Stinker and the Taff Vale Railroaders - Vanessa Gebbie

Some days you float on through, and some days life bites you on the bum. Today…sheesh. Try sitting down, Stinker.

Stinker? Four days in the same old jumper with spilt beans in an orange footprint down the front at Primary. The name stuck like wet mud. Did I mind? Nah. It's a darn sight better than Algernon.

So I wear Algernon for five years, then Stinker for the next twenty something. Now that's fine, because up to a point it fits.

"Stinker Merridew. Detention after school."

"Shoplifting again, Stinker Merridew?" All for an African violet... lovely thing. Needed a bit of water.

Stinker Merridew and the Taff Vale Railroaders. Got as far as a tape recorded in the Lewises shed. Stinker on vocals, Dai Beansprout Lewis on acoustic guitar (string missing, no acoustics but great imagination), Billy Williams on drum (from the Sally Anny band his Da's in), Elaine Beansprout Lewis on descant recorder. (Or she'd cry and we couldn't use the shed.)

Stinker Merridew - first one in the class to have a real fuck. (Natalie Twice Nightly Cummings. Now she did stink. No bath.)

Stinker Merridew - in summer, the best left hand slow spin the park has ever seen. In winter, best fly half this side of anywhere.

Then it's Stinker Merridew, apprentice to Ferrari Evans down the garage. Picks it up like it's second nature. "Grease in the veins, oil in the brains," says Ferrari Evans, and it's a real job. A good job. Enough for Elaine Beansprout Lewis who's now all grown up and round where she used to be flat. So Mrs Beansprout Lewis over another of her stirfrys is planning the wedding.

"Dai's speech now. I've told him, mind, not too blue."

I laugh. Bluer the better, I say. "Don't worry, he'll do fine."

Elaine giggles. Ah she's lovely. Little and round. Still cries easy, mind.

Then her Mam says: "So what name will you use, Stinker?"

"What?" says I because it's never worried me before.

Mrs Lewis looks at Elaine. "You can't use that name in chapel. Can he, Elaine?"

Elaine does big eyes at me sideways.

So then I say "Algernon's absolutely out. I might have another one somewhere, though," and that's the start of it.

Because I might just. Algernon I got given later, see. My first Mam might have given me another name. That might be better in chapel.

~~~~~~

"Don't mind Mam," says Elaine when we're alone in their front room. "She wants things right, that's all."

"How right?" says I because there's a limit, isn't there? I mean, I can't just conjure up family to sit in the front pew, can I? Elaine knows though.

"Ah go on," she says. "You never know, you could find out all sorts of lovely things, see? Your Mam might be nice. I'd like to meet your Mam. Show you off too."

So then I'm thinking it takes someone else to say things sometimes. And then you know what you'd like too. Like holidays, or what to have down the pub. I would like that. To meet my Mam. She'd be little, I reckon, with a giggle like Elaine's maybe. And she'd know me when she saw me, I know that. Maybe I look a bit like her, or like the handsome sod who's my Da. I wonder if she's single, or if she's married, like I'll be soon. Maybe I've got brothers. That'd be great, brothers. I can see us, laughing over something family together, walking away down the road, arms round, heads down, talking.

Elaine sits on my knee, and puts her head on my chest. "And think, Stinker," she says, "We could ask your Mam to the wedding. Do you think she'd come?"

Of course she'd come. That's what I say: "Of course." But would she though?

~~~~

Social Workers. I could have told you she would be wearing open-toed sandals of some description. Hairy ankles.

"Yours is a most unusual case," she says.

That's fine by me, I am thinking. Unusual is fine. Can't be doing with too much usual. We feed off being different, us lot.

Smalltalk in the lift. Graffiti on the mirrors, etched like train windows. Smell of civil service dust and stale cigarette smoke under a no-smoking sign.

Then this spiderplant. Grey as the cabinet it's on, and lank as a social worker's hair. If you're going to have a plant bloody well look after it, I say. It looks as though it's soaked up all the traffic that's ever been through this office.

And she leans forward with a sort of caring sharing look. "So, er, Stinker. How are you feeling? And what are you hoping to get out of this morning?"

Oh Lord. An objective-setter. I ask where the bog is.

When I come back there's this folder on her lap. Brand new buff, it is. She puts one hand on the folder, as though the words on the papers inside will come right through to her fingers. There are scratches on the back of the hand. Roses? Cats? Mrs Beansprout Lewis has a cat. Mangy thing.

"So what's my name then?" I ask, seeing Billy Resurrection standing over Elaine and me, saying: "Do you, Elaine take Cuthbert...... Miles....... Montefiore.... Montmorency....... Jeremy (for Christsakes not Jeremy).

"It's not as simple as that," she says. Ah well.

"Tell me, Stinker," she says, and her nose is red round the nostrils, "what you know about your birth circumstances."

No problem. "Some little Annie Mary down Cardiff way. And my Da must have been a rugby pro. Got it all over me, see?"

Ah but now there is something in her face. Got to bring this chippy lad down though I don't want to, it says. The way she is looking at the papers and not at me. OK Annie Mary. What was it then? But maybe its not an Annie Mary at all, little and slim with a giggle like valley bells on a Sunday. Maybe its a fat old biddy with warts. Sheesh. Must've been in the dark then eh? Down some alley stinking of piss for a fiver?

That spiderplant. I'm sure it's sagging under the weight of all this. It's pale, drooping, thin, and she shifts in her seat and says:. "I'm afraid you were not named at birth."

"You should give it water." I say. Then, "Sorry?" looking at the folder. And I feel Montmorency and Cuthbert dash off into the distance.

Then she's talking so fast, looking at the wall.... it sort of spills out: "As I said, it is most unusual. Most birth mothers give their babies a name, even though they know it will be changed. I have seen one or two cases like this, normally in specific circumstances...."

Her voice tails off, leaving a hole in the air for me to ask: "What circumstances then?"

Now I am thinking OK so Annie Mary dies, and that's that. Pretty little pale face on a hospital pillow. No name, of course not. No-one left to call me anything. Or maybe a mix-up in the hospital? You hear of things like that happening. Or a kidnap? You hear of that too. In a second I invent a scene from The Bill with a hunched and hurrying figure in the blue twilight of a night time ward, carrying a white wrapped bundle out through swing doors. And no bells ringing.

But no, it's: "The two scenarios you must be aware of are incest and rape."

She says incest and rape as though she is talking about tea and crumpets.

Her voice doesn't change in tone or timbre. How does she do it? Very impressive. I try to look nonchalantly curious. It doesn't work. She asks me if I want a drink of water. I say no. But that plant could do with one. So that's what I say: "That plant could do with one though."

And then she tells me. Ah, my Annie Mary. No giggles at my conception then, just a black and white pounding. A pounding that lasts for a lifetime.

When she takes her hand off the file to shake mine, saying goodbye, she leaves four dark fingerprints. And I get up to leave with the spiderplant in one hand. She's given it me, see? Bloody woman feels sorry for me and a spiderplant'll make up for it.

"It's OK," I say. "At least I know what my name is."

And I just go off home.

~~~~~

When I come out the street lights have come on, it's drizzling, and the road is orange. Elaine is there. I'd forgotten about Elaine. She's sitting on the low brick wall round the car park, chewing a strand of her hair. Something in me wants her not to look up. But she does and is running up, her heels clickety on the pavement, coat flying open.

Her hug nearly knocks me off my feet.

"What's that?" she says, looking at the plant, and running her hands up my back under my jacket.

I don't say anything important, not yet. She digs her chin into my chest and looks laughing up into my face.

"So who am I marrying then?"

"Just me," I say, thinking just the bloke who went in half an hour ago. But then...

"Ah, go on, daft thing. What was it like? What did they tell you? Can we ask your Mam to the wedding?"

And then I put my arm round her and we walk away from the office, back towards the High Street. I don't have to look at her that way, see? And I tell her just the bits that won't matter too much. And it's funny, as I'm saying things, that's the first time I know that that's it. I won't be looking her up, will I? Not my Annie Mary. Can't see me landing on her doorstep and watching the recognition in her eyes, can I? For the first time I can remember I feel bloody lonely.

"Ah, so she didn't call you anything, then, did she? There's funny. Still, I love you." And she says it again. "I love you," as if it will make it twice as much.

We've got past the shops and are going up the alley next to the cinema. It's getting dark, and it's cold, and she pulls me round for a kiss, leaning close against the black painted wall. I hear my shoes squeak on cinders as I bend to reach her mouth, warm and soft like marshmallows. Then her fingers are playing me, playing me, tapping and stroking and I'm so hard, hard like a jemmy. She wiggles against me and I can feel her little breasts hard through her coat. She feels like she would break if I lean any heavier.

"Have I ever..." I say. "Elaine, stop a minute, have I ever..." but then it's like someone has pushed between us. I hear something smash on the ground. She has twisted her head away, but he's there, and his tongue is in her ear. He's rubbing her breasts with one hand, the other moving downwards, fingers rigid. She's making a small muffled noise like a cat in a sack. And all I can do is tug her into me, so's there's no room for him, see, and I'm kissing her so hard then lifting her up and my hand is under her skirt, pulling at her knickers. It's so easy, there, so easy, so easy. Ssshh. I am lifting her up, and we can do it here. Here in the alley. And sod who comes. Then I hear him, he's grunting uh, uh, uh, and I have to drown the noise. I hate her. I love her. I want to tear her apart and wrap her in my arms for ever.

Then it's finished. We are sitting in the cold alley, crying, the both of us, just quietly. We don't touch each other. But then she says; "Are you all right?" in such a small voice.

But I don't know. I don't know, do I? I just say: "Oh Christ I'm sorry."

There is cold earth on the path under my hand.

~~~~~

I should have left it. I knew my name all along, see, but sometimes you don't know what you do know. After all that, the front pew can stay empty, if she still wants me. And if she does, it's all sorted. I had a talk with Billy Resurrection Williams. He's a good chap. We won't tell her Mam of course, but on the day, he'll stand in Chapel, smile at us and ask: "Elaine Beansprout, do you take this man Stinker..." and maybe she'll start crying and say: "Oh yes. Yes I do."

~~~~~~~~~~

Vanessa Gebbie is an educational journalist living and working in Sussex. She has been writing fiction seriously for a couple of years, and has had work accepted for publication in print in Aesthetica, Cadenza, QWF, Rhapsoidia, Quiet Feather and the 2004 Momaya Anthology. Her work has also been accepted by literary ezines such as BuzzWords, Birmingham Words, Canopic Jar, FlashMe, Tattoo Highway and Smokelong Quarterly. She was placed third in the 2004 Momaya press Short Story Competition, was runner up in the Good Housekeeping Magazine short story competition, and was shortlisted for the last Asham Award for new women writers. She teaches Creative Writing to residents of a drugs and alcohol rehabilitation centre.

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