Calling Back Yesterday

Chapter One of a novel by Elizabeth Summerson

Email: liz@summerson.fsworld.co.uk


~19 October 1971 ~

It all seems so normal at the time.

Alison is one of the first out of the infants' classroom at three-fifteen, her rolled-up painting in her hand. Mummy and Suzanne are waiting for her in the playground, as they always do. Her mother's curls, the same dark brown as Alison's hair, are bouncing above her favourite red coat. Her face is smiling and she seems excited.

'Hello, poppet. I'm glad you've been really quick today. We're in a hurry.'


'Wait and see.' Her mother bends to tuck the painting into the shopping tray underneath Suzanne's pushchair.

'Is it a surprise?' Alison is not always sure about surprises, but it's different when it's one of Mummy's.

Her mother straightens up and nods, putting a finger to her mouth, mysteriously. Years later, Alison will wonder whether she noticed a frown, a strange expression. But for the moment, being a patient child, she lets the prospect of the surprise sit in the back seat of her mind: if her mother has promised something nice, she is content to wait for it to happen.

Now Suzanne is three, Mummy usually makes her walk. But today, she's half asleep with her ragdoll Tilly under one arm.

'Let me push,' says Alison, smugly aware that watching her is Debby Taylor, who does not have any brothers or sisters.

But after a few minutes, Mummy takes the handle from her.

'We must hurry today, Alison,' she says.

‘The surprise, you mean ...?'

'That's right.'

So there's none of the usual dawdling to look for conkers, no picking up autumn leaves. They don't stop at the shop, either.

'Can I have some chocolate buttons, please?

Suzanne wakes and takes up the cry: 'I want clockit!'

"Not today, my pets.'

Suzanne continues whining for clockit until they are home. Alison, dropping the little bag she takes to school, immediately spots two suitcases standing in the hall, where there's usually a space.

'What are these for? Where are we going?'

'You'll see. Be a good girl and play with Suzanne for a moment. I've things to do ... Oh, my God, the taxi's here already.'

Then everything is a frenzy. Her mother opens the door, shows the man the cases, checks her handbag, picks up Suzanne, who is trailing Tilly from one hand.

Alison is the first to spot Daddy at the front gate. He seems to come out of nowhere, with a roar, like Abenazer in last year's pantomime. He is filling the doorway.

'What the hell...? What's going on, Meriel?'

In bewilderment, Alison's eyes dart from one parent to the other. Her father's shouting has made her want to hide. She steps back into the hall, but her mother barges past him with Suzanne.

'I've had enough, Kenneth. You won't stop me.'

Alison puts her hands over her ears. She sees the taxi man put the cases in the boot of his car, Mummy wrenching open a passenger door, pushing Suzanne inside in a whirl of arms and legs. Suzanne is already wailing when Tilly falls from her fingers, landing in the little square of earth and dead leaves at the base of the cherry tree.

'Mummy! Mummy!' Alison rushes forward. But at the gate, strong hands grasp her arms and hold her back.

'Kenneth! Let go of her...' her mother shrieks, frozen half in, half out of the car.

The engine is revving.

'Are we going, Missis, or not?' The driver turns a wary eye on Kenneth.

For a moment, while Alison struggles, hammering her heels against her father's shins, she thinks Mummy is going to rush across the pavement and grab her. But instead she sees her make a wringing gesture with her hands, and her face is ugly as though with pain. Alison can't break free from her father's tight grip and, in the end, can only watch helplessly as her mother hauls herself in and yanks the door closed.

As the taxi shoots away, Mummy mouths something through the half-dark glass but Alison cannot make it out. Suzanne, kneeling up on the back seat, is a yelling face. A triangle of red coat sticks out from the door like a flag. And then they are out of sight, leaving the air reeking of exhaust fumes.

'Go then, you bitch,' Daddy whispers, at last relaxing his hold on Alison's taut body. She flinches. She knows he means her mother, not her, but she is frightened at his words that are full of hate. And then, as he goes back into the house, she dashes across the pavement to rescue Tilly.

After the neighbours' net curtains have twitched back into place, Randall Street quickly regains its complacent normality.

Alison's father opens the sitting room door. 'You find yourself something to do in here,' he says, 'while I...' He rubs his forehead with his fingers as though it will help him find the words then, failing, abruptly goes upstairs.

As soon as he has gone, Alison climbs on to the sofa that fills the bay window. Kneeling up, she has a good view of the street.

They will be back in a minute. I'll -watch until they're back.

As the sky gradually darkens, a steady procession of vehicles weaves in and out of the cars parked along the street; big children walk home from school in twos and threes; later, there are people laden with shopping bags and briefcases. And then the jolly woman from the corner of the street comes by, walking her brown and white spaniel, smiling and waving to Alison as she always does.

Automatically, Alison waves back, as she always does. Then she goes back to her vigil, gazing through the glass, clutching Tilly.

I wish they were home.

A long time later - long enough for her knees to have become imprinted with the pattern of the sofa - the orange streetlamp comes on. Suddenly the sky is navy blue. The flickering shadows of the lamppost and the bare cherry tree stretch as far as the houses opposite. One by one, blinds are closed and curtains are pulled together until oblongs of various colours glow as far as she can see along the street.

Alison feels the chill darkness that envelops the room creep right inside herself. She shivers. She has been alone for ages and her tummy has started to rumble. It seems almost as loud as the noises that have been coming now and then from the bedrooms, the sound of drawers and doors opening and closing. She doesn't know what her father is doing up there and she feels too uneasy to go and find out. Anyway, she can't take her eyes off the window in case the return of her mother and sister somehow depends on her being faithful to the task.

She gazes on, willing every set of headlights to be the taxi coming back, so that Mummy and Suzanne will jump out and shout 'Joke!' She recites the two times table in her head, and then the three times, over and over, trying to block out the memory of the shouting, the taxi driving away and leaving her.

Where have they gone? It can't be to Granny's, because Granny died in the summer and her house has been sold. Mummy said so.

She wishes she has not thought about Granny. She misses Granny. What else does she know to keep her mind off nasty thoughts? Oh yes, there is the grace they chant at school every lunch-time:

'Thank you for the world so sweet, thank you for the food we eat...' then the Lord-keep-us-safe-this-night prayer for home-time, then the funny song she likes:

'There's a worm at the bottom of my garden

and his name is Wiggly Woo.'

But Wiggly Woo doesn't seem funny any more. He can't make her forget the suitcases: the suitcases for the surprise. Maybe they are having a holiday and have simply started without her because she has school. It's Friday tomorrow. But then it will be Saturday, and no school. Perhaps upstairs Daddy is packing things for Alison and himself, ready for Saturday. He will drive them to wherever Mummy and Suzanne are ... yet not for more than a second is this a convincing idea.

At last, there are footsteps on the stairs. She turns, expecting to see the door pushed open, to hear her father call her name. Instead, there is a click as he lifts the phone out in the passage; the rasping sound as he dials. She listens carefully as he speaks, his voice oddly tight.

'Hello? Edna? It's me, Kenneth. Look ... Never mind that, I need your help. Meriel's gone ... She's cleared off... No, no note. I just caught her ... I came back for something ... No, only Suzanne. She wasn't having the two of them ... Yes, I do want you to come, please. As soon as you can ...Yes, yes ... You don't know how grateful I am, Edna.'

Alison hears the receiver being put back. The words replay in her head.

What does he mean, 'she wasn't having the two of them'?

She's pretty sure there is no longer any point keeping watch this evening. Yet she stays at the window, feeling ever more cold and tiny as she peers at the dark world outside. Then the door of the sitting room swings open, and scrambling into a sitting position - Daddy does not allow feet on the chairs - she drops Tilly on to the rug. The light flicks on, blinding her for a moment so that all she can do is blink. At the same time, she rubs her right leg which is heavy and fizzy with pins and needles.

'Alison. There you are.' She feels him stare at her. 'You'd better come and have some tea.'

He steps forwards and, for a second, she wonders what he is going to do. But then he reaches past her for the curtains to shut out the evening. Her eyes are used to the brightness now and she sees the frown on his face as he bends to pick up the limp doll.

This isn't yours, is it?'

Alison shakes her head. When the words come out, they sound rusty. 'It's Tilly. Suzanne dropped her.'

Her father, still towering above her, makes a hmphing sound.

Now she has tried her voice, she can venture more. 'Where have they gone?'

'I don't know.'

She steals a look at his face. It tells her there is no point asking further questions. But, nevertheless, she hears the words come out of her mouth:

'When are they coming back? Why didn't Mummy take me too?'

An age passes before her father answers, turning away from her as he speaks:

'I don't know that, either.'

She has never seen him cook before. Sitting in her place at the kitchen table, watching him make beans on toast, Alison finds herself thinking of the only other time her mother went away, when Suzanne was born in the big hospital. Although it was three years ago, she has not forgotten how much she wanted her mother home.

Mummy has taken her to the hospital a few times since. Once, she fell out of the apple tree, breaking her arm. Another time, she tripped on the pavement and a doctor put spiky black stitches in her head to keep the blood in. On each visit, the size and smell of the hospital gave her a bad feeling that did not go away until she and her mother were home again, together. Could Mummy and Suzanne have gone to the hospital now? People take cases to hospital. She helped to pack tiny clothes for the baby.

Clattering a knife and fork down in front of her, her father breaks his silence. 'Aunt Edna will be coming tomorrow to look after us.’

'I know. I heard you on the phone.'

'Did you?' He frowns.

'She came when Suzanne was born,' Alison offers.

'You remember that?'

'Yes.' A blurred picture flashes into her mind of someone tall, thin and tight-lipped. 'Have Mummy and Suzanne gone to the hospital now?'

'No. Not to the hospital.'

She has known that all along, really. She twiddles a strand of her hair, remembering not to make Daddy any more cross by sliding her thumb into her mouth, as she wants to do. She glances across to where he stands by the cooker, his back to her. Next to him, on the worktop is the jar that holds the wooden spoons, the ladle, the big kitchen scissors with the orange handles... slowly, she traces the edge of the table with her thumb. Then, as though her foot has slipped on the stairs, she recalls with a thud what it is about Aunt Edna.

She fingers the back of her head, remembering the plaits her mother once let her grow so that she could be like the girl on the cover of her ABC book. The girl who lay on her tummy, smiling, reading an ABC book, which had a girl on the cover, smiling ... all the way down to the tiniest dot. Alison fell in love with the picture. She wanted so much to be that girl. She waited impatiently until her hair was at last long enough to be plaited and tied with pretty ribbons.

'There, you'll look a real big sister for the baby with those,' Mummy said.

Now Alison remembers Mummy going off to hospital with Daddy. And Aunt Edna coming. There was no-one else in the house. Aunt Edna sat her on the kitchen table and grabbed hold of one of her plaits, then the other, with a tut. And then there was the swishing noise that ended in a click. She hadn't realised it was the sound of the big scissors with the orange handles until she saw Aunt Edna holding up her chopped-off plaits. Her hands go to her head now as they did then. She remembers feeling the scratchy little ends of hair. She hears herself screaming, 'Put them back! Put my plaits back!' But Aunt Edna dropped them in the bin. And when Alison rushed across to get them back, her lovely glossy plaits, all she could see were little twists of dark hair, still tied in their ribbons, lying on the mess of tea leaves and potato peelings. She remembers how thin and bony Aunt Edna's arm felt as her teeth closed on it. Then the sharp sting on her legs, the first slap she ever experienced. And the ABC book which she never touched again, once she'd scribbled out that smiling girl on the cover.

'I remember Aunt Edna,' Alison says, as her father turns off the hotplate.

©2003 Elizabeth Summerson

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