Fiction

Stephen and the Others

by M F McAuliffe

 

(April 1974)

 

(i)

He looked out the window, again. The edges of the town curved away inland from the sea; along the coast there was a strip of sand and away from that sand there was sand covered with pig-face; everything else was red dirt and dead saltbush and sky.

But if he half-stood in his seat he could just see the tip of the pellet-plant. His father worked at the steel-mill, next to it. The mill itself was hidden by the distance and the hill where the managers lived.

Managers would live on a hill, he thought automatically. His father would have said it and slagged.

He eased himself down, turned to the front of the room and found another set of notes filling the blackboard. He scowled, squinted, and started to write.

“Stephen.”

He stood up.

Highgate was grinning.

He thought Highgate was having some fun because it was Sports Day and the period was being cut short. Highgate knew he was in the boys’ under-16 hurdles and most of the kids thought he’d win.

By this time tomorrow he’d be able to tell his father he’d won something. He’d stay home and see his father and tell him. School could wait for once.

Highgate stopped grinning. The chalk in his hand turned and pointed.

“You’d better get to work, Stevo.”

It was an accusation.

The other kids were looking. Jean sniggered. As though she had anything to snigger about, he thought, her tarting about down the shopping-centre and all, waiting for them guys from the pellet-plant or the shipyard. Or the mill.

His father

No! His father was at work, or at home. His father was on double shift.

Highgate was still pointing, accusing.

He picked up his notes. “Mr. Highgate, I been —”

“At the rate you’re going you’ll be out on your ear.”

Highgate stood behind the teacher’s desk and flicked through a pile of homework, picked out two ragged pages. “Yours.” The sheets fell. “A few more weeks of this and you’ll be finished here. You’ll be out there, son.” The chalk jabbed towards the window, the town and the mill.

Jean turned and looked right at him and sniggered again. Green glanced back and sneered.

He sat down and picked up his pen. He’d be able to see the bloody board, he thought, if Highgate ever bloody sat down and got out of the bloody way.

He looked at the window from the corner of his eye. He looked at the clock. His father would be getting home. Must be by now. They put you in bloody jail, his father said, except you’ve put yourself there first, getting married. They put you in jail just because you were born.

He’d asked once why they couldn’t go home instead of staying here.

Money. Another word his father spat. They couldn’t go home because there wasn’t any money in England, not for the likes of the working class. The workers always came last.

He looked at the clock again. It must be late enough. His father must be home by now.

Bloody Highgate finally sat down. Cities grow from the centre outwards. He slagged into hishandkerchief. This city didn’t. It just spread into saltbush. The shopping-centre was on the bloody edge.The room was as quiet as it always was when bloody Highgate had had it a while.

He kept is head down and copied the rubbish. The bell eventually rang.

 

(ii)

He wanted to be by himself so he could stop and think and be able to see that everything would be all right. He wanted a bit of peace and a bit of shade.

He had to buy lunch.

Jean and them were on their way out when he got to the hall. Elizabeth wasn’t with them. He sighed. That meant she’d probably come and hang around him on the line. He hated her, hanging around and trying to talk. At least the hall was fairly cool; at least he could stand at his full height and stretch.

“What are you getting?” Elizabeth was at his left elbow, looking up at him as though the answer would tell her if he was sick.

He shrugged and scowled at the seething and shoving. There weren’t any lines when you came down to it, just a fat mass of kids at the counter all asking for potato-chips.

There wasn’t even any decent food here. No fish and chips, no chip butties.

He saw the last bag of chips go to some little kid. Shit, he thought. He couldn’t even get a buttered roll and stick chips in it.

And bloody Elizabeth was still there, still wanting to know what he was going to bloody eat.

“A bloody chip buttie with no bloody chips.”

“Jesus, I was only asking.” She turned and went.

There weren’t any rolls.

He got two bloody cheese and tomato sandwiches and went outside to find Green and them. Healways had lunch with Green and them. Green’d turn on him if he didn’t.

He was sitting on the grass with Green and Adams and Peters. There wasn’t any shade.

The hard, spiky clumps and blades of grass prickled at his feet. Hard red dirt gaped between them. The minerals in the dirt glittered. He squinted and looked away.

The world moved.

Sylvia was with Jean and Elizabeth and them a few yards away. She was hardly ever with them, she was usually playing netball.

He unwrapped his sandwiches and stared out towards the oval so he could look at her without seeming to. Her father was a supervisor at the pellet-plant. She’d been here practically since she was born, in the sun and the saltbush and the glittering red dirt.

He heard Green slag, saw the slag glisten on a grass-blade. He turned and squinted and watched Green twist his lips, slag again, and grin. Jean pointed and cackled, “Hey! Tha’s dir’y, tha’ is!” Green gave her the finger. She wiggled her bum and went on cackling.

He couldn’t breathe until he’d looked out of the corner of his eye to see if Sylvia was still there, still talking, still tying the laces on her sandshoes.

She was wearing white. She looked like cool white gold.

The dirt glittered like shattered glass.

Sylvia was slim and blonde and poised and cool and beautiful. Every time she moved she was dancing somewhere, in the air somewhere else.

Green yelled.

He turned. Green’s lips and knuckles were white.

“You’ll have to leave school,” Peters said. Adams was grinning. “You’ll have to get married.”

“Get stuffed!”

Sylvia! He turned back again. Sylvia was standing, but she didn’t look as though she’d heard, didn’tturn, look straight at them and walk away.

He held his breath. If he was lucky she might stay for a while. They might all go over to the oval together; he might walk near her, next to her.

He might be able to talk to her after he’d won.

He closed his eyes and watched her turn and smile at him.

 

(iii)

The girls were all standing up and going. The sun was blinding. He squinted and looked down at the dirt. The light off the minerals was like knives.

“Let’s have a fag.”

He didn’t move.

Green slagged and turned and looked down at him. “Don’t bloody wet yourself! All the bloody teachers are on the bloody oval!”

He scowled and got up. Green and his fags made him ill. But no one ever said that to Green.

They got to the bog. Green leant on the door, lit a fag and stared at the burning point of ash. Adams leant against the wall. Peters lit a fag of his own. They all watched Green. He began edging along the tiles, towards the other door.

Bloody Sylvia couldn’t be pregnant, Green was saying. Not by him, he’d been using Glad-wrap and rubber bands. It must’ve been someone else, one of them blokes from the shipyard or the pellets or the mill.

Green grinned.

Stephen looked at the gaping stalls, wanted to shove Green into one, smash him bloody and leave

him there. But he kept quiet and kept moving, a sixteenth of an inch at a time, while Green shook another fag out of the packet. He stopped until Green was watching the fat match-flare and the thin twin twists of smoke, waited while Green inhaled and his gaze slackened and he started rubbishing on again. Then he began shifting sideways again, finger by finger, moving, warm tile, cold tile, till he could get to the door and disappear.

“They can do blood tests at the hospital. They can prove it was you.” Adams was deadpan, serious, dragging on the fag he took from Peters.

Green’s eyes widened. He made a short thick sound and then in one single movement collapsed and threw up, retching into a growing pool of sick. The air was full of the sound and stink.

Stephen waited for the others to move, help Green or get someone, but all they did was watch and grin.

He ran. He wanted to find Sylvia, warn her, hide her, protect her, obliterate everything Green could have done, everything Green could have rolled around and done.

But she was all cool white gold and Green couldn’t have done it.

Couldn’t have.

Couldn’t have.

He ran till he had to stop for the pain in his side.

(iv)

His eyes hurt. The sun was like a bullet-hole in his back. They were all lined up for the hurdles. Kids in bloody lines, his father said. Like bloody cannon-fodder.

The gun went off.

He breathed and threw himself at the air.

If he could get away

The last hurdle crashed. The back of his ankle was skinned.

And Green was already there. Green never practised but Green was already there.

Green was standing and panting; Green was grinning with his mouth turned down. Sylvia was grinning.

Elizabeth and her soft voice said: “You came second, Stephen, that’s all right.”

But Green was looking at Sylvia, and Sylvia was looking at Green.

“He was just lucky,” Elizabeth said. “You know he’s not going to go in the soccer or anything.”

Green had his arms on Adams’ and Peters’ shoulders, he was saying he wouldn’t mind a drink. Jean was saying he wouldn’t know how to get one.

Sylvia was smiling at Green.

Green was speaking to Sylvia and Sylvia was smiling.

Sylvia was speaking to Green.

Jean pointed and hooted.

“Jesus, Stephen! You look like your dad.” She moved her hips. “I know where he goes after work.”

Green was still talking to Sylvia and she was still smiling.

He turned and sat and unlaced his shoes, ripped the dangling skin off his ankle, put his socks on so they’d rub and sting, kept his head down. Waited for them to leave him alone.

(v)

He told Highgate he’d help put the hurdles away so he could stay late and not be out where they could see him. And then get straight home.

Where his father would have left for work.

And his father would come back afterwards, from work, not fresh from screwing Jean or some other bloody slag.

The hurdles had been put away. Everything was done, everyone was gone. He turned and started to walk. The bricks of the classrooms were liver-red in the sunset, the shadows were the colour of hardening blood. He turned and walked backwards so he could watch the whole butcher’s shop shrink with every step he took.

“Hey! Stephen! Hey!”

He turned again. Sylvia was riding towards him. Her mother must’ve sent her to the shops.

In the late light it was as though she burned in the air, as though a tawny light blew softly through her skin and made everything around her glow, and whoever stood near her could be warmed and glow softly, too.

He wanted to look at her forever.

She was there. She’d stopped her bike and was standing with one foot on a pedal and the other on the ground.

His throat was dry.

He was afraid.

“Are you going in the soccer?”

His foot dangled from the kerb. He looked up and the setting sun screamed into his eyes. He looked down at the axle and spokes in the front wheel of her bike.

“I might,” he said. “It depends.” Green laughing and slagging while everyone whistled and stamped and yelled.

Green getting all the goals.

“I’m going in the net-ball.”

He squinted. She was almost a shadow, but not quite. He could see her small white teeth smiling.

“You going to watch Match of the Day?”

The sun was too bright. He looked at the saltbush that led up to the bare, square tabletop hill a mileaway. He looked at the square, bare rocks. The shadows between them were purple.

The air in those shadows would be cold.

He looked at the ground, at his foot next to hers.

“Yeah,” he said.

“I barrack for Manchester.”

Green barracked for Manchester.

“They’re great.”

“Yeah.”

She was still smiling, but she was twisting her foot on the grit, getting ready to go. He wanted to ask her if she was going to go out with Green. He wanted to tell her what Green was like.

He wanted her to reach through his silence.

He blinked.

The last of the sun was still burning on the saltbush.

“When’s net-ball practice?”

“Wednesday.”

“Oh.”

“When’s soccer?”

“Tuesday and Thursday.”

So he couldn’t see her then. They couldn’t walk home. He manoeuvred a stone with his shoe until it left a scar on the road.

The sun had gone. The sky over the hill was like shallow, luminous water.

He still couldn’t speak to her. It would be like trying to speak to the air or the light.

“Yeah, well, I’ve got to get home by dark. My mum said.”

Sylvia turned her bike and bent to straighten the pedal. “See you Monday, then.” She smiled and rode off towards the glimmering sky. He watched the road lengthen between them.

(vi)

His father wasn’t home. He had already left for work.

His mother said they had fish and chips for tea because he’d won; there was bread so they could have real chip butties. Ken had told her, she said, when he came home from school.

His brother was all blue eyes and innocence, stuffing himself with chips, making claws of his hands and baring his teeth, pretending to be that stupid dinosaur band he liked so bloody much.

He stared at the walls. Compressed cardboard they must’ve been. You could hear people on the other side yelling at each other or their kids or watching telly or having a leak or a screw. His father said he worked double shift so he could get away. His father said the bleeding country began as a bleeding jail and that’s all it still was, every bleeding house another cell of bleeding prisoners.

“Never mind.” His mother turned the oven off and started shaking salt and vinegar on the fish. “You tried hard, and that’s the main thing. If you try hard at your schoolwork you’re bound to get a good job.”

There was no such bleeding thing as a good job, his father said.

His father was at work. Afternoons began at four, nights at twelve.

His father came straight home from work and went to sleep. He had dinner in the afternoon. His mother cooked it for him and then he went straight back to work.

That’s why he never saw him.

He watched his brother stuff his mouth and grin. He watched his mother telling him to have some chip butties anyway because nobody could win all the time.

He turned and stared at the windows and watched the streetlights weep in the glass.

 

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

M. F. McAuliffe is the co-author of the poetry collection Fighting Monsters (1998) and the limited-edition artist’s book Golems Waiting Redux (2011).

Her short fiction has appeared in Overland, siglo, Australian Short Stories, The Adelaide Review, The Clarion Awards, and Eye-Rhyme. Her poetry has appeared in Famous Reporter, Poezija (Zagreb), and Prairie Schooner, among other venues; her long poem “Orpheus” was staged by the experimental La Mama Courthouse Theatre in Carlton, Victoria, in May, 2000.

In 2002 she co-founded the multilingual magazine Gobshite Quarterly with R. V. Branham, and she continues there as contributing editor.

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Jane4

Artist: Jane Gilday

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