Support BHQ
Buy books at Blithe House (in association with

The Nail, the Knife, the Scissors :

James Friel

“Is it asthma?” she’d ask.

I’d nod, liking the sound of the word.

“Does your breathing come in rasps like this?”

“Yes,” I’d say, copying her.

Asthma, lovely word, and rubella and impetigo, shingles and anaemia, jeweled words she pinned on me. I’d wear each one like a brooch.

At night she’d take me into her bed and lay me like a fence between her and Dad.

His voice would cut through the dark. “What’s that little bugger doing here?”

“It frightens him to sleep alone.” She’d say it to me as much as to him, training me to need her.

Karl Brewer, my best friend then, didn’t need anyone. His Mam paid him no mind at all. A croupier in a casino in Bolton, Iris Brewer would leave Karl whole evenings alone. He could stay up as late as he liked. He was never that clean. His clothes were never fresh, and yet, with his Crayola yellow hair, he looked like he could glow in the dark. This was his charm. He wasn’t the victim of neglect: he was its fruit.

I was a fat boy with buttocks that began at the back of my knees. My hair was lank and black. Mam wouldn’t cut it. Dad did me that kindness, fed up of me flicking it back like a girl.

He strapped me with his belt to a kitchen chair, and hacked at it with scissors. I screamed. I kicked. I struggled. He hit me full in the mouth with his fist. I toppled over and banged my head on the cooker. I was five years old.

Mam looked on, moaning and helpless, and the dog we had snuffled about my fallen locks as Dad knelt on my chest and finished the job. I lay bound, listening to the awkward click and snap of the scissors, thinking this would be a good time to die. I caught sight of Karl Brewer, his face a pale moon at the back door window. He’d called round to play out, saw what was up and went away.

I think it was after that I had rheumatic fever, a silken scarf in which I lay wrapped for months. Being ill meant Dad would leave me alone, and Mam would let Karl up to my room. He’d sit on my bed and take off his socks. He was collecting the dirt between his toes, and moulding it to make a castle.

“Big black one, it is. I’ve just done the door.”

He’d tell me the stories of the late night horror films he’d seen on TV, and of the books he’d read until dawn, the plans he’d made for a flying bed, what Port and Lemon was really like, how men had willies that grew hard, and how easy birds were to draw once you really looked.

He had, too, this book on anatomy, its pages curtained with tissue. He’d gaze at the body’s interior, its tangled loops, its viscous chambers, its fibres, its filaments, the pulse and pulp of it all.

“That’s what we’re like inside. Look at the lungs, and that there is a pituitary gland. What does that do? I wonder.”

I’d pretend to be a doctor and inspect his armpits for diseases.

I missed a lot of my first year at school, but Karl told me it was proper misery. His teacher didn’t believe he could read. She wouldn’t even test him. She said he was too dirty to be clever. He said he’d bring his Mam in, but teachers frightened Iris Brewer, took away the brassy confidence that made her shine. So that first year, Karl made do with me and books from a barrow in the market. We’d sit in our coal cupboard, him reading aloud by torchlight, back to back so his voice thrummed through me. Anything with a ghost made him happy, and long sentences, each like a maze inside which I’d have been lost forever without his voice, a glinting thread to lead me back.

Year Two was better, for Karl anyway. Year Two was Miss Beale. Six foot two and wonky-lipped, a lean giantess in bouclè cardies, her health was delicate. Last year she had been away more times than me. She always struck me as made of glass, the merest noise would set her trembling, and soon I longed to see her break. She loved Jesus Christ, elocution, travel with Miss Higson who taught Year Four, and “Life, children, in all its many miracled majesty.” 

The first time she had Karl up to read, she handed him Reader One. He read it back to her with bored facility, twisting from side to side and picking the plastic off his pumps. Her slanted lips moved from thin surprise to open pleasure. She handed him Reader Two. He read it back to her in minutes, dismayed to see Dick and Jane still running up that hill. She took him over to the bookshelf by my desk where I tried to catch his eye. She gave him a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. He shook his head and said he’d read it.

“It’s not as good as Hans Christian Anderson.” There was a copy on the shelf, and he pulled it down. “The Little Mermaid is best. It’s really cruel, and I like anything to do with the sea.”

Miss Beale smiled lopsidedly and wide. “Class,” she said, turning to us all, “I know you are doing Sums, but, Karl, I want you to read to the whole class. Pens down, everyone, please.”

Stolid and blond, in a jumper ripped at the waist, Karl read to us:

Far out to sea, the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower, and as clear as the purest of glass. Oh, the most wonderful trees and plants grow down there, and their stems and leaves are so supple that with the least movement of water they stir like living things…

It was as if he had seen the Merking’s palace, its coral walls, its amber windows through which the fish swam in and out like birds, and the ocean floor like a great garden of fiery-red and dark green trees, its soil like finest sand, but blue like sulphur flames.

I sat like the rest, transfixed, but I felt no pleasure. He had not looked at me once the whole morning through, and Miss Beale was looking at him like a thing she had discovered for herself.

When Mam came to pick me up, I ran and wept into her skirt all the tears I’d saved up throughout the day.

Karl moved to a bigger house on Murdoch Close. Iris Brewer was going out with a Proper Doctor. They’d want for nothing now. Karl said the Proper Doctor was a laugh, but wouldn’t last. He’d taught Karl to pee eight foot up the wall. I couldn’t aim higher than hip-level. It wasn’t a skill my mother encouraged.

“You’re weak in the bladder and you’ll do yourself harm. You’re delicate, do you hear me? Frail.”

“Yes,” I said, liking the word. “I’m frail.”

Murdoch Close was three streets away. The houses backed onto a field where football was played all day by lads who were loud and laughed at me. Karl would drop by now and then and ask me to play out, but I’d hang about my doorstep and then tell him, no, although my whole heart longed for nothing else. I did see his new room. He had his Mam paint it all over white, and he stuck up all the pages from his anatomy book. His Mam said the room looked like an abattoir. I could hear her downstairs, laughing with the Proper Doctor.

“He’ll be your new dad,” I said, hoping it would hurt. “Do you miss not having a real dad?” 

“No. Not if he’s anything like yours.”

Some girls came by and stood outside the gate. We heard them call Karl’s name, and he said he had to go.

“With them?” I asked, wishing them dead at once.

“No. Miss Beale. Her and Miss Higson. They’re taking me to Bolton Library. They have this Underwater World downstairs, and she wants me to see the fish.”

Back home, Mam said, “You’re better off without him. I’ll boil you an egg, and you can have the yolk with sugar in it.” 

It’s what we used to do sometimes, sitting on the sofa and making each other laugh until Dad came in and I’d go to bed for safety’s sake and try not to hear the row they’d make. My home was a grim and careful place.

At school Karl stayed in at break, making things for Miss Beale, or he was off at the end of the fields, hurling himself about on the grass and saving goal after goal. I’d hang about the Dinner Ladies for fear other boys would beat me up. William Rooney had discovered how the skin lay in thick folds at the back of my neck. He’d twist the flesh in a knot between his fingers and lead me around the schoolyard like a dog. Sometimes the girls took pity and let me keep score at rounders, but they’d get bored and beat me up as well.

Miss Beale was one of those inventive teachers, the type who make music out of pearl barley and coffee tins, who bring in a lamb for a lesson on spring, or her cats, Alice and Gertrude, for a project on pets. Geography, she’d show slides, holiday snaps of her and Miss Higson against the Coliseum or on the Nile in sunglasses and halter-necks.

“Let us turn this classroom into a cathedral,” she announced in Holy Week. She said even the simplest thing as if it were a poem she was reciting down the phone. She twirled about the room, handing out jam-jars and powder paints. “I shall give each table a scene from the Passion of Our Lord, and a window on which to paint it. I want this room to glow, for the sun to strike through each pane of glass and kaleidoscope the room with different colours.”

I was stuck with doing sheep on the fanlight above the door.

“Tiny white blobs with black little sticky legs should do it. You can manage that, I’m sure, Mark.”

Karl had a window of his own to do a Virgin Mary with a heart pierced by swords of sorrow. He gave it his mother’s face and lips so red they looked sore to touch. I wangled time away from blobbing sheep. I wanted to say how lovely it was, how good, how fine, girly things like that, but said instead: “Your Virgin Mary looks like a tart.” 

“Not all mothers look like yours,” he snapped.

I deserved no less and would have walked away.

“See that, there,” Karl said after me, relenting. He pointed to a figure behind the Virgin’s head, a fat apostle with a melon head. “That’s St John, that is. I’m making him look like you.”

“I thought we weren’t friends no more.”

“’Course we are,” he said. “I’ve just been busy with all this art and stuff. Here, roll up your sleeve. I’ll give you a tattoo.”

I rolled up my sleeve.

Karl whistled. “Jesus, that’s a beauty. It looks new as well.”

I rolled down my sleeve for shame.

“No, don’t do that.” With a thin brush dipped in Sherwood Green, he painted stem and leaves on to my arm, and turned the blue bruise into a carillon of bells. I watched him, his face blank with concentration, my whole body soothed by the soft lick of his wet brush.

“Show me your arm, Mark Prouty!”

Miss Beale had sloped past to see Karl’s work and why he was mixing with the likes of me. I held out my arm. She looked intently at it. She seemed about to speak to me. I thought she was going to ask about my bruise. Then her lips warped into a smile.

“Why, Karl,” she said, not even acknowledging me, my arm merely a piece of work by her dear bright boy, “it’s a vinca.”

“A periwinkle,” he explained. “Miss Higson grows them.”

“Excellent use of blue, Karl, very fine, the colour of your eyes.” She stroked his hair and he bent under her caress, his eyes, the colour of my bruise, closed and happy as a cat’s.

The classroom was not kaleidoscoped with colour. The powder paint was not translucent. The sun could not penetrate it. The run-up to Good Friday we sat in gloom. Miss Beale said not to mind. This was the week Our Lord Jesus died. Almost-darkness was quite fitting.

“Tell me about the crucifixion,” she asked the class.

The class told her how Jesus had died, and why. I had contributed nothing, intent on imagining her nailed to a cross, a crown of thorns hammered into her head, me pressing vinegar on a sponge against her wonky lips.

“It was a most terrible death,” she said. “He had been locked away in a cold, dark cell. And then he was taken in the blinding sun through the streets and the crowds jeered and, sometimes, they threw stones at him. And then he was whipped, scourged. Some of you know what it is like to be caned - no names now: it is the week to forgive such sins - but imagine being hit with that cane forty times! Imagine that cane with tiny little hooks that bite and tear the skin. Not a nice thing, is it?”

My own back began to sweat and sting from remembered pain. I blamed her for reminding me. I blamed her for my bruises, the ones she never noticed.

“And then there was the cross, that heavy wooden cross he had to carry. Mark? Try lifting my desk.”

I rose, my ape-face blushing, hating the attention, farting with anxiety. I tried to lift the desk. I really tried. I failed even to move it. I sat down again to giggles.

She had picked on me to do a thing she knew I couldn’t do. She had picked me out to fail. I was fat and sometimes smelt of cabbage, a kidney problem. I wasn’t blond or good at art. I wasn’t Karl. I had no charm.

“My desk, which Mark cannot even lift, is nowhere near as heavy as the cross Our Lord Jesus carried all the way up Mount Calvary. He stumbled, we know, at least three times. The blood from the crown of thorns would have been running into his eyes as he carried that cross three miles. Three miles! That is the distance of the Via Dolorosa. I have walked it myself on my holidays last year. Do you remember Miss Higson’s photographs? Do you remember how she described the heat? Like a warm wet cloth wrapped round her body. And then they made poor Jesus stand in that dreadful heat and ripped his clothes from him, and the many tears in his flesh made by the cruel whips would have reopened and begun again to bleed. They threw him down, and they nailed him to the cross. Nailed him! They did not tie him to the cross. They did not bind him with rope, as was most usually done. They nailed his hands and his feet, driving the nails into his poor body with a heavy hammer. Look at our Crucifix above the blackboard. See the nails in the palms of his hands? Of course, you realize the nails would not have been driven into the palms of his hands, not the palms of his hands. Why not? Can anyone tell me? Karl?”

Karl stood up. Even in the gloom, he seemed to shine.

“If they’d put the nails there, they’d never have held his weight. The nails would have ripped right through the flesh. The nails would have been hammered into his wrists. The bones would have helped keep him in place.”

The class squirmed at these new details and the gestures he used to accompany them. I remembered the anatomy book he used to read, the drawings he had made, the hours he spent tracing the musculature of the body. I would never be that bright. There was nothing I could know that he would not know, nothing I could give him that he could ever need. Somebody must be to blame for this. I could not blame him. I would not blame myself. I blamed Miss Beale.

“Now, children,” she said in a whisper the better to make us listen and believe. “I have something to show you, something absolutely precious, something absolutely sacred. You must be quiet and respectful, and you must believe as I believe. Are you ready? Please, Karl, pass me my bag. What I am about to show you, you will remember the rest of your lives.”

In the gloomy class, she hugged her handbag to her chest, held it as if it were an infant child.

“I have in this bag a nail, children. A nail from the cross on which Jesus died!”

She opened the clasp of her handbag and, with both hands, brought out a parcel of white silk. She laid it gently on her lap and unwrapped it, peeling back the folds of silk as if they were petals to reveal the nail, a giant spike, as thick as her wrist, blackly murderous against the shimmering silk.

“Is it really the nail, Miss?” 

“Yes, it really is one of the nails from the actual cross on which Jesus really died.” She held out the nail, cradled in its bed of white silk. “You will never see anything more precious than this.”

Chairs scraped as we stood to get a better look.

 “No, sit down, children, please. That’s right, settle. Silence. The presence of this nail makes this classroom a holy place. Now, I will allow the nail to be passed about the class, but you must handle it carefully. You must not touch it, except through the silk. It would be a sin, a terrible grievous sin. It is so very precious. If you look at it closely, you will see blood encrusted like rust along its length. It is the blood of Our Blessed Lord, shed for us so that we might live forever. Gently, children, gently.”

The nail was passed from pupil to pupil, held as if it were both intensely fragile and powerfully strong. The silence was absolute, belief perfect, until it came, at last, to me.

I looked at it. It was some eight inches long, tapered to a cruel point. It was speckled with what looked like old blood but, the longer I looked, I became convinced it was just rust. It was just a nail. An old thick rusty nail. It was like a nail from an old railway sleeper. It was a nail from a railway sleeper.

“Thank you, all of you,” Miss Beale said breathily, “you have been very good, so very good. Mark, bring it to me now. Be very careful with it.”

I rose, puzzled at my lack of faith, and angry. I brought it across to Miss Beale, but Diane Weaver distracted her with questions.

“Where are the other nails, Miss, and did that one go in his hands or in his feet?”

Miss Beale said she thought, perhaps, one of his hands. As to whereabouts of the other nails, she believed them to be in the Vatican but was not sure of this.

Why did no one ask what Miss Beale was doing with such a thing? Why wasn’t it in a church in a golden box covered over with diamonds, not wrapped in a hankie in her handbag?

I stood at her side like an auctioneer’s assistant as she answered further questions from the class. I looked down at the nail. That was never blood. It was rust, just that, nothing else. I picked up the nail in my right hand, the better to inspect it, and let the white silk fall. The ground did not give way, flames did not lick at my legs, and the Devil did not reach out to grab at my ankles and drag me down to Hell. I turned the nail about in my hand and, with every turn, with the rough cold feel and weight of it in the palm of my hand, I grew more certain that the nail was only a nail, and Miss Beale was a liar and a fool.

I think one of the girls gave a yelp of either amazement or fear to see me touch the nail, handle it so familiarly. I gripped the nail hard and held it in front of my chest. The rust fell from it in a powdery cloud.

Miss Beale turned and looked at me, at first not understanding just what I’d done. I looked at her, expecting to be hit, to be slapped hard. I saw the anger on her face, and then I saw it die. I felt this sudden wetness in my palm, a warm trickle down my arm. She was trembling, like a vase teetering on the edge of a shelf. Her face drained. Her slanted lips paled and quivered. I dropped the nail.  It clanged to the floor. And then she screamed, and the room shattered.

I had only ever heard my mother scream, and that was a stuttering thing, half-muffled so the neighbours wouldn’t hear, but Miss Beale’s scream was high, unfettered, airy and continuous. The shock and power of it stunned me and brought Miss Higson from the class next door.

Miss Higson came in a long-strided swoop, and, with a look, stilled the class, which had also begun to wail. I stood where I was, less brave than a moment ago - dithering and near to tears, in fact - while Miss Beale, sniveling, foraged at my feet for her precious nail.

“Outside, all of you, into the yard. Stay there until you are told.”

The class filed out in an organized panic.

“You, too, whatever your name is. Don’t stand there, go!”

Miss Beale was bent over, weeping. She was cradling the nail to her breast. Her white blouse was smeared with blood and so, I noticed, was the palm of my hand and the cuff of my clean shirt. Miss Higson was comforting Miss Beale, stroking her shoulder and saying, “Nora, Nora, it’s alright, it’s alright.” It was the first time I realized teachers had first names.

I didn’t follow the others outside. Instead, I walked the length of the corridor, my right hand cupped in my left to catch the blood that filled my palm as if it were a bowl. I couldn’t understand why I was bleeding. The nail hadn’t been that sharp. It hadn’t been sharp at all.

I went into the boys’ toilet, the one that led out into the yard. I could hear the others outside, their high, excited voices. I ran my hand under the tap and the blood was washed away.

My palm was clean, no cut, no graze.

Because I couldn’t explain it, because it didn’t make sense, because, whatever had caused it, had now gone, I thought no more about it. I threw any thought of it away like the paper towel I used to dry my hands. I was more curious about my reception. I wanted to see Karl.

Outside, the class gathered about me like a star.

“You’ll go to Hell,” said Diane Weaver.

This seemed the general judgment, but it was a judgment in my favour. Miss Beale had become a loony, tearing her hair and screaming like she had.

 “Did you see the veins popping out of her neck? It were great.”

“She has gone fucking loopy,” said William Rooney. “They’ll be taking her to the loony bin, wanna bet.”

 “Yeah, the loony bin,” I said as if I knew it for a fact.

Karl was hanging back, not saying a word, but then, as Diane Weaver loudly said, Karl was Miss Beale’s Pet. When, at last, he did come up to me, I thought it was to hit me.

“I think you should know,” he said, holding my gaze, “my Mam’s getting married. We’re going to live in Chester. We go next week.”

The brisk and certain way he spoke, it was as if he had decided this for himself that moment. He looked at me and smiled, the blue eyes quite dead. I felt extinguished, non-existent, not even a ghost. He turned and walked away while the others crowded round me, wanting to know more about Miss Beale, the nail and why I’d done it.

I turned to them and said, “Miss Beale is a lesbian.” 

Yes! Of course she was. Everyone there agreed. Miss Beale was a loony lesbian with a nail she thinks is holy. Even now, we thought, she was in there, sucking at Miss Higson’s grey moustache with her twisted lips, giving each other furry kisses.

It became a chant: Miss Beale is a lesbian. We marched about the yard, me at the very head. Miss Beale is a lesbian. She had lessy lips. She had lessy legs and lessy hair. And I loved it, you know. The fat lad, the sissy, the last ever to be picked in any game, I led my class in a march against a teacher every one of them had liked and loved not five minutes ago. I had such charm and had never known it until now.

Karl, of course, did not join in, but then he was Teacher’s Pet. He was Lesbian Teacher’s Pet.

Diane Weaver said, “That’s because Karl Brewer is a Lesbian, too.” 

Karl sneered at her, at all of us. “I can’t be a lesbian. That just isn’t feasible.”

 The big word, feasible, was proof enough. It was discussed, and we agreed that Karl Brewer was a queer.

“Yeah,” I said. “You’re a queer.”

He looked stunned, and then, seeming to consider the word, said simply, “Queer? Yes, I think I may very well be queer.”

His honesty fazed us. We did not know what to do with such a confession until William Rooney picked up a stone and threw it at him hard. It missed. Karl laughed, walked away and stood apart, leaning against the canteen hut where the sun shone through the railings, striping the wall with shadows, caging him.

In a week, he would be gone. He’d have the Proper Doctor for his dad. In a year he wouldn’t remember my name.

“Look!” he shouted and pointed to the teacher’s car park.

Miss Higson had opened her car door, and Miss Beale climbed in, still distraught, still cradling the nail against her bloodstained blouse.

“See,” said William Rooney, “they’re taking her to the loony bin.”

Father Donal was with them, too, tall and rangy, his black cassock blown by a sudden wind, ballooning him. He raised his arm and shouted someone’s name.

“It’s you he wants,” said Karl behind me. He turned me round, took my hand in his, looked at my palm, and said, “If I were you, I’d run.”

I ran. The fat lad ran. Wobbling along, heart fit to burst, my head was in a storm. Sweating and breathless, plump legs now made of heavy steel, lungs hot and airless, I charged up Dibdin Way. Whenever I looked behind me, there he was - Father Donal, thin and black and walking at an easy pace, following me home.

Father Donal only ever talked to a boy to bless or beat him. What could I say in my defense about the nail, about Miss Beale, my bleeding hand? Mam would save me.

She was in the kitchen, making soup. I fell in through the open back door, hysterical and on my knees.

I was beyond soothing. I panted, crying and clutching at her blouse. She struggled to calm me down, and then came a knock on the front door that stilled us.

Father Donal. His black figure through the bubble glass was familiar enough. Father Donal had come to take me to certain Hell.

My mother made to move. I grabbed at her skirt and would not let her go.

“Whist your noise,” she hissed. With a flick of her arm, she pushed me easily away. “I’ll not let anyone hurt you.”

It was what I most wished to hear. I let her go, but scuttled under the kitchen table, cringing as I heard her open the front door and say to the priest she was glad to see him and why was it he’d come. I heard him mumble something back. I heard her reply: “Oh dear, you’d best come in, Father.” I curled myself into a ball and prayed to be made invisible and forgiven.

She took him into the front room. I could hear nothing until my mother at the front room door said, “I’ll make you that cup of tea, Father, and bring the boy in when I’m done.”

When she came into the kitchen, she seemed neither angry nor concerned.

“Come out from under the there, Mark, and stand over by the sink.” She said it kindly enough, but added, “I want to see your hand.”

She had her back to me as she lit the gas and put the kettle on. “Is the hand cut bad?” she asked, stretching up to the cupboard for the only good cup we had with a saucer.

“No,” I said. “It’s not cut at all.”

She shouted through to the front room, “I’ve some luncheon meat, Father? You’d not say no to a sandwich?” She waited for his reply. “Oh sure, it’s no trouble, Father. I’ll make one for us all.”

I stayed by the sink, my hand still foolishly open, while she busied herself slicing Spam.

“So, you didn’t bleed at all, Mark?”

“No,” I lied.

“Father Donal in there thinks you did. There was blood on Miss Beale’s blouse and on that silly nail of hers. You say you didn’t bleed at all?”

“Yes. I did. A bit. Not much.”

“But you’ve no cut on you?”

“No.” I was confused by her cool questioning, its idle tone.

“Show me.” She knelt before me. She took my guilty hand in hers. I could have wept, she was so gentle. She held my hand, studying it closely. She stroked it with her fingers, pondered it like a problem she could easily solve. She held it to her face and kissed it, and then reached up for the knife she’d used to slice the Spam and scored a deep line across my palm.

 I felt more shock than pain, and any howl I might have made died in my throat as I watched blood ooze a rich thick scarlet from the cut’s white mouth.

She rinsed the knife under the tap, wiped it, put it away in the drawer, roughly grabbed my arm and held my hand under the tap.

 “Tell no one,” she whispered in my ear. “Have I your promise, Mark?”

 Betrayed and puzzled, I nodded. I would promise her anything.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart. I’m sorry.” She stood up, breathed deeply and shouted through to the front room. “I’d bring the boy in, Father, but the hand is still bleeding. The cut is queer and long but he’ll not die of it. That silly nail must have been powerful sharp.”

The hand was a good excuse to stay off school. I missed Karl’s last week. I never spoke to him again, but he left his books behind for me. It’s how I became a reader. Mam used to worry about my eyes, thought I’d go blind, reading in the almost dark. I paid her no mind at all. The day of the knife and nail something changed between us. She wanted me to be special, special to her, not special in myself, while that was what I most wanted: to be like Karl, to have his charmed life.

Miss Beale had only been taken home, not to the loony bin. She came back to school the same day as me. She never eyed me warmly, but no reference was ever made to the nail, the blood, my bad behaviour. All that year Karl’s drawings remained on the classroom wall.

When I was thirteen, in the library doing Silent Reading, I came across in a magazine an article on gifted children. There was a Katerina, nine years old, who spoke Russian, French and Greek; a Sujeeta, eleven, with A’ Level Maths, and a Karl Brewer of Chester, twelve years old, with an A’ Level, grade A in Art. The article said he was just one of a hundred and forty children under sixteen to pass A’ Level exams. The boy said he hoped to have an exhibition soon. He had one hundred paintings. “I work very quickly,” said the boy. “I like doing bodies best.”

There was a photograph. He was thinner in the face and not quite so fair. I ripped the picture out and showed it Mam. She said it wasn’t him, but I knew that she was wrong. I kept the picture, wrapped it in sticky-back plastic and carried it in my blazer pocket.

This isn’t my favourite image of Karl Brewer. That would be from the very last time I saw him, the night before he left for Chester, the night he left my life for good.

It was dark. I was asleep in the back bedroom. He threw grit against my window and woke me up. I looked out, but I could see only blackness, no light at all. I pressed my face against the pane, fogging the glass with my breath. Then I saw him in the garden down below, just his face, golden in the dark. He was standing in the rectangle of light cast by next door’s lit bathroom. He waved up at me, laughing. Then someone next door turned off the light. Darkness swallowed him like a wave. I opened the window and called out to him, but he was gone.

This is how he was. This was his charm. Always he would shine, and then move on. I thought it was my love or my attention that made him glow, but he had no need of light to fall on him: he had his own. Neither the grime in which Iris Brewer had reared him, nor the sheen life with the Proper Doctor promised could dull or change his lustre. No playground taunt could dim him, and perhaps even love would leave him be. I do believe Miss Beale loved him as hopelessly as I had done.

But, finally and unwillingly, it is not of Karl, but of my Dad I’m forced to think, and how he might have loved us after all, my mam and me; how Mam and me burned so brightly for each other, he could only shadow us; how his rage might have been him howling at us for keeping him in the dark. Odd to think of his violence as a moth-like battering, a longing for the light. I cannot countenance him at all, even now. Even this softening thought I daren’t drag out too far into the light. More frightening than remembering him is the thought I might one day understand him.

As for my hand? It healed. Not even a scar, although there are several still around my neck and throat from the day when I was five and my father cut my hair.