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Lancashire Times
A Voice of the North
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Kaye McGann
Features Writer
3:08 PM 6th December 2020
fiction

Another Time, Another Place

Janet burrowed deeper under the hanging branches of the huge tree. Beneath her feet, the fallen leaves and twigs from last year crunched, and she stopped, peered out, and then manoeuvred herself more cautiously. It was all right. No-one had heard.

She settled herself, sitting on a protruding root, her back against the trunk. It was much more pleasant here in the shade. Out there, in the rambling garden, the heat was intense, and insects buzzed all around. Janet was not very keen on insects. They seemed to single her out, and she knew from experience how painful the bites could be. It was not the insects she was avoiding, though. It was her cousins, Maura and Kathy.

Janet loved being here. Every summer, for as long as she could remember, she had come with her parents to spend August here at Granny and Grandpa’s. She knew every inch of the big Georgian manor-house, and every hiding place in the garden. Until this summer, she had enjoyed the holidays immensely, and had looked forward all year to the time she’d be here. It was so different from her everyday life in a big city, with its routine of school – walking through the busy streets in her grey gaberdine coat and velour hat with the school crest embroidered on a petersham band – then homework at the end of the day, and an hour’s piano practice in the drawing room. Her best friend Susannah went each year with her younger brother Kenneth and their parents to stay at an hotel in Torquay, which sounded very nice ; but not so nice as being here in Ireland.

In the relaxing, drowsy warmth under the tree, Janet’s mind wandered over past holidays. She remembered being only four years old, and dropping her little metal dog, Fido, which she carried everywhere in her hand, into the pool formed by the damming of the river. Uncle James had sent for one of the men to dive for it, and Francie O’Hara had come, a huge strapping young man. He had knelt on the bank, prayed to St. Antony, crossed himself, and then had dived unerringly to the spot where Fido lay. After that, Janet had followed Francie round devotedly. She had sat by him on a little three-legged stool whilst he milked the cows, and he’d squirted the hot milk directly from the cow’s udder into her mouth. Afterwards, she’d trotted beside him as he’d carried the steaming buckets of milk into the dairy, ready for her uncle to transfer to churns and take to the Creamery.

Her devotion had lasted two summers, until the day she’d got lost in the small wood, and Brian O’Shaunessy had found her. After that, it was Brian she followed round. She had seen the room he and Francie shared over the stables when she’d taken a message to them from her uncle – the two truckle beds, the bare floor, and the pictures of saints on the bedside boxes. She had thought how different it was from her own room in the Nursery wing, with its high bed and white counterpane, its bright rugs, and the pictures on the walls of scenes from Nursery Rhymes. She had loved those when she was younger, but it was now familiarity which endeared them to her.

For the last two years she’d had Kitty Garrett as the object of her devotion. Kitty was the maid assigned to look after the children in the holidays. Maura and Jimmy lived here all the time, but they went to boarding schools. Kathy and Tim were summer visitors, like Janet. Kitty saw to the children’s clothes, and supervised their meals, taken at a side-table in the great dining room. It was so different here from home, where Mummy looked after her, and the nearest thing to a servant was Mrs. H., who came in to do the ‘heavy’ housework three mornings a week. Mummy did housework, too, but just in the mornings. Then, in the afternoon, she changed her clothes and went shopping, or read, or sewed. Daddy went to work in an office, and looked after the tiny strip of garden at the back of the house.

Here, though, her parents seemed to disappear. She’d see them in the dining room, sitting at the big table with the other grown-ups, and she’d hear them in the evenings, singing on the terrace, the sound floating up through her open bedroom window. Her favourite was the Whippenpoofs Song. She thought that was what it was called. Then she’d see Daddy, standing on the running-board of Uncle James’s car as it went down the drive, ready to leap off and open the gates at the end. She’d seen Daddy, too, dressed like a workman, going off with her uncles and the men to work on the harvest, when it all had to be in before the forecast rain arrived. Mummy she sometimes saw at the pool with the other mummies, her aunts, swimming and splashing in the water, and laughing, their hair hidden beneath white bathing caps.

Much as Janet adored her parents, the person she loved most in all the world was Granny. Granny with her straight back, grey hair in a roll like a halo round her rosy face; Granny, the giver of cuddles when Janet had grazed her knees, or wandered into the nettles; Granny who always made time, however busy. And busy she was.

Granny was the focus of life here, and everything revolved around her. She it was who organised the running of the house and the servants, and, since Grandpa’s accident, most of the farm. Uncle James saw to the training of the horses, spending hours each day circling them on a lunging rein, lengthening it, shortening it, and issuing commands, which the horses obeyed without question. Granny made delicious malt-bread. Granny took the children into the small town eight miles away, driving the pony and trap herself, and buying them chocolate there. Granny had bought them the donkey, Daisy, kept in the paddock with the racehorses to help calm them down. Janet avoided the horses when she went to get Daisy to ride. She remembered being nipped by one of them, Penny, two years ago.

Now, this year, everything had changed. Granny lay upstairs, felled by a stroke. The aunts and Mummy, looking both worried and important, scurried around with trays and bedpans, the trained nurse from Dublin having so far failed to arrive. Uncle James was having to take over the running of the farm, whilst Daddy and Uncle Mike attempted to exercise the horses. All of it was a shambles.

And now the idyll really was broken. Maura and Kathy, both thirteen to Janet’s eleven, had turned against her. They whispered and giggled together, poking fun at her, mocking her for her clothes, the way she ran, her straight bobbed hair, her English accent. Janet was bewildered by it all. In other years, the children had all played together, and been happy. There’d been hide-and seek, and cowboys and Indians, and explorers in the jungle – the rope bridge over the river had been marvellous for that – and guessing games after supper. Now it was all changed. Tim was fifteen, and behaving as if he were a grown-up, whilst Jimmy was only nine, and talked about cars all the time. Maura and Kathy were simply hateful. Even Kitty, dear dear Kitty, was too busy to have time for her, consigned to taking care of Grandpa, stuck forever in the Garden Room in his wheelchair.

Here, under the tree, Janet felt like weeping. Indeed, every time she thought of poor Granny she wanted to cry. And now, to be an outcast, on top of everything. It really was not fair.

Suddenly she heard a footstep, followed by Maura’s voice.
“She’ll be hiding somewhere, the little cry-baby. Look, Kathy, do we really want to find her ? I mean, it’s so much better without her, isn’t it ? Why don’t we just leave the little brat, and go through the Paddock to the road? We can sit on the green gate, where we can’t be seen from the house, and watch the O’Brien boys when they come past.”

There were shrieks of giggling.

“What a great gas of an idea !” said Kathy. “Come on. Race you !”

There was some thudding, and some yells, and then they were gone. Janet crawled out of her hiding place. It was even worse not to be hunted than to be hunted. She felt so alone and unwanted.

Well, there was nothing to be done. She just got in the way in the house. There was no point going to the paddock to get Daisy, because the cousins would see her from their vantage point on the gate. She would just sneak in, go up to the Nursery, and get her book, and then take it to the poolside and read, and lose herself in another time, another place.

First, though, she needed to pee, and it was becoming desperate. She didn’t think she could wait long enough to get to the bathroom, so she walked quickly to the orchard, then down the path to where a brick double- privy straddled the stream.

From one of the compartments came the sound of Tim singing to himself. Oh, no ! she did NOT want to encounter Tim. Janet tiptoed away. She hurried to the wild bit of the orchard, where there were the ruins of a small building, now reduced to waist-height. Clambering in, avoiding the nettles, she positioned herself where she could not be seen, then eased off her shorts and squatted down. With a blissful feeling of release and relief, she felt the red-hot liquid burst out of her and splash her bare legs, sizzling on the ground beneath.

“Oh, no, not again,” the voice said wearily. Janet struggled awake through muffled layers of sleep. She knew she was Janet, but beyond that everything was a muddle, absolute confusion. “I’m sick and tired of this,” a big young woman was saying, pulling her about roughly.

Janet tried to hang on to what had just been happening. She had been in the wild bit of the orchard, having a pee. Yes, that was right. She could still feel the warmth and wetness of her legs where it had splashed. So what was she doing here, in this strange place ? Who was this large woman with the un-Irish voice? Why was she being pulled about? It was all too much. Janet began to cry.

“I want Kitty ! I want my Mummy ! Granny ! Granny !”

“Oh, bloody hell, she’s off again. Mary. Mary ! Come here !”

The woman stood back, arms akimbo, a white plastic apron covering the stained, once-white overall she was wearing. Another woman came into the room. This one, though not as big, was fat and black. They stood either side of her as she lay on the bed, and started to pull bedding out from under her. The bigger one, not Mary, had hold of Janet’s wrist in a fierce grip. Janet could see her own hand. It must be hers, though there were large brown spots on it, and the skin looked strange, wrinkled somehow. She didn’t understand. How had she got here? Who were these terrible women? Why were they so cross with her? She whimpered in terror.

“Bloody dirty old sod. God, I’m fed up with this, keep changing the old fart. And she hasn’t a clue what’s going on. I don’t know why the boss keeps admitting these hopeless cases. It’s just bloody hard work for us.

“It’s the money, Irene,” Mary was saying. “The boss wants every bed filled for the profit. I feel really sorry for the old girl. Four children, all of them well-off from what I hear, and not one of them comes a yard near. It’s a shame. Back where I come from, we look after our old folk, not push them out of sight into a place like this. After all, you never know what your own life will turn out like, do you?”

“That’s true enough, Mary, “ Irene replied, pulling a clean nightdress over Janet’s head, “but it’s the example you’re set when you’re young. I don’t expect these toffee-nosed people like this one ever had to look after their old relatives. Well, that’s her done – till next time. I suppose we’d better put the bars up, so she doesn’t fall out again – though the sooner she’s out of her misery, the better for all of us, if you ask me.”

She stomped out of the room. Mary lingered a minute.
“There, there,” she said gently, pushing back a bit of wispy grey hair that was over Janet’s frightened eyes, “Irene doesn’t really mean it.”

Then she, too, went.

Silently, the tears trickled down Janet’s withered cheeks. If only she were back in Ireland, back in the halcyon summer she’d somehow strayed from into this nightmare world. It wouldn’t matter that Maura and Kathy didn’t want her, or that Mummy and Kitty were too busy for her. And poor Granny ! It hadn’t been like this for her. Oh, if only she could get back there, be in her own body again, and never have to stray ever again into this awful other time and place, she’d never grumble about loneliness, or Tim, or anything. Anything was better than this. Anything.