“Don’t stick your head above the wall,” Custard said. “I’ve had enough.” She was wearing a pink halter neck top, a short mini-skirt and had tried to style her hair, with limited success.
“It’s a bit stinky down here.” I was not impressed. “I don’t think Mrs Key is quite as thorough in her cleaning as my mother.” I paused and the wave of rotting rubbish wafted over us, “And your mam is definitely calling you.”
“I’m not here. She’ll get fed up soon. She never sticks at anything.” Custard said.
But Janet, Custard’s mother, didn’t stop calling and I wondered just how long I could endure the stink of the drains and the slightly sour smell of Custard’s unwashed body. We were a bit too close for comfort.
We’d been sat down that alley for a good 30 minutes already. I hoped, against hope, that Mrs Key didn’t pop out and give the game away, revealing us two fugitives in an act of solidarity with all mothers which seemed to be universal and unspoken, a pact apparently entered into as as soon as mothers gave birth to their off-spring. Equally, I hoped that Mrs Key didn’t let Buster, her cross-breed, out for his evening constitutional. That might not end well either.
“Why don’t you just go home?” I asked Custard but I didn’t expect an answer. She was quick to laugh and joke around, take the blame for stuff, be cheeky and say things to boys that I only imagined saying in my wildest dreams but she did not always talk straight. And I knew that whatever her reasons, it was probably complicated.
Custard shrugged, “You have met my mam and dad, right?” She said this as if no further explanation was required – and I completely understood. I had met them. I’d lived next door to them for the full 14 years of my life. Janet and Horace were definitely off-beat.
Janet couldn’t really read and write although I’d been to bingo with her and she was something close to a genius at that: she’d had 8 cards to my one, and still managed to identify the called numbers on her own and my card before I did. She was a little wiry woman and a bit of a character. Plus she never had quite enough money to make ends meet. Regularly, Janet would roll into our kitchen, hitch up her bright orange corduroys (bought cheap at Boyes) to reveal her fluorescent pink socks, and say, “They’re his, he’ll never know I’ve borrowed them!” She was referring to Ossie (her husband Horace) but how he’d miss them I couldn’t imagine. With a bit of squint, it’d be possible for an astronaut to see them from space!
On those hard-up days Janet would be armed with a plastic bag full of tins of garden peas, peach slices, mulligatawny soup, custard, mixed veg and new potatoes taken from Ossie’s Armageddon stores: his over-stocked pantry.
“He’ll never notice,” she said, as she slammed maybe 30 tins down on the kitchen unit. “He thinks the world is going to end – probably in 1984, if not before, so he buys more and more each week. We’ll never eat it all.”
It was true that their walk-in larder was like a mini-supermarket, each shelf packed high with tins of every sort. Often, Custard would be out in the street, tucking into a tin of cold custard. This was one of the reasons she’d got her name. The other one was not very kind and was down to the fact that she didn’t get washed as much as the rest of us, or change her underwear. I didn’t care that she was a bit smelly most of the time: she was okay. Her real name was Yvonne.
“So,” Janet was saying, “You can have this bag of tins, and I’ll bring the tenner back in a couple of days when I get paid. This is like interest. I’ve nowt to smoke and the Tally man is coming later on.” (By paid, Janet meant getting her benefits.)
My mam would always feel bad for her (apart from the times she ran upstairs and told us to say she was out) and hand over her hard earned cash. When the money was due, I’d be sent over to Janet’s to fetch it, a journey that necessitated the negotiation of their 6 unneutered Ginger toms, one of which like to mark his territory just as you walked through their back gate.
It was never a simple task of the money being handed over. I’d have to hang around in their grubby parlour taking in their ornaments and their curious rainbow chairs, while Janet scurried around looking for cash. Ossie would either be in the next room along building his submarine: a 12 foot replica that was an impressive feat of engineering or he’d be out hunting treasures on the local tip, which he’d sell on. Horace was on the dole long before it was commonplace. He was a curious looking man, sort of half finished. He wore jeans rolled up to reveal his lime-green (or pink) socks and a pair of beetle-crushers. This was partnered with a bright shirt, usually red or pink, opened to his navel, and a leather jacket. He had had some kind of DA (duck’s arse) in the past but his hair was thinning so instead it straggled apologetically down his back. He was a man who was concerned with either survival or bonfire night – the first a daily grind of finding illegitimate ways of earning money, the latter a four month long trawl for wood so that his fire would outstrip all for miles around. It always did.
So, I could completely understand why Custard didn’t want to go home on one level, because her folks were genuinely bonkers, but also I didn’t get it at all, because she could do what she wanted most of the time, and wasn’t confined by the litany of rules we had to live by. I couldn’t quite figure out what she had had enough of.
As we sat in the alley, two teenage girls side by side: Dick the Dustman, a friend of Janet’s, cycled by. Fortunately, he was looking where he was going so he didn’t see us, but I saw Custard pull herself into the shadows.
“Aren’t you hungry though?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “Look, I’ll give you a Mars bar if you’ll just stay here for a bit longer.”
In truth, what I meant was that I was hungry and pretty soon, I’d have to get up and go because the consequences for not doing so would be too grave.
“I really just don’t want to go anymore.”
“You mean to Dick’s?” I asked not even remotely understanding the implication of this question beyond its face-value. I knew she stayed over there sometimes. Everyone did.
“It’s boring,” she said, “And I don’t want to go anymore.”
“Okay. Fair enough. Can’t you just say no?”
“I am saying no.,” Custard was a bit cross. She looked at me, “I’m saying it right now. I’ve just had enough.”
I looked at my newly acquired Snoopy watch – to that date, the best present I had ever had.
“Okay. I’m going to have to go in or I’ll be in bother,” I said.
“You haven’t seen me, okay?”
“You can’t stay down this alley forever Yvonne.”
“No but I can stay here until they get fed up…”
“Okay…” I said.
I rolled out of the alley, stood to my 5″8″ height and walked home, some thirty houses down the street. Janet eyed me all the way.
“Have you see Yvonne?” she asked.
“Not lately,” I said, maintaining eye-contact.
“What were you doing down that alley?”
I looked at her square in the eye, and said, “Nowt!”
I walked on, saw into their parlour through their open front door. And there was Dick the Dustman drumming his fingers on the arm of the rainbow chair, waiting for Custard.
But Custard never came.
(To be continued.)