by Josephine Howard
The red square money box is shaped like a safe. It even has a secret combination that only Jennifer and Daddy know the number to. Sometimes Jennifer opens it to count the spare pennies inside and finds an IOU. It was probably to pay the coal man or the milk man. She also has a blue Halifax Building Society Savings Book that just fits inside the money box. Now and again Jennifer takes it out to see how the 50 pence and £1.22s have added up. She has had the book since she was seven. What will Jennifer do one day with the £33.24 contained within? Clothes? A car? A house? Well… perhaps a couple of LPs and a ra-ra skirt from Chelsea Girl.
Jennifer gets a bit bored when Daddy goes on about wars: his and his Dad’s. He shows her photographs and tells Jennifer about Roly Briggs from Bradford, or Tommy Thomas from Toxteth, or any number of men whose faces on blurred sepia images mean nothing to her. Then one day Jennifer is at her auntie’s house, minding the baby, when she says all Dad talks about is wars.
‘How are old are you?’ Jennifer’s Uncle Richard asks.
‘Fourteen.’ He knows that. Why is he asking?
‘How old was your Dad in 1939?’
‘What year was he born?’ Jennifer knows Daddy’s birthday, she looks forward to it every year, buying him a “my special Daddy” card from Woolworths, writing an “ I love you” note inside, and wrapping up a bottle of Old Spice aftershave or a set of maps for the car glove box.
‘Right. You’re doing maths at school. How much older than you are now was he?’
‘Yeah, but I’ve got Miss Ogden and she’s rubbish. Dead nice, but doesn’t actually teach us maths.’ Still, inside Jennifer’s head she counts from 21 to 39.
‘Four years,’ uncle Richard doesn’t have to say any more. Jennifer gets it now. How important is this growing up wrapped up with self interest? Who’s to say it was no different for Daddy? He’ll have been self-absorbed too. But he, and his Dad before him, probably used that self-absorption in another way.
In the back room, above Snowy the Budgie’s cage is the cupboard where Jennifer keeps her red money box and Halifax Building Society Savings Book. The others are settled down in the front room to watch Antiques Roadshow. There’s a handful of change in the money box, Jennifer counts out 43p. There’s one IOU for £1.50. It says it was to pay for the papers. Jennifer reaches up to the top shelf. That’s were Daddy keeps the large heavy frame that holds his, and his Dad’s, medals. She remembers him telling her his Mum had them mounted when he was demobbed. Jennifer doesn’t know what being demobbed is, but knows it was pretty special to his Mum to get it done. She didn’t know her. Jennifer’s middle name, Mary, is for her. Jennifer was born seven months after she died. One out, one in? Now and again, despite her boredom of war stories, she takes the medals out of the frame and polishes them with Brasso and a yellow cloth. There’s five of Daddy’s on the bottom row, and three of his Dad’s above, both sets of medals attached to stripy coloured ribbons, and fastened to faded red fabric. The frame is inside a Co-op carrier bag. Jennifer lifts it out and carries it in to the kitchen. The cupboard under the sink is where the Brasso is and yellow cloths are.
Back in the front room everyone is settled, glass in hand and talking about a painting that just looks like some horses by a river, and found in an attic in Suffolk.
‘Bet it’s Constable!’
‘Well, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs, I bet you’re right!’
Jennifer settles cross-legged on the floor: the carrier bag, the Brasso and the yellow cloth before her.
She opens the carrier bag and pulls out the frame. At the same time as she sees three medals from the top row are missing Daddy takes in a sharp breath. The room kind of goes quiet as though even Arthur Negus is watching.
‘Where are they?’ Jennifer twists round to face Daddy, holding up the frame toward him.
‘Bob?’ someone says.
‘Bob?’ someone else says.
It seems like a very long time before he says, ‘I sold them.’
‘How much did you get Bob?’ someone asks.
‘Thirty pound.’ His head is down, hands trembling. Jennifer only ever saw Daddy tremble like that when Mummy died.
Jennifer stands up. The five remaining medals still in the mount, a glaring space where three medals from another Bob that she never knew, once where. She fetches the red money box. The Halifax Building Society Book is there. Inside, £33.24 glares like faded regret.
Josephine Howard lives close enough to the shore to hear the seagulls and smell the sea.