The Print Petticoat

By: Lucilla Andrews

Chapter One

The Wrong Man Always Proposes

The garden was all gold that year, and in the lane the may was out early. The name of the lane was White Rose Lane. It was a pretty name. It was a pretty place. There was no may in the garden ‒ I don’t know why. You did not notice that anything was missing in that spring. The sudden impact of cultivated yellow jolted the mind clear of criticism.

The garden was built in terraces on the hillside. These terraces were now lined with golden crocuses, overhung with almond and backed up by the forsythia bushes which clustered like handfuls of surplus stars carelessly suspended a couple of feet above the earth. Lower down were the daffodils. The scent from the flowers drifted up towards the house and floated in at the open Nursery window where I was standing, and mingled with the faint, sickly-sweet mixture of Dettol and baby-powder which is inseparable from the mass production of the newly born.

The baby in my arms spluttered peacefully. I patted its back, decided there was still some more wind in its stomach. This I knew was wishful thinking, but I wanted an excuse to go on standing where I was and looking down at the garden. I could hear the creak of the swing in the orchard down by the lane. One of the students must be out there; no nurses were free this early. There had been a case in the night. It was probably the clerk who had done the delivery. From behind me, in the farthest corner of the Nursery, well screened from the open window, I could hear the occasional high-pitched whimper of the newest arrival. I wondered casually who had been the clerk on call, and if he knew how to give a baby its first bath. There were a new lot of midder-clerks down from London that week, and teaching them how to give a first bath was part of my job.

The swing creaked rhythmically. It was by now the only sound in the air beside the gently amazed breathing of the new baby. The other thirty-five babies lay quiet in their pigeon-hole cots. Christine had gone to sleep in my arms, her head flopping over on my shoulder. I forgot I was holding her. I was thinking about the children who must have swung on that swing. The house had once been a normal house, full of grown-up children and their parents. There were memories of the children everywhere; in the carved initials on the swing; the broken bow and arrow in the greenhouse; the pets’ graveyard behind the Japanese garden. The Japanese garden could only have been thought up by a child. The small stream from the Wey had been dammed to produce a pond and miniature waterfall. There used to be goldfish in that pond, the gardener’s wife told me, and at times various unhappy, short-lived tadpoles. Now all that remained in the pond were the water-lilies. Water-lilies that opened slowly these spring mornings and looked as if they found it amusing to be surrounded by stunted trees, painted urns, and a carved red bridge at the corner of which was a small stone fish. The fish alone looked genuine and strangely out of place.

I was wondering about this fish and automatically patting Christine’s back when I heard the door behind me open. I turned and saw Allan coming quickly into the nursery. He pulled a clean white cotton face-mask out of the glass container standing on a table by the door; he tied the mask over his face as he came towards the window. The strings of white tape made a coquettish and out-of-character bow on the top of his dark head.

‘Morning, Joanna. Is Sister in?’

I shook my head reluctantly. Not that I minded that Sister was off duty or that Allan had come to do a round of the babies. I was merely sorry for the moment I had just lost.

‘Hallo, Allan,’ I said. ‘No, Sister has got the week-end off. Aren’t you rather early for your round?’

‘My good girl,’ said Allan firmly, ‘do you realize it’s only half-past eight? Can you see me doing a round on an empty stomach? No. I wanted to see the new chap. And you?’

I smiled at him, although he could not see I was smiling because of my mask. The bow on his head was having an effect on Allan Kinnoch. Whatever he might be, he was never coy. I put Christine down in her empty cot, and we moved across the nursery to the new baby.

‘He’s a bit knocked about,’ I said as he stood over the cot. I flicked a shawl away. ‘He’s blue, too. He looks as if the going was tough. Was it?’