Tuesday, March 6, 2007

1958 Mum's Second Marriage

“Are you ready for school, Deirdre?” Mum asks poking her head around the bedroom door.

“Oh, Mum. Did you get off work early?” I ask, surprised to see her.

“No, I took the day off today.”

“How come?”

“I’m getting married. I have invited Stella to the wedding because it was her birthday yesterday, but you are going to school.” She closes the door.

I’m crushed. I am in shock. How can she be getting married, she doesn’t even go on dates. I hurry and finish queezing into my school uniform. The buttons of my blouse stretch tight over my growing breasts. Mum is cross at me for growing out of the blouse she made new for me at Christmas. But I can’t help it. She promised to sew me a new one at the weekend. Now she will have to ask her new husband first. I probably will have to do without. Maybe she will get some material and I can make it myself.

I rush down the stairs to our messy living room. Stella is all dressed up in her Sunday best church clothes, twirling insanely around to make the skirt of her dress flare out. “Nah, nah na nah na, I get to go to the wedding and you don’t.” she taunts.

“I’d rather go to school anyway.” I reply sulkily, I won’t let her get the better of me.

Mum is drinking Nescafé instant coffee and smoking one of her favourite Craven A filter tip cigarettes. Her ashtray is full to overflowing and the air in the room is blue with smoke, she must have been up for a long time.

“Who are you getting married to?” I ask.

“Not that its any of your business but his name is Ted.”

“Who is he?”

“I work with him at the bank, he’s the night watchman, you met him a couple of weeks ago.”

“I don’t remember meeting him.”

“Yes you do.” Stella pipes up, “Mum brought him to the house to meet Grandma and Grandpa.”

“That old man? You can’t be marrying him.”

“Who I choose to marry is none of your business.”

“But he’s older than Grandpa.” I can hardly believe it. I’m angry with her.

“Things are going to change around here,” she announces tartly, “You will learn to show respect.”

Respect. Is she out of her mind? How on earth am I supposed to respect an old man who, grabbed and squeezed my breasts before I was able to push him away.

As usual, there is nothing I can do about it. I button up my blazer and stomp out of the house where welcoming cool damp presses against my burning face, the thick fingers of fog thankfully render me invisible.

Monday, March 5, 2007

1957 Boy Watching

“Hi Angela.” I call out and wave to my friend.
After school we rushed home to change out of our uniforms. Black eyeliner, thick mascara and paler than pale pink lipstick now masks our faces. We are dressed in our going out on display outfits. Cardigans buttoned-down the backs to imitate the sweaters American girls wear on the television shows. Circular skirts puffed out by net petticoats around our nylon clad shapely legs shown off by three-inch stiletto heels, toes cruelly crushed in the points of the latest fashion shoes. We giggle as we make our way down town like two bright peacocks with feathers gloriously displayed for the opposite sex.

Purple People Eater is blaring loudly from the jukebox, the top ten hit booming so loudly that I can feel the rhythm through my skin and into my bones. The song finishes then plays over again. Angela says the singer is Don Lang, and he used to live a few door down from her in Halifax before he became famous and moved away from Yorkshire to somewhere posh down London way.

We slip passed tightly packed bodies into the Bon Bon cafe, the most popular place for teenagers to graze and gaze. We buy espresso coffee and flirt with the dark handsom Greek Cypriot boy behind the counter. He’s the son of the cafĂ© owner, about our age but not part of the group. Our coffee sweetened we carried our cups and saucers over to a booth less crowded than some of the others. We squeeze ourselves in next to a group of older girls who turn away and ignore us. Settled, we surveyed the male talent.

Angela spots one of the senior-form boys from our school. “That’s Paul,” Angela said, "He’s really popular with the girls.”

“Well, he’s way better looking than most of the boys in our class.” I tell her.

She waves to him and to her surprise he saunters nonchalantly over to our booth and says hello. We squeeze up so that he can sit with us, but disappointingly, he is not interested in us. Its the smiling older girl sitting next to Angela who captures his longing gaze. Taking the hint we reluctantly slide out of the seat and let him crawl in next to her.

Dismissed, we resume our survey of the crowd and spot two nice looking boys that are giving us the eye.

Angela says, “I’ll take the tall dark good-looking one.”

“Okay.” I agree. It is her turn to get first choice. We always take turns; after all, it doesn't really matter. The boys are just a decorative divergence for a few hours; we aren’t going to date them or anything because Angela and I have plans. We are going to join the Air Force and become pilots and travel the world.

1961. Per Ardua Ad Astra

“I hope it doesn’t get any windier.” I say to my new friend Brenda as we stand in line waiting for our turn to go up in the glider. They told us flights would be cancelled if the wind got too strong. We fidget; neither of us has ever done anything as exciting as this before. Neither of us expected to ever get the opportunity because we will work in offices once we are posted to our permanent bases next week.

“Are you scared?” she asks.

“A bit,” I confess. “But we can’t chicken out. We may never get another chance.”

I have to hitch my uniform skirt high up my thighs to climb clumsily into the front of the glider. My bottom thumps inelegantly down into the seat and my legs straddle to joystick. My pilot swings himself gracefully in behind me. He runs through a list of things I should expect during the flight. “I control the joystick,” he tells me. “Do not to touch it.”

Only half listening, my mind races and my hands shake with a mixture of fear and excitement as I take off my beret and roll it cap badge forward, and secure it under my shoulder epaulet. Who would have thought that after just two months in the Women’s Royal Air Force, I would be heading for the sky.

“Ready?” My pilot asks.
“Absolutely.” I lie as the catapult whirs. It tows our glider ever faster down the bumpy runway. My stomach lurches as we leave the ground.
Oncee we are high enough the pilot shouts, “I’m releasing the tow rope.”

And we are free soaring silently above the green flat fenlands surrounding the Kirton Lindsey Air Training Base. Exhilarating. It’s so beautiful up high in the clear blue sky I wish I could stay forever banking and turning, soaring and swooping.

I plunge into memories of the first time I told anyone I wanted to fly, to be a pilot.

The strong smell of furniture wax mixes with milk soured in empty bottles sitting on the classroom windowsill since morning break. Miss hands out worksheets for us and tells us we must choose the two jobs we most want to do when we leave school. There are pictures of women in nurses dresses, teachers, clerks and charwomen. The men are in police uniforms, pilots, doctors and soldiers.

I choose a pilot first and a soldier second. A long time ago I wanted to be a nurse, but Mum told me I wouldn’t like it. All she got to do when she was a nurse was empty bedpans and make beds and take orders from men. I used to want to be a policeman until I went to the police station with my sister to see if they had my Dad. It smelled horrible in there of drunks and robbers and murderers.

I am still daydreaming when Miss smacks me around the ear. She makes me stand in front of the class and tell everyone what jobs I’ve chosen. I proudly tell everyone that I want to be a pilot. They snigger and whisper.
Miss looks mad. “Stupid girl. That’s a job for a man. Do you want to grow up to be a man?”
“No Miss.”
“Then sit down and choose a woman’s job.”
I look at the women’s jobs again. There is nothing I want to do. I’m a lot smarter than most of the boys. I don’t see why I can’t be a pilot just because I’m a girl. I don’t change my choice.

Miss sends to the Headmasters office that smells thickly of cigars. Mr. Hawk doesn’t ask why I am there doesn’t even look up, just instructs me to bend over the desk and lift my skirt. I try not to think about the strap stinging my legs. I remember my Mum telling me that Mr. Hawk smelled just like Winston Churchill when she sat on the front row to listen to him give a speech, she was so close she could see food stains and ash all down his waistcoat.

Miss whacks me across my knuckles with the ruler when I get back, but she doesn’t try to make me change my work. At dinnertime, the kids push and shove me and say nasty things to me. They laugh and chant, “Deirdre wants to be a boy.” They don’t listen when I tell them I like being a girl, I just want an interesting job when I leave school. Luckily, they quickly get bored and move on to weaker prey. My best friend Janet says, “Next time forget what you want and just do what Miss says.”

Pity Miss can’t see me now as thermals carry me upward, soaring ever higher over the fens.
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