Martha-The Rewrite Chapter Five
My dad left me and mum when I was seven years old. He went to live in a caravan near Gravesend with a woman half his age. I was dragged to see him a couple of times by mum. Not at the caravan. We would meet at a service station somewhere and he’d order bacon sandwiches for us all and then get mum to pay for them. His new woman would sit in his van. We were parked close to them one time and I watched her do her lipstick in the rear view mirror as mum pulled me between the cars. She was scrawny and jagged, like a cartoon witch. I felt nothing for her at the time, I was too young to understand. Even now, I don’t understand really. I mean, there must be better places to have a caravan than Gravesend.
Then along came Keith. Mum stayed with Keith for 9 years. It didn’t seem that long to me as I was a kid. Time is all stretched out when you are young. She met him through work. At that time she worked in a cafe on the roundabout, about a mile from where we lived. It was a god awful place. Fluorescent eggs that slid around plates, sausages that were filled with meat so pale that they might have been made from trodden snow and next to each plate, tea so weak you could almost see the bottom of the mug. There was a massive car park out the back and that was the main attraction of the place. Each morning from 7, a succession of small vans containing grubby men of all ages, lined up in rows. On the way home from school I would go and see her and she would give me a shoddy bacon sandwich that looked like it had been on the floor for a week. I’d eat it though, crunching down on burnt rind, mashing bad bread at the back of my mouth. It was really bad food. But it was very free food. She’d never speak to me in the cafe. It was like I was not her daughter, more like that I was a stray kid who had wandered in and she had taken pity on me. The other women who worked there made a fuss of me and slipped me pieces of cake or a kit kat on a Friday. They did it secretly though, conspiring with me so that mum would never know about these little goodies. The windows were permanently steamed up and I spent afternoons drawing whole village scenes with my finger. Some of the people eating would give me spare silver from their pockets and smile at the strange little places I had created. Then mum would take a large grey cloth and wipe the whole of the window. It was like the sea flattening your sandcastle. You felt a bit sad but it was just the natural order of things. Mum hated working there.I think at that time she would have hated working anywhere. By the time she had cleared up and it was time for us to go home, she was always in a foul mood. She’d half drag me down the street, her hands still doughy from the washing up water. She wouldn’t cook at home, at least she would avoid it at all costs. If she was somehow cornered into making a proper meal she would ensure that everyone in the house suffered as a consequence. Usually that was just me. Until Keith came along.
Keith was a nothing man. He took up no space. When he spoke his words were already pulp and each syllable fell to the floor with a dull plop. When he sat down, you could hear the chair sigh. At first I felt a bit sorry for him. He was one of the first people to give me money for my steam art and to my 7 year old mind, that made him kind. He would stay over in the early days and in the mornings he’d be slouched at the kitchen table in his work trousers and a grubby vest, dribbling milk back into a bowl of cornflakes. I would sit at the other end of the kitchen table and wait for mum to come down. He’d rarely speak to me at first, maybe a half hearted ‘morning’ some days. Mum would come down and give me a bowl of some sugary filth and a weak cup of tea. Then he’d put his shirt on and they’d leave me to it. I’d hear his van grumble and pull away. I’d gulp down my tea and then go and clean my teeth. Mum said I was old enough to go to school on my own by then.
After about 3 months, Keith had moved in. I knew this because I could see his sad pants on the line and because mum started sometimes cooking an actual dinner some nights. When she cooked for him, she was calmer, kinder, she even looked on with a look of glowing pride as Keith forked a bland casserole into his mouth. If there was any left after they had eaten, I was allowed to have that. I wasn’t usually hungry if I had been to the cafe on the way home but some days I was. I had become an afterthought in the kitchen. I’d sit in my room drawing and listen out for the clank of plates being put on the side and hold my breath to listen out for the call, if it came. Yeah, this sounds all so tragic but you know, that was life, neither of us knew any better. She wasn’t being deliberately cruel. She just didn’t understand how families should work, that parents care for kids, that love should flow easily from them. I never felt neglected or that I was missing out on anything. I did feel hungry though some days and used to find a way to latch onto someone at school who looked like they might have more money than us so that I could slide my way in for an invitation to play and hopefully get some tea. There was a girl, Allison who was my best teatime pal. I tried to get round there a couple of times a week at least. If I hit the jackpot, her mum would make a proper meal. The best one was always spag bol. My mum had made it before but the bol tasted of the sink and the spag was so overcooked that it stuck together in a hard lump. Allison’s mum’s version was from another world and I would chuck it down my gob so fast that I could barely breathe.
Once Keith’s scrawny legs were firmly under the table at our place, the meetings with dad soon stopped. I can’t say that I missed the trauma of having to get a lift from one of the truckers from the cafe to a grotty place by a busy road to spend a few minutes with a man who used to be my dad. Mum said she didn’t have time but it was because of Keith. Not that he would have objected I expect. I don’t think he would have given a shit either way. It was her. She cooked Keith dinner, she washed his pants. My mum was in love and it was really fucking annoying.