Read Wait Till I Tell You Online

Authors: Candia McWilliam

Wait Till I Tell You (8 page)

BOOK: Wait Till I Tell You
9.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

It was his own feeling, come from the mouth of another, put in words, clumsy as could be. He felt for the first time in his life that there would be moves he could make that would be a refinement over words, if he let someone help him this one time.

‘Come away in over here,’ he said, and in a voice he had not used except when thinking aloud. ‘Put down your things first.’

In the alcove of the main room of this rich man’s playhouse, built to pass a luncheon in perhaps or to shelter ladies from the rain on fishing trips, built to accommodate crinolines and painting gear and rods, Ina set down her bag, containing her drawing things, pencils of several degrees of softness, and a picnic for two, apples, cheese, bread and ham. He saw the brittle, rich, charcoal sticks in her painting roll. They seemed to urge upon him the new pleasure of writing on an expanse of clean plaster.

The boats, as they will, left alone, jostled in the small cove, unable to keep apart.

On the Shingle

Our mothers had decided that the Chocolate House in Princes Street would be our part of the afternoon, after they had finished in Jenners and Forsyths. We were to meet them at four and woe betide us if we were late back from the baths at Portobello. Anne’s mother had said why did we not just away off to the baths at Glenogle but my mother was English and said there was a wave-making machine at Portobello; by this she meant that it was cleaner and did not have the yellow tinge of Glenogle, also that the higher entrance charge kept out what she surely did not describe to herself as working-class people.

On the top of our bus, Anne – with whom I was in love since she was ten and I was nine and she had a dog – and I told lies to each other.

‘My dad’s thinking of getting a house out of the middle of Kirkcaldy, I’ll have to go to boarding school (this was our dream) and then what’ll Mandy (this was Anne’s dog) do? Will you not just think of that?’

‘My daddy plays a dab game of ice hockey,’ I replied. ‘You should see him, though it’s no good for his heart since he was a hero in the war.’ My father was a quiet man, a doctor. I doubt he knew if ice hockey was a food or a complaint, or if it was at all. His war had been heroic, in an unmartial way; he spent two years in bed with tuberculosis, and had learnt to smock.

‘Dad’s thinking of getting a purple Consul.’ This could be true. Anne’s dad was a big man with a lino factory and her brothers were down for Glenalmond. Scottish snobbery is sweet on the tongue, its private signals words which lift the blood with pride of race – Gordonstoun, Oxenfoord, Skye, Buccleuch, and traps to keep strangers out, Auchinleck, Ruthven.

The bus went past the big power station and there were the baths, low, white, harled. They were stepped and across their square gable, in wide-spaced blue letters, thin, elegant, casting their shadow back on to the distemper in the sun, was written ‘Portobello Swimming Baths’. Each letter was exaggeratedly tall and thin, half as long again as it need be. The railings of the baths also had this disproportion, and bore long iron ellipses at their tips. The tiles were raspberry red to trim, or white, edged with leaf green, on walls and floor. There was a tremendous smell of chlorine and over the entrance was a notice to tell us that the next waves would be at half-past the hour of two and that spectators would be welcome in the viewing gallery, price 2d. We each paid sixpence and went in through the turnstile which was taller than Anne, though she was older. She was so fair her hair went grey when it was wet. I was so fat that it was a great show of love to let her see me in my bathing suit. Usually, I’d only let my mother, and then in the viewing gallery, what with her bikini and her accent.

The point at Portobello was to get two goes of the waves, to get rescued and to see a grown up (not a man) with as few clothes as possible. We would get the two-thirty and the three o’clock waves which should just leave time for the other two tasks which must of course not be mentioned, certainly not to our mothers, nor, until afterwards, to each other, this to guard against disappointment.

We changed in separate cubicles into our black suits. Anne’s hair was short but the baths stipulated the wearing of caps for those with long hair, even men. To be seen in cap at the baths became a paradoxical index of rebellion in Edinburgh for those years. I squeezed my two pigtails into the sore rubber helmet. We wore rubber bracelets at the wrist, to hold the key of the lockers where we had put our clothes. To reach the baths, which were open to the air, we had to walk between the rows of zinc lockers, past the attendants doing wet knitting in white overalls, and through a foot bath, tiled in white rectangles with stiff palmate shapes in dark green on the odd one. The bleach-stinking water was delicious to the feet. The big thing at this point was not to giggle at the notice which said ‘NO SPITTING, NO JUMPING, NO RUNNING, NO PUSHING, NO SHOUTING, NO PETTING’. The trick was to say something dead funny just before you read the last bit, so you had to laugh anyway. Simultaneously, we said the name of a girl two forms above (who had what we called boozums) and we were off, hyperventilating with giggles. We giggled like drunks. It made us wild.

Out in the sun by the baths, we stood at the shallow end; at a foot’s interval all down the baths, the height was recorded in green figures on the white tiles in feet and inches. The shallow end was 2’6”, the deep end 10’. Four lifeguards stood, one at each corner, in white trousers and singlets; on their feet were white rubber shoes. The pool lay, a flat pale blue rectangle, banks of seats on three sides. At the shallow end was the viewers’ gallery. It was in the tall clock tower of the baths, and beneath it was the mighty pump which made the artificial waves, yet spectators could have tea and pancakes and not feel a thing, looking out through glass at their intrepid friends or children breasting the regulated waves each half-hour. Portobello is by the sea, but we were never tempted by its untimed grey breakers.

Anne could, of course, swim. I floated very nicely, my mother said. We went up to the place 5’6” was marked, as tall as me and a lot taller than Anne, and we clung to the edge waiting for the two-thirty waves.

There they came, rolling, smooth, every seventh one bigger, so high you could see through it.

Was it every seventh one? There was a magic number, but I forget it now and surely the rhythms of those warm false waves cannot be those of the lunar paradigm awaited by surfers in the real seas? Our waves were warm with the extra heat from the power station; now it might be called recreational pollution-cycling. Between waves, we toiled up towards the shallow end, always combed out and back a little deeper by each inevitable buffet as it came, hitting us in the chin and lifting us so we stood like soldiers held in the apex of each wave, before sliding down its lee-side and readying ourselves to breast the next. By the time the five minutes of waves were done, our eyes were red and our fingers white and crinkly at the tip. We were also hoarse with screaming, and ready just to splash in the shallow end for a while, biding our time. We sat on the red Dumfries sandstone steps, rough on our bottoms, and watched the youths and girls (Anne said ‘girrul’) whose play was as formal and pointed as a dance. We did not
at the youths; this would be too rude. But we did watch the chests of the girls with the attention of doctors. The big boys would splash at the girls with their feet, or dive near them and rush up through the water to stand breast to breast in the warm blue which might rock them into touching, skin washed innocent of heat and hair by the water. The girls made much play of ignoring the boys and when the boys looked away the girls redrew their eyes with particularly ostentatious displays of indifference. One girl moved her head and clapped her hands more than the rest. Even in the rubber cap her face was pretty; on her right hip was a tiny embroidered diver. When she shrieked, she took her hand away from her mouth as though holding a cigarette. She was not chicken-wired with pink veins on her legs like Anne, nor was she freckled like me. She was pale nut colour all over, not the nuts my mother had with her drink, but the sugar brown of tablet. Her breasts moved after she stopped, and she wore tiny rings in her ears. In Edinburgh, it’s the Poles and the Scots-Italians who do that.

‘You’re right stupid, that you are,’ called one of the boys to her, in a yearning voice. ‘You canna even do a duck dive. Get on, have a wee go. I’ll help yas.’ His voice was about seventeen.

‘Och leave her, Ian, I’ll give you a race,’ said another boy, with an older voice and a ringleader’s way to him.

The girl looked up, and lifted both hands to her rubber head, touching it lightly as though it were curls. All in the same moment, she pushed her hands flat to her head and steered her elbows simultaneously out and over her head, never moving her eyes and lifting her front, so two solid hemispheres rose between the scoops of her collarbones and the navy cotton of her bathing costume. She stared until the boys had gone, knowing they would be back, and went to clutch and giggle with her plain girlfriend by the side (4’6”, just right for spying out the lads without getting bombed by the bullies). Anne and I were going to discover radium, or something of the kind, so we’d not much time for boys, but I did see a glimpse of how that girl could burn in the water, incandescent even in her rubber hat.

For some weeks Anne and I had been doing research in our laboratory; my mother naturally got it wrong and called it the nursery. There we stirred shoplifted fizzy sweets into water and sealed the solution in test tubes; we each had a Letts’ chemistry set, though the copper sulphate had run out long ago. We had dissected a shrew and felt a breakthrough was not far away; the teacher who was as near as we had come to Madame Curie was Miss Lindsay. She was firm but fair and wore a blue coat for chemistry, a green one for biology, and thrilling twin sets for assembly. She had quite a front and was said to have had a fiancé who was lost in the Western Isles, so now she was dedicated to science. I did quite good imitations of Miss Lindsay saying, ‘If the surface of the Earth was six inches deep in sand, the number of grains would not yet equal the number of molecules of matter constituting a milk bottle.’ Atoms came in the next form up. Was that, I wonder now, so only the girls who were ready for it would learn of the divisibility even of the atom?

‘Don’t look now,’ said Anne, nudging me, and rolling her eyes up. Starting from the shiny tiles, I saw two pairs of feet, one hairy, one smooth. Looking further up, I saw the flat modesty apron of an older lady’s bathing costume, pulled over wide hips. I was above looking at the parallel part of her companion, so up I looked. Miss Lindsay! She was arm in arm with a man, a man about as old as my father, well, old, anyhow. She was staring into his face and some red hair was coming out of her hat.

‘How rude,’ said Anne and I’d to agree. We stared as hard as we could and felt horribly let down. They slipped into the water at 6’, separating to do so. It was three o’clock and time for the new waves, our last of this afternoon. We weren’t that thrilled any more. So, Miss Lindsay was not dedicated to science. We watched her and the man. This man would never be lost in the Western Isles, he was too noisy and hairy for that. His head burst out of the top of each wave like a dog’s, hers beside it, pink and laughing. We were glad that we would never be interested in men, being committed to a life of seeking something very important, separating it from its baser element, like Madame Curie with the pitch-blende. We bobbed and floated, but I, for one, was above all this now.

There was a furious yell, and all four lifeguards rushed to the deep end, white clothed and muscly on morticians’ feet. ‘Here, yous, that’ll do, ye can git oot if there’s ony mair o’ that, d’ye hear me the noo?’

Miss Lindsay and the man were very red in the face. He patted her and said, ‘There, there.’ She ducked her face into his neck as though she were a child waiting to be carried to bed, and gave him a great smile, her face shining. She looked more naked than the girl in the earrings had done. She did not look a bit rude.

I’d lost my taste for getting rescued by now.

‘When these waves are over, shall we get the bus?’ said Anne.

‘Uh huh,’ I said, a noise my mother said was as Scots as ‘Em’ for ‘Um’.

When we’d had the compulsory shower and I’d wrung out my pigtails, we rolled our costumes in our towels like Swiss rolls and went off to wait at the bus stop by the shingle. There was a drunk old woman crying on the sea wall; she had a Shetland collie at her side, all nerves and petticoats. Mandy was a Sheltie, so Anne stroked the dog, though our mothers frequently told us not to touch strange dogs.

‘Oh look at the two of yes, a lifetime to go, two wee girruls and a’ they years tae love.’ She smelt. Her hair was in a red and yellow Paisley scarf in the bitter wind. The white sunshine showed her blue cheeks and the scum on her teeth. ‘Pain and grief and the vale of tears and it’s no go the merry-go-round and ma gude man dead in his chair with his pipe in his teeth and the teeth sae clampit they’ tae cut it oot Oh Christ and whaur’s the sense two wee girruls tell me that and I’ll gie yes the bus ride aye and the moon and stars an’ a.’

Anne was all right, because she could look very hard at the dog. She gentled its allsort nose in her hand and looked out to the grey sea with its real waves. Her hair was drying back to white. The wind smelt of salt and the bleach from the baths, the old woman of pee and dirt and drink. My mother said the crones in the Canongate drank a mixture of meths and Brasso, called Blue Billy; she herself drank Cinzano Bianco, ‘And devil take the hindmost,’ she’d say.

I was fair to giggle or cry and I knew the old woman (or was she old?) was going to touch me; it was a race against time, would the bus never come?

BOOK: Wait Till I Tell You
9.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Season's Greetings by Lee_Brazil
Unfaithful by Devon Scott
To Tame a Wilde (Wilde in Wyoming) by Terry, Kimberly Kaye
Finding Home by Georgia Beers
Crown of Dragonfire by Daniel Arenson
Dark Horse by Honey Brown
The Bone Thief by V. M. Whitworth
The Definitive Book of Body Language by Pease, Barbara, Pease, Allan