Authors: Stevan Alcock
Tags: #Fiction, #General
First published in Great Britain in 2015 by
An imprint of HarperCollins
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London SE1 9GF
Copyright © Stevan Alcock 2015
The right of Stevan Alcock to be identified as the author
of this work has been asserted by him in accordance
with the Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988
A catalogue record for this book is
available from the British Library
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Cover illustration: Andy Bridge
Source ISBN: 9780007580842
Ebook Edition © March 2015 ISBN: 9780007580859
The milkman found her. On Prince Philip Playing Fields. He crossed the dew-soaked grass toward what he took to be a bundle of clothes, but then he came across a discarded shoe, and then t’ mutilated body.
Her name wor Wilma McCann.
An hour earlier, wi’ t’ daybreak a mere streak across t’ Leeds skyline, Wilma McCann’s two kids wor found by t’ police, waiting in their nightclothes at a bus stop in t’ Scott Hall Road, hoping to see their mother on t’ next bus from town.
Later on t’ morning the milkman made his gruesome discovery, after he’d told the police, made a statement, phoned his missus from a box on Harehills Lane, the milk float wor working almost parallel wi’ our Corona Soft Drinks wagon up and down Harehills’ red-brick back-to-backs. It worn’t usual for him to be in this street at the same time as us. He wor running way late. Eric, my driver, parped the horn. The milk-float driver beckoned us over, his face taut and joyless.
‘Stay here, Rick. Watch the van. Summat’s up.’
This irked me. My mind wor already racing ahead to t’ end of t’ working day, to t’ terraced house in t’ cul-de-sac where t’ Matterhorn Man lived, and now Eric wor blathering on wi’ t’ milkman and the day wor stretching itsen out before me.
I plonked both feet sulkily on t’ dashboard and mulled on t’ lines of washing slung between t’ backs of t’ terraces. Billowing sheets, flapping underwear and wind-socked nylon shirts. Washing slowed us down even more than some poor cow’s corpse. I’d have to march before t’ wagon wi’ a long pole and hoist up all t’ washing so our grimy vehicle could sneak beneath. The women would hear t’ van and look out skittishly as we passed, watching to make sure their pristine laundry worn’t soiled on t’ line.
Then we’d stop. Stacking half a dozen bottles up each forearm we’d move deftly from back kitchen doorstep to back kitchen door; from Asian kitchens where t’ hands of t’ women wor stained wi’ turmeric, to t’ kitchens of black women who laughed and joked wi’ us in their patois, to Ukrainian and Polish kitchens and English kitchens. Kitchens filled wi’ t’ smells of spices and baking, dank kitchens of stomach-churning grease, dirt and indifference.
Over t’ road, the milkman and Eric wor still confabbing. The milkman wor pointing somewhere. I swore, slammed my fist hard against t’ cab door, clambered out onto t’ back of t’ wagon and noisily dragged some crates about.
It wor a friggin’ age before I heard the whine of t’ milk float pulling away and saw Eric bustling over, face like a pig’s arse. He sat in t’ cab, clutching the steering wheel wi’ both hands and staring flatly ahead.
‘So he found a body this morning.’
‘What? A dead one?’
‘Uh-huh. Thinks she wor done over last night.’
Eric picked at his teeth wi’ his forefinger, leaned over t’ round-book.
‘Number 43 wants a crate of cream soda.’
Cos of all t’ palaver over t’ body it wor late morn before I found mesen propping up the door frame of Mrs Husk’s living room, bottle of ginger beer dangling ’tween my fingers. Mrs Husk wor slower than any corpse, and only a smidgen of t’ hour from becoming one. She’d grind time to a halt if she got her way. I should have been in and out of there an age back.
‘Oeff!’ spluttered Mrs Husk. ‘My leg.’
I looked on as she doubled over in her chair, rubbing her calf, picking uselessly at the fraying edges of her bandaging. Her heavy brown wig had slipped slightly to show wisps of white hair, floating and anchored, like sheep-wool traces caught on barbed wire.
‘Oeff,’ she repeated, eyeing me beadily. ‘It don’t get no better.’
Nor would it. I prayed the old cuckoo wouldn’t ask me to rewrap it. Not again. Not today of all days. I worn’t a friggin’ nurse, fer Chrissakes, I wor here to deliver pop. Her leg wor so ulcerated and pitted, it wor like massaging cold chicken skin. Not even industrial depot soap could rid my hands of t’ stink of her ointment.
The day wor stacked against me.
The milkman had found a body.
Mrs Husk wanted her leg seeing to.
I would be too late for t’ Matterhorn Man.
Mrs Husk motioned me further in, her jaw slackening and closing wordlessly, like a ruminant chewing cud.
‘Best I stay over here, Mrs Husk, stood in some doggy-do earlier on.’
Which wor a lie. Course, I’d wanted to clap eyes on t’ corpse. Couldn’t be any worse than t’ cat I’d found in a water barrel wi’ a ligature round its neck. Just a quick gander at death, then I’d go and sell pop. People die, people are born and people buy pop.
Mrs Husk wor levering hersen out of her chair wi’ both arms.
My nostrils flared, catching the manky whiff of her room. Such a dingy room, the floral wallpaper a discoloured shade of piss, the moth-eaten rugs scarcely hiding the bare floorboards. Two mangy armchairs wor angled toward a gas fire that hissed bleakly from t’ fireplace, the stuffing oozing from one of them. She slept in here, the old bird, slept in one of them there armchairs.
She took the new bottle of ginger beer from me and shuffled off into t’ kitchen. That’s it, under t’ sink, go on, that’s where you keep it, behind that grubby gingham cloth. Mrs Husk wor faithful to her one bottle of ginger beer.
Still, I thought, scratching my knackers through t’ hole in my pocket, she ain’t a bad old crow. Not one of them cringeing, whingeing old crones on t’ round who peer at you through t’ crack of their door chains, or clack-clack their dentures at you about young folk or darkies or t’ war.
The old littered the round, holed up in their stinking flats and decrepit houses, smelling of stale piss and imminent death. She might wear a hairnet and have a whiffy leg, but there wor summat brusque about Mrs Husk. She never apologised for being old. Not Mrs Husk.
She edged her way over to t’ table by t’ window, where she set down t’ empty.
‘Bugger the doggy-do, come in proper while I get you t’ money.’
Her dappled old hands quivered as she reached for a buff envelope from behind t’ mantel clock. The clock had an assured tock-tock and an expensive chime. An heirloom, perhaps. Even t’ most addled old girl would notice if that went walkies, and Mrs Husk’s mind wor lemon sharp. That clock wor probably the only thing of value she had. Then again, maybe she wor secretly loaded. The elderly accumulate. They hoard, they store, they stash.
Summat brushed against my feet. Lord Snooty, her unfeasibly fat tomcat, lurking under t’ table, blinking up at me like it knew what I wor thinking.
I said, ‘I can’t stay long, we’re running late.’
‘I thought maybe you worn’t coming. That you’d missed me out again.’
‘Would I do that, Mrs Husk?’
She tucked an errant lock of hair beneath her net, looked at me askance. I twitched to be gone as she painfully counted out t’ money for t’ ginger beer. She always got it wrong. Her hands hovered shakily over t’ coins; she wore a gold wedding ring, and another ring on t’ same finger set wi’ some fat dark stone. The rings seemed welded into her bony finger; anyone wanting to remove ’em would have to hack ’em off.
‘They found a body this morning,’ I said.
Mrs Husk ceased moving coins around. She examined the pile of coppers, tanners and bobs as if she wor reading t’ tea leaves.
‘A body? My, my. It’s a rum world, ain’t it lad?’
One by one she placed the coins in my hand.
‘Is that right, then?’
She wor four pence short. ‘Aye. That’s it.’
In t’ evening I lay sprawled across my bed in a sour mood, watching two flies playing tag. By t’ time we’d finished the round it wor too late for me to pay my usual visit to t’ Matterhorn Man.
I could hear Mother in t’ bathroom, swishing her hand through t’ bath water. From her room across t’ landing, sis’s tranny wor blaring out Radio 1. Mitch wor downstairs, glued to t’ footie.
To make yersen heard in our house you had to yell your lungs out.
‘Rick! Get yersen down here. Now.’
I stuck out my limbs and flayed like an upended woodlouse. Through t’ floorboards I could hear the rabid rat-tat-tat of t’ footie commentator. I banged my ribcage mechanically wi’ my fist, making a ‘vuhh-vuh-vuuh-vuuuh’ sound.
That one wor closer. Like nearing explosions. That one came from t’ foot of t’ stairs. I pinched my nostrils between my fingers and held my breath ’til I began to feel light-headed.
I sat bolt upright, gulping in air, shaped my hand into a gun and fired through t’ floor. I mouthed each shot soundlessly. Pow! Pow! Silencer on.
I scuttled out of my room, flattened mesen against t’ landing wall and peered over t’ banisters. In t’ hallway below I could see Mitch in his flip-flops and trackie bottoms, the neat little pate on t’ crown of his head like a bare patch where a bucket had stood on a lawn. In his hand he held a bottle of brown ale, which he wor giving a good blathering to.
‘What is it, eh, my little friend? What is it wi’ folk?’ Then he emptied his lungs. ‘Ri-i-i-ick!’
He wor out of sorts again. Likely as not, his two great passions, country music and footie, had been unable to raise him from his misery pit. Back to t’ wall, I fired again: Pow! Pow! Then I heard the sloughing of his flip-flops as he went back into t’ lounge.
I knew what. The TV screen had slipped again, presenting a game of two halves. Players’ upper bodies and players’ legs, dissected by a thick black line.
I heard a fist thump the top of t’ telly.
‘You do it on purpose, don’t you?’
I sniggered. Mitch wor always chuntering on to objects. Probably cos they wouldn’t answer back. Although sometimes they did, in their own way.
‘Now, if I park mesen, you’ll behave. You want chuckin’ out, you do. Any day now, you’re a gonner. R-i-ii-ck!’
Mother came out of t’ bathroom and almost collided wi’ me. She wor wrapped in her quilted dressing gown, ready for bed. ‘Leave him, Mitch!’ she squealed into t’ hallway below. ‘Whatever it is can wait ’til morning.’
She smiled tightly at me. Stripped of her make-up, her fox-like features seemed harder than I wor used to seeing, and her hair, minus grips, hung girlishly about her face. She had a magazine and a biro in her hand. One of her friggin’ competitions. Mandy’s tranny wor blaring out Abba’s ‘SOS’. Mother tidied her hair behind her ears.
‘You wor late home again this evening,’ she said. ‘Is this a regular thing now?’
‘Dunno, depends on how we’re running.’
‘I’ll keep you some dinner back.’
‘Ta, but no need.’
She pulled at a thread on her sleeve. ‘You’d best go see what he wants. You know what he’s like when he’s riled.’
A beam of light wor still shining from under Mandy’s door. Sis worn’t a morning person, she needed chivvying at every turn, all sullen, her school tie knotted between her breasts, her socks around t’ ankles, brushing her hair at the breakfast table, never wanting to eat owt, so that Mother had taken to slipping bags of crisps into her school bag in an effort to get summat down her. Waste of friggin’ time, if you wor to ask me.
‘Mandy,’ Mother called out. ‘Radio off, lights out, please.’
Hearing no response, she opened t’ door. Mandy
asleep. I could see her, face-down on t’ bed, still dressed. Her skirt had rucked up around her waist, showing her knickers. One arm wor hanging floppily down t’ side of t’ bed and her hair wor hiding her face.
While Mother sorted out Mand, I headed downstairs. Mitch’s Adam’s apple wor piston-shunting as he glugged the pale-ale dregs down his throat. His small, droopy moustache glistened. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth.
‘Didn’t you hear me calling?’
‘Along wi’ half of t’ street. I wor kippin’.’
‘You’re missing a bloody good match here.’
I shrugged. He closed in on me. I caught the whiff of ale on his breath.
‘I do believe, lad, you got paid today.’
‘Might have? Never mind yer might haves, let’s be having you.’
I took t’ buff wage packet from my jeans pocket and surgically peeled off a mangy tenner, holding it by t’ corner ’til Mitch’s fingers tugged it from me.
‘Ta,’ he said, the note vanishing behind his palm like he wor performing a card trick.
I said, ‘When I started this job you said that half wor going toward my upkeep and that.’
‘It is, my lad, it is. But then, who got you this job?’
‘I know, I know, you did. Only, you said that …’
‘Me! Right! And just one word wi’ Craner and I can take it from you again. You pay me and then I’m cheaper for your mother, then she’s got more for your upkeep. That’s common sense, that’s logic, that’s good housekeeping, geddit?’
‘If you say so, it must be so.’
Behind him, the TV screen wor barrelling again. There wor a long ‘Oooooh’ from t’ crowd. A near miss, which made him turn toward t’screen.
He leant over t’ back of t’ set, swearing under his breath, fiddling wi’ t’ horizontal adjustment.
I said to Mitch’s back, ‘They found a dead woman this morning. She’d been done in. A prozzie. It wor in t’ news. Makes you wonder, don’t it?’
Mitch straightened up and backed gingerly away from t’ telly. ‘Does it?’
‘I mean, if I’ve ever sold her a bottle of pop or summat. If t’ next time I walk up to some door in Chapeltown or Halton Moor or wherever someone’ll say, “She won’t be wanting no limeade where she’s gone.” Then I’ll know, won’t I?’
Mitch grunted. ‘Now, you stay, I tell you. Stay!’ Like he wor commanding a dog. A black line slid mockingly down t’ TV screen.
Next morn I wor up wi’ t’ lark. Mitch wor up before t’ friggin’ lark. I watched him through t’ ciggie burn in my bedroom curtain, loading boxes into t’ back of his rusting Austin Cambridge van.
I wor threading boot laces in t’ kitchen when Mother sauntered in and plonked the kettle onto t’ gas ring.
‘Wor that Mitch?’
‘Uh-huh. Just missed him. Just gone off.’
‘Gone off? Off where? He’s supposed to be running me over to your gran’s. Didn’t he say when he’d be back?’
‘Haven’t spoken to him.’
I’d sussed where he wor heading, but it worn’t my place to blather. Eric said that women worn’t meant to know everything, which wor why they wor always trying to. Eric wor a philosopher on all things women. Mother picked at her old nail varnish as she waited for t’ water to boil.