Sunday, 30 November 2014

David and Suzannah

Included in MY SWIMMING DAYS and Twelve Other Stories

Suzannah used to buzz in from London, all frizzed-up, boyfriend in tow
He would put a hand on the green wire fence, the other
On the rust new-brick, presenting a casual barrier
That she could duck under, grinning as of old
And stand next-to and behind him

Chin-on-shoulder, slap-arse intimate, little sister still, adoring
He for a second holds the cards, were he not so busy
Holding the fence. He should hold out a hand
Instead the new man does, like the many
Who came before. He shakes the hand

You must be Dave, boyfriend says. His head stays still but the gaze drops
David please, she responds, sternly and not in fun
One day there will be one, she notes, that I won’t
Have to tell, but until then, big-necked, slow
David is her litmus test for men

So it remained for years. Cotton-polyester under short flared skirts became
Briefly, jeans artfully slashed and ripped, bare knees displayed
Then just jeans and tops of pink or grey. Hair no longer
Sprayed and bouncing as she walked, but tied back
Prettily, with glasses, brown then black

The boyfriends became a husband - who’d failed the David test, but still
They had a baby whom David loved, just as he had Suzannah
Suzannah wouldn’t let him bath the child or sit with her alone
Too vulnerable. Too what? I mean too little, she said kindly
But firmly. I was big enough for you, he thought

When Dad was gone and Mum stayed in her room day after day and all night
When you cried and the only thing I knew was to hold you tight
And give you milk like Mum said - warm the bottle up and
Squirt it on your hand. If you can’t feel it then it’s warm
Now give it to her, Mum said, so I did

The former family home hunkers down in the lee of full-grown poplars
Whose roots dig viciously, but which divert the east wind
Overhead, until you reach the top road, when it hits you
Straight off the sea. A smaller man might not
Keep his feet. Proudly he walks to work

In Deliveries, behind the supermarket’s waggon-sized green doors
The handtruck cowboy rides a western plain of dust and lint
Through sagebrush of plastic sheeting unwinding from pallets
Of whisky and cigarettes, bacon and beans
No, David wouldn’t get the joke

You make your own theatre when you’re pallet-pulling in the warehouse
The drivers are the stars back there, breezing in, undoing liner buckles
Like slick lovers and pulling back curtains like magicians
Performing the grand reveal. They have the chat
And utilise it mercilessly

David agrees to make the tea. It’s a break, after all. The hierarchies
Of the shop floor go right over his head. He has work while
Many don’t; he has a place to be in daytime hours
And at night therefore, an excuse for a drink
So why not make the tea? he thinks

The Linewalkers at the Odeon Friday night - first half Johnny Cash, then
Line-dancing till late. Stella on tap and a shoot-out in the break
Fiona from the office goes for the dancing. Mum went once
Or twice. David irons a check shirt and polishes his boots
It’s only Monday, but best be prepared

You can come if you like, David says to his sister. No, I’ll pass thanks old chap
I’m not cut out to be a cowgirl, and littl’un here needs looking after
That’s all right, he replies, I like the Johnny Cash half best
He sings Ring Of Fire as he did when she as little.
She joins in but only remembers the chorus.

With accidental clarity he mutters, I taught you nothing that you know
The husband grins, whispers, out of the mouths of babes and fools
And one of those is suckling at your tit. She kisses the child
And hisses to the husband, this is not your house, it’s his
The husband sniffs and changes channel

Before the husband and the child, before the return - to town, to the house
These moments of mammalian idleness on the settee would’ve seemed
More suited to a zoo. Normality was the lion’s den of an interview
The shout and hup-to of an open-plan panopticon, the fizzing
Caffeine energy of London in the nineties

Office-hopping - seven jobs in as many years, every move an advance
Getting in on the ground floor, putting the work in, making the cash
And getting out with pride and reputation intact, contacts safely
Stored in Filofax and Mac. Home was distant, a guilty pang
A Saturday arrival, a Sunday lunch then go

Mum was watching David’s back, and he watched hers in his own clumsy way
Morning tea, a paper in bed that he could barely read, but he knew
Enough to know it got her up. That and twenty Bensons - ten each
Suzannah watched the pair of them together and wondered
Why am I not like that?

Then she would see herself, a girl of five-foot-three from the sort of house
That had a green plastic fence next to the wall, from the sort of family
That had a father who would leave a depressed wife and
Vulnerable son. She had left them too, of course
She would hear Dad’s contemptuous snort

The following outburst, the husband will later blame on hormones - something
Doubtless to do with birth and feeding, which will make her skin crawl
Even more, at the thought that she married him. She says, me
And you between us are no better than my Dad. I’ve behaved
Like him, but worse than that, you think like him

The husband has nothing to gain by responding, but does anyway
He says, blokes marry their mothers, girls marry their dads
It’s the way of the world. She covers herself and the baby
Then makes her way into the kitchen where David
Is cooking spaghetti bolognese

She was slowing down when Mum died. Her head was still full of
Lead times and deadlines, but she was losing the taste for
Champagne at seven, dinner at eight, music blaring and
A new man whenever one was going spare
She decided she was ready for a change

I heard you, David says, you don’t have to fight over me. For you, she corrects
He could do with a woman, she thinks, but that would be just
The sort of thing the husband would be thinking - find
Some poor girl special enough and they can move
Into a warden-sheltered flat for two

Whether or not he understands, she says, you’re not holding me back, brother
Me and this ’ere sproglet are taking a couple of years, together
She knows she doesn’t sound like herself, but to hell with it
She can play this rĂ´le as well as she played ‘amoral
Metropolitan’. London isn’t going anywhere

In vain hope of making up lost ground, husband stays at home with the child
Suzannah and David hit the Black Swan together, as they did when
She was sixteen. Old faces, eyebrows raised. She counts down
For him at the dartboard. He buys her dry white wine from
His own wages. Then home arm-in-arm, drunk

Turn the page. Tomorrow: David wheels truck and brews tea unappreciated
Suzannah touches the walls of this tiny town she once longed to escape
Christian mother-toddlers, swim-babes and fit-play, girls from school
Aged by marriage, birth and all of the above. And what of love?
Don’t start, she laughs, as the wind blows off the sea.

Included in MY SWIMMING DAYS and Twelve Other Stories Originally published by Writerlot, November 2014