Reading Between The Lines S3EP08: “Just A Mother”

The People's Friend scan of "Just A Mother" title and illustration from the archives from April 1945

This episode of the Reading Between The Lines podcast is “Just A Mother” by Elizabeth Nolan, first published in April 7, 1945. This story elicits quite the response from the team and causes a bit of a clash of opinion! Listen along to the episode as you read and let us know what you think.

This leave, things were not going at all right for John Harvard. Nothing had turned out as he had planned. He had thought that he and Sylvia would be able to go about together as they had always done. He had pictured himself taking Sylvia to dances, to the cinema, to see their friends. He had seen her with a bright ribbon on her dark hair, so to speak, her arms outstretched towards him. Whenever he had thought of the baby—and of course he had thought of him—he had thought of him lying quietly in his coat or his pram, safely “parked” with Sylvia’s mother, while they two went off on pleasure bent. 

And what had happened? Standing with his back to the fire, listening to Sylvia moving about overhead, John gave an angry snort. Already five days of his precious leave had fled, and as yet they had hardly been out together at all. And why? Because the baby had a slight cold! 

When he’d arrived home, what had he found? That the baby ruled the house! He didn’t stay in his pram or his coat, but overflowed into every room. Everywhere he went he found traces of the child, evidence that he was the most important person in the house. Sylvia was always doing something or other for him, bathing him, feeding him, washing his clothes, wheeling him out, knitting for him, talking to him, talking about him, talking and thinking about him all the time.  

But what was the use? John flung himself into the armchair and stared moodily into the fire. The point was, how was he to spend the day. It was only nine o’clock, and already they’d been up hours because the baby had this bit of cold which Sylvia made so much fuss about. A fire had been lit upstairs in the bedroom, a screen made of the old big clothes-horse and a pair of old curtains so that he wouldn’t feel a draught. His chest had been rubbed, hot bottle has been put in his cot, and all the time Sylvia, who used to be as gay as a humming bird, became more and more worried, till he himself had decided that the doctor had better come. And he’d gone out then and there and rung him up.  

Dare he put the wireless on? Better not! All seemed quiet overhead, and perhaps the little chap had gone to sleep. Oh, he was a nice enough little chap; he wouldn’t be surprise if he didn’t grow up into a grand little lad, but now—now—well, he wanted Sylvia to himself. He saw so little of her now. 

John picked up the morning paper, then dashed it down again as he Sylvia call his name. Now what was wrong? 

Upstairs, he found her bending over the coat. She raised a white, anxious face as he came into the room. She had tied up her hair in one of those gay handkerchief things, and looked so young and sweet that he longed to take her into his arms. Over and over again on this leave he’d wanted to suggest that they went away together and left the baby with her mother, and now he felt that Mrs Saunders would agree with him that Sylvia was making a fearful fuss about nothing.  

“John,” Sylvia said in an anxious whisper, “just look!” As if revealing something tremendously important, she pulled up the wee vest and bared the small chest. John bent closer and closer.  

“Can’t see anything at all,” he muttered at last.  

“Oh, John, not those pin point pink spots?” 

“No. Can’t see anything at all.” 

“Well!” Sylvia’s voice was indignant. She pulled the vest down again and very carefully and tenderly picked up the baby.  

“He seems perfectly all right to me,” said John, “except for a bit of a snuffle.” Then, with an attempt at lightness: “What about some breakfast?” 

“Breakfast! We’ve already had toast and tea. Don’t you realise this might be measles or scarlet fever, or—or anything? I asked you to go out for a thermometer. The chemist’s will be open now.” 

Sylvia had untied her hair and was now deftly and expertly pinning it up into place. She had lovely hair, and he loved to watch her seated by the dressing-table, and in the old days, when first they were married, she had liked to have him watching her. But now it didn’t matter what he thought, or what he did. He had only two days’ leave left, and that fact didn’t seem to worry her at all.  

“That was at six o’clock!” he cried, referring to the toast and tea. “It’s nine now, and I’m hungry. And he’s all right, his skin’s quite moist. You’ve had me feeling it at least six times.” 

“John!” She swung around on the stool. “John, if anyone had told me you’d be so horrid, just when I’m so worried, I’d never have believed it.” 

Her lips began to tremble, but she pushed him off when he would have comforted her. Her voice went back to the whisper it had adopted these last few hours. “Please go, John. And get one I can read. Hold it up and give it a shake and see if you can see the mercury. I want a smooth round one, not one with several sides. I don’t know how much it’ll be. And perhaps you’d better bring some camphorated oil in case it is only a cold, and I want some more cotton-wool.” 

Seeing that it was useless to argue, John went from the room, resisting the urge to tip-toe in protest, and put on his great-coat. Here he was, Sergeant John Harvard, with a real tough job in the R.A.F., turned nursemaid to a three months old kid! 

On his way to the chemist’s he tried to think it all out, and so far as he could see, the facts were these. He was twenty-five, Sylvia twenty-two. They’d been married for two years and had been deliriously happy.  Luckily until just before the baby was born he had been stationed near home, but now he was posted in the south of England, and so only saw his wife and child when he got leave. He had always loved Sylvia, ever since he first met her at Tim and Nina’s and she’d been sitting on one of those broad fender-seats, wearing a dark red dress with bits of green here and there, her little pale face all starry-eyed like a child’s. They’d met and fallen in love and married, and even managed to get this little home of their own. They’d been pleased about the baby, decided to call him Roger, and referred to him as The Imp even before he was born. He, at any rate, hadn’t thought that a baby would make much difference.  

But, of course, he had made a difference, all the difference in the world. From the moment he was put into Sylvia’s arms, her face had worn a different expression—an expression of awe and wonder and pride, and—and—an all-absorbing love. Specially when Sylvia fed the baby, and the rest of the world was blotted out. He couldn’t describe the impression she made on him then, because he wasn’t at all clever with words, but he had once read somewhere that when a mother was feeding her child, the feeling of bliss she had then was nature’s way of compensating her for all the pain she had born, and might still have to bear.  

Moodily John turned into the chemist’s. Did al young fathers feel out of it like this, he wondered. Or was it that he was an exception, that he had no real parental feelings at all? 

The chemist was an old man and also an old friend. He produced the right kind of thermometer without being asked, for he took it out of its case and held it up to the light. He smiled at John.  

“The boy got a chill?” 

“Yes, so I believe. The wife, of course, thinks it’s measles or worse.” John gave a pretence of a grin.  

“Well, it’s a gra-ave responsibility, being a mother,” old Mr McCulloch answered as he handed over the packages.  

The doctor had not arrived when John got back. The baby was asleep, the little house spick and span, Sylvia snatching a few minutes in which to do some washing. 

How much did she weight? John speculated, for no reason at all, a lump in his throat, as he watched those slender wrists twisting and wringing. No more than seven stone. And she was so young. She ought to be free, to be having a good time. She was made to be free and gay, not all worried and anxious like this.  

On his way back he had stopped at the florist’s and bought a few roses. Sylvia loved flowers, and when they were engaged he had bought her a little bouquet every week. She had kept them up in her own room, except for one she might wear on her coat. 

With a sigh he tossed his forage cap on to the table. He decided to make one last appeal. 

“Sylvia,” he said, putting his arm around her waist, “Sylvia, darling, couldn’t we go somewhere and celebrate tonight? After all, your mother’d gladly come to look after Roger, and time—well, time is going by.” 

He felt her relax, and for a minute or two she leaned against him and allowed herself to be petted and kissed. Then she sighed and stiffened and pushing him away. With swift, determined movements she shook out the small garments and spread them out on the cord which she had strung from one side of the fireplace to the other. She was wearing a smock of hyacinth-blue which just matched her eyes, and though her hair was a little ruffled now and her face flushed, nevertheless her moment of relaxation had passed. He felt shut off from her again, as if he had no power over her.  

“Don’t you like the roses?” he asked, hurt and crestfallen. “Aren’t you going to put them in water?” 

“Roses? Oh, yes, they’re lovely, John. But far too expensive. We need the money now, you know, for other things.” 

She inspected the things he had bought. She held the thermometer up, squinted along it. She slipped it into her overall pocket and picked up the bottle of camphorated oil and a bunch of nappies from the pile in the airing cupboard. At the door she said, as if suddenly remembering him: 

“John, why don’t you go see Tim and Nina? You haven’t been there this leave, and they’ll be hurt if you go back without seeing them. There’s nothing you can do. And you might put the roses in the glass vase you’ll find on the top shelf. It’s too hot for them here. Take them into the other room.” 

As the door closed behind her, John heard a whimper, and he muttered: “Oh hang it, hang it all!”  

It was such a lovely day, too, a day of real spring sunshine and spring breezes. The sky was blue, the landscape seemed to be lighted up. From the kitchen window John could see the hillside and the little spread-out village that was five miles away by road, where Tim and Nina lived. This time the day after tomorrow he’d be off again, back to camp. Forty-eight hours, only forty-eight hours! 

He might do a bit of gardening, but could he settle to it? The baby was crying in good earnest now. It was nearly eleven and the doctor hadn’t been yet. He probably wouldn’t come till the end of his round.  

Before definitely decided to go to see Tim and Nina he went upstairs, but Sylvia shooed him away almost before he had opened the door. From the landing he heard her talking to the baby, the sort of conversation that he didn’t understand at all, but which seemed to mean so much to her.  

Well, he might as well go; it would be something to do. Talk about being the odd man out! He smiled wryly as he let himself out of the front door. There’d been a time when Sylvia had hung on to his arm until they’d reached the gate, and more often than not had walked with him to the bus stop. But that, of course, had been long ago, when Sylvia had been his wife and sweetheart. Now she was just a mother! 

On his way across the fields he fell to thinking  it all out all over again, and finally decided that he was the one to blame, since he had no real parental feelings.  

He’d read in books that when a man first saw his firsts-born, a feeling of pride took possession of him. Well, to be candid, he hadn’t felt anything at all. He’d just thought: “Well, what a funny little imp that is, after all!” It had been Sylvia he’d been thinking of all that never-ending night, and Sylvia he’d wanted to see when at last it was all over. She’d looked very white and exhausted, and somehow different. She’d smiled and stroked his hair just once, and then the nurse said she was drowsy and he’d better go away. Next time he’d been allowed into her room, the baby had been beside her, very, very pink and wizened and tiny, and she’d looked at the baby in a very special way, and he’d thought, he didn’t know why: “Mother and child. The pictures are always of Mother and child. It’s a special, a very special alliance.” 

As he passed through the bluebell woods he remembered incidents of their courtship, and told himself sadly that life would never be like that again. Courtship was always so brief a period. Loves were always so eager to get married, little knowing that soon after marriage would come an end of their enchantment.  

“Well, what is Sergeant John Harvard looking so serious?” Nina asked as she hurried down the path to meet him, having seem him coming across the fields from one of the upper rooms. 

He’d always liked Nina, and, of course, he and Tim had been friends for years. Tim and Nina were years older than he and Sylvia, but it didn’t seem to matter. Tim and Nina had no less than five children—or at least, he’d thought it was five— 

“Didn’t you know?” Nina laughed, as she gave the pram in the porch a gentle push. “But of course you did! You’ve forgotten, being so busy thinking about your own. This is Gwendoline May. We wanted another girl, because now we have even numbers, three boys and three girls.” 

In the sitting-room the eldest girl, who was Lottie, and had pigtails and alert brown eyes, was feeding the youngest boy, who was Frank, and as golden as a buttercup. Each child, he remembered now, had an allotted task. Tim and Nina had always everything perfectly organised. Nina was always busy. Sylvia told him, but still had time to enjoy herself. The girls were allowed to wear their hair how they liked, and were consulted as to how their dresses were to be made. The boys were brought up to be boys. When the summer holidays came, they all went off on their bicycles, the—then—baby in a sort of carrier.  

There was steak and kidney pie for dinner, with lots of rich, brown gravy. One little girl, Susan, acted as table maid, and both little girls helped to clear away. Before they went back to school, the boys had certain jobs to do in the garden or wood shed.  

It was anything but a quiet meal because the children were healthy and normal, and Frank, who was seated in the high chair, had one or two tricks which made the other children roar with laughter, and which he himself knew were amusing, judging by the way he repeated them and looked round the table for approval.  

Tim did not come in till the pudding was served. He looked tired, but pretty much the same. He kissed Nina, and had a word for each child, then took his place at the head of the table. Lottie, very important, waited on him, without a word of advice from her mother.  

“You two go into the other room,” said Nina at last, as Tim brought out his cigarette case. “It’s Gwendoline’s turn now. Poor lamb! She must be hungry!” 

Tim had a humdrum job at the water works across the valley, but he earned enough to keep his home going and seemed well content, so content that John began to feel a little envious. 

“You’re either cut out to be a father or you’re not,” John decided, rather bitterly, after Tim, quite unruffled, had arbitrated in a dispute which had sprung up between the two elder boys, rescued Frank from the little pond in the garden, told Lottie the French for “I go for a walk,” done a swift addition for Susan, who was very, very bad at arithmetic and quite proud of the fact, and taken the baby, who had fallen asleep, from Nina’s arms and carried her up to her cot. 

“Ten minutes,” said Tim, sinking into his chair again, “and then I must be off.” 

Nina was in the kitchen, singing as she washed up. Apart from that, the house was quiet now. John wondered what Sylvia was doing. Had the doctor been? But, of course, it wasn’t anything serious! 

Just then Tim said: “And how’s your nipper getting on? Pity Sylvia couldn’t bring him along today. I suppose it’s too far to push the pram?” 

“It’s not that.” John cleared his throat. “It’s not that. Roger’s got a bit of a cold.” 

“And I suppose Sylvia thinks it’s nothing less than double pneumonia? Or perhaps it’s measles?” 

“You seem to know all about it!” For some reason John’s heart felt a little lighter.  

“Know all about it! I should think I do! I’ve had six, don’t forget. We’ve no favourites here, but all the same, it is always the baby who is the most important.” 

“Did you—did you ever resent it?” John tried to make his voice sound non-committal. But Tim gave him a sharp look before he answered. 

“Of course I did! I remember thinking, when she first was a baby, that I didn’t matter at all any more. You see, John,” he went on, getting to his feet, and for a moment putting his hand on the younger man’s shoulder, “a young mother gets a dreadful feeling of responsibility over her first child, and a great sense of fulfilment. That’s nature’s way, you know. The bond between a mother and child is forged immediately a child is born. But d’you know when I really felt that I was necessary to Lottie? Not till one day when she was trying to build a brick castle that would fall down. You wait! When you see your nipper in difficulties, when you can pick him up and put him on his feet, then you’ll feel the proudest father in the land.  

“Women, you see,” Tim went on as he and John walked down the garden path, “are doing things for their children all along. That’s what makes the difference between their feelings and ours.”  

Nina kissed John goodbye. She had one of those plain faces which are really beautiful because they are so kind.  

“Give my love to Sylvia,” she said. “I know just how she feels about the baby, especially with you away. If anything should go wrong—it’s a great responsibility.” 

“You know, Nina,” said John, very earnest, speaking freely, unconsciously, “when I came here today I felt that I wasn’t fitted to be a father.” 

“And a little hurt and jealous, too! Oh, yes, I can understand that, John. But you haven’t lost your wife and sweetheart. What’s happened is that you have become part of a family, some part of her love that you have to share with your son, and with your other children later on.”  

John nodded, content and relieved. He and Tim talked of other matters for a minute or two, then they shook hands, and Tim went off on his bicycle.  

John couldn’t get home quick enough across the fields. How many hours had he left now? How many hours had he wasted because he hadn’t understood? 

At home at last, he hurried indoors and found Sylvia half asleep in the big armchair. She smiled at him and rubbed her eyes. Then she gave him a long, steady look and smiled again. She made room for him by her side, and then slipped into his arms. He stroked her hair. 

“The Imp?” he whispered. “What was it, after all?” 

“Only a slight chill,” she whispered back. “Nothing much. He’s asleep now.”

John caught sight of the roses in a vase. 

“The bluebells are out.” 

“And we’re not there to pick them!” 

“It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter any more that we can’t do all the things we used to do. There are other things for us, just as beautiful.” 

She snuggled closer. “I’m glad you have found that out. You see, I love you both so much, in different ways. And oh, John, how lonely I should be now without Roger when you go away!”  

How long left now of this leave? But there would be other leaves, and the time was coming when there would be no more separations. He was glad that he saw everything in the right perspective before they really settled down to family life.  

“If that’s The Imp,” he said, “I’ll go up and see what he wants.”

“Darling,” Sylvia half laughed, half sobbed, “you’d be no good at all at the B.B.C Red Cross Contests. That wasn’t our baby, it was a lamb across in the field!” 

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Jacqueline Munro

Jacqueline is the Digital Content Editor at "The People's Friend", looking after our website, social media channels and podcast.