I close my eyes and relax into the ambience of the place; it’s strange to me, this mixture of righteous people and difficult music. I’m camouflaged, I’ve left my normal clothes at home and I’m wearing stuff I’ve borrowed from Mike, kind of a dark preppy/Anthony Perkins look. These people won’t know I’m a fake – I’m not really trendy or left-leaning or right-on, I’m just an unemployed joiner and occasional thief from Gateshead. Nothing special. I’d spent a long time in Mike’s wardrobe deciding what to borrow. I left my sportswear and trainers, ‘riot chic’, as he calls it, on his bedroom floor. ‘Leave the baseball cap too,’ he told me.
‘You think?’ I asked, taking it off and dropping it on a chair.
The band is just finishing their first set and I try to find a seat but the place is extremely busy. Mike is off to chat with some vegan activists and I squeeze into a corner between a table and a fire escape, flopping down. I’m sitting there, feeling like I almost fit in, trying to get to grips with the music that’s coming from the loudspeakers, before the band comes back on, their first post-dictatorship gig, I’m told.
And then this girl comes over and squats down beside me. ‘Mind if I sit here?’
I shake my head, ‘No.’
She smiles at me, ‘Thanks,’ and moves between me and the fire door, slides down the wall and squashes in next to me. Melting flakes of snow on her coat are reflecting the glittering lights. ‘I shouldn’t be here,’ she says, ‘they’ll throw me out if they see me here.’
I must have looked puzzled, so she opens her coat to show me the infant child hidden inside. She takes off its woolen cap and I see that it is small and almost bald, still at that stage where they smell of stale milk and talcum powder and can’t hold their head up properly. The kid looks in my direction and then gently headbutts her chest as it looks away again. It’s wearing kind of righteous social worker/juggler type baby clothes.
‘This is Chris,’ she tells me. ‘He’s almost three months old. And I’m Mary.’
‘Joey,’ I say.
‘Hi,’ she says, pulling her hair away from her face. ‘I can’t get a sitter,’ she tells me, ‘But I just have to get out.’
‘Can’t his dad help you out?’
She shrugs, ‘He got me pregnant and I haven’t seen him since.’
‘Done a runner?’
‘Straight back in the army. I’ve written, but he never replied.’
‘Yeah,’ I say, and no more, having read in some women’s magazine that empathy, rather than problem solving, is what women want from a conversation.
‘And I’m just broke,’ she said.
That’s a hint, I thought.
I don’t normally buy women drinks, well not unless it’s my mum or one of my aunties, and though I had almost four hundred pounds in my pocket last weekend, most of that went on drugs and a brand-new knocked off Kenwood for my car, so I’m pretty broke too, but I reach over between two people sitting at the nearest table and quietly lift a fresh pint.
The guy notices. ‘Hey, that’s mine,’ he tells me.
I shake my head, ‘No, it’s mine. I just bought it two minutes ago.’
‘Well someone has stolen my beer,’ he says.
I shrug, ‘Shocking,’ I say, the empathy thing again, and he turns around to tell the girl he’s sitting next to about the beer thieves.
‘Here,’ I say, giving the drink to Mary.
She takes it and downs about a third. ‘I shouldn’t do that, I’m still feeding,’ she tells me. ‘I’m supposed to be, like, a good mother and stuff.’ Then she studies the beer for a moment, says to no one in particular, ‘What the fuck,’ and drinks some more.
We sit together for a while, not speaking. She leans right against me. ‘I can’t stay at home all the time. I’m stuck in all the time with Chris.’
‘I couldn’t stay in either,’ I say, ‘If I had to look after a kid all day.’
She changes the subject, ‘Did you see the band?’
‘Were they any good?’
‘I really don’t know,’ I tell her honestly, ‘I didn’t understand it.’
‘None of it?’
I listen for a moment to the cacophony of strange music that’s playing over the sound system. ‘Not a note.’
She smiles. She has a pretty, adenoidy kind of face, and lots of hair. She works the hair like it’s some kind of calling card, a letter of introduction. She leans against me some more. Chris is asleep.
‘I like it here,’ she says to me.
‘It’s a bit crowded,’ I say, ‘But it’s fine.’
We sit for a while but then Chris wakes and begins to mumble and hiccup beneath her jacket. She finishes the drink, puts down the glass, opens her coat, pushes the kid’s head to one side and unbuttons her shirt. Chris knows what’s coming next so he’s pushing his head back toward her nipple. Even as she pulls her right breast free of her bra he’s latching on and giving it big sucks from his fat cheeks.
She whispers, ‘Shelter me,’ and feeds Chris while I crowd closer, sitting large to protect her from stares. No one notices us anyway, sitting squashed in the corner. I look in her eyes as she feeds the baby. She looks back at me. The music was beginning to make sense. ‘What do you do, Joey?’ she asks me.
‘I’m a joiner,’ I say. Unemployed, I think to myself. ‘You?’
‘Just a mum.’
She smiles and settles into her task.
After a while I go and steal two more drinks, and when I return she has changed the baby to her left breast. ‘Here,’ I hand her the glass and we all drink together, Mary, the infant and me.
From the Christmas collection Comfort & Joy