THE FIRST PUNCH
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.