It’s tempting, for about two seconds, to start… Once upon a Lyme… but I will resist this and begin instead… Ffooks’ mum has only got one tit. After all, this statement, sentiment, graffiti, rendered by one unknown in black biro and appearing, sometime during spring term, on the back of the boys’ bog door, may just as well be an actual beginning. Or, as good as any place to start or finish.
The rumour spread slowly and surely, the way of tumours, throughout the school. It appeared again, in another cubicle, this time appended, replete with raspberry nippled bosom. It grew from a whisper behind the bike shed, sheathed in threads of Dunhill, ha ha, hush, to become, by April, month of cruelty, month of fools, the mantra of the Rubik’s Cube Club. Twist, twist, click. It became the chant of the showering Second Eleven. By summer time, when the weather is fine, the playground was choral and rotten with it. Slow handclap and stabbed finger chant. Even old Acres, the headmaster, out on the tarmac, piss stains on his crotch and tin whistle in gob, hair flying like an anarchy flag, had a pained grin painted. But that might have been wind.
Ffooks’ mum has only got one tit. That’s why all her bras don’t fit.
It used to be a song, Knott says, about Hitler.
I look at Knott. He says he reckons it all a bit harsh. How so? Because Hitler was actually a bit of a real bastard, wasn’t he? What with the gassing of the jews, the V’s, number ones and twos, and inventing the goose step. Whereas, Ffooks’ mum has only got one tit. Everyone gives Knott their highest eyebrows, twisted mouths and spastic sounds. Monkey moves follow and seig heil, seig heil. Kipper Arse calms the crowd of cronies by patting the air down with his palms and says, once there is quiet, or near so, that this very statement makes Knott a number one son, dumb-fuck bastard. He pulls his eyes apart with his fingers when he says this and wins, by majority vote, the award for best joke ever.
Hitler only had one ball, he says.
Kipper Arse moves to flick Knott’s ear, but Knott sidesteps this. Slippery eel. Someone, perhaps Kendo, yeah, Kendo, catches him a good enough rabbit punch to the kidney, or thereabouts. Playful, painful though, I bet. Knott goes down and everyone dives in. Bundle. Knuckles and knees and elbows. Little hot piss stains from laughing too much and tiny ripping shirt sounds. Short, hard words and grunts. Boy stuff.
We all left school that July. The future began, the past ended. There was, I suppose, a period of grace: summer. The three of us spent a lot of time together that summer. At the beach, high tide, low tide, big lies, little lies. We swam off the beach. We fished the dell pool for the legendary pike, or anything really, upriver in the shadow of the oak, in the clouds of midges. We skewered worms and cheese onto hooks. We dived off the side of Ffooks’ dad’s boat, The Hungry Gull, into the bay when the water sparkled. Our shoulders and backs turned lobster, then bronze. We camped beneath a filthy tarpaulin strung between the trees at the bottom of Knott’s garden near the cliff edge. Mostly though, we played darts and drank scrumpy in the cellar of the house halfway up the curve of Steep Street. Ffooks lived here with his mum, his dad and the old man, Grinner Ffooks.
We played Round The Clock and Five Hundred To One in the yellow glow of the bare bulb down there. The warm apple juice, tart-sharp and dizzying was siphoned from the barrel at a plastic tap into the white enamel metal mug with the blue lip. The fruit was from an orchard somewhere up Morcombelake. The handle was strung with a length of twine and reef knotted to the barrel so as old man Grinner wouldn’t lose it. Just as well really. It got quite easily forgetful down in the cellar full of fermented apple. A mug could easily go adrift if it had a mind to. The light was on a drawstring, too.
Old man Grinner Ffooks brewed the scrumpy. Well, you’ve got to have a hobby, as he was fond of saying. It was all he had left since his missus died. He scrumped the apples from where they fell, never far from the tree, and pressed them into cider. He sat outside the house on the bench and he waited. He waited and he watched the village pass up and down the hill. He watched it with a woozy apple eye and with a tight smile like a paring knife. He found little joy in flights of darts these days. May just as well throw your life away, he said. He took his scant delight in apples. The brewing and imbibing of.
He was waiting and watching on the bench the morning the milk lorry came over the crest, too fast, and mounted the bank and came to rest in front of the house with him beneath it. Steep Street ran with milk that gushed from a wound in the side of the lorry.
The house shuddered. The light bulb flickered. The dart, in flight, seemed to freeze on the air amid motes of resettling dust. We ran outside, in fear I have to say. Fear and confusion. Acid bellied and apple breathed. The sunshine blinding me for a moment. The side gate was open and beyond was the belly of the beast, road black and hot metal steaming in a lake of milk bleeding from its side. It had left the street and taken out the garden wall and a fair chunk of the front of the house. A gritty and tyred stench filled the air and indeed a tyre turned of its own accord at the end of an axle somewhere up above my head. Summer in the silvered hubcap. Brick dust floated. Glass jewelled the grass and bits of splintered bench were here, here and here. Petrol fume and film filled my nostrils, my eyes. Perhaps a smear somewhere of blood is glimpsed. Certainly there was pooling oil reflecting lorry, darkly. There was heat but there was not silence. New sounds: white river splash on black tarmac, the long honk horn blast note of head on hooter and the wet nurse shout of Mrs. Ffooks from the far side of the crash site.
Get a bucket! A bucket! Get a fucking bucket!
Such language. I could have giggled. And there she was. Fleshy folds of arms aloft and presenting (I think it was) a blue washing-up bowl. The bowl, it was as good as useless. The milk jetted out of it as soon as in. She was ghosted and soaked in an endless torrent of lactic that gushed with such force from the wounded lorry as to rock her back and forth – and she was of fairly solid frame – where she stood, planted in her slippers in the whitening street, drenched. Tinted ginger tendrils plastering her freckled face. An inch of fag still in gob. Her glasses slipped halfway down her nose. The clothes of her, always until this moment, shapeless items, clinging like nylon polyester second skin and all at once I learned the rumour was the truth. There was no mistaking it. One heavy breast, a tit in silhouette, making so much and so little sense. What a lesson! We turned, already ankle deep in dairy, and ran, we three, into the house through a hole where the door and quite a lot more had been before (although it didn’t register until later in reflection at the hospital) into the kitchen and were passed, with haste, but in such, it seemed, slow, slow motion, by her son, a bucket (and another plastic bowl, this one yellow) from a cupboard beneath the sink. All the better for his mum, I remember thinking, to collect the milk in. Because no one deserved it more. And all at once I grew a little older.