In my Ideas Store column in the current issue of Writers’ Forum, I am telling the story behind the first short story I ever sold and how it was inspired by my childhood.
I will post the full story behind the story here (and separate the fact from the fiction) after the magazine has been out for a while, but in the meantime, as promised in my column, here is the short story. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it! It still makes me laugh and brings back such vivid memories.
ANGELS ON OIL DRUMS
The day King George VI died was a strange one. At school, Mrs Perry put a vase of snowdrops on a purple velvet cloth in front of the picture of His Majesty and told us to pray for Princess Elizabeth. But I thought this was a bit unkind to Princess Margaret so I prayed for her as well.
And at home, things were even stranger. Mum wasn’t in the kitchen like she usually was when we got in from school. Instead, she was in the garden. Crying By the washing line.
She didn’t seem to notice that only half of the best green tablecloth was on the line. The other half had knocked over two of Dad’s brussel sprout plants and was trailing in the dirt. She stood, one hand on the line, the other in the blue gingham peg bag I’d made her in Home Crafts last term. It was as if she’d got half way through pegging out when she’d frozen, like we do in the playground when we’re playing Statues. Only this was no game.
Her face was lifted towards the sky and I thought at first she was watching the rooks squabbling in the tops of the beech trees behind our cottage – until I saw her puffy eyes, her red nose and the tears glistening on her cheeks.
‘Mum?’ I dragged the wet tablecloth off the brussel sprouts, knocking over another one as I did so, ‘Mrs Perry told us and I’m sad too.’
‘For goodness’ sake, Jenny, what do you want to go creeping up behind people like that for?’ She dropped the other end of the tablecloth as she turned her back on me and rummaged in her apron pocket for her hankie. ‘And what are you on about? What did Mrs Perry tell you?’
‘About the King, of course.’ The tablecloth, which smelt of soap powder and brussel sprouts, was cold and slippery as I tried to brush off the worst of the dirt. The brussel sprouts, I was glad to see (because I hate them) were beyond my help. ‘Isn’t that why you’re crying?’
‘I’m not crying. I don’t know where you get your daft ideas from, really I don’t. Run along indoors and see what your brothers are up to before they wreck the place. I’d no idea it was that time already. Don’t stand gawping at me, child. I’ve got a cold, that’s all.’
She was bent over the big stone sink in the scullery, her sleeves pushed up to her elbows, rubbing away at the tablecloth when our dad came home. I was glad to see him. I didn’t know what was wrong with Mum, but I knew she didn’t have a cold and, to be truthful, I didn’t think she was that upset about the King, either.
‘Are you all right now? Or -?’ But he got no further because as he started to speak, she turned the tap on so hard, water hit the tablecloth and sprayed out like a fountain. I was watching from behind the pantry door and knew she’d go mad, because she hated mess and the scullery floor was like the swimming baths.
Instead, she spoke in a fierce whisper. ‘It’s all very well for you to say “we’ll manage” and “what’s another mouth to feed?” but I can’t go through all that again, Fred. Not now, with the twins about to start school.’
‘It’ll be different this time.’ Dad said, ‘Our Jenny’s of an age now where she can help out –’
‘Indeed she will not.’ I forgot to breath. What did Dad think he was doing? I could tell, even without seeing her, she had her lips pressed together so hard there’d be little white lines in the corner of her mouth. Didn’t he know when she was like that it was best not to argue?
‘She’s a sensible girl-‘ he began.
‘Jenny will have homework to do when she goes up to the Grammar School come September. She’s a bright girl and Mrs Perry says she should do well. There’s going to be more in her life than getting married and having babies. I’ll make sure of that.’
And then, on this strange day, the strangest thing of all happened. Our Dad, who never, ever raised his voice, especially not to Mum, shouted, ‘I’m sorry your life turned out so badly.’ Then he wrenched open the back door and stomped out.
The windows rattled as he slammed the door behind him and Cassie, our dog, who’d been asleep in front of the Rayburn woke with a start and hissed. Poor Cassie hasn’t barked since the day she was tossed into a blackthorn hedge by a bad-tempered Friesian heifer. The shock and shame of it had put an end to her career as a cow dog – and to her bark.
The best she could manage was a hissing croak, like someone trying to shout and whisper at the same time. Usually, we had to try hard not to laugh at her because Mum said dogs had feelings too and how would we like it if everybody laughed at us? But that day, nobody laughed at Cassie
Although I hated to hear Mum and Dad row, I was thrilled to hear Mum call me a bright girl. I’d no idea I was in her good books and decided that when she’d calmed down a bit, I’d ask if Rosemary Dinsdale could come to tea. More than anything in the world – except, of course, passing for the Grammar School – I wanted to be Rosemary’s best friend. Yesterday she’d fallen out with Sheila Grant, so this was my best chance ever.
Rosemary was small, neat, and pretty and Mrs Perry must need new glasses. Why else would she have chosen Sheila for the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the School Concert? As I told Rosemary, anyone could see she looked far more like a Sugar Plum Fairy than Sheila ever could. And what did it matter if she got muddled and tripped over her own feet sometimes? Even Sugar Plum fairies did that now and then, I supposed.
Rosemary was everything I longed to be. She was an only child, with silky blonde plaits that reached halfway down her back. She lived next to the church in a big house with lots of windows, a swing in the garden and a proper lawn. Even the flowers grew in well-behaved rows and there wasn’t a brussel sprout or raspberry cane in sight.
I, however, had straight, mousey hair, cut in what Mum called a “sensible” style, with a fringe like a bookend. Our farm cottage had tiny windows, thick walls and no room to move, with me, Mum, Dad, my three brothers (that’s Peter and twins Antony and David) and, of course, Cassie, as tightly packed as Mum’s bottled gooseberries.
As for our garden, there was a square of grass the boys had turned into a football pitch, Dad’s vegetable patch, a hen house, some apple trees with a washing line strung between and a forest of out of control raspberry canes where the hens would hide when it was time for them to be shut in for the night.
But what I admired most about Rosemary was how every day, at break, she’d have two chocolate digestive biscuits wrapped in a snowy paper napkin. What, I wondered, must it be like to live somewhere where they had chocolate biscuits all the year round and not just at Christmas when Gran turned up with her tin of Peak Frean Family Assorted?
And as I was thinking of Christmas, that was when I got one of my Really Great Ideas. I often had them, as my brothers knew to their cost.
But this was The Best Yet.
‘A St George’s Day Pageant.’ I told Peter as we walked home from school next day. ‘That’ll cheer Mum up. Remember how she enjoyed the Christmas one at school?’
‘Sounds daft to me.’ Peter swung open the farm gate that led to our cottage. ‘Who’s going to be in it?’
‘Well, me.. and you..’
Peter snorted. But I ignored it.
‘- And the twins..’
Peter snorted again. ‘They won’t –’
‘… And Rosemary Dinsdale.’ That was the best bit. Nobody else from school, and especially not Sheila Grant, would be asked. I’d have Rosemary all to myself and when the Pageant was the huge success I knew it would be, Rosemary and I ‘d be best friends. For ever.
‘Rosemary Dinsdale?’ Peter’s snort turned into a yelp of laughter, then a cry of pain as I thumped the top of his arm. With my knuckles. Hard. ‘That hurt.’ He rubbed it and glared at me. ‘I’m not going to be in your stupid Pageant. Nor will the twins. It’ll be just you and that stuck up Rosemary Dinsdale.’
But of course it wasn’t. Peter had forgotten how “persuasive” I could be. He was no match for me, any more than Anthony and David were. One of the few advantages of being the eldest in a family of four.
Rosemary, however, was gratifyingly enthusiastic. Especially when I assured her it would be the easiest thing in the world to include a Sugar Plum Fairy in a Pageant about St George. Everybody knows dragons and fairies go together.
The Pageant was planned for the Saturday nearest St George’s Day. The final rehearsal had gone well and even the weather was kind. It was a perfect Spring day, when the sun shone from an achingly blue sky and the air fizzed with the scent of May blossom and the sound of birdsong.
The transformation from back garden to theatre was amazing. We didn’t have enough kitchen chairs so Dad had laid out bales of hay which we’d covered with blankets. Mr and Mrs Dinsdale were both working and couldn’t come but we still had a good audience. There was Mum, Dad, Gran –who’d only brought Rich Tea biscuits seeing as it wasn’t Christmas so I was praying Rosemary would forget I’d promised her the pink wafers- the Vicar, Mr and Mrs Robinson who own the farm and a thin, anxious man with a shiny suit who’d been hoping to sell Mum some yellow dusters and a floor mop.
For the stage, Mum had let us bring out the hall rug to cover the grass and we’d draped a pair of grey blankets across the washing line for the backdrop and I’d placed four of Mum’s big enamel jugs stuffed with crab apple and cherry blossoms along the front. But best of all -so good, the Vicar said they were “astonishing”- were the two angels with long golden hair and outstretched wings who smiled down on the audience.
The music began. I’d based the pageant around a stirring hymn about Saints resting from their labours (Allelulia!). I made a fetching St George and Peter did his best as the dragon. His cries when St George’s sword thwacked across his back were very realistic. It was fast, colourful, action packed and going very well, until…
Until the angel on the left fell off his oil drum. And the one on the right started to cry and said he wanted to get down, too.
I nearly cried too. I’d worked so hard to get those angels looking right. I’d got Dad to bring across a couple of empty oil drums from the farm and stand them, on end, either side of the stage. Then I’d scrounged a pair of old sheets and draped them over the twins and their drums. I’d even unravelled lengths of the yellow twine that was used to bind hay bales and fashioned them into beautiful golden wigs.
And I’d bribed them with my Toby Twirl Annual and the remaining half of my Easter Egg, both, fool that I was, given in advance. They’d eaten the chocolate and I couldn’t bear to think what they’d done to Toby Twirl. Now they were about to ruin the entire Pageant by walking out.
I stopped the music. Rather, I stopped singing – Rosemary and Peter had given up several bars earlier – and brandished my sword at the remaining angel.
‘Antony, you stay right where you are. Mum, please make David come back. He’ll do it if you tell him he’s got to.’ Then I turned to the rest of the audience and with a flourish St George himself would have been proud of announced: ‘Ladies and gentlemen. The show goes on.’
But as I launched in to the next part of the hymn, about the dawning of yet more glorious days when Saints triumphant rise in bright arrays (Alleluia!), Antony’s cries to get down soared above everything. David decided to make a run for it, shook off his sheet and binder twine wig and dashed across the stage as the Sugar Plum Fairy made her sensational entrance.
She launched into her famous pirouette, when mid-turn, her foot got caught in discarded angel trappings. My warning cry came too late as she flailed about and grabbed the nearest thing to break her fall. Sadly, that was the backdrop. There was a crack like a shotgun going off and Mum’s washing line lay on the floor, with Rosemary buried beneath a tangle of white sheeting, binder twine and grey blanket.
Cassie suddenly remembered she was a cow dog and starting rounding everybody up, her croaks getting louder and louder until, she made a weird throat clearing honk and out came a full throated bark. A miracle. Cassie had recovered her bark. It rang out above Rosemary’s muffled screams and Antony’s sobs.
Everyone else, including me, was frozen in shocked silence. Then Peter went across and helped Anthony down and I shut my eyes. Mum was going to be furious.
But when I opened them, she was laughing. In fact, everyone was. And she didn’t seem to mind about her washing line. Or that I’d left Antony screaming his head off on top of an oil drum. Or that David was hiding in the raspberry canes. Or that Cassie, having remembered how to bark had now forgotten how to stop. Everyone was laughing – even Anthony now he was safely back on earth.
Everyone that is except for me. And, of course, Rosemary Dinsdale.
Again, it was Peter who helped her up. I couldn’t move. Her wand was bent and the binder twine wig had caught on one of the spikes of her crown, so that it covered half her face and wound itself like bindweed around her silken plaits.
‘I hate you.’ she screamed at me. ‘You and your stupid pageant. Can’t you see they’re all laughing at you?’ Her small grey eyes narrowed with spite. ‘At you – and your stupid dog, of course. Can’t you make it stop that awful noise? Wait until Sheila hears about this – this rubbish. Everyone at school will laugh at you. I’ll make sure of that.’
‘And I’ll tell them how you tripped over your own feet and brought everything crashing down.’ Peter said. ‘How it was you they were laughing at, not Jenny. Some fairy you turned out to be. Fairy elephant, more like it. Our Jenny’s worth a dozen of you, Rosemary Dinsdale.’
She turned on him, her crown jammed so far down on her head it pushed her ears out, her eyebrows down and made her look like a demented elf. ‘How dare you talk to me like that,’ she hissed and reached out to grab him, ‘You little –’
‘Leave my brother alone,’ I waved my sword at her. ‘And you can say whatever you like at school. I don’t want to be friends with you anymore, anyway.’
I was surprised to find that I meant it and was going to add that Mrs Perry had been right and that she couldn’t dance for toffee, but I didn’t. Because it was true. She couldn’t dance for toffee. Or sing either. In fact, she wasn’t much good at anything. Except looking pretty. And, of course, the chocolate digestives, which she never shared anyway.
I looked at Mum. She was still smiling. Dad had his arm around her and they were looking at each other the way they used to. Maybe, just maybe, things were going to be all right.
So the Pageant had worked after all. It had cheered Mum up and Dad too by the look of it. Cassie had recovered her bark. And of course, by Christmas, the new baby would have arrived.
And that was when I had another Really Great Idea.
A Christmas pageant, in the barn this time, so the twins could stand on the raised bits instead of wobbly oil drums. And then, of course, there’d be a real live baby for the starring role. Maybe Sheila Grant, who everybody knows is a much better dancer than Rosemary Dinsdale, would like to be Mary.
Oh yes, it was all going to be so beautiful.