Marge felt warm and cosy when she woke to sense Cullen moving beside her. It was comfortable lying on bed with him that she never wanted to get up again, or even open her eyes. She snuggled against his back and kissed his neck.
"D'yer want a cuppa tea, love?" she asked sleepily but Cullen shook his head and stretched.
"I've gorra see Taylor". He reached for his watch and chain on the floor. "Flipping heck, it's nearly ten. We were supposed to meet at nine thirty."
Cullen was out of bed like a dose of salts and grubbing round on the floor for his pants and socks.
"I'll be back in an hour and yer can gerrus something then."
But Marge was up and sitting on the side of the bed. "You can't go out with nothing inside you Cullen. Wait on and I'll fix you something."
Cullen just laughed, for some reason he was in a good mood this morning. "God, you're getting worse than me Ma, I've not time for food."
Marge looked at him dubiously, "Well, you won't be long will you?"
Cullen was doing up his tie in the dressing table mirror. "If I'm not straight back it's on account of me seeing a bloke in the Picton road..but I'll be back later."
Marge shrugged. "I thought that maybe we'd go out today. You know, go to Wales...or somewhere."
Cullen smoothed down his hair with Brylcreem. "If I'm back, I'm back. How do I look?"
"Smashing. So...I'll see yer?"
Cullen walked to the door putting on his coat "Right then, I'll be back when I'm back." He stood in the doorway and picked some pieces of fluff off his coat. "This place is fucking dirty. Look at the muck on me coat. Why don't you get up and give it a proper clean up instead of lying in bed all day."
Then he was gone. Marge got out of bed and looked around. What did he mean by dirty? She'd spent all week getting it nice for him. Well, there were bits of stuff on the carpet but it wasn't all that bad. This morning she'd run out and get him something nice for his dinner, a lovely bit of pluck or an assortment of lights. Anyway, it didn't look like they were going out after all.
Yet Marge felt terribly tired. It was cold this morning and dressed only in her skimpy nightie she began to shiver. Another five minutes in bed wouldn't do any harm and she hadn't had a good lie in since.....well not since Vera had gone. They used to lie in bed all afternoon then but these days Marge had got into good habits and was up and rushing about doing something as soon as her eyes were open.
Marge cuddled down under she sheets. She could smell Cullen all over the bed and as she closed her eyes she began to imagine all sorts of things.
When Marge awoke it was already getting dark outside. "Oh Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Cullen's tea." She was up and out of the bed in two shakes of a bee's knee, dragging the comb through her hair and searching for her knickers.
By the time she got back from the shops with Cullen's tea - some fish and chips and a box of dead nice cakes - the street lights were lit. She rushed round the flat getting everything ready. There was the washing up from yesterday to do and the bed to make. Then Marge crawled round on her hand and knees looking for bits of fluff on account of Cullen's coat. When she'd finished she put on the kettle and settled down for a ciggy and a read of Woman's Own before Cullen came home.
By the time Marge was on her third pot of tea she began to get worried. After all, he had said he'd be back for his meal. Marge tried to think back and remember the exact words he'd used. Had he said he'd be back definitely or only maybe? And what had he meant about seeing a bloke in Picton Road? Didn't that Norwegian piece live round there? In the end she put on her coat and went downstairs. But as soon as she reached the front door she began to wonder what would happen if Cullen came back and found no tea on the table. God he'd be livid. No, she'd better wait in for him.
Marge ended up sitting on the front step and looking up and down the road. It was dark now, with the sky a deep purple except for the part over the river which had streaks of red and pink. Marge tried to make out the faces of people as they turned the corner or got off at the busstop. It was getting harder and harder and she kept seeing people who she thought were Cullen. She's start up and begin to wave but when they got a little closer she'd laugh at herself for being so daft.
It was strange but yesterday she could have told anyone that she knew Cullen simply by his walk. It was the funny way he put his feet out and moved his arms. But now she couldn't quite remember how it went and as she looked at face after face she even began to forget how he looked. Marge now began to feel a sense of panic welling up in her chest and she noticed how difficult it was for her to catch her breath.
"Ah, come on girl, yer getting daft", Marge said out loud to give herself some confidence. Of course she hadn't forgotten how Cullen looked, not really. Marge closed her eyes and brought up all sots of faces. Terrance - fat and squashed in. Then his wife with the beautiful red hair, and Vera, and soft old Stutty, and even Taylor - that one would never go away. But nowhere could she find Cullen. She ran back upstairs and looked into the flat. Maybe he was already there, maybe he'd gone past her on the step when she was looking in other direction. Or maybe she'd just dropped off for a minute and he was up there right now eating his tea. But when she opened the door the room was empty and even his smell had gone.
Marge was really in a panic now. Her mind kept telling her to wait, that Cullen would be back in a minute, that he'd had some business in a pub that had kept him late. She sat down at the table and tried to compose her breathing, focussing her mind of the image of the tree they had lain under that afternoon in Wales. She concentrated hard until she could see its trunk in her mind's eye, even hear the noises of the insects buzzing in the air around here. Now she allowed her eyes to travel very slowly, raising themselves as they traveled upward until the first great branch began to curve outward from the truck. Then, in a sudden frantic movement, Marge was up an running, running towards the flat door, down the stairs and out into the street. Out of breath she pushed past the crowd at the bus stop and kept on running. At the end of the street she stumbled on a cracked curb stone and fell. As she struggled onto her hands and knees she heard Vera's voice laughing at her, "yer too eager, girl". But then she was running again, forgetting the voice and trying to ignore the pain in her knee and the terrible pressure inside her chest.
At last the Beehive was in front of her. She elbowed past a group of soldiers who were arguing outside and pushed her way in. Marge stood for a moment trying to regain her breath. As she looked around to see if Cullen was inside the talking stopped and the men at the bar turned to look at her in total silence.
Marge pushed forward and made for the snug.
She knew that Terrance and Cullen would be inside laughing over a pint. She was sure that she could hear them now. Everything would be all right.
Yet somehow she knew she was wrong.
The barman stood over her, his big hand flat against her chest.
"Are you deaf or something? I funking told you... O.U.T. Out, yer bitch."
The barman gave her a push that sent her staggering back against the wall. Marge took in the scene very fast, the barman's face bearing down at her, the regulars watching at the bar, and the old men at the dart board laughing and nudging each other. Then a gob of spit hit her in the face and the barman was lifting her by the front of the dress and pushing her backwards to the door.
Marge was out in the street with a group of soldiers standing around in an amused sort of way. The barman released her and as Marge opened her mouth to speak smashed the back of his hand, thick and hairy, across her face. Marge reeled back and, taking her breath and a great sob, sprawled across the pavement.
One of the soldiers nudged his mate and pointed "She landed in the shit alright that one, right in the shit."
"Yeah," said the other. "You've got to watch where you walk in this sodding town."
Then they turned and walked off up the street.
Marge tried to get up but she now couldn't breathe for her chest was so constricted that the houses around her shook and became grey before they slipped away from her. Only a hand gripping onto the brick wall seemed alive. Then the arm itself began to work and she found herself upright again. Keeping close to the wall, she half ran, half limped towards the flat.
Part way back she had the sudden conviction that something terrible would happen to Cullen unless she could see him. She had to speak to him, or at the very least get a message to him. But how? Marge stopped at the corner and looked up the road. Where should she go? Terrance's? His mates in the Leigh Arms? She even thought of Taylor. He always knew everything that was going on--should she go to him?
Marge stood, her arm around the lamp post, trying to catch her breath and forcing her mind to become quieter and more orderly. But inside there was only a terrible confusion.
Marge realized that everyone around her was walking with a purpose. They all belonged somewhere, they were walking to a meeting, going home, speaking to a friend, saying goodby, talking, touching, waving, nodding, gesticulating. All belonging.
Marge leaned against the lamp post listening to the sounds of the night; the shouts and the passing conversations of the crowds, a car horn, the bell on a Corporation bus as it pulled away from a stop and, in the distance, the cry of the newspaper man "Exey-Echo....Exey--Echo...Exey-Echo!"
Without knowing why Marge left the lamp post and began to walk towards the voice. She could see the old man in his cloth cap right at the end of the street. He had two tea chests for a stall and a pile of newspapers at his feet. Four or five people were standing round talking and pointing at his board. Marge picked up speed and her limp turned to a run. The newspaper man's voice was louder now "Exey-Echo...Excey Echo...Read all about it...Exey-Echo."
Marge realized that it must have begun to rain for the newspaper man was pulling out a ground sheet to cover his papers. A man in a bowler hat was laughing and pointing at his headline board. As she drew nearer something seemed to burst inside her and she felt a suffocation of her lungs.
The fears of childhood rushed back to her, the terror of being held from behind as the school dentist forced the black rubber mask across her face. She was choking, struggling to hold her breath until at last she was forced to gasp. She stumbled and fell, then, pushing herself to her feet, was on the run again, past the newspaper man, past the startled, staring faces, not looking to the right or left and especially turning her face away from the headline chalked in black letters on the board.
Marge pushed through the crowds in Lime Street until she found herself in the narrow streets behind the railway station. No, it couldn't have happened, not after so many months. Please God, not Cullen, not her sweet Cullen with his smile and his strong arms holding her and kissing her that night in Wales.
Marge reached the foot of Copperas Hill. She saw a group of people gathered under the gas lamp outside Cullen's house. Not that way, she couldn't face them now. She turned into the back entry and stood a moment to catch her breath. She reached down beside her feet for a sheet of newspaper and tried as best she could to wipe the muck from the side of her frock but it was hard to see, for the only light came from behind the bedroom curtains of the houses opposite, and she only succeeded in smearing it over a wider area. The filthy smell made her want to vomit.
Marge sank to her knees with her back to the rough brick wall and started to sob. After a while the sounds of the night came back to her; a radio playing "These You Have Loved", a baby crying, a man hawking and coughing in his outhouse, someone screaming far off, the sound of glass breaking, silence for a moment then far in the distance a man's voice singing "On the Road to Mandalay."
Then Marge was up again, groping her way along the entry, counting the back doors and trying to remember which one could be Ma Cullen's. This one? Or the green one beside it? Marge lifted the latch but the door was bolted so she tried to shin up the wall. There was broken glass cemented on the top but Marge, remembered what she'd done when she was a kid, took off her coat and placed it on top.
Giving a little run she was up, over the wall and dropping down into the yard on the other side. She saw a rusty bike in one corner and a pile of empty beer bottles. The other side occupied by the outhouse. Marge could smell boiled cabbage, rotting fish and a sweet sickly smell from the drain beside the front door. The light was on inside the house and Marge pressed her face to the window to look through the curtains.
Ma Cullen was sitting beside the fire waving her stick in her hand. A woman about Marge's age was poking the fire, that must be the cousin Cullen had talked about. But who were two big men that stood, arguing, beside the door? She'd never seen them before and Cullen had no brothers. So who where they? Police? Or someone from the London gang? Marge looked closer and noticed their heavy unshaven faces, dirty shirts without collars and thick heavy boots. She moved to get a better view and, in a resonating echo that forced her to put her hands over her ears, she knocked over the empties.
The light went on in the back kitchen and she heard someone fiddling with the lock. Marge ran to the door. "It's me, Marge. I've got to see you Ma...you must let me in."
Something heavy inside hit the door and one of the men swore. The door opened and Ma Cullen was standing, her cousin supporting her, as one of the men tryed to push past her into the yard.
Ma Cullen screamed and held her stick above her head. "Yer slut, yer filthy slut, yer Jezebel."
In a flash, Ma was on her, tearing at her hair and striking Marge's body with her stick.
"Yer sold out our Cullen, yer filthy Judas--yer shopped me son". Marge felt the old woman's spittle on her face and the filth of her breath as they rolled together in the yard, old nails raking across her face, fingers searching for her eyeballs. Marge kept repeating again and again.
"But it's me, Marge. It's me, Marge."
Then she felt a knee in her chest and a man's hands on her hair. Blood flowed in front of her eyes and down into her throat as he smashed her head onto the yard cobbles. Again and again he drove her head down onto the stones until it felt soft and pulpy and she made a terrible high noise deep within her throat as the blood choked her.
Then she was being dragged to her feet and with her back to the door she felt the man's fist drive into her stomach, twisting as it hit, and a pain that drew down deep into her legs. Her body contorted until she felt her face slide across the rough wood of the back door. Then Ma Cullen was onto her again and she heard the man's cry for help as he tried to drag Ma away. As he did so Marge's hands grasped the bolt on the yard door and dragged it open.
As she struggled to get through the door she felt her hair grasped from behind pulling her backwards into the yard, but then she was free with Ma Cullen screaming in hysterics and doors and windows opening all down the entry. Marge ran on with the back of her dress torn and blood and spittle dripping from her face. Ran down the entry and across a bomb site and over a fence and confused, half stumbling, she made her way automatically towards her home.
Inside the flat Marge turned on the light and looked at herself in the wardrobe mirror. Something erupted in her stomach and came gushing up through her throat and at the same moment she felt her bowels open beneath her.
Contact F. David Peat