Up against a stone pillar, the light shone down upon his head and chest like a halo or a Tudor ruff, or a large, translucent bib, as white as his skin and the flower of hair that sprung at his temple. At his mouth, about his chin, a stain sat; mud or muck or chocolate, like the scruffy goatee of a middle-aged Parisian artist.
‘Alma took it. Not a bad snap eh?’ His uncle sported neither beard nor ruff but a speck of red chilli dip – conspicuous as a black mole hair or white-head – hung to the crevice of his mouth. He smiled at his father and him and put the picture back on the shelf. His uncle’s voice fluttered about his ears and he hoped that a smile would suffice as a response.
‘I sent this to Dad last week. He has pictures of the other two when they were the same age. Hmm? Yep, two.'
His father reached for more crisps and chilli dip and smeared it over his own mouth. His blackberry blinked on the table. ‘Two already! Good Lord …’
‘Young Lutino two already!’ His grandfather entered the room, grinning, the skin about his mouth stretching out in wrinkled folds. He walked briskly with the stiff edge of a decommissioned rocking-horse. He saw that a drop of urine had formed on his grandfather’s crotch and also spotted a speck of green caught between two of the old man’s teeth. He drew his tongue over his own teeth and put a hand up to his mouth and chin and felt only the dry beginnings of the scruffy goatee of a middle-aged Parisian artist.
His father and uncle were up in London. Just for a couple of days, his uncle said. And his father too, ‘Just for a couple of days.’
‘Then back to the country.'
The three of them had come from different corners of the city and met in a pub, a five minute walk from his grandfather’s. It was fun and they were very content to stay but resisted a second round and got up to walk around the corner. His grandfather had greeted them all heartily and fixed them drinks.
Now standing around his table, his uncle said, ‘You know Spangle told me the funniest thing the other day. He said that years ago when he came to stay at weekends and Alma stayed behind on walks after lunch, he had thought that she had been smuggling lovers in behind our back. Because she always insisted so vociferously that we should go out on a walk, but would never come herself. Each Sunday he had imagined her hurrying them all in as soon as we crossed through the trees into the field!’
They laughed and he thought of the raised eyebrows and meaningful looks that would pass about Alexandria’s table. Sofia would laugh with them and drop a little remark that ripped the seal the others dared not pick at, and they would cackle in a spurt of relief, howling and clawing at the table. This table was as long and light, as his grandfather’s was dark and squat, and sitting around it earlier that Summer, Sofia had said:
‘I’m giving up in the autumn. As soon as I can. It’s disgusting. It’s just not worth it.’ Alexandria silently nodded along, and the girls looked up at Sofia and her cigarette with eyes content to believe in the autumn and she nodded down at them. ‘It’s not worth trying in the first place.'
‘How old were you?’ Alexandria asked.
‘How old were you?’
His grandfather lit a cigarette and passed the lighter.
‘I remember the first time they met. We went on a walk and the two of them were lagging behind and he was telling her all about the books he had read and his favourite jokes and stories from school. Funny to him but awfully dull to poor Alma. But she laughed and listened and asked questions and I remember looking back and saw him allowing her to help him over the style, the silhouette of them as she cautiously guided him over ...’
Once, on a walk with his grandfather, blackberry picking, hanging back to pee into the bush, he had spotted a voluptuous blackberry amongst the thorns. As he reached out to pluck it the mole hill he was standing on collapsed and he tottered into the ditch peeing over his trousers. For the rest of the walk he stayed back from the others so they wouldn’t see. Later he would hang back and try to surreptitiously smoke one of his grandfather’s cigarettes. Walking with his uncle and Alma in the sunflowers that summer he noticed Spangle hanging back and wondered whether he was smoking or had peed on his trousers.
‘It kills us. I know it kills us; we’ve just finished burying Dad after it killed him, and look at me!’ That is what Alexandria had said while she smoked in the fireplace and he and Sofia wished to smoke crouched in the fireplace themselves, but couldn’t so she had gone to the bushes at night and he to the bins in the warm sleepy moments after lunch. But then Alexandria had woken up one morning and recognised it as the foulness it is and that was that and Sofia now really wanted to stop and that would be that, and he now loved not going to the bins but went to the flowers instead and thought of his grandfather’s curt cough and his rolling machine.
He offered him another drink saying, ‘He should try some of mine. You boys’ feet never grew to my size I think. Though I think they are now beginning to shrink …’
‘-I haven’t told Alma. I don’t know what she’d think! …’
‘-It’s funny actually I was talking to someone at work …‘
Alexandria was giggling somewhere while Sofia gave him a gesture as she had earlier. ‘She will probably have a rosé but go and check.’ He had gone out to try and find Alexandria and hadn’t found her but found the sunflowers and he had sat and in the end she had found him on her way back from the bins and he had offered to get her a drink and they walked back together, him helping her over the gate and back towards the house, and she told him stories that hovered about his ears and didn’t require a response.
‘She was having her nap of course,’ his uncle said. ‘That’s all it was.’
Bertie Digby Alexander