To the Devil - a Diva!

BOOK: To the Devil - a Diva!
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P
RAISE FOR
P
AUL
M
AGRS

‘Gloriously, zanily ludicrous … unique, idiosyncratic and unclassifiable'

The Guardian

 

‘The combined talents of Alan Bennett, Angela Carter and
The League of Gentlemen'

Independent on Sunday

 

‘One of the smartest, darkest imaginations in contemporary fiction'

Literary Review

 

‘I love Paul Magrs, he's a great novelist, clever and ironic'

Russell T. Davies

 

‘Magrs' characters have the courage to make themselves believe there is still magic in the world'

The Times

 

‘Magrs packs more emotion into 250 pages than you'd ever think possible, then leaves you panting for more'

Time Out

‘Wildly inventive stuff'

Heat

 

‘Magrs is an original talent with a wonderful and sympathetic ear and eye for the hidden craziness of contemporary life'

Shena Mackay

 

‘Magrs conjures an artfully realised, self-contained gothic fairytale world somewhere between Tim Burton and
Last of the Summer Wine
, with a bit of
Wallace and Gromit
thrown in'

SFX Magazine

 

‘He delights in creating characters who are both impeccably ordinary and staggeringly strange … a powerful writer'

TLS

 

‘Buffy crossed with Miss Marple'

The Independent

TO THE DEVIL – A DIVA!

Paul Magrs

TO THE DEVIL – A DIVA!

 

Tea was the thing that calmed us down. They knew it would have that effect. It would shock us with its sweetness and heat and there'd be no more tears. Crying embarrassed them. It made more trouble for them. They didn't want that. The grown-ups in charge had enough to think about. We had to bolt the tears back and bite our lips. That was the proper thing to do. We couldn't upset our parents. Didn't they have enough to think about? Weren't they letting us go?

It was strong, hot tea in tin mugs that set your milk teeth on edge. Our fingers were chilled and it felt like they would blister. But it calmed us down as we queued.

These huge urns set out on tables, right on the platform as we waited for the trains. The paper table cloths were whipping up and rattling and trying to take off and all these volunteers in their heavy coats and gloves were watching on, helping out. Looking concerned in the steam from the trains and the urns. Whooshing noises, screeches, wailing and the stamping of feet. The volunteers were those big old-fashioned women with the huge bosoms wrapped tight under their coats and scarves. Heavy-set matronly women, like you don't see anymore. Murmuring to each other: full of competence and concern.

Bless their little hearts, they kept saying. They're going on a big adventure. They're going to have to be very brave. Well, everyone was crying by now. Everyone togged up against the wind and the cold. It was bitter. It was meant to be spring,
but I'd never felt so cold in all my life. Chapped to bits by the knifing wind that came through the dark station. Our platform was up on a height, away from the main concourse. We'd been pushed to one side. Up in the eaves, it felt like, up in the rafters like the train that was coming for us would be sailing through the air. All the clouds that morning were a soft purple grey, as if just laundered. We'd be sailing into them, into those clean spaces. And our mouths would be bitter with tannin. With the taste of the iron arches and nuts and bolts that made up the station. The dirty taste of engines and oil and pigeons.

Katy's hand was squirming into mine, her frozen, mucky fingers clenching on. She was determined not to leave go. My mother noticed and she approved. She was glad I had someone to look after. To make me feel responsible. ‘She's your little sister, now,' Mam bent and told me, whispering. I flushed. Because she wasn't. She weren't no blood of mine.

Mam had her headscarf on. The fabric was fraying at the edges. That used to be a silky, glamorous thing she wore. Something she wore for best. Mam was my blood, she was my only blood. This Katy wasn't. Really, she had nothing to do with me. I could feel her fingers warming up in my grip. I could feel the dirt of her fingers on my skin now.

We had little boxes tied around our necks, all our stuff in cases. Labels on us, reminding us who we belonged to. Ready to go and everyone bawling their eyes out. It's pitiful to think of. But they gave us this tea, so hot and strong it stung your lips and scalded all the insides of your throat. We drank it down dutifully. It seemed like a very grown-up kind of drink to us. We drank it down boiling hot, like it was medicine. And we pretended it was calming us down.

It was some ungodly hour. Mam said this. ‘Ungodly' was her word that day and it stayed in my head as we trudged through the streets of our town. It wasn't even light when we set off from ours and made our way into the centre. At first it was like an adventure, striking out with all our precious things in these cases and boxes with labels. The night before Mam had made it into a game for us: unpacking and repacking all the things I would need and checking off the list. She saw that I had everything I needed. We'd begged and borrowed a few things. We imagined it was like going to some posh school, where all the nobs go. I'd need a hockey stick and a straw boater. All that.

That last night seemed a long time ago now. At the end of that game, with my case packed again, and time for bed, it seemed like I'd never have to wake up and actually set off anywhere. I'd just fall asleep in my own bed and it wouldn't be the last time I'd see it. I wouldn't have to leave my mam alone after all. It was all of it a game and I could stay with her.

But then the morning came anyway and it was still dark. We set off. We walked across town, carrying the things that they said I would need. My mam was brisk and determined, her headscarf clamped on tight and her hair still in curlers. We took Katy with us.

‘That poor little thing,' Mam said. ‘I don't suppose her mother's going to stir herself. Her or her gentleman caller. We'll have to take charge of her, Sally. She'll have to come with us.'

Sure enough, there was Katy on our doorstep that morning. Crack of dawn and she looked like she'd been awake for days. Filthy. She was always filthy. They were a
dirty family, everyone said, and Mam told me we weren't to draw attention to it. Her mother knew no better and we were all to take a hand in bringing up Katy. Otherwise she'd be dragging herself up. And anything could happen to the poor mite. It was up to the rest of us to look out for her.

Well, I was nine. She was nine. Mam thought we should be best pals. I couldn't stick the sight of her back then. I thought she made herself like an angel when there were parents about. When it were kids alone, that was a different story. Katy always knew how to get what she wanted.

There she was. She had bits of cardboard sticking out of her clumpy old shoes, where the soles had gone. Her knees were black like unwashed potatoes, and so were her socks. Her hair hadn't been cleaned in days and I knew what Mam would be thinking: there's allsorts crawling in that. Katy had this thick, black Irish hair. I'd been jealous of her hair since we started school. Mine was fluffy and pale. I felt like a baby duck next to her. And she didn't even wash it! That made me seethe. Her bright lilac eyes, too. They were a gift. That morning they were clotted and stuck with dirty tears and sleepdust. Usually they were big and round, taking everything in. Mam said she had an old head on her shoulders. Then she'd look at me like I didn't. Like I was still the baby. But now she was telling me I had to watch out for Katy. She was the baby now.

Mam tucked Katy firmly under her wing. Dragged her in our house, even though she must have been thinking that girl will have ringworm, nits, the lot. Katy always liked having a look at our house. She liked all our things. Never said much, just gazed around at Mam's little palace, as she called it.

Mam gave her breakfast, just as we were having ours. She
found a crust or two to spare for Katy. Her heart, she said, bled for that child. Her mother wanted stringing up. And I had to think of Katy as my sister. And I'd always wanted one of them, hadn't I?

Well, no. I hadn't. And now it looked like I was being given one. One who was all sweetie-pie in front of my mam and then, when we were alone, scowled at me, and tried to kick my legs so they were as scabby as hers. She'd taken the last spoonful of sugar Mam had in the house. Sat there, sucking the spoon like she'd never known the taste before. Her purple eyes twinkling with pleasure. Kicking me under the table, mind. And I just knew my mam's heart was going out to the girl.

Mam kissed us both goodbye on that platform when the train was there and we went surging forward. The official people had their clipboards, shouting out and ticking us off. Mam had her arms round the two of us, pressing our heads together and she was all choked up. She felt so bony and I was thinking, she'll have more to eat with just herself in the house. She wasn't going to start crying, though. I never actually saw Mam cry, though I'd heard her, through the walls of our house. She was careful not to, in front of me. That morning was when she came closest.

And then we were gone. It only took a matter of seconds. We were on the train and there was a bit of waving out of the window. Mam came to stand right by where we were sat together and she rubbed at the dirty brown window with her mitt to see us better. Getting dirt on her sheepskin, but she wanted us to see. She wanted to make sure I remembered her face. We didn't know how long we'd be apart. And when I thought of Mam after that, it was that face in the window I
saw: in the smear of clean she'd wiped on the window. Mam's long face and her wide-spaced eyes. That wisp of brown hair on her brow. She had a long-drawn face – like a camel, she'd always been told. A sad face, all down-turned. I thought it made her dignified and solemn. No one outside ever really saw her smiling. She was trying to smile through the window, trying hard to grin at the two of us. Then, before we knew it, there was whistles going and the train moving under us with a violent lurch, and we were pulling out, over the viaducts. We slid across the rooftops of the middle of Manchester and they were blue and green in the early sunlight. The whole place looked peaceful and barely woken up. And Mam was gone. All those waving us off were gone, standing on that platform and it was like they wouldn't move again until it was time for us to come back. They would stand there in their heavy clothes, with their arms still raised, waving us off. They'd be there until everything was over and the train shunted us back to meet them. We couldn't imagine them turning away, walking back through the cavernous station, turning back to home, without us.

‘My mam won't know I'm gone,' Katy said. Her voice was very deep and lilting with her mother's accent. ‘She'll get up and run around the houses. She won't know.'

I looked at her. We were sitting with two other girls and one had blonde hair in pigtails, the other was bright ginger. They weren't talking to us. The ginger one was fat and her face was bright red with crying. She was off again, getting disgusted looks from her pigtailed friend.

‘She had her fella in last night,' Katy went on. ‘It was one of them nights. She won't get up all day. She's never happy when he's been round.'

I didn't want to get pulled into the kind of stuff Katy talked about, but I was fascinated. There was something mysterious about that house of hers, where these fellas came and went. We didn't have that many people coming through our front door. Katy's house – mucky as it was – seemed much more part of the wide world than ours. I asked, ‘Why does she have them in if they make her cry?'

Katy looked at me like I was daft. I was used to that. One of the reasons I hated her was that she gave me looks like that, made me feel I knew nothing. And I was the one who was meant to be her big sister. It was too much of a pretend for me. I wanted to know what she knew. But I wasn't going to ask her outright.

‘They're my uncles,' she said, at last. She was looking out of the window. We were going by chimneys and the edges of town. You could see out on the backs of terraces, taller than ours. You could see all their dark windows, almost see into their rooms. ‘That's what uncles are like. They come round and make you cry. But they bring ciggies and eggs and chocolate, sometimes.'

‘What does your mam do with them?' I knew the two other little girls were listening. The fat ginger one had stopped sniffling and she was holding her breath. They came from a few streets up from us. They thought they were better because they had bay windows in their fronts.

‘She says they play cards,' Katy said. ‘And she tells them their fortunes.'

The blonde girl snorted at this. ‘Your mother's a whore, Katy MacBride. She takes their ciggies and chocolate and then she lets them touch her. Everyone knows that.'

I saw Katy's eyes flash violet. Her whole body tensed
up and it was like she was made out of steel. I thought she was going to round on that girl and smack her one. I'd seen her do it before in the schoolyard, and round the backs. I'd seen her just about rip some girl's face off for calling her mammy. That blonde girl looked frightened for a second and she knew she'd gone too far. But then Katy relaxed. All that tension went out of her. She sagged back into her seat and she was just a little girl again, too small for her age. She said, ‘You know fuck all. You're only a whore if you have lots of men come up to play cards. If you have one on the go for a while it doesn't count. I only have one uncle at a time. My mammy's not dirty.'

The blonde girl rolled her eyes at her ginger friend, but she didn't dare say anything else.

We were quiet for a long time after that. We were all looking out of the windows. I'd never been out of Manchester before and I wanted to see the houses and factories fall away and I wanted to see all the green and the hills when they started up and we moved, rumbling and rolling, further north. I wanted to see all that, to distract me, because my stomach felt hollow and folded over. I was sick with worry for myself and where I'd end up, and I felt sick with bitter tea for the sake of my mam. She'd be back in our house by now, and she'd be briskly wiping down the breakfast table. Flapping the tablecloth out in the backyard. She'd be in the quiet house and emptying the last of the cold tea away, scooping out the dead leaves to dry, to use again.

Katy was looking at the landscape as well. But she was managing to look interested, like a seasoned traveller. She'd been to Ireland with her mother. She had a family over there and they'd gone last summer on a ferry. She had lots to say
about travelling and what her family over there was like. How they lived in a big house and how they had stables and she went on a horse. And there was a grandad with tickly moustaches and how they had singing and dancing. How glad the whole lot of them had been to welcome back her mammy and the baby and forgive her. They'd been welcomed with presents and drink and it was like they were home. Katy had told me this story again and again. She was used to going off to places and getting a good welcome. I knew she didn't feel the same as me, sitting on that train. Still, some of the spite of the usual Katy had gone out of her. On that train journey she only kicked my ankles a couple of times. Maybe she felt a bit bad after all.

A tall woman in a blue woollen suit came past with another clipboard. Didn't talk to us. She read our labels and marked something down. Katy shouted out, asking when we were getting there and when we were getting fed. Mam always said that girl had hollow legs. ‘The Irish are always hungry,' she said. ‘That's in their bones, passed down.'

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