On the Tram (1964)

(Excerpt from my unpublished novel: Becoming Beata)

The rocking of the tram is soothing. If she doesn’t make eye contact with anyone, she can ignore the other passengers. With the right change, she can keep her communication to a minimum. In this moment, there is no-one to take care of, no-one to be wary of. She can breathe in and out. She can be in the company of her thoughts, her dreams and memories. This morning more so than ever. She has planned carefully and prepared herself.

Even though she’s barely slept, she got up earlier than usual and applied some foundation and powder to her face, covering the cut on her nostril and the bruise around her eye. She is wearing dark glasses; she has parted her hair to the side to further cover the side of her face where the blows are visible. Not for the passengers on the tram, who are strangers after all; but for the women at work, who will ask questions.

If anyone so much as asks me what’s wrong or even looks at me kindly, I will burst into tears.

And I might never stop.

She stares between the shoes on the feet in front of hers, at the grey wooden flooring of the tram. What had it been this time? Her heart squeezes tightly in her chest as she remembers her sons, huddled together, crying on the floor last night, mewling like two, lost kittens. She feels her trachea tightening to push away a sob.

She had gone to them; taken them to the bathroom where she’d washed their faces with a warm, flannel and silenced their crying with words of encouragement. She had helped them back into bed and stayed in their room until they had fallen asleep. This morning she had readied them for school.

Beata feels bad about that. She should have kept them at home and ministered further to them. She should have taken them to a beautiful park and treated them to sweets. They needed her to heal from the terrible punishment of seeing and feeling their father’s blows. She would do something nice for them. But today she has to work. She’s afraid to take days off; she fears losing her job where she has friends and feels appreciated.

Above all, she’s afraid to lose this source of income; where she earns her living. Her weekly wages are the one area where she has some freedom. Despite earning a lot less than Federico, he demands she contribute the same amount towards their savings for a home deposit and household expenses. Luckily, he assumes she doesn’t have any savings after meeting the obligations he imposes on her. He doesn’t show much interest in her bank book. And is very secretive about his own.

Despite Federico’s demands and assumptions, Beata does have some savings and is proud of her slow-growing bank balance. Raised on a diet of deprivation, she knows how to make do. Her father’s view was to buy only the indispensable; and there was little of that. From memory, she can count on her hands the things that they bought. A few staples that they couldn’t grow themselves: wheat, sugar, coffee; her sewing machine, specific items of clothing and the occasional pair of shoes. The rest was cultivated or raised or made by them, on the farm.

They made almost everything they needed, often using what they already had. They repaired everything that was broken or worn out. Even what was beyond repair was precious and kept as material for repairing something else, or ‘just in case’. There was a much-repeated adage she remembers around her home and the local area: ‘When it’s broken, keep it near, as you’ll use it three times a year.’

She remember how she giggled behind her hand, as a child, when her father muttered the old saying. Over time, however, she had come to see the wisdom of straightening out an old nail; keeping broken tools and household items; worn out sheets and tablecloths, clothing and blankets.

Deep down, Beata is proud of her lifelong habit. Economising wherever she can, she easily avoids spending money on herself. She lovingly mends and darns worn socks and stockings. She carefully unpicks and turns frayed collars and cuffs on shirts. She enjoys knitting jumpers and cardigans. And when they no longer fit, have too many holes, or look too tired, she pulls out the stitches and re-uses the wool in a new garment.

She still buys some things, of course. But Beata knows the secrets to extend their life-span. When bedsheets and towels become so thin that they tear, she repurposes them into tea towels, dish-cloths and cleaning rags. Federico’s old shirts and trousers get transformed into new clothing for the boys. And her own, dated clothing, is refashioned into more contemporary styles.  She takes in small, alteration jobs for relatives.

It all adds to the savings in her bank account, which she loves. Having her own money is special and precious.

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