Albert looked at his wife’s lips and had never seen them so red. The colour was bleeding outwards into fine lines all round her mouth. Funny, he’d never noticed them before. He reached into his pocket for a tissue and began to wipe away the lipstick. She would never have worn something so gawdy, so like a trollop. It made her look like those young women he sometimes saw in the back bar of The Ship, so much flesh on show they left nothing to wonder about. There were no young women like that when they were young. You didn’t dare dress tarty, he remembered Alice saying, not if you wanted a husband. Tarty girls were for fun, not for taking home to your mother.
He smiled, thinking about that day. Alice was terrified of meeting Ma Johnson. He collected her from her house to walk her round to theirs. He thought she was so beautiful. Her red hair was pinned up at both sides, ringlets falling to her shoulders. She wore a tea dress he knew she’d made herself from a remnant of material his uncle fetched for her from a market somewhere in Kent. She said she looked handmade but he saw a girl comparable to any one of the Hollywood starlets. Alice didn’t wear a scrap of make-up, not that day and not even on their wedding day 2 years later. To Albert, she couldn’t improve on perfection.
They both wanted children so much and Albert never knew quite how to comfort Alice when month upon month turned into year upon year. She hid her tears, he knew, but he came home early one day when there was a power cut at the factory, to find her huddled in a ball, rocking back and forth. She wanted to look into fostering and he wanted to make her happy. For almost twenty years a regular stream of lost, needy, lonely and frightened children came through their door and Alice loved them back to life. Albert didn’t want to share her but he had never seen her glow quite so much as when they hugged her back for the first time, so he was content with the Alice he had. Maybe some of them would be here later.
Alice had a series of small strokes which put an end to their fostering but so many of those children kept in touch over the years that their family was larger than if they had managed to have children of their own. Albert took early retirement to look after her and he found he enjoyed cooking and making the house nice for her. The chaps in The Ship all teased each other about helping out at home but it was less being a modern man and more necessity for most of them.
When she started to call him Da, he took her to a specialist. They told Albert she could go any time, but she lasted for 7 more years. Alice didn’t, just her shell. Alice was almost gone by then already but he loved her like she was still in there. He hoped for a flash of recognition, of his old girl and although they came along at first, they became fewer and fewer. Albert bathed her, cared for her and talked to her even when she showed no sign of knowing anyone was there at all.
“Do I look handmade?” she said to him when he helped her into bed. “Will your mother like me?”
“You look like a picture. How could she fail to love you as much as I do?” he said into the darkness, head turned so she couldn’t see his face.
“I so hope she likes me, Da. Then we can get married.”
She didn’t wake again and now he was scrubbing the only red lipstick she ever wore from her lips so he could kiss her for the last time.
“I love you Alice. I’ll be along soon.”