Vera’s Life: Part Eleven

This is the eleventh part of a fiction serial, in 738 words.

After just two weeks in the factory, Vera no longer noticed the noise. The radio played over loudspeakers jangled with the constant clinking of glass jars and tins, and the women shouted over it all, their hair wrapped up in headscarves, and large aprons tied over their clothes. Very few men worked there, except those doing the heaviest work in the warehouse and the ones who drove the delivery vans. Mrs Oliver swapped the women around a lot, so they didn’t lapse into gossiping instead of working. That meant Vera met others of all ages, and from different boroughs too. She always went for lunch with Janet, who had turned out to be very grown up, even having a boyfriend called Frank. She would make Vera blush, talking about kissing and cuddling, smooching in the cinema, and finding places to hide in the park.

When Janet found out that Vera had never kissed a boy, she was determined to fix her up wth one of Frank’s mates. Frank was seventeen, and worked with his dad and brother as a plasterer. Janet said he knew a boy at the plastering firm who would like Vera, and she should fix up a date as a foursome. Feeling nervous, and hoping to get out of it, Vera invented an ‘understanding’ with Colin Lewis. She said that when he got back from Spain they would be seeing each other regularly, so she had better wait. Janet was suitably impressed, because Colin was so much older and his dad had a shop, so she let it go.

Not long after that conversation, the newspaper shop was closed when they walked past it on the way home from work. People were standing outside, peering through the glass panel in the door, and nobody knew why it wasn’t open. Elsie thought Mr Lewis might have been taken ill, and went around the side to knock on the door to the flat above where he lived. But there was no answer. When Vera’s dad got home, he was carrying an evening paper. Elsie mentioned that the shop had been closed not that long before, and Albert sighed. “He had some bad news earlier. Got a letter saying Colin was killed in February, at a place called Jarama. He had to open up again for the evening papers trade though, what else is he supposed to do?”

Vera felt the tears roll down her cheeks at the news. It was made worse by her lie to Janet earlier, which made her feel incredibly guilty. Albert spared his daughter’s feelings by not teasing her about Colin ever again.

Payday at the factory was on Friday afternoons. Vera got a brown pay-packet with the amount of her wages written on it in ink. On the way home, she would give it to her mum, and when they got in, Elsie would open it, take some money for Vera’s share of the housekeeping, and give her back the rest. Vera had opened a savings account at the Post Office, and used to pay in so much a week. Then there was the small payment to the Christmas Club at the factory, which paid out the week before Christmas day. What little was left was hers to spend, mostly on clothes and make-up.

Because Janet’s Frank went to the pub with his mates on Fridays, her and Janet started going to the cinema after work, always getting pie and mash in Tower Bridge Road before the programme started. Sometimes on the way home, Vera would share one of Janet’s cigarettes, but she didn’t let on to her mum that she was smoking.

That summer, there was more talk about trouble with Germany. Czechoslovakia was mentioned again, and Vera looked up a place called the Sudetenland in her atlas. Everyone was worried about the possibility of a war, and then in the first week of July, it got very real. Albert came home and said he had registered for the Civil Defence, and they were going to issue gas masks to everyone in the country in case Germany attacked. The masks were horrible; smelly rubber things kept in a cardboard box with a string to wear it on your shoulder. Vera’s dad told her that Londoners had to be careful to carry them at all times, because London was sure to be attacked with gas bombs.

That night she went to bed in such a state, she couldn’t sleep.

Vera’s Life: Part Ten

This is the tenth part of a fiction serial, in 776 words.

The last Christmas before she left school, Vera’s family celebrated together in the whole house. Albert had made the best of his days off by painting all the rooms, and trying to make the two separate homes into one. Clara’s old scullery and kichen was now converted so they could all eat around the table, and that left a proper parlour at the front which was only used on highdays and holidays. Upstairs, Vera now had a nice big bedroom, and Albert and Elsie had what used to be the living room, across the front. Vera’s old room was spare, for when Teddy came home from sea on leave.

Vivian and Roy came round with the boys, and Elsie even invited Uncle Ernie for dinner. Though she conveniently forgot to extend the invitation to his Chinese friend. Vera thought it was the best day she could remember. Nobody argued, there was plenty to eat, and Ernie made everyone fall about laughing with his saucy jokes and cheeky songs. He even brought Vera some stockings as a present, telling her she was a young lady now, and would soon be out in the world of work. Albert had gone to Mr Lewis’s shop the day before, and asked him round for drinks. Colin had gone to Spain to fight with the International Brigade, and nothing had been heard of him since. With his wife long dead, they felt sorry for Mr Lewis, but he declined the invitation anyway.

Later on, Roy said he would give Uncle Ernie a lift home in his sidecar, and there was more hilarity as he tried to squeeze into the thing. He ended up on the small pillion seat instead, with his arms wrapped around Roy as they waved him goodbye.

On her fourteenth birthday the next January, Vera sat and thought about how she would be leaving school at Easter, missing out on the holidays, and starting her job. She still felt like a little girl sometimes, even though it was a long time since she had played with any toys or dolls. As it was now 1938, she realised it wouldn’t be too long before the start of a new decade, and she hoped it was going to be the best one the family had ever known. And she couldn’t help thinking about Colin, as that war in Spain was still going on. Colin’s side was losing too, according to the reports they heard on the radio.

Then before Easter, Germany took over Austria. It was on the BBC radio, and Vera watched as her dad sat shaking his head. “I don’t like the sound of this one bit, Elsie love. I reckon that Hitler bloke won’t be happy until he starts another war”. Elsie cleared away the tea cups, muttering. “You’re always on about something, Bert Dodds. Just leave all that stuff to Mr Chamberlain and the politicians. They will sort it out”. Not really wanting to think about any wars, Vera went up to her room to read. But she soon took down her atlas, and looked up Austria again. Then she looked at Czechoslovakia, as they had been talking about that country too. Her feet felt chilly, so she flipped the candlewick bedspread over them, wondering if Colin would only get back in time to have to go and fight another war in Austria.

Leaving school was something of an anti-climax. She just went home on the last day before the holidays, and never went back. There were no real goodbyes, or fond farewells. Another girl from her class was starting at the jam factory the next Monday. Her name was Janet Reid, and although Vera didn’t know her that well, she came up to her as they were walking home. “See you on Monday, Vera. Your mum works there, don’t she? She gonna look out for us then?”. Vera told her that her mum would be at work, but too busy to worry about new girls. Janet smiled. “We’ll just have to look out for each other then”.

Elsie got her daughter up early, and walked with her into work. She found her time card, and showed her how to clock on and off. “You have to do that at lunchtime too, don’t forget. And you’ve got your money for the canteen, haven’t you?” She then took her to meet Mrs Oliver, who was going to show her what to do. Janet was already with her, and winked at Vera when she saw her. As they walked into the main factory, Vera could hardly believe the noise in there.

She was sure it would drive her crazy.

Vera’s Life: Part Nine

This is the ninth part of a fiction serial, in 766 words.

Vera only had two dresses suitable for Kath’s birthday tea. Both were rather small now she was getting older. Elsie told her to wear tha pale blue one, but it came up very short, well over her knees. So Elsie went to East Street Market and bought some fake white lace which she sewed onto the bottom, and around the edges of the sleeves. She also picked up a blue ribbon that matched the dress for Vera to wear in her hair, and a tortioseshell Alice Band to give Kath as a present.

When she got to Kath’s house, it was all a bit formal. Some of her relatives were there, with some cousins who were very young. Everyone was sitting around sipping orange squash and eating cakes and biscuits, but there were no party games or songs. Mr Frazer was talking to some men in the kitchen, and Mrs Frazer was looking flushed and busy. When Vera handed her friend the present, Kathy gave her a funny look, and didn’t even open it. When she had sat around like that for over an hour, Vera got fed up, and went and stood behind Kathy. She cupped her hand and whispered into the girl’s ear. “What’s wrong, Kath?”

Her friend’s reaction startled her. “You, that’s what’s wrong. You come to my party in your fancy dress, ribbon in your hair, and sit there like lady muck. It’s my party, not yours, and you’re not supposed to show off wearing your fancy clothes and make me look bad”. Kathy hadn’t recognised the old dress, as Elsie had done such a good job of making it look rather grand. But before Vera could tell her, Kathy turned on her again. “And you might as well go home, ’cause you’re not my friend anymore. And you can take this with you.” She held out the brown paper parcel containing the Alice Band.

Grabbing the parcel, Vera ran out without even stopping to thank Mrs Frazer, and cried all the way home. Her mum told her it was just a silly argument, and it would all be forgotten at school the next day. But she was wrong, and Kathy never spoke to her again.

A week after the summer holidays ended, Vera came home from school as usual. She was old enough to take care of herself now, but still liked to pop in to see Mrs Simmons before going upstairs to her place. She was sitting in the old wooden armchair in the scullery, and at first Vera thought she must be asleep. But one of her shoes had slipped off, and her left arm was hanging down the side, the fingers of her hand almost touching the floor. Vera went over to shake her, to see it she was alright, but her body was hard and stiff.

Running straight back out of the house, she went to the tobacconist and newsagent shop on the corner, owned by Mr Lewis. She told him Clara Simmons wasn’t moving and felt stiff, and he used the phone in his shop to call the doctor. Then he got his son Colin to watch the shop and went back with Vera. Leaving her in the hallway, he went into the back room to look at Clara. He came back shaking his head. “She’s gone, Vera love. You had better go back and wait in my shop. I’ll stay here to see the doctor”. Vera walked back to the shop in a daze. It was the first time she had seen a dead person, and she had even touched her.

Colin Lewis raised his eyebrows when Vera told him what had happened. He was twenty-two years old, and worked in the print trade, doing night shifts at one of the newspapers. Vera thought he was very good looking, but her dad had teased her about him. “Don’t set your cap at Colin, Vera love. He’s a political, that one. Goes marching against the Blackshirts and everything. Trade union man too, bit of an agitator if you ask me. Don’t reckon he has time for romance, especially with some girl as young as you”. She had blushed so hard, her face felt warm all evening.

By the time Elsie got home from work, the undertaker’s big van was there to take Clara away. Elsie gave Mr Lewis the phone number of Clara’s brother in Kent. He was in his nineties, and agreed to pay for the funeral but said he was too ill to travel up for it. That night as they ate dinner, Albert seemed deep in thought. Suddenly putting his knife and fork down, he leaned across the table, speaking quietly to his wife. “I think we should go and see the landlord, Elsie love. Offer to take over the whole place. Otherwise, you never know who might move in downstairs. We can just afford the extra rent, if we’re careful.” Elsie smiled at the thought of it, and nodded.

When Vera went to bed that night, she was thinking about Clara, but smiling about maybe having the whole house just for them.

Vera’s Life: Part Eight

This is the eighth part of a fiction serial, in 750 words.

The same week that Vera celebrated her twelfth birthday, the King died. Everyone was very sad about that, but Vera had other things on her mind.
She had started her monthlies, and had an accident at school. Mortified with embarrassment, she had walked home and gone to see Clara, letting it all out in floods of tears. She knew about such things of course, having shared a bedroom with her older sister for long enough, and also having sat through a talk from her mum all about it.

When Elsie got home and heard what had happened, she made the necessary arrangements, and cuddled her daughter. “You’re a woman now, love. You have to get used to this for the rest of your life. Well, until they stop when you’re older”. Something suddenly occurred to Vera, and she looked up at her mum. “Please don’t tell dad, I couldn’t bear it”.

On the radio, there was a lot of talk about the new King, who was going to be called Edward the Eighth. He had an American girlfriend, and Albert said she could never be our Queen. Still, everyone forgot about that for a while, when Vivian came round all excited, to tell her family that she was expecting another baby in the summer. She had been enjoying her job at the sausage factory and always managed to get cheap sausages for everyone, as employees got a big discount. The sausages were loose in big bags, and at least half the price of the ones sold in the butcher’s, or the small shops. Vera was hoping Viv hadn’t brought any with her.

She was geting a bit fed up of eating sausages by now.

Before the Easter holidays, Vera won an essay prize at school. She had written a long story about the British Empire, and even drawn the flags of the countries that were part of it. Albert had bought her some coloured pencils to do them, and a ruler to get the edges straight. The prize was a book, and she got to choose from a selection laid out in the school library.

Without hesitation, she picked an Atlas of The World. It had all the empire countries shown in red on the big double-page map, and then all the maps in alphabetical order, with each country’s capital city, population, currency, and main industry detailed underneath. She turned straight to the back, where there was a lot of text giving the highest mountains and longest rivers of each country too. The librarian Miss Clarkson pasted her prize certificate in the front, and wrote Vera’s name in beautiful italics.

It was always going to be her favourite book, even better than the old encyclopedia. She was sure of that.

Vivian had another boy, and they called him Edward, after the King, and Roy, after his dad. Vera now had two nephews, and had started to feel very grown up. A few days later, Albert got a telegram. They never got telegrams, so it was definitely going to be bad news. Elsie was already tearful before he had opened it. It was from Teddy. He had broken his leg in an accident on board ship, and was in hospital in Hong Kong. It was his thigh that was broken, so it would be a long recovery. He wouldn’t be home for Christmas, he was sure. Elsie was relieved, and made a pot of strong tea. “Oh my gawd, I was sure he was dead, Bert.”

There was more bad news on the radio. There was a war in Spain. A man called General Franco had invaded the country and was fighting the government with his army. Albert shook his head, his face glum. “That Franco’s no better than those Nazis in Germany. Mark my words, this is going to mean trouble”. Vera already knew about a war in Abyssinia, caused by Mussolini and his Italians. Dad had told her that the Emperor of Abyssinia had no chance, as his soldiers only had spears, and very old guns. Now there was a war much closer to England, in Spain. Vera had already looked up Abyssinia in her Atlas, and now she refreshed her memory about Spain. It was so much bigger than England, so it would probably be a really big war.

Kath was having a birthday tea party that Sunday, and Vera was invited of course.

Thinking about what she was going to wear soon took her mind off Spanish men fighting each other.

Vera’s Life: Part Seven

This is the seventh part of a fiction serial, in 848 words.

May didn’t last the night, and not long after, Vera got to go to her first funeral. Because Derek’s family had money, at least more than the Dodds, it was a fancy affair. As it was her older sister’s funeral, Elsie insisted that they all wear black, though Albert had to make do with a black tie worn with the blue suit. A new suit was a step too far, financially. Vera was given a black wool dress that was someone else’s and was altered to fit her for the day. Her mum told her not to get it messy, as it was going back in the morning. It was far too long, but it wouldn’t matter on such a young girl. Elsie also bought her some black wool stockings from the market, with white elastic loops to hold them up, and a black beret. Vivian left little George with her mother-in-law, and turned up looking very glamorous, with a black veil hanging from the brim of her hat.

Elsie wasn’t amused. “You’re not going on a date, Vivian. Black silk stockings indeed! And take some of that make-up off before we leave the house, you look like a showgirl.” They got two buses to the Pimlico house, and joined the other mourners inside. Most of them were serious looking people from Derek’s side, and Vera didn’t know any of them. But Uncle Ernie had turned up, much to everyone’s surprise. Derek had sent him a telegram, and had deliberately not told Elsie.

Ernest Baker was the oldest on Elsie’s side. The brother who was ten years older, and never spoken about. He had once sent Vera a five shilling postal order for Christmas, and she had asked about the uncle she had never met. Mum and dad told her to mind her business, but Vivian told her the story when they were in the bedroom later that night. Uncle Ernie was a theatrical, Viv said. He had never married, and moved around the country in touring shows, pantomimes, and revues. When he couldn’t get a steady role with a company, he used to sing in pubs in East London, dressed as a woman. According to Viv, he had a dingy flat off East India Dock Road, and lived with a much younger Chinese man.

When Vera could see nothing wrong with that and shrugged, Viv dropped to a barely audible whisper. “Don’t you get it? He’s queer, bent. You know, a fairy”.

Vera had absolutely no idea what her older sister was talking about, so just nodded.

The fancy hearse turned up not long after they arrived, pulled by four black horses. May’s coffin was carried out of the parlour and slowly loaded inside, visible through the glass. Elsie had brought some white flowers, and a man in a black top hat took them from her and placed them inside. Black funeral cars had been hired to take everyone, and they had their own one for the four of them. They followed the hearse at the same pace as the horses, all the way to the church, and then on to The Brompton Cemetery in Chelsea.
In the car, Vera watched as her mum got increasingly upset, and although she didn’t feel that sad about Aunt May, she was worried for her mum.

When the coffin was lowered into the grave, some of those who had been listening to the vicar went forward and threw dirt on top of it. Vera stayed at the back with Viv, trying to keep her dress clean. There was a bit of a do after, at a hotel in Kensington. It was the fanciest place Vera had ever seen in her life, with carpets so thick they made her feel like she was bouncing as she walked on them. The food was good too, and Vera smiled as she watched Vivian stuffing some sausage rolls and vol-au-vents into her handbag to take home for Roy. She could tell her dad had probably had one too many beers, as his voice was getting louder, but her mum made one glass of sherry last for the two hours they were there.

The sweet stuff was some of the best Vera had ever eaten, with tiny cakes covered in fondant icing, and small pastries full of sultanas and crunchy sugar on top. She had to stop herself eating any more of them, as she had started to feel a bit sick. The best thing to come out of the funeral was that Uncle Ernie seemed to have made up with her mum, and they had a cuddle before everyone left. Then he came and found Vera, and gave her half a crown as he patted her face. Viv had been right though. He smelled of perfume, and had powder on his face. But Vera really liked him anyway.

In the bus on the way home, Elsie stopped crying, and Albert sobered up. He turned to his wife, and smiled. “Reckon that’s the last time we’ll ever see Derek, anyway”.

He was right of course. They never saw him again.

Vera’s Life: Part Six

This is the sixth part of a fiction serial, in 757 words.

The following year, something exciting happened. One of Albert’s foremen bought a new radio, and offered to sell him the old one. It was discussed with Elsie, as it meant using their meagre savings. Things were not going that well in the world, with mass unemployment in America and Europe. Fortunately for the Dodds family, Elsie’s job was secure, and though there were no extra Saturdays being worked, Albert was fully employed too. It seemed that England still had need of cheap jam, and things made of iron.

Albert borrowed a sack barrow from work to wheel home the heavy radio, and Elsie helped him carry it upstairs. Clara Simmons came up, and she sat next to Vera and Elsie as they watched Albert waiting for it to warm up. The huge dial on the front listed lots of numbers and the names of faraway places, and the big cabinet it was fitted into took up a lot of space next to the fireplace. After some high-pitched whining sounds, and a lot of crackling noises, they finally heard the sound of orchestra music coming from the front. Elsie smiled. “Turn it up louder, Bert, don’t forget Clara is a bit deaf”.

Vera had heard radios before of course, as Vivian and Roy had one at his mum’s place. Roy was paying it off on hire purchase, so much a week. But to have their own one in the front room was something so exciting. Albert fiddled with the dials, trying to find a news broadcast, but Elsie yelled at him. “Leave it, Bert. Let’s just enjoy the music for now. Read the evening paper if you want to know what’s in the news!”. Reluctantly, he twisted the dial back to the music, then sat down and rolled a cigarette. Vera sat back and closed her eyes, trying to identify each instrument as they played their solos. Violins, piano, cellos, it was just wonderful.

That Sunday, Viv and Roy came round with baby George. Vivian had been sure all along she was having a girl, but there were problems at the end, and she had to have an operation at the hospital to get the baby out. He had been named George, after the King, and Albert, after dad. Roy was a mechanic by trade, although he aways kept his hands so clean, you would never know that he worked on cars for a living. He had bought a motor bike and covered sidecar after little George was born, and when they turned up, Viv was sitting in the sidecar holding the baby. It made so much noise that Vera put her fingers in her ears until the engine stopped. Her dad said Roy would never have any money, as he spent everything he earned.

When George was seven months old, Viv had gone back to work at the vinegar factory, and Roy’s mum looked after the baby. But it was two buses to get to work now, so as they ate the meat paste sandwiches and fruit cake, she was telling them that she was looking for a job closer to home. She had heard that there were jobs going at Kennedy’s sausage factory, and she could walk there. So she was going in to ask them about a job the following week. Vera held the chubby baby on her lap, constantly whispering into his ear. “Auntie Vera. I’m your Auntie Vera”. She was hoping it might be the first words he said.

Just as Elsie was making the third pot of tea, and Roy was droning on about how he would ideally love to buy a car, there were two knocks on the door. One knock would have been for Clara downstairs, but two knocks was for them. Albert went down, and came back up with Uncle Derek. His overcoat smelt so strongly of mothballs, it made Vera’s eyes water. His face was grim. “It’s May. She’s in a bad way. They have taken her to St George’s Hospital. Get your things, and I’ll take you in the car”. Aunt May lived in Pimlico, in a nice house that Derek had inherited. After collapsing at home, her doctor had not wasted any time, and had sent her to the hospital at Hyde Park Corner in an ambulance. It was so serious, the doctor had suggested Derek inform the family.

Vera had to stay home with Viv and Roy, and as the car left with her parents and uncle inside, she could see her mum was crying.

Vera’s Life: Part Five

This is the fifth part of a fiction serial, in 735 words.

One of the things that Vera soon discovered about school was that the friends you start out with are not always the ones you end up with. After a couple of years, she had bonded with Kathy Frazer, a girl she hadn’t known very well before. As the twins and Lizzie began to fade away, Vera spent a lot of her free time with Kathy, often in each other’s houses. Kathy’s dad was from Belfast. He had stayed in England after fighting in France during the war. Kathy said it was because he hated Catholics, and didn’t want to go back to Belfast. He got a job on the docks as a Dock Policeman, which made him pretty unpopular in the area, as so many men worked as dockers and stevedores.

Vera couldn’t understand much of what he said, due to his heavy accent. He called her ‘Virrah’, and his wife Lilian had to translate anything else he said. But he was a kind dad, and friendly too, even though Vera’s dad Albert had told her to “watch him”. Any police were always avoided by the people she knew, especially the Dock Police. Kathy was good at sums, and Vera best in English. So they helped each other whenever they could. Neither of the girls was too bothered about academic prowess though. By the age of nine, Vera was already expected to go and work with her mum Elsie at the jam factory when she finished school. Elsie had told her that she would get her a good job there when she was fourteen. Kathy had an idea to become a nurse, and used to practice looking after her dolls, pretending they were ill.

The best thing about Vera’s day was when her dad got home from work. Sometimes, he might have made her something from scrap iron. Perhaps a small animal in relief, or a simple bracelet that was special to her. She would sit on his lap as he rolled his cigarette, and turn her face away from the cloud of bitter smoke that he exhaled as he lit it. He rarely had a beer with his dinner, but if he did, Vera would rush to bring the bottle opener and glass, asking if she could be given the job of opening it, and pouring it. Her dad always forgave her when the foam was too high in the glass. He would wink at her and say, “It tastes better when you pour it, Vera love.”

She loved both her parents, but mum as always the one who moaned about having a tidy room, washing properly all over, and keeping her clothes clean at school. Dad never bothered with that stuff, and was just pleased to see her, hugging her tight once she had climbed up on his lap. He would tell her, “You’re my girl, Vera love”.

Not long after her ninth birthday, she learned that her sister Vivian was pregnant. Dad made her laugh when he said, “That Roy took his time, probably too busy running his hands through his hair”. Viv came and sat in the bedroom, explaining that she was going to have a baby in the summer, propbably in August. She told Vera that she would become an aunt, which seemed very strange to a girl who was only nine. Viv told her not to worry. “By the time she is your age, you will be nearly twenty, and she will think of you as Auntie Vera.” Young Vera wasn’t so sure that was a good thing, but she hugged and kissed her sister anyway.

Teddy came home on leave that summer. Vera blushed a bit when she saw him, as he was sun-tanned, so good-looking, and grown up. When he hugged and kissed her, she flushed with embarrassment, realising that she hardly knew her big brother. He brought her a porcelain-faced doll with a Chinese face, and a blue dress. Albert hung a curtain between the beds in her room, and Teddy slept on the smaller bed. Vera felt strangely grown up when mum told her she shouldn’t get dressed or undressed in front of him. “You’re a young lady now, Vera love. Teddy doesn’t need to see you in your underwear”.

He was only home for eight days that time, and Vera felt really sad when he went back to sea.

Vera’s Life: Part Four

This is the fourth part of a fiction serial, in 759 words.

Elsie walked Vera to school for her first day. On the way she explained that Clara would be picking her up after, and looking after her until she got home. “I’m going back to my job at the jam factory, Vera love. Now Viv has moved out, we need to make up her housekeeping money. So Mrs Simmons will look after you until me or dad get home, okay?” Vera was not exactly in a position to debate that, so she just nodded.

One good thing about school was that it was full of other children she either knew, or had seen around. Less than a ten-minute walk from home, the building was a familiar local landmark. There was a ‘Girls’ entrance, and another marked ‘Boys’, though once they got across the playground and inside, the classes were mixed. Elsie was told that Vera would be in Mrs Chiltern’s class, and she turned to her daughter. “Now be a good girl, do as you’re told, and whatever the teachers say is the same as if it’s come from me and dad”. Some of the other children were crying, and hanging on to their mums. Not Vera though, as she was keen to get into the class and see what school was going to be like.

Nodding at Lizzie, one of her best friends from the street, Vera grabbed her and made for the two seats at the front left, by the window. The Fuller twins, Jean and Joan, got the places behind them, and the class filled up quickly, except for one seat. Little Georgie Baker came in last, almost late but not quite. When everyone had answered their names as they were read out, Mrs Chiltern took them all to the assembly hall. All the children who had just started that day were there, and Vera was one of the oldest, as her birthday had been nine months earlier. Mr Lloyd, the headmaster, made a long speech about behaviour, being on time, and not talking in class. Then they all had to stand up when he left. Vera thought he must be very old, as he was walking with a bad limp, and his face looked sad.

The rest of the morning, they learned their numbers up to fifty, and the ABC. As Vivian had bought a book about the ABC and kept going over it with her, Vera had a head start. By playtime, it was starting to feel familiar, and the four friends rushed over to the girls’ toilet block at the far end of the playground. Vera loved the school toilets. They had real toilet paper, which was a bit like the greaseproof paper mum used when she was baking. And the toilet bowls were low to the ground, so her legs weren’t swinging. Best of all, they were not draughty, and there were no spiders inside.

In the afternoon, they learned how to do papier mache, using flour and water to make glue, then sticking strips of paper onto wire frames bent in the shape of animals. It was messy, but they all enjoyed it. They had been given brown aprons to wear to save their clothes, but Vera was worried that her mum would tell her off for the spots of glue on her shoes. Mrs Chiltern told her not to be concerned, as it would wash off. At home time, Clara Simmons was waiting at the gate, and held Vera’s hand as they walked home. Clara gave her a drink of orange squash when they got back, and two home-made shortbread biscuits. Vera would have loved to have been given another one, but Clara told her “No more, or you will spoil your dinner”.

When Elsie got home, she thanked her neighbour, and took Vera upstairs. She got busy peeling some potatoes for the evening meal, and Vera sat at the table looking at an old encyclopedia that dad had got from someone at work. She couldn’t read that many of the words, but enjoyed looking at the drawings and maps inside. At the back, it had coloured drawings of the flags of all nations, and Vera loved to look at the different designs, trying to remember what country they stood for.

Dinner was almost ready when Albert got home. As he had a wash at the kitchen sink, he winked at his daughter. “First day at school then, Vera love. What did you like best?” Without turning away from the pictures of the flags, she answered without hesitation.

“The toilets, dad”.

Vera’s Life: Part Three

This is the third part of a fiction serial, in 776 words.

Once she was old enough to have to go to the lavatory by herself, Vera used to try to hold it as long as possible. Walking downstairs and through the side door to the garden, she approached the black painted wooden door of the outside convenience with her lip trembling. She knew there would be spiders inside, sometimes big fat ones squatting in the corners.

As she sat high up on the seat, she would stare at her shoes, hoping to stop herself looking up. If that failed, she would flick through the squares of newspaper hanging on the nail, the paper they used to wipe themselves. There might be some with photos, or interesting pictures on advertisements. They would help divert her attention from the spiders until she had finished. Her dad had tied a long piece of cord to the chain so she could flush it without having to reach up high, and she would pull that without looking back as she did so.

It was worse at night, or in the winter, because she needed to have the light on, the bare electric bulb that cast a harsh glare inside. Then she couldn’t help but see the spiders, and sometimes there were moths or other flying things fluttering around the bulb. One night, the money ran out in the meter while she was sitting there. Before her mum could get the sixpence in, Vera ran outside, terrified. She stood sobbing in the garden until mum came to find out where she had gone.

It wasn’t really a garden, although Elsie and Albert liked to call it that. In theory, they shared the space with Clara who lived downstairs, but she only used it for her mangle and the washing line, and had litle interest in it. Albert had built two low brick walls creating containers, one on each side of the small yard. Filled with earth, he grew his treasured roses in them, then started to call it the garden. When the milkman or coalman came down the street in their horse and cart, Elsie would try to be first out with a shovel, to scoop the horse manure off the road before anyone else. Albert prized it for use as fertilizer on his roses, and would always have a big smile when his wife told him she had got some that day.

The same year that Vera had to start school in September, Vivian and Roy got married the week before. Viv told her sister that she would have the room to herself now, except when Teddy came home from sea. Her and Roy were going to live with Roy’s mum, all the way over in Kennington. His dad had been killed at the end of the big war, and they would share her two-bedroom flat. Vera wasn’t sad to see her sister go, as she was sure they would see a lot of her. And she would have a lot more room, as Teddy was hardly ever home. He couldn’t even get back for the wedding, so was going to miss Vera being a bridesmaid.

In her little world, her sister’s wedding was a marvellous, almost magical day. Mum had a special dress made for her, and she was to carry confetti, and a wooden horsehoe covered in silver paper, to wish them luck. Vivian was up early, with her friend Madge curling her hair at the kitchen table. The only person in their street who owned a car was Mr Fleming, who was a taxicab driver. He had been paid to take Viv and dad to the church, even though it was less than a mile away. He had put some long white ribbons from the front bumper to the top of the windscreen, and polished up the taxi until it was shining. Mum had been up since it was still dark, making sandwiches that were put into tins, to go with the cakes she had been making all week.

Dad wore his best suit, which was also his only suit. Mum pinned a white carnation onto his lapel, and gave him a packet of cigarettes she had bought, as she didn’t like him rolling his own in company. Aunt May and Uncle Derek turned up in their fancy car, but she looked a bit miffed when Elsie started to load her tins of cakes and sandwiches inside it. They had come early, to be able to give Elsie and Vera a lift to the church, along with Clara Simmons, who of course had been invited.

Trying hard to keep her white silk shoes clean, Vera was almost overwhelmed with excitement.

Vera’s Life: Part Two

This is the second part of a fiction serial, in 787 words.

For a long time, baby Vera slept in an old drawer in the bedroom. Mrs Simmons had given it to Elsie, as she didn’t have enough clothes to fill her tallboy any longer. Once she was big enough to need her own bed, Albert bought one from a friend at work, and they carried it all the way from Deptford between them. Viv wasn’t happy though, as it meant she now had to share her small room with her little sister. But she knew better than to make too much fuss.

That was about the time of Vera’s first memories. The smell of her sister’s cheap perfume, used sparingly of course. Her stockings discarded on the floor after a night out with her friends, and the smell of tobacco smoke and vinegar that seemed to cling to all of her clothes. Happy memories too, of wearing Viv’s shoes when they were far too big, and rushing into the living room covered in the lipstick that she had found on the window ledge, everyone laughing at the sight of her.

She had only been one year old when Teddy came home on leave, so didn’t remember him. But she hadn’t let go of the toy camel he had brought for her for weeks. The next time he was back, she vaguely remembered the settee being pulled out for him to sleep on, and the smell of his socks when he took his shoes off.

One thing she never forgot was the Christmas when she was old enough to realise what was going on. Mrs Simmons let Albert put up the trestle table in her parlour, and everyone was there to eat a big capon, followed by a pudding that Clara had tended carefully for months. Vera had woken up to some presents at the end of her bed, including some new mittens, and a hand-made knitted dolly. There was even a small red wool stocking that had some Brazil nuts and a tangerine inside. Although there was no tree, paper decorations lined the walls, and little Vera thought it must be the best day of her life.

Vivian had a steady boyfriend by then, someone she had met in the queue outside the cinema. His name was Roy, and he had a habit of running a hand through his hair constantly. He came for Christmas dinner too. There were no grandparents though. Albert’s parents had died when he was a teenager, soon after each other. Elsie’s mum had been deserted by her husband long before the war, and had died the year before Vera was born. But what she didn’t know, she didn’t miss, and she had great fun watching them all trying to keep the paper hats on their heads as they laughed and joked. Auntie May was coming to visit on Boxing Day. Elsie’s older sister May had married well, and Vera had been told to expect something nice from her as a present.

As the rest of them enjoyed their beer or gin, and sung songs at the table, Vera was taken up to bed, soon asleep clutching her new doll.

Auntie May arrived the next afternoon. Her husband was called Derek, and he had a car. The older kids ran along the street behind it, keen to see where it was going to stop. As Derek and May got their things from inside, the kids stood on the running board and peered through the windows at the luxurious interior. Vera looked up at the aunt she hardly remembered, fascinated by the fox fur stole she was wearing around her shoulders. The dead animal’s head lolled to one side, and Vera was convinced it might suddenly come to life and bite her.

It was an awkward hour or two, and even little Vera could sense the strained atmosphere. She wasn’t to know that May considered herself above all this now, and was rather ashamed of her background. Derek talked to her dad about roses and fertilizer, then pretended to be interested in how the darts team was doing. When it was time for them to leave, no present had appeared. Then almost as an afterthought, May produced a large box, wrapped in bright paper. Elsie nodded at her daughter. “Open it, love. It’s for you”. Inside was a large doll in a cardboard box. It was a black doll, with curly black hair, and wearing a red and white check dress. Vera had to give her aunt a kiss to thank her, and wrinkled her nose at the strong perfume, and the taste of heavy face-powder.

She didn’t say anything of course, but she preferred the wool dolly her mum and dad had given her.