Words on the wall again this morning. Scrawled in bright red paint. Dirty words. Words that had never passed the old woman’s lips. Words that she only recently fully understood.
The pub is nearby, part of the estate, home for the boys.
Shal, the barmaid, watching her life sift away, presides with disdain.
The boys carry on one of their regular conversations.
‘So I told the dragon, put it in the fucking oven that’s what yer do gel, yer don’t come down ‘ere bleating about me hot dinner being ruined do yer?’
‘What she say Dave?’
‘She only chucked it at us didn’t she?’
The men hoot derision.
‘All the bleeding same , women, nag nag nag …’
Towser, glad to be in the conversation,
‘What yer do then Dave?’ he laughs in anticipation.
Dave bangs his fist into the palm of his left hand.
‘Belted ‘er one didn’t I!’
‘Fucking split arses!’ Towser again, the one who’s never been known to pull a bird in his life. The three others look sceptical but they’ll let him off this time. He is fooled into thinking he is accepted, for the moment.
The house settles into itself, ugly.
They came round banging dustbin lids just after it happened. The sound scared her more than the time they stuffed petrol rags through the letter box. She sealed the letter box but stopped scrubbing the walls.
He’s long gone, her son. The smell of him has left the house along with the sound of Roy Orbison and Dylan. The paintwork on the door shows scuff marks, gouges show dark green paint under the cream and beneath that is primer. She picks idly with her fingernail and smells the ancient lead high in her head behind her eyes.
In the pub the boys bond:
‘Want me to put on a bet for yer Dave?’
‘Nah, Towser, given it up for lent innit?’
The men laugh obediently.
Shal is bored: If they rubbed all their brain cells together they might spark off a thought but it hardly seems likely. She bangs a glass vigorously on top of the bar.
‘What’s a matter darling, your Terry not doing the business?’
A ribald sound reaches up to the ceiling, rebounds, sinks into her mind.
Standing listening, hearing, filtering.
Perpetual rage at work.
Angie enters, bravado, cheer, fear. Hair gone thin legs changing in shape until she will soon be old.
‘Alright Ange?’ Shal asks. Ange looks back dully.
‘What’s it to be Ange?’
Looks over at the boys, catches Towser’s eye, smiles rictus.
‘Look it’s old Ange!’
The boys yell, she flurries into life and her face perks and bubbles a fleshly coffee machine. Animated now she gets her half lager sidles over to the table, Dave kicks a chair free for her and she blushes her gratitude.
Lazy bastards all, Shal’s feet hurt, she wants to sit down.
Inside the empty house the old woman rattles, the space around her reverberates jagged with her isolation.
Into his room like every day, to sit. Sometimes she fancies she can smell his tobacco in the air, not today. She moves his clothes around, puts his trainers under the bed. Been quiet for weeks now. Nobody talks to her. Best thing really.
Now the words on the wall again.
Shal moves her stool behind the bar, the smell of stale beer reaches up into her brain, she turns the page of the paper, wonders where her life went.
‘Be out soon, that cunt.’
Dave looks at Robbie, hard.
‘Will he by fuck?’
Towser from face to face, head moving fast, bobbing:
‘Will he by fuck? ‘
‘What are you? Some fucking parrot?’ From Robbie. Towser, eyes sliding fear.
‘I was only …’
‘Well fucking don’t, OK?’
‘OK Dave, OK Robbie.’
‘Now get up and get the fucking drinks Towser!’
‘But I’ve got no money.’
‘She’ll let you have them on the strap won’t you darling?’
‘You know better than that Dave.’
‘Come on darling.’
‘Piss off Dave.’
‘Yeah, come on Shal be a lady.’ Angie getting in on the act. Almost one of the boys for a moment there. Dave glares at her.
Robbie throws money on the table.
‘And have one yourself Shal.’
‘Will they never go? No. That’s the short answer, not ’til closing unless they fall over, this is her for the day and every day. With her feet, and them giving her earache. Five more hours.
Time has lost its meaning in the house. Dust collects and is removed.
Sometimes when she sits on his bed she remembers when he was born, runs through in her mind his first steps.
Last week she went on a visit. He’d grown fat with the food in there and shifty, not looking her in the eye when she asked him if he was coming home. She never told him about the messages on the wall, the shit in the front garden the petrol rags, the banging bin lids. They had been the worst and she didn’t know why. Now she looks at her middle aged son, watches his eyes fill with tears. Turns away.
‘They’ll find me somewhere mum. Somewhere out of the way, where they can’t get at me.’
Shal enjoys watching the deterioration of her punters’ minds as the day wears her down. The slurring voices the minds slipping out of gear.
‘His release date must be soon, that cunt.’
Dave’s voice louder now and less distinct.
‘Yeah, get a reception for the bastard!’ Angie has relaxed, her face is inside itself now, not an odd protuberance fearful, hanging on the exterior. She speaks:
‘Saw her, his mum, the other day, in the post office.’
‘Probably getting her pension poor old cow.’ Says Shal and rubs the bar with extra vigour.
‘Poor old cow? She must have known, she’s his mother.’
‘Do you know everything your Damian and Dennie get up to?’
Dave sees his authority on the blink:
‘Still visits him don’t she?’ He says.
‘Yeah still visits him don’t she?’ Towser at it again, sees Dave’s glare:
‘Sorry Dave only saying.’ Frightened eyes flicker. Nods.
‘I’d torch the house I would, no trouble at all!’
At last, he has their full attention. Dave stops what he’s doing, puts down his pint and stares at Towser.
They all stare.
‘When he comes back I would.’
But his voice has lost it’s certainty. It’s the first time in his life that he’s been taken seriously and it terrifies him.
Shal looks over at a crew of deadbeats, Angie looks at her heroes. Shal speaks first:
‘What’s she done? Poor old cow.’
‘You haven’t got kiddies have you Shal? You don’t understand. What Towser says is right!’
Towser flushes to the roots of his hair.
Dave looks, speculates:
‘Get Towser a drink Shal. Get us all a drink gel. Have one yerself.’
The old woman looks at the jeans that will never fit him now, puts them to her face, feels the soft worn denim on her lips, inhales the washing powder smell and fancies she can scent a faint whiff of him. She throws them into the black plastic bag.
The foul breath of the wheelie bin rises into her sinuses as she lifts the lid. Her face has stiffened since it happened, it’s as though a carapace has grown over it and she peers out from behind a thick shell.
Looks along the road, not a soul in sight.
Back inside bald clean house.
Past red words.
Puts on an Orbison tape, sits, hears
“I was all right for a while …” but when it comes to cry-ing she finds she has no tears left and sits lost in a kind of vegetative state,
“I hear the sound of distant drums ” synchronises nicely with the smashing window and the fire begins.