I stared over the edge of the bed, dreading putting my feet down on the cold grey lino. My mother had left for work – her side of the bed was cold. It was half past eight. I would be late for school. I got up.
The bedsit was a long room on the top floor. As well as the double bed, we had a little furniture and a paraffin heater. My dolls lived in a cardboard box which said ‘Blue Band Margarine’. The roof was leaking, and the plastic sheeting the landlord had nailed to the ceiling curved down, heavy with water, above the bed. Two sash windows faced a row of shops across the Leytonstone High Road. I could hear wet road noise from below, and occasionally the glass vibrated as a heavy lorry went past. I pushed aside the thin curtains and glanced out at the rain. You could see a lot of Leyton from there, tower blocks, line after line of terraced houses, the football ground floodlights.
I pulled on yesterday’s clothes – skirt, jumper, socks and shoes, coat. I had taken too long – it was twenty to nine. I grabbed my leather satchel and clattered downstairs. The bedsit was above a Chinese takeaway and we shared their greasy kitchen. I went out through the dimly lit back room behind the shop, feeling my way to the side door between stacked rows of mung bean sacks and a card table.
I only had ten minutes now to get to school – I would be in trouble if I got another late mark. I slammed the side door, and ran down the Leytonstone High Road, my white knee socks falling down to my ankles. Rain hissed down, and a line of lorries grumbled, windscreen wipers squeaking, engines idling, all the way up to the traffic lights. I hurried past the shuttered shops, the Co-Op supermarket, FJ Strong the Jewellers, Barclays Bank, Levy’s Shoes where they had those white sandals that all the other girls wore, and that at 19 shillings and elevenpence, my mother could not afford. I tripped and fell on the wet pavement. My satchel was in a puddle, my hands and knees stung, and looking down as I stood up, I could see small bits of dirt embedded in my skin, little points of red starting to emerge.
Tears pooled in my eyes, but then I saw the coin, a bright sixpence. My mother always said a bright penny lying on the ground was lucky, she would pick it up, wipe it off and hand it to me, saying, ‘look Lucy, a lucky penny’. A sixpence had to be six times luckier than a penny. I pocketed it and then a few yards further along, I found a threepenny bit, which by itself was enough to buy a heavy, fragrant slice of bread pudding in the ABC Bakery on the corner. Stowing this in my satchel, I hastened to school. I was really late now. As I ran across the road at the lights, I heard someone yelling ‘Oi!’ as a car skidded to a halt, and ran on, unhurt.
School was a converted Victorian workhouse which kept separate playgrounds for girls and boys. During the 1970 World Cup, the girls had played football every day, every match was Brazil against England. We all supported West Ham. Now the playground was empty – everyone had gone inside for registration. I rushed up the stairs two at a time, pulling myself up by the brass handrail. But I needn’t have worried about being late – I could hear my class, shouting and screaming. I realised that Miss Thorpe wasn’t there, and they were creating havoc, probably waiting for a supply teacher.
It meant I would have to contend with Angela Wilson though, I resented that fat blonde bully. After school she had her friends round, to a comfortable terraced house nearby. Where we lived, I couldn’t do that. She would say “If I want something, I just say ‘Dad – money!’.” I bet she knew I didn’t have a Dad.
I experienced my father only through the continued bitterness of my mother. I had fragmented memories, of shouting, hitting, of being in my mother’s arms, squashed by her weight as she sank to her knees, and then staying with friends while she was in hospital. He had tried to strangle her. Now we were far away in the huge anonymity of London. If my mother was angry, she could render me helpless by saying I was just like him, and her worst threat was, ‘I’ll send you back to your father.’ I also remembered riding high on his freckled shoulders, on a hot day, smelling the sweat in his hair and looking down into front gardens.
Now Angela was boasting about her new two-tone coat. The fabric changed colour, olive green to blue, as you looked at it from different angles. All the skinheads were wearing those coats. She came up to me, grinning, looking me up and down in my threadbare navy duffle that had come from a jumble sale.
‘D’you like my coat – Lucy?’ she asked pointedly, and the other children tittered.
‘No,’ I said, staring her out, ‘I think you look ugly in it.’ A hush fell and everyone was looking at us.
‘You wanna fight?’ she said, still smiling.
‘I’ll fight you,’ I said. The other children gathered round us in a circle, chanting ‘Bundle! Bundle! Bundle!’ I closed in to Angela, not really sure what I was doing, put up small fists, glaring. Suddenly, her face turned red, then she turned and pushed her way out of the circle, tears sprouting from her eyes. The class looked at me with a new admiration. Debbie Ginn and Avis Summerfield both wanted to be my friend that day. I caressed the bright sixpence in my pocket.
At lunchtime Avis came up to me and asked if I wanted to see a pony after school. Now I had read every pony book in the library, and dreamed every dream there was about being a little rich girl with a hacking jacket and jodhpurs and boots, riding to victory in a gymkhana with a handsome chestnut pony. But a pony in Leyton seemed unlikely.
‘How come?’ I said.
‘It’s the gypsies, they’re down on the marshes at the bottom of Crownfield Road’ said Avis. ‘Shall we go after school then?’
I hesitated. I was supposed to go straight home after school, and would get a scolding if my mother found out. I touched the sixpence in my pocket. ‘OK,’ I said.
We stood by a rusty gate. The gypsies’ wooden caravans were dotted about on the patch of grass, and tethered horses grazed circles around them.
‘They’re cart horses, not ponies,’ I said, but Avis touched my arm and pointed.
‘Look over there,’ she said. A girl of about our age, nine or ten, rode bareback on a white pony. She saw us and waved. We waved back, she said something to the pony and it walked towards us across the field. Up close it looked much larger, its head lowered to us to say hello, its muzzle and teeth looking large and frightening, its breathing noisy, smelling faintly of dung.
‘What’s your pony’s name?’ asked Avis, timidly patting its neck.
‘Deirdre’ said the girl, ‘and my name’s Pat.’ We told her our names and I found the remains of my bread pudding in my satchel and offered it to Deirdre. The pony’s muzzle rubbed my palm gently as she accepted the food. Pat smiled at me.
‘Do you want to ride her?’ she asked. I said I’d never ridden a horse and I wasn’t sure I could manage it bareback. There were no reins either. ‘It’s easy,’ said Pat, ‘you just have to keep your balance so you don’t fall, and then you just tell her where to go. Come up behind me if you like.’
Somehow I scrambled up the gate and on to Deirdre’s back. I put my arms around Pat to hold on. She was thin and wiry and she felt and smelt like part of the pony. She murmured to Deirdre, who ambled gently across the field. I looked over Pat’s shoulder at our surroundings – the bleak marshes, the railway sidings, the factories. It was unbelievable. ‘You OK?’ asked Pat, after a while, ‘’Cause if so we’ll go a bit faster.’
‘OK!’ I said, my heart already so full of happiness that I thought it would burst like a bubble, and then we were cantering and then galloping across the grass. After that I watched Avis climb up behind Pat, giggling with excitement, and then sliding slowly off the pony’s back as she broke into a trot. Pat rode up to me as Avis dusted herself down.
‘Have a try on your own,’ she said, jumping gracefully to the ground, and making me a step with her hands. I balanced carefully on the pony’s back, my hands on her withers, as she began to move. ‘Shift yourself forward,’ said Pat, ‘and hold on with your legs.’
‘Gently, Deirdre,’ I said, and as the pony moved she seemed to be balancing me as an African might carry a load on her head. After a while I stopped concentrating on balancing, and absorbing the pony’s movements through my body, and started to feel a hum of happiness again in my heart. Sensing this, Deirdre gradually speeded up until we were cantering around the field.
‘I think we should go back to Pat, now,’ I said to Deirdre, and she slowed her pace and trotted to a stop to where Pat and Avis were waiting by the gate for me to dismount.
‘Are you going to be here tomorrow?’ I asked Pat, but she shook her head.
‘No, we’re moving on,’ she said, ‘Somewhere. But we’ll come back some time, I’ll see youse again, eh?’
On an impulse I pulled out my lucky sixpence and handed it to her. She shook her head. ‘You don’t need to pay me for anything!’ she said.
‘It’s a lucky sixpence,’ I said, ‘take it for luck and keep it.’ She took it then, grinning.
‘I hope it works then’ she said.
Halfway up Crownfield Road, I said goodbye to Avis and then was staggered by a sense of anguish. How could I have given that sixpence away? I almost turned round to go and ask for it back, but it was too late. I berated myself as I walked on. There would be no more luck now, and yet perhaps it could have changed our lives. My mother would have got a better job, working shorter hours and without the lines of sadness eating in to her face. We would move to a proper flat with our own kitchen and bathroom. I would lose the despair which sometimes made me stare over our window ledge into the Leytonstone High Road, and wonder how scary would it be to jump. I felt sure now, even more then ever, that the difficulties in our lives were my fault. But then, I had had my turn, and Pat would have need of the luck herself, travelling around the country, living on waste ground. It was late now, and I quickened my pace to get home before I got into trouble, walking briskly along the darkening streets of terraced houses, back to the bedsit.
I let myself in by the side door. To my relief, I had got home before my mother. Someone was working in the kitchen, I could hear a metal spatula bashing around in a big wok, and smell onions frying. I switched on the light in the back room, and then what I saw made me draw in my breath and hold it. Sleeping on a pile of bean sacks was a tabby kitten. Exhaling little by little, I approached it slowly, delighting in the tiny furry legs, the miniature claws only just visible, the little pointy ears and tapering tail. It slept on. I heard a chuckle, and old Mr Meng stuck his head out from the kitchen.
‘Get cat, no more mouse,’ he said, a gold tooth glinting as he grinned at me. ‘Here – milk.’ He gave me a milk bottle and a saucer, and I poured out a little of the creamy top of the milk, and placed it quietly in front of the kitten’s nose, stroking its brow carefully with a fingertip to wake it. It woke and mewed, and then began to lap the milk.
When my mother came home later she wasn’t cross, just tired. After supper we shared a cake she had bought in town from Grodzinski’s, a lovely almond strudel, light and sweet and crisp. I went to bed all bathed and pyjama’d, smelling of Johnson’s baby shampoo, and not long afterwards my mother propped herself up beside me, reading her library book – something by Balzac- and when I snuggled up to her she hugged me and dropped a kiss on my hair.
‘There’s a good girl, Lucy,’ she said, and smiled.
Copyright © 2012 chateauxenespagne.wordpress.com
All characters are fictitious, and any resemblance to any persons living or dead is entirely unintentional.