Two Old Ladies at a Party

Submitted into Contest #93 in response to: Write about a reluctant party-goer who ends up being the star of the show.... view prompt

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Fiction

Why, thought Dora, clutching her glass of wine and giving polite smiles from the corner of the room, did people assume that because you were “good on the radio”, or even “a bit of a celebrity” then you were going to love a party. Dora didn’t. She hated them. Oh, she didn’t mind going round to a friend’s house, but this was another matter. It wasn’t even as if she was antisocial. She had spent most of her life working with the public, and could make conversation well enough. But right now, oh, how she longed to be back at her little cottage, with her books and her music and her cat Snowflake curled up imperiously beside her on the sofa, condescending to let her stroke him with a lazy blink of his sapphire blue eyes.

Mike caught her eye and gave her what he probably thought was a reassuring look. She liked Mike. He was a nice boy. Okay, so she had reached the stage in life when she referred to men in their forties as nice boys. And he’d insisted she didn’t have to come if she didn’t want to, but she had always married her manners and she knew how much she owed him.

Only a couple of minutes ago it looked as if she had forgotten her manners when she didn’t respond to someone who called her over, but it was because she’d had to think twice when they said, “Pandora.” But that was her name. She had never used it, not when she was old enough to have a say in the matter, and the people she would always have thought of as her parents supported her decision. She supposed they were rather relieved, and wished that the person who gave Coronation Day Baby her name hadn’t been quite so erudite or whimsical.

But she had been found in a box and Pandora’s box had hope left in it…. still, couldn’t they have called her “Hope”? Not that she was that keen on virtue names. She’d had a schoolfriend called Faith and always thought it gave you too much to live up to. Decades later the name achieved a certain currency through Pandora Braithwaite in the Adrian Mole books, that Dora rather liked, though she supposed the first couple, at least, were aimed at a considerably younger readership. But that gave her no urge to re-adopt it.

Still, it was as well someone had adopted HER! Yes, it had been midsummer, had been June, but it had also been a horribly rainy day. There had been something of a scandal about that as the Queen’s former governess wrote a magazine column and liked to make out she did it more or less live, but of course, she didn’t, and she’d made it a gloriously sunny day.

As people swarmed the streets of London or gathered round the grainy black and white pictures on newly purchased television sets, in a small town on the East Coast, a baby girl was abandoned in a little shelter along the sea front. And that could have been the end of her life, even though she was wrapped in a blanket, and the shelter kept the driving rain off her head. That was where she had her first strike of amazing luck, the kind of thing the radio audience in Mike’s documentary adored. Whilst people were watching the Coronation on their grainy minuscule TV screens, a woman called Barbara Jenkins was coming home from her shift at work, and despite the weather, had decided to have a walk up the seafront to clear her mind because it had been a fraught day at work. And Barbara was a nurse. She knew what to do, and she did it, and it was confirmed at the hospital that the little girl appeared to be healthy and none the worse for her ordeal, though had it lasted much longer …. well, Barbara was the heroine of the hour. Dora often wondered why she hadn’t been called Barbara, but apparently (so various reports and reports of reports had said) she was a very self-effacing young woman and wouldn’t have thanked folk for it. Or why not Elizabeth given it was Coronation Day? But maybe that was considered just too obvious. So she was Pandora. Pandora soon to become Dora, who had now become Pandora again.

She was adopted by a very nice couple in their late thirties called Janet and Bob Edmunds. Apparently there was an extremely careful vetting procedure to make sure that the prospective parents weren’t just interested in the story rather than the child. Bob was an electrician and Janet was a housewife who also did dressmaking work.

From the start, Dora knew that she was adopted, or at least from as soon as she could understand. Though of course, this was decades before the Internet, information both travels quickly and embeds itself in a small town, and it was far better coming from her Mum and Dad than from anyone else. They did a grand job of it, she thought. They made sure she knew they were delighted to choose her because she was special, but her being special had nothing to do with her being abandoned in a shelter on the sea front on Coronation Day. She had a very happy childhood. She was adored and indulged, but not spoilt, and though she never quite forgot she was adopted, there were weeks and months on end when it didn’t have that much importance in her life.

Yet it was the kind of thing, especially given the circumstances, that never really went away. By the time she was in her late thirties and early forties herself, it was becoming more and more acceptable for adopted children to trace their parents. Dora supposed it was good they had the right to, but some of the stories irritated her and made her feel her heckles rise on behalf of the adopted parents. She hated it when it almost seemed as if they were rejected, or at any rate downgraded, once the biological parents – or more likely, just the biological mother – were traced. Oh, she never condemned the birth parents or mother. Dora wasn’t a judgemental person, and could quite easily see, especially in less liberal times, how folk were driven to it and it didn’t make them cruel or reprehensible. But so far as she was concerned Janet was her mother, and Bob was her father.

It wasn’t until both of them had passed away, and she had a chance conversation waiting in the queue at the pharmacy, that she began to wonder if perhaps it would be good to know something, after all. Someone had heard a radio programme about a baby – a boy this time – who had been abandoned on the Embankment in London, during the war, and who hadn’t begun to unearth the story of his life until he was an old man himself.

It wasn’t a totally happy ending for him with all the loose ends tied up, but it was plain he hadn’t regretted it and it had enriched his life. Dora had never married. She had been engaged once but – well, best not to think about it. She knew that especially given the circumstances her parents would have liked grandchildren, but they never tried to exert any kind of pressure on her. She liked children, and was a popular and well-respected teacher, but had never had children of her own.

Like her parents – like Bob and Janet – Dora had always been modest in her demands. Oh, she didn’t have a low opinion of herself or anything like that, but she didn’t like a fuss and preferred things to be low-profile. So although the programme about the Embankment Baby had been on the World Service, and had been heard all over the world, not just the UK, she made tentative enquiries at her local radio station, Radio Anglia.

She was given an appointment to see a man called Mike Ellis, who apparently was responsible for “such things”. He also did the morning programme on the radio. Dora felt rather guilty as she realised that she couldn’t remember the last time she had heard it (maybe for details about what was closed and open during the freak winter weather they called The Beast from the East a few years back). It wasn’t that she had anything against it, but the Today programme on Radio Four was part of her morning routine. She tried to salve her conscience by listening to a couple of episodes, and it was fine, but in her heart of hearts she still preferred Today. Still, Mike made a good impression. He wasn’t too smarmy or too sarcastic. She found a picture of him on the Internet (she wasn’t exactly a passionate “Silver Surfer” but it had its uses) and he was well – just a pleasant looking young man in his forties. Just a nice boy …..!

One trait she had inherited from both Janet and Bob, but especially the former, was a belief in what a handshake told you, and she liked Mike’s handshake. It was firm but not too firm, cool and sincere. He ushered her into a room that apparently doubled up as his office and his studio and had posters all over the wall with local scenes and slogans like Your Local Voice and Radio Anglia, the Sound of the East Coast.

“Tea or coffee, Miss Edmunds?” he asked, “Or may I call you Dora?”

“Coffee please, and of course you may,” (Once an English teacher, always an English teacher, she thought wryly, awarding him Brownie Points for saying may and not can. “But if you don’t mind, I prefer just Dora.”

He smiled. “I can’t honestly say I blame you!”

He was both easy to talk to, and a good listener, and she was fairly sure it wasn’t just a radio persona coming through. Though perhaps it was a matter of chickens and eggs! “I’m going to take a great interest in your story, Dora,” he said, “And consider it my baby – if you’ll pardon the expression!”

“I might, but don’t make a habit of it!” She was surprised she felt confident enough with him to share in a joke.

“Fair enough. But I’m not the expert on the subject. I want to put you in touch with a lady called Christine Franks. She’s quite an expert in matters like this, and I believe her to be totally trustworthy. If she’s getting nowhere, she’ll tell you, and – well, I might as well say it, if anything you might prefer not to know turns up, then she won’t hide it from you.”

“I prefer it that way,” said Dora, truthfully enough, though in fact she supposed there were things she might prefer not to know.

Dora always believed in giving people a fair chance, but had to admit that when she first met Christine, she was reminded of a doctor’s receptionist. In fact, she did bear a slight resemblance to one of the receptionists at Dora’s doctors, but it wasn’t mainly that. She seemed very efficient, but more inclined to stop you getting forward and finding things out than the opposite. But before too long she realised that she had misjudged her, and it was a sign of her integrity. “There may not be any kind of fairy tale ending,” she said. “If I ever come across as obstructive, Dora, it’s not because I’m being rambunctious, it’s out of concern.” Generally Dora was lary of people who expressed an excess of concern, but she was also very fond of the word rambunctious, so she decided to “hit the reset button” and after that the two women got on famously.

One of the first steps was a DNA test, though as Dora remembered, in the corner at the party, Christine warned her that they were by no means conclusive. It was interesting without being earth-shattering. There were indications of the East of England – so probably her mother was a local girl, but also of Ireland, the Netherlands, and, weirdly, a hint of Ukrainian.

The first real lead, though, didn’t come from the genetic test, but from a local person. With Dora’s agreement, her story was covered on Mike’s show, though her privacy was respected, as far as was possible. But it came from far away – from Canada, and an ex-pat who was keeping up with home by listening to Radio Anglia on the Internet. Her name was Susan Bligh, and she was the great-niece of a man who had been a local policeman in the town. Uncle Billy, as she called him, had been on patrol on coronation day, and years later had told her, when she begged for “stories” about his time in the police, told her about a woman he had seen on Coronation Day, pacing up and down the seafront, seeming in distress. “He asked her if she needed any help, but she said no, and she wasn’t drunk or causing a disturbance or anything, so there wasn’t much he could do about it, but he did say there was something haunting about her. And one thing that did stick in his mind – she was wearing a bright purple coat!”

“Oh, my goodness!” Dora exclaimed, and went on to tell Susan that her favourite colour had always been purple! If Janet and Bob had let her, she’d gone through stages where she’d have worn nothing but.

So that was mentioned on the show, and a response came more or less immediately. It was from someone called Lily Watkins, who was a very old lady now, nearly a hundred, but still as sharp as a button, and had been the owner of a shop in a town not far up the coast at the time. She had employed a young woman called Thelma Bradshaw, and as she said, “She was a good worker and nice manners, but I could never quite bottom her, and oh my goodness, she loved purple! But I realised that big coat she wore was to hide the fact she was in the family way. And no Mr Bradshaw in the picture, nor even a boyfriend, so far as I could see. Well – some would have just flung her out on her ear, but I didn’t. I LIKED the girl, and we can all make mistakes. I was worried when one day she just didn’t turn up, but she did send me a note, through the post, not through the door, and it said she was sorry but she had to go away for a while and she wished me all the best.”

Well, that counted as progress of sorts, thought Dora, and everyone at Radio Anglia was doing their best for her and it would have been bad manners to refuse the invitation to the annual “do”. She made herself not look at her watch, realising how unfortunate it would appear if anyone saw her, remembered there was a clock on the wall and discovered that only a quarter of an hour had passed until she last looked.

I will NOT play the old lady card and say I am tired or feeling under the weather, she thought, determinedly. I will make an effort. After all, not everyone was the life and soul of the party, where they? She suspected even Mike saw it as a necessary ritual rather than a delight. In fact – she looked around – was he even in the room any more. She couldn’t see him. Maybe he was just attending a call of nature – but two people emerged from the gents’ restrooms, neither of them was Mike, and though she didn’t quite know HOW she knew she did know there were only two “necessary items” as her grandmother had termed toilets! Bob and Janet had humoured her but had no time for such pretentions, and had made sure that when Dora started school she knew perfectly well to just ask if she may go to the toilet and not say she needed to see a man about a dog or anything like that. Those were the kind of little things you remembered with gratitude. Anyway, Mike was coming back into the room through another door, and he was not alone. He was leading an old lady – a VERY old lady, who made Dora feel young in comparison and who looked even more ill at ease than she was. Her first thought was that they had brought along Lily Watkins, but Dora had seen a picture of her, admittedly taken several years ago, but – well, this was an entirely different woman. And she was wearing purple.

“Dora, perhaps you ought to step into the side room,” Mike said gently. She nodded and complied. This was not the kind of thing to take place in public, and it spoke volumes for Mike that he realised this. He and the very old lady retreated back into the little office, and Dora followed them.

And for the first time in nearly seventy years, Thelma Bradshaw and her daughter fell into each others’ arms. Neither of them said much. There was plenty to say. But it could wait.

May 12, 2021 06:46

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1 comment

Gwen C.
15:22 May 19, 2021

Lovely!

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