Another competition entry. The requirement was for the story to be set in 1954, my writing group’s founding year. Sadly, no prizes this time.
BUTLIN’S, SUMMER 1954
The young lady sat alone at her table in the theatre, head resting on the same hand that held her cigarette. She gazed nonchalantly at the curtain that covered the stage and tried to smile. The Redcoats were drifting around the aisles, with perky demeanours and smarmy grins. She didn’t fancy one of them coming over to try to cheer her up.
“Hallo, Ducks. Is this seat taken?”
Oh no. She fancied this even less.
“I don’t know which ducks you’re talking to, but no-one’s sitting there.”
She gave the young man a once-over as he sat down in the chair beside her. Oh well, he was handsome enough. Trim too, and he didn’t seem unfriendly or suspicious. Anyway, having some company wouldn’t be so bad. She’d made a few friends at the camp, but they’d left for home earlier that day.
“Your Mum or Dad’s old lady in the Glamourous Gran contest, then?” he asked.
“How did you guess?”
“Why else would you have your fingers crossed, Luv?”
“Look, I’m not really comfy with pet names, alright? Best tell you my name. I’m Gladys Miller.”
“Bill Weaver.” He put his hand forward to shake. His grip was nice and firm. “First time at Butlin’s, Gladys?”
“Yeah, I’m here with my Mum and Dad. No need to glance round. They’re tripping the light fantastic over in the dance hall. Is your Gran in the contest, Bill?”
“Nah, I’m here with friends. They’re over in the Olde Pigge and Whistle, but I thought I’d check out the show tonight for variety. I was doing me service in the navy ‘til April, then just before we were demobbed, me mate Henry heard that his cousin’s family couldn’t take the chalets they’d booked this summer. They let us and a coupl’a the other lads have their spots so we could celebrate our freedom.”
Oh great, she thought, ex-navy. If I brought him round for dinner Mum’d start grilling him in case he’s caught the pox of some tart in Hong Kong.
“That was nice of them. You’re luckier than me, Bill.”
“Seriously? I’d say you’re the lucky one, Gladys. Got a light, by the way?”
She rested her cigarette in the notch of the ashtray so she could light his. As the flame lit up his face, she regarded him closely. He was looking at her with interest, that was for sure, but clearly not just for her looks. She had to know why that was.
“What makes me the lucky one, Bill?”
“’Cos you’ve got a Mum and Dad. All I’ve had since I was eight is me mad Uncle Barney. He’s a right laugh really, but, well…”
“A bit of an embarrassment?”
“Sometimes, yeah. He’s great with his hands, you know. Got a workshop just outside Uckfield, right at the bottom of his garden. Does up everything for folks in the neighbourhood; cars, electrics, furniture, the lot. He fixed up our neighbours’ telly last year, when it went to pot three days before the Coronation.”
“He sounds fantastic,” she said, so intrigued she forgot about her cigarette. “You know Bill, you don’t live far from me. We live near Lewes and run a rag and bone merchants. Now school’s over, I help Dad with the cart most days.”
“A girl as pretty as you, lugging old bedframes around? Madness!”
She shrugged. “It’s tough but it’s work. But why do you live with your uncle? What happened to your parents?”
He rested his cigarette next to hers, his cheerful demeanour fading. “Uncle Barney took me in after some kraut decided to use our house for target practice one day. We lived in Dover back then.”
“Yeah, I got evacuated, but my Mum was a real mulish old bird. Said that the house was ours and they’d keep living in it. Never mind if, well…”
“The town was being bombed to Hell.”
“You said it.”
He sighed heavily, then picked his cigarette up and took a drag. She mirrored his action.
“Well,” she said, “I’m genuinely sorry to hear that, Bill. But don’t feel too bad. Your family just had one run of misfortune. The bad luck seems to happen to all the women in my family.”
“Really? What makes you say that?”
“Well, it started with my Granddad’s mother. She lost two fingers when a horse she was leading bolted and they got caught in the harness. Still, he met my Gran and they married, but then just after my Dad and my uncles were born, Gran’s sister-in-law, my Great Aunt Avril, died in prison.”
“In prison! Blimey!”
“Yeah, it was 1911 I think. She was in there for setting a pillar box alight. She was a Suffragette, you see. Then just a few years later, Gran lost my Granddad. He died at the Battle of Mons.”
“Crikey, that’s hard,” he uttered. “But what about your Mum, over there in the dance hall? She was lucky enough to have you, wasn’t she?”
She drew long and hard on her cigarette before replying. “Actually, that’s my stepmother. I only call her that because she’s the only mother I’ve known. My real Mum died giving birth to me. Aunt Enid didn’t do much better. The train she was on derailed two years after she had my cousin Jack. She lived as a cripple for four years before passing away. Aunt Jennifer wasn’t even as lucky as her. She died of consumption three years after she married Uncle Cedric. And now there’s me. Not only did I never know my real Mum, but I never did well in school, my best friend moved away to London, the family’s hard up and…”
Suddenly, she stopped herself. She extinguished her cigarette savagely in the ashtray. “Hang on! Why am I telling you all this? I hardly know you!”
He extinguished his too and smiled at her. “Maybe you do know me,” he said. “Because we’ve both lost a mother, ain’t we? You could say we’ve both had some hard luck in our lives, don’t you think so?”
She began smiling too. “You’re right, Bill. You’re absolutely right.”
At that moment, the theatre lights went down and the curtains parted. The show was about to start.
A SHORT TIME LATER
When the winner’s name was announced, she clapped and squealed until her hands and throat were sore. He clapped too, then patted her on the back.
“I don’t believe it! She actually won! Just wait ‘til Mum and Dad hear about this! What a wonderful surprise!”
“It’s no surprise to me, Gladys,” he said with a smile. “You were wrong, you know. The women of your family aren’t unlucky.”
She looked at him darkly. “What do you mean?”
“I mean the women the bad luck happened to weren’t born into your family. Think about it. Your aunties were the ones who married your Gran’s sons, weren’t they? Just like your great-gran, the one with the missing fingers, married your great-granddad. And your real Mum was the one who married your father. So you see, the unlucky women weren’t originally blood relatives. And even they weren’t unlucky, because they all found love, didn’t they?”
She couldn’t help but stare at him in wonder, for she realised he was exactly right. What a perceptive man he was! And what a wonderful light there was in those clear brown eyes…
“Do you know what, Bill?” she said.
She softly placed her hands on top of his.
“I think I’ve just found myself a good luck charm. And I intend to keep him around.”
EASTBOURNE, 62 YEARS LATER
“Hello, listeners! This is Danny Pike reporting for BBC Radio Sussex at the Congress Theatre in Eastbourne. Tonight, this town is hosting the All-New Glamourous Grandmother Competition. This contest, once staged at Butlin’s holiday camps, has been revived by an influential local resident.
“Gladys Weaver opened the Passion Pink beauty parlour in Lewes back in 1958, with the help of her husband Bill. In later years she was pub landlady, chairwoman of her local Women’s Institute and a member of East Sussex County Council. Her daughters, Mary and Connie, also have successful careers and families of their own.
“Now aged 80, Gladys is not only a key figure in organising this event, but also one of the contestants! And she’s with me now! Gladys, I must say, you look stunning in that orange silk dress! I love the lilac rosettes down the sides! Tell me, what are your reasons for bringing back this contest? Is it to do with your fact your own grandmother, Honour, won the contest at Butlin’s in 1954?”
“That’s right, Danny, but not in the way you might think.”
“Oh, you’ve intrigued me, Gladys. Tell me why, then.”
“It’s because that night, for the first time in my life, I truly felt lucky.”