She was no-one’s mother. She said that she’d never had the maternal instinct, that when she was a little girl she’d preferred to drown her dolls than look after them. She said that her sisters would find their dolls all wrapped up tight in swaddling cloths, heavy fabric pressed down heavily over china noses and mouths. She said that she was allergic to child-spit, that the sound of childish laughter made her skin crawl and that even the sight of a child was enough to make her break out in hives.
Mad Frankie had let it be known that she was nobody’s mother because she’d tried stiffing him some of the take when she was one of his girls and he’d had her spayed as a punishment. There were people who’d claimed to have seen the scars as well.
There was a place where, if you knew where to go, what the right time was, and who to ask, a man with a glass eye and breath like a gasworks would tell you that she was nobody’s mother because she’d had a lover who’d left her to do a job and had never returned. He would tell you that she’d sworn never to sleep with another man again so that she couldn’t be hurt any more. Then you’d probably pass out from his breath, and when you woke up you’d find your pockets lighter by the wallet-load and your clothes sold to the charity shops where charity was something definitely only practised at home. Which is not to say a determined man couldn’t get them back, but you had to be willing to threaten elderly women with artificial limbs. And no, I won’t explain how you’re intended to parse that sentence.
And then there were the hospital records that most everyone thought had been incinerated in a fire twenty years ago. They made for some very interesting reading indeed.
But no matter what you chose to believe, everyone called her Mother Hubbard, and no-one ever asked her either to go to her cupboard or if her poor doggie had a bone. Her poor doggie was actually a pack of seventeen armoured chihuahuas, and while that may not sound very scary you’ve not been pursued by them late at night, knowing that they get through gaps much smaller than any you can, and that they’re effectively bullet-proof and psychotic. To my credit, I did manage to get away, but I was a whole lot younger then, and Mother Hubbard’s been teaching them new tricks ever since.
I pushed open the door of the Cow and Spoon, and leaned cautiously round it. The pub’s interior was dark and damp and smelled like a tramp’s armpit. There were people stood around the bar, and someone was getting beaten up over the pool-table. I heard the mutter of odds being called, the scrunch of money changing hands, and the pitiful wail of the victim as a pool-cue was jabbed somewhere painful. The man behind the bar, Tom, looked at me with disdain and wrung the barmat into a pint-glass.
“The usual, Mac?” he called, setting the glass on the counter. I shrugged, and stumbled inside. They’d cleaned the floor and my shoes weren’t sticking as much as usual; I kept overcompensating for how hard I had to pull my feet up, and it meant I was walking like a clown.
“Mother Hubbard?” I said. Tom pointed to the Saloon.
“Holding court,” he said. She’s been there since eleven, so she’s gonna be packing up soon. Not drinking, Mac?” He waved the pint-glass of slops at me.
“Not right now,” I said, ignoring the growl of my stomach reminding me that I’d not been able to eat Miss Sapphire’s pasta either. “I need to see a woman about a dog.”
“Har, har, har,” said Tom. “You should tell her you said that.” Somewhere beyond the Saloon door I heard an angry yip, the kind of bark a small dog makes to let you know that you’re making far too much of the size issue.
“Yeah, I will,” I said. “Just as soon as she tells me who Jack Horner is.”
I opened the door to the Saloon and walked inside; there’s no point peering in at Mother Hubbard. She’ll only send someone out to bring you back. She was sat in the middle of a horseshoe of chairs, her back ramrod straight, wearing a hat covered with mouldy fruit. Only two of the horseshoe of chairs were occupied. I recognised Damned Simon, who was nursing a dislocated shoulder, and I didn’t recognise a little ferrety man who was clutching a miniature traffic cone to his chest like a nipple protector. Mother Hubbard turned and looked at me as I came in.
“Don’t sit down, MacArthur,” she said. “I’ll have to get them to wash the chairs then. What do you want?”
I gestured to her audience. “Looks like I’m not first,” I said. “I can wait.”
“Yeah, sure you can. Well both of these are calling for a personal touch,” she said, cracking her knuckles on the word personal. “So I think I’ll get your little complaint dealt with first, and then I can start heeling.” There was a lot of emphasis on that last word, and neither Damned Simon nor the ferrety man looked happy.
“Jack Horner,” I said. She didn’t react. “Jack Horner had hired me to do a little watching,” I said. “Only there’s no cash up front, and you know how I feel about that.”
“You worried you might end up doing a good deed and get kicked out of Hell, Mac?” She giggled like the little girl she hadn’t been for over fifty years. “I reckon the inmates down there won’t let that happen to a nice guy like you!“
“I like to watch whoever’s promising me the cash,” I said. “Call it paranoia if you must.”
“I call it business sense,” said Mother Hubbard, the mirth dying away. “Doesn’t explain what you’re doing here interrupting my little judgements though.”
“I need to know where to find Mr. Horner,” I said. “And his real name might be nice, too.”
“Names I ain’t got,” said Mother Hubbard. Her voice was pitched slightly higher, slightly snappier. She sounded a little bit aggrieved. “All I’ve got for you is that he likes the Corner Pie House, especially on a Thursday.”
“What’s so special about Thursday?”
“They serve plum pie.”