‘We’ve Got Each Other and That’s a Lot’, a short story by Jan Carson
A holiday read – 12 Days of Stories, Day 6: a mis-spent youth
Dad has his Bon Jovi tape on again. He likes a bit of Jon Bon and the boys while we’re waiting for my brother. The music makes him feel like a getaway driver from a film. This is a hard enough feeling to fake when you drive a Citroen Saxo, (two doors, not four). For a while there he even wore a bandana and a jeans jacket with the sleeves ripped off. There were thin, white threads like feathers sprouting from his shoulders as if the stuffing was coming out of him, or his wings had fallen off.
“What in God’s name are you wearing, Samuel?” said Mammy the first time she saw him in his bandit gear. “You look like a woman in that get up.”
(She said the word ‘woman’ to sound like ‘wee man’, which is the way they say it round here).
After this Dad quit wearing his jeans jacket. “Too conspicuous if the cops catch us,” he said. He said this as if he’d considered all the angles and arrived at the decision by himself. My Dad couldn’t choose left over right without consulting Mammy first. Still, I could tell it was a relief for him to get a jumper back on. He’s never done well with the cold. It brings him out in red pimples like he’s taking an allergic reaction to himself.
It’s always cold round here, even in the summer. When we have enough money, or my brother gets too old to sell, we’re for moving to Australia.
“They’re crying out for skilled workers over there,” says my Dad, “and it’s always roasting. Most folks have a swimming pool in their back garden.”
I sometimes wonder which of his skills Dad thinks is the best: gutting chickens, waiting in parked cars or thieving money off young, married couples. I know better than to ask.
“Them Australians will be lucky to have us,” I say. Dad reaches over the driver’s seat to give me a backwards high-five.
He hasn’t noticed yet that the fabric on the corners of the Saxo’s front seats has been gnawed away to reveal the yellow padding beneath. I have done this with my teeth while we are waiting. There is nothing to do in a parked car and Mammy will not allow me to sleep.
“You’ve to be on your toes, Paddy,” she says, “primed and ready for action.” By this she means that I’m the one who’s to fold the front seat forward and let my brother in the back when he comes running. I am, what you might call, an integral part of the whole operation. I’d feel a lot more important, though, if I had a gun or some sort of disguise.
We spend a lot of time waiting in the car with the heaters off. It is colder behind the glass than outside. I can see my breath curling over my parents’ heads in whispers. My Mammy used to laugh at this and say, “look at the cut of us, like fire-breathing dragons.” She used to tell jokes to pass the time. “Knock, knock. Doctor, doctor. Did you hear the one about the blind priest?” Now she doesn’t say anything anymore. We sit in the dark and count the money up in our heads. This is a bit like praying when you don’t use words.
Five grand off the Montgomery’s in Portstewart.
Another five from the folks in the big bungalow outside Lisnaskea.
Six grand in Markethill last December.
Eight thousand euro from the Gormans in Portlaoise, (the only time we’ve ventured into the Free State).
Plus ten thousand or so in jewellery and small, untraceable electronic items which my Mammy is selling on eBay. She is using a false name of course, lifted from a girl in Larne who used to do her hair.
Mammy’s careful to keep a fair amount of distance between one family and the next. There’s always the fear that a couple might have told someone about us, especially in the country where there is little else to be talking about. We go backwards and forwards across the province putting wee adverts in the local papers: “Struggling to start a family?” “Frustrated by long waiting lists for adoption?”
Mammy has a mobile just for the adverts. When it goes off the ringtone is the theme tune from The Littlest Hobo, which is a programme about a travelling dog she used to watch when she was a wee girl. The song always makes her smile, even when she’s just been shouting at my Dad. She knows to answer the phone in her sad voice because the calls are always about my brother.
“Yes,” Mammy says. She can sound like she’s near crying on the telephone, “I’m at my wits’ end. I can’t give the child what he needs. I’m heart feared his Da’s going to come home and lay into him again.”
She always gives them a price straight off, something around the twenty grand mark. This is what they decided my brother was worth. He’s not a baby anymore. We could ask more for a baby. They’re better value for money because you get longer with them. We don’t have a baby and Mammy’s too old to have another one. Besides, how would we get it back if it couldn’t walk?
“The money’s just for expenses,” she explains slowly, “you wouldn’t believe what it costs a lawyer to draw up adoption papers.” She asks questions about what the couple do for a living, whether they’ve a happy marriage, and are they churchgoers or not. They always say they are. They think this is the right answer. My Mammy could not give a toss about whether they are Protestants or Roman Catholics or practicing Satanists. She only asks these questions so the whole set-up doesn’t sound too suspicious.
“Well,” she says, “this is an answer to prayer, a real weight off my mind knowing my wee Josh, (or Brendan, or Philip), is going to get everything I can’t give him. Bless you. Bless you both. Why don’t I drop him round to youse for a trial run, just for the night? You can see what a wee dote he is and sure, I could lift a deposit off you at the same time, kill two birds with the one stone.”
There is a damp pause. This is the moment when the deal will either take or fail.
“Would five grand seem reasonable?” asks Mammy. Another pause. “Perfect, I hope you don’t mind doing cash. I don’t want himself getting at the money. He’s a wild man for the drink.”
The deal is all go then. Dad and I do a silent air punch, “yesss”. My brother is too young to understand any of this. He thinks it’s all just a game, like hide and seek in someone else’s house. The people who adopt him will spoil him with ice cream and crisps before bed. They want him to have good memories of his first night in their house. They never think about hiding their Ipods or wallets. Why would they suspect a five year old child, especially such a cute one? They put him to bed in his new bedroom and don’t even notice he’s gone ‘til the next morning. My Mammy makes Owen leave a note, in crayon, just in case they try to report him missing. This could ruin everything for us.
We’ve been waiting for over an hour now. I have bit away all the fingernails I can. There’s nothing else to do in the dark.
We can’t risk the engine. The last thing we need is the neighbours calling the police about a suspicious looking Saxo. Everything rides on a clean get-away, not least my brother, who my parents cannot afford to leave behind. By Mammy’s calculations we need at least two more jobs before we’ve enough for Australia, especially if we’re for taking Owen with us. I’m not that bothered either way. It was better before we got him. There was more room in the backseat for me. My Dad had his job at the chicken factory and Mammy made the sort of meals you need both a knife and fork for, not just sandwiches, which we are always having these days.
Everything has changed. We are outlaws now. Mammy has started smoking tight, little roll up cigarettes which she dangles through a gap in the car window. I am getting fat from all this sitting around, and also the sandwiches. Dad is turning into an American.
I have not seen the jeans jacket in months but he still insists upon his Bon Jovi tapes. Because my Dad was reared in Ballymena, (which is a little like being reared in a time machine), he assumes that everyone enjoys the music of Bon Jovi. “Your love is like bad medicine,” he is singing now. He pauses just long enough to make me think he’s forgotten the next line, before he belts out, “bad medicine is what I need.” His head is a hammer nodding out each syllable.
There is something about the way my Dad taps the beat out on the steering wheel, prodding at it with a single limp finger, which drives Mammy clean mad. Or, maybe the words are what winds her up. She has never been like bad medicine for Dad, unless Jon Bon Jovi is meaning cough syrup that’s gone off. The two of them only touch when they’re both going for the TV remote at the same time.
“Turn that shite off, Samuel,” she snaps, “it’s a wonder you’ve not woken up half the neighbourhood.”
Dad turns the stereo down, a wee bit at first, and then completely off. The car is full of silence and wet breathing. He does this in a way which is meant to make Mammy think he was going to do it anyway.
“Listen,” he says, “I think I hear a noise.” He rolls the window down a half-inch. Outside the car smells like cut grass and last night’s barbecue. “Naw, it was nothing, just the wind.”
Outside the car is a nice housing estate of medium-sized houses with pebbledash walls and two car driveways. The lawns are perfectly rectangled and green, like the smooth felt on snooker tables. Every third or fourth house has a touring caravan moored outside its garage door. The kind of people who live here are teachers and estate agents or different kinds of social workers. They have two children or three. Sometimes they can’t work up to one and this is where we come in, with my brother.
Experience has taught us that the middling people are more desperate. They are more likely to believe my Mammy on the telephone and then later, at their front door in a dirty t-shirt. They are easier to destroy than the very rich. Very rich people are always suspicious of people who want to help them, even when it is the kind of help they need such as window cleaning or gardening. We only do middleclass houses now. Afterwards, these kind of people are too mortified to call the police. They do not want to look like eejits in front of their friends.
“Besides,” says my mother, “it’s only their holiday savings we’ve taken or what they were setting aside for a conservatory. They can afford it.”
Every house in the Estate has its curtains drawn. Apart from the streetlamps and the odd red-eyed alarm, the estate is completely dark. We are parked three houses from the Williamson’s house on the opposite side. My brother is inside this house. Any minute now he will turn the key in their patio door and come creeping down the driveway, twisting himself sideways to edge past Mr. Williamson’s speedboat. His pockets will be full of credit cards and small, but valuable, items easy to sell on the Internet. Mammy always puts Owen in trousers with deep pockets when he’s on a job. She is clever like that, thinking of problems before they happen so they are not even really problems.
“What time is it now, Samuel?” Mammy asks. (The digital clock on the Saxo only works when you have the engine on).
Dad tugs at the elbow of his jumper, eases his sleeve over his watch and whispers, “ten past two, Pearl,” as if someone might be listening outside the door. “Any minute now, the wee man’ll come bolting round yon corner and we’ll be out of here.”
We all lean forward, peering through the sweaty windscreen at the street and the hedges and the spot which will, any second now, be Owen, running.
“Next time, I could go,” I suggest.
“No way,” says Mammy, as she always does. In the two seconds it takes to form her next sentence I tell myself, this is because she loves me more than Owen. She is trying to protect me, I tell myself. The believing of this is warm all around me, and spreading out across the backseat, like when you are in the swimmers and allow yourself to piss a little and float in your own heat. Then she says, “you’re too old, Paddy,” and all the good feeling is gone.
“Nobody wants to adopt a ten-year-old,” continues Dad. “They only go for Owen ‘cause he’s five and he looks like a wee angel.”
“Like a young Macauley Culkin,” adds Mammy, “before he got into the drugs and the sexual stuff. Folks look at that wee face and they can’t get their front door open quick enough. The child’s a bloody goldmine.”
“Folks look at your face Paddy and they go off the idea of children altogether,” says Dad. He winks at me and I can see it, backwards in the rear view mirror.
“It’s not your fault, Son,” Mammy butts in. “You take after your Da, not me.”
I bite my teeth into the edge of the passenger seat. It tastes of fire-retardant foam but it stops me from saying the sort of thing which will land me with a slap. I look over my Dad’s shoulder while I’m chewing and I see Owen come belting round the corner in a pair of button up pyjamas. Everyone springs into action. Dad flicks the ignition on and, for a moment, my brother goes all slow motion, suspended in the Saxo’s full beams. Mammy opens the passenger door and jumps out, crying, “good lad, Owen,” and, “what are you in your jammies for?” I get ready to push the passenger seat forward so my brother can get into the back.
Owen stops in front of Mammy. He is close enough to be heard without raising his voice but far enough away to be beyond her reach. I can tell from the way she is holding her arms that she wants to hug him. She is not a very good Mammy but I think she still worries about us, especially Owen, when he’s on a job.
“Get in the car, son,” she says.
“Naw, Mammy,” replies my brother, “I fancy staying with these ones. They’re nice.”
“Get in the car, Owen,” she repeats. My Dad leans across the handbrake and shouts, “get in the bloody car now, Owen.” He is not even using his John Wayne voice.
“They’re going to call me Miles,” says my brother. “I’ve got my own bunk beds; two whole beds and there’s only one of me.”
“Get in the car,” all three of us shout. Mammy makes a lunge for Owen and he stumbles a little trying to avoid her. He is wearing the kind of slippers children wore in the wartime. His hair is split in a line down the middle so all his curls are flat.
“I’ll skin you, if you don’t get in the car right now, Owen,” shouts my Dad.
My brother begins to cry, quietly at first and then with a kind of crazy edge like an out of control truck thundering down a hill. A light goes on in the house closest to us.
“I don’t want to do the stealing any more,” screams Owen. He does not look like a young Macauley Culkin now. He looks like a just born baby all pink-faced and screaming, “it’s not fair. Why doesn’t Paddy have to do it?”
“I will,” I say, “I’ll totally do it.”
Nobody hears me. Mammy takes three steps towards my brother. She wraps her arms around his arms and braces him against her chest as if he was a sack of new potatoes. She throws him in the backseat and does not even bother with his seatbelt.
“Drive,” she says to Dad and neither of them bother with their seatbelts either.
“I could make myself look younger than I am,” I say. “I could wear, like a Disney jumper or something.”
“Wee bugger didn’t even lift a credit card,” my Mammy mumbles to herself.
“At least we’ve got the deposit,” says Dad. They both turn their heads to look at the glove compartment where Mammy has stashed six grand in fifty pound notes.
“He’s getting too old for this, Samuel.”
“We only need him to do it two more times.”
“You’re right; two more jobs, and then Australia.”
“And if worst comes to worst, Pearl, I can always take my belt to him; for his own good.”
In the backseat, my brother is still crying. He reaches through the dark for my hand and I will not take it.
“You could have stayed with them,” I hiss in his ear. I hate my brother for coming back to the Saxo, for still being the one they need.
In the front my Dad has turned the radio back on and it is Bon Jovi, the one about saying a prayer. I think this is their most famous song.
This story is taken from Children’s Children by Jan Carson, to be published in February 2016 by Liberties Press, following on from her debut novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears (2014)