I rise at 5am, as I do every day, and I make my rounds of the dormitories. They are empty now, and it has been many years since children laid their heads there. It never hurts to inspect them nonetheless. Glass cases now occupy the rooms, detailing the daily routines of the children. Printed text refers to each child as a foundling, idealising the children that were left here to preserve the moral characters of their unwed mothers.
I do not blame the children, and I do not even blame the mothers. Who among us has not let slip our moral guard from time to time? No, I do blame the authors of this text, for they never encountered some of the little darlings. One would be hard pressed to describe Johnny Mayhew as an angel after five minutes in his company.
I complete my circuit of the building by 8am. I reach the central staircase in time to see one of the living unlock the front door. I cannot remember her name, for she has not worked here long. She has a cloud of red hair and a scattering of freckles across her nose. The girl is kind to the visitors and she leaves the remains of her sandwiches outside for the birds. I am predisposed to like her. I watch her fiddle with the electronic contraption in the entry hall, and the incessant beeping stops.
I follow her around the hospital, now called a museum. She straightens up and readies the building for the trickle of visitors who will no doubt tramp across the floors, leaving sticky marks on the exhibition cases and disgusting smells in the lavatories. At 9 am, the red-haired girl opens the front door, admitting a stream of early morning sunlight into the foyer.
I dare not stray too close. I miss seeing my beloved London, even if it is only through an open door, but I do not trust the light. I have seen it once before – I avoided it then, and I shall avoid it now. I will leave when I am good and ready.
By 11 am, I am exhausted from following the visitors around. They tut and coo over the new exhibitions, dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs when they read the stories of children handed over by unwilling mothers. How they sob uncontrollably in front of the case that contains the keepsakes that should have been passed to the children, but never were!
Some of my charges race through the museum. I have to pry them away from the glass so they do not leave cold hand prints behind. Every now and then, the living seem to sense them, pausing in the centre of a room to cock their head and listen hard. But my charges see it as a game and freeze, holding their breath and hiding in plain sight for anyone who could truly See to do so.
Some of the visitors bring their own children in with them and I glare at them in turn. What could possess them to willingly bring a child into such a place? My charges are happy enough, now that they are free of more earthly concerns, but it was not the case many years ago. Still, this hospital is no place for children. We cared for our charges, and we loved each foundling in our turn. We gave them a start in life that they would not otherwise have had. But this was never a home.
I am standing on the second floor landing, cursing a particularly stroppy brat who is intent on squealing like a stuck pig while its mother pleads with it to behave, when I realise that I am not alone. A human stands on the stairs, gazing up at me. She is watching me. I turn my head slowly so as not to startle her, but she is not easily frightened. She is curious. Still, it is so long since anyone noticed me that I have quite forgotten what it is like to be the subject of another person’s gaze.
I move along the landing. Her gaze follows me. The mother of the errant child finally drags him from the room so as to cease disturbing other visitors. She passes directly through me. The human on the stairs does not even flinch. She would appear to be a medium of some kind. I remember reading about them when the Spiritualist craze swept the land, though many of the newspapers believed them to be con artists, or simply insane. This woman would appear to be neither. She even watches the foundling who tugs on my skirts.
The red-haired girl approaches the woman and she finally breaks my gaze. The girl asks if she is alright, though she looks up towards the landing. She looks right at me but I can tell that she does not, cannot, see me. The medium tells her that she is fine, but the girl contrives some excuse to lead her back down the stairs. The medium keeps glancing up at me as she follows the staircase around the square hall, descending towards the foyer. Two of my more rambunctious charges flee toward her, and her withering glare pulls them up short. Interesting.
She disappears into the foyer with the red-haired girl. I ascend the stairs to my quarters. This was once my private room, but it is now an office filled with old paperwork and broken furniture. It makes me sad to see my inner sanctum used as a disposal space for the unwanted. Though in my more reflective moments, I realise it mirrors the building as a whole.
The medium will return, I know she will. And when she does, I will find a way to make her stay. I could use the company – and her way with the children.
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You can visit the Foundling Museum in London.