It was a very hot, dry day. It was so hot, that the road tar bubbled and hissed like a slimy black cauldron.
You could smell the acrid odour like a strong ‘whiff’ from the cheap rubber-soles of the people walking along. The soles, gradually melting on the scorching pavement.
You could have boiled mercury on it.
Looking down the street, Tilly could see a blue haze shimmering in a dip in the road, like a pool of smoky water. In this built up inner city area of concrete and bricks – there was no shade to be had at all.
Tilly had been sent out in to this urban desert and told not to come back until ‘tea-time’ by Mum so she could take advantage of the good weather by washing the bed sheets and blankets in the tin bath in the tiny yard at the back of their ‘house’ – as were most of the other women in the street.
The ‘swinging’ ‘60’s it was not. Not here anyway.
Any form of domestic emancipation didn’t arrive in this slum clearance area and for the ‘not so well off’ until much later.
The only thing good about the ‘60’s for most women was the contraceptive pill. Being able to decide NOT to have 11 kids by the time you were forty was the main benefit.
Tilly had tried to help her mum, but being a scrawny six year old, she couldn’t lift the heavy, sopping-wet blankets and tended just to get soaking wet.
She had already been banned from using the clothes mangle after an incident where she had gotten tangled up in the washing as she was pushing it through the mangle and got her hand trapped.
Dad had to dismantle the mangle and then put it back together again – accompanied by a lot of ‘colloquial Anglo-Saxon’ and frustrated shouting and the flinging down of screwdrivers.
This day, Tilly was bored. She sat on the edge of the road kerb, watching the tar bubble up and burst like an evil witch’s brew – when she spied an old ice-lolly stick. With a cry of glee, she grabbed the stick and began to pop the tar bubbles with it.
She stared at the road surface intently. Watching the tar like a Kingfisher, waiting for the bubbles to rise to the surface – a signal to the watching ‘bird’ that a fish was ready to be plucked from the depths.
She was focused totally, oblivious to the traffic (not that there was much traffic where she lived as not many people had cars)
Pop, pop, pop….wait… wait… pop, pop. The smell of the tar rising from the road surface invading her nostrils. The stick getting ever stickier as she popped the tar bubbles to her heart’s content. She had a mission.
After a while, she didn’t know how long – a voice pulled Tilly from her trance.
A cheerful little old lady (not that much taller than Tilly to be honest) had tapped her lightly on the shoulder. She recognised her as one of the neighbours, but couldn’t remember the lady’s name.
She was trying to coax Tilly away from the road, asking her to come in for a cup of tea.
Tilly had been told about ‘strangers’, so very firmly, but politely said ‘No Thank You Missus’ and went back to her self-set task.
The lady went back into her house, but then a few minutes later came out with a piece of cake wrapped in a serviette. Cake!! ‘Wow, now we’re talking!’ Thought Tilly.
She had been warned about ‘strangers’, but not about little old ladies bearing cake.
Tilly got up from the kerb, wiped her sticky hands down her frock and gratefully accepted the offering. The lady told her she was giving her the cake on the understanding that she stopped popping the tar outside the house.
With a mouthful of cake, she nodded in agreement and the lady went back indoors whilst she woofed the rest of the cake down before anyone could change their minds.
Tilly then moved further down the road and started to pop the tar bubbles again.
Tilly didn’t realise that she was causing the poor old dear anguish and that she had been trying to get her out of the road and out of harm’s way. She had thought the lady just didn’t want her to pop the tar outside her house (she came under the classification of someone who ‘scrubbed the doorstep’ and ‘polished the door brasses’ and had ‘Dolly Doilies’ over the toilet tissue rolls for Tilly).
The lady’s net curtains kept ‘twitching’ (obviously checking Tilly was ok) but she felt like she was being spied on.
After about 5 minutes, the lady came out of her house and walked briskly down the road. Tilly was disappointed there was no more cake on offer.
Then out of the corner of her eye, she spotted her mum hurtling towards her with a face like thunder, wisps of wet blond hair sticking out of the sides of her hastily scraped into place hair bun.
Tilly’s mind raced ahead, trying to give reason to her mum’s demeanour. ‘What have I done? What have I done?’ but she couldn’t think. She jumped up off the kerb.
Mum rushed up and grabbed the top of Tilly’s arm tightly, her fingernails digging in and dragged her towards home, with Tilly shouting ‘What’s up Mum? What’ve I done? Mum! What’s wrong??’
Frog-marched along the pavement her mum hissing in her ear ‘Shut up! You’re making a show of me – wait til I get you home, you’re for it!’
Tilly was unceremoniously thrown through the front door into the hallway and she fell against the bottom stair, slightly winded.
Mum slammed the front door and screamed in Tilly’s face ‘OH MY GOD!!– The SHAME of it! Embarrassing me like that!!’
‘Like what Mum?’ Still not knowing what she had done and totally confused.
‘You know full well what you did, you little madam!’ – Tilly was totally perplexed – ‘No, I don’t’ – What did I do mum? Tell me!’
It always annoys me the way adults assume that kids know when they have done something they shouldn’t have. How many times did someone say to you when you were a kid ‘You know what you have done – you’re just playing dumb to get out of trouble/trying to denying all knowledge of what you have done / being ‘hard-faced’ or cheeky – when you genuinely did not have a clue what you had done because you were daydreaming and had the memory of an absent-minded goldfish.
‘YOU’ Mum’s accusing finger of fate pointed directly in Tilly’s face – ‘Were playing in the road! Do you know how dangerous that is? Mrs McAleavey was having kittens watching you in case you got run over!’ She paused for breath ‘She was so worried, she came and got me! You took cake from her! How many times have you been told you not to accept things from people? Look at the state of me! I’m in the middle of doing the washing! I’m soaking wet, my hair’s all over the place and I don’t even have my lippy on. I didn’t know where to put myself!!’
(Mum didn’t go outside the door without her hair and make-up done – ever).
‘Get up those stairs to bed and stay there until your Dad gets home! Just wait ‘til I tell him what you’ve done today – you’re going to get a hiding!!’
Tilly ran up the stairs as if the devil himself was after her, ran into the bedroom and slammed the door.
She wracked her boiled brains as to how bad in trouble she was. Then it hit her – in the road – tar bubbles – neighbour – cake – mum – washing – no makeup!!
‘Oh god – I’m in big trouble. Dad is going to kill me – or worse – leave me alive after the belting I’m going to get’. Thought Tilly panicking.
She jumped off the big iron bed and pushed it against the door with all her strength and then jumped back on it. She sat there like a marooned sailor protecting his patch of land.
‘Dad will have to break the door down to get in. Although, I wouldn’t put it passed him, but he might be too tired to hit me after that’ she thought glumly.
Tilly sat on the bed terrified.
The day went from light to dark, then darker still – Mum didn’t come and check on her and no sign of Dad yet, so she got into bed dinner-less and her empty stomach doing summersaults.
She didn’t waste her energy on crying as she knew it would just made her thirsty and tired. She may need all of her strength later.
Then, the front door slammed open and Tilly listened intently as Dad fell sideways through the doorway, sliding along the wall.
He was well drunk! The smell of beer, cigarette smoke and a chip shop supper wafted under her bedroom door. She felt so hungry she nearly opened it.
Nearly – but she wasn’t so hungry that she would chance getting a beating for it.
There was a bit of an altercation between her mum and dad.
‘Where’ve you been? Where did you get the money to get that drunk? Shouted mum. He’d obviously blown his wages again thought Tilly.
Dad roared back ‘I can do what the fuck I want! It’s my money – Do you want some fucking chips or not? Get the kettle on and some bread buttered and shut the fuck up’.
You know – the usual Friday night chitchat.
Mum knew not to argue back as arguing back was like cigarette smoking – it could seriously damage her health – but immediately. Tilly heard her moving around in the kitchen.
She breathed a sigh of relief. It meant Mum was now too mad at Dad to tell him what she had been up to and Dad was too drunk to do anything about it anyway.
By tomorrow, they would have both forgotten and it was an unwritten rule that if she couldn’t be punished on the actual day she had done something, then it was left unpunished.
She didn’t know why this rule was in place, but tonight she was really glad it was.
A wave of calmness came over Tilly as her little body relaxed and most of the visible tension fell away. She got up out of bed and crept to the curtain-less window and perched her elbows on the window ledge.
She traced star patterns cross the sky with her finger. She loved looking at the stars.
They always made her feel safe. She felt that the stars twinkled just for her to say hello and to smile at her and say ‘everything’s okay’. She took great comfort from that.
A clear crescent Moon smiled its lob-sided smile. Tilly smiled back and sighed heavily. She couldn’t move the bed away from the door now as the noise would have brought some unwanted attention.
She made a mental note to herself to move the bed away from the bedroom door early next morning.
She said good night to the stars, blew them a kiss and got back into bed.
She snuggled under the candy-striped blankets, wrapping them around her like a protective cocoon. Then telling her grumbling stomach to shut up, she gradually fell asleep.
She dreamt of a starry night and the sea. A huge galleon in full sail taking her away across the waves to somewhere quiet, green and full of trees to sit under and not a tar bubble in sight.
© Kate McClelland 2015