Tommy Glover's Sketch of Heaven

TOMMY GLOVER'S
SKETCH OF HEAVEN

Jane Bailey

 

For the greatest creations I have ever had a hand in:
Anna and Lucy

Contents

Title Page
Dedication
April showers
Knitting for victory
And by the way, if you never go to school …
My Uncle Jack
You like tomaytoes
Shagging
Command rescue
A little on the lonely side
Germ warfare
Skeletons in the cupboard
Counting ourselves lucky
Sketching heaven
There, I've said it again
Careless … or do you just care less for me?
Guess I'll hang my tears out to dry
Glorious things of Thee are spoken
You may not be an angel …
Blueberry Hill
You are my sunshine
A man and his dream
(Not) In the mood
Boogie-woogie bugle boy
Gossip: The city charmer, the farmer, the man in the moon
People will say we're in love
I'm gonna see my baby
Say something sweet to your sweetheart
Poor hurt people
Dumbo
The way you look tonight
Chattanooga choo choo
More secrets revealed
Paper doll to call my own
Shagging in the barn
Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me
Moonlight cocktail
Tommy's secret
Baby, it's cold outside
Aunty Joyce's secret
Slow boat to China
Ain't misbehavin'
Filth
Sheepcote blitzkrieg
Run, rabbit, run
Try a little tenderness
Victory polka
Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye
Sentimental journey (Late April, 1956)
Long ago and far away
Wild garlic
Tea for two
Those little white lies
Dear hearts and gentle people
I'll be with you to change your name to mine
Raining violets
A sketch of heaven
An interview with Jane Bailey on how she came to write Tommy Glover's Sketch of Heaven
About the Author
Also by Jane Bailey
Copyright

People watched me like foxes. There was an intrigue about me which had nothing to do with my thin face and my scruffy accent, but it was a long time before I understood the furtive glances, the sly exchange of looks.

I need to tell you my story. Not just because you have told me yours (and it beggars belief, it really does. All these years, and I didn't have a clue … not a clue). The thing is, mine is a different story to me now, now that I'm grown up. I told it – most of it – the other day for the first time in eleven years, and as I was telling it things kept dawning on me – hitting me, real swipes from the past, making connections. It was when I started teaching practice here last month. There I was, all ready to stand and learn, take in those half-familiar surroundings – join in a bit maybe – when Miss Pegler said she was off to the station and would I stand in for a while. Meeting some person about plans for the new school building, and it was important. She wouldn't be long (and of course she was all morning). She said perhaps the children would like to hear about when I was a girl in Sheepcote.

Well, that was the last thing I wanted to remember, as you can imagine, but the door closed behind her and up shot all these hands: Miss, miss, tell us about the war, miss. Wuz you bombed, miss? Did you see a Lancaster? You from London, miss? Wuz you blitzed? And their cut-in-half exercise books, their burry Gloucestershire accents, the pong of inkwells and desk polish and the stove hurled me back in time. I can smell it now …

 

From the moment she picks me in the village hall, I am confused about Aunty Joyce. There aren't many of us – maybe only half a dozen bussed as far as Sheepcote. We're six weeks ahead of the big evacuation in June, but our homes have been bombed so we're urgent cases. We're all given an apple, and it's so long since I've had one that I can't remember how to eat it, so I'm still munching, cross-legged, when the posse of women come in and crowd around the coat hooks at the back of the hall. They are all wearing hats or headscarves and some have gloved hands, which they put to each other's ears while they're talking. We are looked up and down and plucked out like teams in a playground, and ticked off on the clipboard by an eagle-beaked billeting officer and sent out to disappear with a stranger into the afternoon sunshine.

There are only two of us remaining, myself and a boy, when we're told to stand up. There's a beautiful film star and a woman with a face like a potato. Face-like-a-spud chooses the boy, and he picks up his gas mask. But then the film star says she can't have a girl. With instant sympathy, Spud-face offers to swap, but the other one looks me up and down then opens her beautiful clamped lips and says she can't take anyone, after all. Her sympathetic companion leaves with the boy, and the billeting officer gathers her papers and goes out of the door defiantly, leaving us alone.

“Come on then,” say the full red lips, and she walks so fast I can hardly keep up with her.

*    *    *  

Our old neighbour has a book of fairy stories with beautiful colour pictures. The fairies flit through green fields and hedgerows, make clothes out of flower petals, and perch on red toadstools. I've always imagined these things to be part of myth, along with the fairies. But as I follow this beautiful lady up the pale stoned lane I'm overwhelmed with a sense of walking through these book illustrations. Everywhere there is green. Pink, yellow and white flowers lean out from either side of the lane as if waving and cheering us on our way, and overhead the trees hold hands in an archway of green. I've had a glimpse of this in the bus from the station, but now I'm up close and right inside this reek of pollen and dung, a smell which will always whisk me back to that hybrid moment of awe and apprehension. I feel the person I have been slipping away already, and the animal I am begins to stir. I sniff the air, I crane my neck to see the invisible songsters that fill the leaves, I draw deep breaths of pungent countryside.

A bicycle bell sounds behind us. “Joyce!”

We turn and see a woman in WVS uniform pushing hard on the pedals of a tricycle with a full basket on the back. As she catches up with us she plants a flat brown lace-up on the yellow ground and smiles keenly. She has the clean determined jawline of a fighter pilot.

“Joyce, can I say ‘knickers' to you?”

My lady manages a smile.

“Would you like to see my collection? Why don't I cycle on up to your house and you can take your pick?”

At the end of our walk is another picture from that story book. A row of three terraced cottages of yellow-grey stone, and a cream-painted door barely visible through a tangle of strange leafy stems and purple flowers.

The knickers lady has dismounted and is joyously waiting for us. There is an exaggerated swing to her arms as she follows us up the path with such energy that she nearly swipes me in the face.

Inside, the dark hallway leads us to a back parlour smelling of soot and paraffin and onions.

“And this must be …?” she says, smiling at each of us in turn. My lady finds the tag hanging from my coat buttonhole, flips it over and reads: “Kitty Green.” Then she selects some suitable items from the basket that has been brought in, holding them between thumb and forefinger.

“Kitty! What a pretty name!” says the knickers lady. She studies me intently. That look again – a mixture of pity and anxiety. Is it only with hindsight that I can recognize a nervousness in that smile? There is so much to take in all at once: new colours, new landscape, new faces, new accents, new smells. Perhaps I do smell trouble, but it gets lost in this scrum of new aromas.

And so I am kitted out in second-hand woollens, one skirt that is too short and one that is too long and, on my lady's insistence,
four
pairs of knickers (all on the baggy side). I have only ever had one pair and made do without on washday. Even though the visitor insists that all her clothes are spotlessly clean, my lady plops the underwear in a pot for a boil, just in case. Then she makes me take off my clothes and stands me in a tub in front of the range while she opens the range door, picks up my clothes with a pair of wooden tongs, and puts them on the fire.

“'Ere, that's all I got!” I protest, but she is unmoved.

The visitor looks down at her basket and bites her lip. “My name's Miss Lavish!” she says suddenly, holding out her hand, and then in a whisper, “My first name's Lavinia – isn't it ridiculous?”

I shake her hand. It is the first time I've been touched since I left Paddington station.

“What's
your
name, then?” I ask my lady.

“Mrs Shepherd.” She pours warm water on me from a jug, and I can smell carbolic soap.

“Joyce …” Miss Lavish looks at her and then at me. There is a silence. My hair is being pulled through a tiny-toothed comb and gusts of exasperation are being breathed down my neck. “Mrs Shepherd is a very kind lady.” Miss Lavish gathers her things and walks towards the parlour door. “And I'm sure she'll let you call her Aunty Joyce if you behave yourself.”

My head is yanked hard by the comb, with a sigh. “Aunty Joyce then,” says Aunty Joyce flatly. “Honestly, you should see the nits in this. Absolutely lousy! The size of
woodlice
!”

Miss Lavish opens the door smiling. “Lavender and geranium oil. That'll do the trick. I'll leave you to it then, Joyce. If there's anything you want … remember I'm just next door!”

Then she gives me that look, searching already for something in my face. She smiles and is gone.

 

People watch me like foxes. There is an intrigue about me, which has nothing to do with my thin face or my scruffy accent, and it is a long time before I understand the furtive glances, the sly exchange of looks. For I am a stranger like any number of strangers in wartime, but I am something more. I am set amongst two strangers to each other: Mrs Shepherd and her husband. I am in the intimate space of each, where no one else has ventured or been able to venture, and I am observed like litmus paper.

Aunty Joyce dries my hair vigorously with a crisp towel. She says nothing, and all I can hear is the scrunch scrunch inside my scalp as she yanks my head around. Then she packs me off to play in the garden in unfitting clothes, so the sun can dry the rest of it.

Out the back is a long garden planted with vegetables on the right and full of chickens on the left. The path through the middle leads to the back wall, the ash heap, a shed and a curious small hut covered with creeper, which must be the lav. The back wall is low and made of the same lemon-grey stone as the house, with upright stones piled on top. Every now and then there is a gash in it, showing the bright yellow stone underneath the shell. Over the wall is a field rising slowly up to the sky. I have never seen an unbroken horizon like this, and I stand and gaze at it in disbelief. Straight ahead, in the distance, is a beautiful story-book tree, and over to the left are farm buildings and barns. I can see people moving about the landscape, bent over the golden grass, bending and straightening up, and hear the tat-tat-tat of a machine somewhere out of sight.

I sit down on a wooden crate and imagine my mum's arms, trying manfully not to cry, but I do. A tortoiseshell cat comes trotting out of nowhere and rubs her entire body against my legs. Back and forth she goes, pushing the whole length of herself into my legs, and I take comfort in her velvety fur. I imagine her to be delighted, startled at the strength of my affection, unused to warmth of any sort in this cold and silent home.

After half an hour or so Aunty Joyce emerges in the sunshine and pegs up my newly boiled knickers without looking at me.

“What's the cat called?” I venture.

“Oh … her. Kemble. My husband found her at Kemble station. When he got back, there she was in the guard's van. Reckons she got on without a ticket, and never wanted to go back.”

I nod slightly, as if to say ‘I see', but I have no idea what she's talking about.

“Daft name really. Good job she didn't get on at Bristol Temple Meads!” Aunty Joyce laughs. I chuckle too. Then she looks at me for a moment or two with curiosity rather than kindness.

“Come on! Let's find you an egg for your tea, shall we?”

She beckons me over to the chicken coop, and I approach gingerly. One hen squawks and runs across me flapping. Their eyes stare at me, blinking upwards with their bottom lids, and their heads do strange jerky movements back and forth. They don't like me, I can tell.

“Come on.” Aunty Joyce opens a hatch door in the coop and reaches out for my hand. Her hand is cool and still damp from washing, and she places mine under the warm breast of a ginger hen. It flutters off indignantly, and I see two eggs, then three, four, in the straw bedding.

“She didn't lay them all, did you, Gloria?” She picks two up and nods at me to take the other two.

“Won't she mind?”

Aunty Joyce shakes her head, and I cradle the eggs, stuck with dirt and feather down, one in each hand.

For tea we have boiled eggs with deep orange yolks and cut-up toast, which Aunty Joyce dips into her egg. I copy her: it is delicious. I can't believe I'm having egg, and I can't believe where it came from. I'm not so sure about the two green leaves which are next to it on the plate. Aunty Joyce attacks hers with a knife and a fork. I try to copy her but end up using my fingers. I take one nibble and feel like spitting it out. She rebukes me for moving on to the bread and jam, but it is scrumptious. The bread smells sweet, and the jam is runny and full of dark fruit.

These small miracles hold back the tears.

 

After tea I am marched back down the lane to the village hall. I am convinced Aunty Joyce is going to return me as unsatisfactory goods. Despite the sense of rejection, I am relieved. Now I may get to be sent home and see my mum.

But inside the hall a group of women are sitting in a circle on steel-tubed canvas chairs, and as we get closer I see that they are all knitting.

“Joyce!” they all say, but it is me they are looking at.

There is Miss Lavish smiling at me and there, once again, is Face-like-a-spud, pulling a chair up for me. “You knit before? Come and sit here, my love, and I'll show you how tiz done.”

“I'll show her,” says a baggy-faced lady. “I just finished my gloves, look. I'll show her what to do.”

“Suit yourself.”

“What's your name then?”

“Kitty,” answers Miss Lavish on my behalf. “We've already made friends, haven't we, Kitty? Remember my name?”

“Lavinia Lavish,” I say, and because I haven't come across the name before, I say it without an accent.

There is a chuckle.

“And while we're here,” whispers Miss Lavish, eager with delight at her own swipe at convention, “you can call me Aunty Lavinia!”

“So long as she don't call you Aunty Lav!” says Baggy. More chortles. “I'm Mrs Tugwell. But you'd better call me Aggie, then.” Perfect. Baggie Aggie.

It gets better. Face-like-a-spud is Mrs Tabby Chudd, there's Mrs South with a very tight mouth, and Mrs Marsh with a small moustache, and of course Mrs Glass with the very big arse.

One woman looks like a tramp, and doesn't introduce herself. She certainly gives off a breathtaking stink of stale sweat, and the others seem to have shifted their chairs a little away from hers. Baggie Aggie is plump and smiley and she wants to teach me to knit. I can already knit a little, but choose not to reveal this, because I'd like to amaze them with my fast learning. Suddenly, I see a small chink of affection, and I am desperate to impress.

But after their avowals of intimacy, the women launch into conversation as if I'm not there. After ten minutes of guidance by Baggie Aggie's fat hands, I am left to get on with my knitting. They talk about their families, the war, the vicar, the evacuees, they even talk about me. It's as if by concentrating hard on my stocking stitch and displaying more intense interest in my ‘egg cosy' than it deserves, I have successfully convinced them of my non-existence.

Aggie Tugwell, the grocer's wife, knits and speaks very fast indeed. Because she has a boy and a girl of school age, she aligns herself with my beautiful Aunty Joyce and takes great delight in offering her a stream of advice on diet and routine, although it is clear that Aunty Joyce never seeks advice from anyone. But Aggie's needles dart like her tongue, and if it weren't for the need to take a breath no one else would say a thing.

Tabby Chudd-like-a-spud runs the post office with her husband and is the proud mother of Betty, a girl in the top standard at the school, it seems. There is barely a sentence uttered that doesn't relate to Our Betty. Even the Allies' advance into France can't escape: “Talking of advances, you should see Our Betty's handwriting …!” And there is little doubt that when the war is eventually won, Betty will have had something to do with it, in one way or another.

Aunty Joyce is not so much quiet as unrevealing. She surprises me by babbling along with the rest of them about who is the best living actor and what is showing at the Plaza and who was seen holding whose hand and a new wool shade, ‘ox-blood', and where you can get a decent piece of haddock if you're prepared to take the bus. From time to time they look about shiftily and get their teeth into some local nogooder. This is the best bit of all, because I get to hear the shadiest gossip and to see their true colours. Only Aunty Joyce holds back a bit, and dear Miss Lavish tries to find the good in everyone.

Then suddenly, to my delight, the old tramp in the corner will break her silence by puckering her warty lip and snarling, “Tosser!” And conversation carries on as if she has merely noted that it is chilly for the time of year. Although she seems like a tramp to me, I soon find out Mrs Galloway has a respectable background as a carrier's wife and lives in the almshouses, too world-weary to wash at her one cold pump and too adrift from her life to care.

When Aunty Joyce puts down her knitting and counts how many there are for tea and cocoa there is a rustle of anticipation. As soon as she is in the kitchen they turn their eyes on me.

“How are you settling in, my love?” “She's all right, you know, our Joyce.” “Don't be put off – she've 'ad a 'ard time.”

I tell them that I am fine and that I have had a lovely tea with a real egg, except I had to eat leaves and we don't eat leaves back home. They all chuckle and call me a card. I think maybe they don't believe me.

“You wait till you meet Mr Shepherd. He's a
train driver
, he is! He's a –”

I am already picturing myself perched cheerily by his side travelling the length of Britain in the driver's cab, when there comes a snarl from the corner: “Tosser!”

 

The first night at Weaver's Cottage is a complicated one for me. To start with Aunty Joyce shows me a chamber pot veined with tiny cracks and says, “Now you know where it is, there's no excuse. I won't have any dirty bed-wetting in this house,” and she shoves the thing under the bed with a look of disgust. I never need a chamber pot at night, and my indignation is softened by the thought of how surprised she'll be by my clean sheets and empty chamber pot in the morning.

The next thing I know I'm being shoved beside the bed myself.

“Kneel,” she says. “We say our prayers kneeling, not in bed like some folks.”

I look up at her for guidance, and fumble with my hands until my palms are touching. She sighs as though this is yet more confirmation of the horror of taking me into their home. No doubt she'll tell her husband I don't even say my prayers and that all Londoners are clearly heathens.

“Close your eyes. I suppose I'll have to start you off: ‘Dear Lord, thank you for delivering me safely to Sheepcote, and for the good food on my plate, and the cleanliness of this house.' There. Now you carry on.”

I swallow. She seems to have about covered everything. If thank yous are all you're allowed to say then I'm stumped.

“Um … Dear God … look after Mum and Dad for me …” I open one eye and see Aunty Joyce nod her approval. “Don't let Dad be killed and don't let Mum be killed by a bomb on the munitions factory … or the twins … and may Granny James and Dad and Mum and the twins all live till they're at least a hundred … that's it.”

“Amen.”

“Our men.”

She ushers me into bed, pats my arm and blows out the candle before closing the door behind her.

I've been itching for this moment all day, so that I can cry in peace without being seen. But it is not so easy.

I look into the dark. It is the darkest dark I have ever known. I cannot remember life without blackouts, but there is something different about this, which terrifies me.

There is no sound of people walking about outside. No steady burr of vehicles going past. There are no merry voices spilling out from the pub next door, no sirens, no one shouting to put lights out. There is just a curious sound of a kettle on full steam coming from outside. It turns out to be the trees rustling. And there is the odd howl of a dog – or is it a wolf?

After a few hours of terror I hear muffled voices downstairs. There is a man's voice, and then the creaking of stairs. A few more creaks and clunks, then silence. I fumble for the matches and light the candle and fill the chamber pot. The shadows make me catch my breath. A moth flutters past my face and I let out a little squeak of horror. Everywhere I look there are spiders and moths clinging to the walls. They are within inches of the pillows, moths with wings folded ready to flap flap flap; spiders with enough legs to sprint across your face, down under the bedcovers – anywhere – in the folds of your nightie – anywhere!

I head for the landing and see the other door. It opens into their room: two mounds in a double bed, a dark wardrobe, a dressing table, and the strange musty wood smell like the inside of pianos. I creep under the covers next to Aunty Joyce.

In the morning, I wake up in my own bed.

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