‘Lana Moony once left a man because he wore a ring on his little finger,’ said Freda, late one afternoon in 1983.
Freda and Helen, my mother’s oldest friends, had called over to visit us in the new house. Freda had come straight from work and sat on the sofa in her blue nurse’s uniform with the little watch I wanted pinned to her chest. Helen sat beside her, a cup of tea resting on her knee. She was a hairdresser and I was wary of her because she’d once cut my fringe far too short. The smell of perming lotion and hospitals mingled with the smell of the freshly painted walls.
‘But why?’ asked my mother, offering round a plate of biscuits ‘I mean, it’s hardly a criminal offence. A bit effeminate but…’
Freda, who liked to provide the definitive account of people they knew leant forward,
‘It’s one of her rules,’ she said, rattling the wooden bracelets on Helen’s arm, ‘Never go out with a man whose jewellery is better than your own.’ The women considered this rule, as did I, sitting on the floor with my comic, pretending to read.
‘Better than that,’ said Freda, ‘she left another fella because she didn’t like the way he put on his gloves. He was taking her to a Rolling Stones concert and she thought it wasn’t very rock and roll. Y’know, wanting to keep his hands warm.’
‘Actually, I can see why she didn’t like that,’ said my mother, winking at Helen. Helen responded with the slightest lift of an eyebrow. They often exchanged these quick, amused glances when Freda was speaking in that singsong drawl of hers. She never seemed to notice. When she spoke she looked out the window or at a spot on the wall with the darkest eyes I’d ever seen. She’d shiny black hair that she unpinned as soon as she walked through the hospital gates and wore a lipstick the colour of melted chocolate. It was her chin that stopped her from being beautiful. Freda had a chin like a witch from a fairytale: long and pointed with a large mole on the end of it. She’d caught me staring at it once or twice and asked me, very quietly, why I wasn’t outside playing with friends. I’d only one response to her desire to evict me; to sit her out. No amount of impatient looks or asides to my mother such as that child knows too much would shift me from the room.
‘But there’s something not right about her.’ Freda was still talking about Lana Moony. Her voice rose, ‘I mean, she lives at home and she’s never been married.’
‘It’s not that unusual,’ said my mother gently, for Freda had never married and lived with her parents too. Freda frowned and looked at the clock on our mantlepiece.
‘Hmm, but she’s no job and tell me this, what does she do all day? I’d go out of my mind.’
‘Well,’ said Helen, ‘she’s great company. I never stopped laughing last Saturday night.’
‘And she’s so glamorous,’ said my mother, touching her hair.
‘But,’ said Freda, ‘ when we’re not around she goes out alone. Down to the Europa Hotel and sits by herself at the bar.’ She paused and made her final pronouncement of the afternoon, ‘She’ll get a name for herself.’
My mother looked over at me and said one word, ‘Scoot.’
In 1983, six months after my parents separated, my mother, brother and I moved house. We left behind our playroom and a driveway good for skating but what we really missed was the garden. It was a wild, untended place with grass high enough to hide in. On the rare dry days of a Belfast summer it was a playground with endless possibilities: a desert island, a gypsy camp, a jungle. It was a dangerous place too: my brother ran through the grass straight into the hedge where a twig turned the white of his eye a deep, bloody red; our dog jumped over the fence and caught by his collar, hung there choking until my mother rescued him. We’d scraped hands and knees on hidden stones, been stung by wasps, bitten by midges and we’d lost toys, sometimes forever, in the long grass.
We moved to a smaller house with a back yard and a paved square at the front. The dog was given away. My uncles laid down carpet, papered the walls and set up bunk beds in the front bedroom for my brother and I. We were shy of the other kids in the street so mostly we stayed indoors. My mother’s friends began to visit. After girlhood they’d gone their separate ways; to marriage mostly, raising children and husbands or, in Freda’s case, running a ward in a London hospital. Divorce and homesickness had brought them back together again. When we heard Freda’s sharp knock on the door or Helen’s finger tapping on the window my brother would go to our room and spend hours building huge ships of Lego. I would stay downstairs. And listen.
Lana never came to our house but I often heard her name for Freda had an endless fund of stories: that Lana’s family had been coal merchants but her brothers drank and gambled all the money away; that one of the brothers lay drunk from morning to night at the bank on the Lisburn Road; that they’d kept greyhounds and horses out the back of their house; that Lana put on a full face of make-up even if she was just going to the shops. Mostly Freda talked about Lana and her ex-boyfriends. She offered up Lana’s rejection of them as something suspect and a little unbalanced. My first impression of Lana, before I even met her, was of a woman who could dismiss you easily, a woman who made a crime of inappropriate gloves and jewellery, a strange hairstyle or ill-considered remark.
We’d moved to an area of Belfast called the Village. Twenty years later I would come across a faded black and white photograph of a low wooden bridge built across a railway track. There was a man in the foreground standing beside a signal box, behind him a handful of cottages and fields on the far side of the track. The photograph revealed a rural landscape of farmland and peace uninterrupted but for the occasional passing train. Underneath I read that following the First World War, row upon row of terraced houses had been built across the fields to house the workers from the linen mills, each of them a two up, two down with a back yard. Over the years more houses swallowed up the pasture and bogland until all that was left of the village was its name and patches of grass contained within cramped front gardens. The wooden bridge was long gone and buses, lorries and an endless stream of cars rumbled over the huge overpass which replaced it. Lana Moony lived in its shadow, down a dark, narrow street which led to the railway tracks. Gangs of boys would gather there, in the dank space under the arch.
On a grey windy day, after picking me up from school, my mother pointed out Lana’s house and then Lana herself, walking over the bridge towards us. She wore a white woollen skirt, a white jumper and thick gold chains around her neck and wrists. A thinner chain encircled her bare left ankle and her shoes looked dangerously high. Her skin was bronzed as though she’d just come back from holiday and her hair was a dark, glossy brown. She swung out her hips like a model on a catwalk and when she reached us, the dullness of the afternoon receded from where she stood, as though spotlit, waiting for the snapshot that would end up in some glossy magazine. She touched my mother on the arm and I smelt her perfume, which I’d identify, years later, as Opium.
‘That wind’d cut you in two,’ said my mother, ‘You off home?’
Lana rubbed at the goose bumps on her brown arms, smiled and nodded towards her house. I saw net curtains looped across each window and a glass bear on the sill.
‘Just back from the post office.’
‘How’s your mum keepin?‘ asked my mother.
Lana touched the gold necklace at her throat with nails the colour of plums. ‘Up and down, y’know. Found her at the front door the other day. I asks her, what’re you doin mummy? And she says, lookin for Charlie.’ Lana touched my mother’s arm again, ‘I didn’t have the heart to tell her he was lying up at
the bank as usual. Drunk and happy as can be.’
‘That’s hard on you,’ said my mother. Lana shrugged and shifted her feet. The shoes looked like they were hurting her, her toes were all bunched up. She smiled widely. Her teeth were even and very white.
‘You comin out this Saturday?’
I felt my mother’s hand on my shoulder. She squeezed it gently as she said, ‘Maybe. Depends on my babysitter’s social life.’
‘I hope the town’s quieter this week. I was cleared outta the Europa last Friday. Bomb scare, y’know. I hate when that happens. Puts the fear of God in me.’ Lana looked straight at me, ‘Will yous come in for a moment? That child’s shiverin.’ She touched my face, ‘ Y’know we used to keep ponies out our back. They’re long gone but we’ve still the land. It’s a real wilderness out there.’
I crossed that bridge twice a day but I’d never guessed that a wilderness lay behind the brick walls of the houses below. I wondered if it was bigger than the tangle of grass and trees that we’d once played in. I looked towards Lana’s house but the curtained windows and the glass bear gave no answers.
‘Sure we’ll come in for a minute,’ my mother said and we followed Lana down the dark street. There was a fire lit in the grate, a brown leather sofa and a footstool with a cottage embroidered on it. I sat on it and looked out the window. All you could see was a wall, the red brick made hazy by the net curtains. I could hear the constant thunder of cars going overhead and the gentle shudder of the glass against the window frame. Lana switched on a lamp.
‘That’s better,’ she said, ‘This place’d give you eye strain.’
I heard someone in the hall and saw a pale face look round the door. ‘Come on in, mummy’ Lana said, ‘I’m making tea.’
The old lady sat down on the sofa and stared at my mother and me without speaking. She had a handkerchief in her hands which she was pulling and twisting. Lana put her hands over her mother’s and the pulling and twisting stopped. But then the old lady began swishing her slippered feet back and forth across the carpet. I heard Lana say quietly you’re okay, mummy then in a louder voice to us, ‘Tea comin up.’ None of us spoke while Lana was gone but we could hear the whistle of the kettle and her humming in the kitchen.
I wanted to go out there and open the back door. I wanted to see a tree or two, tall grass, and walk through it until I reached the brick wall at the end of the garden. But my mother saw me fidget and gave me her look, the one that said keep still, be good. So I stayed on my stool.
‘Alright, everyone,’ said Lana, carrying in a tray with a teapot, plates of biscuits and a glass of lemonade for me. She sat down on the hearth and stretched out her brown legs.
‘Have you been out much?’ asked my mother.
Lana shook her head. ‘My sister has just moved. Bit more difficult to…’ she glanced towards the old lady. ‘Dungannon’s two hours away. That’s a long drive. ‘
‘Aye,’ said my mother.
‘Lana…’ I said, ‘Can I see the wilderness?’
Lana looked at me like she didn’t know what I was talking about. Then she smiled and set her teacup on the hearth.
‘Oh. Sorry, darlin. Our yard door’s stuck. I can’t get it open.’
She stood up and leant over the old lady. I saw Lana gently wipe her mother’s nose, ‘Some other time, ok?
The old lady began to moan and my mother nudged me with her foot. ‘Lana, we better get going. Looks like it’s gonna pour again,’ she said.
Lana left us to the door. She looked tired and I saw creases round her eyes and mouth. I wished that I’d insisted on going to the back door. If both of us had pulled hard it might have opened.
‘You take care, Irene.’ Lana lit a cigarette and stood in the doorway. ‘Gave these up years ago. Took one off a fella last week and here I am, a smoker again.’
She looked at me, mock stern, ‘Don’t you ever start.’
My mother and I walked over the bridge. Rain swept across the grey roofs of the Village towards us. My mother pulled my hood up.
‘I wanted to see the wilderness,’ I said.
‘We’ll visit Lana again,’ she said, buttoning up her coat. ‘Soon.’
A few months later, after my eleventh birthday, I began walking to school on my own. For a long time I hoped I’d see Lana on the bridge or smoking a cigarette on her doorstep. Come on in, she’d say and take me straight out to the yard. The door would be fixed and open easily when we pushed it. We’d walk through the long grass and she’d tell me about the ponies her family had kept there. Every day I glanced over at her house but the front door stayed shut, the curtains permanently draped across the windows.
Sometimes my mother went out on Saturday night but she never mentioned Lana and she saw less of Helen and Freda. When the phone rang my mother said to me, if it’s Freda say I’m at the shops. Afterwards I asked why. She’s a troublemaker, said my mother, her voice flat and disapproving.
One day we saw Freda coming up the path in her blue nurse’s uniform. The TV was on and my brother was running a toy car across the windowsill. We couldn’t hide. Freda sat on the sofa and let my mother bring her a cup of tea. She kept the plate of biscuits on her knee and ate one quickly and then another. She talked about Helen’s new boyfriend, said that Helen and this new man Benny saw each other so often they might as well be joined at the hip. She talked too about a nursing sister who thought she knew more than the consultants. Then she said:
‘Did you hear about Lana’s mum?’
My mother shook her head. Freda told her she’d met a woman who lived in Lana’s street. One evening she heard Lana’s door slam open and saw Lana running past the window towards the railway. Lana told the neighbour afterwards that the old lady had opened the front door when she was in the bathroom. Lana found her at the wire fence next to the track and had terrible trouble getting her back home.
‘Poor Lana,’ said my mother.
Freda brushed some crumbs off her uniform.
‘Well, after I heard I called to the house twice and got no reply.’ Freda lifted her head and her chin jutted out, pointed and accusatory. ‘I waited in case they were in the kitchen or up the stairs but nothing. I think they were there the whole time. If it was me I’d be looking into nursing homes.‘
‘I don’t envy Lana her cares,’ said my mother.
Freda shook her head. ‘But we haven’t seen her in months. She’s grown awful odd.’ She said it in a satisfied sort of way, like she was happy to be proven right.
Helen got married again and Freda moved back to England to work in a private hospital. The women stopped coming to our house. My mother took a course in business administration and made friends in her new workplace.
She came home one day, no smile hello, just a question, ‘Do you remember Lana Moony?’
I nodded. My mother took off her coat and sat down.
‘I met her at the bridge. Her mother died last year. She still lives in that house though there’s builders offering her money for it. Says she was born in that house and the only way she’s leaving is in a box. She looked so old. She’s completely grey, you know. ‘
My mother sighed and looked at me, ‘My God, the life she’s had.’
Shortly afterwards builders began boarding up the houses in Lana’s street. They sealed the windows with cement bricks, they nailed iron sheets across the doors. The boys who loitered under the bridge sprayed graffiti across the walls. Lana was the only tenant who didn’t move. The same curtains hung at the windows, the glass bear still stood on the sill. But I never saw her myself.
My mother met her second husband and we moved to a house on the other side of the city. This house was bigger and there was a small garden at the side. My brother and I were teenagers, too old for desert islands or gypsy camps. Besides my mother’s new husband liked to garden. He mowed the lawn regularly and planted rose bushes. Sometimes, if it was warm enough, we brought blankets outside and sat on the clipped, velvety grass.
I learnt to drive and would find any excuse to crisscross the city. I discovered new parts of Belfast: the Antrim Road, the Waterworks, the Falls Road and the roads which took you to the airport.
I’d no real reason to drive into the Village. I used the bridge like everyone else: as the quickest route to the motorway. One lunchtime I was stuck there in a queue of traffic. I looked to my right and saw that Lana’s street had been demolished. The walls had been knocked back to the foundations. Red brick embedded in the ground marked out where each house had stood. Beyond that I saw an area strewn with rubble and grass growing over and around some tree stumps. It wasn’t big as wildernesses go but it was there.
I moved to Scotland soon after, for work and a flat which overlooks the fast moving waters of the River Forth. Whenever I return home my mother and I run over a litany of names: uncles, aunts, cousins, old neighbours and friends. The conversation always begins Have you heard from…? How is…? The other day I saw… As far as we know Lana didn’t keep her promise to leave her home in a box. My mother would have seen a notice in the Belfast Telegraph. Someone would have told her.
Last week I asked for the hundredth time ‘Whatever happened to Lana Moony?’
My mother looked puzzled.
‘Why do you always ask after her? She didn’t play a big part in your life.’ I told her that I knew what had happened to her other friends. I had driven past Freda, returned from England again, walking with a heavy determination up the Lisburn Road. I had seen Helen too, through the window of a hairdresser’s, smiling as she put an old woman under the dryer. She’d never married Benny but she looked happy. I told my mother that somehow it is Lana, the bit part player who has stuck in my mind. I’ve been thinking about the men who unknowingly closed off her heart with their rings and their gloves and the ruthless efficiency with which she cut off every route towards love. I’ve been thinking too of the slow retreat from friends and the outside world until the spotlight held just her and her mother in a tireless, devoted embrace.
My own mother still looks puzzled. The ones you never see again are the ones you remember, I said.
We don’t know what happened to Lana after her house was knocked down but it seems likely that she’s out there. Somewhere. In a wilderness elsewhere.