What I’m working on now
Raw first draft excerpt of ‘Boys of Summer’, as written yesterday, complete with note for today:
“Yeah, well we’ll be going now.” Darren flung the tea-towel into the kitchen sink, drew himself up. Brittle iron in his gaze now as he looked at Tony, pleading for something. “Right, Tony? We’ll be going right now.”
“Tony?” the man in the doorway pushed his hair back behind his ears, leaving furrows glistening across the top of his head. He took out the pack of cigarettes that distended his top pocket and lit one. “Ain’t someone gonna introduce us?”
Outside, the morning’s rainfall steamed up from the pavement in spirals. Within, the hall filled up with curliques of smoke, and the cheese and peanut smell of old sweat.
“This is m’Dad,” said Darren darkly, his flexible face dragged down at the corners by sullenness. “And Dad… Tony’s none of your fucking business.”
His father? Tony swallowed. The man had not stepped any further into the house than the doormat. There was no way out of the door, except by going past him, and he had such a presence! Fire in one hand, the gnarled knuckles of the other curled around a bull-dog belt buckle. It was rather horrible when he smiled, and the expression pulled his face into a shape that resembled Darren. Was this what Darren would look like in twenty years time? Terrifying! “Um… Excuse me,” he said. “I… we were… just going.”
Mr. Stokes took a step forward. He was grinning now; smoke stained teeth and gaps black in the ugly twist of smile. “You’re this year’s Max,” he said with slow amusement. “Fuck me! He never did bring them home before. But this is much better.” He indicated a seat with a great sweep of hand, a spraying arc of ash. Wetting his lips with his tongue he put on a false, mock-polite voice. “Do sit down. Perhaps we shall have some tea?”
Unconsciously, at the mention of tea, Tony looked at Mrs. Stokes. She had sunk back into her chair, and her eyes were vacant, her face empty and sunken. Stokes followed his gaze, shrugged. “The old bitch is senile. Needs to be put in a home. That’s what I come about. But now I’m here, I thinks it’s a good idea if you and me has a little chat. Sit down, Mr…?”
He moved into the living room, his reeking aura pushing Tony backwards. The edge of a seat nudged him in the backs of the knees, and Stokes took another step, crowding Tony towards the chair. Behind him, Darren rubbed his wrists one by one as he eyed the door. “I…” said Tony, damp and cigarette smoke making his lungs tighten within him. He coughed for a minute; short, dry wretched little coughs, that took his mind off the fact that Stokes had come even closer, crowding into his space, and as he did so he thought my father wouldn’t take this. My father would be as polished and machine-like as he ever gets. This… oik would break himself like a monkey punching moving cogs, trying to do this to him.
“I…” he coughed again, made a sudden lunge sideways and got the side-table with the Majorcan flamenco-dancer doll on it between himself and Darren’s father. “I don’t think I will.”
“Suit yourself,” Stokes shrugged. His smile took on a new level of self-satisfaction as he rubbed his chin with a scritch of bristles. “You stand then, while I tell you what I wants you to do for me. Firstly, I don’t want no piddling little presents this time. No two thousands here and there. I want my car paid off. I want a house, somewhere nice. No cheap shit, neither. Something decent, that’ll impress the ladies, yeah?”
Darren had not yet closed the door. He stood in it, back braced, as though he pushed it open against a tide of incoming water and breathed in, a soft, slow hiss through gritted teeth. “You remember what I said to you last time, Dad. You try it and I’ll—”
“I’m just telling the gentleman where he stands.” Stokes lowered himself into Tony’s vacated chair, spreading his arms wide across the back of it. “You see, Tony, my Darren has this way with the poofters. Fucking useless he might be but they’re round him like honey, giving him presents. ‘Oh Darren suck my knob an I’ll give you a thousand pounds’. And he- he loves it. He can pick ‘em a mile off, flaming little queer that he is.”
Darren laughed twice; explosive little ‘ha’s that sounded as if he’d been kicked in the stomach. He raised his hand to his forehead, fingers curled, shook his head as if he didn’t want even his own fingers to touch him, and dropped it, hopelessly. Looking away, Tony caught the old lady’s flinch, as if she had started to talk, thought better of it. Afraid? Or ashamed?
He wished now he had sat down after all; easier to absorb this when his legs weren’t trembling under him. They’d stopped at a service station on the way here, got coffee, but had not been able to face food. Now his stomach formed a negative pressure in his belly, and the matching void of his chest ached around emptiness. His head throbbed, and he thought for a moment he might crumple inwards, implode, vanish in a little pop of darkness and wasted dreams. It was still hard to believe such malice could exist outside fiction.
Sidling out from behind the table, he grabbed on to the soiled wood of the living room doorway, Bakelite light-switch nudging his finger-ends. This was worse than the cricket bat to the shoulder – his soul more tender to assault than his body.
Half out into the street now, one scuffed trainer on the doorstep, Darren raised his gaze from the skirting-board, even the red-gold vibrancy of his hair looking dim around a face gone green. Guilt? Tony thought, withering inside.
“See he’s good at picking the types that don’t want their families or their work to know. And I can arrange that, no problem. You get to fuck him, I don’t tell anyone. Call it… a management fee, OK?”
Not the old lady, but the father! Oh God! He’d been thinking it earlier; thinking this very thing, earlier. That it was, that it might be a a plan. Some kind of um, oh God, some kind of escape from poverty and nylon, stale food and disgusting plates. He’d been thinking it – he really had, and now….
Darren licked his lips, the gesture that had always given Tony a little jolt of surprise and joy now reminiscent of Stokes. He straightened up, looked Tony in the eye, just as he had that day at the marina – scared, resolute – and Tony said, “Is that true?”
He had time to hear his words twice – the shape of them in his mouth, and then the sound, independent, reaching his ear a moment later. In that second they transformed from innocent enquiry to betrayal. He thought of Saint Malo and the taste of ice-cream under blazing sunshine. The memory of it was sweet on his tongue, his eyes dazzled with the sea under the bows of the Lady Jane, his hair blown back, spray wetting his face like tears.
And then Darren’s punch smacked him in the nose. He reeled back, clutching his face, coughing. He hadn’t even seen it coming! All of a sudden his legs were trembling, a hot lava of pain spreading out from the centre of his face. His nose throbbed with a deep, panicky sort of pain, telling him how fragile it was. Blood pooled in the hollow of his hands as he gingerly touched the bone, sure it was broken. He’d played rugby, yes, at school, but no one had ever hit him in the face before and the sense of violation, vulnerability—the sense of an uncrossable boundary shattered made his chest shake despite himself, his eyes fill with tears.
He blinked them back, fumbled for his handkerchief and stanched the blood. Raised his head to find the front door flapping in a grit-laden wind. The sound of an engine, retreating down the road dwindled like his pride. “Darren…? Darren!”
You got something solid to stand on, yeah? Darren’s words from last night echoed in his painful head in reproof. Like having a board under your feet. You own it now and you can’t be outed, you can’t be blackmailed, you can’t be fucking shoved around.
Were those the words of a man who wa
s in cahoots with his awful family to fleece his customers? No. The throbbing in Tony’s face joined with his pulse until he felt his whole body was a wound. No, of course they weren’t. He shouldn’t have entertained the thought. Darren was no more responsible for his family than Tony was for his. God, what have I done?
He walked out into the middle of the narrow street, ran down to the turn off where the estate met the grubby 1960s shopping precinct. No van in sight, but as he was passing the hairdresser’s peeling pink frontage the phone in his pocket burst into Ode to Joy and he snatched it up like a lifeline.
(remember Tony has to put the note in Darren’s jacket pocket!)