At the bang of a car door out in the street, Katy glanced out of the bedroom window.
It was the old black Humber she’d seen several times before, and two women were getting out and walking up the garden path of the house opposite. She was doing some ironing up in the front guest room; her own bedroom was at the back of the house and all it overlooked was the garden. Her younger brother, Rob, claimed she was nosy, always people-watching, fascinated by their comings and goings. She denied this, but she did find the house across the street very mysterious.
Mrs Gloria Reynolds, the owner, had a lovely dress shop in town called Gloria’s Gowns, just two doors away from the firm of solicitors where Katy worked as a secretary. Her shop, and the fact that she was a very glamorous divorcee, was more than enough to make her interesting to Katy, but the clincher was that she had the oddest visitors and guests calling at her house.
The driver of the black Humber wasn’t remarkable. Dumpy, grey-haired, middle-aged and wearing the same tweed coat she’d worn on every other visit. She struck Katy as the kind to be married to a doctor, vicar or other professional; she imagined her having a cut-glass BBC accent, and spending her spare time gardening.
But the women she brought here couldn’t be more different from her or Mrs Reynolds. Mostly they were far younger, often quite shabbily dressed, and sometimes ‒ like the woman today, who was limping ‒ they could appear injured. Once, in the summer, when Katy was weeding the front garden, a woman had arrived with not just a black eye but her whole face swollen and distorted.
Some of the neighbours had also noticed odd visitors. Some thought Gloria must be helping women who had just been released from prison, or that they were women with serious diseases. Prostitutes, alcoholics, women who had lost a child, all had been suggested to Katy. Yet most of the neighbours felt that Gloria had a heart of gold, and whatever reason prompted these women to come to her house, it had to be to help them.
To Katy’s shame, the exception to this rule was her own mother.
Hilda Speed was known for her sharp tongue; some would say she never had anything good to say about anyone. Whenever Gloria’s name was mentioned she pursed her lips in disapproval. ‘No better than she should be,’ was what she always said. She was suspicious of Gloria’s red fox coat, her very high heels, her pencil skirts and her chestnut-brown hair, which Hilda was convinced was dyed to cover up grey hair.
Katy moved closer to the window, watching through the net curtains as the older woman took the younger one’s arm and led her up the garden path. She wished she could see this woman’s face, as it was difficult to assess someone’s age from a mere back view, but she thought she was young as she wore tight ski pants and a leather jacket, and her long dark hair was tied up in a ponytail.
The older woman opened the front door with a key. This was another thing that Hilda was suspicious of. She always said, ‘What sort of woman allows people into her home when she isn’t there?’ And Gloria couldn’t be there today as it was the last Saturday before Christmas and the busiest time in a dress shop. Rob had joked to Katy that their mum was so crabby the only visitors they’d ever get at their house was if people knew she would be out.
As the two women disappeared inside the house, Katy returned to the ironing while considering the mysterious visitors. She was in the habit of chatting to Gloria whenever she went into her shop. Just the previous month she’d bought a beautiful emerald-green chiffon dress for going dancing at Christmas.
But Gloria was the kind of woman who was more interested in other people than in talking about herself. Katy did know she had two daughters and a son. The daughter who lived in Hastings had two small children, and her son was up north somewhere. But as much as she had always wanted to ask about the people who came to her house, she couldn’t. She didn’t want to admit she spied on Gloria ‒ and besides, it was rude to ask personal things of someone you didn’t know well.
Katy felt Gloria might be a marriage counsellor. She certainly was easy to confide in. Katy had always hated her red hair, but she had Gloria to thank for telling her it wasn’t carroty but strawberry blonde and very pretty. Two years ago she had picked out a pale green summer dress and suggested Katy try it on, to prove her point. Katy did, and loved it, because suddenly her hair seemed a less brassy colour. She bought that dress, and it had become her favourite, inspiring her to buy other clothes in the same colour. She was so very grateful to Gloria for giving her new confidence in her looks.
Just recently Gloria had also advised her to leave Bexhill. ‘It’s full of old people, and the dullest town in England,’ she said with a big sigh, waving one hand to the street outside, which seemed to be full of pensioners. ‘Get off to London, share a flat with other girls and have some fun. The only blokes you’ll meet at the Saturday dance at the De La Warr Pavilion will be grease monkeys, labourers and the like. Anyone with any gumption runs off to London, these days. That’s where it’s all happening.’
Katy knew Gloria was right. Most of the girls from her class at school were married now, some with two or three children. They’d all married local boys, got council houses, and their lives were set to be repeats of their parents’. That wasn’t the kind of future Katy wanted. She and her friend Jilly were always talking about broadening their horizons, and maybe it was time to start now.
‘There’s no maybe about it,’ Katy said aloud. ‘You’ve got nothing to tie you to Bexhill.’
Rob was home from university for Christmas; only last night he’d said he didn’t think he’d come back any more because their mother was so cranky. But if Katy went away too that would leave her dad at Mum’s mercy. Already henpecked and ridiculed, he was likely to spend longer and longer in either the office or his shed to avoid her. Her brother might think their mother was cranky, but he really hadn’t seen just how nasty she could be to their father. She always kept it down when Rob was home.
Hearing her mother calling out downstairs, Katy went to the door.
‘Did you want me, Mum?’ she called down the stairs.
‘Surely you’ve finished the ironing by now?’
Katy moved so she could see her mother. Everything about Hilda Speed was sharp ‒ her tongue, features, eyes and her mind ‒ allowing her to miss nothing. Even her body seemed to be all sharp angles. She was too thin; her knees and elbows were like weapons. Although only in her late forties, she appeared older because she so rarely laughed or even smiled.
‘Just doing the last sheet,’ Katy said. ‘Why, have you got something else you want me to do?’
‘No, I was just checking what you were up to.’
Katy rolled her eyes with irritation. For her entire life her mother had always liked to keep tabs on her. Coming home from school, running a message, anything outside the house always had an allocated time, and if she wasn’t back within ten minutes of that time, she was questioned. It was as if her mother couldn’t bear the thought of her running into a friend or neighbour and stopping for a little chat.
‘I’ll just put the sheets in the airing cupboard and then I’ll be down,’ Katy replied. She finished the last sheet, put the pile of ironed things in the airing cupboard, then went to her room. She wanted to put off going downstairs again so she sat at her dressing table, looking at herself in the mirror.
Her friend Jilly had always encouraged her to enjoy her ‘pale and interesting’ look rather than complain how long it took to achieve even the faintest hint of a tan in summer. Now, at twenty-three, she had finally accepted her looks: straight, long golden-red hair, the sprinkling of freckles on her nose, the pearly colour of her skin, and her green eyes. She actually liked her eyes; everyone admired them, as they were large and lustrous. She was also grateful she’d been blessed with brown eyelashes and eyebrows, as so many redheads had blonde ones. She was slender too, and her legs were long; it would’ve been better if she was two or three inches taller, instead of a miserly five foot two, but no one could have everything.
She didn’t feel she’d inherited anything much from her parents. Rob was a replica of their dad at the same age: five foot nine, well built, with dark brown hair and eyes. Hilda had brown eyes, and she had said that her hair used to be chestnut before it went grey. But Katy had a heart-shaped face, while her mother’s was oblong. Hilda’s nose was sharp, Katy’s small and well rounded.
‘As long as you don’t get as difficult as Mum, or as soft as Dad, you’ll do,’ she told her reflection.
At the sound of her shrieked name, Katy sighed. It was a few days yet till Christmas and her mother was already going into a tailspin. No wonder Rob said he didn’t intend to come home for the holidays any more.