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I Only Came For The Music: 2 - Born On A Sunday

...One day a small boy called Johnny Screawn, who I am quite certain had never spoken to me before, gave me a blue, knitted purse. He told me that he had asked his big sister to make it especially for me. The purse was a lovely surprise and I thought perhaps I was special.

Miss Craig, my teacher, seeing it on my desk, picked it up. "That's a pretty purse, Betty. Did your mother make it?"

When I said Johnny had given it to me she gave me an amused look, then smiling she showed it to the rest of the class. At playtime I was surrounded by children admiring my purse. That was to be my undoing...

Betty McKay, with irresistible narrative verve, continues her life story. Further chapters will appear Sunday by Sunday in Open Writing.

When I was four Joan started work at the Co-op Print Works, which was where Eve, my eldest sister already worked. My father took me for long rides, perched on a cushion on the crossbar of his bike. Everybody kept telling me: "It'll be school for you soon."

But before I could go to school I became ill. I had some form of fever. For three days and nights I lay tossing and turning, with a high temperature. I was delirious and had strange and terrifying dreams about people and animals with terrible, twisted faces. It was a form of virus - only people didn't talk about viruses then.

Instead my mother dosed me with quinine, because doctors cost money in those days. On the fourth morning my fever broke and, feeling better, I opened my eyes. Beside my bed sat Joan. Her eyes were red and her cheeks tear-stained. I sat up: "Joan, why are you crying?"

She came and sat on the bed and gave me a hug. "I've been crying for you, you little dope. I was worried you wouldn't get better."

She put her arms around me and gave me a cuddle. Then she told me that she had watched over me, while I had tossed and turned. She had bathed my fevered brow and read aloud to me until I recovered. We talked for a little while, then she walked out of the bedroom and I heard her call down the stairs: "She's better. It's alright she's not going to die."

She never said it but inside me I had a warm, happy feeling that told me Joan loved me.

'The child that is born on the Sabbath day is bonny and blythe and good and gay.'

My mother taught me that saying when I was four years old, and I thought I was special because she told me that I was born on a Sunday. I carried on thinking I was special until I went to school and discovered that all the children there thought they were special too, whatever day of the week they were born on. Because I was an early reader I enjoyed learning and liked school very much.

One day a small boy called Johnny Screawn, who I am quite certain had never spoken to me before, gave me a blue, knitted purse. He told me that he had asked his big sister to make it especially for me. The purse was a lovely surprise and I thought perhaps I was special.

Miss Craig, my teacher, seeing it on my desk, picked it up. "That's a pretty purse, Betty. Did your mother make it?"

When I said Johnny had given it to me she gave me an amused look, then smiling she showed it to the rest of the class. At playtime I was surrounded by children admiring my purse. That was to be my undoing.

On the way home two girls came alongside me and suggested that we walk home together. I knew them both by sight, although they weren't in my form. They were older than me. Edith Bamber was physically handicapped; she was what was then called a hunchback, and Joyce Whittle was a tall, thin, fair-haired girl. They were always together.

When we got away from the school they pushed me down an alleyway, and proceeded to hit me. Then they demanded the blue purse, which I gave to them and they went away. I didn't cry. I'd given them the purse and I thought that would be the end of the affair. Alas, it wasn't. That was just the beginning. I didn't think of telling my mother. I knew she would say I must learn to stand-up for myself. My mother came from a family of twelve in the East End of London, and nobody ever got the better of her.

I was a dreamy child, with my nose forever in a book and, though not friendless, was quite happy with my own company. It became a regular thing that they would either be waiting round the corner or would catch me up. They would give me a beating, and then I would trail off home after they had gone.

I was five years old at the time, frightened and confused, feeling as if I was in the middle of a horrible dream, not knowing why this was happening to me. Perhaps I hadn't deserved the purse. If I told my mother or my grown up sisters, maybe they would be angry with me, thinking I had done something wrong and that was the reason I was being punished. My mother had described Edith, who lived in the next street, as a "Poor afflicted little soul" and told me I should always be especially kind to her.

I didn't know what to do about it, so I shut it out. At home I escaped into my magical world of books where I forgot about it until the next time.

Morning assembly in my Infants school was always the same daily ritual. Miss Thompson would play a lively tune on the piano and we all marched into the school hall with the youngest pupils standing at the front. After the Lord's Prayer, and a hymn, the headmistress, Miss Price, would make any announcements.

This particular morning, Miss Price, who was a tall, angular lady with short, grey hair, stood looking sternly at us. She said: "Joyce Whittle and Edith Bamber come here to the front of the school please." They both walked up to Miss Price who said: "Face the school," and they turned round and looked at us looking at them.

Then Miss Price said, slowly, enunciating every word carefully: "These two girls are guilty of abusing and bullying a younger child and I am going to punish them now in front of you all." She then took a cane from the top of the lectern and gave them fives strokes on each hand. I was surprised to see that they both cried. I had no idea that anyone knew what they had been doing. I suppose someone from one of the houses near the school must have witnessed my tormentors at work and reported it. But whatever or however, I was so happy because they never did it again.

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