One year. 100 articles. So we're having a Reader's Party. Come along to Upsidecrown.
Small Town Boy
14 May 2001
"This is the sign of Earth."
He is lying on a hill, sloping gently back to the factory town where he grew up. She straddles him, and reaches past his right ear. He catches a flash of dark blue nail polish as she scoops up a handful of the loamy soil.
He does so. He is good. As she dribbles halfmud from a closed fist held above his mouth, he chokes it down. His arms are pinned beneath the sharp bones of her shins.
"Good boy. Good student. Swallow it."
If you haven't grown up in a small town, you don't really know what it's like.
The switching plant on the road out of town. Big, blocky building, where half the place used to work. You don't even know if it's still running. But every time you drive out to see friends in the villages, you have to pass it by.
The sign of Water. He holds his breath for as long as he can. Her loose white skirt is splayed upon the surface of the river, and when he opens his eyes he can see the white blur of her pale legs. She never lets her touch him. That would be wrong. But her hands are curled around the back of his neck, holding him in place. His chest is cracking. Her hands are so cold. His ears thud, thud.
Spasmodically, he coughs, and the water forces its way up into his nose and mouth, down his throat. Panicking, he straightens up suddenly, then bends back down, waist-deep in water, choking the air back into himself.
The open-handed slap does not surprise. But it does hurt.
"Stupid. Stupid waste. Now we'll have to do it all over again."
Local industries. Bells and bricks. It's hardly surprising they built a bell tower as a war memorial. For fifty pence you can go up it, and you can't even say that about the Convent girls anymore. And from the very top, you can see how abruptly the town stops, as if it ran out of energy all at once, and there's nothing to see but fields. Squares, squares, squares.
The sign of Air has been a surprise so far, but he never quite knew what happened next, anyway. On her knees, resting on her haunches on the bed, in imitation of his pose, she tilts her head and looks at him quizzically. Then rubs the tip of one finger across the top of her uncapped lipstick, in a frankly obscene gesture, then transfers the bloody smudge to his lips. Over. And. Over.
His mouth feels raw, bruised, ticklish, as she goes to work on his eyes. They butterfly closed as she pushes shadow on brutally, then flicker open as his lashes are pulled, teased, tortured into length and shape by mascara.
He's blushing by the time the blusher goes on, fiercely, looking anywhere but her. One cool, jewelled hand slides around to the back of his neck. Again. Holds him in place as she leans in towards him.
"Hey. Hey. Shhhh. It's OK. Look at me. Look at me."
Unselfconsciously batting his eyelids, he looks up from under his lashes. She smiles at him, warmly. Then her free hand comes up in a fist, and flattens into his face. The heavy silver ring on her index finger presses ruby upper lip into tooth until it splits like a snail. He tastes blood, and barely feels the next one go in under his ribs, but hears her.
Friday night, and everybody piles along the same sad road. Six pints in the Griffin, and stagger down to Echos' NiteSpot with your boots sloshing. Three vodka and Red Bulls, slow dance with someone else's wife, running battle along the Corn Exchange, ill-advised attempt to jump over a bollard, Casualty, six stitches, your own wife screaming at you until your eyeballs boil the next morning.
Every Friday night for twenty, thirty years.
She's clearly been using when he meets her for the sign of Fire. Her pupils are huge, and she sways in little half-dance steps as they head on down the stairs. He doesn't care. He needs it done.
She runs the flat, broad side of the flint shard around the skin of her neck over and over again, standing in front of him, stripped to the waist and arms cruciformed, holding on to the two hooks set in the wall. Striking the rough wall behind him, showering sparks onto his exposed skin, leaning close enough that he can smell her breath, her body, brandy and something else as she inverts the flint, tears open a dozen small wounds along his arms. He does not cry out. He does not let go off the hooks. His lips hasn't even had time to knit together yet, but he bites through it.
Maybe it's the blood, maybe it's the drugs, maybe it's the look in his eyes, but that's it. She leans in and kisses him, hard, painfully hard, and as he starts to black out the flint punches into his flank and down. Broken. His chldren will ask about the scar. He'll tell a different story each time.
It's just not the kind of place I'd want to raise kids, you know. I mean, what is there for them to do? Just end up getting into trouble.