Ma Cullen, squatting painfully on her heels, stabbed at the dully glowing coals while she spoke to her son. "You'll be stopping in then? I'll have a nice warm blaze for you in a minute and then we'll brew up a pot of tea. You'll be wanting a cup of tea with your chips on a cold night."
She turned to give him a quizzing look but Cullen simply shrugged. "Yeah, well I've got things to do, haven't I?"
Ma pretended not to hear as she picked the last nuggets of coal out of the bucket. "Your Da was a good man, I'll say that for him. He always got the coal in regular as clockwork, I never had to go out meself in the cold with me legs. I'll crucify meself one of these days on them back steps. But your Da was a real gent, he'd never have let me struggle down them steps with me legs."
Cullen stood in the doorway looking at her, his hands in his pockets, waiting, his anger building, the stink of stale cabbage water and the mustiness of the room in his nostrils. It was always like this when he got home. Ma scrabbled away at the fire muttering under her breath. In the end it was too much for him and he snapped back at her. "Well, he didn't have far to go did he? He had it delivered to the door off the back of the lorry."
But Ma didn't take offence, instead she struggled to her feet in a fit of coughing. "God, our Kevin, you'll be the death of me yet. I'll never forget your Da waiting by the back door for the coal lorry to slow down at the corner by Copperas Hill. And there's you, all eager to help him. God, you didn't even come up to his waist. Your Da was a big man."
Cullen nodded slowly, trying to remember.
"The two of you running out to the coal wagon and you waving at the driver and shouting while your Da sneaks up and takes one of them sacks. Good coal it was too, your Da'd lift coal off no one but Martindales."
Cullen pushed himself away from the door and sat down at the kitchen table, keeping his coat on while she eyed him expectantly. "Yeah, he gave me a good start in life, the Da. Thieving and dodging and getting a nose for it."
Ma looked shocked. "Holy Jesus, Kevin, that's no thing to say. Your Da was no thief, just a little sack of coal when we needed it and a drop of whiskey off the docks at Christmas. That's not thieving, not off the docks. It's more your right like, when you work there, lifting things off the boats. He was always a good man."
Cullen screwed up his nose in disgust as he looked round the kitchen.
"He didn't set you up with all his thieving did he? Just look at this place. It's a fucking pig sty. No, even pigs live better than this. All his money went on the dog track and the booze, didn't it?" He turned away from her, drumming his fingers on the table. "God, but you're blind, Ma."
Ma Cullen brushed the coal dust from her hands onto her skirt and shuffled her way over to the kitchen table to sit next to her son.
"We'll have a nice brew of tea with our chips, our Kev. You take your coat off or you won't be feeling the benefit of it when you go out."
Ma seemed enlivened by the argument, her face was flushed and her breathing sounded easier. "I'll come down to the Crown with you later for a drop of stout. Eh, Kevin? That'd be nice wouldn't it, Kev? A drop of stout with your Ma? Your Da always took me out for a drop before he had a night's boozing. He was a good man was your Da." She looked sharply at him. "You take after him, you remind me of your Da."
Cullen shook his head. "My Da was nothing. He died on the docks. He never got out of it. He was nothing."
He began to button up his coat but made no effort to get up from his chair. Ma knew that she had won the battle, Kevin wouldn't be going out that night. She turned back to the fire and smiled to herself. If she could handle the big one she could certainly deal with the son. Anyway, there wasn't much to him with all his talk and big ideas, a lot of wind and piss, that and the tantrums he'd had since he was a baby, going red in the face and screaming for the tit. Men like him were easy to handle. She even allowed herself a moment of triumph.
"Then you'll be having your tea in after all?"
Secure within his sanctuary above the Palace Cinema, Mr Roberts meticulously brushed his jacket. It was his habit to change in time for the second performance; change out of his travelling clothes and into the formal black suit which he kept hung inside his office cupboard along with the pair of patent leather shoes. The shoes were polished to such a degree that Mr Roberts was able to see the flashing lights outside the cinema reflected in their toecaps. He had worn them to go dancing with his wife over thirty years ago yet they were as uncreased as the day he had first bought them. But then, he mused, they had not danced together for many years now.
Ten minutes earlier Mr Roberts had marched downstairs to inspect his "troops" as he liked to call them. Some times he regretted that he had not seen action in the war. All he had managed were a few office jobs at a training camp until his age and his wife's condition had given him an exemption.
Downstairs he had faced the troops in silence and begun his inspection. He had straightened the ice cream girl's hat and examined her tray. In addition to the vanilla tubs and orange drinks Mr Roberts insisted upon those little extras like packets of Eveton toffee, sticks of liquorice for the kiddies and occasionally a box of milk chocolate assortment--very difficult to get after the war, even for someone with connections to the buyer at White's department store.
"And there's not need to be too forward with the customers, Miss erm. I don't want them feeling harassed, this is a family cinema and they're here for a relaxing night out, aren't they, Miss..erm? And you won't forget to call everyone Sir or Madam will you?"
Mr Roberts stepped back a pace to survey the effect, then marched forward again, his face hardening. "And make sure that you're in your position when the spot light comes on in the interval. You were late last night and some people in the front started laughing. I won't stand for that again, Miss...erm. I've warned you."
He switched his attention to the cash desk.
"Very neat, very nice indeed, Mrs..er. Don't forget now, no fiddling. I've spent my life in the retail trade haven't I and I know what two pennies on the top of a till means. You play straight with me and I'll pay straight with you."
His assistant, Tommy Milligan, was giving the double glass doors a final polish with a chammy leather. He wore a long blue trimmed overcoat with brass buttons. On the chair beside the cash desk rested a black cap braided in blue which matched his coat. Twenty minutes after the first film had started Mr Milligan would take off his hat and coat and walk down the aisles of the cinema spraying the audience with a sickly smelling disinfectant.
"Very spruce, Tommy. Let's have a nice neat line tonight. No queue jumping or pushing. And make sure the fireman goes round the back to check the exits. I don't want any children getting in free."
The inspection had gone well. After only two weeks at the Palace Mr Roberts had managed to lick everyone into shape. He looked up at the clock on his office wall. 8:15. The queue would be forming outside for the second house. Very carefully he put on his jacket and adjusted its hang in front of the mirror screwed to the wall. Tonight was Friday so he's have to keep the box office open until 9:30. There'd been quite a few late comers last week, couples who came from the nearby public house just to see the main feature and not bother with the Pathe Newsreel or the Laurel and Hardy.
Tomorrow would be Saturday, the big day of the week. There'd be plenty of money taken tomorrow night, not just the tickets themselves, for people always tended to spend a little more on a Saturday night, cigarettes, drinks, sweeties for the children, things like that. He'd really have to be more careful with the take in future, leaving all that money in the safe over the weekend. You could never be too sure these days.
Mr Roberts took a comb from his draw and carefully smoothed his hair. It had a sleek, shiny appearance, like the back of an otter, so different from the usual wooly locks of the Celt. Mr Roberts smiled to himself, there'd be plenty of time to make a nice cup of tea and finish the evening paper before the audience settled down. Then around 9:45 he'd inspect the foyer again, close the box office and bring the night's money back to the safe. A very pleasant evening.
Marge reached out for the brass handle on the door and pushed her way into The Crown. The pub was packed so tight that even when she stood on tip toes she was unable to see if Cullen had arrived. Leaving Vera outside in the street to wait for Stutty she began to elbow her way towards the snug. As she passed the bar a few of the locals nudged each other and Arthur the barman gave her a hard look.
By rights the snug should have been crowded on a Friday night but all Marge could see through the frosted glass was a single figure. It's Cullen, she thought to herself as she opened the door. A man stood with his back to her looking into the fire; on the mantelpiece, level with his head, was a glass of whiskey.
"Evening love, expecting someone?"
The man turned to face her."Taylor! Well if you're here I'm going"
Marge turned back to the door but Taylor banged his glass hard on the mantleshelf.
"A tart like you ought to be more respectful like. On the knock, up and down Lime Street, there's risk in that. Life could be hard for you, a keen young copper a bit eager to make an arrest."
God, he's sure of himself, Marge thought, the way he talks, the way he looks at me.
Taylor shifted his bulk from the fireplace and sat opposite her on the upholstered bench. Taking a packet of cigarettes out of his white mac pocket he felt in his trousers for a light.
"That friend of yours. Vera isn't it? She's respectful like, knows which side her bread's buttered on, she knows what we want."
He took his fist from his pocket and opened it. Lying heavy in the palm was a gold cigarette lighter, he looked at it for a moment then tossed it gently into the air as if he were weighing it.
"Then there's this new one, Walther. Respectable job, lives with his mother in Crosby. So what's his game? I have to ask myself that you see."
Taylor closed his hand on the lighter and looked up at her." Well? What's your opinion?"
Marge couldn't take her eyes off him. He reminded her of on of the Sisters at school who could worm out any secret just by staring at you.
His eyes hardened, "Hear me?"
Marge tried to answer but something was constricting her chest so that she could hardly breath.
Taylor put the cigarette into his mouth and lit it, inhaling the smoke deep into his lungs. "I'm looking for your short arsed friend Cullen, aren't I?"
Marge swallowed." You know where to find him. He doesn't live in my pocket"
Taylor held up the packet offering Marge a cigarette, "You're cold, love. You want to go over to the fire and give yourself a warm."
He moved closer to her and whispered in a confidential manner. "He's been spending a lot of time in a house in Cambridge Street. You know it don't you, just off the Picton Road?"
Taylor stood up and tightened the belt of his raincoat. Picking up his cigarettes from the table he walked over to the door.
"Tell short arse I want to see him. Catch." He threw something towards her.
Taylor was gone and Marge was left holding his packet of cigarettes in her hand like a child who has been playing ball. She made as if to throw them in the fire then, thinking better of it, slipped them into her handbag.
"Bastard,"she thought,"the bloody bastard. What did he want? Why was he saying those things to me?"
Just then the door burst open and Terrance was standing there, dwarfing the room.
"I ask a blessing on this house and all who drink in her." Terrance's arm was raised in benediction."And what did the coppers want with you, Marge?"
Marge shrugged. "He was asking about Cullen."
"Was he now?" Terrance walked over to the fire and kicked it into flame with the toe of his boot. "That's better then." He crouched down on his haunches and spat into the grate.
" And what was he asking?"
"Cullen's been hanging around Cambridge Street. It's that Norwegian bitch isn't it. Cullen's with her again, isn't he?"
Terrance walked over to her and took her hand."He's the sharp one is our Cullen. More brains in his little finger than we've got in both our heads put together."
Marge started to speak but Terrance knelt and put his finger to her lips. "Cullen's your man for the planning. So think on what I'm saying, right?"
Marge looked away but Terrance jumped to his feet again with a surge of energy. "Now I can go to mass with a clear heart. Sure but it's me good deed for the day all done. Hasn't St. Jude heard me poor dead mother's prayers straight from her grave in Sligo." He winked at Marge. "I'll put a thank you in the Echo on Monday.'St. Jude. Thanks for favours granted'. Have you noticed how St. Jude always reads the Echo every night, a powerful good reader is St. Jude."
He was still laughing when Study, all wet and bedraggled, slid through the door balancing a tray of drinks, with Vera, her arms full of crisp packets, pushing past him.
"Hello, Terry. Set them down there will you, Stutty, and tell our Terrance about the new religion you've gone and joined."
Stutty carefully set down the pints of bitter and,on cue, began to pour out his story of the tramp he'd met outside the wine lodge. Terrance watched, his eyes twinkling. The more Stutty got into the story the more confused it became and he began to mix in things he'd heard on the Third Programs and something about a conversation he'd had with a bus conductor earlier that evening.
When he ran out of air Terrance chipped in with, "Talking of philosophy Stutty, there's this Scotsman in here last week who could play tunes on his head."
Stutty didn't take offence at the interruption and looked up with interest at Terrance.
"He takes this tray off the bar see, a big powerful Jock he was, and starts bashing the top of his head with it. But the trick is, he opens his mouth a bit and this wonderful sound comes out. 'Bless this house' and 'I belong to Glasgow' and other Protestant hymns. Albert the barman even chipped in for the encore and that's saying something. A very musical Scotsman that was."
Vera pulled Stutty down onto her knee. "But then its more the Welsh that are music, aren't they Marge? Being down the mines and that."
Stutty was concentrating heavily."I suppose it could be some sort of r-r-resonance. In the cavities of the skull. But didn't it hurt him."
Terrance looked round in pride. "Hurt him? Hurt him? It bloody near killed him. And now for your penance Stutty you can go and get us all a whiskey to chase down the beer, and mind you don't spill a drop or me mother'll turn in her grave."
For the first time this evening Marge was beginning to feel relaxed. It was something about Terrance and his way of talking that made Marge forget herself and the ideas that were usually running through her head. Terrance grinned across at her.
"I'll just nip out and see if our man's come in yet"' he said walking over to the snug door.
Marge stood up to follow but Vera grabbed her coat."Hold on will you, kid, making yourself cheap. You can wait here till he comes in."
But Marge tugged herself free and was through the door. As she pushed her way towards the bar an old man with a glass eye reached out for her. "Hey, girlie, want to come back with me and give us me cocoa?
The old man opened his mouth to laugh, and as he forced his face towards her Marge could see the blackened stumps of teeth and a white slime of spittle on his gums.
The old man's cronies crowded behind her, pushing her forward.
"You want to watch Albert."
"He's a randy bugger is Albert."
Marge saw that he was wearing pajamas underneath his raincoat and that his bare feet were stuck in carpet slippers.
"I've just come out of Bootle hospital, girlie," he said leering at her.
"They were going to cut your thing off weren't they, Albert?"
"He was shouting out in the night--help me nurse, I can't get me thing into the bottle."
Albert reached out for her arm. "How about coming back with me and giving us me cocoa, girlie?"
Marge shook him off and looked back towards the bar, but Terrance had gone and the door to the street was swinging on its hinges.
Contact F. David Peat