Tuesday, 11 October 2011

On the Way Home by Carys Bray

Sam Turner has done something amazing. He strides along Bridge Road, carrying his jacket over one arm so that people can see. The pavement flocks with noisy, red-faced children as they stream out of the primary school and Sam pauses to stand aside for buggies. He says, ‘No problem’ when he is thanked. He raises his bare arm to distracted women in an after you gesture. He smiles over the undulating bobble hats. He notices in the hope of being noticed. Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself is his college motto. He watches bare hands picking noses and scratching at hair concealed under hats. He observes mittens on strings, fingerless gloves and ear muffs. Despite the cold, he holds his jacket, exposing his left arm as he shepherds children past. ‘Go on then. Off you go,’ he says. ‘You look like you’re in a hurry. S’okay, you go first’. He feels benevolent, fatherly. The feeling started when the nurse, who was surely old enough to be his grandmother, called him Mr Turner.

‘Lie down here, Mr Turner,’ she said.

He hadn’t realised he would have to lie down. He felt very serious. So this is what it would be like to be ill, he thought as he leaned into the dense pillow. He hoped there would be time to go back to college afterwards and show his arm to Kate Wilson. He imagined her leaning over him sympathetically, offering to kiss him better. But it was too late now.

‘Press this on tight,’ said the nurse afterwards, pushing a piece of gauze into the crack of his arm. ‘It’ll help to stop any bruising.’

He pressed lightly.

The juice and biscuits were a surprise. He had been expecting some thanks, but the insistence of, ‘Get something inside you’ and the attentiveness of, ‘Sit down for a moment and rest’ gave his enjoyment a gravity to be savoured. Biscuits; only plain ones, but he helped himself. He deserved them. There ought to be biscuits, he thought. In fact there ought to be better biscuits, like the ones with cows on, or custard creams. He felt appreciated, considered, part of an altruistic group who had eaten National Health Service biscuits. Other people were also eating the biscuits. They were mostly older. Some were chatting. He wanted to join in, but he couldn’t decide how to begin.

The flow of children reduces to a trickle. Sam’s left arm hangs awkwardly, inside-out in the hope that someone might comment on the white, sticky plaster. Any one of these children could be saved with his blood. Any one of them might have cause to be grateful to him one day and never know who to thank. He briefly empathizes with Peter Parker, with Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, their heroic deeds unacknowledged in everyday life.

He strides on, past the hairdressers, the pharmacy, the betting shop and the laundrette. He goes into the corner shop. There are lots of biscuits here. Coconut rings, Party Rings, Pink Wafers, Jaffa cakes and Jammie Dodgers. He chooses a packet of bourbon creams and presents them to the man behind the till using his left hand.

‘Ninety pence,’ says the man, whose nametag reads, ‘Girish Patel – can I help you?’

Sam scratches around the sticky plaster for emphasis. A bruise has leaked past its edges.

‘You been in the wars?’ Girish asks the young lad buying chocolate biscuits.

‘I gave blood.’

‘Good for you.’ Girish hands the boy his change and watches him put on his jacket as he struts out of the shop. ‘I’m going in the back for a bit,’ he tells his daughter, Parv. ‘Call me if it gets busy.’ He brushes through the dangling coloured ribbons, into the store room, catching his hip on the jut of a crate of washing powder. He hobbles on into the kitchen where Amir is waiting with his school reading book.

‘Okay Grandad,’ says Amir. ‘Ready?’

Girish sits at the table. ‘Go ahead lovely boy,’ he says.

Amir has a beautiful voice; high and clear, a laughing voice, a voice that twinkles. ‘The Emperor Caligula made mothers and fathers watch their children being executed,’ he reads.

Not long until the end of this horrible book, Girish thinks as he rubs his aching hip.

‘Caligula’s chief animal-keeper was beaten with chains, day after day. At last the man’s leaking brains began to stink so Caligula had him executed.’

Girish shudders. The poor animal-keeper. What a book. Children used to learn from history, now they laugh at it.

Amir’s bright voice reads on. ‘At one dinner he paraded a slave who had stolen some silver; executioners chopped off the man’s hands and tied them round his neck. They made a sign explaining what he had done to deserve it and took him on a tour of the tables.’

Who would do such a thing? Girish adds the question to his growing collection. He is hoarding questions, stockpiling them. His ‘Introduction to the Internet’ class on Wednesday evenings at the university has not been the antidote he hoped for. There is a poster in the corridor on the way to the computer suite. ‘Teaching Singing to Boys and Teenagers,’ it reads. ‘The Young Male Voice and the Problem of Masculinity: How High Should Boys Sing?’ How high should boys sing? What a question! Here is another problem, something else to ponder and contemplate.

‘Why did the Romans have difficulty burying the traitors Drusus and Nero?’

Why is Amir reading this book? Why do boys’ underpants stick out of their trousers? How does the writing go right through the centre of a stick of rock? Why do people buy rude birthday cards? How do teenagers balance on skateboards? Girish remembers one of Parv’s old books; American short stories. He read some of them on a quiet evening. There was a story about a man named Kugelmass who ended up stuck in a book, being chased by a Spanish verb. It didn’t seem like such a bad thing, Girish thought. Rather a verb than a question mark; he would rather be doing than wondering. Which is why he hesitated in his internet class when the teacher insisted on something fun: the death clock. And now he can’t forget it – Tuesday 24th May 2021. ‘You’ve got three hundred and sixty one million, two hundred and ninety six thousand four hundred and thirty nine seconds left to live,’ the teacher had chuckled. He has less time left now, of course.

‘Saint Lawrence laughed about his execution. He was roasted on a grill over a fire. After some time he told his torturer, I think I’m cooked now. Eat a slice of me and let me know if I taste good.’

‘Dad, can you just pop back in for a minute?’ Parv calls through the store room.

‘Lovely reading, Amir. Good boy.’ Girish strokes Amir’s soft head before returning to the shop.

‘Do we have any stamps, Dad?’ Parv is rummaging in the wrong drawer.

‘Please don’t go to any trouble,’ says the elderly woman on the other side of the counter.

‘This is no trouble at all.’ Girish smiles. ‘What stamps would you like, my dear?’

‘How much are six first class?’ asks the old woman, flushed by the attention.

Here is a question Girish can answer.

The little Indian man with the shiny head is anxious to please in a way that makes Betty feel both deferred to and desperately old. He produces the book of first class stamps and bestows them like a present, like the croissant she found in the bread bin at breakfast time this morning; one of the delights of getting older, the way one’s memory can take something, like the last croissant, conceal it and make an unexpected present of it.

‘Thank you,’ she says.

There are several people waiting behind her. Now that the little man has appeared from behind the ribboned curtain, the queue should dissipate and take the pressure off her trembling hands. But he goes back through the coloured strips. He must have something important to do.

She fumbles with the zip of her purse. She must put the stamps where they usually go or there is a danger she will forget that she has bought them. The letter is waiting to be sent. It’s waiting on the table in the hall, exactly where she placed it so as not to forget it this afternoon. But it is to be expected, she thinks. It is what happens to everyone from time to time. Remember when the children were small? Those times when the washing machine was opened in lieu of the fridge and trips up the stairs lead to stupor on the landing and a trip back down in an attempt to retrieve the tail of the memory? This is just one of those times.

A voice behind her in the queue calls, ‘Do you need some help, love?’

‘A time machine might be useful,’ she jokes as the zipper finally seals the metal teeth.

There is a chuckle behind her. People seem surprised that she can laugh. Despite the awkward trembling of her fingers, despite the sagging of her skin as if it is already parting from the bones in anticipation of what is to come, she is able to laugh. She can also swear, break wind, pick her nose and belch. But some time after she reached the dizzy heights of seventy, she began to feel compulsorily endowed with benignity, censored into pretending that she has forgotten any pleasures more vigorous than the dunking of a ginger nut in a sugary cup of tea, reduced to making gentle, brave statements about soldiering on and actually saying, on occasion, the awful words it wasn’t like this in my day. It is expected and Betty doesn’t like to disappoint.

The letter which she left on the hall table is bursting with heroic exclamation marks. She smiled as she drew the exclamations between sentences, but each mark splits the text like a raised arm, a warning flag. I’m getting so forgetful! I’m covered in bruises! I don’t even know where they come from. They don’t really hurt, but I’m like a map of the London Underground! Green, yellow and blue all over me! The exclamations are little flicks of courage, intended to convey humour in the face of adversity. A celebration of her ability to laugh at the tricks her flagging body is playing on her. Please don’t worry about visiting your old mum! Christmas really isn’t too far away! Though it would be lovely to see the children before then, I do understand that you are incredibly busy!

She heads for the door and the rush of cold air. A school boy with blonde hair and blue eyes stands on one leg at the threshold of the shop. His other leg is hovering, not quite touching the grey tiles of the floor.

‘Don’t you set one foot inside that shop,’ a woman’s voice calls from behind the door.

The boy continues to dangle his leg over the threshold. He catches Betty watching him. His face splits into an irresistible grin. He winks at her. Of all the people in the shop, he has winked at her. Betty smiles and gives him her best wink back.

‘Did you just wink at that old lady?’ Julie Cliff asks her son, Joseph, as she catches up with him at the door of the corner shop. ‘I keep telling you not to wink at people, it’s rude.’

‘She didn’t mind. I think she liked it,’ says Joseph.

He winks at his mother for good measure.

Joseph has been practising his winks on all sorts of people. He has winked at his teacher, at the neighbours, at the school crossing patrol man and yesterday he winked at the doctor in the accident and emergency department when he was asked if he was sorry for shutting his mum’s fingers in the car door. The wink undermined his otherwise convincing yes.

There is a carelessness about Joseph that bothers Julie. Can I have that when you’re dead? he sometimes asks her, as if her death is an inevitability to which he is already reconciled. But who will love him if I die, she wonders. It’s not that she thinks herself irreplaceable, more that he is not an easily likeable child, something a mother surely shouldn’t notice.

‘Treat, treat, treat – I’m going to say it until you get me one. Treat, treat, treat.’ He lingers in the doorway of the shop, balancing on one leg, teasing with the other.

‘You’re in the way Joseph. Move please.’

Julie holds his elbow with her uninjured hand, attempting to guide him away from the doorway, but he falls dramatically to the pavement.

‘You pushed me over,’ he says, with a wink. ‘I can’t believe you’d do that.’

‘Enough,’ says Julie. ‘Enough.’

Her right hand is bandaged and several knuckles are criss-crossed with the fine tape that they used to call butterfly stitches. The middle and ring fingers are fastened together. No breaks, just cuts and bruises. It happened last night after Joseph strolled out of school, dropped his lunch box and bag at her feet, grabbed the car keys from her hand and ran to the car. She chased him. She caught up just as he jumped into the passenger seat and she extended her fingers as he slammed the door shut. She watched him though the glass before he realised, as she held her breath, before the pain hit. He was laughing.

‘You’ll be the best mum in the world, if you just buy me one tiny, weenie thing. Just one ickle-wickle thing. Tooty-fruities?’

He edges closer to the door of the shop.

‘No.’ Julie is not budging.

‘I hate you,’ he says. ‘You’re the worst mum ever.’

She used to be consoled by his occasional, opposing declarations. You’re the bestest mummy in the whole world and I love you. You’re lovely and I want to give you a big hug. You’re the best mum, ev-er. Then she overheard him talking to the dog one day. You’re the bestest dog in the whole world. Let me give you a big hug. The best dog ev-er. The kindness of his words was lost in duplicate. They seemed like a rehearsal for someone else, an experiment.

‘Never mind,’ she says. ‘Someone had to have the worst mum in the world and it’s just bad luck that it’s you. Let’s go home.’

There are reminders of him all over the house. Even when he’s at school it is as if he’s secretly tormenting her from a distance. There are scribbles on the walls. He stuffs empty, nicked crisp packets down the sides of the sofa. Sometime there are plastic spiders hidden under her pillow or inside the bedcovers. When she tried to use the stapler last week, all the staples were upside down, lying like dead insects with their little legs in the air.

‘Oh, all right,’ he says, finally moving away from the shop doorway. ‘All right, I’m coming.’

He slips an arm around her waist and rubs his head into her side.

‘Is your hand okay?’ he asks.

‘Yes,’ she replies. ‘Thank you for asking. It’s just throbbing a bit, but it’s not too bad.’


She pulls him in closer and plants a kiss on the top of his head.

‘Yuck.’ He springs away from her side, rubbing his head with the flat of his hand. ‘You’ve got a nit on your mouth, mum.’

Julie raises her good hand to her lips.

‘Made you look, made you stare, made you lose your underwear.’ He laughs and sprints off down Bridge Road, turning after a few metres to give her a wink.

Julie stands for a moment and sees a little girl waiting by the window of the corner shop. A quiet, uncomplaining child. She is probably only five or six. She’s wearing glasses. Her lips are looped by a circle of chapped skin and there’s a hole in the knee of her grey school tights. Julie glances at Joseph as he dashes down the street then smiles at the little girl.

Alice Jones does not smile at the lady with the bandaged hand. She waits quietly by the window of the corner shop while Mummy gets money out of the cash machine. She is good in both the broadest and slightest sense of the word as it is applied to little girls. She makes no fuss, she is no trouble.

There is a hole in the knee of her tights where she fell over at play time. A sharp piece of gravel has arrowed a jab of violet. There are other bruises. Bruises that are pinky, purply, brown and grey. At play-times Alice is uncertain. She has no talent for the role-playing games enjoyed by girls in her class. The boys’ games are more straightforward, their rules clearer, fairer: stuck-in-the-mud, tag, British Bulldog and football. The boys are rough. Play-times mean bruises. But bruises are hard and sharp and quick. They are easier to bear than silences. Some grown-ups describe her as a Tomboy, but it might be more accurate to say that Alice is incapable of pretence.

What will she be? She will be a clown for dogs and perform ginormous tricks with sticks and strings of sausages. She said this at school once and the other children smiled and nodded. It was a good idea. At least it would be, if she was not afraid of dogs. What she would like most of all is to stay at home with Mummy. Forever. But Mummy doesn’t like it when she says that. Alice knows because Mummy’s face goes hard and she says that there is plenty of time to decide, and girls can do as well as boys, and you must do whatever you want to in life. Doing whatever she wants to does not seem to include staying at home with Mummy, although it might include being a chef, but Alice isn’t sure.

Mummy is pushing her numbers into the cash machine. Alice can hear them. They sound like the beginning of ‘Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea’. Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea, silver buckles on his knee... Bobby Shafto’s buckles remind Alice of her bruise. The hole in her tights is quite small. Small enough to stick one finger in. Alice pushes a finger through the frayed wool to give her knee a rub. Tendrils of grey unravel around it.

Mummy finishes at the cash machine. She holds out her hand then notices the hole.

‘Oh Alice,’ she says.

The mild rebuke presses a slump on Alice’s shoulders. Mummy is disappointed again.

‘Wait one second,’ says Mummy, disappearing into the shop.

Alice can see the shop counter through the window. A little man with a shiny head pushes through the dangling ribbon curtain. A boy with velvety, black hair follows after him. The boy climbs onto a high stool and the man pats the boy’s knee before turning to serve Mummy. Alice moves back to face the street. Car lights are beginning to shine. Across the road at the bus stop she can see a big boy taking off his jacket. He’s showing his arm to an old lady standing next to him. The old lady rests her hand on the crease of it for a moment. Further down Bridge Road, Alice can see the back of the lady who smiled at her earlier. She has caught up with her son and they are jogging together, holding hands. It is as if they are running from the streetlights as they begin to ping on.

Mummy comes out of the shop with a paper-wrapped lollypop. ‘Don’t worry about the tights, sweetheart,’ she says. ‘Did it hurt?’

‘A bit,’ Alice admits.

Mummy crouches on the pavement of Bridge Road and places winter-cool lips on the exposed cap of Alice’s knee which pokes through the hole in her tights, round as a biscuit. And on the knobble of the base of Mummy’s neck, in the delicate fuzz of hair, Alice plants a soft, dry kiss of her own.

About the author: Carys Bray has been published, or has work forthcoming in New Fairy Tales, The Pygmy Giant, Mslexia, Black Market Review, Flash Mob: Flax 026, The Delinquent, PoemMemoirStory, The Ranfurly Review and The Yellow Room. She has won the Strictly Writing Award and the 2010 Edge Hill MA Prize. She has been shortlisted in the 'Once Upon a Time Modern Fairy Tale Competition' and the 'Writers' and Artists' Yearbook Short Story Competition.' She lives in Southport with her husband and four children and is working on a PhD.