Charlie, p.1Lesley Pearse
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First published 1998
Published simultaneously by Michael Joseph
Copyright © Lesley Pearse, 1999
All rights reserved
The moral right of the author has been asserted
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
For Jan Miller, my friend, soulmate and the inspiration for the character of Charlie. Special thanks too to George Miller, for his loyal friendship and for not minding when Jan and I prattle on endlessly. I love you both.
And joyful thanks for my first grandchild, Brandon Jay, born 10 July 1998: the little boy I had always hoped for, a treasure beyond compare.
Dartmouth, Devon. July 1970
‘Allison Proctor’s going to enter the Carnival as Lady Godiva, on her horse,’ Charlie remarked to her friend June, licking her ice-cream cornet in what she hoped was a sensual manner. Two boys had just sat down on the next bench, and although they were pimply-faced and weedy, probably no more than seventeen, they were better than no male audience at all.
‘Not in the nude?’ June exclaimed.
‘Near enough,’ Charlie replied, glancing sideways to see if the boys were listening. ‘Just a flesh-coloured body stocking and a cloak.’
‘Trust her! She always was a show-off,’ June said indignantly. ‘I bet she’s only doing it because you’ve been chosen as Carnival Queen.’
It was only two weeks since Charlie had been picked for this role out of dozens of other hopefuls at the Queen’s Hotel. She had thought of little else since, and she was delighted June had brought it up in front of these two boys.
‘I admire Allison for being so daring,’ Charlie replied. ‘Everyone else in Dartmouth is so boring. If I wasn’t going to be the Carnival Queen I’d enter as something really shocking and make everyone sit up and take notice.’
The girls were sixteen. Their convent school had closed for the summer just the day before and although they were dressed almost identically in flared faded jeans and tie-dyed tee-shirts, the similarity ended there.
June Melling was a somewhat timid, blue-eyed English rose, her pale complexion prone to freckles, five foot two, prettily plump, with corn-coloured wavy hair. Charlie Weish was taller, slender, very pretty, and Chinese.
In point of fact she was only half Chinese, on her father’s side, but her appearance was entirely Oriental and quite startling in a small town like Dartmouth where almost all the residents and visitors were of white Anglo-Saxon origin. Her sleek black hair was cut into a fashionable shoulder-length bob, her dark, almond-shaped eyes held all the mystery and fascination of the Orient, and her skin was golden-brown. She had inherited little from her English mother, aside from her long legs and slightly pouting lips. Her father laid claim to her intelligence too; she had taken seven ‘O’ levels just recently and she was expected to get mostly ‘B’s.
Even seen through the somewhat jaded eyes of two teenagers who’d never lived anywhere else, Dartmouth on a hot summer’s day was at its most picturesque and vibrant. Yachts, ferries and fishing boats bobbed on the sparkling blue water of the river Dart, with a stunning backdrop of Kingswear with its pretty houses clinging seemingly precariously to the steep hillside across the water. Behind the girls’ Embankment bench, the abundance of ancient buildings, quaint cobbled streets, the magnificent Naval College and a wealth of historical interest ensured Dartmouth’s place as one of the most visited towns in Devonshire.
Charlie and June made a sport out of poking fun at the hordes of holidaymakers who thronged here each summer. They couldn’t really understand why these people felt compelled to photograph each other outside every old building, take ferry rides to places they considered boring, or why they consumed such enormous quantities of cream teas and Devon fudge.
But this afternoon their minds weren’t on ridiculing visitors, in fact they had been searching amongst them for boys who might brighten up the long holiday ahead. They had already made several slow trawls of all the moored yachts, hoping to spot a couple of bronzed Adonises with sun-bleached hair and fun on their minds. But everyone they’d seen had been either too old or ugly, or already with a girl. With Dartmouth Naval College dominating their town, and scores of young cadets milling around for most of the year, it seemed ludicrous to both girls that they were unable to find anyone even vaguely suitable, but the College had closed for the summer and suddenly there was a dearth of young males.
June had barely noticed the arrival of the two boys on the next bench until her friend began raising her voice and her conversation took on a more daring tone. She glanced across at them and decided that Charlie couldn’t possibly fancy either of them, therefore she must have it in mind to tease them a little. This meant she had to join in. She always followed Charlie’s bold lead.
‘People in Dartmouth are so behind the times,’ she sighed, raising her voice so the boys would hear. ‘I was telling Miranda Hutchings the other day that I’d smoked a joint when I was in London and she said, “I didn’t know you could smoke meat, I thought it was only fish.” ’
Both girls sniggered at this joke they’d recently read in a much-thumbed old copy of Private Eye. Neither girl had even seen cannabis, much less had the opportunity to try smoking it.
‘Miranda Hutchings is such a block-head,’ Charlie said, flicking back her hair and casting a flirtatious sideways look at the two boys. Miranda was entirely fictitious, but a useful medium through which the girls could appear cool. ‘I was talking about Woodstock the other day, she said she’d been there. Of course I didn’t believe her and I asked her questions about it. It turned out she meant the Woodstock near Oxford. She’d stayed there with her auntie last summer. She didn’t even know about the rock festival in America.’
June giggled. She thought Charlie was absolutely brilliant at this game, another five minutes and she’d be talking about the three-day rock event as if she’d actually been there. ‘Shall we go down to the record shop and listen to a few sounds?’ she asked. She actually liked the look of the dark-haired boy, even if he was spotty, but she knew Charlie would laugh at her if she admitted it, and what’s more she’d want to back off immediately for fear of getting lumbered with the other one.
June was tempted to remind Charlie that she’d bought Mungo Jerry’s ‘In the Summertime’ only last Saturday and couldn’t wait to get home to play it. But along with always expecting, and getting, the first pick of boys, Charlie didn’t like it when June pulled her up on a technicality. ’What do you want to do then?’ she asked.
‘I fancy going skinny-dipping down by the Castle,’ Charlie said without any hesitation.
June might have gasped if she hadn’t been so well trained by her friend to go along with anything, however outrageous, without showing the slightest alarm.
‘Okay then,’ she said, getting up from the seat. ‘But we’d better get a move on, I’m supposed to be home by five.’
Charlie stood up, linked arms with her friend, and they walked on down the Embankment. She knew without a shadow of a doubt that the two boys would follow in a few minutes.
‘Are you serious?’ June said nervously once they were out of earshot.
‘No, of course not,’ Charlie sniggered. ‘Do you really think I’d let two runts like that see me naked? What we’ll do is get our bikes, then ride off towards the Castle. We can hide in the woods at Warfleet Creek and watch for them to come running past.’
‘That’s a bit cruel,’ June, who was soft-hearted, protested. ‘It’s far enough to the Creek without sending them on a wild goose chase all the way to the Castle.’
‘I like being cruel to boys,’ Charlie grinned impishly. ‘It serves them right for thinking dirty thoughts, and for a couple of creeps like them to imagine they had even half a chance with us two.’
June didn’t protest any further. Her father had often claimed she would jump off a cliff if Charlie told her to.
As the girls were unlocking their bicycles from the railings of the car park, half hidden by a tree, they saw the boys coming along. They were looking this way and that, clearly puzzled by the girls’ disappearance. Seen on the move, they looked almost like Boy Scouts, with their khaki shorts, neat checked short-sleeved shirts and very short hair – they even wore socks with their plimsolls. Even June recognized them as ‘mother’s boys’. No normal boy of their age would be seen dead in any other kind of shorts than cut-down Levis, or with hair cut that short.
‘I bet their normal hobby is train-spotting,’ Charlie giggled. ‘Come on, let’s shoot past them and make them start running.’
The girls rode across the road, and as they passed the boys, Charlie tinkled her bell and blew a kiss in their direction, then turned her head to make sure June was right behind her.
June was pedalling for all she was worth to keep up on her mother’s old black Raleigh with its big leather seat. Charlie’s bike was a sleek, drop-handlebar racing model, with white tyres and three gears. Before long, June was left way behind. Charlie liked to show off on her bike and rode like a mad thing, recklessly weaving in and out of the traffic. She was waiting by the wall at Warfleet Creek as June coasted down the hill, still panting from the steep climb up.
‘What kept you?’ Charlie asked with a trace of sarcasm. She looked as cool as when she’d set out this morning, there wasn’t even a bead of perspiration on her dainty nose. ‘You didn’t go back to check they were following us?’
‘No, I didn’t, my bike hasn’t got gears like yours, remember,’ June retorted. ‘Besides, why should I check? If you say they’ll follow us, they will, you’re always right, or so you keep telling me.’
Charlie just laughed at her friend’s barbed retort. That was as nasty as June could get, she wasn’t capable of real anger. ‘I’ll carry your bike down,’ she said in an unusual effort to appear big-hearted. ‘You look hot and mine’s a lot lighter.’
It was cool down in the woods at the edge of the Creek. As small girls they’d often come here with June’s parents for picnics, and it was still a favourite place to come to swim and sunbathe. They hid their bikes under a bush, then settled down on a conveniently well-placed fallen tree trunk to wait and watch the road above them.
‘If we had some binoculars we could probably see your mum in your garden,’ June said after a bit as she gazed out across the river estuary to Kingswear. They both lived there, in Beacon Road, but while June’s house was tucked away behind others, ‘Windways’, Charlie’s home, was ten minutes’ walk further on and right on the cliff edge, with a spectacular sea view that was the envy of everyone who visited the house.
Charlie didn’t need binoculars to know what her mother was doing. She’d be doing exactly what she did every hot, sunny day, lying like a starfish on the lawn, her cigarettes and magazines close to hand. But she didn’t say this. Her mother’s total idleness was something of an embarrassment to her.
Ten minutes passed, fifteen and then twenty, but still the boys hadn’t come along. ‘I thought you said they’d run all the way?’ June sniped.
‘Actually I’ll be very relieved if they don’t come.’ Charlie shrugged. ‘It just proves they really were mummy’s boys. Besides, they were foul.’
June knew that in fact Charlie was disappointed, not only because it suggested she wasn’t as alluring as she imagined, but also because there was nothing she liked better than a good laugh at someone else’s expense. By pretending she hoped they wouldn’t come, she saved face. That was all-important to her.
June didn’t feel any necessity to keep face, because she never really imagined any boy could fancy her. But then she didn’t have that inner confidence Charlie had. To her mind her friend was perfection, with her looks, height, slender body and superb legs. Even June’s own father had often remarked that Charlie Weish was a potential heart-breaker. On top of this she was effortlessly clever. June had revised for weeks before the exams and doubted she’d get more than one or two ’C’s. Charlie larked about and hardly ever did her homework, but she somehow managed to retain everything she’d been taught. It wasn’t fair really. Sometimes June felt she ought to hate the girl for showing her up.
But no one really hated Charlie. Most of the girls were a little jealous of her and often tried to put her down, but they still agreed she was fun. She made everyone laugh with her dry, often cynical wit. She charmed them with her bursts of generosity and enthusiasm; wilful, often callous, pampered and self-centred, yet still adorable. Right from the first day they’d met aged seven at Higham House Preparatory School, they’d been friends. June believed they always would be.
‘Maybe they ran into their parents,’ June said after another ten minutes had passed. ‘Let’s go home, Charlie. If we do bump into them before we get to the ferry we can just wave and make them sick they missed seeing us.’
Charlie agreed and got up to haul their bikes out of the bushes. As they struggled back up the steep steps carrying them, June asked if she could go home with Charlie to listen to her Woodstock album.
The three-day rock festival in America was one of Charlie’s passions, which was why she’d brought up the subject earlier that day. Although it had in fact taken place in August of the previous year, news of it had only really filtered down to Devon once the film of it and the album of the soundtrack were released.
Charlie had been aware for over a year that there was something exciting and revolutionary going on elsewhere, in London, Amsterdam and America. She went to great lengths to find copies of International Times, Private Eye and any other underground publication which talked straight about Flower Children, rock culture and drugs. Although she wished she could have been one of those 400,000 people who had flocked to see Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and all the other great rock bands at Woodstock, her interest wasn’t merely as a frustrated groupie. It was something much deeper, and she was terribly afraid that by living here in such a staid little town she was missing out.
She knew there were conclaves of hippies moving
‘Did you hear what I said?’ June asked when they reached the top of the steps. They were both panting with the exertion and she thought this was why her friend hadn’t answered her question. ‘Could I come home with you?’
‘I don’t think you’d better. Mum was in one of her funny moods this morning,’ Charlie replied hesitantly, pushing her bike up the hill as it was too steep to attempt to ride immediately.
June made no comment. Although Charlie rarely spoke about either of her parents, she had known for some time that Mrs Weish wasn’t quite right. On several occasions she’d called round for Charlie to find her mother just sitting in a chair, chain-smoking and looking sullen. June’s own mother offered the opinion that the woman didn’t have enough to occupy her mind; her father said Sylvia Weish was neglected by her husband.
June wasn’t convinced that either of these views was correct. It was true her own mother was unusually energetic, always rushing around to PTA meetings, Women’s Institute, baking cakes or redecorating one of the rooms, but then she was ordinary, plump and mumsy, and perhaps a little jealous of glamorous women like Mrs Weish. As for her father’s opinion, well, every time June saw Mr Weish he seemed to make a great deal more fuss of his wife and daughter than ever her father did of his wife and family.
Charlie by Lesley Pearse / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes