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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic

Another story about Rita Jones, growing up on a council estate in 1950/60s England, from the collection A Different Song to Sing.


A series of short stories about Rita Jones


A Different Song to Sing


Rita ran into school, late as usual.  The playground was deserted, so the bell must have gone.  It was hard work taking Peter and Sam to the bus stop for the special school bus, as well as dropping off her sister Maria at the juniors  and  then running on to her Secondary Modern School and getting in before  the bell.  Rita toyed with the idea of bunking off, as she hated school.  The only subject she enjoyed was Physical Education, but even that was difficult as she had no gym shoes, locally called daps.  She’d asked her father at the weekend if the family budget would stretch to new daps, but he told her not, even though there was still money for the bottle and jug each night.


Rita idly kicked a stone in the playground with her regulation Clark’s tuff shoes.  Her Dad had told her, to do PE in them.  ‘What did he know?’

The teachers wouldn’t allow it and even if they did, her shoes were too painful and uncomfortable, being as they were at least a size too small. ‘No point in hurrying now’, she reasoned.  ‘I’ve missed registration and got a black mark anyway’.  She tugged at the frayed sleeves of her home knitted navy cardigan with its dropped stitches and slightly different shade of blue from the regulation school uniform which was supposed to have been purchased from a special shop in town, but whose prices were beyond the Jones’ family purse.  More humiliating was the green cuffs and collar, which her mother had added despite violent protestations, because Rita was in green house.  ‘Siddons’, that was another mystery to Rita, the school houses were called; Bronte, Fry, Nightingale and Siddons, all famous women.  Even though Rita had achieved 44th place out of 44 classmates in the C class, she knew that these were famous women. Rita, although the acknowledged thickest girl in the second year, still unable to read properly, knew that Bronte wrote books; Jane Eyre, she’d seen it on the telly.  Fry must have something to do with the chocolate factory up the road, where her Dad worked once and everyone know that Nightingale was the lady with the lamp.  She knew that story from Blue Peter, but what did a lady called Siddons do?  She once asked her tutor, Mrs Silverthorne, but she said she didn’t know either.  At this Rita had sighed because she felt that being in Siddons, in the house that was named after some lady nobody had ever heard of was all part of the general air of failure attached to her life.  To make matters worse Siddons was always last in the merit mark tally, even on sports day.  On hearing that Siddons was not famous enough for her teacher to have heard of her, Rita thought that she was aptly placed.  Rita had failed to learn to read and failed her 11+, she even failed to get into the special school with Pater and Sam, because she was deemed too clever.  ‘Well she couldn’t be that clever’, she pondered, because she was last in the bottom class.  It occurred to her, during one of her many daydreams, that Peter and Sam went to a school for the educationally subnormal, which probably meant less than normal, then she Rita would actually be better off there with her brothers, because normal things were not expected of them.  They did activities like gardening and played about a lot and went on trips that were free. Her brothers actually enjoyed school.  All this sounded preferable to her own poor attempts at fitting in with the other girls.  She pulled her anorak with the broken zip across her skinny frame and sighed, her primary teacher, Mr Marney had told her Dad that she was word blind, whatever that meant.  For her it meant she was bored most of the time and entertained herself by gazing out of the window dreaming about what she would do if her father won the pools.


Rita loved stories and English Literature, when they read, was her favourite lesson after PE, but the pleasure of listening to stories was always blighted by fear of being asked to read out loud by her teacher.  If the tutor went round the class in order, Rita would count the paragraphs on and try to work out some of the words in advance so she would be prepared when her turn came.  Usually after a few stumbling words painfully built up syllable by syllable, the teacher would sigh and press on, asking the next child to read.  Then Rita could relax and enjoy the story.  The best was when the teacher read and did all the different voices and made the story come alive, then it was dead good.


Rita sneaked round the back of school to the bike sheds, where the smokers were.

“Rita, got any fags?” shouted a big rough girl from Moor Road.  Rita hung her head.

“She’s never got any fags”, said another, who began to chant the familiar “Jonese, Jonese, rag and bonese”.

As always feeling an outsider even with girls as poor and neglected as she was, Rita walked across the school field and contemplated on what to do with the problem of no daps.  It must be seven or eight weeks now since the last pair fell apart. She tried to work it out. The first week she got out of PE by saying she had forgotten them.  This earned her a telling off and a black mark for her house.  That got her into trouble with her class mates in Siddons because black marks equated to minus points for her house.  The second week ‘or was it the third?’  She couldn’t remember, she had lied and said her periods had started. The next two weeks she said she’d forgotten them again and the PE teacher had made fun of her in front of the other girls and she’d got black marks again.  Last week she used her period a second time as an excuse, ‘what could she say this week’?  She could not think of any reason that was likely to be believed or accepted.


For the next ten minutes or so Rita mooched around the school field wondering what to do.  Could she quietly talk to her form tutor and maybe the school would give her a pair of daps?  She’d been given bits of school uniform before, but she had never actually asked; her tutor had seen that she was in need and had helped out.  It was bad enough being so poor that people gave you things. To actually have to ask for something seemed to sink to a new low, like Oliver who had asked for more and was beaten with a ladle.  She’d tried stealing shillings off the gas metre shelf, but to date she’d only got two and one of those was a French Franc. 


Rita decided that she could not face the intolerance of the gym tutor or the ragging from the other girls if she got yet another black mark.  Everyone knew that forgetting her daps was a lie anyway.

‘No’, she decided, she would ‘bunk off’. The decision made Rita went to the local park to hang around there until it was time to collect her brothers and sister.



For the next few weeks, Rita bunked off every Monday and hung around the park until it was time to collect the others.  At the end of the day she was always hungry because she had missed her free school dinner.  As the weeks went by she become more and more disheartened and it got harder and harder hanging round the clock tower at the park.  The weather was getting colder and her flimsy anorak did not keep out the wind let alone the rain.  She’d spend hours studying the graffiti on the wooded walls of the clock tower.  Some words were obvious; kids names, swear words and love with a heart for an ‘o’.  Others, no matter how hard she tried, she could not make them out.


Rita became more and more depressed.  She loved PE, it was the only subject at which she shone.  To miss it was bad enough, but hunger, cold and boredom was much worse.   She made a decision that last cold windy day as the leaves swirled around her ankles, that she would once again brave the intimidation of the teacher and the hoots of derision from the other girls.


The following Monday she went to school.  When it was time for PE she sat on the benches in the assembly hall which doubled as a gym and did not go to the changing room at all.  Mrs Jones the PE teacher, whose prickly chin and hairy mole had fascinated Rita, when she shoved them in her face, mid rant, saw her and ignored her.  Mrs Jones waited until the girls were lined up before she made her move on Rita.

“I suppose your excuse is that you are ‘on’ again, because you can’t count either?”  Laughter from the girls.  Rita hung her head and studied the wooden block flooring.

“I forgot”, she mumbled.

“You forgot?” Sneered Mrs Jones. “Three black marks and a detention, 100 lines, ‘I must not forget my games kit’, but of course, you cannot write and you don’t have a pencil case, so you can just sit there and wait”.  The other girls laughed.  Hilary, House Prefect tossed her curls and smirked, whilst Pay Criddle, leading bully in Siddons House made sure that Rita saw her clenched fist. ‘I’ll get you later’, she mouthed. Rita said nothing, she stared at the dusty floor and looked at the patterns of scuff marks on her shoes.  


All the following week Rita was despondent.  The problem of no daps never left her.  She cried angry tears as she trudged home with the pull along full of scrumpy.  She lay sleepless in each night in the bed she shared with Maria.  The plastic mattress and nylon bobbled sheets seemed even more uncomfortable than usual as she lay and wondered what to do.  Then one night it came to her, apart from illness or being ‘on’, only injury got you out of PE with honour.  Illness was no good, because Mrs Jones would know if she was faking it.  No it had to be a visible injury.  The following Saturday, Rita kept trying to bang into things or spill tea down her front, but each time her natural, survival instinct came to the fore and she leapt away or stopped in time. By Sunday afternoon, she was desperate.  After lunch, which consisted of roast rabbit, her father told her it was her turn to clean out the hutches in the shed.  As she entered the shed, she saw the bits of fur and blood from the one they had just eaten and a couple of rabbit’s feet on the bench, ready to give to someone for good luck.The whole shed was littered with dried rabbit food, sacks of dandelions, old tools, and an old lump hammer used as a door stop.


As she spied this last item, it occurred to Rita that you could give yourself a nasty bruise with one hefty whack from that without too much damage.  She sat on the dirty concrete floor with her knees forward and experimentally lifted the hammer from amongst the sawdust and rabbit droppings, which had leaked out from the lower cages.  She weighted it in her hands, getting the feel of it, ‘gosh it was heavy’.  Tentatively she thwacked her knee with it, the reflex action shot her foot out.  There was no mark on her leg, at the last moment the swing had lost its momentum and the contact had been quite gentle.  This was going to be more difficult than she had anticipated.  She looked around for other tools which might do the trick; a rusty saw, files and knives came in to view. But even she knew that you could get lockjaw from dirty wounds, no it had to be something that didn’t break the skin.  There was nothing for it, she would have to use the lump hammer again.  Once more she swung it towards her knee with her eyes closed and her teeth clenched.  Once again, at the last second, something in her, pulled back.  Time and time again she either missed altogether or the impact made no mark at all. 


Rita began to sob gently. Silent tears falling down her grubby cheeks and on to her knees.  The salt in her tears when she rubbed them from her knees, cleaned them and that reminded her it was Sunday, bath night and tomorrow was Monday. Blind panic seized her.  She could see Hilary tossing her curls.  She remembered Fay thrusting her up against the bike shed and threatening her with smoky breath.  She recalled Mrs Jones’ hairy chin in her face, telling her two detentions and three black marks.  In desperation, she picked up the hammer and swung it against her knee, again and again, until it really hurt.  Finally, she opened her eyes which were streaming with anger and pain.  She tasted blood and put her fingers to her lips, she realised she had bitten into them and made them bleed. With thudding heart she looked at her knee.  ‘Yes’!  It looked bruised, it was already a bit swollen and very red.  ‘This would do the trick’.  Despite the pain, her heart leapt, she was exalted she would not be made fun of tomorrow.


Rita got up from the shed floor and felt to her satisfaction that the knee was very painful, in fact she could hardly put any weight on it.  She limped back round to the dirty, litter strewn kitchen and through to the grubby living room where her mother knitted and her Dad slept whilst watching the TV.  Rita hobbled over to her father’s chair and woke him up.

“Dad”, she said, “I’ve fallen over and hurt my knee”.

“Have you finished mucking out the rabbit shed?” He asked.

“No”, she said “I can hardly walk”.

He roused himself from his afternoon nap. “Let’s have a look at it?”

She tried to lift her foot and place it between her father’s greasy, shiny, trousered legs, but found it wouldn’t bend.  When she looked at her knee, she saw it was turning rather pleasing shades of red and faint purple, a bit like a rabbit with its skin removed.

“Bloody Hell Lizzy, how did you do that?”  He always affectionately called her Lizzy, for skinny Liz.

“I fell over” said Rita, unconvincingly, very near to tears again. Her father stood up suddenly angry.

“You’ve been jumping off the porch again or else jumping on the back of the milk float” he cried forgetting it was Sunday, in his anger and concern.

“How many times have I told you not to jump off the porch, that’s not just from a simple fall, you need to go upstairs and rest it”.

Rita went upstairs one step at a time. Her knee was now so swollen that she had to lift it herself and place her foot on each stair.  Once upstairs she went to the toilet, rubbed a grubby flannel round her face and settled into bed. As she fell asleep, she could feel the knee throbbing and buzzing, she touched it once and it felt very, very, warm. ‘This should do the trick’, she thought.


A few hours later she woke and the pain was agonising, she called her sister to switch on the light and six year Maria took a moment to wake and Rita had to pull all the covers off her to get her to stir. Maria put the light on and Rita looked at her knee.  It was so swollen it was not recognisable, it was about the size of a football and visibly throbbed.Her head hurt as well and she felt really hot and shivery at the same time.  She wondered about waking up her parents and knew they would not be pleased.  Reluctantly, Rita told Maria to go and wake their father.  Maria padded across the bare floorboards of the landing and knocked at the bedroom door.  There was no answer, the musty smell of unwashed sheets greeted Maria as she tentatively went into the bedroom.  Her Dad’s side was the nearest, she pulled at the shoulder of her Dad’s pyjamas.

“Dad! Our Rita’s really bad”, their father slowly woke up, beer breath and tongue like sandpaper.

“What the hell do you want this time of night?”

“It’s our Rita, her leg’s gert big like”.

With a sigh he got out of bed and padded across the landing to his daughter’s room. “What’s all the fuss about then?”

Rita said nothing but pulled back the covers and winced as they moved across her knee.

“Christ Lizzy,” He said, “you should go to hospital. We can’t get the bus and I can’t carry you, you’re too big now. I think I’d better go up the phone box and call an ambulance”.



The next morning Rita woke up in crisp, clean, white sheets which cracked with starch when she moved.  The pain in her knee had lessened and her head did not throb as much.  She had a cage hung over her knee so that the weight of the blankets wouldn’t hurt it and a tube draining off fluid.  The nurse came and asked her if she wanted any breakfast.  Rita nodded.  ‘It would be a big breakfast’, she thought. Foods she had never tasted before.  Later the nurse told her that she would have to talk to the hospital social worker.  Rita knew why this was, they thought her mother had done this too her, because last time she was in Cosham hospital, years ago, when she was little, it was because her Mum had whipped her with a skipping rope for being naughty.  After breakfast Rita felt sleepy again and when she woke, the sun was streaming through the big hospital windows and she vaguely wondered if her PE lesson had started yet.  As she stretched her arms above her head, the social worker came to talk to her. Rita had already decided to tell the truth, most social workers were nice.  Once when she was little they had a social worker who used to bring them a Tiffin bar each.  Rita could remember the sweet dairy chocolate, biscuit and chewy raisins breaking up in her mouth.  The saliva ran as she remembered this, she had not had chocolate for ages. 


After Rita had told the social worker lady all about not having daps, and about Mrs Jones and other girls and the hiding in the park, she saw the social worker rummaging about in her battered, leather, satchel like bag for a tissue.

“I’ve got a cold”, she apologised.  She then went on to tell Rita about clothing grants for school uniform as her Dad was out of work.  And she explained that Rita would definitely get a new pair of gym shoes.  Rita was so pleased, she started to cry; happy tears for once.  She wanted to hug the social worker lady but couldn’t on account of her knee being in a cage, but she thanked her and the social worker stayed and talked some more. She told Rita that she was a clever, sensible, girl. No one had ever said that before and she liked it.  As she left, she straightened her brown pleated skirt and said to Rita “What do you want to be when you leave school, a clever girl like you?”

Surprised by the question and without thinking it through Rita said with spirit and anger and truth, “PE teacher.”


“Because it’s my best subject and I want to make sure no teacher treats children the way I get treated.”

“You do that my dear, I’m sure you will make a very good and caring teacher, you’ve got heart and spirit and brains. You are a very resilient young lady.”

“What’s resilient mean?”

 “Go and look it up when you get back to school”.

‘Resilient’; Rita saved that word up in her memory and in her heart. During the next school year with a different English teacher, called Miss Bush, Rita finally learned to read and when she felt confident enough she looked it up; Resilient:  a strong person who can withstand and recover from difficult situations.  And she could and she did.

Red Rhoda©

Submitted: April 07, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Red Rhoda. All rights reserved.

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Add Your Comments:


Criss Sole

This was very touching. It breaks my heart that poor Rita had to go to such lengths to get a little help.
I am so glad in the end she was doing better. I was very moved by this story.

Wed, April 8th, 2020 10:52am


Thanks, this is one of many, all true, life gets better and better for Rita as she progresses through her teens and into adulthood.

Fri, April 10th, 2020 2:27am

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Short Story / Memoir