CASSETTE 1, SIDE 1, APRIL 1970
They told me you want to know my story, why I ended up in this place? Well, there's an odd question, and I've been asking it meself for the past fifty years. I can tell you how I got here and what happened to me. But why? Now that's a mystery.
It's a deep, smoke-filled voice, with a strong East London accent, and you can hear the smile in it, as if she's about to break into an asthmatic chuckle at any moment.
They've probably warned you about me, told you my story is all made up. At least that's what those trick-cyclists would have you believe.
Another voice, with the carefully modulated, well-educated tones of a younger woman: "Trick-cyclist?"
Sorry, dearie, it's what we used to call the psychiatrist, in them old days. Anyway, he used to say that telling tales-he calls them fantasies-is a response to some "ungratified need."
"You're not wrong there," I'd tell him, giving him the old eyelash flutter. "I've been stuck in here most of me life. I've got plenty of ungratified needs." But he'd just smile and say, "You need to concentrate on getting better, my dear, look forward, not backward, all the time. Repeating and reinforcing these fantasies is just regressive behavior, and it really must stop, or we'll never get you out of here."
Well, you can take it or leave it, dearie, but I have to tell it.
"And I would very much like to hear it. That's what I'm here for."
That's very kind of you, my dear. You see, when you've been hidden away from real life for so many years, what else is there to do but remember the times when you were young, when you were meeting new people every day, when you were allowed to have feelings, when you were alive? Nothing. Except for me needlework and other creations, they were the only things that would give me a bit of comfort. So I tell my story to anyone who will listen, and I don't care if they call me a fantasist. Remembering him, and the child I lost, is the only way I could hold onto reality.
So, where do you want me to start?
"At the beginning would be fine. The tape is running now."
You'll have to bear with me, dearie. It'll take some remembering, it was that long ago. I turned seventy-four this year so the old brain cells are not what they used to be. Still, I'll give it a try. You don't mind if I carry on with me sewing while I talk, do you? It helps me concentrate and relax. I'm never happy without a needle in my fingers. It's just a bit of appliqué with a buttonhole stitch-quite straightforward. Stops the fabric fraying, you see?
She is caught by a spasm of coughing, a deep, rattling smoker's cough.
Hrrrm. That's better. Okay, here we go then.
My name is Maria Romano, and I believe my mother was originally from Rome, though what she was doing leaving that beautiful sunny place for the dreary old East End of London is a mystery. Do they all grow small, the people who live in Italy? Mum was tiny, so they said, and I've never been more than five foot at the best of times. These days I've probably shrunk to less. If you're that size, you don't have a cat's chance of winning a fight, so you learn to be quick on your feet-that's me. I used to love dancing whenever I had the chance, which wasn't often, and I could run like the wind. But there have been some things in my life even I couldn't run away from-this place being one of them.
The strange thing is that after all those years of longing to get out, once we was allowed to do what we liked, we always wanted to come back-it felt safe and my friends were here. It was my home. When they started talking about sending us all away to live in houses, it made me frightened just to imagine it, and if it was worrying me, what must it have been like for the real crazies? How do they ever cope outside? You're a socio-wotsit, aren't you? What do you think?
"I'm happy to talk about that later, if you like, but we're here to talk about you. So please carry on."
I will if you insist, though I can't for the life of me imagine what you find so interesting in a little old lady. What was I talking about?
Ah yes, me poor mum. Another reason to believe she was Italian is my coloring. I'm all gray now, faded to nothing, but my skin used to go so dark in summer, they said I must have a touch of the tar brush, and my shiny black curls were the envy of all the girls at the orphanage. Nora told me the boys thought I was quite a looker, and I learned to flash my big brown eyes at them to make them blush and to watch their glances slip sideways.
Ah yes, Mum died when I was just a babe, only about two years old I was, poor little mite. Not sure what she died of, but there was all kinds of diseases back then in them poor parts of the city, and no doctors to speak of, not for our kind, at least. They hadn't come up with antibiotics or vaccinations, nothing like that-hard to believe now, but I'm talking about the really old days, turn of the century times.
I never heard tell of any grandparents, and after he'd had his fun, my father disappeared off the scene as far as I knew, so when she died, I ended up at The Castle-well, that's what we called it because the place was so huge and gloomy and it had pointy windows and those whatchamacall-ums, them zigzaggy patterns around the top of the walls where the roof should be.
It was certainly a fortress, with high iron gates and brick walls all around. To keep dangerous people out, they told us-this was the East End of London after all-but we knew it was really to stop us lot running away. There was no garden as such, no trees or flowers, just a paved yard we could play in when the weather was good.
Inside was all dark wood and stone floors and great wide stairways reaching up three or four stories; to my little legs, it felt like we was climbing up to heaven each time we went to bed. It sounds a bit tragic when I tell it, but I don't remember ever feeling unhappy there. I knew no different. It was warm, the food was good, and I had plenty of company-some of them became true friends.
The nuns was terrifying to us littl'uns at first, in their long black tunics with sleeves that flared out like bat's wings when they ran along the corridors chasing and chastising us. Most of 'em was kindly even though some could get crotchety at times. No surprise really, with no men in their lives, and just a load of naughty children.
It was a better start in life than I'd have had with my poor mum, I'll warrant. Pity it didn't turn out like that in the end.
Anyway, the nuns' sole aim in life was to teach us little monsters good manners and basic reading and writing, as well as skills like cooking, housework, and needlework so we could go into service when we came of an age, which is exactly what happened to me. I 'specially loved needlework. I was good at it, and I loved the attention it give me.
"It's a gift from God," the nuns would say, but I didn't believe that. It was just 'cause I had tiny fingers, and I took more trouble than the others and learned to do it properly. We had all the time in the world, after all.
D'you do any sewing, Miss?
"Not really. I'm more of a words person."
You should give it a try. There's nothing more satisfying than starting with a plain old piece of wool blanket that no one else wants and ending up with a beautiful coat that'll keep a child warm through many a winter. Or to quilt up scraps of cotton patchwork to make a comfy bed cover that ain't scratchy and makes the room look pretty besides.
The needlework room at The Castle had long cutting tables and tall windows set so high you couldn't see out of them, and that was where we spent most of our days. In winter, we'd huddle by the old stove in the corner, and in summer, we'd spread out around the room in gaggles so that we could gossip away from those nuns' ears, which was sharp as pins.
It was all handstitching, mind, no sewing machines in those days, of course. And by the time I was ten, I knew what needle to use with which fabrics and what kind of thread, and I could do a dozen types of stitch, from simple running stitch and back stitching, to fancy embroidery like wheatear and French knots, and I loved to do them as perfect and even as possible so you could hardly tell a human hand had made them. Sister Mary was a good teacher and loved her subject, and I suppose she passed her enthusiasm on to us, so before long, I could name any fabric with my eyes closed just by the feel, tell the difference between crepe and cambric, galatea and gingham, kersey and linsey-woolsey, velvet and velvetine, and which was best for which job.
Not that we saw a lot of fine fabrics, mind. It was mostly plain wool and cotton, much of it secondhand that we had to reclaim from used garments and furnishings. But on occasions, the local haberdashery would bring rolls of new printed cottons and pattern-weave wools they didn't want no more, out of charity, I suppose, for us poor little orphan children and the other little orphans we was making the clothes for.
You look puzzled. Sorry, I get carried away with me memories. The reason we was so busy sewing at The Castle was because the nuns had been asked by the grand ladies of the London Needlework Society to help them with their good works-which was making clothes for poor people. It made us feel special; we had nothing in the world except our skills, and we were using them to help other children like us.
The days when those haberdashers' deliveries arrived was like birthdays and Christmases rolled into one, taking the wrappers off the rolls and discovering new colors and patterns and breathing in that clean, summery smell of new fabric, like clothes drying on a line-there's nothing to match it, even now. When we was growing out of our clothes, the nuns would let us have remnants of patterned cotton to make ourselves new dresses and skirts, and Nora and me would always pick the brightest floral prints. We didn't see too many flowers for real, so it brought a touch of springtime into our lives.
"Nora? You knew each other even then?"
Oh yes, we go way back. She was my best friend. We was around the same age, so far as we knew, and always shared a dormitory, called ourselves sisters-the family kind, not the nun kind-and swore we'd never be parted. Not that we looked like family by any stretch: she was blond, and by the time we was fourteen, she towered above me at five feet six with big feet she was always tripping over and a laugh like a tidal wave which made anyone around her-even the nuns-break out into a smile. She had large hands too, double the size of mine, but that didn't stop her being a good needleworker. We was naughty little minxes, but we got away with it 'cause we worked hard.
Like I say, we was happy because we knew no different, but we was also growing up-even though my chest was flat and my fanny still smooth as a baby's bottom, Nora was getting breasts and hair down there, as well as under her arms, and both of us was starting to give the eye to the gardener's lad and the baker's delivery boy, whenever the nuns weren't watching.
That day, we was doing our needlework when this grand lady with a big hat and feathers on the top of her head comes with a gaggle of her lah-di-dah friends, like a royal visit it was, and she leans over what I am embroidering and says, "What fine stitching, my dear. Where did you learn that?"
And I says back, "It's daisy chain, ma'am. Would you like to see how it works?" And I finish the daisy with three more chain links spaced evenly around the circle like they are supposed to be and quickly give it a stem and a leaf which doesn't turn out too bad, even though my fingers are trembling and sweaty with being watched by such a grand person. She keeps silence till I've finished and then says in her voice full of plums and a bit foreign, "That is very clever, dear, very pretty. Keep up the good work," and as she moves on to talk to another girl, I breathe in the smell of her, like a garden full of roses, what I have never smelled before on a human being.
Afterward I hears her asking Sister Mary about me and Nora, was we good girls and that sort of thing, but we soon forgot about her and that was it for a few months till my birthday-it was January 1911 when I turned fifteen-and me and Nora, whose birthday was just a few days before, gets a summons from Sister Beatrice, the head nun. This only usually happens when one of us has done something wicked like swearing "God" too many times or falling asleep in prayers, so you can imagine the state that Nora and me are in as we go up the stairs to the long corridor with the red Persian runner and go to stand outside the oak door with those carvings that look like folds of fabric in each panel. I am so panicked that I feel like fainting, and I can tell that Nora is trying to stifle the laugh that always bubbles up when she's nervous.
Sister calls us in and asks us to sit down on leather-seated chairs that are so high that my legs don't reach the ground and I have to concentrate hard on not swinging them 'cause I know that annoys grown-ups more than anything else in the world.
She turns to me first. "Miss Romano? I think it is your birthday today?" she asks, and I am so startled at being called "Miss" that I can't think of anything better to say than, "Yes, ma'am."
"Then God bless you, child, and let me wish you many happy returns of this day," she says, nearly smiling.
"Thank you, ma'am," I say, trying to ignore the way Nora's body is shaking beside me.
"Miss Featherstone?" says Sister, and I know that if Nora opens her mouth, the laugh will just burst out, so she just nods and keeps her head bent down, but this doesn't seem to bother Sister Beatrice, who just says, "I understand that you two are good friends, are you not?" I nod on behalf of us both, and she goes on, "I hear very positive things about the two of you, especially about your needlework skills, and I have some very exciting news."
She goes on to tell us that the grand lady who came a few months ago is a duchess and is the patron of the Needlework Society and was visiting to inspect the work that the convent was doing for the poor children of the city. She was so impressed by the needlework Nora and me showed her that she is sending her housekeeper to interview us about going into service.
A duchess! Well, you can imagine how excited we was but scared too, as we haven't a clue what to expect, and our imaginations go into overtime. We was going to live in a beautiful mansion with a huge garden and sew clothes for very important people, and Nora is going to fall in love with one of the chauffeurs but I have my sights set a bit higher, a soldier in the Light Brigade in his red uniform perhaps, or a city gent in a bowler hat. Either way, both of us are going to have our own comfortable houses next door to each other with little gardens where we can grow flowers and good things to eat and have lots of children who will play together, and we will live happily ever after.
There's a pause. She clears her throat loudly.
Forgive me, miss, don't mind if I has a smoke?
"Go ahead, that's fine. Let's have a short break."
No, I'll just light up and carry on, please, 'cause if I interrupt meself, I'll lose the thread.
A cigarette packet being opened, the click of a lighter, a long inward breath, and a sigh of exhaled smoke. Then she clears her throat and starts again.
Not that there's much chance of me forgetting that day, mind, when the duchess's housekeeper is coming to visit. We was allowed a special bath and then got dressed in our very best printed cottons, and Sister Mary helped us pin our hair up into the sort of bun that domestic servants wear and a little white lacy cap on top of that.
At eleven o'clock, we got summoned into Sister Beatrice's room again, and she looked us up and down and gave us a lecture about how we must behave to the visitor, no staring but making sure we look up when she speaks to us, no talking unless we are spoken to, answering clearly and not too long. She gives Nora a 'specially fierce look and says the word slowly in separate chunks so she's sure we understand: and there is to be ab-so-lute-ly no giggling.
"How you behave this morning will determine your futures, young ladies," she said. "Do not throw this opportunity away."
She went on some more about if we got chosen we must do our work perfectly and never complain or answer back or we'll be out on the streets because we can't never return to The Castle once we have gone. My fantasies melted on the spot. We was both so nervous even Nora's laugh had vanished.
The housekeeper was a mountain of a woman almost as wide as she was tall and fierce with eyes like ebony buttons, and she spoke to us like she was ordering a regiment into battle.
She wanted to see more examples of our needlework because, she said, we would be sewing for the highest in the land.
"The highest in the land?" Nora whispered as we scuttled off down the corridors to the needlework room to get our work. "What the heck does that mean?"
"No idea," I said. My brain was addled with fear, and I couldn't think straight for all me wild thoughts.
We were told to lay our work out on Sister Beatrice's table, and the mountain boomed questions at us: what is the fabric called, what needles did we use and what thread, why did we use those stitches, what did we think of the final result? We answered as well as we could, being clear but not too smart, just as Sister told us. One of my pieces was the start of a patchwork. I'd only finished a couple of dozen hexagons as yet, but I was pleased with the way it was shaping up, and when I showed her the design drawn in colored crayons on squared paper, she said, "The child has some artistic talent too."
"Indeed," Sister Beatrice said back, "Miss Romano is one of our best seamstresses," and my face went hot and red with pride.
When the housekeeper sat down, the poor old chair fair creaked in torment, and Nora's giggles returned, shaking her shoulders as Sister Beatrice poured the tea. Not for us, mind. We just stood and waited, my heart beating like I'd just run up all four staircases at The Castle, while they sipped their tea, oh so ladylike. She ate four biscuits in the time it took to give us a lecture about how we must, as she called it, comport ourselves if we was to be invited to join the duchess's household: no answering back, no being late for anything ever, no asking for seconds at dinner, no smoking, no boyfriends, wearing our uniform neat and proper every day, clean hands, clean face, clean hair, always up, no straggly bits.
When she stopped, there was a pause, and I was just about to say we are good girls, miss, very obedient girls, but she put her cup and saucer down on the table with a clonk and turned to Sister Beatrice and said, "I think these two will do very nicely. Our driver will come to collect them the day after tomorrow."
Oh my, that drive was so exciting. Don't forget, we'd been stuck in The Castle for most of our lives, never been in a coach, never even been out of the East End. Our eyes was on stalks all the way, like we had never seen the wonderful things passing by, watching the people doing their shopping, hanging out their washing, children playing. In one place, we passed a factory at clocking-off time and got stuck in a swarm of men on bicycles-like giant insects, they looked to us-and so many we quickly lost count. They saw us gawping through the coach windows and waved, which made them wobble all over the place, and it was an odd feeling to be noticed, not being invisible for once.
It was just as well we had plenty to distract us, 'cause by the time we'd said our good-byes at The Castle, both of us were blubbing. Strange, isn't it, you can spend so many years wishing yourself out of somewhere, and once you get out, all you want to do is go back? Not that I ever felt that about this place. It's a funny old feeling, coming here today, I can tell you.
"It was very good of you to take the trouble to see me."
Don't mention it, dearie. Makes a good day out, Nora said. Now, where was I?
"You were sad to leave The Castle."
Ah yes, them nuns was a kindly lot, as I think I've said before-forgive my leaky old brain, dearie-but they never showed it, not till the last minute when both Sister Mary and Sister Beatrice gave each of us a hug and pressed little parcels into our hands. I nearly suffocated in all those black folds, but this was what set me off on the weeping-it showed they really did care about us after all. We waved at all the other children peering through the windows and climbed up into the coach with the lay sister Emily, who was to be what Sister Beatrice called a chaperone.
After a while, the dirty old streets of the East End turned into clean, wide roads with pavements for people to walk and tall beautiful houses either side.
"I didn't know we was going to the countryside," Nora whispered to me, pointing out her side of the coach, and sure enough it was shrubs and trees stretching away as far as our eyes could see.
"That's Hyde Park, silly," sharp ears Emily said, "where the grand ladies and gentlemen go to take the air, to walk or ride." Well, that silenced us both-the very idea of having the time to wander freely in a beautiful place like that-and it wasn't long after that the coach passed beside a long, high wall and slowed down to enter a gate with guardsmen on either side, went around the back of a house so tall I had to bend down beside the window to catch a glimpse of the roof, and then we came to a stop.
We had arrived.
The voice stops and the tape winds squeakily for a moment or two then reaches the end, and the machine makes a loud clunk as it switches itself off.