the things that we buy and don't know why?
The thought came like a First World War telegram – he assumed that she’d thought his family were marvellous.
His mother was short and plump as a cushion, grey roots showing in her hair. Mrs Taylor earring and broaches and necklaces jangled, all in bright Woolworth colours. She stood at the door waiting for us to arrive.
The twins stood behind their mother and stared at her. ‘Kissy, Kissy,’ said one, leaning and touching shoulders against the other, holding the palm of her hand to her forehead like an out of work actress. Then kissing the back of her hand leaving a red lipsticked mark. Both twins seemed to have used a whole tube. And if any boy kissed them—which seemed highly unlikely—they would be stuck by a waxy taste, and need to haul glued lips away. The twins hadn’t quite worked out the rudiments of how to apply makeup. Rouge and powder were applied like cement and mortar. Carol smiled at them, over their mother’s head, which seemed to encourage their antics.
‘Oh, I love you so much,’ said the other, her voice, rising into laughter and dissolving into shared giggling that they found funnier with each intake of breath, collapsing into hysterics.
Gerry had warned her they were a handful. Cheesecloth blouses and matching print dresses fought to contain oversized adolescent frames. They had the same spiky ginger hair as their brother and pale freckly skin.
Gerry nipped past his mum and sister and disappeared up the hall, and left Carol and his mum at the door. He didn’t bother with formal introductions. Mrs Taylor took her hand and smiled.
Mrs Taylor for all her doughy features was a plain speaker. ‘You’ll be the girl that he got into trouble.’ It wouldn’t have surprised Carol if she touched her forehead and there was a pimply sign –sold- growing through the skin. Mrs Taylor continued on in the same tone familiar from B-movies, ‘We’ve not got much but we do know right from wrong. And if you get somebody in trouble- then you marry them.’
Mrs Taylor smelled of fag smoke and eau de cologne. They lived in a two-in-a-block with the garage at the side, music spilled out into the sweeping rain from the upstairs of the house next door. UB40’s ‘I-am-a- one-in-ten,’ she recognised the lyrics and upbeat-downbeat feeling of doom. Mr Taylor washed and polished a car that was on blocks. Gerry had let her in on this. Some sort of family joke and tradition. He’d even laughed when telling her. Giving her the inside gossip as she’d soon be part of the family. Carol wasn’t very good at that kind of thing. Didn’t know what kind of car, or engine size, but she could see it was rusting red. Mr Taylor was lying diagonally under it on a trolley. She wondered how his swollen body had got under the blocks and if he could somehow deflate his belly to get back out. His head was a bald fuzz of red hair, round the ears, encased in a torn tan coloured boiler suit that was a grime and grease roadmap, with a red wool jumper poking through.
‘Quit that jumpin’ about, and behave yourself,’ said Mrs Taylor, turning to warn the twins behind her, before inviting Carol inside. Mrs Taylor took Carol’s coat from her in the hall. ‘Very nice,’ she said, sniffing, handing it to one of the twins and telling her, ‘go and put it somewhere safe’. The two twins laughed, and bounded up the stairs in tandem. Carol could imagine them tugging at her coat to see who got the first turn in searching through her pockets and lining. She clung to her bag.
Mrs Taylor scratched under the nylon material of her large breasts, the noise more irritating than the sight. The hall light was on, and it accentuated the battleship greyness and scarring of the walls and Carol was sinking into the grey smell of the house.
‘You want a fag?’ Mrs Taylor dove into the pockets of her coverall, pulling out a packet of twenty Mayfair and holding them out like an offering of beads to the natives.
‘I don’t smoke,’ said Carol.
‘Well, at least that’s something.’ Mrs Taylor put a cigarette in her mouth and made sniffing noise as she lit up. ‘You better come through, dinner won’t be long. None of that fancy muck. I’ll just need to heat it up. Pizza and chips.’
‘That would be fine.’ Carol followed Mrs Taylor into the living room.
Gerry was sprawled in the faux-leather seat by the window, pizza and chips in his lap, the Dukes of Hazard blaring out from the telly he was watching. He turned and stared at Carol. Then he glanced over at the dog enthroned in the chair by the fire. Underneath the fug of fag smoke, two bars were on throwing out a stifling heat. His mother disappeared into a waft of grease from the kitchen.
‘Down,’ shouted Gerry to the dog. It was some kind of mongrel, a bushy house-mat with ears and eyes. ‘Get down Dusty.’ The dog looked up at Gerry and then its head fell, its ears flattening, ignoring him.
Gerry held out a chip, a morsel for the dog. Dusty lifted its head, roused itself and slid off the chair, following the worn rat-runs of carpet from one chair to another, a flowery pattern that disappeared under the couch. There was a plastic bag filled with god-knows-what plonked on one the seats on the couch. Carol made to sit down on the seat on the other orange cushion, behind Gerry’s, but he chided her, ‘sit there, that’s the good seat.’ There was a sense of urgency in his voice. He’d already took a drag from the fag from the ashtray balanced on the arm of his chair and was chewing on the chip he’d held out as bait for the dog. Dusty had turned and was pitter-pattering back to its chair.
‘For God sake, hurry up,’ said Gerry. It was a race and Carol was losing.
Glad she had lost. The dog didn’t smell too healthy.
‘What you sitting there for?’ Gerry briefly turned his head, before giving his full attention to the Dukes of Hazard.
Carol sat primly her legs shut, bag at her feet and her hands folded in her lap. The dog jumped down from its chair and ambled over in a half-hearted attempt to get patted. It sniffed at her high heeled shoes, its yellowish doggish and hopeful eyes looking up her dress. A growl came from its throat.
Dusty reminded Carol of Gerry. He pecked at her lips now like she was his great aunt and got quickly down to business under the bonnet of her dress and made some bagpipe noises with his mouth.
‘How’s that?’ he’d say.
‘Uhu,’ Carol would mutter.
They never spoke after that, until he was finished, it was one of the rules. Gerry had taken over her life like ground elder.
The Dukes of Hazard was near finished with the mandatory car chase. The twins peeked in the door at her and grinned. Gerry’s hair was thinning from the crown, Carol could see it clearly from where she was sitting. Sloping his shoulders he turned, his ball face pinking and peering at his fiancée. ‘You alright,’ he asked. ‘Dinner won’t be long – it’s my favourite.’
‘Fine,’ Carol said, kicking the dog, making it yelp, scramble backwards in fright and retreat to its chair.