"Humanity's weight comes crushing down.
Do people care?
Sheila Marcus (1948 - 2000)
Friday 22 December 2000 was a bitterly cold morning. The bag lady clutched her cheap bottle of whisky tighter in her cold chapped hands, afraid that the numbness would cause her to drop the bottle and lose the meagre happiness and relief it brought to her meaningless existence. She needed something to combat the cold ache in her bones. 'Christmas spirit' she thought to herself and cackled loudly, which soon turned into a coughing fit, drawing disgusted stares from the multitude of shoppers rushing down Main Street, eager to complete their last minute Christmas purchases.
"Spare a dollar for a poor hungry lady" she rasped to the passers-by.
"So you can waste it on booze" said a man loaded with Christmas packages. "Not likely, get lost, sort yourself out and get a job like the rest of us" he added, scowling at her ferociously. He still had toys to buy for his two children and the last thing he needed was to be hassled by a tramp. "And take a bath while you're at it - you stink!"
Sheila Turner took no notice of the insult. It was hardly the first. She took a swig from the bottle and continued ambling along Main Street, managing to find plenty of space despite the crowds, as people moved out of her way to avoid any possible contact.
Just a few more yards up the street she stopped outside Maggie's General Store. The blackboard outside proclaimed that for today's special offer you could buy 12 French Golden Delicious apples for the price of 6. Placing the bottle of whisky in one of her deep overcoat pockets, Sheila pushed the door open and entered the store. She squinted her eyes to tight slits as the glare from the fluorescent lights assaulted her sensitive eyes. Moving towards the counter she saw Maggie serving an elderly lady dressed in a thick imitation fur coat, her perfume was a rich cloying aroma, which many would believe to be far too sexual for her years.
After packing her purchases into a thick polythene shopping bag the lady turned away from the counter, almost colliding with Sheila who was looking at the bottles of spirits with an almost angelic devotion.
"Goodness" exclaimed the lady, twitching her nose in disgust as the smell of Sheila's unwashed clothing and body cut through the fragrant perfume like a hot knife through butter. "Goodness me" she repeated, moving past Sheila and heading for the exit at a speed which belied her fragile years, one leather gloved hand waving up and down in front of her nose. "Awful, goodness me, awful" she added, and then having reached the exit, she focused her attention on to the Christian Fellowship Meeting she had scheduled for later that afternoon, where she would play her part in helping towards whatever charity they had lined up for the poor and needy this month.
As Sheila reached the counter, Maggie smiled at her broadly, discreetly ignoring Sheila's smell and heartily exclaiming "Sheila, good morning to you. Would you like the apples, they are very good, would you like some?"
"No Mags, its me teeth" Sheila replied, evidencing this with a grin, revealing blackened stumps protruding out of raw diseased gums. "I'd luv some of them grapes though. Can I ave some Sheila love, can I?
Maggie left the counter and moved over to the fruit and vegetable stand. She picked up a bunch of seedless grapes and handed them to Sheila. However much she liked Maggie, Maggie knew that she must not help herself to the produce, as this would offend any potential customers.
"You're a love Mags" Sheila announced as Maggie handed her the grapes. "We go back a long way you and me Mag, a long long way. God bless you Mags, God bless you."
"You take care now Sheila. If you need anything, anything at all, you come and see me okay."
Sheila made her way out of the shop. She visited Maggie's General Store daily, and Sheila always gave her some free food. She once again found herself on the crowded street and reached into her pocket for the bottle there. Taking a hefty swig, she cast her mind back to the past, to a time when she was young, to a time when being a bag lady would have seemed a ridiculous future proposition. Maggie was there in that dim cloudy past. Maggie, with her long red hair and carefree attitude. The years slipped back in her mind, back to 1964, and as her mind slipped back, the crowds seemed to recede, to fade and then disappear and the past came rushing in. She was knocking on a door. No, she wasn't knocking, she was banging on a door, on Maggie's door and screaming, banging, screaming, howling, crying...
Maggie hurried to the door. "I'm coming, hold on, I'm coming" she shouted, rushing to the door and almost tripping up on the fashion magazine lying in the sitting room doorway. Pulling the door open, she let Sheila into the apartment, and glanced down the landing where an elderly neighbour shouted "keep the noise down will you!" She poked her tongue out and then slammed the door. "Come and sit down love", she looked at Sheila's distraught face, the tears streaming down her face. "What on earth is wrong? Look, sit down and I'll make you a cuppa."
Sheila made her way to the worn sofa and sank into it, her shudders beginning to ease as the warmth and comfort of her friend's apartment began to calm her. Maggie called from the kitchen "I'll be with you in a mo, just make yourself comfy."
A few minutes later, Maggie entered the lounge with two steaming cups of tea on a tray, heavily laden with biscuits. Setting the tray down on to a small wooden table, she sat next to Sheila on the sofa and put her arm around her friend's shoulder. "It's okay Sheila, everything's okay. You just relax and when you're ready to talk, I'm here to listen. Just take your time, I'm in no rush."
They sat in silence for a few moments. Maggie did not wish to push her friend, knowing that she needed to calm down and gather her thoughts before spilling her heart. Maggie made her way to the record player and put on a soothing jazz record, keeping the volume low. Returning to the sofa, Maggie once more sat beside her friend and clasped her hand. Words were not needed to bestow her concern, they were too close for words to be the only form of communication. They had been friends since the age of 5, and at 16 they were closer than ever.
The music seemed to have the desired calming effect and it wasn't long before Sheila spoke. However, the two words that her friend uttered sent a chill up her spine and caused her heart to speed up.
Sheila buried her face in her hands and in a strained whimper, the words struggling past her lips stammered "It's Dad."
Those two words spoke volumes to Maggie. Sheila's dad was a brutal self-centred man, who felt it was his duty to beat his wife and daughter into submission should they displease him. Ironically, he was a well-respected lawyer who pretended to be the gentleman outside of his home, but as far as his family were concerned, his fists were put to far more use than the clever wording used in his line of work. Sheila had once made the mistake of spilling a small drop of coffee on to a legal document he was working on, and had sustained a black eye and two broken fingers for her clumsiness.
Whilst Maggie did not wish to rush her friend, a further period of silence ensued and she felt she needed to say something. Sheila normally spoke freely, but she was clearly still in shock and needed some gentle probing to help her release her pent up anger.
"Did he beat y... " Maggie began, but before she could finish her question, Sheila cut in.
"The bastard. The dirty stinking bastard did more than that. I hate him, God I hate him, and Mum, what does she care? Oh, no mustn't upset dad. Where would she get the money for her clothes then? How would she be able to go to the hairdressers once a fortnight hmmm. Oh, no, nothing must upset her sense of security. She doesn't give a shit about me. She's as bad as him. All she thinks about is money. Well fuck em. The bastard, the fucki... "
"Sheila, calm down love, calm down" Maggie exclaimed. She was shocked. She'd seen Sheila upset before, but her friend hardly ever swore. Maggie's heart trip hammered in her chest as she realized that this time it must have been really bad. But how could it be any worse? What could he do that was worse than beating her black and blue?
Sheila had both fists clenched, her long blond hair hung down her face in sticky matted rivulets. She once more burst into tears, bringing her clenched fists down on to her legs, oblivious to the bruising she was causing herself.
Maggie realized that she should not probe any further at this point. Her friend needed to regain her wits and calm down before she could speak any further. Maggie grasped her friend's wrists, horrified at the way she was hitting herself. She found herself fighting back her own tears, and struggled to swallow past the hard lump, which had arisen in her throat at her friend's distress.
"Shhh love, it's alright, I'm here, shhhh"
It took a little over twenty minutes before Sheila had regained her composure enough to continue, and then, amazingly, she laughed, but it was a bitter laugh, but at the same time it sounded incredulous.
"You'd never guess what crime I committed," Sheila said, turning to her friend, her lip turned up in a sneer.
"Go on" Maggie replied, "I'm here, I'm with you, tell me."
Sheila laughed bitterly again, "I broke his cup." More bitter laughter followed, and then, spitting venom, she continued "I broke his precious fucking cup. Anybody would think I'd set fire to the curtains or ripped his best suit, but I broke his precious fucking tourist cup from London. It slipped out of my hand while I was doing the dishes. It was an accident for God's sake, an accident. It's okay for him to smash up ornaments when he's drunk, but no, no, I mustn't accidentally break his fucking cup must I. Not the one he brought all the way back from England with the stupid red Double Decker bus on it. I broke his fucking cup, I wish it had been his fucking neck."
Sheila picked up her cup of tea, but before she could take a sip Maggie stopped her with "Sheila that'll be cold by now let me make you another.
Maggie picked up the tray and made her way to the kitchen, giving Sheila time to calm herself once more. After putting the kettle on the stove, she heard Sheila approaching from behind.
Sheila had managed to compose herself and had followed Maggie into the kitchen as she felt she needed to get what happened off of her chest.
"I swept the mess up. I was hoping that I could plead ignorance and pretend I didn't know where his cup was, but he came into the kitchen whilst I was still sweeping. He asked me what I'd broken. I began to cry and apologize, hoping that he would let me be, but he just stood there and started to unbuckle his belt. I looked up at him and said "No Dad, I'm 16 years old, you can't use a belt on me at my age, it's not right", but he just continued unbuckling. He sat down on the kitchen chair and told me to pull my skirt up and lie across his lap. I shook my head and said "you can't do that Dad, I'm too old to be spanked like a little kid, it's indecent." His face went a horrible purple colour and he asked me how I dared to defy him.
Maggie looked at her friend in sympathy. Her own parents were kind and gentle and were even paying for her flat to help her start off in life. She found it incredible that people could treat their own flesh and blood in such a fashion. "You should report him Sheila. He can't get away with beating you like this."
"He didn't" Sheila replied.
"Uhh, but you said... "
"Oh he wanted to, and believe it or not I would have let him, just to keep the peace, they're my parents, what can I do?" Sheila paused for a moment, and then she began shaking again. Maggie could tell that her anger was beginning to boil up inside her once more. Her voice began shaking as she continued. "I began walking towards him, resigned, but as I began to pull my dress up I noticed that he was... " Sheila's voice hitched as she tried to expel the words. She took a deep breath, and clutching the kitchen table, so hard that her knuckles turned white, exclaimed "He was hard. The bastard was sitting there and he was hard. I'm his fucking daughter and he was... "
"Ohhh Sheila, oh my God, no... "
Sheila slumped onto a kitchen chair, burying her face in her hands once more. Maggie had finished making the tea and pulled out a chair and sat next to her.
"Ohhh Sheila, I'm so sorry, I'm so so sorry." Maggie was lost for words, what could she possibly say to ease her friend's grief. What was there to say, words became almost meaningless.