Where new writing finds its voice
Short Story

Time for Sleep

Caroline England

Tell me a story, you say. I can’t sleep. Tell me a story about the olden days. I smile; you usually say tell me a story about a murder. But it’s late, well past your bedtime and you know that a story of death would frighten you and disturb your sleep. And of course you are right. It would.


*   *   * 


‘She’s crying again. She’s always bloody crying, Mother. How can I concentrate on anything with that racket? I just wish she’d stop …’

‘Now you know what I have to say about it.’ Gran pulls her sour face which I don’t often see. It’s like the face she uses when she’s sucking a mint, but that’s a happy face, she likes her two-ounce ration of mints. Today she’s cross with Mam. ‘At least put her down. You can’t go carrying round a screaming bairn when you’ve got eight hungry mouths to feed. You’ll not hear her in the top room …’

‘I’ll have her Mam,’ I say. ‘She stops sometimes for me. Give her here and I’ll show you.’

‘You’re a good lad, Derek. Mind her head, son.’


*   *   *


Tell me about your house at the top of the hill, you say, and about your brother and sisters and where you all slept. 

And I close my eyes to retreat in time and I inhale the familiar dank smell of clothes drying by an open fire. There were eight of us, I say, two boys and six girls. I was the first lad, number four. There wasn’t enough room in our house, so the older girls went to live with Gran next door …

What was she like, your Grandma?, you ask, and I say, she was a lovely big lady with a ready smile, a proud bosom and a cloud of white hair

What’s a bosom? you ask and I laugh.


*   *   *


‘What’s that lump on her head?’ John asks. He’s only four and he wants to know. We all want to know. I take the bonnet from his grubby fingers and gently put it back on, and she lets me without crying. 

‘She’s special, I expect,’ I reply. ‘And don’t mess with her hat. Mam’ll go mad.’

‘She’s always mad these days. She never laughs any more. Just leaves me with Barbara and Mags and they’re girls.’

‘Maybe Grandad’ll take you to the match if you’re good.’

‘But you’re going, aren’t you?’

I look at the clock on the mantle. 

‘I’ll see …’ I reply as the baby sleeps sound on my lap.


*   *   *


Tell me about your Grandad and bacon, you ask. And though your eyes are wilting, I know it’s a story you want to take with you to sleep. 

There was an alley next to our house at the top of the hill, I reply, and when Grandad was too frail to go to the match, he’d wait at the top for the first man to come home with the score, and there he would stay until pitch, hoping that the last man home would tell a different tale.

Did they always lose, Grandpa? 

It seemed that way to Grandad but he hated it more when United won …

And that’s why he wouldn’t eat bacon, you laugh.

Aye, I reply, remembering the smell and the taste of the lard, he said nothing red and white would ever pass his lips.


*   *   *


John’s asleep; his body bundled against mine for the warmth. He’s snoring ‘cos of his cold but nothing drowns out the noise of her cry. It’s loud and shrill tonight and I want to go to her, but I know Mam would get mad. She’s been mad all day. Shouting and crying and banging the pots. Told us all to get out from under her feet, even though there’s snow on the hills. But when we got to the door, she pulled us all back inside with a wan smile saying she was sorry and that she didn’t really mean it, but could we all take turns with the baby. And I took the baby, but she cried.


*   *   *


Night, night I say softly to your closed freckled face. You smile and breathe out a long sigh, the start of a night’s oblivion and I wish you happy dreams and peaceful sleep as I stiffly rise from the bed and turn off the lamp. I pause for a moment to adjust my eyes to the gloom, then head towards the shaft of light breathing from the rooms below and I find my eyes are wet. It’s silent now, but then her cries shattered the peace as I crept down the stairs in my pyjamas and crouched in a shivering ball before I reached the creaky step fourth from the bottom.

Mam was walking round the room, cradling the baby in her arms. Her face had collapsed into a mess of snot and tears and her hair looked wild as it fell from the knot on her head. I wanted to go to her, but Gran was there, sat at the table, looking tired but calm with her fat folded arms. They’d had half a beer, I noticed from the empty glasses on the table, and for a moment I wondered what they had been celebrating, but then Gran scraped back her chair and stood. ‘Give her to me,’ she said above the wailing. Then again, ‘Give her to me, Lily’ but more softly this time.

And so Mam gave her the baby, still shrieking and flailing her skinny pink arms.

‘There, there,’ Gran said softly, holding the baby aloft. ‘It’s not fair, is it? Time for sleep.’ She drew the baby to her until the perfect face was pressed against Gran’s bosom and there she stayed ‘til the silence came and the only sobbing was my own.