The Rumspringa of Edna Peabody


England, 1969

Heat cracked the blue sky and the air shimmered. London slowly turned brown under an unusually hot sun, and across the East End, daring young women wore bikinis in their postage-stamp back gardens.

Edna felt sweat prickle her armpits and under her uncomfortable brassiere as she washed the saucepans she’d used preparing a full Sunday roast with all the trimmings. It had taken her the whole morning, slaving in the unbearably stuffy kitchen, but she knew that the food would be eaten in minutes, and Edna would be left to clear up the battlefield of a family meal. She sighed loudly, but there was no one to hear her.

“Mum, my football kit needs washing,” her son Roger called from the settee.

“You might have told me before now,” she complained tiredly.

“Thought you’d have remembered it!” he yelled back.

Edna found the disgusting heap stuffed inside his kit bag, clumps of mud falling from his boots all over the newly mopped kitchen floor, and her heart sank.

More cleaning, more work, no thanks, no care.

Edna Peabody knew that she was a plain woman with little to say. That is, her husband and children never listened to her.

“Is this my life?” she asked herself, up to her elbows in suds. “Is this it? When did I stop dreaming? When did I become a doormat?”

Just last month, men had walked on the moon, a giant leap for mankind, and the Rolling Stones had played to half a million people in Hyde Park, but womankind was still chained to the kitchen sink, or so it seemed to Edna.

Her daughter, Jean, would help with the lunch by clearing the table and piling everything haphazardly by the washing up bowl. Roger was watching the telly with her husband. Although Arthur was probably dozing over his newspaper by now.

“When did I become so boring?” she wondered.

If it hadn’t been for her magazines, she would hardly have a life at all, but Edna lived vicariously through the women’s magazines that she read at the hairdressers (and slipped into her shopping basket when no one was looking).

The world was changing, but Edna hadn’t changed with it. Jean wore miniskirts and thick black eyeliner that she thought made her look like Twiggy or Jean Shrimpton, but instead made her rather small eyes seem even smaller. Roger grew his hair past his collar and talked about bands she’d never heard of and listened to music that Edna didn’t understand and couldn’t decipher the lyrics. He thought working for a living was optional and that he’d become a guitarist in a band instead, even though he was tone deaf and couldn’t even shake a tambourine in time. The only time he got out of bed early was to play football in the local pub team on a Sunday morning at the Hackney Marshes football fields.

Arthur grumbled about Roger getting a job, but Roger said he was joining the revolution, then switched the radio on to listen to the pirate station Radio Caroline.

The doorbell rang, and since no one else seemed inclined to answer it, Edna plodded down the dark hallway, blinking as she opened the front door to a wall of sunshine.

“Alright, Mrs. P?” said Roger’s friend Brian, dropping a whiskery kiss on her cheek and pushing past her.

“Hello, dear,” said Edna, her blush lost in the heat of her washing-up-and-laundry damp skin.

Brain flopped down onto the settee and helped himself to The Sunday Mirror.

“Your mum’s nice,” he said to Roger. “Makes a lovely bit of sponge cake and a nice roast. I’m invited, innit? I’ve always had a soft spot for your mum. You’re a lucky sod.”

Edna smiled to herself. Brian was such a nice boy. What a pity Roger couldn’t be more like him.

“Yeah, she’s alright,” said Roger with supreme indifference. “Until she goes on about something she’s read in one of her magazines, then we all fall asleep from boredom. Come on, let’s get to the footie.”

Edna’s cheeks grew hot and tears pricked her eyes. Was this what her only son really thought of her?

“He’s right!” she cried to herself. “I am boring. They’ve made me boring. The only nice thing anyone has said to me in ages is that I make a nice sponge cake.”

The thought wouldn’t go away. It followed her when she made her husband’s breakfast the next day, washed up the dishes and scraped hardened egg yolk off the plates. It followed her as she made the beds, thrust a toilet brush into the family’s single lavatory bowl, and as she used a carpet sweeper up and down the stairs.

The heat was unrelenting and sweat dripped into her eyes. Edna washed the family’s smalls by hand and pegged them out on the washing line. They’d be dry in minutes and then she had to do the ironing. In this heat!

Her nylon tights stuck to her legs as she pulled them on, because respectable women didn’t do the shopping in bare legs, and she trudged up East Ham’s high street, stopping at the greengrocer, the baker, the fishmonger, and the new Co-op supermarket that had recently opened.

She treated herself to a copy of Woman & Home, attracted by the offer of ‘pretty summer sweaters in knitting and crochet’, even though it cost two shillings, and even though no one in their right mind would wear a knitted dress in this heat.

Then she wheeled her heavy shopping trolley home and made herself a nice cup of tea and put her feet up to read her magazine. It was her one treat.

Two hours later, Arthur frowned at the bags of shopping piled up on the kitchen table.

“Why haven’t you put the shopping away?” he asked. “I’ve been at work all day and I come home to this mess. What have you been doing all day?”

Edna stared at him despairingly as he shook his head and turned the telly on.

“I’ll wait for my tea in here,” he said.

Edna hurried to put the potatoes on and quickly laid the table. When the smell of frying fish filled the house, Roger and Jean appeared, slouching at the kitchen table table and continuing a conversation they’d started earlier.

“It’s the summer of love,” said Jean. “Marriage is out, free love is in.”

Edna stared at her, utterly appalled.

“It’s different for people your age,” she said to Edna, “the oldies. But no one wants to be stuck in a boring old marriage anymore. I certainly don’t. I’m a senior stylist, not just a hairdresser, and I’m saving up so I’ll have my own salon one day.” She yawned. “Are you making tea, Mum? I’ll have a cuppa while you’re at it.”

Edna turned to the kettle automatically. The habit of caring for her family was so deeply ingrained that she’d already picked up the kettle and filled it before she had a radical thought: Jean can make her own bloomin’ tea.

Edna hadn’t always been this way. As a little girl, Edna Evergreen had been adored by her parents. Her mum had tied yellow ribbons in her hair and took her to the library every Tuesday to choose a new book. Her dad had carried her on his shoulders and bought her an ice cream on Sundays.

But then her mum had died, quietly, without a fuss, and Edna had heard her dad crying at night. She was eight years old when she decided that if she looked after him, maybe he’d stop crying and take her for ice cream again. So she took on the role of running the house, doing the cleaning, and writing shopping lists for her dad.

“You’re a good girl, Edna,” he said. “Your mum would be very proud of you.”

But they never went for ice cream again.

After tea, Edna eyed the mountain of washing up and felt like crying, but she did it anyway, because that’s wives and mothers did.

And when she had five minutes to herself, she picked up her magazine again. And she read and read and read. Every single page, even the adverts. One of the articles she read five times, and she thought about it all the next day.

It was a funny word ‘rumspringa’. Edna had never heard about it until she’d read it in Woman & Home: “a rite of passage when adolescents of the Amish community in Pennsylvania, America, are allowed to experience the wider world”.

And the word itself meant to run around.

“That’s what I want to do,” Edna muttered to herself.

It was Arthur who noticed first. For the second evening running, his tea wasn’t on the table when he got home from work and Edna was nowhere to be seen. The beds hadn’t been made, the roll of toilet paper hadn’t been replaced, and no one had put the lid back on the toothpaste in the bathroom. The loaf of bread in the kitchen hadn’t been put away and had gone stale; the rubbish hadn’t been taken out so the bin men had missed it; and someone had eaten the last of the cheese.

When she finally came home, Arthur raised his voice. “What have you been doing all day?”

Edna sat down in front of the telly and kicked off her shoes. She didn’t tell him that she’d had a coffee in the new coffee shop where all the young people went. She didn’t tell him that she’d stared in the window of the record store until the owner had invited her inside and played the latest Jimi Hendrix record for her, explaining why it was pure genius. And she didn’t tell him that she’d eaten a ploughman’s lunch in a pub by herself, and spent the afternoon reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in the library, or that she’d bought herself a ticket to see Hair at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London, and that she’d been only a little shocked by the profanity and nudity.

Instead, she looked at her husband, so familiar and yet as if she’d never seen him before.

“What have I been doing all day?” she repeated, looking at the empty plates and mugs that their children had left scattered around the lounge, the over-flowing ashtrays and the crumbs on the carpet that no one had swept up. “What have I been doing all day? Absolutely nothing. And it’s very tiring. I think I’ll go and have a lie down.”

Roger laughed. “Good old Mum! I didn’t think she had it in her.”

Jean laughed, too. “The worm has turned!”

Arthur didn’t laugh, but watched his wife climb the stairs to their bedroom, her footsteps as slow and predictable as usual. But he knew that something was very wrong. And he was hungry.

“Jeanie, put the kettle on will you, luv?”

“Sorry, Dad. I’m off out,” she called from the hallway. “Ask Roger.”

Roger’s smile dropped. “Bloody hell. Have I got to make the tea now?”

“Don’t swear,” said Arthur. “I suppose we’d better have beans on toast for tea. I think your mum’s a bit under the weather.”

Roger burnt the toast and the beans stuck to the bottom of the saucepan because he forgot to stir them. The two men prodded at their supper and grumbled.

Arthur was sure that things would be back to normal in the morning. But they weren’t.

He was running late because Edna hasn’t woken him with a cup of tea in the morning as usual, and then he had to make his own breakfast. She’d just rolled over and said she was having a lie in.

“I wish I could have a bloody lie in,” he muttered to himself as he frowned at the un-ironed shirt he pulled from a pile of washing.

And Roger wasn’t laughing the next day when he went to his football game and found that his soccer boots hadn’t been cleaned or his shirt and shorts washed. What’s worse, they were mouldy and stank.

“Mum’s gone stark staring mad,” he said to Arthur. “You’ve got to do something.”

“Serves you right,” said Jean. “Wash your own football kit.”

But Arthur was gazing disbelievingly at the note in his hand, written in Edna’s careful handwriting.

“She’s gone to the Isle of Wight,” he said. “Your mum. She says she’ll be back in a few days.”

Jean blinked. “She’s done what? Why’s she gone there?”

The train was packed, overflowing with young people—the men distinguishable from the women only by their beards. Their clothes were every colour of the rainbow and they smiled curiously at Edna in sensible shoes and beige coat.

She felt very out of place, wondering if she’d made a terrible mistake, but determined to see it through to the bitter end, no matter how ridiculous.

A young man sitting opposite stared at her owlishly, his face loose and fleshy like unrisen dough.

“Peace, man,” he said, passing her a thickly rolled cigarette which emitted a strong, sweet smell that reminded Edna of her father’s pipe tobacco.

His girlfriend grinned. “It’s good shit, grandma. It’ll bake your melon.”

Edna blinked at the coarse language but understood that she was holding a marijuana cigarette in her hand. An illegal cigarette.

She felt hot and cold all at the same time.

The young woman leaned forward, her gaze intense. “There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception. You’ll fly so high, you’ll see the whole world.”

Edna stared at the fat roll-up, then took a tentative puff, coughing slightly. Her eyes widened as she felt a warm sensation of peace ripple through her, starting in her lungs.

She coughed again and took another puff.

It was rather nice, like sinking into a warm bath made of rose petals. She giggled at the thought of Arthur finding her in a bath of rose petals, and all the young people laughed with her.

Edna didn’t remember buying her ticket for the ferry, but as the sea breeze whipped her permed hair into a frizz, she didn’t care. All around her people were playing guitars and singing, enjoying life. Edna sat next to a woman with a baby and said that she was very much looking forward to seeing Joe Cocker play at the festival.

“He’s a god,” the woman nodded earnestly, as she unplugged her baby from a large, purple nipple. “But Bob Dylan, oh man, he’s a prophet—a prophet in poetry. He said it, man, the times-they-are-a-changin’. He knows, you know? When my kid grows up, there won’t be men or women, they’ll just be people, right? Our sons and daughters are beyond our command, you know?”

Edna sighed. “I don’t command anybody. I never have. My children ignore me.”

“I hear you,” said the woman, nodding slowly.

“Do you, luv?” Edna asked. “Do you really?”

“Yeah, man. Totally. Call me Moonflower.”

Edna beamed. It was so wonderful to talk to someone who listened to her. It was so wonderful to be heard.

“You’re all in beige,” said Moonflower. “But your aura is orange.”

“Is it?” said Edna, who’d read about auras and had always wanted one.

“Wow,” said Moonflower, squinting at Edna as if she were staring at the sun. “It’s getting brighter every second. Here…” and she pulled an enormous orange kaftan out of her rucksack and handed it to Edna. “Be orange,” she said, her voice very serious.

Edna pulled the kaftan over her head, then wriggled out of her skirt and blouse, even unhooking the iron-girdled brassiere. Feeling reckless and free as her bosoms descended to her navel, she tossed her clothes including her beige coat into the sea and watched them bobbing on the silky waves before they slowly sank.

“Rock on!” said Moonflower, impressed.

As Edna walked down the gangplank from the ferry onto the Isle of Wight, she felt like skipping; she felt like a girl again.

Along with 150,000 other people, she made her slow way toward the festival site, already hearing music pounding out. She ate chips from old newspaper, with purple candyfloss for pudding, and everyone was so kind. No one thought she was too old; no one asked her to make them a cup of tea or to darn their socks.

Tents of every colour dotted the fields around the music stage and Edna felt the holiday spirit settle into her bones, the blazing sun warming her from the inside out.

A woman with glazed eyes painted stars on Edna’s tired skin, and another stained her hands in intricate patterns with henna.

She fell in love with Joe Cocker and danced to the Moody Blues, waving her hands in the air, and when Bob Dylan came on, she cried out and fell in love all over again.

A tall, thin man with flowing blond hair and upside-down moustache smiled at her and held her hand as they swayed to the prophet’s music, the sun setting in a blaze of colours behind him.

“What’s your name, blue eyes?” the man asked with a lazy, hazy smile.

“Edna Pea— Edna Evergreen,” she said shyly, using her long-neglected maiden name.

“Ah, ever-green. It suits you. Ever green, ever young,” and he handed her another marijuana cigarette.

When he kissed her on the mouth, his moustached tickled her chin and she giggled. He smiled dreamily and they turned to listen to the prophet’s wonderful music.

Three days later, Jean glanced out of the window at the hippy walking down the street wearing a bright orange kaftan with flowers and stars painted on her cheeks. Then she looked again.

“Bloody hell,” she said faintly, then started to smile. “Mum’s back!” she shouted as she watched her mother climb the steps to the front door. “Cor dear! They won’t believe it when they see her!”

Roger stared open-mouthed, finally recognising his old mum under the orange kaftan and smeared face paint.

“Gone barmy, ain’t she?” he said to his sister, and circled his finger around his temple.

Jean shook her head and started to speak, but then her dad appeared.

“Edna!” he gasped in shock. “Where have you been? Why are you dressed like you’ve joined the circus? I haven’t eaten properly for days. I’ve been worried sick!”

Edna stared at him coolly. “Arthur, I’d like to talk to you in private, please.”

He started to argue but she simply turned and walked up the stairs, so he had no choice but to follow her.

“What’s all this about?” he demanded, standing uncertainly at the foot of the bed.

Edna met his gaze calmly. “Do you love me?” she asked.

“What? What are you on about?”

“It’s a simple question, Arthur. Do you love me?”

“I’m not staying to listen to this nonsense,” he said grumpily, and turned to head for the stairs.

“Because I love you,” Edna called after him.

His hand hovered over the doorknob, and he glanced over his shoulder.

“I don’t always like you,” she continued, “but I do love you.”

His lip quivered. “You don’t like me?”

“When you’re bossing me around and treating me like an unpaid servant, no, I don’t. But it’s not your fault ‘cause I’ve let you do it. I lost sight of Edna Evergreen,” she said. “I was so in love with you when we met; I couldn’t believe that a boy like you could love a plain girl like me, but you always treated me right. Until you didn’t. I know how hard you work at the office and I know that Mr. Arnold is a miserable old sod and difficult to work for. But it’s not fair that you take it out on me, is it?”

Arthur shook his head wordlessly.

“You didn’t mean to be cruel to me, but you were. I’ve been unappreciated for a long time, Arthur, and that’s going to change. And I’m going to appreciate you more, as well. But there are going to be changes: big changes.”

“Like what?” he asked uneasily.

“Every morning when I bring you your tea, I’m going to wake you up with a kiss,” she said.

Arthur’s jaw fell open.

“And you’re going to give me a kiss and say, ‘Thank you, my darling evergreen Edna’.”

“You what?”

“I mean it, Arthur. We’ve got to stop taking each other for granted.”

“I don’t!” he objected.

“Oh, yes you do! I bring you your cup of tea in the mornings and you just grunt at me or say that I’m making a noise; I make breakfast and I don’t get so much as a thank you before you disappear behind your newspaper. And I know you work hard all day, but so do I! I do the washing up and make the beds; I do the laundry and the ironing; I do the shopping, cooking and cleaning; I mend your shirts, darn your socks and scrub your unmentionables, and never any thanks. You fall asleep in front of the telly and haven’t said a civil word to me all day. Sometimes I think you don’t even see me!”

“Of course I see you. Don’t be daft.”

“Oh, Arthur, do you even know what colour my eyes are?” she asked in exasperation, squeezing her eyes shut.

There was a long, drawn out silence.

“They’re the most beautiful shade of blue,” he said, swallowing hard. “They’re as blue as a summer sky and as gentle as forget-me-nots.”

Her eyes flew open as she stared at him in shock.

“I married the sweetest, loveliest girl I’ve ever met,” he said hoarsely. “And I’ve thanked my lucky stars every day since.”

“You never said!” she gasped.

“I didn’t think I had to,” he replied, his voice full of confusion. “You knew. Didn’t you?”

Edna shook her head slowly and Arthur looked stricken.

“You mean the world to me,” he said solemnly. “You’re bloody everything.”

They talked all night, like they had when they were first married, and although they were both knackered by morning, they smiled at each other over the breakfast table.

“Jeanie, go and tell Roger that if he’s not down for breakfast in one minute, it’ll go in the bin.”

Jean blinked her enormous false eyelashes and gave a sly grin. “He was on the sauce last night with his mates.”

“I don’t care,” said Edna stoutly. “I’m not running a bloomin’ café.”

Jean smiled at her then ran up the stairs, pounding so loudly on Roger’s door that the walls shook.

“Blimey,” said Arthur, looking pleased. “I should have done that years ago.”

Rubbing his eyes and looking hungover, Roger stumbled down the stairs and opened his mouth to complain but Arthur stopped him.

“Your mum has something to say,” he said, crossing his arms and nodding at Edna.

She took a deep breath and launched into her speech about how unappreciated she felt and how things were going to change.

“And I won’t be taken for granted anymore,” said Edna firmly. “You kids are old enough to wash your own clothes and make your own beds.”

“You gone all women’s lib?” Roger asked, scratching his head.

“No, I’m just not cleaning up your mess anymore. And here’s another thing—you’re going to stop being a lazy sod and living off your father. Jean goes out to work, and if you want to eat, you’ll do the same. I don’t care if you want to be a rock star or a road sweeper—you’ll pull your weight.” She ignored her son’s shock and turned to her daughter. “Your father and I have some savings put by so we’re going to open a hairdressing salon. I’ll run it and you can be head stylist and assistant manager.” She paused. “If that’s what you want, Jeanie. You and me working together, doing something with our lives.”

Jean’s smile was wide and happy. “Sounds brilliant, Mum.”

Later that evening, while they were watching Coronation Street, Arthur whispered to Edna, “You’re not going to wear that ‘orrible orange kaftan again, are you?”

Edna started laughing. She laughed until she coughed and wheezed, her eyes watering and her nose running.

“What’s so funny?” asked Arthur, but then he started to smile, too.

THE END


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