by Anne Goodwin
I want to welcome this month’s author of Story Chat, Anne Goodwin. This month’s Story Chat challenges the main character beyond her wildest expectations. It may challenge your thinking as well.
Face to face with a blast from the past Ms Thompson questions her decisions in her controversial case of long ago. Did she do the right thing? Did she help the young teen? Did she even want to find out?
Ms Thompson – Ruth to her lover, colleagues and friends – has set aside the afternoon to sort through old documents. Her retirement is some months away, but decommissioning thirty-five years’ professional paperwork requires a string of afternoons. A secretary could dispatch it in an hour, consigning it sheet by sheet to the shredder, but Ms Thompson feels obliged to examine every scrap. She’s determined to disengage from social work as conscientiously as she began her career.
At the back of her filing cabinet, she discovers a buff-coloured file from the seventies. On removing the folder, a piece of glossed card slips out. The classic shot of five bridges across the Tyne reminds her of the case that shook her to the core.
The city was shabby when Diana, her client, enrolled at the university. But the nineties brought a concert hall and gallery to the quayside, spanned by a stylish sixth bridge. Françoise once suggested going there for a mini-break, but Ms Thompson – Ruth – demurred. Twenty years after closing the case, she’d have felt awkward bumping into the girl.
Ms Thompson flips the postcard over. The message is bland, despite the spiky italics and green ink. Settled in nicely. Enjoying my course. Making friends. Best wishes, Diana. She’d scrawled the date above, perhaps to fill out the space: 15th October 1977. Ms Thompson isn’t superstitious – although she sometimes checks her horoscope over lunch – but it makes her pause. The girl wrote the card twenty-seven years ago to the day.
She was surprised Diana chose to read psychology. Ms Thompson thought she’d go for something impersonal, like librarianship or maths. But the social work role was redundant by that stage. Her task complete when the girl left boarding school at eighteen. Yet Diana had sent the postcard. Ms Thompson had hung onto the file.
Now, scanning her notes from their first meeting three years before that, Ms Thompson feels a swell of sympathy for them both. Diana looking shell-shocked in her ill-fitting uniform, refusing to admit she was struggling. Ms Thompson, with her newly-minted social work diploma, refusing to admit she hadn’t the skill or knowledge to put things right.
The headmaster hadn’t either. That’s why he’d called her in. But he had to balance Diana’s needs against those of the school community. He’d restore order, and avoid a scandal, more easily with Diana out of the way.
The parents seemed oblivious: the mother perplexed that the Social should interfere in her family’s affairs. The father distracted, gazing out the window when he wasn’t ogling Ruth’s breasts. The teenager was cagey, protective of her parents. Ms Thompson fumbled to find a resolution while, back at base, the upper echelons debated budgets and whether to involve the police.
A new school seemed the only option. A girls’ boarding school where Diana could sever her ties to the past. Where bullies and gossip couldn’t follow her. Where no-one would know who she’d been before.
Ms Thompson had hoped to do more for her; hoped, over three years of boarding-school visits, Diana would confide her concerns. But the girl was unforthcoming. How did she cope with such a radical change alone?
Nowadays, there’d be compulsory counselling. Nowadays, her peers would approve. A girl in Diana’s position would have team support from the beginning. A contemporary head teacher might make her head girl.
Ms Thompson stows the postcard in her handbag. A memento to take to the Dordogne. If she hadn’t met Diana, would she be retiring to France?
She couldn’t say if she’d helped the girl, but Diana had, unwittingly, helped her. Within the girl’s silence about her transformation, Ms Thompson had nursed hers. If a teenager could risk ridicule to embrace her true identity, an adult had no excuse to deny hers. Especially when the obstacles were relatively minor.
By the time Diana started her degree course, Ms Thompson had cropped her hair, got divorced, met Françoise. She can only hope her former client is as happy with her choices as Ms Thompson is with hers.
Anne Goodwin is the author of two novels and short story collection. “A Postcard from the Past” is based on a scene from one of many drafts of her debut novel, Sugar and Snails. Sugar and Snails was published by Inspired Quill in 2015 and shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize. You can read it for free during February 2021 by registering for her newsletter here
Link tree: Annecdotist
YouTube: Anne Goodwin’s YouTube channel
Welcome to Story Chat
Now it is your turn. Pour a cup of tea or coffee, glass of wine, and sit back with your friends and dive into the story. This is your chance to ask the author questions, interact with each other. It’s up to you. What makes this story tick? What would you have done in Ms Thompson’s place?