© Anke Lovell
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This is a short story.
I am seven years old. Today I am at the Rec. My school, Holly Dene, is having its sports day. I am under the tea and sandwiches table. I'm puffed out. I'm hot. My knees are green from the grass. I'm wearing home-made shorts.
I am too big for my age and too big to do ballet any more. That makes me sad because I like to walk on tiptoe pretending to be a butterfly or a fairy, watering flowers with a watering can. I could see my teacher was surprised when Mummy didn’t want to buy my school photograph to put on the mantelpiece. One day Mummy was very late picking me up from school and Mrs Chalmers had to wait with me. I cried because I thought she was never going to come. But that was when I was five. I am allowed to walk home on my own now.
It’s a Friday afternoon in summer. Our village, the biggest in England, smells of tar and seaweed. There are seagulls but no puffins or ornithologists. I’ve never been to the seaside. I’ve just finished reading the “Sea of Adventure” by Enid Blyton. There is an ornithologist in the book. He's a baddy.
Ornithologist is my first grown up word. I can read in my head now. Barry Shaw still follows the words with his finger and says them out loud. Even when we are supposed to be reading quietly. Barry said he would be my boyfriend if I lent him my pencil sharpener. But when I gave it to him he didn’t give it back. He didn’t be my boyfriend either. Barry has a birthday party every year. Last year they all went ice skating. Barry broke his arm. He went to hospital. Everyone else went to Lowman’s tea shop.
This afternoon the trees called poplars around the Rec are bouncing up and down. Newspaper wrappers from Whites fish and chip shop are stuck in the hedges. The tent is flapping like a bird. The swings are out of bounds. The grown ups have put extra Silvikrin and Brylcreem on their beehives and short, back and sideses. Ladies are wearing cardigans.
The hopping race for under eights has just finished. I am pleased that I wasn’t last. Gillian Graves, who once wet her pants in Arithmetic, has sat down in the middle of the track and she won’t move. One eye is crying. The other one is covered up by the plaster stuck on her specs.
I'm lying on my back looking at the underneath of the table and the daisies on the tablecloth. Even though I don't want to, I think about Gramps.
He usually brings me to the Rec on Saturday afternoons. On the way we have to cross the railway junction. We always go over the bridge even when the gates are open. Then we can wave to Nana. On the way back we go past the house which has a village made of shells in the front garden. Sometimes we walk to my cousin’s house to feed her guinea pig. Afterwards we have egg sandwiches and Battenburg cake for tea. On Sundays Gramps goes to church. If I go with him we have lemonade afterwards. I like the singing in church but the words aren't in English. There is also a lot of standing up and sitting down and kneeling.
Nana and Gramps have breakfast at eight o’clock, dinner at twelve o’clock and tea at four o’clock. They have boiled eggs for breakfast. Gramps always makes me bread and butter soldiers to go with my egg. After dinner they have a nap. The clock ticks loudly. But it doesn’t wake them. Even when it chimes. Before he falls asleep Gramps always says: “Isle of Wight Man coming over.” I don’t know why he says it but I like it when he does.
In Nana and Gramps’ house there isn’t a bathroom. There’s a bathtub in the kitchen with a wooden cover on it. There isn’t a fridge. Only a cooker and a sink. The milk bottle is in a pan of cold water on the bath. There is a larder in the garden. There are tins of salmon, luncheon meat, peaches, pears and fruit cocktail. The toilet is in the garden too. There is Izal toilet paper. Gramps showed me how you can wrap it round a comb to make a harmonica. If you want to go to the toilet in the night you use the chamber pot under the bed. You are not supposed to do number two in the pot though. The beds are very high with big feather mattresses. So there is plenty of room under them for the pots. My Auntie Alice isn’t married. She lives with Nana and Gramps and empties the pots into a bucket every morning. She also empties the hot water bottles which are tin and have knitted covers. Gramps can knit. He learned during the war. He used to knit socks for the soldiers fighting the Germans.
Gramps likes football. Saints not Pompey. "Come on you Saints, let's be having you!" he says. He used to work on the docks like his father. He wears a trilby hat and raises it when he sees a lady he knows. He whistles. He takes his teeth out and pulls funny faces. He plays Snap and Beat your Neighbour and Sevens with me. At Christmas we play Newmarket but not with real money. That would be gambling. We use matchsticks instead.
Gramps tells me the names of trees and flowers and birds. He used to keep chickens during the war. He doesn’t like starlings. He chases them out of the garden: “Get on with you, bloomin’ things.” There are red flowers called fuchsias in the garden. I like to pop the buds on them. There are also lots of ladybirds. I collect them and put them in matchboxes. Sometimes I also collect worms in a bucket while Gramps talks to Mrs Wedlake over the garden fence. Nana and Gramps don’t have a television. They listen to the light programme on the radio. But mainly they listen to the clock ticking.
I hear lots of clapping. Mandy Brooke won the hopping. She also won the sack race. And the egg-and-spoon-race. And the skipping. Her Dad won the fathers’ hundred yards. Mandy is collecting her prize now. She has brown legs and P.E. kit from Tyrell & Green, the posh shop in town. Her Mummy is very pretty. She is wearing a yellow frock with black squares on it. She is carrying Mandy’s Pakamac and all of Mandy’s other prizes. Mandy’s three best friends are buzzing round her like bees.
“Jane, why don’t you run with Carol?” Mr Jones, the headmaster, bends down to look under the table at me. He’s nice. He wasn’t cross when I was sick on the bus on the school trip to Bournemouth and had to wear my raincoat instead of my school dress all day. Even in the cafe where we had egg and chips. And even though it was hot. Mr Jones laughed when his hat blew in to the paddling pool earlier in the afternoon. He smells of Old Spice like my Gramps.
There is one race left.
Carol is standing behind Mr Jones. She is holding a school tie in her hand. It’s the three-legged race. Carol is in Mrs Chalmers’ class and her Daddy comes from Malta. That's abroad. Her teeth stick out so she wears a brace. I come out from my hidey-hole. Carol and I look at each other. We walk to the starting line. We don’t talk. Two of Mandy Brooke’s friends are sulking. The Lucky One has linked her arm through Mandy’s arm. Gillian Graves’ Mum and Dad have carried her off the field and taken her home.
Barry Shaw comes up to us. He is with two boys from the year above. I go red. "Four Eyes and Goofy running together," he says. The other boys laugh. "Ugly sisters!" They run off.
"At least we can read!" I shout after them. They don't hear me but Carol giggles.
We line up. Fourteen feet in white pumps. Four in sandals. Parents, teachers and prefects put down their teacups and move to the edge of the track. “Come on Mandy!” shouts Mr Brooke. He looks like Napoleon Solo. I remember when President Kennedy was shot they didn't show Man from U.N.C.L.E. that evening. Instead a lady played the piano. It was boring.
Mrs Chalmers raises her hand. It’s quiet. I hold my breath. My chest hurts.
“On your marks. Get set. Go!”
Knees go up and down.
Up and down. Up and down. Up and down.
It's Mandy Brooke and the Lucky One. Mandy Brooke and the Lucky One.
Up and down. Up and down.
Ponytails swishing. Ponytails swishing.
Mandy has tripped. Mandy is down. Everyone’s down. Except Carol and me.
We jump over everyone's arms and legs and run for the finishing rope.
We collect our prizes. Carol’s parents are pleased. Everyone claps. Mr Jones pats me on the head. I hold on to the trophy tightly. All the way home. I stop on the bridge. I wait for three trains to go through. I wave. I wait for another two trains to go through. I wave again. The curtains in the window are drawn. Even though it’s still daytime.
Nana and Gramps have been married a very long time. They met at the ice rink where Barry Shaw broke his arm. Nana told me she was in service before they got married. She worked as a maid for an old lady in a big house in Southampton. Nana talks a lot about those days. Sometimes she tells the same story just after she’s told it. And she forgets who Gramps is now. One day she went out in her nightie and a policeman had to bring her home. “Poor old Elsie,” says Gramps. He still remembers everything. Especially the football scores. Even though he was in the war before the war and fought the Germans with horses and poppies.
Mummy opens the door when I get home. She looks tired and sad.
"I won the...," I start to say.
"Look at the state of your socks and sandals. You'll ruin them. Money doesn't grow on trees!"
After tea - fish fingers, beans and mash, semolina and golden syrup - I watch “Mr Ed, the talking horse” on television. Then it's time for bed.
Mummy brushes my hair before I go upstairs. It's long and gets lots of tangles. "I'm sorry I've been a bit cross," she says. "It's just that I'm sad about Gramps." I don't say anything. "Jane, you do understand that Gramps won't be coming back from hospital? He's ill and very old and tired."
I take my trophy up to my bedroom and put it on my bed. Sweep really likes it. “Well done, Jane”, he says.
I spend a lot of time in my bedroom with Sweep and the china animals I collect. I make up stories about the animals. I cut out dolls and clothes from the back of Bunty magazine. I hold beauty competitions. I read my sister’s old books. I don’t have anyone round for tea. Mummy says I play more nicely and quietly when I’m on my own.
I lie on my bed. It's nearly dark. Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick tock. I watch the big hand move on my Mickey Mouse clock.
I don’t remember when I first knew that one day I would get old and die too. Maybe when I saw Pope John’s funeral on the television. They carried him through the streets and you could see him dead. I have bad dreams about his hat and his big nose. Now I have to keep the light on in my bedroom.
Neither do I remember when I knew that maybe I wouldn’t get to be old. That bad things happened. Like those children killed by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Like Marianne Gibson in Mrs Mitchell’s class who died of asthma when she was eight.
The thing which makes me most scared is the thought that Mummy and Daddy wouldn’t mind if I wasn’t here. They are always too busy to go to sports days and parents’ evenings. Or to take me to the Rec on Saturdays. That’s because Daddy goes to the P.U.B. on Saturday lunchtime and Mummy doesn’t speak to him or me all afternoon. She humphs and makes a lot of noise in the kitchen. He sleeps on the sofa in front of the wrestling. Gramps doesn’t go to the P.U.B. He is a tee-totaller which means he just drinks tea. He sometimes has a nip of rum in his morning cup. “Medicinal,” he says.
Later when it’s night time and I can hear the TV through the ceiling, I think about me not being here anymore. Like Gramps isn’t here. And my hamster. And President Kennedy. And next door’s budgie. And the goldfish from the fair. And Nana who is still here except she isn’t like Nana anymore.
I don't want to think about this. I scratch the back of my hand with my nail until it hurts.