A clerical error
A Clerical Error was shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize 2014
I’m ever so excited about it. I have been for some time. I don’t like to boast, but I do feel quite proud of myself really. Making a difference. Not like Angela Jolly or anyone like that, although maybe, if we really hit it off. No, I’m being silly now. Anyway, I wouldn’t want just to swoop in and pluck a good chubby one, a boy naturally, and leave the rest to make do with their huge T-shirts from Oxfam emblazoned with the name ‘Tommy Hilfiger’ – whoever he may be.
I think the girls were quite surprised. I know I became the butt of their jokes last year when they asked me what I was doing in the school holidays and I replied that I was redecorating my sitting room. I don’t know what was so funny about that – I mean, I could hardly do it in term time, what with marking and the English Speaking Union and the Public Speaking competition and Poetry Past and Present. (I know I’m guilty of neglecting the Present of Past and Present, but I just find it so, well, ghastly, most of it. I wouldn’t say that to the girls, of course. It’s about encouraging their interest after all.) Mind you, no one turned up last week but still, it’s my free time, which I give up willingly of course, but it does mean that my domestic chores are easily neglected. I suppose I can’t expect sixteen-year-old girls to understand that there is pleasure to be found in a coat of new paint and a set of cushion covers. Their extra curricular activity involves buzzing round the Boys’ School like bees with their skirts turned over at the waist and their top buttons straining. I don’t envy them; I really don’t.
Anyway, when they asked me this time, and I could see the smirks on their faces, ready to mock me mercilessly as I know they do, back in the common room, speculating about my loveless life so different from their own destinies, I took them by surprise. I did. I really did shut them up this time! Oh I love the girls, I do, but sometimes it is gratifying to be one step ahead. ‘I shall be going to Senegal to visit my sponsored child.’ I said it casually, barely looking up from Paradise Lost. The silence was deafening. But then they did seem genuinely interested. I was more than happy to tell them all about it, in truth I’d been thinking about what I was going to say for ages.
Oh we had our school ‘Mission’ for poor children in Peckham, collecting £6.50 from guessing the number of sweets in the jar, that sort of thing, but it’s hardly in the same league is it? ‘Bless oh Lord our Mission’, goes the prayer, the word mission redolent with red-faced reverends roasting in uncharted territories, their poor young wives dying in childbirth and their resort to the locals for their so-called ‘needs’, ‘Teach us how to serve it, with love, and self-denial.’ There isn’t much evidence of self-denial in this school, I’m afraid. Actually, come to think of it, the girls are always on diets, but that hardly helps the Mission does it? But of course that’s what charity has become. The chance of a jar of sweets for your ten pence guess; a monstrous pop concert for your trouble, or a comedy night on TV. It’s almost as if the audience is the charity concerned! But it all helps, doesn’t it?
I really do believe that Light of the World, the charity to which I subscribe and through whom I have my lovely little girl, well, I say little, but she’s hardly little now, after all she’s sixteen – a young woman now, the same age as my Upper Fifth, although from the most recent photo not half as well developed as this lot, it has to be said, not really developed at all, but then, what with poor nutrition you wouldn’t expect… I mean that girl Samantha Delafield – she was a grown woman in Fourth Form for heaven’s sake, and behaving like it on all accounts.
Yes, I really do believe that Light of the World is a power for good. They do wonderful work and the sponsorship idea is marvellous really. It’s the human face of suffering – your very own child, somewhere out there, connected to you back here by touching little letters and drawings, reports on health and schooling, that sort of thing, and how for just another trifling sum the village could acquire a much-needed goat. I suppose you could say it’s just another incentive – just a carrot – like a pop concert or a comedy night, but then, what’s wrong with that anyway, if it gets the job done? So, I told the girls about my trip. About the liaison officer meeting me at the airport and my visit being all arranged, and the excitement of my little, or rather my not so little girl, at her English ‘mummy’ (that’s what I asked her to call me, and bless her, she does) coming all this way to see her. Light of the World has stressed that the supporters’ visits are more about seeing the charity’s work on the ground in a general sense than spending time with one child, and of course I’ll do as they say, but still, I hope we’ll get a chance to spend what I believe they call ‘quality time’ together!
I often wonder whether one day it’ll be her doing the visiting. If maybe I could help her to study over here, maybe even help her through university. That would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? Of course, I won’t stay in the village. I confess to making a bit of a holiday of it too – why not? There’s a lovely hotel, The Grand Colonial, which I’ve booked myself into as a treat, I know, sounds very fancy doesn’t it – I mean grand, moi? It looks lovely in the brochure. You should see the plants! There as all sorts of spa what-nots and leisure facilities, not that I’ll try any of them, well, I might I suppose, if I’m feeling brave. It’s the sort of place I’d imagine Graham Greene might have stayed in his day, or some bright young journalist from the BBC, filing a report on, well, maybe even on the work of Light of the World. The staff were impressed too.
‘But Marjorie! How wonderful! You must do a talk on it all next term! Write it up for the magazine! Gosh, how exciting! You are a dark horse, aren’t you?’
I was blushing scarlet. Yes, I was! Someone even suggested a video diary, but I wouldn’t have a clue! I sensed, what was it? A slight disapproval from Miss Bowden (we weren’t on first name terms), the RE mistress and head of the school Mission. Do you know, I think she might even have been a little bit jealous! Looking at her photograph, I can hardly believe it! We’re going to meet after all this time! It’s been twelve years. Goodness, how time flies.
It was my sister that gave me the idea. I remember the evening; it was cold, wintertime; she was frazzled as ever, up to her eyeballs with the boys and trying to prepare dinner for Jack before he got home from the bank. I honestly thought she was about to burst into tears when she burnt her tongue on the casserole. Not because she burnt her tongue, of course; she said she always, always burnt her tongue when she made a casserole. She’s the sort of woman who likes to get things exactly right, seasoning-wise, and she feels a failure if people ask for salt and pepper.
There is always a moment with Helen when we’re all sitting round the table and taking our first mouthfuls when I sense (maybe it’s just because we’re sisters) a dreadful tension in her, her eyes do tend to bulge a little anyway, but they almost look like they might pop out, as what seems literally to be a head of steam builds up behind them, released through clenched teeth when Jack says, ‘Very good, yes, very good Helen,’ and the other diners, whoever they may be, concur, nodding with furiously busy mouths.
I don’t envy her. I really don’t. No, not one bit! Poor old girl, with her burnt tongue, unable to enjoy the fruits of her labours while everyone else tucks in … and I do think that Jack does rather better out of the arrangement than she does. But such is woman’s lot. Not mine though, and I sincerely hope that some of the girls may find themselves liberated from their biological imperative, for whatever reason, and feel it for what it is – deliverance!
Anyway, it was Helen who showed me the advert for Light of the World. I don’t know why. No, that’s not true, I do know why. Helen just does not believe that I can be happy without what she has. She looks at my neat little house with a mixture of dismay and pity – much in the same way that I regard the appalling mountains of laundry and broken toys strewn neglectfully over her floors that she stoops to pick up, almost robotically, utterly defeated by the boys and their refusal to do as she tells them and tidy up after themselves. It all looks so exhausting! And for what? It seems utterly thankless. But she insists that she is fulfilled by maternity, and I wouldn’t understand, how could I? True, how could I? And yet I do understand fulfilment, or contentment, and feel it quite regularly in fact, but I just don’t know how to convey that to Helen, and anyway, quite honestly, I think she’s too busy and too tired to care. I imagine that pregnancy could feel rather nice, a sense of, oh, I don’t know, of promise, like waiting for new clothes from the catalogue, or having planted plenty of bulbs in November. Or a pleasant physical sensation: almost like feeling full after one of Helen’s delicious casseroles. I find that my maternal urges such as they are taken care of by Miss Marple, my cat, and the girls, naturally.
That’s the one thing I regret about this trip. Miss Marple is going to board in the cattery, and she will not like it one little bit. Helen has insisted that I put Miss Marple out of my mind and do something, ‘For once,’ as she so unkindly put it, neatly reducing my rather busy life to, I don’t know, something rather empty and dull. Yes, she suggested that I sponsor a child. I remember Jack coming home and asking what it was all about and then dismissing it as, what had he said, ‘a pious stab at long-distance heroism,’ something horrid like anyway. I was utterly taken aback; Helen and I looked at each other in amazement. ‘It’s just a suggestion, Jack!’ she exclaimed, ‘I think it would be nice for Marjorie,’ but he replied, ‘Charity begins at home, isn’t that what they say?’
He never mentioned it again, in fact, over the years, no one was particularly interested when I rushed over with the reports and letters. I know what he meant, that my lovely little Omi was being reduced to aforementioned carrot status, but I didn’t care. Anyway, his comment only made Helen and I rather more determined to investigate the idea further. I enjoyed this little complicity with my sister. In truth, I missed her, and the way things had been before Jack had stolen her, filling her full of baby boys for whom I had no feeling.
Boys. It was always boys that came between us. I hate them. Not my nephews, of course! They’re quite jolly little chaps I suppose. It’s just that I haven’t had a proper conversation with my sister since they came along. It’s always, ‘Hold on a minute Marjie, – Henry will you stop that right now!’ Or ‘Hang on dear, ‘Jamie, what’s the matter? I’m coming, I’m coming,’ and to me, ‘I’ll call you back.’ But she never does. I don’t blame her. I’d kill for a minute’s peace if I were her. She told me she was so busy she even lost track of the Archers. I wanted to scream, ‘You’ve lost track of me Helen! Of me!’ But I didn’t. I made the mistake of asking her if she wished that she’d had girls and she turned to look at me with an expression of such, what was it? Confusion, exasperation, even anger, anyway I didn’t understand her reaction, she said, ‘Just look at them Marj, look!’ I looked at the two tousled-haired creatures, sleeping, Henry with his thumb in his mouth, clutching some tatty scrap of material, and James with his little mouth open, their skin so implausibly perfect, like fruit from the supermarket. I’m not sure what she meant.
I blame Jonathon and Peter, even after all these years. I asked Helen if she remembered, but she looked at me as if I was completely mad, and dismissed the whole thing as ‘What boys do.’ but I think she’s the mad one in this respect, or maybe I got the worst of it. I did. Of course, I did. She was Daddy’s favourite, Jonathon and Peter’s favourite; everyone loved her, she was so pretty and so funny. But no one loved her more than me. No one. I used to tell her stories to get her off to sleep. We had this lovely wallpaper in our bedroom; maybe it was Beatrix Potter, it certainly had that sort of charm. Lots of delightful little creatures dressed in pretty clothes, with baskets of carrots under their arms, that sort of thing, and I loved to make up little tales about these furry folk. I was happy to be the eldest; she’d fall asleep, and I’d look out the window at the apple blossom, wondering what time Jonathon and Peter went to bed. Yes, I was happy to be the elder sister. Where she had charm, I had authority. Sometimes I’d tell her off for not paying attention. Funny, I’m paid to do that now! Shake her awake to hear the end of my story. I remember Daddy sticking his head round the door, telling me to leave her alone. I hated him.
Sometimes I’d hear Mummy cry out in the night and I knew he was hurting her. I was frightened and thought she might die. I’d knock on their bedroom door and call out to her, but Daddy would tell me to go back to bed. She would too. Of course, I didn’t understand fully then about married life; I was a child, but when I found out I can’t say I felt any better about it. I’m actually starting to get rather nervous now! Silly, isn’t it? I get nervous on a coach trip to London, taking the girls to see Romeo and Juliet! But then, that’s because I’m in loco parentis. Hilary from the Art Department comes too of course, and the girls do respond well to her. But then, Art, well, it’s not really proper work, is it? Not really, not like Chaucer.
I always thought that when I grew up, I wouldn’t be nervous anymore. That butterflies in my stomach would become a memory, but it’s not like that is it? I have flown a few times, well actually just the once, to join Helen, Jack and the boys in France and I survived that but this … quite honestly, when I think about it, I’m terrified. No. No. I mustn’t think bad thoughts about it. Light of the World has been ever so kind. They’ve talked me through the whole thing, at length. They even sent me a video so I could get the general idea of the place and gave me the number of someone called Richard Price who lives quite nearby who has been out there and was apparently more than happy to talk about his experience. I haven’t called him. I don’t want to sound stupid and give him the opportunity to patronise me. Because they do, don’t they? When they think they know better.
Sometimes I go into a blind panic about it, and I decide to ring up Light of the World and cancel. Say that I’m ill, or that there’s been a death in the family. But then I calm down, make some tea and sit with Miss Marple on my knee and try not to cry about Mummy. I miss her. Silly really I know because frankly, I couldn’t wait for the whole business to be over. When Daddy died, he just seemed to disappear. One day he was there, then the next day gone, like a milk bottle on the front step, except that he wasn’t replaced, thank goodness.
I remember Helen sobbing, night after night, pushing me away, and Mummy looking very pale and spending a lot of time in her room. But that was it. We got Susan, the housekeeper, and we were soon all happy again. Or I was, anyway. Susan liked me best! Oh, I loved her. She was super! For a while. Until she announced that she was going to get married. I remember the day when her fiancé arrived in his car to collect her things. I couldn’t help it; I charged at him like a little bullock and kicked him, as hard as I could, in the shins. Mummy was furious. I was sent to my room, so I never really got a chance to say a proper goodbye to Susan. I stood on my toy chest and looked out of the window. I could hear them talking, Susan had her hand on Mummy’s arm and was nodding her head.
Oh, but it was all so long ago. I honestly thought that Mummy would live forever. I know that Helen was busy with the boys and with Jack, but the house clearance nearly killed me. It was awful, it really was. Helen had taken what she wanted, things for the boys, of course, and I was too tired to contest anything. I remember sitting surrounded by piles of boxes into which I hardly dared look when I decided to get a company in to do the rest. It was just too much. So the house was sold. I almost hoped that Helen and Jack would have it – although I would have been dreadfully jealous. I thought that maybe I could have lived with them, I even suggested it – it was big enough after all, and that maybe I could become a proper Aunty to the boys and tell them bedtime stories from the wallpaper like I had done Helen, but they said no, that it was ‘out of the question.’ Anyway, I was the oldest; I suppose it was my job to look after Mummy.
I visited her every day after school. She didn’t even recognise me in the end, or I her. We just stared at each other in blank incomprehension as if viewing dusty museum exhibits from cultures of which we knew absolutely nothing. It was hideous, frankly, watching Mummy disintegrate like that. Funny then, that I miss those visits and the shape they gave to my evenings. But enough of that! That’s why I’m doing something as drastic as going to Africa! Oh, thank you Light of the World! You’ve helped, you really have!
I just can’t wait to meet my Omi. I wonder if she’ll have kept any of the little things I’ve sent her over the years. It’s quite difficult because you have to find things that are flat and can fit in an envelope, like stickers or a balloon. I decided to ignore this after a year or so and had such fun making up parcels for her. I went into toy shops and asked what girls of whatever age she was then were enjoying, and I’d go home with bags full of ‘my little pony’ and ‘Polly Pocket’. Lovely thing! Goodness, nothing like when I was a girl. I’d send these things in big brown paper packages tied up with string, just like in the song! I confess to keeping a few things back, in here, the spare room, just, for when I don’t know. It was almost as if my little girl was at boarding school!
I never received any acknowledgement for the parcels. Maybe they were stolen. They probably were, at some border or somewhere, who knows? In their wisdom Light of The World now just ask for an extra donation at Christmas to get the child a small, local gift. Helps the local economy apparently, but I do find that slightly annoying. I mean, choosing and sending things was all part of the fun, my end. I spent quite a lot of money on her – whenever I saw a little pink dress or T-shirt or a teddy I just couldn’t help myself. I bought it! Helen literally jumped when she looked in here, it was a couple of years back. ‘But Marjie!’ she shrieked, ‘This is a shrine!’
I suppose it was. I’d decorated what I like to call ‘her’ room by then. I couldn’t help it. I even found some wallpaper quite similar to ours, but the creatures had headphones on, and roller skates on their little feet. Right, what was I doing? Packing, again, unpacking, checking, packing. I’ve had everything laid out on the bed for weeks. I’ve made several lists. I even typed them up. I had to get injections and everything. It’s all very, I don’t know, intercontinental. Miss Marple watches from the dressing table. She knows something’s up. I really have to harden my heart. Do you know what worries me the most? The loo situation. I have no idea what the loo situation will be like. Not in the Grand Colonial, of course, but on the trip to the village. I just dread being caught short!
Whenever I need the loo badly I hear Jonathon and Peter, and although it pains me, Helen too, laughing at me, laughing and laughing, and I can’t move because I’m tied to the apple tree, and it all seemed like fun at first and … well it was exciting, of course it was and I was glad when they picked me and not Helen and I’d have let Peter do anything he liked because he was very handsome, I thought, and there was something else, because, actually, he wasn’t that handsome, and I wasn’t very pretty, but anyway usually they just laughed at me and called me Fatty, and Swot, but that day it was my turn to be tied up and blindfolded and then tickled. And they’d pull our pants down and look at us, and we’d protest, naturally, but that day I needed the loo so badly and wanted them to let me go but they didn’t did they?
They just laughed and laughed as wee poured down my leg, hot, like bathwater, soaking my knickers that were round my ankles. I was sobbing by then but I couldn’t wipe my nose and I wanted to pull my skirt down but Peter and Jonathon had tucked it into my waistband and oh! I just can’t bear it! Eventually Helen untied me, and then Daddy came marching down towards me, I heard him before I saw him, as I pulled down my blindfold and tried to pull up my sodden pants but it was too late, and he was shouting at me and grabbed me, bent me forward and spanked my bottom, once, twice, three times it felt hot and sharp and then he just dropped me and marched away again. I looked round and saw Peter with his arms round Helen, deep in the rhododendrons, one round her waist, one over her mouth, and they were all half bent over trying to smother their laughter.
I got up, and I ran and ran and ran, into the field next door, nettles stinging my legs and brambles scratching me, and I vowed never to so much as look at, let alone speak to Peter and Jonathon again. Mummy came looking for me eventually and took me home and gave me extra strawberries, but I wasn’t hungry. And even though she asked for one, that night I wouldn’t give Helen a story.
Well. Today’s the day! I’m waiting for my taxi. I am quite convinced that I shan’t return; that one way or the other I shall die. I’ve made very sure to leave everything in order here, and I’ve put a note in with my diaries instructing whoever may find them that they are to be burnt, immediately. That’s on the one hand.
On the other I’m very excited, I really am, and quite proud of myself. I’m making a difference, I am! It’s strange in the house without Miss Marple; I rang the cattery again just now. The woman sounded rather irritated as she assured me that she was, and would be fine. I have rung quite a few times, but then, I am paying, so why shouldn’t I? Paying a small fortune in fact! Not that I mind. I could have sent her somewhere cheaper, but nothing but the best for Miss Marple. After all, she eats better than I do most days! That fishmonger will miss me; he really will! Oh, here’s the postman. I don’t like him at all. He looks rather sneaky, and he’s far too friendly. I’ll just hide in case he sees me and tries to have a chat. What’s this then? A pizza menu, a letter from Plumbs offering me, as a valued customer, a discount on a sofa cover and, ah! Light of the World! That logo! It’s so clever! I suppose they’ll be wishing me ‘Bon voyage!’ Gosh! I’m so nervous today I’m shaking!
Dear Miss Cameron, Light of the World would like to apologise for the following clerical error:
Your sponsored child is a boy.
Photo: Erwan Hesry