Bren Bannister

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Published short stories

 

This one, which was published by Woman's Weekly a couple of years ago, is a kind of tribute to my parents' generation and some of the stories I heard growing up.

 

Stick by Me

Ink and splodge v2 (Small)

'Finish your tea, love.'

    The young woman topped up Jean's cup and slid a plate with a slice of seed cake towards her. 'Your grandson won't be here for half an hour yet.'

   Jean screwed up her forehead impatiently, but she ate the cake. She liked this lass; she was her favourite among the care workers, even if she couldn't remember her name.

  'Am I going out, then?' she said.

  'You've got yourself a date, Jean,' the girl laughed.  Was she called Amy... or Annie perhaps? 'I don't suppose it's the first time - I bet you led your mum and dad a right old dance when you were a girl.'

  She could remember that all right. What was it Mum used to say? 'Patience is a virtue our Jean has yet to learn.' But she'd grown up in wartime; no-one knew what would happen. What good did patience do you then?

***

Jean leaned over the table and scraped a long ridged curl of yellow margarine to spread on her toast.

  'Sit down, girl,' her father said, 'you shouldn't eat on the hop.'

  'I can't, Dad.' She swapped the toast from hand to hand as she shrugged her arms into her jacket, then jingled a heavy bunch of keys under her father's nose.  'I've got to open the shop.'

  Her mum took the knitted cosy off the old enamel pot and poured her tea. ''You must be doing well, Jean, if Mr Carter trusts you with the keys," she said, "but you're still only fifteen. Now the war's over, you could go back to school and finish your exams.'

  Jean wiped her fingers on her hanky, swallowed a gulp of sweet tea and ran her tongue around her teeth. 'I know I could, Mum, but I'm working now. School's for kids. Look, I've got to go - see you later!'

  Perhaps she shouldn't have left in the first place, but a year ago exams had been the last thing on her mind. The schoolgirls retreated to the cloakrooms each time the sirens went off, half-heartedly chanting French verbs and wondering what sort of protection a heap of gaberdine raincoats would afford if the school took a hit. Far better to take your chances in the world.

  'Got a taste of independence,' grunted her dad, 'cash in her pocket and talking to the lads in that shop of hers.'

  'As long as they're the right sort of lad,' Mum added.

  Jean slipped her bare feet into black court shoes and skipped out of the front door, dodging the raindrops on the overgrown privet hedge that lined the front path, filling the air with its musky odour. It was just as well her parents didn't know about Jack Souter; she was pretty sure they wouldn't think he was the right sort of lad..

Jack had been on her radar a long time, because, like her, he hadn't been evacuated. He'd left school at fourteen and been helping on the milkround for the last three years. While Jean had made her way to school each day, feeling distinctly dowdy in her brown serge blazer and scratchy woollen stockings, she'd watched as Jack's agile figure jumped effortlessly from the cart, delivering pints and collecting the empties while the old milkman and his horse kept up a steady plodding pace. He had an unruly thatch of fair hair that seemed to defy the barber's art and his laughing blue eyes glinted with mischief. He was the handsomest boy she'd ever seen.

A months or so after she left school, he asked her out. At first she thought her sophisticated new image must have impressed him. She now wore a slim blue skirt and a crisp white blouse with her mum's rhinestone brooch pinned to the collar; her hair, released from its schoolgirl plaits, bounced on her shoulders in light brown rolls. But the truth was, he said, that he'd been too scared to ask her before. She'd looked so serious, carting that bulging satchell and tennis racquet to the grammar school each day; but now, stood behind the sweet shop counter, dispensing strawberry creams in return for ration coupons, it was another matter entirely.

'What about those other girls?' she asked, knowing he'd dated at least two or three from her school already.

'I was just practising, doll. Building up me nerve.' He had a way of raising one eyebrow, putting his head on one side like a young cocker spaniel; she never knew if he was laughing at her.

 

Thursday was half-day closing. She told her mum she was meeting her school friend, Elizabeth, but she went with Jack to the pictures; not to the local cinema, but the Empire, a couple of miles further down the road. He spotted a trolley bus at the traffic lights and grabbed her hand, pulling her on board. The conductor was on the top deck so they rode on the platform for a stop or two, holding on to the pole and leaning out into the warm summer's air.

They jumped off at the next junction, when Jack spotted the man's black boots on the stair.

'We never paid!' Jean was both outraged and exhilerated.

'Doesn't hurt anybody.'

She told him what her dad would say - what would happen to the buses if everybody did that? But Jack just laughed and said that he wasn't like everybody, and nor was she.

There was a queue outside the Empire and a skinny boy of about twelve detached himself from it and sidled up to them. Jack gave him a friendly cuff on the shoulder saying, 'All right, Billy?'

Jean looked at them both enquiringly.

'He's me step-brother. His mum Maureen married me dad. Don't worry, he's not sitting with us, just getting us in.' Jack counted some coppers into the boy's hand, 'You know what to do, Bill. Get yourself a half ticket and sit near the front. When the lights go down, go to the lav and push the fire door open a bit.'

He took her hand and led her round the corner, past several dustbins and a fire escape which zig-zagged down the side wall of the building. A closed door in blistered red paint stood beneath the open stairs.

'Jack, we don't have to go in,' she said. 'We can go for a walk if you don't have enough money.'

'Who's not got money?' he said. 'I'm just careful how I spend it – I'd rather buy something special for you.'

'Well you don't need to buy sweets,' she said, indicating a paper bag in her pocket. 'A big box of peppermint creams got squashed and Mr Carter gave me these.'

'You'll have to drop some more next week.' He thrust his hand into her jacket pocket and fished out a chocolate, then bit it in two and popped half in her mouth saying, "Stick close to me, sweetheart, you'll be ok.'

'Oi, cheeky,' she laughed, 'they're supposed to be for when we're watching the film!'

A sudden dull clunk came from the far side of the door. Jack leaned against it and it edged open.  He put his head around the door cautiously, then pulled her inside. Down at the front, there was a disturbance as a small figure stumbled in front of the screen. As the usherette moved forward, sweeping her torch, they slid into the nearest row.

'S'posed to be good, this one,' Jack said. 'Lady on a Train.'

 

When Dad suggested going to the pictures on Sunday, Jean held her tongue and watched the film again. If only they really knew him, she thought, they would see that Jack was a decent sort. He'd had to shift for himself, what with losing his mum in the Blitz and then never knowing if his dad, who was a fireman, would come home safe each day. Yes, he could be a bit of a wide boy, but he had his own sense of honour. When his father got married again, to a woman whose husband had been killed at Dunkirk, Jack looked out for his step-brother, young Billy, and doted on the new baby sister they shared.

 

You couldn't keep secrets long with eyes and ears all around them.

"What's this I hear about you and that Souter boy?" Mum asked one tea-time. 'Mrs Gordon saw you coming out the Empire last week. And Mr Carter told me he's always hanging round the sweet shop, waiting for you.'

Jean shrugged. 'We've been out a few times,'she admitted.

'You'd better bring him home and let me and your dad look at him. He must be nearly eighteen, that lad – don't let him get up to any tricks with you, young lady.'

 

'Chance would be a fine thing!' Jack laughed when Jean repeated her mother's words. She took him home and they fell into a routine of Sunday tea at Jean's house and fish and chips at Jack's on Fridays, after his dad had been paid. Mr Souter, a genial, gargantuan figure in his fireman's uniform, patted her shoulder and referred to her as 'our Jack's lass'. Maureen, Jack's step-mum, seemed always in a muddle and glad to pass her the loaf to slice, or the baby, Margaret, to hold. At Jean's house, her dad skulked behind his paper and rarely uttered a word to Jack, but her mum was buttered up quite literally with half a pack of slightly salted, off-ration, from the milk cart.

 

When the milkman's son came home from the war in the East, Jack was no longer wanted on the round. But labourers were needed, clearing bomb sites and building the promised new homes; he started training as a carpenter, but soon could turn his hand to most trades. He had an old bike which he rode to work, and the following year Jean used her savings to buy one too and they spent fine Sundays cycling out of town, along the river towpath. They found quiet lanes that led to deserted woodland glades and got home late, stopping to brush the burrs and grasses from their clothing before going in for Sunday tea.

 

"Have you been eating too many chocolates or is there something I should know?"

Mum eyed Jean's thickening waistline and pallid face. Jean bit her lip and looked down at the tablecloth, tracing the chequered pattern with her finger.

"I knew it!" Mum said. 'Your father'll kill that Jack.'

'We're going to get married,' she said. 'Next month if you both consent.'

'When were you thinking of telling us? I suppose you think I'll talk to your dad for you?'

'Would you?' she said.

Her mother sniffed. ' You never could wait, could you, Jean?'

 

'Well, they're not living here,' her father said. She knew he was bitterly disappointed in her, but he did agree to sign.

'I suppose you can stay with us; we'll manage somehow,' Maureen told them. Jean didn't see how it would work. The bathroom was full of soaking nappies and the kitchen criss-crossed with g clothes strung from the airer. Jack shared his room with Billy and the only spare space was a tiny boxroom which Margaret would be needing before long.

'Thanks, but we'll be getting our own place,' Jack said firmly. He said Mr Piper the newsagent had promised to tip him off if any cards were put in his window advertising rooms for rent.

'A new one went in this evening,' the old man told them when they collected the late extra Saturday paper so that Jack's dad could check his pools. 'Widow in Jubilee Terrace can't get up the stairs any more and wants to let out the upper floor.' He pointed to the board in his shop window and they read the handwritten postcard: Double room. No children or pets.

'Thanks, I'll just copy the address,' Jack said, waiting for the Mr Piper to go back to his counter. While Jean paid for the newspaper and chatted to the old man, he reached into the window, took the card and slipped it into his pocket, then moved the others around so there wasn't a gap.

'Let's go and call on her now,' Jean said when they left the shop.

'No,' Jack grinned, tapping his nose, ' we'll leave it a day or two so she'll think no-one is interested. There's no harm in it, she'll be glad to have us and we'll take the room all right.'

 

It was a modest wedding, in the registry office at the town hall. Jack borrowed his dad's sports jacket and Jean wore a new cream blouse and a print skirt with an elasticated waist. Her dad paid for beer and sandwiches at the British Legion and her mum traded ration coupons to get enough sugar and margerine to bake them a cake. Jack had a friend who kept chickens and provided half a dozen eggs.

"A shame you couldn't run to a church do,' Maureen said. 'Our Margaret would've made a lovely flower girl.'

The two fathers squared up to each other over pints of light ale until Jack's dad had the wit to mention football and the conversation took a more amicable turn.

'Can't see it lasting,' Jean's dad told her mum that night. The house seemed strangely quiet.

 

Jean and Jack spent two nights in Clacton before moving into the Jubilee Terrace flat.

'I thought I said no children,' their landlady objected when Jean's pregnancy became obvious. But by this time, Jack had made himself useful, repairing the garden fence and putting new washers on the taps, and she agreed they could stay until the council found them a place.

******

'Wake up, Jean, your grandson's here.' The young woman – Alice, was it? - shook her arm gently.

She opened her eyes and saw her cream coat and bag hanging on the chair beside her.

'Am I going out?'

She let the carer ease the coat sleeves over her uncooperative arms and lead her gently towards the front door of the care home. The sudden rush of sunlight made her blink; she saw a slim figure jump down from a low wall and come smiling towards her.

'Jack,' she said joyfully.

Then the sky clouded and she felt unsteady, as if the ground had shifted. She stared at a big silver car and a young man whose face she couldn't quite place.

'Jack? I didn't know we had a car.'

'It's me, Nana, Paul. Granddad's in the car. I've got his wheelchair in the boot.'

'Where are we going?'

'It's a surprise.' Paul opened the car door and helped her into the back seat.

'It's no use telling your nana that, she never did have any patience.' The old man squeezed her knee gently. 'The local film club's showing Lady on a Train at the Community Centre, followed by a fish and chip supper. We're going to the pictures, Jeannie.'

'Oh,' she settled back into the car and let the young man fasten the seatbelt, 'have I seen it before?'

'Nearly a lifetime ago, sweetheart. Twice.' He leaned  stiffly across the back seat. 'Come here, old girl, give us a kiss.'

She tapped his hand playfully, 'What, in front of that boy?'

Jack raised one eyebrow and gave his grandson an exaggerated wink. 'Paul'll keep his eyes on the driving,' he chuckled. 'You stick with me, sweetheart, and you'll be all right.'