He would never leave. She would never leave.
They were like the lingering smell of the fried food she made in the kitchen, and all that accompanied it. The eggs, bacon, bread, the incongruous mix of air freshener and the barely concealed cigarette smoke.
The fresh air tries to make an entrance through the back door, held open by the chair for the one who never sits. But it fails to make an impact. Flies from the rosebush outside get in through the slits in the rusty barred window. Tommy hammered in the bars years ago after Neil had climbed out as a child, falling onto the concrete slabs below and smashing in his teeth.
She stands, holds the cigarette out, looks out of the back door at the neat garden, bides her time.
‘Mum, can I have a bacon butty please?’
She throws the cigarette out of the door at these words after one final drag into sunken lips. She has thrown it carefully so that it hits the drain, easier to unblock it later then. She is Margie, not Mum, but it doesn’t help to tell some people.
‘I’ll make you a full English,’ she calls back. Best to get him filled up now so that she can relax again. He enters the kitchen and brings with him that slightly unwashed smell, like when a child has played out all afternoon and then whipped a bit of water over their face when told to wash.
‘Did you wash your hands?’
‘Yes, soap and water.’ He holds them out.
‘You bloody liar.’ She points to the door. Clomp, clomp up the stairs, pause and then clomp, clomp back down. She waits.
The map of the world on the wall of the kitchen mocks her as she checks for the packet of cigarettes in her pocket. They are hidden. There are enough left. She looks at this map often. Sometimes she traces the pattern of America with her soapy fingers. Imagining. Some parts of the southern states smile at her. Tommy used to say, ‘I’ll take you here, I’ll take you there, I’ll take you anywhere.’ That was before Neil. The only place she ended up going was a semi-detached house in the not-as-posh as it sounds ‘Huyton-with-Roby’. Actually just Roby nowadays, even the council got bored of the hyphens on signs and tripping off high-climbing tongues.
‘It’s a smashing area love – everyone will be really jealous that we’re moving there,’ he had said. A socialist and a social climber was Tommy. In the end she didn’t really know if anyone was jealous or not. She hardly saw them. Transport links were rubbish; she didn’t drive. Tommy worked long hours or fought the local council on ‘issues’ and then there was Neil.
Instead the washing machine was her swishing clothed sea with waves made out of trousers and t-shirts bashing at the sides. The oven was her red sunset. The tiles lining the walls and beneath her feet took on a shell-like, pebbly quality, like walking on a shore. That was all she had. It was enough to make you laugh, or cry. She didn’t do much of either any more.
The dishes in the sink are still soaking in warm suds from Tommy’s breakfast. Her husband always needed a good feed before he went off to fight his latest cause. And what else to fight when you march with arthritic limbs then a pension cut? He’s been around the block as many times as she had. Why did he never see that things didn’t change, help didn’t come?
She starts the preparations again, peeling the bacon from the packet, stretching it across the pan, cracking eggs and lining up toast ready for its turn. Neil’s back now and stands in the arched doorway, holds another toy he is too big for, waits to be told he can enter.
‘Sit down. It’ll be ready in a minute.’ He sits. She turns back to the cooker and flips the bacon over. It is burnt on one side but he would never notice or know how to complain. She glances at the table. He has tried to set it again. The knife and fork look like they’ve fallen out; spread at opposite sides of the placemat, on the sides they’re not meant to be on. Her quick hands put the knife and fork on the right sides before turning back to the cooker. Neil’s eyes flick up at hers and then down again bashfully. They are the colour of the olives that remain unopened in the cupboard. They stay in the jar next to the collection of spices, scary in their variance and smells, bought by her daughter Jayne and never used. Trying to put some spice into her life it seemed. All she needed was the salt and pepper, safe, reliable and in their supermarket packets.
The table he sits at is wooden and plain with one chair. There is one coaster and one placemat available only. Beyond it a tumble of fruit and veg she hasn’t put away yet. She has never made this a setting for guests but he will not be deterred.
The egg is a sun on his plate waiting to be dipped into with a white wobbly saucer as protection and sausages lined up in overly-oiled speckled brown coats. It is a good breakfast. She does it well, knows this. But everything had lost its flavour a long time ago.
Even that buttery smell that rides down the throat was too familiar; it caught at her lungs now, threatened a choking. In her mind the bacon has rolled up on the plate like a clenched fist. She could have worked in a café, wanted to once.
She could have been a lot of things. Working in a biscuit factory was a good little job, she liked it mind with all the women, hens together on a battery line chattering away. That had ended.
To put the accompanying cup of tea down, she has to move Neil’s forms for college.
‘Are they my college forms Mum?’ He chatters, excited as though he’s never been before. He has recognised the logo of the college. He passes it to get in to his lessons; sometimes things like this stick. That’s why it has always been so hard to explain. People used to be crueller.
‘But what’s wrong with him?’ A parent at school, years ago. What could she say? I’d like to strangle you until you’re as starved of oxygen as he was at birth. That’s what she wanted to say in her angriest moments. But she never did.
So she has filled these form in again. Another year and the same thing. It’ll never make any difference the way it should, but the education Neil Redward needs is of a different kind. Nowadays the specially enlisted tutors who know about these kinds of problems explain this to her. She knows. She has known it for almost forty years since that first day they brought Neil home from the hospital and something wasn’t right.
Neil finally sets down his toy, his transformer soldier figure with all its complicated bits. Contraptions like this never existed when he was the right age to play with them.
‘Thanks Mum,’ he inhales the food greedily. There is a speed to his eating that resonates with her. She picks up a piece of bacon left bubbling in the pan, wraps it in a piece of stray bread and swallows in short, sharp bites. He eats quickly because there is always something else to do.
Today it is the toy which waits with little patience. She eats quickly because she no longer likes food. It’s not what the kitchen is for. He does laps of the plate with a small piece of toast, fingernails bitten down to the skin.
This is her territory; she can decide who comes in with the swish of a mop, an offer to take dirty clothes and finish with clean fresh-smelling ones back up in folded piles. It was in the ‘I’ll make the cup of tea’, ‘I’ll fetch you that drink’ or ‘of course I’ll put that toast on for you’. Keeping one room under control was manageable. She was always armed, with a pinny, a mop, a rolling pin, hidden vices in drawers that the others didn’t need to know about.
This was something she worked out a long time ago. Neil got in every room, whether it was soiled clothes stuffed down the sides of radiators, stale food. Half her own bedroom was Tommy’s. There was only the kitchen.
‘When does Tommy get back from work?’ he asks, with his mouth full.
‘Your father will be back at three o’clock.’
How did Tommy escape being labelled with the correct parental term and she had not? It was Mum and Tommy, one a functional address and one a person.
There is a big white framed clock ticking to the left of the cooker clearly states one. Neil stares at it for several minutes. She looks away and starts sorting the dishes. The still wet ones are helped to dry off with a soft table cloth patterned with roses which she spins in her hands.
‘How many hours is that away?’
‘Two,’ she long ago gave up explaining time. Family with the right distance, friends trying to be helpful, special tutors who get paid to try, they all still do it, but that was up to them. Two hours until the not so great escape from the smell of breakfasts cooked out of time and everything else.
He leaves the kitchen. The air of tension caught up in her starts to unwind as she rinses the greased pan, sets the table right again, puts everything back in the places her eyes and mind know. The television hits the quiet calm with a loud appearance.
‘Lower that down!’ she commands from the sink.
There is an obvious stumble in the silence which follows. She waits as the volume comes back on and then increases first before being directed the right way.
She didn’t really need, or want the TV any more. Just a few books, the radio, the cigarettes hidden in the broken drawer under a checked tea towel and martini bottle stashed at the back.
The books were mainly charity shop horror classics, the type that had pictures on the front of men and women with the devil in their eyes. These books didn’t pretend to be anything. They held twisted, angry demons. Between them, breaking up the nightmarish covers, were ‘romantic classics’ bought by her grown up children, mainly Jayne.
‘Did you enjoy that one Mam?’ She would ask.
‘Oh yes it was a lovely read.’
Thank God she never read them either and couldn’t ask about the plot or purpose behind the couples kissing on horseback or in boats, lives as thin as the books. Real people led fatter lives, with more meat on them, dripping like the fat off bacon. No, she couldn’t be doing with love stories.
She thinks about upstairs. His bed would still be wet from the night before. She curses herself for leaving it so long again. Years of it behind and ahead of her, this thought stops her. Instead she carefully reaches into the broken drawer and then sloshes some of the martini into a glass. None of the other rooms are safe.
The dining table was a place outside of the kitchen, in the living room, where she had to pretend that this was normal, this family extended, in time not people. This group of three, who in ordinary terms would not still be together in one home. It should be that Neil drops in, drives from his own place, and brings his own family. Thoughts of what should have been upset her. The glass loses all evidence of alcohol as she washes it.
She looks at Neil as he comes in hunting for biscuits in the cupboard and tries to see what others did. Most people saw a man, a grown one, with dark hair speckled with grey and curled slightly; friendly, approachable, ambiguously capable.
‘Mum, where are the biscuits?’
‘The breakfast not enough for you?’ But she pulls open the cupboard under the stairs and takes out the ‘secret’ tin anyway.
‘Cool Mum, excellent, thanks!’ He stuffs a chocolate bourbon in his mouth and zooms off with the toy which has now become a flying device. She nibbles absently on a pink and yellow biscuit. Having Neil around should keep her young, fresh. But she was worn, old, like a hoover that needed replacing. He looked at her and saw someone to come to for food, cleaning, help, a life source for the rest of his.
The doorbell rang. A young man with an earnest face, in jeans and a smart checked shirt wearing a fleece jacket that made his face waxy with sweat, stands with a clipboard talking about a charity.
‘You look hot,’ she nods at the drips on his forehead, thinks that he might want a drink. This could be a chance for some adult conversation.
‘You’re not too bad yourself,’ he answered with a light smile on his lips. She could feel her creased face redden.
‘Not interested sorry.’ And then she shut the door. What a fool. Why did words have to change their meaning?
The mirror on the wall challenged her. You’re not too bad yourself
You’re a bubble Grandmother. The mirror said. Smoothing down the bubble perm haircut that she swore she’d never have, the reflection pointed out the lines on her face as her increasingly impatient hands ran over them. Stepping back she saw a thinning body that was once fashionably rounded, lines on her face and hands that led nowhere, eyes that would once have looked at all this and cared. She feels like another cigarette, if there is time.
Tommy returns shortly after. She hears the front door opening and the excited callings of Neil. The air freshener hits the kitchen, drops of guilty appley fumes. At last she can have her few hours out. Escapism rather than escape is almost upon her. He enters the kitchen just as she is putting on her coat which she hangs on the back of the door. He darts around her as swiftly as his sinking bones will let him, starts telling her about his morning ‘meeting’ and his latest ‘battle’ with the council. She thinks about telling of her battle with the bottle of bleach after Neil had missed the toilet again. Instead she says a variation of what she always says.
‘You’re exhausting yourself.’
‘Someone has to fight them.’
‘Oh I know that.’ Her voice sounds curt. But it is impossible to stop.
‘Why do you need to go out again?’ Tommy asks.
‘No potatoes.’ She is undeterred. The bag is safely hidden in the bottom cupboard.
‘The kids are only calling for a bit. They’ll probably have some eggs and bacon as usual.’ He slowly shrugs off a boot.
‘Do you want to come with me.’ A statement not a question.
‘No love, I’m really tired,’ he pats her shoulder gently.
They play this game almost daily. It is the routine. And besides he is as lost as her but does it in other places. At first with his daily work on buildings, wiring and rewiring, and now retirement hours that need filling, the social club with the other angry men and protest marches, in the past for cuts in services, and in the present pension slices, as though their old age was a standard of living to aspire to.
‘Would you like a lift? She shrugs this off and talks about fresh air. Luckily outside is crisp and dry. He ignores the open back door and the freshly tended garden with the wooden seating. Plus the bus is always on time and is one of the ‘comfy’ types. It rattles around like a yellow carriage for pensioners and other unfortunates. Sitting on it is like being in a wall to wall horror mirror at a fair, filled with thin lips and wrinkled faces, that damp coat smell.
Tommy is no better. His grey hairs, thin but still covering most of his head are facing her now as he bends over to undo his shoes. Each movement is an awkward, arthritic moment.
‘Are you ok?’ She half-heartedly offers to help as usual. He waves her off with the usual proud, barely concealed annoyance. She leaves.
The bus stops right outside the house. She always thinks of going further, but HuytonVillage was where the bus would stop. Anything else requires planning. Besides this was a circular bus with circular hopes. The journey is quicker than she would like and the destination is as she expects.
There is a little circle of bargain bucket shops and other harassed stay at home mums. But they are all younger than her and their children would not always be stay at home. She wants to shout at them, pull holes in their stupid idiotic complaints.
‘I turned around and said to him you’re the baby’s Dad and your little slut of a new girlfriend shouldn’t come first.’ One girl is pushing a pram tainted with young sweat and cheap perfume that settles across the air alongside her threats.
‘You’re right love. You’re worth a million of her; you and the baby.’ The other one shuffles in her own baby weight and tight jeans, chomping on a sausage roll.
Sometimes she wants to pull holes in them, tear at their hair, their jeans, dresses, tracksuits, faces of mocked misery and pretend pick pocketed souls. These girls who think they’re fighting for something were nothing, not even hard done to, stuffing their face with pasties. They were nothing more than sausage roll suffragettes. Instead she picks up a few things, household bits, washing up liquid on a two for one offer, some more Martini at the bottom of her heavy cotton shopping bag and cigarettes in her pocket, but not potatoes.
It was time to be getting home. The kids would be ‘dropping in’ for a couple of hours. No longer kids like the one she still had at home, but they resorted back to some role-playing out of habit. Can you make us one of your lovely breakfasts Mam. Yes, yes and she would hurry them out.
And surely as the bus pulls into its makeshift stop, there are the cars, the emblems of the extra ‘support’ in the house. The busy road breathes petrol fuels into her face. Huyton-with-Roby joined other places like the hyphens in its title. Nearly everyone there is on the way to somewhere else.
She stands at the side of the road and waits. One day the courage to move the toe over the edge, lose her footing, fall out into the road and hope for the best, might arrive. Except it wouldn’t. Because if she did this, who would look after him? Who would really look after him? Tommy would not manage on his own. Would any of the sheltered accommodations look after him in the way she could? A shudder ran down her spine at the stories she’s heard about them. When he wanted something, if he wanted food, would they make him wait, torment him? At school he’d come home one day with a broken finger, bent back by a bully, another time a violent chill after being thrown in a cold bath of water on a trip away. No, she would have to stay.
She crosses the road. With a deep breath she enters her own house. A chubby bald baby holds a fat finger out to Tommy who takes it and sings. It was like looking at a family photo.
Jayne is hovering too close to the kitchen door. She is amazed at her own hidden anger at her daughter’s hand moving towards the handle, her voice offering to make tea. The cool tiles, the comforting cooker, the appliances that rhythmically kept in time with her, serve to alleviate this rage but they cannot work for too long. She is never scared of what she could do in the kitchen, as long as she is left alone. They need to get back into the living room and she tells them this, waves Jane’s hand away, in a laugh and joke routine. They play along.
She cooks and serves, ignoring protests to sit down, instead taking up small portions back where she feels safe. They laugh and joke with Neil as she sits, waiting for them to leave, a vacant smile that goes unnoticed. In the kitchen, hidden with the cleaning products under the sink, unlit cigarettes and an empty glass waiting to be filled.