Red used to wonder if her parents had really intended to call her the cooler and infinitely more fashionable name of Scarlett. Red thought being named Scarlett might have given her a more exciting profile. Her mother always loyally maintained they had always wanted Red to be Red. But it was hard to imagine what her loving but bombed out father had been thinking, particularly as he had included her mother’s maiden name: Hood. And his surname: Riding. He had registered her birth all by himself. He’d grown up a lot since then.
Red had a rackety early childhood. A squat in the early days. The people in the squat were friendly. Sunny, most of the time, kindly even, but vague, very vague. There had been one or two close shaves when Red had set off by herself and no-one had noticed; but ‘the great escape’, as it was known in the family, when Red was three, had led to her parents cleaning up.
She loved the outside lav in the squat. When her mum was cooking in the kitchen next door Red would walk along the gritty floorboards, open the back door, and scramble up the stack of bricks propping up the bowl. Once she was settled Red would sit and chat to her mum. At night you could see the stars, and the planes going by. She knew now the building she watched was the Post Office Tower but then she just called it the castle. Her mother would make up stories about the people who lived in the castle, turning round and round, getting dizzier and dizzier as they waited for the right person to climb up the stairs and lead them safely down.
On the night of the great escape she had said she needed to go to the lav. NEEDED to go, but everyone seemed to be asleep, so she set off. She used the lav, and called for someone to come. She called and called. No-one came, so she had a bounce, hopped down and pulled up. From the square outside she could hear cars going by, people talking nicely, ’Hello lovey, you look a treat tonight,’ and woo woos far off. She climbed up onto the side wall, and found the detached drain pipe propped up, going all the way down to the square. She shimmied onto it, held on with her legs and hands, and shuffled off. By the time she got to the street, she was having a bit of a cry. A woman was passing by laughing to herself, and wearing a shiny cardboard silver crown, tinsel wings and very wobbly high heeled shoes. She picked Red up and cuddled her. Red explained her story, and the lady knocked on the door. Eventually she pushed it open, (it was never locked), and walked along the passage, with Red perched on her hip, following her stubby little pointing finger along the passage to the big room. Her parents, once they awoke from their drug induced dream and realised what had happened were so appalled they vowed that very night to clean up their act. The lady had returned the next day in flat shoes, wearing her nurses’ uniform, but Liz, Benny and Red had gone.
Terrified they might lose her forever, Liz and Benny moved in with Red’s paternal Grandmother, then found their own place. Her dad still had the job in the music shop he’d talked his way into the very next day. Her mother had almost overnight become a wonderful housewife, an excellent cook, house proud. She still made up wonderful dreamy stories, but Red thought that was all that was left of the stoner days. Liz cooked cakes and pies for a local caterer. Their kitchen enchanted Red’s school friends; it was always warm and smelt like heaven. Cakes: chocolate, almond, blackcurrant: meringues the colours of Spring: lavender, lime green, earthy brown, piled on cooling racks on the kitchen table. Her mother, in a flowery apron, curls tied up in a clean tea towel, drifted icing sugar from a sieve over them. Pies were balanced on up-turned jugs, cooling off. Quiches, their surfaces still slightly quivery, sat on the side. It was the best place in the world to sit and do your homework. Her exercise books often had a whiff of toasted cheese and sponge cake about them, and were sometimes slightly floury. Teachers, marking at their own kitchen tables, found themselves feeling comforted as they awarded generous marks to Red’s careful work.
One half term holiday Red was revising for her mock exams on the rug in front of the living room fire when her mother called from the kitchen, ‘Gran! Food run! Now please!’ Red groaned quietly. She hated leaving the cosy warmth of her house and being sent to call on Gran. Gran had not conquered her issues with drink, and Red often thought she was to blame for her mum going off the rails and living in squats. But Red was a kindly girl, so she put the books in a pile, in order of preference; Maths on the bottom, Science in the middle, English on top, and went into the kitchen.
‘Now pop your hat and coat on and just drop these round to Gran for me, there’s a good girl. I’ve put in some cup-cakes, an egg and bacon pie, and some sausage rolls. I’ve put it all in the cooler bag to keep warm. Ha! Cooler to keep warm! ’ Her mother chuckled to herself as she arranged the food in the bag. Red knew there would be a tenner or two tucked down the side as well.
Red hunched her cagoule on, and went to pick up the bag. ‘Hat! Hat! You’ve been baking in front of that fire; you’ll catch your death.’ Red shoved her cap on and screwed the peak round to the back. She put her trainers on and stuffed the laces down the sides. Then she picked up the cooler bag and set off. Her phone was in her pocket.
It was eleven o’clock on a Friday morning, as Red made her way across town, so everyone was out and about. She saw a nicely rounded Granddad out shopping with his happily self-important little grand-daughter. They were having the BEST time, consulting their shopping list, discussing exactly what they needed, hand-in-hand, perfectly matched, enjoying the responsibility of looking after each other. Red would have liked a Granddad to take care of.
Red’s heart went out to the lardies as her Dad sometimes unkindly called them. Leaning on shopping trolleys, swollen feet shuffling, their haunches rotating slowly, everything above gradually being set into motion. Red willed them not to go into the supermarket, where death was lurking at the end of every aisle, getting closer day by day. As if to rub it in a handsome older couple, strode healthily past, tennis she thought, that kind of trim athletic build comes from tennis. A couple of youths sauntered into the shop in front of her, grey from head to toe, hoodies, trackies, white T shirts, sparkling trainers, crisp Eton crop quiff, skinny faces. Red looked to see if she recognised them from school, but no, too old.
She was doing a jiggling dance to get past a couple of elderly ladies chatting, when she saw a slightly unwelcome sight. Dad’s old friend ‘Wolfie’ Smith. Wolfie, like Gran, hadn’t dealt with his issues with substance abuse, but Dad was too soft-hearted to cut him off completely. Red fixed a smile on her face as Wolfie plunged off the opposite pavement into the traffic. He looked as if he was walking through water, arms raised, pushing against the current, muttering nervously. He arrived in front of Red followed by a shout of ‘Wanker!’ and a chorus of honks from the drivers he had just veered in front of.
‘What up little Red?’ Wolfie seemed to be in reasonably good form, speech not too slurry, not too whiffy. Red glanced quickly down, flies done up, evidently a good day.
‘Yeah, not too bad Wolfie. You?’
‘Oh you know Red; I’m not a lucky man, not like your Dad. How is the old repro..reprobr…’
Red waited kindly for Wolfie to get through the rest of the syllables. Not such a good day after all. She thanked God her parents had rescued each other from a life like this, climbing down the winding stairs before they got too dizzy. Wolfie had called a halt to his attempts at reprobate. She helped him out. ‘On my way to Gran’s,’ she waggled the cooler bag in her hand. ’Snacks and that from Mum.’ Red gave him a big beaming smile. Poor old duck, he meant no harm, and it was himself he damaged.
‘Got amazing teeth Red, anyone ever told you that?’ Wolfie was looking at Red as though he had just lifted up a leaf, and found her underneath. She opened her eyes wide at him, not like Wolfie to notice anything apart from his own sad needs.
‘Amazing eyes as well!’
Red was starting to feel slightly uneasy at all these compliments. ‘Ooh sorry Wolfie, I can hear my phone, have to answer this one.’ She pulled her phone out of her pocket and looked at the screen. She grimaced, it was Gran.
‘Sharp ears too,’ muttered Wolfie to himself as Red waved and set off, frowning into the phone. Something came over Wolfie as he watched her walk away. His eyes widened and he frowned. His stomach gave a huge rumble. He looked thoughtful, smiled to himself, heaved up his trousers, and with new found purpose in his stride he loped off in the direction of Gran’s.
Red walked on towards Gran’s house. Gran would start pestering. ’I need a few lagers, pet, just a few. Maybe some voddie?’ Red always said she was too young to buy it. But Gran would wheedle. ‘Go up the offie love, ask someone to get it for you. My legs are bad today.’
Red turned into Gran’s estate. The wind seemed brisker here, maybe because there was more litter to be blown about. Several of the houses had wire fences, and the litter clung to them, like threadbare embroidery. Windows were more optional than normal; where houses were empty the windows were boarded up. They looked as if their eyes were shut to all the mess and mayhem around them. Red could hear dogs barking and snapping, and as she turned the corner Gran’s neighbours’ Staffies roared up to the fence. Red liked dogs, and these two were no exception.
‘Hello Polo! Hello Freckles!’ Their bark really was louder than their bite, and the two dogs immediately turned into wriggling, wagging puppies. Red squatted down and pushed her fingers through the wire and the dogs licked them. As soon as she stood up their guard dog responsibilities kicked in, and they set off again.
‘Silly girls,’ Red said, they wagged and grinned, but kept up the woofing.
She went through Gran’s gate, (hadn’t shut for years,) and knocked at the door. Gran’s front door had a window at the top, and Red could see her Gran coming out of the living room, and set off down the corridor. As soon as she saw Red, she slowed down, and leant against the wall.
‘ “My legs are playing up again”.’ thought Red. ‘Uh oh.’
‘Hey Gran, Mum sent me; egg and bacon pie, cup-cakes, and sausage rolls today.’ She gave the work surface a wipe and started unloading them. ‘Blimey, there’s enough her to feed an army. Still warm too.’
‘Is there a little tipple in there?’ Just a little tipple?’ Gran worked her hands together, she had painted her nails, and they were sharp, orange and grasping. She smiled up at Red, bunching up her pink rouged cheeks and crinkling her big blue eyes. Gran was determined, and often got her way. Red had been bullied into going up to the offie before, and come away with bags clinking, feeling ashamed of herself.
Gran snatched the bag from Red and scrabbled about in it. She pocketed the money while Red was putting sausage rolls in the fridge. Then she started again.
‘I can’t get out the way I used to, it’s my old legs. You wouldn’t begrudge your old Gran a little something to keep the warm in?’
Red opened her mouth to answer, but Gran hadn’t finished.
‘Children have no heart these days, no heart at all. Your mum wouldn’t have stood here arguing with me, she would have gone up the offie for her old mum.’
Red began to feel angry and upset. Her mum was too kind; her gran shouldn’t ever have asked her.
‘Just pop round the offie lovey, ask someone to go in for you. Pretty girl like you, someone will go in for you and get me my lagers. And a little voddie.’
Red’s eyes filled with tears, she didn’t want to go. She didn’t like the leery old men who offered to get her drinks for her, and asked for a little kiss in return. She knew Gran shouldn’t be asking her. Poor mum, she thought, poor mum.
‘I’ve got a few quid’, Gran said. ‘At least your mum doesn’t begrudge me a few quid. She wouldn’t mind you getting me my voddie.’
Red was about to give in when she heard a strangely welcome voice.
‘What up Gran? How you doing?’ It was Wolfie. Amazingly, there was old Wolfie at the back door. ‘Now what about these snacks Red was telling me about? Yeah? Snacks and that for Gran you said didn’t you Red?’
Red nodded, and watched in disbelief as Wolfie crashed about in Gran’s kitchen drawers and found a table cloth. He handed it to Red who shook it out and smoothed it over the table. She laid out plates. ’Just two yeah Red.’ Said Wolfie. She rubbed a cloth over knives and forks, polished up two glasses, and they set out the egg and bacon pie, sausage rolls and cup-cakes.
‘Little picnic thing yeah Gran? For you and me’ said Wolfie. Gran had remained silent throughout the proceedings. Now she sat down at the table. Her sharp little face was a mixture of shame and pleasure.
Wolfie grinned. ‘Better get back home yeah, little Red? Don’t want anyone worrying about where you got to.’ Red bent down, and gave him a kiss on his cheek. Wolfie blushed hotly, and grinned again. His stomach gave another enormous rumble.
As Red walked out of the gate, she pulled her cap off, and shook her hair free. She allowed herself a little whoop, amazing! Old Wolfie coming to her rescue like that! She did a skip or two and swung the cooler bag, much lighter now, then she set off for home, jogging.
A woman, dressed in a Health Visitors’ uniform, saw Red dancing along, and admired the scarlet curls bouncing in the air behind her. She had often thought about the little girl she had found in the square that night, all those years ago, with her bright red curls. It had been such a strange encounter, coming back from Daphne’s hen night, still wearing her hen night crown and wings. The sturdy little girl showing her how to find mummy and daddy. She had gone back the next day but the family had gone. She’d always hoped the child would grow up lucky and stay brave. She did a quick sum in her head, and thought, could be, right age, certainly the right hair colour. No-one could forget those curls. She smiled, took a deep breath, and headed in through Gran’s gate. ‘Let’s see if we can do some magic here,’ she thought. ‘Goodness knows the old witch needs it.’