© PATRICIA M WILSON
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LOST IN SPACE
A short story.
I remember that Nathan and Matilda’s sitter let them down at the last moment. That’s not the problem. Me not being able to find the babbie is the problem.
I should have told them “your Nana’s going gaga” but it’s not something you want to share, believe me. If you let slip you’re on the slide, then they treat you like you’re bonkers all the time, and I’m not. I am not. I just get lost in these little pockets of space when I’m not sure what’s going on, or what’s just gone on.
It was good of them to fit me into their busy lives for a few days. Nice for me to have a bit of a holiday from the Holy Trinity Residential Home, even if it’s only to return to my own house and be tolerated like a verruca (it’ll be gone after a week with the right treatment). Trust me, I didn’t offer to look after that babbie, it was thrust on me when I got here.
“Lovely to have you, Nan,” Nathan said, “but we’ve a wedding to go to this evening and our usual sitter’s busy.”
“You’ll have the TV to yourself,” Matilda said, “and you’ll enjoy playing with Jamie, he’s great. Do you think you’ll be okay?”
“Not a problem, I’ll be fine,” I said. “You two skidaddle and have a good time.” I’m thinking: I hope they’ve dosed the babbie with teething meds, so we’ll get a restful night. I might have a couple of spoons myself when they’ve gone.
I guess they don’t get out much. Short of cash, I could tell. When they showed me round the house, I noticed they could only afford to wallpaper one wall in each room. Very sparse, no ornaments, or frames on the pictures, and not a silk flower to be seen.
Jamie must be the babbie. I’m hopeless at names these days. My first great-grandchild and I forget what they call him. Shameful. We’ve a lot in common too, me and Jamie: no teeth, very thin hair and a tendency towards incontinence—if that’s the right word. He’s worse than me, but I fear I’m catching up.
The babbie, a fat little bugger, played in his cot while the kids were getting ready for their wedding. I was trying to figure out the confangled nappies with no pins they use these days. Corrie came on the box and I never miss it, although it hasn’t been the same since Elsie Tanner left. I must have nodded off because the next thing I knew, they’d gone to their wedding. I was alone in charge so I thought I’d better check on the nipper.
You could have floored me when I found the cot empty and the side down. Now, I ask myself, can they climb and crawl at nine months? I can’t remember fifty years back when mine were tots. Anyway, kids today, so advanced... Nine months, he can probably ride a bike. In fact, he’s probably on the street corner selling crack from a pocket in his Pampers and smoking that whacky-backy right at this moment. “Yo, baby, high-five me.”
God, I don’t know why I’m joking. I’ll be in Shit Street in my slippers when they come home and find I’ve lost him.
I saw this SWAT documentary once where they made a grid and searched methodically. They were looking for a Sir Ben Lardin, or some such name like that—a coloured gentleman with a big turban. In fact, I think he was the leader of the Turban Party, but my hearing’s not as good as it was. According to the BBC, they found him in the end but I can’t remember how many years it took.
I haven’t got the luxury of time like the BBC because Nathan and Matilda said they’d be home before midnight. P’rhaps I’d better make a plan and find this bloody babbie of theirs, if you’ll pardon my French.
First I’ll get my gaga pills and take one. It’ll keep me awake later but at least I won’t forget what I’m looking for half way through my SWAT search and rescue. Where’s my handbag? I wish people wouldn’t move things! Kitchen or bedroom... probably kitchen.
There you are, you see, I’m not completely bonkers yet. A nice cup of tea and a pill and I’ll be fine. I’m only supposed to take one a day but the one I took this morning must have been a dud for me to lose the bloody babbie.
When I was young—and it’s funny that I can remember so much from then but nothing from half an hour ago—my father told me that everything you bought from the chemist had some duds. This was to keep the balance of things. He told me: the Powers That Be made a law that one condom in a hundred was especially made to bust. Otherwise the human race could become extinct and then the world would be like Planet of the Apes with no people.
I believed him. Being Catholic, we weren’t supposed to use condoms anyway. But I was more scared of getting the one dud in a hundred than burning in hell for all eternity if a bus knocked me down before I got to confession on the Saturday and told the priest that I’d had intercourse with a condom that had a man inside.
Then, in the fifties I think it was, our neighbour, Mrs Price, told Mum about Mrs-J-around-the-corner-you-know-who. She’d had badly blocked sinuses and when the doctor investigated, with a very long pair of tweezers, he pulled an old bust condom out of her nostril. Apparently, it had travelled up through her body over the years and had been lodged in her sinuses for ages. It caused her the terrible pain and Mum said it would have accounted for her strong nasal twang.
There is probably a moral in all that, but I’m not sure what it is. I remember the story every time someone tells me they’re having trouble with their sinuses. I’m too polite to say anything, but it does make me wonder if my father was right.
Damn, now I’ve drunk the tea and the pill is still next to the mug. I’ll put the kettle on again. Good job I’ve brought my incompetent knickers. I’m not sure if I took a pill this morning and a double dose might make me remember stuff I’d rather forget... You can’t live for seventy-five years and not have some terrible stuff from the past lurking in the crevices. Stuff you don’t want to remember but it never quite goes away. Awful family secrets. Like when my cousin Agnes gave birth to a little black babbie at our house and we drowned it before it made a cry and then wrapped it in the Liverpool Echo like a bag of chips. We tied it with string and buried it in a deep hole in the back garden. Mother and Aunty Bridget planted an apple tree on top and then we all went on the bus to confession in the next parish in case our priest, Father O’Hara, recognised us through the grille. I’m the only one still alive that knows about that awful episode.
It was a terrible time. We could have been hung by the neck till dead. Terrifying. Sometimes, I would squeeze my neck really hard to imagine what it would feel like to be hung by the neck till dead. I can tell you: it hurts like hell for ages after. Once, it even made me lose my voice.
First thing I noticed when I arrived here this morning was the size of that old apple tree now. Some of its roots are above the lawn, smooth curves like silver sea serpents in an ocean of green. I wonder if the little black babbie travelled up its trunk over the years and sits in its branches like a bust condom.
Funny how times have changed, equality and all. Mixed marriages—not just your religions either—different colours too, and married women going out to work like it was perfectly normal. Who’d have thought it?
I’ll not make another mug of tea. I’ll swallow the pill with a little water.
Look at that, crystal clear tap water. Would you believe it’s been through an average of seven people? I read that in The Daily Express so it must be true. That’s real equality for you. This purified piss, pardon my French, could just as easily have come from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s bladder as that tramp outside the Halifax Bank with one leg. I mean the tramp with one leg of course, we all know that banks haven’t got a leg to stand on these days. Anyway, I’d better get on and find this bloody babbie instead of sitting in the kitchen talking to myself.
Cor, my poor old knees. I’ll have a little sit on this top stair and try to remember what I came all the way up here for. P’rhaps I forgot to take my gaga pill this morning. Next time I come up here I must write myself a note first, and then remember to take it with me of course. P’rhaps I did write a note...
This attic’s not as big as I thought. Tut, look at all those cobwebs up in the pointy bit. When I was a kid, I loved it up here, it was mine through my teenage years – shared it with my sisters, our Josephine and Elizabeth. The double bed with its lumpy flock mattress that had to be shaken and turned twice a year has long gone. The three of us top and tailed that bed. Me and Josephine at the top, and Elizabeth between us at the tail end.
Look at all these dusty boxes… Nathan and Matilda should have a car boot sale. Some of this old stuff must be worth a few shillings, like Dobbin the rocking horse with the real horsehair tail. It fascinated me, that tail. Father said horsehair was one of the strongest things in the world and it didn’t matter how clever man got, he could never compete with nature and make anything as strong as a horse’s tail. They are completely snap-proof. They probably make hanging ropes out of horsetails.
Nurse Evans from the clinic where we got our free orange juice and bloody awful, pardon my French, cod liver oil, got the rocking horse for us, but we had to keep it in the attic so that Father never saw it. It made him angry. He didn’t want Mother accepting charity. She said it made him feel inadequate.
Father were never allowed up here, or the boys unless they were a babbie, because the attic was the girls’ bedroom and that made it sacrosanct. It was a place of sanitary belts, spit and brush mascara, girdles, and first-size Cross-Your-Heart bras with socks in. A shrine to women the world over. A place where we practiced: dancing, backcombing, improve your bust exercises, hand jiving, and jumping on the bed. It was here we listened to the wireless and wrote down the words of songs by Perry Como, Vera Lynne, and Frankie Laine.
It was great when Father died because then we got loads of charity. Saint Vincent de Paul and the Sisters of Mercy were always at our house. Mother couldn’t have managed with ten kids if it wasn’t for the charity people. We got proper dolls and everything, not the cloth ones filled with itchy sawdust. Our Elizabeth was special because she was very pretty whereas Josephine and me were plain, so the nuns gave our Elizabeth a little black doll as a reward for being pretty.
Instantly, we all knew Elizabeth was destined to be a missionary nun in Africa, converting the little black children into good Catholics. She would teach them to wear clothes and say the rosary. Because Elizabeth saved their souls from eternity in Limbo where they dance under sticks (which is only slightly less painful than Purgatory where they fry like eggs until they’ve atoned for their sins), when she died our Elizabeth would become a saint.
I couldn’t wait. I thought it would be amazing to have a saint for a sister… but she let me down. When she grew up, she became chief lab technician for a chemical company.
Will you look at that wooden cube with the tiny screen in the corner? Our first television, bought on-the-knock, in the nineteen-fifties. It was called on-the-knock because every Friday evening a man in a fawn mackintosh knocked on our door for two-shillings-and-four-pence. Agnes and me were nearly sixteen by then and she would stay at ours every weekend. We’d race downstairs to the best room at six o’clock on a Saturday.
“The Six-Five Special’s steamin’ down the line. The Six-Five Special’s right on time..."
The television show was presented by Pete Murray who we both wanted to marry but weren’t sure if he was Catholic. He would say, “Time to jive on the old six-five.” We’d pray that Alma Cogan would come on in one of her homemade frocks and sing. My poor heart’s racing now, thinking how excited we got. The programme started with this big old steam train racing over the camera. I used to hold my breath imagining the poor cameraman standing in a deep hole with the camera glued to his eye while the train got closer. It always reminded me of the little black babbie we’d buried in the deep hole the year before and I would look sideways at our Agnes and imagine her with her little black babbie, like my younger sister and her black doll who should have been a saint but let me down. It’s like yesterday. This attic is so busting with memories it’s a wonder the slates aren’t blown off.
Whatever I came upstairs for isn’t in here, I’d know it if I saw it. I’ll go down to the bedrooms and have a wander around.
Phew! It’s easier coming down stairs than going up. Still, I’ll have a little rest on the bottom of the attic steps before I take a look in the bedrooms. P’rhaps I should have started looking for whatever it is on the ground floor. I might have saved myself the climb. Too late now, I’m in The Grand Old Duke of York position.
Right, here we are with four bedrooms and a bathroom on this floor. When I were a kid it was five bedrooms, each one with an enamel potty under the bed because the bathroom was downstairs. I wish there was still a bathroom downstairs, but it doesn’t matter too much because I think I’ve got my whats-it pants on.
Into the small bedroom we go… nursery… Holy God, the babbie! That’s who I’m looking for. I wonder what time it is? They’ll be home any minute and find out I’ve lost what’s-his-name, the nipper. Better get down the stairs. When Nathan and his Mrs get back from the whatever, I hope they’re so drunk they’ve forgotten they have a child.
Holy Moses, those stairs. If I was a millionaire I’d buy the kids a Stannah. I hope God’s got a stair-lift. Sure He can afford it because He’s MD of the Catholic Church, the richest church in the whole world on account of them doing so many good works. Charity pays. Anyway, if it’s stairs to The Pearlies I’ll be swearing so much by the time I get there, I’ll be relegated. And isn’t that the punishment, to be turned away after cracking your kneecaps, and then sent to roast in Hell. Mind you, if Lucifer doesn’t qualify for the heating allowance and with the price of oil these days, he’ll have that stat turned right down. Still, I’d rather not go there. I bet those polished marble stairs that go up, turn into uneven concrete slabs going down. Ooh, my knees are feeling it already.
I wonder if the black babbie incident means I’ll go down... I must go to church on Sunday... Confession. I mean, p’rhaps my punishment for the little black babbie is losing my first great-grandchild? “Dear God, please don’t do that to Nathan and what’s-her-name. It’s not their fault what happened all those years before they were even born.”
Good grief, I’m exhausted. At least I’m back on terry firma. I wonder if the babbie managed to crawl out the kitchen door. I may have taken the rubbish out and it escaped behind my back. Anything’s possible, you never know when you can’t remember.
I need a sit down...
Bugger! I must have nodded off. It’s quarter to midnight. They’ll be home any minute. Where am I up too with the SWAT search? Better check outside. Deadlock the back door so I don’t lock myself out, right. I wonder if babbies know their own names at nine months?
“Babbie! Where are you?” I call outside. “Babbie!”
The kitchen fluorescent illuminates the apple tree. It looks very serene and I’m thinking of the little black babbie again. I get this sad feeling inside, like my heart has got squashed in my corset. Mother said we didn’t kill the little black babbie because it never breathed in, so it was never alive and you can’t kill something that was not alive in the first place. I wonder if what’s-his-name... Jamie, that’s it, has crawled up the apple tree to play with the little black babbie that’s sitting in the branches like a bust condom.
I put my hand on the trunk of the tree… it’s warm, like it’s alive. I can almost feel a heartbeat. I look up into the dark inside branches and whisper softly so as not to frighten either of the nippers... “Jamie?”
I’ve got myself all upset now, thinking about the little black babbie. I brush the tears from my cheeks and whisper again, “Jamie…"
“What you doin’ out here, Nan?” Matilda calls, making me jump and wee myself a little. Not to worry, I’m sure I'v got my big-pants on.
“I’m just looking for Jamie.” There was nothing left at this stage but to tell the truth and I guessed I could look forward to a rollicking.
“Come on in, Nan, Jamie will find his own way home. That’s why we have a cat-flap.”
“Huh?” Cat-flap? Jamie’s a bleedin’, pardon my French, cat?
“Come and say goodnight to Jonathan before we put him in his cot, Nan. He’s been such a good boy tonight, we almost forgot he was with us.”
"I told you we shouldn't have left Nan without a sitter, Matilda," Nathan muttered. "She could have wandered off anywhere."
Note: The long sentences are deliberate to give a sense of dementia ramblings.