It’s not a pretty sight, even to the uncynical eye. Ten minutes to go until last orders, Happy Tuesday of Fresher’s week (like happy hour but without the constraint of time). The crowd at the bar is at least five deep, everyone jostling to get another one in before the lights come up and the grim reality of the surroundings can no longer be ignored. The air is so heavy with cigarette smoke it’s difficult for Lily to locate her friend as she emerges from the scrum, head bent, arms at right angles with two plastic pints of luminous vodka and orange. Her DMs stick to the floor each step she takes. Luckily Jo’s bleached white flat top helps her stand out from the crowd.
“God, some bloke just threw up behind me. Is it in my hair?” Lily has to shout to be heard above the strains of ‘I’m walking on Sunshine’ by Katrina And The Waves. She turns round and Jo inspects her dirty blonde dreadlocks which hang like rope down her back.
“Can’t see anything.” Jo spins her back round and takes a drink from her. “Cheers.”
Jo stubs out her cigarette in a convenient but overflowing ashtray on the table next to them and raises her plastic pint to her mouth. As she does so, a hand gropes her well-rounded bottom, which jolts her, causing her to miss her mouth and to tip a hefty slug down the front of her Ramones T-shirt.
“Do you mind?” She turns on the bloke standing behind her. He’s six foot tall, so drunk he’s swaying. He leers at her as he tries to focus.
“Hey gorgeous. Want to come back to mine? We’re having a party. You can bring your mate.”
“I’d rather stick pins in my eyes,” Jo snarls at him. “So leave us alone.” She turns back to Lily.
He isn’t easily deterred. “Oh, wow. Lezzers.”
Jo shakes her head in disgust.
“Can I come back to yours then? Please. I could just watch,” he adds hopefully. Jo’s arm jerks and then she watches him slowly comes to terms with the fact that he is now wearing the remains of her vodka and orange.
“You frigging cow,” he splutters.
“Yeah. What you going to do about it?” asks Jo. As she speaks a large hand clamps onto her shoulder from behind.
Jo turns to face the security beefcake, whose rippling black muscles bulge out of a tight green T-shirt. “Come on. Time to go,” he says, with the air of someone who has done this once too often.
“He’s just been feeling me up,” says Jo, pulling herself up to her full five feet one and a half inches. “I believe this Students’ Union has an equal opportunities policy. He’s a sexist. If he’d been racist you wouldn’t be throwing out the victim.”
The bouncer steers her towards the exit as she continues her tirade. Lily follows, a couple of steps behind, throwing back the rest of her drink in urgent bursts. The bouncer opens the door. “Don’t be walking home, girls.”
“It’s women. Do we look pre-pubescent?” Jo cups her breasts in both hands, her cheeks flushed with rage.
He refuses to be drawn into an argument. “Have you got enough money for a taxi?"
"Haven't you heard?" says Jo. "All men are rapists. That includes taxi drivers."
He shrugs his shoulders and shows them the palms of his hands, as if to say he’s done all he can.
Lily sways as she steps outside. "I think I'm going to be sick," she mumbles. The bouncer shakes his head. She's such a pretty thing, but always so wasted. Skin and bones too. He closes the door behind them.
"Come on," says Jo. "The air will do you good." She grabs Lily's arm, tucks it into hers and starts marching her up the road. It's uphill all the way to their shared student flat. The rat-run. As they walk, students spill out from The Fenton, The Packhorse, The Eldon, some in states worse than Lily.
Half way home, they take the short cut through Hyde Park, a breath of fresh air between the grey-white high rise buildings of Leeds University and the red-brick student slums of Headingley. They hear the familiar sound of other groups of students wandering home, singing, shouting, stealing traffic cones as they make their way through the darkness. At the playground on the edge of the park, close enough to the road to be illuminated by the street lamps, Lily sits down on a swing. She pushes herself high into the air while Jo opens her bag and pulls out a bottle of vodka. They stop off here on their way home most nights. Jo finds her pack of cigarettes, puts two in her mouth, lights both and then passes one to Lily.
Lily slows down to reach the cigarette and sits on the swing, gently swaying. After a couple of drags she turns to Jo. “Do you really believe that?" They haven't spoken all the way home. "That all men are rapists?"
Jo considers the question. "I think they all have the potential... it's there in them. If they knew they could get away with it I reckon any man would. Don't you?"
"Dunno. Never really thought about it." Lily takes another deep drag on her cigarette. "I'm always too drunk to say no."
"Seriously? You've never had sex sober?" Jo asks. Lily stops swinging. It's hard to remember.
"How about your first time?"
"No, I was definitely pissed then." Lily takes a swig from the bottle that Jo is offering. "Thank God."
"How old were you?"
Lily wipes her mouth with the back of her sleeve. "Thirteen. Actually, twelve."
"I know. It's not good. I know." She flicks her cigarette as far as she can and watches the sparks blaze a small trail as the stub hits the ground. "Give us another fag."
Jo passes her another Marlboro and Lily takes a lighter out of her pocket. She cups her hand around the lighter, bends her head towards it. It shoots a jet of flame, that rises a couple of feet, taking with it Lily's eyebrows and most of her fringe. Lily screams.
"Shit. Are you ok?" Jo grabs her and looks at her face. She pats out the smouldering ends of her hair. "Jesus. Good job you don't wear hairspray. You could have been a goner."
Lily adjusts the gas flow on her lighter and tries to relight it but this time it doesn't work at all. "Aargh!" she bellows as she hurls the lighter into the darkness. She stands up. "I want to go home."
The magpie sits on the head of Robert Peel and cackles. A shudder runs all the way down Lily’s spine. She doesn’t know whether it’s the same lone magpie that greeted her as she opened the front door this morning, spreading its large black wings and scaring the bejesus out of her. Or whether it’s the same one that was sitting on the lamppost as they rounded the corner to the edge of the park. She recites the rhyme silently to herself, ‘One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy.’ If she has seen three separate single magpies in the space of ten minutes, can she add them together and count three for a girl? Or is it three helpings of sorrow? Or sorrow multiplied to the power of three? Lily shakes her head, salutes it and, for the third time mutters, ‘Morning Mr Magpie, where’s your wife?”
Jo screws up her face. “Will you quit with that. It’s just a bird.” She looks up at the magpie. “An ugly, noisy bird.”
The magpie cackles again and flies off.
Lily can’t shake the queasy feeling. It’s still there in their ‘Development of the Welfare State’ lecture, and she knows it’s more than a hangover. Her charred eyebrows itch. She rests her chin on her forearms and stares at the piece of paper in front of her. “P?” she whispers.
Jo shakes her head and draws an arm onto the stick figure hanging from a noose at the bottom of the page.
Lily tries again. “K?”
Jo wrinkles her nose and fills two of the blank spaces with the letter K.
Lily shuffles further forward on the bench. “I” she says, her voice gaining confidence.
Tutting, Jo adds six letter I’s to the nine word sentence.
Lily raises her chin, forgetting, in her excitement, to keep her voice down, “I’m so bored I think I might kill myself?”
Jo fills in the missing letters as they both start to laugh. Mr Wardle raises his hairy eyebrows from the podium at the front of the class. “Quiet there at the back, please.”
Lily bites at the lump of skin on the inside of her cheek to try to stop herself snorting. She daren’t look at Jo. As Mr Wardle clears his throat and rustles his notes, the door opens and a woman in a grey suit enters the room. She doesn't glance up at the ten or twelve rows of students, but goes straight across to Mr Wardle. The room falls silent, so that Lily, even from her position on the very back row, can hear the sounds of the woman’s urgent whispering. Adrenaline starts to seep into Lily’s stomach, heightening the waves of nausea she’s been fighting all morning. As she watches Mr Wardle nod, Lily glances out of the window just in time to see another lone magpie sailing across the sky, its tail feathers like an arrow behind it.
Mr Wardle glances up, his eyes searching the rows of students. He clears his throat again, 'Lily Appleyard?"
Lily jerks her head up and he spots her. As soon as he makes eye contact he averts his gaze. "Could you go to Student Services please?"
She stumbles her way along the row, tripping over another student’s satchel as she does so, before making her way down the steps at the side of the theatre. Her dreadlocks bounce off her shoulders as her heart hammers against her skinny ribs.
The woman in the grey suit waits for her, holding the door ajar. She doesn’t say anything to Lily. Lily follows her out of the room, down a flight of stairs, and then down the corridor at a brisk pace, until she stops at a door with a sign that says 'Stuart Strange, Head of Support Services'. The woman nods at her to open it. Lily knocks, the heavy wooden door making her knuckles sting. She pushes it open and steps inside.
A man in his early fifties, presumably Mr Strange, with a greying beard and black rimmed spectacles stands to greet her. A large black topped desk lies between them.
"Ah, Lily," he says, rubbing his hands together. "Thank you for coming. Ah." He takes a deep breath, puts his finger tips on the edge of the desk, as if to support himself. "I'm terribly sorry to have to tell you, Lily that your Uncle has telephoned the Polytechnic this morning with the news that your mother has passed away. She died last night, peacefully, in her sleep. She didn't suffer." He takes another breath, looks her straight in the eye, counts to five and says, "I am very sorry."
Her hangover helps in some strange way, cushions her from too much reality. She stands looking at the bookcase behind him. The colours are all wrong. Three large books with bright red spines are stacked next to each other on the right hand side, without any thought to counter-balance. It makes it look like the bookcase could fall over at any point.
"Would you like to sit down?" He points to the two leather armchairs and small coffee table in the corner of the room.
Lily takes a moment to register she's being asked a question. "No. No, thank you." Even a purple cover or a dark blue tome in the bottom left corner would have sufficed. ‘Working with the Problem Drinker,’ she reads down the spine of one badly-sited yellow textbook, that’s half the size of the book next to it. She adjusts her weight onto her left leg and tries to pull her mind back to the man in front of the bookcase.
They stand in silence across his desk, facing each other. Mr Strange is the first to crack. He looks across to the door as if he’s heard someone knock at it. Lily tries to search for any useful clues in her head for what to say in a situation like this. She tries to think of a film she's watched, or a book she's read where this same thing has happened because she is at least aware that questions should be asked. But the only question in her mind is why has he ordered the bookcase the way that he has. Her breathing starts to quicken. Mr Strange looks at her with concern.
"I don't have an Uncle," she says at last.
This news takes him back a bit. "Oh," he says. He picks up a piece of paper from his in tray and peers at it. "He said he was your Uncle."
Lily sees the phrase 'died peacefully' with the peacefully underlined. More than how she lived, she thinks.
"Ah, yes Uncle… Bert?"
"He's not my Uncle."
Stuart Strange looks at her questioningly, waiting for her to expand. He’s also trying to work out what’s wrong with her face. Lily tries to engage in conversation. "He's just the perv who lives next door to my mum. He's always trying to get me to call him Uncle. And look at his puppies," she adds as a joke.
Mr Strange looks alarmed. "Is there someone else I can call? Someone who could collect you?"
Lily shakes her head quickly. The last thing she wants is to have this man feel any more concern for her. "No, there's no one else. It's alright. He's harmless."
Mr Strange looks at the wall behind Lily. "He said he'd arrive at 2 o'clock to pick you up. He said to meet at your flat."
Lily becomes aware of a clock ticking. She turns to look. It's half past eleven. She watches the hand of the clock tick off the seconds, jerking so violently each time one passes, it appears the clock might fall from the wall and Lily starts to worry for its safety. She watches 28 pass without incident and calms herself.
"Should I go back to my lecture?" she asks. She wants to get out of this too warm room. She's not up to this kind of scrutiny; not without eyebrows.
"Have you a friend who could wait with you?"
Lily's face lights up with relief. "Jo." Jo will know what to do.
"I'll go and get her for you." Mr Strange starts towards to door.
"No it's ok. I'll go," says Lily, throwing herself at the door handle. She runs down the corridor before Mr Strange has time to argue. She opens the door of the lecture theatre and sees Jo stand immediately. Leaving her books on the bench, Jo runs down the steps to Lily. No one inside the theatre says a word. Jo takes Lily's hand and together they hurry from the building.
It's only when they get outside that Jo asks, "What's up?"
"Me mum's dead," says Lily.
Jo pulls a packet of cigarettes from her pocket. She lights two and holds one out to Lily. "Shit."
They start walking, neither knows where. "Pub? Or home and a spliff?" Jo eventually asks.
Lily sighs. "Spliff, I guess. I've got to pack some stuff. My, Uncle's coming to get me."
They've been inseparable for over a year and yet Jo knows so very little of Lily’s life, beyond that she doesn't like to talk about it. She knows Lily hardly ever goes home to Accrington. "I'm really sorry, Lil."
"Yeah. It doesn't matter. She died a long time ago. Before I was born. Her soul I mean. It's just taken nineteen years for her body to get the message."
Jo links arms with Lily as they make their way up the hill, past the polytechnic and its University neighbour, until they come to the park. The September sunshine is still warm enough for there to be groups of students lounging around, some reading, the more energetic playing frizbee. Lily breathes in deeply as they pass one brightly coloured group, savouring the sweet smell of hashish.
“I hope Tim and what’s-his-face aren’t in,” says Lily, as they walk up the path to their front door. Two bedroom houses were hard to find so when they’d first start looking for a flat, Jo had suggested them getting two rooms in a shared house. When the landlord had shown them round, they’d met the two final year Chemistry students, Tim with his jam jar glasses, and been immediately satisfied they wouldn’t impinge on their lifestyle.
“If they are, they can fuck off,” says Jo.
At quarter to three, Bert pulls up in a pale blue Vauxhall Chevette, circa 1976, his pot belly nestling the steering wheel. As Lily climbs into the car she turns to Jo, "Do me a favour? Post this for me?" She takes a battered envelope from the side pocket of her holdall. It's addressed to the Salvation Army, written in a childish scrawl. The I's have circles over them.
Jo looks at her questioningly. "You're not going to get God on me now are you?"
Lily smiles. "The next best thing." She ducks into Bert's car. "Please? You won't forget? It needs a stamp."
Jo puts it inside her coat. "Course."
Standing above the open dirt pit, Lily watches as ten black-suited men bear her mother's coffin aloft through the headstones. She can see beads of sweat running down the red faces of the front two, Bert and Mr Peterson. What they are carrying looks more like a boxed sofa than a coffin, appropriate really as her mother had hardly left the settee in the last few years. The funeral parlour had offered the use of a steel-framed trolley, but Lily had insisted. The coffin was to be carried.
Finding ten men ready, willing and able to carry the coffin had been no mean feat. A real ‘Challenge Anneka’; Lily could almost hear the voice-over: ‘You have six days, no living male relatives, (leastways none you’ve ever met), and a dead, agoraphobic mother who weighs more than a carthorse.’ Volunteers were going to be thin on the ground. Luckily Mr Peterson across the road had two sons and the bloke from the chippy was duty bound. And Bert of course. The funeral home had made up the rest. It's hardly nearest and dearest but at least she's in the ground. As the vicar brings proceedings to a close with a solemn rendition of the Lord’s Prayer, Lily takes a seat on a conveniently sited gravestone and lights a cigarette. Relief floods her body, making her feel like she can breathe again, really for the first time since Mr Strange had told her of her mother's death. Her mother is safely in the ground; in a way her whole life has been in anticipation of this moment. Lily has fulfilled her birthright.
Bert sidles up to her, still sweating from his earlier exertions, his hair slicked back and wearing a shiny dark grey suit that fits badly, where it fits at all. "How you doing, Lil? Crash us a fag, will you?"
She pulls a Lambert and Butler from her packet and hands it to him, trying her best to avoid any physical contact as she does so. Technically she's giving away her inheritance (she found 100 packets of them in the dresser, the warning printed in Arabic or something, probably the most valuable asset in the house) but what the hell. She's guessing there won't be any fighting over the will.
"Do you know, no one here's said sorry?"
Bert lights his fag and, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve, he looks at her, like he doesn't understand. She spells it out for him. "I'm nineteen years old, me mum’s died, I have no other living relatives, no money and no one's said to me ‘I'm sorry your mum's dead.’ Everyone murmurs inane crap like 'at least she's at peace.' Even the vicar said he hoped she'd be happier where she is now. No one's sorry for me. I'm completely alone."
Bert coughs, a cough that comes from deep within his lungs. Lily can hear the mucus rattle in his windpipe. He bends over and puts his hands on his knees for a moment until he recovers. He takes another drag on his cigarette and then says, "You can move in with me."
Lily laughs, momentarily taken out of her self-pity. "I'm not that alone. Thanks anyway, Bert. I meant I don't have any family left. Look at this lot." She gesticulates at the sparse funeral congregation. Mr Khan from Passage to India mistakes her gesture for a wave and returns it. The woman he’s talking to turns round to see who he’s waving at and smiles across at Lily. Lily hasn’t noticed her before and she frowns as the elderly woman bustles her way across the grass, over to them. She's small, with an ample bosom cradled tightly in a floral print.
"Lily," she says, taking Lily by both arms and pulling her up to her feet. "I'm so sorry." Concern brims over in the woman's eyes, as Lily stares at her, trying to place her. "You don't remember me, do you?"
Lily opens her mouth to protest, but then closes again it.
"You used to call me Auntie Edie. You poor lamb."
"Aunt Edie?" Lily puts out a hand onto the headstone next to her, as standing up so quickly seems to have made her light-headed. "I thought... I mean... I haven't seen you for years."
"I saw the notice in the paper and thought I'd come." Aunt Edie speaks slowly, each word laced with sympathy. "I hope you don't mind. I know we didn't see eye to eye in the end, but, well, you know. Hopefully she's found some peace at last."
Lily senses a response is required, but the words aren't coming to her. Aunt Edie watches her for a moment and then continues, "You were eight years old last time I saw you. Do you remember? You used to come round for tea every Thursday? You don't look like you've had a decent meal since. Look at the size of you." She turns Lily from side to side. "There's nothing to you. And what’s going on with your hair? You used to have lovely hair."
Lily's mind fills with memories of beef paste sandwiches and wagon wheels. "But what happened? I mean Mum told me you'd .. well." Lily's cheeks start to flush as she tries to run a hand through her dreadlocks.
"What did she tell you?" Aunt Edie cottons on. "She told you I died? She never. Bloody hell. You wouldn’t put anything past that one. She always was a..." The vicar walks up to them and smiles. Aunt Edie almost curtsies. She doesn’t complete her sentence.
“I’m going to have to dash, I’m afraid,” says the vicar. “I have another, engagement.”
"I actually went to your funeral," says Lily, once the vicar has moved on. She stubs her cigarette out on the nearest headstone. "I knew something was odd at the time but I was only eight. Mum told me not to speak to anyone, she said it was rude to talk at funerals. And then we left straight after you, well, after someone was cremated."
Bert pulls heavily on the stub of his borrowed Lambert and Butler.
Lily chews the inside of her mouth. "Well. There was me saying to Bert I didn't have any family and now I've got an Aunt I thought was dead." She lines the extinguished cigarette up between her thumb and middle finger nail.
"You've still a dad as far as I know," says Aunt Edie.
Lily flicks the stub and watches it sail through the air and land in the grass between the headstones. She wipes the sweat from her palms onto her black canvas trousers. "I was just coming to that."
Lily props Bert up against the privet hedge while she fumbles with the latch on his garden gate. The nearest street lamp is broken, the light burning a dull orange, too low to make any impact on the surrounding dark. It fizzes as it burns. Lily pulls Bert’s arm around her shoulder again and drags him up the path to the front door. “Key?”
“’S’in me pocket,” says Bert, trying to stand up straight to allow Lily to reach into the front of his suit trousers.
“I’m not that pissed,” says Lily, holding out her hand for the key.
Once inside, Lily leads him into the front room and drops him into the fake leather armchair. The covering on the arm has peeled off, leaving a scorched bald patch where the ashtray would normally sit. Lily glances around and sees it on the floor, its contents spilled. She picks it up and returns it to its rightful position. “See you then, Bert.”
“I miss her, Lil.”
Lily doesn’t reply. She lets herself out of his house and back down the path.
In some ways the estate feels like toy town. As a teenager, Lily used to walk home, pissed, at all hours of night, past the rows of identical 1940s council houses, each window trimmed with net curtains. Front lawns the size of handkerchiefs edged with matching privet hedges. She never once felt threatened.
Everyone knows everyone. If it weren’t for the occasional burnt out wreck of a car you could almost imagine the original vision; ‘Homes fit for heroes’. Lily lets herself into the house next door. The smell makes her retch as soon as she steps over the threshold. She’s spent the last six days here, but the smell won’t go, no matter how many tins of ‘Floral Harmony’ she sprays.
She turns into the front room and flicks on the light. A bare bulb illuminates the room, which looks even smaller without furniture. When her mother was alive, a reinforced settee had taken up almost all the floor space, but it wasn't here when Lily arrived and no one has mentioned it since.
Lily sits on the floor and pours herself a vodka from the half empty bottle. She uses the same glass she’s used for the last six days. She rests the back of her head against the wall behind her and wonders for a moment what her mother would have made of her wake. Stupid question, seeing as how her mother hadn’t left the house in ten years. There would have been more chance of getting her mother to the moon than to the back room at the Dog and Duck.
Lily opens her eyes and focuses on the pair of bolt cutters leaning against the side of the gas fire. She bought them three days ago, from Mr Bhopal’s tardis-like hardware store, and they’ve stood, unused, in their current position ever since. Lily takes a mouthful of vodka and crawls across the room to them. She kneels and picks them up, the weight of them pulling on her biceps. She makes a cutting gesture with them, as if practising for the task that lies ahead. She’s told herself, as a mark of respect, she’ll wait until morning; the dawning of a new, motherless, era.
Lily stands and closes the curtains. The minutes tick past on the small carriage clock on the mantlepiece. It’s almost 2am. Occasionally she hears the sound of a car engine on the estate, or the distant echo of a police siren, but mainly there is silence. The only furniture in the front room now is the dresser, its centre drawers on the verge of collapse and the television. It’s difficult to stand and watch television. Lily drains her glass and reaches again for the bolt cutters.
The metal padlock on the loft hatch has rusted over the years. To Lily’s knowledge it has never been opened. She spent the first two days she was here ransacking the house for a key but at the back of her mind she had known she wouldn’t find one. For as long as she can remember she’s fantasized about getting past that padlock, knowing the secrets of her past must lie up there.
Her old desk chair wobbles beneath her as Lily holds up the bolt cutters and snips at the thick metal. The cutters slice through it, just as Mr Bhopal had told her they would, and the padlock falls to the floor, narrowly missing Lily’s head on its descent. Lily pushes against the wooden trap door and sees a set of metal stepladders. They make such a racket as she pulls them down, she's afraid they will waken the dead.
It’s pitch dark in the loft. Lily flicks the light switch but nothing happens. She climbs back down the ladders and takes the bulb from her mother’s bedroom, standing on piles of yellowing News of the Worlds to do so. Back in the loft, Lily has to replace the bulb by the light of her fag, her hand shaking. She switches the light and is momentarily blinded. It takes a while for her eyes to adjust and allow her to focus on the contents of the room. Cobwebs hang from the ceiling, which is so low Lily cannot stand up straight. Two suitcases and a couple of boxes, the proper, old-fashioned, tea chest kind are grouped together in the centre of the gloom. Lily guesses they were put up here when they first moved in, when Lily was just a baby. Lily reaches for the nearest suitcase and flicks open the catches.
Inside are clothes. Men's clothes. She pulls out the first item, a brown shirt with thin white stripes, ironed and neatly folded on the top of the pile. The buttons are done up. She holds it to her face and smells mustiness mixed with a hint of pine after-shave. Lily holds up the shirt in front of her and as the folds drop out so do the arms, falling onto her lap, each neatly cut off at the shoulder. She pulls out a pair of trousers, with creases like tramlines and a hole where the crotch should be. Lily doesn't know what makes her feel saddest; the thought of her mother neatly ironing and folding her husband’s clothes after she's hacked them to pieces, or the fact that her father obviously never returned to notice.
She reaches for one of the wooden packing crates. Inside are books. Her mum was never much of a reader, unless you count Mills and Boon, which Lily didn’t. She picks up the top one, it has a picture of a fat frog and a pink flower on the cover. ‘You only live twice, Flemming’ is written on the front. Lily’s seen the film. She holds the book up to her face and smells the paper as she flicks through the pages. Then, with her hands trembling she turns to the front page, hope making her hold her breath. But if a name was written there, and it probably was, it’s been cut out, a small, neat rectangle of paper missing in the top right hand corner. Lily turns to the back page and realises it’s missing.
Lily swears under her breath and reaches for the second box. It contains a record collection. The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, a 7 inch copy of ‘Leader of the Pack’ by the Shangri-las, ‘I got you, babe’ by Sonny and Cher. The box is full. Lily had always thought the theme tune to Coronation Street was the closest her mum had ever come to music. Simon and Garfunkel, The Kinks, Dusty Springfield. Lily bites her lip as she slides ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ out. It comes out of its sleeve in three separate pieces.
Lily notices through the cracks in the airbricks that it's getting light. The bottle of vodka she brought with her is empty and the heap of clothes feels slightly damp. She stands up too quickly, battering her head against a low beam and falls to her knees, momentarily stunned. When her head stops hurting she goes downstairs. She rummages through her pockets and finds, scribbled on a piece of paper in old lady handwriting, Aunt Edie's telephone number.
As she listens to the ringing phone she has a flash of memory of Aunt Edie's funeral. Her mother, already gigantic, in a black tent of a dress, hurrying her out of the churchyard as an elderly couple had approached them. The man had a gold ring on his finger with a red jewel that had sparkled in the sunlight. Lily had wondered whether he was the Pope. She had opened her mouth to ask, but her mother had pushed her out of the gate so hard she had almost fallen over.
"Hello?" A tremulous voice answers the phone.
"Aunt Edie? It's me, Lily."
“Heavens, child. What time is it?”
Lily glances across at the carriage clock on the mantlepiece. It takes her a moment to work out that it’s half past five. “Shit, I mean sorry. I didn’t realise,” Lily takes a breath. “I need to see you.”
Aunt Edie's house smells of vinegar, perfectly preserved, it's exactly how it was the last time Lily visited. Memories assault her from all angles. The china dogs that she'd pretended to feed and take for walks are still on the hearth; the ashtray with a black cat in the centre that Lily’s mother had painted when she was a child, is still on the windowsill.
Aunt Edie is bustling around in her kitchen, wearing her floral pinny, delighted to have company. She hands Lily an American Cream Soda. The glass is the same glass Lily drank out of twelve years ago, with glass bubbles in the bottom. Aunt Edie sings along to Andy Williams on the radio, out of tune and about four words behind.
They sit down at the small wooden table in the corner of the sitting room, where Aunt Edie has laid out lunch. "Oh, it's so nice to see you, Lily."
"I need to find my dad."
"Would you like salmon or beef paste? I got the beef special this morning."
"I want to find my dad." Lily says, louder this time.
"Of course you do pet. No need to shout. I take it you've not seen him? Not ever?" Lily shakes her head and tries to stop herself ripping the skin from the sides of her thumbs. "What did your mother tell you?"
"Nothing. I don’t know anything about him. I looked in the loft last night. Found some old clothes and his record collection, but..." she hesitates at telling Aunt Edie what her mother had done, "but, there was nothing that would help me find him."
"She was a different woman altogether in those days, Lil’. She loved him so much. Never looked at another man. She got with him when she was fourteen. Always said she was going to marry him. He didn't stand a chance." Aunt Edie chuckles to herself. "Ay, she was determined, stubborn as a mule. Always was. The happiest bride I've ever seen."
"So, what happened?"
"He ran off with another woman," says Aunt Edie, as she tears the cellophane lid off the beef paste. "And it broke her heart. Simple as that. She swore she'd never recover and she never did. Like I said, stubborn as stubborn." Aunt Edie stands up and fiddles with the teapot. "That's what I told her in the end. She was determined not to get over it and it wasn't fair, Lil. It wasn't fair on you, on anyone around her. I told her she had to move on and that was that. She never spoke to me again. Once she made her mind up about something. Well you know what she's like. Was like.” She sits down heavily in her chair again. “Oh dear. I still can't believe she's passed over."
"What was he like," Lily asks, "my dad?"
Aunt Edie spreads a dollop of butter as thick as clotted cream on her bread roll while she considers the question. "He was handsome," she says after some time. "But never trust a handsome man, that's what I always say. Thank the good Lord my Arthur wasn't anything to look at." She pauses for thought and to spread a broad smear of salmon paste on her barm cake. "He were carrying on, course, but no one knew a thing about it. He used to play snooker with our Terry and he didn't have an inkling. And there was your mum, all pregnant, just about to have you. Terrible really." She takes a large bite of her creation. "It did for your grandmother," she adds with her mouth full. "Sent her to an early grave."
"I need to find him, Aunt Edie. I need to get some sense of where I'm from. I want to know about my past."
Aunt Edie looks her up and down as she chews. She finally swallows. "I have something for you. Your granddad gave it to me for safekeeping when your granny died. I think he knew he wouldn't last long without her. I didn't really know what to do with it while your mother was alive. She'd have had my guts for garters if I'd given it to you." She stands up again. "Mad as a wasp she'd have been. Wait there."
A few minutes later Aunt Edie returns carrying a rectangular box. "I don't know why he wanted you to have this. You see, your granddad never did like David, your dad. Always said he weren't to be trusted. And turns out he were right, course. But I think your granny must have wanted you to have it. I think she knew you'd be curious one day." She hands the box to Lily. "You have a look at it love while I check on the custard."
Lily takes the box. She puts it on the table in front of her and eases off the cardboard lid. Inside she can see a large, cream coloured book, with a sheet of see-through crepe paper laid over the top of it. Lily's hands start to shake. She slides off the crepe paper and reads the gold lettering on the front, ‘Wedding Album’. She'd often wondered whether her parents were married. She opens the first page.
In celebration of the marriage of David Winterbottom and Miss Pamela Lillian Tattersall
16th May 1965
at the Church of our Virgin Mary, Clitheroe
Lily holds her breath and turns over the page, ready for her first glimpse of her father.
But the first picture is of the bride and Lily's first thought is that Aunt Edie's given her the wrong wedding album. That isn't her mother. Confused, Lily turns back to the front page. Her father’s name was David Winterbottom. She only knew that because she’d ransacked the house, eight or so years ago, when her mother had been admitted to hospital for a few days. Lily had found her birth certificate hidden in an old teapot. Remembering a news item she’d seen about a child whose estranged father had abducted him from school, she’d stashed the birth certificate inside the lining of her school bag. Just in case. Pathetic really.
Lily brings her mind back to the page in front of her. Her mum's name was Pamela. Lily had long suspected Appleyard was neither her maiden, nor her married name. Lily turns the page again. The photograph is of a slim, beautiful bride with long blonde hair, laughing as she runs along a stone path. Slim, like Marilyn Monroe slim. Six men line the way, holding umbrellas up to protect her from the pouring rain. She's holding her skirts up, as the rain bounces on the ground around her. And the men are smiling at her, admiring her verve. The rain is torrential, Lily can almost make out the individual drops. She squints at the picture again. The woman laughs back at her, attractive, happy and slim.
Lily doesn't recognise any of the men holding the umbrellas. Could one be her father? It's not even important at this moment. The thought strikes Lily that she never saw her mother laugh. A wave of jealousy sweeps through her body, someone else could make her laugh. She wants to know this woman in the picture. For the first time since her mother died she feels a sense of loss.
She turns the page and gets her first sighting of the bride and groom. Hands clasped together, gazing into each other’s eyes, grinning inanely. Her mum appears enraptured, lost in love, alive. Her father is tall and slender and rock star handsome.
She wants to close the book, but like a scab that shouldn't be picked, she can't leave it alone. They look so young and hopeful. All Lily’s life she’s been longing to know her father. It had never once occurred to her that she didn't know her mother either.
The bride is wearing a sleek satin dress, no frills or ruffles, beautifully skimmed across the front to emphasize her tucked in waist. Lily compares her to the mental image she has of her mother, fat hanging off her legs like saddlebags. The woman in the photo has long blonde hair scooped up on the top of her head, the occasional strand curling down past her neck. The groom wears black rimmed spectacles and a dark suit. His hair is slightly spiked. Lily wonders what it would have been like to have had these two as parents.
In the next picture are two people she does recognise. Her grandparents stand either side of the bride and groom. Lily’s father is staring straight at the camera, and Lily notices his deep brown eyes, same as her own. Granny is smiling, with David's arm loosely around her shoulders. Lily's grandfather stands straight-backed, not touching his daughter. Lily senses that his smile doesn’t reach his eyes.
Another photograph shows the groom, her father, with his ushers. She doesn't recognise any of them. Frustrated, she turns through the pages until she comes to a guest list at the back. Lily’s eyes flick down the list. The wedding was over-run by Winterbottoms.
The gas fire is on full, despite the Autumn sunshine pressing on the windows. Lily tries to open a window, banging against it with the palm of her hand. It doesn't budge. Aunt Edie appears behind her, carrying two plates. She puts the plates down on the table and fetches a box of tissues from the mantelpiece. "Here pet."
Lily takes a tissue and scrunches it up in a ball in her fist. "Do you know, I never saw her laugh?"
Aunt Edie tuts and shakes her head. "Would you like a Mr Kipling with custard?"
"I spent my life growing up with someone who wasn't actually there. Can you imagine what that's like?” Lily’s voice rises an octave. “Knowing no matter how hard you try, you're never going to make her happy?"
"Come on, love.” Aunt Edie starts ladling custard. “You need some meat on your bones."
"I don't mind him leaving so much, shit happens, I know that, but it's like I lost both my parents because of him. Do you know what I mean?"
Aunt Edie heaves herself up from her chair and comes to Lily's side. "There, there pet.” She pulls Lily’s head against her ample bosom. “I know. I know. You let it all out."
It's dark by the time Lily gets home and the electric meter has run out of credit. She didn’t notice the drizzle during the 45 minutes she spent waiting at the bus stop, but she’s soaked to the skin. She lights the gas fire and draws the curtains before stripping her sodden clothes from her body and wrapping herself in her duvet. Once she’s poured herself a drink, she opens the wedding album but she can hardly make out the people by the glow of the gas fire. The local Spar sells electricity tokens, but Lily hasn’t the energy.
When morning pushes through the cracks in the curtains, Lily is asleep on the floor. The gas fire is still burning.
Four days pass in a blur, until the silence that shrouds the house is broken by a bell sound like an alarm. It takes Lily a moment to connect the noise to the telephone.
"Could I speak to Lily Appleyard?" asks a pleasant female voice.
"Who is it?"
"I'm calling from Leeds Polytechnic."
"She's not in," Lily mumbles.
"Oh. Do you know when she'll be back? Or if she’s planning to return to her course?" Lily leans against the wall for support and closes her eyes. When will Lily be back? For some reason the Whitesnake song ‘Here I go again on my own’ starts to play in her head. The woman on the phone coughs politely. Lily wants to say Lily will never be back. Lily no longer exists, but that may lead to awkward questions.
Lily casts around the room, searching for clues. Her eyes fall on the pile of unopened letters, junk mail and free newspapers that have built up by the front door. On the top of the pile is a copy of the Accrington Weekly News. It’s dated Thursday 20th October. "Next Wednesday?" Lily suggests.
"Ok," says the woman cheerfully. "I'll call back then. Would you just tell her I called? Thank you."
Lily doesn’t sleep that night. She lays awake mulling over the scraps of information she’d been able to glean from Aunt Edie about her father. “I don’t know where he is, could be on the other side of the world for all I know,” Aunt Edie had blustered, fiddling with the plastic place mats. But, she had admitted when pressed, she had heard a rumour he might have moved to Skipton. “I suppose he probably moved in with his fancy woman, leastways that's what Patsy Smith said in the butchers." Some eighteen or nineteen years ago. "I think it was Skipton,” she had added vaguely. “In Yorkshire." Like actually after all it was the other side of the world.
As soon as it gets light, Lily pulls on her black canvas trousers and a dark green sweatshirt, which some bloke had once left at her flat after a particularly awful one night stand, and wanders down to the bus station. She finds the bus that will take her to Skipton and asks the driver to shout her when its time to get off. It's market day and the stall-holders are out in sheepskin coats. Lily wanders through the cobbled streets, paying particular attention to any white man in his late forties, early fifties. She spots three possibilities in the space of seven minutes, including a man in a black bomber jacket who has a dimple in his cheek, just like Lily’s. She buys a peach and sits down on the steps of the stone cross to eat it.
As the coldness seeps into her bones, she notices a sign on the building opposite, Public Library. The building is old and built out of sandstone and Lily pushes through the revolving doors. She stands in the doorway, unsure of what direction to head in.
An elderly librarian wanders over and asks if she needs any help. "I'm looking for someone who used to live here, maybe nineteen years ago."
"Have you tried looking in the local paper? We keep every copy there ever was on microfiche." Twenty minutes later, Lily is reading her first ever copy of the Craven Herald and Pioneer, ‘The Voice of the Dales since 1853’. As she reads stories about Sheep Day, and whether the public toilets in Coach Street should be cleaned more regularly, she loses track of time. Her head starts to ache and her eyes are sore as she flicks through the 1970s. The Births, Marriages and Deaths columns start to swim before her eyes.
Abruptly, she stands up, pushes back her chair so hard its legs scrape the wooden floor, causing everyone in the library to raise their heads and stare at her. She runs for the door. On her way through the town centre she sees the bus for Accrington, standing waiting at the bus stop. She runs as fast as she can and manages to throw herself between the closing doors.
One morning she wakes up on the floor of the living room, fully clothed. The pressure on her bladder is what’s caused her to wake. She tries to stand but her legs are so stiff, she finds it easier to crawl along the carpet into the hall. It’s there she notices a letter on the doormat, addressed to her. How long it's been lying there is anybody's guess. The urgent need to piss seems to leave her body as she picks up the letter and sits on the bottom stair. The quality of the envelope sets it apart from the mound of junk mail by the door. It's from the Salvation Army.
Lily stares at the envelope, turns it over in her trembling hands, before peeling it open.
‘Dear Lily, We have received your letter regarding your father, David Winterbottom and our enquiries regarding his whereabouts are now underway. Please be assured that we will contact you as soon as we have any information. In the meantime, if you could refrain from contacting the office, we would be grateful. We are a charitable organisation and dealing with telephone enquiries can severely limit our resources.
Signed on behalf of Major Farley-Greystone.’
Lily reads it four times, her eyes watering at the strain of focussing on the print. She sets it to one side while she eventually remembers to go to the toilet, and then picks it back up again and reads it another three times. She tidies away the empty bottles, stacks them neatly outside the back door, before picking up the phone. A woman answers on the second ring.
“Can I speak to Major Farley-Greystone?”
"I'm afraid he's not in right now. May I help?"
"'s complicated." Lily realises her words are slurred. She wonders whether the two vodkas she had to try to steady her nerves were a good idea. She stands straighter.
"Oh. It's only my second week but I can try."
"It's just, I'm trying to find my dad. And I've had this letter saying that you've started, I mean I know I'm not supposed to ring it's just..." She bites her lip until she can taste blood. "It's just I really need to find him."
The woman tuts sympathetically. "When did you last see him?"
"I've never met him, well, not that I remember. He,” Lily thinks quickly and revises the version of events Aunt Edie gave her. “My mum left him, and my Aunt says he was heartbroken, because he loved me so much. And now my mum's died. And I'm all alone."
"Oh, I am sorry."
"I've been trying to find him myself and I don't know how to do it. And I really need, I really need somebody to help me."
"Well, I'm not really supposed to give out any information." Lily closes her eyes. She doesn't speak. "How old are you?" the woman asks.
"Seventeen," says Lily, shaving a couple of years off. "And the thing is, I'm not very well. The doctors say I shouldn't be under stress but I'm all alone, I don't have any money, anywhere to live..."
"What name is it?"
"I meant your father's name?"
"David, David Winterbottom."
From the tone of the woman's voice, Lily knows she knows something. "What? Oh please,” she begs. “I can't take the not knowing."
"Well, like I say, I'm not really supposed to say anything but," Lily can almost sense the woman looking over her shoulder. "Major Farley-Greystone went through your case as part of my induction last week."
"And?" Lily holds her breath.
"All I can say is, I think you'll be hearing from him soon."
"You mean they've found him? He's not dead?"
"He's not dead." The woman’s voice is gentle and Lily can tell she’s smiling. "But don't say I told you so. Ok?"
"Thank you. Thank you so much." Lily puts down the phone and lets out a loud screech.
Sitting in a dazed heap under the windowsill, Lily experiences a new feeling. She has something to go on for. She lifts her head and sees the front room through new eyes. And the thought strikes her that she can't let her father see the house like this. It must be cleaned and she hasn't got long. She hurries through to the kitchen to find a pen and some paper and starts to make a list. Furniture polish, bleach, bin-liners, cloths, rubber gloves. She chews the end of her pen thoughtfully and gazes out of the kitchen window. The small back garden is completely overgrown. The rusting springs of an old mattress poke up through the grass. Lily used to have loads of bonfires out in there, just to get out of the house. It’s getting dark now. The kitchen clock shows it's almost five. Not really time to start now. What she needs is a new day, a clean slate to symbolise the new life she's about to begin. She pours herself another vodka from the bottle on the kitchen table.
The next morning Lily's first thought is of her father. A smile eats its way across her face and she springs out of bed.
She makes herself a slice of toast and a cup of black tea, adding butter and milk to the shopping list as she does so. Then she goes up the steps into the loft and pulls the suitcase of her father's clothes down the ladders. In her mother's bedroom, she opens the suitcase and spreads the clothes out carefully on the bed, trying to gain some sense of the man. Lily finds a roll of sellotape and tries to attach the arms on as best she can and then hangs whole outfits on coat hangers on the front of the fitted wardrobes. They look like headless scarecrows; some crazy kind of art installation. Lily wants to stuff the trouser legs to give them substance, but the sellotape is barely holding them together as it is. Downstairs she adds safety pins to the shopping list.
At lunchtime, as Lily is getting dressed for the shopping trip, the doorbell rings. She almost falls over as she struggles to get her trousers on. It couldn't be him already, surely? They wouldn't give him her address without some warning, would they? She jumps down the stairs, her hands shaking as she opens the door. A large man wearing a dark suit and sunglasses stands before her. Lily’s mouth is dry.
"Pamela Appleyard?" he asks. Lily shakes her head, disappointment floods her body. "Is she in?"
Lily shakes her head again.
"Well, she hasn't been paying her account. She's overdue. I'm here to collect the telly." He shrugs as he pushes past her. Moments later he returns with the giant black box in his arms, its flex curled like a snake on the top. "Have a nice day," he says as he strides towards the gate. Lily nods.
The next morning the sun shines down from a clear blue sky. The leaves on the stray Sycamore have turned golden. Lily knocks on Bert's door and asks to borrow his lawn mower and hedge cutters. "Mine could do with a trim." He nods at his patch of dandelion clocks.
"Sorry, Bert. Haven't got time."
He scratches his groin. "Aw, come on, you've got time for a drink with me, haven't you?" he wheedles. "I've not seen you since the... you know."
Lily shakes her head. "Sorry, Bert. I've got stuff to do."
He watches her lug the rusty old lawn mower down his path. "Why don't you come round later? I've got steak and kidney pudding."
"I'm vegetarian," she calls back from the street, which isn't strictly true but she does draw the line at Fray Bentos. "But thanks."
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