If the men in suits from the council think Bett is feisty now they should have seen her on stage in the working men’s clubs of seventy-odd years ago.
Bett was just 15 when she joined her dad treading the boards in the booze-fuelled, smoke-laden clubs where she belted out Shirley Bassey numbers like As Long as He Needs Me and Big Spender before reducing grown men to tears with her rendition of Silent Night at Christmastime.
She was a bit cheeky even then. “When they used to get well past it with their drinking they’d say, ‘Look at her, she looks like a baby. She shouldn’t be out here, get her bleeding home’. I’ve always been one to stick up for myself and I’d have hands on hips and shout back, ‘You bleeding well come and get me off the stage then’. Talk about Barbara Windsor!”
A rebellious streak, taking no nonsense from anybody, had always been there. It surfaced again in the hospital maternity ward where she suffered a difficult birth with daughter Susie. Complications, too harrowing to catalogue here, set in post-delivery. She woke to find the sister standing at the bottom of the bed. “She said, ‘You better get her christened, she isn’t going to last until the weekend’. This was on a Thursday.
“And I said, ‘You bloody well watch me’. Sorry, I swore there. That was my attitude. She died four days after her 50th birthday. That was 10 years ago.”
It was through Susie, who used a wheelchair all her life, that Bett forged an ongoing 42-year association with Leyden House, the Stevenage adult day centre that is the subject of her vociferous campaign to stop it closing while a new centre is built. That the two events do not overlap is the main cause for her concern, that and the dimensions of the proposed facility.
“What’s going to happen to the kids?” she wails. She calls them all ‘kids’ affectionately no matter their age, in her role as mother hen. “I said to one the other day, ‘You’re a lovely girl’, and she said, ‘Bett, we’re adults’. Which they are. They go there when they’re 18. We’ve got them in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and even a couple in their 60s.
“You walk in there and if you’re feeling down your heart sings. I go in every Monday and they say, ‘Why can’t you come every day?’ When I get there they go, ‘Bett’s here today, Bett’s here’. I walk with a trolley now – I’m coming up to 87 – and they go, ‘Here’s Bett, get her a chair. You want a cup of tea, a cup of coffee, Bett?’ And they’re all hugging me and telling me their problems.”
Singing still plays a big part in Bett’s life. She organises a choir at Leyden House. “Some of them can’t speak, they can just move their eyes, but you see a smile come on their face when you start singing. It’s enough.”
She took the kids busking at King’s Cross station in London 10 years ago. “We stood between where they get off and where they get on. My friend says I’m terrible. I said, ‘If they don’t give any money, trip ’em up!’” They raised £800 the first time for the centre, £600 second time and £1,000 third time.
If the kids get a little bored with the story-telling, painting or other activities available at the centre, Bett says: “I put on my little crown and my fairy wings and my wand and I go around singing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star for them. My son thinks I’m mad.”
Mind you, perhaps it runs in the family: Gary is planning a skydive in June to raise money for Leyden House. “All donations welcome,” the proud mum says.
Bett tried to put her case for the centre’s future to the man from the council at a coffee morning recently. “There was this chap – I don’t know who he was – and I said, ‘Well, the situation is, how big is this [new] place going to be?’ And he said, ‘It isn’t going to be as big as this place’.
“And I tried to explain to this chap that we’ve got four different rooms here and there’s different things going on in each room, but sometimes the kids get bored and fed up and want to go somewhere else, and we need more rooms for them. And these kids, it’s not their fault they’re born the way they are.”
Life’s not been easy for Bett, either. She worked nights in a care home to support Susie and an invalid husband who fractured his skull when knocked down by a van, later suffering brain tumours – benign she says – before succumbing to cancer in his early 60s.
Bett joined Stepping Out when Sue gave a talk at the local Crossroads centre. She soon became a regular on the Hertfordshire walks. “I love walking,” she says. “It keeps you fit. And meeting people, talking to people with their dogs, babies in prams. I love doing that. Otherwise I’d just be sitting at home on my own.
“It’s so nice all these places where we go. I’d get engrossed in looking at the flowers and what’s going on. I’ve slowed down a bit now. I’ve got a bit of a problem with my walking at the moment. I used to walk two hours a day and then do 4,000 turns on my exercise bike. But I’m pushing myself to get going again.”