School had finished for the day. Although it was understood we had to go straight home to make poor Mabel a cup of tea, and I was usually the first one home, I’d been distracted and started playing with my friends. Suddenly remembering Mabel’s needs came before anything or anyone else, I raced in through the back door some ten minutes later than I should, but was still the first in. The drill was to make a mug of tea for Mabel using her mug and no other. I was ever mindful of the strict instructions drummed into us all, ‘Don’t drink out of Mabel’s mug; it’s the one with the red cotton wrapped around the handle!’ in the same vein we always knew which was Mabel’s knife, fork and spoon as they also had red cotton wrapped around the handles.
Mabel was very weak by now and Mam spent hours trying to get her to eat more, for in those days appetite was equated with getting better. Now at dinner time today, weak as she was, Mabel had asked,
‘Mam, that rabbit gravy is lovely; is there any left I can have?’
Of course, the gravy would have quickly been cleaned up but today, what Mabel didn’t know, was Mam hadn’t had her own meal yet, so the little extra gravy Mabel received came from Mam’s plate. As Mabel had been too weak and fragile to come downstairs for the last week or so, she missed Mam’s sleight of hand but Mam was thrilled to bits and went back to work to tell the girls all about Mabel’s returned appetite. Years later Mam told me,
‘I hadn’t realised they were regarding me with pity in their eyes. They’d known something I hadn’t; that often with TB when the end was getting near the sufferer would appear to perk right up!’
And so, on that dreadful day I boiled the water for Mabel’s tea and reached for her mug where it stood, isolated along with her other eating utensils.
‘I’m coming up now Mabel’ I called as I started up the stairs.
At the top facing me was her bedroom door. Mabel had been alone for hours whilst we were all out. She was so terribly angry with me that day and I was frightened as she was fighting for breath,
‘Oh you naughty boy, where have you been? You know how thirsty I get. I haven’t had a drink of tea since dinner time!’
She said a lot more in a similar vein. Dear Mabel, who was always so kind to me, who always had time for me although rarely, if ever, was I allowed to stay for more than a few minutes in her room in case I caught her breath. Now I realise she must have been having those terrible coughing bouts whilst we were out and the blood staining on her sheets and pillow must have warned her that her time was close. In fact, that must be it, for several times in those last few days, as our Mam recounted years later when she could bring herself to talk about it, Mabel, whilst holding her loved and often consulted little prayer book, would say to her,
‘I don’t want to leave you Mam, but I want you to know I’m not afraid to die.’
Poor, poor Mam; as she wiped the blood from her so adored and adoring loved one’s lips, she would say, ‘Now don’t you be so silly, Mabel, you aren’t going to leave us!’
Mam’s words were either very carefully thought out or prophetic for, although I can’t speak for others, I know Mabel has never ever left me, and I know she never ever left her adoring Mam.
The flesh, as I stood before her that day, laying as she was in her old black painted single bed, had fallen from her face, and her frame was so frail I felt that here I was, an eight year old boy who could, with no effort at all, pick her up – she a 21 year old woman.
I was very frightened, not in the physical sense, for I cannot ever remember Mabel even lifting her hand to me, although at times she must have been sorely tried. No, I was terrified that with me in the house alone with her, she might begin to haemorrhage from her lungs. The warning signs could clearly be seen. Her eyes, those lovely big grey eyes, were beginning to stick out of their sockets and her frail chest was heaving as she began to fight for breath, trying to draw life giving air into her dying body. She knew, my God she knew, but she was fighting a last battle so that I, her little brother, would not be crucified with her. Terrified, I deserted her in her hour of greatest need, running down the stairs, and blacking out the here and now, shutting everything off; the house, the table that needed to be set for tea, everything!
Just then, Maisie and Ronnie came home.
‘Have you taken Mabel her tea?’
I could only point to the stairs. Maisie went up, took one look and, dashing out of the house, ran to fetch Mrs Perkins, my playmate’s Mam. On seeing the state Mabel was in Mrs Perkins told Maisie to run as fast as she could and get a message to Mam to come home. Mrs Perkins was another gem of a Catholic soul and she stayed with Mabel.
Mam, probably still on top of the world because Mabel had got her appetite back, stopped on the way home to buy a new bottle of peppermint concentrate which she honestly believed would help her beloved child breathe better. We had that bottle for years after and it really kept very well, but it was never opened. When Mam saw the terrible state Mabel was in Ted was ordered to go and get the doctor, and to tell him Mabel was desperately ill!
With everything going on, no-one had time for Ron and me. At 7pm the pair of us, along with Wag and Bernard (Mrs Perkins’ son), were in the street when Wag drew our attention to Maisie and Nina Warren from the corner shop walking up and down the street. Maisie was crying and Nina was all red eyed but we had no idea what was the matter. Remembering all the times Maisie had shouted at me (I’m going to tell Mam of you our Norm) I didn’t feel at all sympathetic, so simply said, ‘I bet Mam’s hit her.’
Even though I was feeling very uneasy at the amount of activity around the house, I decided it must be alright as the doctor, having answered Mam’s ‘SOS’ with some speed, had been gone for some time! He must have made Mabel better again, I decided. Oh, the simple innocence of a child!
Bernard went into his house and a moment later came out again to say he had to go in. This seemed a bit odd as it was still early, and he looked at us so strangely! Still more time passed, and it started to get chilly. Finally, Wag had had enough and decided he was going home too.
Ronnie and I decided that as no-one had called out to us, and family and friends were still passing in and out of our entry, we would accompany Wag to his back door, passing as we did his lovely sister, Kath, who we kids were very fond of. It was strange when, to our cheerful greeting, she made no reply, passing us with her face averted. She was all red eyed too – stranger and stranger. We pondered this, and even Wag was shaken, for Kath was so lovely.
We headed up to Wag’s back door with Wag leading the way. By now he was beginning to look a bit bothered and I think being older had put things together better than we had. We turned to go home and began to say ‘See you in the morning….’ but stopped as his Mam appeared at the door looking distressed, with Wag’s dad hovering in the background.
She tried to speak, but the words didn’t seem to come. She tried again, ‘Charlie, go into the house.’
With Wag inside and me and Ron nearly in shock as she’d called him ‘CHARLIE’ (she never called Wag ‘Charlie’ in our hearing) she bent her head down towards us.
I’m glad it came from her rather than anyone else. No long preamble, no trying to break it to us gently, there was no need, for all the sadness was in her voice as she said,
‘I have to ask you, in fact to tell you, that Mabel is dead.’
That was all she could trust herself to say. To this day I cannot explain my reaction, but I burst out laughing! A look of shock and horror went across her face.
‘Norman, it’s no laughing matter’ she began, and then she stopped. I think she realised my reaction was a nervous reflex over which I had no control, for I was beginning to come apart inside.
Quiet now, Ronnie and I went and stood in the street across the road from our house. We stood in silence, watching people go in, some coming out crying. It was getting colder; the evening shadows were drawing in. Neither of us had a coat and so we huddled together for warmth, too frightened to go in. In the collective grief of those inside, we two were forgotten. Mabel was dearly loved.
Now it was really getting dark. We could barely see across the road even though the lamplighter, bouncing along the road with his long pole over his shoulder, had lit the street lamp and gone on his way ages ago. Finally, the front door opened and we could see the yellow gas light from the living room reflected through. Ted stood there, looking up and down the street, obviously looking for us. We waved, too frightened to break the silence that lay over the street. He indicated with his head to ‘come in’ and, without waiting, went back inside and shut the door. It seemed the street was holding its breath as we tip toed across the road, and then tip toed down the entry. I know that I was shivering, and I’m sure Ronnie was too.
Through the yard and nervously pushing open the back door as though afraid someone would be behind it ready to jump out on us, we went into the living room. Sitting around the three walls of the living room were relatives, friends and neighbours, some red eyed, some still crying, who, as we went in, turned in our direction and stopped doing what they were saying and doing, putting on brave faces for our benefit.
My eyes swivelled to the left, to that big old armchair under the window that nowadays would have been straight down the tip, but it was in its all-embracing warmth where Mabel found what little comfort that could be provided.
Mam was sitting in that big old armchair now, white faced and anguished, shoulders still heaving with sobs she was trying to control for our benefit. She tried to say something normal but couldn’t. She forced a wan smile to her face, looking straight at me. I stopped dead in my tracks, tried to smile back at her but couldn’t, then, with terrible wracking sobs I threw myself into her arms, joining my tears with hers, both of us clasped tightly together, sobbing as though our two hearts would break.
I do know one thing, if nothing else, we both loved Mabel equally. I was not to cry like that again until nearly 50 years later when I looked into an open coffin and saw Mam lying there; so white, so waxy, so still.