JOSEPHINE…

18 Jun

  

             

Northern England, 1960’s (written in black-and-white)

 The factory whistle blew. A single, solitary blast that reverberated off smoke-blackened brick.

                “Thank fuck for that. Thought it was never going to end. Any plans for the weekend Jim?”

                “Might go down to the United ground and watch the match,” said his mate.

                “United are shite, they are! You want to support a decent team like Villa. Now they’ve got a manager who knows his stuff.”

                A man in an oily overall switched off his lathe and wiped his grimy hands with cotton waste.

                “What about you Alf? Anything special going on?”

                The man in the overalls turned to the two men. “It’s our lass’s birthday tomorrow. Her mother’s putting on a bit of a do.”

                The two other men nudged each other and grinned. “That’ll be your youngest, Josephine won’t it?”

                “Aye, that’s right, sixteen she’ll be,” Alf said.

                “Sweet sixteen.” The United man whistled. “Suppose we’ll be seeing her down at the dance on Friday?”

                The man with oily hands stared at his colleagues. “Don’t be getting ant funny ideas. I’ll knock your bleeding blocks off.”

                The two men laughed. “What us, Alf? You know us better than that mate!”

                Alf shook his head. He knew the buggers alright. “Anyroad, I’m here till seven. Got me sen a bit of overtime.”

                The two men turned to leave. “Right, then we’re off to The Lion for a couple of pints. Maybe see you down there?”

                “Aye, maybe.” Alf muttered noncommittally.

                “Happy birthday to your lass.”

                Alf turned back to the lathe, chucked the bit, and turned the power back on. Two more hours and he’d be out of this dump. Twenty years he’d put in at Rawlings Engineering and what did he have to show for it?

Fuckin nowt, that’s what!

 A small terrace down on Empire Street, where he shared a three bedroom, one bath with his wife and their three daughters. Heaven on earth it wasn’t. Over-time was a godsend. As the only earner in his family it was down to him to put bread on the table. God knew he did his damnedest.

                 Sweet sixteen. Bloody hell, when did that happen? Josephine, his youngest, had been a bit of a surprise. An accident after one of the work do’s. A little too much free beer and a romantic tussle with the wife had resulted in what had become the light of his life. He’d been through every emotion. From demanding his wife get an abortion, to tears at the hospital when she’d been born.

                He’d watched her grow into the lovely young woman she’d become and tomorrow she was turning bloody sixteen. He loved his other daughters too, but Jo was his baby, his favorite.

                 The lathe powered on, and the chuck began to spin. He watched his work mates retreat from the workshop, as they went to wash filthy hands before disappearing down to The Lion to spend the shillings they’d worked so hard for. “Leave Jo bloody alone, or I’ll cut your knackers off!” He screamed.

                His two mates turned, waved, and disappeared.

*

                Josephine stood in front of the shop window and stared. They’d been there for nearly a month now and nobody had bought them. Black patent-leather shoes with that new heel that was all the rage in the fashion magazines. Apparently even Elizabeth Taylor was wearing them. People pushed passed her on the street – men and women in long coats, carrying umbrellas and rushing to get home.

                She stood her ground and put her hand on the shop window. Ten shillings and sixpence. How on earth was she going to able to afford that?  She only made four bob a week at the hairdressers, and half of that she had to give to her mum. Those shoes might as well be a hundred pounds. As she looked, a manicured hand slipped into the window, pinched the shoes at the heel, and disappeared.

The shoes were gone!

 She pushed her face closer to the window. The shop girl saw her, shrugged and smiled. Looked like somebody else would be flouncing around the town in new shoes, and it wouldn’t be her. She tried to fight back tears as the bitter sting of northern rain froze her face, adding to her misery. She turned away from the shop window and joined the rush for the busses. She had to catch the six o’clock. If she missed it she’d be late home, and she knew what her mother would say about that.

*

                The two sisters watched as their father placed the box on the table.

                “What you got there dad?  Sommet  for us?” The two girls peered eagerly over his shoulders

                “No. Sommet for your sister’s birthday.” He opened the box to reveal patent-leather shoes. Beautiful jet black leather that gleamed from the box. “They’re for Jo, tomorrow for her birthday. She’s had her eyes on these for a while. Thought I’d do something special for her birthday, seeing as how she’s sweet sixteen and all.”

                His wife walked in from the kitchen, the smell of cooking following her into the small sitting room.  “Goodness Alf, they must have cost a fortune! What the dickens were you thinking?”

                 “Don’t worry luv. With the overtime these past couple of weeks, we’ve more than enough to cover it. Paid cash as well, none of your bloody never-never!”

                 His wife shook her head. “You spoil that girl rotten Alf.”

                 “Come on now luv. You’re only sixteen once. Don’t you remember being sixteen?”

                Those care-free days down at the Roxy, where they’d dance the night away with American servicemen. His wife clutched a sauce bottle to her chest and reminisced silently.

*

                The sisters scowled. It was always her and never them. If Josephine wanted it, well then she bloody got it. Spoilt little brat, apple of her father’s eye. When was the last time they got something nice? Little bitch didn’t know she was born. There they were, slaving away in the offices down at Rawlings while little-Miss-Special was pursuing her dream of becoming a beautician.

                 Stupid girl! There was no money in hairdressing, everybody knew that. The number of times they had to sit at the dinner table and listen to her dreamy tales of when, what ifs, and if onlys. It was time she woke up and understood what was really going on in the world. Life wasn’t all fashion magazines and film stars . There was a living to be earned, and as an apprentice hairdresser it wasn’t as though she could afford her fancy dreams. They were both working a full forty and brought far more into the housekeeping than she ever did. And yet once again here she was being given the best of the best. Weren’t they the deserving ones?  Shouldn’t it be them going down to the dance hall in fancy shoes?

                They watched their father close the box. Saw the smile on his face. The girls looked at each other and disappeared out of the room.

*

                The small house was packed with family and friends, everybody in their Sunday best. The table creaked under the weight of what her mother called a buffet. Cheese and ham sandwiches, sausage rolls, pork pies, and crisps. A cake covered in candles stood in the middle of the table, a gift from Mrs. Jackson next door. Nobody made cakes like Bella.

                Josephine stood behind the cake dressed in her favorite party frock, radiant from the light streaming through the window in the front room. She’d used her new-found skills to apply her makeup and fix her hair perfectly. She was the picture of innocence, the desire of every young man in the neighborhood.

                The look of surprise when she opened the paper-covered box was worth the overtime and the filth of the workshop. Her eyes lit up, growing ever larger as realization dawned on her. She looked at her dad, smiled at her mother and screamed with delight. These were the shoes from the shop, the ones she couldn’t afford, the pair that had been sold!

                “Mum, Dad, you shouldn’t have! These cost a fortune.”  She felt the texture of the leather, caught her reflection in their gleam. They were beautiful.

*

                The sisters stood by and feigned pleasure. It was their baby sister’s sweet sixteen; she deserved everything she got. And she would get everything she deserved. Enough was enough! They’d plotted and conspired. They had a plan. Nobody was going to get hurt, just a quick lesson, a good telling. Something that would put young Josephine on the right track. Wake her up to a little Yorkshire reality.

                They’d discussed it with one of their boyfriends. A quick scare on Friday night, nothing serious – just enough to put the frighteners on her. It was time she came down from her ivory tower. Why was she so special? Wasn’t it them that did all the work?  Wasn’t it them that deserved their father’s love?

                There was no turning back. Their well-laid plans had been crafted down at The Lion. As they sat there, drinking their rum and blacks, they’d laughed at how they would scare her. Smiled at the plot as they huddled together. “Mind nobody gets hurt now. We just want to wake the little cow up. She isn’t a child anymore. It’s about time Dad saw that!

*

                “Look after each other,” now said their mother, “and mind you’re back in this house at ten, and not a minute later! And stay away from those factory lads. You know what I mean?”

                “Yes mother,” chorused the girls. They trooped into the parlor where their father was flicking through the newspaper. “See ya dad.”

                “Bye girls. Be careful. And remember ten o’clock, or you’ll feel my hand.”

                They giggled. Josephine walked over to her father, leant over and kissed him on the forehead. “Love you Dad. Thanks for the shoes.”

                Alf smiled. The shoes looked fantastic. She looked fantastic. She was a young woman now. A tear crept into his eye. “Go on with you now, and be careful.”

*

                The girls linked arms as they walked down the street , their shoes tapping off the flag stones, the swish of petty coats as they made their way to the to the dance. The Roxy had been there for years and was the highlight of any young girl’s week. There was always a live band and sometimes they even had one that had made a record. Tonight it was Jimmy Jessup and the Lightning Bolts, who’d just charted at number twenty-two in the BBC hit parade. With mirror-balled decadence and the attention of the local lads, tonight was going to be a lot of fun. The bus had dropped them off down the street from The Roxy. It was only a five minute walk.

                As they passed the corner shop the girls stopped. “Jo, we’re going to get some fags. You go on and save our places. We won’t be a moment.” The two girls tinkled through the shop door, leaving Josephine standing outside on the cobbles. She noticed her reflection in the glass, she looked lovely. She looked down at her feet and admired her shoes.

                Josephine turned to go. Her sisters would be gabbing inside. She didn’t smoke, she’d tried to though, but it made her sick. All the stars were doing it, even Elizabeth Taylor.

*

                With sweating palms the man stood over the body. He hadn’t meant to hurt her, just put a scare on her liked they agreed. Now she lay on the ground in front of him, blood dripping from her temple, her perfect dress covered in mud. He’d grabbed her as she walked past the alley, pulling her in and forcing his hand over her mouth. She’d struggled, but he was stronger and had dragged her back into the gloom away from prying eyes and street lights. He was supposed to have just given her a good shaking, taken her shoes and disappeared. It was simple enough – they’d discussed it several times. What could possibly go wrong?

                She’d bitten into his hand, and as he released his grip, she’d started to scream.

                 It was a reflex move. He’d hit her with an open hand, forcing her head back and smashing it off the wall. The next thing he knew she was collapsing onto the ground, blood spurting from her wound.

                 Of course he was scared, wanted to run, but fear paralyzed him. He had to think quickly. He wasn’t a murderer; they were just having a bit of a laugh, a giggle. He grabbed the lifeless body and dragged it further up the alley to where the dustbins stood and tried to stuff her into one of the large metal containers. It wasn’t easy, however with a little effort she was completely hidden. He ripped the stocking off his head and threw it to the ground. Taking his chance, he ran down the alley, his shoes splashing through the puddles, echoing off the walls.

*

                The sisters laughed as they came out of the shop. Josephine would be in tears, her perfect makeup washed down her face, standing there in stocking feet. They were so clever. They had planned the whole thing by themselves. This would show little-Miss-Favorite! From now on it would be them that got the special treatment, and little sweet Josephine would have to learn to start taking a back seat.

                They looked around but there was no sign of their sister. She should be here. There should be a flood of tears and a distraught girl. The street was empty. The music was starting to play in the dance hall and people were queuing outside for their tickets, however there was no Josephine.

                Suddenly one of the sisters let out a cry of alarm as the other covered her mouth with her hand. There at the entrance to the alley was a scuffed black shoe. They held each other tightly and peered into the darkness. They called her name but there was no response. The looked at each other, tears welling in their eyes, and disappeared from view.

*

               The clock ticked on the wall. It was eight thirty. The girls would be at the dance by now. Alf put the newspaper down and looked at his wife knitting across from him.

                 She looked up and smiled. Silly old fool. He was a good man, she thought, but he didn’t half spoil that child.

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