What a future husband would do in Germany, directly after the great war, the attack on her of a murderer in Egypt, and the fuelling of the roaring-twenties by someone from either another planet or from the future, were far from the thoughts of the schoolgirl, giggling her way up the stairs to the top deck of an omnibus in the sleepy town of Porchester.
Life was mundane for Daphne and when her life would eventually become upwardly mobile, she would find that none of her stories would be believed. Some are still not believed.
The omnibus driver tutted at the noise of Daphne’s giggling, which he thought was more like the noise of a much younger girl. She raced, skirt in hand, petticoats showing, noisily up the drum-like steps of his omnibus. She favoured the open top-deck during the summer months, as did her best friend. The giggling, and counter-drumming of the boots of that friend, Victoria, was close behind and kept Daphne moving quickly. Boaters were held onto heads with one hand as the girls found their usual seat and breathed in the summer air which was not the stuffy air of the classrooms, the rooms that were stuffy in every respect.
They were both too warm in long socks and ankle boots. Too warm for the end of June but allowed as variable to sandals so they were a badge of friendship between them, so worth the effort. It wouldn’t be until they were safely seated together that they would imagine, and whisper to each other about their ankles, or even, dare they think it, calves being looked at by males, as the stairs exposed them to those, that they’d observed, were behind them in the queue.
For Daphne, that especially included Mr. Roberts, chef and cookery teacher, who, the girls had agreed, was a bit dreamy, was always behind them in the queue and someone who added excitement to their day.
I’m sure he looks at my calves. My cooking skills are pretty average but he gives me high marks, so I’m sure that’s the reason. He looks upwards on the stairs if you can catch him by turning quickly, and he enjoys my smile, directed to him in lessons and seems to appreciate us not going to the back of the queue to avoid his dirty peeping. I know he would love to take things further, the lecherous old man. His arm on my shoulder while he helps my cooking I can tolerate but the wife, or lover of a teacher is not what I’m looking for in life. My aim is higher.
Deportment lessons weren’t thought about as the girls sat, because the rules had been drilled into their brains by Miss Jenkins. Daphne smiled, as usual to see it was Victoria’s turn to sit on the gangway side, and all four legs were parallel and facing toward the outside of the bus, skirts pulled down tightly at the front to reveal only a half calf, no more, four thighs tight together, receiving no air. Each girl with a hand still on the tops of their ribboned, straw boaters, to stop them blowing away once the omnibus started on its trip. Like twins, Daphne thought until she was forced to twist her narrow waist to speak to her friend, knowing it would be Victoria’s turn to twist on the following day. Each had their free hand on a knee and the non-twisting Victoria looked far more comfortable and lady-like.
Daphne had felt lately to be somewhat out of her skin. Part of her wanted, desperately, to be a woman, a serious woman with womanly desires, but the other part of her wanted Victoria to giggle with her, to keep her feeling like a young girl, forever. She felt as if she was a snake, shedding its skin and was at that age when a girl doesn’t realise that the chrysalis has broken, revealing, slowly, the woman that the insignificant caterpillar was always meant to be. It felt as if she couldn’t quite shake the old snake skin off, or she was out of the chrysalis but she couldn’t make her wings open.
A rich man will make me a woman, not a cookery teacher with wandering hands.
Victoria, in stark contrast, enjoyed being young, enjoyed giggling with her friend and wanted their schooldays and their giggling friendship to be forever.
Daphne twisted even more, and looked about her to make sure the omnibus, that had just left the school terminus, was empty enough for them to speak, but still whispered. “Do you think that new teacher was a servant of Queen Victoria? She was all in black, as if mourning Albert. You’d think King Edward hadn’t existed to drag us out of it all and to make us more modern.”
“Talking of which,” Victoria smirked as she spoke, “how is old Georgie vee? Has he been to tea lately?”
Daphne did one of her sneer-smiles. “You are a tease Victoria. My father is a pharmacist, and that is not such a posh profession, we do not walk in royal circles and well you know it. You’re not exactly playing, barefoot, in the streets yourself dear. We are privileged to attend where we are, training to be middle-class wives, don’t you know, in search of a middle-class husband. We must be because my mother tells me so a hundred times a day.”
Victoria placed her nose in the air, sucked in her cheeks, making her long, narrow face look more so, and then closed her eyes. “But you are rich though, even have a servant. You high-ups eat bacon for breakfast and even a chicken on a Sunday sometimes, I’ve heard you say so, m’lady. Does she wash your back, in the bath tub?”
“No, I keep telling you ‘Victoria The Exaggerator.’ Mother continually complains about money and says we are just about hanging on to Betsy. She says Betsy could easily get a better job with more money and could walk out on us at any moment and many maids do walk out on their employers. With my father in Egypt, the last time we heard anyway, mother is running the family pharmacy as, what she calls, a designated assistant, just about allowed by the government as a necessary occupation. I found out last week that the town council know the situation is not strictly correct, my mother isn’t qualified on paper, but they don’t want the pharmacy to close. It’s needed for the locals and their coughs and colds, scrapes and bumps. I know that Betsy has to be paid highly, by my mother, to stop her going into factory work, which is paying higher and higher as the war goes on, and Mother still has to claim her separation allowance while Father is away. Every time she regards me as naughty, she threatens me with pulling me out of Saint Julian’s and it shuts me up immediately.”
“Are you naughty Daphne?” Victoria had an image in her head of Daphne and her being naughty together, the naughty she often dreamed of at night.
“Not as naughty as I wish to be at fifteen,” Daphne announced to her excited friend. “I’ll be sixteen soon and have done absolutely nothing in this life so far. What a waste. Not fallen in love, not even once. It seems we’ve been born at a time, Victoria, when we are constantly, every school day, instructed in the art of becoming a catchable wife, we are of marriageable age and all the eligible bachelors are taken away from us to be slaughtered in foreign countries before we manage to be kissed by any of them.
They say there will come a time when all women will have to stay single, including maybe us, because there will be no more men left. It’s not fair, is it, dear fellow spinster. My dream, to be kissed by a rich man while fighting my urge to be naughty with him, is not quite as great a fight as my urge to stay pure and to earn a husband who is rich enough to look after both me and all of my family, even if his kisses are miserable. It is only a dream though but if I found that rich man, I think my life would be complete.”
Victoria’s hand landed on top of her friend’s. “Then we shall dream Daphne, as always, and tell our dreams in break times, as always. You can have your miserable kisser who is rich but the handsome prince is slowly turning into the handsome anyone for me. Still in uniform for me though, penniless but a good kisser as his rough uniform scrapes over my delicate skin.”
Victoria made a lewd face as if there were a man in uniform in her head who would later be in her dreams doing more than kiss her. Hidden, deep in the recesses of her mind was a time when all men were gone to war and she lived with Daphne, sharing her life and her illegal bed, as spinsters together.
The young ladies quietened their conversation as the omnibus reached the town centre of Porchester. Without looking, they had both, sub-consciously, heard the change in tone of the surrounding traffic, the hubbub of talking below them and the height of the buildings above them such that they could stare into office windows. When they passed these taller buildings, it was as if the girls no longer existed and nobody could see them as they spied into windows. As they passed the solicitor’s office, Daphne looked in to see beaky, as she had named him, the old solicitor that smelled of bread. He probably didn’t smell of bread, of course, but Daphne knew, without looking, that the baker’s was below the solicitors and so, in her mind, the old man smelled of bread and all solicitors would always have that smell.
This was the area where the omnibus would pick up working passengers on its way out to the suburb where the girls both lived, only four streets away from each other. It would then turn, cross town again and end up back at their finishing school and the girls often spoke of hating the idea of work where you just went back and fore all day, doing the same task.
Daphne broke the silence and looked for her pennies in her skirt pocket. “Gosh, the clippy, I forgot to look to see if it was your mother Victoria. Did you look?”
“No. Didn’t bother. Didn’t have time to tell you in school that we’ll have to pay our fare today. Mother has gone into lathe training, being taught to turn out shell cases. Can you believe that? It pays better than a clippy and she feels she’s doing more for the war effort and as a bonus, she doesn’t have to wear that frightful, baggy uniform. Her earning more means I’m not in a cotton mill or production line and can stay with you at Saint Julian’s, as she keeps telling me, over and over. You know what mothers are like.”
Daphne knew the feeling because she’d been told repeatedly by her own mother that, because her father had enlisted, not as a fighting soldier but as a Pharmacist, he could only stay as a private in the army. She received an allowance of three shillings and sixpence from Daphne’s father’s pay, rather than the five shillings and ten-pence that Victoria’s mother received from her husband’s weekly pay. The pharmacy was ticking over, keeping Daphne’s family relatively well fed but Daphne knew that Victoria’s mother had struggled as the wife of a banker with no extra income coming in, until, that was, she’d started working. For a woman to be working as a clippy or a lathe turner was unheard of before the war but the girls had got used to the idea now and it seemed quite natural that women should work. No thought was given to what would happen once the war was over but neither of them had factory work in mind. Daphne did not have any work in mind and rather fancied having a husband that had a servant.
Both girls knew that their mothers had applied for an extension of allowance once the girls reached sixteen as they would still be in education, but neither of them was hopeful that finishing-school would be classed as higher education. A drop in the allowance could well mean a finish at St. Julian’s which could mean Daphne going into a factory. She couldn’t contemplate that for one moment. War or no war, her only reason for existing was to move upwards on the social ladder, not downwards, never downwards.
Deep in thought as she stared, aimlessly, at the shops below her, she received a sharp dig in her ribs. “Wake up Daphne. That chap is looking at you again and you weren’t there to smile back. He just turned around and smiled. He is a dreamboat for you, and would be a dream for me, if he was in uniform. Can we share him do you think? I smiled back on your behalf. Shall I go and tell him we share absolutely everything?”
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