Mam’s hands are scorched by time, raised blue veins crisscrossed over parched skin. She has a misshapen little finger where Da once brought down the blunt handle of his knife when she reached for the salt. Never put your hand across my food, woman! Her hands are always busy, knitting, hemming, darning, kneading, marking our height with chalk on the outhouse wall. Her fingertips are ridden with soot from mending the fire and tinged with the ripe smell of newspaper and vinegar from cleaning the brass. Mam always keeps a tin of thick hand cream tucked behind the flour on the pantry shelf. She rubs it in every morning, but it never eases the chafing and the lemon scent never lasts very long. At night, after the latch clicks and we hear the thud of his boots echo on the flags outside, Mam tucks us in. She strokes our cheeks and whispers, ‘Go, bairns, go soon as you get the chance, divn’t worry about me and divn’t look back.’ My little sister is afraid, ‘I’d miss you too much, Mam’ she says. Mam’s eyes are brighter than a sea coal fire, ‘you’ll miss me more if you stay.’ I know she is fading, bit by bit, day by day. Sundays are always the worst, especially if there are tanners left on the mantle. Da slams his fist down on the scrubbed table, making the brass brushes swing on the hearth. He glares at us, his eyes as flint grey as the North East sky. ‘You’ve cursed us with lasses, woman,’ he hisses at Mam, ‘What use are bonny faces?’ Mam gives us the nod and we scurry up the stairs and perch on the landing, holding our peg dollies close. He bangs and shouts, a bear in a cage, until, finally, he crashes through the front door and heads to The Kings Arms. Mam says there are no kings there, only filthy men with filthy tempers. I sometimes think of Da underground every day, and wonder if the darkness in those tunnels has seeped through his skin and made him as dark as the Devil. Maybe it’s not his fault. What kind of man would he have been if he had felt even just a scrap of sunlight on his face? I think maybe it was the coaldust that blackened his heart. Mam always says, no matter how much you scrub, you can never get rid of coaldust. Once Da has gone, the room fills with air. Mam sits us in front of the fire and teaches us granny’s old songs while we wrestle with crochet hooks, our brows furrowed in concentration. With every hour that passes, tiny knots of dread stitch themselves into my belly. Granny’s songs are full of broken hearts and mourning fishwives, too sad to soothe, and I know once the singing stops, we’ll be back to square one. The fire burns down to ash. Me and young un lay in bed under Mam’s best blanket. Sleep drifts above us but never lands. Mam sits at the top of the stairs, ready to take the brunt. Her hands are strong but not strong enough to stop the blows of an angry Da with a leather belt. Get in that bedroom, woman, make me a son! My sister whimpers while I hum granny’s songs to her. We ignore the thumps against the wall. Monday comes around, as always, bitter and clouded. I wake up to the dawn chorus of screeching gulls and rouse my sister to help her wash and run the steel-toothed comb through her matted hair. We hop from one bare foot to another to stop the cold catching. Mam starts the fire. Monday is her busy day, baking his bread, scrubbing his table, mending his shirt, rubbing ointment into the bruises when she thinks she’s out of sight behind the pantry door. He sits at the head of the table, chewing on doorstep butties smeared with jam, slopping and grunting and slurping down his mug of tea. We slide into our chairs. Mam rests her hands on our shoulders, then passes us plates piled with drippy bread and eggs. We eat carefully, not a sound, holding our breath until he heaves his great weight up from the table, buttons his collar and calls for his cap and bait. The front door slams, rattling the crockery on the table. We all breathe out again. Mam smiles, ‘Howay then, we’ve time before school.’ My sister is quicker than me. She dashes over to the fireplace and pulls up the hearth rug. I bring the butter knife and pry open the floorboard. We take out the flour tins and carry them over to Mam. There are three now. Mam drags the good chair over to the kitchen table and my sister clambers onto her lap. I place the tins carefully on the table. Mam nods. I begin. I count out all the secret tanners, spitting and polishing as I go. We all smile at the small and even piles. ‘These’ll get you so far,’ Mam smiles, ‘and those bonny faces will get you the rest of the way.’ It’s Spring. Mam says it’s time. We will take a train for the first time in our lives. We stand in the kitchen, one old brown suitcase between us. Mam turns her back and fetches the bowl to the counter. Her hands work the dough. Sunlight streams through the window and silhouettes her thin frame. She is a shadow, a featureless wisp, I long to breathe her in. ‘Go,’ is all she whispers, ‘divn’t look back.’ She will not turn. We walk along the crumbling seafront; the wind whips our hair and brings a blush to our pale cheeks. My sister’s eyes are as blue as the spring sky, her smile as wide as the endless ocean. The tanners weigh heavy in my pocket. I long to feel Mam’s calloused hand in mine. I hear Da’s voice carried on the wind. A silver kittiwake wheels and spins then catches his curse in its beak and carries it far out beyond the clouds. The sun sits low and warm on the horizon and the sky is bright with promise.
About the Author
Kathy Hoyle is a working-class writer who loves to write short fiction while drinking tea and eating jammy dodgers.
She recently won the 2021 Crossing the Tees Short Story Prize, was a semi-finalist in the LISP Flash Fiction Award, came third in the HISSAC Flash Fiction Competition and her microfiction My Devil received a Special Commendation in the 2021 Blinkpot Awards. She has also been short listed in several other writing competitions.
Her stories can be found at Reflex Fiction, Spelk, Ellipsiszine, Silver Apples, Lunate, Sunspot Literary, Crow and Cross Keys and Virtualzine.
She holds an MA in Creative Writing.