All the World's a Stage
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Copyright© 2016, 2017 Bronwen Welsh
A sequel to 'The Might-Have-Been Girl'
Chapter 47 A temporary mother
“What sort of accident Reggie? Were you involved? Are you hurt?”
“What? Oh sorry Harriet, my mind's in a bit of a whirl. No, it's Sophie and her parents. The police rang me and they wouldn't give me details over the phone, they just said I should go to the Blackpool Victoria Hospital.”
“Reggie, slow down. Begin at the beginning and tell me what happened.”
“Sure,” he seemed to take a deep breath. “Sid graduated from strip clubs to building a new casino and tonight was the grand opening. They invited us both, but I really didn't want to go, besides I have an assignment to complete and there was the problem of getting a babysitter for Stella, so I said I'd stay home while Sophie went. Anyway, she drove down to Blackpool, and the last I heard was when she rang about eight o'clock to say they were about to go out, and to check that Stella was alright.
“The next thing was the police rang about ten-thirty to say that their car had run off the road. I asked them for details but they wouldn't say, just that I should go to the hospital, so that's where I'm driving to now.”
“Do you have Stella with you?” I asked.
“No, I managed to get Mrs Pratt from next door to come in and stay with her. I said I'd ring my parents and ask them to take over, but in the turmoil I forgot, they're on a Mediterranean cruise. Mrs Pratt said she could stay all night but she has to go to work in the morning. Now I'm at my wits' end.”
“Reggie, calm down. I've got tomorrow off, even Monday at a pinch. Why don't I go there and look after her, at least for tonight and tomorrow?”
“Would you Harriet? Oh you're an angel,” he said and I thought he was going to cry. It was obvious to me that that's what he hoped I would say, but he didn't like to ask.
“Of course I will Reggie. Now I hope you're taking it easy driving to Blackpool, we don't want another person in hospital.”
“Yes, I'm being careful Harriet, I promise. The police told me not to rush too. I don't know if that's a good sign or a bad one.”
We arranged that he would call Mrs Pratt and tell her I'm a friend, to expect me in a few hours, and that I would get there as soon as I could.. Then I knocked on Dale's door and received a very sleepy 'Come in' from him. I explained the situation and at first he wanted to drive me to York.
“Thank you, Dale, but I'll be fine,” I reassured him. I'd had some experience of night driving by now and was quite confident that I could make it alright.
“Alright, if you insist, but please ring me in the morning and tell me what's happening,” he said.
I quickly put together an overnight bag with two changes of clothes, plus toiletries and makeup. I 'dressed down' in trousers, a shirt, flat heels and a plain coat. I didn't want Mrs Pratt to think I was a flighty theatrical person and not suitable to look after a small child.
I put the bag in 'Bluebird' and started the engine, saying a little prayer for me and Reggie that we would both arrive at our destinations in one piece, and then set off heading north.
I made myself stop at Trowell once I joined the M1 Motorway to have some coffee and a bite to eat. I parked as close as possible to the building, and afterwards, feeling refreshed, I continued on my way, arriving without incident in York about 2a.m. I realised that the hard part was just beginning. How would Stella react to waking up and finding that she was being looked after by a strange woman? Time would tell, but there wasn't any other option that I could think of when Reggie told me the situation.
Mrs Pratt was a motherly woman. She took one look at me and said “You look exhausted young woman. Why don't you lie on the couch and get some sleep? I can stay until about six o'clock. Stella knows me, I've looked after her before, so we'll wake her then and I can introduce you. Have you looked after young children before?”
“No I haven't. To be honest, I think Reggie phoned me as a last resort. We've been friends for many years and he trusts me.”
Mrs Pratt looked a little dubious, but said nothing. I did as she suggested, taking off my shoes and lying on the couch. She covered me with a blanket, and the next thing I knew, she was waking me up again and it was getting light.
“I'm sorry I couldn't leave you longer, but I have to leave for work in an hour,” she said. “I'll go and wake Stella now.”
She left the room and a few minutes later returned with a very pretty little girl in her arms. Stella was rubbing the sleep from her eyes, after which she gazed solemnly at me.
“Where's Mummy?” she said.
“Mummy and Daddy are not here, darling. This is Aunty Harriet who will look after you until they come back soon,” said Mrs Pratt in a soothing voice.
Stella seemed to accept this turn of events, at least she made no objection.
“Hello Stella,” I said in the gentlest voice I could muster. “Mummy and Daddy will be back soon.” I thought to myself 'If Mummy does come back soon, what will she think of me being here? Still surely Reggie will ring and let me know before that happens.'
As if in answer to my thoughts, just then my phone began to ring. It was Reggie.
“Hello Reggie, I'm here with Mrs Pratt and Stella, what's happening there?”
“Hello Harriet. It's very bad. They ran into a tree. Sid died at the scene, Sophie's here in hospital with head injuries and they put her in an induced coma, Mildred has a broken arm and mild concussion. She was in the rear seat and came off best of all.”
“What are you going to do now?” I asked. At least he sounded calmer now.
“I really need to stay here for a bit. Sid dying changes everything. I don't know what's in his will, assuming he has one. Presumably everything goes to Mildred. I'm sure she won't want to run the business, and there's no other 'heir apparent' except for Sophie and she might not be in a condition to make decisions for a long time.”
“Does that mean Mildred will want you to run things?” I asked. I felt a cold shiver run up my spine.
“It's a possibility,” he replied. “It's up to Mildred but my guess is that she will want to sell out. I don't know what Sophie would want to do. I've spoken to the doctor and it's touch and go how she comes out of this.”
Changing the subject slightly I said “Have you spoken to the police again; do they know what caused the accident? Was Sid drunk?”
“Well there'll be an inquest of course. Sid only had one whisky as far as I know. The copper I spoke to said there were no skid marks to indicate braking, so it's possible the brakes failed.”
“Oh my god Reggie, do you think someone tampered with them?”
“Well Sid has some pretty fierce rivals, or I should say 'had'. Anyway, that will all come out in the inquest.”
“Reggie, promise me you'll be very careful. It sounds like there are some nasty characters there who will stop at nothing to get what they want. Maybe they were unhappy about Sid muscling in on their patch. Try and persuade Mildred that her best course of action is to give them what they want, and do it before Sophie can have a say in the matter. Promise me that, please. I'm not being an hysterical woman, I just don't like the sound of this at all.”
“You're right Harriet, and I promise I will be careful. My problem now is what to do about Stella if I have to stay here for a bit.”
Fortunately I'd had time to think about this.
“Well, I've got an idea about that too if you approve. She's a sweet little girl and I'd love to stay and look after her but I have to get back to Stratford early next week because I'm in the middle of rehearsals . What I suggest is that I ring Emma, my sister, and see if she can look after her for the time being. How does that sound to you?”
“Well if she can, that will be wonderful,” he said, sounding very relieved. “I'll make sure she's not out of pocket.”
“Don't worry about that now Reggie, we need to do what's best for Stella, and you. I'd better go, Mrs Pratt needs to go to work, can you tell her what's happening?”
I handed to phone over to Mrs Pratt for Reggie to explain that as Sid was dead, his wife injured and Sophie was in a coma, he needed to stay in Blackpool, for a while; also that he approved of me taking Stella to stay with my sister for a short while. He also asked to speak to Stella. I couldn't hear what he was saying of course but she did say 'Dadda', so she recognised his voice.
“I'll give you my contact details and also my sister's," I said to Mrs PRatt. "Now if you wouldn't mind telling me what I should give Stella to eat, I won't keep you from going to work,” I said.
Mrs Pratt laughed. “I can see this is all new to you. Maybe one day you'll have children of your own, so what you learn now will be useful to you.”
I smiled at her, thinking 'If only that were true'
“Fortunately for you, Stella is not a fussy eater, she loves soft boiled eggs with toast soldiers, also bananas, milk,or cereal.”
I looked at her “'Toast soldiers'?”
She laughed. “Just lightly toast a slice of bread, butter it and cut it into strips.”
“I feel such an ignoramus,” I said. “Thank you for educating me.”
“Well now, I really must go or I'll be late for work. Good luck.” She gave me her phone number and with that she was gone.
I looked at Stella who was now sitting in her high chair. “How about an egg and soldiers?” I said.
“Egg, solders,” she replied with a smile. The first hurdle had been crossed.
As I prepared breakfast for us both, I rang Emma and explained the situation.
“Yes of course you can bring her over. We'd be happy to have her. Now I know all this is new to you, so I suggest you find a suitcase and put all her clothes that you can find into it; also favourite toys, in fact any toys, they will help her to feel at home.”
After we had breakfast I washed up, cleaned up egg and toast from Stella, changed her into a dress, and did as Emma suggested and packed everything into a large suitcase. I was slightly surprised at how many clothes one small child possessed, but it was hardly appropriate for an amateur like me to be critical. It all felt rather strange being in another woman's home and rummaging through her belongings. Fortunately she would probably never know I had been there.
One thing that did bother me was that I didn't have a child's seat in my car. I searched through the telephone book and found the nearest automotive parts store and rang them. Fortunately they said they could fit one while I waited. Another problem solved. After changing Stella's nappy and fending off her regular enquiries about Daddy and Mummy, I checked that I had everything I needed for Stella, and loaded the suitcase into the car.
I sat Stella in the back seat on a pillow as a temporary measure and attached the seatbelt although it was obviously much too big for her, closed the apartment door and drove very slowly to the automotive store. I hoped they didn't think I was a child stealer, but fortunately they didn't ask any questions. I suppose they thought it was none of their business. The child seat was fitted in a short time and I sat Stella in it and fastened the straps. I now felt a lot happier about driving with her properly restrained.
I had brought some milk and biscuits with me, and stopped about half-way to Bridchester for a break, including a toilet stop. I confess I was very relieved when I reached Emma's house; being a substitute mother, even for a few hours was harder work than performing a long play. I wasn't really surprised that Mum was there too. I guessed that Emma would have rung her and explained what was happening.
Fortunately, Stella fitted in with Elizabeth and Tom as though she was part of the family. She was still asking about Mummy and Daddy, but seemed to accept our assurances that they would be back soon. I wondered how long it might be before she realised we were putting her off, or was I attributing adult understanding to a two-year-old?
I wasn't sure about ringing Reggie, so I was glad when he rang after I had been at Emma's for about an hour. He had no further news about Sophie and Mildred, however he had been to Sid's office and already there were floral tributes arriving. In addition several reporters had arrived looking for a story. One in particular asked if it was true that Sid's car had had the brakes cut? Reggie had told him that he had no information about the cause of the accident and it would have to wait until the inquest. This of course did not satisfy the reporter, and in the next day's paper, which had a prominent report about Sid's death, there was speculation that rivalry between several casino operators might have something to do with it.
I stayed at Emma's house overnight, sleeping on the couch again. I was concerned that Stella might be finding all these new people in her life rather disconcerting. Fortunately she seemed to be taking it in her stride. Being suddenly part of a larger family actually appeared to suit her very well. I spent plenty of time with her so that she would see me as a familiar figure.
Early Monday morning I had to leave to return to Stratford for more rehearsals. I was actually sorry to leave Stella behind. In less than twenty-four hours of knowing her, I had already grown attached to her and could understand why Reggie was able to ignore the fact that she wasn't his, and be very fond of her too. Stopping for a break about nine o'clock, I rang the theatre to leave a message explaining that an urgent family matter had unavoidably detained me, and I arrived there about eleven o'clock. When I briefly explained to Hannah what had happened, she was very understanding, and I believe more than a little relieved when I explained that Stella was being cared for and that I didn't expect any more interuptions to my work.
I kept in regular contact with Reggie for the next few days. After three days, Mildred was able to leave hospital with her arm in a sling, but Sophie was still being kept in an induced coma. The doctors suspected brain damage but couldn't tell how bad it might be before they could let her regain consciousness.
There was Sid's funeral to arrange, and Mildred relied heavily on Reggie for help. It was the first funeral Reggie had organised, but fortunately the funeral directors handled everything and Mildred only had to choose a casket and the flowers. A civil ceremony was organised, notices put in the local newspapers, invitations sent out, refreshments arranged, flowers ordered and the crematorium booked. Money it seemed was no object and Reggie was given a blank cheque to arrange things in a suitable manner for a local 'character'.
In due course I received the report from Reggie that there had been a big turn-out at the funeral, including a number of Sid's business rivals. “I think they were only there to make sure he really was dead,” said Reggie with grim humour. “From the tribute read out by the celebrant, which she wrote after consultation with Mildred, you'd think that Sid was a saint, snatched away too soon.”
“Have there been any approaches to buy Sid's business?” I asked.
“Not as such, just expressions of sympathy and 'if there's anything we can do to help, please let us know',” he said.
“Has Mildred said anything about selling yet?”
“She's still getting over the shock of Sid's death, but she did ask me what I thought the business is worth. As I suspected, she has no intention of trying to run it herself and I think she realises that I don't want to be involved any longer than I have to be,” said Reggie.
“Still in a coma. They've tried to being her out of it a couple of times but she can't breath unaided. Mildred says she may need the money if Sophie has to go into a nursing home.”
“So she's as bad as that?” I asked.
“We really don't know at present, but she might be,” was Reggie's reply.
After what Sophie had done to Reggie and me, I could have been forgiven for wishing her the worst, but somehow I couldn't do it. Anyway, whatever happened next was out of my hands.
Each weekend while we were rehearsing, I drove up to Bridchester and stayed with Mum on Friday and Saturday nights, returning to Stratford on Sunday evening. I spend a lot of the time at Emma's house, and noticed that Stella wasn't asking after her Mummy and Daddy so much now. A couple of times, Emma and David went out and left me to look after the three youngest children. Almost without realising it, I was learning how to look after a small child. I hoped that Reggie would come to see her soon, and mentioned this the next time I spoke to him on the phone. He promised to come to see her the following week.
“You don't think it will upset her if I visit and then leave again?” he asked.
“I really don't know much about small children but I think that's a risk we have to take,” I replied. Then another thought struck me. “When are your parents back from their cruise?”
“They came back last week. I've told them what's happened of course, and they're quite happy if Stella stays with Emma, assuming she's alright about that of course. I believe they think they're too old to look after a small child.”
“There's no problem there. Emma's very fond of her and says she can stay as long as you like.”
“You haven't said anything about her, err, background?” asked Reggie.
“Not at all. As far as everyone else is concerned, she's yours, and I think it should stay that way.”
“Thanks Harriet, I don't know what I can do to repay you for all that you've done,” said Reggie.
'Well, you could marry me,' I thought but didn't say. It didn't seem the right time.
To be continued
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Louise Anne in proofreading the text and giving me a great deal of useful advice about modern-day Britain to incorporate in the story, also Julia Phillips for picking up my punctuation errors and any typos Louise or I missed. I'm very grateful to them both.
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