We’re already halfway through January and I’ve only just got round to posting. Sorry for the e-silence but I’ve been laid pretty low with a bout of woman flu. I’ve also had to spend an inordinate amount of time designing a new website as well as working on a new Bev Morriss title that’s due out in June.
Not that I’m complaining. Not when the nights are drawing out and the days are beginning to get a little longer. I am no fan of winter.
Anyway, I thought I’d kick off the New Year with a short story that proved pretty crucial to my career. I’d written only one piece of fiction before coming up with Blood and Flesh back in 2000, but it turned out to be a prize-winner. Not, I hasten to add, the Man Booker or a Gold Dagger, but a place in a national writing competition.
For a struggling writer, the boost to my fledgling career – and bank balance – came at exactly the right time. I made a good living as a journalist but had never earned cash from writing fiction before. To be honest the validation my writing was heading in the right direction, mattered far more than the money.
The advice I always give, if asked? Baby steps and all that . . .
I hope you like the story.
Blood and Flesh
I was sixteen when I decided to murder my mother. Course, I had to find her first. I’m eighteen now and saw her for the first time a few weeks back. As it happens, I quite like her. Still, I can’t see that being a problem. Mind, I’m already getting ahead of myself, I always do. It’s what they used to say in the home as well. But I won’t go into that, not just yet.
Where was I? Oh, yeah.
I couldn’t just turn up on the doorstep, could I? ‘Hi, mom. Pop the kettle on. Long time no see.’
I was hardly her long lost daughter. She knew exactly where she’d left me: a phone box on the corner of Hope Street. Some hope. It’s not as if I was gonna call anyone. I know I’m forward, but even I couldn’t talk at that age.
Could you do that? Not talk, silly. I mean leave a day old baby in the dark and in the cold on a bit of grimy concrete.
I know I couldn’t.
Course I didn’t find out any of this until a couple of years back. It was my birthday. Sweet sixteen and never been kissed. Been a few other things, if you get my drift. Anyway, the staff always made a bit of a fuss when any of us had a birthday, so I was expecting a prezzie and a few cards. I remember it like it was this morning.
I came down for breakfast trying to look cool, as you do. We were in the dining room, all orange Formica, brown lino and burnt toast. Most of the girls were sitting down, scoffing cereal and stuff. Kell was perched on the edge of our table, swinging her legs, showing her knickers, as usual. She was as close to a mate as you get in them places, but that don’t mean she didn’t have her faults.
‘Come on, Shaz. Let’s have a butcher’s.’
She had that cat that snaffled the gold top look on her again. I waved her down. It was my birthday, I was gonna milk it. Honest, you couldn’t see my place mat for envelopes. There was a stack – and a mega one at the bottom. I was dead chuffed. I remember that: dead chuffed. Save the best till last, I thought.
I reckon everyone in the place had sent me a card. I’d been there the longest, see. Get to sixteen and you have to move on. So it was nice, the others, remembering like. We oohed and aahed over the fluffy kittens and had a good laugh at the funnies. But I was saving myself for the big one; had this weird idea who it’d be from.
It wasn’t. It wasn’t even a birthday card. But it was about the day I was born. Front page news it was. Great big photo an’ all. The cutting was from the Birmingham Evening Mail. Tatty and yellowed by now. Not that I noticed at first. All I saw was this word: DUMPED.
It was in big black letters over the picture of this scrawny little mite. There were other words of course: New Born Baby; Appeal For Mother; that sort of thing, but dumped was what stuck. See they’d never told me that. Never really told me anything. My ma could’ve been the Prime sodding Minister for all I knew. I was in care and that was it. But it wasn’t, was it? I’d been . . .
Horrible word, innit? I mean, you dump rubbish don’t you? Stuff you don’t want no more. Chuck it away. Forget it. I know what you’re thinking. How did I know the poor little beggar was me? Well, whoever sent it had been dead considerate. Clipped a note to the newspaper: Dear Sharon, Who’s a BIG GIRL now. Many happy returns.
I reckoned it was Kelly at first. She was always banging on about my weight. But she was the one who put her arm around me. She was the one who asked if I was okay.
Course I wasn’t okay.
If I’d had my wits about me, I’d have clocked all the faces, tried to suss out who’d done it. It was cruel, wasn’t it? I know ignorance is supposed to be bliss and all that. I mean I’m so thick I should be on cloud nine permanent, like. But it’s one thing to be a few slices short of a Mother’s Pride, it’s another to have been kept in the dark all these years. Imagined all sorts, I have. One week my ma’s that dumpy bint in EastEnders, next she’s that lippy tart on the cooking show, the one who’s always licking chocolate and stuff off her fingers. There’ve even been times, God forbid, when I reckoned my ma could be pushing up the daisies. Well now I know, don’t I. My old lady? She’s the one as goes round dumping babies.
That word again. I had to get out. I could feel the sweat running cold down my back. God knows what my face looked like, but I’d be blowed if anyone thought they were gonna catch me crying. No one’s done that for a long time now.
I didn’t mean to hit Kell. My glasses were all smeared and I was shaking like a life. I just took an almighty swing. I know I shouldn’t’ve but I wasn’t thinking straight. I was scared I was gonna drop in a dead faint. I ain’t done that for a while either, but you never know. Must’ve looked a right sight. Let’s face it the only thing that runs on somebody my size is the nose. But you know when people say ‘something snapped’? Well, that’s what happened. I’d had enough. Well you can tell, can’t you? I hate swearing I do, but I’ll tell you what I went and did, I turned round and gave the lot of them the finger. Freak off, yer lousy cats, I says. Just freak off.
I don’t know how long Mrs T had been hammering. You know how it when your heart’s pumping in your ears? I was bawlin’ an’ all by now. And I don’t care what you think, anyone’d do the same. Anyways, I didn’t hear the old bag. Even if I had, I wouldn’t have let her in. I didn’t have much but at least I had my own room. Then I remembered. It wasn’t mine. Or wouldn’t be at the end of the month. That really got me going. Either that or catching sight of myself in the mirror. My T-shirt had ridden up showing off a load of lard, long dyed black hair clinging to porky cheeks, and piggy eyes peering out through the face furniture. All I needed was a few hairy warts and a pointy hat.
Sod it. I grabbed the first thing I could lay my hands on: a bedside light with a Barbie lampshade. I ask you! I’d always hated it. I held it over my head and chucked it straight at the mirror. Love the sound of smashing glass, don’t you? The bits went flying. I bet I’d have lost an eye if I hadn’t had my specs on. My face smarted a bit I’ll tell you that. I bent down and picked up the biggest piece of glass I could find. Just wanted to check the damage. You should’ve seen my mug. It was like a bleedin’ road map. Couldn’t help but laugh. Course, once I started, I couldn’t stop. Hysterical, wasn’t it? Bleedin’ road map. Don’t worry, they were only nicks. It didn’t leave any scars. Not on my face.
Anyway, by this time, old Ma Tinson’s wetting her drawers. She’s banging away, screaming blue murder.
‘Sharon Burke. If you don’t open this door, I’ll swing for you.’
I’ve often wondered since if that was what planted the idea. See, I’ve never been violent. Not really. I might hit out when I’ve got a strop on but to be honest, I never mean to hurt nobody. The other kids keep away cos they think I’m dim, they’re not scared or nothing. Ask Kell if you don’t believe me. She reckons I’m a right laugh.
‘What you gonna do, Shaz?’
I wish Kell’d take her shoes off when she lies on my bed. And if she gets that muck on her face all over my pillow, I’ll stick pins in her condoms again. Little tart. I shrugged a shoulder then bit the bum half off an orange jelly baby and gave it a good chewing. Wanted a bit of thinking time, if you must know. Was I gonna be straight with her, or what?
I licked my fingers all casual like. ‘Might take up that offer from Spielberg. I could do with a month in Hollywood.’
‘Yeah?’ She held her palm out, so I chucked a yellow one over. Not too keen on them, anyway. Lovely teeth, Kell’s got. She was talking while taking these delicate little nibbles. I’m watching her mouth, but she ain’t looking at me. Dead straight she says, ‘Doin’ Moby Dick next, is he?’
Was she having a go? Moby Dick could be a right wally for all I know. She popped in the rest of the jelly baby and smiles, real sweet. I let her have the benefit of the doubt; didn’t say anything, just gave a knowing look and a wink.
She sat up dead sudden and wrapped her arms round her knees. ‘Seriously, Shaz. What you gonna do?’
Her knickers didn’t look none too clean to me. I’d have to get that duvet down the launderette. Mind, I’d give my right arm for a pair of pins like Kell’s. Straight up, she could be a model if she fancied to. I looked at mine. Talk about tree trunks. Squirrels could shin up and hide their nuts in ’em. And don’t believe all that guff about black being slimming. With my wardrobe, I could work in an undertaker’s and still look like a bleached whale. Bleached? Beached? Whatever. You get the picture.
I looked at Kell. She was admiring her nails but it didn’t fool me. She was waiting for an answer.
Not supposed to talk with your mouth full, are you? I shoved in a couple of reds and a black then wiped me hands on the beanbag. It’d be best if she didn’t know nothin’, but I swear if the dinner bell hadn’t gone when it did, I’d have spilled the lot. There’s something about Kell. Don’t know what it is but I wish I had some.
By now everyone was stomping downstairs and believe me, they’d go through the grub like a plague of wotsits. I was struggling to get to my feet, but Kell gave me hand up, which was good of her.
‘I know what I’d do, our Shaz.’ She jabbed my boob with a pointed painted nail. ‘I’d find the slag and give her a piece of my mind.’
I’d find her all right and she’d be getting a bit more than that. ‘She can rot in hell far as I’m concerned. I don’t give a stuff.’
‘Atta girl.’ She squeezed my arm. It was like a butterfly landing on a leg of pork. She didn’t mention the waterworks, just passed me her hankie. It had a blue K embroidered on it. Personally, I’d have made sure it was a bit cleaner, but that’s me.
I didn’t wait till the end of the month. Clean sheet, new leaf and all that. I’d been dumped and everyone knew it. I couldn’t stand the thought of all the other kids gawping at me, going silent every time I walked in a room. No. This time it’d be doing the dumping. And this place would be the first place to get the elbow.
Fair Oaks. It was all I’d ever known. Well, apart from a few foster homes. Wasn’t my fault they didn’t work out. Anyone could’ve fallen down the stairs at the last place. Even the Old Bill said they were a death trap. That woman never liked me. I was blowed If I was gonna call her mum. Can’t even remember her name now. No, it’s been Fair Oaks for me. For better or worse. And take it from me, it ain’t been a bowl of Bounty bars.
Have to say, no one’s laid a finger on me for ages. Not since I took a razor to the last bastard. They hushed it up, if course. But honest, when I was little, it was right bad. I’d lie awake, listening out for the footsteps, wondering whose turn it would be, hoping it’d be some other poor little bugger. You’d hear crying or a few screams and relax a bit, knowing it was probably safe to go to sleep. See, I thought it was what happened to kids like me. Never knew any different. And there was no one to talk to. I wanted to ask: if us kids are supposed to be in care, how come know one cares a flying fuck? And you know something? Finding out my own ma didn’t care either? That made it even worse, much worse. That was the cherry on the bloody cake all right.
I felt like Dick Whittington that last night at the home. Seen the panto, I have. Love the theatre, me. Might go again one day. Anyway, Kell’s snotty hankie wasn’t big enough to pack my bits in, so I borrowed her rucksack. I knew she wouldn’t mind and it’d give me something to remember her by. It was still too early, so I gave the room a good clean. I wasn’t gonna have anyone talking ’bout me when I’d gone. After that, I lay on the mattress, waiting.
You get to know the night time noises. There wasn’t enough snoring yet and Mrs T had only just switched the landing light off. I’d lifted a torch off Stan, Stan, the handy man. Let’s just say, he owed me one. I’d bust the lamp, as you know, and Mrs T said it was my own stupid fault and I wasn’t gonna get another. Silly cow. Acting big just cos she daren’t strap me anymore. Anyway. this torch. Had to have something to see by, didn’t I. Should’ve left it off till I got outside. Gave me the willies seeing all the shadows and weirdo shapes in my little room. What’s the word? When the light does weird things. Gawd. It’s on the tip of my tongue. Whatever, no sweat. I closed my eyes and went over the plan. Oh, yes. I knew exactly what I was gonna do. Seen it on the telly, hadn’t I?
Talk about landing on your feet. First lorry that pulled over? Only going to Birmingham, wasn’t it? Mind, it ain’t difficult. Plonk yourself on the right bit of the ring road in Woolly-hampton and everything’s heading south. Shame, really. Daft as it sounds, I was enjoying myself, standing there, watching all the lights and the fancy motors flashing past; all them people with places to go. Got to thinking how strange it is – they way things work out. Take me. One minute I’m Sharon Burke kid-in-no-care, next I’m starting over. A few years, a few breaks, I could be anyone . . .
Been to Birmingham before, I have. Me and Kell used to sneak out. Getting lifts was dead easy. Kell’d go off and do a bit of business and I’d do a spot of window shopping. Just think, I could’ve wandered straight ast my old lady and not known her from Adam. I’ve always had pictures of her in my head. She’s big – well she’d have to be, wouldn’t she? – and she’s got crinkly eyes and a nice smile. Don’t laugh, but there’s this smell as well. Sometimes, I’d dream she was tucking me in bed. Course when I opened my eyes, there was no one there. Just this scent. Difficult to put your finger on but it put me in mind of strawberries.
‘What’s up, bab?’
I was miles away. Les the Lorry was giving me an old fashioned look. I wiped my nose on my sleeve.
‘Not cold are you?’ He needed dental work. Badly. ‘Soon warm you up if you are.’
I looked away, dead caz. ‘Up to you. I’ve got Aids.’ Bollocks, I have. Shut his trap smartish though. Kept shtum all the way to the Bullring. Shouted ‘fat tart’ as he pulled away. Like I care. I was in spitting distance of New Street. And that telly programme, I mentioned? That was Plan A. See New Street’s where the God botherers hang out. Sally Army and all that. Soft touches if you ask me. Spin ’em a line and they feed you and throw in a bed. Then all you have to do is pick their brains. They’re experts, see. They trace people.
It didn’t work out at the hostel. Nosy lot there. Supposed to be me asking the questions. Anyway, I did another flit. Time for Plan B. Seen that on the box, an’ all. See, I might have cack for brains but I pick things up pretty damn quick. Mind, it’s not been easy. The streets of Brum aren’t paved with the gold stuff. Not short of toffee-nosed bints though, swanning round in their strappy shoes and strapless frocks. Broad Street’s full of ’em: a snobby bloke on one arm and a Gucci bag on the other. All fuck-me heels and fuck-you looks. In the early days, I’d wander down there at night. Buzzing it was. Kids my age, looking good, talking big. Dead loud they are even when they’re not on their poncey mobiles. Smell rich, don’t they? Give off this odour of the good life. Anyway, short of a life transplant, it weren’t for me. Nah that part of town’s full of cocky buggers who don’t give a stuff. Still, I’m not thick. If there’s not gold to pick up, there are other things. You’ve got to know where to look, that’s all. Not telling you though – I ain’t that stupid.
I’ve learned what you might call a few tricks since Fair Oaks. For one thing, some blokes don’t half fancy big woman. My Johns are no oil paintings but let’s face it, the only thing I give a stuff about is the colour of their money. And while we’re at it, let’s face another thing: the only difference between them and the old pervies at the home is that punters put their hand in their wallets as well as in my knickers. I’ve got to have the readies, see. Not going to see my ma looking like something the cat dragged in. Oh, yeah. Forgot to tell you. I know where she is.
Took me long enough, didn’t it? Couple years, give or take. Might have been a lot less if I’d looked at the bleeding obvious. Talk about the nose on your face. I tried all sorts. Went to the cops, visited God knows how many hospitals. All I had was a date of birth and a name, see. So why didn’t I just look in the phone book? Bit clever for me that. Anyway, she weren’t in it. Sixty-nine other freaking Burkes were in there though. Tell you what I did turn up leafing through the pages. Only a flaming private detective. Cool or what? It’s been costing me a packet plus a bit on the side, if you know what I mean, but the old bugger came up trumps. Knocked me up one afternoon, he did. Thought it was the cops at first – have to be careful in the squat, even if it is a dump. Anyway, there’s Columbo on the doorstep with this brown envelope. Couldn’t have looked any shiftier if he’d been on skates.
He won’t hand it over till we’ve done the biz then I look at what he’s got. Me hands are shaking that much, I can hardly hold the photo. Talk about tiny? She’s a little sparrow. Nice though. Dark hair, smile in her eyes. She’s coming out of this big house like the ones you draw when you’re a kid: red brick, black door, windows either side, smoke coming out the chimney. Smashing garden, an’ all.
‘Nice place, innit?’
I’d forgotten Columbo was still around. I glanced across, saw grey hairs sprouting through his string vest. I know it’s not like me, but my mouth was so dry I couldn’t say a word.
‘Been there nine years.’ He’s lighting a fag, knows I hate the stink. ‘Works as a school secretary.’ He’s drawing it out, enjoying it. ‘She’s a widow now but her old man left her comfortably off.’
‘On her own, is she?’ I asked casually.
He sucks a bit of baccy from his front teeth. Hate that noise, don’t you?
‘She is now. Two boys, she had but they’re married got kids of their own.’
Couldn’t have hurt more if he’d kicked me in the gut. But it could. Know what else Columbo dug up? Only another cutting from the Mail. July 10th. Which made me six days old. Six days and there’s this woman ringing the cops and saying she’s not coming forward, they can do what they want with me, end of. He’s watching me reading, this sly grin on his face.
You know people go on about a red mist? Well it descended big time. I guess I passed out.
When I came round, he was sprawled on the floor. The walls were all streaked with red. For a second or two, I wondered why he’d been painting.
Casing the joint. That’s what they call it. Columbo told me before his . . . accident. Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to. I can tell you when she goes out, when she gets back, when she has a piss and what colour her knickers are. Been inside the place a few times, see. Sure, it’s risky, but I’m trying to get a handle on her. She keeps a clean house, I’ll say that for her. It’s not a patch on my place. Got this little terrace in Kings Heath now. Well, I say, got. I’m shacked up with this bloke. He pays the rent and stuff. And, no, before you ask, he ain’t a pimp. It’s early days yet, but he seems half-decent. Who knows how it’ll pan out?
Back to the old lady . . . she’s not short of a bob or two, got some lovely knick-knacks. Tell you what I can’t abide? The pictures: her and her old man and the kids. Happy fucking families or what? Oh, and here’s a laugh. Guess what her name is? It’s only Mary, innit? Holy Mary, mother of . . . I don’t think so.
Tell you what I have been thinking though. How I’m gonna do it. I was gonna snap her neck and shove her in a skip. How’d she like being dumped, eh? Then I thought I’d torch the place. I got a real buzz seeing the squat go up. Mind, I’ve got my eyes on a few of her bits and bobs. Family heirlooms, innit?
I was waiting for her when she got back last night. I know you’ll think I’m soft but I was gonna give her one last chance. I’d put a frock on, had me hair done, wore a nice pair of kid gloves. Know what she says when she lays eyes on me?
‘Who the hell are you? What are you doing in my home?’
Give her her due. She was acting tough but she was scared shitless. Her hand shook as it went for the phone. She’d pushed my buttons all right.
I make as if I’m leaving then as I’m passing, I take a swing. She’s so little, she’s down like a deck of cards; cracks her head on this old table in the hall. I was gonna trash the place, nick her bag and a few valuables; make it look like a burglary. Then I remembered this show on the telly, the cop talking about murder cases. He reckoned it was dead difficult to track down the baddy when there was no motive.
No point making it easy, was there?
I didn’t touch a thing. PC Plod was gonna have his work cut out. See nine times out of ten, the victim knows the killer. A case of the nearest not always being the dearest. What was it the cop said? That’s right. ‘Pound to a penny, there’s always a connection The victim almost invariably knows the killer. Often the relationship is very close.’
Close. I looked down. The blood was oozing out of her head like gloss paint. The cream carpet was taking a hammering. I wasn’t gonna get sentimental. No use crying over spilt breast milk. Me and the old lady? We were ships that didn’t even pass in the night. I knew she couldn’t hear me but I bent down, whispered in her ear.’ ‘Sorry, ma. Close. But not close enough.’
Just for a second, I thought I caught the scent of strawberries but the sight of blood always makes me want to puke. No sense sticking around. I pulled the door to after me and walked home.
The new website, by the way? You’ll find it here: http://www.maureencarter.co.uk