Our Last Goodbye – Shirley Dickson

As the cinema house lights went up and the strains of the National Anthem filled the hall, May Robinson and her mam rose from their seats and stood to attention. May began to sing but the cigarette smoke that fogged the air caught in her throat. She coughed before trying to carry on, ‘God save our gracious king… long live our noble king…’ Mam, standing at her side, turned to her daughter and her plump face split into a fond smile. She too sang along, ‘God save the king…’ When the music faded, folk began collecting their possessions – mackintoshes, umbrellas, handbags – and made for the aisles. May helped Mam on with her black woollen coat, which reeked of mothballs, and, checking they’d left nothing behind, they joined the throng heading to the Regal’s front of house, where they waited with the rest for the doors to open. The lights went out and the foyer was plunged into darkness. May and her mam followed the queue for the exit. ‘Eee, that film did me the power of good,’ Mam said in an enthralled undertone, ‘I’ve never laughed so much in an age. Mind you, not that I’ve had anythin’ to laugh about lately… not with that lazy sod drivin’ us to distraction. I swear your da’s getting worse…’ Mam continued, ‘Those two – Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland – with their dancing and singing, were just the tonic I needed.’ Mam began to hum, ‘I Got Rhythm’, as the pair of them inched forward, into the damp air wafting in from the open doorway. Today was Mam’s birthday. She didn’t expect a fuss, and as far as Dad was concerned, neither did she get one. But May always tried to make her mother’s birthdays special and today was no exception. She’d planned this trip to the flicks and had used her sweet coupons on two ounces of aniseed balls – Mam’s favourite – from the sweetie shop.

Sweets, like most household goods, were in short supply and at times simply unobtainable. ‘And another thing… did you know you resemble yon lass in the film? You’ve got the same look about you.’ May was startled and felt her cheeks flush in the dark. Folk all around were absorbed in their own conversations, but she would die if anyone overheard her mother. Fancy being compared to a famous star! ‘Mam… that’s ridic—’ ‘Have you looked in the mirror lately?’ May heard the smile in Mam’s voice. ‘With your bonny wavy hair, dark brown eyes and those Cupid’s bow lips, you’re the image of her.’ Mam sniffed indignantly. ‘And though I say so mesel’… with those high cheekbones, you’re far prettier.’ May sensed folk listening in, and looked around shyly, hoping no one was paying too much attention. ‘I’ve got a ma just the same,’ an amused male voice piped up from behind.

‘She’s never happier than when she’s embarrassin’ us.’ Just then May was swept forward by the queue and the moment mercifully passed. Leaving the cinema, she stepped out into the dark and foggy night. As she waited for Mam, beside her, who fumbled in her battered leather handbag, May heard the voices of the rest of the picture-goers as they receded into the distance. ‘I know I brought it,’ she despaired. There was more rustling as she searched in the seemingly bottomless bag. ‘D’you know I’ve even found me compact that’s been lost for months?’ She let out a troubled sigh. ‘But no torch.’ The night was foggy and claustrophobic. May felt disorientated and Mam’s disembodied voice only helped to increase the illusion.

She felt somehow unreal, like when she was a kid and needed to fling her arms around Mam to be comforted by the warmth of her ample body. The blackout had been introduced so that enemy planes wouldn’t realise they flew over built-up areas. Householders hung heavy curtains over their windows; no welcoming light shone from street lamps, and torches, if used, were masked with tissue paper. Bus and car headlamps were also fitted with black discs with a narrow slit arranged to point downward. ‘We’ll manage without.’ May hoped her voice conveyed more conviction than she felt. ‘I know we will, pet, but what use is a torch if I can never find the damn thing?’ Mam’s frustration was clear as she berated herself for leaving such a vital piece of equipment at home. ‘And what use is it painting white stripes on kerbs and lines in the middle of the road if folk can’t damn well see a hand in front of them in this fog…’ That moment a crackle sounded in the air, before a blue spark from the overhead wire of a trolleybus flashed from the roadway. ‘A trolleybus!’ Mam cried. ‘Can you see its number? Hopefully it’s goin’ our way.

’ The smell of sulphur lingered in the atmosphere, like just before a thunderstorm, and May thought that it might be caused by the trolley’s spark. She squinted into the fog but couldn’t see any light from the trolley’s number box. ‘It’s too far away.’ ‘I’ll put a hand out,’ Mam called. ‘Maybe the driver might see us and stop.’ King Street, with shops closed and no one about, resembled a ghost town. And in the eerie silence, Mam’s moderately high-heeled shoes clip-clopped as she edged towards the road. She never wore heels, May thought, with a pang. So excited had she been about tonight’s treat, she’d worn her Sunday best rig-out for the occasion, though it was a shabbier Sunday attire than in days past; an aged, dark green felt hat, worn at the heel black lace-up shoes and a limp floral scarf. The trolley whirred nearer and, sensing it looming in the dark fog, a feeling of foreboding gripped May.

‘Where are you, Mam?’ Like the blind, arms outstretched, she groped into the void ahead. ‘I cannot see a thing, hinny,’ Mam said. ‘But I’m stayin’ put till we catch a trolley… It’s madness to walk home in these conditions.’ Before they’d set out the weather had been fine but it had changed for the worse while they were inside the cinema. A noise in the air she couldn’t identify caught May’s attention, then a cry of pain. ‘Bugger me…’ came Mam’s perturbed voice. ‘I’ve fallen over the kerb… me ankle hurts like blazes.’ Before May could move, a trolley, its diffused beam a hazy light, silently loomed large out of the wall of fog. ‘My God… Help!’ There was a sickening muffled thud. ‘Mam! Are you all right?’ As May catapulted forward, she knew, with heart-wrenching clarity, that this was the last birthday she and her mother would ever celebrate together.

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