There are some people whose soul you can see in an instant. You can see it captured in an image or in a passage from a book. After I read this description of a former nanny to two princes in William Kuhn’s novel, Prince Harry Boy to Man, I asked him a typical Hollywood question, “Who would you cast?”
Frances de Mornay sat alone in her one-room cottage. Her small roller bag was packed. She wasn’t taking very much. A change of clothes. A fleece for cold weather. A pair of plimsolls. She already had a headscarf tied over her white hair. She sat by the window looking out on the street, waiting for the coach from the church. She wanted a drink. There was a travel-sized bottle of whisky in the top pouch of her bag, but she wasn’t giving into that. No she wasn’t. Not yet. It was five o’clock in the morning. Good Lord save me from that, she said to herself silently. She could have said it aloud if she wanted. She was the only one there. As with the whisky, she’d tried to limit the time she spent talking aloud to herself, even though it made her feel less alone.
It was the whisky that’d got her there in the first place. She’d decided to move to a village on the west coast of Scotland, not too far from the railway at Oban. It was less expensive there. She had enough money at first for a small house with a garden. People left her alone. The Scots were like that, bless them. They didn’t care who you were, or once had been. They gave you your privacy. Then she’d probably had a bit too much privacy. She was just an old lady who’d been unlucky in love. Was that so bad? Who could blame her for taking some comfort from drink? That was the problem, though. Nobody blamed her, because she spoke to no one. The privacy was endless.
She had an accident in her car. No one was hurt, but it was expensive. The court appearance was costly too. The judge’s taking away her driving license was a nuisance. She lost track of her money. There were lottery tickets and occasional visits to the betting shop. She liked the horse races, it had to be said. Then there had been the ludicrous agreement she’d signed with her husband. What did she know? She’d only been eighteen when she married him. When he left her, she barely had enough to cover the rental of a flat in Kings Lynn. And no training. Women of her generation didn’t. They weren’t expected to work. If a friend of her mother’s hadn’t swept her up and arranged for a place in the Wales’s household where would she have been? That was absurd too. She didn’t know how to be a nanny. She was already in her forties when she started. She had no children of her own. Her only experience was to have lived, while still married, in a house that had an Olympic-sized swimming pool. It had attracted every child in the neighborhood. She had been a field marshal of several regiments of under-twelves in their swimming costumes.
Still, she’d rubbed along. She’d managed. She’d made mistakes. And she’d looked after those boys. She’d grown to love them. That was why it had been such a cruel joke when she’d been given the sack. The excuse was the drink. Their mother had made sure to let that out to her friends in the papers, but Frances put it down to jealousy. She’d seen how much the boys loved her. There was no appeal of course. Frances had gone to Scotland afterwards to control expenses, to hide, and perhaps, just a little, to hang her head in shame.
Before she knew it, some people from the local church were picking her up off the floor and helping her sell the house. She’d moved into this tiny accommodation that was all she could afford now. They’d been so kind to her about everything. They’d helped. She was so grateful. They’d even allowed her to get involved at the church, to help in local cases of need, not unlike her own.
That was the first thing in a long time that was more powerful than drink. She felt down near the bottom. Helping someone else who was down there too made her feel good. It was a deep sense of well-being, deeper than the anesthetic of the whisky. It didn’t take much. Delivering a hot meal at lunchtime to a shut-in. Going to wipe up the sick off an old man’s jumper who’d been too drunk to get out of his wheelchair. Cleaning out the loo of a local girl who had five children and all of them down with the flu. That was how she could help. Down on her knees in the loo. Yes, Lord. Down on my knees swilling out the bowl. That’s my prayer and that’s my thanksgiving. She was pretty sure she had helped, and the girl with the sick children had helped her, too.
They’d let her become a regular part of the church team, seven days a week. It was the one thing that was now hopeful about her life. They’d grown to trust her. She was now sixty-eight, but she still had good bones, good teeth, good hair. Her being in the papers had been forgotten about, or the people who worked at the church pretended not to know. The priest knew, but he hadn’t told anyone. He could see how much good the helping was doing her. He’d asked her to join an interfaith church group that was to travel part way with a Scottish regiment that was going to Afghanistan. Fly to London with them. Take them coffee or Cokes. Give them some small bags with treats they wouldn’t be able to get out there. Listen to the ones that were scared. Squeeze their hands if they wanted that. They were only going as far as Heathrow. Give them all a kiss and a hug and a warm send-off, and then back to Scotland. That was the plan. Church van to Glasgow Airport. Fly to London Airport. Overnight in a church hall somewhere near Staines. Then fly back to Glasgow late the next evening with another Scottish regiment just returning from Kabul. It was only forty-eight hours, but it would keep her busy, keep her occupied.
“Stop it now!” This she did say aloud to herself. She abhorred self-pity. Self-pity was what led her to the bottle. She had to choke it off before it went that far. At that moment she saw a pair of headlights on the dark street. A battered van drew up in front of her door. She went to go and move her roller bag toward the door. There was a double knock. Then a heavy-set woman with white hair like hers, wearing an anorak, and a pair of oily Nikes put her head inside the door.
“All right, Francie?”
Frances hated being called “Francie.” She also hated when people opened her front door before she could open it for them. It went with the territory, she knew. She was regarded as one of the parish’s more hopeless cases. They all expected to find her sprawled drunkenly in the middle of the floor when she didn’t turn up somewhere she was supposed to be. Allowing them the freedom to come through the door when they wanted was one of the prices she’d had to pay for their having looked after her as kindly and patiently as they had. With an effort she swallowed back the resentment that swelled up from her loss of dignity and independence.
“Good morning! Yes, I’m fine thank you.”
“Did you get any sleep last night? I was all keyed up. About London, you know? Didn’t sleep a wink.”
Frances switched off the lights and rolled the bag out on to the doorstep. “I slept like a log.”
“Well, you see. I’ve never been before. To London, I mean.”
The unworldliness of the others who worked in the church’s charity group always surprised her. “Well, the airport is hardly London. And Staines is the suburbs. Pretty grim. It’s not London either.”
“Oh Francie! You’ve been to all parts, haven’t you? Won’t you sit next to me on the coach and tell me about it? How it really is.”
Frances didn’t like the woman, particularly. Sitting next to her for any length of time she regarded as a punishment not far removed from what Our Lord suffered on the cross. She’d had comfort from her conversion, but Frances’s view of religion was not without criticism or irony. She reminded herself to be grateful. “Of course I will. What fun.”
The driver took her bag and stowed it in a compartment in the van’s undercarriage. “Mornin’ Francie!” He winked at her.
“Good morning, Frank!” Now Frances did like him. His wink made her feel as if she were about thirty-five again. She mugged for him. She went up on one toe and held her waist like a showgirl. “You rogue. I want you to keep your eyes on the road the whole way to Glasgow Airport.”
He gave her an exaggerated salute. “Ma’am!”
“That’s it. That’s the right stuff,” she muttered, audible to him, as she climbed the steps into the van. She said hello to the eight or nine others, all of whom she knew. They had all seen her at her worst. There was no pretending with any of them. She said “Good morning, good morning,” to all of them, though it was still dark out and no sign of morning or goodness, but their warmth to one another. Several of the women who’d been kind to her reached out their hands to her. She held their hands briefly, one by one, with a look in the eye to each. She came to an empty pair of seats near the back. She slid in and down on to the velour seat, her sciatica giving her a twinge in the lower back as she did so. She winced.
“All right, darling?” The woman who’d come to her front door slid in next to her. She saw the wince.
“I’m all right. Nothing but a few old lady aches and pains.”
“I’ve got a pill for that.”
“No thank you. I’ll be all right.”
“Tell me about London then.”
The van pulled away from Frances’s cottage. They had at least a couple of hours’ journey to Glasgow Airport, where they’d join forces with aid workers from some other churches. Their first duty was passing out sandwiches to the soldiers whom they’d meet in a staging area adjacent to the airport.
“Oh, it’s a long time since I’ve lived there,” said Frances.
“There are millions of people. In London, I mean. Millions. I wonder what it looks like in the dark. All aglow. In the night sky.”
Frances reflected on the sinister anti-crime lights of dozens and dozens of sulphur-colored street lamps. She thought of the reassuring rattle of taxis with their glowing “For Hire” signs. She thought of the candlelit dining rooms where once upon a time she’d been welcome. “Yes. It can be pretty. Isn’t always.”
“You have family there?” The woman had been worried by Frances’s having no evident family in the village. She was an incomer and no family ever visited her, at least so far as the woman knew, they hadn’t. Frances had an English voice. She sounded like the BBC from during the war, or maybe even before that. Before she fell on hard times, she must have had money too.
The other woman laughed gently. “Families can be like that, now. You had children?”
“No,” Frances said cautiously. She had a low profile. She wanted to keep it that way. On the other hand, there was a certain confessional ease that came from simply telling the truth. Something about the dark, and the woman’s kind, uncritical interest in her made her more willing to speak than usual.
“I looked after two little boys. For a little while. As their minder. That’s the closest I ever came. Don’t see them anymore, though. I fell out with their parents.”
The woman left a tactful pause before she put in, “You must miss them, though.”
“Yes, I did. For a while. No, that’s wrong. I do. I still do.”
Then she reached over to the woman sitting next to her. Frances slipped her hand into the crook of the woman’s arm. No, she wasn’t her favorite woman in the church group, but she had a beating heart. Of that there could be no doubt. “And I’m so pleased you wanted to sit next to me. To keep me company. Thank you.”