Part One – The Birthday can be found here.
Porridge Oats and the Graveyard (Part Two)
She awoke early the following day to find the sun shining. She jumped out of bed, folded her blanket and eiderdown back, washed and dressed in her dark blue school pinafore and a white blouse. It was a bit big for her as it was a hand-me-down from her mother’s cleaner at the café. Her polished but worn black Mary Jane shoes clickety-clacked down the wooden staircase. Her mother was in the scullery preparing their breakfast of porridge oats. Miriam sat down at the small yellow and white Formica table squashed into one corner of the tiny room. They didn’t have a smart dining room like many of her friends had in their houses. Her parents couldn’t afford anything as posh as that.
Her mother put a bowl of steaming oats in front of her. Miriam was grateful for this, as she hadn’t had a proper dinner the night before. She blew puffs of air from her pursed lips to cool off her breakfast. Having finished it, she took her empty bowl over to the sink, gave it a quick wash with the brush and dish soap under the cold tap and put it on the already heaped-up draining board. She could hear the noises of her father getting up just before she left, just briefly hearing her mother shout up, “are you only just getting up, you layabout?” before she slipped quietly out of the front door, ensuring she didn’t bang it shut and risk another telling off.
As she walked to school, she felt sorry for her dad being shouted at so often by her mother, and she thought about how much she loved him. He never shouted at her, even when he’d had a lot to drink. He often took her out for a walk around the nearby Shoreditch Church and let her walk along the walls surrounding the flowerbeds. Miriam was cautious not to tread on any plants but loved being up high and holding her father’s warm but rough hand to ensure she didn’t fall off. They’d go and look at the gravestones, too. Miriam wasn’t scared even though she knew it was where dead people were buried long ago. They stopped to look at several stones, and her dad would tell her stories about the people under the ground. She didn’t realise, at that age, that they were made-up stories, but she enjoyed hearing about these people’s lives and imagined what their families were like. Her dad said it was time to go as he had to go to the Spar corner shop to get some bread, milk and a packet of Stork margarine.
School Days and the Teacher (Part Three)
Before she knew it, Miriam, who’d been daydreaming about her kind father, arrived at the school gates. She was only just in time before the bell went, signalling the start of the school day. She hung her brown coat on a peg in the cloakroom and walked quickly to her classroom. Her teacher, Mrs Miller, was an amiable lady and had a soft spot for Miriam.
The first lesson was English, which Miriam liked, but the second was maths, a subject she often had difficulty with. She was okay with adding up and taking away but found her times tables hard to remember. Mrs Miller always came over with encouraging words and hints about recalling these tables. The class often recited their times tables in a song – “once two is two, two twos are four, three twos are six”, and so on, and Mrs Miller reminded the child of this song.
Shortly after that, the bell rang again for dinner time. The children filed out of their rooms and queued up in the dining room to eat their sandwiches. Miriam picked up her lunch bag, rummaging inside for her lunch, but much to her dismay, her bag was empty. Her mother must have forgotten to pack any lunch for her. She was so disappointed, so she had to sit at one of the tables watching everyone else eat. Silent tears ran down her face, which she kept wiping away with her white cotton handkerchief so that no one would notice her crying.
Looking through teary eyes, she spotted Mrs Miller walking towards her. When her teacher asked her to return to the classroom, Miriam thought she must have been in trouble for some reason. From experience at home, she was used to being yelled at for this, that and the other. The teacher accompanied her back to the classroom, Miriam waiting for the telling-off she was sure to get. Her head hung down until Mrs Miller gently lifted the child’s chin as she looked into her eyes. The teacher smiled, opened the drawer under her desk, and produced two sandwiches. She gave one to the very surprised child and started tucking into the other. Miriam, feeling hungry, took a big mouthful and found it was her favourite filling – ham and relish, something her parents could rarely afford. After eating their lunch, Mrs Miller said she could go out to the playground to play for a while to get some fresh air before lessons began.
Miriam didn’t like going out into the playground, as she had no friends and nearly always stood quietly in the corner, hoping and wishing that someone would come and talk to her. Most of the children were playing catch and skipping rope games. She looked on as the children with their ropes were singing, ‘” Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around; teddy bear, teddy bear, touch the ground.” Miriam longed to join in, but no one seemed interested in including her.
After fifteen minutes, the bell rang again, and it was time for each classroom to form into queues before being let into their classrooms again. Back at their desks, the children settled down to do some reading. Miriam pulled out of her bag her favourite book, ‘Rabbit Hill.’ She was on chapter three now and thoroughly enjoying the story. Mrs Miller walked around the classroom to check that each child was concentrating on their reading books.
After the reading session ended, the children filed into the gymnasium for the last forty-five minutes of the day. Miriam gulped silently; she hated gym as her mother refused to buy her any gym clothes because they were too expensive. All the other girls wore short grey skirts and white Aertex shirts. Miriam was the only child who had to participate, wearing her vest and navy-blue knickers. She could see some of the boys in the class staring at her and giggling because she was in her underwear. She was so embarrassed and wanted the ground to open and swallow her up. After a while, the bell rang three times, signalling the end of the school day and that it was time to go home.
Excitedly, the other children packed up their school bags and ran outside to meet their mums or dads, who were waiting at the gate with smiles and sweets. Miriam felt sad. Her mother never came to greet her to take her home; she had to make her own way as usual. She had just started to walk across the playground when she heard a voice calling her. She turned to see it was Mrs Miller who summoned her over. As always, the child expected to be told off, although she had no idea what she’d done wrong.
As she approached her teacher, she was given a small package and a letter in an envelope. She looked surprised and asked in a hushed voice whether she could open them. Mrs Miller smiled and nodded, so Miriam carefully unwrapped the parcel and letter. Much to her surprise, the letter turned out to be a birthday card with two pretty cats on the front and inside the package was a brand-new book for her to read. It was called ‘Pippi Longstocking’ – Miriam was thrilled to bits as her teacher had remembered it was Miriam’s birthday tomorrow. The child beamed from ear to ear. She said thank you three times. Mrs Miller gently touched her shoulder and encouraged her to make her way home now. Miriam ran all the way so that she wouldn’t be late again. When she got home, she said nothing to her mother about her card and present and quietly sneaked up to her room to hide them under her blankets, ready to read them in bed that night. Perhaps, her ninth birthday wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
Graveyard image – Photo by Carlos Felipe Ramírez Mesa on Unsplash
School image – Photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash