Sam quietly, leaning over to turn off the tap his mother had forgotten about.
“Aye, at twelve o’clock at night. It’s only at midnight that they take in the sick bairns no doctor has seen.”
Rachel carefully poured some of the water from the pot before lifting it out of the sink and replacing it on the gas ring. She didn’t strike a match though because the gas wouldn’t light without another penny going into the meter. “Dear Lord,” she said, looking tenderly on Alice, who was now fast asleep. “Do I use my last penny now? Or wait till she gets bad again?”
All her life Carrie would remember the long silence broken only by Alice’s rasping breathing. No one spoke. They were all terrified of what would happen to Alice if there was no steam to help her breathe.
After what seemed an eternity, Rachel sank down on a chair and lifted up the bottom of her apron to mop her face. Trying hard to control the panic that was racing uncontrollably through her tormented mind, she eventually announced, “Right. There’s nothing else I can do – at eleven o’clock tonight I’ll take Alice down to Leith Hospital.”
Hannah looked at the clock and swallowed hard. “But Mammy,” she said fearfully, “it’s only four o’clock. Eleven o’clock is years away. Alice needs help now!”
Ignoring Hannah, Rachel went on. “Aye, I’ll take her down to the hospital and stand in the queue along with all the other paupers.” Here she lowered her voice to a whisper, “And I just hope, I do, that they’ll take Alice in.” She hesitated and sniffed loudly before gulping, “… as a … charity case.”
“But how’ll you get her there? It’s at least a thirty-minute walk away,” asked Hannah, who knew that six-year-old Alice was so ill she was quite unable to walk there. And she also knew full well that, much as Rachel would want to, she couldn’t possibly carry Alice all that distance.
Rachel shook her head and bit her lip. The time ticked slowly by and the children felt almost deafened by the silence that pervaded the room. Then a slight smile began to appear on Rachel’s face and a brightness sprang into her eyes as she jumped from her chair and ran from the scullery into the bedroom, which lay completely empty except for the old pram that Rachel had pushed her five children in. She’d meant to give the pram to poor Mrs Wilson upstairs but there was something about it, with its battered old hood and wobbly wheels, that reminded her of happier days – those times when Alice used to be propped up at the top end of the pram and Paul, legs dangling over the side, deposited at the bottom, while Carrie and Sam hung on to the handles – those long-gone days when Hannah skipped up the road in front of them all and lack of money had been her only worry.
Rachel wheeled the pram out of the bedroom and into the scullery. “Right now!” she said emphatically. “We’ll give it a real good wash, dry it, put a pillow and blankets inside and, if Alice curls up her wee legs, that’s how we’ll get her down to the hospital.”
Hannah grinned before asking, “Will I put the last penny in the meter then and light the gas again?”
Rachel nodded. “Aye, let’s go full steam ahead.”
Relief soaked into Carrie. She sidled over to Alice, lifted up her clammy hand and kissed it. “Everything’s going to be fine noo, Alice. Our Mammy’s her old self again.”
Sam, who was also awash with relief, sniffed and pushed out his chest. “Ye’re bluidy richt, Carrie. Oh aye, we mightnae win this blinkin’ war but at least noo we’ll hae a fighting chance.”
At exactly eleven o’clock Rachel lifted Alice and wrapped her in a blanket, remembering to raise the pillow before laying her gently into the pram. Hannah opened the outside door to let her mother out. Rachel paused for a second. “Now,” she whispered, eyeing each of her children in turn. “You know you are not to answer the door to anybody.” Then,