Pretty Young Things
Billy was in the kitchen hurling. His face was buried in the sink basin, back arching with each heave. The blonde was standing next to him; the chandelier of a vodka glass clutched at the end of her outstretched arm. Her other hand was massaging Billy’s back between his shoulder blades. Billy was taking swigs of beer each time he came up for air.
Katie was in the living room, surrounded by the stench of stale marijuana. Most of the friends were dancing in the middle of the room. Katie picked at a string of cotton that protruded from a couch pillow. She was concentrating hard on the music, the bass of the kick-drum coupled with the thudding of her pulse. But mostly she was concentrating on Billy and the blonde – who had trailed him all night like a lapdog. Katie assumed she would leave him alone when he ran for the sink. Just like always, Billy had drunk too much. Sometimes it felt like everything was a competition for Billy. Now Katie was feeling sad.
Not too much later Katie was joined by Frank. His fringe was drenched with sweat. He took a few deep gulps of beer and put his arm around Katie playfully. She shrugged it off and swilled some vodka around her teeth.
“Don’t be that way,” Frank said and nudged Katie with his shoulder. Frank was a well-known dealer but he was mostly sweet and good natured. He was having a good time. For a while they sat and watched the rest as they danced. The friends were barefoot and stacked on the living room floor – all angles with their hips, elbows and flailing hands.
The blonde came back into the room with Billy. He was pulling his hair behind his ears and wiping his mouth on his sleeve. His arms were both messed with tattoos and the skin on his cheeks was pulled tight. Katie felt her loathing for the blonde ripen.
“Who is she?” she asked. Frank shrugged his shoulders. His knee was bobbing in time with the music. The blonde was now draped around Billy, dancing with her face so close to his that their noses bumped clumsily with every other step. Katie visualised her fingernails raking down the blonde’s back. She visualised throwing her drink in the blonde’s face. In the end Katie got up and went through the kitchen and out of the patio doors into the garden.
Cloths of rain draped themselves over Katie’s head and over the lawn which was rendered in sepia. Katie closed the patio doors to shut out the music. It felt as though she had never heard such silence. It was always that way when she left parties. The music had rooted so deep inside of her that it was hard to pull it back out again. She walked out into the middle of the lawn and sprawled herself on the ground. She felt the dew soak into her dress. She looked up into the sky through the thickly curling mist and tried to trace out some stars.
“Where you going?” Katie hadn’t noticed Billy follow her out of the house. His fists were balled up in the pockets of his denim jeans. His pupils were sagging and he looked high. He came and sat down next to where Katie was laid.
“Go back inside.” Katie told him. He pretended not to hear her and reclined into his elbows. It was cold enough to see his breath.
“We never talk any more, you know that?” Billy said. Katie ignored him. She closed her eyes and all she could see was the blonde, painted onto her eyelids like some kind of flapper girl.
“Not like we used to anyway.” Billy said, his words were lazy and drawling, caught up in the snags of his accent and drunkenness. He had tasted like cherry cola when they first kissed.
“What are you trying to tell me?” Katie asked. Billy sighed heavily. He was still barefoot and clumps of mown grass were stuck to his feet. Katie would need a change of clothes when she went back in. She might even draw herself a bath.
“I don’t know.” Billy said. “Probably the same thing I’m always trying to tell you.” He said this matter-of-factly. He took a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and put one between his teeth. He pulled a book of matches from his other pocket and lit the cigarette before holding it out to Katie. She sat up and brushed the grass from her arms. She took a draw from the cigarette and handed it back.
“These parties always end up the same.” Billy said.
Katie was perched on the side of the bathtub. Hot water sploshed clumsily from the mouth of the tap. Arabesques of steam curled around her. The synthetic light of a streetlamp was strobed by a frosted glass window.
Katie had locked the door to stop any of the friends from bundling into the bathroom. A cluster of shampoo bottles stood on the rim of the tub. Katie took them each in turn, popping open their lids and inhaling their scents.
There was a thudding at the door.
“Occupied!” Katie called over the sound of the water. She liked American tubs – usually deeper than the ones she remembered from her childhood abroad. They seemed to fill so quickly.
“Katie?” A voice asked through the door – Frank. She slid the latch and let him in. He looked back at her out of his too-big t-shirt. His mousey hair was still slicked with perspiration. He had those deep and round eyes – the kind that seemed to sink too far back into his head.
“I thought you left.” He said. He moved into the bathroom, ungraceful, tottering on legs that had spurted in the last year. Katie shrugged and closed the door. She went back to sit on the edge of the tub. She thrust her hand down into the water, pulling the layers of heat around to moderate the temperature. Frank flopped the seat of the toilet down and sunk onto it.
“It’s like freaking Iwo Jima down there – bodies everywhere. I got that buzz you know – that watchacallit – that sensory overload.” Katie’s laugh purred from the back from her throat. Frank sounded so funny sometimes. It was a shame really – she suspected he could be something if he could only try. Some people just didn’t have it in them. She closed off the faucet.
“Could you help with this?” she asked, sweeping a sheet of hair from behind her head. Frank had lit up a cigarette. He held it in his mouth and scrabbled with the clasp of her dress. His sprawling fingers managed to undo it and he pulled the zipper down to her waist. Katie threw off her sandals and stepped into the tub. She drew the shower curtain closed before pulling the dress up and over her head. Frank watched the shadow play. She tossed the dress around the curtain.
“I’ll hang that up for you.” He said and hung the dress on the back of the bathroom door.
Katie laid down in the tub. The steam was pulling towards the ceiling – dancing shapes across it with the gentle chopping of the water. She liked the feeling – a partial weightlessness before the heft of her limbs when dragged out of the water.
“Is she still there?” Katie enquired about the blonde.
“I think so.” Frank said before slinking onto the floor. He laid back with his head on the porcelain of the toilet bowl. There was a rack of damp magazines next to it. He reached in and pulled one out. A free-ad pamphlet of used cars. He flicked absently through them – people’s lives and journeys wrapped up within the vehicles. He considered this the evidence of human life. He considered the sheer tonnage of DNA that lived within those vehicles. The hair fibres and molecules. He had never been one for that kind of science.
“You don’t need to think about her you know.” Frank said. “You don’t need to think about either of them.” Katie took a deep breath before sinking her head under the water. Frank’s words faded to a white noise muffle. She listened to the whistling of the blood in her ears. She felt one of them pop before emerging, shedding water into the tub.
“I feel it too you know,” Frank said. He was looking at her dress – baby blue, lashes of grass stains across the hem.
“Feel what?” she asked. Frank curled the corner of a magazine page around his finger. He flicked to the next page. Someone had circled some cars in pencil – maybe seven or eight of them – a ’97 Toyota Celica, a Saab 9000. He didn’t know how to say what he wanted to say. If he was sober he probably wouldn’t have said anything at all. He flipped another page.
“I don’t know how to explain.” He said. “Like I’m different to them.” The words sounded even clumsier from his mouth than he thought they would.
“Why don’t you just get out.” Katie said. She chopped her palm into the water and sent a modest wave over the side of the tub. Frank sighed and left the room, leaving Katie to wonder why people never seemed to stay.
Katie eventually got up and out of the bathtub. She wrapped herself in a towel and approached the steamed mirror. Her face was unveiled with a swipe of her palm. She stared back at her reflection, tilting her head up and swivelling it so that she could get a good view of everything. She kneaded her cheekbones with her palm, as if there was a way of arranging her features. She wanted to look pretty. She wanted to look like the blonde.
She opened the door. A throb of music was submerged somewhere within the house. Katie approached one of the bedroom doors and entered. Billy’s pink rear was situated either side of a foot. He turned and looked at her, carrying a leg in each arm as though he were doing bicep curls. The blonde’s face swam beyond him, her dress hauled up to the neck. A guttural retching of noises swarmed up from Katie’s throat. She reversed back out of the room and slammed the door. The hallway revolved around her. She swallowed hard and ran back into the bathroom. She closed and the door and pulled the lock. There was a sticky heat within the room. Stands of her own hair had clung to the now drained tub. She sank to the floor and wept.
Billy’s voice floated beyond the door.
“Hey Katie, you alright?” he asked. She thrust her elbow into the door and tried to clear the tears from her throat which was till swarming. It felt like her mouth was full of bees. The scene played across her eyes in a continuous cinema-reel loop.
“Come on Katie. Give me a break!” Billy’s voice protested. There was another voice then, softer and higher – the blonde.
“What’s her problem?” it asked; a flint-strike of anger in Katie’s chest. She turned and beat her first into the door – she swore. The door was flimsy and her pounding left dents in the plywood. The conversation continued outside the door, it was like listening to the radio.
“Come on, these parties are stupid anyway.” Billy’s voice said.
Katie went and stood on the porcelain rim of the toilet so that she could see out of the window. It took a few moments for Billy and the blonde to leave. Katie watched them walk down the garden path. The blonde’s hair was shot through with moonlight and she adjusted her dress so that it sat properly over her hips. Billy draped his arm around her neck and Katie heard them laugh simultaneously. She had that thought again, that they were such pretty young things. And this wasn’t at all how she felt.
be my baby
Alex hadn’t been at school for three days in a row. Not that it was a surprise for him to go AWOL. One of our teachers, Mr Matthews, had told me once that people like Alex aren’t cut out for school. He said something about Alex not having the grades to go to a decent university. I wasn’t worried about that. Alex is one of those people that always ends up fine, you can just tell. He’s probably had more life experience in sixteen years than Mr Matthews has had in a lifetime.
Alex hadn’t texted or called for three days either. I had crashed at his on Saturday night. It hadn’t been a particularly wild one, we just had a few tins and smoked some of the leaf that Alex had found up at the old rectory. Someone had told him that people were growing there. It had been boarded up for a few weeks so Alex had broken in. He said it was more or less empty, no lamps and definitely no bud. He’d found a carrier bag full of damp leaf in a rubbish bin and brought it back to his ‘play-shed’. We had sorted through it on Saturday. It was mostly mulch. We salvaged what we could and had laid it out beneath his ping pong table to dry. We knew it wouldn’t get you high, but it would save us buying tobacco for a week or so at least. Someone told Alex that it could give you a buzz so we figured it was worth keeping. I had woke up on Sunday morning with the worst gack-mouth you ever had. I was that thirsty I drank half of a tin left over from the night before. I was so hungover I couldn’t even smoke. I took one drag of a cigarette and hurled all over the rose bushes in the garden. I’m pretty sure nobody saw.
We kicked it for an hour listening to some of Alex’s dad’s old vinyl records. He has this killer old school collection with original recordings from the Buzzcocks, Stones and the Rezillos. We listened to this album by Frank Zappa that wasn’t anything like music at all. It made sense when we were drunk but I doubt I could listen to it sober. I went home about lunchtime to sleep off the rest of the day and hadn’t seen him since.
I text him after school on the Wednesday but he didn’t reply. I decided to go over and see what was up. Alex lives in this really cool house that his dad built thirty years ago from scratch. You could just tell that his dad was really cool by the pictures Alex has. He used to be a punk, with this radical Mohican. He’s shirtless in almost every picture you can find of him. Alex says that he was a drummer in a band and had travelled around Europe for years before meeting Alex’s mum. Alex said that he had lived in a squatter’s district in Berlin for six weeks without a meal. He had existed on hash, Benzedrine and bootleg vodka. Alex said that one time he had spray painted ‘America Rulez’ onto a Berlin Wall mural.
Alex said that his dad had worked in a vineyard in France one time, picking fruit in exchange for accommodation. The family had put him up with a gang of fruit pickers in this huge barn where they would sleep on the hay bales and get woke by sunlight at dawn. Alex said that he’d met up with this eastern European punk there who had found a stash of horse tranquilizer somewhere in the barn. Alex’s dad and his friend took so much that they had convulsions for a day straight and only just lived. Apparently the guy was so full of drugs he would hallucinate all the time. Alex said that his dad woke up one night and saw his friend spearing a foal with a pitch-fork. I don’t know what I would have done if I’d seen that.
Alex’s dad had left when he was just a kid. Alex had sorted through a bunch of census records to see if he could track his dad down but found nothing. I saw his search history once when I was using his computer.
When I got to the house that day his mum’s Ford was parked as usual in the driveway but there was no answer. None of the lights were on and the place was dead. I jumped the gate that led to his garden and scoped out the play-shed. I think his dad had built it as a garage kind of thing. Alex’s dad was really into motorcycles. He would surf scrap yards searching for parts of old Harleys and Triumphs so that he could rebuild them. The play-shed had been built with a pit so you could see under the vehicles. They’d filled it in with concrete before I knew Alex. It’s kind of shame because it would have been a killer place to hide a stash. Since then it had been used for more or less everything. It had been a games room with this six-in-one games table that you could use to play pool, table hockey, quoits and even shuffleboard. They’d used it as more of a conventional shed with a workbench and tools where Alex used to practice some amateur carpentry. He was pretty bad at it. I think the only thing he ended up making was this tiny trinket box with a velvet inlay. It took him about three weeks to make. That’s the problem with Alex I guess. He has a limited attention span. He usually gives up anything that takes more than a few weeks. He had been a really good football player but lost interest after the pitch had been waterlogged and games were cancelled for a month. He had been part of every club you could think of, air cadets and brass band included. He’s the kind of guy that would never last rehab. He’d get a welcome chip and fall straight out the next day.
The play-shed is quite big though. There’s room in it for a couple of used couches, a record player and a barrel that we use as a rolling table. There’s the ping-pong table as well. Alex and I must have spent days playing ping pong. He always wins. One time Alex’s mum had a lodger stay in the play-shed. Alex was really mad because that’s when his work-bench got dismantled and his mum threw all his tools away. The lodger was a real creep as well. He’d never let us hang out there. I think he may have been sleeping with Alex’s mum as well but Alex doesn’t know. I went into the house to grab some beers from the fridge and saw the lodger come out of the living room where Alex’s mum was. He was doing up his jeans and didn’t have any shirt on. Alex’s mum was making this weird sort of gulping noise in the living room, I could hear that old record by the Ronettes playing, Be My Baby. I stayed there until the sing finished and listened as she pulled the needle back to the beginning, starting the song all over again.
I went up to the play-shed and saw that the neon light was on. One of the coolest things about the play-shed is that it has these lime green neon tube-lights assembled around the room. It’s especially cool when we hot box the place because the smoke catches the light and creates this ethereal haze. It mellows me out. I let myself in and saw Alex sat on the couch, just staring at his pulp fiction poster. Alex said he stole the poster from the drama room at school. I don’t know how because the thing is huge and framed; it must be at least five feet by three. It’s the famous one with Mia Wallace laid on her bed smoking a cigarette.
“Way to go on texting me back,” I said and slumped myself down on the adjacent couch. Alex didn’t say anything, he just kind of stared at me in a way that let me know he was buzzed. He was still wearing the striped polo shirt he had worn on Sunday morning.
“Have you even moved since I last saw you?” I joked. He did this weird half-smile and leaned forward to grab the nub of a spliff from the ash tray on the barrel. He needed three attempts to blaze the thing with his clipper.
“Here I’ll roll us another.” I said and pulled the barrel towards me. I laid out a paper and dug around the sofa for a tobacco packet.
“We’re out” he said. His voice sounded really burnt out, like he’d been chain-smoking for a day.
“How about the leaf you scrammed, is it dry yet?” I asked. He shrugged back at me. I got down onto my hands and knees and crawled beneath the ping pong table. We’d spread the leaf out on a refuse sack and pushed it right back to the wall so that Alex’s mum wouldn’t see if she came in. She knew what we did in the play-shed but that didn’t mean she liked it.
The only time the lodger had let us into the play-shed when he stayed was when he found out that we had some killer bud. He brought out this gnarly old-school bong that had multi-coloured psychedelic swirls painted all over it. I wiped out totally. Alex said that I went on this weird psych-trip. I can’t remember but I’m pretty sure the lodger put something else in the bowl.
The leaf under the ping pong table was still moist, it would never burn. I went back to the barrel and began to roll a blunt. I only had enough green to assemble half a spliff but it would have to do. I rolled it and got it started.
“So what’s the story at Casa de Alex?” I asked. I loved the sofas in the play-shed. Alex said that his neighbours had put them out to be collected for refuse but Alex had helped reupholster them. They were pretty well used but that made them even more comfortable. They were like clouds, the longer you spent sitting there the more they absorbed you until you couldn’t tell where your body ended and the cushions began. Alex took a drag and held it in his chest. His eyes were glazed over and I could tell it had been a while since he had slept. He shook his head and spoke with the exhaled smoke drifting between us.
“I need to show you something.” He said. He took another drag and passed the spliff. I hung the tip in the flame of my clipper and inhaled it back into life.
“Sure,” I said and took a drag. Alex stood up and led us out of the door. Alex has this cool back yard with loads of big wooden obstacles set up. There are boxes and pillars, see-saws and ramps. Just about the only thing that Alex hasn’t lost interest in is biking. He used to compete but now just practices in his garden from time to time. He’s really good too. He can make it the full length of the garden, about two hundred metres without touching a blade of grass. He can just hop his bike from obstacle to obstacle. The thing weighs a ton as well, it’s no wonder Alex is so strong. One time he tried to jump the bike off the roof of the play-shed and onto a trampoline we’d assembled one summer. Bad idea. He got off the roof fine but the front wheel of his mountain bike got jammed in the edge of the trampoline and threw Alex off backwards. I can still hear the crunch of his body hitting the play-shed wall. He broke his wrist and collarbone. Alex didn’t even go straight to accident and emergency. He smoked a fat one and tried to carry on riding but his wrist had ballooned up to about three times the normal size. He couldn’t even carry the weight of his arm.
Alex led me down past his bike props and into the house. He took me in through the kitchen and upstairs to the bathroom, stopping before we entered.
“You can’t say anything okay.” He said. I nodded. He opened the door and stood aside. He made a point of not looking in, he just stared straight past me and back to the hallway. He was really freaking me out by that point. I nudged past him and took a look in at the bathroom.
It struck me cold. The way you feel if you’ve had a sudden accident. Like the time where I got my hand stuck under a drain cover. It had me pinned there for like ten minutes until some guys found me and pulled it off. It broke all of my fingers on my right hand. The doctor said I’d probably have bad arthritis in my hands when I was old. He said they’d probably go all crooked and useless. When I first got trapped and realised I couldn’t move it felt like my stomach had just disappeared and everything inside of my chest was being jumbled around like a tumble dryer. My mouth clammed and it was like I couldn’t stop myself from breathing really quick and heavy. That was exactly how I felt when I saw it.
His mother was splayed out in the bathtub, the water was mahogany with blood. In a way it was serene. The new morning light was pouring through the window and onto the water. Everything was still. Her skin was so white it matched the tiles behind her. In my head I started singing Be My Baby. Don’t ask me why. I’d never seen a dead person before. I felt like hurling. I looked back at Alex and he was stone-faced, still looking right past me and out the door. I grappled my mobile phone from out of my pocket. I didn’t even know who to call. The emergency services wouldn’t be any use. I could feel my heart beating so quick I thought I’d faint.
“What happened?” I asked. Alex shrugged. I thought for a second he might be welling up. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Alex cry, but that must have been the closest. He put an arm around me and paraded me out of the room. He was shaking his head.
“I found her Monday. I think she was like it for a while.” He said. His voice had barely any inflexion. Alex nodded and kept walking out of the house. I don’t know what it was but I just couldn’t move. It felt as though I wasn’t in control of my legs any more. In that moment I was alive from the waist up only. I never really understood what people had meant when they would talk about a room spinning. I physically had to grab a hold of the work surface to stop myself from falling over. It was like I’d drunk a heap of shots. The feeling passed after about five minutes, but by then Alex was gone. He wasn’t in the play-shed or any of the rooms in the house.
I don’t know what it was that made me want to go back. There was just something about it, about her, that made me want to stay there. I went back into the bathroom. It made my legs go again.
ASHLEIGH DAVIES is an English graduate whose work has been anthologised in The C Word (Cinnamon Press, 2011) and also appeared in Envoi, Iota and Poetry Wales among other publications.