Authors: Araminta Hall
Clive was nothing more than a poster on a wall, a pathetic schoolgirl crush, which Dot in her naivety called love. Mavis wondered if Dot would ever speak to her again if she were ever to reveal that after they’d dropped Dot home she’d sucked his dick and then let him fuck her in the back of his car. Dot still thought Mavis was a virgin: until that night Mavis had been a virgin. Dot still thought that one day Clive would see the error of his ways, dump Debbie and declare undying love on a moonlit night to her. Yet the reality was that he didn’t love anyone as much as himself and he hadn’t spoken to Mavis once since that night.
Mavis was a clever girl, much brighter than her surroundings. She had lowered her sights and persuaded herself that she didn’t really even want to try for Oxford and that Manchester suited her so much better, for no other reason than that was where Dot was headed. She couldn’t wait to take Dot away from this dump, to show her that there were places where being clever didn’t get you ignored for ten years, that there were people out there who would love them and listen to them.
She lay back on her bed now and curled herself into a ball, trying to erase the knowledge of the sickness that was relentlessly washing through her body. Her mother had complained the night before about the smell of vomit in the bathroom, if you could call meekly mentioning anything complaining. Any other mother might wonder why her teenage daughter had been sick every day for the past week or at least ask her if she felt OK. And if her mother didn’t ask then maybe her dad might or even her best friend. Mavis thought that she had been surrounded by selfish people all her life and it made her want to punch a few walls.
She calmed herself with the thought that Dot wasn’t really fundamentally selfish, she had been made that way. If you asked Mavis it wasn’t Dot’s lack of father that was the problem, more her lack of mother. You would never meet anyone who seemed more like a replica of a person than Alice Cartwright. She reminded Mavis of the last sheet you print out of an ink cartridge; pale and blotchy with missing words. Last Saturday night they’d all been at Dot’s as per watching
. Clarice had been groaning at everything that was said, which Dot found highly annoying, but which amused Mavis. Sometimes Clarice was the best person to watch reality TV with as she was the only other person Mavis had met who seemed to hold it in as much disdain as she did whilst being unable to look away. Eventually the adverts came on and Dot went to the loo and, just for something to say, Mavis had asked Alice whom she wanted to win.
She’d looked up at this and Mavis had been shocked all over again, as she so often was, at just how beautiful Dot’s mother was. It was something about the fragility of her almost translucent skin which made you want to touch it to see if it was made of cream, or maybe her stupidly huge brown eyes or the long auburn hair that gave her the look of a fairy tale princess. Mavis thought she verged on a cliché; as if an illustrator had been asked to draw his perfect woman.
‘Win what?’ she’d said.
,’ Mavis had answered, but then felt the need to add: ‘You know, the programme we’re watching.’
Clarice had shifted in her seat and Mavis glanced at her, seeing a look of – what? – maybe embarrassment cross her usually impenetrable features.
Alice had glanced worriedly at the screen, seeming to see it for the first time. That is a television, Mavis had wanted to say, it projects moving pictures into our living rooms for our entertainment, although I think one day we’ll discover it’s the government’s way of keeping us docile. We watch
on it every Saturday, we’ve done it for years.
‘The only one who can sing is that girl with the ridiculous hair,’ said Clarice.
‘God, what a name.’
Mavis looked back at Alice but she was staring at her hands again, obviously relieved that nothing more was required of her. Not for the first time, Mavis wondered if she had something medically wrong with her. But then Dot came back into the room and the theme tune started and they had all let themselves be dulled by the blue box.
Not that any of that helped her now. Mavis left her bedroom for the first time that day to go to the kitchen to get a biscuit, knowing that the sweetness was the only thing that might subdue the sickness for a few minutes. Her mother was in there polishing the kettle.
‘I was going to make some tea,’ Mavis said, even though she hadn’t been.
‘I’ll put it on for you.’ It was obvious that her mother was only offering because she didn’t want other hands to touch the sparkling chrome. Mavis opened a cupboard door and rustled around, feeling the tension at her back as she shifted tins of soup into tins of tomatoes, flour into sugar.
‘Are you looking for something?’ asked her mother.
‘They’re in the tin. They’re always in the tin.’ There was a note of desperation in her voice so sharp Mavis wondered if she might cry. But instead of asking what the matter was Mavis walked to the tin and fished out a biscuit, eating it standing up leaning against the side, letting the crumbs drop on to her T-shirt before they hit the floor. Each one fell like a boulder into the silence; her mother watching their path. Mavis willed her mother to tell her to stop, to catch the crumbs, to get her a plate, anything apart from the awful twitching as she waited for her to leave the room so she could get out the dust devil.
A faulty scale sounded from the dining room. ‘Dad got a pupil then,’ Mavis said, pointlessly. Her mother nodded and Mavis knew she was too preoccupied with the crumbs to speak. She left the room, hoping that she was trailing crumbs behind her. She stopped outside the dining room door and listened for a minute to her father trying to sound important, trying to impress a primary-school kid with his musical knowledge. She was filled with an immense hatred for her family, her pathetic, tiny, fucked-up family.
And when you looked at it that way you had to feel sorry for Dot, didn’t you, as her family were no better; sometimes they even seemed weirder than her own. At least on the face of it hers were semi-normal, she at least had the requisite number of parents and a mother with a fairly run-of-the-mill mental illness. Dot was stuck in that creepy house of hers with a grandmother who thought she was a cross between the Queen and God and a mother who lived her life as if she ingested industrial doses of Valium on a daily basis. Because what mother would never mention their daughter’s father, never even tell her his name, pretend like she was an immaculate conception? ‘Why don’t you just ask her?’ Mavis would ask Dot when she was still too young to understand the impossibility of the situation. Of course she’d understood for years now; she’d worked out long ago that families, unless they inhabit American TV shows, do not communicate when they speak. Now her hopes for redemption for both of them centred on late-night conversations in student digs illuminated only by fairy lights and candles in which they’d amuse their fellow students with tales about their lunatic mothers, making themselves sound so much more interesting in the process.
Mavis and Dot had often speculated whether they’d been drawn together because of this; they’d even made themselves blood sisters at some single-figured age and then had their noses pierced together in a shabby tattoo parlour in Cartertown when much too young. Dot’s grandmother had been the only adult in their lives to comment on this and even she had limited her disapproval to a shake of the head and a sharp intake of breath, something which had pleased them less than an observer might have thought. Two weird lonely little girls feeling their way through life without any real guidance. The thought was enough to make Mavis turn her phone back on, but as soon as she did it bleeped the arrival of a message. She pressed the screen and her heart flipped pathetically when she saw it was from Clive.
Yo! Debs n C r havin a hip hopping NYE party. Druith Cricket Club. 8 till late. Respect.
It was enough to make Mavis want to cry, although she never would have done. He thought so little of her he was happy to fuck her, not speak to her for six weeks and still invite her in a group text to his party. Why not shit on her doorstep while he was at it? Although probably she only had herself to blame. He’d been joined at the lips to Debra Paulson since year nine and she had the wardrobe of Kylie Minogue and the body of a porn star, as well as the reputation for never refusing anal sex. And Mavis had gagged. She’d been trying to block out the memory since it had happened but it refused to leave her alone, worrying her like a bad dream. She had been reassuring herself by repeating the mantra, ‘It had only been for a second, maybe he hadn’t noticed?’ Mavis groaned and lay back heavily on to her bed; of course he’d noticed. He’d noticed and told all their friends; right now boys she had known since primary school were doubling over at the tale of that frigid freak Mavis. But it had been a shock. She’d read enough Anaïs Nin and Nabokov to expect his dick to taste salty and fishy like the sea, but it hadn’t, it had tasted of sweat and even (faintly) of urine and she’d been overwhelmed by the thought that she might as well be licking a toilet seat, which had made her gag, just for a second.
Her phone rang and it was inevitably Dot.
‘Mave, did you just get a text?’
Her friend sounded so over-excited she wanted to put the phone down again, she even contemplated lying, but knew it was useless. ‘You mean the one from Clive?’
‘Like, hello? Of fucking course.’ Mavis felt herself sink lower, as if her body was melting into the sheets. ‘I mean I didn’t even know he had our numbers.’
‘Of course he’s got our numbers. We’ve sat in small classrooms with him for most of our lives.’
‘Yeah, but …’
‘He’s gotta fill the cricket club.’
There was a pause and then the question Mavis had been dreading. ‘You are going, aren’t you?’
‘I sort of thought not.’
‘Cos he’s basically a dick.’
‘Clive’s a dick? When did this happen?’
‘It didn’t happen, he’s always been a dick, I just hadn’t noticed before.’
‘I mean, what’s got into you, Mave? You’ve got so moody lately and now you’re saying Clive’s a dick when I’ve sat up with you on many nights discussing the fineness of his arse.’
‘Yeah, well, you can be fit and still a dick, so.’
‘I mean, fuck, we live in the middle of fucking nowhere and he’s having a hip hop night and in the fucking cricket club. I mean, please. He’s probably never even been to London, it’s so far on a fucking coach. And New Year’s Eve. That’s like ten weeks away or something. It’s tragic.’
‘OK, don’t come then, I’ll go on my own.’
‘Come on, don’t guilt trip me.’
‘Whatever. Have you asked your dad yet?’
‘Shit, I hoped you weren’t serious.’
‘Well I am.’
‘OK, I’ll do it tonight.’
Mavis and her parents’ supper always took place in the kitchen, even though they had a dining room, and her mother always kept the main light shining down, as if daring either of them to spill a drop. Her father was smoking at the back door when Mavis went in and her mother was worrying herself into a frenzy.
‘I think the ash is blowing in, Gerald,’ she was saying as she tried to drain the beans without splashing any unnecessary water over the pristine sink.
‘Well, if it is then I’ll sweep it up,’ he replied, raising his eyes at Mavis who pretended she hadn’t seen, sitting heavily instead in her place. Her father stubbed his cigarette against the door and threw the butt in the bin.
‘I wish you wouldn’t,’ said her mother.
‘Wouldn’t what?’ he answered.
‘It leaves marks, when you stub it on the paintwork.’
‘You’re joking, right? For Christ’s sake, Sandra, I stubbed it on the outside of the door. No one’s going to notice, except maybe a passing squirrel.’
Mavis was never going to hate anyone as much as her parents hated each other. She had to live here, but they actually chose this life. Her father pulled a bottle of wine from the rack and sat down. He was still wearing his tweed jacket, which he now shucked off, revealing another choice shirt/cardigan combo. He sniffed his wine before he drank it and Mavis hated him all the more for pretending that it wasn’t really £3.99 from Tesco.
‘Can I have a glass, Dad?’ she asked instead of the bile she wished she could vent.
He looked surprised, but checked himself, not wanting to betray the role he played of the hip music teacher. I should have been in a band, he liked to say, nearly was before family life came calling. He poured out some of the dark red fluid into Mavis’s glass but didn’t bother to offer any to his wife, who had never drunk, to Mavis’s knowledge.
The wine warmed her and so she said, ‘Oh, before I forget, Dot wants to learn piano.’
Her father looked stupidly pleased, as if he knew that the desire to appreciate music would come to everyone in the end. ‘Does she? That’s fantastic news.’
‘So, like, you’ll give her lessons?’
‘Of course. Hang on.’ He fetched his diary from the sideboard and flicked through it. ‘Mondays at five are good for me.’
‘I’ll text her.’ Mavis jabbed the message into her phone before the wine wore off, spooning her food in with the other hand.
‘You’ll spill it,’ said her mother.
‘For goodness’ sake, Sandra,’ said her father.
The phone bleeped back.
‘Looks like you’re on,’ said Mavis.
It began with the production of
Romeo and Juliet
at the village hall. Up until that moment Alice hadn’t realised that she wanted to stand on a stage and say other people’s words to a blacked-out audience. But she’d seen the poster when she was running an errand for her mother the Christmas after she’d left school and, really, what else was there to do? She’d gone straight round to Mr Jenkins’s house, as it said on the poster, and knocked at the door and he’d let her in and she’d read for him and got the part of Juliet, all in the space of thirty minutes. You’re a natural, Alice, he kept saying to her and she left with a lightness she’d never felt before because not only had she never been a natural at anything, but also because she knew he was right.