St Luke ’ s – September 1988 It drizzled that first September day. Dad nearly missed the turning. Quickly swerving to the left, he accelerated the Jag up a long and surprisingly modern driveway. ‘Tennis courts, this must be it,’ he said, his first words through the hour and fifteen-minute journey. Mum was sitting next to Jo in the back. ‘Looks nice, love,’ she said. Jo’s new boater was still on her knee ‘for safekeeping’. She looked at it doubtfully. What was it for? Mum didn’t seem to know either. ‘Maybe you should put it on now, love,’ she said. The elastic snapping her neck, Jo pulled on the straw hat. It restricted her view, but that didn’t matter; she hadn’t been looking through the windows anyway, just at the back of her dad’s black wavy hair and catching his sad eyes in the mirror. Dad finally pulled up with a deep sigh. The car park was busy, large glossy vehicles lined in neat rows, their boots open. Girls were milling in grey suits or grey coats and grey socks, their hair tied in low bunches.
They reminded Jo of the twins at her primary school whom no one could tell apart. The thought made her tummy turn. Mum patted her knee. ‘Are you ready, love?’ she asked in a wheezy voice. Then Dad opened the door, holding out his rough hand to take hers, which wasn’t like Dad at all. Grown-ups with umbrellas were standing back from their car boots, watching men lug out brown and grey trunks and drop them on trollies with wheels. But Dad lifted Jo’s trunk himself. ‘I think it’s this way, Stan,’ Mum said, pointing to a sign with an arrow saying, ‘Junior House’. Jo wanted to stop and breathe. The leather smell of Dad’s new car had made her feel sick all the long journey, and she’d been too hot in the thick coat, but she hadn’t said anything.
And suddenly they were here; time was going too fast. Dad was striding up a patchwork path, his rolled shirtsleeves showing the tight muscles in his forearms as he carried the trunk towards glossy black doors. Feeling peculiar in her suit and grey belted overcoat, she clutched Mum’s hand. Her stiff shirt collar and tie were almost making her gag. The boater felt funny as well, the elastic too tight beneath her chin, but at least it kept her newly blown hair neat and dry, holding off the wild frizzy mass which sprung up every morning. Mum and Dad stopped. Adjusting her hat, she looked up. Made of dark greenish stone, the building was tall and old, not unlike a spooky Scooby-Doo haunted mansion. A woman with inky hair and a white face was standing at the door. Wearing a lilac jumper and matching cardigan, she was looking down from the top step with closed thin lips and a smile Jo wasn’t sure of.
‘Ah, the Wragg family. Welcome to Junior House,’ she said in a posh, smooth voice. ‘I’m Miss Smyth, Housemistress.’ Her pale eyes rested on Jo and Jo felt them pierce her. ‘You must be Joanna. You’re from Barnsley, in Yorkshire, I believe.’ The woman’s face was thin, nothing like Mrs Brown’s nice, friendly dimples. In fact, she looked remarkably like the wicked housekeeper from an old black-and-white film Jo had watched with Mum only last week. Wondering how on earth the woman knew who they were, she turned to Dad, but his face was tight, his eyes fixed on the trunk. Miss Smyth stood back and wafted an arm inside the building.
‘Come through and see Joanna’s dormitory and then quickly say your goodbyes.’ The woman said it in a sweet voice, but Jo thought it was crispy underneath. Still holding the trunk, Dad lifted his head and opened his mouth, but Miss Smyth interrupted. ‘Thank you, Mr Wragg, but leave it there. The porters will deal with it.’ The boater at an angle, Jo followed, climbing the steps into what Mum would call a ‘busy’ room. An old piano stood at one end, a tall cupboard at the other; one wall had two small windows with orange curtains inside, the opposite was lined with rows of books. They were higgledy-piggledy, she noticed. At least she liked that. ‘These are my rooms,’ Miss Smyth said, gesturing to an opaque glass door on her left.
Then, with her thin smile, she nodded to the hardbacks. ‘This is the library, Joanna. I hear you like reading and we cater for all sorts, I’m sure you’ll find something suitable and spend many enjoyable hours here.’ She peered again at Jo. Her face was all powdery but the talcum didn’t hide the funny lump at the side of her nose. Dad’s hands were in his pockets, surveying the room. Mum briefly took Jo’s and gave it a squeeze. Jo just knew her mum wanted to mention the long list of classics she had already read, albeit the abridged versions, but it didn’t do to brag and Miss Smyth was hurrying them along. ‘This way, please.’ Then, looking back with a sigh, ‘Mr Wragg? This way, please.
Joanna will sleep upstairs. To begin with at least.’ She led them along a musty corridor lined with wellington boots and large hooks. ‘This is where we leave our cloaks,’ she said. She picked one off and spread it out. Jo hoped hers was safely in her trunk. Ben had claimed it for this year’s Halloween. (‘All I need now is a broomstick and a hat!’ he’d said with a suitable cackle.) ‘Joanna? Are you listening?’ Miss Smyth’s gaze was still on her. ‘I was explaining to your parents that we have the plain hoods for Junior House.
’ She leaned forward and showed Jo the hood buttons. She smelled of mothballs and a flowery aroma Jo couldn’t quite place. ‘Do you see? When you go into senior school, you just buy a new coloured hood. Depending on which House you choose.’ Her eyes flicked to Mum, looking apologetic. ‘Unless Joanna grows very tall, of course. But perhaps you could buy second-hand.’ She gave Jo a little shove to the left. ‘Up the stairs, dear, then your mother and father can bid you goodbye.’ Miss Smyth on her heels, Jo climbed the stairs.
‘Here we are, Joanna,’ she said with that smile when they reached the top. ‘Home sweet home.’ Still worrying whether Ben had stolen her cloak, and what would happen if she grew very tall, Jo followed Miss Smyth into a cold and empty bedroom. She turned to her parents who hovered at the door, as though they were waiting for an invitation to come in. The request didn’t come, so Jo stepped out, dread slowly spreading from her chest, down her skinny legs to the tips of her toes. ‘Time for goodbye, dear,’ Miss Smyth said. Dad wrapped her in his thick arms and held her ever so tightly. ‘Bye then, love. Be a brave lass, just like your brothers.’ He began to pull away, but Jo held on, suddenly realising she needed to remember his smell.
Seeming to understand, he reached in his pocket and slipped his folded hanky in her palm. Then Mum handed over the brown bag she’d been carrying, cupped Jo’s face and kissed her cheeks several times. Her eyes were like pebbles just plucked from the river. ‘I’ll write as soon as I’m home, love. It’ll fly by. Just you see.’ Miss Smyth cleared her throat. Jo had forgotten she was there. ‘The next new girl will be due any minute, Mrs Wragg. Let me show you down to the back entrance.
You’ll soon find your way to the car park.’ She gave Jo a small push towards the bedroom. ‘Off you go now, dear. Matron will be along soon.’ Alone in the room, Jo took off her hat, stared at the narrow bed, then rushed back to the landing. But Mum and Dad had gone, down the rickety stairs to the world outside, or to freedom, as she soon came to name it. ‘Hello, I’m Catherine Bayden-Jones, but you can call me Kate. I’m from Barton in the Beans. That’s in Leicestershire and I have two older sisters, Clare and Annabelle who are both in senior school. We each have a pony.
Oh, and Daddy’s much older than Mummy and his hair’s growing thin. He was married before, but she died. Oh, don’t you have strange hair?’ Still wearing her boater, they were Kate’s first words to Jo in the small dormitory. She had arrived before Jo, emerging from the upstairs bathroom with a pink nose and a handkerchief (embroidered with tiny hearts, Jo noticed) not long after Jo’s mum and dad had left. Jo supposed that was how introductions were made and the room fell silent, Jo trying but failing to think of something to say, anything that would remotely match the splendour of Catherine BaydenJones’s name, let alone her words and the way she pronounced them. Kate and Jo had been allocated adjacent lockers in the cramped room, but the other girls hadn’t arrived yet, so they sat dumbly at the end of their beds, their suit jackets still fastened. Kate kicked her (slightly) chubby legs against the thin mattress and Jo glanced around, wondering what they were supposed to do now. (Wait for Matron, Miss Smyth had said, though why they’d need a nurse, she had no idea. St Luke’s was meant to give her ‘the best education’, not teach her how to wrap bandages. Besides, she knew how to do that already.
) Giving a little sniff as she peered, she tried to identify the smell. The pong of old things, she supposed. Which wasn’t surprising. The room was pretty ancient, the white walls like painted sandpaper. Limp brown curtains hung each side of the old-fashioned windows. (Sash, Mrs Brown used to call them, a gentle word which sounded wrong for the monstrosity she now stared at. The prettier ones at her old school were ‘painted shut’. She wondered if these would open; a vague notion of escape already there, despite the horizontal rods at the bottom.) Feeling a shiver, Jo turned to her bed, wondering whether to put the grey overcoat back on. Like the one in her old classroom, there was a yellowing slatted radiator and a thick pipe up the wall, but she doubted they would be almost too hot to touch without gloves.
This room was freezing, colder than outside. And yes, the smell was definitely fusty, nothing remotely like her modern warm bedroom at home. From the alarming stories of boarding-school life told by her brothers in the holidays, Jo had expected military commands from Miss Smyth, but she’d only mentioned Matron. (Jo had the bossy Matron from an old film firmly in her mind. She’d watched it with Dad one Sunday afternoon and he’d chuckled the whole way through.) Were she and Catherine Bayden-Jones allowed to move, to look out of the barred window, let alone explore the garden outside? (Assuming there was one.) And what about their trunks? Could they go astray? Auntie Barbara had travelled to Torremolinos with two suitcases and come back with only one (and a Spanish man with too many teeth). Jo had preferred the suitcase. She eyed up Kate. She was still kicking her heels silently and her slightly upturned nose made her look as posh as she sounded, but she seemed nice.
Her boater had slipped to the back of her head like the hat of a friendly cowboy and there was no doubt in Jo’s mind that she was pretty. She was plump (in a good way), had neat small teeth (not even approaching her tombstones) and dimples (like Mrs Brown – anything like Mrs Brown was a good thing); she had freckles and long golden hair in two plaits. Jo looked down at her own scrawny frame. Her new school shoes were already scuffed (how had that happened? Mum had kept them off until the car), her knee-length socks were gathering at the ankle, and the thin legs protruding were bruised and brown from playing outside all summer. Noticing Kate’s continued glances at her hair, she patted it. It had been cut too short and was waving in all the wrong directions already. She willed it to grow as long and as shiny as Kate’s, preferably overnight. ‘It’s because my mum cut it yesterday,’ she stated, picturing the dark chunks of hair on the kitchen lino. ‘It gets all knotty, so Mum cuts it short.’ Kate leaned forward, her hands on her knees as she inspected the offending tresses at close quarters.
‘How funny!’ she said, suddenly brightening again. ‘Mine gets a little knotty too but Mummy, whose name is Hilary by the way, sprays mine with a conditioner. It’s called “No More Tears” and you squirt it on when it’s wet and it works like magic!’ She nodded, her face pinking with pleasure. ‘I’ve brought some with me. It’s in my trunk. I’ll share it with you if you like.’ It was a defining moment for Joanna Wragg. Not only did Kate look and speak like a princess, she was friendly and kind and she was willing to be her friend. Jo didn’t make close friends particularly easily, but once made, it was a friendship for life and she never let go. ‘What’s in that bag?’ Kate asked politely, her gaze wide with interest.
Jo was surprised her new friend had seen it. Hoping it would be hidden from prying eyes, she had slotted the brown bag between her bed and the wall. It contained the china ornaments she’d selected with her mum’s permission from the glass sideboard at home. She hadn’t been able to decide between the calf and the baby donkey, so her mum had let her bring both. She took a deep breath. Fearful she’d cry, she didn’t want to peel back the crisp new tissue paper, nor look at her special mementoes of home so soon, but she recognised the need to reciprocate the offer of friendship. With great care she unravelled her treasure. ‘Oh!’ Kate said, sitting back with surprise. ‘Aren’t they pretty?’ Then, after a moment, with a small frown. ‘Is that like bringing a teddy?’ Relieved she didn’t have to explain, Jo nodded.
She thought of letting Kate hold one, but large silent tears had spilt from her eyes, so she stood up and sat next to her, reaching over an arm without really touching. The lump which had clogged Jo’s throat since leaving home seemed to expand unbearably but, even at eight years of age, she knew she needed to be strong for her new friend. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll look after you, I promise. My name is Jo, by the way, short for Joanna.’ 2 St Luke ’ s It was a funny money mix at St Luke’s School, established wealth and nouveau riche. ‘Well, it has to start somewhere, Dad. You wanted what was best for me and I’m doing the same for my lot,’ Stan would argue with his father who’d ‘still got coal in my nails. And in my heart,’ and who fiercely objected to giving his grandchildren, ‘bloody airs and graces’. Surprising everyone, Stan had abandoned his job as a butcher and set up his own building business. It took several years to make it a success, but once the cash started to roll in from Wragg’s Construction, he’d insisted on providing his sons with the best education that Godspenny could buy.
It turned out this was best achieved by sending them to boarding school ‘over the border’. Joyce had gone along with it on the surface, but Jo saw the devastation in her mum’s face when her older brothers were sent away to school in their caps, blazers and short trousers. She was there too, the baby of the family, waving from the back seat of her parents’ departing car, watching the boys until they disappeared from sight, but still picturing their tight faces and knowing how desperately hard it had been for them not to cry. She understood her turn would come when she turned eight, but had no idea what a steep learning curve there would be once she was there. Her oldest brother Nigel had talked a lot about his school experiences (always doom and gloom, to put it mildly), and her next brother Ben a little (funny stories, mostly about food fights), but like a million other things in life, one couldn’t know until one had experienced it oneself (she was already getting a handle on saying ‘one’). During the first two weeks at St Luke’s, she had been derided by teachers and pupils alike for her thick Yorkshire accent, for her unusual pronunciation of words and strange use of certain phrases. It didn’t help that her school uniform and clothes were of just slightly inferior quality to those of the other girls (‘Cole Brother’s best, all the way from Sheffield, what’s your problem, lass?’ Granddad said when he heard her complain at half-term), that her hair had been cut short by her mother, or that she had arrived with bruised legs and arms from rough play through the summer. But Joanna Wragg’s worst mistake those few days was to reveal too much of herself, being overly honest about her roots, her home and her family. The description ‘ragamuffin from Barnsley’ was bad enough (Matron, naturally) but peer pressure was worse. The other girls in her form would point, giggle and whisper, ‘Oh my God! Her daddy was a butcher!’ ‘Her uncle works down a mine!’ ‘She keeps her father’s snotty handkerchief under her pillow!’ ‘Look at her dirty legs, I bet she smells too!’ ‘Can you believe that her own mother cuts her hair?’ ‘I can hardly understand a word she says!’ ‘She’s so unbelievably common!’ Common as muck, Jo might have been, but she was tough, she was clever and she knew to adapt.
As young as she was, she understood that if you couldn’t beat them, you joined them; you became one of the twins she’d seen that first day. So in just one short autumn half-term she transformed herself. She learned to speak like the girls from down south, adding an invisible letter ‘r’ after ‘a’, and lifted her nose like they did. (‘Oh, you’ve become very hoity-toity, lass’ – Granddad again.) She no longer called lunch ‘dinner’, nor the sofa a ‘settee’. She ate ‘tea’ at four o’clock and ‘dinner’ at seven. When she was reprimanded by the teachers, she blocked out Mrs Brown’s dimples and gritted her teeth to stop the tears. She brushed her hair ferociously until it grew long enough to tie in bunches and she vowed never, ever to reveal her true self to anyone again. 3 Peak District, present day – thirty years later Jo gazed through the farmhouse window. The sky beyond the open shutters was teal blue, despite the late hour.
All that remained of the food was the smell, peppery and sweet in the warm air. ‘Jo? Hello?’ Kate’s eloquent tones punctured her thoughts. ‘Oops, miles away.’ She shook herself back to Kate’s beautiful kitchen, the timber purlins and exposed chimney-breast; the Georgian oak dresser, monastery table and housekeeper’s larder cupboards. Pristine, polished, tasteful, much like her old friend. ‘Sorry, what were you saying?’ Kate snapped open another bottle of Chablis. ‘I was asking about …’ She lowered her voice theatrically. ‘Men! Any good-looking suitors on the Manchester horizon?’ ‘As if I wouldn’t have told you!’ Shaking her head, Jo snorted. ‘As it happens, I went swimming yesterday and balding overweight middle-aged business types were eyeing me up. Do I have a sign on my forehead saying husband hunting, or do I just look desperate?’ ‘Course not.
It must be pheromones or some vibe showing you’re ready to date.’ Kate raised her pale eyebrows. ‘You never know, Jo, it might even be because they think you’re attractive.’ ‘A thoroughbred who needs to stop being lame and get back in the saddle?’ She laughed. ‘Horse analogy, just for you.’ ‘And duly appreciated.’ Her eyes soft and concerned, Kate gazed for a moment. ‘In all seriousness, Jo, it has been a long while. Don’t you think it’s—’ Surprised by the jolt of heartache, Jo reached for another jest. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind the odd lustful glance, but I’d prefer cute young men with more hair on their pates than their chests.
’ She grimaced at the image. ‘Backs too, now I think of it.’ Kate cocked her head. ‘Come on, Jo, be serious. Maybe it is time.’ She turned to the opening door. ‘Tom, finally! Tell Jo it’s time.’ ‘Time for what?’ ‘To find someone new.’ She flashed Jo a smile. ‘Preferably not a balding and overweight middleaged business type.
’ Tom didn’t reply. Instead he helped himself to a whisky and sat at the far end of the table. Kate wafted her hand. ‘Oh, don’t glower at me, darling. She knows I only want what’s best for her.’ Her voice a little slurry, she grasped Jo’s arm. ‘Ignore him. You know I mean well, don’t you, Jo? I’d hate you to be lonely for ever. Time to catch a handsome man while you’re still young and gorgeous. Well, youngish.
’ ‘Youngish! We’re only in our thirties—’ ‘Nearer forty than thirty, Jo. Almost middle-aged!’ Sitting back, Kate clapped her hands. ‘And wouldn’t it be fun to find you someone stinking rich? What did Hilary always tell us?’ Smiling despite the ridiculous gush of emotion, Jo pictured Kate’s glamorous mother. Her pearls of wisdom were legendary at St Luke’s: ‘You must marry well, girls!’ being one of them. Marry well. Kate had, of course. Tom. Tom Heath, whose steady stare she was trying to ignore. Feeling unaccountably vulnerable, she clinked her friend’s glass. ‘Cheers to that! After all, it was rotten of Richard to desert me without wads of money.
I would’ve suited being wealthy. A different man for every day of the week to see to my needs. You know, a spot of polishing here, a bit of scrubbing there, especially the loo. I hate cleaning toilets.’ Kate topped up her wine. ‘Well, let’s have a plan. If there isn’t anyone fitting the Hilary criteria in Greater Manchester, we must hunt one down! I’m completely out of touch but I suppose it’s the internet these days. Find your perfect match and all that. Sounds fun, Jo!’ ‘Hm …’ ‘Easy-peasy with these new apps, I’m told.’ Jo laughed wryly.
She was pretty knowledgeable about dating apps as it happened, but only from research for a magazine article a few months back. ‘OK. Which should we go for? Zoosk, Elite or Easyflirt? Or how about Coffee Meets Bagel?’ ‘Well, they all sound fabulous. So long as they’re upmarket, of course.’ Kate abruptly addressed Tom. ‘What do you think? Are you still with us, darling? Should Jo try dating apps?’ Jo turned to her friend’s husband, sitting in his usual place. Too broad for the spindled seat, he flexed his shoulders and stretched. He and Kate had plenty of comfortable chairs in their large home, in the conservatory, the lounge and the snug, but they sat around the old bench whenever Jo visited. The tradition had started two years ago – two long and short years ago – after Jo turned up unannounced to say, ‘Richard’s dead.’ His gaze still on her, Tom didn’t smile.
‘I’m still reeling from the shock of being … what was it? A fat, bald, middle-aged businessman,’ he said dryly. Jo touched his arm lightly before pulling away. ‘Tom, you know very well that you’re none of those things, except nearly middle-aged, as Kate has kindly put it, so stop digging for compliments.’ ‘A businessman too,’ Kate pointed out. Her eyes sparkled with pride. ‘My little investment. Aren’t you, darling?’ Inwardly Jo winced. Tom’s jaw had tightened. Though Kate was oblivious, her quip had irked him as usual. He stood up, the shrill scrape of heavy wood a reply.
Turning his back, he topped up his whisky, then uncorked another bottle of red. Kate’s floaty voice pierced the dense lull. ‘You still haven’t said what you think Jo should do about finding herself a new man, Tom. Don’t you have any eligible builders on your books? We could arrange a blind date!’ She raised her empty glass. ‘Let’s toast to someone dishy. Dark and a bit hairy; designer stubble and all that. Your type. Am I right, Jo?’ She laughed. ‘A plasterer! Now that would be useful. Or how about a plumber? Plumbers always come in handy and I expect they would be good with a toilet brush too.
’ His attention on the task, Tom didn’t respond for a few beats. ‘I think Jo should leave it to fate,’ he said eventually. He swivelled to the creaking door. A blonde head appeared, followed by a yellow rabbit. Alice stepped in, rubbing her eyes. ‘I had a bad dream about a dragon blowing fire. Can Mummy sing me a song?’ Kate stood. ‘Of course, my little darling.’ Her knuckles white on the chair, she paused for a moment, then held out her hand. ‘Just a very quick one, then sleep.
Say goodnight to Daddy and Jo.’ Tom kissed his daughter’s wispy hair and Jo lifted her palm. ‘Night night, gorgeous girl.’ Her diction felt heavy with wine. She tried to lighten it. ‘We’re having lots of fun tomorrow, I hope, Alice. Wake me up for a story!’ Kate turned before leaving. ‘Back in five,’ she said brightly. ‘No more gossip allowed until my return!’