Ailsa’s Red Patent Bag
The crate stamped Buffalo, New York shed its promised delights and a red patent handbag emerged with a flurry. Ailsa reached over the silken heads of her wee brothers and plucked it out of Mum’s hands. This bag couldn’t be meant for her mother. She of the thick glasses, the wax apron, perfuming all in her wake with the whiff of Domestos. She of the red-raw washday hands that scoured your skin on contact.
Mum raised her eyebrows. ‘Och, awright, hen, you huv it.’
Ailsa planked it in her wardrobe to examine later, returning to the continued emptying of Aunty Morag’s crate and the pleasure of treats outside of Christmas and birthdays.
Satisfied with chocolate, a pair of ice-skating boots she was never likely to wear, and some Minnie Mouse pyjamas, Ailsa retrieved her new bag. She set it on the chair under the window and looked out over backyards to the play park along the boundary of the scheme. Outside, weans squealed to the thud of running feet and a bicycle bell trilled. Huffing, she swished the curtains close, stepped to the door, and ear to the wood, turned the handle, teasing it shut with a squeak. Her room took on a glow, an in-between day and night seclusion.
She rested the bag on her lap, turned it around, fingered every nook and cranny, zipped and unzipped the compartments, raised it to her cheek, let the gloss slip-slide over her skin, and breathed in the tang of elegance. Twin compartments with two zipped inside pockets were separated by a stiff divider. The handles were erect strands that met at the apex, not quite long enough to go over her shoulder, and it was the red of strawberries when they were fit to bust. The bag itself, if you didn’t count the handles, filled the space from Ailsa’s knees to just under her budding chest. She raided her bedside drawer: her comb, a tangle of elastic bands, Kirby grips, a box of mints, two pencils, a grubby rubber, a sharpener emptied of shavings prior to inclusion, and a bluebell hanky she’d chain stitched in Primary 7. She added several red notebooks from Woolies and her buttoned-up purse in which there was one thrupenny bit and a couple of pennies, put in fake cigarettes, the ones that tasted of icing sugar, and a sachet of shampoo.
She unfurled her socks, rubbing at the red lines circling her calves, pulled at her tie until she could pass it over her head, unbuttoned her blouse, slipped out of her skirt, shoved her uniform in the wardrobe, and waltzed up and down in front of the mirror in her slip, her feet arched to replicate high heels. She held the bag on her arm, her fingers splayed at her cheek in the way catwalk models posed.
She flounced down on the bed.
The bag was clunky on her arm, falling to her knees. Mum would laugh if she saw her antics. She emptied it out on her candlewick cover, inserted it in a pillowslip, handles sticking out in protest, and laid it on the top shelf of the airing cupboard.
What with having to choose her subjects for O level, Mum’s perpetual chores, the onset of womanhood, the attendant cramps and disgusting sanitary towels– who thought them up? – Ailsa’s life was just one continual strop.
Until Chrissie joined her class.
Chrissie was a whole year older than Ailsa, she’d been held back at her previous school due to her misfortune. Ailsa hadn’t the nerve to ask what this might be, putting it down to the fact that her parents were divorced.
That first day in class, Chrissie stood at the blackboard, hand on hip, toe pointing forth, the pink tip of her tongue darting between top and bottom lip, and announced with a smile, to Teacher and a room full of bored fourteen-year-old girls, ‘Hi guys, I’m Chrissie Hall.’
Hi guys. To the teacher. How mature was that?
A frisson sizzled through Ailsa as Chrissie tossed back her silver hair. It was like early frost on a windowpane, and her eyes were sharp blue. She had a figure too, a bust that thrust from the V of her cardigan.
Since then, Ailsa had spent most Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evenings round at Chrissie’s, five streets away and far enough to ensure the parents didn’t meet casually. Ailsa paled at the thought of Mum showing her up in front of Chrissie.
This evening, Ailsa’s parents thought she was at Chrissie’s, if they thought about it at all, most likely glad to be shot of her moaning, and happy to see the back of her. Mum and Dad seemed to jump and jive just to see her smile, so much so that she took on a permanent scowl in their company. On the back of that she’d wangled a checked-black swing coat, a pleated mini skirt, tight fitting knee boots and a bob like Cilla’s.
Now she had a real use for the red patent bag, instead of the occasional outings in front of the mirror. She pulled the bag down, drew it from its pillowslip, kissed it and filled it with her bits and bobs. Oh, glamour indeed. Between this wean and that, she levered herself out of the house to Mum shouting, ‘Don’t be late’.
Soon she and Chrissie were scurrying down Main Road arm in arm, Chrissie’s pearl lips luminous in the dark, Ailsa’s eyes heavy with mascara. They giggled about the date arranged that afternoon in Capaldi’s. Packed to the gunnels on a Saturday, they’d had to squeeze their way in, heady with the hit of coffee, vanilla and dark tangy chocolate.
‘Get a move on, Ailsa. We’ll miss the seats at the back.’ A party of four were vacating a booth and Ailsa twisted through tables until she slid in to the bench, Chrissie bagging the place opposite.
Chrissie leant forward, her cleavage misted with talc as she sloughed off her jacket. ‘Did you see those guys eyeing us up as we came in?’
Ailsa turned around, but Chrissie grabbed her hand. ‘Don’t, you’ll look too keen. Let me reel them in.’
‘Oh, right.’ Alisa concentrated on Chrissie’s face. She was gorgeous and far more sophisticated than Ailsa. She’d had loads of boyfriends and knew how to flirt. Ailsa flushed. Maybe this would be her first date.
‘Two Irn-Bru ice creams please.’ Chrissie’s ice-eyes glinted over the waitress’s shoulder as she wiped their table. It wasn’t long before those eyes swept two good-looking fellas over to their booth. They slid in while Ailsa pretended fascination with her orange infused bubbles. Before she sooked up the last of her Irn-Bru a date had been made for that evening.
Now Ailsa scanned the queue at the picture hall. People waited in pairs for the evening show, their conversations billowing up and down the line. Her mum would kill her, they didn’t know anything about these boys, they weren’t local, but maybe they wouldn’t turn up anyway. She jumped at a tap on her shoulder and turned to a wink and a lopsided grin. Under the lamplight, she didn’t recognise the face. Chrissie was allowing her date to kiss her full on the mouth. This one must be hers then. Bill. She smiled in a manner that was just right.
Funny, but she could have sworn Bill was much younger in the café, maybe the half-light had tricked her. This fella looked… well, over twenty. He might expect a kiss like Chrissie’s date, Tom. She was no way going to kiss him in this queue. Or maybe even at all. He wasn’t that good looking. He was red-faced from the cold and his small chin was pitted with acne which became angrier at his throat. Chrissie was acting all Brigitte Bardot, pouting and flashing smiles. Ailsa wished she wouldn’t do that, there might be local folk who knew their mothers. She hurried on into the dark hall, breathing again once they found their seats. But not for long. Bill nudged her arm and passed a flask. She whispered, ‘What is it?’
What if someone noticed and they got thrown out? She’d die of shame. ‘No thanks,’ she said.
‘Suit yersel.’ He took a slurp.
That’s what was wrong with him. He was half-cut. She sat forward and tried to concentrate on the screen, her heart pounding at her ribcage. When he slid his arm around her shoulders, she stiffened.
‘It’s awright, Doll.’ He breathed booze into her face.
Ailsa was caught between the urge to get up and run, and the embarrassment of appearing a fool. She decided to sit it out. And besides she couldn’t leave Chrissie alone with them both. She glanced over. Tom’s arm was around Chrissie’s shoulder and his hand flopped far too close to her breast. Ailsa flushed hot from her forehead to her knees.
It took her a few deep breaths to calm her nerves and she held fast to her handbag on her knee. Bill seemed to have got the message when he withdrew his arm and settled back. He seemed absorbed in the film, some war story called The Great Escape. When the lights went up at the intermission, she tried to catch Chrissie’s attention but she refused to meet her eye. Bill asked if she liked the film. She nodded and tried to smile. He wasn’t so bad, he seemed to have sobered up, was being relaxed and polite, and he fetched her an ice cream tub. She couldn’t concentrate on the rest of the picture, being sandwiched between Bill and Tom, alert to every squeak and shuffle at either side.
As they left the cinema she tried to shake off her date. ‘I’ll be off home now, thank you, goodnight.’
He laughed and caught her arm. ‘Ah’ll take ye hame sweetheart, don’t want ye gettin intae any bother noo, dae we?’ There was a wheedling in his voice that gave her the heebie-jeebies but she didn’t want to cause a scene with the crowds milling around. He had her firm by the arm. There was no sign of Chrissie.
‘Maybe we’d better find Chrissie and Tom?’
‘Don’t worry about them. They’re huvin a great time. Least he is.’ He laughed.
What happened between that and being wheeched up a close, Ailsa had no idea.
Her back was being driven into the freezing tiles on the wall. Her bag bit into her leg under the weight of him, his breath and tongue were all over her face. ‘Cumoan, relax,’ he kept saying. She tried to scream but his mouth muffled that soon enough. Someone must come: home from a night out, back from work, go out on the night shift. She tried to kick out, only for him to wedge a knee across her thighs. Her arms were pinioned to the wall by his chest. He stank of cloying aftershave and sour sweat. When his hand crept under her skirt and groped her bum, Ailsa started to cry, the tears mixing with his slime.
A door opened, spilling light into the stairwell. A man’s voice. ‘Hey, whit’s goin on here. Nae winchin up this close.’
Ailsa wailed, but it came out like a snort.
Bill said loudly, his hand relaxing, ‘Only having a wee kiss o ma girl, nae bother auld yin.’
‘No, No, I’m not his girl.’
The man was going back in. She gave a shove, got an inch of space, freed one arm and drove her bag hard under Bill’s chin, caught him off balance, swung the bag again at his head and registered a crack as he squealed. She fell out of the close mouth, scrambled up, looked around for someone, anyone, but the street was empty, curtains closed.
‘What the…’ His voice propelled her on.
The street was a line of tenements with dark, yawning closes, only the occasional spangle of light breaking four storeys of stone. She raced away, only turning at the corner to see him sway and stamp in the middle of the road clutching his head. Like a two-bit actor in a cowboy film.
Ailsa kept running, past streets of tenements until she reached the play park. Though it was inky black ahead, she’d have to risk it. Tendrils of frosted breath flickered into the black. Clouds patched the night sky, masking the moon. She stepped gingerly through the gate. Fingers fluttering at arms-length to feel her way, she tripped. Steadying herself, she inched forward on the path and as her eyes adjusted to the dark, made out the slide on her right and the swings on her left, eerily glowing with frost. When she heard footsteps approaching, her throat tightened. She stumbled again and was steadied by a hand at her elbow.
She looked up, terrified.
It was her mother. ‘Hen, ye’re awfy late. Ah came oot tae look fer ye. Cumoan the way hame.’
When they reached home, Ailsa shut the door quietly behind her and took off her boots. She stepped into the lobby. Mum was already at her bedroom door, curlers under her scarf, wrapped against the cold. She made no attempt to flip the switch and there was only the yellow tinge of a streetlight seeping into the space between them.
‘Och hen, get to yer bed now, and don’t wake the boys.’
Ailsa dropped her red bag, changed into her flannelettes, went to the toilet, stripped, and scrubbed her skin red-raw.