r u ok?

by Gill Blow

It’s come to something, thinks Mel, when I can’t go out for a pint on a Friday night. He’s trudging through pouring rain to the White Hart. It’s not much to ask one night in the week. She’s not even the bloody wife. Not that he and Mandy got married, but that’s beside the point, at least Mandy had a reason to go all cold and ignore him as if he wasn’t there; which in the end he wasn’t. The rain suddenly gets harder and it starts to seep through his old leather jacket. He ducks into a shop doorway and waits for it to ease off a bit.

‘Where you off to?’ his mam said when he put his jacket on.

‘White Hart. It’s Friday,’ he said, ‘I told you.’

‘What , in all this rain? You can’t go out in that.’

He put a ham sandwich and a glass of shandy on the table. ‘Here you are, mam. I won’t be late.’

‘Oh aye,’ she said in that knowing voice that does his head in.

‘I’m not going to bloody Australia.’

She gave him a look.

 

He watches the rain gush out of the guttering above the shop window. He should’ve asked  Lottie to keep an eye on her. Her kitchen light was on next door when he splashed down the backyard, he caught sight of her reaching up into a cupboard. She’s put some weight on. So has his mam. They’ve let themselves go. Not like when he was a kid and they took him to their Bingo nights.  They looked like the bees knees then.

 

‘Come on, our Mel,’ his mam would say. ‘Let’s be having you.’ He remembers the felty feel of her glove as she yanked him up the steps of King’s Theatre. He used to stare up at the fangs of the stone lion frozen forever on top of the roof, imagine it toppling off and crushing them to death. His mam gave him crisps and pop and told him to sit still. He was wedged between them, taking little breaths to lessen the sickly smell of their scent,  watching the bingo balls bounce up and down. It was a big place, full of chatting and laughing women, the smoke from their fags making a big grey cloud under the ceiling. He remembers the sudden hush when the bingo caller cleared his throat in the microphone which he pressed against his lips so every breath sounded like a howling gale. ‘Two fat ladies, 88, whee! Lucky for some, 13, phissh!’ His mam’s eyes sparkled at the thought of winning.  He watched her and Lottie cross off the numbers with their felt tips, their elbows digging into his shoulders as they got more excited. They’d wait in torment for a final number to be called, mumbling it over and over like a chant between clenched teeth.  Then they’d scream, ‘BINGO!’

 

He pushes his hands in his pockets and watches the rain make tiny craters as it hits the pavement.  A four-wheeler slams past and spews water all over his boots. Mel would never drive one of them even if he had the money, hearses on wheels they were, give him a bike any time. He thinks of his Triumph stripped down in Andy’s lock-up. He pulls up his collar, he’ll have a chat to Andy tonight and see about getting it back on the road. He dreams of the throb of the engine between his legs, cutting through traffic, leaning over with his knee an inch from the tarmac and bending round that narrow road to the sea. He steps out into the sheeting rain and hurries on through the puddles. His kids love splashing about in the wet. Craig never took no notice when Mandy yelled at him, just jumped straight in the puddles regardless.  Mandy yelled at Mel a lot as well.  Not at first though. At first she looked at him with a soft smile on her face. Mel, she would say. On her breath came his name and he would pull her to him and shut his eyes. Ah God, she was lovely. But it didn’t last. It would be the kids he supposed. They all change after kids somebody said.

She nagged him. Why didn’t he get a proper job? Why couldn’t they get married?  He doesn’t blame her. She wanted a wedding with all the trimmings. She wanted a car, holidays in Spain, all that stuff. He didn’t, that’s all there was to it. Then she went quiet on him. She started to pretend he wasn’t there. He once sat down for his dinner and she doled out chicken nuggets to the kids, but she never gave him any.

He said, ‘Where’s mine?’ She ignored him.

‘What you been up to today then?’ He said to Craig and Sam, they were busy stuffing chips and just looked at him with big eyes.  He started to sleep on the settee because he wasn’t going to put up with her making out he was some kind of rapist in the bedroom. He woke up one morning and his stuff was in two black dustbin bags on the carpet. He got the message. He stayed with Andy for a bit, but his missus wasn’t keen. So that’s it, he’s back home, living with his mam.  Drops of rain drip onto his nose, he sniffs. Over the road, The White Hart beams a welcome in the wet, he lowers his head and dashes across.

 

‘Guinness is it, Mel?’ Sal eases the beer into a glass.

‘Cheers, Sal.’ He takes off his jacket and shakes it, he pulls at the neck of his damp t-shirt.

‘Now then mate, how you doing?’ Andy sits on a high stool in his usual place at the end of the bar. ‘Fucking weather, eh? Not fit for a dog.’ He grins and his gold ring winks in his left nostril.

‘ Just  got soaked out there by a sodding Landmaster,’ Mel says. He watches Sal gently bring the froth to the top of the glass. Perfection.  He licks his lips and drinks. He wipes the white foam from his straggly beard and puts his foot up on the brass rail. Ideal.

Three pints later and another one in his hand, he’s outside with Andy, having a fag, sheltering in a corner of the makeshift smoking area round the back of the pub. Andy is shouting  above the drumming rain on the tin roof.

‘S’only contract stuff, but it pays. It’s on that new estate.’

‘Yeh.  Might try it, cheers Andy. Just painting is it?’

‘Emulsion, all the walls. Easy-peasy.’ Andy licks his Rizla and sticks it in his mouth. ‘How’s the old lady, then?’

Mel rolls his eyes. ‘She gets fucking worse,’ he says, ‘she can hardly walk.’

‘You need some help there, mate,’ Andy says. They both nod and suck on their roll-ups.

‘Been thinking about the bike,’ says Mel.

‘Great bike that,’ says Andy. ‘I’ll be at the lock-up on Wednesday. That okay?’

Mel nods, ‘Cheers, great.’ That gets them going. They do bike talk and light another fag. Then they dash across the yard, the rain pelting on their backs.

Sal gives Mel a smile as she takes his glass. ‘How’s your mam?’

‘Don’t ask,’ says Mel.

She pulls her mouth down. ‘It’s like that is it?’ Mel shrugs, lifts his glass. He thinks of his mam   watching him with her beady eyes.

‘She hardly moves these days,’ he tells Sal, ‘she just about manages to get to the outside lav, and  then I mostly have to help her get there and wait, and then help her back.’ Sal tuts and folds her arms.‘It’s just a matter of time before I shall have to put her on the seat and take her off. Wipe her arse.’ He shudders.

‘Out of the frying-pan into the fucking fire,’ says Andy from his stool. He means Mandy. He’s right. Mel shakes his head, wonders what he’s done to deserve this shit.

‘You could get money for looking after her,’ Sal says.

‘You what?’

‘You ought to go to the Benefit place.’ She flicks her hair back out of her eyes. It’s jet black, her eyes are blue. Unusual that, thinks Mel as he always does, blue eyes with black hair. Mandy’s are hazel with flecks of bronze.

He swallows his Guinness. ‘ If it’s anything like the Job Centre I won’t bother. Humiliating that is. You come out of there feeling like you’re the scum of the earth.’ He puts his elbows on the bar and nurses his glass in his hands. He wonders what Mandy is up to tonight. He might call and see her later.

‘Well, other people get it,’ says Sal, ‘why shouldn’t you?’

‘Yeh.’ says Mel.

 

It’s funny, he thinks as the pleasant buzz spreads over him, how things turn out. He moves his eyes slowly round the bar appreciating the soft orange glow of the wall lights, listening to the clink of glasses and his mates having a crack and a laugh.

‘Our House,’ Madness chants on the juke-box, ‘in the middle of our Street.

The whole pub sings, ‘Our House, in the middle of our Street.’

 

He thinks of his mam on the settee. It’s as if she’s the kid now and he was looking after her. Funny that.

He looks across at Andy. ‘My mam, it’s as if she’s the kid now.’

Andy nods. ‘The whole of life is a circle, mate. That’s what it is, what goes round comes round.’

‘You are so fucking right,’ says Mel, thinking of his bedroom. It still looks the same. Same old single bed, the thin candlewick bedspread faded to grey, same old wardrobe where he stashed his Lad Mags. Even the view of chimney pots and TV aerials out the window hasn’t changed, except now there are satellite dishes clamped to the walls like limpets.

‘Our House,’ he sings, ‘in the middle of our Street.’ His mam was always on the go when he was a kid. She was always busy doing something, like ironing or putting up curtains, and telling him off.

‘Look at that tidemark on your neck,’ she’d say, and chuck him the flannel. She used to laugh a lot. He remembered her laugh, she’d throw her head back and shout the laughter out. His dad never laughed, he was such a miserable old bugger, maybe that’s why he died. Mel wonders what his kids will think about him when they get older. He’ll go and see them tomorrow, Mandy couldn’t stop him seeing them, he was their dad. He puts his empty glass on the bar.

‘She can’t stop me seeing them, can she?’ he says to Sal.

‘ Who can’t?’ Sal fills his glass.

‘ Mandy and the kids.’ Mel pictures them all on the sands at Cleethorpes making sandcastles. ‘I’m a rubbish dad.’

 

Andy puts his hand on Mel’s shoulder. ‘Now you listen to me mate, you’ve got two things to do. See to your mam, and see to your kids. I’ve been there, it’s hard, but you’ve got to get on with it. That’s how it is.’ He swigs his beer and drags his sleeve across his beard.

Mel looks at him, he is solid is Andy, pure solid. ‘Thanks Andy, you’re pure solid.’

Andy gets up and puts on his jacket. ‘ No sweat. See you Wednesday.’

Mel watches him lumber out of the pub. ‘He’s a good mate,’ he tells his glass of Guinness.

 

The path glistens under the street lamps outside. Mel takes a deep breath to clear his head and lights a fag.  Two girls who look about twelve, flag down a taxi in front of him. One of them  opens the door and falls inside, her legs dangling about all over the place.

‘What you looking at? Pervert!’ the other one says. They screech and laugh as they bundle in.  Mel grins. The taxi drives off, making waves in its’ wake up the road.  At least it’s stopped raining. The cars swish by. Mel starts to back to his mams’. Tomorrow, he’d go and see his kids. He could take them to the park and play football.  He’d better phone Mandy first. No, better to text. He makes up the message in his head. ‘Hi Mandy thought I’d take kids to park.  R u ok? x’ His jacket squeaks as he walks past the blank-eyed dummies in the windows of Marks and Spencer’s.  Maybe when he goes round, he’ll see if she wants to come with them. He might get her to talk to him. He should be going home to her and the kids, not his mam.  Maybe he’ll get that painting job.

In the kitchen, he turns on the tap and fills the kettle. He shouts, ‘Do you want a brew,mam?’ No answer. ‘Mam?’ The telly is on but she isn’t on the settee. The plate and glass are empty. He goes through to the front room and comes back and sits down. He puts his head in his hands and tries to think. She can’t be upstairs, she can’t get up there without him. He shouts up the

 

stairs, ‘Mam, you up there?’ He runs up, ‘Mam?’ He comes back down and stands in the kitchen. The kettle boils. Then it’s quiet.  He hears something, like the wail of a cat.

‘Mel-vyn! Me- el!’  The fucking toilet! He legs it down the yard and flings open the door and she’s sitting there, shivering. Her face is white and her pants are down round her ankles.

‘I can’t get up, I’m freezing.’

‘Bloody hell, mam!’ He gets his arms under her shoulders and tries to lift her off, but she is stuck to the seat, and the stink hits him, so he lets go and she plops back with a yell.

‘Ow! Stop it!’

‘Well, I can’t help it, we’ve got to get you out.’

‘What the hell is going on?’ He turns round and Lottie fills the doorway, her hair stuck up like she’s had an electric shock.

‘Oh, Lottie! Get me off.’ His mam waves her hands as if she is drowning. Lottie barges inside, ramming Mel up against the wall behind the door. She tears off some toilet paper and bends over his mam, he tries to get out but he can’t move, he can’t even turn his head away.

‘Lean on me,’ Lottie says, ‘a bit more, then I can ease you up.’ He hears a sticky slappy sound like Sellotape being pulled off a parcel.

‘Oh God,’ his mam sounds as if she’s in agony.

‘Just put your weight on my shoulder.’ Lottie’s voice echoes as if she’s down a well. ‘Come on, Doreen, a bit more.’ His mother’s eyes are squeezed tight, he sees tears creep out and slowly trickle down the side of her cheeks.

‘Aw, mam,’ he says.

 

‘That’s it,’ says Lottie, ‘flush it Melvyn, I can’t reach.’ He holds his breath and flushes.

‘Right. Let’s pull these up,’ says Lottie. ‘She’s shaking all over, how long’s she been in here, Mel?’

‘I don’t know. I’ve been out.’ He shouldn’t’ve given her that shandy.

‘You’re all right Doreen, love, let’s get you back indoors.’ Lottie tries to turn around but there’s no room, and Mel is getting suffocated behind the door, he pushes at it with his hands.

‘Give over, you’re squashing me!’ Lottie shouts.

‘Well back out woman, we’re bloody stuck!’

‘Eighty-eight!’ His mam splurts out. ‘Two fat ladies!’ She’s laughing so much her legs give way and she plonks back down on the toilet seat.

Then Lottie starts. ‘Oh God.’ She’s holding on to the wall with one hand and the door with the other and snorting with laughing. ‘Oh Doreen, give over, it hurts.’

‘Well don’t mind me stuck back here!’ Mel shouts. That sets them off again. Lottie is squealing now as if she’s in pain, and his mam gives that laugh like a shout. Mel pushes at the door again, ‘Pack it in!’

In the end, they calm down, and all he can hear is heavy breathing. His mam gives a shuddering sigh, ‘Oh dear Lottie, I haven’t laughed like that for ages.’ She pushes herself off the lav and bangs the seat down. ‘Come and have a cup of tea.’

‘Just a minute, let me get out.’ Lottie manoeuvres herself backwards out of the toilet.  ‘Right, come on Doreen.  I’ll give you two fat ladies!’ They start to chuckle again as they link arms and totter up the back yard.

 

‘Do they still do the Bingo?’ his mam says.

‘ ‘Course they do,’ says Lottie, ‘why, d’you fancy going?’ The kitchen door clicks shut. It starts to rain again.

Mel sits on the toilet and sends a text to Mandy. ‘R u ok? job lined up miss u babe x.’

Copyright (c) Gill Blow 2012

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