Sally Shaw has an MA Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. She writes short stories and poetry. She gains inspiration from old photographs, history, and she is inspired by writers Sandra Cisneros, Deborah Morgan and Liz Berry. Her short prose, 'A School Photograph,' has been published online by Newmag, and 'Cherry Scones' by Ink Pantry. In 2019 she was proud to have her short story placed on the longlist for the Sunderland Short Story Award. Her short story ‘The Liberator’ has been published in an ebook anthology Tales from Garden Street (Comma Press, 2019). She writes book reviews for Sabotage Reviews and Everybody’s Reviewing. She writes a blog called Sally’s Stories & Book Reviews. Sally worked as a nurse for thirty-three years and is originally from the northwest of England. She now lives in North Warwickshire with her partner and three pekin bantams. She is on Twitter @SallySh24367017. Below, you can read the first chapter of her story, Spokes of the Docker's Umbrella.
When I was a girl my dad told me he took a ride on a train - a train that ran above the streets of Liverpool. It was known as the Docker's Umbrella or the Ovee. This is the first chapter of Spokes of The Docker's Umbrella, a story about the last day the train ran and a girl named Dot who boards the Ovee and recalls a friendship and discovers the truth that has stopped her mum loving her.
Spokes of The Docker's Umbrella starts on the 30th December 1956 in Liverpool 5. Dot sneaks out of her house to take a ride on the Ovee. It’s the final day the train will run. Dot’s train journey takes her back to the day in 1955 when she first bumps into Ruby and a friendship formed riding the Docker's Umbrella. For Dot’s mother Vera and friends Lil and Jagger, though, the journey is further back - to the early 1940s to confront conflicts and gain resolutions. It is the journeys they all take on that final day that trigger the memories of the past and lead to reconciliations and a better future.
Spokes of The Docker's Umbrella
The backdoor slams, the latch snaps into its cradle, and Dorothy sucks in her breath. The back light stays off, a signal it’s safe to make a dash for it.
If her mum catches her she’ll knock her into the middle of next week.
It’s the last Sunday of 1956. The air is chilled and the icy rain smacks Dot’s nose and cheeks. She does not look back as she races ahead. By the time she stops running to catch her breath, she’s at the end of Scottie Road.
At the Pier Head Station kiosk, other twelve-year-olds hold hands with their mums and dads while choosing a quarter of their favourite sweets. Dot tries to remember a time when her mum held her hand. She pushes through the crowd of overcoats, umbrellas, and bags of sweets and finally squeezes between two fat women to the ticket office. She’s never seen so many people getting on the Ovee. Everybody is laughing, singing and sharing stories.
“Keep your ticket safe now, our kid.” A woman in front of Dot hands a little girl her special token. She cushions the girl’s hand between her tan-gloved palms, then strokes the child’s red mittened hand as she speaks: “It’s a souvenir ticket.”
“Why?” the girl asks, while patting the sleeve of the woman’s brown overcoat.
“It’s the Docker's Umberella’s last day.”
Two pennies roll off the ticket counter. Bounce and spin, then roll away from Dot. A black boot halts the rolling pennies. A sweet-smelling swanky man stands looking proud.
“Happy to help, Ma’am.”
Dot snatches the pennies from under the American’s raised boot. She smiles up at him. He smiles back and in that moment she’s happy.
On the platform the people are packed together ten-deep and Dot wishes Ruby was there. It was always her and Ruby on the Ovee.
There are three loud bangs. Dot jumps. A docker holds her forearm.
“Don’t worry, love, it’s just the fog detonators on the track.”
He lets go of her arm as the train stops at the platform and Dot nods at him.
The excited crowd lets out a cheer and camera flashes cause white patches to float in front of Dot’s eyes, as she is herded into the carriage. She stumbles onto the train, where it’s standing room only. Jagger, Dot’s neighbour, is sat by the window. He sees Dot trip as she boards.
The usual odour of damp donkey-jackets, tool bags and sweat of the dockers has gone, replaced by last-day travellers. Cigarette smoke swirls around the passengers, blended with sandalwood, lavender and honeysuckle.
Jagger calls out to her.
“Hey, queen! It’s Jagger.”
Dot doesn’t hear Jagger above the chatter, laughter and singing. And her thoughts are with Ruby. The odour in the train makes her think about Christmas Day. She thinks the passengers must have got presents of perfume and cigarettes. She never got to give Ruby a present. She feels a hand on her shoulder, jumps around and feels relief at the sight of Jagger.
“Here sit down, you were miles away.”
She sits by the window, looks out to see herself staring back.
Four young ladies, linking arms in twos, stand at the end of the carriage under the ‘No Smoking’ sign. Layers of pink, cream, blue, and green tulle are held down by gentle coloured quarter-length coats. Dot notices their beautiful flat shoes, sparkles of silver, gold and ruby red. She imagines them at St Georges Hall on the magnificent wooden dance floor. She looks down at her one-size-too-small red Start-rite sandals. She glances at the feet to her right. Sonnet candy-striped sandals shuffle side to side, knees touch. The candy sandals leave the train at Canada. Dot wants to run after them, and she remembers the first time she saw Ruby.
It was the first day of term. September 1955. Dot skipped down Latimer Street in her one-size-too-big red Start-rite sandals. Her greying white-socked heels slid out and in with each flick of her feet. Her forehead banged against the girl’s forehead who was running in the opposite direction and Dot fell backwards. Her backside thudded against the pavement. She blurted out: “Jesus.” A pair of Sonnet candy-striped sandals, with ankle socks neatly turned down, appeared between Dot’s splayed legs.
“Cat got yer tongue?”
Ruby put out her hand to pull Dot up, and then swiftly withdrew it to rub her forehead.
“Yer didn’t half crack me head.”
A rosebud bruise started to blossom above her nose, when she offered a helping hand again. Dot grasped the outstretched hand surprised by the strength as she was dragged back onto her feet. She smacked dust from her grubby school dress, while saying how sorry she was, her face flame-red to match her short-cropped hair. Ruby is not bothered and wants to know who had bumped into her.
“I’m Ruby, who are you?”
“I like yer, Dot.”
They walked side by side to the bottom of Latimer Street. Both stopped and stared at the sign which read St Sylvester’s School. Ruby took Dot’s hand and they walked through the gates.
“I was going to sag off school.”
“When yer bumped into me, I was sagging off.”
“What stopped you?”
Ruby stopped walking, looked down, shuffled her candy-striped sandals.
“What, is it, Rubes?”
Ruby’s thick black hair fell forward over her face.
“I’ve never had a friend … yer are …”
“Dead right I’m your bezzie … forever.”
From then on, they would meet up at the top of Latimer Street, and walk back up after school. Each footstep strengthened the bond between them. At the end of the first week as they were about to go their separate ways, Ruby piped up:
“Coming with me on the Ovee? We can go tomorrow.”
Dot walked away. She felt sick:
“I can’t. Me mum won’t let me out.”
She ran away from Ruby across the road onto the wasteland that was once houses, bombed in '41. Dot climbed to the top of a mound of red bricks. Sobs stalled her breathing, knees tucked under her chin, raised up on the rubble of the bombed-out waste ground. Dot felt an arm around her shoulder, a kiss on her cheek. Through the slowing sobs she started to tell Ruby. She told her she lived with her mum up on Anderson Street. Her mum never let her out of the house except to clean the front doorstep.
“I do remember one time when I was little.” She sniffled. “My hair was curly.”
“What had yer done?”
“I snuck out and sat on the front step.”
Ruby pulled Dot into her. Dot leant her head on Ruby’s chest. The warmth of her breath whispers over Dot’s cheek. The rise and fall of her chest lulled her.
“What happened next?”
“I started to cry.”
“Did yer mum batter yer?”
“No, I got scared.”
“Lil! … she’s not scary. She’s my ninny. I go to church with her every Sunday. Do anything for anybody… not only yer washing.”
Dot closed her eyes and she can see her small self, sitting on the front doorstep. She is watching a dog trot down the street. He cocks his scraggy leg against a lamppost. She is mesmerized by the amber pee, as it ripples along the spaces between the cobbles … where does it go and where will it stop? Other dogs patter by and Dot can see they are scholars of the street - something she herself aspires to. Tara the tan Boxer dog is always by Lil’s side on her round collecting washing. Lil smokes Capstan Full Strength some call her ‘Fag Ash’ behind her back. Dot thinks she’s a man. Lil has short hair, wears a donkey-jacket, black trousers with turn-ups, black leather boots and a flat cap. Her large hands grip the handle of a massive twin Silver-Cross pram. Dot wonders how the babies in the pram don’t get squashed beneath the bundles of weekly washing.
Ruby took a deep breath, the rise and fall of her chest jolted Dot back, to her and Ruby. She opened her eyes and continued to tell Ruby about being scared.
“I wasn’t scared of Lil, not of … Lil … I was petrified of her babies being crushed under the washing.”
“Babies? Oh, the twins. They’re my Uncles. No, they weren’t in the pram and they’re men now. ”
“Me mum heard me crying, clipped me over the head and pushed me back in the house.”
Dot lifted her head from Ruby’s chest and looked into Ruby’s blue eyes and asked her how could, they be friends. Ruby grabbed Dot by both hands pulled her to her feet. “We can.” The two girls stood on a mountain top of rubble. Ruby placed a finger onto Dot’s lips.
They heard the rumble of a distant train.
“Hear that? That’s the Ovee. We’re going to ride on it.”
They hugged, each not wanting to be the first to let go. Finally, Ruby surrendered her hug and ran off shouting.
“See yer Monday, my queenie.”
The carriage door swings open, the winter air cuts into her ankles. Dot’s eyes focus on the ‘No Spitting’ sign. No one has it in mind to spit out the window this last afternoon. A flat-capped docker slides open the window sucks on his cigarette, raises his face up and slowly puffs out circles of smoke. He flicks the cigarette stub out the window and it clips the glass before it disappears into the ether. The sound of the cigarette hitting the window takes Dot back to the first time her and Ruby rode the Ovee. Dot looks out the train window and in her mind she is taken back to 1955 when she had known Ruby for a whole month. It took that long before they rode the Ovee for the first time.
After the second ‘chink’ Dot burrowed her head under the grotty net curtain she could see Ruby in the back-entry. Her arm flung back taking aim. Dot pushed up the rickety sash window. The window opened to the height of a milk bottle she pressed her face into the gap.
“Rubes, what you doing?”
“Come on out … I’ve just seen your mum down Greaty market.”
“She’ll be back soon and …”
“What can she do if you’re not here?”
“Yer can. We’ll have a laugh … come on Dot.”
The backdoor latch clicked into its cradle. Dot skipped across the sun-soaked backyard and opened the gate to a new world. Once through the gate they held each other in victory. The gushing of excitement glued them together until, Ruby blurted out:
“Smells like finny haddock!”
“Hey it’s not me!”
They laughed pinched their noses ran hand in hand down the back-entry, away from the pong of the outdoor lavs. Once clear, they released their noses and breathed in the not-so-fresh air.
Dot looked at Ruby and couldn’t remember a time without her. Her heart was about to burst at the thought of an adventure - just her and Ruby, bound together yet free.
They stood on the pavement below Pier Head station.
“I told yer…”
Ruby clutched Dot’s waist pulled her close, glimpsed the amazement on Dot’s face as she saw for the first time the staircase up to the platform above the street.
“Are we going up there?”
“Dead right, we are, it’s brilliant … come on then.
“Wait for me.”
Dot mirrored each step-up Ruby took. She gripped the handrail, giddy, a swirling feeling in the pit of her tummy. By the time they reached the platform Ruby danced and chatted to coax Dot to follower her.
“Come here … come here look between the canopy.”
Dot looked along the track. She saw where the rail caught the sun as it bent around from beneath the platform canopy. Beyond the track, small people walked, cars, buses, and trams floated by.
“No don’t look down … look up … up.”
Dot bent her neck back. High beyond the canopy of the station the Liver Building clock tower could be seen. Perched on the top of the clock tower a giant bird. Its wings outstretched and seaweed hung from its beak.
“Oh … Ruby, I have never seen ...”
“That’s the boy one, Bertie … the girl Bella is on the other clock tower. They’re called the Liver Birds. Yer must …”
Dot was enchanted by the Liver Bird she wondered how did, he and his wife get on top of the clock towers and why?
“No, I never come to town.”
There was a silence broken by the rumble of the arriving train. Carriage doors swung open, mums and children jumped off as Dot followed Ruby into the third-class carriage. Their legs stuck against the wooden slats. Skin squeaked and pulled each time they shuffled about on the seat. Ruby moved to the front of the carriage and beckoned Dot to stand at her side. They are under the ‘No Spitting’ sign above the window. Ruby slid the window open and breathed in the salty cabbage smell of the river Mersey.
“Dot, once we’re past the Liver Bird keep looking, don’t blink … promise.”
“I promise … but what …”
As the train rumbled around the bend and emerged out of the shadow of the Liver Building there it was: a ship’s red funnel, not only one: one, two, three, the blue sides floated high, high out of the water and the people looked like tiny models. Yellow, red, blue, and white coloured bunting flowed down from each funnel and wrapped around the gangway and railings. Ruby and Dot were travelling above the streets of Liverpool, but they looked up to see miniature people aboard the liner.
“How did you know …”
“Me dad’s a docker.”
“I bet it’s going to the other side of the world.”
“New York City.”
“I don’t know where that is, Ruby.”
“Yer do … it’s the other side of the world.”
The train rattled along and they giggled when the carriage swayed, causing a lad to bash into their holding hands. Ruby belted a stout lad on the back of his head; when he shouts: “Give us a kiss then” to Dot. His face went beetroot and the rest of the group laughed, then turned away when they caught Ruby’s glare.
“I’ll batter yous all in a minute.”
Ruby squeezed Dot’s hand. Dot went to embrace her around the waist but caught the eye of the stout boy and stopped herself. For a moment she thought of her mum. She saw how Ruby looked at her. It was not a maternal look.
She couldn’t be sure what a mum should be like. She thought of her mum now and how she heard her crying at night from beneath her cornflower eiderdown. Sometimes she thought the crying was a dream. But it’s wasn’t; when her mum glared at her over the kitchen table the next morning, her eyelids were swollen. Dot thought, was it her that made her mum cry? Or was it something else?
“Don’t let them lads upset yer.”
“I’m alright … but …”
“I know you’re worried about your mum.”
“She’ll be mad with me.”
“We’ll get off here and jump on the next train to James Street, so we can get the bus home.”
“I don’t have any bus fare.”
“I have … I’ll get yer home.”
They get off the bus on Scottie Road.
“Dot I’ll keep yer mum busy at the front door, while you nip in through the back kitchen.”
“What will you say?”
Dot’s heart bounced up into her neck. She shoved open the gate of the back yard. Mouth dry, heart clicking in her throat, her thumb pressed down the latch, and it clicked out of its cradle. She counted to ten and pushed the back door, exhaled, when she heard Ruby’s voice at the front door.
“Hello, Mrs Grey, can Dot come out to play?”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Ruby … Ruby O’Leary, Dot’s best friend from school.”
“Well, Ruby O’Leary. Dorothy is in her bedroom and won’t be out to play today.”
“Can I call for her next Saturday please, Mrs Grey?”
“Aren’t you Lil’s …”
“Granddaughter! Do you know her?”
“Never you mind, I’ll see you next week.”
Ruby ran along the back-entry. She pressed her spine against the cool bricks of the back yard of the house across the entry to Dot’s house. She waited for Dot to appear at her bedroom window. When the smell of finny haddock became unbearable, a beaming face fringed by dirty nets bobbed-up at the window. Ruby jumped forward from the wall, patted her heart and held up her palm towards Dot. She skipped back down the entry and home, unable to stop smiling.
“Dorothy! Dorothy, come down now.”
Dot regained control of her emotions, and she paused on the small square landing between the two bedrooms. Her mum was in the kitchen slicing a loaf of bread. On the table was a half a block of butter, a jar of strawberry jam and a glass of milk. Dot was not keen on the taste of milk, but she never said.
“Get the plates and put the kettle on, will you?”
“Who was that at the door, mum?”
“Fag-ash Lil and Tara.”
“Mum … can I go out and play after my tea?”
“No, you can clean the step.”
The jam sandwich tasted of pure strawberries. The milk less milky. Dot was bursting at the seams to tell her mum all about the sights from the Ovee. Fizzing to tell her she had a best friend. The kettle whistles. Dot poured the boiling water into the brown teapot. She placed a chipped china cup and saucer in front of her mum. Her mum looked up. She did not smile.
The floorboards creaked on the landing. Her mum’s shoes spanked each stair on her way down. Her unhappiness caused the door to bang against the kitchen wall. Dot counted one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, bang:
“Dorothy, Dorothy , time you were up! The kettle’s on, I’m out to the lav.”
On Saturdays Dot had a strip down-wash. She half-filled a washbowl with cold water from the tap over the sink and waited for the kettle to whistle. She filled the teapot with the boiling water first and poured the rest into the washbowl. She rubbed a navy cloth against a bar of carbolic soap. Took extra care to scrub herself with the square of old knickers, moving the cloth into the folds of her developing body. The lav door flew open, her mum scowled at her through the grubby kitchen window. Dot tucked her vest in her knickers as the backdoor swung open.
Her mum dipped her hands into the washbowl, the splash of her hands the only sound. The atmosphere was as stodgy as the porridge on Dot’s spoon. She was aware her mum is a volcano. Sometimes when her mum looked at her, it was almost as though she was about to tell Dot something, let something go, she never did.
“Mum, can I come to the Greaty… I can help carry…”
“No … not today.”
As Dot swallowed her last mouthful of porridge, she wished she could have Cornflakes but they didn’t have the money for milk or sugar. She shuffled about on her chair thinking any minute now, Ruby will be here. The chipped teacup chimed onto the saucer as Ruby knocked on the front door. Dot pushed herself away from the table.
Her mum placed a hand on the top of Dot’s head and pressed her back onto the chair. Dot’s knees shook side to side, heels raised out of her sandals. Ruby’s voice echoed in the lobby:
“Hello, Mrs Grey, it’s Ruby O’Leary. Yer said to come back today.”
“I remember what I told you.”
“Mrs Grey, can Dot … I mean Dorothy…”
“Why should I trust you with my daughter?”
“I go to church every Sunday and I can cross the road … oh and I win fights with my brothers … and she’s my best, best friend … Mrs Grey.”
Mrs Grey speaks to stop a smile. The brightness in her voice calms Ruby.
“You better come in then.”
“I said come in!”
Dot rushed over to the sink as she heard her mum ask Ruby to come in. She did not turn around her hands gripped the side of the sink.
“Dorothy, you have a visitor.”
“Dorothy, yer mum says I can take you out.”
“Not so quick, Ruby O’Leary, I didn’t say anything about going out.”
“Aww Mrs Grey, I told me ninny I was taking Dorothy into town and she’s given me some money to spend.”
There was an awkward silence, Dot folded the tea towel in half and half again, Ruby pulled-up her knee-high socks, one, two. Dot’s mum’s face softened when she heard Ruby mention Lil, but it quickly harden again.
“Right, yous two, I am putting my trust in you. Especially in you Ruby. You get back here no later than four. Do you hear?”
“Yer can rely on me, Mrs Grey.”
“Both of you back here for tea. Now go on get out before I change my mind.”
That day they did get back by four. It was the best day of Dot’s life. Chips and egg for tea.
Her mother cut the bread into thick slices and buttered them to make the best chip butties, and there was a jug of orange squash on the table. Her mum wanted to know where they had been and what they had done. Ruby was the one to tell their tale. This was the story she told as the three of them sat around the kitchen table in Anderson Street.
“Mrs Grey we rode on the Ovee past the Liver Building, went all the way to Seaforth and back.”
“I waved to Bertie, didn’t I, Ruby?”
Ruby wiped egg yolk from her chin with the back of her hand and nodded.
“Who’s Bertie when he’s at home?”
“Oh, sorry, Mrs Grey, he’s one of the Liver Birds on top of the Liver Building.”
“Mum, he looks, over the city to keep it safe and Bella, the other one, looks out to sea to keep the ships safe.”
“They didn’t do a very good job during the Blitz.”
“They kept you safe, mum.”
“What else did you two get up to?”
“I treated Dot to pick ‘n’ mix from Woolworths and we sat on the steps of St Georges Hall.”
She told Mrs Grey how they looked in the windows of C&A and Henderson’s on Church Street. That there is a man with a tall hat on at Henderson’s who opens the big doors for the ladies and stops children running in.
Ruby didn’t tell Mrs Grey how they were cornered on the platform of the Ovee. It was the stout boy’s gang again. He shouted.
“Is she your girlfriend?”
“Kiss, kiss, kiss.”
The gang formed a circle around Ruby and Dot. Clapping hands and stamping their feet as they shouted ‘kiss’. The circle opened and the tallest of the gang stooped down:
“Slags! Sluts!” He spat. Spittle sprayed into Ruby’s face.
The girls fled down the stairs, arms collided into adults, the bag of pick ‘n’ mix burst. Smarties crackled under the chasing boots. There was a policeman in the street. Ruby grabbed Dot by the arm.
“They’ll catch us.”
The gang raced towards Ruby and Dot. The two girls stood still next to the policeman.
Dot’s head jolts backward and forward her eyes flicker open. She turns to her right to tell Ruby she’d nodded off. It is not Ruby. She didn’t see Ruby again after their day out. She remembers hugging Ruby goodbye, telling her she loved her. Ruby hugged her back, then put her hand on her forehead like on the first day they’d met.
“I’ve got a headache, Dot.”
“Shall I get you an asprin?”
“No, I’ll be alright, see yer Monday, love you too.”
Ruby wasn’t waiting for Dot on Latimer Street on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. The following Monday in assembly prayers were said for Ruby and her family. She had meningitis. In assembly on Friday prayers were said again for Ruby and her family.
Ruby had died.
Dot walked to the top of Latimer Street with each step an increasing sense of emptiness.
When she told her mum about Ruby all she could say was: “Eat yer tea, then clean the front step. No more going out for you.”
Condensation coats the window. Dot traces an outline of Bertie and Bella, wing tip to wing tip. As they take flight high above the Ovee and then out along the Mersey to the other side of the world. To New York City.