by Fran Lock
And at the knackered traffic lights, the lads, led about by their soft-boiled
bellies like pregnant seahorses; regimental maniacs in berets, khaki slacks
and symptomatic tattoos, checking their reflections in their steel toe-caps.
It’s Friday night, and I am walking the tusky ramparts of our beautiful coastal
town. Crossing the road by the fountain, I smile at a bony-shouldered band
of amphetamine featherweights, young boys bitching their brittle Polari in
local parks where broken railings fix their bayonets. I walk, and I’m watching
the women, old women, women in acrylic skin and slit up skirts and circus stilts,
preening their screams in a nightclub queue. Their eyes are dressed in injury,
they wince and strut; the curb becomes a catwalk of hot coals. I have seen
them, squeezing defeat into too-tight shorts. Hey, don’t laugh, the world turns
on its thirst, you know? The world turns, on a thousand fetish devastations. No
word is safe. I heard them say: You’ll be scraping your face off the back of his
hand. I’ll be scraping my face off for years. It’s Friday night, dear God, and there
is a girl, young girl, sucking a hardboiled silence, cut right down to her tight pink
passing-sacred; all thin white arms and long wet hair, who hangs around her
boyfriend’s neck like a broken stethoscope. No, no heart to hear. That girl is
me. I see myself, undoing my smile like the top button of a shantung blouse.
How I court their brawling foreplay. Lose count of the times I heard someone
say: It’ll all end in tears. A minor vice, a little statutory angst, summer’s giddy
commerce on the corner in the evening. Or, those seasick seaside mornings,
flaunting my disorder by the boat swings, skittish in a miniskirt. A blowjob or
a stick of rock; a loose tooth and a broken nose. Pain is our roseate intercourse.
There’s coercion God, and then there’s force. At the traffic lights, the lads.
Our eyes collide like marbles. I’m leatherette and penny sweets, and sexy.
They said I was sexy. I feel about as sexy as a two-seater second-hand sofa,
a busted spring in my empty belly. So scuffed, I am, so worn. There’s a girl who,
night after night, will polish her most affordable fear. That girl is me. And a lad
looms up once more, a video game glow round him, big as an end of level boss,
he’s swinging his arms through the slutty gloaming. He grabs me by my sleeves;
he drags me past the sagging wrecks of blackened bandstands, wind-distorted
portacabins. I’m on my knees beneath the beer-gut of an old pavilion. The reek
of fish and week old fat. He leaves my mouth a smashed mess of slang and teeth.
Woke up on the wrong side of the war: I’ll school you, you pikey caant.
Worse things happen at sea, they said, and what did you expect? And I’m thinking
of you now, ba-lamb, bestie, the ways in which you understood. There are days that
I contain you, my own controlled explosion. The ways we shared the dolorous
geographies of home; the way that home had made a fetish out of splendour,
benediction, reverie. There is no safe word. No word is safe. Bottomless duty, gilded
fate, a beauty we were born imploring. How we adored the Paschal musk and chorus
of Compline; the way the lady Saints inclined their heads, girding a devious grace in
groups like school-gate gossips, how they might blow a scented mercy you could
treasure like a kiss. We knew no better then. There was nothing better for us to know.
Oh, my most Catholic ghost, I still dream about your mouth, succulent and fated
and twice the size of itself against a motley, potholed sky. Your kiss was like pink fairy
lights inside of me. Loss is not the word, not deficit, butwound, this pain, both abject
and succinct, and no I will never drink myself free. Four and twenty blackbirds baked
inside this grief, this keening extremis. No prestige grief we plump like pillows on
a sickbed, but something with yellowy incisors, stripping the meat from a glistered
phrase. Tell me, what did you expect? The Lord moves in mysterious ways. You knew
how it felt and you knew what it meant, and you spent the rest of your empty days
acquainting God with the back of your head. I remember us haunting your bedroom
mirror with our failed symmetries, hollow-eyed, companionably jaded – feral, defiled,
and exiled from the neck down, pushing our ugly consumptive luck. Oh, my bright jinx,
my strictest-shining Catholic ghost, you remembered too well too. Left me what was left
of you. I’m stood in the photonegative light of some shitty hospital corridor, wringing
my hands and rapidly blinking. The tired eye tries to free itself from the shock it
stepped in. Dead.
I dreamt of it again, lie still until I’m sane. The dream retreats, but leaves its curdled
traces. The school is worst, where boredom makes the minutes swim, where the low
ceilings stunted our growth, where I was a child, lisping and conspicuous to history;
suggestible poppet with braided hair, the barer of a deformed faith that clutched at beads,
a face that didn’t fit. Where you were a child, prodigal of famine and infliction, bygone
pogrom, occupation and eviction. Half breed. Bad seed. Black sheep. Mad cow, bovine
on dopamine, slurring her girlhood, I could not run, could only sweat the dread of barefoot
threat in dusty halls with all the windows painted shut, a stale and violent light outside.
Inside the proper girls, with crop-circle smiles, who sharpened their collective whisper
like a shiv and smirked my gremlin pedigree: Gyp bitch! You botched abortion! The boys,
aggrandised and Neanderthal, scholars of the picked scab, the sucked knuckle, the untucked
shirt. Tumescent cretins, snickering under their breath. They followed me home. Blighted
desire had tightened their guts, they took disfigured joy in causing pain. Just like their fathers,
brothers, future sons: You slag! You slut! And I was cornered with exhaustion, writhing
like a salted slug. Cher sings Gypsies, tramps and thieves. Big fucking laughs from
the peanut gallery.
And for the longest, dear God, I couldn’t speak of this. My mouth was a glass
house, gathering stones, stoned and phobic on Seroxat and Sertraline. Days
spent redacting a dark eye with liquid liner, losing weight, becoming shallow
as a footprint in wet sand. For the longest time I’d close my eyes and smell
the sea, and brewers’ yeast, and boot polish. For the longest time I’d smell
the lino, chalk dust, desks: dirty grey, and barnacled with chewing gum. I’d
close my eyes and feel the stingy and complicit looks of teachers boring into
the back of my skull.
Mr B is bad breath and soiled ambition. His face swims like a boiled shirt, his skin
the white of unsigned plaster casts; he has the long front teeth of a talking horse.
In a rank mood he leers and reels toward me. Do you remember how we prayed
back then? To God on his gilded battlements: Sweep ‘em up or strike ‘em dead, dear
God. He never did. Social worker measures out her well worn spite in meticulous inches.
She’s a local girl. Her smile is frowsy industry, coastal erosion, and economic stalemate.
She doesn’t care that a boy has worn me like a secret on his lips; she cannot help me,
can’t tell me how to make a poem from a fistful of wet earth, how to dislocate my
shoulders and keep on swimming. Hey, the world turns on its thirst, you know? On
the scurvy lusts we must remake ourselves from daily. Two young girls, too young,
tricked out in torrential dresses, smiling their slow dissolve into camera. Savants
Because for every well-publicised celebrity victim of sexual assault there’s a working-class woman or girl who has suffered the same in silence. I’m writing about girls who were groomed for the male gaze from an early age to survive, because they were taught that’s what they are for, because sexually available is all they’re ever allowed to be. And because they are groomed for this gaze they are considered complicit in their own exploitation, they are chav slags and silly sluts, and what happens to them doesn’t matter. There are millions of us. We matter.