Week 2 of my #Bradburychallenge. This is a story I’ve been thinking about writing for a long time, and the prompt this week called it to mind, so I went with it. I’m finding that the prompts are really building my story-making muscle. I always thought I was an editor or critic but never a writer because I wasn’t someone who was often gripped by a story I had to tell. Ideas didn’t seem to visit me very often, but I found analysing and appreciating writing once it was on the page came very naturally. I still love reading and editing of course, but I am surprised to feel the story-making bit of my brain waking up.
Be brutal with me, I really want to know where this is hitting home and where it is not.
Frank Mountjoy stood in the front doorway of The Fleece, watching the rooks on the cliffs that scarred the other side of the valley. A cuckoo called. Footsteps on the stairs inside. He turned towards them, pushing the door further ajar.
“You can go in now, Mr Mountjoy”. The midwife lifted a pink-streaked apron over her head and folded it. He didn’t like to think about it. He rubbed his hands on his thighs and then through his hair. He used the back of his sleeve to wipe the sweat from his forehead.
“Go on in,” she said, “its all quite tidy”.
He went up the stairs two at a time and walked into their room, ducking under the door frame.
By God Margaret was beautiful. And there you were. Just like the others. Wrapped in the same blanket she had crocheted the first time. God knows it had done its duty. Would they also take the blanket?
He wasn’t sure if he’d asked, but Margaret whispered “another girl”. As she said it, she lifted you to him. He didn’t think he’d ever held any of the others when they were this small. His large hand caught the nape of your neck as his other cupped your napkinned backside.
So light! He always forgot how tiny they were. Hard to believe Nora had been like this once.
Maybe Margaret had changed her mind.
“Maybe Margaret had changed her mind.”
She wouldn’t meet his gaze, but she whispered.
“You better send word to the Doctor’s wife. She’ll want to know she’s here”.
He searched her face. He’d never known her to whisper.
He began to sway as you started to arch your back and bleat.”Shhhhh Shhhhh Shhhh, that’s alright little one”. You threw your head back, blindly bobbing, wriggling.
“She’s strong!” he said, laughing despite himself. “Hadn’t you better feed her?”
Margaret sighed, rolled her eyes, but held her arms out for you. Her irritation was as familiar as an old pair of slippers. He passed you back.
For a moment, he thought she was going to say something. He waited.
“Are you going to stand there and watch?” she said, raising her beautiful eyebrows at him.
He looked at the ground.
He took one last look at you. Margaret sighed again.
“I’m going” he said, “I’m going”.
He backed a few paces then swivelled on his heel and banged his head on the door lintel. God knows it caught him out most days, why should today be any different.
Your bleating ceased, and he knew she must have let you feed. He stood on the landing listening. Maybe he should wait just a little longer before sending for the Doctor. Time to finish his pipe maybe.
“Frank,” Margaret said from her bed, “I don’t hear you getting your coat.”
“I’ll just be going
Her sudden shout startled him, he heard you crying again.
Bitch. You were his. You were strong. Lily. He would name you Lily. You were his and he’d be damned if any woman was going to tell him what to do with his own child.
“I’m already gone, dear,” he put his hat on and folded a coat over his arm.
Somehow, the doctor’s wife, Mrs Beddis, knew. She’d been sending the boy down to ask every day, but today she set off herself. She tied off the threads and bundled the blanket up with the tiny hat and socks.
She left a note. He’d have only told her to be patient. Lord forgive her, but she couldn’t bear to wait for one more moment.
She was about to reach the brow of the tump when her footsteps slowed. She was out of breath. Had she remembered the hat? She unbundled the blanket and held it out, the socks and hat falling silently on the grass. She had brought it. But maybe she ought to go back and wait.
She was retrieving the last sock when she sensed a darkening of the horizon. She quickly straightened and, dazzled by the sunlight, brought her hand to her brow. Frank Mountjoy.
He bent to pick up the tiny sock. He held it lightly in his hand, looking at it for a moment too long before meeting her eye. “Mrs Beddis.” He said.
“Mr Mountjoy. I was just coming to see if there was any news-“, she held out her hand for the sock. He held onto it.
“Ah.” He said. He looked again at the sock. She noticed his face reddening. “No.”
He looked at his feet. He was normally such an easy-mannered man. She supposed any man was entitled to lose their composure at a time like this.
He coughed. Sucked in air through his teeth. Just like his manner when he’d estimated the cost of putting in a flushing toilet at the surgery. She dropped the blanket, and her hand went to her chest.
He tipped his head to one side, twisting his mouth in grim anticipation as if he was about to watch the lancing of a boil. Or an amputation. She wished she could sit down. She’d be damned if she would say it for him.
“Mr Mountjoy?” she said.
It came out in a rush then. “Mrs Mountjoy’s had a change of heart, my dear.”
The hand at her chest turned white as she dug her nails into the palm in a fist. She gulped.
He bit his lip. She searched his face for doubt, for hope, but he broke his eyes from hers to pick up the things. She could only watch. Bundling them all together he suddenly seemed to realise what they were. He looked at her, wincing once again with his eyes.
At last, she let out her breath and raised her chin. “Tell Mrs Mountjoy they’re from me. I hope-“. She covered her face with her palm and ran away, back down the tump, holding her shawl at her throat and her dress at her knee.
Your father stood at the top of the tump, holding the crocheted blanket and watching Mrs Beddis streaming home. He watched her dress frothing as she ran. He caught her stifled wail. At last he brought the blanket to his face, and shuddered into it until it was wet with tears and snot.
He found himself walking towards Jenny’s, his ears ringing with the upset of it all.
Little Rose was sitting on their front step, the door ajar. He bent down and lifted her onto his hip.
“My little Rose” he kissed her forehead. “and where are my two thorns today?”
She wriggled out of his arms and ran inside “Mummy, Mummy, daddy’s here!”.
“Is he now? Well to what do we owe this pleasure I wonder?” said Jenny, smiling at him as she wiped her hands clean and took off her apron.
“Be a love and put the kettle on my dear” said Frank, as he removed his coat and eased into a chair at the small table.
She came up behind him and, placing her hands on his shoulders, kissed the top of his head.
He smiled up at her and saw her notice his red eyes. He sniffed.
“The baby came this morning”, he said.
She snatched her hands from his shoulders and went to the kettle.
“I can’t do it”. He said. He thought he might be going to cry again.
Jenny said nothing, and busied herself with the kettle.
“What am I going to tell Margaret?” he said. It felt so strange to be using her name in this house.
Jenny stood very still. “Margaret?”
“She still doesn’t want her”.
“It’s a girl?”
He chuckled. “Another girl. Little Lily”.
He looked at Jenny’s tiny waist. She stood unnaturally still. Rose came and squeezed onto his knee. Eventually Jenny turned to him.
They began to speak at the same time.
“I dare say she’ll-“
“I’ll have her.”
“Now hang on a minute-“
“If she’s too good to bring up her own bairn-“.
“It’s not- you can’t-“
“What does she need all those bedrooms for anyway?”.
So that’s how it was. For a moment he saw an upside down future stretching out ahead of him. Margaret here in the terrace, and Jenny presiding over The Fleece. He looked at the blanket he’d bundled onto the table. That poor child.
The weight of his coat caused his chair to crash over as he stood up and sat Rose on the edge of the table. He kissed her forehead and bundled up the blanket.
“Your coat-” he heard Jenny say as the front door shut behind him.
“Lily stays with us”, he said, striding into the room.
Margaret pulled her nightdress closed. You’d been sleeping at her breast. She’d been crying. A tear spilled on to her cheek even now. She sniffed and dabbed at her nose with a handkerchief snatched from the sleeve at her wrist.
He felt his throat collapsing, strangling him at the sight of her, broken.
“Lily?” she said, a tinge of laughter in her voice.
He breathed again. He sat on the bed next to Margaret and put his arm around her shoulders, placing his finger in your tiny palm and letting you grip it as you slept.
“Lilian.” She said.
He kissed the side of Margaret’s head.
He saw her notice the blanket he’d put on the bottom of the bed.
“From Mrs Beddis,” he said. His voice hoarse as he said it.
Margaret met his eyes, shaking her head. “May God forgive us”.
This week’s prompt was “a blanket”. I cheated slightly and just used an object prompt this week as the story got a hold on me. The whole point is to write, though, so I’m ok with that. This is a story inspired by my Grandmother, who once casually told me that she had meant to be adopted by the local doctor because of the depression, but her father couldn’t do it. Then, another time, she casually revealed that she had half-sisters who lived in the same town as her but who she never spoke more than a civil ‘hello Mrs xxxx’ to. So, in conclusion, this whole story is a total rip-off of my granny’s family history, but at the same time, this retelling is totally imagined, including the names of everyone, except Lilian. I’d love to know what you think, where it misses the mark, what you liked, anything at all really. After a month of doing the Bradbury