A few weeks passed before Mrs Sayers admitted to herself that something was wrong. She was sat in the drawing room, smoking, staring into the middle-distance, turning over the events of the day. Katherine had played with her hand-me-down toys. Katherine had sung too loudly again, and will not be told. Katherine wouldn’t sit still to have her hair brushed. Katherine took over an hour to be put to bed. She is just as any other child would be, she thought, and just as errant. But Katherine doesn’t look right, she thought. Katherine hasn’t looked right for a while.
The lamp fizzled, and the meter ran out.
In the morning, she said to herself, breathing out smoke, I shall telephone for Dr Ewend.
‘Sometimes–,’ Mrs Sayers paused, and flicker her cigarette at the floor. ‘Sometimes nature has a queer way about itself. Sometimes natural things just–. Sometimes they just don’t grow quite as they should.’ She peered down at Katherine, who rubbed at the edges of her eye and did not respond. Mrs Sayers took her by the shoulders and led her to the drawing room window. ‘Look at those daffodils. Down there, Katherine.’ She cast a finger toward a small patch of grass in the front garden.
Katherine turned her head slowly from left to right, adjusting to the new sensation of the eye-patch. A few green stalks came into view. ‘What daffodils?’
‘Precisely. For all the world they look like weeds. I suppose one could argue they are weeds. But that doesn’t make them any less a daffodil, now, does it? Just because they haven’t bloomed. Just because their flowers are all closed up.’ Katherine looked up at her, her good eye twitching. Mrs Sayers looked away. ‘You see, it’s what one calls a blind daffodil.’ She inhaled sharply, and blew out a plume of smoke which rested in the still air of the room. ‘Do you see what I’m trying to say, Katherine?’
Katherine could focus on nothing besides her bad eye, which was warm and clammy. Besides, she was still trying to figure out what Dr Ewend had told her. She couldn’t quite remember what was wrong with her, though she knew – even at five – that something was. It showed in the concerned looks on the faces of adults, it was heard in the shift in their tone whenever they referred to her. The wrongness, she knew, was present in the way that Dr Ewend had said the word “irreversible” that morning. Presently, she whispered it to herself in her mind. She had no idea what it meant, but the doctor’s heavy voice meant it had to be something dreadful. And so she said – ‘What does it mean?’ – for she had not figured out yet that her thoughts could not be heard by those around her.
‘What does what mean?’
‘Ir-re–,’ she trailed off, infuriated. She had said it so many times in her head. ‘I-re–.’
‘It means,’ Mrs Sayers cut in, ‘that there’s no known cure.’ She paused, and smiled, with her yellowed teeth. ‘At the moment.’ She nodded.
Katherine crumpled her face and Mrs Sayers became impatient. ‘Your eye-patch is all out of joint.’ She reached down to adjust it, but Katherine pulled away. ‘Come, come, Katherine – it isn’t so awful.’ Mrs Sayers gulped. The cigarette had taken away all of her saliva. ‘Perhaps you can make eye-patches the latest thing.’
‘You said that already.’
‘Yes, to Dr Ewend.’ Dr Ewend had laughed, and the mood had seemed to lighten. He had packed up his Gladstone bag then, with a levity that suggested he could trust that Mrs Sayers was taking control of the situation – and he could therefore depart. At five, nearly six, Katherine had been a little afraid of the doctor, yet for reasons unbeknownst to her then, she had did not want him to leave.
For a time, the doctor visited Katherine on a regular basis. At first his visits were on the proviso of checking that the serum was working; that her right eye was not causing her any pain; that her left eye was in good health. After a while, Mrs Sayers began to invite him to stay for dinner. He eventually accepted the invitation, and soon his visits became for her and not his patient. It was at about this time that Mrs Sayers had started to think about having another child. The idea came to her involuntarily, matter-of-factly. Mrs Sayers was squeamish, she told herself, so it made sense that she would look upon Katherine unfavourably. Katherine was to dine alone in her bedroom, from a tray placed atop the dressing table filled with the leftovers from the night before.
‘Now,’ Mrs Sayers said, as she set down the tray. ‘You will brush your own hair to-night, and you will count to one hundred. If you skip a number, then Dr Ewend will be up here like a shot to tell you what for.’ She caught an expression of awe in Katherine’s eye, and she laughed. She leaned over to kiss her on her forehead. The tassels on Mrs Sayers’ shawl tickled Katherine’s nose, and she sneezed. Mrs Sayers laughed again, and said – ‘Oh, I hope one day you’ll be as happy as I am right now, I really do.’
Katherine sat by the door of her bedroom all evening, until every bone in her body ached, while Mrs Sayers and Dr Ewend talked and whooped and carried on. It was enough to be on the periphery of happiness; to feel that sense of second-hand contentment; to hear the sound of it from afar; to feel that sense of second-hand contentment. To dream of it for yourself, when you are still of an age where any dream you have will surely one day come true.
Dr Ewend began to visit more often. Katherine asked him how he could stand Mrs Sayers’ cooking, and he had laughed and said – “well, I do help with the vegetables.” She liked the way he addressed her as an adult, and without the pitying face of the women on the avenue, or the cooing tones of her aunt. He brought her gifts, and Katherine thought him handsome. Quite unlike Mrs Sayers, who she thought of as beautiful, which was altogether different from being handsome. At first, the gifts were sweets or cakes, but Mrs Sayers complained that they “will only serve to make her fat, not busy”, so the next evening he brought her a radio set.
‘It’ll keep you company, in your room.’
‘But we don’t have a licence,’ Mrs Sayers said.
‘No, but I do,’ Dr Ewend said, smiling handsomely.
Katherine’s dinner was brought up late that evening. Mrs Sayers was in higher spirits and was speaking in the warm tones she usually reserved for the telephone; with larger, more defined vowels. The sort of voice that people on the radio had, Katherine discovered, where “good” became “gourd”, “would” became “wool’d”, “cross” became “craws”. After she had eaten, Katherine lay on the floor, taking care to place herself in between the nails that jutted out here and there. There was a spot, just between her bed and the dressing table, where she could fit quite neatly, so that from above it might look as though she had been pinned into place. She switched on the radio just before the hour, and waiting in electrified silence. There was a crackle, and the broadcast came on.
“Gourd evening,” the man said, “this is 2MO calling.”
For an hour or so, Katherine was lost to a world where sight was not needed; a world that existed in a swirling mass behind her eyelids. When the broadcast was over, it was as though she had been thrown down from a dream. Her body ached, and she longed to sleep. She hauled herself up from the floor, switched off the device, and bundled herself up in her covers Chatter and laughter climbed through the boards for an hour or so, and then everything went quiet. She heard the dining room door creak open and shut, and then Mrs Sayers’ urgent step on the staircase. Once she was in her bedroom, she began to sing. Katherine could not make out the words, but the mournful sound nearly brought her to tears.
In the morning, Katherine found Dr Ewend at the breakfast table, alone. He was dressed as he always did for his rounds, with the thick woollen waistcoat and tie that always made Katherine feel hot and itchy just by looking at it. She preferred his dinner attire, when he would wear braces, and his jacket in the crook of his arm. Katherine lifted her eye-patch and sat down beside him. ‘The itch is dreadful today,’ she said, taking care to enunciate. ‘I’m glad she asked you to come and see me. One was starting to get rather craws.’
Dr Ewend chuckled. ‘You sound like your mother after a sherry.’ His eyes grew wide as though he had shocked himself.
As Katherine took in this information, she blinked rapidly, and plucked at her patch. ‘I wanted to sound like the ladies on the radio.’
‘Do you enjoy listening to the radio?’ he said, rising to put his plate in the sink.
‘It’s very gourd.’
Dr Ewend chuckled again, and put on his jacket.
Katherine chuckled too, but then came the distant, urgent step of Mrs Sayers descending the stairs. She sat up straight.
‘What do you like about it?’
‘I can imagine things I never get to see,’ she said, breathlessly.
‘Good lord – what a melancholy thing for a little girl to say.’ He gazed at her. ‘It must be very lonely for you here.’
Mrs Sayers walked into the room. ‘A world half-seen is a life half-lived.’
‘Good morning, Mrs Sayers,’ he said blankly, tipping his hat.
‘Good morning, Dr Ewend.’ She started toward him, then hesitated, and stood just inside the doorway. She was in her housecoat; her hair piled atop her head in the way she arranged it for sleeping.
‘You do know that Katherine can still see reasonably well out of the other eye.’
‘Ah, but for how long?’ She peered down at them, for she was taller even than Dr Ewend, with a look of sorrow; behind which lived a faint glimmer of distaste. ‘Has Katherine been boring you?’
Dr Ewend’s nose twitched. ‘Quite the contrary. The things she says are quite remarkable.’ He started toward her, then hesitated, and stood just outside the doorway. ‘You really ought to think about sending her to school.’
‘She’d frighten the other children.’ Their eyes met, and Mrs Sayers laughed.
Dr Ewend sucked in a breath and said, in a lower voice than usual – ‘She would benefit from the company, Mrs Sayers. You oughtn’t to let her be wasted at home.’
‘And how would we afford to send her to school?’
‘What about The Almoners?’
‘For slum children?’
Dr Ewend glanced to Katherine, to Mrs Sayers, and to the hallway before him. ‘Good day to you, Mrs Sayers. Thank you for dinner.’ Mrs Sayers did not move. The front door closed, and Mrs Sayers toppled into a chair. She dove a hand into her housecoat pocket and brought out a cigarette.
‘Is Dr Ewend coming back?’
‘Perhaps, Katherine. For you, perhaps.’
‘What about for dinner?’
‘We can’t afford to keep entertaining Dr Ewend any more than we can afford to send you to school.’
‘But what about The Almoners?’
Mrs Sayers sighed, her cigarette already beginning to droop. ‘For slum children, Katherine.’
‘What is a slum?’
Mrs Sayers cast her eyes about the room – over the dishes from the night before; over the crust of the stew spilled over the stove; over the chairs with the frayed fabric seats. ‘It seems I will have to teach you myself.’
Beren Reid | Mar 2017/Sept 2018
Photo by Beren Reid, April 2022