Published: Jinty 3 January 1981 to 21 March 1981
Artist: Phil Gascoine
Writer: Alison Christie
Translations/reprints: Girl Picture Library #17 as “Winner-Loser!”
Marie Smart has always been a brilliant girl who excels at everything and wins at everything she goes for. This is one bright spot in the lives of her parents, who don’t make much money at the jobs they have. Worse, they constantly worry about their son Paul, who is seriously ill with asthma, and the polluted industrial town they live in makes it progressively worse. Paul’s health is deteriorating so badly that they badly need to move to the countryside. The trouble is, the parents can’t afford it.
Marie wins a scholarship, and it means everything to her parents for her to fill her sideboard with medals and trophies; Dad is even working overtime and risking his own health because of it so he can afford Marie’s new school. Marie understands this and resolves to fulfil their wish to fill that sideboard with medals.
But then Marie’s godmother, Miss Simon, invites her to her country home. Dad has misgivings because Miss Simon is an “eccentric old bat” who might put “strange ideas” into Marie’s head. Mum persuades him otherwise, but it turns out his fears were more than justified. Miss Simon has never won any medals in her life, and her jealousy over it is so twisted that she resolves the person to inherit her hall won’t win any either. She wants Marie’s family to inherit the hall when Marie turns 16 – but on strict condition that Marie wins no medals in the interim. And not a word to her parents about it. Marie agrees to the perverse terms because this is the only way her sick brother can move to the countryside.
So Marie starts deliberately failing things that have a medal or trophy attached. Her family is disappointed to see the sideboard not filling up with medals, but Marie has been forced to agree not to tell them why. Sometimes Marie has to resort to lengths that get her into real trouble in order to avoid winning medals, including vandalism and embarrassing her family with a lousy performance at the school pantomime. Twice Marie’s life is even put in danger because of her deliberate failures at medals.
Soon there is another problem – it will be two years before Marie is 16, and Paul is getting so sick that he could die well before that time arrives. So Marie takes the plunge and asks Miss Simon if she can have the hall when she turns 15 instead. At first Miss Simon refuses because she doesn’t understand or care about the seriousness of Paul’s condition, dismissing it as “a tickle in his chest”. She changes her mind – somewhat – when a fire in her room gives her a taste of not being able to breathe, just as Paul can’t during his asthma attacks. She agrees to let Marie have the hall when she turns 15.
But Miss Simon’s new-found sympathy for Paul is not enough to turn her around. She does not let up on Marie either although Marie helped to save her from the fire. She remains jealous because she has no medals herself and still insists Marie win no medals. When she mistakenly thinks Marie has won one, she refuses to hand over the hall to her, regardless of how much Paul’s life depends on it. Fortunately Marie manages to convince Miss Simon that she jumped to the wrong conclusion there. The trouble is, it will be some months before Marie is 15, and time is fast running out for Paul; the parents now fear for his life.
Towards the end of the school year the Smarts organise a holiday that will get some country air into Paul. But then both the parents lose their jobs and can’t afford the holiday. So a cheaper holiday is organised at Simon Hall. But finally, Marie cannot help herself from winning a medal. When the jealous Miss Simon hears, she refuses to hand over the hall, calls off the holiday, and leaves Paul to slowly die in the smoky town.
The family manage to organise a car so they can at least get some country holiday. However, a breakdown drives the Smarts to Simon Hall, where Marie decides to confront the jealous old bag once and for all. To her surprise she finds Miss Simon has had a change of heart because she has finally won a medal and now realises how horrible she had been. So Miss Simon hands the hall immediately over to the Smarts, with a job to go with it for Mr Smart. The family are thrilled, as it is the answer to their prayer. The move from the air-polluted town to the countryside of Simon Hall soon has Paul’s health going from strength to strength and his asthma fades.
Miss Simon now goes from stopping Marie from winning medals to challenging her as to which of them can fill their sideboards with medals the fastest. No medals for guessing who is soon in the lead.
IPC girls’ titles delved into the blackmail theme far less often than the DCT titles, who used it so frequently. Jinty herself hardly ever used it, and this is one of the exceptions. Objects of blackmail have included jobs, incriminating diaries, and family reputations. The health or even the life of a loved one being held hostage has been used too.
However, Miss Simon is unusual in that she did not start using Paul’s ill-health as a blackmail ploy to begin with as most blackmailers in girls’ comics would have. In fact, it sounds like she did not even know about it until Marie pleads for the hall a year early because of Paul’s deteriorating condition. So at the beginning she hardly had any leverage to seriously get Marie to agree to her no-medal condition, and Marie would have most likely to tell her to sod off. So how she could have seriously believed she would get Marie to agree is difficult to understand and does create a plot weakness. Perhaps it’s that eccentricity Dad was on about. Eccentrics are not known for common sense.
Miss Simon is also unusual is that she is not lying about guaranteeing the saving of the sick relative in return for agreeing to the blackmail. This usually is the case as shown in DCT titles like “Meg and the Magic Robot” (Tracy) and “April Fool” (Mandy). The blackmailer leads the protagonist to believe that they will do their bit to save the sick relative in exchange for the protagonist agreeing to their demands, but eventually the protagonist finds out the blackmailer was lying and not doing anything of the sort. But this is not the case with Miss Simon. In fact, it’s not really her idea to hold Paul’s life hostage in the first place.
This is one of the redeeming qualities about Miss Simon, who already comes across as a despicable character with her twisted jealousy and later, her callousness in leaving Paul to slowly die in the polluted town, just because Marie had won a medal. Her callousness is even more disgusting because she does understand and sympathise with his plight once she gets a taste of not being able to breathe, yet she is still willing to leave him to just slowly die if Marie wins a medal. We’re not really sure Miss Simon even deserves to win a medal because of her petty conduct, which not even eccentricity can excuse. All the same, Miss Simon winning a medal is the only way to make her see sense and resolve the story.
Miss Simon truly redeems herself in handing over the hall immediately once she stops being jealous over medals, instead of waiting until Marie is 15. No doubt it was prompted by guilt over the way she behaved and how she treated Paul (leaving him to his fate) who had, ironically, always liked her.
Marie Smart arouses our sympathies far more than a victim in a regular blackmail story usually does. For one thing, she is a sympathetic character from the start in that she has never let her brilliance go to her head and make her conceited like Tina Williams in “The Girl Who Never Was”. We really laud her for that, and for the way she puts her sick brother ahead of herself. Marie does not grieve over the failures she forces herself to do; instead her heart bleeds over how it is disappointing and even shaming her family. She knows how much it means to them, especially how Dad is working overtime to pay for her new school and expects medals in return. Dad going through a heart attack must be attributed to his overtime and his deep disappointment at no medals on Marie’s sideboard. Marie decides to at least come out top in mid-year exams to please him and inject him with encouragement to recover, and it’s a real tonic for him. But that’s all she can do; there are to be none of the medals he really wants because of Miss Simon.
Our hearts bleed for the parents as well. They are already under a lot of stress and worry because of Paul’s condition. The only remedy – move to a cleaner environment – is unaffordable for them and they watch in anguish as Paul’s health deteriorates in the polluted town. Marie winning medals is one of the few things to give them joy, but now they are deprived of that because of Miss Simon’s pettishness. Their constant disappointment compounds the anxiety they are already under, and it’s so unfair to them. Then they sink even lower in losing their jobs and Dad’s health not fully recovering from his heart attack.
And then final anguish – being denied the hall and watching Paul slowly die because of her medal, is the most heart breaking of all for Marie. Even the parents and Paul, who don’t know about the situation, are devastated at Miss Simon cancelling the holiday.
It’s no wonder that Jinty advertised this story as “nail-biting”. It is not one of Jinty’s most distinguished or memorable stories, but as with so many Alison Christie stories, emotion is still its strength.