The hospital canteen has been converted into a performance hall. There are still brown tea stains on the worn plastic tables – a pair of lurid yellow stockings on the frizz-perm gargoyle next to me; ladders too. Her eyes are ruby red sitting amidst grey skin puddles. On a series of upturned beer crates a large man with a cowboy hat is singing: ‘Yipee-yi-yee, yipee-yi-yoh-oh, Ghost Riders in the Sky.’
He’s performing to a backing tape and his zip is undone, his ring finger poking and turning through. I’ve never seen anyone enjoy a singsong so much, except perhaps for my Alice; before her throat began to constrict. But his bellowing style is not to my liking. I want to get back to my room and record things as they really happened.
Alice was a normal girl. A darling, little mummy’s girl with long blonde hair tied tight at her back in a ponytail. She had a sweet tooth too; like a pony.
A few months ago, my husband, her father, went to fetch the Daily Mirror. We didn’t really miss him when he didn’t come back. Those were the best times: just the two of us, lying on my bed swapping Opal Fruits (I liked the green ones), Alice trying on my clothes; both giggling at the ballooning scarecrow images she cast onto the wall.
Our good times were short lived. Poor Alice began to get ill. I saw a rash on her upper arm – little red pimples at first, then ugly patches of sore dry skin circling around centres of purple-like bruises. She got headaches too. ‘Tight,’ she’d say: ‘mummy, my head’s tight.’
After doing things with the Dettol, I started sorting her diet. ‘No more sandwiches for you, young lady,’ I’d say. Then I set about eating all the sweets in the house, just in case she found any, and put her on a diet of rice, vegetables and fruit. But the rash grew hotter, itchier, and her little eyes began to redden with irritation.
When I gave her a bath, the water hurt her skin and made her cry out; even when I put in less disinfectant. So I took her to the local casualty. I spoke with a Registrar, Mr Henry, who was very polite and handsome in an unobtrusive kind of way. The kind Staff Nurse on duty was Olive Stones – a name that only made me laugh when I wrote about her after we got home. I would get to know Olive really well over the next months.
Poor little Alice: sitting on the slim trolley mattress, legs dangling over the precipice. So like me: she noticed how dirty the hospital floor was too.
‘It smells in here,’ she said.
‘Don’t make a fuss, dear. Mr Henry is going to make you all better, you’ll see.’
Mr Henry had lovely clean fingernails and delicate sensitive hands.
‘You probably play the piano,’ I said.
‘Mrs Simmons, your daughter is quite ill. We’d like to keep her in overnight, just to keep an eye on things. You can stay if you like, there’s a parents’ room attached to the ward.’
I went home to fetch my nightdress and bathroom bag; one of those nice Schubert piano pieces cascading notes in my head as I walked. The stars in the sky looked so lovely – like the transfers I’d stuck onto Alice’s ceiling to make her smile.
In the morning I got up early and helped Gloria, the ward assistant (West Indian, not African, I think), with making drinks for the children. Poor little mites – some with tubes attached to their noses, and a few with toy-like wheelchairs parked next to their beds – forgotten teddies lolling about on their bright Noddyland pillows.
Alice looked much better. She was asking a nurse – a new one from the agency whose name may have been Samantha – to tie her hair tight at the back. She and Alice seemed to get on very well.
‘Mummy, you look tired,’ Alice said.
‘I’m fine, I said, ‘just thinking.’
‘Mummy-type thinking?’ she asked.
When I got her home I rang work and told them I wouldn’t be in for a bit. Mr Kazaradis, the owner of the flower shop, asked if everything was okay.
‘Little Alice is very ill,’ I said. ‘I have to be with her and make sure she gets well.’
He offered to drop off some shopping. I told him we’d manage.
‘Mothers know how to manage, Mr Kazaradis,’ I said.
The next few weeks I kept Alice off school. Her symptoms worsened: ulcers on the tongue, and an upset stomach resulting in loose khaki-coloured stools. I put the latter down to the milky Horlicks I made her drink at night to strengthen her bones. And so I stopped giving it to her.
At night she’d wheeze and stare dully up at the Winnie the Pooh mobile turning above her bed.
‘Tigger’s going to look after you,’ I’d say as I switched off her light.
On our seventh visit to casualty, Mr Henry was on duty again. He saw me straight away and then located Alice who was huddling under the flap of my coat.
‘How are you, Alice?’ he asked.
Alice just shook her head and held tight onto my leg.
‘Mind the stockings, darling,’ I said, smiling at Mr Henry.
We were taken into our own cubicle; only the second time that had happened. The floors were clean and looked as if they’d just been polished.
‘Special treatment, fit for a princess,’ I told her. ‘You can see your soul in there.’
Mr Henry was busy pointing a torch into Alice’s mouth. He retrieved something and then led me by the arm into the reception area. He looked serious. Serious and handsome.
‘Do you realise your daughter had a ball of tissue stuck in her throat?’
‘Silly girl; I gave her a roll of toilet paper to have by her bed in case she was sick in the night. She must have got carried away.’
‘She has a very high fever, Mrs Simmons.’
He was very definite: commanding, and yet reassuring at the same time. Perfect bedside manners. I was relieved that at last they were taking us seriously; now they realised she really was ill.
Seven days and seventeen hours later I was allowed to take her home. They had her back on normal food. Her last sweet on the ward was a banana and apricot yoghurt.
‘Please, no allergies,’ said Mrs Patel, an ill looking Indian Nutritionist. ‘She must eat normal food from now on. Big helpings. She’s a little girl and needs building up. You understand?’
‘Yoghurt,’ I said. ‘Things like that.’
‘And vegetables, meat, potatoes, fruit. Yes?’
‘Yes, big helpings of yes,’ I replied.
The next few weeks, Alice and I took to watching daytime television. She liked all the discussion programmes.
‘She’s pretty,’ she said once.
She meant that donkey-toothed Esther Rantzen.
On Wednesday afternoons, at about three, a young Social Worker called Roxanne started to visit. Not every Wednesday and not always on time. ‘Staff shortages’ Roxanne explained. She had cropped black hair – a young boy’s cut really – and wore a baggy purple mohair jumper with a little political badge on her left breast. When she left I’d have to bring the hoover out to get all the loose hairs off my sofa.
She and Alice liked to play on the floor with little plastic family people.
‘Is she eating okay?’ she’d ask.
‘Like a dustbin,’ I’d reply.
In a book, ‘Things Doctors Don’t Tell You’, they advised lots of vitamin C and calcium for copper-coloured skin and lethargy. So I started her on milk again. I heated it in a pan and crushed in a few vitamins that I normally kept by my bed. A little child’s Aspirin too, in case the fever came back. Alice complained that the milk tasted bitter and so I added a large spoon of honey.
‘Like Winnie,’ I said.
‘There’s nothing like a Tigger,’ she said and tried to bounce out of the kitchen. Only her legs were too tired to bounce and she ended up falling on the floor.
The next morning she found it difficult to get out of bed and so I took her back to hospital. They had asked me not to bring in her again unless it was a real emergency. We hadn’t been in since two Sundays ago and this really did seem properly serious.
Alice was in a deep sleep when I carried her in from the taxi. The driver could see it was serious too and didn’t ask for any money. When we arrived we caused lots of commotion; nurses and doctors running in from everywhere. Olive Stones saw that I was worried and took me to the visitors’ room. She even made me a cup of tea; nice and strong, with two sugars, just as I liked.
I sat there for over an hour. All the magazines were encrusted with dirt. One was called Titbits. It had a celebrity on the front, an American actress whose name escapes me with a heavily made up sticky looking face.
Finally, Felicity came in and introduced herself: ‘I’m a Child Protection Officer.’
‘And I’m Alice’s mother,’ I replied.
When she asked I told her about the pills I kept in my bedside table: the ones I gave Alice to get better. I had some in my handbag. She asked to see them. I handed her five little bottles. She took them and left the room quickly.
Maybe thirty-seven minutes later a tall policeman with a sweet calming voice asked me if I could join him outside. A young family looked up when he spoke. The young girl stopped crying and smiled at me. I wanted to tell her mother that the girl had something hanging from her nose but I thought better of it – she was one of those slutty types who reeked of alcohol and cigarettes.
I asked if I could see Alice, but the policeman said it’d be better if I went outside and got some air. As we left in his car I saw Mr Henry walking across the car park. I did wave but I don’t think he saw me.
Now Alice lives with a family in Windsor. They own a big house apparently, and I’m told that from time to time, Lawrence, her father, goes to visit her there. I’ve asked the Social Services to tell her not to trust him.
I make toys in here. I sent Alice a large foam Peter Rabbit that I’d stuffed with a few broken pointy sticks. I put in a note saying, ‘mummy loves you bestest, darling, always remember that’. I kissed the envelope shut so it would stick better.
I’ve been given my own room here ever since that Johnny Cash man tried to get into my bed in the dormitory. It’s a strange place – no one got up to see what was happening even when I shrieked and shrieked.
There are lovely grounds here. I look at them through the bars on my window. Apparently the bars are there to keep us in, not to keep people out. I have a picture of Alice by my bed. I always brush my fingers over her face and hair before I go to sleep. She doesn’t have a ponytail anymore. She’s standing with her new family in a park somewhere. The parents are quite tall and now she has an older brother and sister. Alice looks peaky though. They should have made her zip up her jacket. Real mummy would have seen to that.
** Real Mummy won the Middlesex Literary Festival Short Story Competition judged by Matt Thorne and was wonderfully read by actress Sarah Bates at the Rose Theatre, Kingston in 2012.