PWG International Writing Competition 2016 winner Mr. D. Bruton
Me and Julie and Col, way back, walking tip-toe tall and our heads held high, adding bits of inches to what we were then, and adding years, but only so in our thinking. And Julie said she’d marry me or Col one day, if we’d a mind to ask her and if we said ‘please’ and ‘pretty please’. And Col made a sound like being sick, like there was not a good taste in his mouth, so Julie punched his arm quick as a cracked whip and she said he should be so fucking lucky.
Mams and das we played sometimes, on the slumped stone steps at the back of her house, at the back of 15 Myreside Road, and Julie made a plastic teapot of strong tea that had no weight in her hands when she poured it – ‘milk and two sugars if you don’t mind, love, and put the milk in first, there’s a dear, it tastes better that way.’ I pretended to be going out to work in heavy boots, dancing it looked like, or like a skittery cow when it lumbers heavy and trotting from one field to the next and the farmer’s dog nipping at its feet. Julie tucked a bit piece in a tin box for my lunch and she said, ‘There,’ and to ‘Go careful now.’ Col was our sullen sulky lad and he folded his arms and said he wanted to go to work, too, and if that wasn’t happening then he wasn’t playing.
We smoked candy cigarettes with sweet lipstick-red tips, leaning up against the side of The Davey Lamp bar, pulling on them like they were real cigarettes, like we saw our mams and our das doing, and blowing blue smoke-circles into the air, only our circles had no colour even though our lips were perfect o’s – no colour at all, ‘less it was cold as nips and nicks; and we stuck our thumbs in the belts of our trousers and we swore like old men and spat in the street, and Julie was a better spitter than Col or me, and Mrs Hartman said she knew who I was and she’d tell my mam what I said and what I did.
So then we pretended we were flying, our arms spread wide in a Spitfire sky and we were planes swooping like swallows or swifts from one side of the street to the other and ‘dega-dega-dega’ and Mrs Hartman and her two stupid kids were instantly dead – dead as doornails or dodos or mutton. And the dizzy circles we drew in the road with our running were breathless loops in the air and we flew all the way to Victoria park, even though the day was dark and grey by then, and Col crying after us to wait up because his plane had engine trouble and he couldn’t run as fast as us.
Then on the swings and we were flying for real, as high as swings dare, the chains needing oiled and squeaking like banshee-whispers, up and up until the force of flying upwards felt the tug and tug of gravity and the chains went slack a little and our wooden seats jerked and we were falling then, which is only flying without the control. And Julie laughed, her hair behind her like a flung flag, then over her face, then behind her again.
‘I feel a bit sick now,’ said Col, and he did look a bit green about the gills – though we didn’t really know what that meant back then, ‘cept my mam had said it when our Kevin had taken the cooking sherry out to the shed and Kevin drank all that was left in the bottle and he was crooked when he walked out of the shed again and his spittle-words were all joined up so they made no sense, and our mam said then that he was looking a bit green about the gills, Kevin was, and he was promptly sick all over the kitchen floor, the dog barking and mam swearing like old men at the pub. And so, with Col feeling sick after the swings, I said he was looking a little bit green about the gills, and Julie said he should just go ahead and be sick and me and Julie’d watch.
A little later, Col’s mam called him in for his tea. ‘It’s mince and taters tonight,’ he said walking away from us, his spirits and his colour magically restored.
With Col gone it was quiet between Julie and me, and the day gave way to sudden-seeming night and shadows were quick and bold, and me and Julie held hands where no one could see. And she asked me if we’d be married one day, in a church with bells ringing, and flowers choking all the spaces and everyone wearing smart clothes, and Julie’s da giving her away, and empty Heinz beans cans and soup cans, their labels stripped off so you couldn’t tell, tied with old string to the back of a white car and clattering as we drove off for our honeymoon – which we also didn’t know what that was – a honey-moon?
‘And Col could be our real sulky lad still,’ I said.
Julie laughed and it was the sound of water running, and she kissed me, and it wasn’t like mam-kisses, the pink kitten-tip of Julie’s tongue in my mouth, and that felt like flying, too – a giddy soaring and the world all upside down and the breathless spinning of Spitfires shot and diving, and the chains on the swings slack and falling and the feeling in my stomach then.
Julie said she loved me. She knew, she said, because she had a funny feeling inside when we kissed, a feeling like a jam jar full of bees and the bees bumping against the glass as if glass could be surprised and the caught bees could find themselves in the open air again; and I said I loved her back, and we lay on the cool damp grass, still holding hands, and we counted stars like counting silver sixpences, and we made our thoughts and wishes into daredevil words spoken in whispers, and bats cut across the thrilled night sky.
I kept hold of that night, the memory of it, tight in my grasp, through all the years of school. Even when I was going out with Janet next door and she let me put my hand under her blouse to touch her diddies the size of small lemons, even then it was Julie I was thinking of. And I watched Julie grow from girl to something more, watching from a widening distance between us, and her hair the colour of crow wing and her diddies filling the front of her dress, and her lips painted red one day so she really did look grown. And there was a different boy every month for a while and then just the one boy and Julie dancing to his tune for a time.
One day, Col put his hand down the front of his trousers, fiddling, there in the street when the red-lipped Julie was across the road and walking wavy on her yellow high heels and not seeing us watching her. And Col said he would if she’d let him. And I spat in the road and I said Col should be so fucking lucky and I said he was a dirty get and she could do better than the likes of him – by which I meant me. And we went for a pint then in The Davey Lamp bar and I made Col pay and he bought a bottle of sweet stout for old Mrs Hartman who was drinking alone.
And the years are enough on us now so we don’t need to stand tall to be counted old enough, and me and Julie are not married or together, and life is a lot harder than we ever could have imagined as kids. My boots – hobnailed and dun – really are heavy, but going out in the morning is not like dancing at all. It’s cold and dark when the alarm clock breaks open the day like a new egg and my mam has to call me three times and she sends my da up eventually. And da says I should get a bloody shift on if I’m not to be late. And there’s a cup of strong tea – ‘milk and two sugars, thank you very much’ – waiting for me on the table downstairs and it’ll be cold if I’m not quick about it, he says.
And mam shouts up that there’s cheese for my bit piece in the cupboard but I’ve to make it myself because she’s got to get up the road to check on granda. And my da offers me a cigarette when I come down and we don’t bother with the smoke rings, pulling deep on the first smoke of the day and blowing ragged grey shapeless webs into the air and coughing like a pair of old cows and da grinding his teeth like he’s the cow with the colic. I have a new respect for my da these days, knowing he’s done what I’m now doing for all his years, and putting bread on the table for mam and me and the rest of the family, and his back is bent with the effort of it all.
‘Fuck, and it’s only Tuesday,’ I say.
‘Go careful now,’ my da says, meaning the language I’ve used, but he’s only saying that in case mam is not out of the door yet and can hear.
And Col swears for real, too, these days, every second blesséd word, and he wishes now he didn’t have to go to work, like we all do, and he’s sullen and sulky even without a drink on him. And Col drags his feet when he walks, his boots sparking on the stone path and his shoulders hunched against the day and against all the days.
I still see Julie sometimes and when I’ve a mind to I cross the street to speak to her. She’s got a kid of her own now and she’s a different shape altogether, even though she’s still pretty, and pretty enough Col still would if she’d let him. She has a house just two doors up from her mam and her da, 17 Myreside Road, and new curtains on the front windows. She says tells me she’s a single mam and she’s fine with that, and right enough there’s no ring on her finger as far as I can see.
And I hold my arms out from my sides sometimes, like we did once way back, trying to remember what it felt like then, and I run with the air in my face, running as fast as I can in my heavy work boots, and swooping like a summer-visiting bird or a Spitfire plane and running in circles like I’m running from disturbed wasps, but it never does feel like flying now.
As for that night, that Julie-and-me kissing-night, and that silver-sixpence-star-counting moment with bats in the air, and she said she loved me and I said I loved her back, well, that’s a shiny memory that I’ll keep in my pocket all my days, keeping it for when I’m on my own and it’s dark, or for when I see Julie and no one else is by and I remind her of the oaths we made under all of heaven.
Julie says I’m a daft bugger to remember stuff like that, a daft bugger and no mistake, and her face colours and her eyes hold stars in ‘em and she laughs then, and to me it is still like the sound of water running, and if I had any sense or balls or backbone I’d tell her that and risk sounding soft – but I don’t.