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The Special Years by Susan Howe

© Susan Howe

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The Special Years
(A short story)

My heart thuds as I enter the small room at the top of my house and remove the dustsheet from the bookcase. The familiar smell of musty old paper wafts around me and I am ten years old again, browsing the same titles in another time and place. I take a colourful hardback from the top shelf and read the inscription. 'To Judith, with all my love, from Daddy xxx.' The words blur and I reach for another; Five Go to Billycock Hill. I sit on the bed and open it at the first page. 'To Judith, happy birthday, love from Sally.'

***

I can recall every detail of my first encounter with Judith. It had been raining and the sun blazed off the wet road. Judith’s mother was trying to loosen her daughter’s grip without success and Miss Davies looked increasingly nervous as she waited to welcome her new pupil. Judith stamped and screamed, shaking her head so hard that the purple ribbon flew out of her fine, straight hair and into a puddle. Everyone stared and some of the older children sniggered behind their hands. I left my mother and rescued the ribbon, which dripped down my arm as I handed it back.

The teacher’s frown disappeared.

‘Ah Sally, could you show Judith where to put her coat and then bring her to my class, please?’

She smiled briefly into the distance, raising her whistle to her lips as she hurried off. Judith’s mother nodded and quickly turned away.

I stretched up and caught Judith’s flailing hand. In her surprise she stopped yelling and allowed herself to be pulled towards the main doors where children were forming a line. I’d seen her from my bedroom window the previous afternoon when her family had moved in a few doors from mine. Now I took the chance to get a proper look.

Even to my six-year-old eyes Judith was different. Everything was outsize, from her moon face to her heavy buckled shoes. Thick lips sat below a smudgy nose and her cheeks were covered in mothy down. Anxiety sharpened her expression as we shuffled forwards. I squeezed her hand and delivered her to Red classroom, where the racket instantly ceased as the assembled children turned to gape. My task completed, I slipped out of the room and into the one next door.

Towards mid-morning, a steadily rising wail disturbed our concentration. We looked up from our books and listened. Siren-like it rose and fell, gaining volume, and we glanced at each other in alarm.

‘Get on with your work, children,’ our teacher said. ‘There’s nothing to worry about.’

Miss Davies burst in.

‘Can I borrow Sally a minute?’

Without waiting for an answer she grabbed my hand and pulled me into her classroom. My legs wobbled and I had a sudden urge to wee.

‘Can you stop Judith making that noise?’ she whispered. ‘I can’t get through to her.’

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I’ll try.’

It had already stopped. Judith bulldozed towards me, nearly knocking me over. I backed away, my heart racing, but she crushed me to her until the school bell startled her and she let go.

‘Playtime!’ shouted Miss Davies.

The class scrambled past us and the teacher escaped to the staff room.

I held onto a desk for a few moments while my breathing returned to normal. Judith watched me with her head tipped to one side until I was ready to move. I collected two bottles of milk and led Judith outside onto the damp grass. The milk was warm and sour, but she gulped it down and gradually her cheeks faded back to soft pink.

‘What’s the matter, Judith?’ I said.

Her eyes filled with tears.

‘There was no blue crayon,’ she sobbed, ‘and I needed one for the sky.’

I sat back on my heels struggling to understand why the consequence had been so dramatic. It was my first experience of the storms that frequently blew up out of nowhere in my friend’s life.

I patted her hand, feeling unusually grown up.

‘Don’t worry, Judith.’ I said. ‘I’ll sort it out.’

The magic words had an immediate effect and she finished her milk with noisy enthusiasm.

***

My accidental reputation as Judith’s ‘handler’ gave me a satisfying status with the teachers and I often found myself called out of class to help. However, it made life difficult in the playground.

Judith loved skipping and threw herself into it with joyful enthusiasm until she tripped over her big feet and was out. Then she would push the others and stamp on their toes. Some kids called her ‘Stupid’ and ‘Mental’, which only increased her frenzy. I needed all my strength to restrain her until she relaxed, and often got in the way of her pumping arms. Then she would hug me against her and tell me she was sorry, over and over, until I covered her mouth to make her stop. Although I knew she never set out to hurt anyone, most kids didn't understand and wouldn’t let her play at all. I had to make up our own games away from the others.

From ages seven to eleven we were segregated from the boys at break times, one policy for which I was constantly grateful. The school employed two middle-aged women we nicknamed 'The Grannies' to patrol the girls’ playground during the lunch hour and ensure the rules weren't broken. They walked among us arm-in-arm, tweedy coats buttoned up to the chin except on the very warmest days, chatting and laughing together regardless of what was happening around them. When Judith lost her temper they would hover at the edge of the action, looking at me with raised eyebrows and jerking their heads towards it until I stepped forward. This angered me more than anything the children did and I would stare back at them, hoping they could feel my disgust as I dragged Judith away. Once I heard them call me ‘cheeky’ and a surge of resentment made my hands itch to slap their silly faces.

I asked the other children to be more patient and I’m sure some of them tried, but it never lasted. Before long I’d be called to another dispute, like the one in the ‘whip ‘n’ top’ season when we were about eight.

We chalked our wooden tops so they made colourful patterns as they spun. I showed Judith how to set the top spinning and keep it going with regular lashing. After persevering for several days she became expert - and obsessed. One lunchtime I’d left her bent over her top, thinking nothing could go wrong while I did handstands. Within moments a cry went up. Screaming children scattered in all directions. I caught one girl by the arm as she ran past.

‘What have you done to her?’ I shouted.

‘Nowt. It were ’er, whippin’ us legs!’

I ran to calm Judith who stood in the middle of the yard, wracked by howls of grief. It seemed someone had backed into her making her miss whipping her top so it fell over, dead. Immediately she lashed out at everyone within range, cracking her whip on their bare summer legs. Outraged letters to the Headmistress resulted in a ban on the game for the rest of the summer and Judith became more unpopular than ever.

We talked over her problems as we strolled home each day.

‘When someone makes you angry just walk away,’ I’d say. And she would promise, in her earnest breathy way, to try harder.

Sometimes, when I watched her grapple with her temper, a deep furrow creased her brow and she muttered in two different tones as though arguing with herself. I knew she was remembering what I’d said and pride formed a lump in my throat. I thought that if I could contain her anger, everything would somehow be different.

I realise now that my need for Judith was as deep as hers for me. As the only other girl of my age in the neighbourhood, I would have been lonely without her. Untainted by the usual schoolgirl rivalry, our friendship gave me security. I think she felt this too.

***

Judith’s house, a sturdy 1930’s semi, was a mirror image of mine but there the resemblance ended. Mine was bright and modern inside while hers was dark and gloomy with heavy, old-fashioned furniture. Books lined every wall, giving off a damp, musty smell that lingered in my clothes long after I got home. My mother, whose collection of literature amounted to some Mills and Boon paperbacks and a leather-bound collection of The Complete Works of Shakespeare, wrinkled her nose and sent me straight upstairs to wash my hands. I never saw Judith’s father without a book, even at mealtimes, whereas my dad was always under the car, tinkering with its insides whether it needed it or not.

The only similarity between our families, apart from an only daughter, was that we each had a dog. Chaucer, their fat golden labrador, was as old and sedate as Judith’s parents. On their first meeting Laddie, our frisky Welsh collie, leapt around him begging for play. He pushed against the lazing body with his front paws until Chaucer was forced, with an almost human grunt, to prise himself off the ground and join in. Within a few weeks it was hard to tell which was the younger dog.

At weekends and holidays we’d take sandwiches and disappear into the woods for the whole day. Invariably we stopped at a shallow, open stream where we took off our sandals and paddled, looking for sticklebacks, until our feet were numb and wrinkled. The dogs bounded about splashing our clothes and Judith’s whoops of joy rang out, drawing spontaneous grins from ramblers as they passed.

When we got back to Judith’s we’d sprawl head-to-toe on her bed with her eiderdown plumped up around us and read. I’d been surprised, when I first met Judith, to find she was far from stupid and that her reading and writing were nearly as good as mine. During that period Enid Blyton’s work was unavailable in libraries so Judith’s collection of all my favourites was a feast. We gobbled up each new volume her father brought home from his shop and soon graduated from the Secret Seven to the Famous Five.

Judith read slowly, rolling the words quietly around in her mouth like a multi-flavoured sweet. Every so often a rumble of wheezy laughter vibrated through the mattress from Judith’s belly into mine as she read something that tickled her. Then she’d repeat it aloud several times over, snorting with mirth so that I could hardly tell what she was saying. Her giggle was irresistibly infectious and her mother’s amused face would appear round the door as we rolled around, struggling to catch our breath.

Later these passages came in useful for distracting her from disputes with other kids. I’d say, ‘Hey Judith. Do you remember in ‘Five Have Lots More Fun’ when Timmy jumped in the sea and then shook himself over the vicar?’ She would respond by quoting the whole page, her eyes sparkling and the cause of her anger forgotten.

***

We were ten when a new family moved in down the street, causing a stir amongst the staid elderly residents. Mrs Craven possessed a fascinating pointed bosom and wore lipstick during the day, and Mr Craven’s cigarette seemed welded to his bottom lip as he stripped his motorbike in the front garden. Their daughter, Lynn, was about our age and her older brother slouched around in leathers. My mother sniffed and said they lowered the tone of the whole neighbourhood.

At nine o’clock on the first morning of the summer holidays Lynn Craven stood, blowing impressive pink bubbles, outside my door. Lanky in frayed shorts with her fair hair scraped into a wispy ponytail, she got straight to the point.

‘Are you coming out to play.’ It was less a question than a command.

I looked at my mother uncertainly but to my surprise she agreed, on condition I did my Saturday chore first. I grabbed the shopping basket and off we ran towards the shops.

‘How much pocket money d’you get?’ Lynn said, eventually stopping for breath.

‘Sixpence,’ I said.

‘Same here. Not much is it?’

Wasn’t it? I hadn’t really thought about it before. I saved most of it as Mum bought my sweets and my ‘Princess’ comic. Lynn said she had to buy all her own sweets so I felt a bit sorry for her.

She followed me round the shops looking bored but perked up when we entered the Post Office. It was a child’s dream, lined with shelves of bottled sweets, rows of chocolate bars, a penny counter low enough for small children and a window full of toys. The Post Office booth was tucked away round the corner where Mrs Lees was busy with a customer. I tried not to go there in the afternoons when her husband was about.

Mr Lees was a big, red-faced man with a lumpy nose and a scowl for everyone except pretty young women. My mother said he drank and couldn't get up in the mornings, which was why he was so bad-tempered. He’d always frightened Judith and me. We’d pretend he was the villain in a Famous Five adventure and convince ourselves, each time he glowered at us, that he knew we were onto him. We’d feel for each other’s hand and hold on tight.

While Lynn and I waited to be served, we passed the time by examining some little dolls with rooted hair and tiny removable shoes. I was enchanted and decided to save my sixpences for a month to get one.

As we walked home Lynn nudged me and drew two sherbert dabs from her pocket. I didn’t remember her buying them and said so.
She laughed as she handed one to me. ‘Course I didn’t, silly!’

My stomach lurched and I stepped back. She pushed it into my hand and sat down on a garden wall, ripping hers open and dipping in with the little round lollipop. I looked down at the flat, square packet, suddenly wanting it more than anything. I pulled it open and stuck my finger in. It tasted delicious. Not the kind of sweet my mother bought me at all. We giggled when the fizzy powder got up our noses and down our clothes, and licked the bags clean before dropping them into the flowers behind the wall.

‘Hey!’ A man’s voice startled us. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’

We jumped down and ran as far as we could until we were out of breath. I was worried in case the man knew my mother, but Lynn grinned as if she couldn’t care less.

At lunchtime Lynn asked me if I was free in the afternoon. I replied that Judith and I usually took the dogs out.

‘What, you mean that weird kid with the big head?’

I told her Judith was special and couldn’t help the way she looked. Lynn shrugged and said, ‘Well, what about tomorrow?’

When I said we went to Sunday School her mouth dropped open. She ran off, spidery legs almost too frail to hold her, shouting, ‘See you Monday.’

That was the first of many exciting shopping expeditions and soon I grew bold enough to slip something small into my own pocket. The doll I longed for became mine sooner than I expected, but I daren’t take it home because my mother would have asked questions. So we hid our spoils in a corner of the half buried air-raid shelter in Lynn’s garden and sneaked off to enjoy them whenever we could. Sometimes we gorged until we were queasy and I couldn’t eat my lunch, causing my mother to whip out the thermometer, just in case.

***

The pattern was set. Each morning Lynn and I climbed trees, shoplifted and chewed until our jaws ached. One day she came up with a plan to earn money ‘legitimately’ by picking the flowers in our well-tended churchyard to sell at the big detached houses on The Lane. We made so much money we worried it would draw attention if we spent it all at once, so we hid half behind a brick in the shelter and spent the rest on two big boxes of chocolates, which we stuffed down at one sitting. Violent stomach pains followed, prompting my mother to confine me to bed for the rest of the day.

On weekday afternoons Lynn helped her mother in the Launderette and I called for Judith. We read or walked the dogs and talked, always the same conversation in almost identical words. It was innocent and relaxing, and Judith’s parents were so grateful that I felt absolved of the morning’s sins.

Then, on the last Saturday before the new term, Lynn said she’d come out with us after lunch. Although this surprised me I couldn’t see any harm so we called for Judith and waited outside while she got her cardigan. Chaucer bounded out of the door in happy expectation and stopped dead in front of Lynn. He sidled backwards, twitching his lip and exposing his teeth at one side. Lynn scowled and took a step towards him.

‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘He wouldn’t hurt a fly.’

‘If it comes near me, it’ll get a kick,’ she said. She gave a demonstration with her right foot.

I kept both dogs well away from her as we walked down the road and they stayed behind us, occasionally bumping their noses on my leg. Lynn chattered about her old school and some of the hair-raising stunts she had pulled and, from what I knew, I had no difficulty believing her. Judith kept her eyes on the pavement, her forehead puckered in disbelief - or disgust.

‘Let’s get some sweets,’ Lynn said, as we approached the Post Office.

‘I haven’t brought any money,’ I said.

‘Well, you can stay out here with the dogs and Judith can help me choose.’

She pulled Chaucer’s lead out of Judith’s hand and thrust it at me before dragging my friend into the shop. I saw Mr Lees glare at them as they entered, so I was content to spend the time searching the window display for the next piece of treasure to add to my hoard.

The tinkling of the shop bell woke me from my dreams as Lynn bolted out of the door.

‘Run,’ she said, grabbing my sleeve and pulling with determined strength.

‘What d’you mean?’ I said. Excitement prickled the back of my neck. ‘Where’s Judith?’

‘I’ll tell you later. Just run!’

She pulled harder. I ran.

We reached her house, chests heaving, and slipped through the weeds to our lair. Safe inside I bent over to relieve my stitch.
‘What - happened?’ I forced out the words between gasps.

‘She got caught nicking Smarties,’ Lynn replied.

I looked up. Her eyes gleamed triumphant in the gloom and I stared back, my mouth open and dry. She pointed at my expression and began to laugh. An unfamiliar bubble of exhilaration tickled my throat. For one strange and thrilling moment I was glad that Judith was someone else’s problem.

I swallowed and the feeling was gone. Shuddering, I closed my eyes, straining to turn back my betrayal. An image of Mr Lees, bearing down on my friend with thunderous rage, shocked me into action. Releasing the dogs, I grabbed Lynn by the shirt and shoved her hard against the wall. Uncertainty flickered across her pale face as Chaucer growled behind me.

‘You did it on purpose,’ I hissed, clenching my teeth to contain the fury that tightened my fingers around her neck.

Chaucer crept forwards, hackles raised, muscles tensed. I struggled to hold him back with my foot and momentarily relaxed my grip. Lynn elbowed me in the chest, ducked under my arm and shot out of the doorway. Seconds later I heard her back door slam.

I ran into the street and met Judith trudging towards me. Tears streamed down her cheeks and one foot squelched inside her shoe. I opened my mouth to speak but sorrow strangled my greeting as I noticed her leg and white ankle sock were sodden. She wouldn’t look at me or accept the hanky I offered.

We walked silently up the road and she took Chaucer's lead without a glance in my direction. I ran the rest of the way home and locked myself in the bathroom where I cried until my mother was frantic. As I lay on my bed, her concern only added to the weight of misery and I turned and buried my face in the pillow.

***

My fling with Lynn was over but so was my friendship with Judith. Although we still walked to school together she had become quiet and withdrawn. When I tried to apologise she looked at me with clouded eyes and said, ‘You left me.’

There was nothing I could say or do and although I tried a hundred times to draw her out with her favourite passages about the antics of Timmy the dog, or George’s attempts to pass herself off as a boy, Judith never again took up the story.

It was our last year at primary school and for me it couldn’t be over quickly enough. My sense of purpose had evaporated and I felt empty and useless. Judith was still occasionally roused to fight when taunted but my power to soothe and protect had vanished. Most of the time she seemed listless, almost groggy. She sat alone on the concrete steps at lunchtimes, picking at the sleeve of her cardigan. Even the Grannies noticed her lack of spirit.

‘Has the doctor given her something to calm her down?’ they asked.

I shook my bowed head, unwilling to hand them the satisfaction of my failure.

To fill the void I joined in sports activities so I had an excuse when my mother asked why I didn’t go round to Judith’s any more. My depression slowly lifted as I had some success in school teams, and I began to look forward again. When I passed my Eleven Plus it felt as though I’d been granted a new start. Judith and Lynn both failed the exam and went to the Secondary Modern, miles away. I watched Judith plod past on her way to the bus stop each morning, her eyes glued to her feet. She never looked up and saw me.

***

One evening nearly a year later, when every minute was taken up with sport and schoolwork, there was a knock at the door and Judith’s father stood outside.

‘Can you come?’ His voice trembled. ‘We don’t know what to do.’

I put on my shoes and hurried after him in the dark.

He stood aside as I crept upstairs to Judith’s room. Nothing had changed and the oppressive smell of mildewed books hung around me as I pushed open the door. She sat on her bed, doubled over so her face was hidden by hair, rocking back and forth and muttering in a bewildered tone. I sat beside her, my stomach churning.

‘What’s the matter Judith?’ I said, as I had so many times before.

She half turned her head but her blue eyes were far away, beyond reach. She resumed her garbled monologue and I listened carefully, catching the odd word.

‘money...I didn’t...that girl...telling...Headmaster...she said...I stole...not me...’

We’d heard there had been a spate of thefts at her school.

‘What girl?’ I said gently.

‘That girl,’ she mumbled. ‘Lynn. That girl...’

‘What did she do, Judith? What did Lynn do?’

‘She said I stole the money.’

It was her only clear sentence. I took her hand and tried to comfort her but she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, hear me. Judith’s mother appeared in the doorway, her face blotchy.

‘It’s been getting worse every day,’ she said. ‘We didn’t know what to do.’

‘She’s worried about school,’ I said. ‘Some money’s been stolen. I think someone’s threatened to tell the Headmaster it was Judith.’
Her eyes widened, then she covered her face and began to cry.

‘Do you know who it was?’

‘No.’ I lowered my gaze. ‘That’s all I could get.’

I stood up and turned to go, anxious to hide my burning cheeks. I might have misunderstood but knew I hadn’t. I slipped out of the house, leaving the sounds of desperation behind me.

***

A couple of days later my mother said an ambulance had taken Judith away. After a few weeks, her parents offered to take me to visit her and mine insisted I went. We were quiet in the car except for some polite questions about how I was doing at school. I shivered all the way and had trouble keeping my voice steady as I answered. Judith’s father looked at me in the driving mirror and gave me a tight, sad smile, as if he understood.

I could hear Judith’s voice over the click of our shoes on the grey lino as soon as we entered the ward. She looked exactly as I’d last seen her, except her normally silky hair was greasy and tangled. She was hunched over on her bed, rocking and muttering, the high-pitched words running together at such speed it was impossible to follow them. She didn’t look up as we sat by her side. Her mother hugged me close as I sobbed, stroking my hair and murmuring that everything was going to be all right.

When it became clear Judith wouldn’t be returning to school her parents told the Headmaster about her anguish over the stolen money. He was appalled that he hadn’t known what was happening and had not, for a single moment, suspected Judith.

Was the real culprit apprehended? I never heard.

I didn’t go to see Judith again at the hospital and was away at college when my mother phoned with the news that heart failure had ended her years of torment. Her parents moved from the area soon afterwards, leaving a packing case outside our door.

***

I stare down at the page that bears my handwriting. My tears have diluted the forty-year-old ink, streaking the paper with a brownish stain. I pull a tissue from my sleeve, blot it dry and return the book to its shelf. Every year my heart aches with the same painful intensity as I sit and remember my special friend on her birthday.

Sometimes I can picture the halo of sunlight round her baby hair as she splashed about in the stream, hooting with delight. More often I am forced to watch her rocking; back and forth, back and forth, locked in a place from which she would never return.

My gaze wanders along the shelves and once again I marvel at the number of stories we read in those few short years. I’ll never be able to part with them. I am bound forever by the inscription in the last book of the series - the one that arrived too late for us to share - Five Are Together Again.

'To Sally, in memory of our beloved daughter Judith, with grateful thanks for looking after her so well.'

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