Authors: Michael Cannon
‘Put the bleach down!’
I refused to give her the satisfaction of seeing me smile. I was meeting Moira and Ruth. They’d been at school with Lolly and me, and sometimes we’d make up a foursome till other
things got in the way. Of the two, Moira is the one everyone remembers, which is funny because she’s half the size. She never exercises and keeps her shape by starving herself. She tans
herself to light coffee-coloured, to stand out against all the pale people – like Ruth. Most people describe Ruth by all the things that she isn’t.
Moira can’t imagine life without a man, but not the way Lolly does. They both use men for different reasons. They’re polar opposites. Moira’s spent her life plotting how to get
out of Bridgeton, but none of it involves self-improvement, or sacrifice on her part. She’s
had boyfriends, as far as I know she’s been faithful as long as it’s
and moved on, without ever breaking her stride or looking back, and she’s
had the next one lined up. I don’t
know if there was ever an overlap but you wouldn’t get a chink of light between. She’s demanded a higher spec at each move, like some social-climbing sales rep choosing a car. I think
of her various boyfriends as relay horses. She’s ridden a dozen nags with her eyes on a thoroughbred – a mason with a good trade, who can install her in a house with a patio. She gets
her status, even in her own eyes, from the boyfriend she’s with at the time. And she obviously thinks a woman without a man, like me or Lolly, since Lolly’s men are accessories, has no
status at all.
Ruth’s quiet. I’d call her homely. Lolly says that in Ruth’s case ‘homely’ means she’s the type of girl most boys only want to fuck at home so they
don’t have to meet their friends with her. Lolly says that’s the way men think. Lolly says that if a man ever asks you to describe a friend, and you say she’s got a lovely
personality, then you might as well say she’s a farmyard animal for all the chance the poor girl’s got. Lolly says men are merciless.
Ruth was always on the edge of things, even in the playground. When there were sixteen simultaneous games played in the same space and it meant there wasn’t a spare square inch, she always
seemed to find herself a quiet bit, watching hopscotch. She’s chronically shy. She never skipped ropes because she didn’t want to draw attention to herself, while Lolly, although she
hated it, skipped just to make her skirt fly up and give the boys a chance to see her knickers. Ruth was always going to be one of those picked last choosing netball sides. Choosing any sides.
Everyone recognizes the type, especially themselves. She’s a bit overweight. We’re back to Lolly categories here, not erotic fat but sad fat. Lolly says Ruth has fat in the wrong bits.
Lolly says flat chest and a big bum is the double dunt – you’re fucked both ways. When I think back it was never really a foursome, it was me and Lolly and Moira with Ruth two paces
behind. You often find good-looking girls have plain girls in tow. Moria has Ruth. Moira uses Ruth. Ruth was the messenger. ‘My pal fancies your pal...’ stammered out in the playground,
while she’s looking at the pavement chalk and dying a death, because she likes the boyfriend’s friend she’s been asked to talk to, and as far as he’s concerned Ruth’s
just a piece of talking furniture as he scans the bodies looking for Moira, wishing he was the one that Moira fancies. Women are merciless.
‘Where’s Lolly?’ Moira asks. She never drinks locally and insists on meeting in a wine bar in town. They have wine bars near where we both live. They’re bars that also
sell wine, one kind that comes out a barrel and arrives in half-pint tumblers, and leaves people like Dad, with cast-iron livers, slumped across the table by noon. But that’s not what Moira
has in mind. She has the kind of place we’re now sitting where people in those half-circle kid-on leather sofas actually pay money to drink foreign water. It’s just after seven. The
guys in suits have that Friday attitude. They’re on to their second or third and are loosening ties. The music is cranking up and it’s getting to the stage where you have trouble
hearing the other person, unless you look at their lips at the same time.
‘Looking after Millie.’
But she doesn’t hear because she isn’t interested. She’s looking round and I can practically hear the calculation, like a Geiger counter as she catches the flash of an
expensive watch, and it occurs to her that a mason and a porch might be selling herself short.
‘That’s lovely,’ Ruth says. She’s been looking at me so I turn my attention to her and it occurs to me, very unkindly, that the military don’t need to spend all
that money on camouflage. All they need to do is take tips from Ruth. It’s astonishing how easily some people are overlooked, and it’s got nothing to do with size. I start to talk to
her about Millie, and after a couple of minutes of having hogged the conversation I feel vaguely ashamed. I’ve never really, in the true sense of the word, had a conversation with Ruth. And
all I’m doing now is using her, the way Moira does, as something I can pour all my pent-up conversation about my favourite subject into. She could be anyone. But then I tell myself she
couldn’t be Moira, who has a supernatural ability to divert any topic back to her. And as I look at Ruth I can see she’s listening, really listening, and not just because I’m the
only one in the place thinking she’s not just a bundle of tired clothes. There’s a seriousness to her that puts men off. That’s Lolly’s diagnosis. That and her voice and her
clothes and her face and the fact that she’s boring. But Lolly’s not going to trawl for hidden depths. Most of the questions I’d had from friends focused on how Millie had changed
my routine, not about Millie herself. You could see they were imagining themselves into the role, and coming up with a judgement of maybe in ten years’ time, or never. But her questions
weren’t like that. They were about Millie. And looking at her again, I suddenly wondered why it was that I saw through the Day-Glo tan and the scaffolded tits to the real Lolly, and yet
somehow I’d missed Ruth. And the next thing I thought was that if there’s substance to Ruth, why does she hang about with a worthless social mountaineer like Moira?
‘What are you talking about?’ Moira says, over her shoulder.
‘Millie,’ I say.
‘Gina’s daughter.’ Moira still hasn’t turned round. She’s directing her attention like a lighthouse beam into corners, looking for more glints of money. After a
second sweep she turns back to us with a blank expression. It’s our turn to talk to her because she’s giving us her attention. Ruth suddenly dries up. With equal suddenness everything
about Moira gets on my nerves. We were supposed to meet for a chat and because of her we’ve come to this place that’s making talk difficult. I’m not in the mood to make it any
easier for her so I turn my attention to Ruth, and speak pointedly about Millie for the next couple of minutes, the kind of rubbish that obsesses new parents and leaves everyone else completely
cold. It defeats even Moira’s talent for steering the topic back to her. ‘Kids,’ she says, knowingly, takes two bird-like sips and again, ‘kids.’ This annoys me even
‘I like kids,’ Ruth says. Moira looks at her blankly then looks at me, as if wanting me to agree with whatever random thought has arrived.
‘I suppose it’s not beyond the realms of possibility,’ Moira says, meaning that it’s possible for her if she wants, but not for Ruth.
‘Take my advice,’ I say to Ruth, ‘don’t listen to a thing anyone says.’
‘I thought everyone wants kids – eventually,’ Ruth says.
‘Or gets them whether they want them or not,’ Moira says.
‘Don’t you want kids, Moira?’ I pretend to be curious. ‘Your mason might have his own ideas after a hard night at the lodge with only his apron for comfort.’ She
shoots an accusing glance at Ruth who shakes her head. ‘Keep your knickers on. Ruth didn’t say anything. We can all see them skulk into the hall with their little bags. Everyone knows
who they are.’
‘Putting out doesn’t mean putting up with kids. Ask Lolly,’ she retorts.
‘It would seem kind of empty,’ Ruth says, ‘with your house and your husband and all your things if there weren’t any children.’
‘You planning on finding a husband then?’ She’s retaliating for the fact that Ruth’s paid more attention to me than her. The calculation in the remark leaves Ruth staring
hurt at the carpet. None of the boys Ruth ever liked ever paid her the slightest crumb of attention with Moira around and we all knew it. Moira turns away to scan new arrivals. ‘Ruth with a
husband and me with kids. Like I say, nothing’s beyond the realms of possibility.’
‘A child isn’t an accessory.’ There must have been something in my tone, or volume. She turns back. Other tables are staring across.
‘So you’re an expert?’
‘You don’t have to be to know a kid isn’t for decoration.’
‘I’ll take your word for it. I don’t know either way. Maybe you’ve got the maternal instinct, or whatever it’s called.’ I can tell from her tone that this is
an offer to make things up. But it’s not just to keep me quiet. She loves attention, but not this kind.
‘I knew it before Millie came.’
‘I hope you’re not going to become one of those professional mothers who bores the tits off everyone just because she’s got a kid.’
A steam whistle went off in my head, while two locomotives collided to the backdrop of an atomic bomb detonating in an erupting volcano.
‘Perhaps some people are just less suited to having kids than other people. Perhaps some people just have an aptitude...’ Ruth tails off. She’s been following the exchange like
a tennis umpire. There’s something pleading in her look. Moira must have seen it a hundred times and enjoyed ignoring it.
Moira says: ‘Just because someone’s life is ruled by a kid she chose to have, or didn’t, there’s no reason why it should rule everyone else’s life. Folk get jealous
of other folk’s freedom. Lolly’s got the right idea.’
I say: ‘Even if you don’t choose to get pregnant and do, you can choose to live up to your responsibilities. The reason Lolly isn’t here is because she’s looking after my
‘Good for her.’ People are staring. Her mentioning Lolly annoyed me even more. She couldn’t hold a candle to her.
‘That’s the same Lolly who turned her life upside down for a kid who isn’t hers, the same Lolly who can’t stand you.’
‘Do you want to move on?’ Ruth says into the gap between us.
‘Lolly’s a tart.’
‘Only for the fun of it. She’s not a career shagger like you.’
‘What would you know about careers? Did you see one sailing past your single-parent high-rise?’
I turn to Ruth. ‘I always gave her the benefit of the doubt. Lolly was right – if you don’t like the look of someone there’s probably something wrong with them. Only
stupid people don’t judge by appearances. You’ve got more going for you than she has. Why are you hanging around with her? She only keeps you around because it suits. Once she’s
settled in her bungalow with her mason, you’ll be lucky to get a call once a fortnight.’
There’s nothing more insulting than being ignored. Ruth understands this better than anyone. She’s toying with her drink and thinking furiously. It’s a new experience for Moira
to be spoken about as a third wheel. She looks as if she’s been slapped. When I lean forward to stand Ruth mirrors my movements. ‘Coming?’ I ask, hopefully. She nods. We stand.
The background noise has made this a mime by now. Everyone’s watching. Moira’s furious. She doesn’t want to be a lone woman in here because that’s the kind of thing Lolly
does. For the first time Ruth, her safety net, is going out a door ahead of her. She brushes past to give the impression of having taken the initiative.
‘And by the by,’ I shout to the whole room, ‘the reason we all know he’s a mason isn’t because he was spotted going into the lodge. He did a turn with Lolly last
month. She put on his apron when he was asleep. Keep your eye on YouTube.’
The only response is the tension in her back. There are steps up to the pavement. We arrive moments behind her, but she’s already gone. The air’s thick with fumes of loitering
double-deckers, waiting a change in the lights. They’re all going in our direction. Moira’s sandwiched herself in the canyon between two, trying to wave down taxis in the outside lane
and ignoring the gestures of the driver in the rear bus. Just as he slides down his side window a taxi stops. She disappears into it. The lights change. With much grinding of gears the caravan
‘Moira doesn’t like public transport,’ Ruth says.
‘That says it all. Even if you’d never met her, that glimpse would be enough. It didn’t matter to her that she was holding up a bus load of people. She’s gambling on the
driver having more patience than she did and not crushing her skinny arse flat. She’s spent her whole life gambling on the generosity of other people. Good fucking riddance.’
‘She’s not that bad.’
‘Give me one instance of her generosity.’ We stand for a minute in the dispersing fumes. People brush past. I don’t know if she’s stuck for an example or she’s just
gummed up again. ‘Don’t be a stupid cow all your life. Stop being loyal!’ But she is loyal. She only sided with me because of the specific cruelty of tonight, and I can see that
she’s already prepared to forgive it. She’s loyal the way Lolly’s loyal, and I like her for it.
‘Is that true about Lolly and the mason?’
‘No. But he’s a shit anyway. He tried to come on to me when I was three months gone because he thought I was desperate. Let her surf and stew. Maybe she’ll have the strength of
character actually to be on her own for a while. Maybe not. Maybe it’s better if they stay. They deserve one another.’ We fall in step. I look down at her shoes. ‘I know I’m
no one to talk but you really ought to do something about your appearance.’
‘Moira doesn’t mind.’
thinking of you.
You know what a foil is?’