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The Lilly Landry

by tec 

Posted: 12 October 2008
Word Count: 3928
Summary: this is a bit long - any suggestions for cuts are particularly helpful. thanks

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The Lilly Landry was a pub on the ground floor of a tower block on the council estate where I used to live with my mother. All the blocks were concrete painted white with this bright blue trim around the windows and doors, a wobbly paint job as though a kid had decided to outline the blocks with a big crayon. Our block looked like all the others except for the sign marking the pub. Sticking out the side like a hitchhiking thumb, it showed a woman with blonde hair piled atop her head and the most mournful look in her eyes. She held her hands just below her chin in an awkward way, with all the fingers facing away from her, and her face was tilted just slightly to the right as though she was listening to a great somber orchestra or a dog baying at the moon.

I used to stop and look at her whenever I passed that way and wonder what she was thinking. I was a kid, 7 years old when we moved to that estate – called, perhaps in explanation of the blue trim but otherwise apropos of nothing, Pacific Hamlets – and just 10 when I left after my mother died.

We’d been given a two bedroom flat on the 4th floor of block number three. It had two single bedrooms, a windowless kitchen just big enough to fit the table where my mother and I ate our meals, and a lounge with an adjoining rectangular balcony that looked out over the identical tower blocks across the way and down into the rubbish-filled interior courtyard where some swings, a sand pit and slide were set up, toys used only by the teenagers who drank and smoked there at all hours.

‘Don’t you go lookin at those boys,’ my mother said once as I watched them surreptitiously from our balcony. ‘They don’t have a chance, they’ve already thrown it away.’

The tips of their cigarettes glowed red and orange in the twilight. I heard the rustle of girls’ skirts, high-pitched giggles and curse words. ‘Fuck!’ yelled one of the boys, then peals of laughter, more swearing, some hoots: a symphony of mysterious adolescent noises, whispers of things I feared might elude me forever.

I reluctantly obeyed my mother, drew back into the flat and pulled the sliding glass door closed, shutting us off from their sounds and the perfume of their cigarettes.

It didn’t occur to me to disobey her. Nor did the hypocrisy of her stance on our local hoodlums trouble me. My mother was a heroin addict, high for a good 50-60% of any given day, her habit supported by the dole money and child support she received from the council along with the irregular pawning of some item from her previous life, before Pacific Hamlets, before her habit, before me: a silver-plated watch, a blue glass bowl, a long black coat with tortoise buttons, lined in silk of brilliant red. My mother expected high standards of behaviour from everyone else, and there seemed nothing odd to me about her disapproval of those teenagers, their smoking and drinking and kisses. I obeyed her without question. The playground was off limits. I was destined for better things.

My mother valued education. She still had the old books she’d used at university, lined neatly against the far wall of the lounge, and she’d make me memorise bits and pieces from them, mostly strange-sounding verse from old English writers, Shakespeare, Chaucer, the odd bit of Spenser or Donne. I would perform as requested, standing before her as she sat rapt on the spongy sofa, her eyes over-bright and unblinking. She would tell me stories of student life, the classes she’d taken, the friends she’d had. I struggled to picture her in these scenarios, my mother who now struggled to make small talk with Mrs. Roxton, our next door neighbor, who now jumped at the sound of the dogs kept by the tattooed man who lived below us.

It was only later, years after her death, that I discovered that she never graduated from university, had only attended classes for two terms before her parents pulled her out, unable or unwilling to support her financially. I never learned the reason for their decision. I visited them once, not long ago. Their home was over-stuffed and smelled of cat. They are both in their 80’s now, neither in particularly good health it seemed to me and neither could recall the details of why my mother left university or why, soon after, she split with them so completely. Her mother – my grandmother, a woman named Paige – said that she supposed they just couldn’t afford it any longer, and why was it so important for her to go to university anyhow? They hadn’t gone, my mother’s younger brother (I never knew she had a brother, until that visit) didn’t go. Paige’s hands trembled as she showed me a framed photo of my mother, aged 7 or 8, freckles and chapped lips and fine white blonde hair in braids and a fringe.

Y'our mother was a mystery to me, always a mystery,' Paige said, and my mother’s father nodded silently from his armchair, his stomach protruding like something large and round placed in his lap, his neck bent at an angle that reminded me of a tortoise we’d kept at school.

She had been 19 then, when she left uni, and I know that she stayed on in that town for at least another year, working nights at a student union pub and daytimes cleaning people’s homes. I can only imagine that it was difficult to exist in such close proximity to those students among whose number she had so recently counted herself, to live a life so different from the one she desired. I imagine her catching sight of herself in a mirror, in one of the professor’s homes she cleaned, perhaps, or in the small bathroom she shared with another boarder, and noticing suddenly her drawn pale cheeks, her tired eyes, hair kept away from her face by a scrap of cloth tied tight around her forehead, and wondering how she had arrived at this place and how she might get away, return to the place of learning and transcendence where she truly belonged.

Every weekday my mother would march me to and from school, one hand gripping my shoulder as though I would otherwise be blown skyward by the wind and the other flap flapping beside her to the rhythm of her steps. My friends would walk with me in solidarity for awhile, but soon they would veer off or lag behind, kicking rubbish into back alleys or slowing to light a fag, and soon it would just be me, my mother’s fingers buried in the tendons of my shoulder, my head down counting the cracks of the pavement, until we reached home.

My after-school schedule was this: I’d sit down at the kitchen table for something to eat – toast with marmite, slices of salami, a tall fizzy drink, whatever she placed in front of me – and my mother would sit opposite. I would tell her about my day. Sometimes I would speak in monosyllables, no eye contract, head down on my food, and other times I wouldn’t speak at all and she would drum her fingers on the silvery linoleum tabletop, her fingers going faster and faster until they reached a high gallop and the fingers would suddenly stop and she’d push her chair away from the table with a squeal of plastic against plastic and be gone. Sometimes I stayed silent because I judged the day’s events to be unamusing, uninspiring and I didn’t want to disappoint her. Sometimes I stayed silent for no reason at all.

Once I tried inventing something – a story about a practical joke played on a teacher that I had actually seen on an American sitcom – but she called me on it before I was halfway through.

‘Mr. Tompkins? Doesn’t sound like him,’ she had said dubiously. Forget that she had only ever heard about him from me in the first place – she’d never been to a school night or teacher’s meeting, never attended a school play or football match – but here she was with opinions on how Mr. Tompkins – my third form maths teacher – would or would not respond to a fart cushion placed on his chair. She raised one eyebrow and looked at me with her are-you-taking-the-piss look. I looked away, wracked my brain to conjure some unique detail that would make the story seem genuine until finally I admitted the fabrication and, wondrous event that it always was, my mother had laughed.

Afterwards, my mother would retire to her room. That’s always how she said it: ‘I will now retire to my bed chamber,' in a posh accent and she would pull her skinny self up and disappear into her room, the door closed so softly behind her I had to strain to hear it.

I would leave then, slamming the front door loudly behind me. I slammed it to signal to my mother that I was going out, to annoy her with the noise (she was very noise-conscious: she hated open-mouthed chewing and car alarms and babies) and also to remind her of the world of here and now, flat and daylight and son.

Probably also at some level I wanted her to follow me, to hear the slam and realize that I was (potentially) going out to get up to no good and that she should stop me, frog march me back to the flat and that I would allow her to do it, just as I allowed her to march me to and from school at an age when I could run faster and further than she could, when kids I knew in school were already busy mugging old ladies for their food stamps and running penny bags for the dealers set up in block 5 of our estate.

But she would stay in her room, and I would run down all 13 concrete flights of stairs, my feet moving faster and faster, barely touching each one as I flew down and out into the stinking courtyard and then out onto the pavement and down the narrow lane backing onto the next estate over (this one – Atlantic Villas) and into block 28, up the lift to knock on the door of flat 54 where my best friend Trevor Teeman, a pudgy kid with skin the color of dirty sheets and the laugh of a hyena, lived with his mother and four younger siblings. To me, their flat was bliss. I hid there every day, watching telly, dropping inappropriate things off their balcony, pinching the arm of Trevor’s 7 year old sister Nina, until the sky darkened and I trudged the long way back to my mother.

My mother never followed me after I slammed the door, she never asked what I was up to during the afternoons. School interested her, my teachers and my classes, what I ate for lunch, who I spoke to in the hallways. But afterwards, the life I led while she was getting high instead of being with me, she had no interest in that.

My mother never followed me, except once. One afternoon, just a couple months before she died, Trevor and I decided that we would go to the Lilly Landry. There was no advance planning, no unspoken agreement or long-standing desire to visit the place. We just decided one grey afternoon that it might be good for a laugh. I was 10, Trevor was 11. It was pissing down with rain that day, it had been all week, and rivers of rubbishy sludge rushed their way across the interior courtyards of the estate, down the pavement and into the already-bursting drains. I’d had to hop my way that afternoon to Trevor’s, and still I’d ended up with soggy muddy trainers and jeans wet almost to the knees. It wasn’t a good day to go out but the rain had made us antsy and so we pulled up our hoods and set off.

’Where are you lot off ta,’ Trevor’s mum had asked as we neared the front door. She was deep in the throes of baking some delicacy for that evening’s tea and a yellow apron with the shapely form of a young naked lady on it was strapped to her round body.

‘Nowhere’s ma, just out,’ answered Trevor while I looked at the floor, radiating innocence. She had nodded and turned her back to us, the ties of her apron straining tight into the rolls of her back, like string around a mutton.

It was 4 pm on a Wednesday and the Lilly Landry was full – the rain had brought all the tossers and junkies inside to sit nursing one pint of lager, maybe two if they hadn’t already spent their dole money for the week, and smoke. A sour-faced woman of indeterminate age stood behind the bar with her arms crossed, a long cigarette low-hanging from her mouth. She wore her eyebrows in long thin black arches, painted on with a shaky hand. Trevor and I eyed her nervously as we stood just inside the door and surveyed the scene.

Everyone was intent on their own pints and packets of crisps and puddles of sorrow. Two of the local red-faced drunkards talked loudly with great out-sized hand gestures at a table in the corner; a teenager I recognized from my estate played a slot machine, his eyes blazing green and red from the reflected lights of the game; a television high in the corner of the room droned a repeat of the footie from the night before. No one gave us a glance and we walked to the bar, Trevor leading the way.

The bartender looked us up and down and her thin black eyebrows arched up even higher, pushing her creased forehead into her hairline which was an improbable medley of grey going to black going to yellow-blonde, scraped back tight into a bun at the back. I kept my eyes on that hairline, on the few kinks that had escaped and now frizzed like a multi-colored halo around her sallow, unsmiling, seen-it-all face.

‘Lads, what’ll it be,’ she said and a hand emerged from behind the bar with a foul-looking cloth attached. She wiped circles of greasy wet in front of us, the stench of mildew and hops wafting up to me with each swipe of the rag, and nodded at Trevor’s request: ‘Two pints, lager.’

Trevor climbed atop a bar stool, his face flush and self-satisfied from his successful order, but I remained standing, my head now just barely level with Trevor’s shoulder. I was astonished at how easy this exchange was proving to be. ‘Give us some dosh there Liam,’ Trevor whispered down to me urgently as the bartender finished pulling our pints and poured away the foam to top them off.

I fished a fiver from my pocket and handed it over – acknowledging to myself as I did that this money was from my mother to do the shopping, that I would have to explain its disappearance to her, that it was likely she would have no further money to give me until next week’s dole check arrived and that my after-school snacks, my eagerly-anticipated before-bed Jaffa cake, the liquid soap for washing up that was nearly finished, the pink powder-smelling loo roll that my mother liked and called her one extravagance, all the simple everyday items that filled my life would not, this week, be in attendance.
I pictured the week ahead, I pictured a series of empty plates set before me, I pictured dirty dishes, dirty bums, my mother’s wrath, all in the instant before Trevor plucked the note from my hand.

And I thought: this is a trade well done. I had tasted alcohol before, but never like this. Never in a pub, on a rainy afternoon, my best friend beside me. It felt like adulthood. It felt like independence and joy and a taste of something my mother must have had once but now she was sick on it, and this is why she kept it from me so furiously. I pulled another stool next to Trevor and sat down, and we turned to watch the match on the TV, pints in hand.

In those days, in a local like the Lilly, five pounds bought a great deal of beer. Trevor and I drank one pint after the next. An hour or two must have passed. The match ended. I don’t remember who was playing or who had won. I don’t remember if we talked to anyone at the bar or who did the ordering or what kind of beer we drank, what color the bartender’s shirt was, if music was playing, if the rain outside stopped, if my own left foot shriveled up and dropped off my leg.

All I remember is the sight of my mother coming towards me from across the room, billows of cigarette smoke parting in her wake, her eyes attached to me like a cowboy’s lasso, circling around me and straining to pull me up and onto her horse.

‘What do you think you’re doing?’ she said in a hushed voice that contained a searing rage and the potential for high volume. The bartender glanced in our direction and then looked away. No one else noticed her, my small grey-faced mother, her trainers wet and muddy from the rain, her wet hair plastered to her skull, making her look suddenly not like my mother at all but like some exotic insect, big shining eyes and a tiny sharp mouth. I looked at her and then looked away, up towards the television and then casually turned in my stool, turned my back on her, as if I was looking for someone or checking the weather out the window.

I turned right way round again and said, ‘We’re having some fun.’ Trevor looked at my mother and then at me and then back at my mother, his mouth open in anticipation and fear and drunkenness. She paid no attention to Trevor; her eyes were still fixed on me though now they had opened a bit wider, were less sure than they had been, maybe a little afraid. I continued. ‘Or, was it a rhetorical question?’

This was a term we’d just learned in school, a lesson I had told her about two days ago over my afternoon snack, and she had practiced rhetorical questions with me: is there anything more delicious than a Jaffa cake? Could our kitchen be any smaller? How much more could I love you?

My mother didn’t answer and I continued: ‘So you don’t really care what we’re doing? You’re just here to spoil the one bit of fun I’ve ever had in my entire life.’ I didn’t know where this was coming from. The beer, the second-hand smoke, the thrill of doing the strictly forbidden, it had all made me light-headed and brave and somehow articulate, in a dramatic teenage way.

With my words, her eyes faltered, her shoulders stooped a bit more but she did not go down. She took hold of my wrist, the tendons in her hands popping out white and blue with the force of her grip on me and I pulled away and for a moment we were locked like that, me still seated on the stool, my head held up in open defiance, my arm pulling up and away from her, my wrist gripped by her stringy sinewy arm, an arm that led down to her stoop-shouldered, sodden ravaged body. I thought about my options, the many ways that I could get away from her, what her eyes would do if I were to kick her or push her hard against the chest, the sternum, just where her heart was so that she would go flying across the room, her matchstick limbs waving, her mouth open in surprise and pain. I was small but she was smaller.

But I didn’t do it. I jumped off the stool and hung my head like the 10 year old that I had been up until that afternoon, the 10 year old son that she walked to and from school everyday, that studied and did my homework and worked hard to make my mother laugh.

‘See ya, mate’ Trevor said as I allowed my mother to lead me away from the bar. I remember looking back at Trevor still seated on his stool and it was as though he sat at one end of a tunnel and I stood at the other, backing slowly away into darkness. People stared at us, Trevor told me later, all heads turned to gawk at the boy being led away from the Lilly by his junkie mum. The bartender shook her head and clucked her tongue. The drunks turned away, shaking their heads at the shame of it. The boy who had won nothing at the slot machine whistled and told his friends later that day, who told their friends and by the next morning, all the estate knew what had happened. It was my shame and hers, that her one public act of parenting was to take me away from the good old pub. What harm could come to me there? What harm that hadn’t already come to me at home? It was a slap in the face of the community, however squalid that community might be, my mother’s testimony that the local pub and all who sat within its four walls, blotting out their days, were not good enough for her child.

That day was the last day I did what my mother wanted. I stopped letting her walk me to and from school. I stopped going to school. I no longer made it home for snack at the kitchen table, I drank, I smoked. Trevor accompanied me on some of these forays but even he saw me lifting off too fast, changing everything and everyone around me, leaving nothing that reminded me of life with my mother.

My mother’s life, I realize now, was the opposite of fainting: it was not the outside closing in on some central point of clarity, it was the centre that was black and the very fringes – her collection of china cat figurines lined in a row along the kitchen counter, all her socks the same color blue, my after-school snack, her presence across from me at the kitchen table for those minutes ticking down until she withdrew to her bedroom – that for her were sharp and firm. Taking the edges away left her with nothing.

Later, a few years, perhaps more, after she died, I started in on heroin. I wanted to feel what she had felt, I had wondered all those years what had been so vital as to obliterate everything else, and I felt it. For a long time I wandered in the darkened maze that she had wandered in. For a long time I thought that she and I were joined, that I was her twin, not her son, and that her fate was my fate. And it was many years before I came to realize that saving myself was the closest I could ever come to saving my mother.

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Comments by other Members

Cornelia at 17:54 on 12 October 2008  Report this post

the perfume of their cigarettes

Y'our mother was a mystery

who I spoke to in the hallways.

dole check

‘Lads, what’ll it be,’

she had practiced rhetorical questions

Cornelia at 17:54 on 12 October 2008  Report this post

the perfume of their cigarettes

Y'our mother was a mystery

who I spoke to in the hallways.

dole check

‘Lads, what’ll it be,’

she had practiced rhetorical questions

Cornelia at 18:30 on 12 October 2008  Report this post
This story had the makings of an intriguing study of a young boy's relationship with his mother, and I think you should might make a good short story out ofthe visit to the grandparents.

A big drawback for was the setting didn't seem authentic. Some of the spellings made me wonder:


UK spelling is 'sombre'

dole check

UK spelling is 'cheque'

she had practiced rhetorical questions

UK spelling is 'practised'

There were other odd details:

who I spoke to in the hallways.

The expression is familiar from American films,but English schools don't have hallways, they have corridors

slices of salami

Not English working-class food

Pacific Hamlets,

Doesn't sound right to name a council Estate after a sea that's miles away. I've heard of Pacific Heights in San Francisco.


Not an English name

I was wondering about 'Lilly Langdry' but I remembered there was a Lily Langtry, a music-hall star.

The landlady seems willing to serve alcohol to ten year olds drinks but no English landlady on a council estate would risk her licence like this - she has too much to lose. They mmight hust get away with it if they looked more like 18.

Apart from wondering why an American would set a story in a rather specialised English milieu, I also thought at some point the missing father would be mentioned.

I don't suppose I could write an authentic story set in America, although I've seen so many US films that I sometimes think I could. It wouldn't occur to me to do so, and I wonder why you have chosen to do it?


tec at 09:48 on 13 October 2008  Report this post
Thanks for your comments. I am American, as is my spell check, but I've lived in the UK for a long time now. To answer your question - if I limited myself to writing only about my personal experiences, it would be pretty boring, both for myself and for the reader. But of course the last thing I would want is for the reader to be wondering about my origins or motivations, as opposed to just enjoying (or not) the story - so I will definitely look to thoroughly de-americanise (notice I did not use a 'z' !) the next draft.


Diane Becker at 10:20 on 13 October 2008  Report this post
Hi - I've read through this story quite quickly and read the comments, but before I come back with more detailed comments, I was wondering - taking a lateral view why you had to de-Americanise at all (I don't remember Raymond Carver having to do that?!!) - why not just tweak the setting - call it a bar instead of a pub - make the setting American not English - would that work?? Might be worth a try ...


Cornelia at 11:39 on 13 October 2008  Report this post
I agree, Tec, about challenging yourself as a writer and making the story interesting. However, there's no dearth of best-selling accounts of deprived American childhoods - Tom Sawyer the most famous, of course, and on BBC Radio 4 just now they're broadcasting Alice Walker's 'The Colour Purple'. So there's no reason to think a 'dysfunctional' English childhood, would be more interesting. I think there seems to be an especial pressure on first person narrative about childhood to be authentic, but that's a separate issue.

I sympathise with trying to write from the pov of someone from a different culture, having tried it myself. I've lived in China and did some extensive cultural research for a non-fiction book. I wrote a short story based on a real-life incident, but taking on the pov of a Chinese girl . (It's called A Passion for China, and is in my archive) I think it doesn't work and the challenge isn't nearly as great as the one you've set yourself. I'm currently researching a book set in mid twentieth century China. I'd like to write in the first person but I think there will be problems of authenticity, despite the licence allowed for historical novels.

A point I didn't mention is the additional problem of reproducing regional dialogue. You've wisely kept this to a minumum but it jars, whereas the mother's speech and attitudes sound American. I agree spelling differences can be ironed out, as can some of the American expressions and details, but it seems like a lot of work. It might solve the problem if you just say at the start that the mother and child were American immigrants.

Diane sensibly suggests that you needn't use an English setting for this story to give it some authenticity - it could change to an American housing project. However, there other intriguing subjects to be mined - the story of the mother's transition from a wealthy past life to her heroin-addicted present, for instance. Or you could use a contemporary English milieu but write from an American point of view. It works for Bill Bryson!

Hope some of this is helpful.


tec at 10:38 on 14 October 2008  Report this post
Thanks Sheila and Diane for your suggestions. I think I'll keep at it for the time being - the story in my head just doesn't fit in a US setting. Housing projects there are much different, and there's just no equivalent of the local pub. Perhaps it won't work in the end, but it's still early days on this draft so I'll keep working, and hopefully post an improved version before too long.

and of course any additional comments you (or anyone else) might have are very very welcome - I am really finding it invaluable to get this sort of feedback from other writers. My family members just don't cut it as reviewers!


Nik Perring at 18:20 on 15 October 2008  Report this post
I really loved the relationship the kid had with the mother - there was something really moving in the way they were with each other - the image of them sitting at the table together's terrific.

My only suggestion, really, is a structural one: I wonder whether you could cut a lot of the fact telling bits and get to the core of the story. There's a lot of description that I personally don't think is needed. (It'd slim down the wordcount as well!)

And I wouldn't have any trouble with the American spellings in an English story. And I agree that it IS set in England.

Great stuff.

Hope that's helped.


Cornelia at 23:12 on 15 October 2008  Report this post
Yes, I thought the relationship was interesting, too.

I still wonder how Lillie (or Lily) Langtry became Lilly Landry and I think it would be very unusual for ten year olds to be drinking pints of lager. Other considerations aside, the locals wouldn't want children in there.

I think the following might need anglicising:

wobbly paint job

=Poor job of painting

out the side

=out of the side

curse words



= hooligans



food stamps

Old people in England have pensions,not food stamps



Atlantic Villas

This sounds odd for the same reason as Pacific Hamlets



About the dole money and child support - it wouldn't be enough to support a heroin addiction, even eked out by occasional selling of articles. She'd need to be on the game.

Hope this is helpful.


apcharman at 09:12 on 16 October 2008  Report this post
Hi Tec,
I love this writing, you have a really great style, but I wish this story was about something you really knew. Whether or not it is true, I really can't bring myself to believe in heroin addicts with such a strong moral compass, nor daughters who admire their mother's addiction. Those create such dissonance that they destroy the rest of the story for me; which really is shame because, like i said, it is told with such ease, and poise.

tec at 16:50 on 16 October 2008  Report this post
Hi, thanks for the additional comments. I'm in the midst of re-drafting and will re-post soon - hopefully some of you will feel like reading it again!

Andy, to respond, I definitely did not mean to impart that the son (not a daughter) admired his mother's addiction. Far from it - he hates it, but he loves his mother, and it's a part of who she is. anyhow - I hope I have addressed that impression in the next draft.


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