Deceit - Short Story

TILLY GILLARD shook her head, averted her eyes and carried on walking. She was on her way home from the factory and didn’t have time to waste. It wouldn’t be long before Bob was home wanting something filling to eat after a hard day at the docks. It was dreadful. Young Bella Hallett was crouched in the alleyway by the bins again, eating who knew what kind of left-over scraps she’d found in her rummaging. That people had to live like that when there was really no need made Tilly angry – not with Bella, but with those who forced her into the situation. The girl couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old, and yet, her belly was so full of child that it dwarfed her petite frame. Tilly hadn’t heard the whole story about how it had happened, she wasn’t keen on gossip, but she knew that Bella’s father wasn’t the type to accept that her pregnancy was an accident, or the type to let whoever had convinced Bella of that go free. She’d never seen the girl on a lad’s arm. She didn’t let herself imagine why. Bella’s mother was clearly not sympathetic to her plight either. She was pretty sure the girl had been kicked out of the house and left to her own devices. All for getting pregnant.

Tilly turned back around, guilt tugging at her conscience. It wasn’t her problem, but it also wasn’t right. She moved closer, towering over the girl.

“How about a nice bowl of soup?” Soup was what she had planned for their supper. It was the easiest thing after being out at work all day. She had the bread to go with it in her bag. There was enough for three, just.

Bella looked up. Her face was blank, as if she didn’t even realise Tilly was talking to her. She screwed up her face.

“What? Me?”

Tilly smiled, trying to make herself look less menacing and officious to the girl. She didn’t imagine many people were kind when they passed comment, which was likely why Bella didn’t listen.

“I’m not in the habit of talking to invisible people. Come on. You need something better than that.”

Bella looked down at the bone she’d been gnawing. It had nothing left on it, save maybe for the flavour of what it had been. Then, Belle looked from left to right, no doubt to see if they were being watched..

“But I can’t pay you.”

“Did I ask you to? If you don’t get some proper food into you, that baby’s not going to come out right.”

Bella rubbed her hand across her stomach with such tenderness that a lump came to Tilly’s throat. She clearly loved the baby she was due to have, whether or not she’d been cast out because of it. The girl didn’t say anything more, but pushed herself up with her hands, wobbling a little before she got her balance well enough to follow along. Her belly looked even bigger when she stood.

“When are you due?”

“Your Mam said November. I don’t know as she’s right, but my belly’s as big as a pillow and there’s a right lot of wriggling going on. Gets uncomfortable to do anything.”

“Well, if my Mam said November, then, November it is.”

Tilly tried not to show her alarm, but she knew full-well that November started the next day and that her mother was rarely wrong.

Tilly hadn’t followed on in the family tradition. Midwifery hadn’t appealed to her, which might have been her mother’s fault if truth be known. She’d never had any desire to have children, which her mother thought was a sin of the highest order. It wasn’t that she wouldn’t love a child if one came along, but she wasn’t bothered with trying. Neither was Bob. It was one of the reason’s they hadn’t yet married – another bone of contention with her mother, although she had taken Bob’s name for the sake of appearances. Tilly had gotten used to hearing her mother say to anyone and everyone that her daughter lived in sin. Bob was practical about the whole thing. He said, ‘The only reason to get married is to give a child a name.’ But that was only so as he didn’t have to tell the whole world that he didn’t believe in God and making promises in his name. It was another fact that wouldn’t be looked upon kindly by either of their families. Tilly didn’t disbelieve, but she had no great belief either. If she missed Sunday service, she didn’t feel pangs of guilt. There were times she’d rather go for a walk along the river than sit in a church listening to the priest prove to her how bad she’d been that week.

The job she had worked up to in the factory was cutting fabric patterns. She had a certain artistic flair that leant itself well to the work. It didn’t stretch her mind, or her abilities, cutting out dozens of the same pattern, but to her it was a much less stressful occupation than bringing tiny lives into the world.
She noticed, as they walked, that Bella clutch her belly a little tighter and that she tried to hide her simultaneous gasp. Even though it wasn’t her profession, she had watched her mother many a time, when she was too young to be left at home on her own and her mother had been summoned to an imminent delivery. She’d come to recognise all the signs and the complications.

“You feeling all right?” she asked.

“No worse than usual.”

The fact that it was November the next day flashed through Tilly’s mind again. She couldn’t help but worry.

#

PAT CROUCH looked out of her bedroom window. It was like the whole world was conspiring against her. She saw her neighbour, Tilly Gillard, a spritely young thing with more energy than most men her age, escorting Bella Hallett in through her front door. The girl couldn’t be more pregnant if she tried and Pat had just found out that yet another month had gone by without her managing to conceive. Her heart ached. It was the only reason she’d agreed to marry Frank. That was twenty years ago. He had eight siblings, surviving, another three who’d lasted less than a year. He was from good breeding stock, as her mother would have said. Twenty years was a long time. She knew it couldn’t be him. It had to be her. Twenty years wasted, and now, their time was running out.

She had no desire to be one of those women who were pitied, but it was becoming clear that would be her future, no matter what. She hardly went out these days. Her husband’s job down on the docks paid enough for them to get by and she had a small inheritance from her mother that could help them through the difficult times. It was easier not to show her face. Tilly was the only one she ever spoke to and that was only because Pat had known her mother many years ago.

Pat went downstairs and opened the back door into the small courtyard. She felt unseasonably hot and the cool air of the start of winter caressed her face. Not that it ever got that cold in the city. She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the doorframe, for a second forgetting where she was. She was rudely pulled out of her dreaming way before she was ready.

“Aaaagh!”

The scream had come from next door. Pat didn’t know what was up, but she knew the reputation of Bella’s family and Tilly was on her own. If they’d seen their daughter being taken inside, there was no knowing what they might think, or do. Bob and Frank worked together and always travelled back and forth in each other’s company, so Tilly wouldn’t have anyone to help her. Pat didn’t waste any time. She pushed the gate between the courtyards open and flung open Tilly’s back door. The doors were never locked, which was a blessing.

“What in the name of all that’s holy was that noise?” she said.

Tilly turned around, her face a little paler than Pat was used to seeing. Behind her, Bella sat on the floor with her hands clutching at her belly, the grimace on her face was the only answer Pat needed.

“The baby’s coming?”

Tilly nodded. She was paler than a sheet, even more so than the girl.

“What are we going to do?” said Tilly.

“Don’t go telling my Mam. She won’t be pleased to be called.”

Pat shook her head. “Your mother should be right at your side, my girl. It’s not right.”

“No. She kicked me out ‘cos of this.” She pointed to her belly. “You call her she’ll do her best to make sure the baby doesn’t live. You don’t know her like I do.”

Pat exchanged a glance with Tilly, she was pretty sure they both felt as nauseous as each other over the thought of that last comment of Bella’s.

“What about your mother, Tilly?” said Pat. “Is she at home?”

“I have no idea. Could you go and knock? I don’t want to leave Bella.”

“’course I can.”

By the time Pat returned, alone, Tilly had done the required filling of pans to boil water and had Bella set up in her bedroom with extra sheets and towels beside her, ready for when they were needed.

“She’s not there?” said Tilly.

“No sign. Neighbour said she went off earlier with her bag.”

“She must have another birth.”

“I left a message, but it looks like it’s down to us. I hope you remember everything you learned over the years, because I’ll be about as much help as a dockworker.”

That was the point at which Bob walked in and Pat heard Frank’s voice in the street bidding him farewell.

#

FRANK AND Bob stood outside the room as if they were guarding the place. They probably were. Bob had wanted to take Bella to the hospital, but there was no way they could manage it, she was too far gone. The contractions were coming every few minutes.

Calm. Tilly tried to breathe deeply, but she couldn’t do it. Her heart was racing far too fast to be healthy. She put her hands on Bella’s belly, trying to feel the baby. She’d never actually done it before, her mother would never let her within ten feet of the woman giving birth when she was dragged along as a child.

It was strange feeling movement beneath the skin. She didn’t find it a pleasant experience, and she had no idea how to determine the contours of a baby. It felt like a mass of limbs with no top or bottom. She let out a frustrated grunt.

“Everything okay?” said Pat. Her friend placed her arm around her shoulder and gave her a hug. She couldn’t tell Pat the truth, because that would only make Bella worry.

“It hurts,” said the girl.

Pat moved over and patted Bella’s brow with a wet cloth. “I know, my love.”

“How long?” Bella yelled.

“Not long,” said Tilly.

She really had no idea. It was gone eight o’clock and Bella had been having contractions for a good two hours. Tilly was exhausted. None of them had eaten and they all had work the next day, apart from Pat.
Bella screamed again and Frank grimaced.

“Why don’t you two go downstairs and get us some bread and cheese? I’m sure we could all do with something.”

The men seemed glad to have a task to do that would take them away from the action.

#

PAT DIDN’T like to say anything, but it seemed to her that Bella was complaining about the pain rather a lot. It wasn’t just when the contractions came, it was almost constant. She was young, but Pat still worried that maybe something else was going on. There was no way she was going to express her concerns to Tilly, she was already so overwrought with the stress that it might just break her. It was just as well she hadn’t followed in her mother’s footsteps, it was clear that Tilly would never have coped.
There was still no sign of Tilly’s mother.

They were lucky that the moon was full and it was a cloudless night, because the light was much better than the few candles they had placed around the room would afford on their own.

“I can see the head,” said Tilly, “Bella, you need to push.”

It seemed that the baby wouldn’t be a November baby after all. Just.

“I’m already doing that,” said Bella with a dose of bile in her voice that didn’t go unnoticed. But she complied. The baby came out with little problem, birthing at five to the hour of midnight. Tilly cleaned the child as best she could, a boy, and placed him on his mother’s breast. All Bella did was scream. “It still hurts,” she said.

Tilly looked at Pat and shrugged.

“What kind of hurt?” said Pat

“Baby pains hurt. What else?”

“But you’ve had your baby, my love.”

“It still hurts.”

Tilly stood up, wiping her hands on a cloth, her eyes scanning the room. It was a mess. While Tilly was occupied, Pat put her hand onto Bella’s belly. She had an inkling that she hoped was false. She felt movement. Not a kick exactly, but definitely not a normal breath. She walked over to where Tilly stood.

“My love, I don’t think we’re finished yet.”

“What?”

“I think there’s another baby wanting to come out.”

Tilly’s mouth opened wide.

“But …”

“It’s twins, my love. I think we need to get the men to look after the first one. What do we do about the cord?”

#

ONE BABY born on one day, the other the next.

“Can you have twins with different birthdays?” said Bob, grinning from ear to ear as baby one gurgled as he lay in his arms.”

“Clearly,” said Tilly. She was in no mood for baby babble or anything else. The second baby had taken another two hours to make his way out. It was only three hours till she had to start the next work day and Bella was still screaming. They’d checked. There was no third baby.

“She’s still bleeding,” said Pat.

Tilly bit her lip.

The front door opened and she heard footfalls on the stairs.

“Mum. Oh, Mum.”

She couldn’t stop the tears.

“Now, now dear. Looks like you’ve been busy. Let’s see what we’ve got.”

After a cursory glance at the babies, who were both looking healthy enough, she bent down to check Bella out. She gasped. “Oh, my word.” Then, she stood and leaned over Bella. “Dear. Dear.” She gently slapped Bella’s cheek. “Dear. She’s unconscious. She’s lost a lot of blood. How long has she been bleeding?”

“I don’t know,” said Tilly.

“Probably a good couple of hours,” said Pat.

“Right. This is Bella Hallett?”

“Yes, Mum.”

“Her family aren’t going to be happy about this.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Tilly, you didn’t do anything wrong, but Bella’s lost so much blood. She won’t last much longer.”

All thoughts of how Tilly was going to manage going to work in just a few short hours left her head.

“You mean—? No.”

Her mother grabbed Tilly’s arms as she tried to push her way over to the bed.

“Darling, she’s already past saving.”

#

TILLY HADN’T felt her body slump down to the ground, but when she opened her eyes, Bob was crouching over her, more concerned than she’d ever seen him before. His face was red and flustered and beads of sweat framed his features.

“Tilly? Are you okay, Tilly?”

She tried to lift her head and he supported it with his arm.

“I think, yes, I’m fine.”

At the other side of the room her mother, Pat and Frank were discussing something in a huddle, a soft hum of babies sighing out sleep breaths mingled with the background noise.

“What are they doing?”

Bob hesitated before he spoke. “They’re discussing what we do next.”

“What do you mean?” He lifted his eyes towards Bella. “She’s gone?”

“Yes.”

“So, we … What? What are we going to do?”

“Well, we don’t want any trouble.”

“No.”

“So, we won’t be telling her family.”

“Then, what?”

“We don’t want to get anyone else involved. Your mother thinks it would cause lots of problems for all of us. She, well, she thinks we should bury her.”

“You’re serious?”

“It wouldn’t be too much of a jump from seeing her begging on the streets to her disappearing.”

“But she believed in God. You can’t.”

“Tilly, even if he does exist, there’s nothing he can do for her now.”

“And what about the babies?”

“Well, Pat and Frank have always wanted a kid and I thought, maybe, you know. Your Mam said she can pretend she had some babies up for adoption.”

The way Bob looked at her Tilly did know and she really couldn’t believe what he was saying.

#

TILLY WALKED by the park on her way home every day. Once a week, she went in. It wasn’t one of those formal parks, but a space the locals used for their recreation all the same. Some of the women had planted flowers and there was space for the boys to kick a ball around if they wanted to. In the far corner, where nobody really walked because it was always claggy where the rain collected and made mud pools of the soil, she stopped for a few seconds. She couldn’t risk any longer. Nobody could notice or she’d be letting everyone down. She picked a few daisies as she walked and she let them drop from her fingers into one of the puddles, and then, she walked on.

When she finally got home, she knocked on Pat’s door and walked in.

“How’s everyone?” she said.

“Everyone’s fine. How are you?”

Pat stepped out of the kitchen where she had two extremely happy babies sitting on the kitchen table with jam spoons in their mouths. Pat looked down at Tilly’s shoes and shook her head.

“You’re going to have to stop going there, you know. It’ll do no good.”

Tilly ignored her and pushed past.

“So, Master Gillard, what have you been doing with Aunty Pat today?”

“He’s been good as gold. Both have, in fact.” Pat pushed a stray hair behind her ear.

“Been running you ragged, no doubt.”

“Give over. I haven’t had so much fun in years.”

“You know, you’re going to have to let me start paying you for this. I don’t want to take advantage.”

“Tilly, you’re not taking advantage. They should be together, even if they don’t know why.”

That was the one thing that worried Tilly. What if one day they found out that they’d been adopted and that they weren’t simply neighbours. It could lead to all sorts of problems.

“Yes, well, one day I will start paying you whether you like it or not. It isn’t right that women get taken advantage of and I don’t want to play any part in it.”

Tilly lifted John up from the table and held him close. Maternal instincts were a funny thing. She’d believed they weren’t any part of her make-up, but she’d been wrong. Every day when she went to the factory she ached to be back home in case she missed John doing something for the first time. Bob was even worse. He’d threatened to give up his job at the docks for something closer to home. She’d forbidden him because they couldn’t afford it, especially with another mouth hungering for food.

“You still off tomorrow?” said Pat.

“Yes, why?”

“Well, I thought now that it’s warmer, we could take them down to that proper park just off Coombe Street. They’ve got ducks in the pond. I’ve got some old crusts of bread.”

“So that’s why Frank always gets posh lunches. Bob’s always teasing him about the missing crusts.” Pat smiled and Tilly smiled back. “What time?”

“About ten?”