Calling Back Yesterday
Chapter One of a novel by Elizabeth Summerson
~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
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
But after a few minutes, Mummy
takes the handle from her.
'We must hurry today, Alison,'
‘The surprise, you mean ...?'
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,
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
'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
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
'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
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
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
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
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,'
'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.