This is the ninth part of a fiction serial, in 766 words.
Vera only had two dresses suitable for Kath’s birthday tea. Both were rather small now she was getting older. Elsie told her to wear tha pale blue one, but it came up very short, well over her knees. So Elsie went to East Street Market and bought some fake white lace which she sewed onto the bottom, and around the edges of the sleeves. She also picked up a blue ribbon that matched the dress for Vera to wear in her hair, and a tortioseshell Alice Band to give Kath as a present.
When she got to Kath’s house, it was all a bit formal. Some of her relatives were there, with some cousins who were very young. Everyone was sitting around sipping orange squash and eating cakes and biscuits, but there were no party games or songs. Mr Frazer was talking to some men in the kitchen, and Mrs Frazer was looking flushed and busy. When Vera handed her friend the present, Kathy gave her a funny look, and didn’t even open it. When she had sat around like that for over an hour, Vera got fed up, and went and stood behind Kathy. She cupped her hand and whispered into the girl’s ear. “What’s wrong, Kath?”
Her friend’s reaction startled her. “You, that’s what’s wrong. You come to my party in your fancy dress, ribbon in your hair, and sit there like lady muck. It’s my party, not yours, and you’re not supposed to show off wearing your fancy clothes and make me look bad”. Kathy hadn’t recognised the old dress, as Elsie had done such a good job of making it look rather grand. But before Vera could tell her, Kathy turned on her again. “And you might as well go home, ’cause you’re not my friend anymore. And you can take this with you.” She held out the brown paper parcel containing the Alice Band.
Grabbing the parcel, Vera ran out without even stopping to thank Mrs Frazer, and cried all the way home. Her mum told her it was just a silly argument, and it would all be forgotten at school the next day. But she was wrong, and Kathy never spoke to her again.
A week after the summer holidays ended, Vera came home from school as usual. She was old enough to take care of herself now, but still liked to pop in to see Mrs Simmons before going upstairs to her place. She was sitting in the old wooden armchair in the scullery, and at first Vera thought she must be asleep. But one of her shoes had slipped off, and her left arm was hanging down the side, the fingers of her hand almost touching the floor. Vera went over to shake her, to see it she was alright, but her body was hard and stiff.
Running straight back out of the house, she went to the tobacconist and newsagent shop on the corner, owned by Mr Lewis. She told him Clara Simmons wasn’t moving and felt stiff, and he used the phone in his shop to call the doctor. Then he got his son Colin to watch the shop and went back with Vera. Leaving her in the hallway, he went into the back room to look at Clara. He came back shaking his head. “She’s gone, Vera love. You had better go back and wait in my shop. I’ll stay here to see the doctor”. Vera walked back to the shop in a daze. It was the first time she had seen a dead person, and she had even touched her.
Colin Lewis raised his eyebrows when Vera told him what had happened. He was twenty-two years old, and worked in the print trade, doing night shifts at one of the newspapers. Vera thought he was very good looking, but her dad had teased her about him. “Don’t set your cap at Colin, Vera love. He’s a political, that one. Goes marching against the Blackshirts and everything. Trade union man too, bit of an agitator if you ask me. Don’t reckon he has time for romance, especially with some girl as young as you”. She had blushed so hard, her face felt warm all evening.
By the time Elsie got home from work, the undertaker’s big van was there to take Clara away. Elsie gave Mr Lewis the phone number of Clara’s brother in Kent. He was in his nineties, and agreed to pay for the funeral but said he was too ill to travel up for it. That night as they ate dinner, Albert seemed deep in thought. Suddenly putting his knife and fork down, he leaned across the table, speaking quietly to his wife. “I think we should go and see the landlord, Elsie love. Offer to take over the whole place. Otherwise, you never know who might move in downstairs. We can just afford the extra rent, if we’re careful.” Elsie smiled at the thought of it, and nodded.
When Vera went to bed that night, she was thinking about Clara, but smiling about maybe having the whole house just for them.