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Broken Biscuits
By Celia Bryce

 

It's a disgrace, the woman in the shop was saying. The milkman, Jimmy McNab, must have gone daft, she proclaimed. Another woman nodded and tutted along with the shopkeeper. When they noticed me their voices dropped as if I wasn't old enough to listen. As if I hadn't been there watching what Jimmy McNab had done.

But I didn't care. Soon, I'm going to be looking after their baby, I wanted to tell them. When I'm old enough. Mrs McNab said so. I grew tall with pride just thinking about it. The picture shone in my head.

'I'd rather not have a milkman if that's the sort of carry-on we can expect,' the woman was saying and then in a hoarse whisper revealed that his mother had hailed from St John's Terrace. Then she clicked her tongue and said that milkmen kept funny hours. Like doctors.

'Turns folk daft, them hours,' she went on, 'and it's given the dairy a bad name. Mind you, I always said he had a look about him. She paused and peered at the shopkeeper, as if he might have a look about him too. 'I suppose I'll be getting my milk here, from now on. Likely it'll be cheaper.'

Something in her voice demanded that the milk should indeed be cheaper.

I'd come to buy some broken biscuits. Half a pound. There was a row of boxes filled with an assortment of whole biscuits and then the box on the end filled with broken ones.

And in among this untidy pile I spotted a particular prize. It was almost whole and had a roof of thick chocolate, corrugated and rusted with crumbs. I so wanted that biscuit. And I could have had it. Just stretched out my hand and taken it.

But that would have been stealing and although everyone was too busy gossiping to even notice, I knew that stealing was a sin and it was hard committing sins when the church was opposite and the school was next door.

I told my mother all about the conversation in the shop and having to wait ages to be served. About the milk and about Jimmy McNab.

'You're not to go there any more, do you hear?' she said when I mentioned that I might go round before tea. She was beating an egg in a bowl. The fork clattered against the side of the dish. The beating got louder and faster. The egg frothier.

'You said I could.'

'Well you can't now, so that's an end to it.' She swiped at some hair which had fallen on to her forehead.

'I've been helping her with the quilt; I can't stop going yet.'

I looked at my mother's red face and her angry eyes staring at the whisk in her hand as it spun around the bowl. It was a mystery to me, all this sudden anger.

'You can stop, and you will, young lady, and if I see you setting foot anywhere near that house, I'll speak to your dad.'

She put down the fork and looked at the egg in the bowl as if all that froth was a surprise.

I went to my room.

Mrs McNab made cakes blanketed in hundreds and thousands. I liked going to her house to help eat them. She had yellow hair and short skirts. She never went shopping without making her hair look like a wig. Not even to Fine Fare.

Her baby was a nice round babbling thing who smiled at me. A big moon smile which never seemed to stop. And he had sticky hands which grabbed at my hair.

One day I'd be allowed to take him out in his pram, walk him to the shops and back. I'd pat his round cheeks and tuck his blankets in. Oh, I'd take such good car of him. That day would soon and my heart swelled just thinking about it.

Mrs McNab had said that I was a sensible girl and soon I'd be old enough. She promised me bars of chocolate and money in return for baby-sitting. And yet I would have done it all for nothing. The hours spent looking after her baby would have been glorious ones. Who needed chocolate and money?

But it was a tedious business waiting to be Old Enough.

*************************

From my bedroom I could see the McNabs' house and the upstairs window from where Jimmy dangled his baby, by the feet, two days before. It had been a freezing day. The baby wore only a vest and nappy. My mother was horrified. Said babies caught cold easily if they weren't wrapped up. Could catch their death. The vest was too big and fell down around his neck like baggy socks around ankles.

Someone complained about the noise. Jimmy's voice, shouting that the baby wasn't his, rang around the street, amplified out of all recognition, on an otherwise quiet Sunday morning. A shambling man in an old coat said we'd have to do without milk from now on. A third person said she was ashamed to even look at the state of Mrs McNab's curtains.

When it was all over Jimmy was taken to Cherry Groves to have his head looked at. Where he would stay until it was fixed.

Mrs McNab stood still as a waxwork while they carted him off in the police van, tears dragging mascara down her cheeks.

Everyone was out, standing in the street watching and talking. Excited. As if a ship had been launched out of Swan Hunter's, something big, like the Esso Northumbria. Only it wasn't a ship. There was no champagne. No cheering crowds. Just people shaking their heads and an ambulance swerving away with its siren wailing and the baby inside it.

*************************

It was tea time. My mother was pouring milk from a bottle into the jug, a small one, rimmed with blue. A tea towel hung from her arm.

'Where'll we get that from now, Mam?' She didn't hear me. As if the pouring of milk required complete concentration. 'Where'll we get our milk from now that Mr McNab's not here?'

'The shop, I expect.' She put the jug down and drained the bottle into it. Watched as each drop dribbled down its sides.

'Can I not go and see Mrs McNab? Please.' 'Haven't I already said no?' 'But she's making a quilt. It's for the baby.'

My mother looked at me as if I'd said something rude. As if I'd sworn. 'The baby won't be needing a quilt any more. Now, sit down. It's tea time.'

'But Mrs McNab's making it one. In blue and yellow. I'm helping her.'

'Pet-' she had the milk bottle in her hand, both hands cradling it to her apron.

'I've been doing all the yellow bits. It's like patchwork,' my voice rang out like metal on stone; 'and she's going to put a frill round it, like you get on the ones from Binns,' I went on.

'The baby's gone away, pet.'

'And there's going to be a pillow too. Just like the quilt only we haven't started that yet'

My mother slammed the milk bottle down. It caught the milk jug, unsteadied it so that its contents slopped out on to the clean cloth. A tide of milk flowed around the sugar bowl. It puddled alongside the butter dish. Sidled up to the bread plate.

Her fingers were still wrapped around the milk bottle. Her face stared down at the mess, her mouth a black hole of anger.

'The baby's gone away,' her voice came out in hard pieces. 'So don't talk about quilts to me, or anyone. Do you hear?' She slapped the tea towel against the mess on the tablecloth but the milk ran away from it. This time . under saucers. Around teaspoons.

All I could think of was how nice the baby had been. With its balloon cheeks and smiles whenever I went near. And now it was gone. I was going to baby-sit. I was going to get money. And chocolate.

But Jimmy McNab had spoilt everything. And my mother had too. I ran out of the house, grabbing the bag of biscuits.

I was never going back.

The McNabs' curtains were drawn. Outside the house stood a car with patches and doors a different colour to the rest of it I rang the bell, wanting to know where the baby had gone. A man answered. He had no vest on.

'She can't see anyone, kid.'

'But I always come round.'

'Not today you're not.'

I heard Mrs McNab coming downstairs asking who was it? He told her I was just some kid. She pushed him out of the way.

'Hello,' she said. She stood in her dressing gown. The sleeve was torn.

'I came for -' but I didn't know what I'd come for now that the baby wasn't there any more. Now there was just a space, where the baby used to be. A terrible, lonely space.

Mrs McNab smelled of beer. She had no slippers on. Her feet were dirty. I stared at her stubby toes and ragged toenails. Her dressing gown, with its grimy edging all the way to the neck. She looked down at me as if she wasn't really sure who I was. Wasn't really sure where I had come from. As if she didn't really know me at all, and had not made promises. The man came up behind her, slid one hand around her waist and with the other closed the door.

I walked away and opened the bag of biscuits. It was squashed and looked like a bag full of breadcrumbs. But there in amongst it all was the chocolate biscuit 1'd seen in the shop. In half a pound of broken biscuits usually there were just ordinary things. Bits of digestive or shortcake. Fig rolls. Never my favourites.

But here was one. I had it now in my hand. Turned it over and over, examining its thick, crumby coating of chocolate. It was rich looking, like a biscuit from a proper packet, for when people came to tea For Christmas. Easter. Birthdays.

The chocolate was melting on my fingers. This was the sort of biscuit Mrs McNab told me she loved but never once offered me and I wondered if she had ever meant any of her promises.

I thought about the McNabs' baby, who'd gone away, and Jimmy's head getting looked at And about Mrs McNab smelling like a pub, and her dirty toes; and the man in the vest who closed the door in my face.

And then I couldn't think any more, because everything was dull and heavy in my head. I wanted to run. Clear everything out of it, but it seemed to me that there was nowhere to run to. Not Mrs McNab's or school. Not church or the shop. There was nowhere in the whole wide world for me to go. Except back home.

When my mother explained about the McNabs' baby she told me that the place it had gone to was Heaven, and it was nice up there. Heaven, she went on, was a cosy place. Where last thing at night babies and children got cuddles and milk to drink.

I imagined the baby being pushed around in his pram, being tucked in, the way I would have done, had not Jimmy McNab spoiled everything. I began to cry.

'But the baby's all right,' my mother was saying, 'really it is.' She put down her iron and came to join me by the fire. Patted her knees. I sat on them, too big for knees, too old really, but my mother didn't seem to notice.

We sat like that for what seemed like hours, cheek to cheek, watching the fire burn its shapes and colours. It warmed my face, melted my body like butter. I slid further into my mother's arms which held me very close, very tightly to her. So tight that it almost hurt. I was happy to be there with my mother. It felt safe and secure, like blankets pulled up around my neck. But the grown-up world, the one outside, seemed such a strange, cold place. And I was glad not to be old enough to join it.

 

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