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Authors: Kate Long

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I stood up and took him in my arms. After a while, he said, ‘I’d best go in and turn the potatoes down.’

Four days till Juno came home.

*

Gill
– We think she’s lovely. We do. She’s coping really well.

Kim
– Get away, it’s only being pleasant with people.

Gill
– There’s not everybody can do that. But you should see that stack of clothes she’s ironed in the back. And we’ve had hundreds of customers
in this morning.

Mary
– They all want to see the TV star.

Gill
– I like this music Kim’s brought in. We normally have the radio on, but she’s brought in this CD of summer hits and we’ve all been having a
boogie, haven’t we, girls?

Kim
– Get that blood pumping.

Mary
– She’s brought a flush to my cheeks, that’s for sure.

Gill
– We’ve had a laugh this last two weeks. I shall be sad to see her go. I don’t know, she’s sort of . . . brightened the atmosphere,
wouldn’t you say, Mary?

Kim
– Aw, y’ are sweet.

*

I tried to think what Juno would do.
Get advice
, I could hear her saying.
Don’t try to go it alone
. So I trawled through the phone book and wrote down every
advice-line number I thought would help, then hid the sheet of paper in my jewellery box. I wasn’t ready to phone anyone yet. On the Thursday afternoon I went straight from nursery to the
library and took out the video of
Queer as Folk
. I watched it till 3 p.m., then scooted back to the library and returned it. What I’d been hoping for was to be let in on some gay code,
some telltale sign that I could check against Ben, but there wasn’t anything. With drugs you look for blackened tinfoil, I know, and little tablets with pictures on; we had a leaflet on it
from his school.

I died a thousand deaths when Tom came back in from surfing the Net that evening and casually announced, ‘We don’t half get some weird spam these days.’ Ben was upstairs, thank
God.

‘Like what?’

‘Hot Nude Teens Roll in Fur.’

I frowned. ‘Pardon?’

‘You heard. Don’t ask me for details because I deleted it. Have you been posting our email address on your self-help forums again?’

‘I might have,’ I lied.

‘Do you think you could un-post it, ASAP? Only it’ll be donkeys next, or worse. I’m utterly sick of loan offers too.’

‘Will do,’ I said, my voice high and scared-sounding.

I don’t think Tom noticed.

*

Kim [To camera] –
The little beggars have hidden my cigs.

Sophie [To camera] –
Yeah, we’ve taken her cigarettes because we’re trying to help her. We know she doesn’t want to smoke, she told us she was
trying to give up. So we’re helping, aren’t we, Paxo?

Pascale
– Yep.

Kim
– I know you’ve got them. If you don’t give them me back, I’ll only go out and buy some more. You’re just making yourselves look
stupid.

Pascale
– Don’t say that. We’re trying to make it easier for you—

Sophie
– Because we like you—

Pascale
– Have you any idea what smoking does to you? Mum said, when we went up to secondary school, we could completely make up out own minds about it but we had
to research it first.

Sophie
– Did you know it can give you oral cancer? Like, make your tongue rot in your mouth, or your lip fall off ?

Pascale
– And it can make you lay down fat round your waist, and shrivel your skin up, and cause osteoporosis and heart disease and emphysema—

Sophie
– And when you inhale, you take over five hundred chemicals into your lungs, with the tar, a whole cupful a year, and nicotine, and carbon monoxide which is
what comes out of your car exhaust and people use to commit suicide.

Pascale
– So you don’t want to end up a wheezing barrel-shaped wrinkly with no lips, do you?

Sophie
– And possibly dead too.

Kim
– Back off, girls. Bloody hell.

Sophie
– We’re only trying to save you from yourself.

Kim
– OK, right; what if I don’t want saving? What about freedom of choice? I’m an adult, I can decide what I want to do with my body. It’s my
life.

Pascale
– You haven’t got freedom of choice. You’re in thrall to the weed.

Kim
– Look, just give me my bloody cigarettes, will you?

Pascale
– No way.

Sophie
– You’ll thank us in the end.

Kim [To camera] –
Bloody stuck-up pair of know-it-alls. Who do the hell do they think they are?

Kim
– Tell you what.

Pascale
– What?

Kim
– I’ve got an idea. I’ll do a deal with you.

Pascale
– What sort of a deal?

Kim
– I know something you want.

Pascale
– Huh?

Kim
– Something that we’d have to do in town. At the beautician.

Sophie
– Do you mean more piercings? Yeah? Oh, fantastic! Really?

Pascale
– Are you saying Soph can get her navel done?

Kim
– I’m in loco parentis. It’s no big deal, anyway, loads of women have them. We’ll do it at a proper clean place. My treat. And if your mother
dun’t like it when she gets back—

Pascale
– I can tell you, she won’t.

Kim
– You can just take it straight out again, no harm done.

Pascale
– What do you think, Soph?

Sophie
– I think you should get your ears re-done.

Pascale
– Oh God. Yeah. Let’s do it.

Kim
– And?

Pascale
– Oops; they’re in Sophie’s violin case, in the hall. Hope they’re not bent.

Kim
– So do I, love, so do I.

*

I was closing the upstairs curtains in the front bedroom when I saw Manny’s car draw up; that would have been the Thursday evening. I stood and watched as the doors opened
and Manny, Kim and the girls piled out. They were laughing about something; Sophie had a stick of yellow rock and was poking Pascale in the back with it. Kim was wearing a headband with white furry
ears that stuck up like a rabbit. Manny had on a coat I’d never seen before. I waved but they didn’t see me.

‘What’s that row coming from Juno’s house?’ asked Tom later. We could hear the beat even across the space between the walls.

‘I don’t know. It sounds like . . . it’s Wham! Listen: “Baby, I’m your man”. Do you think they’re having a party or something?’

‘If they are, we haven’t been invited,’ he said crisply.

Chapter Seven

Juno
– So is this your local?

Lee
– Yeah.

Juno
– Lovely.

Lee
– What are you having?

Juno
– Dry white wine, please. Thanks.

[To camera]
This is very pleasant. A little loud, maybe, but—

Lee
– There you go.

Juno
– Do you know, I can never understand how those fruit machines work. The lights alone make me dizzy. Have you seen, it’s like a control panel at NASA.
Which buttons are you supposed to push? They seem terrifically complicated to me.

Lee
– Do they, love? Right.

Juno
– What sort of beer is that?

Lee
– Boddington’s.

Juno
– I ask because Manny’s quite interested in beers, he’s got quite a collection. Fascinating names, Bishop’s Toe and Sheep Waggler and all
that.

Lee
– Oh aye.

Juno
– Do you like those sort of beers?

Lee
– Never had them.

Juno
– This wine’s very nice—

Lee
– What? Were you going to say, ‘considering’?

Juno
– No. I was going to say I wondered if it was French or New World. Don’t be so touchy. Let’s enjoy the evening out. It’s the first one
I’ve had since I’ve been here.

Lee
– You’re unlucky Mandy Flatters is away, or you could have gone round there. Kim’s always round her house yakking, they were at school together.
Mind you, if you think our dog’s bad you should see theirs.

Juno
– Don’t you and Kim go out together?

Lee
– Yeah, we do. A bit. Depends how tired I am after work. More often than not I flop down in front of the TV and that’s it, I’m gone. It’s
hard making the effort sometimes. Building’s so physical, it takes it out of you.

Juno
– What sort of places do you go to?

Lee
– Here, for a start. It varies. Anywhere. The pictures. Sometimes Kim books a meal. Why all the questions? Where do you and Manny go, then?

Juno
– I don’t know why you’re so touchy tonight. Have I said something wrong?

Lee
– Hang on a minute.

Juno [To camera] –
I assume he’s just gone to the gents’, not done a runner. What is the matter with the man? Kim told me he was laid back.

Lee
– That’s better. Look, love, I’m not really in the mood for it tonight.

Juno
– Why, what’s bothering you? Is it me? Can I do anything to help?

Lee
– Just missing my wife, if you want to know. So no, not really.

Juno
– Oh.

Lee [To camera] –
I can see she’s trying. God, though, in’t she skinny? I’d never really noticed before tonight. She’s nothing – you
know. At the front. I reckon Manny should invest in one of them Wonderbras next birthday.

*

I kept humming to myself all morning, although I never especially liked that song.
If you’re gonna do it, do it right
. The tune was still going through my head when
there was a tremendous knocking at the back door. I could make out through the glass Kim, and the black bulk of a camera behind her. For two pins I’d have pretended I wasn’t in but it
was too late, they’d seen me.

‘Hi,’ I said awkwardly. If only I’d had time to run a brush through my hair.

‘Look,’ said Kim, holding out her hands like Oliver Twist. Her face was grim. ‘Can you help?’

I stepped back and she followed me in. ‘Look,’ she said. ‘Look.’

In her cupped palms, on a folded pad of kitchen towel, was a great tit. It lay on its back with its claws curled against its body and one wing splayed out slightly. Its breast heaved.

‘Bloody cat,’ said Kim. ‘I had to chase it all round the garden before I caught it. Then I couldn’t get the damn bird out of its mouth. I think it might be
injured.’

I could see it was dying. ‘Yes,’ I said.

‘I didn’t know what to do with it. I thought you could help me.’

‘Help you?’

‘Can you phone a vet?’

The bird’s beak opened and its tongue stuck out like a leathery worm. It looked as if it was screaming.

‘It’s going to die, Kim.’

We leant over as she laid the bird carefully on the table.

‘I can’t see any blood.’

‘No. It might have internal injuries, though, it might be bleeding inside. Sometimes they die of fright, too.’

‘Uh.’ She pulled a face. ‘Shall I put it back outside, under a bush or summat? Let it die in peace?’

I shook my head. ‘Fing’ll get it for sure.’ I watched its tiny chest strain up and down. When the yellow feathers ruffled from my breath, there was grey skin underneath. Why
did she have to bring it round to me? ‘Leave it here. I’ll keep it quiet till it goes.’

‘There’s no one in next door. I thought you’d know what to do,’ she said. ‘You look so capable.’

My head whipped up to see whether she was joking, but she didn’t seem to be. ‘I’m terrible with suffering,’ I said.

‘Do you think we should put it out of its misery, then?’

‘You mean, will
I
put it out of its misery?’

Kim looked away.

I’ve never done anything like that, killed a living animal. I even shoo woodlice out of the door (Tom steps on them). But the little thing was in pain, you could see that. ‘I think
you have to do it quickly, a sharp tug. Juno killed a chicken, once.’

We leaned over the bird together.

‘You want to stroke it, don’t you?’ said Kim. ‘Soothe it. Or do you think that would give it more stress?’ Her index finger straightened but in the instant before
she could touch the quivering down, we saw the eyes glass over and the bird was dead. ‘Oh! Like a candle going out,’ she said wonderingly.

I might have cried if it hadn’t been for the cameras. I wanted her to go, but at the same time I didn’t want to be on my own.

‘Do you fancy coming round for a drink?’ she said. ‘I could just do with a cider.’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Come on,’ she said, taking me by the arm. ‘I need one. After that.’

‘What about the bird?’

‘Give it here,’ she said, and wrapped the kitchen towel over the top of the body.

We went out together.

‘I hate cats, me,’ said Kim as she levered the tops off the bottles. ‘Give me a dog any day. They’re more honest.’

I said, ‘Did you have a nice time yesterday?’

She looked puzzled for a second, then her face broke into a wide smile. ‘I’ll say.’ She took a long swig, stretching her neck brazenly. Her smooth hair fell round her
shoulders. You could tell she thought she was sexy. ‘We had a day in Blackpool. It was brilliant. Have you been?’

‘Lots of times. I used to live in Bolton, and it’s not so far.’

‘Do you know, I thought that was a Bolton accent. A very faint one.’

‘You should hear my husband.’

‘So whereabouts did you live?’

‘Just on the outskirts. Eastern Road, Breightmet.’

‘I get you.’ She looked me up and down. ‘You’ve come a long way, then.’

‘Chester’s not so far,’ I said, choosing to misunderstand.

‘D’you ever go back?’

‘We pop up there every month or so to see Mum.’

BOOK: Queen Mum
11.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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