This story is by Elizabeth McKenna and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Margaret stood shivering in her kitchen. “It has been the coldest winter since the war,” she said, to the ginger cat; sprawled out on the old, brown, leather chair. She coughed from the smoke leaving the Victorian chimney. The wet coals were trying to take light; with the help of yesterday’s newspapers.
She sat down to rest her swollen ankle, and began pulling at the bag of vegetables. Her mind rambled as she cut onions, scrubbed celery and carrots, and then chopped furiously at the green herbs.
“Nineteen fifty two, when the Doctors knew nothing about pain. At aged forty two, I was there for two days with a difficult birth, only four minutes apart. Johnny was second, he came in a rush and hasn’t stopped since. Gerry, the placid one, took his time. Two tiny bundles with large tuffs of black curly hair, and eyes like black olives; melting my heart from the first glance. Now aged fifteen they melt the girl’s hearts, there’s a constant string of them at the door.”
The kitchen door opened and Johnny looked in, scanning the room “Mam, the fire.”
“I know son, its yesterday’s news, it was that bad it is hard to burn.”
He walked inside and hugged her bulky body, kissing her head and stroking her greying hair.
“I love you, mam,” he said. “Don’t worry today’s news will be better.” Pulling up his woolly green jumper, he tugged at a parcel placing it in her hands. “The butcher gave me that piece of mutton for doing a delivery,” his eyes gleaming, “look at that mam, the best there is. Add that to Mrs. Morgan’s vegetables and you’ll have a feast for a queen.”
“You’re such a good boy Johnny” looking at the piece of meat, tears forming in her eyes.
He poked the fire, “that’s better mam the old news is gone, I’ll make you a cup of tea.” She sat down and placed the meat in the large pot and she began to hum.
“Flower of Scotland…. when will we see the likes again who fought and died for, our wee but hill and glen.”
“I’ll be back shortly mam” throwing her a kiss as he headed out the door.
“Where’s your brother?” she called.
“Doing the algebra,” Johnny replied. He raced down the stairs, two at a time in the great Victorian tenements; three stories up kept you fit when you were young and a prisoner when you were old. His mam couldn’t get out since she twisted her ankle on the black ice. She couldn’t go to work, leaving them short for the rent.
Johnny stood looking at the falling mist while taking out his John Player’s cigarette. Lighting it up he puffed smoke into the air, watching it freeze over, while thinking. His Jenny, the landlord Mr Scrooge’s youngest daughter, informed him of her sisters proposed marriage and her dad wanting a suit and new shoes for his daughter’s wedding, the expense causing the rent to rise.
He fumbled this information in his head, while looking at Burton’s – men’s – shopfront window slowly disappear into the mist. Stamping out the cigarette he turned and raced back up the stairs.
“Come quick Gerry”
“What is it Johnny, what’s the hurry?” They raced down the stairs.
“Shoo, keep quiet, just follow me,” said Johnny. The street was quiet and you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Crash and smash overcame the silence and an alarm roared out into the darkness.
“Quick, grab the suit”
Fumbling in the dark, Johnny pulled a jacket; grabbing at the trousers and shirt. He said. “Hold these, I’ll get the shoes. They’re stuck; they won’t come of the bloody dummy, grab the dummy’’ said Johnny.
“What” said Gerry?
“Grab it Gerry.”
They took off into the night; through the back streets of the tenements with the dummy under their arms, and the sirens roaring in the background. Mounting the stairs two at a time, panting, they turned the door-knob and tiptoed into the bedroom.
“Fold the clothes Gerry, and hide them inside the pillow cases, while I get the shoes.” Johnny unscrewed the shiny brown crocodile shoes.
A trample of feet was heard on the staircase. “Quick, hide the dummy in the bed, and you get under it Gerry, I’ll sit here.”
A loud anxious knock and Margaret opened the door.
“What’s up constable?” she said.
“Can we come inside please, whereabouts are your boys? “
“Doing their homework,” she replied.
“Who’s that at the door, mam?” called Johnny. The bedroom door opened to reveal two young police officers. “What’s up boys?” said Johnny.
“Where’s your brother? “
”He’s asleep, has one of his headaches. It’s all that algebra wrecking his head. Don’t wake him or he might have one of his epileptic fits, and we don’t want that do we!”
The officers looked about, “nothing here.” They said. “That’s a grand smell of stew Mrs. Murphy”
“Join us later she said, there’s plenty.”
“I might take you up on that, when I’m off duty.”
“Say hello to your mothers’ officers,” she said
“Will do” they replied. “Keep up that homework lads, don’t want to get into mischief do you!”
“Nope,” said Johnny, closing the door.
“All clear,” called Johnny, as he wrapped up the suit and shirt, wiping the shoes with his sleeve and placing them in a box, closing the lid with a broad smile on his face. “Haul it out the window and I’ll catch it below,” called Johnny, running out the door with the parcel under his arm.
Turning the knob on the empty house below, he walked inside and hauled the window up, catching the dummy.
“Get down below me,” he called to Gerry.
“Hello? It’s me, Gerry, come to help you with the fire”
“Alright come in” said Mrs. Houston aged ninety with poor sight; she sat back listening to her radio. “Good boys, always helping.”
Gerry hauled the window open and dragged the dummy inside. Johnny appeared and put coal on the fire. “Keep warm won’t you and I’ll drop by later,” said Johnny.
“Thanks very much lad, you’re a God send to your mother, and all us auld-ones. We’d be lost without you.”
“Your welcome” he replied, racing out the door.
A whistle could be heard in the dark, bringing out twelve year old Michael, with dark round glasses hiding deep blue, mischievous eyes.
“What’s up Johnny?” he enquired.
“Take that parcel to the pub and leave it for Mr. Scrooge. Maggie will give you payment, hide it behind that stone in the wall, in the dunny, and take your two shillings in return. Remember, you don’t know where it came from.”
“I know, thanks for the business,” taking the parcel he raced up the street.
“Run Gerry, before the mist turns to ice and freezes us over, and that moon comes out and gives us away.” They pelted down the back alleyways, sliding on the iced over puddles.
“Keep moving Gerry.”
“I can’t, it keeps grabbing my leg, and its blood heavy.”
“If the police get us they will grab more than our legs.”
“Where are we going now Johnny?”
“To the Clyde” he replied.
Running across the busy road, dodging the cars, there wasn’t a sound until they reached the water’s edge. Stopping for a breath, behind the bill-boards advertising John Players cigarettes and carbolic soap.
“Are you ready Gerry?”
“Yes” he replied.
“Throw it in.” A large splash broke the silence; the water bouncing up hitting their faces. Instant icicles formed on their eyelashes.
“Run!” said Gerry as a large light circled the dark sky moving towards them.
“Man over board!” shouted the skipper from the ferryboat. They ran to the house, their footsteps barely touching the ground and a circus of lights dotted the windows around them.
“Come and get your dinner; it’s ready,” called their mother. Panting, they entered the kitchen. “Your faces are flushed lads you might be getting a fever! Sit down, till I give you a stew that will cure any fever and put hair on your chests.” She hugged them tight, ruffling their hair.
Mr. Scrooge, his cigar balancing on the ashtray, looked about nervously at the men sipping pints.
Rubbing his hands together, he fingered the silk beige suit. Picking up a brown, crocodile leather shoe, and lifting it up to admire the workmanship. He revealed a great big hole!
His face turned a bright pink, a roar of…. “I’ll get you Johnny Murphy!” could be heard above the sirens and the men’s laughter, as one man said.
“Good news goes round like whispers in the wind”
The boys hugging their mother, said. “There’s money in the tin for the rent mam, and there is talk of another body in the Clyde.”
“Lord of mercy on your poor father,” she said. Looking at the holy picture, she whispered “sorry, but desperate times have desperate measures.”