Halfway Up The Street
She stops to light a fag, watches some sparrows fight over batter-bits, left by a slow-blown chip-paper that tumbleweeds across the Courthouse grass.
From the pavement she squints to make out the headline exclaiming Sandie Shaw a winner.
She drags deep on her fag, exhales, puts both hands back on the pram and starts walking, steering around a curled mound of dog muck.
Jean and her sisters watched the Eurovision on their new second-hand black and white TV on Saturday night, bought by her mam the weekend before from a woman at work.
Jean and her sisters gasped when Sandie’s microphone didn’t work at first, and then moved as one to the edge of the new second-hand settee when Sandie’s voice came through loud and clear.
Jean would like her hair cut like Sandie’s, but for now she wears it in a beehive.
She stoops by the cenotaph to pull the backs of her sandals up, and to stop her heart beating fast she sings the first line of Sandie’s chorus, almost breathing it into the mouth of the pram.
Say you love me madly, I’ll gladly, be there.
She frowns, drags on her fag, then starts reading the blackened names on the cenotaph.
For those who fell.
She gets as far as Evans G, then understands these names mean nothing to her, and placing one hand on the pram, she moves on in slow measured steps, fag in mouth, using her free hand to check her hair.
In the mirror this morning she thought she looked older. This is something she wants, and has been practising an older face. The older face doesn’t smile.
She takes her fag out and glances down to her belly and legs as she walks. In her brown suede miniskirt her belly has lost its little pudding, and she thinks her legs have gained nothing after the birth.
In the distance, the Post Office clock looks like it reads a quarter to one, but she can’t be sure without her glasses.
Jean puts the brake on the big old pram and moves around to the side of it, peering into the flaky chrome struts that hold the hood up. Her black eyeliner is thick today, and her slate-grey eyes stare back between curls of peeling silver.
She rubs the loose flakes off and wishes she had a new pram.
When the woman from the Social came to tell her someone had donated a used pram and did she want it, Jean felt happy. She walked all the way across town to a big old house to collect it. The woman who was donating the pram smiled at Jean, but she could tell the woman was judging her.
Jean’s mam warned her people would be like this when she came home with the baby.
Jean knew this anyway.
Lifting the brake with the toe of her sandal, Jean and the pram move off slowly. She still has quarter of an hour until she meets Mick, and Mick is always late.
Her heart starts beating faster again when she thinks of him, and she hates herself for not being strong and calm like an older woman would.
She parks the pram by the bench and sits down, pulling her skirt down lower.
Stamping her fag out, she remembers Mick’s face when she told him she was pregnant. She remembers the flicker of shock in his eyes, the blink, then the grin, the Oh well I suppose we’d best get married then.
Typical Mick. But there was to be no wedding, white or otherwise, Jean’s mam forbidding her to ever see Mick again.
He’s bad like your dad, Jean’s mam had said. And you can’t make the same mistake I made. No.
Jean cried when she found out she was pregnant. She didn’t tell her mam at first, not until she started to show. Jean’s mam was still poorly anyway, so it would have done no good to tell her.
Jean remembers standing up in the courtroom to tell the judge what she saw her dad do to her mother, all the time knowing that inside her belly a new life was growing, and would keep on growing until she could hide it no longer.
Her dad stared at her in the courtroom as she told what she saw, so she looked down at her black sandals while she said it. Jean had promised herself that she wouldn’t cry when she told it, but she did. The judge gave him six years, which made Jean cry again.
She wanted him to go away forever.
She wanted him to come home and be her dad.
Jean watched the policeman put the handcuffs on him, and then take her dad down some steps that led to a heavy door. He glanced over his shoulder at Jean, and she thought he smiled at her.
She lights another fag, standing up to look at the Post Office clock again. In her letter she told Mick one o’clock at the Town Hall steps. She picked there because it was far enough from home for her mam not to see, but close enough to get home quick if she needed to.
She won’t let Mick see her cry. She can’t cry. She’s too old for that now.
Rocking the pram as she walks, the squeak squeak of the springs measuring her stride, Jean checks her beehive again with her free hand, pulls her skirt down a little, then looks up to see a single white cloud shaped like a fish. In all the blue sky this is the only cloud, and Jean imagines herself laying across the back of the cloudfish, high above the world and the people in it, looking down on everything and no one knowing she was there.
She stops at the street corner that turns towards the Town Hall, takes another drag on her fag, then with both hands firmly on the pram she moves on, around the corner to where she can see the Town Hall steps, long slow-breathing like when she had the baby.
Typical. Mick is late, but Jean is almost happy at this. This gives her time to sit and think what she’s going to say to him.
She parks the pram and sits three steps up with her feet on the pavement, careful not to show her knickers.
She imagines Mick stood in front of her, and she thinks that she will stay sitting, she will stay sitting and she will tell him that the baby in the pram is his son.
When Jean’s mam made her not see Mick anymore, Jean wrote him a letter to tell him. She said she would always love him, but she couldn’t be with him. She told him she was going away to a Magdalene house in Sheffield and someone would adopt the baby. She imagined herself older in the letter, and had used words like fate and responsibility.
Jean was crying when she wrote the letter. She had to rewrite it twice because some tears had fallen onto the page and that was no good. That was the kind of thing that girls did in films and books, crying onto letters to be sent to far-away lovers, and this wasn’t a film, or a book.
Jean drags on her fag, stamps it out, then looks up again to the cloudfish. Its tail has broken away from its body and she imagines herself falling through the gap, rushing towards the earth and its people, all of them looking up and pointing.
She blinks, turning her gaze across the face of the sun towards the voice.
There stands Mick, grinning. He is wearing the same leather jacket he always wore, and his hair is still long like it always was. He is holding hands with a blonde girl in a short red dress who is also grinning. Her lipstick is a brighter red than her dress and Jean thinks the girl looks like a slag.
Jean stands up quickly and points to the pram where the baby lies sleeping, its little fists slow-clenching by its tiny mouth.
This is Billy, says Jean in a voice that sounds older, stronger, And I’m keeping him.
Mick and the girl have stopped grinning as Jean turns on her heel, pushing the pram back towards home, where she will make up the baby’s bottle, feed his eager mouth by the backyard daffodils, his dark eyes watching the yellow heads nod in the first breath of summer, the world underneath them slow-turning, a tiny hand gripping a little finger, mine, these things will say, mine.
“Born illegitimate in the sixties, I went from a nun’s house to another house of women, who looked after me until I went to live on a farm. On the farm I looked after a litter of runts until the boss took them away to be killed. From then on I played in the nearby woods with make-believe people. When I left school I worked at a trouser-press in a wig of piss, putting creases in old men’s trousers. The boss didn’t like me arriving late because of what happened the night before so I left. Repeat this for the next few jobs I did, which included selling bicycles and driving a fork truck. After a while I gave up and made children instead. This was a happy time. And then I kept falling over so I had a lie down. When I finally got back up, I went and read some books. This again was a happy time. Then I worked as a talker about books. This was happy until it turned out my boss was a machine that couldn’t process naughty words, so once again I left. Regardless, I don’t think I’m difficult. My first book is called Billy and the Devil. It’s about an alcoholic. My second book is called The Gospel According to Johnny Bender, and it’s about lots of things.”