'Warm Valley'


Rose was pear-shaped and she knew it. She hated herself for it. She knew she was not an English rose. The rest of the family were blue-eyed; her own eyes were dark brown. Her hair was thick and black, so black that where the light caught it she could see blue, as with a crow she had seen pecking at some unseen nastiness on a bombsite. Rose's mother had called her skin 'sallow' and Rose asked one of her teachers the meaning of the word. It was at the start of playtime and the teacher, hand-knitted cardigan over her arm, empty china cup and saucer in hand, was eager to reach the smoke-filled staff room. "It's used for making candles, boiled down bits of animals, dear. Fat and things." That sounded horrible, confirming Rose's disgust.

On the next day, she did not go to school. Instead, from under the clock on the untidy mantelpiece, she took the ten-shilling note.  'After all, it could have blown down into the fire.'  

She had once seen a pound note burn. Her little brother had thrown it into the flames in temper. It had lain, draped briefly over a half-spent lump of coal and then flared. The detail was transformed into shades of grey, recognizable as money to any startled gaze. Then it had collapsed into irreconcilable fragments. A draught scattered it, lost, among the live glow and dead ashes.

Rose went to the railway station.  Eyes closed, she faced the destination board, counted to three, then opened her eyes wide.  'I'l go wherever my eyes take me.'   And she did so, on a branch line.

The journey was a green and pleasant one, like the school assembly hymn. She hummed it to herself. It was late July. Soon she will leave school. Dog roses and rose bay willow herb swayed in the final-term breeze, waving carelessly at the passing carriages. She was happy, pushing the melancholy down somewhere where it would be no more than the slightest presence. It could even be mistaken for pleasure.

She alighted at her destination. After the War, beyond English suburbs, there were such little stations. British Railways staff kept them well maintained during the quiet hours between busy periods. The weatherboarding and picket fences were thick with generations of maroon and cream paint, the platform newly swept. White-painted stones and a tidy line of tall polished gas lamps bordered the narrow strip of a rose and lobelia garden. A chubby fellow in a collarless shirt and heavy black waistcoat occupied the tiny ticket office and waiting room, with its disinfectant-mopped brown lino floor and tobacco-stained ceiling. His peaked hat lay discarded by neat piles of copper coins and a mug of strong, sweet tea. The white mug had 'BR'stamped on it and on the uneven rim was a stain where his lips had left a little brown curve.

Summer-dusty elder, heavy with large acrid white blooms, overhung the fences and the narrow pathway that sloped steeply down to the exit and a hawthorn-hedged lane. To the left, it curved away out of sight, uphill. In the heat, it looked too much of a walk. Some of the pleasure was fading. To the right was the village. The post office was also a general store; there Rose bought with the change from her fare a bottle of dandelion and burdock. With deft expertise, she crooked her knee and, balancing on the other foot, she held the bottle between her raised thigh and her tummy. She then pushed with both thumbs away from her and against the wire clip that kept the rubber-ringed stone stopper in place. There was a hiss, a fizz and Rose captured with ready lips the bubbling froth before a drop was lost. She felt a harsh sensation in her nose.  'Would I have to belch?'  She waited.

In the sunshine, a shadow moved beside her. It was a coloured man, a soldier, an American.

She recalled hearing, "Did you see those Clancy girls? Out with Americans. A black man! Till all hours..."

She had seen them before, the negroes and the other Americans from the base - they came sometimes to the Clancys' place down the road, wearing their creamy smooth khaki uniforms that look so smart and clean.   The British soldiers, in their rough, hairy, heavy khaki baggy trousers tucked into gaiters and boots, they were alright, but the Americans looked comfortable and at ease, chewing gum. One of them, white - well, pink really - with very short white bristles all over his head, had once tossed her a packet of gum over the bonnet of his long, wide American car as it idled by the kerb, awaiting one of the Clancy sisters. The gum was pink, smelled of chemical and was very sweet, not like the spearmint sort at all. The same pink smell, only mingled with English dust and yellowing stains, permeated the comics that Rose kept from the swap with the youngest Clancy girl. Rose knew she had the better deal. In exchange for her own silly Beanos and the odd dull 'People's Friend', Rose gained sophisticated 'Archie' and exciting 'Cowboy Western Comic Books'. They were thick with multi-coloured pictures on some pages, showing faces made up of tiny red dots and hair that looked stiff with a yellow starch. There were advertisements for Juicy Fruit and for a bright green bicycle ridden by a smiling boy in white-seamed bright blue trousers with white turn-ups, in permanently playtime plimsolls and a red-striped vest. They had the sort of hair they could quiff. The girls looked clean, pink, and white, with a crisp ribbon in their hair.  Another world.

He was frowning. "You OK?"

'He talks like the pictures. How do they get their clothes so clean?'  

He was friendly.