“Hiya Mel,” said Linda. Then she burst into tears.
“Ay c’mere girl. It’s alright.” He put his arm around her shoulder and gave it a squeeze.
She let out a heavy sigh and said “I just need to um… just pop to the ladies.”
Linda had lost count of how many times she’d practised the expression she would have on her face and the things she would say if she ever saw her ex-husband again. But it was too late for all that now.
A couple of minutes later, she emerged from the ladies room, with tissue in hand and freshly applied lipstick.
“Now or never,” she said and looked at Mel, but her smile didn’t reach the corners of her glistening eyes.
“We’d best get a move on, I’ve only got another 8 minutes on the car,” said Mel.
She took off her coat and gently threw it on the back seat. There was a small, slightly deflated football and an action figure toy in the seatwell.
“You got kids then?” asked Linda.
“Yeah, two grown up and three grandchildren. All boys. Me missus, Claire said she would have loved to have had a girl. You?”
There was a beat of silence and then he said, “Sorry, Lin girl, I didn’t think.”
“No it’s alright, it was a long time ago now. We were only kids ourselves then. Me and Ronnie have got just the one, Simone. She’s training to be a dental hygienist. Says she’s not having any children” said Linda.
“Can’t fault her. It’s expensive these days. Me missus Claire, says you’re married to a schoolteacher?”
“Yeah, Ronnie. He’s a Special Needs teacher. He would have come with me today but teachers can’t get time off, and he’s got Scouts tonight and I said I didn’t know what time I’d be back.”
“It’s good of you to come you know. I know you didn’t have to, but Stewart kept asking for you and then one of me lads found you on Facebook and I couldn’t just leave it like that without knowing.”
“How is he?” said Linda.
“He’s only got days left now but he’s not in any pain. One of us is up there almost all the time. They’re really good with visiting hours up there.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
They drove the few miles through a city she’d once loved, past the old football stadium, the hospital and the park. A big Tesco now stood on the ground where her old school used to be. That dodgy council estate where she grew up in was now considered desirable real estate, with its larger than average houses and big gardens that were not found in modern builds.
There was a car already outside the house so Mel parked behind it.
She remained sitting in the car for a moment or two, breathing deeply to compose herself. She looked into the garden and watched a man she used to know, slowly move a long-handled tool up and down at the edge of the lawn. There was a small boy chasing and grabbing at bubbles as they floated away. The boy saw her, ran to the gate and peered over the top of it. She smiled at him and Mel unlatched the gate.
“Hi Dad. Hello Trouble,” said Mel, ruffling the boy’s hair. “You remember Linda, don’t you Dad?”
“Hello, Derek,” said Linda. “Still keeping a lovely garden I see. I’m sorry about your Stewart.”
“Thanks love. You look well. Janey’s inside. She’s been looking forward to seeing you,” said the man.
Mel fumbled in his pocket for his phone.
“Are you that lady who used to be married to me Grandad Stewart?” asked the boy.
“Yes, love. I am,” she said and stroked the boy’s upturned face.
The boy slipped his hand inside hers and they began to walk towards the house. Behind her, she heard the gate close. Then Mel said, “Dad, that was the hospice. He’s gone.”
I was running late and spotted that someone had put up one of those ‘Take What You Need’ posters on the noticeboard in the corridor. After class, Simon waited there while I talked to the tutor about my poor time management and why I needed an extension on my essay. As we walked to the refectory, I said, “which one did you take?”
“Courage,” he replied.
“Why’s that then?”
“I want to ask someone out but I think it’s too late. We might already be in the friendzone, so I’m a bit worried about risking it. What do you think I should do?”
“Well you picked courage for a reason. I think you should just go for it. If you don’t ask then you’ll never know.” I bit my lip and desperately hoped he wouldn’t notice that my cheeks were burning.
He didn’t reply for a couple of minutes then he said, “Do us a favour? Get me a latte please. I’ll be back in a minute,” and walked off towards the toilets.
He was beaming when he came back. “I did it and she said yes.”
My stomach filled with lead.
“Nice one,” I said. “When are you going out?” I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose, then fumbled in my backpack for a tissue. All I could think of was why did I even start this stupid conversation in the first place?
“Tomorrow night. Oh and thanks for the coffee. You alright? You look a bit deflated.”
“Yeah, I’m fine, a bit stressed out. I was just thinking about my essay.” I scrunched up the tiny piece of paper and rolled it between my finger and thumb.
“Oh ok, I never asked you what you took,” he said.
“Resilience,” I replied.
“That’s a tough one. Getting up after being knocked back.”
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.
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?”
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.