The gate could barely cope with the weight laid down on its hinges from Marge our sturdy boisterous neighbour. You could never quite tell how the rusted iron did it, but it did – every Thursday like clockwork. The sun would catch her on the side of her cheek, and she would squint up her face then raise a hand to block the sunshine from her eyes. She had done this many days before – and her skin wore it, with its peaks and troughs, mostly troughs. There was the odd evidence of aging defiance in her youthful freckles, that looked a bit like mine just bigger.
They all blended in to one those evenings, but the outline of the weekly ritual was the same. Marge would twitch and jutter in her standing as she waited for Tess – my mother, to come out to play. My mam inside trying to get the potatoes on. Timing key. It had to be long enough to hear the latest goings on with Marge yet ‘not too long that it became painful’ she would say.
There was a glare at the kettle – the one supposedly put on ten minutes before on the gas hob. ‘Never bloody put on the ring for the kettle, I don’t know my arse from my elbow today and I must wash that kettle’. There was a design that waved up the side of our metal weary kettle like demons in hell raving. The black markings posed a constant reminder of what could lay in wait for you, should you not choose the path laid down by Tess.
At this point Tess began to roar like she was first to jump the final fence at the Grand National, galloping on the spot at the kettle, hoping this would magically speed it up.
I ran, as always to the sitting room window, to see was Marge still there and invariably she would be waiting for Tess. I could see her elbow clubbed in between the pillars of our rusty old fence. I would lift the corner of the curtain ever so slightly – I’d move softly yet smartly as she was able to see for at least half a mile, without any effort, so my dad would say.
The design on the net curtain posed a real hurdle to my view. It was the type of design that put you in mind of a Christmas wreath.
They, the curtains that is, were fresh off the counter with Mrs Beatty from the ‘specialist’ shop in the middle of the village. She sold everything, socks, underpants, tea towels and all things exotic. It took about two hours to get them curtains between the rolling, cutting and chatting. And when she smiled, which she did once you made a choice on what you wanted, she dazzled with the finest set of dentures that fit her face perfectly and made you doubt they were in any way fake. The curls were firm and steadfast, no matter what time of the day you entered her premises, and the glasses were minimal compared to some at the time.
She would lather the counter with each of her new supplies. And just as she would be about to cut the wonderful lace Tess would say ‘hold on, wait, what was that last one like again’. She would ask me what I think, sure I was on my tippy toes trying to get a look. And the smell, I can smell it still. It was clean fresh material, it was not that mouldy smell, but it definitely had an edge to it that was not familiar to me. It sat on the right side of tolerable, but only just.
I never measured it in inches, but I walked that counter many a time practicing my numbers. It had to be the longest counter in the county, if not in the country. There were shelves with rows of shirts that all looked the same to me, all wrapped carefully in plastic and stacked so they never came crashing down on top of her. To this day I do not know how she managed to get them balanced. She was the only link to anything fashion in the town and she was always run off her feet.
There was a softness to Mrs. Beatty all the same, she was a widow and all her children had done well for themselves and lived in places we had not heard of. That left her with a fighting spirit, and she was a sharp businesswoman at the heart of her, sure it wasn’t from the ground her troops had found the grit and determination to get out and see the world.
I pushed the curtain corner aside, my height suited for it perfectly, and gazed with a wonder and curiosity at Marge and Tess, who had now made it outside. The evening was fine and bright with an ease to it. Their body language was swinging in and out like they both swayed in opposing winds. The occasional rumble of laughter could be heard all over the street from the pair of them.
I loved watching Tess, her body free, she was just her, herself, not ‘mammy’ or ‘slave’ as she would fondly refer to herself as. And the smiles were different, they just lit her face up in a different way to when she smiled with us.
And like that, the two of them would stop and throw the remainder of the tea on to the nearest plant. Marge’s hydrangea was worst hit on these evenings – as Tess was not interested in plants, she just turfed it loosely on the grass. I would always catch her get one tea drop on herself – the subtle rubbing of her wrist as it had run down her hand. She, cleverly catching the corner of her apron just enough to stop the droplet of rogue tea making it to her elbow.
There were pleasant goodbyes exchanged and I flipped from the back of the sofa to sitting upright and ready to join Tess when she got in. Mother burst in the door completely frustrated. I dared not look her directly in the eye, never mind ask her anything about her sudden change into some kind of demon.
She made her way to the kitchen banging and muttering, not a bit of it making any sense. I moved closer to see if that would help – but it just made me more confused. One minute she was giggling the next throwing her hands above her head. Shoving them higher like she was trying to tell someone how tall she wished she was. Then pulling them down by her side grabbing her jumper and shuffling it like she was doing the cha cha, her head going to the opposite direction of the tug.
I walked out to the fridge pretending that I wanted a drink. I was met with ‘that bloody woman, I told her all about my irritable bowel and she like clockwork gets something worse’. I had to ask ‘what’s irritable bowel’ – well I was only roughly 12. I didn’t register that the body lets anyone down until they are totally ancient – like 40. And Tess was a long way off that.
Her response was swift and guilt free ‘sure I don’t have irritable bowel, but she was on about her ingrown toenail last week when I mentioned I broke my nail sanding down that bloody cooker top. She always has to get one up on everything, I’ll have to come up with something big next week, oh god forgive me I am not going near the big C but that woman would nearly drive you to it’.
‘Stir them vegetables till I go and think up something for next week, God forgive me, and stop looking at me like that. Are ye learning anything at school at the minute that is a long word? I could say something harmless, sure her kids are long grown up and she got rid of the encyclopaedias once the youngest left home. And another thing, quit spending half your evening looking out the window at me, I saw ya rolling up me new curtains’.