“Are you not going to talk to me, then?”
“Yeah, of course – if you want, like.” Martin knew he was blushing. The girl with the long sun-kissed legs confronted him as he stepped out of the elevator cage. Jack, his mate, followed him, making a sound of appreciation in his ear which, had he been a horned toad and not a bricklayer, might have sounded like a mating call.
“’Cos you wolf-whistled me yesterday, didn’t you?”
“Did Ah?” That was different. Yesterday Martin was two storeys up, looking down from the scaffolding. This was face to face. A paragon of all that was beautiful, standing a couple of feet away.
“So I thought you fancied me. Was I wrong?”
Her eyes were a dark challenging blue, lips full and wide. Her hair was black, her teeth even and very, very white. She was wearing the same red top as yesterday. The same blue denim shorts.
“No.” He muttered. “No, you’re – you’re not wrong.” He had only dared to whistle because Jack had done it first.
“Well, what we going to do about it then? It’s all right, you can talk to me you know. I won’t break.”
“So what ‘appened?” Jack had returned with their fish and chip lunch. “Hey, I bet you embarrassed yerself, you!”
“No – no I didn’t!” Martin defended. “Of course I didn’t!”
“Spent five minutes thinkin’ o’ dead cats, then! She were tasty, her.”
“Aye.” His mate was right about the cats. “She’s real nice, like. We’re goin’ out Thursday.”
“Yer lucky bustard! Why Thursday?”
“As good a day as any, i’n’t it?”
“What’s her name?”
Martin thought for a moment. “Don’t know. Never as’t her.”
Her name was Cherie. Introductions had to wait until Thursday, because Cherie did not appear again on the town square below the building site in the following few days, though Martin hoped for a sight of her. By the morning of the appointed day he was already wondering if he had done the right thing. Martin was always uneasy in the presence of eligible girls – their disguised interest, the giggling, the sotto voce comments whenever he was near, made him nervous and on edge. Jack, who couldn’t understand his reticence, teased him.
“I don’t know what yer’ve got, lad, but I wish I had it. Yer’d not catch me blushin’ and hidin’ in corners, I can tell thee.”
Martin wore the shirt his favourite on-line store said would look good on him, the three-quarter trousers that they said would match the shirt. He drenched himself in the men’s cologne someone gave him for Christmas two years before; and in all fairness he felt quite self-confident when he hit the street. As he approached the meeting place he had agreed with Cherie, however, his eyes settled upon her shortest dress of darkest red, and that confidence began to evaporate.
For her part, Cherie had to weigh her recollection of the half-naked, dusty male god from the scaffolding against the shop window figure who wafted to greet her on Mathesons’ corner. As he approached, her practised smile twitched a little and almost faded – her full red lips closed over those white, white teeth. But still, she persuaded herself, at least he had made an effort; and really, once she had changed sides to stay up wind, he was quite a creditable companion on the street. Eyes were drawn. She liked that. She hugged his arm.
“Go clubbin’ yeah?”
Martin’s confidence graph took a further plunge. “Ah’m not mooch of a dancer, like!”
“Why man, you’d be fine.” Cherie produced a small polythene bag from her purse. “You tried some of these?”
Martin eyed the little white pills within the bag with suspicion. “What are they, like?”
“They make you dance!”
And dance Martin did; wildly. And if a few toes got trodden and if a face or two got elbowed no-one seemed disposed to make a point of it. And Cherie? She was delighted.
It was half-past-two before the pair left the Hot Licks Club. Martin had somehow endured seven hours of closeness to Cherie’s graceful, swaying body without doing anything that would make his mate Jack ashamed of him. Around the back door behind the dustbins, his supply of dead cats ran out.
“Chuffin’ ‘ell! Yer look like the eight-forty-nine from Newcastle ran over yer!” Jack commented the next morning. “Good night, was it?”
“It were all right, like.” Martin blinked at his watch. “Eight-forty-nine’s not due yet, like.”
“I know, lad. I know.” Jack soothed. “It’s joost an expression, see?”
“Well, gan on then, what were she like?”
“She were all right, like.” Martin wasn’t at all sure he remembered what Cherie was actually like. He had a vision in his head of an undulating goddess, but it was fogged. Those little white pills were responsible. He had never taken anything of their like before, so he had never been ‘up’. And never having been ‘up’, he was unprepared for coming ‘down’ – which he was heavily in the process of experiencing. That morning, after he nearly fell from the scaffolding twice, his foreman put him in charge of stores.
Jack caught up with him at the rear of the site at lunchtime. “I’m off to get t’ fish and chips, yer havin’ the usual?”
“Ah. Awreet.” Martin assented unenthusiastically.
“That right you got another date with yon Cherie lass?”
“Aye. Ah think so.” This was another of the things he was unable to recall clearly. “Saturday, I think, like.”
“Well, there’s someone out the front to see yer.” Jack told him. “Have fun, lad!”
Cherie stood waiting by a forklift with the sun behind her so Martin could not immediately read her expression, though he might have been disappointed by the modesty of her floral summer dress.
“Ah.” Martin said.
“Hello Martin.” She said. She sounded upset.
A tall figure hidden from sight behind the machine stepped into view. “This is your Martin?” His accent was thick and heavy with Eastern European inflections. “You are lucky boy, Martin. Yes?”
“Ah.” Martin said. “Who’re you, like?”
Jack and Martin sat eating their fish and chips together.
Jack was chuckling unsympathetically. “Yer’ve put yer foot in it this time!”
“Ah didn’t know she were only sixteen!” Martin moaned. “She never said, like, did she?”
“Oh aye! Like she would! And he was her brother, this big bloke?”
“Ah. One of eight. Eight brothers!”
“Chuffin’ ell! What sort of people have that many kids?”
“Ah’m aboot to find out. Her muvver and favver want to see me tonight! About my ‘plans’.”
“Plans? Chuffin’ell. Yer nivver planned owt in yer life, lad!”
“Anyway, this brother of ‘ers, this Dimitri, he says it’s alright for ‘er to see me, like, because sixteen’s quite old to still be single, where they cooms from. I think they want me to marry ‘er, like!”
Jack’s hell chuffed once more. “It’s ridiculous, that. I mean, yer didn’t do nothin’ to her, did yer? I mean, first date and all?”
Martin probed the fog mournfully. “Ah don’t rightly remember. Ah think ah might ha’ done.”
Over the weeks that followed Jack’s lunches became solitary affairs. Cherie brought sandwiches and other more exotic treats to sit with Martin in the park while she regaled him with details of the wedding dress she wanted, the celebrations that people of her country enjoyed on such occasions, and his duties as a bridegroom. Cherie’s brothers acted as chaperones: their small, packed household reverberated to the beat of raucous folk music, while he sat in silence for hours. His hosts prattled happily in their own language. Only Cherie spoke to him in English.
“Where is she now?” Jack asked. It was the first time he and Martin had shared their lunch in quite a while.
“She’s off gettin’ fitted for the dress.” Martin explained. “It’s not that I don’t like, ‘er, like…it i’n’t her so much – it’s her fam’ly. Wor can’t get away from ‘em, like!”
And Jack said: “Still, lad, it’ll be awreet once tha’s married, won’t it?”
“Ah, well that’s the thing. ‘Er favver wants us to work for ‘im. Ah’m fam’ly now, ‘e says. Ah says, ah’m norra plumber. ‘E says, that’s awreet, ‘e’ll teach us, like. Boot ah don’t want to be be a bluddy plumber, do ah? Ah’m ‘appy wi’ the bricks, like!”
“Well, tell ‘im that.”
“Oh ah, you try! An’ Cherie’s brothers, see? They works for ‘im awready, an’ he don’t pay them ‘ardly nowt. Ah’m spendin’ more time wi’ them than ah am wi’ Cherie. It’s all the heavy hand on the shoulder an’ ‘you be a good lad an’ do what Papa wants’. And ah’m buyin’ all the drinks, like!”
“Let me think.” Said Jack.
Jack, at forty-one, could have looked upon his young friend’s plight from a mature perspective and concluded that Martin’s fears would resolve themselves, given a little time. But he was concerned. Martin’s brow was furrowed, his complexion pale. He seemed to be sagging beneath the burden, not of his relationship with a pretty girl who, despite her tender years, Jack rather liked, but the grasping aspirations of her father and her brothers.
The girl’s horizons could not extend beyond her family. It was a powerful influence, and Martin needed some inspiration to introduce a little slack to those natural ties. The trouble was, good and honest as his young friend was, Martin had never suffered the pangs of inspiration. Ideas were not his strongest suit. A vissicitude of fortune needed to step in.
Which was why, on one warm weekday evening, Jack was to be found stuffed into his best suit, standing outside a church hall beside a board that announced a meeting of the ‘Jesuit Society’.
“Hello, love! Are you a newbie?” She was smartly dressed in blue, with her hair coiffed neatly beneath a dark navy hat. “I’m Ethel. Come on in and let me introduce you.”
In the ensuing two hours Jack experienced more religion than had passed his way in a lifetime of resolute agnosticism. It was, he justified to himself, suffered in a good cause, especially as it offered every opportunity to socialise with Ethel, who was a member of a mysterious ‘Committee’, and a perfect receptor for his plan. Oh yes, Jack had a plan.
“That’s why I’m ‘ere!” Jack proclaimed. “I think it’s terrible, the way these bloody fanatics is pollutin’ our religion (pardon my language, Ethel). They’re weedlin’ their way in, makin’ all these heretical changes! They’re ruinin’ our Church!”
“Oh, I agree!” Ethel said. “Er…who, exactly, love?”
“Oh aye, them.” Ethel nodded.
“Aye, and I’ll do better than ‘who’; They’re everywhere! I’ll give thee an example! Right in this diocese, like, there’s someone actually pretendin’ to take instructions in the faith who’ll be getting’ married at the Sacred Heart in six weeks. He’s a known Scientologist, is ‘im, but he’s marryin’ there before the altar, bold as yer please; and into a good Catholic family, an’ all!”
“Oh, my good Lord!” Ethel said.
“Yes! An’ once the canker starts, mind, in a good God-fearing fam’ly like that, it spreads. Blasphemy, that’s what it is. Blasphemy!”
Ethel laid a reassuring hand on Jack’s arm. “I so agree!”
“Ah don’t understand it!” Martin exclaimed, as he buttered his thirtieth frog of the morning. “One minute ‘er fam’ly’s all over me, like; next minute they won’t speak to me! T’wedding’s off! Father sommat-or-other from the church comes ter see Cherie’s Da’ and tells ‘im ‘e won’t marry us, an’ him and ‘er brothers are at me fer bein’ a Judas, like! What have ah done?”
Jack grinned. “Seems like tha’s got theself a bit o’ space, lad. Tha’s what tha wanted, weren’t it?” It was time to ignite the spark of inspiration. What does Cherie think about it?”
“She says I should ha’ told ‘er I was a Scy-tologist or sommat, an’ I says I weren’t. Ah’m Church of England, man!”
“Strange ‘ow things works out.” Jack nodded, sagely. He knew that however robustly his friend defended himself there was no possibility Father Kelly would change his mind and consent to conduct the marriage. Once the Jesuit Society had their teeth in the hem of his cassock it was more than his life was worth. “Does she still want to marry yer, lad?”
“Oh ah. She’s dead unhappy.” Martin flushed and muttered into his chest: “She says she loves me, like.”
“Yer can still get married then, can’t yer?”
“Ah don’t see how. ‘Er parents won’t consent no more an’ she’s under age. Us’d have to wait two year, an’ ‘er brothers are talkin’ about ‘er gannin’ back to ‘er home country. They.ve got some mate of ‘er favver’s as they wants her to hook up ter. Nah, it’s all off, far as ah can see.”
“Gretna Green?” Cherie’s face lit up. “We can really get married there?”
“Ah.” Martin nodded. “Or anywhere in Scotland, Jack says. Sixteen’s old enough up there, see? We can nip off on the quiet, soon as y’like. Ah can get the train tickets fer tomorrow morning…”
“Oh, Martin, that’s brilliant!”
“We’ll have to be careful, mind.” Martin looked deeply into his girlfriend’s shining eyes and through them saw, for a moment, another kind of reflection – that of a doorway hanging open – a path to freedom, and though he was unsure he wanted it, a way of escape.
“Of course, if you didn’t want to do it…” She was giving up her family, her brothers, her home. She only had to show doubt, and he would sympathise: he would understand. After all…
Cherie stopped his train of thought in its tracks. “Not want to? Don’t be daft, Martin man, of course I want to!”
“Anyway;” She patted her stomach. “There is another little problem.”
© Frederick Anderson 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.
Image Credits: Scaffolding, Hebi B, from Pixabay
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Audience/Club, Pexels, from Pixabay