Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1057
Helen and her daughter Jo are moving into a comfortless apartment in a Salford slum. Jo complains about the place, but Helen says they can afford nothing better. They bicker constantly about everything from Helen’s drinking and many boyfriends to the cold, their frequent moves, and Jo’s determination to quit school after Christmas. Helen complains about feeling sick. In unpacking, Helen finds some drawings Jo has done and thinks them quite good, but Jo resents even her mother’s praise.
Peter, a brash car salesman, arrives in search of Helen, who has been avoiding him. Peter had not known before that Helen has a teenage daughter (and is thus older than he thought) but he nevertheless asks Helen to marry him. Helen seems tempted to say yes. Jo brings them coffee and continues to make sarcastic comments. While Peter tells dirty jokes, Jo tries to discourage him from marrying Helen; he leaves without having received an answer. While the two women prepare for bed, Helen asks Jo what she thinks about her marrying Peter. Jo tells her mother that she considers it ridiculous.
Shortly before Christmas, Jo’s boyfriend, a black sailor, walks her home from school. When he tries to kiss her, she says no, though she enjoys his kisses. He proposes marriage, and she agrees. He gives her a cheap ring and asks what her mother will think, especially about his race. Jo says that she does not care how her mother might react. Nevertheless, she decides to wear the ring on a ribbon around her neck, under her clothes. Jo tells him that after she leaves school she will go to work in a bar and move out of her mother’s home as soon as possible. They arrange to meet later.
When Jo returns home, Helen guesses that she has been seeing a boyfriend. Jo asks to be told her real birth date, who her natural father was, and when Helen’s husband had thrown Helen and Jo out. Helen avoids answering and abruptly announces that she is going to marry again. When Peter arrives, Jo sarcastically calls him “Daddy” and says that his marrying Helen is crazy. While Helen is getting ready, Jo attacks Peter. She looks at the photographs in his wallet, including some of other women, and derides Peter and Helen for wanting to marry. Jo is convinced that Helen and Peter will be away for several days, during which Jo, not for the first time, will be left alone. She complains about her mother’s neglect, and Helen criticizes her for her jealousy. Peter and Helen leave, and Jo falls onto the bed, crying.
Jo’s boyfriend enters the apartment and, thinking Jo might be ill, fixes her some medicine. Jo tells him that Helen and Peter are getting married and asks him to stay with her over Christmas. They begin kissing as the lights fade.
After a time, Helen returns, carrying boxes of wedding finery. Because Jo is in pajamas, Helen notices Jo’s ring and berates her for spending time with her boyfriend in the apartment. While arranging for her own wedding, she begs Jo not to ruin her life by getting married. Jo again asks about her father. Helen reveals that he was sweet but mentally retarded; they had made love only once. Helen tells Jo that they will see each other after her honeymoon, and Jo wishes Helen good luck.
In early summer, a noticeably pregnant Jo and Geoff, an art student, return to her apartment from a fair. Geoff has been evicted from his apartment (perhaps for being gay), so Jo has invited him to stay with her. He, too, notices her drawings. They discuss Jo’s pregnancy, her decision against abortion, her finances, and whether she should tell her mother about the baby, especially since Helen presumably now has money. Jo absolutely refuses to let Helen know. Geoff sings nursery rhymes and asks about the baby’s father; Jo claims he is an African prince. As she is falling asleep, Jo tells Geoff that he is like a big sister to her.
A month or two later, Geoff is still living with Jo, helping to prepare for the baby. He seems far more nurturing than Jo, who says she hates babies. Geoff says that he stays because someone has to care for Jo. He asks her to marry him, regardless of any physical relationship, but Jo refuses. She suggests that he leave and then reconsiders. Helen arrives, and Geoff asks her not to reveal to Jo that he contacted her. Helen and Jo immediately begin bickering. When Jo implies that her morals are no worse than Helen’s, Helen tries to hit Jo, who flees from her. Geoff tries to intervene, but Helen chases him out. Then, somewhat calmer, she tells Jo that she has brought money to help out with the baby. Jo resentfully tells Helen that the “mother-love act” is too late. Peter arrives, drunk. He insults everyone in turn, including Helen for being old and for giving Jo “his” money. When Helen invites Jo to stay with them, Peter rejects the idea and they begin to quarrel. Helen eventually leaves with Peter, who takes back the money Helen had given Jo.
In September, Geoff is giving the apartment a thorough cleaning in preparation for the baby, which is nearly due. Jo suddenly feels frightened. When Geoff comforts her, she compares him favorably with her mother; he replies that, in some ways, Jo is just like Helen. He gives Jo a doll to practice her mothering skills, but she says the doll is the wrong color and throws it down. Then she tells the truth about her baby’s father, Jimmie. Geoff again proposes marriage; again she puts him off. Helen arrives, evidently ready to move back in with Jo. She criticizes all of Geoff’s efforts, insults him, and sends him away. Alone with Jo, she reveals that Peter has discarded her for a younger woman. When Geoff returns, Helen all but throws him out, so he leaves again, apparently for good.
Jo awakes from a nap and calls out for Geoff. She tells Helen that her baby will be black. Helen is appalled and walks out. Singing one of Geoff’s nursery rhymes, Jo watches her go.
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