By Graham Tugwell
“Take your hands away. Let me see.”
But I wouldn’t.
Kept my head bent, kept hands over my mouth. “Don’t,” I whispered, “Please. I don’t want you to see.”
(I wanted her to take my hands away one by one, to linger on the holding.)
(I wanted her to work to reveal it.)
(I wanted her to know she’d won it from me, that only she could win it.)
She didn’t ask again. Her hands came up and closed over mine. She took them away, left then right. I had no wish, no strength to stop her.
A heat stained my chest and neck, my body empty except for inadequate breath. All of me rang with my beating heart. My hands laid down upon my lap she gently touched my face.
“Let me see.”
On my lower lip her thumb, fingers under my chin and slowly, gently, she turned the lip down on itself, curling pink, showing wet run through with blue.
“Made for me,” I said, words thickened by the pinning of my lip. “It’s just.” Noise to shush me— she stared at the thing, stuck in the gum where a canine should be. Her lips she licked and in long moments said, “Can I touch it?”
My gum was drying to chafe, tickled by the trailing edge of her breath.
She didn’t wait for my answer.
The pad of her thumb softly down upon my point.
(Swallow the scent of the soap she used.)
“Oh. Sharp,” she said, and her grip tightened; fingers up into the hollow under my jaw, lifting my tongue on a bed of flesh. I leant forward to allow, watching her watch her thumb whiten as it pressed.
She was lost in concentration; I let myself enjoy her mouth and eyes, the lines of eyebrows, her delicate ears—
With a sudden high in-breath she released, hand pulled away to cradle. “Oh,” she said, stunned into a smile. She showed me what she’d done to herself— blood on her thumb-tip, tumbling from roundness into a tongue.
My fault— my hand up to cover the horror in my mouth. “Are you…?” I tried to ask but she put the wound in her mouth and sucked. She bit the lips to force out beads and swallowed until the bleeding stopped.
She looked at me through her fallen fringe, eyes over the frames of silver glasses. Her lower lip gathered between her teeth.
(A pose, I’m sure.)
Fingers walked her hand across bed sheets, claiming mine and resting upon.
“Can you… kiss?”
“Can you kiss with it?”
What to say to that?
Everything about that moment: my bedroom, both of us sitting on my narrow bed, schoolbooks open on the floor. Staring at us the broken television, its rounded square of deepest grey, surrounded by matchstick houses she’d admired. Closed curtains kept this moment ours, the sun no more than a butter gap, busy with dust.
The heat and her closeness, aware of every inadequate inch of myself— dried spit in the corners of my mouth, straggling mucus in my nostrils, sweat on my back and prickling my forehead, seated so close to the smell and animal filth of myself.
And my hands.
Should’ve been doing something with my hands.
Tried to say something.
I swallowed again.
She kissed me.
My hands dead things, crossed, up-bellied on my lap and she did all the work herself— the press of lips against mine, parting and opening, the slip of her tongue in my mouth, running root to tip my alabaster fang.
I had no idea what I was doing.
But I was there.
And that was enough.
Our house was the last on the lane, old and graceless, at an awkward angle to the road. The garden was more a quarry; nettles and lilac grew around weathered slabs of sandstone, between ice-cream coloured marble blocks. Sunk in grass, the corpses of cars that had given up the ghost. The back garden ran wild into fields, all the posts lain down to rot, you had to search on hands and knees to find where one ended and the other began.
I lived in that house with my Granddad.
Just the two of us.
A small man, still with strength in his limbs and grey only claiming his temples, he did his best to love me, and I tried to make it easy, but he was a bitter, frustrated man, cheated out of a better life by the constraints of his own upbringing.
“If I had the chance,” he’d tell me.
(A hand over his mouth, pinching unshaved cheeks to free the words.)
“What you have, the learning.”
“Could’ve made something.”
“Made something more.”
Clarity was his only when shouting; then the flow came, a dam bursting with rage. Softer words had to navigate the hardened, tortured parts of him. Not everything was strong enough to make it through.
Often the incoherence.
And the broken sentences.
And noises to convey the tone.
Nights there were and many, we spent in silence.
Thirty-five years he carved gravestones but a machine did that work now. They gave him the job of driving the delivery van.
“Menial,” he’d grumble and stare at hands rough and reddened and beginning to twist with rheumatism. “When will they get a.”
He opened his hands.
Tried to close them.
“Machine for that?”
A small man, with strength in his limbs, but words were never easy for him.
The slap lifted me off my feet, slammed my mouth against the table. Flashes of red and black, an endless ringing moment before pain came and made me its own.
Granddad pulled me up and set me roughly on my feet. Already my face was swelling, blood filling the pouch of my mouth, welling to flow. The heat and taste of it— the sight of blood and I’m in the grip of Granddad again.
Between my feet, white fleck on tile, my broken tooth.
I stared and almost lost my body to the sway.
Little part of me.
A hand on my chin wrenched my head up. “What’d you do that for?” he shouted, “Why’d you get in the way? Why?” The clean clarity of his anger and he shook me again, my head too light to hold an answer. That picture of him: grey eyes fury, red and bristling face and teeth, a grille, opening to snarl.
My eyes slid upwards white and that was me in darkness for a time.
No doctor, no dentist.
“Who needs them?” Granddad grunted when I woke up on the couch. “Money waste, hah? Nothing I can’t do.”
No questions asked. No-one to see what he’d done.
But Granddad couldn’t work the tooth back into the gum—“You struggled too much.” He would make a replacement himself.
He worked at the table, surrounded with tools and flakes of stone, cursing when the material wouldn’t comply. Stroke by rheumatoid stroke he shaped a sliver of alabaster until it was something like a tooth.
I lay on the couch, only half aware. Shine and spark of vision, the dull emptiness of my skull. My body’s reservoir of pain used up. It was something like a peace.
I was made ready: a clutch of ice to reduce the swelling, a cotton bud in whisky to sterilise, plastic cement pinched into the wound, tasting of oil or molten tyre. It was brought to me in folded newspaper; a crude, heavy, sharp inelegance. Faceted dagger. Neanderthal stone.
It scared me.
His dirty thumb and fingers prised my jaws apart and spread my lips, his other hand pressed alabaster in my wounded gum. “Don’t touch,” said Granddad, “Let me just.” Dull the base about the hole, blunt against the ragged edges.
The smell of him, the chemical taste and retch, bubbled spit up between his fingers. A press and push and the hole was filled with fang. He kept his fingers on it, kept pressure constant, his knee on the couch between my legs, the protest of material beneath him.
Half an hour and I was released.
His fingernail tapped, his finger prodded.
The alabaster fang had set.
Blessed ache to close my mouth.
“Good,” he said, “It’s,” hands wiped on the front of his shirt, “good as new.” The look in his eyes and it had to be.
The day ended in front of the bathroom mirror. Forward, profile, three-quarters— I looked at the bulge and misshaping of my face. I couldn’t quite close my mouth; my teeth sloped and wouldn’t meet. I thought of knocking it free in the night, telling him it had loosened, it had come away.
But the thought of pain.
And how Granddad would take another failure.
It was mine now.
It was me.
And maybe it was a dream… but that night, a kiss on my forehead and the voice of Granddad— “I’m sorry son.”
Maybe it was just imagined.
Maybe it was just a dream.
But enough to forgive him.
The alabaster fang.
My shame and my secret, defining me. Already shy and friendless, it made me worse.
Let no-one see it.
Let no-one know.
“Take your hands away,” she said, “Let me see.”
Send a light down into the darkness of a cavern. It shines and finds a fleeting beauty, there and gone again—crystal amongst the muck and stone, a beauty never known before. And when light goes and darkness claims, still there is the memory and the hope that beauty can be found again, to know it is there to be found.
That is enough.
She’d asked to come to my house after school. I wasn’t the best at maths but she claimed she was worse, “I need someone to show me how to do the… the…” She laughed, the black plait of her hair loose to swing, her hand on my upper arm. “I don’t even know what you call them.”
Forgetting to show only the good side of my face I looked straight at her. “Yes,” I stammered, “That’s. We can do that. Yes,” and stumbling, halting to clarify, I told her how to find our lane at the turn of the Old Stone Road.
I would get to see her wearing something other than her uniform.
(I cannot hope to convey the thrill of that.)
She was taller than me, an inch perhaps— you’d only see it when we were side by side. Long hair, plaited, so black it seemed to shine in blue. She wore glasses with thin silver frames. Her right ear was pierced, high on the curve a platinum stud, blue stoned. Her mouth was small, pinched between dimples; her lips were pink and very soft.
(I imagined, before I knew.)
She came to my house and I failed to teach her anything at all and she saw who I was and she kissed me.
When we were done I looked at her for a long time. I wanted another kiss but didn’t know how to ask for it.
Sunlight through the curtains: dust set dancing by heavy breath. Somehow I found a way to speak, “How… how long have you known?”
My fingertip tapped the alabaster.
The toe of her shoe tapped against my maths book.
“I saw it,” she whispered, “That day in class; you dropped your books and bent to pick them up. The light caught it. A flash of white.” She gave my hand a squeeze, ran a thumb over my knuckles. “I knew you had something you wanted to keep hidden.”
Douse me in ice. Freeze my heart.
Rescue my voice from six feet of snow.
“I tried,” I whispered, “Tried so hard to make sure no-one ever saw.”
“I know,” she said, soft and consoling, “I know.”
We sat on the bed.
“You didn’t come here for help.”
She shook her head. “I don’t care about that.”
“There’s a dance,” and a smile and a colour in her cheeks.
“A dance,” I parroted, clueless, completely unmoored.
“Yes. Ladies choice,” and she laid down those words like a winning hand.
(Lead me along. Tell me what this should mean to me.)
“Yes,” I said, nodded again.
“And I want to bring you,” and she is a shoulder knock against me and a little laugh.
Hot flustering panic and the weight of seconds, hot sand through my fingers, the need to act now: “Yes,” launched out of me.
Suddenly the second kiss and I hadn’t needed to ask at all.
Parting, I found myself touching my lips again and again. “You’re beautiful,” I mumbled, “Never seen anyone as…”
But she wasn’t listening.
“…as beautiful,” I finished the sentence to have it said.
She’d bent, all business, to pick up her schoolbooks, cramming them haphazard in the mouth of her bag. I watched— the arch of her back, the fall of her plait. I ran fingers over lips again.
“I have to go home,” she said, and turned in the doorway, hands on the jamb. Light through the gap in the curtains painted her lenses so her eyes were obscured. Her dimples were black, her smile was gold. “Don’t tell anyone. This is just for us.”
I nodded. “I’ll keep my mouth shut.”
“Friday,” she said.
“Friday,” I said.
She was gone.
I sat on my bed and in time it got dark.
Days to wait, oh, almost unbearable.
In our classes we found each other, eyes across the room. I’d smile; a giddy, gormless closed-lip thing. She’d hide hers behind a book, but the flash of her eye, the shake of her shoulders…
We shared a secret.
I broke. I had to speak to her.
The day before the dance I followed her friends, waiting for her to split away. I lapped the college once, keeping them in sight as they passed the art rooms, came down by the tennis courts.
They fractured at the corner into two groups of two.
I took my chance.
“Hey,” I said, my fingers on her sleeve, a cheeky tug. “Can I…”
And the sudden realisation I had nothing to say to her.
“Talk to you?” I finished with a sharp inflection.
She looked at me, her arms crossed over her navy uniform, her “Yes?” a drawl impatience.
“Just for a moment,” I said.
She sighed and sent her friend away.
We were alone and the words welled up and fell out: “You’re beautiful, never seen you looking so beautiful,” and I’m aware that words are being said, that they are built and laboured things, inadequate, clunking inelegance, and I wished they were purer and softer to say.
But I won a smile from her.
“That’s what you said the last time.”
“That was before,” I countered, “And you’re here right now and.”
“Never been so.”
I reached to cradle her cheek, thinking how soft and warm it must be, but she put her hand upon my arm and pushed it down. “Don’t,” she said, more gentle than anything, “Not here. Okay?” Her freckles set in a growing red, she gave my arm a little squeeze. “Friday. Be patient.”
I took a step towards her. Her eyes flashed left and right behind her glasses; she knew what I wanted but people were near and she left it at a small uncertain smile and went to find her friend again.
Leaving me, an empty heat.
I opened my mouth to call, brought hands up to help but I touched something wrong—sudden pain and taste of blood. Ducking into the toilets, my fingertips explored, opened me out to the mirror. I’d punctured my cheek or ripped my gum— I’d loosened the fang and let it cut.
Bloody-mouthed I abandoned left school for home.
I sat at the kitchen table.
Granddad worked on me.
“Be careful with it,” he said, “You can’t just. Just.” He shook his head, teeth gritted against the inexpression, rasping the file along the edge of my alabaster fang.
My mouth began to fill with filings.
Each stroke had its own syllable attached:
“You’d— think— you’d— learn— by— now—”
That last stroke stung and won a gasp from me. He put down the file and took up pliers and got the body of the fang in its jaws. Slowly, carefully, he pulled it back until it sat straight in the gum. “Boy your age,” he muttered.
A rag for his hands, spittle and blood. As he cleaned himself I worked up the courage. “Granddad—” deadened lips and choking— “There’s a dance,” a trial to swallow, “I need a suit, you think you’d have?” But overwhelmed with alabaster dust I had to leave the question there.
He looked with narrowed eyes.
A length of a moment, then:
“You’re the same as me.”
(He meant my size.)
I nodded, coughing.
He hoisted his trousers, twisting them straight around his stomach. “Are you taking?” He cleared his throat. “Or are you with someone?”
“A girl,” I said.
He grunted. “Hurh, good.”
“Come on.” He passed me a tea towel for my blood and I dabbed as I followed him up the stairs. Slow; feet dragged up step by step, stiff fingers half uncurled to hold the banister.
I stood in the door of his bedroom, watching him drag laden hangers from one side of the wardrobe to the other. Dull each impact on the wood as he pawed hung clothing.
Not often I got to look in his room— surfaces covered in sleeping dust, colourless wallpaper and pristine sheets, everything dull beige or cream. On a bedside locker a picture of my grandmother, beside it a single bed, a backless chair, a chest of drawers and an empty vase.
“Hmm. This’ll do.” Out a thick skin on a hanger, bringing with it its heavy smell. He laid it on the bed, an old-fashioned suit, dark chocolate brown. Beside it a light blue shirt and a navy tie.
“That do you?”
(I will polish my shoes and that will be that.)
I tried the jacket on and looked in the mirror.
He was a hover behind me.
The fit was close enough to be good.
Granddad’s hand found itself on my shoulder.
A dull noise.
I looked at our reflection.
Was he happy?
I took those noises to mean all those things.
Close enough to count.
She was waiting for me outside my house in red and shoulder-less, material gathered around the waist.
(Oh, her waist…)
A black flower pinned her hair in place and she wore new glasses with thick black frames, a triple of stars aglitter at the hinge.
Threading through weeds and broken metal I met her, standing a step away, too bashful to approach. “You look beautiful,” I said, “You’ve never—” but I caught myself before I plagiarised again.
Her gentle soft smile I returned. We walked down the lane together; it twisted and took my house away, the musk of nettles thick as we passed the gates set high in banks, as trees came together overhead.
Halfway along she took my hand.
It made me.
We walked into the village. Crossing the road at Gallows Hill, she took her hand away, began to walk a little bit faster, so in the end I had to dash.
“Slow down!” I laughed.
She turned—flash of light on her lenses.
A challenge to catch her.
Around us I began to see them. On either side of the road were couples, heading towards the hall at the far end of the village, a shoal or flock, moving with one purpose. We joined them and were swept along; I lost sight of her for a moment but found the red, the black of her plait, and held her hand and so came through the gates of St Barnabus Hall.
The press of suited boys and fancy girls took us indoors and into the beat and pulse. The sound system was unkind to the music, blurring it, melting words down to a buzz. Lights rolled across each other, spots in spinning blue and red showing how dark the dark can be.
I stood with her in the bodies and dark. Her stars were blue, her stars were red. “You get one dance,” she told me.
Where to put my hands?
“Around my waist.”
I reached out.
“The other one.” A sniff of impatience.
She did it for me, shoulder and waist, clamped with her sigh.
(If you could call it that.)
The rhythm was wrong. Knees and feet clashed. “I’m sorry,” I said for the third time and she let go before the song was over. “It was the music,” I said and a pleading there, “We’ll try again later?”
“Sure,” she said, but more than enough to make me doubt.
Two songs and we stood watching. I got her food and a drink.
I tried but it was too loud to talk.
And then the music went down, became a rumble that itched the teeth. A young man, all spider limbs, had gained the stage, microphone in one hand, cigarette in the other. Jeans and a leather jacket, and instantly the centre of attention.
I knew him. Malchi Gorman.
“Now, now now,” he cried into the microphone, tamping down hoots and cries with a languid paw. “We’ve had our dance. We’ve had our fun. But now it’s time. Ladies, if you would be so kind?” With that he spidered into the wings, the stage lit sudden with bright white lights.
Her hand in mine, “Come on,” and she took me back into bodies and towards the stage. Around us other couples moved, all lady-led. A boy on crutches, directed doggish by his tie, caught my eye and winked.
She led me up the stairs and coming behind I got to see the split up her skirt and when she moved her black garter high. Halfway up a blonde boy I didn’t recognise— heavy-set in a suit, a badly-packaged lump of ham— reached for her. Fingers closed her wrist and held her half-stepping. “I want to talk to you,” he shouted.
He glared at me and back at her.
“I want to talk to you.”
(How white he made her flesh.)
“Later,” she snapped, and pulled herself free.
The look on his face was thunder.
“Who was that?” I called.
She had the heart to sound ashamed.
She looked down at me.
“I’m not really here with you.”
“What?” I whispered.
She pulled me forward.
But we were on the bright of the stage and no time for words. Before us an endless, face-filled gap, held in rotten burgundy curtains, hammocks for dust. Behind, the slats and flats of forgotten plays and pantos, painted inspirations two decades old. I turned to stare; here a castle in greys and greens, there a Chinese market square, scarlet roofs and dragons serpentine; a well, a beanstalk, a golden egg—scenes dwindling where the audience wouldn’t see, held in place with washing line, left to spiders, left to time.
The stage creaked as I assembled with the other boys.
Some of the boys I knew from school:
Fat Oran Shanley with his two-toned face, purple and pink, smiling out into the darkness. ‘Handsome’ Reilly with the missing chin, gaunt in his pristine tuxedo. Peter Burrow, and the palsy already setting in.
And there were a dozen more.
I knew what this was.
Two steps behind us, the girls who brought us to this night. Beaming, proud of the things that they found. I looked at her inscrutable smile. The lights wouldn’t let me see her eyes.
I turned back to the scrutiny of the void. Judging our monstrosity. A shout broke open the crowd and there were jeers and catcalls amongst the applause. There were rotten fruits, bursting on the stage, leaving their juice and seed on the unlucky ones. I suffered a spray on my trouser-leg.
Then Malchi Gorman was out again, kicking a ruined fruit back at the crowd and holding aloft a hand for quiet. He went to the first girl and her find for the night. “Tell us about the thing you’ve found,” he said. The microphone he dabbed against her mouth.
Red-haired in baby blue her voice was gold:
“His name is Oran Shanley. I told him I needed someone to fix my bike.”
She smiled, showing her tongue in glee.
“We kissed and he cried. And crying, he went for second base.”
Hoots and hollers of the audience.
“Look at his face,” laughed Malchi Gorman, “Just look at his face!”
Purple and pink, it stared out at the audience, wretched, scooped open and emptied.
Laughter. Such laughter.
Gorman worked his way along the line, each girl saying how much she gave up to get the monster, saying what its special trick or deformity was. When each girl was done he tested applause, his angled arm from one to ten—
Oran Shanley got a trickle.
The boy with the hole through his shoulder more.
But the most for the boy with a twin’s finger melted to his neck.
And then it was my turn.
A handful of hands together; that was my applause and quickly over. Something flew past my ear to burst a star of juice against a flat. I followed it and looked at her. Coming forward, smiling ear to ear and proud.
Malchi Gorman: “Tell us about the thing you’ve found.”
Wordless, she reached and pulled my lips apart, turning my head, show-beast compliance, to show them all.
My alabaster fang.
Spotlights must have made the alabaster blaze.
Held there, opened out by her, I stared into the audience.
Real couples. Almost slow motion, holding each other upright with laughter coming through them. Mouths against necks, arms draped around shoulders, locked to graze against breasts, hips grinding in crotches. Rolling with the joy, the sway with it.
All mouths and eyes.
And I am the thing.
I am the thing.
The burn of my face with the red and shame, and the sting and trickle of my tears and I’m tasting the soap she used, feeling her fingers in my mouth.
Grazing the fang.
Getting spit on Granddad’s suit.
The applause is the greatest for me.
You could see what was wrong with the others, twisted legs, a hunch or missing ear. But me…she’d won a secret monstrosity from me.
Music returned, the place heaved again.
Broken boys left the stage.
Just me and her.
She looked at me.
I looked at her.
I was there.
That was enough.
Graham Tugwell is an Irish writer and performer and the recipient of the College Green Literary Prize 2010. His work has appeared in over fifty journals, including Anobium, The Quotable, Pyrta, THIS Literary Magazine, L’Allure Des Mots and Poddle. He has lived his whole life in the village where his stories take place. He loves it with a very special kind of hate. His website is grahamtugwell.com.