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From Issue 54
WHAT GOES AROUND
What goes around? I’ll tell you – a blanket goes round my baby. Tight round like an extra skin, but this blanket’s not soft. It’s scratching grey, with red sewing at the edge. White stuck-on label says Hospital Property.
My baby’s mine, come out of me. I can’t see her face but her hair! There’s so much of it, sticks up like a hedgehog. I see nurse give it a stroke. Feels lovely I bet. They never let me touch her.
What goes around? The little boy next door on his bike. His dad’s put a path. Pavement stones set out in an oblong, like a kiddies’ racetrack. Standing at the edge of my bedroom window, so boy don’t know I’m here, I see him. Lean over a bit – try to get a better look. His small legs work hard. These days I don’t trust mine to keep me up. Hold onto the back of this chair with one hand. Make me steady. He’s fast, tips on the corners, near skidding.
Clock says 10:07 but I’m not ready for breakfast yet. New nightie’s cosy snug. Staff’ll have a go at me, I know. Not dressed, hair like a rat’s nest, but staff can stuff it. I want to watch the boy. At least I’ve got the window open haven’t I? They’re always on at me, ‘Let the air in, Pauline G, smells like last week’s socks in here, Pauline G.’
Wind’s blowing in light and I hear the boy’s bike wheels go fizz on the stones. In the middle of the path there’s grass, and an orange sandpit with a lid to keep the cats out, toys spilled around like they don’t matter. Boy’s by himself today, but that’s normal enough. Dad’s at work, heard the door slam early. Mum’s busy I expect. Mrs In-and-Out I call her. Always bringing something out, taking something in, near running. Boy’s calling her now.
‘Mummy!’ he yells high, ‘My shoe’s come off.’ He bends down, tries to get his foot in but he can’t do it. ‘Mummeeee!’
Here she comes all rushing, jeans and flower top, skinny pretty. Bends down, ties the lace jerk tight. He’s up and off on the bike again.
‘Mum watch me! I’ve done twenty-one – no – twenty-three laps this way round.’ He talks excited, ‘Got to beat my best world record. Stay and watch me Mum.’ But he’s a few seconds getting the words out and she’s already by the back door.
‘I’m just with the baby darling,’ she says la-di-dah, ‘ I’ll be two secs.’
I stay watching.
That’s what Mr Wildacre used to say to me. Back in hospital days. ‘You’re a watcher, Pauline Gibbs, my little watcher.’
He’s the supervisor in the workshop where us ones – the High Functionings – we pack up the toys from the factory. Doll’s house furniture’s the best. It’s like outside world homes, but tiny in a box. Wrap little bits of wire round the matchstick chair legs, fix them in the packet. Fiddly tricky it is.
Sometimes Wildacre helps me, leans in close, smell of fags and needs a wash two days ago. I can see the pink shiny bald under his hair. Greasy lank, falls forward. His fingers catch it, push it back. His fat fingers and my crooked bony ones fighting with the wire and matchstick chair legs. ‘We’re a right pair,’ he says.
We work hard, so Wildacre gives us biscuits from a tin with a picture of the Queen got dents in her face. My daft weak arms can’t get the lid off. This memory I’ve got now, this one’s playing like a telly programme in my own stupid head. Wildacre and me are in the storeroom, at the back, where patients aren’t allowed. He’s got a system, chooses what girl he wants, gets Joyce Baxter to bring them in. Gives her four more biscuits and if any nurse asks he’s told her to say, ‘Overtime Special Delivery’.
First time she came for me, she held her fist up, ‘You tell anyone, Pauline G., and you’ll get this.’
Even if I could say, I wouldn’t. He chose me.
Joyce shoves me through the door and Wildacre’s waiting. There’s a mattress on the storeroom floor and a grey blanket with red sewing all the way round. Hospital Property. Laying on my back. Stiff twisted hurting. He’ll be finished soon. I look at the shelves up to the flaky paint ceiling. Watch the pale brown boxes with black letters on and toys inside. Think of a roast dinner, like before with Ma, a little kid. I almost don’t know it was me then. Wildacre presses hard on me, jabbing sharp, breath moaning loud. I take my mind away. Set the table with knives and forks, tiny circle plates with blue stripes round, gravy in a boat too small to fit a fly. Sit the family down. Ma and Dad, me sat between them, propped up safe on a cushion. Baby in his highchair, banging a spoon, wants his grub. All laughing.
Wildacre’s put tissues there for when it’s over. Soft, not the rough stuff. Then its extra biscuits if I’m lucky. That’s what he says, pushes one daft shaking leg, then the next one into my trousers. Helps me up.
‘Fig Rolls for you, Pauline G. Must be your lucky day.’
‘You’re getting fat, Pauline G,’ the nurse says, weeks months later, ‘You want to eat less afters you do.’
No-one’s thinking baby.
I feel my angel kicking but I can’t say. First it’s small birds swoop fluttering inside. Later she spins and dances. Nurse gives me the belly-ache medicine and she dances wilder. Then my angel’s almost here and it’s a big panic and they’ve called the doctor for the ones on the ward who have fits. He’s rushing angry, saying he’s not brought a baby into the world since he don’t know when and I’m hard screaming so they give me an injection. I only just see her, my angel my Angela, before they take her off and away for good. Her black hedgehog hair poking out of the grey blanket. I reach out but nurse’s hand stops mine.
‘Better not Pauline G, better not.’
Later she tells me, ‘It won’t happen again, Pauline G. No more babies, Doctor’s seen to it.’
They think it’s one of the patients did it to me and it’s not like I can say different.
Nurse pokes my friend Tommy in his ribs joking, ‘You dirty little bugger, Tommy P. Watch yourself or I’ll have your bits off with my big scissors.’ He laughs, never did understand a word they said, just knows my crooked face and my smiles that slip.
Then it’s back to the ward and the workshop, and it’s like my angel never was. Never was a life in me.
Next year and next after I don’t know when but we’re all getting old in there. Wildacre’s long gone, dead of a heart attack. Hospital closes down and it’s back to the normal world. The High Functionings go first but now even the ones what lay in cots all day like babies is out. The hospital turns into posh flats and they put me here, in a house on a street. With a baby right next door.
Hello. Here’s Mrs In-and-Out again. She’s got the baby in her pram, asleep on her high wheels. There’s a bird swoop whoosh in my stomach. Maybe today is going to be one of the best days. A see-the-baby day.
Boy’s on his bike and Mrs In-and-Out has to yank the pram so he don’t crash. It’s squishy like cushions, hide the baby keep her snug cosy inside. I see them in the Spar shop sometimes, Mrs In-and-Out and her baby in a pram. I make a fuss, she lets me peek till staff say, ‘Come on now Pauline G, choose your tea, what about macaroni cheese for the microwave, we need to get you back now.’
‘Careful Joe!’ mum says, angry lines between her eyes, but boy just pedals faster. He’d have sent that pram flying, baby and all. I see it in his face dark furious. Mum parks little one on the grass in the middle, starts pegging out the washing. First up today there’s a blanket – pink fleece soft. Like the ones in Tesco that the staff don’t let me touch. Stretch my arm out to feel now. Hand hits the window frame. Fingers bend back.
Boy wants a drink whining.
‘I’ll get it’, mum says, sighing tired. ‘You stay here, Joe. Count – see how long it takes me.’ But he’s only got to three and I hear the song of her phone go off and she’s, ‘Oh I’m so glad you called,’ talking on her way in through the back door.
Baby cries. Not loud upset but I can hear her. I always hear. Her cot’s behind my wall. I lie in bed near close. Think of her soft breathing, pink mouth, eyes smooth sleeping. My angel.
Boy jumps off his bike, lets it fall pedal crunch. He gets a bucket from the sandpit, upside down like a castle’s going to come out. I went to the seaside once. See it on CBeebies, some days families playing on a beach. Staff say, ‘One hour only its children’s programmes Pauline G, and you’re a grown up lady now.’
Boy stands on the bucket, leans in the pram, pulls back the cover. I shuffle inches across the floor see better. He’s pulling on the side of the pram now, jiggling it, gently at first, then harder. Two of the pram wheels lift.
Noise behind me in my house. Staff’s coming upstairs, feet stepping fierce, ‘Come on Pauline G. We haven’t got all day what about Bran Flakes and marmalade toast. There’s a cup of tea waiting for you. It’s going cold. Be quick.’
I stay quiet, but my heart bangs so loud they might hear me. Move flash quick. Hide behind the curtain like in hospital days when Joyce Baxter came looking. After they took my angel away.
Stand dead still, watch the boy, fist in my mouth, biting nervous. Boy looks towards his house, checking where mum is. Now his head’s gone under the hood, tiptoes on the bucket, far stretching.
‘Mrs In-and-Out,’ I want to shout, ‘Get here now!’ But where other people have words I just have my funny noises.
Boy’s got his hands under the baby’s arms and half dragged her out of the pram. She’s wearing little trousers, pale green stripes and a top to match, no pretty dress today. One sock off cos he’s pulled her rough. Tiny toes. Her face squashed against his chest. She’s crying proper cross now.
That’s when I get right in front of the open window never mind the staff. I open my useless mouth with no words and scream hard like it’s hospital days and my angel’s coming. I scream hard for the next door baby before boy can shake her or squeeze her or drop her or maybe just give her a hug but I’m a watcher and I don’t think so.
Boy stands shock still. Looks up at my window. I’m gone out of sight again but still watching. Mum comes running. She’s got the baby off him quick. Arms wrapped right round her, one hand like a cradle holds her head strong, rocking her close, cheek on cheek, making her safe.
‘It’s alright’, she says, and while I watch my stupid mouth makes the wordshapes too, same as her.
‘It’s alright my angel,’ we say both of us together, ‘I’m here now.’
TAMSIN COTTIS is a child psychotherapist and founder of Respond, which works with abuse survivors with learning disabilities. She started writing fiction after signing up for an adult education class on a whim. She has since completed an MA in Creative Writing and her stories have appeared in Tell Tales 4: The Global Village and Mechanics Institute Review 1. She has three daughters, likes to write in an empty house with frothy coffee and cake, and daydreams of one day meeting Bruce Springsteen.
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