Through the half-open door of the front room, a little spatter of conversation flowed out to the old lady, tiptoeing past.
“Did you manage to….”
“I said to her, pardon me but….”
The voices spilled out with the teatime sunshine. The old lady studied the patterns it created on the liver-coloured tiles by the front door. There would be no escape that way.
She drew back, picking at her lips with a dry grey finger. Then she inched slowly back along the wall, her bedroom slippers shuffling along the floor. The voices stopped and the old lady froze, not breathing until they started again, covering the creak of the kitchen door.
Out at the back, round by the tradesman’s, she reached the road under cover of the fig tree and paused, hidden from the house by the big board with its faded lettering – ‘Honeysuckle Lodge. Rest Home for the Elderly.’
Freedom! The old lady moved off down the street, fear of capture forgotten, smile wrinkles showing her triumph. Several corners later and pleasantly lost, she looked up at a concrete block of flats. Flats were usually good, no one knew who you were or cared where you had come from. On the other hand, these looked like the sort that held harassed mothers and little children – no chance of a cup of tea there. Further down, the character of the street changed and there was a row of houses, some obviously with apartments or bedsits. If you struck lucky, there would be biscuits or even cake, but there was always the risk someone would mention the Welfare.
Greed, caution and curiosity rose, struggled, and reached a compromise. She crossed over and trod quietly up the pathway of the shabbiest house. Seen from close, it was unattractive. The old lady tut-tutted behind her dentures and picked blisters of black paint from the door, too absorbed to notice a shadow falling across the peeling paint.
“You want someone?”
The girl dropped a blue laundry bag and a pile of shopping and fumbled for a key. Trickles of sweat ran down her skin, mingling with the clots of mascara and the magenta lipstick. She looked very young and very, very pregnant.
“Ground floor’s at work. First floor does nights, he’ll be sleeping. Collecting, are you?”
The old lady mumbled, smiled and shook her head. “Just a glass of water,” she said pathetically.
The girl’s hard expression softened as she found the key. “Come up if you can manage the stairs,” she said, manoeuvring body and bags through the entrance.
Once up in the small stuffy room, the old lady sat unasked on the only easy chair. The girl threw the blue bag into a corner, filled a kettle at the washbasin, and put it on a gas ring in a frowsy alcove. The room smelt of food and dust and faintly of cat, but the girl was now smiling as she put out mugs and a milk bottle.
“Would you like a cup of tea? You’re the only visitor I’ve had. Except my social worker and I don’t count her. Me name’s Ceridwen.”
There was a Welsh lilt in the confiding voice and she suddenly seemed much younger in spite of the bulging body and the overpainted face.
The old lady cleared her throat with a rustle no louder than a cockroach over linoleum. “That’s right, dear,” she said. “Milk and two sugars.” Her watery eyes, dark as wet pebbles, flickered expertly from the wardrobe to the shelves under the gas ring and retired, disappointed. No sign of a biscuit tin.
“What’s your name?” This time the girl expected an answer. Really waited for one.
“Florence… Florence… White. They call me Flossie, but I prefer Flo.” The old lady smiled after a long moment of thought. Really, it was too bad to be expected to remember things like that. However, her hope of avoiding questions was realised, and her reward swift. Ceridwen had decided that this was a social call and she was brightening by the minute. She pulled a packet of biscuits from the shopping bag and a loaf and butter appeared from a cardboard box. She busied herself in a pleasant little clatter of preparations.
“Me social worker’s called Mrs Williams. She’s a right cow. You’d think it would help, her being Welsh and all, but it doesn’t. You can see I’ve been a naughty girl, can’t you?”
The tone was saucy, but the girl looked up anxiously at her companion. At the mention of a social worker, Flo had put on one of her special expressions – the one reserved for contacts with ‘the Welfare,’ a mixture of imbecile blankness and guile. It apparently reassured the girl.
“I can see you’re broadminded. Not like some. What I say is, why should you get married just because there’s a little mistake on the way? The way some men talk you’d think that’s all a girl should want.”
Ceridwen made angry jabs at the kettle and mugs as she made the tea and then laughed. Flo cupped her hands around the mug and sighed into it, relishing the warm steam.
“Yes, some men fancy themselves no end they do. A girl’s got to look after herself. It’s all worked out, though. I’m going into a special home to have the baby. In a couple of weeks, that is. I’ll be out of this crummy room anyway. Then afterwards, I’ll have the baby adopted and… er… go back to work.” Her voice faltered slightly.
“Mrs Williams been ever so helpful, I’ll say that for her. She found me this place in the mother and baby home. Religious place it is I think – nuns or something. She did ask about my family, nosy old thing. It’s not her business! – I’m overage. I wouldn’t go back to that dreary little village no matter what. The idea! I can look after meself!”
She seemed to expect a response. Flo nodded her head up and down. The girl filled the mugs again and pushed over the biscuits. Flo took two and dipped them in her tea with anxious care, sighing deeply again.
“You’re ever so nice to talk to,” said the girl, wistfully. “A bit like me mam. I suppose I might go down and see her when… after it’s all over. Just for a visit. It’d kill her to know about the baby – ever so strict me mam is. They said I was too far on for an abortion, so it’s got to be adoption.”
Flo furtively took the last two pieces of bread and butter. Her expression was one of absorbed attention. Contented wrinkles ran up to her eyes as she dipped the bread into her tea and sucked it through the gap in her ancient dentures.
Her ever-gnawing hunger for once appeased, she gazed around the room with a child’s greedy interest. Her eyes absorbed, with minutest detail, the exact pattern of biscuit-coloured cracks on the surface of the basin, the pits like bullet holes in the lino, the coffee-coloured splash on the faded wallpaper. Then her eyes passed on and the images were immediately lost, unrecorded and unremembered. Confused inner memories took their place. Long forgotten vistas of dreary rooms like this one. Places of lost hope, of lost battles – against cockroaches, against marauding cats, against age, and against hope itself.
“Not very nice, is it?” said the girl, unwillingly following her gaze. “It was cheap, see? When I lost me job… well – not sacked; I wouldn’t want you to think that, but it’s not good standing too much. Me feet swelled and they said at the clinic ‘better give it up’ the nurse said. Ever so nice she was. Well, they try to understand but it’s hard to manage. I hadn’t the stamps, see? But I always say I’ll be alright afterwards. I’ll get ever such a nice place when… when I go back to work… after the… when I go back…”
Her voice trailed away. It was as if great pits appeared in the air around her, gaping crevasses that should have been filled with quick comforting voices – ‘You’ll be alright. We’ll find you a nice place to go. You can have the baby adopted. Don’t worry. Give up work. Take these tablets. Sign these papers. It’s all for the best. You’ll be fine.’
A piece of biscuit was stuck behind Flo’s dentures. She didn’t like the feeling of the black pits either. The unpleasant sensation of them remained in a mind that had lost the knack of papering them over with easy phrases. She explored the piece of biscuit with a sore pink tongue. Of all things, people trying to make you remember the past were worst.
“Don’t want to go back,” she said eventually in a little croak.
The girl stared at her. The minutes lengthened the silence that became frightening in its emptiness, until the air, splintered, cracked in fissures of feeling around them.
“Go back! Go back! – I can’t go back… You don’t understand. Oh, I wish I could. Me mam would kill me. Oh God! I’d give anything to go home… Oh God, I wish I’d never been born.”
The girl put her arms on the table. Suddenly defenceless, she was crying. The blobby makeup smeared on her plump arms, the great belly heaving with sobs and sympathetic blows from the protesting life within it.
“You don’t know. Nobody knows. I told me mam I was getting married. I told her we couldn’t come down because he was working long hours building up his own business. It was all lies. I couldn’t tell her he walked out on me, leaving me like this. He never cared at all. He left me when I was five months g..gone!”
The girl was suddenly bellowing. Storms of tears were coursing down her cheeks, rivulets of tears squeezing out of fat eyelids, oceans of tears soaking the dirty blue smock and threatening to wash mugs, plates, rickety table, girl and old woman out, out, down a fresh dancing green river to the furthest valleys of Wales.
The old woman stayed put, like a bundle of twigs caught in the eddies. She worked her jaws once or twice. The biscuit crumb gone, the sore place seemed less tender and the emptiness in her belly was satisfied.
“Ah,” she said. Ceridwen was snuffling now, collapsed on her knees by the table, the storm spent, “Oh God, if I could only go home. Oh, I know I said I want the baby adopted, but I don’t. Oh, if only
me mam would help me, she wouldn’t let them take me baby away. I want me mam. I want to go home,” she cried.
Now that she was more comfortable inside, Flo was paying attention again. Home? Time to go home. She wanted the toilet and she was suddenly, pathetically tired. She wanted to be back at Honeysuckle Lodge being scolded by Nurse Dobson and Matron. ‘Naughty Flossie,’ they would say, ‘Naughty girl, no supper for such a naughty girl’ and Nurse Brown would bring her hot milk and a sandwich and brush her hair.
“Time to go home,” said Flo firmly and then repeated it even more loudly, rising tremulously to her feet, leaning over the kneeling girl and supporting herself on the table. “Time To Go Home!”
To the girl, looking up at her through tears and mascara, she loomed like an ancient prophetess. “You mean it?” she said. “Just like that? Just go home? It’s too much… How could I face them all, I couldn’t! Could I?” She wiped her face on her dirty smock, peering up at the sibylline figure, implacable, unmoving, who said no word more than those which rang in her mind. ‘Go Home!’ the oracle had said, ‘Time to go Home!’
Having made her own decision to go, Flo’s attention was no longer on the girl. A little stiff from sitting, she leant forward on the table for a few more moments, then straightened herself. The movement seemed to release Ceridwen into obedience.
“I must go home, mustn’t I?” she said. “It’s the only way? I don’t care what they all think. I must go tonight, now, on the bus, before I get too scared to face me mam. Oh! I’ve been such a fool! Surely mam will understand? Oh! I want to go home SO much! Me mam’ll kill me but it’ll be worth it. How could I have been such a fool?”
Ceridwen was up and darting around the room with soft exclamations, finding her purse and a coach timetable, pulling out a little case and a few things, but when Flo started down the stairs she ran after her and helped her down.
“Oh, I do love you. Thank you a million times. No one understood like you, or gave me such good advice, ever. I shall never forget all you’ve said to me, and I – we – will never forget you.”
Flo walked back uncertainly in the early dusk. A car was coming slowly up the street. A panda car. Somehow, she was suddenly nearly in the gutter, a pathetic old lady collapsing onto the hard cruel kerbstones. In the car, she snuggled down pleasantly. The young policeman was talking into the car radio.
“By the way – we’ve found the old girl from the Care Home. Taking her straight back there as usual.”
Then back at Honeysuckle Lodge. Familiar comforting scolding voices.
“There you are, Flossie!”
“Hi Matron, Flossie’s back!”
“Naughty girls don’t get any supper!”
“I’ll help you to bed.”
“Naughty Flossie, what sort of sandwich would you like?”
Flo sighed gustily and surrendered herself up, deeply content. It had been a very good afternoon.
Elinor Kapp, 1984