Jane fastens her black gaberdine and tightens the pink headscarf under her neck. ‘Come along, girls.’ She opens the car door.
We scramble out. I gaze across the wide road. ‘Look, Hannah, the sea.’
Her damp eyes sparkle.
Jane squeezes Hannah’s hand. ‘This is Seascape. You’re going to have such a lovely time.’
I count as we climb the steps to the blue door. ‘One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven.’
Jane hits the huge knocker.
A pretty nurse with brown curly hair opens it and smiles. ‘This must be the Gallimore sisters?’
‘Yes.’ I grin. ‘I’m Teresa and this is my little sister, Hannah.’
‘Come in.’ Her voice echoes in the huge hallway. ‘Matron’s expecting you.’ The nurse turns the key in the lock.
I glance around at grubby bare walls without any wallpaper or pictures. The pretty nurse leads us down the corridor and stops at a door marked Matron. She taps on the wood.
‘Yes,’ a gruff voice says from the other side.
The nurse pushes open the door. ‘Matron, the Gallimore sisters are here.’
‘Thank you, Nurse Smith. Can I leave you to start the bath routine?’
‘Bring them in, Miss Armstrong,’ Matron says, ‘don’t just hover.’
Jane nudges us through the entrance. My legs shake. Hannah looks like she’s going to cry again.
‘Take a seat, Miss Armstrong.’ Matron rubs her nose. Hannah and I stay standing.
Jane coughs. ‘Their mother wondered if you’d mind her phoning to speak to them tomorrow. She’s concerned as they’ve not been away from home before’
‘The girls need to settle first. No calls for at least a week.’
‘I want my mummy.’ Hannah sniffles.
‘Shh.’ I put my arm around her.
‘You can stop that right now, young lady.’ Matron glares at Hannah. ‘We don’t stand for molly-coddling around here.’ Matron takes a deep breath. ‘Sit on the floor while I get some details about you from Miss Armstrong.’
‘Come on, Hannah.’ I lower myself to the orange rug, crossing my legs and pulling my sister down with me. I don’t like this matron. She looks like a witch with her grey hair, pointed nose, and tiny eyes.
Matron picks up a pen to write in a black book. ‘Full names and dates of birth.’
Jane takes a folder from her briefcase. ‘Teresa Ann Gallimore. Aged seven. Third of April, 1955. And Hannah May Gallimore, aged six, sixth of June, 1956.’ Jane drops the file back into her bag.
Jane steeples her hands. ‘Hannah’s been diagnosed with alopecia. Nothing listed for Teresa other than her being too thin. Her mother says she has a healthy appetite but never gains weight.’
‘Reason for admittance?’
‘Mrs Gallimore’s in hospital,’ Jane whispers, ‘after a stillbirth brought on by her husband’s accident. He was killed outright.’
‘I see.’ Matron pops the lid back on her fountain pen and lays it across the desk. ‘Now, girls, listen carefully to some important rules. If you get a phone call from your mother, please don’t say you’re unhappy. We don’t want to worry her, do we?’
‘No,’ I answer. Hannah shakes her head.
‘You’ll be given a uniform to wear and you must look after it. Do you understand?’
‘Yes,’ I say. Hannah nods.
‘If you write a letter to your mother, I will check it before posting. Understand?’
‘Understand.’ I fiddle with my fingers.
Hannah mutters, ‘Yes.’
‘That’ll do for now as I don’t want to overload you. Now get up off the floor and say goodbye to Miss Armstrong, and we’ll get you settled in.’
Jane stands up. ‘Have a lovely holiday, girls’ – she strokes our cheeks – ‘I’ll be back soon.’
‘Bye,’ I say, but I want to scream, ‘take us home.’
Hannah bites her lip, gives a little wave, and grabs my hand. Matron shows Jane out and unlocks the front door. ‘Tell the girls’ mother not to worry.’ She closes the door and re-locks it, putting the key on a chain around her waist. ‘Come along, children. Don’t just stand there.’ She marches down the drab corridor with us following behind and stops at a big bathroom. ‘Is the water ready, Nurse Smith?’ she asks.
‘I’ve just re-filled. The other children are done.’
‘Good. Right girls, get undressed and climb in,’ Matron says without smiling.
I don’t want to get undressed in front of them. Hannah takes her clothes off and nice Nurse Smith helps her into the bath.
‘Come along, Teresa Gallimore,’ Matron says, ‘I can see you’re going to be trouble.’
Hannah whispers to me, ‘Do it, Teresa.’
I slip off my clothes, climb into the other end of the bath with Hannah, and pick up the sponge.
I glare at the white metal bed in Buttercup dormitory. Hannah’s been put in Primrose. I peer at myself in the mirror wearing the ugly blue-checked uniform. Even the knickers match, and they’re itchy not soft like my own. I’m just finishing putting my stuff away in the drawer when Hannah wanders in.
‘I want to go home.’ She starts crying again. ‘I don’t like it here.’
I put my arms around her. ‘Shh, Hannah. I don’t like it either but Mummy’s got to get better, hasn’t she? We don’t want her to die like Daddy.’
‘But it’s horrid here.’ Her shoulders move up and down as she sobs. ‘And these clothes are horrible. And why can’t we sleep in the same room?’
‘I don’t know.’ I pick up my teddy from the bed. ‘Why don’t you look after Baby Bear until we can sleep together again?’
She sniffs my teddy. ‘He smells of you.’
‘Come on. We’d best go down for tea otherwise we’ll get into trouble. Let’s drop Baby Bear off on the way.’
We slope along the corridor and stop at a door with a picture of a primrose on it. ‘This is your room. The flower’s pretty, isn’t it?’
Hannah nods sniffling as we go in. ‘I want to go home.’
‘Wait until we go to the sand. That nice Nurse Smith said we’re going on the beach after tea. That will be fun.’
Hannah lifts up her dress and pulls at her knickers. ‘And these things are prickly.’
‘Mine are too.’ I chuckle. ‘Pop Teddy to bed then.’
Hannah slides Baby Bear under the sheet. ‘I’ll hide him in case anyone tries to steal him.’
A little girl with big brown eyes and two plaits skips in. She looks about the same age as Hannah.
‘Hello,’ I say, ‘I’m Teresa and this is Hannah. What’s your name?’
‘I’m Stella,’ she answers in a croaky voice.
‘Which bed is yours?’ I ask.
‘This one.’ She bounces on the bed next to Hannah’s. ‘No one sleeps in those.’ Stella points to the other three. ‘They’ve all gone home.’ She gets off the bed and holds Hannah’s hand. ‘You can be my friend if you like.’
Hannah smiles. ‘All right.’
‘We should go now,’ I say, ‘otherwise we’ll get into trouble.’
‘I’ll show you the way.’ Stella leads Hannah out and I follow them.
‘Susan,’ Matron says to a tall girl with long blonde hair. ‘Look after Teresa and Hannah Gallimore, please? Teresa’s in your dormitory.’
‘Yes, Matron.’ Susan beams. She looks at least ten, and her teeth are straight, not like mine. ‘I’ll show you where to get dinner.’ She slides off the bench away from the long table, takes Hannah’s hand and leads us to the queue at the bottom of the canteen.
The dinner ladies serve sausage, boiled potatoes and cabbage onto our plates. ‘Help yourselves to gravy.’
Hannah and I don’t like gravy. We follow Susan back to our seats. The boys and girls on the table in front eat their dinner without chatting. Stella turns around and waves. Matron stands by our table. I eat a forkful of food but the potatoes taste funny so I push them to the side of my plate.
Matron leans in front of me. ‘Don’t think you’re leaving those.’
‘But I don’t like them.’
‘I don’t care whether you like them or not. There are children starving in the world. Now eat.’
I put a lump of potato into my mouth and feel like I’m going to be sick.
Matron grits her teeth. ‘Stop that face now.’ She presses her fingers into my arm. ‘If you don’t stop pulling faces, you’ll be coming to see me later.’
I squidge my eyes closed to stop myself from crying.
Nurse Smith reads Peter Pan to the children. I wish my name was Wendy.
Matron claps her hands. ‘Time for bed, but first everyone must go to the toilet. Buttercup and Primrose line up, please.’
Susan leads us to the queue to the toilets. Coloured potties are scattered on the yellow and green patterned floor.
‘Go for a pee, children,’ Matron says.
I look around at the little boys and girls on the potties. Hannah sits on one next to Stella. Susan goes to the cubicles so I follow her.
Matron roars, ‘Teresa Gallimore, where do you think you’re going?’
‘To the toilet.’
‘On the potty where I can see you.’
‘No.’ I fold my arms. ‘I’m too big.’
Matron grabs my wrist and pulls me towards the potty. ‘Sit. Now.’
‘Nurse Smith, watch the children.’ Matron drags me out and into her office. She picks up a black pump like we wear for PT. ‘Seems you’re about to meet Percy.’ She leans me over a wooden chair and smacks my bottom three times. ‘Let that be a lesson to you. In future when I tell you to do something, you do it.’ She drags me back to the potty room. ‘Now sit.’
I blink forcing the tears not to come as I lower myself on to the potty.
‘Think you’re too good to sit on a potty?’ Matron squints. ‘Queenie. That’s what we’ll call you. Listen up everyone. This is Queenie.’
We stand in Matron’s office as she reads my letter to Mummy. ‘You haven’t mentioned you’re having a lovely time. Add that on, there’s a good girl.’
I pick up the pencil and write, we’re having a nice holiday.
‘That’s better,’ she says, ‘I’ll get this posted. By the way a sweet parcel came for you two today.’ Matron gets up from her desk and pulls out a parcel from the cupboard. She shows us a big box packed full of sweeties. ‘Choose one thing each.’
‘Thank you.’ I pick a pack of Love Hearts and Hannah chooses a tube of Smarties.
We trudge along the sand in the spitting rain.
‘There’s something in my wellington.’ Hannah cries. ‘I think it’s a spider.’
I point to a low wall. ‘Sit there and I’ll take off your boot.’
‘What’s going on?’ Matron prods me. ‘I might know Queenie would be involved. You’re always trouble.’
I wasn’t sure what I’d done to make her be mean to me all the time. ‘My sister’s got a spider in her boot.’ I pull off Hannah’s wellington and shake it until a stone rolls out.
‘Don’t answer back. Now keep up with the others unless you want to end up in sinking sand.’
‘I’m scared.’ Hannah’s hands shake.
‘I’ll look after you.’
Matron calls out, ‘Hannah and Queenie. My office now.’
I put my knife and fork down on my plate after finishing fishfingers, chips and beans.
‘What have you done?’ Susan asks.
I shrug my shoulders. ‘Come on, Hannah.’ I take her hand.
‘I don’t want to.’
‘Nor do I.’
I drag Hannah down the corridor as we follow Matron to her office. She opens the door and pulls us in. ‘You girls need to learn a lesson.’ She picks up Percy Pump. ‘Lagging behind near sinking sand is dangerous. Hannah, you’re about to meet Percy.’ Matron waves the pump.
Hannah nuzzles into me.
‘Don’t hurt her. Mummy says she’s not to be upset otherwise more of her hair will fall out.’
Matron grabs me. ‘Don’t answer back.’ She leans me across the chair and thrashes me with Percy making my bottom sore. Matron scoops up Hannah and swings her across her knee and strikes her with the pump.
I queue up for Parrish’s food before bedtime. I don’t know why I have to have the horrid medicine when Hannah doesn’t. There’s nothing wrong with me. I don’t need building up. It’s Hannah’s hair that’s been falling out not mine.
‘Open your mouth, Queenie.’ Matron pushes the spoon in. ‘Now line up and have your hair checked.’
Trying to stop myself from being sick, I join the other queue. A nurse I’ve not seen before checks my hair.
At potty time a new girl, Melanie, starts shouting, ‘Queenie’s got nits. Queenie’s got nits.’
I want to run into the toilet and hide but I’m not allowed and have to sit on the potty while everyone joins in saying nasty things about me and all because of that mean matron. It wasn’t my fault if I’d got nits. I didn’t have nits before we came here so someone here must’ve given them to me.
It’s a sunny day. Susan, Hannah and I are playing in the yard when the backdoor slams and makes me jump.
‘It’s all right, Teresa. I didn’t mean to frighten you.’ Nurse Smith smiles. ‘Mummy’s on the phone. Come along and bring Hannah too.’
Hannah’s face lights up. I’m excited too. We follow Nurse Smith to Matron’s office. I pick up the phone. ‘Hello, Mummy. Yes, Hannah’s here. When are we coming home?’
Matron wags her finger.
I pass the phone to Hannah but she starts crying. I take the phone back. ‘Yes, Mummy. Yes, everything’s fine. We love you too.’
I hope Mummy feels better soon so we can go home. Aunty Ann said Mummy losing the baby had been hard for her, and the doctor thought she was going to die. Our dad died when he got knocked off his bicycle on the way to work. Aunty Ann said the shock was too much for Mummy and that was why the baby came early. I wished we could have stayed with Aunty Ann while Mummy got better, but she had to work.
I glance at Matron. ‘Yes, Mummy, we’ll see you soon.’ I put the phone down.
‘Hannah, go to the canteen for supper.’ Matron grabs me. ‘And you, Queenie, can come with me. No supper for you. I warned you not to upset your mother.’ She drags me down the corridor and stops at a cupboard, opens it and throws me in. ‘This is your room for tonight.’ She locks the door leaving me in the small, dark space.
I curl up on the bare floor, and cry. I didn’t upset Mummy. Matron must hate me because I’m not pretty.
The door creaks open. I squint from the brightness.
‘Good God,’ a lady’s voice says, ‘thank goodness you reported her.’
Why had I been reported? ‘I’m sorry.’ I rub my eyes.
‘Darling,’ Nurse Smith says, ‘you’ve nothing to be sorry for. Let’s get you out of there.’
I manage to stand but my legs are like jelly. I glance up at Jane. How come you’re here?’
‘I’ve come to take you home. Go to your dormitory and pack up your things, and change into your own clothes. Nurse Smith’s put them out for you. Hannah’s already in there.’
My tummy rumbles.
Nurse Smith squeezes my hand. ‘I’ll bring you a slice of toast and some orange juice as you’ve missed breakfast.’
I run down the corridor into Bluebell. Hannah’s dressed in her own clothes, and she’s piling stuff from the drawers into the duffle bags. I quickly get out of the ugly uniform and put on my nice blue pinafore and cardi. It’s so lovely to wear my own soft knickers again.
We hurry downstairs to find Nurse Smith and Jane. I hope Matron doesn’t catch me out of the cupboard. As we reach the bottom of the steps, I gasp and tap Hannah’s shoulder. ‘Look.’ A policeman puts cuffs on Matron’s wrists. She mutters and he says something to her that we can’t hear.
‘Come along, Matron.’ The policeman puts his hand on her back and gently pushes her out of the door, slamming it behind them.
‘Ah, there you are, girls.’ Nurse Smith smiles. ‘Are you all set?’
‘Yes.’ I bite my lip. ‘Did you see that? A policeman just put handcuffs on Matron and took her away.’
Nurse Smith rests her fingers on my wrist. ‘Matron’s been arrested.’
‘Arrested? Why?’ I ask.
‘I reported her and not before time. She’ll be charged with child cruelty and she’ll never get the chance to do what she did to you to any other child.’ She hugs me. ‘You’re a lovely girl, Teresa, and don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.’
Jane comes up behind us. ‘Ready girls?’ She fastens her black gaberdine coat and ties her pink headscarf under her chin.
We sling our bags over our shoulder and follow Jane outside. I glance across at the sea and squeeze my eyes closed when a tear drops on my cheek.
Nurse Smith strokes my hair. ‘Go home and forget all about this place.’
I don’t think I’ll ever forget our time at Seascape Children’s Home.