It’s 1976, a boy has a smoke and meets a girl
He sat in the churchyard, feeling the fag packet in his pocket. He didn’t want to go home where all his relatives would have arrived in black, trying to tell him stories about his dad, coughing into sandwiches. The night before the funeral, pretending they knew his dad better than he did.
The churchyard was soft and familiar. The path to it was crunchy gravel, and it made a pleasing sound under his feet. He’d left his bike leaning up against the yew tree. Yews could grow by dipping their branches into the rich soil. The red berries with their black hearts could taste sweet and kill you at the same time. It had happened to one kid, everybody knew it, it had happened. For sure.
He had cycled up to the church from home, slowly, after dark, around quarter to six in the evening to go and look at the hole in the ground where they were going to sink his dad like a marine biologist in a diving bell down to who knew what. He sort of knew that his father’s body was inside the church in that coffin ready for the morning. It was three days before the boy’s 14th birthday, not that it mattered much.
He’d cycled up, and once he realised that there was no hole to be seen, and the church was locked, he’d left his bike unchained by the tree that he’d hidden behind once, and he walked slowly down through the graveyard to the riverbank.
Some bigger kids were fishing in the gloom, making too much noise, smoking and drinking sweet cider. He walked past them and reached a wide footbridge where he sat down, dangling his legs over the side so the small stream beneath could chase over his trainers. He opened a ragged packet of ten fags he collected over the week. A single lamp that had started life as a gas contraption back when the bridge was built in 1902 shed enough light for him to count out what remained.
Five left before he had to pluck up the courage to steal a few from his mother’s bag. He selected one carefully and then reached into his anorak pocket for the box of matches.
“I didn’t know you smoked.”
Looking down on him was a girl from school, Theresa with the bra.
“I’m getting bored with the fishing, they’re after that pike that everybody’s always going on about. They’re always after him. When did you start smoking then?”
He was lost for words. She was, after all, a girl. Not only a girl, it was widely known that she was a girl who wore a bra and was therefore, according to the boys, a slag.
“I didn’t think you’d smoke:, she said. “You never seemed like a boy who would. You know, you’re…” she tailed off but was obviously looking at the four remaining cigs in his hand.
He handed her one, “I’m what?”
“Well, you’re posh, you talk posh and what with your dad being a spastic and everything, I reckoned that you’d be all healthy and not smoke.”
She took out a metal lighter – marking her out as a seasoned smoker, a girl with a past – from her somewhere in her skirts and lit their cigarettes.
“Why?” He was astonished that, without his every realising it, the rest of the village were calling him the son of a spastic. And posh. He didn’t know much about spastics, but he was fairly sure that despite everything, his dad hadn’t been one.
“Why? Why healthy? To stop you being one, of course”, she sat down next to him and looked into the water. “I reckon that if my old man was in a wheelchair and that, I’d try to stay fit.”
“Is that why you smoke then?” He could smell bait and fags and something like perfume on her. She smiled and moved her legs back and forth, in danger he thought of toppling into the water.
“No” Lazily, she pushed a twig into the stream with her left sandal. “Oh, I get it. Do I smoke because my dad isn’t in a wheelchair? I don’t know really. We all smoke, Kevin, Ian, me, gran, mum and dad we all do. They don’t know me and Kev smoke, I don’t think so anyway. Don’t supposed it would bother them one way or another though. Was your dad always a spastic?”
His father had suffered a major stroke five years before. It put him in a wheelchair unable to communicate, unable to do anything really. The boy used to wheel him up to the park where he’d talk to him about his life at school. His dad would listen, the boy was sure he was listening to everything.
His mum told him not to be bring friends home because she said it might upset dad and then he’d never recover and, well, you wouldn’t want to be responsible for that. Every so often when dad was sent back to hospital for a few days for some reason, mum would invite people over for drinks and records. Nice people. Good people. The boy would greet them, take their coats and then go off to bed.
The boy had a sneaking suspicion that mum night be a little embarrassed because every so often dad would make noises and wet himself. So, he never brought friends home. He never talked about dad either not even to make up stories. Had he talked about his dad he would have had to have mentioned washing the man who was no longer really there. Every night it was his job to was his father from top to bottom, from front to back, all over. He saw every part of him, every wrinkle, every single inch. It was all useless. Every night he would go to his room and examine himself for signs.
The night before, during the drinking, his aunts all said he was just like his dad. His uncles nodded and drank.
“Such a lovely, quiet man. You’re just like him in every way.”
He didn’t want to be like his dad. That terrified him. He loved his dad, of course he did. His dad listened. He’d been gentle and from what the boy remembered, he was funny, he laughed. But the boy didn’t want to end up like his dad, like a spastic, like a screaming, weeping smut in the corner in a chair with a built in loo.
So, he kept himself to himself.
He wanted to explain all this to the girl but he didn’t know how. He started mumbling a defence of dad, but it was no use. He was so useless, he thought. He tried again.
She didn’t let him finish, she stood up and rushed across the bridge into the field beyond where she stopped and looked back. She was happy to be away from her brothers and their mates as they decided to pelt the water and that evil-toothed pike with stones.
“Come on!” she shouted as the sun lay down behind the treeline. “Come on Spastic Lad! Let’s go for a walk. Let’s go!”
“That doesn’t matter! Come on. I know a tree, a really good one, it’s all gutted by lightning. There’s stuff in there, I’m sure of it! Come on! Before it gets too dark and we can’t see!”
He stood up, glad for an excuse to be away from his relatives, sandwiches, the smell of sherry and cigars, and death. He butted out his smoke in the bridge and followed her into the woods.