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The Girl in the Maze
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Traversing three generations of women torn apart by family trauma, The Girl in the Maze explores the complex relationship and challenges involved in both mothering and being mothered.
Betty lay in the bath, her white legs flushing a blotchy pink in the scorching water. The passage light leaked through the edges of the bathroom door, merging into the glow from the streetlamp, fractured through the frosted glass window. The mirror perspired in the heat, dripping into the basin.
She took another gulp from the half empty bottle balanced on the corner of the bath where the mould bred between the tiles. Her face twisted at the gin’s bitter burn. But the bottle was cool against her cheek as she pulled a breath into her tight lungs.
Her mother’s knitting needle balanced on the cloth used to wipe her sisters’ faces. As she leant forward to feel the pointed tip again with her finger, the water sloshed over the sides of the bath, striking the floor beneath. The muted sounds of her sisters finishing off their tea in the kitchen next door mingled with her mother’s muted scolding.
There wasn’t much time.
The hum of buses grinding up Battersea Park Road past St Saviour blurred with the shouts of the men clocking off, heading to the pub, and the yelling of the boys playing football by the dim streetlights.
She reached forward, over the growing tightness of her belly, and grasped the knitting needle, then let it float on the surface of the scalding water until it sunk beneath the water line, turning almost gaily downwards. The intense heat made her drowsy. It was difficult to move.
Angry steps sounded. ‘You’ve taken all me bleedin’ hot water. There ain’t none left.’ Her mother was at the door, shaking the handle. ‘What you doing in there?’
‘I won’t be long, Ma.’
‘Least you could do is be ’ere helping me with this lot, not dilly dallying in there. Betty?’
‘I’ll be there in a minute.’
‘Bloody hurry up. Cheek taking all that water. Nothing for yer pa when he gets home.’
The sound of steps moved away, and Betty imagined her mother, her thin, faded housecoat wrapped around her ample frame, stomping back into the tiny front room. There was a shout from next door, the sound of a child being slapped and then whimpering.
The knitting needle had settled, resting across the dark mound of her pubic hair. She stared at it. One small movement. Over. Quick. She sighed and twisted the needle round, fingering herself to find the hole. She lifted her scorched legs out of the water, straddling the bath’s narrow edges.
Betty slipped the tip of the needle in, and in one quick movement, plunged it up hard as far as she could until it hit something firm. The agony was immediate. The punch thrusted up through her body, reaching her mouth as a stifled scream. Her body doubled up, the first taste of sick filling her mouth. She gagged as she partly withdrew the needle and stabbed it up again.
The retching made her stop, as she convulsed forward, her vomit mixing with the blood between her legs floating up to the surface with the needle, dancing together in the heat of the water. The blood banged in her ears, and then she realised the noise was also coming from the door.
‘Will you get out of there? Win needs a wee and she won’t use the potty. Hurry up. She’s waiting.’ It was her mother June again.
It was as if the needle was still inside, continually stabbing her. She tried to speak but her voice was a gurgle.
‘Are you all right? You sound strange. You’re not crying, are you?’
‘I’m okay,’ she gasped. The pain thudded inside her, rhythmic, unyielding.
‘Just let Win in, for Christ’s sake.’
‘Gimme a minute.’
Betty lifted her hands out of the bath, letting the needle float to the bottom and grasped the sides to haul herself upright. Her whole chest and swelling stomach were red, scorched from the water, a heavy flood of scarlet ran down her thighs. Life draining away. Her head spun and the bathroom went dark before instantly reappearing as if the light had been suddenly switched on. She stuffed the rags she used for her monthly between her thighs to stem the flow, cautiously stepped out of the bath, and winced.
The vomit wouldn’t go down the plughole; fragments of pea and a piece of gristle stuck in a net of matted hair. She knelt on the floor and leant over the side of the bath. She retched again. Betty pushed the bloody tip of the knitting needle into the gaps of the plughole to push the food down, sweeping the blood and debris along the bottom of the bath. The stained water pirouetted into the drain.
With a towel wrapped round her, and the bottle and knitting needle hidden inside, she cracked open the door. It was instantly pulled out of her hands by Winnie as she rushed into the room, skirt already raised, knickers around her ankles.
Betty watched her as the torrent of yellow urine streamed between her chubby legs splashing into the porcelain. The smell rose up, fresh but repulsive. She could feel the throbbing pain and heat between her own legs, and her sister’s inquisitive stare as she waddled down the passage to their bedroom, careful not to let the rags slip.
She lay on the bed and faced the wall, clutching her legs into her chest, trying to breathe through the agony. Trying not to cry.
The sickness never quite went away. The bleeding stopped, and the pain receded into a small knot in her stomach. But the nausea was always under the surface. Betty couldn’t eat. Sitting at the kitchen table, watching the others slurp sticky eggs yolks, she imagined the yolk as a half-formed chick being eaten alive, smeared on stiff bread, drawn into open, hungry mouths.
She lay up on the top bunk bed in the room she shared with Winnie and Edie, dreaming of semi-formed babies being sucked into a bath plughole, swimming through the pipes and out to the river. In the evenings, her mother sat in the front room knitting, her two knitting needles rhythmically smashing together. Betty watched her, seeing the needle miss the baby’s rosebud mouth and tight nose and plunge instead through its closed eye, skewering into its brain.
But the swelling in her stomach didn’t shrink as she hoped. It continued to spread. Betty’s pale unblemished skin stretched to accommodate it. The strange half-formed thing that she’d imagined long gone into London’s sewers moved inside her, grasping at life. She saw its flesh torn apart, its features grotesque.
Betty hid its existence under cotton dresses and long cardigans through that long, wet summer. The tiny mewling creature was born in the same bathroom where it almost met its demise, slithering out into the bath, now empty and cool, but once again stained with blood. Betty smothered its cries in the dark, sleeping house.
The knock made Betty start. She’d almost slipped into an exhausted sleep, despite the hardness of the bath against her back.
‘Betty, you all right? I thought I heard something.’
Her eyes darted around the room, but she already knew there was nowhere she could hide the baby. It lay pink and still, warm where it touched her chest, but its back was already cooling. She’d been wrong all along. It had been a girl.
‘Betty?’ The voice was quiet but held a question. She wasn’t going away.
Betty took a deep breath. ‘I I’m okay, Ma. But you’d better come in. Hold on.’ Betty got onto her knees, holding the little body awkwardly with one arm. She used the side of the bath to lever herself up, her hand shaking so much it made her whole body tremble. Blood flooded down her legs into the bath. She watched it spin around and disappear into the plughole. So much blood. Her head swam and she used her free arm to steady herself against the side of the bath as she slowly eased out. There was still a memory of the pain between her legs but nothing like the vice like agony which had gripped her through the night.
Betty adjusted the baby’s tiny body in the crook of her left arm and used her right hand to crack open the door. It was even darker in the passage, and she could only just make out her mother’s shadow. ‘Ma …’ she started, rubbing her forehead.
‘Are you ill?’ asked June, stepping into the room, her house coat covering her nightdress. She glanced at the floor and gasped, covering her mouth with her hand. ‘Oh Jesus.’ Crouching, she smeared some of the blood on her fingers as if testing it.
Betty realised she was still bleeding, blood pooling on the floor between her legs. In the early dawn light, it looked black and threatening.
June stood up and turned to Betty, putting her arm on her shoulder. ‘Sit down on the bath, you’ve lost a lot of blood. I didn’t know your monthly ’ The baby shifted in Betty’s other arm and let out a small kitten like mewl. ‘Oh.’ June leant in and seemed to see it for the first time.
Betty looked down at its perfect rosebud mouth, barely visible in the darkness. She shuffled away from her mother to the window, feeling a trail of wetness stream down her legs.
The first hints of dawn seeped into the room. The baby’s dark blue eyes met hers. She was perfect in every way. There was no trace of what Betty had tried to do all those months ago. The knitting needle. She shuddered.
‘What the fuck is that baby?’ June hissed behind her.
Betty turned, her hair hanging over her face. ‘I tried to tell you, Ma, but I didn’t have the words. I’m sorry,’ she whispered and took a deep breath. ‘But look, she’s beautiful. Perfect.’
‘It’s yours?’ said June squishing her eyebrows together as if she didn’t quite understand. ‘But I would ’ave seen. I would ’ave known.’
Betty slowly shook her head. ‘I ’id it, I thought it would go away,’ she said quietly. She looked down at the baby still silently staring up at her.
June’s eyes widened and the colour seemed to empty from her face, blending with the grey dawn light. ‘That’s why you was getting married, innit? I get it now. Why it was so quick. You knew you was preggers. No wonder the bleedin’ idiot run a fucking mile.’ She shook her head, her lips puckered as if she was eating a lemon.
Betty wiped a smear of blood from the baby’s cheek. Despite the warmth of the room, the baby’s body was cold to touch. She started to whimper. ‘Ma, I need a blanket or something. She’s cold.’ She looked up at June.
‘Pass the bastard here.’
Betty shook her head. ‘Don’t say that, Ma. It’s not ’er fault.’ Betty glanced down between her legs. Blood was still trickling down her thighs, but less quickly now.
June reached for the baby and then stopped. ‘Christ.’ She knelt down in front of Betty. ‘The cord’s still attached. Is she that fresh out?’
Betty nodded, the movement making her head swim again.
June took her arm and guided her towards the bath. ‘Get back in there and keep that baby quiet. I don’t want yer father knowing nothin’. I’ll be back in a sec.’
Betty eased back into the bath, holding the baby tightly against her. She was opening and closing her mouth like a small bird in a nest. Betty slipped her little finger into the tiny opening and the baby sucked vigorously but just as quickly stopped and started to cry again.
‘She wants milk, you silly thing.’ Her mother had reappeared wielding a large pair of scissors.
‘Ma, no!’ Betty turned onto her side away from June, shielding the baby underneath her. Its cries were getting louder.
‘Don’t be daft, I’m not gonna hurt her,’ hissed June. ‘I need to cut the cord and get the rest of it out.’ She pulled Betty onto her back and then reached down and deftly snipped. ‘You’ll lose the bit inside and then the bleedin’ will stop.’ Betty touched the cord where it disappeared into the baby’s stomach.
‘That’ll fall away soon,’ said June, clamping it with a wooden clothes peg. ‘This helps it.’ She laid an old blanket over Betty and the baby, tucking it under the baby’s legs.
‘How did you know how to do that?’ asked Betty staring at the blue rubbery hose lying between her legs like a dead snake.
‘Most of us don’t let things like this get this far.’ June waved her hand at the baby. ‘There are ways of getting rid of it long before it gets to a real baby.’ She waved the scissors around. ‘My sisters_’
The baby whimpered, more urgently this time, the sound bouncing off the tiles.
‘Now you’ve got to feed it to shut it up. I’m not ’aving yer father woken at this hour just ’cause you couldn’t keep your legs shut.’ June reached under the blanket, her rough washer woman hands grabbing Betty’s taut breast. She gently brought the baby’s head closer and pinched Betty’s nipple hard with the thumb and forefinger.
‘Ouch!’ whispered Betty. A globule of yellow liquid appeared, and June pushed the baby on to it. Betty looked down, her eyes wide as the baby’s mouth clamped on to her nipple and started to suck, just as she had on her finger. She looked up at her mother. ‘It works.’
‘Of course it bloody works. That baby’s got more brains than you ’ave, letting him get his way with you before you got that ring on yer finger. Stupid girl.’ June stood with her hands on her hips looking around the room. ‘Look at the state of this place. As if I ’aven’t got enough to do.’ She disappeared out of the room again.
The rhythmic sucking felt soothing. It was a strange mix of joy and pain. Dawn had broken and the muted morning light drifted over Betty. The baby’s cheek was soft and flushed like the inside of a rose petal. Betty closed her eyes and leant back against the bath.
June had come back into the room. Betty could hear her panting and wheezing, the sound of a bucket scraping along the floor. ‘Jesus, so much blood. It looks like you got murdered.’
Betty felt a familiar squeeze inside her, screwed up her face and automatically pushed, grunting with the effort. June stood over and prodded at something dark at the bottom of the bath. ‘That’s the rest of it. God knows what I’m gonna do with that.’
The baby detached from her, and Betty opened her eyes, missing the warmth. Its mouth was still opening and closing expectantly. Betty looked up at her mother’s pinched face. ‘Shall I?’ she asked.
June reached over the bath and turned the baby round, repeating the nipple squeeze until the baby’s mouth had latched on. The cheek which had been against her was warm and damp, like proved dough. June rung out her cloth, pink liquid dripping into the bucket. ‘Right, now just the bath to sort out. We need to get you out of there before your father wants to use it.’
Betty swallowed and looked back down at the baby. She had fallen off her breast and was sleeping in her arms, her mouth still working with the memory of the sucking. ‘I’m going to call ’er Margaret, after Margaret Mitchell.’ She looked up at her mother. ‘The author of Gone with the Wind.’
June snorted, her hands on her hips. ‘It don’t matter what you call ’er, when you give her up they’ll call ’er something else.’
Betty stared at her mother, her mouth open. ‘What d’you mean?’
‘’Er new ma will call ’er whatever they want to, they won’t keep the name. They never do, them people.’ June started wiping the side of the bath. ‘Now come on, let’s get you out of there. Can’t have yer father finding you like this.’
‘You want me to give ’er up?’ Betty whispered. She couldn’t seem to focus on her mother. She was slipping out of reach. Betty slid further into the bath, curling up against Margaret, her eyes already full.
June stopped cleaning. ‘You think you could keep ’er? ’Is bastard child? I’m not having no gossip about this family thank you very much. Can you imagine the shame if you walked out of ’ere with that baby now? With everyone remembering that he stood you up at the altar. They’ll know why now, won’t they?’ She dropped the cloth. ‘Pass ’er to me. I’ll sort it out. I know people who know people who’ll keep it quiet. Find ’er a good ’ome.’
‘No, Ma, please no,’ Betty cried, her snot mingling with the salty tears. ‘I want to keep ’er. I’ll do anything, anything.’ She stroked the baby’s sleeping face, tracing the outline of her eyes. ‘She’s mine.’
June sat down heavily on the side of the bath, staring intently at Betty. ‘Pass ’er to me, Betty,’ she said, her voice hard. ‘You have no choice. All we ’ave is our respectability. Without that we’re no better than them families in the slums.’
Betty shook her head, choking on her tears. ‘I’ve never loved anything as much as Margaret, I can’t give ’er up.’
June stood up and crossed her arms. ‘You have no choice, Betty. It’s either that or the workhouse. I’ll leave you to say your goodbyes and then I’ll take ’er. Be quick, yer father will be up any minute and I want ’er out before then.’