Amber Matthews – Eating Time, Part Two

Eating Time: Part Two

1943

My bones ache. They soak up the cold like snow, like the outhouse in winter, when it’s so cold your behind sticks to the seat if you take too long. They rattle as well. I can hear ’em sometimes, the joints janglin’ as I sit down. Deep breath to calm them. Slow, measured. I used to crack my knuckles. Now I’m scared they’ll crumble.

I was already too old to take in Dot. Keep her, I told her useless flea of a father when he came sniffing around early in the mornin’, look after her yourself. He sniffed. Woman’s business. I can’t be fixing up roofs with a baby on me back. It wasn’t his excuses that made me take her, though. Nor his pathetic hollow-eyed face. Nor even her tiny swede-shaped babyhead, God knows I’ve seen more than enough to dry up the mother instinct. It was the smell of him. He smelt of Death. Like rusty nails and sweat-soaked benches, gutter, copper coins, and behind it all, yeasty beer. And something worse. Maybe whisky and vomit. He weren’t the heaviest drinker round here, God knows, but I knew at that moment that he weren’t gonna last more than a few weeks. A tram or car, or maybe just a workmate’s dropped hammer, was speeding towards him. Closing in.

So that’s why I took her. Cause I already knew she’d have a dead daddy within the month, and she’d like as not end up here anyways, poor sod. No excuses, though. I was too old even then to take a kid, but then again, what else have I got to do now? Past three months since she up an’ married that good-for-nothin’ that didn’t deserve his medals have been blissful peace. Typical that the only time I’ve found peace has been on my own in the middle of a Blitz-plagued Birmingham. But that’s the problem for us women, God knows we’re not destined for peace. This War was made by men, but it’s just another thorn in a woman’s side, another ladder in her stockings. There’s always something around the corner to mess peace up for us – whether it’s squealing kids, or a husband drinking himself six-feet-under, or a bombed-in roof. I bet even in Heaven they got family-sized washboards and mangles.

My eldest, Joe, is 62 now. Lost all his hair and half his teeth. We thought we might only get one or two, as me mam was unlucky in childbirth – had four girls, two of which died before they saw a year, and six miscarriages. Six disappointments that broke her heart and her womb a bit more each time. And the last one sent her off to Heaven. That was me. Me sister was ten by then so she brought me up, until she found herself pregnant without a husband at seventeen. Didn’t know what she was gonna do with it, but didn’t matter in the end anyways, ’cause she went and kicked it a month before it was due. Poor bastard. But her little baby girl made it out alright, so me and me old Pap brought her up. Named her Rosie like her mam. Such a sweet thing. Dead quiet, like she knew how close she’d got to hoppin’ it with her ma. Never said a word ’til she was three years old. We got worried maybe she was dumb, but eventually she started talking, though always whispers, always with her eyes on your feet. An’ then a few decades later she goes an’ bloody well dies in childbirth too, having Dot.

I had Joe when I was nineteen, and in case I had the curse too, we spoilt him rotten. Doted on him when he was a baby, lavished every sweet thing we could get on him when he was a toddler. But I fell pregnant again when he was four, and then it was one a year for eight years, every July, sharp as a nail. How he hated losing my undivided attention, how he screamed when my eyes wandered away from his, to the little squalling pink contortion taking my milk. And then as they kept coming, he drew into himself, wouldn’t let me touch him, shrieked and run off every time I tried to wash his face or give him some Dairy Milk in the purple and gold paper. It were good for him, though, in the end. Got a job at the butcher’s aged twelve, worked dead hard and ended up taking over the place when he was thirty. Still remembers his mam with a few extra sausages when coupons are scarce. Still works dead hard. But that’s the problem – he’s dead hard to the world too. I’d trade in all my measly ration of meat just for a smile, maybe just for a softening around his grey eyes.

So that’s why I didn’t want to take her. Too many babies make the broth bitter. Babies has cracked my hips and eaten up my days like starving devils. They ate up my childhood, my careless teenage years, my marriage. And from the moment I looked down at that little tyke Dot, lying in the worn-out cot in the corner of my kitchen, I saw a hunger in her eyes that weren’t for mother’s milk. A hunger for the rest of my days and years. Malice, too. Not malice exactly, but a stubborn lack of respect. Maybe I’m just seeing this into my memories because that’s how she turned out. I don’t know. I get a bit of lip off her every day now. Gotten too above herself to do the dishes. God knows I was glad when Benny, the layabout she was sweet on, comes to the house a few months back and asks if he can marry her. He was out of action by then. Mental trauma, his papers said when I had a nose at them. Well, something must have affected his head if he wanted Dot, and I told him so. I don’t much take to you, I told him, but you’re welcome to her. Pests breed nuisance, God knows.

Seems to have settled her down a bit. I didn’t care much what she did or where she went, as long as it was respectable. But she got a bit high-an-mighty since she went off to that university. God only knows what she expected to find there. Turns out her scrounger Father had a rich brother living over in Sutton Coldfield all along who offered to pay for her degree. He’s got some funny modern ideas about women and education. I told him she could just as well learn how to clean an’ cook here, and maybe bring a bit o’ money into the house that’s kept her for so long, while she’s at it. An’ for that matter, I said to him, why couldn’t he bloody well have brought her up in the first place? But off she went each day, an’ comes back with half a library each night. But whispers had started to reach me about saucy dances and black-market silk stockings, about skipping off her work early to meet boys, about drinking gin – at nineteen! I started marking the level of me bottle after I heard that. It’s that Racksmith girl’s influence, a friend from “classes”, she says. Brings her scarlet ribbons to wear and calls her Dotty.

Well, married life might calm her down, so God knows I’m grateful to Benny for a bit of peace to rest my bones. Even if he is a filthy slacker not worth his gold teeth.

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