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Arts & entertainment

‘Mary’ – a short story

22 Mar 2022 | Written by By Maureen Telfer

[Pictured above right is Mary, the real woman who inspired Maureen’s story].


This March, we have been celebrating Women’s History Month at The Joy Club, taking the opportunity to shine a light on overlooked perspectives both past and present. In our creative writing workshops, facilitator Grace encouraged attendees to explore the theme of honouring women from history. We were overwhelmed by the stories that came out of the class, which is why we have decided to publish them over the next few weeks as part of our ‘Unsung Voices’ showcase. Thank you to all our member writers for giving a voice to these women, reigniting the intelligence, love and resilience that burned so brightly in them. 

This story is by Maureen Telfer and it explores the perspective of her great grandmother.

Trigger Warning: This story contains references to abusive behaviour.


Sitting in my garden in the late September sunshine, I am content to breathe clean air, allow the sun to soften the tension I carry in my face, my shoulders, my neck.  Always.  I like the sound of Lizzie’s laughter.  I watch her play out her imagination, free.  Free of memory.  Free of guilt.  The voices she hears in her head are softer than the ones which play in mine.

It’s Friday.  In another world, 20 miles away, on a different Friday, it’s payday for the legions of dust-covered dirt men who stream through shipyard gates in the morning.  The ones who labour in the dark, or from heights which make my head swirl to think of.  Tonight, they will not pour themselves from the gates to our doors, their womens’ doors.  Tonight, they’ll slake the thirst which comes from dust, from the heat of the welding machines before they come home.  The banging and clattering of the shipyard will be replaced by a tide of male voices, rising on the current of warm beer and warmer spirits, taming the danger of the work, reducing it to the ridicule of the mundane.  

For the women who wait at home, the women who inhabit the small flats in the big building, with our growing army of children, Fridays are different.  Loosened inhibition means that menfolk look for more than a full belly.  For more than a few of us, refusing means a skelp, a slap or worse.

For me, it’s worse.  Seven years ago, I married that man.  I cannot remember now what I ever saw in him, his charm the charm of a snake oil salesman.  Like so many lassies, I was pregnant but some of them just sat it out, their weans, if not welcomed, then tolerated by mothers and fathers who simply added one more to the already hefty family headcount.  Not me.  Oh no.  I knew he was feckless, I’m not stupid, but I thought it was exciting.  Thomas, my free spirit.  But he’s not free.  He’s a slave to a spirit, a brown spirit that lives in a bottle, a spirit that makes his breath stink and his words stumble from his mouth.  

After seven years and two children with another ready in my belly, I care nothing for him, not hatred, but maybe resentment.  I bear scars, one which reminds me of the night he made our Mirren.  I’ve been bruised, have a pain in my ribs where he cracked them with a punch and a twist in my arm after he broke it.  Every time, I’m patched up by my mother in law, sometimes my mother but never a doctor.  Can’t afford one.  No point in the police either.  It’s just a domestic.  No, I care nothing for Thomas at all.    

Fridays are the worst days.  Some weeks, he has to crawl up the stairs because he can’t walk.  I’m pleased when that happens.  Although it means little, sometimes no money, at least he passes out without violence.  

But not this Friday.  He walks up the stairs.  I can smell the whisky before he opens the door.  He snarls.  Walking wounded tonight.  He can walk but has no power of speech.  Johnny and Mirren are outside in the back court.  The child I am carrying weighs heavily in my belly.  Not long to go.  I can tell.  He stumbles over to me and grabs in my direction.  I resist and he raises his arm the way he does when he wields the hammer on the rivets, over and over, every day.  He has a good aim.  He doesn’t miss me.  I land heavily.  My head is bleeding.  He pulls me up and into his reeking breath, his filthy clothes.  I do not allow myself to gag.  Useless to resist, I allow him to take what he wants.  I allow the contempt I feel to rise to my eyes, to my lips. 

 

“Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?”

 

No, you won’t see that.  I will be leaving you, I tell him silently.  This child will not be born here, in this flat, full of shipyard dust, oppressive heat in the summer, freezing in the winter because you spend the coal money on whisky.  

No, you don’t know that I found the strangest ally, not in my mother but in yours.  Your mother left your father, you know that.  You went to live with your father’s other wife after your mother left.  But she came back after the other wife died, didn’t she?  To look after you, your half brother and half sister.  My resentment is nothing on hers.

No, your mother will look after Johnny and Mirren while I take this one back to where I came from.  My sister has found me work in the laundry, the one where women can live alongside their children.  Not long now…

Lizzie’s laughter brings me back to today.  I smile.  She’s a bonny lass, fresh-faced from the good air and decent food.  But she’s the only wean I ever managed to bring here.  Mirren got the consumption, like so many weans in Glasgow.  Her granny managed to get her into a sanitorium but she never recovered.  Johnny is 17 now.  He’s a riveter like his father.  He’s been working in the yards since he was 12.  I never could earn enough to keep him and it’s harder to hide the boy’s age in a small town, so harder to get him into work.  It’s easy in the shipyards.  No-one cares.  

[Above is a photograph of Johnny before he was sent off to Gallipoli, courtesy of Maureen’s gran].

But Johnny comes to me sometimes.  Last time was just a week ago.  He’s joined up – a lot of the lads from the yards have, he tells me.  He brought me a lovely photo of him in his uniform, a kilt no less!  He had it done in one of these posh studios in Glasgow.  He’s not going to France though.  He says he’s going to some place called Gallipoli.  I’m pleased he’s not being sent to these trenches we’re hearing so much about.  

I’m happy on the days Johnny visits.  And the voices in my head are quieter when he’s here.  But they are never silent.  Why did I leave?  How could I leave my weans?  Over and over it goes, when will it stop?  Nobody knows.

 

If you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this article, you can find more information about the support available to you via the NHS website here.


What did you think of Maureen’s story? You can share your thoughts with her in the comments below. 

If you like the idea of giving creative writing a go, why not come along to one of our live classes? Find out more about them and book your place here

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