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.