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Authors: Candia McWilliam

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BOOK: Wait Till I Tell You
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Carla had evened out her skin tone for years now by the use of the sunbed in her salon. Honestly, she did not know how other women did without. Her whole skin'd a gorgeous tan, a deep colour, more rose-brown than holiday-brown, she liked to think. She tanned in her undies from modesty, not for health reasons. You did not know when a client might require an impromptu appointment, and readiness was Carla's watchword.

Wee Ian was as uncouth as most of these men, thought Carla; she could not have borne it if she'd lived here to this day. Not the way she was now, used to the gracious things of life and a certain style.

Carla'd done nail extensions on herself after fixing Andrew's make-up for his coffin. She did not want his family to feel she'd taken no care with her own grooming, like an operative, when they were all family if you thought about it.

‘Yes, I will, thanks,' she called to Jessie, who was passing with a plate of ham sandwiches and a bottle, although with her back to Carla. Jessie looked at her in a startled way, and extended and poured. Picking up the sandwich wasn't easy as it was the sort with a big edge on it, crust was it? Nail extensions meet more peaceably around a thinner sandwich. To eat the sandwich at all required two hands, of which only the thumb and forefinger could be used. The nail extensions perforated the bread otherwise, and collected butter and ham in their long copper-coloured arcs. The copper was an echo of the Unfair Advantage. It had been a wee treat to herself on turning forty, the colour change. A shift to the mellower register as a sign she'd no quarrel with anything life might send her way.

Ian was watching her in several directions like a man watching a tank of fish. It was a sign of the way he could not hold his drink, Carla thought. His eyes strayed over her face and body and he looked as if he might cry or be sick.

‘Jessie,' he called, ‘ye mind Carla?' Ian had only married Jessie from necessity as Carla recalled it. He'd broken all the other hearts his one brief summer of flower, and Jessie was the sensible one of all the girls. Except that she'd married Ian, reflected Carla. ‘I do that,' said Jessie. She was slight and had more grey than black hair and a plain old suit in navy wool with sheepdog hairs on it. Not one to set a living room alight, Carla could see.

‘Will I get yous a nice cup of tea?' Jessie asked Carla, looking into her painted eyes with clean blue ones.

?' said Carla, socially, in a great swoop before she finished the rest of her glass, against waste.

As Jessie left, Carla saw how Ian rubbed his wife with his shoulder, quite hard, as though he'd an itch, as she went past with her tray and her dishcloths and her used plates. Flat shoes, Jessie wore, and her face was weathered like spring petals late in the season. Jessie dropped a kiss on to the head of her husband. It was like going unclothed in public, thought Carla. How could a married woman do that?

The doctor came in from outdoors, a healthy flush on him. It was colder than ever out now the stars were starting. Some people with children had taken them home. There was music, the sound of a fiddle from the upstairs room and something on the telly or the radio from elsewhere in the front room. No, it was worse. It was the minister, singing, quite a few of them singing. It was worse even than that. It was religious music, sung quite ordinary-style, as though it had any place in folks' houses. ‘Be ye lift up ye everlasting doors, so that the king of glory shall come in. Who is the King of Glory?' They asked the question of each other with their big drunken faces hanging down off their eyebrows. Then they answered the question, nodding, looking pleased as though they had just recalled a name they'd earlier forgotten from an important story. ‘The Lord of Hosts and none but He the King of Glory is!' They looked very pleased about that. No one seemed embarrassed at this inappropriate moment to bring God up, when he'd had his way already in the graveyard and at the funeral with the tears being blown off their faces by the wind. Indeed, they were giving this singing their all. It is the way with drunk men, thought Carla.

She took a glass from behind a photoframe with a snap of Ian and Jessie's Rhona holding up a lamb with a face looked like it'd been drinking ink and the black had seeped all into the whirls of wool. The glass was half full; she took the stuff in it down in one and returned the glass carefully behind the now less interesting photo, tucking it thoughtfully in under the support at the back of the frame, so's it wouldn't disrupt Jessie's decor. Such as
was. There was another glass needed tidying in this manner, Carla happened to see, just in behind the curtain that had not been drawn. The sea showed only as a crisping pale blur the size it seemed of a hand mirror under the white simple moon. Otherwise the water might have been sky, fallen down to meet the land. She replaced the glass behind the curtain. The creel boat bobbed on the lifted water or floated in the sky, whichever was which. No sound went on as long as the sound of the sea, that was always there. Two hundred yards from Ian and Jessie's house, the graveyard had gone blue and then grey and was now silver.

‘If you give her the tea, Jessie,' said the clearly drunken doctor advancing before the brown pot that loomed behind him, ‘I'll try to help with the other wee bit problem.'

It was the usual way for Carla. She was just looking about to see who ‘her' might be, when she realized it was her own self they were on about. People never let up talking about her. It was why she'd left the island in the first place. No privacy. No time to yourself. No life of your own. No respect, for you surely could not have that in a place where you were too well known.

‘Milk, Carla?' asked Jessie, ‘or straight?'

‘You go on and laugh at me,' said Carla. ‘Laugh. I'm soberer than the lot of them. And prettier.' The fat ugly drunken men in the corner looked at her and resumed their indecent singing of the psalms of David in metre.

She felt the familiar powerful helplessness when she gave in to the instinct to do something wrong. As a rule, she did this late at night in the salon, and she would run around talking to her now absent clientele as she did within her head when they were present, answering with her truth instead of their own, anatomizing their faults and explaining why they were right to fear death. Another great advantage of loneliness was the freedom it gave you to meet yourself. And often the self you met was different from the one you'd met before.

‘You're tired, Carol dear,' said the doctor.

‘You look exhausted yourself, doctor,' said Carla. ‘By the same token, if I may so say. And it's Carla. I live in Stirling now.'

‘Is that right?' asked the doctor, getting busy with a glass of water and rattling a glittery sheet of what she could have sworn were jumping beans. ‘You don't have to change your name when you move house,' he continued. ‘I know people who've emigrated down under and they're still called what they were always called.'

‘What's that?' asked Carla. She wanted to know the name of someone who had gone all that way, down to Australia. If she'd've done that it wouldn't have been anything as ordinary as Carla she'd've selected.

‘The name they were always called. Their first name. The name they had first. I don't know. There are too many to think.'

‘You either know no one who has been to Australia, or you are a very drunk man,' said Carla, and she fell to the carpet in a shining heap of orange limbs and pleated aubergine wool, thus avoiding the gelatine-and-insult placebos the doctor had been about to offer her. Her mixed hair, the mauve-red of neepskins and beetroots, lay more successful than the rest of her assembled self, in a rich fan on the carpet. Her poor disgraced faceful of paint had melted under the onslaught of the day.

Jessie began to pour tea for the thirty or so people left in the room. Each time she went back to the kitchen to fill the pot again, she gave Wee Ian a new thing to do. While she poured and milked and sugared the first few teas, Ian carried Carla to the kitchen table, and laid her along it, rolling the tablecloth up against her so that she wouldn't flop on to the plates of biscuits or curl up around the two big trifles Jessie had done in crystal-type bowls for when the last drinkers began to cry and need their pudding, around five in the morning that would be.

While Jessie dished out the second wave of teas, Ian did as she'd told him and went to get cotton wool and glycerine from the bathroom. Carla had that horrible orange skin, he thought, skin that needs watering, it's so parched, dried out to the colour of the sand in Bible lands. She was the colour of certain stones you got in quarries down in England, terrible thirsty stones that lasted less than eight hundred years.

Mind you, he thought, Carla herself must've been thirsty. She was out like a light. As he remembered it, she'd not done this to herself as a girl, when she'd been nothing to look at and never been anywhere but the island. He shook the glycerine in its bottle. It sparkled and shattered like crazy jelly and then pulled itself together till it was back to looking like water.

He was behaving sober but knew as he watched his careful actions from his brain that felt as though it was up on the dresser with the diesel receipts that he was not. He got very good at exacting tasks about a day into a blinder. But, God, he could take it. He was four times the size of the wee orange creature passed out on the kitchen table.

‘Undress her,' said Jessie, pouring hot water into the shiny brown teapot that seemed to be spelling letters out of its spout in steam. ‘Not right the way down. And fold her suit.'

The aubergine ensemble came away in three pieces. Each time he lifted Carla, he tried not to look at her body. This meant looking at her face, at the unpeeling animal-like false lashes growing off her eyelids, at the runs of mauve and fibrous black that had rained down her cheeks, at the awful shredded moustache of colour that had crept up from her mouth to her nose through the cracks in the orange mask that was like a dry riverbed. When he'd got down to her underthings, he saw she was orange all over except inside the plain flesh-coloured undies that were not the colour of her flesh. Inside them she seemed white as candles. The tiny white hairs grew out of her hard skin the way a pig's did out of a ham. The bottoms of her feet looked nice and soft and ordinary. He covered her with the tablecloth.

‘Here's your tea,' said Jessie. ‘Now go upstairs and fetch me one of Rhona's magazines. Nothing too way out. I want one with a make-up page. You know, Ian, a step-by-step to teach the wee girls how to put on the war paint.'

Ian had been about to start. He enjoyed the topic of his own daughter and make-up, especially if he'd had a dram. ‘Ye'll not leave the house like a hoor!' and so on. He had all the words ready in his head and had heard them said to his sister by his own father. ‘What d'ye want to paint your face for, to show it to laddies who've known you unpainted all your life? Eh? Wee hoor? Laddies that're mostly your own folk? Speak out will ye? And don't be insolent!' He knew what to say.

Ian,' said his wife. ‘And don't wake Rhona. She keeps the magazines on the chair by the bed.'

He came down the stair with a pile of the slippery scented coloured rubbish falling out down between his belly and his forearms. When he got back, Jessie had shut the door from the kitchen into the front room, so he closed it too. On the table under the cloth lay stiff, thin Carla, her face cleaned off by Jessie, who was just wiping it around the forehead with a swab of cotton wool. The white fibre was like snow next to the red-brown skin whose colour was cooked deep in.

‘Find me the clearest chart you can. You know the kind of thing. “Getting ready to go out on a date.” Something like that. Don't say it's disgusting. It doesn't mean the kids are doing anything. It's practice.'


‘For courting.'


‘Rhona's fourteen. One day you'll fall off the boat and find she's a big girl. Let her learn. She's safe here, at least. All she does is try out faces. Now, you hold that guide up for me and I'll have a try with the stuff out of Carol's handbag. She'll feel better that way.' Carla's bag contained many pots and sticks and wands, all of them with complicated names that gave no sign of where on the face they were intended for. Jessie worked slowly, without confidence but with the care of a good cakemaker following a new recipe. Layer by layer, as the light for applying colour to a human canvas grew clearer with the rising of the sun, Jessie remade the face of an older Carol into that of a younger, easier, Carla. Ian sat beside the kitchen table and spooned trifle into his mouth, sops of sponge and sweet sherry and custard and dream topping with a delicate adornment of coloured sugar strands falling to his acidic stomach to lie there and counteract with soft bulk the headache that was forming in his head, a not wholly unwelcome reminder that he was alive, that it was a new day, that his brother lay quiet in the earth beyond the house and before the sea, and that two women he had known all his life were close to him in the morning's light, one absorbed in kindness and the other returning to herself.

In the living room beyond the door, those mourners who had not yet left slept in the places where they had at last succumbed. The doctor and minister were away. A familial intimacy carried from body to body. Nothing was ugly. In the creek below the kirkyard the boat lay up on the hard brown sand. The sea was only a white rumour beyond the rocks.

BOOK: Wait Till I Tell You
7.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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