Light shimmered and shed its hat of cloud and shadows. Snowfall drifted down setting the world to white. Our street was smaller and larger, everything in the blink of an eye crisp and clean. Snow brew to kick throgh, traffic slows and older people skitter and skate, but with money in my pocket, I’m in a hurry, walk fast, great loose strides, lopping down other pedestrians and old dodders in long coats. Mario’s chippy is a five-minute walk, just over the canal at the bottom of a tenement building, with a pub next door. My mouth waters with the thought of warm food. The smell of vinegar and chips would bring rats from the back courts. As usual the chippy's jumping, a queue out to the door. I don’t mind waiting. Mario is a wee, olive skinned guy, baldy, with black hair sprinkled around his ears. He directs operations from the other side of the fryer, sometimes mucking in and helping out with heavy metal baskets and when the chips jump in the fat and spatulas and tongs are needed to capture fish, pies, black pudding, or even the foreign delicacy of a hamburger – I’ve never tried one – and he place such jewels at eye-height, under the lights in the hotbox. Mario doesn’t do any talking. He leaves that to the two women working alongside him. They wear the same chippy uniform as their gaffer, white coats splattered nicotine-yellow with grease. Maurine has backcombed hair, is bony faced, but with nice hazel eye, and has never got a Woodbine out of her gob. Doreen has ginger hair and works the till. Her skin had the sickly hue of a smoke-filled room and she peers at you through thick NHS specs because she’s so short-sighted. We’re nodding acquaintances. They know me and I know them. And as I move up the queue I listen to them yakking to the other customer and to each other and setting the world to right and it’s Doreen that does most of the gabbing, in a slightly high-pitched girly voice.
‘Never done asking for money for sweets—
‘Nobody to give her company and give her a helping hand—
‘What a cheek—
‘Do you think she has a man?—
‘Aye, she’s man mad—
‘She’s got a tongue in her head that one. Never shuts up and gives you a minute’s peace. You should hear the way she cheeks that teacher of ‘hers—and ’
Then it’s my turn. ‘Whit you wanting, pet?’ Doreen leans, conspiratorly, looking over the counter at me. She likes me because he knows my dad and, with a wink, when my order comes, gives me extra. But I take my time. Not to be hurried out of my position at the head of the queue. I also need ginger and sweets off the shelves as well.
And then I’m scurrying home. I don’t care what the weather is, and the snow has turned to rain, the streets to slush, sunshine is bursting out me and I’m content with my booty.
Home in a jiffy. I race up the last few stairs of our landing taking care to step over the crack of the ant’s nest. I’ve sneaked a warm chip, or two, for my troubles, but the riches of a Curlywurly sticks out of one of the pockets of my duffle coat and a bottle of Irn Bru out of the other. Parcelled in newsprint, and the headline ‘Gas explosion Destroys Shops at Clarkston Toll,’ chips, carried like new-borns. I hear coughing. I turn, hand on the banister and look down into the darkness of the close mouth. The coughing goes on and on. I flounder down the stairs hopping from foot to foot wondering why I’m bothering and a bit feert. Street lights imprison a corner of the back courts, but fling enough light to see the slippy flagstone of the bottom landing. It’s darker than I like, but the coughing continues and it’s coming from the derelict toilet. I slowly pull open the door. Blodger springs out, barking with menace, nipping my heels and chasing me away. The fish supper slips from my hands as I try and bat his jaws and teeth away and the bottle falls out of his pocket and smashes. Blodger falls on his prey and pounces on the fish and chips. But the hacking cough continues to come from the toilet. Blodger, briefly, look up growls as I get within kicking distance, pushing my back against the wall, I give him a wide berth and take a look-see inside the slanted open door of the toilet. The dripping cistern is Angela’s only company. Full of scattered papers, tins and debris which wind and rain blew in. Drookit wet and dirty, eyes stuck so far in her head like two wild cats keeking out of a hole she looks back at me coughing and coughing. ‘Whit are you daeing here?' I ask. 'It’s bloody freezing.’
Blodger making short work of the meal slinks past, and I step back, just in case, but it ignores me and pushes its head into Angela’s midriff. She cuddles into the dog, shivering, dressed for summer. racked with coughing and sobbing all at the same time as she speaks. ‘Cause she says she hates me, grabbed my arm and flung me oot the door.’
Angela hold her arm out, peels back the sleeve of her print dress, to show the black and yellow of bruising, but with the light I can’t quite make it out and I leans in to get a better look Blodger growls and I spring backward. I try cajoling her out. ‘Don’t be daft. You’re mum doesnae hate you. C’mon I’ll take you up the stairs and we’ll get it sorted. If you stay out here any longer you’ll get the death of cold.’
Angela shakes her head and slumps down onto the dog. ‘My mum hates me. She said she wishes I hadnae been born, because that was the only time she was ever happy.’ Her voice goes up the scales and she coughs even harder, if that’s possible. ‘She wishes I was deid,’ she adds in a melancholy note.
I know I need to do something but I’m not sure what. I pull the Curlywurly out of my pocket. Holds it out and wave it in front of her, hypnotising her with a chocolate delight. ‘C’mon don’t be daft. She’s only kiddin’ you on. Your mum loves you.’ And I find there is a hitch in my voice and I stand a little straighter. ‘The same as my mum loved me.’ And I end with an emphatic. ‘At least you’ve got a mum.’
Angela stands up and reaches out and grabs the Curlywurly. She rips the wrapper open with her teeth and chews a bit, which stalls her coughing, breaks off another bit and holds it over Blodger’s mouth.
‘You’re no’ supposed to feed dog’s chocolate,’ I say, outraged that it had ate all my chips and now it was eating my Curlwurly as well.
Blodger snaffles the chocolate. Angela looks at me, equally unimpressed. ‘How no’? He likes it.’ Blodger and Angela seem like one body, with any number of legs, as they emerge out of the murky cubbyhole. Angela feeds it another bit of my chocolate and kisses its cold nose. I take off my jacket and drop it over Angela’s shoulders, but stay well out of the road and lead the way. The dog follows Angela up to the first landing.
I ask and tell her, ‘You cannae bring that thing up the stairs with you?’
Angela feeds Blodger the last of the Curlywurly. She kisses its nose again. ‘Go on son.’ Angela gives the dog a cuddle and points down the stairs and shoves its flank. I expect it to ignore her, as it does everybody else, but the dog scampers downstairs. Angela takes my hand and I swing her arm in the way she likes as we climb to the top landing.
I try chapping her front door, but her mum, Karen doesn’t answer. Angela is watching me shivering and coughing, and she’s such a small thing. I’m not really sure what to do next. ‘You can come into mines for a minute,’ I suggest.
Angela perks up and pipes up, ‘Will you read me the story about the princess?’
I cross the landing, turn the handle and push open the front door and step inside the hall.
Angela hangs back, outside. ‘But whit about your da? Won’t he be angry?’ she says in a small voice. ‘He’s always angry.’
That makes me laugh and forget how hungry and cold I am. ‘Don’t worry,’ I tell her, ‘he doesnae wait mair than five minutes for anybody or anything but booze. He’ll be gone. And you’ll be long gone by the time he gets in. He’ll be pissed.’