This is all 35 parts of my recent serial, in one complete story. It is a long read, at 26,383 words.
Mike and Edna.
By the time Michael Hollingsworth had finished his basic training, the war in Europe was almost over. He missed the celebrations in England though, as he was now part of the army of occupation, in the British sector of Berlin. At least they had taught him to drive, and to fix and maintain the trucks that he drove around, delivering supplies to various units stationed in the defeated country.
Lots of the soldiers took advantage of the situation. You could get a woman for the night for some cigarettes, sugar, or tinned food. The Jerries were desperate, and many were living in cellars, or in rudimentary shelters inside the rubble of the destroyed buildings. Not Mike though. He didn’t want to know about those women, or trying to make money by bartering for souvenirs or jewellery.
All he could think about was getting home, to be with his beloved Edna.
They had been together more or less since they were children. Living in the same street, playing with the same bunch of kids, and going to the same school until they were fourteen. The war didn’t really spoil their childhood that much, as living in Essex close to the Cambridgeshire border, they were sixty miles away from the bombing in London. Though the nearby American air bases made them very aware of the war, as well as the kids from London who had been evacuated and had swelled the numbers of the school.
Mike was twenty when he got home, and him and Edna didn’t waste any time. They got married two days after he was discharged from the army, and moved in with Edna’s mum. It wasn’t long before he found himself a job as a lorry driver, doing deliveries for a company in Chelmsford. They moved to the much larger town, and rented rooms above a hardware shop. Edna got a job working in the Co-op shop, which was on the opposite corner. They had never been happier.
It wasn’t long before the company asked Mike to help out fixing their old lorries, and he soon found himself appointed to senior mechanic, no longer having to drive around the county. Just as well, as Edna was expecting. Little Brenda was born in the spring of nineteen-fifty, and became their pride and joy. But with Edna stopping work, Mike’s plans to buy a car had to be put on hold. He carried on using his cycle to get to work, and put down to do overtime on Saturdays, hoping to save for the car he wanted so badly.
Over the next few years, things didn’t get much easier. No sooner had Edna gone back to work once Brenda started school, she fell pregnant again. This time there were lots of complications, and Mike could no longer work on Saturdays as he had to look after Brenda, and help out around the home. And with a baby on the way, they finally got high enough up the list to be offered a small council house on an estate. The extra space and small garden were welcome, but the rent was more than they had been paying. On top of that, Mike’s journey to work was fifteen minutes longer each way.
Not long after they moved in, Edna lost the baby. The doctors told her she would almost certainly never have any more, and she shouldn’t be trying anyway, in case she brought harm to herself. As she recovered from her grief, Mike took on some cash jobs, repairing cars and motorbikes in the street outside the house. But he could only do that in good weather, and not that many people around them owned cars in the first place.
Edna got her old job back, and took the bus into town. She finished earlier, so she could collect Brenda from school. That meant Mike could go back to working on Saturdays, and very soon his savings account in the Post Office was looking very healthy. When she turned eleven, Brenda started at secondary school, one on the estate, not far from home. She was given a doorkey, and Edna told Mike she would go back to full-time hours.
One day when he got home from work, Edna had exciting news for him. “My manager is selling his car, love. It’s a Ford Prefect, and only nine years old. He said we can have first refusal”. Mike looked at her as if she was crazy.
“I’ve waited this long, so will wait a bit longer. I want a new car, not some old one”.
By the time Brenda was thirteen, Mike decided he had enough money. He began to visit car showrooms in the area, and would come home clutching brochures and price lists. After dinner, he would constantly flick through his haul, announcing those he had excluded, and the few remaining on his shortlist. “Four doors is a must for me. Too many of those two door models around these days”.
Edna would nod, trying to concentrate on her television programme as he continued. “British built for me, no foreign imports. We have to support our own car industry. I’m coming around to green too. I like a nice dark green, like they have on Jaguars. I know I can’t afford a Jaguar, but I can have a similar colour”.
Edna was shaking her head. “Get whatever you want, I’m trying to watch Coronation Street”.
She knew nothing about cars, and no desire to learn to drive one. To her mind, that was a man’s job, and she didn’t need to know anything about it.
As for Brenda, she was upstairs in her room, listening to her Beatles record on the Dansette. That pop group was all she talked about at the time. Mike had his own opinion about them. “If you ask me, they sound like cats screaming. And they could all do with a bloody good haircut, and two years in the army. Give me Frank Sinatra anytime”.
Brenda didn’t ask him.
Despite his wife’s complete indifference, Mike settled on a Ford Consul Cortina. It had been around since the previous year, and seemed to be reliable, as well as increasingly popular. With Edna not remotely interested, he took the bus to the Ford Dealership one Saturday morning, and discussed buying one with the salesman. They made him a good offer on a white one in the showroom, but Mike held out for green, even though it meant a special order that would delay delivery.
It not only took all of his savings to buy it, but thirty pounds from Edna’s savings too. He paid the deposit, with the balance due in cash when the car arrived from the factory.
Arriving home excited, Edna couldn’t fail to be pleased for him. He had waited all that time, saved hard, and worked extra hours. Although she had no interest in the car, she was delighted for her husband that he would finally be getting it in two or three weeks.
While he was waiting, Mike started to talk about the trips they could make. “Southend will be easy, Clacton even easier. Nice day out at the seaside on Sundays, and no messing about with trains. Then there’s the summer holiday, love. We can go anywhere we like, even Devon or Cornwall”. Edna smiled and nodded. Devon and Cornwall seemed exotic to her. She had never been outside of Essex.
He was relentless in his enthusiasm.
“Getting to work is going to be so easy. And I can take you to the shops too. This car will mean freedom to us, Edna love, it really will”.
By the time the day arrived to collect the car, Mike had already arranged the insurance, and bought a cover to keep it clean when it was parked outside in the street. He had been to an accessory shop to ask about spotlights, and applied for his AA membership in case of breakdowns. Even though Edna couldn’t really care less about the car, her husband’s enthusiasm was infectious.
He even managed to interest Brenda, when he told her he could take her to her friend’s house to listen to records, and pick her up too. She had a question. “Dad, does it come with a radio?” He smiled at her. “No love, but I know someone who can fit one in it for me, just as soon as I have the money”.
When the day came to get the bus to go and collect it, Mike wore his best suit, and put his insurance certificate in his jacket pocket. Edna and Brenda saw him off from the door of the house, as if he as about to embark on a great adventure.
Which of course he was.
Edna knew her husband was home when she heard the sound of the car’s horn on the street outside. She rushed upstairs to get Brenda to accompany her outside to see the new car. Mike was standing next to the driver’s door beaming like a toddler on Christmas morning. He called out to them. “Fetch your handbag and lock the door, we’re going for a drive!” With Brenda in the back, Mike set off, immediately, breaking into a running commentary as he drove along.
“Listen to that engine. Purring like a cat. In fact, you might have trouble hearing it, it’s so quiet. And the gears, syncromesh you know, not crunching like when I was in the army. And the indicators, built-in, no floppy arms poking up at the sides”. Realising he was heading south, Edna looked perplexed. “Where are we going, Mike? I thought we were going round the block. I was just about to start to get dinner ready love”. Mike was laughing. “Forget that, we’re off to Southend. We can have fish and chips on the seafront when we get there”. Stopping at a traffic light, he turned to his daughter. “What do you think, Brenda? Don’t you love it?”
The girl shrugged. “It’s a funny colour, and the inside smells like plastic. Makes me feel a bit queasy dad”. Raising his voice, Mike made his point firmly. “I suppose you thought I should have got a white one? Well they’re ten a penny. You won’t see many others in this colour, I can tell you. And if you’re going to be sick, I will take you home now. Don’t you dare be sick in this car, you hear me?”
When the seafront at Southend appeared in the distance, Edna was relieved to be soon getting a break from Mike’s endless chatter about the car. How much you could get in the boot, how it used just so much petrol, and how it was so easy to fix, he could do all the servicing and repairs himself. As he was parking near the pier, she thought that she must now know as much about a Consul Cortina as anyone in England. Except Mike of course.
No sooner had they strolled just far enough to the first place selling fish and chips, Mike was heading to the counter to buy some. “Find a bench or somewhere to sit. We won’t be eating these in the car. I don’t want it smelling of fish and vinegar”. He was so keen to get the food eaten and get back in the car, Edna was left with indigestion, and Brenda wasn’t allowed to waste time having an ice cream.
On the way back there was less traffic, and Edna was scared as Mike speeded up. “You’re doing sixty, Mike, I can see it on the dial”. He just laughed. “It’ll do more than that, love. Just wait until we get on some of those major roads down in the West Country”. Edna couldn’t remember ever going so fast, not even in a train, and she reached out to push her hand against the dashboard. “Slow down, Mike, I don’t like it”. Easing back to forty, Mike shook his head. “You’ll get used to it, love”.
By the time they got back home, it was almost dark. Brenda rushed inside to go to her room and listen to her new record. It was the hit from Gerry and The Pacemakers, called ‘I Like it’. She was pushing her luck, as she had played it so many times on Friday night, Mike had called up to her that if he heard it one more time he would come up there and snap it in half. Don Cullen from three doors away wandered up as Edna was getting out. “New Consul Cortina eh, Mike? How’s she run?”
Delighted to have someone to brag about his car to, Mike grinned. “Jump in, Don. I’ll give you a run into town and back. She’s a good runner, quiet as a mouse”. Edna made her excuses and headed inside, knowing she could not have stood hearing any more about how wonderful the car was.
Mike didn’t get back until gone ten, when Brenda was already asleep.
Mike spent all day Sunday polishing a car that he had only picked up the the previous day. Edna took him out a cup of tea, and he stood back, admiring his work. “Look at that love. Like a mirror. I reckon I could shave looking at that bonnet”. But the change in the weather soon put an end to any plans for more day trips. As it became colder , Mike got up earlier for work, as he wanted to let the car engine warm up before he started driving. “They say this modern engine oil circulates quickly, but I’m not taking any chances”.
Edna loved her husband, but before a month had passed, she was already completely fed up with hearing about that car.
That November, everyone was shocked at the news that nice President Kennedy had been shot in America. Edna shook her head as they watched television. “What’s the world coming to, when even the president can be killed in his own car?” Mike wasn’t listening. He had his head in a car magazine, trying to decide which spotlights to buy to fit on the car. “Extra lighting never hurts in winter, Edna love. Especially when it’s foggy”. Brenda was upstairs listening to her new Beatles record, ‘She Loves You’. Even Edna had to agree that it really did sound just like a lot of screaming.
The winter that year was the worst since forty-seven. Snow and ice were both a real problem right into the new year. Edna was worried about Mike driving in such bad conditions, and she couldn’t relax until she heard the car pull up outside in the evening. For Mike, that bad winter meant he would cover the engine with an old blanket at night, so he didn’t have starting problems the next morning. And when he had read the evening paper, he went outside in the cold and spread it over the front windscreen, to stop the ice forming on it overnight.
By late January, there was no sign of a let-up, and Mike had started to drive Brenda the short distance to school, so she didn’t fall on the icy pavement.
One lunchtime at work, Edna was in the staff room eating her sandwiches, when the manager came in. “Edna, there are two police officers here asking for you, I will bring them through”. His face looked solemn, and Brenda felt a cold chill run up her back as she dropped the sandwich back into the metal tin she used for her lunch.
One was a man, very tall, and holding his police helmet. The other one was a policewoman, and she did the talking. “Mrs Hollingsworth, I’m afraid there has been a terrible accident. It’s your husband. We have come to take you to the hospital”. Edna stood up, her lip quivering. “That bloody car, I knew it. He’s had a car crash, hasn’t he?” The police lady shook her head. “No, nothing like that. Something happened at work, and his boss called an ambulance. He told us where you worked”.
In the police car, Edna asked the question. “How bad is it, please? Can you tell me what happened?” The policewoman was sitting in the back with her, and held her hand. “It’s very bad. I’m sorry to tell you he has been killed, and we are taking you to identify him. He was working under a lorry and the hoist failed, apparently. It came down on top of him and crushed him”.
She couldn’t speak, let alone scream or cry. It seemed unreal, like a bad dream she would soon awake from. It wasn’t until some medical person pulled the white sheet back from Mike’s face that her legs went, and she knelt on the floor, sobbing uncontrollably. The young policewoman was very caring, and held onto her until she regained her composure enough to walk back to the car. “There will have to be a post mortem. That’s always the case in industrial injuries”.
As far as Edna was concerned, she could have been talking in a foreign language. Staring out the window at people on the street as they drove her home, she had a strange feeling. They would go home tonight, to their wives or husbands. But her husband would never come home again. She resented them that good fortune. Then she thought of Brenda, and turned to the policewoman.
“Can you drop me at Broomfield Secondary School please? I have to go and get my daughter”.
Once the funeral was over, and the life insurance had paid out, Edna reckoned she could just about manage. Brenda would be leaving school in eighteen months, so more money would be coming in after that. Mike’s boss had been very kind. He arranged to have the car driven back and parked outside the house, and the men gave Edna a brown envelope with fifty pounds inside, money that had been collected by donations from all of Mike’s colleagues.
The car had been outside for just two days, when Don Cullen knocked on the door. “I was wondering about the car, Edna. I could take it off you hands if you want. Not as if you are going to drive it, is it? I can give you cash, how does three seven-five sound?” Edna hadn’t been interested in the car, but she did know how much Mike had paid for it, as she had to add some of her own small savings to make up the total.
“That’s not enough, Don. It was almost seven hundred, and that was at the end of last summer”. Don nodded. “Okay, but think about it. Like I said, I have cash”.
The next Saturday, Edna took the bus to the Ford dealer, and asked if they would buy the car back. The man was nice, and told her the truth. “New cars lose a lot of money in the first year, Mrs Hollingsworth. I know how much your husband paid for it, but I couldn’t offer more than four seven-five I’m afraid”. Edna nodded. That was considerably more than Don had offered. “Okay, I am happy to take that, as long as you can collect it”.
Two men turned up at three that afternoon. One handed her a cheque for the agreed amount, and she gave them all the paperwork Mike kept in a kitchen drawer, and both sets of keys. As they were leaving, one of them turned to her. “Sorry to hear about your husband, madam. Don’t forget to cancel the insurance”.
Diane White was a modern woman. She had completed her teacher training at the end of nineteen-sixty, and after three years of teaching in a school in London, she wanted to buy her own house. Prices in Essex were more reasonable, so she had applied for a job at a school in Colchester, and been successful. Once she had her starting date, she put down a deposit on a two-bed cottage near Fordham, then decided she would need a car to travel the ten miles each way to school. Despite passing her test when she was twenty-one, she hadn’t had enough money to buy a car, and hadn’t driven since.
She saw the half page car dealer’s advertisement in a local paper, and it included a car that seemed ideal. ‘Ford Consul Cortina. 1963 model, four doors, low mileage, Green. £600’.
Being a teacher was a the sort of job that allowed her to get credit, and she had enough for the deposit in her savings account. The salesman treated her like an idiot, but she was used to that. So she wiped the smile off his face with an offer. “I will give you five-fifty for it, and take your credit payments scheme. I know you make money on that, and I can give you a cheque for the deposit now. Say no, and I will walk away and buy a Vauxhall I was looking at earlier”.
They shook on the deal.
When the finance had been approved, Diane was able to collect the car the day after she moved into her new house, and four days before she started at the new school. It was a lot nicer than the car she had learned to drive in, her dad’s old Standard 8. On the way home from Chelmsford to Fordham, she really enjoyed the easy steering, and smooth gearchange. And now the bad weather had passed, it felt great to drive around the country lanes on that bright morning in late April.
The first day at her new school, a few heads turned to see the young woman get out of the smart green car in the car park. In the staff room, it was mentioned by all the male teachers that she was the only female teacher with her own car. Even the headmaster had something to say.
“Well well, our new English teacher has her own car. Times really are changing”.
Diane was the youngest teacher in the school. Her fashionable short hair and even shorter skirts gained her a lot of attention from male members of staff, and most of the boy pupils too. It wasn’t long before Clive Symonds, the physical education teacher, was sniffing around. “Some of us go to the local pub for drinks on a Friday, will I see you there? Or if that’s not your thing, I do know a nice Italian restaurant in town.”
She snapped back, her tone sarcastic. “I doubt your wife would be comfortable with us meeting in a pub or going for a meal together, Clive”. As she spoke, she gently tapped the large wedding ring on his left hand.
It was the last time he asked her.
Some of the braver boys risked a wolf-whistle when she took her turn at playground duty, but she knew better than to make a big thing of it. At their age, every woman under thirty was desirable, so she let it go.
Growing up in the male-dominated atmosphere of the time, Diane had quickly learned how to cope with the so-called banter, and often blatant sexual innuendo. If anything, Essex was much more relaxed than London, where she had once had to report a colleague for daring to slide his hand up her skirt. Diane was a political animal, a young woman who had opinions and a sense of self worth. She had soon discovered that made men uncomfortable.
The pupils were of mixed ability. She taught classes aged from eleven to seventeen, and was already well-used to finding the special pupils. In London, she had called them her ‘Gems’. Those special ones that really got it, the pupils who read for pleasure, not just because it was on the syllabus. And in a class of fourteen year-olds in Essex, she found the brightest gem of all.
Constance Reilly had ginger hair the colour of copper. She parted it in the middle, and wore it in a plait that reached halfway down her back. In class, she sat alone near the front, the other kids apparently avoiding her company. Her green eyes seemed to follow Diane as she walked around talking. That girl read the Brontes for recreation, and she knew Jane Eyre back to front. Interestingly for Diane, she also got it. She knew what it meant, what it was about. Her hand went up at every question posed to the class, and the others took down their hands when they saw hers appear.
As far as Diane was concerned, there had never been a school pupil like her. It was as if she had been born in the wrong time. She also understood Jane Austen, and even Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Diane had to stop herself running the entire lesson based on Constance’s remarkable literary perception. And she had to stop looking at her as she spoke to the class.
Keeping her eyes off of Constance was becoming a problem she could do without.
And it was undoubtedly reciprocated. Whatever was going on in the classroom, Constance kept her gaze fixed on the teacher. Diane felt herself flushing with embarrassment every time she locked eyes with that unusual girl. Whether the rest of the class had noticed became progressively unimportant. And Diane found herself looking forward to those mornings of double English when that class appeared.
Sitting quietly in her cottage in the evenings, Diane found herself wondering what Constance would make of her lesson plans. She could never remember a time when someone so young understood literature so completely. But not everyone in the same class was up to the same speed, and she had to allow for that, albeit increasingly reluctantly.
Only a few weeks had passed, when one day after school, the school bus had broken down. Diane saw the irritated pupils hanging around as they awaited replacement transport. Constance spotted her green car, but did nothing. It seemed to be the decent thing to do, to stop and ask.
“Where are you heading for? I live near Fordham”.
The girl’s smile sent a tingle down Diane’s back.
“Fordham, Miss? That’s where I live”.
Without asking the other puplis in the queue, Diane leaned over and flicked open the door.
“Okay, jump in”.
On the drive home, Constance was very chatty. “I like this car, Miss. It’s much nicer than my dad’s old car. I think that’s about fifteen years old. I know he had it before I was born because he took my mum to hospital in it when she was having me. Not that we ever go in it much these days, as he’s in the Army. At the moment he’s in Aden. That’s near Saudi Arabia. We used to live near Farnborough, and only moved here two years ago because he changed regiments or something”.
Diane drove carefully, having to force herself not to keep looking round at the girl. “Is that why you sit alone? haven’t you made friends in the past two years?” There was a considerable pause before she answered.
“All the others talk about is pop groups or boys they fancy. They read fashion magazines and stick posters of groups and film stars on their bedroom walls. That doesn’t interest me. I like books, and art. And they tease me for having ginger hair, so I keep myself to myself. I have to look after my little brother too. He’s only four, and my mum works some evenings at the village pub. You might have seen her behind the bar, Miss. Her name is Carol”. Diane shook her head.
“I don’t go to the pub, and I don’t have a television. Like you, I prefer to read. Have you ever read any Russian classics, Constance? They are not on the syllabus, but I think you would like some of them. Look out for Anna Karenina in the school library. If you can’t find a copy there, I will lend you my one”.
As they got closer to home, there was another question. “How old are you Miss? You seem too young to be a teacher”. Diane smiled. “I will be twenty-five next birthday. Next week in fact. It’s my birthday next Tuesday”.
The girl directed her once they got to the village, indicating the small row of houses that were the only council houses there. Stopping outside one in the middle of the row, Diane was surprised to see how shabby it looked. Dirty net curtains hung in the windows, and the front door was badly in need of repainting. She turned and looked at the girl, who was staring intently at her. “Miss, please call me Connie. Everyone does, and it seems funny hearing you say Constance”. As she reached over to the back seat for her bag and opened the door, Diane replied.
“Okay, Connie it is from now on”.
Relaxing in her cottage with a glass of wine, Diane stroked the expensive hardback copy of Anna Karenina sitting on her leg. She had known exactly where to find it of course, as organising her bookshelves was something of an obsession. She wondered what Connie would think of Count Vronksy and Anna, but had no doubt that the girl could manage the complex novel that ran to over eight hundred pages in her copy. It had also occurred to her how strange it seemed for the daughter of a soldier and a barmaid to become so invested in literature. That made her different indeed.
A true gem.
The rest of the week seemed to fly by. Having the car meant Diane was able to get in early and get things arranged before school assembly. The next time she had that class for English, she called Connie back into the room as the pupils were leaving at the end of the lesson. Producing the heavy book from her desk, she handed it to the girl. “Please be careful with it, I have had it a long time. But there’s no rush to give it back, as you can see, it is very long”. Sliding it into her school bag, Connie smiled. “Thanks, Miss. I will be very careful with it. It will be in my room, well away from my brother”.
The school bus didn’t break down again, leaving Diane with no excuse to offer Connie a lift home. Every afternoon as she finished at school and the kids had already left earlier, she found herself wishing that there was no bus service for them.
That thought always made her drive the car a little faster.
Diane White had never had a boyfriend. It wasn’t that she didn’t attract men, if anything she attracted far too much attention from them. All of it unwanted. From her early teens, she was aware of being attracted to women, at a time when it wasn’t possible to be open and honest about such things. She once tried to talk to her mother about it, and that was dismissed with a smile. “Oh girls always have crushes, darling. You will grow out of those, trust me”.
But Diane didn’t grow out of them.
At university, she found a soul mate in Francesca, another fan of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and anything written by Jane Austen. They spent hours discussing the characters and plots in great detail, and it wasn’t long before Diane was sure that her friend loved her as much as she loved the raven-haired bookworm. Then she returned from the first Christmas break full of news about losing her virginity to a boy she had long admired, and Diane was devastated. She was even more devastated when Francesca left university in the spring after confiding that she was pregnant, so was going to get married.
After that, Diane stopped bothering. She had heard of clubs where women who liked women went, but she was far too embarrassed to go to one of those. Instead, she dedicated herself to the brightest girls, as soon as she became a teacher. As well as being determined to be modern in her outlook and to encourage the same in others. Now she had met the brightest girl of all, the true gem that was Constance Reilly.
If she was allowed, she would change that girl’s life for the better.
That summer was warm, and Diane was busy with the older pupils who were taking crucial examinations. Although her job was far from arduous, the long summer holiday couldn’t come too soon for her. Not that she was heading off to some exotic foreign destination. Her plan was to tidy up the garden at the front of the cottage, then perhaps drive up to Howarth in Yorkshire, to immerse herself in Bronte country whilst staying at a small bed and breakfast for a few days.
On the second week of the holiday, she was using some clunky old shears to trim the privet hedge at the front when she heard a voice behind her. “So this is where you live, Miss”. She turned to see Connie, standing by an old bicycle. The copper hair was released from the usual long plait, and completly covered her shoulders. In a green summer dress she looked older than her fourteen years, and her gaze was mesmerising. For a moment, Diane wondered if the girl had followed her some time, to discover where she lived, then Connie spoke again.
“My mum has taken my brother and gone to visit my granny in Winchester. I didn’t want to go all that way on the trains, so stayed here. I got mum’s old bike out and pumped up the tyres, and I have been riding around the village and the area. I hadn’t really seen that much of it before”. The girl looked hot, so Diane did the decent thing and invited her in for a cold drink. As she prepared some lemon squash in a jug, Connie wandered around the snug living room, staring at the books and framed prints. “This painting is so lovely, Miss. I have never seen anything like it”.
She was looking at a large print of The Lady of Shallot, by Waterhouse. The young woman in the painting has long ginger hair, and both Connie and Diane could not fail to notce the uncanny resemblance to the teenager. Passing a glass of squash, Diane was excited to show the girl a book of paintings that included that one, and Connie sat attentively as each page was turned on her lap. “Oh Miss, they are wonderful. I have never seen anything so lovely”. Diane smiled. “Look, while you are here, and school is finished, why not call me Diane? Miss makes feel feel old and frumpy. But just here though, never in school”.
As another page was turned, Connie turned and stared at her teacher. “Diane is such a lovely name. Perfect for a lovely lady”.
Diane could not stop herself blushing.
When it was time for Connie to leave, Diane toyed with the idea of asking her to stay and share the ham salad she was having for dinner that evening. However, that might mean her cycling home in the dark, and there were no lights on the old bicycle. Instead, she called to the girl as she got on the bike. “I will send you a postcard from Yorkshire!”
The drive north was very pleasant in her shiny green car. She had washed and polished it before the trip, making sure to check the oil and water when filling up at the garage in Fordham. With her small case secure in the boot, she took the scenic route, not arriving at the bed and breakfast until very late in the afternoon. It was not the first time she had been to Haworth, or that same bed and breakfast, and it felt familiar as she walked up the driveway carrying her case.
At a gift shop the next morning, she found a nice postcard of the Bronte’s house, and a paperback copy of Wuthering Heights. Both were intended for Connie, though it suddenly dawned on Diane that although she knew where the girl lived, she didn’t actually know the postal address. They would have to wait until she returned home to Essex. In a tiny bookshop, she was delighted to find a postcard with a reproduction of The Lady Of Shallot on it, and she tucked that inside the copy of Wuthering Heights for Connie to use as a bookmark.
Arriving home four days later, Diane thought about driving to Connie’s house to deliver the gifts. But she had no idea how long her mother would be away, and that woman might have not thought it appropriate for a teacher to visit the house. Probably best to leave it until school resumed in September.
She didn’t have to wait until September.
The knock on the door startled her as she was reading. The post had already come, and she was expecting no visitors. Connie was propping the bicycle against the front hedge as she opened it. “I came by each day to see if your car was back in the lane, Diane. My mum came home yesterday, but she doesn’t start back at the pub until Friday evening”.
Perhaps she should have asked why the girl had come every day. Perhaps she should have told her she was busy, and she would see her at school soon. But she didn’t.
“Oh, do come in, I have a gift for you”.
Handing over the book and the two postcards, Diane seemed flustered and awkward. By contrast, Connie looked confident and assured, radiant in a simple pink dress, her hair fragrant and flowing. “Silly me, I forgot to get your address, so I brought the postcard home. There’s another one inside the book for you to use as a bookmark, I think you will see why I chose it”. The girl looked like she might burst into tears. “I have never had such a thoughtful gift. I will treasure the cards and book always, I promise you”.
Putting the book down on the coffee table, Connie stepped forward and kissed Diane full on the lips. It was a kiss that was neither too brief, nor too long. And it was a kiss that sent a delicious shudder up Diane’s back. She stepped back quickly, resisting the urge to follow up with a kiss of her own. “Let’s have a cold drink. Look at the book, I have written inside the cover”. In the kitchen, Diane was trembling, and she held on to the old stone sink lest she fall over. With her heart racing, and her head spinning, she had to stand and regain her composure before going back with the drinks.
Connie was sitting with the book on her lap, open at the blank page where Diane had written on it.
‘To my dearest Connie, a girl with the brightest of futures. Diane. XX’
Choosing to sit opposite the sofa on a ladderback chair, Diane knew she could not trust herself to sit next to the girl, close enough to feel the warmth of her body.
Once Connie had left, a wave of relief swept over her, and she poured herself a large glass of wine.
The next morning, Diane woke up determined to break her fast-growing addiction to spending time with Connie. When the knocker sounded on the door just after eleven, she stayed inside, not answering. Connie would obviously know she was at home, as she would have seen the car parked in the lane. But she had to be strong, and not let the girl in. She had her new job, her cottage, the car, and too much to lose.
Peeping from a bedroom window upstairs, she could see Connie standing by the gate next to her bicycle. It seemed she was playing the waiting game, but Diane could play that too. Evetually, the girl tired of waiting, and slipped a note through the letterbox before riding off. ‘Came to see you, but no reply. I will try again tomorrow. C. XX’.
The following day, Diane made sure not to be home, driving to the estuary at Mersea Island, and spending the day reading in the sun. Then the day after that, and the next day too. By the end of that week, Connie apeared to have given up trying, and despite some pangs of guilt over encouraging her, Diane was greatly relieved.
As usual, the teaching staff returned a few days before the end of the holidays. There was some preparation to be done, reviews of exam results, and other general admin to get out of the way. Diane was in before everyone else, hoping that her enthusiasm would be noticed. When the headmaster came into the staff room, she expected some compliment about how well her classes had done in the exams, or praise for arriving long before the others. But he wasn’t smiling.
“Diane, can you follow me to my office, please?”
She sat across the desk from him as he removed some papers from a drawer. “I have a letter here. I am not going to show you it, but I will outline what it contains. It is from Mrs Reilly, the mother of Constance Reilly. You know Constance of course?” Feeling cold in her stomach, Diane nodded.
“She alleges that you have been -shall we say- intimate with her daughter in an inappropriate fashion. Inviting her into your home, driving her around in your car, buying her gifts, making affectionate and flattering remarks to her, and on one occasion even kissing the girl. It seems Constance told her mother she wanted to move out and live with you because you were in love with each other. As a result, the girl has been removed from this school by her parents, who are in the process of moving out of the county to an undisclosed location. I thought I should give you the chance to tell me your side, Diane.”
Her brain was spinning, and she was sure that if she had eaten any breakfast that morning, she would certainly have vomited onto the headmaster’s desk.
“I did invite Connie in for a cold drink on a hot day, but only after she had cycled to my house without being invited. I once gave her a lift home in my car when the school bus broke down, but never drove her around as the letter suggests. Yes, I bought her a novel back from holiday, but only because I know her family is not well off financially, and Connie is truly a bright star as far as literature is concerned. I wanted to encourage her interest in books and art, but when she tried to kiss me, I immediately realised she had misunderstood, and have not seen her since”.
The look on his face told her he hadn’t believed a word.
“You are lucky that the parents have not chosen to involve the police, and so far I have not passed this on to the education authorities. I have replied to the letter in a personal capacity, and given my assurances that you will no longer be teaching here. I suggest you resign immediately, or I will have no alternative but to suspend you pending a formal investigation into your conduct”. He slid a sheet of plain paper and a pen across the desk. “Please write the resignation letter now, giving some kind of reason why you are unhappy here. Maybe you cannot settle in the area, or want to go abroad to teach? I don’t care what you write, but you will write it”.
As Diane was driving home in tears, she knew the cottage would have to go, as she could never afford the mortgage with no job.
And the car too.
There was little choice for Diane but to reurn to her family home in the small town of Witney, in Oxfordshire. She explained away her resignation by telling them that she had not got on with her colleagues, and had an idea to go to work in Hong Kong, where teachers were usually in some demand. In fact, after only one week at home, she managed to secure an interview with an agency in London that was happy to forward her details for a vacancy on their books. Within a month, she was packing to leave, using the last of her salary to buy an airline ticket.
The house in Essex had been rented through a local company, and that rental income would cover the mortgage costs and management fees. As for the green Consul Cortina, she gave the keys and paperwork to her father, and asked him to sell it for her.
Nigel White had little interest in cars, even though he could drive, and owned a smart Rover car. He placed a classified advertisement in the local weekly newspaper, offering Diane’s low-mileage car for offers around four hundred and twenty five pounds. Then he parked it inside his double garage, and more or less forgot about it.
Trevor Clemence was a man who hadn’t had that much luck in his life. He was fired from a carpentry apprenticeship for always turning up late for work, then had joined the army at the age of eighteen. He didn’t even complete his training, as after knocking out a drill sergeant with one punch on the parade ground, he was thrown out. Not long after, he managed to get work helping a window cleaner in Witney, and he was allowed to drive the van on learner plates, eventually passing his driving test first time.
His boss let him use the van outside of work, and he soon met Shirley, who was working in a roadside cafe on the A40 nearby. They married when Trevor was twenty-one, and went to live with his widowed grandmother in the town. Two years later, the man he worked for offered to sell him the window-cleaning round, and negotiated a weekly payment to cover the cost of buying it, and the old van that came with it. Trevor was very pleased with himself. He now had his own business, and he was only twenty-three years old.
Bad news arrived in the shape of the winter of 1963. With the weather so bad, most of his regular customers didn’t want their windows cleaned. Trade dropped off alarmingly, and his weekly takings were reduced by half. Plans to start a family had to be shelved, and Shirley was unhappy about that. Then one afternoon as he was on his way back from cleaning the windows of the vicarage in Minster Lovell, he crashed the van in a country lane, after skidding on ice.
There wasn’t enough money to pay for the repairs to get the van roadworthy, and with no van, he could only do the windows of a few local shops that he could walk to, carrying the smaller ladder. It wasn’t long before he had lost the majority of his customers, and he had only paid off less than half the money he owed his former boss. Shirley was working at the tea rooms in Witney now, but her wages were barely enough to buy the shopping, and pay their share of the bills. His grandma only had her old age pension, so the new year of 1964 was a dismal prospect indeed. Faced with no alternative, Trevor had to give up the business, and get a regular job.
All he could find was work as a labourer for a local roofing company. They would pick him up in a lorry at the end of the lane every morning, and he spent all day carrying roof tiles up and down ladders, after unloading them from the flatbed at the back. At least the work was regular, even though it was tiring and monotonous. By the end of that summer, he had managed to pay off his debt, build up his strength, and had tried to talk to Shirley about renting their own place and starting a family.
Her attitude surprised him. “To be honest, Trev, I’m pretty fed up. Don’t think I want kids after all. Not with you, anyway”.
Three weeks later, she was gone.
Trevor worked hard for the rest of the year, even going in on Saturdays for extra pay. By the time he was celebrating the new year of 1965 with his granny, he had managed to save almost five hundred pounds. He gave the old lady fifty of that, which seemed like a fortune to her, but that was to soften the blow when he told her he was thinking of moving out.
Shirley had left the local tea rooms long before. Valerie the owner had told him she was living in Oxford, with a travelling salesman who was a regular at the tea rooms. He had just shrugged at the news. Trevor was a man who accepted bad luck as his lot in life.
With spring coming, Nigel White was determined to get rid of his daughter’s car. There had not been a single enquiry from the newspaper advertisement, so he resolved to put up some postcards in local shops and post offices. They were a lot cheaper, and more likely to be seen by people in Witney. He took the canvas cover off the car, removed the battery, and charged it up. Sure it would start and run for any potential buyer, he wrote out some cards and paid for them to be in the windows with all the others.
After helping his gran get some shopping one Saturday morning, Trevor noticed a newly-refurbished shop front. What had once been a dusty old ironmongers was set to become a new taxi office. They had a sign outside, stating ‘Drivers Wanted. Apply Within’. When he had dropped off the shopping at home, he walked back and stood outside the shop. Working as a taxi driver appealed to him as being a lot more comfortable than hauling roof tiles day in, day out. So he went inside.
“No, we don’t have taxis for you to drive mate. This is a private hire company. You supply your own car and insurance, we get the work for you, and take a percentage. You need a decent car with four doors, it must be undamaged, and nice and clean. Come back and see me when you have one, show me the taxi insurance papers, and you can start the same day”. Despite his disappointment at the company not supplying cars for him to use, he couldn’t get the idea out of his head as he ate dinner that night with his gran.
It wasn’t until Tuesday when he spotted the postcard in the window of the corner shop. ‘1963 Consul Cortina. 4-doors. Very low mileage. £400’. He asked the shopkeeper to write the phone number down on a piece of paper for him, then walked to the phone box on the corner. The man at the other end gave him the address, and he agreed to go there and see the car late on Saturday afternoon when he had finished work. It was in a very posh part of town where Trevor had once cleaned windows.
The house was suitably impressive, and the doors of the double garage were already open when Trevor arrived. The shiny green Cortina was in one half, and a grey Rover P5 dominated the other half. He didn’t have to knock, as the elderly man came out as soon as he stopped to look at the car.
“She’s a good runner you know, and such low mileage for a sixty-three car too. Have a look, the door is open. Only six thousand miles on the clock, you won’t find a better one. The spare wheel has never been used, no MOT required until next year, and I have charged the battery for you. There is still a few gallons of petrol in the tank too”.
Remembering he was supposed to haggle, Trevor really couldn’t be bothered. Everything the man was saying was true, and compared to the cost of the newly revamped Cortina model, this one was a real bargain. He hadn’t said much, and the man took that as hesitation. “If you like, I can get the keys and give you a drive around. I am insured to drive it on my policy”. He was back in two minutes, and invited Trevor to jump into the passenger seat. They headed away from the town centre, driving on the country road in the direction of Poffley End. After ten minutes, he pulled into the space next to a farm gate.
“Well young man, what say you?” Trevor smiled.
“I’ll take it. I can bring the money on Monday evening, after I have sorted out the insurance”.
The taxi insurance was at least twice as much as insuring the car normally, but he had to have it. Driving back from the big house after paying the man for the car, Trevor popped in to the taxi office and showed the owner his car and insurance certificate. “I can start next Monday, I have to work a week’s notice”.
His boss at the roofing company had been sad to hear he was leaving. “You’re a good worker, Trev. If this taxi stuff doesn’t work out, there’s always a job for you here”. He handed over his week’s wages, plus his week in hand. “I’ve put an extra ten pounds in there for you”.
The following weekend, Trevor drove his granny out to Oxford, to give her a ride in the new car. They stopped for tea in the city, and he asked her what she thought of the car, and told her about his new job as a private hire driver. She swallowed a big lump of scone before answering. “Fancy, I call it. Don’t you go getting above ourself now”. After tea, he bought a grey sports jacket and some new shirts and ties.
He was determined to look smart when he started picking up passengers.
Ken Millward was the owner of Witney Cars, and explained how things worked. “We find you the jobs. You are not allowed to pick anyone up off the street, under any circumstances. Here are some business cards with our phone number on them for you to hand out. When you are driving past any phone boxes, remember to place them prominently inside. We get a lot of work from phone boxes. The rates are so much a mile for cash jobs, and a bit less for account customers. I take ten percent of all cash fares and fifteen percent of account jobs. You keep any tips. Make sure to have change on you at all times, and you should buy some maps of Oxford, Cheltenham, Gloucester, and even London. We will be taking people all over”.
Trevor had never been to London, and decided not to mention that to Ken, who carried on talking.
“You will get a list of booked jobs, regular pick-ups, and parcel or school runs. When they are done, you come back to the office and wait for a walk-in, or if someone phones for a booking. If you get any runs into Oxford or Gloucester, never park on a taxi rank or pick up anyone who might hail you at a station. The taxis there are all licenced by the Councils, and there will be big trouble if they catch you doing that”.
Then he handed Trevor a large stiff card with the name Witney Cars printed on it and the phone number. “Keep this on the dashboard of your car where it can be seen. And try not to park illegally, as we don’t pay for parking tickets. There’s a kettle out the back, and tea and milk. It’s two shillings a week, and if you want sugar, bring it in. Give the two-bob to Stella, she gets the stuff, and answers the phones on the day shift”.
Walking behind the partition holding a two-shilling piece, Trevor saw Stella sitting at a desk writing things down on small cards. “Ken says I have to give you a couple of bob for the tea”. He placed the coin on the edge of the desk. “I’m Trevor, Trevor Clemence. I’m one of the new drivers”. Stella looked up at him and smiled. “I know, I’m not deaf. You were only standing behind the partition”. He smiled back at her, feeling awkward. She had nice flick-ups in her fair hair, and reminded him of Millicent Martin. He guessed she might be a bit older than him too.
“The two bob is for the tea and milk, but you make it yourself. I’m nobody’s tea lady. And wash your cup up after too”. Her tone was mock-serious, softened by a friendly grin as she spoke. “If you need the toilet, it’s halfway up the stairs, on the first landing. And don’t wee on the seat, or leave it up after. I have to sit on that you know. If you are ready to work, I have a pick-up for you in Crundel Rise, going to the air base at Brize Norton. You know where they are, I suppose?” He nodded, and left immediately with the details on a piece of paper.
Stella called after him. “It’s an account customer, but he normally tips well”.
As he was driving to Crundel Rise, Trevor couldn’t stop smiling. Stella was great, and he was on his way to his first ever taxi job.
Within six weeks, Trevor had become relaxed and experienced as a taxi driver. Some customers had begun to ask for him by name, and Ken was very pleased indeed. One evening, he called Trevor into his tiny office near the back door. “I have heard you mention that you want to move out of your gran’s. There is a small flat upstairs you know, and I own it with the building. If you want, I will rent it to you at a fair price. You will get to park your car in the yard at the back, and have your own entrance using the metal staircase. Want to come up and have a look at it?”
He had never been further up the stairs than the toilet on the half-landing, and Trevor was surprised to find a door on the left, which Ken opened with a key. “There is a double bed they left here, but no other furniture. The bedroom is separate, and you have your own bathroom at the back”. Trevor was surprised how spacious the main room was, with two large windows overlooking the street, and a small kitchenette along one side. The bathroom had an Ascot to heat the water, and there was a thre-bar electric fire in the fireplace of the main room. Ken was realistic. “It needs a touch of paint or new wallpaper, but the lino is in good nick, and you can get some rugs or whatever. What do you reckon, Trev?”
There was no hesitation. “I’ll take it”.
Back downstairs, he couldn’t wait to tell Stella. He had developed a real crush on her, and had become convinced that she felt the same way. “So now you’re living above the shop. Don’t forget it is open for most of the night with drivers coming and going and the phone ringing. You won’t get much peace”. There were only three drivers who worked the night shift, and there was little demand for taxis that late, except at weekends when some part-time drivers made up the numbers. Trevor laughed. “Then I will have to work at night too, earn even more money!”
Then he had to go home and tell his gran.
Her reaction surprised him. “About time you got your own place. You can take what you need from here, as I will be telling the Council I am giving up this house. I will go and live with your Aunt Marion in Cirencester. Since she lost her husband she’s been rattling around in that big house. I only stayed on here because of you and Shirley, and when she scarpered I thought you would find your own place”. Trevor nodded, relieved that she wasn’t annoyed, and happy to solve his furniture issues. His old boss at the roofing company would surely let him have use of a lorry and driver one weekend, and he could give the man a few quid for helping him carry up some things.
His first night in his own flat felt strange. He bought fish and chips in town as he hadn’t connected the gas cooker, and then all the lights went out when he forgot to put any shillings in the electric meter. He didn’t mind though. It was a fresh start.
Two weeks later, he summoned up the nerve to ask Stella out. “You were right about the phones, Stella. I do hear them ringing, especially at weekends. By the way, would you like to go out with me one night, to the pictures, or into Oxford maybe?” He knew it was clumsy, but she was smiling. “Trev, I have a seven year old daughter, I thought someone might have told you that by now. And I’m thirty, a fair bit older than you. My mum looks after Amy when she finishes school, and in the holidays, so I don’t like to leave her in the evenings”. He knew his face was registering disappointment. “Sorry, I didn’t realise you were married. You don’t wear a wedding ring. Sorry for asking”.
Stella shook her head. “I’m a widow. My husband was killed in a road accident on his way to work on a motorbike when I was six months pregnant. Amy never knew him. So I don’t go out in the evenings”. Trevor nodded, and turned to leave. Then she spoke again.
“But you could come and have dinner with us one night”.
As he had never been to anyone’s house for dinner, Trevor settled for overkill. He bought a bottle of Liebfraumilch, even though he couldn’t stand the stuff. Then a large bunch of roses, believing you should always take flowers to the house of a lady. As if that wasn’t enough, he added a jumbo sized box of Milk Tray chocolates, and two bags of Jelly Babies for young Amy. The modern two-bedroom house was neat and impressive, as well as being in a nice part of town. He wondered how Stella could afford it, but knew better than to ask her.
Stella seemed to be impressed with what he turned up with, even though she didn’t miss the chance to pretend to be exasperated with him. “Oh Trev, this is too much, it’s just a normal dinner at home”. Little Amy was shy at first, but soon warmed to the good-looking, polite young man who asked her lots of questions about school, pop music, and things she liked to do. The meal of pork chops and vegetables was nothing special, but he enjoyed it just the same. After dinner, Amy went up to bed, and when Stella came down she made coffee. She hadn’t bothered to open the wine when Trevor had said he didn’t want any. “I’ll save it for another time, if that’s okay, Trev”.
By ten o’clock he was feeling awkward, and checked his watch more times than he should have. He had never been much of a ladies man, and Shirley had made all the running when he first met her at the roadside cafe. Unsure how to behave, he eventually stood up. “Thanks for a lovely meal, Stella. It was so nice to meet Amy too, she’s a lovely girl”. Stella grinned. “Sit down, Trev. You don’t have to go yet, and I have some things to say to you”.
He did as she said.
“Trev, I really like you, but we will have to take things slowly because of Amy. I don’t want her getting attached to you if you are only looking for a fling. I’m sure you are wondering about the house, so I will tell you. We bought it when we got married, and when Danny was killed in the accident, the insurance paid off the mortgage and left me with a bit over for later. I’m not looking to get married again, not yet anyay, but I also don’t want to get involved in any pointless relationships or one-night stands. Is that alright with you?”
Trevor told her about Shirley running off with a salesman, and he was honest about his lack of experience with women. Stella patted the sofa she was sitting on. “Why don’t you come over here and kiss me, Trev? Just kissing though, no more. Not yet”.
Driving home just before eleven, Trevor was grinning from ear to ear. Stella was perfect for him, he could feel it in his bones.
Real dates followed, with Stella paying for a babysitter so that they could go to the cinema, or for a nice meal out in Oxford. Sometimes, they settled for a drink in a pub in Witney, followed by fish and chips eaten in the car. Neither had spoken about love, and their romance had never gone past kissing. Then one Saturday night as Trevor stopped the car outside her house, Stella turned to him. “Would you like to stay over tonight, Trev?” He felt awkward, but nodded. “What about Amy though?” Stella grinned. “You idiot, don’t you know Amy loves you? Not as much as I love you of course, but enough”.
He kissed her there and then in the car. With the most passion he had ever put into a kiss.
That Sunday morning, Amy was awake early. She ran into her mum’s bedroom and leapt onto the bed. Trevor woke up wondering what she would make of him being there, but she acted as if everything was completly normal. As Stella woke up and smiled at her daughter, Amy had a question. “Is Trevor my daddy now?” Stella didn’t answer, instead she turned to hear what he would say. Lifting the girl up above his head, Trevor laughed as he spoke.
“Not yet, Amy. But soon, I promise you”.
Stella and Trevor continued to live separately while his divorce was going through. Shirley did not contest the divorce on the grounds of her desertion, and asked for no money or possessions. That smoothed the process. When the papers arrived just before Christmas of sixty-six, they planned a small wedding for May the following year. Just the registry office in town, nothing too grand.
Stella’s mum Norma was completely supportive, and had urged her daughter to get serious with Trevor as soon as she met him. “Don’t let this one slip through your fingers, he’s genuine, mark my words”.
That April, Britain won the Eurovision Song Contest, represented by Sandie Shaw. Amy asked for the record, ‘Puppet On A String’, and played it so many times Stella got it stuck in her head.
The wedding was a small but happy occasion. Ken and his wife served as witnesses, Amy carried flowers as a bridesmaid, and Norma cried. Even Trevor’s gran and aunt Marion made the journey from Cirencester. After the short ceremony, they all had lunch in a nearby pub.
Although he had often stayed over, returning to the house as Stella’s husband made Trevor feel very proud. Ken had managed to let the flat above the shop to Viktor, one of the drivers who was originally from Poland, and Trevor had said he could keep his stuff so it could be rented as furnished. Stella still walked Amy to school before work, as he was usually out on his first taxi runs well before seven. Now he had a family to care for, Trevor took Ken’s advice and employed a local accountant to sort out his tax affairs, then not long after the wedding, they discussed whether or not he should adopt Amy.
When they asked the girl, she beamed a huge smile. “Yes please! I want a daddy!”
That first summer seemed idyllic. Trevor made sure to never work on a Sunday, and they took trips all over in his green Cortina. Picnics, days at the seaside, and even an outing to Bristol Zoo.
On the Monday following that tiring day, Trevor turned up at work to find Ken’s wife Peggy sitting at the desk at the back. She had been crying, and looked like she was about to start again. “Oh, Trevor. Ken’s gone. He had a funny turn at home early yesterday morning, and I had to call an ambulance. They took him to Oxford to the big hospital, but he didn’t make it. They think it was a brain haemmhorage, but there has to be a post mortem. I didn’t know what to do, I thought I had better come in and tell you all”.
He went to make her a cup of tea, and when he got back, he was calm and reassuring. “Peggy, Stella will be in soon. You can leave it to us to run the place until you sort things out. I will get Viktor to run you home in a minute, you should be with your family. Don’t worry about the business, you can count on me and Stella. She put the tea down and started crying again, so he walked up to the flat to ask Viktor to come down and take her home.
They went to the funeral, leaving just a few drivers to cover the regular runs. At Ken’s house following the service, Peggy pulled them both to one side. “I don’t know anything about Ken’s business, but I know he always spoke well of you, and relied heavily on Stella too. How about you buy the business off me? We can make an arrangement with the solicitor, and you can pay so much a month. It will give me some extra money, and take the worry off me too. I will throw in Ken’s new car. I can’t drive, and he would have been happy for you to have it”.
Stella turned and looked at him, an almost imperceptible nod passed between them. Trevor kissed Peggy on the cheek. “Consider it sold”.
Just a few weeks before his death, Ken had treated himself to a burgundy-coloured Jaguar 3.4, saying as he would never use it as a taxi, it didn’t matter that it was a luxury car. Now Trevor had the keys and paperwork, which he sent off to register himself as the new owner. Taking over the taxi office meant that he would almost never be driving, though the Jag would do nicely for any upmarket jobs that came in. Stella was pleased that he would be selling the Cortina now.
“I never said anything before, Trev, but green cars are supposed to be unlucky. He shook his head.
“Well, it wasn’t unlucky for me, love.”
Adrian and Sally.
Trevor put the car up for sale that September, placing an advertisement in the Exchange and Mart weekly newpaper. He was aware that the car would be five years old the following year, and his taxi driving had greatly increased the mileage. However, it was in great condition, and new cars were getting more expensive to buy all the time. So he asked three hundred pounds for it.
Adrian Lexham had just finished his degree at one of Oxford Univerity’s minor colleges. It was a passable qualification in French, but he had no real desire to start adult life as a French teacher in a private school, something arranged by his father.
As luck would have it, his maternal grandmother had died in July, and left him two thousand pounds in her will. Against the advice of his concerned parents, Adrian decided he did not want to return to the family home in Norfolk. His plan was to buy a car and tour France in it. Perhaps getting down as far as Spain. So he stayed on in Oxford, and began to look for a car to buy before he had to give up his room at the end of the month.
One reason why he was so determined to spend his inheritance seeing Europe was Sally. She was the object of his desire, and had been since he started at university. But she was attractive, popular, and definitely out of his league. Sally Brooks was one of those young women who seemed to break all the rules and get away with it. From a working class background in Kent, she had got into Oxford to study French with a natural flair for the language, and a wide knowledge of the country.
Of course, the fact that her mother was French had helped a great deal.
When she had been chatting to a group of admirers in the local pub one evening, and telling everyone how much she would love to spend a year travelling in Europe, Adrian had heard himself saying, “Actually, I am taking a year out to drive around France, and I may even go down into Spain”. That was the first time such a trip had ever entered his head, but he wanted to impress the girl. She had put down her glass, and called his bluff. “Well if you want a travelling companion to help with the cost of petrol, look no further”.
Unwilling to back down now, Adrian stood up. “You’re on, Sally. My round I think”.
After seeing the advertisement for the Cortina and making an arrangement to view the car, Adrian asked his friend Sammi Singh to give him a lift to Witney. Sammi’s dad was filthy rich, and had bought his son an MG roadster to run around in while he was studying at Oxford.
Arranging to see the potential buyer at his house, not the taxi office, Trevor wasn’t about to mention that it had been used as a taxi, as that would put off too many prospective buyers. The well spoken young man who arrived that Saturday afternoon didn’t even look at the mileage counter on the dial. He just walked quickly around the car, asked to look in the boot, and then suggested a test drive with Trevor driving. After ten minutes driving around the town, Adrian was nodding. “Seems like a good runner. Three hundred you say? If I can use your phone to arrange the insurance, I will take it today”.
The phone call was obviously to the man’s father, asking him to add the Cortina to his policy, and insure the car for his son to drive. He heard some mention of Europe, and that the car had to be insured to drive over there. Then he hung up. Trevor was handed three hundred in ten pound notes. Keen to hand over all the paperwork with the keys, Trevor started to tell him about the service history, the spare wheel and tools and such. But the excitable young man waved away the carefully-prepared folder. “Just the MOT certificate please, and the logbook. I’m not concerned about all the rest”.
Thirty minutes after he had arrived, Adrian was driving off in the car. He didn’t even notice Trevor waving goodbye.
After arranging for his tea-chests of books and a few bulky possessions to be taken to his parents’ home by a local removal company, Adrian packed his clothes into a suitcase, and said goodbye to his rented room. Stopping at the bank, he drew out a large part of his savings, exchanging most of it for French Francs and traveller’s cheques. Then he headed east, to Sally’s parental home in Dartford, Kent. Just after three that afternoon, he eventually found the house on a sprawling council estate, where every house looked depressingly identical.
The man who opened the door was wearing a British Rail uniform. Adrian was polite and chirpy. “Mister Brooks? I have come to collect Sally. We are off to France, as I expect she has told you”. The reply left him confused. “France? I don’t know anything about France. Sally isn’t here. She left a few days ago. Some student friends of hers picked her up in one of those Volksagen camper van thingys. I would ask you in, but I have to go on shift soon, and my wife isn’t home from her job until seven”. Adrian was flummoxed, to say the least.
“Did she say when she might be back? We had plans to leave today or tomorrow for France. It was all arranged before she left Oxford”. The man shook his head. “Sorry, she doesn’t say much to me, tends to do her own thing. Why don’t you come back tomorrow and speak to my wife? She isn’t working then, and Sally usually tells her what she’s up to. You will have to find somewhere to stay I suppose? Try the Royal Victoria and Bull, in the High Street in town. They have rooms above the pub. I’m going to have to go to work now I’m afraid”.
Adrian mumbled his thanks, and walked back to the car in a daze.
It was easy enough to find the hotel, and they had a room available. It was one of the refurbished double rooms at a premium rate, but Adrian was in no mood to search the unfamiliar market town for a better deal. He sat on the bed wondering what to do, and becoming more annoyed that Sally could be so irresponsible and selfish. Imagine leaving like that, when she knew he was coming as arranged? He resolved to speak to her mother the next day, then went down to the bar for a beer and a meal.
After a below average breakfast the next morning, he arrived back at the house just after ten. Mrs Brooks answered the door, and he was immediately relieved to discover she knew who he was. Eyeing the plain-looking young man with his double-breasted blazer and neatly trimmed hair, Charlotte Brooks was wondering how her daughter had hooked up with someone so unlike all her other friends.
“Yes, Adrian. She told me you were giving her a lift to visit my relatives in Normandy. That’s very kind of you. Then she went off with some of her old friends who came to see her. I think they were going to see Stonehenge. I’m sure they will be back in a few days. Would you like a cup of tea?”
Her accent was very French, but after so long in England, her English was flawless. Over tea, she chatted in a friendly manner. “I met my husband during the war of course. He was part of the army that liberated Caen, where I lived with my parents in a village outside the city. I was a young impressionable girl then, and he was very handsome. He drove a tank, you know. Now he drives trains, and maybe he’s not so handsome any longer”.
Adrian had the uneasy feeling that the woman might be trying to seduce him. He had no experience with girls or women, not so much as a kiss, and he felt uncomfortable around this lady, who seemed to be much younger than her husband.
Standing up, he remained impeccably polite as he produced a piece of paper with a phone number written on it. “Thank you so much for the tea, and your kindness. This is the phone number of the hotel where I am staying. I am in room six, and would be grateful if you could ask Sally to call me when she gets home. I am keen to get started on our trip to France”.
She took the paper, and he couldn’t help thinking that her smile was a knowing smile.
After two more nights in the hotel, Adrian was beside himself with boredom. He certainly didn’t want to travel alone to France, and the thought of going back to Kings Lynn and his parents was too dull to contemplate. But he knew he couldn’t just hang around wasting time in Dartford indefinitely. Angry at himself for being so weak as to let Sally use him like this, he advised the manager that he would be leaving the next morning, and paid his bill.
Back in the room as he was packing, the phone rang.
She was so casual, so innocent. He should have raged at her, but of course he didn’t.
“Hi, Adey. Hope you have enjoyed seeing Dartford. Pick me up early tomorrow and we can go to the travel agent and book the ferry for the following evening. We can get an overnight sailing, and arrive fresh”. He was confused. “But the ferry from Dover to Calais doesnt take that long, why do you say overnight?”. She answered in that way of hers, making him feel stupid. “We’re going to Normandy, so it makes sense to travel from Portsmouth to Cherbourg. That takes eight hours, but cuts down on hundreds of driving miles”.
Seeing her the next morning lifted his spirits. Her flowing dress and long wavy hair made her look so feminine, so desirable. The travel agent could get them on a car ferry the next night, but no cabins were available. they would have to do their best to sleep in the lounge, he told them. Before he could suggest an alternative route, Sally took over. “That’s okay, I can sleep anywhere. We will take it”. Turning to Adrian, she smiled. “I’ll wait in the car while you sort it out, can I have the keys?”
Although he had intended to pay, he thought she could have at least offered to contribute, so he could have gallantly turned down that offer.
Back at the house, she didn’t even invite him in. “You have your room until ten tomorrow? Okay, pick me up after that and we can have a slow drive to Portsmouth, stop somewhere for lunch on the way”. Not so much as a ‘thank you for paying’, or a kiss on the cheek.
When his car pulled up outside her house the next morning at ten-thirty, Sally must have been watching for it. She emerged from the front door carrying a huge rucksack, and Adrian opened the boot so she could dump it next to his suitcase. As they settled into the front of the car, Sally produced two ten pound notes. “My share of the petrol, that should cover us to Caen easily, and more besides”. For a second, he was going to refuse the money. But he thought twice, and slipped the notes into his blazer pocket.
Her choice of lunch stop was a cafe just outside the city of Portsmouth. It was a rough-looking place, the kind used by lorry drivers and men on motorbikes. As soon as they had sat down, Sally went over to the jukebox in the corner. She put the record ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ on to play three times. Smiling at Adrian, she asked, “Don’t you just love this?” He nodded, not bothering to tell her that he hated it, and preferred Classical music.
Sally ordered steak pie with vegetables, and though Adrian couldn’t really find anything to his taste on the limited menu, he settled for egg and chips and a cup of tea. They sat in that awful place for ages, Sally playing rubbish on the jukebox, and ordering an ice cream sundae and numerous frothy coffees. When she had finally eaten her fill and run out of music to listen to, she smiled at him. “See you in the car, Adey. Can I have the keys?”
He went up to the counter, and paid the bill.
On board the boat that evening, Sally bought duty free cigarettes and a bottle of vodka, then suggested dinner in the buffet restaurant. “Can you lend me the money please, Adey? I only have a little cash, and didn’t have time to get French Francs or traveller’s cheques”. That time, she leaned forward and kissed him gently on the cheek. He felt a buzz from that, and paid up quite happily.
Sally slept soundly all night, her head in his lap.
But when they docked at seven the next morning, Adrian was exhausted.
On the way to Caen, Adrian saw a sign for Bayeux. “We could turn off, go to see the Tapestry. I have always wanted to see that”. Sally shook her head. “Nah, it’s a bit lame to be honest. Besides, I’ve seen it loads of times”. After driving for ninety minutes being directed by Sally, she told him to take the next left. A few miles on a much smaller road led them to the village of Buron. Indicating he should turn into a tiny lane on the right, Sally grinned. “Just up there, and we are at my uncle’s place”.
The bumpy, rutted road led to a rather large but exceedingly ramshackle farmhouse. Three tumbledown outbuildings formed a dusty courtyard, and he could see a man about sixty years old carrying a large rake. He was standing watching as the car stopped. Sally ran across and hugged the man, shouting out “Lucien” as he lifted her up. Then they engaged in a short conversation before Sally ran back to the car and opened the boot, hauling out her big rucksack..
Getting out of the car to join her and get his suitcase, he almost got his fingers caught as she slammed the lid. “So, shall we say three days? You can go and see theTapestry, have a look around Caen. It’s very historical in the old city. Pick me up when you’re ready, and we can head south. The Atlantic coast is nice, we could have a look at Biarritz, I’ve never been there”.
Adrian had no idea what to say. Her aunt was now standing in the doorway of the farmhouse, shaking flour off of her hands. He had just presumed he would be staying, and having to find a hotel hadn’t been mentioned.
His voice quivered a little as he controlled his emotions. “Three days then. Bye”.
Fortunately, Caen was only a couple of miles south, and the city had a large number of hotels. Adrian drove around until he found one with a car park, and managed to get a single room with a reasonable view of the damaged Norman castle. Wandering around to find somewhere to eat before a much-needed sleep, he eventually convinced himself that it was unrealistic to expect to have stayed with Sally’s uncle. They had family news to catch up on, and might well have not had enough room to accommodate him anyway. He was sure things would be more relaxed once they headed south in three day’s time.
Although he had been to France many times, most of those trips had been to Paris, and usually in organised small groups of students. Being on his own in the unfamiliar city of Caen wasn’t much fun, even though there was quite a bit to see and do. He decided not to drive back to Bayeux and see the Tapestry. That could wait for another time.
On the third day, he was at the farmhouse before ten. He sat in the car, studying a map he had bought the day before. To drive all the way to Biarritz would take around ten hours, allowing for a stop. If he drove all day, they could be there by around eight that night. Such a popular beach resort was bound to have some reasonably-priced small hotels, so he wasn’t concerned about finding a room when they got there.
Sally appeared in the doorway fifteen minutes later, kissing her aunt goodbye, then waving as she put her rucksack in the boot. She jumped into the passenger seat, and grinned at Adrian. “Biarritz, here we come!” As he turned the car round and headed back down the lane, she didn’t even ask him what he had been doing for the last three days.
Just over two hours later, they were approaching Tours. Sally had been napping, using her cardigan as a pillow. She sat up suddenly. “Can we stop at the next service area, Adey? I need a pee”. He nodded. “Okay, I should probably fill up with petrol anyway”.
As he filled the tank, Sally disappeared inside the main service area. There was a sign for a restaurant and shop, and the place was much larger than anything comparable in England, with more than a dozen pumps, and even a small workshop for repairs and tyres.
Twenty minutes later he saw her walking to the car, chatting animatedly wtih a tall man who seriously needed a shave and a haircut. He was also carrying a rucksack. Walking up to the open window, she turned to the man. “Put your bag in the back, there isn’t room in the boot”.
“Adey, this is Julien. He’s from Quebec, and I said we will give him a lift”.
Although he was French-Canadian, Julien didn’t speak French to them as they drove along. He didn’t speak English with an American accent either, as Adrian had heard from some Canadians he had met. No, he spoke English with a French accent, and the sound of him talking set Adrian’s teeth on edge. As well as that, he didn’t smell too good, as if he hadn’t washed himself or his clothes for some time. Winding down the window to let in some extra fresh air, Adrian tried to ignore the big man’s chatter.
“Yees, I hev been in France for sex months now, travelling in a cirque. I know such a great place. Let me show you. Waterfalls, rapids, boootiful woods.” Sally was keen. “Sounds great, where do we turn off?” Unable to hide the annoyance in his voice, Adrian snapped at her. “What about Biarritz? I thought that was OUR plan?” Julien didn’t seem to sense any atmosphere. “It’s the Jura, near the Suisse border. North of Lyon. We can turn off at Tours, head east in direction of Macon.” Sally yelled. “YES, let’s do it!”
As if Julien’s mix of langauges wasn’t irritating enough, Sally’s enthusiasm to follow his suggestion left Adrian’s face set in stone. He turned east at Tours though, hoping they would get shot of him somwehere in the Jura. Over five hours later, after consulting his map and filling up with petrol again, Adrian pulled into the village of Doucier, where Julien said they would find cheap accommodation at a campsite that had tents for hire.
Surprisingly, Julien produced some money to pay for the tent. It was already erected, and came with four sleeping mats, four collapsible chairs, and a small stove powered by a gas bottle. Some mismatched cups, glasses, and cutlery were in a wooden box in one corner. For Adrian, him and Sally sharing a tent with Julien was far from an ideal prospect, but as it had only been booked for three nights, and the weather was surprisingly good, he resolved to make the best of it.
Because it was late afternoon, the small shop on the site was sold out of almost everything. Seeking to raise Sally’s estimation of him, Adrian offered to drive back into the lakeside area of Doucier, where the site manager had suggested he might be able to buy food and drink for the night. Sally shouted after him. “Red wine, Adey. Don’t forget that!” The bakery was almost sold out, and he had to settle for three baguettes that felt far too hard. A small delicatessen proved to be a better find though, and he purchased a variety of cured meats and cheeses, along with two litres of cheap red wine.
When he got back, he noticed the long zip securing the front of the tent was closed. Presuming they had gone for a walk, Adrian placed the car keys and shopping on the ground, then pulled the zip up. What he saw inside made him stagger backwards in surprise. Julien’s naked arse, his filthy trousers around his ankles, and Sally’s bare legs wrapped around his back. Unconcerned by his obvious presence, they seemed determined to finish what they were doing. Adrian turned and ran for all he was worth, a rage building inside.
With no idea where he was going, he found himself on some rocks high above a fast-flowing stream, and sat down heavily on one, his chest heaving and face hot and flushed.
It was dark by the time they found him. Sally walked forward, her tone flat. “God, Adrian, you had us worried. What the hell was all that about? You need to be cool man. It’s not as if you and me were a thing. Come on, it’s just sex, no big deal”. Adrian stood up. He had made up his mind to tell her to clear off, and go her way with Julien. He would go back to Normandy, and see the Bayeux Tapestry before returning to England. But as he turned to tell her that, Julien started laughing. “Hell, Sally. I betting heez never done it”.
Arms and legs flailing, Adrian attacked the grinning oaf, punching and kicking for all he was worth. But it was a lost cause. Not only had Adrian never had a fight in his life, the other man was a head taller, and twice as broad. After laughing at the puny Englishman’s efforts for a few moments, Julien pulled back his right arm and landed a massive punch on his opponent’s jaw.
It was harder than he had meant to punch though. Adrian staggered back, fell heavily onto the rock where he had been sitting, and then slid off into the abyss below.
Grabbing Sally’s arm, the Canadian screamed at her. “Let’s get out of here!”
Edgar Lexham was cutting the extensive grass at the front of his house as the police car stopped across his driveway. When he saw the officer walking in his direction, he turned off the noisy petrol engine of the mower. “Can I help you, officer?” The policeman consulted his notebook. “Does an Adrian Lexham live here, sir? It is shown as his address on the registration of a green Consul Cortina car”. Edgar nodded. “He’s my son, so this is his home address, but he is currently touring France and Spain in that car. Is something wrong? You had better come inside”.
Declining the offer of a cup of tea and a seat in a comfortable armchair, the policeman remained standing. “We have had a report from the police in Switzerland, sir. It appears that this car was left parked close to the main railway station at Geneva”. He looked at his notes again. “The station is called Cornavin, and the car was towed away for being illegally parked. Strangely, the keys were in the ignition, and the Swiss police found a map and some travellers cheques on the floor inside. This information is a couple of days old, but they want to know what to do about the car. Do you have any idea how you might contact your son, sir?”
“I have no idea where he might be. To be honest, we had words before he left. He turned down a perfectly good job, bought that car, and said he was going travelling in Europe for a year, starting in France and Spain. He didn’t tell me where, specifically. Did the Swiss police check the hotels in the area? The car might well have broken down, leaving him no option but to book into a hotel”. The policeman shrugged. “There wasn’t a lot of detail, sir. They mainly want to know about when the car is going to be collected. Apparently, there is a substantial fine to pay, and a bill for towing and storage”.
Shaking his head, Edgar leaned forward in his chair. “It looks like I am going to have to pay up, doesn’t it? How the hell I am supposed to get a car back from Switzerland, I don’t know, but if you have the contact details, I will phone them and arrange something. At least I can pay the fine and fees”. The policeman closed his notebook after reading out the details for Edgar to write down. “I will leave it with you then sir, good day to you”.
In a seedy hotel room in the even seedier district of Sankt Pauli, Sally was counting the remaining money. She should have known better than to trust Julien. He had only hung around for one night after they had arrived in Hamburg. When he had driven the car across the Swiss border to Geneva, it had seemed like a good idea. Then he said they had to get a train to Paris, before transferring onto a train to Germany. He claimed he knew Hamburg well, and they could disappear there. He had booked and paid for the room in the awful hotel, where the other guests all seemed to be prostitutes. Then the next day, he was gone, taking most of Adrian’s French Francs that they hadn’t changed up yet.
She didn’t even know his surname.
For once in her life, Sally Brooks was completely out of her depth. She had less than seventy pounds to her name, and for all she knew, she might be wanted by the police. One thing was for sure, Adrian could never have survived that fall.
Her best guess was that Julien had got on a ship. Maybe back to Canada, but he could have gone anywhere. That huge port city was an international shipping destination, and a big man like him could easily have signed on to do some manual job on board a cargo vessel.
Adrian’s body showed up in the lake at Doucier exactly one week after he had fallen from the rocks. The fast flowing stream had washed it into the lake that night, but into an area where few tourists or locals ever ventured. A recent rainstorm had raised the level of the water, and his battered, floating corpse was spotted by someone flying low in a private aircraft.
When Edgar Lexham saw the police car stop outside his house that evening, he wondered why. After all, he had arranged to pay the fine and fees.
There were two officers this time, Edgar noticed, and one of them was female. “Is this about the car again?” The male policeman didn’t answer the question. “Could we come inside please, sir. Is your wife at home by any chance?”
Edgar and Milly listened to them without interruption, too shocked to take in the enormity of what they were saying. When he realised they had stopped talking, Edgar thought he had better say something. “An accident, you say? Probably a fall from a height with fatal injuries? Are they sure it is Adrian?” The policeman wondered how to phrase his reply.
“All we can say is that they have found the body of a young man in a lake. Inside his jacket pocket was the passport of Adrian Edgar Lexham. There was also a wallet in the inside pocket containing a driving licence in the same name, and around seven pounds in French Francs. His clothes appear to be British, by the labels. This is a French police enquiry, and technically unrelated to your son’s car, though we made that connection of course. It is suspected that someone stole his car from where he fell, and drove it to Geneva, but that was probably after he had fallen, and the car found by chance with the keys inside. I regret to tell you that someone has to travel to France and make a formal identification”.
Milly Lexham finally broke down, and began to sob. The young policewoman did her best to comfort her, and suggested going through to the kitchen and making some tea.
Thinking for a moment, Edgar made a decision. “My brother will drive me there, and then we can continue on to Geneva and collect Adrian’s car. I’m sure it is him, unless someone stole his wallet and passport. But to be honest that is unlikely, he was most careful about such things. Please write down all the details for me, and we will get a ferry tomorrow from Dover”.
When the police officers had left, and Milly was lying down on the bed after taking two aspirins, Edgar rang his younger brother. “Malcolm, I have to ask a favour. Adrian has died in France, an accident of some sort. I have to go there and arrange for his body to be returned, then collect his car from Geneva. Can you pick me up in the morning and drive me down to Dover to get a ferry? It’s going to take a couple of days, I’m afraid”. He knew his brother would help, and have no trouble getting time off. He owned his own haulage company, and could leave the manager in charge.
They had to drive to Macon, a larger town where Adrian’s body had been taken after it had been examined, and was now stored in the mortuary of a small hospital there. It was a drive of over six hours from Calais, so the brothers stopped the night in a hotel and went to see the police the next morning.
The identity confirmation was witnessed by a chubby policeman who spoke no English. Fortunately, they had found a doctor who spoke English well, and he told Edgar he had to sign some documents, and then the body could be released for transport back to England. Edgar thanked the doctor. “Please tell the police officer I will arrange this with a funeral director in England, and have my son collected as soon as possible”.
Back at the hotel to collect their things and check out, Malcolm phoned his manager in England, instructing him to contact Fayers in Kings Lynn. That undertaker could arrange to bring Adrian home. When he had the manager repeat everything back to him, Malcolm seemed happy that it would be done right. “Tell Fayers to send me their bill, I will sort it out with my brother later”.
They drove to Geneva, arriving at lunchtime, and finding a hotel. As they ate lunch, Malcolm looked across the table at his brother. Edgar had been unusually calm throughout, and was dealing with it all as if it happened every day. “Ed, why don’t we relax this afternoon and sort the car out tomorrow? It’s a Seven hour drive to Calais, then we have to wait for a ferry spot. One more day in the car pound won’t make any difference”.
After paying more charges, and having trouble making themselves understood at the car pound, they finally walked up to the car just after eleven the next morning. Malcom whistled, and shook his head. “Why are you even bothering to take this home, Ed? It’s hardly worth what it’s already cost in fines and fees, and now you have to drive it hundreds of miles”. His brother shrugged.
“Because it’s all we have left of him, I suppose”.
When he got the car back to his house near Kings Lynn, Edgar Lexham reversed it under the carport that was over the gap between the house and garage. From one of the garden sheds, he brought out a heavy black tarpaulin, and covered the car, weighting down the corners of the cover with some old bricks. Then he went inside, to talk to his wife.
William Eustace liked to be called Billy. He lived in a caravan behind a closed-down petrol station on the Sandringham Road. It was the only home he had ever known, and this was the first place he had moved it to since his daddy had died. Another caravan was less than ten feet from his, and that belonged to Oliver. He was like an uncle to Billy, though not actually related by blood. But since his old friend Jed had died, Oliver had looked out for Jed’s son.
Oliver was getting old, and in that May of nineteen seventy-three when Billy turned twenty-one, he thought it was time he started to fend for himself.
“You can use my Land Rover pickup, and take that motor mower out back. There are the shears for hedges, and my box of tools too. What you do is drive around some nice streets. Look for big houses where older people live, or bungalows. Old people start to need help with gardens and lawns and such, odd jobs too. You knock on the door and offer to do the job for cash. If they use you, write down the details in a notebook, and book them for the next time you are in the area. You can get started tomorrow, and I will rely on you to pay me a fair cut boy”.
The village of Clenchwarton was Billy’s first destination. He soon found that people didn’t much care for being told that their lawn needed mowing, or the hedge was due a trim. Some of them were openly hostile. “Clear off! I won’t have any gipsy on my property”. Billy wanted to tell the man he wasn’t a pikey, but that might cause a commotion. So he moved on to Terrington St Clement, where an old lady accepted his price to mow her lawns, front and back. She even gave him a glass of lemon squash and some Shortie biscuits. “You look hot young man, and you haven’t stopped for lunch”.
His last stop that day was on the way back, at Walpole St Andrew. He tried the vicarage next to the old church, and the vicar said he could cut the grass around the gravestones in the churchyard. “Make sure it’s neat and tidy, mind. No pay until you are finished, and I have looked it over”. Later, the vicar appeared as Billy was almost finished. “I used to have a parishoner who did this for free, but he had a stroke at Christmas. You can come next month and do it again, as long as the price is the same”.
Billy wrote that down in his little notebook, with the date underlined.
That night, Oliver seemed pleased. “Well you won’t be breaking the bank just yet, but it’s a fair start. Go west tomorrow, try Bawsey. There’s some nice houses down by Bawsey Lakes, boy. Then if you don’t get nothing, you can move on to Gayton. It’s a bigger village and there’s more people living there”.
The houses in Bawsey were a bit spread out, and there was no reply from the first couple he tried. The third one had a big lawn at the front, and it was full of wildflowers and weeds. Backing the land Rover into the driveway, he smoothed down his hair and knocked on the door. The woman who answered looked timid, and peered around the door looking ready to slam it. Billy gave her his best smile.
“Morning lady. I do gardening and odd jobs at a fair price for cash. I see your front lawn could do with attention, and I’m here now with the necessary. Neat and tidy work, and no pay until you are happy”.
She didn’t reply. Instead, she turned in the doorway and shouted down the hall.
“Edgar, can you come and deal with this?”
Billy watched the man walk towards the door. He was hobbling, using an elbow crutch on one side, and a walking stick on the other. By the time he stood next to his wife, he seemed to be breathless. Milly turned to her husband. “He is offering to cut the grass, and has his own equipment. I will let you decide”. With that, she walked back into the house, with no acknowledgement to Billy.
After catching his breath, the man spoke. “Mowing the lawn? Yes, it could do with that, front and back”. Billy smiled. “A fair price mister, and I can do other jobs too, anything you need doing I can turn my hand to. Cash only, mind. No cheques”. Edgar looked him up and down. He was about the same age as Adrian had been when he died, but his bright eyes and good physique made him look very different. “Okay, you can cut the grass now, and then we will talk about other jobs when I see how you work”.
Watching from the kitchen window, Edgar saw the man working tidily, and without let up. He stacked the cuttings on the compost pile at the far end of the garden, and produced some shears to trim the borders carefully. He had done a similar job at the front, carrying the cuttings through the side gate, past the dusty tarpaulin covering Adrian’s car. When he was finished, Billy tapped respectfully on the kitchen door, and waited patiently until the man arrived with the money. As he handed over the cash, Edgar looked pleased. “I have some other things that need doing. Can you clear guttering? How about painting fences? As you can see, there are lots of panels on both sides that need painting”.
Although he wanted the work, Billy was hesitant. “I can do all that mister, trouble is I don’t have no ladder for the guttering”. Edgar smiled. “There is a treble extension ladder in the garage, you can use that. Shall we say eight tomorrow morning to get started? What is your name by the way, young man?” Happy to get the work, Billy beamed back at him.
“Ah, just call me Billy”.
Five days later, and Billy had worked four days at the Lexham house. The man had said to call him Edgar, and the lady brought him a mug of tea and a ham sandwich mid-morning. He had done the guttering, and finished the first coat on the fences, using green paint from one of the sheds in the garden. Edgar let him use the downstairs toilet when he needed, and he could wash his hands there when he had finished. The only thing he wasn’t keen on was that the man would spend most of the day watching him work, standing at one of the windows that overlooked whatever he was doing.
But he was paid in cash every day, no argument, and there was talk of painting the sheds, and rearranging the flower beds too, so he didn’t say anything.
On the Wednesday of the second week, a taxi showed up. As Edgar and his wife went out the kitchen door, he turned and called to Billy. “We won’t be long. The kitchen door is open if you want to make a cup of tea or use the toilet”. That was impressive. They trusted him alone in the house.
When they got back, it was almost finishing time, and they had been away longer than he had expected. Edgar came out to watch as he cleared up for the day. Handing over the daily pay, he seemed to be thinking about saying something. Then he said it.
“I am very pleased with your work. I will have more, if you are free to do it. The woodwork around the windows needs rubbing down and repainting, all the sheds need that too. In fact, I could probably employ you exclusively on a short-term basis for a few months, if that suits you”. Billy grinned. “Suits me just fine, Edgar. I like working here. You pay me every day, and treat me right too. Can’t ask for more”. Edgar rested his walking stick against a fence panel, and put his hand on the young man’s shoulder.
“Truth is, I haven’t got that long. Months, not years. Bone cancer, and it’s spreading, so they told me today. I need to get the whole place in good condition to be able to sell it. My wife won’t want to live in this big house alone after I’ve gone. So I’m counting on you, Billy”.
As he drove home in the old Land Rover, Billy felt really sad for the man.
When Billy got back to his caravan that night, he went over to see Oliver and give him some money. To his delight, Mitzi was there. She flung her arms around him, and kissed him passionately. Oliver pocketed his cash, and winked. “Best you two go to your caravan, boy. Been a while, and you have some catching up to do. There’s two large pork pies there you can take for your tea”.
Mitzi was older than Billy, but they had been sweethearts since he was sixteen. He didn’t mind that she was twelve years older, though he had got angry when some mentioned that she was his cousin. She was the daughter of his dad’s cousin right enough, but as far as he was concerned, that didn’t make her family. Not close family, anyay.
She worked on the funfair, anything from the Hook-A-Duck stall, to standing in for the fortune teller. The fair travelled around, and had just arrived near Kings Lynn for the weekend. Mizi wasted no time. Producing a quart of beer from a carrier bag and nodding at the pork pies, she leered at him. “Get this down us, then we can get to bed”. Later that night, she curled up to him in the dark. “I was hoping you might come and see me when we was working near Lincoln. It’s not that far from here”. Billy shrugged. “You know I’ve only got use of Oliver’s old Land Rover, and besides, I’ve got a regular job now, nice people too”.
Stroking his chest, Mitzi sounded like she was purring. “Old Jed is coming to pick me up in the morning. He said he has work for you on the fair. You can do the dodgems, Jed says, good money in that. Then you could bring your caravan along. Jed will tow it for you with his lorry. We could live together on the road, then winter down near Gloucester, get work in the chicken factory”. Billy nodded. “Sounds good, Mitzi love. Maybe next season, when I finish working for Edgar”.
Some heavy showers interrupted Billy’s work outside the following week, so Edgar found him things to do inside. He cleaned the windows, fixed a couple of cupboard doors that were hanging wrong, and regrouted the tiling in the family bathroom upstairs. The lady still didn’t say much to him, but she never missed bringing him that sandwich and tea. When it stopped raining, it was suggested that he might renew the corrugated plastic roof on the carport. “If you order the new plastic sheeting, I can do that, Edgar. But we will have to move the car that’s under it for me to get proper access”.
Edgar shook his head. “That might be a problem. It has stood there undercover for years now. It was my son’s car. He died. I expect the tyres are flat, and the battery dead too. It is at least ten years old now, and not been driven since I parked it under there”. Billy wasn’t put off. “Tell you what, I will take the battery home with me and put it on charge all night. My friend Oliver has a charger, and a foot pump too. There’s engine oil as well, we use it for the Land Rover. When I come back tomorrow, I will change the oil, connect the battery, pump up the tyres, and see if she starts”.
Underneath the tarpaulin, the car was surprisingly clean. But Edgar had been right about the flat tyres, and the dead battery. Billy took out the battery, admiring the car as he did so. “That’s a nice car, Edgar. Love the colour too, and it’s hardly done much miles”. Edgar nodded. “I once drove it all the way back from Switzerland, and I have to say it was a good runner. Can’t drive anymore now, with my legs in this state. I had to sell my own car three months ago”.
The next morning, Billy changed the oil, draining the sticky stuff from the sump into an old washing up bowl that Edgar gave him. Then he pumped up the tyres using Oliver’s huge foot pump, before connecting the fully charged battery. Edgar handed him the key, and Billy sat in the driving seat. He turned and grinned. “Fingers crossed, Edgar”.
It started first time.
Billy smiled as he gently revved the engine. “Why don’t you jump in, Edgar? I will give you a turn round the block, bring back some memories for you”. Edgar shook his head. “Thanks all the same, but it’s a mission for me to get in and out of a car these days. Just the taxi journey to the doctor or a hospital appointment wears me out”. Switching off the engine, Billy handed the keys back. “Tell you what, next time I’m here I will wash and polish her after I finish work. No charge, okay?” Then he carefully replaced the tarpaulin.
Back in the house, Edgar found his wife watching through the side window. “You might just as well sell that car now, or at least keep it in the garage now that’s empty. There doesn’t seem to be any point in keeping it when you can’t drive. And Billy is not our son, Edgar. He’s nothing like him”. When he didn’t reply, Milly went into the kitchen to prepare some vegetables.
Other than cutting the grass of the old lady in Terrington St Clement and keeping his word to the vicar in Walpole St Andrew to cut the grass in the graveyard, Billy worked on the Lexham house for the next eight weeks. As well as changing the garden layout and painting all the window frames, he worked inside too, painting the bannisters on the stairs, laying new flooring in the bathroom, and clearing out a lot of stuff from the loft. Then one Monday morning, he arrived to find a large ‘FOR SALE’ sign on the front lawn. Milly Lexham answered the door.
“My husband is in bed, Billy. He wants you to go up and see him. It’s the front bedroom, the door is open”. Wiping his dusty boots on the doormat, Billy walked upstairs as requested. Edgar didn’t look too good. His skin had a waxy appearance, and there was a big oxygen cylinder next to the bed. “Come in Billy, sit on the end of the bed”. He reached over and picked up a large brown envelope. “The work here is finished now, and the house is on the market. Our agent is expecting a quick sale, as we are asking a very fair price. I wanted to thank you for all you have done, and give you this”.
Opening the metal clip securing the envelope, he tipped out the contents on the bed. There was a registration log book for the car, two sets of keys for it, and one hundred pounds in ten pound notes. Edgar wheezed as he spoke again. “You will need to tax it and insure it of course, but the car is yours. A gift from my wife and I for all your hard work. And the extra money is a bonus to make sure you have enough to get the car legal. I doubt I will ever see you again, so I would like to take this opportunity to wish you well, and hope that you have a good life”.
I wasn’t often that Billy got emotional, but he fought back some tears as he put the things back in the envelope. He stood up, and extended his hand. “You’re a true gentleman, Edgar, and I thank you for the respect you have shown me, and your kindness of the gift of the car and money. I will go and get old Oliver, so he can drive the Land Rover back when I take the car”. Afraid he might cry in front of Edgar, he sniffed loudly, and took his leave. As he was opening the front door, Milly Lexham appeared, holding a brown paper bag. “Sorry there is no work today or in the future, but here’s your lunch anyway”.
Tears rolled slowly down the young man’s face. One heavy tear from each of his eyes.
Oliver was impressed with the gifts, and happy to drive Billy back to collect the Cortina. Once the tarpaulin was removed, he whistled. “She’s a beauty, right enough boy”.
As the engine started, Billy nodded. “And a good runner too. See you back at home”.
That night as they sat drinking some cider, Oliver chuckled.
“Don’t s’pose you mentioned to him that you don’t have no driving licence?”
With no more work at the Lexham house, Billy had to go back to his door-knocking. He had to go further afield to find work, as far east as Castle Acre, and south to Downham Market too. When that dried up, he tried going further west into Lincolnshire, across to Spalding and Stamford. The jobs were not regular though, and running the old Land Rover around cost money in petrol and maintenance. After counting up all his remaining cash one night, he wandered over to talk to Oliver.
“Reckon I will have to go and find Mitzi, go along with her idea of working in the chicken factory this coming winter, then the funfair during the season. You gonna be all right here, Oliver? You could come along you know, I’m sure Jed will find something for you”. Oliver was rolling a cigarette, and didn’t reply until he had finished. “Don’t you worry about old Oliver now, son. You’re young, and got to make your way in the world. I know someone in Castle Rising who can fit a tow bar on that new car of yours. He owes me a favour, and I’m calling it in. No cost to you, boy”.
There was talk that Oliver was rich, but if that was true, Billy had never seen any evidence of it. He did have a cash box that he kept under the sink in his caravan, and wore the key on a leather lace around his neck. Maybe he was right? He had to make his on way in the world. Oliver must be over seventy, and hopefully had enough put away to get by. He shrugged. “Okay then, Oliver. If he can fit the towbar, I best be on my way to Gloucester when it’s done”.
With the towbar fitted and the caravan hooked up, the farewell was not an emotional affair. Billy shuffled his feet. “I’ll see you then, Oliver”. Oliver just smiled. “You take care boy, and watch out for those fairground people. Them’s not always straight”.
It was a long drive to Gloucester, but Billy had towed a caravan before, and had a good idea where to find Mitzi and the winter camp of the fairground. She was delighted to see him, and got her stuff from old Valeria’s caravan, moving in immediately. “We can drive to the chicken factory in your new car tomorrow, Billy love. They are sure to take us on, depend on us they do, for the Christmas rush. Them’s only pay weekly though, so I hope you’ve got enough to get by”.
Two days later, Billy was working ten hours a day, six days a week. His job was to hook supposedly unconscious chickens onto a plucking machine, before their naked bodies had their throats cut when passing under some razor-sharp blades. He didn’t care that many of them were still wide awake. They were only chickens, after all. Mitzi was on the packing team, so he only saw her before and after work. They had chicken for dinner every single night, eating birds rejected by the factory, and dumped in big containers out back. Everyone took one, sometimes two.
Billy didn’t mind. Eating meat seven days a week free of charge was not to be sniffed at.
The winter was harsh, but the pay was good. They had gas for cooking and light, fuel for the fire, and plenty of beer money. On their Sundays off, Billy sometimes took Mitzi for a drive. They went to Tewkesbury, over the Malvern Hills, and even into the Wye Valley. Mitzi loved her days out, and she would bring a picnic, and some cider. Despite the winter weather, they could often eat outside, sitting by the car on an old travel rug. Alhough Billy hated the factory and the boring, repetitive work, he knew it made sense to earn regular money before next spring. They put away as much as they could, ready for the Easter start to the fairground season.
Mitzi was acting superior though. “I told Jed I don’t want you on the dodgems, too much flirting with them young girls. He reckons you can run the big wheel, and I can take the money in the ticket box. That way, we would be like a couple, you know. Running the big wheel, with you putting them in the cars, and me taking the money”. As she was talking that night, Mitzi was slowly undressing. Billy looked at her in the light from the gas mantle, her body rippling.
“Sounds good to me, Mitzi love”.
Mitzi and Billy left the factory five days before Easter. They had to get up to Durham, where Jed was running his first funfair of the season over the Bank Holiday weekend. On the long drive, Mitzi was outlining her plans for the coming summer. “Reckon you’re of an age to think about us getting wed now, Billy. If we are gonna have kids, there’s no time to waste, bearing in mind I’m not as young as I was. P’raps we can do a season on the big wheel, then tie the knot after, what do you say?”
He turned and smiled. “Sounds good to me, Mitzi love. Be nice to have a little one along on our travels”.
Despite the usual rain over Easter, the funfair did well. Billy soon got the hang of helping Jed and his sons get the big wheel up and running, then dismantling it again before they moved on to the next town. Mitzi took the money in the little booth outside, and before they started each day, she toured the other caravans telling all her friends that Billy had asked her to marry him.
That always made him smile, but he didn’t bother to correct her.
The days on the fair were long, and there was a lot of driving between the towns where Jed had arranged to set up. By the time the August Bank Holiday was approaching, they were back near Lincoln, in one of the regular spots taken by Jed’s fair.
Sitting outside the caravan on the day before set-up, Mitzi was grilling some sausages on a rack over a fire in an old metal barrel. “Billy darling, don’t you think it’s time we got rid of the car? It seems a waste of money to put petrol in it, buy new tyres and such. Jed is still happy to tow our ‘van with his lorry, and there is room for us in the front. If you sold it, we would have enough to buy a new ‘van. Our one is so old”.
Billy grinned. “I know, I was born in it, and my dad bought it when he got married. It was old even then. I like the car well enough, but I will think about selling it at the end of the season, if Jed is happy to tow us back to Gloucester after”. Mitzi nodded, then swallowed half a sausage. “He said he will, we just have to give him some petrol money. But why wait? We could put a sign in the window, and park the car where it will get noticed”.
The next morning, Mitzi went off into the camp, and came back holding a big piece of cardboard. “I got Madame Lucretia to write it up nice for us, look”. She held up the sign, and Billy was impressed. It was written up beautifully, in fancy writing that he didn’t know was called italics.
‘CAR FOR SALE. FAIR PRICE. ASK AT THE BIG WHEEL’.
She was pleased that Billy was happy with it. “How much are you going to ask for the car love?” He shrugged. “Reckon I will let them make me an offer, see how much they say”.
They had a four-day spot at Lincoln, and after two days nobody had asked about the car. On the Sunday, a man came up to the booth holding the hand of a little girl. Mitzi smiled. “Two, is it?” The man shook his head. “No, we are not going on, I wanted to ask about the car”. Mitzi leaned out and shouted. “Billy, get Jethro to cover you, this man wants to talk about the car!” When Jethro came to do the big wheel, Billy wiped his oily hands on a rag and walked over.
The man looked serious.
“That’s a sixty-three Consul Cortina, have you had it long?” Billy was cagey. “Not that long, I got it from someone I used to work for, s’pose you might say he was my boss. She’s a good runner, and the mileage is genuine. I’ll even throw in the tow bar if you like”. He produced the keys. “Let’s go and look at it, and I will get it running for you”.
When it started up first time, the man nodded, looking satisfied. The little girl looked bored as he went over the car with a fine tooth comb. “This spare has never been on?” Billy shook his head. “Never”. The man closed the boot lid. “How much do you want for it?”. Billy was ready. “Make me an offer, see if it’s close”. Rubbing his chin, the man mumbled. “I was thinking two hundred”. Shaking his head, Billy replied. “And I was thinking two-sixty”. Extending his right hand, the man grinned. “Shake on two twenty-five, and I will bring you the cash tomorrow at ten”. Billy took the hand.
He handed over the cash as agreed, and the pikey boy gave him both sets of keys and the log book. Knowing full well it was unlikely to be registered to him, Tony didn’t even bother to ask. He would place the car on his insurance when the office opened on Tuesday. Luckily, Kevin from work had been free to run him over to the funfair, so once the Cortina started up, he called over to his colleague. “Thanks, Kev, see you at work”. The petrol gauge was still showing half full, so that was a bonus.
Anthony Barrett was a collector, and his choice was very specific. He collected Ford Cortina cars. This mainly came from his experience of working on them in his job at Sleaford Ford, where he had worked since leaving school and starting as an apprentice. Now thirty-seven years old, he was the senior mechanic, known to everyone as ‘Foreman Tony’. For some time, he had been trying to buy the early Consul Cortina model. He already had a sixty-six Cortina GT, a Mark 2 1600E from nineteen seventy, and a Mark 3 1600 GXL that was only a year old, and used as the family car. He was very happy with his new find. It was in great condition, and he would have paid a lot more for it, if that boy had known what he was selling.
His wife Annie had put up with his tinkering on cars since their first date. The old Anglia had broken down on the way to taking her home, and Tony had rolled up his sleeves and disappeared under the bonnet for almost an hour while she sat shivering in the passenger seat. Now they lived in something resembling a car dealership, with a row of cars along the side of their council house in Sleaford, and a massive shed at the end of the driveway that looked like a fully-equipped workshop. But Annnie counted her blessings. Tony was a good man. He didn’t drink or smoke, didn’t go to football matches, or play darts with his mates down the pub. He was also a good dad to Melanie, even if it was no secret he would have preferred a son to a daughter.
There wasn’t much money left for holidays or luxuries, as it all went on the cars. Tony told her that one day they would be worth a lot of money to collectors, but she doubted he could ever bear to part with any of them. And now he had another one. Still, she had gone back to work once Melanie had started school, and her job as a school secretary at the secondary modern meant she didn’t have to pay for childcare in the holidays. It hadn’t been an easy birth seven years ago, and when she had talked about having another baby, Tony had shaken his head. “Not worth the chance of losing you, sweetheart”.
The first job was to get the ugly towbar off, then fill and rub down the holes it left, ready for priming and repainting. Then Tony fitted the badge bar and placed his vintage AA badge in position on it. He wanted to get the car looking good for the Cortina Owner’s Club Rally in October. Ron Markham had a Consul version, but it was factory white, and a bit faded. This dark green beauty was sure to put Ron’s nose out of joint. Annie was used to keeping his dinner warm. She had given up going out to call him in when it was ready, knowing he would only appear when he had finished whatever he was doing.
So she dished up for her and Melanie. Then before her daughter’s bedtime, she helped her with placing the new furniture in the doll’s house that Tony had made for her fifth birthday.
When he finally turned up in the kitchen, Annie rescued his dinner from the oven as he washed his hands at the sink. “It’s not very appetising, love. But it’s been warmed up for so long now”. Tony smiled. “Not to worry, sweetheart, I’ll just go up and kiss Mel goodnight, then I’ll eat it”.
Over the next nine years, Tony managed to acquire two more Cortinas One was an early Lotus-engined model, and the other a sixty-eight Mark 2 GT. He only stopped when he ran out of room to park them on the driveway and in the workshop.
But his favourite was still the green Consul version, and he had worked on that to bring it back to better than original condition. It had won two ribbons and a badge at car shows already, and he was preparing it to for its twenty-year anniversary that summer.
Melanie had done well at school. She had passed seven O-levels, and was planning to stay on for her A-levels next term. Tony and Annie talked about the possibility of her going on to university. They were both excited. Nobody in either of their families had ever been to university. Annie was talking quietly in the kitchen. “She’s mentioned that she might like to do teacher training too, and teach English. She might even be able to get a job at the school where I work. Imagine that, Tony”.
For his part, Tony had started to teach his daughter to drive. She had got her provisional licence just after her seventeenth birthday, and he was taking her out in the old Mark 3 that he still used as the main family car. He would smile as he saw her natural ability behind the wheel, and marvel at how grown up she had become. All those years watching him work on cars and being dragged around to car shows seemed to have paid off.
She passed her test first time, and to celebrate Tony sold the troublesome Lotus Cortina and bought her a nice little Fiesta that had come in as a part exchange at work. It was bright yellow, with a sporty black stripe down each side, and the eleven-hundred engine was small enough to get her on the insurance at a reasonable price. Mel loved that car, and drove her friends around in it during that summer holiday.
Then just to put the icing on the cake that year, Tony’s Consul Cortina won the gold ribbon at Donnington Car show. The twenty-year old car looked like it had just come off the production line, and the head judge described it as ‘flawless’.
The next year, Melanie got all three A-levels, and achieved a place at Hull university to study English. As that was nearly seventy miles away from home, she decided to live in the student accommodation there, and they packed up the Fiesta with her clothes, and all she would need for that first term.
Lots of tears were shed when they left her there that day, mostly by Annie. Tony had followed the Fiesta up there in his Mark 3, as Annie wanted to settle their daughter in to her room in the halls. But Mel didn’t want all the fuss, and as soon as her stuff was in the room, she told them to go home. “I’ll be fine, mum. There are lots of first-years like me, and we have a meet-and-greet later”. Assuring Annie that she would eat properly, and be careful of randy boys, she waved them off from the car park. All the way home Annie was going on about how empty the house would seem without Melanie.
That autumn, Annie decided she needed to get out more. With a friend from work, she started to go to Weight Watchers meetings, just for something to do. She wasn’t even that heavy, but she enjoyed the couple of hours away from home as she knew Tony would always be working on one car or another. Then they signed up for an aerobics class that was run on Thursday evenings at the church hall, and Tony found himself heating up his own dinner a couple of nights a week.
Ford had stopped making the Cortina two years earlier, and had replaced it with the Sierra, a car that Tony hated. He bought one of the last Mark 5 Cortinas, a two-year old Crusader special editon with a smooth two-litre engine. He sold the Mark 3 GXL to help pay for it, and even Annie liked it. She teased Tony though.
“They don’t make the Cortina anymore? What will you do when these get too old, love? You will have to find a new car to collect”. He was polishing the green Consul when she said that as she brought him out a cup of tea. He just nodded at the old car.
“Reckon I will just keep this one. She’s still a good runner”.
Melanie got her degree, and a boyfriend too. Not another student, which Annie had once been worried about, but a police officer she met at a night out in Lincoln when she was home for the last summer holiday before graduation.
It must have been fate, Tony thought. Scott was another car nut, and drove a new model Golf GTI. But he also had an earlier version of the same car that he kept under a cover outside, with the intention of restoring it to new condition. Tony teased him about the popular hatchback. “It’s only for boy-racers, Scott. You will need a family car one day”. He was five years older than Mel, and had a two-bed flat in Washingborough, east of the city.
Deciding to return home to take her teaching certificate, Mel was surprised at how independent her mum had got. “You should have learned to drive mum, then you wouldn’t be relying on taxis and buses”. Annie just grinned. “One car nut in this family is enough, love”.
For Tony’s fiftieth birthday that year, Annie bought him a pair of spotlights to fix to the front of his old Consul Cortina. She was a little concerned as he opened the present. “I hope I got the right ones, love”. He held them up, smiling. “Perfect, love. I will put them on the car when I get home from work”.
Scott didn’t hang around, asking Mel to marry him after six months going out together. He bought her a nice ring, and they talked about a wedding for the following year, once she had qualified as a teacher. Annie talked to Tony about it in his workshop one night. “We are going to have to find a fair bit of money for the wedding, love. You must promise not to buy any other cars, you really must”. He stood up and tried to look serious, but started chuckling. “Okay, I will sell the GT, I know someone who wants it, and that will pay for half the wedding. Mel and Scott are going to have to sort out their own honeymoon though”. Annie walked over and hugged him.
Excited about getting a job, Melanie spoke to them one night over dinner. “I have had two offers, and one is from the school in Washingborough. It’s going to make sense for me to move into Scott’s place, as there will be no travelling. Then I can sell my Fiesta and put the money towards the wedding or honeymoon. Will that be okay with you two? And we thought there’s no need for a big white wedding. Me and Scott are happy with the registry office and maybe a nice meal in a hotel”. Annie looked over at Tony and nodded.
He turned to their daughter. “Whatever you want to do is alright with us, love. Scott seems like a great bloke, and you will save everyone a lot of money by having a small wedding. But I’m still going to sell the GT, and give you two the money to spend on whatever you want”.
Mel had something else to say. “What I would really like is for you to take me to the wedding in the green Cortina, and then drive us to the hotel after. I think it will make the perfect wedding car, and be something different we will always remember”. Tony couldn’t have been happier. “I will buy some white ribbons, love”.
Annie wasn’t the sort to nag her daughter about having a baby, but she made no secret of wanting grandchildren. Not long after their fifth anniversary, Mel and Scott arrived with the news that she was expecting the following year. Annie couldn’t stop crying, and Tony even washed his hands and came inside from the workshop to talk about the news. “So, I’ll be a grandfather in ninety-three, will I? That’s the same year as the Consul will be thirty years old. You’ll have to make sure the baby doesn’t arrive on the same day as the Car Show”.
He sounded like he was teasing, but Mel knew he was serious.
Baby Angela missed the car show, arriving two weeks after Tony won the Thirty Year badge for Best Saloon Car.
Baby Angela Reynolds was a delight to both sets of grandparents. Tony would sit with her on his lap in the driving seat of the Consul and place her tiny hands on the steering wheel. “I hope I’m still around when you are seventeen, so I can teach you to drive and get you your first car”. When she was a year old, Annie left her job so that she could look after Angela and Melanie could go back to teaching.
Scott got promotion to Sergeant, and finally finished the work on the old VW GTI. But he sold it to put the money away toward the deposit on a three-bed house on a new development. Then he sold the other one, and bought a year-old Volvo estate car that had loads of room for all the baby stuff.
When he collected the Volvo, he remembered Tony telling him he would need a family car, and smiled.
At the annual Car Show that October, someone approached Tony and offered him six thousand pounds for the immaculate Consul Cortina. He had never thought about selling it, but that was a lot of money. Nonetheless, he shook his head. “Sorry mate, that’s not enough”.
Christmas that year was a delight. Little Angela was at the age that she could enjoy it, and Annie went overboard with the presents. On Boxing Day, Mel and Scott took the baby to see Scott’s parents, and Annie sat at the dinner table looking worried. “Tony, something’s not right. I didn’t want to say anything yesterday and spoil Christmas, but I don’t think Angela is developing properly. She’s nothing like Melanie was at her age, and her eyes seem funny to me”.
Tony trusted his wife completely, but he hadn’t noticed anything unusual about his granddaughter. “Give her time, love. Not every child develops in the same way, at the same speed, and I’m sure Mel would have said something if she was worried”.
As Angela’s second birthday approached, Annie wanted Tony to clear up the garden so she could have a party outside. Scott came over to help, and Mel sat inside with her mum and Angela as they talked about who to invite and what food to prepare.
Scott was using a strimmer to clear away weeds from the fence, but they both heard the scream above the noise of the machine.
Tony dropped the edging spade he was holding, and started to run up the long path to the house. But Scott overtook him, and was inside before Tony got close to the back door.
Melanie was hysterical, and Annie was white-faced, holding Angela tight to her body as the little girl convulsed uncontrollably. Scott took charge, walking over to the phone he rang for an ambulance, then took his daughter from Annie and placed her on the floor on her side, with cushions from the sofa either side of her head. Tony had no idea what to do, and felt helpless.
It seemed to take forever for the ambulance to arrive, but the two men were very professional, and seemed to know exactly what to do. In no time at all, Angela was in the back of the ambulance, with a still-sobbing Mel, and Scott looking intense.
Tony watched as they started to close the doors, then called out. “We will follow you down, see you in Casualty!”
He had always been a very careful driver, but that day he pushed his Mark 5 to the limit, and did some overtaking moves that would normally have had Annie shouting at him to slow down. But he had no chance of catching the ambulance, which was way ahead, its blue lights flashing, and sirens wailing. At the hospital in Lincoln, they had to stay in the waiting room because Mel and Scott were already in the cubicle with their daughter.
Annie finally snapped, and broke down in tears as Tony held her.
After what seemed like an eternity, Scott came out to talk to them. “They are going to transfer her to the Children’s Hospital in Nottingham for tests. We can go in the ambulance, but you should probably go home, as there’s every chance she will have to stay in”. He handed Annie a key.
“Can you go to our place, get us both a change of clothes just in case, and stuff for Angela too. I will ring you from Nottingham later, and let you know what’s happening”.
The phone call from Nottingham came late at night, but neither Annie nor Tony were asleep anyway. It was Scott on the phone, not Melanie. “Angela has been scanned, x-rayed, and examined from head to toe. They even had an eye doctor come and check on her. At least they managed to bring her round, after giving her something to calm the seizures. Mel is asleep with her now. They said we can stay in the room tonight, but I have to tell you Tony, the news is not good”.
Tony felt Annie’s eyes boring into the back of his head, and started to wonder how he would tell her bad news as Scott continued.
“One of the top doctors came to speak to us about fifteen minutes ago. She said they can see something on the scan, a small growth close to the optic nerve. She says it’s in a bad place for surgery. They want to transfer her to Great Ormond Street Hospital in London tomorrow, to see a specialist. I’m going to have to ask you to bring us those things down to London tomorrow, Tony. I will ring you when we know the ward name. Got to go now mate, I’m whacked out”.
Still holding the phone, the buzzing noise after Scott had hung up hadn’t even registered.
Eventually, Annie’s voice made him replace the receiver. “What is it Tony? Tell me! What is it?” When he slowly turned to her and she saw the tears in his eyes, her legs buckled at the knees, and he rushed forward and grabbed her.
The next morning, Tony rang his boss early to tell him he wouldn’t be in. Not that day, and maybe not for a while. When he had explained why, the man didn’t hesitate. “Kev can cover your work, Tony. Take as long as you need, and let me know if there’s anything I can do. I don’t know what else to say mate, but I am hoping for the best for your family”.
Although he had been to London a few times when he was younger, and driven around it to get to car shows more recently, the solid traffic in the centre was something he wasn’t used to. When he eventually found the hospital in a side street opposite Russell Square, there was nowhere to park the Mark 5. He asked a man wearing a porter’s uniform who was outside smoking a cigarette, and he directed him to a car park at nearby Brunswick Square. The man stubbed the cigarette out onto the pavement as he was talking. “Pricey, mind. Gonna cost you a fair bit to leave it in there”.
Leaving Annie waiting in the main reception with the things they had brought, Tony parked the car, put the ticket in his wallet, and ran back as fast as he could. When they got up to the ward, they had to wait in a family room until Melanie came in to see them. Annie hugged her daughter, and they both burst into tears. Once they had calmed down, Mel took them through to the room.
Scott looked shattered, unshaven, and dark circles around his eyes. His own parents hadn’t made the trip. His dad was a retired police inspector, and they had retired to a bungalow in Skegness when he had suffered a mild stroke. He could no longer drive, and Scott had insisted that he not try to make the complicated train journey to London.
Little Angela was sleeping, and a tube ran from a bandage around her arm up to a drip bottle on a stand. Annie stroked the toddler’s head, fighting back more tears. Mel drunk half a bottle of coca-cola before telling them the news.
“Ten minutes before you got here, the consultant came in and told us that it’s too dangerous to do any operation with Angela being so young. He thinks there could be brain damage if he does, and that she could be blind for life too. He wants to wait until she is older, and check on her again in six months. Meanwhile, she will have medicine to control the fits, and regular checks on her eyesight in Lincoln or Nottingham. They said we can go home tomorrow, so if you can get a room near here, you could take us home about eleven in the morning”.
Standing up, Tony was calm and reassuring. “Leave it to me, Mel love. I will find a hotel room somewhere”.
For the next six months, Tony felt as if life was on hold. Mel and Scott made countless trips back and forth to hospitals, even another stay down in London. Scott was back working some shifts as a police sergeant, but Mel had told her head teacher that she was unlikely to be coming back, and she should advertise her job at the school. Annie immersed herself in knitting things for Angela, and started to become obsessive about cleaning the house. As for Tony, he kept working on the old green Cortina, replacing most engine parts and renewing the chrome trim.
Anything to take their minds off what was happening with little Angela.
Then one Sunday evening, there was a knock at the door. Mel and Scott were there with Angela, and Scott’s parents were with them. Mel looked happy. “Sorry to arrive unannounced, dad, but we have something to discuss with you”. Annie made tea, and offered cake and sanwdiches. Mel held her hand. “Sit down, mum, we have to tell you something”.
Scott did the talking.
“On Friday, I took a call from a consultant in London. He had been discussing Angela’s case with a colleague. It seems that man has done similar operations to the one Angela needs. In fact, he has done it six times in the last two years, and has a hundred percent success rate. None of the children went blind, none got brain damage, and all are doing well. He is prepared to see us in Boston next month, and all being well he will operate the same week. We would have to stay there for a while after though, for follow ups and tests. I spoke to my Inspector, and he is prepared to recommend compassionate leave, and Mel is leaving the school anyway, so that isn’t an issue”.
Annie was delighted, and jumped out of her chair to hug her daughter.
Tom Reynolds nodded. “Yes, it’s great news. The best news. Trouble is, it costs a small fortune. We have not long moved to our place in Skegness, but I still have fifty thousand left from my police pension lump sum. Goes without saying they can have that. Then Scott tells me they are not going to buy the house on the new estate, so that frees up the deposit money they saved. But they are going to have to rent somewhere to stay in Boston, or pay for hotels. There might be more money needed for the extra tests later too. By our reckoning, they are still ten grand short”. The silence around the kitchen table was intense. Tony could see everyone looking at him.
Except Annie, who was looking at the floor.
“I will find that money, Tom. leave it to me”. Mel had tears running down her face. “Thanks, dad. And you mum”.
When they had gone, Annie was in a mood. “Why did you tell them that, Tony? You must know we only have a couple of thousand in the savings account. We would have had so much more if you hadn’t spent everything on those bloody cars”. She went up to bed without saying goodnight, and Tony took the bottle of Brandy out of the cupboard in the living room to pour himself his first stiff drink since last Christmas Day.
Early the following Saturday, Kevin showed up at the house. Annie had hardly spoken to Tony all week, and he had been sleeping in Mel’s old room to keep out of her way. He was wearing a jacket when he came downstairs, and carrying a folder. “We are going out for a while, love. Don’t worry about dinner, we will get some fish and chips or something later”. Still grumpy, Annie shrugged. “Do what you want, you always do”.
During the hundred and forty mile journey from Sleaford to Ascot, Kevin followed Tony’s Consul Cortina all the way. Tony had insisted on giving him the money to fill up the tank of his car, and thanked him for his help. At the famous Ascot Racecourse, the Classic Car Auction was about to start not long after they arrived. Tony went to the office and signed the necessary papers, handing over a set of keys so any potential buyers could see the car being driven around. Then him and Kevin watched as interested parties walked up and down inspecting the numerous cars parked in rows.
When it got to the green Consul Cortina, the auctioneer announced he had a commission bid already, and started the bidding at seven thousand five hundred. A few bidders in the crowd pushed it up quickly to almost ten thousand, then they all dropped out except one. He continued to bid against the commission bid until it got to eleven thousand eight hundred, then shook his head.
It was all over so quickly, Tony hardly realised when the hammer came down.
Back in the office of the auctioneer, the man smiled as he opened the cheque book. “My commission bidder had told me to go to fourteen. That is the best example of a sixty-three car I have ever seen, and I’ve been doing this a long time my friend”. He raised his pen, and Tony leaned forward. “Make the cheque out to Melanie Reynolds, please”. As they walked back to the car park, Kevin put his hand on Tony’s shoulder. “Well, your Angela’s going to get her operation, but I reckon you are gonna miss that old Consul”. Tony shrugged.
“It’s only a car, Kev. But it was a good runner”.