With many thanks to Sarah, the first part of COMFORT IN A COTTON FROCK is reblogged from First Night Design
I wish Anne would come. Wednesday Anne. I want to help her today: I want to use the dustpan and brush. She’s broken her arm again so she can’t do any cleaning without me. I love her. How pretty you are, she says. I couldn’t do any of this without your help, she says. How I love her. She’s been around for ages and is even older than Mummy and Daddy. She used to clean for Ellen Terry and Ellen Terry was very famous and from very, very long ago. Charles-Who-Had-His-Head-Chopped-Off was around then. I think. I want to be Ellen Terry.....
COMFORT IN A COTTON FROCK
PrologueMy father has died. I think I did not greatly care for him but I cannot stop crying. And when I have placed a few letters and photographs into my bag, I want to ring my mother and cry in her arms and wail, ‘He’s dead, my Daddy is dead. My Daddy!’ But how can I?
Chapter OneI’m up so high sitting on the sofa and yet the porthole’s even higher. Mummy’s soft brown calves and the hem of her cotton frock are all that’s visible. She’s forgotten something. She’s forgotten to say goodbye to me.
She wants her sunglasses and Daddy is doing something in the bows of the barge and won’t get them for her.
‘Darling,’ she says.
I swivel round on my bottom to find her stroking my brother Tom’s brow as he lies grizzling in his cot. ‘He’s so pretty, even when he’s mewling,’ she says. Mewling? Why can’t she use ordinary words?
She picks up the glasses from the shelf and goes back up on deck. I don’t know if she’s coming back; I don’t even know where she’s gone but she looks very happy.
With my hand I trace the stripes of the ticking that covers the sofa, and I press my lips together. Mummy can’t see me but I’m here. I know I’m still here because I can feel the stinging in my eyes.
“Quickly, quick!” The black and white television shows the long, narrow boats skimming along with Cambridge ahead. “Come on, Oxford, come on!”
“Why on earth do you support Oxford? Think of your great-grandfather rowing for Cambridge.” Mummy makes one of her disparaging faces at me and turns away.
“But, darl…,” Daddy starts to say and then thinks better of it.
“But Daddy went to Oxford,” I say, “and he’s closer to me than great-great whatever he is.”
“Dear lord,” she says. Tom and I look at Daddy and Daddy looks at me and Tom. It’s an early conspiracy.
I picture my father in a brown, monk-like cell studying clever books even though I have never in my life seen him reading a book. After that, he and Winnie went off to fight the Jerries. I know about Winnie because there’s a huge picture of him on the wall at school, and I can see the two of them crouching behind a fence, twizzling their guns, cocking their hats. How proud I am that it was my Daddy and Winnie who beat the baddies single-handed. Are they aliens? I’m not sure because there’s a Jerry at school and he says he’s English.
Wait! Here they come, here come the boats, and we rush to the telly in the sun house on deck to see ourselves but the cameras are facing the opposite bank. Oh. Well.
It’s hot outside and I don’t want to go up on deck because Mummy and Daddy are fighting about Tom. He’s been stung by a bee and he’s screaming his head off. I feel sorry for him but not that sorry. How can you tell when it’s ‘bee sting’ screaming or ‘I want’ screaming?
I wish Anne would come. Wednesday Anne. I want to help her today: I want to use the dustpan and brush. She’s broken her arm again so she can’t do any cleaning without me. I love her. How pretty you are, she says. I couldn’t do any of this without your help, she says. How I love her. She’s been around for ages and is even older than Mummy and Daddy. She used to clean for Ellen Terry and Ellen Terry was very famous and from very, very long ago. Charles-Who-Had-His-Head-Chopped-Off was around then. I think. I want to be Ellen Terry.
There’s lots I want to be. I want to be grown. I want to be able to wash my hair. I want to be a girl who Mummy and Daddy find lovely and pretty. I don’t want Tom to be the only one everyone goes ga-ga over.
I’m screaming now. My knee hurts like billyo and there’s blood all over the grass. No one comes rushing down the gangplank because Daddy’s gone down below to call Mummy. And then she’s there and everything’s all right. She strokes me and wipes away the blood and cleans it with something that stings and I try not to scream again because I know she doesn’t like it. And then she puts a plaster on and cuddles me and tells me I’m a brave little thing and I love her. A brave Mam’selle Michelin. I don’t know why she calls me that but it makes everyone laugh so I think it’s good. I’m going to have a ‘normous scar.
We’re doing a test. Sums. I wish Mummy had kept me and my knee on the barge. I’ve managed to copy most of Jerry’s answers but he’s got his hand over the last one.
They’re all wrong. Jerry got them all wrong so Miss Burns knows what I did. I wish I could be on my own and could read all by myself. I still need help with reading. But it’s okay now because we’re having an end-of-term pressie-giving. We’ve all had to bring something wrapped up in pretty paper to put in the Christmas bin and we’re all going to go up in turn to choose a surprise package. I’m the last to go up and there’s only one thing left. I bend over to look into the bin and there it is. And I recognise the paper, and I recognise the shape, and I know what it is. I don’t cry. I just pick it up and go back to my place on the floor.
The most magical thing has happened, the best thing ever. It’s so beautiful I can hardly bear to put anything in this bag. The sides bag are matt plastic tartan and the handles a sludgy beige. I’m holding it by my side and looking at it and me in the mirror. It’s the most beautiful thing in the whole wide universe. Oh thank you, I say, oh thank you. Look, Mummy, the handles match my shorts!
“No, no, Tom, it’s a boat, not a car,” says Daddy excitedly, and pushes the tiller on the model yacht from side to side.
“Leave him alone,” says Mummy.
Tom tries to pick up the boat but it’s too big.
“I don’t know why you bought him that. We don’t want another bloody sailor in the family.”
“Why not?” says Daddy, perplexed.
Later, when it’s low tide, we’re allowed to trudge through the Christmas mud in our wellies. They tell me not to take the bag but now I’m not listening. I clasp it to my chest and breathe easily as I push the tips of my gumboots through the giant turds of the river.
Tom is chanting tunelessly. “Updiddle diddle, down diddle diddle—” He lifts up his arms and swoops towards me. But his feet can’t keep up and before I can shout or move, he falls splat! into the mud. Serves him right.
My bag is covered in muck. I don’t care about the mess on my clothes but Mummy does. “I told you not to take that bag,” she says, hauling me out of the bath and scrubbing me up and down with a white towel. It hurts when she rubs between my legs because my legs are podgy and they chafe when I walk.
Tom is tucked up in his cot now. He’s too old for it these days but there isn’t anywhere else. I’ve got the built-in bunk beside him. When I come in he’s lying in the cot, his bright blue eyes following me as I go up the wooden steps and flop onto the mattress.
‘Shuddup!” I want to punch him but I don’t.
“Be quiet!” shouts Mummy. “Don’t wake him up.”
“But can’t I stay and help you? Please?”
“No, dear, I have to take you to school. You have to be at Miss Gwynne’s this morning for all your school work.”
“But you won’t be here later and I won’t be able to help you.”
Wednesday Anne holds my hand as we walk along the street with all the big houses with tall windows where other people live.
“I tell you what, I’ll leave a little bit for you to do this afternoon. How’s that? You can get out your dustpan and brush when you get back.”
“Yes, please.” I rest my head against her. “Of course it won’t be the same with you not there,” I add gravely. And mean it.
“Never you mind, dear, I’ll be back next week, and the week after and the week after that. Now just be careful,” she says, taking a tighter hold of my hand as we reach the main road.
Wednesday Anne didn’t come last week because she’s broken her arm again but she’s here now for my birthday party. She’s right behind me when I blow out the candles on the pink-ribboned cake. Her arm is swollen with plaster and hung in a sling. I’m wrapped in the frock that Mummy made, the red one with squiggles of black; it’s got white knitted cuffs and a white knitted collar and matching red knickers which itch. The girl opposite is wearing silver ballet pumps and a pink dress and she’s got frilly blonde hair and a little upturned nose but I don’t care because Anne doesn’t think she’s a little darling: I heard her say ‘no manners that one’.
“I want cake,” Tom cries and reaches out to get another sausage from the hedgehog.
“There, there, little darling, you’ll get some soon enough, there’s a good boy,” says Anne and strokes his hair.
I turn my face towards her. “Am I a little darling?”
“Of course, poppet,” says Anne. I don’t think I can be a little darling because Mummy cuts my fringe and it’s very short and woggly and she only calls Tom a little darling. Not me.
We’re moving. We’re going to a house, a proper house like normal people. I don’t know if I’m going to like it.
Comfort in a Cotton Frock Day 2
Comfort in a Cotton Frock Day 3
Sarah Vernon © 1st November 2013