With the shiny silver gun finally in his hands, he grasped the weapon against his chest and aimed it at Claire. One click, and the gun was fired. Her knees buckled with emotional pain, and she dropped into the sand dunes in tears.
“You promised you wouldn’t shoot”
Every Thursday afternoon at Gearies Junior School, Claire learned about sexual inequality. The boys were sent to Mr Wesleys’s class to do separate ‘male’ activities. The girls were left with sewing. On one occasion Claire was sent with a message for Mr Wesley, and she caught a tempting glimpse of woodwork tools and half made wicker baskets. She felt exceedingly deprived. The outcome of these Thursday afternoons was twofold. Firstly, Claire became very good at sewing. Secondly, she announced at every possibility that she wanted to be a boy. This was not a statement of inner transgender issues. She simply realized that life in the early sixties was not always fair to girls. For Christmas 1963 she had requested and received a large ‘bride’ doll and a Spirograph. But shortly before Easter 1964, she asked her parents for a present of a cowboy outfit to replace the customary chocolate eggs. They bought her a cowgirl outfit complete with fringed skirt, waistcoat, hat and holster. She discarded the skirt. She saved up her pocket money and bought a toy silver cap gun to live in the holster.
It was Spring 1964. Penny, now at secondary school was pre-occupied with the pre-adolescent turmoil which attacks most twelve year old girls. Claire, at eight, was enjoying school, but also increasingly aware of the growing conflict between her parents. Bill was often stressed, frequently short-tempered and seemed overwhelmed with work. Audrey tried to compensate for her lack of mental stimulation by taking music exams and jobs in part-time market research. She relied on anti-depressants.
“The Doctor has told me” she explained to Claire “that it is the difference between race horses and carthorses. Like all finely bred species, I am highly strung.”
So shortly before Easter, Bill booked a last minute holiday to give the family a break. They secured a caravan on a site in South something, about two and a half hours drive from Ilford. Claire was enthralled by her father’s explanation of how to fit the suitcases into the boot of the company Triumph Herald. This was an exercise which he rehearsed several times before the task was completed.
The cases were finally packed. April rain misted up the windscreen. They set off very early before breakfast. Cold bacon sandwiches were offered at eight am in a layby close to Chelmsford. Luke warm coffee in plastic cups was consumed beside the public toilets near Ipswich. Sweet papers littered the floor of the purple car. Claire’s feet rested on top of the bride doll and Spirograph which she had insisted on taking with her. The cowgirl outfit (minus the skirt) was packed in the suitcase. The cowboy hat was on Claire’s head. Eye Spy and car number plate spotting had lost their interest. By the time they found the caravan site at South something, the girls were niggling each other, and Audrey was trying to keep Bill calm.
The site was a little way out from the town adjacent to a river and extensive grassy sand dunes. These were barely visible, because a cloud of fine rain was ever present. The caravan itself was six birth and designed in sixties fashion with rounded corners. Penny and Claire had a separate sleeping area with two single beds. Electricity was connected for lighting, and to run a little fridge. A canister of gas was provided for cooking and boiling up water. The water itself had to fetched in buckets from a standpipe at the end of a gravel path. The holiday was booked for nine days to include the two Bank Holidays. Everyone in the family enjoyed staying away, but the rain filled them with doom. There was a small shop on site which opened irregularly, but it was too far for the girls to walk to on their own.
Although not fond of domesticity, Audrey was an ingenious and well planned cook. She set about organizing the kitchen and using the ingredients which they had brought with them to prepare an evening meal. Bill went to fetch some water, and the girls unpacked their bags whilst marking their separate territory in the little bedroom. Despite the rain, Audrey and Bill felt the tension diminish as they sat down for their evening meal in the caravan.
The following day was Easter Saturday, and the family headed into South something to buy provisions and look for rainy day activities. In the early 1960s expectations for entertainment were not high. They discovered a wide promenade, a sandy beach, a pier, a cinema, a lighthouse and rows of multi-coloured beach huts. This was quite enough to keep them occupied for a few days. The weather was consistently damp, but each morning of the Bank Hweekend the girls dressed in wellingtons, slacks and anoraks and climbed into the car for a day full of whatever Bill had decided would suit the family. On Tuesday, the site shop re-opened, and Bill rose early to fetch fresh eggs for breakfast. Penny stayed tucked up in bed, and Claire grabbed her anorak and cowboy hat to accompany her father on the walk. The shop was also the administrative centre of the caravan site. There were two shelved walls of essential provisions, as well as a fridge compartment with milk, cheese and cold meat. At the far end of the shop was a rack of literature, comics and newspapers, and pigeon holes for messages. Bill found the eggs, while Claire investigated the comics. The lady behind the counter began to chat.
“Sorry you’ve had such awful weather, what have you been doing with yourselves?”
Claire explained that they had been into town, and kept themselves busy.
“Well you have a car which helps,” said the lady. “Not all holiday makers are that lucky.”
She then asked a question. “Which caravan are you in?”
“Number 62” Claire proudly remembered.
“Your Dad’s got a message,” she said, and pulled a handwritten note out of the pigeon hole marked 62.
Claire took it to her father, who turned a little pale.
“I have to ring the office. Choose a comic, and something for your sister, while I use the telephone.”
He found some change in his pocket, and fed it into the phone on the wall. A short conversation followed. Bill then purchased the Bunty comic and carefully selected Jacky magazine. They strode briskly back to the caravan.
“Girls, take your comics into your sleeping area. I need to talk to your mother.”
“Mine’s not a comic, it’s a magazine,” corrected Penny.
“Don’t answer back” retorted Audrey.
Raised voices followed, then tears, then silence. There were no eggs for breakfast, just toast. They then all travelled by car into nearby Lowestoft to stock up with food. The car journey was silent. Both girls instinctively knew that this was not an occasion for conversation. Claire amused herself by reading and remembering the road signs as they drove out of South something, so she could search for the same signs on their return. There was a road and a building with the word ‘school’ on it, and a village named ‘Reydon’. Claire wondered how Reydon was pronounced, but dared not ask. By midday, they had returned to the caravan. Bill grabbed a few clothes and his car keys, and was soon on his way to the office in Lincolnshire. Mother and two daughters were left alone in the food filled caravan with two buckets full of water and rain drumming on the metal roof.
“Why did Daddy have to leave us on holiday?” Claire asked her mother.
“His boss needed him for an emergency.” replied Audrey. “We’ll just have to make the best of it. If you want to help, go with Penny, take the spare bucket, and fill it at the stand-pipe.”
The rain had stopped, so Penny and Claire consented without argument. Much to their surprise, there was a queue at the tap. An elderly woman filled her bucket first, followed by a brown haired boy who was just a little shorter than Penny. Claire was impressed with the way his hair tumbled across his forehead. He filled his bucket, then stopped to watch the two girls. The tap was stiff and they couldn’t turn it.
“Hold the bucket still, and I’ll turn the tap for you.” said the boy. The girls complied and the water came splashing into the bucket.
“I’ll be on the dunes later,” said the boy “If you want to play slides. My brother won’t come. He’ll be reading.”
They walked back along the path together. Penny and the boy carried the buckets, while Claire watched the boy as he continually flicked his hair away from his face. He let himself into caravan number 73.
“We made a friend.” shouted Claire to her mother.
“He isn’t a friend,” said Penny “Just a boy we spoke to.”
Claire took no notice of her older sister. “He wanted us to play slides on the sand dunes. He had tumbling hair.”
“How old was he?” Asked Audrey. “Did he speak nicely?”
Penny took charge “About my age, I’d say, and he spoke okay.”
So much to Claire’s delight, an hour later Audrey suggested that her daughters went out on their own together to seek out the boy in the sand dunes. Penny was horrified at the thought of sliding in the sand, but the independence of a trip out with just her sister won her over. Their mother reiterated the rules for their absence. Penny was to be in charge of road crossing. Under no circumstances were they to walk near to the harbour or the river. They must return by four-thirty.
“We probably won’t see him, but if we do, remember he’s a stranger. Don’t tell him where we live.” Penny lectured Claire.
With Penny in charge, the two girls crossed the wide gravel road and walked towards the sandy hills. Claire was still wearing her cowboy hat. The silver gun was tucked into the holster. Sharp spikes of green poked up through the dunes. The sand began to invade their socks within their sneakers. The boy was sat at the top of one of the dunes watching out for them. As soon as he knew they could see him, he purposely slid down the dune and climbed back up.
“Can I try?” asked Claire.
“It looks dangerous,” warned Penny “You be careful.”
Claire ignored her sister and scrambled to the top of the dune. The boy patted down the wet sand to improve the smoothness of the slide. Claire lay back and descended easily to the base of the dune. She squealed with delight and climbed back to the top.
“You want a turn?” the boy asked Penny.
“I think I’ll watch.”
After half an hour’s sliding in the damp air, Penny warned it was time to return to the caravan. Claire hurried up the dune for a final turn. She flung herself down and toppled over. The gun flew out of the holster. She grabbed it quickly and put it back.
“Was that a gun?” asked the boy. “Can I see?”
Claire refused “I’m running out of caps, and you’ll want to shoot it.”
“I promise I won’t.” replied the boy.
“Maybe tomorrow then”
“Where do you live?” he asked Penny, as they strolled back across the path. “We live in Darlington.” interrupted Claire.
Their mother was pleased to see them back, and pleased with herself.
“How was your new friend?”
“Great,” said Claire.” He showed us how to make slides.”
“Both of you?” enquired their mother.
“Penny watched” Claire rolled her eyes. “He wanted to hold my gun, but I wouldn’t let him. I was worried he might shoot me.”
“Well, I’m pleased you had a good time, because I’ve worked out how to bake cakes in the caravan stove. You can invite him around tomorrow”
And after their mother had tucked them up in bed, the girls smelled traces of baking wafting into their bedroom.
“Why did you say we lived in Darlington?” asked Penny.
“You told me not to say where we lived, and Darlington is a long way away. I know that because Auntie Mary lives there.”
Penny and Claire slept well that night. The fresh air and cake scented aroma pushed them into an immediate slumber. When Claire awoke at 8.30 am, Penny was still fast asleep. Her mother whispered through the curtained door.
“If I pop up to the shop, will you be alright? I want to see if Daddy has left a message. Wake Penny up if there is a problem.”
Her mother hurried off to check for messages. Claire climbed out of bed and began to organize her day. The bride doll and Bunty comic were hidden in a cupboard. The silver gun was filled with the last caps. The Spirograph was left in full view on the breakfast table with examples of newly designed geometric shapes. Her mother returned, and Penny woke up.
“Daddy will be back tomorrow evening. I have bacon and fresh bread. Who wants a bacon sandwich?”
“Yum, yes please,” replied Claire.
Penny buried her head under the pillow.
At 10.00 am Claire spotted the boy hovering outside their caravan.
“Ask him in” instructed Audrey.
Claire opened the caravan door.
“You can come in. We have Spirograph and cakes.”
Audrey observed the boy in detail. He was well dressed in sensible clothing and shoes. He spoke with a slight London accent. She was captivated by the way he tossed his hair away from his forehead. The boy spotted the Spirograph.
“I wanted one of these, but my mother said I’m not tidy enough. Can I have a turn?”
“I’d better show you.” said Claire, and she carefully selected a plastic gear to turn around in the circle with a coloured pen. Claire’s skill was impressive.
The boy took a turn. After a few false starts, he began to make some simple shapes. Penny appeared with her Jackie magazine.
“Hello, do you want to read this with me?”
The boy accidentally dropped two of the Spirograph pieces on the floor.
“You have to put them back in the right place” said Claire. “It’s the rule.”
The boy bent down and picked up the plastic wheels. He was surprised at how easily he submitted to Claire’s demands.
After five minutes of the Jackie comic and the problem page with ‘Cathy and Claire’, he was relieved to escape with an offer of cake.
“These are lovely, Mrs Young,”
“Have another”…….and he did.
“Are we playing slides this afternoon?” asked Claire
“I can’t” said the boy. I have to go into town with Mum and Dad. Maybe I can I knock for you tomorrow morning?”
It was agreed.
The two girls and their mother spent the afternoon organizing the caravan and preparing meals. They would prove they could manage without their father. The next day the boy knocked at 10 am, and the three children headed to the dunes, each with a paper bag of cake. The boy slid down the dunes towards Claire, as she pulled the gun from the holster.
“You promise you won’t shoot?”
He took the gun and carefully aimed it at her body. With the shiny silver gun finally in his hands, he grasped it against his chest and aimed it at Claire. One click, and the weapon was fired. Her knees buckled with emotional pain, and she dropped into the sand dunes in tears.
“You promised you wouldn’t shoot.”
Her watery eyes pierced his conscience.
“It was just a joke. It’s not a real gun.”
Claire barely spoke to him until they parted at the caravan.
Bill returned, as promised, on the Thursday afternoon. Full of contrition, he took the whole family by car into South something for fish and chips. They returned to the caravan quite late, and the girls overslept on the Friday morning. At 10.00 am the boy knocked very loudly on the caravan door. Unhappy that he had upset Claire, he carried an unopened box of caps which he had bought in town with a loan from his brother.
Bill opened the caravan door. “Yes?”
Surprised to see a man, the boy stumbled over his words. “I was hoping that your girls could come and play on the dunes.”
“My daughters are not allowed out alone. Go away.” He slammed the caravan door.
“Who was that?” called Claire from the bedroom.
“Just some ruffian wanting to get you into mischief” retorted Bill.
Claire looked out of the caravan window and caught a glimpse of the boy creeping away. At eight years old in the 1960s, you didn’t argue with your father. You simply suffered.
On the final day of the holiday, Bill once again rehearsed the ritual of loading the cases into the boot of the car. Audrey approached her younger daughter and spoke quietly in her ear.
“Your friend is over there by the dunes. Daddy is busy, shall we go and speak to him?”
“I’d like that.”
The mother stood back while the boy spoke to her daughter.
“I’m sorry I shot you, and I’m sorry I upset your Dad.”
On impulse he asked Audrey for a pen and paper and wrote down his address.
“You can write to me” he said as he handed over the paper before running away into the dunes. Claire tucked the piece of paper into the holster beneath the shiny silver gun.
Claire and the Bride Doll