Rita The Meter Maid

Patrolling the streets of London gave Rita a heady taste of the Swinging Sixties – even while she upheld the law…

Rita had barely left the police station steps when she saw two long-haired young men running towards a white Cortina parked on a yellow line just past the bus stop.

“Hurry up, it’s the Yellow Peril!” said one as he ducked behind the wheel.

“I never knew Hitler wore a skirt!” His mate gave her a cheeky wink as he slid onto the passenger seat and the car began to move into the traffic.

Rita smiled tolerantly. She’d heard worse and would probably hear a lot more before the day was out.

As she walked along the busy pavement, she remembered her training course at Hendon Police College.

“Did you put this ticket on my car?”

The man was an actor, but his furious red face was scarily convincing.

Feeling self-conscious with two dozen other new recruits watching her in the windy car park, Rita’s fingers tightened on the strap of her satchel.

“It’s on a yellow line.” She tried to keep her voice level.

“I always park there!” The man waved the ticket around in protest.

“That’s not my fault, is it?” Rita snapped back.

“No, no, no,” the tall and burly police sergeant intervened. “Don’t argue with him, Mrs Cavendish. Now keep calm and try again…”

As Rita passed Woolworths, she caught sight of her reflection in the window.

She felt proud to wear her sharp black skirt and jacket, with its shiny silver buttons, white blouse and black tie.

She adjusted her cap with its wide yellow band, pushing it down into her blonde curls at the back and pushing up the peak so that a couple of curls escaped onto her forehead.

She thought it looked quite chic, really.

In the window’s reflection she saw a Mini, painted in psychedelic swirls of purple and white, pull up on the double yellows outside the Tube station.

Dodging the red double-deckers and rattling black taxis, she stepped quickly across the street and reached the Mini just as a leggy young woman stepped out in a dog-tooth miniskirt, knee-high boots and a long, yellow cable knit roll-neck.

“You can’t leave it here,” Rita said.

“I’ll only be a minute.” The girl flicked back her long straight hair. “I’m just picking someone up.”

“If you leave it here you’ll get a ticket and a six-pound fine.” Rita softened her expression and pointed down the street. “There are some meters just around that corner.”

“OK then – thanks.” The girl gave her a grateful smile and folded herself back into the tiny car.

As she drove away, Rita smiled with the satisfaction of a job well done.

She knew that one or two of her colleagues would have waited until the girl had disappeared into the Underground station before gleefully slapping a ticket on the car.

Over lunch in the canteen, she’d heard often-told tales about tickets put on hearses waiting outside churches and on National Blood Service vans while people were queuing up to give blood.

She reckoned half the stories were myths, but dishing out tickets wasn’t supposed to be the goal.

It was better to move a car on than leave it obstructing the road with a ticket on it, she reasoned.

When the first traffic wardens hit the streets of London in 1960 they became instant figures of hate and fury among motorists.

Rita remembered laughing at her black and white television while a tubby, shiny-browed comedian in a tuxedo said in a northern accent, “D’you know why traffic wardens have a yellow line around their ’at? It’s to stop people parking on their ’eads!”

Her husband, Adam, though, was an ambulance driver.

He reckoned that without the wardens there’d be so much inconsiderate parking that he wouldn’t get to half the emergencies he was called to in time.

When the Met started recruiting female traffic wardens in the mid-1960s, with shifts they could work around their home life, Adam suggested she apply.

Rita had previously worked as a sewing machinist in a busy clothing factory.

She had hated the din of the machines and being trapped indoors under artificial light all day.

With their son about to start nursery school, the chance to work outdoors was appealing.

Patrolling the streets wasn’t much fun when it rained, but on bright sunny days she never looked back.

Up ahead, Rita noticed a middle-aged woman in a fancy red hat and matching coat skip across the high street with a well-stuffed department store bag in each hand.

The woman threw her burdens into the boot of a navy blue Hillman Minx, slipped something under the windscreen wiper and re-crossed the road towards a boutique.

When Rita reached the car, she saw that the parking meter’s dial was in the penalty zone.

She picked up the piece of paper that was flapping under the wiper, read it and sighed. She opened her satchel, checked the car’s registration number and started writing out a ticket.

“I say, I say, excuse me!”

Rita was half way down the road when she was hailed by a cut glass accent.

She turned to see the woman in the red hat and coat trotting towards her, a boutique carrier bag hooked over her wrist, a Cellophane-wrapped parking ticket in one hand and a piece of paper flapping in the other.

“Didn’t you read my note?”

The woman was wearing a red dress under her coat and matching shoes. Her face was almost the same shade.

“I did.” Rita nodded.

“It says I’m taking my son to the doctors and I didn’t have change for the meter.” The woman flapped the note under her nose.

“Well, you’ll have to write in with your ticket and explain that.” Rita smiled politely but firmly.

“Rest assured, I will!” the woman said haughtily. “I’ll be writing to the Commissioner himself!”

Good luck with that ruse, Rita thought, as the motorist strutted off.

She didn’t say it, though. Neither did she point out that she’d written on the back of the ticket: Loading outside Burbridge’s Department Store.

After ten laps of her beat and about five miles of walking, Rita’s stomach was rumbling as she headed up the police station steps for lunch.

She was looking forward to taking the weight off her feet and unloading the morning’s grumbles with her colleagues.

In the smoke-yellowed canteen, she walked into an unexpected kerfuffle.

“Oh, Rita,” her friend Jackie exclaimed. “Have you heard what happened to Helen?”

“No, what?” Rita hurried over to a noisy group where Helen had draped her uniform jacket across a table. A nasty-looking stain had eaten into the material.

“Someone threw bleach at her,” said Mary, another traffic warden, wide-eyed.

“Oh, no!” Rita gasped in horror and covered her mouth.

“He said, ‘If you’re going to give me a ticket, then here’s something for you,’” Helen said shakily. “He pulled a bottle out of his car, took the lid off and threw it at me. It’s a good job I was already backing away.”

“Imagine if that had gone on her skin.” Mary winced.

“Luckily I had his registration number,” said Helen. “Hopefully it won’t be long before the police catch him.”

“I hope they lock him up,” said Jackie grimly. “For all our sakes.”

After lunch, Rita was tucking a ticket under the windscreen wiper of a cream Jaguar when a man bellowed, “Hey, I’ve only been there a minute!”

Rita nearly jumped out of her skin. The attack on Helen had made her worry, for the first time, if she was safe in her job.

She spun around to see a short, stocky man in a blue pinstripe suit and snazzy multi-coloured tie running out of a ladies’ clothes shop.

He had a Mediterranean complexion and thinning black curly hair.

“Oh, Rita, it’s you!” His face changed from scowl to grin.

“Mr Angelopoulos, you gave me such a start!” Rita clutched her heart with relief. It was her old boss from the clothes factory.

“How’s life walking the streets?” the businessman joked.

“It’s not so bad.”

“Now, about this little misunderstanding.” He touched the parking ticket as if it were an object of mutual regret. “How about we tear this up, then you come by the factory and I give you a nice discount on a new dress?”

Rita laughed. “You can’t buy me off like that, I’m afraid.”

“It was worth a try.” He shrugged good-naturedly and tossed the ticket into his car. “It’s my second one this week. I collect them like stamps!”

“Well, it was nice to see you again, Mr Angelopoulos. Sorry about the ticket.”

“Don’t worry about it – and any time you want a dress, just come and see me.”

As Rita headed off, she remembered her days on the factory floor, where the boss’s grumbles about his parking tickets had been a regular occurrence.

She wondered what it would be like to be rich enough to treat parking fines as a trading expense while you made your sales rounds in a Jag.

The throaty roar of a motorbike turned her head and Rita thrilled to the sight of a leather-clad figure accelerating up the high street on a hefty Triumph.

The fleeting display of rebellion took her back to teenage dates with Adam.

After watching The Fly or Dunkirk they’d leave the cinema on his motorbike and zoom off to an all-night transport café on an arterial road on the edge of London.

Adam had been a café racer with slicked back hair and a leather jacket covered in metal studs that was as heavy as a knight’s armour.

Rita would jump up and down with excitement as he shoved a coin into the jukebox and pressed the button for Gene Vincent’s Race With The Devil.

Before the mechanism had started to lift the record from the rack, Adam was out of the door, with his mates and Rita chasing him.

In the chilled air of the small hours, he leapt astride his bike like a cowboy mounting a horse. With a roar like thunder, he shot onto a dark road as empty and inviting as a racetrack.

In the distance his brake light flared as he circled the roundabout in an attempt to make it back to the café before the record ended.

Sometimes there were dozens of bikers at the café, their street bikes stripped down to skeletal racing machines.

There were never more than two or three girls, though, drinking frothy coffee around a single table.

Hanging out with the rockers until dawn was considered beyond the pale for a respectable girl in the 1950s – but Rita needed the excitement.

She’d grown up in a Britain exhausted by war and rationing, with a bombsite on every corner.

Her dad had come home with shellshock and couldn’t tolerate the slightest sound around the house, let alone loud music.

So Rita had bought a leather jacket and escaped with Adam to a twilight zone where the jukebox never stopped rocking.

Their parents’ generation had fought on battlefields and kept the home fires burning.

With war just a memory, young men like Adam had only motorbikes to test their bravery on while Rita waited by the jukebox and imagined herself to be the girl in a song like Tell Laura I Love Her.

As the whine of the motorbike spluttered into the distance, Rita thought how strange it was that Adam now made his high-speed dashes at the wheel of an ambulance with its blue
light flashing, while she’d swapped her biker jacket for a uniform and worked to enforce parking laws.

From the wild ones to respectable suburban parents in just seven years.

She wondered what had happened to their younger selves. She certainly didn’t feel like a girl in a song any more.

Yet her job had its heady moments.

As she turned onto a leafy street lined with tall white mansions, she remembered the day a silver Bentley had slid up to a vacant parking meter.

A man stepped out in a high-collared grey suit and open-neck shirt. His mop of dark hair swished across his eyebrows.

Before she could stop herself, Rita broke into a dash like a teenager.

The man turned at the sound of her running footsteps and grinned like a cheeky cherub.

“You’re too late, luv,” he chirped in a Liverpudlian accent. “I’ve already put my money in the meter.”

“It’s not that,” Rita gushed, notebook in hand. “Can I have your autograph?”

Rita returned to the locker room at the police station to change out of her uniform for the bus ride home. Relieved to unlace her shoes, she massaged her sole through her stocking and looked forward to putting her feet up for a while when she got home.

“They caught the bloke who threw the bleach at Helen,” said Jackie. “Let’s hope they throw away the key.”

“I certainly feel safer knowing they’ve got him. How’s Helen?” Rita plumped up her curls, flattened by her cap.

“She’s all right, thankfully. The sarge has put her on school crossing duty tomorrow to give her a break from the angry brigade.”

“Well, I’d better be off.” Rita belted her raincoat over a powder-pink above-the-knee dress. “See you tomorrow, Jackie.”

Rita opened the gate of her neat little Victorian terraced house and glanced fondly at the tarpaulin-covered motorbike that filled the tiny front garden.

Adam still tinkered with the bike at weekends and occasionally took her for a burn-up, her arms locked around his waist and her chin resting giddily on his shoulder, just as if they were still twenty years old.

Mostly, though, they used their second-hand Ford Anglia for gentle Sunday drives to a country pub where they could take their boy and have lunch in the garden.

As she turned her key in the door, she heard the chatter of the television Billy was watching in the front room.

The mouth-watering aroma of almost-ready steak and kidney pie drifted from the kitchen, making her as hungry as a horse.

She and Adam arranged their shifts so that she could take Billy to school in the morning and Adam collect him in the afternoon, or vice versa.

“Hey, Rita – The Beatles have written a song about you!” Adam grinned as he burst from the kitchen, a flowery apron over his pressed trousers and ambulance brigade shirt.

“What are you talking about?” Rita laughed as she hung up her coat.

“Come and listen.” Adam beckoned her into the front room and held up the colourful sleeve of the just-released album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“Terry at work lent it to me.”

Adam slipped out the vinyl platter and put it on the turntable of their radiogram.

Rita’s mouth fell open as the Fab Four started singing Lovely Rita, about a traffic warden, over a jolly comb-and-paper backing.

“I didn’t know you knew Paul McCartney,” Adam joked.

Rita blushed as she remembered her autograph and the little chat about her work beside a parking meter.

Somehow, at the end of a busy day, she’d forgotten to tell Adam about it. It was a silly, girlish moment, after all.

“Coincidence,” she smiled now. “After all, there must be lots of meter maids called Rita.”

Then, finally knowing what it felt like to be the girl in a song, she stepped into Adam’s arms and they began to dance, just as in love as they’d been all those years ago.

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