Winner of Ottaka Short Story Prize 2002
It is 1941. Here we have a handsome young Flight Lieutenant, eager to fight for his country. Billeted in Wilmslow, flying from Ringway and sometimes to be seen in the park in the mornings. Just when two trainee Princess Christian nurses, only sixteen years old, bring out their charges in their big upholstered prams to take the air. Four babies to a pram, two at one end and two at the other.
From what I have seen in an old photograph, one of those nurses, Janet Morena Gill, is heart stoppingly pretty. Perhaps I should declare partiality – she is my mother, after all, but I think it is a fair assessment. That morning in Wilmslow Park, the Janet Morena Gill we see has glossy brown hair, clear hazel eyes and an air of expectancy which has come from a romantic idea of life, which had been formed, so she tells me, mainly through the reading of Zane Grey novels with her sisters. She is sixteen years old, she has been sent away from home to be trained and there is a war on. Anything could happen.
What did happen to my mother has stayed with her for the rest of her life. She is now in her late seventies and still clearly remembers the dark haired young RAF officer who came to talk to her in the park. He was concerned about the babies in her charge. Were they orphans? Why were they in a home? Did anybody visit them? Were they distressed? It seemed an unusual concern for a young man and my mother thought that he was only using the topic to introduce himself to her, but as the hours passed and they talked more she realised why he had such an interest in children who had been separated from their parents.
It is curious to think that this very private and painful story was told to a complete stranger. But perhaps not so curious. Sometimes it is easier to talk to someone with whom you have no connections, particularly when what you have to say may be hurtful to those who have been closest to you over the years.
He told her that he had been walking the streets and avenues of nearby Alderley Edge looking for a house which he had seen in a recurring dream. He was certain that the house was in Alderley Edge because he had been amazed to recognise the streets of his dream as he had walked through the village on a hiking party up the Edge a few weeks ago. Now although the streets still seemed familiar, the house remained tantalisingly hard to find. The house was large, it was mostly made of brick, lightish in colour and had ivy growing around some of the windows. In his dream the house was filled with soldiers and nurses. It was summer and the soldiers, who appeared to be convalescing, were often taken outside to sit in the sun. The period appeared to be 1st World War, judging by the uniforms of the soldiers and the nurses. He was engrossed in explaining the detail of these pictures but it was only when my mother asked the obvious question – why was he so determined to find this house - that he told her the full extent of these recurring dreams.
He was billeted in a quiet street near Wilmslow Park and shared a pleasant house with six other men. He was lucky in that he had his own room. It was small but comfortable, with a sagging but deliciously cosy bed and a solid wooden wardrobe and matching chest of drawers. At first he had slept well in this comfortable room but then he had begun to have these dreams of streets and the house with its occupants from the 1st World War. These dreams were always laced with a sense of foreboding. He had been shocked to recognise the setting of his dreams as he walked through Alderley Edge village. Since then he had had felt compelled to look for this house whenever he was given leave. Recently things had got much worse. He had been going to bed at the usual time only to find himself standing awake in the kitchen of the house in the early hours of morning. Each time this happened he was sure someone had just been in the kitchen with him. But although he had looked around carefully and called softly down the corridor, he had found no one. Two nights before he spoke to my mother, he had found himself awake in the kitchen once more as before. He had walked to the sink to pour himself a glass of water. As he waited for the tap to run cold – the antiquated plumbing was a standing joke amongst the men – he rested his arms on either side of the sink and watched the weak stream of water glinting in the reflected moonlight. He thought he heard a noise from the dark corner to the right, by the door. He turned to look and as he did so was horrified to feel a cold hand circle his left wrist and grip it firmly. Sudden pain shot through his arm and across his chest. He turned his head wildly to the left and found himself staring into dark eyes in a white face. He screamed and tried to escape, but she, for he was sure it was a woman, only gripped more fiercely and the pain increased as he struggled. The figure seemed to take on a more substantial form and he could hear the whispered words “listen to me” repeated over and over. He stood still, his breath coming in great gulps and forced himself to overcome his horror and give himself up to listen. The room around him seemed to recede and he found himself sharing some formless dark space with this apparition. He was aware of gradually being over whelmed by dreadful physical pain tearing at the muscles along his stomach and thighs. The pain came in great, increasing waves and then he was aware of weakness creeping over him. He fell to his knees; through the hazy reality he now inhabited he could feel the cold ridges of the uneven stone floor beneath him. The physical pain receded and he was immediately filled with a dreadful mixture of loss and guilt. What had he lost? How could he live without it... without it? He sobbed as his body slumped forward onto his arms. How could he live?
Then it was all gone. He was alone, kneeling on the kitchen floor. Above him, out of his sight, the cold water tap was still running. He would have thought that he had dreamed it but for the distinct finger marks around his wrist.
He went back to bed and slept deeply until he was awoken at the usual time by the sound of his alarm clock. Thinking of nothing but this ghostly woman, he went through the motions of an ordinary day, came home, ate, made desultory conversation with his housemates and, after a reasonable amount of time, went to bed. He lay for some time in a strange state, halfway between fear and anticipation. Would she come back? He slept.
Suddenly he was awake in the dark kitchen again. He looked around cautiously, seeking a presence. Nothing. Only the sound of his own tremulous breathing. He bent his head forward in disappointment. For a long time there was silence. Then on his left shoulder he felt a slight, almost hesitant, pressure of fingers and a voice whispered again in his ear “listen to me”.
He braced himself for the pain but none came. Instead a sense of great relaxation spread through him. A feeling which he could only describe to my mother as a tender, all encompassing, gentle love permeated his body and softly entered his mind. He sank down to the floor and half closed his eyes.
He became aware of a female figure whose form seemed to move in time with his own and whose mouth gradually became the only focus as she spoke.
She was sixteen years old. She was his mother. He could see a starched cap… a neat white cuff …the impression of a uniform. A badge of some sort. She was a nurse …or perhaps a volunteer helper … at the house he had seen in his dreams. She was pregnant. Disbelief, then delight then months of dread and concealment. The house of his previous dreams appeared around him. Now he was inside it. The long upper corridor. He knew where it led. He was just beginning to move along it when the images became distorted and harrowing. Full of voices and fear. He could only dimly see what happened to her. She was somewhere else, the room was bright, white. He felt an echo of the physical pain he had felt on the previous night. There was a baby but it was taken away. The baby was taken away. Her feelings of loss, mixed with a guilty relief, overwhelmed him and nothing more entered his mind. He was found the next morning by the housekeeper. Nothing much was said. She made him a cup of tea and asked him if he wanted toast. There were other men there who had shared similar restless nights, although their visions were of parachute jumps and the shattering of their bones.
After that night the Flight Lieutenant assumed that by some extraordinary chance he had returned close to his birthplace and that that proximity had allowed his past to invade his present. He told my mother that it was not possible to doubt these dreams. He knew the story they had told him was the true one of himself. He was profoundly shocked. In all of his secure comfortable life he had never been told that he had been adopted into the family of which he was now part. Even to say the words felt strange. He had never had any intimation that anything like that could be possible. His parents were his and he was their son. He could not ever bring himself to confront them with his dreams. He did not want to let the wild ghostly creature of his real mother into his life. He was sure that she was dead and that she had been dead for a long time. Perhaps she had died just after he had been born or very soon afterwards. He was certain that the images he had seen were of a past reality and not some strange fantasy of his own. But it was a reality which he wished to remain buried.
He was all the more certain of the veracity of this new information about his origins because with the dreams came flooding back memories of his childhood. Particularly of his nanny telling him how as a baby he would cry incessantly. The sound of it was heartbreaking, she said, you’d think he was some poor motherless child, and nothing they could do could comfort him. Why did she say that? Did she know? Perhaps not, said my mother. It was the sort of thing nannies said, thinking of her own experiences. He recalled that for many years he had had terrifying nightmares which he could not articulate, where he felt that someone was trying to talk to him. Someone who would not leave him alone. Could this have been her – his mother – trying to tell him about his birth and her love? He was quiet after saying this. Remembering the feeling of deep love which he had experienced. It was good to have felt that. It would be good to have it to think of in the future.
And so eventually he finished telling this story to my mother, sitting on a bench in the park at Wilmslow in 1941. The other trainee nurse had taken her charges back to the home, not wishing to disturb what had seemed to be a budding romance. After an hour had passed she had decided that things were going well and she had returned, full of conspiritorial importance, and had offered to take my mother’s still sleeping pramful back as well. This gave my mother much more time with the Flight Lieutenant than would have normally been possible for a young girl in her position. She would have continued sitting there, wearing her cape and nurse’s cap, listening sympathetically as she always does, her face perhaps tilted towards him and her expression serious, as the airman told her that he could not talk to anyone in his family about this without causing extreme pain.
She only saw the young man once more. He met her in the park on another sunny morning when she was wheeling her babies out and told her that his dreams had gone. If one believed in spirits then this one was at rest – at least had no more to tell him. He was to be posted away the next day and was glad he had found her there. He stood for a moment in the sunlight and then bent down, and for the sheer joy of it, kissed her. By the time she had realigned her cap and recovered her composure, he had gone.
Janet thought about the nurse from the 1st World War a lot. Janet was sixteen too. She wore a nurse’s uniform. When she bathed the babies in her charge she thought about their mothers. Their stories. But she never talked to anyone of the young nurse in 1916 and her child.
Until she told me. Of course, I asked her for more concrete evidence. The young man’s name? Did she ever find out the name of the street- the house - the people concerned? She could not clearly remember. In the weeks after he had talked to her she had visited Alderley Edge out of curiousity. She asked about convalescent homes used for soldiers in the 1st World War; there had been names given – she remembered a name with “Oak” in it and another with “Hay” or perhaps “Hey”. But what was most important in her memory was the distress of this young man, the certainty with which she accepted his story. I really did not give it much credence – this sounds so much like a romantic tale told by a young man who wants to impress a pretty girl - until recently, in Alderley Edge library, I held some photographs of soldiers and nurses standing outside a house of brick covered with ivy. On the back of the photograph are the words “Sunning Hey. First World War. Chaps from Brookdale.”
And I felt that there is something more someone wants me to know.