Ma Cullen got sick. Her legs had been bad for months and two days after Marge's last meeting with Mrs Threlfall they gave up for good. She couldn't go down to the stall on Friday, and by Saturday afternoon Cullen was frantic. He gave a kid who was playing outside a clip on the ear and told him to go round to Marge's and tell her to come and help.
Marge arrived just after the doctor had left and by then there was a crowd outside the house arguing the toss.
"Oh, der going ter take Ma Cullen away den?"
"Yer wouldn't get me into no Hossie...all them hands on yer body and strippin for dem medical students."
"Them's the only hands you'd ever get on your body. Yer old man's give up on yer long ago."
"She's got the look on her though, I've seen that look before"
"And der was two black birds flying round her chimbley this morning."
"Our Norma saw death in the tea leaves."
As Marge walked past, two of them, hair done up in curlers, nudged each other.
"See her, yer know who she is?"
"I've got the eyes God give me, don't I?"
"It's his piece."
"Yeah, well wait till Ma Cullen sets eyes on that one."
"I'd bloody murder our 'enry if he came back with a tart like that."
"Bringing 'er inter the 'ouse."
Marge pretended not to notice and pushed open the front door. There was only one room downstairs with a kitchen and a wash house in the back. On account of the doctor's visit Ma Cullen wasn't in bed....she said she wouldn't have no strangers going up into her bedroom after Da had died. She was half lying in the arm chair with shawls and blankets around her and one leg up on the oven next to the fire. The stuffing was coming out of the arm chair and Ma Cullen was picking at it violently while she shouted at her son.
"I'm not having no needle, nor no knife neither. So yer can take that look off yer face yer mardy baby. Letting that doctor in here, and him a proper gentleman. Look at the room yer dirty little bugger. Live in filty would you, like one of dem pigs, live in filth. I've always kept meself to meself and clean with it. I'm always clean, and letting him in here with me old knickers on. Yer never told me, our Kevin, what if I'd had an accident?"
Cullen looked like a trapped animal. Marge could see he was angry but he didn't seem to be able to shout back at his Ma, he just kept walking away then turning back and clenching his fists.
"Well, I'm not going into no hossie, yer can put that in yer pipe and smoke it. And I'm not having no knife in me. Once they let the air in yer then yer done for."
Cullen walked into the back kitchen and kicked violently at the door.
"And don't be coming yer tantrums with me, yer great bloody baby. I know what you want, I'm not green yer know, going behind me back, talking to that doctor. Our Jack went to the Bottle Hossie too--turned his face to the wall he did, our Aggie was with him. The next morning they'd moved him to the end of the ward, and yer know what that means, never sent for the priest neither, so yer not gettin me into no hossie."
Cullen got down on his haunches and tried to reason with her, "Look, Ma, the doctor said you've got to go in...he'll get a bed for you...it'll only be a couple of days."
Ma reached out and swiped him over the head.
"If yer Da was alive he'd murder yer fer saying a thing like that, trying to get me out of me own house--it'd be the death of him ter see you..." Then Ma turned and saw Marge in the doorway. "Sacred Heart--yer bringin her in before I'm cold in me grave!"
Cullen sprang up as Ma turned her spleen on the visitor.
"Yer dirty little whore, yer slut. And you, Kevin, bringing yer filthy prossy into me bed. God knows I sweated blood for yer, scrubbing and working meself thin so yer could go ter that school, and here's yer filthy prossy coming inter the house and carrying on in yer Da's bed."
Marge tried to apologize. "I've just come to help Ma...just to clean up a bit."
"And don't you call me Ma neither, yer slut. I'll have the police on yer, breaking and entering, this is me house it is. You'll clean it over me dead body---they'll carry me out feet first before you set foot over this threshold. Trying to take our Kevin away from me, yer filthy rubbish."
Cullen came over and whispered at Marge.
"Ah, she's just having a bit of a cob on. You'd better go now and I'll see you at the Beehive later."
But Ma Cullen was having none of that. "Making yer filthy plottings with yer fancy woman are yer? Getting me out of the house next are yer? Well yer can get me me tea, our Kevin, and shut the door in her face. Yer filth. Filth, d'yer hear, gerrout of me house, yer filth."
Marge backed out of the doorway into the biddies on the street.
"Good on yer, Ma Cullen."
"You tell her, love."
"Going with Yanks she was, and when she was a little kid too."
"Black Yanks--she's not coming up Coperas Hill no more, we'll take care of her for you, Ma."
Marge clutched her handbag to her chest and, keeping her head down, pushed her way past the neighbours and hurried down the street.
By next morning Cullen couldn't stand much more of the nagging. He told Marge that it was driving him soft in the head. With Ma laid up there was no one to get him his tea at night and the old bag wouldn't even let him go out to the boozer. He had to sit in all evening just looking into the fire and having her scream and nag at him from her arm chair.
She wouldn't even go upstairs, for she knew that once she'd gone up to bed Cullen'd have the ambulance men round and cart her off to hospital. So she slept and lived in her chair with a chamber pot underneath and a walking stick beside her for emergencies.
Another two days of this and Cullen was ready to put the old biddy in a sack and throw her into the Mersey. But being his Ma he couldn't. So he sent a telegram to his cousin and told her to come at once.
Ma Cullen nearly murdered him for that too. Cullen told Marge the whole story when he came round to her flat that evening. Marge could see that he didn't look like his old self any more. His shoulders were drooping and his head was down on his chest; he was like something the cat brought in after a storm.
"God, you should have heard the old bitch. 'Sending one of dem telegrams and me not in me grave...yer dirty bugger.' She went on and one about me wanting to get her out of the house, and how telegrams meant death and all that muck."
"Ah well, she's superstitious you know, Cullen."
"Yeah, then one of her cronies came in and said she'd seen a bird fly three times round the house, so that set her off again--the old bag."
"So what're you doing now, Cullen."
"Oh, the cousin's come this morning. That was the last straw--she wouldn't let me sit down anywhere, fussing over Ma and pumping up the cushions and sending me out for Calf's Foot Jelly and arrowroot and gobshite like that. Who does she think I am? Christ, she's worse than Ma."
Marge laughed and put the kettle on for some tea.
"You can laugh, but yer should have seen the muscles on the cousin and Ma swinging her stick at me as well."
Marge looked out of the window as she reached for the tea caddy. It was dark outside now. She smiled to herself. "So where're you going now, Cullen?"
Cullen leaned back in the chair. "Well, I'm here, I suppose. I'm not going back there--not until the old bag's kicked the bucket...nagging at me all the time and having me run round making tea and buying ciggies for her."
Cullen fell into silence while Marge poured out from the tea pot. It was strong, just as he liked it with two and a half spoons of sugar in it. But Cullen just took one sip and growled "I don't want this muck. Get us some Guinness."
Marge only had half a bottle left so she swilled out the tea cup and filled it with what was left of the Guinness then ran round to the off-licence for some more.
When she got back Cullen was asleep in the chair so Marge set the bottles down beside him. Very quietly she got the suitcase from under the bed and took out the new sheets. Taking care not to wake Cullen she stripped the bed and remade it. Then she put on the nightie she'd got specially for him, black and sexy, and she put dabs of scent on her breasts and neck. She turned off the lights and just left the little table lamp on--the one that looked like a naked lady.
After a bit even the table lamp looked too bright so Marge found an handkerchief to put over it. She sat on the bed and watched Cullen and thought about all the things they could do together -- nice, dreamy things. All the others were pigs, just get on top and bang away and then go to off sleep or ask for a gobble, the great smelly buggers. Of course Yanks were better, they always seemed embarrassed even when they were drunk, sometimes they apologized and tried to talk to her afterwards.
Well, she'd always really hated it. No, that wasn't right, more like she just wasn't there, just thinking about making tea, or some filum she'd seen, or what to wear tomorrow, or how her foot itched and she wanted to scratch it. But not after Wales, it was going to be different after Wales, just like in the love stories, soft and tender. She sat on the bed and waited for Cullen.
But Cullen slept in the chair all night. Well almost all night because he must have woken some time and drunk the rest of the Guinness. It must have been very late because Marge tried to keep her eyes open as long as possible so that when Cullen woke he'd look at her and then come over to the bed and kiss her.
When he did wake it was late morning and by then he was stiff and crabby. Marge understood that of course. After all, Cullen had been through a pretty rough time what with Ma Cullen nagging and bitching at him and then the cousin throwing her weight around the place. A man's not used to that sort of thing, he just wants a bit of peace and quiet when he's at home. It should be feet up on the hob and his tea hot on the table, not running round with hot water bottles and medicines and things like that. No wonder the poor fella was worn out.
Marge jumped out of bed as soon as he began to stir and put on the kettle for a nice cup of tea. Then she sat on the bed and looked at him.
"God, I feel bloody rough. Couldn't sleep a wink last night in that fucking chair."
Marge smiled but Cullen snapped back at her.
"Had a good look, have you? Who are bloody laughing at? Lying in the sodding bed all morning. Get me some fucking breakfast and stop lazing about, you're worse than me Ma."
Cullen stamped off upstairs to the bathroom and Marge grinned as she heard him kick the bathroom door shut. Men were all the same, but it was dead nice to have one around the house for a change.
Cullen didn't talk much during breakfast except to complain that there was no "Daddy's Sauce" and how he hated using "O.K." Sauce. Marge had made a really nice breakfast, she'd gone out the afternoon before when she guessed that he'd be staying and bought a dinky little frying pan and managed to get a couple of eggs and two ounces of bacon for him. There was plenty of fried bread to follow, as well as two big doorsteps of bread and butter to fold the eggs in....like a farmer's breakfast. She'd even saved her precious food coupons for him.
After breakfast Cullen said that he needed a kip on the bed so Marge went out to give him some peace. She wondered if it would be a good idea to walk down to the market and get him something nice for his tea-- a bit of finnan haddie or kippers. But that'd stink the room out with the cooking, he wouldn't like that. She thought about a black pudding, or a real nice bit of liver - something to tempt him, since he was looking so pale and tired. But then she worried that it would be too far to walk, because what if he woke up before she was out and just buggered off somewhere on his own? In the end she decided that chips would be best. The chippy down the corner was good -- real nice gravy, pie and chips and she'd get him a bowl of peas and some scallops as well. She could even buy a little glass jar of mussels as a special treat. Marge laughed as she walked along. She would get in more Guinness of course, but wouldn't it be fun to have some Tizer, or Dandelion and Burdock? God, she hadn't drunk that since she was a kid when Dad came home from the chippie with a bottle under his arm-- or she could buy Sasparella.
Yea, she'd get a couple of bottles of pop in, for a joke, and just see what Cullen said. He was a big kid after all. But wasn't it daft of her not thinking to bring the empties with her to the off licence just on the corner?
Cullen must have been terribly shagged out because he didn't wake till afternoon, around 2.00 or so. When Marge got back she just sat, perched on the dressing table, looking at him and reading stories in the Woman's Own. But God didn't he look handsome lying there, and so young when he was sleeping. Innocent like a little child. Marge wanted to take him in her arms and cuddle him and even hold him to her breast and stroke his head. But you had to be careful with men. Treat them right and let them make all the moves or they went off you--Vera was right after all. If you came on too strong they'd just dump you.
In the end Cullen began to stretch and gave out a big belch. "That's better, but me throat's parched, what're got?"
Marge handed him a cup of tea she'd had ready and waiting ever since she first seen him move in his sleep.
"God, that's good, that's going to a good home. I was bloody sweating for that."
He stood up and stretched again. "Well come on, let's get out. I don't want to sit around this dump all day, it gets on me nerves. I'm going on the ferry."
Marge didn't let on about the pie and chips she had bought as the two of them walked down towards the river. She was glad that Cullen perked up when he got in the fresh air. The ferry was fun and Marge even made Cullen stand at the back and look down into the water. But then Cullen wandered off on account of how he had a mate in the engine room and Marge stood and took deep breaths of sea air.
When they got to New Brighton Marge wanted to get the two of them deck chairs. She would have liked to sit on the sand and hold hands but Cullen grumbled that he was parched and needed a pint so they went to the pub beside the fun fair. Cullen had said they'd just have a couple and that they'd go on the dodgems as soon as it was dark. But some of his business mates dropped in so Marge waited in the pub till closing time.
When the pair of them rolled out of the pub Cullen was pretty tanked up. He tried to pick a fight at the chip stand but Marge managed to get him on the boat so the sea air would sober him up. Poor Cullen, she thought, he'd had a hard time over the last few months, what with all his responsibilities, and the traveling he'd had to do to London. No wonder he wanted a drink now and again.
When they got home Marge went to the bathroom to change into her sexy nightie, but Cullen flopped on the bed with his shoes on and went to sleep. Still, it was lovely for Marge to have him there. She slept on top of the bed, even though it was cold in her skimpy nightie. It felt so good because she could lie beside him and smell his smells and hear his breathing. As she drifted off to sleep she pretended that they'd been married for years, with a baby in the next room, and Cullen was going to take her on holidays to North Wales. Half awake she reached over and touched Cullen's face, he moved a little in his sleep.
Contact F. David Peat