I am very happy to share again a post from Judith Barrow, a fellow Yorkshire lass. When I asked her if she would like to write a guest post, I didn’t expect so many familiar memories, a short story… and photographs of Yorkshire too!
Published by Honno, Judith’s books Changing Patterns, Pattern of Shadows and the newly released Living in the Shadows, trace the journey of a family, from a Lancashire POW camp through to the 1960s.
Judith’s books are not just love stories, they recreate an era in a vivid detail that many of us will recognise and show that although the decades slip by, many of the underlying social issues are still as present and relevant today as they were for our parents and grandparents.
As well as being an award winning poet, a writer of children’s stories and seeing her play staged at the Dylan Thomas Centre, Judith writes a blog where she gives much support to other writers.
I’ve never thought there was anything out of the ordinary about my childhood. Not for then, the late fifties, the early sixties. I was often alone; my father didn’t like me to bring friends home, so I wasn’t usually asked to go to play at anyone’s house either. And, I suppose, I was what was then known as a ‘latch key kid’; front door key attached to a piece of string around my neck.
I expect the things I took for granted, then, would be looked upon with dismay now. And probably not allowed.
My parents worked in the local cotton mill. I’ve frequently talked and written about the times I went to wait for Mum to finish work and how the scene there–and my discovery that the first German prisoner of war camp was a disused cotton mill–led to the first book of my trilogy. But I haven’t thought to share my childhood until Sue invited me to be part of her guest blogs.
I was six years old when my mother started work full time. Dad went out of the house at seven o’clock, Mum not until half past. I would walk with her until we came to the lane that led to the mill. We’d kiss and hug and she go to work and I’d carry on to school.
I actually loved being the only one there at that hour with the caretaker; she was a kind woman who always had a slice of toast from her breakfast to share. Can’t beat cold toast with loads of butter spread on it!
I’d help her to clean the teachers’ desks and I’ve loved the smell of lavender polish ever since. But I wasn’t a Miss Goody-Two Shoes. I hated the Headmaster, Mr Clayton, with all the hate a child can muster for bullies. He gloried in terrifying and humiliating the children with words and the cane. So, in his office, when the caretaker wasn’t there, I’d polish the wooden chair he sat on as hard as I could, reasoning that he might slip off it and hurt himself so he wouldn’t be able to come to school. See? Not that innocent.
After school there were two hours when I was on my own. I’d make myself useful: washing dishes, dusting. I even learned how to use the washing machine with a paddle in the middle of the tub that sloshed the water about and had the rubber rollers that squeezed all the water out of the clothes.
Setting the fire in winter was my favourite chore. I’d carry the ashes from the previous fire to the dustbin outside. I was proud that I could roll the newspaper to tie into triangles before laying it on top of a few old cinders, and in the way I carefully placed the sticks of wood and small lumps of coal on top. I knew how to strike the match, holding it away from me, as Mum had shown, before lighting the paper.
Sounds like slave labour? It wasn’t; this was 1959, when children grew up quicker, and in a different way, than they do today. I can hear many mutters of ‘thank goodness’ as this is read. But I thought nothing of it; I was free to do these things just as I liked. I was free from adults.
And it was the freedom I loved.
We lived in a village on the edge of the Pennines. All around there were places to explore. When I was ten I was given a dog for my birthday. Rusty was a ‘Heinz fifty-seven, a corgi on long legs. I adored her, she was mine, and I was hers. We roamed the hills, the lanes, the fields around us for hours at weekends and in the school holidays. We paddled and splashed in the streams, picked blackberries (well I did while she sat and watched with suspicion, keeping well away from the prickly branches), had picnics of jam butties and lemonade (Rusty always had a bone from the butchers that we’d collected on the way through the village). We were free.
Sorry, this turned into a bit of a ramble. When I started to write the post it was with the purpose of telling how all the things from my childhood was fodder for my books. And, in the first two of them, Pattern of Shadows and Changing Patterns, I have used a lot of my memories to give them a setting, a sense of place, of the times.
But I don’t want to include an extract of those here. Nor of the last book of the trilogy, Living in the Shadows, which came out recently and is the story of how the next generation has to live with the consequences of the actions of the characters in the first two novels.
No, this is a short story, written a while ago and still in a drawer.
I called it, Stitched Up…..
We collide in horrified silence at the back door; the grey slush of the streets dripping from the Wellington boots that we each hold. The puppy, startled, sits with a piece of cloth hanging from her mouth. My sister turns to me, eyes wide.
Pleased to see us, the dog squirms in excitement across the kitchen, leaving a trail of urine over the newspapers and pieces of material on the floor.
‘Get that cloth off her,’ I tell Jenny.
She chases the dog, giggling nervously.
Scrabbling on hands and knees I pick up pieces of the cap’s lining; nylon, cotton padding, stiffening. I’m relieved when I find the sturdy outside of the tweed cap intact under the kitchen table. I hurry to get Mum’s sewing box from the sideboard and begin the jigsaw of torn pieces, carefully fitting together each layer.
When she comes back Jenny watches, adenoidal breathing shallow; near panic. ‘The dog’s going to get it.’
The cap is new, bought as a joint present for our father’s birthday between us and Mum. The weekly penny ‘spends’ carefully dropped into the jam jar.
Now the cap is wet, its insides chewed and frayed.
I’m okay at sewing; I’ve been making clothes for our dolls, for years. But, matching the frayed edges of each part of the lining, I chew the inside of my cheek, wondering if I can do this. Tiny stitches, tiny stitches, I think. Only the sound of my sister’s breathing and the whisper of metal on metal, as the thimble forces the needle through the thickness of cloth, is heard throughout the hour of my silent sewing.
The grating of the key in the door signals Mum’s homecoming from work.
She can see what’s happened.
I know the fear inside her; another row, another fight. This week the atmosphere between our parents inside our home is the equivalent of the harsh winter outside where snowdrifts level out the rolling moors. The hordes of sheep, brought down into the fields from the moors huddle together for safety and comfort, just as we snuggle up to Mum in her bed, knees close to our chests, nighties wrapped around our feet; avoiding the icy outer regions of the sheets. Dad’s sleeping on the settee in the living room.
Yet now Mum only says, ‘I’ll leave it with you then, love. Just do your best.’ And quickly gathers up the soiled newspaper to crumple it into the living room fireplace. Out of the corner of my eye I see her making the fire, lighting it, balancing the metal blower on the hearth to create a draught; to get the flames going.
She washes her hands, says the water is cold and there’s no time for the fire to heat the back boiler. Dad likes his bath as soon as he comes in so she runs upstairs to switch on the immersion heater; a necessary extravagance.
My sister sets the table with knives and forks, salt and vinegar. It’s Friday, so we’re having fish bits and chips.
In the centre of all this activity, I fold and sew, suck at the blood where the needle has stabbed my finger. The clock on the mantelpiece in the living room marks each passing minute with a loud clunk, each fifteen with a metallic thud. Thirty minutes before Dad arrives. If I can get the lining right I can sew it back into the cap.
Mum and Jenny now watch as I pull each stitch tight.
The puppy lies in her wooden box, ignored, oblivious to her potential fate.
Footsteps crunch on the path outside. Without a final check I hastily hang the cap on one of the hooks behind the kitchen door.
We’re taken by surprise; Dad’s in a good mood. And in a hurry. He throws down his canvas lunch bag onto a chair. He speaks for the first time in days, saying he needs a couple of pounds; he’s heard of a pair of breeding canaries, ‘going for a song.’
His anticipation of a laugh for the joke he’s obviously practiced on his walk home from work is disappointed. We grin faintly.
Mum says, ‘Tea’s brewed.’
We watch him. Tension tiptoes around the room.
‘What wrong with you two?’
‘I‘ll go and pick the canaries up before someone else gets them. I’ll have my bath when I get back.’
He takes off his old working cap, dark and greasy, and reaches for his new one. I stop breathing. The icy cold in my belly makes me want to go to the lavatory.
A moment’s hesitation as my father fingers the material, adjusts the peak, stoops in front of the mirror on the kitchen wall. Then quickly, and with satisfaction, pulls the cap jauntily down over one eye.
‘Back soon,’ he says.
He never discovered that he and his cap had been well and truly stitched up.
Judith Barrow is the author of Pattern of Shadows, Changing Patterns and Living in the Shadows, all published by Honno. She’s had various stories published in Honno anthologies. She is also an Indie author having written Silent Trauma, a novel of fiction built on fact about women being given the drug Diethylstibestrol when pregnant. Originally from Saddleworth, Yorkshire, Judith moved with her family to Pembrokeshire, Wales in 1978. She has an MA in Creative Writing, B.A. (Hons.) in Literature, and a Diploma in Drama and Script Writing and works as a tutor of creative writing for Life-long Learning Pembrokeshire.