Hugs

This short story was highly commended by the Writers’ Forum in November 2012 and recently made the Longlist for the Fish Short Memoir Prize 2013. Although I entered it into a memoir competition, this is fact mixed with fiction as the competition states:

A memoir gives licence – to interpret, to create, to fabricate, to make sense of a life, or part of that life.

A revised version will also form Chapter H of my novel, ‘The Dictionary of Departures’.

Hugs

Hug1  v (hugged, hugging) 1. to hold or embrace tightly in one’s arms 2. to move parallel and in close proximity to. >>huggable adj.

Hug2 n a tight clasp or embrace.

Hug3 an ornament that looks like a piece of shit >>shit-hug

Hug4  the type that kills, a love you to death. >>death-hug

Hug1 and Hug2 (official definitions from The Penguin English Dictionary)

Hug3 and Hug4 (additions from Gina Ellis)

I didn’t get the bus the night it happened. Dad drove. There was no rain, no melodramatic weather. It was just cold.

We were in the hospital earlier that week when I said, ‘That ornament looks like a piece of shit.’

Mum laughed but it hurt her. I could tell.  We were starting to get each other’s humour, but it was already too late. The ornament, a get-well gift from a friend, sat on the hospital bedside table, a brown goblin-type-thing that someone had stuck the word ‘hug’ under and framed in a small cardboard gift box. As though you could stick hug on anything to hand and sell it.  A shit-hug. That ward would have provided other marketing inspirations that day of dried-up vomit on the sheets of the next bed, blood-phlegm in a paper bucket opposite us or malignant tumours hidden in the bodies of the patients.

The smokers-with-the-drips came back into the ward, slippered feet lugging their failing bodies and trailing medical equipment feeding their last days. They brought the smoke from outside the hospital back in with them.  I could almost taste it, feel those last desperate ‘fuck it’ drags on my tongue. All the women-smokers mainly looked the same to me; thin, fat, whatever, but they were all raspy and craggy in some form.  But I remember one with shoulder length; fudge coloured hair in a hospital bed-head style. I can’t remember her name though. She’s certainly dead now. None expected to live. Surrounded by the dying and I was still being class-conscious.

The nurses walked the ward, ‘angels’ with stern faces. They brought the tea-time trolleys behind the smokers. We slipped in and out all the time, us relatives of the dying. The nurses rattled the plates and one brought over a mass of Spaghetti Bolognese that looked and smelt as though it had suffered during the cooking. She put it onto the tray that stretched across the bed in front of where Mum lay and cleared away a dirty cup. Another nurse moved to the side of one of the end beds and pulled the blinds closed. The view of the city of Liverpool, that glimpse of Paddy’s wigwam, closed into white blinds. This daily routine was like a version of the game show Bullseye, when they reel the main prize out to the losers and then take it away again. Patients, there’s a life out there you could have had, watch it leave.

‘Ye alright Marie.’ The smokers said as they moved back to their beds. Mum just nodded. I don’t know if she was jealous they could still walk.  Her legs were the size of balloons.  So was her stomach.

‘You look pregnant.’

Why did I say that? She just smiled and said. ‘I wish I was.’

Sometime I can’t even think about it.

I was in hospital ten years before what happened to Mum. I must have about seven, and I should have learned something from what she said and did, always comforting and reassuring me.  Mum had nursed me through a two-week hospital stay, a stint in a wheelchair and a long course of antibiotics that turned my teeth yellow like the smokers. When it was her turn in a hospital bed I made accidental insults like the shit-hug comment or over-polite conversation.

‘You got your place in the hospice then?’

‘Yes. I’ve got a place in the hospice.’

 

Dad observed every traffic light rule, every roundabout pause, although the roads were quiet.  We pulled into the car park and Dad parked between the lines.  I ran ahead, across the car park. Everything except me went into slow motion. The wind was cold and whipped against my cheek but there was fire beneath my feet.  I heard a couple more cars parking up and somebody shouted me. ‘Gina.’ I didn’t stop.

I don’t know what I expected. But it wasn’t what I saw.  Mum drowning.  Her eyes were closed and she was struggling to breathe.  Her head moving from side to side as she lay in the bed.  Her eyes were closed.

Nobody knew what to do.  Dad came in behind me. I remember him standing there in his Liverpool shirt as I turned around. You’ll never walk alone.  He certainly didn’t in the years that followed with his new wife Janet as they hiked the hills, watched views of towns and cities, gazed out of hotel windows. And nobody shut the blinds.

‘She insisted I went,’ he says, ‘I should have spent all day and night with her.  But she insisted I went.’ It was the match. Mum had told him to go, said we all needed a break and to come back the next morning. But at that moment when more people came into the room, we all felt that we shouldn’t have left.  Mum’s best friend Anna Harrison came and moved me forward with a gentle nudge, towards the bed. In the blank-wash of faces behind I saw Dad start to take steps forward too, letting me lead. Anna and her husband Tim stepped back.  The room smelt of the lilies crawling out over the vase on the table.

I remembered being told that the last thing that goes is the hearing.

That night with Mum seemed like a series of badly edited film scenes. One minute some of us were the hospice.  Then without warning, we all appeared a pub car park watching a limousine pull up.

It hadn’t been able to fit into the hospice parking area.  A few people were leaving the pub, eyes drinking us in with drunken confusion. A girl in a miniskirt fell on the pavement. A pink thong. Taxis hailed.  Smells of beer and burgers, grilled gammon, chunky chips, cheap two-for-one meals blasted out hours earlier and still lingering.

Charlie and Frankie got out of the limousine, picked up from a neighbour’s with young, confused faces.  Aunty Lesley and Uncle Malcolm always travelled in one for their scaffolding company’s annual charity dinner.

Charlie and Frankie in pyjamas and coats. Uncle Malcolm dressed in a full dinner suit. Aunty Lesley in a glittering dress with matching bag, and a fur coat over her arm.

‘Why did you make me go to that dinner you shit? We should have been there!’

That fur coat. She’d had it for years. When I was a child I thought she had slaughtered a hundred and one Dalmatians for it. She never reassured me, in fact the opposite.

‘Where did you get that?’ I would ask.

‘There was a litter of puppies no one wanted.’ She would reply. There was a cruel bastard quality to her and there still is. I was so good when she babysat us.

We sat in the children’s play area for a bit.  The three monkeys of grief together. Charlie with her hands over her eyes crying; Frankie with his hands over his mouth in-between being sick and me, might as well have had my hands over my ears, not hearing anything properly and understanding little.  I remember sweets being offered around, chewy fruit bursts that seemed too cheery in our mouths.

Frankie has never been interested in food anyway. He prefers structured activities to eating. When he was little he created concentration camp for worms and ants in the garden. He tried to make them concentrate and work together to find a way out, not yet realising that he had got the notion of those camps wrong.  Frankie is concentrating himself now, within four walls.  He has grown into a scruffy, duffel coat-wearing, shaggy-haired and pale socialist, constantly fighting causes. Dad said he was just going where the fights were. But even Frankie doesn’t know why he left Comet with a plasma TV during the riots last summer.

These days Charlie is unshakeable.  She’s built a lot better than me, mentally and physically.  Her brown hair with copper streaks is shaped well around her pale face, splashes of freckles soften her. After university she came back here like a homing pigeon that felt obliged to an owner who had looked after it. But I never really looked after Charlie, even after Mum. None of us could. I don’t know why she came back. She’ll fly off again soon when her job in retail management gets boring and she remembers that she’s a tortured artist. She’s not scared to ask when she wants something.

It was Charlie who asked if they could go in and see Mum.

The priest who turned up asked if mum was a pensioner. Aunty Lesley hit him with her jewel bag. A piece of glitter went in his eye and the nurses had to come over and help him. And all the time there was a dead body in the bed surrounded by people dressed for a dinner party, some kids in pyjamas accidentally posing like monkeys and a priest everyone wanted to kill. At least she’d gone before all that arguing kicked off.   I thought about what to do next, who to tell about what had happened, what I had done.  Others had been there, but it was only me who was close enough to know.

There was no Facebook back then and I’d like to think that I wouldn’t leave a status. But who knows? I could have joined the countless ‘There’s a star in heaven shining for new angels’  ‘RIPs to Mums and Dads, Nans and Grandads’. Bereavement shout-outs.

I would have posted something like that (but not that night). What I wouldn’t have done was update everyone on the whole process. One girl, Debbie Matthews, took Facebook through her Granddad’s first night in hospital (she checked in at the Royal on every visit). The finale was the uploading of a photo album featuring all the flowers at the grave. Shout-out for my popular dead Granddad.

I did call Jennifer.  When you’ve lived through so much with an old friend, you think they should also be there for all your deaths in some way.

She text me a few hours later.

me and me mum have been so upset for you.

She never thought about her choice of words. But I was wrong to expect her to.  Of course other people still had Mums.

Before all this, I did what I did.

Afterwards I went straight outside and found it was still Saturday night. No one came after me. It was freezing. There were people sitting on a bench, one of those for people who have paid to be remembered. The light from the children’s room reflected off the plating. Matthew Hunter reduced to a gold brass plate on a hospice courtyard bench since 1997.  I’ve been back and sat on the bench since.

Two men and a woman stood by that bench. The woman looked exactly the same as one of the hospital smokers. Her face was worn down, with a mouth sunken back and pocket holes for eyes. She spoke like she was only allowed a limited number of words a day, wheezy, cracked and harsh tones that seemed forced out.  It was like being back on the ward. I had to wonder if they produced these women like Stepford Wives for council estates.

The craggy woman was in my face.

‘Here love, have a drop of whiskey,’ she said then turned to the first man. ‘She’s still shaking. Give her your coat.’ I stood for a moment shivering.

‘She’s blue. Give her your coat too Kelvin. I said now!’ she said to the second man.

‘Here love have mine, I’ve got a cardie underneath.’ When we’d finished It felt like one of those attempts to get on a Ryanair flight when your baggage is too heavy.

I woke up the next day back at home with them all on the floor by my bed.  There must have been some people who left that hospice, tainted by grief but also freezing and furious at giving their coat to me. Even back at home I could smell lilies as though the stems had crept in through my nostrils in the night and were growing from my stomach, each breath from me a victory for them.  The smell of death on a Sunday morning. My hospice hangover.

I’d never taken on the word death before. I was seventeen years old. Great aunties and uncles who died were hard to feel anything about as a child. Once upon a time death had nothing to do with me and then it was personified, became a person I knew, and then became people I knew.

I don’t even know what the word ‘Mum’ means anymore. I’ve lived a third of my life without it, feeling like a fraud if I say it. I can’t have that word. It isn’t mine.

Anna Harrison’s gentle nudge. That was when I moved forward to Mum and did what I did. I hugged her.  Told her nice things, that I’d want to hear if I was scared and dying and nobody could do anything about it.  I told her she could go.

It could have been the words but it was like the hug I gave made her colder, stopped her breath, made her leave. I felt the last ten seconds of life in that hug, stilled her weak but thrashing movements. The scent of bed baths and final cleansings mixed with the lilies in my lungs. Then those last few breaths, against my face.   When she finally stopped, I moved with her, placing her head back onto the pillows that had held her up for the eight days of her hospice stay. My arms fell to their sides.  A one-way hug.  I took everything.  A death-hug.

I stepped back onto the shit-hug which had survived the journey from hospital to hospice and it shattered across the carpet next to Mum’s rosary beads.

Ten years later the heaviness, that ball and chain from my throat to the stomach which started with the hug was still with me.  It went up and down like a see-saw in my stomach.

I watched someone die from cancer sitting in a pub on Coronation Street once like it was nothing.  In reality it takes time to heave out the last signs of life, a gurgling from the lungs building into a sound like a soul being ripped from a body, which can be helped with a hug, a Love you to death.

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The Distorted Dictionary:Prologue

The city was melting. The view from the window was a series of distorted flashes, buildings flew past. The occasional people were just thick and thin dark shapes showed up by street lights or set against the warm rays of homes, or pubs. It was a wet, cold night. The rain kicked at the pavements and drove people towards the lights. Even if I kicked at the door, somehow unravelled myself from the tight bands and managed to get it open, I’d die on the road.

Tying my hands was only so that I wouldn’t open the door if we had to stop at the lights, he’d said, not that we stopped at many.  It was getting darker outside and the windows of the Audi were tinted so no one would have looked in and seen my awkward pose inside.  He’d put the seatbelt around me gently, moved past my bruising arm from where he’d grabbed me at the front door.  My mouth still ached and the pain spread across my cheeks and peaked at my jaw. I was past terror; my body and mind had started to shut down, block out, tune out, even my stomach had stopped its continual internal jittering.

The reason for my rush from car to front door at night had actually happened; someone had emerged from the ready-in-waiting Crime Watch scene hedge. The hand over my mouth, the gasp for breath, the dragging across the driveway, my heels scratching against the paving leaving marks, the plaster running down my throat from the hand on my face, until we were back in my own car.

The gag had been pulled off once we had gathered enough speed. He’d pulled it away from my mouth somewhere near Liverpool John Lennon Airport. We were heading along the river, following it, watching it dip in the distance between waters. The black waters that were waiting to take me down, waves like watery hands that would soon pour into my throat and replace the charred dryness.

The key was never to let people get away if you could.  That’s what he kept saying. He’d said it at the funeral in a drunken blurry conversation. But he’d said it again now. I had tried to get away too often.  But not today.

The car made a low droning sound. The engine was like a bee bursting through a room trying to escape or an agitated wasp ready to sting.

At the next set of lights, he issued a low warning to me. If I move he will crash the car into the nearest wall. He doesn’t care what happens to him.  I will never make it out if I try anything.  We headed on. My head banged against the window as the car took a sudden lurch, the cold pain a reminder that I was still here; I was not dissolving.

The sky dipped to the side, folds of colour with prominent pink as the car swerved and we headed over grass towards the waterfront. The smell of petrol dotted across the car left over from the revving before he shut all the windows, shut me in. My stomach heaved with it.  The tinge of apple from the plastic fruit bobbing under the mirror is against the clogging oil.  Both fight for space as I breathed in and out again in a choke of white chards.

The skyline ahead seemed to be waving in big folds of dark hills, up and down, with lights and cranes and ships. The other side was always waiting to be built.

He drove until we almost hit the bollard, the big chunks of iron that start on the pavement after the grass. There was a careful pull between them, a practised manoeuvre, an awareness that this particular bollard was wider and caved in on one side, allowing a car to just get in.

He’d been here before.  Saliva clogged in my mouth and mixed with the blood from where I bit my tongue when the hand gripped over me.  He’d been here before. Perhaps he walked up and down the pavement, under the twinkling lights of the street lamp, felt the hard ground against his pacing, his planning, watched the clouds jump and stretch themselves across the sky like they are now.

A photo fell from the visor and fluttered down by my feet. I can make out the Eiffel Tower in the background and my own smiling face as one half. But that picture was a lie in so many ways.  I’d taken mine out of the frame and tore it up into little pieces only yesterday, when I still had choices.

The car shuddered to a stop. He turned the lights off.  It was just us and the river with life behind us and beyond it.

Someone on the other side of the river, in my position, would have the right view.  They would have the two Cathedrals, the RadioCityTower, and the new buildings that had sprung up and rooted around Liverpool One like shards of glass heading for the heavens, all poking up from the blackness and setting against the pink sky like familiar friends.

But all I wanted was my Mum.  It was always the same, like my mind could never get used to the fact that this was impossible.

Yet this thought started a fight in me, bringing the terror again, but with it some power to fight, to try.

A reflex, a weak one from my tired throat brought out the pointless words.

‘Help me.’

But it was a start. It had unsettled him and moments later I had a plan.

All Day Breakfast

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

She was.

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.