I observe her face for a moment. It seems serene; soft like her voice. Her eyes are bright, with no jagged crow’s feet round the corners. There’s no creased brow either and no flushed cheeks; no signs that drink has been taken.
‘The bairns’ll be fine,’ she adds, tying a headscarf over her greying hair. ‘They’re up in bed sleeping. And we’ll only be away for a wee while.’
‘Yeah, okay,’ I reply.
I’m glad of the opportunity to break the boredom of a Saturday night in front of the television, but I’m even gladder that the pair of them appear to be at peace.
I switch off the TV, grab my jerkin from the hall stand and follow her out of the front door. The sky is black and starry, and I feel the early autumn chill immediately.
‘Anyway,’ she jokes at the foot of the steps, ‘it’s only football that’s on at this time, son. You’ll not be wanting to be told again – not again, dear Lord! – how the grand and mighty English won the bloody World Cup, will you now?’
I smile and catch sight of him coming behind me. He doesn’t say a word as he zips up his anorak and steps out to join us, closing the door quietly behind him. He looks calm as well; pensive almost.
The pavement is too narrow for all three of us to walk together, so he goes a few steps ahead, his hands buried in his anorak pockets, his head bowed, still deep in thought.
She links her arm in mine, as she always does, and I watch him rolling like a sailor in front of us.
He got those bow legs from riding horses when he was a lumberjack in the Canadian Rockies, you know,’ she once told me, proudly showing me a picture of him astride a horse to prove it. He wore a cowboy hat and a checked shirt in the picture, and he looked happy and eager. He looked very young, too – in his late teens, maybe; not much older than I am now.
She’s not so proud of him when there’s a drink in her, though.
‘Crawl back to where you came from, you bandy-legged Greenock keelie,’ she loves to spit out. And that’s rich coming from her, the woman who admits freely that she was raised in the bogs of Ireland.
It’s funny how her so-called love for him always turns to contempt when she’s had a drink. It’s as if the alcohol has the power to make her realise what a terrible mistake she’s made, what a futile situation she’s got herself and her children into.
But she’s sober tonight, thank God. He’s sober, too; subdued, it seems. So I just go on watching his sailor’s roll, and I remember how much I hate him.
As far as I’m concerned, he’ll never be anything other than the interloper from next door. He’s the quiet, brooding, frightening neighbour, who lost his own wife and who came sneaking into our house, looking for another one. He’s the soft-footed, soft-spoken assassin, who wormed his way into her affections and took over my job as the man of the household. We were doing all right until then, weren’t we? But now everything’s just a mess…
‘Isn’t it grand to see the stars and smell the night air?’ she interrupts my thoughts, pulling me closer to her and pointing her nostrils to the sky.
‘Yeah, I suppose,’ I mumble my answer, but I’m back remembering when he made his first appearance.
It was the night of Dad’s funeral. I was sitting in the kitchen, waiting for the houseful of relations to finish their drinking and singing, desperate to be rid of them, when he walked in from the back door. As far as I knew, it was the first time he had set foot in our house. Although he came over as awkward and sheepish, somehow I sensed that he wasn’t there solely to pay his respects. I’m sure I didn’t imagine that look in his eyes: the sharp, cunning look of a hunter on the prowl.
‘I just came…’ he began to say to no-one in particular when one of my aunts grabbed him by the arm and pulled him in the direction of the sitting room.
‘Here’s your next-door neighbour to see you, hen,’ I heard her call out to the weeping heap that was Mum.
Was that when the great romance began? It must have been. In only a matter of months, he became a frequent visitor to the house – to Mum’s bedroom, to be more precise, taking Dad’s place in the bed, even though the poor man’s grave was still fresh. What possessed her to do that? Did she panic because she was terrified of being on her own without a man? Or was it to satisfy her needs, her lust, like an animal? Whatever the reason, I’ll never forgive her for it.
We’re at the bottom of the hill now. We turn the corner and head along Station Road. There are no street lights along there, so we only have the glow of the stars to go by. I glance at Mum’s ghostly face. She’s still gazing up at the stars, smiling wistfully, as if she’s remembering better times. He’s still walking ahead of us, but the gap between him and us is growing bigger.
Things weren’t too bad to begin with, I suppose. They were never out of each other’s company: always in her bedroom or going out for walks together or going for runs into the country in his van. They even went away on holiday once, taking the two bairns with them. She seemed younger and happier – carefree, even.
Then it all went wrong. Someone – some snake of a neighbour – reported her for cohabiting, so they took away her widow’s pension and made her pay back a whack of it. Not long after, the Council told them to give up one of the houses. Before we knew it, he and his two sons had moved permanently into our house, which was already overcrowded. And we had just become used to that when the drinking began.
She started it with the gin, probably because she felt sorry for herself. The newness and excitement of the romance had disappeared, and she had ended up with a bigger family in a more crowded house with even less money than before. I’m sure she could see the hopelessness of the future.
He joined her with the whisky, which he’s not supposed to drink because it makes him wild with that steel plate in his head. According to her, he was given the plate to replace part of his skull when he was grazed by a bullet during the War. And he does go wild with whisky, all right, but mostly because she’s a nasty drunk, who constantly derides and goads him until he explodes.
So the pair of them have had drunken row after drunken row, followed by smashed furniture, broken windows and visits by the Police, with Saturday nights in particular turned into a battlefield. I’m sure it’s because of the threat of those fights that I’m still in the house at weekends: I want to make sure that no harm comes to her or the bairns as a result of the shenanigans. It’s like living on a knife edge.
Mind you, they’ve been behaving themselves for a good number of weeks now. There haven’t been any rows since the time the wee boy got scalded. That must have given them a big fright. It was a Saturday as well. They had gone out during the day, probably to the pub. When they came back, they went straight to her bedroom and closed the door. They were in there for hours. Teatime came and went, with no sign of them emerging. We were all starving, so we decided to fend for ourselves. While some of my sisters made sandwiches, I brewed a big pot of tea.
I’m still not sure how it happened – there were too many of us in the kitchen at the one time, I suppose, with too much larking about and too much jostling – but I was carrying the pot over to the table when it was knocked out of my hand and the whole thing spilled down the wee boy’s chest. I must have just acted on reflex, turning on the tap of the big sink, lifting up the screaming bairn, pulling off his pyjama top and dumping him into the cold water. Then, with his screams still ringing in my ears, I rushed out into the hall. I had run halfway up the stairs when I heard that arrogant voice she always adopts when she’s drunk.
‘Get your hand off my breast,’ she was demanding.
‘Get your hand off my breast!’ she demanded again more loudly.
I could feel the anger rising within me.
‘Get down here, you drunken bastards!’ I yelled up as hard as I could. ‘The bairn’s just been scalded!’
I was back trying to sooth the wee boy’s chest with water when she appeared in the kitchen, her cheeks flushed, her hair bedraggled, wearing only a long nylon nightdress with the buttons at the top undone. She immediately skited me across the face, pushed me out of the way and hauled the wee boy out of the sink.
‘That’s not what you do, you eejit!’ she spat out.
‘Fetch the butter! And somebody get me a towel!’ she barked at my sisters as she hugged the sobbing bairn to her chest.
Then she glowered at me again.
‘You! Go and get the doctor!’ she hissed.
As I raced down the road in the direction of the doctor’s house, I saw that he was following me. He was sprinting after me in his shirt sleeves and stocking soles, but he didn’t catch up with me until I had reached the house and rung the bell.
Rather than come to the door, the doctor’s wife opened a window and glared out at us.
‘What do you want?’ she asked in that snooty way of hers. ‘Don’t you know it’s Saturday evening and the doctor’s having dinner?’
I could tell that the War hero next to me was too winded to speak, so I answered instead.
‘My wee brother’s been scalded with a full teapot,’ I blurted out the words.
Her face softened just for a moment.
‘Right, I’ll let the doctor know,’ she said and promptly closed the window.
Still panting, the War hero turned on his heels and began to sprint back home. I walked slowly after him.
The doctor was in the kitchen by the time I returned.
‘No, not butter, but lots of cold water. That’s the best way to deal with burns,’ he was saying to Mum as I came into the room. ‘It helps to reduce the blistering. So it’s thanks to your son’s quick actions that the youngster won’t be scarred for the rest of his life.’
I could still feel the imprint of her hand on my cheek. I looked at her, waiting for her to say something to me, but she turned away and spoke softly instead to the bairn cradled in her arms. And now, weeks later, she still hasn’t said a word to me about that awful night; not an apology or a thank you…
‘We’ve been having a good, long talk,’ she whispers suddenly, breaking into my thoughts again.
She brings us to a stop for a bit, letting the gap between us and him grow even longer. Then we resume walking. I can sense that she’s impatient to confide in me.
‘Aye,’ she continues, her voice slightly louder now. ‘We’ve decided that we don’t really suit each other, that we’re not… what’s it called now?… yes, compatible… that we’re not really compatible.’
She pauses, presumably to allow me time to absorb the news.
‘I don’t know what got into me, why I ever got myself into this… this situation. But we’re going to go our separate ways. He’ll probably take his laddies and go back to stay in Greenock beside his brother. They’ll be away soon…’
As her words trail off, I look into her face again. I notice the moistness below her eyes for the first time; signs that she’s been crying. I don’t say anything, but my heart sings.
I see the headlights of an approaching car up ahead. Suddenly, a shape appears in front of the headlights, there’s the screeching of brakes, and the shape is now a bundle in the middle of the road.
It takes a few seconds for her to realise what’s happened.
‘Oh, Mary, Mother of God!’ she cries, letting go of me and rushing towards the bundle. ‘Oh, Jesus Mary Joseph!’
When I catch up with her, she’s kneeling on the road, cradling his head. He’s curled up unconscious, but it doesn’t look like he was hit by the car. The driver of the car is standing over them.
‘I knew it! I knew it!’ she’s intoning to the driver. ‘He said he was going to take all my tablets and kill himself. I thought it was just a threat, but that’s what he’s gone and done. Oh, Jesus Mary Joseph! My poor, wee man! My poor, wee man!’
It’s ironic, isn’t it? The driver is the local doctor, the same one who treated the wee boy after he was scalded.
The next morning, someone gives her a lift into the Infirmary in Edinburgh, and I go with her. We’re directed to the psychiatric ward, where an orderly leads us along a long corridor between two rows of beds occupied by gawping, moaning men. We come to a halt at a cot at the far end of the ward. Most of the metal bars running down both sides of the cot have been mangled. I can see him through the bars, dressed in a white gown, sleeping peacefully on his back, looking like a cherub. But I can also see that one of his arms and one of his legs are handcuffed to the cot.
‘He’s still sedated,’ the orderly is saying to her, shaking his head. ‘We had to do that after they pumped his stomach, you know. Took six of us to hold him down so he could be injected. He’s a strong, wee bugger, all right. Did that to the cot before he konked out.’
I look at the damaged cot, at the monster inside it, at the concern and tenderness on her face, and I know he’s won. I walk out of the ward and back into the crisp air. I stare up into the blueness, searching for the God I’ve been praying to all these years. But I know now there’s nothing there; no God, no heaven. I know this is the day I stop believing.
Brendan was born in Edinburgh and brought up just along the road in South Queensferry in the shadow of the Forth Bridge. Brendan Gisby is the founder of McStorytellers and the author of three novels, three biographies and several short story collections.