When Dermot answers the door, he’s not sure what to expect. ‘I’m Marie,’ she says, holding a soft hand out for him to shake. ‘And I’m a social worker,’ she adds. ‘Here to see you about your son Anthony.’
‘You better come in then,’ he says, turning his back on her, but leaving her stranded in the hall. He’s lost his fight against idleness. A dirty yellowing semmit stretches above his denims. His bulky body that used to carry bags of coal up and down stairs, without a gasp, stoops low, his chest has fallen into his belly and he shrank into himself. His hands once bulbous and tarred black with wear, now soft and white with twinges of arthritis and he’s not sure he could clench a fist. He pays court to his visitor by disappearing for a few moments and flinging on a clean shirt and a brown cardigan and giving his full attention.
The social worker’s Bearsden accent hints at elocution classes and private education. And he’s not sure if she’d said Marie or Maria, not that it matters. Tony pops his head out of the room to take a look. He’s not been at school for the last two weeks. Her expensive pearl-white blouse and matching coloured jacket and skirt is not a uniform they are used to. And her perfume mugs them like incense and makes other women’s seem coarse, as if they’ve dragged their bodies out of the nearest stank. The social worker is so genteel Dermot feels he and his son are in the wrong house, the work house, and mucking up the tight schedules of her life. She follows him into the living room.
‘You want tea?’ She shakes her head that she doesn’t, glances about the room for a place to sit down. ‘I’ve nae coffee,’ he says apologetically, though he doesn’t know anybody that drinks coffee. In his mind, associating it with being teetotal. He stretches out an arm and guides her into the chair across from his own beside the fireplace.
She sits down. ‘This is nice and cosy,’ she says, pale blue eyes alive with interest, looking into the burning embers of the fire, the matching ceramic wally dogs and the wedding photo on the mantelpiece, the social worker’s smile flashing brighter than the flames.
Dermot scratches the back of his neck, caught in two minds. Everyone that comes through the door gets tea made for them whether they want it or not. He flings himself into the seat across from her and speaks bluntly. ‘Look hen, I’m sure you’re awful nice. But we’re daeing alright. And I don’t want you tellin’ me whit tae dae, or sticking us in your notebook, for consideration later.’ He uses his elbows and gets up from his chair. ‘We’ll gee it a miss, thanks.’
She makes no move, looks up at him. ‘You’ve not heard what I’m here for yet.’
‘I know whit you’re here for. I got a letter out from the school. The wee yins no well and that’s the end of it. I used to get covered in lice when I was carrying the coal. It’s no’ the end of the world. I could tell you stories that would make your hair stand to attention. But I thought they’d send out a child catcher, or truant officer or something, no’ a—’ and he can’t remember what she’s called or what she is. He was prepared for a man that he could give a piece of his mind to.
‘Social worker,’ she pips in.
‘Aye,’ with a wave of his hand he invites her to leave. ‘So if you please.’
‘But maybe I can help you.’
‘Help me,’ he snorts. ‘Look hen, no offence, I wouldnae trust you to hold a pokey-hat up the right way without a dog stealing a lick.’
‘I’ve got a statutory duty.’
Tony appears at the door to the living room. He’s barefoot, in grubby pyjamas, even though it’s gone two o’clock and he looks unwashed. Angela is beside him, her head shaved to the scalp, wearing a pair of boy’s shorts and a Rangers top, watching them.
Dermot straightens up. ‘Well, statutory duty yerself out of here then.’
Marie lifts her bag and stands up. ‘I’m sorry, I’ve caught you at a bad time. I didn’t know you had another little boy.’
‘I’m no’ a wee boy, I’m a wee girl,’ says Angela.
‘She’s fae next door,’ Dermot laughs, shaking his head, exchanging a smile with the social worker.
‘I’m sorry too, Mr Connelly, I’ve just started this new job and I don’t really know what I’m doing. And I was hoping to get something down on paper.’
Tony and Angela wander away back to his room, leaving the two adults standing, facing each other. But it’s as if she’s flung a switch.
‘Och, why didn’t you say that,’ Dermot says, thinking she’s going to cry. ‘Sit doon. I’m my ain worst enemy, sometimes. I’ll get you a cup of tea and we’ll work something out. Milk and how many sugars?’
‘Just black, please.’