A Short Story from the March 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard
At least the last bus hadn’t gone. Sue could see at least four people waiting for it as she hurried round the comer into St. James’s Street. They stood back in shop doorways out of the cold night wind and waited patiently.
But the girl was different. She almost skipped from one lighted shop window to the next with what seemed like an excess of youthful energy and eager curiosity as she scanned the displays. She was dressed only in a loose-fitting sweater, narrow, faded blue jeans and scuffed training shoes. Her brown hair was straight, and the only visible make-up she wore was mascara all round her eyes, making them look large in her small, pretty face. Once or twice, she glanced round at people walking past. Sue could see that her hands were red with cold. She caught Sue watching her and frowned.
She turned away as though looking for her bus, embarrassed by the mixture of emotions she felt. About an hour earlier, the girl had come into the cafe with a young Asian lad. Sue had served them cheeseburgers and coffee. She might look like an eighteen-year-old from across the street, but Sue knew that she was not far short of thirty, like herself.
A few people began to queue behind Sue at the bus stop. A man paused beside the girl as she stood gazing at Debenham's lingerie display. Their heads turned momentarily aside towards one another a couple of times, and then they suddenly walked away together and turned the comer. How can she bring herself to do it!
"Slut! They shouldn't be allowed on the streets." The woman behind Sue said this to her husband but loud enough for everyone else to hear. He said nothing. Sue’s own feelings of contempt for the prostitute were temporarily swamped by protectiveness, pity. What right had this fat. smug, middle- aged woman, with her husband on a lead, to judge the girl!
The bus was a quarter of an hour late and very full. Although her legs felt swollen from being on her feet all day, Sue made the effort to climb upstairs in the hope of getting a seat, and found one at the front, next to the window. Just as the bus was pulling away from the stop, she saw the girl trudge back round the comer and take up her springy step and eager look again. Sue turned away with her mind full of vague pictures of what the girl had been doing in the dark streets behind the lighted shops to earn her living. With somebody you hated to touch! And then some ponce takes the money off you. Can't she get a job — even if she’s got a child, like me? I hope Caroline's in bed by now, not asleep in front of the telly again. Yes. I did leave her the money for the chips — didn't I? Yes, on the sideboard, that's right.
The warmth of the bus and the steady hum of the engine made her sleepy. But the egg and chips she had bolted down at half past nine were refusing to lie quiet on her stomach, and she felt drawn, almost nauseous with physical tiredness. She swayed in an uneasy, drowsy half-sleep as the bus relentlessly pushed its way out of town through the late traffic.
A ten pound note, sir? No, it wasn't. It was a five. Here it is. Just a moment, sir, I'll call the manager for you. He didn't expect that! Oh, god! don't they try it on! This egg's not fresh. I'm not going to pay these prices. No, sir, we don't get the service charge. The management keep that. Him? Yes, he was rather nice. He was very interested. Perhaps I will go out with him if he asks me again. I don't suppose he'll ever come in again, though. What was his accent? Scottish. He noticed my wedding ring. He must guess I'm divorced, though. Did I sound too keen? Mike wouldn't like it. Still, a bit of competition might do him good. He takes me for granted. It's too late for Uncle Mike to go home now, dear. He can sleep in Mummy's bed. She's going to work that one out soon. It's all right for him — no ties, no housework, no money worries. He does work hard, I know, but he spends ever such a lot on himself. Does he really want a family home? I could make it comfortable, lovely, if I didn't have to do this waitressing every day. No, I suppose I don't really love him. Though you have to say you do, don't you, when you go to bed with somebody. Anyway, I loved Eric. Look what that got me!
Sue nearly missed her stop. The driver was closing the doors as she came stumbling down the stairs. He didn't say anything as she mumbled, "Sorry", and waited for him to open them again, but he looked irritated.
The lift was stuck again. At the top of each flight of steps Sue had to stop, put her shopping bag down, and get her breath. When she got up to the fourth floor it was a sudden wave of depression, rather than the weariness, which made her stand, almost bent double, with her head down, resting her forearms on the handrail and looking down into the near darkness of the stairwell. Now that she was almost home, she was no longer eager to get into the flat. When she and Eric had finally divided everything up, three years ago, she had made Caroline the centre of her life, built the new home round her and gone out to become the breadwinner. Now, only ten years old, Caroline was becoming surly and ungrateful, very difficult to manage. This morning, in the middle of a quarrel over keeping her bedroom tidy, she had suddenly said, as though she had been saving it up, "Daddy didn't leave me, he left you". That was a winner. Sue sat down on the child's untidy floor and cried.
Caroline was not in bed. She was not even asleep. She was watching the late-night movie. Sue was too exhausted for a confrontation. She took off her coat and put the groceries away. She stopped herself automatically washing up Caroline’s dirty crockery, and made herself a cup of drinking chocolate instead to take into her bedroom with her.
"Goodnight love." Caroline did not answer. At ten! You'd think she'd have forgotten all about it by now.
Even with both doors closed. Sue could hear the menacing music, the gun shots, the screams, the clatter of the helicopter, the screeching of car tyres. In her bra and pants she stopped and looked at herself in her dressing table mirror; twisted her body to the right and then to the left. Not too bad, considering. I can't get into a twelve any longer, though. My bum's too big. And stomach. Wish my bosom would match it! She examined her face, leaning close to the mirror, smoothing the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes with her finger tips. I'm not bad looking, really. Perhaps he will want to marry me if I go out with him. Caroline needs a man in the home. So do I.
She sat down and cleaned off her makeup, looking at her face all the time in the mirror. It needs something, doesn't it. She began to put make-up on again, but differently, hardly colouring her pale complexion at all, but exaggerating her eyes with mascara. Now! I'd get the sack if I turned up for work like this, wouldn't I? I look like . . . Her ironic smile faded away.
"All right!" she said aloud, "I’ll go on being a sodding waitress till me feet drop off. rather than sell myself to any man."
She wiped all the black away with cold cream, deliberately not looking herself in the eyes any more, clenching her jaw so that the little muscles rippled at the comers. But the trouble is you've got to be young even to keep a job as a waitress these days. You can be as thick as two short planks at our place as long as you're pretty. Who's going to give me a job in ten years' time?
Her frilly pink nightdress was neatly folded on the pillow but she threw it on the floor and dug out a pair of winceyette pyjamas from the bottom of the chest of drawers. She put them on hurriedly, scrambled into bed and switched off the light, trying fiercely not to think any more, about anything, wanting to fall asleep like a log.
A baby was crying in the flat next door. Overhead, somebody was playing reggae records, not loudly, but she could hear it. And from across the hall gun shots started again in Caroline's TV movie. Oh god! I wish there was a god. But the tears would not come.