Royston Tester

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From You Turn Your Back (2014)


You Turn Your Back

© Royston Tester, 2014, All Rights Reserved.

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Mofo lives next door to Mrs. Shooter. He's big trouble. She knows that. Leather boy. Tinderbox. Mofo knifes bikers in his own chapter, beats heavens knows who. She's kept away from him—Brummie white trash. Like she did with her 'Satan's Choice' husband and two sons. Can't trust men worth a farthing, she often says. Neighbours neither.

Mrs. Shooter first hears Mofo's words—and someone screaming back—as she walks, against the wind, to her gate. The terraced houses, and bungalows, stand on Culmington Street. Hard and cracked the words are, like thunder on the Lickey Hills. Mofo is inside with peroxide-lady Agnes—a washed out teenager, really. Pointy-faced, his guinea pig. Threatening words. For Agnes.

Then, quiet. Except for these westerlies.

Mrs. Shooter holds on to the gate. In a clattering, February gust, she feels like that man in the advertisement: in an armchair, hair and tie blasted back by the hurricane from his TV set. Wasn't that Mrs. Shooter? Forever in a pickle about what to do?

More raised voices—"Motherfucker!" A splintering of wood.

Steadying herself at the gate, she notices over the Lickeys—past the prefabs opposite, and the car factory—racing winter clouds from the Bristol Channel and Severn Valley.

Let Mofo stop.

An inside door slams. Agnes, she says to herself, hurry away while you can. The girl's silence gnaws at the wind. Some of the gate has flaked off. Black and rust in the wool of Mrs. Shooter's mittens.

Hurry, hurry away.

She lets the gate swing–and trips back to her house. Waltzes the metal dustbins—crash, bang, wallop—and stumbles, puffing her cheeks. She re-stacks old planks of wood, hurling them along the ginnel between their two homes. She grabs at a beer crate, full of Mofo's empties, and hurls it at his wall.

She leans against a drainpipe. Can you hear, motherfucker?

"Hey!" says Mofo. He lurches from their back door. "Mrs. S! How's it hangin', love? Makin' a bit of a stink, aren't ye?"

"What's happening in there, Mofo?"

"Now, Mrs. S. ... Got my red wings, yesterday. Agnes tell you? Off for them black ones today."

She shifts—to look past his leather shoulder. Mofo clips the door with his boot. Then locks it.

"Oh, ah," she says, thinking at first to delay him. Red wings? Mrs. Shooter knew about that from her sons and their clubhouse gang. Rite of passage. Cunnilingus on a menstruating woman: red wings. Witnessed by the bikers and their bitches.

"Our Agnes will tell you."

Did he force her to watch?

"Day like this..." he says. "You should be by the gas-fire, not out buying your crossword books." Mofo swings onto his motorcycle.

The revving pinches at Mrs. Shooter's ear until she cringes.

"Ride for granny to the paper shop?" He swaggers the machine out to the road.

"Have you harmed her?"

"Keep your nose out, love," he says. "Black wings, today. Gotta go."

At the clubhouse, it was a black woman's turn. Mrs. Shooter knew about that, too—she'd once witnessed a scene. What's happened to Agnes?

"Life's a cunt, ain't it, Mrs. S.?"

Mofo pats the Harley seat.

"Gave up on your kind years ago, sonny."

He scoffs—and revs the engine some more. "That ain't so fockin' neighborly, Mrs. S.."

Mofo rides away. 'Satan's Choice' on his jacket baring its angelic ass.

"Y'damned scum!" she yells. Just like Gabby and my sons.

Blue mittens clenched, Mrs. Shooter punches on Agnes's door. Useless men, she says to herself. Tossers. Her stomach clenches. She bangs and bangs until, between the bashing, she can hear the girl.

"Open the bloody door, dear! It's me."

Mrs. Shooter tears off one of her mittens so that she can rap more sharply. Both hands now: one bare, the other blue. Smashing fists into her reflection. Pounding, pounding. Flecks of paint from the gate. She beats them—petal-black—into the glass.

There's Agnes. Crawling to the door.


"Shitehawks" was her word for Mofo and Agnes when, in January, the biker tenants moved in next door. Mrs. Shooter was smarting from an incident at the local church—St. Michael and All Angels—where the Boy Scouts Committee of Ladies, five women in their Sunday best, had insisted she brew tea (and not manage a stall) during the annual jumble sale. "You have a knack with loose leaves," said one of the hats. Mrs. Shooter knew the pecking order. Tea ranked with mopping. The vicar sided with the coats and hats, patted her shoulder and moved on.

The putdown was to do with her being a former char, part-time at Cadbury's and Boxfoldia; not to mention a made-redundant-Austin-worker's widow—hoi polloi. They were wives: to a plumber, building contractor, driving instructor, school-crossing attendant, and an electrician. Hardly nouveau riche, but a squeak above Austin and char for it to count. They had telephones in their homes—and donated money as well as time to The Church. She cut up greeting cards with crimping scissors—and turned them into gift tags. Worse, she was not a member of the parish "Regular Giving Plan." Ecclesiasticard, Mrs Shooter called it. God's standing order keeping Michael and Angels aloft.

Toffee-noses, she reminded herself afterwards, on the path to Tessall Lane. Hats and bloody Midlands. Mrs. Shooter decided to walk in Daffodil Park.

Normally, she would have ignored a seventeen-year-old like Agnes sitting on a bench in tight-fitting clothes. "Draggle-tail" Mrs. Shooter would have thought. Brummie trollop looking for blokes—even in this weather. But to spite the Committee of Ladies, or because of them, and the wintry chill, she walked up to her new neighbour.

"Sent you to Coventry then, has he?"

Silence as loud as Longbridge Lane traffic.

"Eh?" said the girl. She didn't trouble to raise her eyes.

"Ignoring you is he, your bloke?"

"Oh, it's you," the girl said. "Coventry?"

"Sending someone to Coventry. It's an expression."

"I've been to Coventry."

Mrs. Shooter nodded. "It's not important, dear."

"Got bombed, didn't it? Coventry Cathedral."

"Yes, love. In the war. Did you see the famous sculpture?"


Pig ignorance of the young.

"The archangel and the devil," Mrs. Shooter went on. She sat herself down. "It's outside. Very famous."

"The angel stomping on a nigger? I did see that."

"It's meant to be Satan, love." Mrs Shooter frowned. The girl was shivering. "Are you okay?"

"I've been up all night," she said. "You hear everything next door, don't you?"

A train left Longbridge station. The elderly woman felt a powerful urge to move on—but for some reason remained. Across the park, the River Rae smelled of oil, silt.

"You must hate us, Mrs. Shooter. We're always yellin'."

"Your house is made of wooden planks, you know. I can hear you breathe."

"I'm sorry."

Agnes seemed barely interested.

"Do you know why my house is brick and yours is wood?"

She grumbled something—impatient.

"Guess," said Mrs. Shooter. She wondered why she bothered.

The train rattled toward Birmingham city centre.

"Ran out of brass?"

"Lord Austin made the workers' estate in 1900. Every block of wooden bungalows, Canadian pine, has a brick house between. See over there?" She pointed across the tiny river, and railway.

Agnes shifted on the seat. "Three little pigs tell him?"

Mrs. Shooter smiled. "The brick is a firebreak, my kind of house."

The two sat quietly.

"What were you doing last night, Mrs. Shooter?" Agnes said. "I saw your light on at four in the morning."

"Gift tags, love," she replied. "I make them for the church jumble sales. Silly bee that I am."

They sat in silence some more.

"I got screwed by eight fellas, Mrs. Shooter," said Agnes, beginning to cry. "I passed out at the fifth, I think. At their club."

Mrs. Shooter stared at the disappearing train.

"Mofo thinks he's God, you know," the girl said. "It gets out of hand."

Mrs. Shooter's mitten rested on Agnes's forearm, but awkwardly, as though ready for the off. By the track and mucky river—in a park where daffodils grow. Two women, steel and dark water in their eyes.

"Mike will know what to do," said Agnes that same winter, one evening in Mrs. Shooter's sitting-room.


"Mofo doesn't know about him," said the girl, almost vengefully. "You should meet him. He'll help us both."

Both? The elderly woman nodded. "Why not try and work it out with Mofo? He'll settle down once he finds work. Then he'll leave those stupid bikers. My sons Stan and Nick went through the same routine. Is Mofo seventeen like you?"


Agnes slipped thread into a coloured square of Christmas card, neatly snipped by Mrs. Shooter. Agnes knotted the ends and packed two dozen tags into a freezer bag.

"Is Mike a secret boyfriend?"

"Not likely," said Agnes. "He gives me advice like you do. Mike's your splitting image."

"Spitting, Agnes. Spitting image."

"No gold thread in these?" said the girl. She fingered a pile of cards.

"Don't try puzzling those cards out. Typical of my sons. Nick sends them. Or Stan. The postmark is always London. But they forget to sign!"

"It's blank, front and back, too."

"Let's call it a snow-angel card, Agnes. You can't see anything on it. Gift tags need colour."

Ignoring Mrs. Shooter, she punched a hole in the snow angel–slipped gold into it and raised the card.

"Nothing's clear, love. People won't know which side to write on."

Agnes raised another white square, admired it, and did not reply. Mrs. Shooter felt uneasy. She wanted to think of Agnes leading her kind of ordered, secure, tag-making life, but without the bitterness. The girl needed guidance. Crabby friendship was the best Mrs. Shooter could offer.

"They must treat you like a dog at that 'Satan' place, Agnes," she said later. "Gabby my husband, and our sons, shouted and carried on. I was never a person to them. Took me most of my life to realize it."

"What did you do?"

"Told them they were on their own, love."

"You left."

"Oh no, Agnes," she replied. "I stayed, and got rid of them."

"I don't want to do that, Mrs. Shooter."

"Turn your back? No dear, I don't suppose you do. I'm not very proud of it. In fact, I've often had second thoughts. Gabby died a few years after my decision. Stan and Nick found labourers' work down south. I forced them. Maybe what I ever wanted was a break. Some praise and affection. I don't know. It's too late now."

"Mofo's weak really, Mrs. Shooter," she said, jabbing a hole in another piece of card. "He won't do anything to me, except yell."

"Weak ones need the most work, pet," she said. "Or they escalate, like my two boys did."

"Mike thinks I should leave Mofo."

"Is Mike a priest? I bet he's never been in a relationship. Stay with Mofo, dear. Don't make my kind of mistake—it gives you one hell of a lonely life. Save Mofo from himself. Get his yelling to turn into something kinder."

"It's the first time you and Mike have a different opinion on something," said Agnes.

"I should have a chat with this wee laddie Mike."


Mrs. Shooter smashes a broomstick into the glass of Agnes's kitchen door. Wisps of her silver hair slip from their grips. She catches the sound of a man's voice—is the television on?— even before the rest of the pane crashes to the linoleum.

She reaches in and snatches the lock aside. Bastard devil, Mofo! Agnes has propped herself against the stove like a puppet exhausted by play. Her face is a damson porridge, her lower lip bleeds. Oh my God. Mrs. Shooter makes a dry, choking sound. Muttering, comforting, she helps Agnes to the living-room sofa in front of the television.

"A glass of water," says the girl. "They're giving Mofo a rough time at the club."

Mrs. Shooter hurries to the kitchen. Over splinters of glass, she yanks one cupboard door after another, hunting for a cup—then freezes. The man's voice cannot be coming from the television. It is turned off.

A man is in the house?

She can see, down the hallway, Agnes lying on the settee. Like a fish, the girl is mouthing something in the direction of the television. Her lips are bathed in light as though the set were on. Suddenly the girl heaves.

Mrs. Shooter fills a teacup with water—and rushes back to Agnes. The television is definitely off. Where is this brightness coming from?

"Here," she says, kneeling. Mrs. Shooter looks about nervously, and wipes Agnes's mouth with her sleeve. "I'll call the ambulance."

Mrs. Shooter's legs are shaking so much she cannot stand. Up, you old warhorse, she tells herself.

Agnes is losing consciousness.

"There's no phone," Agnes says. "Stay, please."

"Mike was right," replies Mrs. Shooter. "Mofo's a monster."

There is an odour in the room. An outdoor dampness. Gently, Mrs. Shooter tips the cup—its sheen—between Agnes's lips, shivers and once again tries to stand.

"Keep awake, Agnes," she says.

A chill creeps about the sofa. Stench from the River Rae, Mrs. Shooter thinks.

"I said you should work things out with him, Agnes! What a fool I am."

The wooden bungalows are draughty.

"I must hurry to the phone box on Culmington, dear."

"Tell Mike you were wrong," says Agnes. "Tell him." She glances at a spot behind the kneeling woman—and faints away.

Mrs. Shooter can no more twist than fly. Suddenly, she feels a fingertip on her left shoulder. She flinches.

"Mofo?" she says. "Please, stop."

Mrs. Shooter leans forward to protect the girl. As she holds her, she realizes Agnes is dead.

With effort, Mrs. Shooter clambers to her feet—and turns around.

Nobody there.

She hurries, as best she can, to the kitchen door—and out past the ginnel and its dustbin lids. No sign of Mofo—nor a Mike.

'Tell Mike yourself'—what was Agnes talking about? Mrs. Shooter runs toward the Culmington phone booth. It stands there bright red, its tiny windows missing. Door off its hinges.

She gazes at wires where a handset once lay. The coin box is dented.
Mrs. Shooter bends over—and rests her hands on her thighs. The cement floor smells of urine, nub ends.

"Angel," she says. "Angel."

Her disbelieving eyes—in flames.


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