‘Always thought she was the cat’s mother, that one,’ my mom says, and across the road I can see Mrs. Trent dangling the bloody bed sheets out of the bedroom window, showing off because her dumb, lanky daughter’s become one.
My mom shuffles me inside and shuts the door; stomps through to the kitchen and back to making tea, flicking the radio on to drown out all the cheering and clapping and back-slapping. I don’t know why she bothers, the band will be here soon, making a racket with their horns and their trumpets; half-deaf old codgers in red suits and brass buttons, playing hymns over the screaming as the lord does his work.
It’s cold in the kitchen, and there’s a right bitter breeze coming in from the broken window -our Sal ripped the cardboard out when she forgot her key- and I almost ask mom if we can light the fire but I know that she’s saving the last of the coal until we’re near freezing.
“Put another jumper on,’ she says, as if reading my mind, snapping the radio off when Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ starts playing. I watch as she mashes corned beef and potato together and shapes in into wonky blobs, ready for frying. I do that, usually. I like the squish and squelch of it around my fingers, and nobody can make a neater circle than me, but I know better than to say anything. She’s the same every time it happens, her face gets that look and she’ll go off on one if you even dare breathe near her.
She melts lard in the burnt frying pan, and lights the nub of a cigarette, and stares out through the garden window as the hash crackles and browns, as the flames hiss as water from the pan of smelly cabbage bubbles over.
The front door slams, and I hear our Sal before I see her.
“That bloody Maggie Trent?” She shouts, and barges in and throws her bag on the table, her dark hair all over the place and her nose pink with cold.
“Watch your mouth,” my mom says, nodding with her head at Sal to move her bag so that she can put the plates down. My sister throws it on the floor, and a bottle of nail varnish skids out, and a new purple scarf. She must be nicking again, as she spent all her wages on those stupid platform boots that she can’t walk in. She picks them up before mom can see, and looks at me as if to say, and you keep your big mouth shut.
“I can’t believe he picked that Maggie,’ Sal says, ‘pissy knickers we used to call her at school, dopey mare.’ When nobody replies she slumps down into the chair with a sigh and starts biting her nails.
“And stop that filthy habit,” Mom says, sliding the plates across.
“Christ! Can I do anything?!”
I pick up the cutlery and put my drawing to the side, before mom starts on me. It’s an angel, just like the one that has been coming for the girls, and I’ve given it bloody fingers and sharp teeth and black eyes that I coloured in so hard that I nearly ripped the paper.
Boring hash and mouldy vegetables, again. We’ve had the same thing for days, since that grumpy old cow in the shop up the road stopped mom from putting stuff on the slate. “And I’m Bo bleeding Derek,’ she said, when I told her that mom would pay her next week.
We eat in silence. The cabbage is mushy and the hash is burned, but I’m so hungry I don’t care. “Eat us out of house and home, you will,” my mom used to joke, when I was a little girl, but that’s when she was seeing that fella who got that money off his gran. She doesn’t say it now. It isn’t a joke now.
I look up to lick the last of the mash off my knife, running my tongue over its blunt edges, and I see that mom’s staring at our Sal across the table, the way a cat looks at a bird in the garden, her puffy eyes like slits.
“Wha-?’ Sal mumbles, through a mouthful of food.
My mom’s eyebrows come down, and then she gets up; the chair pushed back so hard that the cheap lino crumples around its legs. She races over to Sal; grabs her and pulls her hair back, like she’s going to tie it into a ponytail.
“What’s this?” she says, pointing at what looks like a bruise on her neck, and my sister goes as red as ketchup, jerks her head back and tries to pull her hair back over it.
“It’s nothing,” Sal says, trying to get up, but my mom’s bony fingers are in her shoulders, keeping her pressed down on the seat.
“That’s how it starts you soft sod, are there any more?” She asks, grabbing Sal’s chin and jerking it up.
“Get off, mom,” Sal says, struggling, but mom’s strong and I think any minute now I’m going to hear our Sal’s neck crack.
“They leave signs, they do, before they come-”
“Let me check Sal, around the back-”
“It’s just a lovebite, a bleeding lovebite, get off!”
My mom jumps back like our Sal’s slapped her.
“From whom?” She says, speaking all cold and posh like the Queen all of a sudden; her face all twisted like she’s sucking a lemon. She stares at Sal like she doesn’t even know who she is, and our Sal just looks at her feet. In the quiet I can hear the Hallelujahs outside, and the cymbals crashing, but it feels noisier inside; inside my head.
“Tommy,” Sal says, at last, the word only half out of her gob before my mom jumps on her.
“That Baxter boy? Jesus Sal, don’t you want more for yourself?”
“I’m not going to marry him or nothing!”
“Just going to make a tart of yourself, then?” my mom shouts and our Sal flinches, but mom’s just getting going so she won’t be able to stop her now. ‘You need to be different, Sal, you can’t be getting your drawers off for any Tom, Dick, or Harry, you need to respect yourself, get a good man, shit sticks around here, my god, shit sticks…”
“And you’d know,” our Sal says, her voice rising, her cheeks burning, and I want to tell her to shut up, because I know she’s going to get it, but she carries on, “which of your fancy men is coming round tonight? Bob? No, he packed you in, didn’t he. Mike? Oh no, he cleared off too, Ray? Maybe –” and then it all goes off and mom’s cracked Sal around the face and she’s calling her a cheeky bitch and telling her to get out of her house and Sal’s shouting and crying and the table’s going and there’s milk all over the place and then the doors are slamming so hard that the whole house rattles and I sit with my head in my hands as all the noise goes up the chimney, and into heaven, and into the ears of an angel.