by Catherine Broughton
Glancing around the ward at the listless bodies lying or sitting in various states of boredom, my eyes met those of another woman, aged something around eighty six or eighty seven. She was in the bed opposite me, a big pink nightie rucked up to display swollen legs. She was horribly overweight, and she half-heartedly raised her hand in greeting to me. She smiled cheerily and despite her weight I could see the remnants of the pretty woman she had once been. Her name was Gwen.
“I broke my leg,” I said, eager for conversation, “how about you ?”
She was crippled with rheumatism, she explained, and had been bed-bound for several years, slowly eeking out her life in and out of hospitals. Her great weight had taken its toll on her heart and she was breathless as she spoke, not that it seemed to deterr her.
“Course,” she said, “it was the barges what done it.”
“The barges?” I asked.
“Yeh. That’s how it all begun, see. Now me heart’s bad. Them barges was very damp.”
“Barges?” I asked again.
“Oooooh yes, duck, lived all my life on barges I did. Right up till when my Frank died.”
“My husband, Frank. Died on our last barge. Hadn’t the heart to stay on. Nah …. got given a council flat. Aw, it’s all a long time ago now. Haven’t talked about it in years.”
She looked out of the window where a grey January rain drizzled down against the window pane. A dismal view of a leafless tree and a brick wall looked back in at her.
“Cor, yes, it were damp. And that’s a fact. Didn’t think nothing about it at the time; it was only later I realized how damp it was and how it was going to do me in. But when you’re young you don’t do you ? You just don’t worry about stuff.” A short coughing spell interrupted her, but when she had got her breath back she continued.
“Moored up mostly in Whistable. I was born there on that first barge. Had six kids she did, my mum. You imagine that! Raising six kids on a barge ! Humph ! Young people these days they don’t know nothing.”
There was an acquiescing grunt from another bed as somebody agreed.
“The barge was eighty foot long,” continued Gwen, warming to the subject, “and there was timber holds where the grain was stored, almost always corn or wheat. That was my dad’s job, you see, lovely man my dad. Only fifty when he died. Lung cancer. Used to roll his own fags, he did, said it was good for him. Didn’t know no better then, did we? Thought it truly was good for us. Cor! I remember me dad rolling an extra fag to ease his sore throat!” She laughed a little, and looked at the bed next to her.
” He had to load up the wheat in Whitstable and then set off along the Medway to wherever ….. always a full day’s journey, never less. To Chatham and Dartford mostly. Loading and unloading. Sometimes we had to wait for the lorries to come and unload the grain – sometimes we’d wait all night. Sometimes the lorries was already there. They’d take the grain off to the farmer, see. That was how my dad got paid. Then we’d turn around and come all the way back again, over and over, day in and day out, rain or shine. We never thought nothing of it. To us kids, that’s just the way it was.
We lived in the stern. That’s the back end, see. It was so cosy. On the left was a kitchen range – a coal fire with a little chimney and a tiny oven with a sorta hot plate ontop. Imagine ! My mum she’d cook for all of us on that! On the left was a recess with a bed in it, just enough for two adults, just barely. Then there was a seat which opened out in to a bed where four of us kids slept. On the right there was another recess with a pair of bunk beds. The table was fixed to the wall and got folded up out the way when it wasn’t in use. Handy, see ? Everything had to be handy.
There weren’t no privacy. By the time I could think things out I knew all about the facts of life I did, what with mum and dad being that close. Ooh, I can remember her shoving him off, I can, saying to him “you leave me alone, we don’t want no more babies”. Don’t think he took no notice. Poor old mum. And the toilet, well that was just a bucket, wasn’t it ? A bucket with a lid. We’d do almost all our doings, big and small if you get my drift, in the bushes as we went along. A barge is slow, you see, so it was never no problem. And then if we needed to do more in the night – well, we used the bucket. Mum and dad too. Never bothered any of us. ‘Course there was another bucket for the rags, see. That’s what we used in them days, when us females had our monthlies. That’s what my mum called them. The monthlies. Soak the rags in cold water, then rinse them out in the river, dry them as best we could, and use them again. Never thought nothing of it. It was just the way it was. Never threw out old clothes. If they couldn’t be mended – cor we was always mending, always mending! – then we’d use them as rags. Anything would do, wouldn’t it ? None of them posh things girls have these days.
My baby brother was born there on that barge. He come out quick. Funny thing to say but I didn’t know my mum was expecting, see. I’d of been about …. lemme think …. about ten I s’pose. He only lived four or five days. I remember my poor mum, dear oh dear, another mouth to feed, but when that baby died she cried and cried. She shouted at my dad “don’t you never touch me again!” I didn’t know what she meant, well not exactly, but afterwards – years later – I learnt that there’s been two others what had died after a few days. Very hard. Life was very hard. No wonder my mum didn’t want no more babies. We wrapped the little body up in some canvas sacking, normally for the wheat. I went with my dad to take it to the morgue. He had to fill in a form and I had to help him, see, seeing as he couldn’t read or write. No questions was asked, not that I know of. It was the first time I was properly aware that my dad loved me. He patted my head, see, patted my head, and said to the man at the morgue that he’d still got me, his girl. Don’t know where they buried the little corpse, never asked.”
Gwen fell silent for a while as the memory of the dead baby drifted in and out of her mind’s eye.
“I was sixteen when I met my Frank. He was eighteen. He’d got his own barge seeing as his dad had died. Seemed so posh to me, no kids running about, just him and his old mum, no pile of old clothes and food. It was only when I went on to Frank’s barge that I realized how ours stank – oil and deisel and fish and sweat. It always smelt. I noticed it after that. Mum wasn’t a clean woman, nor tidy. Everything was a mess, but I’d never noticed it before. I always kept my own barge nice, as best I could. Only had the one child so it was a lot easier. Kept it tidy. It was not crowded and it didn’t smell.
Me and Frank we got wed in a bit of a rush. In them days – phew – my dad would have taken a strap to Frank if he’d known! – he was already ill, by then, lung cancer got him. I had my Doreen in the hospital. Had to pretend she come early, which was silly because everybody knew the truth. But in them days we kept up appearances in our own way. Now it don’t matter – my grand daughter, Tracey, she’s got two – yes two – and not a husband in sight.
In the summer months my Frank employed a man to help him. Wick and Cabbage. That was his name. Wick and Cabbage. Now that’s a funny name, innit ? He was a bit of a dip – that’s what we used to say – a bit of a dip, not much up top. No talk, just grunts. He often sat in Nelly – that was the little boat we towed behind – with his feet in the water. Said he was washing them. Must of had the cleanest feet in Kent ! Stayed with us for years and years. Must have been twelve years or more, just in the summer. Disappeared one day. Just went off, no fight nor nothing, just wandered off and never come back.
We was happy, me and my Frank, and our Doreen. I didn’t want no more kids and Frank – well, he was dead careful about it, if you get my drift – used one of them rubber things, always. We’d both seen my poor mum and how she worked. Wanted better for ourselves and for our Doreen. Mum died on the barge a few weeks after my dad. Well, she was all worn out, she was. Worn out. Frank sold the old barge and divided the money up between us six kids. Didn’t come to nothing much, but it seemed a lot at the time. The war started then, course. My three brothers went off to war. Killed, all three of them. One died in a Jap camp. Died of hunger as I understand it. The others died at sea. I was glad mum wasn’t around to see it. She’d have grieved something rotten. My two sisters both went to live with an aunt up Birmingham direction. You wasn’t here yesterday, was you ? That was one of my sisters, Margot, come to visit me. The other one is dead. Carol, she was called. Died last year. Cancer. Only sixty-four.
Course by the time Doreen was six she had to have some schooling, and it made everything dead complicated sometimes, Frank and Wick and Cabbage off in the barge and, if they wasn’t back by nightfal Doreen and me we’d have to kip on somebody else’s barge.
We all had to muck in as best we could, there was a war on.
Then, just a few days after the end of the war, my Frank died. Survived the bombings, then died. Seemed so wrong, all wrong. He got caught up, see, caught up between the barge and the jetty. Don’t know what happened. One of them stupid accidents you can’t believe. Snapped his neck anyhow. Lord, did I grieve. I can still picture him now, hanging there, off the edge. Took me a good long while to recover. Thought I never would. Sold the barge and got given a council flat, me and my Doreen. ”
Gwen stretched her huge frame and took a sip of water from the glass at her side.
“Life moves on, dunnit ?” she said. “You got to just get on with it, no point in mopeing. But I do feel bitter about my Frank. That wasn’t fair, it truly wasn’t. But life’s not about fair, is it ……….?”
After I was discharged from the hospital I went to visit Gwen two or three times. She was not alone. Sometimes her grand daughter and two off-spring had just been in, or were due to arrive, or Doreen, or Margot. Then one day I went in and saw that Gwen’s bed was empty and had been stripped. I stood staring at it for a while, but I didn’t ask.