She sits slumped in the piss-smelling dining room, the only company her congealing plate of food and her memories.
Along with the food, she didn`t care much for the memories either, brings her out in a sweat, makes her stomach heave like she`d once felt on the seaside rollercoaster. Not that she`d been to the seaside many times. What was it, once, maybe twice, as a toddler growing up with her parents in the cramped terraced house overlooking the pit headstocks? Their lives, and that of Grace, were ruled by religion. Church twice on a Sunday was rarely missed, the priest soon knocking on their door if for any reason they had not attended. Grace had never seen her parents as `loving,` too preoccupied with their own, cosy little world, Dad with his corner grocer`s shop, mam with her wedding flowers. Grace pictured the tiny buttonholes,her fingers sore from pushing dozens of safety pins into the flowers stems. Her mam had made her do that, said she was better helping out instead of playing with the `undesirable` kids that lived on the street. By undesirable of course she meant not following the true faith.
She glared malevolently as the girl took her plate away, replacing it with another bowl.
`What`s this then?` Grace asked.
`Nice bowl of rhubarb and custard,` the girl ventured.
`Hope it`s better than the dinner,` Grace spat. `It were cold and totally inedible.`
`Don`t you go tellin` Chef that or he`ll be none too pleased will he?` Grace glared at the girl, `Chef!`, she muttered to herself. He was
nothing more than a scrawny teenager they`d felt obliged to take off the dole. If he was a chef then Grace Holroyd was a bloody rocket scientist. Rocket Scientist? Grace allowed herself a wry smile. Maybe she could have made some sort of career for herself, if only.. She felt the familiar lurch again in her stomach, images she tried so hard to eradicate, crashing into her mind like an express train out of control. Would she ever be rid of them?
It had all started innocently enough, an offer of a ride on Tommy`s brand new scooter. Tommy lived next door, a boy viewed with much suspicion by Grace`s parents.
`The Lord knows where that lad will end up,` her mother had muttered on more than one occasion.
`You`ll never get me on one of those things Tommy Hardcastle,` Grace had said to him, secretly thrilled that he`d even asked her.
She`d succumbed of course, sneaking out one day when her parents were at a church meeting. She`d felt the wind tugging at her hair as he`d gunned the machine down the High Street, her arms wrapped around his waist like a limpet clamped to a rock.
Much against her parents wishes she started going to the local youth club, an upstairs room in an old barn a local farmer had let them use, and where Tommy had told her he usually went. He`d get her a glass of orange juice and they`d play a game of ping pong whilst they listened to crackly pop music one of the girls had recorded from Radio Luxembourg on an old tape recorder.
She picked at the rhubarb, the taste bitter in her mouth. Weren`t they supposed to steep the fruit in sugar for a while? She rolled it round in her mouth before spitting it noisily back into her bowl.
It was after a game of ping pong that Tommy had asked her if she fancied going outside for a `crafty drag,` as he put it. Grace had never even had a cigarette in her mouth, let alone smoked one so she`d said ok. She remembered going down the stairs, the faint smell of cow dung hanging in the air. He took the packet of cigarettes out of his pocket, squashed it was, so she couldn`t even read the name. He held out the open packet in front of her, but before she could take a cigarette he grabbed her arm roughly, saying he`d want something in return. Grace, naïve as she was, said she didn`t know what he was on about. He just laughed before suddenly putting his hands on her breasts and pushed her down onto a bale of hay. She remembered his rancid breath on her face as he ground her into the hay, his sweaty hands tugging at her skirt. Then there had been the pain, only relieved when he finally climbed off her. She had lain there in the gathering blackness and watched the moon as it came from behind a cloud. She remembered seeing dark shadows flitting in and out of the barn, their shapes reminding her of black butterflies. And then they were gone, replaced by a sudden bright flare as Tommy lit a cigarette. He`d crouched down beside her and, with a crooked smile on his face, asking her if she still fancied a smoke. She had just looked up at him, so traumatised she was unable to speak. She had listened to his heavy footsteps on the stairs, her whole body rigid with shock and disbelief at what had taken place.
`Now, that`s not very nice is it Grace.` The wheedling voice of the Care Home`s manager, Mrs Dalton, thrust Grace back to the present. `Ronald`s gone to a lot of trouble with that sweet and here you are spitting it back into your bowl.`
`Tain`t sugared, `Grace replied, her voice wavering. `Can`t eat rhubarb what ain`t been sweetened.`
`Now I`m sure Ronald would have sprinkled some sugar on it before letting it out of the kitchen.`
Grace pushed the bowl away from her. `Then you`d better get `Ronald` to come out here and taste it himself, then we`ll see if there`s any sugar on it.`
`Now Ronald`s far too busy to do that,` Mrs Dalton bristled, scooping up Grace`s bowl and strutting out of the room.
Grace smiled to herself. `Silly old tart,` she muttered to the room, taking a sip of water to try and rid herself of the bitter taste.
She had become pregnant of course, her God-fearing parents beside themselves with shock and humiliation.
`You`ll have to go away of course, before anybody notices,` her mother had said. `The nuns will know what to do.`
Grace noticed the gates before she saw the house. Big iron things they were, looming over them as her and her mother sat in the car. The gates opened out to a winding driveway leading to this ugly old house with ivy clambering over the crumbling stone walls. She remembered her mother talking to this nun. Fat she was with big feet. Grace smiled to herself. She couldn`t remember why she`d noticed her feet. What had they got to do with anything for Pity`s sake. Her mother dropped Grace`s suitcase onto the gravel drive, patted her arm and said the nuns were there to look after her. And then she was gone, leaving her all alone.
They had taken all her clothes, even the bracelet her Auntie Erin had bought her for her thirteenth birthday. `Teenager now lass. Feel any different, do you?` she`d asked. Grace had replied that no, she didn`t think she did.
They had given her a dowdy uniform and a pair of ill-fitting clogs and told her that from now on she would be known as Alma and on no account must she tell the other girls about her life outside . She was given a shabby little room overlooking the cemetery and given jobs to do like feeding the babies in the nursery or scrubbing the passageway floors.
On her fifteenth birthday she waited in vain for a card, perhaps a little present from her parents, but there was nothing.
It is dusk outside the Home. Grace sits dozing in her favourite armchair, unseen images flash across the television screen as the tea trolley trundles squeakily across the living room floor. Grace stirs as if woken from a dream. The girl asks if she`d like a nice cup of tea and a bourbon biscuit. Grace shakes her head and closes her eyes.
She had a little boy. Bonny he was with rosy cheeks and a shock of curly brown hair. Fleetingly she`d thought of Tommy before burying her head in her babies sweet-smelling chest. She`d asked if she could have a little toy for the baby and grudgingly they`d given her a scruffy little teddy bear. Later that day they came and took the child from her, saying she was to be dressed in new clothes after which Grace was to follow them to the Nun`s quarters. Once there she was asked to sign a form, a photograph was taken of the child and Grace was then threatened with eternal damnation if she ever revealed a word about her `guilty secret.` They said her child was being adopted and it was for the best and she was to forget all about her baby. Grace had cried out, said how could she forget her flesh and blood and that it wasn`t right. They`d told her to hush and the baby would be going to a good home. Grace had never seen her baby again.
She left a week later, creeping out as darkness descended over the place that had given her so much heartache. She`d decided she would somehow make her way to London, find a job, maybe a little flat. She was determined she never wanted to see her parents ever again.
She managed to hitch a ride to London, a chatty lorry driver who had seemed genuinely concerned for Grace`s welfare.
`The city`ll swallow you up and spit you out in pieces lass if you`re not careful. Have you anywhere to stay when you get there?`
She`d lied, told him an Aunt had got a room for her, and a job in a florists shop. Thanks, but she`d be ok. He`d dropped her off near the bus station, told her to be careful and trust no-one. She`d thanked him for the ride and watched as he disappeared in the throng of traffic.
The lorry driver had been right. A young girl with no experience of life she soon found herself sleeping rough on the streets, prey to all the soulless city had to offer. Shop doorways and stinking underpasses became her life as she drifted aimlessly, drink becoming her road to oblivion. For nearly thirty years life on the streets was all she knew, her body wracked, her mind fuddled with drink. Then they had found her one morning, slumped in a shop doorway, unconscious from the cold. She had been taken to the hospital and from there a place had been found for her in the Care Home.
She wakes with a start, a firm hand resting on her thin shoulder. She looks up, the gleaming white collar, the carefully manicured nails, the sickly, crooked smile.
`Grace is it? And how are you my child?`
Grace shifts uneasily in her chair. `And how do you think I am Father. Wasn`t it your firm that took my child from me, never left me
with any choice to bring the wee bairn up myself. I hate you and all you stand for Father, so go and God-bother some other poor soul for I`m sure I`m in no need of your pious comfort.`
The room is quiet now. In the corner a chair stands empty, its well-worn cushion hiding down its side a much fondled, scruffy old teddy bear.
© Roger Woodcock