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Constant Change: Paths of Error

Constant Change: Paths of Error

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Constant Change: Paths of Error

Länge:
541 Seiten
8 Stunden
Herausgeber:
Freigegeben:
30. Juni 2015
ISBN:
9781310701146
Format:
Buch

Beschreibung

Paths of Error is 3 views through the same window of time, more a triptych than a trilogy.
The first was Undeclared War, which saw rebel-born Tom Newson, known as Newt, fighting his way out of Paignton, into the army, through Cyprus and out of the army.... Blue, in Constant Change, begins however as an idealist with no ideals. His way is to be found through women. He rejects all the values that a Devon seaside town has to offer. Rejected himself by his first girlfriend he drifts into the Merchant Navy, only to jump ship in Sri Lanka. Through an American girl there he discovers Buddhism, but decides that he cannot live a righteous life while being supported by her father's money. In sixties London he becomes briefly an ascetic programmer. Then through an Irish girl, he comes back to boozy earth with a bump. Rejecting her along with the booze he moves into a squat and there rescues a maiden in distress. The mother of his children leads him to a brief rural idyll...

Herausgeber:
Freigegeben:
30. Juni 2015
ISBN:
9781310701146
Format:
Buch

Über den Autor

Editor of The Journal (once 'of Contemporary Anglo-Scandinavian Poetry')and publisher of Original Plus books, I was born Blackpool 1946, have ended up living in a Welsh valley. Prior to picking up my state pension I almost made a living as a freelance writer/publisher/editor. My last day job was as an amusement arcade cashier, I have also been a psychiatric nurse, residential social worker, milkman, plumber, laboratory analyst, groundsman, sailor, computer operator, scaffolder, gardener, painter & decorator........ working at anything, in fact, which has paid the rent, enabled me to raise my three daughters and which hasn't got too much in the way of my writing. I now have several poetry collections and novels to my name.


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Constant Change - Sam Smith

Book Two of the Paths of Error trilogy Constant Change by Sam Smith

Copyright Sam Smith 2015

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‘The paths of error are various and infinite.’ Edward Gibbon

Chapter One

She had opened her sweet warm flesh to his knowledge. Two hours ago all that he had known of her had been her white face and her sharp red hair. Now he knew that on her shoulders was a dappled mosaic of flat pale freckles. Now he knew her nipples - two clusters of cherry pink bubbles. Now he knew the two taut muscles of her stomach, her inverted belly button like a tiny cauliflower. Now he knew her variety of hair: the red glossy hair stabbing into the angular crook of her white shoulders; the furze of down glowing on the silhouette of her slender arm; the armpit hair as soft as a mouse’s fur; on her rounded abdomen the thin herringbone line of ginger hairs widening into, curling into the neat circular patch of crimson-glinting hair; and that hair parted by two glistening meat red lines, like an unhealed scar. He had been in there, inside her raw flesh.

His mouth, his hands, his body was saturated with her scents - of animal musk, of dried shampoo, of tiny particles of aromatic salt. He wanted to be alone, to be away from her in clear air, to hold in his mind all that she had given him. No words he knew could express his burdening gratitude. Nor action. To owe so much to one person. He wanted to sit alone and think, to knit this new knowledge into the old, reconcile rumour to fact. To piece together all the images she had given him. Freely given him. He wanted to shout his joy. Secretly. To be still lest this fragile treasure tumble to pieces.

She moved. A slow breath. Her hand - short exam-chewed nails - slid easily onto his chest. She knew him. She was not disgusted. His body had been hers. Another thought to juggle with the others.

He rolled his head on the pillow. A clean pillowcase crackle of dry hair. Her nose was thin and pointed. She was smiling. What did she see? He smiled. Something should be said. So this is paradise? I love you? Neither were true. Thank you? Better to smile. What wisecrack would slip out if he undid his mouth? This beats tiddleywinks? He was master and victim of the inappropriate remark. Don’t risk it. Smile. Who’ll stop smiling first?

The focus of her dark eyes spread beyond him.

What time’ll they be back? his voice was pitched low, throaty from inaction.

Don’t worry. Her interest was in him again. And turning against him she lay across him, her soft breast squashed against his hard breastbone, her thigh resting on his wet penis. Green eyes studied his nose, mouth, eyes, hair. We've got till two. It was three last time they went.

Three of you? The wisecrack.

I should be so lucky. Schoolgirl bravado. My aunt came to babysit. And my Dad came home stinking drunk.

How big is he?

Don’t worry.

She didn’t want to play that game. He breathed deep. Their skin, their outer envelopes, moved one against the other, small hairs catching.

The house was in St Michael’s Road, a long low street of yellow terrace houses. Three concrete steps separated the front door from the pavement. The square living room windows had net curtains. On the cream-tiled fireplace was a round faced clock in a dark wooden case. Blue sat at the table between his father and his brother Ken.

They had their dinner in the living room so that their father could watch the news. The television was in the corner. Their mother had finished in the kitchen, was upstairs hurriedly dabbing on powder and perfume before going to bingo over Oldway.

Their father listened attentively to the weather forecast. The two boys knew better than to interrupt it. He grimaced at the prospect of rain, and sighed, a beaten man.

A postman, he had dark patches like ink thumbprints on putty below his eyes. He turned to Blue,

You staying in tonight?

Dunno. Might.

Bout time you did some work for your exams. Won’t get anywhere without working y’know.

Thought you said nobody got rich by working?

True enough. But if you don’t work you’ll get nothing.

Can’t win.

Yes you can. If you pass those exams you’ll be a damn sight better off than I’ve ever been. You won’t have to get up half past five every bloody morning, he nodded to the television, go out in all weathers.

I won’t pass any.

Not with that attitude you won't.

I don’t want to talk about it. He was a man now, knew what his father knew, could no longer be treated as a child.

His father listened to the introduction of a quiz contestant. Blue traced the thick lace pattern in the tablecloth. His father’s hands moved slightly. He had been working on his allotment that afternoon. The dried skin rasped on the tablecloth.

Your trouble is you don’t want to do anything. His hooked finger, its grimy nail, tapped the thick cloth. ’Cept hang around with your friends. Bunch of dead-enders you lot are. To think of all the battles that were fought to give you lot a decent education. And I don’t mean just the last war. And you can’t be bothered with it. Only wish I’d been given your chance. Blue looked up smiling,

You’d look silly in a school cap and short trousers.

Ken grinned, tried to hide it in the television. His father had seen.

I look bloody silly wearing a postman’s cap too!

Oh I thought it made you look quite military, quite distinguished.

I had enough of uniforms in the bloody army. Fighting for the likes of you.

I didn’t ask you to fight. A determined opinion.

Don’t suppose you asked to be educated either?

No. I didn’t.

When I think... When I think of all the men who gave their lives - their lives! - just so an ungrateful little B like you could be educated... Makes me want to weep.

If they’d had the education they wouldn’t be that bloody impressed with it either.

Watch your language.

You just said bloody to me.

Oh yes. Always some smartarse answer. That’s all you can ever come up with. Why don’t you try to pass your exams instead, eh? Your teachers reckon you could if you tried.

When did you see them?

Says so in your reports. Could do well if only he’d try.

Says that in everyone’s. I won’t pass any.

Can’t or won’t? Or can’t be bothered. That’s more like it. Look at Ken - he works hard.

Good for Ken. Ken blushed: he hadn’t made it past the eleven plus, went to Tweenaway.

If he’d been given your chances he’d be making the most of it.

All Ken cares about’s his bike.

I only hope and pray he doesn’t turn out like you. ‘Cos if he does...

Leave him out of it.

Why? Think only you matter? Bigshot. Where’re you going? Come back here! Where d’you think you’re going?

Out!

Low coffee brown waves foamed out of the flat mulberry sea. On the flattened dun beach clay-white gulls pecked beadily along a lumpy tideline of black seaweed. On the prom Easter pensioners, with grand dreams and walking sticks, took the air at a dignified pace. Sniff, Pancho and Mort, shuffling their gritty soles, slouched along behind Blue and Newt.

Before reaching the tarmac ramp up to the pier Newt and Blue crossed the humped road to the green.

Anything on tonight? Newt said.

Said I might meet Lin later.

They skidded down the steep grass bank, resumed their studied slouch, headed at an angle towards the balconied Casino.

That where you went last night?

Blue nodded, not looking at Newt.

You did. Newt’s voice was softly astute, Didn’t you?

Blue glanced sharply to Newt’s face. The bright eyes knew. The grin approved. Blue felt a prideful surge redden his cheeks.

You did! Newt shoved him on the shoulder. Blue stumbled, recovered, and confused dived at him. Newt dodged. Blue lunged again. Newt cackling ran off. Not knowing what else to do Blue grimly gave chase.

On the corner by the Casino Blue almost caught him. Newt yelled, shook himself free, swerved out around a parked car, ducked between two others and pelted on past low stone walls with Blue a sprinting step behind.

In the park Newt slewed right, tore off up the path towards some yellow shelters. Blue ploughed across the soft lawn to cut him off. Newt’s chin was up, head back, his laughter a high-pitched snicker. Blue ran onto the rustic bridge over the ornamental pond at the same time as Newt’s feet thumped onto the boards at the other end. They stopped, panting, stared at one another the length of the bridge.

Hands on the railings they bent to get their breath. The water of the pond was ivy- green. In the flower beds around its sides were heavy-headed daffodils. Hot-faced Newt and Blue grinned at one another.

Come on, Newt said. Before they come. And glancing back they walked quickly through the low dripping tunnel under the railway lines, slipped left behind some laurels.

Lawns of clipped violet grass sloped down from the hotel to the headland’s spiked brown railings. Beyond those spiked railings a few pale and dishevelled bushes trembled slightly before the opaque immensity of night. Beyond those flimsy bushes a sheer black space dropped to the sea and like a vacuum pulled the curiosity to it.

Blue and Linda crossed a junction of the paths, passed under a cringing huddle of gale-deformed cedars.

You didn’t come round last night.

You said you’d be revising.

You said you might.

I met Newt. One thing led to another. You know Newt.

Pissed as a...

He felt odd being here with her, walking here with her as he had walked here with so many girls. Girls he had only kissed. The night before last he had grown beyond just kissing as certainly as he had grown out of short trousers. Yet her slim hand in his, her easy chatter, made them ordinary, as if nothing exceptional had happened. And her coat, her skirt, her scarf hid her from him. Layer upon layer of clothes separated them, made them like two live wires insulated against contact. Her clothed presence stood between him and his memory of her white body. He tried to recall it. Couldn’t. Just pieces.

The path from the headland zigzagged down past yellow lights fixed to red stone walls. Set on the bends were black wooden benches - for pensioners with poor legs.

You one of those who scream at the Beatles?

I’ve only seen them once. When they came to the Princess.

You scream?

Why?

Those pictures on your wall.

Oh. She squeezed his hand, acknowledged what they had done. No. It’s only the fat and spotty ones who scream. Honestly, there was...

They clipclopped down the last of the path. The level promenade had a dimpled surface like a red cement net. At the bottom of the railed steps the slithering sea lay, its black expanse pressing against the land’s tiny isolated lights. Linda slipped her arm around Blue’s waist. He lifted his arm around her shoulders. Like competitors for a three-legged race they tried to keep step. He had done the same with other girls. Here.

When’re your Mum and Dad going Exeter again?

Not till the summer’s over. Be too busy till then. It’s their last fling.

Mine never go out. And if they do my brother’s bound to be home. And his house wasn’t as clean and tidy as hers.

Never mind. A hug. So that was that.

They broke step to go through the forecourt of the Brass Monkey, glimpsed unoccupied tables through the door, the desolate acreage of an empty pub. In the gift shop and cafe window were spotted stepladders and stained dustsheets. Like a decrepit tart furrowing new lipstick over old, Paignton was being given a lick of paint in preparation for the season.

Crossing the service road Blue and Linda walked along an avenue flanked by row upon row of gabled beach huts like so many shanty mausoleums.

He guided her to the shelter. Slumping down on the long slatted bench he crouched over a blue-spitting match to light the second of his five cigarettes. The shelter backed onto the railway tracks: their bench, though, looked out over the pointed felt roofs of the beach huts. Linda shivered, said it was too draughty. Blue dejectedly picked up her hand, led her around to the rear of the shelter.

She snuggled against his side while he drew on his crackling cigarette, blew out the pale grey smoke - a vaporous cone plugged momentarily to the hole in his lips. Beyond the ragged lacework of a rusty wire fence orange streetlights gleamed fixed and unwavering on hard railway lines. He flicked away the hot cigarette - a splash of red sparks - took a deep breath. She lifted her face to be kissed. Like so many other girls. Here.

Unenthusiastically he obliged, teeth crashing together in a slippery kiss, his palm pressed to her padded tit. With tired expertise he worked his jaw, held her close. Drearily it went on. He would be leaving here with the taste of her perfumed lipstick lining his mouth, with his swollen lips smarting in the chill sea air, with the damp tip of his cock sticking to his underpants. Her hand, long fingers crawling, squirmed into his trousers. She pulled him down with her onto the narrow bench, wriggled her hips to accommodate him. On the shelter wall above the end of the bench, written in angry daring letters, was 'Fuck You.'

Here?

The back door closed with a click. The latch on the garden gate rattled. Blue wriggled out from under Ken’s arm and, trying not to let the cold air into the bed, crawled crablike from between the slippery nylon sheets. Picking his way about the small room, the clamminess of the sheets evaporating from him, the coarse carpet pricking his soles, he gathered his clothes and shoes into a bundle and gently opened the bedroom door.

His own room had been let to a travelling salesman with cheesy feet. The landing was close with the fug of grown-ups’ sleep, fetid with the stale air from their old lungs, from the gases escaping from their large unclothed bodies - old sores suppurating into the night, old pores expanding and exuding their nocturnal odours, a stench from years of old meals decaying between their long yellow teeth. They had been alive so long and their porous flesh had sopped up, like bread on a plate, so much of the world’s dirt that, when unguarded they slept, it seeped out. When younger, and he had woken early in search of comfort, going into his parents’ room had been like stepping through a wall of smell.

His father’s breath was like that of death in the mornings: the puffy skin, its patches of grease, that of a body corrupted. The dangling braces, the clean white shaving soap spotted with his thin blood: he was so vulnerable, so small and pitiful; the slack fold of skin below his chin and his drooping paunch making him look like a candle lopsidedly melting. Blue always waited until he was gone.

The kettle was still warm. He popped the blue gas under it, dipped his toothbrush under the cold tap, spread on the white paste and vigorously attacked his morning-tender gums. Having jerkily pulled his clothes over his shivering nakedness, tied his plimsolls, he buttered himself a slice of white bread.

The habitual movements sharpened his brain, made him feel efficient. He turned off the steaming kettle, spooned coffee into a cup. A dusky blue beyond the window competed with the kitchen’s yellow light.

Stuffing the marmalade sandwich in his mouth he searched around the greasy shelves and the wet windowsill for his mother’s purse and fags. There were eight fags left in the packet of ten. He took one, and from her purse one of the half-crowns and a couple of tanners. There were plenty of coppers there: she wouldn’t have counted them. The coffee was too hot. He poured in more milk.

Should he have the cigarette now, or while he was delivering? He didn’t like smoking while he walked: it made him puff, and the fag was too quickly finished. But if he had it now it would make him late. Taddon could wait.

Leaning back in the chair he put his plimsolls up on the plastic tablecloth. The match spluttered: he sucked on the cigarette. All was quiet. No voices to unsettle his stillness. Steam curled like a baby’s hair from his coffee cup. Blue smoke rose straight from his cigarette tip and, just before the ceiling, wobbled and fanned out. He could easily go back to sleep. His eyes were dryly raw. He rubbed a hand over his face. He didn’t really want any more of the cigarette, nor the coffee. But he had started them, might as well finish both. Lifting his feet off the table he let himself rock forward and, elbows slipping forward on the slimy cloth, he rested his face in his hands. He looked around for something to read - a cornflakes packet, yesterday’s newspaper? There was nothing.

The cigarette was hot. He cooled his mouth with warm coffee. Now he wanted to go. One more drag, one more gulp, and he was ready. Switching off the light he skirted the grey table, opened the kitchen door to the damp inky air.

He flicked the cigarette high over the fence into next door’s grassy garden. It landed with a hiss, glowed slowly like a coal. Blue wafted the door to rid the kitchen of smoke, then softly closed it.

So as not to rattle the latch he lifted the garden gate. All the closed windows contained sleeping people. He had no right to disturb them. Not like his father banging his way resentfully forth in the mornings, his every action saying ‘Look at me, I’m on my way to work while all you idle buggers are still fast a’kip’. Blue left them undisturbed by stealth, saw himself as a trustee of their slumbers.

He padded along the uneven back path. In this chill ghostly light the world was pure, undefiled by a day’s activities. Like the homeward prowling wolf and fox he felt himself merging with the cool blues and greys of morning twilight. Crossing the empty side street, he rounded the sharp corner and loped along St Michael’s, crossed another side street and went on past the overgrown area they called the bomb site and where they had not been allowed to play. The papershop glowed on the corner, stacks of paper on the long counter being sorted.

Taddon glanced up at the clock on Blue’s entrance. Blue wasn’t late: he wasn’t supposed to start till six, and it was only five-to. But Taddon too wanted to let everyone know that he’d been up hours before them. He was a short thin man with a speckled moustache. His wife shouted at him. Blue had never seen him outside the shop.

Twenty two isn’t getting any more until they pay, Taddon talked as he sorted the papers, If they ask tell ‘em that's what I said.

Blue hefted the canvas bag onto his shoulder. Having once found a pink ten bob note outside the shop Blue scanned the gutter and pavement as he set off towards his first house. Lifting a paper from the bag he slapped it across his knee to fold it, hit it with the edge of his hand to fold it again, then pushed it through the letterbox. Over low walls, in and out of garden gates, he made his way up the street almost to the main road. Crossing the street he then worked his way down the other side. Some letterboxes were stiff, tore the newspaper; others were wide and gaping, let the paper thud through onto the floor. On new glass-ribbed doors the letterboxes were vertical and strongly hinged, or near the floor which - Blue agreed with his father - was a ridiculously inconvenient place to put a letterbox. On old people’s doors, with their fear of burglars, a wire cage obstructed the paper, left it sticking out and easy to pinch.

That street finished, he went on to the next. Sparrows were cheeping now, and the sun, still below the horizon, was shining golden upwards through holes in the high fawn clouds. A peacock called harshly from somewhere up near the zoo. A car zoomed past on the main road.

This street was of redstone flats. Blue trotted up stairs. Each landing had its own sounds and smells; bicycle oil, geraniums, drains, baby powder, sour bins, baked beans, bacon frying; a radio in a kitchen, an alarm buzzing, a dog snuffling, a man and a child quarrelling.

Out of one entrance, bag light and swinging now, and into the next. A man in a donkey jacket brushed past him on the cement stairs, grumbled a good morning. A child whinged, another wailed.

Twenty Two was lying in wait for him. She was skinny and ugly, greeted him in whispers, falsely cheerful.

Mr Taddon didn’t give me a paper for you, Blue stated the flat fact, didn’t want to say that it was because she hadn’t paid.

But I told him I’d pay this week. The voice was a professional wheedle. Blue shrugged, wanted to pass her by.

You got a spare? She bent her lank hair to the purse held in both her hands. Her quilted dressing gown was indeterminately dirty. She kept the door only slightly ajar. The interior looked as dowdy as her.

I only got the ones I got to deliver.

Go on, she became grotesquely flirtatious, you can let me have one.

I'm sorry. He only gives me...

Oh get lost! She slipped inside and slammed the door.

When Blue came out into the street a blue car was warming its engine, its dripping exhaust pumping steamy smoke into the still air. A whining milk float clinked by on the main road. Some curtains rattled open. The day was no longer his alone.

Anyway, according to May, she was grumbling because they only get twenty quid a week. That was the point of his mother's tale, Twenty quid a week. She sawed at her chump chop.

She'’s got six children, Blue said. Must cost twenty quid a week to feed ‘em all.

Ah, but where could he earn twenty quid a week? his father said. That's the point.

Your father only gets sixteen. His mother felt as strongly about it as did her gossiping friends.

Before tax, his father pointedly added.

But they must need twenty quid a week.

We brought you up on less than that. We managed, his mother said.

But there’s only the two of us, Blue said. Ken smiled quickly at him, pressed peas into the white mash.

They needn’t have had six children, his father lifted his knife to make his point.

Maybe it’s their religion, Blue said.

Well it’s a bloody convenient religion.

Maybe Catholics are randier, Blue raised his eyebrows to Ken. Ken grinned, started a slow laugh.

That’s enough of that from you, the knife wagged at Ken. Ken concentrated on his mash and peas.

His father’s sudden anger surprised Blue. He tried to recall what he had said that could have aroused it. The tense head, glittering eyes, jerked at him,

And I suppose a cocky little bugger like you don’t believe in God either?

No, Blue said. I don't.

I bloody thought so. Let me tell you boy you’ll be mighty glad to have that God when the bullets are up to here.

Blue put his head doubtfully to one side: he knew that he might in distress appeal to God, and knew too that his appeal would be in vain. That God of his father’s wouldn’t hear him.

What about the ones who were killed? Were they glad they’d got a God too?

Knew I’d get some smart bloody answer from you. Well just you wait my boy.

I can’t believe in any God who lets children die. What kind of cruel bastard is he?

That’s enough of that.

The family concentrated on their plates.

Your father and I had to struggle to raise you. His mother was still infected with her friends’ indignation.

Gets my goat my paying taxes to support the likes of him. They must all be laughing at us. All those bloody nig-nogs coming over here, going on National Assistance. Must think we’re a right soft lot.

You said the other week they were coming over here taking our jobs.

Oh you’re bloody clever you are. Too bloody clever for your own good. Pity you’re not clever enough to pass your exams. You’re just like them, don’t want to work. Think the world owes you a favour.

No I don’t. The soggy food wouldn’t be swallowed.

You mean to tell me they couldn’t all get jobs if they wanted. Course they bloody could. A bad back old Gilbert’s supposed to have. We had blokes like him in the Army. Never saw healthier blokes on sick call. And the doctor can’t say they haven't got a bad back. Bloody convenient, that’s all that is. Making mugs out of those who have to work.

Maybe he does have a bad back.

Yea, got it getting all them kids.

Ken laughed at that. His father didn’t.

He can still afford to smoke, his mother put in. Blue ignored her,

So, just because you don’t like the father, the children should starve?

If they can’t afford children then they shouldn’t have ‘em.

You’d rather see the children starve than see their father buy a packet of fags, wouldn’t you?

We’d have liked more children... his father started.

You don’t like children. Blue snapped. (His father had always been rude to Mort because Mort’s father had once been a Conservative councillor.)

I’ve had just about all I can take from you.

And me you!

They had closed their minds to school. None of them were going to be joining the Old Boys. This everyday tedium, this enforced sitting in silence, had no relevance to the rest of their real lives. King Edward VI Grammar School Totnes was dutifully attended only under threat of truant officers and the like. All had long ago deadened themselves to the daily dullness. Now it was a dead area of their lives. Excitement and interest lay elsewhere, were waiting to be discovered.

The school’s ivied facade, recessed snobbily from Totnes’s medieval Fore Street, contained little of interest to them. A sham of academia they knew only the bare floorboards of time-stealing tedium.

From their classroom cells of stillness they looked out on a playground like a prison yard, its tarmac floor always in damp shadow. A high stone wall topped with rusty wire netting formed one side, brick walls and small barred windows two others, with gloomily looming over all the unadorned concrete walls of the fives courts. The sky was always small and distant. Sunlight slipped at a yellow angle but occasionally into a grimy corner. A scenario to inspire deskdreams of escape.

Her dark pleated skirt was looped over the doorhandle. His jeans hung from a yellow painted nail. On the narrow shelf, beside her compact mirror, a candle stub burnt with a black-tipped orange flame. He lay on his back with his knees bent. Through his thin shirt he felt the rough splintery boards below him, the hard lumpy knots where sandalled feet had worn away the softer wood. Linda lay curled against his side, her head on his chest. Beyond her dark red hair was a run of hard gloss paint. He picked at it with a clicking fingernail.

Sooner or later, he said, they’re bound to start using this hut.

It’ll be warm then. She snuggled into him as she spoke. We can find somewhere in the open. On the beach. Have to watch the sand though. She giggled.

He tried to smile, tried not to be shocked by her readiness, her willingness, her knowingness. The boy was supposed to seduce the girl, was supposed to reassure her. The girl was supposed to be innocent. She had told him that technically she hadn’t been a virgin. Not that it mattered, he told himself; it was just that he felt a step behind her thoughts. She could compare his lovemaking to others’: to him she was unique.

He was tired: to go to sleep with her in his arms. Tell her.

If only it could be like this always. If we could just go on and on as we are now.

It's bound to change, she spoke slowly, her words deliberated on. We’re bound to change. I’m going to have to start staying in soon. I’ve just got to get some revision done.

He wondered if she was trying to tell him that they were finished. Did she have someone else? Was she two-timing him? He saw all the vacant times in her day that he knew nothing about. During the last few days he had at times suddenly realised that he hadn’t been thinking of her, and each time he had felt that he had betrayed her. How much had she not thought of him? He didn’t know her.

How many you taking?

Ten.

How many you reckon you’ll get?

Eight. Nine if they don’t do electrolysis in the physics.

By that yardstick alone she was more intelligent than him, knew more than he did. Yet she listened to what he said, laughed at his jokes. Or was she laughing at him? What did she know about him?

You won't be coming out at all? he tried not to sound desperate, tried not to sound as if he was pleading.

I don’t want to get stale. Weekends I’ll have off.

Think they'll do you any good?

Weekends? a lewd innuendo.

O-levels.

I want to go to university.

She had her own life planned: he wasn’t included. Sensing this alienation come between them she moved around to kiss him, two naked bodies contorting in orange gloom on the floor of a narrow beach hut.

His mother did the ironing in the living room so that she could watch the telly. Steam hissed from the dampened shirts. A domestic smell Blue liked, sweet and clean like flannels being boiled. He adjusted the contrast on the telly, sat in his father’s armchair.

Don’t have the sound too high. Your Dad’s in bed. Blue stretched forward and turned the volume down.

Been out with your girl?

He nodded.

The wooden ironing board creaked when she pressed down on it.

Serious, this one, is it?

Not that much?

Not chucked you has she?

No. Got her exams soon.

Not like you then, eh?

No.

That's right love, you go out and have a good time. I don’t care what your Dad says, plenty of time to worry later. You’re only young once. Sometimes I think he forgets people want to enjoy themselves.

He’s alright.

Blue had heard her with her bingo friends laughing at his father, defensively making fun of the red Labour Party posters in her living room window.

He takes himself far too seriously if you ask me. And he’s pushed you too hard. If you want my honest opinion I wish you’d never gone to that grammar school. You’d have been much better off with a trade. Like her bingo friends’ husbands.

Maybe. Blue tried to make out he was interested in the television. Somebody in a car was chasing somebody else in a car.

He’s always on about something. Can’t leave it alone for a minute. Him and that union. It’s a wonder I’ve got any friends left. The leading car went over a cliff. The man in the second car got out and looked over the edge of the cliff. He’s always on about money. Blue missed what the man said into his car radio. But if he was that interested in it he’d get himself another job. The titles came up. May’s husband's earning twice what he is labouring. The adverts came on. And she can buy clothes for herself, not have to make ‘em herself.

That’s not the point. Blue said.

You tell me what the point is then.

Dad thinks everyone should be paid a decent wage no matter what they do.

That’s what he says, but let me tell you all he’s worried about is his pension. What about my pension, he says, whenever I say he should get himself another job. Fat lot of good a pension’ll do me. Then there’s his bloody allotment. What about my allotment, he says, I won’t get time for it working ordinary hours. She draped a shirt over the back of a chair, picked up another. And I don’t see why you’re on his side. If he earnt more money you wouldn’t have to move in with Ken every summer.

I don’t mind.

That’s not what you said last year. At least this year if you pay some keep you won’t have to give up your room.

The iron hissed in emphasis. Blue sat, frowning. His father was wrong about many things, but his one virtue in Blue’s eyes was his stubborn contrary beliefs.

He’s got principles, he said. And he’s tried to stick to them. It can’t have been easy being a trade unionist in Paignton.

That’s what he wants you to think. But let me tell you there’s a few hundred others round here who vote Labour. And they don’t make a song and dance about it.

Suppose there must be. Blue hadn’t considered that before, had assumed that all Labour voters and trade unionists were men like his father. Still, you’ve got to admit, the way he sticks to his principles, he’s got to be admired.

You admire him. I’m married to his, she laughing shook her head at him, to his bloody principles. Blue smiled up at her: she wasn’t as stupid as she tried to make out.

Where’s Ken?

The bus seats were a dirty blue and red check, the satchels inkstained brown. The blazers were dark blue, the trousers grey flannel, wrinkled or pressed. They sat four to a seat. On the seat behind some younger boys recited their Latin nouns as once they had memorised their mothers’ shopping lists. Dandruff flaked the collars of the fourth-formers in front.

The motion of the bus lulling him, the numbness of a crowd breathing his oxygen, their noise drumming on his ears, Blue was a part of it, isolated within it.

The frame of the bus window was green - a green paint over dull metal. Beyond the window were other greens - elms rising like green clouds, the amber green of young sycamores, the drooping green dome of a chestnut, lacy green of a grey ash; alongside the silvered green of a young hayfield, the pale green of new corn shoots, transparent green of marsh grass, yellow green of an overchewed pasture. A cornfield of molten green glass, another of soft green velvet, and a nearer one a whiskery green. A stream meadow was a buttercup spotted fawn green. While distant fields folded to a narrow grey lane like green bedsheets to a seam.

The bus rose up a hill, passed an isolated garage with its rusting heaps and chipped enamel signs; then a short row of tidy houses, a red telephone box; and the fields levelled out. Dotted rows of flat-leafed swedes perforated the red soil; a hayfield a brown green, the pallid green of a field not long mown for silage, a lawn-like green where sheep had been grazing, the dark tussock dotted green of a dung-spotted field of slow cows. The hedgerows like lines of jade cottonwool, a far off bank of woods like a crumpled green carpet, a small copse like a heap of green fluff. A slate roof and brick chimneys partly concealed behind the crinkly green of a massed oak. By the hardcore track leading to that house the grey skeleton of a lightening-struck tree. And in that house people lived private lives unknown to him, and him unknown to them.

The bus swayed around a long bend. The flat beige roofs of a caravan site stepped down into a greenly darkening valley. On the other side of the road was a grey farmhouse festooned with washing lines and cluttered with creosote dark chicken sheds. A warped board advertised 'B&B'. A couple more fields, then multicoloured caravans on either side of the road, a line of glistening poplars.

The bus stopped to let off a lone spotty boy. Houses now between the roads and the fields, a red village away across three fields. More houses, then bright petrol pumps in garish garages.

The bus stopped at some roadworks. A couple of seats in front of him some of the A stream sneered at the council workers standing about. What did those snotty schoolboys know about work? Everyday work. It was just the airing of their father’s opinions.

The bus stopped opposite square white Parkers Arms to let off the Stoke Gabriel boys - fat pink legs in short trousers; skinny brown legs, grey socks down. The bus had to wait for the traffic. Sniff and Pancho were arguing.

How do you know you won’t be seasick? Pancho scored a point.

How d’you know you won’t be airsick? Sniff retaliated, You get better postings in the airforce.

You’re always on the move in the navy.

Blue’s mouth couldn’t resist that,

You’re always on the move with Ex-Lax.

Thinking Blue was taking his side, Pancho laughed too loudly too long.

So what’re you going to do? Sniff asked Blue.

They’d all been to see the Careers Officer from the Labour Exchange. He had set up office in the sweat-dried changing room - a table and a chair in among the rows of wire coat hooks and the wooden benches - and they had queued outside. All but Blue had seemed to accept that they had to make a choice of the careers on offer to them - the Services, an apprenticeship, a trainee this or that. Don’t pay no money now, but what prospects...

Nothing, Blue said.

You can’t do nothin’, Sniff said.

The bus ground up the hill, overgrown hedges on one side, on the other the neat grass of an embankment, a wire-fenced orchard above a red-walled barn.

Blue had shrugged when the man had asked him what he had wanted to do; and, sighing, the man had rattled off likely careers. To each Blue had grimaced. He hadn’t wanted to be labelled, indexed and filed for life just for this tired man’s sake.

You tell him that? Pancho asked.

Told him I wanted to be a priest.

You! Sniff guffawed.

The bus began to roll down past a row of B&B semis, cars in their drives, a steep pocked field behind them. On the other side was Tweenaway - low, brown and dirty above its cratered soccer pitches.

So what’d he say? Pancho asked.

Wanted to know if I was in the choir, which church I attended.

What’d you tell him?

Said I just fancied a six day weekend.

They hooted, repeated it. Pancho wanted to know more. Blue had said enough. Ken stood among some boys at the lights waiting to cross the Brixham Road. Blue banged on the bus window, put his mouth to the sliding panel,

Ken! Ken looked around, saw the bus, saw Blue, grinned; and then the bus was passing him as the boys with Ken looked up.

Don’t behave like the hooligan you are Collins, a sixth form prefect shouted from the back seat. Blue flushed.

Snob, he muttered.

The sun blazed off the roofs of the cars in the zoo’s tilted carpark. And the shallow town grew out of the fields and woods. The next stop was his.

They’d been to the Casino. He hadn’t wanted to go. Linda had. She had arranged to meet some friends from school there. They had sat at a table with his friends from school. She had chatted to them, had told jokes; and she had occasionally crossed the parquet floor to her friends to giggle and gossip. All knew one another by sight and reputation.

He had sat in silence, brooding on the wasted chance, studying her. Her thin shoulders so girlish, so virginal; her slim lithe length so innocent. He knew her full woman’s breasts. Deceit. How much did her schoolfriends know? He was there to be shown off, to be discussed. He had wanted her, had wanted her secret unto himself in the woody darkness of their beach hut. Time was against them: didn’t she realise? Didn’t she care?

Pancho had left early with his small shy girlfriend. She lived in Foxhole, had had to catch her bus. Sniff and Mort had trailed off towards the Manor after two high-heeled Torquay girls. No chance. And still he and Linda had stayed. And now, with her on the inside of the pavement, Blue in the middle, she talked around him to Newt. A kind of vivacious flirting. Newt, bored, grunted. His Sunday girl from Brixham hadn’t turned up.

They started down the main street, the tin shutters of the amusement arcade beside them, ahead of them the long row of dark glass doorways, the street wide open to the night. Paignton had no tall buildings, was a shallow town built on shallow dreams and of shallow ambitions.

Three drunk leather jackets came lurching slyly out of the alley beside the arcade. One was shoulder-barged into Linda. Blue swung her so that he missed.

They make me sick, Linda spoke loudly and distinctly.

They’re drunk, Blue said quietly, kept on walking. She span out of Blue’s arm, shouted at them,

Why don’t you creep back under your stones!

Newt and Blue stopped. Each took a deep breath and slowly turned around.

Ah diddums, one of the leather jackets said; and grinning at one another they leant together and leering looked over Newt and Blue. Blue glanced to Newt. Newt’s face was blank, awaiting whatever was next.

What’s the matter? Blue heard himself saying, Girls not like your spotty faces?

Hark at the Paignton pretty boy, they started laconically towards Blue. He didn’t recognise any of them - bank holiday campers.

No-one but you can touch her eh?

Had more pricks in her than a secondhand dartboard.

Think you’re the only one? Pretty boy.

Blue watched their misshapen mouths chewing around the words. Newt was smiling. He looked to Blue. The eyes were curious only, detached.

I started it, Blue wonderingly told himself. And a peevish rage as uncontrollable as a childhood tantrum rose within him. Only now he couldn’t weep. They’d done it. They’d done it. His sole desire was to obliterate their presence. Yelling he charged.

His fighting had no style, no method of attack: he threw his fists rather than punched. Stupid, stupid, stupid, he heard himself pettishly grumbling. Then his knuckles hit a hard hairy head and he was wrapped in the dusty smell of their clothes. Memories of playground fights. He kicked, stamped, struggled and flayed about him. From somewhere above he heard Newt’s warring chuckled. His arm jarred as one wild punch connected, and his arm still swinging he watched amazed as one of the three leather jackets toppled backwards from the end of his arm into the road.

Enough. Enough, one was cowering before him. Blue looked around. Newt had the other one’s head under his arm and chortling was banging it booming against the arcade’s tin shutters. Linda stood quaking in a glass doorway.

Newt abruptly stopped, let his victim drop and strode away. Blue walked quickly after him.

We’ll be back to get you! the one who’d said ‘Enough’ shouted after them.

Blue tentatively put his

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