One in, one out,
So the old saying goes
And so it proved –
With my husband gone
Unbelievably and finally,
Never to return.
Whilst I await
The arrival of a little one,
Hardly daring to believe.
One in, one out,
So the old saying goes
And so it proved –
With my husband gone
Unbelievably and finally,
Never to return.
Whilst I await
The arrival of a little one,
Hardly daring to believe.
They took you away
In a black bag,
Just like the dog that died,
And I wanted to say NO,
Brave till now but breaking:
Still it had to be done.
You have entered icily cold
Into that white line of horizon
Beyond the wind turbines.
You know not the brilliance
Of this bejewelled day
With the sea a steadfast blue.
Yet are there greater glories
By far on the other side?
My hope it may be so.
MOREEN GOES TO THE PHARMACY
Moreen grew up in a caravan park. Her family were known as travellers though they never went anywhere. The park was a permanent enclave tolerated by the local council in the far north-west of Wales. She even went to school in the local town though she didn’t like it, paid little attention to her lessons, and the Welsh bewildered her. She was kept down one year for a whole year because her reading and writing wasn’t up to scratch. Nobody seemed to notice at home and it didn’t make much difference either way. Art was alright but she loathed P.E. despite the chance to run around, as she was always smaller and somehow more fragile than the other children in her class. They were neither kind nor friendly as if they had been warned off playing with her due to fear of contagion.
Moreen was a late child and remained the baby of the family. She was small in stature, even at thirteen, with childish, wispy curls and large, innocent eyes. Her brothers and sisters were legion in number but all much older as Moreen had been born after a lengthy gap in years.
“My little mistake,” her mammy openly called her, softening the words with a peck on the cheek.
But she did have a cousin, Bernie, who was barely two years her senior. Bernie was short for Bernadette but no-one ever dared call her that. Her legs were long, she knew everything, and Moreen followed her round like a sick spaniel. It was Bernie who took her to get her ears pierced, showed her how to paint her nails and lips and the right way to go about shopping if you wanted to pick up a few extra items on the side. Mammy was always too busy helping out whichever daughter had recently given birth whilst everyone knew the men were only good for drinking and smoking and betting on the horses with the odd casual job that was never declared.
Moreen had never known her own grandmothers. Her mother’s mother had died in childbirth and her father’s was also dead befor her time. Bernie said it was the drink that did for her because it was worse when women were taken that way and perhaps she was right.
Sometimes she imagined Mrs. Bird in the pharmacy was her grandmother. Mrs. Bird was no more like a bird than, well … flying. Unless it was a fat, white barn owl as Bernie said unkindly. It was true that she filled her white coat amply and her eyes twinkled kindly behind round spectacles. She was always cheery and approachable and gave Moreen a sweet from her pocket when she dropped off her parents’ prescriptions. Wise as an owl too, of course. She always knew the best cough medicine or indigestion remedy, even though she was only the pharmacist’s assistant. Her hair was grey so she was more than old enough to be a grandmother. Moreen never stole from the pharmacy even though there was a tempting array of make-up, earrings and hair bobbles. She wouldn’t want to get Mrs. Bird into trouble.
Once, when Moreen was much younger, she had tripped down the steps outside and fallen on the pavement, bruising hands and knees and cutting her head open. Mrs. Bird had come out and wrapped her in her warm folds of flesh, holding her and comforting her till she stopped crying. She smelt of peppermints and oil of eucalyptus. A litle blood went an awful long way, she said and took Moreen back into the shop to be cleaned up and apply plasters. There was a whole packet of sweets that time.
Bernie said that Mrs. Bird had never had any children because her man had run off with another woman, and being Catholic she could never re-marry, and that was why she made a fuss of Moreen who always looked such a baby. Moreen liked to think differently though it was true she had seen Mrs. Bird in church and knew she had come over on the Holyhead boat too, before there was a Mr. Bird even. Whatever the truth was, she came to see the pharmacy with its glowing green cross as a safe port of call, free from the taunts of other children and always offered to run the errands there. The prescriptions she dropped off looked as if the doctor had written hieroglyphics, but Mrs. Bird always seemed to understand them.
“Three inhalers now, is it, for your Daddy? To be sure, he’d be better off giving up the smoking, but I’m sure the doctor’s told him that! Mind you don’t start, Moreen”.
Her mother’s more occasional prescriptions were greeted with a silent pursing of the lips and a sigh, followed by the acknowledgement that the poor woman had certainly had her fill. Then she took them round the back but returned twinkling again to ask Moreen how she was doing, even though it was her mother who had to pick the prescriptions up the following day. That was one of the best things about her, the way she treated Moreen like a proper grown up already, unlike anyone else in the whole world. She was sympathetic about school and told her not to mind what the other children said to her – they were probably only jealous because she was prettier than they were. She must keep going and learn her lessons. In a rare moment of confidentiality, Mrs. Bird admitted she had never liked school much either, but now she wished she had worked harder; then she might have been a real pharmacist instead of just an assistant.
The long summer holidays brought Moreen some release. Only this year, at fifteen, Bernie seemed to be growing more distant and Moreen often ended up playing with the younger children in the caravan park and effectively babysitting them. But she looked forward to the fair coming, because Bernie always took her to that. They were real travellers and half of them second cousins once removed. Close enough but not too close, Bernie said, though Moreen didn’t really understand why this was important.
Bernie took a real long time to get ready every year and this time was no exception, in fact it seemed worse than ever with the repeated trying on and taking off of skirts and dresses, the choosing of high heels and earrings, the backcombing of hair and applying of make-up. Moreen had been ready long since, in her usual blue jeans and a pink T-shirt with a My Little Pony print. Bernie disapproved of this and lent her one of her tops in bright red with a plunging neckline. But she had to concede defeat when she saw it hanging limply from Moreen’s flat chest. Bernie already had a double D cup whereas Moreen still didn’t need a bra.
She was a patient onlooker and adviser though when Bernie asked, despite the delay in getting to the fair. Bernie said it didn’t really get started till dark anyway. Moreen knew only too well Bernie was making a concession in taking her, this year. If she got off with a boy, Moreen would have to come home on her own. Those were the unspoken rules of the marriage market. At last Bernie made a final pout with her lipstick and was ready.
It was a close, warm evening and the pulsing of generators, supplying electricity through serpentine coils lying coiled in the trodden down grass, added to the heat. The air was thick with the smell of diesel fumes, onions, hot dogs and burnt toffee and throbbed with the beat of competing pop music punctuated by screams of delight. “Dah, dah, dah, da. Dah, dah, dah, da. Hey, Hey, HEY. Goodbye! — Love is in the air, every sight and every sound ……”
Moreen won a goldfish early on, hooking ducks, which annoyed Bernie.
“Now you’ll have to walk round with it in a bag all night, looking like a kid. Everyone wins a fish – never the giant teddy bear! Don’t you know that?”
But Moreen said she had wanted a fish anyway and Bernie had to relent at the sight of her crestfallen face.
The big attraction this year was a new ride with ten seats in a row at the end of a pendulum balanced by another ten at the top about fifty metres up. Not only did it swing you up to that dizzying height, but you ended up hanging upside down before plunging down again, leaving your stomach behind. It was garishly lit with flashing lights and was the main source of the screams. Bernie said they just had to go on it.
“But there’s such a big queue – can’t we go on the dodgems first or the ghost train? Or maybe the Waltzer? That’s your favourite.”
Bernie did indeed enjoy the waltzer, especially when the fairground boys with greased back hair and tightly fitted trousers stood on the back and swung the cars round to make them go faster. But now she wanted to try the new ride.
“Come on. It’s not that long. And they take twenty at a time so it goes down quick.”
Moreen still found the wait boring but Bernie didn’t seem to mind especially when one of the boys in front offered her a cigarette which she took. Moreen was glad she wasn’t offered one- she didn’t want to end up wheezing every day with a disgusting cough like her daddy. Halfway down the queue, Bernie seemed to have second thoughts.
“You’re not going to be scared now, are you, Moreen?”
“Or sick?” (looking at the ring of sticky pink candyfloss round her mouth).
“I’m never sick on swings.”
“This is a bit more than a swing!”
Bernie had had the chance to watch the ride twice now and noticed a few greenish faces stumbling off it. But she couldn’t back out now, not when the guy in front was so good-looking.
“Don’t worry, darlin’” he laughed. “We‘ll take care of you.”
At last it was their turn. But first they had to stand against a measuring stick at the entrance to the ride. Bernie was clearly well over the mark and draped herself against it in an ironic model’s pose with pouting lips, which made the boys wolf whistle.
Moreen was nowhere near the desired height.
“How old are you, love? Ten?” asked the attendant.
“She’s thirteen!” Bernie outraged on her behalf.
“Well, she’s way too short. Can’t let her on.”
“Oh come on! “wheedling now. “We’ve been queuing for ages.”
“More than my job’s worth, darlin’. New rules. Health and safety. Can’t be sure they get strapped in right, see.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Moreen being brave now. “Didn’t want to go on the stupid ride anyway! You go.”
“Come on, darlin’! We’ll miss our turn!” from the good-looking guy.
“Are you sure now?”
“I’ll see you by the dodgems after and we’ll go on those next,” flung over her retreating shoulder. “They don’t have no stupid height rule!”
Moreen watched her being strapped in between the two boys, giggling when the good-looking one with the cigarettes insisted on holding her hand so “she could squeeze it as hard as she liked”. There was no point in hanging round waiting, prolonging her humiliation, so she wandered back to the dodgems and admired the ease with which the fairground boys swung from one back bumper to another, collecting the money, flirting with the pretty girls, avoiding the showers of electric sparks and never falling.
Only Bernie didn’t come and she knew she had seen the last of her that night. The dodgems seemed less appealing on her own so she went over to the ghost train where it would be private and dark and spooky. On the way, she noticed several of the rides had these new height rules this year. They hadn’t had them last year and it didn’t seem fair. At the ghost train, she suddenly realised that Bernie had charge of all their money in her pockets. Well, maybe the ghost train did look a bit pathetic and rundown after all, this year. She continued to wander around for a while, hoping to meet up with Bernie to ask for her money, but she was nowhere to be found and neither was the good-looking guy with the cigarettes. So in the end she went home still tightly clutching her goldfish.
Everyone was out so she had the van and more importantly the television to herself at least. There was a talent show on and a very small girl with a very big voice was winning and that made her feel a bit better.
Bernie was penitent the morning after or rather the afternoon when she finally got up and came over to the van.
“I did look for you, but I couldn’t see you anywhere,” she said. “I’m sorry I spent all the money too, but I’ll pay you back.”
Moreen was silent. Bernie noticed her goldfish was floating upside down in its bowl of water.
“Told you they’re more trouble than they’re worth, didn’t I? They always die! But I’m sorry about that ride …you not being able to go on, I mean. Here, I’ve just got two fags left. Want one?”
Moreen recognised the peace offering and took one though she didn’t really like it and it made her cough.
“Why am I so small, Bernie?”
Bernie examined her nail varnish carefully for chips.
“I don’t know.”
“But you know everything.”
“Well, let’s see …have you had the curse yet? “
Moreen shook her head.
“You know I haven’t,” whereas she knew every last detail of Bernie’s menstrual cycle and the horrors it brought.
“Well, that’s it then. Before you start having periods, you get a growth spurt. Everyone knows that.”
“How long before?”
“Can’t remember but you get your boobs first.”
“How old were you when you got the boobs?”
“Oh, about eleven or twelve, I guess.”
“I haven’t got any.”
“And I’m thirteen and a half”
“Well, everyone’s different, Moreen. Whyone don’t you ask your mammy? Maybe she was a late starter too and you take after your mam.”
As Moreen’s mother had started with her own family at sixteen by Moreen’s calculations, this seemed highly unlikely. Nevertheless it gave her food for thought.
It was several days before Moreen caught her mother in and plucked up the courage to ask. But then it was perfect because she was rooted to the spot for once, peeling potatoes and chopping onions for a stew at the sink in the van and they were alone.
“Mammy, I don’t have my periods yet.”
“Well, there’s time enough.”
“But I’m thirteen and a half! And I don’t have any boobs either and I’m still the smallest in the class. And they’re all only twelve.”
“Thirteen, going on fourteen, is it now?” Moreen’s mother sighed. “Time goes so quick! Well, I suppose it’s time you knew then.” She didn’t stop chopping but went at it a little harder and quicker on the board.
“Well now, when you were born, Moreen, you weren’t like other babbies. “
Moreen felt a cold finger of fear clutch at her.
“You see, nobody could tell if you were a little girl or a little boy. Down there. In the private parts. Neither one thing nor the other.”
The cold finger became an icy wave of pure shock and Moreen felt sick.
“So I had to stay in hospital a wee bit longer whilst they did tests. That pleased your daddy no end! Doctors don’t know, he said. And they didn’t. But they did the tests and found out. They said there was nothing wrong with the chromosomys or something. Not in themselves. Except you had rather too many of them. It was quite rare, they said. But it happened. And we could choose whether to have a boy or a girl. They told us a little girl would be simpler and probably better all round. So you had an operation to make you look more like a girl down there. And so you are a little girl. And that’s all there is to it.” (Chopping away).
But Moreen was not deceived. She knew there was more.
“So why don’t I have periods if I’m a girl?”
“Because there’s nothing inside, Moreen. No womb or ovarians. And none of the other stuff that men have either-in or out. “
Her mother risked a quick glance to see how she was taking it.
“Of course that means you won’t be able to have babbies but believe me, I sometimes think that’s not all it’s cracked up to be, God forgive me.” And she sighed wearily again.
Moreen heard the sound of her own voice as if it was very faraway and not quite belonging to her at all. “And is that why I’m so small-?”
“Something to do with it. Yes. Something about all the hormones.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“You wouldn’t have understood, Moreen. And you seemed happy
enough. And aren’t I telling you now, please God?”
“So am I always going to be —- a little kid?”
“No, no! Of course not. Now don’t blub, Moreen! We can take you to the doctor. There are pills, they said…… when the time comes.”
The old doctor was kind but honest so that Moreen knew there was no way he could make it better. Nobody could. Her size and weight were way below some percentile or other for her age and he was very angry with her mother, telling her the child should have been monitored by a paediatrician from birth. He did not believe they had never been given any hospital appointments, when her mother protested, feebly. They would have been able to give her a hormone to help her grow. It was too late now. He blamed himself too as he might have spotted Moreen earlier if he had ever been allowed to see her. Still:- what was done, what was done.
After that he ignored her mother who sat in the corner shamefaced, with her head down, and addressed himself entirely to Moreen.
It was true about the pills. He told her they would make her grow breasts and get body hair in all the right places. She might get a few spots at first which he imagined would be less welcome but they should pass. She would need to take the tablets for ever. There were a few risks, of course, but in the circumstances they could be considered very small. (Moreen was too shy to ask what these might be.) Maybe she would grow a little, but they would have to see. She was likely to remain below average in height. She must eat a healthy diet and not smoke. He confirmed she would never get any periods and not be able to have babies. Did she understand? Yes. She did.
Moreen didn’t look at her mother once. The doctor wrote the prescription which he told her he would put on repeat, though he ought to see her at least once a year, mind and more often to begin with. She was old enough to come on her own now, at least.
They went home and it was never spoken of there again. But she did tell Bernie. After the initial shock and curiosity, Bernie was determined to put a positive slant on the situation. No periods ever! What wouldn’t she give to be so fortunate? No loss there. No getting caught falling pregnant either. Who wanted babies anyway- they just screamed all day and all night and dirtied their nappies. Bernie certainly wasn’t going to have any.
To do her credit, Moreen’s mother did ask if she wanted her to go to 2the pharmacy with the prescription but Moreen refused.
“I’m going to be grown up now, mammy,” she said, “and I’ll do it myself.
Privately, she was looking forwards to an empty shop and being able to tell Mrs. Bird how bad this felt. Mrs. Bird would understand because she had never been able to have any babies either. She would know exactly how horrid it would be. Only the shop wasn’t empty.
Two of Moreen’s most persistent tormentors from school were in there with their mothers’, kicking their heels against the chairs set aside for customers having to wait, whilst their mothers gossiped noisily in Welsh. One of them stuck her tongue at Moreen as a preliminary to hostilities. But it didn’t matter. Just ignore them, Mrs Bird would say. They’re just jealous because you’re a pretty girl! Their prescriptions would be ready first and then they would leave. And as long as no-one else came it would be alright.
She gave Mrs. Bird her prescription who read it carefully as usual. Her eyebrows shot up and she read it again, even more closely. Then she exploded.
“Jesus, Mary Mother of God, Moreen! What you having these for? These tablets are for women on the change, not young girls like you. And such high doses! The doctor must have made a mistake,” and she went bustling into the back to telephone him, so very sure of herself.
Moreen became aware of sniggering in the room. What was worse, when she raised her head in defiance, she saw that the women had broken off their conversation and were staring at her with a prurient curiosity. Her cheeks flushed and she felt a rising tide of heat engulf her body for all the world as if she was a woman on the change. Her heart began to beat faster. Mrs. Bird seemed to be taking forever. The heavy silence had turned into furtive whispering now which was worse.
Then to Moreen’s relief Mrs. Bird came back but she was visibly shocked and her hands were shaking. She had just received an explanation, not to mention a stern telling off from the doctor, but Moreen didn’t know that. She cleared her throat but didn’t look at Moreen.
“There’s no mistake, the doctor said. You do ah, really need them. Perhaps you’d like to come back a bit later as it might take some time.” She still didn’t look at her and her voice sounded cold and peculiar.
It could take some time? What did that matter? She had never been asked to come back before. Moreen turned on her heel and fled. As she banged the door behind her she heard gales of laughter from the two girls and (she did not think she had imagined it) also from their mothers.
, She never went back. and Bernie picked up the tablets for her.
“So that was it, doctor,” Bernie finished, “and she never went out again, except for one or two more times to the doctor. That soon stopped because she got afraid of seeing people from round about in the waiting room. Didn’t go back to school that September. The Education Welfare gave up in the end. Even in the park, she doesn’t show much of herself. And now there’s these forms and I’m awful sorry to call you out for that, but she won’t go near the surgery and they’re starting to send nasty letters about her benefit money.”
I looked at the forms Bernie gave me. Social Security had caught up with Moreen at last as she must have been claiming sickness benefit for a couple of years. My predecessor had probably been signing her notes.
“Does she never go out, Bernie? Anywhere at all?”
“Never. She’s got that agarophobia. That’s what the old doctor said, and he knew all that stuff about her.”
“Well yes, but there is treatment for it, these days. Will she go out with you, maybe? The more she stays in, the worse it’ll get.”
“I’ve tried, honest I have. Always asking her round to our van too. But she won’t come ‘cos we get a lot of visitors. She says she feels a freak. And it wouldn’t be fair to go with a boy and him not knowing.”
“But there’s lots of other things in life for a young woman to enjoy!”
Bernie shrugged. At twenty-two or three, she was going on forty-five. She still had very long legs under her very short skirt and earrings which jangled as she continually chewed gum. But her skin had coarsened under its thick layer of make-up and she had put on weight. Her three children, all dark and beautiful, were playing outside the van and she broke off occasionally to holler at one or other of them out the window for misbehaving. She couldn’t stay long, she informed me, because she had left the babby sleeping, though her van was close by.
“I look out for her since her mammy and daddy passed on. Try to make sure she gets something to eat. But she won’t go shopping, whatever I say. There’s no way she could go to work.”
“What does she do all day?”
Bernie shrugged again.
“Watches telly. Smokes a lot. She has all Lena Zavarone’s records too. She likes those. “
“Where did she get those from? “
“I bring her everything. She don’t ask for much, really, bless her!”
Just to be left alone, I thought. “And her brothers and sisters never bother with her anymore. She wouldn’t talk to them, you see. Only to me. Then everyone in the park found out, as they do, and everyone stopped asking her to look after their children for some daft reason which wasn’t good. I’m all she’s got now.”
For a moment, I did wonder if they were trying to pull the wool over my eyes, I had grown so cynical already. But there seemed no doubt about Bernie’s good-heartedness and this tale would have been too much too complicated and difficult for her to make up.
“If you didn’t do things for her, she’d have to go out,” I said, as briskly and authoratively as I could. But in truth, I wasn’t even sure about that. She looked as if she were verging on the anorexic.
Moreen continued to sit with her head down. She was still rather pretty in a childish way with her wispy curls drawn back into a ponytail. But she had remained small in stature and her face was pale and thin. With a clinical eye, I noted the short neck and the hunched shoulders. She was likely to develop back problems later in life. She was dressed in faded blue denims with a pink T-shirt over her skimpy breasts. The pockets of her trousers were covering in small, glittery sequins and she wore a white plastic belt with pink flowers on it like an immature cowgirl with little white plastic boots on her feet. As I looked at her, a single tear started to roll down her left cheek. Just one; but her fingers were trembling. She still didn’t utter a word to me.
Time was pressing on.
“Alright, Bernie. Fill in the bits of the form you can, put it back in the envelope and drop it off at the surgery. I’ll add something and sent them a letter.”
“And have you been for your post natal yet? I do that clinic now, so you get a woman doctor, and I haven’t seen you there.”
“I been meaning to, Dr. I just been busy what with Moreen and the kids and the new baby. And I don’t like internals.”
“It’s important. Make an appointment when you bring the forms in.”
“Yes, doctor.” But I knew she wouldn’t.
On the way out, I stopped again.
“You know I could send someone here to try and help her with going out, Bernie. A mental health nurse.”
“She wouldn’t want that, Dr. I know she wouldn’t”.
I left feeling defeated and powerless—not for the first time perhaps, but rarely so completely.
Back in the car I was struck by a wild thought, a passing madness. I happened to know that Mrs. Bird from the pharmacy had retired this month but continued to live in the town, on her own and was probably feeling lonely, missing the daily contact from the shop. I wonder if she would visit Moreen if I asked her?
But then I groaned and turned the key in the ignition. I remembered that she knew where Moreen came from and must have realised she had never seen her again and why. She would probably never dream of setting foot in the caravan park which was widely avoided by those who wanted to be considered respectable. It’s such a shame you can’t make people do what you want them to.
MY DAUGHTER LIVES IN GENEVA.
I was beginning to think May was a little demented though her bridge was spot on. She was also well groomed and tastefully dressed, with a wave in her coiffured iron grey hair. Seemingly smart without effort, a slender woman with a lined face but kind eyes. We were Bridge partners every Wednesday afternoon since I had moved into this residential home near the West Shore six weeks ago.
Not only could she be counted on to bid and make her contracts, but she seemed to be able to remember every card played – something I confess I struggle with now. If May had the temerity to raise me to seven spades, you could be certain the Grand Slam was possible if you kept your head, which I usually didn’t. Still, unlike many competent players May never criticised my mistakes or allowed herself to get riled.
“It’s only a game after all, dear,” she would say. That would have been anathema at my previous competitive club. “Could happen to anyone.”
So, it was pleasant to play with May and we often won the duplicate despite my ineptitude. I couldn’t see why she was always short of a partner.
I like to know about the lives of others and, the first time that May told me her daughter lived in Geneva, I found it interesting. Apparently, the said daughter had married a banker who had an extremely top- notch job out there. May put extra emphasis on the second syllable of ‘extremely’ as she said it. So of course her daughter didn’t need to bother herself with a tedious job and had been able to dedicate herself to bearing and looking after four children? Two boys close together and then two girls – so clever, don’t you think? Of course, the Swiss health service was second to none, being private, but she had sailed through all her pregnancies which May found remarkable as her own had been very difficult and she had only managed one live birth.
They lived on the outskirts of the Left Bank in a very exclusive area. Such a beautiful house and grounds! ‘En face du lac’. (May was fond of throwing in the occasional French phrase to show she was ‘au fait’ with the vernacular.)
“Of course,” she admitted, twisting her wedding ring nervously, “it wasn’t like having them down the road.”
“But it must be a lovely place to visit,” I said brightly.
“Oh yes, and the views are magnificent!” The house looks north-west across the lake, up to the old distinctive hills of the Jura with their bare cliffs and escarpments, and the south-west side faces Mont Blanc in the distance. Many was the time May had stood on the balcony watching the sun set in a rosy pink flush on the snow -covered slopes, listening to the nearby tolling of a bell from the church in Collonge through the clean crisp air. It was still the best air in the world. No wonder they used to send consumptives there.
Of course, her daughter wouldn’t live anywhere else now. It was such a good life. Quiet but comfortable. They had charming gardens with a swimming pool for summer use. A nanny and a cleaner. Christmas at a chalet in the Alps where there was guaranteed snow, sleigh bells and ski runs. Winter was winter there and summer was summer, unlike Britain where both could meld into a chilly wetness.
The city itself was so compact and accessible too. Had I been? No, I had not. Well, there were wonderful parks in plenty. Of course, all the trains, clanging trams and buses ran on time and dovetailed with each other like clockwork. All on the same day ticket. Even for the little ‘mouettes’ …the yellow water taxis plying their way across the lake. Everyone used them You could swim in the lake in the summer if you had a mind to, off the ‘plages’ and families would take picnics to the parks on a Sunday. No heathen Sunday opening hours of shops was allowed. So cosmopolitan and sophisticated though! The Jet d’Eau so inspiring, though did I know it was really the twin towers of St Peter’s cathedral which the Genevoise really felt symbolised their city? Naturally I did not. Delicious pastries, croissants and fresh bread from the boulangeries – like France but much cleaner with well- run restaurants. And the toilets! – well, it made you ashamed to be British!
May was well into her stride now as if she had been engaged to write a travel brochure. Chocolate, watches and clocks. Carousels and swans on the lake. The UN and the Red Cross headquarters. Classy shops. A bit pricy of course but that was only to be expected with the Swiss franc being so robust. (Bankers presumably responsible for that one.) May had picked up a few good bargains in the sales though. Quality stuff. Did I like her olive suede jacket for instance? I did. Swiss, of course. Even the local Chasselas wine was perfectly acceptable, though not many people knew that. Anyway, you could buy anything there and most people could speak English, though May let it be known she took pride in being able to cope passably well in French.
The children were very generous. They were always asking her to go out and offering to pay her fare, though she confessed she found it more tiring than she used to so did not go often now. They had set her up in this home and were always asking if it was as comfortable and pleasant enough as it should be.
Money was no object to them. Her son in law kept a yacht on the lake – nothing too ostentatious, just a twenty- two- footer, and they had their own ski chalet at Verbier. Oh, it was so beautiful to sail up the lake past Montreux to Chateau Chillon where the mountains clustered round the castle on its island, so tall and majestic. It did sound entrancing and I was duly entranced.
As I said, this was the first time May told me about these things and I was genuinely interested. By the twenty-first time she told me, my interest was wearing thin. It was then I wondered about dementia. Short term memory loss could be selective, after all. Perhaps she had forgotten she had told me before. Yet she did The Times crossword every day, finishing most of it, and this was the cryptic version whilst I was still plodding through the concise one. Then there was the Bridge. No, I regretfully concluded she was merely bragging, and it no longer seemed so strange she was always in need of a bridge partner
We continued to put up with each other for Wednesday Bridge, but I am afraid I did my best to avoid May on other occasions. The downside to her family living in Geneva was that she didn’t get visitors. Whilst most of the others had been out at weekends and had plenty to talk about over Sunday supper, May did not.
It was on one such occasion that I was very sharp with her, to my shame. It was a blustery day with a high tide of white horses and sand blowing uncomfortably inshore from the dunes. Although I normally like the sea a little wild, I didn’t make it back before a sudden squall swept in from the foothills of Snowdonia over Puffin Island and I ended up sodden through, out of breath from hurrying, and dispirited. Out of sorts too. Added to which, I had learnt my son lost his job last week and was worried he might struggle to find another one.
“You’ve never been out in this!” May accosted me verbally. Looking back, it was only out of concern but then she resumed the full flow I had interrupted about the delights of Geneva.
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake, May! Why don’t you go and live in Geneva if everything’s so perfect there?” I snapped. She was immediately flustered, and two pink spots appeared glowing on either cheek.
“Well,” she faltered. “Of course, they don’t have a National Health Service and my legs aren’t as good as they used to be”. She was very quiet the rest of the evening and retired to bed early.
May didn’t appear for Bridge the following Wednesday, sending her apologies on account of a bad cold. As I knew she had previously played with a hacking cough, I doubted this somehow. I had to play with Rose instead who was interminably slow, so I had even more trouble remembering what had gone before and we came last. Neither did I see May all week, so I began to think she really was ill and keeping to her room. She re-appeared for next Sunday’s teatime and seemed sprightly enough, if a little subdued.
Later that evening there was a knock at my door and in came Eunice, canvassing the residents for a theatre trip. Eunice was a great organiser of events and the place would have been much more boring and apathetic without her, though I suspect she was taken for granted and rarely thanked enough for her efforts.
“Do come,” she urged me, “it’s had such good reviews and is on tour straight from London.”
In truth it was a play that appealed to me and I liked going to our local theatre which we were lucky to have, but I hesitated.
“Is ‘My Daughter Lives in Geneva’ going?” I asked cattily.
Eunice looked at me in an offhand manner which let me know she didn’t approve. “Yes.”
“Then I think not. I’ll pass this time.” Eunice put her pen and clipboard down on the table.
“There’s something you need to know about May,” she said firmly. “It’s not common knowledge but, well … you seemed to be getting on so well when you first came.”
“What is it?”
“May hasn’t spoken to her daughter in over thirty years”.
I was genuinely shocked.
“They fell out. Oh, I don’t know why, and I don’t think May does either. She didn’t seem to have done anything terribly wrong as far as I could see. No, I believe it came from the daughter. She hasn’t seen any of the four grandchildren since. There’ve been no visits, no letters, not even a birthday or Christmas card.
“But that’s dreadful! Why has she never told anyone?”
“Would you? What would they think of her?”
I swallowed hard.
“She told me when she first came here. She wasn’t in a good state then. Used to sit around crying most of the day. But then she got a bit better and hasn’t told anyone since. It must be hard for her.”
“And she has no-one else?”
“No, more’s the pity.”
“Did she really go to Geneva?”
“Oh yes, a few times. Her reminiscences are all true … well, bar a few embellishments over the years, like the yacht maybe. It seems to be her way of coping. “
“Don’t they pay for this home though?”
“Definitely not. May had to sell her home to come here and lives in fear of her money running out.”
I hope my silence spoke volumes. Eunice took up her clipboard briskly.
“I don’t have to sit you next to her”, she said. “But I can see you’d like to come and we need to make the numbers up for a mini-bus.”
“I’ll sit next to her.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well, we are bridge partners, after all.”
The play was good, and I was glad I had gone.
“Did I tell you my daughter lives in Geneva?” May asked on our way home in the bus.
“Yes, I think you did, May – many times,” I said gently.
“Oh,” deflated now.
“But I’ve never been there, and I’d like to hear more about the places you’ve been to
“Well, there were so many of them!”
May looked out of the rain streaked window, her eyes suddenly misted over with
“But do you know what, dear?”
“It’s such a long time ago now. I can hardly remember their faces.”
“You told me about the Festival called L’Escalade when the Genevoise celebrate repelling the Duke of Savoie and his troops from the battlements. That was very interesting!” I said quickly.
“Oh yes!” brightening up, “Well that is a spectacle indeed.”
And she was off, rattling on happily about the historical costumes and the horses and the fireworks until we got home. And how there were huge cauldrons called ‘marmites’ made out of chocolate in the shop windows, along with the usual pyramids of prettily coloured macaroons. I was fully reconciled to switching off and staring out of the window. Only it was rather interesting after all.
My name is Samantha … not Sam. I hate it when people shorten names. What’s the point? Your Mum and Dad have taken the trouble to give you a perfectly decent, respectable name like Charlotte or Philippa instead of landing you with the name of a fruit or a football team. Why does everyone feel the need to upset them and confuse everyone else?
Anyway, my name is Samantha and I live in a small seaside town in North Wales which has seen better days. If I tell you the Victorian pier is rusting away and closed for safety reasons, as well as being an eyesore, you’ll get the general picture though the sands are still great and it has some pleasant parts like the park. Cheap flights to Spain killed the holiday trade so people just come for a day out or the market now and the shops struggle and have gone downhill. We do get some lovely sunny days but you can never rely on it.
The council keep on saying regeneration is on the agenda but it’s been a long time coming. I rent my own flat thanks to housing benefit and live alone. Used to work at the old Hoover factory until it closed down. Twenty years I put in there. Taught me never to have a tumble drier because it ruins your clothes!
I was in two minds about the closure. It’s hard having no money and being on the dole, no matter what people say. On the other hand, it’s nice to have a bit more freedom to be yourself. Between ourselves, the work was very boring and I didn’t fit in with the rest. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of your scroungers. I have tried to get work. Still go down the Jobcentre and pick up the odd interview. But that’s where it ends. They never seem to like me.
It’s not that I don’t smarten myself up for them. You wouldn’t catch me in T-shirts and track suit bottoms with trainers any day. I always make sure I’m well turned out, pay attention to my clothes and make-up and never go anywhere with chipped nails or down at heel shoes. I love false eyelashes and Foxglove and Cracker Red are my favourite shades of nail varnish. Quick drying so they don’t smear. I apply a fresh coat every day.
I’m sure I could work in an office now – I’ve been on computer courses and all that. Would love being one of the girls, comparing fashion notes and getting all the gossip … perhaps even making friends at last. My work adviser is a poppet and does her best to encourage me. But even she gets disheartened at times.
“I really don’t know, Sam,” she sighs, after yet another failure.
“Yes … sorry. I’d employ you. I really would.” Then she’d get me off her books of course. But I think she really means it.
“Is it because I’m not getting any younger?”
She shakes her head firmly.
“Not at all. Employers aren’t allowed to discriminate against age anymore –or disability or race or – anything else. I don’t know what it is, I’m sure.”
Well, she may not, but then she only looks about twelve and still believes in fairies. OK, I’m exaggerating … just a bit. However, you and I know it doesn’t matter how many fancy laws they pass on the subject. It doesn’t make any difference. They choose who they bloody well want to. I feel really sorry for the properly disabled.
There’s a lovely girl downstairs from me who has CP- that’s cerebral palsy apparently. She’s not really spastic, just walks with a limp and has slightly slurred speech. One of her arms turns in a bit too but she’s bright as they come. She’s a single mum. Told me she got taken advantage of when she was very young. The boy is always well turned out and off to school every day on time. She used to help out in his school playground. Then they put her on dinner duty one to one with another spastic kid, helping him to eat for a while, till he had to leave. She missed the playground. When she applied for a proper job as a classroom assistant, they turned her down even though she‘d done all the training and that. Such a shame. She would have been great. Her name is Sarah. That’s a nice name. I know you can shorten it to Sally but that’s still girly enough and people don’t use Sally as much these days because it sounds old-fashioned.
Anyway, Sarah is lovely to me and always uses my proper name and title. She’s the only one who bothers with me in the flats. She does neighbourly stuff like giving me change for the meters and a cup of milk or sugar if I’ve run out. It always seems to be me that runs out but then she invites me in for a coffee as well and we have a good chat. She never wants paying back. I’ve offered to babysit for her so she can go out on her own now and then, but she just laughs and says she has nowhere to go, no-one to go with and couldn’t afford it anyway. I know how that feels. So I gave her one of my favourite pair of earrings one day to say thank you and I think she was touched.
My counsellor says it’s very important to have positive thoughts. As I said, I do have my freedom and that’s positive. I love clothes shopping, even if it is only through the windows most of the time and I like reading chick-lit from the library or the charity shops. Most days I take a walk along the promenade. I’d like a little dog like a Bichon Frise or a Yorkie with a ribbon in its hair, but the landlord won’t allow it. I’m not a big drinker and I don’t go in any pubs – they can get real rough round here and that’s not for me. I’m afraid I am addicted to the weed – tobacco in roll ups, you understand, I wouldn’t touch any of the other stuff though there’s plenty in this town that do, more’s the pity. We’ve got a junkie in the attic flat and he’s thin as a rake, always dirty and snotty-nosed. Brings the tone of the place down. I don’t have to talk to him though. I do alright and the telly’s my friend. I try not to bother Sarah too much though she’s always there if I need her.
Then there’s this café. Found it by chance. Just off the promenade but nice and quiet, especially in the winter months. It’s not too big and the schoolkids don’t go there. I avoid children – they’re always shoving and pushing and sniggering in each other’s ears. No manners.
The café is plain and old-fashioned with net curtains and plastic flowers in green jars on the tables but it’s very clean and cheerful. There aren’t a hundred varieties of coffee and tea to choose from so you don’t get flustered. It’s just ordinary tea in a pot or coffee in a mug or cup. I always have tea with a cup and saucer. Same size, same price and steaming hot from the boiler. The cakes and pastries are all homemade and they make fresh sandwiches. The waitresses wear printed pinafores and have their hair tied up in a scarf like they used to in the old days. I’m all for a touch of wartime nostalgia, not that I’m old enough to remember it myself. I’d have been getting my pension for years if I was still alive and that was the case! But I like the old romantic films. Shame how that generation are passing away. The pinafores bring some class to the place and remind me of wearing real silk stockings which I adore, and pretty dresses with swinging skirts instead of trousers. The girls are friendly and because I go there nearly every day they second guess my order now, know my name and ask how I’m doing. Their chit-chat makes me feel normal again even if it is only about the weather.
Then one day, an old trout comes in. Very posh. Reminds me of my mother who I haven’t seen for years. I wouldn’t have thought it was her kind of place but it’s raining and cold and the windows are all steamed up from the warmth inside, though there’s a good smell of coffee and baking and the cheerful clatter of plates.
I envy her real fur coat. It’s much better than my mangy fake jacket. She’s flashing real diamonds too – not like my chunky costume jewellery. Well made up, though she can’t disguise the heavily wrinkled neck of a walrus. A careful grey wave to the hair. No prizes for guessing which way she votes. She sits down at the table opposite mine –I’m in my usual corner –and looks around as if she owns the place. She does flash me a brief smile though, so that’s good. Orders tea with a scone. Pats her perm in case the wind has ruffled it (it hasn’t – her hairspray must be extra heavy duty) and plonks her bag down. Takes off the clear mackintosh protecting the mink but leaves the mink in place.
“Terrible weather for May!” she says conversationally. “So blustery and cold with it too,” and I agree wholeheartedly.
What’s she doing in a town like this? I’ve never seen her before. Bet she’s come on the train from Cheshire to visit a sickly aunt in one of the many nursing homes near the front, sticking around to lay a claim on the money. I can hear my counsellor saying not to make assumptions there, but I can’t for the life of me think why else she’d come. She’s nosey too. Looks everyone up and down though there are only two or three other old gentlemen in and she turns back to me once her tea is brought.
Then she begins staring harder at me and it’s like being dissected with an anatomist’s scalpel. She takes everything in: the floral designer dress from Oxfam which was a real bargain, the cheap earrings and bangles, the heavy make-up and the polished nails which are my pride and joy. Her manner has turned disapproving as if she has a bad smell under her nose, though in fact we’re not dressed that differently. It’s just that I’m younger and far from rich. Then her eyes move down from my beautiful long, blonde wig to dwell on my prominent Adam’s apple and over-large hands. She guesses and is horrified and disgusted. I mean really disgusted and shocked, not just surprised.
I finish my tea with trembling hands, my day ruined and the café spoilt. I don’t think I’ll come here again. I want to be back in the hidey hole of my flat but stumble outside in my ridiculously high heels that hurt like hell, leaving the money on the table. I light up, leaning over the promenade wall, one shaking hand sheltering the poor flickering flame in the other from the gusting wind. The persistent rain stings my face and I’m going to get drenched but I don’t care that much anymore. Only the seagulls keep me company. Mind you, they sound as if they’re laughing too.
As I said, my name is Samantha now. Not Sam anymore. It’s nobody else’s business and I don’t harm anyone, not like those pervy DJs and TV presenters. And not everyone is cruel as my counsellor says. Even if your parents and siblings and all the rest of your family do cut you off. Perhaps you should go to London, Sam – anything goes there! But how can I do that without any money? At least I have my warm and quiet little flat here. My refuge, even if sometimes the four walls seem to talk back to me. I do believe or at least hope not everyone is cruel. After all, there is Sarah. But it’s hard to remember that when even the seagulls seem to shit on you.
LOOKING FOR MY DAUGHTER
You are not dead
Yet gone almost as surely
You used to like Wimbledon
Went once – almost in the front row!
And so I scan the crowds
Uselessly on screen every year.
When I go up to London
I watch the down escalators
As I ascend;
But you are not there.
I wonder what you are doing
Now you have taken yourself away
And not spoken for many years.
I still keep on looking;
Even though you are not there.
OVER WENLOCK EDGE
The wind whispers along Wenlock Edge
Then growing in force
Whips through tall trees
In a giant green wave.
The old escarpment curls and breaks
Tumbling its woods down below
Into a green sea flecked
Instead of foam.
How fortunate that Nature chooses
To wear green;
So soft on the eye,
So full of infinite shade:
The new green of spring
Ripening too soon to lush summer,
Mint and sage, lime fern and emerald moss.
The leaves of blackthorn, bramble,
Alder, rowan and slender new ash.
Leaves weave their wattled archway
Over my walker’s path.
The forest parts at Major’s Leap
Where Mary Webb’s heroine
Was hounded to her death
Still clutching the fox in her arms.
A patchwork of fields
Now “Gone to earth”
Stretches far over the plain
To Haddon Hill on Long Mynd.
But at this time of year
Green fields become corn,
Green leaves take on a touch of autumn
Turning brown and crinkly …
Then soon fall.
In the beginning was darkness,
Or so we are told.
But then came the Big Bang:
Fire, gas, maybe even brimstone
Rolling together under tension
Forming a thunderclap in the void.
I know my beginning was seed
Meeting an egg,
And now I am strangely here,
But not for long.
Must I too then go to nothingness
When my time is done?
Or shall I become
Part of another Big Bang,
Some other tim
The dog outlasts you,
He has been subdued
But tries to give me comfort.
He needs brushing
Which is a weekly chore,
Heaving him onto the grooming table,
I do my best.
He submits reluctantly
And forgets about it afterwards.
He gets me out every day
Rain or shine,
Which no doubt is good for me
Despite bad knees.
He follows me around constantly,
Upstairs, downstairs and in the loo
With his wet black nose.
He at least is glad
I am still here.