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Feather's Miscellany: Thelma Pepper

...Thelma and I used to walk up the lane sometimes on the way to our schools and by the time I reached the sixth form I’d fallen in love with her. She was beautiful, witty, eloquent and a flirt, but she had more enterprising boyfriends than myself. However, we remained good friends right through school and beyond; for in later life she returned to Keighworth as you will hear...

John Waddington-Feather's story concerns an incident in the life of Thelma Pepper, a lass who knew how to take a copper down a peg or two.

Thelma Pepper was always top of the class at school, as sharp as a needle. At primary school I sat next to her for we’d grown up together. She lived a few doors down from us and we were part of the gang who grew up and played in the street. From the start, she was the leader, always a step ahead of the rest of us.

As kids we sued to make a den in her back-yard from a clothes horse which acted as the frame when an old blanket was thrown over it. Once you entered that den Thelma was the boss. She organised the dolls’ tea-service we drank from and she told us what to do in the childhood world we lived in then. Only later in life did I know what sort of background she came from; but when we were kids we were as innocent as blown snow and knew nothing about the past.

She was a red haired girl, good looking and well made like her mother; even more well made when she grew up, but in womanhood she was very different from her mother Lizzie Pepper. For Lizzie was – how shall we say? – a lady with a past. She had entertained more gentlemen in bed than her husband, Sam, who took it all in his stride. Sam was a quiet resigned soul. He let his wife do all the talking - and all the entertaining. All he wanted was a quiet life.

And certain it was that Thelma had none of Sam Pepper’s looks. You could see her mother in her all right, but nothing of Sam. Her hair and the cast of her face reminded those who knew him well of one of Lizzie’s gentlemen friends, a local rich big-wig who owned a mill.

Like myself, when she was eleven Thelma won a County Scholarship and we went our separate ways; she to the Girls’ Grammar School and me to the Boys’. Neither of us played out in the street any longer for we worked hard doing homework each night. How well I remember slogging away at homework on warm summer evenings in the tiny attic, which was my bedroom study, while the youngsters who didn’t go to the Grammar School played happily in the street outside. How I envied them! Thelma probably felt the same.

Thelma and I used to walk up the lane sometimes on the way to our schools and by the time I reached the sixth form I’d fallen in love with her. She was beautiful, witty, eloquent and a flirt, but she had more enterprising boyfriends than myself. However, we remained good friends right through school and beyond; for in later life she returned to Keighworth as you will hear.

In her late teens, Thelma took an active part in local politics. Lizzie and Sam Pepper were staunch Conservatives, so they were rather embarrassed when their daughter became a red-hot Socialist and a leading light in the Young Socialist Movement.

She chaired their meetings and spoke forcibly several times on political platforms during elections, not without a telling sense of humour. Take the time she was chairing a meeting and had to introduce the garrulous mayor of Keighworth, Alderman Joe Oxenhead, renowned for his long-winded speeches.

She opened the meeting by telling the audience they were about to hear the longest word in the England language. They cottoned on to what she meant when Joe began with his usual: “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d just like to say a word…” and went on for thirty minutes; but it threw him when the audience started laughing and he never forgave Thelma when somebody explained later.

At university she continued to be a firebrand and would have done well had she gone in for politics but she didn’t. She changed course and went to London to work for a leading publishing firm when she left Cambridge. She continued being successful there. She married the managing director and wrote for leading literary journals, making a name for herself especially with her satirical wit. She had a column in a national newspaper and was much sought after as an after-dinner speaker. However, she never forgot Keighworth and returned often to visit her parents till they became too frail; then she moved them to a retirement apartment near her own home in London.

Years later, when she herself was widowed, she surprised everyone by returning to Keighworth to live out her life in a cosy cottage near the moors at Ruddledene, and in retirement she continued to be active in local politics and bodies like the Little Theatre and Writers’ Circle. She also continued to be well known for her own wicked brand of humour.

The best tale I heard about her was told me by Inspector Blake Hartley, long- standing member of Keighworth’s police force. He laughed all the way through his story as we shared a pint in our club. It concerned Thlema’s brush with one of his colleagues, P.C.Kemsworth, a very unpopular colleague, a creep of the first order who was always sucking up to the Superintendent for promotion. He’d book anyone he could to curry favour with his boss and further his career.

On one occasion, he booked Thelma for doing 33 miles and hour in the middle of town. She hadn’t noticed Kemsworth lurking behind a van checking speeds. As she approached him he flagged her down and told her she was over the speed limit. She explained she was overtaking a delivery van which had drawn in ahead of her but it made no difference. Out came Kemsworth’s little black book.

“You were still breaking the law,” said Kemsworth, officiously, and he asked her for her driving licence. Thelma looked daggers at him.

“I haven’t got one,” she said, brusquely “I’ve never bothered renewing it.”

Kemsworth smiled. He sensed a good booking. “May I see your insurance documents then?” he asked.

“I haven’t got those either,” she replied. Kemsworth immediately walked round the front of the car to check the tax disk

“It’s no use looking at that. The car isn’t mine. I stole it,” said Thelma.

“Stole it!” gasped Kemsworth. Thelma was making his day.

“Yes. I stole it. I do it for kicks,” she explained. “And if you look in the boot there’s the body of the owner. I also got a kick out of bumping him off. As a matter of fact, I was going to dump him when you pulled me over.”

She spoke so seriously and with such a straight face Kemsworth was completely taken in and got on to Superintendent Donaldson at once. Promotion loomed large with a case like this.

Superintendent Donaldson was there in minutes. A short stocky man and very full of himself, he demanded to see Thelma’s driving licence. She duly produced it – and the insurance documents. P.C.Kemsworth looked on speechless. Then he blurted out: “The boot! She says there’s a body in the boot, sir!”

Thelma dutifully opened up the boot. Apart from the spare tyre it was empty. The Superintendent turned angrily to his constable for an explanation, but before Kemsworth could say anything, Thelma cut in with: “You don’t want to believe what he says. He lives in a world of his own. He’ll be telling you next I was speeding.”

Furious, Donaldson apologised and told Kemsworth to report to him at the station immediately. Smiling sweetly she said: “Don’t be too harsh on him. I was only pulling his leg and anyone can make a mistake. I think your constable has been working too hard. He takes his job very seriously and in time will make a good policeman, but perhaps he needs a rest.”

Thelma lived to ripe old age and took a leading role in the town’s affairs. She became mayor and was made a magistrate, serving on the bench for many years – and relishing every salute P.C.Kemsworth and Superintendent Donaldson had to give her when on escort duty.

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