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.
His car had that smell. Old tobacco, men, dogs, vinyl, spilt food. Dina depressed the button to open her window a little, and he immediately pressed the master button to wind it back up.
“My car, my rules,” he said.
“I get a bit car sick when the heating’s on,” Dina said.
He wound down her window just a crack, and turned the heating knob from 24 to 21. “Take off your jacket and your shoes and socks if you feel hot. You’ll get used to it. I like it warm,” he said.
There wasn’t a day that went by where she didn’t regret marrying him. She imagined how her life would be if she’d kept her shoes on, got out of the car at the traffic lights and just ran. No matter how much she repented, it never got any easier. She convinced herself he was the lesser of two evils. He had wooed her with the promise of a life as his wife, which was supposed to save her from the boredom of looking after her parents. They told him she was a wild cat that needed routine and discipline to tame her. She realised she had made a mistake just a few days into the honeymoon.
He put an app on her phone so he knew where she was every moment of the day, and wrote a shopping list of places to go to and in which order. Drive the car to town. Doctor. Pharmacy. Library. Back to the pharmacy to collect her prescription. £10 to treat herself in the charity shop, but only if he thought she deserved it. Supermarket. Home. At first, he would ring her every 20 minutes, but then, over time, the frequency of calls dropped, until he trusted her enough to do this monthly visit on her own.
The bruises were in places that didn’t show, and he was careful that she was always clean for the Doctor. Not that she was allowed to wear clothes that showed off her shape in any event. He knew what was best. She’d made a vow that her body was his so other men weren’t even allowed to look. He slashed a dentist’s tyres because he put his fingers inside her mouth, so she never went again. Those three hours of freedom every month were the best and worst, but woe betide if the supermarket didn’t have the food he wanted, or she bought something he considered to be slutty from the thrift store.
An unsuitable book fell of the shelf and as she put it back, she noticed the ‘#Ask for Angela’ poster on the library wall. The next thing Dina remembered was that she was sitting on a wooden chair, with the feeling of someone stroking her hair, even though there was no-one else there. She looked at her watch. 11.11am. She still had time. A hushed conversation with the librarian who then rang her friend in the charity shop. Within ten minutes, Dina had a free bag of clothes as a running away kit, and a lift to the train station. On the way there, she threw her phone out of the car window.
In road rage vs truck, the car always loses. Dina read about it in the paper, but she didn’t dare believe it until the police came knocking. She thought they were there to arrest her. Even though she was twenty miles away on a train when he died, Dina knew this was her fault because he’d gone out looking for her.
It took over a year before she was able to sleep again. They say that if you live long enough, you see the same eyes in different people over and over again, but she can’t take that chance. Her only ambition left in this world is to be defiant enough to hold someone’s gaze. Like she used to do.