‘She made like she was going to say something then didn’t. I shrugged, lit a fag and sat drumming me fingers. She sat looking at me, lips pursed. To annoy her, I blew a smoke ring, watched it spiral to the ceiling. If I blew enough of them maybe I could float away.’
—A short story from Moya Roddy’s collection, Fire in My Head.
I ALSO HAD MY HOUR
by Moya Roddy
She was one of those ordinary aulwans: you see them in supermarkets at certain times of the day or coming out of the post office certain days of the week.
You think you know them, the way you think you know lots of things.
The first time I met her was on a bus, I was on me way to see MABS about sorting out arrears. Christmas was coming – or not – depending on what they said. Me handbag was stuffed with threatening reminders from the ESB and the credit card company and I was carrying on a kind of dress rehearsal in me head when she gets on, dragging one of those wheelie things that would take the leg off ye.
She sat down opposite. I’d just got to the bit where me and the bloke from MABS were discussing instalments when I coulda swore she said something. I leaned across.
The eyes that met mine beamed and lips still moving, she held up her hands. Rosary beads! I thought they’d gone out with the ark.
‘It was too cold this morning to kneel down,’ she said, kissing the cross and putting the beads in her pocket. ‘I’m sure He doesn’t mind where I say them. Are you getting in before the rush starts?’
I gave a non-committal nod.
‘I hardly bother with Christmas,’ she carried on; ‘it’s got so expensive. It’s the parents I feel sorry. In my day children were happy-’
I shut me ears. Old people only seem to know sentences beginning with ‘in my day’.
When she’d finished, I gave a sigh, more to shut her up than anything.
She bent closer. ‘Have you children?’
‘Three,’ I answered although I felt like telling her to mind her own bloody business.
‘You don’t look old enough. I hope your husband has a good job, he’d need it these days.’
That did it. I gave her one of me stares: they could stop a train. She got the message because right away she started fidgeting, buttoning her coat which was already buttoned, looking around her.
‘Where are we?’ she asked, peering out the window.
I knew she knew. There was no husband. Suddenly I felt like lashing out. Who did she think she was butting into my life? Did she think I was at the stage where telling a sob-story to every aulwan with a pair of ears was the highlight of me day? I used hate it when me ma did that; as if talking got you anywhere.
‘Aungier Street,’ she announced as if she’d discovered it. ‘I’ll make the eleven o’clock if the priest’s late. I’ll say a little prayer for your intentions,’ she whispered, her hands gripping the wheelie for support.
All the good that’ll do, I smirked.
It was well into the New Year when I bumped into her again.
‘I thought I recognised you,’ she said, gathering herself into the seat beside me like we were bosom buddies. ‘You’re just like me, always sit in the same seat. My husband, God rest him, used to say, “Sit near the front, that way you don’t feel the jolts.” She lowered her voice. ‘I kept you in my prayers. How are things?’
‘Grand,’ I replied, turning towards the window.
‘I love this time of year, especially when the crocuses come. Have you seen any?’
‘There’s plenty of snowdrops but it’s the crocuses I wait for. That’s when you know it’s really spring. Course when you’re young you don’t even think about it but when you get to my age-’
Here we go again, I thought, I could put the words to music. Excuse the rest of us for having a life.
‘Listen to me rambling,’ she continued, ‘it’s what happens when you live on your own, you’ve no one to talk to.’
Then you try and make us feel guilty.
‘Must be hard,’ I said, forcing me voice to sound sympathetic.
‘I’m sure you’ve enough problems of your own.’
At her words the neon lights of GameWorlz flashed in front of me eyes and a throbbing in me neck went on overtime.
‘A penny for them,’ she interrupted, ‘not that you can get anything for a penny these days.’ She tittered. Something about the stupid words and the stupid laugh did it.
‘There, there,’ she fussed.’ ‘No need to cry.’
I wiped the tears away with the back of me hand. ‘It’s nothing, something in me eye.’
‘I know. Here.’ She pulled out a crumpled tissue. ‘It’s clean.’
I blew me nose, squeezed me eyes shut – anything to keep from spilling all over the place. ‘I’m making a real show of meself,’ I sniffed.
‘Who cares? That’s one thing you learn when you get to my age.’
I burst out laughing, I couldn’t help it. She joined in although I don’t know what she thought I was laughing at.
‘My heart, my heart,’ she gasped, her face getting redder and redder.
‘Here youse two,’ one of the other passengers shouted, ‘let’s in on the joke.’
Some kind of bond must have been sealed between us that day because we ended up exchanging names and addresses. Not that I’d any intention of calling on her, although I can’t say it was a total surprise when I opened the door a couple of weeks later, found her on the step.
‘I was passing, sure with the free travel I’m all over the place.’
Pull the other one Eileen Kerrigan, I thought, it has bells on.
‘These houses are very deceptive,’ she commented, taking off her coat and having a good look round. I could see she was impressed. I keep the place nice even if I say so meself. It’s amazing what you can find in second-hand shops. The trick is never to go to the local ones.
‘I made these for the children,’ she smiled producing a brown paper bag. ‘They won’t be any the wiser if we eat a couple.’
They looked like the kind of rock buns that really had rocks in them and I knew the kids would turn up their noses but I didn’t let on.
‘Did you sort out that little problem at work you were telling me about? Oh I hope I’m not interfering.’
‘Yeah. Well, it’s blown over. For the time being.’
An almighty shriek came from the kids playing outside and she was off her chair like a rocket.
‘Ignore them,’ I told her, switching on the kettle. ‘They’ll sort it out themselves. I’d be in and out like a yoyo if I paid attention.’
‘Which children are yours?’
‘See her. The one poking a finger, that’s Donna and the monster in the Man U shirt is Jason. Dunno where Kenny is.’
‘Hard to believe. You don’t look a day older than my youngest.’
‘I had Kenny when I was eighteen. I’m thirty.’
‘Aoife’s age, that’s my second daughter.’ She sat down slowly. ‘They’ve all emigrated. It’s not until they go, you miss them. Strange.’
Not half as strange as you sitting here, I thought.
After that, Mrs K, as I took to calling her, began appearing every Thursday, regular as clockwork. I could tell the day by her. I have to admit there was something soothing about the way she’d ramble on about her kids; it was like following a soap opera.
There was Aoife, the one who was the same age as me who lived in London. She’d just finished a degree and had to take a job in a company making commercials until she landed one she wanted in television. Jammy, I thought, imagine having problems like that!
Then there was Martin, holed up in Boston, a bit fond of the drink. A budding alcoholic, I guessed, reading between the lines. Her favourite was Sarah. She’d landed up in Sydney after doing a bit of travelling and Mrs K was always praying she’d come home.
I don’t think I ever met anyone who prayed as much, there was always some novena on the go.
But the kids took to her; she’d watch them doing their homework, ask questions, make a bit of a fuss of them. It was like having a granny, I suppose. The rock buns were a problem but. I hated throwing them out, then I discovered the dog next door liked them. Before long Tyson was calling as often as she did.
That afternoon when the bell went I thought it was Kenny back with me cigs and just too bloody lazy to walk all the way in.
‘It’s on the latch,’ I yelled. When I didn’t hear footsteps, I forced meself out of the chair.
‘What are you doing here?’ I asked seeing Mrs K, ‘It’s only Wednesday.’
Mrs K put a hand on me arm. ‘Is something wrong with one of the children?’
I realised I must have looked a sight, me eyes ballooned with crying, me nose and mouth raw-looking.
‘It’s nothing.’ I said, propelling her inside. ‘It’s …oh fuck it, fuck it.’
She flinched. She hated “language” as she called it. It was the only thing she ever pulled the kids up for when she thought I wasn’t listening.
‘What am I going to do!’
Ignoring me, Mrs K went to the sink and filled the kettle. Bustling round, she found a Pyrex dish, shoved a few of the rock buns she’d brought into the micro. Within minutes there were two steaming mugs and a plate of hot buttered buns on the table. I’d never seen her move so quickly, like someone had recharged her batteries.
She pushed the plate towards me. ‘Eat up.’
I took one out of politeness and I have to admit they tasted a whole lot better heated. Halfway through eating the tears started. She took hold of one of me hands, covered it with hers. I looked away, embarrassed at the tumult of longing she’d set off.
‘What is it … what’s upsetting you?’ Her voice purred like a prayer. It was too much. The feeling did a somersault and just as suddenly I hated her. I pulled me hand away, reached for a fag. It was me last one. I’d make mincemeat of Kenny when he showed up.
As I sucked on the cigarette it all flooded out. I couldn’t remember what I’d already told her so I rehashed the whole bloody saga.
Story of me life: getting everything hunky-dory then wallop! This time I’d been so sure: part-time work with just enough hours so I didn’t lose benefit, a neighbour willing to take the kids a couple of hours after school for next to nothing; the job only ten minutes up the road so I didn’t have to freeze me arse off waiting for buses. Then just before Christmas – nicely planned – Donnelly, the geezer who runs GameWorlz, mentions he’d like me to do extra hours and he wasn’t asking.
‘The bastard knows I can’t do extra hours – the Social would just deduct it.’
‘You didn’t tell them and they found out?’ Mrs K interrupted.
‘Found out what! What he was on about was me working longer for the same money. He didn’t want me to start straight up so I said nothing … hoping he’d drop it. I thought he had then yesterday he brings it up again. Wish to fuck I’d kept me mouth shut.’ I could still see the whole charade. Me telling him I couldn’t do the extra hours, the child-minder wouldn’t be able to have the kids and anyway it wasn’t fair. The way he looked at me, skin smooth as a baby’s, voice like talcum powder, ‘If you don’t like it, Mrs, there’s a queue behind ye.’
‘“Mrs!” He didn’t even know me bloody name!’
‘Don’t upset yourself! He’s not worth it.’
‘Then he throws me wages across the table, says unless I change me attitude he didn’t expect to see me again. What am I goin’ to do? I can barely manage as it is.’
There was a silence, the laughs and screams of the kids outside suddenly aggravating.
‘What about the other people who work there? Have you spoken to any of them?’
‘Let them know me business?’
The doorbell went.
‘That’ll be Kenny. I’ll murder him.’
Gesturing me to stay put, Mrs K went to answer it.
‘Your mammy and me are having a little chat,’ I heard her say in a confiding voice.
She came back in, handing me the cigarettes like they were poison.
‘I hope you didn’t give him any money,’ I said, eyeing the purse she was carrying.
She made like she was going to say something then didn’t. I shrugged, lit a fag and sat drumming me fingers. She sat looking at me, lips pursed. To annoy her, I blew a smoke ring, watched it spiral to the ceiling. If I blew enough of them maybe I could float away.
‘Who else is there? Is it only women?’
‘Catch a man working for the pittance they pay.’
Mrs K rounded on me. ‘He’s probably doing the same to all of them. He’s hardly picked you out for special treatment.’
‘What fuckin’ difference does it make if he’s screwing the lot of us?’ I lit a fag off the one I was finishing; I’d had enough of her and her advice. If she didn’t leave soon I’d smoke her out.
She slammed down the mug she was holding so hard I jumped. I thought she was going to throw it at me. Jesus! I lose me job and she’s pissed off because I’m cursing. Just like me ma. Well me ma was dead, so she could fuck off, it was my house.
‘That’s right,’ she shouted, ‘smoke another cigarette, sit on your backside and complain. Can’t you see, if you let him get away with it, he’ll do it to all the others. All I’m suggesting is you go and talk to some of the women, the ones you’re friendly with.’
I threw me eyes to heaven. Easy seeing she’d never been to GameWorlz. I’d challenge anyone to make friends sitting in a glass box handing out tokens. Anyway, I wouldn’t be seen dead back there.
‘What have you got to lose? If everyone’s getting the same treatment, youse could all go and see him, threaten him-’ She stopped suddenly, sat down. After a moment she held out a hand. ‘Look at me, I’m shaking all over. I wasn’t like that years ago.’ As she spoke a light crept into her eyes.
‘What d’ye mean?’
‘I know you think I’m a fussy old woman but years ago I worked in a factory. Before you ask, it was a knickers factory. Go on, smile. I used to sew gussets on knickers. They were proper ones in those days, not bits of lace held together with elastic. When I think of it, we were on piecework, two pence halfpenny a dozen. Can you imagine? We could do six dozen an hour. Then they brought in a conveyor belt – we didn’t even know what it was – offered us hourly rates. We ended up working twice as hard, doing twice as much and getting paid half the money. So you see, nothing changes. Next thing, we were only allowed to go to the toilet at certain times in case we held up the line. “King Line,” Margaret Hand christened it, and it was king.’ Her eyes closed and I could tell she was back there.
‘Where was I?’ she blinked.
‘King Line. Right. Well, I wasn’t going to stand for that. I told the foreman I’d something wrong with my kidneys. Some of the others came up with even worse things; it wasn’t hard to embarrass a man in those days. It didn’t work though and we were all given a warning so what did I do only go and see if I could get the union in. I hardly knew what a union was but I’d heard they looked after workers.’
‘Try that in GameWorlz – you’d be out on your ear.’
‘It wasn’t any different. I got sacked. Blacklisted. Easy done in those days.’ Her voice cracked. I could feel a lump in me own throat and the urge to light up was killing me.
‘What I’ll never forget is the day I was leaving. We all had our own cups and one of the women started banging hers. The others joined in, shouting and cheering as I walked past.’ Her face lit up and for a split second I caught a glimpse of what she must have been like all those years ago. ‘It was the proudest moment of my life.’
‘How come you never told me this before?’
She looked me straight in the eye and I realised I’d never asked her; I’d never really been that interested.
I picked up the pack of cigs, then changed me mind. Instead I put me arms round her. We stayed like that for a couple of minutes.
‘They’re all bastards! Someone has to stand up to them.’
She looked at me, eyes twinkling, then we were off like hyenas.
‘Will I make more tea?’ I asked through giggles.
She nodded. ‘Maybe you could call in the children. I’d like to say goodbye to them.’
I was running the tap when her words sank in. ‘Goodbye? Where are ye going?’
She rooted in her bag, fished out an envelope.
‘Sarah wants me to come and live with her in Australia. She sent this.’ Mrs K held up a brightly coloured ticket. ‘I’ve decided to give it a try. Sure, what have I got to lose?’
Just like me, I thought.
Only I was wrong.
In the months that followed I realised I’d had something to lose. She was one of those ordinary aulwans, ye see them in the supermarket at certain times of the day or coming out of the post office certain days of the week. Ye think you know them.
Moya Roddy is the author of two novels, two collections of short stories and a collection of poetry. She also writes for television and film. Fire in my Head is available at Charlie Byrnes, Books Upstairs and elsewhere.