Tuesday, August 2, 2011
Ma's not home yet, it's her first week up at Menzie's. Peter doesn't seem to be in either. We make for the scullery where Mary lights the stove for heat, setting some bread under the grill, as I climb up on the chair to fill the kettle from the tap.
We settle with our toast and mugs of tea in front of the telly, watching Top Cat giving Officer Dibble the run-around. Just as the credits begin to roll, a key scrapes the lock, and Peter's head pokes round the door.
"Ma not back yet?"
We shake our heads.
He flops beside me, helping himself to a slice my toast, "I've seen Da, he was up by the docks with Uncle Jimmy."
Mary looks at him, "Did he speak to you?"
"Aye, he saw me. He said to tell Ma he's coming back now. And he gave me thruppence."
Typical, Peter always gets the money out of him. I pretend not to care. "When's he coming? Tonight?"
"Aye, I think so."
Mary looks to be sucking on a lemon, "That's good then, Ma'll be pleased."
And sure, 'course she will, and what's wrong with that? Seems Mary's never happy 'less she's miserable.
I turn the telly over searching for cartoons, but they appear to have finished.
Ma is pleased, not that she say's as much but it's easy to tell. She's washed her hair and tidied herself up, and even sent Peter off to fetch minced beef from the Butcher. We're ordered to clear up our rooms and not to make any mess.
Dipping chunks of bread into the steaming gravy, we eat our mince and tatties at the kitchen table, wiping our plates clean. It's Peter's turn to do the dishes, so carrying my plate to the sink, I head into the living room to join Ma, watching "Peyton Place". But she is too distracted to settle much into it, fidgeting and watching the clock. When Peter comes through, she has him repeat exactly what it was Da said to him, and he dutifully recounts it to her for the umpteenth time.
Nearing bedtime, Ma finally decides to send me down to Beep-Beep's. I don't know it's real name, but it's the bar on the corner next to our tenement block, where Da usually drinks. She wants me to check out if he's in there, tell him to come on up home if he is.
The bar is crowded, music, cigarette smoke, and conversation seep out through the swing doors as, peeping through the archway, I scan for his face. A rich, beer-soaked shout call out, "Hey Larry, look - your bairn's here!"
A rumble of laughter ensues and another voice pipes in, "Ehh, you're in trouble now, man!"
Da laughs too, says something funny. They all split their sides. He puts down his pint, arms beckoning, "Hey Karen, c'mere."
Perched high on a bar-stool, a packet of crisps and a bottle of lemonade in hand, I swing my legs and deliver my message.
"Later." He says, and buys me a box of chocolates from behind the counter. Da's buddies fawn over me, me being the best wee girlie in town. No-one is in any rush to go home, least of all me, sitting here basking in my glow. It's only after last orders are well and truly over that we make for the door.
His yeasty breath meets the sharp night air, switching his sway into more of a stagger, as his feet struggle to carry him on home. Oblivious, I skip up ahead, cradling what's left of my chocolates under my arm. Turning, I run to take all three flights of stairs in one fell swoop.
Rapping on the door, I hear Da huffing below, leaning heavily on the banister rail, as he makes his way up.
The door opens to Ma's closed face. Upset, she signals me through, motioning me on to bed. Sensing trouble, I gladly go on.
Changing, I climb under the covers next to Mary, listening out for voices in the hall. Relieved it all seems fine enough, with them only just talking, settling down I turn, snuggling into my sister to steal her warmth, I relax and drift off..
My senses snap alert.
A loud wail.
Next to me Mary also stiffens. She too is wide awake. We lie silently side by side, listening, trying to work out what's happening.
Da's voice is raised and angry, he's shouting at Ma. She, sobbing, in lower notes is trying to placate, dampen the fire of his beer fueled rage. I can't hear what's being said, their voices are too distorted to decipher, his with the booze, hers by her pain.
My belly twists a lump of lead in my gut.
Huddled 'neath the blanket, we are become frozen lumps of stone, straining to fathom the timbre and tone, we shallow our breath and with thrumming hearts, immobilised by the gravity of our dull, draining dread, strain our ears to outside the hallway.
Da crashes out from the living room, his heavy foot-falls thudding down the hall.
They stop outside our door. Barely breathing, we pretend sleep. The handle rattles, opens, and light spills over the room. Squinting through half slitted eyes, I see Da's hunched bulk leaning silhouetted against the door frame.
Squeezing my eyes tightly shut, I lie still hearing him breathe, watching us.
He hesitates, perhaps he thinks we really are asleep? He enters anyway, his weight tilting the mattress as he sits on the edge, his eyes now itching my face.
"Karen?" He touches my shoulder. Asleep or awake, he still wants to talk. Smelling his beer, smoke and despair, I open my eyes. We've already heard the shouting, pleading, the hard, sharp blows, but he chooses ignorance, safe I can't call him to account.
He sighs, "Ah Karen, your mother, she's a funny woman."
He doesn't mean she is funny to laugh with, just she's strange, odd, not right in the head.
I don't respond, willing him silent. Eyes welling up to display his misery, he seeks my comfort. "She's the stupidest woman this length of Commerce Street, aye, and from the start of Castlegate and back an' all! Thick! Not a brain-cell to her, neither there is, she just pure disgusts me, so she does." He weaves an arm around to demonstrate his frustration, "She hasn't even the intelligence of a - a budgie, y'know?"
It doesn't matter what I know. I know I hate it when he talks about her like that. I know the tremble in my throat every time she cries, the ache for air in my lungs each time he gets mad at her. I also know to my shame I am far too gutless to make him stop. I know a lot of things, but I also know he doesn't want me to know all that I know, so I simply lie quiet, allowing him his rant, wishing him done. Yet. Still my heart twists for him, he, my father, this man whom I cannot fail to still love.
He pulls out his hankie and gives a loud blow. "Aw, c'mere wee Karen and give me a big hug.."
I lean up on one elbow and am enveloped in his musky scents. Pressing his lips to my ear, he murmurs, "I love you, me wee darlin', you're the bestest out of all of them, so you are."
I know this to be so (as does Mary now, too, feigning sleep next to me). I hate it when he slobbers all weepy and sentimental like this, it's a precursor. It's the set routine for what will doubtlessly follow on. Sure enough, though it's no surprise, hearing it said still has the power to slice the flesh from my bone. I believe his words afresh, and that it's true, he is leaving me forever, never to be seen again.
"Ach, it's breaking me heart, wee Karen, I've only come to say goodbye. I'm the baddie, I'm the big, bad wolf - that's what you'll be thinking.."
"No, no Da, I won't."
"Aye, hush now, it's true, that's what she'll tell you, I know she will. And you'll believe her, of course, as you must."
"No, please Da!" I can't help it, sobbing now, "Da, please don't go, don't leave.."
"I have to, bonny lass, 'tis the only way, I have to go. This is it, I'm going for good, but just remember - I'll always, always love you."
Now he's blubbing too. I'm still begging but shaking his head, he holds me tight. He won't ever come back, never.
Mary's given up playing dead, wet cheeks, nose running, she lunges her arms out, clinging for dear life to him, "No Da, pleaaaase don't leave us, please Da, we need you!"
He holds us both in his tight embrace, three of us locked in a huddle of pain. Gently, he brushes us off, swaying to his feet.
"Shhhhhhhh now, it's okay, you look after your sister now, Mary, y'hear?"
"No Da!" she wails, "Come back, please Da!"
He points, nailing us to stay.
Finding the door, he closes it behind.
We listen to the grief and the sorrow of Ma trying to cajole him away from his mission, but he's set and having none of it. I visualise his battered case as I hear it snap shut. Ma runs out with him, her calls echoing off the cold tile walls.
Finally, a click of the latch, and she comes back indoors to greet the silence of her loneliness.