By: Michael Shawyer
Why did the post have to arrive so early? The postman whistling about the saints marching in while he bounced up the path like an animated stick insect. There was only one for number 25 and he checked his bag. Definitely one and he poked it through the flap like he was delivering a lottery cheque. It touched down on a grubby WELCOME HOME doormat, Linda sighing when the brown envelope landed. Brown envelopes never brought joy and she took hold between a finger and thumb. She opened the kitchen door and with a frisbee flick of the wrist sent the envelope spinning – hoping it would land in the cat litter.
“Go on, go on,” she urged but the envelope made an early touchdown, skidding across the table and stopping an inch from the edge. She flopped in a chair. The envelope had settled alongside a scrunched-up pack of Marlboroughs, and she finagled one out, clicking at the knurled wheel of a throwaway lighter.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake.”
She tried again, this time attempting to inflame her cigarette from the spark. Failing and she slid the chair in a double-footed scoot towards the oven. Twist. Click. Twist Click. Releasing a whoosh of instant warmth, her nicotine-stained fingers trembling while her lungs gorged on the smoke. An unwanted tear bubbled free and Linda smudged it with a fingertip. Like a prison break, others followed and the dam collapsed.
She ripped three sheets from the kitchen roll, snivelling and snuffling until she felt better. Ray, her live-in partner, was the cause of her angst – handier with his fists than his wallet. His false bonhomie had turned her only child, Paul, silent and secretive. At thirteen, abandoning his studies and wandering the streets. He eventually scrounged his way into Minty’s Scrapyard, working with Choc, the owner. He learned more about cars than he would ever know about Pythagoras but it fell apart when he was arrested for shoplifting. The magistrates sentencing him to three months in a detention centre.
Linda sniffled, one eye squinting from the cigarette smoke and the other glaring at the envelope. They never brought good news and she scrunched it in a ball, aiming for the bin. Hesitating. If I ignore it they’ll write again. Or knock on the door. Northern monkeys acting tough. Usually they were looking for Ray, who would scoot out the back door and over the fence.
Reluctantly she forced her finger under the flap and pulled out a single hand-written sheet. The opening line, ‘Dear mum’ had her gazing at the ceiling. Someone’s playing tricks. But she read on, each painfully formed word telling a story of mistakes angrily inked out. The frustration and fury of the author boiling from the page, pen gripped like a dagger and stabbing the paper – one laborious word at a time. She turned it over . . . Love from your
sin son Paul. A comma was needed but she didn’t care about punctuation.
“Holy Mary mother of God,” she whispered. “My boy has learned to write!”
Cigarette ash tumbled down her front as she returned to the first line – ‘Dear Mum, I bin here too munfs and won to go.’
“Love him,” and lighting another cigarette, inhaling like she’d surfaced from a minute underwater.
She paced, the small kitchen four steps wall-to-wall. About-turn. Her brain fizzing on the nicotine and she pushed the letter in her pinafore pocket. Shaz’ll love this. Sharon was her best friend and next-door neighbour. No children of her own and a soft spot for Paul. Linda glanced at the clock. Two after eight. She checked the kitchen, smirking at the thought of Ray’s frustration when he came looking for a smoke – imagining him flicking at the empty lighter. He wouldn’t have the gumption to use the stove.
She shuffled along the passage, past the stairs and clicking the front door open. On the overgrown lawn, a once-proud gate lay dead and twisted. Another victim of Ray after eight pints of lager. She flip-flopped along the concrete path to her neighbour’s back door, her nose wrinkling at the miasma of stale beer, takeaway food, cigarettes.
“Sharon, Shaz?” There was no reply and she eyed the litter. Wine bottles, ashtrays. Cans and crockery. The noodles from a half-eaten Chow Mein straggling over the side of a foil container like worms abandoning ship. She filled the kettle, her heart racing when she pictured her son at a desk writing. She’d forgive him the swear words which no doubt preceded each inking out.
The kettle filled and on the gas. Twist, click, whoosh. Similar flame, different kitchen. She excavated two mugs, tutting at the half-drowned cigarette butts bobbing on the surface. Rinse, wipe, and green-pad scouring lipstick from the rim of one. The bottles clinking when she placed them in the recycling bag.
My boy, who’d have thought it? She flipped the lid from a tea caddy. The tin packed to the brim with Tetley’s on a string. Two clean mugs, teabags untangled and dangled. I miss the old brown teapot, Linda conjuring a picture of the pot wrapped in one of her mother’s homemade tea cosies and quietly brewing the leaves to earthy perfection. A cloud of red lingerie burst through the door, Sharon’s head wobbling on the top, peroxide hair stuck up in a freshly groomed Catweazle and the kettle whistled appreciatively. Like a builder on a scaffold.
“Oh mate what time is it?” Sharon croaking like an amorous frog. “What a night! That Tony’s a lively one.”
That Tony was the latest in a line of Tinder hopefuls being auditioned by Sharon seeking a substitute for her husband. He was serving ten years in the scrubs, maybe seven if he behaved himself but that was doubtful. Hair-Trigger-Harry, as he was known down at the Baker’s Arms, would fight a cracked mirror if it looked at him the wrong way.
“Give us a drag,” Sharon oblivious to Linda’s goggle-eyed stare at the pink fluffy handcuffs hanging from her wrist. “Whatcha doing here Lindy Loo? It’s a bit early. Ray, is it that damn Ray again?”
She manoeuvred her generous backside, hovering over a metal-framed chair and lining up for the final approach. Good to go and squeezing between the arms, sighing at a smooth touchdown. “Light us one up babe.”
Nausea and a hangover were fighting for attention while she wrestled with a bottle of painkillers, cursing and biting at the lid. “Bloody childproof caps.”
It sprang free and the tablets spilled on the Chow Mein. She picked out three, caught up in a nest of noodles and pushed the lot in her mouth. Glug, glug, glug. Washed down with nut-brown Tetleys. Linda passed the letter to Sharon, postmark uppermost.
“Oh, Christ on a bike, what’s he done now?” The handcuffs swinging while she fiddled the single page open, knowing it was to do with Paul. Her neighbour’s son serving three months for being a teenager. OK, sometimes a little shitbag but still just a teenager. They both knew three months was a holiday for his mum. Sharon hoping it wouldn’t be a chapter on a CV for Linda’s son.
“They taught him to write?”
Linda nodding and beaming like a lighthouse in a storm.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me, that’s your Paul’s writing?”
“It’s him right enough.”
Linda dragged her eyes from the handcuffs and a happy tear whizzed down her face. “I’m writing to the governor, ask if he’ll keep him another three months. Sort his reading as well!”
Sharon half-listening while she eyed the left-over Chow Mein. It tasted surprisingly good. Wouldn’t mind another mouthful, Linda’s words registering and she grinned, her smile morphing to a belly laugh and a pendulous breast burst from the nightgown.
“Stop, stop, stop,” Linda waving her hands at the bouncing boob. “Put it away.”
The passage door swung open. Tony in all his glory apart from a fancy-dress policeman’s cap perched on his head and a key to the handcuffs dangling from his fingers.
“Hello, hello, hello.” He winked. “What’s all this then?”
Four weeks later . . .
Paul pushed the front door and stepped in, through to the kitchen. Ray, hunched like an armadillo in the middle of the small room, absorbed in a creepy-crawly search of his chest hair. A string vest hung from his shoulders like a discarded Ena Sharples hair-net and Paul’s eyes travelled down. Ray’s oversized trousers were hoicked up in a ruche, last night’s tinned spaghetti bolognaise splashed down one thigh, a worm-like strand of pasta clinging to a trouser turn-up.
What had his mother ever seen?
“Where’s mum?” The sharp edge in his voice missed by Ray.
“Never mind where’s mum,” Ray’s lip curling. “Close the effing door with you outside it.” Scratch, scratch, scratch, his fingers, bunched up garden-rake style and scarifying three days of stubble. “You’re not wanted here.”
“Since when have you said who is or isn’t welcome in my mother’s house?”
“Since I’ve shown her who’s boss.”
Ray sneered as the back door swung open, Linda coming in from the garden. The laundry basket empty and a blueish swelling stretched the skin under one eye. She’d been building up a rage whilst hanging out the laundry, deciding for the umpteenth time she was done with his violence and she eyed the kitchen knives – imagining the largest one protruding from his neck. She dropped the basket, she could feel the knife in her hand. . .
Mum? She blinked at the upright, muscled teenager calling her mum. He looks familiar. . .
“I’ve missed you, mum. You get my letter?”
It’s my boy! Bloody hell he’s grown. His hair is so short! He stands up straight like a soldier.
“Yes, I read it every day. I’ve framed it, on the wall round at Sharon’s. Didn’t want him reading it.”
The swelling under her eye looked raw. Paul imagining the punch, feeling the pain and he came to the boil quicker than an empty kettle. But after three months of brutal discipline, he’d learned. The short, sharp shock prescribed by the magistrates an education in controlling his temper.
“You’ve been drinking?” He locked eyes with Ray.
“So what? I can do what I want, s’not your house.”
I’m gonna clump him. One from me and one from my mum. She won’t be his punchbag any longer. Maybe one from the cat as well.
“I’ve got something for you, brought it back. A Scottish tradition.”
“Let’s have it then, better be good. Szit whisky?”
Paul grabbed the string vest, scrunching chest hair and vest in both hands, wrinkling his nose at the sour body odour.
“Eeeyooouch, watch you up to?”
Paul’s head moved in a blur. A loud crack. Linda wishing she could do things like that.
“May doze, broke may doze.”
No one registered the wildly flapping cat door, Tigger bolting for the safety of the nearest tree.
“Forget your doze,” Paul warming-up for a second butt. “You’ll never touch my mother again.”
Linda flexed her head back and forth, mimicking her son. A louder crack this time, Ray unconscious before he hit the floor. Linda flipped, cavorting in a random war dance. “F**king bastard,” snatching the bread knife and jumping astride her tormenter. The knife clenched in both hands above her head.
“Bloody hell,” Paul grabbing her mid-stab and easing the knife from her grip. “Mum, mum it’s OK.”
She’d have sliced and diced him in seconds but for her son. “You’re safe mum, I’ve got you, you’re safe.”
“Let me go,” Linda struggling and reaching for the knife block. None were big enough to compete with her first choice but any would do, just one teensy-weensy stab.
“Let-me-go!” A bossy mum voice they had both forgotten and Paul smiled, kissing her face and brushing away a tear.
“It’s OK Mum, we’ve got this. Do you still want this toerag in the house?”
“I want him out. He can rot in hell.”
“Let’s do it then, we’ll move him out. Get his car keys and open the boot.”
Paul heaved the bully over his shoulder and edged through the door, his mother already standing behind the rusty Vauxhall Viva and checking up and down the street. She nodded and opened the boot. Paul smartly along the path and shrugging the body from his shoulder, The car bouncing when it landed, one leg flopped over the side and Linda pounced, slamming the lid. Her eyes gleaming at the loud boing when it bounced off the wayward limb. Almost as good as a teensy-weensy stab.
Paul pushed the leg in and closed the lid. “Keep an eye Ma, I’ll be two shakes.”
“What are you doing?”
“Hang on mother. Just hang on.” He ran indoors, skidding and picking up a knife. There were some fluffy handcuffs on the windowsill and he stuffed them in his pocket before pushing the back door and running along the path. He pulled at the tail end of the clothesline, cutting and coiling the offcut. Back through the house, his mother hovered by the car, looking as shifty as a shoplifter caught in the act.
“Put the kettle on mum, I’ll sort it.”
“Wha. . .?”
“Just do it, mum. I’ve got this.”
Paul wrapped clothesline around the body, tighter on the hands and ankles. He added the handcuffs. Ray trussed and oven ready. Lid closed and returning to the kitchen. Linda pacing. Her son filling his lungs with cigarette smoke.
“What Paul, what now?”
“Make the tea mother, take five. Want a ciggy?”
Linda doing as he asked, calling her ‘Mother’ twice was more than enough to win her acquiescence. And she did need a smoke.
“Get all his stuff Mum. We’ll put it in the car.”
Linda lit the gas, holding her hair out of the way whilst manipulating two cigarettes to the flame. She’d dusted the old teapot. It would be tea bags this time but proper tea later. From the corner shop. Shaz might come round for a cuppa and bring a few doughnuts. The clouds gave way to sunshine, beaming through the window and warming her face.
“There were some handcuffs mum, by the window?”
Linda looked across the room. The cuffs were gone. “They’re Sharon’s. Where are they?”
“On Ray,” he replied, and his mother choked back a laugh.
“What does Sharon want with handcuffs?”
“Don’t ask. I’m going to check we’ve got everything.”
In the car boot Ray’s eyes opened. Darkness. A stink of petrol. “Unghhh! What? Where?”
Dark. So damn dark. What’s that stink? Hang on. I’m f**king tied up! Ray wondering if debt collectors had caught up with him. The Bulgarians? He would be toast. They didn’t give second chances and urine trickled down his legs. He slammed his head against the lid, the repeated booming enough to waken neighbours in the next street, never mind Sharon next door and Linda jumped to her feet.
“Stay here mum,” Paul snatched a grubby string vest from the laundry pile, searching the street before opening the boot.
“What’s your game?” Ray hoping to bluster his way to freedom. “Let me out now or I’m gonna beat you to a pulp.”
Paul laughed. A throaty I-don’t-think-so laugh. “Open your cake-hole!”
He took a handful of Ray’s face, forcing the vest between his teeth.
“Hi Paulie, it’s been a long time. Want a cuppa? I’ve got jam doughnuts.”
The familiar voice of Sharon making the offer of doughnuts sound like a fresh-cream gateau from the Black Forest.
There was a stifled “Nnnnggf, nnnnggf,” from the boot and Paul casually closed the lid.
“This afty Shaz, I’ve got a couple of things to sort, you know, first day back an’ all.”
She leaned out, “Did I hear someone shouting?”
“Only me.” He winked, “Unless them at number twenty-three’s at it again.”
Mum and son sat at the kitchen table. Not a sign that Ray had ever lived there and they shared digestive biscuits with their tea. “Mum I’ll get a job, pay the bills. It’s time for a better life.”.
“What are you doing with it?” Linda gestured toward the front door and Paul grinned. Ray was now an it.
“I’ll ship it a long way from here. Choc’s always sending lorries to Scotland, and he owes me a favour. Couple of hours, mum. I won’t be long.”
Maxwell’s Silver Hammer was playing on the radio and Paul tweaked the volume, drowning the thumps and bumps from the boot. He cranked it higher, joining in the chorus. A corrugated iron fence bordered his left-hand side, coils of barbed wire along the top, Minty’s Scrap Yard. He steered through the gates. Choc plus two Alsatians greeting him.
“I need this one up to Birmingham, Choc. A bit quick.”
Choc grinning, “Welcome back,” and shaking his hand before climbing in the doorless cab of an ancient crane. Smoke billowed from the stovepipe exhaust as the engine clattered into life. The huge magnet clunked on the roof of the Vauxhall. Choc pushing and pulling at long, black-knobbed levers, lifting, swinging and dropping the car in the crusher.
Paul climbed alongside and opened the boot. He wrenched the lid back and forth until the hinges snapped.
“Oi,” his prodding rewarded with a muffled urnghh and he pulled the gag free, Ray blubbering. “Please don’t, please. I’ve got money.”
“No, you haven’t. Not anymore.” Paul flicked at a roll of notes he’d pulled from Ray’s pocket. “This is for my mum. You owe her. Now shut it. I didn’t say you could talk.”
The machinery rumbled, shiny hydraulic rams blocking out the daylight and Paul’s face an inch from Ray. He grinned and spoke slowly, “I want to hear you scream.”