‘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.
It’s freezing when I wake up, and I need a wee but I don’t want to get out of bed, but then I hear groaning and feet running across the landing. I open the door and my mom runs past me like a hurricane, with Sal’s bedsheets in her hand, and I can see the blood and bits of skin on them from here.
“That cow can see this!” she puffs, opening her bedroom window at the front with one arm and waving the sheet like a flag. She pulls the window closed, to keep it in place, and smirks at me, looking well proud of herself. Outside I see the neighbours start to come out of their houses, their faces still crumpled from sleep, see the pervy old milkman stop his float and bow his head, in respect.
“Val?” A man calls from her bedroom, and his voice sounds like ashtrays; like old beer glasses full of flies. I don’t recognise it.
“You best be off, love,” mom says, all sweet, her breath misting up the glass as the slow-clapping starts outside, “the priest will be here soon.”
The priest gets here an hour later, and my mom takes him into the living room that she had me tidying while she ran around the house looking for that old dress of hers, the one that she puts on for special occasions.
“Don’t you show me up,” she keeps saying, and she gives me the look when I try and follow them, so I stand in the hall and listen in, and try to ignore the horrible cries and moans that are coming from our Sal’s room.
“Job suffered,” I hear the priest say, loud and whispery at the same time, in that voice of his that would put a glass eye to sleep. “God tests his chosen. It is through the flames that we are purged of sin.” My mom says something back but she’s speaking too quickly and too quietly for me to hear it, but I can tell that she’s licking his arse, all ‘yes father’ this and ‘no father’ that.
“Sally will be rewarded, rest assured,” he says, and I think he must be having a laugh! If being near burnt alive is a reward then he can stick it. Then he starts rambling on and reading something from the bible, and I don’t want to hear any of that, so I go and sit on the doorstep outside.
It’s raining but the people have still come, all staring at our house like a load of lost sheep who don’t know what to do with themselves. Most of them are women, all with the same face on them, like they’re bricking it and pissed off at the same time, like they want to fight you but they’re scared you’ll put them on their arse if they try. Some of them are on all fours, with their heads pressed against the filthy cobbles, and I want to tell them about the dogshit and the dirt, but I don’t think that they’ll care.
The men coming back from the factories walk around them, and while most of them stop and nod, they know that this is women’s stuff, no business of theirs.
I see Tommy Baxter suddenly, through the crowd, his cheeks black with oil and his eyes bulging out as he tries to get a peek into our house. He sees me and waves, and cocks his head so I’ll go and speak to him, but I know I’ll get in trouble if I do, so I just nod, ‘yes’, and his face collapses like those old flats down on The Heath, and then the priest comes out and all the people start to ‘amen’ and cry, and poor Tommy Baxter slips away.
“We need to look after her now,’ my mom says, putting the fancy teacups that she used for the priest back into their box, ‘before the angel comes back. She needs to stay strong, in case he tests her again, in case-‘ but then her lips clamp shut, and I see all the lines around them, notice the dark circles around her eyes. I shiver. I know what happens to the girls who don’t make it, I’d seen the bodies being carried out, like the rubbish that we leave for the bin man, in shiny black bags full of lumps and bumps so you don’t know what’s what. I think of our Sal, being zipped up, and try to shake the thought away.
“Sal hates mushrooms,’ I tell my mom, as she pours thick, brown soup into a chipped bowl, ‘they remind her of slugs, she-”
“She can like it or lump it, she’s no time for choice now.” My mom says, sawing through a loaf of fresh bread and buttering it, leaving big yellow blobs all over the slice. We haven’t had this much food in yonks, but people have been leaving baskets on our doorstep all morning, full of raspberry jam and thick chutney and posh ham and cheese, stuff they can afford about as much as we can. I feel bad as I nibble on a crust, but we’ve been chosen, us, not them, our Sal.
“What does honourable mean?” I ask my mom, thinking of the rubbish bags again, as that’s what they say, when a girl goes, ‘an honourable death’, and then they say that they’ll be loved forever in heaven.
“Good,” she says, ‘but never you mind about that, being a smart arse around here won’t help you none.” She nudges the tray towards me, putting a mug of sugary tea on the side, and a couple of apples.
“You two not made up then?” I ask.
“Course we have!” she says, too loudly, her eyes shifting around like boiled eggs on a plate. “We need to stick together, us girls, at a time like this!”, but I know that she hasn’t been in to see her all day.
My heart starts going like a drum as I go up the stairs -making sure I miss the one step that you’d fall through if you weren’t careful- and by the time I’m outside Sal’s door I feel like it’s going to jump through my chest. I can smell burning, and damp, the smell you get after a bonfire’s been put out, the smell that used to come off Old Jack’s dog Bonnie when I used to let her in to get dry by the fire, before mom would kick her out again. It goes right up my nose and makes my eyes water, but I balance the tray against my arm and the wall, and flick down the door handle, and when it creaks open, I nearly drop the whole lot.
Sal’s sitting upright in bed, staring at the wall, but she doesn’t look like our Sal at all. Her skin is bright red, and while I can see that it’s her, she looks all blurry, girl-shaped but not a girl, like a jelly baby that’s been in your gob too long. I can hear her teeth gritting and her bones cracking as her fingers and toes clench up, and through the skin in her face I can see her veins sticking out, like the horrible purple ones in the back of my mom’s legs.
She starts crying when she sees me, and I put the tray on the floor and go over – even though I don’t want to go anywhere near her, but it’s our Sal after all- and I grab the wet rag from the iron bucket beside her bed and press it against her head. She’s boiling, and up close I can see the blisters all over her, like sore spots about to pop.
“Oh, it burns, Cass, it burns,’ she mumbles, tears pouring down her cheeks, her pretty hair that she saved up for months and months to do all stuck to her scarred face. I keep up with the rag, and after a few minutes she goes quiet, and lies down on the bed, and I push her pillows up behind her, and go and get the tray.
“Mushroom, soz,” I say, and I start feeding her the soup, being careful not to spill any. She doesn’t even whine about it, just opens her mouth and lets me pour it in. She’d normally kill me for going in her room, so while she’s trying to get it down, I have a right nose, at the posters of Marc Bolan and David Bowie all over the place, and the glittery pots of eye-shadow and the nubs of cheap lipstick all along her windowsill, and then I see, poking out the drawer where she keeps her knickers, that stupid teddy bear that our dad won hooking plastic ducks at the fun fair. I didn’t know she kept it. She’s worse than mom in pretending that our dad didn’t exist, and when she does it’s ‘bastard’ this and ‘wanker’ that, like she couldn’t care less. It’s lost an eye and its ears are worn, like it’s been held too much, and the thought of our tough Sal hugging it makes me feel sick, so I start rabbiting on, and before I know it I’m asking her what’s on my mind, what I shouldn’t ask, and ‘what was he like, the angel?” falls out my gob before I can stop it and then there’s soup all over the fresh sheets and Sal’s twisting like somebody’s stabbed her in the back and her blisters are popping and she’s making noises that I can’t stand, and I don’t know what to do so I run over to the dresser and grab that stupid bear and put it next to her, and go back downstairs.
My mom’s running about the house in her rollers, smoking like it’s going out of fashion, fags that she got from the neighbours who wouldn’t have given her the steam off their shit a month gone.
“You’re going out?” I say, ‘but what if the angel comes back?’
“We’re not that lucky,’ she says, and sprays herself with that cheap perfume that makes me sneeze.
“Who you going with?” I ask, knowing that she’ll tell me that it’s none of my business.
“None of your business,” she says.
She pulls her rollers out and drags a comb through her hair, spraying it with so much hairspray that it’d take storm to shift it.
“Take that up later,” she says, nodding her head at a pan of what smells like chicken stew. ‘Heat it through mind’, and then she’s gone, her high heels clicking-clicking away over the cobbles.
I sit on the stairs in the dark, and wait for her to come home. Sal was asleep when I went in, and while I don’t want to be too close to her room, I don’t want to be too far away, in case she needs me. I hear footsteps outside, a giggle, and a man’s voice, too deep, too low, making the walls rumble and my stomach turn even though I don’t know why.
There’s a thud against the door, and I can hear material scratching against the rough brick wall. They’re not speaking, but I know that they’re still there, and the air feels heavy, horrible, so I’m about to go and check on our Sal again, to be away from it, but then the key is in the door, and my mom’s staggering down the hallway. Behind her I can see the shadow of a man, but then she’s pushing the door to, locking him out. She must be sick, I think, not like her to not invite him in.
“You’re joking, aren’t you, darling?” I hear from the other side of the door, but then he sighs and goes, and I follow mom into the kitchen. She reaches under the sink and past the plunger and the old school vests that she polishes with, and there’s a clink as the bottle of whiskey that she thinks I don’t know about hits the u-bend. She bangs her head as she stands up, and skids on the floor, and then she throws her shoes off and starts laughing, a nasty, empty laugh, which echoes all around the house.
“Are you pissed?” I ask, turning on the light.
“Yes!” she says, “what of it, fanny anne?” She looks mental, her eyes bulging and her lipstick all smudged, and her face looks like something that you’d see in a back of a spoon, all wrong.
“A light beverage is good for one,” she slurs, in her posh voice, before taking a gulp from the bottle. She grimaces, and uses the oven to keep herself upright, and I see how much she looks like our Sal; the same green eyes, the same skinny legs.
“Is your sister still with us?” she says, in the same silly voice, like she’s asking about how I did at school or something, but before I can reply her face cracks open and all this stuff comes pouring out of her, all these horrible sounds and tears, and I don’t know what to do. I’ve never seen her cry before, not ever, not when my dad left, nor when any of her fellas had gone, but now she’s crying and crying like a baby, like she doesn’t know how to stop herself, like she wants somebody to come and make her better but she’s the mom here and there’s nobody.
“What life will Sal have here?” Mom says, but it’s hard to work out what she’s saying because she’s bawling so hard. ‘Not even eighteen and it’s all mapped out. She’ll be at that factory for life, boxing up fancy cakes until the cows come home, turning as sour as all the old, nosy bitches in this street, giving her life to a fella who’ll be off with anything the second her back’s turned or her tits sag, kids who’ll break her heart with every breath…” But that must be better than being dragged off by an angel I think, does she want our Sal to go away? I don’t, because I know that me and our Sal will be best mates when I’m older, once me being her little sister doesn’t matter anymore. We’ll have kids and we’ll be auntie Cass and auntie Sal, and we can sit by the fire and drink tea and talk about our husbands and do our nails, and there was nothing wrong with that. But I don’t say anything.
Mom puts the whiskey down and goes and curls up on the sofa, and she looks tiny, not like a mom at all, but like a little bird, her pointy shoulders sticking out and her thin arms wrapped around herself like she’s trying to keep warm.
“Go to bed, Cass,” she says, half-asleep, and I think I should go and give her a cuddle, and tell her that it’s going to be ok, but we’ve never cuddled, and I’m not sure that things will be ok, so I just do as she says.
In the morning she stares at me like she hates me, and stands frying eggs, not even flinching when the sizzling fat splashes her arms. She pushes the tray to me, without a word, and I take it, and go upstairs. I stand outside our Sal’s door, trying to get my nerve, thinking that she’s going to be dead, or worse; that I’ll see the angel in there, making her holy, seeing if she’s good enough to be his wife, but when I go in, she looks a bit better.
Her skin still looks like it’s been grated, but she reaches for the glass of orange juice before I’ve even got the tray down, and drinks it in one. I sit on a pillow on the floor as she picks as the sausage and egg sandwich, and chuck all the stupid fashion magazines out the way, the ones full of skinny, slutty cows with their tits all on show and their lips all stuck out like they’re catching raindrops with them.
“Has Maggie been taken?” Sal asks suddenly, running her fingers through her filthy hair.
“Has the angel been back to her?” She sounds jealous although I don’t get why, I feel like I don’t get anything anymore.
“Dunno,” I say, and I don’t. Their house has had the curtains drawn for days, and Mr’s Trent has been sending their young Billy to the shop whenever they need anything; who runs off like a cat with a firework up his arse whenever you try and ask him anything.
“Well if he’s got any taste he won’t,” she sniffs, “I’m sure he can do better than pissy knickers.” And then she sounds like our Sal again, and I nearly smile but then the sheets falls down and I see all the bite marks all over her chest.
“Did-Did he hurt you Sal?” I ask, quietly, not sure if I want to know. She doesn’t answer straightaway, but then she looks me in the eyes, and tilts her head, all proud, like she used to when the teachers used to tell her off for being mouthy.
“Yes, but only because he knew that I wanted him to; because he knew I deserved it.”
The rest of the week drags like the last lesson on a Friday afternoon, with me and mom running about like we’ve got ants in our pants, unable to sit still for a second. Nothing much changes with Sal, one minutes she’s screaming her head off like she’s on fire, the next she’s right as rain and sniffing for gossip and trying to get me to sneak to the Trent’s to find out what’s going on. She doesn’t mention Tommy Baxter once.
Mom still won’t go and see her, but she goes to the club every night, and when she’s not there her ex Fred is here, that fat foreman from the factory.
“I thought he was a two-timing bastard,” I say, catching her when she comes into the kitchen to make a cuppa.
“I’ll wash that bloody mouth out of yours,” she says, screwing up her face as she can’t shout in case Fred hears us, stirring the tea so hard I think she’ll break the cup.
“I’m getting on, Cass,” she says, grabbing a pack of chocolate biscuits from the cupboard, “Not many men are willing to take on a woman with two kids, you know. Beggars can’t be choosers.”
“But you’re still pretty,” I say, and I mean it, but she just smiles at me like I’m soft in the head.
Fred won’t let her out of his sight, always feeling her up and pressing her up the fridge and running his hands up and down her legs, even when I’m there. I can tell that mom wants to tell him to sod off, but she doesn’t dare.
“Give it a rest,” she tries to joke, but then his face gets all dark and he starts making comments about the new barmaid in the local; and then he’s got his hand around her wrist and he’s dragging her upstairs and the bed springs are creaking and then he’s in a good mood again. I hate him, and I think mom does too, but she’d die as soon as admit that.
At the end of the week the priest comes back, unexpected, and I see mom swilling her mouth out as the door knocks so that he won’t smell the booze on her breath.
“It seems that Sally has been left alone,” the priest says, once my mom’s stopped faffing around and offering him cake and tea and sandwiches and everything else. My mom fidgets, and plays with the cheap necklace that Fred gave her after he got pissed and punched a hole in the wall.
“He might come back, our Sal’s a good girl,” My mom says, and looks at me like I can prove it, and I nod, as I don’t know what else to do. “I mean, he might be busy elsewhere, the angel, Maggie’s still alive, after all,” mom says, and there’s a desperate look on her face, that I hate, like she’s begging him for something.
“Maggie’s barely alive,’ the priest says, and goes to get up, but then my mom forgets herself and rushes over and grabs at his coat.
“Has he been back, then, to her?”
“I can’t disclose that information,” he says snottily, looking at my mom’s fingers on him like they’re filthy, “and it isn’t for us to question the ways of the lord.”
He walks out with his nose in the air, but the door’s barely closed before my mom’s rushing up the stairs, two at a time, looking like she’s about to batter our Sal; but then there’s a sound like a trumpet, so loud that it makes my teeth hurt; a flash of light and a scream from outside, from the front of the house, so mom charges into her room instead, and straight to the window, and I run after her.
It’s so bright it’s like the sun has fallen and landed in our street, but when I squint I can see Maggie floating in the air outside her house, her legs going like mad as she tries to grip onto her windowsill, as something tries to pull her into the sky. Her eyes are bulging like a frog’s and her arms are twisted behind her, and her face is all scrunched up, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen no-one look so scared in my life. She’s crying, and she looks like she’s trying to fight, but you can tell that she’s nearly given up; she looks like Big Daddy’s opponents on the wrestling on the TV, just before he slams them into the mat, and wins. But I can’t see who she’s fighting.
The trumpet goes again and me and mom both cover our ears, and then through the light I see a flash of wing; see muscly arms around her neck, and scary eyes that burn in the middle of the flames, like red hot coals that would melt the skin, but which make me go cold all over. My skin feels like spiders are under it, and I start shaking, but I can’t look away. Maggie screams, and I see Mr’s Trent praying in their garden; see little Billy in his dirty vest bawling his head off; see the priest with his arms open wide and his head back like the footie players do when they score. I shout ‘Someone help her!” but nobody moves, and then my eyes go all weird, like they do when you press them, all stars like you’re in space, but I think I see a sword, held at Maggie’s throat, and I think of blood pouring down like rain, running through the gutters, covering us all; and then all I see is the big O of Maggie’s mouth as she disappears, forever, like she was never here at all.
My mom slumps down the wall, like all the life has been sucked out of her, and then I notice our Sal, standing in the doorway behind us, wrapped in a sheet.
“Sal’s going to be left alone!” I say, or I think I do; my ears are buzzing and my voice sounds like it’s coming from miles away. “Mom, Sal-?”
They’re both looking like the world’s ended, and I don’t know why; don’t know why we aren’t celebrating, and downstairs dancing with the radio on, going up to the chippie to get fish and chips and chicken pies and fizzy pop and wine and eating and laughing until we can’t do either no more.
My mom leans forward and presses her head against her knees, like she’s trying to make herself disappear, and our Sal’s shoulders start jerking up and down as she begins to cry.
What’s the matter with you? I want to shout, but I feel like the words are being crushed by something heavy, something that I don’t understand; all the letters like worms wiggling around and around underneath a paving slab, stuck there until they suffocate.
I leave them in the bedroom and go downstairs, and stand in the road as ash falls silently from the sky. The neighbours are all looking up, letting it stick to their faces, and some of the girls are poking out their tongues, trying to catch it, hoping that the angel will feel it, and come for them, next time. Silly cows.
The moms hug Mrs Trent, with cold eyes and stiff arms, as the men hammer on the door of The Prince pub, trying to wake the landlord up, wanting to get the beers in, and I can hear the clink of their glasses already, hear them saying ‘to Maggie and her family’, and then they’ll be talking about the strikes, or that new bastard manager at the iron works, and Maggie will be forgotten, like the froth on the tops of their pints, wiped away by their dirty sleeves as the machines whirr and whirr and the world slowly turns and life rattles on and on under a heaven that’s as still and cold and empty as night.
Nicola Belte lives in Birmingham, U.K, and is a part-time MA Writing student, part-time factotum, and an in-between time writer of weird fiction. Her work has been published by Flash Fiction Online, Menacing Hedge and The Lovecraft eZine, amongst others, all of which you can find at her blog, here: http://nicolabelte.blogspot.com/