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Locksmiths, a short story by Wendy Erskine

Three women connected by blood are divided by more than just a generation gap

Wendy Erskine

I read about the time when Spanish banks were offering 100 per cent mortgages. But the crash came and people couldn’t make the payments so bailiffs turned up to repossess homes and locksmiths to change locks. Families stood outside gazing up at their old bedrooms. There was a woman, it said, who bolted the door, ran to an upstairs balcony – and leapt. The guys, the locksmiths, masters of cylinders and springs, had never anticipated that their work would run to this kind of thing. In one of the big cities, the locksmiths said no, that was it, they wouldn’t lock people out anymore. Just wouldn’t do it.

Early last week I was in the DIY superstore at Airport Road West, getting a few things. All those generators: did many people really need generators? Perhaps they did. A man struggled to carry a huge bag of plaster powder but it dropped and split, sending up a minor mushroom cloud. A call went out over the tannoy for a cleaner. One of the assistants said to me, ‘Can I help you, sweetheart?’ I said, ‘No, all fine.’ Because all was fine: I knew what I wanted. I bought a cheap bedside light and a single quilt cover, cotton, the sort that could take a boil wash. I hesitated over the paints with the lovely names but got the largest tin of pure brilliant white because that would do. In the superstore there was a whole aisle devoted to locks from the basic to the intricate. I got a pack of three towels and a key ring for the extra key I had got cut.

Back when I first got the house I was in here all the time. It was a fairly exciting place. Home improvement, by its nature optimistic. I sometimes spent 16, 18 hours a day working on the house, forgetting to eat. I became acquainted with every bad joist and frame tie. My toolkit grew. I began with a few cheap screwdrivers and moved on to a DeWalt drill, secondhand. I scraped off decades of sticky wallpaper, woodchip giving way to a paisley swirl, paisley swirl yielding to a bottle green paint. It was my gran’s house and she left it to me.

If, when I was younger, anyone asked about my mother, the non-specific, ‘She’s away’ seemed to suffice on most occasions. It was rare, however, that anyone would ask. But had anyone enquired, would there have been a big stigma attached to having a mother in jail? Probably not. At my school there were other people with family members who were in jail or out on licence. In my year, there was Gary whose big brother shot somebody outside a snooker hall. And then in the year above there was Mandy G, whose dad beat a woman to death. In all likelihood there were others from the years below, but I didn’t know about them. You only tended to know about the older kids.

Living with my gran, I watched a lot of soaps and dramas. She always sat in the same seat and smoked; there was a yellow bloom on the ceiling which I eventually, with some reluctance, painted over. Before each programme my gran would pour herself a whisky and when there was a bar scene she would take a drink because it made her feel that she was there. I’d get a coke and do the same thing but I was still always in the living room. Everything in the house smelt thick of smoke; it was deep in my school blazer and couldn’t be shifted.

The man who was killed by my mother was Tommy Gilmore, an old fella who had hoped, I presume, to spend the remainder of his days recovering from the work accident which had left him incapacitated. He’d got a major payout. It was somebody else’s carelessness. Those long nights, those longer days, no doubt he looked forward to seeing my mother who called around with increasing frequency.

She borrowed money and initially maybe he liked it, the attention she gave him, the prancing and twirling about in the things she had bought but then, when she never paid anything back and wanted more and more, and when he in turn threatened to contact the police, she beat him with an object, thought to be a poker, although it was never found. Tommy Gilmore had a stroke during the attack but it was the head injuries that killed him.

My gran would visit her daughter every month. It took the best part of a day to get there and back, an elaborate journey involving a bus, a train and a bus. There was a tray we used to call the Chinese tray because it had pictures of dragons on it. On the days when my gran went off, I was left two sandwiches and two glasses of milk on the Chinese tray and told not to answer the front door under any circumstances whatsoever. My gran always came back hobbling because she wore her good shoes.

Twice a year I went with her. It usually coincided with the time when the clocks went back or forward. When we got off the bus we stopped at a café near the train station. Anything you asked for in that café, they had always just run out of it, but they always let us know this with great regret. ‘That’s the last time we’re going there,’ we would say. ‘We’re going to take our custom elsewhere.’ But we kept on going there because it meant that we could continue to see what they had just run out of, just this minute.

After the various security procedures, we took our seats to wait for the women to enter in single file. Some faces lit up at the sight of the visitors. Others’ expressions didn’t change. My mother’s didn’t change. The conversational gambits tended to be familiar, more or less. My mother would begin with a litany of grievances which might have included the conduct of certain prison officers or, just as likely, the unavailability of a particular type of sauce. Then my gran would rattle on about characters from the programmes she watched.

Although she had a pretty enough face my mother was paunchy for a woman, at least most of the time. At one point the prison got refurbed with a new gym with all the latest machines, and when my mother entered the room we saw a pared-down version, alert and hungry. But by the next time the cheekbones had gone. The lustre, clearly, was off the gym.

There were little things. She always had a tissue. She would twist and weave it through her fingers. She did that at least once during every visit and I always watched for it happening. A few tattoos appeared on her arms, capital letters, something or other. Her hair looked chewed and the style was permanently eighties despite the passing of the years. On one memorable occasion the two of us sat across the table with exactly the same colour of hair. We had used the same lightening spray which promised golden beach blonde but which reliably turned out orange. That went in the bin when I got home.

Always the same but with slight variations. One time it was obvious that there was something romantic going on with one of the other prisoners; her eyes kept sliding over to a woman on the far side of the room, talking to a guy in a denim jacket. I had watched people giving each other those doleful, burning looks in school. And then there was the time she got religion. For a period my mother wore a cross and a wristband with a Bible verse; she told us about the power of prayer and talked about redemption and her personal relationship with Jesus. She also learned some chords on the guitar.

‘Yous not believe in Jesus then?’ she asked us.

Female Lines – New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland, published by New Island Books, which is being launched at the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin 1, on November 7th at 6.30pm

As part of a rehabilitation programme, she attended a workshop on education. She had produced some writing which documented her own experience of, and views on, the subject. She said we could read it but the facilitator had collected it in, so we couldn’t. My mother on that particular visit was very interested in how I was getting on in school. I was quizzed on how I was doing in every class and my mother was full of motivational advice. On the next trip, I brought my big school file which weighed down my bag on the journey but the conversation never again turned in the direction of education.

My gran died as she had lived, in front of the TV. I found her when I came into the house. I put a cardigan round her, her favourite one, because she had only on a light thing, and I waited until the credits of the programme started rolling before I started making the phone calls. The funeral wasn’t large: some neighbours and a few relations who had seen the death notice in the paper. The prison granted my mother leave to attend on compassionate grounds. The short service took place in an old mission hall my gran had attended at some point; the people from the hall picked the hymns and the readings; the only proviso they made was that my mother couldn’t be in the hall. That was fine: no objection to that. I did one of the Bible readings, the thing about there being a time for this, a time for that, a time for whatever.

My mother appeared only when we arrived at the cemetery. She was standing under a tree with some man and I couldn’t recall having seen her outdoors before, although I must have done, when I was younger. She was close to the fella, conspiratorial, but then I saw that she was handcuffed to him. She nodded over to me, a dip of acknowledgement and that was it. Some people had congregated in the car park and although it was starting to rain, they weren’t wanting to dash off too quickly. There were a couple of younger fellas in the car park who must have been at another funeral and they had made a whole deal of taking off their ties, stuffing them in their pockets, opening their top buttons. They passed round a bottle of QC sherry. They were talking to my mother: so I says to him, and he says to me, and I says what the fuck, and he says wait a minute what the. My mother found them very funny. They offered her the sherry and she took it in her free hand while the man handcuffed to her tactfully and serenely looked to the far end of the car park.

One of the fellas tipped the bottle when she was drinking and it ran all down my mother’s front, down the blue suit somebody must have lent her. She took a drink from the bottle again until I heard the prison guy say, ‘OK, now come on, that’s enough.’ He was right: that was enough. My mother, pulled along by the wrist, tottered back to the car through puddles in heels that didn’t fit. The younger fellas gave her a shout as she headed away. When I got home I had a cup of tea on the Chinese tray and watched a bit of a hospital drama.

And so, last weekend it was the first time in years that I was making the journey. After my gran died I didn’t visit. Now, instead of travelling by bus, by train and bus, I was in a car. I took a detour so that I could see if the café that had always just run out was still there but it was now a phone shop. When I got to the place there were some people waiting outside – a man in a tuxedo holding a red rose, and some kids charging around with pink helium balloons – but others like me just sat in their cars. I wasn’t sure what to do. When she appeared, I just sat watching her for a while. Not long. Just a minute or two. She looked smaller than I remembered and her hair was back in a ponytail. She had a blue holdall bag. I tooted the horn but she didn’t look over. I tooted it again and then put down the window, shouted over. She looked at me as if to say, ‘Oh it’s you.’ I didn’t unfasten my seatbelt and I kept on holding the wheel.

On the drive back the car radio was on. She said, ‘What is this? What they going on about? What a load of shit. Talking talking talking.’ So I turned over to a pop station but when we hit the roundabout I moved it back again.

She was interested in knowing how long it would take to get home and how fast the car could go. ‘Don’t know,’ I said. ‘I usually don’t go any quicker than this.’ We passed a sign for the big shopping centre that’s on the way and she said, ‘Shit, I’ve seen the ads for that place! We going there? We’re going there, yeah.

I said, ‘Sure. If you want to.’

I didn’t particularly want to trail round shops so I waited on the seats, gave her 25 quid to spend. My mother came back with a skinny belt, a T-shirt with a photo of a sunset on the front and a set of three bracelets.

Back in the car I drove and she fiddled with the bracelets, putting them on one wrist, taking them off, putting them on the other. The belt hadn’t been a bargain; the stitching was starting to fray already.

When we got back to the house all was quiet. She said, ‘So there’s no party?’

She would not have been surprised by a surprise party.

‘No there’s no party,’ I said.

No one was waiting to jump out and pull a party-popper. No one was hiding in the kitchen.

‘Where’s the TV?’ and she pointed to the spot where the TV would have been years ago. I saw the ghost of the old TV.

‘I don’t have a TV,’ I said.

She made a slow sucking sound. ‘No TV.’ She looked at the rows of books.

No TV but.

‘Here,’ I said. ‘This is for you.’ I gave her the key ring out of my bag, a simple grey fake leather fob and a shiny key. Its newly cut teeth felt rough but it had turned with no resistance when I had tried it in the door. She looked at it and shoved it in the back pocket of her jeans.

‘That’s your front door key,’ I said.

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘Ta.’

Where she had been she wouldn’t have had a key. There would have been keys on choke chains, bundles of keys on large metal rings, but none of them would have been in her possession. Perhaps the key on the grey leather fob would have a symbolic value for her.

‘Don’t lose it,’ I said.

‘Piss off.’

My mother went up to a room that had once been hers. I could hear the floorboards creak and strain. Maybe she was sitting on the bed thinking about what used to be there; perhaps she was looking out the window at a view not so very different from the one she might remember. Downstairs the clock ticked. I could hear the slight gurgle of the water going into the radiator, the vague bark of that dog two doors down. Then the toilet flushed. The bedroom door closed with a bang. It had been a long time since another person had been in this house and the air was pounding with her presence.

Slow steps brought my mother back to the living room. ‘Well,’ she said, flopping onto the sofa, ‘that room is white alright. White, white and white. With a side helping of white.’ ‘Window doesn’t open properly,’ she added.

I said that I would have a look at it.

‘Used to climb out that window,’ she said. ‘Used to escape out that window.’

‘Where to?’

‘Anywhere,’ she said. ‘Wasn’t really fussy.’

‘I’d all the posters from the mags on the walls when that was my bedroom,’ my mother said. ‘You wouldn’t have seen the walls for all the pictures.’

‘Who of?’ I asked. ‘What of?’

‘Can’t remember,’ she said. ‘It was years ago. I was a fuckin’ teenager.’

The walls were cool and smooth now. They weren’t gobbed with Blu Tack and covered in pictures of leering faces torn out of magazines.

‘She never knew that I went out,’ my mother said. ‘She didn’t have a clue. Probably because she was half cut herself half the time. Wouldn’t have known what was going on, who was in and who was out.’

I’d never noticed the clock’s tick before. It had a slight reverb.

‘You had to go out of the window frontways,’ my mother pointed out. ‘So that you could make the jump to the gutter and then the kitchen roof. One night I wrecked myself.’

She pulled up the leg of her jeans to show something. ‘You see that scar?’

‘Not really,’ I said.

‘There.’ It was just her skin, white and puckered.

‘Well, I wrecked myself when I fell one time.’

‘If she was so half cut all the time, why did you not just go out the front door and save yourself all of that bother?’ I asked.

‘Half cut half the time, not all the time. I said half the time.’

‘Easy to get back in,’ she said, ‘getting back in was alright as long as you stood on the bin to get up onto the kitchen roof. Room was always fuckin’ freezing,’ she said, ‘with the window being open all that time.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘there’s a duvet in the room now. And, as you say, the window doesn’t open properly. You won’t be getting out the window.’

My mother ran her hand down the arm of the sofa. ‘This come from DFS?’

I couldn’t remember. ‘It might’ve been there,’ I said. It was a while ago.

‘I’d like a leather sofa,’ she said.

‘Oh would you?’ I said.

‘Yeah. I wouldn’t get this. I’d get a leather sofa.’ She asked if anyone else lived here. ‘No, nobody else lives here,’ I said. ‘Just me.’ ‘It’s just me since she died,’ I added.

‘Just you then.’

‘Just me.’

I recalled the locksmiths. I wasn’t part of a group or a union or a collective: I was on my own. They didn’t know the people they were being asked to lock out. The woman who flew from the balcony would have been just another name and address on a photocopied list of that day’s jobs.

‘Well, it’s a dump round here,’ she said. ‘It always was and I can exclusively reveal to you that it still is. A total fucking dump.’

I asked her if she was planning on going somewhere else.

‘Oh yeah,’ she said, ‘might well. Got a few ideas. Stuff I got on the go.’

‘Like what?’

She tapped her nose to indicate ‘top secret’. ‘Well, I’m glad to hear that,’ I replied. ‘Good.’ ‘Yeah it’s good,’ she said.

‘It’s very good,’ I said. ‘It’s very good to hear that you’ve got stuff on the go. And that you’re not stuck in a dump.’

‘You got a fella?’ she asked.

‘No.’

‘Nah, didn’t think so,’ she said. ‘What’s for the tea?’

I had done a big shop before she arrived but there was nothing in the fridge or the cupboards that she wanted. No, no, and absolutely no way. I said that I was a vegetarian.

‘Oh well you would be,’ she said. ‘Now why does that not fucking surprise me? Don’t be telling me you don’t drink either. No booze? You got to be joking.’ And she gave a short little laugh. ‘So this is freedom. This is what I’ve been waiting for. Welcome to the shithole.’

‘My shithole though,’ I said quietly.

I didn’t think she’d heard.

I said it again. ‘My shithole though.’ My shithole.

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I’m sure you’d rob my grave as quick.’

‘Fair’s fair,’ my mother said, ‘you pulled a right fucking smooth move there.’

‘You think so?’ I said.

‘There was me waiting on a letter from the law place telling me what I got,’ she said, ‘there was me waiting to hear what’d I’d been left. Waiting on a letter that never came. Anyway, fuck the cow.’ ‘You got a key,’ I said.

‘This room used to have an orange rug,’ she said. ‘A big orange rug.’

I remembered that rug and how I rolled it up to get it out the front door and into the skip.

‘I’d put my face down on that rug in front of the fire,’ she said, ‘and it would be like I was lying in the centre of the sun. Right in the very centre of it.’

‘When I was a kid,’ she added.

I said, ‘Look, do you want me to go down to the off-licence for you? It’s only down the road.’

She considered but said no, because was the Troubadour still there? ‘Don’t tell me the Troubadour’s not even there now.’ I said that it was still there but it was called something different.

‘Yeah well, beggars can’t be choosers,’ she said. ‘Although it’s probably going to be a shithole too.’

She went upstairs and came down again wearing the new T- shirt with the sunset.

‘You coming?’ she said.

‘Where to?’ I asked.

‘The Troubadour. You’ve not seen me in, how long? Not even going to go for a drink, how’s that meant to make anybody feel? Own flesh and blood,’ she said.

The Troubadour was fairly empty. My mother had a double vodka and coke and I had an orange juice. ‘Orange juice, for fuck’s sake,’ she said.

‘Coke’s flat,’ she added.

One TV above the bar showed football with no sound and the other showed female wrestling.

Then my mother shouted out, ‘Geordie!’

A small, wiry man had come in. When he saw my mother he let out a yell and held his arms wide. ‘Jesus, but would you look who it is!’ he said. ‘Look who’s back! Look at you! When you get out? Hey son, you going to get this friend of mine a drink?’

My mother didn’t notice me slip out. I sipped the last of the orange and then off I went back home to my house. I read a book for a while, and then I lay upstairs with the light on, listening for the key in my door. I expected my mother, Geordie and various others to come bursting in. The digital display on my bedside clock counted through the hours. The Troubadour hadn’t turned out to be such a shithole after all, perhaps. No doubt there had been an after-hours session, a move to another bar, a party back at a house somewhere other than here. There had been other old friends to meet.

The next morning I was up very early. I sat listening but there was nothing. The bedroom, when I ventured to check it, was as was. The white quilt was untouched. There were just a couple of things lying on the floor: her jumper and a pair of knickers. There was no sign of the key so she must have taken it with her. In the bathroom there was her toothbrush in the mug along with mine. I took it out and put it in her blue holdall along with her other bits and pieces, zipped the holdall shut and took it downstairs. I sat on my sofa which was not leather and thought for a bit as the wan morning light showed my brushstrokes on the gloss. What I wished was this: that I had a cigarette and a whisky with the ice clinking and that my gran was still here. In the cupboard under the stairs I had my toolkit and I knew I was nothing like the Spanish guys who wouldn’t change the locks. The DIY superstore had that whole aisle of mortises and sashes and it opened in less than an hour’s time.

This story is taken from Female Lines – New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland, published by New Island Books, which is being launched at the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin 1, on November 7th at 6.30pm. It will be reviewed this Saturday in The Irish Times