Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Chapter 5

The first time I really felt wrong was soon after Clair went. Her and Mum never got on. But they got really bad in the summer of seventy six. That was a shitty, horrible summer, that. Baking hot non-stop. It was a dry hot but it still felt like there was a storm coming. But the storm never come then. It got swallowed and thrown up later.
The heat give me headaches. Felt like me brains were bursting. I used to lie with the sheets kicked off, hearing them two shouting.
I never understood it. It was like Clair was in a permanent strop. She hated it on the checkout but that couldn’t’ve been all of it. It scared me. The way you couldn’t work her out, couldn’t get a clue. Think I felt jealous of her a bit, being able to shout and go, and act like she didn’t deserve a shit time of it.
Don’t know why she went, but I was expecting it, her going. A bit after Christmas I heard her talking to her mate Deb. Deb worked in the caff up by the Bill. You could always smell cooking on her. She was humped over a bit because of her platforms. They come in from the pub. There was two lots of laughing then they went in the front room. My room was next to it. I turned the radio down so I could hear.
Deb said, ‘You heard back yet?’
Then Clair said, ‘Not yet. Only just got the form in. Got a good chance though. With the money it is.’
Deb said, ‘Blind school though. They’d want experience.’
‘Got experience living here. Nobody so blind as someone who won’t look.’
Then she shut the door. I couldn’t hear any more.
Not long after that she cheered up a bit. The rows stopped. Until the last one.
Couple of days before Easter I come home from school and there was a minicab parked out the front of the house. The bloke was stood by the car. He had on this brown and white zip up cardigan like the one I had. He was tapping his fingers on the roof of the car. His nails were black with shit. He seen me going in at the gate and said, ‘Tell her I’ve got the meter running son. She’s taking forever.’
The front door was wide open. Them two were in the hallway going mad at each other. Shouting and shouting. I can’t remember what they were shouting. I just stood there looking.
All down the stairs there was clothes on the floor. Clair started picking up the clothes and stuffing them into this green suitcase. Then she tried to shut it but the catch was broken. She was kneeling down saying, ‘Fucking thing. Fucking thing.’
Then they went quiet. Mum went in the kitchen and got some string. She give it to Clair. Clair tied up the case and stood up. She walked to the door. Mum stood there with her arms at her sides, lifting them then letting them drop, like a penguin.
Clair walked out. I followed after her, a bit behind. She speeded up when she seen I was following. I said to her, ‘Where you going?’
She said, ‘Off my fucking head!’
She got in the cab. The bloke didn’t need to say about the meter running; she couldn’t get away quick enough. He tutted and went, ‘Thank fuck for that,’ under his breath. I watched the black car leaving.
The way it looked to me, that was the last I was going to see of her. Mum must’ve thought she’d gone for good too because she never said anything when I moved into the upstairs room. I’d had enough of being downstairs, overhearing things.
I didn’t want to move Clair’s stuff out. I wanted to be in the middle of it all. Mum thought I was being daft. She got me to put it in the cupboard under the stairs. It nearly all went for jumble in the end.
I kept a couple of Clair’s things. To remember. When she went she took all the photos with her in them, as if she wanted it to be like she never happened. I kept her name badge from work plus a tube of her psoriasis cream. It smelt funny. When I was smaller I asked her what it was.
She said, ‘Vanishing cream.’
I said, ‘Is it?’
She said, ‘Fucking wish it was.’
I put the cream and the badge in the shoebox I had under me bed. I didn’t like looking in it but I wanted to have it there. Afraid of forgetting.
Before, I used to sneak things away to put in it. There was two photos. Used to like them till I found out. One of them had Mum and Dad standing in a field of grass. They were close enough for their shoulders to touch but they could’ve been in different pictures. Mum was at an angle to Dad, smiling and squinting into the distance, like she was trying to remember something.
Dad was stood with his shoulders sloped, as if he was under extra gravity. He was looking straight into the camera, frowning, like whoever had took the picture had just asked him a question he didn’t understand. His lips were a bit apart, like he wanted to say something but he couldn’t. That’s how I felt. His eyes and his nose were like mine.
In the other picture he was younger; late twenties or something. He was leaning on a gate, sleeves rolled up, pipe in his mouth, big grin. Behind him at the top of the photo there was this big thick bar of black cloud. It looked like it was going to come down on top of him. I wanted to reach into the picture and warn him.
There was this wooden hammer thing from his work. There was dents in it from when I used it to bang in a nail. Wish I hadn’t done that.
There was two of his records. One was Louis Armstrong singing ‘What A Wonderful World’. The label was black, the writing was silver. I hated it. I thought the words were stupid. I’d sit and look at it and try to imagine Dad listening to it and enjoying it. The other was an L.P, ‘The Man of La Mancha’. Most of it was bollocks but I liked ‘The Impossible Dream’; the words made you feel better.
Then there was Dad’s spare pair of glasses. I found them at the back of a drawer in the kitchen. I tried them on once but I didn’t like the feeling.
So I put Clair’s things in with that lot.
Near enough the first thing Mum said after Clair went was that we should have a holiday, me and her. She said, ‘We’re still a family after all.’
I didn’t know what she was on about. We hadn’t been away for years. It was like putting on an act.
She booked a weekend break at Butlin’s. We got the coach to Weston Super Mare. We were sat across the aisle from this bloke who kept farting. I read till I felt sick then I went to sleep.
The camp was set back from the prom. There was big Chinese-looking gates and this pink tarmac driveway called Welcome Boulevard. Looked like a big dirty tongue.
I got the first twinge when we walked in. It was crawling with people. All I could see was faces coming at me. They all looked the same. Me breath started catching. There was this rushing in me ears like being under water.
We checked in and found the chalet. Mum kicked her shoes off and lay on her bed reading the booklet they give you saying what’s on. There was a talent night on in the family bar. The booklet said it was a chance to meet new friends or some bollocks like that. I had a bath in the block near our chalet. The bath was all gritty on your arse.
Everything in the bar was either sticky or greasy; the glasses, the tables, the carpets everything. Up one end there was a bit of a stage. On it was two blokes in velvet jackets. One had on a bass, the other was sat behind an electric organ.
They nodded to each other and started playing ‘There’s No Business Like Showbusiness’. The compere bloke bounced up and took hold of the microphone. His hair was grey as a badger round the ears and brown everywhere else. We were a few tables back but I could still see his dandruff.
He told a few old jokes. Then he come down with the mic and chatted to a few people. I was dreading him coming near us. He stopped at the next table and talked to the two girls sat there. When he walked off one of them said to the other about how his breath stunk. Then there was a game of ‘Take Your Pick’. People took it in turns to pick envelopes that didn’t have a tenner in.
Then it was the talent competition. It was all teenage girls doing their Shirley Bassey bit and blokes in their forties slaughtering ‘Spanish Eyes’ and ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’ and that. It was depressing the way they threw themselves into it, like something was going to come of it.
All through it, the backing blokes looked like they had something sharp up their arses. Every time someone sung an off note the bassist pulled a face like he’d bitten into a bit of silver paper on a Kit-Kat.
This milkman won it. He was skinny and nervous-looking. He done ‘I Remember You.’ I looked at Mum. She was humming along and clapping time and smiling and bobbing her head. I slid down in me seat and hoped nobody was looking.

We went in for breakfast. The dining room was the size of a warehouse. We got shown where to sit. You had to sit in the same place the whole time. We were on the end of a table beside an old couple. Every now and then the woman smiled sideways at Mum. Mum’d smile back then look back down at her cornflakes. It was like the old woman was trying to think of something to say. Then the rumour reached our table and she didn’t need to.
People said it was a boy. That it was two blokes. That it was a woman who’d gone swimming nude. In the end the old couple asked the waiter. He dished out the kippers off this rack thing and leaned over to tell us. He said how a bloke and his grown up son had been walking back to their chalet the night before and the son had decided to have a swim in the outdoor pool. Both of them were pissed. The son had all his clothes on. He was in trouble straight off. The dad couldn’t swim. All he could do was stand there watching. The boy drowned.
I didn’t feel like eating after that. I sat there trying to imagine it. People loved it though. Give them something to talk about. The old woman next to us was having a good gas with the family on the other side. I heard her say how she wasn’t being funny but at least it broke the ice a bit.
I mooched around on Saturday morning. Mum come round with me, trailing a couple of feet behind. She said she didn’t mind just watching. We went in the games room. Everything was being used apart from a couple of the dart boards. She wanted a go at playing darts. Two turns in a row she missed with all three darts. I stood there itching and feeling hot. There was blokes with their sons all looking and grinning. She smiled and shrugged and bent down and picked up the darts.
There was free films in the afternoon so she went to one of them. I went on the chairoplane. Other people screamed, but I couldn’t feel anything. I went out the camp and sat on the beach till teatime come. The sea was so far out it was like a line between the sand and the sky. The beach was mud. There was a smell coming off it like chicken gone off.
Teatime, the old couple tried to talk to us again. They said I looked eighteen. Said I had really long fingers like I played the piano. They didn’t mean any of it. They just couldn’t think of anything to say to us. There was a proper family the other side. Bit by bit they started talking to them more.
Saturday night Mum went dancing in the ballroom. Before she went she give me some two pences to play the machines. I went down the arcade and played pinball. A kid my age come and stood by the machine, watching. I looked at him a couple of times and he went away.
Sunday was more of the same till after tea. Then whatever happened, happened. We were walking back from the dining room so we could get packed. Seemed like there was hundreds of people come out of nowhere, coming towards us. Felt like I was going to get swallowed up, lost in all them people.
Jellybean taught us in Biology about how everybody’s eighty per cent water. I used to wonder why you didn’t dissolve when you got in the sea. That was what the feeling was like then, like I was going to get dissolved.
The faces were coming at me again. All smiling. Eyes dead like fish. There was sweat all down me back. Me legs were shaking and going bandy. Me head was hammering, felt like it was swelling up. Don’t know what it was.
I run for it, off the Boulevard and across the grass. I didn’t even look back. I heard Mum call after me. I kept running, all through the chalets, round the edge of the camp till I was buckled over. I lay face down on the grass getting me breath back.
After a bit I walked back to the chalet. Mum was in there packing. I never said anything to her about it. And she never said anything to me.