The Weekend Read
By Grace Brown
10th Nov 2017
I try to sit on the chair by the kitchen table but my sister Eilish gives a firm tug on my finger, letting me know there’ll be none of that. My fingers, my left shoe up to my left knee, the crux of my right armpit, are the only areas I can feel not covered in thick black tar. White feathers stick to my chin, poke at my eyes, jab into crevices of exposed skin. They smell of dust and unwashed sheets.
‘We’ll get you sorted, just hang on there.’ Eilish says.
I go to tells her that it’s not that bad, she shouldn’t fret, but I can’t because my mouth is locked shut. I want to tell her what they called me – traitor, hussy, whore. Ask how she found me: in the park, arms above head, knotted to the flagpole where the tricolour flies. Tell her how the tar felt, warm and thick, heaved over my head like they were throwing confetti. Repent, they said. Confess to your sins.
Tar coats my skin like the inside of my mac sticks to sweat when I run for the school bus. Eilish takes my fingers in her hand, gives them a squeeze, says I look like I could do with a wee cuppa tea and all I can do is rock back and forth on my heels in reply. The front door slams.
‘Lord, look at you. I never thought this would happen to one of mine.’ Ma’s voice loops around the kitchen and I want to cry out. I will my jaw to pull wide, try, with my nails, to crack the blackened pitches at the corners of my mouth.
‘Catch yourself on,’ Ma stops the claw of my fingers at my lips, ‘I don’t need you making it any worse. Who did they see you with, was it a peeler?’
I give a quick shake of my head, a half-truth, and a feather digs into the back of my neck. I feel hands on my limbs, forehead, elbow, shins. Assessing the damage. Through the heavy asphalt coat, I can feel Ma’s eyes drill into me.
‘You wouldn’t lie to me would you?’ Ma asks. I shake my head again, frantic. A pause then a rustle of newspaper; a tap to my ankles to move my feet; the clap of rubber gloves taunt onto skin; a scent of daises. Ma must have gotten out her apron.
‘We’ll start on the head and work down,’ Ma tells us, ‘Like we did with Bobby’s girl.’
I’m too young for pubs but no one around here bothers. I spot him when he enters, dressed in civvies but his accent paints the uniform on him. I watch him a while. I like the way he looks to his drink when he laughs, like he doesn’t trust the shape his face makes. I’ve never seen a face like it; they don’t make them like that here. I offer to get the second round and the girls call their orders quick, push their glasses of melted ice towards me. I catch his eye as I walk to the bar, and there goes his head again. Down to his glass. I keep looking till he brings his eyes back up. Give a wee smile. He joins me by the bar, rests one elbow on the wood. He asks what brought me here tonight. You, I reply. He looks surprised then amused and it makes my boldness stick. I touch his arm, like I’ve seen other girls do, and abandon the round. Buy me a drink, I say and keep looking at his face. Afraid if I don’t it’ll vanish. The first drink is the riskiest but the second forms a no man’s land, the third – sipped over a table for two in the corner – makes it too late to retreat. He touches my knee and I lean across to him. Tells him, my lips catching faint on his ear, about this place, a bothy, I think he’d love to see. Tomorrow, he agrees.
Ma takes lead with the clean up. Something is applied – the smell, faint, reminds me of vinegar, egg, tuna sandwiches –
‘It’s just some mayo. Helps to moisten the tar, loosen it up,’ Eilish reassures me over the pop of the jar.
I feel pressure on my forehead, uncomfortable and harsh, then the tickle of a kinder touch around my ears. Feathers are picked from my face one at a time, like quick, sharp pecks. I think of a roasted bird, crisped and browned and caught.
‘They cut the hair first, with the other girls,’ Ma says ‘we’ll just have to do it. Go an’ get the scissors, Eilish.’
Sometimes, my head will ache when I tie my hair up for too long, that’s how thick and rich it is. I brush it every night and in the summertime the rare sun sets the red strands a blaze. He told me he loves the smell of it, likes to bury his head in it. I don’t want it chopped away to lie amongst the white feathers on the tiled floor. What will he think when he sees me like this? Cut to the scalp, same as him.
‘Jesus Christ. It’s like a hen exploded in here.’
And that will be Aunt Patricia. I find I can still groan audible enough.
‘The bastards. I mean, Jesus, what do they think she done? It’s not like our girl’s marching with the Orange.’
Ma tuts at her intrusion, because that’s what older sisters do, but I know she’s glad for an extra pair of hands. A deep scratch to my scalp makes me flinch, the tar there glued firm as the lacquer on the kitchen counter.
‘I’m going to start cutting now, so no moving. After that we’ll get it off your face and eyes,’ Ma says.
‘The eejits won’t be able to tell a bollock from a bomb at this rate,’ Aunt Patricia says.
There’s a bony nudge to my elbow and I know Auntie Pat is trying make me laugh but I can’t smile or chuckle or anything in reply. And I don’t want to. Eilish takes my hand. Ma hacks off the first clump.
‘I bet they got you mixed up with that Penny Docherty, what with the hair and all, she’s always fawning over those barracks pigs,’ Auntie Pat says, trying to soothe the breaks between scissor snips.
‘Patricia will you whsst.’
There’s a tone to Ma’s words that sends a shiver through me. Like she doesn’t believe me, like she thinks I deserve this, like she already knows who seen me and where I was. She grabs another fistful of hair, lobs it off.
The falling strands take any sense of calm with them. A tremor starts in the soles of my feet and cracks my knees and I fall forward. Pairs of hands catch me; force me upright. You’re okay, Eilish murmurs. Not long to go, Aunt Patricia tells me. Ma stays silent.
The fourth song is a slow one. Couples head to the floor and I filter through them out the side door. Getting some air, I tell the girls. Sneak off through the oak trees at the first chance. Meet him by the bothy; the air is clearest here, the moon the only light. My hands roam his skin as we lie intertwined, cocooned in the soft touch of the blanket. His eyes are coal. His nose prominent. Rose tints his cheeks. He smells of the earth. His fingers, which may have pulled a trigger, trace my collarbone. I whisper all my wishes in the world to him and he chuckles, says I better start now if I want to do them all. I tell him I already have. He puts a thumb to my lips, like the priest during communion, and we learn each other all over again.
The tar begins to loosen, the scour of dishcloths a steady pressure on my skin as they wipe it away. Pain stabs like picket spikes where the skin, cemented too firm, comes off with the tar. I feel it slicing parts of my face, bit by bit, into cuts that will bleed and heal then scar. What will my face be like now? What story will it tell?
A hard stroke comes across my eyes and I can see again. Eilish shuffles me around, away from the window and dries my tears with the corner of her grey woollen sleeve. She tucks her long brown hair, same length as mine was, behind her ears. Her lips purse, she casts down her eyes, and I have no choice but to stand there and wait and watch them finish. Tears escape again, and I shirk back from Eilish’s sleeve. Auntie Pat dabs at any sores with a cold, soaked flannel. My lips will need another layer.
‘Pet, we’re going to have to cut you out of the clothes. It’s the best way,’ Eilish says.
I want to bury myself away from their faces, the flickering looks of pity to suspicion to despair. Auntie Pat brings in a blanket – our blanket – and wraps it around my shoulders. It’s as much dignity as I can expect, or as much as they think I deserve? They cut my clothes; their warped silhouettes fall to the ground. My green cotton shirt – the one I got special for my birthday – looks like its rotten, inside and out. I figure people will think it’ll suit me like that. A hand reaches out to apply more paste to my lips. I reel from them but they fasten down. I stare at the black streaks on my clothes and the clumps of matted hair on the floor. I want to scream and yell and tell them it’s not fair. That they don’t understand. The reek of mayonnaise comes as Ma wipes at the tar. One strong scrub and – it’s a hot sharp pain, like a finger when it touches a stove. It’s enough to clamp my lips back together again. I flick my tongue, just once, over the raw, splintered skin.
When the stars twinkle they remind me of your eyes when we –
Give over you big sap, I tell him. And he laughs and doesn’t let his face droop down. He can trust the shapes it makes in front of me. I’ll be back in a week, he tells me. I’ll be here, I promise.
Eilish scoops my clothes up as Ma places the scissors back in the drawer. Auntie Pat paces and fumes a cigarette and calls them all bastards, the smoke coils with her silver hair.
I look down to see the marks of terror on my body. Goosebumps creep across my arms, map themselves around the last dapples of tar; my gnarled knees and skinny shins are spotted with purple bruises; pain bores deep as if to the bone. Clinging to the blanket, I think of his arms draped around me, but I can’t catch the feel of them. They wisp away like smoke. I’m too exhausted to chase after them.
Eilish and Auntie Pat set to work – washing away any shame with bleach and a pack of J-cloths. I try to trundle to the door, escape up the stairs, but the look on Ma’s face stops me still.
‘Make a wee pot of tea,’ Ma says to Eilish, whilst to me, ‘take a seat.’
I do as she asks.
She scans me top to toe: checks my neck for fading marks, moves to my wrists then onto my thighs. I fear her knowing, sensing, where he’s touched. She takes the inside of my right wrist and presses her nail right into a welt made by the rope. I suck in my breath.
‘We’ll have the run of it now then,’ Ma says, removing her nail.
‘I was leaving the bookies after placing Da’s bet and they comes up to me in the street, four of them and – ’
‘From the beginning please.’
‘Beginning? Well me and Saoirse met Biffy about nine this morn – ’
‘The beginning, as in the first time you met him.’
Eilish and Aunt Patricia stop their mopping. I grip the side of the table. ‘Met who?’ I say.
Ma looks at me like I’m no more worth than a lame colt. She sits with clenched jaw, poker straight spine. I guess all the tar has not been wiped from me. In this house, I know, I can never be clean.
Hens by Grace Brown was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature V S Pritchett Prize Memorial Prize 2017