Esther left school at fifteen, not much expected so not then given. In spite of this, and after a succession of clerical and shop jobs, Esther was shocked to discover she might just have a brain, having passed the entry exam in the Civil Service to be a clerical assistant at the nearby Labor Exchange, based in an imposing old hall. The place was drowning with rooms and draughty corridors and there was an underground passageway to the nearby parish church. Inside the high wide windows and flapping grey dingy blinds sat Esther behind her small desk working out manual benefit entitlements (dependent on National Insurance Contributions).
As she worked, she was forced to listen to her young boss and her world took on a deeper and darker tone. Every Friday in that same office, claimants were forced to stand in a rigid queue in order to sign on their blue ub50 form. Between 9 and 11 the unskilled workers stood. Having signed on slow Mr. Ben, whose home were a couple of rooms above the greasy spoon café. Then shuffling his feet, adjusting his oily cap and dropping his money into his overall pockets he explained. “I’m off to the market for my cabbage and carrots and then my paper.”
What a waste, she thought, knowing full well how he struggled to sign his name on his ub50 form.
“No rain at present, Mr. Ben,” replied Esther. “Take care and yes…put your money safely away there Mr. Ben.” Next in line was Suzy Ibis who no establishment would agree to employ in their café once they heard how she got the sack from a local café by licking the tops of the tomato ketchup bottles spotlessly clean.
Following a tea break, Esther had a chat with Terry, one of their employment advisors, who would at least once a week treat her to dinner in the egg and sausage. After the break she would sign on the Executive Officers with their neat brown shoes, clicking high heels, brief-cases that contained sandwiches and a flask and a pen as well as an out of work actor who worked for along running radio program. He would face the rancor of the bully boss if he was more than five minutes late signing on.
The bully that was her young boss and the bully that was Joe after eighteen months became simply too much to cope with. Unable to hold the gaze of anyone and with her eyes in the gutter, panic, fear and crushing pain refused to go away. Then, relieved she had gone to admit her own fears, she walked past the prams and pushchairs outside the co-op and could see figures vanishing up the steep connecting stairs as mums went up to the mother and tots group in the hall above. Dr T later moved and sat on the front of his desk. It was her fourth visit when he said, “Esther, you can reach for the stars, you can do whatever you want, and you are neither thick nor useless…but you must try…in order to change you have to try.”
So it was that Esther gradually learnt to lift her eyes from the ground and hold first Dr T’s gaze and then, very slowly, other people. She had not for a very long time been able to look any human being directly in the eyes, but just felt valueless. Yet the miracle happened and she saw then the world from eye level and then sunshine shone and she could think of tomorrows and of a life to be lived rather that thrown stupidly away. Slowly Esther felt more sunshine as she sat with Doctor T on the upper step talking quietly with pots and pans rattling from the kitchen, where washing up was being done by the patients who shared such tasks. Ahead were two men, a nurse dressed in shirt and trousers, but no white coat, and an elderly man who was having a coughing fit.
“Have you never thought of leaving home?”
It was an obvious question, and one she had thought about many times.
“I can’t leave mum there with him…one day I know I must…but I can’t do it now.” If only Dr T had offered to get her a job working as a nursing assistant supporting people who had severe learning difficulties.
“I will think about it, thank you.”
Esther played scrabble in the same room where she ate with other patients and staff, including Dr T. Then, at times, usually on a Wednesday, they would sit on green comfy chairs in a circle in the large room at the front of the creaking old house as those living in homes round about them in the leafy street got on with living.
Returning home, one mid afternoon, walking down the then quietening street was an ambulance then drawing away with its light flashing. A week later there was a cortege and Esther was there, in a limo, sitting next to her family and feeling simple sorrow.
A time to change
A press, a click then a whirl as the conductor tore off the ticket from his diminishing perforated roll. Like worn and familiar clothes that if a little too tight they were still hers just as the view out of the green united counties bus was peculiarly hers. There in the distance just now slowly coming into view as the bus took the second bend and then slowed down for a lad on his wobbly cycle, was her old secondary school where it was true to say she had gloriously failed.
Down past Polly parrots mum’s sweet shop which they visited illicitly most lunchtimes by sneaking under a side gate and her dropping her coconut mushrooms on the mud on the way back and picking them up quickly again before returning to the conundrum which was forever mathematics, however well or badly explained it seemed to make very little difference then to her.
Then past the cross and the printers no candle stick makers, but several boot and shoe factories where men had been retained throughout the Second World War, she had heard later. Onward then to Chown’s Mill where it had been reported in their local paper that weekend, a young mother had last been seen alive. Ten minutes later she wondered just where exactly the writer H.E. Bates used to live, then the bus stopped at the spot where she would alight to go and visit her aunt and uncle for her orange juice and biscuit before hurriedly ejecting her with a smile on their faces and a peck on the cheek but they wouldn’t be doing that anymore, for at last she had realised there was no point and that you had to have a heart and a conscience to feel. The will now written was fete accomplice and it was no use thinking of the rights or the wrongs of the matter, but instead just get on with life as it was.
She’d learned there were many people out there facing difficulties and hardships she would never know, and that included the young people she chose to work with at Colton Ward who with no communication or social skills spent their lives in a hospital ward where they would bang, shout bite and eat anything edible or not in sight. That voluntary work in a world foreign to most helped her to appreciate what she had and even in comparison what her own parent’s had and was another full stop in her live as well as a realization and willingness to change. Returning home on the same united counties bus, the journey seemed better and any loss or anger she had felt so much smaller and she would be going there again because of her pain.