Authors: Monica Dickens
‘To be sick,’ they said without interest.
‘Nurse,’ said Mrs Jessop, ‘you’d better go after her and see she doesn’t make a mess.’
‘Rightaway, Matron!’ Nurse Loscoe sped off, stringy and strenuous. She wore herself out by doing everything with twice as much energy as necessary. When she washed clothes her elbows worked like pistons; sweeping floors, she raised more dust than she collected, and if she fed a child, it was in danger of swallowing the spoon.
Matron moved towards the door. ‘You’ve seen all you want to in here, I daresay.’
Mrs Abinger had recovered from her impulse about Jane. ‘I’m afraid they are all a little too old for me. My husband – ’
‘Oh, I wasn’t offering you one of those. I was only
At the door, Mrs Abinger looked back, wanting to say something friendly to the children, but they were sitting round the table again, whispering and giggling, unapproachably absorbed.
On the floor below, they passed the open door of a room where babies slept in swing cots. ‘Could we go in?’ asked Mrs Abinger. ‘I would like to see the babies.’
‘But you don’t want a baby. You said you wanted a toddler,’ Matron informed her.
‘I know, but I – ’
‘We really must get down to business. We’ve been long enough as it is, and I have someone coming to see me.’
‘And we’ve the bus to catch,’ said Miss Loscoe. ‘Do hurry up and make up your mind, Ellie.’
Mrs Jessop showed her two more children. One was a sickly whiny little boy, whom she hoped to palm off because he had a withered hand. The other was a dark-skinned, birdlike boy, who summed the strangers up in silence. While Mrs Abinger was wondering how to say no without giving offence, Nurse Loscoe came panting back, saying: ‘All Sir Garnet, and no harm done.’
‘You certainly do have some tasks, Lil,’ commended her sister, since Matron was unresponsive.
‘Well, Bruno,’ Matron spoke to the dark boy as if he were deaf. ‘Would you like to go and live in London with this lady?’
‘Ni,’ he said decidedly. ‘Veux pas.’
‘He’s a French child. His mother was a refugee, who brought him over here and then died,’ said Matron as if the woman had done it deliberately. ‘He can speak plenty of English, but he’s stubborn.’
‘French?’ Mrs Abinger leaped at the excuse. ‘Oh dear, I’m afraid that would never do. My husband wouldn’t hear of it. Not a French child.’
‘Please yourself,’ said Mrs Jessop. ‘And the other boy?’
‘Well, it’s his little hand, you see, that’s where it is. I hardly fancy taking the risk of a delicate child.’
‘And Edward?’ inquisitioned Matron.
‘There’s little Edward, of course, but I don’t know. The fact is, you see … I’d really like … I wanted to ask you …’
Matron had walked out of the room without waiting for her hesitant murmurs to finish. ‘I’m afraid that’s all I have to offer you. It looks as if you’ve wasted time for nothing,’ she said, meaning her time rather than theirs.
Behind her back, Miss Loscoe whispered: ‘I must say, Ellie, I do think it’s funny of you, letting me bring you all this way, and making out you wanted to adopt a little boy, and then turning against them all in such a contrary way.’
But now the idea that had been troubling Mrs Abinger all the way round the Home could be denied no longer. She launched it at Matron’s broad, descending back.
‘Matron, I’d like to say – ’ In her eagerness she tripped on the stairs and nearly knocked Mrs Jessop head over heels. Flushed,
apologetic, she joined her in the hall, where Matron was straightening her surprised cap.
‘So clumsy – do excuse me – what I was trying to say was – ’
‘When so rudely interrupted,’ Nurse Loscoe could not help jesting, in the hope of lightening Matron’s frown.
But her determined smile faded to surprise when Mrs Abinger came out with: ‘What I really want is to take the little baby in there that nobody wants.’
‘Ellie!’ cried Miss Loscoe, her long strap shoe arrested between one stair and the next.
‘The foundling?’ Matron’s eyebrows strained after the heights of her cap. ‘Why, we don’t even know who its parents are. I couldn’t let you take a risk like that.’
‘Of course, if you don’t want her adopted – ’
‘It’s not that
want to keep her particularly. I must say, I do like at least to
the parentage of my children, however unfortunate it may be. I was thinking of you.’
‘I don’t mind,’ said Mrs Abinger, wanting the baby more and more. ‘She may be common born, but we’re not proud people. My husband is only in a small way, though he has his own business. And then again, she might turn out to be a proper lady and put us quite to shame.’
‘That doesn’t happen outside fairy tales,’ Matron said. ‘A child will grow up to match its surroundings, especially if you take it so young. It’s upbringing that forms the character, not breeding.’
‘Oh, but that’s not right, if you’ll excuse me contradicting. Blood will out, I always say.’
‘An ounce of blood is worth an inch of bone,’ quoted Nurse Loscoe hopefully, without knowing what it meant.
Matron did not mind being contradicted, because she knew that she was right. ‘Blood will out? Oh dear me no,’ she smiled. ‘You’ve only got to look at all the children here. They come from all walks of life, yet we manage to shape them all to the one level. If that foundling in there,’ she nodded towards the little room, ‘were adopted by someone – say like Lady Cope, although she would never dream of such a thing, of course – I daresay she’d grow up very little different from Joy. But
otherwise, well, you can’t expect miracles, no matter if her parents were the King and Queen themselves.’
‘I wonder who they were,’ said Mrs Abinger, too excited to take offence. ‘I should be curious to try and guess.’
‘I can make a pretty shrewd guess straightaway,’ said Matron. ‘A sailor and a factory girl no better than she ought to be. If you want
child – ’
‘Indeed I do. Oh, do let me have her.’ Mrs Abinger’s hat brim was turned up again, her bun tumbling. ‘I know all about looking after babies, and my sister-in-law, who’s had four, two of them twins, will help me with the feeding.’
‘She’s trained to the bottle,’ put in Nurse Loscoe. ‘That we do know.’
‘Obviously,’ said Matron, ‘since she’s been here two days without starving.’
‘I may then? Oh Dot, isn’t it exciting?’ She turned to Miss Loscoe, who said: ‘On your own head be it, Ellie. I’m sure I don’t know what Mr Abinger will say.’
‘He won’t mind. He’s a broadminded man.’ Mrs Abinger was not going to admit any obstacles. She felt so happy, and the future was full of promise. The baby would be even more hers, never having known its parents. It would know only her.
‘Can I take her to-night?’
‘Hardly, to an hotel.’ Matron laughed a little.
‘I suppose not. Well, we could come out on the bus from Queensbridge to-morrow, couldn’t we, Dot?’
‘You could,’ said Miss Loscoe, who planned to see round whatever shops there were before catching the midday train.
‘What’s her name?’ asked Mrs Abinger. ‘What do you call the baby?’
‘Father Munroe christened her Josephine, after his church, St Joseph of the Holy Family, but you could have it done again if you like.’
Mrs Abinger’s heart rejoiced at the implication that the thing was as good as settled. Josephine. Jo. Josephine Abinger. That was a fine sounding name.
The maid had come through the swing door and was talking to Mrs Jessop.
‘Gracious, girl,’ said Matron. ‘Why didn’t you tell me before? Here have I been standing talking … There is someone waiting to see me,’ she told Mrs Abinger. ‘From the Health Department. I’ll have to go over the necessary formalities with you later, if you’ve really made up your mind to this. Nurse will show you the waiting-room.’
When she had left them, Miss Loscoe said: ‘You’ll not have to be long over it, Ellie. I don’t fancy being stranded in this back end of beyond all night, if we miss that bus.’
‘No sooner come than rushing off again,’ grieved her sister. ‘We haven’t had even the tiniest bit of a chat.’
‘Can’t we go to your room or somewhere, Lily, until it’s time to leave?’
‘I’m supposed to be on duty, dear.’
‘Never mind for this once. It’s not every day I come all the way from London when all’s said and done. I want to hear all your news, and I’ve so much to tell you.’ She was tired of talking about babies. She wanted to get away and take cress seeds out of her teeth and talk about family affairs. There was a lot to tell about Mother’s leg arid about Ethel’s extraordinary letter from Wales.
She also wanted to get away from Mrs Abinger for a while. She had got to have her all to-night, and all the way back to London to-morrow, with her embarrassing enthusiasms. She had really behaved in quite an extraordinary way ever since they left London. It just showed you never could tell about people, only knowing them slightly; just the conversations in the shop, and one or two teas at Whiteleys. When Mrs Abinger had confided to her about wanting to adopt a baby, Miss Loscoe had of course offered her sister as the only possible source. She was beginning to regret it now.
The sisters went upstairs, and Mrs Abinger went into the waiting-room, which was bare and formal and quite out of tune with her warm, excited state. She tried to sit and look at a paper, but she had to get up and look out at the sea, like dark shot silk now that the sun had gone down. She adjusted her hat and hair, bending her knees to see in the oval mirror that tilted forward from a chain. Then she stood by the window again and
dreamed restlessly towards the sea. Its bigness called to the big, excited feeling in her.
Her baby. Josephine Abinger. She must look different now that she was hers. Suppose Matron did not let her see the baby before they left, or Dot did not let her, because of missing the bus? Just one tiny peep now to tell Josephine whose little girl she was, and to say good-bye to Joy, and she could be back in here without anyone knowing.
She looked furtively into the hall, and then scuttled quickly across to the babies’ room. She switched on the light and felt as if she were coming into her own nursery. Coming to take up Josephine for her last feed perhaps. She would wake warm and grumpy, and making sucking faces, as Mrs Abinger had seen Phyll’s babies do.
She was careful not to wake her now, lest she should cry and Matron should come and speak to Mrs Abinger as she spoke to Dot’s sister. How she
! Lily Loscoe must be a saint not to have given her notice long ago.
The babies were both asleep, looking like twins. Perhaps, when Josephine was older, and George had seen how little trouble she gave, they might adopt another. But not from here. Next time, she would go somewhere where they made you feel welcome, and did not begrudge you the babies.
‘Dog in the manger, I call it,’ she whispered to Josephine. ‘She doesn’t really want the kiddies; you can tell that. But she doesn’t want anyone else to have them either.’ One day, she would tell Josephine about to-day. She would tell her about Joy, and how alike they had been, and they would study a photograph of Joy, now taken her place in society, and discover if they were still alike, to give Josephine a proper pride in herself.
Josephine munched with her pursed mouth and began to wake up, waving her fists, blind as a kitten at first, then snapping open her eyes like a doll, to contemplate her new mother.
‘Hush now,’ whispered Mrs Abinger. ‘It’s only Mum.’ For the baby’s underlip was quivering wetly, and her face growing pink. Mrs Abinger tried all the bobbing and cooing and tickling tricks she knew, but any minute now, Josephine was going to bawl and betray her.
There was nothing for it but to pick her up. As Mrs Abinger had been longing to do this, she picked her up, and rocked her, swaying from heel to heel, crooning unselfconsciously. She was unspeakably happy. It felt as right as if she had been holding Josephine thus from the day she was born.
Joy slept on, snuffling. ‘There’s a little lady for you,’ Mrs Abinger told her baby. ‘Now why can’t you be like her and lay quiet? Though my word, you
like her. I don’t care what they say. I declare you might be the self-same baby I held in the train.’
Josephine was quiet now. Mrs Abinger must go before Matron caught her. She laid her down, and drawing the jacket solicitously over the cushiony little chest, saw that she was wearing a thin gold chain. She drew it out and found the crucifix.
Did this mean that Josephine was a Roman Catholic? She remembered now that Matron had spoken of
Munroe, although it had not struck her at the time that St Joseph’s must be a Catholic church.
This would finish George. He would never have the child in the house if he knew. To be taking George a Roman Catholic baby of all things! She had to laugh, because she
going to take Josephine, no matter whether she were a Hindu or a devil worshipper or what. George would never know, because she would never tell him.
Best take the crucifix off now, in case Dot saw it and told George. The chain had been broken and tied together with a piece of wool, which Mrs Abinger broke easily. But the slight jerk disturbed the baby, who threatened to cry again at any moment.
With a burglar’s chill of fear, Mrs Abinger heard Matron’s door open and the sound of voices in the hall. Slipping the crucifix into her pocket, she opened the door a crack, and when she heard the voices going towards the front door, tip-toed across to the waiting-room, unseen at the dark end of the hall.
Once there, she had to sit down, because her heart was hammering, as it always did when she was excited. Matron, putting her cap round the door, found her pretending to read the paper, and breathing rather fast.
‘So sorry to have kept you,’ lied Matron, ‘but there was so much to discuss. Affairs of State – you know what it is with these Government departments. Checks, counterchecks, service pensions, inoculations, censuses. Goodness knows, the war has doubled my work here. I shan’t be sorry when it’s over, I must admit. I have a horror of war,’ she said, looking sternly at Mrs Abinger as if she suspected her of revelling in it.