The Orphan: a short story

This is a little story – a real, fictional, short story – I wrote a few weeks back. Actually it kind of exploded out of me in a strange fit of…umm…literary diahorrea, if I could call it that (you may describe it as that after you read it, but that’s another story!). It’s been a long time since I’ve written any short fiction, and it could probably do with a good edit, but sometimes when these things come out like that the best thing you can do for a while is stare at them and leave them as they are. 

Here it is, anyway. Hope you enjoy it. 

The Orphan

by Megan Sayer (c) 2013

Millicent lived at the Orphanage on Archibald Street, and had lived there since the death of her parents when she was five years old. She loved the grand arches of the doorways and the tall oak doors. She loved the creak of the floors above her as she studied her books and looked at her sewing during the days, and she loved the swoosh sound of the great oak branches on the roof above her as she lay in bed every night. She slept in a room with five other orphans, on a narrow wooden bed with crisp white sheets that were changed every other day by Miss Nancy, the housekeeper; and given porridge in the mornings and sandwiches at noon and pot roast in the evening for supper, with boiled potatoes and vegetables. Millicent loved boiled potatoes and pot roast, and she loved knowing that on Sundays there would be apple strudel for dessert, and for birthdays and adoption days there would be cake. Millicent loved cake.

Millicent loved the Orphanage. She took pride in keeping the crisp white sheets straight on her narrow bed, and swept the dining hall conscientiously every Tuesday evening and Thursday morning, which were her turns. She loved Miss Nancy, and Miss Hattie the cook, and Mrs Cottlebottom, who sat in her office and presided over the doings of the Orphanage at large. Millicent remembered when Mrs Cottlebottom was just new, and Mrs Hanover before that. Millicent had been at the Orphanage longer than anybody, which is maybe why she loved it. The Orphanage was home.

Millicent dreamed though, and in the mornings while she straightened her crisp white sheets, and during the days while she did her bookwork and her sewing, and during the evenings while she bathed and dressed and after dinner on Tuesday evenings while she swept the floor of the dining hall, she dreamed that one day she too would be adopted. Everybody who wants to gets adopted, that’s what Millicent believed. That’s what she’d seen, too. Everybody who wants to gets adopted eventually.

Not everybody wants to though. Everybody knew that, everyone from Miss Cottlebottom right down to the very smallest children. They’d all watched the ones who didn’t want to go, watched as their eyes turn hard on the faces of would-be parents and the frowns come over them, watched as those ones came back after afternoon visits to the park and swore never to go again. They were the ones who’d leave on their own—or sometimes with a friend—and find a job and an apartment and start a new, orphanage-free life of their own. Not Millicent though. She knew in her deepest heart that one day, if she kept dreaming, that one day she’d be adopted.

It was a Thursday morning the day her dream came true. Mrs Cottlebottom sent one of the smaller girls to fetch her up to her office, telling her not to worry about finishing sweeping the dining hall, to come and to come now. Millicent did so. She dropped her broom right where she was standing, hitched up her apron and ran as fast as she was able on trembling legs. She knew before she got there what was about to happen. Being called to Mrs Cottlebottom’s office meant only one thing.

Millicent didn’t expect that her nerves would go out on her at the last minute. She’d never once, in all the times she’d dreamed this moment, imagined that the great dark-oak doors would look so foreboding, or make her feel so small, so unlovely. She knew then, in the seconds it took for her to smooth her hair down with her hand, why it was that some of them didn’t want to go.

Taking a deep breath and an even deeper swallow, Millicent pushed open the door. “You asked for me, Mrs Cottlebottom?”

“Millicent, my dear. Come in!” Mrs Cottlebottoms’s smile was wide and welcoming, as always, and Millicent stepped inside, letting the heavy door swing shut behind her. Mrs Cottlebottom sat behind her desk, as usual, and next to her sat the oldest woman Millicent had ever seen. She was as brown and wrinkled as a sultana, and as skinny as the empty grape stalk that grew it. Her hair was powder-white, and fluffed big like a cloud, although thin enough to see through it all the way to her brown and wrinkly scalp. Her mouth was wide and pink however, and showed a row of teeth so shiny and white they must have been polished with bleach, and above that smile were eyes that glowed like diamonds in the sunshine. Millicent liked her, but found herself too shy to meet her gaze.

“Come in, dear. Sit down.” Mrs Cottlebottom indicated the chair in front of the desk, and Millicent quietly obeyed.  Her mouth felt dry and she could feel her heart beating so loudly in her chest she wondered if the ladies opposite her could actually hear it. They didn’t seem to notice, and Mrs Cottlebottom’s bright voice continued its lullaby of words and information. Millicent studied the sunlight shining through the lace curtain.

“…of course Gertrude will always…” Millicent tuned out again, tuned in to the rhythm of her heart beating, wondered what vegetables there would be with dinner tonight.

“…And don’t forget, my dear, if you ever…” Millicent suddenly realised she would not be there for dinner that night, perhaps not any other night after this either. A fat tear formed in her eye, and she opened her eyes wide, as if to try to suck it back inside.

The old lady, Gertrude, was filling in papers with peculiar spidery handwriting, her gnarled hands gripping the pen in a way that looked completely unnatural to Millicent. This woman was to be her mother. After all her years of dreaming she was finally to be adopted.

A mother of her very own.

A home. A place to belong.

There would be cake for lunch today, maybe even a chocolate one. And today the adoption cake would be for her.

Millicent went to live at Gertrude’s house. It was neat and shiny as a new pin, with polished rails leading upstairs to two bedrooms, side by side, one for Gertrude and one for Millicent. Her new bed was not narrow with crisp white linen, but wide and soft, with a mattress that sank into the middle with a body on it, and hugged that body all the night. Millicent liked it, but she wasn’t sure how much she was allowed to.

She wasn’t sure how much she was allowed to like the new things for dinner, either. Sausages in casserole. Chicken pieces with breadcrumbs on them. Real ice cream, and no apple strudel on Saturdays. Gertrude told her that she didn’t need to sweep the kitchen floor on Tuesday evenings or Thursday mornings like before, but she did anyway. She didn’t know any other way.

Gertrude, in spite of her age—or perhaps because of it—was sprightly and adventuresome. She rose early in the morning and cleaned the already-clean kitchen and polished the already-polished bannisters, then she cooked some porridge for Millicent and herself and set about her day’s activities. She volunteered at a home for unwanted cats on Wednesdays and walked with her ladies’ group on Mondays and Fridays. On Tuesdays she shopped and on Thursdays she cooked. Every morning she asked Millicent to join her, to come with her on whatever activity she had planned for that day, and every day Millicent said no thank you. She preferred to stay home and do her bookwork and her sewing, just as she had always done.

The ache in Millicent grew though. She took herself to bed earlier and earlier each night so as not to have to sit with her mother in silence, companiable or otherwise. She could no longer enjoy the soft hug of the mattress, so she took it off the bed and slept on a blanket over the springs. She could not eat cake, so she feigned illness and left dinner untouched. Then one day she stayed in bed instead of coming downstairs for porridge, and decided she may never come back downstairs at all. Millicent understood finally that she had been in the Orphanage for too many years. Her dreaming for so long of life with a family had not prepared her at all for the reality that one may really show up. Dreams are neat, and neatly contained. Dreams have beginnings and endings. Real life, like family, is a messy affair.

 

Millicent was still in bed at lunch time, when Gertrude came back from her morning at the home for unwanted cats. Millicent heard the creak as the old woman climbed the stairs and turned over in bed, set her face to the wall. She didn’t look up as the old woman sat down gently beside her on the side of the bed, but as the tears began to shake themselves up and out of her gut she began to talk.

“I don’t know how to do it, Gertrude. I don’t know how to do family. I don’t know what the rules are any more. What if I’m doing it wrong?”

Gertrude stroked back Millicent’s white hair from her face, and wiped the tears from Millicent’s wrinkled cheek before taking her adopted daughter’s liver-spotted hand in her own. She’d been in the Orphanage the longest of all, Mrs Cottlebottom had told her. Since she was nearly five years old. Sixty-five years is a long time to live in one place.

“You’re doing just fine, darling,” Gertrude smiled her wide pink smile at Millicent and squeezed her hand in love. “There are no rules.”

No rules. Just love.

Millicent looked up, finally meeting her mother’s gaze. “I waited a long time for you. I always knew you’d come. I didn’t give up believing.”

Gertrude’s eyes shone again like diamonds.

“I came for you, my daughter. Just like you knew I would.  I came for you. All these years.”

No rules. Just love.

Millicent sat up in bed and allowed herself to be encircled in her mother’s embrace. Just love.

No rules.

Gertrude took Millicent’s hand and helped her up out of bed, and the two white-haired women together slid down the polished bannister and went into the kitchen for cake.

 

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35 thoughts on “The Orphan: a short story

  1. I couldn’t stop reading, once I started. As to the ending, I’ve always loved O. Henry’s endings and this reminded me of his.

    • Thank you! I’ll have to check out some O. Henry stories again, been some twenty years since I last ready any. And I’m deeply humbled that you’d put my little thing in the same category!

  2. I like it! I like your voice. I like the unexpected twist. I like the message about accepting love. I love the idea that the orphanage is a mildly wonderful place – not a place of terror as often painted in movies and books. Often, the choice is between two GOOD things, ya know?

    • Yeah, it’s not like it’s ever going to happen. The story is really a metaphor though, for all the things we wait for that seem endless, that seem like we’re past our own use-by date, but still a part of us keeps believing.

  3. I was an orphan and got adopted at 11 years old. And i can tell you that I could totally relate to your story 100%.. well minus being an orphan until 65 🙂 anyways great story. But question, so is the old woman suppose to be her biological mother, who finally came for her?

    • OMG, Ana, wow! I’m happy and heartbroken for you all at once – happy you were adopted, and so sad it took so long! I”m sure you have a whole bunch of stories to tell. And I’m glad the story rang true for you!

      In answer to your question, no, I hadn’t thought of the old lady as her biological mother, just as a kindly old lady who wanted to make a difference in someone’s life. That line at the end, “you knew I’d come”, probably implies that, but in reality the story was an illustration of what it’s like to hope for something for years and years and years and the weirdness of it finally happening. Which is why she’s 65 (no of course that’s never going to happen!). Sometimes our dreams take an awful long time to come true.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. wow this is amazing and i am really very inspired by this amazing piece of work! i love this but I’m so sorry i am quite confused, has millicent grown up all her life at the orphanage? thanks again this is awesome and I’m about to write my short story!!! 🙂

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