Custard, Part 1

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“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.”

“Home?”

“No.”

“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.)

Memories

I’ve got something of a checkered history with death: lying in bed counting out my heart beats and wondering how many more will come my way. It’s a lifetime obsession – the single source of my insomnia, something I’ve suffered with, on and off, since I was nine years old. Because of near misses, mainly.

I am thinking in this way because of the sudden death of DN (a man whose African name was the first I managed to pronounce properly.) I found out he’d died on Facebook. Please God that my passing is not announced in this way, with ‘friends’ (including me in this case) writing RIP as if the world itself would end without its intervention. I’m in Cornwall when I discover DN’s death, and then another cliche pops from my (admittedly quite drunk by this stage) mouth, “I’m blessed, I say…” Blessed in what way, I want to ask myself? But I’m too far gone to manage it.

In the voracious way of social media death, you read everything. Or at least I would have if I hadn’t been in Cornwall, a place where smart phones aren’t so clever after all. What I did read was this ‘DN 1966-2017 (with a broken heart…) – I read this by chance. By sheer fluke of being somewhere with wifi. By chance. Like death. The post had 170 likes by this stage, so I am late to it.  Many of my ‘friends’ have got there before me: loving, sad face, like. It’s true: our grief is heartfelt, sad-faced. DN was a very, very good man.

Later, I begin to calculate when I met him.  25 years before when I went to Commonword and Cultureword’s dodgy Newton Street Offices, grey and unkempt, like something out of a 30s detective novel.  We were not ‘good’ friends, in fact beyond Facebook we were not friends at all these days, but I’d met him at Commonword and he’d always been lovely, supportive, strong. My memory says he did finance, but it may be making this up.  I was , briefly, in effect his boss, because I was, briefly, on the board of Commonword.  I went to a number of groups, running the gamut of women in various states of disrepair.  Things those women wrote made me realise how minimal the collateral damage I’d suffered was up to that point in life though I had not got away Scot free.  I was just chipped like the bonnet of a car that spends too long on the motorway, but they had bumpers falling off, dents in doors, rust under the surface, a blue boot where a red one should have been, bits missing.  I discovered something else there too: I was funny.  Until I read that first poem at women’s write, I had no idea at all.  It was meant to be serious, describing my mother’s sunburnt skin like a thick, pork sausage but I liked how other people’s laughing made me feel.

DN was, as I say, a very good man.  Kind, decent, hard-working, a man of principle, a Green party activist (and a future mayoral candidate of Greater Manchester.) And he was dead at 50.  I’m not ashamed to say I shed a tear, and raised a glass.  And I meant it too.  I felt like another light had gone out, another great soul with much left to accomplish, gone. Too young.  Too, too young.

And it left me counting out heartbeats again as if I could calculate just how many beats remained and work out what I could accomplish in the time left.  In the time left.  Imagine knowing the day of departure in advance and being able to do nothing about it? The dreadful inevitability of it. It would focus the mind, or send you mad or maybe both.

My mother used to say of me, “You’ll be late for your own funeral, you will,” which wasn’t true – but handy if you had been given a departure date.  I’d be early, I expect, looking at my watch and pacing the carpet thinking where the bloody hell is everyone?  Before realising, in a nightmare scenario, that no bugger was left!  It was like that for my step-Grandfather Ernie – 93. Just two neighbours, and family sitting shoulder to shoulder in a freezing cold church, and Aunt J from the other side who never knowingly missed a free sandwich. Everyone else was dead.

So, you look around at your friends – real and virtual and you try to work out who’ll be next, who’s got the death mask on, who’s unlucky, who’s got the tinge of grey around the eyes, who’s ready for the chop?  And you can’t decide.  And then, inevitably, I drift back to DN and wonder how someone so vital, so real, so committed could have come and gone.

It’s not like he’s the first of my friends to go before their time, either.  There was CM too who died pushing his child up a hill in a pram, died before he’d hit the ground – the day before Prince William married Kate what’s her name, a public holiday and then, such an outpouring of pain for such a brilliant man who meant to change the world, and would have done it given a bit more chance.  That word again.  54 he was, 54.  Nothing in today’s money.

The church was rammed for his funeral because we were all still alive and the eulogy so profoundly sad that the only way to survive it was to put on a brave face and not move it either left or right.

Two things I recall, a slightly over-smiley colleague of his who made me feel uneasy, who I was later persuaded to employ (against my better judgement, wisely as it turns out – never trust someone who smiles so fully when all about are numb with so much pain they can barely raise an eyebrow) and his young partner, smoking outside the wake, strangely located and dislocated at the same time.

And the recollections that haunt you: further fragments.  Him, laughing heartily at the card attached to our door, “Do not meddle in the affairs of cats, for they are subtle and will piss on your computer.” (Elmo Gethin), and then later, kneeling in the back conservatory, worried about the rescue chickens who looked oven-ready.

I often think of him and his decency and ambition and his belief in a better future: his passion and advocacy.  Instead, like DN, it ended all too soon, and his plans atrophied then died with him. “He wanted to be your close friend,” his partner later told me – but what’s the good of that information after the event?

Because death always rings with things you could or should have said, or might or should have done or moments when the path could have taken a different route.  It was ever thus: hence my chequered history.  My complex chequered history with the great leveller and the measuring out of heart beats.