Monday, 28 February 2011

Selena's Pact

Jennospot 17  Selena’s Pact

Ave yew ever ‘ad a crush on somebody? Yeah, well Oi suppose everybody ‘as, ‘cept Oi don’t in fer that sorta mushy stuff. Any’ow, silly Selina Dedman ‘ad this stupid crush on Peter an’ was always after ‘im, only ‘ee’s a bit loike me, an’ din’t really go fer soppy ol’ Semolina. An’ in any case, Oi certainly ain’t jealous of ‘er, nor not of nobody else neither. Still an’ all, it gave me a funny sort of turn when ‘ee told me as ‘ow ‘ee’d visited The Old Vicarage, where Semolina lived. This is ‘ow it ‘appened to ‘im:

Selena took me round the side of the house to a big garage. The double doors hung from their hinges like a pair of drooping drunks. There was a hearse inside, up on four piles of bricks. The wheels were on the wall to protect the tyres. No petrol for village hearses in wartime. The old hand-drawn bier must do.
We climbed on to the running board. I tried to peer in. The windows were too grimy to see much.
‘It's got a lot dirtier since I was here last,’ I said. ‘A whole flock of birds must roost in the roof.’
‘Open the door, Peter,’ said Selena. ‘It's not so dirty inside.’
I opened the door. There was a leather bench running across the width of the vehicle.
‘Ladies first,’ I said.
Selena stepped inside and slid along the seat to make room for me behind a huge steering wheel. I got in and shut the door. I grasped the wheel with both hands and tried to see out through the windscreen. It was very dirty.
Selena took hold of my arm again. She held it tightly against her. ‘Do you remember the first time you came here? You were scared because it was a hearse, and then I jumped out at you from the bushes? Who was a cowardy-custard then?’
‘I wasn't expecting to be jumped out at.’
‘You said you'd be my friend.’
‘That was before.’
‘Are you my friend now?’
‘We're in the same class, aren't we?’
‘Yes— but are you my friend?’
I didn't know how to reply to this. I didn't really dislike Selena and didn't want to offend her, but on the other hand, I didn't consider her any special kind of friend.
‘No reason why we shouldn't be friends, Selena,’ I said hesitantly.
‘I'm so glad,’ she replied, drawing me towards her. ‘Let's make a friendship pact.’
‘If you like,’ I said, not really understanding what she meant.
‘A secret pact. I'll be your friend, and you'll be mine but nobody else need know.’
‘Okay,’ I said. It sounded pretty harmless and didn't really commit me to anything in particular.
Selena put her head on my shoulder. ‘A pact has to be sealed,’ she said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, when it's a written pact, it's signed at the bottom and then stamped with a seal.’
‘You want our pact to be in writing?’ I asked, slightly alarmed.
‘No, silly. Ours is a secret pact so it can't be in writing.’
I felt relieved until Selena said, ‘Our kind of pact is sealed with a kiss.’
She turned her face up to mine. She shut her eyes. I gave her a quick peck on the forehead.
She gave an irritable shake, opened her eyes and glared at me. ‘No, not like that. You must kiss me on the mouth. You know; like at the pictures. Let's try it again.’
Selena shut her eyes once more and turned her face up to me. If I didn't kiss her, I would make an enemy for life. I kissed her on the mouth.
After a long moment she let me go. She dropped her head to my shoulder again and stared unseeing through the grimy windscreen. She sighed deeply.
‘That was more like it,’ she said. ‘Let's pretend we're setting off, you and me alone, on a long journey round the world. We'll stop at Capri, and Cairo, and we'll ride on camels and elephants. We'll see Babylon, and Mount Everest, and Hong Kong, and Hawaii, and drink cocktails with Clark Gable in Hollywood, and then sleep high up in a skyscraper in New York.’
‘I have to go to Lion's Avenue,’ I said.
‘You're not a bit romantic,’ pouted Selena. ‘Don't you want to visit Sydney harbour and see the dolphins around Fiji?’
‘I want my dinner,’ I said. ‘And it's getting late.’ I reached for the door-handle, but Selena grabbed my wrist and held me fast.
‘Stay a bit longer,’ she pleaded. ‘We won't get another chance after I go on Friday to live in The Street. People are always watching what you do there. Let's seal our pact again— please.’ She turned her face up towards me.
We re-sealed our pact. I didn't really understand what our pact meant, but this time I sealed it with somewhat less reluctance. At any rate, Selena seemed content.
‘See— you can be romantic after all,’ she said.

(From “Gang Petition” Chapter 3)

Monday, 21 February 2011

The British Restaurant

Jennospot 16  The British Restaurant

Durin' the war, we 'ad ter put up wiv a lot o' fings wot weren't too good. One of 'em was the British Restaurant. Anovver one o' course were moi friend Peter St John, but Oi couldn't do much about 'im: still Oi did troi. Any'ow we 'ad one of these famous British Restaurants in town near us, an' one day Peter's lodger from the Women's Land Army, took 'im there ‘cos 'is 'oly aunt ‘ad said as ‘ow it were a good place ter eat. This is wot Peter wrote about it in "Gang Spies" wot 'ee's just finished:

‘I've never been to a restaurant,’ I said to Megan. In my imagination, I conjured up the images I'd seen in films where smartly-dressed people sit at elegant tables in a luxurious room. How grand to eat a delicious meal in such refined surroundings. Dinner time couldn't come too soon for me, but it seemed to take ages before we set off for the restaurant.
Megan parked the hearse in a dingy back street.
‘Are we going to walk the rest of the way?’ I asked.
‘I don't think it's far. Your aunt told me it was near here.’
Megan led me through a gateway into a scruffy yard. A row of smelly rubbish bins stood against the wall near a door. Opposite the door was a queue of people. We joined them.
‘What's this?’ I asked, surprised.
‘It's the queue for the restaurant,’ replied Megan. ‘Your aunt warned me we might have to stand in line.’ She glanced at her watch. ‘It's early yet, but we shouldn't have to wait long.’
I hadn't expected to have to wait at the entrance. The image in my head included a man dressed in bow tie and tails, who opened the door to us, bowed low, and led us to a table.
‘The British Restaurant must be very popular,’ I said.
‘Not many restaurants are still open, because of the war,’ replied Megan. ‘Food is rationed.’
The door opened. The queue moved slowly forward. We found ourselves in a draughty corridor along which we shuffled until we were standing before a plain wooden table. Megan handed over some money. In exchange, we each received a round coloured token. At an adjacent table we took a brown bakelite tray, a plate, and a knife and fork. The plate was wet.
We moved with the queue into a large echoing space like a gymnasium. Long tables, with benches on either side stretched the length of the hall. They were covered with grimy oilcloths. I wrinkled my nose. The place stank of boiled cabbage.
We arrived at a counter, where steam writhed out of large containers to lose itself among the girders of the ceiling. We handed over our tokens. A piece of greasy meat was plonked on my plate, followed by a dollop of mashed potatoes and a ladle-full of squishy cabbage.
‘Gravy, Ducky?’ asked the woman behind the counter.
I nodded, and my meat received a ladleful of gravy. Gobs of grey stuff floated in it.
‘D'you want water Love?’ asked a large, pink-cheeked lady.
‘Yes please,’ I said.
She placed a smeary glass of water on my tray.
‘Follow me,’ said Megan. ‘We'll find a place. There's plenty of room at the moment.’
We sat side by side at one of the long tables. I stared, head down at the grotty oil-cloth. Several nauseous stains stared sickeningly back. I eyed my repulsive, grey, greasy meat in its nest of meagre, mushy vegetables. I smelled the foetid cabbage. My eyes filled with tears.
‘What the matter, Peter?’ asked Megan. ‘You're not eating.’
I took the fork and prodded the meat. The fork had something disgusting encrusted between the tines. I retched. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand.
Megan put an arm over my shoulders. I looked up at her.
‘Sorry Megan, I'm not hungry. You eat. I'll wait till you've finished.’
‘I'm not hungry either,’ she said. ‘Let's get out of here.’
She led me to the door. The air outside smelled sweet. I drew in deep breaths of it.
‘Feeling better now?’ asked Megan.
‘Much better,’ I said.
She took out her purse and looked into it.
‘Sufficiently better for a lemonade?’
‘Oh, yes please.’
‘And a bun?’
I gave Megan a hug.
‘Your appetite's coming back, I think.’
My eyes filled with tears again, but this time I felt quite different.
‘You might even be able to find room for a cream cake.’
‘Yes please, Megan.’
‘Let's see if we can find a cafĂ©.’

("Gang Spies" Chapter 19)

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Where do You Think You Are?

Jennospot 15  Where do You Think You Are?

There’s a noice church in Widdlin’ton, made outta flint stones wiv a roof covered in lead. It used ter ‘ave a wevvercock up on the steeple, but that got blown down in a storm jus’ before the war an’ ain’t never been mended since. They put up a cross instead ter keep the rain out. Oi don’t go ter church mesself, but Peter does, or rather, ‘is ‘oly aunt makes ‘im go. Still, ‘ee were used ter that at the convent orphanage. Even so, the first toime ‘ee went ter the church in Widdlin’ton, ‘ee were a bit at sea. This is ‘ow ‘ee described it:

We went into the church through a small porch. A few other churchgoers were beginning to straggle in.
I slowed down, looking for the holy water stoup.
‘Come along now, don't dawdle, I've got things to get ready,’ said my aunt. ‘What are you looking for?’
‘Where's the basin for the holy water?’
‘We don't do that here,’ she replied irritably grabbing me by the arm to hurry me along.
At the centre aisle, she paused a moment to face the altar and nodded her head. I bent one knee to genuflect as the nuns had taught me. She pulled me upright roughly, looking around nervously to see if I had been observed. She whispered harshly, as though I was supposed to know: ‘We don't do that here: this is a village church!’
We continued on across the nave to the south aisle at the front end of which was the organ. I looked around in vain for the confessional. ‘Where's the confessional?’ I whispered.
My aunt stopped dead in her tracks and glared down at me. ‘Where do you think you are?’ she hissed, ‘Rome? I told you, this is an Anglican church. We don't have one here! Now be quiet and behave yourself.’
 She led me to a pew at the very front, the end of which was partly blocked by a column. There was just enough room between the column and the front of the pew for a thin person to squeeze through.
 ‘That's my seat there, when I'm not at the organ. You sit here, next to me,’ she commanded, handing me a hymn book and a prayer book. ‘Keep quiet and don't fidget.’ She then went over to the organ on my immediate right and unlocked the doors enclosing the keyboard cover.  She slid them to each side and began to shuffle through some books and sheet music inside.
I looked around with interest, but from my place at the front by the column, I couldn't see much of the main body of the church.  In fact, I couldn't see much of anything. The view ahead was blocked by a massive stone screen pierced only by an archway in the centre and an arched opening on either side. Three stone steps led up to the centre archway. I only hoped that from here I might be able to see Winnie when she came in with the choir.
Behind me, the church was gradually filling with people. They were mostly women: the men were at the war. There was nobody I recognized. This was hardly surprising as this was only my fourth day here. Some of the people were exchanging whispers. One or two were praying. This reminded me that I had promised Mrs Rumble to say a prayer.
I got down on my knees, feeling rather self-conscious. I was glad of the column, which hid me from some of those present. I put my hands together and closed my eyes. What should I say?
It suddenly dawned on me that I didn't really have to say anything. God knows everything and He already knew what I wanted to say.
In a flash of understanding, I suddenly felt myself united with everything that existed. There were no barriers. For the first time, I really understood what people mean when they say that God is loving and good. I got up off my knees and, without opening my eyes, sat back in the pew to savour the moment.
My aunt slid on to the bench beside me. I barely noticed her. I kept my eyes shut. She shook me. ‘Wake up!’ she hissed. ‘And wipe that smug-looking smile off your face. This is God's House, not a dormitory!’

(Gang Territory chapter 8)

Monday, 7 February 2011

Saint Valentine

Jennospot 14  Saint Valentine

In a few days it'll be the fourteenth of February. Yeah— that's roight. Saint Valentine's day. Well, Oi ain't very sure 'oo this famous Saint Valentine was, but 'ee certainly seems ter 'ave made a mark on the calendar a good bit stronger than most of the ovver saints. Any'ow, since on 'is day we turn our thoughts loightly ter love, Oi'm goin' ter tell yew about 'ow Peter discovered wot it was. It were the very first toime 'ee went shoppin' fer 'is aunt up The Street, an' the Streeters Gang was after 'im. 'Ee attached 'imself ter Mrs Garman from the Chapel, fer protection. 'Ee was carrying 'er basket, an' fer reward, she offered 'im a glass o' lemonade. An' so it was that 'ee met Penelope an' then went sorta barmy. All a bit mushy ter moi way of finking, still, there it was. This is 'ow it went:

Mrs Garman turned into Water-Mill Lane. Fifty yards further on she opened a gate into the front garden of the last house on the left and went in. ‘If you like to wait outside the gate a minute, I'll bring the cake and lemonade out to you.’
She disappeared into the house and shut the door. Two or three minutes later, the door re-opened and a girl, a bit older than me, came out carrying a tray. On it was a plate with two slices of cake and two glasses of lemonade. The girl had her head down, concentrating on the contents of the tray and where she put her feet.
She was slim, somewhat taller than me and had long blond hair like that of Pearl but caught back at her forehead by a velvet ribbon. I watched her come slowly towards me, taking care not to overturn the two trembling glasses she was carrying.
She stopped in front of me on the inside of the gate, lifted her head and devastated me with a look from a pair of blue eyes, the like of which I had never imagined existed. She glanced demurely down, then up again and smiled. She was, without the slightest doubt possible, by far the most beautiful girl I had ever seen.
‘I'm Penelope,’ she said shyly. ‘My mother sent me out to bring you this. If you like, you can call me Penny.’
I took the glass in one hand, the slice of cake in the other and looked down over the gate as she placed the tray on the ground and picked up her glass and slice of cake. There were elusive gleams and highlights in her hair that shimmered to and fro with her least movement. Her arms glowed softly in the sunlight like the down on a golden plum. I was entranced.
I had heard the story of Saul being struck blind on the road to Damascus. I now knew something of what it must have been like for him. Such an experience I had never had before. In that moment I knew what it was to fall utterly, hopelessly, ridiculously, gloriously, magically in love.

(Gang Territory chapter 15)