Stag Party

 

I returned the handset to its brass cradle and looked at the man, who hovered near the only open doorway in a rectangle of yellow light.

‘Thank you.’

He shrugged.  It’s a good job it happened when it did.  There’s nothing for quite some way. “

‘I know.’

“How long did they say?’

“The standard. Within four hours.’  I rolled my eyes, but he just nodded. Of course – an old man in a castle had probably never needed the AA.

 

‘Do come through – keep warm.’ He’d already turned away and headed out of view.

Well, that was settled, then.  I licked something from my lip into my mouth. It had a mealy texture – a small fly?  Too late:  I’d swallowed it, so I grimaced to myself and headed across the flagged floor tiles towards the yellow rectangle.

 

Pleasebeahouse pleasebeahouse pleasebeahouse: I’d belted it out all the way down that gravel path, mainly to drown the rasps of a dying engine but also in to summon up whatever gods or demons might exist in the nether regions of this nethery land.  Serendipity (the goddess of shouty singing it would appear) repaid me with a country estate slap bang at the end of the driveway, one which had broad steps tapering to a mahogany door, a façade like a wedding cake and a curly crest embedded in stone above the first-floor windows.  Two wings either side retreated into darkness, like stepsons, knowing their place.  It was in to one of these wings that I now headed, along a narrow stone corridor, feeling like Scooby Doo and thrilling at the reality in which I now found myself.

 

‘This is a beautiful house.’ I whispered. ‘Do you live here?’

‘Yes.  It’s been in the family since the 17th Century.’  His voice was soft, a low blend of highland burr with a drawl inherited from a public schooling south of the border.  I’d seen it in his face when he opened the door; the soft chin, the downturned mouth, satisfied as if savouring a good vintage. Be-yond posh.  So, when he stopped short ahead of me I dropped a curtsey, a girlish maid in a mansion.

 

He flicked a light switch and turned to face me.  ‘Here we are!’  A lupine smile before he retreated into a small room, a room dominated by the smell of damp digestive biscuit and bum-worn horse saddles. It took me a while to adjust to the dim wattage, but even when I did, the room stayed murky and brown and orange, so stuffed with belongings that I was thrown back through the years to desultory days with my grandad, mooching around on the outskirts of cobbled towns looking at bric a brac in fading shops, German exchange trip weather purging all vitality out through the ends of my fingers.

 

In light of what happened afterwards, the details are hard to recall, but I remember seeing the man with his back to me,  hands plunged into a white plastic bookcase, fiddling between a food processor and an old Encyclopaedia. Next to the bookcase there was a pan of congealed baked beans on top of a small camping stove which was slumped across some floral photo albums.  Other details swam up through the soup; a brood of blown glass piggies on a rusty dumb bell doorstop, a badger’s head on the wall wearing a purple baseball cap which bore the logo: ‘Dunny Construction’; plates and paintings of horses, fruit bowls, country cottages, all hung too low to be anything but in the way. Tin huntsmen rode a disconnected car radio.  Doilies!  On the other side of the room, almost hidden beneath piles of newspapers and sleeping bags, was a camp bed. There was a pottery pug on the floor beside it, its concave belly filled with dark yellow piss.  I noticed it just as the man turned, holding a silver tray, a crystal decanter and glasses which he placed on a scuffed tapestry footstool.  What had happened here?

 

He swept a pile of papers from a camping chair on to what may have been a piece of gym equipment and gestured for me to sit.  ‘There –  whiskey – no ice, I’m afraid.’ He poured the drinks, then, pulling up the knees on his rust brown cords, settled back into the deck chair opposite.  He beamed at me, then remembered why I was there and shifted down a gear to serious-face. ‘Four hours, you say?’

‘Could be.’ I raised my glass and we drank.

‘Where are you headed?’

‘Inverness. I’m interviewing a band up there.’  His eyes followed the movement of my face, his mouth open. He licked the creases at the corners of his lips before he spoke.  ‘Music?’

‘Yes.’

‘What sort of music?’

‘All kinds’.  This wasn’t true, but experience told me that explaining would force us down a strange route.

‘Aha’.

We drank again. The window rattled.  And then I remembered what I’d heard.

 

‘Do you live here alone?’ It was the only way I could think to raise it.  He looked frail; I could feel his bones lurking, pressed up close to the skin’s surface, waiting to break through.

‘Yes’.

‘And – do you own the – whole bit? I mean the land?’

‘Up to the high road.’

‘Okay’ I puffed out my cheeks, but had to hold back a smile at the sheer camp of it all – in a creepy mansion with an old posh man – I thought of Scooby Doo again, then straightened my face. ‘I think there’s someone out there.’

He kept smiling, so I kept going.  ‘When I came up the track, I mean I was singing to myself but still – I heard something – from the thicket on the left.  It was quite close to the house. And it sounded like laughing.  Like men laughing.’

‘Right.’ His voice was clipped, no inflection to suggest concern or alarm.  It was a cautionary full stop and it irritated me; I like to supply my own punctuation.

‘Was it an animal?’

‘No, no, probably not an animal.’

‘Well – what was it? ‘

‘We have guests at the moment.’

‘Right. Is it an event or something?’

‘Yes.  They’ve rented the house for a stag party.’ He smiled.  ‘Would you like some more whiskey? Ah no!  You have your concert.  What sort of music is it this time?’

‘I don’t know.’  I was exasperated by his politesse; I meant to offend, yet he showed no sign of withering.  He drank.  We both drank. We both looked at our glasses, and then the party came to us.

 

I think I heard it first. Maybe he dozed off, though in light of what he was expecting to happen, it seems unlikely. But I heard it: a bundle of man-noise, rasping and burbling with alcohol, most of it shouts and hoots, but assembling sometimes to produce a surprising melody in a way that only random mob sounds and a fertile imagination can.  Bloody men.  My ear traced their movement across the lawn, then the gravel and then the final act: a strong slam on the front door.  At this, the man pitched forward.  ‘Do excuse me.’ He left and shut the door behind him.

 

I put down my glass. There was an egg stain on the corner of the footrest and this, of all things, made me uneasy, so I looked at the bookcase, which is when the funny thing caught my eye.   Up close, I could see what it was: a pair of antlers, shaved down, the edges exposed and sharp, to about half a metre in height. They were glued and then stitched on to a red woollen beret, which had little bells hanging from its brim.  It was beautiful and strange and the fabric felt soft and the antlers cool and clean.

 

The man returned.  ‘There we are – all sorted’

‘I was looking at your hat.’ I said brightly.

‘Sorry?’

‘Your hat – are they real antlers?’ I held it out in front of me.

‘Yes.’

‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’

He moved closer to me then. He was actually very tall when he stood close. He crooned in my ear.  ‘It’s a silly thing, isn’t it? We played with it as children. It made us feel like clowns.’  He tipped his head to one side in a coy gesture of curiosity.  ‘Do you like it?’

‘Ha.  Yes.  Yes, I do.’ I turned it around in my hands, but kept one eye on the man’s face, which had grown large next to my shoulder.  His breath was shallow and rapid against my collarbone.

 

‘Well– would you like to try it on? There’s no one else to – see – you know.’ His voice was a thin needle of a whine, a man child, pleading with nanny.  I should have gone then, right then, but a combination of things was acting upon my will; the whiskey, the hat, that crusted yellow egg and finally, the need for something to happen in this house.  I probably wouldn’t make the gig, but I would have a terrific bit on the crazy upper classes for the website.

 

So I put on the hat and felt its weight.

 

Reader, there was no thunderbolt; I didn’t vaporise into blue smoke and return as Artemis – I remained a woman in a shitty room, just with antlers on her head.  But the man took a step back and clapped his hands together, once.  From man child to boy child, he was transformed.

 

‘You look majestic!’

‘Yes, I feel noble.’  I did not feel noble.

He brightened.  ‘I know – would you like to see a painting of my father with the stag.  With – your stag?’

Not really, I thought.  ‘Ooh yes!’ I said.

He guided me by the elbow out of the doorway and back down the corridor, hunching his shoulders and ducking his head as he walked before me. I realise now that I had, in that moment, become his queen, he a gleeful supplicant.  But I was the one with the bells, which leapt and danced and made merry about my head –was I a jester?  I’d decided to definitely leave by the time that we arrived in the hallway, where he led me to the painting.  He stepped back.

‘My father – with your antlers.’

 

The painting was hard to see, because the gloss of the oil bounced back the light and obscured the surface.  But there he was.   The stag, my stag, was eye height, his head, poor slack eyed thing, slung back over a small mound on the sandy earth beneath him. The hunter, wearing tweed and a familiar dreary expression, stood alongside his quarry, thinking about teacups and velcro for all I could surmise from his expression.

 

‘Those are my antlers?’

‘Indeed.’

‘Oh’.  And suddenly I didn’t want a dead animal on my head.  And I didn’t want to be in the house at all.  I moved to take the hat off.  He put a hand on my shoulder to stop me and shook his head.  I had to leave.

 

‘I should call to see about the car people.’

‘But it could take four hours, couldn’t it?’ A glint of the tooth in his voice.

‘I might peep out and see if everything is okay’. A whisper.

He unbolted the door.

‘Good idea, my lady. You might get it going again, might you?’ His voice grew to a cackle from a bubble, the manchild – boychild – devilchild – his full form revealed. I was just too late to see his face.

 

He opened the front door and thrust me through with such force that I stumbled, the antlers pulling me forwards down the steps.  I yanked the hat and threw it, poor thing, away from me – again too late – I’d been marked.  Torchlight blinded.   I turned to see the man, but he was mahogany again. Incantations rose out of the dark and antlers or not, I knew that I would have to run and soon.

 

 

 

Midget Baby

 

‘Well, spit it out then –you don’t have to swallow’ Chloe flipped the water bottle 360 degrees.  Yvette kissed her teeth in agreement.  How nice, a rare moment of solidarity between two rival gang bosses, she thought.

‘Right, thanks for that, Chloe.  You could do that, Skye, if you were concerned. Or you could just not do it all if you didn’t want to.  Use your assertiveness – remember our assertiveness from last term? Well use that to say, no thank you Lawson’

‘His name is Dawson, Miss’

‘No thank you Lawson, that’s enough for now. Let’s watch a film or hold hands or …something else.  You could say that and not do it at all.’  She looked at the clock – why hadn’t it moved?  Sweat sprung along her hairline and spread in her armpits – not the menopause, was it? How bloody apt. Sex Education withered my ovaries.

 

Chloe voiced her inner scream.

‘Miss Nesbitt, man, this is long!’

‘I know, Chloe, but we need to do it – just try to stay calm, could you?’  She looked at the pile of word-searches teetering on the edge of her desk. Remnants from a cover lesson: Religions of the World, they were called.  Could she make them last till break if she explained them slowly?

‘Does…anyone else have a question?’

‘I do’.  The voice was sing song, smartarse.

‘Yes Patricia?’

‘If only a little bit of sperm gets in, do I get a midget baby?’

‘Sorry?’

‘Like that guy on Games of Thrones?’

‘Yes like the guy on Games of Thrones!’

‘Or the adverts.’

‘Yeah the adverts.’

She closed her eyes in a slow blink, as if in thought.  When she opened them,

15 year 10 girls were looking back at her, waiting for her to answer.

 

It made sense.  They knew enough about sex to roll their skirts up to their knicker line, but not enough to close their legs when they sat at the bus stop, enough to giggle at men who  stared at them through car windows but not enough to understand the casual violence of the words flung in their direction.  Enough to demonstrate blowjob etiquette but not enough to grasp basic reproduction.

 

They were still looking at her.

 

‘No it doesn’t matter about the sperm.  It’s only one sperm that gets you pregnant.’

‘Do you have kids, miss?’

‘No’

‘Do you want them, though?

‘Man, shut up, that’s personal to Miss, isn’t it?’

‘It’s okay. Grace.  This is an honest space.  We’d like to, and we’re trying.  Now, enough of the questions. I have a word-search for you to complete.  Religions of the world! It is, however, a little bit tricky, this one, so I’ll just talk you through it, okay?

 

Eventually, they settled.

 

She cast her eyes over Francesca and Ruby, who were stooped together, sharing headphone buds.  Chloe was applying blusher.

‘Miss, can I talk to you?’ asked Oliva, a new girl from another borough.  She was tall and awkward and her mouth hung open.

‘Of course – here?’

‘No – after.’

‘Okay’.

She hoped it wouldn’t be for long – she hoped that Olivia might forget – she needed coffee and a silent scream in the ladies’.  But once the bell had rung and the girls departed with nary a glance in Miss Nesbitt’s direction, Olivia was still waiting. In fact, she was sitting down in a chair opposite her desk.

 

Miss Nesbitt stooped to the floor and began raking the blank word-searches towards her.

‘Okay, what’s up?’

‘I was wondering – can you be just a little bit pregnant?’

Olivia had put her notepad on the desk and was fiddling with the strap on her rucksack. On the pad there was a biro drawing of a boy in a baseball cap, like a Duplo figure, lines and circles.

‘Well, you’re either pregnant or you’re not.’  She scrunched up a loose sheet.

‘Yep, but can you be a bit pregnant and then it go away?’

‘you can miscarry or have an abortion, but, no, otherwise, you’re pregnant.’

‘Even if it’s just a little bit?’

Miss Nesbitt stood.  Her knees creaked.  She looked at the girl in the chair.

 

‘Is there something that you want to tell me? Remember, if you are in trouble, I may have to let somebody else know.  I can’t keep it a secret, okay, Olivia?’

‘It’s this.’  She bent down to her rucksack and banged her forehead on the edge of the desk in her hurry.  She muttered ‘God’ and tears jumped.

 

She held out a white cylinder, the length of a pen, and gave it to her teacher.   Miss Nesbitt knew what it was and she knew what she saw.

Two lines.  One fainter than the other. But two lines nonetheless.

‘Is this yours, Olivia?’

‘I did it this morning.’

‘Right’

‘I thought, because it’s just a faint line, it might be, not really, you know?

‘Do you have a boyfriend?’

Olivia nodded.

Yes, she should get the counsellor, or the girl’s head of year.   But she’d never seen the two lines before.

‘Is he here?’

‘We only did it once. Before I left my old school. I’ve only done it once.’

‘Right.’

‘So, because it’s only a bit there, it could be wrong, I thought?’

Miss Nesbitt put her hands in front of her lips in prayer position.  Her eyes moved from side to side; to the girl, it looked like she was reading a very serious text message. Finally, she closed the classroom door, threw the word-searches near the bin, smoothed her hands over her skirt and came to sit next to the girl.

‘Okay, Olivia. Thank you for coming to me, that must have been very difficult for you, so well done, okay?  I think I can help you with this, but what we need to do is trust each other – no-one else – for the time being – can you do that?’

 

The girl closed her mouth and nodded.