One Winter's Day You Will Meet Your Maker
‘You, or sometimes I was called, ‘You better’.
Regular as raindrops my little sister slipped free from the bottom bunk-bed, square toes and flat, almost webbed feet, followed the trail of linoleum and worn carpet,to the sluice of the toilet, to the kitchen, to the living room. Her floppy Mongo neck weighted by a flock of downy hair, voice rising up in alarm, honking my name ‘-Ack, -Ack –Ack’.
Mum was too indisposed to hear. One week a month we were rich as the Shah of Iran, whom Dad worked for. The icey-van chime was a mecca calling us out twice a day to buy ice cream and sweets, sweets and more sweets. Frank’s grocery van sold Wagon Wheel biscuits. Even the fish-van had a tray with Blackjacks, penny-carmels, bubblegum and swizzles. We dined out in the best chippy in Dalmuir every night.
The other three weeks I learned how to chef, to fluff up Smash for dinner with milk, and as the weeks ran dry, with water. Cornflakes for breakfast could be eaten raw out of the box. Hard white bread toasted with margarine, for in between times, because it tasted better and kept longer.
Saturday night, you had the best entertainment in the world. I buoyed us both up with scratchy pillows to keep the heat in, but we melted like chocolate, hard on the outside, inch by inch sideways into the slope of arms and legs and down into the sponge-brown sump of our couch, yawning and waiting for Dr Who to come on and later, The Generation Game, where everybody practised laughing at how silly and forgetful they were. But I grew quieter and quieter, more watchful, waiting for Mum, careful with the positioning of the light-blue inky-lines of my jammy legs, of the ingrained stink and stains, where Mum might have had an overnight accident, or Janey, with no more thought than a drunken monkey, might have peed, or worse, the spot where her nappy leaked its load. There was no telling what Mum would say, because Mum was a lady and ladies alway drank Gordon’s Gin.
My eyes became filled with a web of sleep, but my body remained on duty, sitting upright as any civic monument in George Square. Janey’s hair was lying slick with sweat, a puddle across my lap. The stink caught me, crooked my nose, grabbed my throat and made my eyes water. She’d done a number two. My mind had already jumped ahead to when she’d start screaming when I put her in the bath, because even though she was daft she knew the water would freeze her bollocks. The telly was tuned to the test-card, pianoforte spilled merrily out in clean classical notes. I heard Mum scratching, fiddling at the front door, playing at finding her way in with the gold of her Yale key.
‘Ah’ll get it.’
It was a man’s drunken voice outside the front door with our mum, a voice I’d not heard before, taking charge. The door clunked shut behind them. I eased Janey off my lap. There was a lull, the low guttural sound of man’s laughter amplified by the rectangle space slightly bigger than a phone-box in the hall. The walls vibrated with their struggle and they seemed to be wrestling. I crept to the living-room door, pulling it quietly open.
‘-Ack. -Ack.’ Janey’s piercing cry froze time. She scrambled off the couch to her feet and shite ran down her left leg. She held out her arms for me to pick her up.
The grappling match at the front door stopped. ‘Whose that?’ The man voice was a low rumble.
I didn’t hear Mum’s reply. Janey stumbled in a hen-toed run towards me, her hand up caked in the brown glaur of her loose padding, a horror show trying to catch onto my arm. I batted her wrist away. ‘No Janey. You’re mingin’.’ I slipped away from her, through the living-room door to the safety of the lobby.
Janey grunted and banged against the barrier impeding her, couldn’t work out that I was tightly holding the handle of the door shut. ‘-Ack. -Ack. Where are you -Ack?’ echoed through thin walls.
Mum stomped up the passageway, finding time to smooth down the embroidered peasant blouse she favoured. She wore it with what she’d termed her Scottish plaid outfit, partially hidden, under a velvet jacket and the full bloom of a blue skirt that was snagged onto her knickers and half-hitched round the wrong way. An unwashed reek of bodies, booze and cigarette smoke and a sharper oily pong, loosely bound Mum to the man behind her. He’d Elvis Costello’s slicked black hair and was thin as a black-suited shadow. He was much older than Mum and might even have been fifty.
‘Whit the hell you two playin’ at?’ Mum skelped me on the side of the face.
Janey kicked-up even more of a ruckus of ‘-Ack, -Ack’, but I didn’t let go of the door handle, tucking my head into my shoulder, anticipating the next blow. ‘Whose that?’ I asked in an even voice.
‘Ah’m Hector.’ His voice was jocular, pleased with itself, as if he was on a gameshow. He squeezed past Mum’s shoulder and held his hand out for me to shake. ‘Your Uncle Hector.’ He grinned, showing a gob of broken yellow-brown teeth and one of his eyes was bloodshot. ‘Ah’m you’re Mum’s dance partner. Aren’t I Lynn?’ He shuffled a pair of pointy black and white Spats making the loose linoleum of the hall his stage.
I let go of the door, brushing aside the outstretched hand, lumbering past their stupid expressions, ran into my room and hurled myself into the top bunk-bed. I didn’t have long to wait before I heard the stampede of feet. Janey was bundled unwashed into our room, the door shutting firmly behind her. ‘-Ack, -Ack, -Ack,’ she screamed.