It had been the usual quiet, airless afternoon in Brenda’s sitting room; tea and chocolate digestives set out on a tiny side table, the television blinking silently and the fresh air of the outside world held at bay by window locks and net curtains. Joan had pottered her way across the road, as she did every Thursday, with her nice scarf and her best skirt on and they were sitting together in comfort, rehearsing the same conversation, until “their” programme came on at four o’clock. That was the part they looked forward to most, when they could sit up straight and give opinions about the contestants. You were supposed to want everybody to win, but they didn’t. Not always. That was what happened on Thursday afternoons and that was exactly how they liked it. Familiarity was something to cling to, a comfort late in life, when the world was filled with loss and change, but this afternoon was going to be different. Joan had been thinking, and she had decided it was time to come out with her secret.
“Did I ever tell you I was adopted?”
Brenda blinked anxiously. The truth was she couldn’t remember whether Joan had told her that or not, but if she said so that would be rude. She forgot all sorts of things these days but surely not something like that. What if Joan had already told her about it? It often happened. They both liked to repeat themselves and if Joan had told her before it was not the sort of thing you were supposed to forget. That would be rude. It would look as though she wasn’t bothered……… or senile.
“Adopted? I don’t think so.”
“I thought not. Yes, adopted.”
There was a silence. The china dogs on the fireplace stared.
“Go on then.”
“I was in Dr Barnado’s to start with, until just before I was four, then after that I was fostered with Aunty Margaret and Uncle Fred. Then this one morning they fetched me into the front room- where we never usually went- and there were these two women there. It was the day before my sixth birthday so I thought it was something to do with that. A surprise. Well I got a surprise all right. I’d never seen either of them before but they knew all sorts about me. They knew my name, Millicent-”
“Yes, that’s who I am really- Millicent. They told me I had to be Joan. So that’s what I’ve been all these years- Joan.”
The last word was spat out.
“You’d rather have been Millicent then?”
Joan took no notice. Of course she would rather have been who she really was. Wasn’t that obvious? Her voice grew in confidence as she carried on talking, using a quite different tone to the one she used when she was talking about the shortcomings of the neighbours. When she had mentioned being adopted to her other friend, three doors down, she had been told to “put it behind her” and that wasn’t right. Sixty five years was nothing. Nothing at all. She wasn’t going to let Brenda do the same thing. She had something to say and she was going to say it.
“Anyway these two women were there and one of them turned out to be my mam-
“Well not my real mam, the woman who I ended up calling mam and my Auntie Jean. They took me away on a bus. We went ever so far. My things had all been packed without telling me- my teddy and everything. They showed him to me so I knew where he was. The bus windows were mucky and I tried to look out but I couldn’t see where we were properly, then it started to rain. Eventually the bus stopped at the bottom of a big hill, Weathersley hill in Stanshaw-”
“I know where that is.”
“You would do. Right next to where I was going to go to school only I didn’t know that then- I walked up and down that hill every day for years. We got off the bus. I just held on tight to her hand- the one with the nice hat on, in case I got lost and the one I called mam later on carried my bag. I didn’t even know I was stopping for good. Not till later on.
We went in the front door of number thirty six and straight into the kitchen. There was this man standing there. I can tell you just where he was standing. You remember those kitchen units with sliding doors and table parts you could pull down?”
Brenda did remember.
“We had one of those. Light blue it was.”
“Well this one was pale yellow and he was standing right next to it. The table part was pulled down and he was standing there with his cap on inside the house. Just looking at me. Then he held out his hand and gave me half a crown. they made me walk towards him like a little dog and say thank you. It was the only time he ever gave me money. I only found out he was my real dad years later. I don’t know if anybody else even knew that to start with. There was nothing on the birth certificate.”
Brenda looked down and shook her head. How could you not know your real dad when he was standing in front of you? What would it be like to be right next to him without knowing? She wondered whether to offer another cup of tea. The clock ticked. Joan went on talking.
“I had to give all my wages to my mam right up until I was eighteen. When I wanted to get married they said I couldn’t because they needed my wages. All those years paying for my keep and more. As if they were doing me a favour. I didn’t ask to be there. I kept wanting to go back home.”
“You did get married though. You married Jack.”
“Well they couldn’t stop me in the end. Not once I was twenty one. It was when I was fourteen I found the letter.”
“One from Aunty Margaret asking me how I was.”
“They’d told me they were both dead.”
“To shut me up I suppose. He came in and saw me with the letter. Grabbed it off me and said it would go straight into my adoption file.”
It was addressed to me.”
This was wrong. They were both big believers in the royal mail and liked to talk about the post even though they hardly got any, so they knew that. Brenda shook her head.
“Course they’ll all be dead now.”
Neither of them could quite bring themselves to say out loud that this was a very good thing but they both thought it.
“They never hit me.”
Brenda’s father had hit her but only when she deserved it. She had been loved. Not the way that kids got loved- spoiled- nowadays. Endless treats, dressing up as princesses, having their photograph taken every time they came back in the room. She frowned.
“I should think not!”
“Anyway it didn’t matter. I’d taken note of the address while I was standing there. I got my friend to go with me and when we got there I remembered it all- I took her straight there. Just knocked on the door. This strange woman answered it, looked straight at me and said, “you’re Millicent aren’t you?” I said “yes”. Nobody had called me that for years. I’d only seen it written down.”
“Your Auntie Margaret.”
“No, I never did find out who that woman was or how she knew. Aunty Margaret must have talked about me. They’d moved three doors down. They were that pleased to see me.”
“They would be.”
“I used to go back and see them every so often after that. I never told anybody- not even years later.”
Joan was staring straight at her and Brenda knew that she was waiting for her to say something, but what could she say? She had a feeling that this was a conversation that was only going to happen once- unlike most of what they said to each other- and she had to be sure to say the right thing. Margaret had brought all the sadness and anger that she had held in from years back and placed it squarely in the middle of her sitting room. The hurt was seeping out, souring the still air and spoiling everything. It made her feel like opening a window to let it out. Of course it wasn’t Joan’s fault and she couldn’t ask her to go home, certainly not just before their programme.
“That’s nice that you kept in touch.”
Joan wondered if Brenda had really listened. Never mind. It had been said.
“Are you going to switch the sound up?”
“Right you are, Millicent.”