WHEN I was a child my mother sent me to Sunday School hoping it would make me a happy, spirited youngster instead of the sullen one I’d become.
“Why can’t you be more like Annie Rogerson?” she would say. “Look how she goes walks with her mother, and sweeps the stairs and hangs out the washing without any arguments, unlike you who wouldn’t do a hand’s turn of work, not even if you were paid for it.”
“Yeah, and everybody laughs at her for being such a goody-two-shoes,” I said. “No way do I want to be like her.”
“I wouldn’t want my daughter laughed at,” said my mother, “on the other hand – ”
I walked out before she finished the sentence but had to smile. First, she wanted me to go walking with her, then to sweep the stairs and hang out washing. Next thing she’d be wanting me to take piano lessons, yet she didn’t want me to be laughed at, which would surely happen if the big shots at school got to hear of it. But it’s a fact that my mother is a snob. I had annoyed her by stopping going to Sunday School long ago, though she’s told me umpteen times that she didn’t believe in God. She’d say, “I’m what they call a Humanist. I go to church if I feel like it, and if not –”
Then she’d snap her fingers in the air like a Spanish dancer. I thought her a real pain in the neck, chopping and changing her mind about nearly everything. I was ashamed of her twittery laugh and how she couldn’t pass a shop window without admiring herself in it.
“Yes mum, you are beautiful,” I would say, then she’d tell me it was only because she was unsure of herself, not because she was conceited. I didn’t like the subject because I was always looking in mirrors too, hoping to see a better version of my long skinny body and head that was far too small.
“I wish you wouldn’t slouch,” she’d say when we went out together, so I added slouching to my list of bad points. I decided to be the ugliest person in the street except for my mother, who was small and dumpy with legs like a boxer’s. When we were out one day I spied some school acquaintances on the far side of the road and said, “I must go now.”
“Where?” she asked.
“Into that shop – I see someone I know.”
Before she could open her mouth I sped along the street and joined another gang of acquaintances, hoping anybody watching would think I was part of it. As if anybody cared, but that’s how I was in those days.
“I suppose you’re going to the annual school dance?” said my mother.
“Not if I can help it.”
“Oh but you must. I don’t want anyone thinking I can’t afford to buy you a dress. I’ll sew you one, and don’t worry. It will be in a modern style.”
“Then I’m definitely not going.”
“Annie Rogerson is going. Her mother told me.”
“Then that makes it certain that I won’t be.”
My mother nagged so much that I ended up by going and bumped into Annie also heading for the school hall. Of course from our point of view the dance was a failure. I stood at one end of the orange juice counter and Annie at the other. The only ones who came near us were some who ordered orange juice because they thought we were serving it. I wasn’t pleased when Annie Rogerson approached and whispered something in my ear. I was about to push her away when I saw she was pointing to the opening in her cheap-looking handbag, and inside was a half bottle of vodka that seemed to be full.
“Are you offering me some?” I said in a hushed voice.
“If you want.” she said. “You can take it with orange juice.”
I was surprised to see how expert she was at pouring some vodka into a paper cup then filling it up with juice.
“Do you always take vodka wherever you go?” I asked.
“Nearly always. Sometimes it’s other stuff.”
My admiration for her knew no bounds. We finished the vodka before a teacher appeared, and said, “What’s going on here?” and fished out the empty bottle.
“Somebody must have put it in my bag,” said Annie, all innocence. The teacher looked at us both intently, then said, “Come with me. I believe you are both drunk.”
Our parents were sent for and my mother went mad when we got home.
“To think of the showing up!” she moaned. “We’ll have to leave the district.”
“I don’t see why,” I said. “It was Annie who brought in the vodka. She must have slipped some into my orange juice when I wasn’t looking.”
“Are you telling the truth?”
“Of course I am. I wouldn’t lie about a thing like that.”
“Then I’ll have to see her parents about it,” said my mother. “I’m beginning to think they’re a funny lot. Her father’s a strange man to say the least. I heard he steals women’s knickers off the line.”
“At least she’s got a father,” I said, “which is more than I have.”
“Your father died in a coal mining accident, which is nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Of course not, but I thought he died in a train disaster. That’s what you told me last time.”
“I don’t remember telling you any such thing. You must be mistaken.”
There was no point in arguing with her because she always won. She kept me indoors next day. I could easily have climbed out the bedroom window but why bother? There was nowhere to go. So I looked out of that window like a dumb dog waiting for its master, not seeing much beyond a line of greem council bins and wishing I was dead. Then I stiffened. I saw Annie Rogerson leave the back end of the close. I expected her to start sweeping the path which my mother said she was always doing, but instead she put a big black bottle into the bin. And it wasn’t a sauce bottle.
“How much vodka does she drink a day?” I wondered, then heard a man’s voice calling Annie ran back into the close.
Next day I was let out. It was Sunday and I decided to ask Annie if she’s like to come out and play with me – “Only if you want to,” I would add, in case she thought I’d become desperate. I knocked on her door but there was no answer, so I tiptoed away feeling thoroughly fed up. When Monday came I was almost glad to be going to school. I met Annie on the road and by way of conversation said, ‘I haven’t seen you around lately.”
‘I don’t go out much.”
“They tell me I was drunk at the school dance,” I said, deciding to take the bull by the horns.
“I never noticed,” she said.
“With all that vodka,” I added.
I was astonished by the cool way she denied all knowledge of it. She frowned for a moment, then her brow cleared. She said, “I remember taking medicine in the hall, I have an infection and have to take it every four hours or it will get worse.” I thought she was either mad of a very cunning liar.
“You must think I’m stupid,” I said and slapped her face.
She ran off crying. I never saw her at school again or even around the back green. I blamed myself for this but thought it didn’t make her less of a liar.
Then it was Sunday again, a rotten day for me at the best of times. Suddenly my mother burst ino the room and said, “Annie Rogerson’s father is in all the papers, accused of interfering with his daughter after giving her vodka and other stuff to knock her out.”
I digested this information for a minute then was sick on the carpet.
“My good carpet!” moaned by mother. “What have you been eating?”
I pushed past her and took a bath, trying not to think of Annie crying when I slapped her. Afterwards I sat looking out the window down towards the bins, wishing Annie would come out so that I could talk to her, maybe have a laugh with her at the idea of vodka being medicine. But I couldn’t have done that, it was too serious. The back green had a desolate look. Likely Annie’s house was empty.
“Come and get your breakfast,” I heard my mother shout.
“I’m not hungry,” I told her in the kitchen. “But I might as well go to Sunday School this afternoon. There’s nothing else to do.”
My mother clapped her hands.
“Oh I am so glad! Sunday School could be the making of you, for no matter what we say it’s always better to believe in God, don’t you think?” •
The Collected Stories of Agnes Owens will be published by Polygon in 2008