Angela Topping writes:
Susan had a round white face and a dark high-up ponytail. She looked rather like a plastic doll I had called Margaret in whose moulded plastic hair I had pierced a hole so a ribbon could be threaded through. Susan lived in the next road, a place wilder than our crescent, where I knew most people. Her road had two ends and the other end led to another, foreign road, more deserted than the main road. To go into Susan’s road I had to pass two dogs who lived at the end houses. One was a terrier who yapped determinedly and jumped up at his fence, and the other was a prowling Alsatian who would suddenly leap up, growling and slavering. It got me once, but I was fished out of its garden by a passer-by, not before it had got my shoes and socks off. I always entered Susan’s road walking, not on either pavement, but dangerously, right down the centre, my arrival announced by the barking duet.
In Susan’s road lurked rough boys who once broke my sister’s doll that she’d let me have. It was bakelite and made to look like Princess Margaret when she was a toddler. The boys, for no reason I could fathom, swung her by her heels at the kerb and broke her head open. She always had to wear a bonnet after that. Susan didn’t do anything to stop them and I trailed home afterwards, dropping shawls and knitted dresses, snivelling and terrified about what my sister would say. Although she’d given me the doll, she still took a personal interest and would think I didn’t appreciate it enough to take care of it. But she did understand about bad boys.
Susan had a doll’s washing machine and lots of other expensive things from catalogues. I wasn’t allowed to tell people when we had things from a catalogue, because you could pay for them by the week, which was somehow shameful to my mother. We played in Susan’s garden. Her mother was always out, at work, Susan said. My mother did cleaning but she always took me along. It was because Susan’s mother worked that she could have the dolls washing machine. I used to wash my own dolls clothes by hand, squeezing the soap out and hanging them up on a little line. Susan had a special sort of Auntie called a next-door neighbour. We had next door neighbours but they weren’t like Susan’s. Hers looked after her when her mother was out, which was mostly, and bought her presents, Christmas, birthdays, back from holidays. People in Susan’s road did things differently.
When we both started school we went to the same one, because we were Catholic. My best friend, Irene, who lived next door in the familiarity of our crescent and had freckles and a chained-up dog called Rex (I was scared of him despite that, but Irene understood and never minded how many times she pointed out the chain) had to go to a nearer school. I wished I went there because I could have come home for dinner and not had to eat the slop they dished up in the prefab dining hall while teachers stood over me and forced me to eat it all up. It was my ambition to throw up over their shoes, but I had too strong a stomach. The other kids were no help, castigating me for ‘wasting my mother’s money’, though if I was lucky and quick, they’d accept things from my plate. My mother explained to me that a lot of these kids would just get bread and jam for tea, and that this was their main meal of the day. I got lovely food at home and learned to feel a silent sympathy for these kids, no matter how they pinched me, pulled my hair or got me into trouble.
At school, Susan was my friend only sometimes. She palled up with a girl called Margaret-Ann. She had to have both her names and if anyone just called her Margaret, her mother, who was a teacher, came down to the school, even if it was one of the teachers who has got her name wrong. I could never understand why Margaret-Ann didn’t get ostracised over this. Most of us would have done anything to avoid having our mothers come down to the school. (‘Right, that’s it. I’m going down to that school.’ ‘Oh no, mum, please don’t go down to the school’). Susan wouldn’t play with me when she was with Margaret-Ann because Margaret-Ann didn’t like me. She disapproved of me. They were fond of coming up to me to tell me things I did were silly. They probably were, but I thought it rude of them to tell me. At the end of Primary school, Susan was the only person to be coming to my new secondary school 12 miles away in the big city of Liverpool. On our first day, she won friends among the other Widnes girls by telling them all my nicknames from Primary school. By home time I was hearing all the same stupid names.(Heavy legs. Lady Mary of Muck Castle) She left five years later. I stayed on into the sixth form with my city friends.
By the time we went to secondary school I didn’t live near Susan anymore. We had moved to our own house so we could choose what colour to paint the front door. It was my parents’ dream come true, to own a house. I liked our other house and it took me a while to get used to this one. It seemed very posh and we bought the carpets and some of the furniture from the last people, who somehow knew my parents. It was slightly shabby and smelled unfamiliar. Margaret-Ann, who thought I wasn’t good enough to associate with her, didn’t pass the 11+ so I never saw her again, nor her long curls and superior stare. I didn’t even get the same bus as Susan, after the first two years, because there were so many Widnes girls they needed two buses, both going to different parts of town.
After we moved, I didn’t really have friends near home. I used to go to the wire fence of the factory opposite and stare across the mile or so to our old house. My friends from there, including Irene, came to visit once, but we sensed there was a gap now that we’d never bridge.
There were twin girls next door but they were older than me and very silly and giggly. Invited round to play, I found that their playing consisted of saying words like ‘ breathe’ and giggling for hours. I couldn’t see why this was funny. I did enrich their lives though, when I told them that farts made bubbles in bath or swimming pool water. They were delighted – it gave them a whole new pastime when we went swimming. I couldn’t believe they were 14 and hadn’t realised this obvious bit of scientific observation. If you wanted to use their bathroom they’d want to know whether it was number one or number two. I couldn’t stand that; their fascination with such mundane matters bored me. And if they started to fight between themselves and I was stupid enough to join in, they’d immediately gang up together and round on me.
Their father was a bit weird because he didn’t like watching sport on telly and my mother told me to take care never to be alone with him. They had a violent older brother who didn’t live there and an annoying younger one who once threw sand at me until his father told him not to waste the sand. His mother said they had never raised a hand to him in his life. You could tell.
There seem to be a lot of people with the same names in my story. Susan and Margaret were popular names in the fifties, and there were a few Angelas around as well, signifying parents who wanted something a bit posher, perhaps. There was a girl up the road with the same name as me, but she would hardly ever come out to play when I called for her. I’d have to be desperate before I went and knocked on her green door, at the end of a dark path surrounded by very high privet hedges, only to get a refusal. There was another girl from even further up on the other side of the road in some poorer houses. She made friends with me one day and I really liked her. She seemed interested in the things I said and loved coming to my house to play in the shed my dad had built in the back of our garden. She didn’t seem to have many toys of her own and I was happy to share mine. I even took her down to our church and showed her the tabernacle, as she didn’t seem to have a God of her own either. I was mystified when she stole my watch that mum’s friend, Auntie Christine, had given me. If she had asked for it, I would have given it to her. This little incident somehow spoilt things. I wondered whether she had liked me for myself or just for my things. My things were mostly second hand; mum had an eye for a bargain and used to help run jumble sales. We were a collection point and going through the bags of jumble first, to see if we could find anything suitable for us, was like Christmas. We always put a contribution in, of course. How mum would have loved all the charity shops that have sprung up these days. I am still fighting her habit of hoarding.
I was playing out alone one day, near some new houses just being built, when I saw two girls. I went over. Their names were Christine and Moira, they’d just moved in. They had two little brothers they had to look after, and I was fascinated to see Moira holding up the little one so he could pee in our grid. I knew then that I could never have sons; teaching them to pee was an unknown skill to me. Christine and Moira were a bit boring, but I was delighted with them because they mostly let me boss them around. I started a club and we met in my shed. Some of the best things we did was to have big dramatic arguments which would result in them taking back their rug, brought to enhance the shed, and go home in a sulk. We always made it up eventually because there was no-one else to play with. We’d have tadpoles and caterpillars in jars and watch them develop. We’d play ‘NewMarket’ for sticky pennies and halfpennies with my own two packs of cards, almost new, given me by my older brothers.
Once a new girl moved into their road and wanted to make friends with us and join our club. We didn’t like her at first because she was posh, clever and half Dutch, all of which we found intimidating. We made her take a test to join; a hard intelligence test set by me, that Christine and Moira couldn’t have passed to save their lives. She got all the questions right so we set her a physical endurance test too, but found she could ride a bike, balance on a plank and do all the other things we could do. We made her do dares too. By the time we let her in, we all felt a grudging respect for her. I can’t even remember her name now, but her house was the first I remember seeing with net curtains all yanked up to make a curved hem. We had never seen this before and presumed it was something Dutch people did. Before long they moved again, away from Widnes. I often thought, afterwards, that I had more in common with her than the gormless twins or silly Christine and Moira, and gloomy Angela who never wanted to come out to play. Like me, she passed the 11+ but went to a school where they wore yellow and brown uniform. Mine was blue. We never did become friends and to this day, I am mystified about her self-imposed isolation.
Going to grammar school in Liverpool was the making of me. Because of my early experiences, I was worried I was unlikeable, but I fitted in much better with the city girls, who seemed not to mind my being bookish. It was around this time I started writing poetry more seriously, instead of just making up rhymes I didn’t bother writing down. I am still in touch with my Liverpool secondary school friends to this day.
Read Angela Topping‘s bio