JoJo, DoDo and William lived at Blue House Farm. When I visited Gran, I always called on them for eggs, Gran holding my young hand tight, then by myself when I was sensible enough to stay on the grass verge.
JoJo, DoDo and William bought the farmhouse and four acres from the Fosters in the early sixties. While the rest of Britain was going mad for miniskirts and Minis, the Byrds and the Beatles, freedom and Free Love, they got a smallholding a hundred miles from London.
JoJo was diminutive, solid and compact, and wore her pink face naked, topped with a mess of blonde hair. She drove erratically, the more-rust-than-white van’s leaf springs creaking madly as it bounced across post-war pot-holes, but drove the majestic old tractor as carefully as if it were a baby’s pram, slowly ploughing for market garden vegetables. Her behaviour was just as capricious as her driving; popping into The Newfield for a half of bitter, winning at darts and causing at least one argument before leaving.
William was as tall and heavy as JoJo-was short, and ever in cap and boiler suit, with short-sleeved shirt and tie, fat end tucked carefully away. He laboured and mended fences, in all senses. He dug post holes and took a dozen eggs to JoJo’s latest outraged victim, especially when the injured party was a customer or a supplier, inevitable in such a small village. William spoke little, but in a curiously high pitch, as if his voice had never properly broken. It sat well with his bright blue eyes, flushed, smooth cheeks and small smile.
It was clear that DoDo was in charge. She was as tall as a man, tanned, slim and elegant. Even in dungarees, waist cinched with an old leather belt, she was a fifties film star,
printed scarf wound around her shiny cocoa brown waves, long nails glowing shell pink, as if she never lifted a finger. William doted on her, always called her Dolores, eyes following her everywhere, while JoJo’s abrasive sharpness ensured small arguments, quickly resolved with a smile, a hug, the attention she needed. DoDo looked after the books, found buyers and got the prices she wanted, but was often to be seen planting and cropping, feeding the hens, packing boxes, and sometimes just standing, shading her eyes from the late sun, and drawing on a cigarette.
When I heard that William had died, by then grown up myself, I realised I had understood all along. Everyone in the village had known, but that awful, intrusive newspaper article was picked up by a national rag, making a fuss, then a scandal about the secret lesbians. William was called Elizabeth, and the three women had lived and worked together for nearly fifty years. JoJo and DoDo left the village after the funeral and never came back.
Jane and I bought Blue House Farm, and sometimes, I just stand there, shading my eyes from the late sun, and drawing on a cigarette.
Since she was a girl, Janet sewed. She sewed her prom dress, and as her prom date became her fiance, she sewed her trousseau. Tom, her F12 pilot, came back from Afghanistan in a coffin, and Janet sewed. She sewed his shroud, and she sewed her own, to be put away for later. She sewed until Social Services sent a man to see if he could help her. He went on and on at her, but eventually fell silent. He couldn’t go on at anyone any more, now. Janet pulled him further up the table and closed his eyes. She sighed, and snapped off some thread with her teeth, holding up the needle to the light to see better. She’d have to take those scissors out of his throat, though; she didn’t want blood on her linen.
“Win £10,000 on Payday Friday”
Omigod, I can’t believe it! I’m in the actual final! I didn’t think I had a chance of winning, and now I just need to just, like, keep it together to answer three questions on Friday. I need this money so much you wouldn’t believe. I’ll be able to get my nails and hair extensions done before Courtney’s wedding. And I can get a wax and tan; I can’t miss the chance to look super-good in front of Josh and Corey. O-M-G, Brooke will be literally green! I’d better make an appointment quickly; the salon’s like, really busy this time of year.
Oh, hey, the hen party – that Zara dress? It’s totally me. A jacket? No, bag and shoes. Two bags and shoes. And a cute dress for the party after the recepti
on. I don’t really need one, I mean, I’m supposed to actually keep the bridesmaid’s dress on literally the whole day, but I’m sure Courtney will be ok. If anyone gets it, she will; that’s, like, how she got Joel, at Maddison’s wedding
I’d better keep quiet about this ‘cos Mum will defo want me to pay her back what I’ve borrowed since I lost my job. I think I actually probably owe her that much, if you count what I borrowed to go Cuba with Cara in December. Mum’s got an actual job, and she always gets extra shifts at work, but I’ve only got Jobseeker’s Allowance. The only reason I’m not being sanctioned is that my skills advisor fancies me, so he’s literally doing all my job applications for me. I mean, it’s not like there are any jobs, or any I would do, any way. It’s just so ridiculous! I can tell he’s working his nerve up to ask me out. Obvs, I’ve already told him I don’t have a boyfriend, so I’ll have to, like, find an excuse. I mean, Damian? Not even.
I think I’ll have some of those crystals on my nails. Would it be too much on my toes as well? I’ll have to have actual bare legs, or I’d rip my stockings, plus I don’t want to cover up the tan. Ooh! Victoria’s Secret – I literally need all new underwear as well; I want to make a big impression on Josh. Or Corey.
I really, really want my hair silver, like Rihanna. I think it’s called ombre grey but silver sounds better, doesn’t it? Courtney said it would clash with the dresses, but what’s she going to do if I just turn up with it? Anyway, she only picked the colour to go with Willow’s dress, and Willow’s only ten months. I mean, I know she’s Courtney’s baby and everything, but she’s not even walking, and if I was Courtney, I literally wouldn’t put her in the photographs, not with that hair. Joel’s not even ginger, so…
I think I’ll make the appointment at Blushing Beauty now, and I’ll see if Cara wants to come with me to Bluewater on Thursday. We can get a cab over for a champagne breakfast; that should set us up for some actual retail therapy. I’ll borrow the money from Mum, and give it back to her on Friday when I win.
It was Saturday, still early when I opened the curtains. I could hear you playing with that wooden train I got you for your birthday, George. I thought we’d feed the hens, then walk down to the paper shop, see if Alf had any sweets under the counter for you, and your mam could have a lie-in.
It was odd; Jack was digging in his garden, a string line around a rectangle about six by twelve feet. I put a jumper over my pyjamas and went out in my slippers, to see. He said he was levelling the base of a greenhouse. He had a wheelbarrow of bricks from the rubble on the south field, and there were lots more already in a heap. I came back in, because my slippers were soaked, but I was puzzled though; I couldn’t see Jack with a greenhouse, and I didn’t know where he would get the money from for the glass anyway. He never had nowt! I made your mam a cup of tea and she said don’t be out too long. She had some bacon for our breakfast; I don’t know where she got it, and I didn’t ask.
He was still labouring when we got back; he never worked that hard for me. The younger lads in the squadron tried to get away with it, because he did; WO Beamish knew he was my brother-in-law and had started to be a bit sharp about it.
After breakfast, we took your mam to Newcastle, to get her Christmas present, then to our Lizzie’s at Felling, because I had a pair of stockings for her. It was dark when we got back. The next day was Christmas Eve, and when I looked down the garden, he had laid all the bricks.
Your Aunt Doris was a bit quiet that Christmas; I put it down to her being young and pregnant. Jack and her were only married a couple of months, and they were never right, from when she said they would need to get married. Well, his mam was never married, and I think if I hadn’t been for the war, and me being his Corporal, Jack would have run off.
Our Ruth was supposed to stay at her friend Sylvie’s house that Friday night after Chapel, but she didn’t. Sylvie’s dad came in drunk, and started on her mam, so Sylvie went to her sister’s. There wasn’t room for Ruth, so she said she’d walk home. Well, she’d walked over the dene hundreds of times, in the dark. By eight o’clock the next night she still hadn’t come home so we got the Police Constable. We went out looking for her: Albert the constable, Sergeant Thompson, me, Jack, and some lads from the street. But it was theblackout, and the torches were weak, shaded with brown paper. We searched again Sunday, calling and calling, but we never found her. Sergeant Thompson searched her bedroom and found nothing. Poor lass, she had nothing!
Doris said Ruth wanted to join the WRAF as soon as she could; we thought she probably had, under a false name and age, and we’d see her in uniform in a few months. Thompson sent a notice to the recruiting stations, but we never heard anything. You were heartbroken; she was more like your big sister than your cousin. I remember saying she’d be back in a few weeks with a present, to stop you crying. Thing is, she was seventeen, and there was a war on; finding her wasn’t top of anybody’s list.
Jack and me went back to the squadron between Christmas and New Year. It was my last leave before VE Day. Doris miscarried a fortnight later, while we were in Belgium; Jack didn’t even ask for compassionate leave. By the time we got home in August the greenhouse was forgotten about. Well, we’d been through half of Europe by that time; who was thinking about greenhouses?
I thought Ruth would be back home when we came back to England with the squadron. I got the first letter for months from your mam; she still hadn’t heard from Ruth. The thing is, so many people went missing in the war that we didn’t have a hope of finding her. Jack was reading the letter over my shoulder, and he said she wouldn’t be coming home.
That night, in the pub, Jack was drunk, and he said things about Ruth: she thought she was something special but she was asking for it and she’d got it all right. I asked what he meant, and he said she’d wanted it, and she hadn’t put up much of a fight. By this time, I was thinking that he’d forced himself on her and she’d run away. I got hold of him and dragged him out into an alleyway, and I hit him. I kept asking and hitting him. I messed him up; his mouth was so swollen he could hardly speak, but he told me. He laughed, George, and he spat a tooth and a big gobbet of spit and blood on my boot. He said he’d had Ruthie that night, there was an accident, and she fell and hit her head. I knew, then. I asked was she under the greenhouse base. He said that’s where he’d put her, and he wasn’t going to swing for a little tramp like her. I hit him again, and again. He couldn’t see out of one eye, and he was still laughing. I told him I was going for the MPs, and he said I shouldn’t unless I wanted everybody to know about me.
I felt sick. I looked at him, and what I’d done. I knew he was talking about, that lad that died in that fight in Brussels, and I was no better than him. I wouldn’t be able to bring Ruth back, even if he did hang for it, and I knew I would lose your mam and you, if he talked. I couldn’t even hit him again. I wanted to put my hands round his throat, and squeeze, and squeeze. I couldn’t. I just stood there, sore from hitting him, blood on my fists, on my shirt, on my boots, and I just stood there, George, sobbing.
‘You want me just to talk, then? OK. Well, when I met Michael, the very first thing he said was that he’d had testicular cancer, which I thought was strange because we’d been e-mailing for about two months by then. Huh, cancer reappeared a few months later, but I’ll try and keep this in order.
‘He was older than his photograph, about five years, I’d say; his hair was a lot greyer and thinner, but cut stylishly, you know? Michael took pride in his appearance; he ran, went to the gym. He was a small man, but he liked having muscles. A few times, I saw him standing naked in front of the mirror, but I never assumed he was posing.
‘He was always saying I was lovely, kind and funny, but sometimes? He’d say my jeans made my thighs look big, my lipstick should be pinker; it looked like concern, but I felt less attractive.
‘One day, we were walking up Skiddaw,when he said I was putting weight on. I said he was unkind, and he just exploded. Out of nowhere, cursing me, shouting, he stormed off and left me up that hill. It was two
miles, and I was expecting the car to be gone when I got back down. He sat on the wall, watching me walk towards him, then he got in the car, and didn’t speak to me all the way home, not even when he dropped me off.
‘Next day, he turned up on crutches, told me he’d torn a ligament when he fell on the way down alone, and it was a good job he could look after himself. On facebook, he posted that he’d fallen off a mountain; he was on his phone all afternoon, checking the comments, then he announced that he had 244 likes, and some people cared. I did my best, and after a while he was mollified enough to eat dinner.
‘Oh, yes. I kept misplacing things. My keys; I’d put them in my bag, and find them in the bathroom or the kitchen. Plausible, but unlikely places. I thought I was losing it, honestly. And he was always playing with my phone, posting things on my facebook page. Nothing awful, but intrusive. When I asked him not to, he’d make a big thing about me not trusting him.
‘He didn’t work for months. Friends got him a couple of terms lecturing at an FE college. He was only there a few months, when he said he’d found a blemish on his foot, it was skin cancer, and he’d have to have more surgery. It was an odd, flat, brownish-purple mark, about the size of a 2p coin; covered in iodine, it was hard to see when he eased back the dressing. We had a row that week, and when he got in touch two weeks later, he told me he’d had the operation and lost his job.
‘I’m fine to carry on, but could I have some water, please? Thanks’.
Miss Webster played the organ at our chapel, and the piano in the classroom for Sunday School.
She lived next door to the doctor’s house, with her mam, who was a very old lady. I knew my mam was thirty-one, so I worked out that Miss Webster must be old, but she wasn’t; she was just old-fashioned.
She wore cardigans that matched her sweater, like my Great Aunt Ethel, but Miss Webster’s were tighter, and she wore tweed skirts and stockings. I only once saw her wear a pair of shoes with heels.
She had two pairs of spectacles, both of them on chains round her neck. She wore one
pair while she was playing, and the other pair sat on her bosom, then she swapped them over when she got down off the seat. The pair she wore while she was playing were tortoiseshell with thick lenses. Sometimes, we had to stand by her to turn the pages of her music book. None of us could read music, so she would nod when it was time to turn over. Her green eyes were huge and blurry through the lenses, and she could sometimes look at you hard, and be a bit scary. Her other glasses were red, with sweeping wings that went right up into her hair. Her hair was lacquered stiff, so when she pushed her spectacles up, her hair moved with them. She would pat it back down, carefully, every time. She smelled nice, though, like my mam did when she was going out with my dad on Saturday nights.
The last time I saw her was at the Chapel Anniversary. All our parents and aunts and uncles came along to see us perform. We all sang hymns together, then we each had to recite or sing something of our own. Sunday School was all about practicing for weeks before that Sunday, and Miss Webster played the same hymns and songs over and over until we were as good as we were ever going to be.
That Sunday, she wore a pale yellow silky dress, and her shoes matched, and they had heels. She slipped them off under the organ seat, and worked the pedals in her stockinged feet.
After lunch the next Sunday, we went to get our coats to walk to Sunday School, and Mam told me we weren’t going, and we didn’t need to go back. She said we were too old for it now. That pleased me because I hated walking there on Sundays, especially in the winter, when I wanted to lie in front of the fire and watch old films on television.
At school on Monday morning, I told my friend Ann that I wouldn’t be seeing her at Sunday School any more, and she started to laugh.
“ There won’t be any more Sunday School,” she said. “My dad says the Chapel will have to close now; the minister, Mr Pickering, has left his wife and run off with Miss Webster”.
Caron is a tiny gnarled man in his seventies, wizened face dark from working on his woodland and smallholding; a few cows and goats, and chickens who spend as much time scratching on the road as in the yard. He came to take a beehive from our roof; his suit swamped him, held up around knees and elbows by straps. He swarmed up the ladder, lifted some tiles and came down almost as fast, saying he couldn’t take the hive without dismantling the roof. The bees are still here.
Mme Caron was collecting census forms; recognising the surname on her identity badge, I asked if they were related.
“Mais oui,” she replied, then switched to English, I think to stop the torture of her ears with my French. “My father”. She rolled her eyes and asked if I knew about the aeroplane.
“Really, the whole commune knows. He and my brother have been building this plane for seven years, and it drives my mother crazy. She says she will not allow them to fly it as she does not have a good black dress for the funeral.”
“But, building an aeroplane?” I said, in French to show willing. Stoically, she continued in English and for some minutes we carried on this bilingual conversation. One day, she told me, he cleared the barn, and, waving some papers at his wife, announced that he had bought the plans and would now build the plane. He would build it from materials lying around the farm. Every day he wanders around with a spanner; Maman throws up her hands, muttering imprecations only audible to the chickens.
The aeroplane is still in the barn. The wings lies on the earth floor alongside the fuselage, and the engine has been in pieces on the workbench for many years. Mme Caron takes the forms and shrugs.
I don’t think I will ever see M. Caron’s plane on that landing strip, but four times a year he will mow it anyway. It looks like he’s just cutting hay.
Colin’s BMW climbed the icy hill, headlights raking the kitchen windows at every bend. Rosemary sat perfectly still on the bench facing the door.
Mascara smeared across her cheeks. The house, her house, was quiet, now. This child’s drawing of a cottage, carefully restored to a family home, with a ten-mile view over the valley from east to west. They said it would be their last house. Then Colin, the early-adopter, had filled it with devices.
“You have a message from your FR3 food tracker.” It told her the lamb chops and cheese needed using up and she was out of milk; the washing machine announced its job was done, and the coffee machine smugly heralded with a discordant chime that her macchiato was ready. It was lukewarm. The Vacbot 1 had suicidally thrown itself downstairs and its dust over the hall, and the oven colluded with Home Message Centre to remind her of her failings: “You have not set menus for today”; “You have not set menus for tomorrow”; “Rosemary’s Mother called.”
She hated the machines, she hated the synthetic voices, and she hated Colin. She hated his shiny red face and thin colourless hair, boiled gooseberry eyes goggling as he programmed the microwave voice, converted her CDs to computer files and installed the voice-activated whole-house telephone system.
An app told him when to take his Propranolol and he’d installed a portable defibrillator in their bedroom, now a domestic version was available. His favourite was the heat pump and underfloor heating system. The designer of that had his own special place in hell waiting for him; all day it justified its existence with a running commentary; “Dining room, twenty degrees” ; “Water, sixty-five degrees.”
“Dinner at six pm; awaiting instructions. Oven on standby; awaiting instructions.” Her fingers curled inwards till the nails dug into her palms.
The phone rang as lights flared and an alert brayed, sounding like all the trumpets of Revelation at once and scaring her senseless. Two voices competed for her slow wits; “Rosemary’s Mother is calling,” and “Lighting up time.” Ignoring the phone, Rosemary scrambled around the kitchen switching off cabinet lights, pendants over the island and ceiling spotlights, till the room was lit only by appliance LEDs. Her heart rate and blood pressure subsided to somewhere near normal.
I should start dinner, she thought, but she didn’t move. “I should, I should, I should…”, she shouted, trailing off when she realised she wasn’t making a sound, and she wept.
The Message Centre, recognising the car’s approach, called out, “Colin is home.”
Rosemary went to the electric meter cupboard, pulled her sleeve down over her fingers and flipped the trip switch. In the hall she unclipped the Home Protection Device from its frame and sat, resting her arm along the cushion.
The door opened. “Rosemary”, he called, stamping snow from his shoes. “Why are you sitting in the dar…”
Rosemary breathed for the first time that day, and opened her mobile. She tapped the emergency icon, and said, “Police, please.”
Later, the report said ”Wife shot husband with taser. Lights off, assumed intruder. DOA. NFA.”
I learned to cook because of my Auntie Doris. Continue reading