Authors: Monica Dickens
Joy Stretton was in a barren little room scarcely bigger than a cubicle. It held a washstand, a low nursing chair and two identical cots, side by side under a heavy framed print of ‘The Age of Innocence’. The room was dark, because it faced on to the kitchen garden which sloped steeply up the hill behind the house, cutting off the light.
‘I’m afraid I can’t switch on the electric light,’ said Mrs Jessop, who still called it this because it had not long been installed. ‘The man says the wiring in this room is faulty. He dared me to touch the switch.’
‘I’ll pop along and fetch a lamp.’ Nurse Loscoe, who never walked anywhere, was on her mark in the doorway.
‘Don’t bother, Nurse. We shall only be a moment.’ But Lily Loscoe had pounded away, her rubber soles squeaking along the polished hall. Matron did not bother to call after her.
Rodney Cope bent over the nearest cot, peering with a screwed-up face. ‘Looks all right to me,’ he said.
Matron’s laugh rang in the tiny, crowded room. ‘How droll,’ she chortled. ‘You’re looking at the wrong baby!’
‘Am I, by Jove?’ He squeezed past Matron’s bust and peered into the other cot. ‘Like as two peas. All babies look the same to me, don’t you know.’
‘There’s a man for you!’ Mrs Jessop wagged her wedding cake cap at him.
But when Mrs Abinger stepped forward and looked shyly into the first cot, she saw that the babies did look alike. This one had the same high, bulging forehead and precociously well-formed nose. When it opened its eyes at her, she saw that they were blue, like her Joy’s.
‘What a little love,’ she breathed.
‘Oh, she’s a foundling,’ said Matron casually, watching Joy’s uncle, who was trying to think of something to say about his baby.
‘A foundling? Abandoned, you mean, like Moses?’ asked Mrs Abinger.
‘That’s right,’ said Mrs Jessop. ‘Father Munroe brought her to me the day before yesterday. He found her in his church porch. Poor old man, he was so concerned, but as I told him, it’s nothing unusual in these times, with all sorts and conditions of girls at the munition factory, only a cycle ride from the naval barracks.’
‘There now.’ Shocked, Miss Loscoe squeezed forward to have a look at the price of sin.
‘The poor little soul. How the mother could …’ murmured Mrs Abinger, but Matron said: ‘Don’t worry about her. She’ll be far better off here than she would if the mother had kept her. I know that type of girl.’
Rodney Cope, bending over Joy in the dim light, was pleased with himself for being observant. ‘I say,’ he looked up. ‘These aren’t the clothes I brought with her.’ He had watched with a gloomy eye his mother’s maid packing the dozens of ridiculous garments, and he was sure he had not seen the unbleached flannel nightdress and jacket which Joy was wearing now.
‘Now don’t you go telling Lady Cope we’ve stolen her granddaughter’s pretties,’ said Matron. ‘It’s the rule here that they don’t wear their own clothes until we’re sure there’s no infection. No offence, mind. Just a health precaution. The other baby’s dressed just the same, you see.’
‘Beats me how you can tell ’em apart.’
‘We shouldn’t be very good at our job if we couldn’t tell one baby from another. But we label their little wrists, just to make
sure.’ Mrs Jessop fished out Joy’s hands, clicked her teeth, and then looked, less gently, at the foundling’s wrists.
‘Nurse has forgotten again,’ she grumbled. ‘I
her. You have to see to everything yourself these days, that’s what it is, Sir Rodney. The war’s taken all the best nurses. I have to make do with the older women or very young girls.’ She was afraid he might go back to Lady Cope with a tale of inefficiency, but he was not concerned with anything now except squeezing himself out of the room.
Mrs Jessop followed him out, and Mrs Abinger went round and hung her red face over Joy’s cot, clucking and cooing unashamedly now that they were alone.
‘You can tell this is a love child, can’t you?’ said Miss Loscoe looking into the other cot from a safe distance.
‘Oh no, Dot, how can you say such a thing? Poor little innocent; it’s not her fault. I wouldn’t risk giving offence to Sir Rodney by remarking on it, but they really do look alike, you know. She went back to the foundling’s cot and clucked a bit there, lest the baby should feel left out. ‘If I were to pick her up,’ she said, ‘I could almost fancy it was Joy, like in the train.’
The front door banged. ‘There,’ said Miss Loscoe, ‘what do you think of that? He’s gone without saying good-bye to us. I call that very poor thanks for all we’ve done for him. Quite the swell, oh yes. Agreeable enough when it suited him; make use of you and then cast you off like an old shoe. Why, he’s hardly spoken above a word to us since we got here. I’ll give him Sir Rodney Cope with his la-di-da.’
Mrs Abinger was hurt too, but she said: ‘Never mind. The cab ride was nice, and I’m sure we quite enjoyed helping in the train. It made the long journey pass quicker than I’d expected.’
‘I’m sorry, I’m sure, if my company bores you,’ said Miss Loscoe, who was ready now to take offence at anything.
Mrs Jessop came back with a less enthusiastic reprise of the tour now that the title had left the party. As they started up the stairs, Nurse Loscoe kicked through a swing door below, carrying a flaring oil lamp.
Matron turned, and stood with one foot above the other, like Caesar on the steps of the Capitol. ‘Never mind with that now,
Nurse,’ she said. ‘We’ve finished in there. Blow the lamp out and come along with us or we shall never be done. You must think I’m made of time.’
Nurse Loscoe set down the lamp and blew down the chimney, succeeding only in making it flare more than ever.
Matron made a great trouble of going down and showing her how to jiggle the catch.
‘Silly me,’ tittered Miss Loscoe’s sister. ‘I’m no hand with these mechanical devices.’ With a streak of lamp black over one eyebrow, she came up the stairs with Mrs Jessop, who grumbled at her all the way to the top floor about not labelling the babies. Miss Loscoe went on ahead, pretending not to hear. Mrs Abinger had just had one of her breath-taking ideas, and was dealing with it as she climbed pensively behind.
Some of the younger children were already in bed in a long low room under the gables, with towels drying on a nursery fireguard. Mrs Abinger could not help exclaiming with pleasure at the scene.
Matron exclaimed too, for a very young, untidy nurse was kneeling by one of the cots, tickling a chuckling small boy with a woolly animal.
She scrambled to her feet at Mrs Jessop’s: ‘Nurse Tillings, do you know what the time is? No wonder the children won’t settle off properly when you excite them last thing like this. You needn’t tell me another time it’s the light keeps them awake.’ For the lowering sun was still glowing like fire through the orange curtains.
‘I didn’t say it was the light,’ said the nurse unabashed. ‘I said it was the guns out at sea. You’d be surprised how loud they sound sometimes up here, wouldn’t you, Lossie? Nurse Loscoe, I mean.’
‘You would indeed,’ agreed Nurse Loscoe, nodding and leaning in the background. ‘Just like the battle of Trafalgar.’
‘Well, now you see,’ said Matron to the visitors, ‘how we spoil our waifs and strays here. Unwanted orphans many of them, but spoiled as little princelings. It’s not my way, of course, being hospital trained – I was sister of the children’s ward at Guy’s for five years, you know – but I can’t be here, there, and
everywhere, with all the administrative work of the place on my shoulders as well. You’d be surprised what hours I keep. Why, sometimes I’m at my desk all day long on paper work alone. Just a cup of tea and a sandwich, though the staff always have their regular sit-down meal. Then there’s the responsibility. The Board delegates everything to me. I handle all the adoptions. The fate of all these little mortals rests in my hands, you might say. And it doesn’t always end at adoption, oh dear me no. I have to follow the case up, as like as not, if there’s trouble. Many’s the foster parent who’s looked to me for advice.’
Mrs Abinger said: ‘I shall give you no trouble; you can depend on that.
baby will have the best of everything.’
This reminded Mrs Jessop that the visitors were there for another purpose besides providing an audience for the stored up history of her life. She went to a cot at the end of the room, where a suety little boy was sucking his thumb and squinting at it.
‘This was one of the little fellows I had in mind for you. It was a boy you wanted, wasn’t it?’ she asked Mrs Abinger.
‘I did say a boy at the time, but now I …’
‘Quite so. Stand him up, Nurse, and let’s have a look at him.’
‘Come along my twopenny. Oh, what a great big lump of boy!’ Nurse Loscoe heaved him to his feet, and he stood swaying sleepily in his cot in a long white nightshirt.
‘Thumb, Edward,’ said Matron, and motioned to Nurse Loscoe to take it out. She hardly ever touched the children herself.
Nurse Loscoe coaxed, but his thumb was as tight as a cork in a vacuum flask. When she pulled at his arm, it came out with a plop. Every time he put it back, she pulled it patiently out again.
‘Lily doesn’t stand any nonsense, I can see that,’ said her sister admiringly.
‘Well,’ said Matron, looking at her watch, ‘what do you think of him.’
Mrs Abinger did not know what to say. This was going to be more difficult than she had thought. If she could have been left alone with the boy, to talk to him and get to know him – but
how could she possibly choose in a few moments like this a child who was going to be hers, nearer and dearer to her than anything else in the world for the rest of her life?
She put her head on one side and tried to picture Edward in the flat: in the cot she had already bought, playing round her in the kitchen, coming into the shop perhaps, with some childish question that would delight the customers. It was not so much that Edward did not fit into the picture, as that nothing fitted the picture except the persistent idea which had assailed her on the stairs. She had dismissed it as impossible, but it would not leave her alone. She did not know what to say.
Matron sighed and folded her arms. Mrs Abinger looked uncertainly back at the line of cots, each with its inquisitive head peeping through the bars, girls and boys, fair and dark, all down the room. She could have loved any of them. She looked back at Edward, who was laughing now, because he thought he was getting the better of Nurse Loscoe.
‘Well,’ repeated Matron, ‘do you like our Edward?’
Mrs Abinger knew he was not the one. But poor little boy, it seemed a shame to turn him down when there was nothing against him that a good dose would not put right.
‘I like them all,’ she said. ‘It’s so difficult to decide. I only wish I could adopt them all.’
‘You must understand,’ said Mrs Jessop, ‘that though there looks to be a lot of children here, the choice is limited. There are all kinds of considerations and difficulties. One doesn’t just give away any child, you know, as if they were all so many Brussels sprouts.’
‘Oh, I know,’ said Mrs Abinger, ‘that’s what makes it all so difficult. What do you think, Dot?’
‘It’s you who are adopting the child, not me,’ said Miss Loscoe, shrugging her shoulders and being no help at all.
‘Could we see some of the others first?’ suggested Mrs Abinger, ‘before I make up my mind?’
‘Oh, as to that,’ said Matron, ‘there’s no
to take this child. I won’t have it said that I’m forcing your choice in any way.’
As they went back along the line of cots, the children all
ducked down again, watching from under the coloured blankets like small field animals.
‘What about this little boy?’ Mrs Abinger’s eye was caught by a rosy cherub with a crest of yellow hair. ‘He looks a real picture child.’
‘Oh, you can’t have
one!’ Matron sounded as scandalized as a shop assistant who has been asked for something marked: ‘For display only.’ ‘He’s not for adoption. Why he’s Major Harding’s son – Major Harding of the Grenadier Guards, you know. His father is overseas, and his mother in France with an ambulance. They’ve entrusted him to me for the duration. He’s the apple of their eye. Adopt Master Andrew Harding? Oh my goodness, whatever next?’ She appealed to Nurse Loscoe, who, flattered, laughed inordinately.
In another room, half a dozen older children were sitting round a table with biscuits and enamel mugs of milk. They stopped talking when Mrs Jessop came in, and one of them hastily pulled a plate over some spilled milk. A plain little girl with pigtails saw the smudge on Nurse Loscoe’s face and whispered to her neighbour, who giggled.
‘Manners, please,’ said Matron, and they all sat watching her with round eyes and careful mouths.
‘And don’t we stand up?’ she asked. As they rose, the pig-tailed girl slid two biscuits off someone else’s plate.
‘Come here, Jane,’ said Mrs Jessop, and Jane came, shuffling her feet, resignedly. She might have known; the Matron never missed a thing. She stood before them with a closed, stubborn face that goaded Matron to carp on and on, raking up old crimes, exaggerating this one. The other children stood on one leg and waited detachedly to resume their supper.
Mrs Abinger looked away, wishing Mrs Jessop wouldn’t. Miss Loscoe looked righteously down her nose, and her sister leaned on her toes almost beyond balancing point, because if Jane cried, she would probably be sick.
Matron wore her down at last. Her pinched, secretive face was suddenly split asunder by a gaping square hole of howling mouth. She stood rooted there, reduced to a mere instrument for noise.
Mrs Jessop put her hands to her ears and stepped back. Mrs Abinger took an involuntary step forward, wishing there were something she could do. She suddenly wished passionately to adopt Jane, and show her a life in which she need never cry like this again. Jane suddenly stopped in the middle of a roar, smacked her fist over her mouth and rushed from the room.
‘You see,’ said Matron, ‘spoiled. They have so much of their own way that they won’t stand a murmur of reproof. That’s a very tricky child. I knew the parents,’ she added darkly. ‘Where has she gone?’ she asked the other children.