This is Winnifred’s story, told and written by her – I merely transferred it from Floppy Disk to Hard Drive, adjusting the altered format, and typos at her request. Emma is Winnifred. Mother changed the names for two reasons – she didn’t want to upset any family members still living; and for her anonymity, and her reputation, as what she wrote would deconstruct the public persona she had created for and of herself. Also I think to distance herself as she wrote. If it had been in first person I think it may have been too traumatic, even after all those years.
“Mrs Roberts? Please come in.” Emma entered the tiny cubicle, closing the door behind her. Struggling to compose herself and suppress the familiar surge of panic, she looked around the confined space.
The attendant looked at the notes in her hand, then pointing to a pile of folded garments on the end of the seat, said kindly, “Just change into one of these gowns. We’ll call you as soon as we’re ready for you.”
Emma’s mouth felt dry. Licking her lips, she asked, “How long is that likely to be?”
“Only a few minutes,” replied the nurse, looking at her more closely. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, for the moment,” she murmured. “But Nurse . . . please don’t shut the door. It’s rather cramped in here.”
“Just as you like.” Smiling, the girl withdrew, and she was alone.
Clad in a white gown, Emma sat down on the narrow bench-seat and looked at the opposite wall. How close it was! The room was so small – like a cupboard! She leaned back, trying to relax, but the words she had spoken stayed with her, and in the shadowy recesses of her mind faint images were stirring, while in her ears sounded the plaintive plea of a child: “Please Nurse, don’t shut the door.”
She closed her eyes . . . . . . remembering.
* * *
It was dark in the cupboard, except for a narrow strip of light which showed beneath the door as it closed behind the tiny form, shutting her in. the sound of footsteps faded, and she was alone.
Unable to see, she was sharply aware of the scent of clean linen and the musty smell of mice. She didn’t cry, conditioned to passive acceptance of a punishment she didn’t question, though could not understand. Shivering in her thin nightgown, she lay down across the doorway, pressing herself as close as possible to the fragment of light, as if to draw some warmth and comfort into her small body.
She closed her eyes to shut out the dark, but could not shut out the sounds – the furtive scurrying of tiny feet somewhere near her. “Please God,” she thought, “don’t let them touch me.”
How she wished she were safely back in the dormitory! Perhaps, if she wished hard enough, it might come true. She tried, but nothing happened.
Quietness descended on this House of Charity.
Charity?! The mind screams at the word. Dear Heaven! Were their windows closed? Did no-one care? Did no-one see – or hear? None, it seems, save the inscrutable walls standing guard over the helpless child as she lay thinking of the other girls asleep in their beds.
Presently, in spite of her fears, she too fell asleep.
Here at The Home, bedtime was always the best time of day. Bed was the one place you looked on as your own personal territory which you did not have to share.
Of necessity, in such an institution, nothing you had – the clothes you wore, the books, pens, pencils – none belonged to you. All were on loan. The prettiest dress had been worn by someone before you, and you had to take care of it, for someone else would surely wear it when you’d outgrown it.
The Home itself was not your home. You were a visitor, and that feeling never faded. No room was your room. There was no corner into which you could creep and feel at home, no chair which was your own place. You took it for granted that you would be asked to move up and make room for someone else. There was always someone else! You did not have your own space – except in bed!
Here was your won world, where no-one could touch you or intrude upon your privacy. Here, with some secret treasure tucked under your pillow, you could escape from the bewilderments of the day, whisper your own special prayers, play ‘Let’s pretend’ and wish yourself to sleep. “Perhaps . . . perhaps I’ll wake up in the morning and find myself still at home on the farm, with Dad out milking the cows, Mother feeding the baby, and all this just a dream.”
Yes, it was a good time of day.
And it was good too, after ‘lights out’, to lie and talk to the other girls in the comforting semi-darkness of the dormitory. From this place of her own each could be, for a time, herself. As the uniform clothing of the day was put aside, so the uniformity which cloaked their personalities gave way to individuality.
The soft shadows seemed to cast a spell over the room and its inmates, healing the hurts inflicted by angry, unkind words; soothing the cruel sting of indifference, the ever-present pain of aloneness and the yearning for close family contact – a goodnight kiss and a loving hand to tuck them in.
In the darkness they reached out to each other. Quarrels were for a time forgotten; confidences could be shared. This was the best time for talking. But talking after ‘lights out’ was against the rules!
And so here she was, alone in the dark with only the mice to keep her company.
Always she slept soundly, for in sleep she could enter that other world where everything was possible. But tonight, after a few short hours, she stirred, moving her cramped limbs. She felt cold and uncomfortable. Reaching for her bedclothes she became aware of the hard floor beneath her and sat up, opening her eyes.
Why was it so dark? Straining her eyes to see, she listened for the sound of breathing from the other sleepers in the room. All was quiet and still.
Sudden realisation brought her fully awake! This was no dream. She was still in the cupboard. They’d forgotten her! A wave of desolation swept over her at the thought. Then a further flash of insight told her the awful truth. But surely they wouldn’t . . they couldn’t leave her here all night!
The little head drooped and the plucky little figure crumpled, as the courage which had sustained her thus far ebbed away . . . and slow, creeping fear took its hold.
She sank down and lay quite still, curled up against the door, unable to move, scarce daring to breathe in the oppressive silence. Her chest felt tight, her throat ached with pent-up feelings clamouring for release, while closer and closer as in a nightmare, pressed the impenetrable darkness, enveloping her, stifling . . . smothering.
In terror she started up desperate to escape. Her searching fingers found the door-frame, slid upwards until they touched the large, cold door-knob. How smooth, how cold and real it felt! Grasping it with both hands, she turned it and the door moved inwards. It was unlocked!
For a moment her heart stopped beating, then began pounding with hope of freedom – and fear of discovery. Opening the door she crept out, drawn towards the faint light at the end of the dark passage.
Across the vast common-room, which seemed incredibly larger in the pale glow of the night-light, she could see the doorway of her dormitory . . and just inside – her bed.
Her bare feet made no sound as she stole across the floor towards it. What a journey it seemed! She was alone in a world of silence and shadows – an overwhelming sensation for a hapless mite, seeking the sanctuary of her bed and blankets, shaken by the experience – and the reasoning behind it.
* * *
Emma felt a light touch on her shoulder and opened her eyes. The nurse was bending over her.
“You can come through now dear,” she said. “Sorry to keep you waiting. How are you feeling?”
Gladly Emma rose and moved through the open doorway into the large room beyond.
“I’ll be fine now thanks,” she replied. “And thank you for leaving the door ajar. Those cubicles are very small aren’t they?”
The nurse smiled, sympathetically. “A little claustrophobic are we?”
“More than a little I’m afraid,” Emma replied. “It goes back a long way.”
(C) Winnifred Knight 2000 – 2007
Transcribed and Edited by Jud House 2007
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