Short Fiction by Cassandra Passarelli
A cart relies on the wheel’s cavity,
A clay vessel depends on its hollowness.
A house is useful for its empty space;
it needs a doorway to enter… and windows. (Lao Tzu)
McDonald’s fluorescents lit the only two people that mattered. Perched on yellow plastic seats, a stretch of white Formica between us, there was nothing outside the circle of light, like the end of the cartoon: ‘That’s all Folks!’ It wasn’t.
When I think of us, mostly I think of that meal in McDonald’s which marked the end of the beginning. Skipping up High Street Kensington’s escalator, I was euphoric. Enchanted by the station, big and unfamiliar. Charmed by the September sun streaming onto the pavement inside the station gates and the shops’ bustle. Rapturous because I’d escaped childhood: given my literary turf of yellowing Penguins spanning Plato to Faulkner the slip; bolted the red-brick confines of City Girls for unchartered seas; set by my budding vinyl collection of Blondie, The Specials and Stranglers to receive whatever else the world had to offer.
School broke up at ten past three. Usually Maz and I spent the better part of an hour dragging our feet to the Barbican. It took that long to sift through the day’s events. But today I was antsy and I left early. Heading west on the Circle Line, I glanced skittishly at my reflection in the pitchy windows. A broad face looked balefully back. As I bypassed Notting Hill Gate my heart quickened, but Ballet Rambert wouldn’t miss me. After-school hours were choke-full, zigzagging London, from Farringdon to Hammersmith or Notting Hill to Victoria for ballet in an old church under Hammersmith flyover at Ruth French, modern in Rambert’s converted Victorian house or jazz and tap in the dilapidated grandeur of Arts Ed. Till now I’d been a tractable, obedient thirteen-year-old but something had shifted.
The rendezvous comes back to me in the steeped colours of dreams. I dawdled a while on the station concourse in lace-up Kickers, knee-socks, maroon skirt, striped tie and red blazer, chest pocket embroidered with a dragon and lion: ‘Dieu es mi droit’. Feathered New Romantic hair fell to my shoulders where my graffitied army bag, heavy with upper fourth text books weighed. I strode along, shoulders back and chin up like the dancer I’d half wanted to be, surveying my new world.
At Barker’s, I ducked down a side-street where I noticed a tiny booth racked with earrings. Moments later with five week’s pocket-money gone, silver studs shuddered through my earlobes as surgical spirits singed my nostrils.
When he showed up, I swallowed hard. Renaissance features framed by amber curls that brushed his leather collar. Hazel eyes blazed beneath ginger lashes. A sturdy body packed into jeans and flannel shirt, stubby hands blackened with work. Mingled with the smell of sweat was fresh bread and confection. Twice my age, there was nothing between him and the world. My cosseted adolescence hungered for authenticity; his cut me to the quick.
‘Alright, my peach?’ he asked, grinning. ‘Earrings? Very flash, make you look older. But not old enough.’ His hand grazed my back. Blink, and I’d have missed it, but I wasn’t blinking. I’d read the Lao Tzu he’d lent me; I knew the significance of a gesture. We walked out into hard autumn sun and over the zebra crossing. Shoppers blurred, outside my focus.
‘Hungry? Want some grub? C’mon.’
He ordered a Big Mac, a coffee, fries and root beer and we took a booth. He tucked his holdall, stuffed with check trousers, chef’s jacket and set of knives, under the table. His leather jacket stayed on. I sat, silent, picking at fries and draining my root beer. When he was finished eating he rubbed his hands on his serviette and sat back to study me. I fidgeted with the long white stirrer.
‘Wrote to Bill the other day. Told him about you. Said you was a peach.’ His timbre was low and earnest. He nursed each phrase, chivvying them till they took on a life of their own. They bore me up on their South London inflection. I wanted nothing more than to sit beneath McDonald’s strip lights, for eternity, hanging on every word.
‘Visitors’ day again in a fortnight. Gonna have a word with the guvnor, see if I can nip over to the Isle of Wight. In nick a year and not a single visit. Me old man doesn’t do em, the old lady can’t handle it, Joe’s a lazy bastard and Pat… well, she ain’t right in the head.’
I hadn’t met his family but their presence was strong. His mother, hard-as-nails mill-worker, was an early-morning cleaner at the Southbank. She and his taciturn father, who’d run a garage under the arches at Lambeth, were divorced. His brother, Bill, a Piccadilly rent-boy and heroin-addict, had been in and out of prison since he was old enough to lock up. His psychotic sister, Pat, was a single mother who’d given birth in HM Holloway, one wrist handcuffed to the bed. The shadowy, monosyllabic, wall-eyed brother, Joe, sold old cars to scrap metal merchants. Their saturated lives were mettlesome and irreverent. Bill, or the lack of Bill, played centre-stage.
‘Gotta keep his spirits up. Always tried to keep the buggers on the straight and narrow. All three like bleeding yo-yos. But they never listen, deaf as ruddy posts, heads like stone. Bill’s the sharpest guy I ever knew. After they sent him away, to one of them institutions, he comes back talking poetry and horse-riding while the rest of the family’s trying to do each other in. Bloody social workers. When he gets out we’ll set up our own bakery; I’m done grafting to fill guvnors’ pockets. We’re gonna use our heads for thinking, save our feet for dancing.’
When we stepped out, the sky had darkened and the wind gusted. Kensington Church Street led to a Victorian cemetery, small and walled, paving stones carpeted with moss. Fallen leaves shivered and settled at the seams of headstones and graves. A wino with a faraway look mumbled on a bench. A fat lady fed sliced white bread to pigeons. They took no notice of us. Not even when tears slid down my cheeks and he took my chapped hand in his red fist.
The night before, my parents asked him to leave the basement room he rented from them. We were spending too much time together, at the kitchen table with my homework spread out in front of me, stringing out conversations till midnight. Beneath my studied indifference they sniffed trouble.
‘But I’ll wait for you. Okay? In a couple of years, you can come and find me. Save me your cherry. What do you think?’
I nodded though I only half understood. The circle of light vanished to a pinprick.
The week before, after my mother had called us for dinner he’d caught me up, on the stairs. Coming up from behind, he swept his hands over my budding breasts. Desire, though I had no name for it, swamped me. I had a theoretical grasp of it, mulled over lunchboxes with girls who had no more than opinions. Lol shook a head of black curls between bites of a cheese and pickle sandwich, claiming women could orgasm without intercourse. We had our own bodies and spurious facts, but hadn’t joined up the dots. I had no idea what my ‘cherry’, that I was supposed to be saving, was. Converting family attics or basements into party venues on Saturday night, we invited boys our own age and experimented on them. They responded indifferently. Mondays were spent dissecting their lack of skill before we moved on to other things.
This was entirely different.
A few nights after our brush on the stairs he stood behind me, at the head of the cherry-wood dining table, as I stared at unfinished homework. Somewhere downstairs my parents were arguing about drinking or money. Beyond Victorian sash frames, an occasional Routemaster growled past to Pimlico’s garage for the night. He brought his hands down to my shoulders and let them rest there. I twisted around. He lowered his face to mine. Our lips grazed and we kissed, long and honeyed. I ending up on his lap, arms about his neck, his hands resting in the small of my back. Perhaps I was there hours, or no time at all. My first moon cycle started that evening.
But here, in the cemetery, he was drawing the curtain on us. I was still a child in the eyes of the law. He’d wait, he promised, save money, then we’d get together. It was just words to me: love existed only in the present tense.
That night, to soften the blow, he moved to the bed and breakfast next door. I crept out of bed after midnight, pulled on DMs, jeans and sweatshirt and snuck down carpeted stairs past my parents’ bedroom. Leaving the front door ajar, I hesitated outside the hotel but didn’t dare ring the doorbell. I wandered through Pimlico’s moonlit squares, agitated by a muddled sense of destiny. After an hour or so, my father came looking for me.
A day later he was gone.
Two years passed. From time to time, I heard the odd thing. He was living above a patisserie in the Fulham Road, working the bread shift. His brother, Bill, was found dead in a police cell, his shoes missing. There was an unconsummated Spanish love-interest. His uninvited ghost haunted me; absence more potent than presence. I discovered gnawing emptiness. Stuck in limbo, I couldn’t rewind nor fast-forward. I neglected friends and acquired a boyfriend called Jim who adored me. I slept-walked through O-levels and turned sixteen. That summer, Jim and I fought and made love on trains across Europe, sleeping rough when we ran out of money. I left school and enrolled in college.
On another harsh, bright autumn afternoon I took the eleven to World’s End. All I knew was that he lived in a bedsit above a bakery somewhere on the Fulham Road. And that I’d find it. Heading west, I scrutinised shop fronts, from antique dealers to laundrettes and Thai restaurants. When I saw the sign ‘Bonne Bouche’ I stopped and loitered at the window piled with Danish pastries, frangipan and Florentines. Behind the counter Laos women laughed, serving the stream of customers that came and went. I took a deep mustering breath and called his name at dark upper windows, hoarsely at first, then louder. After some time, his puffy, just-woken face appeared at a first-floor pane.
In less than a month I was burning my Snoopy diaries, packing skirts and t-shirts into a black rubbish bag and lacing up my DMs. Pushing past a tearful mother, I went to meet whatever lay beyond her front door.
The possibilities that shimmer, mirage-like, before us, shrink to the concrete. We lived in one room with a faded carpet, wooden roller desk and single mattress. We shared a bathroom with three Swiss pastry-cooks and washed our laundry in a coin-op across the street. We ate Thai take-aways from the Busabong opposite. Or met his friends in the Puss in Boots. Around nine each night we took the bus along the Fulham Palace Road to an immense, vacant warehouse that backed onto the Thames and filled it with heat and the aroma of bread. One night, the boss showed up unexpectedly and found me, in checks and whites, working. The following Saturday there was a third envelope (beneath the baker’s and the old Polish jobber’s) with ‘The Girl’ written on it. Inside was a wodge of tenners that added up to a wage I could be proud of.
At dawn, we returned to our bedsit to fry eggs, tomatoes and mushrooms on an electric ring, tucked into one corner. Falling asleep to the tinkle of milk floats and grinding of rubbish trucks we’d wake late in the afternoon. Sometimes, I’d lie stone-still, a model for his sketch. Or, wearing black stockings, learn what men like in bed. Sitting in the faded green armchair I read his Penguins; Nietzsche, Flaubert and Marcus Aurelius and I listened to his tapes of Paganini or John Coltrane. On Sundays, we walked to the Troubadour in Earl’s Court where I drank coffee while he played chess. When the weather was dry, we wandered around the Boltons or across Battersea Bridge. Sometimes his brother Joe showed up in an old banger, ZZ Top rattling the dashboard, and we’d go for a spin that ended with Big Macs on our laps that we ate out of Styrofoam boxes.
For several years I was content. Authenticity was mine. We started up a bakery of our own, working all the hours God or the Devil sent. The combination of unremitting hard work and passion satisfied me. Along the way, his parents died; she of cancer one snowy winter’s day, he of heart trouble less than a year later. Pat disappeared without a trace, leaving her daughter in foster care. And he fell out with Joe. We made what seemed to us a lot of money and spent it on shop fittings and machinery.
But the snag with falling in love with a child is they grow up. While adults get stuck in ruts, like cart wheels going nowhere, the callow long for experience. Emptiness doesn’t stay that way.