The Sweetie Wife
This story was chosen for inclusion in the Edinburgh International Book Festival's Storyshop for emerging writers. It was then a runner up in the Hysteria writing competition & can be read in full in the related anthology. You can both read & hear an excerpt here.
Edinburgh City of Literature, who curated Storyshop have changed their website and have now archived all Storyshop pieces, I've therefore, pasted Sweetie Wife in full below.
You all told me that hair cannae go white overnight, but mine’s did. My colour went; I’m not havering, I know I’m not. I’m here as proof, even if you don’t believe it. Well I was here. Och maybe it just seemed like overnight to me. Perhaps I changed really quickly inside but the rest of the world, well ma wee world anyway, only saw me in slow motion.
It keeps happening to me, and I keep on pulling out the white hairs and hiding them in sweetie wrappers, piling them up at the back of the boxbed until I get the chance to bury them in the back green. Digging away with ma trowel like some kind of confused, flapping magpie. Trying to remember the colours of the rainbow and the order they come in. And then I carry on as normal, nobody knows what I’m thinking because I’ve always got a quiet smile and a friendly ear for everyone. This time I was hoping it’d be different but it’s the same except worse. This time though I’m telling you. Did you know I hung down heavy to the floor, my lower half bulging with nature, without nurture. Know that I shuffle around in silence, feeling all the stitches I painstakingly sewed the last time I unravelled? That’s me, Saggy Aggie, Droopy Drawers.
Sit by the fire with me, it can be just like those other times, sewing the rags into my underwear, padding my life out with some soft edges to hide in for a bit. Every now and then we’ll feel the rhythm of Joe spitting onto the coals, and we can all wonder what he thinks. What he thought would be enough; thoughts can count as feelings can they not? That would do for me. Although the hiss on the coals always eventually comes back as:
"Aggie, should you no be getting the weans tea, rather than sewing a bloody quilt or whitever it
is you're faffing about wi?"
I should. It’s not their fault after all. I look at the big pan on the range wondering where I get the energy to heave it off and sort the tea. I know that he needs me to wear my pinny like always, and just get on with it. I’m pinned in my pinny right enough. I never even had a day in bed this time
“whit’s the use in greetin’ Aggie? it’s life is it no, best just get oan w’i it”
Joe had said, ramming his baccie into his pipe in a way that drew a line under any suffering. Ma grief. I need to make it so that they’re the lucky ones, the ones that never knew what it was to go out to the toilet in the back green in the middle of the night and cry enough to create the gas for the lights that weren’t there, to sob wide open enough to swallow all the spiders that I tried not to think about round my feet, round my feet and in the ground. Ach I cannae think about the ground that’s too much. I spend all day scanning their faces and watching, thinking, wondering what could, what will happen to them? How can we make them lucky? Can you even? A wombful of worries eh?
I pull my pinny straight and replay all the times in my head I’ve said goodbye to them all already. Just in case something happens. Enough has happened for folk to have an opinion that’s for sure. I’m well known down the street, course I am, they will all have had their stuff to say I’ve no doubt. I heard Mrs. Flanagan say at the back of the Cooperative the other day,
“Aggie’s a quiet one, you’d think she had nothing ever happened in her puff ’”.
I don’t reckon you need to shout something from the rooftops to make it real do you? Well, what did Ena know; she was one of life’s lucky ones. Och but how can I say that, I’m lucky as well am I not? I’ve the three living still. Can you compare one woman tae the next, womb tae womb? I never did think so, I know so. I keep myself to myself alright, I’ve got my own long nights of willing them next door to be fighting again so that my greeting will be met only with the smell of too many families in one outhouse, too many children in one tenement. Too many children.
You wouldnae ever expect the cludgie to be the place where I’d get some comfort. Well not comfort exactly, but relief I suppose. When I take my shot at cleaning it out it feels like a different place than at night. There was one day, the last time, when I was in there cleaning and I found one of my wrappers. I must have dropped it. It made me feel sick to my core to think that I’d lost it and no realised. Found it in the corner all covered wi’ the white webbing of a spider. The white hair poking out of the wrapper, looking like it was part of the web, looked after by the spider. I liked that thought, even though they scare me. I swithered over leaving it there with the spider or burying it with the rest. I decided to bury it so they were all the gither. I crept out that night feeling properly alone even with all the sleeping families cocooning the back green. I caught a glimpse of yon spiders web all lit up by the moon, illuminated like my new head of worries and it made me think I shouldnae be scared of them, they were like me, weaving a web of wool around themselves. I like it out there at night, no-one needing me; wondering about me. Just me and the hairs and now my new friends the spiders. Do you ken that way weans pull the legs off insects sometimes for fun? I never liked that, now I know what it feels like. My legs always feel like they’re about to give way on me but I think of ma sweeties and my three and I keep on going. Keep on going.
I’m the net for the three, but I’m bulging with the weight of my catch, wishing them, needing them, to float to the top, away, swimming for their lives. I love to see them run off to the baths their towels tucked into their oxters. And here we are, keeping the heid; me sewing ripped up old towels and sheets into my knickers again. And here I am again losing children like some people lose money down the back of the bus seat.
I started a new thing the other day. I tied a few of the white hairs together, it made them look all pretty, like the kind of dancing girls you’d get from cutting shapes out of folded newspaper. I was fair chuffed with that so I double wrapped them; I even used one of the gold foil toffee wrappers I’d been saving for best I suppose. If I’m honest I cried a lot after I threw the soil over them so I think it needs to be a one off, no more dancing girls, or boys for that matter. Afterwards I spun round and round and round in the toilet hoping I’d just pass out and never come back. All that happened though was that I felt sick and stupid, and wanted to cry even more but couldn’t catch my breath enough to, like I was drowning in the tears before they even made it out of ma eyes. That night the moon never shone on any webs or on me. It was pitch black when I made my way back up through the close. I could smell the carbolic and it made me feel better, cleaner but also like I was still choking, just silently now. I heaved my body up step after step, thinking how cold the stone would be if I laid down on it, how it might cool and soothe me, like a headstone maybe would. Och that wisnae going to happen, there was hardly enough money for weans that were living never mind dead.
I take a peek into the kitchen to make sure the three are safe and snuggled up the gither in their boxbed. They look like wee characters in a fairy story, all rosy cheeked and peaceful. There was still room for one more in the bed mind you. If they woke up I’d just tell them I was lighting the fire on the range ready to get the stew going for tea that night. If I told anybody what I’d been doing they might no’ understand, they might ruin it for me, take it away from me, tell me I’m no right in the head. They widnae understand how beautiful the moon can make white hairs, even white hairs of sorrow. Luminous – that’s the word they use all the time in the Mills and Boons books that Ena has a roomful of, got them second hand at Christmas off the woman she cleans for. Me, I don’t have the time or money for that, romance real or otherwise, or the right man, I don’t suppose, but I love that word. Lit up with light not fumbling around getting in a fankle of darkness. I stub my toe on the dresser as I back out of the kitchen, holding in my pain so as not to wake the wee yins. I look down at the dresser drawer and for a wee minute I see it lit up like a manger with a baby in it. They drawers have done us proud; they’ve held all kinds – porridge, babies, and sometimes even wee bodies.
I go through to the back room and get in next to Joe, he would never wake up, too tired after a hard day’s work at the pit, never missed one in 25 years, never missed me. Even if he had I don’t think he’d be anything but annoyed I woke him. I’d never tell him, he’s not got white hair, and even if he did and the moon shone on it, so what it wisnae his body that wis bleedin was it.
That’s me finished sewing now. Sewing the rag pad to catch the last of my youngest baby. I’m away to the back room now, to put the pad inside my knickers. Then I’m going to look around to see that no-one’s watching, get a chair and stand up on it. I’ll reach out to behind the back of the wardrobe and pull loose the old biscuit tin I’ve rammed in there. I’ll check that the white hair laid across the top held and down with fancy Sellotape is in the right place. I’ll take my time to remember every feeling I’ve had about it. I’ll sit and stare myself out in the mirror, brushing and brushing till there’s white hairs all over me like I’m a white owl swooping through the night, panicking about not having enough wrappers maybe. Then I think, don’t be daft Aggie there’s all the wrappers you’ll need in here, and that’s when I know what I’m going to do. The rainbow I’ve repeated over and over again as I dig and cover and weep inside has led me here, to this wee pot of gold. Hidden from everybody, just like me, just like them.
I’m eating every bit of the sweeties and chocolates hidden inside, stuffing them in me, ramming myself into the tin with every bite until I’m all chewed up nothingness, inside the tin, just a sweetie wife.