As I push open the high wooden gate, blue paint peels off into me palm. I let the flecks fall to the ground and go into the back yard. Mrs Walker’s old tabby prowls along the wall overlooking the alley. She flops down and gives me a filthy look before closing her yellow eyes for a nap. The kitchen window is all steamy, but I can make out the shape of Nanna, inside, washing up. She cracks the window open. She’s singing Que Sera Sera, just as good as Doris Day. Her voice is a balm. I feel me nerves settle. She can always do that, nanna, like she’s magic.
In the outhouse, Grandad hums along.
‘Alright, Grandad?’ I shout through the outhouse door as I run past.
I’m not quick enough.
I sigh and turn back.
‘Bring us a cuppa and a roly will you. This friggin’ egg butties been stuck up me pipe all morning. I need summat to shift it.’
‘Right.’ I say and push open the kitchen door.
Nanna is rinsing the pots and stacking them neatly on the plate rack. The smell of corned-beef pie steams from the oven.
‘Hiya, bairn,’ she sing-songs.
I park myself at the polished kitchen table, pulling my fringe down as best I can. I nod toward the back door.
‘He wants tea and a roly.’
Nanna rolls her eyes, leans over the sink and shouts through the window.
‘Sid, do you want the paper?’
She goes into the living room and comes back with the Daily Mirror, there’s a photo on the front of the miners, I recognise some of them for Grandad’s club. There’s some bobby’s with sticks as well. They all look dead angry. Nanna fills the kettle.
‘He’s a martyr to his bowels that man,’ she laughs, ‘mind you he deserves it. All the shite he’s put me through over the years. It’s coming back to haunt him now.’
She puts the kettle on the stove, lights the gas then leans against the counter to roll Grandad’s baccy while it boils. I put my bag on the table and take out my new copy of Narnia. The golden lion’s face gleams on the cover.
‘New book, flower?’
‘What’s that one about then?’
‘I dunno yet,’ I say, ‘only just got it.’
‘Well, you can read me a bit this afty, if you want?’
I love how she likes stories, just like me. She’s not so good reading the words herself, says her Mam and Dad were never bothered about school. But she loves it when I read to her. Sometimes we go to the library bus together and she picks out ones with old fashioned ladies on the front in shawls and clogs and makes me read them out loud. They’re a bit daft. Usually, some servant falls in love some posh fella in a big house and there’s all kinds of carry on when the servant gets a bairn. I just read them for Nanna. They’re nowhere near as good as the books Mrs Calvert gives me. This new one looks brilliant. I already know the lion’s name, Aslan. It tells you on the back. I can’t wait to start it. I’ll have to hide it from Mam though. She says reading’s only for lasses who’re too big for their bloody boots. It’s weird how different she is from me and Nanna. Nanna says she takes after Grandad.
The kettle whistles. Nanna lifts it from the stove and pours the water into her flowered teapot.
‘Do you want one?’
I nod. She busies herself with the tea, a big mug for grandad, her teacup with the pink roses, and my cup, that used to be her little Jeans, with the gold J on the side. Only I’m allowed it. Little Jean died when she was three. Nanna says she was the bonniest bairn that ever lived and too good for this world. Sometimes it makes me wonder if I’m bad then, if I’m still here.
Nanna makes my tea weak and milky and hers and Grandad’s strong like tar.
‘Careful,’ she says, handing me Grandad’s mug.
I take the steaming mug out into the yard, only spilling a few drops here and there. I bend down and slide it under the outhouse door towards Grandad’s checked slippers and the brown nylon underpants folded around his ankles.
‘Cheers, Pet,’ he says.
Nicotine-stained fingers curl around the handle and the cup disappears upwards.
‘Paper?’ he asks.
‘Coming,’ I sigh.
Nanna is on the back step already. I take the newspaper and the roly from her and slide them under the outhouse door too.
‘I’ll be here all friggin’ day, Annie!’ Grandad shouts, ‘me ulcer’s going barmy.’
‘Good enough for ya,’ Nanna shouts back, then she ruffles my hair. I wince when she catches the cut under my fringe.
We go back inside. I sit down at the table and slurp me tea. Nanna rubs her hands on her pinny before taking it off and hanging on a nail by the back door. She slides a chair in front of mine, sits down and gently lifts up my fringe.
‘Been in the wars, pet?’ she asks.
I want to lie, say I fell, or I bumped it on something. But the lie gets gummed up in my throat.
Nanna leans back on her chair and fiddles with the gold cross around her neck. She always does that when she’s thinking. Then she stands up and opens the cupboard under the sink. She brings out the biscuit tin with the beefeater soldiers on the lid and sets it on the table. I can smell the ointments and antiseptics before she’s even opened it.
‘It’s alright,’ I say, ‘It’s nowt.’
‘Let me see,’ she says, lifting up my fringe. She pulls a ball of soft cotton wool out of the tin, tips ointment onto it and starts to dab at the cut.
‘This’ll help. Witch hazel.’
The ointment is stingy, I try not to cry. She cuts a strip of plaster and gently fixes it over the cut on my forehead. She puts everything away neatly then puts the box back in the cupboard under the sink. We sip our tea. I concentrate on the lion’s handsome face on the front of my book. Nanna’s clock ticks on the wall and I can hear the muffled sound of the horse racing on the telly in the front room. Nanna waits. She is a champion waiter.
‘Can I live here with you?’ I finally blurt.
‘Aw, pet,’ she sighs.
I let her fold me into her. She smells of pie. She sits me back down on the chair and rubs my shoulders.
‘Tell me what she’s done to you this time,’ she says, softly.
I take a deep breath. If I grass Mam up now, there’ll be trouble. Mam might be worse next time. But then again, Nanna is Mam’s mam, that means she’s in charge of her. She can tell her what to do and maybe she can fix everything. Fix Mam?
‘It’s okay, flower, you’ll not be in trouble,’ coaxes Nanna.
I start to cry a bit. I can’t help it. I feel like I’m gonna burst with the worry of it all.
‘Mam’s nerves are bad again,’ I whisper.
Nanna nods, ‘thought so.’
‘It’s me own fault,’ The words come tumbling out. ‘She warned me she was having one of her days, but I was starving, so I came back early, and I was mitherin’ her for me tea.’
‘So, she clouted you?’
I hang my head.
‘I don’t think she meant to; it was the nearest thing to her.’ I fiddle with my jumper sleeve.
‘Did she catch you with a knife?’ Nanna’s face reddens.
‘Jesus,’ Nanna whispers. ‘Right. I’ll be round first thing to sort this out. Divn’t you worry.’
Nanna’s brow is furrowed. I don’t think she’s cross with Mam, just worried. I think she might help us after all. I let her cuddle me up, the way Mam used to do before her nerves went funny. I breathe.
‘Those bloody strikes have sent everyone off their rocker,’ says Nanna, ‘I wish I could get me hands on that Maggie bloody Thatcher. Iron lady indeed. I’ll Iron Lady her, alright.’
Grandad breaks the spell, an almighty bellow coming from the outhouse.
‘Jesus Christ,’ hisses Nanna, ‘What now?’
She pushes her chair back and calls through the kitchen window, ‘what’ve you done, man?’
‘I’ve burnt me bollocks off, help me, please!’
Nanna runs the cold tap, gets a jug from the cupboard, fills it, then dashes out, spilling water all over the kitchen floor. I jump up and run to the back step just as she disappears into the outhouse.
‘Argh! Fucking hell, woman!’ Grandad shouts
Nanna peeps her head out from behind the lavvy door.
‘There’s ten pence in me purse, pet. Run round Mrs Walkers and ask to use her phone.’ Her face is as white as a sheet.
I make the phone call myself from Mrs Walker’s phone. She never even asks for the ten pence in the end, she’s too busy pissing herself laughing. I try and make the lady on the other end believe me. but she’s laughing too.
‘Honestly missus, I’m not lying. Me grandad’s burnt his balls off. Send an ambulance. Quick!’
The whole street watches Grandad being wheeled out the back gate onto the ambulance. Nanna’s got her best headscarf on. She climbs into the back and gives me a sad little wave before the white doors close behind her. I stand on the flags watching the ambulance disappear around the corner. I wonder if Nanna will still be round first thing.
Mrs Walker gives me a nudge.
‘Best you get on home, Pet, I’ll lock up for your Nanna.’
I tell her about the pie in the oven. She goes inside and gets my bag for me.
‘Divn’t look so worried, bairn,’ she says, ‘he’ll be alright, stupid old sod.’ She chuckles. I give her a weak smile, take my bag and head off.
I walk for ages. All around the salt flats, past the rec where the glue sniffers go, I watch some big kids buggying on the slag heaps, then make my way down, past the black pit wheel, onto the pebbled beach. Two mud crabs play near the shore. I sit on the wet sand and watch them scurry under the mossy rocks. Out at sea, a seal bobs. I can see his shiny bald head and black eyes. I wave at him. He watches me for a while then disappears under the dark water.
The wind gets colder, whipping my hair around my face and blowing bits of sand into my eyes. The plaster on my forehead comes loose. I try to push it back on. Mam won’t have another one. We haven’t even got a tin under the sink, only cleaning stuff, and, right at the back, Mam’s ‘special medicine’ that she says I must never, ever touch.
Me belly rumbles. I’ve waited till way past teatime, just to make sure. I wish I could follow me new little crab friends under the rocks where it’s safe, or even follow Mr Seal down to the bottom of the ocean to swim with mermaids. Maybe a great golden lion will come roaring down the sands and carry me away on his back?
…but then again, if that happened, who would look after Mam?
When I leave the beach, it’s dark. All the way home, a bad feeling rots in my belly. I go through the back gate of our house and see only a dull light in the kitchen window… There’s no nice smell of pie and no one’s singing Que Sera Sera.
Kathy Hoyle’s work can be found in publications such as Lunate, Ellipsiszine, The Forge, Emerge Literary Journal and The South Florida Poetry Journal.
She was the winner of the 2022 Bath Flash Fiction Award and the Retreat West Flash Fiction Competition, and has been placed in The Edinburgh Flash Fiction Award, and The Cambridge Flash Fiction Prize. Other stories have been listed in The Exeter Short Story Prize, the Fish Short Memoir Prize, Flash 500, and Reflex fiction.
She holds a BA (hons) and an MA in Creative Writing and is currently studying for a PhD at The University of Leicester.
Kathy lives in a sleepy Warwickshire village and when she’s not writing, she spends her time singing Dolly Parton songs to her long-suffering labradoodle, Eddie.