Saturday, 18 February 2012

Flora A. Wisdom by Geof Reed

(Flora in the kitchen 1917)

Come in, come in stop mauldin at the door.  That’ll do.  Keep off that damp floor you lot I’ve just washed it and I haven’t time or patience to do it again.

Come for the job, have you?  My job?  Well, you’re welcome to it.  Been upstairs?  Spoken with Mr Woolmer?  What’s up, cat got your tongues?  Well I suppose you ‘ave.  So I’ve got to tell you what it entails?  Hmm.  (Looks at the audience dissatisfied)  I know there’s a war on and every able-bodied person and some that ain’t have either volunteered by now or else they’re doing the jobs that were left, but you lot?  Are you sure?  I mean there’s a lot of graft in this job.  Up before six because that bloody thing (pointing at the stove) never stays in over-night, cooking , cleaning, washing - yes cleaning and washing as well as the cooking –I know there used to be two or three of us a couple of years back but them days are long gone so you’ll be on your own now.  Are you sure you’re up to it?  I don’t want to be rude but some of you looks a bit long in the tooth.  No offence.  Oh well, you knows what’s what, I suppose.

Well I’ve got ten minutes to give you but I’ll have to carry on with this (indicates the chicken she is stuffing) while I talk to you otherwise I won’t get finished ‘til mid-night.

I suppose you must need the money. What are you offered? Twenty eight?  Well, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs.  That’s three quid a year more than I’m getting! (sniffs)  Oh well, domestics aren’t so easy to come by what with one thing and another.  Twenty eight?  When I first started, 1901, the old Queen had just died, seven pound  ten I got.  Seventeen and just up from Dover and as green as grass.  First time away from home.  Mind you what with three brothers a step Da and no room of my own I was pleased to go, know what I mean? 

Oh but I did love my little room upstairs as soon as I saw it.  Plain it was but clean and over the kitchen so it was warm - and only sharing with one other girl.  I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  Sarah, the one in with me, was jolly enough, she’d been to India, you know, father in the army. She’d tell such stories I didn’t know what was true and what was fibs but I didn’t care: India, Australia, Canada, Africa well a lot of it anyway, they were all ours and the furthest I’d ever gone was from Dover to Sheerness!   That’s not right – I knew I was going to see some of these places myself before I got too old. But there was another one, a nurse see, older and snooty, thought she was better than us.  Emma Paine were her name – Paine by name and pain by nature – and you know where! Must have her own room and wouldn’t speak to us except to find fault and always running to the master with tales about something or other until even he got fed up with it - you’d have thought she was the mistress.  Me and Sarah were always giggling  – well you got to, haven’t you? - but I never saw Madam Muck crack her face once.  Mind you she didn’t last long.  Looking back I can see she was lonely.  Didn’t fit in, see?   Neither fish nor fowl.  Talking of which if I don’t get this in that oven there’ll be no lunch and then there’d be trouble.

Don’t look so worried they’re alright (nodding upstairs)  You’ve met Mr Woolmer.  Good as gold. Like most of ‘em along here officer in the navy. In charge of the stores or something.  They come and go see.  Mostly two or three years before the Navy hoiks ’em off somewhere else and then somebody new moves in.  Well the married ones like to live a step away from the docks where they work and Blue Town of course what with all the pubs and the music hall and the...well you know what I mean.  And full of Tommies and Blue Jacks – rough as rough some of ‘em especially when they’d had a few.  They’re not always respectful to the officers when they go by especially if they’d got the missus with ‘em.  Well it’s a funny thing that when  they’re single Blue Town’s  “got a bit of life to it” and they’re happy to stay but as soon as they’re married they’re after somewhere respectable so as to not offend the missus.  Mind you some of this lot along here, her up at 69 for example well...(pulls face) The new tenants don’t always keep us on but they usually do – well it depends if they brought a domestic with them or not.  The thing is we know the ropes and they don’t  (taps her nose).  Best to always try and keep it like that.  (Lowers her voice) When the new master  moved in a I remember him saying (adopts posh voice)  “I see that there’s a new provisions store opened in the High Street.  I would like to offer them our trade”.  Well, I had to knock that on the ‘ead straight away.  I mean Dudley Grout’s has always given me good service and very particular at Christmas (pause) about dropping off a consideration, (pause, audience hasn’t understood) for me  (pause and then with further emphasis) what chinks. Oh don’t worry – you’ll pick it up.

I miss Sarah.  Been gone three, no four years.  Married.  So that’s the end of her.  Her husband wont let her see me.  Says I’m a bad influence!  Me!  That’s a laugh. We used to go out together though it was difficult to get the same day off we could manage the evenings quite regular.  Just walking up and down the prom was good enough, what with the docks it was so exciting.  And Sarah!  She told me to take her arm and to hold on no matter what.  And then we’d go into Blue Town.  She was so brazen. She’d give the Tommies as good as she got.  I’d thought I’d die of embarrassment at first so I just tuck my head in to her armpit.  But I soon got the hang of it.  It was all just messing about.  And if the blokes got too, insistent, we’d just walk away.  I mean there were a lot of other girls ready to oblige.  To be honest we could take or leave the blokes but we loved the music hall. What’s his name? The manager of the Hippodrome?  Fred Leighton. Used to live down at 67, would slip us a couple of tickets (adopting a theatrical voice) “always room for a couple of “respectable” girls in my palace of varieties”.  And the way he’d say “respectable” would make us laugh.  Well, he’s gone so no more free tickets and no Sarah to go with but I still goes, on me own if I have too.  (Excited)  Oh I went to see Marie Lloyd a month ago, Marie Lloyd, and it weren’t the stalls neither.  Sixpence I paid, in the plush seats.  I’ve never done that before but it was worth every penny. She was brilliant.  The way everybody looked at her.  Usually there’s a lot of backchat and calling out to the acts, that’s why some of the fellas go, to show off how clever they are.  But not that night, not when Marie’s on stage.  Not only were they not talking I’d swear some of the men weren’t even breathing – red-faced and sweating they were.  And when some bloke did say something, something about her getting too old and fat to show her legs off like that, a Blue Jack in front turned round and laid him out there and then.  There was general cheering and then she said, quick as a flash, “it’s always gratifying to see at least one gentleman in the house”.  The place went mad.  I know what those suffragetes want, a fair deal for women, and I agree with ‘em, of course I do, but when I saw the power that Marie Lloyd had, especially over the men, I thought, there’s more than one way of skinning a cat.

Talking of women, what about the tram eh?  Talking of being knocked down by a feather! There I was, up by the Clock Tower, when along it comes regular as Beechams Pills on the quarter of an hour and there she was with curly hair and lipstick taking the fares.  Well. And she helped me off with the shopping outside.  I don’t know why I was surprised. Is there a job we’re not doing? Working in the docks, in the factories I hear they’ve even got women in the mines: the only job that is too much for us is scrawling an x on a piece of paper – now that’s man’s work! (sniffs)

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