Over the next year Ellen and I developed into best friends and we did everything together. Although we were both the same size, she was outgoing and talkative where I was shy and quiet. She lived on a farm and once I was allowed to spend the whole weekend with her.
I caught the school bus home with Ellen on Friday after school. It was very noisy on the bus with all of the children talking and squealing loudly all the way. Every few minutes the bus would stop along the road and a couple of children would climb off, before the doors shut and we would start off again with a jerk.
All of the stopping and starting had made me feel car sick, but eventually the bus pulled up in front of a dusty gate at the side of the road and Ellen and I climbed off. The bus took off again, leaving us standing there in a cloud of dust and diesel smoke. We threw our school bags over the gate and then climbed over, before walking all the way up the hill from the main road. By the time we had made it to the house my legs were really tired and I couldn’t wait to sit down.
‘Mum, we’re home,’ Ellen shouted as we walked through the back door. The screen slammed shut behind us. The kitchen was bright and sunny and the late afternoon light shining through the window made the bowls on the bench sparkle. It was the cleanest kitchen I had ever seen, with everything neatly in its place. Beside the kitchen bench there was a large grey tabby cat that was curled up on the floor sound asleep. A ginger cat sat beside Mrs Lees’ legs, looking up and watching her moving around the kitchen sink. Ellen’s baby brother was sitting in a high chair and waving a plastic spoon around.
‘Hi, sweetheart. Hello, Molly. You girls can put your bags in the bedroom then come out and have some afternoon tea.’ Ellen led the way down the hall to her bedroom and we put our bags down on the floor then ran back to the kitchen. Mrs Lees had left a slice of orange cake and a glass of milk on the kitchen bench for each of us and I was glad to climb onto a stool and rest my legs while I ate.
‘Okay girls,’ said Ellen’s mother, ‘When you are finished you need to fetch the eggs and then wash up before dinner.’
I watched Mrs Lees moving around the kitchen as I ate my afternoon tea. It was the first time I had met her. She had long brown hair that was tied back in a pony tail. It made her look quite young and pretty. Her skin was smooth and tanned and her mouth looked kind. She was clearly Ellen’s mother because the same pair of brown eyes smiled gently at me across the kitchen bench that I was used to seeing in the school playground.
She was stirring something in a bowl and the ginger cat stood up and rubbed his face against her leg before he walked over to the bench and rubbed himself against my foot. I bent down and patted him on the head and he closed his eyes and purred. Ellen’s baby brother made gurgling noises as he waved the spoon around and smiled at me.
‘Come on, Molly, let’s go,’ said Ellen as she put her glass down on the sink. I hopped off the stool and put my glass carefully beside hers and followed her outside. The screen door banged shut behind me as I raced to catch up with Ellen.
The chicken coop was at the back of the yard and its smell reminded me of the chicken shed I had seen at the show. Some of the chickens squawked loudly as Ellen opened the gate, and when she took a handful of oats from a bag and spread them around on the ground they all flapped around her and made a big fuss. ‘Here, chook chook chook,’ she called, as she threw the little seeds on the ground. As the chickens were busy scrabbling after the grain, Ellen and I searched amongst the straw for the smooth brown eggs. She showed me how to carry the eggs by holding up the skirt of my school dress to make a little basket. I placed three eggs in my skirt basket and walked very carefully back to the house, making sure I didn’t drop any on the way.
It was dark by the time Ellen’s father came into the house and Ellen and I had already been in the bath and changed into our pyjamas. The baby had been put to sleep in his cot and the rest of us sat at the dining table and ate dinner in silence. I couldn’t help thinking how different it was to dinnertime at home where the television was always on in the background and the girls were talking all the time. We sat at a large wooden table covered with a lace tablecloth and there was a nice warm log fire crackling in the background.
I was a little scared of Mr Lees as I watched him slicing the roast beef. He had dark curly hair and eyes that looked at me from under thick black eyebrows. Every now and then I could hear his heavy boots shuffle around on the wooden floor. I looked down at his dirty trousers and thought about how they contrasted with the clean white lace of the table cloth.
‘How did you go at school today, girls?’ Mr Lees asked in a stern voice.
‘It was okay,’ Ellen replied calmly. She picked up the sauce jug and tipped some gravy onto her roast.
‘What about you, Molly?’
‘Oh, it was fine.’ I spoke very quietly. My heart was beating fast and I was afraid to look at him.
‘Sorry, what was that? You’ll have to speak up,’ he said. His voice sounded very gruff and when I lifted my head I couldn’t take my eyes off his boney looking fingernails.
‘She said it was okay,’ said Ellen, spearing a potato with her fork.
‘I was talking to Molly.’ He didn’t take his eyes off me and his hands were still holding the carving knife.
I tried to speak again but my tongue felt as thick as a sausage and I had a sick feeling in my stomach. He kept staring at me, waiting for an answer, until suddenly the telephone rang and broke the silence. Mr Lees put the knife down and went to answer the phone. He was gone for a few minutes and when he came back and sat down he complained loudly to Mrs Lees about the high price of something. ‘How are we meant to make money when it costs twice as much as what we get for the crop?’ he growled. He seemed to have forgotten all about me and as soon as we finished eating, Ellen and I were excused from the table.
We raced down the hallway to Ellen’s bedroom and sat on our beds talking until Mrs Lees came in and told us it was time to go to sleep. Ellen’s bedroom was long and skinny, with a bed on either side. At one end of the room there was a bookcase and a small desk while the other end had a dressing table covered with dolls. We lay in our beds and smiled at each other and kept talking in whispers, even after Mrs Lees had come back and turned the light out. It was amazing how our conversations could start with one thing and then float around like a butterfly going from flower to flower. Every now and then we would stop and try to work out how the conversation had flowed before giggling quietly from under our blankets.
We eventually stopped talking and I had drifted off to sleep, when I was suddenly woken by a loud voice coming through the bedroom wall. I couldn’t understand what the voices were saying but I could hear that Mr Lees sounded angry about something and his voice rattled the walls like a bass drum. Mrs Lees was harder to hear with her desperate soprano. Soon there was a loud bang and then silence. I looked across at Ellen but she had her back to me and seemed to be sleeping so I just lay there in the darkness and watched her breathing body moving up and down under the blanket until my eyes started to get heavy.
It was early morning when I woke the next day and I lay in bed and watched the curtain moving slightly in the breeze coming through the open window. Outside the window I could see the sun had started to paint the sky with pink and orange. The colours were reflecting on the bedroom wall, shimmering like fairy lights. I looked across at Ellen’s sleeping face where it was bathed in a soft pink fairy light that made her look so beautiful.
Somewhere in the distance a dog was barking and I could hear sheep baaing just outside the bedroom window. The smell of bacon and eggs came drifting through the doorway and it made my tummy start to grumble.
Eventually Ellen woke up and we climbed out of bed and walked out to the kitchen together to find Mrs Lees standing over a frypan cooking breakfast.
‘Good morning girls, I hope you slept well.’ Her eyes looked red and there seemed to be a mark on the side of her pale face. Ellen gave her mother a hug and I thought I saw a tear forming in Mrs Lees’ eye. ‘Breakfast won’t be long,’ she said briskly, as she wiped the back of her hand across her eyes.
Ellen and I climbed onto the stools at the kitchen bench and we were soon munching on a huge plateful of bacon and eggs. No-one talked as we ate so I just watched Mrs Lees moving around the kitchen. She didn’t seem so bright and sparkly as she had yesterday afternoon.