Thursday, June 09, 2005


Even I could see that Bessie was different.

You have to understand, though, that the world we lived in was different too, no less strange to me now than somewhere like Katmandu – stranger if anything: no child goddess in a Katmandu temple could seem more foreign than the war-reared child I used to be: 'innocent' would be far too light a word to describe her. It was Bessie who first taught me that such innocence might be dangerous. More: that it was dangerous

Up till the day I’m writing about, all I knew of Bessie's world, the one lurked at the underside of the village, was not so much her as another woman, a tiny, brown-eyed woman in a ragged brown skirt held together with safety pins, her lank hair tied back by a shoe-lace – this was the age most women had perms you must remember. Her shoes were made of newspaper wrapped round with string and the battered pram she pushed through the village held a dirty child peering out from a heap of rags. Two or three more dirty children trailed along behind. They smelt; we tried not to get too near. If I thought about this at all, I was puzzled maybe, a bit apprehensive maybe: a bit curious, for sure. I also knew – I suppose I did – that such people were looked down on by everybody else in the village; especially by the likes of those who usually helped my mother in the house.

We’d moved up the hill after the war, out of the village proper. For one reason or another, the cleaners came and went. Maybe it was not worth their trailing up the hill for a pittance: maybe desperation – our present house was much bigger than the last -led my mother into hiring ‘Bessie-Wot-Works’ as she was known by the village grapevine that led my mother to her. She was a small, cheerful woman, relatively short of teeth. Every day she wore the same large but patently glass ‘diamond’ ear-rings clipped to her ears, the same dirty scarf swathed her head. Her hemline dipped raggedly at intervals all round on what appeared to be, always, the same skirt. Winter and summer alike, she wore worn- down sandals out of which not very clean toes peered, often red with cold. She also brought a child with her, strapped to an improvised pushchair consisting of a frame on wheels and some cut-down planks. He could not have been less than four– my mother was always complaining it would have been good for him to walk. In my memory, though, he sat all morning, dressed in a grubby grey pullover and shorts, out of which stuck dirty hands and thin, pink, scabby legs, eating a slice of bread and jam that spread jam over his face and up into his straggly blond hair. He smiled quite inanely, dribbled sometimes. I think he might not have been ‘quite all there’ –my mother’s words. ‘My little John’ Bessie always called him. Which made me think – though nothing else about him did – of Robin Hood. I was a reader even then.

Bessie cannot have been a bad worker; it was surely not just for lack of others that my mother employed her for more than a year, almost eighteen months in fact. A degree of pity might have come into it; she did so very obviously need the work. But Bessie was too cheerful to invite pity. She worked willingly and hard, bustling about with mops and buckets. She was rather too unaware of corners and edges, my mother complained, too inclined to use the same dirty cloth on everything unless it was firmly replaced, never seen to wash out the dusters, let alone the mop. When using our ancient Hoover, she did not stop to pick anything up; drawing pins, nails, bits of my brother’s toy soldiers swallowed up recklessly, she was trailed by a smell of burning rubber. Most days after she had left, my mother first rinsed out the mop, then dusted the tops of cabinets and cupboards, then brushed behind and under things, sighing a little. Bessie, she said, never believed that anything she couldn’t see straight off existed. But what Bessie did believe in, she attended to more than adequately. ‘Slapdash,’ my mother would say. ‘Bessie’s definitely slapdash.’ Adding, a moment later, ‘But a good deal better than nothing. And decent enough, always smiling. Quite a nice little woman in her way, given everything.’ What that ‘everything’ was that had to be given, she did not say; like so much else she did not say, that she never told us.

We were allowed a lot of freedom just the same; we were allowed to ride our bikes, for instance, anywhere we chose and on our own. Every Saturday I’d ride my bike down to the library to change my books: this was how, one Saturday, Bessie began re-colouring my world.

Everything started out as normal. Turning left out the High Street into Station Road, I saw and waved at familiar faces; the familiar faces waved back. Down the hill, almost opposite the library, I exchanged smiles with Miss Slaughter riding her bicycle uphill, its basket like mine full of books. Miss Slaughter was a spinster left over from the first World War, her fiancé one of the many swept up by its slaughter. Her post Second World War, still virgin body was also beginning to harbour the ovarian cancer that would kill her in a year or so. My mind on the library behind her, I knew nothing about things like that. Would any new books have come in? Or would I have to settle for the The Hobbit, yet again, for the deliciously evil Gollum? 'Precioussss..' - I hissed to myself, so deep in the Hobbit world, that I turned sharp right across the road forgetting to look, and found myself almost under the wheels of a lorry full of gravel grinding down the hill.

I had always been warned to look carefully, crossing the road; but here I was, staring up, terrified, at a monstrous radiator just above my head, at ridged tyres, much bigger than me. The lorry screeched to a halt with a squeal of brakes. The driver was leaning out of the window waving his fists at me and shouting words I couldn’t hear –I wouldn't have understood them if I had. Weeping a little from pain and fright - I’d scraped my leg against the mudguard, banged my knee quite hard - I dragged my bike onto the far pavement. Miss Slaughter had disappeared, thankfully. No one else I knew appeared to be in sight. Even in my distress I knew that was just as well; any friend of my parents would have been bound to tell them what had happened. But then Bessie-Wot-Works and her pushchair, her son John, appeared on the pavement behind me. Whether it was the sight of her made me feel sick or delayed reaction to my narrow escape I do not know. Most likely it was both.

Bessie was smiling, kindly. ‘That looks a nasty scrape. You’d better come along o’ me,’ she said. I didn’t have much choice it seemed – rather, she was giving me no choice. The reality of what had happened beginning to hit me, I found myself shaking: I realised I could really have been killed. My banged knee ached unpleasantly, my scraped calf, bleeding a little by now, stung. At the same time – I hardly liked this better - there lurked at the back of my mind a queasy curiosity at the prospect of seeing where Bessie lived: I’d heard my mother whisper something about it once, frowning, when she thought I wasn’t listening. I didn’t want to go with her one bit. At the same time I rather did.

I knew roughly where it was; down the forbidden alley that everyone - not just my mother - frowned about. When Bessie started leading me and my bike and bag full of library books along the road towards it, I followed without a word. I was in Bessie’s power, absolutely. I also knew that Bessie knew it. She could tell my mother what had happened, as Miss Slaughter would have done had she seen what happened; my mother might no longer allow me to ride my bike on my own. On the other hand if I did the right thing, whatever that was, Bessie, unlike Miss Slaughter, would not tell. I don’t quite know how I knew this but I did - in the same way, I suppose, that I’d always recognised that Bessie was different. Going along with her seemed a bargain quite new to me, connecting me to an adult – a grown-up person – in ways I didn’t know a child could connect with one. Uncomfortable as this was making me feel already, I could see, too, that it might have its uses. Naïve I might be, but not altogether stupid.

Down the road we went; turned sharp left between the greasy walls of the alley and into a space much wider than I’d have suspected from the outside. It was a square of sorts, surrounded by decrepit buildings - tenements they must have been –slums. All were multiply occupied to judge by the number of people I saw in the square, talking, working, or simply hanging about, by the hordes of children running around screaming. They were people more like Bessie than anyone else I knew; some I realised I had seen before. I recognised, for instance, the woman with newspaper shoes who pushed the pram full of rags and a baby, her skirt – if that’s what you called it - done up with safety pins. She recognised me, too; worse, she even smiled at me. I smiled back, uncertainly. Blood beginning to trickle down my legs, I felt a desperate need to sit down. I felt a still more desperate need to pee: ‘go to the lav,’ I would have I called it then.

I looked round me – everyone was looking at me now. This was not the village where I followed my mother into the International Stores, then into the drapers with its wooden knicker-drawers, into the ironmonger’s next door, into the butcher’s shop next door to that, snuffing up the distinctive smell of each; musty cloth in the drapers, oil and paint in the ironmongers, blood in the butcher’s. (I did not much like the butcher’s shop. That smelt alien too.) It was not the village, round which, on Saturday mornings I accompanied my father as he paid the bills, rewarded by a fizzy lemonade in the George and Dragon, while he drank his Saturday half pint and exchanged news of the village or of cricket with people I’d known since I was born. In those few yards that separated us from the street, I’d left behind everything and everyone I knew. This was a foreign country. I felt homesick. I felt afraid.

Most of the people I looked at – all of them looking back at me as if I was no less alien to them than they to me - were dirty. Most were raggedy, their shoes cracked and open if they had shoes, not just bits of cloth or newspaper tied round their feet. Barefoot children were staring too; stringy dogs were sniffing about. Walls were cracked and peeling, many of the windows were broken, some had no panes at all, were stuffed with rags. As for the smell - involuntarily I put my hand up to stop my nose.

Bessie was pulling me in now, through one of the doors that lined the place. On the other side still another smell reminded me faintly of what I only knew to call ‘spent pennies’, reminded me even more faintly of the other lavatory smell for which I knew no other name than ‘big jobs’. Along with damp, mould, old food, paraffin, they combined to make what I had never smelt in my life before, the damp, sour smell of poverty. I retched a little. ‘I need to spend a penny,’ I said, faintly. ‘O’ course you do. Come outside then, love,’ Bessie said. Screeching behind us as we went to the little boy in the pushchair, ‘You stop there; or I’ll tan your bum.’ As if he could move, I thought. He was still strapped in, as usual.

Bessie led me through the back now, out into a yard piled with old bits of metal and wood, smelling of tomcat. Leant against the far hall was a rickety little hut. ‘Need the paper will you?’ she asked, pointing at cut-up sheets of newspaper jammed on a nail just inside the door. Shaking my head dumbly, I entered, with reluctance, the horrid little shack, closing the door as much as was necessary for privacy, but not so much that no air could come from outside to mitigate the stink. I avoided looking at the stained bowl and its contents as I positioned myself in a miserable crouch above it, letting no part of me make contact; hadn’t my mother always warned of the dangers of lavatory seats, the germs you could catch? - what germs, I wondered? - she never said. Not that there was a seat to speak of. To be fair I could not help noticing, even while trying not to notice anything more than I had to, to do my business, that some attempt had been made to keep the place clean and orderly. There was that newspaper for instance, on the nail, which I was after all obliged to use owing to the effects of my fright and with which, thankless as it was, I did my best. Nothing happened when I pulled the rusty chain. I put two more sheets of paper down the bowl to hide the evidence and escaped.

Even the smell of tomcat seemed almost wholesome when I reached the air outside. Bessie led me back into the house, sat me down on a sagging armchair, on a cushion its velvet so rubbed that only a few strands remained and barely a shadow of its colour - had it been pink perhaps? ‘I’m making you a nice cup of tea, lovey,’ she said. ‘Tea with a load of sugar’s what you need after that shock. That lorry could a’ killed you. But there wasn’t no call for the language, not to a nice young lady like you.’ She smiled at me so widely that her lack of teeth was all too apparent. Seeing that she was trying to be kind, I felt bad about noticing such things–her remaining brown stumps, her pink gums - the way I did. But I could not help noticing everything.

I was not allowed to drink tea at home, or only rarely. Still shaking, I did not think I wanted any now, but when the tea arrived in my hands in a chipped yellow cup, I was comforted all the same. My hands folded themselves around the warmth. The sweetness eased my tongue. Bessie, I knew, had other children apart from Little John, I wondered vaguely where they all were – a question answered at once by the sight of two faces peering in, one about my age, one younger. ‘You get out of it, or I’ll tan your hides for you,’ Bessie yelled at them. Taking her word for it – so would I have done - they disappeared. Bessie was attending to her youngest meantime. I had the impression that she was – she might have been - giving me time to recover myself; I think she was. This was kind. She had her reasons of course. I knew it. Yet even thinking about it now I find myself grateful to her.

As my nose got used to the smell it faded somewhat. Having time to look about me, I began to see that here too, just as in the lavatory, for all the shabbiness, the almost black ceiling above my head, the peeling walls, the cracked lino underfoot, someone somehow – Bessie no doubt –had made an effort. There was a rag rug on the floor for instance, all its pieces so old and dirty and faded you couldn’t tell what colours they might once have been, but still it was a rag rug that someone once, laboriously, had put together. On a table a heap of rags made it look as if someone – Bessie again – was beginning to make a new rug to replace it. There was a dresser of sorts on which hung two neat rows of cracked chipped cups. The cup I’d just drunk from was cracked and chipped too; I’d done my best to keep my lips from the chips, from the brown cracks.

The walls were decorated up to head height. It took me a moment to work out what they were decorated with; sheets of newspaper, pages from woman’s magazines, newsprint photographs pasted all over. It made me remember Bessie leaving our place with piles of old newspaper she’d begged off my mother – not my father’s Times – but what my father, teasing my mother, called ‘her Bolshevik rag,’ the Daily Mirror; though my mother, as he knew perfectly well wasn’t interested in its politics, only in its comic strips which she had encountered, I daresay, via one of our previous daily women. There they all were: ‘Ruggles’, Garth, Jane, the rest of them, on Bessie’s walls: Garth flexing his massive thighs and biceps in the service of good, Ruggles with his cloth cap and cigarette hanging out of his mouth, Jane in a mini skirt, thrusting out her pointed bosoms, flaunting her blond mane, her pouting lips. Alongside them were photographs of real people – over-dressed film stars, models from Woman’s Own in demurer skirts and sweaters. There was also a recipe for Yorkshire parkin, complete with an appetising illustration that did not, just now, make me feel hungry. A large notice tacked above all this announced in curly gold letters HOME SWEET HOME.

I began to notice more and more. Weren’t some of those cups on the dresser, cups not only cracked but clamped together with little metal claws, just like those in my mother’s cupboard? One belonged, surely, to the blue and white gold-edged Crown Derby tea set, handed down from my grandmother. Had my mother given Bessie that too? I couldn’t believe she had. Other things, not only the hanging cups but the plates leaned behind them, also seemed familiar: not all but quite a few. As did some of the rags ready for the rug – one piece I recognised as from an old blouse of my mother’s. As I recognised with worse shock pieces from my last year’s school sweater, from my older sister’s worn-out summer frock, from my little sister’s nightdress. The little boy in the pushchair now eating bread and dripping – I hated dripping - was actually wearing an old jumper of mine. I couldn’t bear to see it, the way things were. On the mantelpiece I saw, placed in decorative line, some bone or china buttons that came, surely, from my mother’s precious button cabinet that we were allowed to play with sometimes, but from which nothing was to be removed for good.

Everywhere I looked I saw us; traces of my family; not just in the objects themselves, but in the way they were arranged. Ornaments, cracked, worn, but still ornamental, an old clock set in the middle of the mantelpiece just like my mother’s Boule clock, leaning alongside a picture cut out from a magazine and set in a cardboard frame; in our house a photograph of my dead grandmother took exactly that place. Of course many mantelpieces everywhere were arranged in similar ways; dogs – here they weren’t china dogs, but dented tin ones that looked as if they came from a toy farm– ours? – sat either end. Yet, rightly or wrongly, it felt to me like some parody of us: homage and mockery together.

I am not saying for one moment that everything had been stolen: far from it. Bessie often left our house bearing cast-offs of one kind or another given her by my mother. That some of the stuff had arrived unlicenced was also not quite the point - most of it was useless; it might even have come out of our dustbins. Though I didn’t fancy the thought of Bessie picking through our dustbins, I supposed there was nothing wrong in that. Yet this mimicry of us? – was it real? Or was I imagining it? I doubt if my mother would have cared any more for it than I did, in my place. Maybe she wouldn’t have recognised it, maybe I only saw it this way because of my new, unsought relationship with Bessie. I began shaking all over again; - shaking in some light, not to say lightened and darkened, revved-up, hyper version of myself - a version so recently snatched from the jaws of death that I was not familiar with any of it.

Bessie was observing me I noticed. I was certain she saw what I saw around me, ‘Nice isn’t it,’ she said complacently, her finger on the Crown Derby cup. ‘Your ma, your mummy – gave me that, it was beyond mending she says, but still handsome I says, have it she says if you want it, she says, she was always generous like that your ma, your mummie. But you know that, dearie.’

She might easily have been telling the truth. She might just as easily have been telling a whopper. At the same time I knew – don’t ask me how but I did – that she knew it was what I was thinking. And that she didn’t care. That was what disturbed me above all. SHE DIDN’T CARE. Whatever had come here light-fingered - sadly, I think now, none of it was worth anything- it didn’t matter. Not in her world, her life, her HOME SWEET HOME (years later, coming across Shaw’s dustman in Pygmalion who ‘couldn’t afford honesty’ – or was it morality? - I thought of Bessie at once.) The fact was she knew what I knew, that I wouldn’t be telling my mother anything. In return for which she wouldn’t be telling my mother anything. Just as she would not describe the sight of my mother’s daughter almost mashed to pieces under the wheels of the gravel lorry, I in my turn would be keeping to myself everything I’d encountered the far side of that forbidden alley with its running walls and slimy concrete. I wouldn’t even admit that I had been there. Not ever. NOT EVER.

Complicity was the word. We were complicit. Though these weren’t words I was familiar with then I could still recognise the concept. It entangled me in something all the more scary because nothing within it could be admitted in any way. Or so I thought.

It was more complicated– much more complicated even -than those other things that I kept entirely to myself, the nice sensations I had when, lying in bed at night, I put my hand down inside my pyjamas and played with the place from which just now I’d spent an unwilling but unstoppable penny. Sex education would have sorted out that one, had I been given it – but I wasn’t. Nothing so simple encompassed this quite other kind of grown-up world about which they couldn’t have told me, unlike the other. There were no words for it. It smelt slippery. It was slippery, all the more so for being in its way, amiable, for Bessie being, in her way, kind. Brought up to be polite I knew I should be saying, ‘thank-you’, ‘thank-you’ for having me. I did say it: in my politest voice. But it didn’t help. It did not stop the thing– or me -belonging to all the other things out there, lurking, above, below, behind. Under rocks, beneath trees, on top of cupboards where I couldn’t reach. At the same time, like my other guilty secret it was almost exciting. That was the worst thing.

Seeing Bessie smile at me again, I felt sicker than ever. I put down my cup of tea, half drunk.

‘Drink up, dear. You need it.’ But she didn’t protest when, wordlessly, I shook my head. ‘I made it nice in here didn’t I? I tried to make it nice, it’s hard when you’re poor, when you ain’t got no money. Got your bag ducks?’ I’d forgotten about my bag. It lay at my feet where she had put it. She must have rescued it when I came off my bike. ‘Got anything nice in it?’ she asked. I pulled out my dourly covered library books, with their once luminous – now unreachable insides. ‘Books,’ said Bessie. What did I have then? – I wondered stupidly. ‘Wind on the Moon’? a Diana Pullein Thompson pony book, about girls my age winning gymkhanas, or being sporting losers? I looked at them uncomprehendingly. ‘A nice read must be good,’ said Bessie. ‘I never got no chance at book learning, but Little John here likes books. Don’t he Johnnie?’

‘Oh but he can have one of Elizabeth’s old books; next time he comes ,’ I said hurriedly – Elizabeth was my little sister. ‘I’m sure mummy wouldn’t mind. My books might be a bit too old for him. Beside these are library books.’ Barbar; I was thinking. ‘Barbar the Elephant.’ But then I remembered the bold images of Barbar’s orderly town, the happy procession of bakers and gardeners and farmers and wished I hadn’t. There were no such complicated places in Barbar’s town. Oh dear. Oh lucky him.

A small tube of smarties lay hidden at the bottom of the bag, my sweet ration, bought as usual from Mrs Cosgrove, at the sweetshop on the Green. Alongside was a shilling, my pocket money. I handed over them both, but put the books back in my bag. ‘They’re library books,’ I said again, apologetically. ‘Of course they are, ducks,’ replied Bessie.

I got to my feet then, headed for the door. Little John had started screaming; admonishing him, shrilly, she didn’t try to stop me. After the gloom inside the light in the street seemed too bright for my eyes to tolerate. I fled through the alleyway, walked up the hill through my previously familiar hometown, pushing my bike, blinking, feeling like a foreigner myself, to continue growing-up the way my mother expected.

I did grow up that way. At least, that was what she thought I did.

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