Chapter 4, March 1967: Sukey

 

Sukey sat on the step outside the kitchen leaning against the door and slowly rolling a cigarette. She could hear Bridie and John from downstairs having a row; or rather she could hear the shout of Bridie’s voice followed by a silence when John said nothing and then Bridie shouting again, even louder. She thought she saw a movement in the hall downstairs and leaned forward to see better. There was Dolores, lying on the floor with her eyes closed, sucking her thumb and twisting a piece of hair between her fingers. She opened her eyes and looked up at Sukey staring down. The thumb slipped out of her mouth and she sat up. Clinging onto the banisters with both hands, she started to climb the stairs.

‘Hello,’ she said as she reached Sukey, staring at her with big blue expressionless eyes.

‘Hello,’ said Sukey, not knowing what else to say. She wasn’t used to young children.

‘Mammy and Da are having a spat. She told me to wait in the hall and not be bold,’ Dolores said. She talked a lot for such a small child, Sukey thought.

‘They’ll wake Baby John.’ Dolores sounded just like her mother.

‘They will,’ Sukey said.

‘And then there’ll be hell to pay,’ Dolores added, shaking her head. There was the sound of a bottle breaking and then a door banged and Sukey saw John striding through the hall and into the bedroom. He was followed by Bridie who slammed the door shut as she went in. Dolores had put her grubby hand on Sukey’s knee and now she sat down next to her, her warm little body pressed close to Sukey. The shouting from downstairs went on and Dolores leant against Sukey.

‘I’m thirsty. Can we go into your kitchen and have a drink of lemonade?’ Dolores asked.

‘Minnie’s having a bath. I’m waiting for her to finish,’ Sukey said, sighing. She re-lit her cigarette. She’d been here for just over two weeks now, moving in with Kitty and Dennis, Minnie and Ted, Jazz, Beaky and Malc; though Malc was not here very much, spending most of his time with Jojo. Downstairs was the Irish family who were noisy. And upstairs, behind their own front door, lived the landlord who was Indian and his wife who didn’t speak English and two quiet little daughters. Sukey rarely saw the landlord, his family even less. When they came in or went out they glided up and down the stairs without making a noise, the mother and the daughters with their heads bent, looking down, pressing against the walls should they encounter one of the other people who lived in the house, making themselves as small as possible as if apologising for existing. Sukey wondered what they thought of Kitty and her tenants, what they thought of John, Bridie and their constant fighting. She felt tremendously sorry that they should have all these strange activities taking place in their own house and sometimes wanted to explain to them that not all English and Irish people lived like this.

‘Did you talk to the landlord about your plans for India?’ Sukey had asked Minnie a few days ago.

‘Of course not,’ Minnie replied in her controlled way. She looked at Sukey, her face and nose sharp and cold. She pushed her lips together making them seem even thinner than usual and put her head one side, like a bird trying to fathom out the best way to tackle the worm.

‘Why is Minnie having a bath in the day?’ Dolores asked. Because, Sukey thought, all the others are either out or sleeping off their Saturday night bingeing and she doesn’t mind telling me that she needs my room for an hour or so. But she said nothing to Dolores, who pulled at her arm and again asked: ‘Why?’ 

Downstairs John lumbered out of the bedroom carrying a large shiny blue suitcase. He pulled open the front door and was gone. Bridie had followed him and now stood in the hallway, yelling after him: ‘Good riddance and don’t come back all mealy mouthed and apologetic later on.’ She stood for a moment, her arms folded and then she banged the door shut and turned. ‘Dolores, where the hell are you after getting to?’ she called.

‘I’m here Mammy.’

Bridie looked up. ‘Which one are you?’ she asked Sukey, who told her.

‘That’s right, the new one.’ She laughed. ‘Come down and have a coffee with me.’

‘OK,’ said Sukey. It would be so much better than sitting here waiting for Minnie who had already taken nearly half an hour and could be a lot longer. ‘C’mon, Dolores,’ she said, standing up and pulling the little girl with her.

‘Have a real one,’ Bridie offered an open packet of cigarettes before sitting down on the sofa opposite Sukey. She’d placed two coffee mugs on the table between them and Dolores was leaning against Sukey’s chair sucking coke out of a bottle with a straw. The room was clean, warm and comfortable.

‘Good riddance to bad rubbish,’ Bridie said as she settled down and took a deep draw on her cigarette. ‘He’s a killjoy and a sourpuss.’

‘John, you mean?’ Sukey asked.

‘The very one. John himself.’

‘But, don’t you want him back?’

Bridie laughed. ‘Why should I? He’s only good for one thing and that’s putting food on the table.’

‘How’ll you manage?’

‘I’ll get onto the social, first thing tomorrer. And on top of that, I’ll be able to earn a bit myself. I’ll become a working girl again.’ She winked at Sukey, grinning.

‘But what about the children?’

‘Night work, if you understand me.’

‘Oh,’ said Sukey, thinking that she did. ‘Here?’

‘Here of course. The last time he went off, I did fine by myself; a few regulars. The ones that get it over nice and quick are the best. But John wanted us to have another go and as I was expecting the baby and beginning to show, I let him come back.’

‘I don’t know that I’d want to do it,’ Sukey said slowly.

‘If you’re going to put up with it you may as well get paid for it. Don’t tell me you haven’t done it, hanging out with those yokes from upstairs.’ Bridie leant forward, coughing, her face red from laughing. Sukey started to smile. For the first time for several weeks, she was almost happy; for months, she realised, she’d been feeling as if she was unreal and distant from other people, a physical feeling as if her blood was flowing slow and cold through her body.  

‘They’re a strange lot your friends,’ Bridie said.

‘Yes,’ Sukey said, wondering how she’d come to be sharing a flat in Camden Town with hippies and drug dealers, while an almost prostitute with two young children lived downstairs. She imagined her parents and how they lived as if they were so very pleased with themselves and their large newly bought magnolia-painted house, tastefully decorated with antiques and thick rugs. She pictured her mother arranging flowers and preparing crème brulée for a dinner party, her father coming home from the office and pouring whisky into cut-glass tumblers before sitting down to enjoy the comfort of his well-looked-after home. She thought of her elder sister at university, her younger one still at boarding school, both of them planning to marry men with careers and prospects.

‘You and that Minnie, are you sisters?’

‘No,’ said Sukey, sitting up straight. ‘No, we’re not, we’re… we’re not even friends.’

‘Oh. I was sure you were cousins at the very least, you two are so alike.’

‘Are we?’

‘Not so much in looks, though you’re both fair.’

‘I’m blonde,’ Sukey said, feeling that she could say such things to Bridie, ‘and Minnie’s mousy.’ 

‘And you’re both little.’ Bridie raised her heavy bosom, put her hand on her cleavage and laughed. ‘But mainly you’ve got the same sort of voices. You’re both such posh girls.’

‘I suppose we are,’ Sukey said. She picked up her coffee cup, swirling it round and staring into it. She raised it to her lips and drank. ‘I better be going,’ she said.

‘No need on my account. Have another fag. I’ve not got a dinner to cook tonight now himself has gone and I’m free till Baby John wakes up.’

 

‘Anyone seen Malc?’ Ted asked opening the kitchen door. He came in, taking off his coat and hanging it over the back of the armchair

‘No,’ said Sukey looking at the clock on the mantelpiece and wondering what time she’d be able to go to bed. Now that she had a job, a sort of job, she found sleeping in the kitchen difficult, so often one or the other of the other tenants would want to stay up late. She’d taken to getting into her pyjamas in the loo, spreading the cushions on the kitchen floor and covering herself with the blankets while two or more of them sat at the table, smoking and talking. Often she barely dozed, and when she did sleep well, she sometimes woke in the morning to the sound of Jaz and Beaky or Ted and Malc still at the table, stoned and rambling. She thought with longing of the empty house where she used to live and the long nights, often lasting well into the day, of deep, heavy sleep.

‘I think Malc’s more or less moved in with Jojo,’ Kitty said. ‘He’s not given me the rent for this week.’ She turned from the sink to wipe the table. Jaz raised his glass as Kitty and her cloth moved close to it. Sukey watched her plump body as she worked, thinking how nimble she was for someone so large.

‘Right,’ said Ted. ‘Anyone seen Minnie?’

‘She’s gone to bed,’ Kitty said as she let the water out of the sink and rinsed her cloth under the tap.

‘So’s Dennis.’

‘Together?’ Jaz asked.

‘Don’t be silly,’ said Kitty. ‘Some of us have jobs to go to. Monday morning tomorrow. Dennis has his cab; Minnie has the shop. I’m off too.’ Kitty yawned, dried her hands on the tea towel and picking up her cigarettes and lighter left the room. ‘G’night,’ she said as she shut the door.

Ted, lifting his jumper and scratching his stomach, shuffled towards the fridge, opened its door, bent down to peer in before shutting it again and sitting at the kitchen table.

‘No beer,’ he said.

‘No,’ said Jaz.

‘Any other booze?’

‘No,’ said Jaz.

‘Dope?’

‘No,’ said Jaz.

Ted sighed, leant both arms on the table and put his head on them. Sukey saw that he was looking at her, where she sat, cross-legged on the floor. His eyes were half closed. If Jaz wasn’t also sitting at the table, she was sure that Ted would ask her if she’d like to sleep with him in the same bored way that he used for all his brief conversations. He probably wouldn’t be offended when she refused. Sukey wondered why Minnie bothered with Ted. They didn’t seem to talk to each other much and it must be difficult having a sex life when they shared a room with so many others. Ted never had any money whereas Minnie worked, and it was she who had made all that effort to organise the Indian trip. Sukey sighed, leant back against the wall, wondering if Ted and Jaz would soon go to bed.

‘I wanna get stoned,’ Ted mumbled. ‘Nobody got anything?’

‘We could try smoking some of this food stuff.’ Jaz stood up and opened the cupboard door. He was rooting around, ‘pepper, flour, mixed spice, sultanas, semolina. No, don’t think any of that would work.’

‘Shall we go round to Jojo's, see if Malc or anyone’s got anything?’ Ted had sat up, was softly kicking the table leg with one foot.

‘No,’ Jaz said, ‘best just all go to bed.’

‘All together? In here? A threesome?’ Ted sounded almost hopeful.

‘No,’ said Jaz. ‘I know. Bananas.’ He reached for the cracked bowl that Kitty used to put fruit in. It held two oranges and some wizened looking apples. And a banana which Jaz grabbed, waving it at Ted. ‘Da, da, I think I read somewhere that you can get stoned on banana skins.’

‘Eating them?’ Sukey asked.

Jaz shrugged. ‘Don’t know.’ He started to peel the banana, laying the skin on the table. ‘Anyone want this?’ he asked, his fist round the naked banana that looked both vulnerable and suggestive.

‘You have it,’ Sukey said and Jaz put his mouth down and licked the top of the banana.

Ted shook his head. ‘Just eat it,’ he said and Jaz did, gently stretching the banana skins with his free hand.

‘How do we do it?’ Jaz asked. He stood up, opened the cutlery drawer and took out a knife. Sitting down again he started to scrape the skins clean, piling the soft debris on the table. ‘I know,’ he said eventually, ‘it’s the inside of banana skins that you use. Sukey, come and get this and roll a joint with it.’

Sukey stood up and went to the table. She prodded the damp, yellow pile. ‘It’s too soggy,’ she said. ‘And in any case I don’t believe that it can get you stoned.’

‘We’ll dry it in the oven.’ Jaz suggested.

‘OK, you do it, I’m going to get ready for bed.’ It was nearly midnight and Sukey would be awake early tomorrow when Dennis and Minnie came into the kitchen, making tea and eating breakfast.

When she came back from the loo, pyjama-clad and with clean teeth, there was a slight smell of burning and Ted was busy with tobacco, papers and a little heap of brownish stuff. Sukey spread out her cushions, laid her blankets over them and watched as Ted lit the joint and inhaled.

‘Well?’ Jaz asked. Ted coughed. ‘Bit odd,’ he took another draw and then passed the joint to Jaz. When it was finished the three of them sat looking at each other, seeing if they felt stoned.

‘I don’t think it’s worked,’ Ted said.

‘I do, I feel very strange,’ Jaz said. ‘You know what it’s like when you first try dope, you have to learn how to feel the effect. It’s the same with bananas. Sukey, how do you feel?’

‘Odd,’ she said, which was true, but how much this was just how she was these days and how much was the result of smoking the insides of banana skins, she didn’t know.

‘Definitely stoned,’ Jaz said. ‘I feel quite dizzy and overwhelmed.’ 

‘I’m going to Jojo’s, see if I can find Malc,’ Ted said, standing up and pulling his coat off the chair.

‘I’ll come with you,’ Jaz said, ‘Maybe they’ve got more bananas.’