Mrs Tapper saved me. I ought to be grateful to her. We met when I was sitting on a park bench on Brandon Hill and Lukie was asleep in his pram: I was eighteen and he was twelve weeks old. I’d been sitting there too long. It was late afternoon on an autumn day in 1974 and the wind was blowing dead leaves and black bits of twig down from the trees and into drifts on the wet grass littered with worm casts; the bench’s wooden slats were cold as metal against the underside of my thighs, my feet were numb in thin plimsolls, I was trying to keep my hands warm in my pockets. I’d tested to make sure Lukie was warm enough, pushing in there between the sheets, down beside his little body snug in nappy and babygro suit and bonnet and bootees, damp and urgent in sleep. I wished that I could sleep, and be tucked up in a cocoon of blankets and rocked to and fro, and not have to think about anything except myself.

I did love him.

I’d loved him from the moment he arrived, in that awful chaos in the foyer of the maternity hospital – they had to cut my knickers off, he came so quickly. Apparently this happens with young mothers. I still had my shoes on when they handed him to me to hold; the maternity dress my auntie had bought me, when I couldn’t fit inside my jeans any longer, was a bloody rag wrapped up somewhere around my waist, it had to be thrown out. Lukie gazed into my eyes when they gave him to me, with such a searching, surmising, reasonable, open look: surprised but not dismayed to find himself in existence.

–My God, my mother had said as soon as she leaned over him (not that soon – she didn’t come to see him for weeks after he was born, we were by no means reconciled at this point). He’s the spit of your father.

Now why did she say that? When for so many years we’d never mentioned my father, who was supposed to be dead but so obviously wasn’t. Needless to say, she hadn’t wanted me to have a baby. Never mind all the other stuff, about shame, and loss of face, and people asking ‘How’s Stella getting on at school?’, and my tripping up on my merry road to being so superior: not only that, but it was also only a few years since my mother had her own second baby, she was bored with the whole fuss and the puking and crying, no cute little grandson was going to win her round. She had wanted me to triumph, and prove something to my stepfather, and I had made a fool of myself instead. But she did bring me some tiny vests, and a matinee jacket she’d knitted herself (she was hopeless at knitting, too impatient, it was full of dropped stitches). And money, most of which I gave to Jean.

I was living with my Auntie Jean and I didn’t know what to do.

Rock the pram, rock the pram. Mix up the baby’s bottles of formula, sterilize the bottles. Change his nappy, mix up the soaking solution in a plastic bucket, rinse the dirty nappies then soak them and then put them in Jean’s twin tub, heaving the scalding nappies in clouds of urine-smelling steam in wooden tongs between the washer and the spin dryer. Wash his clothes, wash mine. Help Jean make tea. (Jean worked in the afternoons, sewing for a Jewish tailor in Stokes Croft. She was a skilled tailoress, she could cut out and make a winter coat, a man’s suit and trousers.) Feed the baby, rock him. (Jean loved to give him his bottle and nurse him. She was a natural. He slept content against the handsome mountain of her bosom.) Watch telly with my cousins in the evenings. Pick the baby up from his cot when he cries in the night and rock him.

Was that it, then?

We had a back room. It was my cousin Richard’s room, he was a trainee motor mechanic and he’d had to move in to sleep with his two brothers. At first he didn’t mind. They were that kind of family, generous and spontaneous, always giving shelter to refugees from some crisis or other among their friends or relations. But after a while, naturally, Richard would have liked his room back. Also, I wasn’t quite grateful enough: this was just a flaw in my character at that time in my life, I couldn’t help seeing things bitterly, looking at everything – even kindness – with irony. Where I should have had a heart, there was a dry husk. I loved my good-looking boy cousins, how they teased their mother, and their touchy loyalty and dignity, as if they were a tribe set apart; but I couldn’t quite belong to the tribe. I should have talked more, and made more effort – but I suppose I was making all the efforts I had in me, just to get through every day. There were pieces of motorbike lying around on the floor of Richard’s room, and sometimes in the dark when I was walking up and down with Lukie because he wouldn’t sleep, I stumbled over them in my bare feet, and cut my toes and bruised my shins. That back room seemed like the end of the world, some nights.

But where else could I go? I wouldn’t, I couldn’t, go home.

Anyway, at home they didn’t want me.

Some nights, if Lukie had been fretting on and off for hours, my Auntie Jean came in, voluminous in her nightie. –Give him to me, Stella love, she said. –I’ll have him. You get some sleep. And I was too weak to refuse, I handed my baby over. Right away I heard him calming down in her arms, out of his frenzy. I longed for my bed, I crept into it and embraced my pillow like an addict, sinking down and down into oblivion. I knew that Jean would take my baby permanently, if I wanted her to. I could go away and possess myself again; Luke would grow up to be part of the tribe. Not that it would be easy for her (what about her job, sewing?). She had a thing about babies, though, and she loved Lukie. I knew that he’d have a good life, with her – I didn’t know what kind of life he’d have with me. (I didn’t think about Valentine. I never even mentioned his name, after the moment I learned he’d left for the US. My mother never even asked me if he was the baby’s father, if anyone asked me I wouldn’t answer them, nobody told his parents, he never knew.)

Some nights I stood in my pyjamas in the dark at the back window, my baby son dozing against my shoulder, breathing him in: yeasty, milky, eggy, sweet. Whatever my mind was busy with in those moments, my body stilled, to be in tune with his; there was still an animal match between the smell of his sweat and mine. My aunt and uncle lived in Totterdown, in a terraced house on a precipitous hill: I could see all the lights of the city spread out below. I’m not dead yet, I thought in the middle of the night. This is my life. It’s not nothing. And my imagination was too passionately imprinted with Luke’s miniature features, it was already too late to leave him: the pearly globes of his closed eyelids, a swathe of shiny milk-rash spots across his cheek, the wrinkling frowns that passed over his face with wind, the dark blood-colour of his lips pressed so precisely together, his tiny decisively hooked nose (making me think of the ribs of an umbrella waiting to be unfurled later).

 
And then Mrs Tapper found me in the park.

Brandon Hill wasn’t anywhere near my cousins’, it was in a much smarter part of the city. I’d pushed the pram on and on through the afternoon, not knowing where I was heading, until my feet were sore. Lukie had slept all that time. Mrs Tapper wasn’t the sort of woman who usually talked to strangers. She wasn’t the sort of woman who found the time for walks in the park by herself, either – her life was packed efficiently tight with important errands. It must have been an exceptional afternoon for her – if I was feeling desperate, then perhaps she was too. I first spotted her walking fast along the paths besides the frost-stricken flower beds, the heels of her shoes scraping as assertively as if she was striking flints. She was dressed in a beautifully cut camel-hair coat, the collar turned up round her ears and her hands pushed deep into the pockets. Her face was lifted in that remote, sardonic way she had; the colour of the coat didn’t suit her, because her hair and her complexion were too close to the same yellowish fawn. She was tall and thin and middle-aged; powder was stuck in the shallow wrinkles on her forehead and her hair was pulled back in a tortoiseshell clip. When I thought about it afterwards, once I knew her better, I wondered if she’d come out to walk there that day because she’d had a row with her husband. Mostly they were so constrained and polite with each other. It wasn’t like any marriage that I knew. Occasionally their truce snapped and broke, as if it were under an intolerable tension.

All the benches along the path were empty but Mrs Tapper sat down beside me. –Do you mind? she said. She must have been desperate, to want to talk to an unhappy-looking teenager with a baby. Was she casting around in that moment to feel powerful and benevolent, because her marriage was shrivelling her up? She asked me sympathetically all about Lukie, she said she had two children of her own, a girl and a boy, eight and fourteen.

–It’s such a shock, isn’t it? she said. –The responsibility, descending like that all at once, out of the blue. I wasn’t in the least prepared. I know I thought I’d go under with it. But you don’t go under, you know.

I opened up to Mrs Tapper, as I hadn’t opened up to anybody. Perhaps I had an instinct that in her dryness and measured analysis she was a more useful model to me just then than Jean with her instinctive mothering. I told her about my mother and stepfather, and giving up school. I told her about the back bedroom at Auntie Jean’s, and the motorbike parts. I even told her that the baby’s father didn’t know about him. I could tell her anything, I thought, it wouldn’t matter – I’d never see her again afterwards.

–So you’re stuck, Mrs Tapper said. –I know how that feels.

Her long legs in sheer nylons were crossed under her coat and she was swinging one foot restlessly, shoe dangling, as if she wanted to jump up and take off somewhere.

–Actually I’m looking for a girl, she said abruptly. –I want someone to come and live in, to help with the chores and the children. I’ve got my own business, selling antiques: it’s taking up more of my time. We live in the school where my husband works. (I thought at first she meant he was some kind of caretaker, but he was housemaster at an expensive private school.) –You could have your own room. And I’d pay you, say, thirty pounds a week. But probably the job isn’t what you want.

She must have felt a momentary kinship with me, with my plight: mostly she was solitary and wary of commitment. She really had been looking for a girl – but she didn’t have to take one with a baby. Afterwards, I think she partly disliked me because of the impulsive gesture I had drawn her into; we never spoke again like that, intimately as equals. But that was all right. We had each needed the other for something, which wasn’t kindness or love. We’d both had dry husks for our hearts, that day.

–You’re not a smoker, are you? Can you clean a house? And can you make cake? If you’re a housemaster’s wife the boys expect you to feed them ghastly cake, day in day out.

I said I could make cake, and it was true, I could produce a passable Victoria sponge. And my mother used to pay me pocket money for cleaning; she’d been a hard taskmaster. Mrs Tapper was frowning into the pram. She was probably already half regretting her rash offer. –Does he sleep through the night yet?

I lied. I said he did.

 

Extracted from Tessa Hadley’s novel Clever Girl, published by Jonathan Cape.

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