My mother has come to visit. To help us move into the flat. She shouldn’t be doing it really, there and back in a day. The stress, the strain, the expense. Nobody needs it at her age. But there’s nowhere for her to sleep.
She says ‘I’m sure you’ll get a new job soon.’
It’s hard to see quite how. When I can’t afford the childcare. I have to be here in the morning to give the boys their breakfast. Sonny, Kit and Billy Kirkby. Back again by half past three to pick them up from school.
She says ‘Is she paying you for having Billy?’
‘In a way. She waived the deposit and postponed the first month’s rent.’
‘So she hasn’t really paid you anything.’
‘It’ll help us through a sticky patch.’
My mother looks around the apartment. Searching for something positive to say. It isn’t easy. Her daughter has certainly been making some interesting decisions.
She says ‘Shouldn’t the government pay your rent? If you’re a single mother and unemployed?’
‘It isn’t quite that simple.’
‘This isn’t the moment for false pride. If you’re entitled to it, take it. You’ve paid enough tax through the years.’
‘She’ll only take the rent in cash.’
She says ‘Will the boys still get into St Peter’s?’
‘Of course they will.’
I can’t bring myself to tell her that I didn’t think to check.
Bruno pops in for coffee.
I say ‘It’s a bit soon to be checking up on me. Do you want to have a look around? Make sure I’m not sub-letting or growing dope or keeping pets?’
He says ‘Do you want to stop being such a complete and utter bitch?’
I say ‘So why are you here? Some sort of penance? Or did you come to gloat?’
‘I thought you might need help unpacking. I was operating under the delusion that you and me were friends.’
‘We might have been. Until you started sleeping with the enemy.’
He looks tired. Bored. Indifferent.
He says ‘I want the same things you do. Security, a home. Someone who’s not ashamed of me. Who doesn’t look down on what I do.’
So not an unemployed single mother with a spurious moral conscience and a tiny rented flat.
I say ‘So does she know about your other job?’
‘Of course she does. She’s very supportive. In any case, she’ll get her cut.’
‘In return for board and lodging. Twelve per cent of everything I earn.’
‘Linda Kirkby’s going to pimp you out?’
‘It’s a business arrangement. She’ll do the bookings and the paperwork. And all the VAT returns.’
‘You earn enough from prostitution to merit VAT?’
‘And the fitness training. And the extras.’
‘The extras?’ I say faintly. I’m not sure I want to know.
‘Weight loss pills. Viagra. A load of other products that are a bit more cutting edge.’
‘You mean illegal?’
Irene’s legacy lives on.
I say ‘I hope you’re not planning to use my cottage as a house of ill-repute.’ I don’t like the way I sound. Awkward, prim, old-fashioned.
‘We’re using Rosalind’s house for business. We may as well get good use from it before we knock it down.’
Bruno’s speciality. Making use of wasted space.
‘I admire your capacity for multi-tasking.’ I say stiffly. I still sound like a school prefect. Like the kind of person I would never want to be.
‘It’s hard work.’ Says Bruno. ‘We could use some extra help.’
Bruno grins. And then he says ‘So how’s it going with you?’
‘Oh you know, I’m surviving. I’m not shagging a psychopath or selling sex for cash.’
‘Good for you.’ He says. ‘And how’s that working out?’
The School Admissions Officer is trying to be patient. She has been clear, concise and helpful. She has explained the situation. She is sympathetic, understanding. But it’s not within her power to bend the rules.
We’re in the catchment area now. But we won’t be in the future. Not once they’ve built those houses. Eighty-seven households with direct access to the High Street. They’ll have to redefine the catchment. They can’t predict the boundaries. Not with any certainty. Not until they know how many children have moved into the estate. But she’s pretty sure that Milton Row won’t make the final cut.
I think of all the things that I have failed to give my children. A two-parent family. A garden. Space to kick a ball. A decent education. Lester’s words are echoing in my head. I have made some bad decisions, been too easily distracted. Failed to focus on the job.
Billy Kirkby is waiting for his macaroni cheese.
Kit says ‘How come you’re always round at our house?’
Billy says. ‘It isn’t yours, it’s ours.’
‘Well,’ says Kit, ‘your house is really our house.’
Billy says ‘You don’t own it. You’ve got a mortgage. It belongs to a bank.’
Spoken like a fully paid-up member of the property-owning classes.
‘You don’t own this flat either.’ Kit hits back. ‘It belongs to your Great-Grandmother.’
‘It did. But now it’s ours. My mum’s inherited a fortune.’
Kit says ‘It’s just a flat.’
Billy says ‘I’ve inherited as well.’
The boys regard him with new interest.
‘Fifty pounds.’ Says Billy proudly.
The boys are visibly impressed.
‘The funny thing is.’ Says Billy. ‘She talked to me about her will and she never mentioned it at all. She told me I was going to get that poster.’
He points towards the poster in a clip frame propped up beside the fridge.
Kit says ‘What’s Tangee’s Lips in Uniform?’
Sonny says ‘Is it Lipstick?’
The boys begin to giggle. Billy looks affronted.
I say ‘Take it if you want it. It’s going to the dump.’
Billy grows increasingly uneasy. He doesn’t like the tenor of this conversation. The levity. The absence of respect.
He says ‘My Great Grandmother was a Very Important Person.’
The boys look disbelieving. They saw Irene once or twice. She just looked frail and old.
‘She had a Very Important Job.’
The boys are losing interest. Fiddling with their forks.
Billy hates to lose an audience. Takes after his Great Grandmother.
He knows he shouldn’t say it, but he simply can’t resist.
‘They said she was a nurse. But she was much more important.’
I say ‘There’s nothing wrong with being a nurse. They do a very important job.’
Billy does his special voice. The voice he uses when he’s being someone off the telly.
‘She was Director of Eugenics.’ He says grandly.
It’s the first time he’s ever said the words out loud. He likes the way it sounds.
I say ‘I’m not sure that’s something to be proud of.’
I want to say ‘And your mother is a pusher and a pimp.’
I dish out the macaroni cheese. There’s no way Billy Kirkby’s going to get the crispy bit on top.
My mother waits for Billy to leave before she dishes out her presents. Two tapestry cushions this time. A cross section through a cauliflower. Pain-staking; detailed; accurate. Like a botanical print. The other is more abstract. A jewel-like colour palette. A zig-zag pattern with a blip; a short sharp disruptive nodule protruding from the jagged line.
Sonny says ‘What’s that wrong bit?’
‘I copied the pattern from my cardiogram.’ She says, reaching for her coat. ‘That bit there… that’s when I knew I was in trouble.’
I say ‘You’ve produced a premonition of your own mortality in tapestry?’
She says ‘It’s good to face your fears.’
The boys look mildly perturbed.
‘It’s much less hassle then counselling. And you can sit on it as well.’
She is heading for the door. She needs to catch the last coach home.
Sonny says ‘Why can’t Granny stay the night?’
I say ‘There isn’t any room.’
‘Why can’t we live in our house?’
‘The Kirkbys live there now.’
Sonny turns to his grandmother. Adopts a solemn tone.
‘Mummy gave our house away.’
I say ‘That’s not quite how it happened.’
Though now I come to think of it, I think perhaps it is.
Kit still has terrors in the night.
He wakes up wild-eyed, screaming.
I have my terrors too. I dream that I am screaming and that nobody can hear. I dream of babies burning on the bonfire. I dream of May McGinty with her pushchair on the pier. There is a darker fear that stalks my slumbers; haunts my sleep. That I don’t scream at all. That I stand by in stoic silence as my family falls apart.
Sonny sleeps his father’s sleep. Deep, untroubled slumber. He wakes up every morning revived, refreshed, renewed.
Kit says ‘I want my Daddy’.
I say ‘I know. I’m sorry.’
He says ‘I want my Mummy.’
I say ‘I am your Mummy Fella. This is the best it gets.’