‘Good morning Lottie,’ Margaret calls softly as she opens my door.
I lie still, hoping she can’t see me under the sheets.
‘Come on honey, it’s almost time for breakfast,’ she tears the heavy black-out curtains violently apart and cold, hard light floods my little room.
‘But I’m sleepy!’ Morning time is too bright. I want to sleep more. Then I remember. ‘How many sleeps now Margaret?’ I can already feel the excitement building inside me.
‘None honey, happy birthday!’ Through my squinting eyes I can see her smiling at me, ‘come on Lottie, it’s a lovely morning. You can have breakfast in the garden if you like.’
I decide that getting up is a good idea after all and shuffle myself to the end of the bed.
Margaret is laying clothes out on the bed next to me. She is humming as she turns to fill a bowl full of hot water from the sink. I am just enjoying listening to the merry tune, bobbing my head side to side in time with it.
‘Ok Lottie,’ Margaret says, ‘time for a little freshen up.’
I wrinkle up my face in disgust, ‘No thank you! Mummy doesn’t make me wash my face when I get up. I am supposed to wash it after breakfast,’ I tell her nodding in affirmation of Mummy’s morning ritual.
‘Come now Lottie, that’s not how we do it here and you know that. I think your Mummy would want you to behave and do as you were asked. Don’t you?’
I let out an over exaggerated sigh. She’s right. Mummy will be cross if she knows I’m not doing as I’m asked, ‘Ok,’ I say as I take the facecloth and bar of soap from Margaret’s outstretched hands.
Margaret helps me strip off my nightdress, and have a quick wash down. She helps me with my underwear, tights, blue pleated skirt and cream blouse. I sink into the aged leather armchair by the window while she slips on my shoes and ties my laces for me.
‘May I have the blue ribbons in my hair today?’ I ask as she retrieves my soft brush from the dresser.
‘How about I fix your curls and you wear your blue broach instead?’ She offers. I think she must have lost my ribbons. I haven’t seen them for weeks.
‘Do you really mean it? I can wear Mummy’s broach?’ I ask excitedly. I don’t get to wear it often in case it gets lost.
Mummy’s very favourite thing in the whole world was her blue broach. She had given it to me when we were waiting at the train station. Amid a sea of frightened children, crying to their own Mummy’s and Daddy’s. Mummy had pulled me close and kissed me. She told me that she loved me and that the war would be over soon but, for now, it wasn’t safe for me in the city. I remember her taking her broach off of her scarf and pinning it on the inside of my coat. She told me to keep it close and that she would always be with me.
‘Of course,’ Margaret is smiling at me like I am being silly, ‘it’s yours after all. I’ll just pop it onto your cardie.’
There is a knock at the door and a lady pops her head in, ‘Morning all!’ She beams in a cheery voice.
‘Hello Lady,’ I reply.
‘Good morning Agnes. I take it that’s breakfast ready?’ Margaret asks her.
‘Yes. The rest of North Wing are already on their way down to the dining room. It’s just Lottie here that’s still to come down,’ she says gesturing in my direction.
‘Excuse me Lady,’ I interject, ‘but Margaret says I can have my breakfast in the garden.’
‘Sorry Pet. Not today, we are short staffed,’ she says apologetically, ‘I am afraid it is the dining room like everyone else. On you come, it’s porridge and prunes this morning.’
I make a face but I don’t argue. Mummy would be cross. Plus I love porridge! I follow Margaret out of the room and down the corridor. Light floods in through the large Victorian window at the head of the stairs. The scent of the porridge and freshly brewed coffee drifts up the staircase towards me. I stop for a moment to take in the smell.
‘Delicious!’ I exclaim after taking a deep breath of the luxuriously warm aroma, ‘that smell always reminds me of when Rose was just tiny.’
A smile crosses my face as I finger my broach, reminiscing, ‘That child would turn night into day. I would be so tired and so hungry. Even the scent of the coffee brewing invigorated me, helped me get through the long nights you know?’
‘Babies can be some hard work can’t they?’ Margaret smiled back at me, ‘Come on Mrs or your breakfast will get cold. Take my hand and I’ll help you down the stairs.’
‘Thank you dear,’ I reply, ‘these old legs are not the steadiest nowadays.’
I grasp the handrail tightly, not wanting to fall. Margaret holds my other hand gently but firmly and helps me keep balance. The further down the stairs we get the more the thick scent of breakfast fills my nostrils. Porridge has been a firm favourite since I was just a little thing. You could imagine it sticking to each rib on its journey to your stomach.
I take a seat by the window, place the napkin on my lap and look out over the view of the garden. Mother’s broach feels cool and smooth under my touch. It is such a comfort to me during these long nights. I do hope Rose stays down for a while yet. I am famished.‘Nurse! Nurse?’ I call. A young girl comes quickly to my table.
‘Yes Lottie?’ She asks
‘I beg your pardon!?’ This girl thinks she knows me, ‘You should address me as Mrs Jamieson.’
‘Lottie this is Chloe,’ Says Margaret, ‘she started here last week Remember?’
‘Oh. I must have forgotten. Sorry dear I do forget thing sometimes. Is Rose sleeping?’
‘Rose is all grown up now Lottie, and she is at home eating her own breakfast with your grandchildren,’ Margaret says.
‘I must have forgotten.’ I say.
‘Not to worry,’ Margaret says, ‘I am here to help you when you do.’
She gives my shoulder a gentle and encouraging squeeze before retreating back to the kitchen to organise the meals.
I turn my gaze back to the garden. It is a warm summer morning. Although the dining room is cool, the sight of the bright morning sun on the paved patio area outside warms my cheeks. There are little birds flitting about and pecking at the grass which is a deep lush green. They dodge about here and there, looking for a nice juicy worm to eat no doubt.
Breakfast arrives in front of me. It is heavenly. The nurses and assistants buzz around the room, busily attending to the ladies that need help to feed themselves. I don’t need help. I savour every mouthful of my thick creamy porridge and sweet juicy prunes. An absolute luxury. Usually it is cereals or tea and toast with grapefruit. I detest grapefruit. It is the worst part of my day. Being encouraged to eat grapefruit like a child.
‘Grapefruit is good for you,’ they tell me.
‘I. Don’t. Like. Grapefruit!’ Is my usual reply. I end up eating a little of it though. Can you imagine what my Mummy would say if I refused to eat what little provisions we have to spare? She would be very cross.
‘Did you enjoy that Lottie?’ Margaret asks as she removes my empty dishes.
‘It was yummy. Thank you. Can I have it tomorrow too?’ I ask. Eager to have my most tasty breakfast on my birthday.
‘I will make sure of it,’ Margaret says, ‘what would you like to do now? Would you like to go to the sitting room or the TV room?’
‘Can I play in the garden?’ I ask, ever hopeful. I’m not allowed out much because of the German planes.
‘Sorry Lottie, I have no one free to come with you right now,’ she says, ‘but, when I go for my lunch I will take you out then. How about that?’
‘Yes please,’ I reply. Margaret is so nice to me. She always knows the best things to do.
At lunch time Margaret comes to collect me from the armchair that I frequent by the bay window in the sitting room. The floral fabric is coarse and threadbare but it reminds me of home.
‘Do you still want to go outside Lottie?’ Margaret asks as she fumbles with the buckle on her leather satchel.
‘Yes please,’ I reply, I try to jump up but my body is slow. It creaks like a very old tree in a very old wood. ‘Oh Margaret, these old bones. Could you help me please?’
‘Of course Lottie,’ she says kindly as she lets me grasp her arm and she puts her other arm behind my back to steady me. ‘Ok now?’ She asks.
‘Yes thank you, it’s just the getting up bit that is difficult,’ I explain.
‘I think it is about time we got you a higher up chair,’ Margaret muses as we walk towards the door.
‘You may be right, but I would prefer just to have a cushion and keep my chair,’ I tell her, ‘it helps me remember home.’
‘Lottie?’ Margaret asks.
‘Yes dear?’ Enjoying my moment of clarity, I answer without turning to looking at her.
‘Does it ever bother you,’ she starts hesitantly, ‘when you realise that you have forgotten?’
‘It used to,’ stopping, I turn to face her before continuing, ‘but I have resigned myself, over the years that is, to the fact that I will remember less and less. I cannot change that. So I decided not to worry about something that I have absolutely no control over. Besides,’ I tell her, ‘it doesn’t matter which me I am when you speak to me. I am still me. And really dear, that’s all that matters isn’t it?’
‘You are some lady Lottie,’ Margaret smiles at me, obviously feeling less uncomfortable now that I have answered her question.
We wander our way to the main door. Margaret presses several buttons on what looks to me like a calculator stuck to the wall, beep beep beep beep beep BEEEEP, and the door unlocks. Heat from the midday sun floods the entranceway instantaneously.
Outside, the air is thick with the scent of freshly cut grass. I used to come home covered in the stuff. I wasn’t exactly a quiet child. Other girls my age would be learning to embroider or sow, but not me. I preferred to explore like Harriet Chalmers Adams on one of her journeys through South Africa.
‘Look at that child!’ Ladies in the street would say, ‘look at her dirty knees and tangled hair. She will never grow up to be a fine young lady.’
‘Ridiculous!’ Mother would say, ‘why shouldn’t you become an explorer? Why should you be forced to be anything other than you are? Lottie dear. Never, ever, stop chasing your dreams. Your father, God rest his soul, would tell you the same thing.’
Walking with Margaret is nice. She makes me feel safe. The edges of my world curl in on themselves and unfold again on a whim. Margaret is the constant in my life. My rock.
A smart young man in a suit is walking up the pathway towards us. He is rather tall and rather handsome. I nudge Margaret with my elbow ‘There is a good looking man,’ I tell her, ‘I wonder if he is single.’
‘Lottie!’ Margaret gasps as I giggle away to myself.
‘Good morning ladies,’ the handsome chap greets us.
‘Good morning sir,’ I blush. Up close he is quite a head turner.
‘I have a special delivery for a Mrs C Jamieson,’ he says in a smooth, confident voice.
I lean towards Margaret ‘Who’s that then?’ I ask.
‘It’s you Lottie.’ She says with a rather large grin on her face, ‘You got married some years ago.’
‘Oh. I didn’t realise. It must be me then,’ I tell him. I am handed a golden envelope before he bids us good day and leaves us. I turn the heavy envelope over in my hands. The back is sealed with an official looking wax stamp. Inside is a letter. I can’t read without my glasses, so I hand it to Margaret.
‘Dear Charlotte,’ she reads, ‘how splendid to know you are celebrating your one hundredth birthday today! Please accept my best wishes for a very happy occasion. Yours faithfully, HRH Elizabeth. R.’ Margaret looks up from the letter and smiles at me, ‘how exciting!’ she exclaims, ‘your very own letter from the Queen. Isn’t that lovely Lottie?’ She is taken aback by the amused look on my face.
‘What a silly lady!’ I tell her, ‘It may be my birthday, but if the queen thinks that I’m one hundred, she must be going senile!’