It’s probably a few days later that for one of many times pneumonia comes calling and I end up in an oxygen tent at the Paddington Green Children’s hospital. But because memories are never secure, I may have conflated these events in my head. One thing I do remember is that l like the waiting area in Paddington Green Children’s hospital. They had rocking horses there, some large and some small. They were magical. If I was well enough Mum would allow me to ride one of them. I wished that I could take one home, and for years I prayed for a pony. At church they said if you prayed and really believed then your prayers would be answered. This is why I prayed and believed that one day when I returned home there would be a rocking horse, and as I grew older the rocking horse prayer turned into a pony with a white star like Black Beauty and then into a Palomino golden horse. None of my prayers were answered. I recall being in a hospital bed saying,
“Mum I feel as if someone is sitting on my chest and they won’t get off me.” I complain to my mother. I didn’t like the plastic canopy that covered me. I’m overjoyed when they take the oxygen tent off. As I recover in the crisp white cold sheets of my hospital bed, a little boy with flax like hair and blue stripped pajamas chats to me none stop. His name is Tommy and he teaches me a song,
“Yum- yum, chewing gum stick it up a lady’s bum, when it’s brown pull it down, yum, yum chewing gum.” It makes me feel so proud when I’ve learnt all the words and I feel excited to sing it to my mother when she visits. My mother is the only person that visits me and to tell the truth I don’t want anyone else to visit. I wished she would stay.
My Mum is not amused with my new song. “Who taught you that?” I point to the little boy in the bed opposite and say “that kid over there. “Don’t point it’s rude,” my mother says and scowls her disapproval. Thinking back, I’m not sure if the disapproval was of my pointing finger or Tommy. My mother continues,
“Well, I never, the children of today.” She never says or calls us “kids” she always tells us not to use that “American word.” “A kid is the offspring of a goat and I’m not a goat!” “I don’t want to hear that from you again. You understand me?”
“Yes Mum,” I reply committing the rhyme to memory.
The nurses in their white aprons and funny hats perched on their heads try to get me to eat,
“Come on luv, you must have something,” they extoll.
I make excuses, the truth is I just don’t feel hungry.
“I don’t like porridge.” I lie. At home I live mainly on a diet of ‘Cheeselet Crackers’ tiny square cheesy crackers and my bottle of milk. I drink out of a bottle until a little after the age of five and start school. I probably would have taken my bottle to school if it was allowed, but I can still drink out of it when I get home.
“Would you like cornflakes then?” A nurse asks with a smile in her voice. Finding it difficult to breathe, I croak out an answer. “Yes.” I really don’t want to speak it hurts my chest to speak. I want to just nod my head. But my mother has cautioned me with “it is rude to just nod your head,” and it sounds like an alarm in my brain. The truth is I hate the cold milk they pour on my cornflakes. At home if we’ve cornflakes as a treat, my Mum uses warm milk, and it must be “gold top” with the yellow cream at the top of the bottle. In the summer we keep our milk bottle in cold water on the window sill so that it doesn’t curdle. Sometimes my Mum lets Paul and me put the cream from the top of the milk bottle into a jar and we take turns in shaking it. Eventually the cream turns into globs of soft butter. So, lying in the metal framed bed I stir the cornflakes around in the bowl until it’s a mushy mess and leave it uneaten.
Each day my Mum visits and as she’s leaving says to me,
“Ann Ann.” “Ann Ann” is what my baby brother Paul calls me. “Ann, Ann, do you want me to bring you anything from home?’ My answer is always the same,
“May I have a corned beef sandwich?” I have to say “may” as my Mum reminds us all frequently of the difference between “can” and “may” and so I make sure to phrase my question correctly. (Canned “bully beef” is a treat we’ve every Saturday one can of corned beef serves five to seven people and visitors too). I’m too weak to eat anything, but I still ask and my mother brings them, little triangles of homemade crusty white bread with a dark red filling which find a home in the dustbin when the nurses spot them.