MY OWN STEP-FATHER by D F Lewis
But let me tell you, the backyard was a real eyesore. There were rusty tin baths stacked up against the disused outside jacksy, a moulderlng ladder with most crossbars completely stepped through, a long corroded apparently purposeless iron girder sticking through the lopsided gate into the public ginnel behind and, finally, the washing wringer, its heavy-duty roller-barrels grimed up with green fungus, its brown crank-handle pathetically poking out for use, its iron gridstand previously used on a treadle sewing-machine, by the look of it…
It all brought back memories of my mother. I don’t know why exactly, except perhaps because she often used to be found in the steamy kitchen, a large apron hiding the huge shapelessness of her body, as she stirred a copper and wrung soggy clothes through a similar beast to that mangle which now stood in this particular backyard. It was all she ever seemed to do! But a child, as I was then, frequently sees reality differently from grown-ups. Though thinking about it, if only in that respect, I am still very much the child of dreams.
The house I had recently bought was a run down terraced house in the rump end of town — you know the area, down by the Sludgy River, not very far from the Farmers’ Arms. I had decided, in view of my then financial state, it would be a good investment (as long as I did it up myself) but above all, a roof over my head, albeit as leaky as my mother’s favourite colander.
If I had known what I know now, I would have steered right round the whole M25 ringway as a short cut to avoid that dammed house.
But first, I better say a little more about my mother. As well as wringing clothes, she had a similar treatment for her various husbands. My real father ended up a squeezed out wreck in a madhouse, thus easing the divorce proceedings. The trail of other men who had shared her bed, well, I cannot think of an exception, they all committed suicide “by putting their blackened fingernails down their throats and sicking their hearts out,” as my mother always put it in her customary telling way. It is true, she often confided in me and some of her stories would “make all your hair fall out,” another strange expression of hers which was only to make sense in later life.
That new house of mine was to be haunted by my mother. She had been dead ten years, since when no sign of hide nor hair of her. I can recall her telling me once of ghosts, how she believed in them and, if I should see wispy forms of my various stepfathers trooping down the steep-as-a-ladder stairs, I was to turn away. They would soon scram, if ignored. So with a reasonable amount of equanimity, I accepted the appearance (albeit belated) of my dead mother in the new house, wandering up and down the dark landing, down the staircase past the dinner gong, mumbling inanities to herself. Well, I guessed they were inanities as I could not make them out from where I had stationed my truckle bed in the furthest back room.
One night, and it is not long ago when this happened, maybe even last week, I thought I actually heard the groaning of the ancient wringer outside in the yard like an animal in grievous bodily pain. I tried to suffocate my ears with the pillow but the noise ground on relentlessly.
Of course, I knew it was my mother enjoying herself, having just discovered the clapped-out mangle outside. I wondered how long it would be before a stepghost…
I did not even bother to question how she as a ghost could muster the embodied strength to turn the grinding rollers of a disused wringer. After all, I knew my mother…
It’s all happening again tonight.
Since hearing the groaning and squealing of the mangle in the backyard, I had never been out there to investigate. But, for whatever reason, today at first light I did. Curiosity got the better of me.
The decrepit ladder was leaning against the side of my house — or was it vice versa?
The apparently purposeless iron girder had gone through the wringer rollers and stretched out down the public ginnel, moving along the council gutter like rusty slime.
My real father, whom I had not seen for donkey’s years, lolled in the open jacksy, drooling down the lavatory pan from the waist like so much melting human flesh. He mouthed something or other and pointed. I looked to the top of the ladder where my dead mother was attempting to mend the leaky roof with red glue … to keep her dear son dry.
I sold the house, of course, and sought lodgings to get rid of the dreams. But wherever one goes, they can but follow.
Ms Ample Clavinty’s hallway was gloomy, even when the lamp was lit. The seeping light from the dingy street hardly managed to struggle through the highly-coloured roundel window in the front door.
As I gingerly negotiated the stairs to avoid tripping over the loose rods, I always took the opportunity to admire my visage in the hall mirror which leant at an angle from the blistering wallpaper. Unlike the rest of the household trappings, it was a superior artefact; with equally spaced wooden human arms waving from around the circular frame, it looked like a Medusa’s head but, close up, the inner silver surface glowed so brightly, the intricate frame dissolved into the colour of darkness by comparison. I thought I looked more handsome in that mirror than in any other.
I once asked Ms Clavinty where she had obtained it. She had stared back at me coldly — a severe woman at the best of times, with sculptured hair-bun, sharp-edged skirts and starched bottle-green stockings. She seemed even more formidable than when she sounded the gong at the foot of the stair-well, come evenings. The only hint of humour I had ever discerned in her demeanour came once when she was lugubriously dishing out from the vast chipped tureen, her speciality stew made from the melts, grits and lights of a goat’s innards. She unbuttoned the top of her high-collared cardigan twin-set and said that the room was becoming as hot and sweaty as a Cardinal’s blessing hand.
One day the unusual happened. The dinner gong failed. So I was late coming down the stairs, my belly having finally told me that I was hungry. Ms Clavinty was more like a fixture in the hall than a moveable feast, her slight bosom and curvy behind being faintly silhouetted against the roundel window. She held the gong hammer over the mirror, the surface of which I could see even at this distance was covered with tiny continous cracks like scribbling hairs,
Unaccountably, this reminded me of another recurring dream. In it, I felt my beard in-growing back into my cheeks and jowls, and swabbing like dirty pubes down my throat, then feeding piecemeal into my belly, finally poking out the anus like an animal’s tail.
Ms Ample Clavinty suddenly turned towards me … and sweetly smiled, her hand fiddling with her top button. I pinched myself to see if it was the same dream. For better or worse, it wasn’t.
Heaving bouts of nausea fought for exits. I realised I could not escape her grinding buttock rollers.
(Published ‘Peeping Tom’ 1992)