Thursday, June 5th, 1953

I woke up with a tight feeling in my chest. But why? I struggled to remember. Beyond the uncurtained window there was no hint of malice in the sky. It was Coronation year, a time of national and street celebration, and although Elizabeth had formally accepted her destiny three days ago, in the pouring rain, the weather had now relented.
Beside me, stretched out diagonally across the bed we shared, my older sister, Jill, did not stir. Suddenly I remembered why I was troubled: that evening we were competing in the annual Dunstable Musical Festival, a spectacularly ambitious programme, against individual candidates from all over the county. We couldn’t play musical instruments, but our mother had entered us in the poetry sections for our different age groups. There was no way we would dare to refuse.
I thought of my words:
‘A ship sails up to Bideford, upon a western breeze…’
I pushed away the grey army blankets without disturbing Jill, and tiptoed with bare feet, down the stairs. In the kitchen my mother, Violet, was banging dishes around, her forehead creased, her lips a tight, narrow strip. I sidled into the room, anxious not to offend.
​‘Is there anything I can do, Mum?’
​She looked up, dark curls tangled, but dominant, determined and as always, angry. ‘Don’t let me down, tonight. I’ve spent weeks rehearsing you for this. You’ll be up against all those posh competitors who have paid to be coached.’
​Anxiety hung over her like a cowl.
​Jill appeared in the doorway, silent and watchful. Our mother swung round. ‘And that goes for you, too.’
​Jill nodded, too scared to say anything.
​Eager to please, I made a great show of dragging out the vacuum cleaner, hauling it into the front room.
​My mother called out, ‘Remember the corners. If you do, the middle takes care of itself. I don’t want any of your slipshod efforts.’
​An hour later, we dashed to school, and all day I immersed myself in lessons, refusing to think about the evening ahead. Far too soon the final bell rang. I hurried home, to scrub my face, hands and knees with Lifebouy carbolic soap. Then, my reddened skin smelling of newly-washed laundry, I slipped on a clean red check school frock, white socks and polished red sandals.
​‘Come here.’ My mother’s voice was impatient as she kept checking the time by the cuckoo clock in the front room. She pulled a comb through my tangled hair and plaited it tightly, fastening the ends of the plaits with bright scarlet ribbons. My scalp tingled as she stood back, regarding her work with satisfaction.
Anxious to avoid the ordeal, Jill had already plaited her own hair, and we stood there, pictures of meek cleanliness. Our mother was smartly dressed in a black costume, the tailored jacket pinched in at the waist. Her curly hair was now tamed and her court shoes made her seem even taller than her five-foot-seven inches. She smiled as she looked down at her own costume.
‘Right, we’re ready. Now, remember all I’ve taught you.’
​.
Behind the stage, waiting for my turn, I suddenly felt the ice of terror and turned round, to see Jill a few rows behind. Jill looked straight back. ‘We have to win, we have to do what she wants,’ she mouthed, and I relaxed. Of course we did; there was no option.
Then I was on stage, standing up straight, hands by my sides, gazing out at an imaginary spot on the back wall of the hall, aware of my mother sitting rigidly in the third row. The adjudicator caught my eye, and nodded. ‘When you’re ready, dear,’ she said as she picked up her pen.
As I launched into the poem I was back in our front room, standing in the corner, with my mother instructing: ‘You need a note of wonder in your voice when you come to ‘’oranges from Jaffa, and gold.’’ Remember to lower your voice for ‘’misty English trees’’ and, for goodness sake, don’t forget the note of pride you need for ‘’and sights the hills of Devon…’’ ‘
At ten- and- a- half and nine years, Jill and I were entirely biddable and frightened of defying our mother. We would not dream of protesting about the dreary hours of rehearsal, but I remembered my father, Dabber, sighing behind his paper and muttering, ‘Violet, how much more of this reciting lark do we have to put up with?’
Then it was over, and I left the stage to wait for the results, and silently wished Jill good luck.
After the results for both our competition classes were announced, in relief, and for once with pleasure, we joined our mother in the audience. She beamed, flushed and happy. ‘Well done.’ Turning to the stranger beside her, she said, ‘These are my daughters, and they’ve both won. I coached them myself.’
While the stranger murmured polite compliments, Jill and I exchanged embarrassed glances.
The poetry competition for younger children was next on the programme, and our mother decided to stay and listen. I sat by her, content. She was triumphant – the triumph was hers so the evening might be bearable. I gazed around me. The town hall was filling up rapidly, as competitors for later classes arrived. There was an expectant, nervous atmosphere. I looked up at the vaulted ceiling and felt proud that I had won in such a prestigious place. It was a moment of delight and I wriggled happily in my seat, prepared to enjoy seeing the little ones perform.
The competitors appeared on the stage, one by one. They were too young to be nervous, and each waited confidently for the adjudicator’s signal to start.
Then a little girl of about six, whom I had never seen before, walked on to the stage, pretty and smiling. She was dressed as I was in a check cotton dress. Hers was blue. But unlike me, she had a natural poise and grace. I longed to have her Milly-Molly-Mandy haircut, a bob with a fringe. The girl’s hair shone under the Town Hall lights, as she stood, happy and composed, looking out into the audience. Framed by the ornate stage curtains she had everyone’s attention.
At a signal from the adjudicator she began to recite her poem. My mother’s eyes were fixed on the girl. Suddenly she clutched her chest and gasped. The colour drained from her face which was now an unpleasant grey with red blotches. I felt alarmed and Jill, on the other side of her, whispered, ‘Mum, are you feeling ill?’
The adjudicator retired to make her decisions, the hall broke out into chatter, and the people near us gave my mother curious glances.
‘Shirley’s here,’ Jill said, and I heard the relief in her voice. ‘She’ll know what to do.’ Our elder sister, Shirley, had come straight from work to join us, and when my mother saw her, she grabbed her arm and began to whisper urgently.
‘Mum, how do you know?’ Shirley’s tone was reasonable. ‘You can’t possibly know.’
‘I know, I know, of course I know. How could I not?’ Tears began to run down her face; her body was shaking. ‘ She’s mine. Look at our Judy, then look at her. They look like twins.’ I looked over at the little girl. She was standing quietly with her teacher and some friends. Did I look like her? Was I as pretty as she was? I found that hard to believe.
‘Mum, you need to go home.’
‘The papers in the wardrobe…’ she sobbed. ‘They’ll have her name on them.’ She turned to me, eyes glittering and desperate. ‘Judy, go over to that little girl with the short, dark bob and ask her what her name is.’
‘Mum…’Shirley began again, but my mother pushed her aside. ‘Judy, do as you’re told, now.’
I looked from my mother to Shirley and back again. My mother shoved me and I made my way over to where the girl stood. I felt confused. Why had this girl upset Mum so much? How did Mum know her when Shirley, Jill and I did not? I jumped straight in. ‘What’s your name?’
The little girl’s smile did not waver. ‘Judy Woods.’
We stood looking at each other for a brief moment, two small children, one nine-years-old, the other just six, strangers with a shared name.

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About Judy Darby

I am currently working on a memoir which I began for my MA in Creative Writing (Nonfiction). It is nearing completion. The most important people in my life are my seven grandchildren, James, Lucy, Emma, Eleanor, Owen, Michael and Tommy - and their parents of course.
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