We are in the bank, Shirley and me. I approach the counter. Shirley is hovering behind me. The teller asks if we are together. I say, with poker face, “Presently.” The teller glances hastily toward Shirley with sadness in her eyes but cannot bring herself to look at me. Outside Shirley tells me that she is sick and tired of me always saying ‘presently’ and asks why I am inclined thus. “It amuses me!” Shirley says such repetition on my part is getting really boring.
A comfortable silence born of a contented familiarity as we stroll toward our chosen destination for morning coffee. Today, The Allotment, an organic produce place which doubles up as a café, set in the town’s conservation area. It has a rustic garden at the rear full of wildlife and courgettes. I like it.
“Can’t believe this time next week George will be twenty-one. Seems like only yesterday he was a babe in arms,” she says. We ponder this point. The ‘babe in arms’ bit stirs a memory in me.
“Do you remember when he was just a few weeks old and we took him down to Dartmouth to show your mum and dad? Do you remember whose arms he was in that day?”
Of course, she does ‘remember.’ How could she forget?
What happened was that, Olive; Shirley’s totally bonkers mother, had invited a number of relatives to cop a look at her latest grandchild. One lady, whom I had never met before, plainly liked babies and was taking great pleasure in having little George upon her lap. Indeed she was reluctant to give him up. To an extent that suited us.
In the kitchen Olive took me aside. “That’s a lovely little boy you two have got there. Certainly, Auntie Anne has taken a shine to him – I hope you don’t mind?”
“Why should I?”
“Haven’t you heard?”
“She’s the one who murdered her first husband. Went to prison and everything. Still that was donkey’s years ago now. She shot his privates off and he bled to death.”
I am dumbstruck. I beckon Shirl over. I repeat verbatim what her mother has told me.
“Shirl, my little boy is on the lap of a murderess who blew her last husband’s bollocks off with a bloody shotgun. Get him away from her – now!”
She explains that, yes, she does know all about this lady’s past misdemeanour and that it is nothing for me to worry about in part or at all.
“What planet are you on. Jesus this can’t be right. Do something.”
“Calm down will you.” She then goes on to tell me said Auntie was from Cornish farming stock and long ago had had the misfortune to marry a man several years her senior – a man who had some distasteful and very disturbing nasty habits (which I wish she hadn’t had to tell me). Over a prolonged period he had made the poor woman’s life (and that of their child) a misery to the extent that she could take it no more. The day came when she finally cracked. Whilst the evil old bastard was fast asleep pissed as a rat she went and got his double barrelled shotgun and blew his set off. From what Shirley understood the only time the perpetrator spent in custody was pre-trail. At the Crown Court, whilst having been found guilty the circumstances giving rise to the killing, as confirmed by many witnesses who gave evidence to the fact that the woman’s life had been a living hell for years, meant she got away with a suspended sentence! Plainly Olive had exaggerated a tad.
Even so I remained uncomfortable with George on her lap. “For God’s sake don’t let her change his nappy,” is, I recall, one of the points I made!
After the gathering was over and Shirl, her mum and I were having a cup of tea, Olive piped up that there were other skeletons in the family cupboard. Another distant aunt had had a similar experience with her old man. The difference was in this instance, instead of a gun, this lady had clawed at her husband’s manhood with bare hands using her fingernails whilst he was in a drunken slumber. Apparently the subject didn’t die, yet, as Olive put it, “He was never again the man he once was!” Obviously, I was aghast to discover this. Olive however hadn’t yet finished. Going further back in time another relative, whose spouse played away from home on a regular basis, had got so fed up with her circumstances she took a blade to her husband’s testicles whilst he too slept. Olive recalled that whilst the victim did not pass away his walk had become more ‘gait’ than ‘stride’ following his surgery.
By way of a conclusion, she added, with a twinkle in her eye, “Don’t ever upset my daughter because now you know what she’ll do to you. It’s in the blood.”
I went out the back for a cigarette and a moment of private contemplation. To let it all sink in. When I had first been introduced to Shirley’s father his opening gambit had been, “Who’s this then? Is he the ‘second hand goods’ you’ve been on about?” I later learnt he was joshing me. Now this!
If the truth be told I was beginning to wonder what the f**k I’d let myself in for!