A Mourning Walk

 

The morning shift in the town’s cctv monitoring station was drifting by, painfully slowly. The young trainee on duty, desperate to make an impression, had seen nothing of note during the morning, and was now engaged in watching the progress of a fly across one of his screens.
A small movement on one of the monitors grabbed his attention, as a woman with a small pushchair moved past Body Shop, and across the precinct.
‘Guv,’ he called to his supervisor, who was resting his eyes under the cover of a Daily Mirror, ‘ this woman here, with the pushchair, I’ve clocked her every day for three weeks, always the same time, 11.55 precisely, same direction, wearing the same black clothes. What’s with this strange ritual, coming to a stop, standing there praying for a minute or so? Anything in that, do we check her out?’
The supervisor yawned, belched, rubbed his eyes clear of sleep, and pulled a wry expression across his face.
‘I should have told you about her, lad. That’s Nancy Semple, Mad Nancy as she’s known in the town. Poor woman, such a sad case...sad case’.
The junior returned to his screen, and zoomed in on the woman. He could see that she was speaking to the pushchair, and he increased the volume of the directional microphone. A reedy voice echoed through the room.
‘Don’t cry, baby, we’ll soon be home. No, no, don’t worry about your brothers and sisters, they’re all fine and warm, and Monitor’s looking after them’
‘How many children has she got?’ asked the trainee.
‘That’s the tragedy of it, she doesn’t have any’
‘You mean the pram’s empty?’
‘Not exactly. She’s got a doll in there. I’ll tell you the whole sorry story. Three years ago, Nancy was happily married and had a baby son. After maternity leave she returned to her job at Manton’s, you know, the big store at the top of the town. She and her husband were able to manage the child-minding duties between them. One day, I think it must have been a Thursday, late-night shopping, she returned home late from her shift, to find her husband and baby unconscious. They were rushed to hospital, but, sadly never regained consciousness. I don’t know the full facts, but I heard that it was caused by a faulty boiler.’ He pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose .
‘Nancy was devastated by grief, as you can imagine, and, unable to cope, was taken into intensive psychiatric care for several months. She’s relatively stable now, and has been home for some time, but since the tragedy she has been driven to find substitutes for her baby. Those substitutes are dolls. She steals them from the store where she used to work. She thinks nobody knows that she takes them from the Toy Department, but, of course, they do, and being compassionate people, and knowing her history, they turn a blind eye to it. What happened to her has touched everybody’s heart.’
*****
Nancy has reached the haven of her flat. Opening the front door she calls out ‘Babies, Mummy’s home.’
She feels reassured by the warmth of the flat, and the flickering light coming from the living room. The forty inch television monitor on the wall is doing its job, and she greets her family again. ‘Hello, darlings’. A series of small clicking sounds is heard, as 32 pairs of mechanical eyes swivel towards her, and then back to the screen.
Removing her coat Nancy almost trips over a figure lying on the floor. Her heart misses a beat, and she screams
‘ Oh, Hettie, what is it, my love?’. Gently picking up the small threadbare doll, she strokes it, making gentle soothing sounds. Tears pour down her face and splash on the cracked biscuit-fired face of the doll, but the eyes remain closed. ‘Oh, Hettie, my little Hettie...’
Wiping away her tears, she takes a cardboard shoe box from a cupboard, and lays Hettie in the wrapping of black crepe paper inside the box, and then places it in a space under the stairs, alongside many other identical boxes.

Nancy Semple did not appear on the screens the next day. But she was back on the following day, this time from a different direction. She had made a detour, and visited the town’s cemetery. On one of the graves she had placed a black-edged postcard. It read simply, ‘We’ve lost our little Hettie, but we’ll have another one very soon.’

 

Robert Gregson

 

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