'It was a summer that had bleached adults of their purpose'. Photograph: Regine Petersen
I can see Mary Joplin now, in the bushes crouching with her knees apart, her cotton frock stretched across her thighs. In the hottest summer (and this was it) Mary had a sniffle, and she would rub the tip of her upturned nose, meditatively, with the back of her hand, and inspect the glistening snail-trail that was left. We squatted, both of us, up to our ears in tickly grass: grass which, as midsummer passed, turned from tickly to scratchy and etched white lines, like the art of a primitive tribe, across our bare legs. Sometimes we would rise together, as if pulled up by invisible strings. Parting the rough grass in swaths, we would push a little closer to where we knew we were going, and where we knew we should not go. Then, as if by some predetermined signal, we would flounce down again, so we would be half-invisible if God looked over the fields.
Buried in the grass we talked: myself monosyllabic, guarded, eight years old, wearing too-small shorts of black-and-white check, that had fitted me last year: Mary with her scrawny arms, her kneecaps like saucers of bone, her bruised legs, her snigger and her cackle and her snort. Some unknown hand, her own perhaps, had placed on her rat-tails a twisted white ribbon; by afternoon it had skewed itself around to the side, so that her head looked like a badly tied parcel. Mary Joplin put questions to me: "Are you rich?"
I was startled. "I don't think so. We're about middle. Are you rich?"
She pondered. She smiled at me as if we were comrades now. "We're about middle too."
Poverty meant upturned blue eyes and a begging bowl. A charity child. You'd have coloured patches sewn on your clothes. In a fairytale picture book you live in the forest under the dripping gables, your roof is thatch. You have a basket with a patchwork cover with which you venture out to your grandma. Your house is made of cake.
When I went to my grandma's it was empty-handed, and I was sent just to be company for her. I didn't know what this meant. Sometimes I stared at the wall till she let me go home again. Sometimes she let me pod peas. Sometimes she made me hold her wool while she wound it. She snapped at me to call me to attention if I let my wrists droop. When I said I was weary, she said I didn't know the meaning of the word. She'd show me weary, she said. She carried on muttering: weary, I'll show her who's weary, I'll weary her with a good slap.
When my wrists drooped and my attention faltered it was because I was thinking of Mary Joplin. I knew not to mention her name and the pressure of not mentioning her made her, in my imagination, beaten thin and flat, attenuated, starved away, a shadow of herself, so I was no longer sure whether she existed when I was not with her. But then next day in the morning's first dazzle, when I stood on our doorstep, I would see Mary leaning against the house opposite, smirking, scratching herself under her frock, and she would stick her tongue out at me until it was stretched to the root.
If my mother looked out she would see her too; or maybe not.
On those afternoons, buzzing, sleepy, our wandering had a veiled purpose and we drew closer and closer to the Hathaways' house. I did not call it that then, and until that summer I hadn't known it existed; it seemed it had materialised during my middle childhood, as our boundaries pushed out, as we strayed further from the village's core. Mary had found it before I did. It stood on its own, no other house built on to it, and we knew without debate that it was the house of the rich; stone-built, with one lofty round tower, it stood in its gardens bounded by a wall, but not too high a wall for us to climb: to drop softly, between the bushes on the other side. From there we saw that in the beds of this garden the roses were already scorched into heavy brown blebs on the stalk. The lawns were parched. Long windows glinted, and around the house, on the side from which we approached, there ran a veranda or loggia or terrace; I did not have a word for it, and no use asking Mary.
She said cheerily, as we wandered cross-country, "Me dad says, you're bloody daft, Mary, do you know that? He says, when they turned you out, love, they broke the bloody mould. He says, Mary, you don't know arseholes from Tuesday."
On that first day at the Hathaway house, sheltered in the depth of the bushes, we waited for the rich to come out of the glinting windows that were also doors; we waited to see what actions they would perform. Mary Joplin whispered to me, "Your mam dun't know where you are."
"Well, your mam neither."
As the afternoon wore on, Mary made herself a hollow or nest. She settled comfortably under a bush. "If I'd known it was this boring," I said, "I'd have brought my library book."
Mary twiddled grass stalks, sometimes hummed. "My dad says, buck yourself up, Mary, or you'll have to go to reform school."
"It's where they smack you every day."
"What've you done?"
"Nothing, they just do it."
I shrugged. It sounded only too likely. "Do they smack you on weekend or only school days?"
I felt sleepy. I hardly cared about the answer. "You stand in a queue," Mary said. "When it's your turn…" Mary had a little stick which she was digging into the ground, grinding it round and round into the soil. "When it's your turn, Kitty, they have a big club and they beat the holy living daylights out of you. They knock you on the head till your brains squirt out."
Our conversation dried up: lack of interest on my part. In time my legs, folded under me, began to ache and cramp. I shifted irritably, nodded towards the house. "How long do we have to wait?"
Mary hummed. Dug with her stick.
"Put your legs together, Mary," I said. "It's rude to sit like that."
"Listen," she said, "I've been up here when a kid like you is in bed. I've seen what they've got in that house."
I was awake now. "What have they?"
"Something you couldn't put a name to," Mary Joplin said.
"What sort of a thing?"
"Wrapped in a blanket."
"Is it an animal?"
Mary jeered. "An animal," she says. "An animal, what's wrapped in a blanket?"
"You could wrap a dog in a blanket. If it were poorly."
I felt the truth of this; I wanted to insist; my face grew hot. "It's not a dog, no, no, no." Mary's voice dawdled, keeping her secret from me. "For it's got arms."
"Then it's human."
"But it's not a human shape."
I felt desperate. "What shape is it?"
Mary thought. "A comma," she said slowly. "A comma, you know, what you see in a book?"
After this she would not be drawn. "You'll just have to wait," she said, "if you want to see it, and if you truly do you'll wait, and if you truly don't you can bugger off and you can miss it, and I can see it all to myself."
After a while I said, "I can't stop here all night waiting for a comma. I've missed my tea."
"They'll be none bothered," Mary said.
She was right. I crept back late and nothing was said. It was a summer that, by the end of July, had bleached adults of their purpose. When my mother saw me her eyes glazed over, as if I represented extra effort. You spilled blackcurrant juice on yourself and you kept the sticky patches. Feet grimy and face stained you lived in underbrush and long grass, and each day a sun like a child's painted sun burned in a sky made white with heat. Laundry hung like flags of surrender from washing lines. The light stretched far into the evening, ending in a fall of dew and a bare dusk. When you were called in at last you sat under the electric light and pulled off your sunburnt skin in frills and strips. There was a dull roasting sensation deep inside your limbs, but no sensation as you peeled yourself like a vegetable. You were sent to bed when you were sleepy, but as the heat of bed-clothes fretted your skin you woke again. You lay awake, wheeling fingernails over your insect bites. There was something that bit in the long grass as you crouched, waiting for the right moment to go over the wall; there was something else that stung, perhaps as you waited, spying, in the bushes. Your heart beat with excitement all the short night. Only at first light was there a chill, the air clear like water.
And in this clear morning light you sauntered into the kitchen, you said, casual, "You know there's a house, it's up past the cemetery, where there's rich people live? It's got greenhouses."
My aunt was in the kitchen just then. She was pouring cornflakes into a dish and as she looked up some flakes spilled. She glanced at my mother, and some secret passed between them, in the flick of an eyelid, a twist at the corner of the mouth. "She means the Hathaways'," my mother said. "Don't talk about that." She sounded almost coaxing. "It's bad enough without little girls talking."
"What's bad…" I was asking, when my mother flared up like a gas-jet: "Is that where you've been? I hope you've not been up there with Mary Joplin. Because if I see you playing with Mary Joplin, I'll skin you alive. I'm telling you now, and my word is my bond."
"I'm not up there with Mary," I lied fluently and fast. "Mary's poorly."
I said the first thing that came into my head. "Ringworm."
My aunt snorted with laughter.
"Scabies. Nits. Lice. Fleas." There was pleasure in this sweet embroidery.
"None of that would surprise me one bit," my aunt said. "The only thing would surprise me was if Sheila Joplin kept the little trollop at home a single day of her life. I tell you, they live like animals. They've no bedding, do you know?"
"At least animals leave home," my mam said. "The Joplins never go. There just gets more and more of them living in a heap and scrapping like pigs."
"Do pigs fight?" I said. But they ignored me. They were rehearsing a famous incident before I was born. A woman out of pity took Mrs Joplin a pan of stew and Mrs Joplin, instead of a civil no-thank-you, spat in it.
My aunt, her face flushed, re-enacted the pain of the woman with the stew; the story was fresh as if she had never told it before. My mother chimed in, intoning, on a dying fall, the words that ended the tale: "And so she ruined it for the poor soul who had made it, and for any poor soul who might want to eat it after."
Amen. At this coda, I slid away. Mary, as if turned on by the flick of a switch, stood on the pavement, scanning the sky, waiting for me.
"Have you had your breakfast?" she asked.
No point asking after Mary's. "I've got money for toffees," I said.
If it weren't for the persistence of this story about Sheila Joplin and the stew, I would have thought, in later life, that I had dreamed Mary. But they still tell it in the village and laugh about it; it's become unfastened from the original disgust. What a good thing, that time does that for us. Sprinkles us with mercies like fairy dust.
I had turned, before scooting out that morning, framed in the kitchen door. "Mary's got fly-strike," I'd said. "She's got maggots."
My aunt screamed with laughter.
August came and I remember the grates standing empty, the tar boiling on the road, and fly strips, a glazed yellow studded plump with prey, hanging limp in the window of the corner shop. Each afternoon thunder in the distance, and my mother saying, "It'll break tomorrow," as if the summer were a cracked bowl and we were under it. But it never did break. Heat-struck pigeons scuffled down the street. My mother and my aunt claimed, "Tea cools you down," which was obviously not true, but they swigged it by the gallon in their hopeless belief. "It's my only pleasure," my mother said. They sprawled in deck chairs, their white legs stuck out. They held their cigarettes tucked back in their fists like men, and smoke leaked between their fingers. People didn't notice when you came or went. You didn't need food; you got an iced-lolly from the shop: the freezer's motor whined.
I don't remember my treks with Mary Joplin, but by five o'clock we always ended, whatever loop we traced, nearby the Hathaways' house. I do remember the feel of my forehead resting against the cool stone of the wall, before we vaulted it. I remember the fine grit in my sandals, how I emptied it out but then there it was again, ground into the soles of my feet. I remember the leather feel of the leaves in the shrubbery where we dug in, how their gauntleted fingers gently explored my face. Mary's conversation droned in my ear: so me dad says, so me mam says… It was at dusk, she promised, it was at twilight, that the comma, which she swore was human, would show itself. Whenever I tried to read a book, this summer, the print blurred. My mind shot off across the fields; my mind caressed the shape of Mary, her grinning mouth, her dirty face, her blouse shooting up over her chest and showing her dappled ribs. She seemed to me full of shadows, exposed where she should not be, but then suddenly tugging down her sleeve, shying from a touch, sulking if you jogged her with your elbow: flinching. Her conversation dwelt, dully, on fates that could befall you; beatings, twistings, flayings. I could only think of the thing she was going to show me. And I had prepared my defence in advance, my defence in case I was seen flitting across the fields. I was out punctuating, I would say. I was out punctuating, looking for a comma. Just by myself and not at all with Mary Joplin.
So I must have stayed late enough, buried in the bushes, for I was drowsy and nodding. Mary jolted me with her elbow; I sprang awake, my mouth dry, and I would have cried out except she slapped her paw across my mouth. "Look." The sun was lower, the air mild. In the house, a lamp had been switched on beyond the long windows. One of them opened, and we watched: first one half of the window; a pause; and then the other. Something nudged out into our sight: it was a long chair on wheels, a lady pushing it. It ran easily, lightly, over the stone flags, and it was the lady who drew my attention; what lay on the chair seemed just a dark, shrouded shape, and it was her crisp flowered frock that took my eye, the tight permed shape of her head; we were not near enough to smell her, but I imagined that she wore scent, eau de cologne. The light from the house seemed to dance with her, buoyant, out on to the terrace. Her mouth moved; she was speaking, smiling, to the inert bundle that she pushed. She set the chair down, positioning it carefully, as if on some mark she knew. She glanced about her, turning up her cheek to the mellow, sinking light, then bent to coax over the bundle's head another layer, some coverlet or shawl: in this weather?
"See how she wraps it," Mary mouthed at me.
I saw; saw also the expression on Mary's face, which was greedy and lost, both at once. With a final pat to the blankets, the lady turned, and we heard the click of her heels on the paving as she crossed to the french window, and melted into the lamp-light.
"Try and see in. Jump up," I urged Mary. She was taller than I was. She jumped, once, twice, three times, thudding down each time with a little grunt; we wanted to know what was inside the house. Mary wobbled to rest; she crumpled back to her knees; we would settle for what we could get; we studied the bundle, laid out for our inspection. Its shape, beneath the blankets, seemed to ripple; its head, shawled, was vast, pendent. It is like a comma, she is right: its squiggle of a body, its lolling head.
"Make a noise at it, Mary," I said.
"I dursn't," she said.
So it was I who, from the safety of the bushes, yapped like a dog. I saw the pendent head turn, but I could not see a face; and at the next moment, the shadows on the terrace wavered, and from between the ferns in their great china pots stepped the lady in the flowered dress, and shaded her eyes, and looked straight at us, but did not see. She bent low over the bundle, the long cocoon, and spoke: she glanced up as if assessing the angle of the dying sun: she stepped back, setting her hands on the handles of the chaise, and with a delicate rocking motion she manoeuvred it, swayed back and angled it, setting it to rest so that the comma's face was raised to the last warmth; at the same time, bending again and whispering, she drew back the shawl.
And we saw – nothing; we saw something not yet become; we saw something, not a face but perhaps, I thought, when I thought about it later, perhaps a negotiating position for a face, perhaps a loosely imagined notion of a face, like God's when he was trying to form us; we saw a blank, we saw a sphere, it was without feature, it was without meaning, and its flesh seemed to run from the bone. I put my hand over my mouth and cowered, shrinking, to my knees. "Quiet, you." Mary's fist lashed out at me. She caught me painfully. Mechanical tears, jerked out by the blow, sprang into my eyes.
But when I had rubbed them away I rose up, curiosity like a fish-hook through my gut, and saw the comma was alone on the terrace. The lady had stepped back into the house. I whispered to Mary, "Can it talk?" I understood, I fully understood now, what my mother had meant when she said at the house of the rich it was bad enough. To harbour a creature like that! To be kind to the comma, to wrap it in blankets… Mary said, "I'm going to throw a stone at it, then we'll see can it talk."
She slid her hand into her pocket, and what she slid out again was a large, smooth pebble, as if fresh from the seashore, the strand. She didn't find that here, so she must have come prepared. I like to think I put a hand on her wrist, that I said, "Mary…" But perhaps not. She rose from her hiding place, gave a single whoop, and loosed the pebble. Her aim was good, almost good. We heard the pebble ping from the frame of the chair, and at once a low cry, not like a human voice, like something else.
"I bloody got it," Mary said. For a moment she stood tall and glowing. Then she ducked, she plummeted, rustling, beside me. The evening shapes of the terrace, serene, then fractured and split. With a rapid step the lady came, snapping through the tall arched shadows thrown back by the garden against the house, the shadow of gates and trellises, the rose arbours with their ruined roses. Now the dark flowers on her frock had blown their petals and bled out into the night. She ran the few steps towards the wheeled chair, paused for a split second, her hand fluttering over the comma's head; then she flicked her head back to the house and bawled, her voice harsh, "Fetch a torch!" That harshness shocked me, from a throat I had thought would coo like a dove, like a pigeon; but then she turned again, and the last thing I saw before we ran was how she bent over the comma, and wrapped the shawl, so tender, about the lamenting skull.
In September Mary was not at school. I expected to be in her class now, because I had gone up and although she was 10 it was known that Mary never went up, just stuck where she was. I didn't ask about her at home, because now that the sun was in for the winter and I was securely sealed in my skin I knew it would hurt to have it pulled off, and my mother, as she had said, was a woman of her word. If your skin is off, I thought, at least they look after you. They lull you in blankets on a terrace and speak softly to you and turn you to the light. I remembered the greed on Mary's face, and I partly understood it, but only partly. If you spent your time trying to understand what happened when you were eight and Mary Joplin was 10, you'd waste your productive years in plaiting barbed wire.
A big girl told me, that autumn, "She went to another school."
"Is it a reform school?"
"Nah, she's gone to daft school." The girl slobbered her tongue out, lolled it slowly from side to side. "You know?"
"Do they slap them every day?"
The big girl grinned. "If they can be bothered. I expect they shaved her head. Her head was crawling."
I put my hand to my own hair, felt the lack of it, the chill, and in my ear a whisper, like the whisper of wool; a shawl around my head, a softness like lambswool: a forgetting.
It must have been 25 years. It could have been 30. I don't go back much: would you? I saw her in the street, and she was pushing a buggy, no baby in it, but a big bag with a spill of dirty clothes coming out; a baby T-shirt with a whiff of sick, something creeping like a tracksuit cuff, the corner of a soiled sheet. At once I thought, well, there's a sight to gladden the eye, one of that lot off to the launderette! I must tell my mum, I thought. So she can say, wonders will never cease.
But I couldn't help myself. I followed close behind her and I said, "Mary Joplin?"
She pulled the buggy back against her, as if protecting it, before she turned: just her head, her gaze inching over her shoulder, wary. Her face, in early middle age, had become indefinite, like wax: waiting for a pinch and a twist to make its shape. It passed through my mind, you'd need to have known her well to know her now, you'd need to have put in the hours with her, watching her sideways. Her skin seemed swagged, loose, and there was nothing much to read in Mary's eyes. I expected, perhaps, a pause, a hyphen, a space, a space where a question might follow… Is that you, Kitty? She stooped over her buggy, and settled her laundry with a pat, as if to reassure it. Then she turned back to me, and gave me a bare acknowledgment: a single nod, a full stop.