The day had begun like any other. At the bus stop she removed her boots and thick stockings. Bare legs and well-worn shoes were marginally better than roughly-knitted socks, a present from an aunt she never met, and well-worn shoes. They would still draw cheers and sniggers of course. She shrunk against the wall of the shelter as the other children filed in. Girls grouped together and laughed. Largely they ignored her, sometimes they looked her way and tittered. She turned her eyes to the sky and pretended she didn't care, that she didn't want someone to speak to her, show her some act of kindness, that she didn't desperately want to be part of the crowd. She hated being the odd girl with jug ears who sang to herself and wore hand-me-down clothes.
Miss Thomson, the music teacher, asked for anyone who wanted to sing in the upcoming festival to come to her room after school for an audition.
Singing was the one thing Beth loved, the one thing which lifted her from her life and made her heart soar. Her father would not be home until seven o'clock anyway, so there was nothing to stop her from staying behind.
'I'm so glad you came along, Elizabeth,' said Miss Thomson when she saw her. 'I've heard you sing in class. This audition will be a walk in the park for you.' Miss Thomson was nice; she was young and slim and smelt of flowers.
Afterwards, as Beth left the building, a boy who had also been auditioning, a boy she knew as Magnus, ran up behind her. 'Wait a minute,' he shouted.
Unused to talking to boys, her face reddened.
'You're a really good singer,' he said.
And time stood still. She smiled. Knowing she was.
'The best there today,' he continued.
'Not better than you.'
'Different. Why don't you come and sing with our group? We're meeting up at the hall on Friday night.
'I'd love to,' she said. At the same time panicking because she had nothing to wear. But knowing she had to do this.
On Friday night, she washed and ironed her hair and dressed in her jeans and a blouse which she thought looked half-way decent.
'I've made scrambled eggs,' she said when her father returned from the fields. 'You can heat them up. I'm going out.'
He raised his eyes and looked at her as if he'd never seen her before. 'Going out where?' he asked, an edge in his voice.
'I've been asked to sing with a group.'
'Yeees, I suppose.' She fisted her hair and pressed her knees together to stop the tremble. She wanted this more than she wanted anything, except, perhaps, her mother to return.
Robbie's face grew red. 'No,' he shouted, banging his fist on the table, making her jump. He had never raised his voice to her before, ever.
'But why?' Her scalp prickled.
'I know what boys are like. You're too young.'
She felt her anger bubble up. She never asked for anything from him. 'I'm only going to sing. Please, I want to.'
He levelled his finger at her. 'Whores and comic singers. You start going out, drinking, getting up to who knows what, next you'll be leaving, just like your mother.'
It was the first time in her memory he'd mentioned her mother without prompting. Suddenly singing with the group was far from her mind. 'Why did she leave, Dad?' Beth pulled in her chair. Talk to me, she pleaded silently. Please tell me what happened. She would have stayed here with him, forgotten the band, if only he opened up and told her what she wanted to know.
'You will not sing with a band and you will not leave this house tonight.' He rose quickly, the chair falling to the ground behind him and clattering on the floor. With a final glare at her he stormed over to the cooker and lifted the lid from the pan. With his voice suddenly calm again, he said, 'Eggs look good.'
'Please, Dad, I want to know about my mam.'
He turned. 'Your mother's dead to us. I never want to hear her name mentioned in this house again, understand?'
'But I need to know...'
She was rewarded by the turn of his back.
Damn him, she thought, years of frustration welling up inside her, threatening to explode. 'I'm going to my room,' she shouted. 'And I don't want to speak to you ever again.' She ran upstairs and slammed the door. Pans and plates rattled downstairs as he heated up the eggs, his anger making his movements fast and clumsy.
'Are you coming down for your dinner?' he called after a while.
'No,' she screamed, kicking the door.
She eased her window open and looked at the ground one storey below. She had to go tonight. If she didn't they might not ask again. She wondered if the tree outside her window would be strong enough to bear her weight and decided it wasn't.
'Have you fed the hens?' Robbie was shouting again.
Wordlessly she marched down the stairs, went to the back porch and got the feed bucket. The chickens had been fed, but she wouldn't tell him. Slamming doors and stamping her feet, she went outside and round the back of the house. From the barn she dragged out several packing cases, which were used to shelter new lambs in the spring, and built one on top of the other, testing them for safety as she went along. If she climbed out of her window and lowered herself as far as she could, her feet should touch the top box.
She went back indoors.
'Are you going to eat something?' said her father.
'No,' she screamed at him.
'Then the dog'll get it.'
'Fine by me.'
She slammed her bedroom door and turned her transistor up as loud as it would go. Once more she opened the window and this time climbed out, carefully lowering herself onto the boxes, jumping from one to the other before the top one wobbled and fell. She hit the ground and stood still, listening for her father's roar as he came round the corner. It never happened. She wasn't afraid he would hit her, he never had, but then she had never defied him before.
Backstage she froze. Sorry,' she said. 'I shouldn't have come. I can't go out there.' She closed and opened her fists. What had she been thinking? She was dressed like a tramp and looked like a monkey, she would make a fool of herself and everyone would laugh at her. She felt physically sick.
Magnus opened a large coke bottle and handed it to her. 'Have a drink, it'll calm you.'
'Coke?' She screwed up her face.
The others laughed.
'With a wee bit o' Dutch courage added,' Magnus thrust it at her.
She put the bottle to her lips and drank. It burned all the way down, and it seemed there was very little coke in it. She drank again, forcing the liquid past her throat that tried to close in protest.
'Hey, leave some for the rest of us.' Magnus took the bottle from her. 'That's my dad's best vodka in there.'
Unaccustomed to strong liquor, Beth had already stopped shaking. By the time they were due to go on stage she was stepping on air, the room spun and she could have sung for the queen.
That was the beginning. Once she started to sing she forgot her father's wrath, forgot her big ears, forgot everything except that it was her turn to shine. By the time her song ended, tears were streaming down her face.
There were many such nights afterwards, and as her love of singing grew, so did her father’s anger, until the cold atmosphere dwelling within the house, became hostile and restrictive.