From the life of Betty
By Sandra Wilson
I remember, I was six years old and we got driven to the train station. I don’t recall which one it was. Me and me sister had little brown parcels. Mum had packed them a few weeks before going to the station and told us not to open them, but I had snuck into her bedroom, opened the drawer of the shabby wooden dresser, and carefully peeled away the thick brown paper. Three pairs of knickers, a toothbrush, a nightie and two old dresses. Where were we going? I got caught anyway and Mum gave me a good hiding. My younger sister Ann looked on in silence even though she was supposed to have been my lookout.
The morning we left home London was cold and the air was thick with smog. The smell of smoke, devastation, and dead bodies surrounded us like a deathly cloud. It was frighteningly still, almost ghostly, after the barrage of bombs that had been released by the Germans the night before. We had spent the night in the communal bomb shelters. I had snuggled up to Dad and my sister snuggled close to me wiv er fumb in er mouf. Mum sat with the boys.
Mum hadn’t even come to wave us off at the station, not like the other kids’ Mums.
“You’re going on ‘oliday,” she said standing at the front door, coughing and spluttering but refusing to remove the manky fag from her mouth. Her hair was rolled up in big pink plastic rollers and she wore a flowery dress.
“How long are we going for?” I asked.
“Shut ya bleedin mouf Betty,” she responded.
“How long is we going Mummy?” whispered Ann with tears in her eyes.
“Not long luv,” said my Mum all sickly sweet and kissing Ann repeatedly on her forehead and chubby little cheeks.
Why didn’t she kiss me like that? She hated me. I had always felt it. Was it cos I was lippy? She’d always treated me different to the others. Belting me and hollering at me down the street wiv er ’air in rollers, barefoot and a fag at the side of ‘er mouth. She told me I was bad every opportunity she got. I often told her I hated her. I suppose that didn’t ’elp.
Dad had left for work around 7am while we were still in bed. He gave us big hugs and kisses “Be good and look after each other,” he said.
“We don’t want to go, Daddy.”
“It will be okay, Princess. Be sure you take care of your little sister.”
“I will Daddy.”
We arrived at the village in the countryside several hours later. Hundreds of us gathered in the town hall. No one knew where us kids were supposed to go or who with. Some bright spark decided we should line up on stage and the adults would take their pick of the child they wanted. I held onto my younger sister’s little hand tight.
“You,” the man with the long pointy nose shouted, “get up on stage.” I dragged Ann with me. “No, not her, just you,” he said.
“She’s me baby sister; me Mum said we ’ave to stay together.”
I marched up the steps and strode onto the stage with her, my lips pursed in defiance. A woman at the back shouted, “I want both of them.” She came up to the stage and looked us up and down. She walked up the steps. She stood in front of us and ran her hands through our unkempt hair, just like the nit nurse at school. She smiled. She seemed warm and friendly. We followed her. Ann put her thumb in her mouth. When we got in the truck the woman introduced us to her husband. I decided I didn’t like him. He smelt of sweat, grease and muck. When we arrived at their home we were wide eyed because it was so big. My excitement grew at the thought of living in a castle, just like the princesses in the story books.
The maid gave us a bath in a big metal bath in front of a blazing fire. Then she gave us a tumbler of hot milk and a wedge of bread. Ann was too tired to finish hers. I devoured mine like a wild animal eating its prey. We were then taken to our room, a stable which was situated on the grounds not far from the house. I was too tired to complain.
The next day we were dropped off to school. Our new teacher, Mrs Harper, introduced herself and reassured us that if we were unhappy in our new homes we would be found another place to live.
I told Miss Harper the next day about our sleeping arrangements and she cracked up laughing. “I know Mr and Mrs Graham extremely well and they would not allow any child to sleep in the stables. Oh Betty, you are such a hoot.”
She continued to laugh uncontrollably.
I moaned and complained so much that Mrs Harper decided to pay the Grahams a visit. They spoke in whispers and that evening we packed our meagre belongings and left the castle.
Mrs Harper drove us an hour away to a small village. We were introduced to a big cuddly lady with rosy cheeks. “Oh they are so cute,” she said. Trying to pinch our cheeks. I pulled away and looked at her with suspicion.
My older sister and brother came to visit us at our new home. They brought jam, sweets, freshly baked bread for me and Ann. Mrs Arthur made a fuss and baked cakes and served lukewarm tea. Her teenage son Ted looked on sullenly.
When my family left, Mrs Arthur took our gifts and we never saw them again. Every morning we were woken at 5.30am to wash the clothing of the men that boarded there. In the afternoon after school we had to clean the rooms.
“You have to earn your keep, little ones,” chimed Mrs Arthur.
“We shouldn’t be doing this, we’re just kids,” I complained.
“Shut up and do as you’re told or I’ll make the chickens bite you,” laughed Ted.
He knew we were afraid of the large chickens that ran around in the yard. He often took great pleasure in holding them and chasing us around.
Life was hard, and I was relieved when I was about twelve years old and we returned home. Things were not any better there. So many people had either moved or died. The streets of London were a mass of rubble and destruction. The smell of death and acrid smoke circled the air like vultures.
I was twenty-two years old now, been on a few dates, nothing serious. Mum kept trying to fix me up with different lads but I wasn’t interested, especially if she had a hand in it.
My best friend Doris invited me to a party so I made a dress for the occasion. I had saved what I could from my wages at the sausage factory. I left work that Friday, excited. I had it all planned: have a wash, do my hair. I had nicked a pair of Mum’s stockings. Well, I was entitled to them cos she never gave me my share from the ration book.
I got ready and knocked at Doris’s house a few doors down.
“Blimey Doris you’ve been home all day and you still got your rollers in.” I walked in and helped her with her hair and make-up.
“Are you sure your Mum won’t ’ave a moan about you going to another party?”
“Who bloody cares. She’s already half cut.”
“I feel sorry for her. She never drank like that when your Dad was alive.”
“What you wearing tonight?”
“I’m wearing my yella dress,” frowned Doris.
“I love that dress it’s so pretty. Ooh are you wearing ya black dolly shoes?”
Doris smiled. “Yes.”
We arrived at the party around 8pm and I was introduced to the owner Maisie. She was a bubbly welcoming woman with bright red hair. Doris handed her a bottle of wine.
“Thanks Doris. I love your dress. Who is this?”
“It’s me best mate Betty; she lives next door to me.”
“Okay,” replied Maisie, looking me up and down.
The music was loud and there was plenty of food and drink flowing.
“She is married to a coloured man,” whispered Doris.
“Oh!” I exclaimed.
We walked into the large living room and there were people dancing, laughing and enjoying themselves.
I felt a tap on my arm and turned around and looked up to see a handsome young black man. He was gorgeous and I couldn’t stop staring into his beautiful big brown eyes.
“I want to dance wid you,” he said in a thick Caribbean accent.
“That’s a nice way to ask me,” I replied sarcastically. I couldn’t believe I just said that.
He took my hand and tried to pull me up out of the padded seat.
“Get your effin hand off of me.”
“Eff you too,” he replied and walked off.
I stood there with my mouth open. I couldn’t believe he had spoken to me like that. His friend walked over to me smiling and extending his hand.
“Will you dance with me?”
“I’m not a good dancer.”
“Neither am I,” he laughed.
His hand was soft and warm. As he circled my tiny waist I saw his friend glaring at me.
“I tink you upset me friend,” he said, trying to talk over the loud music.
“Well he upset me.”
He laughed. I laughed too, whilst trying to remember the dance steps I had seen those evenings when I would peer through the hotel window waiting for Mum to finish work.
His friend strode over to us and Carl thanked me for the dance.
“What do you want?” I asked.
He handed me a glass of brandy.
“Thanks,” I said sipping daintily, all the while wanting to down it in one.
“My name is Winston. Will you dance with me now?” he asked sheepishly.
“I might do.” I smiled coquettishly. I didn’t recognise myself. Why was I behaving like this?
We danced till the end of the party.
“I know we’ve been seeing each other for a few months now but I’m going back to Jamaica,” he said to me one day.
“So what about all the ‘I love you Betty’ and…”
“I only planned to stay a few years and my family are all back home…”
“You can’t go.”
“So what, you gwan stop me?” he replied in annoyance.
“No, but your kid will.”
“What do you mean, kid?”
“I’m pregnant, you idiot.”
“You will have to come to Jamaica with me.”
“I ain’t going nowhere.”
I returned home feeling anxious and afraid. How was I going to tell my family that I was pregnant? In fact I was effin terrified at the thought of pushing out a sprog. Doris had described in vivid detail what it was like to give birth. She had been forced to assist her Mother during at least three births.
“Mum, I need to speak to you.”
“There’s a coloured man at the front door,” interrupted Mikey.
“Tell ’im ta bugger off,” shouted Mum.
“Mum the thing is…” I said.
“For gawd’s sake spit it out will ya,” she said impatiently.
Mikey ran back down the hallway stomping on the cheap lino.
“Mum, Mum, Mum,” screeched Michael, “He’s in our house.”
Mum and I ran out to see what the commotion was.
“Mrs Carter, my name is Winston.”
“Oh shit,” I exclaimed.
“You better get the eff out of my house before I call the police. I’ve ’eard about you lot,” Mum said.
“I came to ask fe your daughter ’and in marriage.”
“Over my dead body,” said Mum.
“You want to marry me?”
My Mum was just as stunned as I was.