By Mark Burrow
Auntie Martha didn’t want me in her place from the get-go.
She stood in the doorway, smoking a cigarette, dogs yapping from the living room, looking at me and dad like we were a couple of crack addicts. “What are those for?” she said, referring to the bags that dad was holding and the backpack slung over his shoulder.
“Martha, I need a favour.”
“Favours for you are way passed their sell-by-date.”
He mumbled and stared at his embarrassing, no-name trainers. I was only about ten or eleven but I already felt as if I was the grown-up and he was the kid.
“Dad wants me to come and live with you,” I said.
I remember the snarl on her doughball face.
“John,” snapped dad.
“Are you for real?” she said to him.
“Don’t ‘Martha’ me. Please tell me you’re joking? Couldn’t you have called first?”
“We can’t use the phone,” I said.
“John,” he shouted.
Martha sucked on the ciggie. “You been cut-off?”
Dad gave a nod. “I don’t have a pot to piss in.”
She laughed but it wasn’t the kind of laugh when you think someone is funny. “So was it the horses or cards?”
“Don’t be like that.”
“Am I off the mark then?”
He didn’t answer.
“Brian’s going to flip his lid.” She stepped out, forcing us to move aside, and stubbed her cigarette on the rough surface of the balcony and then flicked it over the side. We were four floors up and I wondered if it would land on a random stranger’s head. On the estate, me and my mates used to play a game of trying to spit on randoms from the top floor of the flats. We called it ‘bombing’. We’d make the sound of an old-skool bomb falling as the gob of spit drifted downwards towards someone walking-by. The funniest was to try and bomb a policeman. The shiny tit of their helmet was the bullseye.
“Horses or cards -- tell me,” Martha repeated, stepping back into her doorway and pulling a pack of cigarettes from a pouch at the front of her flowered apron.
“Cards,” dad said.
“You never learn.” She lit another ciggie.
“I don’t need a lecture when I’m potless.”
“Like I could be bothered to waste my breath after the times it’s happened.”
“It’s not like Brian doesn’t play too.”
“The difference is Brian wins more than he loses.”
“That's what he tells you.”
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing. Martha, please, I need to get out of here.”
She blew out smoke and picked at the skin on her fat lips. “So it’s like that is it?”
“I have to find work and pay back the money.”
“Good luck finding a job round here.”
He shrugged. “I know a bloke in Bristol who might have some work.”
“A bloke in Bristol?”
He didn’t speak.
“I don’t know.”
“So what do I tell Brian?”
“Will you look after my boy or not?”
He sounded whiney and desperate.
“Do I have a choice?” she said.
I was hungry and hoped she had food. All we’d eaten lately was cereal for breakfast with milk dad pinched from the milk float and then beans on dry toast and spaghetti hoops on dry toast and I was sick of dry toast.
“I can’t bring him along,” dad said.
To me, she said, “I won’t put up with any of your nonsense. I know what you’re like.”
“Oi,” said dad.
“No, he’s a sod and we both know it.”
He looked at me and then said to her, “I’ll make it up to you.”
“You never have yet.”
Dad gave me a kiss on the head goodbye. “Stay out of trouble.” He pinched my cheek and went to hug and kiss Martha.
“Get your beer breath away from me,” she said, rearing into her flat. “I can smell you from here. A stint in AA wouldn’t do you any harm either.”
He backed off and turned. I watched him walk along the balcony to the stairwell – the lift was out of order – wearing his donkey jacket and jeans, with a sports bag over his shoulder, heading off to who-knows-where. He stopped at the end of the balcony and blew me a farewell kiss. I felt a tugging inside of me, around the stomach area – it could’ve been the soul – and realised that he was running away and it would be ages before I saw him again. On the walk over, he had promised me that he was off for a short trip and would be back soon, but that was a lie. I still wonder if he actually believed his lies and whether that made them any less hurtful.
Martha took the lighter of my bags of stuff that dad had dropped on the balcony. I grabbed the heavy one and the backpack. We walked through the living room and kitchen, where dirty plates, cups and saucers were stacked in the sink. I saw flies zig-zagging above a bin that needed emptying. The dogs went hyper when they saw me, all six of them, barking and yapping and leaping up at me. She took me through to a hallway and I saw the stone floor was wet with puddles of dog piss. The central heating was on and whole place smelled of used bog roll that had been put in a microwave. She pushed open a door to a bedroom that was piled high with junk – boxes of clothes, cans of dog food, biscuit treats and poo bags, an exercise bike with no handlebars, dumbbells covered in dust, an exercise matt, Christmas decorations, used Advent Calendars, and Elvis Presley records, photos and plastic Elvis dolls.
The curtain rail was broken and hanging at an angle.
“Your bed’s under that lot there,” she said to me.
I put the bags down.
“Auntie Martha,” I said.
“Do you have any food?”
She grunted like she was angry. As if I reminded her of everything that was toxic in her existence. The opportunities missed. The bad luck and chances that had passed her by. “Tidy some of this up and I want you to mop the hallway and then I’ll see what I’ve got.”
I sat on the side of the bed in the junk room. I picked up a plastic Elvis doll. Moved his arms and made him do a dance.
Brian came home soon after and I listened to him and Martha argue and shout through the paper-thin council flat walls about me staying with them. It got darker and I rummaged through the old Advent Calendars and found chocolates to eat on the 8th and 21st. They only made me hungrier.
It was just me and Elvis in the room. We were a long way from Las Vegas. I wondered how you became famous. I knew kids on the estate and at school who wanted to be professional footballers and singers, rappers – sport and music were their escape hatches, where everybody could finally appreciate their brilliance and they’d never have to stress about money ever again.
The room filled with darkness. There was no bulb in the bedside lamp or ceiling light socket. Martha wasn’t going to bring me food or check in to see how I was doing. Even when I heard them finally go to bed, I knew I couldn’t sneak into the kitchen or go to the loo as the dogs locked in the hallway would bark and yap.
My twisting was on a whole different level that night.