Thursday, 5 January 2017
The Brownie Uniform
My mother had for reasons best known to herself, decided I should join a local Brownie Pack when I was eight. She seemed to think there would be social advantages such as meeting and possibly becoming friendly with, a nicer class of girl than those living at the lower end of York Road, Northfleet. When I expressed a certain amount of dread, after all the whole idea sounded suspiciously like a weekly dose of compulsory team games and I was well aware from several years of school that I was not possessed of much team spirit, she added that all my Crayford cousins were currently enthusiastic Brownies. While I was reflecting that under normal circumstances she would not regard the cousins as being in any way helpful for social mobility, she assured me that I would love it once I got used to it. I had even more serious doubts when I saw her making the obligatory uniform from an offcut of fabric, quite the wrong shade of brown, purchased from a stall in Gravesend Market. My heart sank deeper as I contemplated the remarks that would unquestionably be made by my co-Brownies regarding colour blindness, all of them acceptably attired in uniforms purchased from Danby’s, with epaulettes and leather belts. She could never quite get the hang of epaulettes and the cost of a leather belt put it into the `out of the question’ category. I was right of course but following a most disagreeable and spiteful three weeks I solved the problem by simply not attending these intolerable every Tuesday after school sessions. Instead I hit upon the brilliant idea of taking Tuesday evening bus rides with the subs money. It was on one of these absconding Tuesdays that I boarded the 498 bus from the stop outside the Doctor’s surgery in London Road towards the Station and came face to face with my father who had presumably boarded in Gravesend. In fact I nearly tripped over his feet as we greeted each other somewhat uneasily. To my surprise he did not ask me why I was travelling in the opposite direction to that of the Brownie Pack Meeting, neither did he get off the bus at The Hill and head down Springhead Road towards home but instead stayed on chatting with the bus conductress whom he seemed to know well and addressed as `Sadie’. I studied her smart blue jacket , admiring the perfectly positioned epaulettes that my mother was simply not able to master no matter how hard she tried. A powerful woman in sole charge of the interior of the 498 route from Gravesend to Crayford. A woman in a uniform what’s more! She looked me up and down curiously, `Is this your girl then Bern?’ `Yes, this is my Jean – say hello to your Aunt Sadie Jean,’ He looked quite dapper and definitely pleased with himself, in his demob suit, a white silk scarf casually draped around his neck. I felt a deep unease; there was something quite wrong about the way they spoke to each other. I held out my bus fare and she shook her head. She was a small, slim woman with a tightly nipped in waist and a mop of unruly hair that was an improbable shade of red. She wore strappy sandals with her clippy’s uniform and her toenails were as vividly red as her hair. Instead of the narrow skirt normally worn by women on the buses she wore slacks. She had small gold studs in her ears and as she spoke I could see the occasional flash of gold in her mouth. She swayed up and down the bus taking a fare or two and my father’s eyes followed her progress with undisguised admiration and then she swayed back to where he sat on the treble seat at the end of the bus. She chatted to him in an animated and familiar way and both of them laughed far too much. From time to time she pushed his shoulder playfully and told him he made her split her sides. I sat opposite him and stared at this unfamiliar Aunt Sadie. After her initial appraisal she took little notice of me, her attention was primarily upon him. Occasionally as she leaned forward to allow a newly boarding passenger to pass up the bus, her knee pressed against his just a fraction too long for the contact to be accidental. I remained on the bus all through the three stops to Swanscombe, then two more to Greenhithe, one more to Stone – and I wondered where he was going. They began to speak together in low voices, her head bent forward, red tendrils of hair brushing against his forehead and then quite suddenly he decided to alight at the stop after Stone village. I got off with him and we crossed the road and stood in silence waiting for the bus back towards Northfleet Hill. `Thought you were going to Brownies tonight,’ he said at last. I shrugged, said nothing for a while then asked, `Does Mummy know Aunt Sadie?’ He was silent too then asked in a vague voice,`Does she know who?’ I spoke louder, slightly aggressive now, `Aunt Sadie – the clippie – does Mummy know her?’ He studied the timetable. It was a request stop and almost at once a bus appeared out of the early evening Stone Village mist. He signalled it far too vigorously. `Yes – your mother knows her,’ he told me as we both got on. `Does Mummy like her?’ His voice became sharper, `What kind of question is that?’ and he sat a little straighter and looked intently out of the window into the darkening evening seemingly engrossed in the river traffic heading towards the Pool of London. I did not find this sudden keen interest in the pilot boats and cargo vessels totally convincing. I thought he was waiting to see what I would say next so I said nothing and neither did he. The almost empty bus rumbled steadily along the high London Road above the quarries, through the village of Greenhithe, towards Swanscombe. The waterside buildings below became increasingly shrouded and obscured by dark shadows and one after another the little yellow lights were switched on inside the houses and studded the growing darkness. After we left the Swanscombe request stop I decided to speak. `I’m not going to go to Brownies any more,’ He sounded resigned and tired when he asked me why not. `I don’t like it and the other girls are snobs. One of them said my legs were dirty.’ He turned now and looked at me dispassionately, `Maybe it’s just not your cup of tea.’ I nodded, `And my legs are not dirty.’ He glanced at my clean legs and agreed, `Your legs are quite clean – I’ll tell your Mother you don’t want to go anymore.’ We both stared out into the rapidly darkening night. `What if she says I’ve got to go because of her specially making that uniform?’ He said I should not worry about that because he would deal with it. And he did so. Next day my mother hung the offending wrong shade of brown uniform into the back of the wardrobe. I watched in some relief and said, `Being a Brownie just wasn’t my cup of tea.’ She looked at me without comment. The subject of Brownies was not brought up again.