63 Railway Street is a two-up and two-down terraced house, fourteen bricks wide, occupied by a respectable working class family.
Lily is six and plump, with a round face that speaks of innocence. Her brown tangled hair speaks of her mother’s carelessness, or uninterest. Her family describe Lily as a hunchback because of her deformity. It is a casual defamation.
Lily and her mother are washing clothes in the scullery. Her mother scrubs clothes on a washing board in the Belfast sink. A gas mantle provides little light as Lily stands on a wooden chair and, using a wooden broom handle, stirs clothes in a gas boiler. Billows of steam cling to her brown woollen jumper. Condensation drizzles down dark green painted walls to red and black quarry tiles where it oozes into the earth beneath.
Lily complains, It’s awful hot.
She is ignored.
Lily carries on stirring.
Lily’s father opens the door and calls her name. He takes a pocket watch from his waistcoat pocket, taps it, and with the same finger points at her. He lifts her from the chair. Gripping her hand, he drags her through the back room, past her older brother and younger sister, into the hall and up the stairs into the tiny box room.
The sound of the door being locked from the outside is familiar – in truth, it makes little noise, but it deafens her with its mechanical certainty. At the window, she rubs her fingers against the glass; the specs of soot on the outside don’t move. She knows they won’t; it’s just a game, a habit. The window overlooks back gardens bounded by iron railings and, beyond these, GWR railway lines. A steam goods train clanks and shudders past. Beyond the railway tracks, in the back gardens of drab and monotonous houses, washing hangs flaccid in the dirty air. She runs her finger down the line of moss in the edge of the window frame, tastes it and spits.
The box room is cold, barren, and has not been decorated in the five years they have lived in 63. The bare floorboards are uneven. Rusty flooring nails stand proud of the wood. She’s often snagged her socks on them and been punished for her carelessness, admonished with phrases such as – do you think we’re made of money?
In one corner there are two empty tea chests left over from when they moved in. She turns one on its side and sits. She hears the front doorknocker rattle and her father’s boss being shown into the ‘for best’ front room where she knows a coal fire will be burning. She shivers and pulls her woollen jumper tighter around herself.
She waits. The sky darkens as evening sets in. Through the door she hears convivial conversation faintly drifting up the stairs from the front room and an occasional burst of her father’s laughter.
She’s not stupid. She knows her place: the box room where all unwanted things are stored.
© Phil Cosker 2020
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© Phil Cosker 2020
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