Read an Excerpt
The Hours Before Dawn
By Celia Fremlin
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1986 Celia Goller
All rights reserved.
"i'd give anything — anything — for a nights sleep."
For one awful moment Louise thought she had spoken aloud. She jerked up her head and blinked round at the swinging streaks of colour that were rapidly resolving themselves into Mrs Hooper and her baby, Mrs Tomlinson and her baby, and that Mrs What's her-name in the smart blue suit whose baby did exactly what the books said, for all the world as if he and his mother studied the Behaviour Charts and Average Weight Tables together.
Louise fought back her drowsiness and hoisted Michael into a safer position on her lap. It was all right. No one was staring at her; no one was looking shocked, not even Nurse Fordham. Indeed, she could not have been dozing for more than a second or two altogether, for Mrs Hooper still hadn't finished the sentence she had begun while Louise was properly awake.
"... And so I thought Ld bring Christine to be weighed today after all. Just out of interest, of course — I shan't worry if she hasn't gained. In fact, I shan't worry if she's lost —" Here Mrs Hooper leaned further across the placid bulk of Mrs Tomlinson to peer expectantly into Louise's face, Louise knew that Mrs Hooper wanted to be reproved for this casual attitude — no theory of child-management can thrive if no one disagrees with it — but this afternoon she felt too tired to disagree with anyone.
"Yes, I think you're quite right," she said uncooperatively. Mrs Hooper was only momentarily disconcerted; soon she began again, in the hushed yet piercing tones used habitually by the mothers, who felt that they should not disturb the solemnity of the Infant Welfare Clinic by anything above a whisper, and yet wished to converse continually with neighbours several chairs and several crying babies away,
"I don't believe in all this worrying," continued Mrs Hooper truculently. "I think it's absurd the way most mothers worry about a few ounces this way or that. After all, Nature doesn't worry. She doesn't provide baby-scales for rabbits, does she? Or for cats? They bring up their babies all right without all this fuss."
Mrs Hooper paused, anxious as a child, and watched Louise hopefully for some sign of disapproval. She had an uneasy feeling that people were less shocked at this sort of remark now than they had been nine years ago, when her elder child was a baby.
"Don't they?" she prompted, with an oddly touching sort of aggressiveness.
"Don't who? — Oh — I'm sorry! Yes. Cats and rabbits." Louise hastily collected her wits. "Yes. Of course. But the trouble is that we expect our babies to survive. Cats and rabbits are content to bring up about two out of seven, and so —"
"You're next, ain't you, duck?" enquired Mrs Tomlinson, across whose amiable bulk this conversation was taking place. "You come in after her with the pink coat, I saw you, and she was two in front of Mrs Rogers, but Mrs Rogers ain't waiting, see, and so that only leaves her what's up there now, and then —"
Louise could not quite follow the intricacies of this calculation, but like most laymen she did not query the methods of the expert. She thankfully accepted the conclusion, and was about to get to her feet when Mrs Hooper intervened.
"No — excuse me — I'm sorry — but I was here first," she protested. "I've been here since half past one. I think it's scandalous the way they keep us waiting. I came here early on purpose so as to get away early. I've got to be at my pottery class by five."
"Never mind," said Louise soothingly — and she would have liked to have added that mother rabbits get on all right without pottery classes; instead, she went on: "Don't worry, you go in front of me if you like — but please don't ask her a lot of complicated questions. I've got to get away early, too, to fetch the girls from school."
"Of course I shan't ask her any questions!" retorted Mrs Hooper, scandalised. "I never ask advice about my children. I feel that my own mother-instincts ..."
Her sentence remained unfinished, for Nurse Fordham had already called out "Next, please" a second time, and Mrs Hooper's mother-instincts were proving somewhat inadequate when it came to the task of disentangling her baby's outdoor garments from the feet and chair legs of her neighbours with one hand, while with the other she clutched a handbag and a weight-card as well as her almost upside-down and loudly-protesting daughter.
But Nurse Fordham was patient. You could tell that she had schooled herself to be patient with the mothers; and when Louise, a few minutes later, settled herself in the chair facing Nurse Fordham, she felt the patience in that bright smile like the sting of an April wind. Michael, seeming heavier and damper than ever, was wriggling discontentedly in her lap. He was already beginning those uneasy, rasping grunts which meant that soon he would be yelling beyond all hope of control. Louise jigged him gently from side to side in a delaying action, praying that the interview with Nurse Fordham would be over before he really let himself go. When a baby cried, Nurse Fordham's patience with the mother became so intense that one could no longer meet her eyes nor remember what one was trying to say.
"So you see," Louise hastened on, "the trouble is that he wakes up and cries every night. Whether I give him a feed or not, I mean." As she spoke, she jigged Michael with mounting violence, feeling through her palms, through her thighs, the tide of boredom rising within him. Harder — harder — it was like baling out a boat when you know without any doubt that the water will win in the end. ... And the patience in Nurse Fordham's voice was like the swell of the sea, in which a thousand boats can sink unnoticed.
"You see, Mrs Henderson," she was explaining, choosing her words carefully, as if Louise could understand human speech little better than the writhing baby in her arms — "you see, as I'm always telling you mothers, you mustn't worry. He's gaining splendidly — he's very strong and active for seven months old. There's nothing to worry about."
"No — I know —" said Louise, senselessly apologetic by now. "But you see he keeps us awake half the night. My husband can't stand it either, he —"
"You mustn't worry, Mrs Henderson," repeated Nurse Fordham, the patience crackling from her starched sleeve like machine-gun fire as she reached for the case-sheets. "That's the mistake all you young mothers make. You worry too much. Your worry communicates itself to the baby, and there you are!"
Such was the self-confident triumph in Nurse Fordham's voice that for a moment Louise felt as if Nurse Fordham really did know where she, Louise, was. Knew what it felt like when you dragged yourself out of bed at two in the morning ... and again at quarter past three ... and again at five. Knew what you could say to a husband when he shouted at you in the light of the crazy, dying moon: "For God's sake make him shut up! I can't stand it any longer! Make him SHUT UP!" Knew, too, how to make yourself cope with the next day — how to remain bright and good-tempered and attractive — to get the children off to school in time — to answer their questions, plan the meals, never letting tiredness get the better of you. ...
"Just stop worrying, you see," repeated Nurse Fordham (you had to repeat things over and over again to these mothers, they never seemed to take anything in the first time, and really, this woman was still looking quite blank). "Just stop worrying, and then your baby will stop worrying, too. Create a calm, tranquil atmosphere. ..."
Michael's first real yell filled the clinic from wall to wall, and Louise hastily gathered him up and rose from her chair. Under the scorching beam of Nurse Fordham's patience she got him to the back of the room, bundled him pell-mell into leggings, coat and bonnet, and fled from the room like an escaping burglar.
Once outside in the cold spring sunlight, with the cold spring wind flicking across the rows of empty prams, Michael's yells subsided; and he maintained a guarded silence as Louise settled him in his pram, his breath indrawn ready to scream again at once if she should attempt to lie him down instead of propping him up in a sitting position. Like any general of a defeated army, Louise gladly accepted such moderate terms, and was about to embark on the familiar task of disentangling her pram from the four adjoining ones, when she noticed with surprise that one of these contained a baby. At first she did not recognise the child, as half its face was hidden by the grubby pink bonnet which had slipped down over its eyes, and the other half by a cauliflower, at which it gnawed with absent-minded greed. The pram she could not immediately recognise either, though it undoubtedly must belong to one of the higher-income-group mothers, for it was scratched and muddy, the hood was lurching sideways where a screw was missing, and the end away from the baby was filled with potatoes. The prams from the poorer parts of the neighbourhood were invariably brand-new and shining, with satin eiderdowns and embroidered pillows. A moment later Louise was able to identify the bonnet and the cauliflower as Christine Hooper; for Mrs Hooper herself could now be seen picking her way among the prams towards them, her sturdy legs blue above their unseasonable sandals, and her sparse red hair held back as always by an Alice-in-Wonderland ribbon — a style which was growing yearly more unbecoming as she floundered further and further into the thirties.
"Hullo — I thought you were in such a hurry to get to your pottery class," remarked Louise. "Look — can you get your pram out first? No — turn it a bit sideways — that's right."
A violent jolt from her mother's rather heavy-handed manuvres sent Christine's cauliflower bouncing on to the gravel, and her shrill, peevish wail silenced further conversation until the cauliflower, rather battered by now, had been restored.
"I always think that's such a natural way for them to get their vitamins," beamed Mrs Hooper, as a muddy, mangled bit of stalk dribbled from Christine's mouth on to her knitted jacket. "She got it all by herself, you know, out of the end of the pram. When Tony was a baby, I always used to let him help himself to the shopping on the way home. I remember once he got hold of a mutton chop. Raw. People were terribly shocked," she added wistfully, with the far-away look of one recalling past triumphs.
"I'm sure they were," said Louise kindly. "But listen; why are you coming this way? Surely you have to take Christine home before the class?"
"Oh — yes — well, the thing is, I was going to ask you, actually, if you'd be an absolute angel and have Christine with you for an hour or two? Then I won't need to go home at all, you see, I can just walk along with you now and leave her at your house and go straight on from there."
"Oh." Louise thought quickly. "But what about Tony?" she suggested hopefully. "Don't you have to go back and give him his tea? Won't he wonder where you are when he gets in from school?" "Oh no!" Mrs Hooper looked horrified. "He's quite used to it. When he finds I'm not there, he'll just go in to one of the neighbours for tea. I believe in children learning to be independent, you know."
"Oh." Louise looked gloomily at the dribbling Christine and wished, not for the first time, that Mrs Hooper's children could be independent in some way that didn't involve the neighbours' having to feed them so often. She tried again: "I'm not going straight home, you know; I'm going round by the school. I've got to meet Margery and Harriet."
"Meet them!" Mrs Hooper's expression was that of a scandalised Victorian grandparent. "Meet them? But my dear, how ridiculous! Margery's eight now, isn't she, and Harriet's nearly seven? Why, Tony was coming home alone long before that. It never worried him a bit. I remember once when he was barely five he was knocked down by a bicycle crossing the main road. Some kind lady took him home with her and bandaged him up and brought him back in her car as cheerful as a cricket. He didn't mind in the least. I'd always trained him to be independent, you see."
"If all children were as independent as that, there mightn't be enough kind ladies to go round," remarked Louise sourly. "Anyway, since I am meeting the girls, I'm afraid it means I can't have Christine. You don't want to come dragging up to the school with me, I'm sure. Besides," she added, with sudden inspiration, "I couldn't have her in any case, not this evening. I've got a prospective tenant coming to look at the room."
"My dear! You're not letting that room, are you?" cried Mrs Hooper, stopping dead with an access of interest which nearly flung Christine through the hood of the pram. "But how dreadful! I mean, I should have thought you needed more space now you've got Michael, not less. And then, everyone knows that two women can't share a kitchen, and —"
"We've thought of all that," Louise interrupted. "But unfortunately another child means you want more money as well as more space. Besides, it isn't really sharing, you know. She'll have her own gas ring up there, and that little basin on the landing ought to be enough for washing-up. She can't have much washing-up, just one person by herself."
"Don't you believe it!" said Mrs Hooper, resuming her rapid stride along the pavement, the pram clearing the way before her with the efficiency of a battering-ram. "We were sharing with a girl once, and she had parties every night. Every night; and never less than fifteen people. She always used our crockery for them, too. At least," admitted Mrs Hooper reflectively, "she did after we'd got some crockery of our own."
Louise could not help feeling that Mrs Hooper and her fellow-tenant must have been well matched. She also noticed that Mrs Hooper was still marching relentlessly at her side in the direction of the school, and had managed deftly to turn the conversation right away from Louise's objections to looking after Christine for the evening. She hastily interposed:
"Well, I don't think this woman will be like that. She's a schoolteacher, and she sounded very respectable on the phone. In fact, I expect the trouble will be that she'll think we aren't quiet enough for her. I told her we've got children — but, well, you do see, don't you, that I don't want an extra baby around just when she's coming to look at the room? I mean, two prams in the hall — it'll make the place look like a day-nursery."
"Let her put up with it," advised Mrs Hooper airily. "Let her see you as you really are. Why should you be always putting yourself out for other people?"
Before Louise had thought of a suitable reply to this a screech of "Mummy!" put an end to the discussion. Two little girls had detached themselves from the squealing crowd round the school gates and were running towards her. Margery, the elder, ran clumsily, heavily, a bulging satchel with a broken strap banging her ankle at every step; and even as Louise watched, one of the gym shoes clutched in her other hand skidded to the ground, followed by a crumpled paper bag of crayons, spilling this way and that among the hurrying feet. Harriet, smaller, darker, carrying nothing, free as air, flew past her woebegone sister, skimming like a dryad across the crowded pavement and into Louise's arms.CHAPTER 2
It would, of course, happen that the new tenant should arrive at exactly the moment when Mark got back from work, tired and irritable. And it was equally inevitable that this moment should be the very one when Louise had at last decided to bring the howling Christine indoors, and both prams were now wedged across the narrow hall, locked by their mudguards in a dismal and indissoluble embrace. This was the moment, too, chosen by Margery to sit on the bottom step of the stairs and pick bread and jam off her socks — the result of Harriet's Teddy bear's tea having been laid out in its usual place — on the floor just inside the kitchen door. What with one thing and another, Louise could hardly wonder that Mark should give her one hunted glance, and disappear headlong into the kitchen. She had only time for a fleeting, desperate hope that he had not landed, as Margery had done, in the middle of Teddy's bread and jam, before she had to turn and greet the tall figure silhouetted in the doorway.
"Mrs Henderson?" the figure was saying, in the clear, decisive tones of one used to commanding attention. "I'm Vera Brandon. I telephoned yesterday —"
Excerpted from The Hours Before Dawn by Celia Fremlin. Copyright © 1986 Celia Goller. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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