The matron, along with the man Matilda mistook for a tradesman, hauled her along a corridor, up some stairs and into a room with five bathtubs. He took her suitcase and left; she took three inches of Matilda’s hair, exposing her ears and neck, and told her to strip and get in the bath. The nearest held a shallow span of grimy water, but when Matilda sidled to an empty one, the matron called her back. When she went to pull the plug, the matron barred her way. “Get in the bath, you trollop.”
Matilda began to shake. “It’s dirty.”
“And so are you.”
She told herself she did not need the woman’s good opinion. Just as she had told herself she did not need to please the nuns. But she was wrong on both counts. The matron would not leave the room until she stepped into the chill, grey water.
Matilda did not object to bathing: a warm bath might ease the aches from her fall in the vestibule; a clean bath might help heal her postpartum wounds. But this was neither. As soon as she heard the key turn in the door as the matron left, Matilda climbed out, planting wet footprints on the cork mat.
Throughout the trials of her teenage years, Matilda had found comfort in remembering her mother. She would talk to her in her mind; not quite conversation, but more immediate than prayer. Although, naturally, she could not hear any reply, Matilda sensed her mother’s guidance. So now, imagining her mother recommending she dress and await the opportunity to explain the situation to some higher authority, Matilda felt calmer. Until she realised her clothes had disappeared. Then she made herself numb and, when fear bubbled up in her, she forced it down, became a statue, cold as marble. Ghyllside could not be any worse than the nunnery, and she had survived that. Things would improve when she met the other girls. This purgatory could not persist forever.
She was seated on a stool, naked and shivering, when the door opened and a nurse, who looked no older than Matilda herself, dropped a basket of mud-coloured cloth at her feet. “Get dressed!”
Summoning the dregs of her dignity, Matilda stood and extended her hand. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Matilda and you are – ?”
“Very busy. So look lively.”
Matilda found some underwear in the basket. Her skin crawled as she dragged on someone else’s bloomers and petticoat, but she would be better equipped to enquire about her own clothes if she was half decent. “There’s been a mistake. These aren’t mine.”
“You’ll wear what you’re given.”
Like at the convent, although the girls’ baggy smocks served a purpose there. “Thank you, but I don’t need charity. I brought a suitcase of cardigans, skirts and blouses, but it seems to have been mislaid. A gentleman took it and the lady must have taken the frock I was wearing. Red, with white spots.”
“You’ll get it Friday.”
“Thank you, but please don’t go to any trouble. It does not require laundering. I can rinse the stain from the bodice at the sink.”
“It does not require laundering.” The girl mimicked Matilda’s elocution-class vowels. “You’ll get a shock when you find there’s no servants at your beck and call.”
Matilda rose above the juvenile spitefulness. “I expect to be gone by Friday. I would hate to waste your time.”
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