Chapter 2

Classmates
Chapter 2

I married Karl on a July afternoon when the sky really was the flawless blue and the sun really the flamboyant orange that my nursery school paintings insistently depicted. 

As I lisped my quivery vows, the crisp, salady scent of freshly mown grass wafted through the open hall doors – a summer aroma that will forever evoke scenes from that day.

Vacuum-packed into an organza frock as stiff and creamy as an Angel Delight, and clutching a posy of pink plastic roses, I bobbed from foot to jellybean sandal-clad foot and grinned with gap-toothed embarrassment behind my net curtain veil.

Fidgeting, I could see Bradley Round, the pageboy, intently picking his nose, whilst my bridesmaid, Samantha Potter, was just as becomingly absorbed, extricating her billowy petticoats from her knickers.

I swiftly pivoted back to Karl: tall, windswept of hair, snub of nose, in his waistcoat and velveteen shirt – as ever, the picture of impish self-confidence.  Nothing fazed Karl Corbett.  Absolutely nothing.

There were murmured ahs and titters from the three-hundred-strong congregation as the vicar, Shane Ashcroft, pronounced us, in broad Black County monotone, ‘mon and woyfe.’  (Although ‘Yow may now kiss the broyde’ was an entreaty mercifully omitted from Rev Ashcroft’s sermon!)

To compound the indignity of it all, one congregation member was a Dudley News photographer.  I know my mom still has his yellowing close-up of ‘the happy couple’ pasted into a dog-eared scrapbook, though I have not seen it for years as I, sadly, can recall my piteous appearance well enough without pictorial aids.  The absent front teeth; the punkish, margarine-coloured hair – so risibly incongruous with frills and posies; the chubby little body hatching a frantic bid for freedom from the chafing dress….

A confirmed tomboy, I harboured a morbid dislike of dresses – being especially averse to ill-fitting ones exhumed from the bottoms of dressing-up boxes.  I remember so sharply the wild longing to tear that cream monstrosity from my back and exchange it for my usual uniform of either dungarees or a velour tracksuit.

LESSONS IN LOVE: [croons the caption beneath our gurning fisogs] Holly Lane Primary School pupils Karl Corbett and Zoe Taylor, both aged six, in costume for their Royal Wedding project.

It was 1981.

With the nuptials of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer days away, Class 1H was in the grips of full-on, joyous, romantic, proud-to-be-British, red-and-blue-streamer, commemorative-mug-and-tea-towel fever.  It was the delightful idea of our teacher, Miss Hayes, that Karl, Shane, Sam, Brad and I should re-enact a wedding in mildewy fancy dress costumes before the whole school (sardonic, comp-bound eleven-year-olds included) on the final day of summer term.

The choice of moi for the bridal role was Miss H’s also – influenced, allegedly, by my blonde pageboy coiffure which entertained vague Diana-like pretensions.  Or rather it did until the week preceding our mock marriage, when I acquired a jagged crop decidedly not the handiwork of Hair by Geoffrey, the Gornal salon to which Mom had been taking me since the day my downy baby wisps first tickled my neck.

In fact, this was a Hair by Zoe composition.  Though it could have passed for a Hair by Worzel Gummidge one.

My poor mother’s innocuous foray to the bathroom that Sunday had yielded the grotesque discovery of me, tottering on precarious tiptoes at the mirror, studiously hewing away with her nail scissors.  A flaxen pond encircled my feet, leaving behind an elfin head crested with anarchic tufts and fronds like a very early Bart Simpson prototype.

A mangled seal-like shriek escaped Mom.

‘What – have – you – done?’

‘I thought it would look nice,’ I whinnied: contrite tears already gurgling up to mirror those dismayingly glazing her kind eyes.

If I thought my ragamuffin image might excuse me from conjugal enactments, I was mistaken – but that hideous newspaper snap proved a fantastic deterrent against DIY hairdressing.  I have never so much as lopped off a split end since.

******

‘Coming round ours after, Zo?’  My youthful groom and I, finally having shed our wedding regalia, were loping across the playground towards our moms, carefree and elated by the onset of summer holidays.

This was more like it!  Playing at Karl’s house – gambolling in his sandpit, swapping comics or just watching cartoons – was preferable any day to donning a soppy frock and marrying him.

‘Mom’s made cakes,’ he added as compelling inducement.

‘Yeah?  What sort?’

‘Chocolate cornflake.  And a lemon sponge.  With hundreds and thousands on an’ all.’

‘Bostin’!’

My tummy was already growling with yearning.  Avril Corbett was the Delia Smith of the Black Country.  My own mom, and even my dear Granny Danks, could only dream about achieving such sweetness of pastry; such dainty butteriness of sponge cake; such glorious squelchiness of jelly.

‘When d’you think yer hair’ll grow back, Zo?’

‘Dunno.’

‘Where you gooin’ on holiday this year?’

‘Weymouth again.  How about you?’

‘Tenerife.’

I scowled jealously.  My parents’ only ever voyages ‘abroad’ were to the Isle of Wight; their idea of ‘foreign food’ was French bread.  Karl’s family were so adventurous and worldly.

They resided around the corner from us, in Andrew Street.  Parents Avril and Roger, brother Stefan, aged nine, and sister Faye – at thirteen, so vastly sophisticated and glamorous to my infant mind. 

As an only child, I latched on to this vivacious tribe with mingled fascination and resentment, unkindly ashamed of my own mini unit.  How it grated when my lovely, well-meaning dad made cosy references to ‘the three of us!’  Why couldn’t we have been five, like the Corbetts?  Or six, or eight?  ‘Cliff, Val and Zoe’ sounded like a sixties folk trio.  The Taylor Trio.

Ladies and gentlemen – live at the Trumpet in Bilston…The Taylor Trio!!!

The mahogany drinks cabinet in our lounge had a glass door, with six rhomboid panes that not only exposed the whisky within but were also – if you stood at a favourable angle – dustily reflective.  In lonely moments, I would gaze raptly at my row of mirror images and pretend I was sextuplets.

I had fun ascribing a distinct personality trait to each mystical sister: one was bossy, one shy, and so on.  We would play together and sing songs: identical pigtailed heads wagging in glassy unison.  Never even to my closest friends, though, did I admit having imaginary siblings – perhaps, like alcoholics, I was ashamed that I sought succour and companionship via a drinks cabinet?

(Whatever prompted me to write about this?  I had hitherto forgotten all about my clandestine play-acting – like a deleted movie scene lost in the vaults for years but now digitally remastered and available on DVD.  This reunion invitation has kindled some unbelievable memories, suppressed in my head for decades, awaiting an occasion when they might aptly be turned into anecdotes.)

******

On days when I sought mortal playmates, I could commonly be found chez Corbett, which functioned as a kind of unofficial recreation centre for the neighbourhood kids.  The core gang comprised Karl’s cohorts Shane (alias the vicar), Gareth, Nathan and Felix, my mate Nasreen and me.  Predominantly lads, you will notice, but as I said I was a tomboy, and even at that callow age had started to perceive – and despise – the fickle cattiness inherent in many girls.

Females are pitilessly competitive creatures.  Acerbic, capricious, jealous, unforgiving, petty and ferociously territorial – I ought to know, having sporadically lapsed into such behaviour myself.  Name a woman who has not!

Don’t get me wrong: I have been gifted with some fabulously supportive, indispensable female friends – Heather and Denise topping that list.  There just happen to be traits I hate about my sex.  There are times when I have tired of the backbiting and inane gossip that pervades offices and nightclub toilets, and felt more comfortable and unguarded with men.  They can provide a gloriously uncomplicated antidote to all that miaowing.

Obviously, at six I could never have articulated such observations – all I knew was that I favoured the company of boys.  They were not yet of an age to discriminate.  I was just Zo to them.  One of the posse.  I climbed trees, did headstands and played war with the best of them.

******

Karl and I had been pals since our first day at Holly Lane a year ago.

To this day, my mother’s eyes crinkle and mist at the recollection of her bottle green-clad ‘babby’ marching off to school, satchel in hand.  Her favourite photograph, which still smiles gauchely from her dressing table, depicts me in our back garden that historic morning: all shy and ironed in my impeccable uniform; the blonde pageboy still safely unhacked.

Not being so romantically disposed, my sole abiding memory from that day is of sitting opposite a tousle-haired boy and being brazenly agog at the magnitude of his lunchbox.

Do not even think of sniggering!  The word ‘lunchbox’ had yet to acquire phallic connotations; the target of my lust was nothing more improper than my companion’s food parcel (though that doesn’t sound a fat lot better).

School canteens can be battlefields, and Nasreen and I must have looked as vulnerable as munchkins to all the ‘big children’ belching and hustling in the chip queue.

I had known Nasreen Uppal since playgroup.  We were giggling away, contented enough together amid the bedlam, when the weird thought dawned that a kind of tacit competition was unfolding between this boy and me.  We could have set it to music in parody of the old Annie Get Your Gun number – rewording it, ‘Anything you can eat, I can eat bigger.’  For as I nibbled a demure Dairylea sandwich, Brush-Head was simultaneously gnawing on a cheese cob that virtually obscured his face.  And when I unzipped my chocolate finger biscuits, he, as if in response, dipped a felt tip-daubed hand behind the lid of his Spiderman sandwich box and fished out a rock bun the size of a toilet seat.

Being schooled in basic etiquette, I knew it was rude to stare, but my eyes were jealously riveted to this mountainous cake, which my classmate – K. CORBETT, according to the marker pen inscription beneath Spiderman’s feet – was joyously devouring.

‘Are you gunna eat all that?’  The incredulous question leaked out of my mouth before I could staunch it.  I cringed, because it was one my Aunty Irene came out with on every one of her mercifully sporadic visits – followed invariably by: ‘Your eyes are bigger than your tummy.’

Rather than retort with the defensive ‘Yeh’ that I used on Aunty, the boy lavished me with a grin as wide as a banana and answered, ‘Why?  D’you want a bit?’ 

‘OK,’ I said boldly, and he broke off a sugary boulder for me.

Zoe!’  Nasreen nudged me, coyly scandalised by my audacity – then fell mute when our new friend handed her a chunk also.

‘Me mom makes ’em,’ he was explaining.  All I could do was nod, through an eruption of crumbs and currants.

As the rich, cosy, unmistakably home-made flavours filled my mouth, I was conscious of a love affair budding.  Weaned as I was on cottage pies and Arctic Roll, it was a revelation that food could be such a joy; such an adventure. 

My mom’s cuisine, though delicious, was resolutely basic and tame.  This morsel of bun gave a taste – literally – of an undiscovered kingdom.  It was magical how a few commonplace ingredients could fuse in a bowl with such an exquisite result.

My enduring passion for all things edible – and my resultant weight flux – stem directly from Avril Corbett’s rock cake on that September noon in 1980.

******

We were A Posse after that.  And didn’t Nas and I think we were It, congregating with the lads at breaktimes!  Careering about the playground impersonating superheroes: duffel coats draped around us like capes; top toggle done up, arms outstretched, free of sleeves. 

The Beano was our bible; we conversed in Dennis the Menace speak.  ‘Menacing’ was the ultimate compliment – it was our precursor to the ‘wicked’ that would resonate in playgrounds of the future – whilst ‘soppy’ (the tag Dennis levelled at his nemesis, Walter Softie) the ultimate affront.  I even cajoled my granny into knitting me a black and red striped jumper like the one sported by the comic book Menace for more than fifty years.  I adored that jumper.  I wore it until I grew so big it fitted like a threadbare bra top.

The majority of Class 1H’s female members fell into the Soppy category: playing mommy to their newborn baby dolls.  Not that I disliked dolls altogether.  Barbie and Sindy made perfect stooges for Crackerjack-inspired stunts. 

The gang were all devotees of this madcap teatime show, fronted by Stu Francis – catchphrase: ‘Ooh, I could crush a grape!’ – in which contestants little older than us competed in slapstick games, the losers being punished (or rewarded) by having buckets of neon, viscous gunge emptied over their heads.  Lucky pigs!  You could keep your Blue Peter badges; I dreamed of appearing on Crackerjack and winning a pencil.

Karl and I once amassed an illicit cache of flour, milk, tomato puree, food colouring and washing-up liquid from our respective families’ kitchens.  We tipped the lot into the first receptacle we could find (which happened to be a purple plastic jelly mould) and, utilising the handle of Dad’s toothbrush, whisked it to a soup-like texture.

Then we sadistically lined up my bevy of Barbie dolls in the sink and staged our own, low budget version of Crackerjack, cackling as we poured the gloriously revolting swill over their plastic blonde heads.  The Barbies showed no signs of objection to their mucky plight; they just went on beaming vacuously away.  Mom and Avril were livid, however, when they next visited their depleted cupboards.

‘You naughty girl!  Have you any idea how much washing-up liquid costs me?’

Well no, I hadn’t.  It is one of the blessings of childhood: to be supremely ignorant of the value of money; to have no concept of ‘wastage.’

So when parents and other moral watchdogs bemoan the pernicious power of television over youngsters’ pliant minds, I hark back to my Crackerjack phase and have no choice but to agree.

I was a true telly addict.  I simply loved to be entertained.  The ‘idiot box,’ as our sanctimonious headmaster Mr Tucker (a name with some convenient rhymes) dubbed it, enthralled me – and still does, though I am peculiarly ashamed about admitting this.  It could be that TV-viewing is perceived as a pastime of the ‘sad,’ the jobless, the housebound, or those who for some other reason enjoy no life beyond their living room.  Or perhaps it is the sense of being ‘caught out’ which has never truly left me since the day I feigned a sore throat to avoid school, and later padded out of bed to watch the kids’ programmes.

‘You can’t be very poorly if you’re sitting up glued to that thing,’ Mom commented sagely.  Whilst not quite fathoming why being unwell ought to render one incapable of operating a remote control, I felt an uncomfortable nugget of guilt forming in my stomach.  It sat there for the rest of the day, heavy and cold like an ice cube, totally expunging the fun of bunking off.

Even now, this ‘ice cube’ resurfaces if I so much as peek at Bargain Hunt during my infrequent (and legitimate, I might add) spells of sick leave.  How silly it is, the way we never quite shed the paranoia of our youth.

Stationery was another ‘thing’ of mine.  I spent hours fussily colour-coding my crayons – and, like many of my contemporaries, collected novelty rubbers (the erasing kind, you understand).

This would be an unthinkable hobby to twenty-first century kids, deleting their spidery misspellings with nice, politically correct, odourless rubbers.  All the ice cream, flower and chocolate shaped ones, which smelled so gorgeously authentic, were outlawed years ago: too many duped kiddies having choked in attempts to eat them.  It is hard to believe they were once all the rage, and the subject of some serious bartering in the Holly Lane playground.

My own favourite was a hamburger – with detachable layers of bun, onion, meat and lettuce that for some reason utterly fascinated me – which I coaxed from Felix Bennett in exchange for a car-shaped one.  I coveted this burger because its uncanny beefy reek reminded me of the best birthday party ever: Karl’s eighth, on the seventeenth of October 1982.

‘What’s McDonald’s, Karl?’ I had queried, scanning my invitation.

‘Oh, this new restaurant Stef’s been on about.  He went with the scouts.  It sounds totally menacing!  They do burgers and chips – ’cept they call ’em ‘french fries’….’

‘French fries?’

‘Yeh.  And you get ’em straight away, you don’t have to wait or anything!  An’ they do this great big massive hamburger called a Big Mac, that’s this tall – ‘  His hand hovered a good eighteen inches above the table to demonstrate.  No wonder my eyes had turned to glitterballs and my mouth was frozen in the ‘OW’ of a silent Wow.

It is years since I had a hamburger, and the only fast food I now bother with is liable to come from Pret À Manger, but I can never forget the early magic of the now ubiquitous ‘Macky D’s.’  A vivacious, slick, red and yellow slice of Stateside culture which had landed in a Black Country littered with hot pork sandwich shops.  Uninitiated Dudley kids were presented with a plethora of new choices: Eat in or takeaway?  Small or regular fries?

My birthday, four months later, was marked with a new experience too – my first outing to a cinema.  My parents escorted my knot of mates and me to the Dudley Odeon (which is now a Gala bingo hall) to see ET – the Extra-Terrestrial, Steven Spielberg’s new epic which was still luring the crowds two months into its release.

I was spellbound – and distraught.  I can remember slurping orange pop at an unladylike volume to disguise my snuffles.  Tomboys – like real boys – did not cry.  It was part of the protocol.

Karl was not hoodwinked, though he gallantly withheld my mortifying secret from the gang.  He could have easily reaped a few cheap sniggers out of a soppy sobbing girl, but chose not to.  It was an attribute I esteemed in him – he was never a bully; never a piss-taker.

Not that he didn’t land me in a scrape or two.

I was ambling through Dudley Market Place one summer Saturday in 1983, tracksuit-clad as usual, my pudgy hand clasped by the most wonderful person in the world – Mrs Marjorie Danks.

Ah, Granny Danks!  Mother to my mom and Aunty Irene, fount of innumerable sweets and owner of a fluffed-up ginger pompom of a cat called Buster.

I was her first – and, I strongly suspected, favourite – grandchild, three years older than my cousin Sasha, who lived in Gloucester.

Marge was widowed – having nursed Granddad Syd through cancer when I was regrettably too young to appreciate either his presence or her self-sacrifice – and doggedly buoyant, capable and practical.  She told jokes, wore trousers and, best of all, was not one of those kissy grandmas who clamp you in talc-scented hugs while burbling about how much you have purportedly grown since your last encounter.  She was full of humour, and singularly understanding of my dress and skirt phobia.

‘Leave the wench be, our Valerie,’ I overheard her retort to one of Mom’s hand-wringing laments on the subject of her ‘boyish’ daughter, ‘it’s a phase.  She’ll grow out of it, in time.’

It became tradition that I would spend Saturdays with Granny Danks, either at her little terrace in Netherton or trawling around the shops of Dudley.  I found the latter activity tedious, but gamely bore it because it involved catching a bus, and public transport was another thrill to die for.  Yes, really!  Despite the vomit-coloured seats, cigarette butts and obligatory wild-eyed, anoraked man muttering to himself in the back row, I felt like a princess being chauffeured around at an elevation that afforded me views into people’s gardens.

There was always edible recompense for my patience, be it a bag of Teddy Gray’s herbals or, in summer, an ice cream from the Mr Whippy van that tinkled up Granny’s road.  Then she would invariably frizzle up some fish fingers while I played with Buster in front of Jim’ll Fix It

It was under her influence that I fell in love with cats.  Their selfishness, their disdain, the way they succeed in being cuddly and adorable despite maintaining an air of classy aloofness.  Dogs are such riffy, messy, licky beasts.  Ugh!  I can’t stand them; never have.

Anyway, this was a particularly interminable shop-trawl.  Granny scrutinised every window, intermittently tempted enough to actually venture through a door.  It was a good eight years before I acquired any fervour for fashion, so the rails of clothes were mere nylon blurs to me.  When I grew up, I haughtily vowed, I would never be like these silly women clucking around me, pawing every sleeve and hem as though it were spun of gold.  What was the attraction?  Clothes, in my book, were Soppy.

I stifled a sigh and blotted a clammy palm down my velour leg, hopeful that today might be an ice cream van day.  We paused – again – outside Littlewoods, and as Granny stood riveted to a display of vests, I was sidetracked by the funky pumping beats of a ghetto blaster a little distance away.  A swelling crowd was applauding and gasping as three black kids threshed about on crash mats, with acrobatic disregard for gravity.  A head-spin here, a back-flip there.  They were amazing.

Karl and Stef Corbett evidently agreed.  There was no mistaking those rangy, tow-headed forms at the front of the pack, each astride a bike.  Karl waved.  This unforeseen diversion ousted all thoughts of Granny and her thermals from my mind, and I marched over to join them.

‘All right, Zo.  Look – it’s Felix.  Bostin’ dancer, isn’t he?’

To my astonishment, the tiniest, smiliest member of this agile trio was indeed Felix Bennett.  While the bigger lads concentrated on the more convoluted routines, he was charming the old ladies with an exaggerated cuteness very reminiscent of Michael Jackson in his Jackson Five days.  It was working.  Penny after penny clinked into the red baseball cap strategically upturned on the flagstones.

I felt poor and juvenile having no coppers of my own to donate.  This act was a colossal improvement on the doleful buskers who usually weaved about the Market Place with their squeaky fiddles and inharmonious harmonicas – often accompanied by equally sad-eyed dogs, whose roles were doubtlessly to deflect attention from their masters’ scant talent.  I could have watched these boys all day.

‘Are them his brothers?’

‘Ar.  Delroy and Gary.  I’m going to ask me mom for a pair of trainers like theirs – they’re just brill!  Who are you here with, Zo?’

‘My gran – oh God, Granny!’

My eyes and mouth dilated in alarm.  Granny didn’t know where I was!

How many times had I rolled my eyes during a parental sermon about the perils of ‘wandering off’?  How bored and patronised I used to feel, because of course I would never do anything so thoughtless!  What did Mom and Dad think I was – a kindergarten kid?

But now the sight of some breakdancers had divested my fickle young head of wisdom, with the result that I had reneged on all those sincere promises.

The old ice cube was back!  Like a spasm of indigestion, it lodged itself painfully in my abdomen.

Dad’s oft-repeated legends about his own boyhood larks, and the ‘good hidings’ they earned him, seemed suddenly less comical.  I was none too sure quite what constituted a ‘hiding’ – good or otherwise – but was certain I had just become a candidate for one.

That was supposing Granny ever found me.  For I was Lost now.  A Missing Child.  I was going to be captured in one of those enormous nets I had seen in cartoons and carted off to the human equivalent of a dog pound.  My parents would make a frantic appearance on Midlands Today, offering a bounteous reward for the safe return of their beloved only daughter.

Through the thud of music, I distinguished a sob some way behind me, followed by croaky snatches of narrative.  ‘Granddaughter – just there – I turned round – disappeared –’

Whipping around, I was aghast to witness my lovely gran being consoled and proffered tissues by a kindly looking woman with a net shopping bag.  The only adult I had seen even on the brink of tears was Mom, when I hacked my hair off.  It was unheard-of for the robust Marjorie Danks to crumple – and the recognition that I was responsible for this aberration was too much for me.  Tears of pure distress dribbled unhindered down my grubby cheeks, despite the presence of lads.

‘I’m here, Granny!’  I bowled myself at her, binding my arms around her comfortably tubby waist.  ‘I’m sorry.’

She returned my hug with passionate gratitude, dropping kiss after kiss on to my hair (for once, I took no exception to this) and muttering, ‘Oh love, oh love, thank God.’

And then, as if ashamed of her lapse into emotion, she thrust me out to arm’s length and assumed her familiar brisk tone.  ‘Don’t you ever take off like that again, Zoe Taylor, d’you hear me?  You frit me to jeth there.  There’ll be no ice cream for you today, my girl!’  Having expected a smack, I was thankful for the relative clemency of my punishment – but still involuntarily grimaced at this news.  ‘You can stop pulling faces an’ all!  Going without might teach you a lesson.  Oh hello – it’s young Karl.’

Granny was fond of Karl, who had been an enthusiastic guest at many a fish finger feast.  Now he stood flashing one of his famously winning grins at her.  Even before he opened his mouth, she was thawing.  I could tell.

‘I’m sorry, Mrs D, it was all my fault.  You mustn’t blame Zoe.  I called her over to see the breakdancers, yer see.  One of them’s in our class.’

Butter wouldn’t melt!

Granny’s shrewd but clearly amused eyes darted between his face and mine, as if to determine whether she was being made fun of.  Then she laughed. An irresistible, joyous chortle that quelled the tension.

‘You won’t tell Mom and Dad about this, will you?’ I implored cheekily, taking advantage of her augmented spirits.
‘Well I ought to, bab, but I won’t.  It’ll only worry them – and it’s not like there’s any harm done.  Just don’t yer go doin’ it again, OK?’

Karl and I exchanged conspiratorial smirks.

I got my ice cream after all.  And an extra croquette potato at dinner.

‘You kids crease me, and no mistake,’ Granny chuckled as she slid it on to my bean-laden plate.  ‘That lad hasn’t half got the gift of the gab.  He’d reduce anyone to putty in his little hands.  He’ll go far – mark my words!’

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1 Comment

  1. Guitar Hero said,

    June 23, 2009 at 9:00 am

    This is romantic. If you don’t think some romantic music is appropriate for this article, then consider the article amiss. Beautiful prose, indeed.


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