The prompt which inspired this piece was to take the first line of a nursery rhyme and take it somewhere a little darker.
Panting and out of breath, I stowed my overnight case in the luggage rack on the 15.06 to Penzance and made my way to my reserved seat. I’d been able to get a table, a four-way, rather than two-way unfortunately, and having planned to get out my laptop and work for the duration, I examined my fellow table-sharers with some dismay. They were all mothers, each with a small child on their lap. The table-top, which they hastily attempted to tidy up a bit, looked like a bomb had hit it. There were bags, jackets, bottles, wipes and bits of chewed rusk all over it. Just as I was considering whether it would be OK to ask if I could borrow those wipes to clean my section of the table, one of the little people started to retch. Sighing, I decided to stow my laptop bag in the overhead rack too. Whilst the bank were paranoid about security, I could keep an eye on it from my seat and I wasn’t sure it would survive the over five hours to St Erth with three frazzled mothers, their babies and accompanying detritus.
I rummaged in my bag and was grateful to find an old paperback which I could read. As I was opening the cover, I noticed stuff being handed over to my group of mothers from across the aisle. I took a look and was horrified to discover another four mothers each with a child on their laps, with a table that made mine look pretty reasonable. Worse, they seemed to know each other. How the hell had I managed to book my seat amongst a group of seven mothers on some sort of outing?
Sighing – again – I opened my book and tried to ignore the carnage and chatter which surrounded me. I was wishing fervently I’d brought my iPod with a set of noise-cancelling headphones, when a man stopped and greeted the mothers. If I thought it’d been noisy before, I was startled by the utter cacophony of noise which poured forth from those seven women and seven babies. One by one, he was handed a baby to pet, pat, cuddle or chat to. Each mother demanded his personal attention for some minor requirement or other. Whilst all this was going on, I realised he could be my escape. Coughing, I managed to attract his attention and offered to exchange seats with him so he could travel with his “erm friends”. He smiled, a rather watery affair, but declined. I pressed my offer again, stressing that it would be no trouble at all. Again, he smiled and shook his head. I made one final attempt, expressing that he would be doing me a huge favour as I needed to work and simply could not in these circumstances. This time his smile was genuine “why do you think I booked a separate seat, in a different carriage?”
Stunned, I sat back and tried to get into my paperback. Seething with annoyance and frustration, concentration was always going to be difficult, but the inane noise of my travelling companions was even worse. When the guard came through the carriage checking tickets, I asked for his understanding in allocating me another seat. Unfortunately, he also gave me that selfsame same watery smile and shook his head “train’s fully booked”. Undeterred, I asked which carriage the buffet was in, but he lowered his eyes before muttering “no buffet car today”.
As I listened to the chatter, it became clear that my fellow travellers were continuing on to St Ives, as was I, the twenty minutes to change platforms at St Erth being manageable even with their burdens and bundles. I decided to give in and introduced myself “I’m Clare and I work in marketing” I said holding out my hand. They took my hand one at a time to introduce themselves and their child: “Toni – Antonia really” held Terry on her lap, whilst “Amelia and this is John” were next. Both had very sticky hands and so I was grateful to “Claudia – here have a wipe for your hand – and this is my daughter, Chloe”. The four across the aisle simply waved “Jenny and this is Adam”, “Audrey and I’m sorry about my grizzling son, Jeremy”, “Tilly with Trudie” and finally “Dot and Michael”.
I asked how they knew each other and saw them look at each other, as if deciding who was going to answer. Dot seemed to get the nod and she said “we’re all married to Matthew”. They must’ve thought I was some sort of idiot, for I’m sure I just gaped. Pulling myself together, I asked “what the man who was here earlier?” to which Dot inclined her head. Sitting back with shock, I regarded them all again. Toni was a very pretty blonde with long, fine hair whilst Amelia was a brunette with thick long locks. Claudia had coffee-coloured skin and crinkly hair, Jenny’s hair was short – gamine I think that style is called – and rather mousy in colour. Audrey had a red-ish bob, Dot had celtic colouring and her hair could only be described as ginger. Each of the children seemed to share their mother’s colouring, there didn’t appear to be much of Matthew in any of them, although what little recall I had of him was that he was rather wishy-washy looking. Not wanting to freak anyone out with my negative reaction, I got chatting about ordinary stuff – the weather, their interests, hobbies, backgrounds, where they came from, why they’d been in London – and the whole story slowly unveiled.
Each of them came from difficult, dangerous or dysfunctional families and had run away to London. There Matthew had found them and offered each a refuge, if they would take part in an experiment. His family had very weak genes and needed desperately to breed outside of the usual social circle to strengthen the line. In addition, Matthew was gay and his parents risked the line ending with him. But he was prepared to agree to artificial insemination. Each girl had been given a full medical and genetic work-up and so long as they passed both, Matthew would marry them to secure their future and the future of their child. Clearly they’d been picked to cover the full spectrum of physical looks. They’d just been in London for the same medical and genetic work-up to be carried out on the children. Should any issues be uncovered, this would alter the order of inheritance but, for now, Matthew had decidedly done his duty in providing an heir and a spare.
They stressed that Matthew was kind and made no great demands on them. Each had the opportunity to study – initially via home tutors and in later times, via the Open University – to enable them to live a life independent of him in the future. Matthew had provided each with their own little worker’s cottage on the family estate – ownership, not tenancy – which they could sell when their child was fully grown-up. Each would also have a small stipend to cover modest living costs, although all the costs of their children would be borne by the family.
They all seemed happy – or content at least – although the earlier competition for Matthew’s attention made me think there could be difficulties ahead. It also just felt … wrong. Yes, this was an opportunity which each of these girls would never get otherwise, but it felt like advantage was being taken of their poor situation by a person, or was that people, who were fortunate in having position and money.
I said goodbye to them all at St Ives, as they piled into the two liveried mini-buses which waited to transport them to their homes. Matthew, I noticed, travelled in a separate car, with a rather handsome young man in the driving seat.
© Debra Carey, 2017