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Authors: Pat Barker

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BOOK: Life Class
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‘Are you cold?’

His voice creaked as if he hadn’t used it for a long time.

‘A bit.’

She got into bed and lay on her side, facing him, her eyes full of candlelight. He freed his cock from the cling and torment of his underpants and heard her laugh, but it was a triumphant, friendly, sensual chuckle that brought them closer together. He walked towards the bed, hoping she’d touch him, not wanting to ask for
it. She cradled his balls in her hand, he felt them lift and tighten, and then she leaned forward and kissed him there, licking and mouthing the purple, glistening knob. He saw the creases in her neck. Oh, my God, careful. He eased her lips away. A lot of this was being done in an almost jokey way. Only when he climbed into bed and leaned over her did her smile fade. She stared up at him, her pupils flaring as his body cut off the light. She seemed wary, as he was himself. He lay half beside her, half on top, nuzzling her neck, shoulders, breasts, smelling the bitter almond smell of her nipples, brushing his face from side to side on her belly. A hot, briny tang was perceptible under the sweetness. He lowered himself on to her; her back arched as she rose to meet him. As they twisted and writhed, a knot of white limbs on the jangling bed, he was aware of the darkness outside, the wet, the cold, the gritty streets. A goods train rumbled past. He thrust deeper, trying to shut the noise out, but the roar of trains was part of their lovemaking, and when at last he let her go, they lay listening as a whistle shrieked and faded into silence and the rattling at the window frame ceased.

‘Do they wake you?’

‘Only if they’re late.’

‘Yes, that’s right.’ He felt a moment’s delighted recognition, out of proportion to the small, shared experience. ‘You get restless, don’t you, and then you realize what’s missing. The sleeper’s late.’

‘When I first moved in here, I thought, I can’t put up with this, but then after a bit you can’t imagine living without it.’

In the brief interval between trains, he heard the wind rising and a few small drops of rain hit the glass. He started to kiss and caress her again and this time they reached a sharper peak. There was bewilderment, even pain, in her final cry. He bit into the pillow, tossing his head, trying to tear the cloth, then with a final roar fell forward and lay still.

After a minute he rolled over, smiled, laughed, wiped sweat from his face, laughed again, and then they were hauling themselves out of the stormy sea and on to the safety of the rocks. He pulled her out of bed and they ran, naked, into the kitchen where they cut themselves big, thick slices of bread and butter – doorsteps, she
called them – and washed them down with strong, sweet tea. They kept looking sideways at each other, grinning. She put a match to the fire and they sat on the sofa side by side, stretching out their bare toes to the heat.

‘Like bairns waiting for Christmas,’ she said.

‘I just had my present.’

She was rubbing the pink corset marks again. ‘I hope they’re gone by morning.’

‘Why? Are you modelling?’

‘Yes.’ Her tone hardened. ‘It’s what I do.’

He pressed his thumb against her cheekbone. ‘You should try head modelling, you know. No, really. You’d be amazed how few models have good heads.’

She smiled, but looked away. What did it matter if other men saw her naked. It wasn’t worth arguing about and, anyway, what right did he have to interfere in her life. Only he wanted her to himself. He lay back and held out his arms for her to join him. Immediately she came and snuggled into his side. Soon her warmth and the heat of the fire began to make him drowsy. He’d drifted off to sleep when, jarringly, she jerked upright.

‘What’s the matter?’

‘Ssh.’ She raised a hand. ‘Can you hear it?’

He listened. ‘No.’

Perhaps he had heard something, but only the fire collapsing in on itself where it had burnt hollow. His mother had always said a hollow fire was a sure sign of disaster and would snatch up the poker and smash the coals into a more acceptable shape. Didn’t help her much, poor woman. He sat up and shook himself awake.

‘I’m sure I heard something,’ Teresa said.

‘Could be somebody emptying the rubbish.’

‘No, out the back.’

It was obvious what he had to do. Barefoot, wearing only his trousers, he let himself be led along the dog-leg passage to the back door. There were two bolts fixed to the wall with rusty screws. For God’s sake, you could kick it open. She pulled the bolts back and he stepped out into a small, dark basement courtyard. It smelled
of damp and leaf mould. Steps led up to the main garden, where buddleia bushes with detumescent spikes loomed as tall as trees. Reluctantly, he stepped out into the yard, the raw, wet air on his skin shocking him into full wakefulness. The flags were slippery with rain and moss; snail shells crunched between his toes. As he went up the steps, he saw a stretch of wet lawn silvery in the moonlight and through the tangle of bushes a wire fence separating the garden from the railway line beyond. An intruder would have had to come in through one of the neighbouring gardens, that, or risk crossing the main line. But nobody with any sense would do that. At the top of the steps he looked around: no sign of anybody, no sign that anybody had been there. Anybody crossing the lawn would have left footprints in the wet grass. Probably she’d imagined it, but he walked round long enough to convince her he was taking it seriously, then went to stand by the wire fence. Beyond the slope of blond grass, the railway line had started to hum. He was aware of Teresa, at the top of the steps now, watching him. In a minute, a dozen or so rocking, swaying carriages hurtled past. A child with her face pressed against the glass waved to him, but the small human gesture was lost in the grind of pistons. He felt a ripple across his naked skin as the displaced air rushed back.

‘Can you see anything?’

‘No. If he was here he’s gone.’

‘It’d be him all right.’

‘I didn’t see anybody.’

She gazed around her, the moonlight glittering in the whites of her eyes. ‘Perhaps it’s me. Perhaps I’m imagining things.’

But she didn’t sound convinced.

Shivering, she pulled the edges of her wrap together and went down the steps into the house, and with a last look at the wet grass and the shining rails, he turned to follow her.

Six

Neville replied to Paul’s note of congratulation with an invitation to lunch.
Just family,
he’d scribbled underneath his signature.
I thought we might go for a swim afterwards? Weather permitting, of course.

‘I wonder what he wants,’ Teresa said.

‘Does he have to want something?’

‘No-o.’

‘Well, I’ll know soon enough, won’t I?’

Sunday found him in the Nevilles’ dining room overlooking a balding lawn. The weather, after a few fitful weeks of mixed sunshine and rain, was now definitely getting warmer. The rhododendron leaves were limp in the midday glare.

Paul was sitting next to Mrs Neville, a thin, energetic woman who was an enthusiastic suffragist.

‘Suffra
gist
,’ she insisted. ‘Not
gette.’

‘No,’ Neville said. ‘But
gette
’s on the way, isn’t it?’

‘Well, if the moderates don’t make progress, what do you expect? Obviously people are going to be attracted to more extreme tactics.’

‘Don’t start throwing bricks, my dear,’ Colonel Neville said. ‘You’re a terrible shot.’

Mrs Neville seemed to be fond of her family, in an abstracted kind of way, though Neville, jokingly but with an edge to his voice, claimed she never listened to a word he said.

‘Poof! What nonsense.’ She dropped a kiss on her husband’s forehead, acknowledged her son and his guest with a vague, bright smile, and swept out of the room.

‘It’s true,’ Neville said, caught between amusement and self-pity. ‘Half the time she doesn’t know I’m here.’

Paul thought he detected a lot of tension beneath the surface in this family. Neville was in awe of his father, a war correspondent
who’d faced danger in every corner of the world. Throughout his life the father had gravitated towards violent conflict, and the son was desperate to measure up. No easy matter if the worst danger you face is a collapsing easel. But it made sense of Neville’s preoccupation with virility in art. Paul had read a couple of Neville’s articles now and both of them were full of the need to stamp out the effeminacy of the Oscar Wilde years. You’d think, the way Neville wrote about it, that the Wilde trials had taken place last year, not a generation ago. What a shadow it cast.

After coffee Colonel Neville retired to his study and the two young men went upstairs to Neville’s quarters: a large studio right at the top of the house. The treetops were level with his windows.

There were several completed paintings to admire, one of them very fine indeed. Many were urban, industrial landscapes. Paul was generous with his praise, though inwardly discouraged. In comparison with this his own work was immature, and he couldn’t understand why. He wasn’t particularly young for his age. His mother’s long illness and early death had forced him to grow up and take on responsibility. So this maturity of vision in a man whom he found distinctly childish in many respects bewildered him. Living at home, spoiled, self-pitying, moaning on because his mother didn’t pay him enough attention – for God’s sake! The work and the man seemed to bear no relation to each other. And the contrast was all the more painful because Neville was painting the landscape of Paul’s childhood. These paintings were the fruit of a trip up north to seek out the same smoking terraces and looming ironworks that Paul had turned his back on every Sunday, cycling off into the countryside in search of Art. He glanced sideways at Neville.
One
of them was mad.

‘They’re very powerful.’

‘I managed to get inside one of the works and see a furnace being tapped. God, it’s an amazing sight.’

‘You haven’t tried to paint it yet?’

‘No, I’m gearing myself up.’ He was pulling a bathing costume out of a drawer as he spoke. ‘Shall we go for a swim, then? It’s too nice to stay inside.’

Pausing on the landing to collect towels from the airing cupboard, he led the way downstairs. In the hall dust motes seethed in a shaft of sunlight. No sound anywhere, no voices, no traffic noise. Only the steady ticking of a clock.

‘It’s quiet, isn’t it?’

Paul was referring to the absence of traffic noise, but Neville chose to take it more personally.

‘Oh, it’s always like this. Do you know, sometimes I don’t talk to a living soul from one day’s end to the next? Mother’s got her blasted meetings, Father’s never here …’

‘I suppose there’s always the Café Royal.’

‘Can’t stand the place.’

He was there every night. ‘I thought you liked it.’


Like
it? Of course I don’t like it. It’s vile.’

They had turned out of Keats Grove now and were walking up the hill towards the Heath, the sun heavy on the backs of their necks.

‘I’ve been meaning to ask,’ Neville said. ‘How did you get on with Tonks?’

‘All right, I think. He doesn’t seem to want to throw me out, and the fact is, I don’t want to leave. There’s too much going on.’

Neville was too short of breath to reply and they climbed the rest of the hill in silence. When they reached the bathing area, he pushed the gate open to reveal an area of sparse grass covered in lobster-pink flesh. Paul stepped inside and took a deep breath. Smells of pond water, sopping towels, damp hair. The path ahead had wet footprints dabbled all over it.

‘Reminds me of school, this,’ Neville said.

‘I’m surprised you can stand it.’ Neville looked a question.

‘Well, you don’t seem to have liked school much.’

‘Doesn’t mean I don’t remember it. Let’s face it, Tarrant, it never really leaves you, does it?’

‘Mine has.’

‘Where did you go?’

‘Grammar school.’

‘Oh, well.’ He was tugging at his tie as he spoke. ‘I say, Tarrant, you’re not chippy, are you?’

‘I’m sorry?

‘Chippy. A bit, you know –’

‘Not at all. I think it had a lot of advantages.’

‘Such as?’

‘Not having to shower with your back to the wall.’

‘Oh.’

Neville looked around him uneasily, but the men stretched out on the grass might have been asleep for all the interest they showed.

‘Or perhaps you think that’s an exaggeration?’

‘Not where I was. The dormitory was a sewer.’

My God. Paul hadn’t expected either the frankness or the bitterness of Neville’s response.

‘Where do we leave our clothes?’

‘C’mon, I’ll show you.’

Neville was obviously well-known here. Several of the men lying on the grass looked up and greeted him as he walked past. Paul followed him reluctantly into a low brick building that housed the lockers. It was too soon after lunch to go swimming and he disliked padding about on other people’s wet footprints. At one point he was holding on to the wall and shaking one foot like a disgruntled cat.

A few minutes later, walking along to the end of the jetty with his locker key on a string round his neck, he began to change his mind. The pond was a sheet of silver with concentric rings of turbulence around the dark sleek heads of the swimmers. He gazed out beyond the fringe of willows and hawthorn bushes to the sunlit hills beyond, then turned and started to climb down the steps, the icy water inching up his mottled things.

Neville came running along the jetty. ‘Jump, man. S’torture doing it like that.’

A second later, he dived into the choppy water. Paul watched him resurface: eyes blind, slack mouth sucking air. Then he dived again. A gleaming back showed above the water and he was gone.

Challenged, Paul let himself fall backwards, through the warm skin of water into the murky depths. All around him now were white, struggling legs. Neville swam towards him, arms sheathed
in silver bubbles, hair floating from side to side as he twisted and turned. They stared at each other. Absurdly, out of nowhere it became a contest. Who could stay down longest. Lungs bursting, Paul gave in and broke the surface on a screech of indrawn breath. He pushed the hair out of his eyes to see Neville, a few feet away, laughing into his face.

BOOK: Life Class
2.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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