For Cameron Mitchelson
Table of Contents
The boy and the girl were both just sixteen. It was nearly ten o’clock, which meant they would soon have to separate for a night and a whole day.
They crept down the empty street with their arms twined, he shortening his step to match hers and she resting her head on his shoulder. The overhanging plane trees made a tunnel of the pavement. The gardens on either side were dark recesses of rustling leaves, the territory of prowling cats and maybe a rat invading a dustbin. Under one of the trees the boy stopped walking. He hooked his arms round the girl’s shoulders and kissed her for the hundredth time. Her mouth felt bruised, but she kissed him back. His hands moved down to cover her breasts.
‘I love you,’ he protested. His knee rubbed between her thighs and he heard the soft, enticing rasp her nylons made against his jeans.
. My dad said ten o’clock. You heard him.’
‘We’ve got ten minutes, then.’
He raised his head and glanced about. There was no one to be seen. This was a quiet road with only a few parked
cars, and tall hedges screening the bay windows of the houses. Turn left at the end, and he reckoned it was a couple of minutes’ walk to Kathy’s house. If you ran.
He steered her towards the nearest gate. It stood open and a tiled path of coloured triangles and diamonds gleamed faintly in the darkness. No light showed behind the glass door panels, or in any of the windows.
‘Mike, we can’t,’ she murmured, but she came with him anyway.
Behind the hedge she pressed her mouth against his, teasing him with the sly curve of her smile. He answered by stroking his hand upwards from her knee. High up, his fingers met the smooth bulge of soft bare flesh above the stocking-top. They pressed into the vertical mattress of leaves, breathing into each other’s mouths, their tongues busy. The powerful, coarsely sweet smell of privet blossom flooded around them.
At first he thought the sound was a cat among the dustbins. It was a high-pitched cry, somewhere between a bleat and a howl. It stopped and then started again.
Kathy moved her head sideways. Her sweet spit smeared his lips.
‘What’s that?’ she breathed.
‘Some old cat.’
The cry came again.
‘It’s not. Listen, it sounds just like a baby.’
‘Don’t be soft. Come back here.’
‘Leave off. Where
She stooped down, her oval face and her pale cardigan a conjoined blur against the blackness. She pushed aside the lowest branches of the hedge and felt along the margin of dead leaves and blown litter underneath.
‘My God.’ Her voice turned high and sharp.
‘Shhh,’ he warned.
Kathy rocked back, almost tipping over her heels. She was
lifting a bag in her two hands, a bag like the one his mother took to go to the shops, made of brown plastic that was supposed to be leather, with a zip and two upright looped handles. The mouth of the bag gaped open and the cat’s cry was much louder.
‘Look at this.’
He knelt beside her as she dipped her hands inside. He could smell dusty earth as well as privet.
‘Look,’ she breathed.
She was holding a small bundle of blanket. Between them they turned the folds aside and touched the baby’s tiny head. It was streaked with dark patches and waxy white stuff. Its mouth was open and its eyes screwed shut. Now that they saw it really was a baby, its crying sounded weak and nearly hopeless.
Mike was amazed. ‘What’s someone’s baby doing out here?’
With the baby cradled against her, Kathy glanced up at him. She looked serious, and wise, suddenly much older than a mere minute ago.
‘It’s abandoned. The mother’s left it because she can’t keep it. Probably no one knows she’s even had it. The poor thing.’
With the tip of her finger, Kathy stroked the baby’s cheek. Mike wasn’t sure whether
meant the baby or its mother.
‘What’ll we do?’ He was deferring to her now, slightly in awe of her because she knew more than he did. She even knew how to lift and hold the baby close against her shoulder, with one hand cupping its head.
Businesslike, Kathy answered as she knelt and rocked the bundle, ‘We’ll have to call the police. And an ambulance.’
‘Well. Yeah. There’s a phone box up on Weir Road.’
‘We can’t go all the way up there. It’s an emergency. We’ll have to knock on someone’s door. Big houses like these,
they’ve probably all got phones.’ She glanced up at the house, but there were still no lights. ‘Next door, there’s someone in. Go
‘Just ring their bell, you mean, and say we’ve found a baby?’
‘Yes,’ she shouted at him.
A displeased man came to the door in his slippers, and behind him a woman in a nylon housecoat peered into the street. Mike had hardly finished his sentence before the woman brushed past both of them and ran round to the other garden. She reappeared with the brown bag in her hands, and with Kathy still cradling the baby. Kathy’s eyes were very bright and wide and there were ladders at both of her knees from where she had knelt in the gravel.
‘Graham, ring the police and say what’s happened. Come in here, love. Let’s have a look at the poor mite.’
The two women went into the front room and bent down together. They laid the baby on the cushions of the settee and unwrapped the blanket. The crying had stopped; now it just lay still. Underneath it was dressed in nothing but a tiny yellow cardigan and a dingy piece of towel secured with a safety pin. Its limbs were mottled and drawn up close to its body. The woman unpinned the improvised nappy.
‘It’s a little girl,’ Kathy whispered. Mike caught a glimpse of a thick purple-grey stump where its belly-button should be, and quickly looked away. There was an upright piano against the opposite wall, with framed photographs arranged on the lid. A picture of the Queen in a tiara and a blue sash and the Duke of Edinburgh in naval uniform hung above it.
‘What’s this?’ the woman said. She pointed, and Kathy saw the glint of something pinned to the blanket.
It was a little pendant of marcasites with a rod and a tiny screw fastening for a pierced ear.
‘It’s an earring.’
As she lifted it, Kathy’s eyes filled up with sudden hot tears.
Before she said goodbye, before she pushed the bag into the hedge, the baby’s mother must have fixed her earring to the blanket as a memento. Perhaps at this very minute she was holding its pair, and crying for her lost daughter.
It was the saddest thing Kathy had ever imagined.
The woman touched her shoulder.
‘You just don’t know, do you? About people’s lives?’
She hurried away and came back with a folded terry nappy and a white shawl.
‘I keep these here for when my Sandra brings her little one round. Mind you, she’s out of nappies now.’ Her tongue clicked. ‘Baby’s cold, isn’t she? Out in the night like that. Let’s get her wrapped up. I’m going to put the kettle on for a hot-water bottle, try to warm her up.’
‘I’ll hold her while you do it.’ Kathy was using a voice Mike hadn’t heard before. It didn’t allow for contradiction.
‘Slip her inside your cardie and hold her against your skin. You know, for body warmth.’
Her husband cleared his throat and looked away, and Mike studied the royal photograph more intently.
‘Police ought to be here any minute now,’ the man muttered. He went to the window and looped back the curtain so he could see into the street. Before the woman came back with the hot-water bottle, the blue light of a police car was flashing beyond the privet hedge. They heard the shrilling of an ambulance bell and then the room filled up with men in glinting uniforms. One of them took the baby out of Kathy’s arms and there was nothing left for her to do but watch as they prepared to take the baby away.
‘Well done, love,’ the ambulance man said to her. ‘The
nurses will give her a bottle and warm her up and she’ll be as right as rain.’
A few minutes later, the ambulance had driven the baby away.
Kathy sat on the sofa with her knees and her ankles pressed very close together. She was shivering a little. Mike sat beside her and held her hand, but she didn’t seem to notice him.
The woman told her, ‘She’ll be fine, dear. You heard what the ambulance men said.’
Kathy nodded and stared at the floor. The brown bag along with the yellow cardigan, the blanket, the damp towel and the single earring lay at the policeman’s feet. With a cup of tea balanced on the arm of his chair, he was waiting to take their statements. His partner sat opposite them and their two caps were placed side by side on the piano stool.
‘We were just walking home from the pictures,’ Mike said.
‘You were walking past and you heard a cry?’
‘We weren’t walking. We’d stopped.’
‘On the pavement?’
‘Well, no. We’d gone into next-door’s garden. Just for a minute. Didn’t seem as though there was anyone in.’
The policeman looked at him. ‘Let’s see. You’d slipped behind the hedge for a kiss and a cuddle?’
Kathy blushed crimson.
Mike said, ‘No. Um, yes…’
‘It’s all right, son. It’s not against the law, David, is it?’
‘Wasn’t in my day.’ The other constable winked.
‘Did you see anyone?’
Kathy and Mike shook their heads. The street had been deserted, they were both sure of that. It had been so quiet, it was as if they were the only two people in the world.
‘Then we heard this crying. I thought it was a cat.’
‘I didn’t,’ Kathy said. ‘I knew what it was straight off.’ She chewed at the corner of her thumbnail. ‘Will you find her mother?’
‘We’ll do our best to get her to come forward. She’ll be needing medical attention, for one thing. That baby’s no more than a few hours old. But she’ll be running the risk of prosecution if she does, and that could mean up to five years in prison, depending on the circumstances. So they don’t often change their minds, in my experience.’
?’ Kathy repeated.
‘It’s not quite the first time I’ve seen an abandoned newborn, let’s say.’ He put his pen away and looked at his watch. ‘That’s it, then. Back to work, Dave. Thanks for the cuppa.’
When Kathy heard it was ten past eleven her hands flew up to her mouth.
‘Oh no. My dad’ll kill me,’ she gasped. ‘My mum will be all right about it, though, when I tell her what’s happened.’
‘I’ll be there. I’ll make sure you don’t get into trouble,’ Mike said. But as Kathy turned her head to him he saw that there was a different look in her eyes. Something had changed tonight; she had seen something to do with the baby that he didn’t quite understand.
In a small, clear voice she said to him, ‘I’ll be fine. You just go back to your place.’
The policemen gave them a lift home. Kathy’s house was nearer and Mike waited in the back of the patrol car as she walked up to her front door with one of the policemen at her shoulder. Even in the dim light of the porch Mike could see how angry her dad was when he opened the door, but the sight of the policeman changed that. After a few words Kathy’s dad put his arm round her and led her inside.
She didn’t look back, and the door closed behind her.
At the Royal London Hospital, a paediatrician and a nurse finished their examination of the baby. The doctor filled in a form and signed it, then looked up at the nurse.
‘We’ll be needing a name.’
The nurse glanced at the reports that had come in with the ambulance crew.
‘A young couple found her, in a bag under a hedge. In Constance Crescent. I think that’s pretty.’