I am Jane. I work in a room with other girls at tables. We take letters that others write by hand in pencil or pen and we put them in ink, using a man-made writer. This is what I trained to do after school. I am good at it. I was always very good at school and always did my homework.

Sometimes I long for home, but not home as it is now, home back then. Back when it was nice. When the sun was always out, and we could play all day out of doors. Before I had to be a woman. But a girl must become a woman and a boy has to become a man. I live a long way from my old home now. Peter lives away, too, in another place with many streets, too many streets to know them all.


I am Peter. I am out of work. So many are out of work in this place of many streets. So many are out of work everywhere. That is how it is these days. The day the man handed me my hat, I asked why. 

‘Look Peter,’ he said. ‘Many have lost their work. I don’t want to let you go but I must. There is no money coming in. That’s just the way it is these days. You got on very well here. Maybe you will find something new.’

I did not find anything new. There is no use looking. This year more men than before are out of work and more men by the day. 

I can work. I can keep books and I am very good at it. I was the one to keep books for men who made boats. They don’t make boats anymore. That shop is closed, which is why no one wants me to keep their books now. There is nothing to write in the books. There are no books to keep. When I was little, I read and always did my homework. When I was little, I was always a big help to my father at home. Now I cannot find work. Now I have nothing to do. Now I am no use. When I was little and did not know how to do something, my mother used to say to me, ‘Put your thinking cap on’, but my thinking does not work very well anymore. There is no exit from the black place I am in.


When I am not at work I do it with many men. Sometimes it is fun, but not always. It is something I have to do—like drinking water or eating. I don’t tell anyone how many there have been. Maybe they know a little of it, but they don’t know much about my private life. I like it like that. I like that they don’t know. 

Night after night I do it with man after man. I know many may think it is not right to do this, but it makes things good, if just for that one little window of time when I can stop being me, when the thinking stops, when the room in my head goes white and I forget who I am. 


I live in a one-room place next to the bus station. Much of the day I am in bed. My one window, which looks down on the street where buses come and go and men sit at the station entrance drinking from bags, is so little that even daytime is like night-time in here. At night, I sit looking at the box. I eat from cans. I am becoming round. Sometimes I go to the café down the street and use what little money I have to eat cake. I go there too because I would like someone to talk to me. I think the woman who owns the café thinks I am a pig. I don’t like to say it, but the thing is, I don’t know anyone here. The work I did, I did in a room on my own. Sometimes I go for many days without talking.  It is just me on my own, day after day. Mummy used to write to me. Now I do not get letters from anyone. I have not got any letters in over a year.


Some time ago I went to bed with the man I work for. At the time, I did not know if that was a good thing or not―it could be good for my work or it could be bad for it. I would have to see. On my way home after work, he pulled over in his car and said, ‘You are a doll. You are a sweet little thing.’ I could see he wanted me. We went to his house. (I never take them back to my place. I like to get away before they get up in the morning.)

As soon as we were in his house, I asked him to take off my top. ‘Take me now,’ I said. I put my hand on his fly and said, ‘Give it to me good.’ I said that because they like it when you talk like you are a very bad girl, but I did want it good as well. He looked like all his Christmases had come at once. We did it right there in the entrance. We did fast and slow and fast. We did it like dogs. We did it all over the house. 

In the morning he looked old, like a tree. He could have been someone’s father’s father. Come to think of it, I think he was. I saw pictures of children in the sitting-room. I was about to go when he said, ‘How about some morning fun?’

What could I do? I work for him. I sat on top of him and see-sawed. 

Soon he said, ‘Go slow. I don’t want to come right now.’ But I went fast so he would. When he came, he said, ‘Yes! Who’s your daddy? Who’s your daddy?’

As I got my things to go, he said to me: ‘You know, I did not know if you would be any good in bed, but you are one of the best I have had. You are some girl. And I would know. I have been with many birds in my time. So many birds. Are you going to thank me for the good time?’ 

‘Thank you,’ I said. 

‘Thank you, what?’

‘Thank you, Mr Chairman.’

‘Good girl. Let’s do this again some time.’

‘Not if I can help it,’ I did think.  


Back when I first lived here, I would go out on the pull with an old boy from school, and the girls would be all over me. But the old boy went to live in another place because there was no work for him here. Now I have no one to go on the pull with. Anyway, so what? I want a good girl, not one who will go home with a new boy on the first night. I am looking for a girl who will make a good Mrs and be a good mother to my children. I wish for a boy and a girl. We can all live in a little place with not many streets, like the one where I lived with Mummy and Daddy and Jane and Pat the dog. But all those things are a long way off. They are not things that I must have now. I have some years before all that. Just one or two someones to have fun with and help the time go fast would be good for now. 


The next time we did it in his car because his Mrs was at home. He stopped in a car park and I said, ‘Let me see your big thing. It is as big as a horse’s,’ and I gave him head. It got hot in there and the windows went white. One time, we did it at work, in the box room. I got off on doing it there. I made him go down on me. I know that he liked me telling him what to do. They all do. Yes, we were in a room at work, but when I came, I could not help it―I said, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ After that the other girls at work always left me on my own when it was time to have cups of tea. 


The other night I went out―just me on my own―to get to know some others. ‘Time is Time’ was playing. Then ‘Being with You’. I was there a long time, and I said in my head that maybe someone will be nice to me if I talk to them and tell them I don’t know anyone round here. I could just about get a little round of drinks in. I looked at three men and a woman having fun at a table next to me. I wished for someone to talk to me, but no one did. Maybe they were making fun of me. By the end of the night, I was like a fish out of water. I will not do that again, I said in my head, as I made my exit and went home blue.


Last night I went to his house again. His Mrs was away at her mother’s or something. He said he did not go with her because her mother was an old cow, and because he wanted to have his way with me all night long. 

‘Do It To Me One More Time’ was on and I had nothing on. All at once the man I work for was under the bed. It looked to me like a game, so I put my hand on my privates and said, ‘Come back up here. I’m so wet, I’m so wet for you!’ Then I saw that his Mrs had walked in. 

‘It is not what it looks like, Dear,’ he said from under the bed. Well, that was fun. How could it not be what it looked like? He pulled me from the room, put my things in my hands and pushed me out of the house, out the back door. In the window I saw his Mrs and her waterworks and I could see her say, ‘Get out! Get out!’ at him. Then she came after me, but I outran her. 


I have too little money to live in the bedsit by the station anymore. I left home four years ago, but I have the words in my head that Mummy said when I went away, ‘You know you can come home any time’. I go back there to live. Daddy makes us eggs for dinner. It is all he knows how to make. I go up to my old bedroom and once in there, I sit, put my head in my hands and rain into them. The house is not right without Mummy. Before now I had not once come back this last year, not after she was put three and another three under the flowers, next to her mother and father. At the time I could not help thinking of how she had loved the outdoors and trees and now they were placing her down there, the way one does a tree.

When I was living away and I pictured my old home in my head I could see Mummy in it, like she had always been, sitting at the table drinking tea and talking, or singing and making nice dinners and cakes. I could keep a picture of home like it always had been. That way I would never know how bad it is that she is not here anymore. I closed off the room in my head where she had stopped being Mummy and was now pushing up flowers. I did not know how bad it was for my father. I did my best to keep it all out. 


He looks down at me the way he looks down at everyone and says it is time for me to go. When I ask can I please keep on at work because the night before had nothing to do with how good I am at work, he says that he only gave me work in the first place because he wanted to have a go off me. He says I am nothing but a dog and that he has no use for me anymore. 

As I exit with my box of pens and pencils and my cup, drawing the looks of the other girls, I keep my head up. They stop working as I walk out of that place. Their policing looks are nothing to me. Those girls do not know how to have fun. I never liked any of them anyway. 

I think, ‘That is the last time I will be a toy for a pig of a man. He is nothing but an old ballbag. I will never be used like that again. I will go home and find the old me again.’ 


Soon after I come home, Jane comes home to live, too, because she got fired from her work. It is her first time coming back, too, in a year. It is my first time seeing her or talking to her in a year. I did call her, some time back, but she was not in, so I called her again the next night and the next. She was never in, and she did not write back to my one letter, so I gave up. Now she does not look right at me or our father when she talks. She does not look right. 

When Jane and I were little, we had so much fun. Daddy would sometimes get down on his back and put us up as if we could fly and Mummy would say, ‘No horse-play in the house!’ and he would keep going anyway and have fun until Mummy was having fun too. 

It was Daddy who sat at the head of the table and it was Daddy who made the money, but it was Mummy who made the house a home. It was because of Mummy and her way of making everything good and nice that we all got on well. 

Back then, Daddy was head of the house and would always know what to do. Now, here he is, a man all at sea. He is slow at doing everything. Sometimes his things are not on him the right way round and his fly is open. 


There is no way out of it. I have to move home. At first, I am like Peter and Daddy―all three of us are down. We all keep to our rooms. Peter is like a lost little boy. Then, after five days, I think, ‘I cannot live like this. I must do something.’ 

I go to the cat and dog home. I bring home a baby dog, white as milk, and place it on the seat next to Daddy. ‘She’s for you,’ I say. He looks at the dog and then at me with a black look. I think maybe this was not a good thing to do after all. I think maybe he will give the dog to a farm. He cups the little dog in his hands. He looks right at it. Then he asks: ‘What is she called?’ 

‘What would you like to call her?’ I ask. 

Daddy thinks and then says, ‘I will call her Queen. It was a name I had for your mother.’


Jane thinks she can bring some sun back into the house by giving Daddy a little dog. He names it Queen. He goes to the shop and buys Queen a ball of her own and makes her a bed in his room. He brings her for walks every day. He brings her to the green where she jumps and runs around and plays. He gives her dog sweets for being good and he sings to her. He is not so slow anymore. I think, ‘Jane has made things good again.’ After three weeks Queen is lost. Daddy finds her two streets away where she has come to an end under a van.

He is much more down than before. So are Jane and I. We talk very little. Every day, morning to night, is like walking up a black hill that has no end. 


When Queen is felled by a van I want to give up. Being here and being me is too much. Sometimes I think I am two Janes, and these two Janes push and pull me. One Jane wants to forget, wants to ink out this home without Mummy, this Daddy looking so old and so lost, this Peter so round and closed off. The other Jane knows she has to see it all―see everything―if she wants to go on. 


Sometimes I think being here is like being in my bedsit. How did I bring that place with me? I am here, and Daddy and Jane are here, but I sit in my room and keep them out. I eat. There are toys and books in my room from when I was little. They are no good to me now. They are nothing. Mummy is nothing and nowhere and nothing is anything now.


After many black days go past, I think, ‘Mummy would not like us to be like this. I cannot let my father and my brother live like this. What would Mummy do?’  

I let the other Jane take over―the Jane who is willing to see it all. I cannot take the place of Mummy, but I can be the best I can be for Daddy and Peter. I put everything I have into making the house a home again. 

I say things like ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’. Every time Peter wants to eat sweets or jam or a cake, I give him an apple. I make something good to eat for dinner at one o’clock every day.


Every day Jane is a little more like my sister again. She looks at me and Daddy and she talks to us. She makes good food for us and makes us eat it at the table, not in our rooms. She sings sometimes when she is keeping house. She puts flowers on the table. 


One day, at the dinner table Daddy says, ‘I wish your mother were here.’ Peter goes red and looks down. I do, too, at first. Then I sit up, look right at Daddy and say, ‘I know.’

Mummy was everything to us but now we must learn to be three and not four. 


One afternoon, I do not go back to my room after dinner. I go out of the house and look at the trees. How green everything is. When I was little, I found my rabbit at the end of the road after it had run away and a cat had got it. Jane found me with the rabbit. The rabbit had no head. The two of us sat and were blue over it. 

I think how good it is that Jane and I always got along. When I was little and I fell or wanted help, many times it was Jane, not just Mummy who was there for me. I go back into the house. I say to Jane: ‘Can I help with anything? I would like something to do.’


Every day I give Peter work around the house. Then Daddy comes out of his room to help Peter learn how to do man’s work, like sawing and making things that have stopped working work again. 

‘I have some money for us all to live on for now,’ says Daddy, ‘until you two find work again. But no handouts.’ 

He gives me money for shopping. He gives Peter and me some money for the work we do in the house, and I help him learn how to make good dinners. 

I say to Peter: ‘He is going to get well,’ but what I think is: ‘We are all going to get well.’

We work so much by day that at night, when we go to our beds, we are out right away like children.

Niamh Prior

Niamh Prior studied English with Film and TV Studies at Brunel University London, and later Creative Writing at UCC, where her postgraduate studies were funded by scholarships from UCC and from the Irish Research Council. Her poetry and fiction have been published in journals including Quarryman, Penny Dreadful and Southword. Her debut novel Catchlights is forthcoming with John Murray Originals in June 2022.

About Peter and Jane: In 1962, William Murray and Joe McNally published a pamphlet titled “Keywords to Literacy and the Teaching of Reading”. Their research found that in the English language there were nearly 400,000 words but most people used only 20,000 words in everyday speech and of these only 300 were the most common. Thus began the iconic, quintessentially British Ladybird Keyword reading series, more popularly known as Peter and Jane books. I learned to read using these books, as was the case with many children of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. And indeed, the Peter and Jane books continue to be published today. As an adult I found the phenomenon of Ladybird Books sufficiently fascinating to centre a postgraduate writing and research project around them. In the 2013 BBC documentary, The Ladybird Books Story: The Bugs That Got Britain Reading, the narrator remarks how the books: ‘began to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Everything in their world was good.’ And this idea that the perfect Ladybird world could be on the brink of something darker set me to writing “Peter and Jane”. 

What happened to Peter and Jane when they became grown-ups as their once-readers now were? How would they cope as young adults in the early 1980s, facing harsh realities of recession times in Britain? What language would they use to tell their stories—but the only one available to them in their world, the 300 Keywords?

This limited vocabulary presented me with the challenge of finding ways to word adult themes. It pushed me to use figurative language that would have been unnecessary given an unrestricted vocabulary. Frustrated by repeatedly searching the list, I divided the words into types: nouns, adjectives, prepositions etc. I was surprised at how many words fell into both noun and verb categories (e.g. house, police, water) and how a word’s texture changed depending on which type it was. Simply by putting them into multiple categories, the 300 words became 412 words—and the use of phrasal verbs and compound nouns spawned many more permutations.

I allowed myself to add an -s for plurals and for third person verbs, to use the gerund by adding -ing, and to use the past tense of a verb if it meant only adding -ed. If the plural or the past tense was a different word, then I could not use it. For example, children is on the list, but child is not; think is on the list, but thought is not.

What’s interesting about the 300-word world is not just the words that exist in it, but which ones do not. For instance, the only emotion is love—there is no happy or sad. No feel or feeling. There is black, white, blue, red, green, and that’s it. No yellow. Nor does the word colour exist. Numbers are limited from one to five. Though there is man and woman, there are men but no women. I could go on…

Immersed in the Keywords world, I really felt for Peter and Jane. It’s no wonder they got so messed up. I’m glad they’re going to be okay.