Pregnant from Ireland

The shoes pinched my toes, but I didn’t really want to get a bigger size. I walked across the velvet carpet of Ely’s of Wimbledon, feeling my big toe press against the leather.

      ‘Thank you, they are lovely, but I should like to try the next size up.’

      ‘Of course madam.’ The assistant hurried through a swing door, leaving me wearing the camel patent Oxfords with a Cuban heel. That’s trusting of him I thought, I could just walk out of here and not pay for them. If I was going to do it, it had to be now, a moment longer and he would be back. The fear of getting caught would be better than the fear of another long and empty day at home. I wouldn’t get very far in a size four, but in a size five, now that would be a different matter, I could cause quite a scandal in a size five. These will make good everyday walking shoes I concluded. I did like a brisk walk; to fill my lungs with cool air of a September morning, to charge up Wimbledon Hill, the blinding sun blocking out the days silent grief. I was lucky that I had changed my mind about becoming a shoe fugitive. As at that very moment Clarissa Snowdon glided into the shoe department and scandal was the one thing that vulture of a woman lived for.

She didn’t see me straight away and was eyeing up some black velvet T staps with a faux diamond buckle. I avoided eye contact by bending down to unlace my left foot.

      ‘Muriel,’ an affected voice rung out across floor, ‘how delightful to see you’.

      'Ah Clarissa, yes lovely to see you,’ I lied.

      ‘You have met my Mabel haven’t you?’ A four year old girl precociously held out her hand expecting me to shake it, but I turned to the side and placed the Oxfords next to the stool. I felt the cogs of my rusty womb screech like broken machinery in an abandoned factory.

      ‘Yes, I met her when she was a baby.’

      'Just eying up these to go with my dress tonight, throwing a little soiree for hubby’s work chums,’ there was an awkward pause, ‘I’d invite you and Thomas, but the table only sits 12 and all the place cards have been printed up’.

      ‘Oh of course, we understand.’

      ‘Will we see you at the Championships this year?’ Clarissa changed the subject.

      ‘Oh yes I expect so.’

      ‘Well you’ll need to have something a bit snazzier than those dull Oxfords.’

      ‘Oh yes, well, these are more everyday…’

      ‘Cheerio, got to dash by the florists and check on the table arrangements, a woman’s work and all that’. Mabel discarded her half sucked lolly on the store’s carpet as they waltzed out, hand in gloved hand. The assistant pealed it off the floor, momentarily our eyes silently communicating that it probably would leave a stain.

As I asked for my purchase to be placed on the Wilson account, I wondered who gets to decide how defective I am? The doctors? Women like Clarissa or God himself? I began my brisk physical denial of feelings

      ‘Let’s get this broken down machine moving up that hill,’ I said to myself.

Why won’t God bless me, like he does other women? What do they have, that I don’t? Clarissa with her big mothering breasts and tiny waist. Did Mary Mother of Jesus have big mothering breasts? Is God a breast man? Defective thoughts too! Mary didn’t have defective thinking.

Mary was blessed with Jesus for her purity of heart, purity of mind, and breasts the size of melons! My breasts were small and dry, but by now my eyes were wet. I increased my speed and I marched on into the day.

On the day you finally arrived into our lives, your Father and I took a train to Euston and met with Father McCarthy in a dusty back office of an unremarkable building. My buzzing synapses, were in stark contrast to the equally unremarkable woman who stood before us. I wondered if this was how Mary felt during the immaculate conception? But doubted that when she met God, he had shown up in an ill-fitting tweed suit clearly tailored to a much smaller, younger figure. Miss Tuttingdon welcomed us into her office.

      ‘Please take a seat Father McCarthy, you must be Mr & Mrs Wilson. Miss Lacy is bringing us tea.’

As if on cue, a bright young woman entered the doorway sideways. Her shoulder pressed against the heavy oak door, she balanced a tray of tinkling china cups, matching teapot and plates of shortbread.

      ‘Oh here, let me help you,’ I jumped to my feet to take the load from her delicate fingers, that shook under the weight of the tray.

      ‘Miss Lacy can cope, don’t worry,’ scolded Miss Tuttingdon.

But by then the tray had passed to my weathered fingers, that shook with the cocktail of trepidation that was racing through my body. Warm smiles were exchanged and Miss Lacey silently mouthed the words thank you as she took her seat among the group, played house and poured the tea.

I didn’t touch a drop of the tea and the short bread was too dry for the contracted muscles of my throat. The weight of expectant motherhood pressed down on my chest. I can still feel it now all these decades later, although right now, I fear it’s the pressure of the Grim Reaper’s claws, rasping at my cigarette stained lungs.

      ‘Do we know much about the mother? Your Father asked. Resentment bubbled away in my core, I’m his mother now.

      ‘First time offender by the sounds of it, a P.F.I.’ Responded Miss Tuttingdon.

      ‘I’m sorry I don’t understand,’ I interjected.

      ‘Oh P.F.I? Pregnant from Ireland, it’s what we call them on their paperwork,’ Miss Lacey pointed to the stamped document.

       ‘There’s Irish girls in every shelter for the destitute, in every maternity hospital, in every home for unmarried mothers or worse still in the common lodging houses, we have it bad here in London, but Liverpool is overrun with them.’ Miss Tuttingdon continued, as she picked you up out of a rickety cot tucked behind her desk. You had been so silent I hadn’t even known you were in the room, as if you were an undercover agent collecting evidence of our corruption. ‘They have it tough here, but it’s better than them being in a Magdalene asylum.’ She passed the little bundle of you into my arms and my shaking soul melted into your eyes. Tufts of ginger hair framed the bluest sapphire eyes, but they were her eyes looking back at me, taunting me from across the Irish sea.

      ‘Asylum? We don’t want a Spastic,’ said your Father. I shot him look of scorn, ‘erm…problems… with the child down the line,’ he quizzed, now timidly avoiding my gaze. Why did he always speak before thinking?

      ‘What my husband means, is that we love all children, but it’s helpful to know the background.’

      ‘Not that type of asylum Mr Wilson, I was referring to the mother and baby homes.’

      ‘Prisons,' muttered Miss lacey under her breath.

      ‘Homes,’ corrected Miss Tuttingdon, ‘all-be-it, an imperfect solution to the problem. Admittedly, they can be incarcerated up to 2 years after giving birth - to repent their sins, but those babies usually go to America . We can re-assure you Mr and Mrs Wilson that David was born here, in London, in a lodging house.’

      ‘Oh how sad,’ I agreed and tried to pick up a china cup whilst balancing you in my left arm, but abandoned the task as my right hand was still shaking. Other women made this look so easy. The sterner of the two woman was now looking me up and down. Suddenly, I was aware that I too was being judged as much as The Unfortunates, would I fare any better in Miss Tuttingdon’s opinion?

      ‘Girls frequently contend in the office that their friends have come over for the birth of their baby and gone back leaving the child here, that’s what happened with David’s Mother,’ Miss Lacey sighed. I wanted to pounce on her, claw her eyes out and fight for the young cub, but taming my inner lioness, I took a breath and repeated my silent mental mantra, I’m his mother now. I stood up with you, trying out the little upper body bounce action, I had enviously observed other’s do with their babes.

      ‘Girls, unvirtuous girls!’ Exclaimed Miss Tuttingdon.

      ‘That’s why we are so grateful for loving people such as yourselves,’ smiled Miss Lacey. Your tiny, silent mouth parted, the tip of your tongue protruded and a little arm broke free from your swaddling, fingers blue from the cold. Where they had been storing you? Couldn’t they have put some mittens on you?

      ‘Then there’s the question of money,’ added Miss Tuttingdon.

      ‘Of course,’ agreed your father.

      ‘£500,’ she continued and my legs nearly gave way underneath me. Our savings wouldn’t cover even half of that sum. ‘You can make the arrangement personally with Father McCarthy.’

‘The Church will be eternally grateful for your generous contribution,’ he reassured us.

Later that month I saw Farther McCarthy driving a two passenger Ford Roadster, he said it helped him get to the old folk quicker: ‘to deliver their Last Rights’, I said nothing and carried on pushing you down the road.

Do you remember your tenth birthday? When we decided to pop into Ely’s to buy that green aeroplane? Which you informed me was a Spitfire, although I think that they had just re-painted some red ones that were old stock from before the War. That was the day you started asking questions.

      It was Mabel I spotted first, she had had a growth spurt over the last year, in every womanly direction. I wondered if you might notice her as we walked out of the store, but toy Spitfires and conkers were still the objects of your desire, for a few more years yet.

      ‘Muriel,’ called out her mother, ‘how lovely to see you,’ she hollered in a fashion that everyone noticed.

      ‘Mabel do keep up, its Muriel and young David.’ Mabel gave an exaggerated sigh.

She had wandered off twirling her hair in the direction of some Kings School boys who were boarding a bus up Wimbledon Hill. ‘Mabel will you come back here and stop being so rude to our friends’. I inwardly cringed and put my hand on your shoulder.

      ‘We’ve just been shopping for Spitfires, haven’t we David? Today is David’s tenth birthday.’ We all admired as you had navigated the Spitfire through the air, imaginary engine sounds spluttering from your mouth.

      ‘Happy Birthday,’ said Clarissa, ‘you really are the man of the house now. Mabel say Happy birthday to David.’

      ‘Happy Birthday David.’ She rolled her eyes.

‘We’ve just been up to the third floor,’ Clarissa informed us, ‘Mr Friedman in Jewellery put a little something aside for me, well for Mabel really’. She pulled out a cream leather bound box, crafted in the shape of a shell. It’s curved mouth opened to reveal a silver locket resting on a bed of navy satin.

      ‘Oh its stunning,’ I cooed.

      ‘A gift for my special girl.’

      ‘A bribe,’ said Mabel.

      ‘An agreement,’ Mabel’s mother corrected her. ‘If she stays away from a certain boy at the stables, then she can have it’. Mabel rolled her eyes for a second time, and I wondered if this was a newly acquired gesture that made her feel grown up. Then it hit me, I finally felt grown up too, now I had you in my life. Here we were, two mothers chatting about our darlings. It almost felt tolerable, even if I was sharing this moment with Clarissa Snowdon. Mabel took you to look at a window display of teddy bears, which you were really quite disinterested in.

      ‘So how have you been? We’ve hardly seen you since the funeral,’ asked Clarissa, ‘such a sad thing for him to lose his father so suddenly’.

      ‘Well we’ve all had to make sacrifices. I’m just grateful he was too old to be sent off to Germany. Still, he did his bit keeping the Bank going, but doing the work of three, well I think the stress of it was all too much in the end.’

      ‘Terrible business it’s been. Praise God we’ve reached the end of it all.’

      'Yes,’ I agreed.

      ‘I suppose the boy is still able to inherit? Or did Thomas have to make special provisions for him? I stared blankly at her, not fully understanding what she was asking.

      ‘Given your special situation? Oh I’m not judging, I remember when he arrived – just popped up, as if out of nowhere. Nobody wanted to pry, I mean we were all just happy you could join the club – even if it’s only a guest membership.’

      ‘David,’ I called, ‘we had better be going’, hoping that you didn’t hear what she had said. Inevitably, that evening, whilst putting on your pyjamas:

      ‘Mummy what did that lady say to you today?’

      ‘Nothing, that lady is just a terrible snob sweetheart, now go to bed,’ but inevitably as the years went, on so did your questions.

       ‘When I’m dead and gone you will thank me,’ was what I always used to say when making you do some task that you didn’t want to undertake, like maths homework or joining the boy scouts. But I don’t think that’s how it really works. Youth has a duty to criticise their forbearers… and you have much to criticise me for. I lied to you, for 25 years I lied, even when you asked, I lied, dismissed or skirted round the truth. Even if I had given birth, I can’t imagine loving a child any more than I loved you. But perhaps if I’m truly honest with myself now, in these final bleak moments, I just wanted to fit in. I judged the other women, they judged me and God judged us all…except there is no God. I’m scared, I’m scared of the darkness. Truthfully, that’s what I believe is coming to me. Not a great white light or pearly gates, just nothingness. I know there is no God, certainly not the God that Father McCarthy in his Roadster preached of. I realised this the day I taught you to make daisy chains. When the sunlight reflected the dew in your eyes, the well of goo that formed in the corner of your eye looked like liquid gold. In that moment, I knew no harsh Catholic God could have made you. But, when I reached for the cotton bud to wipe your eye, you flinched and wailed like an angel cast into Hell. I felt a failure as a woman, a failure as a mother, but the problem was inside me, not with God or those silly women in Wimbledon Village

We registered you as our own. Your father was very worried about that at the time, he was so fastidious about upholding The Law. But soon enough, the world had bigger things to worry about. I often thought about that file with its P.F.I stamp adorned to the top. Hoping that a bomb might fall on the building and destroy any such evidence which confirmed my failure at motherhood, perhaps it did. I see the fear in your eyes when you come to visit me in this place . You are scared too, scared of being motherless, and that’s why you must find her. Know that you are not motherless. When you find her, thank her from me, thank her from the depths of my grave for sharing her beautiful baby boy with me.

Copyright © Sarah Armstrong as ‘Dita Kelly’ 2021