This was in the time before shoulder pads and power dressing. It was the time of long hair and curls, before short hair, shorn and sharp. Before the time of sharp edges.It was the time of Laura Ashley, tiered gypsy skirts, floral prints and broderie anglaise.
Mamie was an absurd name, she thought. It was a name for 1940 films and magnolias, Technicolor high kicks, Busby Berkley, camera angles: A name that was out of place in a small Welsh city. A name for three year olds. She strode ontowards the park, glad to be free for a bit. At least, she felt, her life was beginning to look more normal.
The sun warmed the hedges that gave off the scent of wood and pine. She thought of the quiet house she had left with the Sunday lunch smells of gravy and cabbage, where the sun gleamed on the cooker, taps, and the cupboards smelling of meths after the weekly wipe down. Her mum said it didn’t leave smears on the high gloss. Teatowel folded neatly on the cooker plates. Mamie frowned. No there was nothing she had forgotten. The washing was pegged out, her mother had water next to the bed along with magazines and spectacles and was likely sleep for the next few hours,anyway,worn out by the heat. Mamie tightened her grip on the book in her hand and strode a little faster. There would be time to read in the park before the others got there.
The hedges that lined the park cast shadows on the uneven pavestones on the tree lined road. Here and there the pavement exploded where the roots of the lime trees burst through the pavement so that it looked like broken pie crust. But it was green, fragrant and lovely. Mamie stepped into the newsagent and blinked in the dim light. She bought some chewy toffees to share in choir practice. ‘Half a quarter, is it love?’ Mrs Jenkins smiled at Mamie who laughed back. ‘No half a pound please. And anyway I was only four when I made that mistake.’
‘I’ve never forgotten it, love. You were only a little itty bit of a thing. Tiny with a blue bow, black hair and all blue eyes! You could barely see over the counter and you’re not much taller now, love.’ Mamie grimaced. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘I hate being short. But at least I’ve got these.’ She pointed to the heels on her sandals. And no bloody bows.’ Mrs Jenkins put a handful of chewy toffees, pear drops and pineapple cubes into a smaller bag. ‘Language! The chocolate’s for your dog. But you can have the rest. How’s your mam?’
‘She’s alright, thanks resting now. Just dizzy all the time!’
‘First time back at choir practice, is it? You are a good girl. Try and relax and enjoy. I’ll be over later for Evensong. That new vicar’s lovely… ‘As a voice just like Alec Guinness ‘e does.’
‘What is it with old ladies and 1940 films?’Mamie wondered as she clicked shut the lychgate to the park. She settled beneath an oak tree and leaned against the trunk. Her copy of Persuasion was brand new. Seventy -Five pence from the university bookshop. Mamie inspected the cover and settled to read. Her mother didn’t like her going through the park alone, so she hadn’t bothered telling her. Besides, the church steeple towered reassuringly above her. She hoped there was nothing new on the menu board that evening. Sight reading was all well and good but it was stressful when there were only two altos and the grannie sopranos and Mrs Jenkins sang sharp.
On the cover, Anne Eliot gazed out of the window from a large drawing room decorated in blues and greens. She looked lonely Mamie thought and far younger than her age. It must be hard being the odd one out in a family, the one who everyone gossiped about because she was the girl who had lost her bloom. She looked lost somehow in the large Regency drawing room. Mamie turned page after page. ‘How could Anne have given up simply to oblige others?’ She wondered; suddenly cross with Lady Russell”s interference. She read on,sitting crosslegged on the grass, crunching pear drops.
Mamie looked up distracted by the sounds of pop music. She smiled as her friends-other members of the church choir-danced across the grass. ‘We hey welcome back, we missed you. You ok?’ Annest and Iestyn smiled at her and carried on dancing to Blondie’s Heart of Glass
‘Yeah fine. Just catching up with some reading. I got loads to do if I’m to catch up with the rest of my set. I’ve missed two book reviews as it is, and I’ve been told I’ve got to do them.’
‘Wow that’s mean! You can have my notes.’ Clair, her best friend, said settling on the grass. She pulled on a can of Coke and offered some to Mamie.’How’s your mum?’
‘She’s fine, great. I’m fine too. It was crazy for a bit: ambulances,doctors,machines, blue lights,beeping lights,and all that; all a bit ni-no-ni-no, if you know what I mean.’ Mamie forestalled the questioning and settled her best friend’s need for drama.
She preferred not to think about the last month or so when no one would let her stay on her own but equally no onehad wanted full responsibility for her. It had left Mamie feeling displaced and in the way.
Certainly no one had wanted Lucy the dog, so after catching the bus to school, Mamie had sneaked home on most days. It had been easy enough to slip out of school through the side gate. No one had noticed she was missing. Her temporary guardians thought she was in school and school thought she was with her mum. In fact she and Lucy had been curled up in a duvet watching black and white films or listening to taped cassettes of the top twenty. She’d dropped out for virtually a whole month and no one had noticed.
The Sunday afternoon traffic was sleepy and slow, swishing towards the cross roads. Annest and Iestyn kissed and cuddled on the grass, Mamie read and Clair rolled down her socks, hitched her skirt and sunbathed. Mamie smiled it was good being back together but seeing Annest and Iestyn as an item was something she had not anticipated. Louisa Musgrove had just jumped for the second time when Mamie snapped her book shut. ‘Honest you two you sound like a slush puppy machine. Slurp slurp slurp.’ Annest sat up up, adjusted herself. Her eyes narrowed and she calmly combed out her hair. ‘What’s the matter, Mamie? Jealous?’
‘Ugh, no! Just that it’s so public!’
‘There’s only us, here.’ Iestyn said. ‘It’s alright Mamie Fach. We’ll start courting like Anne Eliot there.’
Iestyn stood up sketched a flamboyant bow towards Clair and Mamie then extended his arm to Annest. ‘ Turn up the radio, Mames,’ he shouted. He and Annest danced on the grass parodying a minuet. Clair and Mamie rolled on the grass giggling.’ Hit me with thy stick of the rhythm. Hittest me thou rhythmic stick. No wait! I’ve got it.’ Iestyn stood and waited for the girls’ laughter to die. ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good stick…’
‘Iestyn!’Annest snapped. Clair shook her head in disbelief and Mamie just put her hands over her eyes. What an afternoon! She needed to get away. It was too much.’I’m going to the vestry to the toilet.’ She picked up the spent cans of Coke. ‘I’ll bring back some drinks.’
‘Biscuits?’ Annest asked. ‘All that dancing has made me hungry.’
‘No, it’s all that necking! You used up far too many calories,’ Mamie retorted.
The three friends watched Mamie walk away from them. ‘Think she’ll be alright, Clair?’ Annest rolled on her side and propped her head on her elbow looking at her friend. ‘Dunno, really. She’s missed lots of work. She’s got masses of reading to catch up on just for English. She hasn’t done any pracs for Biol or Chem.’ Annest threw dried grass at her. ‘Idiot! I wasn’t thinking about her school work… Her mum’s been really ill.’
‘Oh that! she said she was fine.’
Mamie strolled through the memorial garden towards the church. The vestry was chilly after basking in the sunny parkland and Mamie’s skin prickled as the temperature cooled and her eyes adjusted in the whitewashed gloom. She guessed the others would be gossiping and speculating about her. But that was ok. She knew it wasn’t malicious.
Annest’s flash of temper though had left her worried. She’d missed all the intricate manoeuvrings of relationships in form four and was unsure where she stood in the pecking order after a long absence. Being the youngest and shortest school wasn’t always much fun. She thought about it and whistled tunelessly as she collected the drinks and the biscuits. She was under no illusions she would fail this year but hoped to do well enough in her best subjects to salvage some pride along with a back up plan of sorts. There were cans of orange soda left from a previous party so she stuffed those into a carrier bag along with a pack of plain biscuits. It wouldn’t do to steal the chocolate biscuits!
Mamie had stepped through the arched doorway and had almost reached the lychgate when he called her name. Mamie turned back towards the doorway flushing slightly knowing that she had taken the food without permission. ”Well, well, Mamie it’s good to see you. What have you got in the bag?
‘Just a few bits,we’re having a catch up in the park.’ She stepped closer showing the contents of the carrier bag. ‘See? Four cans and some biscuits. I’ll replace them next week. We were just celebrating: Clair, Iestyn, Annest …Mamie’s babbling subsided as she gestured towards the park. She looked at him her eyes darkening with confusion.
‘I hear your mam’s not been well;that you’ve been looking after her…’ He leaned on his staff and limped closer. She thought of first world and second world wars, of shrapnel and shell shock, brandy and pipe smoke. ‘Yeah, I’ve….’
‘I hear you’ve been a very good girl. It must have been so hard…’
Mamie recalled the afternoons spent listening to recordings of the top twenty, the endless reruns of Bette Davis and Deanna Durbin; the mad dash to catch the service bus to whichever one of her mum’s friends was supposed to be looking after her; the long hospital visits in the evenings and making a pretence of homework.The Saturday afternoon cups of tea with the lingering smells of Jeyes fluid and other,darker, hospital smells rose up to meet her.’Kind of,’she said. Then shook the memories from her like a dog as yet more goospimples rose on her neck and arms.
He stretched out his arm and with it the smell of sweat.
Mamie held her breath. There were hundreds of bees this year, she thought, watching them dance through the rosebeds lined with lavender. The beds were a kaleidoscope spinning in front of her eyes then her eyes focused on the bees as they dipped and dived between petals; their sound filling her ears. Pinks, reds, whites and yellows jumbled together and she closed her eyes. Opened them again and looked at the parched earth cracking beneath the woody stems. She wondered when it would rain again and who would dig out the weeds. She heard Mrs Jenkins telling her she was a lovely girl a good girl; yet the bees still ducked and dived. The lavender was stiff and grey – bleached and parched in the sunshine. Her focus switched to the flower beds and she watched as one by one, petals dropped to the earth, crinkled and scorched by the sun.
A can of soda exploded on the floor, frothed then dried on the hot tarmac. The ants came quickly feasting on spilled sugar. Just as suddenly he dropped his arm.
Mamie stared after him as he limped away, his staff thudding rhythmically with the drag of his foot.She watched his cloak brush against the flowers and another rose dropped its petals. Mamie thought of Anne Eliot; the girl who was gossiped about because she had lost her bloom. And then the bees were quiet.