30 June 2019

It was the hottest day of the year, so far anyway. A thermometer on the garden wall read 32°C, which I know is not exceptional in the grand scheme of things, but it felt roasting to us! The others...

bread jamKatie

Katie stood before a long mirror. This could not be her room, she reasoned, as she did not have a mirror of any kind, let alone one this size. Nevertheless, it must be her room, since she could just make out the shape of her bed, and another dark outline had to be her chest of drawers. The mirror showed her as being a little older ­­– not grown up yet but definitely older.

But she looked strange. A pointed elfin bonnet, an improbable headpiece, tall and intricate, fashioned from some darkly burnished, ethereal metal, enclosed her face. It felt organic, wired through her skull into the very cells of her brain.

The bonnet’s tiered complexity was staggering: an entire city, and yet it felt weightless. Instinctively, she knew it to be a gentle, peaceful place. Its strangeness did not frighten her because it seemed so familiar; she knew it in her heart as a city that would accept her, feed her and even love her, a place she would be happy to call home.

At every level, from the lowest at the nape of her neck and extending right to the very tip, rows of tiny coloured lights, shining from microscopic windows, winked randomly – on, then off, then on again. The lights radiated a soft warmth, like jellied Christmas sweets. They were friendly lights, welcoming even, glowing in the way that street lamps glow when first lit on a darkening winter afternoon.

While trying to stay motionless, she looked down and saw that her dress – a long, white nightgown perhaps – reached to the floor. She smoothed the silky material over her belly and held it against her legs and noticed her naked toes peeping out. She felt the material brushing against them and realised with a start that this floor felt warm, not cold like real floors. Her bedroom floor always felt chilly, whatever the season.

Once more, she looked herself up and down before allowing her attention to settle on her face, her expression serious but not solemn, her eyes conveying a detached amusement as she turned her head first one way and then the other.

Behind her, in the mirror’s reflection, she saw an open window that gave access to the world beyond. Turning from the mirror, Katie crossed the room slowly in a way that felt more like floating than walking. She placed her hands on the windowsill. The window looked out onto a garden. The view surprised her, for what she saw could not be her garden. Never, ever had she seen a garden like this – colourful, tidy, purposeful and quite beautiful. It was a place, she felt sure, where good things happened. Who owned it, she wondered.

On impulse, she lifted her hands and touched the thing on her head. From somewhere inside arose a faint cry, loose and mechanical, and instantly, night fell.

Katie woke with a start. Without thinking, she felt her head. Her fingers touched her hair and her ears – it had been a dream. Turning onto her side, she pulled up her legs and hugged her knees. The cardigan she wore in bed for warmth had bunched into a lump beneath her, but what felt more painful was the hollowness gnawing at her stomach.

She put her hands under her nightdress and felt her ribs, and below that the hollow of her abdomen. You would not call her skinny though. She had curves, unlike Jess. Her buttocks, legs, arms and back were well muscled; no doubt all the fish she had eaten over the years, courtesy of Uncle Phil, could take the credit for that.

In the dark garden, a solitary wren sang its heart out. The alarm clock (which she never bothered setting any more, always wide-awake long before it went off) said twenty to six. Katie shivered as she opened the blankets. Crossing to the window, she lifted a corner of the mould-stained net curtain and looked out. It was drizzling.

Nobody in the house would be up yet, least of all Gran. Casting her nightdress onto the bed, she found some underwear in the top drawer of the only other piece of furniture in the room – a chest of drawers one of the lodgers had found in a layby and brought home. It just appeared one day in her room. Solid enough, elegant even, but rather spoiled by a botched attempt to paint a large red, white and blue target on one end: an intended tribute to The Who gone tragically wrong. Runs of red paint from the centre circle had cut through the white, so that the whole thing now resembled a rather nasty bullet wound. At least it meant she no longer had to keep her collection of clothes, such as it was, in a suitcase under the bed.

Gran’s house was far from paradise but, as Katie was frequently reminded, at least it meant she didn’t have to live in a children’s home and, on that basis, she should consider herself lucky.

According to Gran, her ‘feckless’ mother had, aged sixteen, scarpered to London with a taxi driver while Katie was still in the pram.

It seemed that absent fathers were something of a family tradition. Katie’s mother had been a ‘war baby’, which made her sound like something that might have been dropped out of an aeroplane by Adolf Hitler, when in fact she had been conceived in the back of an air raid shelter in 1940, after the teenage Florrie had finally given in to a pestering Air Raid Precautions warden.

“Shame he didn’t take any precautions himself,” her mother had cackled when Florrie broke the news of her pregnancy. Although the man completely denied any responsibility for the baby, he did ‘see the family OK’ for ‘extras’ for the rest of the war: rationed items he could sequester on the sly from his grocery shops and leave in the garden shed.

During the war years, many children found themselves growing up without a dad and it wasn’t hard to concoct a story about a father missing in action. Most people never bothered to ask, and just assumed. Katie didn’t know anything much about her dad and had never met her mum, so it was amazing really, that she was as normal as she was.

She surveyed her room. At some time in the distant past, someone had built a set of shelves into the alcove at one side of the fireplace. Apart from a clothes hanger, reserved for her Girl Guide uniform (Jess’s, until she became fed up with going), the top two shelves were empty (Katie couldn’t reach them). A dozen books, a skipping rope and a white china horse sat on the next, while her teddies lived on the shelf below.

She decided not to bother washing; after all, last night had been bath night, and a quick sniff of her armpits confirmed they still smelled of soap. She dressed quickly in her school uniform. Her red curls were resistant to brushing and she imposed some order on their waywardness by dragging her fingers through them a few times.

Her school bag sat on top of the chest of drawers next to her scrapbook of horse pictures, cut from Gran’s magazines. The bag had not been touched since Friday; inside, awaiting her attention, lay a history assignment on Victorian education and a graph to plot for maths. There would be time to do these before she left for school, but not before she’d made tea and helped herself to several slices of bread and jam.

Growing tall enough (if she stood up straight) to use the top of the chest of drawers as a desk came as a relief, because it meant she no longer had do her homework while sat on the floor. The room had no chair and Gran discouraged her from sitting on the bed, claiming it would ruin the mattress. Sure, if you sat on it, Katie used to think.

She rested her tea mug on her maths jotter and opened the history textbook. Even though history wasn’t really her thing (she much preferred science) she actually found the Victorian topic quite OK. All told, they were actually rather an interesting lot. The line drawings that illustrated the book fascinated her. Probably they were only a modern artist’s idea of what Victorian life looked like, although she couldn’t be sure. This house was Victorian, Gran said – imagine. She looked across to the black-painted iron fireplace and tried to picture it glowing with a cheery coal fire. Tried, and failed.

The page on Victorian schools described an education that didn’t sound hugely different from her own experience of school. OK, perhaps classes today were smaller and the beatings less severe, but the rote learning and didactic teaching rang bells. One woodcut illustration showed a school with tall, high windows and a bell tower that bore an uncanny resemblance to Reed Park Juniors. Their old primary school still had separate entrances for boys and girls, not to mention separate playgrounds, just like the school in the drawing.

Katie flipped the pages and took in the pictures. Most of the figures populating the scenes looked happy and well fed, apart from the beggars and orphans, obviously. Katie thought she might qualify as a kind of orphan as to call Gran a parent would be stretching the word’s definition close to breaking point. She looked around her room. Admittedly, she didn’t have a lot but she wasn’t ragged, thank goodness, and she didn’t have to beg, but she was often hungry.

Katie finished her history notes and moved on to the graph. Some children seemed to find this sort of thing a challenge but she didn’t, and she quickly whizzed through it.

A distant church clock struck eight – the time had flown. Stuffing her books into her bag, she pulled on her school raincoat. As usual, she would call for Alan. Alan knew lots of interesting stuff about the Victorians, but then he seemed to know lots of interesting stuff about everything. It might have been fun to live in Victorian times, but only if you had been born lucky. So much good fortune in life (and bad, come to think of it) seemed in the end to come down to nothing other than pure chance. And as Alan once remarked, better to be lucky than rich.

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