Nelly stubbed out her cigarette and almost at once opened a new packet. Jane, sitting in front of her, watched in silence.
“What happened? What could have happened? Oh, God. My poor little Bettina, she’s all I have. How burned was she, Jane? Will she be alright? Will she remain scarred? That Kevin! I’m sure it was his fault. Always so cocky and know-all about everything! This is so terrible, poor child, was her face…?”
The door of the waiting room opened and Violet Gregory came in.
“Violet!” Nelly cried in a suffocated voice.
“I got the message half an hour ago, Nelly, and I came at once! My God, what happened? Has she been very badly burned?” Violet registered Jane’s presence and exclaimed. “Jane! what…. how is it you’re here?”
“She’s Bettina’s best friend,” Nelly explained. “Wasn’t it incredible? She had gone to a party right next door to Bettina’s new house. She’s been with Bettina all the time. Violet is my cousin, Jane, and Bettina’s godmother.”
Violet put her arms about Nelly who began to weep brokenly. A nurse came and said that Bettina was now in intensive care and that she could go and be with her for a few minutes. Nelly stubbed out her cigarette amongst the pile of stubs and rushed after the nurse, her face rigid with anguish.
“What happened?” Violet asked.
“I’m not sure. I think Kevin was burning some cardboard and some papers and things in the fireplace and then he left the room and I presume a piece must have fallen out and lit whatever it landed on, and before they realized it the house was on fire.”
“But how is he? Or did he die?”
“No. He ran out to get earth or sand or something and the door shut with the keys inside and then he couldn’t get in again. He’s very burned but he’s in no danger. They took him to some other section, I think. He began to explain in the ambulance, but then he got into such a state of nerves that the doctor gave him an injection.”
“But how terrible, how terrible! How bad are her burns?”
“Some are very deep, I think,” Jane said miserably.
Silence fell between them, as Violet crossed and uncrossed her legs continuously and drummed her finger tips endlessly on the arm of her chair.
“Robert brought me,” she said at last. “But he had to go back as we’ve no nurse and Bobby was alone. Bloody maids, caught the last one stealing. Red handed! I noticed I was missing one of my bras and I went to her room and found a hold-all stuffed with things of mine, clothes belonging to Bobby, and one of Robert’s best shirts! They’re incredible, these women. They get a good job and then they start to steal. Not a brain in their heads. This one was recommended, too. I just don`t understand! And we’re leaving in ten days’ time, I just don’t know what I’m going to do. Robert’s aunt, great aunt really, was coming to look after Bobby, but without a nurse-maid she won’t come, she made that quite clear to me, and to Robert, so… ”
She talked on and on. Jane only half listened to her. The intensive-care ward was only just down the passage and her agitation and distress was growing with every minute. She stared at the tiled floor and seemed to see a small flame flickering near her feet. She sat watching it and the flame grew smaller and smaller until at last, with one little burst of energy, it went out.
“She’s died,” she thought.
Moments later Nelly’s desperate sobs, as she was accompanied back to the waiting room by two nurses, confirmed Jane’s fears.
“Oh, Bettina, my Bettina! She’s gone, she’s gone. My baby, my only child. I’ve lost her, I’ve lost her, I’ve lost my only child… ”
Violet jumped to her feet and caught Nelly to her. Nurses came and went, they gave Nelly an injection to calm her and brought cups of tea on a tray for the three of them. A doctor appeared and explained gently that Bettina’s burns had been too severe for her ever to have survived with the knowledge the medical profession had at present, and that Nelly must be brave and strong for her daughter’s sake; that letting go and giving in to her grief was not worthy of Bettina, who would want her mother to be as she had always been.
Nelly sank into a chair, her face in her hands, a thin, shrunken figure enveloped in her despair. Jane felt a touch on her shoulder and turning found Javier and María Paulina beside her. Wordlessly they clung to one another. A few minutes later Delyth Plath appeared, her face white and drawn. She sat down beside Nelly and put her arms about her, unable to speak.
“Come,” Javier said softly and pushed María Paulina and Jane gently out of the waiting room and down the passage to where the lifts were. They took her home.
“Would you like me to spend the night with you?” María Paulina asked, but Jane shook her head and smiled faintly.
“No, thanks all the same. I’d rather be alone tonight. Your pullover, Javier, wait and I’ll give it to you.” She dragged it off and handed it to him.
“Poor Rocío,” she said. “Her party must have been ruined.”
“Don’t worry about her,” Javier replied. “Sure you’ll be all right?”
“Yes, quite. Thank you for everything.”
She went to her flat and lay down fully dressed on her bed, staring at the sky through the window. It was still studded with stars. How much had happened in such a short time!
“I believe in reincarnation, don’t I?” she thought. “I believe that the spirit only uses the body and the soul, don’t I? Bettina has just gone to another dimension, I believe that, don’t I?”
Her face stiff with sorrow, she shook her head violently against the pillow. “Just because it’s Bettina doesn’t make any difference,” she whispered, but it did. Jane felt sick and furious that Bettina had died, and yes, she had to face it, furious that it had not been Kevin who had gone. The intensity of her anger shocked her. Kevin should have died; it was what he deserved, he had wanted her to abort his child, to kill it, and yet there he was, only slightly burned, nothing that would not heal in a few weeks, and Bettina, little, lively, life-loving Bettina had been taken. Only twenty two, and her life had been snuffed out. What had Kevin been thinking of, to leave a fire without the guard in front of it?
“He probably wanted to have sex with her,” she thought bitterly, remembering how demanding he had always been. “He lit the fire and then rushed off like some demented animal to rut with her, and of course, when the fire started, she would have been naked. I’ll bet that that was what happened, and she wasted time getting dressed… Oh, why? Why did she have to be the one to die? Couldn’t being burned have been enough?”
Jane jumped to her feet and went to stand at the window, gripping the window frame. Gradually she began to relax. God hadn’t ‘taken’ her. Bettina had wanted to go, had chosen this manner to leave, had wished to go through such an experience. Bettina’s higher-self had made the choice, and who was she, Jane, to question such a choice? Accidents, illnesses, a stroke, a heart attack, one’s higher-self decided, out of its wisdom, what it was it wanted to learn and wove the threads which would bring about the desired experience, in concordance with all the different levels of Karma; personal, family, nationality, race, history… She knew all that, or at least she had read about it and felt that it was true, believed it. Looked at objectively it made the most sense, it gave room for a loving God, for a spiritual world where Bettina would be welcomed and where this tragedy would be understood to the full.
“Why am I so mad, then? Do I doubt? Have I made different laws for my friends?”
Wearily she undressed and got into bed.
A chilly wind darted about the cemetery, stirring the fallen leaves carpeting the paths between the graves and loosening others from the branches of the surrounding trees so that they fell, twisting and twirling like flakes of gold and orange. Jane stood near the main entrance of the cemetery waiting for the hearse to arrive. She was very early because she had taken the opportunity to go and visit Brian’s grave. Her heart was heavy, but the acute anguish of the night of the fire had abated.
Small knots of people began to form about her, people she didn’t know but who had obviously come for the funeral. Then Antonia arrived and hurried over to her as soon as she saw her.
“Jane! How terrific to see you again. What happened to Bettina, do you know?”
Before Jane had had time to even start explaining, more school friends joined them, the ones, she supposed, who would have got together for the shower tea. Briefly she related what had happened, just before the hearse and cars arrived. Nelly was accompanied by a tall, extremely good looking man to whom she clung for support. The coffin was placed on a rubber-wheeled cart and pushed towards the small chapel two hundred yards away, followed by the parson, Nelly and her escort, Violet and Robert and the rest of those present.
Once the short service was over they all walked to the graveside. Jane bit her lip as she watched the little black coffin, its brass handles shining, being lowered into the hole in the earth, a few small posies of cut flowers lay on it. The priest gave a final blessing and then threw a handful of earth into the grave from a tin held by one of the attendants. Nelly and the man she was with followed suit, and then those who wished did the same. Antonia was crying openly. The attendants placed boards over the grave and heaped the wreathes on top of them. It was all over. One by one the mourners silently hugged Nelly, shook her escort’s hand and began to drift away along the paths towards the main entrance.
“Jane darling, this is Diego, my half-brother, who lives in Brazil. He arrived this morning. Diego, this is Bettina’s best friend, Jane Rowan.” Nelly’s face was pinched and haggard but she had not broken down, and she held herself erect beside her handsome brother.
“Nice to meet you, Jane,” he smiled, looking straight into her eyes.
“Darling, come back to the flat afterwards, we’re having a little gathering of family and friends. Bring Antonia with you.”
Jane nodded, hugged her and passed on.
“Are you coming to the flat?” Violet asked her.
“Robert can take you, I shall be going with Nelly and Diego.”
Standing in Nelly’s flat later, eating sandwiches and cookies and drinking hot coffee, Jane and Antonia talked over old times and caught up on each other’s lives. Antonia was studying architecture and still had two years to go.
“You suddenly dropped out of our lives,” she said. “I came back from my holidays, I remember, and heard that you’d broken up with Kevin and gone to work for someone in Brazil. Then later I heard you were at the British Hospital in Buenos Aires, but didn’t you ever come home for holidays or anything?”
Jane shook her head. “No, it’s a long story. I came back at the beginning of April. But so much has happened since then I feel I’ve been here much longer. My mother fell and broke her leg and had to have an operation. She’s much better now but she’s still in plaster of course, and now this…”
“I still can’t believe it, you know,” Antonia said.
“Poor Nelly, I wonder how she’s going to manage? She adored Bettina, I mean, everything she did was in some way for, or because of, Bettina.”
“How long is her brother staying?”
“Haven’t a clue.”
“Luckily she has her cousin here, Violet Gregory. Here comes her husband now.”
Robert Gregory joined Jane and Antonia with a pleasant smile. “Hello girls,” he said and shook his head sadly. “How very fleeting life is! An accident like this does bring it home to one, doesn’t it? How tenuous our hold is in reality, although we all, certainly at your age, have the feeling that life is almost forever.”
“Not so much as a nurse,” Jane commented.
“True, nurses must have another relationship to life and death, I suppose.”
“How is Bobby?”
“Trying to make up his mind whether he likes kindergarten or not.”
“You’re off to Europe soon, aren’t you?”
“Now, how did you learn about that?”
“Violet mentioned it at the hospital.”
“We have a nanny problem at the moment, so I don’t know if Violet will be able to get away, but I am leaving in just over a week’s time.”
“Where in Europe?” Antonia asked.
“Paris and Rome.”
“I went to London and Holland when I was eighteen, I’d love to go back. Once I have my degree I’m going to see if I can get a job in London, to gain experience, you know. I’m nearly an architect.”
Jane wondered why she had never hankered to go abroad, but at once she knew why and pushed the thought away. A few minutes later Delyth Plath came up to her and kissed her.
“How are you dear? Such a long time. You remember Jane, don’t you Nevil,” she said to her husband as he joined them.
“Good heavens, yes!” Nevil Plath kissed her. “Never would have recognized you, though. How are you, my dear?”
“Very well, thank you. How is Kevin?”
“His burns are not serious, but he has suffered such a nervous shock that the doctors are keeping him interned under observation,” Delyth said. “We moved him to the Posadas, you know. He was so upset at not being allowed to go to the funeral, but I really think it would have been too much for him. Such a frightfully traumatic experience. We’re absolutely shattered, aren’t we, dear? The house was completely burned. Just a shell remained. Poor little Bettina, such a dear little thing. We were so very fond of her, weren’t we, dear? And you were her best friend, Nelly told me.”
They chatted for a few more minutes and then Jane took her leave of them, said goodbye to Antonia and embraced Nelly.
“Thank you for coming, darling,” Nelly said huskily.
“Are you going to go on living here alone?”
“What else can I do?”
“Can’t you go and stay with Violet for a while?”
“I may. I’ll see.”
Jane gave her her telephone numbers. “If you need me, just call me anytime,” she said. “Sometimes one needs to talk, and I really loved Bettina.”
Nelly’s eyes filled with tears. “I know, darling,” she nodded. “Thank you.”
Jane kissed her cold cheek miserably and left with a heavy heart.
“Many people at the funeral?” Dora asked over lunch.
“More or less. Antonia was there, and a lot of other school friends. Bettina’s uncle came from Brazil, her mother’s half-brother I think he is. He’s about fifty and very good looking, grey hair, blue eyes, tall, well built.”
“He certainly made an impression on you.”
“He reminded me a little of one of the doctors at the British Hospital. Very much a lady’s man, I should say. Kevin is suffering from a nervous break-down apparently; he’s still in the Clinica Posadas. I spoke to the Plaths and Delyth told me.”
It was the first time Jane had mentioned Kevin since she and her mother had become reunited and Dora glanced curiously at her daughter, wondering for the thousandth time if Kevin had not in reality been the father of Jane’s child. Knowing Jane, it seemed so very unlikely that she had really slept around as she had implied. Although she longed to ask she held her tongue, and after a short silence Jane began to talk about Antonia.
Jane was cleaning the flat a couple of days later when she felt the urge to call Nelly. “Nelly? Jane here.”
“Hello, Jane.” Nelly’s voice was bright and a little brittle.
“How are you?”
“Better thank you, darling.”
“Is Diego still here?”
“He left today, actually.”
“Will you be going to stay with Violet?”
“I may. She’s been wonderful. She came every day to see me… ”
“I am glad, I think of you a lot, Nelly.”
“I know… I feel it. Thank you very much for calling and if you’re anywhere near, do come and see me. I’ve taken a few days off from work so I shall be here, you know.”
Jane hung up and returned to her chores, thinking about Nelly. How was she taking her loss? Diego had left. Would she go to Violet’s? Knowing Nelly, a retiring woman with a melancholic nature, she would very probably decide to stay at home and that would not be good for her. Jane sighed, how complicated life was! She hoped Violet would insist on Nelly going to stay with her for a week or two, but if Violet had solved her nanny problem she would soon be off to Europe with Robert, which would mean…
“I must phone Nelly regularly,” she thought. People drop round at first and ‘phone and everything, but after a while they stop.”
The following afternoon, wandering about the garden while her mother slept her afternoon nap, the memory of the cat which had died near Kevin’s house rose in her mind, and she was suddenly overcome with sadness. She remembered its plaintive little new when she had stroked it, and how she had felt the following day at finding it dead in the very same place where she had left it.
Bettina’s death, and the cat’s, Brian’s and little Christopher’s in Buenos Aires mingled and blurred. She stood still, staring at the magnolia and like a flash of burning sulphur the thought, ‘Is my child still alive?’ blazed through her whole being and she raised her hands to her mouth with a gasp of horror.
It had never occurred to her that her child might have suffered some fatal illness or accident; that when she prayed for him, he too might be in some tiny coffin under the ground or in some crypt.
“I haven’t had a child, I don’t have a child,” she repeated to herself over and over again, but it was no good. Her anguish grew until it knew no bounds. She was very quiet at tea time and Dora said plaintively.
“You’re not much company, what’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing, just quiet, that’s all,” Jane replied.
“Girlie is coming to see me this afternoon.”
“So you must tidy up this room especially.”
“Well, what are you waiting for?”
“I haven’t finished my tea.”
“Well, get a move on.”
Jane was in no mood to be hurried. She sipped her tea slowly, savoring it’s flavour and it’s heat, and tried to keep her mind and inner turmoil under control.
“I said, get a move on,” Dora repeated, piqued.
Jane continued to sip her tea and stare past her in silence.
“Jane. Did you hear me?” Dora said angrily.
Jane’s eyes rested on her, but they had a far-away look and she was obviously not paying attention.
“What’s the matter with you?” Dora cried, suddenly afraid that Bettina’s death might have had an unbalancing effect on Jane’s mind.
“Nothing. Why?” Jane’s attention suddenly snapped back and she was present once again. “Have you finished? What time is Girlie coming?”
With a whirl of activity Jane piled the tea things on the tray and carried it to the kitchen; when she returned she settled her mother more comfortably on the sofa, plumped up all the cushions, dived behind the screen which hid Dora’s bed and pulled the bed cover up neatly, tidied the night table and put away some pots of cream in the drawer.
“What else,” she said looking round, and hastened to put away her knitting and straighten some books in the book shelf. She re-adjusted the flower arrangement she had made that morning, patted the curtains, pushed up the armchair for Girlie and went to put guest towels in the bathroom.
“All ready,” she said. “O.K?”
A little overwhelmed by all the bustle, Dora said meekly. “Yes, thank you.”
“I’ll go and wash the tea things then.”
In the kitchen she washed up and prepared supper and thought, “My father is paying for all this, but little does he know what good value he’s getting for his money!”
It had seemed to her the most tremendous insult when Dora had told her that her father insisted on paying her, and she had almost refused to go on nursing her. However, after sleeping on it, she had decided to accept the money. If that made them happy, perhaps in their peculiar way of thinking, by paying her they were trying to show her that she meant something to them, that they were sorry for what they had done, and which nothing they could ever say could undo. They probably didn’t have it very clear in their own minds anyway.
When Girlie arrived, Jane settled her in the arm chair and brought a tray with glasses and a bottle of sherry, then she took the wireless telephone and phoned Dr. Michaelson from the kitchen with the door shut.
“I must see you,” she said when he answered. “May I come this evening, or are you busy?”
“With or without my better half?” he asked.
“With, either way, but I have to talk. I need help.”
“I’ll be free by eight, come and have supper with us.”
“Thanks, thanks a lot. ‘Bye.”
She cut off and stood looking out of the window, remembering yet again the feel of her baby within the curve of her hand, and the thin little wail. Was he alive still? She had to know!
The Michaelsons welcomed her joyfully and fussed over her, seeing that she was comfortable on the sofa with an extra cushion just in case, Dr. Michaelson brought her a drink and they showed her the latest snap-shots which they had just received of their daughter and their grandchildren. In the comforting warmth of their affection and care, Jane began to feel less miserable and anxious. She told them about the fire and Bettina’s subsequent death in all their details and she mentioned her premonition, and then after they had eaten supper and were sipping their coffee, she explained why she had come.
“You see, this afternoon, for the first time ever in all these years, it occurred to me that… that the child I had might be dead. He would be four and a half by now … he or she… I can imagine it’s size and how it speaks, all that a normal four-year-old is, if you know what I mean. I pray for him. I pray for his health, for his care, the people who look after him, teach him, love him, play with him, and now, suddenly, I keep thinking he or she might be dead. My brother died, my best friend died, my father might as well be dead for all cares for me, I looked after this little boy, Christopher, that I told you about. And he died. It’s as if… as if I’m being prepared, have been being prepared, for the news of the death or illness of my own child. All I want to know is if I am right? If… if that is the next… loss I have to suffer. I’ve come to ask you to find out for me, somehow, I keep telling myself that he’s not mine, that he or she is not part of me any more, but it’s impossible.”
Jane’s voice sank to a whisper and she shook her head trying not to break down. Dr. And Mrs. Michaelson remained silent, waiting for her to recover. At last, taking a deep breath, she said. “I expect you think I’m exaggerating, that I’m asking too much, that I’m… I’m trying to manipulate the situation. But it’s not that. This child … that child… still means so much to me. I haven’t purposely tried to keep its memory alive, it’s just that… well… it was all I had, at the Hospital, to keep me going. Life seemed so utterly pointless at times and then I would think of my baby and I’d say ‘No, even if I never see him I can always help him through my prayers, at another level. At night, while we sleep, we can meet and be together and I may teach him things, or learn things from him.’ And in that way I would find peace again.”
She remained silent, staring down at the carpet, waiting for one of her hosts to speak. Mrs. Michaelson gave a deep sigh, Dr. Michaelson cleared his throat and finally said quietly, “Your problem, Jane, is not your own private one. It is a universal one which must trouble all the mothers who have given their children in adoption and who feel like you.”
“You come to us, because you know that we know by whom your baby was adopted.”
Again she nodded.
“Yet very few mothers, if any, can do the same. They must, in fact, give their children to God, to Christ, in trust, knowing that sooner or later, once they have crossed the great divide, they will meet again, both having learned from the experience.”
“I just want to know if he’s alive, nothing else,” Jane said miserably.
“But what difference can it make?”
“All the difference. I… I just can’t bear the uncertainty.”
“At night you are together, you know that, and, as you say, you can both learn from each other. That is a reality. That is what you must build on. Here on earth you are apart, that too is a reality. If I were to tell you that your child is dead, or fatally ill, all it could possibly do would be to add to your suffering, because you are giving more importance to the material world and not to the spiritual world, but what is real, truly real, is the spiritual world. You must not think of your child being successful here, or well, or anything of the sort. You must think of it as an eternal spirit looking for those experiences which will most help it on its path to perfection. That is what you must pray for, and those experiences can just as well be in the spiritual world as here on earth, isn’t that so?”
“Yes. I suppose so.”
“I understand your suffering so well, dear. But I feel that you must think about these things, see them clearly, understand that one is always tempted to give more importance to the things of this world, to material comfort and success and well- being. Of course you want the best for your child, it is only natural, but you must respect what the higher self of your child wants. If you knew that it was dreadfully ill, or suffering many hardships due to any number of reasons you would pray for those problems to be solved, you would put your heart and soul into trying to ease that stony path. And would that help?”
“I don’t know. I suppose it wouldn’t really. I do understand you. Part of me tells me you’re right, that my contact with him must be at another level, at a spiritual level. It’s… it’s just that… if he were dead…”
“You could throw in the towel whenever things get too rough, because after all… your child has already passed on. Is that it?”
Jane looked up into the kindly Doctor’s direct gaze, and felt herself flush, for that was exactly how she felt. If her child were dead, well then, then…
“You too have a higher self, Jane. All this, all these experiences, all these doubts and working through them, all these moments of self-revelation are of enormous importance to your own development. You served your child as a vehicle. For that it will be eternally grateful. Now you must concentrate on your own development, for your child’s sake.”
Her bottom lip trembling, Jane nodded.
“Would you like a little more coffee, dear?” Mrs. Michaelson asked gently.
“Please,” Jane said with an effort. She drank it and felt its warmth fill her. The ice cold block, which had formed in her heart when she realized that Dr. Michaelson was not going to tell her what she wanted to know, melted slowly. He was right, she had to just give up hankering after her child and give him to Christ, in trust. Their relationship, really and truly, was a spiritual one, and could only be a spiritual one. Probably if she insisted, Dr. Michaelson would tell her in which world her child was at this moment. But she understood that he should not tell her. It was another test, of course, another exam, another ‘giving up’ but there was a reason. She, her true self, wanted it that way, needed these experiences and tests. No one, neither God nor Fate nor Dr. Michaelson were responsible. She, Jane, was responsible, and one day she would know the reason why.
She found that she could speak normally, and, almost happily, she spoke her thoughts aloud and discussed them with her loving friends. It was with a great sense of relief and peace that she took her leave and treated herself to a taxi home.
Violet Gregory telephoned her the following evening.
“My dear,” she purred. “I’m phoning to ask if you’d do me the most tremendous favour.”
“Of course, if I can,” Jane replied.
“I don’t know if I told you, but I had to dismiss our last nanny because she was stealing.”
“Yes,” Jane said. “You did mention it.”
“Well, the point is that we’re on the verge of leaving for Europe and I simply haven’t been able to find anyone suitable and Robert’s old aunt who was going to come to oversee everything and all that, can’t possibly come if there’s no nanny and I’m at my wits’ end, because of Bobby. Anyway my dear, I was talking to Soledad today and she suggested I ask you if you’d come and look after him for us. It would only be for two weeks.”
“But I’m working, Violet. I’m looking after my mother from nine to six every day.”
“Yes, I know that,” Violet said hastily. “Soledad told me. But I’ve spoken to the school and they say he can go mornings and afternoons. My dear, you’re the only person Robert is willing to leave Bobby with because of the way you looked after Sarita; why don’t you come round and we can talk it over personally? Tomorrow afternoon, maybe?”
Jane smiled wryly as she listened to Violet’s wheedling tones. How charming she could be when she needed something of one! The thought of Bobby’s freckles and mop of bright red hair weighted the scales in Violet’s favour, however, and she agreed to go and see her the next afternoon, noting down the address.
Violet’s home was a tall narrow house, full of pseudo antique furniture, appurtenances, velvet curtains and wall to wall carpets. Even Bobby’s bed had an antique air about it. Violet was at her most effusive and charming. She ordered tea to be brought to the T.V.room, took Jane’s anorak, complimented her on the colour of her pullover, and did all she could to make her comfortable.
“I’m so glad you could come this afternoon,” she said. “We really would appreciate it if you could look after Bobby, Jane. I know it’s very short notice and all that, but I promise it will be well worth your while. I mean, Robert quite understands what a lot of work you have on your hands just now, but you are simply the only person he’s willing to leave Bobby with because of the way you looked after Sarita, and so we were thinking of offering…” She named a sum which Jane considered enormous. Before she could say anything, Violet hurried on. “Bobby is fetched by the car pool at a quarter to nine, and we’d pay your taxi to your mother’s house, of course. He would take his lunch to school and the car pool would leave him at your mother’s house at about ten to five so that would mean one hour a day that would overlap… I thought perhaps your mother wouldn’t mind letting him play until six when you leave. He’s a very good little boy and I shall be so at ease, knowing that you are in charge. I always remember how marvelous you were with Sarita!”
“What about Nelly?” Jane said. “Wouldn’t she be ideal? I mean it would give her something to think about and be responsible for, just at this moment…”
Violet shook her head. “Poor Nelly is in a very bad state of nerves,” she said sadly. “Robert is quite against the idea. It did occur to me, of course, but we talked it over and Robert just said ‘no’. So there we are. What do you say, Jane? Do you think you could? Any extra expenses, such as taxis or anything like that which we can’t foresee we’d pay for, and it’s only for two weeks; it’s not so long.”
“Two weeks,” Jane thought. “What will Mummy say when Bobby appears? A four year old boy who has been at school all day, full of energy and talk, and toys … she’ll have a fit! But if I ask her she’ll say no at once, or she’ll talk it over with Dad and he’ll say no, and I can’t leave her just now for she really needs me… One hour a day. It shouldn’t be too much, one hour. It’s all been arranged, car pool and all. Do I want to? Yes, I do. I’d love to live here and look after Bobby. After all, why not?”
She looked at Violet and smiled. “O.K.,” she said, rather enjoying the fact that Violet was very much at her mercy. “O.K. I’ll come and look after Bobby for you.”
Oh, Jane, that would wonderful!” Violet cried delightedly.
They discussed dates and timetables in more detail and then Violet took Jane for a more extensive tour of the house. Bobby and a little friend were playing in the rather dreary garden at the back of the house, under the watchful eye of Albertina, an elderly retainer.
“She leaves on Saturday afternoons and returns on Monday mornings,” Violet said. “And I’m afraid that can’t be changed because she looks after her son’s house for him. There’s also a daily who comes twice a week from nine until three, which is not really enough but I know she’s honest and that’s what counts. I’ve gone nearly crazy interviewing nurse-maids, but really, one can’t be too careful. Robert will be delighted with this arrangement.”
“And you are even more so,” Jane thought. “Because now you can accompany him and get all those new clothes you want and wander around Paris and Rome and enjoy your freedom and leave your little boy with me, whom you hardly know at all!”
“Bobby,” Violet said. “Jane is coming to stay next week, won’t that be fun?”
“Are you goin’ to bwing me a book with pictures that wiggle?” Bobby asked.
“Would you like that?” Jane asked, smiling.
“Yes,” Bobby said emphatically. “This is a bus station, a big bus station,” he added nodding towards a small wooden structure lying on the garden path. “A big bus station with lots of buses.”
“Broom brooom,” his small friend roared as he approached up the garden path, pushing a toy truck energetically.
Jane arrived at Violet’s with all her belongings. “I have to move out of my flat, and I haven’t found a room anywhere that I like,” she explained when Violet eyed her pile of luggage with alarm. “Don’t worry, I’m not moving in to stay.”
“It’s quite a lot you have, isn’t it?” Violet said dubiously. “Anyway, you know where you’ll be sleeping, so just settle in. Robert went to see his aunt; he’ll be back directly. He’ll take your bags up for you when he comes.”
Since Jane had dropped by every evening for a little while since she had arranged to come and stay, she knew her way around well and lugged her lighter hold-alls up to the spare bedroom without more ado.
Bobby, already in his pyjamas, appeared at her door.
“Can you read to me, Jane?” he asked.
“Sure. Bring me your book,” she said and a little while later, when Robert appeared with her suitcases, he found her sitting on the bed with Bobby on her lap.
“Well, well, hello there, Cinderella,” he laughed.
“Has Bobby not even let you take off your anorak before getting you to read to him?”
He set down her suitcases and bent and kissed them both.
“Are you going to be good with Jane, Bobby?”
“And do just what she says until Mummy and Daddy come back?”
“That’s my boy.”
“An’ you’re goin’ to bing me a weal bus station, Daddy, with LOTS of buses and things. A big, BIG one?”
“It’s a promise Bobby. A big, BIG one!”
At supper they talked of itineraries, while Bobby, allowed to stay up as a special treat, played with his cars at their feet.
“We’ll ‘phone regularly,” Robert assured Jane.
“Anyway, he’s a fine, healthy, little boy so I don’t expect you’ll have any trouble. Just one thing – my aunt. She’s called Georgina Irwin, but everybody calls her Aunt Georgina; she is also very deaf so if she should ‘phone just say ‘yes,yes’ and humour her because, although she has a hearing aid, she uses the other ear when she ‘phones.”
“We have different opinions about Aunt Georgina,” Violet said a little acidly.
“Is she very old?” Jane asked.
“Eighty two and as spry as they come,” Robert replied “The Douglases, who live in the flat above hers, keep an eye on her comings and goings and the porter is a very good fellow and has the key of the front door, so you don’t have to worry about her at all.”
Violet made a grimace and turned her attention to Bobby.
“How is Nelly?” Jane asked a few minutes later and Violet shook her head vaguely.
“I’ve been so busy getting ready for the trip and all, that I really don’t know,” she admitted. “Diego wants her to go to Brazil, so maybe she’ll go next month or in the winter holidays. She doesn’t want to travel alone, so I may accompany her. But that depends on Robert, of course.”
She flashed him an arch smile.
They left the following morning. Jane and Bobby waved them goodbye, and before Bobby, whose bottom lip had begun to tremble dangerously, gave way to a full blown howl, she played a noisy game of hide-and-seek with him until they were thoroughly worn out. It was a pleasant Saturday morning, so Jane took her little charge outside to play with his cars and buses while she rested. A fat tabby cat was snoozing in the sunshine; it reminded Jane of the cat which had died. She thought of Kevin, Bettina, and finally Nelly.
“Nelly! I haven’t phoned her once this week,” Jane said to herself, perturbed. “And I don’t think Violet did either. How awful, I wonder how she is.”
Jumping to her feet she went inside and dialed Nelly’s number. The bell rang many times before Nelly finally answered. Her voice was blurred and faint, her “Hello,” hardly more than a whisper.
“Nelly, this is Jane, are you all right?”
“Hello, Jane,” Nelly’s voice sounded a little stronger but then she remained silent.
Jane waited, sensing that Nelly wanted to say something and could not find the words, or the courage. At last she broke out hoarsely.
“It’s impossible, Jane. Impossible. I can’t go on.”
Twenty minutes later Jane and Bobby were in Nelly’s kitchen and Jane was making coffee while Nelly sat listlessly, her face puffed and swollen from crying. She fiddled with her handkerchief and smoked jerkily. Jane had brought a number of cars and trucks, so that Bobby, after staring interestedly at Nelly for some time, was able to turn his attention into creating a bus station out of a cardboard box which had missed the dust-bin, talking quietly to himself as he did so.
“It’s no good, Jane,” Nelly murmured. “I miss her so. Life has no meaning for me any more.”
“You mustn’t give up like that, Nelly,” Jane said, setting the steaming coffee pot on the table.
“Bettina’s as alive as ever; you just can’t see her that’s all. I’m sure you know that in your heart.”
“I just want to die,” Nelly whispered.
“I know how you feel.”
“How can you? You haven’t lost the only thing that ever gave meaning to your life!”
Jane thought of her baby. Then she thought of Kevin, her father, her home and Bettina.
“It’s hard to judge,” she said. “We all have our personal losses. But Nelly, get a grip on yourself. Bettina would hate to see you like this. She was always so proud of you.”
“All I ever did was for her and because of her.”
“And now you must put yourself first.”
“I? What do I matter?”
“Of course you matter!”
“No one cares for me. As soon as Diego left, Violet never appeared again.”
“She was very busy.”
“No one cares one hoot if I live or die. So… that’s what I want, just to slip away and be done with everything.”
“We all come here with something to do, Nelly.”
“I’ve done what I had to do, and she’s been taken away from me.”
“Ah, no. We are here for ourselves, to work on ourselves, not just for other people.”
“I have no interest in myself, in my life, in anything. I was looking forward to grandchildren. If Bettina had to marry, well… at least there would have been grandchildren, and now I can’t even hope for that!”
Nelly covered her face with her hands in a spasm of grief. Then she looked at Jane with a haunted, desperate expression and shrieked. “IT’S NOT TRUE! IT’S NOT TRUE! Why did she have to die? Why? Why? It was all Kevin’s fault, that stuck-up, rich, little good-for-nothing. Why didn’t he think of her instead of his own skin when the fire started? God-damned, spoilt, good-for-nothing mother’s darling. He killed my daughter. Bettina … BETTINA …AAAAGH.”
Nelly collapsed over the table, beating it with her fists and sobbing wildly. She knocked over the coffee pot and coffee spilled across the table and onto the floor. Jane swooped down and picked Bobby up out of harm’s way. He clung to her, his eyes wide with fright. Before she could calm him, his wails joined Nelly’s.
Not really knowing what to do, Jane decided to attend to Bobby and took him out of the kitchen and onto the sitting-room balcony to look at the tree tops and the traffic in the street below. He soon calmed down, except for one or two sighs and a few minutes later Nelly appeared.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I frightened him.”
“Yes a bit.”
“I’ll make some more coffee, shall I?”
They drank the freshly made coffee in silence. At last Jane said. “Come back to the Gregories with me, Nelly. They left this morning. You can’t go on living here alone, feeling like you do.”
Nelly nodded wearily and after a while Jane helped her to pack a small suitcase and close up the flat. When they got back to the house Albertina had already left and the telephone was ringing.
“What now?” Jane thought as she picked up the receiver. A gruff, male voice said, in English.
“No, it’s Jane Rowan speaking. Violet and Robert left for Europe this morning.”
“Is that you, Violet?”
“No, it’s …”
“I know Robert has gone to Europe, but I suppose he’ll be ‘phoning you, so tell him that the Douglas’s have left. Lock, stock and barrel. They even took the light bulbs. Good riddance, too – couldn’t stand them. How are you?”
“Fine, thank you,” Jane yelled realizing that it must be Aunt Georgina.
“Good. Well, give Robert my love when he calls. Goodbye.”
Jane said goodbye and cut off.
“Who was that?” Nelly asked.
“Aunt Georgina, Robert’s aunt.”
“Oh. Where shall I sleep?”
“What about the T.V. room? It has a divan in it.”
Jane went to rustle up some lunch, and found that Albertina had left cold chicken and salad, and that there was a large jelly in the fridge. The afternoon passed quietly enough. Nelly slept a long siesta and Jane played with Bobby when he awoke from his. They all went for a walk and Bobby seemed as cheerful as a cricket. However, when bedtime came, his chin began to wobble.
“I want my mummy,” he whimpered.
Jane’s heart sank. “She’s gone to Paris with Daddy,” she said. “She’ll be coming back soon.”
Bobby was not to be reconciled. He opened his mouth as wide as he could and began to howl. Nelly appeared, looking alarmed.
“I wa’ my Mummy, I wa`my Mummy,” Bobby sobbed.
Jane decided a warm bath might calm him and asked Nelly to turn it on. It was a long time before she finally got him to sleep.
On the Monday morning, bracing herself to face the inevitable storm, Jane said, over their morning cup of coffee. “Mum? Some friends of mine, Violet and Robert Gregory …
“Would that be Lionel Gregory’s son?”
“I don’t know, could be.”
“Lionel married Alice, no… it wasn’t Alice, what was her name? Ann? Alison? Phyllis! That’s right, Phyllis Smart. Funny woman, I think they got separated in the end.”
“Actually the Gregories are good friends of the Torres Hidalgos, that’s how I met them.”
“Do you know what her maiden name was?”
“No, I don’t. Anyway, they’ve gone to Europe for two weeks.”
“All that way for only two weeks? How extraordinary!”
“They’ve got this little boy called Bobby, who goes to the same play school as Sarita Torres Hidalgo, the baby I looked after, remember?”
“Well, Violet couldn’t get a nanny to look after Bobby so she asked me if, as a great favour, I would look after him and the house while they were away, and she offered me a very large salary.”
“What a pity.”
“Well, you’re looking after me.”
“I’m doing both, actually.”
“I’ve moved into their house and I’m looking after
Bobby for them. He goes to play school all day until four thirty, and then the car pool will bring him here.”
“It’ll only be for an hour.”
“But why here? Why can’t he gone home?”
Jane thought of old Albertina having to cope with an energetic little four-year-old and shook her head.
“Your father will be furious.”
“Why tell him?”
“What do you mean?”
“That what the eye doesn’t see the heart doesn’t grieve over. If you don’t tell him, he’ll never know.”
“I don`t want any child here,” Dora said indignantly.
Jane remained silent, feeling a little guilty.
“How old is this child?”
“Four and a half.”
Her mother’s eyes widened abruptly, they stared at one another for a couple of seconds, and then she looked away and said. “I refuse to have a four-year-old child foisted on me in my home simply because some rich woman wants to go to Europe!”
“So you think about him too,” Jane thought. “So you too look at four-years-old and think ‘I have a grandchild, somewhere, of that age.’ So you haven’t forgotten!”
Aloud she said. “She’s gone.”
“You’ll have to make some other arrangements. I’m sorry, that’s my last word.”
“All right, I’ll ring up Dr. Michaelson and ask him if he knows of a nurse who can come for that hour every day. I’ll pay for it, don’t worry.”
“What do you mean, get some-one else? That’s nice way to treat your mother!”
“Ah, Mum, come on. It’s only for two weeks, and think of the money I shall get. He’s the cutest little boy, you’ll love him. He won’t be any trouble, I promise you. Anyway, think it over, I’ve got a heap to do. I’ll ring Soledad and see if she can have him one or two days, but you’ll see, he’ll be like a ray of sunlight for you.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because little children seem to be enveloped by a breath of heaven in some way. They’re so clean somehow, so pure.”
“What will happen if your father finds out?”
“Nothing he can do or say can hurt me more than he already has, and he won’t say anything if you say you want to have the child here, that it’s just the sort of therapy you need.”
“He’ll remind me of Brian,” Dora said, her eyes filling with tears.
“No, he won´t. He’s got bright red hair.”
Dora dabbed her eyes and said pettishly. “You’ve quite made up your mind, haven’t you? So nothing I say will make any difference.”
Jane bent and kissed her mother fondly. “Thanks a ton, Mummy,” she said and began to bustle about, getting on with her chores.
Dora sat on the sofa silently. She felt confused, indignant and yet Jane’s kiss was like a warm little candle in her heart. Thanks a ton, Mummy. She had always said that when she was little. Only two weeks, after all, and as she said, why did Eric have to know? Four and a half. The baby would be that age now. She often thought about it, fleetingly; there was no point in raking up the past all the time. If Eric had been different… but at least Jane was back at home and there would be no way in which he could come between them again. And it was a lot of money that they were going to pay her. A nurse! Who would have said that Jane would want to become a nurse, and such a good one too! So efficient. Everything ran like clockwork in the house. Only an hour a day… if he was a good little boy it wouldn`t be so bad after all, and if it made Jane happy… Four and a half. Where was the other little child at this moment? How lovely it would be if Jane were to marry soon and have children. But there didn’t seem to be anyone on the horizon. But now Kevin was free perhaps… No, she mustn’t speculate. Perhaps it would be rather fun, red hair had she said? Well it was all arranged, apparently, so the only thing to do was to make the best of it. And if Eric found out she’d say just that, that she had wanted the child to come.
The telephone rang. She picked it up and a pleasant voice asked if Jane was available.
“Jane, it’s for you.”
Jane came in from the kitchen, drying her hands on a tea towel.
“Who is it?”
“Jane, this is Hetty, Hetty Michaelson. Jane, dear, I want you to know that I’ve been making inquiries and your… your child is fine. A beautiful, healthy child. Please don’t tell the Doctor that I told you, but I just couldn’t bear your uncertainty, you’ve had to bear too much, dear, the least you can ask is to know if your baby is alive and well. That’s all I wanted to tell you. Come and see us again soon. ‘Bye’bye.”
She cut off, and Jane stood looking at the telephone in her hand like someone who had lost her wits. Dora had turned on the cablevision and was absorbed in a feature on cooking. Jane glanced at her and then quickly replaced the receiver and rushed back to the kitchen. There, in the privacy of its white, chaste walls, she danced a wild jig of exultation. It was alive and well, it had let her know through Mrs. Michaelson. A beautiful, healthy child. Of course it was… what else could he be?
The rest of the day flashed past. Jane was so happy she could hardly keep from dancing. She made her mother’s favorite cake for tea, and fussed about her with all kinds of little cossetting. Bobby arrived at ten to five and walked into the house with large, anxious eyes. Jane kissed him, took off his anorak and led him into the living room to meet her mother.
“Hello Bobby,” Dora said. “I’m Jane’s Mummy, and look at my leg, it’s got a house of its own!”
She pulled away the rug which covered her plaster cast and showed it off to Bobby, watching his round, fascinated eyes and taking his little hand and laying it on the plaster.
“It’s going to be alright,” Jane thought. “All, all, all, right. Oh! Thank you Lord, thank you!”