Monday, February 26, 2007

Halifax, Yorkshire 1947

“Where did you get my Daddy from, Mum?” I try to imagine my Mum and Dad all alone before they got me from the Halifax General Hospital, but I can’t.

“Look both ways before you cross the road.” She reminds me as we cross Gibbet Street on our way to my first day at the Infant School on Bedford Street. Your Grandpa brought Ralph home to meet Grandma, Uncle Des and me when we all lived together at Melvile Place.”

“Where did Grandpa get him Mum, and why did he bring him home?” I ask.

“Your Grandpa met him at the barracks. Your Daddy was in the Army so he lived away from his family.” Mum answered sighing.

“But why did Grandpa bring him home?”

“Grandpa got along really well with Ralph, and he thought is was time I got married.”

“But who was living in our house if we weren’t there?”

“Our house was empty?” I try to imagine our house without us, but I can’t. Mum always says I’ll understand things when I get older. Maybe I will be able to imagine when I have my fifth birthday in November.

“So Grandpa brought him home from the barracks so you could get married and fetch me from the hospital?”

“Yes, that was his plan. He thought if he introduced us, it wouldn’t be long before Ralph asked me to marry him.”

“Grandpa’s clever isn’t he. Where were you when Daddy asked you to marry him?”

Well he started to ask me when we were sitting on the steps outside the house. But we were interrupted when ten workmen turned up with wheelbarrows spilling over with tools. They told us we would have to sit on the wall out of the way because the Corporation had sent them to turn the worn stone front doorstep.

Then they split up into twos and the younger men who were easily in their fifties dumped a pile of dry cement on the flagstones and went off to get some water to mix up the mortar they would need to reset the doorstep.

Two older men, wearing well worn grubby flat caps pulled down firmly on their heads, set up and lit their brazier and put a kettle on to boil so that they could make tea.

Two other men, almost as old as the tea makers, took their time putting up barricades at each end of the street and around the barrows and tools before they sat down to wait for the kettle to boil.

Two men erected a canvas shelter incase it rained then went and sat and lit up their Woodbine cigarettes and smoked with the group.

The two youngest men set to work loosening and then pulling out the step. The work went without a hitch until they rolled the stone over. They both started to laugh in surprise when they found that the underside of the stone was just as worn down as the top had been. ‘Well heck Gov come take a look! Seems like someone came years ago and did this job already.’

All the men strolled over to inspect the stone.

The Governor said ‘Bet they’ve all been done before.’ He told the young men to go next door and pull their step. Sure enough, that one had been turned too.

Ralph and I just sat on the wall and laughed while the men cursed.

Their Gov sent the two youngest and strongest men back down Hopwood lane with one wheelbarrow to fetch a new stone from the corporation works yard. He said, 'Pity all the young lads are off in the Army, I’ll take the both of you to push the barrow back up the hill.'

The rest of the crew knew it would take forever for the men to get their barrows back up the steep slope over the uneven cobblestones of Hopwood Lane.

While they were gone, the eight men sat around the brazier fire, drank tea, and smoked. ‘Well Lads’ the Gov said, ‘looks like were going to be on this job for a good few weeks.’

Ralph said he had something to ask me and suggested we go for a walk.

A few doors down Mrs. Neville came out with her pail, scrubbing brush and her Whitestone to do her front step. She was one of the last ones out this Monday morning. Most of the housewives had already scrubbed and decorated their steps with white or yellow stone. Some coated the top and front of the step; others like your Grandma just trimmed the edged. It was one of the few ways the women could stamp their individuality on the soot crusted Yorkshire stone terraced back-to-back houses that had woodwork all painted identical Corporation green.

Mrs. Neville nodded and said good morning.

I told her she might as well leave her step as the Corporation was going to be changing the stones.

She leaned out of her doorway and looked down the street. How long have they been there? she asked.

At least a couple of hours. Ralph told her, winking.

Have they done a step yet?


Well then, I may as well carry on. They’ll be here for a month at least, longer if they can swing it.

We carried on down to the Dusty Miller pub and went into the snug for a drink. Ralph bought me a half of shandy and he had a half of bitter.

When we had finished our drinks I said, Let’s get back to watch them put in the new step.

Ralph said, Nay Lass, they won’t have started yet. Have you never watched those old Corporation men work? Let’s have another half; I have something to ask you."

When he brought the drinks back from the bar, that’s when he asked me if I would marry him, and I said yes.

We walked down to the Corporation office and rented No. 28 so that I would still be near Grandma and Grandpa when Ralph was away with the Army.

In 1941 Ralph got permission from the Army and we married two months later, it was just after the men finished all the steps, and just before Ralph went off to France to fight in the war.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Fifteenth Birthday

Canada 2007. On my granddaughters fifteenth birthday I'm thinking back to my own very different fifteenth birthday. Halifax, Yorkshire 1958.


"No Mum, please don't." My heart pounds in my chest. My breath catches in my throat. Why is she doing this?

"You will do as I say. We will go together. You will sit quietly and I will do the talking."

Head down against the stinging November drizzle, I trudge behind her feeling crushed.
A touch of anger percolates through my misery. I wrote the letter. I didn't need her help with that. It was me they replied to setting an interview for this Saturday morning at ten o'clock.

"But Mum, everyone goes on their own, no one takes their Mummy with them."

"Well I don't intend for them to take advantage of you by offering you less money than you deserve."

"But I know how much office juniors get paid."

This is going to be a disaster, I know it. No one is going to give me a job if they think I need mummy with me.

The pretty young secretary asks us to take a seat and introduces herself. "I am Miss Green, Mr. Robinson's private secretary. I will check if he can see you now MissWebster."

The metal screws in her stiletto heels click and echo as she makes her way across her office to the Manager's door where she knocks gently before entering.

Mum leans over and whispers, "See how nicely she is dressed. Smart black pencil skirt and whiter than white blouse. You can see she isn't one of those mill girls in their dingy flowered overalls wrapped tightly to cover their skirts and blouses. Their hair up in curlers under their head scarfs."

Miss Green returns and shows us into Mr. Robinson's office. He looks confused. "Which one of you is here for the interview?"

I open my mouth to answer. Mum is faster "Deirdre is." She smiles at him.

He turns to me and tells me I wrote a very nice letter. "As you probably know, we usually only interview grammar school girls to work for our Ada washing machine division, but we made an exception because we were impressed."

"Thank you." Mum says. "Now, I have some questions."

Oh no, she isn't going to let me open my mouth. I'm going to be sitting here silently stupid. By the time she is through grilling him, I can tell by his face that he's none too pleased. Yet Mum goes on and on. When she stops to take a breath, he quickly stands up.

"Thank you for coming."

"When would you like her to start? Her birthday is on Friday, she can start then." Mum says.

"We will be in touch."

I can't get out of there fast enough. My face is burning with embarrassment and humiliation.

Mum smiles, "Well I think he knows where we stand. Maybe you should write some more letters in case he wasn't impressed with you and you don't get the job."

I didn't get to open my mouth. How could he be impressed with me. I could cry, I really wanted that job. Everyone says it is a good place to work. I'm not telling Mum that I got two more interview letters in the post. I will go to them after school on Monday. On my own. I'll just have to go in my school uniform. She'll never know the difference.

The next interview at Mixenden Mills General Office goes well and I am hired to start on my birthday, Friday. I will have my last day of school on Thursday. I can't believe I have to leave school. Mom won't let me stay on to take the new government school leaving certificate exams. She says she's supported me long enough, its time I earned my keep. Mr. Keenan my wonderful math teacher came to our house last week to try to get her to change her mind. She told him to mind his own business and my stepfather Ted threw him out. I can't believe he did that to my favorite teacher.

I still didn't get a letter from my first interview. I wish they had told me no, instead of leaving me in limbo. I'm know they won't offer me the job, but I wish they would. There isn't much time to turn down the Mixenden job and I haven't told Mum about it yet.


It's my first day at Mixenden Mills. I hate it. The two other women are nice to me, but the office is dark and gloomy. The furniture is old fashioned. I feel like a character in one of Charles Dickens' novels as I sit on a high stool at a ledger desk that runs along the wall under grimy windows that I can't see through. But worst of all, I only get to copy someone else's answers into the general ledger. There is nothing to think about. This is my worst birthday ever. By five o'clock I'm so bored I could scream.

The walk home takes quite a long time and its six thirty by the time I turn onto Gibbet Street. I'm surprised and pleased to see Miss Green, the manager's secretary from my first interview.

"Hello Deirdre, I heard you were starting a new job. Do you like it?"

"No its boring."

"Well then, can you come back to our office, without your Mum, for another interview?"

My heart flutters, "Yes, I only work half day on Saturday, I can come in then."

"I'll set it up for you to be there at 2:30 pm. Mr. Robinson was disappointed that he didn't get the opportunity to talk to you last time."

"Thank you." I'm ecstatic, and run the rest of the way home.

Mum is home before me and says, "Well you look happy, you must have enjoyed your first day. Tell me what you did."

"Oh, I just write numbers into a ledger."

"Well that's right up your alley, you always were good at math."

"I don't do any math. I just copy someone else's answers, Mum. It's not the same." I don't mention my new interview.


I got the job!

I proudly wear my first brand new shop bought dress with my lace up school shoes when I start my new three-pounds-a-week job as office junior. I still don't know why Mum wants me to be a secretary, there isn't much laughing or joking here. All the women have very busy jobs so I don't get much chance to ask questions.

The girl whose job I am taking over has been promoted to a different desk. She tells me she doesn't have time to train me, she says she hated being office junior. She makes me feel stupid when I try to explain that I've never used a telephone before. It is scary, I can't tell what people are saying.

Customers call from all over England from places that I've never heard of. The callers have strange accents that are distorted further by the static crackling and popping on the telephone line and I can't understand them. I can tell they are cross because their washing machines have broken down. They get annoyed when I ask them to spell out their address. I wish I didn't have to answer the phones. I'm not very good at it. But I like filing and retrieving all the warranty cards and the piles of letters that arrive every day from customers without phones who want us to repair their broken washing machines.

I wish Mum had let me go to work at Crossley's Carpets in the mill where I would have earned a lot more money. Each morning I walk slowly past the mill and breath in the hot oily smells and feel the exciting throb of the machines right up through the soles of my feet. In the evening on my way home, the men and women stream out of the gates laughing and joking. I wish I was one of them.

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