Orange mortar and Scapegoats

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When one of the Clarke girls started going out with Jonny Weetabix it caused a bit of a scandal.  This was a measure of how far we’d come – the chat was about Jonny’s suitability and not Liz Clarke’s heritage.  When pushed, I’d characterise Jonny as above Baby Harry (a terrifying 8 year old who threatened anyone he could with his Alsatian dog and ruled the whole of Coltman Street) on a par with Peter Frame (who got expelled from school at 8, 10, 12 and possibly other times) and a good bit below David Petty (who was largely harmless but did cause me actual bodily harm when the dart he was throwing into the air somehow landed in my forehead about an inch from my eye.  I pulled it out, ran in crying and then went swimming – worrying that the hole in my head would let the water in. It didn’t.)

The Weetabixes – not their real name, obviously – lived behind our house and my mother said we shouldn’t hang out with them because they didn’t get washed properly and they were people who lacked ambition.

“Ambition?” I’d asked but only because my mother’s reasoning often defied any logic and I was in the mood for entertainment.

“Yes,” she said, “They eat Weetabix for breakfast, dinner and sometimes tea.  They share 2 fish between 8 of them and they don’t believe in reading. And they go out in the rain without their anoraks.” My mother held great store about anoraks which is why she almost killed my sister when she accidentally (on purpose?) lost her brand spanking new anorak a few months before somewhere under the flyover.  My mother hit her with a milk bottle that time (she was washing them out before putting them on the step at the time) and rhythmically beat out the phrase, “How could you lose it?” over and over on her legs.  KM couldn’t say.  And, if my mother had bothered to ask me, I couldn’t either, even though I was probably walking behind my sister.  As penance, KM had to wear my mother’s anorak which buried her and made her look like something the cat dragged in.

“Perhaps they don’t own anoraks?” I said.

“That tells you everything you need to know,” my mother smirked.

That was conclusive then.

I’d been in Jonny Weetabix’s house – and I was amazed how little furniture they had and the fact they could draw on the walls.  I thought he was mostly a bit stupid, the kind of boy that got the blame for things even when he hadn’t done them and who didn’t care either way: it was attention, and attention, even as life’s perpetual scapegoat, was better than no attention at all.

“One final thing,” my mther began again, “they’re trash.  They threw a dozen old shoes into our yard, which their mother denied – where else could they have come from?  And they chucked over a rat.  A dead rat.  What kind of people do that?”

“I don’t know,” I said, and I didn’t.

“Trashy people,” she said, “The Frames might be stupid, but they’re not trashy.”

“Stupid?”

“Yes. I told her my maiden name was Davies-Smith, Jackie Frame said – “Oh, we might be related, I’m a Davies.”  I said, “It’s Davies hyphen Smith.” And she said, “What’s a fucking hyphen?”

“Right,” I said, not being overly certain about hyphens myself.

“What’s Jonny been up to? He putting his hand up for stuff he hasn’t done again?”

“He’s going out with one of the Clarke girls, Liz I think.”

“I’m surprised Ernie would let that happen.  He loves those kids and wants the best for them.”

“Maybe it’ll bring Jonny up?”

“Mary, you cannot polish rubbish, love. Not even with Mr Sheen. Not now, not ever.”

One of the things I loved about my mother was her use of the English language.   If you said, “This is hot,” in relation to food, she’d say, “You sit with your arse in the oven, and you’d be hot too.”  If you wished for something that your friends had, and you said, “I wish I had…” She’d say, “Wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which gets fullest first.”

What I didn’t wish was to go out with Jonny Weetabix.  He smelled and the Clarke girls had style. The Clarke girls were beautiful, quiet, determined and self-contained.  Liz and Jonny seemed a very odd combination.

Ernie himself was a nice enough bloke as far as I knew.  He had a certain Caribbean swagger.  My dad was not massively impressed when he painted the bricks of his house a glossy white, with the mortar in citrus orange.  He thought it was bringing the street down.  Dad’s snobbery had a context: he worked at a paint factory where high quality paint was cheaply available and where he was on top of what was in vogue and what was not: orange mortar would never pass muster, except perhaps in St.  Kitts. But why should Ernie care about this?  At least it was clean.  At least Ernie looked after his house, even if it was not to the specifications of my father’s standards.

“He’s bringing the street down!” dad’d say, with a moribund despair.  By that stage, what with one thing and another, he would have preferred living almost anywhere.  Even the moon.

Ernie Clarke worked in the Hull Fish Meal factory down at the docks and this much at least impressed my dad.  Day after day, Ernie would walk to the top of the street, catch a bus and head off to work where all manner of fish bits that people couldn’t eat would be processed into fertiliser, or feed for cattle.  I don’t know what Ernie did there, but he was a hard worker.   In March 1979 he got made redundant.  It was the last months of the winter of discontent which saw multiple strikes and numbers of people became unemployed for the first time in generations. Mrs Thatcher was just about to come to power.

By July, Ernie Clarke had found himself another job. But he never took it up.

We’d got wind of something on the Tyne Tees news.  In June, a woman’s torso and her head had been found in a massive tank on the banks of the River Tyne.  The torso was in a plastic bag and the men who found her – who were cleaning the tank inside – didn’t hang around long enough to find her head which had been severed and wrapped like a parcel in canvas.

A few weeks later a police car arrived at the Clarke house, and Ernie looking lost, was bundled inside.  In the Hull Daily it said a Hull man was helping the police with their inquiries: a euphemism for arrest it turned out. Ernie was remanded in custody.

…To be continued…

No Country for Old Women

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Mrs Swift wasn’t.  In fact, she hardly moved at all.  Her main journey seemed to be from the kitchen to the living room and back again.  She must have gone upstairs, but I never witnessed this. There was probably a time, years before, when she left the house. But something had happened to stop her.  And, aside from one occasion, she lived her life within the confines of her house on St Matthews Street.

Mrs Swift was the standard issue older woman of my memory: sober dress, wrap-a-round pinny with her grey hair permed or demi-waved.  The only woman who deviated from this template was Purple-Haired Lady who lived alone on Chomley Street.  She had been a professional.  A ‘professional’ what I couldn’t say.  The vibrant mauve gave her a certain swagger which my sister and I admired.  The rest, all the old women of my childhood, looked exactly like Mrs Swift.  They were women born at the turn of the century or in the previous one who had survived the great depression only to hurtle into a war-time of austerity that clung to them like dust. They were resilient.

One such survivor was the old lady who lived directly opposite us.  She had lived in the street, it transpired, longer than anyone.  Each day, dressed in a flimsy mucus-coloured mac, and a green hat at a death-defying angle, she would leave her house to go to town.  Her shopping bag, brown and misshapen, hovered an inch above the ground.  She seemed tiny. I don’t know where she went on those trips, but I do remember her determined walk and wondered how a woman could be so bent and still manage to put one foot in front of the other. When she died, my mother and her friend Alice, laid her out.  It transpired she was 98, had lived without her husband for 48 years and always in the same house.  She had also once been 5’8″.  My mother told me this with a kind of wonder as though she’d witnessed a miracle after seeing her finally straightened.

My mother worked in the fish and chip shop on Airlie Street and this gave her a special status that was a combination of agony aunt and social worker.  Mr Swift, who seemed to me to be austere, went to buy his and Mrs Swift’s supper twice a week.  My mother asked the sort of questions that allowed people to talk, deftly providing a platform for sharing.  That was how she discovered Mrs Swift’s agoraphobia. After that, she always gave him extra chips.

“I don’t suppose he mentioned the affairs that drove her to it?” Alice, who also worked in the chippy, said.  My mother dismissed this as salacious gossip. Not Mr Swift, he seemed a proper gentleman.

On a Tuesday and a Thursday, like clockwork, Mr Swift came in.  He wore his overcoat and trilby hat whatever the weather. And then, suddenly, he stopped. First one week, then another.  When it got to four weeks, my mother took action.

Taking her courage in both hands, she went and knocked on the Swift’s front door.  It opened enough to reveal a sliver of Mrs Swift’s face.

“Is everything okay love?” My mother said.  “It’s just I’ve been serving your husband for years at the chippy and I’ve missed him.”

The door opened and having been quickly ushered inside the whole sorry story came out. Not the why of it, of course, but the how and what.

Mr Swift had had a colossal stroke.  The front room had been converted to a bedroom, and that was where Mr Swift was sleeping. Each day, Mrs Swift would wash and dress him, and get him to the toilet via a walking frame of sorts. He would spend the rest of the day in his chair in the middle room watching a silent television.  He could not speak but grunt, each one rumbling like an earthquake from him. His noises meant nothing to the untrained ear.

“Our Matthew has been here,” Mrs Swift said, “But he has an important job and can only come once a week. At best.”

“Who’s doing your shopping, love?” My mother asked which was how she came to volunteer.  Twice a week she would go around, tap out a special code of a knock before going in, gather the list and sort the Swifts out.  Mrs Swift would insist on paying a few pounds for this service and after repeated arguments my mother would accept the coins for the sake of peace.

Somewhere along the line, this job came to me.  This must have been in the holidays and at weekends (where the mysterious Matthew would fail to make an appearance), I would go round, rap the special tattoo, and enter the house.  At first, I was terrified of Mr Swift because he growled and if you were unlucky enough to encounter him standing, which was a feat of engineering that barely seemed possible, you worried for your life.  As time moved on I got used to him, but the fear never really left me. I didn’t have my mother’s qualms about accepting the payment.

At 6am one morning there was a loud knock on our front door.  It was already a bright sunny day, and my father grumbled his way downstairs.  There was a dark, shadowy figure that could be made out through the frosted glass and the banging was getting increasingly urgent.  It was Mrs Swift.

She was dressed for winter.  Black coat, black hat, black – probably Sunday – dress.

“Do you want to come in love?” my mother was saying.

Mrs Swift was clear that she did not – and looking behind her with every other word – she somehow communicated to my mother that her husband had died over night and she needed the ambulance.  She was saturated with sweat and shaking.

She left then, and I watched her walk down the deserted street in ill-fitting court shoes as though a whole army of not very nice men were chasing her.

In truth, Mrs Swift was lighter and more at ease with the world with her husband gone, as if a weight had been lifted.  She would hint at what this was but never say much of anything at all, and I didn’t have the imagination or the experience to analyse what had caused her deep anxiety, what had made her lock herself away.   She would laugh and joke when I brought her three bottles of stout from the beer-off, and sometimes ask me if I fancied a sip.  The other thing she did was offer me one of her butter-mint bonbons which she bought every week (after that, I stopped pinching one from the bag on the way home from Pawson’s.)

We would enjoy an exchange about her shopping list.  I’d query what some of her writing said, and Mrs Swift would take out her large box of glasses and try one on for size until she happened upon a pair that meant she could see.   One time I asked her where they all came from and she said, mysteriously, “the dead.”

I only occasionally resented having to do the old girl’s shopping and I did it every week until I left for university. I never met her son Matthew but she was very proud of him, his achievements, and those of her two grandchildren who smiled out of posed photographs on the piano.

One day, Clive, the milkman, who still pushed a trolley around the streets to make his delivery, noticed Mrs Swift hadn’t taken her milk in. He knocked, the special knock, but the door was bolted on the inside.  He knelt and looked through the letter box and could see her at the top of the stairs.  He hefted the door with his shoulder until it gave way.

Mrs Swift had died the night before, of natural causes, wearing someone else’s glasses.

Putty

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My mother was not cast in stone but something malleable and occasionally combustible. Some days she was the life and soul of the party, others the spectre at the feast.  She was benign one day, and a raging storm the next.  She once, in anger, hit my sister with a cucumber (the nearest thing to hand), and then hit her again because it broke. That was my mother in a nutshell.

I’d lie in bed in the morning listening for the signs of her mood for the day: the way she moved about the kitchen, the crash and bang of the utensils and the speed of her step as the breakfast cereal made its way to the table, the tone she used to rouse us, the swearing if inanimate objects refused to bend to her will. It sometimes helped, but often she could turn on a sixpence: a shrug of a shoulder from one of us, a misdirected sigh and wham, we were on a different track.  She was unpredictable.

One summer holiday day, my brother K, my sister KM and me were arranged in a police style line-up in the kitchen. The baby, T, was still in his pram – I honestly believe he’d have joined us if he had mastered standing.

“Who did it?” she asked.

We looked from one to the other – there was a dangerous silence.  No one wanted to say anything.  She walked in front of us, staring closely at each of us in turn as though she would need to identify us at a later stage. We were clearly guilty criminals.

“I know it was one of you,” she said.

We none of us spoke.  It was potentially fatal to jump before being pushed.  And besides, the exact nature of the accusation had not been revealed. I tried to look innocent.  I was innocent.

“That mark in the putty,” she began her walk in front of us again: up and down.

In turn, we each denied it.  At first, I didn’t even know what putty was.  And it didn’t seem a good time to ask.

“In the greenhouse window pane. The new one. A fingerprint.” My mother looked down the line-up. I looked at KM.  She looked steadfastly forwards. K seemed more nonchalant.

“It wasn’t me,” he said.

“Or me!” KM half shouted.

“Well?”  My mother said, leaning over towards me.  She should have been in the Gestapo.

“I didn’t do it.”  I hadn’t either.

“I suppose it was Mr Bloody Nobody, was it?”  There was not a hint of humour in her tone.

“I’ve had enough of you all,” she said with controlled contempt.  “I’m leaving.  And I’m not coming back.”  She paused.  “Tell them to look for me in St Andrew’s dock.”

Deliberately, she grabbed the baby’s pram and left the house.

I was seven I suppose, KM eight and K, ten.

“One of you two better own up when she gets back,” K said.

“I’m not owning up.  I didn’t do it.” KM spat back.

“I’ll make you.”

“You and whose army?”

“Stop it,” I said, before they started.  They were always trying to beat seven shades of shit out of each other.

“Mary, you admit it.  She’s always easy on you.”  KM looked at me, half pleading.

“It wasn’t me.” I said.

We stood there for another ten minutes.  I think we expected her to pop up and say, ‘gotcha!’ but she didn’t.

“She’ll be back,” K tried to sound confident. I wanted to know where St Andrew’s Dock was.

“She’ll definitely be back.”

But she wasn’t.  It was early morning when she left.  Dinner time came and went, and there was still no sign of her.  We walked around the house like ghosts. We didn’t play.  We didn’t speak. We didn’t watch television.  It was a beautiful sunny day but we didn’t leave the house. It felt cold. Every now and then K would say, “She’ll be on her way home now” each time less certain than he’d been before.

At teatime, KM ferreted about the cupboards and found some tins of soup.  Standing on a stool, she heated them up then poured them into bowls.  She carefully wiped up the drips, even rinsing off the dishcloth as she’d seen our mother do. The three of us ate in silence.

Dad was working late but I was beginning to wonder how we would explain what we hadn’t done to make our mother leave and not come back.  I felt hollow, empty.  I wanted to say it was me who’d done the putty, even though I couldn’t reach it.  I wanted to take the blame for everything, to make it all alright. I started to imagine the words I would say.  I suppose the other two were making up their story too, but I didn’t ask.  Waves of worry washed over me.  My stomach hurt.  It would be bedtime soon. I didn’t want to go to bed without my mother home. Where was St Andrew’s dock?  Should we ring the police?

And then the door opened, and she came in.  My mother pulled the pram, a great big Silver-cross thing up over the step, parked it in its usual place beside the table. Then, she carried on as if nothing had happened.

I suppose the demands of motherhood just got the better of her sometimes.  And that St Andrew’s Dock day was one of those days.

Fast forward 10 years and I am standing in a phone box in Sheffield, a week or so into my first term at university feeling wretched and alone.  I am the first person in my family to go to university and the burden is too great.  I hate it.  I hate it and I want to come home.  I am out of place, skewed. I want to work in a factory, marry a man, have babies and not be clever. There is no-one like me here, no-one like us apart from the halls of residence porter and the woman who cleans my room.  I have made friends with both: she gives me the only cerise pink duvet available and, when I’m feeling down, he teases me about Hull, about how it smells like fish.

I am phoning my parents. The week before I’d told them I want to leave and over egg and bacon in a greasy spoon my father weeps, big, wracking, silent tears dripping down his cheeks.  My mother says I can leave if I want to.  What am I to do?  It’s the first time I have ever seen dad cry. So I get back on the train and resolve never to mention how hard it is again.

The phone rings out.  And then again.  Five or six times that evening I stand in line.  Five or six times the phone rings out.  Where are they? They are always in.  My parents don’t go anywhere. I feel alone.  Empty.  Hollow. It’s like the putty incident all over again. I don’t sleep.  I rock around my room, walking its tight dimensions like a prison cell.

The next morning my dad answers.  He should be at work.

“Where’s me mam?” I ask.

“She’s in the hospital.”

“Do I need to come home?”

“No!” he says.

He’s so firm that I take him at his word.

“How are you?”

I offer some platitudes.

“Are you sure she’ll be okay?” I ask.

Yes he says, she’ll be home next week.

So the following week I ring, and there my mother is bright and breezy but I know she’s holding back, holding in.  Week after week, we speak but say nothing.

Finally, I arrive home for Christmas and it is then I find out she has cancer.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I hold in my rage, my anger at not knowing about her pain, and at my exclusion.

“We didn’t want you to worry,” she says, “You’ve got enough on your plate.”

I can only return silence.  I want to say, ‘Please don’t do that again. Please tell me everything.’ But I can’t. I walk around like a ghost, too afraid to ask about her prognosis then finally pluck up the courage.

“I’m great,” she says, lying.  She has had a lump remove and the treatment is aggressive leaving her hair thin and her face grey.

“They’ve told me I’ll get better.”

And because there is nothing else I can do, I believe her. And we carry on as if nothing has happened.

Custard, Part 2

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I’m not entirely sure where Custard got to that night, but she did not go home and she did not go to Dick the Dustman’s flat either.  In fact, she never went there again. By the morning, Janet was frantic with worry and having quizzed KM and myself about her daughter’s whereabouts, and visibly disappointed in our lack of knowledge, she left our kitchen a whirlwind of pain and grey to the gills. A big, fat penny had dropped.

A few hours later, apparently none the worse for wear, Custard rolled up neither smiling nor proud of her absence but steely and determined.

“Wish me luck,” she said as she went in.  She was still wearing her halter neck top and her hair shot off in all angles from where she’d slept.

At about lunch time Janet appeared in our kitchen again.  She didn’t have a bag of tins as usual and she wasn’t full of fun or stories.  She was gloomy, miserable and flatter than I remembered seeing her before; like she’d lost a fiver and found a penny. Or worse. My mother took one look at her, and then ushered KM and me from the room with a, “Don’t you two have something better to do?” which we didn’t although it would not have been a smart move to argue.

And so my sister and I stood in the living room bouncing from foot to foot, waiting for a sign that we could re-join the conversation: in the past Janet and my mother had competed to tell the funniest story, each rolling over the other in an elaborate game of Top Trumps.  Not now though – I instinctively knew those days were gone.

The sign to re-join the conversation never came.  Later my mother, a mass of contradictions herself, would say that she knew immediately what to do, and she did it, without a moment’s hesitation.

And the truth was, if not complicated, than somehow not straight-forward even though on paper it was exactly that.  We don’t live our lives on paper, neither by a manual where the right thing to do is followed by the next right thing and the next: rather we muddle through and drift and sometimes those drifts take us off course.  Janet had believed it was okay mostly because she’d turned a blind eye or never even looked.  She hadn’t thought it through.  She was short of cash and Dick the Dustman seemed like a good source of additional income.  And why shouldn’t he want to support Custard and why wouldn’t he want to pay for her to stay over in his flat, and Custard had seemed fine with the arrangement and she’d got extra pocket money and other stuff?  But it was wrong.  It was so, so wrong, she’d told my mother, so, so wrong.

It’s easy to reflect with modern sensibilities and assume there was never any kind of defence for what Janet had done, and yet as a young person I felt some sympathy for her because I liked her.  We all liked her.  Janet was unformed, child-like; she was impulsive, uproariously funny and because of all of that she didn’t  think about the consequences.  She hadn’t even considered Custard beyond a fleeting second.

The first I knew about the gravity of the situation was seeing my mother in the hallway, holding the telephone – the phone half the neighbourhood paid 10p to use.

“Is that the police?”  I heard her say and then she said, “My neighbour has just told me that she is selling her 14 year old daughter for sex, and erm, I thought you would want to know that…”

They did want to know that.

The cars started to arrive within the hour: first the police in marked and unmarked vehicles and then the social workers swishing about in Laura Ashley dresses and corduroy slacks.  Janet and Ossie were taken away in separate police cars, and then Custard’s two younger sisters were helped into an estate.  Finally, Custard, who was wearing a pink fluffy jumper by this point and her favourite pair of wedge shoes, climbed into a detective’s car.  Not one person smiled.

Janet did not return.  We heard later, when Ossie rolled back into the street that all of the girls had been taken into care.

My mother was in some kind of shock – after all, she had made the call that had precipitated the police and social work intervention – and so she gathered around her the neighbourhood women ‘to do something’.

These women were Jenky (Lena Jenky who lived next door the other way, and who always seemed to have smoked fish cooking on the hob), Alice (distinguished only by her Jersey accent and her preponderance for pronouncing burgundy by emphasising the ‘gun’ bit) and Thelma Boast (not my pretend Auntie) who lived five doors down and was considered a good egg.

My mother, and these women, were outraged.  First, by Janet and what she’d done, and then by the authorities that had whipped the girls into care and that had ripped the family apart.  So, they set about campaigning to get the girls back.  Apart from being completely inadequate in every regard, what had Ossie done?  For all that pile of nothing, he didn’t deserve this (or so my mother and those women said.)

They felt also that they had been deceived.  They had liked Janet, even though they hated what she’d done.  And they felt that they had let those children down.  Because they should have known – they should have listened to their instincts. They shouldn’t have looked the other way.

“She was just a bit simple,” my mother said, in a reductionist moment, “Can you understand that?  She didn’t think it through.”  We nodded.

A few days later we went to visit Custard in a children’s home in Hessle: one of four imposing buildings in a row.  “It’s not that bad,” Custard said, “Like being in a big family.” Her sisters were fostered.

“I didn’t sleep with him, you know,” she said, only once and we nodded not because we believed her but because we didn’t know what else to do.

Two further pieces of news came out after that.  Ossie, obsessed as he was with his submarine building and his bonfire, claimed to have no knowledge of what was going on – and the police believed him.  Janet exonerated him too.  She apparently said, “He was too stupid to know any better.”  Ossie literally thought nothing of Custard sleeping at Dick the Dustman’s.  Nothing. Now, he just wanted his kids back.  That’s what he said when anyone would listen, and, oddly, “She was still a virgin, you know.”

Which we thought she wasn’t because KM and I knew about the favours she’d given the speedway riders, and the encouragement she’d given us both (since she was the living, breathing expert on such matters) to roll around in the grass with some boys on the way back from swimming.  And beside, the truth came out in court.  Custard had had to endure a pretty undignified procedure at the police station…

So the informal coterie of neighbourhood women, led by my mother, started to campaign hard for the return of Ossie’s kids.  This was tied up with a concern that those outside of our street would somehow see us all as complicit if they didn’t take a stand, take a side.  So Ossie, who had always been seen as completely ridiculous and vainglorious in the street and beyond suddenly had the greater good on his side…

The younger two girls came home straight away, and later, after the trial Custard made an appearance.

“You back then, are you?”  I asked.

“Yeah,” she said.  And we never spoke of the matter again.

Soon after that she met a boy called Gordon (who wasn’t a moron, actually) and they are still married today.  And at some point in the last 30+ years Custard also won a substantial sum on the lottery, which I like to think is Karma balancing things out.

Dick the Dustman and Janet were both sent to prison.  When I tried to imagine what this was like I found myself picturing Janet slopping out with Myra Hindley, who was the only other woman I’d ever heard of being sent to prison at that time, but that was the extent of my imaginative power.

I saw Janet again, just once, when she was allowed a supervised visit with her children.  She mostly looked herself, and from across the street, tried to be all hail fellow well met.  But something had changed: she could never return and pick up the life she had once had.  She couldn’t joke around, take the mick out of Ossie and make people laugh.  It was as if she was shell-shocked.

A police car arrived early one morning at Custard’s house.  My mother went next door.  When she returned, her face was ashen.  We were just eating breakfast.

“Janet’s been found dead,” she said, flatly.

We all stopped eating and looked at her.  “She was found on the tip,” she said, “And she meant it to happen.  There was an empty bottle of pills in her hand, and she’d been drinking.”  We looked at each other, unsure what to do, our spoons hovering over our cornflakes, then my mother said, “She didn’t deserve that,” which was debatable, and added, “though I’m not sure what else could have happened.”

The first part of Custard is here!