Everywhere I look there seems to be a call for a short story or a poem, a pamphlet or novel. Here is a sad little story I’m thinking of submitting to one competition next week. Tell me what you think?
Behold the Lamb
Bessie, a maid at the Ambassador’s house on Bedford Square, pushes the murmuring bundle strapped tight to her breast a little deeper into her slackened boddice.
“Stay down my little mite, my little bud. It be raining cats and dogs. You stay dry in there my love.” She yanks the grey shawl tighter about her shoulders. It’s a useless gesture, for the shawl, like the rest of Bessie’s rough clothing, is soaked right through. The one warm, dry patch on her young body, still plump from pregnancy, is the secret space between her and the three-week old infant she is carrying.
In the lashing rain she makes slow progress. But her tarrying is only partly caused by the weather, as this morning’s destination is unkind enough to put anyone off trying to reach it. ‘At least’, Bessie thinks, as she hefts one leaden leg in front of the other, ‘at least this one’s still alive and if I ‘ave anything to do with it, will live’. She is out on a special ‘errand’ and owes cover for her few hours of escape to Mrs Grenville the Housekeeper. Nora, as she calls Mrs Grenville when Nora comes to her in the night and they share comfort.
It was stern but fair Nora, who saved baby Duncan in the first place. When he rudely entered the world that bitter morning, ‘so cold it was’, outside, where she was cleaning the staircases to the basement yard, and too quickly, he slid out between her legs in a rush of blood and water, it was Nora who wrapped him in a large drying cloth and hid him in a drawer in her housekeeper’s office where no-one would find him.
Baby Duncan’s arrival had been that hasty because he wasn’t Bessie’s first. ‘That one, well, that one’s best forgotten and the next, but not this one. Not baby Duncan, please God. No.’ When Bessie told Nora about Duncan’s dead older brothers, Nora vowed there and then that she would see to it personally that this time this child would live. She would help Bessie get rid of him. No, not like that, she’d said. She meant she’d find a place for him. Properly.
Good as her word, Nora had gone herself to put in a request. Then that frozen week in February when the Good Lord chose to bring the poor child unto the world of men early, news came through to say that baby Duncan’s name had been matched to a white ball. That blessed white ball, Nora had told Bessie, was what they had been praying for; was baby Duncan’s passport to life.
But this morning Nora had been unusually fierce with Bessie, turning her back on her while issuing her orders; Bessie must be quick. On no account should she tarry. She must get her ‘errand’ seen to well before luncheon. There was only so much she, as housekeeper, could do to cover, and Bessie had to promise on her life, to be back before the Master’s luncheon bell sounded. They were one serving-girl short upstairs, and his Lordship had asked for Bessie as a replacement, perhaps he suspected something? Well, there was nothing Nora could do about that.
Bessie knows full well she must make haste but the rain is pelting harder now and her legs are heavier than full sacks of wet cornmeal, so there is nothing for it but she must stop for a rest by the Plough Tavern across from the grand, new palace Bessie knows to be the British Museum. There, on that free bench, empty because of the downpour.
“No ‘arm done eh my bud? No ‘arm done if we sit ‘ere a mo’ and take the weight off is there? I won’t tell if you won’t.” She strokes the top of her baby’s crown gently. A fuzz of spun copper warm to the touch. “Nora be only trying to help, and she’s gone and found us a special place for you my lamb, and that’s where we’re ‘eading.” Cold rivulets of rain trailing off Bessie’s bonnet join warmer tributaries on her face and she rubs both away with the back of her calloused hand.
Mostly, Nora has been that kind to her because, Bessie is certain that she too, in more fetching days, has known what it’s like to be pushed against the low sink in the downstairs pantry by the Master, or one of his gentlemen friends from the Americays, as Bessie calls that far away land whence comes the Master’s fortune.
Those men, with their knotted hands, blotchy faces and ugliness for all to see, when they descend below stairs without the coverings of their periwigs or fancy clothes, who force their oily palms against a serving girl’s mouth to stop her cries and press their cold-capped knees between her clamped, trembling thighs. Bessie’s certain Nora has known what it’s like when the so called ‘gentle-man’ don’t take ‘no’ for an answer like, and carries on as if you was not there, was not real, was just a wraith in his dream, and the business he is doing to you, that sometimes hurts, oh how it hurts’, his god-given right, an enlivener on his sleepwalk, a tonic for his sleeplessness. All part of the service he expects and gets at his good friend the Ambassador’s house.
Skitter, then splash and the sound of hob nailed boots. A baker-boy Bessie recognises wheels by his piled high barrow towards the fancy mansion on the square, and when he notices her calls out something fresh. Cheeky so and so. It’s her signal to move on, and with difficulty she resumes her course toward Russell Field. She pulls her bonnet down hard against the strafing weather and spots that her usually shiny black boots are sloppy with mud.
Nora’ll never stand for that. She won’t stand for no kind of dirt. No kind of dirt at all. I’ll have to be sure to clean ‘em proper before I go back inside, that I will!
If she just carries on in a straight line down Guilford Street ahead, Bessie knows very well she will be at her destination in three beats of a lapwing but she can’t help herself, and despite having covered only a few hundred yards more, once again veers from her path and turns off into Queens Square.
The sheltering porch of St. George’s in the far corner beckons with darkness, and there, pulling herself into the coffin-like vault of its doorway she sits. Her sodden skirts, a fan of sorrow upon the steps, she takes out Baby Duncan from his tight swaddling and with no one about in the downpour, eases out a wet nipple onto his puckered lips, rubbing it there before he latches on.
“We can’t let you be going off hungry now can we my little bud?” Then, to herself, you must be strong. You must live, followed swiftly so as to prevent her confidence from seeping further into the gutter, Nora is right. For you to live, this be the only way. The only way. The baby suckles and she strokes his head.
“Nora says, you, my little lamb, be like my very own little Moses. And he, well we know he grow’d up to be the Lord’s Own prophet didn’t he, a hero for the Chosen People, eh my bud?” Her latter-day deliverer sucks and gurgles as he continues to feed, and biblical consolations exhausted, Bessie reaches nervously for the further reassurance of a small leather pouch at her waist. She checks the tokens inside for the hundredth time. A snippet of coloured ribbon embroidered with exotic parrots and a scrap of paper upon which Nora was good enough to inscribe a portion of the poem she’s been reading to Bessie at night to stop her crying. Bessie can’t read herself but making sure her finger is dry so as not to smudge the ink, she traces along the elegant black indentations and swirls, and mouths what she remembers,
Hard is my Lot and Deep Distress
To have no help where Most should find
Sure Nature meant her Sacred Laws
Should Men as strong as Women bind
She skips the next bit, as she can’t remember it too well and bites her lip hoping this will stop the dry choking in her throat until the taste of hot iron tells her she has drawn blood. Her finger moves on to the last few lines, the ones she likes best of all. She slows down here and speaks what she’s memorized,
That I in Better Plight may Live
I’d try to have my boy again
And train him up the best of Men.
A wood pigeon rattles into flight from the church roof. Looking up in the direction of the noise, Bessie’s eye is caught by a blue clad, small statuette of the blessed Virgin tucked away in a shadowy niche. Mary has her arms spread wide in benediction beneath her beautiful cloak. At this sight something in Bessie settles. ‘The Holy Mother ‘erself will be looking over him’ she convinces herself, and reaffirmed in her pitiful pledge to come back one day to retrieve her golden boy if ever she can, and sure of the love tokens she is sending with him, she decides to push on with the morning’s terrible task.
She folds the paper back up, ties it with the pretty parrot ribbon and tucks it back inside the leather pouch she must hand in with Baby Duncan very soon. These are their pathetic signifiers; that he belongs to her, and she to him. The markers she will need to match together again if she is ever in a position, no, when she is in a position to come and fetch him back. But she mustn’t think of that now or else her heart will stop, so it will.
The belfry clangs hard. The masonry resounds.
“Sweet Jesus! The noon bells. Even more will be lost if I be late. Nora said so.” Bessie gathers herself up hurriedly and Baby Duncan mewls back weakly in protest.
“There, there my little bud, my lamb.” She picks up the small basket resting by her side and reattaches its string loosely around her neck so it will hang once more down her back as she walks. She mustn’t forget that, it’s Baby Duncan’s precious cot. She wove it herself and wants him to have it, to keep forever. With the metal peal still rattling her damp bones, Bessie dives into the thinning, needle-like rain. There’s no going back now.
At the top of Lamb’s Conduit Field the hospital comes into view. It is an oddly luminous building, bright, chalky white, with short, fat towers at either end. Bessie thinks it looks like a small, fairy-tale castle. Like one of those she has seen in the Master’s children’s books in the nursery.
“Miss! Miss! You’ve got to push him through. Like this.” The queue has been shuffling steadily towards the point of no return. Bessie has fallen into an odd stupor and is unable to deliver her bundle through the slit in the wall into the hands of the gruff warden on the other side. Her hands simply will not do it. Another woman’s helpmate in the queue pushes through the press and comes up to hurry Bessie along. None of them can afford to miss this lifeline because of any silly carrying on. The keen-faced girl takes Bessie’s hand in hers and with it thrusts Baby Duncan’s basket hard through the hatch so that before Bessie can do anything, he is beyond her reach.
“No! My boy! My life.” She yelps but the warden has grabbed cot and child and through his ample, yellow-stained beard, barks,
“Come on Miss you know it’s for the best. No one’ll thank ‘ee for ditherin’.” He shoves a large ledger back through for Bessie to sign. He sees her hesitate, “just put a cross there at the bottom on the right.” How she does it, she will never know, but she picks up the stubby, filthy quill he has given her for the purpose and leaves her mark – a cross for a child. She hands quill and book back through the aperture, and the warden, with not so much as a good day, brings down a shutter to mark the end of the transaction.
“Get a move on girl, can’t you see as how there’s a lot of us perishin’ out here.” Bessie can’t be sure if it’s the same girl from before calling out, but what does it matter? Her deed is done. The bells of St. George’s mark the half. Bessie takes in the meaning of the aborted carillon. She is to get back to work before they ring again at the quarter.
Her head full of rain, stomach void with the loneliest hunger, and legs unsteady like empty barrels, she yanks her wet shawl tightly about her, turns on her muddy heel and walks away.