Jenny shows off and upsets Daze, 1974
Jenny… West Cornwall: June 1974 (Jy is 9 ½ yrs old)
I shoot a glance at Daisy on the grass next to me as she sneezes. Daisy wasn’t my friend: she was just another in-comer, a scrawny kid I didn’t want to be thrown together with because the teacher knew my Dad had taken off, and so had Daisy’s mother … … At least, I had a younger sister, a dog, and status, seeing my mother was the doctor all the mothers liked to go to …
And now – Mum and Daisy’s dad, Des Potter the art teacher at the Further Ed college, are hanging out! Daze he calls her. And he calls mum Caro. Mum keeps inviting Daze over! We went into Penzance to buy things for school sewing: I counted my change carefully, the shop woman had got it wrong. When I said so, she shooed me away as if someone of nine and a half can’t add up … Daze splurged all her pocket money on the whole rainbow range of embroidery threads – later, Des made her take most of them back … Today, Daze was invited for tea … we waited for Mum outside the surgery.
‘C’mon,’ I said, ‘better than watching Grange Hill …’ We lay on the lawn where we could see – through a gap in the net curtains – down into the basement room. Mum had a patient on the couch.
‘Hey,’ Daze said, digging me in the ribs, ‘that’s the girl from Denby’s who told you off ..’
‘Sshh!’ I whistpered, as Mum pulled on surgical gloves, and switched on her lamp. I was full of excitement, thrilled to show Daze how clever my mother was. She put one hand flat on the girl’s stomach. ‘Palpating it – a palpable silence is a silence you feel,’ I told Daze. What next? ’Bet she’s got a baby in there!’
We exchanged glances. What could Mum feel?
Next moment, I’d decided I’d rather be the doctor than the patient. Goodness, being felt up there! And ‘That’s disgusting!’ Daze exclaimed. ‘We shouldn’t be here …’
‘Ssh – if you want to stay alive!’ I seized Daze, pulled her down, clamped my hand over her mouth. We rolled over, off the lawn and onto the path.
‘Grrff! Grrff!” Daze managed through my hand.
‘Gotta be quiet, swear you will.’ Holding her down, I kept on watching Mum. Daze wriggled like a boa constrictor, arched her back, scrabbled up to try and run off. I moved my hand from her mouth to keep a hold of her. The more I held her, the fiercer she struggled. Small stones clattered into the basement, knocking against the window.
‘That was so disgusting!’ Daze hissed.
‘Ssh! It’s okay, it’s just what doctors do, it doesn’t hurt.’ I swear I lied: I’d found it scary too. And I knew I’d be in trouble.
‘Your mum’s work is horrible!’
‘Just don’t yell,’ I whispered. I had to make it right for her. ‘Doctors sometimes have to do funny stuff. But it’s okay. Has my mother ever hurt you?’ Daisy was in a state, crying and fighting me, she bit my hand. ‘Ouch!’. The tighter I held her the more she fought. I let her go. She ran down the alley to the car park, yelling ‘I don’t care – I’m gonna be sick!’
What had I done?
I ran, caught up with her, turned her around by her arm: she was greeny-white, and gagging. What we’d watched was weird, it was grown-up, but could seeing something really make anyone sick? ‘Don’t – don’t vomit,’ I pleaded. Everyone would want to know why. ‘I can show you in a book,’ I said helplessly, ‘called How Your Body Works. It’s fun.’ Daisy gagged some more. There was snot coming from her nose: she wiped her sleeve across.
I had somehow done this: made her pathetic.
Next thing, Barbra-Ann the receptionist came teetering down the concrete steps, in her strappy platform sandals, waving her arms and shouting at us. Right as Daisy, at the bottom, made a horrible noise, contorted her body, and threw up her school dinner. On B-A’s bare toes …
B-A isn’t squeamish: she shook her feet, then kind of scooped Daisy up, and carried her inside. ‘Your Mum wants to see you, Jennifer Guthrie,’ she threw at me over her shoulder.
I stood in the hot late-afternoon sun, looking at what had once been school mince, carrots and peas and something with custard on it. I picked up our schoolbags, and stepped over, in my T-bar brown leather shoes, and bumped the bags behind me up the steps. I heard Mum, sharp and low. ‘I thought you were watching the girls do their homework? And I discover they’ve been prying on a consultation. Children are devious, and have insatiable curiosity: I expect a medical receptionist to have a stronger sense of responsibility!’
Prying. Devious. Insatiable curiosity. The Elephant’s Child: that was me …)
My eyes smarted. Barbra-Ann threw open the door from the inside, glared at me and dumped a bucket of disinfectant-smelling water on the top step. “You can make yourself useful, Jennifer. Tip that down those steps before someone gets their shoes dirty and brings it inside?’
The good thing with wearing spectacles is, people don’t see if you begin crying. Feeling sorry for ourselves, are we? was one of the worst things a teacher could say, but I’d learned to stop myself without them ever having seen a tear. Behind my glasses, my eyes were hidden. But I hesitated: the bucket looked heavy. ‘Go on,’ B-A said.
‘It wasn’t me who was sick,’ I said.
‘Who scared the little scrap to death?’ B-A said.
I took the handle, heaved on it, and water sloshed out onto the steps. I couldn’t lift it right up, so, I did the next best thing: I upset the bucket so the water bounced down the steps.
It helped some. But B-A made her mouth like a line, got another bucket-full, and really threw the water, chucked it at the ground so it splashed like jewels in the sunlight, like a cartoon picture.
Then she hustled me inside. We looked at each other: we did not want to be together but it would be worse for me with mum. I went into the passage, where the sun was shining through the stained glass making long, red and green rectangles on the lino. I was dragging my schoolbag along the floor with a swooshing sound.. There were people in the waiting room, and a door with a notice: Patients’ Toilet.
Patients is a word I’d learned not to like. Mum’d be working late, or out at weekends and nights, because of her patients. Mum used to shout at my father, It’s no good losing patience with them, meaning, my little sister Harriet and me. Then, one day he left. Mum had said it wasn’t us, he’d finally lost patience with his University lab: this was very muddling, until she explained patients, and patience, and I learned about what a pun is. Only what Dad had done did not feel like a pun, which is a sort of joke …
Well, Daisy was sitting near that door now, sipping water. There were notices on a board, and leaflets in a rack. I picked up a leaflet and looked as though I might be reading. not wanting to talk with Daisy just then. Mum came quickly up the stairs from her room: I stepped towards her and she didn’t seem to see me. ‘Daisy, come here and talk to me,’ she said kindly, leaning over Daze. But she sounded less kind when she said, ‘Jenny, wait on the stairs. I’ll have to deal with you one at a time.’ My stomach seized. She was really really angry with only me.
There was a feeling in my tummy, as low as it could go and I felt a little queasy myself. Still grasping the leaflet, I opened the door of the Patients’ Toilet and locked myself inside to let go that feeling. Alone, I could deal with it., let it feel all through me, and out. I sat on the toilet – which was higher than ours – and let it all go: peed and cried and shook. Dad had lost patience, and now, Mum had as well? I was very cold once I’d let everything go, and the tears dried up.
Mum didn’t like us to use toilet paper for wiping our noses. I used the roller-towel instead. Then I read the leaflet. It explained periods – which Mum had already told me about – with diagrams – and then it told you how to get pregnant and how not to. Did I want to become a grown-up who had to bleed once a month, and have babies? No..
My mother’s name and the practice address was stamped at the end. Dr Caroline Guthrie. Yes, I decided to practice under John’s name – wasn’t I a fool – now I’m stuck with it. More of her words, once overheard, stuck inside my head. ‘Are you all right in there?’ Barbra-Ann called. ‘Your Mum wants you!’ I washed under the spitting, juddering tap, and as the roller towel was all pulled-down and end-of-the-day, and now snotty, I went out to Mum with my hands wet……