Dad pushed the room door open. I hadn’t heard him, or the door going. I was sitting side saddle on my bed, one leg a comfortable numbness, bare feet going missing, part of the stickness of unwashed cold linoleum with my head bowed, feverishly, the detached orb of streetlamp lightening page after page of a Grimm’s Fairy tale, I’d gotten from Dalmuir library, soaring in my imagination in a world where witches were likely to dupe you unless you quickly cut their heads off. He coughed, twisted his mouth, curled his lips and showed a few yellowish teeth and grinned. ‘Someone to see you,’ he says, leaving with my charge, the little girl from next door.
Quivering and shivering in the doorway, whether from excitement or the cold I’m not quite sure. The tenement block stunk of dampness and the overflow of leaking toilets on the landings. Angela, Angel I tease her, with her glow of blonde hair, in her torn and thin frock, outgrown flowery patterns, purple bruises growing waxy yellow on her skin and a scab on her kneecap shows signs of battle, she advances on me and swipes watery green snotters from her nose with the back of her left hand and warm sticky fingers clasp and hold my hand, head held high, she leads me in a prance.
‘Come and see’ she insists, pulls me out of my dreams and towards the empty hall, towards the front door. Paint bubbles and curls into shaving of unnatural green petals with reddish underlay. A turn of the key, push of the shoulder rebounds, to loosen it up, and the door grumbles open. Stone steps buckled in the middle by life swing into view.
‘See,’ she points, vindicated.
We gawk at black ants taking up busy residence in the bulging plaster of brick and old-fashioned limestone no longer holding the wall, emerging in their fecundity from their stronghold under the stairs.
‘That’s great,’ I say. ‘How many do you think there are?’
‘Fuckin millions,’ she says, leaving my side and advancing towards them. Shows she means business by stamping a few hundred into a speckle of gore with the hard soles of her unbuckled, orange, summer sandals. There’s a sparkle in the impish green of her eyes. Mass murder suits her. Ants are terrible gossips. It’s in their bones. They twitch and jitter and change path. Their tormentor shrieks and flees back to me. ‘We’ll need to get boiling water. That’s what you do.’ She looks up at me, ‘if there was a war, us against all the animals, who do you think would win?’
‘You would win,’ I say.
‘Just wait,’ she says and goes back to battle with strategic stomping, tongue tucked into the side of her mouth, jumping from one stair to another and back to the landing. ‘Wee bastards,’ she says and laughing, looks up at me. The smile disappears when she sees her mother standing with the door open, a lit fag in her hand.
‘In,’ she motions towards Angel, anger in her voice. ‘Whit did I tell you about fuckin sneakin out.’
I’m invisible to her. Her stringy hair had once been spun gold, parted in the middle and loosely gathered in a twist of braids. She dressed in dark funeral colours, baggy blouses and long skirts to disguise the sudden jump from youth to obscurity. A big mole on her left cheek is home to three luxuriant grey whiskers. She’s a witch, if ever I’ve seen one