as clean as I could get

Happy February! I’m glad to be through January because I am in need of snowdrops and crocuses, sticky buds and the promise of spring. That said, January was a good month for writing. I had a lovely evening out at Polari on the South Bank last week and will definitely go up again soon. I had some good news about my entry in the Bare Fiction Short Story Competition and my story Trout Quintet will be published in the next issue. It looks like the latest Rattletales anthology will be out soon too and you can read another of my stories in that.

I’ve got my fingers crossed and my nose to the grindstone as far as other projects are concerned. So, if you see me with a nose filed to a point, shaking my cramped hands, you’ll know why.

In the meantime, here is a story that arrived when I went to Cornwall to write. I was cosy in my flat, with all-day coffee and occasional chocolate bars, when I started thinking about what people actually do when they run away and what enables them to go back. And maybe that is just as significant, in the story, as why they left.

This story is called

as clean as I could get

I bought Imperial Leather soap and a new flannel. They lay, side by side, in the bottom of my bag, assurances from the 1970s. And, to fit with them, I ignored the shower and did what I’d done back then.

I stood in an ankle-deep bath and rolled the bar in the wet cloth, over and over in my two hands. And then I rubbed, starting with ears, one finger twisting in slick, soapy loops, then neck, chest, arm pits, belly, legs, feet and then back up for between my legs, into the crack of my arse. Then I ran the flannel under the hot tap. Clean, steaming with fresh water, I rinsed away the bubbles, the softness that had stripped the dirt. Then I did it all again. Finally I pulled the plug with a jerk of the chain, and, as the water drained away, I soaked the flannel a final time and made sure that what slid from my skin was clean now.

Systematic. Slow. Watchful. Not the swift foam of some shiny shower gel – all froth and fruit – but what I had been taught in childhood. What would work when you didn’t have much of anything.

‘A good wash down.’

I was as clean as I could get.

So I did that every day. I mean the new soap and flannel too. Every day of that week I paid a visit to the chemist in Fore Street to get them. It had old fashioned shelves with bath salts and hot water bottles. The counter had plasters and Rennies, not condoms and lube like in the city.

It never occurred to me to buy them all in one go, even though I knew I’d need seven. I hoped that they would keep replenishing the coloured stack of towelling squares and the row of rectangular boxes. They did, each day, as regularly as I bought my soap and flannels. I had decided that, in the event of their running out of either, Pears soap and a sponge would just about do. But that wasn’t necessary. The system worked.

I didn’t articulate any of that, of course. I didn’t write it down anywhere either. One of the delights of ending up there, on my own, was that life became un-reported, undocumented and unquestioned. What I did was what I did and there was no-one to ask or to tell.

The bath was last thing at night, in the hope that then I would sleep. I think I did, a bit better than back in London anyway, but invariably the dreams would mean that I woke with my teeth clenched, bunched jaw muscles that throbbed.

In the morning I got up quickly, brushed my teeth in a cursory manner and went to the pasty shop for coffee. You see, there’s no logic in it. Why didn’t I develop something around tooth brushing? Or coffee? I don’t know, but I didn’t. Each day that week I’d drink what I fancied – cappuccino, flat white, latte, Americano – and dab at bits of croissant or pain au chocolat as I planned the rest of my day.

And the days were erratic too – a walk to Man’s Head, a trip to the library to stare out the rainy window while holding a book on marine mammals, an afternoon spent on a quest for a green shirt. There was nothing I really had to do. That ship had sailed, as Mike would tell me when he eventually got me to answer the phone.

I was standing under the shelter of some bushy growth, protruding from the wall of Barbara Hepworth’s house, as the rain pelted the road, when I felt the insistent humming in my breast pocket. It was day seven. Time I answered.

‘Where the fuck are you?’

‘Nice to hear from you, Mike.’

‘Shut the fuck up. Just shut the fucking fuck up, because I’m not fucking laughing. You just disappeared. I… people thought you were dead.’

‘I’m not dead.’

‘For… For Christ’s… You know, I should just put this fucking phone down now. You smart-arsed…’

Then I could hear that he was actually on the edge of tears and I haven’t known Mike to cry since 1983, when we lost the FA cup final replay.

‘Mike. Mike mate, I didn’t mean to worry anyone. I just thought I should get away and decide what I need to do. Work out what to say to her, you know?’

And that’s when he said it, with the tiniest hint of triumph, I thought.

‘I think you’ll find that ship’s sailed, mate. She hasn’t been waiting around for you.’

The wave of nausea was somehow all the more vast and teetering because it wasn’t a surprise. It slammed me and I couldn’t speak for a minute. But then I could and it actually came out pretty well.

‘Has she gone?’

‘Back to Cork.’

Of course, people don’t sail to Cork much these days and she hadn’t. She’d got a plane from Gatwick. So he might just as easily have said,

‘That bird has flown.’

But he didn’t. And it fitted with everything so I was glad. The waves of my soap-scum evenings, washing her away as surely as the Irish Sea.

‘Are you still there?’

I was leaning against the damp wall, breathing very hard and watching the rivulet of rain water coasting down the central gulley that split the road in two.

‘Yes.’

‘And are you coming back?’

‘Tomorrow.’

That night, just before sleep came, I got up again and went to the bathroom. I switched on the light and blinked. There were seven flannels on the towel rail – wrung out, desiccated, swaying in the warm air from the radiator. There were seven bars of soap, wearing their ghost-bubble coats, as dry as the flannels. I tucked my nose into the neck of my t-shirt and inhaled. My skin was warm, a flush of some comfort. I smelled like a decent person. I smelled clean.

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