A simple tale of chaste romance among working class folk in 1960's Britain
| The hedgerows are heavy with white Hawthorn blossom and winding brambles that will soon enough bear dark fruit. I would have walked; carried my suitcase of wares through uneven meadows dotted with nodding yellow cowslips and hopped over the bubbling spring of crystal water avoiding over curious cows, but today my hopes are stacked high in the back of my van.
The village appears over the brow of the hill, the houses gathered in neat rows overseen by the towering pithead rolling its wheel as if time was not an issue. Even my tuneless humming sounds sweeter as I trundle toward the village basking in the warm spring sunshine like a quiet red brick oasis in a lush green desert. I check my watch, an irresistible smile creeping across my face. Women are much more pliable when unencumbered by ill tempered spouses, tired and hungry from a long shift underground and the swarming hordes are let loose from the school with the kind of ravenous hunger only children can muster. Today my timing is perfect; I even have time to spare.
I roll into the short stretch of tarmac beside the school, pull on the handbrake and letting the brightness of the day seep into my van, watch the next generation taking shape. Every grubby kneed boy with grey socks crumpled round his ankles is a miner in the making, sporting the same resigned hard bitten look that trawls in and out of the pit yard at the change of shifts. Their barracking and jeering voices resound against the school walls and ricochet around the schoolyard as they posture, dangle and drape; acting out adult themes with undersized feet in oversized shoes. The girls look on in conspiratorial groups, their faces already swathed in burgeoning maturity, subtly dictatorial and inoffensively judgemental; still learning the ways their mothers are so practiced in. They scan the posturing rabble assessing future husbands, decrying their availability with indignant sweeps of dismissive hands over colourful skirts.
“’Ere Joy gives us a kiss.”
“Come ‘ere and I’ll give you a thump.”
“Well show us yer knickers then.”
“Naff off Mickey or I’ll tell me mam.”
Mickey makes a tactical withdrawal into the sniggering safety of his peers and Joy smirks to the conspiring group beside her, suspending her fragile weight on the bars on the steps to the school room door. Enough said; in time Joy will show her knickers while Mickey fumbles with maturity and responsibility and the pithead wheels turn on relentlessly until joy is buried under the needs of a new generation.
But it is not my place to think such dour thoughts. Happiness reigns here in the schoolyard, in grubby knees and unfettered smiles. My own voice once sounded among them; I had my own Joy for a while, though I never made her my wife. This small rambunctious gathering will one day become my customers, if there is a God and he is kind. One day I will carry my suitcase to Joys’ door and mistake her for her mother and I will know that life goes on, and so must I.
Leaving my van, I venture forth case in hand, crossing the road that skirts the outer edges of the village. My first port of call is the charge- hand houses with small, neat front gardens and their backs to the lesser minions. I knock discreetly on each door and am ushered in to stand and wait, hope laid bare in a broad meaningful smile. Each female occupant, dressed in the same flowered pinafore as every other female village occupant, furtively sweeping the neighbours gardens as I am woman handled inside.
“Wait here, I won’t be long,” they wag the same accusing finger and vanish into the gloom.
“No problem,” I smile benignly and rock from polished heel to polished toe, trying not to look too closely at the neat and tidy trappings of the lower middle working class with upper middle aspirations.
“A tanner, right?” They reappear already brandishing the coin that catches the light from the window and sparks an unspoken threat.
“A tanner, yes,” I log the payment and allow myself to be ushered out into the glaring sunlight, politely tipping my hat before I leave closing the garden gate behind me with unfathomable care. My heart quickening, I trot across the tarmac road, one hand securing my hat on the way back to the van.
The schoolyard is still now, though in my mind it still rings to sound of heavy footed scampering feet. The sound of children’s voices, droning to the beat of the nine times table, drifts through an open window as I slip behind the driving wheel and start the engine. Trundling backwards, I swing the van round to face the row of garden gates, the engine rumbling contentedly at the thought of what lies beyond. Pressing my foot on the accelerator I urge it on, over the road into a left turn and park up among the streets of gardenless two up, two down houses laid out like ploughed furrows. The identical front doors, always spotlessly clean and reserved for Sunday visitors, glare at each other over deep grey tarmac, but I am no Sunday visitor. Instead, I heave my case from the back of the van and head toward the back yards where gossip is tossed back and forth over chest high brick walls and children play within easy thumping distance on the broad tarmac run.
“Hello Mrs Tooley. Nice day Mrs Smith,” I tip my hat and greet each one of my customers with a deeply comforting sense of déjà vu. In their turn they survey me critically over stoically crossed arms, a cursory nod and occasional ‘eyup’ passing for social pleasantry. Bleached blonde and dyed black, rollered up and pinnied in; these are the women for whom I am a deliver of dreams in the privacy of their back yards demanding a length of service befitting hard decisions for two bob down and a tanner a week.
It being a Monday, the back yards are festooned with drying laundry and the sweet spring air is filled is the pungent underground smell of broiling pit clothes. The lines of laundry undulate sedately in a fast drying breeze like sail ships in dry dock, every back yard captain keeping a weathered eye out for a change in the wind that will bring a fine film of coal dust from the slag heap. My progress is ponderous, pausing to collect my due and writing each entry off in my little black ledger that feels so much more like a journal; a fond memoir of my time here. I could be a Mr Chipping, counting my life through the passing generations of schoolboys, but my customers are not lacking education and they are most definitely not schoolboys.
“’Ave you brought yer van?” Myra Radmanthwaite halts me mid stride.
“Did you want something?” I pass her a respectful smile that goes unnoticed as she jams a wooden peg onto the washing line. My black suit soaking up the heat of the day, I extend my smile to a moon faced tot in a pair of faded handme down knickers gazing up at me with immense grey eyes. Myra cradles the back of the child’s head as it buries itself in the folds of her dress, then bends her sizeable frame to pick the next piece of wet laundry from a pile in the basket at her feet.
“Depends what you’ve got,” she unbends herself, hooking her indelicate fingers round the waistband of a pair of pink bloomers to stretch the elastic, the indecipherable colour of her eyes shimmering above a darkly conjugal grin.
“Always here to serve,” I tip my hat feeling an allegiance with the wilting coms dangling helplessly on the washing line next to an array of bloomers. At the last count the Radmanthwaite brood numbered ten, including five strapping lads all working shifts at the pit and living at home.
“Go one with yer, yer sweet talking bugger, if I had two bob to spare I’d invite you in just for a change of scenery,” barking out a deep gravelly laugh, she releases me with a dismissive sweep of an alarmingly large hand and continues hanging out the washing.
“Leave him be Myra, at least till I’ve done with ‘im,” next door draws me into the relative safety of the far corner of her yard. “You don’t want to be dipping yer wick in there, her lads ‘ad grind you into the pavement and take you home as a new hearth rug,” she fixes me with a meaningful expression, adjusting the baby slung in her hip and shifting her mouth to avoid small inquisitive fingers in a single smooth practiced action.
I smile a small helpless smile.
“Ave you got any shorts for our Mickey? The little bleeder ripped another pair tobogganing down the slag. I swear he’ll be the death of me.” Despair moves over the smooth features of a face not yet gouged by relentless hardship and her eyes flick in the direction of the slag heap; a vast, dark mountain a stones throw from the last house on the street.
For the next twenty minutes I crouch in her yard going through my stock of grey shorts until a suitable pair is found while she regales me with the horrors of youth. I listen, attentive and concerned, to stories I have I heard a million times before though they never grow old, log the sale in my little black book and snap my case shut.
“Would you be going up Maple Street?” My new customer enquires, tipping her head to one side to hold me to an answer and ignoring the baby who is venting its frustration by throwing itself backwards, pinching its features and whining.
“Yes I will be,” I smile pleasantly
“Thought you might…”
I beat a retreat tipping my hat as I leave, my face beginning to flush at the amused assuming look that follows me.
Maple Street is no different from any other street in the village, but my feet move lightly over the tarmac and my burden swings from my hand as I walk past the street sign. The sun is high in the sky now, my shadow a small smudge leaking from the soles of my shoes as time takes on an eternal quality. An invisible thread draws me relentlessly smiling up the broad tarmac track between the back yards where a quickening breeze has picked up to a warm wind and the damp bed sheets billow like impatient sails. Each stop seems an endless interruption and I find my self gazing up the street as customers fumble through purses for coins and pout over decisions, hoping for a glimpse of a head of brunette hair pulled back in a clip.
The sun slips behind a cloud bathing me in cool shadow as I approach the end of the street, but I am suddenly warm; sweat gathers on my collar and drips down my back. My case should be lighter, but is a lead weight dangling from my arm and my heart is beating too fast. I try to appear nonchalant, rearranging my features even though I know it is pointless. These women do not need books to read and in their sideways glances I feel them perusing my thoughts.
Iris Tilling has not given me cause to linger by her gate in a very long while, but my footsteps falter anyway. My gait slows as I approach a house that is the same as any other and conceals a life no more diverse or charmed, but whose charms transcend all others. For a terrible moment I see nothing but an empty yard, dark windows and a closed door and I am overcome by foolishness. I am not as young as I could be and the bravado is only an act that all the world is aware of. The occupant of the next yard passes me a look that would shrivel a cabbage and I nod, flash her an unfounded smile and take a step closer to her neighbours gate.
Once at the gate to the Tilling’s yard I stop, halted by the rush of realised hope that washes me down to my underwear. I could stand for an eternity watching her scrub her front step. The sight of a well rounded rump jostling above the soles of a pair of a well worn slippers provides all the sustenance I could ever need, but it is unseemly and I stand silent and undecided as to the direction of my next move. My bravado has withered and taken with it any means to uphold propriety other than to turn away and return to my van under a cloud of regret.
“Ere Iris…You got a visitor.”
I do not have the presence of my mind to thank her neighbour. Instead I fumble with my hat, all too aware that my face has turned as red as the tub of geraniums adorning her yard and it takes me a moment to speak. “Hello Mrs Tilling. Nice day don’t you think?”
“Not too shabby…” Her response is delayed by a slow rising pirouette concealing her nether assets and revealing two even more outstanding and slightly damp.
I am too overcome for words and hear only the drumming of my heart. She looks at me with eyes that shine like sapphires and wipes away a loose strand of hair brushing the rose of her granite cheek, while I chase dreams in the dirt with the toe of my shoe.
Nothing more is said but a shared polite goodbye under the returned rays of the sun flooding over the summit of the slagheap. But in the second before she turned away I am sure I saw the granite crack and the sapphire wink.