The Time it Takes...
Megan's only child has six minutes to live. Richard is eight years old, she thinks he's at school. It takes six minutes to vacuum and dust the living room of their council flat without moving the furniture. She won't do that now, later perhaps, must get tonight's tea first. She is standing on an old stool in the kitchen, reaching for the flour. Steak and kidney, piecrust.
Richard isn't at school. He has tucked his and Ben's satchels behind the brickwork by the entrance to a railway tunnel not far from home.
The boys are sitting on the rails, counting pennies, kicking granite chips, scuffing their shoes, giggling, eating cherry pips from a squashed paper bag. They stick their tongues out, blood red down the middle. Their partings catch the light, their ears are pink. Richard's hair is dark brown, flat. You can see ridges made by a comb when Megan pulled him back from the front door, said, “You are not going to school like that…” The lads' shoulders touch. They are both in burgundy jumpers, grey shorts. Ben's jumper is shop bought, flat, shiny, ironed polyester. Richard's is uneven, softer, knobbly, handknitted.
When he has five minutes to live (and she had him late…), Megan is cutting knobs of grey lard onto the flour in an orange plastic bowl, her hands are fatty. The handle of the knife is loose. She'll get hubby Ted to fix it when he comes home. He's good like that. She got a photo in the post this morning, Richard's First Communion last week. She's stuck it in the glass door of a kitchen cupboard, shakes her head at it. One sock round his ankle, fringe in his eyes so he's tilted his head up to see the camera… shouldn't be grinning at First Communion. He's a good boy really. Mustn't get too caught up with that Benny Jeavons though. Bad lot. Have to keep an eye on that.
Richard can't sit still for long. He's poked Ben in the side, made him jump, fall sideways so his bum is on the stones, then Ben's up and chasing him down the line away from the tunnel, between the rails, jumping from sleeper to sleeper, stumbling, they're hooting like owls. Richard's shirt is hanging out, one sock is wrinkling round his calf, he's scuffed the toes of his shoes. Ted cleaned them before he went to work.
Ted's a plumber. A plumber who likes opera music. Megan is proud of that but can't fathom it. He works all over, sometimes at theatres where they do operas. Once he came home late, said he'd stayed behind, stood under the stage, got a runny nose listening to them rehearsing something called Madam Butterfly. He had red eyes and Megan gave him a hug. She still prefers Alan Freeman on the radio, but when Ted stops work (he's going for early retirement because of his stomach) she'll get tickets for something.
Four minutes; Megan is rubbing lard into the flour. The balls of both thumbs are rough, ingrained, her fingers are coated with flour, it lumps in the lard under her square nails. There is a streak of flour across Megan's forehead where she brushed a hair out of her eyes with the back of a hand. She'll laugh when she sees it, white face and hair going grey at the same time… She is wiping her hands on her pinny, faded from washing. She turns the radio on ready for the daily recipe which ought to be after this song.... she hums with the verse, and sings the chorus:
"These boots were made for walking.
And that's just what they'll do."
Can't be doing with the thing though. Nice tune, but what sort of woman wants to walk all over people like that? She'd never walk over Ted. Took her long enough to find him anyway. Three younger sisters married off before Megan. Mind you, you have to stick with high standards. Ted's older than Megan, looks after her. Doesn't mind her going to church although he never goes himself. Says it's all tosh. Megan knows it isn't. Thinks it's all about looking after each other, really. The church looks after everyone, Ted looks after her, she looks after him, they both look after Richard. She starts to gather the pastry together.
Ben's caught him. Richard's doubled back towards the tunnel, tripped, fallen, bashed his knee on the stones. It hurts. Two pennies roll out of his pocket. He wants to cry, his throat is closing up and his nose feels big but Ben says, “I know how to squash a penny flat so the Queen gets mushed.”
Three minutes, and Richard has his hands in his pockets. He's looking at the tunnel. He has the fingers of his right hand tight round a penny, the fingers of the left are crossed. Ben's done this loads of times, that's what he says. You have to put the penny on the track in front of the train, but can't put it there too early or it'll fall off because the rails wobble when the train comes.
Two. Megan turns to the sink, sees Old Mrs Thing in the window opposite. Waves. She puts a little cold water in a cup. Now she is flicking water with her fingers over the pastry, gathering it together with the other hand. She'll take some pie over to Old Mrs Thing later. Richard's pot he brought home last Mother's Day is on the windowsill with a washing-up brush in it. Megan smiles. The pot is wonky, painted dark green, shiny, it split in the kiln, there's an M in yellow. “I know it's bust, but I didn't want Miss Danforth to throw it away…” The radio recipe was no good. Something vegetarian. There is another song on now. Mind you, vegetarian might be good for Ted.
Richard squares his shoulders, grins at Ben, turns his back and walks towards the shadow at the tunnel entrance.
Megan shivers. She'll get a jumper later. There's a bit of hot water in the kettle. She puts it on the gas, high.
One minute. Ben can't see Richard. He shouts, his high voice shrills into the dark, "Rich? Put it on the line yet? Train's coming, Rich, I can hear it.”
If Megan had the window open she could hear this shout. But it is closed. The kettle whistles.
The train is spat out of the tunnel. It takes a screeching age to stop. Then it's quiet. People begin to lean out of windows. “Why have we stopped?” The driver clambers down, walks back a way, is sick in the shadow, leaning with one hand on the brickwork, bent double as his breakfast spatters over Richard's school shoes, shining like conkers on tarmac. One foot twitches. The driver doesn't bother to look closer. No need. But Richard isn't quite dead. He could have heard the man say, “Oh, silly boy…” Then, he is.
Megan pulls a lump of pastry off for Richard. When he gets home he can have a go.
In the time it takes for someone to clamber up the embankment to the road, (brambles pulling at his pressed trousers and cuffs all muddy), wait while the cars won't stop, dodge across to the phone box, Megan has collected a pile of ironing from the airing cupboard and is carrying it to Richard's room. She has a red fire engine, chipped paint, on top. He leaves things all over the flat; she nearly went a purler. She'll give him what for later. And look at this… his room is in a dreadful mess. Boys.
Ben has snot running from both nostrils. His mouth is open, full of the words "Is it my fault?" His chest heaves. He's not a cry baby. Two women are sitting with him on the grass; they tried to put their arms round him, but he didn't know who they were.
Megan pulls the bottom sheet straight, tucks it under the mattress. She bundles his pyjamas, blue stripe like Ted's, pushes them under the pillow. Sweet papers. Honestly. It'll do for another few days, this bottom one, unless he wets again. But he should grow out of it, that's what they say. Where's his tiger? On the floor. Megan grunts with the effort of bending down. She puts the toy half in half out of the bedding, like it is asleep. That makes Richard laugh. She puts her fists in the small of her back, stretches. Her back is bad today…that's what comes of having Richard at pushing forty-seven…mind you, it's all worth it. Keeps you young.
"No, my love. It's not your fault." But Ben thinks it must be, he'll catch it later. So when they say, very very quietly, "Who is it?" he shakes his head. When he thinks about the cherry pips (Richard had more than him), he can't stop the tears, although he's not really crying. "I don't know, miss. I don't know who he is."
He is buying Megan a few more minutes.
Those few minutes are spent with a mug of coffee and a magazine. She will never get this magazine again, but now it is making her laugh. Some article about "Making your man happy". What would Ted think if she wore lipstick when he came home? He'd think she'd got a fancy man, that's for sure. And these recipes "straight to a man's heart". Rump steak? Lamb chops and onion gravy? Bit of steak‘n'kiddley, shin and pigs liver here! Then there's a list of the best jobs for husbands to have. Plumber isn't there, but Ted's very good at it, they say. He helps people on the estate, good for making friends. He's teaching Richard all about soldering already. He's good at making things, so's Richard. There's a new Meccano set on top of the wardrobe for his ninth.
There's a shout outside. The sound of a car, slow, edging along. It stops. Megan takes her mug, gets up, sees some papers on the floor under the table. Honestly. She grunts again as she bends to pick them up. Two paintings on soft grey school art paper, careful brushed lines and dots. Yellows, browns, green, red. A castle. A huge green flag flying on top of a bright red turret. The flag is the same size as the castle. The other a face, glowing like a clown. Big red lips, a mess of brown paint for hair, "Mum" in blue poster paint underneath. Megan likes the castle. The other she screws into a ball.
Can't keep everything.
The doorbell rings. Megan pulls off her pinny, throws the painting into the bin, smoothes her hair and goes to see who it is.
©2005 Vanessa Gebbie
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