a short story by Rosemary Hayward
“You are much too fat for a young boy. You are as fat as a pig. You are like a blown up balloon on legs. Someday you will rub up against something sharp and you will rush backwards, like a loud, extended fart.”
Tip Martin’s face was already red, so he knew his grandma couldn’t see him blush. His walk across Clapham Common had been through sun-thick dusty air, the London summer sweating like a sumo wrestler. He smiled at his grandma. She stood, short and straight-backed, on the top step of her Lavender Hill house, the black rectangle of the open hallway behind her merging into her black leggings and long black sleeves, so that she floated like a limbless white shift above him. He walked up the five stone steps. She turned and went into the blackness.
Tip could remember when his grandma had kept the curtains tied back in the daytime and the windows open in the summer, soft air and the sound of London traffic living in the house with her. He could remember when her presence filled all the four floors: large warm kitchen in the basement, specially laid dance floor on the first floor, cheerful, light-filled bedrooms for him and his sister at the top. Now his grandmother inhabited the ground floor only, where his mother had made her put her bed in the bow-fronted living room, and built a bathroom where her little bedroom had been. Following that his grandmother had draped every vertical space of her living room, including the windows, with long lengths of cottons and silks stitched together from the remnant tables of fabric stores. Then she stopped leaving the ground floor.
Tip went down to the basement kitchen and pulled a hard salami and a tomato from the fridge. These he sliced thinly onto a small plate. He cut a wafer-thin slice of rye bread, no butter, poured a half glass of milk, and set it all on a tray. He added a tiny vase and placed in it a single yellow daisy from the bunch of flowers he had brought from his mother’s garden. He found a larger vase for the rest of the flowers and put them on the kitchen table. He did this every weekday, although when he walked over from school in his lunchtime he had to rely on a flower filched from a garden along his route. Sometimes, in winter, all he could find was a sprig of grimy privet from a hedge. The distance from his school was something over a mile, which gave him half an hour walking and half an hour with Grandma squeezed into his school lunch break. The walk in the summer holiday was much longer, across the common from Clapham South Side, where he lived, in a two-bedroom ground floor flat, with his mother. His sister, ten years older than him, had moved to New York three years ago. His father had died of pancreatic cancer two years before that, when Tip was twelve years old, just before Grandma had stopped leaving her ground floor.
Tip carried the tray of food upstairs. Grandma was sitting at her table. He put the tray in front of her.
She said, “You not eating?”
“No. I had something earlier.”
“Good, you should eat less. You’re far too fat.”
Before he left home he’d eaten the sensible salad his mother had left for him, and the leftovers from last night’s dinner, and he planned on getting a bag of hot greasy chips from the Chinese Chippy on the way back. He didn’t tell his grandma this. He knew he was overweight. He could hardly not know. People had been telling him, one way or another, all his life. He was tall, six foot, and surprisingly strong for a fat boy who avoided all sport. He walked, of course, every day, and he also lifted weights for fifteen minutes, twice a day. But hunger was not something he could deal with. Hunger made him morose and tired and stopped him painting. Painting was what he lived for.
His grandma knew this. Before confining herself to the ground floor she had taken him to galleries, bought him charcoal and pastels and oils and quality paper. She had walked him to drawing lessons after school when he was five and when he was twelve found him life drawing classes, with a real model, lying about his age. She was still paying for these. He didn’t know if she knew she was still paying for them. His mother managed Grandma’s money now.
“Your father was such a talent with his pencil.” His grandma pushed her plate aside and stared at him accusingly, as if she suspected him of having hidden his father away, or eaten him.
“His books were always in the shop windows at Christmas. Such clever books.”
Tip’s father had illustrated children’s books, for a well-known writer of sardonic tales enjoyed as much by adults as by children. His spiky figures danced through the texts: long legs, sharp noses, characters always on the move. Tip looked at his grandma’s bent fingers and domed, tapering nails. Her hand was at rest, curled against the side of the plate. It was the claw of a tiny bird. He was relieved to see she had finished her food and her milk. He hated coaxing her. But he did.
“Shall we go for a little walk? Up to the common. It’s a warm day.”
“Too hot. Too noisy. Too many cars these days. Too dirty.” She lifted her hand and held one crooked finger up as if seeking divine intervention. “Get the photographs. Get the box two down, third row on the left of the cupboard in here.”
There were cupboards all over the house stacked full of boxes of photographs. Grandma knew the cupboard, row and column of every one, an infallible system of co-ordinates. Tip believed she spent all her days in her dark room dreaming of the worlds behind and out to the sides of the scenes in her photographs, the parts of the photographs lost to the present. She had a television, and a radio, but Tip had never heard them play.
“I danced at the Mariinsky. I was in the Corps du Ballet. I was the Black Swan. I was the Queen of the Night.”
“The Queen of the Night?”
“Yes. The Queen of the Night. Mozart. Magic Flute.”
“But The Magic Flute is….” He stopped and turned his attention to pulling photos from envelopes. His grandma was seventy-four years old, born in 1937, in London. The Mariinsky had been firmly behind the iron curtain, in Leningrad, throughout her professional career.
“These are photos from 1913,” she said. “These are when I danced The Rite of Spring with Diaghilev and Niijinsky.”
He laid a hazy black and white print in front of her. It showed a row of rather bulky looking women leaning their cheeks onto the backs of their hands dressed, as it seemed to him, like Red Indians from a politically incorrect Western. Their eyes were hollows, deeply shadowed, as if they didn’t get enough sleep.
“The audience hated it you know. Audiences were not polite in those days. They booed if they hated the music. There was a riot. The music was thumping, beating, dark rites… I did not like the dancing. It was ugly. In the story the girl dances herself to death. That is not right. Dancing should be beautiful.”
She stood up, straight and tiny. Her hands above her head, fingers perfectly expressive, arms architectural, bare feet firmly planted on the floor. He pulled out the sketchpad he always carried in his backpack and drew.
Tip had always gone home for lunch, never eaten a school dinner or taken sandwiches. His primary school had been very close to his grandmother’s house in Lavender Hill, his secondary school not too far to make it to Grandma’s and back after the burden of caring switched from her to him. His mother got her mother-in-law up and dressed before she went to work. Tip got his grandma’s lunch and called on her on the way back from school to put her to bed. She ate and washed and dressed for herself but she had to be told. His mother insisted they have Saturday evening through to Sunday evening for themselves. Sometimes they took daytrips together. Often he painted and his mother gardened. He suspected Grandma stayed in bed.
Tip’s mother was a nurse. She took the bus every day to St. Thomas’s Hospital, on the south bank of the Thames, opposite the Houses of Parliament. When Tip’s father received his pancreatic cancer diagnosis she moved from ward work with its shifts to administrative work in an office, and she had moved Tip and his sister to their grandmother’s. They had lived at Grandma’s for over a year. Grandma had bought her four-storey house in Lavender Hill and created her little dance school back when Lavender Hill was an area of cheap and seedy boarding houses. She had plenty of room for Tip and his sister.
Now Tip was sixteen and had reached the summer that, in England, divides compulsory education from life. That school term before the long summer holiday the way forward had seemed easy. Tip wanted to go to Art school, to the Slade. It was where his father had studied. He was already doing evening classes at the Slade. But if he stayed into the sixth form at his school, near to Grandma’s, there was only one Art course he could do: Art and Design. That meant choosing three more subjects (his mother said four). The ones his mother and the head of the school suggested, like English and History, were ones where Tip would have to write, a lot. Tip wasn’t against writing (his mother said he was good at it) but he knew he couldn’t put the effort into making writing good. That would take time from painting. Performance arts, like Drama and Music, which the school excelled at, required talents he did not possess. What’s more the sixth form involved compulsory Outward Bound courses: two weeks in Wales. Tip couldn’t imagine anything more awful. He considered leaving school. There were colleges in London where sixteen-year-olds could concentrate on Art.
Then his art teacher pulled him aside after class and said Geography and Chemistry had less compositional writing than many subjects and held more interest for an artist. She undertook to demonstrate just what that interest might be. She said she’d talked to the Biology teacher about possible courses in Anatomy. She said she’d been a graduate student at the Slade. Tip wondered if she’d known his father, but surely she would have said so if she did. Tip’s father had been famous.
“And,” the teacher said, “I will take you as a single pupil for History of Art if you can come to me at lunchtime two days a week and spare some Saturdays for trips to museums and buildings.”
Tip said, “I have to go home for lunch.”
The teacher said nothing. It was bizarre, a sixteen-year-old going home at lunchtime. Tip knew that. His teacher probably thought he was avoiding bullying. Tip, after all, had always been an easy target. This same teacher had confiscated cartoon sketches, some of them quite good, of Tip’s fat arse bulging over his baggy grey trousers. Tip usually ignored his tormentors, unless they got too close. Then they discovered just how easily a big person could push a smaller person over. And Tip stuck around other people. He didn’t let himself be caught alone. Once, while he waited for a bus, a group of four boys had stood in the street behind him sniggering and passing comments about lard buckets. Only, next to him in the queue, was this self same art teacher, a lady with hips of generous proportions. She turned to face his oppressors, holding a mobile phone in one hand, and what he assumed was a can of Mace in the other. That’s what she said it was.
“Get your four skinny little rats’ arses out of here before I call the police. You ain’t the only ones with mobiles, and I’ve got pepper spray too. And I got you on my phone video.”
“Fuckin’ pepper spray fuckin’ illegal, lady.”
“We not talking about you, lady, know what I mean?”
“I’m talking about you. Get out of here. Those cameras up there will get you if I don’t.”
She nudged Tip and whispered, “Don’t turn around, honey-bun.”
As the 88 bus drew up she’d said, “I reckon that’s our bus, darlin’,” twisted the stem of the “Mace” and applied soft pink colour to her lips.
Now, thinking about her offer, Tip smiled at his art teacher and said, “I look after my grandmother at lunch time. If there was no one there she wouldn’t eat. My mother is at work.”
“I put Grandma to bed.”
Now he knew he sounded surreal. Going to bed at four thirty was Grandma’s world. He let the silence drift.
The teacher said, “If you are a caregiver to your grandmother, then I would say there is no possibility of you being able to spend two weeks away doing outdoor activities in Snowdonia. After all the school would not want to put your family in a difficult position.”
Tip said, “I s’pose grandma could wait an hour after school. I would like Art History. I think she would like it too.”
Tip picked up his paint box and left the train at Clapham Junction. His mother was standing on the platform, two carriages further towards the exit. Her sleek black hair gleamed as she turned her head from side to side, taking in the length of the train and all its doors. Tip had often thought that, while his father was as thin and straight as a pencil, his mother was as curved and generous as a watercolour brush. A squirrel-hair quill mop brush, he thought, now, fresh from his evening watercolour class. But his mother’s reason for meeting his train was far from the world of art. When she saw him she ran towards him, her phone in her hand.
“Christ, Tip. Are you the only teenager in London who doesn’t look at their messages every other minute? I’ve been trying for hours to get through to you. There’s a riot going on. Here, in Clapham, In Lavender Hill. We’re going to Grandma’s. Now. We’ll have to walk. The buses aren’t going through.”
The screeches and bangs of the departing train faded. Other sounds took over: the bruising thumps of a helicopter, the anxiety-ridden cries of burglar alarms, the diminuendos of falling glass.
As they turned out of Clapham Junction station and towards Lavender Hill the amplified words of authority drifted across the ragged noise.
"Move On. Get Out Of The Way."
There was no easy way to Grandma’s end of Lavender Hill. The back streets all ran too far in the wrong direction. They started along the main shopping street.
Tip said, “It’s so quiet.”
His mother put her arm through his and pulled herself into his side. He knew it had been a stupid thing to say. It wasn’t at all quiet. But it was unearthly. There was no traffic. Instead the street was filled with people. Some were running along the frontages of the shops, attempting to smash the windows, but most were simply standing around, photographing or videoing the scene with their mobiles. Strangely, people seemed to be staying on the pavements. Tip and his mother walked down the middle of the road.
His mother said, “God, I hope your grandma’s O.K. I hope they’re only looting shops and burning buses.”
The road was littered with broken things, like the aftermath of a festival. The helicopter continued smashing the air overhead. Burglar alarms screamed to themselves. Tip felt exposed and guilty. His paint box was really a travelling easel that folded into a wooden carrier. It was awkward to carry. It banged against his leg. It looked stolen.
A group of three young men walked across the front of them, too close, as if Tip and his mother were invisible. Their arms were full of multicoloured clothing, the hangers falling into the road like droppings. Tip watched them go down a side street, load up a car and turn back. He turned to look the other way, embarrassed. Some of the looters were people he knew.
Tip pointed to the other side of the street. “See that lot over there, Mum. All them in the hoodies and the scarves. They’re part of gangs. Their gangs all have different coloured scarves. Looks like they’ve given up fighting each other tonight to have a go at the common enemy.”
His mother said, “ For God’s sake, Tip, don’t stand and stare… What common enemy?”
“I don’t know. The government, the police, anyone who owns a shop. Anyone who disrespects them. They don’t know either.”
“You know, Tip, that boy, Mark Dugan was gunned down in the street by the police. That’s disrespectful in anyone’s language. The police carrying guns into people’s streets is disrespectful. How can you be on equal terms to someone who carries a gun?”
Tip stopped walking again, this time from surprise. His mother, so close she was tucked into his side, had never spoken to him like this before. Did she speak to other people like this? Who was Mark Dugan?
He saw a girl he knew step out of a broken shop window: a beautiful tall, slender black girl, with a long black and white scarf tied around her neck. In her arms were six, or eight, or maybe more, shoeboxes, all she could carry. She grinned at him. He frowned. He knew she had a mouth like a sewer. Every second word was fuck. She was one of a little group of girls who mocked him, taking loud enough for him to hear, but not loud enough for teachers to hear. He didn’t know how to deal with the girls.
He said, “I hate this place. I hate them all. They’re so fucking stupid. All they care about is their shoes and their phones. It’s all they ever talk about, shoes and phones.”
They passed a parked police car and crossed a road. Now that the shopping street was behind them there was a little traffic. They were into the residential part of Lavender Hill. People were standing close to their houses, ready to retreat inside. Nobody spoke.
Tip thought about all the You Tube videos and Flickr pages that would be up by tomorrow: all that vicarious fame. He’d seen a man with a camera standing so close to a youth smashing a fire extinguisher into a window that he could have reached out, taken the fire extinguisher, and returned it to its intended purpose. It was as if the violence had been a show, the broken glass and the makeshift weapons props.
Lights shone out into the road from the first floor of Grandma’s house. The windows were wide open, the curtains and draped fabrics tied back. Falling cello phrases streamed into the night. His mother let go of his arm and ran. He followed her, puffing up the steps, through the open door and up the stairs.
His grandma was in the middle of her dance floor, legs splayed, head bowed, arms draped in an elegant curve, wrists crossed: the swan, dying. The music stopped. Grandma stood up, turned to the open window and curtsied perfectly.
“That is beautiful dancing,” she said. “That is how I danced at the Mariinsky. What are you doing here?”