A Sunday Walk – By Michael Holland
The aromas wafting from the kitchen windows these days were different from what she remembered when, as a young girl walking along the landings on Sundays, the only smell would be of roast dinners being prepared. She laughed quietly to herself as she remembered her Sunday Dinners. Her laugh did not evolve from good memories.
Sunday Dinner was traditionally at a time when the fathers could finish off their pints in the local by the two o’clock chucking out time, then tipsily make their way home. A little tipsy and a little fruity, maybe; enough to send the kids out to play with the other kids after dinner while dad and mum had a ‘lay down’. Well that was the Sunday afternoon ritual in most flats on the estate: the kids would either get sent out to play or were packed off to Sunday School to learn their Catechism. It was different for Sheila. She wasn’t always sent out to play.
The kids would often play Runouts in the blocks where they lived, Chartridge and Bradenham, or go to Burgess Park over the road, but there weren’t enough hiding places for a good game of Runouts there, the park was for football; anything up to twenty a side. The boys would play while the girls watched from the sidelines until it got dark, because no one had to be in before it got dark. Except Sheila. Sometimes.
But it was different today, there didn’t seem to be any kids playing out on the estate: mums too afraid. Sheila loved being out with her friends.
The Sunday smells were different now. Now, as she walked through Missenden, it was a jumble of cuisines: she picked up hints of Indian curries, African stews and jerk chicken throwing a sharp tang into the air. She smiled as a microwave’s ding signified something was ready.
Her heels click-clacked as she passed Gayhurst and crossed over Portland Street. As she headed towards her destination Sheila recalled her young days spent wearing cheap plimsolls, while the grown ups had Phillips Stick-a-Sole additions on their shoes to save on wear and tear. The rare sound of a stiletto heel on the estate was always reason to stop play and watch who was going past. It was invariably young women going out and all the young girls wanted to see them dressed up. Sheila would enviously fantasise about them.
He didn’t make do and mend like the rest of the family – Sheila always heard him coming. His leather soles always announced his arrival.
Her mind drifted back to when the estate was brand new, her memory was of gleaming white buildings, but time had aged them to a dull grey. Dull grey and quiet. Where were the children? Where was the clamour of children playing? Her only joy of childhood was being with other children. Sheila loved kids and always made a fuss of them, and was constantly being asked why she never had any of her own.
As well as noisy kids she remembered the violent screaming and shouting back then. If it wasn’t a man hitting his wife while accentuating each slap with a volley of abuse for all to hear, it was a mother threatening another mother to make sure her kid didn’t hit her kid or ‘you’ll feel the back of my hand across your face, believe you me’. Shouting matches and domestic violence were an accepted norm on the estate, it wasn’t concealed like today, it was out there for all to see and hear. Some things were hidden though.
She remembered vividly a fight that spilt out of Chiltern, when Mrs Staples’ estranged husband came back after filling up on Dutch Courage and boxing tips in The Becket to confront Mrs Staples and the bingo caller she had moved into the family home – A Toy Boy, no less, before that species had their own sobriquet. Alas, with the age gap, and being slowed down by too many light and bitters, Mr Staples got punched all over the place; his 50s quiff – already a decade out of date – flying up and down like an out of control cheap umbrella in the wind.
Sheila had felt sorry for Janet Staples as they were playing two balls up the wall at the bottom of the stairs when it happened. It was just another bit of Saturday afternoon excitement for the neighbours but horrible for poor Janet. You shouldn’t have to watch your drunken dad getting beaten up by your mum’s new boyfriend as a ten-year-old.
‘You ain’t seen the last of me,’ Mr Staples shouted with the bravado afforded by being thirty yards down the street after he had ran away. We had seen the last of him though. And, more or less, so had Janet, who never knew then that she would now only see her father occasionally.
Looking up at Chiltern House, she picked out Janet’s former bedroom window and recalled the many times they had been in there dancing to records: Motown and The Beatles before Marc Bolan and David Essex came along and stole their young hearts away.
Moving on again she went past the porch where they all used to sit on the stairs in winter. It was where Sheila had her first fag and her first kiss. Her first proper kiss with a boy she liked. She had tried to forget the other kisses that she didn’t like but never could. Never would. Never. A security door secured the porch now just like her slow-burn misandry had sealed her lips.
‘Sheila!’ A shout came from behind her. ‘Is that you?’
Sheila turned and looking up found Mrs Macey having a fag out on her third floor balcony. It seems that even the most adamant smoker, hell-bent on self-destruction, took their habit outside now. Every kid that had ever lived here would have passively smoked enough cigarettes to get cancer and die many times over, but amazingly most of them never did.
‘Hello Mrs Macey,’ she shouted back up. Sheila was a little shocked that the woman, an old family friend, was still alive. She must be all of 90.
‘You look just like your mother from behind – the same walk,’ she yelled. ‘What you doing round here? I thought I was seeing a ghost!’
‘I’m just visiting.’
‘Oh,’ came the reply. A long, Oh, that dragged on forever and said so, so much. Mrs Macey never asked whom she was visiting, although Sheila anticipated the question. ‘Sorry to hear about your mum.’ She took another drag on her roll up. ‘Very sad.’
Nell Macey conspiratorially leant over her balcony and looked both ways up the road, as if she was going to whisper a deep secret. ‘I went round to see them bring your mum’s coffin out on the day of the funeral,’ she shouted. ‘Was the least I could do.’ She straightened up, took another quick pull on her fag and dropped the dogend in the teacup she held in her other hand. ‘I didn’t see you there, Sheila.’
‘No, you didn’t,’ she replied simply. ‘Anyway, nice to see you looking so well, Mrs Macey, but I must get on.’
Two weeks since the funeral and she already missed the weekly meeting with her mum – the only contact between them since she had fled all those years ago. Every Saturday Sheila would be outside Arments, looking, with mixed emotions, along Westmoreland Road towards the estate, waiting for her mother. Sheila would have her regular pie, double mash and a tea; her mother would just have a cuppa and get a takeaway for two.
Walking behind Chiltern House and turning into the square where she and her friends once played, a wave of memories hit her. The screams of excited kids playing British Bulldog filled the space in her mind, she imagined the bell of a Tonibell ice cream van approaching, an old misery guts shouting down: ‘Oi! Why don’t you lot piss off and play somewhere else?’ The sights and sounds went round and round her head like a fairground carousel as she stopped to take it all in. This was where she had tripped over and scarred a knee while playing Kiss Chase; that wall was where they used to set up for Tin Tan Tommy; where she stood right now was where Hopscotch was chalked out. Looking across the square she thought she could still see faint outlines of the boys’ crudely painted goal and wicket on the wall. She breathed it all in; sucked it up. This is the place Sheila goes to when she has good dreams. Always here. Always playing and laughing with friends in the sunshine. Sadly, Sheila doesn’t have many good dreams. Her nightmares take her to another place, a place close by. As she slowly turned to look round for the very last time she realised she was not alone.
‘You lost?’ asked a boy, one of three teenagers by a wall. Two boys and a girl had been watching Sheila. A second boy, squatting on his haunches, had not looked up but was staring intently at the line of spittle dripping from his mouth as he guided it to smother an ant that was innocently going about its business.
‘No,’ said Sheila, taking little notice and continuing with her reverie.
The spitting boy looked up now. He had expected more. ‘You look lost.’
Sheila ignored him. Her mind was back in 1971 as Marc Bolan sang just to her that she was his woman of gold and not very old, ah ah ah.
The girl in the group felt encouraged to speak: ‘What you doing round here if you ain’t lost?’
Sheila hopped forward on one leg before moving on to land on two splayed feet, then repeated the pattern several times: one foot, hop, two feet, jump, one foot, hop, ending on two feet with her back to the trio who, perhaps, had never played Hopscotch.
In one motion Sheila’s body lifted and spun 180 degrees, landing so that she was back on two outspread feet facing the three bored youngsters. A blackbird landed near the group, its cheery song slicing through the tension. ‘Mind your own fucking business,’ said Sheila.
The boy squatting, who had given himself the street name of Rizzler, ejected a jet of spit between a gap in his teeth, while the other boy asked ‘Do what?’.
‘Yeh,’ said the girl.
And that was all that occurred. The teenagers, who were used to intimidating strangers that strayed into their domain, came to a tacit decision to take this no further, but didn’t know why. They sensed it was for the best.
Sheila, though, seemed to want to go to the next step. She was ready for it, really ready for it, so held her gaze. After a few moments she began walking towards them. This seized their attention. The standing boy, Tyson, took his hands from his pockets and pulled his jeans up over his buttocks. Rizzler now stared at Sheila looking like he wanted to stand up and assume a position, though knew not which one to assume so remained squatting. The girl, Tiffany, looked at Sheila, then at her two friends, and back at Sheila again. Tiffany was confused.
Sheila got closer, menacingly staring at any one of them who would return her stare, though not one of them did for anything longer than a second. As she came to within four yards her hand slipped into the bag she had hooked over her shoulder. Tiffany’s eyes widened just a little, but inside her head it felt like they were popping out, along with veins throbbing in her temple. Her head was about to explode, she thought. Tyson seemed like he was ready to run, while Rizzler quickly stood up and adjusted his baggy track bottoms.
At six feet away Sheila moved to their right and walked past, kissing her teeth as she did. Three teenagers looked at each other with no idea what had just happened. If they were looking at Sheila they might have noticed a small tension tremor in her stiffening neck and the arm in her shoulder bag tighten.
When she reached Arklow House her shoulders visibly slumped as the adrenalin turned into aftershock. ‘That was stupid. Really stupid’ she told herself under her breath. Sheila closed her eyes and stopped to let the feeling pass.
After a few seconds she realised someone was there, right there behind her, or next to her. Had those youths followed her? What were they going to do to her? Would they beat her up? Stab her? Worse? Someone was touching her arm. Sheila quickly opened her eyes to find a man beside her with a dog.
‘Are you alright, love?’ A kindly face asked.
‘Oh, sorry, yes, yes, I’m fine, thank you,’ she answered, surprised. ‘Thank you.’
‘Okay then, have a nice day.’ He turned and set off towards the park. ‘Come on, Bobby.’
‘You too,’ answered Sheila, more to herself than to the man who was now watching his mongrel smell a wall.
Turning her face upwards, Sheila saw her old bedroom. Curtains closed, as were all the curtains in the place she was born in. Inside that flat dwelt all her nightmares; her stolen life, the horror that had forever been unmentioned, the darkness that she had carried all her life. Therapists had tried to help her leave the past behind and make a future for herself. Doctors had given her medicines to help. Two husbands had failed and died trying. She felt that she didn’t need help. Just being with mum every Saturday helped enough, she thought wrongly.
Sheila told herself a long time ago that her mum could not have stopped him, but that would have been untrue; they both knew that. She must have known, so why did she go to help at Sunday School after Sunday Dinner? Why did she always leave her alone with him while all her friends would be out playing?
Sheila climbed the stairs she knew so well; always happier coming down, always dreading going up. Her heels tapped out a steady rhythm along the landing but now there were no little girls to look at who was coming. She knocked on the door and waited, forcing herself to stay calm. After a while she heard a shuffling and the door opened. The old man before her was not instantly recognisable as her father. There were no Sunday Dinner aromas. Mum was the cook.
‘Yes?’ he asked the woman he did not appear to know.
‘It’s me, Sheila.’
He looked harder, with no warmth in his eyes. ‘If you’ve come to see your mother, she’s dead.’
‘No, I’ve come to see you.’ She paused. ‘Daddy.’
‘Have you?’ he asked suspiciously. ‘You’d better come in, then.’ The old man opened the door wider so Sheila could enter.
As she passed her father he saw what could be taken for a smile on her face. ‘What do you want after all this time?’ he spat gruffly.
Sheila heard the ‘Ding’ of a microwave as her hand slipped into her shoulder bag.