October 1931 (cont.)
Emma suddenly became aware that Mrs Reiner had stopped talking. She looked up in confusion. Mrs Reiner had apparently asked her a question, which she now repeated.
“You’re much too thin Emmy. Didn’t they feed you properly at The Home? What were your meals like? “
Emmy would have preferred not to remember, but memories came crowding back.
“Pray Lord, bless this food to o.. ..u.. .. r use and give us grateful hearts A…-men.” The children’s voices intoned in monotonous rhythm, as they stood behind the long stools – heads bowed, hands folded – before taking their places at the table.
As for the meals, though plain, they were wholesome enough – porridge for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and a program of evening meals that to an adult would have been monotonous in its predictability.
But Emma was used to plain food. She loved porridge, even when it was lumpy – which it invariably was – but for which Norma, who sat next to her at table, felt nothing but repugnance.
Emma’s pet aversion was root vegetables – of the turnip, parsnip variety. Try as she might, she could not overcome her revulsion for these – obviously considered as the basic ingredient for stews – so liberally were they added to the pot. She could, when pressed, deceive her tastebuds by secreting a piece of swede or parsnip under a piece of carrot or potato – both of which she loved, but without this subterfuge any attempt to eat these vegetables would result in overwhelming nausea.
Emma and Norma had a good working arrangement that enabled them to face their morning and evening meals with reasonable fortitude. At breakfast, Norma would surreptitiously transfer the lumps in her porridge to Em’s plate – in just a matter of seconds. In the evening, using the reverse procedure, Em disposed of her unwanted vegetables. But here the plan was not entirely foolproof. A platter of stew was far more complex than a bowl of porridge. To identify and dispose of the inedible chunks of vegetables took longer than a few seconds, and Emma feared that one night she would not complete the transfer in time.
It was bound to happen – and it did – with dire consequences. One never-to-be-forgotten night, as she happily prepared her palate to enjoy the last piece of vegetable, Emma discovered to her horror, that what had passed for potato was in fact, a large piece of parsnip in disguise! There it lay, on the middle of her otherwise empty plate, hovering malevolently, with nowhere to go. Emma turned it over in disbelief. Parsnip! She stuck her fork into it and prepared to pass it to her neighbour.
“Norma,” she whispered urgently. “Take this – it’s parsnip.”
“I can’t. I’ve finished,” was the reply.
“Please Norma. I can’t eat it. I’ll be sick,” pleaded Emma.
“I can’t. Nurse is looking. She knows I’ve finished. Look out! She’s coming this way.” And Norma laid down her knife and fork.
Emma sat looking desperately at her plate. What could she do? Just thinking of biting into the loathsome lump made her stomach quiver. The nurse took Norma’s plate and Emma felt, rather than saw her standing at her elbow waiting for her too, to finish. She looked at the parsnip on her fork. Forbidden to leave anything on her plate, she lifted it gingerly to her mouth and prayed! Her empty plate was whisked away and replaced with a plate of dessert – boiled rice with currants – one of her favourites. How good it looked! It would take away the awful taste of stew. But she still had a mouthful of parsnip. By now, the others had begun to leave the table, having finished their meal.
There was no way out! She’d have to eat it. Bracing herself, she chewed quickly and swallowed, only to have it rise up in her throat again. Once more she tried. This time her whole being revolted, and not only the last mouthful, but the whole of her meal was disgorged into her plate of dessert. In disgust, the nurse who was hovering nearby, snatched away her plate and sent her, still retching from the table – the last to leave.
Equally distasteful was potato pie – served without fail every Friday night. How Emmy dreaded Friday nights! Nor was it Norma’s favourite meal, and Emmy couldn’t count on her help in disposing of it. She simply had to eat all her own serve.
She loved mashed potato, but on Friday nights, it was spread on top of the meat, baked in the oven and called potato pie. That too, would have been acceptable, even enjoyable, but before the potato was added to the meat, chopped onion was mixed into it. Emma had conditioned herself to eat it without nausea, but it took her so long to get through it. Each mouthful went round and round for long minutes before she could bring herself to swallow it. Every Friday night, she was still sitting at the table long after the last girl had gone upstairs.
On this unhappy night, the supervising nurse, waiting to go off duty, finally lost all patience, and snatching up a large teaspoon, scooped up a spoonful of food and pushed it into Emmy’s mouth. Emma tried to swallow it as quickly as she could. But not quickly enough! The exasperated nurse grabbed a handful of her hair, pulled her head back, and thrusting a second spoonful into her mouth, forced the spoon right down her throat!
Emma felt the spoon scrape against the walls of her throat; felt a moments terror as she feared she would choke. Then the spoon was removed, and Emmy stumbled from the room, hand clutching her smarting throat, tears of pain in her eyes, anguish in her heart. Grateful? Yes, but only that Friday night was another week away.
Friday night was also bath-night. One experience was to eclipse all others.
Two or three children always shared the bath, and there seemed to be no restriction on water and on this occasion – no supervision.
The Home being built on a slope, the bathroom itself was situated on ground level, along with the bedrooms, dining-rooms, kitchen, cellars and laundry downstairs. This meant that while water was being drawn downstairs, it ceased to flow in the bathroom above. Unhappily, the finer points of hydro-dynamics meant nothing to children five to eight years old, who used all kinds of tricks to induce the flow of water from taps suddenly run dry.
The taps were the old-fashioned kind with removable keys, and one trick employed was to remove the key and strike the tap sharply several times rather in the manner of Moses striking the rock. On this, for Emma, disastrous night, her efforts were crowned with success and lo, water flowed once more. Flushed with her success, she replaced the key and proceeded to turn off the tap. All her life she was to recall the horror that gripped her.
Nothing happened! The tap refused to budge and the water, piping hot, flowed on. Emma looked wildly around her. Her ‘companions of the bath’ each tried in turn, as did several ‘maids in waiting’ – all to no avail.
Then the cry went up “Fetch Hilda.”
Now Hilda, an older girl, and built like an Amazon, delighted in demonstrating her prowess – both physical and authoritarian – over the younger inmates. Emmy regarded her with awe. When the cry went up, Em’s heart leapt, then sank. If anyone could turn the tap, Hilda could, but at what price? All this time, the water was rising and getting hotter. None of the girls had the presence of mind to pull out the plug – or get out of the bath. By now Emmy was immobilized with terror. She gazed at the rising water and gave herself up for lost.
Then in marched Hilda. One vigorous turn of the wrist and the flow of water ceased. Relief surged through Emma as she turned a grateful face towards her saviour. But her gratitude was short-lived.
“Who’s the culprit?” thundered her rescuer.
All eyes turned towards Em. Fear, mingled with fascination held her as she shrank down in the water, and watched a muscled arm reach out towards her. Grasping Emma by the hair, the older girl thrust her head beneath the surface, held it there, then pulled her up, gasping and spluttering. A second and a third time she repeated her action. Then turning on her heel, she left as quickly as she’d come. Her parting words were:
“Let that be a lesson to all of you!”
It was! Emmy never learnt to swim.
(C) Winnifred Knight 2000 – 2007
Transcribed and Edited by Jud House 2007
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