1924 – 1932
Ma looked beautiful. Her shining red hair hung in ringlets. Grace, known by everyone as Gracie, put up her hand and gently pulled one, then giggled as it sprung back into a coil.
‘Button up your coat, lass, the wind will fair cut through you.’ Ma’s smile twinkled with excitement and lit her deep blue eyes. ‘Da’s coming home, Gracie. The skipper’s radioed the harbour master to say they’ll be in by noon. And aye, word is they have a good catch, so it’ll be fish and chips for supper, lass.’
Gracie hugged her body as a surge of happy feelings zinged through her. Me da’s coming, me da’s coming!
As they stepped out of their cottage on Fishermen’s Row, in Mount Road, Fleetwood, just eight miles from the seaside resort of Blackpool, the wind that whipped off the Irish Sea caught Gracie’s breath and lifted her bonnet. Her ma patted it back down, then squatted on her haunches and tied the ribbons tighter.
‘It’s strangling me now, Ma.’
‘Well, it’s that or lose your bonnet and have your lugs frozen off , which do you want?’
The thought of her ears dropping off made Gracie’s mind up. She’d stick with the bonnet.
The street suddenly filled with neighbours as the doors of all the other cottages opened, and women and children came out, dressed in their Sunday best, calling out to one another.
'It’s a good catch they have.’
‘Aye, we’re in clover again.’
‘I’m in for a new coat this time.’
‘About time, Maud, that one’s only just clinging to you, lass.’
Everyone laughed as Mrs Barton did a twirl. ‘Nowt wrong with this. I mean, it’s that old, it’s back in fashion. You’re only jealous, Polly. I’ll tell you what. I’ll pass it on to you, it has a good few years left in it.’
The sound of the women’s laughter enhanced the feeling in five-year-old Gracie.
Everyone was happy, and that happiness made her want to skip with the joy of it. Aunt Massie popped her head out of her door. Her cottage was next to theirs. She wouldn’t be coming down to the dock to greet the trawlers as her man worked in the fish shed, near to the railway, where they gutted and packed the fish. ‘They’re coming in, then, Brenda?’ she called out to Ma.
‘You watch yourself, lass, you’ll have your belly up again.’ Gracie wished Aunt Massie hadn’t said this, as she knew there was always a sadness around her ma having her belly up. She’d see her ma bending over the bucket, throwing up, and her ma’s belly would begin to swell, but then ma would take to her bed and after a few days, Gracie would know that there wasn’t going to be a babby, and she’d to look after her ma.
‘Eeh, I didn’t mean to dampen things, Brenda. I – I –’
‘Naw. Don’t worry about it. I hope it does happen, and that this time I manage to carry it full time. It’s funny, but I had no trouble carrying our Gracie.’ ‘Aye, and no trouble since, she’s a little darling, and if you have no more, you’ve been blessed. Me and Percy don’t want another.’
She laughed and nudged Ma. ‘Our Reggie’s enough for any mother to cope with. Anyroad, hang on a mo, I’ll walk a ways with you. I’ve nowt spoiling. Let me get me shawl.’
When Aunt Massie came out again, she had Reggie with her. She linked arms with ma and they giggled together. Reggie fell into step with Gracie. ‘Can I come to the dock with you, Gracie? I like the boats.’
‘Naw, you’ll be in the way. Only those greeting their man go to the docks.’ Reggie kicked a stone. ‘Well, you can’t stop me from sitting on the rocks and watching.’ ‘Please yourself.’ On the quayside, everyone scanned the horizon. A silence that held friendship and a feeling of being all in this together settled around Gracie.
Even Mrs Tonge, whom everyone called, Mrs Wagging-Tongue, was quiet for once as she held her hand above her brow and looked out to sea. ‘There! Look. I can see the first trawler!’ A cheer went up. Gracie did a little dance and clapped her hands.
Happiness filled her as she watched the tiny specks that looked as though they were on the edge of the world, where the sky met the sea, gradually become bigger and bigger.
The women began to wave and call out the names of their husbands. Gracie copied them, calling out, ‘Da, Da!’ and knew such joy as the boat docked and her Da waved.
Impatiently, she waited while the fish were unloaded, listening to the banter of the women and their husbands and sons as they called out to one another. And then he was there. A giant of a man. The most handsome of all the men.
Dropping his rucksack, he ran to Ma, picked her up and twirled her around, holding her tiny waist in his big strong hands. ‘Me Brenda, me lass. Your man’s home, lass.’
After giving Ma a kiss on her lips, that made Gracie blush and had her looking around to see what everyone thought, only to find that all the men and women were doing the same, her da spotted her. ‘Me Gracie, me little Gracie. Come here, little one.’
Her da’s huge hands wrapped around her and took her to soar in the air above his head. ‘You’re the prettiest lass in Fleetwood, me little Gracie.’
With this he lowered her and tickled her tummy with the top of his head, before he swung her onto his shoulders. Her joy released from her in squeals as this was the best place in the world for Gracie. She clung on to her da, wrapping her arms around his neck. But once her da had hold of her ankles, she knew that she was safe, and let go, to run her fingers through her da’s black curly hair. He smelt of tobacco, and fish, and sweat, smells that should have had her wrinkling her nose, but instead filled her with the knowledge that her da was home and this was how love smelt.
Eight years had passed since that happy day and the time had wrought change. Many babbies had left her ma’s womb without ever breathing life and each had taken its toll on her ma.
Gracie stood at the window of their cottage and watched the happy wives running to the shore, while her own ma lay in her bed, her life ebbing from her.
No happiness entered Gracie at the thought of her da coming home, only dread. The trusting little child that she’d been was long gone. For she had found out that there were many kinds of love and ways that love can be used, and that a love that had once sustained you could destroy you too. Now, her da wasn’t someone to welcome home, but someone to fear
The creak of the floorboards had Gracie stiffening.
Outside, though mid-August, the wind howled, and the sound of the crashing waves drowned out most noises. But Gracie had her ear tuned in to any sign that her da was coming to her attic bedroom.
Sitting up in bed and staring at the trap door that she had to climb through to get to her bed, she prayed to a God who rarely listened to her to not let it open. But the iron ring-handle began to turn.
A tear ran down Gracie’s cheek. At thirteen years old, she had more than her share to cope with. This tiny, one up, one down cottage, with space made in the attic for her bed, housed her misery.
Money was short as her da didn’t often get taken on the trawlers these days. Her, ma’s sickness had ravaged her body and had her coughing up blood and gunge. She never left her bed. Gracie cared for her and did all the chores around the home. And though a clever child, she rarely attended school, only doing so when her granny came to stay.
Granny lived in Blackpool and would come to care for her daughter and granddaughter, but Da hated her, and wouldn’t have her in the house when he was at home.
‘Gracie, me little Gracie. Aren’t you me darlin’ girl, eh?’
‘Naw, Da. Go away. Please don’t touch me, I’ll scream for me ma!’
‘Ha, your ma’s on cloud nine, me lovely Gracie. I gave her the night medicine, and she is in a world of peace. Now, give your da a kiss.’
Beery breath wafted over Gracie, and she tasted the stale smoke that mingled with the smell of the drink. Her da’s large hand cupped her tiny breast.
‘Naw, Da. It ain’t right, you doing this to me.’ With all the strength that she could muster she pushed him away, but though he lost his balance for a moment, he swayed back towards her.
‘I don’t hurt you, do I, me Gracie? I just like to fondle you. You like to please your da, don’t you? It’s nice what I do, ain’t it?’
You’re drunk, da. And I’m warning you, I’ll tell me granny this time. I will.’
‘That sour puss. I’d sooner drown her as look at her. She won’t come near me, she’s scared of me. But you ain’t, are you, Gracie? You’re me little girl. Move up, let me lay beside you.’
The bed creaked under his weight. His bulk shoved Gracie to the edge of the mattress. Her body stiffened. She daren’t scream; although she’d tried to frighten her da away by saying she would, she’d never want to wake her ma. When she was awake her ma was in constant pain.
Silently, she endured her da squeezing her breasts, then running his hand down to her leg and pulling up her nightie, while he moaned her name in a funny way.
Holding her legs tightly together, Gracie found her voice and begged him to stop. Something in what she said, and her sobs, finally got through to him. He rolled off the bed.
‘Don’t be telling your ma, or your granny, will you, our Gracie? This is our little secret. Your da didn’t mean it. It were the drink. I forgot meself. I didn’t hurt you, did I?’
‘Naw, da, you didn’t hurt me, now go away, I’m tired.’ She wanted to scream that though he’d hadn’t hurt her body, he had hurt her heart. But despite it all, Gracie loved her da.
And, as she stood on the doorstep of the pub with an enamel jug, the next morning, her eyes swollen from crying, her stomach rumbling for the want of food, she tried to hold on to the memories she visited often, of the days before her ma’s illness changed everything – happy, carefree days.
Reluctantly, she handed over the shilling that would have bought some tatties and a few meaty bones to make a stew, but instead would pay for the jug to be filled with ale.
Within an hour, with the jug empty, her da left the house. Gracie heard the door click shut as she tucked the clean sheet she’d put on the bed, around her ma.
Me da’s gone out, Ma. Rest now.’
Gracie’s heart ached to see her ma so ill. Her beauty was gone, her hair lay lank on the pillow, and the freckles that had once dotted her face had joined together and left her skin yellow. Her eyes didn’t twinkle any more, but drooped with pain.
Gracie knew that she took after her ma in looks. At least how ma had used to look. Now it was Gracie’s hair that was a vibrant red and hung in ringlets, and her eyes that were as blue as the sky. She shuddered as her da’s words came to her.
‘You’ve the beauty and passion in you that your ma once had, me Gracie.’ Gracie didn’t want to understand what he meant.
As her ma closed her eyes, Gracie scooped up the pile of soiled bed linen and took it down the stone stairs to the kitchen-cum-living room and then through the door to the yard. Outside she dragged the tin bath nearer to the well that stood in the centre of the yard, and pumped buckets and buckets of water to fill the bath with, enjoying the sound of the water hitting the metal, till the work became harder.
Dunking the sheets into the water, she’d leave them to soak for an hour, while she filled the copper that stood in the corner of the kitchen and set a fire underneath it.
While it came to the boil, she’d grate some soap, then she’d drop that and the sheets into the copper for ten minutes. She’d have them rinsed, mangled and blowing on the line by midday.
In this warm breeze, they’d dry enough to air off in front of the fire ready to change her ma’s bed once more. A job that she had to do twice a day, and sometimes in the night too.
Once she had the bits of flotsam burning under the copper, Gracie stretched her aching limbs. She’d have to make another trip to the beach to collect whatever was burnable out of what was washed up there. There was no money to pay the coalman, and he’d said last time that he’d not leave any more until her da paid him for at least one of the hundredweight bags he owed him for.
As the sun shone down on her, the child that Gracie was surfaced and her empty belly took all her thoughts. Maybe if her ma was peaceful she could get Aunt Massie to sit with her while she went to her granny’s.
Aunt Massie wasn’t her real aunt, but her and Ma had been friends since they were babbies and she looked out for Gracie, and loved her like a real aunt would.
Gracie knew that if she could get to her granny, she would give her a threepence and she could buy some fish and chips and sit on Blackpool promenade and eat them. She could collect flotsam from the beach on her way home.
‘Reggie, are you there?’ Reggie often bunked off school. Gracie could hear him kicking a ball in the next yard. There was a scrambling sound and she saw his head pop up above the wall that divided their yards.
‘What’s up, Gracie?’
‘Will you ask your ma to look out for me ma while I visit me granny, Reggie?’
‘Aye, just a mo. I’ll come with you if you like.’
‘Naw, I don’t want no school board man on me back. They’ll be looking for you.’
‘And not you, then?’
‘I’m exempt, on account of me ma needing me. They knaw I can only attend when me granny comes to stay. They never knaw when me da’s in dock, so they don’t take into account that he could sit with me ma.
Gracie hoped this dissuaded Reggie. She liked him well enough, but she didn’t want him tagging along. He was all right most of the time, but she always had to do what he wanted her to, or he’d sulk, and she liked to be free of shackles at times.
As soon as she had the sheets on the line, a task Aunt Massie helped her with, Gracie had grabbed her bonnet and set out for her granny’s. She’d made good time as she hadn’t gone far when the rumbling of the tram could be heard in the distance. When it slowed near to her, Gracie knew Joe Pike, who lived in a cottage a few up from hers would be driving it. He always gave her a free ride into Blackpool.
From a family of eight lads Joe was the only son who hadn’t become a fisherman, instead training to be a tram driver. He’d surprised everyone, as he was what you’d term a penny short of a shilling.
Gracie loved Joe’s simple outlook on life. ‘You going to your granny’s, Gracie?’ Joe always stated the obvious –there would be no other reason for her to go to Blackpool – but she nodded and smiled.
On the tram, she stood in the space left for pushchairs – she daren’t take a seat, for she’d have a few moaning at Joe if she did. The regulars didn’t mind Gracie having a free ride, as long as she knew her place. Though today, being a Tuesday, there were a lot of strangers packing the tram. Holidaymakers loaded with bags of bargains they’d bought from Fleetwood Market, a favourite haunt that brought trippers to Fleetwood.
Gracie watched as the houses seemed to float by, and then the posh Rossall School came into view and disappeared as they entered Cleveleys. Soon she could see the coastline.
The Irish Sea was calm now. Often it was so after a night of storms. Today it looked a lovely blue. Usually it was choppy, grey and murky. Gracie loved Blackpool and a familiar tingle started up in her stomach as they trundled along. Queens Parade, North Shore and the Gynn Inn came into view.
Hotels and boarding houses lined the Promenade, and an ice-cream van stood on a beach dotted with deckchairs. This was the quiet end. Soon they would reach the North Pier and travel the Golden Mile, a part of Blackpool where an aroma of fish and chips and hot doughnuts vied with the smell of the salty sea.
Noise whipped up excitement as music rang out from a mechanical organ. No one played it – a man just fed the organ with cards punched through with a thousand holes. It was like magic! And then there were the penny arcades that shone with bright lights and emitted jingling noises as the handles of the many machines were pulled by a punter hoping for the jackpot. And the stallholders shouted their wares, or called out, ‘A penny a go! Hit a coconut and win a prize!’
Amidst it all, the wonderful Blackpool Tower rose up and stood majestic. Once Gracie’s teacher had shown her a picture of the Eiffel Tower, and as she looked up now, she thought that their tower looked as though it had walked from Paris and plonked itself down on top of a building. Gracie loved it all.
‘Better get off at the next stop, Gracie, I can’t take you any further in case the inspector gets on. Say hello to your granny for me.'
The tram had stopped just past the tower. Gracie thanked Joe as she alighted, and then ran all the way to Central Pier, before taking a breather. Her granny lived a good mile from there and Gracie was already feeling weary. Slowing her pace, she eventually saw South Pier come into view.
Rawcliffe Road, where her granny’s cottage was, jutted off the Prom, almost opposite the pier. As she neared the turning and was about to cross the road, a break in the crowds milling around on the Prom gave her sight of the rock stall.
‘Hey, want to buy some rock? Lovely Blackpool rock!’
Gracie was surprised to see a girl manning the stall. Usually an old man stood on the stall near to the pier selling the sticks of pink and gaily striped rock, which, no matter how many times you broke pieces off it, magically had the name of Blackpool showing through its centre.
The girl had long dark hair tied in bunches that stuck out from each side of her head. These were wrapped with bows of pink ribbon. She wore a bright pink checked dress, covered by a white pinny, of the sort that went over your head and tied under each of your arms.
She smiled at Gracie. ‘Buy some rock, love, me trade’s slow today.’
‘Do I look as though I can afford rock? Eeh, I’d love some, but I’ve nowt to me name.’
‘Here, I have some chippings, you can have them if you like. Sometimes, I have to cut the long sticks as the punters won’t buy them, and I have these bits that I pack into bags. I sell them for a farthing, but you can have them for free. Me name’s Sheila, what’s yourn?’
‘Ta, ever so much. Me name’s Grace. Most folk call me Gracie.’
‘Why ain’t you in school, Gracie?’ Between sucking and chewing the delicious, sticky rock pieces, Gracie told Sheila a bit about her life.
‘Eeh, that’s sad. I’ve just started to run me ma’s rock stall. Me grandda used to do it, but he’s not strong enough now. School let me leave. Well, I ain’t very clever, and anyroad once you have a job, they’re happy to let you go.’
‘But you only look the same age as me – just on thirteen.’
‘I’m thirteen and a half. And once you’re that close to leaving, they can’t wait to get rid of you. I hated school anyroad.’
Gracie smiled. She liked Sheila. She envied her her job, selling the colourful rock, and seeming to be clear of troubles, only worrying if she sold enough to keep her ma going. She learned that Sheila’s ma made the rock in her back kitchen. Her da worked as a clown in the Tower Circus, but only brought in what he could collect in his bucket after his performance.
‘That ain’t never much, despite him being the funniest clown ever. I’ll get tickets for the circus for you if you like. They’re free to me. I go to most evening performances. I’d love to be a clown, but it’s man’s work.’
The thought of going to the Tower Circus thrilled Gracie. ‘Really! Eeh, Sheila, I’d love that.’
‘Well, you come here on the day that you can go to the circus, and I’ll make arrangements to meet you there.’
When she left Sheila, Gracie skipped along, thinking that this was the best day ever. She’d made a friend. And one who would take her to the circus! Dreams did come tr
If only, by the time she got home, her da could say that he had a trip on a trawler, and her ma could feel better, then everything in her world would be wonderful.
Granny was sat on her doorstep. The front door of her terraced house led straight onto the street and stood wide open behind her. As Gracie walked towards her, her granny looked at her, but didn’t seem to register it was her. ‘Granny?’
Still the vacant look. Granny was getting forgetful, and this worried Gracie. A few weeks back, a man had brought her to their door, saying he’d found her wandering and that she’d given their address as the place she was trying to make for. Luckily Da had been out at the pub, and after seeing that her daughter was still there, Granny had let Gracie take her back home. That time, Granny had enough money in her purse for Gracie to pay for them both on the tram, but she’d had to walk back as she couldn’t get Granny to understand that she needed her fare, and she wouldn’t take it from her purse.
For a moment Granny’s vacant look frightened Gracie, but then Granny suddenly smiled and said, ‘Eeh, me Brenda, it’s you. I thought I recognised you. Come here, me darling.’
‘No, it’s me, Granny. Gracie.’ Gracie’s fear deepened. Was her granny losing her marbles? But no. Old people did get forgetful, it was to be expected. Confusion crossed Granny’s face.
‘Yes. Your Brenda’s daughter. Me . . . Gracie.’
‘Eeh, Gracie, me little love. I thought as you were your ma there for a mo. By, you get more like her. Come in, I’ve some lemonade, and no doubt, you need a bite to eat?
Going into her granny’s arms shocked Gracie, as Granny no longer felt plump and squidgy. ‘Are you eating, Granny? You’re losing weight, you feel like a bag of bones.’
Granny laughed at her, showing her one tooth hanging down in the front of her mouth. Her face lit up, giving a hint of the beauty that she must have been. Her hair, still thick, had turned wiry, and was what was termed salt and pepper in colour as her grey didn’t completely cover the red that it had once been. Her eyes shone the same blue as Ma’s and Gracie’s did.
‘Course, I am. I made a stew, and there’s some left for you an’ all.’
When Gracie entered the little kitchen that lay at the back of the house, a smell met her that had her wrinkling her nose. The source was a saucepan on the stove. In it was the remains of a stew that must have stood a week as it had a growth of mould on the top of it. ‘Eeh, Granny, you haven’t been eating that have you? It’s reeking.’
‘I don’t knaw.’ A tear trickled from Granny’s eyes.
The fear that Gracie had banished shot back into her. ‘Are you all right, Granny?’ ‘Aye, I am. I’m just tired. And when I get like this, I don’t know what day it is. I’ll be reet. Eeh, now you’ve mentioned food, me belly’s dropping out.’
‘I’ll clean this up, and then I’ll run along to the chippy, how would that be, eh?’
‘Just the ticket, lass. Just the ticket. I’ll fetch me purse.’
With Granny sat on the step once more with the newspaper containing her fish and
chips on her lap and a trail of vineger running down her chin, she looked her old self again. The food seemed to put her mind back in order too, as she chatted normally and asked after her daughter, and when Gracie thought her da might get a trip on a trawler so that she could come and visit.
Gracie’s concern for her granny lightened. ‘I’ll eat me fish and chips on the way, Granny. Only I can’t leave Aunt Massie too long, she’s good to me, but I don’t want to take advantage. Promise me that you’ll eat regular, Granny. Promise me.’
‘I will, lass. I just forget when I last ate sometimes, that’s all. Here, take enough money from me purse for your fare, you can’t walk all that way, it’ll take you hours.’
Gracie dug out the penny that she’d need. ‘Ta, Granny, I’m grateful for it. Me legs don’t feel as though they’ll carry me to Fleetwood.’
‘Give me a kiss, then, lass, and get on your way.’
‘Wipe your chin first. Ha, you’ll cover me in grease!’ Granny laughed again, and Gracie’s heart warmed with love for her.
Walking along the Prom eating her fish and chips, a good feeling, like she hadn’t known for a long time, came into Gracie. She wouldn’t let her mind visit her worries over her granny, her ma and her da. Life was good at this moment. She was filling her belly with the delicious fish and chips, the breeze was blowing her hair, waves were lapping at the beach and her step was light. Her new friend had called out to her as she’d passed, and she’d shared a couple of chips with her and then had promised that she’d see her soon, before walking on.
She could see the Blackpool Tower ahead as she stopped and leant on the railings and looked out to sea. She’d have to finish her chips before catching a tram as eating food on the tram was forbidden. Clutching the fish that she’d saved till last close to her chest, Gracie kept a wary eye on the seagulls as they swooped above her. Their noise was deafening. They knew there was food in the offing. Well, you ain’t having any of mine, you’ve plenty in the sea, you lazy so and so's.
As she thought this, one of them stretched itself in an elegant dive and plunged into the water, a sight Gracie never grew tired of. For all their noise and their stealing of folk’s food, she admired the huge birds. They went hand-in-glove with all that she’d ever known – the sea, the fishing boats and magical Blackpool.
Paying her fare and taking a seat some ten minutes later, Gracie remembered she’d to collect some flotsam for the fires. She knew that she wouldn’t have a problem doing so: after the roughness of the sea the night before, there’d be plenty of it on the nearest beach to her home, even if others had been out before her. And with the conditions how they were now, surely her da would get a boat to take him on tonight? She hoped so. With all her heart, she hoped so.