High Street Tales Podcast #2: 'The Women of Number 11'

This is a transcript of episode 2 of our podcast series High Street Tales. 

In 'The Women of Number 11', writer and poet Rebecca Tantony uses online conversations, socially-distanced conversations and the sights and sounds of Weston-super-Mare to conjure the lives of the women across the ages.

To listen to the series from start to finish, subscribe to the podcast in your preferred app. Search 'High Street Tales' in your podcast player.

Voiceover: Welcome to High Street Tales, a Historic England podcast.

Music starts: Darren Hayman’s Pram Town.

Voiceover: Exploring the magic of everyday places….

Robin Pridy: You can buy things all you want, you can have industry there but really at the end of it, a high street is where people are.

Celia Bryce: It’s the beauty of ordinary, we’re an ordinary town but we’re not really. (laughs)

Music with lyrics:
We’ve got the pubs
We’ve got the shops
We’ve got the factories
That give us jobs
Everything as it should be
Everything as it should be

Voiceover: Celebrating connections and encounters…

Merrie Joy Williams: God, I had an absolute ball talking to people and found out so much about the place.

Ellen Harrison: There is this drawing from the stories and the memories of people who’ve lived there over, in some cases, centuries.

Voiceover: Uncovering the past….

Ligia Macedo: Picturing the stories, picturing the buildings, you could almost imagine the communities there.

Voiceover: And looking to the future….

Maria Whatton: The High Street could become all kinds of different things actually.

Music with lyrics:
How could you live anywhere else?
How could you live anywhere else?

Voiceover: This next story comes from coastal Somerset as writer Rebecca Tantony reads her tale about the past and future of Weston-super-Mare in The Women of Number 11.

Music stops after lyrics: 
How could you live anywhere else?

Rebecca Tantony: 1933

She knew she was ordinary because her boyfriend had told her so. Not with words, but with his eyes and how they’d flit across the room whenever another woman walked in. She’d meet him at the Winter Gardens and they’d practise a breathtaking foxtrot together, waltzing from one side of the room to another. On the dance floor, he knew how to hold her in place. Her heart always fluttered, sometimes it beat so fast she thought her entire body would take off. It was his hold of her that kept her feet landlocked, kept her close to his side and she guessed that’s how she wanted to be kept; below the chandelier, with his hands on her shoulders.

Walking across the beach together she told him about Number 11. There had been a sign in the window advertising for a model to showcase new dresses and although she didn’t think of herself as beautiful, she certainly knew how to keep still. She had practised holding her breath at social gatherings and knew how to go unnoticed. He kissed her forehead firmly, then turned towards the water. ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,’ he said with an assurance she found so hard to find within herself.

After the walk, she went to the high street to buy some meat for dinner. She passed the advert and tried to make herself go in, but couldn’t summon the confidence to do so. Opposite Number 11 was a wig shop and perhaps in an attempt to be bold, she entered it.
‘I would like to try something on,’ she said pointing to a mass of autumn-red curls. The woman behind the counter simply nodded, brought the wig down and handed it over. Placing it on, her face instantly changed. She was no longer ordinary.

Entering Number 11 she walked straight up to the counter and was greeted by a woman who had the name Mary pinned to her dress.
‘I would like to apply for the role of model,’ she said in a voice she didn’t know belonged to her. ‘I can be very still.’
‘Very well,’ Mary responded, ‘what about standing out? People will be looking at you, after all.’
‘Well, that might take some time but I will be less afraid wearing this,’ she said, starting to reach up to touch her new red curls, but Mary gently touched her hand, stopping her mid-action.
‘Let me see you without it,’ Mary said and she pulled the wig off. A moment grew between them, both silent and busy with something unknown.
‘Come as you are. But bring the wig and all the women you can be in it.’ Mary smiled, ‘see you tomorrow. At nine.’

There was a Norwegian myth her mother used to tell her as a child. The story said every strand of hair on a human’s head holds a memory in it. Most nights she would quietly count her strands, trying to recall each smell, every sound, person and place she had encountered that day. Her favourite part of the story was the song; ‘Run wind-strong, forever become more, let the ordinary reveal miracles, like the sea reveals the shore.’ That evening, brushing her soft brown hair, she thought about the walk, the firm kiss, the holding of her in place, the red wig, Number 11, her changing face, the woman’s hand stopping her as she reached upwards. Then she thought about tomorrow and the many women she would become.

1986

I have become restless, The Grove is getting busy and the New Year countdown is only a couple of hours away.
Pint?’ I ask Bill and he nods. Up at the bar, when reaching into my purse, I realise it is empty.
‘Might need to hold back on the drink tonight,’ I say with a shrug.
‘Tell you what,’ Big Dave grins, ‘Drinks are on me if you can run to the Job Centre and back.’
‘Easy,’ I reply.
‘Wearing my clothes.’ He adds. A few minutes later Big Dave is standing in a pair of tight y-fronts and the entire pub is cheering. I pull his oversized trousers on top of my sequinned dress, button up his shirt, take my shoes off.

The high street is quiet, the shops are shut for the evening and the sun is fading, so its thick light bounces off the front of buildings. I feel the day move through me as I run, as my feet pad along the concrete. Breathless, I reach the Job Centre and place a palm against it. Shut my eyes, inhale and exhale rapidly. Something vital and quick pulses through my heart, as if I have shot espresso from Carwardines or have fallen in love again. It’s the simple feeling of being alive, I think.

I decide to walk back to The Grove. Not slowly, but not quickly either. I can’t remember if Big Dave said running back was part of the dare or not, but I have forgotten about the beer anyway. There is something of this evening that has moved me, like I can no longer remember what came before this. I am not myself now; I am exploring life in another person’s shoes. How Weston looks brand new in this light. I have been here for twenty years, but tonight it feels like I have only just found out where I’m standing.

As I pass the familiar shops, I catch a glimpse of my reflection in Number 11’s window. Big Dave’s clothes are huge, falling off my body, and my face is lit up in the glow of the shop’s light. It’s been hard lately, but my friends always catch me. I like to believe the world is a generous place. Money will come and go, but it is my people who make me feel rich. I look past my reflection and see myself inside the shop, or someone who could be me anyway, counting the daily takings from the till. ‘Maybe I will open up a cafe one day. Repay those who’ve given me so much,’ I say, to no one in particular.

Back in the pub, everyone cheers when I enter and I blush shyly, feeling the familiarity of myself return. A few friends insist on getting me a beer that evening. ‘I’m not wearing your clothes as-well,’ I keep repeating and each time they laugh louder. Around midnight is when the singing begins. At first everyone belts out their best Madonna and Michael Jackson, so the pub becomes a whir of rotating waists and strutting limbs. But by the early hours, when it’s nearly closing time, everyone has worn out their best pop-star impressions. So I improvise a song. Something of being still and being seen. Of flowing hair and of firm kisses. Of memory and miracles. Of sea and of shore. Although, when I wake up the next morning, light-headed and blurry-eyed, I have no idea where I found that song inside of me.

2020

It’s outside of herself that she finds a feeling of hope and it’s the sunset she’s most grateful for. She’d left this place before, the stretch of sand long as laughter, the suddenness of mud, a seagull stealing her patience – because there was always somewhere further than this to imagine.

Being a child here was fun, but her teenage years were spent trying to escape everything that seemed to hold her in place. Every other Tuesday her mum dragged her around the shops, picking up various gifts for distant relatives, and she would yawn and moan in turn. On weekends she would sleepover at her best friend’s house because they were closer to town there. When dusk arrived, all purple and fading, they would both climb out of her window just to be outside in the heart of it all. They began in the high street, gathering adventure wherever they could. Sometimes it would lead her into the arcade, losing herself to the dizzy promise of stuffed animals or a rush of two pence coins. On other evenings it was a pile of her friends sitting on the benches, smoking the night down to the bone.

When eighteen came, she finally left for university to study Art and Design. She thought she’d make it out in the bustle of this world, flitted between London and Manchester like a moth flits between the shadow and the light. She exhibited in galleries, where tight-lipped people would quietly look her work up and down before moving on with their lives. She kept looking for that ‘missing bit’ in the nightclubs with their sticky floors and neon drinks, in the quiet libraries she sat inside or through the boys who came and went. Although she realises now, she never left Weston fully, so how could she of arrived anywhere?

It was when she returned one Christmas, walked along the sand and watched the sun slip over the water, she remembered them again. The missing parts of herself. She belonged to chips and mushy peas. To the Italian gardens and huddling under bus shelters to dodge a downfall of rain. She was the charity shops and all the one-pound gifts she had brought for her friends. She was the seagulls, the WH Smiths and the grey mud. She was made of her parent’s house and all the memories it contained. So at age 26, she moved back home.

She promises to find reasons to be grateful here and they mostly begin and end with the sunset. There is something so ordinary, yet magical about it. Something that lights up the day’s triumphs and failure and offers it back with a promise of another chance. She hasn’t stopped searching for those parts – pebbles, wooden forks, a lost bracelet, driftwood. Anything the water has handed over, or the shore has held onto, she gathers it up, places it in her bag and promises to create something new from what was once disused. She then makes miniature statues out of pebbles which she paints bright, brave colours. The driftwood she has transformed into bathroom mirrors. The chip-forks become mobiles that hang in hallways. The bracelets have been broken down and she now sticks beads and jewels onto photo frames, which sparkle and shine in the light. Every Tuesday she sits in Number 11, the new Art Space on the high street, and she sells what she makes. Sometimes she even creates there too and people come and watch her stick and mould, bend and shape. Tourists love what she does, because they can take a piece of Weston home with them. Locals love them too, tell her they have never seen something so every-day transcend into newness.

While she works she hums a tune. She thinks, it’s a song her mother sang when she was young. Or maybe it was something she heard on the radio. Something the ocean offered over or the shore held on to. Something she collected on the beach. Or perhaps she made it up. Something of hair and miracles and keeping still. Something of running. Of becoming the people who hold you close and keep you rich. However it was discovered, it makes her feel brave when she sings it. As if with each word, she is finally returning to herself.

2038

Returning to work, I found a backlog of people waiting for their drinks. In the summer months, it had become busier; the tables were packed with people who filled the air with loud conversation and the most extravagant parts of themselves. The cafe I worked in was one of the most popular places on the street and it seemed like everyone wanted to spend the long mornings there, watching the world unravel.

‘One more please,’ a man mouthed as I passed his table. He nodded towards his wife who was busy pressing the keypad on her phone, then he brought a finger to his lips.
‘The same?’ I mouthed back and he winked as I walked his secret away. They had been visiting Number 11 every day that week, on holiday I presumed, renting one of the many pods along the high street.

When his wife got up to use the toilet, I brought the drink over. ‘Why are you keeping your coffee a secret?’ I asked, laughing.
‘Well, I am going to die soon,’ he replied, ‘and every day my wife tries to keep me alive. Less coffee, she says, more water. Less dancing, more rest. Eighteen tests, four monitors, countless withdrawals of blood from the body, seven increasingly hard conversations, a difficult letter to my half-brother, my wife's damp face held up by her own hands instead of mine, one trip to the church to pray into silence, the care of eleven nurses, one doctor’s apology, my grandson’s oblivious visits. Then this moment in time, the way the light has secured this table right here into heaven, the pigeons flooding the sky with patterns, the distant water surging a truth, the couple kissing over there with their whole chests. My wife's painted nails, the curl of her hair, how I know she will still find joy in the moments beyond me’. He smiled as I handed him his order. ‘And then we have this cappuccino,’ he added, ‘bringing with it a moment of life.’

I didn’t know how to respond to this and as if by some kind of miracle, someone started singing just as I tried to. A makeshift stage had been assembled near Number 11 and that morning it was the pluck of guitar strings and a soulful voice that moved through us all. When his wife returned, the man held out his hand to her. Between the tables they stood up and began to dance together, her head rested on his shoulder, him holding her in place. The song was beautiful. It spoke of running, of friends who raise you up when you fall apart, of sea and shore and stillness. It spoke of making something new out of the disused, of collecting and returning. Of becoming.

That evening I sang the same song as I prepared dinner, as I undressed for bed, as I dreamt. I hummed it over the days that followed, as I cleaned the tables of the cafe, as I met new strangers and heard their stories. It was the tune I moaned when my daughter was born and the one that led me down the aisle at my wedding. It was the note I held after my husband’s death. It was the song I sang at the top of my lungs, when I walked across the beach, letting the wind push me forward.

2060

Pulling back the hair from her face, she takes a moment to stop and breathe. The air feels different today, like it was brought from somewhere distant. Like it’s passing through this town after collecting people and places on the way here. It reminds her of Norway and when she and Sammy had taken the Blink over for the first time. So strange to be somewhere so far in a moment. They even Blinked back because Sammy forgot her purse, and then Blinked over again. From Weston to Norway, and all in under thirty minutes.

They tried the new shoes Sammy had made for the water, the ones with jet engines fuelled by the particles in Weston mud. They worked. Kept their feet warm and allowed them both to glide above the surface of the marina, zigzagging between boats and waving Norwegians who pointed and laughed. As they worked so well, she will start selling them in the shop today. This knowledge fills her with unwavering joy. If she were to describe ‘love’ it would be a moment like this – others finding adventure, using something Sammy has designed and that she has sold them. She has even started providing spacesuits, something she’d never imagined happening in her lifetime. A week back, a couple from Worle came in. They were planning a visit to Mars and she completely kitted them out. They had dropped her an image of them both in their suits- drinking vodka tonics, playing bingo on the soft rock.

Standing in front of Number 11, the detector scans her face and the glass doors slide open, as the shop is flooded in a luminous glow. The outside air has followed her inside. It is almost whistling around the shop now. It sounds like music. A tune of something ordinary, yet magical in turn. The music fills the room with buzz and surge. So quiet at first it only sounds like wind, but the more she listens, the more she hears voices. Some kind of new technology, she thinks, although this feels ancient, like it was born from the very start of time. At first she makes out just one woman singing, but soon she can hear others too. Soft and high, then strong and low. It is a song of hair and of driftwood. Of running, and collision, of breathlessness and becoming. Of dance, and heartbeats, of strangers and of friends. It’s a song of a street and a shop, which forever begins and starts over. Of lives that lead into themselves. The song rings around Number 11 as the different voices collide with each other, smashing and breaking and reforming again. She picks up a shell and captures the sound inside. I can play it to my grandchildren one day, she thinks. For now, she holds the shell to her ear and she listens to the future, as it sings the past on.

Music starts: Darren Hayman’s Pram Town

Voiceover: You’ve been listening to Rebecca Tantony reading The Women of Number 11 from Historic England’s newly commissioned High Street Tales Series. It was made in conjunction with New Writing North and Literature Works, with thanks to Darren Hayman for use of his song, Pram Town.

Music with lyrics:
We’ve put the houses amongst the trees
We have all the modern civic amenities
Everything as it should be
Everything as it should be

Voiceover: High Street Tales is part of Historic England’s High Street Cultural Programme, 4 years of nationwide cultural activity focussed on the past, present and future of our high streets. The programme is run by Historic England in partnership with Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England. For more information go to historicengland.org.uk/highstreettales or follow us on social media @historicengland using the hashtag #High Street Tales.

Music with lyrics:
How could you live anywhere else?
How could you live anywhere else?

Voiceover: Next time we’re in South East London with poet and novelist Merrie Joy Williams as she explores the past, present and future of Woolwich. Don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss out on any episodes and thanks for listening.

Music ends after lyrics:
How could you live anywhere else?
How could you live anywhere else?

Supported by

HM Government
NLHF
Arts Council
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