Angela sits on the top steps on her landing, waiting. Tugs have been pulled and combed from her blonde hair and skin been scrubbed pink in the kitchen sink. Her deep blue, almost black, school uniform is not regular hand-me-down, but bought in the big store in Clydebank and blue shirt and grey skirt are a snug fit. The triangular badge sewn onto her blazer pocket by her mum is a source of pride and wonder which she keeps looking down at the golden threads of sailing ship on a silver ocean and the legend Dalmuir Primary, black runes, in gold scroll. The shimmer of gold hangs from her neck, a loose knot in the school tie, making a zebra of her with its brown diagonals.
Dinner money supposed to be in her pocket, silver, grasped tightly in her hot little hand. Starting school, knees chapping and feet tapping time, on cold steps. Toys have been lined up, stories told, and harangued about how they better behave – or else. The tenement building shakes with the harried feet of vast tribes of children getting ready. When the front door opens she’s ready, springing up and grabbing for her leather satchel. Karen plays peek-a-boo from the dim lobby, wearing a checked nylon gown, a cigarette dangling in her mouth, and her feet are bare. She holds her hand over her mouth as she coughs. Jerks her head in the direction of the living room.
‘Angela, pet,’ she says, softening her tone. ‘Yeh, can go to school another day.’ She takes another drag on her fag, followed by an extended bout of coughing. ‘Yer da never came in last night. And I’ve no’ been that well. And I cannae go out in case he comes back and I’m no’ here…Then there’ll be hell to pay.’
The schoolbag drops from Angela’s hand and coins from her fingers bounce down the stairs. Her shoulders jerk as she cries, hair drooping and partially covering her face, her body slumped in defeat.
‘Whit’s wrang with you?’ Karen screeches. ‘I’ll write you a note and you can go to school tomorrow. Then that’ll be you. Goin’ for at least the next ten years. Whether you want to or not. And you’ll hate it, anyway.’
‘Whit did I do-o-o. It’s no’ fair-rrrr.’
Pizza Face saunters out of the door below them. His eyes are drawn to the shiny two-bob sitting on the stairs and he looks up beyond it taking in Angela and her mother. He springs up the stairs and picks up the coin. ‘You drapped this,’ he says, holding the coin out, but not sure he wants to give it back, but his mum and sister are standing witness at his back in their print dresses, hair in nylon turbans ready to see him off and start the household chores, but looking out to see what the commotion is about.
‘Whit’s the matter with her?’ Pizza Face’s mum asks.
‘Och, it’s nothin’,’ Angela says, her right hand cupping the mound of her belly. ‘She’s supposed to be startin’ school, but Jaz didn’t come in last night – ’
‘He’s just like the rest of them,’ mutters Pizza Face’s mum. ‘Useless. It’ll no’ be the first and it’ll no’ be the last.’
‘—and she’s no’ been feelin’ that great.’
‘I’m fine,’ Angela blurts out, wiping at her nose with her sleeve, looking from one door with her mum in it to the other. ‘It’s you that said you werenae well.’
‘Well, anway,’ Karen says in an overly bright tone, crumbling the ash on her cigarette between her fingers. ‘She can go the morrow.’
Pizza Face’s mum advances up the stairs and skelps Pizza Face on the side of the head. ‘Gie her the money back,’ she warns him, before her unblinking attention turns to Karen. ‘I’ll take the wee lassie to school,’ and receiving no acknowledgement, adds, ‘if you’re no’ well’.
‘Well, I’m not sure.’ Karen asks Angela. ‘Whit about that bad cough, you had? Are you well enough to go?’
Pizza Face’s mother snorts at the idea of asking a child’s opinion. ‘Get my coat,’ she tells her daughter.
Pizza Face slinks away, the thought of going to school with his mum, his daft sister and wee girl going to infant school beside him, and his pals seeing him, bringing out the thought of the worst reddy in the world and it begins to bloom on his face.
Outside the close Pizza Face’s mum clutches Angela’s hand very firmly and pulls her scarf tighter around her neck and frowns at the rain. Her daughter’s firm step lurks behind them. Other mothers, on the wide pavement, and travelling in the same direction, but having to take a detour around the windbreak of her wide back
‘I can already read and count to 100,’ Angela says, her face beaming.
‘Can you dear,’ Pizza Face’s mum says, giving her wee fingers an extra squeeze. ‘I’m sure you’ll be a smart wee cookie.’
A mother with a pram and two children on the inside and a baby passes them. Another girl, with ringlets and olive skin, about the same age as Angela and the same uniform, but with white socks that stay up her legs, pushes a pram the same colour as the bigger pram with a baby dolly tucked inside beside it. Angela gawps at it and is furious with the other girl and wants to bash her. They cross Duntocher Road together in a group and fall into step walking up the hill. As they get closer to the school and pass the first of the big playgrounds, with children bombing about inside and the cacophony of noise rising up Angela holds on tighter to Pizza Face’s mum’s hands and starts blubbering.
‘I want to go home,’ she says, through her tears. ‘I want my mum.’
The other little girl looks over at her, imperiously, with hazel-green eye, but before they get to the school gates, her lips trembles and she starts crying too. ‘You can get a shot of my dolly, her name’s Molly.’ She shakes her head, sadly. ‘I’m not allowed to take her inside because she’s only a baby. And she’s not real.’ She hold her hand out and Angela slips away from Pizza Face’s mum and fastens on tight to her fingers, both girls sobbing on each other’s shoulder.