Anna Corbett


Anna Corbett is a retired headteacher. She has enjoyed writing for family and friends over the years, mostly short stories and ‘not-very-good-in-fact-a-bit-rubbishy’ poems for special occasions.

She has been working on a novel for the past couple of years, a fiction inspired by the disappearance of an extended family member back in 1923, which she looks forward to completing one day. Having been born and brought up in Cornwall, in what was at that time the only black family in the county, she is currently writing about her experiences.


View as PDF: Anna Corbett - It's Easy to Remember


It’s Easy to Remember

(song: Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart)

I was named after my grandmother who was really called Hannah but nobody bothered with the H, so my parents Theresa and Victor decided to drop it altogether. New babies in the family were always named after someone who was old or dead. I was christened in August 1947, a month after I was born. Mum made a special long white dress for the occasion. I think she was pleased to make something frivolous after having three boys.

Our house was halfway up a steep hill on a council estate on the edge of Truro in Cornwall. Dad worked away at sea and we sometimes didn’t see him for months at a time. His job was to look after the engine on a huge ship which carried things from London to Paris and then more things from Paris back to London. He was tall, brown and handsome and his head was shiny on top with curly hair around the edges. He said it was because he was a good boy and people used pat his head so much that his hair stopped growing there. When he came home on leave it was like having an exciting visitor to stay.

Until I was five years old my days at home with Mum were quiet while the boys were in school. Squatting down in the back garden, I picked birds’ eye flowers and bits of grass which I arranged in clusters along the path. Or squinted and stared at the sky. When it was cold or wet I stayed indoors. Mum always washed and plaited my hair on Saturday mornings. Even though she tried to be gentle, getting the stiff brush through my wet kinks was a challenge for us both: she got a handful of hair, put on a dollop of Vaseline, brushed it slowly outwards and then put that clump to one side with a hair-slide, then carried on until all the clumps were done. By the time she finished my head was covered in bright plastic flowers. Then came the straight parting in the middle with the clumps gathered together to make two fat plaits while I chose which ribbons to wear for the day. But at least I had Mum all to myself for a while. I would sit between her knees looking at a book while she worked. I enjoyed feeling her warm breath on my scalp as she whistled or sang quietly. Darn that Dream, How Deep is the Ocean, Tenderly, Lover come Back to Me…That’s where I learned all those jazz standards which have been such a large part of my life ever since. So many songs. And lots of favourite lines: You are the breathless hush of springtime…The evening breeze caressed the trees tenderly…Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I. Me and my brothers were used to hearing those beautiful love songs. Especially when Dad was away.

Mum used to do sewing for lots of people. In the summer she made me bright dresses with ric-rac braid around the hem and in the winter pleated skirts with straps which went over the shoulders and crossed at the back. Mum pressed the pleats in every night after we were in bed. I was familiar with handling different fabrics and liked the sound of some of their names. I would whisper them to myself as I helped Mum by picking up pins that had dropped under the sewing machine: organdie, taffeta, muslin, gingham, poplin, cambric, silk, velvet…

At weekends and after school my big brothers, Victor, Manny and Peter were usually outside. They made trolleys from old pram wheels and bits of wood and raced up and down the hill. In the summer they cycled off down to the moors or the woods. They didn’t like taking me unless Mum insisted. She always cries when we go through stinging nettles. She always wants to go for a wee-wee. She always gets tired when we’re racing. She always…there was always an always.

I joined the Reception class at St Paul’s in 1952. At playtimes I usually stayed near the wall or walked around the edges watching the other children as they screamed and ran. I was often in tears those first few months. My brothers were all at secondary school by then and my eldest brother Victor had tried to tell me that some children might say unkind things and I should take no notice. He was thirteen and knew a lot about everything. I was miserable. Mainly because of Tony Andrews. How do you know when you need a wash? Why are your hands a different colour when you turn them over? You always cry when the nurse comes. The last bit was especially hard. Everyone had to line up while the nurse looked carefully at each child’s hair, using a metal comb. The teacher would sit to one side and tick their names off. It was easy for the boys but the girls’ plaits had to be undone and re-plaited. Standing in line, I felt hotter and hotter. I knew that nobody in the whole school would know how to do my plaits back up properly like Mum did. Tony Andrews said the nits had got into my hair and would never be able to climb out again. I was allowed to stay in at playtime on those days to help sharpen the pencils. Tony Andrews usually had something nasty to say about that too.

By the time I was seven, I mostly tried to keep myself out of anyone’s notice and got on with my lessons. Sometimes I glanced across at my friend Yvonne and watched as she tossed the soft blonde hair out of her eyes when she was writing, or painting, or thinking. But Yvonne liked my hair and said it was like woven curly flowers. Since starting school I had begun to press my lips inwards to make them like Yvonne’s or would cover my face with my hands if anyone asked me a question. Miss Libby was my teacher that year. She had once taken my hand in the playground and led me over to the girls on the wall who showed me how to do finger-knitting with old cotton-reels and lengths of wool. Yvonne was really quick with her confident fingers. In class Miss Libby sometimes paused near my desk as she walked around the room and made a little pull at my stretchy plaits. Mum called them my pigtails. I looked up then and Miss Libby would give me a big-toothed smile and even a little wink if nobody was noticing.

Teachers were always round shaped. Miss Libby appeared to have only one breast going right across her chest which sloped down in a soft hill from her armpits to her waist. In the winter she wore hand-knitted jumpers with a dark brown skirt or soft dresses which fluttered around her big knees. I could tell that her clothes were home-made by the stitching or the way the patterns did not always match up at the seams. Her brown hair huddled in well -behaved waves with a parting on the right and even though her teeth stuck out a bit she had a kind face. She was the person children always went to if they fell over in the playground or were upset about something. She would lend them her handkerchief which I noticed had the letters AL sewn on it in daisy-chain stitch. I wondered if my teacher and me shared the same first name. She read stories from The Teacher magazine every Friday afternoon while the children rolled their socks or gazed at the generous mole on her neck.

Every Christmas, St Paul’s put on a Nativity Pageant. Yvonne was chosen to be Mary for two years running, probably because she had the right kind of hair. I noticed that the lovely long robe she wore was made of the softest, bluest cambric. Miss Libby lent a china doll wrapped in a fine shawl to be Baby Jesus for Yvonne to carry. The doll’s face was pale, shiny pink with staring eyes which Miss Libby had kept since she was little. The first time she took it out of the tissue paper all the girls in class gasped. Some children asked if they could hold it and Miss Libby let them pass it slowly around the class. It went very quiet. Even a few of the boys had a turn. The doll was carefully wrapped up again and put in Miss Libby’s drawer after each rehearsal. I had been one of the Three Wise Men ever since I started in Reception. I wore the same costume each year: a stripey dressing gown with a tea-cosy on my head to signify that my Wise Man was an exotic being from Africa or the East. I was unsure which.

Then there was Mr Trotter. He was not really a teacher. He was in charge of the School and mostly stayed in his office which had a big sign on the door: Headmaster. He used to read magazines and drink coffee all the time. Or so I supposed. I was sometimes sent there with messages and that’s what he was usually doing. He was not a tall man, with hair growing out of his ears and a slight limp. He wore a long black cloak over his proper clothes, with big open sleeves. Nobody explained why he had to wear it. I thought it must be because he was the king of the school. He wasn’t like any man I had ever come across, not like Mr Trewint from down the road or my Dad. When he came into the classroom everyone had to stop whatever they were doing, stand up and push their chairs in quietly without scraping the floor. They remained standing in silence until told to sit back down. Still remembering the chair noises of course.

Miss Libby stopped talking to the children then and put on a different voice. It was quieter and a bit lower sounding. She would smooth down her skirt and push her hair back behind her ears as she walked up and down with Mr Trotter between the rows of desks showing off the children’s work. Sometimes he stopped, put a finger on a child’s page and asked about what they had written. His skin was crinkly and his fingernails had hard, dark stripes along their length. When he threw out a question to the whole class, time tilted to a stop until someone put their hand up. It could be about anything: times tables, the capital of France, how many children the Queen had and their names and ages. Anything.

Occasionally he would bring a visitor into the room, like the road safety man for example. The road safety man used to come at some point every term. He wore a thick jacket with flecks woven into it which reminded me of what could happen to children who ate their carrots and cabbage too quickly. Those sick incidents were usually on winter afternoons when the classroom was too hot. The vomit seemed to come out of nowhere and fling itself around the floor in a speckled tide. The class was lined up and taken out into the playground for ten minutes while the caretaker came in with sand, mop and bucket. The sick person, usually a boy I noticed, was covered with a blanket and allowed to lay on a little cot near the big cage around the gas fire until home time. This was supposed to make him feel better but instead it simply meant that everyone spent their time looking at him as he fell asleep with his stinky smelling mouth open and dribbling. Once it was Tony Andrews.

The next time the road safety man came, I tried not to think about what we’d had for school dinner. He always brought a big chart with him picturing a squirrel in red trousers trying to cross the road. He talked about the dangers of walking out carefully between parked cars. Miss Libby held up the chart as he talked, silently pointing to bits of the picture at the right moment. Then everyone would stand and recite together the verse we had been taught each term since starting in the reception class:

People on the busy street

Some on wheels, some on feet,

Moving fast and moving slow,

Now you be careful how you go!

The last ‘you’ had to be called out loud. That was the only time we could shout indoors and some children got a bit over-excited, stamping their feet at the same time. Miss Libby’s smile would briefly flicker away and she gave us a hard look. As Mr Trotter and the road safety man were leaving the room, she would pretend to a little laugh while slowly shaking her head from side to side.

In February we had the Winter Festival. We had spent a week painting pictures of wintry scenes, writing about the weather and learning poems about Jack Frost or the snow to recite in assembly on Monday. Some of the children who had big gardens brought in holly and pine cones. Even Miss Libby had collected evergreens for the classroom display. After my hair was finished on the Saturday Mum said we were going for a walk and told me to go and get our coats. Mum was a busy person and always ran up and down the stairs, but lately she had got very fat. I had heard Manny and Peter whispering and giggling about Mum’s big belly a few nights before until Victor told them off. I didn’t understand why they thought it was funny. I thought Mum had probably been eating too much cake. Before I ran to get the coats, I looked hard at the belly and then looked at Mum’s face, shining like a conker.

‘I know what you’re looking at’, said Mum.

I thought for a while,

‘I heard the boys laughing in bed about your fat belly’.

Mum smiled,

‘Well, I’ll tell you why I’ve got so fat. We’re going to have a new baby. The baby’s cuddled up inside me. I wanted to tell you all together but I’ll speak to the boys when they get back. Just for now it’s our little secret’.

I stared at her shape some more. It looked like a very big secret.

‘When you were doing my hair, your belly was jiggling about a bit’.

Mum laughed then,

‘That was the new baby doing a little dance I expect. She- or he- is probably excited about meeting everybody’.

I hugged Mum’s secret. My own insides felt as if a fish was jumping around in there and

I was kind of sad and happy all at once.

‘When will the baby come out? Will it be a boy or a girl?’

‘Not for a while, probably in a few weeks. And we won’t know yet if you’ll have a

brother or a sister. We have to wait and see’.

‘Is a few weeks soon?’

‘Yes, quite soon. We just have to hope that your Dad will be home, so we can all be together. Go and get the coats now love. We’ll go up to Burley’s Lane and see if we can find some branches for you to take on Monday’.

Burley’s Lane was a pebbly path belonging to a farm. It was supposed to be private land, but children sometimes went down there on their bikes. It was a very slow walk and I wanted to run on ahead but I could see that Mum was tired. We had to stop twice. Once to sit on the grassy place outside someone’s house and the next time on a stone beside a big milk churn when we got to the lane. Mum had brought some old scissors and watched while I cut low branches and wild flowers. It was quite cold by the time we got home and Mum went for a lay down. She’d never done that before and I got worried. I fiddled about with my branches, arranging and re-arranging them in a big pot I’d found in the shed. I made myself a cheese sandwich and tried to stay as quiet as I could. I took a sandwich and a glass of water upstairs to Mum, who started to cry when she saw how nice it all looked on the tray. I got really scared then. The only time I saw tears in Mum’s eyes was when Dad walked off down the hill to go and catch the train and get back on his ship. Or when Mrs Trewint’s puppy got run over in the road right outside their front garden.

Mrs Trewint popped in just then and she looked surprised to see that Mum was in bed. While she was there, the telegraph boy came with a special telegram and Mrs Trewint ran upstairs to show it to Mum. It was good news:



Mrs Trewint read it out loud. Me and Mum looked at one another. We knew that the last line was from one of our favourite songs. But Mrs Trewint didn’t know that.

By tea-time me and the boys had been sent off for the night to stay down the road at Mr and Mrs Trewint’s house. We had to take sleeping bags and extra blankets in case Mrs Trewint didn’t have enough. Even though I knew that they were kind, I was nervous about sleeping in their house. What if they didn’t leave the landing light on? What if I needed the toilet in the night? There were so many what ifs. Especially as I thought of Mum being poorly enough to go to bed. I really hoped Dad would come soon, then she would feel better. As we were getting our things ready, I heard Mum make a quick sound as if she’d hurt herself, like the way people do if they stub a toe. When I went upstairs to see what had happened, Mrs Trewint came out onto the landing and told me not to forget my toothbrush. Then she went back in with Mum and shut the bedroom door.

We stayed awake until quite late at the Trewints, all sleeping in the same room, wrapped up in our blankets and sleeping bags on the floor. Mr Trewint made cocoa for us and then went downstairs to listen to the wireless. Manny and Peter were talking and laughing quietly until Victor said we should try and get some sleep. I didn’t really want to join in, so I just lay there and listened to the others. I wondered why we had to stay in someone else’s house. Victor noticed that I was quiet and I told him that all I could think about was Mum and the painful little noise she had made. He tucked me up tight and told me not to worry. But his voice sounded like it does when he’s trying to make me listen without getting upset. When I started to cry he decided to run home to see if Mum was OK. He came back before too long to say that Mrs Trewint had sent for the midwife. I didn’t know what a midwife was and nobody told me. He said Dad had got home and was waiting downstairs while Mum was up in the bedroom with the midwife. Waiting for what? Why was that other lady upstairs with Mum and Mrs Trewint? We must have fallen asleep eventually because when we went down for breakfast in the morning Mrs Trewint told us the special news. She said Dad had cycled down during the night with news of the new baby. A little girl. We were too excited to eat very much and so she said we could go up to see our new sister before going to school.

I could hardly wait for Monday. And not just because it was Winter Festival Assembly either. It was usual each morning for Miss Libby to ask if anyone had any news they wanted to share for handwriting practice. A few children put their hands up politely and one of them would be chosen to have their story as the special item of the day. Miss Libby slowly wrote their words up on the blackboard explaining how to form each letter as she went. We were not allowed to start copying until she had finished, but had to sit with arms folded in front of our exercise books and pencils. I did not usually offer anything. I thought nobody would be interested or perhaps that my life and my family might appear strange and different to theirs. But that Monday, February 17th, 1955, I decided to tell the whole class about my own special news. I put my hand up.

Miss Libby stood still. She tucked her hair behind her ears. Then she walked to her desk and put down her chalk. She looked up at the seagull which cried past one of the high windows before it disappeared into the sky. She smiled. All the other children stared at me.

‘I have a new baby sister. She was born on Saturday nightwhile we were asleep’.

Miss Libby used her important voice.

‘What does she look like?’

I paused for a moment.

‘She looks like me’.

After a hundred years had passed, Miss Libby wrote on the board:

Anna has a new baby sister. She has black, curly hair, black eyes and brown skin just like Anna. She is very beautiful.

Everybody read it out loud while Miss Libby pointed at each word with her giant ruler. We started writing. The room was quiet. I bent over my book and felt my pigtails brushing my cheeks as I wrote. Thin sunshine slipped through the windows and across the alphabet letters stuck on the wall. As each child finished, they had to sit up and fold their arms again until everyone had completed their copying. Miss Libby walked up and down the rows and gently tugged my plaits as she went past. I looked up and saw Miss A.Libby’s eyes looking shiny and a bit wet as we smiled at one another.