The back bedroom
Mum has moved into the back bedroom; she says she’s more comfortable in my old bed. She says she likes the light in the afternoon. Dad has placed a small table next to the bed for tablets and anything else she might need. Now he’s standing at the window, looking out at the gardens. He brought in some sweet peas but put them in the wrong vase. They are not as good this year, Mum says.
‘Not had enough water,’ she has turned to face the wall.
Dad leaves the bedroom without saying anything. I notice the leather patches on the elbows of his cardigan and I have an image of him in the garden as a younger man – fixing some trellis work to the fencing next to the kitchen window, for Mum’s sweet peas. I suddenly see the cardigan is old; the patches are worn.
I try to come and sit here in the afternoons; after I’ve finished teaching. I’m only five minutes away. Mum’s not in the best of moods today.
‘What a day.’ I begin, ‘Paul Hazel got into the jigsaw cupboard again, kicked all the jigsaws everywhere.’ Used his knees as barricades.
‘He needs a good hiding,’ she says without tone. I know I shouldn’t but I’m inclined to agree. I think of the time she chipped my tooth on the edge of the sink.
‘I’ll suggest it in the next staff meeting,’ I say. I can see the back of her head resting on the pillow. I’ve noticed the fineness of her hair before. I can see her skull.
‘How’s the pain today?’ My voice is bright.
‘How do you think?’ She remains still.
The light in the room is very good now; a matt finish. I wait. Her need to share some moment with me takes my breath. I wait.
She exhales, ‘my father once brought home a pony; put it in our back yard. Next to the midden. Dorothy and I thought it was ours. Went out to it in the morning and fed it our breakfasts. Went to school and told our teacher that our dad had bought us a pony. Everyone laughed.’ Mum has shifted her position slightly so I can see the scoop of her cheekbone. ‘It was for the knacker’s yard. Came home and it was gone, Dorothy was heartbroken.’
We are both silent. Moments pass.
‘You used to take me and Lindsay to see your dad for a time, didn’t you? I remember going. I remember his wife, Catherine, telling me and Lindsay not to touch anything.’
‘Yes, I don’t know what I was thinking. He shouldn’t have been given that opportunity. I can’t even think of her. He was a cruel man.’
Her dad and his second wife lived a couple of miles from us when I was growing up but Mum hadn’t seen them for years. Some circumstance persuaded us to visit. I remember Catherine would only ever stand in the door of the living room, ready to see us out as soon as we had arrived; ready to take us into the forest and leave us there. She was wary of Mum.
‘What was your mum like?’ I ask her.
‘I’ve told you this before. She was a pushover. She allowed herself to be used. He used her; used her up. I remember him coming home drunk. But my past isn’t yours.’ Isn’t it?
The early evening has moved into the room like a purple veil. I am thinking of my husband who brings me flowers, who tailors himself to me. I think of our holiday last year in Greece, where the light was purple at dusk.
‘Mark said he will call tomorrow for lunch. He’s close by. He says you always make him the best cheese on toast he’s ever tasted’ I say.
I remember growing up Mum would melt the cheese with a little milk and butter in a metal bowl under the grill so the edges bubbled a dark brown. When it was hot and nicely grilled, she would let me stir the cheese with a fork; soft, opalescent tendrils, congealing as they dripped onto the bread that had been toasted on one side, then popped back under the grill to finish off, the cheese browning slightly, the crusts on the bread crisping a golden colour. As she did this she talked to Auntie June who had just popped in for a five minute chat. Not a real auntie, but a neighbourhood auntie.
‘Well, your dad will have to make it. So it won’t be as good,’ she says.
Mark is the only visitor she will allow these days apart from me and my sister. When my dad first met Mark, he said to me ‘Is he for real?’ because Mark had reached across and shaken his hand. My other boyfriends wouldn’t shake hands, you’d be lucky if they made eye contact. My mum felt differently to Dad, it was like she’d been expecting Mark.
My dad comes in with the sweet peas, now in the correct vase, and puts them on the table next to the bed.
‘Cup of tea, love? I’m making your mum one.’
‘Stop fussing, Paul. He drives me bloody mad, in and out all day,’ she says. There’s a moment of warmth in this. I say it’s okay as I’ll have to go soon. I see Dad’s worn leather patches disappearing again.
‘June keeps calling. I’ve told your dad I don’t want to see anyone. People sitting at the end of the bed; feeling sorry for me. Well, I’m not having it. They can clear off, the lot of them.’
I go over to the window and stare out at the neighbourhood gardens – Spaces that I shared with neighbouring families as a child. I have a memory of standing up on the window sill at night and shouting out of the back bedroom window to other children who in turn shouted back at me.
‘You don’t have to see anyone, Mum. You can see who you want to see. June’s only worried. She loves you very much. How many years have you known her?’
‘We moved into this house in 1952, Halloween. I remember your dad opened the back door and a frog jumped into the kitchen. I should have known then, shouldn’t I?’
I’m not sure what she should’ve known, but I understand the inference. A throb in my temple burns a hot red.
‘There were no gardens at the back. Just a stretch of land, only a few houses. We were one of the first couples to move in.’
She is lost in thought; momentarily. This talk has shaken her from her bed, moved her to a place where she resists me less. A place where there are young couples, a wasteland waiting to be fenced off and laid with lawn. Young couples wanting to play fifties house.
‘I met your dad at the Palais dance hall. He was a Southerner. Just moved up north. You know he was told that we were all prostitutes?’ I did know this as it was part of family folklore. ‘I was dancing with Freddie. He was homosexual, you know. Great dance partner. Used to go for a coffee with him to Sabini’s with my sister, before she became ill…Your dad came straight up to me and announced he’d never seen anyone more beautiful. Your uncle Jack wasn’t too pleased. Thumped your dad and called him a Southern poofter.’
‘Really, Uncle Jack?’ I feign surprise. ‘And they became such friends.’ I say. But I’m thinking of how I met Mark. How he approached me at the Socialist club. His voice, reassuring and familiar.
‘I love your dad, you know.’
‘He always wore lovely suits. His dad was a tailor; ended up with a shop on Lark Lane in Liverpool. Your dad was the first to wear a continental suit. You wouldn’t know to look at him now though.’
I think of his leather patches. And I think of two single beds in this small back bedroom where my sister and I grew up. Where my mum has chosen to lie now.
The light is thicker now. And I imagine a time when I will come into this room. An empty bed. The table removed. No sweet peas. And the light moving, always moving across the space.
‘Mum said we can’t go back home ‘til lunch time.’ Laura shifted on the seat of her bike and thumbed her bicycle bell twice. ‘She said we’re a bloody nuisance in the summer holidays and that teachers don’t know they’re born.’
She looked at her two younger sisters. Margaret was practising holding her breath, her cheeks puffed out, her eyes slightly crossing with the effort; she would often do this until she made herself dizzy. Anne was in the tree over the Braddyll Road sign, swinging like a chimpanzee in a dress, flashing navy blue army stores knickers.
‘Bloody heck, Anne, get down. Mum says I’m in charge. I’ve decided we’re going to the clearing in Hulton woods. If you can’t keep up, woe betide, you’re in trouble,’ Laura announced, kicking at a loose stone on the pavement. It ricocheted off the wheel of Margaret’s scooter, making a pinging sound.
‘Hey!’ Margaret protested, letting out her breath so her voice erupted on the air. ‘Don’t kick stones, Laura. It’s dangerous. This is my best scooter.’
‘Well it was mine once, so really I can do what I want with it.’ Laura was preparing for a swift getaway; one foot raised on a pedal, the other firmly placed on the floor, ready to make the most of any unfair advantage.
‘Are we allowed to go to Hulton woods? Does Mum know?’ Margaret was grasping her old scooter like a life line, secretly hoping it would lead her back home.
‘Course we can Margie, it’s the summer holidays. We can do what we want!’ Anne shouted as she climbed down onto the Braddyll Road sign, balancing with arms outstretched, toes pointed like a ballerina. ‘Don’t worry; I’ll look after you… watch me, watch me now!’ Her voice shook the air as she flung herself onto the grass and rolled over.
‘Get up, Anne. You’ve got green on your dress already. You’ll be in for it. Mum can’t get green out, even in the twin tub. ’ As Laura said this Margaret readied herself on her scooter, knowing that she would have to scoot like billio to keep up with her bigger sisters.
‘Keep on the pavement,’ Laura yelled as she started down the hill, their mother’s instructions reverberating in the girls’ ears like articles of faith. ‘Always stay on the pavement and don’t talk to strangers.’
From high above, the three of them looked like busy ants, racing down the hill.
The summer morning promised everything. An endless day, a cloudless sky, a parentless horizon.
Anne reached Greenfold’s farm first, jumping off her bike whilst it was still moving; she ran towards the farm gate with arms out in front of her, bracing herself for the collision.
‘I win, I win,’ she jumped on the gate.
Laura cycled up next slightly flushed around the temples. ‘Anne, you’re such a baby. I wasn’t racing. Mum would paddle your backside if she saw what you did to that bike.’
Margaret rattled along last. ‘It’s not fair. I haven’t got a bike,’ she said.
The three of them stood on the bottom bar of the metal gate so they could survey Greenfold’s farm. Margaret rested her chin on the top of the gate, her sandaled feet on tip toes to give her a bit more height.
‘I don’t want to go through Greenfold’s farm. Dad says the farmer shoots trespassers.’ Margaret reached up the sleeve of her home knit cardigan for a crumpled hankie, then wiped her nose with it. ‘What are trespassers?’ she asked.
‘He only shoots boys who mess around in his barn. And anyone he finds shaggin’ in there. We’re just taking a short cut to get to Hulton woods. Margaret, don’t be such a spaz, I’ll send you home if you don’t shut up,’ Laura threatened.
Margaret looked hopeful.
‘Mum’ll go bananas if we’re back before lunch.’ Laura suddenly softened, ‘the clearing is a great place; a big pond to paddle in. Trees to climb.’ She mimicked the body language and soft tones of persuasive adults. Margaret’s forehead tensed, Laura’s attempt to sweet talk her having the opposite effect.
‘Well, we’re going whether you like it or not.’ Laura said, dissent not an option. Anne had already unhooked the gate and was pushing it open, Margaret and Laura still clinging on as it swung back.
‘Let’s push our bikes,’ Laura said, ‘we’ll go behind that barn. We don’t want to go passed the farmhouse. Anne, don’t go too far ahead. Mum said for us to stay together.’ Laura’s voice had lowered to a whisper. Her eyes warily followed Anne’s nimble movements as if she was observing some feral creature and working out how to trap it.
The three of them picked their way around the side of the barn and found themselves in the shade of the barn wall. The dried mud along the dirt track was indented with tractor tyres and cattle hooves, so the girls had to drag their wheels along. Opposite the barn was an orchard of crab apples growing in an area of scrub land. The small deep red fruit were already beginning to hang, the branching corymbs drooping in the morning heat. The leaves were glossy and oval shaped; the edges, like triangular teeth.
‘There, see! If we go through there we can get across the stream and into the big woods. I’ve done this before with Una.’ Laura was whispering but her voice echoed into the deep shade of the trees beyond.
‘When were you here with Una? Mum doesn’t like you to see Una. Mum says she’s half wild. And her parents are no better.’ Margaret repeated the often heard phrases, savouring each word. ‘She’s heading for trouble, that one.’
‘OI! You three; what are you doing there?’ The voice sounded like a giant’s. The three girls all screamed aloud. Margaret crouched down on the ground with her hands over her head. Ann stood still and jutted out her chin in the direction of the voice. Laura stepped forward.
‘Hello, Mr Green. You know my dad, Peter Gifford, 26 Barton Way. He comes and gets manure for his roses from you. He says your manure is the best, thankyouverymuch,’ Laura announced.
A huge man was standing by the barn, in muddied, green dungarees and wellies; he had a rifle slung over his shoulder; he squinted into the gloom at them, bright sun directly in his ruddy face.
‘Are you Gifford’s girls?’ His voice seemingly pleased by this knowledge. ‘Where’re you going?’
‘It’s the summer holidays, Mr Green. Mum said we aren’t to go back home til lunch,’ Laura felt this was explanation enough, she had come to understand how best to talk to adults, that’s why she was milk monitor and Mrs Welch’s favourite pupil in class. The trick was to repeat certain phrases that adults said and to ‘use your common sense,’ a favourite phrase of her mums. She had also learned that there were some things that she shouldn’t repeat. Words like shag and fuck.
‘Does your mum know you’re off into the woods?’ The growl was softer now.
‘She’s got the twin tub out and all the bedding to do so she doesn’t want us cluttering up the place; she’s says for us to use our common sense.’ Laura recited this like a catechism.
Mr Green placed his rifle down and moved over so he could see them more clearly. ‘You be careful in there. It’s quite dense in places. Stick to where you can see the light coming through the trees.’
Margaret was still crouching; she was preoccupied with some flowers that were growing up around her – long stemmed, small white petals shot through with pink. She had picked off several heads and squashed them into her knitted pocket.
‘Those are milkmaids, or lady’s smock. They’re the fairy flower. You’re entering the fairy world now.’ Mr Green chanced a smile, his gruff voice sounding a little pleased. ‘You be careful. You wouldn’t want to be dragged under the hill to fairyland.’ He laughed to himself as he moved away.
‘I’ll be in the top field; I can see everything from up there, so think on.’ His voice rested in the air above them.
‘Thank you Mr Green,’ Laura pulled Margaret up by the collar and smacked the flowers out of her hand.
‘Hey,’ Margaret yelped, ‘why’d you do that?’
‘You heard him, your stealing fairy flowers, throw them away.’
Anne remained still until Mr Green had disappeared, then she said, ‘He’s like a great big bear. I like him.’
‘Come on, I’m meeting Una at the clearing,’ Laura announced, unable to conceal her secret any longer.
Margaret opened her mouth but Laura intervened, ‘Margaret Joan Gifford, pick up your scooter and stop whining. If you keep on, I’ll tell mum you weed your pants on the way home from school the other week and hid your wet knickers in Mrs Booth’s front privet.’ Laura realised she had gone too far as Margaret’s eyes brimmed with dark tears. In the shade of the tall skinny silver birch trees she looked waif like, smaller than her normal size.
They continued in silence apart from Margaret’s snivels which dented the air’s stillness in strange, sad bursts. Anne was a little way ahead; she kept looking round at Margaret, at first to smile with sympathy, then to pull silly faces. In the green light her face seemed to float in mid-air, her body broken up by dappled sun and shade. They could hear the sound of plashing water coming closer.
‘There’s the stream. Let’s hide our bikes,’ Laura’s voice sounded a little urgent, as if they were late for something. The three of them worked together quietly, covering the bikes with ferns and genera leaves collected from the stream’s edge. The air became acrid with a liquorice smell. Summer midges pulsed over the water.
‘Socks and sandals off,’ Laura’s voice sounded like a charm.
The three girls sat at the edge of the stream, unbuckling summer sandals and removing white socks in silent accord.
‘It’s not deep; it’ll only get to your shins.’ Laura’s voice was comforting in the gloomy light. ‘Hold your sandals up, come on Margaret, hold my hand,’ and with a rush of sisterly kinship Laura clasped her youngest sister’s hand like she was about to lead her in a game of ‘ring ‘o’ ring a roses.’
Anne’s toes dipped into the water and she crossed the stream by stepping lightly on glistening stones, then she bounded up the mossy bank on the other side. She turned triumphantly but said nothing.
‘You’re doing really well now, Margaret. Best out of all three of us,’ Laura soothed. Anne did several cartwheels in quick succession.
‘Anne, stop showing off. It’s not clever,’ Laura chided as she helped Margaret up the bank; she was breathing heavily. ‘Quick, shoes on.’
‘I can do what I want, Laura, you’re not the boss of me.’ Anne and Laura squared up to each other briefly; then Anne skipped ahead, her hands skimming clumps of white bryony and devil’s parsley that covered the woodland floor.
They moved together, wading through undergrowth. Anne collected some cow’s parsley, the pretty flowers dropping instantly, catching like confetti onto her dress. Hawthorn trees squatted around the girls, hard and sharp with rutted bark; they were covered in small red berries that hung in glossy bunches, each berry with a black tip so they looked like strange jewelled bugs.
‘This is the clearing!’ Laura pointed ahead. As the girls emerged from a line of rowan bushes they found themselves in a meadow enclosed entirely by different thorn trees. At the centre was an ancient tree with enormous spreading branches. The three girls remained at the edge of the space for a few moments, the air quickened around them with summer gnats caught in the rays of the sun. The meadow rippled down the hill to an expanse of silvery green water and,at its centre, was a small green island.
‘It’s beautiful,’ Margaret said, her voice mimicking the sound of her teacher, Miss Croft, who found many things beautiful, particularly Margaret’s neat writing.
‘Come on,’ Laura sprang forward, racing, hardly catching a breath. Her sisters ran after her, heads thrown back, shouting at the sky. When they reached the tree they were out of breath with laughter; they tried to encircle it with their outstretched arms.
‘It’s massive, it’s the biggest tree in the world,’ Anne cried, eyes darting for some foot hold.
‘Una, Una, I’m here. I said I’d come.’ Laura was looking up into the stippled green canopy.
There was a voice from high above. At first it giggled; then they heard ‘come up.’
‘How?’ Anne asked, still searching for a way up the tree.
‘Okay, I’ll come down,’ said the voice.
Anne reached up as far as she could and ran her hands over the rutted, corky bark. Margaret lay down under the tree’s cool shade, spreading out her arms, feeling the grass beneath. Laura’s lips parted slightly, as if she was about to say something. They could hear rustling above in the tree but couldn’t see anyone.
‘I’ve been here since dawn,’ the voice said, it was sweet and high.
‘No, you haven’t,’ shouted Anne, chin jutting out, looking keenly into the mosaic green sea above her.
‘I can come here whenever I want.’ Now almost a whisper, teasing.
Anne looked over to her sister. ‘Laura, is that true?’ Laura was very still; she didn’t respond.
Then Una appeared, crouching on one of the thicker branches above them, her dark eyes almost sleepy, her long dark hair swirling slowly in the warm air.
‘Let’s go swimming,’ and as she said this, she jumped forward, caught hold of a branch and swung to the ground.
‘We can’t swim. Mum would be cross,’ said Margaret.
‘Okay, you can watch,’ Una smiled at them. They all smiled back.
The edge of the lake was boggy, fringed with clumps of white, fluffy meadow sweet, and tall spikes of purple loose strife. The air smelt of sweet almond and hummed with the sound of bees and hover flies. Una led the three girls round to a natural sloping beach of fine light brown sand.
‘You can paddle here.’ Una had taken off her summer dress and was wading in, in vest and knickers. The sisters stared at each other. Anne moved first kicking off her sandals and socks.
‘We can dry our vests and knickers in the sun,’ Laura said, bending down to look into Margaret’s eyes, gently holding onto the tips of her fingers.
As the four girls waded into the water, their breath caught by the chill on their bare skin, they held hands and grinned as if they shared a secret.
‘There’s an island at the centre of the lake. I have a den there. There’re water voles at the edge and frogs. A heron lands there, I’ve seen him, brings fish to eat. Have you seen how a heron kills a fish? He spears it with his beak.’ As Una talked she moved further into the water so it was soon up to her chest. The water was up to Margaret’s neck now.
‘I can’t swim,’ Margaret said.
‘That’s ok. It doesn’t get much deeper than this. We can wade over together.’ Una’s voice rippled across the water.
The sun’s glare on the surface of the lake was so bright and the girls could only see their circle of fingers touching. Margaret was now on her tiptoes, edging her way along, her toes feeling for something firm to hold on to.
‘Laura, I want to go back, I want to go back,’ Margaret pulled her hands away breaking the circle, her head suddenly submerged.
From the bank they could hear shouting, a deep voice, and they could see a greenish grey shape moving towards them within the bright glare, first splashing, and then the rhythmic sounds of limbs striking the water.
‘Margaret, Margie…’ Anne shouted, trying to part the water with her hands. Laura threw herself under the surface, and emerged immediately coughing, her eyes wild, her mouth like a gash.
The two girls stared at each other, grasping hands. Suddenly the huge frame of Mr Green emerged from under the water, holding Margaret in his arms; she was clinging onto Mr Green’s ears, her eyes and mouth clamped shut. When she opened her eyes she looked up at Mr Green, her face white, her cheeks filled with air as she held her breath. When they reached the water’s edge Mr Green lightly placed Margaret on the sand. She was still holding onto his ears.
‘Now I know my ears are big, but let’s not make them any bigger,’ he said. ‘Well, I did tell you to think on, didn’t I? Good job I was nearby.’ He didn’t sound angry.
The three girls huddled together. They looked across the lake towards the island. They could see Una’s dark figure crouching down at the water’s edge, her hair falling into the water. Mr Green waded into the water, cupped his hands and shouted, ‘Oi, missy, you need to get back over here now.’
Later that day, after they had been given a good telling off from everyone, and had been forbidden to ever go anywhere near the clearing again, or indeed, near Una again, they were allowed to sleep together in the same bed and drink warm milk with sugar.
‘I think we should play in the garden, tomorrow,’ said Margaret, ‘Mum said we could turn the garage into a theatre for performances and such. I could show everyone how long I can hold my breath. ’
‘Margaret, you’re such a scaredy cat. I don’t care what you two do but I’m off down the rucks,’ said Laura, her voice moving through a yawn. And the three of them fell into the same dream about green giants and nymphs with long dark hair and sleepy eyes.