One Character – Week 39 of the 52 week short story challenge

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There was a girl I knew at school.

Her name was Karen.

I didn’t know her well – we were in different classes and in different streams.

In an effort to be non-judgemental the streams were named after colours, but everyone knew that Red was the top stream, Blue was the middle stream and Green was the bottom stream.

I was in Red class, Red stream – eventually. During the first few days of my attending secondary school they managed to lose my records and so I was put in Emerald class, Green stream.

Not only that but they put me in the remedial class.

It was quite nice at first. We had our own little room in the old part of the school. We had a lounge area, some tables and a small kitchen area where our teacher – Mrs W – made us warm (but not hot) drinks.

We also had biscuits.

My friends were  a bit jealous.

I spent the first day colouring in.

I spent the second day colouring in.

I spent the third day colouring in.

Mrs W could see that I was getting a little bored and allowed me to cut out pictures for the others to colour in. The scissors were blunt ended.

This was when I met Karen.

She had a mop of mousey curls, a squint and her school uniform looked as if it had been made for someone much smaller and older. She was a quiet girl; most of my companions were quiet apart from one girl who rocked in a chair and occasionally screeched.

Mrs W and I learned how to calm the girl down after a few days.

My Mother did not think that I should be spending my formative years colouring in so she went into school with me after my first week.

The headmistress; a large, round woman who wore a lot of pale pink Crimplene, listened to my Mother with a patronising look on her face.

‘I’m afraid all mummies think that their girls should be in a higher set.’

My Mother, red hair sparking, said that she wasn’t moving until the demon headmistress had phoned my primary school and asked for my records to be sent over.

The headmistress phoned and was put through to my old headmaster; a lovely man who was so respected that he had a street named after him many years later. I liked him and he liked me. He told the headmistress about my academic achievements and even said he would drop my records over on his way home.

I was promoted the next day.

Being in the top class of the top stream was hard work and there was very little colouring in.

The scissors had points though.

One of my new classmates knew Karen. She wasn’t very nice to her; sneering at her old clothes, and on one occasion when Karen failed to respond to her teasing, this girl even pulled Karen’s curly hair.

My new best friend Georgina, and I pulled the nasty girl off and I took Karen back upstairs to Mrs W, who was quite pleased to see me.

She even let me make Karen a warm drink.

I wanted to know why the nasty girl had picked on Karen, and I got the answer from another girl who had been to the same primary school.

Karen lived in a children’s home.

That was why her clothes were old and didn’t fit.

That was why no one had sorted out her squint.

That was why she was so quiet.

I am ashamed to say that apart from saying ‘Hi’ in the playground or in the school dinner hall, I didn’t see much of Karen after that.

I was too busy being the school rebel and avoiding the headmistress.

Every morning at assembly (I went through an atheist stage where I pointedly refused to sing hymns and kept my eyes open during prayers), I fantasised about running up the steps to the stage and pushing the headmistress off.

In my fantasy she bounced like a giant rubber ball.

She bounced down the school hall and out of the double doors, finally fetching up against her office door.

It was just a fantasy.

Luckily the deputy headmistress took me for English and had my back when things became awkward – usually about my interpretation of school uniform.

Time passed.

I took my ‘O’ levels and I passed.

I went on to the local Tech to do my ‘A’ levels and I passed again.

After a brief flirtation with drama school, and working in bars, I ended up volunteering in a children’s home.

I began to understand what life must have been like for Karen.

The home was run by an older couple who treated the children fairly well but it was always an institution – never a home.

After three months of volunteering, I got a permanent job as a houseparent at another establishment. The staff team was younger; less rigid and I began to understand how we could change things to make life better for the children and young people we were caring for – and we really did care.

I spent ten years working in children’s homes.

I never forgot Karen and I did my best to make sure that those in my care had clothes that they liked – and that fitted.

I took them to medical appointments and I did my best to sort out issues at school.

Most of the staff I worked with tried to make the children’s lives as close to a home life as possible.

Sometimes we succeeded.

I qualified as a social worker and I watched as the homes were closed down because the current thinking was being ‘in care’ was unacceptable. Children were sent home to parents who didn’t know how to care for them and didn’t really want them anyway.

Some children were fostered and life improved for them. There were others who no amount of good fostering could help.

In those cases the children drifted into disaster and the foster parents became disillusioned.

It was while I was taking time out to raise my own family that the scandal broke in my home town.

The officer in charge of a children’s home was arrested for child abuse.

Physical, sexual, financial, psychological – you name it. He did the whole lot.

He was the officer in charge of the home where Karen was placed.

It wasn’t a life for her and the other children she lived with.

The abuse went on for years until someone had the courage to stand up and shout.

It wasn’t Karen.

The officer in charge was found guilty and sent to jail.

So was his wife and two other members of staff.

I’m sorry Karen.

Sorry that I wasn’t more of a friend to you.

Sorry that I didn’t understand what you were going through.

I never forgot you though, and now I understand.

That was why your clothes were old and didn’t fit.

That was why no one had sorted out your squint.

That was why you were so quiet.

 

 

 

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At Sea – Week 32 of the 52 week short story challenge

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It was the first Tuesday of the month and just after eight o’clock in the evening, so the venue had to be Simon’s Wine Bar, because that was where Jo, Lea and I met up. We had been meeting here since the wine bar opened three years ago, and before that we had frequented a number of different bars and restaurants on a reasonably regular basis – holidays, childbirth and objecting partners excepted.

We had been friends from schooldays; Joanna, Leanne and Georgina, shortened to Jo, Lea and Gina over the years. We met for the first time, when standing in serried ranks in the school assembly hall, we were sent to our allotted form tutor and marched off to the classroom that was to be our base for the next five years.

Situated in the older part of the school, parquet flooring, dark wooden cupboards with sliding doors and piles of dust in the deepest recesses. We didn’t realise it at the time but we had been lucky enough to acquire Mr Beck as our form tutor. Out of all the first form tutors, he was undoubtedly the most human and easy-going.

At the time there were only four male teachers in our girls-only school; lovely Mr G who taught chemistry and was considered too scatty to have a form to look after, Mr Beck who taught physics and technical drawing, and the two religious education teachers; the Rev and the Perv. They only worked part-time and it was always a relief to walk into the classroom and find that the Rev was on duty. He at least was a real vicar whereas the Perv was a Methodist pastor who liked to massage the shoulders of girls that were too afraid of him to object.

Needless to say, he never laid a hand on me, Jo or Lea; according to our other friends we exuded an air of arrogance and rebellion. Whilst some teachers did their best to split us up we always managed to be sitting together for the next lesson like three magnets. This only changed when we had to make choices about the future and select our options for the final two years of school. Lea was artistic and creative, so art, pottery and needlework were easy options for her. Jo was the scientist, and whilst she had been known to connect up the Van Der Graaf generator to the classroom door and shock her less observant classmates – or student teachers – she was Mr Beck’s favourite and could do no wrong in his eyes.

I was used to the teachers looking at me in a funny way. My brain and I had the capacity to stun when sufficiently motivated  but I was always a rebel in my own lunchtime. No cissie uniform for me; I stalked the halls in jeans and Doctor Martins, daring any foolish teacher to reprimand me. It’s hard to be a rebel when there is no challenge though. I was the writer, the historian and psychologist. I was one of the first students to tackle the social psychology course and it was partly due to my high marks that the course – together with philosophy and sociology – was added to our curriculum.

Jo and I stayed on for sixth form but Lea went off to study hairdressing and beauty techniques. Her mother ran a couple of salons across the city and it was a given that Lea would step into her mother’s shoes one day. Had she been as much of a rebel as me, she might have objected but she was always the most compliant of us – and the most elegant and well-groomed. When her classmates were suffering from greasy hair and adolescent acne, Lea, having access to an endless range of beauty products and being blessed with clear skin, sailed through her school days with unnatural poise.

Jo went on to medical school and became a GP. I chose a university up in that London and lived a Bohemian lifestyle that resulted in me being left with two small children, a heap of debts, a pile of half-written novels and a deep spiritual wound inflicted by my poet lover who went off to the US to find himself. Fortunately my parents welcomed me and their grandsons home and I managed to scrape a living for the three of us by writing articles for women’s magazines and promising myself that I would finish my novels one day. By the time my boys were in their mid-teens, I had bought us a tiny terraced house laughingly described as an ‘artisan dwelling’, Lea was still single but had expanded the beauty salon chain and Jo had married a police sergeant and given birth to twins very shortly after. Family planning was never her thing – but then it hadn’t been mine either.

The three of us kept in touch throughout the years and once we were all back living in the same city, the monthly meetings began in earnest. As befitting her role, Lea remained elegant and beautiful, I had streaks of grey at my hairline – a  consequence of being disorganised and leading a life bedevilled by constantly having to unearth football boots, chemistry books and clean clothes from the  dark caves where my boys could be found, so that they wouldn’t get into trouble at school. They still got into trouble for their rebellious attitudes and a refusal to conform but I knew who to blame for that. Jo’s face was etched with worry lines even before the twins turned up; I commiserated with her over the posset stains on her shoulders and the fact that none of her pre-pregnancy clothes fitted anymore.

It was Tuesday and the three of us were sitting at our favourite table with a bottle of red wine breathing and three glasses ready. It was a few minutes before Jo and I put our own worries and thoughts aside in order to notice that something was wrong with Lea.

She poured out the wine and took an unusually inelegant gulp before squaring her shoulders and taking a deep breath.

‘I have a problem, girls.’

Jo and I looked at each other, mentally assessing which one of us would ask the question. Under the table we did rock, paper, scissors. I usually beat Jo by wrapping her rock with paper but on this occasion she pulled a sneaky scissor trick and so it was me that put on the sympathetic face and asked. ‘What’s up Lea? How can we help?’

Jo kicked me under the table.

Lea put down her glass. ‘I think I’m in love.’

Double relief for Jo and myself. We started to smile and formulate congratulations but something in Lea’s face stopped us.

My turn to ask the questions again.

‘Who with? Do we know them – him – her?’ I hedged my bets. Lea bristled.

‘Him of course! No you don’t know him. He’s offered me a job too.’

Jo and I did a double take.

‘But you have all the salons. You don’t need a job. What kind of job?’

Lea looked at me pityingly. ‘I have good managers in all my salons. I need a change. I’m SO bored.’

‘What kind of a job?’ Jo echoed my questions. ‘Who is he?’

Lea took another gulp and another deep breath. ‘His name is Daryl. He is the entertainments manager on the Ocean Princess and he has asked me if I want to take on the beauty salon concession. It means signing up for a year and although the money isn’t wonderful, it would mean that I get to visit Florida, Italy, Spain – the itinerary is vast. The chance to get a real tan, evenings off, dinner at the Captain’s table, what more could a girl want?’

‘But, you’ve never been abroad Lea. Do you even have a passport?’

‘I know. I’ve always been too busy. I want to do something else with my life. You and Jo, you have children, Jo has a husband. I need a change. Can you sign my passport form Jo?’

‘Daryl? How did you meet him?’ I was a little miffed that she hadn’t asked me to sign her form but then I wasn’t really that much of an upstanding member of the community really.

Lea looked a little guilty. ‘I caught him trying to poach my staff.  He was a bit embarrassed and took me out to lunch to apologise. We got talking and well … you know.’ She finished lamely.

‘How old is he?’ Jo had the bit between her teeth now and the inquisitorial GP in her took over.

Lea blushed. ‘Twenty-five.’ she muttered.

‘That’s ten years younger than you. He’s a toy boy!’ I knocked back my wine and emptied the rest of the bottle into our glasses.

‘Are you really in love with him Lea or is it just the idea of sailing off into the sunset?’ Jo was still in her professional guise.

Lea looked at her watch. ‘I asked him to come and meet you. He’ll be here at nine o’clock.’

This was sacrosanct. Tuesdays were for the three of us. No exceptions. Ever.

I ordered another bottle of red and we didn’t bother to let this one breathe. I was the wordsmith and mine failed me for the moment. Jo concentrated on scratching a patch of posset she had discovered on her leggings. Lea was silent.

‘When will you go?’ I said eventually.

‘I haven’t signed any contracts yet but the next sailing is from Southampton at the end of the month and they need to have a manager in place before they sail. I think I want to do this girls, but I need your help. I trust you more than anyone else and if you think – well – if he isn’t the right one for me…’

This was a new element to our friendship. Lea had always been very choosy about men and neither Jo or I had ever sought an opinion on our partners – although I often wished I had.

Daryl arrived exactly at nine o’clock. He was handsome – in a theatrical way – he had good dress sense, an immaculate hair style and a tan that hadn’t come from a machine. He was charming, attentive and nothing like any man Jo and I had ever met before. He didn’t exactly sweep us off our feet but we could understand how he had captured Lea’s heart. The wine and the shock made us both dull and sleepy. Lea sparkled in Daryl’s presence.

Lea and Daryl went on to a club. Jo and I went home to our families in a taxi; we both felt old and boring.

By the end of the month Lea had sorted out her salons, signed up for a twelve month concession on a cruise liner and organised both her work and social wardrobes. Daryl continued to be the love of her life and though we cried on our last evening together, Jo and I wished them both well.

Lea was a great success as the manager of the beauty salon.

Daryl turned out to be less of a success; they had only been at sea for three days when Lea discovered him snogging one of the dancers backstage. He protested that he was just comforting her because she was homesick but the dancer told a different tale and within a few hours Lea had testimony from a parade of young girls who had fallen prey to Daryl’s charms.

He was offloaded in disgrace at Fort Lauderdale after breaking a few more hearts, by which time Lea had come to the attention of an aging but handsome millionaire who had signed up for a cruise to take his mind off the death of his wife. He signed up for another cruise when that one ended and carried on cruising until Lea finally agreed to terminate her contract and sign up to being his wife.

Lea sends us letters from her homes in the US. She never forgets our birthdays or those of the children. We think that she is happy. We hope that she is. We try to meet up on Tuesdays Jo and I, but it isn’t the same. Now it’s us that are at sea.

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A Counterblast to – ‘A Counterblast to Tobacco’

 

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As you can see from above, King James the First was not impressed with tobacco back in 1604. His feelings were based on a personal dislike rather than on the reams of statistical evidence that assaults us everyday and provides proof positive that the black stinking fume is bad for us – for all of us – whether we smoke or not.

I hold my hands up in supplication.

I was a smoker.

I am writing this, not to defend smoking or smokers, nor to jump on the anti-smoking bandwagon, but merely to express my own very subjective thoughts on the  subject.

As I write, my atmosphere is slightly polluted by the whiff of Gap Boy’s latest fad – he has taken to sitting in a garden chair and smoking cigars round the corner of the patio where he thinks I can’t see him.

Ah, but I can SMELL you my dear!

And I won’t admit it to my darling GB but I quite like the odd whiff of cigar smoke because it reminds me of Christmas Past.

I know that GB dabbled with smoking at school, closely followed by a self-righteous condemnation that would have put old James to shame. Uni Boy has always been scathing about smoking – but then he IS a scientist!

The current cigar smoking is a GB affectation that Hub and I refuse to condone by actually buying any for him – yes, he actually put them on my shopping list! Neither do we complain however, because this is a surefire way of prolonging his fad.

Like his mother – GB is very good a being a rebel – so we try hard not to provide him with a cause.

My own first taste of the aforesaid offensive weed came after scrambling over the back fence of my primary school into the gorse bushes of Donkey Common, and ‘enjoying’ half a No. 6 pilfered from somebody’s dad’s  fag packet..

It was gross.

It was worse than gross, it tasted foul, smelled foul and made me feel very sick.

I was in the minority however because I wasn’t actually sick and I also managed to get back over the fence and eat a masking Murray Mint before playtime finished.

In terms of the playground etiquette, I had made my bones. Not bad for a posh speccy four-eyes who liked poetry.

Smoking did not become a habit at that time fortunately. I changed schools and having a fag wasn’t a part of their curriculum.

My next experiment with tobacco was in senior school and did unfortunately lead to my subsequent addiction – although I never smoked at home – my mother would have KILLED me!

I worked my way through Peter Stuyvesants and progressed on to Rothmans.  Then style and a Saturday job in Boots enabled me to explore the delights of Sobranie Black Russians  – and when I was feeling really outrageous – Sobranie Cocktail cigarettes.  They looked too pretty to smoke; lilac, pink, turquoise, yellow and a delicate shade of green, but they did have the advantage of enabling an element of colour coordination with my outfits.

Colour coordination has always been SO important to me.

I had a brief dalliance with St Moritz but the fresh mintiness seemed at odds with the naughtiness of smoking. The teacher who upbraided me for smoking them outside the school gates was outraged. I’m still not sure whether this was due to my temerity in smoking so close to school or whether she felt embarrassed by her own rather drab Silk Cut.

A change of boyfriend and I moved to Gauloise and Disque Bleu – accompanied by a hacking cough and a bad stomach from too much strong black coffee. I looked cute in the beret though.

In an attempt to please another lad and wean myself off the evil drug, I tried smoking Honeydew herbal cigarettes. I smelled like an autumn bonfire and very nearly gave up smoking altogether because the thought of sparking up the herbs made me very nauseous indeed.

Luckily for the tobacco producers, I changed boyfriends, gave up the Saturday job and took to rolling my own cigarettes. Oh, the delights of a fresh packet of Old Boots or Golden Virgins! Oh, the sadness of scraping together a few stale strands from the bottom of the packet to make a limp rollie that went out every few seconds.

I gave up smoking when I went off to drama school.

It was a choice between alcohol and tobacco, oh, and the odd meal here and there.

Two years later I left the bacchanalian delights of the theatre and took a more hardcore approach to alcohol by becoming a barmaid.

Asthma reared its ugly head and compounded by the boozy , smoky atmosphere of the pub, I managed to avoid taking up smoking again although, once I’d repaid my student overdraft, I had plenty of money at my disposal.

It was the stress of social work that was my undoing.

Having left the safety of the public bar for the complicated hierarchy of a children’s home, I quickly learned that a guaranteed way of getting respite away from the children, was to go into the office to write up the event book whilst having a ciggy.

Non-smokers had to wait till the end of the shift to be able to do this, and if it had been busy, this could add another half an hour onto the end of an already knackering shift. The possibility of having an asthma attack was preferable to doing unpaid work or looking on longingly when other staff disappearing for a fag break.

If you can’t beat them, join them, so I did.

I worked my way through Camels, Raffles (very sweet-tasting – ugh) and finally settled on 555 State Express. This was partly because they tasted okay and partly because my uncle and cousin worked in the baccy factory that produced them.

Even in my addiction I could be loyal!

I still didn’t smoke at home though, despite the fact that I had finally purchased my own first home – a ground floor studio flat that was mine, all mine – apart from the large part that belonged to the Alliance and Leicester Building Society.

I worked my way up the social care ladder, and as I did, so rules and regulations changed to ensure that vulnerable young people were only allowed to smoke in designated outdoor areas, had to be supervised by a member of staff (or two or three – depending on how many smokers were on duty), and that all cigarettes, matches and lighters had to be locked away in the office at the end of a smoking session.

My ability to make roll-ups made me quite popular with the kids – and although nowadays, social care departments would be up in arms at the very thought of a member of staff condoning smoking in this way, back in the eighties my nimble fingers were seen as part of my skill set. My manager was known to smile benignly at the sight of me, sitting on the verandah surrounded by maladjusted adolescents learning patience whilst waiting for me to roll them a ciggy.

It was whilst I was taking my social work degree and working part-time that I was struck down by a three-week bout of ‘flu that saw me bed-bound and existing on food that my mother ferried round to my bijou and Bohemian (untidy) studio flat.

The very thought of smoking  made me heave and cough. I had unwittingly given up the drug.

I still liked the smell of cigarette though and there were moments when our study syndicate meetings (which took place in the Bay Tree pub) tempted me to partner my drinking hand with a cigarette-wielding other.  The thought of how ill I’d felt stopped me and within another couple of weeks all my cravings had gone.

I was cured! And without the benefit of hypnosis, cold turkey, peer pressure, medical advice or guilt.

I’d also put on all the weight I’d lost during my ‘flu bout and acquired several pounds more.

So I take no real credit for kicking the habit and don’t feel that I can ever be one of those horribly self-righteous ex-smokers who make snide comments but look envious when the smokers troop outside to sit in designated gazebo.

Hub and I didn’t know each other then. He gave up smoking at almost exactly the same time – although his habit had been whittled down to a luxurious rollie smoked at the end of a long day at work whilst strolling around his parents’ rather large garden.

We met. We moved in together. We got engaged. We moved to a house. We got married. Neither of us needed to smoke. Twenty-seven years later we still don’t need to smoke. We are very, very lucky.

But, we love our friends who are smokers and wholeheartedly empathise with those who know the perils but can’t give up.  I have often gone outside for a spot of passive smoking when attending courses and conferences – it still seems to be the cool kids that are outside having a fag.

Things are getting more difficult though; not only do intelligent smokers appreciate the potential harm of their habit, they also get penalised at work as well as at play.

 In my last office, smokers had to clock off and on, and leave the premises in order to have a cigarette – or two – or three – may as well make it worth the walk.

Management smokers, however, got round this by leaving for meetings a good ten minutes early so that rather than being on a smoke break, they were considered to be ‘en route’.  Some managers would play the same game after meetings, claiming that the meeting had only just finished despite the fact that everyone had seen them out of the window, lurking in Smoker’s Corner.

Hub and I are unanimous however in our dislike of those who use their addiction to skyve  and dump the workload off onto the non-smokers. Neither do we like having to breathe in the stench of smoke-drenched breath – get a mint or some chewy for heaven’s sake!

I also think that there should be a separate office coat stand for non-smokers.  It is revolting having to rummage under a pile of stinky coats and jackets to find my own – now equally smelly and polluted coat.

I hate it when people stand right in the doorways of shops and smoke.

I hate it when a crowd of patients, some pregnant, others on drips, all in their nightclothes, stand or sit in wheelchairs outside the entrance to the hospital – having a fag.

I used to hate it when I was in a restaurant or cafe and someone on the next table lit up a cigarette when I was still eating.

I hate it when the government starts making noises about banning e-cigarettes despite the fact that they appear to have proved a life-saver for many smokers who are desperate to give up.

I have never tried one and I’m not sure that I fancy having a ciggie substitute that tastes of vanilla, bubblegum or chocolate.

GB had a very short-lived flirtation with e-cigarettes.

Another fad.

Dining with a friend with an e-cig does not offend me. On the contrary, I am no longer deprived of their company and they aren’t sitting there twitching, having rushed through their meal because they are desperate for a nicotine fix.

I am not against smoking.  I am against dying from smoking related diseases.

‘The first of the Mohicans’

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I first met Shelley at playgroup.  I was new to the area, pregnant and with an energetic toddler.  Her little boy was very quiet by contrast; lost in a world of his own whilst my rumbustious boy cannoned round the room.  We exchanged smiles, identifying each other as outsiders from the rest of the chattering mothers.  I wasn’t able to work out why she was isolated from the group but was warmed by her friendliness, especially when it was time to go and it transpired that she lived just around the corner from us and was also pregnant.

We pushed our buggies down the road together and, surprisingly candid for a new acquaintance, she told me that she had a daughter from her first marriage, that the marriage had ended because her husband beat her, but that she had now married her childhood sweetheart and that he was the father of her son and the baby she was carrying.

Shelley wasn’t as well groomed as some of the other mothers; her conversation was simple and honest.  The love she had for her children was obvious from the way she spoke to them, but drawing on my past experience I could see that her little boy wasn’t just quiet.  There were definite signs that he had some kind of developmental delay, something was wrong.

We often walked to or from playgroup together.  We didn’t go to each other’s houses; she would have been very welcome at mine but her house was first on the route and as she seemed reluctant to ask me in, I didn’t want to put her in an awkward position.  We sat together at playgroup and although no one else spoke to us, it didn’t matter because, with one ear on their conversations, I knew that Shelley’s simple words were more honest and interesting anyway.

My baby boy was born first and I stayed away from playgroup for a while, learning to juggle the needs of two small children within the safety of my home.  By the time I made it back to playgroup, Shelley was absent having also given birth to a boy.

I saw her in the street about a month later and was slightly taken aback at her appearance.  The dowdy cotton shirt and leggings uniform adopted by so many of us mothers at the time had been replaced by a ripped black tee-shirt, black jeans and Doc Martens.  Shelley’s shoulder length hair was dyed black and cropped close to her head and she sported a piercing in the side of her nose and another in her chin.

She was accompanied by her daughter, her silent son, her equally silent husband and the new baby in a buggy.  I stopped to say hello and tried not to show my curiosity at this change in her appearance.

Smiling, Shelley told me that she and her family were on their way to church.  A church I’d often seen in passing and wondered idly what denomination it was. Shelley didn’t say – and I didn’t ask – if her transformation had come before the call to church or after. She looked happy, and I felt that having experienced the small minds and sneers prevalent in many older established religious communities when faced with the unusual, that the people attending Shelley’s church must be very accepting and open by contrast.

Shelley stopped going to playgroup and attended one at her church instead.  I had a new group of friends who invited me to their houses and to other social events. Occasionally I would see Shelley in passing; we’d wave and smile but she never stopped to talk.  Her hair went through a rainbow of colours and the piercings increased, as did the tattoos.

My eldest started school and we frequently saw Shelley at the school gates.  She was pregnant again and her youngest boy displayed all the energy that his older brother lacked. The other mothers avoided Shelley, clustering in groups and turning their backs on her when she approached.  Most of the time my husband and I dropped our son off and collected him together, so I wasn’t subject to the approval or disapproval of the mummy clique in the way that Shelley was.

After the birth of her fourth child – a girl – Shelley’s appearance became even more unusual.  Talking as someone who cried when having their ears pierced at the tender age of twenty-three, the increase in piercings and tattoos confused me and I wondered why Shelley felt the need to adorn her body in this way.  Her husband did not seem perturbed by these changes, and he continued to dress in jeans, tee-shirt and a khaki parka that he never seemed to take off.  Shelley still smiled and waved when she saw us  but we had moved to a house about a mile away and no longer saw her on the journey to and from school.

My eldest was in the same class as her eldest son.  In the way that young children do, he occasionally remarked that the lad was quiet and had a special lady to help him in classes.  My boy remembered going to playgroup with Shelley and her son, and I believe that it was this early acquaintance that led him to take a protective stance  towards Shelley’s boy throughout their years at school together.

The children progressed through primary school and without fail, Shelley and her family attended the Christmas and end of term productions, sports days and the annual fair. Without fail, heads turned, elbows nudged and snide comments were made just out of Shelley’s hearing.  She seemed impervious to it all; almost serene.

With the birth of another baby, Shelley now had three girls and two boys.  They walked to school in a strange crocodile; her eldest daughter and the two boys in school uniform, the toddler and baby dressed as most other small children of their age, with Shelley – in bondage trousers and a ripped tee shirt that  showed off her mostly religious tattoos, huge wedge boots and a face covered in piercings – always at the head of the group.  Caring and attentive, she shepherded her family across the main road, ignoring the hoots and cat calls from passing motorists.

Primary school was bad but high school was worse. At primary school people were used to Shelley but the move to a large high school that took in half a dozen primary schools brought several issues for Shelley and her family.  Her eldest daughter had managed three years without other students identifying Shelley as her mother, but her younger brother had to be brought into school by Shelley and collected by her or his father.  Other children were cruel about him and to him.  They were even more cruel about Shelley’s appearance.

Towards the end of my older son’s time at high school, along with other proud parents, we attended an evening of entertainment in the school theatre.  Shelley and her family turned up at the last minute; the children were dressed conventionally but Shelley sported a foot high black mohican; the sides of her head were closely shaved and tattooed and the wedge heeled boots were at least twelve inches tall.

A silence fell as she led her flock into the crowded auditorium.  Every eye was on her.  With the exception of her eldest son – now formally diagnosed with autism – all the children hung their heads in embarrassment.There would have been room for them to sit together if other parents and their children had swapped seats but no one would.  They just stared; stares of hostility sparked by – fear? Confusion? Or envy?

Shelley’s daughter went off the rails after leaving school.  She ran away from home and ended up living with her abusive father.  He hadn’t changed.

There was no available provision for Shelley’s eldest son. Cut loose from school he became increasingly frustrated and frightened.  His fear took the form of aggression, generally directed at his mother.  They tried so hard, Shelley and her husband, but with a new diagnosis of schizophrenia, they could no longer look after him and he was sectioned under the Mental Health Act and went to live in a secure facility.

My youngest son tells me that he is still in contact with Shelley’s younger son; he works with his father in the plumbing trade. Now both my boys have left school I don’t see Shelley, unless we happen to be driving past when she is taking the youngest children to school or collecting them.

The mohican is defiantly high, the tattoos and piercings have almost obliterated the Shelley that I remember.

It isn’t really my place to find reasons for Shelley’s behaviour or even to ask why.

Tattoos and piercings are very much a personal thing.

Perhaps it is linked to her early exposure to domestic abuse?

Perhaps she was testing those around her – especially the people at her church or the sniggering parents at school?

How did she feel when she heard the whispers, saw the sneering glances,was openly rejected by the other parents?

Did this rejection make her want to become more outrageous?

I don’t have the answers – just a bunch of psychological theories that may or may not apply.

Whatever.  I wish her well.

‘At Twenty-Two – Love Goes On’

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They say that most people have a special person – a teacher or a work colleague – who had a profound effect on their lives. Sometimes they disappear and you never see them again, sometimes they come back into your life in a most unexpected way.

In my third year at primary school I was a horror.

I was the original temper tantrum kid and if anyone – teachers especially – dared to cross me, I would leave the classroom with a screech and spend the rest of the morning or afternoon swinging and singing to myself in the playground until it was time for lunch or hometime.

This never occurred at home. My mum wouldn’t have let me get away with such behaviour.

It really began in the second year when Miss S broke a ruler across Lesley’s calves.  It was a wooden ruler and Les had a knack of tightening his calves just as the ruler hit, causing it to splinter and have no impact on his legs at all.

Miss S was not pleased and we all got detention because of Les’s legs. She stopped using the ruler though.

Up until that point I had quite liked my teachers; respect went right out of the window that day.

In my third year Mr M was our teacher. He had a goatee beard when they weren’t fashionable. He shouted a great deal, wielded the gym slipper when punishing the boys but saved his most savage criticisms for the girls. Not the pretty girls, but those like me who wore National Health glasses and hand-me-down clothes.

If I failed to answer a question in class I was stupid.  If I answered correctly I was being a smart ass – and nobody likes a smart ass.

There were a couple of us that he routinely picked on with an unprofessional glee,  but one day the worm in me turned. I had tried to shut out his noise for months but when the weather improved and the world outside seemed more appealing, I broke free.

 I got up from my seat after a particularly scathing reprimand and walked out. He grabbed my cardigan as I left the room but I shrugged out of it, screamed in his face and ran. Torn between running after me and deserting the class, Mr M stayed where he was and I sat on the swing in the playground; cold but happy to be away from the shouting that made my ears ache and my heart pound.

It took a few more of these episodes before Mr M stopped picking on me.  The school secretary spotted me on the swings two days running and brought me into her office.

She gave me a sweet and asked me why I was out of class.  I told her about the shouting and how Mr M pulled my cardigan off me and made me cry. I told her that I sat on the swings to make the bad noises go away.

The head teacher got my mum to come up to the school.  I hadn’t told her about Mr M because I thought I would get into trouble.

Mr M disappeared within half an hour and we had an elderly supply teacher who looked like someone’s grandma and read us nice stories till the end of term.

My teacher for fourth year was Mr W.  He was a games teacher with a reputation for using his spare gym shoe on any boy who messed around in games or PE.  He didn’t use it often because he tended to keep his pupils busy.

On the first day of term we had a general knowledge quiz.  I won.

At playtime, Mr W called me to his desk. He smiled and spoke very softly.

“You are very good at general knowledge.  I hear that you also write stories and poems, and that you like to draw.”

I nodded.  I had been expecting a telling off although I wasn’t sure what for.

“I like poems and stories, music and art.  I like people who enjoy learning.  Do you enjoy learning?”

I nodded even more vigorously.

“Good.  I also need you to let other people learn too, so from now on, even if you know the answer in a quiz, don’t put your hand up.  If no one else answers then I will ask you.  Okay?”

Still dumb, still nodding, but smiling too.

“I also want you to promise me that if you feel upset or angry, you won’t leave the classroom but you will write me a note about it and we will sort things out later.  Promise?”

I promised.

 I wrote poems and stories.  I answered questions when Mr W asked me.  I danced and sang and acted in Mr W’s productions. From then on, I only went on the swings at playtime or lunchtime.

He loved Greece and was a great fan of Nana Mouskouri; he used to bring her records in to play to us. I like to think that we loved him enough to listen quietly.

Not surprisingly, for such a good teacher, Mr W was offered a better position at another school and we both left at the end of the year.  I organised a whip round and managed to find three Nana Mouskouri albums that he didn’t have.  We both had watery eyes that day.

Winding life on, and at twenty-two years of age I was working as a revolting houseparent in a local authority children’s home.  One of the girls had been caught smoking behind the bike sheds at school (where else?), and I had to accompany her to a formal telling off by the new head teacher.

I think both of us felt nervous as we sat in the corridor outside the head teacher’s room.  The school secretary came out to  usher us in. part of me wanted to ask her for a sweet, then I remembered that I was a responsible adult now.

The head teacher was Mr W.  I grinned hugely as I said his name.  He hadn’t changed – well his black hair was turning grey at the edges and his moustache was more bushy than I remembered it.  He blinked a couple of times, then smiled just as hugely as he recalled my name.  No more National Health glasses or hand-me downs; I’d gone upmarket, had designer specs and penchant for jeans and rugby shirts.

The next ten minutes were spent updating each other; his progress through the ranks to his first head teacher position and my more chequered career through drama school,  bar work and after the soda syphon incident, a spell as a volunteer in a children’s home that led to my current permanent post.

My naughty girl was temporarily forgotten.  She had the sense to sit quietly whilst we talked, and when we eventually remembered her, Mr W merely frowned and told her that he didn’t want to see her in his office again.

In the three years that I worked at the children’s home, I had cause to work with Mr W on several occasions; our children were not the easiest to deal with.  Most of them had spent years being rejected and neglected, so solutions weren’t always easy.  Mr W could always be relied upon to look beyond the issues and use his imagination to motivate rather than punish. Our children thrived in his environment.

We lost touch after I qualified as a social worker and moved to another children’s centre.

I met my Hub whilst working there, and two years after we married, a familiar name caught my eye one evening as I leafed through the local newspaper.

Mr W had retired at last and was going to relocate to his beloved Greece.

Three weeks after he retired he was killed instantly by an uninsured boy racer.  The boy t-boned Mr W’s beloved Jag as he pulled out of the local Spar shop car park one Sunday morning when he went to collect the papers and some milk.

On and on like the sea
Love goes on eternally
Troubles come then they’re gone
Love goes on, on and on
Like the sea
Love goes on eternally’

 Love goes On – Nana Mouskouri 1970