Three Generations

“Just like the fifties,” says Mum, gazing at the broken skyline. “It was like it when I was born, and it’ll be like it when I die.”
“You’re not going to die, Mum,” I say. “Not yet. You’ll get through this. We all will.”
She thrusts her hand into the pile of grey ash that had been someone’s front door. It still feels warm. I know, I’ve just done the same. Nothing else in our world felt quite like that. She lets it run through her fingers before slapping her palms together, dispersing the handful of dust on the merest, dry breath of a breeze. Hours before it was part of someone’s life. “Crap, innit?” she says. “Tower blocks over there a day ago. Now just rubble. The old terraced houses still there. Funny how that turned out. Used to be slums, then they did them up. Now they’re slums again. From slums to slums in three generations. For the lucky few. Not us.”
“I heard they’re rebuilding, Mum. Dave said they’re pulling down the bombed buildings, and…”
“Bombed buildings! Not heard that in sixty years,” she says. “‘You stay away from those bombed buildings! Don’t play there. They’re dangerous! Time they pulled them down.’ And they did. And now they’ll pull them down again. If there’s anyone left to pull them down.”
“Dave…”
“I know what Dave said.” Her eyes close, tight. It’s as if she doesn’t want to open them again. Her lips flutter instead. “Never thought they’d go that far… Silly buggers… European Union… What it was supposed to prevent… All pals together one minute, falling out the next… Like a parade it was… That car cavalcade…” She surprises me by singing, in German, no less: “Freude, schoener Goetterfunken!” She still has a good voice. Weaker, though. Never knew she liked Beethoven. She continues the Ode to Joy: “Tochter aus Elysium.”
I rest my hand on her shoulder. “You all right, Mum?”
“I’m not gaga yet, my love.”
“I didn’t think you were.” No. It’s her voice that’s weaker.
“Why don’t you go up the hill?” she says. “Where Norfolk Park used to be. See how far you can… if you can see any of these fire engines, and lorries, and that, David said were coming.”
“Don’t tire yourself, Mum.”
“I’m fine,” she says, but she obviously isn’t. “They’re supposed to be setting up standpipes,” she continues. “And wash tents with  showers. That’s what the bobbies said. Turned out to be a lie. Have you seen any bobbies, lately? You don’t have to answer. They’re all in Ecclesall, and Millhouses, and what not, expect. Given up on us. Always knew they would. Why don’t you get over there? Not too far for you to walk, at your age. Don’t bother about me. Get my grandchildren away to Dore or Totley. The wind wasn’t blowing that way when it dropped. Fucking evil thing! All this upset’s giving me eczema.”
“Don’t scratch it, Mum. Mum! You’ll scratch your skin off!”
“Got piles, as well! All right, haemorrhoids, if you prefer. Old women are dirty, you know. I mean we talk dirty. We don’t dress it up in flowery language, like Mrs Bucket on the telly. We call a spade a spade. Sometimes we call it a bloody shovel! My Prolapse is bad, as well. You could drive a double decker bus up there, now!” She laughs at the thought, but the laugh gives way to a racking cough. “Bronchitis back,” she says. “Did you say Attercliffe’s gone? And Darnal?”
“It’s all gone, Mum. Meadowhall, Northern General…”
She grins. “At least I won’t be going in there. Used to say, if you go in there you don’t come out!” 
“Dave thinks it went off over Rotherham. They wanted to…” — what did he say? —“‘cut the lines of communication’, not smash everything up.”
“Lucky we had a cellar to hide in. You get off to Dore village. See if you can find someone to take you in. You and the kids.”
“They’re telling us to stay where we are, Mum. Best not.”
“Oh, don’t listen to them.” Her grip on my hand is amazingly strong. “Promise me you won’t be bitter. Just go where you’ll be safe!”
“The police, Mum. They’ve got guns. They’re already shooting looters. Dave said…”
“Yes, well,” she says, between coughs. “Still say… better off over there… Tell… police you’re lost.”
I hug her. “They’ve got files, Mum, with our National Insurance numbers, and what not. They’re asking people for their numbers and then they’re looking them up on the records. That’s what Dave reckons.” There’s some foam at the corner of her mouth. Pink foam. Christ. “Are you all right, Mum? Try to rest, Mum. Please.”
There’s a rumble of thunder. It’s spitting rain. Tiny black spiders against the grey earth. It needs to rain. Wash it all away. Wash us away as well. The staircase is the only part of the house
still standing, defiant, a middle finger sticking up at the sky — Fuck you! — with the old, galvanised-iron mop bucket’s in the cupboard underneath. But there’s no water. I ought to put the mop bucket out, with all the cracked old tins and bottles. But I don’t suppose I’ll bother.
“I’d get going, if I were you, Susan. They won’t shoot you. Not if you’ve got children. Bring little Simon and Megan here. I’d like to look at them. Might be the last time.”
“I can’t Mum,” I say. “They’re… sleeping.” And saying it out loud brings a stream of tears down my cheeks. I can feel Mum’s tears as well, mixing with mine, and the dust and ash.

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About Zoe Nightingale

I am a writer of short stories, novels, poetry and non fiction.
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