(Near the Foundling Hospital)
The Pied Piper has been to
Jeaned adults sit in warm coats,
mouths, milk-foamed with latte,
Along the concrete pool
isolated i-phone chatterers,
scoff hot toasted muffins and
cool, takeaway sushis.
I count the children – one in a buggy,
one in a sling, one white-bibbed boy –
mouth creamed from the spooning
of tubbed yellow yoghurt.
That’s just three.
Once, here – Coram’s grounds –
and the dingy backstreets round
would be child-teeming –
thin-clothed girls and boys
spending farthings in shops,
hurling small stones
on a chalked hopscotch –
‘Hop, two, three , four,
pick up and one more throw!’
They dice with broken bones
as the horsed-carriages
and barrow- boys shove through.
Down on the pavement I trace
sharp metal foundling tokens –
pale, ragged rubbings disappear
into the rough-paving dots
texturing my paper.
What would I have left
for my little daughter?
not the spiked leather straps
or silver knuckledusters,
though the message to fight
may then have been right.
A patch of cat pyjamas,
a length of twisted thread,
a birthday badge pinned
to a blue babygro shred?
Across the road two pale toddlers
left propped, staring
at the neoned-window,
their double-buggy parked
outside a grubby sweet shop.
What would they be left?
This nodding Bob Meercat?
That knitted reindeer hat?
Inside, the yawning minder
is scratching a card
at the lottery counter,
then rattling balls in a tub –
not the old black, white and red –
the dividers of chilled from warmed,
the starved from fed –
only pale pink sucking sweets,
rolled together, sorted into bags.
In the shopping centre,
outside Boots – an old man –
pinning knees to wheelchair,
is left foot tap-tapping
for his minder to reappear.
Perhaps the old are
most abandoned now?
My near-blind mother,
wire basket on lap,
parked at Somerfields’
seeing only the periphery glare
of crinkled crisp packets
or pearly creams for hair,
as I, in a distant aisle,
sift out special cheeses
and a bottle of Pinot Noir.
In my cluttered cupboard
stirred with hostile husband-dust,
she’s stashed in a semi-skimmed,
plastic milk bottle now.
“So what did this woman look like?”
The detective looked at her intently now.
“Blonde. Very straight long blonde hair. Really thick. Hair extensions, I’d say. Amazing complexion. Red lipstick. Black cashmere jumper, black narrow trousers, high heeled black boots…. Red soles. I notice these things, working here. I saw them as she walked off. Laboutins.
Oh and a very bold necklace of white beads. She must’ve had matching earrings but those were on the kids lap. Anyway, yes…long blonde hair, black clothes and a beautiful cashmere Burberry coat.”
“So, Miss Davies – Lottie. What on earth went through your mind when you agreed to take the baby into the cloakroom?”
“Well, it was a no-brainer really. Not literally of course! Typical Harrods customer checks in her Burberry coat and says “Oh, I’ll need another ticket for him. He’s called Harry. Bit like the store!
“And I go ‘Look it’s completely against the rules but he’s, like, completely adorable. And she says ‘Well you can keep him of you like’ and smiles. ‘ Only joking!’ That’s what she said. “
And I go “I’d sooo keep him. He’s gorgeous. Anyway, he’ll be off to boarding school soon won’t he?”
“And she replies ‘Too true!’ and smiles at me as I hand her the two white cloakroom discs. ‘I won’t be long. Just meeting a girlfriend for tea. He’ll be fine and anything he needs will be in the bag on the pushchair.’ Honestly officer, that was it. And the baby was so good I hardly heard a squeak out of him behind the coats. My friend Camilla and I work the cloakrooms together at the end of term.
“We thought that Mulberry bag was pretty awesome too! But then the baby woke up about half an hour ago and now we don’t know what to do.”
The Detective looked at Lottie and scratched his his cheek. How the other half live, eh? A little boy without a mother abandoned in a Knightsbridge store. He checked the bag again. No identification, no cards, no address. Just those white bead earrings. He left them untouched and called forensics. Perhaps they’d get some DNA.
Poor little kiddie.
She scraped her hair into a band put on a grubby jacket and thrust her hands into its pockets. The coins she found around the flat added up to what she needed. Weekend treats.
It was almost dark. The last vestiges of grey drizzle clouded over heading for winter blackness. She walked down the street, noticing that one trainer had split slightly and was letting in dampness from the puddles accumulating by the kerb.
The red signal stopped her just as she was crossing the road. She wanted to get her errand over, to enter the neon brightness of the convenience store and then retreat.
She could see the silhouette of the man at the till. He knew her. A round face, smiling eyes and friendly words. But never too many. They had an understanding.
The woman counted her money again, just to make sure. She took her place in the queue. An elderly woman with a roll along bag containing laundry. School children buying sweets. A man in tracksuit bottoms jingling some change in his pockets.
It was her turn now.
“Alright?” the man enquired, seeing she wasn’t carrying a plastic basket he added
“Yeah. 20 Benson’s, half a bottle of Vodka and a scratch card.”
“Yeah. I’d like my baby too.” She was flustered now, couldn’t explain.
“Sorry love we don’t have none of them!” He laughed and handed her a blue plastic bag.
She took the bag from the man and put the scratch card in her pocket.
The lights were red and in her head it gave her hope. Red was a possibility.
She ignored the chill in her feet, gathered her jacket as closely as she could and rounded the drafty corner to the block.
The black doors at the top all remained shut and quiet. The ill kids were in there.
The white doors on the next floor were shut too, yet she could pick up the sounds of the children coming through those white doors as if to haunt her. She thought about her envelope and the vodka label: the token.
She took the lift to the third floor. The lift still smelled bad, no one had swilled it out. She walked the last few yards to her front door. No paint, no colour, no future. The holding pen.
Entering her room, she sat down for a moment and lit up a cigarette before producing the scratch card. Six circles – all white to win. As she scratched the yellow surface off the paper the first circle gradually appeared. Red. Another inhalation of cigarette. Her jagged fingernails scratched hurriedly at the remaining circles. Red. Red. Red. Red again. But the last was black
She unscrewed the vodka and waited for the heat in her throat. Walking to the window, she gazed upwards at the walkway of the white doors. She thought about the token and wondered if she’d recognize the child now. Keep going, she thought. Six days to go. She’d be able to buy another scratch card on Friday.
Token: A representation of something else
Money: a coin of metal, then a note, a cheque, a credit card, a number on a credit card, an electrical impulse in hyperspace.
A face: a daguerreotype, a glass plate, silver nitrate on celluloid, a piece of paper, a collection of pixels, a binary code.
Five seeds attached to each other by a piece of string in a museum case, an image in John Aldus mobile phone, ceramic beads made by him, a paving stone in Marchmont Street, electrical impulses in a video camera, a collection of pixels in You Tube, an e-mail from Claire, an idea in my head, this text in Word, an e-mail from me, a printer in Mary Ward, Claire’s voice…
You leave her with a kiss, hand her to the official with
a briefcase of statutes and return home, breasts leaking
milk, feeling insubstantial, made of gauze or the sheer
silk of wedding night negligee s – so moth wing thin, the
wind could sieve through and collect the chaff, and echo
through the chambers of your heart. You feel your heart
will never beat again. You wake in the night to her cry.
You’d know her call within a nursery full of phantom
infants wrapped in institution blankets of pink or blue
– her song, its pitch a counterpoint to your maternal
soothing. You dream and fill your arms with babies, their
peachiness, a soft pulse of love tapping at the fontanelle,
boy babies, girl babies, bursting from your womb, slippy
as a coil of eels, each with a frown, a question, a missing
sister – where is she, where is she – a plainchant. She’s
somewhere – the girl with a kiss on her forehead, bright
as a blessing or a bindi for a bride. You’ll know her by this.