“So you’re Mary?” Mrs Landers’ smile was wide as the doorway. “Come on in and get yourself warm.” She glanced through the open door. “Looks like there’s snow in those clouds. It’d be nice to have a white Christmas, wouldn’t it?”
“’M warm enough.” Mary slouched into the room, carrier bag in her hand. “S’not exactly the Ritz in here is it?”
“Don’t be rude, Mary,” Angela said, shuffling through her papers. “Beggars can’t be choosers, and if you will run away on Christmas Eve, well, it’s not like we can put you on the next bus home. Even if we trusted you not to get off at the first stop. You’ll be warm and safe here, until we can get your dad to collect you.”
Mary slumped on the chair, letting her lank mouse blond hair fall over her face. “He won’t bother. I told you not to try calling him. He’s been on at me since I …” She glanced down at her stomach, a curved dome bursting out from her anorak. “Never mind.” She picked at her nail, wishing she was different, smarter, older. She looked around the room. No point trying to run, she was too slow now. She’d let them think she was staying and work out how to find him later.
“Right, I’m off. Mrs Landers will show you your room.” Angela pulled her fluffy white coat round her as she left.
Mrs Landers’ cheerful voice filled the silence. “So we’re quiet here, this Christmas, just you and me and Bruno.”
“Thought you only took girls, that’s what she said.”
“Bruno, well, I don’t think Angela’s ever really taken to him. She says I should keep him out the back in his kennel when I’ve got visitors, but you don’t mind dogs, do you?”
Mary raise her head a fraction, glancing at Mrs Landers through her long fringe. It was just another day, another place to stay, and all she had to do was get through Christmas. “S’pose. Don’t have much choice, do I?”
“He was going to be put down, too big for most homes they said at Battersea. And I’m a pushover for waifs and strays.” She flushed, her cheeks matching the rose of her jumper. “Not that you’re … come and see your room, lovey.”
Mary sat, sullen and quiet, through dinner. “Not really hungry,” she’d said when it was served up, but she cleared her plate, first good meal she’d had, she thought back, since it all blew up, since she couldn’t hide it any more. Bruno lay beside her all the way through the meal, and she didn’t think Mrs Landers noticed when she slipped him some of her chicken.
She watched the television without a word, though Mrs Landers chatted the whole way through the EastEnders special. The big dog lay sprawled at Mary’s feet on the rug that used to be cream with pink flowers but was now tired and grey.
“Ah,” Mrs Landers said as it finished and the news came on. “We won’t watch that. All a bit gloomy, isn’t it. Now it’s time to turn in, lovey. You going to come upstairs?”
Mary shifted in the big armchair with the tattered floral covers. “Dunno. In a bit.” She needed time to herself, time to find a way to contact Joe.
“Come on. You need to get your sleep in before the baby comes.”
Mary let herself be chivvied upstairs. She didn’t get changed. She lay down, waiting, but she couldn’t get comfortable on the single bed, and her body ached. Too long sitting on the bus to London, she thought, and all to no avail. It was the police who’d picked her up, right outside the bus station, hadn’t believed her when she said she was sixteen already, took her phone off her, delivered her straight to social services.
She gave up trying to get comfortable, and slipped out onto the landing. She knew his phone number, and Mrs Landers looked like the sort to still have an old fashioned home phone. She paused outside the woman’s bedroom door. It was ajar, and she could hear slow, steady breaths, so she carried on downstairs. She hadn’t seen a phone in the living room, so she went through to the kitchen. As she passed through the doorway she had to grip the frame as a shard of pain ran through her.
Shouldn’t have eaten so much, she thought, drawing in breath to try and ease the stabbing. Bruno nuzzled round her feet, his shoulders level with her thighs, and she was glad she wasn’t alone. She wouldn’t be alone, wouldn’t be here for much longer if she could get hold of Joe. He’d come and get her, and by morning they’d be gone, and by tomorrow no-one would be able to drag her back home. Her gaze alighted on the old cream plastic phone. She listened for a second, then picked it up and dialled.
“Joe? It’s me. … I know. Brixton. 17 Lansdowne Way. I know it’s miles. … Great! I’ll wait down here.”
Maybe she should have gone back up for a bit, it would take him more an hour to get there from Enfield, but her stomach was cramping, her back ached, and she didn’t want to have to go up, just to come down again. She couldn’t put the telly on, it might wake Mrs Landers, so instead she paced up and down, stopping every few minutes as another cramp grabbed her. Bruno followed, back and forth round the small living room, his big brown eyes watching her.
“Come on, Joe,” she said, voice low. She gripped the back of an armchair. The pains were getting worse, and she was starting to get an inkling that it wasn’t the chicken pie. She just needed to hang on until Joe got there.
Finally, an engine roared to a halt outside the house, the sound cut out, then there was a tap on the door. She waited until the contraction slowed then opened it and flung her arms round the lanky young man.
As they separated she said, “It’s snowing!”
“I had to go slow, nearly came off the bike a couple of times. Where’ve you been, Mary? I waited and waited at Victoria station but you never showed, never answered you phone. I thought you’d changed your mind.”
“Doesn’t matter. We need to go. Oh!” She leaned on him as her womb clenched.
“The baby. We need to go home, now.”
Joe turned, scanning the whitening street. “We can’t, Mary. You can’t go on the bike like this. What if the baby came on the way back?”
“What’s all this?” Mrs Landers had come down the stairs, pink dressing gown wrapped round her, “Come in off the doorstep and I’ll put the gas fire on. Now who are you, young man?”
Things blurred after that, glow of the gas fire warm on her face as she knelt on the carpet, pain seizing her body. She could hear Mrs Landers, anxious voiced, on the phone, “No, I see. I know. As soon as you can.”
“It’s coming, Joe. It’s coming and we haven’t gone home yet.” Joe’s hand was warm on her back, Bruno beside her.
“It’s okay, Mary. We’ll be fine. You should see the place I’ve got. It’s small, but it’ll be enough for you and me and …”
Another pain seized her and his words were lost as she gripped his hand.
“I’ve called the ambulance, lovey, but they say the roads are getting worse. Can you hang in there?”
“Don’t, … think … I … can …”
She could feel it, tearing, burning as the head crowned.
“Just a bit more, lovey, I’ve got a towel ready when he comes.”
She pushed, kept pushing until, with a sense of relief, the baby slipped out of her body.
“There you go, lovey. You hold him now.”
Mary smiled as she put the baby in her arms. Joe leaned over and put his arm round her. “That’s my girl,” he said.
Mrs Landers went to the window and pulled back the curtain. Mary could see the flakes falling thicker and faster now.
“Going to take a while for the ambulance, lovey.”
“It doesn’t matter now. She’s here, we’ve got our little girl.”
“I don’t know what that Angela is going to say. And your parents!”
“It doesn’t matter.” She looked at Joe. “What time is it?”
He checked his phone and grinned. “Just gone midnight. Happy birthday, Mary.”