The whistle blew in the factory just as Noni had lathered the slipper sole liberally with glue. Her hand hovered as she contemplated just putting it down and not completing the menial task but years of training forced her to apply it to the slipper and sending it off for pressing.
She took off her work pinny and replaced it with her basic pale blue cardigan, a woman of no-frills or fusses, Noni had worn the same kind of clothes all her life. She had one good pair of black low heeled shoes for weddings, funerals and services on Sunday, the rest of the time found her in the slippers she worked on, the ones that didn’t pass through the searing eyes of Mrs Quintet, the supervisor. She would in the old days have been the foreman but new words had to found when they allowed women to take on roles above their previous station.
Hosiery for Noni meant full tights with a cotton gusset, her cousins in Romchester worked at the hose factory and she received a parcel of offcuts once a year at Christmas. The family looked after their own was the byline of all the families in this northern town with its stone walls and stone employers. There was never enough money for wage increases and yet the gas and electric kept going up and the price of flour was shocking.
Her wardrobe contained three skirts, a black one for funerals, a navy blue one for formal occasions and the grey A-line skirt for everyday use. She would never wear trousers and the mere thought of denim jeans brought a flush to her cheeks.
Jeans were not the only thing to make Noni blush, she was shy, painfully so, unable to join in the crude banter of the married women around her and too old to join in with the young single ones that she found brash and vulgar with their lipstick and chewing gum. They drank in the bars like men and Noni just couldn’t bring herself to join any of their conversations. It was a different world to the one she was brought up in.
This evening though, as that whistle blew, it was Noni’s last day, last slipper, last time with these women she knew nothing about. There were a few sandwiches and tea put on by the bosses and all the women wished her well. Mrs Quintet presented her with flowers and a photo was taken. When Mr Hogarth came into the room, the chatter ceased and he gave a short speech, commending Noni on her work ethic and longevity. When he got to the point where he said, “Miss Brewster has been with us forty-six years….,” the women whistled behind her. She had a good twenty years on any of them. She worked with their mothers and aunts and had seen many come and go.
She straightened down her plain, cream blouse, and managed a quick thank you before scurrying out. In the locker room she retrieved her purse and flattened down her hair, forever it wanted to kick up a fuss but she pushed it down at every opportunity to the tidy grey bob she kept now.
She wondered if anyone knew her plans, whether they were trying to work out what she was going to do as they finished off the egg and cress sandwiches or did they just go back to berating their children and husbands as they did each workday. For them it was back to work on Monday, for Noni it was the beginning.
The suitcase was ready at the door and she dropped the keys off at McGinley’s on the corner with instructions to pass them on to the estate agents on Monday. The house was being compulsorily purchased by the council for the new road. She was the last to leave, Billy Grimshaw, was the same as when they were in Miss Pickles’ junior class. Just as cheeky and full of life. She didn’t know what came over her as she poured out her plans to him over tea, that Saturday months ago. Afterwards, she thought perhaps it was because he knew her as a child before, well before she went to work in the mill. Billy was in charge of the row of terraced houses the council needed, it was his job to help the residents find a different place to live but because he knew Noni’s plans he let her stay two months longer than the others.
He also took to visiting on a Saturday afternoon for tea with one or more of his grandkids in tow. Lovely children, full of chatter and curiosity, just like Billy had been. They remembered together: the old Junior School, long since torn down and they teased his grandkids with tales of birch switches and Miss Pickles’ world-famous temper. Back then kids took it on the chin and just got on with it, nowadays parents were up and down to the new school complaining about this and that.
Noni was at the bus stop waiting for the bus to Manchester, she was early. There was a young couple in the first few baby steps of a relationship sitting next to her having a stilted conversation, probably the first or second date she thought. A loud banging stopped her daydreams as the whole Grimshaw clan, even Katie Clark as Noni thought of her, Billy wife. The children were there, all seven of them and each had at least one babe in arms and a toddler or young child at their feet. Then came their spouses, Billy was very proud that all his children married and none were living over the brush. Following them were a rag tale band of onlookers wondering what all the noise was about. The noise Noni saw immediately were Billy’s eldest’s children, twins Rachel and Teresa, seven years old and full of mischievous bangs and scrapes. They had two dustbin lids each and impromptu cymbals were made. Billy’s doing, she thought.
Billy hushed the crowd just as the bus was pulling in and shouted at the top of his lungs “Noni Brewster, go get ’em, and send us a postcard when you get where you’re going!”
The first postcard arrived to the Grimshaw home two weeks later. I picture of the beach in Nice on the front, on the back, in the small script she had learned as a child, she brought them into France with her, the markets, the style, the people and at the end telling them she was moving on after having her hair styled.
Billy sat and stared as Katie put her large flapping arms around him. “She was always different, Bill, but I never in a million years thought she’d have the guts for this.”
“Ee, lass, come here. You never knew her at Junior’s, she were just like us all till that last year. It broke a lot of lasses, did that one, Noni survived and now let’s watch her go. It isn’t for us, we’re as content as two love doves, but her, she needs to, what do they say nowadays, she needs to find herself. Beneath that eggshell is a beautiful chick, she just has to get at it.”
“You’re a right soft lumpeth and no mistake, Billy Grimshaw.”
Just as the nights were drawing in and the smell of coal fires filled the streets the next postcard was waiting on the table next to his dinner when Billy got home. “She is after getting to Prague, Bill.” Katie shouted from the larder.
He read the postcard slowly as he chewed on the braised steak and onions. She seems lighter in tone he thought. She needed to, she was like tightly coiled spring taking on the tension of the world. He was surprised on their re-acquaintance that she was still chapel going. He had long since given up, so long ago he wasn’t sure if Katie’s kin had ever gone. He had five more years to work before he could make a plan, it wouldn’t be anything like Noni’s. Maybe a small bungalow at Southport for all the clan to assemble, or there was a cottage in the folds of the hills a couple of miles away. Close enough for family but far enough away for unwanted neighbours. As if bringing them onto himself, Sally and John from next door started a slanging match. From the sounds, he could tell one was up and one was down. He thought about Katie, never had a cross word passed her lips until that Saturday he called on Noni. When she had calmed down he stirred up the mud again by insisting on going again. “You’ll take at least one of the small ones with you, if you do, I am not entering my sixties with an affairing husband, I am not!”
So that was the deal, he could visit with Noni but only if one of the grandkids went too. They loved the trips to Noni’s and being with Granddad so they were pleasant trips. Billy skirted around that last year in school but Noni either didn’t or couldn’t remember and he didn’t want to push it.