She snorted then, hit across the eyes by a stark moment of self-awareness. Why had she thought he was liberal? Because of his appearance. Slightly too long hair, an alliterative smattering of stubble, jeans frayed at the bottoms, intelligent nose…
"How ironic," she gently told the baby, and some of the anger went out of her then.
"He might be a judgmental arse, but I’m guilty as him... Judging on appearance indeed. Since when did I start doing that again? I’m just as bad as he is."
"Bibble," said the baby, drooling slightly.
"You're right, that does sound like a cop out. But resent the implication that I’m renouncing my feminist principles. Sure, the conclusion he jumped to was worse than mine. But I have to consider both sides and make a reasoned argument, or I'm no better than he is."
The baby snored gently.
She gazed at it kindly.
"Never mind sleepybaws, we're almost home."
Bracken lived in an unattractive block of council owned flats, out of necessity rather than choice. The sad little patch of grass outside it was littered with rubbish – beer cans, broken glass, an old nappy, and the remains of a bonfire.
'Why do we never have neighbourhood clean ups anymore,' she wondered to herself like a talking head in a local authority sanctioned publicity video. 'We used to do stuff like that all the time. It was good for the community, giving us all a sense of ownership and reducing the amount of vandalism significantly.’
Little did she know that the main organiser of these sorts of operations, a forthright woman in her late forties who went by the name of Mary-Doll Mahoney, had been kidnapped on holiday by Bulgarian terrorists. They were demanding a ransom of £809 to pay a few outstanding bills, but they hadn’t done their research properly and were asking for money from the wrong channels.
The family of a totally different Mary Mahoney had initially been perplexed by the many phone calls demanding cash for the safe release of the bed bound OAP asleep in the next room. Her daughter wondered whether mother had some sort of secret past that was finally catching up with her, whilst the son in law thought it might be the work of old army mates. After a while they had got angry about it, then bored, then angry again. Now it was getting to be a bit of a running joke.
The whole mess had been going on for about 18 months without anybody informing police in either country, and the real Mary-Doll had engaged herself in persuading the terrorists to work on various Bulgarian community projects. Most of them were enjoying the new found sense of purpose so much that they had forgotten all about the ransom, and indeed one had come into a bit of cash and had actually paid it off. Only the newest recruit, Timothy Kojack, kept up the threatening phone calls. They had been part of his initiation to the group, which he had never really finished properly on account of all the fundraising car washes and litter picking events.
Anyway, Bracken knew none of this, which was just as well because she was a nice soul and would have worried unnecessarily for Mary-Doll's welfare.
She picked her way across the severed limbs of a barbie doll, pausing on the way to extricate an arm from the wheel of the buggy. It looked like it had been chewed off, although she didn’t like to speculate what by.
A sign hastily scrawled in felt tip informed her that the lift was still out of order, and she sighed as she removed the baby from the buggy, put him over her shoulder, and embarked upon the climb to her top floor flat, bumping the buggy up behind her with one hand.
'Bet that library guy doesn't have to put up with this sort of thing every day,' she thought to herself. 'Born with a silver spoon in every orifice judging by that plummy voice of his. Probably got a stair lift so he doesn't have to use his sanctimonious legs too much.'
As it happened, Aloysius did not have a stair lift, because he too lived in a poky flat – albeit a rather nicer one than Bracken’s, and situated on the ground floor. But this was by the by.
“Uncle Nicky,” she called, opening the front door with some difficulty as the baby chose that moment to be slightly sick, “I’m home!”
There was no response.
“Nicky! I need you to look after the wean for a few hoors while ah’m at work!”
She was met once more with silence.
Bracken strapped the baby back in to the buggy, promising it was only for a minute, and banged on her uncle’s bedroom door. It swung open with a well-oiled creak.
“Nicky come on, you said you’d look after him and I’m already late as it is-”
But the room was empty.
“Weird… Come on Nicky, I’m really in a hurry!”
Although he was slightly eccentric, her uncle was usually pretty reliable, so she was just about to start panicking when,
“ARETHEYGONEYET?” bellowed a voice from behind her, making her jump and pee a little bit at the same time (these things can happen after you’ve had a bairn, not that anyone tells you that till it’s too late).
She turned to see her uncle emerging fearfully from the airing cupboard in the hall, and took a moment to wonder how he’d possibly managed to fold himself small enough to fit inside it. He was wearing two of his patented tinfoil hats, designed to protect him from aliens, microwaves and, so he claimed, werewolves. Nobody had ever been able to convince him of the silver bullet argument.
“There’s nobody here,” she told him patiently, “you’re safe. I need you to look after the wee one for a couple of hours while I go to work.”
“Can we not come with you?”
“Because it looks like rain, and I don’t want you getting a cold,” she replied, mentally adding, ‘and because I’ve been telt that if I let you come wi me again they’ll find someone else.’
Just like that Uncle Nicky snapped out of teenage mode as quickly as was his wont, removing one of the tin foil hats as he did so.
“OK,” he said, we’ll do painting till you come back.”
“Don’t you think he’s a bit wee for painting?”
“Nope, we’ll use our hands. It’ll be fun. Extra sensory activity is good for your child’s cognitive development.”
He puffed out his chest proudly.
“I read that in a pamphlet that I got at the library.”
“Ugh,” she said, stomping into her room to get ready.
“What’s her beef, junior?”
But asking the baby questions about other people was pointless. It was very self involved, concerned only with where its next meal was coming from, and merely burped in reply.
Meanwhile Bracken surveyed herself in the mirror, critically, like a TV style guru would do. She wasn’t bad looking, she thought. Sometimes she had been accused of wearing too much make-up, but at least she generally remembered to blend it down past the chin. And she wasn’t a heef or anything.
Surely it wasn’t it the tracksuit that had made him judge her a benefit-cheating child mum? It was her best one! Although to be fair, she had seen working mums collecting kids after school who dressed only in pinstripe for their jobs. They probably even wore formal pinstripe undies, not nice diamante thongs like Bracken had. But she didn’t need to look all dapper for work, she had a uniform.
She now pulled this out of the wardrobe. The fluorescent yellow gleamed provocatively at her, ready to protect her from the elements whilst simultaneously making her visible to oncoming traffic in the dark. Pulling it on, she noticed the colour reflected under her chin, like when you put a buttercup there to determine whether people prefer butter or margarine.
“You look jaundiced,” Uncle Nicky pronounced helpfully from the doorway. “Yeh’ll never get a felly wearin’ that. And you’d better get your skates on or you’ll be late.”
Swearing loudly, she charged past him and down the many flights of stairs.
It was just as well she didn’t smoke, she thought, the amount of times her daily commute ended in a mad dash along the road. Couldnae dae that in pinstriped flummery.
Fortunately, her work wasn’t too far from the flats.
“Afternoon, Jean,” she whispered breathlessly as she stuck her head round the door of reception.
“Bracken,” the secretary nodded coolly, with a cacophonous clunk of her Pat Butcher earrings. “Cutting it a bit fine today are we not?”
“Aye, sorry… family stuff.”
“And the rest. It’s always something with you, isn’t it.”
“I don’t have time for this Jean, the bell’s away to go,” she said, tightening her pole.
Jean sniffed in acquiescence, which Bracken took as a sign she was free to go back out into the rain to wait by the side of the road.
“I hate Mondays,” she muttered to herself.
It wasn’t long before a car appeared, slowing down when it saw her. The driver, a teenage boy, leered suggestively. She rolled her eyes at him.
“I’m too tall for this stupid game,” said a voice, followed by a thump on her lollipop.
Turning, she saw it belonged to a disgruntled ten year old, who didn’t have to jump up to hit her lollipop like all the other kids did.
“You don’t have to play it, pal,” she pointed out to him.
“Yeah I do.”
“Everyone else does it. If I stop I’ll look like a tramp.”
“That’s peer pressure,” she notified him.
“Ah what do you know about it?”
“Mair than you by the sounds of it. I was your age once, y’know.”
“Yeah like fifty years ago. And now you’re just a lollipop lady.”
“What do you mean, ‘just’ a lollipop lady? It’s thanks to me none of you lot gets killed crossing this road before and after school!”
“It’s not though, is it,” he said with all the annoying self-assurance of a kid that age, right before puberty comes along and totally screws them up. “It’s like, the quietest road in the actual world. Like right now, we’re standing right in the middle of it and having this big long conversation, and it’s not because you’re holding that lollipop, is it? No. It’s because there are no cars.”
She looked about her. The kid was right.
“Aye, well,” she said, searching her mind for a comeback, “your maw.”
“Fit aboot his maw?” a voice boomed from the other side of the road. It appeared to be coming from an angry swarm of pitbulls, but on closer inspection there was a small, heavily tattooed man amidst the throng.
“Hi dad,” said the boy, “what are you doing here?”
“Dug walkin,” the man replied, “it’s ma new joab.”
The boy made to leave with his terrifying owner, just as a fleet of three black cars with tinted windows pulled up.
“Ha, in your face!” Bracken shouted after the boy, “get back here and let me help you cross the road safely!”
“Nah mate,” he called back.
“When we first saw her she was shouting abuse at a kid on the street,” said a woman in a pinstripe suit as she got out of the first car.
“Great stuff,” said a reedy young man with a clipboard, scribbling notes, “Jez’ll love that. She’s probably drunk too.”
“OI,” Bracken said, indignant.
“Ach, calm yer spam,” the woman replied.
She was about to retort in a none-too-polite sort of a way, when a third body appeared from a the second car and wordlessly presented her with a velveteen cushion, upon which there lay a scroll wrapped in scarlet ribbon.
“You can read, I take it?” This was from the pinstripe woman.
“Get lost,” Bracken replied, too surprised to curse.
Apparently taking this as a no, the woman removed the scroll, opened it, and read,
“You are officially summoned to appear on The Jeremy Kyle show at the end of this month of November 2010. Should you fail to do so, Lord Kyle reserves the right to say anything he likes about you on national television, to the detriment of your character, which is probably not even as clean as his sister’s uncle’s girlfriend’s junkie neighbour who he met once and was disgusted by. If you comply, you will discover the paternity of your child with a free DNA test.”
“I ken who the dad is,” Bracken said.
“Well aye, it’s…”
She stopped, puzzled.
“I’ve only ever slept wi one felly,” she said, confused. “But… who was it?”
“Nah mate,” pinstripe countered, “that’s lies. Look at you. See you on the 29th.”
With that she thrust the scroll into Bracken’s hands, and they all hoofed it into their fleet of fancy cars and vanished. She gazed after them, befuddled. How could she not remember who the father of her child was? He had been such an important part of her life, and now his face was a blank. No wonder people thought badly of her, she thought, it didn’t sound great…
‘Oh well,’ she thought, ‘at least the fit but annoyingly conservative library assistant didn’t see any of that.’
At which point she turned, to see Aloysius Hunkington-Smythe silhouetted in the door of the bakery. He must have seen and heard everything.
Bracken turned on her heel, and ran home.