THE FORGOTTEN DAUGHTER
A noise woke Flora from her sleep and she sat up and listened. Through the connecting door linking her room and her nanny’s she heard giggling and voices, and a sound she knew well – a loud squeaking, which she loved to hear when she played one of her favourite games of jumping as high as she could on Nanny Pru’s squidgy old bed.
‘Naw, you mustn’t.’
‘Shush, Pru, just relax . . .’
Daddy? Why would Daddy be in Nanny Pru’s bedroom?
Flora crept out of bed towards the door. The man’s voice came again, louder this time.
‘You’re beautiful, Pru.’
It is Daddy! Fear shuddered through Flora, splintering the safe world that Nanny provided for her, and plunging her into the terror of what her mummy would do, if she found out that Daddy was in Nanny Pru’s bedroom. Was Daddy hurting Nanny? Nanny was saying his name over and over again, and she didn’t sound cross. She was making moaning noises and was giggling
The cold of the linoleum beneath Flora’s small feet seeped into her, chilling her body. The warmth of her bed called to her, but climbing back in wasn’t as easy as slipping out had been. She caught her already-bruised ribs on the iron bedstead and let out a pain-filled cry.
The noises from the next room stopped for a moment.
‘Oh God, we’ve woken her!’
‘She’ll be all right. Don’t stop me now, Pru, don’t—’
Flora covered her ears at the sound of her daddy’s gasping moan. Her stomach churned. She was going to be sick . . . Choking on her vomit, she registered the connecting door opening. The flicker of candlelight danced on her walls.
‘Eeh, Flora, lass, what’s to do? It’s alreet – Nanny’s here.’ There was something different about Nanny Pru. In the candlelight, her face shone. Beads of sweat glistened on her forehead and arms, and her hair clung to her head in damp, tight curls. Feeling unsure and ill at ease, Flora cowered away.
The nanny she loved had turned into a monster. A wicked monster, of the kind her mummy said would one day find her and eat her up. A scream rasped her throat, as terror gripped her. Kicking out, she tried to ward off the monster. ‘Don’t eat me . . . No – o – o!’
‘No, no, my child.’ Her daddy’s voice came to her. Soft, loving. ‘There, there now. Everything’s all right.’
The sound of her father’s voice made Flora feel safe once more. She calmed and opened her eyes; the monster had gone, and Nanny Pru was back. Daddy stood up from where he’d been sitting on her bed and tied his dressing gown. ‘Nanny will take care of you – no need to worry. And no need to tell Mummy anything, eh? Promise Daddy?’
Flora nodded her head.
‘Eeh, me little lass, I’m sorry I scared you.’ Nanny grabbed the towel off the washstand next to the bed and gently wiped Flora’s mouth with it, before placing it over the nasty-smelling vomit. With this done, she held Flora and stroked her hair. ‘Look, while we’re here, George, I reckon as you should see sommat.’
Hearing Nanny call her daddy by his name made everything feel right again. It put together the nice worlds Flora shared with each of them. Unlike when she was with her mummy, because then she felt fear and knew Mummy didn’t love her. But shyness came over Flora as Nanny went to lift her nightdress, and she tried to resist.
‘Come on, Flora, let Nanny show your daddy. I should have told him what you go through, but I thought as it would make things worse for you with your mummy. I’ve tried to protect you, me little lass, but your daddy should knaw what goes on.’
‘Good God! You mean? No. Her own mother? I’ll—’
Flora cringed and clung onto Nanny as fear knotted her tummy. Mummy stood in the doorway, her beautiful face screwed up into an evil expression, her voice shaking with anger. ‘Inflict another brat on me, as you beg my forgiveness for being unfaithful again?’
Her daddy’s fury compounded Flora’s fear. ‘You wicked woman. How could you take your jealous hatred and spite out on our child?’
‘You are to blame! You’re to blame for it all. The affair you had . . . It – it kills me every day. Over and over I suffer that agony, and now you go to this lowlife northern slut – and in my own home – while I sleep in our bed. You are my husband, remember.’ Her voice rose. ‘Am I expected to put up with this? You creeping from my bed to go to the paid hand! You’re disgusting.’
Daddy ushered Mummy out of the room.
Nanny Pru stood staring after them, before slumping down onto the bed. ‘I’m sorry, me little lass. I’m so sorry.’ A tear plopped onto her face, and Flora’s world became unsafe once more.
‘Nanny, w – will Daddy hurt Mummy?’
‘No, don’t worry. Eeh, lass, let’s get you cleaned up and off to sleep. You’re not to blame for any of this. It’s unfair what you go through – and you only a wee bairn of seven years. Me heart aches for you, and now I’ll more than likely have to leave you. I won’t want to, Flora – I loves the heart of you – but I’ve done a bad thing, so I won’t be given a choice.’
‘But Daddy loves you, Nanny Pru. He’ll take care of you and let you stay.’
‘Eeh, little one, it don’t work like that. Though I were daft enough to think it did.’
Flora put her arms around Nanny Pru; she loved snuggling into her soft, rounded, squidgy body, and she loved her pretty round face, her blue eyes and the two dimples that appeared when she smiled. ‘Don’t cry, Nanny Pru, I’ll come with you, and then Daddy can visit us. I don’t want to stay here.’
‘That’s not possible, lass.’ Nanny Pru’s tear-filled eyes looked into Flora’s own. Once more her hand stroked Flora’s hair. ‘Eeh, you’re a bonny child. You have your mummy’s beauty and her silky brown hair, and your daddy’s big brown eyes, with that same twinkle in them that melts hearts. But you’re not like your mummy; she’s vindictive and she has a temper. Nor are you like your daddy, who breaks hearts. And, naw, he doesn’t love me – only what he can get from me. And it sounds as though I’m not the first, either. I reckon as he’s broken your mummy’s heart, which is probably why she’s like she is.’
None of this made any sense to Flora. ‘How do you break a heart, Nanny? I have a pain in mine when Mummy is cross with me, but I don’t think it breaks. Will Daddy break it?’
‘Naw, I reckon as your daddy will allus protect you. Now, let’s get you settled. I need a good wash meself an’ all. I’ll see to you first, then I’ll get meself sorted. And then, if you’re still not settled, I’ll lie with you. How does that sound?’
‘I feel safe when you lie with me.’ But despite her words, Flora didn’t feel safe. Even after her bath, when Nanny put her back into her clean bed, which had been warmed with a bedpan, she didn’t feel safe. And as she waited for Nanny to come and lie with her, she wondered if Nanny would ever do so again, because she had said she was leaving; and her daddy now seemed a different person from the daddy she’d always known. He was someone who broke hearts, and who hurt Mummy by going to Nanny Pru’s room and making her giggle. And Mummy had said he’d done these things before. And Flora was sure he’d hurt Nanny Pru, too.
A few days later Flora stood outside the door of the drawing room, the only room in their lovely big house in London’s Cromwell Road that she didn’t like. Dimly lit and furnished in ruby-reds with a dark-blue carpet, it always smelt musty, and of stale smoke from Daddy’s cigar. Mummy spent most
of her time in this room, with the curtains half-closed and all the windows shut. She complained of having a headache, and often had traces of tears on her cheeks and red, swollen eyes.
Flora was glad that the room was out of bounds and that she was only allowed in there with Nanny each evening to say goodnight to her parents – a time she always dreaded. If Daddy was there, she would get a cold peck on the cheek from her mummy and some critical remark. Daddy would give her a quick hug, almost as if he was saying sorry, rather than it being a loving gesture. But it was when Daddy was out that Flora most dreaded the nightly ritual. Then Mummy would dismiss Nanny and, within minutes, would become very angry. Her words – like those spoken the night Daddy had visited Nanny – didn’t make sense, but Flora felt she was somehow being blamed for something bad in Daddy.
Mummy’s slaps would sting her face and legs, but none of that hurt as much as when Mummy had flung her across the room, screaming that everything bad had been marked by Flora’s birth – all the deceit and the lies. ‘He thought he could wipe it all out by coming to me, but I was a fool to let him. And you were the result. YOU! I couldn’t have been saddled with a more vile apology than you!’
Her painful grip on Flora’s arm had increased and Mummy had lifted her into the air, almost wrenching her arm from its socket, before throwing her as if she was nothing more than a bag of rubbish. She’d come crashing down onto the small table next to Mummy’s chair. Her breath had left her body, and pain had seared through her. When she’d been able to draw air into her lungs, her scream had brought Nanny rushing back through the door and yelling at Mummy, ‘What have you done? By God, she’s just a wee bairn.’
Mummy had sat back down in her chair. Her expression had made the feeling shudder through Flora that everything in her world had changed. Mummy had spoken as if dismissing her daughter forever. ‘Take her out of my sight!’
Since then she’d not been taken to say goodnight to Mummy. And now something of what Nanny had said, about being parted from Nanny, began to take on true meaning as her parents’ voices came to her. And the knowledge that she was unwanted and unloved ground a pain into her heart so deep that she was sure it was breaking.
‘Flora is so unruly, George. We have to do something. Why she can’t be like Harold and Francis, I don’t know. That incident in church this morning – I have never been so embarrassed!’
Her father’s reply shocked Flora, for he wasn’t cross with Mummy. Not like he usually was, if Mummy complained about her. ‘My dear, surely something must have caused her to cry out like that, during the sanctifying of the bread?’
‘Oh, she probably saw a spider or something; she has no control. She cannot even keep quiet when it is important to do so. It was humiliating in the extreme. She has to go to that boarding school I told you about. I can’t cope with her any longer.’
Indignation got Flora standing to her full height. No, that’s not fair. Harold, her older brother by three years, had been teasing her all morning and then, when the whole congregation was meant to fall silent, he’d pulled one of her plaits so hard that she couldn’t help squealing. Mummy had seen it happen and had smiled. Why is she not saying so? Flora waited for Daddy to refuse to send her away, but once more his voice held a soothing quality, and what he said caused a tear to plop onto Flora’s cheek.
‘But to send her away to school is a bit drastic. She’s so young. Maybe if she goes to my sister’s for six months? I’ll pay half the tuition fees they are already paying for their son. That will be a big incentive to them to say yes, as they are struggling as it is.’
‘No, I want Flora somewhere that she has to stay – and the sooner, the better. If she plays up with your sister in the way she does with me, then she will soon be sent back here. That won’t do. I want to know that won’t happen. A school will cope better with her.’
‘That’s a terrible thing to say. She’s our daughter! Our own little girl. Why are—’
‘She’s your conscience-soother, you mean.’
‘Don’t deny it. When I found out about your long-running affair, and your bastard son, born before our own sons, I wanted a divorce. But no, you got round me. You said it was over and would never happen again. I allowed you back into my bed, but I caught you out once more. Flora reminds me of that, every time I look at her. She is a lie – your lie, something you thought would make me believe you!’
Daddy didn’t reply. Flora was shocked. Somehow she’d wronged Mummy, but she couldn’t understand how.
‘We will never be happy again, with Flora around. Besides, we have to do something to tame her, or God knows how she will turn out. I’m not going to be budged on this, George. You don’t have to put up with her as much as I do. If you didn’t work such long hours, you would see more of your children and would know what a devil Flora is!’ Her father’s voice rose.
‘Don’t start that again, Grace. It takes a lot of work to run the haberdashery shops and, what with having half the responsibility for the Roford mill in Blackburn, since my father died, I’m very busy. I can’t avoid being away from home. Besides which, the opening of our tenth shop is taking all my time.'
‘Oh? So, where were you when I called into the new shop the other evening?’
Flora’s tummy tensed. Daddy was losing this argument with Mummy, and that meant they would send her away for certain.
‘I – I didn’t know you called. You didn’t mention that you would. Was it Thursday? I – I was probably in a meeting. Yes, that was it, I had a meeting with a supplier.’
‘At five in the evening? I thought I would surprise you and that we could go out to dinner, but no doubt you had someone else you preferred to go to dinner with.’
Her father’s sigh was audible. ‘I told you, Grace, that is over. I—’
‘Oh? That may be over, but you soon crept into another’s bed. Thursday was that slut Nanny’s day off!’ ‘
Grace, please . . . I – I didn’t meet her. I told you, she made a play for me. I know I’m weak. I admit it. I need you. I need you to get strong again and to have me back. I can’t lie on one side of the bed while you lie on the other. I have needs, Grace. These others are a substitute, but a very poor one. With you strong and well, darling, and taking care of me, I would never stray. You’ve always used our relationship as a bargaining tool. You’re doing it now. Refusing me last night, because you had something you needed me to agree to first – asking me to send away my own daughter – is cruel! You’re cruel, Grace, cruel!’
Mummy’s sobs hurt Flora. She wanted to burst in and tell Mummy that she loved her and would be a good girl from now on. But most of all she wanted Daddy to say no to sending her away to school. She held her breath.
‘Look, darling, we can compromise. Don’t cry. I do love you. If we send Flora away to school, it must be to one that is musically inclined. Flora shows the talent that I was denied.’
‘Talent! My God, her incessant banging on the piano drives me insane.’
Flora’s pain deepened. Even her music – her wonderful music that she made up herself – didn’t make Mummy happy, when Flora so wanted it to.
‘What are you up to, Flora? Listening means you’ll hear no good of yourself. Hey, are you crying?’
Francis, her brother, made her jump as he came up behind her. ‘Mummy wants to send me away.’
‘What? No, she won’t, she’s just angry at you for that noise you made.’ He pulled a face and made her smile. Older than her by two years, Francis always saw the funny side of life. He never seemed to care about anything. ‘Come on, I’ve built a fort in the garden. You can be the soldiers, and I’ll be the Red Indians attacking you. You can name one of yours Harold and let me hit him with an arrow, to get your own back for him pulling your hair.’
A sound came from within Flora that wasn’t a sob, and yet wasn’t a laugh. It echoed around the vast hallway. Mummy’s voice rose in triumph. ‘There, see what I mean!’
Francis took Flora’s hand and pulled her away. ‘Come on. The parents are having a row, that’s all. Nothing new about that. Mummy’s cross with you, but she’ll calm down.’
Wanting to believe this, Flora latched onto the way Francis saw everything, and ran off with him. Excitement at the prospect of the game ahead saw her wiping her eyes as the anguish left her. Everything would be all right. Daddy would make it so.