‘Joan, can I borrow a tenner while Monday?’ said Kelly.
‘Monday’s always a long while coming with you, love,’ said Joan.
‘Whaddya mean?’ Kelly’s eyes became tight, like if she made them smaller, she could hide inside them, away from the glare.
‘I lent you twenty quid a couple of months ago, remember Kel?’
Kelly twisted her mouth into a guilty grimace. ‘It’s for the electric so I can give the kids a bath.’
‘Wait there.’ Joan treaded up the concreted incline of her yard towards her backdoor. Even at the apex she looked every bit her four feet and nine inches. Albeit her springy white hair gave her an extra couple of rungs on the ruler. She cursed herself for eating a slice of quiche so quickly before as the last few bites were now sitting on top of each other somewhere behind her chest plate. She gave a little cough to see if it would give her some relief. It didn’t, not really.
The door was already open, of course, which is how it spent most of its day. Inside, her granddaughter sat at the table slurping the broth Joan had made. Her own bowl sat twisting out its beautiful roasted chicken whiff. She clattered around in the cupboard whilst her granddaughter clanked her cutlery against the ceramic trying to eek out every last sip of buttery saltiness.
From the fruit dish, Joan grabbed two large mandarins. Their skins were puffed out and waxy – like they’d been polished, cared for. She’d plucked them from amongst other smaller, slightly green tinged in some cases, drier specimens at the market this morning.
When she scuttled back out of the door, Kelly had her hands half out of her pockets and her hips poked forward in anticipation.
‘Here you go,’ Joan prodded a card in her direction. ‘It’s got a fiver on it. Last you til tomorrow’. It wasn’t what Kelly wanted and Joan knew that, underneath her soft crinkled smile. What Kelly wanted was a tenner so she could top-up her electric card with three pounds – until her wages from the government came in on Tuesday – and the rest on two bottles of wine.
Joan was known for her kindness – she would give you the clothes off her back if she thought you needed them. Coupled with her generosity was her understanding of people. This came from the seventy years of living here, seeing people; watching people grapple with circumstance and characters and bad luck. She knew the ones who were trying to strip others of anything and everything. To those she said no fearlessly.
Kelly took the card and turned on her heels. The frays on the bottom of her jeans dragged along the floor – they looked like long dirty strands of hair.
‘Mam, I want a choc-iiiiiiice.’ Calum sang defiantly.
‘I’ve got noooo mon-eeeey! I told ya that this morning when you asked for that piece of shite Peppa Pig magazine.’
‘Calum,’ said Joan, ‘come back ’ere. I’ve got summat for ya.’
‘Don’t ya mean pardon?’ Her voice was firm, authoritarian.
‘Pardon,’ he said; it came out like a reflex.
‘Come ’ere and I’ll give it to ya.’ Calum looked sceptical.
He separated from Kelly – who kept on walking whilst pushing thumbs into the screen of her phone – and presented himself disinterestedly. He pressed his eyes into Joan’s, taking in the smile lines, his hands behind his back. Would Joan have a choc-ice behind her back? Doubtful, he thought. In some ways he hoped not because it’d be melted the amount of time she was taking over it.
‘Here you go.’ She smiled expectantly as she revealed on hand at a time.
‘An orange?’ His brows sunk.
‘A mandarin. One for you and one for yer sister.’
Calum held them in his hands. They felt nice. They weren’t what he wanted but he was hungry. He put one in his pocket and stuck his thumb into the middle of the other. The skin gave away easily. Joan held out her hand for the peel.
‘Eh! What do you say? Her words chased after him as he spun around to catch up with his mother and sister.’
‘Fanks!’ He hitched up his trousers as he ran.
Joan walked back up the concrete path between the tall wooden gate and her dining room table, which welcomed you as soon as you entered through the back door. If you’d made it through the gate, you were welcome at the table. That’s the code by which Joan lived.
‘Why did you give her our emergency card?’ her husband George asked. George was sat like Buddha, his shiny head haloed by a holy mist. Only this mist was the opposite of holy. It was tobacco fumes built up over hours – from the moment he took his seat there at 11am this morning.
‘Because she needed money and she said it was for electric,’ she said.
‘But it wasn’t so why did you give her it?’
‘In case the kids couldn’t have a hot bath tonight.’
‘God knows they need it! Caw blimey! Stinking little buggers. I can smell em from ’ere. She has em running round like nobody owns em.’ He looked towards their granddaughter with a smile, who chuckled and then coughed, as the mouthful of soup she’d taken from her second bowl demanded her full attention.
Before long, the day had settled in. The smoke around George had become thick like the first fog of winter. Joan turned on the fan to get the air circulating. Her granddaughter got up, gathered her bag, gave her kisses and told them she’d see them tomorrow. Joan watched her walk down the runway to the gate and then out of sight beyond the tall fence surrounding them.
‘I’m going to the pub,’ said George.
‘Right. Tea’ll be ready at 8. Make sure you’re back,’ said Joan.
‘I will!’ George said, rebelliously. His legs took a while to break in and he stumbled as he manoeuvred down the slope.
Mere minutes later and music, or else rhythmic thudding, from next-door’s back window started flooding out.
Joan suddenly went rigid and her heartbeat became known to her.
‘Can ya turn that down!’ She shouted in the direction of the top right window of her neighbour’s identical house, knowing it was useless but unable to hold back the abrupt hike in electric energy.
Kevin was her elderly neighbour’s youngest son of thirty-four. He’d kept her up throughout the night. As always, George had been fast asleep. His dreams seemed to hold him in a prison, paralysed to the spot by invisible straps, within deep iron clad walls. ‘Must be all that sitting around he does all day,’ she thinks – an after shock of irritably.
Joan tugs at the dishcloths hanging on the washing line and drapes them across one arm. With the other, she kneels into the short strip of clumped clay-soil between the cement slabs of the yard and the fencing – to pick up an orphaned newspaper spread that had blown the short distance from the industrial sized bins that sprawled, open mouthed, outside the market. She’d intended to compost and plant flowers here but once she’d realised she’d need to replace all the dirt currently calling this bunker home, she decided she didn’t have the time or money spare until next month or the month after. Instead, she’d bought the two pot plants sitting self-consciously beside the doorstep.
The pounding of a drum made her shoot up onto her heels.
‘Turn that down, will ya! Ya must be deaf!’ After slamming the bin lid closed, she stormed into the house and shut the door.
She didn’t like the door closed. Not when she was on her own, especially. There was something very restrictive about it, like a buttoned up shirt collar, she thought.
She was a child of thirteen, had five children, fourteen grandchildren, and eighteen great grandchildren. There was always someone around. She was lucky if it was just a handful most days. Even if no one was talking there was fuzz and hum.
Noise, she could take, but thudding music beating like a futuristic war march against the brickwork of her home was shredding her patience into shards. She banged on the dining room wall. No use.
He made her uneasy – Kevin that’s his name. Like a rat, his time for feeding, fetching, fleecing was the night. Some nights she half expected him to come climbing in through the window, hooded and hungry, looking for stuff to take, to pawn, to offset against his habit. On nights like those she’d reach down to the gap beneath the bed and feel for the bat they kept there. It was almost longer than her arm span but she’d give it a good go, she knew.
Now though she chased the booming beats through the kitchen, picking up a pan en route, and up the stairs to the spare room where she mounted the bed and hit the base of the pot into the wall.
Joan could barely hear the metal meet the brick and plaster on this side, so there wasn’t a chance he would hear it on his.
She breathed through puffed up cheeks and clenched teeth, ‘fffffffff.’ Her son’s Valentine card on the dressing table (from many months before) blew over. She slid it face down into the small drawer and in the same movement drew to her height. She walked slowly back down the stairs.
Half way down, the blare cut out. Point blank, she was shot with near silence for a few seconds.
Then, his voice boomed.
Something animal, something similar to a roar.
It went unanswered on the other side. He did it again. She was sat at the dining table now, perched on a chair, back to the door. What if she roared back? Would he hear? They were just her thoughts but she mimed one great Lioness’ snarl and her pulse began to thud in her neck and index fingers.
Three times. She counted.
On the fourth he must have lost puff because the sound weakened into a strangled hiccup. ‘Maybe someone had done her a favour,’ she thought, ‘given him the lethal injection with a bit if luck.’
Next, the door slammed shut. His door. Not hers.
That was the last disruption she was prepared to take.
Joan ran out – after struggling with the door handle – towards the fence.
‘You! She shouted to the sky, making her voice arc over to the other side like a high-speed tennis ball. ‘What are ya playin at! Keep yer pissin’ noise down in yer stinkin’ goddam drug den, will ya. The whole pissin estate doesn’t have to listen to that shite! And last night, the whole street was awake with yer dog and yer bangin music.’
‘Fuck off, you old bitch!’
‘Who are you callin an old bitch—’ Her shoulders rounded and her fists pushed down.
Joan saw his knuckles first. Followed by the crown of his head. Face. Chest.
He had scrambled up to the top of the fence. He was perched there, she didn’t know how. He was staring straight into her eyes.
Vibrations boomed in Joan’s ears and bled down her neck, back and thighs.
His face had begun the decomposition process. She shuddered. It was as if his body had already decided he was dead. His eyes had retreated. There was a skeletal toothlessness about him that you didn’t ever see in real life. You saw it on the television – on shows with big budgets and highly paid special FX staff and make-up artists.
‘You! Now you keep yer trap shut you stupid old crank or I’ll shut it for ya.’
‘You will not!’ At that Joan reached down and dug her hands into the dirt and pulled out a solid clump of clay. Raising it above her head she threw it over her aggressor’s crown. He lost his balance.
‘Yer a fffff-ff-ff--ffart of a man. No, not a man. An ani-mal! Look at yerself. There’s ’omeless blokes cleaner than you, yer dirty bastard. If I ‘ear yer again, I’ll get you with something much bigger and the damage will be more permanent!’
She ran back into the house and locked the door. She took a few minutes stood against the door before slowly making her way to the kitchen where she began making a cup of tea. The actions were happening mechanically, automatically, through a clear screen untainted by thought. All the tension had caught in her throat and she coughed hard in fear of crying,
As she stirred the milk and heard the clinking of the spoon, she wondered if she had daydreamed it all.
‘Nan!’ Her granddaughter was banging and shouting from the other side of the locked door. Joan shuffled towards it and rustled the keys around with unsteady hands.
‘What? What’s up?’ said Joan.
‘What’ve you just done? Where is he?’ Carly nearly fell into the house.
‘Where’s who? Yer granddad’s at the pub. He won’t be long.’ Joan pulled a chair out at the table for Carly – another autocued setting.
‘No! Kevin – from next door! Janine told me she ’eard ya both shouting at each other and that you threw a clay brick on ’is ’ead! I’ve rang Uncle Rob. He’ll be here in ten minutes.’
‘Y’didn’t need to. He’ll be worried. It’s sorted now. Kevin won’t remember it anyway. He’s a smack ’ead,’ Joan tutted, ‘poor Mary. Imagine that was yer bleedin’ son! She’s too old fer all this.’
‘So are you, Nan!’
‘Sometimes yer’ve just gotta say ‘no, I’m not ’avin it’.