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U3A Writing: The Well 14 Jack

Paddy Webb, continuing her verse biography of her great-grandfather, tells of the heart-breaking loss of a young daughter.

I never knew how my mother felt
Until the day I lost Nell.
Then I knew.

Ellen woke me when the pains began,
Sent me down the road for Ada.

It was a long way and Ada was still abed,
Came to the window in a red shawl,
Her night-cap on. I heard her say Fathers!
As she slammed the window shut.
I'd just got in the door, hurrying back,
When I saw Nell at the top of the stairs
Still in her little pink nightgown.
She called Dada, and tried to come to me
But her little legs got tangled in the gown
And she fell.
I tried to catch her.

She did not cry much as I picked her up.
I carried her up to our room, and sat
in the chair by the fire, my babe in my lap.
She snuggled into my shoulder, and went to sleep.
I rubbed her little hands, tried to warm them,
Pulled her nightgown over her cold, cold toes.
And I sat singing songs, the songs Nell liked.
Here is the cow with the crumpled horn,
That tossed the dog, that chased the cat,
That lived in the house that Jack built.
We sang that every night at bed time.
It got dark, but I did not light the lamp
For fear of disturbing my sleeping daughter.

You've a son, Jack^ someone said.
They took Nell away.
I wanted to go on holding her,
but they lifted her up
And took her away.

They'd told Ellen. When I went in
Her eyes were wet with crying, dark.
There was fresh linen on the bed
A clean quilt, patchwork, red and blue.
It weren't your fault, she said. You've got a son.
But I did not want to know. I went out
Without looking in the crib where be lay.

The next day I went to work,
and came home
And went to work again.

They asked me
What to call the child, but I didn't know.
So Ellen gave him my name, John.
I went to the Town Hall, because these things
Have to be registered, written down.
The office smelled of dust.
When did all these things happen? asked the clerk
Dipping his pen in the inkwell on the desk.
I did not know.
Come, Man, he said, you must remember.
I think it was Sunday, I said.
I think I smelt dinners cooking.
So he wrote it down, April 27, 1902,
The day my Nell died.
Ellen said I'd got it wrong
But it was there on the paper, official.

We went to the church
Just Ellen, me and Parson.
Such a tiny white coffin.

At the Yard the Master put an extra half crown
In my wage packet, a token of sympathy, he said.
The men collected, tuppence each
And sent a box for Ellen, some tea, an orange
Two eggs and some bits for the baby.

When I got home the Vicar's wife had been
With soup, making Ellen fret. Charity
She said. She did not mind the men at the Yard,
We'd do the same ourselves, for one of them.
But parish soup was charity we did not need.
And that woman, coming in, had dusted the chair
With a hanky, before sitting down,
As if my Ellen doesn't keep a clean house,
Which she does. But it had been well meant
And Parson had not charged for the prayers.

So I went to work, and came home;
Hardly noticed Ellen getting thin.
I talked to Ma at the Upside Down, took her violets.
I could not tell her what the child was like;
I only knew how cold my Nell had been.
She gave me back the violets to take home.
Said it seemed Ellen had lost more than a child.
But I did not understand; she had the baby.

One Sunday morning I was sitting in my chair.
Ellen stood in front of me, the baby in her arms.
Take him, she said, and put him on my lap.
Look at him, she said. He's your son John.

I looked. He was awake, blue eyes, fair hair,
A look of Ellen, not of Nell. When our eyes met
He smiled a starry, baby smile at me.
Ellen stood there, arms folded. Undress him, she said.
But I just sat there, looking at his little face.
Undress him, she shouted. I want you to see your son.
Such long frocks and petticoats they dress a child in;
I struggled with buttons and ribbons till he lay
In just a pilch and vest. Take them off
Said Ellen. I want you to see it's a man child
I've laboured for. So I undid the pin, folded back
The towelling and my son kicked, a proper little man.
I ran my calloused hands, with the broken nails
Down the silky length of his body, from his chin
To his little pink warm toes.
Now kiss him, Ellen insisted.
So I kissed his soft bare stomach, just by the ribs,
Smelt the warm, baby, milky smell of him.
And my John beat his fists against my face.
Suddenly I picked him up and my back to the room
Stood staring out of the window. After a while
Ellen stood beside me, her arm on my shoulder,
Wiped my eyes with her apron.
We stayed, looking out at the chimneys and the sky
Till the baby cried for his feed.
Then I went down, stripped every flower
From the garden, flame nasturtiums, marigolds
With a bitter tang and one white rose.
We walked through the church yard, till we found
The little plot where Nell lay, under a tree.
The grass was growing over, we hadn't a stone.
I remember a blackbird sang and somewhere nearby
A grasshopper rasped as I piled the flowers,
All the colours of the warm sun for Nell
Then I took my son, and carried him home.


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