Smethers the postman, that greasy fuck with his brown letters. Here he comes in his proud-blue uniform. It’s another day, another dense bright space to blacken in. He strides up the street to our porch, slicks his hair back underneath his cap and talks in through the letter-box: “Morning girls!” The voice is treacle sweet, reaching down the hall as if to grope us. He lives next to a distant cousin of ours who owns a fresh-fish caravan up past the Mormon Road, brings us herrings or lemon sole or whiting wrapped in newspaper.

“Yoo-hoo, ladies! Oh, girl!”

The stink of him. The come-and-get-me voice on him. Something’s not right. We had fish three times last week, fresh salmon once and this cousin’s someone we hardly know, a woman with a van Mam mentioned.

“Yoo-hoo! Oh ladies!”

My sister Cora doesn’t budge. She leans her elbow on the corner of the gas cooker and pulls on her morning cigarette, exhaling thick little beams of smoke. She never talks until that fag’s stubbed out. Behind our kitchen wall the quick snorts of a knitting machine that wake us up continue. When our neighbours first moved in we thought it was him, snoring, that their headboard was against our wall, but we were wrong. Here we do not know our next-door neighbours. Mam used to talk about neighbours. People playing poker until the small hours, men raising a huge tent together for a marquee on the square, pulling the ropes down tight around the stakes.

Cora takes a last pull, squashes out the butt and tightens the belt of her lilac dressing gown. I watch the prints of her bare feet fade on the lino while she opens the door and lets him in.

“A vision in the mornings,” he says, his eyes starting at her feet and travelling up like she’s something he could sketch. His lips are shiny with his own spit. “Oh, the versatility of the postal system. The service. Where would you girls be without us?” He hands over the parcel and the electric bill and marches in, plomps his satchel down on the hall stand. A little rub of the hands, a glance round. “Well, Cora, a cup of tea would be sweet.”

Rewards for the messenger.

My no-nonsense sister puts up with him. She needs his greasy parcels, I suppose, and cups of tea are cheap enough. She stares into the fridge, inventing breakfast. There’s two eggs, a tub of Flora margarine, a wilted head of lettuce, the bright light showing up the emptiness. She shuts the door and plugs the kettle in. It’s Wednesday and we’re down to the last few tea bags so the cups will be peppered with dust today. Smethers sits down snug in the armchair. Cora turns on the radio, tunes in Jimmy Young, who’s giving things away. Then she wriggles a coin out of her purse and hands it over.

“Run down to the shop and get me a box of matches.”

“Matches? But there’s—”

“Piss off now, there’s a love.”

She gives me the just-do-it look, so I stomp down to the newsagent’s in Breswell Street, a good ten minute walk each way, but I come home too soon and notice Smether’s belt is notched up tight and Cora’s nightdress is inside out, her hands fidget with the fuzz around her slipper. And the smell, like sleep gone sticky, oatmeal boiled over.


Now I’m wise. I take my time. I dawdle to the shops and back, steal a bottle of milk from a blue door’s step and sip it all the way into town, small, creamy sips that thin down and get sickening towards the bottom. I buy a box of matches or whatever Cora asks for so we’ll never have to talk. Through the jeweler’s window I watch ladies trying on rings with big, precious stones, coaxing them up over the knuckles, and the Scottish assistant prising them off again replacing them in their little velvet beds.

The wind accumulates in this town, cold gusts trapped by the row of identical, red brick houses, some built in crescents like they’re competing for the sunshine and the air. I stand out here among the preschoolers and the cafe women sharing their gossip and their ashtrays. Other girls my age are in chool wearing scratchy, plaid uniforms and swotting over O levels. I had enough of that and Cora did not seem to mind, said it was up to me. I burned my schoolbooks slowly in a barrel out the yard, pages of algebra, home economics, centuries, continents curling up in flame and diminishing to ash. But now sometimes I miss it ’cos there’s nothing else to do, nobody my age, just the soaps and payday and whatever brainwave Cora thinks up in the day before she gets her period.

Going home, I trail my hand along the railings until the railings disappear and pavement gets uneven. Sometimes Smethers leave the gate open and the dogs get in and cock their legs on the hydrangea. I always wait in the porch and listen, just in case he’s still inside. Our porch is littered with warped plaster slabs, dried-out putty tins, things we never bothered to clear out after Dad.


Cora sings. She comes home from work and says, “They’re tarting to all me the singing cashier down Tesco’s. They’re all saying how nice it is to hear somebody happy.”

“And are you?”

“Am I what?” she asks.


“Happy? Happy?” She pats my head, and laughs. “Put the kettle on, ya daft love.”

She drinks it black, holds the cup up close to her face and blows out small breaths against the steam. I love her like this. When she sits and thinks up ways to keep us safe from the outside world. Ways to keep this dingy house insulated from the coppers and the gas man, the TV license woman with her sturdy little clipboard.

The photo of our father has fallen off the wall but his frame leans against the skirting board, determined. It’s a picture taken at Pembroke dock with a trucker’s meaty arm around each shoulder. A lorry-load of construction men packed up for the crossing and the duty-free. His eyes are dark and feisty. Neither one of us has bothered to replace the nail, to hang that bastard back up in our lives. Upstairs, Cora showers, getting ready to go out with the other Tesco girls. She sings a song from her new Tori Amos album, her voice high and brittle as a boy’s:

Mother the car is here
Somebody leave a light on
Just in, just in case
I like the dancing. . . .

“Make sure the iron’s not too hot!” she shouts down.

In rainy months like these we air our clothes by ironing them. Last time I scorched the backside of her polyester nightdress, leaving a triangular patch of brown. I don’t like to think these things might be deliberate. Outside, in a house opposite ours, Japanese lanterns hang like fake moons in the windows. They are pretty shades of blush pink and curd yellow.

And that’s the last good night of sleep we had, because of what it said in the newspapers. Smethers comes early and uses the bell for once. Newspaper but no fish today. His cap is off and I think the distant cousin must be dead. But it’s worse than that. Nightmare on Cromwell Street, the headline read. Cora sucks in breath and lights a Rothman off the gas. Slowly, we take it all in. The bodies of young girls under the floorboard. Soil sifted carefully. Atrocities and rape. Plans for an excavation.

The very first thought that comes into my mind is milk. That door was blue. I examine the unsuspicious terrace house in the photo, number twenty-five hung in trellis on the plaster and then I know it’s true: I drank Fred West’s milk while my sister was shagging the postman.

My father knew him. Fred West came here, ate supper at our house. A brickie on the riverside, his shoes were big and glossy black. A hairy man with a beard and dark eyebrows feeding into one another. Hairy, like you’d have to blow on him to find out where his eyes are, but the papers show him clean-shaven with a reckless look, a savagery made noticeable by truth. I sat up on his lap and together we played against my sister in a game of draughts. I remember his big fingers clasping the pieces, jumping hers, doubling them into kings at the far side of the board and turning back taking more.

This morning Cora does not tell me to go out. Instead I am to put the kettle on. She leads Smethers down the hall, pushes his back against the wallpaper. I hear her voice but not the words and a few minutes later he’s slithering off down the street without a word, moving out of our lives. Finally, he brought something she could not stomach. And those dead girls were my age. It could have been me. It could have been me, and she feels responsible. She sent me out to run fake errands, to roam what must have been the most dangerous street in England so she could shag a man for the sake of a few fishy parcels. Suddenly, I wish Mam was alive. I wish my mother was alive so Cora wouldn’t have to mother me, feed me.

“That’s the end of him,” she says, gathering up the newspaper again.

“I was tired of fish anyway,” I say. “Maybe you ought to shag a butcher next.”

She doesn’t smile. Perhaps she cannot. She just sits under the window with her ankle tucked in under her backside and turns the pages of the newspaper. Behind her the sun is rising, gathering strength over the houses. In the morning light her hair looks dry and broken at the ends. She looks old today, not tired but less ambitious, like somebody who’s quit so she can move on.

I crack two eggs into the frying pan and watch their edges whiten.

“Dad knew him,” she says.

“Yeah.” I tip the pan so the oil cooks the whites into a shape, throw a couple of bread slices into the fat.

“They built that porch together. Jesus.”

“Hard or runny?”


“Your egg. Hard or runny?”


She’s looking at the photograph of Dad with his trucker friends. For a moment I think she may pick it up but she doesn’t. She looks down, keeps reading. She has our father’s jaw, a squareness to her face I never noticed until now. Determination is what that jaw says, but her eyes say otherwise. My sister, the singing cashier, looks like she may cry.

“One runny egg,” I say sliding the yellow eye and the fried bread onto a chipped plate, a little border of forget-me-nots growing in a blue snarl around its edge.

“Get that down you,” I say. “You’ll feel better.”