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Waiting to Begin
Author: Amanda Prowse

 

PROLOGUE

1984

Ordinarily it would have been exciting, travelling somewhere by train, but there was nothing ordinary about this trip or this day. Bessie’s limbs felt leaden, her spirit even more so. Philip stowed her big suitcase in the overhead wire rack and slid into the seat facing her on the other side of the table. His Adam’s apple looked huge, rising up and down like a lift, carrying conflicting emotions from his brain to his mouth and then back again.

‘I brought some snacks. Sandwiches – cheese and tomato,’ he said.

He placed on the table between them the square Tupperware container with the faded green lid and the small piccalilli stain in the corner. The sight of the box, something from home and touched by her mother’s fingers, was enough to bring on her tears. She shook her head.

‘I’m not hungry.’

‘Well, not now, but maybe later.’

‘Are you actually turning into Mum?’ she asked, more sharply than she had intended.

‘God, I do hope not.’ Philip drummed his fingers. ‘I’ll leave the thermos in the bag then.’

She felt the sting of guilt. Her brother was her single ally right now, her confidant and only friend. He deserved better.

‘Sorry, Philip, I can’t seem to . . .’ The words ran out.

‘It’s okay,’ he nodded. ‘I understand.’

Regardless of his reassuring words, he avoided catching her eye, staring instead at the back gardens along the route as the train picked up speed.

She looked away, knowing that he didn’t and couldn’t understand. Not that she did herself entirely. Despite her best efforts, tears gathered at the back of her throat and nose and slipped silently down her face.

‘Please don’t cry, Bessie.’ Philip’s tone was calm and kindly, and his sweetness only encouraged her to cry all the harder.

‘I can’t help it.’

He pulled a few folds of toilet tissue from his jeans pocket and pushed them across the table. Gathering them gratefully into her hands, she blotted her eyes.

‘No matter how hard I try, I can’t see my future,’ she managed, her voice low, wary of waking the old man on the other side of the aisle.

‘Well, none of us can – that’s why it’s called the future – unless you’ve got one of those crystal balls or a time machine!’ he said, in an effort to make her laugh.

‘I wish I did.’ She blew her nose. Of course, he was right – no one knew what lay ahead, but Bessie had had a plan where she could see the shape of her life, and now?

‘Nothing has changed so far as the world is concerned. You can still have a great life; you can still make your dreams come true.’

‘You don’t understand, Philip.’ Staring at her brother, she wrung her hands on the plastic tabletop between them. ‘Everything has changed because I’ve changed. It’s only months since I was celebrating my sixteenth birthday with the whole world at my feet and now . . . I’m not the person I thought I was.’ This was true – everything she had thought she knew about herself had been erased. Somewhere along the line, the coating of confidence that had made her feel like she could take on the world and win had been wrenched violently from her without her consent, and she was left soft and fragile, unable to survive a fall.

‘That’s just how you feel right now, but you won’t always. You will be strong again, bright and ready to face the world.’ Again Philip’s Adam’s apple rose and fell, as if swallowing a lie.

Bessie looked away. Someone had scrawled the word courage on the window frame. She let loose a small, ironic sigh of acknowledgement.

The elderly man across the aisle snorted in his sleep. Grey tufts sprouted from his wide nostrils, and he sat with his head tipped back and his hands clasped across his chest. He had placed his cap, wallet and keys on top of his coat, which lay neatly folded on the table. Trusting.

‘When we get there, I’ll come with you, see you settled. Stay for a bit,’ her brother whispered.

Bessie nodded, trying not to think of the dip in the mattress of her childhood bed, that comfortable crawl space where she had succumbed to sleep nearly every night of her life, knowing she was safe, with her parents and brother just along the landing. The smell, feel and weight of the blankets were all the more familiar and comforting because of it. But not tonight.

‘I’m scared, Philip,’ she said in a small voice.

And there it was, the phrase that encompassed all of her feelings.

‘I know.’ He tried out a weak smile. ‘Why don’t you write one of your postcards? Take your mind off things?’

She watched as he unbuckled his satchel and pulled out the small pack of white postcards, bought from the post office on the high street. He clicked the end of his ballpoint and pushed that across the table too.

Bessie gripped the pen and turned the card to the angle at which she was most comfortable writing – in physical terms at least, because it was mental torture to scribble these lies to the people she loved.

Dear Mum and Dad,

How are you both? How is Nanny Pat’s cat? Still hanging on, I hope.

She paused and looked out of the window.

The weather is cold, but lovely. The sky is clear and blue and, if it wasn’t for the frost and the chill, it could be summer, it has the same colour. The sky . . . where in just a few weeks I will be flying. Can you believe it? I am so excited. Me, an air hostess. All my dreams come true . . .

‘Tickets, please! All tickets, please!’ the conductor shouted, slamming the carriage door behind him. Bessie put down the pen. The old man opposite started and sat up abruptly, blinking.

‘I don’t know what’s going on!’ he chuckled, as much to himself as to his fellow travellers.

I know how you feel . . . Bessie turned again to the world rushing by beyond the window. I know exactly how you feel . . .

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

August 20th 1984

The vicar had told the whole RE class that prayers were not meant for personal greed or the fulfilment of desires, and this Bessie adhered to, mostly. Often her requests were for famine relief in Ethiopia, Nanny Pat’s cat, Tiki, who was clinging on to life by a whisker, and her best friend Michelle’s dad, who was out of work and had been for the last two years on account of his dicky back.

But today was a special day. Bessie woke a second or two before her alarm, as she always did, and with her eyes clamped shut, she broke the rules, fairly confident that one selfish prayer, slotted in among the many for the masses, was probably allowed on her sixteenth birthday.

Hey, God, please make this a good year for me. Please help me get out of this town. I want to see the colour of the sky in California. I want to chat to people who don’t know every square inch of this place like I do. I want to have a life like I see on TV, where people live with big, big kitchens, good tans and great hair. I want an amazing life – and I want Lawrence to fall in love with me, like I have with him.

Even the thought of Lawrence was enough to send her a little cuckoo, as if her excitement was more than she could contain. It burst from her like fireworks.

And of course, I also want world peace and an end to all hunger. Thanks. Oh, it’s me by the way, Bessie Worrall.

She kicked off her duvet, jumped out of bed and stood like a star with her hands over her head and her legs splayed. Filling her lungs, she shouted out, ‘It’s my birthdaaaay!’

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