Walkmans, Watches and Chains
There was very little furniture in the room as if someone had forgotten to finish putting things in it or was thinking about moving away. There were no cushions on the green vinyl settee, no ornaments on the shelves. I knew then that he wasn't married. There was a picture of the sea arch at the White Rocks above the mantelpiece. And some photographs.
'Who's that?' I said.
'That's a photo of my wee niece,' he said. 'A school photo.'
I remember thinking he was OK if he had a niece, his own people. I remember feeling that I was the thing that finished the room.
'You have lovely hair,' he said.
I'd heard that before. But not the way he said it. He said it as though he wanted it for himself, the way another girl would. 'I'm growing it till I can sit on it.'
'It must keep you warm at night,' he said.
I'd never thought of it. The word 'warm' rubbed up against 'at night' and made a buzz in the room I'd been listening out for. His bungalow was in a crescent that used to be a field and I could hear other children playing on the green circle of new grass in front of the houses, as if they were in another part of his house. Most of the crescent still had For Sale signs. There was little traffic up there, which is why we used to race around it on our bikes and roller skates. It had nice smooth tarmac that turned off into each driveway like petals on a black flower.
'So, the bike?' I said.
He'd been putting up a bird table on his lawn and had offered to fix my puncture. The bike was in the hallway. I talked to it like it was a live person, half-bike, half-boy. It wasn't like going in there on my own, having my bike.
'Let me give your hair a brush first,' he said. 'A hundred strokes.'
'That's alright,' I said. I tidied my hair-band and flicked my hair off my shoulders. The blush fell around my neck.
'I can make it more lovely,' he said. 'Silky-shiny.'
He got up and took a hairbrush from the shelf. It was an old-fashioned one with yellow bristles and flowers pressed under the glass. It made me sad for him because it was some lady's, and she was probably dead. He signalled with it and I took a step towards him and placed my feet together. He stood behind me and began to brush my hair. I looked at the fireplace rug and concentrated on where sparks had burnt little black holes in the pattern.
Then he sat down and pulled me between his knees. He kept brushing and strands of hair floated up to follow the brush, light with static. I love people playing with my hair. My eyes go heavy, my scalp extra alive. I didn't mind him doing it. John. At first his knees didn't touch my thighs. And then they did. He had scratchy trousers and I could feel them itching my skin. I thought he wouldn't notice if I moved away, as though my hair could stay under the brush and I could slip out and take my bike and push off down the hill. When I fidgeted, he told me to keep still. All the time I was aware that I shouldn't be in his front room, but the sense that something would happen held me there, as if I had to stay and prove I was right. I saw myself asleep on his couch with my hair covering my body. It was not a premonition that frightened me - it was mine, not his, but he had made me dream it. I grew up the minute I saw it.
Then I realised he was stroking my hair with his hands, not the brush, flattening his palms down it, like you would pet an animal. I didn't budge because I didn't want him to stop. His hands moved down my back, over my skirt, as if my hair was long enough to sit on, as if I had a mane all down my body. I was part-girl, part-pony, drifting in sand-hills that crumbled like cake under my feet. I was paddling, his hands the water's edge.
'Right, that's enough,' he said and he clapped his hands, moved me forward and stood up. 'Let's see to this bicycle.'
I remember him tipping the bike upside down and getting out his spanners and a bowl of water. He got me to kneel down and watch for bubbles hissing from the inner tube. The mood that swam in the room before was gone, professionally put away. It reminded me of when Mr Wilson made a mistake on the board which some pupil noticed and he'd fumble and let his other man, the home man, slip out, then he'd become a real teacher again, certain and clean at the edges. So it was clear why John didn't look at me when he chalked the puncture, glued on the patch and held it in place. He was keeping that man who wanted my hair tucked in behind his face. He put the tyre back on the wheel, pumped it up and righted the bike.
'Now skedaddle,' he said, swinging open the front door. 'And don't let me catch you up round here again.'
His voice was the minister's voice. Out of breath and too loud. He was speaking to the outside. He looked ugly. The effort of not liking me bunched up his features. I hadn't noticed his looks before that. He was old. With combed-back grey and black hair.
As I left, I noticed his car. A white Austin. And I knew, like you know when you're about to fall off your bike riding downhill, that I would go for a spin in that car some afternoon, up to the White Rocks maybe.
I cycled home that teatime, my arms strong, guiding my steed, riding out of the saddle to increase my speed. 'Good boy, atta boy,' I said.
I wasn't sure what was going to happen next. I felt as though hidden cameras were making a film and the next scene would come if I just turned up in my own life. It made me very calm and very important. I used to walk the mile home from school with my friends, stopping at Cowan's for sweets. I knew nothing would happen, that the next scene would not play until I was on my own. One afternoon I pretended I had to see the drama teacher about the Christmas play and I waited until my friends would have passed the Diamond before I set out. As if we were connected, John drove up along the curb after ten minutes. I imagined him watching the secret flick in his bungalow cinema and knowing exactly when to leave. It made me star in my own world and I shone as I slid into his front seat.
'You look better when you're not in uniform,' was the first thing he said to me. He spoke as though he'd seen me a few minutes, not several weeks, ago. That made me cheeky.
'You'd look better if you were bald.'
He laughed at that. It was the first time I'd heard him laugh and his face lost its tightness about the eyes.
'So, you're a Kojak fan, are you?'
'Yeah, love him.'
'I'm a bit old for that game.'
'Cannon's as old as you,' I said though I wasn't sure. Americans always looked younger than they were.
'Shall we go for a wee run?' he said, as I knew he would.
'Sure,' I said and the movie director told me to put my feet up against the dashboard. John pretended not to notice.
As we drove out of the town he started to sing 'Ticky tacky little boxes,' and it sounded like he could, and that the whole town and all its people bored him and they bored me too.
I kept my hands on my skirt, so it wouldn't rise up my thighs. I knew how and what to show and I was not surprised I knew.
We drove down to the carpark by the beach. Behind were the chalk cliffs and further around the headland was the sea arch, where the sea had eaten away at the land. He put on a tape.
'The sea is grand if you don't depend on it,' he said. 'I worked out there. It's a tough business.'
The sea widened as he spoke, a huge screen stretching wider and wider like cinema curtains opening for the big picture. He knew the tide and I was a grain of sand.
'Did you ever nearly drown?' I said.
'Yes,' he said.
'Is it true you see your life flash in front of your eyes?'
'It's true alright. The strong moments. Good and bad. Speeded up and slowed down. You tell yourself you'll be a better person after that.'
'Why did you come back here? Why not Africa or Australia or ... anywhere?'
He turned to me. 'I'll tell you why.' He paused. 'Because Irish girls are the prettiest in the whole world.'
I smiled because I couldn't help it.
He leaned forward and took an instamatic out of the glove compartment.
'Give me that smile again.' I went shy. He tilted my chin and took my picture.
'Loosen your tie,' he said. His voice was so low I wasn't certain I'd heard him right.
'I have something for you.' He didn't move. He was the director. I tugged down the knot and opened the top button of my shirt. He still didn't move. I undid the next button and slid the tie looser.
'That's it.' He snapped another picture. He reached into his jacket pocket and gave me a small jewellery box. I opened it. It was my name in gold letters.
'Let me put it on,' he said.
He dangled the necklace and I held up my hair so that he could fasten it. I was thinking how I could hide it from my mum, who sees through doors. I felt him kiss my neck, quick as a mistake.
'Thanks a lot,' I said, turning my head. My ears were on fire. I didn't like the chain much. My name was spelt wrong.
'It doesn't mean you have to give me anything,' he said. His eyes said the opposite.
'I know.' I looked down at the chain. It hung awkwardly outside my clothes. He straightened the letters. Catherine. My back was stiff against the seat and his thumb played on my shirt as though he'd forgotten to take it away. His fingertips dipped in under the cotton like a fish.
'Do you like it?' he said.
'Yeah, love it.'
I think I might have sighed and looked out of the window. A flock of black and white birds took off, turned swiftly on the wind and became invisible over the water. His hand was gone. The movie was over, the crew vanishing across the waves. 'Come back,' I wanted to shout. 'I'll do that scene again.' But he'd turned the key in the ignition and was reversing out of the parking space.
'You're a nice girl, Cat,' he said.
I smiled. The nickname was his. It meant more than the necklace. It couldn't be spelt wrong.
'Thanks John,' I said.
He began to whistle along to the music. I wanted to touch his cheek. Instead, I dropped the necklace inside my shirt and tightened my tie. When I moved in the seat I felt silky-shiny in my pants. As we came to the outskirts he slowed down to the speed limit. He didn't rake through the gears like my daddy did. He dropped me at the corner of my road where it meets Lark Hill. No-one asks the leading lady of the school play anything. I said Miss McGarvey gave me a lift.
When he wasn't there on the road home from school the next Thursday, I dawdled at the Diamond, ate two Crunchies that spiked my tongue, made every passing white car his. That Saturday, I rode my bike up to Seaview Crescent. I circled on the tarmac, one eye on the blank windows of John's bungalow. His car was in the drive. I sailed past, willing the film to start. Nothing. The car was my ally. It too, waited. Missed him. I memorised the number. I circled again, curving nearer to his house. Then I saw him at the window watching me. I kept cycling, standing on the pedals, showing my command of the handlebars. Then he was gone. If only I could somersault off the bike, bang my head, have him carry me inside, lay me on the couch, put a cold flannel on my brow, tidy my hair. Was that the next scene? Look, no hands! I cruised, wobbled and almost toppled, but I lost my nerve and grabbed for the handlebars. Then I heard it. Two notes of a whistle like you'd call for a dog. He was standing in the garage. I pedalled in. He pulled down the door.
My chest was thumping like sick gathered there ready to come up. I let the bike fall. He held me up against him. My arms went round him. His heart beat in my face. I didn't want more than that, to be hugged, to feel my smallness against him, to know everything he'd known about the town, the women, the men, lovers, movie stars. I knew that if he kissed me I would puke.
He didn't kiss me, but he said things in my ear. He said my name, my full name as if he'd forgotten his name for me. He said he had something special for me, his mother's watch, he'd like to give me as a present. He pulled down my shorts and pushed a finger into my pants and into somewhere I didn't know I had. He was breathing fast and his finger was rough, like a finger that says, 'come here' for punishment, curling and uncurling. He undid his zipper with his other hand. If I was good, he said, he'd get me a Walkman. Would I like that? he said. The garage was too dim to see his face or for him to see mine, and the fear that must have widened it like an empty screen. I struggled to get away, but the finger kept curling, 'here, here' and his words burned in my ear like a creature in a seashell winding in deeper and deeper.
He pushed me down to my knees and something bumped my temple. It felt like a toddler's arm. I was confused, like there was another person there. I started to shout, 'Stop. Please, John. No!' But the arm was a stump and he wedged it into my mouth so no sound could get out. He squeezed the back of my head and moved me back and forth on his pullie. There was a smell of petrol and dead mice. He pushed against the back of my throat, speeding up and slowing down. He didn't whistle or sing. He peed in my mouth and groaned. Then he stopped. I was crying and my body was quaking. I spat him out of my mouth.
'I'm sorry Cat,' he said. 'I'm sorry that had to happen.' He was half-sobbing. He stroked my hair with heavy, blind hands. I ducked and stumbled away from him. I felt among the garden tools for my bike. I wanted to boke. I wanted to boke on my own, away from his smell.
'Shh now,' he said, taking my arm. I kicked against him. 'Go easy now, girl.'
'You're a dirty disgusting pig,' I said. The corners of my mouth were sore when I screamed. 'Let me out of here.'
He shook my shoulders, steadied me.
'I'll let you go, just calm yourself. Calm yourself.'
'I'm going to die. I can't breathe.' I gulped at the stale, grass-clipping air. I choked and made myself choke more. He had taken away the air, the light. He panicked and opened the door into the kitchen. I walked into the day as if I was folded down the middle. He led me to the bathroom and left me there. I didn't look in the mirror. I ran the hot tap till it steamed and then I threw the water up over my face and into my mouth. My hands were tiny, my fingers bird bones and the water scattered everywhere. I rinsed and spat. I chewed some toothpaste. I heard his front door open and close. I went to the hall. I could see outside. He had leant my bike against the wall. The green where I'd been cycling was still lit gold by the sun. I wanted to see my mummy. Everyone would believe the star of the school play.
I stepped across the grass. There was a long T shadow from the bird table and my shadow crossed it and bent in behind me like a dark leak. The bike looked too small. I was afraid I wouldn't remember how to ride it. I pushed the bike along the pavement where Mill Lane used to be, and blackberries and no proper road. Everyone would know. The whole school. The whole audience. There were smudges of grease on my knees. I stopped and rubbed them with spittle but they smeared more. Tim Dalzell from school was ahead on the pavement. I pulled my face into shape, tucked my hair behind my ears. I got on the bike to pass him quicker. He said hi. I said hello but nothing came out. I wavered, then I spun down the hill not knowing if I could stop at the bottom.
Published in 'Scealta: Short Stories by Irish Women', edited by Rebecca O'Connor, Telegram Books, 2006