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
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.
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
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.
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.