Paul plays with the image of his sister's doll. It is difficult to remember what Bessie looked like before he sacrificed her to the darker gods of his temper. He remembers how the red hot poker seared the thick plastic making scars across her cheeks and forehead. Paul had taken his inspiration from a drawing in the Wizard; he prefers the Wizard to illustrated comics like The Dandy and The Beano; he has always considered them juvenile.
At six years old he'd insisted his mother read him the stories from the Hotspur and the Wizard; he sat on the rug in front of the fire, back ensconced between her legs, head laid back on her pinafored lap, and he listened, o, how the boy listened, the words flickering as brightly as the flames dancing in the glowing coals.
At seven he read the stories for himself. He read the Hotspur and the Wizard, and the Courier and the Evening Telegraph, the Sunday Post and the People's Friend. He read anything and everything that came into the house. He rummaged in dustbins, not for 'luckies', the odds and ends of people's lives, but for something, anything to read. His mother had come across him up-ended in a dustbin, rummaging. She'd tipped his legs so he fell headfirst into the bin, then jammed on the lid. He'd howled not through fear but in protest at the stinking dark that did not allow him to read the Woman's Weekly he'd retrieved.
He broke into his mother's private blackbox, hidden in the wardrobe, and read every letter his father had written his mother. Most of it he did not understand, the fractured English was littered with French words. Some of it embarrassed him: your legs entwined with mine ... why would his father wrestle with his mother? In the nursery he'd devoured the picture books, vaguely irked by the pictures of spotless boys and girls and their spotty dog Spot and their make-believe house with its immaculate garden, dancing daffodils, and their shiny mother and their beaming father and his stupid car.
Nobody he knew lived like that; they had to be English, and his granddad had told him all about the English. But the letters, the words had fascinated him. The colour and shape of each letter and word enthralled him. He ran his pinkie around each letter as he murmured its sound, and when he was sure no nurse was looking he'd run the pink tip of his pink tongue around each letter, and given each word its own little kiss. Even then Paul knew he was daft.
It was his turn to set and light the fire. He knew that. And he was going to set and light it. But he had to finish the Wizard first, not the whole comic, just Morgan the Mighty. It was the final episode of a six-week serialisation. Morgan, mighty jungle man that he was, had decided discretion was the better part of valour. Paul understood and accepted that. He knew brawn was all very well, but faced with a pack of heathen, yelling savages and a large, black cooking pot, temporary retreat made sense.
There was a half-page illustration, unusual in a comic noted for its tiny typeface and dense text. Each feral face was hideously scarred, ran the text, and a glance at the line-drawing indicated that was an understatement. Paul lay on the settee and shivered in delight, restraining himself from inhaling the text in chunky gulps.
"You'd better set the fire."
"You set it. Eh'm reading'."
"I'm not allowed to. I'm only seven."
"It's no cauld."
"Shut up. Eh'm readin'."
There was something about Kathleen's voice that infuriated Paul. At times she sounded like a miniature version of mum; at times she sounded like the little girl in those 'See Spot Run' picture books she adored. Not that he'd ever heard the spotless one speak, but he knew perfectly well what she would sound like if she did. A wee bampot. With ideas well above her station.
It was his mother's fault. She had 'plans' for Kathleen, dressed her like a crinoline shepherdess, corrected her natural speech, brushed her hair two hundred times every night, yet forced her brothers to take her to the show at the Rialto cinema on a Saturday night when she was all-dolled-up and out on the town. At least it was easy to sneak their sister in through the fire-doors after the film had started and park her elsewhere for the duration. Since Joe sat with his pals, Paul was often forced to sit with Kathleen watching her sook up her Kiaora Squash with never a gurgle. Unnatural, that was.
"I'll tell on you."
"I'll tell Joe on you."
"Say that again."
There was a pause. Then it came, in crystal clear English English.
"I'll tell Joseph you would not light the fire."
Something fired in Paul's brain. He was off the settee in a flash. Three steps across the room, and slap! The fingers of his right hand stung. Kathleen reeled back, stepping on Lucky. The cat squealed and vanished into the coalbunker. Something caught in Kathleen's throat. Was she strangling? Four red weals rose in the pale porcelain of her left cheek.
A key turned in the lock.
"It's only me. It's only yer granny."
Two huge grey duffel bags joined round the middle waddled into the living room. Atop them sat Granny Cameron's head, grey hairs straying beneath a grey balaclava, cheeks ablaze from the cold, eyes caught in a crossfire of bewildered merriment.
Kathleen howled and was gathered in by padded arms ending in grey fingerless gloves.
"C'mere, hen. Whit's wrang wi' yi'? C'mon. Tell yer gran."
Kathleen sobbed. "Paul did it. Paul slapped me. And he won't light the fire. It's his turn, but we won't light the fire."
Paul was gratified to see snot running down from his sister's nose. You wouldn't catch the wee girl in 'See Spot Run' doing that. Kathleen licked the snot into her mouth between sobs. She was human after all.
"O, yer a bad wee bugger, Paul Biscuit," said his grandmother. "Yer just like yer grandfaither, a bad bugger. Yeh'll end up in drink, just like him. A chanty wrestler. Yeh'll baith end up in bammydoon."
Condemnation from his grandmother was unexpected but tolerable, the insult to his grandfather unbearable. Paul stepped forward and slapped his granny across her glowing left cheek.
It would not be possible to determine whose eyes opened widest. Kathleen's sobbing subsided into silence. Granny Cameron stood in silence. Only Paul's defiant gasps broke the silence. "Remember to breathe," whispered Kathleen. "Remember Dr Heinreich showed you how to breathe."
Boy, girl and elderly woman would be calculating possible outcomes. Granny Cameron wouldn't tell Paul's mother; she'd arrived half an hour late, and the consequences of her sin of omission might outweigh that of Paul's commission. She would not need to forgive Paul; her nature, unable to entertain blame or guilt, was unencumbered by the need to forgive. Kathleen might not want to tell their mother, but when those two lay in bed at night, daughter curled into the spoon of mother's body, what secrets could be withheld from such intimacy?
Paul wanted to rush into his granny's arms. She would hold him, hug him, enfold him in her smells of kale soup and clootie dumplings. Both would be healed, and she would pronounce absolution in terms more absolute than the entire Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church could ever manage: "Nivir mind, eh'll just put the kettle on." But there were other mysteries in play.
His mother had always kept his grandmother at arm's length, civil, polite, amicable, but never warm, never unconditionally warm. He'd seen the coldness in his mother's eyes, and the hurt in his grandmother's, and though his mother never said a word against his grandmother, and though she encouraged her bairns to spend lots of time at their granny's, and allowed them to stay on Saturday nights with their rantin', rovin' reprobate of a granddad, she never gave herself to them, never visited their home, and rarely invited her father to theirs. Paul had imbibed his mother's milk, and as he grew older, as he established his otherness, he, too, kept his distance.
He fought for control of his breathing and won.
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