Authors: Ann Turnbull
To Sally Christie
The two lines of poetry quoted on page 9 are from “The Wild Swans at Coole” by W.B. Yeats
Lennie knew they would be waiting for him. As he came out through the school gates he saw them, on the corner by the King’s Arms: Reggie Dean, Alan Revell, Bert Haines.
Every day for nearly half a term they had caught him there. If he left school early they sprinted after him. If he hung back, they waited; they never tired of waiting.
Not today, Lennie decided. He’d had enough. He had to try and give them the slip.
He eased himself out of the gateway alongside a crowd of girls, turned left instead of right, then pelted down the road and round the corner into Waters Lane.
Halfway down the lane, where a footpath led into the woods, he stopped for breath. He glanced round – and saw them coming, dodging between groups of dawdlers.
In panic he plunged onto the woodland path and down into the dingle. At the bottom was a shallow brook forded by stones. He sprang from stone to stone, hearing behind him the familiar voices: “Hey! Dyer!” “Miss Neale’s pet!” He turned to see them charging down the slope.
He wouldn’t run. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. He stood on the far bank and faced them.
Bert straddled the ford. “Forgotten the way home, Dyer?”
Alan and Reggie sniggered.
“You’re not allowed to play in the water, are you, Mummy’s boy?” And, as he spoke, Bert stamped in the stream, sending a spray of water up Lennie’s leg.
Bert was the one Lennie was most afraid of. Reggie had been all right last year, until Miss Neale came, and Alan was the sort that would follow any idiot. But Bert was big, with a bashed-in nose and flat, hard eyes. Lennie hated him.
He brushed the water from his trousers and tried to walk past. Bert shoved him and he staggered and fell into the muddy brook, dropping his coat. His lunch tin clanged on the stepping stones. Reggie kicked it. The lid flew off and an apple core rolled into the water.
Two girls approaching the brook from the other side stopped and stared. One of them shouted, “Leave him alone, can’t you? He’s never done you any harm.”
Lennie knew the girls. They were in his class. He wished they would go away.
He tried to get up. Bert kicked him and he fell again, grazing his knee on a stone.
“I’m telling Miss Neale,” said Margaret Palmer.
“Telling Miss Neale,” mimicked Alan in a girly voice, but he sauntered off. The other two followed. Bert chucked a screwed-up piece of paper at Lennie as he went.
“Look at his coat!” exclaimed Sylvia Lee. She pulled it out of the water.
Lennie picked up the paper and smoothed it out. With a shock he recognized his own writing. It was a page torn from his school exercise book – this morning’s handwriting practice: the date, Friday 22
October 1937, followed by some poetry.
The trees are in their autumn beauty
The woodland paths are dry…
Margaret turned to Sylvia and sucked in her breath. “They’ve torn a page out of his book.”
Lennie felt hot with anxiety. Miss Neale hadn’t even marked it yet; she’d be furious.
“I’ll tell Miss Neale it wasn’t you,” said Margaret.
Lennie was alarmed. “No! Don’t.”
He daren’t tell on Bert; it would only make things worse. He’d have to pretend it was an accident.
He became aware of Sylvia, holding his coat.
“I could have got that,” he growled.
He didn’t want their help. He felt a fool. Some other children had appeared and were staring at his bloodied knee and wet clothes.
He put the paper in his pocket, picked up his tin, and turned for home.
But he didn’t want to go home. He’d face a wall of questions, arriving there wet and bleeding, with his coat in such a state. If he waited a bit he might dry out and could brush himself down.
He turned off the road and made his way across field paths to Love Lane, on the far side of town, near the brickworks.
There were no other children here. A few cottages were clustered at the top of the lane, but soon the path dwindled to a dirt track that led into woodland. Lennie followed it for half a mile or so. The ground was soft under his feet and in the breeze a scatter of leaves fell continuously: red-gold, amber, yellow, brown. He picked up a crimson cherry leaf. Miss Neale would like that. She had made an arrangement of autumn leaves, nuts, tree bark and toadstools on a table in the classroom. The boys sneered, but Lennie secretly enjoyed it. He imagined his leaf on the table, part of the display. But he wouldn’t give it to her. He didn’t want her attention; he had too much already. He threw the leaf away.
He saw some big stones scattered around, and went to investigate. They were the remains of a cottage, almost buried in undergrowth. Doors, windows and roof were gone, but parts of the four walls still stood, grey-white amongst the dark holly and elder.
Lennie pulled away the ivy that grew across the doorway, and went in.
It was tiny – a labourer’s cottage with an earth floor. The home, perhaps, of someone who’d worked on the land, or at the brickworks, years ago. There were traces of a campfire in the centre: ash and blackened sticks in a ring of stones. But nothing recent. No one had been here for a long time.
This could be my secret place, Lennie thought.
No one would find him here. He could bring sacking to sit on; he could bring some of his things from behind the settee.
Lennie had no space of his own at home. Behind the settee he kept a few sheets of paper – opened-out envelopes and sugar bags – with his conkers and marbles, some comics, a dried flattened frog and a jay’s feather. Every so often when Mum was cleaning she would move the settee, and if she wasn’t in a good mood his treasures were in danger of being thrown away.
But here – here he could bring a tin, then even his paper would keep dry. And a mug. And matches. He could light a fire, boil water, make tea, even roast things… Lennie had never caught an animal in his life, let alone cooked it on a campfire, but he’d watched enough Tarzan films to know how it should be done.
The thought of cooking reminded him that he was hungry. It must be tea time. Phyl and Mary would be home from work and Mum would be laying the table.
He gave a last look round the cottage.
I’ll come back tomorrow, he thought, first thing. And next week – next week was half term, a whole week without school.
The mud drying on his clothes no longer seemed important as he ran home.
Lennie went in through the back garden gate, past the pigeon loft. A steady cooing came from inside. Overhead a flock was circling: the hen birds, out for their exercise. That meant Mary was home.
He brushed at his clothes as he walked up the path. Most of the mud seemed to have dropped off.
Inside, Doreen was kneeling on the mat by the fire, reading
The Girl’s Own Paper
. Mum was getting the cutlery out of the dresser drawer.
Doreen said, “Lennie’s bleeding, Mum.”
Lennie glared at her.
Mum turned round. “Oh, Lennie, what have you been doing?”
“Again? Where have you been? It’s late; the girls are home from work. Oh, and there’s mud all down you! Look at the state of your coat.”
“I dropped it.”
“Why don’t you
it? It’s cold now. You’ve got to look after yourself, with your chest.”
“It’s not cold. The others never wear coats.”
“You don’t want to get ill again.”
Lennie could only dimly remember the time when he had been so ill that his mother was afraid he would die. He’d had whooping cough, followed by pneumonia. He was five then; now he was eleven.
,” he said.
“It’s those boys,” said Doreen. “Picking on him.”
Mum looked at him. “Do they, Lennie?”
“Sometimes.” Lennie frowned at the lino.
“You’ll have to stand up to them, you know.”
He wanted to get away. He didn’t want this. Bert and the others were his problem; private. None of Doreen’s business.
He was relieved when he heard footsteps on the stairs.
Mary had changed out of her work clothes, but her hair was still pale with clay dust, and Lennie could see the dust ingrained in the creases in her shoes and in her hands. She worked in the press shop at the tile works.
“Hiya, kid.” She smiled at Lennie.
“Look at the state of him,” said Mum, turning to Mary for support.
But Mary wasn’t interested in Lennie’s state. She said, “I’m starving. What’s for dinner?”
“Potato pie with a bit of bacon.” Mum sounded apologetic. “I’ll go shopping tonight.”
Friday was payday. Lennie hoped they might have fish and chips tomorrow.
Phyl came downstairs with her hair in curlers.
“Come on, Phyl,” said Mum, “let’s get this table laid. Lennie, pop down the road and fetch your dad from Bob Wright’s. Those two, they forget all about food when they’re talking politics.”
Lennie went out and ran down the arched passageway between the houses and into the street. Dad was already coming out of Bob Wright’s, with a bundle of papers under one arm. He made his way slowly towards Lennie, then stopped by Mrs Richards’ gate, and leaned on it, wheezing.
Lennie came up. “You all right, Dad?”
“Just getting my breath.” He moved on.
Dad had been off work for a month and wasn’t getting better. Lennie slowed his pace to match as they went down the passage and into the house.
Mum took Dad’s coat and hung it up. “You should have stayed in.”
“Got to move – can’t sit about,” Dad retorted.
He dumped the pile of papers on the dresser. They were ideas for a leaflet the two men had been discussing. The Union was campaigning to get pit-head baths installed at Old Hall Pit.
“Springhill’s got them, and Staveley, and all the deep mines up Stafford way. They’ve got to give in,” Dad said as they ate.
“It’s such a small pit,” said Mary. “They won’t want to be bothered.”
“They’re bothered enough to make money out of the coal.”
“Oh, I’m not arguing with you. I’m all for it.”
“It’s Wildings that own Old Hall, isn’t it?” said Mum. “Tight, they are.”
“All bosses are tight,” said Mary. “There’s a rumour going round Lang’s that they’re going to cut wages. We’ll not stand for that.”
Mary was only nineteen, but already she was active in the Union.
“If they’re wanting to cut wages they’ll never agree to your equal pay nonsense,” said Phyl.
That set Mary off, as Lennie had known it would.
Equal pay for women was a thing she’d campaigned for ever since starting at the tile works.
He didn’t join in the conversation but privately he championed Mary. She was his favourite sister: big, brave, confident – all the things he wasn’t.
Phyl soon lost interest in the argument. “Oh, don’t lecture me, Mary,” she laughed. “I’m going out. Got to get ready.”
She darted upstairs, and came down wearing lipstick, with her hair brushed out in waves.
“What are you seeing tonight?” Mum asked.
,” said Phyl. She twirled cautiously in the small space between table and sink. “Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.”
Mum looked envious. “We ought to go, Tom.”
But Dad pulled a face; he didn’t like musical comedies.
There was a knock at the back door.
“There’s Jim,” said Mum. “Off you go, Phyl. Have a good time.”
The door closed behind Phyl.
Lennie, about to slip away too, found Dad’s attention on him.