Excerpt from the novel Down the Figure 7
Terry kicked the snow off his shoes against the back step and went into the kitchen. His mam said: "Don't tramp slush in here. Throw your shoes under the sink." Turning from the stove she said: "Wait till Denis gets to be his age" - this to Mona Sysons who was sitting in the rocking-chair nursing a six-month-old baby boy. Mona was the eldest girl of a friend who lived on Ramsay Street; she was a thin waif of a creature with dyed red hair, a sallow complexion, and a tiny cracked voice that sounded to Terry as though it had to struggle to get out of her throat. Mona had been married for thirteen months. The little boy on her knee looked the picture of health.
"Say hello to Mona," his mam said.
"Hello," Terry said.
"Say hello to little Denis."
"How's our Terry then?" asked Mona.
"In't he getting a big lad now?" she said to Barbara.
"Eleven on Tuesday. Wash your hands and sit down."
Terry sat down at the kitchen table and ate his dinner. He was wiping up the gravy with a piece of bread when his sister Sylvia came in and got told off for being late. Barbara put her dinner on the table and resumed the story she was telling Mona about this woman who'd had to have an operation, and when she came to a certain word lowered her voice to the level that made Terry prick up his ears. The word was "abortion"; probably Jack Ravey would know what it meant.
The kitchen was becoming perceptibly darker. Behind the window the sky - a sluggish dirty grey - was an unbroken layer of cloud pregnant with snow. The light over the ash tips was unreal, like that of a stage set, the undulating horizon glowing whitely under the sameness and drabness of light.
"Looks like we're in for it," Barbara observed, switching on the
single bulb which threw a wash of yellow over everything: sink, stove, coconut
matting, the few sticks of furniture.
Mona unbuttoned her blouse and began breast-feeding the baby. Terry tried to drag his eyes away from the magnetic sight. The baby found the nipple and snuggled onto it with a grunt and a sigh.
"Does he know where babies come from?" Mona asked, the cracked voice like a rusty penny whistle.
"They know everything nowadays," Terry's mam said, though the way she said it implied that they didn't.
"Have they told you about the facts of life at school?" Mona said.
Terry hesitated, feeling the stirring of a blush below the line of his collar. He said, "No," in a gruff voice. He knew he couldn't make his escape immediately because this would be tantamount to a confession of knowledge, and for them to know he knew would shame him.
"I've certainly never told him," Barbara said, "and I know Joe hasn't."
"You ought to, he's getting to be a big lad now." She beckoned with her free hand. "Come on, Terry, look at little Denis having his dinner."
Terry approached as though he were dragging his sledge, one foot reluctantly in front of the other, curiosity and embarrassment in equal measure. He had never seen a full white breast in a baby's mouth at such close quarters before. The sight transfixed him so that he stood, the socks around his ankles, his knees burning from the fire, staring with absolute fixedness at the girl, conventionally dressed except for the upper part of her body bared to the air. He knew, as he looked, that it was an image he would never forget: she wasn't beautiful, he felt no desire, yet the simple act she was performing seemed to him almost miraculous. He had never before realised the true function and purpose of a woman's breasts.
"Greedy little bugger," Mona said in a reedy affectionate whisper. The baby's eyes were closed, his round red cheeks like tiny balloons pressing against the breast, and, somewhere between, hidden from view, the eager sucking mouth.
Terry went upstairs to the cold back bedroom. He could have done with a smoke but daren't risk it, not with his father due home at amy moment. He stood at the window looking out at the river sliding blackly between the white banks, overcome by a kind of frenzy - the feeling that his head was unable to contain the thoughts rushing madly within it and the breath in his body compressed to suffocation point. He had never felt so odd in his life.
He fell on the bed, clutching the pillow to him in a passionate embrace, pressing his lips to what became in his imagination a beautiful girl's lips, sweet and yielding, the dark recess of her mouth open and vulnerable in a fantastic French kiss.
From the next door backyard he heard Mrs Hartley say, "Don't forget the washing-up, Doreen. And no more than two in the house. Think on now." There was the sound of a latch and then the backyard gate banged shut.
During the afternoon he suffered a brainstorm; at any rate he lost possession of his faculties and wasn't entirely responsible for his actions. Had anyone known what he planned they would have thought him deranged; it was as if everything he did was in a delirious dream, not at all real, as though happening to someone else down the far end of a long echoing tunnel.
Even so, he noted and committed to memory every detail of Doreen Hartley's dress as she opened the door to him with wet hands, a ring of suds clinging to her forearms. The kitchen was as familiar as his own: the wall of tongue-and-groove boards painted green with the stairs door and cellar door adjacent to each other, the cupboard set in the opposite wall, the black-leaded grate in the corner near the window, the gas-stove with its rack of plates, the big pot sink on cast-iron legs where Doreen stood with her hands immersed in greasy water. Her brother Keith wasn't in, she said, he'd gone with his Uncle Ted to watch the rugby. Terry stood behind her, unable to speak or move; in the mirror he could see her pale round face surrounded by crinkly brown hair, eyes downcast to the dishes in the sink which she mechanically washed and stacked on the red rubber mat. She hummed something tuneless.
The kitchen was dark, the drab sky seeming to draw what light there was and absorb it like grey blotting paper. Without giving it much thought Doreen said, "How did you get on in the practice exams, Terry?"
"I passed," Terry said, clearing his throat.
"I didn't. Mr Reagan said Arithmetic and English let me down. He said if I can improve them two I might have a chance." She blew out some air in a sigh of bored restlessness. "Just think, another five years in that dump. Drive you potty."
Terry was sitting on the corner of the kitchen table, the palms of his hands resting on his knees. He thought he must be choking to death. Doreen rinsed the last plate and wiped her hands on the towel hanging on a nail behind the back door. He noticed how the flesh on her upper arms wobbled with the movement: he wanted to feel what it was like, pinch it between his fingers, knead it. She was wearing a blue dress with buttons down the front and the buttons followed the gentle curve of the swelling underneath. All he had to do was stand up. Reach out his hand. Touch her. What could she say? There was nothing to stop him.
Doreen finished wiping her hands. She wasn't a pretty girl, neither was she plain. Her face was pleasantly rounded, her eyes were round too, and her body obeyed this genetic law of roundness: ample and at the same time unsure what was expected of it, what it might be capable of. As for Terry, he could only marvel that Doreen Hartley had lived next door for all eleven years of his life and he had never before understood how desirable she was; he convinced himself that she was very desirable.
Doreen stepped back as he slid stealthily off the table and put both feet
on the floor.
"What's up, Terry?"
"What do you want then?"
"Me?" Doreen said. "What you on about?" - but she was getting the gist of the idea quite rapidly as he advanced towards her and she noted, for the first time, the expression on his face. In an instant she was terrified and thrilled, seeing him suddenly as one of those cartoon faces in a children's comic which when turned upside down reveals another totally different person. It was still Terry Webb but now a Terry Webb with a glazed look in his brown eyes and a deliberate purposefulness in his movements. She said in a fierce whisper, "Terry - don't," as he wedged her body against the back door and tried to force his lips on hers.
"What's up?" Terry said under his breath. "Come on, Doreen, come on."
"Terry, me mam - "
He stopped her mouth with a kiss placed inexpertly off-centre, his hands all over the blue dress like ferrets. She fought him off and he released her mouth, panting, whispering urgently, "Let us have a feel, Doreen, come on, a quick feel - "
"No, I don't want."
"Come on, a feel."
"Come on ... "
A silent deadly struggle ensued in which he pulled her away from the back door and got her down on the floor. His hands plucked at the buttons on the dress, trying to unfasten them, until he realised they were purely for decoration and in his frustration tore at the neck of the dress, seeing and hearing nothing in a mad clawing panic, insensible to her struggles and kicks and stifled protests.
"Terry," Doreen said, "if you don't let - me - go - " frightened now by the intensity and purpose in his face. He was an animal and there was no way she could control the animal or turn it back into the familiar Terry Webb who lived next door.
"A feel," the animal whispered to her. "I want a feel."
There was a hand squeezing her breast and another inside the neck of her dress, fingers squirming under the lacy top of her petticoat. Something's hard wet lips were pressed against her mouth so that she had this feeling of being held down and suffocated, her limbs constrained by a dead burdomsome weight.
"Terry," she managed to say. "Terry," and pulled him
by the hair-roots till he yelped like an animal and rolled off her, his knees
inflamed where they had been rubbing on the lino.
Terry sat up massaging his scalp. "Bloody hell, Doreen."
Doreen was on her feet moving towards the back door and watching him, pulling the hem of the blue dress down below her knees. Strands of crinkly hair adhered damply to her forehead. She said with a little scared laugh, "What were you trying to do?"
Terry wouldn't look at her. "Bit of fun," he said emptily; the blood had cooled, his eyes were back to normal, and he felt daft sitting on the floor in the middle of Doreen Hartley's kitchen with red knees. As he rose to his feet she put her hand on the latch, prepared for flight, and said, "Go out the front way."
"I won't do owt."
"Go out the front way."
"Don't be silly, I'm not going to touch you." But he knew that
if he got within grabbing distance he wouldn't be able to resist the tantalising
buttons on the front of the blue dress and the warm mounds residing ever so
slyly beneath the thin material. He tried not to look at them, rising and
falling, moving his eyes deliberately round the kitchen from object to object,
yet every so often glancing to where Doreen stood palpitating by the back
She said, all humour gone, "Are you going to go, Terry, or do I have to tell your mam?"
"All right," he said. "Wait your sweat."
He moved towards the back door and Doreen scuttled away and stood with the kitchen table between them. Points of colour burned in her cheeks. There was absolutely no joy for him there, now if ever. His throat was dry with disappointment. What might he, should he, have murmured in Doreen's ear to make her lie down quietly with him on the kitchen floor? He wouldn't have hurt her, that was the last thing he wanted to do.
As he went across the yard he heard the door scrape over the lino and the hollow rattle of the bolt. Under the leaden sky it was the most desolate sound Terry had ever heard, the sound of being shut out, and he really had to check himself in case the tears started to flow.
© Trevor Hoyle 2008