The Importance of Strangers
Full of self-importance at having walking home from school by myself, I wasn’t very worried about the fact that Mummy had forgotten to meet me at the school gate. After all I had been going to school for at least six weeks and I was a big girl now. I still finished school at 2pm and knew my big brother wouldn’t be finishing school until 3pm, so it seemed that walking home by myself was the right thing to do. Mummy would be so proud of me.
I opened the back door and went inside – the house was strangely quiet.
“Mummy” I yelled, I’m home.” No response. I knew she had seemed very sad when we left for school this morning, and she seemed to be spending lots of time crying and sleeping, so I tip-toed into her bedroom.
I took one look at her sleeping on the floor and threw myself down beside her, knocking over an empty pill bottle as I landed on the floor. I retched as the smell of vomit reached me and I saw that Mummy had been sick on the carpet. I shook her,
“Mummy, Mummy,” I wailed but she didn’t open her eyes. The phone was lying next to her with the receiver off, so I put it back on. Then, I remembered what we had been taught at school and picked it up again and dialled 111. Soon an ambulance arrived and my brother arrived home from school to see Mum being put onto the stretcher.
“I’ll ring Dad,” he said loudly, giving me a warning look, and we stood and watched Mum being driven away. We both knew that Dad was in prison, but that a call to Grandma and Grandpa would bring help.
We found the number for Grandma and I dialled.
“Mum’s gone to hospital,” I told Grandma, when she answered.
“What’s the stupid woman done this time?” she barked. I started to cry,
“She was asleep on the floor, and she’d been sick, and I couldn’t wake her up,” I sobbed.
“Well, stop crying, that’s not going to help anything, and try to clean things up a bit. Is John home from school? Ok, lock the house, and walk to my place, it should only take you forty minutes or so. Make sure you bring the key with you.”
It seemed an awfully long walk but there was no bus that went this way and Grandma and Grandpa didn’t have a car.
“Why did Mummy take all those pills?” I asked John.
“I don’t really know,” he said, she’s very sad and sort of ashamed of Dad, and she says her back hurts a lot and we’re very poor now. But I don’t know why she thought all those pills would help.”
“Could she be dead?” I whispered.
“No, they wouldn’t have taken her to hospital if she was dead,” replied John with all the authority of his nine years compared to my five.
We stayed the night with Grandma and Grandpa, and the next day we took two busses to get to the hospital. When we saw Mum she was sitting up in bed and I launched myself onto her and threw my arms around her neck. “Please don’t die Mummy, don’t be sad, we can help you.”
Grandma pulled me off her and sat John and me down on some chairs. “Read your books,” she said.
We looked at our books, but listened to what Grandma was saying.” You are stupid and selfish,” she hissed at Mummy, “these children need you. Their useless father is in prison, and I’m not going to bring them up. Taking drugs and killing yourself is not going to work. Give yourself a good shake, and start looking after your kids.”
Two days later, Mummy was home and so were we. She seemed pale and sort of floated around the house. She had stopped crying but she didn’t seem to laugh either. Every meal-time she had a pile of pills by her coffee cup which she took after eating. She didn’t talk to us much, but she didn’t seem so angry and sad any more.
John and I did everything we could to help her. School was great, it was so calm and we didn’t have to worry about upsetting anybody or looking for signs that something might be wrong. We talked a lot about Mummy and how we could make her happy. We dried the dishes and tried really hard to keep the house tidy. We worked hard at school and came home bursting to tell her that we had got good marks in a test. We so wanted to see her smile.
By the time I turned seven, it seemed that John and I were the adults in the house. We had had to send Mum to hospital two more times and we sort of played a game of hiding Mum’s pills.
After the third time, John asked Mummy to sit with us and have a talk.
“Mum, why are you taking these pills all the time?” He asked. “Please don’t die, we love you and we need you.” Mummy started to cry, and I climbed onto her knee and put my arms around her neck.
“I’m a useless mother,” she said. “You are good children, and when I feel sad, I think you would have better lives without me.”
By this time all three of us were crying. “You are not a useless mother, you’re our mother and we don’t want you to die, I sobbed.
John, who was now eleven years old, said: “You need someone to help you. Grandma just gets cross, Dad is no use – I’m going to look in the paper and see if there are people who say they can help families.”
Two days later, a kind looking lady in a strange blue uniform was at the door when I answered her knock. “Is your mother home?” she asked. Mummy came to the door and looked really surprised when she saw the lady. She invited her in, and they disappeared into the kitchen and shut the door. I sat right by the door and tried to listen, but only heard bits and pieces. Mummy was crying and the lady was talking in a very kind voice.
Ages and ages after they went in, the lady came out and found me and John sitting on the floor. She smiled at us, and gave John a piece of paper with a phone number on it.
“You must be the boy who rang our number. That was very clever of you. I will come and visit your mother every week, but please ring this number if you are worried about her.”
It was so nice to have a kind grown-up coming to the house, and Mummy seemed to like her coming and always sat and talked to her for ages. A man in the same sort of uniform started coming and helping Mummy clean up the garden and even grow some vegetables. He taught me to grow radishes and John grew some carrots. He took us out to the beach and we saw the sea for the first time. Mummy was still very quiet and slept a lot during the day, but the couple, in what we learned was the Salvation Army uniform, visited regularly and there were no more overdoses for a long, long time. It seemed that these strangers who helped us were the people who kept Mummy alive and both John and I grew up believing that you should help people who are suffering even if you hardly know them.