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Politics of Living

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‘Lights out, girls. And I don’t want them on again until the dormitory doors open for your morning doses. Do you hear? It’s 1949 now. New year, new term, new you.’

Patience Elizabeth Mount did indeed hear Sister Ursula as she made her by now predictable pronouncement, but paid little heed. It might well be both a new (calendar) year and a new term, but if the officious nun and nurse made no effort to come up with a new phrase for the really rather old rule, she saw no reason to abide by it. Consequently, having lain awake for long enough to be sure the other, mostly younger, girls were sound asleep, she chose to keep to her old routine. Namely slipping out of bed to read in the relative quiet of the lavatory. When she found her way there, however, it seemed she would not have the usual luxury of late night loneliness she had so come to crave after three and a bit years of what often felt, perversely, like even closer living than the camps. Papa had promised more privacy, but she had yet to be given visible evidence of this supposed bonus of St Gideon’s Infirmary and Academy for Invalid Girls, and now apparently the smallest sliver she had secured was about to be snatched from her hands. By a snivelling scrap of a brunette, to boot, the redhead thought with none of her namesake virtue as she clicked the central door of the convenience closed.

As she heard her own voice speak softly the words and tone were kinder than she would have thought herself capable of composing. ‘All right, old thing? Or, I should say, new thing – since I don’t believe I’ve seen you before.’ She cringed inwardly at this second sentence, with its pathetic attempt at a pun, and blamed the blunder on being bemused by the bleary blue eyes suddenly staring directly into hers.

The smaller girl (in both stature and apparent age) was at last looking up from the book balanced on her knee as she perched precariously on the edge of one of the basins. ‘Iawn, diolch,’ she replied, with a timid flash of dimples, before realising her mistake and modifying as she wiped away some tears with a handkerchief hiding beneath the book. ‘I mean, fine, thanks. And you won’t have seen me yet. I just started. ’M from West Wales.’

The taller girl found herself utterly disarmed by the delightful combination of dimples and a lovely Welsh lilt. ‘That explains it then,’ she said with a genuine grin. ‘You’re brave, though, being up after lights out on your first day.’

Those bright blue eyes grew ever so slightly bewildered. ‘I know,’ the brunette admitted anxiously. ‘But I’m having private lessons with Sister Julienne first instead of joining classes right away.’

The ginger grinned even wider at this information. ‘I did that, too, when I arrived. Sister J is a gem.’

‘She is. She gave me notebooks to make into a diary to fill in each day, but it’s been so busy I didn’t have a chance before bed.’ The petite girl paused at this point, gesturing at the one in her lap but pondering whether to offer more detail, and then decided. ‘No, that’s not true,’ she went on, ‘I forgot. Like I forget everything else. Which is silly because the diary’s meant to help with that. Sorry.’ She paused a second time, smiling sheepishly, ‘It’s why I’ve been sent here. I had an accident on my bicycle in October and now my memory’s muddled.’ She stopped completely now, a look of horror growing on her face prior to starting again. ‘So muddled I’ve told you where I’m from without giving you my name!’ Snapping her diary shut, she stuck a small hand out, which was willingly grasped by a larger one as Patience began to comprehend the strange mixture of maturity and childlikeness her new companion seemed to display. ‘I’m Delia Busby, I’m from Tenby in Pembrokeshire, and I’m eleven years old, twelve at the beginning of April. I’m in the First Form of the Upper School.’   

The older girl was pleased by her correct assessment of their relative ages. ‘Well, Delia Busby from Tenby in Pembrokeshire, I’m Patience Elizabeth Mount, Patsy to my very few friends. I’m from Singapore, and I’m fifteen, sixteen at the end of this month. And I’m in the First Form too.’

Delia’s eyes grew round at this introduction. ‘Patience,’ she breathed, ‘Patsy – does that mean we’re friends? Already?’

Patsy nodded primly, but her smile was sincere. ‘We’ve become bathroom buddies, haven’t we? We might as well go the whole way,’ she said, giggling.

The younger girl caught her giggles. ‘I guess so. And we’ll be in the same class when Sister Julienne says I’m ready. But wait –’ Delia halted, and Patsy obeyed orders, waiting patiently and finally embodying her designated virtue as she watched confusion flicker across her new friend’s face. ‘Didn’t you say you’re sixteen? Have you been here long?’

‘Fifteen. Nearly sixteen. And I’ve been here a little while – since I was twelve. But I’m like you,’ was the older girl’s honest answer. ‘My mind’s muddled – though perhaps in a different way –’

Delia jumped in at that point. ‘In a way that you don’t need a diary to write in as a reminder of what happened?’

Patsy wanted to laugh aloud – it was more that she needed not to remember, at least not as well as she did – but she simply smiled. ‘Yes – although Sister J did try and convince me it’d be good to write things down. I used to when I was little.’

‘Well,’ the Welsh girl suggested kindly, ‘I have lots of notebooks if you’d like one to give it a go.’

The English girl almost grimaced at the prospect, but then remembered her manners and grinned instead. ‘Thank you,’ she murmured, before thinking of a diversion, ‘or what was the Welsh word you said earlier?’

Delia smiled in surprise. ‘Diolch. I could teach you, if you’d like to learn? It’d help me, too.’

Patsy thought her heart might literally melt, if that were medically possible. ‘Oh, yes,’ she breathed, ‘I love languages.’

‘Do you know a lot of them?’

Now Patsy’s heart clenched. Delia’s question was so innocent and innocuous but evoked everything she tried so hard to avoid. Yet, somehow, it seemed she did not mind. ‘Quite a few, yes.’

‘Which ones?’

Patsy’s heart clenched tighter but she made herself answer. ‘English, French, Dutch, a few different dialects of Chinese,’ she paused, wondering if the word “dialect” would be too difficult for an eleven-nearly-twelve-year-old to understand, but remembering Delia was Welsh, went on. ‘A bit of Japanese and some other languages from the Far East.’

The shorter girl giggled. ‘And I thought I’d be the foreign one around here.’

This response was so unexpected that the taller redhead found herself physically rocking as she joined the brunette’s laughter. ‘I like you, young’un,’ she said when they both regained sufficient breath to speak.

‘Oi,’ Delia remonstrated playfully, ‘that’s not fair. First you called me “old thing” and now I’m “young’un”. You might be older than I am but you said we’re in the same class, so…’ She trailed off, smirking, stretching the silence for as long as she could before she burst into (quiet) laughter again. ‘I like you, too, though, oldie. You make me feel less of an “invalid”.’

Patsy screwed up her face in symbolic solidarity. ‘Gosh, that’s such a horrid word, isn’t it?’

‘Yes,’ the shorter girl spat out. ‘I’m perfectly valid, thank you very much. And so are you. Even if our minds are muddled.’

Her taller friend grinned at this. ‘I like that. You’re wise beyond your years, aren’t you?’

The brunette shrugged, which made her hair shift against her shoulders. ‘My Mam calls me a “little madam”. At least she does when she’s not swearing at me in Welsh because she thinks I don’t understand. But I do. I guess I’ve just had a lot of time to think recently.’

The redhead nodded. ‘I relate to that. I try and hide in here to reflect most nights.’

Delia’s expression grew guilty. ‘Sorry, have I taken your time?’

Patsy shook her head in an effort to pacify the younger girl’s concern. ‘No, no. It’s been lovely to meet you. I was just going to read.’

‘Oh. All right. What book?’ Delia asked, returning to inquisitiveness.

The redhead refrained from correcting her grammar – she knew all too well how much people condescended when you were a patient-student at a place like “St Gids” – and just answered the enquiry. ‘Jane Eyre. I always choose it for the first night of term.’

The brunette visibly brightened, bringing back those darling dimples. ‘I love that book. My Mam says I’m a “wilful child” and so’s Jane.’

‘She is, yes. And she gets sent away to school,’ Patsy added, pleased she had found a fellow rebel – or renegade, as Sister Ursula might say.

‘Yes. But it isn’t like Lowood here, is it?’ Delia asked in a dramatic whisper.

‘No,’ the redhead reassured quickly, ‘Not at all. Sister U can be a bit of a dragon, but not half as bad as Brocklehurst.’ She left out the observation of having spent her childhood in much harsher conditions – that was too far for the first night of a new friendship. Instead she deflected with a different sort of bravery. ‘When I was younger than you, I called my diary “Helen”.’

‘After Helen Burns?’ The brunette could barely breathe for admiration.

‘Yes. I didn’t really have friends then,’ the English girl admitted, adding in her head that she did not really now, either.

‘Well you have me,’ Delia insisted, her Welsh lilt growing more pronounced. ‘And I’m definitely giving you a notebook for a diary. D’you think you’ll call it “Helen” again?’

Patsy was pensive for a moment. ‘Yes, I think I might,’ she declared eventually, ‘but not until tomorrow, mind. We ought to get back to bed.’

The younger girl grumbled, but let her older friend guide her back across the dormitory, pointing out the pathway to her own bed – which gave rise to silent squeals when they discovered they slept side by side. Patsy was not one to consider coincidences, but she decided she must have dropped off earlier without noticing, and therefore missed the movement nearby.

But she could not care, now, because she had a proper companion in convalescence.

And a new diary to help her deal.

~

Saturday 21st June 1941

Dear Diary,

Papa got home from London today. He brought me you, and a book of poetry for Gracie (my little sister), as well as a new record for us both. It’s by a girl almost two years older than I am called Ann Stephens. She sings some of the songs from Gracie’s new book. We heard them on the wireless when Papa was away. He says she was picked from lots of girls to play Alice in ‘Alice in Wonderland’. I like that story, although bits of it seem too silly to be real. No-one could be as mean as the Red Queen, could they?

Except maybe Hitler. But I’m not meant to know much about him.

I’m not allowed to listen to the wireless on my own any more. That hasn’t stopped me from figuring out that he’s horrid, though. Mostly because I do know he’s the reason Mama gets worried whenever Papa goes away for work. I don’t like it when she’s worried because there’s nothing I can do. She never got so worried when I was little. Now she’s worried from the minute he leaves until the minute he gets back and we hardly get to see her at all. We didn’t see her much before but when we did she was smiling. And she played her piano. Now I’m the only one who plays and I have to do it quietly so she isn’t disturbed.

She didn’t even smile when Papa got back. She was just sad and quiet. She told him he mustn’t go any more unless he takes us too. He said no. It’s safer for us to be here. She said well then it’s safer for him to stay with us. His voice got very loud and hers got softer and softer, like the contrasts she taught me about in a piece of music. I hate it when they talk like that. Gracie does too. Mama says it’s not good to hate anything and I try hard but sometimes it’s too hard. Like when they row. It’s scary so we hide. It doesn’t happen often but that makes it worse. And then no-one talks about it. I have no-one to talk to.

Except you.

At least Mama came in to say goodnight and listen to our prayers. I tried to sneak in bits about everyone being nice to each other but she told me I was rambling so she must’ve known what I was up to.

She’d probably tell me to stop rambling if she read this. And I should really be asleep. So I’ll sign off and stop “going on”.

It’s just nice to have someone to talk to – even if you are “only a book”. I won’t keep you so long next time.

Your Friend,

Patience Elizabeth Mount, Aged Eight

~

Sunday 22nd June 1941

Dear Diary,

Actually, I’ve decided, if we’re going to be friends, you should have a name. How would you feel about Helen? Only I’ve just finished reading ‘Jane Eyre’, and that was the name of her best friend. It was very sad, though. They were such good friends and then Helen died. I can’t imagine how poor Jane must’ve felt, being left all alone in that horrid excuse for a school. I’ll pray tonight to give thanks for my lovely lessons at home and my loving family. I’m so lucky. I hate to think how hard it would be to lose someone so special.

Because we are a loving family, no matter what I wrote yesterday evening. (I’m writing a lot earlier today – Papa wants us all to have Sunday afternoon together so I’m not sure I’ll have time later.) Grace and I got to join them for a late breakfast just now. I think it might be called “brunch”? Mama was much happier. She let Gracie sit on her lap for the first time in a long while and kept looking over her head at Papa. That was a clear sign they’d reconciled. (You will tell me if the words I use are too big, won’t you? I read a lot and Papa says my vocabulary is very advanced. When we were eating he tested me on some of the new words I learnt over his time away. I haven’t told him I read ‘Jane Eyre’. It was meant to be a present for when I’m older but he should know by now I can’t leave books alone.)

Anyway, they’ve definitely made up. I needed to get up last night and I decided to walk around the house a bit afterwards. It was naughty but we go to bed so early and I was wide awake. I ended up near their door and I think I heard them kissing! Papa was talking in a low voice and he said ‘I’ve missed you, Lizzy.’ She laughed and asked ‘How much?’ Then there were what sounded like kissing noises, not that I’m meant to know about kissing. Except from the pictures or from books, but Mama says they aren’t like real life. But Jane and Rochester kiss, and Jane seems a very real-life girl to me. And I like Mama and Papa’s real-life love best of all. And they kiss! Oh, I hope someone looks at me how they look at each other one day.

Here’s me going on again, though, after saying I’d best be quick.

More soon, Helen, I promise. I’m not quite sure when. Oh, and since we’re on first name terms, I go by Patsy.

For now, your friend always,

P.E.M.

(Lots of the authors in the books I read use initials instead of names, so I’m trying that.)