When I was a young girl we lived in a small town. We were a very ordinary family. My father was a plumber, and my mother was a dinner lady at my school, much to my embarrassment. I was the middle child, with an older sister and a younger brother. We lived in a very ordinary house which we rented from the local council. It was in a street of houses that looked very much the same.
The one exception was the house at the far end of the street. For a start, the front door was painted pink, and so were the window frames. The path that led to the front door was lined with all manner of garden ornaments: gnomes, fairies, frogs, deer … there were in fact no plants in the front garden, it was full of brightly painted concrete ornaments.
The occupant of the house was a lady named Joy. She lived alone. She was short and plump, and wore her red hair pulled back in a fat bun. She looked like she had a big ginger muffin stuck to the back of her head. I liked Joy right from the first time I met her. She was always happy and smiling, not like my parents. My father could be bad-tempered on times. You had to tread carefully around him when he came home from work, but once he'd had his dinner he was generally more amiable. My mother was a thin-lipped, thin-faced sort of woman and although I knew she loved us she had high expectations and would tolerate no nonsense. My parents were not what you would call happy souls. In our house you were expected to sit quietly in the evenings and watch the television. Serious kinds of programmes on the BBC.
As I said, I liked our neighbour Joy from the first time I met her. We had not long since moved to Hillside Road. I was walking home from school when I found a cat that had been hit by a car. Its paw was bleeding. I wrapped it in my blazer and ran, not looking where I was going. I bumped into Joy on the corner of our street.
"Careful, there, young lady," she said, "What have you got in your blazer?"
"It's an injured cat. I found it in Capel Street. Its paw is bleeding."
"Poor thing!" said Joy, smoothing its little head. "Bring it along to my house, I'll have a look at it."
So I did as I was told. In my concern for the cat I didn't at first notice all the strange things in the front garden. I followed her into the front room and soothed the cat while she went for her first aid kit.
Within minutes she'd treated the injured paw and tied it up in a bandage.
"I don't think there's much wrong, it's just a scrape. No bones broken. I've bathed it in a herbal remedy which will help it to heal. It doesn't really matter if the cat shakes off the bandage."
I thought she was nice. She didn't talk down to me like I was a little kid. After all, I was eight.
She went to fetch me a glass of squash. While I waited, I looked around the room. One wall was completely covered with shelves full of books. The other three walls were covered with paintings, and all around there were lots of knick-knacks. Funny ornaments. Pigs wearing clothes. A Japanese lady with a dress of soft floral silk. A china clown with a wide, red smile and eyes like stars. And a massive vase in the window, painted all the colours of the rainbow. I was spellbound.
After I'd drunk my squash, the cat was starting to get restless. It was mewing at the door.
"You'd better take him back to Capel Street. Knock on some doors, find out where he belongs. I'll come with you if you like."
I was shy about knocking on strangers' doors, so Joy came with me, true to her word. We found the cat's owners at No. 23, and pleased as punch they were to have their little cat back.
"I think your house is lovely," I confided to Joy as we walked back to Hillside Road.
"That's very nice of you, dear. Come round any time you want."
I didn't need asking twice. I was eager to look at the books and pictures in more detail. My little brother Gareth came too. He particularly liked the pig ornaments, they made him laugh. He was only three. Mum would have had a fit if she knew he was picking up ornaments, but Joy was very calm. She didn't seem to worry that he might break something, and I suppose because Gareth in turn wasn't worried he never broke anything.
Mam didn't seem to mind us going round to Joy's house. I suppose she was glad of a bit of peace without us under her feet. Joy never made us feel like we were a nuisance. She encouraged me to read, and lent me any of her books that I took a fancy to. And while I was at her house she liked me to read aloud, acting out the characters in different voices. Meanwhile Gareth was usually playing with plasticine. He liked to make little pigs, trying to copy Joy's ornaments I suppose. And his efforts weren't too bad considering he was only three.
Christmas was coming. In our house it didn't mean a great deal, but to Joy it was a source of much activity. She made several puddings, and Gareth and I helped her to stir the mixture. She said it would bring us good luck, but it was quite hard work as the pudding was thick with dried fruit. Then we helped her to make paper chains with odd scraps of coloured paper and paste which she mixed from flour and water. We held the stepladder while she pinned the finished paper chains across the ceiling of her sitting room, joining in the middle where she hung a Chinese paper lantern.
Next she enlisted our help in wrapping presents, all sorts of exciting little things which we wrapped in shiny red paper. Then she had us cutting holly leaf shapes out of green paper. Gareth despite his tender age did very well to cut straight around the shapes which Joy drew.
"Next we're going to stick the holly leaves onto the outside of the wrapping paper and then decorate them with red berries which we'll make out of papier mache. These are going to be the best presents in town."
We went home full of the excitement of what we'd been doing.
"Joy is a lovely lady," I said to Mam. "She must be very rich, she's got lots of presents. We're piling them up under her tree. She says they're for all the poor people."
Mam's lips grew thinner than usual but she said nothing. We had our tea and went up to bed.
I couldn't sleep that night. I got out of bed and went out on the landing with the latest book Joy had lent me, intent upon reading until I felt sleepy. I'd managed this a few times already without being caught.
I heard Mam and Dad talking. This was most unusual. Normally they just watched television in silence
"That Joy Edwards has those kids completely under her spell," said Mam. I pricked up my ears, my book forgotten.
"You know, our Cerys thinks she is rich."
"She's probably got them wrapping up all sorts of old rubbish as Christmas presents. Still, she keeps them entertained. She's certainly got the knack with kids. She should have been a teacher instead of staying at home to look after her old Dad until he died. Too old in her forties to start work, and too old to find herself a husband. Goodness knows how she manages to eke out the few pounds her Dad left her. I can tell you, if I was that poor I certainly wouldn't be smiling."
Aged eight I didn't understand that there was a different kind of wealth other than that measured in pounds sterling. It was only when I grew up and thought about the difference between my parents and Joy that I realised I'd been a lucky girl. Joy had got me and Gareth interested in reading and the creative arts, interests that were to stay with us all our lives. Gareth went on to art college and became a teacher. I went to work in the plastics factory, but I've kept up with my writing and I am now working on my second novel. It was Joy who helped me to get the first one published, and there's no question that the publishers will take up the option of the novel I'm now writing.
Thanks to Joy I've had a very different life from that of my older sister, Marilyn, who had three babies before she was twenty and seems more like a robot with each passing year
Not that there's anything wrong with having babies. Someone has to produce the next generation. But I don't care if I'm a spinster like Joy. Spinster is a horrible word, like a big black spider spinning a sticky web. Bachelor is a much more friendly word. I'm looking for a better word for single women, but in the meantime I'm happy with my life. Joy has talked me into giving up my job in the plastics factory, and we're going to take a trip round Europe this summer. I'm buying a camper van with the money I made from my first novel. But first I need to finish writing my second novel.
I used to think Joy was old, but she's only in her fifties and well up for the challenge of driving around Europe. She says she's going to teach me how to drive. The trip will give me plenty of inspiration for future writing. How could life get any better than this?
By Karenne Griffin
Last Modified on: 05-11-2015