Cold Sheets, Porridge and Penicillin by Patricia M Osborne

It’s very cold in our bedroom. I don’t like it. The man on the wireless said it’s the worst winter in Bolton on record. The snow is nearly gone so maybe it’s over. I lie in bed, snuggled up to my little sister, trying to keep warm. Mummy shouts but I ignore her and shiver under the blankets. The smell of porridge makes my tummy gurgle and forces me out of bed on to the cold wooden floorboards. I shake Hannah’s shoulder.

‘Come on. Mummy’s getting cross.’

Her lips quiver. ‘I can’t move my legs.’

‘Let me try.’ I pull back the blankets.

‘No. Don’t.’ She rubs her eyes.

Our grey pleated skirts and red jumpers lie at the bottom of the bed. I pull mine on and race downstairs.

‘Mummy, Hannah’s legs are broke.’

‘I haven’t time for silly games.’ She bangs the fridge door shut and puts the milk bottle down. ‘You’re going to be late.’

‘It’s not a game. Hannah’s crying.’

‘Why didn’t you help her then?’

‘I tried. It’s not my fault.’

She wipes her hands down her apron and marches upstairs.

My porridge is ready so I sit down at the table and watch the milk drip on the cold shiny tablecloth. Sniffling, I wipe my nose using my sleeve. Big Girls Don’t Cry sings from the wireless.

‘Shut-up,’ I say.

*

The doctor is coming to see my little sister but I have to go to school. I don’t want to go because I’m late, but Mummy opens the door and pushes me outside.

She kisses my cheek. ‘Bye bye, Tina. Have a nice time.’

I dawdle down the cobbled street. Why did Hannah pretend she couldn’t move her legs? She always tells jokes, even though she’s only six. Mummy says I’m the serious one. My knees start to wobble as I walk across the playground and through the arched door.

The children are already sat down at their tables. A boy finishes chalking Monday – 4th February, 1963 on the blackboard. My teacher has the register open on her desk.

She bangs the red book shut, looks up at me with frog eyes and then glances at the Roman number clock before walking up to me. I bite my lip.

‘So Tina, what time do you call this?’

‘Sorry, Miss Homes.’

She picks up two twelve inch rulers; I stumble backwards.

‘And what excuse is there today?’ she says, tapping the wood against her hand.

‘Hannah’s legs wouldn’t work.’

The class giggles and I bite my lip so much it hurts.

‘Silence,’ she yells.

I wipe my eyes and try to be brave.

She coughs. ‘Hand.’

I stretch it out and watch it shake. She brings the rulers down hard. My eyes flinch as they strike not once but twice. It stings.

‘Give these out,’ she says and pushes a bundle of thin books at me.

I walk round the class placing one on each desk then sit down near the back and rub my palm. I want to go home.

The bell goes, it’s playtime. I don’t want to go outside because I have no-one to play with. I sit on an empty bench. Miss Brown walks over towards me.

‘Where’s your pretty little sister today?’

‘She’s poorly.’

‘Oh dear. Why don’t you join in with the other children and skip?’

‘My hand hurts.’

She picks it up. ‘What did you do to deserve this?’

‘I was late.’

She sighed. ‘How you and your sister can live closest to school and always be late I’ll never know.’

*

It’s home time, it’s been a horrid day because I got smacked and I was lonely without Hannah. I run down the street. There’s a white bus with a light on top outside our house. I bang on the front door. Daddy opens it. His face is white and his hands shake.

He holds my arms. ‘Hannah’s not well and needs to go to hospital.’

I push him away. ‘No, I don’t want her to go.’ I put my hands over my face. ‘Is she going to die?’

‘No but she’s very poorly; the doctor has just left; the ambulance men are going upstairs in a minute. Mummy’s already there. Run up and say goodbye to Hannah before she leaves. Mrs Southern will be here shortly to look after you whilst we’re gone.’

I stomp upstairs.

Mummy is stroking Hannah’s hair. ‘Come and say goodbye to your sister,’ she says to me. ‘I’ll wait downstairs.’

Hannah looks like a grey statue with glassy eyes.

‘You’ve got to go to hospital,’ I say and climb on our bed, ruffling the bedspread, and touch her wet cheeks. ‘Have you been crying?’

She nods. ‘I don’t want to go, I’m scared.’

‘The special doctors will make you better.’ I don’t want her to go either.

Footsteps climb the stairs and two men in dark blue uniforms walk in carrying a thin bed. They look at Hannah. ‘We’re taking you for a little ride on our stretcher,’ says the tall one with big teeth.

She stares at me, shrugs her shoulders and tears fall on her cheeks. I pass her my hanky. I don’t want them to take her but they slide her on the bed and strap her in anyway.

‘I fell down those stairs yesterday,’ I say.

They smile. ‘We’ll be careful,’ said the other man.

I squash my nose on the cold windowpane and watch them put Hannah in the back of the white van. Mrs Southern, the plump lady that owns the corner shop, arrives and taps Mummy gently on the shoulder. Mummy says something then climbs in with Hannah.

Mrs Southern comes in the house and stands with me as I wave. She puts her arm around my shoulder.

‘I’ll follow on in the car,’ says Daddy. He kisses me. ‘Now you be a good girl.’

My tummy feels sick. ‘Is she going to die?’ I ask Mrs Southern,

She shakes her head and hugs me. ‘No pet, no.’

I run upstairs. Hannah’s red jumper is still on our bed. I pick it up and sit on the floor hugging it.

*

Our big bed is cold and empty so I climb out and get Hannah’s teddy to cuddle. Hannah’s in Townley’s Hospital because her legs stopped working and I think her throat hurt. Mummy says it’s called Rheumatic Fever; I hope I don’t catch it. She’s downstairs talking to Daddy and I think she’s crying. I creep out of bed to listen at the top of the stairs.

‘We need to look for a wheelchair,’ says Daddy.

‘No,’ says Mummy, ‘No…’

‘It may be months before she’s better; be realistic, the doctor says she may never walk again.’

‘She’s…’

I can’t hear what Mummy’s saying. Daddy says Hannah needs a wheelchair. Who’s going to play with me if she can’t walk?

‘Are you out of bed, Tina?’ shouts Daddy. ‘Do I have to come up there with my slipper?’

I run back to bed and hide under the blankets. It’s not fair, nobody tells me anything. I’m not a baby, I’m nearly eight. Suppose her legs don’t get better? What if she dies? I hold Teddy near my eyes and make his brown fur wet.

*

It’s time for Sunday school but I want to go and see Hannah in hospital instead. Daddy says children aren’t allowed. I run down the road but my shoe slips and I fall on the wet cobbles. My tummy feels like the day a football punched me. I scramble up. Soaking wet, I start to limp home.

Mrs Southern drives up next to me and gets out of her red car. ‘What’s happened to you?’

I try to speak.

‘Come on, let’s get you home.’ She takes hold of my hand and knocks on number eleven.

Mummy opens the door; her mouth looks like a dark tunnel. ‘What’s happened?’

‘I…,’ I say.

‘Tina’s in shock,’ says Mrs Southern.

Mummy gently pulls me inside. I point. She lifts my dress. There’s a gigantic purple lump on my hip.

‘It’s the size of a tennis ball,’ Mummy says.

‘She needs to go to hospital,’ says Mrs Southern, ‘I’ll drive you.’

I’m glad I fell over because now I’m going to see Hannah and I’ll get a ride in Mrs Southern’s new red Mini Traveller.

*

We’re at the hospital; it’s huge and has a white shiny floor. It smells like Mummy’s kitchen when it’s just been cleaned. I hope they put me in a bed next to Hannah.

The nurse with a squeaky voice calls us into a room.

A doctor with black hair and round glasses lifts my dress. He inspects the bruise. ‘She needs an x-ray. You’ll have to take her to the Royal Infirmary. I can arrange transport there but you’ll have to make your own way back.’

Mummy flicks hair away from her face. She starts to talk quickly and make signs with her hands. ‘My youngest daughter is a patient here. I’m due to visit her. She’s in the children’s ward. She’ll wonder where I am.’

‘Don’t worry, Mrs Singleton. You’ll have time to pop in and let her know what’s happened. I’ll arrange with Sister to allow you in for a short time when you get back. You can squeeze this little one in too.’ He turns to me. ‘I bet you’d like to see your sister?’

‘Thank you, that’s very kind,’ Mummy says.

I smile and clap my hands.

We walk down a long corridor and Mummy stops outside glass doors. ‘You sit here.’ She points to a big black chair with wheels. ‘I need to see Hannah and tell her that we’ll be back later.’

I try to peep through the window to see my sister. I think I’m sitting in her new big pushchair.

*

Mummy’s face looks white. She dabs it with her hanky. It’s my fault she’s sad. I cuddle up closer, on the long seat, to put my arms around her.

‘You were a good girl today,’ she says, ‘you can tell Hannah all about your x-ray. Now I have two brave children. Oh here’s our stop.’ She stands up and rings the bell. We get off the green bus outside the Hospital.

‘Can I stay in bed with Hannah?’

‘I’m afraid not, baby.’

‘But I want to.’

She wipes my eyes and makes me blow my nose. She looks at her watch. ‘Four thirty, let’s hope they let us in.’

My legs wobble like jelly – I’m going to see Hannah.

Mrs Southern is waiting outside the ward. She squashes me between her and Mummy like a sandwich. Hannah’s bed is near the end. Her eyes are closed and she looks like an angel with blonde curly hair and a ghost face.

I bite my nails. ‘Is she dead,’ I ask.

Mummy squints. ‘No, she’s asleep.’

Hannah opens her eyes and we talk excitedly.

‘Shall I read to you?

She nods.

I pick up a Rupert book and read out loud; she listens and points at the pictures.

‘I wish we could play The Avengers,’ I say to her. ‘We need a big umbrella for you to bang on the floor. You like being John Steed, don’t you?’

She nods and laughs.

But you can’t get out of bed can you?

‘No,’ she says.

There’s a dolly on the bed, I pick it up. ‘She’s pretty like you. Look she’s got your blonde hair and freckles.’ Except today Hannah’s eyes look like marbles with red around them. ‘Have you been crying?’

She nods and rubs them.

‘Has the doctor fixed your legs with magic medicine?’I ask.

‘Not yet, but he presses them every day and gives me pen-a-linen. I think that’s magic medicine.’

‘Penicillin,’ Mummy says, touching Hannah’s face.

Hannah puts her hands to her head and her eyes roll. I don’t know what’s happening.

‘Mummy, what’s the matter with Hannah?’

She doesn’t answer me; she rings a bell and waves her arms at Mrs Southern. Mrs Southern takes my hand and drags me away. I look back and see lots of doctors and nurses around Hannah’s bed; they push Mummy out of the way. She’s holding her head too.

*

It’s been fourteen sleeps since I had to go to school on my own and I haven’t been allowed to see Hannah again, since that day at hospital. My big bruise went away all by itself, after ten days, just like the doctor said.

It’s playtime and I need the toilet. I check to make sure that horrid boy, who torments Hannah and me, isn’t around and run up to the small brick building to go in the girls.’ When I come out, he stretches his legs across the entrance so I can’t get through.

‘Move please.’ I ask.

‘Where’s your ‘Hannah?’ he says.

‘In hospital.’

‘Me mam says she’s gonna die.’

‘No she isn’t.’

‘Is. Is. Me mam says so.’

I scream and push him.

A whistle blows.

The dinner lady rushes over. ‘What’s going on here?’

‘She pushed me,’ Martin says.

‘But he said…’

‘You,’ she points to Martin. ‘Get in line.’

He runs off to join the others.

‘I know your sister is in hospital but that doesn’t give you the right to lash out at others. Do you understand?’

*

It’s home time and I run up the cobbled street. I tap on the front door and Mummy opens it with a big smiley face.

‘Come in. We’ve got a surprise for you,’ she says.

I walk into the sitting room; Daddy is standing in front of the couch.

‘What’s my surprise?’ I ask.

He moves and I see my little sister. I run over and kiss her pink cheeks.  I peer around the room. ‘Where’s your big pushchair?’

‘I don’t need one.’ Hannah giggles. ‘Look.’ She stands up and walks across the room. ‘My legs work. See?’

I clap my hands and laugh.

Daddy sits between us. ‘The doctors said Hannah only fully recovered because she was so healthy before she got sick.’

I jump up and down. ‘Hooray!  Hannah, can I share your new toys? Mummy, can we have a party?’

‘Yes, I’ll make jelly and blancmange. What flavour shall we have?’

‘Hannah can choose,’ I say.

‘Strawberry,’ she answers.

‘You girls have a bit of time together and then Tina must come and help me. We mustn’t tire Hannah out.’

*

After ten more sleeps, Hannah and I kiss Mummy then we go to school holding hands. Skipping up the cobbled street I know we’re late as usual, but I don’t care…    

 

First Published by Writers’ Forum Magazine in June 2014       

 

                           

             

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