Title: Real Names

Author: Gabrielle Muir

In: Sport 8: Autumn 1992

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, March 1992, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 8: Autumn 1992

♣ Gabrielle Muir — Real Names

page 29

Gabrielle Muir

Real Names

The Old Lady sends me over to Mavis's for a cup of sugar. I go down the footpath, past Miz 'air's, then across the road. I cut the corner off the dribbling-boy Olds's front lawn, then I go up the three steps to Mae West's door.

I knock; the Old Lady says it is forbidden to ring the bell. Only private detectives, policemen and the rent men from State Advances ever ring the bell-and I've seen them and heard them and they had the power to make my heart jolt and my mother's face go white, her tea spilling, the dog barking, someone turning the radio down, someone else running to answer the door. The bell went ring ring, ring ring, ring ring. It wasn't a real bell either; it was a button you pressed with your forefinger, a bakelite button that nearly broke your finger in half when you tried to get a sound out of it: ring ring, ring ring, ring ring.

So, I knock, knock, knock.

Through the frosted glass I can just make out a figure moving up the hallway. When Johnny West answers the door I feel a jolt all right, like my heart has kicked me in the chest. He wears a white T-shirt with a Camel pack tucked high up on one bicep, blue jeans turned up once, thick white socks, black slip-on shoes. He wears Brylcreem in his hair and he has these things like caterpillars growing down the sides of his face. His eyes are the same blue as his jeans. A cigarette is burning away in the corner of his mouth and cool Johnny squints down at me through a curl of smoke. If the Old Lady had known Johnny was around she never would have sent me here for sugar, she would have made me walk all the way to the shops instead.

'Kid,' Johnny greets me, talking around his cigarette with an almost authentic American accent. 'What you want Kid?'

'Is Mavis home?' I ask.

'Yeah, sure Kid, c'mon in. She's in the kitchen.'

'Nana wants to borrow some sugar,' I say, standing my ground on the top step. Johnny in the doorway looks at me for a moment, his head on one side, page 30 then he surrenders. He takes the cup I'm holding out, being sure to touch my hand before I can pull away, and disappears down the hall, snapping his fingers as he goes.

The Old Lady, when they're fighting, reckons Mavis is a gypsy and that all her kids have different fathers, none of them with the last name West. The Old Lady and Mavis are fighting at the moment which is why I have to wait out on the steps. A V of warm yellow light opens at the far end of the hall, and I can hear Johnny and his mother Mavis talking and laughing together in her kitchen while I wait out here in the rain. I think about my own mother and for the first time today I realise how cold it is. Rain has been falling steadily while I wait for the sugar and although it is only three in the afternoon it is already twilight, and freezing cold.

Mavis must be cooking Johnny a late Sunday afternoon lunch. Heat, and the smell of sausages, bacon and bubble-and-squeak, comes wafting up the hall. Mixed in is the smell of floorpolish, of Mavis's perfume, and very faintly, the amazing scent of my beautiful Aunty Lil (who must have spent the night here since we didn't see her this morning, and the Old Lady is in a quiet but deadly rage because of it).

Then Mavis, standing sweet and seductive at the far end of the hallway, calls to me by name. No one has said my name in weeks, and the sound of it, like the sound of a real bell, draws me through the door, down the dark passage and into the steaming glare and warmth of the kitchen. Mavis's perfume is overwhelming.

'Jeeze,' she says, holding tight, letting go, curving her hands around my face. 'Jeeze Kid, you're cold!' She grabs my stiff arms and puts one either side of her waist. 'C'mon Kid, gis a cuddle,' says Mae West.

Behind her skinny back, my hands clasp. Johnny has closed the kitchen door against the cold and sits at the formica table with his legs stretched out. He is grinning madly. He doesn't look so cool when he grins. He looks just like a big kid himself.

Mavis feels nothing like my mother. She holds me all wrong, and her bones jut where Mama has warm cushions; but all the same she holds tight and spins me around her kitchen. My feet barely touch the ground. She has to tilt her head back crazily so that her cigarette won't poke me in the eye. She sights me down her gypsy nose, ducking away from her trail of smoke and cries out, 'See Johnny? How small she is? Light as a feather, see?'

I'm dizzy when she lets go, and it's getting hot inside my coat, buttoned page 31 up as it is to the throat. 'Well? demands Mae West with her hands on her hips. 'Get your coat off' But I can't stay' we all know that.

'Nana said I had to get the sugar and come straight back.'

'Did she? And I bet the old bat said you weren't allowed inside too,' mutters Mavis. 'Never mind. Never mind. You're here now. You haven't been to see us for so long I forgot how small you were. Where've you been, eh? You little bugger? Look at her Johnny. Fancy staying away from us. Here.' Mavis is undoing my coat. 'If she finds out you took your coat off' I'll tell her I did it,' she says, angrily unbuttoning' and batting away at her own smoke. She throws my poor old coat at Johnny. 'Put that in the hot water cupboard.' Johnny jumps up, not looking like James Dean any more, just Johnny West from over the road' doing what his mother tells him.

Mavis gets out three glasses and a bottle of sherry. We all sit down at the formica table and Johnny fills himself and Mavis a glass' and gives me half a thimble-full. Sherry is very naughty stuff.

Mae West is singing as she turns the sausages and bacon and scrapes the bubble-and-squeak off the bottom of the pan and onto a plate. Then she piles the rest on top. I carry the plate to the table for Johnny' with two hands. Mavis gives me a plate with a much smaller, but still generous' mountain of sausages' bacon and bubble-and-squeak. She eats nothing' but has another glass of sherry and watches Johnny and me while we eat.

Johnny goes slowly. He is a thoughtful eater' mulling over every mouthful. My plate is clean in a minute, I even eat the peas buried in the bubble-and-squeak. Bubble-and-squeak is the only way to eat veges.

'What's she making you wear the coat for then?' Mavis asks me. Mavis never just butts out her fags' she mashes the last bit of smoke out of them' goes on crushing them long after the last embers have been extinguished. The filter' red where her lipstick has kissed it' is all that's left of a cigarette when she's finished putting it out. Then she lights up another.

I can think of nothing to tell her except the terrible truth.

'I called her a fucken old bitch.'

Mavis loses her fag, Johnny coughs up a pea.

'Who? Billy?' asks Mavis, using Nana's dance-hall name of thirty years ago. 'The Old Lady?' she asks again, to my delight. Johnny says my real name, really low' and whistles, the way I've overheard men say, 'Christ' phew!'

'Why did you call her that? asks Mavis.

page 32

I am abashed. I don't know. I can't remember. Because I hate the way I'm so scared of her. Because she drove me to it. Because I can't keep my mouth shut. I have to have the last word. I'm dying of boredom in my grandmother's house where the days eke out and leak away. Because I can't live without my mother, no matter how bad a mother she is (no matter how bad a daughter I am). Because this life with the Old Lady in her silent house of rules and curses is boring me to death and I'm sick, sick, sick of it.

'Because I want to go home.' Oh shit, and I have started to cry.

'Here, get her another wee sherry Johnny,' says Mavis. Johnny does.

I wish we could all be gypsies. I wish Johnny could marry my beautiful Aunty Lil and we could all run away together. We could go and find Mum.

'Where's Lil?' I ask. 'Can she come back with me? It'll put her in a better mood if Lil comes back.'

Mavis waits for Johnny to speak, he waits for Mavis. They both smoke.

'Lil's gone,' says Johnny, finally.

'Where's she gone?' I ask. Down the shops? Back across the road? Into town?

'Johnny put her on the bus to Auckland this morning.'

I look at my hands holding each other in my lap. This can mean only one thing. Good news. She's gone to look for Mama. They'll come back and get me as soon as they can. I bet Lil and Mama will buy me a bride-doll. I tell that to Mavis and Johnny. Mavis bets me ten bob they will too.

The sherry has made a hot little cherry-stone in my stomach. I can't decide if it feels good or bad.

Then the front doorbell rings, and Mavis, Johnny and I jump. It is Mavis who goes to answer the bell. She closes the kitchen door to keep out the cold.    It's not long before she's back, looking angry, her lips tucked in, her chin stuck out. Wordlessly she snatches my tea-cup off the sink and plunges it into a canister of sugar. Then she marches out of the kitchen, leaving the lid off the sugar canister, slamming the door shut behind her. Johnny and I say nothing. We don't move.

This time she's gone longer. When she comes back she looks very tired. There are deep grooves in the corners of her mouth, running down her chin. The icy air has turned her face to a marionette's.

'That was Nana,' she says. 'You better get home.' She won't look at me. I ask if I'm in trouble. 'We're all in trouble of one kind or another, Kid. You just have to make the best of it.' She drinks her sherry, too tired to be my page 33 ally any more. She tells Johnny to get my coat.

When he comes back, the sight of my coat softens her a bit; it used to be my other Aunty's; the sleeves have been rolled up so many times they look like quoits and the enormous collar is a shedding fox. The bright green bobbly stuff of the coat reaches almost to my ankles. On weekdays, I am made to wear it to school.

'Chin up,' commands Mae West, and buttons me into my punishment. 'You're tough,' she says, using my name. 'And don't forget it. You're the tough one. You'll beat her in the end. Now go.' She gives me a hard kiss and Johnny and I set off up the hall.

'I'll live longer too,' I say to Johnny when we reach the front door. He laughs out loud. That's what I'll remember later, the sound of Johnny's laughter.

'Exactly,' he says. 'You got it, Kid.'

Just before I leave, Johnny reaches out and cups his hand around my ear. He gives my ear a little squeeze and tugs the lobe a bit roughly. I can't work out what he's up to. He takes his hand away.

'What's this?' he asks, staring into his hand. 'Look what I found in your ear.' He makes a fist and holds it out. When he opens his hand, sitting in his palm is a ten shilling note and a packet of real American chewing gum.

'These must be yours,' he says and stuffs them deep into one of my coat pockets. 'Don't let the Old Lady find them. And here-Lil said to give you this.' Johnny reaches down and kisses me, then quickly straightens up. I can feel his kiss evaporating on my cheek.

'Johnny wait!' I grab his hand and he laughs.

'Shit it's cold out here. Let me go in.' But I have to ask him something first and I won't let him shake me off.

'Tell me if it's true or not,' I plead with him.    'Is what?'

'Is it true what the Old Lady said-that your dad was a Yank sailor named Dwight Johnston?'

'She said that did she? Did she say that?'

'Yeah,' I say. 'Is it true?' I won't let go of his hand. Johnny thinks hard for a minute, standing out there with me in the near dark. Then he answers:    'Yeah, Kid. Yeah, it's prob'ly true.' It's like something clicks into place inside his head. I'm not sure what's happening; I only ever understand half of what's happening.

page 34

'Well goodnight Johnny,' I say, letting his hand drop. The spell breaks and falls around us in a shower of almost visible sparks. Johnny says goodnight.

The Old Lady has turned on the porch light. Its weak yellow beam picks out a path for me across the street. She waits somewhere behind it. I think of Mama and my Aunty Lil finding each other in the vastness of Auckland city. I'm glad of the coat tonight. It keeps me warm.