Authors: Kimberley Freeman
Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Family Life, #Romance, #Historical, #20th Century, #General
“Ma?” Tears in her eyes. She flailed to catch Ma’s hands, but she pulled them away sharply.
“No,” Ma said. “Leave me be. Things are hard enough.”
A small shred of memory came back to her then. Ma brushing her hair before school one morning, snow outside the window, Ma’s warm hands, Ma’s quavering voice singing an old Scottish folk song. The memory contrasted so sharply with this moment that Beattie’s stomach lurched as though she might throw up. “You can’t do this,” she gasped. “I’m your daughter.”
“No,” she said grimly. “You’re not. We have no daughter.”
* * *
On the street, the air was thick and oily. Beattie was dressed, had the purse her mother had flung at her in the stairwell, but was otherwise empty-handed as she hurried away from the tenement block. A few streets away, she stopped. Her pulse fluttered as she paused, unsure which way to turn. To Henry’s office, to plead with him? To Granny’s house in Tannochside, with its sodden back garden that grew more moss than grass? Or to the warmest, driest alley she could find to prepare herself for her final ruin? For long, horrible minutes she stood, and it was as though she could feel the world turning, feel her own tenuous perch on it.
There was only one person she could think of who might know what to do. Cora.
Beattie had never been to Cora’s house, though she knew where it was. Henry had pointed it out to her one night when walking her home. A honey-colored sandstone townhouse on Woodlands Terrace. Cora’s father was a shipping magnate, with a country estate as well. Beattie tried not to think about what it would be like to have two houses instead of one tiny, cramped flat. To have a father who provided for her.
Beattie was panting by the time she arrived, and she stopped at the bottom of the wide stairs to catch her breath. She hadn’t even realized she’d been running. The morning sun had broken through clouds and was evaporating last night’s rain from the road. In the park, the birds were in full chorus. Beattie waited for her heart to still, palmed her tear-stained face, then walked up and rang the bell.
The heavy door creaked open. An imperious face under a frilly white cap peered out at her.
“Yes, lassie?” the old woman said.
“Can I see Cora?”
The woman—Beattie assumed she was a housekeeper—arched an eyebrow. “Who are you?”
“My name’s Beattie. I’m her friend. Please. I just need to talk to her for a few minutes.”
“Wait here,” the housekeeper said, then closed the door.
Time passed. It felt like hours but was probably ten minutes. Traffic noise in the distance: the day starting as normal for everyone else. Beattie started to think she had been forgotten. Then the door opened again, and Cora stood there.
“Lordy, Beattie Blaxland. It’s only nine in the morning.”
“I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t wake you. Only I didn’t know where else to go.”
“It’s no matter. You look dreadful. Have you eaten? I can make you tea.”
“I . . .” Beattie took a deep, shuddering breath so that she wouldn’t cry. “I would love tea.”
“Come in, then. Mind the wee step here. You’re not wearing an ounce of makeup. You look like death. Do you want me to find some lipstick for you?” Cora’s voice rattled on as she led Beattie up a wide hallway and into a parquetry sitting room with windows that went all the way to the floor. “Here, sit down. I’ll fetch you tea, and then you can tell me what this is all about.”
Beattie waited in the quiet, sunny room, clasping and unclasping her hands anxiously. She felt as though she were sitting outside herself, watching from a distance. For surely none of this could be real. She felt so young, looking at her
thin pale wrists. A child’s wrists. Cora returned, carrying a tea tray, smoking a cigarette. She set it down and poured Beattie a cup. Strong, black.
Beattie took a sip, scalded her tongue.
“What’s this about? I thought you’d had enough of me,” Cora said with a pretty pout. “The way you cut me out at the party. You didn’t ever come back to the club.”
“Henry told me not to.”
“He did? Why?”
“Because of the baby.”
“The . . .” Her eyes drifted down to Beattie’s midsection and widened to saucers. “Lordy, Beattie, you’re not still pregnant! I thought you’d got rid of the bairn. You didn’t mention it again.”
Beattie could do nothing but shake her head, her lips pressed tight against sobs.
“What’s happened, then? Has he come to see you? Is he going to look after you?”
“He said he would, but I’ve not heard from him. His wife . . .”
“Haggard old cow who can’t have children herself, that one. She should let him go.” Cora put a protective arm around her shoulders. “How can I help?”
“Ma’s kicked me out. I don’t know where to go. Should I go to Henry? Only I don’t want to make life hard for him . . .”
“And why not? He’s made it hard enough for you.” Cora butted out her half-finished cigarette with her free hand. “No, don’t go to Henry. He’ll not treat you right.”
“Henry’s not so bad. He’s a good man, he’s—”
Cora shushed her with a raised white hand. “There are two types of women in the world, Beattie, those who do things and those who have things done to them. Try to be the first type.” She sat back and looked Beattie squarely in the eye. “I know of a place in northern England. A friend of my auntie runs it. Girls like you go there, they have their babies, then leave them there for adoption. You could be back in Glasgow by Christmas, as if this never happened. I can organize it all for you.”
Beattie’s mind spun. Here was Cora, offering her everything she’d wanted: shelter, comfort, an end to the responsibility of mothering. But Beattie had changed. Slowly but certainly, as the weeks had progressed and her fate had become inevitable, she had come to feel an unexpected affection for the child inside her. Soft as a silk rope, it tied her to the baby. They belonged together, didn’t they?
Cora’s eyebrows drew together. “You’ve got no silly ideas about keeping the wee thing, I hope?”
She was desperate. It was either do what Cora suggested or face her ruin. She forced a bright tone. “Of course not,” she said quickly. “I never wanted it anyway.”
hrough the rimy window of her shared room at Morecombe House, Beattie could see the rooftops that blocked the view of the sea beyond. Once a week on a Tuesday afternoon, the fourteen girls who resided here were taken down to the beach—late, so few people would be offended by the number of unlawful pregnant bellies—where they collected shells in their handbags and stood up to their ankles in the stinging seawater and took enough deep breaths of fresh air to last them until the next time they were allowed out.
Beattie would have inched up the window, only it had been nailed shut. A seagull on the roof opposite ruffled its feathers against the afternoon breeze that tore off the sea every day at dusk. She dropped her hand to her belly. Inside, her child wriggled and kicked.
Not her child anymore. The matron had informed her that a family had already been found for the baby, a good Christian couple from Durham who had two adopted daughters and were hoping this time for a son. The matron had told her
this sternly, almost as though warning her not to disappoint them with a girl. Beattie tried not to think about whether the baby was a boy or a girl: those thoughts made it seem too real, too close. If she had to give up the child, it didn’t do to imagine it in any detail.
What she wouldn’t give now for her mother’s comfort. For her father’s wisdom. Here she was, about to birth a child, and yet she still felt as if she were a child. Young and frightened and longing for comfort. But there was no comfort here at Morecombe House. Just a daily diet of instruction about how ashamed she should be, always served stone-cold.
Beattie turned from the window and found a book to read. The matron allowed only the Bible and classics in the rooms. Beattie had no desire to read the first and was largely bored by the second, but she had managed to find a Charles Dickens novel that held her attention. She lay down on her bed and tried to read.
The room was small and would be cold when autumn came—when her baby came. No rugs to warm the floor, no wallpaper or paintings to break up the cool stone walls, between which she listlessly wandered from morning chores to lunch, from craft time to supper. Her bed was made neatly, but Delia’s was a mess of sheets and blankets. Delia had been her roommate for the three weeks since she’d arrived. Last night at midnight, Delia had been ushered out, groaning and crying, to deliver her baby. Then, half-awake, half-asleep, Beattie had dreamed strange dreams of blood and death and crying children. Her nerves were frayed. She couldn’t focus on the lines in front of her.
The door thumped open, and Beattie looked up to see Delia in a floral dress so faded that the daisies were gray.
“Delia? You’re back?” she said, sitting up.
Delia smiled, but it was brittle. A smile stretched over a dark fissure. “All finished.”
Beattie glanced at Delia’s stomach, which had been round and ripe. Now it bulged softly against the dress. “You’ve—”
“It’s done,” she said grimly. “I’ll be out in a week.”
“Didn’t see it. They held a . . . a blanket up . . . in front of my face . . .” Delia’s smile faltered, fell. “I don’t even know if it was a girl or a boy.” She sat gingerly on her bed and lay down.
Beattie’s heart pinched. “Did you hear it?” She slid across to sit with Delia, smooth her hair off her face.
“Such a little noise,” Delia said. “Like a cat.” The smile was back. “So now it’s over, and I’ll be off home next week and can get on with life. Thank God.” She brushed Beattie’s hands away and pulled up the covers.
“Did it hurt?”
“Like hell.” She yawned. “I’m tired, Beattie. Can you leave me be, so I can sleep?”
Beattie rose and returned to the window, leaned her forehead against the cool glass. She wasn’t due for months, but already the dread crept up on her. Delia’s baby was gone. That wriggling bundle of life that had been attached to her was now in somebody else’s care, and her womb was empty. The thought made Beattie cry, and she let the tears run silently down her face and drip off her chin, knowing all the while that the tears weren’t really for Delia. They were for herself.
* * *
The sea churned gray, and thick foam lay in waving lines across the beach as the girls picked their way down the path. Beattie glanced up at the leaden sky, holding her hat on firmly against the wind. It was sure to rain, which would mean their weekly outing would be cut short and they would be sent back early to Morecombe House. Perhaps they would get extra Bible studies for their sins.
“Get some good fresh air, girls,” the matron called as they fanned out across the beach. The ones closest to giving birth sat, exhausted and fearful, watching the gray waves. The ones who were barely showing ran down to the water’s edge to dip their toes. The ones in between, like Beattie, wandered up the shoreline looking for shells or pieces of colored glass washed smooth by the sea. Beattie, determined to make the most of her time outside, walked briskly up the damp sand. The sea air and the thump of her heart washed out the cobwebs that had gathered in her mind while she was stuck inside the cabbage-scented linoleum halls.
Up on the verge in the distance, she saw a figure. She paid it no attention until she saw it lift a hand, almost as if waving to her. Tentatively waving. She slowed. Peered. It was a man in a gray suit, his face obscured by his hat. Definitely waving.
She looked behind her. The other girls were twenty yards away from her, and none of them were looking at the man. She turned back, and her heart started dancing: it recognized him before her eyes did.
Beattie froze with shock. She couldn’t just run up to him; the matron would see. But nor could she ignore him.
At the precise moment, the clouds above her parted and rain began to fall. The matron’s voice was loud against the wind. “Come back, girls. We’ll return immediately.”
Return? How could she? Henry was there, just a hundred yards down the beach, standing in the rain.
“Somebody get Beattie! For the love of God, Beattie, we’re all
A hand closed around her arm. One of the new girls; Beattie had forgotten her name. “Come on,” she said in a thick Geordie accent, “we’ll catch our deaths out here in the rain.” Beattie shook her hand off, turned back to look at Henry.
He was gone.
” the girl said.
Beattie could see ahead that the girls were hurrying away from the beach, that the matron was waving her meaty arms in fury. She glanced back: there was no figure.
What if it had never been Henry? Just an imagining thrown up by her desperate heart?
Wiping away angry tears, Beattie stomped down the beach toward the others, caught up just as they were crossing the road. Parked behind the pavilion was a black Austin precisely the same as Teddy Wilder’s.
Beattie shook herself. Many men drove black Austins. But still, it was enough to make her hope. The rain had intensified, the matron had her head down under her black umbrella. Nobody was looking at her. Not right at this moment . . .
Beattie peeled off from the group and dashed for the beach. Nobody called after her. She ran as fast as her body would allow with its recently acquired clumsiness and slowed when she realized she was standing on the sand alone.
Gray sea, gray sky, completely alone. No Henry. He wasn’t coming. He was never coming.
And then a heartbeat later, it all changed. She heard him call her name.
She turned. He stood at the verge, beckoning her. She hurried up the sand, threw herself so hard into him that she was afraid she might knock him over. But he was as strong and steady as a rock.
“I thought you’d never come.”
“I lost you! Your parents knew nothing. Cora finally confessed to me. I’ll never forgive her for keeping it secret.”
The rain soaked them, but they held on to each other tightly. Finally, he stood back. “You’ll be seen. Quick. Come with me, I have Teddy’s car.”