The fat boy lay in his bath, the water cooling around him, steam on his glasses. He squeezed the yellow, foot-shaped sponge, letting the soapy cream slide down over his navel, slipping down the creases in his flesh. He marvelled at the smooth, pink expanse of his body, thinking of all the good things that had gone into it, all the good things he could still find to fill it up. He wondered vaguely how much it had all cost, and what it might be good for.
Absent-mindedly he reached below his stomach, feeling for the shrunken skin that wrapped his flaccid penis. He lifted it, but let it flop back into the water. He couldn't see it, and he didn't really want to know about it. If only somebody else would hold it. If only he had a friend to cuddle, to play with, to lie on top of in the warmth of the bed. Someone who would open to him.
Like mother; only young and smooth. And it should be a girl, too. Other boys were nice, but in the long term a girl would be more presentable, more right. Other boys would look up to him more then, and think how good they looked together. And it would be something to be proud of, something not to be shy about. And mother would approve, and they could have tea together, without pretending.
The water slopped against him as he sat up and reached for the bobbing, plastic duck. He squeezed it and it squawked a comic noise. He let it fall, and removed his glasses. Everything went from bleary to blurred. He dunked the spectacles in the bath water, then wiped them round with the corner of the flannel, meaning to polish them later. He put them back on, and surveyed his gleaming body through the streaked brightness of the wiped lenses.
He poked his navel, thinking of the line that had held him to his mother, thinking of the bowl of spaghetti he had had last night, thinking that perhaps today he would go for a walk when he got home from school. Or perhaps he would see if anyone would play squash. No, not squash.
It was lonely without mother. She would be back on Thursday, but he didn't like being so reliant on Rita. Mother was good for him, and tidied up without complaining, picking up his school clothes, and putting out clean shirts for him. Rita only provided meals and did the washing. She didn't care like mother.
Crossly he slapped the water with the flat of his right hand. Drops of water were flung out of the bath across the pink tiles, skidding up the toes of his slippers. He cursed, weakly. Why should he go to school? Why had he to carry on with the performance? Academically he was getting nowhere, and his future was just getting shorter. Why couldn't he run away to sea, or get a job as a volunteer somewhere? He could lie about his age, get Harry to fake some references......
Worst of all was being fat. Being fat was like smoking; you could always stop tomorrow. Or you could stop every day. But it didn't go away; it just didn't fade. He cursed the hours and hours he spent doing things he didn't want to do, when he could be lying in the sun on a beach in South Africa, tanned and slim. Instead, his time was consumed, and to ward off tiredness and the boredom of frustration he ate, greedily.
He heaved himself up, scummy water pouring back into the bath. He pushed the plug release and reached for his towel. Every movement called for effort; every effort stuck like a pin into his sagging flesh. As he stepped onto the puddled floor, he began to think of the day ahead, and realised suddenly that he had not done the homework for Italian. He wondered if he could read it up quickly before he left the house. But Dante doesn't make sense like that. He would have to try at lunch time, and if not, say he'd been too busy. But the teacher wouldn't like that: she would make some remark that would belittle him in front of the class.
Teachers made him sick. Especially 'trendy' ones. He wished he was back in his old school, where everybody knew their position, wore uniforms of one kind or another with ties of rank, and even the most eccentric of teachers was respectful and considerate. Here everybody dressed as they liked, and sometimes it was difficult to tell the teachers from some of the sixth form. And nobody understood about cheekiness or respect. He'd tried to tell the prefects; he'd tried to tell the school council. People nodded and agreed, smiled condescendingly, came and whispered their approval, but then they all just went their own sweet ways as if nobody had said anything.
Teachers made him sick. They probably called him 'Fatty' - or worse? - in the staff room. They read communist newspapers, they had a smoking room: some of them even went to the trattoria over the road at lunchtime and drank. If only mother would take me away, he thought.
When he'd dabbed himself dry, he dropped the damp towel on the side of the bath and wandered through to his bedroom. Susie Wong lay on the coverlet, licking herself. She stretched as he entered, luxuriously exposing her soft belly. It's all right for some, he mused, tickling her under her chin. Two kittens struggled to get back on the teats, while a third blindly sniffed around his hand. This was what life should be like: soft and warm. Cosy.
He adored the cats. He'd learnt so much from them. He knew what it was like to have babies now, and how to treat little ones. Life was so fascinating, if you had the time.
He rummaged in the chest of drawers, and found some clean underpants, and a vest. Then some light socks. Today was a day for light socks. There was a shirt in the cupboard that mother had ironed before she went away, but he had to ask Rita, and she was so difficult to communicate with.
Trousers and tie from the back of the chair, jacket must be in the living room. Shoes? Shoes also in the living room. He could hear Rita now, clattering in the kitchen, making coffee most likely. He brushed his hair impatiently, careless of the dandruff and strands that landed on his shoulders. What time was it? Did he have the time for breakfast?
Rita said something cheery as he went into the kitchen, something he didn't quite catch, so he countered with a comment on the weather. Italian was such a deceptive language. It all seemed so easy, so mellifluous and musical. Yet so hard to grasp. And sometimes it seemed as if everybody else could rattle it off as if they were born to it. Everybody at school, even the teachers, were better at it than he was, and he could sense them all laughing at his efforts. "Si," he said to something else Rita had said, assuming she was referring to the biscuits she was putting on a plate for him. "Grazie." Then he thought of the shirts, and delved for the words. "Per favor, Signora. Ho bisogna di un altro, erm, chemise...." He tugged at his shirt front, smiling awkwardly.
"Una camicia, si si. La faccio subito."
"Camicia, si. Grazie. Ma non per adesso," he added, seeing that she appeared to think he wanted it immediately. "Per domani."
"Va bene," she said, and then machine-gunned another string of phrases at him, impudently knowing he wouldn't catch it all.
He soaked a biscuit in the milky coffee, and sucked it through his lips, dreaming of bacon and eggs. Why had they come to this country? What did it have apart from ruins? What pleasure could anyone get out of living here?
Outside it was grey and blustery. A warm, southerly wind blew clouds against the trees, plastering yellow and brown leaves against the black road. He walked down to where Tracey and her father usually picked him up, and waited, hands in pockets, trying to feel at ease. His stomach lolled against his belt, and he wondered what he would get for lunch.
The car drew up, and he got in the back. Tracey didn't turn to him, and her father gave him the briefest of nods. He made a comment about the weather, and then elaborated, comparing this kind of warm wetness with the far east, and with England, the West country. The car nudged along in the commuter traffic. Thank God it was only five minutes, he thought.
As usual, he thanked Tracey's father profusely while Tracey ran off. He watched after her, wistfully, as her father drove off into the excitement of city life. Then he wandered down to the tuck shop for a cappuccino and a cornetto. It was almost empty. The buses must be late this morning, he thought. Two of those teachers stood at the bar. They acknowledged his presence, but carried on talking without addressing themselves to him. He steered clear of them, and found himself saying 'Hello' to a fourth-former and his mother. But they were Italian, too.
Inside the school all was quiet. A few bags lay abandoned on the corridor floor where they'd been thrown the day before. He took no notice. A poster for a Cake Sale peeled from the wall at him. He read the date, then tried to stick it back up. He paused before a display of batik work that reminded him painfully of the colours and styles of his previous school. He walked down the gloomy corridor, past the receptionist who was busy talking fluent Italian into the telephone.
He unlocked his office and pulled up the blinds. And then he sat down at his desk, looking down at his thighs, and waited for his secretary to come and tell him what to do…..
Paul McMullin 30/10/90