Authors: Doris Lessing
The Real Thing
The fat girl in the sky-blue coat again took herself to the mirror. She could not keep away from it. Why did the others not comment on her scarlet cheeks, just like when she got measles, and the way her hair was stuck down with sweat? But they didn’t notice her; she thought they did not see her. This was because of Debbie who protected her, so they got nothing out of noticing her.
She knew it was cold outside, for she had opened a window to check. Inside this flat it was, she believed, warm, but the hearing in the block was erratic, particularly in bad weather, and then the electric fires were brought out and Debbie swore and complained and said she was going to move. But Julie knew Debbie would not move. She could not: she had fought for this flat to be hers, and people (men) from everywhere-‘from all over the world’, as Julie would proudly say to herself, knew Debbie was here. And besides, Julie was going to need to think of Debbie here, when she herself got home: remember the bright rackety place where people came and went, some of them frightening, but none threatening her, Julie, because Debbie looked after her.
She was so wet she was afraid she would start squelching.
What if the wet came through the coat? Back she went to the bathroom and took off the coat. The dress-Debbie’s, like the once smart coat-was now orange instead of yellow, because it was soaked. Julie knew there would be a lot of water at some point, because the paperback Debbie had bought her said so, but she didn’t know if she was simply sweating. In the book everything was so tidy and regular, and she had checked the stages she must expect a dozen times. But now she stood surrounded by jars of bath salts and lotions on the shelf that went all around the bathroom, her feet wide apart on a fluffy rug like a terrier’s coat, and felt cold water springing from her forehead, hot water running down her legs. She seemed to have pains everywhere, but could not match what she felt with the book.
On went the blue coat again. It was luckily still loose on her, for Debbie was a big girl, and she was small. Back she went to the long mirror in Debbie’s room, and what she saw on her face, a look of distracted pain, made her decide it was time to leave. She longed for Debbie, who might after all just turn up. She could not bear to go without seeing her …
she had promised!
But she had to, now, at once, and she wrote on a piece of paper she had kept ready just in case. ‘I am going now. Thanks for everything. Thank you, thank you, thank you. All my love, Julie.’ Then her home address. She stuck this letter in a sober white envelope into the frame of Debbie’s mirror and went into the living room, where a lot of people were lolling about watching the TV. No, not really a lot, four people crammed the little room. No one even looked at her. Then the man she was afraid of, and who had tried to ‘get’ her, took in the fact that she stood there, enormous and smiling foolishly in her blue coat, and gave her the look she always got from him, which said he didn’t know why Debbie bothered with her but didn’t care. He was a
sharp clever man, handsome she supposed, in a flashy Arab way. He was from Lebanon, and she must make allowances because there was a war there. Sitting beside him on the sofa was the girl who took the drugs around for him. She was smart and clever, like him, but blonde and shiny, and she looked like a model for cheap clothes. A model was what she said she was, but Julie knew she wasn’t. And there were two girls Julie had never seen before, and she supposed they were innocents, as she had been. They looked all giggly and anxious to please, and they were waiting. For Debbie?
Julie went quietly through the room to the landing outside and stood watching for the lift. She checked her carrier bag, ready for a month now, stuffed under her bed. In it was a torch, pieces of string wrapped in a piece of plastic, two pairs of knickers, a cardigan, a thick towel with an old blouse of Debbie’s cut open to lie flat inside it and be soft and satiny, and some sanitary pads. The pads were Debbie’s. She bled a lot each month. The lift came but Julie had gone back into the flat, full of trouble and worry. She felt ill-prepared, she did not have enough of something, but what could it be? The way she felt told her nothing, except that what was going to happen would be uncontrollable, and until today she had felt in control, and even confident. From shelves in the bathroom she took, almost at random, some guest towels and stuffed them into the carrier. She told herself she was stealing from Debbie, but knew Debbie wouldn’t mind. She never did, would say only, ‘Just take it, love, if you want it.’ Then she might laugh and say, ‘Take what you want and
pay for it!’ Which was her motto in life, she claimed on every possible occasion. Julie knew better. Debbie could say this as much as she liked, but what she, Julie, had learned from Debbie was, simply, this: what things cost, the value of everything, and of
people, of what you did for them, and what they did for you. When she had first come into this flat, brought by Debbie, who had seen her standing like a dummy on the platform at Waterloo at midnight on that first evening she arrived by herself in London, she had been as green as … those girls next door, waiting, but not knowing what for. She had been innocent and silly, and what that all boiled down to was that she hadn’t known the price of anything. She hadn’t known what had to be paid. This was what she had learned from Debbie, even though Debbie had never allowed her to pay for anything, ever.
From the moment she had been seen on the platform five months ago on a muggy, drizzly August evening, she had been learning how ignorant she was. For one thing, it was not only Debbie who had seen her; a lot of other people on the lookout in various parts of the station would have moved in on her like sharks if Debbie hadn’t got to her first. Some of these people were baddies and some were goodies, but the kind ones would have sent her straight home.
For the second time she went through the living room and no one looked at her. The Lebanese was smiling and talking in an elder-brotherly way to the new girls. Well, they had better watch out for themselves.
For the second time she waited for the lift. She seemed quite wrenched with pain. Was it worse? Yes, it was.
In the bitter black street that shone with lights from the lamps and the speeding cars she hauled herself on to a bus. Three stops, and by the time she reached where she wanted, she knew she had cut it too fine. She got off in a sleet shower under a street lamp and saw her blue coat turning dark with wet. Now she was far from being too hot, she was ready to shiver and shake, but could not decide if this was panic. Everything she had planned had seemed so easy, one thing after another,
but she had not foreseen that she would stand at a bus stop, afraid to leave the light there, not knowing what the sensations were that wrenched her body. Was she hot? Cold? Nauseous? Hungry? A good thing the weather was so bad, no one was about. She walked boldly through the sleet and turned into a dark and narrow alley where she hurried, because it smelled bad and scared her, then out into a yard full of builders’ rubbish and rusty skips. There was a derelict shed at one end. This shed was where she was going, where she had been only three days before to make sure it was still there, had not been pulled down, and that she could get in the door. But now something she had not foreseen. A large dog stood in the door, a great black threatening beast, and it was growling. She could see the gleam of its teeth and eyes. But she knew she had to get into the shed, and quickly. Again water poured hotly down her legs. Her head was swimming. Hot knives carved her back. She found a half brick and flung it at the wall near the dog, who disappeared into the shed growling. This was awful… Julie went into the shed, shut the door behind her, with difficulty because it dragged on broken hinges, and switched on the torch. The dog stood against a wall looking at her, but now she could see it would not hurt her. Its tail was sweeping about in the dirt, and it was so thin she could see its ribs under the dirty black shabby fur. Its eyes were bright and frantic. It wanted her to be good to it. She said, ‘It’s all right, it’s only me,’ and went to the comer of the shed away from the dog, where she had spread a folded blanket. The blanket was there, but the dog had been lying on it. She turned the blanket so the clean part inside was on the top. Now, having reached her refuge, she didn’t know what to do. She took off her soaking knickers. She put the carrier bag close to the blanket. Afraid someone might see the gleam of light, she switched off the torch,
first making sure she knew where it was. She could hear the dog breathing, and the flap-flap of its tail. It was lying down, not far from her. She could smell the wet doggy smell, and she was grateful for that, pleased the dog was there. Now she was in no doubt she had got here just in time, because her whole body was hot and fierce with pain, and she wanted to cry out, but knew she must not. She was groaning, though, and she heard herself: ‘Debbie, Debbie, Debbie …’ All those months Debbie had said, ‘Don’t worry about anything, when the time comes I’ll see everything’s all right.’ But Debbie had gone off with the new man to Paris, saying she would be back in a week, but had rung from New York to say, ‘How are you, honey? I’ll be back at the weekend.’ That was three weeks ago. The ‘honey’ had told Julie this man was different from the others, not only because he was an American: Debbie had never called her anything but Julie, wouldn’t have dreamed of changing her behaviour for any man, but this ‘honey’ had not been for Julie, but for the man who was listening. ‘I don’t blame her,’ Julie was muttering now. ‘She always said she wanted just one man, not Tom and Dick and Harry.’ But while Julie was making herself think, I don’t blame her, she was groaning, ‘Oh, Debbie, Debbie, why did you leave me?’
Debbie had left her to cope on her own, after providing everything from shelter and food and visits to a doctor, to the clothes and the bright blue coat that had hidden her so well no one had known. Debbie and she joked how little people noticed about other people. ‘You’d better watch your diet,’ the Lebanese had said. ‘Don’t you let her’-meaning Debbie-‘stuff you with food all the time.’
Julie was on all fours on the blanket, her head between her arms, her fists clenched tight, and she was crying. The pain was awful, but that wasn’t the worst of it. She felt so alone, so lonely. It occurred to her that having her
bottom up in the air was probably not the right thing. She squatted, her back against a cold brick wall, and went on sweating and moaning. She could hear the dog whining, in sympathy, she thought. Water, or was it blood, poured out. She was afraid to switch on the torch to see. She felt the dog sniff at her face and neck, but it went off again. She could see absolutely nothing, it was so dark. Then she felt a rush, as if her insides were pouring out, and she thought. Why didn’t the book say there would be all this water all the time? Then she thought. But that’s the baby, and put her hand down and under her on the blanket was a wet slippery lump. She felt for the torch and switched it on. The baby was greyish and bloody and its mouth was opening and shutting. Now she was in a panic. Before, she had decided she must wait before cutting the cord, because the paperback said there was no hurry, but she was desperate to get the cord cut, in case the baby died. She found where the cord came out of the baby, a thick twisted rope of flesh, full of life, hot and pulsing in her hand. She found the scissors. She found the string. She cut the birth cord with the scissors, and trembled with fear. Blood everywhere, and the dog had come close and was sitting so near she could touch it. Its eyes were saying, Please, please … It was gulping and licking its lips, because of all the blood, when it was so hungry.