by Patience Mackarness
There’s something that looks like a funeral pyre in the back alley. Amid heaps of bin bags reeking in the unseasonal heat of an early-summer afternoon, six or seven children stand round a pile of cardboard boxes and smashed-up kitchen chairs. At their centre a little boy squats, a cigarette lighter in his outstretched hand, the flame turned high.
Gwen shouts from her gate, ‘Hey! Stop that!’ The effect is instant: startled faces turn her way, then everyone scrambles for the far end of the alley. In less than five seconds they’ve vanished. Faintly, from the street, a small voice shrills Fuck off, y’old sweat!
Gwen steps out of her back yard and walks along the alley, red brick walls still warm from the sun, broken glass crunching under her feet. The five-foot-high heap has been designed for swift combustion. At its heart is a ripped-open sack of shredded office paper, and piled around it are broken furniture and cardboard, wooden pallets, splintered planks, dismantled pieces of a baby’s crib. In a crowning flourish suggesting either Guy Fawkes Night or witch-trials, a limbless Barbie doll has been placed on top.
‘You done well to stop them, love,’ says a voice. ‘That fire would’ve spread fuckin’ fast.’
Gwen turns towards the voice. A woman – blonde, fiftyish, heavily tanned – has come out of a neighbouring yard.
‘They’ll come back,’ Gwen says bleakly. ‘They always do.’
‘You’re right there, love,’ says the woman. She picks her way closer along the alley. She has dyed-blonde hair and wears a white vest top with skimpy denim shorts; mutton dressed as lamb, Gwen would have said once, but here in Liverpool she’s already learned that things are different. Women dress younger, talk louder, swear more, laugh dirtier than they did in London. It occurs to her that old sweat and fuckin’ old bag might not be random abuse, but comments on her own dress sense, the dungarees and ratty T-shirts, the general dishevelment.
The woman is holding a lit cigarette. Gwen would once have judged her for that too. Today, she’s just glad someone is willing to talk to her.
‘Me name’s Maureen,’ the woman says. ‘I live in number twenty-four.’
‘I’m Gwen. I live here. Well, since April.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Gwen. Ooooh!’ She stares over Gwen’s shoulder. ‘Your back yard’s boss. Did you plant all them flowers yourself?’
Gwen stands aside so Maureen can enter the yard. She doesn’t say that the house itself is pure disaster, with its bare paint-splotched floorboards, cracked plaster, and lack of furniture. She doesn’t say that in it, she’s swamped by hopelessness, by the knowledge she was mad to come and live here, surrounded by fly-tipped rubbish and tinned-up houses and firebug kids with parents who do nothing to check them. That the yard feels like one thing she can control.
She’s salvaged containers from the alley – tin waste baskets, empty paint pots, a cracked mop bucket – and made more from discarded paving-stones and bits of wood. Some pots she’s fixed to the yard walls, to mask the crumbling brickwork. She’s filled the containers with compost, planted them with seeds and seedlings of petunia, geranium, begonia. Now they’re thriving, leaves and blooms thrusting up and out, spilling down and over; already she’s started dividing the plants, snipping cuttings and re-growing them. She spends as little time in the house as possible, these warm days. Outside, among green things, she can breathe better.
Maureen steps into the yard, looks round like a kid in Santa’s grotto. ‘Wow. Oh, wow. I wish I could get my yard looking like this.’
‘I can give you some plants to get you started,’ Gwen says. ‘If – if you like.’
‘Would you, love?’ Maureen sounds excited.
In London, people hardly ever called Gwen love. Here everyone does, though it doesn’t always mean the same thing. Last week she just missed scraping a four-by-four in Tesco car park, and a man with a shaven head and tattooed arms roared, ‘Look where you’re fuckin’ going, love!’ That love was angry and hard, it felt like an unwanted grope.
Gwen gathers pots, compost, trowels and a watering can. The two of them carry it all back along the alley to Maureen’s yard, which is cement-floored, neat and bare, nothing in it but two plastic chairs, and a table with a butt-filled pottery ashtray that says Greetings from Magaluf. Gwen fetches geranium cuttings, already sprouting spidery white roots, from the water-filled jam jars lined up on her kitchen windowsill.
While she shows Maureen how to pot the tiny plants, Gwen asks how long the bin men’s strike has been going on. From the amount of rubbish in the alley, she imagines there’s been no collection for weeks. But Maureen says, ’There’s no strike, love. It’s just everyone forgets which day to put their bags out in the entry, so there’s always piles of shite.’
‘Entry?’ Gwen asks.
‘The back alley. People’ve always called it that, ever since I was a girl.’
‘I didn’t know that,’ Gwen says. ’But then, there’s a lot I don’t know about Liverpool.’
Maureen launches into a lesson in Scouse vocabulary, plainly delighted with her new role as instructor. Gwen discovers that the Council is the corpy and the police bizzies; that arguments kick off, and the wild kids are scallies.
Gwen says carefully, ‘There seem to be a lot of . . . scallies, round here.’
‘There’s a few,’ Maureen concedes. ’Have they been giving you shit, love?’
‘A bit.’ Gwen wants to say more, but fears sounding weak and whiny; she might even start crying again.
‘Well,’ says Maureen, ‘anything happens from now on, you come to me. I know everyone in this street, and they know me. All the kids. Their parents too.’
Gwen, choked with relief, mutters, ‘Thanks.’
“In London, people hardly ever called Gwen love. Here everyone does, though it doesn’t always mean the same thing.”
With the cuttings potted and the pots arranged around her yard walls, Maureen fetches out a bottle of red wine and two glasses. These last weeks, Gwen’s wanted alcohol badly, especially on the bad nights, like when her car was scratched with a rusty nail, or when graffiti was daubed on her door, or the time the kids screamed Grass! and Go back where you came from! through her letterbox. But she knew it would be too easy to keep drinking, let her mind go numb, the ugliness and despair blurring, then fading out. Now she clinks glasses with Maureen and swallows the cheap wine, and feels lighter than she has for weeks. Friendly sounds float in from neighbouring yards and open kitchen windows; slosh of sudsy water, Radio City 96.7 playing ‘Let It Be’, someone calling for their cat.
She gets most of Maureen’s life-story in the first half hour. She hears about children, grandchildren, a network of cousins and uncles and aunts and nieces and nephews, all across the city. Maureen works: she waits on tables three nights a week, at a Greek restaurant in town. ‘We get all sorts, celebrities, city councillors, gangsters, the whole fuckin’ world comes in.’ She’s a Scouser born, and a Blue.
‘Fuckin’ell, don’t you know what that is? A Blue’s an Evertonian. The Reds are the Liverpudlians. If you’re going to be a Scouser, you’ll have to decide which one you are.’ Gwen hasn’t realised she’s in the running to become a Scouser, but Maureen saying it makes her feel warm.
And then Maureen says, ‘What about you, love?’
Gwen would once have hesitated to spill out her story to a stranger; but now she tells Maureen the lot. The too-young marriage, the messy divorce, her wild idea for making a fresh start far away, buying a house so cheap that no-one in London would ever believe it, then doing it up and selling it on at a profit. Doing market research door-to-door to pay the bills, until she can get supply-teaching work in September.
She’s determined not to show how scared she’s been, how lost, because Maureen doesn’t seem as if anything would scare her. But when Maureen says, ‘It’s been hard for you, love,’ Gwen ducks her head over her wine glass, to hide the hot welling in her eyes.
‘I never finished school,’ Maureen says. ‘I left at thirteen when me mum died, to take care of me brothers. I’m thick,’ she adds, lighting another cigarette.
‘Maureen, you’re definitely not thick,’ says Gwen. ‘Look at all you’ve taught me, just this afternoon.’
Maureen says, ‘I have, haven’t I?’ and smiles as she tops up their glasses.
The sun’s moved overhead. The shadows from the slate rooftops are lengthening, but the little space is still the sort of sun-trap courtyard to make London estate agents lyrical, and London buyers savagely competitive. Gwen imagines honeysuckle, clematis, jasmine, climbing the warm red bricks and cascading into the alley. The entry.
‘I can’t wait till all me flowers come out,’ Maureen says. She lifts her glass, holds it up to the sun, squints at the rubied light. ‘You know what?’
‘We can get the kids doing it too.’
‘You mean your grandkids?’
‘No, the kids from the street.’
‘From this street?’’Gwen fails to disguise the alarm in her voice.
‘Yes, love. They’re not all little bastards. They just need something to do, that’s all.’
Gwen wants to cry out that Maureen’s wrong, the kids are poisonous, all they know is destroying things, scrawling graffiti, lighting fires. But she doesn’t; she drinks some more red wine instead.
Later, faces appear in the open gateway. Gwen recognises two of the children from before, a boy of about nine and a smaller one who might be his brother. She almost recoils, it’s as if a pair of rats have come scuttling along the entry. But Maureen says cheerfully, ‘Want to help us, lads?’
The elder boy – Gwen thinks he was the one with the cigarette lighter – nods. They both step shyly into the yard. They’re small and skinny. They’re wearing what Gwen thinks of as standard scally uniform, the elder in a Nike tracksuit, the younger one in Adidas.
Maureen says, ‘Gwen, this is Carl and Liam. Lads, this is me friend Gwen. You can find a couple more pots for them to take home, can’t you love?’
Gwen stands up, swaying only a little as the wine reaches her head. She says, ‘I’ll get them now,’ and walks by the two children, out into the sun-filled entry.
Patience Mackarness lives and writes partly in an elderly VW camper van, partly in a cottage in Brittany. She lived for many years in Liverpool. Her stories have been published or accepted by Lunch Ticket, Brilliant Flash Fiction, The Coachella Review, Arachne Press, Flash Frontier, and elsewhere. Her work can be read at patiencemackarness.wordpress.com.