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Authors: Beryl Matthews

One Step at a Time

BOOK: One Step at a Time
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PENGUIN BOOKS

One Step at a Time

Beryl Matthews was born in London, but now lives in a village in Hampshire. She grew up in a family of enthusiastic readers, and books have always been a very important part of her life. As a young girl her ambition was to become a professional singer, but lack of funds drove her into an office, where she worked her way up from tea girl to credit controller. Her hobbies are writing, reading, swimming and golf. Writing takes priority, though, and everything else has to wait. She is the author of
The Open Door, Wings of the Morning, A Time of Peace, A Change of Fortune
and
Fighting with Shadows
.

One Step at a Time

BERYL MATTHEWS

PENGUIN BOOKS

PENGUIN BOOKS

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3

(a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

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(a division of Penguin Books Ltd)

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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

www.penguin.com

Published by Michael Joseph 2005

Published in Penguin Books 2006

1

Copyright © Beryl Matthews, 2005

All rights reserved

The moral right of the author has been asserted

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject
to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent,
re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s
prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in
which it is published and without a similar condition including this
condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

EISBN: 978–0–141–90067–4

The moving finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.

Edward Fitzgerald,
The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

1

Wapping, London, June 1934

‘No, Dad!’ Amy Carter dug her heels in and skidded on the path as her father dragged her along, the defiance earning her a sharp clip around the ear, which made her head ring.

‘I ain’t got time for your nonsense,’ he growled, giving her another tug. ‘My ship sails in three hours and your mum needs you.’

Tears of frustration filled her eyes as she stumbled. ‘But, Dad, we was going to have reading and writing. I’m the only one who can’t read well. I want to read and write like all the others.’

‘You’ll be fifteen in December. You’ll never do that now.’ He continued to pull her along, his grip biting into her thin arm. ‘You’re too bloody stupid.’

‘I’m not stupid,’ she muttered under her breath and stopped struggling as the familiar pain ran through her. ‘Everyone calls me that, but I’m not! I just can’t read or write proper.’

‘Course you are. I found you in a class with the eight-year-olds.’ Her father glared down at her in disgust. ‘Where’s your shame?’

‘I don’t care what they think of me.’ That was a
lie, of course. She did care so very much, but she’d do anything to read and write properly, even suffer being put in the little class for this lesson. ‘I’m not stupid,’ she whispered again, close to tears.

She walked along now, a picture of dejection, clutching the piece of paper from class. Why couldn’t she read? Everyone else did it easily enough, but the letters all looked funny to her and when she tried to write them they came out muddled up – or so they told her. She tried so hard until sheer frustration made her beat her hands on the desk and cry out in fury. That always got her a caning, but she couldn’t help it. She wasn’t stupid! She
wasn’t
, but it didn’t matter how many times she told herself this, the hurt and humiliation were still there. But when the others called her names she didn’t let them see how their taunts wounded her. They weren’t going to get that satisfaction.

‘What’s the matter with Mum now?’ They’d reached their house in Farthing Street. It was a modest place near the docks, and four families shared the three floors. Amy and her mum had three rooms on the ground floor. There was one toilet out at the back and that was for everyone. It was enough for them because her dad was hardly ever home.

‘She’s sick again.’ He pushed her through the door, slung his kit bag over his shoulder and stared down at her for a moment. ‘I didn’t mean to call you names, Amy. You have enough of that from everyone else, but you mustn’t get so upset about not being able to read. You’ll get through life fine without it.’

‘I can write, Dad, look.’ She held out the scrap of paper for him to see. ‘I was doing better today.’

Her father took a quick glance and shook his head sadly. ‘Your spelling’s worse than your granddad’s was.’ Then he turned and strode off.

Kicking the door shut, she fumed as she stared down at the writing she had been so proud of a while ago. Tears welled up in her eyes and threatened to spill over. It was all right him saying she’d get along without it; he didn’t know how it upset her. She had this awful hollow place inside her, and what with looking after her mum a lot of the time, she didn’t have much of a life. She had missed so much school it was no wonder she couldn’t blasted well read! Dad was never here long enough to see how bad it was for her. Being a merchant seaman he just sailed away, calm as you please, leaving her to ride the storm at home.

She wandered into her mother’s room, knowing full well what she would see. Her mother was propped up in bed looking pale and exhausted. Amy hadn’t been able to find out what was the matter with her. She would be all right for a while, and then take to her bed again, coughing and not being able to eat.

‘Your dad gone?’ Dolly Carter asked as soon as her daughter came in.

‘Yes, he came and took me out of school and then left.’ Amy looked carefully at the woman in the bed. Her left eye was swollen. ‘What you done to your face?’

‘I had a fainting fit and hit my head as I fell.’ Her mother touched her sore face. ‘I told him not to fetch you from school. I could’ve managed until you finished your lessons.’

Amy wasn’t too sure she believed this story, because her dad had a short temper, but she’d never seen him hit her mum. ‘You ought to see the doc if you’re that bad.’

‘They can’t do nothing for me.’ Her mother sat up straight. ‘Now, get me a nice cup of tea, there’s a good girl.’

Apart from the two bedrooms, the only other room they had was a scullery. It was large enough to have a table and chairs in there, and by the old black-leaded stove there was a shabby but comfortable armchair. Amy filled the kettle with water and put it on to boil, then gazed in the larder, grunting with satisfaction. When her father had been home there was always plenty of grub in the place. She made some cheese sandwiches while she was at it.

Loading it all on a tin tray she took it to her mother. What she saw made her stop in fury. Her mother was dressed and peering in the mirror as she tried to hide the bruise with heavy make-up. ‘What you doing?’

‘Trying to make myself look presentable.’ She eyed the tray Amy had plonked on the dressing table. ‘Good girl, you’ve made me a bite to eat. Don’t want to drink on an empty stomach.’

‘You’re not going out?’ Amy spluttered. ‘Dad
got me because he said you were too sick to be on your own.’

‘He shouldn’t have done that. I know how much school means to you. But I feel better now, and a night out will do me good.’

Amy could have screamed in frustration, but there was no point getting in a rage about it. Her dad had been worried, that’s all. ‘That a new frock you’re wearing?’

‘Do you like it?’ Her mother preened. ‘Got it off the tallyman. Not bad, is it?’

‘Nice.’ Amy might not be able to read, but she was no slouch when it came to money, and she knew her mother would have some to spare. Dolly always did when Dad came home flush from a long trip at sea. ‘I need a new one myself, and shoes; these let in the wet. Don’t know what the neighbours must think when they see me walking around looking like a rag bag.’

That made Dolly stare at her daughter, eyeing her up and down critically. ‘You’re quite right. You could do with some new things. The tallyman’ll be here soon, so you’d better choose something then. Can’t have everyone saying you’re scruffy as well as…’

Clenching her hands behind her back, Amy forced out a smile. ‘I know what everyone says about me, Mum.’

‘I’m sorry, Amy.’ Her mother looked upset. ‘I know you can’t help what’s wrong with you. People say such nasty things, but I know you’re not daft.’

Amy knew that’s what everyone thought and it
distressed her so much. She had seen people who weren’t right in the head, and she wasn’t like them. She wasn’t! Her mum and dad got impatient when she couldn’t get things right, and they said things they were sorry about after. But she wasn’t lazy like the teachers thought; she tried so hard.

She plonked herself in the old armchair and buried her head in her hands. She wouldn’t cry. She wouldn’t!

When the tallyman arrived ten minutes later she looked through his book and picked out a pretty summer dress in green with tiny flowers around the neck and short sleeves, and a pair of shoes with a bar across the instep. She didn’t have any trouble making out pictures, and although she couldn’t read how much they cost, they looked good.

‘Right, I’ll bring them the day after tomorrow. That will be an extra one and six a week, Mrs Carter.’

Amy watched carefully as the tallyman wrote the order in his book, fascinated to see him do it with such ease. Her heart ached to be able to do that.

When he’d gone, her mum shut the front door. Business was always done on the doorstep. The tallyman was never asked in.

‘Why don’t you forget about school?’ Her mother spoke gently. ‘Most kids are working by fourteen.’

‘But, Mum, I can’t get a job if I can’t read or write my name.’

‘Course you can, factories don’t care about that sort of thing. All you got to do is put a cross for your name. If you haven’t learnt to read by now you’ll
never do it, and I see how upset you are sometimes when you come home. Think about it, Amy.’ With that Dolly left the house, heading for the Lord Nelson just down the road.

Amy knew her mother wouldn’t be back until chucking-out time. Her dad had dragged her out of school for nothing this time. It wasn’t always so, because at times her mum was terribly sick and Amy couldn’t leave her side, but she’d recovered quickly today.

Wandering back to the scullery she set about making herself a huge doorstep of bread and cheese, and it went down well with a glass of milk. Nicely full, she sat at the table, cupped her chin in her hands and stared moodily at nothing. Perhaps it would be better if she went out to work. She was desperate to learn to read, but the teachers didn’t seem to have time for her. All they kept doing was putting her in younger and younger classes. The other children all sniggered at her, calling her beastly names, but she kept her head up defiantly, and if they ganged up and punched her, she walked away as if she didn’t care. Well, her mum was right, she wouldn’t go back again, because tomorrow she’d get herself a job. But there was no way she was going to put a cross for her name.

She went to her bedroom and brought back the sheets of paper her gran had done for her about five years ago. They were dog-eared from constant use, but she treasured them. Her gran had died three years
ago and that had been a terrible blow, because she had been the only one who had had any patience with Amy, and tried to help.

Smoothing out the first page she gazed at it. Granny had drawn pictures and written underneath what they were. There were animals, fruit and all sorts of things. The pictures were really good, but the cat was her favourite. It had a cheeky face and looked as if it was smiling. Her granny had been so clever. Why hadn’t she taken after her?

BOOK: One Step at a Time
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