Friday, 5 October 2012

158: The Secret History

Dan’s father was running the smash-a-plate stall at the school May Fayre.  Three balls for 50p got you the chance to smash as much china as you could, plates and dishes balanced against the shelves of a tatty dresser.  The canteen provided a number of chipped lunch plates, parents raided their crockery cupboards and he topped it up with a large box of assorted saucers and ceramics from a car boot sale.  The pottery casualties lay strewn on the floor with the largest pieces replaced to be smashed smaller with another 50p’s fun.

Dan helped restock the shelves between customers and in the box he noticed a small porcelain side plate with dainty bluebells painted around the edge.  He lifted it out and ran his finger across the raised pattern of hand-finished flowers.  The brushwork was so fine he could see individual hair strokes and precise veins on the leaves.  The porcelain had a translucent glow in the late spring sunshine.  The plate looked very old, like it should have been part of a tea set used for high tea at a country hotel.

Dan’s father hurried him along, pulling plates out of the stock by the handful.  He had a queue waiting and almost bare shelves.  Then he took the bluebell plate from Dan’s hands and filled the last gap on the dresser.  Billy Jenkins handed over £1 for six balls which he threw as hard as he could at the plates.  Dan’s little bluebell plate fractured into thirds with the first ball, each third into smaller pieces with the next and once all six balls had been thrown barely any complete bluebells remained at all.

Marcia was clearing her estranged mother Bessie’s house and the task was endless.  After 93 years of living in the same house, Bessie had amassed so much junk.  The charity shops probably wouldn’t want much of it.  The clothes smelt musty and weren’t even nice enough to be termed ‘out of fashion’.  She had owned three books, two of which were bibles.  There was a lot of knitting so maybe someone could make blankets for Africa or something with the wool.  Marcia stuffed anything soft into black bin liners, loaded up her car and dropped a bag on the doorstep of every charity shop she could think of.  The furniture she sold as a job lot for £300 to a company who told her it would cost them more to take it away than they’d make on the deal.  In the back of a kitchen cupboard she found Bessie’s old crockery, including a little plate with blue flowers painted on, that she remembered her Gran using for Sunday tea and cake.  The china, cutlery and bric-a-brac she loaded into cardboard boxes and headed to the Sunday car boot market.

Bessie was the eldest of 7 children and was expected to help her mother raise her younger brothers and sisters.  When they were old enough, the boys were expected to follow their father down the mine.  The girls kept the house clean and waited to grow up, marry and start families of pit workers of their own.  Bessie was stepping out with Ted and they hoped to wed in the spring.  Her mother was helping her with a bottom drawer but money was tight and there wasn’t much that could be spared. 

For Bessie’s 17th birthday, she had linen and useful things from everyone, but her mother gave her a small box wrapped in brown paper, with the instruction to open it when she was alone.  Inside was a teacup and saucer, crafted porcelain and beautifully hand-painted with tiny bluebells.  Alongside was a scribbled note.  “Dear Bessie I’m not one for being sentimental but I’d like you to have this cup and saucer for your new life.  Take great care of it, it was made by my grandmother and it’s my most precious possession.  She worked in the china factory and was so good at painting that they paid her to paint little flowers on teasets.  This is one she bought with her own money because they weren’t allowed to keep any of their own work.  Soon after she left work to get married and only a few years later she died birthday my great uncle Bert.  Love Mother xx”


  1. The stories things carry -- beautifully told Katharine.