I poke and pick and ease my tongue into a hole where a tooth should be, but that doesn’t stop me smiling when the day shift lets go of me. I take the shortcut to the village. The sun shines, even if it is raining, and the fields flesh out a tumble of smoky green grasses, floating blue iris and a golden buttercup path all the way home.
Mary has found a hideaway in Bluebell Woods underneath the delicate fluttering leaves of a clutch of Aspen. She’s off the dirt path, all elbows and knees, sitting sheltered on a blue Parka coat. Her hair is unkempt, as long grass. Like an unruly child, she picks clean a moon daisy and lets the petals fall where they will. She is warm on the eye. She loves me? She loves me not? flashes through my mind. But underneath her fringe, her blue eyes are killer rock pools.
‘You took your time. I was waiting on you.’ She springs up, dragging her coat behind her, sucking her teeth as she pushes her arms into the sleeves and tugs the hood up. Linking her arm through mine we’re separated by an igloo of nylon and false fur that looks chewed up to her nose. She pulls me in tighter, and I get a waft of something musty, whether it’s from her coat I don’t know, but it stirs something loose. The certain knowledge that she can push and pull me about like a faithful collie dog doesn’t bother me.
‘Whit if I went the other way? Up by the road?’
We keep walking and bumping hips, and the rush of the stream grows louder. She ignores what I said, with anybody else I’d have felt a bit stupid, but with her it’s fine.
‘I heard what happened to you and I just wanted to see that you’re OK.’ She steps away from me and off the makeshift path, her Doc Martens making short work of a tussock of long grass as she looks me up and down, her lips part as she searches my face. ‘But you’re not. You look like an Indian squaw.’ I’m not sure what she means. And she hasn’t even allowed me the consolation of being male. But as she ducks down under my arm and tucks herself in, and we being ambling along step in step, the world slows and I grin anyway.
‘I got a letter from Norean.’ Mary stops, shrugs me off, suddenly face to face with news, which puts a torch under her face, brightens her world, and scrambles her voice. And I realize how fragile she is. No letters or packages at birthdays and Christmas, just communal cakes and cheer, the taste of cabbage and mushy potatoes for dinner. And she has had nobody to share it with. All her talk of concern about me is a played out sham. I smile at her and shrug. But she’s too bright with the glory of the letter to notice. ‘She even put her address on it. Even though they read out mail in the hospital, before they give it to us. That’s? That’s?’
‘Brazen?’ I offer.
Mary grabs at the word. ‘Yes.Yes. She really doesn’t give a fuck.’ And there is something impish in her face that draws smiles. ‘She’s working, you know? Two jobs. One in a pub.’ Phrases piling on top of another. ‘There’s millions of work. You can walk out of one job and into another on the same day.’
Our eyes meet. We try to imagine such a world. But the effort is too much. We both look nervously away.
‘But it’s dear.’ Mary shaking off an unruly hood, shakes loose her hair and with it growing ideas, as if she’s been there herself, and she’s filling me in on the details of where to buy a loaf and how much a pint is. ‘And she wants me to go. She says I should go. She’d get me a job. And put me up and everything.’
Mary’s excitement is contagious, spilling over, so that I find myself nodding and agreeing. ‘Yeh, you should go. You should really go.’
‘You could come as well.’ She grabs my arms above the elbow, nails digging, and inviting me to share her largesse. And there it’s all spread out in front of me. Carnarby Street. Euston Station. The Rolling Stones. Mary Quant. Twiggy, Charing Cross and the Beatles. I’d meet up with Dad when he comes down to Wembley for the football, when we stuff England. And just as quickly it all disappears.
‘Yeh, that’d be good,’ but the way I say it she knows I don’t mean it.
We hook our arms together again. She rubs at the sleeve on my denim jacket, but although we’re together we’re apart. Stepping-stones, ragged teeth in the burn, stand as smiling sentinels to air in motion, and water sparkling clean and free, marking in its dry run the border of the hospital grounds, where she goes one way, and I the other.
‘You’re no fun.’ Mary doesn’t give up. She pulls me off the well-worn track, and along the embankment, against the course of the burn. I’ll have to double back or carry on to the next set of stones. ‘We could get the overnight train and we’d be there in the morning. If it didn’t work out you can always come back.’
The thought of over-night with Mary stands tall as carnival worker, painted up in the garish colours of a clown, winking at me. A world of pink flesh, ruby-red, flags the whole hog. Simple. But three hops and a skip and I’m over the stream and practically home. Her hand drifts into mine and makes a nest. Waiting. She closes the gap between us, the static of nylon as she moves her shoulders and turns to tug at her bra strap - riding up her shoulder, cotton and a hint of breast. Her hair brushes lightly against me and there’s that musky smell. Her breath is on mine, with no space to breathe, so that we are muddled, on the same spot, but I’m lifted far away and I dream the long way round. Her soft lips find the path to mine, and ground me, but it’s more with a promise of more, which is never enough.