I was playing in the school playground when I heard my dad whistle at me. He was standing behind the playground railings, beckoning me to come to him. I ran over to him smiling and pleased to see him.
‘Francie, go find your sisters and tell them they haven’t to go home after school, you’ve all to go to Brenda’s tonight for your tea.’
‘Why? Why you not at your work?’
‘Brenda’s going to feed you. The baby and Kenny are already there. Mum’s going to be busy, so I’ll come and get you later from Brenda’s. Got a wee Homer job I need to finish about 8. I’ll take you all home after that, okay.’
‘What’s mum doing? Why are we going to Brenda’s?’
‘Tell your sisters and I’ll see you about 8’
Brenda opened the door holding my 10-month-old baby sister. She was fat and heavy and could tell Brenda’s arms were tired. I held my arms out to take her, but Brenda shook her head and held the baby closer to her. As Pauline and Eileen strode past us and straight for the telly, ‘Francie or Eileen’ she shouted to us, ‘I need you do me a favour’ ‘Who’s the fastest runner?’
Uncle Jimmy was reading the newspaper and shouted over to his wife. ‘Brenda! See they still haven’t found anyone for that attempted murder yet. That’s four weeks now and police saying they still don’t have any leads.’
‘What attempted murder you on about?’
‘Francie’s faster,’ shouted Pauline.
‘Yeah, Francie’s faster.’
‘That bloke, beaten to a pulp all bound and gagged, attempted murder. The attempted murder in chimney lane,’ said Jimmy.
‘Right Francie you go,’ said Brenda. ‘I’ve run out of dry nappies, so you need to go home and get some more. Oh, right the guy that was there for four days think they found him just in time, poor bloke. Francie, take this key to let yourself in, be quick and run back and I’ll have your tea ready.’
‘Is my mum in the house?’ I asked.
‘Police have no leads or suspects’ said Jimmy lifting the paper. ‘It says here, he sustained such head injuries that he has no memory, but police have identified that the stockings found inside his mouth and used to tie him up were …African sunset, …. fucking bonkers. What do we pay the police for when they come up with crap like this.’
‘Tell your mum I’m sorry Francie, I wouldn’t do this unless it was desperate. So run as fast as you can. Do you know what Jimmy? I tell you this, I bet you it was an old woman that did it, there’s an old woman in there somewhere… don’t give me a stupid dirty look Jimmy Murphy.’
Uncle Jimmy closed his paper, tilted his head back and laughed. It wasn’t a real laugh, it was a loud long kid on laugh that had no niceness in it, saying something to Brenda without the words.
‘Francie, what you doing standing here when I told you to go?’
‘Honest to God Brenda, see the utter shite that comes out of your …how the fuck …an old woman… the police know nothing but you know….’
‘My gran wore African sunset stocking for years. Half the old grannies in this city have got African sunset on their legs, it’s an old… doesn’t show the varicose veins… strong and… really strong and lasts forever. I wear tights, rip like fuck… but men don’t know that… and if you need to tie somebody up quick and you don’t have a rope, and you can’t buy a rope ‘cos the shops are shut, …so it must have been after 6 at night….’
Uncle Jimmy interrupted her excitement with his kid on loud laugh. He used it to make her stop, and it worked, she stopped.
‘In and out quick Francie now, do you hear?’ said Brenda nudging me with her hips.
I could smell the blood the moment I entered the close. It got stronger as I climbed the four flights of stairs. I was hoping it would stop before I got to my door, but it didn’t. I put the key in door and opened it slowly, the smell of blood and something else hit my nose as I stood in our tiny hall. The house was quiet, and strangely dark. The smell came from the living room. I tapped and said, ‘Mum it’s me’ and shyly opened the door.
Mum was sitting in the darkness facing the fire with my father’s winter coat over her. The living room fire was blazing. Mum turned around and saw me. ‘What the fuck?’ she said with fear on her face and panic in her voice. She quickly grasped at the bundle of newspapers around her feet and scrunched them up.
‘What the hell are you doing here?’ she said throwing them into the fire. ‘What the fuck?’ she repeated, grabbing the poker, pushing the newspapers deep into the flames ‘Get out of here!’
‘Brenda said the baby needs more nappies.’
‘Jesus Christ…how did you get in here?’
‘Brenda gave me a key. She said she’s sorry but …’
‘Oh for fucks sake! The stupid… stupid bitch… Get them! Up there, on the pully’ she shouted. ‘Get them and get out of here.’ She turned her back on me, furiously gathering and filling the fire with the paper that surrounded her. The room glowed bright with the suddenness of all she was burning. I untied the pulley rope and let it fall from the ceiling enough that I could jump up and grab two nappies.
‘Mum are you okay?’
Mum hauled dad’s heavy coat higher onto her shoulders and arms. Then she widened them, so they looked like wings, like sparrows do in the nest to give warmth and protection, hoping that some of the tiny lives in the thin shells underneath them might survive and become the next generation. As she moved closer to the fire, she and her wings purposely darkened the room.
I let myself out.
I ran all the way to Brenda’s. She was dishing sausage and chips out onto plates. I followed her around the room. I waited until she had served everyone.
‘What’s up Francie? I keep banging into you, go and sit down!’
‘Brenda, I think my mum needs a doctor.’
Brenda didn’t look at me; she put the salt and vinegar in the middle of the table. ‘What makes you think that? she smiled.
‘I leaned into her again and whispered, ‘There’s blood everywhere.’
She stopped smiling and pulled me over to the sink away from the ears of my siblings. ‘What do mean blood?!’
‘Mum was sitting in the darkness; she had the big chair pulled in front of the fire. She had no clothes on, no knickers or anything, just her bra and my dad’s big coat over her. There were newspapers all over the floor, and in between her legs. The papers were covered in blood, with bits of like… liver, liver and lumps of… blubbery stuff. She was burning them when I went in and when she saw me, she got all angry and threw all the newspaper that had been in between her legs, that had the most blood on it, into the fire. That’s how I know she had no knickers on.’
Brenda turned over her shoulder. ‘Keep your voice down Francie.’ She turned on the taps and started washing some dishes.
‘So, what else?’
‘There was something in the fire, and I could smell it, I could smell it burning.’
‘Brenda I’m going to head for a few beers’ said Uncle Jimmy as he reached inside Brenda’s bag opened her purse.
‘Jimmy no, for fucks sake, leave my purse alone.’ He smiled as he pocketed the money and put on his jacket.
‘We’re skint Jimmy, don’t do this.’
‘I thought Doreen gave you a few bob for babysitting? You kids be good, and if you’re good, I’ll let your dad buy me a few beers tonight, and maybe Aunty Brenda will kiss my tickly bits when I come back.’
‘My dad’s not in the pub,’ said Eileen. ‘He’s doing a job in somebody’s house and getting us after it.’ ‘Is that right?’ said Uncle Jimmy.
‘Your tickly bits?’ ‘Do you really think after the day I’ve had …’ ‘See that…’ he laughed addressing us kids, ‘That’s why I married your Aunty Brenda’ closing the door behind him.
‘Honestly, that fucking man, turn my back for five minutes and that fucking man is out the door.’ ‘Right… so for Christ’s sake…so… that fucking man… you were telling me you could smell something Francie?’
‘Something was wrapped up in newspapers and burning.’
‘What did it look like?’
‘I’m not sure. Mum grabbed more of the newspapers and threw them on top of it, so that I couldn’t see it. She was really angry and kept shouting at me. She looked really tired and I could tell she’d been crying. Why was my dad not there?’
‘What else did you see?’
‘My dad should be with her if she’s crying.’
‘What else Francie?’
‘Nothing … just a smell.’
‘Smell like what?’
‘Like… meat or chi… I don’t know.’
Brenda put her head down.
‘I’ve never seen so much blood in my life.’ Brenda let out a long sigh.
‘Mum got a fright when I went in. She threw all the newspapers between her legs into the fire, that’s how I know she had no knickers on.’
‘Francie, did you see what was burning? Tell me the truth… Francie… It’s okay you can tell me.’
‘I didn’t see anything! Just paper.’
Brenda straightened herself. ‘Your tea’s on the table Francie.’
‘Where’s my dad?’
He’s coming for you all at 8.’
‘He needs to know about mum.’
‘Why doesn’t he get a doctor if he knows?’
‘Your mum doesn’t need a doctor… she’s doing everything right.’
‘I don’t know what you mean?’
‘She’s doing the right thing. The doctor doesn’t need to know.’
‘What do you m…’
‘How old are you, Francie?’
‘You’ll know what I mean when you’re older’ and she patted my shoulder.
‘Go get your tea.’