By Maureen Cullen
I’d already said yes to the invitation, but Mum was a hissing serpent and the negotiation could end in a sting.
‘Mum, Rose Roberts is having a birthday party. Can I go?’
She was busy with the wringer and the kitchen was belching steam, but at least her hands were fully occupied. ‘When is it?’
‘Nae buts, Anne-Marie.’
I didn’t often resort to wheedling but I stuck my head inches under her roseate cheeks, taking a blast of heat on my neck from one of Christine’s nappies.
‘Mum, I can still dae the job, come hame and go back tae the party. Please.’
She sighed, dropped the nappy back into the tub, and put down the tongs. ‘Whit time is it at?’
‘Five o’clock till eight o’clock.’
She winced. ‘Rose Roberts eh?’
‘I can still go. I’ll leave the party at quarter tae six, dash doon the road, pick up the packet and run back here. Then sprint ower tae Rosie’s again. No one will notice a thing.’ Jane was only seven and Louise five, so it was down to me. Mum wouldn’t do it, she’d the baby to nurse, and she was far too affronted to ask her pals. I sensed possible leverage. I could work this and use some of the credit I’d run up.
Her eyes narrowed and for a moment refusal set on her lips, then her face relaxed, her shoulders drooped, and I knew I had her. Maybe it was the eagerness in my face, or some memory of fun-times past (though that was unlikely, this was my mum), or maybe she was just worn out. I pretended to be anxious with anticipation to give her the satisfaction of the indulgence. It wasn’t often she had any of that. Finally, she said, ‘Awright. Mind ye’ve got to be there on the dot or else…’
I knew the critical nature of my task and the consequences of failure. There could be no ‘or else’. I was living two lives, one responsible parent-in-lieu and the other would-be party girl in nylon dress, kitten heels, and flick-out hair. Those kitten heels sure took some getting, and I wasn’t about to sprint in them, so I’d have my sannies in my pockets ready for the dash.
On the day, all my lies were suitably concocted to avoid failure. The excuse must have the appearance of immediacy. I couldn’t be called away. For a start there wasn’t a phone in my house, we used the one in the corner shop. Nor could I ask anyone to rush up to the door and fetch me off on some emergency as this was only between Mum and me. I ransacked my brain and the obvious scenario fell into place. It was perfect.
Rosie’s house was in a private road, where people lived who had money and knew nothing of scrimping and saving for shoes, or relying on the Provident for your school uniform or the Saint Vincent de Paul for a pram for your wee sister. As I approached the building I fiddled in my inside duffle pocket to double check I had my Snow-White watch. The other pockets were tight with my sannies and I couldn’t actually display this relic from a younger Christmas.
I strolled up the crazy-paved driveway, jagging myself on a stick of purple heather protruding into the path. Even in the dark of evening the house looked smart, a semi-detached Victorian building, all brightly-lit windows and brass knockers, one of those types my mum cleaned when she got the chance. She complained that the dirt in those houses was a mortal sin.
I bit off one glove and knocked the green door three times. There was no answer, though people milled around in the big bay-windowed lounge. Psychedelic, prepubescent girls were giving it laldy to the Beatles under an actual crystal chandelier. I patted down my yellow straight up-and-down, pan-collared number. I was a skelf, and probably looked like a coloured pencil, and to add to my misery, elastic bands held up my knee socks making my legs itchy so I had to lean down and massage the angry red circles.
After a few minutes shivering, I realised the outer doors led into an inner wee sanctuary, where you were supposed to ring a bell. I rang and rang and just as I was about to leave, Rosie herself appeared in the hallway and opened the door. She was bright in a red velvet dress, but this didn’t help her startled eyes and pale twitchy face. Normally she was dressed in school uniform like me. We both stood staring at each other in a kind of trance.
Gathering my wits, I strolled past her, head high. Mum had taken a precious minute out of her chores to lecture me.
‘The Roberts think they’re posh, but don’t you think anything of it. Ginty Roberts was Ginty McCann before they merried.’
In the lounge, I was greeted by a bunch of girls from my school but the rest were strangers, most likely from the private school up the hill, neighbours of Rosie’s. I joined in the dancing for a while, gyrating to the Kinks’ You really got me. It was all a bit loud and Rosie was absent so I smiled my way through the throng and found her on a stool in the kitchen.
‘Where’s your Mum?’
I expected to find Mrs Roberts in the kitchen, but there was no sign of her. The noise in the lounge was growing louder and two of the girls were dancing on the coffee table. I’d never been to anything unsupervised, unless you count babysitting the wee ones. My mum would have a fit if she found out. More high-jinx and squealing came from the lounge and girls started to spill into the hall and kitchen, one shamefaced with a broken ornament in hand. I took it from her and laid the pieces on the counter. Rosie’s eyes twitched like she had tics and she kept rubbing her hands together, bending back her fingers as if they were made of rubber, all red-white blotchy as though the blood was pooling underneath.
My own house was a stress-pit most of the time, though in recent weeks a sort of solace had crept in but I recognised trouble when I saw it. Sure enough, Rosie burst into tears. I took her by the arm and shut the rest of them out, closing the door with my heel. When I stared at her, she blurted out, ‘Oh Anne-Marie, my dad will be home soon and…’ She drew a hanky from up her sleeve and blew into it hard. Balloons were being burst now to squeals of laughter. Mr Roberts would be scandalized, he was in the Knights of Saint Columba.
I repeated, ‘Where’s your mum?’
Rosie’s face scrunched into ridges and folds where tears puddled. She pointed to the ceiling.
‘Righto, I’ll get her.’ I took the stairs, two at a time.
‘Mrs Roberts,’ I called out into the upstairs hall. ‘Mrs Roberts, Rosie needs you down the stairs.’
A grandfather clock chimed the half hour, its gold hand quivering over the roman numerals. I’d need to get out of here in ten minutes, tops. There was a toilet ahead, the sheen of white porcelain winking in the semi-dark. Rosie’s bedroom door was half open, and I peeked in at her uniform discarded on the floor and a teddy bear with a tartan bow lying helpless on its back on the pink coverlet. A few Enid Blytons were scattered at the side of the bed. I pushed the door open a tad more, just out of nosiness. This was a fine room, not like mine at home with the three single beds pressed together and cupboards busting with stuff. My books had to be kept well under the bed for fear of damage and an unaffordable fine at the library. A soft bump from the next room jolted me out of jealousy. I turned and stepped down the hall, recognising a strong peaty smell that caused me to pinch my nose. I stopped at another door, this one only open a fraction, soft light spilling through the gap. I wished I hadn’t come to this blasted party. And what had possessed me to come upstairs? Something must be up if this woman couldn’t hear the racket. Maybe she’d taken ill. I knocked the door. ‘Mrs Roberts?’ There was no answer so I pushed the door open.
A Johnny Walker bottle without its plug balanced on the edge of the bedside table, three or four inches winking like honey. One black high-heeled shoe lay on its side on the oriental rug and the other pointed toe-up to the ceiling on the nylon foot of the figure prone on the bed.
Mrs Robert’s lilac party skirt had slipped down in abandon, hip bones nudging the material either side like wee rounded pebbles. Her white silk blouse had loosened from the waistline and slipped up to rumple over her bra. A line of blonde down ran from breastbone to bellybutton over flushed milk skin. One hand was flung over her head and blonde curls rioted around a doe-soft face. Her daughter’s features were there, but without the mousiness. The other hand drooped over a crystal glass upended on the floor, which dripped into a wet stain on the rug. Women didn’t get drunk in our social set, my mother liked an Advocaat at Christmas and I’d seen the Aunties with a Babycham. I stood there far too long for decency, the sight oddly captivating, my senses banging in my ears, drowning out the din from downstairs. Maybe she’d expired. I’d heard of men who’d drank themselves to death.
It was only when she turned, lashes fluttering, a little pop escaping from her lips, that I backed out of the room, shutting the door fast behind me. I picked my way downstairs even though the clock on the landing told me I should get a move on. The girls were playing a tag game, falling about, pulling and shoving, a sight I saw as ridiculous. Rosie stood at the kitchen door, her chest rising and falling as if she’d just climbed Ben Lomond.
I said, ‘Err, your Mum’s sleeping.’
Her eyes widened, the iris’s so pale blue they were almost colourless.
I wanted to tell her not to worry, but that would be a bare lie, as opposed to a white lie which was perfectly acceptable in my book, so I planted my feet square in the doorway, stuck two fingers in my mouth and drew out my best whistle. That stilled the melee and I went over and turned off the record player. All eyes were trained on me, if I didn’t act fast this could get out of hand.
I shouted, ‘Right yous lot. Party’s ower. Mrs Roberts is sick. Get your coats and leave. I need tae go for the doctor.’
A fox-faced madam sidled to the front of the group, but when I took a step forward and gave her my mother’s serpent hiss, she backed off. Within five minutes the place was cleared.
‘You’ll need tae tidy up, there’s something I forgot,’ I said.
Rosie sniffed and nodded, her hands shaking, and I hightailed it out of there, changing my shoes at the gate before I took to my sprint.
It was icing-up outside, the ground glowing with frost. At first my feet were cold in the sannies, but I soon warmed as I ran across the Common, past the football fields either side empty in the dark, past the public baths and under the railway bridge. Over my head, up in the rafters, invisible pigeons cooed, warbled and fluttered. I went faster when I thought about the white pooh that always decorated the tunnel’s walls and pavements.
I slowed as I reached the East End where the Shipyard siren was reaching a crescendo, announcing the end of the shift. The boiler-suited men hadn’t yet begun to burst out of the big gates to make their way to the High-Street pubs to spend their week’s wages so I was in time. I sped down Victoria Street, the gates now swinging out to empty the tide of working men into the lanes, alleys and streets of the town. Huddles of women, some with prams, some with toddlers, some with curlers under their scarves, waited on the roadsides and pavements under streetlamps, ready to relieve their men of their pay-packets before too much damage was done. I slid in and out of these clusters, some of them enjoying a good blether, others wan with cold and anxiety. At last I reached the pre-arranged spot on a corner and waited.
I’d shame him into it if I had to. ‘So, we’re tae starve while you drink our suppers away.’ Or ‘You’re a big man, so you are, taking the food out of the mouths of babes.’ I’d heard that one in the chapel. Or, if pushed, I’d resort to wheedling. So far, he’d cooperated but I knew fine and well he still entertained the idea Mum would have him back. Once he realised that wasn’t going to happen, he wouldn’t cough up. I stayed in the shadows until I recognised him amongst the crowd. He swaggered whilst others walked, he surveyed whilst others watched, he commanded space whilst others pushed and shoved. As he came closer, a streetlamp picked out the pale sweep of his forehead and the glint in his eyes, his oil-blackened face split by a grin, and he waved as he located me skulking at the corner. I gritted my teeth as he fell away from the crowd and jogged over to me.
‘How’s yer Ma?’
‘Fine.’ I glanced at his pocket.
‘An the weans?’ He was going to string this out.
‘Wee Christine?’ He bit his upper lip.
‘She’s gettin big.’
He put one hand on the wall and leaned, hemming me in. I twisted my head away and blinked back the sting behind my eyes. He smelt of the yards: Bunsen burner, asbestos, oil, sweat, and that thick peaty undertow that was always on his breath.
‘How’s the school?’
‘Gies the message.’ I slipped under the extended arm and shoved my hand out.
He shook his head. ‘That’s ma girl awright, jist aff yer Mam’s back.’ But he fished out the pay packet, bust it open, took out some notes, and crushed them into his pocket. He passed the still fat packet to me, narrowing his eyes as if about to say something else. Instead he laughed and backed away, soon jogging after his pals.
I turned towards home, jamming the packet in my inside pocket, shivering now, my brain jiving. This time Mum had been to the Social, a lawyer and Father Murphy. Soon as Dad realised the game was up, I’d not be getting any pay packet. Mum said we’d manage, I didn’t know how. But it was good to have a calm house for a change, to be able to go to bed and not have to listen for him coming up the stairs garrulous with the drink. Sometimes after tea, we all lay on the carpet and listened to a story on the wireless, as long as Christine was asleep. No, we didn’t need Dad or his measly pay packet.
I pushed open the gate and hurried up the path. Mum was waiting in the kitchen doorway, the wee ones sober-faced at the table behind her. Even Christine’s eyes were question marks. I slipped the envelope into Mum’s hand and she emptied it onto the sink counter, counting it out.
‘Off ye go, Anne-Marie.’ She turned and smiled.
The party? I’d almost forgotten about that. I hesitated. There was one errand left. I slipped into our room and panned beneath my bed for the parcel. It was only a box of Maltesers, a hand-stitched handkerchief I’d made myself, and the glittery birthday card that said Happy Birthday Rosie in my best italics.