Miss Reading

My parents are going out for the evening. Mum is glamorous in a fur coat, powder, lipstick, perfume, jewellery. I bury my face in the soft fur. I don’t want her to go out. Maybe it’s separation anxiety, maybe it’s envy of the high time they were going to have without me, maybe I’m a little bit frightened of the babysitter.

Miss Reading. Thin, tall, erect, dressed in a blazer, a long dark skirt and sensible shoes. Her iron grey hair in a bun, she was a forbidding character to a child of five. But soon she became familiar, part of the family. On and off for the first half of my childhood Miss Reading cleaned for us and occasionally babysat. On her knees she would polish the front step until it shone red.

Miss Reading had an old black pre-war Ford Popular, the kind they call sit-up-and-beg. It had little yellow turn indicator arms that popped out of the side of the car. Sometimes if she saw me walking home she’d give me a lift. But when it rained she left her car at home and used her bicycle.

I would often see her around the village with her friend who was short and fat. They would have been a comic duo if they weren’t so forbidding.

She lived in a 2-up 2-down terraced house. Long after she retired I would be sent round there at Christmas with a gift and a card.

My mother told me that Miss Reading was a spinster. The word carried a degree of disapproval, even if my mother didn’t mean that. Being a single woman wasn’t a matter of choice for Miss Reading’s generation of women. So many men had been killed in the First War that there were not enough men to go round.

Despite the prejudices of the time, she was clearly not ashamed of who she was. She was proud, upright, imposing.

But most important to me is that she loved us, me and my siblings, from a distance, with reserve, but with an intensity that burned.

I never knew her first name.