The man in the tweed suit was at his desk, smoking a cigarette and having coffee. He was looking at the girl opposite him. She had round glasses and unruly dark-blond ringlets held up by two sagging hair pins and she wore a navy-blue wool dress with a tiny lace collar.
‘I’m so sorry, Papa,’ she said demurely as she poured herself some coffee. ‘I haven’t finished my French composition yet and I’d like to prepare for my chemistry test.’
‘It’s Easter holiday, my darling,’ he smiled. ‘You still have plenty of time for your homework, so there is no excuse to chuck this afternoon’s church circle.’ His eyes lit up. ‘In fact, it’s a wonderful opportunity for you to meet girls your age. I spoke of it to Mama on the telephone yesterday and she feels as I do...Besides, Helen Borenius won’t be able to attend because she has a cold. Someone has to show up in her stead. You know how her grandfather always mentions the importance of good deeds in his sermons.’
The girl’s face clouded over. ‘I shall go, Papa,’ she said sadly. Then her slightly myopic eyes brightened. ‘May I borrow the car please? I could take along the fabric for the pinafores.’
Her father laughed mirthfully. ‘Ah, you’re clever, Josie!’ he said, shaking his head. ‘You are ever an apt pupil when I teach you how to drive on the estate, but you cannot handle public roads yet…Perhaps next year, my dear. Robson will take you to the village in the Ford.’
The girls, all between the age of twelve and sixteen, were sitting around a large table in the parish hall, cutting out patterns, quarreling over whose turn it was to use the sewing machine, nibbling on sweets and chattering a mile a minute.
‘So it’s only you today, Miss, an’it?’ a woman in a rough wool dress asked. She was the older sister of one of the girls, married and expecting her third child.
‘Yes, I’m afraid so,’ Josie sighed. ‘Miss Borenius can’t attend today.’
‘These lasses are ‘arder to ‘andle than a bag o’ fleas,’ the woman smirked. ‘But I recken they’ll listen to you all right. Yer old enough to teach ‘em…or…How old are ye?’
‘I’m seventeen,’ Josie stammered, blushing. ‘And I’m not very good at sewing, I’m afraid.’
The woman laughed, showing blackened teeth. ‘Yeah, I thought so. Young estate missies learn nowt but Latin and armetics and playing the piano in school these days.’
The girls tittered. ‘Shuddup, all o’ ye,’ the woman roared. ‘And be nice to Miss Durham or I’ll warm yer ears.’
Establishing a circle where young people from the village could exercise their skills making clothes and many other things for the church charity organization had been Mama’s idea. ‘You’ll learn life lessons there that no one will teach you at school, my sweet,’ she had said to Josie on the telephone. ‘As the daughter of an estate owner, you will have no choice but to engage in these activities when you grow up.’
‘These pinafores going to the poor children in Africa?’ Mabel asked, the dim-witted one of the group.
‘Of course not,’ Alice snapped. She was the clever one. ‘It’s roasting ‘ot down there, whatever would they need these for? They’ll be sold at fancy fairs and the money’s going to Africa.’
A discussion ensued. What would the poor people buy with it? Food? Toys? Firewood?
‘It’s for the mission,’ Josie explained. ‘To build churches and to pay the reverends’ wages.’
‘Can’t have the likes of them givin’ sermons in their bleedin’ pyjamas and starving,’ Alice said. ‘I can see that.’
‘Alice,’ Josie said gently. ‘Please concentrate on the hem of your pinafore or else…’
There was more giggling. Now Emily was snipping straight through a perfect patch of fabric.
‘Stop,’ Josie cried. ‘You’re ruining it.’
Emily’s lower lip started to tremble. ‘Let me help you,’ Josie offered. She walked up to the girl and bent over, struggling to get a view of the sewing while trying to keep enough distance.
‘Miss is scared she’ll get our Emily’s ‘ead lice,’ Minnie sneered. ‘And she canna see a thing.’
There was merry howling. ‘Stop it or I’ll skin your hides,’ the woman threatened.
Emily had now cut straight through the fabric. ‘Now look what you’ve done,’ Josie said despondently. ‘We won’t be able to use it anymore. Shall I get the pattern and some calico so that you can make another one? I’ll help you.’
‘No, you bleedin’ won’t,’ Emily said. ‘I ain’t getting paid for this, so I can cut any way I like.’
‘You’re upset,’ Josie murmured. ‘I understand. But really, the church board would be so pleased with a beautiful pinafore that can be sold.’
‘You’re one to talk, Miss,’ Alice grinned. ‘You’re rich. We’re not.’
‘Give over or I’ll tell the Reverend,’ the woman snapped, grabbing a ruler. ‘I’m warning ye.’
‘Warn us any way you bloody like, Florrie,’ Alice laughed. ‘Yer like those estate people, only because you worked there as a scullery maid…Lucky we won’t ever. It’s a rotten place.’
‘I beg your pardon?’ Josie asked. Two girls mimicked her question.
‘I beg your arse on,’ Emily squealed, earning roars of laughter.
The woman stepped up and hit her on the head with the ruler until it broke. ‘Please don’t,’ Josie stammered. ‘Emily was just jesting, I presume.’
Emily had reddened and was bawling now, tearing the fabric in front of her to shreds. ‘See what you made Florrie do to me?’ she shouted at Josie. ‘You, the miss from that rotten place?’
Then her face turned into a fiendish mask. ‘Rotten, yeah…Me uncle wor in your da’s service as a gardener and ‘e told me brother, and so me brother told me, that there’s buggery on the estate.’
‘Yeah, buggery,’ Alice added. ‘Men got ‘anged for it back in the day, that much I know.’
‘Hanged?’ Josie asked.
Before she could speak any further, Florrie patted her on the forearm. ‘Don’t listen to them,’ she said affectionately. ‘They have no idea what they’re talkin’ about.’
Two minutes later, Josie walked down the path past the churchyard to the street where Robson was dozing in Papa’s Ford. He woke up when she rapped on the window. ‘I’d like to go home now, please,’ she said. ‘And I’ll drive.’
‘No, your father doesn’t allow it, Miss Durham,’ Robson groaned, yawning into his handkerchief. ‘But who knows, perhaps next year.’