Shirley had gained weight. Her skirt was so short Yvonne noticed the tops of her legs were red and dimpled and fractured with veins. They had lost trace. She hadn’t seen Shirley in an age and was shocked at her appearance. For a long time, Shirley kept her whereabouts to herself. She had moved to a new town, had taken her kids and begun a new life. And until she felt sure she had shaken the dust she kept out of touch and out of sight.
Yvonne looked around at the four sparse walls, at the peeling paper and lack of light. Shirley had made an effort, added many bright touches, but they didn’t make up for the general blight. A lot seemed reminiscent of the past. Too reminiscent. Deciding to call in and catch up may have been a mistake but at Shirley’s insistence she would stay until the next day.
‘We’ll go out,’ Shirley said. ‘A night on the town. I’ll introduce you to this man I’ve met, John. It’ll be fun. He’ll bring a friend.’
‘Oh no, I don’t want...I don’t...’
‘Just one night, Yvonne. Come on. One night out?’
‘Oh well, I suppose...’
‘Great. I’ll make up the couch.’
Yvonne changed from the grubby jeans she arrived in, to a clean pair pulled crumpled from her bag.
‘Would you like the iron?’ Shirley asked, nodding at the creases.
‘No, it’s grand.’ Yvonne shook her head. ‘A bit body heat, they’ll soon drop out.’
Shirley donned a flimsy green dress with a frilly hem. An edge of black bra appeared over the low uneven neckline and was absently prodded every few seconds. On either side of the small table they applied a quick dab of makeup. Way back, they did this a lot. Way back, when nights out were easy but making up their faces was painstakingly difficult. The two of them in their youth. Such girls they were then. Such laughs enjoyed.
‘Right. Let’s be off.’ Shirley tapped her watch, keen to make tracks.
Yvonne got the vibe. ‘How long til the babysitter arrives?’
‘Can’t afford a sitter,’ Shirley explained. ‘They’ll be locked in. Don’t worry about them. They’re perfectly contained.’
Shirley turned the key and the two women hurried away. The sound of their tinny heels echoing into the distance. Behind the lock Shirley’s three kids were left a set of instructions and a list of things they weren’t to do. There was the promise of cake tomorrow if they behaved. Either way, there was no means of escape.
Still not toilet trained Ritchie toddled around in only a vest sucking at a constant stream of thick yellow snot. What couldn’t be caught ended caked down his front. Nappies were such a chore and no one bothered if he pissed on the floor. There was no carpet to ruin and Shirley scarcely noticed. At three-and-a-half, Ritchie had a cracked voice and a sewer mouth, more like a wisened elder with a smoker’s cough than a tiny child. Yvonne had no offspring herself but was bowled over by his impish grin and pleading eyes. Tonight he was locked in while his mother was out with an old friend. A friend who since she arrived had complied with the lad’s relish for hugs and carries and cuddles. Through a window, his older brothers could come and go at will, but pest that he was, Ritchie’s legs hadn’t gained the length for it. They wouldn’t give him a lift up and so until he was bigger, he would have to stay behind. They had things to do he couldn’t yet know. Freedom was out of reach. It was for his own good. Ritchie pursed his small firey lips and sniffled. With no one else in the room he soon caved to his unfortunate fortune; curling up to his dimpled little life, its short and lovelorn exposition.
Yvonne sat and stared. She couldn’t quite believe any of it. What were they doing here in this club with these two men? Shirley was doing her best to get her interested in John’s ugly pal. What was she playing at? Over the course of an evening’s drink, Yvonne realised John was nothing but a thug, slapping Shirley’s arse as she stood up, gripping her neck in an armlock so his beery mouth could slop over hers. Possession with menaces with which Shirley laughingly acquiesced. Yvonne laughed too. Over loud. As time drew on so did the sense of danger. The men’s voices muscled. The effects of alcohol kicked in, John’s behaviour towards Shirley felt more and more aggressive. His pal was not so cocksure but was still annoyingly over-familiar. Why had Shirley walked into the arms of this man, John? Had she become accustomed to fear? Attracted? Yvonne wanted away, wanted to go back, make sure the children were alright. The eldest two were already wild as the wind and who knew what they would be up to. John would be displeased no doubt, he had further expectations of the night. But Yvonne was determined to break away and take her friend with her.
Nothing made sense. The last time they met, Shirley had finally managed to escape the clutches of her previous predator. She had gathered courage and pulled away. She was on the mend. She was back on track. The kids deserved a better life. She would make it happen in another town. She would start afresh, with or without help, and Yvonne had believed she would.
How naive they both had been: to imagine Shirley could make it through purely on will. It was a dream. This was reality and it was a mess. What could Yvonne do? First, she must calm down. She must breathe. She must stop her heart speeding like a train. Think of the kids. The poor little mites. Take another drink. Smoke a cigarette. Sit tight and think. Watch this crazy dance. Then think. Think. Think.
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