Mrs Dench lived over the back of us. Her husband was a tall upright misery of a man who always wore a brown suit with a waistcoat, thick horn-rimmed glasses, had a moustache and wore a hat. He strode rather than walked being rather tall.
Our house was on the end of the council terraced block next to the alleyway into the parallel roads on Coldfall Estate. In those days, the alleys were short-cuts without strewn mattresses and piping or trip -wires put in place by malicious youth. Everyone used them without fear. Schoolchildren walked safely along backs of long gardens and houses. It was the early 1960s. The Kinks lived up the road. As Mr Dench passed up the alley every night around eleven he would have heard clearly my parents as they swung punches, shouted and threw dad’s hair-brushes at each other. I heard everything. My sister and I would whisper between bunks and ask each other whose side we were on. If we were bored and intrigued by the nightly quarrels it was certain that Mr Dench took in some interest. I remember feeling embarassed that the night walker knew my family’s sordid business.
Mrs Dench was squat and ugly. She had a swarthy complexion and a mass, a triangular shape, of black and grey frizzy hair. Even then I suspected that she were foreign, and what was called half-caste in those days. I remember she never looked at anyone when she spoke; her eyes would be elsewhere, out into the distance or down at her shoes. She used to come in to mum’s when dad was at work with a bundle of shoes from”the lady up the road” who “only wanted a few pence for them”. Once my mother, in our front room with Mrs Dench, put a pair of shoes on the table-cloth on the table. Mrs Dench, quite agitated said my mother should remove the shoes from the table because it was bad luck. Then she calmed down and noticed the shoes were used. “Oh, it’s only bad luck if the shoes are new”. She was the teacher here, looking much older than my mother. They were two women doing business. It was women’s business: My mother told my sister and I not to mention the shoes to our father. We never did. The business of the shoes was not of any consequence to our lives. I don’t even know if my mother were the seller or the buyer or both. I do know that she had conversations with her back neighbour. Mrs Dench was always in her blue mack and my mother always had on her thin blue cardigan adorned with two nappy pins or safety pins and wore a clean but tatty apron with its frayed blue piping. The hem of her dress was always just above her yellow knees. She had thrombosed varicose veins pumping out from her fat legs, caused possibly by six confinements and more to come.
The children were on school holidays; one week before Christmas and one after. I was in the front room with my mother who had just come from the kitchen. There was a knock at the door and my mother opened it and let in Mrs Dench directly to the front room. The front room was never the reserved room for Sunday dinner or special family visitors. It was a dining room, a homework room when we grew older, dad’s stenographing room, the ironing room and my sister’s courting room when Charley came to call. It had a table always covered with a white table-cloth and benches for we children to use during meal-times.
Mrs Dench was quite breathless and my mother was looking decidedly hostile, She never greeted anyone with a smile. I decided that she was not expecting any shoe or clothing business at that time so was taken off guard. I never knew. Mrs Dench never looked at me. She put her closed fist on the table and leant into it, her full Christmas Post bag on her back. She spoke to the table-cloth.
“Oh Mrs P. Have you got a crust of bread I could have?” There was no ‘ please’. My mother was taken aback. She went to the kitchen. I heard her pull down the cabinet flap. She returned and passed to Mrs Dench the crust from a sliced loaf. I was shocked that my mother showed little compassion and actually gave a crust rather than a buttered piece of bread which would have been more polite or expected at least. I saw my mother’s nastiness and meanness. I also knew that my mother cared only for her family and that giving away a crust meant less food for her brood. I had realised then that the relationship between Mrs Dench and my mother was of no value. It was true that my mother didn’t have any friends and seemingly had no need for them either. Her family was all. The shoes were only worth bothering with because they might have been useful for her children. I was embarassed for Mrs Dench becuase she had to beg for bread in front of me, a child, and I took on her embarassment because she was a married woman with a husband in a smart three piece suit and she was starving. She had released the news that her husband was not providing for her.
Years later I learnt form my mother and my sister that Mr Dench beat his wife mercilessly throughout their miserable marriage.