The Real Thing: Stories and Sketches, p.1Doris Lessing
The Real Thing
Debbie and Julie
The Mother of the Child in Question
Pleasures of the Park
In Defence of the Underground
The New Café
What Price the Truth?
Among the Roses
Two Old Women and a Young One
The Real Thing
Also by Doris Lessing
About the Publisher
Debbie and Julie
The fat girl in the sky-blue coat again took herself to the mirror. She could not keep away from it. Why did the others not comment on her scarlet cheeks, just like when she got measles, and the way her hair was stuck down with sweat? But they didn’t notice her; she thought they did not see her. This was because of Debbie who protected her, so they got nothing out of noticing her.
She knew it was cold outside, for she had opened a window to check. Inside this flat it was, she believed, warm, but the hearing in the block was erratic, particularly in bad weather, and then the electric fires were brought out and Debbie swore and complained and said she was going to move. But Julie knew Debbie would not move. She could not: she had fought for this flat to be hers, and people (men) from everywhere-‘from all over the world’, as Julie would proudly say to herself, knew Debbie was here. And besides, Julie was going to need to think of Debbie here, when she herself got home: remember the bright rackety place where people came and went, some of them frightening, but none threatening her, Julie, because Debbie looked after her.
She was so wet she was afraid she would start squelching. What if the wet came through the coat? Back she went to the bathroom and took off the coat. The dress-Debbie’s, like the once smart coat-was now orange instead of yellow, because it was soaked. Julie knew there would be a lot of water at some point, because the paperback Debbie had bought her said so, but she didn’t know if she was simply sweating. In the book everything was so tidy and regular, and she had checked the stages she must expect a dozen times. But now she stood surrounded by jars of bath salts and lotions on the shelf that went all around the bathroom, her feet wide apart on a fluffy rug like a terrier’s coat, and felt cold water springing from her forehead, hot water running down her legs. She seemed to have pains everywhere, but could not match what she felt with the book.
On went the blue coat again. It was luckily still loose on her, for Debbie was a big girl, and she was small. Back she went to the long mirror in Debbie’s room, and what she saw on her face, a look of distracted pain, made her decide it was time to leave. She longed for Debbie, who might after all just turn up. She could not bear to go without seeing her … she had promised! But she had to, now, at once, and she wrote on a piece of paper she had kept ready just in case. ‘I am going now. Thanks for everything. Thank you, thank you, thank you. All my love, Julie.’ Then her home address. She stuck this letter in a sober white envelope into the frame of Debbie’s mirror and went into the living room, where a lot of people were lolling about watching the TV. No, not really a lot, four people crammed the little room. No one even looked at her. Then the man she was afraid of, and who had tried to ‘get’ her, took in the fact that she stood there, enormous and smiling foolishly in her blue coat, and gave her the look she always got from him, which said he didn’t know why Debbie bothered with her but didn’t care. He was a sharp clever man, handsome she supposed, in a flashy Arab way. He was from Lebanon, and she must make allowances because there was a war there. Sitting beside him on the sofa was the girl who took the drugs around for him. She was smart and clever, like him, but blonde and shiny, and she looked like a model for cheap clothes. A model was what she said she was, but Julie knew she wasn’t. And there were two girls Julie had never seen before, and she supposed they were innocents, as she had been. They looked all giggly and anxious to please, and they were waiting. For Debbie?
Julie went quietly through the room to the landing outside and stood watching for the lift. She checked her carrier bag, ready for a month now, stuffed under her bed. In it was a torch, pieces of string wrapped in a piece of plastic, two pairs of knickers, a cardigan, a thick towel with an old blouse of Debbie’s cut open to lie flat inside it and be soft and satiny, and some sanitary pads. The pads were Debbie’s. She bled a lot each month. The lift came but Julie had gone back into the flat, full of trouble and worry. She felt ill-prepared, she did not have enough of something, but what could it be? The way she felt told her nothing, except that what was going to happen would be uncontrollable, and until today she had felt in control, and even confident. From shelves in the bathroom she took, almost at random, some guest towels and stuffed them into the carrier. She told herself she was stealing from Debbie, but knew Debbie wouldn’t mind. She never did, would say only, ‘Just take it, love, if you want it.’ Then she might laugh and say, ‘Take what you want and don’t pay for it!’ Which was her motto in life, she claimed on every possible occasion. Julie knew better. Debbie could say this as much as she liked, but what she, Julie, had learned from Debbie was, simply, this: what things cost, the value of everything, and of people, of what you did for them, and what they did for you. When she had first come into this flat, brought by Debbie, who had seen her standing like a dummy on the platform at Waterloo at midnight on that first evening she arrived by herself in London, she had been as green as … those girls next door, waiting, but not knowing what for. She had been innocent and silly, and what that all boiled down to was that she hadn’t known the price of anything. She hadn’t known what had to be paid. This was what she had learned from Debbie, even though Debbie had never allowed her to pay for anything, ever.
From the moment she had been seen on the platform five months ago on a muggy, drizzly August evening, she had been learning how ignorant she was. For one thing, it was not only Debbie who had seen her; a lot of other people on the lookout in various parts of the station would have moved in on her like sharks if Debbie hadn’t got to her first. Some of these people were baddies and some were goodies, but the kind ones would have sent her straight home.
For the second time she went through the living room and no one looked at her. The Lebanese was smiling and talking in an elder-brotherly way to the new girls. Well, they had better watch out for themselves.
For the second time she waited for the lift. She seemed quite wrenched with pain. Was it worse? Yes, it was.
In the bitter black street that shone with lights from the lamps and the speeding cars she hauled herself on to a bus. Three stops, and by the time she reached where she wanted, she knew she had cut it too fine. She got off in a sleet shower under a street lamp and saw her blue coat turning dark with wet. Now she was far from being too hot, she was ready to shiver and shake, but could not decide if this was panic. Everything she had planned had seemed so easy, one thing after another, but she had not foreseen that she would stand at a bus stop, afraid to leave the light there, not knowing what the sensations were that wrenched her body. Was she hot? Cold? Nauseous? Hungry? A good thing the weather was so bad, no one was about. She walked boldly through the sleet and turned into a dark and narrow alley where she hurried, because it smelled bad and scared her, then out into a yard full of builders’ rubbish and rusty skips. There was a derelict shed at one end. This shed was where she was going, where she had been only three days before to make sure it was still there, had not been pulled down, and that she could get in the door. But no
Debbie had left her to cope on her own, after providing everything from shelter and food and visits to a doctor, to the clothes and the bright blue coat that had hidden her so well no one had known. Debbie and she joked how little people noticed about other people. ‘You’d better watch your diet,’ the Lebanese had said. ‘Don’t you let her’-meaning Debbie-‘stuff you with food all the time.’
Julie was on all fours on the blanket, her head between her arms, her fists clenched tight, and she was crying. The pain was awful, but that wasn’t the worst of it. She felt so alone, so lonely. It occurred to her that having her bottom up in the air was probably not the right thing. She squatted, her back against a cold brick wall, and went on sweating and moaning. She could hear the dog whining, in sympathy, she thought. Water, or was it blood, poured out. She was afraid to switch on the torch to see. She felt the dog sniff at her face and neck, but it went off again. She could see absolutely nothing, it was so dark. Then she felt a rush, as if her insides were pouring out, and she thought. Why didn’t the book say there would be all this water all the time? Then she thought. But that’s the baby, and put her hand down and under her on the blanket was a wet slippery lump. She felt for the torch and switched it on. The baby was greyish and bloody and its mouth was opening and shutting. Now she was in a panic. Before, she had decided she must wait before cutting the cord, because the paperback said there was no hurry, but she was desperate to get the cord cut, in case the baby died. She found where the cord came out of the baby, a thick twisted rope of flesh, full of life, hot and pulsing in her hand. She found the scissors. She found the string. She cut the birth cord with the scissors, and trembled with fear. Blood everywhere, and the dog had come close and was sitting so near she could touch it. Its eyes were saying, Please, please … It was gulping and licking its lips, because of all the blood, when it was so hungry.
‘You wait a bit,’ she said to the poor dog. Now she tied the cord up with the string that had boiled a long time in the saucepan. She was worrying because she was getting something wrong, but couldn’t remember what it was. As for boiling the string, what sense did that make, when you saw the filth in this shed. Tramps had used it. The dog … other dogs too, probably. For all she knew, other girls had given birth in it. Most sheds were garden sheds, and full of plants in pots, and locked up. She knew, because she had checked so many. Not many places where a girl could give birth to a baby in peace and quiet-or a stray dog find a dry place out of the rain … She was getting giggly and silly, she could feel herself losing control. Meanwhile the baby was lying in a pool of bloody water and was mouthing and pulling its face about, and she ought to be doing something. Surely it ought to be crying? It was so slippery. The paperback didn’t say anything about the baby being greasy and wet and so slippery she would be afraid to lift it. She pulled out the bundle of towel from the carrier and laid it flat, with the soft pink satin of Debbie’s blouse smooth on top. She used both hands to pick the baby up round its middle and felt it squirm, probably because her hands were so cold. Its wriggling strength, its warmth, the life she could feel beating there, astonished and pleased her. Unexpectedly she was full of pleasure and pride. The baby’s perfectly all right, she thought, looking in the torchlight at hands, feet … what else should she look for? Oh, yes, it was a girl. Was it deformed? The baby had an enormous cunt, a long wrinkled slit. Was that normal? Why didn’t the book say?
She folded the baby firmly into the towel, with the bottom of the towel well tucked in over its feet, and only its face showing. Then she picked it up. It began to roar in short angry spasms. And now the panic began again. She had not thought the baby would cry so loudly … someone would come … what should she do … but she couldn’t leave the shed because there was a thing called the afterbirth. As she thought this, there was another wet rush, all down her legs, and out plopped a mass of something that looked like liver with the end of the thick red cord coming out of it.
And now she knew what to do. She raised herself from the squatting position, clutching the baby with one arm and using the other hand to push herself up from the floor. She stood shakily by the bloody mess and moved away a few paces with the baby held high up and close against her. At once the dog crawled forward, giving her a desperate look that said, Don’t get in my way. It ate up the afterbirth in quick gulps. It hopefully licked the bloody blanket, and briefly lifted its muzzle to look at her, wagging its long dirty tail. Then it went back to its place and sat with its back to the wall, watching. Meanwhile the baby let out short angry cries and kicked hard in its cocoon of towel. Julie thought, Should I just leave the baby here and run for it? No, the dog … But as she thought this, the baby stopped and lay quietly looking at her. Well, she wasn’t going to look back, she wasn’t going to love it.
She had to leave here, and she was a swamp of blood, water, God only knew what.
She took a cautious look. Blood trickled down her legs. And she had actually believed a tampon or two would be enough! She laid the baby down on a clean place on the blanket, keeping an eye on the dog. Its eyes gleamed in the torchlight. She put on a pair of clean knickers and packed in sanitary towels. She tried to tie the guest towels around her waist to make an extra pad, but they were too stiff. Now she picked up the baby, which was just like a papoose and looking around with its blurry little eyes. She took up the carrier bag and then the torch. She said to the dog, ‘Poor dog, I’m sorry,’ and went out, making sure the door was open for the dog. She switched off the torch, though the ground was rough and had bricks and bits of wood lying about. She could just see: there were lights in windows high up
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