Bereavement came without warning. It was a bright sunny Saturday; I had gone to Momma's as usual. She was standing at the window. I knew something was wrong. "Run to the police station," she said. "Ask them to get the doctor, Alice is ill."
I felt sick, Momma would not have sought police help unless Alice was very sick indeed. I don't know whether there were any call boxes in the district but in any event none of us were familiar with their use.
The bobby was dismissive, "The doctor is out playing golf he'll come on Monday."
I burst into tears, "She's dying." I sobbed. Even though I hadn't seen her, I knew. There was a cord inside me stretching to breaking point.
The bobby smiled and shook his head, "Now, now, there's nothing to worry about. The doctor says she's had these attacks before. Your Auntie will be all right."
I felt a fierce hatred well up inside. Aunt Alice was dying and he didn't care, the doctor didn't care either. He was playing golf! I had to go back and tell Momma he wouldn't come.
Alice died the next day.
She was laid out in her coffin in the parlour. Dressed like the bride she had never been. The family gathered round her coffin to kiss her goodbye. She looked beautiful, her fair hair softly waved about her face, her cheeks faintly blue as they often were in life. Only her lips were different, dark blue almost black. I couldn't believe she was dead. For a long time afterwards I had nightmares about being buried alive.
I didn't go to the funeral but stayed at Momma's to help make the sandwiches. It was all so unreal. The blinds were down at every window and those neighbours who had pilloried her whilst she was alive collected to buy her a lovely wreath.
After the funeral came the feast, an event, which I was to learn, was a natural sequence of death and I don't just mean the ham tea. She hadn't many possessions but what she had was claimed before the ground had settled.
I was too sick and stunned by it all to protest. Later Momma asked if there was anything I would like. The only thing I wanted was the box of greeting cards that Aunt Alice used to read to me when I was a toddler. Some of the cards were sent from France during the 1914- 18 war. Others were later ones with lace fronts or portraits of film stars but they had already gone.
Momma was distressed that she hadn't saved it for me thinking I was too old but what she had saved was a china coffee set which Alice had bought long ago for her bottom draw. It was a beautiful blue and gold with Japanese girls holding parasols. When you held it up to the light you could see the figures right through. I had it for many years although my own children knocked it over and broke some of the pieces. My granddaughter has what remains of it.
After Alice died I stopped visiting except for birthday and Christmas. The house felt strange and empty. Looking back, I think my parents should have reminded me of my Grandparents unhappiness.
Alice's death left my life severed. I no longer visited "Momma" alone, it was too painful and yet her concern was for me.
The birthday following Aunt Alice's death, Momma gave me a puppy. She had adopted a mongrel bitch that she called "Tutu." I think Tutu had some welsh collie in her for she was a very clever and obedient dog. When Momma went shopping if she was away too long Granddad would open the door and say fetch Maman. Off the dog would trot and put her nose round every shop door until she found her. All the shopkeepers knew her and her errand.
"You're too late," they would say. "Try the butchers, the fishmongers" etc.
"Tutu" her mongrel dog had puppies and I was given the pick of the litter. It wasn't the first dog we had owned for Dad had a spate of adopting thoroughbred dogs. One I remember was golden setter who took distemper shortly after we had him. He died as had the others but "Brownie" as I named my pup lived to know my own two babies.
Brownie, a small mongrel terrier was my passport to the outside world. Now I could walk on the forest no longer alone and it was she that brought me in contact with the locals. They hung around in groups under the lamppost at the corner of the
street. Tommy and his elder brother Jack, Billy and Ray together with Irene, Beryl and Betty. We spent hours laughing and talking and then Jack asked me to meet him alone. I was so flattered; he was two or three years older than me and working.
We met secretly, at my insistence because he was Betty's boyfriend. They had been going out together for six months and I didn't want to break them up. He initiated me into the kissing game. I thought him very passionate as he glued his lips to mine. Passion being judged by the length of time you could hold out without coming up for breath.
We quarrelled when his brother told me Jack had broken off with Betty.
"I suppose you're pleased with yourself" he said.
He was really angry with me as he had a crush on me himself. He was the lad who had given me my first kiss.
He was wrong though, I wasn't pleased because in the first place I wasn't keen on Jack I just enjoyed the thrill of someone wanting me. After all I was overweight, with straight hair and a receding chin. And in the second place the girls who now turned their backs on me again had only recently accepted me.
I told Jack I wouldn't see him again and that he must go back to Betty which he did for a short while until she developed Multiple Sclerosis within a year she was in a wheel chair and I vowed I would never again mess about with some one else's lad.
During this time I had made a school friend. Her name was Barbara she had a cycling accident shortly after starting the Manning and after a long absence was held back a year. I was hurrying along the boulevard when I heard her calling:
"Joan. It is Joan isn't it?"
I waited while she limped up to me.
"I know your friend Barbara from Berridge Rd. We met in the first year, remember?'
I remembered, some friend that Barbara had turned out to be. She ditched me before we started the Manning School. This was particularly hurtful, as we had joined the Girl Guides together. Our membership didn't last very long - we both got thrown out together shortly after joining. I can't remember what sin we had committed.
We quarrelled during the last week at Berridge Road Juniors. I don't remember the quarrel but I do remember the humiliation of finding her note rolled up and pushed through a hole in my beret.
"I'm a bit late." I said as this new Barbara caught up with me.
"Yes." Barbara said. "You go on I don't want to hold you up. It doesn't matter about me I've got an excuse. I just wanted to speak to you."
But I couldn't run off. When I first met this Barbara she was a pretty golden haired little girl, now her hair was mousier than mine and straighter, she had developed acne and she had a limp. I fell in beside her we were both very late. So late the prefects were no longer at the gate. Usually they stayed to take the names of late comers who were obliged to stand at the back of the assembly hall. I waited in the cloakroom until assembly was over then joined my class.
My English teacher was also my form mistress. "Where were you this morning?'
"I was late Miss and went straight to assembly", I lied. My reaction to any tight corner was to lie myself out it.
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