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All Gone
A short story by Charles Lambert

Then there was the time my mother decided to buy a shop. Months passed while she searched for something she called a haberdasher’s. She told me about her journeys over tea, before our father got home with his air of patronising disbelief, and she stopped. I didn’t know what ‘haberdasher’s’ meant. To me, it sounded like a word for second-hand stuff, rubbish, junk. I should have known it would be more refined than that. My mother loved the idea of needlework, lace, the delicately rolled and caught hem of a scarf. So it was even harder to understand her final choice.

There is a photograph of her standing outside the shop in her nylon overall. Beside her is the daughter of one of the regular customers, a woman whose name was finally put in the window for non-payment. My mother is squinting because the sun is behind the person with the camera. She looks confused and sullen, as though she is posing for kidnappers. The girl on her left is beaming with adolescent health, despite her size. Twice as wide as my mother, she bears a bolster of gleaming flesh between her chin and chest and a pair of crisply ironed Debbie Reynolds shorts. Her hair is held off her face by a broad white Wendy band; her forehead is speckled with acne. The name of the shop, painted in faded characters, is CAMP. I don’t remember why. Perhaps it referred to the previous owners or that black chicory-flavoured syrup that passed for coffee. I see it now as a reference to the way my mother dealt with her new world, her bemusement as she strained to make sense of the dialect, her transparent unease imposing its almost comic distance.

The shop was a small general grocer’s, still kitted out with scarred wooden fittings, scented with beeswax, and a large aluminium meat safe. It stood at the heart of a council estate, the glazed red brick of semi-detached and terraced houses, each with its ribbon of garden at the back and front, like a track for dogs on a running leash. Black Country aficionados say that Britain’s most beautiful countryside can be found within fifty miles of Birmingham. But the area around my mother’s shop had gardens filled with the overflow of neighbouring factories, scraps of metal, spare parts, improvised buckets, the rusting shells of prams. At the end of Princess Road was a paint factory whose pungent chemical odours marked out our territory like those of a cat. Even the language was bracing as the stench of turpentine.

One of Mum’s earliest customers was a boy of about my age. He walked in, his hands in the pockets of his grey flannel shorts, and she must have thought: a friend for Robin? Then the boy spat into his handkerchief and grinned, and she changed her mind, beginning to work the cost of local private schools into her calculations. The boy walked up to the high wooden counter that my mother would replace six months later with a glass and steel structure, like something from a hospital. He stared up and said:

‘Packet uh sookin fakes, missis.’

My mother smiled benignly down.

‘What’s that, my dear?’

‘Packet uh sookin fakes.’ The boy’s tone was more peremptory. My mother’s smile began to ache.

‘Yes?’ she said brightly. Her voice was slightly loud. She stared at the boy, as though his thin pale face might provide her with some clue.

‘Sookin fakes.’

The request became shorter, the frills of courtesy stripped away as the boy’s features screwed up with angry concentration. My mother’s smiling head began to swivel slowly on its neck, a beam cutting into the darkness. She scanned the counter.

‘Can you see it, er, them?’ she said. The boy made an exasperated grunt.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Oim not bloind, im I? Oim not deaf oiver.’

My mother understood this. She gave a high, almost hysterical laugh, as though she were having fun.

‘Can you point to them, er, it? With your finger?’

The boy’s hand rose disdainfully from the pocket of his shorts and pointed towards the sweets.

‘Sookin fakes.’

My mother sighed with painful satisfaction, as though she had passed an obstinate stool.

‘Sweet cigarettes,’ she said. ‘But of course, my dear.’

1965 was another world. Most of the women in Princess Road wore headscarves and denture-pink curlers like tribal ornaments. They were the ones with hard red faces, who came to the shop in slippers. Others, not always younger, made beehives out of bleached hair and lacquer; the kind that devours the ozone, though no one knew that then. Not that they would have cared. They didn’t care about what lay on the other side of the canal, where industrial waste land rippled with vermin and improvised speedway tracks, nor about the effect the paint factory solvents were having on their boyfriends’ lungs. That was the kind of anxiety my mother might have had. Mum’s style was more a soft perm with a touch of auburn in the rinse, something that left the environment fresh and clean and smelling nice.

Woodland Heath was in the next town. It called itself a ‘boy’s (sic) preparatory school’, on a green board by the entrance to the drive. The woman who owned the place gave elocution and piano lessons for a supplementary fee. Perhaps she was preparing us to work on Watch with Mother, to broadcast our rounded vowels and twinkling digits for the greater national glory of Woodland Heath.

She taught her aspirants in a room which had once been a bathroom; truncated pipes emerged from the skirting like craning blooms. It overlooked a threadbare lawn the pupils were not allowed to walk on, two rose beds and a row of poplars. This was referred to, officially, as the Woodland; the headmistress’s piano and elocution room, less officially, as the Shoebox, as much for its odour as its size. The headmistress wore tailored tweed suits and thick orange stockings, like hide, which seemed to be the source of the smell. Mum told me they were called support hose and I saw the headmistress removing them at night and keeling over, two flabby plastic tubes laid neatly beside the bed.

I didn’t see that much of the headmistress. Not after my mother told her I didn’t want piano lessons and that I already spoke perfectly. I was there when it happened. I watched the headmistress arrange her lips.

‘Really?’ she said, her mouth like a gymnast on the rings.

‘My son has no accent,’ my mother said. The headmistress consulted her records.

‘I see you live in Princess Road,’ she said, Cassandra-like.

‘Yes,’ replied my mother in a challenging tone. The headmistress tucked her chin back into her blouse.

‘Most of my pupils from that area are obliged to take elocution,’ she insisted in a low, dangerous voice.

‘Presumably because they need to,’ my mother said. ‘Robin doesn’t.’

‘Well,’ the headmistress said. ‘We shall see.’

What I really needed, of course, was anti-elocution, something that would have taught me how to make ‘baths’ rhyme with ‘maths’ and ‘pass’ with ‘ass’ instead of ‘arse’. I needed the shield of those stubby vowels to protect my head and shoulders from the blows of my fellow students, the ones who were taking lessons in how to speak, and felt humiliated, and used their fists.

My little sister had none of these problems. She was still at home. My mother sat her in the shop at first, on a high chair behind the counter, where she was petted by customers. She wriggled beneath their hands and kisses. Everyone admired the dresses my mother had made for her, with their smocking and scraps of lace at the wrist and tiny mother-of-pearl buttons, the size of my sister’s nails. She began to learn to speak in the shop. My mother still had no idea where she would go to school. Perhaps she hadn’t thought that far ahead. Perhaps it was beginning to dawn on her that she had made a mistake. When Susan began to scream to get out of her chair, my mother would hand her over reluctantly to the cleaning woman, Mrs Bubbard. Susan’s dimpled arms sealed round the woman’s neck.

Mrs Bubbard was a tall, big-boned woman with watery eyes and a meek smile intended to diminish her, to make her manageable; even her voice was self-effacing. She wore a flowered overall with sleeves, the kind that ties around the waist, and a net to hold her wispy anaemic hair in place. She looked as though she had been rinsed too often. Her husband, who was half her size, had the vigour of a rat.

We have a slide of the four of us and the Bubbards on a picnic together, one of those slides whose colours have faded to acid-like autumnal shades, the silver paper frame becoming as fragile as filigree. The Bubbards are sitting beside each other on a bench; she in a dress for best that is the spitting image of her workday overall, he with his arms crossed on his bird-like chest and a perky grin, his legs like sticks in voluminous trousers, a stiffly-knotted tie. Susan is squeezed between them, her face glowing with delight. My mother and I stand behind the bench, staring with identical hostility towards the camera. You can see the back wing of our car in the corner of the picture, a crimson and grey Humber Hawk. We must have simply parked and picnicked. The grass in front of the bench is littered with remnants of the meal: packets, bottles, tins; the heyday of convenience food, all of it lifted from the shelves of our own shop.

Perhaps the photograph is the memory. But I do recall one moment which must have occurred that afternoon: Susan reaching out for a Wagon Wheel and saying ‘Gizzit’, and my mother, perplexed, turning to the Bubbards for help. ‘What does she mean?’ I hear, or imagine, her saying, and the little man slaps his leg with glee and repeats the mysterious word, ‘gizzit’, his thin hand whipping out.

We weren’t the only people to lift things from the shelves. For many customers, there were two ways to save on shopping; credit and theft. Theft was often preferred to tick, since it avoided the risk of your name appearing in the window, printed in capital letters on a page from an exercise book, sellotaped beside the door. The first time my mother had to expose a customer for unpaid tick, she cried for an entire evening, while my father called her a fool. ‘Don’t give credit,’ he said. ‘But they expect it,’ she sobbed. ‘It’s your shop,’ he said. ‘But they’re so poor,’ she said. ‘So join the WI. Open a charity, not a general grocer’s,’ he said. ‘You don’t even try to understand,’ she said. ‘Understand?’ he said. ‘There are lay-offs at the paint factory,’ she said. ‘It isn’t your job to subsidise the unions,’ he said.

In the end he wrote the name himself, in large black capitals, with one of the Rotring pens he used for work. He performed the task with his customary care. The final product could have been hung in the vestry of a church like the names of the Easter flower arrangers. My mother was relieved when she saw it; its ornateness rendered it almost illegible.

That was shortly before Denise came into the shop. It was a Saturday morning, I was playing behind the counter while my mother served. I watched her Dr Scholl’s and the edge of her shop coat as she carried the steps to reach the upper shelves. Denise came in and hung around the door until the other customers had gone. It didn’t take long; the shop was never busy. She asked for some boiled ham. While my mother placed the ham on the slicer, she listened to Denise’s unprompted tale. She had been left alone with a child, she said. Her husband was a soldier who had met another woman in Germany. Her voice broke; it sounded like Germolene. My mother didn’t realise at first what Denise wanted; she was listening, as if entranced, to her accent.

‘You don’t come from round here, do you?’ she said. Denise shook her head adamantly.

‘I certainly don’t,’ she said. ‘I was born near Worcester.’

My mother loved Worcester. She loved its tea rooms and half-timber. She had looked for a haberdasher’s in the shade of its cathedral.

There was a pause.

‘So will you take me on?’ said Denise, hesitant but keen. My mother seemed to rouse herself.

‘I shall have to talk to my husband,’ she said. ‘We can’t really afford to take anyone on, you see.’ Denise sighed. My mother continued hurriedly: ‘Come back this afternoon.’

Bad debts were one thing; theft was something else. My mother dreaded catching someone in the act, averting her eyes with a twitch when children clustered around the sweets counter. She had read in one of her retailers’ magazines that a certain amount of theft was ‘physiological’ and should be regarded as an overhead, which justified her squeamishness. Whenever my father looked over the accounts with his smug, mildly critical air, she referred him to articles in The Grocer. ‘Oh well, if that’s what the literature says,’ he would say, putting on his hat to leave for the Social Club next door. ‘Physiological,’ he would murmur as he closed the door. When she broached the idea of offering Denise part-time work in the shop, he looked at her quizzically.

‘You feel your little empire’s ready to expand?’

‘I just feel we should give her a hand,’ my mother said. ‘She’s had an awfully rough time.’ She added, with an accusing air: ‘Her husband’s left her, you know. He just walked out on her. With a baby too.’

‘She’s hardly the only woman to be bringing up a child by herself,’ my father remarked, ‘particularly in this area.’

‘Besides,’ said my mother, airily, ‘I’m not spending enough time with Susan.’

‘Isn’t that what the Bubbard woman is for?’

My mother grimaced.

‘She’s a dear, I know,’ she said. ‘But I’m afraid for Susan. She’s starting to pick up Mrs Bubbard’s accent. She’s such a mimic. Aren’t you, darling?’ These last words were addressed to my sister. My mother repeated them. ‘Aren’t you, darling?’ she said more slowly. Susan gurgled, happily wordless.

‘So Denise can run the shop while you bill and coo with the baby?’

My mother was irritated.

‘It hardly takes an Einstein to sell bacon.’

‘Do I detect a trace of disenchantment with the retail grocery business?’ my father said.

The tone of Woodland Heath was lowered soon after I started there when a TV game-show contestant, whose catch-phrase was ‘Oi don’t moind if I do,’ spent most of his fabulous winnings on a mock-Tudor house fifty yards down the road. Class-hopping was still news, and his name and address appeared in the local paper. At morning assembly, the headmistress told us that we were, on no account, to speak to the person. As soon as the lunch bell had rung, we clustered round his house in an effort to get his autograph, to see him, to breathe that glamour. The wrath of the headmistress was awful. Extra homework was imposed, to be done in school. By the time we were out of the building, it was already dark.

That was the evening I shat myself walking home. When I got off the bus I had to walk through an area my mother referred to as the Slums, back-to-back terraced houses inhabited by people who envied our neighbours on the estate. Dourly, they watched their points accumulate through illness and unemployment until the Council gave them a house. Their young were trained to attack school uniforms on sight and the Woodland Heath uniform had been designed for maximum visibility. We wore a nut-brown blazer, a cap with alternating brown and orange segments, and a brown and orange striped tie, all of it available from only one high-class gentlemen’s outfitters. Even my socks were brown, though orange gaily reappeared in a circle around the top. There was also a sort of garter with a forked orange tongue, the elastic part of which we concealed beneath the turned-down top of the sock, leaving the tongue to wiggle against the calf.

I covered the first few hundred yards without being seen. It was only when I turned from Livingstone Road into Drake Road that trouble began. I’d seen them from the corner of my eye, a huddle of older boys with blue-cold knees like metal springs, hunched around the warmth of a cigarette. I was walking at a speed I imagined to be inconspicuous when the first stone whistled past my ear. I started to run. The road went downhill; with my satchel banging against my back, I ran so fast I thought I was going to fall. The air whipped their voices back into their throats, but still I could hear that they were shouting: words I had never known, a language I had never learnt.

I don’t think I realised what had happened until I was in the shop. There was a single customer.

‘Thy nipper’s shit hissen,’ she said.

‘Nipper,’ repeated Susan with a throaty chortle, reaching her plump hands out towards the woman.

My mother swept round the counter. She picked me up round the chest, then immediately put me down again with a squeal of distaste. I stood in the centre of the shop, the legs of my flannel shorts glued to my inner thighs, their seat to mine. We could all smell it, I knew we could. It was hot and bitter, like tea from the pot. The customer stared down, her bust a cushion for the grimly curious head with its crest of curlers. Susan began to scream. ‘Nipper, nipper,’ she cried. I burst into tears. Eventually Mrs Bubbard came into the shop. She laid a hand on my mother’s sleeve.

‘I’ll serve, shall I, love?’ she said. My mother stared at her, distraught.

‘Not in your cleaning overall,’ she said faintly. ‘You can’t. It’s not hygienic.’

She began to wriggle out of her nylon shop coat. It was dark blue, with flashes of white at the collar and cuffs that made her look like a matron; it had been chosen to present an image of clinical efficiency and hygiene. Mrs Bubbard’s pale rabbit-like eyes bemusedly followed my mother’s movements. I was standing beside her, my face wet with tears, my shorts as richly-scented as a nappy. I felt the trickle of something reach my calf, my sock, to lick its orange tongue.

‘You’ll be touching food,’ my mother said hopelessly.

With a puzzled sigh, Mrs Bubbard led me upstairs. ‘Nipper,’ squealed Susan. I heard my mother tell her to stop, her voice on the verge of hysteria. Susan began to cry as Mrs Bubbard pulled my trousers down and lifted me, bottom first, into the bath.

Denise started work the following week. When I came home from school on Monday I found her alone in the shop, rearranging the stock. ‘Your mum’s in the kitchen,’ she said. I watched her shift cans of processed peas from one shelf to the shelf below, her face ecstatic with concentration, her bottom lip bloodless, caught by her upper teeth. She had short black hair; she looked like Helen Shapiro. When I said this to my father, he winked. By the time I got home the next day my mother had put the processed peas back on the top shelf. Denise was chastened. She sat in the kitchen, trying to feed apple sauce to Susan, her own baby in a carrycot on the floor. But Susan refused to eat. Warily glancing towards the shop, Denise gave the sauce to her own baby. When it was finished she wiped his mouth with Susan’s bib and said: ‘All gone.’ ‘All gone,’ parroted Susan.

‘Where’s Mrs Bubbard?’ I said. Denise shrugged.

Mrs Bubbard resented Denise. She offered to take Susan home with her in the afternoon but my mother, guiltily, turned her down. Hurt, Mrs Bubbard began to coax Susan with sweets, which my mother promptly confiscated. ‘They’re bad for her teeth,’ she said. ‘A few sweeties never hurt a nipper that I know of,’ muttered Mrs Bubbard. ‘What do you sell them for then, if they’re so bloomin’ bad for you?’ she said when my mother was out of earshot, and only I was listening. Susan cried to be picked up when Mrs Bubbard approached, screaming ‘Bubby’.

My mother had no idea of the rivalry between the two women. Denise was careful. Sometimes, I would see her sneak out of the shop and tip crumbs from the breadboard onto the floor, so that Mrs Bubbard would get the blame. She made Susan cry, then hurried off, so that my mother would blame the older woman. Mrs Bubbard, with tears in her washed-out eyes, would deny everything. She loved Susan, she said. ‘That’s all very well,’ my mother said. Mrs Bubbard, on the other hand, kept a wary eye on Denise, waiting to catch her out.

Denise said nothing about the processed peas. My mother brought the subject up when she found that they had moved down a shelf once again.

‘Did you move them?’ she asked Denise with a determined smile.

‘Only the most popular brand,’ simpered Denise. ‘They’re the ones everyone wants. It’s just so we won’t have to keep getting up them steps.’

‘Those steps,’ said my mother involuntarily.

‘Those steps,’ said Denise.

‘But you’ve had to move the garden peas onto the top shelf,’ said my mother. ‘We shall still have to use the steps.’

‘But you’re the only one who ever eats garden peas,’ said Denise. ‘I mean, nobody ever buys them,’ she continued, in a muttered, impudent tone. My mother flushed, but said nothing. She left the shop through the door that went into the hall. When she came back, the peas had been put back in their place.

Soon after this my mother began to complain about discrepancies in the books. After tea, she cleared the kitchen table, replacing the cups and plates with sheaves of invoices, bills, dockets. She began to read them in a laboured way, her face clouding over with anxiety.

‘I can’t understand it,’ she would say finally. ‘The books show hardly any profit at all, but we keep running out of stock.’

‘There must be some mistake in the book-keeping,’ my father said, tickling Susan until she wept with delight.

‘But there can’t be,’ said my mother. ‘I’m so careful. I never throw a thing away. I even slip in bits of the bacon ends to make up the pound. I just don’t see where the money’s going.’

‘It must be thieves,’ my father said, his voice a mixture of smugness and resignation.

My mother cleared the bills away. Susan was clinging to my father’s legs, forcing her way between his knees. He said:

‘It might be the Bubbard woman. Or Denise.’

‘Why don’t you talk to her?’ my mother said suddenly.

‘Who? Denise?’ my father said.

‘No,’ snapped my mother. ‘Your daughter. All she ever hears is these dreadful women round here.’

She swung round towards me. I was in the corner, reading.

‘Why don’t you tell her a story?’

‘I’m doing my homework,’ I lied.

You could read it out to her while you did it. Just a few words,’ she pleaded. ‘You speak so beautifully.’

‘So beautifully,’ mimicked Susan, too young for scorn.

One afternoon, as the shop was closing, Denise took Mum to one side.

‘I don’t know how to tell you this,’ she said in a low voice.

‘Tell me what?’ said my mother.

‘About Mrs Bubbard.’

‘What about her?’

‘It’s none of my business, I know, but,’ Denise paused, ‘I’ve seen her putting things in her bag.’

My mother looked at her, speechless.

‘I just thought you should know,’ Denise said, turning to go while my mother stared at her back.

The following morning was Saturday. When I came downstairs, I found Mrs Bubbard rubbing her eyes in the hall.

‘You’ve never seen me put stuff in me bag, have yer, lad?’ she said. I shook my head.

‘Gi’us another chance,’ she said to my mother. ‘Now our Albert’s laid off, it’s all we’ve got, what I earn. You can’t put me out like that, you can’t.’

‘It’s wrong to steal,’ my mother said hopelessly.

‘I’ve never stole nothing,’ said the woman. ‘I might’ve popped a box of matches in my bag, but I’ve never stole from you. It’s more’n my job’s worth.’

‘But how can I trust you?’ my mother said.

Susan came in from the kitchen. When she saw that Mrs Bubbard was crying, she pulled at her overall to be picked up. My mother tried to hold her back, but she wriggled and screamed until the cleaning woman took her in her arms. My mother sighed.

‘I’ll give you one more chance,’ she said.

I was in the shop a few days later when I heard my mother say:

‘I think you undercharged that last customer.’ She sounded ashamed.

‘I didn’t,’ said Denise immediately.

‘But you rang up 4/6d, and I know she spent more than that. The bacon alone,’ said my mother.

‘I didn’t,’ repeated Denise stubbornly.

‘But I saw you,’ said my mother.

‘You didn’t,’ Denise said hotly. ‘You can’t have done. You weren’t looking. It isn’t true.’

My mother sighed.

‘I can always check in the till, you know. It registers everything.’

‘Are you accusing me of theft?’ said Denise. She had moved away from the counter and was standing with her back pressed against the shelves, both hands raised towards my mother as if to fight her off. Her face was flushed.

‘I’m not accusing you,’ my mother said wearily.

‘You’re saying I’ve stolen money, aren’t you?’

‘Well, dear.’ My mother took a step towards Denise, whose hands shot up even higher, as if to protect her face.

‘You can’t touch me,’ she said, almost hysterically. ‘Not without a warrant, you can’t.’

‘I think you’d better go.’

‘Not without this week’s wages, I won’t.’

‘I suspect you’ve already had them,’ said my mother. She opened the till and took some notes out. As soon as Denise had the money in her pocket she burst into dry, theatrical tears.

‘You can’t get rid of me,’ she sobbed. ‘I’ve worked so hard. I’ve made it all look so nice.’

‘I think you’d better go,’ my mother said once more, in a quiet, coaxing voice, as though to a nervous dog.

‘You can afford it,’ Denise snapped, sweeping past my mother into the kitchen. I heard her pick up her baby, a slap and Susan’s brief alarmed cry, before Denise stalked back into the shop. ‘You stuck-up bitch,’ she said, then: ‘Your husband’ll see me right. You’ll see.’

Mrs Bubbard had been sweeping the stairs.

‘Don’t you fret, my love,’ she said to my mother, who stood beside the door, open-mouthed, bright with indignation. ‘I’ll look after the babby for you.’

It was at that point that my mother began to cry.

That year Woodland Heath organised its annual day out in the grounds of a local stately home. There were picnic tables and benches and a miniature-gauge railway, a small steam engine drawing open-topped carriages with seats big enough for two children or one adult. The house itself was closed; its occupants stared down at us as we swarmed across their lawns, yellow-brown, teeming as wasps. The weather was bright; swans gleamed along the edge of an out-of-bounds lake. My mother was in a flurry, eager to talk to my teacher, Miss Raft. I waited nearby, too young to be embarrassed by my parents, while Miss Raft said that I was uncommonly articulate for a child my age. ‘Do you find him so?’ my mother said, scarlet with pride. She barely noticed my father arrive, with Susan in his arms. He stood there, listening to the women speak with a pursed appraising smirk on his lips. When he saw the headmistress walking over with a plate of biscuits, he murmured:

‘Here comes the battleaxe.’

Only Miss Raft seemed to have heard. She gave my father a conspiratorial smile, bending towards her employer so that their heads would be level. My mother, on the contrary, stiffened to her full height. She reached across to my father in order to take Susan away from him.

‘Miss Raft tells me how pleased she is with Robin,’ my mother announced. Miss Raft gave a modest, ambiguous murmur. The headmistress nodded curtly, showed her large brown teeth.

‘I wonder who will be having the pleasure of teaching his little sister,’ she said. ‘I have myself been thinking of opening a section for young ladies.’

My mother lowered Susan until her booteed feet touched the grass. She immediately sat down, landing on her bottom with a gasp of surprise.

‘What’s your name, little girl?’ said the headmistress. Susan’s face puckered.

‘Isn’t she sweet,’ said Miss Raft, dropping to her haunches. Susan’s arms went out to her.

‘Answer the lady,’ said my mother.

‘Gizzit,’ said Susan, reaching out towards the plate of biscuits. ‘Gizzit ‘ere.’

My mother slapped Susan’s thigh with a low faint squeal of horror.

‘Do I hear the dulcet tones of Princess Road?’ said the headmistress.

‘Bad babby,’ Susan sobbed, her thigh bright red. ‘Bloody bad babby.’

The air above Princess Road looked like watered silk that night, but hot. As we drove in silence down the hill towards the shop, we noticed the smell, and then the air itself. My father parked the Humber and we walked from the shop to the burning paint factory, holding hands as the hot sour wind enveloped us. The sky was fringed with red that licked up into the darkness, chased by a blue that seemed warmer than the yellow of the flames, blue as the daytime sky. We could hardly breathe. The evening air smelt like the acetone my mother used to clean her nails, like mechanics’ yards, like the boys who lived in the Slums; a smell that skinned the eyes and took the words out of our mouths. It stripped us clean. We carried on walking down the road towards the burning factory, until we had reached the others.

Copyright © Charles Lambert 2001

More information about Charles Lambert is available at his website:

This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of All Gone is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author. For rights information, contact The Richmond Review in the first instance


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