Authors: Barbara Arnold
Barbara Arnold lives with her husband in Christchurch, New Zealand, where as well as writing novels, she teaches creative writing. She has two sons and nine grandchildren.
The Best in Blountmere Street
is the second novel in the trilogy
The Blountmere Street Series
. The first in the series is entitled
He Called Me Son
and is her debut novel. The third novel in the trilogy is expected to be available early 2012.
THE BEST IN BLOUNTMERE STREET
Published by B. Arnold
Copyright © Barbara Arnold 2011
This book is based on some true events. However, it has been fictionalised and all persons appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real people, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any mean, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
With love to Nick and Susan, Simon and Debbie, Olivia, Lauren, Maddison, Benjamin, Thomas, Maisie, Rebecca, Katie, and Ella.
With profound thanks all those who have had input into this novel. Writing can be a lonely craft and I am appreciative of your fellowship and encouragement.
To my “Editor In Chief”, Caitlin, for helping me download, upload and often offload!
To Simon Garner for his cover design.
To Margaret, for her web design, and for being so patient with this queen of computer dummies.
To Janet, for designing promotional material.
Special thanks to Barbara, Bryan, Freda and Stuart, without whose input I would probably never have even begun this novel.
My deep gratitude to proof readers: Judith, Laura, Gary, Aidan and Lisa.
To all those in my writing classes over the years and my many friends and writing colleagues for spurring me on to finish this novel and, of course, to edit, re-edit, re-edit …
To my sons, Simon and Nick, for their unwavering support.
With special love and thanks to Gwen for her sometimes thrice-daily calls. Go well, my friend!
Paula Age 9
A feather of smoke is escaping from the fireplace in the kitchen, when Dad announces,
‘I’m going to work for mesself,’ as if he’s only just thought about it, but I know he hasn’t.
Mum puts down her knitting and I watch as she struggles to keep calm. Dad’s been at O’Donnell’s nine years - since I was born. Although, as far as I can tell, Mum sees little of his wage packet, we get by. Now here he is proposing a change to our lives that is important enough to warrant him actually speaking.
From my chair in the corner I watch as Mum swallows. She’s probably choking down all the questions and doubts somersaulting around her head. I can sense she’s fumbling for the right words. Dad mustn’t think she’s trying to discourage him or take the initiative. She daren’t make him angry. His anger’s to be feared above everything.
As Mum always does when she talks to Dad, she considers her words like a boxer dancing round a ring judging whether it’s time to try a light jab or to hold her hands in front of her for protection.
‘What’re you thinking of doing?’
I can tell Mum’s battling to keep her voice even.
‘Window cleaning, if you must know.’
‘That’s a surprise.’
Dad ignores her and continues, ‘I'll have a couple of hundred of these hand bills printed.’ He takes a greasy piece of paper from his pocket and holds it up for Mum to get up out of her chair and take from him.
“Dibbles Window Cleaning Service – Proprietor Les Dibble - Private and Commercial Work Undertaken.
‘The bottom bit's very clever,’ Mum says, as usual generous with her praise ever hopeful it will please Dad enough to make him pleased with her.
“When Dibbles polish your windows, they'll sparkle like diamonds,”
she reads, turning to me. ‘Your father’s got a wonderful way with words,’ she says.
Dad’s grunt is definitely one I recognise as being pleased with himself.
Mum smiles because she‘s kept Dad happy.
‘Once I've got the handbills printed, you can do some canvassing, deliver ‘em to those posh houses the other side of Queensmore Avenue. You'll need to call on them all, not just put the bills through their letterboxes. Get ‘em signed up on the doorstep. And you can try all the shops round the corner and up the High Street. Shops and offices are the best ones to get hold of. The bleeders pay more and you can still do the windows when it rains. Take the kid with you to drum up trade.’ Dad rubs his jaw as if it aches from saying so many words at once.
Mum makes no response seeming to be content for Dad to pass the responsibility for starting up his window cleaning round to her. After all, Dad will be the only one in Blountmere Street to own his own business, apart from old Jack Moody who has a rag and bone stall and that doesn’t count.
Mum picks up her knitting again. If it makes Dad happy and puts us ahead of everyone else in Blountmere Street, it’ll be worth it.
Our flat, or maisonette, as Mum likes to call it, is the smartest in the street. The front door is painted glossy green, and stands out against the chipped beige of the Addingtons’ door leading to their upstairs flat. Mum washes our net curtains every fortnight. ‘It shows everyone how respectable and hard working we are,’ she says.
Our garden is lined with rows of red, white and blue flowers, salvias, lobelia and alyssum – I know their names because Mum talks about them so often. “Have you seen anything like those salvias, lobelia and alyssum?” She asks me every summer when we walk down the path to the front gate on our way out shopping. I think they look strange against the bombsite opposite, but I never tell her.
I’m my parent’s only child and without question the best-dressed in Blountmere Street, Mum boasts. “I’m not having you in a flimsy dress summer and winter like that Angela Addington upstairs.” She usually sniffs at this point. “I’d rather work my fingers to the bone day and night.” As far as Mum is concerned any event, even shopping in the High Street, is a reason for me to wear a new outfit.
‘We’re lucky your father works for O’Donnells, and can bring home off-cuts of material,’ she tells me when I step out of our front door wearing a coat and hat trimmed with fur or a silk summer dress and shimmering white gloves.
Dad’s a boiler man for O’Donnells. Their full name, and the one Mum uses, is
O’Donnells, Manufacturers of Fine Apparel
but Mum says not to tell people Dad’s a boiler man there.
Wearing coats and hats trimmed with fur and silk dresses and white gloves when you live opposite a bombsite is the quickest way I know to become a misfit and jeered at by the other kids. I want to speak like them, dress like them, live like them so that I won’t feel so lonely. I never, never, never want to be called Paula
‘Your tartan skirt and the twin set I’ve just knitted for you should strike the right note with the sort of people who live in Queensmore Avenue, Paula,’ Mum tells me on our first door-knocking afternoon. She obviously considers her old brown coat and hat good enough to wear to promote Dad’s window cleaning service.
Angela Addington from upstairs is pulling a key on a string from under her blouse as Mum and I step from our flat. I have red ribbons clinging to the two bunches of hair sticking out either side of my head like stunted antlers. I can see that Angela thinks they look ridiculous. She smiles a sickly lifting of the corners of her mouth and says, ‘Hello Paula and Mrs
. Sorry, Dibble.’
Angela doesn’t usually say hello and smile at me. Perhaps she likes me after all. Mum barely nods, careful not to show Angela what’s written on the handbills she’s holding. She pushes my bundle closer to my chest and away from Angela.
‘You know your father said to keep this to ourselves,’ Mum reminds me when we’re out of earshot. ‘It’s family business and very important. We don’t want the rest of the street knowing what we’re up to.’ It hasn’t occurred to Mum that anyone in Blountmere Street will be interested.
Queensmore Avenue is lined with large double-fronted houses with long drives like gravel snakes leading to their front doors. Mum gives the pleats of my kilt a tweak and rubs my face with a spat-on handkerchief, before we step up the path of the first mansion. The door knocker is a replica of a lion’s mouth that snarls when you lift it. A woman in a turquoise blue dress with tiny pearl buttons down the front answers the door.
In an effort to sound posh, Mum clips her words short. ‘Good afternoon, we're calling to enquire whether you'd like to have your windows cleaned?’ Mum nods at me to offer the woman one of the handbills and hurries on. ‘We're offering a very reasonable price and an excellent job. One and six for the whole house.’
The woman looks over the top of her glasses. ‘Actually, we have a window cleaner, although he’s not very reliable,’ she adds.
‘You'd find my husband ever so dependable. Very regular, he'd be. A real perfectionist.’ Mum had read the word, “
”, in the latest edition of her
‘In that case, I suppose I could make the change to your husband.’
‘Would you like your windows cleaned weekly?’ Before the woman can reply, Mum says, ‘Weekly it is.’ She takes a pencil and notebook from her bag and writes down the address.
I smile at the woman. The picture of the turquoise dress will be forever in my memory.
A sun-drenched June is brought to a climax by a series of thunderstorms that signal a soggy July. Mum continues to trudge the streets.
‘Why do we have to call on at least ten people to get one customer?’ I complain. Not everyone’s impressed with Mum’s sales pitch, with its “
‘Some people are so rude. That last man didn't even let you finish.’
‘That's life,’ Mum says, although I know she’s beginning to get tired of walking up endless paths. She’s tired of saying the same thing, standing at unwelcoming front doors, and smiling at unfriendly people.
Her old brown shoes are not sturdy enough for what she’s putting them through. Every night, when she’s finished delivering handbills, she rushes home to make Dad a cup of tea, fetch his newspaper and cook his dinner. Then she soaks her feet in an old enamel washing bowl full of steaming water. Her legs twitch and her hair falls in lifeless strands around her face.
Dad doesn’t seem to notice Mum’s sore feet. All he does is grunt when she shows him the increasing number of names in her notebook. I know he must be pleased, though, because some evenings when he’s finished reading
he lets me tickle him. When he’s in an extra specially good mood he calls me a “silly happorth”, but he never thanks Mum.
‘Well, that's it. I reckon we've got enough customers for your father to start his business,’ Mum tucks the last of the handbills in her bag. ‘I finished calling on the shops in the High Street earlier on, and I don't see much sense in going further afield. Transporting his ladders is something your father’s going to have to think about. Knowing him, he’ll have got it all worked out. I expect he’ll get a hand cart like that window cleaner in Kentlyn Avenue. A hand cart’s nothing to be ashamed of,’ Mum says, as if she is.
With only a list of addresses in a notebook to base our future on, Dad’s in a good mood when Mum tells him she thinks she’s got enough windows for him to clean. He manages a strange twisting of the muscles in his face into what passes for a smile. It’s amazing, when it seems to me Dad’s life has always been one of “play it safe”.
Wearing a lopsided waitress head-dress I’ve made from a white paper bag, I pour lemonade into our best glasses and give Dad a Fry’s Peppermint Cream bar, his favourite.
I can hardly believe it when he allows Mum and me to tickle him. He calls us
Then, when they’re dozing in their chairs, I switch off the light and lie on the rag rug in front of the fire. I allow myself to be drawn into a landscape of flame-jewelled grottos, where flickering orange and yellow spirits dance.
‘There's a motor bike parked outside,’ Mum says, on her return from her usual Saturday shopping. Except for bicycles, no one in Blountmere Street owns a vehicle.
Mum hoists her shopping bag on to the table. ‘It's a nice motor bike. Looks new.’ As usual Mum speaks to the back of Dad’s head as he sits in his chair scribbling figures on a piece of paper. At the same time, he’s trying to push a black cash box under his chair with his foot.
‘Perhaps the motor bike’s stolen. If it stays there, we'll have to report it to the police.’ Mum begins stuffing things into cupboards.
‘No need,’ Dad mumbles.
‘What do you mean?
‘What I said. It's mine.’
‘Yours! You never said anything about buying a motorcycle.’
‘How else am I supposed to carry me bleedin’ ladders round? In any case, I don’t ‘ave to broadcast everything to everyone.’
‘I thought you'd make a hand cart.’ Mum is clearly flustered.
‘You thought wrong, didn’t you? I've bought a BSA Five Hundred instead. That beats a barrow any day. It’ll show this lot round ‘ere a thing or two. I'll make a cart to fit on the side for the ladders to go on. Want to have a look?’ Dad avoids Mum’s eyes and asks me instead.
Outside, the machine shines against the dusty bombsite opposite.
‘Not bad, eh?’ Dad caresses the chrome handlebars. ‘And paid for in cash. Not any of this ‘ere hire purchase lark.’ He says it loud enough for the neighbours to hear.
‘It's lovely.’ I climb up on to it, while Mum gazes at the motor bike and back at Dad. I’m pretty sure she’s thinking that he’s kept her short of housekeeping and watched her struggle to pay the bills, yet all the time he’s had enough to buy a brand new motor bike. What’s more, he’s expected her to set up his window cleaning business for him without a single word of thanks.
She folds her arms and concentrates on the landscape of rubble the other side of the street. ‘It’s a very nice motor bike. You father’s a clever man,’ she says at last.