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Maria McCarthy
Maria McCarthy

Maria writes short stories and poetry. Her first full collection of poetry, Strange Fruits, is published by Cultured Llama and WordAid. She has recently completed a collection of linked short stories. She has been published in The Frogmore Papers, Equinox, 14, in the Night Train anthologies (University of Kent), and has self-published two collections of prose and poetry: 'Learning to be English' and 'Nothing But'. She has also written and broadcast as a columnist for Radio 4's 'Home Truths' (as Maria Bradley). She has an MA in Creative Writing  from the University of Kent. She writes, and occasionally teaches, in a shed at the bottom of her garden.


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More Katharine Than Audrey


Come Dancing is on Tuesday. Some lose track, but it’s mince and potatoes on Monday, Come Dancing on Tuesday, sheets changed Wednesday and so on. I’m not supposed to watch it – the lights go off at nine – but I turn the volume low so the staff won’t hear. I close my eyes and I dance around the room, then I’m in the black taffeta, and the skirt and my hips are swinging. If the nurses catch me when they’re doing their rounds, their eyes smile above the masks. The flickering of the screen reflects on the walls. My room is a dancehall.

            Mrs Davies left the ward today. There are two of us left, so it won’t be long until it’s my turn. I asked Rankin how far it is to London on the train. It takes half an hour, she said; half an hour from Epsom to Waterloo, and a little longer to Victoria. It seemed to take as long as that to walk the corridors when I first came here. Windows either side, so I could see the grounds and the buildings with the other wards, the laundry and the kitchens. The kitchens are a long way off: sometimes there’s porridge, sometimes cornflakes, but always tea and toast, and the toast is cold.

            I have my own telly, now that most of the others have gone. There are films in the afternoon: Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen, she as ugly as me, and a film star. It was the other Hepburn, Audrey, that I would have liked to be: petite and pretty, like a fairy gone to live in the world of men. She was a nurse in The Nun’s Story, tempted by a handsome doctor in a hospital in the Congo; Peter Finch played the doctor. She didn’t succumb, but she wasn’t for the convent in the end. ‘You are a worldly nun’ the Reverend Mother said, or was it the Mother Superior? The times I saw that film, and each time the tightness in my chest, a hankie at the ready when she goes into that room at the end of the film, to leave the convent, and she gets her old clothes back, the ones she came in with, and there’s no one there to say goodbye, as if it’s a disgrace, wanting to go back into the world.

            I could never be like Audrey Hepburn; my hips are too wide.

            We had the cowboys back in Mitchelstown – Randolph Scott, Gary Cooper, John Wayne; he was a favourite of Molly's. And I loved Jimmy Stewart. They have them on the telly, too, and it’s as if I’m in the middle rows of the picture house with Molly.

            I’m like Audrey Hepburn after all, a worldly woman kept apart from the world. She got sick in that film: tuberculosis, was it? She was isolated in a beautiful treehouse, given the ‘gold cure’ and tended to by Peter Finch. And here’s me in Long Grove with Rosina Bryars and the nurses. No gold cure for me. No Peter Finch. But it won’t be long before they find the right combination of drugs for me, as they did for the others.

 

Pea soup it said in the books: six to eight motions a day, and it looks like pea soup. That’s just how it was when I had the fever. I can’t eat it to this day: that and rhubarb. Mammy used to boil it up to clean the pans; I worried it would strip the lining of my stomach.

 

Rankin cut me some roses on Sunday. She brought red and white, but a nurse will always arrange them separately, or there will be blood and bandages before the day’s out, so the white went to Rosina and I have the red. They were in bud, so they’d last longer. I’ve been watching them unfurl. They smell like summer, like the outdoors as I remember it. When the petals drop onto the bedside table, I want them left there to darken, then brown. I want the leaves left to wither on the stem, to watch them shrivel; but the cleaner comes in every day, gloved, overalled, and changes the water, wipes the fallen from the bedside table with a cloth dipped in disinfectant, and it masks the scent of the roses. I close my eyes, and I see the roses in the garden blossom, fade and drop. I walk on a carpet of withered petals and pinch them between my toes. Then I’m in the field back home with Molly, and we’re running fast towards the sun.

            Rosina isn't up to much now; she’d as soon eat a rose as smell it.

            I was used to the smell of disinfectant when I was nursing, and the way it changes colour in the bucket when you add water. Sid offered me Pernod once, added a dash of water. It clouded in the glass like disinfectant; smelled of the aniseed balls that they tipped into paper bags from the teardrop-shaped bowl of the scales in the sweetshop in Mitchelstown. Disinfectant would do it, if I could get hold of some; I could mix it with the water in my bedside glass and pretend it was Pernod.

            There’s no wildness in these gardens, just straight lines and fresh mown and leaves piled up in the autumn. Nothing like the fields back home with the brambles and crab apples. Off we’d go: Molly and me, with bowls to fill, and our arms and our clothes would be torn and purple-bruised with juice. The sweetest would always be the furthest in, and didn’t we always want the sweetest, the juiciest, to reach for the best, not to settle?

            The first time I offered a brimming bowl to Da, I was so small I had to raise it to reach his hands, hanging like shovel-ends from his arms. He said No; he wouldn’t touch those things, full of spiders and flies. I never offered them again. I gave them up to Mammy for the crumble. His was made separate with crab apples and lots of sugar. He didn’t like the black stain on the apples’ flesh.

 

Da thought it was the boys I was after when I went to England. Jesus, with what I’ve seen of men’s parts, what’s there to get excited about? Like snails tucked in a hood, and sometimes, sick as they were, it would rear up at the feel of the sponge. God, the first time I saw one at full length I called for Sister. I thought something awful had happened. Shrub came running at my shrieks, and when she saw what had alarmed me, she pursed her lips to stop the giggles. Sister said, ‘I think Mr Ericson is well enough to wash himself.’ Shrub dragged me into the sluice room and collapsed, tears rolling down her cheeks. Oh, she took me off something rotten: Sister, come quick it’s Mr Ericson’s… I couldn’t even find a word to describe it at the time. And we were both in stitches, with her attempt at my accent.

            It was last names, even off duty. It was Shrub, Gates, McCallion, and so on. You’d say, ‘Is Shrub on tonight?’ or, ‘I’ve the same shifts as McCallion.’ Then the crowd I went round with called me Josie, as there was another Noreen. I forgot I was Noreen at all until I came here; it was in my notes, and that’s what they go by. I still think of her as Shrub, though she’d a beautiful Christian name – Annette. But that’s how it was, and that’s how I remember.

            You didn’t have to choose what to wear, to be as good as, to have a style. You just wore the uniform, maybe dressed with a frilled cuff if Sister would allow. Rankin wears a cuff and a fob watch like I had, pinned to the chest. I can see it through the plastic apron. She’s my favourite, Rankin; she listens, really listens. Some of them just talk to each other. I suppose we did, too, me and Shrub: tipped the patients forward like they were one of the pillows we were tidying, eased them back, talking over them the whole time. As long as the ward was spick and span, that’s what Sister was after.

            The fool I was, falling for a woman. I’d study Shrub’s lips, the soft hairs on the nape of her neck below her pinned-up hair when she was on the ward, the curl of her hair when it was down, when we went dancing or to the pictures. She hadn’t a notion that I dreamed of her, dreams from which I woke with the sheets twisted, dreams of parting her lips with mine, her face cupped in my hands, of slipping a satin nightdress from her shoulders, like the ones they wear in the films, watching it fall to the floor. Sometimes, on the ward, she’d brush against my bosom in passing, and the heat of those dreams would flush my face and neck.

            When I first arrived at Euston Station from the boat train, no one smiled or allowed me to catch their eye; no one said hello. It was just after the war – we weren’t involved, in Ireland, so I’d no experience of what they’d been through. Nice enough people, but there was this reserve, and not just because I was Irish. It was as if they’d had something removed, like patients recovering from an operation, trying to get back to normal, but no longer sure what normal felt like. But the nurses, there was a spark in them; they knew how to dance, to drink, to let go. You never knew what you’d encounter on the next shift: a motorbike accident; a patient with a tumour; a family gathered to hear bad news about their father; and the bedpans and bottles, everything scrubbed and sterilised. So it was living for the moment.

            There weren’t always men to dance with, so the women danced together, and if there were any men, the women would flutter round them like moths to an old suit. A man could have a different woman for each dance. I wasn’t bothered; if a man asked, I’d dance with him, but I was happiest with Shrub.

 

So when I went home to Mitchelstown I was full of stories, of the hospital and the friends and the dancing. Mammy clapped her hands and wrung them in turn. She was in envy of me, for getting away and making something of myself; but another part of her was afraid I’d go to the bad. She was wearing her thousand-times-washed dress with the faded paisley swirls of pink and mauve, the lace of her slip peeking out from the hem, and there I was talking of taffeta and satin and the new coat I’d bought for the winter. As for Da, he was all hard edges, and as broad as he was tall, with no softening at my touch or my words.

            I tapped a cigarette from the packet, and tried to light it with the matches from my coat pocket. It had rained on the walk from the bus stop in town, and they were damp, so I put a spill into the embers of the fire. It was as if I’d stripped naked and danced on the table, the blustering and the language from Da, how I’d been ruined by England and nursing. How I was setting a bad example to my sister Molly. I wasn’t to smoke either in or out of the house. And when I laid in late he said, ‘There’s no holiday here, my girl,’ expecting me to go back to my old chores.

            I went to a dance at the Mayflower with some of the old crowd, and Jimmy O’Gorman walked me home. He’d been disappointed by a girl he liked; she was dancing with another boy the whole evening. We were great friends, Jimmy and me, and I linked arms with him on the way up the hill. He’d had a drink, and it was as much me holding him up as him walking me home. We parted at the fork in the road below the house.

            Da was waiting at the gate, late as it was. ‘Are the men in England not enough for ye?’ He slapped me round the head. I reeled, but I stood my ground.

             ‘It’s only Jimmy. He walked me home.’

             ‘Walking, is it? With everything on show.’ We’d had words about how I was dressed before I left the house. I’d wrapped a stole around me to placate him, pinned it with a brooch, but I’d whipped it off at the dancehall. He went for my head again, but I ducked from his open palm. He slapped me round the back of the thighs as he had when I was a child. ‘There’ll be a different fella every night in London, the hoor you are.’

            I flung my head back, the offending bosom thrust forward. I picked up the yard broom and held it in front of me, handle up, to hit him should he come at me again. But Mammy ran out and bundled me inside with Molly. I could hear his old cliches: no daughter of mine, and the like. They wouldn’t find house room in a decent film script. And I was as bad, battering against the bedroom door with my fists, rattling the handle to get out.

            ‘Mammy locks the door when he has a temper’, Molly said. She looked so small in her nightdress. Her hair hung in waves, released from the plaits they were tied in by day. I came away from the door and sat next to her on the bed. My hands shook as Molly took hold of them. ‘Da says I’m not to go to England, but as soon as I’ve finished school I’ll be away. I want to go to the dances, have all the lovely clothes.’ Her hand dropped to my dress, and she rubbed the fabric of the hem between her fingers and thumb. I undressed and got into the bed with her.

             ‘It wasn’t so bad when you were here,’ she said. ‘Could you stay, do you think, until I’m ready to go with you?’ I didn’t answer. I stroked her hair until she fell asleep, as I used to when we’d shared the bed before I left for England. I lay awake until I heard Mammy making the breakfast for Da, heard him leave for the fields, heard the turn of the key in the bedroom door, and Mammy going out to draw water from the well.

            I slipped from beneath the curve of Molly’s arm, gathered my clothes and left. Why would I stay and be beaten and called a whore? Or end up like Mammy, chopping the vegetables, cutting the meat for the stockpot, sweeping the floor, taking out the ashes and sitting on the doorstep waiting for a passing neighbour to bring a bit of gossip.

            I sent money home, as was expected, and Mammy wrote letters, begging me to make my peace with Da. I didn’t write back, just sent the money. When I came here there was no more money to send. 

 

You’d think, with her being a nurse that she’d know, but they’re as prone to such foolishness as anyone, and Annette Shrub fell for a baby. She asked me what should she do, about being in trouble. I said what Mammy would have said: she should get the man to do the right thing.

            She asked if I’d be her maid of honour, but I said ‘Can you see me in a froth of a dress with these lumbering hips?’ Truth is, I couldn’t face the wedding at all. I prayed that that her husband-to-be would have a terrible accident and there would be a funeral, not a wedding. Then I hoped that I would break a leg, so I couldn’t walk into the church; but the day came and the fella and me were both intact, so the ceremony went ahead. I sat in the front row and stared at her soft neck through the stiffness of her veil. Thinking I might get the chance should her hair become unpinned, and I could caress the stray strands into place, a hair grip in my mouth, press her hair to the back of her head for a second while I reached for the grip. But all went off as planned, not a hair or a word out of place, and Shrub became Mrs Someone-else.

 

Paper and pen, pen and paper: I ask for them when Rankin brings my dinner – fish pie, as it’s Friday – and I start to write home. Someone in the town will know Molly, will recognise the name, even though she might be married now. Someone will know where she lives if she’s left Mitchelstown. I keep the letter short, just telling Molly where I am and asking would she like to get in touch, and I ask Rankin to post it. It might take Molly a month or two to write back after a shock like that, a letter after so long.

 

My hair was good, thick and wavy and almost black, and there was never a problem with my skin. Just those lumbering hips and the bosoms I didn’t know what to do with. Cover them up, Mammy would say, though the devil in me said show off your assets. The men had a fair love of them. When I wore the black taffeta with the red roses and a glimpse of cleavage – a glimpse was all they needed – some of them couldn’t keep their eyes away as they asked for a dance. I wanted to tilt their chins with the heel of my hand, so their eyes would be level with mine. How they’d have loved to get their hands on my chest. It wasn’t their hands I wanted.

            Annette gave me a photo: bride and groom, beauty and the beast. I cried over it every night until I could bear it no more. I burned it in the sink, watched the faces blacken and curl, and then rinsed the ashes down the plughole.

            Shrub gave up on the dancing, so I went with McCallion instead. I wore the black taffeta with roses again that night, black stockings, heels, my hair up with a mother of pearl clip, and red lipstick to match the roses on the dress. This man came over, and it was me he was interested in, not McCallion, though she was the slimmer and prettier of the two of us. I danced with him, but it was Shrub I thought of: how I would tuck my hand close around her fingers as I swung her, pull her close, push her back, the lightest of touches as she twirled beneath my arm, her finger looped in my finger and thumb, and her skirt flying, her hair streaming behind her and the set of her mouth as she concentrated on the steps, and the click of her heels on the dance floor. The lightest of clicks – click-click – and the flush of her cheeks as we fell back to the table for our drinks.

            He was kind, this man, Sid – older than me, well spoken; a proper English gentleman – and we fell into a courtship of sorts.

 

When I get out of here I’ll take a flat in Tooting Bec, be close to things. I’ll wander round the market with my basket in the morning, stop for a cup of tea and a slice of toast and jam at Luigi’s cafe, maybe look up Shrub, if I can remember her last name (what was the name of that fella she married?). Or just sit in the café and wait for Godot. He took me, that Sid who courted me, took me to the theatre to see it. Hadn’t a clue what it was about – two old tramps talking and waiting for a man that never turned up. I didn’t get it. Much preferred a bit of a musical when I went to see a show, or to go for a meal and a swing round the dance floor.

            I could do that, too: take a look at a dancehall in Kentish Town, go and watch the young ones, maybe show them a few moves myself! I’ll need a new wardrobe. It won’t be like Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story, they won't give me back the same clothes that I came in with. They’ll have been incinerated. And decades out of fashion in any case. Any old rags, they give you here; the Lord only knows where they find them. But I keep up with the trends in the magazines that Rankin gives me after she’s read them. I suppose she’s not allowed to take them out of here anyhow, but it’s good of her nonetheless.

 

The food came and it was grand: steak, fried, fancy potatoes done with cream and thin slices of onion, a little salad of lettuce and tomatoes and cucumber in a glass dish of its own at the side of the main plate, and cloth serviettes embossed with an ivy leaf motif. I dove in with my fork turned the wrong way. Sid smiled, turned it round in my hand and showed me how to push the peas onto the fork, to soak the gravy with a little potato on the prongs. He ate like a lady, little bites. And he stared at me, a shine in his pupils, but it was the food that got me going, not him. It was all I could do to stop lifting the plate and licking it clean. After Shrub married, I got so thin that my curves all but straightened, but my appetite returned that night. And a hand on my knee beneath the table, which did nothing for me, but I let him.

            He took me dancing in Kentish Town, fingers pressing into my back in the slow dances, his cheek to mine, and his cigarette breath on my neck. We twirled round the hall, and my frock swirled and flicked, and he smiled.

            That was the night he gave me Pernod. I wasn’t much of a drinker, in spite of what Da thought of me, and I warmed to Sid with the drink inside me. I placed a hand at his back as we walked from the taxi, leaned my head on his shoulder. He turned to kiss me. His moustache scratched at my top lip. It was cold, raining; we sneaked past his landlady’s door. There were drips coming through the ceiling in the attic room, pots and pans laid out to catch them. He drew me onto the bed beside him, slipped the dress from my shoulders and kissed my neck. His face was red; he was breathless. I shouldn’t have led him on, so.

            That was the night that did for me: someone in the kitchen of that restaurant. Someone that was a typhoid carrier like I am now, not washing their hands, passing it on to all that ate there.

 

The daylight is fading. I have to wait for the lights to go on. I’m down to the last page of the Daily Mail with those pictures. Men on the moon, looking like they’re underwater in diving suits, and more men at Houston staring at screens, pencils dangling from their fingers like cigarettes.

          If I had a suit like that I could go into town and shop for myself at Woolworth’s instead of asking Rankin to get bits and bobs for me. I could get a cup of tea and a jam tart at a cafe. Last night I dreamt of cafes and pubs and shops and crowds, of sliding into a seat on the top deck of a bus, arms and thighs butted up against the woman in the window seat, carrier bags arranged around my feet. A bit of food from the International Stores, a pair of tights, a new blouse, a lipstick, tickets in my handbag for the stalls at the Odeon from the night before, a dab of perfume behind my ears.

I wouldn’t be able to drink the tea, I suppose, in a spaceman’s suit.

 

I asked for some knitting needles and wool, and I am clicking my way through a scarf, russet and green, to match the coat I have picked out from the News of the World magazine. I don’t want to order it; I’ll wait till I can try it on. I could try knitting gloves, but they’re tricky.

Rankin brought me a box of Christmas cards. I’ve written one for Rosina, one for Rankin, some for the other nurses and for Mavis the cleaner. There’s been no reply to the note I sent Molly in the summer. I’ll try again, with a card. I choose a holy one with the blessed Virgin and the infant Jesus, haloes lighting their faces. I give it to Rankin to post.

 

 


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