Authors: Andrea Goldsmith
She bent down and disentangled one of the pairs of jeans and with her index finger traced the embroidered leaves and flowers that blazed a flagrant trail from thigh to ankle. With the filigree still etched on her fingers, she pulled the jeans on under her skirt and stood facing the mirror, gaberdine crimped about her breasts, legs of pagan totems below.
‘Let me see,’ the shop assistant said sweeping the curtain to one side. ‘Ah yes,’ she nodded, ‘but not with the skirt. Not with the skirt.’ She helped Elizabeth into a flimsy lavender top. ‘Now then, look at yourself. Beautiful,’ the woman said, ‘beautiful.’
One by one each garment was tried. The shop woman was deft and admiring, Elizabeth was quiet and curious, content to watch the sequence of strangers passing across the mirror. She failed to recognise herself in the parade, failed to see the married woman with a handicapped child, and for the first time in months she felt calm.
Elizabeth chose a pair of jeans tight and clinging around the hips and thighs and flaring from the knee in a manner that her mother would consider cheap and Adrian would see as provocative. She bought two of the shirts, a lavender floral and a
smudged blue-black swirl. The shop woman was very kind but already Elizabeth knew she could never return, and she knew why when in the familiarity of her car she tipped her purchases on to the passenger seat and inspected them. She was really quite shocked, wondered what could have possessed her. And what people would think! Denim and radical shirt to drink tea with several strangers with whom the only thing she had in common was an unwanted, unlovable child. The clothes were wrong, she would give them to the Salvation Army – someone in need was bound to appreciate them.
Now, as she stood at Penelope Roscoe’s front door in her flimsy blouse and denim jeans, she wondered what had made her change her mind: the clothes were ridiculous. It was as if she had dressed up as someone else for these strangers and yet it was Elizabeth Dadswell, well-mannered and well-married Elizabeth Dadswell with the problem, and that problem was Ginnie. No disguise would ever change that.
‘You must be Elizabeth.’ A woman stood on the other side of the doorway. ‘I’m Penelope Roscoe.’
Penelope Roscoe was truly a Penelope. She began solid and large at her smiling face and dropped herself down with a thud. Pen-el-o-pe. A Penny she was not. Not with her five feet ten inches of height, her one hundred and eighty pounds of weight, her mammoth bosom, her thick braid of hair. She had slender legs, Elizabeth was to notice later, but these were overshadowed by all the rest.
‘Everyone calls me Penny,’ she said. ‘Now come in and meet the others. What do you like to be called?’
‘Elizabeth. Just Elizabeth.’
‘Love your shirt,’ Penny said over her shoulder as they walked down the hall. Penny’s own Indian print pranced about her large frame. ‘I’m so grateful for these loose clothes, they hide a multitude of sins. Not that you need worry.’
They entered a bright sunny living area with a wall of windows looking out to one of those wispy, climbing courtyard gardens where plants and pots and baskets and ivy look to have simply fallen into place. The room exuded a similar ambience of perfectly
choreographed naturalness. Even the two women and three children were placed appropriately.
‘This is Elizabeth,’ Penny said to the others, ‘Elizabeth Dadswell.’
In subsequent years, Elizabeth and Kate would often recall that first meeting. In the end Elizabeth no longer recognised which were her memories and which were Kate’s; except for the children – how they looked – and the fear; those memories would always be hers. One child looked completely normal, another was mildly different, only the third looked as bad as Ginnie. And the fear rushed in along with a sense of failure so bitter that she actually choked on her saliva. Afterwards, Elizabeth would say it was like coming bottom of your class, but at the time all she could do was withdraw, wrapping herself up tightly and observing the scene in front of her as one would a stage arranged with props and actors, all in the right place, each
the right place, in a play that had already begun.
It was partly her own fault. Elizabeth, realising she would be nervously early, had pottered around her makeup table until she was fashionably late. Lauren Warneke had been desperately punctual, while Kate, steered always by whim rather than convention, had arrived when she was ready – not long after breakfast. By the time Elizabeth stood in the doorway of Penny’s living-room, dirty nappies had been changed, there was an aroma of fresh coffee and more or less comfortably ensconced were Kate Marley and Lauren Warneke, together with Kate’s Walter, Lauren’s Sherrie and Penny’s Sean.
Kate and Lauren were sitting on a low-slung chocolate brown corduroy suite. Kate was sprawled across the soft cushions, cigarette in hand, head sinking into the low back of the couch; she looked as if she hadn’t a care in the world. Lauren, in contrast, was perched at the edge of an armchair, each thumb tucked into a fist, ready to pounce. Kate’s Walter, a boy of two and half and the most beautiful child Elizabeth had ever seen, stood at the plate-glass windows peering out at the garden. The little boy just stood and stared, forehead rubbing the glass, brown eyes breathlessly still. His skin was fine and white, a bloodless skin that
beckoned touch. ‘I wouldn’t if I were you,’ Kate said, as if she had read Elizabeth’s mind. So Elizabeth did not, not ever. Only Kate touched the boy and he either sat passively while she did what needed to be done, or, if he was in one of his moods, he fought, pushing and punching and pinching vast handfuls of skin in a desperate rejection of the invasion. Kate managed him well, staying calm even when he was at his most wretched and yet she was worried, she said, what would happen when he grew bigger, when he was stronger. His father had been strong, Kate said, or at least he looked to be; although, she added with a smile, you need to know someone for a while to be sure about such things.
But on the first day none of this was known, and Walter was so quiet, so docile, that if it were not for his beautiful unblemished face you might have forgotten he was there. Elizabeth had envied Kate such a child with an envy that lasted exactly one week. The following Thursday Kate arrived late, Walter was in one of his moods she said, and she was unsure how long they could stay. The child had soiled his pants and smelled awful but Kate dared not touch him. An hour later faeces were everywhere: on his hands, in his hair, smearing the windows, on his mother. And how the child, the angelic child, screamed, how he fought when Kate attempted to touch him. And bit! Huge red welts into the thin skin on the back of his own hand and perfect ovals in the softness of Kate’s upper arm. Such a wild anguished child he was, who made a mockery of the innocence of childhood.
Walter, they were to learn, was a child like no other. It was as if there were several children in that one beautiful body, each taking his turn to be seen: this week the tranquil one, next the savage, one day wrestling like a machine, another standing at the window with an expression of such deep humanity that you were touched by something rare and precious. It was more than great beauty with Walter, he seemed to affect you in a very particular way, filling you with an agitation – a joy, of that there was no doubt – that some might recognise as spiritual.
Of all the children it was Sherrie Warneke who looked the most odd. She was only two, but she was small and shrivelled like someone very old. The head in particular was tiny, making her
eyes, which were of normal size and very crossed, look almost malevolent. And yet the whole face gave a different impression: the broad cheeks and pointed chin, the tired mouth and sallow skin revealed a melancholy that had no place with any child. She sat on the floor at Lauren’s feet, careful not to touch her mother. She sat, unoccupied, ladylike, not touching her mother and not being touched. Fortunately, children learn what’s best for them. After the first few Thursdays, Sherrie knew to spend the first hour at her mother’s feet and then edge her way over to Penny, where she would sit quietly while Penny stroked the dark spidery hair and the hunched and fragile shoulders. Sherrie could say a few words and as the little face jerked into speech Lauren would grimace at the reedy timbre, while Penny and Elizabeth would admire her cleverness and look with sadness at their own silent children.
They had all come to the group for answers. Well, perhaps not all. Kate, they were to learn, never asked questions; Penny already had the answers – what she was after was action; but Elizabeth and Lauren wanted answers: Elizabeth so she could incorporate Ginnie into her former tidy life and Lauren so her husband would not leave her. Lauren was the oldest of the group by about ten years. She and her husband Stewart already had two teenage boys; Sherrie had arrived after several miscarriages to much excitement and joy. Lauren, privately, had also been relieved, she needed another child now the boys were older; she knew how to be a mother but did not know much else. And she had mothered Sherrie well until the problems appeared, although if she dared criticise Stewart, she would admit that she was quite a good mother to Sherrie even after the problems started; it was only when she realised Stewart regarded his daughter as a spear through their marriage that Lauren withdrew her love from the child. Now she hated herself for the way she treated Sherrie, and along with the hate was a malignant guilt: painful, spreading, engulfing the life she so desperately wanted to save.
Stewart said it was up to her, he said the decision was simple and he would not wait forever. But she kept delaying and as time passed she saw that Sherrie was not as handicapped as the doctors
had first suspected; she watched as the child learned to sit and crawl and finally walk; she heard her daughter’s first sounds and then the words, and with each new skill the pain worsened. How much easier it would have been if the child had been very handicapped, totally incapacitated, with no personality, no possible future. How she wished her child could never know, never understand what her mother would have to do. For Stewart and the boys were her life, and although she harboured no illusions about her marriage, she also knew that at thirty-six she had made her choices and there was no turning back. She could not imagine a life outside her marriage; her friends were Stewart’s friends – she’d never made friends easily – and although she’d once trained as a secretary those skills had been lost long ago. Some of her friends were going to the university, but Lauren had never been bright and had only scraped through school. Hers had been a small life, but satisfactory; she knew her capabilities and lived according to them – and she was not capable of deciding about Sherrie. As for Stewart, he had washed his hands of the matter except for regular reminders that he would not wait forever; so she had come to this group of strangers for help. And as she sat and watched the other mothers with their children she thought that if Stewart could see them all perhaps he would be less harsh with Sherrie, but of course, she had not told him of this group. On that first day Lauren sat and chatted and waited for an opportunity to ask her questions, and while she waited she watched the other children.
Sean was the most active of the four. In that respect he was like his mother. He sat on the rug, legs splayed, back against the side of one of the armchairs with cushions wedged against his body to prevent him from falling sideways. On that first day he played with a child’s abacus, moving wads of coloured beads back and forth, back and forth, delighting in the clack when one bunch hit another. Sean was eighteen months old, with the broad good-natured face of a mongoloid.
‘They call it Down’s Syndrome these days,’ Penny said from the kitchen where she was pouring coffee. ‘The old term was considered an insult – to the Mongolians, not to kids like Sean.’ Penny shrugged her huge soft shoulders and slopped the coffee. ‘It makes
no difference what you call it. It makes no difference to him,’ she nodded at her son as she walked across the room with the tray.
Sean was blond and chubby and absorbed in the abacus. Now and then he giggled, a snuffly, husky chirrup at a particularly noisy manoeuvre, otherwise there was only the quiet irregular slap of one bead against the next. His nose ran incessantly during that first meeting, indeed, it ran for the entire two years the women met. There was nothing the doctors could do, Penny said, except prescribe lashings of antibiotics, and she wouldn’t agree to that. Besides, there were worse problems, most particularly a heart defect that had already required two periods in hospital during which he seemed to forget all his hard-won skills. ‘If only you could embalm them,’ Penny joked on one occasion, referring to the skills not the children, ‘you could be sure of having them forever.’
Sean struck Elizabeth as a sweet child, almost innocuous. It was true, Penny said on the second Thursday, he was a lovable child, very little trouble, no tantrums, no eating problems – apart from eating too much – nothing like that. It was the disappointment that had worn her down and eventually worn her out.
‘He goes ahead in leaps and bounds,’ Penny said. ‘Your hopes flare, you boast about him, show him off, and then he stops. A plateau. And if you’re not careful he’ll even regress. You have to be so vigilant, have to guard each skill or else it will vanish, and vanish so completely that you wonder if it was only your imagination that made it exist in the first place. But of course you know it wasn’t. There’s an interminable swamp of forgotten skills or partly learned ones.’ Penny’s face pinched into a wry smile, ‘Someone would make a fortune if they were to develop a vaccination against disappointment.’ She shrugged her shoulders. ‘Take his sitting. For ages now, ever since he was six months old, I’ve thought he was about to sit on his own; but look at him, he still can’t. He’s simply stopped. The same with his sounds. He’s been saying ga ga and da da for ever, nothing else and nothing more. Ga ga. Da da. Ga ga. Da da. I’m so tired of listening for something different.’
Her work had begun to suffer, she argued with Andrew and ignored her five-year-old Brenda. She spent all her spare time with Sean watching and waiting for him to develop. And then she had
a dream. She dreamt she had given birth to a camembert cheese in the creamy depths of which was a baby. She scooped the cheese from between her legs and held it in the flat of her hand. Her mother, Rose, appeared and took the cheese and broke it open to release the baby. Rose put the baby in the palm of her own left hand where it sat cross-legged and very erect. Penny, still lying on the bed, watched her mother and the baby with a detached but not wholly disinterested gaze. She watched as Rose walked into an adjacent room, the baby still perched on her ageing palm. Penny was aware of no fatigue, the birth had been easy and if it were not for the placenta she would have left the bed. She could see Rose busy with the baby in the other room. Then all of a sudden Penny left the bed – if the afterbirth were as easy as the birth itself she would manage – went into the next room, took the baby and walked out of the house.