Tony remembers a parade of uniforms and much mumbling just outside of hearing. He forgets who has come or who had gone. Memories and dreams mixed up like Flash Gordon, Emperor Ming and a lost continent warring in his head. In the same way he is glad to see Marie and thought she was pretty but it might have been his mum. He subsides into the back seat of a car, aware of her perfumey presence but is so tired the next thing he’s in his Auntie Lila’s living room. Her house smells like a kennel where things lurk in the corner, waiting their turn to get put down. A mahogany coloured unit, coated with dust, a radio, with a speaker covered in a coarse grill cobwebbed with age, the station panels yellowing bands of medium wave and long wave, dark and illegible, takes the place of a telly. His da, when they had visited his sister, which wasn’t often, had referred to the couch disarmingly as the ‘heirloom’ and later ‘the accident waiting to happen’. And that’s where Tony finds himself parked. Auntie Lila sits in her usual chair by the one-bar electric fire, ashtray to hand, cigarette glowing in her gob. Uncle Bert’s chair faces her, but he hovers at the door, grey beard, knuckles at his eyes as if he’s just woke. He wears a yellowing semmit, trousers and bare feet. A belly like a late pregnancy, but is kept in check by a pair of red braces and an unbuckled belt.
‘Whit dae yeh mean Dermott’s gone missin’? Auntie Lila asks, Marie again, sniffing and puffing on her fag. ‘That’s got nothin’ to dae wae me’.
Tony is half-listening but not listening. A small coal burns inside him and he’s asking god and promising god that he’ll be good, if his da comes back he’ll be good. He’ll not eat sweets or anything.
‘Make them a cuppa tea Bert,’ she instructs her husband. A weariness in her tone, like a spot of decay in her red-rimmed eyes, rippling out in the slow way she has of speaking and moving her hands.
‘No, I’m quite alright,’ says Marie. She takes a step backward the back of her knees hitting a table piled high with old magazines. ‘As I was saying if we could just leave Tony here for a few days until we work out exactly where to place him.’
‘You want a cup of tea?’ Uncle Bert points a finger at Tony and smiles shyly.
Tony looks at his lap and shakes his head that he doesn’t.
‘Get me wan then,’ Auntie Lila says to her husband. She lights a fag off the lit end of another, before turning her attention to the social worker. ‘You’re no’ leavin’ him here,’ she says bluntly. ‘We’ve done our bit, brought our two boys up and our Sarah.’
‘But you’re the only living relative we can locate,’ Marie says, a pleading tone in her voice. Tony is not the only one that is tired. ‘And it would be only for a few days, maybe even a day, until we get our feet.’
‘It’s no’ that,’ says Auntie Lila, resting her hands on her flowery apron, as if Marie hadn’t spoken and she is trying to make the facts known, fully known. ‘I told Dermott that no good would come of him marrying a Proddy. I told him. I mean, he was a good lookin’ boy. But would he listen? Would he? Nah, I told him. Make your bed, lie in it.’
Marie turns to look at the boy slumped down and sleeping and then chooses her words very carefully, ‘one night, that’s all I’m asking?’ Bert bustles in with a glazed mug of tea at her back and she straightens up to let him pass. He places it down in on the mantelpiece and beats a retreat.
‘You know, I’d love to help,’ Auntie Lila eventually says, picking up the mug and sipping tea. ‘But I just cannae, you never know Dermott might turn up. That would be just like him.’
Outside its raining and dark, streetlights shine with drifting rain, but it seems to Tony cleaner and wider and better than inside with its blank walls and dusty pulled over curtains. He’s glad he didn’t have to stay with his Auntie Lila. Safely ensconced in the back seat of the car, he wonders where he’s going to end up. Marie sits in the driver seat, hunched up, uncertain. The car splutters into life.
The Children’s Home isn’t far from his school. Risk Street. Snobby houses with glass battlements for windows, looking onto the road, protected by high walls and prickly hedges and barking dogs. Big gardens where they’d once raided apples. Often they were sour, good for only one bite then flung at one of your pal’s heads. Part of the fun had been the chase. Once Pizza Face had tripped and skinned his knee and the guy in one of the big houses had caught him and dragged him inside. With Pizza Face it was always a big story, and it ended with the guy washing his knee with a cloth and giving him a shilling and telling him to come visit anytime. Fat chance. But Tony recognised the street where they turned into. The big house up at the top of the street, where you go when there is nowhere to go. Now it is him that is caught. And he promises god he’ll be good.
Marie noses the cars through the gates and turns off the engine. It’s quiet. Trees creak in the wind. The curlicues and bevels of Victorian architecture ripped out to be replaced by something more functional with fire-escapes at the back of the house, crammed with emptiness. Their feet crunch on red stone chips which grow more compact solid dark-colour front doors. Marie presses the bell on the wall, a monument to history. It buzzes harshly like someone practicing the kazoo and Marie looks at him and she smiles as if she too is out of practice at being cheery.
A woman square-specs perched on her nose and long bubble-permed hair pulls open the door. ‘You shouldn’t have rung the bell,’ she says. ‘You’ll wake everybody up, that way.’
‘But how else would we get in?’ Marie asks? The two social workers weigh each other up.
‘You phone ahead,’ says the woman with square specs, her smile makes her face smaller, as if she’s gummy. She turns and they follow her through the main double doors and a glass-pannelled door, braked by the swish of draught excluders. The foyer lights are on lighting up a stairway and dark corners. She takes them through and into the office beside the stairs, where a heater blows hot air, but stale cigarette smoke lingers.