The Dunces Hat
THE DUNCES HAT
The person, who was already outside the door, slithered a scrawny hand through the small space left ajar. Around the frame, its fingers walked rapidly north and south, hither and thither like a phantom pianist playing a difficult rhapsody; skeletal fingers scaling the notes feeling their way around, hunting blindly for something. But what? Little sis and I shrank in terror until, at last, the ‘thing’ found what it was searching for. A round, black, Bakelite, Dolly switch. With a sharp staccato click, it was turned to OFF.
Jana and I were immediately plunged into inky darkness. A whimper emoted beside me as the little one began to weep but somehow, because of her tears, I was able not to.
We tried to cling together closely for comfort but the miserable thin blankets and frightful overly starched sheets afforded little warmth or wriggle room. We had been “tucked in”. What on earth was that? Made to lay flat on our backs, hands outside the covers we were anchored down like two chipolata sausages so tightly as to restrict all movement and blood supply. Us two, who were used to sleeping beneath the softest goose down – deep, light, feathered duvets under which caves and tunnels of warmth and comfort could be found and curled into. We were chronically uncomfortable and the silky bedspread along with its teammate, an apology of a fancy little quilt, had already slipped to the floor.
I pushed out the tight covers with my feet and tried unsuccessfully to reinstate the fallen ensemble, but it was hopeless and again they were on the floor. Tiptoeing to the light switch, I turned it on to survey the scene. “Leave the light on,” pleaded Jana, but I dared not. Perhaps, if I drew back the curtains a friendly street light would let a comforting glow into the room. Alas! just a grotesque monkey puzzle tree with snake-like fronds blocked both light or escape. With icy feet, I climbed back into the miserable bed hugging my weeping little sis. “What’s wrong with Mummy?” she sobbed. “Why are we here?” Once again I related the information Dad had imparted briefly to me: “She’s ill. It is an emergency. There will be an operation and then a convalescence home”. A fresh bout of sobs and then, “Oh nooooooooooo! Are we to live here forever then?” With an optimism I was far from feeling, I replied, “Nooooooo, only until Mummy gets better. Daddy has to keep his job and there’s nobody else to have us.”
“I don’t like it here.”
“Neither do I.”
“What’s it called?”
“A FOSTER HOME”
We had been taken into care!
CARE! What a misnomer that was! No CARE was ever afforded us. No kindness, no understanding, no love and certainly not a modicum of pity. How on earth had this situation come to befall us?
Earlier that evening, we had heard our Dad going out and slamming the front door. We saw him run next door to our neighbour. Kneeling by our bedroom window we watched as Mr Dibbons returned with him. Urgent muffled tones downstairs. Then again Dad running down the path and attaching sheets of newspaper with drawing pins to the gate. Flapping in the wind for what purpose? Was there plague afoot? We couldn’t fathom it. Then we saw the lights of an ambulance, slowing down, creeping up the long street searching for an address it hitherto had never heard of on a new estate that was once a forest. But, ahhhh, there was the tell-tale sign. The house with the white paper pinned to the garden gate. Two men ran up the path bearing a stretcher with a red blanket. At this, we tore down the stairs to investigate. Mum with her eyes closed was being wrapped up and carried out. Dad quickly ushered us back to the hall. “Go back to bed you two. I’m going to the hospital with Mummy. Mr Dibbons will be downstairs.”
The next morning we were unceremoniously bundled into a taxi and bade a hasty farewell. “I will come for you when Mummy is better. She needs an operation and then a rest by the seaside. “BEHAVE YOURSELVES.”
So this is how we came to be here in a miserable, cold bed in a pitch-dark room and I supposed that the owner of the claw hand was our surrogate Mummy now. The nasty small single pillow beneath my head was hardly sufficient to soak up my tears. Goodness knows how, but we both fell into a disturbed sleep.
The owner of the claw hand had now assembled her other body parts together and stood complete at the end of the bed. “Get up the pair of you and go down to the kitchen.” So she had a voice. A clipped, sharp, hard voice heavy with threat. It went really well with her claw hands and button eyes. “You first.” The claw pointed at me!
Stood in the butler sink stark naked, Mrs Penge began a wash of such thoroughness and briskness as to border on the brutal. With a brick of red, carbolic soap in her hand, she grabbed my hair and began to claw my scalp as if I were being deloused. Scrub, scrub, scrub, with skeletal fingers until it hurt. Then, we were rinsed with saucepan after saucepan of either too hot or too chilly water but not knowing which, was torturous and tantamount to sanatorium behaviour. Hair completed, an all-over wash commenced; a rough all-round soaping paying special attention to the nether regions. Way too much soap and too little rinsing here.
I felt such shame and helplessness that I wanted to die. Next came the tight plaiting of damp hair and an ensemble of her daughter’s outgrown clothing. Blouse, cardigan, pleated skirt, long socks finished off with two whopping tartan bows at the end of each tail of hair. My skin grew lobster coloured and felt taut, tense and somewhat sticky. I felt utterly wretched.
“Get on and eat your porridge now, and you…” pointing at little sis, “you’re next.” I was pushed down by my shoulders to a bowl of grey gruel. Staring into the dish of this almost translucent mixture, I tried to decipher what on earth it was. To me, it resembled a bowl of vomit. I had never seen the like. Of course, when made with full milk, snow-covered in sugar and a dollop of cream it is delectable but this stuff was sloppily fashioned out of water with no sugar bowl anywhere to be seen. “Euuugh,” I let out before I could stop myself but dared not to do it ever again for Mrs Penge right up close to my ear, hissed “I will give you ‘eugh’. You had better eat it all or else” Little sis began shrieking behind me for her TURN had come. “I want my Mummy,” she choked. “Well, your Mummy doesn’t want YOU, she’s too ill”. Sis blubbered some more. “Oh nooooooo does that mean I have to call YOU Mummy?” The woman coloured up with temper. “No! I’m not YOUR MOTHER, I’m Mrs Penge to YOU.”
And neither was she; not in any way, form, or sense of the word, that much was clear from the start. Thus the morning routine was set in stone, without fail, until we morphed into a couple of girls I had seen on a cheesy knitting pattern of the time or one of the Ovaltine singers. Mrs Penge’s modus operandi was to create two clones of her daughter Julia, and she would stop at nothing to achieve this.
Since it was the summer holidays, there was no coach picking me up for school but this relief was soon gone with the realisation of what was to be suffered instead. A dingy room, devoted to learning, had been fashioned to this effect. Nasty little tables and chairs, a free-standing blackboard with chalk and a well-used duster together with a huge map of the world hung over a high fireplace. Arithmetic and reading every morning and a lot of pointing at the blackboard with a long cane and the machine-gunning of questions. There was a big price to be paid for getting anything wrong.
At first, we suspected the pointing stick would be the culprit and sis offered up the forced eating of chalk as a possible preferable one. But no. It was something we could not have dreamt of. The wearing of the cones of shame.
With us strategically placed opposite each other sitting on low stalls facing into a corner, Mrs Penge would ceremoniously place massive cardboard cones on our head emblazoned with a jumbo D in red. “This will teach you. You’re a pair of dunces.” We had not the slightest clue what a DUNCE was. We were not allowed to speak or whimper and had to endure this for one hour. It was not long before we were totally terrified and dare not to do anything which might curry disfavour and the wearing of the shameful, pointed hat.
Julia, the daughter of claw woman, was a nice enough girl. An only (and, I should imagine) lonely child. She did ballet and had a wonderful selection of theatrical clothing in a box beneath the stairs. Drooling, we would watch her as she donned her Red Riding Hood costume and hid from the wolf; her Cinderella outfit getting ready for the ball and Snow White’s dress with white apron whilst she whistled and worked. We were allowed only to look and admire but not touch or try on. It was torturous. But it was the huge dolls house in our bedroom which was the hardest to resist. Set on a table it was impeccably furnished. We peered longingly through the tiny widows admiring the baby in the cradle, the cook in the kitchen, the Father with his newspaper, the Mother sewing. Replica hocks of ham, hares and pheasants hung on hooks, depicting culinary delicatessen in the kitchen. Tiny cups and saucers on the table, pots and pans on the range. This alone would have kept us happily engaged for hours but again we were only ever allowed to stare. For us children, it was tantamount to actual physical pain. But the real name for it was emotional ABUSE!
As a supposed treat, we were allowed to go into the back garden with a skipping rope or a game of ‘hunt the family tortoise’. This depressed us no end and furthermore we dreaded finding it and actually picking up this shelled animal whose head instantly disappeared. Entertainment? Certainly not to us.
The other treat on offer was a visit to a friend of Mrs Penge. How on earth she even had anyone to call a friend we found impossible to believe and seeing her ‘dressed up’ was hideous. The consisted of spare parts had no symmetry or harmony. No limb bore the exact measurement of its partner. Somehow one looked ugly and lanky and yet the other stumpy and short. Her feet were enormous and her Cuban heeled shoes seem to propel her in a forward motion. The claw hands protruded from the too-long sleeves of her coat and grasped her shopping bag like a chicken grips its perch. And on her permed frizzy head, a hat sat like a dollop of an apology over the tiny beady eyes. Eyes that appeared to be minus their irises. These clumsy limbs were belted in the middle and somehow resembled a large sack of King Edwards potatoes. The finishing touch of scarlet lipstick completed the look. It was ghastly and with the lip colour sticking to her false teeth and bleeding into the corners of her mouth we were embarrassed for her.
With us decked out like knitting patterns in matching cardigans, pleated skirts and little blazers, along with Julia attired thus, we would set out to visit a dowdy bungalow and spend the time sitting stock still with a plate of small sandwiches perched on our knees whilst the two-woman discussed us as if we were not there: which one of us was the prettier of the two, had the nicest shape, was the cleverer, who spoke the nicest and who had the sweetest nature; how we compared with other poor souls that had been “fostered’ by Mrs Penge but no matter whichever, what way, how we fell short of Julia, who was perfection personified.
We listened seething inside and privately conjured up the disastrous end for these two crones in our imaginations. Plotting their downfall somehow relieved the tension and fear we felt and gave us a glimmer of hope. Sometimes we would even dissolve into uncontrolled giggles over one of our plots in a moment when we could signal to each other privately.
Dad turned up occasionally when he could fit it in. He worked Saturdays so it was tough. Claw woman must have known when he was due since she took to making party-like little spreads to gain favour through his stomach. Fishpaste sandwiches, of course, on bright white bread, some French fancies in coloured icing along with fluted wax paper dishes containing an iridescent green jelly with livid tinned fruit pieces atop. If she thought she was appealing to Dad’s taste buds she was mistaken. He always declined anything to do with the fayre, however, and on one particular occasion, Mrs Penge sighed heavily and asked in a wheedling tone “Oh Mr Novotny is there NOTHING I can do to tempt you?”
“Fall backwards down the stairs,” I whispered to little Sis.
‘Forgive me, dear lady,” came the reply. It was almost as if he had clicked his heels together so the insult was politely given. “To me, it’s like giving an oxen a cherry. I’m in need of a hearty meat dish.” She threw her head back laughing, excited by his likeness to an oxen, “Oh YOU continentals, you’re all about sauerkraut and dumplings. I’ll get some smoked sausage next time.”
Grief, surely there wouldn’t be a NEXT TIME.
Abused children have no voice, though. They are too scared of the consequences. But sometimes they had a whisper.
Mrs Penge knew this and made sure we were never left alone with Dad; that we had no chance of leaning close to his ear and hissing, “she is cruel to us”; never got the chance to clamber on his lap and tell him of the monster in whose care he had placed us.
One night, poor little Sis was more upset than usual. Once again we had failed in our attempts to inform Dad of our plight; had not managed to let him know of our misery. The claw hand played the keyboard as per usual and flipped the Bakelite switch to OFF and plunging us again into darkness.
“Don’t like the dark,” Jana wept.
“Nor do I.”
“Is Mummy going to die?”
“Of course not”
“I want to go home. Take me home pleeeeez”
How was it to be achieved though? I was Helpless, motionless, useless, hopeless, battened down beneath tight blankets unable to comfort a weeping sister. Suddenly I had an idea. Stealthily stepping over the silky bedspread on the floor, I opened the shutters of the dolls house and threw them back. Inside was a little switch wired into a hidden battery and when flipped to ON every room inside lit up with tiny lights, from the attic maids’ quarters to the basement. Delighted we cuddled together taking in every detail of the miniature, heavenly home and fantasised about being small enough to live inside it ourselves. The soft glow of the little lights comforted us enough to relax and fall asleep.
The punishment for running down the battery in the dolls house was to have severe repercussions. We were no longer allowed in the sitting room in the evening, with Julia and Mr Penge. No cocoa and no watching Joey the budgie fly around the room for his half-hour of freedom. This was the highlight of our day and I was particularly devastated. Mr Penge was a gentle man and would sometimes play snakes and ladders with us, or do some magic tricks with cards. It calmed us down before light switch off. Jam was to be taken off the tea table and sharp slaps were administered behind our knees. An extra-long time was endured with the dunce cones on our heads forbidden to speak or see each other. By the time it was over we had cried buckets.
My back hurt sorely from sitting on the stall, my eyes stung and ached in their sockets and a sick heavy headache beset me. I vomited on the bedspread (on the floor of course) and battled in my sleep as hallucinations tangled my mind. I screamed at the monster at my beside, the tendrils of the monkey puzzle tree wound around my throat and Bakelite dolly switches rained down on my head. I called for my Mother. I had a raging fever!
A telegram was despatched to home. I was to be collected post-haste. With a taxi idling on the kerb, Dad rushed me in a blanket to the waiting cab. “Blow a kiss, girls,” he offered. Jana shrank down in her seat, but I mouthed “I hate you” and stuck out my tongue as far as my sore throat would permit.