I watched with no real interest as the ill-dressed young woman struggled to manoeuvre the baby buggy around the road works. She must have been frozen, it wasn't that warm on the bus I was sat on and for the last week temperatures had struggled to get above freezing point.
I guess she was your typical waif that you can see in any town or city. She looked to be about 16, a gym slip mum, money was obviously tight, the buggy was new but the girl couldn't afford a pair of tights to keep her stick like legs warm. I couldn't see her face very well as her straw coloured hair blew around her head, but I guessed at a pale but pretty appearance.
The bus moved forward and as we re-passed her she gave the bus and its occupants a longing look. For this young mother even a bus ride was beyond her means. On this road the only likely destination was another mile on, the town centre. I shivered in sympathy but like the other vignettes you see from the windows of a bus, it passed into the recesses of my mind probably to be soon forgotten completely.
With only a couple of weeks to go before Christmas, Otley town centre was bustling, Christmas lights, decorated windows, the Sally Army band, well you get the picture. I wasn't myself out present shopping, more mundane I'm afraid, I need a new percolator, the old Braun blew up in the week!
So I did the rounds and eventually settled on a new coffee maker and made the purchase. As I was in town I thought I might as well have a mooch around, it's not a big place but it serves a wide rural area so we've got oddities like a saddlers and the market place has seven pubs! The usual market stalls were currently supplemented by a few extras selling Christmassy stuff; you know baubles, trees, lights, cheap toys and the like.
That's where I saw the girl again, in front of a toy stall. I don't know why but I found myself watching her as she knelt by the buggy and pointed to things on the stall. She picked up one of the cheap stuffed animals, but put it back down with a longing look. She moved along and I found myself following as she looked at the various stalls. I glanced at the toy stall; the bear she'd looked at was just £1.99 ($4).
I found myself fascinated with her, as she awkwardly manoeuvred her offspring around the town. She was indeed quite pretty beneath the world weary look, the thin too small jacket declared her almost flat-chested, her bare legs blue with cold, feet encased in cheap flat slip-on's without as much as socks. Several times other women stopped her to look at the child, perhaps in concern at the mother's appearance, maybe just that fascination women seem to have with babies.
The town hall clock struck three; damn I've missed my bus, may as well get a coffee. I don't know why but I felt a compulsion to do some thing for the young mother. Buy the bear for the baby? No, too much like charity. I glanced to where she was looking in the window of a clothing store, she was shivering incessantly. I made my mind up.
“Excuse me miss?”
She turned to see who had addressed her.
“Can I buy you a coffee?” I know it's a terrible pickup line, but that wasn't my intention. I reckoned a coffee and a bus ticket would ease my conscience, after all it could be my daughter from my broken marriage. She didn't, as I feared reject my offer out of hand but considered her answer.
“Thanks but I don't think I should” there was a look of longing for that coffee in her eyes though. I decided to pursue it further.
“Look it's not a pickup, I saw you walking in earlier, you must be frozen. Come on humour me, it's only a coffee.”
This time she replied quicker, it was obviously too tempting.
“Okay then, thanks.”
I led the way to the ‘Old Red Bull'; they do good coffee and snacks on market days. She hesitated as I ducked into the door.
“Come on, you're allright, we're only having coffee.” I told her.
I commandeered a table, stowing my coffee machine in a corner and helping get the buggy close to the table. I left the still shivering child, for I thought of her as that now, clucking over the baby while I went to order. The bar man gave me a funny look as he glanced at my companion but made no comment. I returned to the table with the coffee and a couple of hot pasties, I could see the unasked question in those sad eyes.
“I thought you could do with one of these,” I placed the plate by her, “what about the baby?”
“I've got her bottle?” she hunted in the bottom of the buggy and produced the babies bottle. There was disappointment on her face as she realised it was cold.
“I made sure it was hot when I made it up!” she was nearly in tears.
“Come on give it here.” I took the bottle and got the barman to supply a jug of hot water to warm it in.
“There. A few minutes in there should do it,” I stated.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked as I poured the coffee.
“Just a sucker for a pretty face?”
She coloured up.
“I mean really, why?” she pursued.
“Call it my good deed for the day.”
“I don't even know your name” she went on.
“Martin, Martin Dale” I offered my hand.
“Joh, er Jenny Brown, nice to meet you Martin Dale” she shook my hand.
“And you Jenny Brown, what's the baby called?”
“April” she looked in on the still sleeping child “because…”
“She was born in June right” I finished for her. She giggled at my bad attempt at humour.
“Now that we're properly introduced, how about you eat that pasty before it gets cold” I suggested.
I watched as she tucked hungrily into the hot pastry, sipping on my coffee. She looked almost feral as her eyes danced around the room as she ate, finishing the snack in double quick time. I saw her eyes glance at my as yet untouched plate.
“Go on Jenny, I'm not that hungry really.”
“Please, eat it” I told her. If she used a bit of make up she'd look really quite pretty I mused.
The second pasty was consumed in a more leisurely way.
“So how come you two are out in this weather?”
I could see the fearful look in her face.
“Sorry, none of my business.” I back pedalled.
She seemed to be thinking over something as she took a mouthful of coffee.
“What do you see Martin?” she finally asked.
I answered carefully to try to avoid offending the girl again.
“I see a young mum struggling to get by, on her own maybe.”
She came to a decision then, one that would change both of our lives.
“Martin, you seem like a decent guy, and I'm grateful for the food and coffee but you don't really want to know more about me and April.”
“Let me judge that.”
“Don't say I didn't warn you then.” April stirred in her pram.
So I poured more coffee and Jenny made herself more comfortable before starting.
“I guess it all started nearly two years ago. I was sixteen and in the lower sixth and the school Christmas dance was coming up and I was dead chuffed to have a date with Fran Wentworth.”
My mystified look at this statement led Jenny to start again.
“Sorry, I should say that my name then was John Baxter, I'll explain in a bit.”
That explained the flat chest at least!
“Anyway that dance with Fran led on to us dating regularly and one thing led to another and we were soon having sex. Fran was doing better than me at school and expected to get A grades for her A-levels, me B's at best. Well the summer holidays came round and we saw a lot of each other, and I mean a lot!” she smiled at the memory before taking on a more sombre expression again.
“It was Halloween when she told me she was pregnant with this one” she indicated the sleeping babe.
“Our parents of course went ballistic, but we decided to keep the baby, Fran was Catholic so it wasn't much choice really I guess. I decided to drop out of school to get a job, I know it was stupid but I was only 17 and my parents are not exactly flush, so I felt it my duty. I got a stable hand job, you know mucking out and stuff. Fran stayed on as long as she could, the school was really good, we were hardly the first pupils to become parents after all.”
She checked on the babe again before going on.
“It was all arranged that Fran would have the baby and go back for her exams.”
Jenny started to tear up now. I offered a paper napkin that she used to blot her eyes.
I waited while she collected her thoughts again.
“Well it was going okay, my job was ok, Fran and the baby were alright and then it all went wrong.” she dabbed her eyes again.
“Fran went into hospital and I was there when April was born but there were complications and ... and.” She was having trouble telling this; I wasn't sure why she was. I don't think she knew either.
“Fran died?” I guessed reaching over to comfort the girl. The baby seemed to pick up on her parent's mood and started to fret.
“Come to mummy sweetums.” she picked up her daughter and calmed the child expertly. She checked the bottle of formula and with April safely cradled and feeding went on.
“They tried to save her but she died two days later. The Wentworth's blamed me, if I hadn't got her pregnant, well you get the picture. My parents were more supportive but not for long. Fran's parents wouldn't even talk to me and they disowned their new grand daughter too. I lost my job, I had to look after April, my mum helped from time to time but she has a job that we all relied on for income.”
“More coffee?” the barman offered.
“Jenny?” I asked.
The new supply of caffeine arrived and Jenny took up her tale again.
“It was okay for a few weeks, April was good, Mum helped with her when she could and I thought things would be okay. I had plans to go back to school, April could go to the crèche next door.” She burped the child and laid the now satiated child back in the buggy before going on.
“I don't know what sparked it off, I think I was trying to borrow a few quid to buy something for April, my income from social services was, is barely enough to feed us. Anyway mum went ballistic, started screaming that I was a waster and sponger, Dad kept quiet, Mum's temper is legend, next thing I know April, Me, the pram and a bag of Aprils stuff are all being loaded into Dad's old Metro. April was crying, I was crying and Mum was still ranting. ‘Michael take ‘em somewhere, anywhere I don't care, I never want to see ‘em again! And take these with you!' the last thing she shoved in the car was a bag of what I guessed were my clothes.”
Jenny added more sugar to her coffee. How could this happen in 2006?
“Anyway, Dad tried to calm me down as we drove, Mum's got him under her thumb and even over this he didn't want to get on her wrong side. He said that she'd calm down, that we'd be home in a few days at most. We drove up here to my Gran's, she's a bit strange but okay I guess. That was back in August. Gran was pleased to have us but she's only got her pension so money's really tight”
“Erm, did I miss something, why are you dressed like a girl?” I interjected.
“Sorry Martin, well like I said I thought I had a bag of clothes when I got to Gran's but they turned out to be some of Fran's that she left at my house. A couple of skirts, tops and underwear, so my wardrobe was a t-shirt, football shorts and a bag of girls stuff. I could get by for a few days but it soon became clear we weren't going home anytime soon.
It was Gran's idea, I mean we didn't have the money to buy me clothes and look after April. So I started to wear Fran's stuff, just round the cottage at first but it was getting a bit dodgy trying to hide all the time when the home help and nurse came round.
Someone must have seen me dressed up coz a bag of girls clothing was donated to Gran at the lunch club one week. I think she was too embarrassed to tell any one it was her grandson not granddaughter staying, after all Gran often took April out for a stroll so most of the village knew about her.”
“Couldn't you get social services to help?” I asked.
“We tried but the message we got was that they would be able to help a single mother but single dad's were on their own. So I sort of became April's mum. It was just easier; I had the clothes, and the baby and the village all thought I was girl anyway so I went for it. Money's still really tight but at least we can keep the cottage heated. Gran's okay with it, I think she enjoys the deceit and she named me Jenny after her mother.”
“What about your parents?” this story was pretty incredible.
“I haven't seen Mum since I was thrown out but Dad's been a couple of times, he brings April stuff, I don't think Mum knows.”
“So why did you come in to town today? It's freezing and you're not exactly dressed for it?”
I realised I'd stepped on a nerve as she once again coloured up.
“Sorry, Jenny. I didn't mean to upset you” I apologised.
“No it's alright Martin. Me and Gran, we've saved some money so I can buy some more clothes, not much but a few bits. I walked in to save enough for a drink, but you offered first.” She apologised, "But I don't know what to get, I thought about getting some guy stuff but I need to be Jenny for April. I've never had to buy girls stuff before, what I've got is all given, even my pants.”
“You've not got any friends who could help?”
“There's only one girl my age in the village and well it would be too embarrassing to tell her all this.”
She checked the baby again.
“Look thanks Martin for listening and the coffee and stuff but I need to get home”
I looked out of the pub window. The market was starting to pack up and it was dark, the whole looking very seasonal. I checked my watch, four thirty, another bus missed due to Jenny and April Brown!
“You can't walk back home on that road in the dark, you'll get killed. Humour me, let me pay your bus fare home.”
“No really Martin, me and April will be okay.”
“Be sensible lass,” I couldn't think of her as a him at all.
“Okay Martin, thanks.”
“Look I've got a couple of things to get, I'll meet you at the bus station.”
She nodded in agreement and I helped her get the buggy back onto the street.
I made sure she was headed the right direction then dived off to make my purchases. I don't know why, but Jenny's story struck a chord, the doting Dad willing to do anything to keep his child. I didn't really expect to find them at the bus stop, but I guess sense worked through.
I paid the fare when the bus arrived, fortunately it was a buggy friendly job and Jenny gratefully seated herself in the warm interior. We got some funny looks, I am after all old enough to be Jenny's father so we made an odd couple particularly with the pram, there was some muttering from the matrons as they boarded but Jenny seemed to miss the connection.
“Jenny, don't take this wrong” I hesitated.
“Spit it out then.”
“Well I got you these, no strings, just accept them as an early present.”
She looked at me askance as I passed the bag to her.
“Please, don't argue. Call it easing my conscience, go on have a look.”
She opened the bag and digested the contents. A pack of panties, a couple of pairs of tights, a small makeup kit and that cheap stuffed bear.
She started to tear up. “Thank you Martin” she managed.
“It's not much” I started.
“It's more than enough,” she leant over and gave me a peck on the cheek, “thank you.”
I helped the young woman manoeuvre the buggy off the bus and watched as she waved to the departing bus.
I've seen Jenny a few times since then, we do after all share a bus route, money is still tight for her and her Gran, but she has a warmer wardrobe now and looks quite the country girl with her ponytail and wax jacket. She's even started to wear a bra, that bastion of womanhood, giving her a quite nice figure.
If we meet in town, I always buy her a coffee and she tells me her news. Apparently the Wentworth's have been in contact and asked if the girls would visit but her own Mum is still not speaking to John or Jenny. Mr Baxter visits his ‘girls' about once a month and seems to have accepted Jenny's choice.
She did tell me a couple of weeks ago that that first meeting was a turning point for her. My ‘charity' gave her the strength to go on. I introduced my own daughter to Jenny and April when she visited a few weeks ago. Sarah and Jenny seemed to ‘bond' straight away, I've not told Sarah about Jenny, which is for Miss Brown to tell her.
It did something for me too. It opened my mind; I don't take people on first appearance so much, after all, that pretty girl might just be a guy!
Maddy Bell 03.11.03 © 2003 (revised
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