Almost twelve

I.
I loved him from that very first day. In spite of his long body, his pimply forehead and ripped jeans.
Luca de Lalio. That’s not a made up name; that really was it.
We were in the old church hall rehearsing. Mum was rehearsing.
The week before she had come home breathless, her eyes light as butterflies in sun, telling me all about him. His age. 18. His job. Graphic designer. He was, I won’t lie. I won’t change the facts. Make of it what you will. I never did anything wrong.
His car, some old Volvo, or was it? It smelled of cigarettes and aftershave, something lemony that cost a lot. There was a hole in the floor of the car but you couldn’t see it because there were so many empty packets of red Marlboro on the floor.
He came to Yorkshire with us to see mum’s brother. My precocious little cousin held his hand and he played ponies and shops with her.
‘Mmm, this is lovely ice-cream,’ he said, and she said, ‘It’s not really ice-cream’, and everyone laughed. See? Precocious. She’s a sports therapist now, with a flat in Oxford and a silver Uno.
I tried hard not to look at him.
Everyone seemed to be looking at someone. My aunt was looking at my mother although I didn’t know then what she was thinking. My mother was looking at me and I suspected I knew why. I turned away with my jaw set hard; I knew what was going on, all that I needed to know. That he was here with us, had made the long drive for hours with us, and that, back at home, he stayed the night, sleeping on the sofa. My mother didn’t need to make any announcement when he moved to her bed. Perhaps she tried but I would not have allowed anything so gruesome as mother-daughter intimacy, her silently appealing, asking some kind of permission or forgiveness, forgive me for needing this.

In the mornings he would rub his long curly hair, and scratch his stubbly face while he stood at the kettle. He made Nescafe and lit a Marlboro and then stood out on the back step smoking, sipping, looking up out into the white sky.
Summer was coming. Soon it would be my birthday.
I would be 12.

II.
Anna awoke to hear the low growl of her mother. A nightmare. The noise pervaded her consciousness, and this, first time, prodded her gently from a sleep that would never again be so innocent.
She sat scared for a moment, listening for a lull in the dark complaint, so she could lie down and forget the fear in cool slumber. But instead her breath fought an unknown battle with her, and the murmur formed fangs, and tongue and lips.
‘Gorgeous,’ it hissed softly into the dusk room. Anna didn’t quite know why blood contracted violently just behind her ears. And then again. A hum; a sweet melody playing over the lips, deep and languid. A slow, fluid sound drawing out the safe silence.
’Gorgeous.’ Was she dreaming of white beach horizons?
But the vibrations had cooled, hardened somewhere inside the shell of Anna, and an excited chatter had turned in her stomach, like an argument between good and evil. She called out, but rather feebly, as if not to disturb her.
‘Mum?’
From the other side of the wall Lillian answered only with the rush of breath that swept through her hot body and spat from her. It was a noise like Anna had never heard; the sound of someone suffering gladly.
Greedily, Anna thought, as she clamped her hands to her head. But it didn’t stop the punches from squirming their fists into her belly and somewhere just below her ribs that felt wide open and air filled. Like a vast vacuum, just sat there, waiting.

The reality of the sound hit her then like a stinging sweet slap. She submerged her head in the warm flesh of the duvet and sobbed like a baby.
It was a week or more before it woke her again. But this time, with the first pin-prick of consciousness, jerking, rushing, falling, she knew exactly what would confront her; the noise entered her like crystal, singing the unending sound of the universe. Dream perspective crashed viciously with the still calm of the black walls, her mind panicked. Her body jerked, grabbing for a ledge. And then the loss of balance died, and everything became, suddenly, still and she could hear clearly the sounds of her mother being fucked.
Without planning the outcome of her action she threw off the duvet and stumbled with sleep onto the flimsy landing, and past the bedroom door, knowing only that she must make noise to drown the sound of pain. Locked behind the bathroom door, the fan clicked on and began its comforting buzz. She pulled her up her nightie, and urinated drowsily before noticing the familiar sounds of nothing.
It was with quiet satisfaction, after all the victory was so small, that she climbed into bed. She had stopped the noise. She had stopped the noise without speaking, without even being seen. Her presence had stopped the noise. And she slept with an empty, angry heart.

III.
She was thinking about how huge the gulf was between the words in your head and the ones that the brain actually forms, and delivers. She could hear the word, feel it threatening to grip the vocal chords, she could taste its juicy vowel. No.
And yet, all she could do was continue to acquiesce as he took photographs of her.
I can’t remember. I can’t remember how many shots. Perhaps it was one, or eight, or twenty-four. I can’t remember.
After, I went to my bedroom and sat on the wide window sill, kicked the pane of glass so it swung out into the darkness. I lit a cigarette and watched the smoke dance, and escape into the free.
I didn’t hear them fuck that night.
When the photos came back they were all black glossy rectangles. He handed them to me, in front of my mother. ‘I’m really sorry,’ he said. ‘Something must have gone wrong when they developed them.’

IV.

The second time is harder to write about. Harder to dwell on, and harder to admit to. When Mum said she’d arranged it I stood helpless between them. I began to protest, but I was a mouthy bitch who sent my mother into convulsions and mental hospitals.

He did it again. So people can say that I wanted it. I didn’t.

The rooms in his flat were wooden. The doorframes, window frames, doors themselves, all exquisitely stripped. Their colour cool, wheat-like, in the last days of summer. In May we – Luca, Mum and I – spent a weekend painting Nitromors on them and scraping the white gloss off in fumy ribbons.
Now the large picture window in Luca’s bedroom was thrown open to a scene of English bliss; behind me was the pretty green garden, the church rising in the background, and I sat, a supple blonde virgin of fifteen, in the window-seat. He pulled my blouse gradually further down, trying to expose my breasts. Then he lifted the folds of my long black skirt and tucked them into my knickers. He moved my body to show my long bare leg. I burned so hot I couldn’t breathe, only hold my breath clamped inside me, desperate to let nothing spill out into the shared space.
The camera click-clicked twenty-four times and then was silent. I used the toilet while he changed the film.
When I returned he said, ‘What about this? You could be standing in the bath, beneath the shower, and we could sort of wrap the shower curtain around you a bit. It’d be like you’d been startled in the shower,’ Luca said, holding a white towel toward me.
I couldn’t breathe because my heart was thumping in my chest, punching me for my part in this game. I looked at him – at his long waves of hair, his large mouth filled with strong white teeth. There had been days when I had loved him, and days when he had punished me like a father, for answering back, for sulking and flouncing when I wasn’t allowed out to see boys I liked. My friends clustered around the window outside his office on the high street – looking in the window and giggling. He was still only 22. In his other hand was a black string vest I’d seen him wear over a t-shirt and jeans. Well, it was the eighties.
It was a, ‘Or you could put this on. You know, with nothing underneath it. That’d look good.’ My cheeks felt hollow with terror. He kept his expression soft, loose, and innocent. There was no hint of shame or wink of enticement, only a fake, a liar twisting my blood and trust in his palm. I felt I would vomit.
Was he thinking of my boyfriends? Did he imagine I had now felt the full length of masculinity? Did he imagine I had learned to surrender to my body? Could he have been so wrong about me, his sweet sister who loved him with a pureness we call unconditional?
I pretended to try the t-shirt on. I found a sort of bravery then – it was finally easier to say something than to let him see my body, my small breasts poking through the wide crochet of thread and air, a dark triangle of hair.
But I didn’t say ‘no’ exactly. I spoke like the child I was. ‘It’s too see-through,’ I said, though all I had done was wee again, feeling the cold grind of fear in my kidneys.
My face was bent to the floor; my cheeks were burning hot. He had wanted me to stand in the bathroom we had transformed as a family. The bath was pure white; the fittings were a new, gleaming gold. I thought of emperors and princesses bathing in luxuriant milks. Was this what he had decorated it for?
His artistic vision was a voyeuristic cliché; the doe-lithe innocence disturbed and affronted. And naked. Under his direction could I become nothing more than a soft porn advertisement in a Sunday supplement?
If I had known a shake of my head would stop him I would have found the courage to do it earlier. What would have happened if I had done as he asked? Would he have touched me? Would I have allowed myself to succumb?

Afterwards he took me outside and sat me in the low limbs of a chestnut tree. I wore my blue jeans and a shirt that belonged to my mother that I thought made me look grown-up. And then he took photographs of me smiling; a plastic summer day, the sting of devastation hanging, waiting to cry. Those photographs he gave to me.

V.
She was frightened. Nervous and gauche as a teenager as she tried to scan the room quickly – the dark wooden booths with the battered red cushions. Most of the booths had the pink hearts, cut from paper during the afternoon lull, and now stuck to the ashtrays, ‘Reserved’ written quickly in black marker pen.
Anna stood at the bar, her nervousness compounded by the mess of customers that clustered, held back, pushed forward, trying to queue politely, or push to the front and catch the eye of the new waitress who’s trying to pretend she can’t see.
Anna put her foot up on the brass foot rail and felt it slide along between the heel and the instep. Took it off again and tried to stand still, quiet, confident. She looked at herself in the mirror and quickly scanned the room again. Above all she was frightened he could see her. That he was watching her from a dark corner. And then he was behind her, at her shoulder and she turned to greet him and he was a little too close. She couldn’t step back – the bar was pushing into her back as she leaned back from her waist. But he saw his mistake and stepped back quickly, and they smiled, strangely familiar, and he kissed her briefly on the cheek as though their meeting was quite everyday.
‘Hello, Luca.’ Scared. Good to see him.
‘Hello, Anna.’ She was all grown up. Way past grown up. They were almost old now.
He didn’t say she looked lovely, or beautiful, but she knew she did. If she caught herself in the mirror she would stop believing it, but as long as she was looking at him she could see it in his face. His hair was still thick and dark, but much shorter now. His dark eyes were bright though he was careful not to smile too much.
‘Where would you like to sit?’ he asked.
Anna looked at the deliciously roomy booths now, but they were all taken. She hated to sit out in full view with him. For him. But they would have to. She led him to a table for two that followed the curve of the rail beside the empty stage. Something to hold on to.
‘How’s your mother?’ That was expected. But so soon?
‘She’s okay. She’s well.’ All the things that came to mind were disloyal. Alone. Lonely. Bitter. But in spite of it all she was not even a little sick. If she wanted to shame him she’ll have to do better than that. He doesn’t have shame.
He still had the same dark stubble across his chin. The thick brush of chocolate brown hair. That same look of beauty and wild. Animal and freshly scented sweat.
She had been eleven. She had been lifted by his sweetness from that very first time.
‘I remember you so clearly, Anna.’
‘Yes.’ The wine glass was wet in her hand.
‘Do you remember your twelfth birthday? Your mum said it would be okay for me to come..’
Anna nodded. She smiled at the memories of loving him.
‘You were such a sweet thing. And so pretty.’
She blew air out as though to dismiss him.
‘And so quiet.’
No.
‘Appeasing. It would never have occurred to you to mind.’
‘Well, you bought me a good present,’ she sat back in her chair and held her glass in front of her mouth. Appeasing. Quiet. ‘You bought me a tiny pair of gold sleepers. You made a little treasure hunt and sent me through my garden to find them in the apple tree.’ I never told anyone. Never breathed a word. Who was there to tell? How I loved him. The things he did. ‘That was right before the dinner. We went to Decoupage.’
Luca grinned. His jaw, his mouth, was disgracefully sensual and she blushed, knowing he could see everything in her eyes, her warm red cheeks. He had always seen the way she studied him. He didn’t look away from her immediately but eventually he dropped his eyes to the menu. ‘What are you going to have?’
‘The fish.’ Her mother had been sick the night he did it. The first night. While he’d given her instructions, her mother had lain in bed above their heads. Her body would have smelled of iron and sweat as it always did when she had a migraine.
‘What about some more wine? I’m having a steak.’
‘Red is fine. I prefer red. Mum said you have a boy and a girl?’
‘Yes. Kate and I divorced.’
She nodded – she knew, of course. ‘Mum said. I’m sorry.’
He was so much older of course, but his face was unchanged in the fascinating way many of us age. His skin was lined, a little thickened perhaps. Tanned, and darkly freckled in a patch near his temple. But he had always been a grown-up. She wanted to reach out. To touch his face, there where the cluster of sun spots were.
They had tried to have a baby – Luca and her mother. But Lillian had been 43 and her body was too old. Everything about her had been too old to keep up with Luca and give him what he needed. When he finally left, finally ripped himself from her and married that vile Kate, Lillian aged a decade in months.
He was staring at her, she realised. She looked back as though she were looking into a camera lens. Oh no, not that. Not the empty sensual gaze of a naked woman. And then she knew he was thinking about it too and her body flashed hotly, her blood jumped to the surface of her skin. She felt the hairs of her neck, her hairline, her forearms. She felt herself warming, softening. Opening.
How could she feel this way? Still? She had come to confront him. To hate him.
‘It was a strange relationship. Between me and your mum. It couldn’t last.’
‘Of course.’ She knows he loved Lillian. Everyone knew. And when he stopped loving her everyone knew. But they didn’t know everything about Luca de Lalio.
‘It’s been more than ten years,’ he said then. ‘You never spoke to me. All those times I saw you and you crossed the street. Left the pub. The restaurant. Why did you do that?’
Anna bent her head and let the tears fall onto the table. The waitress slid her plate of fish beneath the fringe of her hair and a tear fell into the food.
‘You never said goodbye to me,’ she whispered.
I remember how you locked the door. You unbuttoned my blouse and took photographs. I was so frightened.
Luca leant across the table. It was just the two of them like it had sometimes, rare times, been, so many years before. He took her hand in his and she felt the sharp knife-pains of love in the secrets of her body. All at once her body shuddered, sobbed, gulped at air and laughed. A call of joy.
With the canopy of shame and anger hung something too painful for either one of them to see. Words slid like rivers between them as they waited for it to begin.
You hurt me.
I’m sorry.
I loved you.
I want you.
Fuck me.
And Luca bent his mouth toward hers.

VII.
In the drawer were photographs. A hundred faces looked out at her; fragments, lips swollen and pouting, eyes lidded with lust, breasts, nipples, intimate red skin. And then she saw herself and was thrown across the room, hitting the wall as though he himself had hurled her there. Across the room was the wide picture window where she had stood, with her skirt tucked in her underwear and her eyes wide and hollow. In her hand was that girl, sitting at the window – her skirt tucked into her underwear. The apples of her cheeks stood out, plump and pink with humiliation. Her eyes were depthless and her mouth was stuck in a frozen smile.
Some faces she recognised. There was Lisa Carver from school, leaning back, her breasts exposed. In spite of herself Anna felt aroused. And sick. There was a woman she remembered from his office, whose name she couldn’t recall. She had short dark hair in a cap of springy curls. She was holding her skirt up to reveal a mass of dark pubic hair and glaring into the camera. But how many of them had been so willing? Others seemed to stare through the lens. But some touched themselves.
Anna vomited into the white toilet, dropping the pictures at her feet. She could see them as she brought up a bowlful of bile from her stomach. Without looking, she knew this bathroom. For five weeks she had seen it almost every day. These last weeks he has touched her face, kissed her, made love with her in it – beneath the shower, under bubbles, slopping waves of water onto the tiles as he pushed deep inside her and they laughed. She vomited again – a huge wrenching sensation, like being left heartbroken, bereft.
She’d had her first grown-up boyfriend that summer. Not one of the boys from school but a barman from one of the hotels. He had opened his fly and let his long brown penis out, into her warm hand and she had touched it reluctantly. Luca had walked in then, to the lounge, where they’d been sitting, touching and kissing. She had always felt Luca had seen something. She had always felt he knew she was doing those things. Was that why he took those pictures? They haven’t talked about the photographs.
Afterward he had driven her home. She was leaving school soon – off to London to nanny for a couple from San Francisco: she was on the brink of her life.
She left Luca and her mother behind and occasionally Lillian called her, crying, because Luca was sleeping with somebody else. Anna sat in a phone box in Great Russell Street – resting her ass on the metal shelf designed for purses and keys, and her feet on the metal strut of the window pane. She smoked cigarettes while Lillian talked. She made kind noises and watched women walk past the British Museum, coveting their outfits.

She should take the photographs to the police but instead she found a box of matches from the kitchen and held a match to the picture of herself, half concealed by chestnut leaves. When the flames licked her hand she held the image beneath another – her the year before, in a bikini. He had told her how to pose for the camera. On the mantelpiece was a bottle of lighter fluid and his old silver Zippo. She squirted a stream of the fuel into the drawer and threw a handful of matches in. The oily pictures began to take light, to heat and blister, and she smiled as she watched the images of lips and labia burn.
The fire brigade would know the fire had started at the filing cabinet. Perhaps they could even tell it had begun in the bottom drawer. The police might ask him who had a key but would he dare to open his dark drawer? She didn’t care that they might come to question her. She didn’t care that she left his beautiful flat burning.
As she descended the sandstone stairs she looked over at the tree and saw herself once more – sitting within its branches. Behind the top-most leaves she can see the church spire. It’s the picture she kept on her wall, all those years in London. Her face half obscured, her secret half hidden.

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