‘Do you really want to sit the exams for grammar school?’ Duncan asked his sister, hardly able to believe she did.

A Little Learning

A Little Learning

Janet spun round in excitement. ‘More than anything,’ she said.

Duncan stared at his sister in astonishment. He couldn’t under- stand her, and that bothered him, because he and Janet had always been very close, at least till this business. He couldn’t deny she was excited, it shone out of her. He’d never thought of Janet as pretty. He was the good-looking one, with his blond curls and brilliant blue eyes. When he was younger, people were always saying he was too pretty to be a boy and what a shame his sister was so plain. He’d never looked at Janet much, she was just his sister, but he looked at her now. He noted that the mousy hair, that Mom made her keep short because of the risk of nits, seemed to have more body and was somehow fluffed out around her face. Even her eyes, usually a nondescript sort of deep grey, sparkled with excitement and transformed her whole face. Her skin had lost its sallowness and her mouth didn’t seem so large, caught up as it was in a beam of happiness.

Duncan couldn’t help grinning back at his sister. Janet’s delight was infectious. He shook his head as he said, ‘Well, I can see you’re pleased, Jan, but I don’t see what you’ve got to be pleased about.’

‘Oh, Duncan, it’s what I’ve always dreamed of.’

‘Well,’ Duncan said, ‘if it means that  much  to  you  I  hope you pass, but I still think you need your head testing.’

Janet watched Duncan kicking a ball up the garden for his young twin brothers to run after, but didn’t run after them. They’d all been sent to the garden because their parents wanted to talk, and Janet knew what about. Though her father had come round a bit about the exams, in the beginning he was all for not letting Janet take them at all. She knew he was worried about the expense of it all, like keeping her at school all those extra years and buying her uniform. Her mother said she’d just fix it and Janet would like to believe her, but how would she find money they hadn’t got? She chewed at her thumb nail and wished she could hear what was being said inside.

‘Well, say our Janet passes this bloody exam you talked me into letting her sit,’ Bert said glumly, ‘how the hell are we going to afford the uniform? This bloke at work told me it costs a bleeding fortune.’

Betty knew only too well that it did – she’d checked it herself

– but if Janet passed, then somehow the money for the uniform had to be found.

‘We’ll afford it, don’t you worry,’ she said fiercely.

‘Look, old girl,’ Bert said, ‘I don’t want to put a damper on the whole thing, but exactly how are we to pay for it all?’

‘I’ll get a Co-op cheque out,’ Betty promised. ‘That will do for the uniform at least, and paid in weekly, it won’t be so bad.’ ‘And how will you pay for that?’ Bert persisted. ‘A five-pound

cheque won’t cover this.’

‘I know,’ Betty said impatiently. ‘I suppose I could go back on the twilight shift at the sauce factory. Our Breda could put a word in, and they always said I could go back.’

‘I know that’s what they said, but I don’t think it’s right, you working nights like that just to send our girl to grammar school,’ Bert said.

‘Don’t you see!’ Betty cried. ‘I’m going to work so she won’t have to work like me. I’m going, to give her a chance.’

‘You said all this before,’ grumbled Bert, ‘when you and that Miss Wentworth talked me round for her to put in for the bloody exam in the first place.’

‘Yes,’ Betty said, ‘and that’s because you said at first that education was wasted on girls.’

‘And so it is.’

Betty stood up in front of Bert and banged her fist on the kitchen table. ‘Listen, you blooming numbskull,’ she said angrily. ‘All my life I’ve worked. From the age of fourteen I was serving in the tobacconist’s shop at the corner of Corporation Street, often for twelve hours a day. Then we wed, and when Duncan was small and Janet a wee baby, I was office cleaning from five in the morning till eight, and then again at night in the chip shop to make ends meet. Then after the war our Breda got me set in the HP Sauce factory at Aston Cross. So don’t you tell me about education being a waste.’

‘I know you’ve worked, love,’ Bert said soothingly. ‘You’re one of the best, none better.’

‘Well, I want better, better for my daughter,’ Betty cried. ‘I don’t want her working like I had to, like most women have to.’

‘Yes, but when a woman’s married . . .’ Bert began, but Betty leapt at him again.

‘Her life stops, is that it?’

‘Not at all,’ Bert declared stoutly. ‘Some say it begins.’

‘Oh yes it does,’ Betty said. ‘You’ve a house, a husband, children, less money than you’ve ever had in your life and more to do with it.’

Bert had his set face on, so Betty tried again. ‘Look, Bert, I’m not blaming you. It’s just the way it is. But the world’s changing now. When you and all the other men were charging around Europe killing Germans, the women were holding the fort over here. They were doing jobs women had never done before!’

‘I know that.’

‘But you must see that that sort of experience would change a woman’s outlook on things.’

‘Till the men came back.’

‘No,’ Betty cried. ‘Six years is a long time. Women won’t just give up and go back to the kitchen sink. Things will have to change. Miss Wentworth was even telling me that married women will soon be officially allowed to teach. I mean, they did in the war, because they had to, and then they expected them to go back to their husbands. Only some didn’t want to, and some of the poor souls didn’t have husbands any more, but they still had a family to bring up.’

‘It’s this Miss Wentworth who’s filled your head with such nonsense,’ Bert said stubbornly.

Betty knew he had a point, for she had listened to the teacher and to her vision of the new, emerging Britain, where women could take their rightful place alongside men.

‘Women like your Janet, Mrs Travers,’ she said. ‘Intelligent women. The time will come when men and women will work side by side, and that will include married women. Even when they have children, they will be going back to work. It will eventually change the face of the world.’