I pay a minder, so that I can work. I know lots of people disapprove of my choice, and think I should be at home with her all day. ‘Now is when she needs you most.’ – I see their eyes accuse. But I love my job, and I loved my life the way it was. I didn’t plan on having Lucy. So now I’ve got this woman in – Brenda. As soon as we met I judged her to be kind and capable. Lucy seemed to take to her quickly.
I saw them in the park opposite our office whilst on my lunch break. I was having a five-minute cigarette-stroll with Angela. Their arrival was heralded by a speedy whooshing and whirring, accented with clattering clunks and clicks. The rattling wheels scattered the stone-chips as they hurtled round the corner, halting at the duck-feeding platform. Lucy was wrapped up in blankets, snug in the Spring air: a little bundle with only her face showing, and fluttering wisps of hair flaring out from beneath her woolly hat. Brenda was chattering away to Lucy, who was gurgling contentedly, bubbles of saliva glinting in the sunlight.
‘Got to go,’ I yelled merrily across at them, as I ground out my cigarette end, smashing it into the path with my boot. I wanted to join their chatter, point out the birds and trees to Lucy, show her the shy crocuses that hinted at their violet and turmeric hues, yet to open their faces to the sky. But it seemed Brenda had already said it all.
I don’t really know much about Brenda, and I don’t feel I know her well enough to ask too many questions. It’s the way she is with Lucy that matters. When I got back from work last Friday Lucy was giggling, sat plumply in the middle of the floor, with the shredded Yellow Pages all around her. There was wet digestive biscuit everywhere, even along the skirting boards. She’s so endlessly fidgety and untidy. I could see she was wet, though it didn’t seem to be bothering her, merry as she was in the midst of her messy mayhem. Brenda saved the day of course. In she swept with her J-cloth and cheery smiles, fixing it all up within a moment. Lucy’s bath was running upstairs. I knew that next to it there’d be a fresh nappy and warmly ironed pyjamas and bed socks. I could smell the bubbles, and pictured the soft cloudiness of the steaming bathroom. I yearned for a soak, but obviously Lucy comes first. I could hear them up there, enjoying the warmth and liquid peace of the tub. I sat on Lucy’s bean-bag, but I couldn’t relax. I put my head back, trying to wriggle myself into its shifting shape. I got slimy bits of spat-out biscuit in my hair.
Angela said she thinks I’m jealous of Brenda, and I suppose in a way that might be true. She’s so competent. I suppose it’s easier when you can think to yourself, ‘Well, at least I’m being paid to clean up this poo…’ And Lucy can be delightful, so there’s job satisfaction of a kind you don’t get in office work. But it’s a hard job she has, spending hours and hours with Lucy, and no adult conversation. No thank-yous. No answers. That’s what I find hard.
Last Sunday was Brenda’s day off. Lucy was in her little rocky-chair in the garden whilst I prepared the picnic. I took out the portable cassette player for her, and put on one of her favourite tapes. I think music is so important – they say that emotional response to music is one of the first centres to develop in a growing foetus’ brain, and one of the last functions to fold at the other end of life. Lucy was in fine form, clapping her hands, her podgy knees wriggling with her laughter. I was busily mashing away at the eggs, squashing in the mayonnaise with a bent old fork, when I heard her wailing. Running out, I realised the music had stopped. I bent down to turn the tape over, and saw that all the buttons on top of the player were jammed. She must have been pushing them all in, ramming them down with her round hands, all at once. Opening it up to extract the cassette, I was met with about three metres of twisty spiralling untamed tape reel. The tape was one my Dad bought for her, before he died. Leaving it out of reach I headed back to the kitchen, desperately trying not to spoil things. Lucy was all grins again, smiling in the sunshine, watched by the irregular daffodils which swayed rather dementedly in the rising breeze.
Once I’d got the picnic ready we set forth on our outing to Bockerley Hill Picnic Area, a place that Dad often took us to last summer. He enjoyed superb health up to the last, his sturdy frame never for a moment hinting at such as swift exit. People said to me often – ‘Well, it’s the best way to go, best not to linger…’ One minute queueing at Freshley’s for a bag of plums, and the next immobility and silence on the linoed floor, the blue flashing lights seen only by the startled onlookers. His heart just froze. Announced it was ceasing, and that nothing could be done to change its mind. A consolation, people said, that it was so quick. But how could I explain to Lucy why the loving man who sang her made-up songs as he dried her toes had disappeared? People seemed to assume she wouldn’t notice. Brenda never even knew him. Now it’s as if his ripples have reached the edge of the pond and there’s no sign that he had ever touched it’s surface. So my choice of Bockerley Hill was a way of sharing him again – just me, Lucy, and the gentle man who brought us both peace.
The journey was a bit hairy but we got there in one piece. I find it difficult to clamp Lucy’s chair in situ on my own. All little levers and buckles and belts for her every comfort and security. Brenda can do it all in seconds, but with me it’s all fingers and thumbs, broken nails and curses. Lucy screamed every time we stopped at a traffic light or junction, and I’d got a bit of a headache already – she’s an expert at adjusting the pitch, tone, and volume of her wails for maximum discomfort to tired ears and tense minds. When I finally pulled into Bockerley’s car park I turned in surprise at her silence. She was asleep. One of her shoes had fallen off. I picked it up, and sat there for a while, looking at her screwed up eyelids and the soft rise and fall of her milky round throat. Her head rolled slowly, and her cheek was lined where it had been pushed up against her collar. She looked a million years old. I remember reading of an extraordinary anthropological find that scientists had unearthed in dust-blown Africa. An ancient woman, perfectly preserved, scrunched up in her everlasting sleep, blind to the aeons of change and loss since she’s last seen the sideways moon. The scientists called her ‘Lucy’ – this wrinkled slumbering specimen, excavated from the warm cradle of humankind. In the dog-barking car park at Bockerley Hill my own Lucy turned in her sleep, delighting in the inside world of her own unspoken dreams.
I didn’t like to disturb her, but I was sure the sun wouldn’t last much longer. I wanted us to have our lunch down by the little stream, in the sunlight, so I woke her gently, and she screeched. She squawked all the way down the rough gravel pathway, her wail accusing each time her chair bumped and lurched. I was exhausted, lugging the picnic stuff and man-handling her heavy chair round every pothole, over every waiting dog poo, stopping for every one of the staring Sunday trippers who were hell-bent on getting in our way. When we made it to the benches by the stream they were all full, so I parked Lucy near a willow, and fed her whilst on my knees. Hard little twigs poked at my legs and my feet became numb. We were outsiders, Lucy and I, sharing our yoghurt and our blackcurrant cordial. All the cosy little families, and all the full-of-hope-and-promise couples that gathered round the picnic tables sat on in judgement. Their indifference to the sight of me on my knees dripping stewed apple into Lucy’s open mouth announced my separate-ness. Dad would have blended in. I got mud and grass stains all over my jeans and chocolate smears on my T-shirt. Lucy burped. And then it rained. And I’d forgotten her waterproofs. And then we took the wrong path. And then it took ages for me to find my keys under the soggy egg butties. And then there was a traffic jam. And then Lucy was sick.
When we finally got home I desperately wanted to flop into bed, but Lucy needed changing, and washing, and feeding again. I left her in the living room whilst I unloaded all our gear. I put the TV on, for some background noise. I only went outside for a moment, but that was enough. I entered the living room and saw her over in the corner. A small transistor radio which I keep on the low shelf by the video was in Lucy’s hand. It has a long aerial, which she’d somehow managed to extend. And there she was, thrusting it at the telly. I don’t even remember exactly what I did, or said, or felt. I only knew that Lucy was sobbing, her crumpled face showing agonies of betrayal and hurt as I stood over her, my hand raised, my palm stinging from where I’d slapped her. I realised I had actually hit her, hard. ‘No,’ I croaked, to Lucy, or to myself … and then I saw that Brenda had slunk in through the still-open front door, and was stood in the archway, looking. I knew she’d seen it all. In a sweep of an arm I’d fallen from a somewhat pitiable career woman to an out-of-control abuser. I ran to the kitchen, a blob of not knowing where to hide or stop it hurting. I heard Brenda calm Lucy.
I don’t know what to do now. I’ve tried to bury myself in work, my tidy piles of paperwork to disguise my failure. I’m having such doubts now about Saint Brenda. Last night I heard them in the bathroom. Lucy was obviously being uncooperative and Brenda snapped at her, ‘Now stop it!’ she shouted. Lucy cried, her snivels eating my insides. ‘Shut up!’ Brenda yelled, her tone so very harsh. How harsh? Harder than my slap?
I sat with Lucy for a long time, once she was in bed. Tears ran down my face. I know I have let her down. How can I reprimand Brenda for shouting after she witnessed my own performance? Lucy’s eyes met mine as I sat there, my one hand stroking her hair, the other wiping my wet cheeks. Oh Lucy. Poor suffering Lucy.
‘I’ll not leave you,’ I said, ‘You’ll stay here with me ’til you can join Dad. I’ll try my best, I promise…’
Lucy smiled. Lucy, my dear Mother.
© 2001 Sarah Tait
First appeared in ‘Connections’ Literary Magazine
Sarah is a poet who currently co-hosts Writers Unleashed, a monthly writer's open-mic evening in Thanet celebrating local talent.