My Girl Guide uniform was the business: a tunic, peacock blue, and a short navy skirt. The hat was navy too, like the ones air hostesses on TV wore. The tunic had front pockets stuffed with string, a mini compass, a notebook, a short pencil and some coins. Mrs Large, our Leader, always beamed at my collection of items and said I was well prepared, just as Baden Powell wanted us to be. I’d only been a member of the troop for eight weeks when she made me Patrol Leader of the Thrushes. There had to be some payoff for the weekly trudge down the ‘Ferry Road straight after tea. When you finish Brownies, then you go to Guides. You do your duty to God and the Queen, promise to help other people and keep the Guide law. Nothing wrong with that. But why the need to double up the God duty by going to church every Sunday as well? Was He really that important?
After my promotion, I’d rushed home and looted Mum’s sewing box.
“You can’t expect to set an example with a wonky badge,” Mum said, unpicking it and sewing it on straight. The tunic was over my head, my arms in the sleeves even before I’d reached the top of the stairs. Side-on in the bedroom mirror I silently acknowledged the glances of admiration I’d get at the next meeting from the tiny speckle-breasted bird perched on my sleeve.
A gravel path at the back of the church led to the hall where the Guides met at 6.30 p.m. every Tuesday. Beyond the entrance, past the kitchen and toilet, the main room had an oily-smelling wood floor and magnolia painted walls, with chairs and folding trestle tables stacked untidily in one corner. Ivy and brambles from the overgrown garden snaked around the four sash windows.
Early summer evenings I didn’t need a coat for the half hour walk. The traffic, heading for Chester and the motorways or the North Wales coast, was often backed up; car horns tooting, men hanging out of cars shouting. I’d look over my shoulder to see what the commotion was, but mostly there was no-one around. They were tooting and shouting at me. Twelve years old and five feet eight. Lanky legs to the greasy-haired boys in middle school who yelled it to upset me. The ‘Ferry Road men had the opposite effect: I stood taller, head skywards. They could yell all they wanted.
One evening Eric Lomax approached from the opposite direction in his open neck shirt and jeans. He was older than me and went to a different school. Some people thought his family were travellers because he had lots of brothers. He was the image of Eric from the Bay City Rollers: hair, eyes and skin, smooth and brown in shades of butter and caramel. When our paths crossed, he asked the time.
“Twenty-past six,” I said, and sidestepped away, but he grabbed me and pulled me close.
“Give’s a kiss,” he said, his breath hot in my ear.
I pushed him off and told him to get lost. I ran all the way to the church hall with fire in my body. Angela gasped at the news and asked me why I hadn’t let him kiss me.
“I don’t know,” I said, my insides spinning like candyfloss.
Mrs Large was tall with tight curly hair which bounced when she walked. One evening we were playing horse and jockey when there was a pounding at the windows. Three lads were gawping at us and laughing.
“Ignore them,” Mrs Large said. “They’re only jealous.”
When they banged harder, the jockeys jumped down and stood beside the horses in a tightly-packed circle. The lads laughed even harder, now they’d ruined the game. Mrs Large marched outside. The boys disappeared from the window. What a relief. Someone even neighed like a horse. Definitely not me. Nice work, Mrs Large. God must have owed her one.
Minutes later her curls sprang through the door. Three blonde mops trailed after her. Before we’d had time to recover from the shock, we were shaking their hands. I grinned at Joe, the tallest, noticing the ridges of dirt in his fingernails and at the end of his shirt cuffs. I wished I wasn’t so shiny and polished. Mrs Large welcomed them as if into her own home.
We played tag and worse, more horse and jockey. She asked for volunteers to pair up with the lads. I’d have died from the shame, but I knew I’d be a horse because of my height. In the practice game, Susan, Jane and Angela barged around the circle, sprang between the lads’ legs and onto their backs, as if they’d been waiting for this moment their whole lives. The lads staggered back with the impact and Tim even dropped Susan, but once they understood the last jockey to mount meant the pair was out, the competition ignited. The hollers and shrieks as the jockeys raced for first place got so loud, I felt dizzy. When Heather jumped onto my back, my hands were too sweaty to hold her, and she slid into defeat.
After several games, Mrs Large announced it was time to close the meeting. We stood there open-mouthed and panting, staring like we’d seen each other’s secrets. The boys lowered their heads and mumbled a thank you to Mrs Large on their way out. I willed Joe to look at me, but with eleven pairs of eyes on him, it wasn’t an option.
“Come back soon,” she said, but they never did.
I inwardly pledged to do extra duties to God and the Queen for the next four meetings, if only they would reappear. Total waste of effort.
Mrs Large was married to a farmer. Her son William looked after the dairy. We camped overnight on the farm in a big cream-coloured bell tent. Our sleeping bags were laid out on plastic groundsheets around the central pole like spokes in a wheel. The latrine was on the edge of the field inside its own little tent. We had to sit on a mop bucket a third full of oily liquid. It stank of horrible chemicals. The smell constipated me, but I didn’t want anyone seeing my business. Except God, but I knew he could take it or leave it.
Once it got dark, we snuggled into our sleeping bags and shone our torches against the sides of the tent to make witches and old men. Susan, who was next to me, told a ghost story. When she pointed to the headless nun behind the pole, my heart flew into my mouth, but I managed to cough as though I had something in my throat. We’d filled an empty Quality Street tin with Curly Wurlies and Toffee Crisps for our midnight feast. Anna, whose family ran the Post Office, had brought a Caramac, which nobody wanted, but I ate it and swapped her a Toffee Crisp to be friendly. She told us she was hoping to become a Queen’s Guide and would be climbing Snowdon and leading a nature project as part of her sixty hours’ training.
“I’ve been made Patrol Leader of the Thrushes because of my leadership qualities,” I said.
“How wonderful,” she said, and I was a nice person to go camping with, too.
By one a.m. the tin was empty, and we switched off our torches. The urge to pee became painful. Nothing for it, but to clamber out of the sleeping bag into my tennis shoes and out through the tent flap. Three stars shone silver like pinheads in the pitch black. Without my torch I couldn’t see the latrine, so I peed behind the tent.
“What’s that tinkling?” someone shouted. “Must be the headless nun outside the tent!”
I panicked and tripped over a guy rope into a patch of nettles. I winced but didn’t cry. Sorry, God, definitely the latrine next time.
The next morning the air in the tent was damp and muggy. My hand slid out of the sleeping bag along the moisture on the plastic sheet. Anna said it was condensation. Touching it sent signals to my bladder. This time I didn’t wait for the pain, but sprang outside, almost colliding with a massive face. I stared at its coal-black eyes, long lashes and ebony skin.
“Well, hello,” I said, wanting to be friendly. It nudged me so hard I fell backwards. I screamed, “The cow’s coming into the tent!”
Everyone screamed. Mrs Large came running.
“Lottie’s more afraid of you,” she said, her curls dancing. She noticed I was dressed. “Oh good, Helena, you’re up first. You can get two pints of milk from the dairy.”
Milk from the dairy. Oh, my days. That meant speaking to Mrs Large’s son, William. He’d helped put the bell tent up. He was taller than Mrs Large and strong. He had curly hair, too, but blonder. I didn’t know how old he was. Seventeen, eighteen? I knew where the dairy was as we’d passed it on the way. It took seconds to run there and duck through the doorway. Lots of stainless-steel surfaces and the smell of milk. But it was empty. Maybe this wasn’t the place Mrs Large meant? Where was it, then? I was about to leave when he appeared through the plastic curtain which separated the dairy from the shed.
“Sorry, just finishing the milking,” he said.
His face was tanned, and his arm muscles bulged from his t-shirt. I gulped. He smiled.
“Want some milk, then?”
“Two pints, if that’s ok. We need it for breakfast.” Why did I say that? How stupid.
He chuckled. “Breakfast? You’ve had a nice lie-in.”
He returned with a plastic container and set it down on the counter. His eyes watched my hands shake so much I nearly dropped the container, but when I looked at him, he smiled: a beautiful, friendly smile. I bolted out the doorway.
“Thanks William,” I shouted, once I was half-way across the field.
Mrs Large was handing out bowls of cornflakes. “How’s William?” she asked.
“He’s fine,” I said, “just finished the milking.”
Susan’s face went so red I wondered whether milking meant something I didn’t know about.
“He’s a good lad,” Mrs Large said. “Handsome though, don’t you think?”
The heat climbed up my neck, so I pulled my socks up. After breakfast we learnt how to gather dry branches and twigs for kindling. We found a pile of old bricks by the gate and the logs William had sawn ready for the fire.
“He likes a bacon sandwich, does William,” Mrs Large said.
We’d each brought an egg, two sausages and a rasher of bacon. Mrs Large had extras and tomato ketchup, thick-sliced white bread, and butter.
“Well, will you look at that,” Mrs Large said. “A Fray Bentos frying pan. Ingenious.”
The bottom half of a Fray Bentos pie tin attached to a handle made from a wire coat hanger.
“My dad did it,” I said, tossing my hair back.
The others stared open-mouthed as I put it to the test over the open fire. I poured in a glug of cooking oil in and watched the bacon and sausage sizzle. The fried egg didn’t stick either. I carefully lifted everything out.
“You may as well tuck in before it gets cold, Helena,” said Mrs Large.
My Dad’s good deed and I get the reward. Must have been the Caramac swap. With the others watching enviously, I helped myself to two slices of bread, smearing one side with ketchup and fashioned a sausage butty to go with my eggs and bacon.
It was up there with a roast dinner.
“It's eating outdoors,” Mrs Large said, “everything tastes better.”
I had to agree.
She produced her own massive frying pan for everyone else’s breakfast. I let her use my Fray Bentos pan too. She placed it at the edge of the fire to keep the cooked sausage and bacon warm. I imagined William’s mouth moving around a bacon sandwich, enjoying every mouthful.
“I’m going to ask my dad to make me a pan like that when I get home,” said Angela.
Anna said it was absolutely marvellous; her father would never have thought of that. I blushed with happiness at the frying pan, at the food, at speaking to William, all mixed up in my mind. Susan clapped her hands and said how lucky I was to have a dad like that. I wondered whether I believed her or not. That a dad who made me a Fray Bentos frying pan was a good dad.
We went camping to Deganwy near Conwy with other Guides from Wrexham and Connah’s Quay. Four nights away from home. Who could believe it? Our parents drove us miles along the coast, much further than Rhyl where we’d go on holiday. The vicar from All Saints Church welcomed us, said we were a credit to our mothers and fathers. That set most of the Guides off, except me and Angela. There was so much to do, I had no time to get upset. All the leaders lent a hand putting up the big bell tent. I fought my way inside to hold the centre pole steady whilst the others secured the guy ropes. My arms felt like they were about to break. Our tent was the biggest and sat right in the middle surrounded by seven or eight smaller ones. It made us feel important, like Native American leaders. When I looked inside one of the other tents, I was surprised to see an integrated groundsheet. It must have been the reason the Guides from Wrexham had sniggered when they visited our tent. I told them we’d been specially chosen for our wild camping abilities. That shut them up.
The latrine tent was at the side of the field. It had twelve mop buckets cordoned off from each other with canvas sheets, laid out like a draughts board. Whenever I went in, I tip-toed through the sheets towards the far corner. I couldn’t poo the whole five days, even with God’s blessing.
We put up a pantry, a first-aid tent and there was even a tuckshop. A proper shop set up on a trestle table with all the chocolate bars you could want and a money tin, opened with a key. Susan and I were first in charge. We stole from the tin and used it to buy chocolate when new Guides took over as shopkeepers.
Same as we stole from souvenir shops in Conwy. No-one expected girl Guides in uniform to steal. Shopkeepers loved us, beamed whenever they saw us, our faces shining with God-given goodness. That made it easier to filch anything that could fit into our tunic pockets: tiny plastic aquariums you shook like a snow globe, Conwy castle keyrings and stickers. At the till in one shop, I opened one of the pockets to get my purse to pay for a handkerchief for Mum. The shopkeeper saw the aquarium and his face went purple. I smiled at him, cool as anything. I was about to empty my pockets and pay for all the things I’d stolen, but he didn’t say anything. So, I just paid for the handkerchief and left. I expected hell and damnation, to trip over and break both legs, catch pneumonia, at least to tread in a cow pat. But nothing. He must have seen my behaviour, but obviously didn’t care. In that case, why should I? What could he do anyway? He was just God.
Half-way through the week parents could visit. My dad appeared with Uncle David. I showed them around the campsite, and they laughed when they saw the inside of the bell tent.
“Put hairs on your chest,” said Uncle David.
We served them tea and Victoria sponge cake the vicar’s wife had made. As usual, I didn’t say much to Dad. At the end of the visit Dad patted my head and Uncle David gave me a hug. One Guide begged her dad to take her home and four didn’t stop crying until they’d eaten a second slice of cake. Linda even ran away the next morning. The vicar spotted her on the path alongside the church. She told him she was going to the shop to buy bread, but instead took the train all the way back to Shotton. She left all her clothes and toilet bag behind. Mrs Large told us her behaviour was very upsetting because it was dangerous to travel all that way alone, and she had lied to a man of God.
Five days flew by. We sang “Kum Ba Yah” and “If I had a Hammer”. We danced jigs and learnt woodcraft. One afternoon, there was a storm and a few of us raced to the top of the hill to watch the heavens open from beneath a huge oak tree. Despite our plastic macs, the rain seeped up our sleeves and through our trousers. Angela leapt from the shelter of the tree and started twirling faster and faster with her hood down, her hair whipping her face as the wind howled around her. She could have been Jayne Eyre or Cathy; except she was shrieking with laughter.
“Come on,” she shouted, “it’s ace!”
So, the rest of us darted out until there we were, six girls spinning like tops on the hillside. The rain mingled with the heat of my body, and I felt the sky close in on me, like it wanted to scoop me off the hill and take me into the clouds. I dared God to do it, right there and then. In return, I’d promise not to steal, ever again. Of course, he didn’t lift a finger. I bet he couldn’t. For Almighty God he was a bit of a let-down.
Hazel lives in London and is a university adviser. After years in the creative wilderness, she’s doing a part-time Creative Writing MA and, second time around, is really enjoying being a student. Her memoir pieces have been published in Write-London 2017 Vol. 2 and the Our Stories to Tell anthology.