Karen sipped her tea, trying not to grimace at the strength of its bitter taste as she sat on the edge of the sofa, listening to Mrs. Chapman's story unfold.
'I suppose I should start from the beginning. Alfred and I got married too young, some said, but our life together was a good one. We were happy, even though we did struggle to make ends meet at times. He worked in the iron foundry, down by the creek.' She laughed. 'He came home each night looking like a darkie, or like he worked in the mine. It was hard work and took its toll on him. He was a moody bugger sometimes. Excuse my language, but that's how it was. Anyway, despite his moods we were happy and when Evelyn was born, it was like our world was complete.'
She smiled into the distance. 'She was such a beautiful child. I would go out every day shopping for our dinner, pushing her around the town in her pram. Life was good.'
'Were there other children?' Karen asked.
'Not then.' A cloud passed briefly over Mrs. Chapman's face. 'We wanted more, but it just didn't happen.' She frowned.
'Then the war came,' she continued. 'Alfred was in a reserve occupation, so I didn't worry too much at first, until all his friends started to join up, and before long he went too. He joined the army. Evelyn was four. A lovely little girl, and a right little madam too, she was. We both missed Alfred so much.' She swallowed, then took a deep breath. 'When the telegram came, I was devastated. He was killed in action. My world fell apart that day.'
'I'm sorry,' Karen whispered.
'Yes, it was a hard time for me.' Mrs. Chapman smoothed her skirt. 'Well, for both of us really. Evelyn loved her Daddy, and missing him was hard for her too. I was on my own for the rest of the war, but managed somehow by doing a bit of cleaning at the vicarage in Osborne Road. It's just around the corner from here and they used to let me take Evelyn with me when she was off school.' She paused to sip her tea.
'When I met Bob at the end of the war, I thought it was for the best for Evelyn as well as for me. She was growing up. So, I took him in as a lodger. It was a bit of a Godsend you know, brought in a bit more money, and I liked having a man about the place again.' She hesitated again, looking back into her past.
'He was more than a lodger,' she said. 'I didn't like being on my own, and then Joe came along.' She coughed.
'Did you marry?' Karen asked.
'No.' Mrs. Chapman's face hardened. 'No, I didn't marry him. Evelyn and Joe called him Uncle Bob. He wasn't their uncle though, but he was very good to us.'
Karen looked at her enquiringly.
'We were going to marry, but he already had a wife over Southampton way. It was difficult in those days. People didn't divorce like they do now.' She laughed. 'It's funny, but it was more acceptable to have a lodger under your roof, than to marry a divorced man, even when there was a child involved.' She stopped and looked at Karen. 'Oh, don't get me wrong, there was always plenty of gossip. I knew that. But still it was better for us than not having a man about at all. That is, until...'
She stopped talking, and busied herself with the teacup, spooning in another helping of sugar, and vigorously stirring it into the already tepid tea. She gave Karen a grim smile before continuing.
'Evelyn had grown into a lovely young woman. I knew that she would be popular with the boys, and I could see that there was a fondness between her and Bob. He used to walk to the park to meet her when she was out with her friends, and when he started to worry about her and the boys, I realised how protective he was. You know, like a real father would be with his daughter.'
'What did he say?' Karen asked.
'That she was letting them do things that they shouldn't. Touching her and that.' Mrs. Chapman frowned. 'I didn't want to believe it. After all, I'd brought her up to respect herself. Nice girls keep themselves for their husbands, and Evelyn was a nice girl. That's what I thought, anyway.'
'What happened to her?' Karen asked.
'She got pregnant.' Mrs. Chapman's voice was bitter. 'After all I went through for her, and she got pregnant. She never told us who it was though. If only she'd told us, we could have helped her.'
'Bob would have made sure they got married before the baby was born. Lots of girls got married like that then. Still do, probably. There's no shame in having a baby early on in a marriage. But she wouldn't tell us. Just kept quiet. She stayed in her room for months, and when the baby was born Bob put his foot down and made her give it up.' She stopped and sighed. 'A little girl.'
'Was she adopted then?' Karen's heart was racing. 'Who took her?'
'Bob sorted it out.' Mrs. Chapman stopped again, and stared at the net curtains. 'I couldn't bear it. Evelyn was so strange - she wouldn't speak to me. I tried. Believe me, I did. The adoption people came to the house, but Evelyn wouldn't let them in her room. She had a temper on her. I hear her screams even now.' She sighed in reflection, then shook herself back to the story.
'After they'd gone, Bob went up and she stopped crying for a bit, but then the next day she wouldn't even come down to get the baby's clean nappies. I had them drying by the kitchen stove. She wouldn't let me in the room. Then when Bob came home from work he went upstairs and came back down with the baby all wrapped up in a pink knitted blanket.' She paused. 'She had pink bootees on. Evelyn made them when she was pregnant.'
'What happened?' Karen persisted though she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to hear any more.
'He took her away.' A painful expression was on her face now. 'When he came back, he said that he'd taken her to the Welfare Office in town. That's where the adoption people worked. They'd told him to bring the baby in after he'd finished work that day. That’s what he said and I never questioned him. You didn't ask questions in those situations.' She glared at Karen. 'He had our best interests at heart.'
'So you never found out where the baby went?'
'I know it seems hard now,' Mrs. Chapman justified. 'If I'd been a stronger woman, maybe I'd have fought to find out. Sometimes I wonder whether I could have helped Evelyn bring her up. I know women who've brought up their daughter's child as their own. But I had Bob and his word was law in this house.’
Karen looked at her.
'You may think it was hard, but that's how life was then. You had to respect the man's wishes. I needed him to look after me.'
'What was the baby's name?' Karen held her breath.
'We didn't even give her a name. It was too painful to put a name to her. Evelyn may have, in her own mind but we never discussed it.' She looked at Karen. 'It was too difficult what with Evelyn not speaking. When she tried to talk she just screamed and screamed. I couldn't stand it.'
'It must have been awful,' Karen said.
'She got worse after the baby was gone. Stayed in her room. She wouldn't come out even to get a bath. Just crept down to use the toilet after we'd gone to bed. I could hear her at night, creeping about the house. After a week I decided to put my foot down and tried to get her to talk to me about it. She hadn't eaten anything since the baby was taken. I took her up some soup and a bit of bread. She looked awful, just lay there on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. She wouldn't take the soup so I just sat there beside her on the bed.
'What do you say to a girl in that situation?' she went on. 'I felt so bad, like it was my fault. I remembered when Evelyn was born and what a happy time that was for me and Alfred, and tried to tell her that things would be good for her again. She was so young, and would probably marry the right man one day, then have children in the right way. She was just crying all the time, tears just constantly flowing, not making any noise though. Just silent weeping, like she was heart-broken.'
Mrs. Chapman stopped talking, her mind in past times, seemingly reluctant to go on.
'Please, Mrs. Chapman, what happened to Evelyn?' Karen was desperate to know the outcome. 'Did she ever go looking for her baby?'
'No, of course not!' She took a deep breath. 'I'm sorry, I shouldn't snap at you. But you must understand that doing that would have been out of the question, and anyway they wouldn't have let her know even if she had tried. Once the baby was given up that was the end of it.'
'Did she sign the adoption papers then?' Karen needed to know.
'They didn't need her signature. She was ill you understand. Not in her right mind.' Mrs. Chapman reached into her pocket and drew out an embroidered handkerchief. She dabbed her nose before continuing. 'The doctor was called and they took her away to Highclere. For her own good, they said.'
'I'm sorry. I've upset you.‘ Karen reached out to touch Mrs. Chapman's arm. 'I shouldn't have come.'
'No, perhaps you shouldn't,' Mrs. Chapman agreed. 'But you have now, and maybe it's time I faced up to my past. I haven't heard anything about Evelyn for years. I wasn't even sure if she was still there. I heard they were moving some of them out into homes.'
'I don't think Evelyn would be moving out yet,' Karen said. 'But she may like you to visit her.'
'I don’t know.'
Karen was silent. She tried to imagine the two women meeting up again after such a long time.
Mrs. Chapman spoke again. 'It's all been a bit of a shock to me, you coming here, bringing up all these memories. I don't think I'm ready to take this any further yet. It's a lot to take in.'
'Yes of course,' Karen reassured her. 'I only came out of curiosity really. I shouldn't have intruded on you.'
'Well tell them at the hospital that I won't be visiting at the moment.' Mrs. Chapman was adamant.
Karen blushed. 'They don't know I'm visiting you. This isn't official. I just came here on a whim really. I am sorry.'
Karen was out of her depth and needed to get out of this little cottage as quickly as possible. She wondered how to retreat without offending the poor woman further.
'Listen, dear.' Mrs. Chapman took her hand. 'I'm glad you took the trouble to come looking for me. It's just that I'm not ready to take it any further yet.'
'I must go.' Karen squeezed her hand and stood up.
'You will visit again?' Mrs. Chapman asked. 'I'd like that, really.'
Karen hesitated. 'I don't know whether I should. I don't want to intrude.'
'Don't be daft. I need a breath of fresh air now and again,' she insisted. 'Not many people drop in to see me these days. Just knock the door, any time you're passing. The kettle's always on.'
'Alright, I will.' Karen smiled. 'Thank you for the tea and your time and I'm really sorry if I've upset you.'
'Stop that. I told you I'm glad you came,' Mrs. Chapman said. 'I just need a little time to think, that's all.'
Well goodbye then.' Karen was at the door. 'See you soon.'
'Goodbye my dear.'
Mrs. Chapman stood at the door as Karen walked down the path to the street. She opened the gate and looked back then smiled as the older woman raised her hand to wave before closing the front door quietly on the bustle of the town outside.