The woman’s hair was dyed peroxide-blonde with black roots underneath, and it bunched up at her shoulders in a tangled, uncombed heap. She sat at the kitchen table alternating between drags on a cigarette and taking sips from a glass of water, her smudged lipstick leaving faint red traces on the rim. A thick shaft of sunlight broke through the window above the sink, casting her face in shadow. She wore a grubby white t-shirt that belonged to my old man, and I could tell by the outline of her breasts and the way her nipples were showing that she wasn’t wearing a bra. On her bottom half were a pair of faded-grey knickers and nothing else. Her legs were long and pale with several bruises on her thighs. She hadn’t heard me come in, so I lingered silently in the doorway, until the moment she suddenly lifted her head and met my gaze.
‘Wuh!’ she gasped recoiling at the sight of me. ‘Damn well almost shat myself. What you doing just stood there, son?’
I edged a little further into the room.
‘You must be his boy, right? I’ve heard a lot about you.’
I wanted to say I doubt it, but instead I just continued to stare. She took a long drag on the cigarette before crushing the butt out against a dirty plate and waving her hand through the cloud of smoke hovering in front of her face. As she did this I got a proper look at her for the first time. I could see that she was probably pretty once, but in that moment she looked tired and strung-out. Dark rings circled her eyes and her smile revealed several black gaps between yellow, nicotine-stained teeth. Her forehead bore more creases than an un-ironed shirt.
‘You just gonna stand there and not say nothing?’ she asked and when I failed to respond, added: ‘Suit yourself. Who am I to tell you what to do? It’s your house.’
She looked down at her nails and fidgeted awkwardly in her seat.
‘I was just getting some breakfast,’ I croaked.
‘You crack on, sweetheart,’ she replied as she rose from her chair and turned her attention to the two mugs of tea sat brewing by the sink. ‘I’ll just get these done and get out of your hair.’
I remained glued to the spot and watched as she took the milk from the fridge and splashed a drop into each mug. I tried to stop myself staring at her arse, only partially covered by the t-shirt and knickers, but it was hard not to. She nudged the fridge door shut with her toe as she picked up the mugs and turned to leave.
‘All done,’ she said. ‘Nice meeting you… ?’
‘Jed,’ she repeated. ‘I’m Linda, I’m a friend of your daddy’s.’
I tried to think of something else to say but no words came. Linda laughed.
‘Well… Enjoy your breakfast, Jed.’
She turned and left, and I listened to her footsteps on the stairs followed by the familiar click of my old man’s bedroom door closing seconds later.
I turned on the TV, fixed myself a bowl of Shreddies and a glass of orange squash, and sat at the table eating and thinking about Linda while I watched cartoons. Thinking about her meant that I started thinking about my mum, and pretty soon I was thinking about Roo, too, as well as Lara Croft, Britney Spears and every other girl that popped into my head. I got so lost in my thoughts that I didn’t notice Jimmy tapping his knuckle on the window until I turned my head and jumped at the sight of him peering in at me.
‘Alright Space Cake?’ he said by way of a greeting as I opened the back door and he shuffled inside.
‘What do you want so early?’ I asked.
‘Early-schmearly, I’ve been up since four.’ He took a swig from my orange squash and settled down at the table. ‘Mike and Shirley were at it again last night.’
'Gross,' I said.
Mike and Shirley ran the foster home where Jimmy lived with several other kids. According to Jimmy, all they ever did was engage in loud, angry arguments and even louder, angrier sex with each other on a regular basis. As if he was worried I hadn’t quite understood him properly, Jimmy then launched into an impression of them both as he mimed them doing it doggy-style.
‘Oh Shirley girly, that’s the ticket!’ he growled. ‘Hell’s teeth! Who’s your daddy, Sugarplum?!’
Imitating Shirley, he adopted a high-pitched squeal:
‘Fuck me harder, Magic Mike! Don’t stop till I poaaaaaaap!!’
I grabbed Jimmy in a headlock and held my hand over his mouth.
‘Shhh,’ I giggled, ‘Mike and Shirley aren’t the only ones who got lucky last night.’
I gestured upstairs with my head and Jimmy beamed back at me.
‘Frank the Tank has got a girl up there?!’ he squealed, ‘What’s she like?! I wanna see!’
He wriggled out of my grip and made for the stairs but I managed to tackle him to the floor.
‘I’m serious, shut it! He’ll go apeshit if we wake him.’
‘Is she fit?’
I thought about this for a second.
‘She’s old. But she’s got good tits. And I saw her nipples through her shirt, too.’
Jimmy gasped and high-fived me.
‘Is she the first he’s had since your mum?’
‘She’s the first that I know of but there’s been other nights when he’s not come home.’
‘Well, I for one am pleased for the man,’ he said getting to his feet. ‘Perhaps we’ll even see the Tank smile a little more now an all. You wanna go blow up some seagulls?’
We’d heard recently that if you fed bicarbonate soda to a seagull it could cause it to explode within seconds of eating it. This—according to a kid we knew called Kian—was because seagulls are unable to expel the bubble of gas the bicarbonate creates inside of them quickly enough. Kian said he knew it to be true because he’d done it himself. But then Kian was a renowned bullshitter. He once told us he’d seen a yeti out walking in the fields near his home, which had proceeded to chase him all the way back to his front door, where he claimed to have fought it off with an umbrella. While I was taken in by some of the rumours of big cat sightings that were constantly doing the rounds, the idea of a yeti terrorising residents of the Old Country seemed plain stupid.
‘I’ve got some bicarb with me,’ Jimmy continued, ‘but we’ll need bread.’
I got up and took the crusts from what was left of the loaf in the cupboard.
‘Hurry up though, he doesn’t like me wasting food. Won’t get his giro till Friday.’
‘He’ll never know. Gimme that ketchup too.’
He spooned bicarb onto the crusts and pointed to the bottle on the side. As I passed it to him, I noticed the cut above his eye. I don’t know how I hadn’t spotted it before.
‘How’d that happen?’ I asked and reached out to touch it. Jimmy flinched.
‘Take a guess,’ he spat, turning away from me.
Aside from fucking and fighting with each other, Mike and Shirley’s other hobby was to beat on Jimmy whenever they felt like it. They’d do it to the other kids too, apparently, but it was Jimmy who bore the brunt of their anger most of all.
‘Assholes,’ I muttered, and he flashed me an embarrassed grin before his attention turned to the seagull sandwich once more. He squashed the two slices of bread together so that ketchup oozed out of the sides.
I crept back upstairs to my room and threw on a t-shirt and jeans, then pulled on a pair of socks. I could hear the old man and Linda talking dirty to each other as I passed his bedroom on the way back down, and for a moment I became dizzy, grabbing a hold of the banister to steady myself. I reentered the kitchen seconds later to find Jimmy hunched over trying to light the cigarette butt Linda had crushed out on the dirty plate. He smiled at me and we slipped out the back door and into the soft light of the dawn.
The name of the street was Gloucester Road and it was situated high up on the hill that ran through the centre of the village, looking down upon hundreds of tumbling granite cottages all stacked up on top of each other, with their crooked chimney stacks and patched-up slate roofs speckled with tufts of moss and dried-out seagull shit. The houses lining the street were mostly modest, semi-detached properties filled with families and retired old people, with the exception of number six which was rented by a bunch of bums in their early twenties who smoked pot and kept their curtains drawn all day long, even in the summer. The street was on a slope, a steady incline running downwards in the direction of the harbour. At the bottom of the slope stood a clutch of garages, opposite which was a side-street that myself and the other kids in the neighbourhood referred to as the Flat, due to it being the only spot with a more even terrain.
The shapes of houses were silhouetted against a marshmallow pink sky, and there was a cool bite to the air, the sun still waking up. Jimmy and I followed the street round to the left—past the Sedowskis’, onto where it became Gloucester Place—and set the sandwich down on a small patch of grass surrounded by bungalows. We took up a crouched position a few metres away and waited, our eyes darting back and forth between the sandwich, the rooftops and the sky above, until two gulls came swooping down and made a play for the bait. One of them beat the other to it, fending off interest from its mate as it gobbled it down. We looked on and held our breath in anticipation, too excited to speak, until the moment came and the seagull took to the sky again. We sprung to our feet and gave chase, whooping and cheering as we ran.
The bird looked troubled immediately. It hadn’t gotten far before it began to seesaw in mid-air, barely able to flap its wings as it headed up the road towards Mr Hopkins’ house.
‘Here we go!’ yelled Jimmy, grinning wildly as he glanced over his shoulder at me and the rubber soles of our trainers slapped against the concrete, both of us sensing the bird was just seconds away from combusting into a spectacular cloud of feathers and guts, when it suddenly swerved to its left and nosedived dramatically, crashing into the front bedroom window of Mrs Sleighman’s house with a dull thud. A large crack appeared on impact, as the bird slid down the glass and disappeared somewhere out of sight.
It wasn’t the exciting finale either of us had been hoping for, and we rushed to the old lady’s garden fence and hauled ourselves up so that we could get a good view of the bird lying there on the lawn. Its head was twisted at a hundred and eighty degree angle, with what looked like black blood pouring out of its side, and its beak shattered into several thin shards. Neither of us said anything, just stood staring at it and feeling sick to our stomachs. The next thing we knew the front door to the house swung open and Mrs Sleighman appeared, wrapped in her dressing gown, all red hair and dangly earrings.
‘What the bleddy hell have you boys done?!’ she cried.
After several minutes spent protesting our innocence, we just about managed to convince the old lady we’d had nothing to do with the seagull’s demise, and that it was simply a case of wrong place, wrong time. Lucky for us, she was one of the nicer people who lived on the street. She never grumbled when we’d go trick or treating at Halloween, or knock at her door warbling dodgy renditions of Christmas carols every December. In fact, she always made sure she had something to give us in return for our efforts. Had it been another of the neighbours—Mr Hopkins say, or the Barretts, even—I doubt we’d have been let off the hook quite so easily. Still, I felt bad that she’d have to shell out the money to get her window repaired, and so offered to get rid of the seagull for her, though she wouldn’t let me touch it until she’d fetched a pair of rubber gloves from inside first. Once she had I lifted it into an empty plastic bag—blood still seeping out of its face and from its stomach—before dumping it in the wheely-bin down the side of her house. I was struck by the pointlessness of it all, how unnecessary and cruel it seemed. I promised myself there and then that I’d never intentionally hurt any animal again, even seagulls.
We hung about on the street for an hour or so after, wandering up past the Mud Pile and doing a lap of the block, looking for something to take our mind off what had happened with the bird. But we soon ran out of things to talk about, and so without really acknowledging why, we went our separate ways and drifted off home.
The two men downed tools for crib at 10am on the dot. Bri tossed his trowel into the bucket of muck at his feet, flicked off the radio and made his way downstairs with Gareth close behind. The old lady had set a tray out on the table in the dining room. On it sat a teapot and two cups, alongside a plate of Hobnobs, and a small jug of milk. At the other end of the table sat a glass bowl full to the brim with some kind of nut. They each pulled out a chair and sat down as Gareth poured out the tea and popped a nut in his mouth.
‘Your place alright after last night?’
Bri took his sandwiches out of the plastic bag he’d hastily wrapped them in first thing and set them down on the table.
‘Fine,’ he said through a mouth full of cheese and pickle. ‘Yours?’
‘Water pissin’ in above the window in Megan’s room but nothin’ big,’ said Gareth, handing his boss his tea. ‘Our Trude’s gone down the harbour this mornin’ though, give ’em a hand gettin’ they boats out. Hell up down the Plaz last night. Lock in till the early hours. Canadian Kevin stripped off and did a dance on the pool table—’
‘Usual crowd. Trish, Ronnie, Eggs an Bacon. Nice-lookin’ young maid on the bar again—new girl, forget her name—Debbie too, of course. Black Ray even got on the piano at one point. Me, Shakey Ted an’ Pete the Pissed Up Plasterer all singin’ the Osmonds.’
‘Glad I stayed home,’ Bri smirked.
At that moment the old lady came shuffling into the room and the two men did their best to sit up straight.
‘Alright Mrs S?’ asked Bri.
‘Can I get you boys anything else?’ the old lady said not really hearing him and looking off somewhere beyond him as she spoke.
‘We’re sorted as it is, thanks. Tea’s spot on though, ta.’
‘What was that?’
‘I said no need to worry, we’re sorted as it is. You just crack on with whatever you’ve gotta be doin’ and we’ll get upstairs all sorted for you before the day is out, okay?’
Bri didn’t want to raise his voice too much, he was worried it he might sound aggressive. But he also knew that the old lady’s hearing was on the way out, along with everything else. She drifted over to the window and stood staring out through the net curtains for a moment. The two men watched her awkwardly, not really knowing what to say. After a while she turned and shuffled back out the way she’d come in.
‘Fuckin’ tragic ain’t it,’ said Gareth once she’d gone.
‘Speaking of which,’ Gareth tossed another nut into his mouth, ‘you been to see your ma lately?’
Bri finished chewing and sipped his tea.
‘Went last week. Try and go once a fortnight if I got the time, but to be honest I can’t fuckin’ stand it up there. All beige walls an’ Werther’s fuckin’ Originals. An you can smell it an all.’
‘Whassat? The Werther’s?’
‘Death,’ said Bri grimly. ‘Decay. Lives rottin’ away.’
They let this thought hang there for a moment and sipped at their tea before Gareth piped up again.
‘Jim Leggat’s old dear’s runnin’ a brothel apparently.’
‘No shit. Bumped into him in Lentern’s last Sat'day. Straight from the horse’s mouth.’
‘Howsat work then?’
‘Got a couple girls. Eastern Europeans. She turn a blind eye and they pay her double what she’d normally get rent-wise.’
‘What’s Jim think?’
‘Y’knaw Jim, if he were anymore laid back he’d be lyin’ down. He’s just happy she ain’t gone senile yet. Good earner an all, says she got a plasma in every room.’
‘Better to be doin’ somethin’ than nothin’ I guess. That’s what does for most people. Minute they stop, they start shuttin’ down. Some old codger retires and the next thing—’
Bri drew his finger across his neck.
‘My old man was the same, seen the lights go out myself.’
The rain continued to rattle at the windows.
‘You not wanna nut?’ Gareth asked.
‘Biff Symons allergic to fish.’
‘Biff Symons fulla shit.’
‘True,’ Gareth chuckled.
‘With Mother it’s the Alzheimers,’ Bri continued, ‘She idn’ makin’ sense. Other day she starts askin’ what all these people are doin’ in her home, y’knaw, talkin’ bout the carers an that. I adda tell her ‘it idn’ your home, Mother, your home got sold ten year ago.’ Didn’t make no difference, she were adamant, starts screamin’ at me to get them outta there.’
‘Then Sheila come in and Mother starts harkin’ on about her havin’ an affair with some other bloke, all cos our Ryan’s hair is ginger. Says he can’t be mine cos my hair is dark, same as Sheila’s. I told her it was actually her what was the ginger one once upon a time, thass where the gene come from. Wasn’t havin’ it though. Course then Ryan lost his shit, cryin’ in the car home, sayin’ he felt victimised. He get’s all that from his mehts at school, he don’t need it from his own grandma as well.’
‘Cryin’ Ryan, it’s got a ring to it,’ said Gareth. ‘So wasson after crib?’
‘Need you to hack back that wall in the en suite, get a coat of tankin’ on, knock up another mix.’
‘Furry muff. I can’t get onboard with en suites, mind.’
‘Like shittin’ in your own bedroom.’
Bri finished his sandwich and helped himself to a Hobnob.
‘’Ear bout Gerty?’
‘What about her?’
‘Pigs got her banged up on charges. GBH.’
‘So what’appened then?’
‘Foreskin Freddy said she beat the fuck out some pisshead down Legion.’
‘Wouldn’t be the first time.’
‘Wasn’t happy she’d beat him at pool. Started havin’ a pop.’
‘Guessin’ he didn’t know her,’ said Bri.
‘Makes you say that?’ asked Gareth.
‘Cos no bugger in their right mind would pick on Gerty if they knew what she was capable of. Size of them hands. You know we used to call her Bluto?’
‘What? From Popeye?’
‘Fuckin’ priceless that is. How come it didn’t stick?’
‘Cos she went fuckin’ postal when she got wind of it, thass why. Broke three fingers in Ted’s left hand. That’s how he got the claw.’
‘Hell up! Learn somethin’ new every day.’
‘So what happened to this poor tuss then?’
‘This one down Legion.’
‘Aw him? Shoved a cue up his arse.’
Bri spat out his tea.
‘Gotta hand it to her,’ he coughed. ‘She don’t fuck around thass for sure.’
‘Thass only half the story, mind,’ said Gareth.
‘Aw yeah, what else?’
‘Freddy said she’d already snapped it over his skull first, y’knaw, before she stuck it up there. Imagine the splinters!’
The two of them burst out laughing for what felt like a long time before Gareth eventually stood up.
‘Right,’ he said, ‘I’m gonna nip up Spar quick, get some painkillers. Got a right throbber on.’
‘Well we’m all know why that is. You need to drink more water, boy, stay hydrated,’ said Bri.
‘You want anything?’ Gareth asked.
‘Get us a tin of coke and a Lion bar.’
‘What if they don’t have any?’
‘What? Coke or Lion bars?’
‘Both,’ said Gareth.
Bri considered this.
‘Fanta and a Boost then.’
Gareth stood and downed the rest of his tea. He itched his balls, tucked the chair back under the table, and elbowed his waterproof jacket on. The old lady reappeared in the doorway.
‘Gareth here is just nippin’ up Spar, Mrs S,’ Bri said in his best loud but non-threatening voice. ‘You want him to pick anything up for you? Milk or anything?’
‘Cat food would be good, dear. If you wouldn’t mind.’
‘Not at all,’ said Gareth.
‘There’s some change on the side there, by the fruit bowl look.’
Gareth picked up a couple of coins. He didn’t mind paying for it himself, but experience had taught him that the best way to manage old people was to let them feel useful. Otherwise they never shut up.
‘The dry stuff if you will,’ the old lady continued. ‘Tricksy can’t do the jelly ones, it’s no good for her guts.’
‘No problem,’ Gareth said, making a mental list in his head.
‘Oh and if you wouldn’t mind getting me a bag of they chocolate covered nuts as well,’ she asked.
‘Cat food—no jelly—and chocolate covered nuts,’ said Gareth nodding his head and smiling.
‘You’re ever so kind,’ the old lady said. ‘They’re my guilty pleasure, they are. ’Cept that now my teeth are gone the nuts themselves are a little tough, so instead I just like to suck the chocolate off ’em.’
As she said this, Gareth turned pale in the face and threw up in his mouth a little. Bri had tears streaming down his cheeks and his hand in his mouth to stop himself from laughing aloud.
‘I see,’ Gareth said weakly, swallowing his own puke. ‘I’ll just have to use your bathroom before I go.’
He rushed out of the room.
‘He alright dear?’ the old lady asked Bri as he left.
‘Fine, Mrs S. Don’t you worry about him. Had a skinful last night is all. Y’knaw what these young’uns are like nowadays. Can’t hold their liquor like the rest of us.’
He stood up and started back up the stairs as the sound of Gareth heaving his guts up echoed in the hallway.