They picked me up. That’s as lovely as it was. No hours of pouring over baby photos. No nights of purposeful love-making. Just a drunken party and a mischievous errand.
The Raleigh Ball, to which my parents still attend every year, is nothing short of a night of melancholy and a fine flow of whiskey, port and red wine.
April, nineteen oh four, on the cusp of warm spring evenings, my parents over-indulge themselves, giggling to one another like a pair of squawking parakeets. Intoxication led them to take the horse and cart back home rather early that evening. Tipsy, I supposed they assumed a sense of daring courage. For heaven’s sake, they’d just driven home; drunk!
Mother called Mary Lee, the head maid. She wanted a baby, that’s what Mother told her. She ordered Mary Lee to fetch her coat and find a suitable candidate. And she was not to come home until she had a screaming babe in arms. Heaven only knows where Mother and Papa intended to find one.
Hesitant, Mary Lee arrived home empty. She seemed a ditsy one – unaware of the awful persuasions of drink on a mind and the danger posed through disloyalty to my mother.
Mother had berated her and sent her out once more with the threat of her release on the morning train looming over her head.
She arrived no sooner than an hour later with myself wrapped in a greying blanket and bundled in a woven bread basket.
“Lord Heavens!” was my father’s greeting. The feelings of being on top of the world were sorely ridden. He loomed over me stiffly.
“Helen, what is this?” he bellowed.
I cried at his tone. What a vicious arrival! Mary Lee came to my aid whilst mother stumbled in ungraciously. Mary Lee curtseyed, protectively cradling my head.
“Well, I could ask you the same thing!”
Amnesia was, clearly, already in place.
“Mary Lee, who is this child?”
So the threadbare tale unravelled. Mary Lee eased them into it as much as was possible with two well-respected and wealthy people bearing the titles ‘Lord’ and ‘Lady’ who seemed not to have lived the previous night.
I was the by-product bastard of a notorious town prostitute. But now I had woven my way into one of the area’s most affluent households.
“Mary Lee, you’ve to take her back!” cried mother as though a child may be returned and refunded as flippantly as jewellery.
“My Lady, with all due respect-”
“If you’ve my respect in mind, Mary Lee, you’d obey my direction to the letter. Now be off with the child and make no conviction that it has spent the night here.”
Mother had her fetch the woven basket and, for the second time in twelve hours, it was my transportation through town.
Our outing, however, was fruitless. We returned. My real birth mother had fled. Free of unwanted luggage remaining in the vicinity would only have increased her chances of it returning. Mary Lee related the news but Mother had her maintain the search for another week all the while under strict orders not to reveal the contents of her squirming basket of bread.
They had little choice, once the lady who had brought me into the world was not to be found. Anonymous adoption centres were brimming and, I suppose, Mother and Papa could face having to sign their names in order to hand me over. The idea of having their signatures in the public domain through the adoption register was one of mutual disagreement.
And so I stayed, with my little alibi. I was the daughter of my father’s cousins, both of whom had passed away in an accident in the rural Highlands. Far-fetched yet conceivable; that’s how they kept me.
Of course, the part of the story that kept the truth alive had to go. Mary Lee was sent away, a degrading but slightly complimentary reference in hand. Mother went to the trouble of arranging her a position in rural France. There, if she thought to tell what she knew, there was no way that it would reach back to the respected voices of England, much less be believed.
Or so they wanted to believe. I was seven when I found the envelope. I had, at this point, grown a stealthy and manageable distance from my parents. They were out most of the season at shooting luncheons. The rest of the year consisted of dinners, parties, gatherings at the off-peak shooting lodge, talks and occasionally visiting veterans – though that was mainly to uphold appearances.
Left alone, it is a child’s curious disposition to nose. Though my childhood was different, I was still a child, as it would appear my parents had forgotten.
I was ransacking Papa’s oak drawer to see if I might find a suitable substitute for my broken pencil, when I saw a small brown envelope bound with string. Only it wasn’t addressed to Papa but to me. April, it read. April.
Well, if it was addressed to me, I hoped there was a jolly good reason why Papa had taken it.
I read through the letter. Much of Mary Lee’s writing was so lacy that I could only pick up fragments of what she had wanted to explain.
The Raleigh Ball…carriage driving…port…want a baby…“Get your coat”…ran away…had to stay...now, I have to go.
And with that, I had the entire story. ‘Unwanted bastard of notorious prostitute’. It wasn’t a flattering title and not a patch on Lady Helen Whitley or Lord Matthew Whitley as were my mother and father. But at seven years old, before I could really attach much emotion to the revelation, I had found out the truth.