WHILE FIVE GROWN-UPS SIT AT THE SCRATCHED DINNER TABLE
The three kids sit cross-legged on the rug, the cheap Formica coffee table between them and the telly, mouths full and forks paused, their eyes fixed on the screen where Tonto is in heap big trouble. Six tins of Co-op baked beans and two loaves of medium-sliced white are shared between them all, on this, their usual Saturday afternoon family gathering. At the table, Jean and her older sisters, Belinda and Julie, are listening to their mam, Ena, tell a story about a woman at work who slipped on the ice and broke her ankle. Belinda’s husband, George, isn’t listening. He’s thinking about two horses in the three-thirty, the handicap weight, the heavy going, the jockeys. Belinda also drifts from the story, and thinks how annoying the sound is that her husband makes when he eats. She wonders if she’ll ever get used to it. She wonders too if her sisters or her mam notice the sound. She watches him a moment as he shovels another heaped forkful in, slurps, smacks, breathes in and out through the open-shut mouthful of mashed toast and beans, watches as his oversized Adam’s apple rises then falls with the swallow. She hopes his bad acne goes away. She hopes his constant sweating stops. She hopes he becomes more considerate in bed. She hopes they have children. Soon... Belinda looks to her younger sister, and wonders why it was so easy for Jean to get pregnant. Then she looks to her older sister Julie and thinks how easily she got pregnant too, just weeks after she married Gerry. Maybe it’s George, Belinda thinks... Ena finishes her story about the broken ankle by shouting at the whining dog to get out from under the table. She asks if anyone else can still smell dog sick, and the grown-ups nod and pull faces. Ena sighs as she mops up the last of her bean-juice with a piece of burnt crust. Her daughter Julie drinks the dregs of her sweet strong tea and thinks about her husband Gerry. She thinks how tight money is, how Barry and Daniel need new shoes, and how Gerry can still afford to go to the football with a bellyful of ale. Jean breaks her sisters’ thoughts by saying she saw Shirley Mackison in town yesterday. Jean says Shirley Mackison asked how their dad was getting on in prison. Ena puts her knife and fork onto her plate with a clatter and says Shirley Mackison is a nosey OLD COW. The kids look up as one from the telly and Ena smiles at them, blowing a raspberry and crossing her eyes. The kids laugh. Nannan is funny.
While the grown-ups wash the pots and get sorted for their shopping trip, Ena takes the kids to the park. She tells Billy, Barry and Daniel to be careful as they take the Courthouse steps down onto West Bars. The morning frost clings stubbornly to the ground, and Ena tells the boys to go steady, or they might slip and snap their legs off, CRICK CRACK. Daniel, the youngest of the three, looks up to his Nannan with frightened eyes. Ena laughs, bends down to hug him, and tells him it was only a joke. Billy and Barry tease Daniel all the way across the Queen’s Park bridge, grabbing their knees and going SNAP! SNAP! Ena telling Daniel to ignore them, holding his hand all the way to the swings... From the park bench, Ena watches the boys play. She lights a fag and thinks about what Shirley Mackison said about Walter. Ena imagines him in a dirty little cell, a rusty bucket for a toilet, a murderer or a rapist for a roommate. She is surprised at how sorry she feels for Walter, despite the times she hid behind a door from him, the times he found her. Billy pushes a swing towards Daniel’s face and Ena shouts CAREFUL! Billy holds the swing still for a moment and helps Daniel climb on. Ena thinks again of Walter. Strange how things work out. Who would she have married if Ethel hadn’t arranged that blind date for her and Walter at that dance? Ena remembers the dress she was wearing when she met Walter. A long blue cotton dress with its swirling pattern of little red roses. That night, when she danced with Walter, she felt something like sunlight inside of her, that the hard life she’d lived was behind her, and that with Walter there would always be dancing... Ena stubs her fag out and watches the three boys run to the merry-go-round. She smiles as Billy and Barry help Daniel onto the middle, patting his hands onto the rail, as though to say hold tight. She remembers her older sister Mabel doing the same to her as she showed Ena how to hold the rolling pin so it spun in her grip. Mabel, with her horrible flaky eczema so she couldn’t bake, which meant Ena had to do it, as well as all the cooking, the cleaning. How she grew to hate Mabel. She thinks how different her life might have been if her mam hadn’t died so young, if her dad hadn’t deserted them, disappearing back to Ireland never to be heard of again. How can anyone turn their back on eleven kids? Ena remembers the arguments she had with Mabel and her husband, Eric, the way their kids would fight with Ena, and how if Ena hit back she would cop it, the sting of the strap, the look on Eric’s face as he swung his belt down onto her backside, the way her dress billowed as it was held over her head. Daniel’s screams pull Ena out of her daydream. SLOW DOWN she shouts to Billy and Barry, who dutifully start dragging their weight back against the merry-go-round as though pulling back a stubborn horse. Good lads... She lights another fag, watches the three boys troop in a line to the climbing frame, then calls out for them to be careful, to look out for one another. Ena remembers when she was a child, passed from one relative to the next, until her eldest sister Mabel took her in. She remembers the ever-returning pain in her ears, the times at school where the teacher’s lips would move but the words were nothing but a muffled sound, like a newsreader on a badly-tuned radio... Ena wishes she were clever. Maybe then she wouldn’t have had the life she’d had. Maybe then she could have had a good job and protected herself, her kids. How she hated that job Mabel made her take. Gutting chickens for eight-and-six, Mabel and Eric taking the eight shillings, her left with only sixpence. But at least she got into the pictures for half-price because of how small she was, even at sixteen. But how guilty she felt pretending to be younger. Ena had always felt guilty about one thing or another. She remembers how she used to feel having to wear her dress inside-out when it got dirty because Mabel told her wash powder cost money, and of how guilty she felt when Walter used to shout at her, accusing her of the dirty things, the things she would never do... She watches the three boys waving to her from the top of the climbing frame and she waves back, feeling the smile spread across her face. Stay together, she says to no one but herself, remembering how alone she felt when she went into service, living with that sad old woman in that big empty house in Nottingham, how she had to sleep with her under that steel sheet in the cellar during air-raids, the bits of brick that fell from the cellar roof and rattled the sheet above them as the house shuddered from the bombs. It was awful back then, having no friends, in a big city knowing no one, going to the pictures on your own, only to return to that big house with no one in it but that sad, lonely old woman. Strange, she thinks, the only time she had proper friends was when she came back after the war and went to work at the pottery, going on bike rides with the girls, going dancing, and then... And then she started courting Walter and she wasn’t allowed to see her friends anymore. Why didn’t she see it then? And then that big row with Mabel and Eric, and her now eighteen, and so it was decided, and off she went to live with Walter’s family. How she hated sleeping with his three sisters, all of them cramped up in that little bed with no space, no space at all. CAREFUL! shouts Ena again, as Billy holds Daniel by the arms from the top of the climbing frame. Billy calls back that he is being careful, and that it’s okay, because Daniel is a monkey. Ena tells Billy that he’s a little bloody monkey, and Billy laughs... She remembers the shock when Jean told her she was pregnant. Thank God Jean listened to her, and had nothing more to do with that Mick. Just like Walter he was. Nothing but trouble... Ena stubs her fag out and looks up to the sky. The wind feels sharper and it looks like rain. Or maybe even snow. She looks at her hands that are red from the cold and she slips them inside her coat pockets. She remembers how cold the bombs were in the factory, how her hands would get sore from the grease, how Walter would hit her when he got stupid jealous about the men she worked with. Then she remembers how thankful she was when they put him in the army because he’d lost that job at the box factory. How many jobs did he lose? God, she can’t even remember. Too many to even count. A woman walks-by pushing a pram and she smiles and nods. Ena smiles back and thinks of her first baby. How when they took it out of her its skin was blue, its face, hands and feet, all perfectly still. Why didn’t she see it as a sign? She watches as the boys run over to the seesaw horse. Thank God they’re happy, she thinks, thank God. She remembers his so-called job at the foundry when he came out the army, her pregnant with Jean, him supposed to be out at work when all along he was in the pub, using his demob money as a pretend pay-packet, handing her a little each Friday for several weeks from the same tatty brown envelope, and her finally left with nothing for the kids... again. She thinks about all the places she used to hide money. Inside the clock, the vase, her knicker drawer... behind the clown picture on the wall, sometimes even up the chimney in an Oxo tin. And just when she thought he was as big a bastard as he could ever get, he just got worse, and everyone telling her to leave him, to get out, and her with nowhere to go, no parents to turn to, and no relatives that would take her and the three kids in, and then, she broke... Ena lights another fag and watches the three boys laughing and yeehawing on the seesaw horse. Daniel is in the middle, and Billy and Barry are front and behind. She watches as they stop their pretend galloping to let a little girl get on... good lads. She remembers when that tight feeling snapped inside her. The hands she wrapped around Belinda’s throat when she’d lost that ten-bob note on her way to the shop and returned empty-handed and tearful, the way Ena shook her beautiful daughter against the pantry door until her dark eyes flickered upwards, the way Jean and Julie cried as they tried to pull Ena’s hands from their sister’s throat... The institute in Sheffield was clean and white... She remembers how much she slept... For days. And then when that man from the Social came, to tell her Walter hadn’t given that money to the neighbours who were looking after the kids while Ena got better, and that the neighbours said they couldn’t look after the kids without any money, the man from the Social saying they’d have to go to a kids’ home, for a while at least. Ena had always felt guilty about one thing or another, but this was the worst. She remembers pleading with the doctor to allow her home again. Thank God he did. Funny how things work out though. If the kids had been sent away then Jean might not have met Mick and got pregnant, but then again there’d be no Billy. And if Ethel hadn’t have arranged that blind date then maybe she wouldn’t have met Walter, but then again there wouldn’t have been a Julie, a Belinda, or a Jean. Funny... She remembers when they finally got away from him, the letter from the council about that house, him out at the pub, and them packing a neighbour’s van with everything they could fit in, saying Hurry hurry, leaving the curtains and the coal, the beds and a settee, the table and that picture of a crying clown... and when they got there, the new house bare-floorboarded and empty, heaven, all four of them sitting on boxes and eating fish and chips, drinking cheap sherry and toasting to a new start... no more doors banging, no more yelling, no more heavy footsteps thumping the stairs in the dead of night... and then when he found them again, thumping the backdoor wide open and walking in, pulling that breadknife out of his pocket, You hate me, he said, You hate me and I love you... Ena looks up to see Billy and Barry and Daniel stood in front of her. Daniel has his trouser leg pulled up, and with bottom lip quivering he points to a graze on his knee. Billy is waving a crumpled pound note in the air. Look! he says, Look what I found near the bin, Nannan! And then, Why are you crying, Nannan?... It’s just the cold making my eyes run, she says, ruffling his hair... They start walking back as the first flakes of snow begin to soft-spiral down from the grey sky. They talk of the Lone Ranger, and Billy makes his hands into a mask telling Barry he can be Tonto. Barry says he doesn’t want to be Tonto, and that it’s not fair that Billy found a pound note and he didn’t. Ena tells Barry that’s how things are sometimes, that sometimes people are lucky, and then sometimes not...
When they get back, Belinda watches Julie put a plaster on Daniel’s knee as she tells Barry that they’re all going out to buy new shoes for him and his brother. Ena asks Jean if she has the Christmas list, and Jean says Yes, Mam, exchanging a quick grin with Billy. Ena looks into her purse, nods, then turns to the mirror that hangs over the fireplace, dragging cherry-red lipstick over her thin lips. They all put on woolly hats and scarves and bustle out into the backyard, leaving Billy with his Uncle George. George wants to watch Grandstand and World of Sport. George likes sport, and sometimes plays games with Billy.