The library was shut on Sundays and Thursdays and so Lucy was free to laze around the house, picking Mini Cheddars out of the cupboard whenever she started to feel bored. She marvelled at the way her life had become enveloped by Julie and the shelves and shelves of books that she haunted for she could no longer imagine an existence without them.
Lucy quite liked working, all things considered, but she still relished in the guiltless slobbery of her days off. She woke up late, raided the food supplies, watched TV, read, raided the food supplies again… and so the day would continue. She opted for the very epitome of ‘Teenage Lifestyle’ which the health teachers at school had condemned.
Lucy knew that you were not supposed to deem scaling and descending the stairs as sufficient daily exercise but she found that she cared very little. Exercise had never mattered much to her and so she flopped to the alternative. She led herself astray with was angst-fired music and angst-fired literature and only regretted it when she saw her body in the shower.
Checking Facebook she noted that she had been grudgingly included in a Group Chat for the collection of friends that she hung loosely on the edge of. A cluster of other kids had half-heartedly fostered her towards the end of the year after a conversation during Chemistry which had started as a volley of abuse towards their teacher and culminated in an in-depth analysis of Motionless In White.
After that they had encouraged her to tag along with them but no amount of such encouragement ever promoted her from hanging on the edge to being one of them. She’d never managed to feel anymore valued than an extra in a film that had already been fully cast. She had accepted their offers on a few occasions, for want of something better to do with her lunchtimes, but never broke the boundaries of their generosity. At the end of the day, she knew she’d never fit. At the end of the day, for all their talk and tastes, they went home to affluent, two-parent households.
Their lives at school with six colours in their hair were little more than acts to draw attention. For a reason Lucy could not fathom they seemed to want to, or at least want others to think that, they lived edgy lives. Sat upon knife blades, with abuse and neglect hung from their lip piercings. They all appeared to have deemed mahogany kitchens and embracing parents as tedious and so had done their best to recreate themselves as radicals. It was as though they believed that strain and betrayal and a sceptic outlook were all highly desirable.
She, admittedly selfishly, saw them as actors – children, even – while she was the real-life type of human they were trying to imitate. She was a ‘Study of Imperfection’ that they did their best to replicate for the hallways of their houses.
Checking her notifications, Lucy saw that they had invited her to a meet up the next week and she sent back a hasty reply – Sorry, got work :/ – thinking privately that they would be glad not to have her. She never heard them say anything but she often felt that they simply ‘put up’ with her. She moped behind them like a paper bag and they ‘put up’ with it. If she made her excuses they wouldn’t have to excuse her themselves.
She resolved not to tell Mum of the invite, although she had briefly mentioned these acquaintances to her once before, because Mum would pressure her into taking them up on it. Any attempt to socialise pleased Mum. Which was pretty sad really.
Lucy had not told her about the blonde French girl who’d visited the library. For one thing, it seemed unlikely that the encounter could be classed as friendship or even polite socialising. For another, had the girl been genuine proof of social ability, the idea of boasting as such did not appeal. She felt that, by using friendship to prove a point, the friendship would be immediately annulled. Friendship was not, Lucy decided with uncharacteristic sentimentality, about claiming people like they were artefacts that justified history.
With Facebook empty of any further notifications – what were you expecting, loser? – she refreshed a few times before logging out. Then, void of motivation or purpose, she drummed her fingers on the laptop case until the nails began to feel bruised. She decided to paint them, not because she liked painted nails or ever did them properly but simply because she had the time and couldn’t think of any other way to spend it.
She had gone through a phase of navy, black and dark red nail polish, combined with copious amounts of black eyeliner, a couple of years previously. It was a habit she had long since given up on. Now, as she sat on her floor and unscrewed the tops to all the little bottles of congealing chemicals, the distinctive smell brought her back to the old days. She remembered it clearly; the act of applying layers to herself every morning in the hope that it would make her more thick-skinned. Maybe it had succeeded and the fact that she had a viciously hard shell was proof of that success. At other times she wondered whether she’d buried any depth she’d had to her personality and had peeled it all away on a smeary make-up wipe.
The polish had become clumpy over the years and the coating of ‘Sunburnt Maroon’ Lucy applied ended up being riddled with clots. It was so uneven that it had not properly dried fifteen minutes later when she reached for a novel. She ran her knuckles carelessly over the book shelf and the obscene colour blobbed down the spines like the stories there were stabbed, gutted and bleeding dry.
Oh my effing God. Why am I so damn stupid?
She grabbed some tissues from the bathroom opposite and tried to wipe away the stains but, like blood, the polish streaked and lingered. She decided that there was little point in repainting so instead wiped away as much as she could from both hands, leaving only crusted and stretched slicks of colour around the cuticles. Chucking the tissue on to her dustbin-of-a-floor, she opened the book and let herself crawl into its cradle.
She was mid-sentence when she saw the neighbours’ kids out in the garden, picking their way through it with a basket full of laundry. She was wrapped up in The Catcher in The Rye and would not have noticed them if it was not for their hysterical laughter. It was loud, unthinking and painful in its happiness. They seemed odiously content as streams of their bubbled-over giggles flitted in through the opened window and interrupted her reading.
She set the book aside, too distracted to continue her usual business of seeping between its pages. She could not settle enough into the corners of its chapters or feel the inked blood of its characters pump around her body. She was drawn to watching them although she had never cared very much about them. They possessed some sort of weightlessness, Lucy observed with envy, feeling she’d spent the last few years accumulating both physical and internal baggage. They had it so damn easy, she thought, but peered down with interest all the same as they larked around among the wet sheets and underpants.
Lucy had always felt that it was somewhat brave to hang your clothes up for everyone to see, especially in a shared garden. Any inquisitive passer-by could see the garments and would know your bra size and the waist band of your trousers. Clothes were so personal. Even the thought of draping a pillow case into the public eye alarmed her. Why should she share something like that, something so close to being private?
The two children wove in and out of each other, their feet collecting grime and grass stains.
Perhaps feeling the hook of her eyes, the boy stopped and turned. His eyes roamed the space behind him before finding Lucy’s. She had always marvelled at the way humans seemed capable of sensing when the watchful gaze of others fell upon them and this boy was no exception. She met his smile stonily; the way she met everything.
Swept on by his carefree exhilaration, he continued to laugh and waved at her.
For a moment she wanted to wave back; she could feel her lips instinctively tugging to mirror his. A smile to a near-stranger was a self-betrayal she was almost desperate to commit. She almost wanted to be a good neighbour, to be liked and likeable, to be part of their big joke in the garden.
Instead she stuck her middle finger up at him and watched with a confusing mixture of pleasure and guilt as his face stretched comically in surprise. He must have gasped audibly because his sister skidded in response – bizarrely panicked – and reached out instinctively to hold him closer.
The smiles popped like helium balloons and, in a surge of cowardice, Lucy removed herself from the window. She no longer had the brutality that had once permitted her break people without remorse and was too regretful to continue watching the garden that was technically supposed to be hers.
She supposed that the garden really belonged to whoever had the guts to claim it. Once, the three houses had divided the terrace into tribes and factions and each set up their own row of sunflowers. Now, the brave pioneer that broke into the triangle between them and thus declared ownership of it would be the one to win the battle of unspoken friction that it created.
The house next-door-but-one still had some battered garden furniture outside their door. They were untouched relics but there was no reverence attached to them, only avoidance. The couple who had used to live there had sometimes sat out late on spring evenings, wanting to taste the stars. When they left, they didn’t take the trestle table and chairs with them. The emptied seats had become memorials to people who’d found a way to move on.
Lucy had scarcely caught one glance of their replacements.
She realised suddenly then, as she remembered a stooping man with a mouthful of cigarettes and a drooping blonde girl with a handful of baggage, who the girl from the library was. She might have been looking into the self-same garden at that very moment.
It made sense; the ideas fitted together like the way books fitted into hands. The girl was blonde, small, devastated and had said she’d moved in recently from some part of France… and weren’t French people always smoking cigarettes? She remembered that vaguely from somewhere.
She smiled for the first time all morning.
“Excuse me; you’re Marianne Witten’s daughter, aren’t you? From next door?”
“Yeah,” Lucy said slowly, confused and displaced by the tight briskness of the man’s tone. It was disarming to hear her mother’s maiden name used after so many unsympathetic years naming her after her husband. “Why?”
“Now, I realise that you maybe grew up in the sort of place,” his voice sneered involuntarily a little as he said the word, it wasn’t meant to be an attack on her upbringing but somehow felt like it was, “where bad language and foul, anti-social behaviour was common…”
His angry stutter was like posh artillery fire, Lucy thought, somewhat narked. She could half see where this was heading but decided not to let on to him until she was certain.
She shook her head a little having learned early on that this bemused gesture was the key to feigned innocence.
“My son says that you swore at him this morning. I-”
Self-control was a virtue Lucy had never mastered; like a faulty bulb which would flicker with temperamental sullenness before snapping without warning. It was something she disliked about herself and yet something that she clung to in equal measure.
“People swear all the time, Mr Waters, Haven’t you noticed? Just take a look around yourself for once. See that not everyone’s quite as prudish as you are.”
He looked taken back; indeed he would not have looked so angrily surprised if she had shoved a broom in his face and tried to wipe off his expression with it.
“I do realise this,” he hissed. “I do not pretend to be immune to the language of our times or blind to the illiteracy of others-”
She supposed, later, that it was his comment about illiteracy that riled her the most. How did he effing dare? She worked in a library for Christ’s sake. Reading was the one thing she was good at and could feel proud of being good at.
She’d been told at the age of nine that she had the ‘Reading Age’ of a fourteen year old and her Dad had piled her with lollipops when he’d heard. She’d later been told by the one teacher at Parson’s High who’d seemed to care about her that she was throwing herself away that she was ‘a wordsmith not a drop-out and would she please remember that next time someone asked smarmily after her father’.
No, swearing was based upon the messiness of her transition to teenage life and the side-effect of swimming daily in a world where swear words were included in routine conversation and where curses infiltrated speech on a ratio of almost 1:1.
“I’m quite literate thank you,” she said tersely.
“What I am saying is that I realise I cannot shield my son from such words but he is twelve years old and struggles with severe mental health issues. He was upset because – according to him – all he did was smile at you; your obscenity was completely undeserved and a direct attack on him.”
“When I was twelve years old,” she said bitterly and shaking with agitation that had never been properly scraped out of her, “me and my mum were alternating use of one bed, my Dad was in prison and I spent a fair portion of my time having people yelling ‘obscenities’ at me.”
“This is what I mean – it’s a circle – I don’t want him to grow up in a world of hatred.”
“Oh, what?” She asked with a sardonic and privately enraged bite in her voice, “You mean you don’t want him to grow up like me? Oh, that’s just charming.”
“I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to say that.”
“Yes you did. Don’t worry; I’m completely in agreement with you. I won’t say another word to your precious retarded son.”
He seemed to snap then; his whole face broke in two and he let out his pain like the roar of a wounded animal:
“You will not call my son retarded. Ever. Do you hear me? Not to me, not to him, not to anyone. Ever.” If the scene had been in a film, or if the place and time had not been a quaint village at 14:30, or if he’d been anything other than sensitive and middle class he would have slammed her up against the wall of the ‘Strict Baptist Church’ as he said it. His eyes would have swollen, furious and popping in his head as he pushed an arm against her neck and shook her there. That was the extent of his anger. That was the extent of the damage of one flipped finger, one little word.
“You know," he fumed, "I can see exactly why young people have such a bad public image. I’ve never been able to see it with my own but now, now I get it.”
He walked away as he spoke, talking only out of his all-consuming rage. Lucy had, after all, seen him coming out of the village church on a Sunday morning and heard others speak of him and his family with the utmost respect. Men like that did not, generally speaking, go to pieces in the way she’d just witnessed. Not to her knowledge at least. For a moment she wondered why she’d even said it. Returning brutality, she supposed.
She was even less sure why she shouted at his retreating back other than her pig-headed determination to have the final say. She had no right to speak. Shouting after Mum was one thing but the same to a stranger was another thing entirely.
“YEAH, MOST PEOPLE SEEM TO STRUGGLE THAT ONE – IT’S SO MUCH EASIER TO FIND THE FAULTS IN OTHER PEOPLE’S KIDS, ISN’T IT? WHEN IT COMES TO YOUR OWN YOU OVERLOOK THINGS THAT YOU DON’T WANT TO SEE. WHEN YOU LOOK AT OTHERS, THEIR INSUFFICEINCIES JUMP OUT AT YOU. YOU KNOW WHAT, YOU SHOULD MAYBE THINK ABOUT THAT BEFORE YOU PICK FIGHTS WITH RANDOM TEENAGERS? LEAVE IT TO THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE THE RIGHT TO NEXT TIME. THE PROBLEM IS, MR WATERS, THAT YOU’RE TOO SELFISHLY DESPERATE TO BE A GOOD PARENT THAT YOU’VE BECOME AS BAD ONE BY VIRTUE OF BECOMING AN ARROGANT, SELF APPOINTED HEADTEACHER, OR A GOD, OR SOMETHING.”
She stopped only when she ran out of breath and stood in the street panting. She knew that he could hear her but he didn’t turn around to shout back. She supposed she ought to have given him some sort of grudging respect for that.