© Susan howe
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(a short story)
I haven’t done this for a long time. Not since Ma died. She got upset so I promised not to do it again, but she’s gone now. What she can’t see won’t hurt her, and I’ll be really careful. This time no one will know except me.
I’ve been watching the house from my room across the road. I’ve seen them come and go. The tall girl with bouncy red curls like shiny new chestnuts, the smaller one with long golden hair and a coat that almost touches the ground, and the tiny little guy who looks like one of Ma’s garden gnomes, but without the fishing rod. The girls look fresh and clean, the types that have a bath every day. I think Ma would like them. They’re students. I can tell from the way they dress and the hours they keep. They go out about ten o’clock and usually come back late evening, any time after nine. It's not a good place for nice girls like them.
I know that Goldie has the front bedroom, so Red must be at the back. The gnome sleeps in the front downstairs room and I can see it’s a mess when they open the door. I don’t know how he can live like that. My room is always clean and tidy, even though the walls are brown near the ceiling and the paper's peeling off. I like to know where things are. Ma used to say, “Teddy, always put things where you expect to find them,” and it works like magic.
Ma's favourite saying was, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” so I’m pretty sure she's close to God now. Arthur says she’ll soon have heaven spick and span. She kept me clean too. I got scrubbed from head to toe in a tin bath by the fire every Sunday, until I was bright pink. She twisted the cloth into a point and jammed it into my ears and they hummed for ages afterwards. When I couldn’t hear the teacher at school, he said I wasn’t listening and gave me a smack on the side of my head, and that made them buzz even more. I told Ma, but she said a clip round the ear never hurt anyone.
I was lucky Arthur took me in after Ma died. Said he owed it to her. I used to call him Uncle Arthur, but he isn’t my real uncle, just an old friend of Ma’s from before she was married. I think he likes the company now his customers have gone and the place is shut down. Everything downstairs is the same as it always was. The Lounge Bar still has a sticky carpet and wooden tables, worn smooth from years of Ma’s elbow grease, and the Public’s got bare floorboards, a fluffed-out dart board and torn chairs. It’s all covered in a thick layer of dust and when I open the door, it swirls into the air and dances in the sunlight. I like it, it’s peaceful, but Ma would have a blue fit.
There’s another lodger in the room over the front door. Her name’s Angie and she’s always nice to me. Arthur calls her a Lady of the Night, but I know what she is. Men are up and down the stairs at all hours, but they're no trouble really. They’re pretty quiet, on the whole. If I ever hear shouting I bang on her door and as soon as the men see me, they shut up. Being this big can be useful although it’s got me blamed for a lot of things I didn’t do. Especially at school. Why do people always think it’s the biggest guy who starts things? The teachers wouldn’t listen and I got so fed up with getting the stick that I stopped going. Just hung around doing odd jobs and running errands, trying to stay out of trouble. It’s quite easy, being invisible, when you’ve had as much practice as me.
I’m going to do it tomorrow. Friday. I like Fridays, always have. The weekend coming up with trips to the playground and maybe even the pictures. The flicks, we used to call them. Anyway, I’m looking forward to it. My hands are fidgety and I’ve got butterflies. I’ll go to bed early and then it’ll come quicker.
Arthur says those houses, the ones where Red and Goldie live, have been condemned since the war. That was over thirty years ago when I was just a baby. One end of the terrace got bombed and it shook all the others so they’re not safe. Most of them are boarded up but the others are let out to students and women like Angie. I see the lamps in their windows that colour the pavement, like a red carpet, and cars stopping outside. They don’t know I’m watching, but I am. I see the same ones over and over again and I recognise a couple of the blokes who go there. Angie says they’re plain clothes policemen, so I stay out of their way.
It’s not right that girls like Red and Goldie have to live here. If I had kids I’d never bring them to a place like this, but Ma said I wasn’t cut out for getting married and having children.
"You stay at home and look after your old ma." She'd pat my hand and make me cheese on toast, because she could see I was sad.
When me and Angie go to the launderette she says we’re like an old married couple, folding sheets together. She doesn't let me touch her clothes, but she has loads of sheets, all different types. I like the silky black and purple ones and sometimes I close my eyes and rub them against my cheeks. I say I’d like some for myself, but Angie says they’re not very nice to sleep in because you slide around and the pillow keeps slipping off the bed. She picks up the soft cotton ones with stripes and says,
“You stick with these, Teddy. I’d have them too, if I could.”
If she married me, I’d let her have whatever she wanted and I tell her so.
I say, “Would you marry me if you weren’t a Lady of the Night?”
And she laughs and says, “Yes, Teddy. Course I would. Lots of girls would be glad to have you.”
So Ma was wrong. Maybe I just haven’t found the right one yet.
Today’s the day. I get up early even though there’s nothing I can do for a while. I have a bath and tip loads of Angie’s Lily-of-the-Valley foam in it. I smear my chest with a thick layer of bubbles and then lay back and listen to them fizz. Then I wash my hair and try to drag a comb through the curls, but it hurts too much so I leave it. It looks OK. Then I get dressed in clean pants and socks, the dark blue shirt I keep for best and some new dungarees. I can’t do much about my boots except brush the mud off, so I do that and then sit in the window and wait.
At ten o’clock the door opens and Goldie comes out with Gnome. It’s been raining and she holds her long coat up, out of the wet. The door closes behind them. Oh no, that means Red is still inside. Maybe she’s not going out today. My eyes prick and I wipe them on my sleeve. There’s an ache in my chest, like the time I thought I was getting a bike for my birthday, but Pa was only teasing.
“It's not my fault your feet grow so fast,” he shouted, as I ran out of the room, leaving my new shoes on the table.
Ma came and sat next to me while I lay on my bed, crying for my lost bike and feeling like a bad son.
“Don't mind your pa,” she said. “He's not himself since he lost his job. You do understand, don't you Teddy?”
I nodded, but I didn’t really. Still don't.
Hold on a minute, the door’s opening again. It’s Red. She slams it behind her and runs after the others to the bus stop, shouting, "Wait for me". The bus is coming, she’d better hurry up. Faster Red! It slows down; the driver must have seen her. It stops, waits, pulls away. They’ve gone. My heart’s beating so fast, I feel dizzy. Better sit here for a while until it slows down. I clasp my hands together to stop them shaking and hang my head low, near my knees. Ma said that was the best thing to do if I got too excited. Breathe deeply. Calm down.
I wait an hour, looking at the clock every few minutes. “A watched clock never strikes,” Ma used to say. It’s true. It seems like a week. I pass Angie on her way to the bathroom. Looks like she’s had a rough night. She’s pale and her wavy black hair is all over the place.
“Oooh, you smell nice,” she says. “Going anywhere special?”
My face goes hot and I shake my head. I’d like to tell her but I don’t think she’d understand. Ma never did.
I slip out of the side door and walk quickly up the road, past the plain brick walls of the paper factory. There’s a big, crumbling church behind me as I cross over to where the ground is empty of everything except rubbish. That’s where the bombed houses used to be. Arthur says that people took the bricks and slates until there was nothing left. There’s a clump of weeds on top of a broken down old wheelbarrow. The yellow flowers look tired out as though they’ve taken years to struggle up through the holes. I can hear the rumble of traffic on the Ring Road, otherwise I could believe I’m the only person left, like after a big earthquake.
I crunch across the tip on broken glass to the small passage between the backs of the houses and the gasworks. The house I want is the third one along. Brambles and ivy grow so thick over the walls of the first two, I can hardly even see them. The next one has an extra bit stuck on the back with a ripply glass window, which must be the bathroom.
The gate swings open with a loud creak but there’s no one around to hear as I shuffle round into the small space between me and the back door. There's an old dustbin in the way and I move it behind the gate. Now there’s nothing stopping me and I hold my breath as I try the handle. It’s locked. I step sideways to the window, with its peeling blue paint. It’s not quite shut so I can just about work two of my fingers underneath. I pull and it gives way, dead rotten. That’s not right. Anyone could get in.
I lift the dustbin back, clamber on and squeeze through the window. It's very tight and I nearly get stuck. The bath is just beneath and I put my foot down. I drag my other leg over the sill and stand with my head touching the corrugated tin roof. What a dump. There’s mould speckling the walls and the smell of damp catches in the back of my nose. The lino’s torn and turns up at the edges and there are three towels over a rail that’s dangling by loose screws. I’ll fix that, if I have time. And I’ll wash away the muddy prints I’ve left in the bath.
I step through into the small back room. There’s an old fridge, a cooker and a sink full of dirty mugs. That’s all, except for a big, zipped-up folder. The floor’s covered with overlapping bits of filthy beige carpet, just right for tripping over. I wouldn’t keep a dog in here. The stairs go up between the two rooms and I stand at the bottom, trembling. I don’t bother looking in the front room because I know it’ll annoy me, how messy it is. I can smell Gnome’s socks from here. No, better stick to the plan.
The stairs are dark because both bedroom doors are closed. Every step groans and I remember - these houses aren’t safe. I push the door on the right into Goldie’s room. It has clean white walls and blue lino, a chair, wardrobe and neatly made bed. It’s just like the nun’s room in a film I saw on television. I open the wardrobe. There are dresses and skirts hanging down the left and shelves on the right. Three of them. It’s the top one that interests me.
This is the moment, the one I’ve been waiting for. I lean forwards and take a deep breath and my head fills with a mixture of flowery perfume and musty old pine. I’m panting and I stand a minute watching the layers of satin and lace lifting and settling as my breath reaches them. I put a hand out, then let it fall. Make the feeling last. Let’s see what’s in Red’s room first.
One stride across the stairwell and I’m there. This is a different kettle of fish, as Ma would say. The walls are gold, as though the sun is shining on the inside. There’s a big bed taking up more than half the room and it’s covered with a dark red cover, which falls at my feet in shiny folds. There are red and purple cushions everywhere. I want to snuggle down with my head on the cushions and feel where her body has made a hollow in the mattress, but I don’t. I spot the chest of drawers behind the door. It’s the colour of honey with a curved front and I can picture Ma, running her fingers along the smooth top and saying, “Lovely bit of wood,” as she inspects the tips for dust. She wouldn’t be disappointed; there’s plenty of it here.
I close my eyes and slide open the top drawer. When I dare to look inside, it's even better than I hoped. I shiver as I stroke the silky fabrics, carefully, so they don’t snag on my nails. My finger and thumb hover over the top pair - and stop. There’s a noise downstairs. A key grating in the lock. I freeze and I can hear my heart pumping. Someone clatters into the room below. My hands get clammy and my guts churn as I wait for the creak of the stairs. Thrum, thrum, the beating in my ears is so loud, they’re going to hear it any minute. Then the front door slams and it’s all quiet again.
I don’t move until I’m sure I’m alone. Tears run down my cheeks and into my mouth. It wasn’t meant to be like this. I wanted to have time to go through them. Time to select the ones I want to keep. Now I’m upset and can’t think straight. I scoop up the whole pile and run back into the other room. I grab everything on the shelf and stuff them down the front of my dungarees and I’m almost down the stairs when I realise they’ll need some for tomorrow. I bound back up and shove one pair each back into their rooms. Showing respect, like Ma taught me.
The key is in the back door, so I let myself out, lock the door and drop it through the window. It clangs into the bath and I can hear it sliding around as I slip through the gate. I duck low and run the length of the alley to the far end where it comes out into the next road. A grey cat jumps onto the back wall of the last house and spits at me like it knows what I’ve done.
“That you, Teddy?” Arthur's voice is scratchy from thirty years behind a smoky bar.
I try to answer, but my mouth’s too dry. So I put my head round the kitchen door where he's pouring boiling water into the pot.
“Cup of tea, lad?”
I nod. “Back in a minute. Toilet.”
I empty my dungarees out onto my bed; a jumble of shining colours. I can hardly wait to touch and smell them, to feel them gliding across my skin, but I’ll have to. Arthur will have poured the tea.
It’s been a long day. A lovely, long day. I laid them all out on my bed and chose my favourites. Put them in rows and moved them into the right order. It was hard but I got there in the end. I’ve got seven best pairs, one for each day of the week. They’re soft and light with flowers or lacy edges and little bows at the front. Three pairs are Goldie’s and four are Red’s. I hope Goldie won’t mind that I’ve chosen more of Red’s. I tried to be fair, but that’s how it came out. I’ll keep all the rest safe, for when I need them. I’d like to give some of them back, just keep a couple of spares, but I can’t risk it.
Angie’s made bangers and mash because she knows it’s my favourite. So it’s a perfect end to the day. She says I look happy and I really am. I feel calm, like everything’s going to be all right. I think I’ll sleep well tonight.
It’s late. I’ve been in bed for hours when I hear shouting outside. I jump out of bed and peep out from behind the curtains. It’s Goldie and she’s yelling across the road. All the lights are on and I can see a policeman in a helmet running towards her. She’s pointing into the house and he goes inside. She follows him and a moment later I see them go into her room, over to the wardrobe. He peers inside. Her eyes are wide and her hand is over her mouth.
“No, don’t be upset. I didn’t mean to frighten you,” I whisper against the fogged glass.
I never thought she’d come back on her own. They always come home together. I watch as they disappear through to the back of the house. My heart stops and the hairs prickle on the back of my neck. I left my footprints in the bath.
Gnome and Red turn up and the copper appears at the door, holding his hands apart like Arthur, telling me about the fish that got away. Goldie’s little face is as white as a slice of Mothers Pride. I wish I could do something to make her feel better.
I climb back into bed, shivering with cold and fright. What if they find out it was me? I didn’t mean any harm. I wriggle down under the covers and pull them over my head, like I used to when Ma and Pa were having a row.
I’m not going out today. I was supposed to help a friend of Arthur’s in his garden, but I’ve told them I don't feel well. Angie has been in with some tea and toast, but I can’t eat it. I want to tell her what I’ve done, but she’ll look at me differently and I can’t bear that. If I stay out of the way, maybe they’ll all forget about me and I’ll be safe.
There’s a car pulling up outside their house. I’ve seen it before, lots of times, parked in front of the house with the red light. Two men get out. One is big with crew-cut ginger hair and a coat with a belt. His sidekick is short and square, like a toad, with black greased-back hair and a dark blazer. My stomach jerks again as I recognise the policemen who visit at night. They bang on the door like they’re trying to wake the dead, then it opens and Goldie stands there in a long pink dressing gown. Red’s behind with her hair all mussed up, but I can’t see what she’s wearing. The men go in and shut the door.
Half an hour later they come out, grinning at each other. It’s not a nice sort of smile - not the kind that makes you want to smile back. Both girls look upset as they slam the door after them. I wonder what’s happened? I don’t like the look of those men at all. Angie says they’re bad news, she’s heard some things about them from her friends across the road, but she won’t tell me what. Says it’s not fit to be repeated. I don’t like that they’ve seen the girls in their nighties. Maybe that’s why they were smiling.
I watch the house but nothing else happens until Saturday morning. Red comes out first with a little case and stands at the bus stop. Ten minutes later, Gnome comes out with a rucksack over his shoulder and joins her. They get on the bus and Goldie is left alone.
There’s a black car parked just up the road and it rolls forward. The tyres scrape against the kerb until it’s right outside. I think I know who it is. I want to run after the bus and shout, “Don’t go! Don’t leave Goldie by herself.”
But it’s too late. They’ve gone.
Sidekick gets out of the car, looks up and down the street, and taps on the door. Goldie opens it, smiling like she’s expecting someone, but when she sees it’s him, her smile disappears and she ducks behind it. She shakes her head as he steps forward and tries to close the door on him, but she can’t. He’s got his foot inside and she tries to slam it but he jumps inside and pushes her back, kicking it shut behind him.
I have to do something. This is all my fault.
I don’t care who sees me this time as I run round the back of the houses, towards the gate. I lift the latch with both hands so it doesn’t make a sound and edge round into the yard. It's all quiet inside. The bathroom window is hanging open - no one has been to repair it yet. I put the bin under the window and climb in, feet in the bath and then onto the floor. I stand really still but I can't hear a thing.
One stride and I’m in the room. Sidekick is slumped in the corner, squashed between the cooker and the wall and there's an old black frying pan next to him on the carpet. Goldie doesn't look up straight away. Her shirt is torn and she's staring at her hand as if she's never seen it before. She starts to make little noises in her throat.
I step forwards and stretch out my hand, and I'm sorry it's so ugly because she looks even more frightened than before. I put my finger to my lips and make shushing sounds, like Ma used to do to calm me down.
"Don't be afraid," I say, as quietly as I can. "I won't hurt you. I saw him get in and I was worried."
She stares at me and then back at Sidekick.
"Is he dead?" she whispers.
I bend down and feel in his hair, which is sticky with oil, but not blood. He's still breathing so I shake my head.
Goldie starts to cry. Her voice comes out all thick and snuffly.
"Please help me. I didn't mean to hurt him."
"What can I do?"
I'll do anything she wants.
"I don't know. I just want him out of here."
She runs into Gnome's room and looks out of the window.
"You could put him in his car," she says. "Then someone will find him."
"What about the frying pan?" she asks.
What would Ma say?
"Give it a good wash in hot soapy water."
She's stopped crying and her face is full of hope. For a second I feel proud that she trusts me. But there isn't much time. I'll have to be quick.
I wait 'til a bus has gone past, then pull Sidekick's arm over my shoulder and drag him outside. The sickly smell of his cologne nearly chokes me, but I take time to sit him properly behind the wheel.
I watch as a bit of spit dribbles down his chin. He's disgusting. A bang on the head doesn't seem enough punishment for what he's done. I know Ma wouldn't think so either. I try to guess what she'd do next and I remember how cross she was when she found one of the things I'd stolen under my pillow. She said I could end up in jail. That gives me an idea.
I dash across the road and up to my room, stuffing my pockets with the things I need. Angie sticks her head out of her room as I rush past. She grabs my arm.
"Hey, Teddy. What are you up to?"
"Can't stop. Haven't got time."
"I saw you, Teddy. Outside with that copper. What happened?"
"He tried to hurt Goldie."
I look down at my boots. Angie looks at them too. She tips her head to one side and watches me with half-closed eyes, like Ma used to do when I was in the soup. I try not to blink because then she’ll know. She stares back, concentrating, like she’s trying to see the pictures in my mind.
She presses her lips together and nods.
"Okay," she says. "Here's what to do."
She lets go of me and I carry on, down the stairs and out through the bar. Ma hated drunks too, so that's another thing I can do to get Sidekick into trouble. Then I run to the phone box on the corner and dial 999.
He’s coming round and groaning when I get back. His eyes are still closed but he gulps at the bottle of whisky I press to his mouth, spilling plenty down his clean, white shirt. I leave the glove box open and curl his fingers round the bottle, propped up between his legs.
The siren wails, closer and closer, as I run up the stairs to my room, sliding around on the lino in my socks.
It’s Sunday morning and sunshine pours through the kitchen window. Angie leans against the sink in her short, fancy Chinese bathrobe. She reads the front page of the newspaper out loud, while me and Arthur dip soldiers in our boiled eggs.
“‘Detective Sergeant Brian Blake has been charged with theft,’ a spokesman said today.
“An unofficial source confirmed that a number of stolen items of an intimate nature were recovered from the glove compartment of his car and that his boots matched footprints left at the scene of the crime.’”
She holds it up for us to see. There’s an old picture of Sidekick and the headline ‘BRIEFS ENCOUNTER’.
She pushes the hair out of her eyes and gives me a big, warm smile.
“It’s bangers and mash again tonight, Teddy, with apple crumble and custard for afters.”
Then she folds the newspaper and drops it, with a wink, onto the table.