“But I must tell you about …”
The pleading tone in the boy’s voice should have been enough to tell her that something was wrong.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Well, Alan, I’ve told you before, sit down and be quiet.” The threat behind the words was all too obvious.
Alan thought about trying again, and hovered between being what he saw to be a hero and risking punishment. He decided he’d been enough of a hero for one night.
Of course, the woman probably wouldn’t understand the importance of what he wanted to tell her in any case. You had to have lived with the old system to know how much of a difference this was going to make.
Everything about the house was the ‘old system’. ‘Two up two down, back-to-back, terraced houses’ they called them.
The two down were the living room where everything happened, and the front room, where nothing happened except at Christmas or when someone very special came to visit. And upstairs it was so freezing cold in winter that ice formed on the inside of the windows.
At the back of the house was the open yard where the weekly wash took place, summer and winter. The sight of the sharp knife used for cutting off chunks of soap for scrubbing still sent shivers through Alan’s spine when he remembered slicing through the base of his thumb. How old had he been then? Six? Four years ago.
In one corner of the yard was the toilet. Sitting there before going to school in the depths of winter certainly made you get a move on. But many times you had to wait after the mournful cry, “Mum, there’s no paper!”
In the scullery the only water tap in the house stood high over the chipped, earthenware sink. Hot water came from a kettle boiled on the stove. But all that was about to change.
The were having a new sink installed, and not only a deep, enamelled sink but a geyser as well. A geyser, the miracle of modern technology that would provide instant hot water. It would change their lives.
And that was part of what Alan wanted to tell the woman who kept dashing through from the front room to the scullery. She was big woman, not fat, big and solid: the caricature of a hospital matron. When she put her face up close to yours the bristles on her chin completed the impression that this was not a lady to cross.
As the ogre passed through again, Maureen, his sister, clung to him, just the way she had done when she first started school, embarrassing him in front of his soccer playing friends.
And now there was to be a new baby. What would his extra responsibilities be he wondered? With his father on a troop-ship waiting to go to Suez, it seemed that they had already started.
The front room, the one reserved for special visitors and Christmas, had become their bedroom during the last week, with a cosy fire in the fireplace. “If I wake up in pain during the night, go and get Mrs Wilson or Mrs Collins, quickly,” his mother had said. Pain? He’d thought having a baby was a happy occasion, not one that hurt.
“Alan, wake up. Alan, it’s started.”
His mother had sounded in pain, but looked happy. He’d pulled his duffel coat on over his pyjamas, pushed his feet into his wellies, and grabbed the torch he’d got last Christmas.
Mrs Collins was next door, but she was less reliable than Mrs Wilson who lived in the darkest, far end of the narrow terrace, past the house of old Maggie, the one the kids called ‘the witch’.
He’d settled for Mrs Collins.
Three unanswered knocks told him she must be out. Maybe one of her … what did his mother call them … her ‘fisherman fancy men’ had come home? Nothing for it but past Maggie’s into the depths. He held the torch in front of him like Flash Gordon’s death-ray pistol.
Fortunately, Mrs Wilson answered the door quickly, as though she had been waiting for him.
The midwife arrived within half an hour, and had immediately taken over control of everything. No one argued with her. Mrs Wilson was told to boil some kettles. Mrs Collins had arrived by this time, dressed as if she was going to a party and smelling of scent. She was told in no uncertain terms that smoking was not good for her health, anyone else’s health, and especially a new-born baby’s health; outside in the yard was the only place it could be allowed.
Alan and Maureen were told to sit on the couch in the back room and not to move. They stared wide-eyed at the comings and goings. Alan thought several times about making another attempt to tell them, but always thought better of it.
Mrs Collins came over to them.
“Are you two OK?”
She smelt of something as well as the scent. A smell that Alan remembered his Mum and Dad had when they had been down to the pub with some friends.
“Yes,” he said.
“Do you want anything to drink?
“No,” said Alan
“I want to go to the toilet,” said Maureen.
“Can you go by yourself?”
“I’m seven and a half,” said Maureen as though that explained everything.
Mrs Collins got the message. “All right, but put your slippers on.”
When Maureen came back, she was clutching her favourite doll. She just made it on to the couch before the giant came through on her way to the scullery.
“They’re putting water into the new sink,” Maureen whispered.
“Did you say anything?”
From the front room Alan could hear the nurse speaking. She seemed to be saying something like “push”. He could not imagine what was going on. He heard Mrs Wilson say, “she must be having a hard time.” He thought they meant the nurse and was pleased.
They all stared at the nurse as she came into the room.
“We’re almost there. One of you put some more coal on the fire in there. We don’t want baby to get cold.”
“Would you mind doing it, Mrs Wilson,” said Mrs Collins. “I had a manicure today.”
Mrs Wilson, who’d probably never had a manicure in her life, grunted and followed the nurse out.
“Does that mean that Mum’s got the baby?” asked Alan.
“Not yet,” said Mrs Collins, looking at her nails, “but should be any time now by the sound of it.”
Even above Maureen’s non-stop chattering to her doll they could hear the heavy breathing from next door, interspersed with words of encouragement from the nurse.
“Now, one big push and we’re there.” boomed the midwife’s voice.
Silence. Then the cry of a baby.
“I want to see it,” said Maureen, jumping of the couch.
Mrs Wilson grabbed her just before she got to the door, “In a minute, luv.”
It seemed like many minutes before the midwife came in carrying the red, plastic bowl which she had twice before brought through.
“Can we see our baby?” asked Maureen.
“In a minute,” snapped the nurse.
“It’s always in a minute,” muttered Maureen.
“Empty this, and get me some fresh water.” Mrs Collins looked startled by the direct order.
“Be careful of the …” Alan started to say.
The midwife turned to him, still holding the bowl. “You’ve been a good little boy so far. Now, keep it that way.” He too stared in surprise at the menace in her voice.
Mrs Collins was still in shock. “Out of the way, I’ll do it myself,” said the midwife pushing past her.
“The sink’s full of water. How can I empty anything in here?”
“That’s what I wanted to …” said Alan.
Mrs Collins held up a finger to her lips, “ssh.”
The cry of anguish from the midwife surprised them all by its pitch. Until now her voice had had a much deeper tone.
They stood at the entrance to the scullery, Mrs Wilson, Mrs Collins, Maureen, and Alan. The midwife was still holding the bowl, but the water that it had contained was all down the front of her apron. She must have been so shocked by the water running out underneath the sink, that she had emptied the water over herself. Water lapped around her sensible shoes.
Alan turned to Mrs Wilson, “I tried to tell her about the new sink. The pipe’s not connected yet. You have to put the bucket underneath, and make sure it’s empty.”
“We know, luv,” said Mrs Collins smiling.