‘All facts, however microscopic, are important in the building of real history.’
E L B Blanchard
‘Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all: the conscientious historian will correct these defects.’
SCENE – early evening in the February of 1934, the kitchen of a docker’s cottage in the East End of London. The kitchen is empty except for a young man dozing by the fire.
“Dick, Dick!” A scream wrenched Dick awake and he leapt up and across the kitchen in one movement, pulling open the door to find his sister trembling in the passageway.
“Lord Jesus, Dudie, what’s happened to you?” He followed her gaze to the pool of liquid spreading around her feet.
“I don’t know! Get Ma, get Ma!” Stella’s words ended in another feral scream and bracing herself against the wall, she lent forward, clutching her belly. Struggling to think through the remnants of sleep, Dick rubbed his head and frowned.
“She aint here, Dudie, she’s … Lord, here!” He grabbed her arm and pulled her into the kitchen, looking frantically over his shoulder as he backed himself in. Still holding his sister with his right hand, he grabbed the coal bucket with his left and tipped its contents in a pile on the hearth. “Here, sit on this for a minute” he ordered, placing the bucket under her.
“I’m dying, Dick, I’m dying!” Stella screamed, hysterically. “Lord help me, its blood!”
“Nah, you’ll not die just yet, gel,” Dick tried to laugh, though his eyes were wide and his pale young face betrayed his doubt. “It looks like yer baby’s coming, that’s all.”
Crouching uncomfortably over the bucket, her hand gripping into Dick’s shoulder and her body bent forward, Stella turned her tear-stained face away in shame.
“I want Ma!” she sobbed noisily. “Where is she, Dick? Get her for me, I need her!”
“I can’t, Dudie, I can’t.” Dick reached up and rubbed his sister’s hand aimlessly. “She won’t be back for hours. She’s gone to a lying in…” His words trickled away and he listened to Stella’s sobs for a time, trying to work out what best to do. The old woman next door would be useless; she was semi-invalid and deaf as a post besides. And he wasn’t sure what reaction he’d get from his older sisters, even if he was able to find them at home.
Stella groaned suddenly and throwing her head forward, vomited onto the floor. That decided him.
“We’re going to the infirmary,” he stated, “it’s the best place for you.” He snatched a drying-up cloth from the fire-front and gently wiped his young sister’s face.
“I aint goin’ to the workhouse, Dick, I aint goin’ to the workhouse!” Stella whimpered, shaking with weakness and fright.
“You aint got no choice, Dudie. Ma aint here, nor the gels, and I can’t help you with the baby. I don’t know what to do!” He shivered at the thought. “Besides, you know Ma said she don’t want nuffin to do with it.” He brushed the damp fringe from her eyes, cooing soothingly. “You’ll be alright, gel, you’ll be alright. I’ll look after yer. Don’t I always?”
The walk through the dark streets to the infirmary was a difficult one, though the distance was short and Stella such a slight thing that Dick had no trouble supporting her tiny body. But every few yards Stella’s stomach clenched in spasms of pain and she’d stop and tense herself against it, waiting for it to let her free. By the time they entered the porter’s lodge of the old workhouse, their hands had been numbed by the bitter wind, their faces stung by the sharp, icy rain.
“Are you the father?” Glancing quickly from Dick to Stella’s hand and back to the ledger, the duty nurse wrote down the particulars with a stern, efficient manner. She moved round the table and, putting one hand under Stella’s elbow and another on her back, began to shepherd her along the dim, sterile corridor.
“Dick? Dick!” Stella looked back over her shoulder, her eyes pleading with her brother to follow.
“He can’t come any further,” the nurse’s clipped tones bounced back off the walls. “Let’s not have any fuss. We’re to take care of you, now.”