Authors: Monica Dickens
‘She fell down.’
‘She seems to be bruised all over.’
‘She falls all the time. I never seen a child so clumsy.’
‘She ought to see a doctor.’
‘I’d have fetched her up to the hospital last week, but my leg played up.’
‘I can get the doctor to come and see her.’
‘Who told you to come here?’
‘That doesn’t matter.’
‘I can guess anyway. There’s some people born to make trouble. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s a lie. I’ve treated that child like my own.’
‘She’s not yours?’
‘My daughter’s. I bring her up as mine.’
The child sat on the floor, wedged in a corner against the torn and greasy wallpaper, staring, passive, her chill little hands turned palms up, unoccupied.
This is how they sit, the children. They sit and wait. They sit on chairs and beds and collapsed sofas and wait for it to be time to eat, or time to sleep, or time to move away from the fire, because at last it’s spring.
Even the babies just sit there like dolls, solemn, unfocusing, wetting on the mattress or the newspaper, or the worn velour of the chair, wherever they have been planted.
The older children don’t play or do anything. There is nothing for them to do, except rattle drawer-handles and pull on the mother’s clothes, and she slaps at them vaguely, like flies.
Some of the small ones climb on to Mr Jordan’s lap when he sits down. He always does sit, if they ask him, although in some of the places he would probably rather stand. So I sit too, self-effacing in the background, and I was so happy when a small crusted girl who turned out to be a boy with long matted curls, climbed up on to me, that I didn’t mind the smell and dirt of him.
I even loved him more for being like that. Or was it that I loved myself for my large heart? The sort of facile sentiment with which people exclaim over pictures of starving Asian babies, when they have no intention of doing anything about it.
Most children soon stiffen and wriggle away, like cats that jump on your lap and then off, sneering if they think you like it. This boy just sat and leaned on me, and I felt such a surge of love for him that I bent my head in case Mr Jordan should think I was trying too hard.
I am the daughter of a magistrate in the Children’s Court. My father thinks I am too irresponsible and unaware for eighteen, because, in an ungainly attempt to amuse or attract attention, I make jokes about things which are not supposed to be funny. When I said that some of the eleven- and twelve-year-olds who had been assaulted looked as if they had asked for it, he asked Mr Jordan, who is the local Cruelty Man, to show me some of the things that lie behind the children who come to court.
Mr Jordan is a big, burly man, with a pugnacious face that breaks up into a sort of sweet innocent wonder when he smiles. In an unwieldy overcoat like a grey blanket, he looks extra large and healthy in the cramped and cluttered rooms where the cold squats like a spider. I was paralysed before the day was out, holding myself stiffly, so as not to collapse in a rattle of bones and teeth. It was a miracle that all the babies had not perished in that worst brutal month of winter. I think some of them had.
Mr Jordan goes about in a little noseless car which he drives like the Italians, as if it were a toy.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ he said, as we went on two wheels into a grey yard between grey old tenement flats, scattering children like chickens.
‘I’m not.’ Since I was braced with terror, I didn’t go through the windscreen when he stopped.
‘It’s a bit rough here, but they won’t eat you.’
We climbed the kind of stairs that should only lead down into a dungeon, not up to a place where people live, and he knocked on a door that said, pigs live here in pencil at the bottom where the paint had been kicked off. When it was cautiously opened by a boy in men’s trousers cut off at the bottom with a blunt saw, he
went ahead, saying, ‘Can I come in?’ as he went, so that he was half-way down the passage before anyone could say, ‘No.’
A man’s voice called out thickly from behind a closed door, and his wife said he was on the night shift and trying to get some sleep.
‘Sounds drunk to me.’
The woman did not seem to think this insolent, although she neither confirmed nor denied it.
Mr Jordan, looking very large and reliable in the tiny defeated room where the family were clustered round a small electric fire standing on an upturned bucket in the fireplace, asked her if he had hit any of the children again and she said, ‘Not since last Saturday,’ as if she were telling harmless symptoms to a doctor.
She was a shell of a woman, bloodless, lustreless, husked empty by childbearing, yet somehow pregnant again, the swelling grotesque on her scant frame. On her hip was a furious red toddler almost half as big as her. A baby with no hair wheezed on the dresser in a cardboard box and the other children waited numbly, while layers of wet grey napkins on the fireguard raised acrid steam between them and the bar of warmth.
Next door was a larger room, but it was full of bicycles, boxes, rag piles, broken furniture and things unrelated to domestic living, like a car door and a big drum of what looked like telephone wire. I had glimpsed the bathroom and the kitchen on the way in. The bath was full of empty paint tins and the kitchen was little more than a slot, with old soup cans and broken crocks washing-up against the stove. They had silted themselves into the small room, which was not much bigger than a railway carriage.
Mr Jordan sat down, and one of the barefoot children, who was wandering about with a plastic feeding bottle stuck in its mouth like a lollipop, climbed on to his knee. The mother was pretending to look for the rent book, although I got the impression that she knew where it was, so I sat down too in a corner behind the table, and that was when the little boy crawled up on me and leaned his head on my chest with a sigh, like a dog.
The top of his head was scabby under the tangled hair, and his mouth and nose were surrounded by such painful-looking sores that you could feel them tight on your own face. I loved him more than my sister’s children, who have everything and don’t need me.
This child, who had nothing on but a bigger boy’s shirt over torn grey pants and was mottled like a marble Christ-child in that chill, malodorous room, accepted me as his own.
The boy with the sawn-off trousers found the rent book, which showed arrears of almost thirty pounds.
Mr Jordan was angry, since money had been given last week to help the debt, and the woman, whose large weary eyes were still beautiful, admitted that her husband would not mind going to prison to clear it.
‘You and the children could be turned out. Where would you go?’
‘I don’t know. My sister has a farm in Kilkenny, you know. I’ve always thought…’
‘Would your sister take you in?’
‘I don’t know. I’ve not heard from her for years, but I’ve always thought …’ A dream to keep her going through the hopelessness and the disasters. Somehow they had muddled on, but if all failed, there was still My Sister, although the farm was perhaps only a bungalow and a chicken-run, and the sister long gone away.
Mr Jordan put down his child, who was wearing the tatters of a flimsy party dress given away by someone too mean to throw out anything useful, and stood up briskly. Listening time was over. Now it was telling. He told her that he would try to get another grant, and that he would be back tomorrow to talk to her husband, when he was sober.
She pretended not to hear. The boy said that Dad had left the tannery because it turned him. Mr Jordan looked very stern, but I think it was because he had run out of things to say.
I was depressed when we left. My boy cried when I put him down among the breadcrusts, and I wanted to pick him up again with his poor sore face against my black sweater and take him home and hear my mother talk about people who should be sterilized.
‘What if one offered to take a child away and give it the things she can’t?’ I didn’t mean patronizing things like clothes and food and school and a new accent. I meant love, and being noticed, and having your ideas listened to, which I couldn’t imagine happening in that railway room with the wet grey smell. ‘What would she
say?’ I asked, as we sped desperately for the narrowing gap between a bus and a petrol tanker. ‘Would she be glad?’
‘I doubt it.’ We just made it through the gap and shot out across the lights like toothpaste from a tube.
‘How can she stand it? I can imagine her as a girl, pale-haired and delicate, with those big eyes, dreaming of some marvellous man she’d marry.’
I could see her with a tiny waist, leaning on a rustic bridge over an Irish stream with the other soft-haired girls. I saw them in muslin, like a Rodgers and Hammerstein chorus, which made the vision less real, but more poignant.
‘Don’t fret, Miss Bullock.’
I hate my name. I wish he wouldn’t use it, but he would not call me Emma if I asked him, because my father is a magistrate, and this Jordan is scared stiff of the court. Literally stiff. He stands there like his old Army days, with his jaw square and his feet at forty-five degrees, but I have seen the papers in his hand trembling as he tries to give evidence the way my father likes it.
My father is irritated by policemen and any type of official when they use that kind of courtroom language like: I then proceeded to instruct, instead of: I told. He will make a dry little joke which nobody laughs at except Miss Draper, the sycophant, and so he frightens people like Mr Jordan, which isn’t fair, because that is the way they have been taught to speak in front of him.
My father is supposed to be one of the best magistrates in the juvenile courts, and no doubt he is. He is very painstaking, and fair, too, but sometimes when I watch his elaborate patience with some surly teenager who hasn’t really tried, I laugh mirthlessly to think how hard it can be to get his attention at home when it is a day when there is too much of me and my hair and my voice and my energy on the stairs. I should have married first and left Alice at home. She keeps out of his way, and would let him grow middle-aged in peace.
‘It used to fret me terribly,’ Mr Jordan said. ‘I used to take it all home with me and rail to my wife against the unfairness of people having to live like that. Then it began to fall into a pattern. I saw some people who’d been through the worst things and fought their way out. But the others - I began to see that half the mess they
make themselves. You can help them up to a point, but you can’t cure them of the disease.’
‘Poverty. They keep slipping back, like malaria.’
I said nothing, because I didn’t agree, and I didn’t want to start an argument since it was his day and his job, and he might be shy of arguing, even though he knew more about it than me. I haven’t seen much squalor, in spite of my father’s work, because he is remote from the real stink of it. But people don’t do this to their own lives. Life does things to them, as it has done to that scoured woman with the unseen beast in the bedroom and all those children who happened to her probably without joy, when he was drunk.