Thursday, April 15, 2021

A Nice Bit of Tongue by Karon Alderman

Wink’s swinging on the gate, barefoot, all knees and elbows, her thin face grinning as her dad comes along the lane. London still had lanes then and old clapboard houses with wooden verandas. Nan sits, shaded and grim-faced. She’s not harsh, just keeps her lips pulled tight to hold in her dentures.
‘What I’d give for an apple,’ she says, remembering back in the day when the old Queen was equally grim-faced. She rests her needles, watches Wink, skinny as a boy, long bare legs hanging from her summer frock, washed pale from Sunlight soap and line drying. No beauty, poor little Wink. Like a li’tle monkey face, Nan thinks.

Ethel and Jess are rattling crockery, cutting bread and butter in the half dark of the lean-to-kitchen. There’s a smell of tomato plants and the buzz of bees round the honeysuckle and the mint taking over the place – the child’s upside down on the gate now, flashing her long brown thighs.

‘Oi, Wink,’ Nan shouts, ‘stop flashing your knicks!’ Wink turns her head, still upside down, sticks out her tongue. ‘Cheeky beggar,’ Nan mutters.

Wink tilts her body, delighting in the swing of her arms ...the world is upside down! The world’s right! It’s up! It’s down!

The late afternoon sun scorches the white paint of the veranda, polishes the shiny dish of blue sky. The worlds at her feet! She stretches out, somersaults off the gate and lands, perfectly poised, in front of her dad. He puts down his toolbox.

‘Watcha,’ he says, squinting into the sunlight. ‘Is tea ready poppet?’

‘Dad,’ she says, ‘Look at me!’ and cartwheels towards him. He catches her feet, hoists her up his body.

‘What’s for tea Nan?’ Dad says, looking up at the veranda and sliding Wink down onto the dusty ground, where she does a handstand and casually drops into a bridge shape, flicking her long legs, coming back to standing. She’s like golden brown rubber.

In a few years she’ll dance all night with a string of men on leave. She’ll whirl in her artificial silk, round and round to the sounds of the big bands, the curls sugar-stiff in her hair and even spend a delirious week holding hands in a Lyons tea room, ignoring the sirens, making plans, that all come to nothing when he goes back to his regiment. And his mate lets slip there’s wife at home... and kiddies. She never catches another one, can’t say why. She’ll stay, looking after mum and dad. Nan’ll be gone by then, lungs like wet woollies on the line.

Now, as Wink cartwheels up the lane, Nan leans forward, waves her knitting needle. ‘I dunno,’ she says. ‘Stop showing all you got, Wink. It’s not lady-like. Go wash your mucky ‘ands. Oh, and tell your mum I fancy a nice bit of tongue.’

© Karon Alderman

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