Morning Bell

This story was included in issue #2 of Low Light Magazine, published by Hi-Vis Press, 2019.
You can listen to an audio reading of this story here

The street is long and straight, and when Bell gets off the bus she can see her work in the distance. She watches from the pavement. There are still people hanging round the front door. This is not unusual. The drunk ones can take hours to get outside. Hours. Just to walk out of the place, to go from the bar to the street, probably fifty metres or less, and it takes them so, so long. Talking and stopping and looking and losing things and losing people, then talking more and falling asleep and getting angry and not wanting to go, to walk, to get dragged out to the pavement.

Bell’s watch says 04:50. Ten minutes till start-time. The casino and the dancefloor closed nearly an hour ago. She starts walking. It is still night, the streetlights are on, but if Bell looks up there are seagulls floating by, underneath blue clouds. It won’t be long till morning.

There are three of them, three people standing outside the place. A man and a woman, close together, talking, and then another man on his own. The couple stare at Bell coming along with her anorak and her shoulder-bag, then go back to their whispering. The woman has her high-heeled shoes in her hand and she is unsteady. Make-up streaks on her face. Her feet must be so damp.

The other man stands in the middle of the road. Thumbs stuck down the front of his belt. He smiles at Bell and speaks, and she is glad she doesn’t understand him. She opens the door and pulls it closed behind. Standing to one side, she watches them from between the curtain and the window. The couple still laughing and saying things. A crow comes down and pecks at the ground, right by them. That other man is looking up to the sky. Maybe trying to work out what time it is. Bell wonders why they have nowhere to be.

Raymond the security man is on his way down the stairs as she hurries past. He is so big, they smile and step aside to let each other by.

Hiya Bell, he says.


Then the door slams. Hopefully he has gone out to move them on, to make them go. She passes through the curtains and into the casino. She looks around, first at all the flashing machines standing empty, and at the dancefloor, how dirty it is, the footprints everywhere. There’s one couple left, this man and a slim woman, in the Manager’s booth. They are kissing, the man’s leg swung over and his hand shoving round the back of her. Bell shakes her head. They’ll need to be out of there soon. No homes to go to – that’s what Raymond will say. She sees the Manager in the bar, counting the pieces of paper from the till, stacking them in big piles that a breath of air would send flying all over the place. She’d like to see him if that happened. He glances up – must have heard her trainers on the sticky floor.

Bell, he says, grabbing up some of the piles of notes. Come here.

She goes by the table with the cards and along the edge of the dancing area. The coloured lights above have been turned off, all just hanging there, still black metal, like TV’s attached to the ceiling. The couple keep kissing, the sound of her does not bother them. Her bag is placed on the bar-top, but this is sticky too and she lifts it off, that ripping noise as it leaves the surface.

The Manager flicks through the papers so quickly. He is looking over the top of his glasses, concentrating to make sure the count is right. Bell has known him a long time, she is the only staff member to be here since before he started. He is younger than Bell, but not much. His skin looks a little sunburnt today. To match his pink shirt. His lips move as he adds up the totals, and when he shakes his head the ends of his hair twitch; it is getting quite long now.

He takes a handful of the paper and pushes it into a drawer. He turns, smiles, and says, Young guy was sick in the toilets, about an hour ago.

Oh. Bell smiles too.

Debbie got most of it with the mop, but it’ll need your touch. It’s still all round the pan.

She points at the booth.

That’s a good friend of mine. They’ll be gone soon. You just ignore them, right?

Bell rolls her eyes. It isn’t right. The Manager lifts out the till drawer and moves to take it upstairs. She holds the door for him before going through to her cupboard. It’s not really a cupboard, Bell has cupboards at home and this is not like those. But everybody calls it that, Bell’s cupboard, so she does too. In it is a sink, two chairs, a kettle, a cabinet, a board on the wall with notes and pins on it, and her mop and bucket. Debbie doesn’t know how to wash out the mop, there are bits of sick and vegetable in the water, on the sides of the bucket, even the handle. That Debbie. Always too desperate to get finished and up to that boyfriend’s house. No focus.

The mop takes time to clean. With her rubber gloves on Bell rummages through the head, making sure all the sick is out. She runs the water till it heats up. The water gets very hot here, to where you can’t even touch it. The tap could run for hours at home and it never gets like that. Four big squirts of the cleaning stuff and the bucket is all foam. That fresh smell. Bell backs out of the cupboard with the mop in one hand, bucket in the other.

The windows of the casino are covered by big sheets of wood painted black. Light still gets in, round the sides and at the top and bottom. The light just now looks like the sun, it’s not the streetlamp yellow. Bell shakes her head, makes a noise as she passes the big booth. The man is still moving his head around, pressing into the girl’s face. They don’t even care.

The lights are always left on in the toilets, no windows in there. The brightness makes Bell’s eyes hurt for a second or two. The men’s is better to do first because it’s always so much worse. Sometimes she thinks the men piss on the floor on purpose, there’s too much for it to be accidents. A big spot under each urinal where the acid drops onto the floor. One day it will burn right through to whatever is underneath, and the mop will not be enough to fix that. Bell pulls her long skirt up and holds it in with her elbows. She slides her pants down with one finger and sits on one of the men’s toilets. Only her face is there in the mirror. She looks straight at herself. The small head at the bottom of the big mirror that shows all the open cubicles.

Taking a cigarette from her shirt pocket and lighting it. After a long, slow draw she decides to stay sitting a while. The watch says 05:20. Bell’s son’s work starts at 07:00. Now would be a good time for him to be up, so he can shave and eat breakfast and make the bus. She worries, she always worries about him, if he’s off again he could be sacked. That boy. Her son. Her son – but what to do? What could she really do? She takes the phone from her skirt pocket and rings his mobile. The house number next. She smokes the rest of the cigarette and gets up to clean the cubicle with the sick in it.

The smell is bad, but Debbie has done a better job than her usual. Most of the tiles are clean, just some stuff in the grouting, those in-between bits. And she has flushed the toilet so it’s clear, but Bell knows Debbie would never scrub round the top. It has to be done. That Debbie. She wrings the mop dry, shoves it along the tiles. Bell doesn’t like to sing, but she hums tunes as she works. Should have brought the wee radio in, in case there was nice music on. The mop flicks around the ground leaving it wet and shiny. The boy should be up, getting his bath. She’ll call again when she goes to do the bar. Bell tries to remember the song her and Sadie would do in the mornings in the old place. That was a great one. But the other tunes in her head mean she can’t quite remember how it went.

She finishes the men’s then does the women’s. The entire women’s toilet takes only minutes. When she comes out the couple are still in the booth. Bell looks up and sees one of the girl’s breasts is outside her top, and the man has dragged her tights right down. She keeps staring as she goes to refill the mop. How a girl can let that happen, to be had like that, these days, in a place like this, it was daft, not nice, these sorts of men, and you didn’t have to, that was the thing, not here, because here you had ways out. The Manager would be down soon, and Raymond, so you definitely did have ways out, to stop it, if you wanted them. Bell turns and goes back. She stares for a minute more. The girl has long red hair that is all over her and the sides of his face. Bell watches the arm lying back against the seat, her legs being pushed around with the movements of the man. When he slides his head round to kiss her neck, the girl’s face can be seen. Her eyes are only white.

The mop is heavy and drips all over the carpet, but Bell can bring it down on the man’s back with a lot of force. He falls onto the floor and she heaves the mop above her head again and screams aloud, You, out! Go! She nods toward the fire exit, and when he looks back at her with anger in his face she swings the mop higher, going over both of their heads, drops of grey water and sick all over his shirt and face and hair. The man shouts as he hurries for the door. He is meaning the sound to go above and behind her, hoping the Manager will hear. She jabs at him one more time and he’s gone, the door crashing shut.

Bell puts the mop back in the bucket and leans it on the side of the booth. The Manager is coming down the office stairs, the noise of his fast footsteps. She lifts the girl’s breast gently, places it inside her top. Pulls her tights round her waist again and the skirt firmly down. She puts her ear to the girl’s mouth. Feels her wrist and her chest.

Right, she hears the voice saying, What the fuck’s going on.

Bell looks up. This girl, she says.

Never mind her, where’s David?

Him? Gone.

Bell, Christ sake. I told you. I fucking told you. D’you even know who that was? Jesus, I mean, I did say, didn’t I? I did say to you – don’t mind them, just get on with your work. I mean, you come in here to clean, right? That’s your job.

Bell lifts one of the limp, thin arms, puts her head under it and stands the girl up. She walks them both along, taking the weight.

Right? he says. I’m not being unfair here.

Look, Bell says.

Aye, look at her. Fucking look at her. You’ve put me in a bad position. That’s what you’ve done.

Bell takes the girl to the cupboard, sits her on one of the chairs. She fills a mug of water and tries to tip some of it into the mouth.

He is by the door, leaning on the frame and not coming in. I had nothing to do with this anyway Bell, you know that. I thought she was fine. Last time I saw them she was enjoying herself as much as he was. Honestly. I mean, you know what people are like, eh?

Bell brushes the girl’s hair from her face and smooths it all out, tucking some behind the ear and rubbing her cheek.

She ok?

Her heart is beating, Bell says.

Ok, good. Ok. She’ll be fine. Bell, she’ll be fine. Bit too much to drink, eh. Happens all the time. These young ones.

Bell tries again with the water and this time the girl swallows. Her eyes flutter like they’re going to open. The Manager’s shoes make a noise as he moves.

That’s good, leave the water for her Bell, leave it there. She’ll get it.

His hand on Bell’s shoulder.

Come on, he says. Come on Bell. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.

The fingers now passing through her hair, soft against her head.

There isn’t much time left you know.

Bell touches the girl’s face a last time, before standing up to face him. ●

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