This book of Gert’s is unlikely ever to see the light of day, so we thought we might as well put all those words to some use. Bella Hatherley is a very resourceful child (a kind of latter-day Eloise, actually). Kitty is right. You wouldn’t put anything past her.
My imagination grew and grew until I was old enough to be swept away into the vast sea of the outside world. I was impatient to go into that great world, but having no money and no education and not even being able to do up my own shoes, I had to wait till my parents sent me to school. To Kitty Simmons they left the details of feeding, bathing and doing up shoes. Kitty Simmons lived with us. Our house was large. My mother told me it was ‘classified’ and although I did not exactly know what this meant I thought it might be on a list in a big red leather book where the Queen listed special houses. We had plenty of room for Kitty Simmons to have a flat on the side near the kitchen. Mummy said to Auntie Laura, ‘Having a live-in is a dream. It’s no use relying on Roger.’ And they both sighed and rolled their eyes and said together, ‘Hopeless.’
Ada Proyek didn’t live with us, but she was always about. Clanking her metal bucket, filling it with such great rushings of water that Kitty Simmons would frown and tutt to herself. Ada Proyek dragged her bucket across the tiled floor and sighed. The steam rose up and she pulled out the scalding mop and twisted it with her big red hands. Then she began to mop, back and forth, back and forth, muttering and sighing. She always wore her coat and scarf. Only on hot summer days did she hang up her coat, showing layers of cardigans. Her face was dark, with black circles beneath her eyes. ‘The picture of misery,’ Mummy called her. But she was Kitty Simmons’ discovery so we were stuck with her.
I asked Kitty, ‘How can Ada be grown up when she’s only a little bit bigger than me?’
‘She’s had a very hard life. And it’s only up and down, sideways she’s a lot bigger than you.’
What was a hard life? Sleeping on rocks, eating gravel?
If I asked Ada a question she didn’t take any notice. She mostly spoke to Kitty. I learned to sit very still and listen. It was best when Kitty forgot I was there. Otherwise she’d say to Ada, ‘Little rabbits have big ears.’ And to me, ‘You go and get your Doctor Pickle book.’ And I would begin to twist my face and frown and say, ‘I hate Doctor Pickle. He’s a stupid old pooh-bum.’ And that would mean getting my tongue scrubbed with soap and Ada Proyek would sigh and say, ‘If I speak like that when I’m child my father florgs me with stick. He was good man.’
‘If he did that to me I’d ring up the police. Even I could say you hit me even if you didn’t and Mummy would ring up the police. Your father was a bad man.’
‘Oh my God. Vot is she say?’ Ada Proyek would begin to screech and she would make signs and cross her chest with her hands and say, ‘Good Lord forgive, you bad bad girl.’
And then I too would cry and wail and Kitty would tutt and frown at Ada and say, ‘Now look what you’ve done. Don’t put ideas into her head. You know what she’s like. I wouldn’t put anything past her.’