by Jan Mark,
illustrated by David Parkins.
Puffin Books 1986 (1985).
Amy Calver is a girl trapped by her fears and anxieties. She lives in Gravesend, Kent, but it might as well be the world’s end for all the familiarity she has with life outside this southeast corner of England. Her only interest is participating in gymnastics, and life will be rosy if and when she gets a chance to compete in the immanent Thames and Medway Inter-Schools Junior Gymnastic Shield event.
But, as a reserve on the school team, her happiness hangs in the balance when a phone call announces that her grandfather has been taken to hospital, followed by her mother and younger sister going off to keep her grandmother company. She is left with her new stepfather, Richard Ermins, and not only is she not at all comfortable with him as an addition to the family but, since he is a long-distance lorry driver concerned about losing a week’s work and pay, there’s every chance he will not want to leave her on her own.
So her anxieties, already sky-high when she knows that as a reserve she may miss out from actually competing, rocket ever higher when she realises that she may have to leave her familiar environment and travel ‘Up North’ with Richard.
I very much enjoyed this novella-length tale, drawn in by the narration, the characters, and the plausible scenario all crafted by a gifted storyteller. The familial dynamics — stressed mother concerned with everything being just right, a two year old sister whose needs seem to come before Amy’s, and a new man in the house who, however nice he is compared with what came before, has yet to overcome Amy’s nervousness — all are well depicted and feel true to life.
The upshot is that, despite her apprehension, Amy is more or less bounced into joining Richard when, after collecting stock from the warehouse, he starts his deliveries; they then travel through the Midlands and she finds herself eating at cafés he’s used to patronising, visiting public conveniences to wash and brush teeth, and — to Amy’s ultimate horror — sleeping in rudimentary quarters in the back of the Bedford TK. It’s a rite of passage for Amy on this road trip, constantly extending her comfort zone, improving her understanding and knowledge of the wider world, and encouraging her to face up to her anxieties.
Those anxieties — fears surrounding stranger danger, what-if worries arising from new situations — have habitually led to the kind of stasis many may be familiar with and even suffer from. But Richard’s description of a cotton mill in Stockport emblazoned with the name AMY fires her imagination; the concern is whether she’ll be able to summon up the courage to break out from the prison of her angst and see the building for herself. It’s a journey that’s personal as well as physical; this reader was definitely with Amy every step or driven mile on the way.
Amy’s point of view is sympathetically described and well observed. Her naive innocence and relative ignorance come not from stupidity but from her mother being over-protective and from her own natural reticence. Richard, newly married and thrust in loco parentis tries hard to do the best thing and to treat Amy as bright and resourceful, but he often gets exasperated. It’s an odd-couple relationship that we see develop and bear fruit as Amy slowly discovers the inner resources she never suspected she had.
This is a beautiful and satisfying tale from the nineteen-eighties, evoking a time and life that for some readers is now almost historic; and the monochrome illustrations by David Parkins heading each chapter give added depth to the narrative.
Read for the second #JanMARKuary event celebrating the work of the late author