© Stephanie Rouse
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Grace never could hold a tune.
Despite coming from a long line of singers and musicians, she sounded more like a lamb than a lark, more cat than canary. That didn’t matter to the two five-year olds who sat cross-legged on the rug in front of the fireplace comparing pieces of shrapnel that were surely destined to become playground currency. They always joined their mother’s singing with gusto, oblivious to any deviation from the intended melody, and Grace liked nothing better than flopping breathless into an armchair under a pile of little boys’ arms and legs, all hot and giggly from an impromptu performance.
Blue began the refrain that morning. Grace held her apron bunched up like a can-can dancer’s dress and danced from the scullery, skipping from side to side, all concerns about air raids, rations and bombs forgotten for a moment. Twins, Bobby and Freddy, scrambled to their feet, abandoning their treasures, to kick their legs in time.
“But I dillied and dallied, dallied and dillied” came the bellowed chorus.
The sharp rap of the door knocker startled them all and merriment died as abruptly as a balloon popped by a pin.
“Who on earth -?” Grace put a palm to her neck and towards the front of the house. Then placing her free hand on a hip, she looked down on the two upturned faces. “Have you two been playing around the buses again?”
Bobby took his thumb out of his mouth for a second to deny the charge while Freddy shook his head.
*“They’re good boys,”* said Blue.
So it wouldn’t be that horrid chap from the bus station who had come around complaining about the twins playing there. He had been a thin, mean-mouthed man. Grace had studied the pearl of mucus at the end of his sharp nose, the way his tongue had flicked across his upper lip, the feather on his hat, the badge on his lapel, but not once did she meet his eyes. Grace knew he might try to plant thoughts in her head if she did, and she was too clever for him.
It was unlikely to be any of her neighbours calling. Grace kept her distance; she didn’t need their help or advice, busybodies most of them, and they’d soon got the message. Even Mrs Sugden from next door gave her a wide berth these days. Grace had caught the woman crouching behind the red brick wall that separated their small back gardens, eavesdropping on a conversation she’d been having with Blue, and given the Nosey Parker short shrift.
Another loud knock echoed through the hallway.
Grace clamped both hands to her ears and looked through the window to the garden beyond. The black circle, where a bonfire had blazed two days before, was still visible under a fine powdering of snow. The neighbours had been vociferous in their objections, particularly on a Monday—that was washday. Their angry faces, harsh words, snide jibes tumbled back into focus and the gloom of the weather wrapped itself around Grace. The fire had been extinguished well before blackout, so whoever was at the door couldn’t be a constable bringing another summons. Grace shuddered at the memory of her appearance in court a few months before. Alfred Watson, the local air raid patrol warden, had used phrases like “endangering the neighbourhood” and “infringing blackout regulations” which made her sound careless and criminal. Grace knew he was out to get her, and it was his wife who was behind his vendetta. Mrs Watson had made wild allegations that George, Grace’s eldest son, had stolen apples from her garden and Grace’s furious response had made enemies of the couple.
The Chairman of the Petty Sessions couldn’t have been aware of this campaign of victimisation as he sat in his high-backed chair behind a great wooden desk on a raised platform. It made him look as if he were floating above her. He peered down over his spectacles to ask if she’d like to say anything. At the very moment he addressed her, a shaft of sunlight had streamed through a high window and the shadow of the brown tape which crisscrossed the glass made a large ’X’ on his cheek. Grace had barely controlled an urge to laugh out loud. When she’d regained her composure she’d seen Blue standing in the shadows, holding up a hand with first and second fingers firmly crossed. That had given her the courage to speak up, but her attempt to defend herself hadn’t gone well. There were no raids that night and the door was open less than a minute while she went to pour her rinse water onto the vegetables, but the Chairman had taken issue with her explanation.
“Do you often undertake your household duties in the dead of night?” he had asked. Grace squirmed, remembering the tittering from behind her as he cupped a hand to his ear, inviting her response.
“Sometimes I just need to keep busy. It isn’t against the law. Yet.” She hadn’t meant to sound so petulant.
“You need to find some other nocturnal occupation, Madam. Have you considered knitting socks? Or perhaps darning?” If the gentleman had heard the sniggering from others in the court, he made no effort to quiet them.
*“Grace is blushing. Grace wants to cry.”* Mabel had started chattering and that made it hard to concentrate.
Then came a loud whisper from the man at Grace’s right ear, *“Speak up, speak up. Useless girl, stupid, pathetic girl.”*
She fought to control the quiver in her voice, “We have plenty of socks already thank you, b-b-but I may have some darning to do.” Grace felt herself shrink as the Chairman’s eyes narrowed and held her before he announced a fine of fifteen shillings, seven and sixpence.
Grace had counted her steps all the way home. She walked head down, adjusting each stride to ensure her foot was neatly placed within the confines of a paving slab. In the places where bombs had ripped the streets apart she crossed to the opposite pavement to resume her journey. It helped.
More noise from the front door brought Grace back to the moment. There were two beats this time, spaced half a second apart. Whoever was there wanted her attention. They weren’t going away. She dropped her arms to her side and let them dangle for a moment before she felt Blue’s cool touch on her wrist.
Pulling off her headscarf, she checked her appearance in the mirror above the fireplace and ran her fingers through honeyed curls satisfied when they bounced obediently into place.
Blue slipped a hand into hers and, together, they stepped onto the terracotta tiles of the hallway. The stained glass panels in the heavy door framed a dark silhouette.
Everyone knew stories of women left catatonic by a slip of paper brought by the Telegram Boy, announcing a change of status from wife to widow and Grace often rehearsed the scene.
Ships were lost in the Atlantic daily, stalked by U-boats hell bent on preventing supplies from reaching British shores and Grace made plans for when the news reached her that her husband, Albert, had been killed at sea.
She was determined to be ready and behave in the appropriate manner. Only last night she had revised her short explanation to her sons. She knew the words of sympathy she would write to Albert’s mother and the brave dignity with which she would take her children to visit their father’s memorial stone each Sunday.
Sometimes, she imagined herself weeping while her neighbours tiptoed in to console her. Other times she liked to think she’d receive the condolences of her neighbours silently, only the pallor of her skin and the dark circles under her eyes betraying her grief. Her community would talk in hushed whispers about her bravery and stoicism. They’d realise they’d misjudged her.
This was not simply a macabre fascination, it was also a way to test how she felt. When she thought of herself as a widow she’d make plans: get rid of the old armchair he so loved, throw away his ridiculous collection of Toby Jugs and the battered tankard he insisted on drinking his beer from at Christmas. There were other days when she’d wail for her poor fatherless children: how could they bear it if he never came home?
Even Grace couldn’t be sure she was content to move on from her disappointments to a new chapter. So often she felt a prick of lingering love for Albert. Would it seize her too late?
One eye magnified by the dimpled glass panel in the door, peered at her. “She’s coming,” Grace heard a man’s voice address whoever was with him.
She let go of Blue, pulled her cardigan around her body and braced herself.
“Mrs Carter?” A round-shouldered gentleman bobbed his head in a semblance of a bow but Grace saw how the muscle in his cheek twitched as he attempted to smile at her and she felt her own jaw tighten.
Grace recognised neither the man who stood before her nor any of the group who crowded the pavement behind him. Two middle aged, burly men wore identical serge trousers. Their sweaters, worn over blue shirts, had canvas epaulettes. Two ladies sported mackintoshes buckled at the waist, both wore lace-up shoes, the younger of the two had hair tightly wound under a nurse’s hat. The other clutched a buff-coloured file in the crook of one arm. She didn’t meet Grace’s glance. Grace noticed how her knuckles were white from clutching the file so tightly.
Parked in the street were an ambulance and a black motor car, facing in opposite directions; that alone was sufficient to have attracted an audience of neighbours and passers-by, who huddled in small groups feigning conversation.
“Yes, what can I do for you?”
No sooner had she spoken than the party stepped into the hallway without invitation. Grace felt herself pushed back against the bannisters and panic bubbled behind her breastbone.
The woman with the folder rested a hand on Grace’s shoulder and leaned close.
Her breath was rancid from tooth decay, small downy hairs on her chin poked through face powder. “Grace, where are Frederick and Robert? Are they here?”
A shadow fell as a policeman stepped into the front doorway; he turned to face the street, feet planted sentry-like. Grace’s mouth went dry. She stumbled away. She needed to hold her babies.
The room seemed darker as Grace stood against the parlour wall, clutching a small boy to each hip while the bespectacled doctor, flanked by heavy, uniformed men, loomed over her.
“Who are you? What do you want?” she demanded, despite her mounting confusion and alarm.
“I am Doctor Fitzpatrick. Please do not be afraid. I am here to help you.” He paused but his eyes remained fixed on Grace. She felt as if his stare might make her transparent or cause her to dissolve but she couldn’t look away. She watched his lips move again. “I need to talk to you. Do you understand?”
He reminded Grace of a hypnotist she had seen as a child, at The Gaiety in Grimsby, so she shook her head and tried not to listen, lest she fall under the spell.
*“Grace is afraid,”* said Mabel.
“What do who, what are do, who are you?” Grace’s lips stuck to her teeth and, as she fought to put air into her words, hysteria pulsed through her.
“I am a doctor, Mrs Carter. There have been several reports; it seems perhaps things aren’t what they should be. I want to find out how you are. How are you feeling?”
The world slowed. Grace looked to Blue, who stood by the fireplace with her head tilted to one side, studying the people with undisguised curiosity. Grace felt her mind begin to spiral away and closed her eyes against the scene for a moment.
It was Freddy who broke the silence. “Mummy?”
“We need to talk. Can we discuss this…” the doctor glanced down, “…without upsetting the children”
Wrenched back to reality by an insistent tug on her arm, Grace led her sons to the cloth-covered table in the corner of the room, seated herself on an upright chair and pulled each of them onto her lap, holding them against her body. She was aware of Blue standing close beside her.
The doctor seated himself in front of Grace while the remainder of the party gathered themselves into a small huddle next to the sideboard, all eyes on the tableau before them.
“What is it you want to talk to me about, Doctor?” Her words might have been rational but she couldn’t control the tremulous tone.
“I am from Hellingly Hospital. There have been reports from various quarters that you have not been yourself so I have come to talk to you.”
“Quarters? What quarters?” A shiver ran, ice-cold, up her spine and ricocheted across her shoulders.
“Oh, various sources,” The doctor flicked a hand as if a fly had come too close. “School teachers, the ARP warden, different folk. You must understand, we need to check you are all right.”
Grace was giddy. She hugged her children closer as if to absorb them, to put them back into the safety of the place from which they had been pulled bloodied and squealing with rage. She drew a deep breath through her nostrils and shuddered as she forced the air out.
“Grace, please stay calm, let’s not make a scene. Think of the children, let’s not do anything to distress them.”
Doctor Fitzpatrick’s voice was mesmerising. “It might be easier if we let Mrs Roberts take care of the boys while we sort this out.” The woman with halitosis and the buff folder stepped forward as if into a spotlight. “Just for a short while until we can decide what’s to be done.”
“Now which one of you is Robert and which is Frederick?” asked Mrs Roberts.
The boys seemed to shrink farther into her, but Blue’s cool hand rested on her shoulder and despite the quiver of her lips she managed to comfort them. “It’s fine, Bobby boy, it’s all right, Freddy.”
*“Grace is a liar, Grace is a liar,”* sang Mabel.
*“Leave her alone,”* Blue stamped a foot.
Mrs Roberts continued. “My, what big boys you are! How old are you? Let me guess. I think perhaps you are six!”
Freddy nodded. “Nearly.”
“Well you are certainly big enough to be six! You look like strong boys to me. Now listen, I have a motor car outside. Have you ever been in a motor car?”
Twin heads shook. “I’ve been on a bus,” offered Bobby.
“Yes, twice.” Freddy held up both forefingers, side by side. “There and back. And we’ve seen a tractor.”
“Well, today I am going to take you for a ride in my motor car. Does that sound good?”
Freddy wriggled, twisted his neck to peer up at his mother, “Can we?” and when she didn’t answer he clasped his hands as if in prayer, “Please?”
The doctor patted Grace’s arm, “Just for a little while,” he suggested. “It will be easier to sort this out once we’re alone.”
*“It will be all right Grace, I’ll stay with you,”* whispered Blue.
Grace saw the excitement on the upturned face and forced herself to smile. “Yes boys, off you go and have fun. I won’t be long. I just have to sort something out with…” Bobby pushed his face into Grace’s body but Freddy took command, leaping to his feet and dancing with excitement.
“Come on, Bobby.” Freddy tugged his brother from their mother’s embrace. I’ll let you hold my big marble, it’s only for a little while. We’ll be back for dinnertime won’t we, Mum?”
Without the warmth of the children against her, Grace shivered again. She wanted to speak but found herself mute with fear.
Mrs Roberts seized the moment, “Good. Well come along then. This is jolly exciting isn’t it? Let’s go outside and get you into the car while the doctor talks to your mother.” Freddy grabbed her outstretched hand.
“Where are we going?” Bobby clung to his brother’s arm.
“Come along boys,” cajoled the lady.
“We’re going for a ride in a real motor car, silly,” Freddy as he skipped, dragging Bobby behind him.
“Mummy,” whispered Bobby just as he was pulled out of view.
Then came a child’s voice from the hallway, this time louder, more urgent. “I don’t think I want to go, thank you. I want my mummy.”
“I am afraid your Mother is unwell but the doctor can help her. Come along, button up, dear. Chin up,” Mrs Roberts’ reply echoed from the hallway. “Big boys don’t cry.”
Grace rose, tears blurring her eyes, wanting only to comfort her distressed child but her way was blocked by one of the men in blue uniform, who stepped into the doorway before she could reach it. He stretched his arm towards her, his hand palm out, like a policeman on point duty.
“Let me through,” she demanded, but the man just raised his eyebrows and shrugged with a vague smile of amusement.
The doctor stood and indicated the empty chair. “Grace, you must keep calm and sit down.” He was firm, almost stern now, gone the syrupy reassurances. This was not a request. Grace swung around to face him, defiant.
She swallowed the huge eruption of fear that rose from the pit of her stomach, clenched both fists and glared at the doctor.
*“Grace is angry, Grace is rude, Grace is frightened.”*
“Be quiet, Mabel,” snapped Grace, flicking her eyes to the ceiling.
“Grace, calm down,” he spoke deliberately, not taking his eyes from hers. “We believe you are unwell and I want to admit you to hospital for a few days to observe you.”
Grace tried to object but the words wouldn’t line up in her mouth.
The doctor continued in a measured tone. “A constable has been despatched to collect George from school. We will write and let your husband know where you are. The boys will be well looked after. Mrs Roberts is taking them to St Wilfrid’s. The important thing is to get you well again.”
A sudden surge of anger gave Grace a voice, “St Wilfrid’s! They’re not bloody orphans. How dare you. Who put you up to this? It’s that warden, Watson. And his wife. They’ve been at me for months, damn them. Well, you can all bugger off. I didn’t ask you in and I’d like you to leave now, go on with you. Doctor or not, you can all go. I will have none of it, do you hear me?”
The doctor stood, unmoved. “We have permission from the court to take you by force if necessary but it will be better if you come of your own volition.”
There must have been a mistake, a mix-up. They’d got the wrong person. Grace was sure that must be so. She stared at the doctor.
“That means voluntarily.”
Grace wanted to tell him she knew but there was no breath left in her body.
The man to her right whispered in her ear, spiteful and mocking. “Speak up, speak up. Useless girl, stupid woman, silly cow, pathetic specimen.”
Grace clenched her fists over her ears and cried out. “I am not listening! Please, Blue make him stop.”
Dr Fitzpatrick was scrutinising her, his eyebrows dipped together above his nose. “What is it, Grace? What’s happening?”
“Damn it.” Her eyes scoured the room. She rushed to the mantelpiece and began lifting and replacing objects: a cup commemorating King George’s coronation, two dark buttons the size of a ha’penny, coloured sand in a glass tube A Gift from Alum Bay, a bundle of cigarette cards tied with red wool, a forgotten teaspoon which she wiped on her apron and stuffed into the pocket. From behind the heavy wooden clock, a wedding gift from Albert’s parents, she took a sheaf of letters and postcards and, cradling them to her chest. She flicked through them, muttering in her concentration.
“What are you looking for, Grace?” asked the doctor
“If you don’t pester, I’ll come to you sooner. Maybe September for words of praise, it’s a long way to glory, anyway tributes for the kitten, Christmas wasn’t far, for your delectation, I think the box shouldn’t be so close to the sea…” She wanted to stop but the words tumbled out of her.
Doctor Fitzpatrick rubbed his forehead and turned to the window which gave a view of Grace’s Victory garden. She watched his shoulders flex under his jacket and was momentarily relieved not to be under his scrutiny, but after a few seconds, with a weary sigh, he faced her again. “Take her,” he told the people behind her
Postcards and letters spattered across the floor as hands forced Grace’s upper arms flat to her side and bent her forearms behind her back. A meaty paw clasped both of her wrists together. Grace’s objections, though they felt formed in her mouth, disintegrated to froth as she spoke and threads of spittle stretched between her lips. A blanket was wrapped around her shoulders but it offered no warmth and she could barely hear the nurse’s words of reassurance above the clamouring of the vile, insulting voice which boomed from the right.
*“Do something, stupid girl. Worthless cretin. Wretched woman. Hopeless. Slut. Whore.”*
She was propelled along the passageway, into the brightness of the day. The black car had gone. The back of the ambulance gaped like a hungry mouth ready to devour her.
Some onlookers stared, unashamed, gawping. Others peeped from behind curtains or over their shoulders as they pretended to be washing windows or sweeping steps. Grace called to them for help.
She remembered later the shock and disgust on their faces as their eyes slid way.
Reeling from the realisation that she was overpowered and alone, Grace let herself be pushed up the steps and laid on a hard gurney while her bones turned to ash inside her. As the two attendants begin to bring thick canvas straps across her body to buckle her to the bed, her distress reached its zenith. Grace writhed against the bonds and cried out.
The doctor climbed the steps. With another sigh, he opened his black bag. The slam of ambulance doors resonated like the toll of a bell.
The chime of cutlery on crockery and spoons scraping metal burrowed into Grace’s dream with the smell of boiled greens. She tried to spiral backwards into the sanctuary of sleep but distant conversation reached her, too far away to make out the words but too close to ignore. She wanted to snuggle back into the darkness and warmth but found she couldn’t. She heard herself groan out loud.
“Ah, you’re awake, I’ll fetch Sister,” said a voice.
Grace’s lashes tore against a crusty resistance as she lifted her head in the direction of the sound. Her limbs were stiff, her head throbbed and her mouth felt sore and bitten. Her eyes watered in protest at the light from a bare bulb above her. She tried to lift her arm to cover her face but it resisted the instruction to move. She wriggled and but was held fast against the bed. It didn’t make any sense.
“Wakey, wakey. Rise and shine,” a cheerful voice sliced through the remaining drowsiness and Grace stared up at a cherubic face, topped with an elaborate frilly white hat which hovered over her.
“Hallo, I’m Sister Burton. Glad to see you’ve decided to join us today.” Then, looking away, “Nurse, see to the patient’s restraints please?”
Grace was aware of someone fumbling at one edge of the bed and raised her head to see a young girl in the pale blue dress of a nurse, studying something just under the sheet.
Grace’s arm was suddenly free and, as she held it up, she was surprised by the reddened bracelet of raised flesh which circled her wrist.
“Am I sick?” she asked.
“You are in hospital, my dear,” said the sister, patting her through the bedclothes, “Now please relax. You are quite safe.”
When the other arm was released Grace tried to sit up and realised, with shock, her bed was damp. She pushed the covers back a little and her worst fears were confirmed.
“Oh dear, I am sorry, I don’t know why…” She fell back and hid her face in her hands.
“Not to worry, it sometimes happens. It’s the injection the doctor gave you. But please don’t make a habit of it. Nurse, get her to the backs and cleaned up please. Then bring her to the ward”. The sister sailed from the room with her hands clasped under her large bosom as if in prayer.
Grace wondered if her head was wrapped in a bandage, because her scalp was drawn tight. The nurse helped her to stand, she was unsteady on her feet like the day they had got her out of bed after she’d delivered the twins. She was hunched over, unsure if she could straighten up. It was as if her lungs would have too much room and would flap inside her chest like chickens in a cage at the market.
“I think I am going to faint!” She clutched the young woman’s arm.
“You’ll be fine, it’s just the sedatives. It will wear off soon enough,” the nurse reassured her, placing a sheet around her shoulders.
Then a cascade of images forced their way into Grace’s head: people came to the house and abducted her, a court room, a lady took the children for a drive, Mrs Sugden next door always prying, an ambulance. She smelt burning and cooked cabbage, heard the crackle of a bonfire, feet clattering on a wooden floor and George Watson barking at her. Had other people shouted at her, too? It was all a jumble.
“Where am I? Is this a hospital?” she gasped. “Where are the boys? Where have they taken them?”
“You are in Hellingly Hospital, dear. I think your children are at St Wilfrid’s. Doctor will explain it all when you see him. I am not allowed to say anything really. Come along, I’ll cop it if I don’t get you up to the ward in good time.”
The “backs” was a long tiled room. Just inside the door to the right were four cubicles in a row, each containing a toilet, and beyond that four deep cast iron baths stood in the middle of the room. On the walls hung jugs, hoses and brushes of various proportions.
“Use the lavatory first” commanded the nurse.
On entering the cubicle Grace found no door so made as if to move to the next. The nurse gave a short laugh, “No doors here my love, sorry”.
The ice cold porcelain bit Grace’s thighs. She closed her eyes to pretend she wasn’t there, like a child in hiding.
When she opened them the nurse stood, arms folded, watching.
“Strip off once you’re done. Put your dirty stuff in there”. The young woman indicated a large canvas bag hanging from a metal frame behind her.
Grace realised with a start she was wearing only underwear under a hospital gown. Who had undressed her? Where were her clothes? The chill of the tiled room caused her skin to contract into goose bumps and her nipples stood proud. Once naked, she wrapped her arms around herself.
The nurse shrugged. “I’ve seen it all before. No need to be shy. Come on, there’s a dear, hop in while it’s still warm”.
To her mild surprise, the tepid bathwater was soothing. Grace hugged her knees to her chest in an attempt at modesty. The uniformed woman grabbed a large tin jug, filled it from the bath and poured the contents over Grace’s head without warning and then began to rub at her hair with a hard lump of soap.
“Head back!” Again a cascade of water poured over Grace’s head.
“Ow. Hold on, there’s soap in my eyes”
The nurse continued to rub at Grace’s head.
“Stop!” cried Grace, “My eyes are stinging, pass me a towel.”
“Don’t make such a fuss, dear. Just hold still. If we don’t get a move on we’ll have Sister here wondering what’s keeping us and we don’t want that. She can be a right old tartar.”
Another torrent of water came.
“All done, here take the soap and give yourself a good scrub. Under your arms, between your legs, round the back too”.
*“Grace is washing her privates, Grace is washing her back door”.*
“Please shut up, Mabel,” Grace whined. The whimper of an infant reached her. Grace looked around for the source of the cry. Then came soft weeping from close by, the sound of distant wailing, small children made frightened cries. The chorus built from sobs to a crescendo of shrieks slashing the air around her.
Grace’s own tears joined the rapidly cooling bath water. She was grateful for the lack of reaction from the young nurse, who leaned against the sill of a high window drawing pictures in the condensation on the glass.
Still sniffing, Grace stepped from the bath and accepted the stiff towel she was offered. She let the nurse rub her hair dry and then comb it. She dressed in unfamiliar clothes: the knickers were grey with age and baggy, the sludge green skirt, thick and coarse, her breasts were compressed under a vest, which may once have been white but was now yellow, and a blue cardigan buttoned to the neck. She wore socks and slippers which did little to combat the coldness of the stone floors. The slippers were slack, which meant Grace was forced to shuffle to keep them on as she was led into a tiled corridor with a high, arched ceiling.
The nurse led her past a series of identical sets of wooden doors which stood in pairs every twenty yards or so, the top halves chequered with small glass windows and sporting heavy brass handles mounted on shiny plates either side. “I was always getting lost when I first started because it all looks the same,” confided the young woman. “But the secret’s the floor. See the edging tiles? They were brown back there in reception. Same as in doctors, examination rooms and admin. Now see, they’ve gone green because we’re in the female side. General areas are grey, male side is blue, red is halls and recreation areas. You’re going to be on Female D which is Sister Burton’s. Here we are.”
They turned through the next double-doored entrance into a passageway lined with closed doors. Grace was relieved to feel it was a little warmer in the ward than the corridor as she sank onto the bench the nurse had indicated.
To her right, the corridor opened into a large room with serried ranks of hospital beds along both sides and an assortment of tables and chairs at the far end. A dumpy woman energetically swept under beds and a few figures were hunched over the tables, but otherwise there was little sign of occupation. The smell of Jeyes fluid overpowered everything.
Grace sat back and tried to make sense of the last few hours. Or was it days? How long had she been in this place? She ran her fingers through her hair as if that might straighten her tangled thoughts. Her stomach knotted painfully. She wished she was asleep and dreaming but knew in her heart this nightmare was real.
*“Grace,”* came the whisper. Blue stood just inside the doors from the main corridor.
“Blue. Thank goodness, I thought I’d lost you!” Grace whispered back. “I’ve had the most horrible time.”
From behind her came a screech, “First sign of madness!”
Her tummy rolled with adrenalin and Grace swung around to see the broom wielding woman, rosy from her exertions. Squat and wide, she had a solid, square head which seemed set directly into her shoulders without the delicacy of a neck but was cushioned by two fat rolls of flesh under her chin. Her broad smile revealed a large gap in her teeth.
“Sorry, sweetie bits, did I scare you?”
Grace shook her head.
“I was only pulling your leg, ducky, didn’t mean to make you jump.”
“You didn’t.” Grace smoothed her skirt and gave the woman a tight smile.
“I’m Bessie, but they call me ‘Puff’ because it rhymes with my name see, Bessie Hough, puff. And I do. Puff. Always have. My brother used to say I was a duffer as well as a puffer so just as well I was born a Hougher ain’t it.” Bessie cackled.
“Pleased to meet you, Mrs Hough,” murmured Grace.
“Mrs?” Laughing, she wiped the back of her hand across an eye. “I ain’t never been wed! Plain old Miss Huff’n’Puff for me, not that I’m sorry. I don’t think I’d have liked being married all that much. My old mum never seemed all that happy with it anyway. Seven of us kids and barely a pot to piss in.”
Bessie lowered her ample bottom onto the bench next to Grace, stood the broom between her knees and leaned heavily on it. They sat in silence. A distant door slammed, a man shouted, a trolley wheel squeaked, footsteps came close but moved past. Turning towards an echo of laughter from the corridor beyond the double doors, Grace saw Blue was walking towards them and shifted to make space for her on the bench.
“I’m Grace Carter, by the way,” said Grace. She turned and held out her right hand.
“Oh my, ain’t you got lovely manners?” squawked Bessie. “Proper ladylike.”
*“I don’t think she’s the full shilling,”* said Blue with a snigger.
*“Grace is barmy too,”* said Mabel.
“Please don’t -,” Grace stopped herself from remonstrating with her companions just in time.
“Don’t sound like you’re from round here neither?” Bessie pushed her fat lips together in a kiss.
“I’m not really, I moved here to be with my husband,” explained Grace. “My parents were actors so we travelled all the time, season by season”.
“Actors, on stage like, in plays?”
“Yes, well, actually they did all sorts. My father did a lot of vaudeville in America early on, he sang and acted too.”
“America! Lordy, have you been to America?”
“No, no, that was before I was born. My father and mother travelled around all over. They used to do a song and dance act, mainly music hall and acting. We went with them.”
“When I was fifteen, Dad formed his own revue and we were in Scotland for a couple of years.” Grace started to speak with a Scottish lilt, “Dundee, Inverness, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow.”
“Hark at you, got the acting in your blood, ain’t you girl.” Bessie laughed.
“So how about you, Bessie Hough, where are you from?”
“Me? Oh bless you sweetie, I’ve been in here longer than I’ve been anywhere, you don’t need to know about me. My father was a sailor from Pompey…”
“My husband is in the navy.”
“Bless you, it must be a worry.” Bessie patted Grace’s leg before folding her arms across herself with a deep sigh. “Terrible worry.”
Blue rested her head on Grace’s upper arm.
Mabel snorted. *“Grace is more worried about him coming back.”*
“So how long have you worked here, Bessie?” Grace spoke loudly in an effort to drown Mabel’s chortling.
At that Bessie doubled over with a shriek. Grace’s instant thought was that she had been hurt in some way but then realised it was an expression of mirth.
“I’m sorry I…” Grace blinked hard.
“I don’t work here,” said Bessie giggling. “I’m a patient, my love. Just like you. Oh my word. Worked here indeed.” She sat back, her face puce, and fanned herself with a chubby hand.
“I am so sorry, I didn’t realise.” Grace chewed her lips. “I saw you sweeping round the beds and I just assumed. Sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry for, sweetie. Easy mistake. No, I am a patient. But I like to clean so I get to help out with things on the ward. Beds, cleaning, polishing sometimes. The others go off to the sewing room, the laundry or the farm but I get to stay behind. I help the nurses. Poor things are run off their feet most days, really short-staffed we are. I like it and so do they. Those old biddies wouldn’t get fed most days if I wasn’t around.” She waved her hand in the general direction of the old women huddled at the far end of the ward.
“Right Ivy, good to see you all tidied up.” The sister appeared in front of them smiling. Blue stood next to the sister, hands on her hips, bottom lip jutted out in a pout, her eyebrows set in a deep frown.
“Grace,” said Grace, getting to her feet. The sister tilted her head to one side. “I’m Grace,” explained Grace again, “Not Ivy.”
“Oh I see, of course. Mea culpa. My mistake.”
Grace straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin and extended her hand in greeting. “I am Mrs Albert Carter.”
“And I am Sister Burton.” The sister’s hand was warm around Grace’s fingers. “We met earlier, in the reception unit. I can see you’ve already met Bessie. Most of the others are out at work so it’s relatively quiet at the moment but, Bessie will introduce you to them when they are back, won’t you, Bessie?”
Bessie, braced by her broom, nodded.
“She can have Dorothy’s old bed,” continued the sister, returning her attention to Grace, “Now then, Grace—”
“Sister Burton, I’d prefer you to address me as Mrs Carter. Unless you would like me to address you by your Christian name, in which case perhaps we should take the time to get to know one another a little better”.
Sister Burton folded her hands across herself and gave her breasts a little nudge upwards. “I see.” A flush stained her cheeks. “Perhaps you misunderstand. We address people by their Christian names to help them feel more comfortable, more at home.”
“This is not my home, Sister Burton.”
“Indeed it is not. It is a hospital ward of which I am in sole command, in which mine is the final word.” She leaned closer to Grace before continuing, “However, if you insist…sic erit, Mrs Carter. Bessie, get her settled in please.” Sister Burton started to walk away, face flaming.
“Sister Burton, before you run off to do whatever it is that is so pressing, would you please do me the courtesy of explaining exactly how long you intend to keep me here against my will and, more importantly, I’d like to know where my children are.”
The Sister was unhurried as she turned back to face Grace. “I am quite sure the doctor explained to you that an urgency order has been granted by a court to hold you here while you are assessed.”
Grace quailed at the clipped tones but Blue’s hand clutched hers, “Yes, I think he said something about that. But where are my clothes?”
“Mrs Carter,” the sister’s lip movements were exaggerated, “the clothes you arrived in were dirty. We felt it kinder to bathe you and provide you with clean garments rather than force you to fester in grubby clothing.”
Grace grimaced, “Well look at the state of me, you surely cannot expect me to wear this, someone else’s clothes?”
“Really, Mrs Carter? So would you rather we left you to run naked through the hospital?”
“Of course not, that is just ridiculous.”
“Well, Mrs Carter, as you can imagine with well over a thousand people in our care at this institution, it would be ridiculous for us to try to keep track of one individual’s clothes. I am sorry if these are not to your satisfaction, perhaps tomorrow will bring a better selection.” Her nostrils flared and, once again, she gave her breasts a little nudge upwards. “Is there anything else I can help you with before I resume my duties?”
“Where are my children?” Grace jutted her chin and met the sister’s stare.
“Your children, Mrs Carter, are in a place of safety.” Sister Burton was glacial and, not quite under her breath added, “For the first time in a long time.”
Grace shivered as the Sister’s marched away. Blue crawled under the bench and hugged her knees.
*“Grace has been put in her place,”* said Mabel.