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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74. #HearHer

This week, the BBC have a series of programmes called Hear Her, of which I am proud to have contributed towards. My programme brief was tight, and I had more to say on this theme, so wrote this post.

Please note that the following contains descriptions of violence against women.

She doesn’t know why they locked eyes and she held his gaze. She refused to look away or lower her eyes. The camera sought her out. A good-looking, young woman. Probably a third-generation immigrant. Student, most likely.

He caught her expression at the exact point between curiosity, defiance and contempt: the man’s words spitting venom full on in her face. A second later, the moment had gone. The next pictures were of the man punching her once in the side of her head. Her body recoiled. Face contorted in horror. Immediately, two police officers pushed past her and grabbed the frenzied man.

But people didn’t need to see those pictures. He had his money shot. It doesn’t really matter who she was, why she was there or what happened to her. Tomorrow, his name would be known for taking the defining picture of the march.

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Mum and I were sat sipping tea in the conservatory of my parent’s house. I spotted a pile of newspapers in the corner, ready for the recycling bin. I picked up the latest issue of the local paper and scanned the front page.

“Oh my god, I went to school with her.” My heart started to race. “I can’t believe it.”

As the story unfolded, it transpired that the girl I knew at school had her father’s child, and continued to live with him on the family farm. Once she found out he was abusing her daughter, she killed him. She’d served her sentence and was out on parole. The abuse only ever came to light when one of the grandchildren died and the DNA tests showed some unusual and disturbing results. My old school friend and her daughter waived their right to anonymity to finally speak out.

“And she never said anything? That whole time she was in prison?” For all of those years as a child, she was brave enough to take the beatings and repeated assaults but never found the courage to ask for help.

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My friend is a seriously talented musician. I remember once she told me it took her only four hours to learn to play the mandolin. She found it difficult to get a record deal – not because her music is bad. Far from it. It’s because she doesn’t play the game. She won’t lose the extra 10lb for the photos, show off her assets and court the media. She’s got a ‘bad attitude’ because she’s been known to pour a drink over a music journalist’s head for assuming that she had help with writing her songs. There is only one name on the album’s credits for songwriting. Hers. She composed the music and played all of the instruments bar one. The only musician she employed for the recordings was a drummer. She’s been very vocal about how, at 26, her music career is considered over before it has barely begun, but older, baldy, fat, beardy men can get still record contracts. No-one cares what they look like, how they behave, what they say or ask if anyone wrote their songs for them. It’s only about the music.

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“All that work I did and he took the credit! He could have at least said it was a team effort. I can’t fucking believe it. It was my idea in the first place. I was the one who suggested it in the meeting, but no-one heard me, and then he repeated what I’d just said, then made out it that he’d thought of it! The bloody cheek. Well It’s too late to do anything about it now, but I tell you what. The next time one of my female colleagues comes up with an idea, I am gonna repeat what she just said loudly, and make sure everyone knows what a great idea she just had, so there’s no mistaking it in future.”

Women deserve to be listened to, their voices amplified and messages heard.

37. This is No Fairy Tale

This is a special post for International Women’s Day.

Once upon a time, not that long ago, in a land not far from this one, there lived a girl called Rose. She was the oldest daughter of a farming family and was a beautiful bud on the verge of blossoming into a vibrant young woman. We would say she was a teenager, and nowadays she would enjoy years of delicious freedom, finish her education and discover her own world between childhood and womanhood.

Alas, not then. She was not educated at school, for that would be a waste of time and money. She spent her days cleaning, cooking and helping her mother to look after her brothers and sisters. Any free time she might have had, was taken up with making and mending clothes, baking bread or helping with the running of the farm.

One day, a very average man, rode into the village on a white horse. Once he saw how hard-working Rose was, he decided she would make a very suitable wife for him to replace the one who had recently died in childbirth. He asked her father for her hand in marriage and a good price was agreed. It was all arranged and would make good business sense to have another farmer in the family. Plus those eight poor children would have a mother. Rose did not care for this man for she had never even spoken to him. Aside from him being nearly as old as her own father, he was not at all appealing to look at and she knew nothing about him. However, she was not consulted, and would have had no choice in the matter in any case.

The next day Rose was to be married. As she was her father’s property, she was given away by him to the man, who was to own her from that day forward. She wore a white dress to prove she was a virgin, and at the ceremony she had to promise to do whatever her new husband wanted her to do and obey his every command.

From working on the farm, Rose had some idea what her husband was going to do to her on their wedding night, but she was not looking forward to it. Her mother had told her that it would be painful and that she might bleed. She was not even allowed to ever touch herself there because she was unclean. But she was one of the lucky girls who had not had a knife taken to that part of her body when she was a child and no man had ever forced himself on her. Even if a man had used his power and strength to overcome her and take what he wanted, it would always have been entirely her fault. That was the way things were. Her choice was not an option.

Rose knew that if she did what she was told, worked hard, knew her place and kept her mouth shut, she would have as life as good as every other woman she had ever heard of. She knew that to be seen as a good wife, there would be lots of babies and although having them would hurt like hell, she would fulfil the reason she was here for. Women who talked or knew too much were often possessed by the devil and needed to be punished.

So she began her new life with her new name. She missed her family dreadfully at first and began to wonder what it would be like to go out every day and see the world like her brothers did. If she did not keep the house and increasing brood of children clean, and her husband well fed and satisfied, he might beat her, leave her or throw her into the asylum. If she was disowned or shunned, she had no way of earning a living, and what would be the point anyway? Even if she worked harder than any man she could not earn as much as they did. How could she provide for her family when she could not have a bank account or rent anywhere for them to live? A man could easily earn enough to provide for a wife to look after his children whilst he was out at work. A fallen or spoiled woman could barely earn enough to feed herself, let alone pay for anyone else she cared for. She could not own property and she was not allowed to vote to change the law so she could buy. No, she was better off staying where she was to try and make the best of things. Even if she hated her husband and he was cruel, the law would not permit her to take her children with her if she left. She had responsibilities now.

Her husband was too old to go to the war, and she had far too many children to leave at home to fend for themselves for even a moment, so Rose was not one of the fortunate ones who was permitted to take a man’s job whilst he was away fighting for his country. Of the men who did return, some were disfigured, gave their wives diseases or had nightmares and dark moods.

It occurred to Rose whether any woman had ever achieved in life anything other than wife and mother, but she had never heard anyone ever tell her tales of the past from something called HIS STORY. She could not read and had no other way of finding anything out other than what other people told her. She wanted her own daughters to have more than she had. As they were not allowed to inherit money or property, then they should have more knowledge to make their way in the world. Rose would make sure they knew about all the things she wished she had known before she was married.

She did as much farming as her husband, but he was known as the farmer and she was the farmer’s wife. She had contributed easily as much to the family as her husband did, as well but he owned all the money. She knew how to run the farm and manage on whatever money he gave her, so when he suddenly died, Rose decided that there would be some changes around the place. With the upheaval of the war, she decided not to tell the authorities that her husband was dead, for they may interfere. Instead, if anyone asked, she would say he was away. Later on, she would say he died in the war and no-one ever pressed her further. Few people ever came to the farm and the sheer number of children meant that they did not need any extra paid labour. Hardly anyone ever asked where the master was, and over time, he was forgotten.

Working on a farm, having ten of her own babies as well as the eight she inherited  plus a couple of waifs and strays that had found their way to her, had prepared her well. Rose decided that she and all of her children would learn to read and write. Her daughters could become midwives or nurses, if they were so inclined. They could help other women to have babies and provide support for them before and after the birth. She knew men would not interfere in this idea or try to take over, as it was seen as woman’s work.

Her sons were capable of running the farm and their future wives could decide for themselves what they wanted to do with their time.

This made Rose feel both free and in control for the first time in her life. No man would want to take her on as her youthful bloom had long since faded and her body was weary. Her spirit shone on. She invited her elderly parents to live at the farm and rest out their days watching their grandchildren grow. The work was shared; this village raised the children, and there was plenty of love and food for all.

As the wise, gentle matriarch of this flourishing community, Rose lived happily ever after.

The End.

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