Day One – Silk ribbons and fish paste sandwiches.
It was a grey cloudy afternoon in 1937 when Miriam trudged home from school, following the route of the 149 bus. She didn’t have any money for the fare, so she would have to walk as usual. It was her ninth birthday in two days. She sighed deeply as she wondered if anyone would remember. She thought it unlikely with her parents being so preoccupied with their busy lives.
Her mother and father worked in the Terminus Café by Shoreditch Bus Station, making tea and all-day breakfasts for the bus drivers and conductors as they finished their shifts. Her parents often forgot, so Miriam wasn’t expecting this year to be any different. She couldn’t remember the last birthday cake she had. She pretended she didn’t care, but she would have given anything to be like her school friends, whose parents always made a big fuss of them while lavishing them with gifts wrapped in pretty paper and tied with silk ribbons and bows. Miriam’s friends always invited her to their birthday parties, but her mother wouldn’t let her go. She’d shout, “do you think money grows on trees, my girl? We can’t afford birthday presents for other people’s kids.” Miriam knew best not to answer back; otherwise, she’d be in for a good hiding.
She was so deep in thought that she didn’t realise how slowly she’d been walking. She should have been home by now. Scared of being in trouble, she ran the rest of the way. She arrived home, out of breath, twenty minutes late, to be greeted by her mother yelling, “what time do you call this?”
“I’m really sorry, mum. I didn’t notice it was getting so late.”
“Well, if you think you’re getting any tea tonight, you’ve got another think (sic) coming, my girl. Go to your room, and don’t make a noise!”
Miriam ran up the stairs choking back her salty tears. She didn’t dare to make a fuss, or her mother would shout at her to stop her crocodile tears. She plopped herself down on the floor next to her bed, pulled the grey flannel blanket down and wrapped it around her slim shoulders. She grabbed her moth-eaten teddy bear, Peter, and held him close. He’d seen better days as she had had him since her first birthday. She loved him just as he was and knew she could tell Peter about anything troubling her. He would never shout at her as her mother did. She nodded off while clasping Peter to her chest and dreamt that she was in the middle of a birthday party her parents had organised for her as a surprise. When she awoke, it was almost dark, and she was very sad and disappointed to find that it was only a dream.
Suddenly, Miriam heard screaming and shouting coming from downstairs. “You’ve been down that bloody pub again, haven’t you.” It was her mother’s angry voice. She was yelling at her husband again.
Miriam’s dad always ambled along to the pub after working at the café. She often noticed that he had an almost permanent bright red, bulbous nose and smelt of cigarettes and beer. She liked her dad. He was always jolly despite everything. She wanted to go downstairs to greet him but thought better of it. She didn’t want to get into any more trouble. She heard him stumble into the front room and put the television on.
A few minutes later, a voice shouted, “your dinner is on the table. Are you going to eat it, or are you going to sit in front of that bloody TV all night?” Miriam could smell the delicious aroma of minced beef and roast potatoes wafting up the stairs. Her tummy rumbled, but she knew she’d have to make do with her mug of water and the leftover remnants of her fish paste and now warm cucumber sandwich from her lunch bag. She carefully opened the brown paper wrapping and took a bite. The bread was stale now, and the crusts were hard and dry. She didn’t want to eat it but knew she’d only get into more trouble with her mother if she left it. She’d had enough of being told off today, so she chewed hard and swallowed it down with the now tepid water from her mug.
By now, she was tired and thought she might as well go to bed rather than dare to go back downstairs only to be yelled at again. She tiptoed into the bathroom to splash her face and clean her teeth and crept back to her bedroom. She climbed into her pink-striped pyjamas and pulled on the pale blue bed socks that her grandma had knitted for her last Christmas; it was always so cold in her bedroom at night. She didn’t even have the luxury of a hot water bottle to keep her warm. Nevertheless, she felt safe in bed and pulled Peter close to her. She could talk to him about her worries and fears without the risk of being told not to make such a fuss. She lay there covered with her grey blanket and her paisley eiderdown, which always felt so comforting. Finally, she drifted off into a deep sleep …
… TO BE CONTINUED TOMORROW.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash