Tina and the Lads: A Short Story
A tart with a heart, they called her at the local, but never to her face. Fair play to Tina though.
She cottoned on at last, that the men who bought her drinks and put their arm round her at closing time had no intention of making a claim on her for more than that evening. Simply ‘The Best’ by her namesake always put on the jukebox. Hopeful smiles after the fifth drink. But always the same ending. And when she realised, she didn’t rage or turn nasty. She didn’t talk about being led up garden paths or roads to nowhere. A lifetime of promises and a world of dreams gone. Tina just stopped bothering.
She rented a field down by the water meadows and rehomed donkeys instead. Devoted her whole life to them, her lads. Her boys. Her beating heart. She was often spotted, leaning on a fork staring at her donkeys with such intensity, look of pure joy on her face that it gave people pause. Made them stop and take a second look as if they were momentarily unsure they were seeing the same thing that Tina was seeing. Tina looked like she was lost in Opera, in the dance of Swan Lake. They looked and saw five brown and grey donkeys doing nothing. Less than nothing if that were possible. They never moved, never twitched. They didn't even stand in a pleasingly symmetrical line. One was always looking at his blue water bucket. One at the floor. One at lord knows what. The other two had thier eyes closed. They could have been fakes. Like the one in the church that came out at Christmas with the rest of the (terrifyingly) life-size nativity cast. Tina’s donkeys did diddly-squat. Didn’t bray or run or frolic. No one had even seen them do a poo, but they must have done because Tina was forever pushing wheelbarrows of the stuff up and down the lane. Her cheeks red as berries, arms toned from turning over turf and turd. ‘My lads’ she’d say, pride as strong as the Glaswegian accent in her voice.
Tina hadn’t been known as an animal lover. She wore double denim and kept a tight perm. Liked fringes on her boots and handbags. Frosted pink lips and great slashes of blusher down her cheeks. She liked to dance. Now Tina wears cargo trousers with lots of pockets for the lads’ essentials. Carrots and Polos and sugar cubes. A comb to run through their hair. The denim jacket has had its sleeves cut off. Tina looks like someone from an 80s rock band now, Def Leppard maybe. Not that Tina would have that blue language round her boys. She plays them the Rat Pack tapes she gets from car boot sale in the next field over. ‘When you’re smiling’ she croons at them. Her voice is better than you’d think. ‘I’ve got the world on a string' Tina sings. Scraps of songs, strung together like the bunting she hangs from the hut that houses her kettle and her flask. The lads’ winter coats and Vaseline for their eyes. A separate tub for each donkey.
The grocer gives her his wonky vegetables. No one else wants them. The farmer donates only slightly damp hay. Tina never asked for these things and perhaps this is why they do it. They all know Tina, if not personally, then by reputation. A friend or a brother took her out for a drink one night. To the pubs that line the back of the valley. The Blue Ball, the Old Crown. Sneaky date pubs. Don’t want anyone to know pubs. Tina was something to hide back then. She didn’t know it then, doesn’t know now that she’s seen differently. She used to be ‘that Tina’ but now she’s ‘ours’. ‘Our Tina will be wanting them old blankets if you are only tossing them out, for her lads.’ ‘Our Tina could do with some work done on the trough. Saw her fiddling about in the ice. Needs digging out proper at the bottom.’ Mothers bring young children to stand on the fence and wave. Primary-coloured toddlers in red wellies and yellow coats. Chubby fists clutching at biscuits or chocolate bars. ‘Want to feed donkey’ they’ll say, proffering a half-chewed digestive, like a small oatmeal moon through the fence. The lads are not ones for chocolate. Tina hands the kid a carrot, carries on mucking out, spreading hay. She doesn’t make conversation with the mothers, and it wasn't Tina’s idea to have the charity box. A laminated photo of the lads nailed to the top. Stan at the pub made it in his garage, then made the locals have a whip round. Men who once bought Tina a Tia Maria and coke shoved notes inside for donkey feed, for a new shelter. ‘She might be wanting to get more, like’ Steve says, ‘lads.’ ‘Maybe they were already old when she got them. Perhaps she rescued them from Scarborough or places where kids ride them on beaches.’ ‘Maybe they are on their last legs. She might be needing the vet.’ ‘She might need a lorry to take them there.’ ‘Or to go back to Scarborough for the next load.’ ‘Poor bastards.’ In the absence of Tina saying anything, everyone else spoke for her. Like she was a row of washing on a line, they pegged her as they saw her now, remoulded her like she was a lump of clay. Gone the girl who giggled. Late night, lipstick smeared, tasselly boots Tina. Gone the blue eyeshadow, powerhouse perfume, sashaying to the bar, eyelashes clagged together with tacky mascara. Tina is out in the snow, out on days when the bin men don’t want to get up. When the foxes don’t even bother poking a nose out of their setts. When the big storm hit, Harry or Hetty, whatever the weatherman called it, taking down trees and smashing swing chairs against greenhouses, Tina was not in bed, she was with her lads. Had them gathered in the barn, covered in blankets. The wind howled louder than her tape player could go, but Tina locked the doors and turned on lamps and drank a thermos of beef tea, filling the shelter with succour. Tina is out in summer, swatting flies and hacking back bushes. Watering the grass, hauling buckets. Bare arms covered in scratches from blackberries. Does she ever pick any, make herself a pie? Who knows what else Tina does, or where her money comes from. No one feels it would be right to ask Tina, once known in such intimate ways, such personal questions now. ‘She must have sold her house.’ ‘Probably lives in that shed.’ ‘Never see her anywhere but with them donkeys.’ More donations. Jerry hooks electricity to her shed, sets her up with proper lights. Dave donates an old fridge. A microwave. Nothing much. Tina receives them with a nod, always busy. Cleaning the hooked tool she uses to gently clean the muck from the lads' hooves, scrubbing water buckets turning green. Helen in the old arcade leaves bags of broken biscuits tied to the gate. For the lads, for the kids who come to see them, the tired mums who take them there after school. They are soft, and all smell the same, a stale mix of coconut and malt. Biscuits and mums alike. Liz decides to run a stall for the lads at the school fete. All donations to Tina’s Sanctuary. People drop off bag after bag. Chipped mugs and duvet covers. Glass bowls and unopened hot water bottles. Microfibre socks and napkin rings. Maud donates a batch of her rock cakes, big as a man’s fist. The kids in reception class all bring in something for the lucky dip. Spend a happy hour wrapping a bouncy ball or a plastic army figure. More Sellotape than newspaper. Mrs Finlay donated a bag of ten pence lollies to attach to each one. ‘Don’t eat them’ the teacher said sternly ‘they are for the donkeys.’ ‘I didn’t know donkeys ate lollies miss.’ The morning was temporarily suspended (spellings) in favour of a trip to the library bus, where any information about donkeys was gleaned and then relayed, on the lawn next to the daffodil bulbs the kids had planted, mostly upside down.
‘A donkey has an excellent memory. They are able to remember another donkey or a place they visited 25 years ago.’ ‘But why would they want to? Didn’t Tina rescue them? Maybe they don’t want to remember?’ ‘Unlike a horse a donkey has the ability to make decisions in order to ensure their safety independently of being told to do something.’ ‘But they never do anything, they just stand there?’ ‘That’s because they are thinking things through, not rushing in. You could learn a lesson from the donkeys.’ ‘I bet they’d be good at crossing roads.’ ‘Can’t we have one as a lollipop lady then? Mrs Stott is a right misery. She makes me put my coat on properly before she’ll see me across and she’s not even my mum!’ All the children know instinctively that they are never to ask to sit on Tina’s donkeys. They were Tina’s friends, her lads. Her children. You don’t sit on people’s children or pets. Unless you are Mary the Virgin about to have Jesus and then it is okay. The ducks came from Dennis. Tina wasn’t sure, but the lads seemed to like them, so she took four and a goose as well. An old bath was donated, claw footed, with a ramp for the birds to waddle up and down. They honked loudly, flapped and squawked and plopped all over the place, while the lads never moved an inch. Never made a noise. It was like they’d taken a vow of silence, Joan said. She was a reader, highbrow stuff. Wore her glasses round her neck and made sweeping statements no one dared argue with. ‘They are like Trappist monks’ ‘Maybe,’ Denise said, having no clue what Joan was on about and not really caring. She ran the local salon, donated an old pair of scissors so Tina could keep the lads’ hair out of their eyes.
It was Father Moss who brought the man. ‘He used to be a banker up in the City,’ he explained to Tina, who pushed her wheelbarrow past him and said, ‘mind the duck crap.’ ‘And the pressure, well it got too much. He’s had to stop work, stop it all really. He’s at home and he needs something to do. I thought…’ Father Moss looked around him, ‘that he could help out here? A bit?’ ‘No place for suits, Father Moss’ Tina said. ‘Of course not, I don’t think he’ll wear a suit.’ ‘I’ll have to talk to the lads and get back to you’ Tina said.
So then the broken men came, gently brushing hair and carrying hay. They did a lot of standing, like the lads. A lot of gazing out at nothing, at something only they could see. The frost on the canal, white tassled willow trees, could keep them an hour, unmoving. What went through the minds of those men and those donkeys, no one would ever know.
Tina didn’t seem to mind. She just swept around them, passed them tea they never asked for, the odd carrot for the lads, for themselves too. ‘To Tina’ people said, as they raised their glasses in the pub she used to drink in, ‘to our Tina.’ Tina was gone by then, found in the barn with the boys standing vigil over her. Smile on her face. The Sanctuary is still there. Geese and donkeys, a tiny pony now too. Rabbits and a cow. The now less broken men doing all the work.
One of Tina’s lads was bred and his son frolics in the field. Turner, they call him. Tina’s Turner.