A bus set off from the stop almost outside, too loud for Danielle to answer her mother's question. The TV was was on at fierce volume too, beginning early evening news for mother to dip into while she ironed. In the background a radio battled with it, refusing to lose gracefully.
In the past, everything needed to be at high volume to hide the noise of coal trucks filing by the window like conga-tied tourists in Tenerife. But now the village colliery had closed, there was nothing more than the occasional bus. Yet the volume controls still remained high, out of habit.
Danielle's mother stopped ironing and glared at the bus that delayed her daughter's answer. A big double-decker in the colours of South Yorkshire Transport. Danielle was her eldest, aged eighteen and very pretty, with a trim figure she liked to show off and shoulder-length auburn hair. She was sitting very upright on the sofa, scanning through Flats to Rent in the local newspaper, her lips pursed impatiently.
"I told you before, mam," said Danielle, when the bus had gone. "He works at Harvesters. He packs things for Harvesters, and that."
"How old is he?"
"You serious, then?"
Serious enough for Danielle to look in Flats to Rent. Though it was a little early. Roger had said they might start looking in January, four months away. He hadn't mentioned marriage, but if they moved in together she'd expect to be engaged.
Mother continued with her ironing. She was standing there in her best black skirt and stockings and brassiere, with a housecoat thrown over her shoulders - "for the neighbours, like" - ironing her single silk blouse. She ironed awkwardly to reduce the risk of ash from her cigarette falling onto the delicate material. On the wall behind her freshly permed brown curls hung a large picture of a bare tree in a winter field. It wasn't art, but it did break up what would otherwise have been an unbearably blank wall.
"Where'd ya meet him?"
"At fence," said Danielle, flatly. "He'd come up to t'fence in the breaks, like, when it were warm, and me and Cheryl were sittin' on t'other side."
"No, mam," lied Danielle.
"Ya know what I've told ya about smokin' don't ya?"
Danielle could normally be relied on for a good wind-up reply, but not today, not with Roger due any moment to meet mother for the first time. She was being good, and her mother knew it.
"You goin' to be alrait with Jenine and Sophie, like?" asked mother.
"Mam, I've looked after them before," complained Danielle, trying to remember if it was three years ago she started babysitting her sisters, or four.
"Not with a man around, you 'aven't." Danielle's mother removed her cigarette and regarded her pretty daughter. With the cigarette out and her eyes no longer screwed up, she herself looked quite attractive, in a made-up sort of way. All those kids had taken it our of her, but she'd not given in. "You tekin' precautions, then?" she asked, abruptly.
"What you on abart, mam?"
"Ya sleepin' with him?"
No answer. Danielle stared at the newspaper. Her mother held the iron vertically in mid-air like the shaft of a flagstaff. The weird light from the big TV, flashing and changing in disco pools, gave an impression of movement, but both of them were quite still. The only action in the room was in the goldfish bowl on the sideboard. Freddie and Mabel inside, circling endlessly, always clockwise. The circuit took about four seconds, and their memories lasted three, so it was an exciting journey.
"Ya shun't be on't pill, if ya smoke," pronounced mother, after a full goldfish circuit. Her cigarette was back in her mouth and it bobbed up and down in time with her words, giving them emphasis.
"I'm not on t'pill and I'm not smokin'," said Danielle, more indignantly then she'd intended.
"And yer too young fer't' coil."
Danielle didn't reply.
"Which leaves... you know, French letters an' all."
Danielle's mother took a long last drag on her cigarette, satisfied that she'd fully educated her daughter in matters sexual. It was a relief. She should have done it years ago.
"Yer father never liked 'em, mind. That's 'ow come you're 'ere."
Danielle shuffled awkwardly on the sofa and tugged at her miniskirt. Lots of thoughts were trying to get into her mind that she didn't want in there. She blinked heavily, twice.
"And bloody Michael, and Jenine, and Sophie." continued mother, bitterly. As usual, Derek wasn't mentioned. Not because his pregnancy was planned. It wasn't. As mother put it, "if you 'ain't got money, 'ow can y'ave plans?". He wasn't mentioned because he'd been erased from her vocabulary the moment he'd run away from home.
"Where's our Michael, mam?" asked Danielle, even though she knew where Michael's gang would be, within a street or two. But she wanted to change the subject.
"With his friends," murmured mother, who refused to be moved off course. "I just don't want yer mekin' same mistakes as me, that's all. Thought I were clever, gettin' pregnant and out 'o me mother's house. Now look at me."
"Yes mam" said Danielle, not looking.
Her mother stood still for a moment in self-contemplation, but didn't like it much, so turned back to her ironing. The blouse was finished. She folded it and placed it on the finished pile and, acting on automatic, took another item from the high creased stack. It was pair of child's dungarees.
Danielle frowned. She glanced out of the window at the familiar, identical, pebble-dashed semi with metal window frames on the other side of the road. If a huge mirror had been placed on the dotted lines in the middle of the tarmac, the view would have barely changed. Simply the buses travelling out of the village would have been obscured. When the pit closed, the wide road outside their house no longer led anywhere. It ran to the locked pit gates, and stopped. The buses still passed down it, but now they turned off down a side road before the entrance to the pit, like they were frightened of getting caught in the cul-de-sac.
"He's late," said Danielle's mother, disapprovingly.
Danielle frowned. "Don't ya think ya should get dressed, mam?"
Mother jerked back, like she'd touched the iron's hot face. "Oh, yes, oh, you're right," she flustered. "Was he on that bus?"
"He's got a car, mam."
Danielle's mother slipped off her housecoat and stuffed it behind the creased pile, then quickly slipped into her blouse. The rigid lines of her bra showed through like a leaning rucksack frame inside a taught canvas tent.
Even after a few seconds, Danielle found herself trying to remember what her mother's housecoat looked like. Mother had three housecoats, each with a different faded floral pattern, but all with one thing in common: when she took them off, or simply left the room, it was quite impossible to remember which one she'd been wearing.
"Ya goin' to 'ave to do a lot of ironing," said Danielle's mother.
"Oh, mam," objected Danielle.
"I don't mean now, luv. I mean if you get serious."
Danielle put down the newspaper for emphasis. "I'm not ironing for any man."
"That's the spirit, luv," said mother, smiling broadly. "That's my daughter." She put down the iron and sat in a well-worn easy chair, leaning forward, unrelaxed, with her elbows on her knees. For a while they shared the comfortable silence of a false assertion.
Danielle's mother looked at her daughter's legs. A little longer than her own, perhaps, but she still wasn't jealous of them, not yet. Danielle's were the crisp salad, her own the fuller meal, both enticing in their own way.
Danielle's eyes moved around the room. To the goldfish bowl, the lurid TV, and, inevitably, the window. Three items of glass. Looking out. Looking in. On the pavement outside, Sandra, from three doors down, was promenading with a loaded pushchair. Danielle recognised it immediately. The double wheels, plastic canopy, grey nylon straps: £93.50 from Mothercare. She watched the woman traverse her field of view, crossing paths with a young man walking briskly the other way.
Danielle reached the living room door before mother could even raise an eyebrow. "It's Roger," she said, urgently, and dived down the hall to the front door.
"Oh", said mother, wondering at first whether she should come to the door too, but deciding instead to stand up and put her shoes on and adjust her skirt.
The latch was opened. There was a muffled conversation at the door that Danielle's mother couldn't hear. Then Roger appeared at the living room doorway, with Danielle's face at an angle above one of his shoulders, like it was straining to get in a photograph.
He was short but wiry, dressed in clean blue chinos and a cream polo shirt with a small medallion showing at the neck. His light hair was fashionably short but even so managed to wave beautifully. He had a single earing, high cheekbones, a Roman nose, and, as mother spotted straight away, was devastatingly handsome.
He was carrying in his hand a large bunch of flowers. He walked over to her and said "You can't be Danielle's mum, can you?"
She laughed and looked as coy as she could. "Of course I am. I had her when I was eighteen."
"Wicked," said Roger. Abruptly he passed her the flowers.
Danielle folded her fingers into Roger's newly-freed hand and looked at her mother with smiling lips and frowning eyes.
"Well," said mother, "I'd better put these in some water." She flounced towards the doorway, then remembered her duties as host. "Sit yerself down, lad. Cup o' tea?"
"Aye, I will."
"How d'ya like it?"
"One spoon, ta."
Mother set off down the hallway and click-clicked onto the kitchen lino, adding more penny-sized impressions with her heels. She switched the kettle on, put the flowers down on the old metal kitchen dresser, and stood absently in the middle of the floor for a long time.
It wasn't a pretty kitchen, but she wasn't seeing it. And she was trying so hard not to think what a nice catch her daughter had made, or remember his handsome face, or wonder - definitely, absolutely not wonder - how the pair of them were going to pass the evening away.
She picked up the flowers and peeled the paper back. They were lilies, and gorgeous. Huge purple flowers with outrageous red stamen thrusting from trumpets of petals. Wide-eyed, still dreamy, she pushed her face so hard into the bouquet that she had to find a tissue to wipe the red pollen from her nose.
The kettle boiled, oh, so slowly. The tea bags stained the water brown. Mother put the flowers rather hurriedly in her best blue vase, the one with the semi-nude Greek gods spiralling around its glass, and left them there in the kitchen when she brought the tea-tray through for Roger and Danielle.
The three of them started on the business of small talk. About Roger's job - what exactly did he do? His car - did it run well? About where he lived. The state of his old school. Mother did most of the talking. Roger limited himself to "Aye, that's right," and "Aye, I do," most of the time, but she caught him off-guard with the holiday questions and he ended up talking almost solidly for ten minutes about Tenerife.
At first, Danielle smiled at his answers, in pride, but as time went on she started fidgeting and glancing ever more frequently at the clock on the sideboard next to Freddie and Mabel, who, for some reason appeared to be swimming very slowly.
When the film started on TV, Danielle took it as her cue.
"Mam, what time's yer date?"
Mother looked at her watch "Oh my God. I'm late, I'm late." She rose rapidly, tugged her skirt down, and started fretting. "Now, you do know what to do, don't you?"
"Mam, I've done it 'undreds of times before," sighed Danielle, exaggerating only slightly.
"Right then," said mother, looking around the room for something to delay her.
"Well, I'll be off." Her eyes caught the TV. "Yer goin' to watch 'film, then."
"That's nice, what is it?"
"Die Hard II."
"Oh, we've seen that before, 'aven't we?"
"Yes, mam, it's a repeat."
"Oh well." Danielle's mother had run out of stalling tactics. "It was nice to meet you, Roger. 'Ope to see you again."
Roger stood up and shook her hand. "Nice to meet ya. Don't worry about us. Everything'll go grand."
"That's good," said Mother, nervously.
They saw her to the door. In the way sheepdogs see sheep. They said goodbye, closed the door, and let their shoulders slouch.
Danielle walked back into the living room and waved her mother goodbye from the window, then she watched the receding figure carefully for signs of hesitation, until it finally slipped out of view. The evenings were drawing in. It was just dark enough for her to close the curtains.
Roger was already sprawled on the sofa, looking at home. Danielle bounced onto the free end, knees first, facing him. His hips rose and settled from the recoil.
"I think she likes you."
"Aye. She's alrait, yer mother."
Danielle's eyes said that the sentence was not complete.
"Like, older blokes must fancy her," he added.
Her irises softened. "Do you love me?"
"Aye, I do."
She dived on him and their lips met. Their tongues jousted for a long while.
"Where's ya brother?" asked Roger, quietly, when he'd come up for air.
"He's out with his gang."
"Coming back?" asked Roger.
"Not till dead late."
"And yer sisters?"
"So we've got t'place to oursens then?"
Their lips homed in again, pleasure-seeking, this time accompanied by hands. Tops were tugged and twisted, buttocks braille-read, thighs checked for the quality of their muscle tone. This time Danielle took the breathing break first.
"Did our bring any... you know..."
"Any what?" teased Roger.
"Oh, shit," said Roger, unconvincingly, like he wanted say the right thing, that he'd forgotten, not left them at home because he hated using the buggers, but didn't truly want to sell the lie.
"Hmm. Well, never mind," said Danielle, turning away from his eyes as if to watch Bruce Willis on TV. "I think I'm still safe, today."
Back to Short
Andrew Starling 2000 www.foxglove.co.uk