Authors: Monica Dickens
Helen & Pippin
Joy and Josephine
On an autumn evening in 1918, a young Irish girl in a long blowing skirt and a man’s jacket fled up the hill from the village.
It was that hour when the long twilight suddenly tarries no more, and from one minute to the next, it is night. Darkness settled on the stubble fields and gathered thickly in the trough of the lane. The girl stumbled and hurt her toes on the baked wagon ruts. The sea wind blew her lank red hair about her face, and whipped it back each time she glanced behind her with the fear of being followed. She kept looking up at the hedges as if they held an ambush, as she hurried on, half walking, half running.
She was slim and long-legged and could have climbed the hill faster if she were not burdened by a bundle held against her in the crook of one arm. Reaching the cross roads at the top, she paused for breath and glanced all round before she darted for the opposite bank, sidled through the kissing-gate with a swing of her hips, and was in the churchyard.
She had never thought to be coming alone into a graveyard after dark. But then, God forgive her, she had never thought to be doing such a thing as she was this night. She was afraid. Had there not been that friend of Miss O’Rafferty’s, who had sat all night among the graves for a dare, and been found white-headed, with her wits gone?
The gravel path crunched, so she had to keep to the grass, hopping over a grave here and round a headstone there, with her heart in her mouth, lest the dead should rise up at her desecration. Old stones slumbered askew, and new ones glimmered at her like bones. The Holy Father alone knew what lurked in the blackness under the inky yew.
In the church porch, she turned to look back at the way she had come, and thought herself brave. ‘Now it has to be done,’
she thought, and quickly she bent and thrust her bundle under one of the seats.
‘May the Blessed Virgin Mother of her mercy forgive me,’ she gabbled, stood up, and was out again among the graves before guilt clamoured at her to stop. Hesitating in the gloom, she could almost fancy she saw the mounds stir and heave as if the dead were uneasy at her. A long finger of the yew, trailing a fringe of dead growth, pointed before her at the ground. ‘Like the finger of God,’ whispered Bridget’s thoughts, ‘bidding me to my knees.’
She glanced fearfully back at the church. The tombstones waited, leaning to see what she could do. ‘Well then,’ she thought. ‘But just for the one prayer, I should be gone.’
She half hoped that the door would be locked, but when she tried the heavy ring with both hands the latch lifted and the thick door yielded to her push. The tiny church was colder and blacker than the night outside, and full of the mouldy smell which came up through the stones when the people were not there. A red sanctuary lamp hung from a rafter over the altar rail, and guttered, giving no light.
Bridget sank on her knees in the nearest pew, pulled out the little gold crucifix which hung under her jersey, and holding it, gabbled three unthinking Hail Marys with her eyes screwed shut.
When she opened them, she could see the altar, which before had been lost in shadow. There was a faint glow at one end. ‘Holy Jesus,’ thought Bridget, ‘the Gospel side, and it a sign that the Word of God reproaches me.’
She had never seen a Sign. Mother Amabilis back there at home had once seen a statue move, and Bridget’s cousin had heard the whirring wings of the Holy Ghost, but Bridget had never seen a Sign. It shocked her into a fervent cry to God, straight from her stricken heart, aloud. Her voice rang among the stone pillars and in the vaulted rafters, as if it were sounding in the courts of Heaven indeed. Terrified, she scrambled out of the pew and tugged at the door. In the porch, as a desperate peace offering, she tore off her crucifix and bent to thrust it on top of the bundle.
Heedless of noise, she spattered down the gravel path, her spine chilled by the knowledge that if she looked back, she would see all the leery tombstones crowding at her heels like an avenging army.
The glow on the altar brightened to a light as Father Munroe came through from the sacristy with the lamp, to see who had spoken in the church. Little and old, in square-toed black shoes, he went slowly down the aisle, murmuring to himself as he peered from side to side into the pews.
At the end, he turned and raised the lamp high, but there was nobody there. The church door standing ajar reminded him that it was past time to lock up. Before the war, a church could stand open all the twenty-four hours, as a church should. Now they told you you must lock your doors in case of German spies, though what harm they thought a German spy could get up to in his church, Father Munroe did not know. But you did not question all the things they told you to do nowadays; you simply did them, and hoped that you were helping the war a little.
The big key was a show piece. It was in the guide book, because the lock and key were the oldest in Devonshire. It turned with a loud rasp, and as he bent painfully to the bolt, Father Munroe heard a cat crying in the porch. He listened, bent double with his head tilted.
There it was again – piteous, like a lost kitten. A stray? His eyes glistened. There were eleven cats in his house, and plenty of room for a twelfth, since Mrs James had indignantly reclaimed her tortoiseshell. How should he have known it was not a stray if she did not look after it better than to let it come crying to his back door?
He straightened up, stood the lamp on top of the Peter’s Pence collection box and opened the door again, calling: ‘Kitty, Kitty, Kits!’ in the high, peewit tone that made cats come to him.
No skinny shadow came to brush against his legs. The kitten cried again; a tiny, almost human wail from under the sway-backed porch seat.
‘All right, all right, if you won’t come out, I’ll have to fetch
you out.’ Grumbling a little, Father Munroe got himself on to his hands and knees and groped under the seat.
He was prepared to be hissed at, or even scratched or bitten. He was prepared to touch fur and starved bones, but not a solid warm bundle of swaddled blanket. As he pulled it out and staggered with it to his feet, it began to cry in earnest. Mumbling fragments of astonishment, Father Munroe stepped back into the church, holding the bundle before him like an offering. Resting its head on the Peter’s Pence box under the lamp, he peered amazed into the furious, screwed-up face of a very young baby, with a crucifix on a broken chain caught in the folds of blanket under its chin.
‘It’s the kiddies, that’s where it is,’ said Mrs Abinger, moist-eyed. ‘I always say …’
‘Oh so do I,’ agreed Miss Loscoe. ‘And so does my sister. She’s like that. You’ll see. She makes as big a fool of herself over all those little people at the Home as if they were her own.’
‘There now,’ said Mrs Abinger, watching the soldier in the opposite corner.
‘One thing I will say about my sister,’ said Miss Loscoe, as if she had not already said a hundred things about her since the train left Paddington, ‘she makes no distinction, no matter what class of home they come from. “I treat them as I find,” she says. “They’re all kiddies to me.’”
‘That’s right,’ said Mrs Abinger, only half listening. She was trying to make out whether the young officer were the father of the baby in the Moses basket, into which he peered gingerly from time to time. If he were, why didn’t he wipe its nose? The poor little thing was blowing bubbles in and out as it breathed.
Mrs Abinger had always loved all babies. It had been the bitterest disappointment of her married life that she and George were childless, and now she was too old. George did not seem to mind, but Mrs Abinger had dreamed of babies for years. She was on her way now to make the dream come true at last by adopting a baby from the Home where Miss Loscoe’s sister worked as a nurse. A baby! It was going to make an utterly different place of the flat over the shop.
Mrs Abinger leaned forward. She could not help herself, in spite of the young man’s rather forbidding elegance. Everything about him was pale: his hair, his skin, his prominent eyes, the superior khaki of which his uniform was made.
‘Your baby has a shocking cold, hasn’t he?’ said Mrs Abinger, bobbing across the carriage at the basket with a: ‘Cuc-
‘What? Oh – yes, I suppose he has. That is – ’ he cleared his throat and glanced down at the basket without bending his neck – ‘it’s a she.’ He uncrossed his legs and crossed them the other way.
‘There!’ marvelled Mrs Abinger, as if this were some remarkable feat of the baby’s. ‘Bless her then, the wee soul.’
She went on talking and clucking to the baby, and Miss Loscoe, not to be outdone, leaned forward too and mopped and mowed at the basket in an unpractised way.
‘May I?’ Mrs Abinger produced her own handkerchief and wiped the baby’s nose. It sneezed, and she and Miss Loscoe, talking at, rather than to the young man, asked if it were not a shame then.
Getting no encouragement from either the soldier or the baby, they subsided into their seats, Mrs Abinger fat and spreading, Miss Loscoe thin and whippy as the corset bones Mrs Abinger needed.
The train was travelling through the White Horse Vale. The soldier put down his magazine and looked out of the window, following dream hounds on a dream horse over the wheeling hedges. Miss Loscoe skimmed the meadows and the farms and sunny stubble with unobservant, town-bred eyes. Mrs Abinger kept seeing houses in which she would like to live. She saw a fat woman feeding chickens at her back door and thought it might have been her, if her lot had been cast in the country.
Soon after one o’clock, they began to look at each other and to raise their eyebrows. Mrs Abinger laid a hand on her raffia bag, and Miss Loscoe patted her mouth with a handkerchief as if the suggestion made her juices run.
‘Do you fancy anything yet?’ she asked.
‘I don’t mind,’ said Mrs Abinger, who was dying to get at her egg sandwiches.
‘Just as well, perhaps, before the tunnels come.’ Miss Loscoe drew her attaché case on to her lap. She ate under cover of the open lid, clearing her throat whenever she rustled a paper bag. When she got to her jam puff, she had to start light conversation to distract from the crumbs it made. This made her cough, and she tapped her breast bone and said: ‘My tickle cough.’
Mrs Abinger spread a paper napkin on her wide lap and ate steadily through her lunch, package by package.
The soldier began to be restive. He kept uncrossing and re-crossing his legs, looking at his watch, then down at the baby, then across at them.
Mrs Abinger offered him a rock cake. ‘Go on, do,’ she said. ‘They’re quite nice, though I do say it who made them.’
‘Thanks,’ he said, ‘but actually, I’ve booked a place in the restaurant car.’
‘They’ll never let you take the baby in there, surely?’
‘I know. I forgot about that. I’m not used to this kind of thing, you know.’