The floor was cool. Diamond-shaped terracotta tiles were bordered by smaller tiles in black and white and blue.
‘It’s beautiful,’ thought Debbie, her hot cheek pressed against the cool of the floor. She had dozed off to sleep on the floor of the pub’s toilet and had woken peacefully. She felt so comfortable, the toilet was above her, the floor was beautiful and the door was locked.
‘A little privacy, is that too much to ask?’
Clearly it was as she registered that the vaguely irritating sound was someone pounding on the door.
‘Debbie, you’ve been in there ages. C’mon bab, you awright?’
Debbie was awright, she would be even more awright if that stupid cow went away. That wasn’t going to happen though.
The pub was about to lock up. She’d coughed her guts up, ‘all that money down the pan.’ Her sister was banging on the door in that, I’m so much better than you, way. Somehow she was going to have get up and walk out as though she was perfectly fine.
How she actually got from the toilet floor to the warm tarmac of the pavement was a mystery to her, there were so many blanks in her mind, best to live in the moment she found.
It must be late, they weren’t in the pub, but the ground was so warm. ‘It’s summer,’ she said, to no one in particular.
An irritating voice responded, ‘It’s one o’clock in the bleed’n morning too. C’mon you lazy cow, you can’t sleep there, we’ve got to get home.’
Something was tickling Debbie’s nose. Fluff, dust, acrylic. It wasn’t pleasant. Her face hurt. She imagined her cheek against a cool tile. That first flash started the psychedelic mind show of images from her night out. She was shouting in a man’s face, black fog rolled in, and she welcomed the blank. A new picture jarred into position, she was kissing someone, not that old bloke from next door? She shuddered and rested in the comfort of another cloud of black fog. She recognised this fluffy stuff. It was her bedroom carpet. What had she been thinking to buy such a monstrosity? Had she bought it? Was it already here when they moved in? She was fishing for the right answer when the door creaked open and a small girl in a flowery nighty appeared bearing a mug.
‘Here’s your tea mum.’ The mug loomed large before her tiny rose of a face.
Debbie summoned a smile from the depths and murmured, ‘Thanks love, pop it down.’
The start of another day.
Debbie and her girls lived in the last house in the street. On one side of them was Mardy Margaret and Sullen Sid and on the other, the world. The bank of the hill stretched down to a road which ran alongside the motorway. There were brambles, gorse and tiny scrubby trees growing on the hill. There was just enough of a clearing near the top for the pony that her ex had got the girls.
The pony was a bad idea and she was waiting for Stevo to pick it up and take it away. She’d put an ad in the paper, but no one had called round to see it, there was no way she could sell it and no way she could look after it.
Stevo was her ex. ‘He’s so pretentious,’ she’d told her mate, Mari, up the street. ‘He told the girls they could have a pony and learn to ride. Then he dumps this shaggy creature at the end of the street. He’s tied the poor thing to a stake. That bloke from the association gave me hell, said that I didn’t have the right to graze livestock on that land. Said he’d get the RSPCA on me, like I even wanted the thing. I said he could have it for twenty quid, but he wasn’t interested.’
Mari remembered Stevo when he had lived with Debbie. A squat, neckless man. The couple had looked incongruous together, how had they ever met? Mari knew not to ask Debbie questions, she couldn’t follow them.
Debbie was in a chatty mood that afternoon. ‘His mum’s got a junk shop and they call it an antique shop. Most of the stuff in there is nicked or rubbish, but he tells people he’s in the antiques business.’
When she and Stevo had first got together Debbie would help out in the shop, and she was good. She had the sort of charm that made anyone she spoke to feel that she really liked them, that she could see something special in them. She dealt with the scallies with a twinkle in her eye, but she was tough, they never got much money out of her. But still they loved to go back. Debbie with the laugh in her eyes, the ample bosom and always the whiff of promise that she might offer something more.
She was good, but she and Stevo’s mother did not see eye to eye. ‘She’s got the bleed’n nerve to call me common, like she’s never looked in a mirror.’
Stevo still slinked along the street once a week in his old jag. He took his daughters out and always had a little business for Debbie.
Sometimes he came in the work van. The back door slid up and inside was an Aladdin’s cave of objects.
Debbie always had something sitting in her lounge on sale. She was queen of the small ads. She’d had some good stuff, pianos, a juke box but it was the fruit machine that brought that little earner to an end. The police called in. It was illegal to sell gambling machines in this way, there were laws apparently.
Debbie was amazed that they actually paid police officers to read the small ads.
‘Well, we do and we know you’ve got something in the paper every week.’
‘Not a crime is it?’ She’d twinkled at the officers, but they weren’t impressed.
Debbie’s sister had stayed with her while she was waiting for her inheritance to be sorted out. Sharon was, in the words of the Sun, a stunner. At 23 her modelling days were over, she’d made some bad choices and had done a spell of time.
She’d married the lovelorn man, Ashley, who had visited her every week. He’d passed her the pills and powders that had made her incarceration more bearable. She had promised him they would be together forever when she got out.
When she did get out they bought a nice little new build in the suburbs. Sharon was going out of her tree after a week.
Ashley’s death had been on the news. Trains delayed because of an incident on the line.
‘How sad,’ Mari had said.
Sharon had taken a long drag on her cigarette.
‘How stupid,’ Sharon looked irritated, ‘I can’t go home now. I just want everything sorted so I can move on.’
She did, fairly quickly, in a sporty little red job.
‘Sharon was always the one with the looks,’ Debbie was uncharacteristically melancholic. ‘I was the one with the personality.’
‘Much good that did either of you,’ thought Mari.
Debbie was usually up-beat though. Drink helped and adventure. She found adventure everywhere, even at the bingo.
She went to bingo every week, sometimes she won enough to pay for her drinks all night. But even if she didn’t win anything she always had a laugh.
You were supposed stay quiet while the numbers were called; it was like being in the library or church. The expert players had sheets of numbers spread across the table and their eyes darted speedily across them, pens and stampers hovering in anticipation.
Debbie always started as one of these experts, but after several Breakers and a few barley wines the silliness of it all gave her the giggles. She loved to wind the others up. It sometimes got to the point that she was asked to leave. She couldn’t help laughing as she protested that she should get her money back, and the bouncers always gave her a wink as they locked her on the outside of the glass door.
She liked to go to bingo with Mari. Mari was a case, she never sat down when the calling started, but wandered around putting money into fruit machines and stroking the flock wallpaper.
Mari was with her that night when the caller put out a special announcement for her, ‘Will Debbie Robinson go to the office? There is an important message for her.’
Debbie had racked her brain to try to squeeze out any reason why picking up the message might be a bad idea. Nothing came, but she knew that didn’t mean anything.
When she came back she was pale and quiet. ‘Let’s go out for a fag,’ she suggested to Mari.
They had sat on the concrete steps outside and smoked and sipped on their Breakers.
‘My mom’s dead.’ As she spoke the words they became real. ‘I’m not surprised.’
Mari was uncertain what to say. ‘Was she ill?’
‘No. Well, sort of. She is, was, an alcoholic. I haven’t seen her for a long time. I won’t see her now. Strange.’
‘Who told you?’
‘My brother, he always goes round once a week to give her some money. This time she was dead.’
‘Do you, do you want to go home, or something?’
Debbie took a drag on her cigarette and a long gulp from her can.
‘Nah, no point. I’ve got another line to play too,’ she tried to twinkle, but didn’t really pull it off.
Debbie was finding it more and more difficult to make a little money on the side. She was drinking more than she could earn and forgetting more than she could remember.
She had to fall on her old standby, her charm. There was plenty of tutting in the street, but Debbie could outstare anyone, and at least she looked after her girls, they were always well-turned out and plump and healthy.
Each evening Debbie would leave two small towers of coins on the kitchen counter for her daughters. They knew the morning routine: wash, dress, make mom a cuppa and bring her fags and lighter. Have cereal for breakfast and wash the bowls and spoons up. Take the coins, leave the door on the latch, play out the front but don’t talk to strangers. Spend the coins when the van comes round, no bubble-gum.
Debbie was a good mother. She had prepared her girls well for survival. They were stout, undemonstrative, with steady, straight gazes. Nothing seemed to faze them. They knew what was dangerous and how to judge situations.
They would sit on their tricycles on the pavement, their fat little legs pumping up and down when a visitor came to call. They were safe to go around the block, as long as they didn’t go into the road. They looked out for each other.
The milkman would call with a crateful, three pints, three bottles of pop and a bag of baking spuds on the top, sometimes a pint of cream or block of cheese. He slipped through Debbie’s front door feeling like a cliché.
The net curtains twitched.