120. Mixed Signals

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I can still remember the last moment we were a happy family, before I ruined it all. It was the Easter holidays, and I was six. I was busy drawing a picture at the kitchen table and Eileen, my baby sister, was asleep upstairs. My mother was washing up when my father came home early from work. Seeing his face appear at the window startled her, so she pretended to flick suds at him. 

“Hello Treacle,” he said to me, and kissed the top of my head.

“You’re home early love,” said my Mother. He put his arms around her waist, kissed the side of her neck and dabbled his dirty hands in the dishwater. After he had dried them, he flicked the teatowel on her backside, which made her squeal, then she turned around, cupped his face with her soapy hands and he bent her back right over to kiss her like they did in the films. Then they both laughed. 

“You might squeeze a cup out of that pot,” she said, so he took a mug from the draining board. He pretended to look down the spout of the teapot to check, which I thought was silly, then he poured a little bit more water from the kettle into it. While he was waiting for his brew, he sat down, lit a cigarette, took a drag and scratched his head. “We have to go onto short time, or some of us will be let go,” he said.

“Oh Fred,” sighed my mother, “We’ll manage. We always do.” She looked at me and smiled. “Don’t worry, Cyn, we could always sell some of your drawings. You’re quite the little artist.”

“She is that indeed. Let me see?” said my father. I held up my latest drawing. “You can sell some of my pictures but you can’t sell this one. It’s a present for Mummy’s friend, Mr Turner.” I said.

I never slept in my own bed again.

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When I was fourteen, I fell in love with the paper boy. We’d said fewer than ten words to each other in the six months that he’d been delivering Mr Crane’s newspaper, but I knew that I wanted to marry him. One Friday morning, I got up early to watch out for his bike, and I opened the front door just as he was about to post the newspaper through the letterbox. I grabbed it off him, pushed a letter into his hand and closed the door in his face. I was so embarrassed that I barely even glanced at him.

He was there outside the bakers at 11 o’clock the next day, just like I’d asked him to be in my letter. I could see he had made a real effort. Polished shoes, a neat parting and smelling of coal tar soap. His name was Brian and he was also fourteen. He said he wanted to work on the railways when he left school, so that’s where we went for our walk to find a nice picnic spot. I’d brought cheese and cucumber sandwiches and two apples. Our shoes soon got dusty from walking alongside the tracks and as it was a hot day, he decided to open the bottle of cherryade that he’d brought. Then he needed to pee. The other girls in the Home had warned me never to be alone with a boy or a man if he got his cock out. They told me that he would try to get me to touch it and if I did then I might have a baby, but if I didn’t, then I was frigid and was going to become a nun. I didn’t like the sound of either of those things, so I ran away from him.

I clomped up the wooden stairs of the signal box and opened the door. There was nobody in there. Three of the walls were made up of windows. It was stiflingly hot and smelled of BO and stale cigarettes. One long shelf at my eye level was full of polished wooden boxes and shiny bells that looked like the ones on a hotel reception desk, and there were a dozen big levers sticking out of the floor. In the corner there was a desk with two office chairs on wheels and two telephones. One black and one red. The wireless was playing music quietly. I rang one of the bells and it dinged, then I pressed the top of another bell but its ring sounded different to the first one, so I tried another, which sounded out an even higher note. They reminded me of when the Campanology Club was practising in church.  I turned a handle sticking out of one of the wooden boxes and tried to pull one of the levers, but I couldn’t do it because it was so stiff.

I heard Brian say, “you’re not supposed to be in here”.

Suddenly, the signalman started shouting at us. “What are you two doing in here?”, “I heard those bells. You better not have bloody touched anything. You could cause a crash,” then, “can’t a man have five minutes peace to go for a shit?” and “what did you touch?”.

When he had finished shouting, I pointed at the bells and told the signalman that I’d pressed those and turned that handle, but Brian said, “she moved one of those levers as well. I saw her do it.”

“No, I didn’t you liar!” I shouted back at him.

The signalman said, “You’re a cheeky little bitch, aren’t you? What’s your name?”

“Cynthia Archer,” I said. He said nothing but studied me for a moment, then said, “I know you. You’re Fred Archer’s girl. Do you give it away too just like your mother did? I bet you do. They all do in that Home. My mate wouldn’t be in prison now if she wasn’t such a dirty slut.”

“Don’t you talk like that about my mother!” I shouted back at him, and some of my spit landed on his jacket.

“Filthy little…” he began but was interrupted by one of the bells ringing on its own. “Oh shit. Get out, the both of you or you’ll feel the back of my hand. Go on, bugger off.”

The next morning, after church, I had to go to Mrs Crane’s office. “I have received a telephone call from a gentleman who says that he caught you and a boy up to no good in the signal box near to the top end of town. Is this true?”

“I was there with him but…”

“I don’t want to hear your excuses. I’m tired of your stories. This is a serious matter. You were trespassing on private property. Your actions could have caused a train crash. People could have died. Not only that but you were out alone with a boy. What were you thinking? The reputation of our Home is at stake.”

“Yes, Mrs Crane.”

“I am going to give you a choice. You can either help to clean the church for an hour every morning and evening for the next month or work in the laundry. So, you will have plenty of time to consider what you have done and what could have happened. You will also not be attending the fete next week and you going on the school trip to Whitby is absolutely out of the question. You will not see that boy again, or any other boy for that matter, as long as you are living under this roof. I am shocked that one of my girls is writing letters to boys and spitting on British Rail employees. That boy no longer delivers newspapers and I understand that his father gave him a good hiding. We do not condone corporal punishment here, but if we did, I would not hesitate. Do you understand how lucky you are?”

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After I saw my father kill my mother, he washed his hands in the bowl of still-warm water and told me that I had to be a good girl and go next door to tell Mrs Bailey to phone the police, and that I was to stay there and not come back. She made me a boiled egg, toast and Ovaltine for my tea and I thought I was going to have it in my new eggcup that I got with my easter egg, but I didn’t. Mrs Bailey gave me an a teddy bear that she said used to be her daughter’s and asked me to look after it, then a nice police lady took me to the Girls Home. My new bed was next to the window and there was a nightdress on the pillow. I liked it in summer because the window was open, but in winter I had to be careful not to burn myself on the radiator. I stayed there until the day after my 16th birthday, which was the earliest date I was permitted to leave. Mrs Crane told me that my sister was adopted straight away by a nice family who couldn’t have children of their own so this was really quite the blessing. 

After Eileen grew up, she found me with help from the Salvation Army and a woman at the Citizens Advice Bureau, and we finally met when I was 36. We have different accents but everyone can tell that we have the same mother. I’m still quite good at drawing but I’d never let anyone see them, and I sometimes drive past the Girls Home on my way home from work. It’s a hotel now. I haven’t been inside since it was refurbished, but I’ve seen the brochure that they have for weddings. The room I used to sleep in with five other girls is now the bridal suite.

Me? No, I never married.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

118. Family Matters

Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

This is a story I wrote specifically for the brief of ‘GLASS’ for a competition, but it was not longlisted.

Some things that people assume are fragile, are often the most resilient, because they have to be to survive. If I’d never tapped that screen, then I wouldn’t know what happened and Mum would still be here.

When I was little, I stood on a chair, climbed under the net curtains and tiptoed precariously on the window ledge, between the photographs. I remember stretching up my arms like an angel. That window was bigger than I was. Mum was so happy to see me waiting for her, that she forgot to tell me off.

In my first year, almost everything I made broke, so I reused the smashed shards in my other work. By year four, I instinctively sensed how glass flowed. I could control my breath and feel the stresses and tensions. There was always a risk that kiln shock might crack a piece, but that was part of the process. People only saw the results, not the work leading up to it. Failure to produce or anticipate the market, meant I couldn’t pay my bills. It was all or nothing.

As the car drew up to what was left of Mum’s house, molten lead dripped into my stomach, and fizzed. I howled like a dog left home alone. A flapping stripy ribbon was the only barrier keeping strangers out.

I knew we would bicker over the scraps. His wife never appreciated the sentiment of unfashionable stem crystal, kept safe for best in a velvet-lined box, but she didn’t want me to have them either. I pretended that a new dandelion clock paperweight was Mum’s pride and joy and reluctantly gave it up for the wine glasses. If they had ever visited my shop, then they would know that the bowl they loved was one from my ‘Empty Vessel’ collection.

I hadn’t been a little sister for years but I still needed my big brother. This may as well have been a closed visit with a 6mm invisible barrier between us. I tried to reach out but I still couldn’t touch him. I think we both knew this would be the last time we didn’t speak.

He poured Mum’s ashes onto the sand. I picked up a muted, green pebble from the shoreline and sucked it like a travel sweet. Mum used to call these ‘mermaid’s tears’. Everything that fused us together was gone. I looked at the frosted, weathered sea glass nugget and wondered what it once was. I think I’ll make it into a pendant and wear it next to my heart.

When I got home, I wrote him a letter and pushed it into a bottle. I thought about throwing it into the sea, to be with Mum, but decided to slump it in the kiln. Flat bottles were always my best-sellers.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

111. 1471

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Photo by Marco Chilese on Unsplash

By the time the police arrived, Mrs Jones was sat on a low garden wall, next to what was left of her car. A couple of kids on bmx bikes were watching from a short distance away. The man who saw it all happen was sat in his car still talking into the handset. 

That beautiful red union jack mini was a write-off. Crumpled against a concrete lamp post, a perfect arc of skid marks visible in the road. People drove slowly past, phones ready, craning their necks to see if there was any blood.

As she was being breathalysed, a teenage girl briskly walked up, held out her phone at arms length, took a photo, then ran off. Her friend followed, shouting, “Was that Mrs Jones? Was it? Wait for me!” 

Still gently sobbing, Mrs Jones was grateful for the quiet routine of the police station. She listened patiently whilst the Police Constable spoke to the Custody Sergeant. Fortunately, he was one of those rare officers still working in a public-facing role in his fifties. Mrs Jones was relying on his age and experience for his empathy of her situation.

“Arrested for dangerous driving. She said she saw a mouse in the car and panicked. Drove through a red light and into a lamp post. Breathalyzer negative. No injuries. Car towed. Scene clear. CCTV requested,” said the PC, closing her pocket notebook.

The PC then lightly touched Mrs Jones on the arm and said, “My Sarge will look after you now. Don’t worry. It’ll get sorted out.”

“The Duty Solicitor has just gone into an interview, so it will be about an hour. I’m going to have to put you into a cell for a bit,” said the Custody Sergeant.

“Um. Ok. Oh, I need some things from my bag though,” she said.

“What sort of things?” asked the Custody Sergeant. He’d heard it all before.

“Um.” This was no time to be coy.  “I’m going through the change and I’m flooding, so I need a few sanitary towels. I need to take my pills in an hour and I have to eat a biscuit soon because stress makes me hypoglycemic and I can’t take tablets on an empty stomach or I’ll vomit.”

The Custody Sergeant studied her face for a moment. He remembered how it was for his missus a few years back. How the bleeding got so heavy that she couldn’t leave the house some days. When she sneezed, it looked like a crime scene.

“What pills do you need?” he asked.

“I’m due to take two ibuprofen, two paracetamol and codeine and two tranexamic acid in an hour,” she replied.

“I just need to make a quick call to the Doctor.” he said.

A few minutes later, he handed her a clear plastic evidence bag containing four sanitary towels, six tablets, plus the remains of a packet of hobnobs from her handbag.

After an hour in the cell, a different police officer brought her a cup of tea. “Your solicitor won’t be long now,” he said.

“Oh it’s ok. I don’t want to be a nuisance. I know you’re busy,” she replied.

The police officer turned to leave, then paused, “You don’t remember me do you? I was in your class at Hill High School and in the army cadets with your Davey. How is he these days?”

“Oh, I’m sorry love, my Davey passed away two years ago. He had a few problems with heroin and ended up homeless,” she said. Mrs Jones was used to this, having to offer comfort to those who only just found out.

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. I really am. We were good friends for a bit, me and Davey. We got up to all sorts, like teenagers do. I joined the army straight from school and we lost touch. I remember he was well into his music and motorbikes. I did 12 years and then joined the police,” he replied.

Mrs Jones already knew this.  

A couple of hours later, she had been interviewed, charged, bailed, and was home in time for Emmerdale. She surprised herself at how little shame she felt.

The next day, Mrs Jones was walking through town and saw Fred, one of the homeless guys she often chatted to, sat on a bench near the fountain in Town Hall Square. His worldly possessions were neatly packed into a rucksack on the ground. He was watching the pigeons scratting around for bits of discarded food, as he absentmindedly picked at the edges of a paper coffee cup.

“Hi Fred.” She said, cheerfully.  No matter how many problems she had, they paled into insignificance with what was going on in his life. “You’ll never guess what happened to me yesterday?” she said.

“No, what?” said Fred.

“I got arrested for dangerous driving.”

He sat up straighter. “Are you ok? Was anyone hurt?” he said quickly.

“No, I’m getting a bit of a bruise and my neck’s a bit stiff though.” She drew a diagonal line from neck to waist to show where the bruise was.

She stuffed her hands into her pockets, then said hesitantly, “I saw him though. I talked to him. He remembers Davey from before….” Her voice trailed off, then almost immediately she composed herself.

“He’s on afternoons all week. You still want to do it?” She asked.

“Yep. I’ve made up my mind. I can’t spend another winter outside. He’s as good as anyone, and he deserves it. Those who think they haven’t done anything wrong when they have, deserve it more,” said Fred.

They held each other’s gaze for a second longer than they usually did.

“His collar number is 1471” she said. “They never even searched me, probably cos I’m a doddery old woman. They even put it in a bag for me. It’s in the mattress, in the seam at the top. Cell number two.”

“Well, then,” said Fred. “Consider it done. For Davey.”

“Well then, yourself. Take care,” said Mrs Jones. “Oh, I got you these.” She pulled out a new packet of cigarettes and a lighter from her coat pocket and offered them to him.

“Thank you. That’s really kind. God bless. See you, Mrs Jones,” he said, as she turned away, her hand raised in an it’s nothing/don’t worry about it/goodbye gesture.

Two months later, Mrs Jones and Fred are sat at a table in the visitor’s room at the local prison. “This is nice, isn’t it?” said Mrs Jones, “to be out of the cold.”

Fred’s cheeks have plumped out and his limp is less pronounced than before. Even though he’s just about to officially start a life sentence, his spirits have lifted. 

“Three meals a day, a room to myself with a telly, no-one kicking or pissing on me while I’m trying to sleep, hot showers, proper toilets, books, people to talk to. I might even get some qualifications. This is luxury. If I’d have known what getting lifed off was going to be like, I’d have done it years ago.”

She smiled. They both got what they wanted.

The one who gave her son his first cigarette. His first can of beer. His first joint. His first ecstasy tablet. His first wrap of speed. His first shoplifting spree. His first joyride. His first fist fight. The one who started it all. He was gone now. 

Killing a police officer meant that Fred was given a longer sentence, but the tariff didn’t matter. It would be a life sentence. Years of living on the streets had taken its toll on his body. Fred would die in here, but it would be in the warm with a full belly surrounded by people who were paid to care. He wouldn’t be alone.

“They put me in cell number one at first, so I puked on the floor, and they moved me. I think after the sentence next week, I’m getting transferred to a prison up north,” said Fred. “Will you still come and visit me?”

“Course I will, love,” she said, having absolutely no intention of ever seeing him again.

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Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash