Authors: Rosie Harris
‘Sorry, missus,’ he said quickly, crossing his fingers and hoping she’d go away.
She stood there glaring at him, a fag dangling from the corner of her mouth. ‘What’s in it, anyway. A pile of bricks?’
He grinned up at her. ‘No, just some odd soles.’
‘You taking the bloody mickey?’ she snapped, blowing smoke into his face as she spoke.
He grinned again and muttered, ‘Ace, King, Queen, Jack,’ and flippantly crossed himself. ‘Not those sort of souls, missus, but the sort that go on the bottoms of boots and shoes.’
She looked puzzled. ‘What the hell are you doing with a bag full of those?’ she asked.
‘I’ve just collected them from Coombes’s in Great Homer Street.’
‘So where are you taking them?’
‘Back to my dad. He’s got a cobbler’s shop in Scotland Road.’
She nodded as if she understood. ‘You’d better get a bloody move on then, hadn’t you, he’s probably waiting for them.’
‘Yes, missus!’ His heart did a tap dance in his chest. She wasn’t going to make an issue of it after all. ‘I’m on my way,’ he added with a cheery grin.
To his dismay she started walking along the road with him, keeping pace, but not saying anything.
‘I know me way home, missus, I don’t need an escort,’ he piped up at last.
‘I’m coming with you all the same,’ she told him.
‘None of your bleeding business.’
The nearer they got to his dad’s shop the more worried he became, wondering what she had in mind. He’d said he was sorry about laddering her stockings so surely she wasn’t going to tell his dad about what had happened. If she did he’d get his skull thumped and probably a good thrashing as well for playing around.
He kept looking at her sideways, wondering how he could explain all this to her. She wasn’t like any other woman he knew. His sister Vera was young, dowdy and skinny. His mam had been short and cuddly and her hair had been fair, not a brassy yellow like this woman’s.
Neither his mam nor Vera smoked, whereas this woman puffed away like a chimney. His brother’s girlfriend, Rita, sometimes smoked, but she took little short puffs, like a bird pecking at a crumb. This woman smoked like his dad, taking big long draws on her fag, holding in the smoke and then blowing it out in a blue cloud.
Benny waited for his chance. As soon as they reached the corner of the next street, he decided, he would bunk off and make his way home through the back jiggers. She’d never catch him, not in those silly shoes with the spiked heels that she was teetering along in. He’d lose her easily enough.
As if reading his mind the woman’s hand shot out and caught hold of his ear. ‘It’s not that I don’t trust you, sunshine, but I ain’t taking any chances. How far is it now?’
‘Next block.’ He wriggled uncomfortably. ‘Ouch,’ he muttered. ‘You’re hurting me.’
‘Look, missus, if I promise that I won’t run off will you let go of me?’ he asked hopefully.
‘Give me that bag you’re carrying first,’ she ordered.
‘What for? It’s only got soles in it, and it’s too heavy for you to carry.’
The sudden sharp twist to his ear brought a yelp from him.
‘Hand it over!’
Sulkily he did as she asked. He’d still hoped he would be able to manage to give her the slip and nip down one of the back jiggers. He’d tell his dad that he’d been accosted and had his bag pinched, he decided, which meant that he’d probably get a hiding anyway.
Taking the bag in one hand the woman released her hold on his ear. Before he could dart away, though, she’d grabbed him by the shoulder, her fingers digging into him like talons.
‘Right! Now, quick march. Straight to your dad’s shop. OK?’
Benny knew when he was beaten. He gave in with as good a grace as possible.
When they reached the shop door he tried to make one last plea. ‘My dad’ll kill me if he sees you have that bag,’ he said uneasily. ‘Hand it back, missus. I’ve said I’m sorry that you fell over it and hurt yourself …’
‘Come on, don’t argue. You won’t be in any kind of trouble.’
‘You don’t know my dad …’
It was too late. They were at the door and she was already pushing it open. She thrust him inside so hard that he almost fell in a heap at his dad’s feet.
‘What the bloody hell’s going on here?’ Michael Quinn asked, his face darkening.
‘I had a bit of an accident, Dad …’ Benny gabbled, hoping that if he got his story in first it wouldn’t be so bad.
The woman laughed and pushed him to one side. ‘I’ll talk to your dad. You can bugger off.’
‘Hey! Lay off my kid! If there’s something wrong then let him tell me about it.’
The woman ignored him. ‘Bugger off, kid,’ she ordered.
He darted for the door that led into their living room, but made sure that he left it open just a crack when he came through it so that he could hear what was being said.
‘I know all about you, Michael Quinn,’ the woman said. ‘We drink in the same boozers up and down Scottie Road, don’t we.’
‘Possibly, if you say so. I can’t recall that we’ve ever met,’ he said cautiously. He picked up a boot, fitted it in position on the last and began stripping off the old sole.
‘Well, we have now!’ She shook the bag noisily. ‘This is yours isn’t it?’
‘What makes you think that?’
‘Your kid was carrying it, until I snatched it off him.’
His face remained stony. ‘Go on.’ He concentrated on the boot he was repairing.
‘Nice little racket you and Tom Gray are running. I bet his bosses would be interested in hearing all about it.’
Michael Quinn removed the tacks he’d been holding between his lips and spat onto the floor. ‘What the hell are you on about, missus?’
‘Don’t waste your breath, Mike Quinn. I’ve been watching what’s been going on for weeks. As I said, nice little racket. I admire a fellow with a brain, someone who can think up an underhand plan and knows how to put it into action.’
‘So what are you going to do about it? Shop poor Tom Gray, him with three small kids to feed and clothe,’ he sneered.
She pursed her vivid red lips. ‘Depends!’
‘On how you treat me. Look after me and I’ll keep my trap shut. Send me packing and I’ll blow your game wide open.’
‘What does treating you right involve?’ he asked cautiously.
She shrugged. ‘Got a fag? Helps me think when I’ve got a fag in me gob.’
Michael Quinn hesitated then took a half-full packet out of the pocket of his leather apron and held them out. He waited as she took one and then he lighted it for her.
‘I’m Di Deverill,’ she told him as she blew out a cloud of smoke.
‘Yes, I know,’ he told her. ‘You’ve got quite a reputation.’
She grinned. ‘I thought you said you didn’t know me.’ She placed a hand on his arm. ‘Cards on the table. You’ve got a racket going, making a bit on the side, right?’
‘And you want a cut?’
Di drew long and hard on her cigarette. ‘Not really. I want more than a cut. I think we are birds of a feather and that we should team up.’
Michael Quinn looked perplexed. ‘What does that mean?’
‘Team up? It means that I move in here with you and your family. You look after me and I keep my mouth shut about your little money-making schemes. Now wouldn’t you agree that’s a good arrangement?’
As he listened to them, Benny grew more and more worried. He’d always been frightened of his dad, thought no one could stand up to him, because next to God he was the most powerful person in the universe. Now he knew he’d been wrong. This woman, this Di Deverill, was twisting his dad round her little finger.
She could talk the hind leg off a donkey, he thought gloomily, and she was getting the better of his dad. Any minute now he was pretty sure that his dad was going to give in and say that she could come and live with them and it would be all his fault.
That had been months ago, Benny thought gloomily and things had changed so much since then. Their Eddy couldn’t stand her. He’d hated living with Di Deverill so much that he’d packed his things and gone to sea.
Di Deverill treated Vera like a skivvy, but there was nothing she could do about it because she couldn’t afford to leave home.
He loved Vee so much. She’d taken the place of his mam; she looked after him and fought his corner with their dad. She made sure he had clothes to wear, food to eat and that he got to school on time. Now and again she even bought him sweets or a comic when she had a few coppers left over at the end of the week.
He wished he’d told her straight away about the errands he’d been sent on by his dad two or three times a week. But after what had happened over the betting slips his dad had threatened to thump his skull if he breathed a word to her about going to Coombes’s.
She knew now, of course. Di Deverill had gloated about it to Vera. He’d felt so bad about it. He’d seen the hurt look in Vee’s eyes because she hadn’t known what was going on and he felt that he’d let her down.
He couldn’t wait to tell her that he had passed his eleven-plus. He hoped she would be pleased and forgive him for the trouble he’d caused. He’d done his best because he’d wanted to prove himself to her.
Vera wasn’t simply pleased, she was over the moon. She hugged him, kissed him and told him how proud their mam would have been because he was the only one in the family who’d ever managed to pass the exam. He was glad she was so happy, but he wondered if his dad would say anything.
When they sat down for their meal that night he found the whole lot of them were talking about nothing else. Di Deverill even gave him a shilling and told him he was a ‘clever little bugger’.
‘Well, Dad, does this mean that Benny will be off to grammar school in September?’ Vera asked.
Benny looked at her in astonishment. He’d never dreamed that she would want him to do that.
‘Christ no!’ Mike Quinn took the wind out of his sails. ‘Him, go to bloody grammar school? What the hell are you thinking of, girl?’
‘He’s worked hard and proved he’s got brains, so why waste them?’ Vera argued.
‘Have you thought of what it costs to go to one of those bloody places?’
‘Mam would have wanted him to go. She would have been so proud that he’d passed that exam.’
‘Well he’s not going and that’s that. Now clear away the dishes and shut your trap.’
Vera refused to let the matter lie. She pleaded, she nagged, she threatened and she cajoled.
Di Deverill scoffed at the idea, Michael fought against it, but in the end Vera won. So, by the time September came Benny found that he had all the clothes, books and everything else he was going to need to start at the grammar school.
It took Vera every penny she could squeeze out of the housekeeping, and what she managed to save from her own wages, to keep Benny at the grammar school.
She’d thought that once she’d bought his uniform – the grey trousers, the smart dark blue blazer with the school crest on the pocket, the blue and grey striped tie and the matching cap – that would be it.
But in next to no time she found out how wrong she was. There were so many other extras, things she’d known nothing about, but which were essential if he was to keep up with the other boys, most of whom came from families that were quite well-off.
There were special clothes for all the sports they played: football in the winter, cricket and swimming in the summer, as well as plimsoles and special vests and shorts needed for gym. There was also money for the school magazine each term, and for school dinners every week.
She hadn’t taken any of these items into account because no one they knew had ever gone to grammar school.
She economised in every way possible to pay for these extras. In the home, she skimped on cleaning materials and, as far as possible, didn’t replace anything that became worn out.
She even economised on food. She was afraid her father would notice, but she managed to placate him by making sure that he never went short. The only way she could do this was to give him food from her own plate, just as her mother had done when they’d been hard up.
She didn’t mind this, she simply had to be sure that her father was happy and that Benny also had a good meal. He can’t study properly if he isn’t well fed, she told herself. Even though he had a midday meal at school, she also made sure that he never went to bed hungry.
Benny came home every night laden with homework, but their father still insisted he did the deliveries, even though Vera tried to intervene.
She knew Benny resented the fact when he had to set out with the basket on the second-hand carrier bike his dad had now bought piled high with boots and shoes, but he never openly rebelled.
When he had work to learn by heart he often took his textbook with him. He propped it up on the handlebars and repeated it to himself over and over again, as he rode from house to house, until he had memorised every word.
Vera was afraid he might have an accident because he wasn’t watching the traffic. His father was afraid he might make a mistake in the deliveries. Benny’s only worry was that he wouldn’t have time to get through all the homework he’d been assigned.
Benny had been at the grammar school for almost two years, had settled in well and was loving every minute of it, when Vera had a stroke of good luck. Joan Frith had married Liam Kelly and that summer she fell pregnant.
When Joan left Elbrown’s to have the baby, Vera found herself promoted. It meant extra work and much greater responsibility, but it also meant more money.
She told no one at home about this. She hoarded the extra money to pay for new items of uniform for Benny. It had been worrying her the way he grew out of his existing clothes so rapidly, even though she felt proud of the way he was developing. He was already head and shoulders taller than her and a great deal broader than their brother Eddy had ever been.
Extras at school had increased. He had to pay for field trips which he now went on at least once a term.
These jaunts, as her father termed them, had started so many rows that it seemed to be like one continuous battle. Vera found that pitting herself against her father and Di Deverill, in order to find the extra money to let him go on them, completely drained her. She never had any money for new clothes for herself or to pay to go out anywhere, even though her dad and Di seemed to find the money to enjoy themselves, she thought bitterly.