A Story for September: A Handbag!

Notebook and pen by Iain McIntosh

September 2017

“You should tell children the truth,” he said. “It may not always be easy, but you have to try.”

“Yes. But we didn’t always look at it that way, did we? We deceived them about so much because …”

“Because we wanted to protect them?”

“Yes. Or because we couldn’t face the truth ourselves.”

There was silence as they both thought about truth, and children, and the things we find difficult to face. Then he continued: “Let me tell you about something that actually happened. You may not believe me, or you might find it extraordinary that anybody could do this. But I assure you this happened. This isn’t fiction.”

“Not that it would happen today, of course; people feel differently now about these matters and wouldn’t be so exercised about them. But back in 1972 society was less tolerant and young women had less freedom. There was pressure, too, from families, and that could be stronger than anything society could do. Sometimes it was just too much, and people just walked away from situations they found intolerable. It was understandable enough, I feel.”

“At that time I was recently married. That’s another thing: people married earlier then, and we were still in our early twenties. I was just out of art college in Edinburgh and my wife was a very junior nurse. I had no money – none at all – and we lived on her wages. We just managed, but at the end of the month we were usually down to our last pound or so. We did not mind too much; we had a tiny flat in a street that was due to be knocked down but that had somehow escaped the planners’ enthusiasm. We were pretty happy.”

“And then our fortunes suddenly changed. I had an aunt in Broughty Ferry who died unexpectedly and even more unexpectedly left me her house and all its contents. I remember getting the solicitor’s letter and reading it three or four times before I allowed myself to believe it. I can still recite every word of that letter and the partners’ names that were printed at the bottom of the page. It’s strange how a few words – one or two even – can change a life.”

“The house in Broughty Ferry was rather valuable. I contacted the solictors in Dundee and told them that we were going to sell it. They sounded vaguely disapproving; it was as if they could not understand how anybody would not aspire to live in Broughty Ferry. They had no idea, of course, how far from my ambitions that would be. I wanted to paint; I wanted a studio in Edinburgh with northern light; I wanted to be one of the very few graduates of my year at the art college who would be able to survive as a painter. And now it was all within my grasp.”

“I arranged to go to see the solicitors to deal with the formalities. I remember the morning that I chose for the trip – it was late May and it seemed as if an early summer had arrived in Edinburgh. There was a clarity to the light, a freshness, that I found almost intoxicating. It was a day for a picnic at Cramond or a walk in the Pentlands rather than a train journey to Dundee, but the house was important and having made the appointment with the lawyers I did not want to call it off.”

“My wife was at work, but would finish her shift at noon. I left our flat and made my way up Leith Walk towards Waverley Station. I passed a furniture shop and stopped for a few minutes to look in the window. I had never bothered to do this before because everything had been out of reach; now, suddenly, thanks to the house in Broughty Ferry, that was all going to change.”

“I arrived at Waverley Station a good half hour before my train was due to depart. I had just enough money for the ticket, a taxi in Dundee, and a cup of tea. I decided to forego the cup of tea and treat myself to one on the way back. So I sat in the booking hall and watched the other travellers. It’s extraordinary how wide a slice of life you will see in a railway station if you just sit and observe, as I did that morning.”

“I had been sitting there for ten minutes or so when a young woman came to sit on the bench beside me. I had seen her a few minutes before, and had noticed the bag that she was carrying. It was one of those bags made out of carpet, rather like a Gladstone bag, but a bit bigger. I noticed her carrying it with some effort, and the thought had crossed my mind that she might have something valuable inside it.”

“I glanced at her, but we did not make eye-contact until she suddenly leant across to me and said, ‘Would you mind looking after this bag for me?’

“I looked down at the handbag. Remember that this was before we were all warned never to accept baggage from strangers. It was a more innocent time; a time before we became suspicious of one another; before the corrosive distrust that we are so familiar with toady really got going. So I said, without really thinking about it: “Yes, that’s all right.” I assumed that she was going to be away for a minute or two, perhaps to buy a paper or a sandwich, or something like that.”

“She had been gone for a few minutes when I noticed that the sides of the handbag had moved. At first I thought that the contents had settled and that this explained the movement, but then I saw a bulge appear in another part of the bag, and then another one. There was something alive in the bag.”

“I stared at the handbag in astonishment and was still staring when I heard a cry. And at that moment I realised that there was a baby in the bag. The crying rapidly became louder and more urgent, and I reached forward to unzip the bag and reveal the baby inside. There he was, looking up at me wide-eyed, with that unfeigned look of surprise that babies tend to have.”

“Pinned to the baby’s outfit was a note. It was not a long note, and it came straight to the point. This baby was a mistake. I know I shouldn’t do this, but I can’t stay and I don’t want this baby to go to my family. If they get hold of him, they’ll make him as unhappy as they made me. I mean that; I really mean that. Please take him. I am leaving for Canada tomorrow.

“I looked around me for a policeman or a station official, but there was nobody. I picked up the baby to comfort him, and he nuzzled his tiny head against my cheek. He had stopped crying now, and felt warm and soft. And then, right there in Waverley Station, I made one of the most momentous decisions of my life, and I suspect you know what it was. I did it because of the words in that note. It seemed to me that I was being presented with an almost God-like power to change somebody’s life. If the baby were to be handed over to the authorities, then presumably they might be able to trace who he was and he would end up with the family who had made the young woman so unhappy. Suddenly, and without having asked for it, I was given the chance to choose happiness or unhappiness for another person.”

“I took the baby home, having stopped at a telephone booth to cancel my appointment in Dundee. I then telephoned my wife and asked her to try to get home before the end of her shift on the grounds of a domestic emergency. When she came back to the flat and I explained to her what had happened, she looked at me in complete disbelief. Then she went to the baby and lifted him out of the handbag that was still serving as his temporary cradle. She kissed him, and put a finger into the clasp of his tiny hand. She looked at me, and I knew that she felt just as I did; it felt as if we were conspirators in an outrageous, unlikely plot.”

“We called him Ben, and we gave him a second name too: Bracknell. He was a wonderful, gentle boy, and he became a fine young man. He knew nothing about his origins, of course, until he was eighteen and he wanted to apply for a passport. I almost panicked, but then I realised that the time had come to tell him the truth.”

“We sat down, and I told him the story. I was dreading his response, in case he should express resentment, but he did not. When I had finished he looked at me and smiled. Then he said: “I’m really grateful she picked you.”

“That was all he said. He might have said, ‘A handbag!’ but he did not. He said what he said, and can you think of anything better for a child to say to a parent? Can you?”