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‘I DON’T LIKE MOLLY CHADWICK,’ he declared in a very loud voice, which convinced Stella he was telling the truth. She was a little surprised to have brought out such a reaction in him and it gave her an inexplicable thrill. However, once she had achieved her confession she wasn’t the sort to continue torturing her victim.

‘Are you bothered about seeing the Janet Gaynor film?’ she asked him.

‘No,’ he droned. ‘It’ll be a right mushy one that. I’d rather go to the Kingsway and see The White Hell of Pitz Palu. Aye, that’ll be a grand film.’

‘Who’s in it?’ asked Sadie with genuine interest.

‘Eh?’ Young Tommy had never been asked such a technical question before. As far as he and his mates were concerned a film was a film was a film. Who starred in it was of little consequence, so long as someone did. The important thing was how the villain died. Did he die slowly and in great pain or quickly with just a little pain because he had a likeable mum who’d contracted an incurable disease?

‘I said, who’s in it?’ repeated Sadie softly.

‘I . . . I’ve forgotten.’

‘Forgotten,’ sighed Stella, picking up on his slip.

‘That’s right,’ he said defensively.

‘Well, what’s it about then?’ she persisted.

Tommy looked blankly at Sadie. He needed her support. She was gentle and kind. She gave him some support. ‘Is it a love story, perhaps?’ she assisted.

‘Bloomin’ ’eck no.’ He felt himself blush bright red. He crossed his left eye to see if his nose had gone red. It had.

‘Then it’s probably an adventure story.’

‘Aye, that’s right. They’re always adventure stories with swear-words like “hell” in it. It’ll probably be about caves and savages and furnaces . . .’ He petered out of description.

‘Yes, I’m sure you’re right,’ said Stella condescendingly. Tommy wished he hadn’t mentioned anything about the Kingsway.

They drifted by the market and stopped at the fish stall to say hello to ‘Pop’. Everyone knew Joe Billings as Pop. He was a youthful seventy; that is, he was young at heart.

Pop had a round, wizened face and kindly attitude like everyone’s grandfather should have, and this was how he came to be called Pop. He helped out Saturdays on the stall since retiring as a trawlerman a couple of years back. Sitting on an upturned crate, he was shelling a bucket full of shrimps.

Stella thought he looked like a big shrimp himself: all pink and puffy and a curved back. ‘’Ello, kids. What do you know, then?’

‘Hello, Pop. Nothing,’ said Stella. They always started conversations in this way.

They gazed hungrily at the piles of shelled shrimps in a large carton. The dancing had made Stella hungry. Tommy just loved shrimps more than anything else, and Sadie could eat anything, anytime, any place.

Pop smiled and his face wrinkled all the more. ‘Go on. ’Ave a few. I’ve plenty there.’ They didn’t need any further encouragement and dived in with eager hands. ‘Steady on, now. Don’t go spillin’ ’em.’

Pop stood up to serve a customer. ‘What’ll it be for Bob’s supper t’night then, Mrs Robertson?’

Stella nudged Sadie. ‘You’ve got more than me,’ she complained.

‘No I ’aven’t.’

‘Y’ave. Don’t argue ’bout it.’

‘Here yer are, Stella,’ said Tommy, coming between them. ‘Have some of mine.’

Stella blushed. ‘I don’t want yours, thank you, Tommy Moran.’ She gave her sister a fiery glare. ‘I want hers.’

‘Now, now,’ calmed Pop, as he returned to his position on his crate. ‘You’ve all done well enough.’

He began rummaging in his pockets and at once the children’s eyes lit up. This was the moment they liked best. Pop was famous throughout Lancaster for his giant pockets on his black great-coat. They’d been a source of much mystery to children for many years. They were always filled with ‘goodies’, and the girls had been told by their mother that they were the deepest pockets in the world – probably bottomless. They didn’t believe her, though. Maybe six or seven feet deep, but surely not bottomless? ‘Here y’are. A coupla green arras each. Suck ’em slow.’

Green arrows. Red hot peppermints. Maybe they should be called red arrows, thought Stella.

They thanked him, popped them into their mouths and with fleeting cries of goodbye, they trotted away. Pop shook his head as he put a green arrow into his own mouth.

‘You should come and watch Sadie and me dancing sometime, Tommy,’ said Stella, suddenly.

‘Oh, no. I couldn’t do that,’ replied Tommy.

‘I’m not asking you to join in, you know. Just watch us. We’re ever so good, aren’t we, Sadie?’

‘I suppose so,’ she said doubtfully.

‘’Course we are. We’re going to be dancers when we leave school: rotten, smelly, pooey school. Aren’t we, Sadie?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘Stop saying that,’ Stella snapped. Sadie stopped saying it.

‘Come along next Saturday, Tommy.’

He pondered for a moment. It would be worth his while going, just to be near Stella, his sweetheart. But at what price? What would his mates say if they caught him coming out of the dancing school?

Stone the crows I’d never live it down, he thought. ‘I can’t make it Saturday. I said I’d go with me dad to see Morecambe play.’

Stella scowled at him. It was a poor excuse. Kick off wasn’t until three; even she knew that.

‘As you like, but don’t expect to see us any other times if you can’t accept our kind invitations.’ She held her nose up to add more aloofness as Sadie wished she wouldn’t include her in every decision she made.

He had only himself to blame that they didn’t talk to him for the following three weeks. Well, Sadie did once or twice, but she made sure her sister didn’t find out.

Chapter Two

‘Stella!’ beckoned a voice as she made to leave the Gaynor School of Dancing. She turned to see Mrs Bunting advance. ‘Just wanted to thank you for filling in for me this week, dear.’

‘That’s okay. I hope the cold’s much better now.’

Stella studied her wiry body, which had lost much of its vitality and flexibility during the last six years. She was as thin and as active as ever she was before, but her body had taken on a certain stiffness, as though she was gradually solidifying.

Stella, at sixteen, was now virtually running her dancing classes, whether Mrs Bunting was away ill with a cold or even in attendance at the school. She’d taken on the role of a supervisor, allowing Stella to carry out the more physical exercises.

She had never been that immersed in the workings of the school, and, now her twenty-three-year-old daughter, Donna, was married and settled in a small village in the Pennines, what little enthusiasm she had ever had had now finally ebbed away altogether. If it wasn’t for her fondness of Stella, and the girl’s desire to succeed in showbusiness, she would have seriously considered closing down the establishment some years ago.
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