I walked down the street with my mother and grandmother to the waste ground where the wood pile had grown as high as the houses. People from the low block of flats stood in their windows, waiting to see it go up in flames. Most of the houses were dark. People who had come out stood all the way around the unlit bonfire, and in the gaps the night was black. The beam of a torch glanced around the top of the pile. It shone on the Guy, the grin on his pillow case head, his legs stuffed with paper tied at the ankles.
It was when the fire had burned down half the size and my mother was poking the potatoes into the white-orange glow, the heat on her face, that she saw him come around the side of the bonfire. I was standing by my grandmother, watching the last of the fireworks. I saw the shape of his ear, the outer edge square against the flames, his face orange and dusty. People had begun to go home. The night was cold on our backs. The sleeves gave him away, the way he wore the cuffs of his thick work shirts folded back.
‘What you doing here?’ she said, standing up. She stepped away from the fire.
‘I saw Chris from over there.’
‘You’re not supposed to be here.’
I peeled away from my grandmother.
‘Hello, kidder,’ my father said, squeezing my shoulder.
He stank of smoke, the shirt blue and black check.
‘So how did you end up here?’ my mother said.
‘There was fireworks all up the motorway. I thought I’d see about taking Chris to the Town Moor.’
‘You can’t just turn up, can you?’
‘Hey, I don’t know, do I? I’m just at the bonfire like everybody else.’
‘Christopher...’ My grandmother led me by the shoulders. ‘Stand there with them lads. They’re going to set the big one off.’
‘You’re spying, then,’ my mother said, her hands in her pockets, the two halves of her old coat wrapped around her.
He had that smirk on his face, as if nobody could get the better of him.
‘Why don’t you piss off away, Ellis?’
When she said it she wasn’t afraid. It was the flicker of pain on his face. He went white, as if he had only come to do a good turn and had been slapped. He would never feel pain without having to hurt her worse. She knew the signs, but then they weren’t signs, it was just him and her, the way they had always been. He clenched his teeth and wrinkled his nose, like a dog about to bite. He had never lifted his hands. She was afraid of something worse than his fists, whatever it was. The times he had stared her down until her muscles froze up, so that she tripped or knocked the bottle of vinegar over, and then he had his reason for calling her a fat cow and storming out to the bar.
‘I’ll go where I want,’ he said, trying to keep the smirk on his face. ‘I could turn up anywhere.’
She turned to look for my grandmother, to say they were going. ‘Come on, Mam,’ she said.
‘Listen,’ he said, grabbing her arm.
‘Watch your hands.’
My grandma walked me to the path by the houses. ‘Come on, pet,’ she said. ‘Just walk away.’ People were looking.
‘You think I don’t know what you’re up to?’
The blame then, like the flames of the bonfire, went through her. Whatever it was, whatever she had done, she had done it.
‘Ellis, get yourself away home,’ my grandmother said.
‘I would, Jean, but it’s a bit crowded our house.’
What he was saying – how could he know? He didn’t take his eyes off her.
‘Have you seen where I live? It’s a hole.’
She wanted to escape into the cold, away from the fire.
‘I know,’ he said. ‘I know all about him.’
He watched her eyes as he said it. When he said ‘him’ the fear sucked over her. He had done that on purpose, making the last word be ‘him’.
She should have gone then. A minute could make all the difference and turn her anger into fear. She had disappointed him. The trap was to see herself the way he saw her. She got lulled into listening, as if she owed him. She wanted to run away, and now she couldn’t, afraid of him, afraid of not standing up to him.
‘You’re mental,’ she said.
‘Am I? The neighbors look out for me.’ He looked around, as if he was looking for one of them to back him up. ‘They want rid of you. They’ve started calling you the street whore.’
She turned away as though he wasn’t standing there. She walked slowly, as calm as she could, across the waste ground and took my hand. She was shaking with nerves. She was disappointed because she thought he had started to lose that power over her. All the time in the back of her mind she had been trying to remember the potatoes.
‘You better watch your backs,’ Ellis shouted after us. ‘You and your fancy man.’
We walked down the ramp to the tunnel under Newbiggin Lane, where I was always afraid somebody would jump out at us. My grandmother had not said anything. My mother’s mind was full. The tunnel and the kids that hung around there weren’t much to be afraid of. They couldn’t make her feel the way my father did. She wished that particular fear would make itself real, as if it would come at her in the dark with arms and legs, so she could kick and scream and pull its hair. She would rather have her face smashed and clamber away from it, bloody but clean of fear. She should have pushed him to that, should have got him to act out the bastard he was. She had only ever been afraid of hints and threats. She never even knew what she was accused of. He would only say, ‘You know,’ so that it was always in her, part of her, always her doing it to herself. He had taught her. He moved from person to person, from thing to thing. He was the rent man, the man from the insurance. He was the number forty-nine bus barreling around the corner, so fast she couldn’t run and catch it. But she had deserved to miss it, having wasted the time putting nail varnish on her toe nails. He was the knife and fork drawer when she pulled it out too far and it emptied itself on the kitchen floor, everything broken into shards, as if everything she saw was only a reflection and somebody had thrown a brick at it. She was a stupid cow, a clumsy bitch. He was the cold bit of steak pie she had taken out of the oven too soon because she was hungry. Fat pig couldn’t even wait. He was her tights when she was pulling them on and they were twisted around her leg and she felt every ounce of fat on her thigh, a sickness in her stomach that made her want to rip the meat off her bones and burn it and say ‘there’ and be free of it. I could be my father when I wouldn’t go to sleep, when I misbehaved and she’d had enough of me. She walked out of my room, and I called after her softly, and she ignored me, daring to want something else, daring to want to be with a man. But she wouldn’t stop. She would live with this fear, live in spite of it, whether it was real or not. Let the bastard kill her. Let him. It would be over with. It would be on his conscience; he was more afraid of that than anything. He was just like her in a strange way, afraid of being found out.
There was nobody in the tunnel, except a boy and girl at the end, their shapes dim beside a broken street lamp. The boy tried to hide her, pressed close against her. He put his face in her shoulder, and they kept still. As the three of us went by, my mother got on the outside of me. The girl peeked out then buried her face in his shirt. I could see that the girl’s skirt was pushed up at the front, that the boy was trying to cover the open flap of his pants. I saw the skin of his hip. There they were, naked before the world. They were innocent in a way my mother had never been. The first time with my father she knew they were going to get caught, disgusted with herself, their pasty white bodies in the cold of his mother’s bed, worrying the whole time about what was leaking out of her, the stain they would leave on the sheets. Getting pregnant never crossed her mind.
I walked with my hands in my pockets, staring at the ground. The air was quiet and cold this far from the fire. Across the valley, the strings of lights showed the pattern of dark streets, the shape of the bank, the valley’s crest. In the distance, fireworks exploded silently like tiny flowers.
‘You want to be careful with him,’ my grandmother said.
She looked at her.
‘You remember what happened to your cousin Jenny.’
She said nothing.
They reached the bottom of the bank, where we had to go our separate ways. She said goodnight, but then we stopped to let a car go by. It was racing down the street, a gold Ford Capri charging down the middle of the street between parked cars. The window came rolling down and the car stopped. The car was full of young lads.
‘Hey, missis – shut your mouths will you – how much to swallow my knob?’
He was talking to my mother, keeping a straight face, despite the stifled laughter coming from the back. He was sixteen or seventeen, his face cheeky.
She held my hand like she was holding a rail on the bus. Her mouth opened, as though she had been expecting him to say that. ‘It’ll cost you five pound, sunshine. I give a discount for little ones. There’s no chance of choking on them.’
A hand from the back seat clapped him on the shoulder, and the others inside the car were laughing. ‘Piss off, you fat cow,’ he said. He stared at her through the open window, the tires squealed, and they sped off down the street. They turned around. ‘Stinking whore,’ he shouted.
My grandmother looked as if she wanted to say she was sorry for what the boy had said, but she said, ‘If you can’t be careful for yourself, you should at least think of Chris.’
‘Mam,’ I said. ‘What’s a fancy man?’
‘It’s like a boyfriend.’
‘Have you got a fancy man?’
‘No, pet. I don’t.’
‘My dad says he’s coming to live at our house again.’
We smelled of smoke. My hair felt thick of it, like the hair of a horse I had once petted at Sample’s farm.
‘He’s not, pet. He’s not coming back.’
‘Is he not?’
We walked a little way in silence.
‘My dad’s a big liar, isn’t he?’
‘He’s just got it wrong.’
After a little while I said, ‘Mam.’
‘My dad’s not very fancy, is he?’
She put her hand on my shoulder and pulled me into her.
‘You’re a funny bugger, our Chris.’
Behind the houses bangers were still going off. A rocket shot from somebody’s back garden.
‘I shouldn’t have said that in front of you, what I said to that lad.’
‘It’s all right.’
‘Did you understand?’
‘I think so.’
‘I hope not.’
I don’t remember when she told me, but the first one she ever touched was Billy Robb’s, at the fourth year Christmas party. The Hokey Cokey came echoing from the Assembly Hall. They hid among the coats in the cloakroom, undoing each other’s pants. She had seen her brother’s in the bath, but never had one in her hand. Billy Robb did the opposite to her – girls’ things didn’t come out, they went in – like he was pushing the button for the lift. They stayed there for ages, keeping still, feeling the draft when the door to the playground opened. The party was always on the last day of school, and she spent the Christmas holidays trying to remember how it felt, too ashamed to put her own hands there. It wasn’t until they got back to school – the start of a brand new year – that she found out people were calling her a pross. After the party, Billy Robb had gone round to Gaz Wightman’s house to tell him. After that, she only wanted to forget about it. She said she had never told anyone else that. That was something she couldn’t have ever told my dad.
‘We were always quick with the comebacks,’ she told me that bonfire night, talking about what she had said to the boy in the car. ‘What a terrible thing to be called. Twice in one night. It’s not even true.’
She would have believed it when my dad said it, but that boy – how could it be true? She had only ever been with my father, and now Kenny. She was as innocent as anything, as innocent as that girl down at the end of the tunnel. She wished when she was younger she could have been with a boy like that, blameless beside a broken streetlight, the air getting at their skin, the sound of footsteps, hiding what they could – but a hiding that hid nothing.
The house was the way we had left it, but it was changed for having spent those hours in the cold, as though everything had been asleep and the living room light wasn’t bright enough to bring everything back to life. She turned on the fire and took off her coat. It was after ten o’clock. She walked me up to my room and I got ready for bed. My sheets looked cold for being clean, and I was still grubby from the fire.
She went downstairs saying she was going to sort out the biscuit tin she and my father had kept their important papers in but the next morning it was still exactly where it was and nothing had been disturbed. My life had not been perfect, but whose had? Nobody had any right to expect it. I had my life, and she had no right to promise anything else.
She always talked about buying new lavender to put in the pomanders she had filled to sweeten the air of her bedroom. She had hated the smell of my father’s heavy shirts and stale socks. I remember the smells competing. The lavender might be faint but it was there. It was her who was there with the boy. She was the girl. Let her be the girl, then, standing there, the cold wall at her back. But she was fatter, the sadness at picturing herself, the shame of a boy so young. Meshing two lives was the trick, the way a good strange dream could do. The life you felt and the one you had to picture. Bits of what you wanted. Kenny turning his attention to her, taking her body over from Ellis. The quiet of the cloakroom, the last day of school, looking forward to Christmas. If only she had been able to remember those moments with Billy Robb the way it had been and not the way it was talked about afterwards. Maybe she was a whore, in a way, because people could tell what she was thinking. Even now, thinking about that young lad in the tunnel, she might think later those thoughts were written on her face. But that was only Ellis digging into her, her digging into herself. God, the years she had missed. The things she might have done if it hadn’t been for Ellis, if she hadn’t waited and put up with it. Oh, God. The things. She might have deserved to be called that after all. The things she might have gotten up to deserve it.
PAUL BARRON grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne and currently lives and teaches writing in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.