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Authors: Kate Atkinson

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Behind the Scenes at the Museum (28 page)

BOOK: Behind the Scenes at the Museum
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Footnote (viii) – New Boots
T
HE END OF THE BOER WAR
!
ALL DAY LONG THE STREETS
had been full of people celebrating the news. By happy coincidence there was a great travelling fair visiting St George’s Field and Lillian and Nell were hoping to visit its gas-lit stalls and experience the thrill of being amongst the crowds on such a patriotic occasion. Albert had gone fishing with his pal Frank, and Tom was already away from home, living in lodgings in Monkgate. Lillian was fifteen now and Nelly fourteen and both were working. Lillian was at Rowntree’s in the packing department. When she’d first left school Rachel had made her go into service, but one morning Lillian had just stood there in the kitchen, her arms folded, her chin up, and said she wasn’t going to skivvy for anyone. Nell had prayed every night that her sister would get another job soon because they needed new boots so desperately and Rachel said they couldn’t have any until Lillian was bringing in a wage again. Their old boots were worn right through so that they could feel the pavement through their stocking-feet.
Nell earned hardly anything; she was apprenticed to a milliner in Coney Street and both girls had to hand over every penny of their wages to Rachel every week when she grudgingly gave them a few coppers back. They got their new boots before Lillian got her job because Lillian was so disgusted by the state of their boots that she’d gone out one day in her bare feet, and Rachel, her face red with fury, was finally goaded by embarrassment into giving them the money for new boots.

‘Can we go to the fair after tea?’ It was Lillian that asked, of course. Nell was so timid that she got Lillian to do all her talking if she could. Rachel looked right through Lillian and completely ignored her. ‘Say “please”,’ Nell whispered in her sister’s ear. Lillian screwed up her face, ‘Please can we go to the fair after tea?’

‘No.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because I said not,’ Rachel said, looking from one to the other of them as if they were both idiots. Then she picked up a pile of clean laundry and walked out of the kitchen. Lillian picked up a wooden spoon from the kitchen table and threw it after Rachel’s retreating back and to pay them back Rachel waited until they were both up in their room and then she turned the key in the door and locked them in.

They sat on their bedroom floor and laced up their new boots. They were made of soft, black leather and were the most expensive boots they’d ever had. ‘She’ll find out,’ Nell said, staring at the still unscuffed toes of her boots. ‘I don’t care,’ Lillian said, jumping up and lifting the sash. They were still living in the house in Walmgate, a poky upstairs apartment in a slum courtyard. The yard beneath their bedroom window was dank and smelt of sewage and slimy green moss covered the paving-slabs. But in the middle, through a big, cracked hole in the stones, a lilac tree had taken root many years ago, its seed blown in from some pleasant town garden along the length of dark Walmgate. Its bark was rough and torn as if someone had taken the tines of a giant fork and scratched them down the trunk, but its blossom was as rich and heavy as any tree in a grander place. Last year, Lillian had reached out from their bedroom window and torn off a great branch of it and stuck it in an old jug in their room and the heady scent of lilac had cheered them for weeks.
Nell brushed Lillian’s hair for her and tied her ribbons, then Lillian did the same for Nell. ‘I’m sure the branches will break with our weight,’ Nelly hissed as Lillian put one leg over the sill.

‘Stop fussing, Nelly,’ Lillian whispered back, one arm already grasping a branch. Lillian swung herself out and grabbed the trunk. ‘Mind your boots, Lily!’ Nell hissed as Lillian clambered down the tree. She stood at the bottom and said, ‘It’s easy, Nelly, come on.’ Nell was already sitting on the window-sill, leaning out, but then she drew back; she’d never had a good head for heights and when she looked down she felt sick – although it wasn’t so much the height that stopped her as the fear of Rachel’s wrath if she found that they’d sneaked out like this after she’d expressly forbidden them. Nell shook her head miserably. ‘I’m not coming, Lily.’ Lillian cajoled and pleaded with Nell, but it did no good and in the end she said angrily, ‘What a coward you are, Nelly! Well, I’m going even if you’re not!’ and she marched out of the yard and out of Nell’s sight without a backward glance. Nell stood for a long time at the open window. The sound of people celebrating the end of the war drifted into the courtyard on the soft air of a May evening. Nell’s tears had dried and the sky had grown a very dark blue and the first star was out before Lillian came back, her ribbons askew, her new boots scuffed and a grin of triumph on her face.

Nell opened the window for her and helped her climb back in over the sill. Lillian took a paper poke of toffee from her pocket and shared it with Nell. ‘It was really grand, Nell,’ she said, her eyes shining.

A wind got up in the night and it began to rain. Nell was woken up by the tapping of a branch of the lilac tree against the bedroom window. Nell lay with her eyes wide open in the dark, listening to Lillian’s peaceful breathing next to her. Nell wished she was more like Lillian. The rain and the tapping grew louder and the wind wilder and Nell didn’t think she’d ever get back to sleep.

CHAPTER NINE
1964
Holiday!
W
E

RE OFF
!
NOT TO SEE THE WIZARD, BUT ON HOLIDAY
. ‘We’re off!’ I say enthusiastically to Patricia.
‘Shut up, Ruby!’

Shutupruby, shutupruby. Honestly, you’d think that was my name in the World According to Patricia. She’s busy drawing obscene anatomical diagrams on the misted-up insides of the car windows. It’s cold and damp both inside and outside the car – a weather situation that doesn’t seem a good omen for our impending holiday. The self-catering years (Bridlington, Whitby) are over and the exotic destinations lie ahead of us (Sitges, North Wales) beginning with, possibly, the most foreign location of all – Scotland!

What’s more, we are travelling in convoy – or at least, in tandem – and there, at the head of our two-camel caravan, is the blue Ford Consul Classic of our friends and neighbours, the Ropers. Bunty could have been a real poker-fiend judging by her poker-face when George proposes this idea after a ‘chat’ with Mr Roper over the hedge-battlement between our suburban castles. Bunty and I are busy feeding the toaster with an assortment of bakery goods – crumpets, pikelets, tea-cakes and so on – when George tramps in from the garden, leaving mud everywhere, and says, ‘I’ve been having a chat with Clive – what do you think about going on holiday with the Ropers this summer?’ and quick as a wink, Bunty sticks her smile on and says, ‘The Ropers?’ as a tea-cake flings itself with dramatic timing out of the toaster.

‘The Ropers,’ I echo in horror, leaping to catch the tea-cake.

‘Well, why not?’ she says brightly, buttering the tea-cake and offering it to George. He declines and strides across to the kitchen sink and washes his hands. Bunty is obviously shaken because she doesn’t even point out to him that he has left a trail of muddy footprints across her red and white vinyl tiles, like something from an Arthur Murray handbook. Or footbook. A more alert man would have realized instantly that he was being cuckolded.

Occasionally, Kenneth pops up in the rear-window of the Ropers’ car, like an unlucky mascot, and makes a variety of faces – cross-eyed, tongue out, fingers in his ears – but the female Lennoxes stoically ignore him. Bunty, who’s only too grateful that she’s never had any little boys of her own, is baffled by Kenneth’s behaviour, but George is not shy of pronouncing judgement, ‘Bloody stupid little bastard.’
George hasn’t got time for Kenneth’s distractions – he needs every ounce of concentration to keep up with the Ropers. We’re terrified of losing sight of our squadron-leader because he’s the only one who knows how to get to Scotland and every so often Bunty has a fit of panic and screams at George,
He’s overtaking someone! Quick, quick – put on your indicator!
Woe betide any vehicle that gets between us and the Ropers, for it faces instant disintegration from Bunty’s brainwaves.

Still, following the Ropers in this blind slavish fashion is infinitely preferable to being subject to Bunty’s navigation which is either hit and miss –
B125, B126 – what’s the difference?
or defensive –
How should I know what the sign said. You’re the driver!
If she had an AA man on one shoulder and a spirit guide on the other she’d still get us lost, although at the moment Mr Roper doesn’t seem to be doing a much better job, taking us spiralling around the suburbs of Carlisle like a plane on a death spin (see
Footnote (
ix
)
).

‘What the bloody hell is he doing?’ George splutters as we whirl round a roundabout that we’ve circled at least twice already. ‘There’s that fish and chip shop again!’ Bunty says.

‘And that garage – what’s he playing at?’ George shakes his head. ‘I knew we should have come by Newcastle,’ he says with the bitterness of hindsight.

‘Well then, clever dick, if you thought that, you should have said something to him, shouldn’t you?’ I don’t think it’s very wise of our mother to defend her lover in public in this way. I cast a sideways glance at Patricia to see what she thinks but she’s busy committing the Kama Sutra to the steamy window. Rather childish behaviour in my opinion (which is worth nothing, of course – I am under no illusion) but not as childish as Bunty’s; she is demanding that George stop the car and let her out. It’s amazing how an argument can escalate when you take your eyes off it for just a second.

‘Oh, and what are you going to do –’ George sneers, ‘walk home from Carlisle?’ But he doesn’t get an answer because Mr Roper’s indicator suddenly starts flashing and Bunty has to alert George to this fact. ‘
He’s slowing down! He’s stopping!
’ she shrieks, and George applies the brakes so fast that my brain almost comes loose from its moorings. ‘For God’s sake,’ Patricia says nastily to noone in particular. Sometimes I would like to cry. I close my eyes. Why weren’t we designed so that we can close our ears as well? (Perhaps because we would never open them.) Is there some way that I could accelerate my evolution and develop earlids?

George and Mr Roper have a hurried consultation on the pavement, turning the map this way and that until they come to some kind of agreement. Bunty fumes in the passenger seat, fulminating indiscriminately about the stupidity of both husband and lover. Christine puts her head out of the side window and waves. Two weeks with no time off for good behaviour in the company of Christine Roper is not a prospect to relish, she treats me like a slave – if we were in Ancient Egypt I would be building a pyramid for her single-handed. I wave back obediently. There’s no sign of the baby-David, perhaps he’s strapped to the luggage-rack.

We’re off! again. ‘When are we going to eat?’ I ask plaintively.

‘Eat?’ Bunty asks in disbelief.

‘Yes, eat,’ Patricia says sarcastically. ‘You know – eat, food, ever heard of it?’

‘Don’t talk to your mother like that!’ George shouts into the rear-view mirror and Patricia sinks down in her seat so she’s out of sight of the mirror and mutters, ‘Don’t talk to your mother like that,’ again and again. Patricia now wears her hair in two thick curtains that hang drably down either side of her face – she has already discovered Joan Baez, ahead of the Top Ten, which I regard as very
avant garde
of her – and talks a lot about things like ‘injustice’ and ‘racial prejudice’ (in America, that is, we don’t really have coloured people in York, to Patricia’s disappointment. Every single face in assembly at Queen Anne’s each morning is a pasty white. The nearest thing we have is Susannah Hesse, a very clever German girl on an exchange year. Patricia is always cornering her and asking her if she feels discriminated against). Naturally, Patricia has my complete support in her campaign against injustice, but George says she should pay more attention to her A Levels. She has recently ‘chucked’ Howard which may account for the appearance of a previously unmined seam of moodiness. Although it may just be a further refinement in her character.

We play ‘Spot the . . .’ for a while – Spot the red cars, Spot the telephone boxes – Spot anything really. Somewhere south of Glasgow we leave the main road and stop at a hotel for lunch. Usually when we’re out in the car we take a hastily-made picnic and eat it as we drive along, so this is indeed a sophisticated departure from the norm. Bunty preens herself before stepping out of the car; she is after all, about to have lunch in a hotel with her lover, which is quite a romantic thing to do, even with the drawback of two spouses and five children. Hang on a minute – there’s something missing from this inventory, isn’t there? I turn a puzzled face to Patricia. ‘What did we do with Rags?’

‘Rags?’

We both look at the back of our mother’s head; she’s peering into her powder-compact so we can see not only the back of her head but also bits of her face moving about in the little mirror. ‘What did you do with Rags?’ we chorus.

‘The dog?’ She’s got her off-hand voice on – always a danger sign. ‘Don’t worry about him, he’s taken care of.’

Patricia’s suddenly very alert. ‘What do you mean “taken care of”? Like Hitler took care of the Jews?’

‘Don’t be silly,’ Bunty says in her don’t-be-a-fusspot voice and paints on the dazzling smile of a scarlet woman. This conversation is fatally interrupted by George banging on the car window, telling us all to hurry up because we haven’t got all day. ‘Ah, but we have,’ says Patricia. ‘We have all day today, and then all day tomorrow and so it goes on until the crack of doom, believe me.’

‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, Patricia,’ Bunty says, snapping her compact shut. ‘Just get a move on, will you?’

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