You’ve Got Everything Now
Quinn sits at the front of the class. I suppose he feels some protection from the teacher, though of course the back of his head and shoulders are covered in ink and gob. There’s something prim about Quinn. His uniform fits him, his movements are neat. He is small and dapper in a way that the rest of us aren’t. I look at Millsy, distorted by hormones, some hideous halfway stage of the experiment, pustules on his face, limbs too big to control, wiry hair trying to escape his head. Quinn is not half-boy, half-man. He is a mini-man – tiny, but perfectly formed. On the rare occasions he speaks, his voice is deep and clear. On the rare occasions he speaks. Mr Edwards is late for class, the volume rises. Banks throws an apple core at the back of Quinn’s head. It hits him in the neck. Wet, white debris sticks to his skin. We laugh. He turns around and looks at us. Always that same look.
Now at night, in bed when the house creaks and Alison’s breath catches in her sleep, I still see that look. It waits behind the eyelids. I get out of bed and go and look in at the children. Amy lies face down, spread-eagled as if dropped from the sky, her hair pasted across the side of her hot and sticky face, her breathing deep and ragged. She engages in gruelling battles during her sleeping hours, deep, intense struggles that never quite break into nightmares. Her night-time self is somehow more corporeal, more burdened than the sunlit wisp she seems during the day. Eddie sleeps on his back, his face turned a little to one side, his expression untroubled. Each morning when I take him to school I scan the faces of the other boys. I look for groupings and patterns in the playground. I look for bigger boys and idiot friends. I look closely at his face for signs of worry, indicators of anxiety. I stroke his head and try and breathe.
We smoke all through dinner break. Behind the sports pavilion we consume coke and fags. Our insides fill with gas and clouds. Banks runs to Greggs and brings back five cream cakes. Millsy wants to know who’s going to miss out on a second cake. Banks answers by stuffing the surplus two in his mouth at the same time. He laughs so hard at Millsy’s outraged expression that cream bursts from his mouth and nose. I lie on my back and let the winter sun press against my eyelids. If I try hard enough I can forget that Millsy and Banks are there. If I try hard enough I can leave this place behind. I imagine I’m lying in the middle of a vast prairie. The grass is high and moves around me in the breeze. My horse is tethered to a tree. A stream runs somewhere near by, and there by the stream under the shade of a tall tree, someone is waiting for me. I sit up suddenly and find myself blinded by the light. I stare ahead waiting for my vision to clear. A group of girls emerges from the shadows, one of them turns and smiles just at me.
In the evenings I tell Alison about my day at work. She understands the challenges I face, the targets I have to meet with a team made up of other people’s discards. I’m supposed to turn them around when everyone else has failed. Alison understands because she has wide managerial experience. She doesn’t treat my commentary as whining, she takes it seriously. She thinks about it and makes recommendations. I listen to what she says. I’ve never been the kind of man to feel annoyed by his wife’s advice, I’m grateful for it. After talking something over with Alison, there’s always a clear path out of the woods.
Before school I see him first. Quinn emerges from behind the science block and steps out into the playground. I feel a tightness in my stomach but carry on talking to Millsy and Banks. They are asking me what I did with Sally Meadows. I’m choosing not to say. I’m pouring petrol on the fire. I stamp my feet and blow on my hands but the damp air is deep inside me. Banks is staggering around like a drunkard trying to keep the ball bouncing on his head as he wheedles and cajoles. He asks me what happened over and over again. When I don’t answer he says he knows what happened anyway, then he tells me what happened, and says, that’s what happened isn’t it? Then he asks again why don’t I just tell them what happened.
‘Quick, give me the ball. It’s Queen.’
He takes the ball from Banks, places it on the wet ground and then kicks it hard across the playground. The full force hits Quinn in the side of the face, whipping his head sideways.
‘’Shot’ says Banks.
Quinn takes a moment to register what’s happened and, as he does, the side of his face blooms deep red. He turns and looks directly at us. Millsy holds up his hand and smiles:
‘Soz mate’. Quinn walks off. We laugh. The redness creeping up his face is there when I close my eyes, like a sunspot.
We drink wine at night to unwind, but it doesn’t seem to work so well for me. I watch Alison sip and see the way it smoothes her out and slows her down, but inside myself I sense a quickening, a heightened awareness. I find myself thinking about the inside of my head, I become more and more conscious of the clutter in there. The same thoughts and images orbit endlessly like the abandoned husks of satellites and dropped spanners floating through space. I wish there was some way to empty my head, to let go of certain images for ever. Alison and I sprawl on the sofa and on each other and watch DVDs. We love The Sopranos. The words fly around us. I can’t follow all the dialogue but I like lying there and staring into the glow.
Quinn attends classes less often now. He appears for afternoon registration and then he vanishes. I look at his empty seat in double geography. I find it hard to concentrate during these long afternoons. Sally Meadows looks across and smiles at me from beneath her fringe. Millsy kicks me beneath the desk. Mrs Dixon talks about glaciated u-shaped valleys, truncated spurs and corries or cwms or cirques. The second hand on the big clock seems to move back and forth. We are locked forever in the firm embrace of 2.41pm. The noises around me fragment and then re-combine in a pulsing soundtrack. Dixon’s voice, ticking clock, sighs and yawns, Banks clicking his pen on then off, endlessly repeated. I rock back on my chair and arch my neck backwards until I am looking through the windows at the back of the classroom. I see the world upside down. The grey clouds below, the empty playground above and beyond it the tangled branches of the woods reaching down like roots in to the sky.
We have two, but it should have been three. We lost someone between Eddie and Amy. At the hospital the screen was just black. The nurse moved the scanner from place to place, pulling us through the dark universe inside Alison, sending out signals that weren’t returned. She tried for a long time, then apologised and told us that the baby had bowed out, had declined our invitation. Its coming and going were silent, marked only with secret symbols.
A faint blue line on a white stick meant I am here. A black screen meant now I’m gone.
The only movement on the screen were our own reflections, like phantom signs of life. The nurse wiped the magic jelly from Alison’s stomach with a blue paper towel and that was the end of the film. We grieved, and in time we moved on. Amy was born and stamped herself on us and on the world. But I can’t forget what I saw on the screen. I can’t forget the emptiness that I recognised there. On summer days my arms are covered in goose bumps. I feel the chill of the void inside as I cast around desperately for a pulse, for any sign of life.
Sally Meadows tells me secrets. She buys me gifts. She tells me she loves me. I say I love her too. She’s the prettiest girl in the class. I buy her a Valentine’s card bigger than an Alsatian dog. She says that she feels short of breath when I walk into a room. She sees me frown and I turn it into a smile. A wide, gleaming, luckiest boy in the world type smile.
I spend lunchtimes at Sally’s house. I know all the posters on her bedroom walls now. I catch the dead eyes of pop stars as I lie on top of her. They are unmoved by the spectacle. Afterwards I pull my clothes back on and leave by the back door to avoid nosy neighbours, I climb over the garden fence and walk up the dusty road by the garages. I break into a run as I near school, realising that I’m late for afternoon registration again. As I run along the corridor I crash into someone rounding the corner. Quinn looks straight at me. I should tell him to get lost. I should punch him, but instead I stand and look at him and then I run on. I leap up the stairs two at a time, but my feet move slower until they stop. I close my eyes. A moment passes. That look again. I turn around and start to walk back down, and gradually my feet speed up. I keep on running till I see him in the distance. I slow to a walk and try to catch my breath.
He walks casually across the playground and down the playing fields. At the bottom I see him pull back the fencing and disappear into the woods beyond. I run down and climb through the fence, I stand still until I hear his footsteps over to the right. I pick my way carefully through the undergrowth, the wind moves through the trees and covers the sound of my pursuit. I follow him along pathways I’ve never seen before and then he stops. He is standing in a clearing and I watch from the tangled branches. His perfect frame is perfectly still. He starts to hum and I hear the voice so rarely heard – deep and clear. That voice calls me and I shake in response. My head feels clear and light and my body moves forward, but as I take a step there is a rustling in the bushes to my right. A man emerges. He wears a suit but no tie. His hair is grey at the temples. Quinn smiles at him – the only time I see him smile. They walk off to the far edge of the clearing and disappear into the leaves. I stand alone.
Sometimes the only way to get to sleep at night is to climb in with one of the kids. I know it should be the other way round. The enormous heat they generate passes through my skin and softens all my edges. They never wake up, they just shuffle over in their sleep and murmur. I could weep at their generosity. I close my eyes, I listen to their fast, shallow breaths and when I open my eyes I’m always standing at the edge of the clearing. I’m still a boy and so is Quinn. Bernard. His first name was Bernard. I’m watching from behind a tree, there is a rustling in the bushes nearby, but before the man emerges Quinn turns and looks directly at me. That same look. Level, steady and with some unspoken challenge. I walk out of the shadow and follow him.
First published in Paint a Vulgar Picture: Fiction inspired by The Smiths (Peter Wild editor), 2009
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