I’d like to tell you about a delightful anthology of short stories which I’ve had a sneak preview of and that’s due to hit the virtual bookshops in the next few days. The Curious Little Book of Extraordinary Big Tales by Richard Hennerley is really quite something: a unique, highly imaginative and very new take on the Fairy Tale (or as the author whimsically terms it, the Faerie Tale).
And like all the best Fairy (sorry, Faerie) Tales, these little gems are Morality Tales too, in a biting, acerbic sort of way. They should appeal to children, but essentially these are Faerie Tales for grown-ups, with an unashamed political undertone. You may or may not agree with it, depending on your personal political leanings, but even if you don’t, it shouldn’t put you off. These are brilliant stories regardless.
As well as featuring Faeries, many of the stories also talk of deliciously evil, monstrous trolls, which are hilariously and colourfully described at one point and (with a sly satirical dig at a certain European country) wittily portrayed in the ‘running of the trolls’ in story five. I’ll never be able to read the word ‘troll’ on newspaper comment threads again without chuckling, damn you, Richard Hennerley!
The stories are written in a charmingly ‘archaic’ style, with much use of Capitalisation For Emphasis, which I really liked. Within this style there are various sub-styles, for example:
Story number two, The Ragged Man . . . (I won’t repeat in full the deliberately stylistically verbose titles, otherwise I’ll be here all day) and number eight, The Upstanding Lady . . . , are achingly and beautifully poignant.
Number nine, The Greedy One Percent . . . , is unashamedly anti-Establishment (indeed, this anthology generally is a bit like Private Eye, but in Faerie Tale form).
Number five, A most Ironic . . . and the final ‘bonus’ story about Wilhelmina (I love it!) the Dachshund are laugh-out-loud. They were for me, certainly. By contrast, number ten, The Devil in Anywhere . . . is Stygian-black.
But then again, the first story, The Lonely Young Girl . . . is absolutely gorgeous, as is the final proper Faerie Story, The Nature of Love . . . , which is a sort of Moral Summary of the collection.
I really enjoyed this sweet, funny, cleverly-written collection. For me it was entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure. It will definitely, I confidently predict, be my favourite short story collection/humorous book of 2015, if not, quite possibly, ever.
The end of the book provides a teaser for the author’s fiercely satirical essay on celebrity I Really, Really Want It, which is also an excellent book in my humble opinion.
Here, to whet your appetite, is one of the stories:
The Story of the Awkward Teenager who Fortuitously Discovered that he was an Angel
Once upon a time… many, many years ago in a world long since forgotten, there was a country called Anywhere. And in the land of Anywhere there was a fine and prosperous city called Anyplace, and in this city there lived an entirely Ordinary Teenage Boy who was about make some Quite Extraordinary Revelations.
Eddy, the boy in question, had just turned fifteen years old. Like many boys of that age, he was somewhat awkward, unsure of himself, insecure, clumsy, spotty, hormonal and a bit smelly. All quite ordinary and typical of the breed, really.
Sadly for Eddy though, he did have two Less Than Ordinary features. Firstly, he was, well, a bit chubby. In those days in the land of Anywhere, in the days before the corruption and depredations of the Greedy One Percent, chubby children were very rare as nutrition, fitness and health education for the young were Taken Very Seriously. Secondly, Eddy had a mop of flaming red, curly hair. Oh dear! In the land of Anywhere, curly red hair is supposed to denote (along with a tendency for Sociopathic Behaviour, so present in the Evil Bankers who would one day destroy the Anywhere but completely missing from Eddy) a Touch Of The Troll in the bloodline: something very undesirable in a land where Trolls are Much Feared And Reviled and held to be Murderers And Child Stealers (actually it is Faeries who steal Human Children rather than Trolls but that, as they say, is another story).
And chubbiness and red hair combined had added up to a very sad Childhood Experience for Eddy. Children, for all their Occasional Sweetness, are vicious pack animals. They instinctively sniff out the weak, the vulnerable and the Different and target them, their attacks unrestrained by empathy, a virtue not yet developed in their young minds.
So Eddy was a Friendless And Lonely boy. School for him was a kind of Hell. He had been subjected to years of Bullying And Name Calling, all along the lines of “ugly, fat, ginga minga Troll face.” He had begun to believe the lies the other children told about him and any fragile sense of Teenage Self-Confidence And Self-Esteem he might have had, had Completely Collapsed. He felt Isolated, Alone, Unloved, Worthless. To make matters worse, as he had no friends and was an only child, he had no-one to discuss his feelings with. He had tried talking to his parents, but they were far too caught up in their Own Lives And Careers to take seriously the Petty Concerns of a Silly Young Boy, so had proved less than helpful.
There was only One Consolation in poor young Eddy’s life. Every day after school, come Rain Or Shine and Without Fail, he would make his way down to the beautiful park in the centre of the city of Anywhere: the one generally considered to be not only the Most Beautiful in the city of Anyplace, but in the whole of the land of Anywhere.
Now if you’re a student of the history of the land of Anywhere, you’ll know that this is the self-same park in which, scarcely a year before our Eddy Squeezed And Elbowed his way into the world, the Ragged Man sang his Famous Song Of A Sorrow So Sweet, and where a large and impressive bronze statue (paid for by public subscription) was built in his memory.
And it was to this very statue that Eddy would be drawn. He would simply sit there, at the foot of the statue, in the shadow of the Great Ragged Man himself. For some reason that Eddy did not understand, he found comfort there. It seemed that when he was sitting quietly by the statue, his problems shrank away, became irrelevant, as though he were part of Something Greater And More Important. He was not to know, and a fifteen year old would not have the emotional vocabulary to describe such a thing, that the Ragged Man’s entrancing song (which had sent a convulsion of near Revolution through the land of Anywhere) was so entrancing because it was a song of a Love, Loss And Sorrow that was so Beautiful as to be Exquisitely Painful, nor that that Beauty had been crafted in and sung from the Glory Of The Man’s Soul. He could never have described, let alone comprehend, such things but Eddy’s own Soul did understand and found comfort in this spot. A Soul, after all, knows everything, from the moment God slides it into a body until the moment it leaves to make its final journey across a Broad, Bright Blue Sky.
One day, a bright summer’s day if I remember correctly, Eddy returned home from one his regular visits to the statue of the Ragged Man. His parents not having much to say to him (as usual) Eddy made his way to his room. In his room was a tall wardrobe. Inside this tall wardrobe was a long, full length mirror. Eddy kept it shut away there as he hated mirrors, hated seeing himself in all his ginger, flabby ugliness. But today, a Little Voice in his head told him to get that mirror out of the wardrobe and look at himself in it.
Which is what he did. Taking the mirror from the wardrobe, he propped it up against the door to his bedroom, stood back and looked at himself. He removed his shirt, trousers, shoes and socks and stood there in only his underwear, regarding his reflection. And he felt despair. For the other children were right: what an Ugly, Hopeless, Pointless creature he was…flabby, pale, ginger. Ugly, ugly, ugly. A true Son Of A Troll.
And upon that thought, Eddy’s shoulders began to itch in a most unusual manner and he stared, open-mouthed, into the mirror as they seemed to grow and swell in size, rising up to his ears and then, in a moment of pain that was at once Searing And Exquisite, his shoulders exploded into a Huge Pair Of Wings, wider than Eddy’s body and longer than he was tall. Eddy knew immediately what they were; they were quite clearly Angel’s wings. At this point a teenager in your world would have exclaimed something along the lines of OMG, WTF or LMFAO. Which is exactly what Eddy did, only in language and expression appropriate to Another World In Another Time.
Of course, Eddy should have been scared; it’s not every day you suddenly sprout a pair of huge Angel’s wings after all. But Eddy was not at all disturbed: he loved the look of his new wings, and he loved the look of himself with these Wings Of An Angel and as he stared at himself in the mirror he realised that his new wings made him feel hopeful and strong, optimistic and excited; feelings that had become strangers to him. He gave his shoulders a shrug and saw in the mirror that his wings Flapped Powerfully, so powerfully in fact that he could see the curtains reflected behind him fluttering in the draught they created and Eddy laughed out loud, in a bright, youthful way, a way that had also become a stranger to him.
But then something about Eddy’s mirror changed. It misted over; it began to glow with an inner light. It cleared, and Eddy saw in the mirror not his reflection, but the reflection of a man. He was a man of Unremarkable Appearance and Indeterminate Age, whose clothes were Poor And Ragged, only his eyes seemed to stand out in any way for they were large and of the Deepest, Most Striking Blue and had a quality that suggested that what they were seeing was Not Of This World, but something else, something far beyond. Eddy’s mouth, for the second time that day, dropped open, for he instantly knew who he was seeing in his mirror…he knew from his time standing by that statue in the park and from pictures in history books. He was looking at the Ragged Man. The Ragged Man looked back at Eddy with those stunning blue eyes, which seemed to the boy to be as Deep As The Ocean and As Open As The Sky, thanked him for his daily visits and said:
“Eddy, when I lived in your world I had a son of your age and I was not always the father to him I should have been and then, one day, it was too late for me to make amends for my failings. So let me speak to you now as I should have spoken to my son a lifetime ago. Never think you’re ugly or deficient or wanting, Eddy, and never listen to those who say you are. There will always be people who say these things, they are people who have lost contact with their True Self, with their Souls, and for them hatred and bitterness have become a way of life. They are lost and damned. Pity them and ignore them. You, Eddy, are fabulous and unique, for the Universe is bigger than you could ever realise, yet somewhere in all that vastness a collection of atoms believed strongly that you, Eddy, deserved to exist and they made a most amazing journey across the infinity of time and space and came together to create you. And once you had come into existence, God looked at you and saw you were a Thing Of Beauty and was so moved that he carved off a piece of himself and placed it inside you and that piece of God Inside, Eddy, is your Soul. What nonsense, then, to think you’re inadequate or lacking when your potential is unlimited for you hold within you all the Power And Mystery of the Universe and the Infinite Grace And Love of God. You truly are an Angel.”
The Ragged Man stopped speaking; smiled. The mirror once again grew misty and glowed. Again it cleared and The Ragged Man was no longer there; Eddy could see only his own reflection. And it was Eddy without Angel’s Wings. Ordinary Eddy…yet not so ordinary. For the Eddy looking back at Eddy was a new Eddy. A Strong, Confident, Unique boy, who, Eddy knew, would grow into a strong, confident and successful man. A boy who had travelled across the Unknowable Vastness of the Universe simply to come into existence, a boy who was filled with the Sacred Majesty Of God. A boy who was made of Love, who had a Soul inside him which was a piece of God. A boy who was an Angel.
The Curious Little Book of Extraordinary Big Tales is published on 16 February.
Here now is the next chapter of my new novel Secret Shame
Julie held the little white bundle to her breast as the tiny rosebud mouth clamped on and began determinedly sucking. It wasn’t yet her proper milk of course, not for a few days, just the strange yellowy colostrum, the beestings, whatever that was (something to do with building up the baby’s immune system, so the midwife had said, although she hadn’t really understood) but whatever it was, little Emma was keen to have her fill, so she was. What an amazing thing instinct is, she thought. Just a few hours old and she knows exactly what to do. But then of course she would have to. You could coax the nipple between those little lips but obviously you couldn’t tell her to suck. She just had to know; do it automatically, as a natural reaction. Otherwise, unless the medical staff fed her artificially, she’d simply fade away through lack of sustenance. Not that it would come to that of course; she was determined to persevere with the breastfeeding this time, not give up in despair and reach for the Formula as she had with the fractious Stacey, who never seemed content with what she had to offer.
But then, of course, that last time things had been far from ideal. There’d been all that other stress to contend with as well, all that emotional pain. This time would be so much better. She would be a brilliant mum, just you wait and see!
She settled back against the pillows, sighed contentedly and watched her daughter feed, stroking her cheek with a forefinger. So incredibly soft and delicate, it was. Like a puppy’s belly. Derek had left three hours ago to retrieve Stacey from her adoptive granny, Irene. What a treasure she was, like a mammy, almost. And what a support he’d been! An absolute tower of strength and dependability. She’d thought that morning, an hour after Derek left for work, that she was starting, feeling the first familiar twinges of contraction and had been straight on the phone to the station to get a message to him, as he’d told her to do when the time came. And he’d got back home within forty minutes, assured himself that she was okay and would be quite a while yet, then shot off again to collect Irene (who’d offered to look after Stacey any time of the day or night, bless her) and pick her up from school.
Then the unhurried journey to Crown Street and the Women’s Hospital, and the hours of waiting as the labour took it’s equally unhurried course and the contractions became steadily more frequent. His calm words of reassurance and support, the back rubbing, the walking her around the delivery room because that eased the discomfort a little, as they waited for their first child, at least their first child in common, to arrive.
Of course it wasn’t his first time either, but when the damp dark-haired head slowly and painfully crowned seven long hours later, followed in a rush by the rest of the red, wrinkled, blooded little body, he’d been as excited as if it had been. His face had been a picture as he held his new little daughter (they’d chosen to know the gender when it showed up on the scan and so knew which it would be) and he hadn’t wanted to tear himself away to go and see about equally-thrilled Stacey.
Tomorrow he’d be back to collect them, her and Emma, for the triumphant journey home to the new house in suburban Huyton. Well, not brand new of course, but detached and four-bedroom, to allow for family expansion and visits from Jack, in one of the popular residential areas there. Derek had said it was time they moved out of the increasingly cramped flat, which would certainly become sardines-in-a-can-like when the baby arrived. The house wasn’t what you would call immaculate. They (well, Derek, really, as she’d had to give up her short-lived secretarial job at seven months pregnant, and he didn’t want her rushing back to work at the first opportunity) couldn’t have afforded the mortgage on anything too swish. But he was pretty handy at DIY and with a paintbrush.
He’d soon have it licked into shape, he’d assured her. Apart from generally redecorating, there were promises of (heaven!) a new kitchen – well, smart new replacement doors for the units, because the carcasses (as Derek called them) were perfectly clean and okay; and new wall tiles and surfaces; and some open shelving to put smart storage jars on; and one of those fancy extractor hood thingies over the cooker that people had; and a nice fresh paint job; because that would be a lot cheaper, doing it all himself, he’d said, than getting a rip-off-merchant kitchen firm in.
The house would quickly be just how they wanted, and as Derek had said: a fairly substantial detached property in a decent area could only be a good investment, even if it was a little bit of a financial struggle at the moment. But he didn’t intend to stay an ordinary beat bobby for his entire career, oh no! He wanted to do better at his second try at being a family man. Be a good provider. And a good husband and father.
So tomorrow they’d be back to their (potentially, anyway) lovely house with its brand-spanking-new, so pretty, cot room for Emma with its pink, girly, wallpapered walls and mobiles over the cot and soft toys and baby alarm; the first room to be revamped so far. Derek had really enjoyed himself doing it, and she’d certainly enjoyed participating in choosing the decor, anyway. She’d wanted to help with the painting too, but he hadn’t let her do it, partly out of protectiveness but also, she’d suspected, because he didn’t think she’d do it right. Well, that was alright. She didn’t mind leaving it to him, as for that matter she didn’t mind his being in charge of most other things too. Sometimes she still couldn’t believe her luck in finding such a good, reliable man. He was certainly a thousand times better, by all the Saints in Heaven, than that Bret, the bastard.
But then he’d been such a charmer, and she’d been so depressed and confused about what she wanted to do with her life at the time. Vulnerable; was that the word? Something like that. Or just plain weak and silly, more like. And he’d come along just at that moment, like a first hopeful, tempting ray of spring sunshine after her miserable winter, with his winning cheeky grin and blonde hair and piercing blue eyes and muscled torso, like something off one of her romance paperbacks. How could she have resisted him, really, considering the state of mind she was in?
Not that there’d been anything particularly romantic or sexy about their meeting; not the setting of it, anyway. Not unless you called a launderette sexy. She’d been in there on a Tuesday morning (it was less busy than Mondays; you could find a machine free straight away), sitting waiting for her load to dry, gazing vacantly at the clothes swirling around in the washing machines opposite, when this Adonis had walked in carrying a bulging black dustbin bag over his broad shoulder. It was still early spring, April and quite a chilly day, seven years ago in nineteen eighty-seven, but he was wearing just jeans and a white t-shirt, which showed his shoulders, tattooed biceps and sculpted chest off to great advantage. Which was probably the idea, of course.
He hadn’t noticed her at first and had set about loading his clothes into a vacant washing machine. Although she’d certainly noticed him, as had the other women in there. You couldn’t fail to. Only after he’d collected a plastic cup of powder from the dispenser, added it and set the machine in motion did he glance around the shop, and his eyes find and fix on her. Well, her face and her chest, alternating, which was always the case. There was plenty of empty space on the slatted bench by the dryers but he’d made straight for her, flashing a grin, and plonked down beside her.
And shy he certainly wasn’t.
‘Boring, this, innit?’
She’d looked at him, startled, feeling a blush beginning.
‘Yeah. Suppose so. Has to be done though.’
He’d continued to grin at her, eyes flickering up and down, registering the lack of a wedding ring. ‘Still, a bit of company whiles away the time, don’t it?’
She’d found herself grinning back. But, as always, a little bit lost for easy conversation. She’d never been good at it. And where was this leading?
‘Yeah. It does,’ she’d replied lamely
He’d looked at her intently, as if she were the most fascinating female on the planet. ‘Irish, then?’
‘How did you guess?’ she’d quipped feebly. She knew her accent stood out a mile.
He’d ignored that. ‘From the north?’
‘Well, sort of. From the Republic though. Not Northern Ireland.’
His grin had slipped a fraction. ‘Oh. Right. Where from?’
‘On the coast. Down a bit from Donegal.’
‘Oh, right,’ he’d repeated, uncertainly. He probably hadn’t the faintest idea where Donegal was.
There’d been an awkward pause as she searched for something to say to keep the conversation going. ‘And you’re from round here?’
He’d laughed. ‘Christ, can’t you tell?’
She’d said, slightly peeved by the mockery, ‘Well I thought so.’
‘Yeah, scouser through an’ through, me, loov.’
‘Yeah. Not at work today then?’ he’d probed.
‘No, day off. I worked both days last weekend.’
‘The supermarket. Sainsbury’s.’
‘What about you?’ she’d asked bravely. ‘Your day off too?’
‘He’d laughed yet again. It was infectious. She’d realised that she was wearing a permanent, inane grin.
‘Well every day’s a day off for me, loov. I work evenin’s. Part-time barman. In the Anchor. Do you know it?’
‘Oh. No. Sorry.’ Her knowledge of Liverpool’s many watering holes wasn’t all that extensive.
The dryer had slowed to a stop behind her. She’d bent forward to rise to her feet, slightly wickedly conscious that she’d be displaying extended cleavage. Well it was difficult not to, unless she kept her chest completely covered. His eyes had drifted down to that area, as she knew they would. But then he’d looked back up to her profile as she waited for the door to unlock, betraying slight anxiety.
‘Off now then, are you?’
‘Well, yes.’ She’d hesitated. ‘Things to do, you know.’ She’d indicated the washing. ‘Like ironing this lot, for a start.’
Then he’d practically floored her with his next question. ‘Er, I take it you’re not married or anythin’ then?’
And she’d answered, just a little too quickly, ‘No, no. No man in my life or anything.’
And a faint glint of triumph had lit his so-blue eyes and he’d made some stupid joke about being surprised at that; about imagining the blokes would be queuing up for her, which was very flattering of course and made her blush again. Then he’d come right out and said it. Tomorrow was his evening off, and did she fancy going out for a drink or something, but not the Anchor; somewhere a bit classier, somewhere that didn’t feel like being at work, and of course, against her better judgement really, she’d said yes.
So he’d suggested meeting outside Henri’s Wine Bar at eight, to which she’d also thoughtlessly agreed, and had had a mad panic rushing home from work the next day, bathing, dolling up, beautifying, having no time to cook herself a meal so grabbing a quick sandwich, and then getting a bus back to the city centre to arrive breathless, hot and bothered outside Henri’s at four minutes to eight. And he hadn’t been there, so she needn’t have hurried, and she’d stood waiting, anxiety growing as the minutes passed and he didn’t appear, until finally, at seven minutes past he’d sauntered casually along the pavement looking absolutely ravishing in black jeans, black leather jacket and three buttons-opened white shirt.
It had been a great night, with lots of banter and giggling, as she’d learned something about him: name, age (twenty-four to her nineteen), two younger brothers, still living at home with them and his widowed mum, but not a great deal about his past. She’d assumed he was girlfriendless. And then he’d insisted on seeing her home, although part of her cringed at the thought, because if she invited him in, her crummy bedsit was an absolute, squalid tip. But there’d seemed no other option, really. He’d said that he really wanted to see her again, so it seemed a bit of a let-down to simply part outside the wine bar and go their own separate ways home.
And so she’d swallowed her embarrassment and allowed him in, and if he was shocked by her living conditions, he certainly hadn’t showed it. Inevitably one thing had led to another, because he was just so gorgeous, and in spite of her solemn vows to herself they’d quickly ended up in her single bed. She’d wanted him to stay the night, but afterwards, after a smoke, he’d suggested the time and place for another date, kissed her quite gently, actually, got up, got dressed and left.
That had been the start of it. She couldn’t believe her luck, finding such a drop-dead-handsome guy who was also so kind, so considerate; who made her laugh so much. Brought so much light into her previously monochrome life; painted it now with such vibrant colour. So this is what it’s like, she’d thought dreamily in those early, cloud-nine days. This is what it’s like to really be in love! Forget that other one. He didn’t begin to compare with my lovely Bret!
They’d quickly established a routine. Bret had acquired another single bed and, with the permission of her landlady, who was an easy-going old soul but nevertheless asked for double the rent now that there’d be a second tenant, hauled it up the grubby staircase to her bedsit and butted it against hers, creating in effect a king-sized one (but the two halves on slightly different levels) that pretty well filled the room. Some king-sized bed linen and a duvet had completed the transformation. They’d also found a clothes hanging rail to increase wardrobe capacity, which crammed the room even more. And so her life had changed, almost in the blink of an eye. Now there was someone to share her existence with, albeit that, mostly, they were ships passing in the night. Apart from Wednesdays, his day off, when she got home from work he’d already left to go to his, leaving her a day’s worth of dirty dishes to wash up. But then, she was always ready and waiting for him when he got back home at half-past-midnight, keeping the bed warm.
Yes, life had been pretty good in those first few deliriously happy weeks. Until she’d become aware that her periods seemed to have stopped; that she was getting way overdue. He’d been so careful though. Had always, at her insistence, used protection. But she’d heard somewhere that the things weren’t always a hundred per cent reliable. Perhaps there’d been a faulty one somewhere along the line. Anyway, the fact was, she seemed to be pregnant. So she’d gone to the doctor and it had been confirmed. And he’d seemed quite pleased about it all. He’d suggested they get a bigger place, like a proper two bedroomed flat, and they’d found one – still a bit scruffy and not in a very prepossessing street, admittedly, where more than one house was boarded-up and empty – but one they could afford the higher rent on.
He’d even spoken of looking around for a better, full-time job, as she’d obviously have to give up hers when the baby came. And several weeks later he’d triumphantly told her the good news: that he’d found one, in an off-licence, presumably on the strength of his bar work experience. So things were still looking alright. Who knew what it might lead to? Dare she even dream possibly of marriage?
But then the first slight, niggling worries had begun, when a rather shifty-looking character, over-muscled, gold-bejewelled and sharp-suited, had showed up at the flat one day demanding money that Bret owed. She’d no idea what the man was talking about, of course, and innocently said she’d pass the message on. The man had frowned, intimated that she’d better, and sharpish, because the interest was racking up (whatever that meant) and got back in his silver Mercedes and driven away.
She’d tackled Bret about it when he got home. He’d tried to fob her off at first with vague talk about a little ‘business;’ a bit of dealing on the side. When she’d insisted on knowing what, exactly, after much prevarication he’d reluctantly told her. It was crack-cocaine. He wasn’t dealing a lot, and it was mainly for his own use, but he owed his ‘wholesaler’ a bit of money. She’d asked how much. He’d sheepishly admitted that it was four hundred pounds, but he knew someone who could lend that and had taken out a loan, to keep the wholesaler off his back. That was who had called: Big Benny, the loan man. But he’d nearly got his money together, was just short of seventy pounds, so if they could tighten up a bit on food spending for a couple of weeks, and maybe pawn a few items?
Of course she’d been furious about it; felt really let down at his stupidity and fecklessness, and he’d been very contrite and said how sorry he was, and even cried, and told her the sad story of his dysfunctional family upbringing and spell in the young offenders’ institution for shoplifting, and how much he needed her, so she mustn’t leave him, please, and if they could just get through this he’d never do it again, because he had something to live for now, especially with the baby coming and everything . . .
And of course, because it was the Christian thing to do, and because she didn’t want to lose him either, she had forgiven him and believed his earnest promises to mend his ways. Somehow they’d scraped together the shortfall, plus a further accrued fifty pounds in extra interest for repaying late, and consequently had had to virtually live on budget-range baked beans and scavenged thrown-away bread from the supermarket and nothing else, and go without feeding the electricity meter for a couple of weeks, as well as taking anything that had any value at all (which wasn’t a lot) to the pawnshop against a further loan, which then of course in its turn had to be repaid. And also, to raise cash, although she’d hated the idea and knew it was both illegal and wrong, she’d begged him to sell all of the crack he had and never touch the stuff again. He’d promised.
The months had gone by and she’d steadily ballooned, and Bret had been solicitousness personified. He wouldn’t let her exert herself in any way, or lift anything, and as it became too uncomfortable for her (and she’d lost the inclination anyway) he’d stopped initiating sex, at least of the penetrative sort. He’d even taken time off work and gone with her, the proud, doting partner, for her scans and been delighted with her when it seemed they’d be getting a little girl. He’d let her choose the name then, Stacey, and they begun (well, she had; he’d just done the paying) to get together all the required baby paraphernalia. And if he was having any problems coming off the drugs, he certainly wasn’t showing them. It was all going to be all right.
The year had turned, winter had stood aside for the early spring of nineteen eighty-eight, and in March, with a wide-eyed and incredulous Bret in attendance, she’d given birth to Stacey. The first three days back home had been joyous, with the new tiny presence the centre of their lives. She’d spent all her time just sitting cradling her daughter, or feeding her, at all times of the night or day, constantly marvelling at the perfect little being. She couldn’t leave her alone. Which had been a mistake, so the health visitor had advised a few days later. She was making a rod for her own back, apparently. She was spoiling the child with too much attention.
But it was all very well saying that. Putting her down in her cot immediately provoked screams of outrage, until she was picked up again. And so she’d fallen into the habit of simply not going to bed. It just hadn’t been worth all the baby-screaming stress. She would spend all her time in the armchair with the dozing infant in the crook of her arm, leaving a grumbling Bret to try and snatch sleep. After all, he had to get up and go to work every morning. During the day, becoming ever more exhausted, she would grab the odd hour or two of sleep when Stacey did, the two of them lying together in the double bed.
She’d begun to see a change in Bret after three weeks. As the baby became more and more fractious and she gave up trying to breastfeed and resorted to Formula, and as she herself became increasingly ill-tempered with him because of her tiredness and his unwillingness to help, so he in his turn began to lose interest in both of them. In spite of her protests he’d began to disappear off out again after coming home and eating the dinner she’d struggled to prepare, hampered by the constantly attention-demanding baby.
Then late one night he’d returned home clearly as high as a kite, and she knew, she just knew that he was back on the crack. She’d tried reasoning, tried pleading for his help and support; tried appealing to his better nature, all to no avail. Getting tearful hadn’t worked either, least of all when he came down from the high and fell into depression himself. Then everything was her fault, or the baby’s, or his mother’s or his absent father’s (his mother wasn’t a widow at all).
The following day he hadn’t got up to go to work, ignoring all her efforts to galvanise him into action, and in disgust she’d made up a bottle of Formula, put Stacey in her pram, wheeled her to the park, found a bench and sat and cried and cried. And bitterly rued the meeting in the launderette that fateful day. She’d stayed there for hours, wrapped in her misery, until Stacey began fretting again. She was smelly too and clearly in dire need of a nappy change. That obviously wasn’t helping her mood. She’d heaved a heavy, resigned sigh, got up and put the baby back in her pram. She’d just have to scream. She’d have to go back and face things, even if Bret wouldn’t; lie in the bed she’d foolishly made for herself. And so she’d made her slow, reluctant way back home.
But when she carried the bawling Stacey in through the tatty paint-peeling door of the flat, Bret was nowhere to be seen. She’d breathed another sigh, this time of relief. She just didn’t want to face him, not at the moment. There would have to be another talking-to though; another row, probably, when he did deign to appear. They couldn’t go on like this, sure they couldn’t.
She’d changed Stacey, powdered her horribly red and sore-looking bottom, made her another bottle, herself a mug of tea and settled down to wait, glancing at the time display on the stereo player. Ten to four, it informed. So where was he? At work, hopefully? although she hadn’t held out a lot of hope of that. Off somewhere getting stoned again, more like. She must have dozed off, because the next thing she knew, the player was indicating twenty-five past seven. But still no Bret. At least the baby was quiet and sleeping at the moment though. She’d wondered whether she dare risk putting her down, but decided against. It was nice to be quiet for a few minutes. She’d got up, thinking she ought to be doing something about dinner, if only for herself. He could please himself; why should she worry about him?
She’d wandered into the bedroom. Something hadn’t seemed quite right. And then it had hit her. There were none of his clothes scattered around, waiting for her to pick them up. Perhaps, in a fit of remorse, he’d tidied up and gone to the launderette; made himself useful. But no. She’d been back over two and a half hours. It didn’t take that long. Anyway, only his clothes were missing. There was a pair of her pink knickers on the bed, and a bra. Heart beginning to nosedive, she’d crossed to the wardrobe and opened the door. It was empty (her own clothes lived on the rail). There were two pairs of his trainers in the bottom, and three of hers, but nothing else. She’d noticed the chest of drawers then. His two were open and cleared out too.
The next few days had been a nightmare. There’d been no shamefaced, contrite reappearance, begging forgiveness (which she would probably have granted, of course). Her mind had been a maelstrom of emotions: relief that he’d gone, was out of her life, but fear now that her financial support had gone too. And contrarily again, numbness; disbelief that it was all over. But sometimes panic that she was alone again in the harsh world, and now with a baby to care for; a little being depending on her. Holy Mother, she could barely look after herself, let alone a difficult child.
There had been nothing for it but to suffer sister Maeve’s pursed-lipped, told-you-so;-I-never-did-like-him disapproval and throw herself on her mercy: Maeve, self-confident Maeve. Lucky Maeve for whom everything always went right. Maeve who was now engaged to be married to her wonderful Tony and flashing her diamond ring around for all to admire, flaunting her happiness. And of course Maeve hadn’t let her off lightly, and had patronisingly told her exactly what she thought of her stupidity and naivety and weakness, as if she, Maeve, were some type of wise woman or some kind of pillar of strength.
Although, to be fair, Maeve had done the big-sisterly thing and helped out: had advised her about claiming the various benefits she could get, even though she wasn’t British, and given her a loan to see her through until they began to kick in. Maeve had also opined that she should try to pursue bloody Bret for maintenance, and had been exasperated that so little was known about him, like a home address where he could be contacted, for instance. But then he’d never told her it, and she’d never asked. There was about as much chance of discovering his whereabouts as there was of the Pope converting to Protestantism. He’d simply disappeared.
Gradually she’d got back on her emotional feet, although life had seemed pretty hollow and lonely for a while. Practically speaking, the benefit hadn’t been a lot to live on, but she was grateful for it. At least the giro was regular. And gradually Stacey had learned to be less demanding and go to bed properly, and life had settled into, not a happy, fulfilling state, exactly, but at least a trouble-free, man-free one. Until that other day, two years ago (it seemed much longer though!) when her Derek had appeared out of the blue like some sort of miraculous God-sent angel and rescued her from a drifting, rudderless, empty life.
Julie came out of her reverie; brought her mind back to the present. She looked down. Emma had stopped feeding and nodded off, little rosebud mouth still puckered, her tiny perfect hand clasped against her breast. She sighed once more. Yes, she just knew it; everything was going to be all right, this time around.