son Alex was actually Xander. They all died in that house. The chest of drawers in the spare room was already there when Mum and Dad moved in. Remember when my uncle Alan came to stay last year and he had a heart attack in that very room? Then our cat died. Babs napped on that window seat all the time in winter because of the sun, and Chrissie had slept in that bed loads of times but nothing bad happened until after Alan died. X, Y, Z, A, B, C. Don’t you see?”

He makes a snorting noise like he’s read something funny and shakes his head, smiling. “Aw babe. C’mere.”

I don’t need to say any more. He gets me. He puts his arm around me and I breathe him in as I sob on his chest.

“I think you’re just tired babe. Honestly, furniture can’t be evil. I know it looks like it makes sense right now but it’s just a coincidence. Cool story though. But really, babe, it sounds like you need to get some sleep.”

He was probably right. I was exhausted. I desperately needed answers but the Drs couldn’t give me any, so my mind was creating them out of nothing.

A few hours later, whilst I was in the queue at Passport Control, I switched my phone on for the first time since yesterday morning. I had a few notifications about roaming charges, a couple of texts from Mum and a picture of our neighbour’s newborns.

“Saw Danny and Georgie’s twins, Freddie and Ella. They’re absolutely gorgeous! I’m already knitting! Mum xx”

“Spare room finally finished! Dad took that chest of drawers round next door for the twins’ room. How come babies are so small but they need so much stuff? Mum xx”

Watching people lift (apparently identical) black suitcases off the conveyor belt, my phone pinged with a new text alert. Mum again.

“Blue light ambulance and police car next door. Don’t know what’s going on. Hope those kiddies are ok. Text me when you land Mum xx.”

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Photo by Susan Holt Simpson on Unsplash