Billy and Me, p.1Giovanna Fletcher
BILLY AND ME
Q&A with Giovanna
To Tom, for being my best friend, for believing in me and encouraging me to write, and for making me laugh until I snort
When I was four years old, all I ever wanted was to have a weeing Tiny Tears doll. I’d never been into dolls really, but when my best friend was given one for her birthday I decided that a doll that cries actual tears and wets itself was exactly what my life lacked. After hassling my parents for a few weeks they eventually caved in – although, if I’m honest, it captured my attention for about a week and then the poor thing was left in a puddle of her own mess (oops!). I have no idea what became of her, but I’m guessing my mum sold her at a car boot sale or something similar.
When I was eight years old all I ever wanted was to appear on Live and Kicking and dance with Mr Blobby. There was something about that big dopey pink and yellow spotted blob that had me entranced for hours. Sadly, my desire never came true – but I still hold my Mr Blobby cuddly toy as one of my most treasured possessions and he happily accompanies me to bed every night (despite his missing eye).
When I was ten years old all I ever wanted was to be a Spice Girl. I used to drive my mum and dad crazy, running around the house, shouting out the lyrics to Wannabe whilst performing a little dance routine I’d made up. I was constantly putting my hand on my hip and swinging it out to the side, making a peace sign with my other hand and shouting ‘Girl power!’ as loud as I could. I loved them so much that I even named my goldfish Ginger after Geri – my favourite Spice. I was devastated when she decided to leave. The Spice Girls with no Ginger just wasn’t the same, and so my passion to become one of them simply ended (after crying my eyes out for hours, of course).
At some point that extrovert little girl who used to sing to anyone who would listen and dance without a care in the world, became painfully shy and bashful. I suddenly became less confident at school and around other people – preferring the company of a good book to an actual human. It’s bizarre how everything changed; at primary school I was the girl everyone wanted to befriend, but by secondary school I had become awkward and tried my best to avoid everyone. I hated attention, people asking me questions or putting me in the spotlight; I preferred to blend into the background unnoticed. I felt safer that way. On the odd occasion that anyone would attempt to hold eye contact with me I’d usually end up shaking like a leaf or turning bright red, causing me to stare at the floor for the rest of the day. Actually, I did have one friend, Mary Lance, who was equally as socially inept as I was. I say we were friends – but in reality we hardly ever talked to each other, so I guess she was more like a silent partner. It was just nice to have someone by my side at lunchtimes or in class, someone who wouldn’t pry into my life. I think we took comfort in the fact that we weren’t alone.
At the end of my A levels, when the rest of my year had either secured a place at university (Mary went off to study dentistry at Sheffield) or planned to take a gap year so that they could travel the world, I was still unsure of what I wanted from life. I decided to join those taking a gap year, although not to travel. Wandering aimlessly around the globe and experiencing what the world had to offer did have its appeal, but I just wasn’t quite ready to leave my home or my mum at that point. I was simply going to stay in my home village of Rosefont Hill, deep in the Kent countryside, and get a little job to tide me over until I decided what I wanted to do with my days.
I started my job hunt by dropping off my CV in the village shops – there weren’t and aren’t that many to target. We have a bank, a library, a post office, Budgens, a florist, a few clothes shops, a hardware store, a café and a teashop … hardly the most riveting high street ever! The last place I entered was Tea-on-the-Hill, perched on the hill’s peak, with great views over the rest of the village.
As I entered the teashop, my eyes wandered over the seven tables covered in mismatched floral print tablecloths, each surrounded by two or three chairs – all different shapes and designs. The cups, saucers and teapots being used by the customers were also contrasting in their patterns. Absolutely nothing matched, but bizarrely it all fitted together perfectly. The smell of freshly baked scones filled my nostrils and 1950s jazz played softly in the background. I was staring at a secret little den for women – why had I never been in here before?
Flying around the room was a woman who I guessed was in her sixties. Her grey hair was set in a big rollered quiff at the front, with the rest of her curls held in underneath a net. I watched her dart between customers – taking orders, bringing out food and stopping briefly for a little natter here and there. She continued to keep a calm smile on her face, even though it was clear that she was running the shop alone.
I stood at the counter and waited for her to come over, which she eventually did whilst wiping her hands dry on her pink floral apron, which covered a glamorous light blue dress underneath.
‘Hello there, dearie. Sorry about the wait. What can I get you?’ she asked, with a broad smile and kind blue eyes.
In the previous shops I’d walked into I had just wanted to throw my CV into the manager’s hands and then bolt for the door, instantly feeling uncomfortable as panic started to consume me, but there was something about this woman that had me rooted to the spot. I even held her eye contact for a few brief moments and almost felt comfortable doing so.
‘Actually, I came to drop off my CV,’ I said, as I fumbled through my bag and pulled out a freshly printed one. The lady took it from my hands and casually glanced over it.
‘Have you ever worked in a shop before?’ she asked, squinting at the paper.
‘Yes, a florist’s,’ I said quietly.
‘So you already know how to greet customers with a friendly smile?’
I nodded politely as I felt her scrutinize me from head to toe, the smile still plastered on her heavily wrinkled face.
Perhaps I should have told her at this point that I’d spent most of my time there washing dirty buckets in the back room out of sight and not with the customers at all; but before I could speak up she’d moved on.
‘How many hours are you looking for?’ she asked.
I hadn’t thought this far ahead, but one glimpse around the room told me that I’d gladly spend a lot of time here. ‘As many as you can give me.’
‘And – one last thing – do you like cake?’
‘I love it,’ I said, giving her a nervous smile.
‘Good to hear! You’re hired. You’ve come in at a very good time actually, my last waitress unexpectedly quit yesterday – with no explanation!’
‘Sadly, yes … although she was a grumpy chops so I’m not too bothered. I’m Molly, by the way.’
‘I’m Sophie.’ I offered my hand for her to shake but she looked
‘Now, do you have any plans for the rest of the day?’ she asked softly, releasing me from her embrace.
I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders.
‘Great, let’s class this as your first day, then.’ She slid a tray with a pot of tea and a cup and saucer in my direction. ‘Go take that to Mrs Williams, the lady in the cream blouse with the purple rinse to the left – the one with her nose buried in Bella. I’ll go dig you out an apron.’
Picking up the tray I made my way over to Mrs Williams and carefully placed the pot of boiling tea in front of her. She lowered her magazine and peered up at me over the top of her glasses; I instantly recognized her from out and about in the village.
‘You’re new here,’ she stated.
‘Yes, I’ve just started. Literally.’
‘You live in Willows Mews, don’t you? Your mum’s that lovely lady at the library.’
‘That’s right,’ I nodded, shyly.
‘Aw, she’s ever so kind – always helps me take my books home. I’ve got greedy eyes when it comes to books, you see!’ She let out a childlike chuckle and screwed her eyes shut. ‘Send her my love then, won’t you, darling,’ she said, whilst pouring out a cup of tea and stirring in two sugars.
‘Will do, Mrs Williams,’ I said, as I walked back to Molly at the counter.
‘You’re Jane May’s daughter?’ Molly asked.
‘That’s right,’ I said, with a slight nod.
‘I thought so. Well if you’re anything like her then I’m lucky to have you on board,’ she said with a kind smile as she held out her hand and gave me an apron.
My first day working in the teashop whizzed by in a blur – there was one hairy moment when a plate managed to slip out of my hand, fly through the air and smash rather loudly into a billion pieces, causing me to blub dramatically – but other than that it went quite smoothly.
My gap year flew by before I’d even had a chance to think about what I wanted to do next, and so I extended it to two years … then three years … then four, until I suddenly realized that I had no desire to go to university at all; I was happy where I was, and am still just as happy eight years later.
Although I’d started as a waitress, Molly put a lot of faith in me and taught me all she knew about baking cakes and service with a smile. Every day we bake fresh scones, muffins and cakes, and experiment with new recipes, whilst putting the world to rights. At sixty-six years old Molly is continually being told by her doctor that she should be slowing down and starting to take things easy – but she’s not one to listen.
I didn’t just find a passion and career path when I stumbled upon Tea-on-the-Hill that day; I also found a best friend. Looking back now, I know Molly had an inkling of who I was as soon as I walked into the shop. I also believe that, knowing who I was, there was no way she would turn me away without helping me, because it’s in her nature to help those in need of healing; and I certainly needed some of that.
It’s now the beginning of April and after a dreary winter the village has started to come back to life with wild daffodils, tulips and other bright flowers coming into bloom. Different colours burst from the ground, bringing with them a sense of hope and optimism. Rabbits gaily hop across the path in the distance, happy to have the sun shining on their backs once again, and the birds in the trees seem to be chirping louder than usual.
I pull my red woollen coat in around me to keep out the crisp spring air that threatens to chill my bones. My cold button nose is buried deep inside a battered copy of Wuthering Heights as I make my way down the tree-lined alleyway that leads to the quiet High Street. Yes, I admit – I’m one of those annoying people who walk through life oblivious to my surroundings, while spying any impending dangers in my peripheral vision, thanks to my literary obsession! I still manage to keep up the obligatory nod of the head or polite ‘Good morning’ to the people I pass, whilst continuing to stay in the world of Cathy and Heathcliff. Having said that, at this time of the morning on a Wednesday, there are only a few other people milling around, mostly preoccupied shop owners, so I can allow myself to sink deeper into their tragic love story.
Taking strong strides as I make my way up the hill, I spot Molly in the shop, on the phone with her nose pressed up against the window. She gives me a slight wink and a wave, and then continues with whatever she’s up to.
‘Are you sure she’s heading this way?’ she quizzes the person on the phone as I come in the front door, putting my book in my bag. ‘I can’t see her yet …’ Molly squints her eyes to the point where they’re almost shut and then widens them in surprise. ‘Oooh, June,’ she coos, excitement making her voice go squeaky. ‘There she is now! Gosh, what on earth is she wearing that for? She looks like she’s in a banana suit!’
I follow Molly’s gaze and find that she’s looking at Mrs Taylor, who has decided to venture outside today wearing a tight, bright yellow two-piece. Oh, the scandal! I roll my eyes and walk over to the oven to start baking. I can still hear Molly wittering away on the phone while I tie on my red-and-pink spotted apron.
‘You know what it is, don’t you? It’s her birthday next week – her son phoned up and ordered a cake. I suspect she’s having a meltdown over that … Sixty-five! Hmmmm … Yes … Well yes, June – she never got over Robert leaving her like that. What an awful thing to happen to her … Ooh, June, I’d better go – she’s heading this way … Yes, yes! Call you later.’
Molly hops away from the window, pops the phone back on the counter top and manages to look preoccupied with rearranging the counter display before Mrs Taylor enters the shop. I find myself rolling my eyes once again as Molly turns to welcome her with a beaming smile.
‘Hello, Mrs Taylor! Ooh, I must say, you’re looking rather colourful today … yellow really suits you!’ Ahh, the friendly two-facedness of village life, I think to myself. I block out the conversation and concentrate on the Victoria sponge I’m whisking up.
A short while later, once Mrs Taylor leaves, Molly joins me by the oven.
‘Come on,’ she quips.
‘Out with it!’
‘You’ve been banging around for the last fifteen minutes. Why?’
This is news to me as I thought I was hiding my frustration quite well, so I can’t help but look a tad sheepish (old habits and all that).
‘I’m sorry, it’s just …’ I’m at a loss for words.
I’ve been ‘that talked-about someone’, and there’s nothing worse than seeing those curtains twitch as you walk past someone’s house or hearing conversations stop as you walk into a room. I could tell her that it annoys me the way everyone in this village thinks they have a right to gossip about everyone else’s business. I could tell her I dislike it when she’s mean about others. And I could tell her that there’s got to be more to life than her constant gassing over the downfall of the locals. But I don’t. Because I know that in truth Molly doesn’t have a bad bone in her body. Surely she’s allowed to vent every now and then? Especially if it’s only over something as insignificant as the colour of someone’s outfit?
‘I’m sorry,’ I say, letting out a sigh as I rub my head. ‘I didn’t sleep a wink last night. I’ve got a bit of a headache.’
‘Oh, deary,’ she coos, feeling my forehead to check my temperature. ‘Do you want to go home? Try and catch up on that sleep? I’ll be fine here on my own.’
See? She might have a loose tongue occasionally, but that will never overshadow her kind heart.
‘No, don’t be silly. I’m probably just dehydrated,’ I say, as I pour a glass of water and down the lot in front of her. ‘I’ll be feeling better in no time.’
At the end of my shift I drop in on Mum at the village library, which is several doors down from the shop, towards the bottom of the hill. Being council-funded, and only small, it’s not the most luxurious library you’ve ever seen. It has ten rows of battered books, two old computers (which both take about five minutes to get online), a working area with wooden tables and chairs and a chill-out area with multicoloured beanbags scattered around. It could be a little on the depressing side, but Mum takes great pride in the place and makes sure the rows of books gleam to perfection, that her wall displays are always fun and inviting, and that she is quick to order in anything requested that they don’t have in stock.
I find her on her knees restacking magazines, which I’ve never seen in here before.
‘Hello, you!’ Mum says as she gives me a tired smile and lets the magazine she’s holding rest on her lap. It’s clearly been a long day. Her hazel eyes have dark circles beneath them and they look as though they’re struggling to stay open. Her hands go up to her chestnut-coloured hair, which is pulled back into a tight, high bun. She slides her palms along it to check that it’s still neat – she hates it when wispy bits fly into her face or get into her eyes.
‘Hello, Mum,’ I say, bending down and giving her a kiss on the cheek. ‘What’s this?’ I say, gesturing at the magazines in front of her.
‘Oh, we thought it might encourage more youngsters to come in here.’
‘By providing them with gossip about their favourite celebs?’
‘Why not?’ she asks, frowning at me. ‘I’ve already spotted some very interesting articles while I’ve been unpacking them.’
I pick up one of the glossy titles from the shelf and flick through it, scanning the images of flawless men and women on red carpets being compared to their more natural-looking bodies while semi-naked on holiday. ‘Do you really think you’re going to encourage people to read books by showing them pictures of celebrities looking fat or thin on beaches?’
Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes