It was just five days since I’d seen the advertisement and I was getting the tea things ready when I heard the girl bumping up the front steps. She had more gumption than I’d expected – soon as I opened the door, she put her hand out, bold as brass, to introduce herself.
‘Hello, I’m Irene Thomas.’
‘Good afternoon, I’m Mrs. Hatton. Please come in. And bring the pram.’ I didn’t want it left on the verandah, that would be sure to get the tattle tales going.
She parked the pram in the hallway and picked up the baby. I ushered her into the front room, which looked out onto the street and caught the afternoon sun. The hydrangeas I’d picked first thing looked lovely – the scene was very welcoming and homely, in a good way, I thought.
The baby was a tiny little thing with a shock of dark hair and her face was all scrunched up against the light. Not the prettiest child I’d ever seen, but I was relieved to see she had the same pale skin as Irene.
When I returned from the kitchen with the tea tray, Irene was staring at the photographs on the mantelpiece.
‘Is that your son, Mrs Hatton?’
‘Yes, that’s my boy. He signed up last winter, soon as he turned 18. I’m very proud of him.’
‘Do you have any other children?’
‘No, unfortunately not … I’ve always wanted a daughter though.’
‘Does Mr Hatton want one too? Is he here? I was hoping to meet him as well.’
I must have been twice Irene’s age, and I wasn’t the one with an unwanted baby in my arms, yet it was my cheeks that started to warm, and I had to take a quick breath before replying.
‘He’s terribly excited about the prospect and so sorry he couldn’t make it.’
Irene didn’t say anything, just turned back to looking at the room, as if she were taking stock of its suitability. I had to grip the teapot to stop my hands from shaking, I was that angry. Who was she to judge?
I was only 19 when I discovered that I was expecting. I was going to be a mother so I told Eddie he was going to be a father. And we got married. A good seven months before Jack was born I became Mrs Glenn. I did my best and when that wasn’t good enough, I packed up my little boy and we left. It never crossed my mind to give him to a stranger to raise.
Frank had told me early on in our relationship that he couldn’t have children – due to contracting mumps as a child. Poor man, he expected me to be upset, but I was just relieved I didn’t have to explain that I’d had my tubes tied after Jack’s birth; I’d had a caesarean section and the doctor said it was too dangerous for me to have another baby.
When I told Frank about the advertisement in the paper, I reminded him how we’d not been able to have our own child and perhaps a baby girl was just what we needed. I paused for a moment to wipe my eyes, then I looked up at Frank and said how much I missed my son, far from home, fighting in the war that he didn’t have to fight in.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘if that’s what you want Margaret.’
It was most definitely what I wanted.
I took a breath then handed Irene a cup of tea. ‘He runs his own business you see, and can’t leave the staff unsupervised when they’re so busy.’
‘Oh, what kind of business?’
‘He’s an engineer, they make lathes. It’s a very precise sort of business.’
Irene said nothing for a few moments – I got the impression she didn’t know what a lathe was.
‘Oh, that’s nice,’ she replied.
I started asking the questions then. It turned out she’d kept the baby a secret from nearly everyone at home – she was from up north. She’d told her parents she was going to try for a job in Auckland and had spent the last four months living with her sister in Henderson.
‘Have you registered the birth yet?’
‘Ah … I …’ She was looking down at the infant in her arms, adjusting the blanket so the red Bethany Maternity Hospital stamp was hidden in the folds, as if I hadn’t already noticed it. ‘No, not yet.’
‘Hmm. And does baby have a name?’
‘I like Elizabeth.’
‘Oh, dear me, no, that won’t do. Elizabeth? Imagine that? She’ll get ideas above her station. What about … Joan? That’s a nice, sensible name.’
‘Wouldn’t it have been easier to let the maternity hospital arrange the adoption?’ I asked.
‘Well, Matron did say they would find someone but I … I want to know where my daughter is.’
And it wasn’t an adoption, she said that twice, even though that was what she’d written in the advertisement.
‘I’m looking for someone to foster my daughter.’
‘I see. This fostering, how long would it be for? Is your situation likely to change soon?’
‘No, not really.’ She said this while continuing to cast an eye about my living room.
I noticed the afternoon sun was playing fairies with some dust in one corner, and I’d been so sure everything was spotless.
‘Have you met with any other families?’
She turned her attention back to the baby, ‘My sister said she’d take Lizzie – I mean, the baby. She did offer but then her husband was not really that keen and well, that’s why I asked if Mr Hatton would be happy with a baby.’
‘Of course … do have a slice of cake.’
The baby had been asleep but started to grizzle, squirming in Irene’s arms as she tried to balance the plate and her cup of tea.
‘Here, let me help you, the poor mite will be crushed.’
I reached for the child. My arms wrapped around her and we walked to the window. Her eyes were squeezed shut and she turned so her cheek was nestled against me. I knew what to do before I had thought of it; I moved my weight left to right to left, the way I’d done when Jack was restless. I ran my hand gently over her head, warmth pulsating from the soft spots on her skull. Heat radiated from her body through my fingers and arms, deep inside me. I closed my eyes and inhaled the heady perfume of milk, talcum powder and lanolin cream.
‘There, there, Joan, there, there,’ I whispered.
A throat-clearing cough made me turn. Irene stood next to me, her arms outstretched. I moved back to the chairs, still holding the baby.
‘Please do have another slice, I made it this morning.’ Well, someone had made it, and what are bakeries for if not to do the baking?
‘It’s delicious,’ Irene said, then added, ‘my mother makes sultana cake.’ Her face softened when she said that, and I could see she was a pretty girl, or would be once she got some rest.
‘Now, why don’t you do the registration this afternoon? Then it’s sorted, whatever you decide to do. By the way, when was she born?’ I’d heard of Bethany, of course, and knew that they only let the women stay for a fortnight after they’d given birth.
‘It was ten days ago, on the eighth.’
‘I’d certainly love to help you out, dear. Unless you have another plan? You could come back tomorrow afternoon. I’ll have a bassinet ready and all the necessaries by then. The sooner baby is settled, the better for everyone. One more thing – you are bottle-feeding, aren’t you?’
The girl blushed again, and my eyes settled on her ample bust. Such a palaver.
‘Never mind. I’ll soon get her to take a bottle, put some meat on her bones.’
Irene nodded, then asked, ‘Do you think she ought to have a middle name?’
‘Yes, I think she should.’ I glanced down at the child in my arms. ‘A longer second name would be good … Margaret? There’s rather a nice ring to it when you put them together. Joan Margaret. Don’t you think so?’
‘All right,’ she replied.
When I asked whether the father’s details would be on the birth certificate, she fiddled with the blanket and said he was in the Services and didn’t know about the baby. Her parents weren’t going to come looking for the child either. But perhaps I’d be able to write a letter to let her know how everything was going? And to mail it to her sister’s house in Henderson. I agreed that I would.
She was in the hallway, settling the baby into the pram when she asked, ‘Had you thought about adopting before? Or fostering?’
What did she need to ask that for? It didn’t matter how good a mother I was, there would’ve been too many questions. My divorce was just the start of it; Frank had had a run-in with the law in his younger days, and there’d been the newspaper article where the coroner said such awful things about us after the incident with Mr Dodgson, and goodness, we weren’t actually married so no, adoption was never a choice for Frank and me. But this girl didn’t need to know any of that.
‘As I said, I’ve always wanted a daughter, so when I read your advertisement, just by chance it was, it felt like fate, if you believe in such things.’
When she left, I felt a little faint. I wouldn’t normally have a drink in the afternoon, but my hands were shaking and there was still a little sherry in the bottle Frank had bought at Christmas. I wanted to run after Irene and make her promise that she really was coming back. I felt sure she would, but then it seemed that there were so many important questions that she’d never asked. I hadn’t even shown her where Joan would sleep. I looked down at my arms and could see the child resting there. The poor lamb, just given away. Who would do such a thing? Someone not fit to be a mother, that’s who.
‘If you’re happy, I’m happy.’
That’s what Frank would always say when I came up with a plan – like the time I wanted to dig out the camellia tree because the fallen petals reminded me of bruises.
In the evening after Irene came to the house for the first time, I could barely eat my supper I was so nervous. Frank chattered away, saying he was sure I’d made a good impression, then he said he’d better get the crib sorted lickety-split.
‘I think I saw one in Bobby Watts’ yard last Monday; a blue one it was, but I don’t suppose that matters. I can check if it’s still there.’
‘No, not that one. Don’t you remember? Their son was only a month old when Mrs Watts found him cold in his bed.’ I felt ill just thinking about it. It was cruel really; a young couple like that, so excited about the baby and then to have lost him. She barely left the house these days, poor woman.
Frank went out as soon as he’d eaten, and I didn’t hear him come in again. In the morning there was a white bassinet in the living room. You can never be too careful about germs, so I gave it a good wash down then put it in the garden to air. Frank had left three shillings on the kitchen bench for whatever else I felt was needed.
The next day at three in the afternoon, Irene was at the door. She was carrying Joan in her arms and had a small carryall with her.
‘No pram today?’
‘No, I had to leave it behind.’
We sat in the front room again and she had a slice of yesterday’s cake. The clock ticked in the hallway. I could hear a strange little click coming from Irene’s jaw as she chewed.
‘Did you manage to get the registration form completed?’
‘Oh, yes I did.’ She put down the willow-pattern plate and tried to reach into her handbag while moving the baby to her other arm.
‘For goodness’ sake, let me hold her while you sort yourself out.’
Irene handed me the baby and a few moments later gave me the birth certificate: Joan Margaret Thomas, to be known as Joan Margaret Hatton. I stared at the words, then at the child in my arms.
‘Thank you. Would you like another cup of tea?’
Irene shook her head but finished the cake. I sat opposite her, rocking Joan, wondering what else there was to say.
‘Will you be heading home directly?’
‘No, I’m staying with my sister until the weekend.’
‘Oh, I see. But you will be going home then?’
‘Yes, my sister and brother-in-law are driving me … and I’ll be staying there.’
‘Well, you know where I am. I’m sure Joan will settle in just fine.’
I stood up then, but Irene stayed seated, staring up at the baby in my arms. Then she looked at the empty plate in front of her and said, ‘I love willow pattern too,’ and she smiled. It was the first proper smile I’d seen on her face. I was pleased that she had straight teeth.
I gestured towards the hallway. She picked up her handbag and we made our way to the front door. She stopped on the step, and her knuckles were white, gripping her bag. She did not look at Joan but, with what seemed like a great effort, lifted her eyes to mine and said firmly, ‘Thank you.’
As soon as the door closed Joan began to wriggle and mew, twisting to face my chest, nudging into my body. I knew she’d be hungry and felt foolish for not having prepared the milk earlier. On the stove-top a bottle sat cooling in a pot where I’d sterilised it first thing that morning. My arm felt damp. She was wet. Ah, yes, there was this too, how had I forgotten that the first year was really just feeding and cleaning, and hoping they would sleep? One dirty nappy off and into the bucket with a lid to take outside to the washhouse. One clean nappy on. She didn’t wriggle much when I changed her, just jiggled her feet in the air as soon as the wet nappy was removed. My hands remembered the movements, the twist of cloth and the large safety pin dug through the layers, carefully keeping a finger between fabric and skin. I held her in one arm while I tried to open the tin of formula, but it was impossible. Where to put her? I went back to the bedroom for a blanket and laid her on the table. For a moment the novelty distracted her, and she was quiet, staring at something unseen. By the time I’d made the milk up and checked the temperature against my wrist she was kicking her legs and starting to cry. There, there Joan, don’t cry, it’s ready now. We settled in the front room, and I held the bottle to her lips. And she wailed. And wailed. She cried for an hour, turning her head left and right. Could she smell Irene? I opened a window letting a sudden breeze rush through. She cried more. Perhaps she was cold? I wrapped her in a blanket and pushed the bottle between her lips – she twitched her head away and would not suckle. Well, little madam, you’ll have to take it eventually, there’s nothing coming from me. I rocked her until the sobbing subsided and she fell asleep in my arms. I sat stock-still, afraid to move a muscle in case she started up again. How could she cry for so long and so loudly? She opened her mouth, taking a gulp of air like a defeated sigh. I shook the bottle so that droplets of milk landed on her lips. Her eyes opened, her mouth opened wider, ready to cry out again, drip, drop and she swallowed, then parted her lips, ready for more. She drank until it was gone, and I lifted her over my shoulder, gently patting her back until she belched like a sailor.