Pedro was crunching an apple as he sauntered across the meadow towards the top of the lane.
He had this way of eating stuff that was all tongue and jaws and action – you could see the bits in his mouth. He called it eating with relish. I was leaning back, as casually as I could, against the door of his van.
I was wearing a tight black t-shirt and an over-stuffed bra. He was thirty six. I was fourteen.
‘Swit– Swu,’ Pedro said, when he got in a bit closer. He gave me the eye. Up and down my body with a crooked leer. ‘You’re looking mighty nice today.’
‘Thanks,’ I managed to mumble. He was chawing on big chunks of his apple with his mouth open wide.
‘You escaped from the clutches of the Prophetess, then?’
By this, Pedro meant Sarah. It was one of his jokes. He called Abraham ‘The Doomsayer’ and Sarah ‘The Prophetess.’ He thought this was hilarious. He made smart remarks. How Sarah had the eyes of a hawk. ‘But she doesn’t see everything, eh?’ Pedro winked at me as he climbed in his van.
Suddenly I didn’t want to go to Dublin anymore. I felt a ticking above my kidneys.
But now Pedro was revving the van. He didn’t care that people were still asleep and that the racket might wake them. He said you had to give the engine a good blow out, or else she might get notions about retiring. He talked about that van like it was a person. A woman, or a creature. Some sort of being, at least.
I suddenly knew I shouldn’t be going. But still, I did.
Pedro’s hair had grown out over the summer, grown kind of long. It was still wild and curly and dark, but had streaks of grey in it now, and it was hanging down past his collar. He put some sort of oily stuff in it that I didn’t like; it had a sharp smell I found unpleasant, like the spray of a tom. Or maybe the stool of a fox. Sometimes, as we drove, he lifted a comb from the front of his shirt and raked back his hair. It stuck like that for a while. Like some movie-star’s hair. But then bits began to unravel. With the September sunlight shining into his face I could suddenly tell that Pedro was old.
(Here we go again! Everybody I love just withers away.)
I checked him over in sidelong glances, leaning back in my seat, so he couldn’t see. He had blackish open pores and small uneven pits all over his skin. He had recently shaved, and there were many pricks of dried blood on the side of his neck. And down along his throat where he’d beheaded his pimples. That was careless, I thought. It made me want to squirm, like a pain where your wee comes out. Urethra and bladder. Ureters and kidneys and tubes. The whites of his eyes, or at least of the eye I could see, were bloodshot and red. He coughed up a lot, a hacking spongy effort that made me feel tense. He rolled down the window to spit.
‘Eat up your apple,’ he growled.
We passed a very old man. He was pushing a large black bicycle up along the verge of a hill. He wore a cloth cap, and the ends of his trousers were stuffed inside of his socks. The morning star – Venus, I think – was still visible, low in the sky. We left a film of exhaust for the man to breathe in.
There were very few cars on the road. There was a touch of frost in the fields.
‘Did I ever tell you about Ruth’s cat?’ Pedro asked me.
‘No,’ I answered.
‘Did you never hear what happened?’
‘Oh, I suppose it was a while before your time. A couple of months anyway. But I’m surprised you didn’t hear.’
‘I heard nothing.’
‘Well. Wait till I tell you. Ruth arrived with this big monster of a cat – a desperate looking yoke – huge, and white, and fluffy. I mean, Jesus Christ, this thing must’ve weighed a stone. Are you sure you’ve never heard?’
‘It was far too fat, that thing. But she mollycoddled it and she cooed over it and she fed it on cake and biscuits. Christ, it’d turn your stomach. Whenever Ruth was out sitting on her steps that cat would be curled up like a big fucking pillow in her lap.’
Pedro lit up a smoke, and forgot he was telling a story. Electricity poles raced past us, and hedges, and fields, and then a lot more raggedy hedges. I saw the green glassy snake of a river out to our left.
‘You were saying,’ I prompted Pedro.
‘Oh yeah,’ he said. ‘Where was I?’
‘Now, I’ve nothing against cats in general,’ Pedro continued. ‘Don’t get me wrong. But this thing was mean. That cat had notions about itself. It’d climb out of Ruth’s window every morning, while the mistress was still fogging it, and then it’d pick its way, daintily, through the rushes. Under the hedge. Past the gorse. As if it was a big fat fucking ballet dancer.’
Pedro waited until I gave him the laugh and then he resumed.
‘It’d make a bee-line every morning for Dick’s glass-house up on the hill. And then it’d worm its way inside and find a nice clean dry warm spot for itself and produce a shit.’
‘Yeuch,’ I said.
‘Yeuch, is right,’ said Pedro, and I could tell he was pleased. Something about the way he shifted his hips.
‘Poor old Dick. He was forever getting a fresh offering under his fingernails. He’d lose the canopy. He’d come roaring down that hill with his hand held out in front of him like a weapon.’
‘Aw Jesus!’ said Pedro. ‘You’d be in stitches from the look on his face.’
‘I’d say,’ I said.
‘He’d march right up to Ruth’s door and he’d thump on it, and he’d read her the riot act. Every second day. Your cat! My property! Trespass! Damage!’
‘But sure you know the way Ruth is. Those big cow-like eyes of hers. You might as well be roaring into the wind.’
A heron flew in front of us across the roadway. Majestic, I thought. Except for its puny little claws that were hanging down so awkwardly under its tail. Design Faults, I call them. I make out long lists. Eyes that can’t see behind you. Getting hungry three times a day. Not having fur. And so on.
‘I suppose you can’t put a leash on cat,’ Pedro was saying. ‘They know their own bloody minds.’
‘Um-hum,’ I said.
I was bored.
‘Did you ever own a cat?’ Pedro asked me.
‘Or a dog?’
‘Nope. I never owned any animal.’
‘Well, dogs are a different matter entirely. Give me a dog any day of the week. At least they can be made to toe the line. In the end, he shot the cat.’
‘Yep,’ said Pedro, and his hips made that movement again. ‘He shot the little fucker with his crossbow.’
‘Did he kill it?’
‘There you go.’
‘And what did Ruth say?’
‘Nothing at first. The cat just didn’t come home. So, she got a bit worried. She went out looking for it. Puss, puss, puss, she called all morning.’
Pedro made a whispery noise. He rubbed the tips of his fingers together.
‘But that bloody cat was never coming home and that’s for certain.’
‘Aw, poor Ruth! That must’ve been terrible. And did anyone know?’
‘Nobody but himself.’
‘That’s so mangy.’
‘Wait till you hear. She eventually found Fluffy or Furball, or whatever the fuck it was called, hanging over the glass-house door. Nailed up to the post. The way they sometimes hang badgers over the sides of fences.’
‘Jesus!’ I said. I wrinkled my nose in disgust.
‘Yep,’ said Pedro. ‘That man doesn’t mess about. No half measures with Dick.’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘She buried the cat, and that was the end of that. She never said a single word about it to Dick. She was probably too freaked out.’
‘Well,’ he said. ‘There you go.’
The traffic was increasing. There were warehouses and factories along the sides of the road. The leaves on what trees I could see were covered in dust. I was mesmerised by the tarmac going under the van. In Ancient Mexico the King used to search through all of his villages and sacrifice the best-looking boys and girls. He used to cut out their hearts with his dagger while they were still living. Isn’t that just disgusting? Uma would’ve been up shit-creek if she’d lived back then. Anyway, where was Uma now? Not here with us. There you go.
The morning sunshine was bright. I felt cheerful, in spite of the cat. There were milkmen and bread-men and workmen out in their vans. All of us hustling for cash. For a moment I caught sight of a pair of young girls. They were playing in front of their house in spite of the traffic. They were wearing pretty, floaty dresses and summer sandals. I was hearing about Indians scattered on the sides of the road. The world kept rolling past me, and I closed my eyes.
‘Here,’ said Pedro suddenly. ‘Give me your hand.’
‘What?’ I said.
I’d woken up from badgers nailed onto posts.
‘Just put your hand over here. For a minute.’
I looked across at Pedro. The front of his trousers was opened and his penis was standing straight up from a collar of denim.
I almost laughed.
And then I thought how ugly it looked, being purple and veined like that. I’d never seen my Brother’s. He was always very careful. Penis comes from the Latin word for a tail. I’d never seen a penis before. It looked nothing at all like a tail.
‘It’s not going to bite you,’ said Pedro. ‘Alls it wants is a touch.’
He stuck out his hand as if mine was there for the taking.
‘No,’ I said to Pedro. ‘Leave me alone.’
I made my body smaller and scooched to the side.
‘Aw, come on, Tizzy. Just touch it for a second. I’m so freaking horny.’
‘No,’ I repeated, coldly. My side was pressed up against the hard metal parts of the door. There was nowhere I could go.
‘Fucking frigid little cow,’ Pedro muttered.
‘You know,’ he said to me and I think he turned his head, ‘I’m getting pretty cheesed off with dragging some stupid kid around.’
I focused my gaze on the road. The van was still going at speed. From the corner of my eye I detected some movement. Then Pedro started to grunt. Low and soft and revolting. I kept my eyes glued to the road. And I sat on my hands.
The van was going fifty. I would’ve had to hurl myself out to the road.
Just keep staring ahead.
Botulism is named after a sausage.
The bite of the Pit Viper snake will kill you before you’ve taken a hundred steps.
Pedro was snuffling now and his movements were faster.
Out here, we is stoned immaculate.
The Immaculate Conception means that Mary got pregnant without any how’s your father.
I think I was holding my breath. I felt like my head was floating away.
Finally, Pedro gave a loud groan. The tension inside of the van slackened at once.
I smelled salt.
I smelled his underarm sweat.
It reminded me of the pickles we made last summer. Onion and courgette. The ones that went mouldy inside of their jars and we had to throw out.
‘Pass me that roll of tissue,’ Pedro announced.
But I couldn’t move.
‘Are you deaf as well as stuck up?’
He was speaking really slowly, as if I was dumb.
‘I said – pass me – the fucking – loo roll.’
I looked at the floor and saw what he meant. I held it out to one side.
‘Thanks,’ said Pedro then, and he sounded cheerful. ‘You’re an absolute pet.’
He wrapped lengths of tissue expertly around his hand, and then he mopped at his groin. I saw this out to one side. I thought I could make him out cleaning his fingers.
‘That’s better,’ he sighed. ‘There you go.’
I had to reach over again and take back the roll. My fingertips touched off of his.
‘Put that back where it was,’ Pedro instructed. ‘Ah, for fuck’s sake, would you ever relax! Cop yourself on.’
Hey Mister Tambourine Man Play a Song for Me.
Pedro was happily humming. A couple of times, he slicked back his hair with his comb.
We drove for several miles with no words between us. When the city came into sight Pedro asked me if I fancied a bite of some grub.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t.’
‘Suit yourself,’ he said, and he slid out of the van. He pulled up the zip of his jeans and buckled his belt. ‘I’m fucking ravenous anyway. Are you sure you’re not coming?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m sure.’
Pedro gave me one of his cackles.
‘It seems to me,’ he said, leaning across his seat, and he pressed his finger slowly into my thigh, ‘That your fucking little button is stuck on no.’