Saying Goodbye to Laura by Nikki Copleston


Laura is leaving the country. It’s August 1970, and Penny and Jill are on the train heading for London to see her off — only Laura doesn’t know that’s what they’ve planned. It’s meant to be a surprise.

They all left school in July, and Jill already feels as if school was another world. She’s had a job for a month now, catching the bus into town every morning, catching it home every night, suspended between being a child and being a grownup. Penny’s going to university in September and Laura — well, Laura’s going off to France, living with a family as an au pair for a year so she can improve her French and become an interpreter.

It’s all happened so quickly. Too quickly for Jill. One minute the three of them are hanging out in the Sixth Form toilets comparing notes on their latest heart throbs, and the next they’re catching boat trains and collecting pay slips and looking at bedsits in Birmingham. Come the autumn, Jill will be the only one left behind in their home town, and she’s not sure she’s ready for that.

She and Penny are on their way to Waterloo so they can surprise Laura at Victoria Station. Jill’s wearing her navy-blue school skirt, and a nylon blouse that makes her sweat. Penny, slim and willowy, looks neat in a mini dress from Richards Shops, a crochet cardigan slung round her shoulders.

‘My cousin phoned last night,’ Penny says as the train slides away from Woking (next stop, Waterloo). ‘Desmond.’

The gawky one who works in an office in Swiss Cottage or somewhere. ‘Oh?’

‘He said if we were going up to London today, we should go to Hampstead.’

‘Hampstead’s miles out, Pen. I looked it up when you said John Lennon lived there.’ How long ago that seemed now!

‘We could get the Northern Line from Waterloo.’

‘We’re going to Victoria. That’s on a different Tube line.’

Penny brushes Jill’s objections aside. ‘Laura’s train doesn’t leave till half past two. We’ll have bags of time.’

Anxiety whispers over Jill’s skin like a sudden draught. She can’t miss saying goodbye to Laura! She can’t! ‘What’s so special about Hampstead?’

‘Paul Newman’s going to be there, filming.’

‘Paul Newman? The Paul Newman?’ Jill sighs. Penny always seems to know these things before anyone else does — although more often than not, like with John Lennon living in Hampstead, she gets it wrong. ‘Who says?’

‘Desmond told me. A friend of his is an extra. It’s a spy film set in London and New York, and they’re filming scenes on Hampstead Heath.’

‘We can’t go all the way to Hampstead. We’d never get close to him, anyway.’ And although Jill and Penny have seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid no less that six times at the Gaumont, and Jill knows whole scenes of dialogue by heart, it’s Robert Redford she fell for, not Paul Newman. But Penny worships Paul Newman, and if Cousin Desmond’s mate has told him Paul Newman’s going to be filming in Hampstead, then Penny’s going to want to be there to see him.

‘Come on, Jill. Don’t spoil things!’

Jill knows she always spoils things by looking for reasons not to do them, never taking chances, unadventurous. Whereas Penny — well, Penny’s always looking for excitement, for risks to take, fun. And which of them is happier? Which of them is off to university in Birmingham and which of them is staying at home?

‘Okay,’ says Jill at last, ‘but only if we can get back to Victoria before half past two.’

At Waterloo, they queue for the Ladies — ‘I told you we should have gone on the train!’ says Jill — and then queue to get tickets for the Underground. Down on the platform, they’re swamped by crowds and heat and gritty air. A sooty wind sweeps towards them as a train thunders out of the tunnel and squeals to a halt.

They push their way on. Jill’s patchwork cloth bag is getting squashed and she’s worried about the present she’s made for Laura. She’s filled a scrapbook with drawings and poems, interspersed with little keepsakes like pressed flowers (daisies from the school playing field), ticket stubs from plays they went to together, and programmes from school productions they were both in (though Jill’s roles were always behind the scenes).

She doesn’t want Penny to see it — she’ll think it’s silly. She would have wrapped the scrapbook up, but she wants Laura to look inside it before she goes away, wants to see her face as she discovers what Jill has made for her.

The Tube train jolts along, but it’s only when it arrives at Tufnell Park that Jill realises they’re on the wrong branch. ‘Off, off!’ She shoves Penny out through the doors as they’re closing.

‘What’s wrong? We’re on the Northern Line, aren’t we?’ Penny tugs at her cardigan, the sleeves nearly catching in the doors.

‘Yes, but we need the Edgware branch. We’ll have to go back to Camden Town.’

Changing to the other line uses up nearly half an hour. It’s already after eleven, and Jill can’t stop calculating and re-calculating how long they’ve got before Laura’s train leaves. But hang on — they’ll want to be there at least a few minutes before that.

As they queue for the lift at Hampstead, Jill feels grubby and sticky, her blouse clinging to the small of her back. She can hardly wait to get outside and onto the Heath.

But the station exit opens onto a busy pavement, with no Heath in sight.

‘We’ll ask someone,’ says Penny, accosting a middle-aged woman who backs away from her and carries on striding up the steep street. The next person they ask is more helpful, pointing the way along a little alleyway between old-fashioned shops selling books, antiques, health foods and tea.

But the Heath is still nowhere to be seen, even though the alleyway becomes a road between old houses with huge rambling gardens.

‘Are you sure this is the right way?’ Jill halts on the pavement to wipe the sweat from her upper lip. Her fringe is clinging to her damp forehead. Her shoes are pinching.

A fingerpost points the way to Hampstead Heath, and at last they cross another road into wild scrubland Jill wouldn’t have expected so close to London. Massive trailers are parked along the edge, with electric cables snaking through the grass like boa constrictors. Barriers have been put up to keep the public out, but Penny spots a gap, ducks down and goes through.

‘What are you doing?‘ Jill cries. ‘Can’t you see there’s a fence there?’

‘Don’t be such a spoilsport. Come on or we’ll miss seeing him!’

Grumbling, Jill scrambles through the gap after Penny, who’s following the route of the cables in pursuit of her idol.

From tall gantries, arc lights glare down onto a group of people in a clearing ahead of them. Jill recognises a famous back view: Paul Newman, his hair smoothed back, the collar of his trench coat turned up — the film must be set in winter time — and his broad shoulders held just so. Mesmerised, she’s conscious of Penny beside her, open-mouthed, captivated. He turns his head to the side, presenting that unrivalled profile —

‘That’s not Paul Newman!’ Penny protests, as if she’s been duped. ‘He doesn’t look a bit like Paul Newman!’

A young man breaks away from the group and rushes through the long grass towards them. He’s brandishing a clipboard, shooing them away.

‘That’s not Paul Newman!’ Penny tells him, as if he hasn’t noticed, as if he, too, has been taken in.

‘Course it’s not! It’s his stunt double. You don’t think a star like Paul Newman is going to stand about getting soaked in the middle of Hampstead Heath, do you?’

‘Soaked?’ Jill queries, a split-second before rain descends on her, artificial rain from hoses and sprays. But it’s as wet as real rain. Penny leaps out of the way of the searching jet of water, but Jill is too slow. Her left sleeve is drenched, the left side of her skirt and her cloth bag.

‘Oh no!’ Too late. Even without checking, she knows the contents of the bag, including the scrapbook for Laura, are saturated.

Ruined.

‘Get out of here!’ The man sends them away with a waggle of his clipboard. ‘Clear off!’

‘I’ll murder Desmond,’ says Penny as they slog back to the Underground. Jill doesn’t answer, still stunned by the shock of the cold water. Half of her is wet, and so is all of her bag.

They don’t talk on the way back on the Tube. At Euston, they get off and hurry through the silvery tunnels to the Victoria Line. Letting Penny go on ahead, Jill dares to peek inside her bag. It’s as she’d feared: the scrapbook is a sodden, sticky mess of cardboard and paper.

She no longer cares about saying goodbye to Laura. What’s the point? But then she thinks how long it will be before she sees her again, how many days or even weeks may elapse before Laura has time to write to her. Laura probably has no idea how much Jill is going to miss her, with her jokes and tall stories, her ready appreciation of Jill’s own stories and cartoons. And Laura’s departure is, in itself, a defining moment, the end of things — for Jill, anyway.

They reach Victoria soon after one-thirty, with plenty of time to find out from which platform Laura’s train leaves.

‘I’m hungry,’ says Penny, fully recovered from her fake Paul Newman disappointment. ‘Let’s get something to eat.’

The station buffet is busy and smelly, and Penny’s too impatient to queue. They go out into Victoria Street and buy tea and sandwiches from a kiosk. Jill’s feet are throbbing in her too-tapered shoes, and she checks her watch every few minutes.

‘We should go,’ she says, turning back towards the station. ‘It’s twenty past two. We mustn’t miss her leaving!’

Penny points at her. ‘You’re bleeding!’

Jill looks down. She’s been clamping her bag against her side, and the ink from Laura’s sodden scrapbook has seeped through the cloth and stained her blouse.

‘It isn’t blood,’ she reassures her. ‘It’s ink. I made a scrapbook for Laura and it got wet when we were watching Paul Newman, or not Paul Newman, and now the ink’s run and the scrapbook’s completely ruined and so’s my blouse.’

‘What sort of a scrapbook?’

‘It doesn’t matter. I just want to get there before Laura leaves. I want to say goodbye. And we’re running out of time!’

Even though her feet are hurting, and she looks a mess and feels worse than she looks, Jill hobbles into the station in a bid to catch Laura before she goes away.

But her watch must be slow. The clock shows it’s after half past two. She limps along to the platform in case, by some lucky chance, Laura’s train has been held up. But the boat train has passed beyond the canopy of the station, and the indicator board is already reshuffling itself to show the next departure.

Penny catches up with her. They don’t speak. Jill stares after the train that’s taking Laura away. She feels empty.

They return to Waterloo and catch the train home. Jill watches the sordid outskirts of London give way, eventually, to fields and villages. While Penny goes in search of the toilet, Jill tears the scrapbook up and drops the pieces out of the train window, letting the wind snatch away the dried flowers, the cartoons, the poems, the keepsakes that marked her friendship with Laura.

Penny comes back, flopping down on the opposite seat. ‘She’ll be on the ferry by now. I hope she sends us a postcard when she gets there.’

The worst of it is, thinks Jill, Laura won’t know I was going to surprise her. She won’t know I came to say goodbye.

‘We should go out together more often,’ says Penny, ‘you and me, before I go away. Some outings to celebrate leaving school.’

What is there to celebrate? Jill has left school, but Laura has left England. Who will make her laugh the way Laura could? Who will admire her drawings the way Laura did?

‘I’ll think about it,’ she says, not wanting to hurt Penny’s feelings.

They’re getting close to Andover before Penny says anything else. The light is fading from the sky, and the draught through the open window is suddenly chilly.

Penny looks contrite. ‘I’m sorry you missed seeing Laura off. I didn’t mean to make us late.’

Jill wants to be angry, but her heart isn’t in it. ‘It’s all right,’ she mumbles. ‘It doesn’t matter.’

‘You could come up to Birmingham for the weekend when I’m settled. It’ll be fun, just the two of us. What d’you think?’

Jill sees for the first time how life can go on even though school is over, the girls’ lives going in different directions.

‘That’ll be nice,’ she says, smiling at last. ‘That’ll be really nice.’

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