Authors: Monica Dickens
But wouldn’t Joy laugh if Mrs Abinger were to step forward, a fat grocer’s wife from North Kensington, and say: ‘When you were a baby, I held you in my arms, and dreamed of having you for my daughter’!
As the train went through Ivybridge, Miss Loscoe, who was still not really speaking to Mrs Abinger, shut her book into her case with a snap and said to the carriage at large: ‘Queens-bridge is the next stop. I think I’ll pop along and titivate.’
She went out. Mrs Abinger brushed crumbs off her coat, straightened her hat and tucked away the slippery brown hair that never would make a tidy bun. She buttoned her gloves, stood her raffia bag and handbag in her lap and waited, looking wistfully at the Moses basket, wondering whether she could offer to carry the baby out.
Rodney Cope stood up to smooth his uncreased tunic, and flicked a speck of dust off his trousers. ‘Lord, doesn’t a train journey make you feel a wreck?’
Mrs Abinger had not expected him to speak so friendly to her again. She thought she had spoiled that little intimacy they
had established over feeding the baby, when anyone would have thought they had known each other for years.
‘Oh yes,’ she said, pleased. ‘I always say the first thing you want when you arrive is a good wash.’
‘By George yes. I hope the hotel has a decent bath. I say – ’ He looked down at the basket in that apprehensive way of his, as if he had a monster there instead of a particularly beautiful baby. ‘How are you getting out to Bolt Bay from the station?’
‘There’s a bus that connects with this train, they say,’ Mrs Abinger quoted Miss Loscoe’s sister.
‘I’ve got a cab ordered,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you come with me?’
‘No really, it’s very kind, but we couldn’t accept, I’m sure.’
‘I wish you could.
don’t want to be left alone with the kid. Suppose she’s sick? And turning up carrying her. I shall feel such an ass. I never know which way you’re supposed to point them.’
When Miss Loscoe came back, with the schoolmarm expression she had worn since her friend’s
accentuated by her dragged-back hair, Noah’s Ark hat, and buttoned up frock coat, Mrs Abinger said triumphantly: ‘The gentleman has been kind enough to offer us a lift out to Bolt House. That’ll be better than the bus, won’t it?’
‘I daresay,’ said Miss Loscoe ungraciously, ‘but if my sister is off duty, I’ve no doubt she’ll meet us on the bus.’
‘Then I hope
come,’ Sir Rodney said to Mrs Abinger. ‘You can’t desert me now in my hour of need.’
‘If it was a case of that – Oh well,’ said Miss Loscoe, ‘I’m not saying she
come. She doesn’t take her off duty, as often as not, she’s so devoted to her work. In which case, I’m sure we should be quite pleased to help you with the baby.’
As the train slowed down, Mrs Abinger made as if to pick up the basket, but Miss Loscoe seized one handle, and they carried it down the platform lopsidedly, for Miss Loscoe was tall and Mrs Abinger dumpy. The basket tipped still more as Miss Loscoe peered about for her sister.
‘You’ll know her by her hair,’ she said. ‘You never saw such a colour. And thick! She can hardly get a brush through it.’ But
this was evidently a day when Nurse Loscoe was devoted to duty.
‘Well,’ said Mrs Abinger, as they started off in the stuffy horse cab, with the basket lying across both their laps, ‘you can’t help laughing, can you? We come here to fetch away one baby, and turn up with another. Whatever will your sister think, Dot?’
‘Yes, she’ll have to laugh.’ Mrs Abinger, being in disgrace, should not have been so jolly and cheerful, but Miss Loscoe had to agree, for her sister was a great one for seeing a joke. She could not deny her that.
Bolt Bay was a small fishing village huddled into a gap in the rocky cliffs, where a stream came down from the inland hills. The sea, pushing in to meet it, had hollowed out a perfect natural harbour, a goblet of sheltered water, where the fishing boats could lie behind the arm of the little cob. There was a jetty where old men sat on lobster baskets mending nets, a sickle of firm sand, and outcrops of slithery rocks among which the tide lingered in warm pools.
‘Looks as if I’m bringing Joy to the end of the world,’ said Rodney Cope, and yawned once more. He felt as if he had been travelling for ever. It would be good to get back to Town tomorrow.
‘No wonder my sister calls it a dead end,’ said Miss Loscoe. She sat back, missing most of the view, but Mrs Abinger, looking from the cab, was enchanted with the place, as thousands were to be in later years when it was inevitably discovered into a holiday resort.
But in 1918, bungalows and nautically named villas had not yet begun to straggle up the sides of the cliffs and inland up the valley towards the farms. The hotel had not been contemplated, and the cobbled cottages had yet to sprout annexes and plumbing and notices of Crab Teas.
Between one high-tide wash and the next, the white sands were practically untrodden and the shrimps lurked unmolested under the seaweed fringes of the pools. The only outsiders who came there were the visitors to the Children’s Home, and one
or two artists, too decrepit to do anything about the war, who made a cult of Bolt Bay and would paint nothing else on the South coast. One of them was sitting with a sketch book on the sea-wall, where the cab turned away from the harbour to climb the drive to Bolt House. He was a raffish man in a linen hat and rope shoes, and he gave them a look as dirty as his jersey, as if they had no right to be there with hats and umbrellas and suitcases.
Bolt House stood well above the village, an ugly, aseptic white block, with five symmetrical gables and a garden of terraced lawns. The horse pulled the cab at a walk past a group of children playing with a nurse, and Mrs Abinger said: ‘Oh look, Dot! Is that your sister?’
Miss Loscoe peered over the basket. ‘Oh dear me no,’ she said. ‘Lily is my elder sister, you know.’
The Matron was at the front door to meet them, one hand protecting her cap from the sea breeze, the other protecting her eyes from the sun which blazed low at the harbour mouth. Mrs Abinger was glad they had come with Sir Rodney, for Mrs Jessop was intimidating, with her spade of a jaw, masculine eyebrows, and monstrous starched cap, which tugged at its moorings when she let go of it to shake hands. She greeted the two ladies as if she were not quite sure who they were, and they stood by, while a great to do was made over Sir Rodney and the baby.
When another nurse came out to take Joy, Mrs Abinger poked Miss Loscoe, who frowned and shook her head and moved a step farther away.
Seeing that he limped with a stick, Mrs Jessop looked as if she would have liked to have Sir Rodney carried into the house too. She tried to put a hand under his elbow, but he stood back politely for her to go in first, so she summoned the other two and sailed in, her cap subsiding as she entered the hall, which was dark after the evening glare outside.
As she followed Miss Loscoe in, Mrs Abinger looked back at the lovely little amphitheatre, the dazzling water black-edged under the shadow of the cliffs, the first clouds of the day waiting on the horizon to draw the sun into a glorious sunset, and
regretted her years in London. Perhaps when George retired? But he did not care for the seaside or the country, and he would never leave all his clubs and societies. ‘They wouldn’t hear of my going,’ he would say, as he had that time when the anniversary meeting of the West London Provision Retailers’ Fellowship had come at Easter, and they had not got to Bournemouth after all.
It was a clean house, smelling of floor polish, milk, and washed babies. Mrs Jessop took them into her over-furnished sitting-room, where in contrast to her virile appearance, everything possible was tasselled or frilled or draped with scarves, and announced that they would all have tea. Mrs Abinger was dying to see the babies, Miss Loscoe was dying to see her sister, and Rodney Cope was dying to get into his waiting cab and back to the comparative civilization of Queensbridge, but they had to have tea first.
Mrs Jessop was starved of sociability. Having no one to talk to but the staff and the children, she had a reservoir of conversation accumulated for visitors. It poured over her lips like an unleashed weir, while Rodney sat looking defensive with his chin tucked in, helping himself to all the sardine sandwiches. The two ladies sat on the edge of the sofa with listening expressions and little fingers elevated. Miss Loscoe never ate much in company. She nibbled round a cress sandwich, as if there might be a slug in the middle, and would not drink more than one cup of tea for fear her stomach should rumble.
Mrs Abinger, who was ready for her tea after the journey, wished that Matron would stop talking for a moment, and offer her a third cup and pass the shortbread. Was she not going to cut the chocolate cake then? It might be just there for show, and wanted intact for a more important tea-party to-morrow.
But Sir Rodney Cope made this party important, surely? Matron seemed to think so. She talked almost exclusively to him. When she was in private work before her marriage, she had nursed Rodney’s mother through an illness. She told him a lot about this, and asked several times after Lady Cope, without waiting for an answer. She tried to keep up with all her titled or wealthy patients, and for years had subjected Lady Cope to
four page commentaries on the weather, the state of the world, and her own doings in it. That was how this Home had come to be thought of for Joy.
She did not talk about the Home or the babies. She had them all the time, but it was not often she had an officer to talk to about the war as seen from Bolt Bay. When she had told them about the escaped German prisoner who had been caught with his pockets full of carrots which she
had come from her kitchen garden, Mrs Jessop tapped a knife on top of the cake, lightly, so as not to spoil the icing, and cocked her towering cap inquiringly at them.
‘Yes, thank you. I don’t mind,’ said Mrs Abinger. ‘Just a small slice.’
Miss Loscoe declined, and Sir Rodney said he really must be getting along, and reached to the floor for his stick.
‘Don’t dream of cutting into it just for me,’ said Mrs Abinger hastily. ‘I’ll just take a shortie, if I may, to fill the cracks.’ But Matron, who did not want to cut the cake, carved her a large triangle by way of teaching her a lesson. Mrs Abinger had to bolt it while everyone was getting up and preparing to leave the room.
Mrs Jessop rang the bell and told the robust Devonshire maid to send Nurse Loscoe to her. ‘We’ll see over the Home first,’ she announced, ‘and then we will decide which one of my brood is to be taken off my hands. I take it your credentials and cetera have all been approved by the Board?’
Mrs Abinger stuffed in the last piece of cake, and stood up, mumbling an affirmative. She swallowed. That might have been a good cake, if only she had been given time to enjoy it.
‘I told them at the time it was a two- or three-year-old I fancied,’ she began, ‘but I’ve been thinking now, I …’
‘Quite, quite, quite,’ said Matron grandly. ‘I’ve no doubt we shall fix you up
satisfactorily. I’ve two or three in mind for you. It’s six months’ probation, you know, before the child is permanently adopted.’ She said this as if it were only Mrs Abinger who would be on probation, not the child.
Rodney Cope was hovering by the door, leaning on his stick and murmuring about his cab. He stood back as there was a
knock, and the door opened to Mrs Jessop’s clarion: ‘Come in!’
Miss Loscoe took an involuntary step forward, checked herself, and said in a social voice: ‘Why there you are Lily! It’s quite a treat to see you.’
Nurse Loscoe shot a glance at Matron before answering: ‘Hello Dot. You are a stranger.’ She was an over-taxed woman of about forty-five, pigeon-toed, in a long striped skirt, with eyes that were pale pebbles behind thick glasses. She had a strained, leaning forward air as if she were slightly deaf, or always trying to catch up with something that was too much for her.
Mrs Abinger was surprised. She had visualized someone upright and martial, but Miss Loscoe’s sister did not look as if she could venture one, let alone the thousands of assertions with which she was credited. Even the famous hair was only a rusty bird’s nest under a crumpled cap.
‘Excuse me being such donkey’s years in coming,’ she said to Mrs Jessop. ‘I had little Bobby in the bath, and it was a choice between keeping you waiting and leaving him to drown.’
She was true to her reputation as a joker. It was the tool with which she patted down all the difficulties which cropped up in her path. She tried very hard at it, quashed often, but brightly undaunted.
She said bravely to Matron’s frown: ‘I beg you’ll excuse my pinny too. I’m afraid it looks rather like a wet week in Manchester.’ She plucked at her apron and pushed her glasses back.
‘It doesn’t matter, Nurse,’ said Matron, looking as if it did. ‘This is only a family party after all. You shall come with us round the Home if you can leave your work for a moment. Come now – ’ she began to marshal her party, but Rodney said: ‘I say, I really must go now, thanks all the same, if there’s nothing more I have to do about Joy.’
‘You won’t come and see my hee-uge family?’ Mrs Jessop was arch at him, which did not suit her face.
‘So sorry,’ he said. ‘Another time, but now I really … been here too long as it is …’ He edged into the hall, propelling himself sideways with his stick.
‘I wouldn’t dream of detaining you, Sir Rodney,’ said Matron,
a little huffily. ‘Of course you’ll want to see your little niece before you go, so that you can report to Lady Cope how well she’s settling down.’
‘Oh all right then,’ he said unwillingly. ‘But I’m not very good at stairs, I’m afraid.’
‘But she’s right here on the ground floor!’ cried Matron gaily, throwing open a door in the hall. ‘We don’t mix them with the others, you know, till Doctor has seen them.’ She got him back from the front door, where he was reassuring himself that his cab was still there, and ushered him in. Looking back, she caught Miss Loscoe and her sister exchanging a few hasty words in the hall. Their heads came up guiltily as Mrs Jessop commanded: ‘Come along all! We may as well start our tour of inspection here.’