Pat Barker's The Eye in the Door is the second novel in her trilogy about British soldiers traumatized by World War I trench warfare. These particular passages, childhood memories of one of those soldiers, working class Billy Prior, struck me as particularly apropos in light of all the fuss last week about the breastfeeding mom on the cover of Time. Since the novel is set in 1918 when Billy is supposed to be twenty-three years old, this first memory would've taken place around 1900.
The bell of the shop rang as he pushed the door open. How old? Four? Five? A smell of cat pee and tarred string from the bundles in the corner. Beattie's cat had never been able to resist marking those bundles. Mrs Thorpe plonked their Alfie on the counter while she paid her bill. Alfie swung his short legs in their sturdy boots, puffing away at a fag end though he was only three. Between drags, he sucked his mother's breast, puffing and sucking alternately, peering round the white curve at Prior, who was a Big Boy and therefore an object of interest and suspicion. It was late in the afternoon. Mrs Thorpe would be far gone. Jugs of best bitter were her favourite, chased down by sips of something medicinal that she kept in a flask fastened to her thigh with a home-made elastic garter. Whiskey for the heart, brandy for the lungs, gin for the bladder. Alfie, guzzling away at his mother's milk, looked contented, and well he might, since it could hardly be less than 70 proof.
Shocking, isn't it? But it's the smoking and the drinking that are so shocking, not the breastfeeding. In Mrs Thorpe's defence, the dangers of smoking and alcohol to developing children weren't understood at the time -- and breastfeeding was just the way mothers fed their kids, for as long as they could. After all, she wouldn't have had to pay for that milk.
This next passage is about a brief encounter with Mrs Thorpe and another woman Billy has when he goes back to his own village in 1918.
Before the war, women used to sit on their steps in the warm evenings after dark, postponing the moment when the raging bedbug must be faced, and taking pleasure in the only social contact they could enjoy without fear of condemnation. A woman seen chatting to her neighbours during the day quickly felt the weight of public disapproval. 'Eeh, look at that Mrs Thorpe. Eleven kids. You'd think she could find herself summat to do, wouldn't you?' Now, looking up and down the street. Prior saw deserted doorsteps. Women were out and about, but walking purposefully, as if they had somewhere to go.
He supposed it was Mrs Thorpe's name that came particularly to mind because she'd been one of the worst offenders, with her lard-white breasts the size of footballs, and Georgie or Alfie or Bobby worrying away at them, breaking off now and then for a drag on a tab end. Or perhaps, subconsciously, he'd already identified her, for there she was, coming towards him, divested of the clogs and shawl he'd always seen her in and wearing not merely a coat and hat but flesh-coloured stockings and shoes. It was scarcely possible the attractive woman with her should be Mrs Riley, but he didn't know who else it could be.
They greeted him with cries of delight, hugging, kissing, standing back, flashing their incredible smiles. There was a saying round here: for every child born a tooth lost, and certainly, before the war, Mrs Thorpe and Mrs Riley had advertised their fecundity every time they opened their mouths. Now, in place of gaps and blackened stumps was this even, flashing whiteness. 'What white teeth you have, Grandma,' he said.
'All the better to eat you with,' said Mrs Riley. 'And who are you calling Grandma?'
Mrs Thorpe asked, 'How long have you got, love?' And then, before he had time to answer, 'Eeh, aren't we awful, always asking that?'
'Well, make the most of it. Don't do anything we wouldn't do, mind.'
He smiled. 'How much scope does that give me?'
'Fair bit, these days,' said Mrs Riley.
He remembered, suddenly, that he'd sucked the breasts of both these women. His mother had been very ill for two months after his birth, and he'd been fed on tins of condensed milk from the corner shop, the same milk adults used in their tea. Babies in these streets were regularly fed on it. Babies fed on it regularly died. Then Mrs Thorpe and Mrs Riley had appeared, at that time, he supposed, lively young girls each with her own first baby at her breast. They had taken it in turns to feed him and, in doing so, had probably saved his life.