Thursday, June 28, 2018

Jon McGregor / The First Punch



Jon McGregor

he first punch is a shock. We’re taking a short cut across where the old steelworks used to be, that huge old strip of land between the river and the canal with the motorway flying somewhere way overhead and down here it’s almost quiet. Silver birch trees and rowan bushes bursting up through the concrete foundations. Thistles with bright purple flower heads, stray yellow rapeseed flown in from the fields outside town, those white flowers with the petals like trumpets that wind their way across the ground and up round anything they can get their feelers on to. Butterflies and dragonflies and the evening-song of birds that have lived here for centuries. He says, you wouldn’t have thought this was a foundry just five years ago would you. Everywhere there are scattered lumps of machinery, lost cogs and gearwheels, stacks of plate, coils of wire. He says, the way these trees come back you wouldn’t believe it. He was one of the last workers to be laid off here, and he can still point out where the steel was smelted and poured and formed; the outlines of the old sheds and foundry-halls spread out across the whole site like a giant blueprint, ankle-high walls rearing up to hold a tall window frame, a door hanging off its hinges. But mostly there are trees and bushes and birdlife, and it’s a good place to walk on a long summer’s evening with the sky stretching hazy blue over our heads, a couple of pints swimming through us and one or other of us talking quietly now and again.

So when the first punch comes, it’s a shock. Straight into my stomach and my body folds around it, the breath knocked out of me and I stagger backwards with my feet scraping and scrabbling on the stony ground. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense that I’m surprised, because why else would we be out here, talking about these things, all this talk of I love my wife and if anyone ever tried I know what I’d do, but as I drag the air back into my winded lungs I’m surprised and I don’t understand.
I look up at him, laughing, as though it might be a joke or I can somehow turn it into one, and I say what what are you doing what’s this? He brings the heel of his open hand crashing into the side of my head like a lump-hammer. I almost fall to the ground, and there’s a high-pitched ringing noise in my ears and I can’t think and I don’t know how to respond. I lift my arms up around my head, turning away, and he pulls my wrists to my side as he slams his forehead into the bridge of my nose.
I’m on the ground, and he is standing over me. Everything is muffled. I’m aware of the sound of running water somewhere. He stoops over me, and punches each side of my head alternately, each punch knocking my head across to meet the next. My arms reach up again to shield myself, but he just punches on through them. He is breathing heavily, watching me, concentrating.
When he stops, there is pain. A hot roar of pain flooding through me. I turn my head to one side and vomit on to the ground. He stands away slightly, getting his breath back.
And this is not right. I should be running away, or defending myself, or calling for help, but I am doing none of these things. I am lying on the dirty ground, watching him, waiting for his next move.
He says what did you think you were doing?
He says how did you even imagine you were going to get away with it?
He calls me a cunt, and he kicks me in the side, his boot fitting neatly between my hip bone and the base of my ribcage.

he first time she ever touched me, she touched me on the back of the head, her fingers trailing down through my hair to the nape of my neck, up again, down again, suddenly pulling away as though scorched against a hotplate. She said sorry sorry and for some reason I said sorry too and we didn’t say anything else about it. But the way it felt; her long fingers pressing lightly and firmly, the slight scratch of her fingernails. I could feel the lines they had traced across my scalp, tingling.

It had come from nowhere, a lull in the conversation, her hand drifting there with her eyes fixed firmly on mine and I didn’t pull away or say anything to stop her, and afterwards I wanted her to do it again and I wanted to leave and I wanted her not to have done it.
We were sitting in the park. We’d finished our lunches and were about to go back to work, back to our different offices in the same building and I can’t even think now how it was we’d first come across each other and started talking the way we did. I was thinking about the cases I’d be dealing with that afternoon and suddenly there were her fingers trailing down the back of my neck and she was touching me.
I don’t know how we got to that. I’ve never been clear how anyone ever gets to that.
A few moments later she said excuse me but you just looked a bit sad. I said did I? and she said kind of wistful and I said oh I was just thinking about work and she laughed. That laugh.
She was younger than me, about ten years younger I think but I never really noticed. It never seemed important, meeting for lunch and drinks after work and sometimes being on the same bus. It was only ever about conversation. Our ages, or the rings we both wore, were nothing to do with any of it. We were good at talking to each other was all it was. I could tell her about work, and Eleanor, and fatherhood, and I wouldn’t feel like she wanted me to stop. She could tell me about her job, and her husband, and his job, and all the things she liked and didn’t like about her life, and I wouldn’t feel like there was anything I needed to say. Sometimes our conversation was funny, sometimes it was patient and sad, but always it just came easily and kept on going. And I thought I believed that the sheer startling fact of her physical beauty was no part of the way I enjoyed her company. But the way it felt, that day in the park when she just ran her fingers down through the hair on the back of my head, that was something; and her voice saying because she thought I looked like I was feeling sad, that was something more again.
It had been a long time since anyone had done that.
I wanted to say thank you but instead I said sorry. She laughed, and she said you look good when you’re thinking, pretty. I was embarrassed for a moment. Pretty seemed like a strange word to use of a forty-year-old man with lines around his eyes.
But all that happened next was I looked at my watch and stood up to go back to work. She said have a good afternoon, I walked away, and when I turned back to look she wasn’t looking at me. She was reading something, running her fingers up and down the back of her head, through her dark tangle of hair. I went back to work, and I tried not to think about it, and the next time I saw her was that afternoon at her house. His house.

e comes towards me, and my body tenses, my forearms crossing over my face. He crouches beside me, and pulls my arms away, pinning them to my chest with one hand. I look at him. His eyes are wide and clear, he is sweating a little, there are strands of hair sticking to his forehead. He takes off his jacket, rolls it up, and puts it under my head for a pillow. He doesn’t say a word. I look at him, my vision still clouded, my mouth gaping soundlessly. He smiles.

I say, but but what but I didn’t do anything.
He smiles again. He says you loved it didn’t you?
I look at him, and I don’t know what to say. I say, I didn’t, what? no, no I didn’t.
He winces, turns away, turns back. You fucking liar he says, don’t fucking lie to me.
The memory of her. Standing there in that dress. Her bare shoulders and the way she looked at me with those eyes. The movement of the dress when she turned in the doorway, the way it swung around the backs of her legs. That was all it took; her looking at me like that, those eyes, the way the dress swung around the backs of her long bare legs as she turned in the doorway there.
He rushes in towards me and stamps his foot down on to my chest and again all the breath is forced out of me, again there is staggering sickening pain. He does this three times, and the third time, barely realising what I am doing, I roll over and start to crawl away, scraping my hands on the brambles, heading towards the sound of rushing water. I can hear shouted voices somewhere, and laughter. I am crawling for perhaps thirty seconds when I hear quick footsteps behind me and feel a sudden snapping impact to the back of my head. I stop crawling.
He rolls me over, on to my back, and places the pillow beneath my head again, looking down at me with a look on his face as if he wants me to speak. I am shivering. My breathing is ragged and torn. I can hear the shouted voices from somewhere over by the river, I can see the cars rushing across the flyover way up in the sky.
He says don’t fucking lie to me David.
He says I don’t need people lying to me, I won’t have it, I need to be able to trust people, it’s not too much to ask is it?
I look at him. He takes out a packet of cigarettes, putting the pack to his mouth and biting one out like a splinter from a hand. He puts the packet back and lights the cigarette.
He says she’s my wife yeah? I know what she looks like, I know what happens when she’s wearing that dress, I know what it does to the way she looks yeah? I bought her that dress so that she’d look like that, he says. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say, I watch him and I keep breathing and I listen to the sound of the voices somewhere getting quieter now.
He says and you’re telling me you were in the house with her, in the middle of the afternoon, and she’s wearing that dress, and you didn’t even want to?
He calls me a liar again, he comes closer and he looks at me and he smokes his cigarette.

he second time she ever touched me was that afternoon in her house. I can’t quite remember why I was there, she’d asked me to pop round and help move a sofa or a table or something but when I got there she didn’t mention it. It was a hot day, she had her hair all tied up on top of her head and wisps of it were falling out, she kept tucking them behind her ear, fanning herself with a piece of paper and saying whoo I’m hot aren’t you? And every time she said it she giggled, nervously or embarrassedly or excitedly I couldn’t tell. She had a laugh that made my ears flush red. He was out at work, she told me that, more than once.

She poured us both a cold drink, orange juice with lemonade, and she dropped ice cubes into the glasses. She dared me to suck a whole ice cube and I dared her back, and we stood there in her kitchen with our mouths puckered around a block of ice each, grimacing at each other, her eyes watering and sparkling, and when she spat hers out and laughed and leaned towards me that was the second time she touched me. Her two hands flat to my chest, gently, briefly.
It had been a long time since anyone had done that.
It was a blue dress she was wearing, pale blue as though it had been washed too often, and it hung from her bare round shoulders on straps as thin as parcel string. It was cut into a sort of v at the back, and when she turned and reached up to a shelf, leaning back slightly, I could see almost down to her waist before I looked away.
We sat in the front room with our cold drinks. She sat beside me, not close enough to touch but turned towards me with her legs folded beneath her and one arm laid out along the back of the sofa. And she talked a lot, quickly, she laughed and the way she laughed made me feel uncomfortable and good at the same time. And when she didn’t talk she took a long slow sip of her drink, looking over me at the top of her glass, a long slow look which I wanted to look away from but couldn’t.
She asked me how were things with Eleanor, and I said the same, that she wasn’t spending so long in bed but that she still wouldn’t leave the house and she still looked puffy-eyed when I came in from work. I told her the doctor had been talking about a different medication and that I wasn’t sure that was really the answer. This was almost a routine conversation by now. She said it’s good you know, what you do for her, I respect that, and I said no, really, I mean she’s my wife what else would I do?
She was wearing a long bead necklace, she was twisting it between two fingers and when she let it go it fell against bare skin.
She said I’m glad you’re here it’s good to have you here and I said well it’s good to be here and I was being mock polite but really I meant it. It was good to be there, on her sofa, with a cold drink, her sitting with me, in that dress, tucking wisps of dark hair behind her ear and talking and laughing. She said is it? suddenly, demandingly, is it good to be here, are you glad you’re here? And I said yes, yes it is, yes I am, and I was confused and she was quiet.
I finished my drink. I went to the toilet. I washed my face and my hands, and when I came out of the bathroom at the top of the stairs that was when it happened.
She was standing in the open doorway of the room next to the bathroom, leaning against the door frame slightly, she’d taken her shoes off and she had one ankle curled round behind the other.
The blue dress hung down to her knees, but with one leg lifted like that it rode up a little, about a third of the way up her thigh.
I looked at her.
That was all. I just looked at her.
She lifted a hand to adjust the knot of hair at the back of her head, and smiled.
And that could have been enough, that moment, standing there looking at her, and her smile, for me, that hot day with the windows open and the sleepy sounds of summer drifting through the house, a lawnmower somewhere, children shouting.
She said how do I look? and it seemed like she really wanted to know, standing there beautiful and desirable every inch of her, like she wasn’t sure, her elegant bare feet and the smooth straight rise of her legs, the way her dress pulled against the curve of her hips and the press of her breasts, her shoulders, her neck, her eyes. Her eyes looked strange for a moment, when I looked, anxious almost. I said you look good and she said do I? really? as if she wasn’t sure, as if she thought I might be humouring her somehow, as if there was no one who told her each day how good she looked. I said, very quietly, yes you do, you look very good. She smiled again, looking away for a moment, looking over her shoulder into the room. I still hadn’t moved. When she turned back her eyes looked different and she wasn’t smiling. She said, quietly, looking straight at me, do you want me? I did. I wanted her. Hugely and deeply I wanted her. I said, I whispered, yes. She said, her voice quiet and unsteady, oh good, and she turned quickly in the doorway, stepping into the room, out of sight. I didn’t even breathe.
That movement, the turn of her hips, the swing and lift of her dress, the backs of her legs.
I don’t know how long she waited. I didn’t move. I couldn’t. She reappeared, and when she spoke this time her eyes spilled clearly over into tears, her voice cracking. She said don’t be shy I’m waiting for you. She said don’t you want me you said you wanted me. I said I do. She said well come on then, and she opened her mouth slightly, and there were tears down both her cheeks, shining. I wanted her incredibly. I hesitated. I turned and walked down the stairs, out into the afternoon sunshine.

y hands are folded together on my chest, I am having trouble breathing and the pain is everywhere now. He looks at me. His cigarette is halfway to the filter. He coughs a little, turning to spit on the ground. He says excuse me, sorry.

He walks towards me and crouches down. He says, listen, you and Eleanor, that’s your problem.
He says I don’t care if she’s not giving you any. I don’t give a shit if she makes you sleep in the spare room or if she never even wants to undress in front of you again. I’m not bothered. It’s got nothing to do with me. But you’re not having mine, all right? He says it very quietly, smiling, as though he’s trying not to laugh, and he stands up.
I didn’t tell him anything about Eleanor. He shouldn’t know all that. I’ve only ever talked to one person about these things.
He taps the end of his cigarette, and flakes of ash flutter to the ground. He says I’m sorry about all this mate, but it had to be done. He says you got to be able to trust people David, else what’s the point?
He says I’m not having you or no one fucking about with that, all right?
He flicks his cigarette away and looks at me for a few moments, as if he’s waiting for me to say something in return. There is nothing I can say.
He turns and walks away from me, heading towards the bridge over the river where the footpath leads to the steps up the side of the hill, through the woods and out into the streets to the house where he lives with his wife.
I watch until he disappears amongst the trees and the bushes. I stand up, slowly and painfully. The sun is low in the sky, everything is bright and clear and peaceful and I feel sick. Dizzy. Confused.
I start to make my way home. It feels like a long way. As soon as I start walking I have to stop for a moment, my breath caught tight in my bruised lungs.
The cars rush across the flyover. Birds crowd together overhead, sweeping across the sky. Dandelions and thistles and blackberry bushes force their way up through the broken concrete.
I walk towards the bridge, towards the steps up the side of the hill and the house where I live with my pale and tearful wife. I will ask her how she is. I will fetch her what she needs from the kitchen. I will take her to the bathroom. She trusts me to do this for her. It’s important. You have to be able to trust people.

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