As soon as my mother had left Mrs. Miller proceeded to tell me the rules. Wash and dress, then a broom to sweep the front path to the gate and then a bucket and mop to clean the front doorstep and hearthstone to whiten the edge. Then I could have breakfast. Sandwiches would be ready for school lunch and then I would return from school. She walked upstairs to show me my room. It was called a box room, being so small. I had a bed, a chest of drawers and a chair. My coat hung behind the door on a hook but at least it was quiet. I was left to put away the clothes that my mother had given me and sat on the bed tired, lonely and hurt.
I suddenly thought about my sister. Not one word had been said about her. She was not with my father as I had supposed. She faded from my mind and from the years of silent distance between us I wasn’t bothered about her.
Mrs. Miller called me to a meal explaining I would eat in the kitchen not in the dining room with them. Her remark of sinners not mixing with her daughter meant nothing to me and I didn’t even connect it with myself until many years later.
So began a time of work and school. I grew to hate that front step, particularly when the weather was freezing cold. My hands would be blue and hurt as the blood flowed back. I ate in the kitchen on my own but that gave me time to think and try to understand why my mother had not been to see me. I think she trusted Mrs. Miller to care for me not knowing her thoughts of sin and guilt.
By now I was cleaning her daughter Gladys’s shoes every night ready for school the next day as well as my own. At last I spoke up and called Gladys lazy. Her howl brought Mrs. Miller and I was told sinners didn’t have privileges and could wash the dinner pots in future. I was nearly eleven years old but because of my lack of mixing with people could not understand what my sin was but I supposed she was right. I was so ignorant.
At least my chores kept me too busy to worry about the future. I had even forgotten about the scholarship I had sat for. Then after about six months there came a knock on the front door. I expected my mother but it was my Aunt Bea. Mrs. Miller asked her in and told her I was upstairs. Calling me she ushered me into Gladys’s room to meet her. We talked school and a lot of other things but not one word of my mother. Then she handed me a one pound note saying “This is for you. Spend it as you like and don’t give it to anyone else”. With a quick kiss and a wave goodbye she was gone.
Mrs. Miller came hurrying back from seeing her out and holding out her hand demanded the pound note. I put it in my pocket and said “No, it’s mine”.
That wasn’t as she wanted and declaring it was too much money for a child she grabbed my arm and twisted it until I gave her the note. I was used to being punished so only felt bereft and alone. Wishing there was someone on my side it left me feeling I had to fight for my life on my own. Right I could hate her and maybe she would be punished instead of me.
A knocking at the front door sent Mrs. Miller down to open it. I heard Aunt Bea’s voice saying “So sorry. I forgot to tell her something” and as I stood at the head of the stairs she pushed past Mrs. Miller and quickly mounting the stairs grabbed my arm and pushed me into Gladys’s bedroom.
“Where is the pound note I gave you?” she demanded. I told her what had happened and that my bedroom was next door. The little one without even a rug for comfort. Just plain cold linoleum.
Aunt Bea’s next words utterly confused me. “Get your case and collect your belongings. You are coming with me.”
And marching into that little room she soon had everything packed while Mrs. Miller protested and wailed.
Carrying the case and holding my hand Aunt Bea walked me out of that house of misery and although I didn’t know it, towards the happiest time of my young life.
Aunt Bea and I caught the bus to go to the hotel she and her husband owned. It was an open top bus and I would have liked to go up and sit with the wind blowing around me, but no we sat inside. I thought of the games I played when we did travel on top of an open bus. There was an apron made of leather hanging down in front of each seat, to ward off the rain and bad weather I think. To me the apron became a castle or a cave, whatever my mind conjured up. My imagination was very active. Being alone so much I suppose.
We arrived home and my Uncle Fred greeted me with a kiss and I was completely bewildered. Why were they being kind to me? I burst out crying and my aunt gathered me up and hurried me upstairs to the sitting room.
My mother was sitting there with my sister and although she hugged me and mopped up my “silly” tears somehow I couldn’t respond. I was more grateful to my aunt for getting me away from Mrs. Miller. My sister didn’t even smile. Just sat like a log.
A big argument started but I couldn’t understand what it was about until my uncle roared “She is staying with us. No more arguing”.
Then I learned that I had passed the scholarship but my uncle wanted to send me to a better school. He was making himself responsible for me and would arrange everything.
Without any tears or sorrow I said goodbye to my mother and sister only too anxious to hear about my new school.
So now started a wonderful time of no monsters, no frightened mother and no one saying I couldn’t do this or that.
My uncle always encouraged me to use my ability with figures. He thought I was quite clever and so when it came to cash up time after all the bars closed, he brought the money to me and said “Come on. Show me what you can do.”
I cashed up as he wanted and although he didn’t tell me that he checked up afterwards, praised me and, his usual method of affection, patted me and put his arm around me.
Once more I met a man that I seemed to have known for a long time. He was always there when I visited and played and cared for me even as a toddler. Now he was my uncle’s manager. He seemed like a brother to me, fourteen years older than myself but still like an older brother. Only brothers don’t kiss and cuddle as he did. In later years I learnt why but now he gave me the caring and closeness that had been missing. He was so good to me and was a never ending source of fun and good times. Dear Ernie! Always trying to look after me. Even carrying a drink of water so that he could come into my bedroom to kiss me goodnight. My uncle caught him but not for a while, then he was barred from my room.
He still cared for me and the day I cleaned the banisters he stepped in and cleaned up. Aunt Bea said the banisters were a disgrace. The cleaning lady hadn’t touched them, so declared she herself would have to do them. Thinking I would help I looked for the polish and found a bottle that said “Polish”. Only when my aunt screamed did I look up to see all the mahogany banisters were white. The polish was silver polish. I didn’t know the difference. Ernie saved the day with a bucket of soapy water. Bless him.
Then Uncle Fred decided to sell this hotel and buy a bigger one in the country. I was delighted as this hotel used to be an old coaching depot. It was half way to Portsmouth and in the old days was noted for the highway men lurking around there. I was fascinated by this and discovered across the road a huge rock with steps down underground. It was so cold down there and dug deep into the ground. Wooden shelves were on the walls and it was concluded that this had been the store before modern refrigeration.
What a place to carry on my imagination games. The urge to write started again but only produced little poems. I still thought my efforts were rubbish.
My days at school were not possible so I became a boarder, going home holidays and weekends. I was a quick learner and soon spoke correctly and learnt good manners. As our headmistress said “Gels, she meant girls, be prepared. Your knight in shining armour may gather you up at any time. You must be prepared to take your place in society. You must keep up the good name of the school.”
At the hotel I felt more at home than ever before. What a lovely place and I was given a job right away. There were ladies toilets and a person had to be on hand to keep things clean and to stop cheating. It was penny in the slot on the doors then and no, one penny couldn’t serve three or four people by holding the door open. Fred gave me a small amount of change, the float, and I had a white coat and my badge of office, a small white towel to wipe the seat before a client sat down. The tips were good too. Only in pennies but a penny was a fortune in those days.
At the end of the hotel was a long room used only for storage but as the coaches were coming more and more on trips Uncle Fred decided to clear it and make a cafe tearoom out of it. Plain and cheap to suit trippers.
He called an architect in and during the refurbishment a false wall was discovered. This was how highway men cheated the police. Behind the wall there was a stable for horses and hiding for their riders. History tells of the baffled police efforts. Those that were caught were hung on a gibbet someway back down the road and on a small hill. I only went there once because it was an eerie place. The gibbet was there and a slight wind blew all the time. No grass grew there and the story said none ever would because the bodies were left to rot and poison the ground. I wonder if it is still the same.
This area was known as the “Devil’s Punch bowl.” It was a huge land slide that was so old nobody knew when it happened. The road ran around the edge of the bowl and was quite dangerous in wet weather.
Uncle Fred was having trouble with the takings in the hotel tearoom. I was promoted to the cash desk to take note of anything not quite right. It was clear what was happening. The waitresses had a pad each on which they wrote the bill. Now one girl waited for a customer to pay the exact amount, not wanting change, and screwed up the bill and put the money in her pocket. When I told Fred what I had seen he dashed into town and came back with numbered, coloured dockets and told the girls that each one had to be accounted for. At the end of the day each colour was added up for each girl and taking away the original float, the total money had to match the dockets. It worked and Fred was so pleased he put me in charge of the other tearoom. I worked hard and went all out to make Fred proud of me. He was so proud that the next time home he told me he had a surprise for me. Indeed he had. A small opening between the hotel and the long tearoom had been built into a small shop. It sold only packet goods. Chocolate, Jubes and chips. Of course chips were a great seller. I talked Fred into including fruit from the garden. We always had too much.
I had to do a stock check at the end of each week and place an order with the correct firm. Of course I had to account for the money and learnt to balance takings against depleted stocks, taking discounts etc into account. What good training I had and only thirteen.
Always when I was home a girl was detailed to look after me. She ran my baths, did my mending and was at my beckon call. I was spoilt.
About this time I had a frightening lesson. I had gone for a walk across the common at the back of the hotel and as it was a very hot day with the sun glowing like a ball of fire, I walked as if in a dream. Suddenly in front of me a Gorse bush burst into flame. I was so astonished I just stood and gaped. Then I felt the searing heat as the flames surrounded me. A small gap on the path I stood on gave me an opening. Believe me I took to my feet and ran. At the hotel Ernie rang the fire brigade and they appeared like magic. Afterwards the captain explained that a piece of glass or metal in the heat could have caused the combustion and as the roots of the heath were dry and brittle it spread very quickly. He also said I was lucky to get out without even a scorch. To this day I have a fear of fire.
There were days of lying in the sun with a blue sky and only the sound of ants in the heather and other insects to be heard. It would be complete peace and balm to my troubled mind.
One day Aunt Bea said I could go to the cinema in the town. I caught the bus in and sat down in the cinema to watch, guess what, “Dracula”. It frightened me badly. At the end I went to catch the bus home only to see it drive off down the road. There not being another bus I could only walk home across the common. It was dark and lonely and my nerves were screaming but that mile walk was my only choice. I walked quickly and every clump of furze bushes I came to I ran past. Having walked about two thirds of the way I saw a glow appear from behind a bush. I just stood and screamed. I couldn’t run. I was petrified. Then this man appeared and called out. It was the boot boy from the hotel with a lantern. I cried with relief much to Bill’s dismay. He quietened me down and asked me not to tell the boss he’d frightened me. Of course I wouldn’t. I was only too pleased to have someone to rescue me. I still don’t like Dracula.
Another day Bea and I went to the circus. We had seats next to the band. Bea was scared of horses and when the beautiful white horses came round the master made one step up on the ring edge to bow. Bea screamed and knocked me out of my seat, and as I was next to the band, right on to the big drum. What a clatter and banging. Bea called Fred and he came and calmed the owners down. I must have been a sight sitting in a big drum with my legs waving around.
... the end of my dream world and easy living came soon enough as it turned out.