A cold March wind cuts through my coat, icing my spine. Sticking ma’s hand in mine into her pocket, I trot to keep pace, head down, avoiding the cracks on the pavement. She pulls me along, past the warm, yeasty whiff from the bakery grate, circumnavigating the wicker baskets displayed outside the Ironmongers store, we cross the road and turn up in to Union Street.
The three brass balls above the pawnshop glint off the clear hard sky. Headscarf fluttering against the breeze, ma lifts the latch. Crossing the doorstep, a bell jangles our arrival, as the familiar smells of shoe-polish, damp leather and musty cloth swim up our nostrils. I like this place, it’s stuffed from floor to ceiling with multitudes of pieces of other peoples’ lives. There is always far too much to see on only one visit, especially if the visit is as short-lived as ours usually is.
Perched in front of rows and rows of over-stuffed shelving, is a line of glass-covered display cabinets. These house a plethora of valuable trinkets, gems and chains, each one neatly ticketed and priced up in bold, black pen. Like a pin to a magnet, I shake ma’s grip, eager to make a beeline to them.
Staring at the glistening array of watches, bracelets, rings, and pendants, I try to imagine who had last worn them, puzzled as to why there is no further use for them any more. If I owned any such jewellery, I would never, ever sell it, not to anyone. A cameo brooch catches my eye, and I long to hold it, pin it to my coat. It must have belonged to an elegant, grand lady, one I would be too, if I only had a fine brooch such as that. Lost in reverie, I am only vaguely aware of the bargaining between the shop-owner and my mother. It isn’t until ma’s voice becomes strident that I finally snap up, come to her side.
She is protesting he’s robbing her blind, where is his conscience? I look at the man seated behind his window-counter, he seems calmly disinterested. Despite her spirit, he knows she won’t walk, and beneath her threats she knows it too. His price does not sway. The register tings, the cash drawer slides open, and ma swaps her wedding ring over for the proffered five shillings. Agitated, she takes the redeeming ticket, shamed and upset she stabs it into her purse.
“Karen, come on, let’s get away from this misers’ hole.” The bell dances behind us, as I am tugged out to the street.
Stopping by the bakery for a loaf of bread, we see Phyllis standing in the queue. Ma nods hello, asking after Andy, her husband. Phyllis gives a wan smile, shrugs, “Ach, Elsie, he’s ever the same, but I’ll tell him you asked. And how are you, dearie? Are you keeping well?”
“Aye, well enough, I suppose. I hear you’re filleting fish, over at Menzies now?”
“Well someone’s got to put food on the table, eh? Och, it’s not too bad, at least the girls are all right. Here that reminds me, you know Irene, don’t you?”
“Who, Irene Dunne?”
“Aye that’s her, well she’s working the same shift as me now.”
“What, she’s still working? With all this terrible business going on?” Ma shakes her head, “Should be home, where she’s needed.”
“Och, come on Elsie, what else can she do? It’s been over two weeks, and its not like she’s his mother now, is it? We all have our bills to pay.”
Ma nods, “Happen so, but she’s still he's auntie, I think she’d be best by Morag’s side, right now, don’t you?”
“Aye, poor Morag. She’s not holding up at all, the poor lass.” Sadly shaking her head, “Have you seen her, at all?”
“Aye, I went round the day after. It was just like a circus though, and she was in no fit state to see anybody, anyway.”
Reaching the top of the line, Phyllis orders her rolls. She stays until ma is served, and follows us out to the street, walking part way home with us.
“So is there any news, at all?
Phyllis grimly shakes her head. “No, not a thing. He’s just vanished in to thin air.” She pulls at the collar of her coat, tightening it against the cold, “Same as young Sheena’s wee Billy.”
“It’s a sad, bad world we live in, so it is when a bairn’s not safe to play in their own street anymore.”
“Aye, it is that.”
I wonder about that too. Ma only lets me out if I’m with one of my mates now. It’s daft, really, because they only run off home without me half the time. I never talk to strangers though, so I’m safe enough.
“Phyllis?” Ma stares ahead, “I don’t suppose you know if there’s anything going up at Menzies for me, is there?”
“I don’t know. I could put in a word, if you like?”
“Aye, that would be good.”
“Is Larry not on the boats, then?”
“Aw, you know how it is there, he could maybe pick one up any morn' now, but who’s to say, eh?”
My ears prick up. What’s she talking about? I thought that was where he was, trawling on a boat to Iceland, fishing for the cod and prawn.
“Okay, Elsie, well I’ll ask the foreman for you, then.”
Reaching the corner, we bid goodbye, heading off on our separate way. Chill air biting at my back, I trail to reach ma’s hand. Catching her up, I grasp it in mine, as without breaking stride, she tightens her grip, squeezes it back.
Inside, she sets the fire, lights the paper beneath the kindling, and watches it catch against the small pile of coal lying on top. Satisfied, she heads in to the scullery, and sets the kettle on the stove. I follow her through, she has her back to me, rinsing off cups in the sink.
I hesitate. She finishes up, empties the basin, turns to face me. “Well?”
She sighs, pulls out a chair, sits at the table.
“Aye, good question, Karen. And just tell me, how the hell should I know, eh? “
I don’t want to annoy her, but I really need to know. “But he is coming back?”
She snorts, rolls her eyes, “You heard him, he’s never coming back! Yeah, right – he never does, does he?”
I can tell from the cut of her voice I am best not asking. I can’t help it,
“He’s not on the boats?”
“No, Karen, he’s not on the bloody boats. Alright?”
It’s not all right. I’ve made her angry. But I still can’t stop. “So, where is he, then?
“Why, are you missing him?” She smiles, but it’s not a good smile. It’s a smile full of warning.
“No. I – I just wondered, that’s all.”
She scuffs back the chair, stands up. Reaching in to her apron pocket, she fumbles out a cigarette. Lighting a match, she ignites and inhales, expelling a spume of smoke through her nostrils. “You want to know where he is, do you?”
“He’s off with his floozy, that skanky old whore. Do you know what a skanky old whore is, Karen?”
I shake my head.
“A skanky old whore is where your father runs to, when he decides to leave us all behind to starve!”
I eye the loaf lying out on the table, glad for tonight we’ll eat. I hope he’ll come back soon. Ma pulls herself out an ashtray and flips her ash. “And is she satisfied with that? Well, is she?”
I don’t know who “she” is, never mind if she’s satisfied or not.
“ Oh no, Karen, that’s not enough for her, the bitch, that’s nowhere near enough. You see she wants to kill me, aye, it’s true! She’ll not rest ‘til she sees me stone dead, so she won’t.” Grinding out the butt of her half-spent cigarette, her eyes light up, and she laughs. “Ah, but I’m on to her Karen, don’t you worry dearie, I can see straight through her, so I can.” She nods, a wide grin splitting her face, “You’ll see Karen, just you wait, just you wait, my little darling.” She gazes past the window, locked inside her plans.
I invisibly retreat to my room, wishing Peter and Mary home, hoping it won’t be long. I pull monkey-doll from the bed, and take him to China with me. We are in the middle of the paddy-field cutting rice, when a huge clang boxes my ears, snapping me straight back to the cold, hard linoleum floor. Several other hard, hollow quakes follow, splitting the silence.
What's she doing?
I stay where I am, listening. It increases. Ma’s voice shouts out, happy and triumphant, she’s got the beast. “Come see, Karen! C’mere take a look!”
I follow the clanging, through in to her bedroom. She is on her knees, furiously hammering at the pipe that runs by the skirting board, delivering great whacking wallops from the mallet in her hands.
“Ma, stop!” I lunge over, alarmed, trying to reach her, pull her back to who she is. Obliviously intent, she pushes me off, “No Karen, leave it, this needs to be done.” She continues, bent on her task, not a stroke missed.
Ma gone, I need to fetch Jeanie-from-upstairs, quick. My feet won’t leave her, I am too afraid for the both of us. I have to.
Flying out the door, taking steps two at a time, I reach and rattle Jeannie doorknob. It opens, as I fall through, shouting. “Jeannie, come quick! Ma’s down the stairs, breaking the pipes!”
Tight-lipped, Jeannie bustles out to meet me, “Okay, Karen. It’s all right now, go on, I’m coming.” She follows me down in to the madness.
“Elsie!” She shouts. What in the name of God are you doing, girl?”
No reponse, just a quickened tempo denting more lumps on the lead. Pushing me behind her, Jeannie scurries over. Grabbing a fistful of hair, she yanks ma’s head up. “Elsie, enough now!”
Ma stops, twists her head free, looks up, annoyed at Jeanie standing there above her. “Ach, leave me be Jeannie, it needs to be done – “
Jeannie raises her voice, “Elsie, come and tell me!” In softer tones, “Put the kettle on, and tell me what needs to be done, dearie. Come on now, maybe I can help, eh?”
“Go to hell – leave me be!” She resumes full swing, not to be tampered with.
“Elsie! Listen up to me, girl.”
Jeanie-from-upstairs kneels, places her hands on each cheek, twists ma’s head to face her. “You need to stop, Elsie, you hear? Stop. Come and tell me, here – come on, come tell me.”
Ma thinks about it, shrugs puts down the mallet. “Fine, we’ll have a cup of tea then.” She gets to her feet, back in to herself, euphoria dissipated, she looks shrunken, spent. Jeannie motions me on to brew the tea, as she guides ma through over to the couch in the living room.
Standing in the hallway, I wait for the kettle to whistle, ears strained.
“She was at me again, Jeannie, all last night, she was. It’s the pipe, she uses it to spill all her filth out to me, and I’m not having it, oh no, not any more, I’m not.”
“Och, Elsie, what nonsense are you talking about?”
“It’s the voices, it’s her, it’s been her all the time, her and her pals – “
“Elsie dear, - “ She stops, as she hears the outside door open. Mary and Peter tumble in from school, throwing their bags into the hall, they clatter through to the living room. Briefly greeting ma and Jeannie-from-upstairs, they withdraw to the kitchen, where I’m now stood making the tea. Peter grabs the milk-bottle, swigging it. I try to snatch it back.
“Peter, leave it! I’m telling ma – “
He swivels out of reach, continuing to drink. We only get the one pint a day, it’s for the tea, not for drinking, and he knows it. He hands it back half gone, and I snatch it, glowering. Mary pulls the grill out and lays a couple of slices of bread underneath. Looking over, she raises a quizzical eyebrow.
“Everything okay?” Finely tuned, she knows. I tell her and Peter about the pipe in ma’s room, how someone is trying to kill her, and of how, not knowing what else to do, I’d gone and fetched Jeannie-from-upstairs down. Mary turns her toast over under the grill and reaches for the margarine. Taking a knife out of the drawer, lifting the lid off the butter-dish, she turns, looks to Peter.
Peter sighs. “Where’s the mallet? In her room?”
“Aye, I think so.”
He sidles past me, slipping out to check. A few moments later the outside latch clicks up. He’s gone. Mary spreads her toast, takes a bite, leaning her back against the sink, she silently chews on it.
Pouring three mugs of tea, I give them a stir, and pass one on to Mary.
“Do you know where da is? He’s not on the boats, ma said.”
Surprised, she frowns. “Where is he then?”
I consider mentioning the skanky old whore, but feel uneasy about it. Mary and Peter don’t always believe everything ma says, so she doesn’t always tell them what she tells me. She might not want me to tell Mary about her yet. I shrug. The outside door clicks closed, Peter reappears. He tells us he’s put the mallet away, down at the very back of the basement, and warns us against telling.
Picking up the mugs, I carry them through in to the living room and find Jeannie-from-upstairs and ma, heads together, laughing. Pipes now forgotten, they are swapping the latest gossip about some other floozy, the one from two flights below, her whose husband works away.
(nb. Karen is entirely fictional.. !)