It was quite cold by the time Marge found herself on Lord Street. After Cullen and Terrance had left she'd sat in the snug drinking with Vera and Stutty. But suddenly the room had become overwhelmingly stuffy and she'd felt that she was going to throw up.
"I'm just going outside for a wet", she'd said. "Back in a minute."
But somehow she hadn't gone back in but had found herself wandering towards Pier Head and the river. It must have been all them drinks, she thought, and on an empty stomach too; I'd better get back and see how Cullen got on. But despite her good intention she continued to walk downwards, towards the river.
Although the rain had fizzled out a couple of hours ago, the street was still wet so that the car tyres hissed as they sped past. Ahead a corporation bus had stopped while the conductor struggled to get a drunk off the platform. The yellow lights inside seemed so warm and cosy and Marge could see the outline of heads slumped at their seats, people going home from the pub, men on night shifts, maybe someone on his way to the Dublin ferry.
She continued walking until she could smell the river, so clean after the stink of the city. Marge smiled to herself, funny when you came to think of it the way the sea was a mixture of smells, dying things, rotting things, old seaweed and starfish washed upon the shore.
A church loomed black beside her. It was the big Protestant church, yet somehow she had always felt warm and friendly towards it. She realized that it was as much Liverpool as the Pier Head and the pubs. Inside the church doorway two soldiers were hunched together, smoking and talking. As she passed one of them shouted out with a Geordie accent, "Hey, hinney!" It was an apologetic sort of shout and Marge realized that the two of them were alone in this strange city with nowhere to go. She knew that to them a girl was just someone warm, a face to talk to on a cold night. She should have gone over, chatted for a bit and then suggested a hotel that would be cheap for the night.
But Marge kept on walking. She looked down at her feet and watched them tap, tap, tap on the pavement, but her mind seemed to drift disconnected her body. She realized how hungry she was. But for a bag of crisps she'd shared with Vera she'd had no food since yesterday. That must be why she felt so swimmy in her head, drifting as if she was the river itself, floating down the street instead of walking.
She looked up again and discovered that the Pier Head was right in front of her, all lights and green busses. Marge started to cross but someone shouted out at her.
"Fucking stupid bitch, look where you're going!"
As she turned a lorry swept past her and she felt something hit her on the shoulder as she was pitched backwards into the gutter.
As Mr Roberts was putting the last touches to his accounts, Morag, in her bedroom, was carefully arranging her brush, comb and hand mirror so that they precisely aligned themselves at right angles to the edge of the dressing table. She then walked around the room, microscopically adjusting each picture and photograph on the wall. She bent to pick up a piece of lint from the thick pile carpet and, rolling it round and round in her fingers, sat on the edge of the bed, her eyes darking around the room. Morgan would be back soon, her lips moved, everything must be correct, everything must be exact, there must be no error.
Her eyes were now fixed, unmoving on the blank wall opposite. She tried to calm the thoughts that were running through her head, attempted to bring a measure of stillness to her mind. Focus on the blank wall, she told herself, on its lack of colour. Try to think of nothing. Her lips began moving. Morgan will be home soon, think of nothing, erase the memories, a blank wall.
As Marge tried to get to her feet everything seemed to become stretched out and distant so that she could no longer make out the shape of the buses. She was enveloped in sudden cries, shouts and a surge of noise, there were people pushing past her and strips of light. As she walked forward a crowd seemed to form and draw her along. She looked around in panic, ahead of her was a halo of hard white light. Then, suddenly she was being carried downward, enclosed, with voices and footsteps filling her ears. For a moment the crowd stopped and she felt rough tweed on her face, then she was moving again, still downwards. She closed her eyes and allowed the other bodies to carry her, as if she were a child again. Now they seemed to be climbing and people were elbowing her and pushing her in the back.
Finally the movement stopped and Marge stood there, her eyes tight shut, trying to stop the movements in her head. After a time she opened her eyes and looked down. Below she could see water the colour of tea, bubbling up under the stern lights of the ferry boat. The vibrations of the engines reached up through her legs and seemed to act to steady her head. She leaned over, drawn down by the turbulent water. Then she felt a hand on her shoulder, dragging her backwards. And elderly man in a black homburg hat was talking to her as he led her to a bench near the life rafts. She watched his mouth opening and closing, his eyes searching her face. After she had sat down he stood beside her for a few moments then shook his head and walked away.
Mr Roberts took his watch from his pocket then closed the final ledger. Things were in order, the money was locked in the safe, the film would soon be over. He wondered if he should take one last tour of inspection but decided against it and picked up the Liverpool Echo. He had thought of placing an advertisement, something catchy in the personals. "Meet me at the Palace". People read the personals, he'd noticed that on the bus going home. He smoothed the page flat and with his finger scanned down the column: "Thanks to St. Jude for Favours Received", "Tabby Cat last seen...", "Blessed Oliver Plunkett", "Wedding Dress, never used..", "Eternal Light, burns forever". Religious nonsense, he sniffed. Eternal lights, Catholicism everywhere in this city. He did not look up when Tommy Milligan came tapping at the door.
He continued to scan down the personal column, thinking of just the right phrases. Something that would set people thinking, that would bring the word "Palace" into their minds.
What about, "A great film at the Palace?" No, "A Great Evening at the Palace". That would do. The door opened and for a moment Mr. Roberts saw Tommy Milligan's great frame in the doorway. But as he peered again against the light he realized that it was not Milligan after all but a customer who had probably come with a complaint or to request a refund.
"Yes? Can I help you?" Mr Roberts attempted to put on a cordial face.
The big man stepped back. Someone else entered the room. Mr Roberts tried to stand but his legs stiffened. The second man was wearing a mask, a scarf over the lower part of his face. Mr Roberts had a sudden, vivid memory of being called out in front of the whole school by his headmaster.
"Boy, you will go to my study at once."
The man with the mask over his face had entered the room and was walking toward the desk. Mr Roberts was unable to move from his chair, the other children looked round and began to giggle. The headmasters voice boomed out again.
"Go to my study,"
Morgan's face began to crumble as tears came into his eyes and his voice pleaded. "Please, sir. No, sir. Please, no, sir. Please."
The children began to laugh and the Head took Morgan by his jacket collar and began to shake him.
"Spineless. This boy has no backbone. You're all going to see what happens to a spineless boy; you'll see what a good thrashing will do for a spineless boy; you'll all see what happens when a boy can't take his punishment like a man."
Mr. Roberts realized that the masked man was pointing at him, gesticulating; but his paralysis had now extended to his ears and he could hear nothing, or rather it was as if he were at the end of a long dark tunnel in which sounds were only able to reach him after many, many reflections. The large man moved forward from the door and stood next to his masked companion. He almost seemed to be smiling, encouraging, trying to set Mr Roberts at his ease.
Mr. Roberts licked his lips and tried to push the words out.
"What do you want?"
Cullen turned to him in anger. "The money, you stupid bastard. Are you deaf or something? Give me the money."
Mr Roberts grasped the edge of his desk to stop himself falling on the floor. His eyes darted across to the safe.
"So that's where it is." He nodded to the larger man. "Take a look will you."
The big man walked over and tried the door.
"We'll be needing the combination of this one, I won't be trying no lady's kirbygrip on a bugger like that."
The smaller man pointed to Mr. Roberts again.
"Hear what he says? You'll have to open it for us."
But Mr. Roberts could only shake his head, slowly and deliberately from side to side.
"We'll have to help you a bit then, won't we. Offer a bit of assistance, like. And incentive to honest labour." The masked figure nodded to his friend who lifted Mr. Roberts from his chair.
"No, please. Please don't. I'll tell you. For God's sake, just take the money and get out."
The big man laughed. "Now don't you be brining God into this; this is by way of a commercial venture. You save God for tomorrow morning."
Mr Roberts nodded and licked his lips again. His headmaster stood over him, a metal ruler in his hand, thwacking it down hard on his desk.
"A body with backbone knows his irregular Latin verbs, a spineless boy cries and pleads to cover his ignorance. Such a boy does not advance in life, such a boy is not respected, such a boy wastes his manhood in filthyness."
Unable to speak again Mr Roberts reached for his pen and wrote the combination on the front of his ledger and handed it to the masked man.
"Keep an eye on this bastard while I open the safe. And see to it that he doesn't shit himself."
Both men laughed, then Cullen crouched down beside the safe and began to work at the combination. Terrance sat on the end of Mr Robert's desk, grinned down at him and took out a length of lead pipe from an inside pocket. From below the floor Mr Roberts could hear the sound of laughter. The clock ticked on the wall. Terrance slapped the lead pipe into the palm of his hand and winked. Cullen whistled thorough his teeth as he turned the tumblers on the safe. Time seemed to have been slowed down, to be dragged out like an elastic band that is stretched to its breaking point.
Mr Roberts moistened his lips again.
"You'll go as soon as you've got the money?"
The tall one laughed. "Are you thinking of asking us to stay for a drink? Is that the size of it? Hear this, he wants the two of us to stop on for a cup of tea and a nice biscuit each."
Cullen gave a little cry as the safe door swung open.
"Here, chuck over that shopping bag. I'll pack the money and we'll be on our way.
At that very moment to everyone's surprise Mr Roberts stood at his desk and reached out his hand, like a man about to hail a taxi. Terrance spun round to see a figure backing into the corridor.
"Milligan", the manager cried, "I'm being robbed, get help fast."
But Terrance was too quick, he was out in the corridor bringing the lead bar crashing down on Milligan's head and, before Mr Roberts could collapse bas into his chair, Terrance was dragging the Assistant Manager back into the office.
"NIce work", Cullen nodded. "Now get down them stairs and keep a watch on the street outside. I'll be down in a minute."
Terrance hesitated, "That one's out cold for sure. Are you sure you can look after yourself?"
Cullen snapped back at him. "Go on, get out. I'll see you at the bottom of the stairs."
The talk man walked out of the door but Mr Roberts could not take his eyes from Milligan and the dark pool that was spreading from his head onto the carpet.
"Don't worry about him", the masked man said, "he's still breathing."
He stood a moment longer beside the safe, the shopping bag in one hand, as if trying to weight up a delicate problem. A moment later he walked over to the desk and tilted the light. Slowly his hand reached to the scarf around his face and pulled it free.
"Take a good look. Remember me."
Relief flooded over Mr. Roberts. "But I know you. I've seen you before. You're Mrs Cullen's son, I've watched you helping her with her stall."
Cullen shrugged in a resigned way and, setting down the shopping bag removed a parcel from his coat pocket. Mr Roberts released his hold on the desk. The room had lost its strangeness. Mrs Cullen was a women he had spoken to every day, coming out of the store or walking along Lime Street. He knew Mrs Cullen and this was her son. The whole thing must be some sort of a joke. It couldn't be real.
"So, why not just leave the money here? There's no need to worry. We'll say no more about it.
Mr Roberts almost smiled in encouragement. "Just leave it on the table. Everything will be all right."
He glanced down at Mulligan who lay moaning on the floor. "It was a joke. Just leave the bag on the table. We'll forget about all that. No one need ever know."
Cullen stared at him blankly as if all the life had drained from his face. "It's just something I've got to do, you see. Something I've got to do. It's not you. It's just something I've been meaning to do. Do you understand? Things have got to be different"
Mr Roberts nodded. "Yes, I understand. And no one will ever know. I won't call the police." He felt almost confident know.
Cullen shook his head. "Then you don't really understand, do you?"
Cullen opened the newspaper parcel and looked deeply into Mr Roberts's eyes.
Marge began to shiver uncontrollably now. She moved her hand as if to close her coat only to realize that she had left it on her seat in the Crown. Her trembling moved inward, to her very intestines. She closed her eyes tight, to shut out everything until even the smell of the river and the hot oil from the engines was lost to her. And then the image from her dream rushed back to her, a man clutching at his chest, a look of surprise on his face.
Terrance stood just inside the back door starting out into the street and waiting for Cullen. The sounds from the cinema were quite loud in the tiny entrance way. Terrance could hear the thunder of horses hooves and the sounds of gunfire. The music on the soundtrack reached a crescendo of sound and, the next moment, Cullen came thundering down the stairs.
"Move it Terrance", he shouted, clutching his chopping bag to his chest. "You go on left and I'll duck down Cambridge street." He struggled past Terrance to get out of the door.
"How did it go, chief?, the big man asked.
Cullen turned and thew a newspaper parcel towards Terrance.
"Dump this, fast."
Then he was up the street and round the corner at the top. From inside the cinema came the sound of laughter. As Terrance opened the parcel the wind tugged away the top sheets of newspaper. Inside was an American service revolver.
"Holy Mary, what have we done?"
Marge came round to find herself on a bench at the Pier Head. She had no idea how long she had been sitting there but, as she looked out into the darkness across the river, she began to sense a division between land and water. While she watched, the sky began to lighten and gulls screamed and dived across the waves. On the landing stage the first early morning sparrows we hopping amongst the benches looking for crusts of bread.
Marge felt inside her handbag for a cigarette and took out a crumpled pack of Senior Service. She started at it for a moment and then the memory of her meeting with Taylor came flooding back. She put the cigarette to her mouth and felt around in her handbag for a match with she lit on the sole of her shoe.
As she drew in the smoke she stretched out her legs and looked up into the sky. She could see the gulls high in the air, circling then sweeping down onto the black waters, cold and oily. Now came the sounds of the swell of the waves and the knocking of chains on the floating landing stage as it rose and fell with the river.
By the time her cigarette was finished Marge could see right across the river and detect that first hint of the Welsh mountains as a fine, dark line higher in the air. Everything was fresh that morning and it seemed possible to start things again, to work them back to their beginning.
Within the coming of the light Marge sensed a brightness inside her. God, what a morning, she thought. The clock on the Liver Buildings chimed the half hour and it reminded her that today was Sunday. This morning she would go to her first mass in ages.
Marge stood up and walked to the gangway. Stepping over the chain she climbed the wooden roadway towards the street. The big clock on the Liver Buildings was showing just after five thirty. If she hung ground the first buses would soon be starting and she could probably cadge a cup of tea from the man who ran the canteen. Marge looked across the square, open and empty now, only a scattering of sparrows and, on the far side, an early morning tramp looking into the dust bins.
Marge began to walk back towards Lime Street. It seemed darker now, as the roads leading from the river were overhung with tall cliffs of shipping offices, their stone faces blacked with soot and grime. But by the time she reached St. James Gardens the day was quite light and, as she walked towards them, a flock of pigeons took off and wheeled in a solid mass towards the Nelson Monument. Marge turned to look at the city stretched out below. It was coming to life now, the first cars were emerging from the tunnel with their lights on, two policemen paced their way past the Picton Library and in the distance she could hear the sound of a church bell.
There was something about the scene that reminded her of the war. She could not recall how it was possible but she seemed to have stood at this point before and to have seen the city on fire, with the searchlights reaching up into the sky. Had she really come to this spot as a girl and looked out across the fires and the colours of the smoke, or had she only dreamed it?
She had a dim memory of walking down Scotland Road, hand in hand with her father after one of the raids, seeing the rubble and smoking buildings, the pattern of holes across the walls as if someone had dragged a great rake across them. Those were made by bullets from a Messerschmitt, her father had told her, it had flown straight down the street shooting after someone.
At the end of the street she had seen a house with only one wall standing. It was like one of these doll's houses you could open up and see inside. There was fancy wall paper and pictures still hanging in their frames. On the third floor she could see the fireplace jutting out, and she even thought she could still see the fire burning, or maybe she just imagined that.
Funny thing, Marge thought, to be lying in bed looking into the fire one moment and the next, bang, it's all over, everything vanished, just a fireplace three quarters up a wall and the pictures still hanging there. Marge shrugged and turned away. She began to cross the park and walked towards lime Street. It was good to think that she'd be going to mass this morning. She looked into her handbag, yes she even had enough left for a cup of tea and a bacon butty afterwards.
Things were looking up.
Contact F. David Peat