Her breakfast was spoiled by the knowledge that, at some point, she would have to tell the waif about the ‘team’s’ visit: not only how to break the news, but when. She decided that it was better that she should be in agony most of the day, not the child, who was so much enjoying everything, and so willing to be helpful, transformed by her ‘close’ into a very sweet-natured little girl.
She decided that the parrots were key, so they went in together to check their water and food, and to replace the paper from the cage bottom.
‘They seem to understand you, and you understand them: how did you learn their language?’ she smilingly asked. But, by the look on the little face, this was too silly a question even to be attempted to answer.
‘Now, Alice?’ there was a smiling little nod, ‘some people are coming round later to check that you’re all right. Boring and silly I expect, but we’ll be on best behaviour, won’t we…’
The little face clouded over with suspicion, but nothing was said, so it hung over her all morning, and all afternoon.
At exactly half-past six, she opened the door, her heart sinking as she saw a triumphant-looking ‘Sam’ there, with Clare in tow. She forestalled an attempt to march straight in, by a carefully ambiguous welcoming outstretched arm, leading them in to the kitchen.Sam’s patently put-on attempt at being friendly to the child by means of a skinny hand on her shoulder must have suggested possession, capture, so, with all her force, ‘Alice’ bit the ball of the thumb, evoking an anguished yowl of pain. So pained, that, in a lightning reflex, she smacked the little girl’s face – hard.
This initiated what became a chain-reaction: the distressed child rocketed to the parrot-room, while Sam sucked and nursed her hand, wailing, ‘The little so…’s drawn blood!’, a tornado sound developed, and, while Sam was positioning herself to block the way to the front door, waving to Clare to block any other egress, the minute Fury charged back, like a tiny queen of The Iceni, Hera and Alexander, just a little behind, noisily flapping their wings and raising Cain with their throats. Just as Sam was stretching out ‘Gotcha-fashion’ the infant, still travelling at high speed, ducked her head, and butted her in the midriff, both unbalancing and winding her, where, as she upset the coffee-pot, her wild flailings merely added to the furore. She began to sink to the floor, her injured hand falling victim to the hot trail from the coffee-pot, her ‘Yee-Ow!’ and twitch, clattering pot and lid to the floor, where the pot lost its spout, and its lid broke in two.
But neither the enraged child, the red imprint of Sam’s injudicious hand glaring on her cheek, nor the equally roused birds, were in a mood to call it off: Hera and Alexander kept up a continuous barrage of pecks, powerfully-flapping wings, and ready-for-action talons, as the waif used her new shiny shoes to deliver furious fusillades of kicks to whatever portion of Sam’s meagre body offered the best opportunity. Roused to her superior’s defence, Clare’s attempts to draw off the attacks, meant only that she became the object of the little whirl of activity’s nails and teeth – and Alexander’s pecking and those menacing claws – while Hera was still terrorising an already demoralised ‘Sam’.There was a moment’s exhausted silence – enough for Dr. R. to say, ‘Very professional, ladies, very professional! I should have put up a notice ‘All breakages must be paid for’. I think you should go now. This is where the door is.’
She led the sorry pair to her front door, not allowing ‘Sam’ merely to skulk out, but saying, as she tried to slink past: ‘You slapped a little child’s face – hard enough to leave a mark! Social Worker?’
‘She assaulted me… it was a reflex-action… it hurt, and it still damned-well hurts!’
‘You also said ‘the little ‘so-’: not ‘so and so’, I think…’
Firmly shutting her door she went back in. A distressed child had apparently put the birds back in their room and cages, although sobbing from the exertion, her cheek still bearing the imprint of Sam’s palm. At first, she flung herself at her, clasping her waist, then began to sob and sob convulsively, before rushing off, to be heard retching in the Bathroom. So she went in, putting a hand on a shaking shoulder, murmured again and again, ‘It’s all right; it’s all right’, then washed the little child’s tear-streaked face, and suggested her mouthwash might get rid of the nasty taste.
Understandably, the little one shook her head at the idea of food, so she too forewent any thought of supper.
‘You remember ‘A’ for Alice?’
‘…and ‘a’. Like ‘A – lexander!’
There was a lovely smile with this.
‘And what was the cat’s name?’
‘Dinah. And ‘d’ goes down, then back up and round…’ she was tracing the shape with her finger: like a kitten’s tummy!
Two smiles met.
‘Now, between A-a, and D-d, there’s two more letters. After ‘A’, comes ‘B’ for Butter, and Bumble-bees, Buttercups, and …?’
‘Belly?… It was gently suggested, with such mischief, they both laughed. So this seemed a good opportunity to mention pregnant mothers and their round tummies.
‘And ‘B’ is like Dinah’s tummy with a tight belt round it: down, up to the top, down almost half-way, then in, and out and round again!’ (‘This is exhausting!) ‘Now, let’s find some ‘A’s and B’s and D’s’ in my Alice book.’
Intently looking at the page, the little girl, promptly found the ‘A’ in Alice, the ‘B’ in ‘beginning’ and in ‘bank’, proudly pointed to the word ‘and’, then ‘book, and ‘book’ again, and with re-doubled triumph to the middle of ‘rabbit’, and then assiduously turned to finding all the ‘d’s. Nor was she to be put off, counting off on her fingers, leaving a gap where, infallibly, the other letter should be.
‘Oh, yes, I said two letters between Alice and Dinah, and we’ve only done ‘’B’ for…Butterfly, and Barn… Well, it’s a bit like ‘A-a’: the letter’s called C, but can also stand for ‘c’: Dinah is a kitten, and a kitten is a little Cat…’ She decided that ‘C’ looked a bit like a Crab’s claw, her left-hand first finger and thumb giving a gentle pinching movement to illustrate further. ‘But, ‘C’ can also be like ‘sea’: especially, if another letter follows: in the Bible, there are some tall trees mentioned, Cedars of Lebanon’ – and … Cigars are kept in little boxes made of Cedar-wood.
She spoke to Alexander about Adoption, and he’d said it was not one of his fields, but he’d look into it – and, of course, support her. When he came back to her, not pretending that he’d done ‘the leg-work’, merely assuring her as to any consequential costs, he added, as an almost-afterthought, ‘She’ll need a guardian ad litem’: might I suggest you proffer me into that role? I think it might save a lot of awkwardness. And, from what you’ve already told me, I think your people might want to be as awkward as possible.’.
‘Let’s go for a drive.’
A Bank Holiday meant no patients, and there seemed to be no emergencies likely, and, in any case, all her patients had her mobile number, so the little one had eagerly scrambled into her car, fascinated by all the turning of the wheel and moving of the gear-stick, as she’d got the Mini extricated from the confines of Park Corner. It took a while to get into the traffic, and then again, to get out of it to head North, towards Madron Carne.
‘I always found the name ‘Heamoor’ rather amusing, for such a little town-y place…’
There was an anxious silence from her right.
‘Let’s turn off here, where the signpost says ‘Newmill’.
‘No! No: not go there! She won’t talk. She sleeping…’
The little thing was crying so hard that, fortunately, she couldn’t find the right bit to press, otherwise, she would have opened the door and tumbled out. So, she calmed her, pulling in to let an astonished tractor get past.
‘It’s all right… ‘Alice?’ We’ll go back now. Just let me turn round.’
It was far from a three-point turn, and took ages, not least because it seemed vast numbers of people had magicked themselves on to the road, determined to make what had been intended to be a gentle memory-rousing trip into as dramatic an event as possible.
Back at Park Corner, the little one was out of the car and on the front step, no longer crying, now merely taking occasional shuddering breaths, and blinking away residual tears. She put a gentle-to-the-point-of-imperceptible hand on her right shoulder as she unlocked her front door, letting her race in to seek solace with the parrots.
She was moved to find that the ‘orfling’ was in her kitchen, as soon as she’d begun to do some onions in a pan, and was eagerly watching her as she stirred them round with a wooden spoon, added a tiny pinch of sugar, then chopped a garlic clove, and put that in, covering it all with a lid. Saying little or nothing seemed the best approach, so she merely smiled at her and carried on with the next stage of the recipe – which included chopped herbs, ground pepper (a source of fascination), a sprinkle of salt, a brief little-finger scoop from the spoon, by way of taste, a stir, and the lid back on
So they sat, later, deep bowls of fragrant food in front of them, crisped bread in torn hunks to their left, saucers of vinaigrette-doused leaves to their right; they ate, meeting eyes from time to time, as the waif encountered a new taste, evaluated and then approved it – or otherwise.
‘Alice?’ – it seemed no longer to need those unspoken apostrophes either side – ‘We need a serious talk. You came here to this ‘parrot lady’, and they absolutely love you. So do I. But the World requires that such things be regulated, and one such thing is Adoption, whereby the Law makes you my adopted daughter, and me your adoptive Mother. Now, I would love to become your new Mother, and I sense that, perhaps, you might be pleased to have ‘the parrot lady’ as your mother, the powers that be want more information: who is this little girl?; where is her birth-mother? I’d heard that, perhaps, you were from somewhere near Newmill, and thought to jog your memory…’
But great warm tears were welling up, so she changed tack – and tone.
‘I know what!’(brightly) ‘Why don’t you tell Hera first? But for now, let’s just eat our supper, and enjoy it, if we can…’
The tears were staunched – wiped away with the backs of hands, quelled with a few blinks and a head-shake. Then, with a silent nod, she slid off to the birds, a rueful, watery smile at her, then the distant inchoate murmurs, as she seemed to pour out her soul to Hera.
So, she did the washing up. Once the clatterings and splashings were finished, and that mocking gurgle from the sink had died away, she could hear the murmur of a little voice still. as Hera listened mutely …
The tea-towels needed to be dried – one of them, washed – so she crumpled it up for the laundry-bin; the kitchen bin needed to be got ready for the bin-men who’d be around early tomorrow, but not put out until morning, lest the gulls tear the bag open, and strew the contents far and wide, so she got the bag out, and put it by the front door: if necessary, she’d go out in dressing-gown and slippers, to put it ready for them, before making her early-morning pot of tea.
She decided to treat herself to a small glass of Vermouth, so poured out a cautious quantity over an ice-cube, adding some rather flat lemonade, finding there was no presentable lemon.
Just savouring her first sip, she was aware that Alice had silently joined her, and was looking quizzically at her.
‘You can taste a tiny bit, if you want, but I don’t think you’ll like it.’
The face seemed intrigued, so she went on,
‘Just dip the side of your littlest finger in…’
Those saucer-eyes again!
‘Sour! Bitter! Eurghh…’ was uttered with shaking of the head and tiny shudders.
They were, and they were not, demands: please can you bath me, and then can Hera come up to help me tell my story…
Thus, considerably later, after she’d relished the soothing warmth and fragrance (Hera looking at the water with an austerity of which Queen Mary would have been proud), and the luxury of being dried in a warm, soft, fluffy towel, having a clean nightdress floated down over her shoulders, teeth having been cleaned, hair brushed and flounced, she was ensconced, almost ‘The Princess and the Pea’ as she reclined into the soft caress of her pillows.
‘My Mummy not well. I have to get her medicine. Sometimes she cross, because medicine not right. So, then she hit me. Tell me I useless. Other times, the medicine do her good, and she smile and laugh, not smack me. Then, she not talk to me. She sleep – all the time. I hungry, so go find things to eat – take some back to her, but she not want any. I try and try: she not open her mouth.
Then she smell…’
Hera’s sorrowful ‘croo’ came even before Dr. R.’s ‘You poor darling!’
‘… when smell so bad I not breathe, I go outside, sleep on step, see stars – some wink at me! When light come, I get up, go look for food… once, I open door and go in, but’ she held her tiny hand over her mouth and nose, ‘there now big flies and things. I call, but she not answer. I shut door.’
Hera seemed equally moved by this, and quietly flipped down, perching beside the little one’s bleak, blanched face, stroking feather-cheek to smooth one.
‘Alexander, I still can’t get out of my mind the thought of this poor little tot, on the very edge of survival, Mother having died – and she doesn’t know anything about dying! Where were ‘social services’ then? Where were they before, when Mother was single-handedly, failing more than trying, to deal with things? It’s going to make it hard, I think – for instance, how long was it the little darling was there scavenging; when did her mother die? What about any father? How on earth…! Oh, – and then, then they’ll be so eager to scoop her up into ‘the system’: put her in a children’s Home – with a long line of eager men, ready to take advantage as the ‘system’ disgorges them, if not before!’
‘You said you thought it possible you had a name: Tre-something or other.’
‘Only, one of my maternity patients had said – on the day the little thing first appeared – it could have been ‘the Tregaskis maid’. From the sound of it, people knew about them – probably as ‘a problem-family’ – but kept away. And if the ‘medicine’ she had to get for her mother was alcohol or methadone even, it might explain her unpredictable character…’
‘Can you get this patient to have a look at the child? Can you think of any excuse? – after all, she won’t want to suspect that you’re getting the Council folk in again.’
‘Hello. Could I speak to the Pharmacist, please? I’m Dr. Richardson.’
‘Helloo – can tell you’re not local Doctor, everyone down here just calls me Sam! Now, what can I do for you?’
The warm, amused voice had laughed out loud, when she’d mentioned ‘the Tregaskis maid’, and medicine.
There was a warm chuckle, as of someone who’s seen quite a lot of human nature.
‘No: Mrs.’ (his emphasis on Mrs., indicated the honorary nature of the title) ‘Tregaskis was not a customer here…’
‘Thank the Lord for that. I was wondering about Methadone…’
‘Neah! I’ve got just the one customer for that. Only see him when he’s desperate, can’t get the real stuff, so cozens some poor GP into writing him up for some. Notice how we’re both talking freely to one another, without all the nonsense and ballyhoo of establishing identity? I like that. After all, the villains’ll always find a way through any system, and people lose trust in their own instincts. I found, over the years that CYCBL worked pretty well.’
She was silent, so he elucidated.
‘ ‘Can you come back later – only I’m snowed under/just about to close for Dinner/ need to take some medicine to a poor old cripple lady… If they didn’t clear off dreckly, it give me a chance to do some discreet checks – with people such as yourself. So, sorry not to have been much help, Doctor. Might be worth asking the Landlord of The Sportsman, or the William the Fourth…’
Thankfully, the Adoption hearing was as undramatic as she could have hoped for, neither of the two SW’s being visible; the Judge glanced through their Report, without reading from it, or alluding to it – no doubt having a Q.C. as Guardian ad litem forestalled any retribution by way of ‘awkwardness’. He gazed at Alice, and avuncularly asked her if there was anything she wanted to say or ask. At first, she’d demurely shaken her head, then, as he’d paused, she’d asked, ‘Have you got any parrots, only there’re two parrots where I live now…’
The Judge had sorrowfully shaken his head, woefully admitting to this lacuna in his domestic arrangements.
‘Perhaps when Hera has some little ones, my new Mummy could let you have one.’
The Judge’s smile was a thing to behold, as he murmured, ‘… that would be very nice, very nice indeed.’
Back at Park Corner, Alexander having been triumphantly e-mailed (response: ‘I am so glad.’), they supped on fresh Crab – little wrinkled-nose suspicion at the brown meat, followed by appreciative grins – and a salad of rocket and other leaves, with a sprinkle of oil-and-vinegar. Then some trifle: ‘They used to call this ‘tipsy cake’ (she had soaked the Savoy fingers in sweet sherry, and whipped a hint of Tia Maria in with the cream, feeling instantly rather guilty, and made a real egg-custard (which, for once, had neither curdled nor turned into scrambled egg) to top the raspberry jelly): it made a sensual ‘schloop’, when she dug the spoon in.
‘You might find this rather a grown up taste, and I’m sure the nasty lady wouldn’t approve – give it a try, if you like…’
The little eyes glowed, as she took her bowl, with its very small amount in it. Then she widened those eyes, as the sting of the sherry emerged from under the creamy sweetness, and soon was scraping the last traces from her bowl.
‘Nice! More, please.’
She’d hardly had more than a mouthful of her own more generous helping.
‘All right, little one, but it was called ‘tipsy cake’ for a reason. The rest will keep in the fridge.’
The larger helping was demolished in a trice, with silent pleas for yet more, which she gently shook her head at.
As the child looked sorrowful, she said, ‘Why not go and tell Hera and Alexander all your news…?’
She slid off her chair rather untidily, and giggled as she righted herself, then raced off, and those strange sounds could be heard, babbling on and on – with occasional hicuppy pauses.
So, she covered the trifle and put it in the fridge, before setting about washing up. Once the last gurgle had died away, she noticed, as she dried her hands, that there was complete silence, so went to investigate.
There was Alice, blissfully asleep (despite lying at what looked a most uncomfortable set of angles) in front of the cages; even picking her up, failed to wake her, so she carried the little featherweight upstairs, and began to take off her no longer quite so new shoes, and pull off her socks.
Getting herself into bed later, having checked, and been more-than reassured by the quiet, regular breathing, she almost wept for the at once exhausting demands of ‘motherhood’, and the emotionally countervailing rewards.
‘Now, Alice, we need to find out exactly when you were born, and see about getting you into school…’
Once more, those huge eyes caught her, as if twin anti-aircraft beams had crossed, and she was in the cockpit – dazzled, as well as terrified in May 1940.
So they went and consulted Hera. That is to say, the child silently led her through to the parrot-room, and, still loosely holding her hand, poured it all out in those now almost-familiar vocalisations, to an apparently-understanding bird. Eventually, the parrot made a kind of purring noise – which woke a slumbering Alexander, who started his ‘Look how strong I am!’ antics up and down the cage-wires. She noticed that, as they came away, the child waved an almost-farewell to the birds.
The child had parted hands and gone silently upstairs, so she deemed the best course of action was to prepare food – if only to give her tremulous heart some distraction; the only action-plan she could come up with, being showing her some school uniforms…
There being prawns in the freezer, she decided on a kind-of-paella, so measured out rice (she never bothered with all the rinsing nonsense), covered it with water – plus a bit – strained off the water into a pan, added a couple of pinches of saffron, and the tiniest pinch of salt, and put it to heat, adding the rice almost as an afterthought, when the onions had begun to soften. Then remembering that the wretched prawns were still in the freezer, she actually swore, wiped away a big tear, threw it all together, gave a perfunctory stir, turned it down to almost-nothing, clapped the lid on, and sat down, breathing heavily, then closing her stinging eyes for a moment.
Two things brought her out of her reverie: a still-cool little hand clutching hers, and a voice:
‘You sad! Not be sad!’
‘Oh!, Alice dear! The onions make one’s eyes sting…’ she could see that the child was not in the least taken in by this, so carried on, ‘Let’s eat – although I suspect what I’ve tried to cook will be…’ and she made a disgusted face.
As it happened, it was far from disgusting, the child scraping her bowl clean, smacking her lips as proof, and silently begging to have the last scrapings from the pan.
‘Thank you for making time to see me, Mrs. Brown…’
‘It’s not Mrs., Kate, it’s Angela.’ There was a smile at once triumphant and patronising.’
‘Well, Madam, I prefer to be addressed using a title. And, I’m never known as ‘Kate’. Her smile was both emphatic and final. ‘Now, the reason I’ve asked to see you, is my little daughter is coming up to school-age, although there is some lack of definition here. So I felt it necessary to get more information about your school than is on the web-site. I’ve been teaching her her letters…’ there was an infuriating smile and roll of eyes at this, ‘… and we’re just beginning on her Tables…’
M/s Brown – Angela – having merrily smacked her desk, was now merrily chortling: ‘So, Victorian, Katey, so-o passé! No, we insist the little ones always start afresh, so that their little minds are unencumbered with out-moded notions…’
There was plainly intended to be more, but as Dr. R. was gathering her hand-bag up, and getting to her feet, the flow was perplexedly staunched.
‘Well, thank you for your time, Miss Brown. No, you’ve already shown me that this is no place for my ‘little one’ to be taught in. I’ll look elsewhere.’
‘But you’re in our catchment area…’ This was uttered with a tone of simultaneous pleading and menace.
‘Precisely. And what do you do with them, once you’ve caught them? No, Alice and I need to look elsewhere. Thank you for your time. Allow me to see myself out.’
‘But we need to sign you out…?’
Glared: ‘ My fee for signing any document, Madam, is normally £50. Why not do what, I suspect you normally do: arrange for someone to scrawl something plausible in the Register. Again, thank you!’
© Jethro 2023