one hell of a grip

There’s a black and white photo of Glenda on the wall taken when she was a young woman in the Land Army. She’d obviously dressed up for the picture, because although she’s still in fatigues, her hair is nicely swept back in a wide band, and her lipstick is in a perfect bow. It’s a great shot. Glenda’s smile is so bright and enthusiastic and full of energy, I can imagine her pulling the spade out of the soil and advancing on the world, waving it overhead.

‘They shipped us off to Berkshire,’ she says. ‘I hated that farmer. We all did. Picking potatoes in the rain. He always used to drive the tractor too quick for us. We couldn’t keep up. I used to throw potatoes at him to slow him down. And he’d shout back You throw another one of them fuckin’ potatoes at me, Glenda, and you see what happens.
‘And did you?’
‘Course I did. He didn’t scare me.’
‘What happened?’
‘We all went on strike. We sat down in the middle of the field and refused to budge. He ranted and raved. You get back to work now or you’ll see what for he said. But he was like that. Full of wind.’
‘He sounds horrible.’
‘Oh – he wasn’t too bad once you got to know his ways. He just needed someone to show him who was the real boss round there. I remember this one time, I was up on a hay rick and I saw a mouse. Well – if there’s one thing I absolutely detest and cannot abide, it’s a mouse. But where you goin’ to run when you’re standing on the top of a hay rick? You silly cow – it’s only a fucking mouse he said. You come up here and deal with it, if you’re such an expert I said, and threw the pitchfork at him. But he didn’t know, you see? He didn’t know how much I hate mice. And rats. I can’t stand rats.’
‘Maybe he should’ve got a dog. To catch the rats.’
‘He did have a dog, a Jack Russell, called Gravel. Vicious, pointy little thing.’
‘So I’m guessing you didn’t have such a great time in the Land Army then?’
‘Oh no. We had a great laugh. There was a prisoner of war camp down the road, full of Eye-talians. We used to hang around the fence and pass carrots through the wire. ‘Ere. Get away from there! the guards used to say. Drop them carrots! Didn’t bother us, though. They needed fresh food and attention. And so did we.’

Whilst we’re talking, there’s a sudden, soggy thump behind me, like an albatross just flew into the window.

‘Window man’s here,’ says Glenda, easing her position in the chair. ‘They have to do it on a long pole these days, ever since the last one fell off his ladder. D’you know something? I was brought up in a tenement block in Ladbroke Grove. Six floors up we were. And every Sunday my mum used to sit out on the ledge to clean the outside. Hold me legs, Glenda she used to say. And I’d be hanging on for dear life, her stockings slipping down, and I’d be shouting For God’s sake, Mum. Haven’t you finished yet? I’m losing yah! And she’d shout back Don’t be so silly, Glenda. Just hold me legs! Her voice all muffled like, because she was the other side of the window, and I had one ear in her lap. And she’d be out there, cheerful as you like, scrubbing the window singing away as easy as if she was polishing the mirror in the bathroom. She was good, my mum. And she certainly had a head for heights.’

Glenda seems distracted for a moment, brushing some biscuit crumbs from her lap.

‘And you might not think to look at me now,’ she carries on at last. ‘But I tell you what – I had one hell of a grip.’


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