NOTHING LIKE A KISS
It sounds like two pairs of wet lips, pushed together and pulled apart. But it’s nothing like a kiss. Hand slapping flesh – shlakk. The sound stabs and scratches at my ear. It hurls me back towards the building site, where Joe and I followed the movements of the men in their faded, grubby yellow jackets through the open window of his office. Joe always called the men ‘baboons’, and I did, too, when I was with him – although I had to work alongside them whenever someone was off sick.
When I met Joe, at the start of the summer five years ago, I was reading classic novels. The men working at the site would ask me trivia questions about characters and settings, and if I didn’t know the answer they would hack and cough with laughter, shaking their heads. I sought out more obscure titles, reading John Franklin Bardin’s loose-spun yarns as Joe read his newspaper. Once, for a laugh, I suggested we swap. Joe made me run the outgoing letters through the franking machine in the post room for a week, and struck two hours off my time-sheet the following Friday. I complained to Graham, Joe’s line manager. He raised his eyebrows and told me to try to learn some real skills while I had the chance. He was just as scared of Joe as everyone else.
That’s not to say that Joe wasn’t likeable. Each skin-flaying burst of acid contempt bounced off the next, it was too much to digest or place into context. His temper was always burning, and the heat made people warm to him. The girls from the offices thought of Joe as a father figure. A grandfather. One of them came to show him her wedding photos: Joe reached into the pocket of his shirt, balanced his glasses on the end of his nose and said, “You look like a dirty fucking whore in that dress.” She blushed and kissed him on the cheek. I bet she told the other girls about it over lunch, and they probably thought it was sweet.
The threat of Joe’s jabbing finger and scowl of derision loomed over the compound like a poisoned cloud. His office looked out over the whole yard. No-one could see whether he was in there or not. It was Joe’s favourite game to try and catch office workers chatting or slacking off, and then open the window and shout at them, threatening to have them demoted to gardening or building maintenance.
I sat and listened to him day after day, explaining why the newspaper was bang-fucking-right again. These sermons would often address the cold, hard fact that we were all being forced to accept Sharia law. It was the government’s fault for letting the stinking, raping, murderous bastards in, and then paying them a fortune of taxpayers’ money to sit around building bombs.
My least favourite part about his articulation of this outrage was that he used me to back it up.
“Look at you student cunts,” he’d say. “You’re up to your necks in debt, you work when you can and get minimum wage and you know your place and you keep your fucking heads down!”
Bits of food would spray from his mouth and onto the pages. He’d brush them away.
“This lot turn up claiming they can’t eat their fucking rice because they’ve got a poorly hand, and they get millions! Our fucking millions!”
I knew he wasn’t looking at me for any kind of reassurance, so I’d keep my mouth shut, partly to avoid catching his flying spit. He’d throw in anecdotes. While working as a taxi driver, he’d dropped a prostitute off at a house and she’d asked him to wait outside, with the meter running, while she went to work. When she emerged from the house, a number of brown faces peered around the curtains, grinning. Joe told me he’d driven off as soon as he’d seen them, leaving her in a rough part of the city. He’d emptied her purse and given it to his wife as a gift. He told me this story several times, and each time he’d laugh. I’d bury myself in my book again, wishing the day away. It wasn’t much of a summer.
Girls bothered Joe. In his day, he’d tell me, a glimpse of stocking was as good as it got. Nowadays, horny little pricks like me could have their way with any amount of pert and willing young girls without doing anything to earn it.
“It’s a waste of time you putting your trousers on,” he’d screech. “We didn’t have the pill then, you see. Get some sloppy bitch pregnant – and you were fucked for life.”
He’d tell me about the girls from his youth. Nancy McCormick. Jilly Gallagher. Irene Allen. I didn’t care if they were real, but the names were Joe’s way of proving that they definitely were. They would have been grandmothers by that time, some were probably dead. I drew pictures of them in my mind: Pretty, fresh faces; smiling, made-up and wearing new frocks. They probably wanted to impress him. I wanted to go back into these stories like I went into my books. I wanted to tell the girls to stay in the house, to do their homework or wash their hair. He had called at each of their houses, sweet-talked their mothers, promised to have them back by a certain hour, and helped them into the car that he’d bought with the money he’d made from driving his cab.
The reason I feared for the girls in Joe’s stories was because I knew about Leila O’Neill. Joe had told me about her on the day I first started working with him. I was telling him about my GCSEs and he interrupted to ask if I liked minge. I spat out a laugh. Joe was in his late sixties, his hair was white. He melted my initial perception of him with one breath. That was how he worked. I assured him that whenever minge was freely offered, I was happy to accept. Joe leaned forward, opened the window, and shouted to some of the lads who were moving pallets around in the yard that the posh kid wasn’t a total faggot after all. I was probably bright red in the face: I was only sixteen at the time, and there was something exhilarating about the prospect of working with somebody so old who was so free with language like that. Joe leaned back in his chair. He had more questions.
The conversation moved forward: The revelation that not all sixteen year-old girls would “drop their knickers on request” twisted Joe’s face in furious disbelief. He asked me an inevitable question, and I told him the answer. Only one, and only a couple of times. He gasped, allowed a smirk to follow a long expulsion of breath, and called down to the lads in the yard that he might have to reconsider his previous statement. I could see them smiling and talking to each other as they looked over, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I remember being very thankful for that.
Joe sniffed harshly to clear his nose, coughed, and began asking me why I hadn’t slept my way through the school netball team. I tried to explain that modern flirting techniques involved more than simply dropping your trousers and saying, “Get your chops round that lot, love,” but Joe greeted every word with a sound somewhere between a tut and a snigger. I began to feel embarrassed. Joe could read people’s reactions. He decided to put me at my ease.
“If you don’t know how to get girls’ knickers off,” he told me, “let your old mate Joe fill you in.”
When we sat in his office he was usually either looking out of the window or at his newspaper. At that moment, however, he looked me full in the face.
“Girls,” he started, “are all slags.”
He was leaning towards me, but on saying this he threw himself backwards into his chair, to get a better view of his words as they sunk in. I must have been expressionless, because he decided that I needed more information.
“When I was your age,” he said, “I was just like you – fucking desperate.”
“So I asked this girl out to a dance. Leila O’Neill. She was something else.”
He kept throwing in details, making her more and more real. Her mother had worked in the shoe shop with Joe’s mother’s sister, Mavis. Her father had been a docker. It was because of this second fact that Joe had decided to give Leila some drink.
“I thought all dockers’ daughters could drink like holy fuck,” he continued, nodding his head. “So I gave her some whisky that I’d picked up on the way over to her house. Did she get pissed? You should have fucking seen her!” He laughed too loudly and shifted in his chair, but then smiled a satisfied smile: I was a very receptive audience.
The details kept coming. She’d worn a red dress. The girls in the area would swap dresses, as many of them could only afford one or two. The red dress belonged to Leila’s sister, Mary. Joe had taken Mary out dancing once, but took her home early because she wouldn’t let him smoke around her. He painted Leila for me, her brilliant smile wrapped in two red-lipsticked lips, her blue eyes and brown hair. I could see those blue eyes on the inside of my own when I blinked.
The organisers of the dance had asked them to leave because they were too drunk. As they’d walked home, Leila had struggled to stand up.
“You know what it’s like when you’re walking a girl home and they’re like that,” he said, raising his eyebrows, letting me in on the conspiracy. “So I sat her down on a coal box, just round one of the side streets by the East Lancs Road, and told her to breathe. As she was breathing in and out, her red dress was sliding down.” Joe’s eyes were widening. My own narrowed. “I’d never seen a bra before,” he went on, “except on a washing line. So I pulled her dress down a bit further. She struggled against me, and fell onto the floor, landing on her head.” Joe laughed. This story was his way of educating me.
He turned towards the spare chair next to him and picked up his newspaper, which he began to read. That was the day the girl came over from the offices to show us her wedding pictures. As she turned to walk away, Joe slapped his hand against the top of her thigh and spiked his fingers into her. She giggled. I’ll bet she told the other girls about that too, and I’ll bet they giggled with her.
I really don’t like that sound.