There is a mirror in a cathedral. It’s there to help visitors look at the stained glass windows without hurting their necks. Four women stop, look, sigh, and move back a few paces.
It’s just the angle, isn’t it, Belle?
Yes. You’re looking down, so everything is sagging.
When I look straight ahead in a mirror I don’t look like an old lady.
For goodness sake, Ange, you’re not an old lady. You’re only sixty-five.
I’m a state pensioner.
Yes. Does any of this matter?
You sound impatient.
I think I hear Belle sigh. I sigh. My friends don’t hear the sigh.
All my life, I’ve had you with me. I’ve never been able to say, “I don’t need you any more.”
There’s glue on some make-believe. People need coping mechanisms. I’m yours.
I move away from the mirror and look instead at the kaleidoscope of colours on the cathedral’s pillars and marble floor. It is renewable beauty, sun through stained glass. Unaccountably tears well.
I don’t want to cry in front of my friends, Belle. Why do I want to cry? I’m split in two. I love being back here. I’m homesick for France.
Not France, your friends in France. What’s new, Ange? You’ve been a split person ever since boarding school.
Before then, Belle, if you think about it. Ever since I created you. How old was I?
Chapter 1: Eavesdropping
My name is Angela. At the beginning of this story I am seven. It is the summer of 1950, and I’m on the cusp of a horrible adventure, boarding school. With every fibre of my body I don’t want to leave my home, but no one listens to me, especially not my mother. Her name is Cynthia, but members of the family and her friends call her Sue. My father is called Alec; no one shortens his name to Al. I have twin sisters, Julia and Maria, who are eleven, and a brother, George, who is nearly three. There was another baby between me and the twins, but he died when he was six months old. When I was learning to talk, I couldn’t say the word “twins,” it always came out as “pins.” The pins were a closed circle. I danced around the circumference but could find no gap.
They were unkind, sometimes, though not physically; they used words to hurt. One day, they told me Mummy had been so upset I was a girl, not a boy that she turned her face to the wall and refused to look at me. Of course, I ran to Nanny. Our mother didn’t look after any of us after we were born; Nanny did.
I love Nanny more than Mummy, I whisper to Belle. Belle is my pin-sister. I created her when I was five.
I think Nanny’s easier to love than Mummy.
Nanny always looks as though she loves us. Mummy has a different look.
When I told Nanny what the pins had said, she was cross—not with me, with them.
“It wasn’t like that, duck,” she said. “Your mother wasn’t well.”
“The pins said you named me, not Mummy and Daddy.”
“I suppose I did. But my suggesting a name for you doesn’t mean that your mother doesn’t love you.”
If she does, why don’t I feel it? Why do I feel she’s always shoving me off somewhere, Belle?
She shoves you off, and the pins won’t let you in.
I’m an outsider.
I feel Belle shrug. “Belle” means beautiful in French, but I didn’t know that when I was searching for a name for her. Julia and Maria are identical twins. Belle isn’t my identical twin. We don’t look alike, except for the fact that we are both thin children and tall for our age. Belle has shoulder-length, straight, dark brown hair and brown eyes. I have long, blonde wavy hair, which reaches to the middle of my back. We all have blonde hair in our family, not platinum blonde like Diana Dors, but dark gold blonde. My eyes are a greeny-blue. Nanny says that’s turquoise.
In our family, Nanny is the only one who knows about Belle. She’s worried that I might take her to boarding school with me. She’s advised me to leave her at home. I can’t do that. Belle has to come with me to stop me feeling homesick. Of course I won’t talk to her out loud. I’m not stupid.
I’m dreading boarding school. I feel as though a giant broom is sweeping me towards a cliff. Nanny stops me falling over at the moment, by gently pushing me into the life I always live in the summer holidays. But the broom is always there behind me, and when Mummy took me to George Henry Lee’s in Liverpool, to buy my school uniform, it swept me nearer the edge.
I try to persuade my parents not to send me away. I tell them that George will be lonely, Nanny will miss me. But all Mummy says is “George and Nanny will have each other and us, and you’ll have the pins.”
Mummy doesn’t know Julia and Maria, Belle. They won’t want to be bothered with me.
If we don’t like boarding school, we’ll come home.
Yes, we will. Nanny said that Blackpool isn’t far from Southport. She showed me on the map. We’ll catch the train and then the bus. It’ll be a bit scary, but we’ll have each other.
The summer holiday isn’t, every day, magical. There are some duties that have to be endured, like the village fête. It’s held in our garden. If I could just enjoy the games and the stalls, it would be all right. But I can’t. Julia, Maria, George, and I are supposed to do tea-tent duty in our best, starchy clothes.
Everyone pulls together in fête week. That’s what Nanny says. Some of the women in the village bake cakes, others make sandwiches. The men put up the tents, the trestle tables, the stalls, the tea-tent tables, and any other job that’s called heavy work. Mummy makes two cakes: a Victoria sponge and a chocolate or coffee and walnut cake. I think it depends on what she has in the larder. Marlene makes flapjacks.
Marlene is married to Richard Anders, Daddy’s foreman. They live in one of the farm cottages. She comes every day to help in the house. She doesn’t cook for us. Mummy or Nanny cook. Nanny makes the best toad-in-the-hole and porridge in the world. She puts the oats and milk into little brown earthenware porridge pots with lids, and pops them into the bottom oven of the Aga before she goes to bed. She knows just the right amount of oats and milk to put in each pot without weighing or measuring. With the porridge we have Jersey cow milk, from Uncle Dick’s cows, and sweeten it with honey from Uncle Andrew’s bees. It’s always followed by bacon and eggs, or poached eggs, or you-name-it eggs, then toast, butter, and marmalade. My favourite second course is scrambled eggs and bacon; Daddy’s is kippers. I don’t like kippers because of all the bones.
The day before the fête almost makes up for tea-tent duty, because Mummy allows George and me to lick out the bowls when she makes the cakes. We take it in turns, George first, then me. We have a side each. I have to make sure George doesn’t pinch the mixture from my side. I know he doesn’t do it deliberately; at nearly three, he doesn’t really know what a side is. It’s an odd expression, to lick out a bowl. We don’t lick the bowl, we use spoons. We do lick the spoons, though. Our kitchen is big, so we don’t get in each other’s way. There’s a table in the middle, which is where we have breakfast and where George and I have tea—not teatime tea, evening tea before stories and bed. Mummy, Daddy, and the pins have dinner. Dinner is posh tea.
On the day of the fête I overhear the pins talking about plans for the farm. I’m hiding in the ha-ha because I don’t want Nanny to find me and bundle me out of my shorts into a scratchy dress, so I can be hugged and kissed by powdery women. I hate it. The powder smells horrid.
Our farm is an arable farm. Even though I’m only seven I know what that means. Daddy grows wheat, barley, oats, and potatoes. The only animals on the farm are Shire horses and chickens. The horses are called Bonny and Polly-Flinders. One of the chickens lives on Polly-Flinders when she isn’t out working in the fields. I’ve named the chicken Cinders to rhyme with Flinders. As soon as Polly-Flinders trots into the yard, a clucking Cinders runs across and flies up onto her back.
The pins are under the willow tree. They don’t know I’m hiding in the ha-ha.
“They’re going to sell the horses,” says Julia.
My gasp is so loud I’m afraid they’ll hear. But Maria answers, so I’m safe.
“They can’t do that. Bonny and Polly-Flinders are part of the family.”
“Adults can do what they like.”
I feel as though all the breath has been knocked out of my body.
Do you think it’s true, Belle?
Ask Nanny. She’ll know what’s going on.
Because…I don’t know. Tittle-tattle. That’s what Little Gran says. People know things because of tittle-tattle.
I creep out of the ha-ha and rush up to the nursery. “Nanny, Nanny is it true?”
“Goodness me, duck, what’s all this about? Is what true? I was just coming to find you. It’s time to—”
“Is it true about the farm? Is Daddy going to sell Bonny and Polly-Flinders?”
“Not yet.” So Nanny does know. ‘Now, out of your play clothes.”
“Perhaps not at all. The farm does need to be modernised, duck. But the horses will probably be allowed to grow old on it.”
“Probably” isn’t what I want to hear, but I realise that’s all Nanny knows. Perhaps I can turn tea-tent duty into a spying exercise and find out exactly what’s going on.
“I hate wearing frocks. Why can’t I go down in my shorts?”
“Because your mother would be cross. And you do like wearing frocks, sometimes.”
This is true, but “sometimes” is the right word, and it isn’t a “sometimes” day today. What I really want is to be a spy so that I can find out for sure if the horses are safe, then escape with my cousins to our copse. We’re in the middle of an imaginary game about the children of the new forest. Dresses aren’t right for that.
My cousins are called Harry (her real name is Harriet) and Grace. They don’t look like anyone in our family or each other. Grace has brown hair, like Uncle Andrew, and Harry has auburn hair, like Aunty Eleanor. There’s only just over a year between them. Harry told me that Aunty Eleanor wanted to get babies over and done with. That’s almost as bad as turning your face to the wall.
The copse is on Uncle Andrew’s farm. In it is an abandoned cart which we’ve made into our den. It becomes a cave, a castle, a saloon in the wild west, or whatever’s needed for the game. In The Children of the New Forest, it’s the cottage where Armitage, the game keeper, hides the four Beverley children. Beverley is the surname of the children in the book. That we’re only three doesn’t matter. Even though George is too young to come with us, we make him into the fourth child and speak his lines for him.
Nanny unbuttons my blouse and shorts, and I shrug them off. “Stretch your arms up so I can pop your frock on. And be a good angel when you’re with your Mummy’s friends, duck. No asking awkward questions.”
I’m not an angel, and I don’t want to be one. I want to tell Nanny that I hate my name. I don’t because I love her and she chose it. When she told me that Mummy couldn’t name me because she was ill, I felt a bit better. Babies have to be named so they can be registered. If they aren’t, parents get into trouble. They might even go to prison. Going to prison would be horrendous. I like that word. I heard Aunty Pru saying it when she was talking to Mummy and Aunty Eleanor about Mrs Cox. Aunty Pru isn’t a real aunty. She is a friend of Mummy’s whom we call “Aunty.”
“Why did you invite that horrendous woman, Sue?”
“Because she’s the bank manager’s wife. And we all need to stay on the right side of our bank manager, don’t we?”
I don’t know why we have to stay on Mr Cox’s right side. Are people’s right and left sides different in character? When I asked Nanny, she told me it didn’t refer to left or right, it referred to nice and nasty. I wasn’t sure that putting up with being kissed by a pongy woman was worth it.
It’s odd about smells. Nice smells seem to disappear quickly. Nasty smells stay in your nose until a nice smell replaces them.
Aunty Pru isn’t horrendous, she’s beautiful and gentle. She has big brown eyes, a bit like a Jersey cow’s. I think Jersey cows are beautiful. As for Aunty Eleanor, she’s fiery fun and a bit naughty. I want to be like Aunty Eleanor when I grow up. She smokes Russian Sobranie cigarettes. They’re black and gold.
“The turquoise blue of this gingham matches your eyes, duck,” Nanny says as she ties the sash.
Of course I know perfectly well how to dress myself; anyone who’s seven, nearly eight, knows that. But Nanny enjoys helping me. I like it too. We always have a cuddle. Mummy and Daddy aren’t cuddly people. I sometimes wonder what’s going to happen to Nanny when George goes to prep school. Mummy won’t need her then. Maybe she’ll have to live with her sister, Ibby. Nanny doesn’t like Ibby all that much. I heard her telling Marlene that Ibby was difficult. I don’t want her to live somewhere else, with someone she doesn’t like. I think I might be able to bear boarding school if I have Belle with me and Nanny at home. I suppose I could tell Mummy that we need porridge and toad-in-the-hole in the holidays.
How do we know that what Nanny said about Bonny and Polly-Flinders is right, Belle? And how do we find out? We can’t ask Daddy or Mummy.
Since we can’t get out of bloody bugger tea-tent duty, how about being spies? Bloody bugger, bloody bugger. Can you be a spy in a bloody bugger frock?
I think you can be a spy in anything. I wonder how many times a day Aunty Eleanor says bloody bugger?
She mostly says it about Uncle Andrew. “That bloody bugger thinks the world revolves around cricket.”
A giggle escapes. Nanny looks at me in the mirror. “That’s better, duck. No point in being unhappy on such a beautiful day. And who knows, your posy of wild flowers might win a prize.”
I bet we have to eat cucumber sandwiches. I hate cucumber sandwiches.
You don’t hate them if they have vinegar, salt, and pepper on.
But when you take a cucumber sandwich, you don’t know if it’s been made with vinegar, salt, and pepper.
You could always sniff it, or have an egg and cress one instead.
I don’t like egg and cress.
You don’t like anything.
I do; I like chocolate cake, flapjacks, coffee and walnut cake, Victoria sponges.
You just like cakes. What does Little Gran say? “It’s a wonder you’re not fat, Angela, the way you tuck into cakes.”
Smelly Mrs Cox eats a morsel and then says she daren’t eat any more because she’s banting.
Banting’s a funny word isn’t it? We have Bantams in the yard. Is it called “banting” because bantams are very small chickens and you bant to get small?
I’ve no idea.
Is she coming?
I expect so. She always does.
You’re pulling a face because you’ll have to try to escape the orange-powder kiss.
Nanny says she wears it because she was an actress.
I wonder what it’s like being an actress?
Exciting. Everybody wants your autograph.
Only if you’re famous.
I bet she’s fat because she’s bored being a bank manager’s wife.
Marlene said that Mr Cox saw her in a play in Liverpool and sent her red roses every night until she agreed to marry him. That’s so romantic.
She lies about banting. When she thinks no one’s looking, she helps herself to another slice of cake and two flapjacks. And when we go to her house, she feeds egg sandwiches to her pug dog and it farts.
Fart’s almost as good a word as bloody and bugger.
I giggle again. This time Nanny doesn’t notice. She’s concentrating on tying George’s tie. Whenever she concentrates hard she sticks her tongue, just a little way, out of her mouth.
I hope Aunty Pru will be coming. I want to ask her if we can go to tea at her house soon, and watch Muffin the Mule, and toast bread on the fire.
With oodles of home-made butter.
It’s the best butter in the world.
I hope Uncle Dick won’t be there.
Me too, he’s creepy. He always gives me a squeeze; I don’t like being squeezed. His breath smells funny.
There are lots of things you don’t like.
Yes. But there are lots of things I do like: cakes, Muffin the Mule, toast with buttery butter, and bloody bugger.
“Ow! That hurt. Nanny, George has kicked me.”
“George, say sorry.”
Of course he refuses. He sets his face in his Winston Churchill look and plonks himself on the Joseph-many-coloured rag rug.
“Up you get, young man. I haven’t brushed your hair yet.”
Surprise, surprise, he does as he’s told. I wonder if bodies are more obedient than voices.
“Nanny, why do so many silly women come to the fête?”
“You mustn’t say that. They’re not silly.”
“I’m only saying they’re silly because they are silly. Aunty Eleanor says they’re silly. They never talk about interesting things. They talk about the fête, and if Mrs Newton’s apple butter is better than Mrs Valentine’s. It’s boring. When I go to Grace and Harry’s, Uncle Andrew and Aunty Eleanor talk about politics and how they hope Clement Atlee’s government will survive. At least they do when Uncle Andrew isn’t talking about cricket and England’s chance of winning the Ashes. Why do we want to win ash anyway? It’s silly.”
“I think silly’s your favourite word this week. I hope that nice Mr Churchill will get back in. The country would be overrun with Nazis if it wasn’t for him. Off you go now, duck. George, hold Angela’s hand when you go downstairs.”
I make a face, which Nanny can’t see as I have my back to her. George, uncomfortably smart in his shirt and tie, trails behind me. When we get to the top of the stairs, I grab his hand and hold it very tightly to pay him back for the kick. He starts whinging.
“That’s to teach you not to mess with a Beverley,” I say.
The first person I see when we enter the tea tent is Little Gran, or Granny Mary as we call her to her face, to be polite. I’d forgotten she was coming; she doesn’t always attend the fête. But this year Mummy has asked Little Gran’s friend, Mrs Fitzgerald, to open it. She’s a sort of celebrity because when she was young she played in the mixed doubles at Wimbledon. Mummy always tries to get a “sort of celebrity” to open the fête.
Mrs Fitzgerald and Little Gran live in Liverpool, in Cressington Park. Mummy thinks it’s silly, her rattling round on her own in a house with six bedrooms. I don’t know why Mummy says this because she’s not on her own; two cats and a dog live there too. At Christmas, Honey, the dog, comes with her to stay with us. The cats, Field and Mouse, look after themselves. Little Gran’s help, Loretta, pops in every day to feed them.
“They both punish me, when I get home,” Little Gran told me one day.
“How?” I asked. I thought it weird that an animal could punish a human.
“Mouse always does a poo behind the TV, and Field puts a dead mouse or vole behind my bedroom door. Once I’ve cleared up the poo and got rid of the dead offering, we all get back to normal.”
I’m glad our cat, Ginny, doesn’t do that. Any poo smells horrid. Ginny is Nanny’s cat. She has only one eye because she got into a fight with one of the farm cats and her eye was damaged. The vet sewed it up, and now she looks lopsided.
Little Gran’s face always looks as though it’s on the edge of a grin. A grin is different from a smile. Grins make you look cheeky. I sometimes try practising a cheeky grin like Little Gran’s in the mirror, but it doesn’t work. I just look odd.
I wonder if I can reach Little Gran, Aunty Pru, and Mrs Fitzgerald without being seen by any powdery women. Mummy is walking across to them. She’s carrying a tray with cups of tea on it.
Bloody bugger, Belle. She’s wearing her icicle face.
Is she cross with Little Gran, or maybe Aunty Pru?
Nobody’s ever cross with Aunty Pru, she’s too nice. Little Gran makes her cross sometimes.
Oh, no! Look who’s coming.
I shove George in front of me to ward off the pong coming my way.
“Angela. Angela darling! Come and give me a kiss. What’s the matter with our little man? He’s not a happy bunny, is he?” Mrs Cox swoops down on George and picks him up.
Angela’s Pin is the third novel of a quartet of books with the umbrella title The Mirror in the Cathedral. I wanted to write a book about betrayal and forgiveness. When I was over halfway through Angela’s Pin, I realised that I wasn’t seeing forgiveness, I was seeing acceptance.
As the novel is a stand-alone book but also part of a quartet, I needed to show that they belong together, and the way I’ve done this is to use the literary device of a prologue. So each book centres on one woman and her journey through life up to the moment where, in Liverpool’s catholic cathedral, Paddy’s Wigwam, she looks down in a mirror designed to save the aching necks of tourists who want to gaze at the spectacular modern stained glass and sees, instead, herself. It isn’t just the physical person staring back, it’s who that person is.
The betrayals in the book aren’t connected to countries or politics. They are human betrayals, demanding a human response. As a child, Angela feels that few adults listen to her. The one who does, her nanny, is powerless to help; she is a paid servant. Angela feels betrayed by her parents, but in particular by her mother. So she creates a pin sister, Belle; “pin” is her name for “twin.” Belle is the one constant throughout her life. But she isn’t always a comfortable companion. She questions and sometimes disapproves, especially when it is Angela who betrays.
Angela’s journey cannot be viewed in isolation. The women protagonists of the other three novels play an important part in the book’s themes. While Angela betrays Dave, her husband, with casual sexual encounters, Bill, Mr. Pedestal Man, whom the four women believed to be nigh on perfect, betrays Debbie. Maggie feels betrayed by Angela because Angela leaves the fold to live in France, and Einna has been betrayed into a relationship with Tom, who isn’t what he purported to be in the beginning. The mirror shows each woman a possible way forward and at the same time leaves the reader with questions.
Carolyn Belcher is a retired drama teacher living in Suffolk in the United Kingdom. She published her first novel, Crocodiles and Angels, in the year after her seventieth birthday. She is married and has three children and three grandchildren. She gives talks at Women’s Institutes and U3A groups and offers workshops in creative writing.
Embark, Issue 5, July 2018