Memoir by Jane Hayward
While the papers were full of Kennedy’s assassination, my news was that mum had given permission for me to spend the following weekend at Nick’s.
Straightaway I rang him.
I heard the disbelief in his voice. ‘For the whole weekend? Overnight?’
‘You suggested it.’
I didn’t tell mum that what he’d actually said was, I’d like to get you all alone on my double bed nor did I tell Nick that what mum had actually said was, What’s his address? We’ll look up the road in the A-Z. And then, It’s a posh road. That’s all right then.
Honestly! I blushed for her. But still I said to Nick, ‘Can’t wait to see your house. You’ll call for me on Saturday?’
I was sixteen and still at school. Nick had finished with all that and was working at a printing firm specialising in classy posters, reproductions of Monet, Constable, that kind of thing.
He told me, ‘Totally male workforce with pictures of half-naked crumpet on the walls. The pay’s peanuts but the boss is an understanding man and lets me stay on during the evening, preparing my own plates and running off prints. Stage design, that’s what I’m going into next.’
I didn’t believe all the stuff about leading an arty life but I was excited about the forthcoming weekend. I wanted to be with him. I was in love.
I lived with my parents in south-west London, not the classy part with the SW16 postcode. It might have had the word Park in the name, but our address was tagged SW12. The house turned out to be my mother’s not-quite dream: an Edwardian row of detached villas, each with white woodwork and polished brass knockers. Once installed, she understood we were living on the wrong side of the common. Poor mum. She did her best, sewing Vogue patterns for the better-heeled and for me, as she tried to push me up her chosen ladder.
On the following Saturday afternoon I was sitting on the bottom stair, waiting for Nick. Knock, knock came from outside the house and inside my chest. As my mother opened the door I smelt the whiff of cigarette, and knew he was stubbing one out on the doorstep. Her voice was crisp with disapproval. ‘You’d better pick that up and bring it in.’
In the hall, he stood on the pale green carpet, next to the telephone table with the address book squarely placed. Mum pointed to the ashtray. We both gave him the once over, mum sneering at his weekend gear of roll-necked sweater, black jeans and heavy-soled boots; me enjoying the thrill of rebellion. What was she expecting? A jacket made of the same tweed as her skirt and a pair of shoes as shiny as her patent courts?
However, she ushered him into the drawing room, all gracious politeness.
I followed them. Mum was saying, ‘About this weekend. I know girls today are more forward than we were but I trust Christine to behave properly.’
I controlled my smirk.
During that summer the weather had been kind to us. The common was our special place, the world of our secret meetings. The swathes of London brushwood offered us privacy from the little kids with their mums and the teenage boys desperate for a quick fag. Lying under lilac blossom in May or inhaling the sweet white scent of a mock orange bush in June, we made our own heaven of cool grass, warm touches and hot yearnings. More recently, Saturday autumn evenings found us in the back row of the cinema, cursing the armrests. My priority was not to enlighten my mother, but to get over to his place for a night of losing my virginity. It was about time.
Mum finished with, ‘I’d have preferred to meet your parents before Christine stayed overnight.’
He returned a weak smile.
I knew he was hiding a truth.
As we came out of Nick’s tube station, east London smelt of autumn drifting into winter. The scent was dark brown and rancid yellow, tasting rotten like over-ripe apples, tinged with the burnt-leaf of bonfire smoke. To my dismay, the air was wet with that slow, misty rain.
‘Bloody hell,’ I said. ‘I didn’t bring my mac.’
Which earnt me a hug, his arm firm around my shoulder. ‘I love it when you swear. Almost but not quite talking dirty.’
I shook him off. My idea of this weekend was towards the romantic spectrum.
‘I’m getting wet.’
‘We’ll get the bus,’ he assured me. ‘We can’t walk across the Flats in this.’
‘What’s the Flats?’
‘It’s where we do it if Ma doesn’t go out.’
There he went again. Gutter language my mother would call it. I flashed him a glare. ‘D’you mind! Anymore of that talk and I’ll be right back on that train.’
He caught my arm and whirled me round until he was holding me close. ‘You’ll enjoy it.’
I let him kiss me long and hard until our lips were stiff.
The bus was all damp cloth and cigarette smoke. When the conductor called out ‘Lavender Avenue’ Nick eased me to the open platform at the back to jump onto the pavement. The rain was heavier and by the time we’d walked along his road, my jumper and skirt were soaked and my stockings were clinging to my skin. He turned me through a gate, onto a path leading to a mid-terrace house. The front garden was a tangle of un-pruned rose bushes with a distinct whiff of cat spray.
‘Is this where you live?’ Already, I was making judgements but still … closer inspection didn’t help: chipped paint on the door, tarnished letter box and worn coconut mat. My mouth must have drooped.
He shrugged. ‘It’s not the palace your mother imagined but she’s not here. You are.’
I stood shivering under the porch, gazing at the unlined curtains and hearing the sound of the television. ‘I’m freezing.’
He rang the bell.
‘Don’t you have a key?’
He smirked. ‘A couple of weeks ago, when Pa hadn’t come home by six in the morning, Ma bolted him out. He stayed out. Ma changed the locks.’
I stared at him, willing him to say he was joking. ‘What am I going to tell my mother?’
He laughed. ‘The scene where your mother meets my funny old Ma, the abandoned wife, will never be written.’
‘Do you want to stay the night or not?’
I did, so I stayed quiet. He was about to treat me to a snog when the front door was pulled back and there was his mother, looking more the crumpled bag lady than the boyfriend’s reliable chaperone. Wearing a viridian green felt hat with a tall crown and thin brim, she was straight out of the cast of Alice in Wonderland. Her hair, tinted red and as dry as old blooms, hung round her cheeks in ringlets. Her face was an old lady’s: soft around the mouth and eyes, the skin puckering as if someone had stapled it to make it fit her shrunken bones. She was wrapped in a cable-knit cardigan over a V-neck sloppy joe, over a chin-swaddling jersey.
As he pushed me inside, Nick joked, ‘You’re not at the North Pole, Ma.’
Ma was staring at my skirt, dripping a puddle onto the linoleum. ‘I’d offer you a bath,’ she said, ‘but I haven’t got the water on. Can I do you both a bit of bacon and a cup of tea?’
Nick said something about going upstairs but I interrupted. ‘I’d better take these clothes off. All right if I wear my pyjamas?’ I was pretending like mad, my voice full of girlish pleasure.
‘Up to you. You’re in the spare room.’ Ma made the words sound cheap.
As she waddled towards the kitchen Nick took my hand and we climbed the stairs; step after step of worn cord.
My room was at the front of the house. I stood in silence as I took in the single bed with its faded pink candlewick bedcover, a brown wooden chest of drawers and one of those narrow, single-door wardrobes, painted pink to sort-of match the bedspread. It was a dingy place, an omen of things going wrong, of not turning out as you’d expect.
I made the best of it.
‘At least I can report back that your ma sent us safely to our separate beds.’ But I felt deceived, betrayed by Nick. If only he’d been straight with me. I turned my back on him, wrapping my arms around myself, closing him out.
‘Later, I’ll warm you up.’ He twisted me to face him and kissed me, his hand slinking under my skirt to reach my thighs.
I pushed him away. ‘I’m starving.’
The church clock was striking midnight when Nick slipped into my bed. I was half asleep but I opened my eyes and gave him a lazy smile, whispering, ‘Let’s leave the curtains open so we can see each other.’
‘My old Chrissie back again.’
‘I shouldn’t be letting you do this. I promised my mother.’
‘Close your eyes and pretend we’re on a desert island.’
When he pressed his body along mine, he was naked. This was how I’d longed for it to be, just the two of us very private between the sheets and when he said, ‘This is our secret’, I thought, A guilty secret but I didn’t say it.
The first time was quick and silent (‘Ma’s a light sleeper’). It hardly counted but he cuddled me while I drifted in and out of sleep. Before he left, we had another go. I was glad when he left me alone.
In the morning, the half-empty bed filled me with disappointment. I was lonely. And cold. Of course Nick couldn’t be still there once his Ma was up, but I wanted to share with him the snugness of waking and being together when the sheets were still warm and the pillow smelled of hair. I lay listening to the birds call, wondering whether he wanted to be as close to me as I needed to be with him. I wanted to giggle with him about the night’s achievement, about my changed status. I yearned for closeness more than naked bodies pressed together, fondness if I couldn’t have love.
Because what happened in those dark hours wasn’t love.
In the kitchen Ma crashed pots. I smelled singed bacon. At breakfast she announced, ‘I’m off to my sister’s. I’ll be back around six to cook your tea.’
I was buttering toast. ‘I have to be home by then.’ I was cross with her. I knew I shouldn’t be, but I was her guest. Shouldn’t she be offering Sunday lunch?
After Ma left, I asked, ‘When are we seeing your Pa?’
‘Later. We can’t waste an empty house.’ He grabbed my hand and pulled me upstairs.
The front of the house faced east, the morning light making everything in my room look cheerful, even the tatty old bedspread. This time we didn’t have to care about the bed creaking, which should have encouraged me to be enthusiastic, to prove I loved him. Instead, I lay quietly still, watching his face and wondering. Afterwards, I wriggled out from under him and stood by the bed, unashamed of my body.
I prayed I’d take to Pa.
My jumper was stiffly dry, my skirt drooped but my navy sling-backs tapped on the pavement and I knew I had just enough breasts to look good.
On the way, Nick filled me in on Pa. ‘Ma’s finished with him. He’s had a lot of women.’ He paused. ‘Actually, one special woman.’
‘Serves him right then.’
‘You have to understand. Ma hasn’t had him in her bed for years.’
‘Is that all there is to love, sex?’
‘Don’t go all holy on me, Chrissie.’
We arrived at a driveway to a large house with white pillars either side of the door. Now that was posh. My spirits rose.
Nick held out his arm like a showman. ‘Just what madam desires’ but, ignoring the front door, strode ahead of me down a side path. ‘Pa’s an eccentric. You’ll love him.’
I followed him round to a garden, all lawn and dripping trees. At the far end, squatting under a huge chestnut tree, was a pale blue caravan. A round, fat vehicle with a small window in the side and a shallow set of steps running up to a door, which was swinging open. One of the wheels was broken and the caravan lay tilted, as if to say, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’
Nick grinned. ‘Pa’s bolt hole. Great, isn’t it?’
My bright hopes flew away. ‘Given the choice of living in a tacky caravan or over there…’ I jerked my thumb at the house, ‘I know where I’d choose.’ I was behaving badly in my own way and I didn’t care.
The path around the lawn was still wet from the previous night and my shoes sunk into the gravel, sharp and cold against my heels. Leaves, shaken down by the storm, lay on the ground, brown and red, damp and soft like used blotting paper. A few chrysanthemums were in flower, purple and yellow heads bowed by rain, the thin petals sprinkling the earth. I stopped to brush torn dandelion stalks from my ankles. ‘This is a dump. Your Pa must be a fool.’
I was running out of patience, rejecting Pa before I’d met him. As we came closer to the caravan the warm smell of tobacco mixed with the damp, raw scents of the unkempt garden while the lyrics of Love Me Do drowned out the cheeps of a blackbird
Nick took my hand and squeezed it. ‘This could be our song.’
I scowled. ‘You know what they say. Love won’t pay the bills.’
We climbed the two steps and walked in without knocking.
Pa was sitting up at the cramped kitchen work-top. A drawing board, tacked with a sheet of white cartridge paper, was propped against the wall. He was making thick, black lines on it with a soft-nibbed pen. His head was dipped; his back curved. I guessed it wouldn’t straighten fully when he stood up. He was wearing fawn cotton slacks and a beige shirt with charcoal stained cuffs.
‘Hi Pa,’ Nick said. ‘I asked Chrissie over.’
Not turning round, he stretched out to switch off the transistor radio. ‘Sit down.’
On the bench along the side of the caravan were old newspapers, spoiled sheets of paper, broken pencils and old biros. Nick swept them to the end. ‘He won’t be long, will you Pa? Coffee anyone?’ A milk bottle was by the side of the sink, the milk already separated into curd lumps and a pale, thin liquid.
I said, too curtly, ‘Black.’
After Nick had fixed my coffee, he pulled out his packet of Camels, lit one for him and one for Pa. He leant over the drawing, laughing. ‘It’s great Pa. Chrissie, have a look at this.’
I pushed myself between him and Pa. The drawing was of two men with beards, hippy types, sitting at the top of a mountain. One was saying to the other, I thought we’d have a summit meeting.
Pa glanced round at me. ‘So this is the girl friend?’ As if I wasn’t there he added, ‘Pretty.’ Which was more than could be said of him. Pa had narrow eyes, a beaky nose and a thin moustache which looked as if it could do with a shot of fertilizer. There wasn’t an ounce of likeness between him and his son, a fact which gave me uncharitable thoughts about poor old Ma, wondering if she’d enjoyed a moment of unfaithful passion.
Nick asked, ‘Isn’t the drawing great, Chrissie?’
I couldn’t pretend. ‘I’m not keen on cartoons.’
‘That’s another one for the post.’ Pa folded the sheet into an envelope, sticking it down. ‘It’s the pub then? Suppose I’m paying?’ He took a wad of notes from a jam jar.
Outside, he pushed a rusty bolt across the top of the door. We crossed the garden, turned into the road and walked the fifty yards to the high street.
The Bell was down-market Victorian, built of brown bricks. A garish name board was painted with a picture of a woman, tarty-dressed in a blouse showing rounds of cleavage, ringing a hand bell. Pa led the way to the public bar but at least he played the polite host, holding the door open for me, saying, ‘It’s cheaper. I hope you don’t mind.’
That day, I minded.
Inside, it was crowded. The men, the women even, they stank of jumble sale coats and worn socks, of wet leather and that smell peculiar to certain kinds of old people of thick stockings and a warm, between-the-legs mustiness. I drew myself inwards, away from the puddles of stale beer on the bar. But there was no escape from the shouting.
‘So I said to im, I said, whatcha think you’re looking at? Me, that’s what. So I said to him, you mind your own bleedin business.’
‘And did e? Mind it?’
I nodded, pushed my way in between the oldies and sat down.
Pa and Nick got a round for both of them which they gulped down before the landlord pulled a second. I watched and listened.
‘What d’you think of my Chrissie?’
Pa dug into his pocket for the money.
Nick laughed. ‘I wish I could offer, but you know how it is.’
‘If you mean you’d rather seduce schoolgirls than look for a proper job, then, yes, I know how it is.’
Nick went on the defensive. ‘You do like her, don’t you?’
‘She’s got class. I guess she’s not as innocent as she looks.’
‘You asking me to brag, Pa?’
‘I’m asking for the truth. Who pays for all the French Letters?’
‘We haven’t used them.’
I caught the immediate look of disapproval on Pa’s face and wished Nick would shut up. I hated what we did together being turned into a smutty story.
‘You must be lazier than I thought,’ was Pa’s opinion. ‘Cider, was it?’
With my glass half empty, I sat with my legs crossed, my thigh against Nick’s, letting him believe the vulgarity of the place had got to me. I ignored the riffraff as I inhaled the richness of the Camels, pretending to be fascinated at Pa’s story of his visit to the newspaper that week, persuading Nick to follow in his footsteps.
‘That’s the life, m’ boy. Suit you, that life. Start tennish. Type a bit for the column. Lunch in one of those Fleet Street pubs, smarter than round here. Then back to the office to tart up your words and in to see the editor before he puts it to bed.’
‘Puts what to bed?’ I didn’t want Pa thinking I was the wrong sort so I was pleased when he took notice.
‘When the copy is sent to press they call it putting the paper to bed.’ Pa winked at Nick. ‘She’s cute, your girl.’
Which made me suspect he saw me as just Nick’s bird, nothing more. I minded that because I wasn’t putting up with anyone using me, like most blokes do.
‘Tell you what,’ Pa was saying, ‘I’ll have a word at the paper. Might turn something up for you. How d’you fancy that, Chrissie? Being with a journalist?’
‘He isn’t interested in proper jobs.’ My voice was sharp again, almost nasty. ‘All he cares about is the ‘mo-o-vies.’ I was making fun of Nick, making him defend himself.
Which he did. ‘I’m good at art. I just want to make films.’
Pa shrugged a why should I bother? ‘What about you, Chrissie? Have any plans for your future?’
I uncrossed my legs, moved slightly away from Nick and looked at him in a way I hadn’t dared before then. Same shirt as yesterday. Crumpled trousers. Worn suedes. Unshaven. Suddenly, I fell out of my fantasy. Clear as Christmas I said, ‘I’m going to university. To read history.’
Pa flinched. ‘You didn’t tell me she was bright, m’ boy.’
I could see I’d annoyed the hell out of Nick, who accused me. ‘You never said anything about university.’
I set my mouth tight like my mother’s. ‘Don’t you think I’m clever enough?’
‘Didn’t think you were that bothered.’
His disrespect for me made me despise him. Him, his soppy old Ma and his feckless Pa living in his apology of a caravan. I felt my mother’s nature invade me. ‘You don’t own me.’
That hurt him and he remained quiet for a bit. By the time his glass was empty, Nick had had his own change of heart. ‘OK, Pa, you’re on. You get me an interview for that job and I’ll turn up.’
‘Got to take the job, son. Can’t keep working for nothing. Not now there are two of you. You know where love leads don’t you?’ He nodded towards me. ‘The patter of tiny feet that’s where.’ He supped his beer.
Nick reached a hand out to my arm. ‘One day, eh, Chrissie?’
I knocked him away and sat, straight-backed. My lips were pressed, my eyes frowning. My skin didn’t want to be touched. Not anymore. I wanted to get right away. ‘You’ll be no good at domestic bliss.’ My voice was my mother’s. ‘Know your trouble? You’re all dreams.’
Pa muttered about a chip off the old block.
Nick nudged him. ‘Course I am, Pa.’ He sounded pleased.
I wasn’t at all pleased. I leant towards him, as if he might miss what I wanted say. What I had to say. Now. ‘That’s just it. If you think I’m moving in with Ma, then sitting in this tip of a pub, waiting for you to make up your mind whether to be an artist, a journalist or a whiz in Hollywood, I’m not.’ I stood up.
Nick stared at me. ‘You going? Without me?’
‘I won’t get anywhere with you.’ I slung my bag over my shoulders. ‘Thanks for asking me over. It was worth it.’
As Nick struggled to stand, his hands groping for the table top, I added, ‘Don’t bother walking me to the station.’ And I marched through the bar and out into the street.
When I arrived home, Mum was taking up a hem and had a mouthful of pins. She mumbled, ‘Well?’
‘Sorry Mum. Nick’s parents aren’t millionaires.’
She spat out her pins and smiled at me. ‘That’s a relief. I was beginning to get all het up about meeting them. What’s their house like?’
She beamed. ‘And his mother?’
‘She can’t even fry bacon.’ Suddenly I wanted to confide in her. Meeting Nick’s Pa, hearing about his mistress, being in that tatty caravan of his, had troubled me. Was anything to do with Nick real, apart from the cold sex? His final words before we left to see Pa that afternoon had been, ‘Don’t say anything to Ma about Pa buying us lunch. Pa always tells Ma he’s broke so he doesn’t have to give her any money.’ Which seemed cruel to me and, even though Nick didn’t resemble his father physically, I suspected he would take after him in other ways.
In my confusion about deceiving my mother, I blurted it out. ‘Nick’s father lives in a caravan.’
My mother looked up from her sewing. ‘An artistic caravan?’
‘Would that make a difference?’
My mother thought about that for a minute. ‘He must be a bohemian.’
I pushed it a bit further. ‘He draws cartoons.’
She blinked rapidly before saying, ‘That’s hardly a profession.’
Her words forgave my dismissal of Nick. If his family wasn’t like us, it wouldn’t do.
Mum finished, ‘It’s not as if you’re settling with this Nick for the rest of your life, is it?’
I took my decision. ‘I’ll have an early night. I’ve got European History tomorrow. I need a good mark in the mocks to put on my uni application.’ I gave her a hug and kissed her cheek.
‘Goodnight, Mum. See you in the morning.’