The Roads They Travelled

The Roads They Travelled

 
Susan day
 
CHAPTER ONE
 
IN WHICH MILES ARE COVERED AND STORIES EXCHANGED
 
Here’s Sadie Singleton wheeling her bike out of the alley and into the street. Squinting into the deep shadow on the other side she can see someone – a girl and a bike. Good, she thinks, Kath’s out already, no hanging around. But as her eyes adjust to the shadow it’s an unknown girl she sees, and she is looking at the door as if unsure whether it’s the right house. They both stand, not looking at each other, waiting for the other to make the first move. Then Sadie – it is her street after all – says, ‘Are you looking for Ginny?’
The girl shakes her head. ‘Kath?’ As if not quite sure of the name.
‘Oh Kath,’ says Sadie. ‘Have you knocked?’
The girl nods, her hair falls in her face and she tucks it back behind her ears.
‘I’ll knock,’ says Sadie, and just then Kath opens the door, with her hair still wrapped up in a scarf.
‘Hello Nell,’ she says, looking over Sadie’s shoulder. ‘Won’t be long. Looking for hairclips. Wait here.’
The girl moves out of the shade and sits down on the kerb. Sadie makes a face, nose twitching, lips thin. Now Kath’s sister Ginny appears in the open doorway. ‘Still here? I won’t be long.’
‘Is she coming?’ says Sadie. Nell – still as a dog in the sunshine – barely shrugs as Kath reappears, apparently ready.
‘Is she coming?’ says Sadie again.
‘I can’t help it,’ says Kath. Sadie watches her big face crumple up because she can’t please everyone.
‘Why don’t we go?’ says Sadie. ‘She can catch us up if she wants to.’
Kath cheers up. ‘I’ll tell her.’
‘Don’t tell her,’ shouts Sadie to her back. ‘Let’s just go.’
‘It will be all right,’ says Nell. Sadie makes the face again. It was supposed to be just her and Kath today, but first this Nell has been brought in, and now Ginny, and Kath hasn’t even hinted at, Do you mind? or, If it’s all right with you. Whose outing is it? Sadie would like to say.
Nell puts her shoes back on and sits on the saddle of her bike, ready to go. Her long brown legs touch the ground easily. Sadie is smaller than Nell but her bike is bigger and she stands next to it, irritably spinning the pedal. But hers is a good bike with all its spokes and two working brakes, even if her feet don’t touch the ground. Kath’s bike, waiting for her propped up against the wall, somehow could not be anyone else’s, such a heavy black unmanoevrable machine it is. You need hands as strong as Kath’s to work the brakes on this one.
Ginny has still not caught them up when Marcie MacNee steps off the kerb in front of Nell.
‘Where you going?’
Nell shrugs. ‘Just for a ride.’
‘I’ll come,’ says Marcie. ‘Just let me go for my bike.’
‘If she’s coming,’ says Sadie to Kath, ‘then I’m not.’
‘What’s up?’ says Kath.
‘She’s a big bully. I should know. She is. I was at school with her.’
‘We’re not children now,’ says Nell. ‘We won’t let her do anything.’
Sadie looks at Kath but Kath says nothing. She stands looking back along the road as if she’s worrying about Ginny, but Sadie knows she is trying to work out whose side to be on. Kath likes there to be a lot of people, every one of them her friend.
‘If she’s coming,’ says Nell, ‘she’ll need some sandwiches. I’ll go and tell her.’ She props her bike up and ambles down the alley, just as Ginny arrives.
‘What are we waiting for?’
‘Nell and Marcie MacNee.’
‘I’m going home,’ says Sadie.
‘We can’t go without you,’ says Kath. ‘You’re the one what knows where we’re going.’
‘I’ll go next week,’ says Sadie, feeling the lump of disappointment thicken in her throat.
‘She’s scared of this girl Marcie,’ explains Kath.
‘If she’s coming I’m going home,’ says Sadie again.
‘Can I borrow your bike then?’ says Ginny. The one she has is a bit like Kath’s, a man’s, big and black and heavy. ‘I’ll look after it, and I’ll give you something.’
‘She won’t,’ says Kath. ‘She says things like that.’
‘Can I though?’
‘You might as well,’ says Sadie sulkily. No one has asked her to stay, she might as well go home. She and Ginny swap bikes, move the contents of the baskets and Sadie is ready to go home, waiting only for some sign of friendship from Kath, when Nell reappears, with Marcie and a bike. Following them a boy of about twelve who is clearly Marcie’s brother, same red-brown face, same black lank hair falling in his eyes. He doesn’t speak but grabs the handlebars and starts to wrestle the bike from his sister. Marcie holds on. The others – even Sadie – look on, not joining in. The siblings kick each other, unable to use their hands, then Marcie leans forward and bites his hand. Now he does make a noise – a sort of roar – and punches her with the injured hand, sobbing. Then a stout woman appears with a coal shovel.
‘Let it go you little cow. It’s his bike, not yourn.’ She goes to whack Marcie’s backside with the shovel but the girl steps off the bike.
‘Take it then, I don’t want it.’
‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ says Nell to Marcie as they prepare to ride off.
After a small hesitation, Sadie goes with them, on Ginny’s bike. ‘I’ll have my bike back,’ she calls to her, but she is being left behind and Ginny in a rare burst of energy is leading the girls up Nags Head Road towards the High Street. Marcie runs along beside them until she is out of breath and has to stop and stand on the kerb watching them go.
‘Her brother’s a dumbie,’ says Sadie when she comes alongside Kath.
‘Was that their Mum?’
‘No, one of their aunties. They’re diddikois you know.’
‘What’s that?’
‘I don’t know, that’s what everyone calls them.’
Two boys, sleeves rolled up to their elbows, wave to them from the pavement and Kath stops.
‘Hello Eric.’
‘What’s going on?’
‘We’re escaping from the Germans,’ says Kath.
‘Go on.’
‘No, not really. We’re going to the country.’
‘To stay?’
‘Don’t talk barmy. We’ve got to go to work tomorrow.’
‘Whose idea was this then?’ People said Eric was worse than a girl for wanting to know everyone’s business.
Kath indicates Sadie.
‘I know her,’ says Eric.
‘She works with me,’ says Kath, making it sound as if she’s some sort of boss, thinks Sadie, which she isn’t. ‘Her brother’s been evacuated. We’re going to see him.’
‘Where is he?’
‘Bumbles Green,’ says Sadie. She likes the way it sounds, countrified, like something out of a Rupert Bear cartoon.
Eric’s friend, leaning against a lamppost, winks at Nell and she looks away.
‘Let’s go,’ she says, but Eric hasn’t finished.
‘I’ve seen you before. Don’t you work in the bread shop?’ Nell nods. ‘And that only leaves you,’ says Eric to Ginny.
‘She’s my sister,’ says Kath. ‘And she’s older than you so don’t go getting any ideas.’
Eric runs an eye over the bikes. ‘Well I hope you make it there and back.’ He laughs, meaning he doesn’t think they will, and the friend laughs too.
‘Who’s he?’ says Kath.
‘Gus.’
Nell and Ginny have simultaneously had enough and push their bikes away from the kerb. Sadie follows and after a moment Kath simpers at the boys and follows too.
‘Don’t be late for church,’ Eric yells after the group, and doubles up with laughter, which they fail to notice.
‘What do you think of him?’ Kath says to Sadie.
‘Nosey.’
‘I don’t mean Eric,’ scorns Kath. ‘What about Gus? Handsome isn’t he? I didn’t know his name before.’
‘I know where he lives.’
‘Tell me.’
‘Just along from me. I’ll show you.’
They pause before they reach High Street, to gather and re-establish themselves as a group. Kath and Ginny have a small dispute about who should carry their sandwiches, which Kath wins by threatening to put Ginny’s share in the pig bin by the side of the road.
‘Do you know the way?’ says Ginny to Sadie.
Sadie has a written list of places to go through but she’s resentful of Ginny for taking her bike and doesn’t want to let her take over the direction of the journey as well. ‘My Dad’s told me how to get there. It’s the other side of Nazeing.’ She is unaware that her father has not the best grasp of geography.
‘You been there before?’
‘In a car,’ says Sadie, showing off.
‘Whose?’
‘My step-grandad’s.’ This appears to silence Ginny’s questions.
It’s about nine-thirty, too early for the church people, and there’s no motor traffic moving. The sky is hazy, it will be hot later. Front gardens, railings sawn off, are still fluffy with blossom. Cats and dogs amble about, the dogs sometimes following the four bikes, barking. One is so insistent that Kath kicks out at it.
‘You shouldn’t do that,’ says Sadie.
‘Not yours is it?’
‘Course not. But you don’t want to hurt it.’
‘Who says I don’t?’
As they ride over the railway line Nell whispers to Sadie, ‘She argues all the time doesn’t she.’
Sadie shrugs. She doesn’t seem, Nell, to be quite the same sort of person as us. Something different about her. Something different about the way she talks. Sometimes you’re not sure what she said, and then it dawns on you. Not that she’s said much yet. And she’s friendly with Marcie, which doesn’t speak in her favour.
There are no houses now on either side of the road. A lorry goes past, with a single soldier sitting on the tailboard, waving to them.
Sadie stops, letting the others go on, and takes the list out of her skirt pocket. ‘Stop,’ she shouts. Nell hears, calls to the others.
‘We’ve gone wrong,’ says Sadie. ‘I knew we shouldn’t have crossed over the railway. We’ve missed Waltham Cross.’
‘Let’s see.’ Ginny, of course. ‘Waltham Cross, Cheshunt, Broxbourne. Oh it’s all right. I know the way from here.’
‘How do you?’ asks Kath, but Ginny ignores her.
Sadie feels entitled to moan, it being Ginny’s fault as she sees it. ‘We’ve missed seeing the Cross. I always like seeing the Cross.’
‘We’ll see it on the way back,’ promises Ginny, leading off again.
Half a mile further she calls, ‘Stop.’
Kath, yards in front, applies the difficult brakes. Nell stops her bike with her foot. ‘What?’

‘I want to show you something.’

 

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