Authors: Monica Dickens
‘Well, you go along,’ said Mrs Abinger, motherly. ‘The baby will be quite safe with us.’
‘I don’t think I’d better. They told me …’ Indecisively, he sucked his lower lip still farther under his top teeth.
‘We’ll look after her. It will be a real pleasure, won’t it, Dot?’
Miss Loscoe murmured non-committally. She did not believe in being too forward with strangers.
‘Go on,’ said Mrs Abinger. ‘It would be a shame to miss your lunch. I daresay you need feeding up after the time you’ve had in the trenches.’
He did not need much persuading. He seemed quite glad to get away from the baby for a while.
When he had gone, Miss Loscoe said: ‘Whatever made you say that about the trenches, Ellie? I didn’t know where to look. I make sure he’s one of those what they call desk warriors. Don’t tell me that uniform has ever been near the Flanders mud.’
‘That’s spiteful, Dot,’ said Mrs Abinger. ‘You know anyone of his age would have to go willy nilly, if they were fit. Perhaps he’s been ill or wounded.’
‘Willy Parkes never went,’ said Miss Loscoe, baring her horse teeth as she wrestled with the cap of the thermos. ‘I sent him a white feather.’
‘Dot, you never did!’
‘I did,’ declared Miss Loscoe, ‘and proud of it. I’d do the
same to this young dandy if he gave me cause to think he wasn’t fighting for the future of his little daughter.’
‘Do you think it is his daughter? He doesn’t seem very at home with her. It’s not right really, is it, to send him off on his own with her like that. Whatever is his wife thinking of?’ She leaned forward to dote on what she could see of the baby under the muffling shawls. ‘Do you think we’ve got time to lift her out before he comes back?’
‘Hardly wise,’ said Miss Loscoe, with the authority of one who was related to a nurse. ‘She might take something from the draught. My sister says it’s their little heads.’
‘That’s where it is,’ sighed Mrs Abinger. She crossed over to the other seat, and loomed over the basket. ‘It’s a bonny baby,’ she said. ‘I hope mine looks like that.’
‘I thought you fancied something a bit older,’ said Miss Loscoe, pursing her mouth, as if the baby were something on the haberdashery counter. ‘My sister says they have toddlers of two and three that would be just the thing.’
‘They might romp about and worry George, though. He’s not really struck on the idea at all, you know. I’m surprised he ever came to agree in the end. A baby might win him over gradually and when I see this dear little mite, I want one just like her. Dot – ’ she gave Miss Loscoe a daring look – ‘I’m going to pick her up.’ Melting with love, she lifted out the swaddled baby, who gave a sleepy cry and jerked its body in her arms with a tinny cough.
‘There,’ said Miss Loscoe, ‘I told you.’ She held out her arms. ‘Let me take her. It’s not so blowy over here.’
‘Not yet.’ The baby lay snug on Mrs Abinger’s eiderdown lap, but when Miss Loscoe took her over, she began to cry, butting her head against Miss Loscoe’s flat chest.
‘Ah, she’s hungry,’ said Mrs Abinger, and Miss Loscoe handed the baby back, shocked. ‘Best put her down before he comes back,’ she said. ‘It’s not your baby, after all, to be making so free with.’
Mrs Abinger dandled her until she stopped crying, and then tucked her into the basket as skilfully as if she had been a mother all her life.
‘It’s not right, you know,’ she said. ‘She ought to have something. I wish we’d asked him if he’d brought a bottle for her.’
‘I wish we’d asked him to unscrew this before he went,’ said Miss Loscoe, struggling again with the thermos. Mrs Abinger’s capable hands opened it for her, and Miss Loscoe was drinking tea with her head back like a chicken, when the door slid open and the pale young officer came in, looking a little happier.
‘Everything all right?’ he asked. Miss Loscoe nearly choked. She put the thermos away hastily, without offering her friend any tea.
‘She’s been as good as gold,’ said Mrs Abinger.
‘Mm.’ The young man looked moodily into the basket and sat down. The comforting effects of his lunch soon began to wear off, and he became restive again. He kept glancing up at a suitcase on the rack. Presently, he smoothed his blond hair, and said: ‘I say, you’ll think me a bit of an ass, but they told me I’d got to give it some milk at two, and frankly, I don’t think I’ll be much of a hand at it. I wonder if you –?’
The ladies were delighted. He got out the bottle. ‘And this goes somewhere, I believe,’ he said, dangling a tiny bib from his finger tips.
His comical display of not knowing which was what he called ‘the business end’ of the bottle made Mrs Abinger laugh. But Miss Loscoe went: ‘Tchk-tchk. This will lay too cold on her stomach. I think you should take it along to the toilet and hold it under the hot tap.’
‘Oh Lord,’ said the young man. He took the bottle and stood holding it awkwardly, picturing what he would look like to anyone he met in the corridor.
‘Put it in your pocket,’ smiled Mrs Abinger.
‘Oh yes.’ He dropped it into his pocket and tried to smooth out the slight bulge it made in his tunic.
‘Well, he is a helpless Herbert, I must say,’ said Miss Loscoe when he had gone. ‘I daresay he’s used to Nannies and goodness knows what all.’ She sniffed class-consciously.
‘And quite right too,’ said Mrs Abinger, whose class consciousness was of the Feudal, contented sort.
‘It’s people like you keep the masses ground down,’ grumbled Miss Loscoe.
‘But don’t you see, Dot,’ said Mrs Abinger excitedly, ‘he’s a Sir. Look – there on the label of his suitcase.’
Miss Loscoe leaned forward to look. ‘Sir Rodney – ’ The train went into a tunnel, and when it was light again, she saw that the young officer was called Sir Rodney Cope, Bt.
‘He’s a Bart too, Ellie,’ she said, almost as excited as Mrs Abinger. Her class consciousness crumpled when it came to striking up a travelling acquaintance with a baronet.
They all became quite friendly over feeding the baby. Sir Rodney Cope joked, and feigned amazed admiration at their knowledge when they took turns to hold the baby against their shoulders to bring up the wind. Mrs Abinger’s knowledge came from instinct. Miss Loscoe’s from her sister.
‘I say,’ he said, ‘it’s damned good of you. I’d never have been able to do all this. Probably choked the little devil. Phew!’ He dabbed a clean silk handkerchief at his matt brow, which did not look as if it had ever perspired in its life. ‘Thank the Lord it’s only a one-way journey. I couldn’t face the strain of playing Daddy all the way back to Town.’
‘You’re not her father, then?’ Mrs Abinger seized her opportunity.
‘God, no. I’m it’s uncle. My sister’s child.’
‘And you’re taking it to her, I daresay,’ prompted Mrs Abinger, trying to cloak her curiosity by turning questions into statements.
‘Well, er – ’ he shifted on his seat and sucked at his lower lip – ‘actually, no.’
Mrs Abinger with her heavy head on one side, was looking so amiably ready to understand anything he might say, that he suddenly blurted out, in quite a different, more natural voice than the fade-away drawl he had used so far: ‘She’s dead, you know. Died having the kid. And we heard two weeks ago that her husband had been killed in Flanders.’
Miss Loscoe lowered her eyes and thought he should not have spoken of it. Mrs Abinger leaned forward and said: ‘I’m so sorry, my dear. I didn’t ought to have asked.’ She held the baby
away from her shoulder and looked into its bloated face. ‘Poor little soul,’ she said. ‘An orphan, then.’
‘Fine start to her life.’ The young man gave a silly sort of bitter laugh and Miss Loscoe looked at him sharply. This was no time to be laughing. If one must talk about death, one should use the kind of voice in which she now intoned: ‘Poor little unwanted orphan child. Never to know a mother’s love.’
‘Oh, she’s not unwanted,’ said Sir Rodney. ‘It’s just that the family can’t cope. My mother’s ill, and the other grandmother … well, anyway. In fact, I was positively the only bloke handy to bring her on this trip or I’d never have taken it on. Fine way to spend your convalescent leave.’
‘You’ve been wounded?’ asked Miss Loscoe, hoping he would not tell, if it were somewhere not Quite.
‘Smashed foot,’ he said briefly.
Mrs Abinger glanced triumphantly at Miss Loscoe. ‘Who’s going to look after her then?’ she asked the young man, flopping her body to and fro as she rocked the baby.
‘She’s going to a children’s Home. Oh, quite a decent place, I believe. No Squeers and all that.’
Mrs Abinger looked blank, but Miss Loscoe nodded to show she followed the allusion. ‘I always say it’s a small world,’ she said. ‘My sister works in a home for orphaned children, and on this very line too.’
‘That’s where we’re going,’ said Mrs Abinger. ‘We – ’ She was almost choked by a mad idea that suddenly surged up inside her. Such a wonderful, impossible idea that it left her scarcely enough breath to falter: ‘It’s not – it wouldn’t be – oh no, but of course – it wouldn’t happen to be at Bolt Bay, I don’t suppose?’
‘Why not?’ he asked. ‘It’s one of the best, they tell me. I say,’ as he saw them weaving about excitedly, ‘is that where you’re going? How rum.’
He took it more calmly than Miss Loscoe and Mrs Abinger. Miss Loscoe could not get over the smallness of the world, and made thrilled little staccato conjectures as to what her sister would make of the coincidence.
Mrs Abinger still could not speak properly. She was still filled with the idea which she dared not voice, yet which had taken such possession of her that she feared the words would burst out of their own accord.
Sure enough they did. Clutching the baby to her, she gasped: ‘I’m going to Bolt House to choose a baby to adopt. I suppose – oh, I don’t suppose – you’d let me have this one!’
‘Ellie!’ Miss Loscoe was scandalized. Coincidence or no coincidence – to say such a thing right out like that to a perfect stranger! ‘Well,’ she told her sister later, ‘I didn’t know where to look.’
But she was looking at Mrs Abinger, staring at the eager quivering of her fat red face, wondering whether she were going to take a fit. She was acting so queer, saying a thing like that, and actually waiting there open-mouthed, as if she expected to get an answer. Ellie was the best of souls, but she was only a tradesman’s wife, after all. Miss Loscoe would never have become so friendly with her if it had not been for the war, which levelled everybody. A grocer’s wife, with that poky little flat over the shop, to be thinking of adopting the baby of a titled family. Whatever would Sir Rodney say?
He did not seem affronted. He had leaned back a little before the onslaught of Mrs Abinger’s eagerness, but he smiled and said: ‘That’s jolly sporting of you, I must say, but the fact is, they don’t want her adopted. Oh God, no. When my mother’s better, and the kid doesn’t need so much looking after, she’ll probably have her back.’
‘She’s not to be adopted then?’ repeated Mrs Abinger on the dying, disappointed breath of her collapsing idea.
‘No,’ he said. ‘Oh, definitely no. She’s got to grow up a Cope, for her sins.’
‘Of course. I quite understand.’ The idea was quite dead by now. Mrs Abinger suddenly realized how tightly she was holding the baby, and slackened her arms, looking at it there in her lap as if she wondered what she was doing with it at all.
‘Excuse me,’ she said. ‘I didn’t ought to have spoken like that. I don’t know what made me think of such a thing.’
‘No indeed,’ said Miss Loscoe, and Mrs Abinger, seeing her
drawn brow and pursed mouth and tapping foot, realized the full enormity of her presumption.
‘Here – ’ she held out the baby to its uncle, who made futile passes with his arms, uncertain how to hold it.
‘You put her back,’ he said, but Mrs Abinger had forfeited her rights. Officiously, Miss Loscoe took the baby and tucked it, tight as a City umbrella, into its basket again.
Mrs Abinger looked miserably out of the window at the foregathering houses of Newton Abbot, and dreamed about how lovely it would have been to have this baby. A high-born baby, whose father had been a war hero, the mother a tragic and beautiful lady, fair and pale no doubt, like her brother.
She would have brought her up so ladylike, spent money on sending her to a good school, tried to make George move into a better neighbourhood if necessary. How she would have gloried in her aristocratic looks and dainty ways! For blood will out, Mrs Abinger knew, and the little girl would always have been like a swan among geese with the children of the Portobello Road.
It wasn’t as if they were working-class people. They had their own business and enough money put by for a daughter to have everything nice. They were well thought of by everybody–nothing for a child to be ashamed of. Why, George with his neat clothes and his finicking ways with his nails was as aristocratic looking as –
Mrs Abinger looked across at the exquisite, assured figure flipping over the pages of the
saw the polish of him which not even the havoc of war could dim, came out of her dream, and slumped, pressing her hat brim out of shape as she stared at the stamping boots of soldiers mustering on Newton Abbot platform.
Mad, she must have been to have thought of it. You had to laugh though. She might tell Phyll some day, as a joke. A baronet’s niece living over a grocer’s shop! You couldn’t help laughing at the idea. Why, that kind didn’t even come her way as customers, never knew the Portobello Road existed, as like as not.
The baby, digesting, hiccuped and murmured like a dozing old man.
‘Go to sleep, Joy,’ said her uncle, without looking up.
Mrs Abinger turned her head. ‘Is that her name – Joy?’
‘What? Oh – ’ he lowered the magazine – ‘yes. Joy. Joy Stretton.’
Joy Stretton. Mrs Abinger looked out of the window again and saw herself following Joy’s career in the papers and society magazines. Knowing when she was presented at Court, and what she wore at her coming-of-age party; knowing when she got engaged to some handsome young nobleman; knowing her wedding day.
And on that day, Mrs Abinger would go and stand in the crowd outside St Margaret’s, as she had at other weddings when she could get up West on early-closing day. When Joy came out like an angel, with her lilies, and her veil thrown back in a cloud round her beautiful face, Mrs Abinger would think of today, and have a little cry, perhaps.