Authors: Annie Murray
Tags: #Sagas, #Fiction
For Mum and Dad,
with love and gratitude
‘What?’ That was her ‘what the hell do you want
‘Come up quick. It’s Lola. She’s dead.’
A pause from downstairs. We never usually called her Lola. Granny, Nan, filthy-old-cow, depending on who was talking, who listening. I couldn’t call her Granny today somehow, not now she’d gone.
‘Hang on a tick – let me put this on the gas. Genie? Sure she’s not having you on?’
God Almighty. ‘I’ll ask her shall I? Lola? You dead, or what?’
‘Don’t be so cheeky.’ I heard her footsteps across the back room. Then nothing. Above the mantel there was an oval mirror with a green frame, faded pink flowers stencilled round it. I realized she’d stopped, actually stopped to look at her reflection, her pale face which looked gaunt and scooped out under the high cheekbones, thin brown hair twisted in a knot at the back, wisps of it always working out of the pins.
She dragged herself up the stairs eventually, muttering, the martyr as usual. ‘She would go on a Sat’dy morning when no one’s around and your dad’s off playing soldiers. As if I haven’t got enough on my plate. What’re we going to do? Oh!’ She clapped her hand over her nose at the door.
‘She must’ve messed herself,’ I said.
‘As if I couldn’t tell. In this heat too!’
She hadn’t messed like that before as a rule. Not the full works. Just wet the bed, my bed where I’d had to sleep with her every night for three years, pressed up against the bugs on the wall waiting for it, the wet and stink and it seeping across, warm first, then cold.
Not taking her eyes off Lola, Mom backed over and flung open the window with one hand. We could hear kids playing out the back next door. Then she crept forward, face all screwed up, on tiptoe as if she thought Lola was going to explode or jump up and dance a polka. She bent over the bed, keeping her hand on her nose. Long, pointy nose like a pixie, my mom.
Lola’s hands were lying outside the covers. They’d barely looked like hands for a long while. Had a hard life. They were red like mutton chops, the knuckles tight and swollen, and she used to nurse them in her lap when they throbbed. Mom picked one up like she would a dead rat (except she never would pick up a dead rat, she’d get me to do it), her face still looking as if someone’d forced a cup of castor oil down her.
‘She’s not breathing.’ One hand was still pegged to her nose, the other groping about round Lola’s wrist. ‘She’s gone.’ Dropped the hand and let it fall back on the bed. Finally she loosed her nose, staring at Lola’s grey old face. ‘
Looks quite peaceful now, don’t she? You’ll have to clean her up, Genie, before we get her laid out. Can’t let her be seen in that state, can we?’ She was over at the door by now. ‘I couldn’t do it. It’d make me bad.’
So I washed my dead granny that baking hot afternoon. You have to do your duty to the dead, even though she was smelly and vicious and I hated her. She had disgusting habits. Taking snuff was one of them and she only had two hankies which I always got the job of washing out. They looked as if a dog had sicked on them and I could never get them any cleaner. She sniffed louder than water going down the plughole and gobbed into the fireplace, she soaked me in urine nearly every night and talked a load of gibberish. I’d kneel down in front of her to roll her stockings up her sickly white legs with the bacon-burn marks up them from sitting close to the fire all her life, the smell of wee rising off her. Sometimes she’d slap me, hard as she could round the face. Brought tears to my eyes. She’d squawk, ‘Bitch! Common little bitch!’ and I knew she meant Mom because she always reckoned Mom wasn’t good enough for her darling babby Victor, her youngest and best. Mom wouldn’t lift a finger for her so long as I was around to do it.
She was still wearing her corset, the colour of old cement, with bits of whalebone sticking out all over the place. I pushed her over on one side which was an effort because I wasn’t much of a size, and skinny with it, and she was heavy for such a scrawny old bird. Shoving my shoulder against her, I managed to get her unlaced. She was trying to roll back on me all the time, with me gagging at the stink. I took off her lisle stockings, the interlock vest and bloomers and saw all the brown mess between her legs and up her back and in her scraggy little mound of hair down there.
While I was going over her with a rag and a pail of water (cold – Mom said, ‘What’s the use in wasting gas, she’s dead, isn’t she?’) I thought, what would she have looked like when she was fifteen? And how with a name like Lola Mavis she ought to have been in a circus act instead of working factories the length and breadth of Birmingham.
I bent down to squeeze out the rag in the water that looked like stewed tea but didn’t smell at all like it, trying not to drip any on my frock.
‘Oh my God!’ I said, straightening up. My heart was pounding like a mad thing and sweat pricked under my arms because I’d have sworn on my own life she moved and I was out of that room and down the stairs as if my bloomers were on fire.
‘Mom – she moved. She’s not dead. I saw her titties going up and down!’
’ Her hand halted a wooden spoon in the air. ‘You’re seeing things!’
But we both tiptoed up the stairs and peeped into that room, not knowing what we were scared of except we’d both have screamed like billy-o if there’d been one tiny flicker of movement from her. All we could see were the grimy old soles of Lola’s feet and the soiled sheet in a heap on the floor and the enamel bucket and there wasn’t a sound as we moved closer. She lay quite, quite still.
We stood by the bed and suddenly Mom was tittering away like the Laughing Policeman and set me off. I thought this was a bit of all right, Mom being nice to me, us laughing as if we couldn’t stop. But we did stop, very sudden, because we saw Lola’s eyes had slid half open and she was watching the pair of us like an old parrot.
‘For God’s sake get her eyes closed,’ Mom said, disgusted. ‘I’ll fetch you a couple of pennies.’
I pushed Lola’s eyes closed and laid a penny and a ha’penny on top, which was all she could find. I covered her, pulling an old sheet up over her twisted feet, the wasted belly which had turned out twelve children, three dead, nine living, her papery old bosoms and her mean, crumpled face. I thought how a dead body isn’t just the person who’s left it a few minutes ago but a shrine to everyone they’ve ever been. And I also thought thank God I can have the bed to myself instead of perching on the edge waiting for the deluge.
There was a deluge then, because outside it started to rain like hell and the sky was so low it nearly scraped the rooftops. It felt like a promise of something, like God saying yes, I’ll give you a chance, kid. Now you can make things right in your family. Now you can be happy.
Mom chose to name me Eugenie Victoria Josephine Mary Watkins (I don’t suppose Dad had any say in the matter). At my christening at St Paul’s Church in 1924, he leaned over my pram, a father for the first time, and I imagine his round face pink with pride.
‘Look at her,’ he said, chucking my cheek. ‘She’ll go far.’
Nanny Rawson, my other grandmother, stood just behind him, commented, ‘With a gobful of names like that she’ll need to.’
I don’t know how far he thought I was going, but by 1939 none of us had got further than Brunswick Road, Balsall Heath, where we had a back door as well as a front and our very own flush toilet in the garden. I lived with my mom, my dad who was a bus driver, my little brother Eric, seven years younger (Mom’s ‘other mistake’ as she kindly called him), and Mom’s brother, Uncle Len. And Lola of course, up until now.
Nanny Rawson lived nearly half a mile away in Highgate, and Len stopped at home with her up until Mom’s sister, my auntie Lil, had to move back in there with her kids and Len came to live with us. He wasn’t quite the full shilling, Uncle Len. No one’d say why, so I took it for granted he must’ve been born that way. He was an enormous bloke. Didn’t just come into a room, he took up half of it. He was all right. Sweet natured, and loved to hear people laugh. Not that living with Mom and Dad was ideal on that score.
He came to us a few months after Lola’d arrived, so our terraced house started to get crowded. Lola and I had had a room each. Mine was the little one at the end and Eric slept in with Mom and Dad at the front. But when Len arrived everything had to be juggled round.
‘Eric’ll stay in with us,’ Mom decreed. She didn’t object to Eric down at the foot of their bed on his mattress. I suppose someone else in the room helped keep Dad off her. ‘And you’ll have to bunk up with Lola at the end.’
‘With Lola! But Mom – there’s no room for another bed in there.’
‘You won’t need another bed. The one you’ve got now’s three-quarter size. You’ll have to share. It’ll only be for a bit. She can’t last much longer.’
This was appalling news. Lola was revolting enough round the house, but to have to share my bed with her! Being an innocent twelve-year-old, I protested, ‘Well, why can’t I share with Len?’
Mom glowered at me. ‘Don’t talk so silly. Len’s a grown man and he needs a decent room to himself. And besides,’ as she was turning away, ‘he’s not without a few funny habits.’
Typical of her, that was. Never explained things. ‘Don’t run backwards!’ she’d shout at me when I was younger and capering along the pavement. ‘I know someone who died doing that.’
I found out about Len’s funny habits all too quickly. I barged into his room one day and there he was, kneeling on the floor in front of the chamber pot, unbuttoned, with his willy clenched in his hand, except it wasn’t like a willy any more. More like a policeman’s truncheon. He didn’t even notice me, he had this grin on his moon face and whatever he was doing I could see he was enjoying it. I knew I’d best not say anything to Mom. I carried on sharing with Lola and kept out of Len’s bedroom.
Len was no trouble though. I was puzzled to notice Mom’d do anything for him, because she certainly didn’t display that attitude to anyone else, not even her pal Stella, and you can at least choose your friends. Len just sat about or went for little walks round the local streets. He played tip-cat and football with Eric and me. He looked through Eric’s comics,
. He sat in the pub and laughed if someone else was laughing, and people were mostly kind to him. He never had a job in those days. Jobs were hard enough to come by for anyone. I grew ever so fond of him. He was more like a big, soft brother to me than a grown up man.