The two handbags sat between them. The mother and the daughter. Abby looked across at Cheryl-Ann, so much to be said but silence was the only conversation. Cher was nervous, she hadn’t meant to put her bad down next to her mom, she wanted to pick it back up and move it to her left side. She picked at balls of fluff on the underside of her cardigan whilst twisting the end with her thumb, she wished herself away to another place, another time, another seating arrangement. She wished she could talk, really talk to her mom.
The stilted conversation began, “so, how’s college, Cheryl-Ann?”
“Umm, okay, I guess,” Cher gave up fluff catching and launched into full defence stance, the arms of the cardigan over both hands tightly wound around her tiny middle.
“Did you have luncheon yet? Sylvie made pie, I’m sure there is some left,” Abby asked politely, as politely as if the pastor was round for tea.
“Oh I stopped on the way, got lunch at a diner on the road some place. Is dad home?” Cher was becoming more nervous as the seconds ticked slowly by, stealing glances at her handbag, daring it to get off it’s lazy behind and walk.
“No. Father is in the city today. A big presentation at the office, I think he said,” Abby girded her loins or whatever is girded on the formidable female frame that was Abigail Pearce Clinton-Johnson though feels as fragile as a fly in a web, “Cheryl-Ann, I know you have your own life now. You are at college and you’ll probably be bringing a young man home at some point. It’s just that. It’s just that father, my husband, Jack, your father. Well he has decided not to be married any more. I have the papers here, they came yesterday. He didn’t say a word. It is terribly civilised, don’t you know?”
Abby fumbled for her handbag, knocking Cher’s to the ground, spilling open, with all the information she had brought home to show her mother. Or leave it in the letter tray as she left on Sunday evening.
“Oh!” They both said together. Then it was Cher’s turn to rush and gush out the verbal diarrhoea she had been practising all the way home. “Mom, there are places you can go. You don’t have to live like this. Just because you and daddy are practically royalty round here, it doesn’t mean you have to live here. You can leave. I can help you. I have friends who work with women like you, victims of domestic abuse. Mom, it happens to loads of women, but some of them get out. Get out now before daddy thinks of a better settlement than divorce. Love you mom.”
The two women, brought up so politely and civily jumped up, bawling their eyes out, hugging like there was no tomorrow. How many familial cycles were broken that day? Abby and Cher became good and real friends as a result of handbags being inappropriately placed.
Stella and her belly were doing flip flops, as in she was practicing that shoe shuffle dance so popular at bluegrass festivals in her flip-flops and failing miserably and her stomach, God bless it, was a tightly wound as a Jack-in-a-box.
Daniel was filling the saddle-bags in an intricate pattern, weaving each item so everything needed for the road trip was accounted for. He looked up at the sky, the beautiful blue sky and brilliant sunshine polar opposites to how he was feeling. A damp, grey day in England was how he felt. An uneasiness was eating into his core.
Brian picked up Star and they rode over to Stella’s. The radio mic was on but neither spoke. The chasm between them could not be seen, as Star clung to Brian’s back, but it was palpable to them both.
The four friends rode all day on their way to Telluride, stopping off at Grand Junction for the night. Most of it spent in silence as they slept in sleeping bags like sardines in the tiny motel room. Daniel only spoke to say not a bad time from Fort Morgan.
Brian said he was sorry when he tripped over Stella. Star did not speak at all but was sick twice. Stella kept going into the bathroom to practice the dance, she wished she had her fiddle but they had decided not to unpack the instruments.
By this time tomorrow with Daniel on mandolin, Stella on fiddle, Star on banjo and Brian on bass, their four voices, (high lead, tenor, baritone and Star’s beautiful dissonant soprano) harmonising their own material on the Elks Park Stage, they would know if “Blow the Vault” could become the next big thing.
Just like they dreamed of last year when they lost Virginia and Virgil on the journey over from Fort Morgan, they hadn’t performed and spent the next twelve months rejigging the set without two guitars and without their best friends.
Once upon a time there was a young girl.
Every day, she would avoid contact with all humans.
One day a boy followed her and wouldn’t stop.
Because of that, she ended up talking to him.
Because of that, some other boys got jealous.
Until finally only her and the boy were left.
Hilary lived in a strange little room, in a strange little house with strange people. She wasn’t allowed to talk to people, not even them. Every day she was sent out to collect wood for the fire, bottles for one of the people who filled it with liquid and sold it, old newspapers for another who created bowls and vases from them after mushing them up. She avoided people so she couldn’t be talked to. Sometimes not talking to people was worse to the people than talking. She didn’t really know so she just kept to herself. A lot of her day was spent in the wood on the edge of the town collecting twigs and cutting branches into smaller pieces. Little forays into the town for the bottles and newspapers and then back to the more comfortable woods.
Billy watched Hilary for a week before he followed her. He was a curious chap, new to town and already ostracised by the cool kids. He was geeky enough to put kids off from being friends but not geeky enough to not care, he was in his own world at the same time as being part of the bigger one. He followed her from town to the woods, on her second trip that day, at first he treated it like a spy story being thirteen he wasn’t quite old enough to find playing uncool but was just on the cusp of it all.
“Why you followin’ me boy?” Hillary sprung from behind a tree.
“Oh, hello, my name is Billy, I am new, I want to be friends. I have no friends. Will you be friends?
“I ain’t allowed. Go away!”
“No seriously, the kids in town, they don’t want to know me and there is no one else. Please!” Billy countered, not willing to give up after spending all week watching.
“Okay, kinda, only in here, only in the woods, and not all the time. I have work to do. I don’t have friends either. It might be nice. There isn’t much that’s nice, here,” Hilary was softening.
Over the summer they got to know each other, odd they may have been but fun they had. Halfway between childhood and adulthood, not quite one or the other, there was fleeting hugs, fleeting kisses, all chaste, not quite ready for anything else, not quite ready to even know.
One September evening they were just saying goodbye when Jeremy Spencer and Rob Dickinson were running through the woods away from some mischief at a nearby farm. All tallness, angles and the beginnings of muscles they circled the two youngsters.
“What do we have here Mr Spencer?” Rob began.
Later, much later, Hilary half limped, half crawled to her strange little house. She knew what had happened, so did Billy, being forced to watch. Hilary didn’t go to the wood for three days. The people did not like this, they needed the wood, the bottle and the newspapers. On the fourth day Hilary went. Billy went too. They found they couldn’t look each other in the eye. They wanted to talk but found they couldn’t. They wanted to cry, to comfort, to love but found they couldn’t.
Billy killed Jeremy and Rob, everyone thought it was an accident because the rest of the world didn’t know. There was a fire in the shed of the strange little house, everyone thought the still had blown up because the rest of the world didn’t know.
Billy’s parents, pastors at the new church, brought Hilary to live with them. She didn’t need to be told to not talk anymore. She no longer tried. Billy looked at her but couldn’t see her eyes anymore. They lived in the same house but might as well be on different continents. As they grew up Billy continued killing and Hilary continued being mute. Both traumatised by an event in the wood, that no one was left to talk about and the ones who should talk about it, unable.
Meet Spirit and Dance. six year old twins – they went on a road trip – a walking trip:
We call our mother “mother” because it annoys her. She would like us to address her as Sweet Divinity, the name she chose when she left home to join a commune. We found out years later she was called Mary Winifred O’Connell but we were used to mother by then and much as we would have liked to annoy her with Mary we could never remember it in time. We never really knew mother, just when we thought we understood what she was, she changed becoming more robust, or a little fragile, very political or like an earth mother. Her moods were like shifting sands, when other people were around she was always bright and shining like a beacon of hope. However when they left they snuffed out the spark of hope and we endured dark days, sometimes she didn’t cook for days or even get out of bed.
It was on one such deep black nadir, as long as we had known, lasting more than five days that we went in search of food and changed our lives forever. We could only count up to five and we had done that and eaten all the berries we could find. We weren’t sure about weeks but we knew it was autumn as the leaves were falling from trees, it was getting colder and both of us had put on shoes for the first time that year.
We dressed with care for the occasion of the big walk. Spirit was wearing orange corduroys with a yellow jumper that came down to her knees. Dance was wearing a dress that dragged along the ground made out of heavy crushed velvet. A dark blue matching cardigan two sizes too small finished her outfit.
We now know that we looked wild but back then it seemed natural to have our hair streaming down our back, unkempt with twig and leaf entwined. The clothes we wore were either too big or too small, all given by these transient caravanners as part payment for water and pitch. So on this particularly momentous day in our lives we thought we looked normal and set off down the road. We decided to walk down rather than up because when the people went for a walk in the evening they always went that way and came home cheery, loud and happy.
The first part we skipped as a new freedom descended on us, this slowly gave way to a slower pace until we were trudging. Our clothes were getting wet as rain dripped unnecessarily harshly, they hung down and got heavier and muddier as we marched our slow monotonous walk. The village started abruptly as we turned a bend, cottages on both sides gave way to terraces and eventually we saw a shop. We had brought money in mother’s purse. Although naïve about a lot of things we knew that mother gave money to get things and people sometimes gave money to her for staying with her. We pushed open the door and Dance spoke to the lady, well pointed at things; a packet of jam biscuits, a chocolate bar and bananas. Spirit opened the purse and gave it to the lady.
Honesty was thankfully well imbued in the shop lady and she only took out the £2.30 needed. We left and sat on a bench outside, each item came out of the bag, halved and stuffed unceremonially into our watering waiting mouths. We choked and spluttered our way through the food and with hiccups stood and went in search of something to quench our thirst.
As we turned a corner a group of children were coming the other way. We said hello to them but they laughed, encircling us, they pointed; at our hair, our faces now covered in chocolate and biscuit crumbs, our clothes, they said we smelled funny, we were dirty, and we were stupid. We cowered turning into each other, arm around protecting, not understanding why but aware of danger. The noise must have alerted some adults to investigate because suddenly the chanting stopped and we opened our eyes. A huge man stood over them asking who they were.
Spirit spoke, “I am Spirit. She is Dance.”
“Come on now girls, tell the truth. You have run away and stolen a lot of money. Mrs Hanrahan at the shop says you had more than fifty pounds in that purse. Tell the truth like good girls.”
Dance moved forward, facing him, she craned her neck until she could see his face, “We tell truth, me Dance and she is Spirit, we were hungry so we came for food.”
Spirit dragged her back to be with her and put her arms back around her
“Got it!” She shouted with glee at the wall this time whilst jumping up.
“The old bat down by the river with all the cats, she’ll give me a roach if I feed her moggies, genius!”
Mary set off in the glow of the orange street lamps, striding purposefully. It was seven and would take an hour to feed the gazillion or however many cats were there tonight.
There was a light shining from the window so she knocked and opened the door . The stench of cat piss hit her as she opened the inner door and the noise of mewing kitties enveloped her.
“ Nancy, it’s Mary from the estate. Will ye be wanting yer cats fed Nance?”
But Nancy wasn’t listening; in fact she hadn’t listened all day not since dawn when she drew in her last breath. She stared at Mary, and conversely Mary stared back. She momentarily wondered should she call the doctor or the ambulance or something. Something she decided and poked Nancy who was sitting immobile in a green frayed fireside chair. No response. She slapped her across the face as hard as she could. The head moved to one side with the momentum but came back to stare once more.
Something else she thought, scanning the room. Nancy’s hash box was always kept in the centre of the mantelpiece, it was an old tobacco tin that had been covered in sanded down and varnished matchsticks, like parquet flooring. Mary knew all this because her dad had one and she used to stroke the glossy top. He took it with him when he left, not that he was much there as he spent more time sent down than out for good behaviour. That was where he made the tin, she had thought to ask Nance who made the tin for her but she’d forgotten. Who cares she thought as she stuffed the tin down her knickers and went in search of Nancy’s handbag. She knew where that was because Eileen and her used nick the odd bit out of it every now and then. She emptied the purse out onto Nancy’s lap, making use of the tweed skirt she was wearing that was taut across the thighs making a perfect table for change gathering. In the notes compartment she found a fresh crisp €20 note and grabbed all the silver from her lap leaving the copper in a sagging pile. Stuffing the coins into her jeans and stashing the note inside her bra. She would have chips on the way home.
“Thanks,” she said to Nancy. Still inert. Still dead. She scuttled out of the house leaving the door open as she rushed into the night.