Carole Pearce

Compos Mentis

Moulted down-at-heel dark pink sparkly slippers, ankle socks, Joyce reaches under the sink, kicks away a saucer of rancid cat food. Overflowing pedal bin at arms length, trudges out the back to drop soggy  carrot scrapings, assorted crisp bags, sloppy  teabags, nearly empty oily tuna tins into the fetid communal bin. Sighs with tiredness, even though it’s her day off. Remembers Stella’s due; back indoors wearily cleans the loo.

Only half-past three, a dark dank grey November sky drips morosely over Aston University; Stella snaps on her reading lamp, sorts Tutor group’s term papers for the Gender/Race/Class,  module. Brightly considers yesterday’s news; a visiting Fellowship in Chicago, Illinois.

Two hours later, grey hair drenched from leaky guttering above  a tatty  front door, Joyce sits in the old family kitchen of the soot-stained terraced house. More tea, talk of Aunty Joan’s hip replacement, cousin Bill’s faulty hearing aid; Trevor, just bone lazy, chucks money away on booze, women, the latest ghastly tattoo: a writhing serpent ascending from fiery Hell, all dusky blue scales, leery eyes, a suggestive darting lime green tongue.  

‘’E does absolutely nothin’ ’round this ’ouse!’ Pursed-lipped sigh. She’s made sure Mum’s out at Bingo. 

Where’s this leading? Stella refuses to register unsavoury smells, stale damp towels, old fried onions; and that poor Joyce still suffers with her feet. Aging rapidly, she keeps the family going. She hasn’t yet mentioned mother.

‘See, they’ve changed my shift up at the ’ospital; I don’t get back in time to cook  proper meals like I did. I said to Trevor, no good moanin’, it wouldn’t ’urt you to do a bit ‘round ’ere. But it’s useless. Look Stell, I really need your ’elp. I’m norr askin’ yer for money.’ 

Comforting images of Chicago. Stella takes another biscuit out of pity; nods, holds her tongue, sees flight bag, passport, ticket.
‘Stell, I went ’n saw the sister up at the ’ome. I told her Mum’s still compismentis; she’s just gettin’ old, and my ’ours up  the ’ospital make it ’ard …’

Distinct warm whiff of salt and vinegar, a hot squidgy parcel of chips dumped on the table, Trevor slips his greasy ancient anorak on the back – door peg.  Alright kid? ’Ow yer  doin’?’ Busies himself with  plate, fork, shakes out his share, drowns them with tomato ketchup, lumbers off to gawp at the TV. Bulging serpent  above the neckline of his
grubby vest, throbs towards the leatherette settee next door.

‘Yeh, ok thanks Trev. ’Ow’s yerself?’ Reverently drops her head, closes her eyes.

A reunion after several months still manages to bring on a mild panic attack. Stella breathes in. Embraces the pungent mix of chip fug, rising damp, flea-bitten cat; smiles hard at Joyce, pats the swollen resting hand: ‘You’re right, we need to think, she’s not gettin’ any younger. You’re marvellous with her Joycy, she couldn’t do without you.’

‘Well, exactly. That’s my problem; see that ’ome’s  already full, waiting – list  long as yer arm, ’n  I was wondering if you’d go, like, ’ave a word. You at the ooniversity and that. Only, well, … It’s like this Stell, that chief porter up on Ward C ?  ’E only went ‘n booked us in to Blackpool for Easter week.  So it’s up to you and Trev really. I don’t mind as a rule,  but it’s  six years since I ’ad a proper break,  an’ me  ’n Ken.’

Joyce’s face is suddenly radiant; bathed in desperate hope.

Winded by a disorienting wave of grease-induced nausea, stung by sudden inexplicable tears, leaden lump in her throat, Stella can’t rightly slot this into place. She draws a slow ragged  breath, feels a loss, keen as death.


Now our anti-hero’s stuck at  ‘seventeen’.
He’s younger than that Stella with a bun;
While Joyce the middle sister, loves her egg and chips,
is not averse to blokes, and drink. She’s lots of fun.

They’re living now in Birmingham, slum clearance ’54,
they’ve a telly, noisy neighbours, and lots of yapping dogs;
Trevor’s just a criminal, bombastic and a pig.
Sinks pints amongst diseased and stinking yobs.

Our Stella won a scholarship, her mind a gleaming jewel,
 works in the University these days.
Has a flat, a comfy sofa, a geranium in a pot,
a bookcase and a string of published plays.

Can’t believe her luck in fleeing the dysfunctional family home,
she  enjoys her annual holidays in Spain.
But their mother’s such a problem, with her ankles and her knees;
she turns up on Stella’s doorstep. What a pain!

Now Joyce has heard of Frail Care. It’s new, and rather chic.
Her interview with Matron a relief.
With Stella back on Campus, and Trevor always out,
just convince the board that Mother is a thief.
It’s so sad she never married, caught the tail-end of ‘Care’
spent her best years cooking onions and tripe.
[ Trevor squandered all ‘is money on ‘is women, and ‘is booze,
large tattoos that spanned his biceps;  she would snipe.]

Yo! The moral of this story is Be Wary Where You’re Born.
You could end up living in a city slum;
with no education,  income,  an’ a life of battered pride;
 body wracked with dreadful swellings like your mum !


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