From the life of Irenee Lowe
By Jo Berouche
Back before glass and steel, stood brick and mortar. Thin terraces, chimneys pluming, the midday clouds long and white. Lean, bright and beautiful.
Tiny feet in little shoes. Fidgeting on the kitchen floor.
Polish. Clock-ticking. The smell of the carpet at home.
Irenee plucked Maria’s chequered coat off the hanger and bunched up the sleeves; pushing small hands through folded felt. Maria squirmed against her mother, against the neat wrap of a thick scarf, against the little wool hat. She wanted to put her thumb in her mouth, but her mother took a pair of gloves and, one at a time, wrapped them over Maria’s hands.
Safe. Incubated. Irenee put her hands on her hips and looked at her Maria, who bopped in place, teetering on her newly walking legs. Gently breathing into her scarf. Heart pipping beneath the felt coat.
Her mother Irenee pulled open the thick front door, and the frost-tipped air bolted in. Stray wisps of blonde from underneath the hat flickered against her face. The little girl scrunched back the way snails do in their shells.
“Well, we’ve got to go, Maria — you’re in the nativity.”
White hair, golden wings. Nativity-play angels, tiny people singing hymns. Irenee perched on a child-sized seat, recording intently with a quiet gaze.
Maria looked up at her mother, the long legs up to a small waist, close hands on the ends of tapering arms, up to a halo of blonde hair on her far-away but brilliant face. The first face Maria had seen in the world out of the red dark.
Her bottom lip folded down. Her chin puckered. Irenee did not wait for the tears to begin.
She put her fingers around her daughter’s hand, enveloping and then closing tight. They walked down the thick slabs, shoes slapping. Echoing off orange brick.
Those terraces, humming like hives. Windows shut but lights on, the radio a muffle underneath curtains. Prattling pop guitars and crooners. Conversations spilling under the doors. Irenee looked down at her side to Maria, shuffling, wobbling, barely able to keep up with her stride.
But walking now. Saying mam, in a drooling, toothy mouth.
Pumping her legs like machinery, the routine took her away. Maria held on to her mother. Cub.
A canopy over the end of the road, produce lined up in red, yellow, and green, boxes with paper laid out underneath them, and hand-written signs in blue ink. Condensation on the waxy skins in the Christmas air. Irenee walked the stones and then felt resistance in her wrist, felt Maria’s feet digging in, then skipping the pavement, struggling to anchor her. She looked down.
“Mam, mam, mam.” Bleating, like a lamb. A cherub face edged in red, one hand out desperate for the counter. “Apple!” Irenee squinted into the shop, her hand hovering between Maria and the greengrocer shop.
The grocer inside raised his eyebrows to her. Then he grinned and held up his hand to her in greeting, recognising Irenee and her daughter.
The fresh smell of picked fruit, clean like perfume. Maria trembled next to her in the coat.
The war had meant rationing, and when the war ended, the rationing did not. After so much chaos and demolition, there were fewer things to go around. Irenee had been eight before she was able to eat her first banana. And then, in the space of a few years, there were so many good things. Maria being one of them.
“David, can I take this?” Irenee asked. He bent at the knee to wave at Maria, but the child bowed her head to the floor. “I haven’t got the money on me.” He gave a nod, and Irenee picked up an apple, mahogany and dark, polishing the flesh it against her coat. David knew she kept her word, even for a few pence.
A wobble of sinew and brown haunches on the edge of her eye. Irenee looked up from the fruit, and found herself eye to eye with an enormous bull. It snorted through black dribbling nostrils, a tangle of saliva on its bovine lip.
She dropped the apple. It crumpled with a snap when it hit the pavement. A mist of juice sprayed Maria’s shoes. Irenee cried out, flinching back in horror at the animal. “David?”
The inside of the shop was empty.
She snapped her hand out, feeling through the air for her daughter’s arm. She seemed yards away. The animal hovered over the infant, casting a shadow. Maria’s eyes looked up in fascination.
Irenee found her by the felt coat collar, ran her arm down the sleeve to Maria’s wrist. She grabbed and ran.
They bolted down Carson Road. Without missing a beat, the animal began to follow them.
Cranes sinking into the walls, pneumatic drills grinding down the orange bricks. Tearing up the radiators to be repainted and resold in four decades for an upcycled Shoreditch designer apartment. Hammers slamming walls that used to hang a family history, replaced with multi-storey and mega-mall facilities. The town hall will be a Wetherspoons.
The bull surged behind them, clattering like a tank. Through the backstreets, Irenee ran, feet skittering. It was hot beneath her coat. Maria floated off the ground, feet hovering and making no sound. Her scarf had unravelled over her shoulder, dragging on the floor.
The docks were closed and the markets peeled off, washed away, scrubbed back. Sanded down for varnish and glass and international banks. Moated, exclusive, but barren compared to what they once had. The war needn’t have bothered to raze the city.
The huge eyes dilated. It charged forward, muscles rumbling, hooves clattering and skidding beneath bulk and strain. Irenee breathed hard, feeling her daughter struggle behind. Her eyes searched the pavement. The streets were empty. She raised Maria higher in the air and against her breast, the scarf wrapping around the pair of them.
Ocean-smell on the docklands, winkle-men and fishmongers, kids at the lido; replaced with piles of rubble-abandoned roadside, along motorways and A-roads. Big expensive cars shooting down residential streets for shortcuts on the commute. Enormous sprawling branches, breaking up the city into fragments.
Irenee raged down the street with her three-year-old in her arms, through the primary school gates and into the playground. Wrapped up children dotted the asphalt, wobbling their clumsy feet over the painted sports pitch. Their mothers watched Irenee with concern.
“Get the kids in! There’s a bull!” She shouted at them, exhausted. Maria fidgeted against her hip, her shoes digging into Irenee’s back. There was a rumbling through the concrete.
Irenee dragged her daughter forward, arms heavy, despair pouring out of her. When she turned to look back, the bull snarled and drove its feet harder against the ground. It crunched down on grit and paving stones. Pacing.
Empty dock warehouses. Gulls shrieking over upturned takeaway cartons. Trinity Church at the end of the road plucked apart, stained glass windows splintered down their middles. Replaced with a McDonald’s. The allotments were churned in on themselves. The land was sold, and kept for a car park.
The children squealed at the commotion, running towards their teacher. Maria let go of her mother’s hand and ran forwards, and Irenee stared in horror as the animal charged into the playground, and then in looping circles around her. Toying with her. Irenee caught sight of her little girl, still tucked into her chequered coat, clambering the step into the nursery with her schoolteacher, red scarf wiggling loosely around her neck. Red hat, red and black coat. The crimson speck went out of sight. The bull snorted. So did Irenee.
The twenty-four-hour supermarkets came up. But then so did the food banks. The people on the floor asking for change, sitting on the curb near a library. A shopping trolley at the side of the road, with a mattress in it, abandoned on the brand new pavement. Smashed bus shelters; a fragment of fury, frozen in time.
Irenee watched the bull circle, muscles in her neck taut, lungs aching. She noticed then that she was frightened. Her hands were trembling. The bull clamped its jaw and bucked its horned head to the left and right. It charged.
There wasn’t enough to go around, but then some had it too good. The gap got bigger; a great big wound. A diaspora. And then a smattering left; an echo. That bounced back and forth of the walls. Until it came to a crescendo.
Irenee galloped around the animal, surging herself through the nursery gate shoulder by shoulder and pulling the gate closed behind her. The bull stared at her, the long-lashed eyes full of defeat.
“SOMEONE CALL THE POLICE!”
Her body went into shock. She felt herself shuddering, teeth chattering in fear. She clung to the iron gate, afraid she would fall to the floor if she let go.
Night shifts and leftovers by fridge-light. Bill-posts peeling from the sides of closed shops. Mastercards cut in half on landfill. But somewhere, on the floor of the china shop — porcelain, intact.
The bull had jumped the truck on the way to an abattoir. Leapt from the back, stumbled down the A13, onto a pavement. Wandered down the roads as if it owned them, looking for a paddock to graze.
When the police arrived, they shot it.