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Torfaen Tales



by Karenne Griffin

My mother always told me I should be thankful to have such a good job, but to be honest it was really quite boring most of the time. There were days when all I did was type envelopes. Back in the 1960s it was all done on manual typewriters, and if you made a mistake you had to rub it out with a special typewriter eraser. The supervisor would tell you off if you wasted too much time rubbing out. And the bus journey to Newport and back meant I had to start out early in the morning and get home in the evening often after the rest of the family had eaten. Dinners kept warm in the oven, even for half an hour, tended to dry out and lose their flavour. I envied the girls I went to school with who had jobs in our town, like Ellen who worked in the shoe shop just a ten minute walk from home. 

Still, I worked with a good crowd of girls even if the tasks we performed were somewhat routine. The supervisor was always telling us off for chattering too much.

‘Quiet down, girls,’ she’d bark at us, glaring over her spectacles. ‘Keep it for your lunch break.’ 

Yes, the lunch breaks in the canteen were what we really looked forward to, never mind the food. The only trouble was, that hallowed hour seemed to go much quicker than any other hour of the day. 

My favourite out of all the girls was Norah Watkins. Norah and I had similar taste in music and films, and this fuelled a firm friendship. We were always borrowing each other’s Monkees records. Most of the other girls preferred music by English performers, or good old Welsh boy Tom Jones.

Several times I suggested to Norah that she should come home with me for the weekend. Mum wouldn’t have minded, and we could have had a great time listening to records in my room. I also wanted to take her to the coffee shop in town, which I thought was just as cool as any in Newport with its juke box and coffee served in glass mugs.

Norah’s response was always the same. ‘Sorry, Kate. I can’t.’ 

Norah was funny like that. A bit elusive. In the couple of years I’d known her I’d never been to her house and she’d never been to mine. Granted, she lived in Newport, and we’d visited each other several times for tea. 

As far as I knew none of the others had been to Norah’s house. My imagination took flight: perhaps Norah lived in a horrible, run-down house and was ashamed for any of us to see it. Or maybe her parents were really strict. Several times I suggested we get together outside work, but Norah always refused. 

Then my cousin Glennys got married. She had her reception on a Saturday night at a fancy restaurant in Newport. Mancini’s it was called. And Norah was there. 

‘Hiya, Norah!’ I cried, bounding up to her. ‘What are you doing here? Do you know Tony, who’s just married my cousin?’

‘I’m not a guest, Kate. I work here,’ she said, indicating her black skirt and neat, white blouse, the same as the other waitresses were wearing.

‘What, as well as working in the tax office all week?’

She nodded. ‘I work Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.’

The penny dropped. ‘Ah, so that’s why you can never come and visit me.’

‘Fraid so.’

‘Why do you need the extra money? Is your family really poor?’ Tact was never my strong point.

Norah smiled. ‘Oh, it’s nothing like that. I’m saving for something special.’ 

Then a tall, skinny woman came over and motioned for Norah to get on with her work.

‘I’ll tell you on Monday,’ she whispered, clearing empty glasses from the nearest table.

Over the weekend I pondered over the mysterious something special for which Norah was saving. Was she planning on buying a car? That was my big dream, but I lacked Norah’s second job and her determined streak. My money always seemed to get frittered away on records, magazines and make-up.

I couldn’t wait to get Norah alone at lunchtime on Monday.

‘Spill the beans!’ I urged.

She looked mystified.

‘You know, the special thing you’re saving for. The reason you spend all your spare time working as a waitress.’

Norah looked sheepish. ‘I’m saving up to go to drama school in London. I want to be an actress.’

My eyes must have stuck out on stalks. I didn’t know anyone with such a mind-boggling ambition.

‘I should have enough money to start next September,’ she continued. ‘I’m lucky. Mr Mancini has a sister with a café right in the middle of London, and I can stay in the flat upstairs and work part-time in the café. But first of all I’ve got to pass the drama school audition. That’s in two months’ time. Will you come with me, Kate?’

‘I don’t want to go to drama school,’ I said, flustered.

‘No, silly! I only want you to come for moral support. I’m a bit nervous about going up to London all by myself.’

‘I’ll have to ask Mum and Dad. What will it cost?’

‘Just the bus fare and a bit of spending money. We can stay with Signora Carlotti, Mr Mancini’s sister, for two pounds each. Much cheaper than a hotel, and it will be helpful for me to meet her and see if I’d like living there.’

‘Gosh, you’ve got it all planned out!’ I said, amazed.

And so that’s what we did. A pair of timid little Welsh mice, we took the bus from Newport up to London first thing one Saturday morning in May, and somehow found our way to Signora Carlotti’s café, which was near Tottenham Court Road. It was all so exciting and glamorous. And a bit scary too: we walked through Soho and saw sex shops and prostitutes for the first time. 

Signora Carlotti’s café was very Italian and foreign, but she was a warm-hearted lady and looked after us wonderfully even if we didn’t understand everything she said. It seemed as though a lot of Italian people lived in the area, and they all came to Signora Carlotti’s for coffee and a chat. 

Norah’s audition was on Saturday afternoon, and involved an awful lot of waiting around. I took a book to read as I wasn’t allowed to go in. She seemed to think it went okay. We were back at Signora Carlotti’s just after six o’clock, and we joined the family in the back room for a wonderful meal. We had a couple of glasses of red wine and got a bit tipsy. There was just one single bed so we slept top and tail. 

On Sunday morning we managed to find our way back to Victoria Coach Station and locate the bus which would take us back to Wales. 

Two weeks later Norah received a letter telling her she’d passed the audition. Her excitement knew no bounds. When she gave in her notice at the tax office it was the hottest topic of gossip all week. Our workmates and superiors greeted the news with a mixture of disbelief and envy. We had a party for her in the canteen on the day she left, and our boss presented her with a necklace bought from the collection we’d all contributed to. 

I missed Norah terribly, and it was sad but inevitable that although we corresponded regularly at first we eventually lost touch. It was easier for her to spend her holidays in London working at the café and taking any little back-stage jobs she could get.

Then one evening I was watching a play on television with Mum and Dad any my older sister Helen, and there she was on the screen. Norah, large as life, playing the part of one of the daughters. It was definitely her, even though she didn’t sound at all Welsh. And she’d changed her name, for she was listed in the credits as Nina Watson. But I went to sleep happily that night, so proud that my friend had achieved her aim. I resolved to write her a letter the following morning, hoping that if I wrote to Signora Carlotti’s café it would reach her.


Last Modified on: 05-11-2015

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