Pushing open the heavy front door I called out my usual welcome, ‘Coo-wee, it’s only me.’
The familiar sights and smells of my childhood jumped up to greet me like an old friend.
In reply, mother, in her best “in case the neighbours are listening” voice, trilled, ‘Really, darling, we’re not in the Australian outback now you know. We’re having coffee in the morning room.’
I leaned against the banister as I’d done for the past forty years, kicking my trainers off without undoing the laces.
Apparently stepping on Tufted Wilton in outside shoes continued to be a cardinal sin. I lifted a foot to check the state of my bare soles. Yep, the trainers were definitely cleaner, but who was I to argue?
I padded through to the conservatory.
‘Morning, Mummy, Dad?’ The atmosphere in the sun filled room was decidedly
frosty. ‘Erm, everyone ok?’
‘Look, Daddy, Gemmy’s here’ she chirped a little too brightly.
He looked up from the paper. ‘Yes, I can see…’
‘Are you wearing that?’ she snapped.
I rolled my eyes and shrugged. Fifteen again. The rebellious streak bobbed to the surface. ‘Wearing what, Mummy?’
‘That, well I won’t call it an outfit. Have you been out jogging or been to the gymnasium this morning, Gemima?’
‘No, Mum, I’m just wearing joggers because I’m helping Dad take rubbish to the tip. I’m sorry if I’m not appropriately attired. Did I miss the dress code or something?’
‘Don’t be lippy, Gem. It might only be the municipal refuse site, but you never know who you might run into.’
‘Like who exactly am I likely to run into at the municipal refuse site?’
‘Now, girls, girls, don’t ar…’
‘Quiet, Stanley! For all I know you might meet friends of mine, associates, important people like the Vicar or Mrs Franklin or, God forbid, someone from your Father’s precious golf club, not that he’s ever introduced me to any of his tee-off buddies.’
‘That’s not very likely to happen, dear. Now, Gem do you want a cup of tea first or shall we get going?’ He nodded not very discreetly towards the door.
‘Tea? There’s no time for tea, Stanley. I want you both back in good time for luncheon. Now, I hope you’ve bought a clean change of clothes, my girl.’ She tucked a stray lock of hair away behind my ear, smiling sheepishly.
‘The Wilsons are coming at twelve and they’re bringing their eldest, Charlton. You remember Charlton? Financial Advisor with a semi in Preston? Well, apparently, and I only heard this from Mrs Simpson, who heard it from Mrs Jenkins, who has the same cleaner as the Wilsons, that his Decree Absolute came through! Hmm, hmm! So, it won’t do you any harm to look your best now will it, Gemmy love?’
I pulled the front door shut with a bang. The ARRRRGGGGHHHHH that was locked inside my head lasted all the way from the conservatory to the front porch. Oh my God! That women! I laughed out loud, shaking my head to clear the frustration.
Daddy stood by the car. He looked distracted.
‘I didn’t have the guts to tell her I’m not stopping for lunch. Do you think she’ll be very disappointed, Daddy? Dad?’
‘Usually…probably. Ah? Oh, I think today, well you might just get away with it.’ He replied, lovingly gazing over to his well-tended fishpond.
The estate car was full to the rafters, the whole back stuffed floor to ceiling with boxes and bin bags.
‘Wow, Daddy you really did have a major clear out, have you eaten a book on Feng Shui or are you having a mid-life crisis?’
‘Umm? Yes, darling, perhaps a bit of a mid-life crisis. Yes maybe, maybe that’s it. I’ll tell you as we go. Will you drive, Gemmy, dear? I feel a bit shaky.’
‘Are you ok, Pops?’ I walked around the car and rubbed his shoulder. ‘Shall we go back in and sit down for a bit?’
‘No! No, no. I’ll be fine once we get going. Come on, Kiddo, hop in and belt up.’
I smiled and waved to Mummy who was peeping at us through the crisp lace nets. She shot back behind the curtain, furious to be caught in the act.
‘Right at the end of the road please, dear.’
‘Oh, ok. Do you want to go to the tip in Stevenage, Daddy? Too ashamed to been seen out with me in joggers in Hitchin? Are we avoiding the vicar?’
‘No, it’s not that, dear. Can you go onto the motor way, southbound please?’
‘Dad? What’s going on?
‘In a minute, love. Give me a minute will you and I’ll explain.’
Unspeaking, I turned onto the slip road and pushed the car to a steady seventy.
The old engine purred and the white lines plunked under the wheels. The silence was deafening but I didn’t dare switch on the radio or speak in case it shattered his resolve to tell me what the heck was going on.
We passed the exit for Stevenage, then Welwyn. Five minutes, ten minutes passed, bowling along the road at seventy, heading south; heading towards god knows where.
‘Come back, Mother, all is forgiven,’ I thought
As we disappeared into the orange glow of the tunnel, he finally spoke. ‘I’ve left her!’
‘Left who, Dad?’
‘I’ve left your Mother.’
‘Yes, Daddy, we left her at home twenty minutes ago.’ I was starting to get worried
‘No, love, this is it. I’ve left her. I’m free!’
‘I told myself that if I got as far as the tunnel without backing out, I’d come out the other side...’
We emerged into bright sunlight
‘…a free man!’
‘Dad, what are you talking about? Does Mum know about this?’
‘Have you told her how you’re feeling? Actually, how exactly are you feeling?’
‘This is your mother we’re talking about, Gem. I’ve not managed to get a word in edgeways in the past forty-five years.’
I nodded in sympathy, not knowing how to reply to that one.
‘She doesn’t listen, Gem. She doesn’t ask me what I want or how I feel. No! She doesn’t listen to anything I have to say. She tells me, oh yes, she tells me what I’m thinking all right, and then she tells all her cronies what I think, what I feel, what I’m doing, what I’ll say. But it’s not me. I feel like I don’t exist in that marriage anymore. I don’t exist in that world. Do you know how that feels? How it feels to be replaced by an idea of yourself? It’s a reminder, every day, that I’m not good enough for her, that she thinks I’m not good enough for her. Everyday undermining, every day washing a little bit of me away until I just gave up having an opinion or a thought of my own...’
‘Oh, Dad, I didn’t know it was that bad. You should have told me.’
‘I’m sorry, Gem, I shouldn’t be talking to you like this, it’s not fair. But I just can’t take another day of it. I’ve had it. So, I’m running away from home!
‘But where are we going, Dad? What’s all this stuff?’ Clearly, not for the rubbish tip. I realise we’re twenty minutes too late for that.
‘I feel bad I lied to you, my darling, but I had to find a way of packing things up and getting you on your own. I thought if I talked to you, you’d understand. We never talk anymore do we, Gem?’
‘Oh, Daddy, I’m sorry.’ We rolled along in silence for a mile or so longer.
‘Off at the slip please, love.’
‘Dad, where will you go?’
‘Your golf partner Lesley? Will he mind you surfing on his sofa?’
‘Gem, I’ve not played golf in nearly fifteen years.’
‘But, Dad, what? But? So, if you’ve not been playing golf every Saturday and Wednesday for the past decade and a half what have you been doing?’
He laughed childishly. ‘Mostly Lesley!’
We broke into hysterical giggles. I was ten again and he was reading me Winnie the Pooh. We laughed till our bellies ached.
I pulled up the slip road and slowed to a halt.
‘OK difficult question.’
‘This not a golf partner Lesley, male or female?’
‘Oh, female, love. I’ve only emptied the closet; I’m not coming out of one!’
We laughed again as the lights turned green. Thank flip for that!
Noticing the absence of his beloved golf clubs in the back of the car. ‘Silly question, do you actually play any golf at all?’
‘Gracious me, no! I’ve not played since my sciatica in 2004. That’s how I met her, Lesley. She worked at the osteopaths. We got chatting in the waiting room. I talked and she listened. It was amazing! I kept up the pretence of golf all these years so we could see each other. Next left, Gem.’
Blimey, what a sneaky bugger! I was impressed. Hang on, what about all those golf balls I’d bought him over the years?
‘Dad, I get it, and I understand, honestly I do, but when are you going to tell Mum?
‘Number eleven, just over there on the right. Tell your mother? No, love, I can’t do that. She’ll never listen to me. You can reverse in so the boot’s nearer the door.’
‘How will you tell her then?’ I manoeuvred in carefully, managing to avoid various gnomes and plant pots.
Switching off the engine, the car and my family life shuddered to a halt.
I turned to look at him properly for the first time. Gently now, approach him like you would a skittish foal.
‘Dad, Daddy, you’ve got to tell her. You owe her that. Believe it or not she will notice when I don’t take you back for lunch.’
A plump smiley looking lady waved to us from the front window. She looked nice.
‘Well, dear, I just thought she’d take it better coming from you. Here’s Lesley now. Hop out, kiddo and let’s get unpacked.’
‘Mum, Mum? Are you okay, Mummy? Say something, Mummy, please say something. Mum, please say something you’re frightening me.’
I apologise for the language used in this story. Whilst inappropriate now, it was commonly used in the period the story is set. Based on a true story, I’m telling it as I was told it. EB
BEYOND THE BOUNDS OF HAPPINESS
How much happiness is one person allocated in a lifetime? Is it possible to use up the full allowance? How can one little person, a baby, my baby, make me feel, I mean really feel, so much joy. My body ached with it, my head swam with it, my soul sang with it. But once it’s gone, once that quota of happiness is used up, then what’s left?
What darkness lies beyond the bounds?
I’d always hoped to have a child, of course it was what was expected back then. Leave school, start work, meet a nice fella, court, marry, have a string of babies. Keep a nice house, a happy husband, healthy
But the war came and all the young men left. I joined the ATS, worked hard, kept my nose clean. Kept it clean when so many other girls didn’t, if you know what I mean. And when the war ended I noticed that the young men seemed to have aged beyond their years. Those who didn’t wear scars on the outside hid them in a darkness behind their eyes. It was a look I recognised from my father’s face. The trenches of the Great War, never spoken about, were always present. I’d lived too many years looking at his pain, I couldn’t live with it again. Gradually the mantle of spinsterhood slipped about my shoulders and I swept away all hope of a husband and family of my own. I kept busy. I told myself I was happy. I never expected life to be any more than that.
In 1953 I bumped into Jeff, quite literally bumped into him on the high street as I came out of the Chippie. Chips and scraps all over the pavement. Chips and scraps all over Jeff. I remembered him from the war years. We’d been stationed at the same base for a while. Older than me, a grown man with a wife and daughter. Over an apologetic pint and a bitter lemon he told me he’d lost them both on the same night. A direct hit on the Carlton Cinema, Gaslightwith Ingrid Bergman. That was Casablanca ruined for him for ever more.
We courted for a year, a sedate, understated affair. Holding hands, walking in the park. No fireworks, no passion; just comfort and companionship, kindness and compassion. I grew to love him slowly and without really noticing it. When finally he proposed, being married to him felt like exactly the right course of action. He was, by then, my entire life.
We moved out of London and bought a house in a New Town. Green fields and blue skies felt alien after the rubble and smog of the city. We were told the Town was perfect for families. The area had good facilities and modern schools. Perfect for other people’s families, but not mine, not ours. Children were, we agreed by never saying, something other people had. I was the wrong side of thirty-five and Jeff was heading for fifty. We were perfectly happy just the two of us.
Breaking the news of my pregnancy felt like some kind of betrayal. Such duplicity! I realised then that I’d wanted a baby more than anything. But a baby would change everything, spoil our perfect harmony, alter our dreams. I feared Jeff would think I had planned this. That Jeff would think I wasn’t happy in our solitary togetherness. Or worse still, that this baby would be a cruel reminder of his lost daughter. I didn’t want Jeff to think any of these things, so I decided to say nothing.
Weeks passed without my confession. In the end he asked me outright. He sat me down in our neat little front room, held my hands gently, looked me in the eyes. ‘I hope you’re going to tell me some wonderful news,’ he whispered. ‘I hope you’re going to tell me we’re having a baby.’
I couldn’t reply. I just nodded, tears streaming down my cheeks. He stood me up, tears streaming down his cheeks. He hugged me like I’d never been hugged before. ‘That’s wonderful, you clever, clever girl.’
Jeff was, of course, everything I loved about him. He was supportive and caring. He wanted to know everything I felt, every change my body underwent. He came to my midwife appointments, studied books, rubbed my swollen ankles, kissed my growing belly and converted his work room into a nursery. How could I have imagined he would be anything other than thrilled? To him this baby was a second chance, a miracle, a gift from heaven, a gift to him from me.
The doctor’s reminded me that, whilst women of nearly forty did have babies, it wasn’t commonly their first. Elderly Primigravida they called it. I didn’t feel elderly. How could I with Jeff at my side. We buzzed and sang with excitement and busy anticipation. We ignored their talk of mortality risks, of high blood pressure, prolonged labour and caesareans. If we didn’t think about them, they wouldn’t happen. Instead I asked which he wanted most, a girl or a boy. Of course, he said he didn’t care, so long as the baby was fit and healthy. Its sex didn’t matter. So, we made lists of names if she was a girl, names if he was a boy, wondered whether she would have my eyes or he Jeff’s chin. We plotted and planned and hoped and dreamt about our perfect, happy family. Our perfect, happy life.
He arrived a few weeks early. An easy birth given all the possible complications. The midwives whooshed him away to clean and bundle him in clean swaddling. They talked in hushed tones for what felt like an age before finally placing him into my arms, calling Jeff to come on in to meet his son. My heart burst with joy. I have never felt happiness like it. Everything was perfect.
Martin, he would be Martin after Jeff’s father. My beautiful, wonderful baby Martin. Thick dark hair and a flatter version of Jeff’s chin. His eye’s not belonging to either of us, huge, widely set. ‘With the look of a China man,’ the woman in the next bed commented. We chose to ignore her sour grapes. What did you expect when her daughter looked like the back end of a bus
They kept me in longer than the other mothers. To rest, they said. My age, always my age. I yearned to be at home, to start our wonderful life together. Just the three of us, me and my boys.
Jeff was taking a holiday from work to be with us – he didn’t want to miss a moment. Martin, such a good baby, didn’t squawk and wriggle like the others in the nursery. He was quiet and placid like his Pa. It wasn’t, however, without some tribulation. I struggled to get him to feed. His tongue protruded a little from the side of his mouth, so sweet like that of a tiny bull-dog, but it meant that he didn’t latch on very well. We agreed to bottle feed, which was perfect really as Jeff could take turns feeding him as well. Seeing him hold his beautiful baby son in his arms, cooing and purring at him, encouraging him to take the teat made my heart ache with love for the both of them.
As I packed my bag and prepared to leave, a young midwife approached tapping a crisp white envelope against her thigh. I tensed in anticipation. Martin had, she informed me, a small umbilical hernia. Nothing to be concerned about but they’d made me an appointment with a paediatric surgeon at the local hospital. I sighed with relief, tucking the letter away in my coat pocket as Jeff arrived.
For a glorious week we played happy families like children playing in the park. Jeff, the kind benevolent Daddy, rising in the night to feed Martin, changing nappies, shopping and cooking. I played Mummy keeping the house spotless, making up feeds, carefully sterilising glass bottles and rubber teats. The washing was endless. Airers filled with tiny clothes and nappies stood in every room of the usually neat little house. The extra washing-lines Jeff had installed in the garden went unused in the damp November mist.
Finally, Jeff left us to return to work with tears and kisses all round.
Preparing to leave the house on our maiden expedition, Martin bundled up against the bitter weather in his grand Silver Cross pram, I discovered the white envelope still unopened in my coat pocket. My heart thumped as my finger tugged against the thick paper. I’d forgotten all about it, forgotten even to tell Jeff. All concern ceased the moment the young midwife said it was nothing to worry about. This afternoon! The appointment was two o’clock today.
I had no transport. The enormous pram would never fit on a bus. How did other mothers manage this? There was only one option, I’d have to walk. I peered out through the window. It was three or four miles in the freezing November gloom. At least it was dry, albeit bitterly cold and blowing hard.
Martin seemed to enjoy the bumping of the pram wheels against the paving and soon dropped off. I trudged on. The grey sky washed the sunshine from my mood. I’d failed, failed both Martin and Jeff. Left to my own devices for the first time and I’d let them down. Doubts and worries started to nibble at the edge of my happiness. By the time the vast, white edifice loomed into sight I was a poor excuse of a wife and a miscreant mother.
Mr Harold Palmer-Jones examined Martin, stripping him down to his nappy, looking first at his naval then his hands and feet, his eyes and ears. A thorough going over, I thought.
Looking up he enquired, ‘Why did you bring him to see me? We don’t usually bother with children like him.’
‘A midwife at the maternity hospital made the appointment for me. Sorry, what do you mean, like him?’
‘Mongol! There’s no point operating, Mongol’s don’t generally live long enough to be worth the bother. Now don’t worry, dear. There are plenty of places that take children like him.’
My life shattered and fell in splinters all around me. I left, but I don’t recall how or when. I don’t recall what he said, I don’t recall what I did. I just walked. Walked away from the consultation room, away from the hospital, away from happiness. Tears streamed down my cheeks; my heart was breaking. Everything was ruined. How could I tell Jeff, how could I tell him that his baby was, was broken. We were broken.
Martin barely clothed, no hat or blankets screamed as the cold air hit him. I walked, walked I don’t know where. Walked until his screams stopped ringing in my ears, walked until I couldn’t walk anymore. It was all over. The child was going to die anyway, what did it matter anymore.
As the bus came around the corner I pushed the pram out into the road letting the smooth white handle slip effortlessly out of my hands.
There was nothing left but darkness.