Andrew McCallum Crawford: Teeth
Andrew McCallum Crawford
He couldn’t stop thinking about her. He could see her now – in the picture he carried around in his head she was happy, smiling. What a smile. The girl with the perfect teeth, that’s what he’d started calling her. She seemed to like it, it made her laugh. He wanted to talk to her, but there was no phone in his dad’s house. There never had been. He thought about her all the time. Of course he did. He loved her. She had saved his life. Okay, maybe that was going a bit far, but they only had so much time left. Their days were numbered. He was leaving, and she still had three years to go. Neither of them had mentioned the future. Why talk about something that doesn’t exist? They knew it was coming to an end. It had to.
He couldn’t stop thinking about himself, maybe that was more to the point. Nearer the truth. Closer to the bone. The house was a tip. The kitchen looked like a bombsite, and the hoover had packed up months ago. You could hear crunching noises when you walked across the carpet to turn down the telly. One thing was for sure. When he finished college he wasn’t coming back here. He’d stuck around long enough. He had come back for the Easter holidays, he had tried to get his father to talk, but it was a waste of time. So what was the point of being here? The evenings were the worst, when his dad came in pissed and started crying next to the shrine on the mantelpiece: the photograph, the wedding ring, the keys and the lighter; his mother’s ‘effects’, the policeman had said when he handed over the little polythene envelope. It was the only part of the house that didn’t need tidying up. There was no space for John, his father’s grief took up all the room. They had never talked about his mother, about her dying. She was gone. Maybe that was it, there was no point talking about someone that doesn’t exist. He’d never talked to Julia about her, either, even though Julia knew what had happened. Of course she did, she was there when he found out. She had saved his life, kind of. Enough was enough. As soon as he got that parchment, he was off. Fuck the Region. He’d started applying for things in the Tuesday Guardian, TEFL, Singapore and Japan, the further away the better.
It was late opening at the library. He threw a few books into his bag, some things he needed to study, Child Psychology, Skinner and Piaget. Elementary stuff that had no relevance to the real world. He took a last look round the kitchen to make sure all the plugs were out. Just as he got to the front door, someone chapped it.
It took a second for him to recognise her. ‘Julia?’ he said. ‘What are you doing here?’ He felt…how did he feel? Happy. He tried to enjoy it. He looked at his watch. His father would be home soon.
‘This is Wendy,’ said Julia. There was a sporty girl standing next to her, grinning.
‘Hi,’ said John. His bag was heavy in his hand. ‘I was just on my way out,’ he said. ‘It’s late opening at the library…’
‘Yeah, right,’ said Julia. ‘Come on, make us a cup of tea. I’ve been driving for two hours.’
He showed them into the living room. Julia sat in the armchair next to the mantelpiece. His dad’s chair. Wendy pushed some newspapers to the other end of the couch and parked herself in the space. Her gaze was on the carpet. John watched her nose crinkle; she looked at Julia.
‘Did you find the house easily?’ he said. He placed the newspapers on the coffee table but sat down on the chair near the door.
‘We took a wrong turning at Lambert,’ said Julia, and looked at Wendy.
‘Larbert,’ said John. ‘Not Lambert.’ He was the only one laughing. Wendy looked over her shoulder at him.
‘Larbert, then,’ said Julia. ‘Sorry.’
Something was wrong. Had already gone wrong. It wasn’t like this at college, where it was just the two of them. John wasn’t in control of this. Maybe it was her friend’s fault, the way she was sitting there like young Lady Muck, looking round the place, checking for dust. There was plenty.
‘I’ll go and make the tea,’ he said.
He filled the kettle and clicked it on. Nothing happened. He plugged it in. There wasn’t a clean cup anywhere. All the crockery was in the sink. It would be clean now, right enough, it had been steeping in Omo all week. He rinsed out two mugs and dried them on the towel hanging on the cooker. He could hear them whispering in the living room. What were they talking about? What had they been talking about on the way down here? Had Julia been giving it the big build up? Come and see my boyfriend. She had taken two hours to find the place. That said a lot. She must have really wanted to come and see him, to show him off. He looked at his watch. ‘How do you take your tea?’ he shouted.
‘Just milk for both of us,’ said Julia, although they would have to make do with Marvel, same as at college. He smiled to himself. Marvel. That made it easy. He carried the mugs through and laid them on the table.
‘There you go, ladies,’ he said, and sat at the door.
‘Are you not having one?’ said Julia.
‘No,’ said John. He tried to ignore the wee snort that Wendy made as she lifted her mug.
‘Oh. Right,’ said Julia. She sipped her tea. Wendy sniggered.
‘Sorry,’ said John. ‘Have I missed something?’
‘Have you been studying?’ said Julia.
‘Not much,’ said John, and looked at his bag. ‘You know how it is, holidays and all that. I’ve been trying to catch up.’
‘Right,’ said Julia.
Wendy placed her mug on the table. ‘Can I use your loo for a minute?’ she said.
Christ, thought John. That was in an even worse state then the kitchen. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘Top of the stairs, on the left.’ Follow your nose. He waited till he heard the lock click shut then moved to the couch. It was as close to Julia as he could get. The cushion was warm. ‘Alone at last,’ he said.
Julia looked at him as if she were counting something. She reached into her pocket and took her fags out.
‘God, you’re not going to smoke, are you?’ said John. She had the cigarette in her mouth, but she wasn’t trying to light it. Her eyes raked the top of the mantelpiece. She brushed the keys and the ring to the side and took down the lighter. ‘I thought you were trying to stop,’ he said, and felt a sharp pain in his bottom lip; something clicked against his teeth. He tasted metal. Warm. It wasn’t metal. He touched his mouth. He saw blood on his fingertip. Something flashed through him, he didn’t know what. ‘Why did you do that?’ he said. Was it hatred? He didn’t hate her. He loved her. She had saved his life. The lighter was lying under the telly. He imagined the sound his shoes would make if he went to pick it up. ‘Why did you do that?’ he said.
Julia was trembling. John was bleeding. Julia was trembling, but it was John who had tears in his eyes. ‘I’ll just go when Wendy comes down,’ she said.
‘No, don’t,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry.’ He was. He didn’t know what he’d done, but he was sorry all the same. He was. He was sorry. He didn’t want her to feel bad.
She shoved the cigarette back into the packet. ‘It took me ages to find your house,’ she said. ‘You bastard.’
‘I know!’ he said. He jerked a thumb at the kitchen. ‘I was just thinking…’ The toilet flushed. The lock. Footsteps on the stairs. Julia stood up. She looked at the lighter. John moved towards her. He hadn’t kissed her yet. She moved away. ‘Where are you parked?’ he said.
‘You don’t have to insist on me staying,’ she said. Her friend, what was her name, Wendy, was waiting at the front door.
‘Please don’t go yet,’ he said. ‘I apologise.’
He followed them down to the car. It was difficult to put one foot in front of the other; something was going on with his legs. No one spoke. Wendy got into the passenger seat. She was smiling and shaking her head, as if something unbelievable had been confirmed. Fuck her, this was none of her business. Julia opened the driver’s door.
‘Are you sure you can find your way back?’ said John.
‘I’ll manage,’ said Julia. She pulled the door shut. The engine coughed then revved loudly. He stepped back onto the pavement and watched the car disappear round the end of the road. He looked at his watch. His father was usually home by now. It was too late for the library. Maybe he would dump the books and go down the pub. He felt like a drink. A stiff one. He would see Julia at college when he went back on Sunday. It was just a couple of days. He would go round to her room. He would make a point of it. Just the two of them. She had come all this way to see him. He respected that. He hoisted the bag onto his shoulder. He ran his tongue over his bottom lip. It felt like jelly. He didn’t know which way to go. He tried to imagine her now, driving, driving away. She was happy, smiling. She had the kind of smile that only exists in photographs, or in a memory. The girl with the perfect teeth. He didn’t want it to end like this. They still had a few weeks left. It couldn’t end like this. He didn’t want to be the cause of it.