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Kaye McGann
Features Writer
1:06 AM 7th November 2020
fiction

Passing Ships

The 1950s. Illustration by Oberholster Venita
The 1950s. Illustration by Oberholster Venita
Mrs. Kennedy first encountered Mrs. Firth at the Parents’ Evening. She had heard Joan talk about her new friend Daphne who had come to live here from ‘down south’, and who was everything that was wonderful. Every other sentence began, “Daphne says …..” So now, as she and Mr. Kennedy looked through Joan’s neat exercise books, carefully arranged on top of the desk, Mrs. Kennedy was also looking at Mr. and Mrs. Firth, who were examining Daphne’s books on the desk next to Joan’s.

Mr. Firth was dismissed on sight – an ordinary, nondescript middle-aged man in a suit and raincoat, looking like most women’s husbands looked ; for after all, this was the 1950s, and individuality, particularly in men, was frowned upon. Mr. Firth could be exchanged for Mr. Kennedy, and few would notice the difference. Mrs. Firth, though, was different – very different.

For a start, she wasn’t wearing a hat. A quick glance round the classroom confirmed Mrs. Kennedy’s view that every ‘lady’ – even the unladylike ones – was wearing a hat. But not Mrs. Firth. Then there was her hair. There wasn’t a curl in sight. Her hair hung long and straight, past her shoulders. He coat was normal enough, a belted gaberdine in mid-grey, but instead of nylons she wore thick stockings, hand-knitted in a coloured pattern which was repeated in the gloves she’d placed on Daphne’s desk. And, she was wearing make-up : not discreet touches of powder and a hint of lipstick, but a vivid scarlet slash in a bright face. Her nails were the same shade as her lips. The whole effect was disturbing.

Mrs. Kennedy, though, was not one to shirk her social responsibilities. She had been told by Joan that Mr. Firth was a ‘pharmacist’, which was a southern word for chemist. He’d bought the large shop on the corner of Harrogate Road and Bamford Street, and that wouldn’t have come cheap. Also, the Firths lived in one of the big houses overlooking the park, a house comparable to Mrs. Kennedy’s own. Therefore it behoved her, as socially established in the town, to make the first move. Now seemed as good a time as any.

“Do excuse me,” Mrs. Kennedy said in what her husband called her telephone voice, “but you must be Daphne’s mother and father.”

Not waiting for a response, she rushed on. “We’re Joan’s parents. It’s SO nice, isn’t it, that the girls have become such good friends ? Specially for Daphne, I mean, with you just moving here. Where is it you’ve come from ?”

Had Mrs. Kennedy known the word, she’d have said a sardonic look appeared on Mrs. Firth’s face. As it was, there was an expression she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Nevertheless, Mrs. Firth answered. “We used to live in Farnham in Surrey.”

It wasn’t so much what she said – though that was bad enough ! Where on earth was Farnham ? Or Surrey, come to that ? It was how she spoke. Mrs. Kennedy had only ever heard people speak like that on the wireless. Posh, that was it. Not to be outdone, though, Mrs. Kennedy continued the conversation.

“Oh, how naice ! Just think, Eric, Farnham ! Ai’ve hard it’s very pleasant round there!”

“Oh, aye,” her husband responded. He knew better than not to.

“And how do you laik Yorkshire then ? “ She laughed her tinkling laugh. “You’ll find us very friendly up here. You can’t fault us on that !”

Mrs. Firth smiled neutrally.

“Ai was wondering,” Mrs. Kennedy ploughed on, thinking it was like wading through mud, “as our two girls are such friends, if you’d like to call round one afternoon for a cup of tea and a chat. We live on Kenbridge Road, you know. Near the tennis club.”

Mrs. Firth continued to smile, but the mention of Kenbridge Road had obviously not impressed her as it should have done.

“How very kind,” she said, “ but I’d better not make any firm arrangements at the moment, as I’m working flat out.”

Working ! Mrs. Kennedy was about to revise her opinion of the Firths’ acceptability when Mrs. Firth continued, “I’m a painter, you see, and I’ve a deadline for an exhibition in Leeds City Art Gallery in a couple of months, and I need to execute two or three more pictures for it. “

Mrs. Kennedy stared open-mouthed. Had she been able to execute Mrs. Firth, she would have done.

Walking home, the Firths discussed Daphne’s work. She seemed to have settled down well in her new school, and not to have suffered from the move. Their meeting with the Kennedys had not impinged on their minds overmuch, and they did not mention it.

Mrs. Kennedy fumed as she and her husband walked home. “Who does that woman think she is ? Snubbing me like that. ‘I’ve an exhibition in Leeds’,” she said, in an execrable imitation of Mrs. Firth’s voice. “Well, she won’t get far in this town with THAT attitude, will she ?”

“No, dear,” said Mr. Kennedy.

“It’s not just anybody I ask round. You’d think with her husband owning his own shop she’d know how to behave, and what’s what, wouldn’t you ?”

“Yes, dear,” said Mr. Kennedy.

“And did you SEE her appearance ! Those dreadful stockings ! And her hair ! And all that awful make-up! “It made her look,” said Mrs. Kennedy, dropping her voice to a stage whisper, “like one of those women who go in the Theatre Hotel.”

“If you say so, dear,” said Mr. Kennedy.

“Well, she won’t get the chance to snub me again, I can tell you. I’ll show her what’s what. She won’t get asked to MY house again ! Are you listening, Eric ?”

“Yes, dear, said Mr. Kennedy, resignedly.

They continued homewards. Mrs. Kennedy repeated what she’d said, with variations. Joan’s work was not mentioned.

Mrs. Firth spent an hour or so each day sorting out their possessions in their new house, and shopping for food. She wore slacks and a sweater most of the time. Each afternoon, she put on an old shirt and painted, using the north-facing attic as a studio. Daphne and her older brother Richard listened to Children’s Hour after school, had a ‘nursery tea’ at about six o’clock, then read in their rooms until it was time to go to sleep. Mr. and Mrs. Firth dined at eight, alone, by candlelight, then after smoking a last cigarette together, Balkan Sobranie by choice, they went to their bed, a huge mattress without a base, on the floor of the large airy front bedroom, where more often than not they made love before they slept.

Mrs. Kennedy got up at seven every day and cooked a boiled egg and some toast for Mr. Kennedy, who left just after eight to catch the bus into town to his office. The car was kept locked in its garage, and was brought out on Saturdays to be cleaned, and then put back again. About once every two months they went out for a drive, which they called ‘motoring’. Other than that, it was only used when they went to the Mayor’s Ball, or Ladies’ Night at the Masonic Lodge. During the morning, Mrs. Kennedy scrubbed and polished her house until every surface glistened. She had had a char woman for a while, but it wasn’t done to her satisfaction, so the charwoman got the sack.

She changed her clothes in the afternoon, and sat by the window overlooking the pristine garden, sewing on buttons, or turning collars. Once a week, she met her old school friend, Mrs. Greenwood, in town, and they had tea in the Ritz café. After Joan got home from school, Children’s Hour was put on the wireless, whilst Mrs. Kennedy made tea, their evening meal. They usually had something light, cold meat or suchlike, occasionally a tin of salmon. Joan had had her dinner at school, and Mr. Kennedy had had his in the office canteen, so there was no point going to much trouble. After tea, they all listened to the wireless, and Mrs. Kennedy knitted. Joan went to bed quite early, and was allowed to read for half-an-hour, and Mrs. Kennedy leafed through her ‘Woman’s Weekly’ while Mr. Kennedy had an hour with his project. He was making a scale model of the Parish Church out of matchsticks.

At ten o’clock, Mr. Kennedy wound the two clocks, checked the doors were locked, and then he and Mrs. Kennedy went to bed. She wore a winceyette nightdress, and he wore striped pyjamas, the bottoms fastened with a cord. They usually fell asleep within minutes of getting into bed. Their bedroom was crammed with heavy mahogany furniture. Their bed stood three feet from the ground. Chenille curtains blanketed the windows. Mr. Kennedy exercised his conjugal rights about four times a year, under cover of darkness.

Mrs. Firth didn’t think about the Kennedys again, except vaguely when Joan came to play with Daphne in the holidays. Mrs. Kennedy thought about the Firths quite often. She found from closely questioning Joan that the Firths went to the Congregational chapel, and passed her house on the way. She sniffed. You could say what you wanted, these Non-Conformists just weren’t as solid and reliable – and, well, middle-class, - as the good old C. of E.. By now she’d a pretty good idea of what the Firths were like. Joan had told her about their house, which didn’t have proper carpets, just bare wood with rugs, and things like table cloths thrown over chairs. And pictures and books everywhere. And no proper bedroom furniture. And they drank ! Even though they were Chapel. She couldn’t understand it. She’d walked past their house a few times, and the front steps looked filthy. She herself scrubbed and donkey-stoned her front steps by six o’clock on Sunday mornings, before anyone was up, so that people going past to the Chapel, and looking up her pathway, would be impressed by how clean they were. Surely Mrs. Firth must have noticed.

Mrs. Firth didn’t even know where the Kennedys lived, and had no interest in the doorsteps she passed, or had ever heard of donkey-stones. She looked at the patterns of the leaves, the reflections in the puddles. In chapel, her inner eye followed the Israelites into battle. She sailed the Sea of Galilee in her mind.

Mrs. Kennedy heard rumours, scandalous rumours, about the Firths. Not that she listened to gossip, of course, but when the rumours were about someone she knew – well, goodness, that was different.

One of the assistants in Mr. Firth’s shop had told Mrs. Stubbs, who had told Mrs. Greenwood when she was at Salon Mavis, that sometimes Mrs. Firth visited the shop at dinnertime, and she and Mr. Firth would disappear together into the stockroom over the shop. And the assistant had heard bumping noises and wild cries, and she knew for a fact there was an old mattress up there . Well! Mrs. Kennedy was truly shocked. She pursed her lips, tightened her shoulders, and sniffed. It was disgusting. She would have to stop Joan going round to play with Daphne. She couldn’t have her daughter exposed to such depravity. Apart from anything else, when all was said and done, Mr. Firth was still only a shopkeeper, even if he did have letters after his name. He was still in trade.

Before she had decided how best to end Joan and Daphne’s friendship, without having to reveal her reasons to Mr. Kennedy (for such a tale could not be spoken of to him: men did not always react as they should), events pre-empted her.

She was in town shopping, when she bumped into Mrs. Firth.

“Mrs. Kennedy, isn’t it ? Joan’s mother ? I’m SO glad to see you,” Mrs. Firth began.

A slight smile of mollification started to unpinch Mrs. Kennedy’s lips.

Mrs. Firth rushed on, ”I really need to warn you, so you can prepare Joan, as she and Daphne are such close friends. You see, we’re moving again ! My exhibition in Leeds was such a success that I’ve been offered an exhibition in a top London gallery, and also a commission for Lord Dimchester in Sussex.

Mrs. Kennedy thought she’d heard the name right, and that she’d read about Lord Dimchester (or some such name anyway) in the Daily Mail.

“So we thought we’d move down there now, before Richard starts at the Grammar School. It will mean selling the pharmacy, but it was so cheap in the first place. That’s what tempted us up here, that and the scenery. It certainly wasn’t the weather !” and she laughed gaily, her face transformed by animation into a kind of beauty.

Mrs. Kennedy hardly knew how to respond to this strange, unusual woman, whose life was so different from her own. To buy and sell a business just like that ! To hobnob with lords! To have exhibitions in London ! She had been to London, once, to the 1951 Exhibition. It was the only exhibition she’d ever been to. London had seemed an alien place, and she’d been glad to get home. Yet Mrs. Firth seemed to take it all as a matter of course.

Mrs. Kennedy pulled herself together. She smiled at Mrs. Firth. “Joan will be very sad to lose such a good friend as Daphne,” she said with sincerity.

Then Mrs. Firth did a strange thing. She leaned forward and gave Mrs. Kennedy a quick hug. “Thanks,” she said. Then she turned and hurried off, swinging her bag, and seeming to do an occasional skip. Mrs. Kennedy looked after her, at her brightly patterned skirt with its uneven hem, her long straight hair, the freedom of her movement. She wasn’t quite sure what she felt. It wasn’t really envy, more a kind of yearning, a dim awareness of out-of-reach experiences never to be known. But that was just silly. She straightened her shoulders, adjusted her hat, and continued to the greengrocers.