Nine Lives

1. Cat Woman

Lorna Feargal kept sixteen cats and slept with schoolboys, one for each cat, give or take. She let them fuck her on a couch thick with fur-balls. One cat, a chocolate-

Hieronymus Jérôme Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights
patched stray she called Mr Kipling, she trained to come in half-way through and claw at the schoolboys’ bare arses. She liked the thought of them leaving with a reminder of her and her cats. It pleased her more than most of the fucking ever did.
Lorna Feargal reckoned it was bullshit what they said about frequent exercise leading to weight loss. She tipped the scales at twenty-three stone. She was pretty much couch-bound. She got her boys to bring her what she needed. For cat food and cakes, she let them do more or less what the hell they liked.

She told each new boy, ‘this ain’t no Mills and Boon’. Cig-stunted sons of too-young mums, or inbred hill farm folk. Most either too plain dumb or ugly ever to hope of getting a girl of their own; some screwed-up enough to poke their dicks up half the herd given the chance, least that’s how they smelled.

Lorna figured she must lose a few pounds each time, then put it all on again and more by living off boy-brought Bakewell Slices the whole week after. Almost all of them screwed their eyes shut and imagined they were fucking someone else. One kid even crowed the name of some Look-In centrefold every time he climaxed. They didn’t even seem to notice when the stray came clawing. Lorna dug off her knickers and popped open her blouse. That’s when she said it – ‘this ain’t no Mills and Boon’. The stench of cat litter seeped from her pores. The TV in the corner murmured daytime talk shows. She lay back and watched light poke through a chink in the curtains. She never much found herself wishing she was anywhere else.

Then one day, she fell in love. Head over heels, if she’d had the frame. With a hunchback kid less than half her age. She cried herself to sleep at night. She sent out for tee-lights. She cleared the fur-balls. Yeah baby, it was love all right.

She knew he was special soon as Mr Kipling wouldn’t claw him. He’d said, ‘I want to learn how to do it right.’

She’d said, ‘this ain’t no Mills and Boon.’

He stood shy, stuck-fast in his pants. She shook her head and pulled him in. After, she stroked his skew-iff spine while he breathed warm on her breasts. She said, ‘you got a girl?’

He said, ‘I’m kind of hoping.’

2. The Hunchback Kid

The girl the hunchback kid kind of hoped for worked the big attraction at the travelling fair. He helped out most summers, oiling the teacups ride or sweeping spent lucky dip wraps. Not out front: he was bad for business. Five year olds stared at his hump and clung tighter to their mothers. The older lot called him names. Terry Sleightholme threw pennies and did a mean Elephant Man. He shouted, ‘roll up, roll up for the freak show!’ The hunchback kid had got used to seeming like he didn’t give a shit. His mother used to say it made him special. Not special enough to stop her dumping him in his cousins’ back-yard when he was five years old. A note slung round his neck read, ‘I can’t cope no more’. He ate nothing but blackberries and slept in the engine shell of a rusted-up combine for two whole days till they came back from market. They found him curled up near dead. They poked him with sticks till he came back round. His Aunt asked the Lord what the hell she’d done bad enough to deserve another.

The fair was due back any time. The hunchback kid kind of hoped he’d be ready for her. He heard about Lorna Feargal. How she lay there and passed no judgement. He figured it could do no harm.

3. Starlight Sister

The girl the hunchback kid kind of hoped for called herself Alabama. The hunchback kid never could get to the bottom of if it was her real name or not. It sounded kind of exotic. He asked her once, ‘is that your stage name?’ Itching up to her bare ankles in sawdust, she spat back through cock-eyed teeth, ‘you see a frigging stage?’ Late nights, she’d beckon the hunchback kid round the back of the swingboats and hook up her Mini Mouse crop-top. ‘You like what you see, huh?’ she’d tease in a voice took straight from TV. He’d stare at her swells and long to reach out and touch them. She’d classic-pose, toss her straw-gold hair. She’d tug her jeans shorts, flash a stripe of knicker. Sometimes, she’d act real nice, make the hunchback kid think they could get a thing going. She’d bum cigarettes, sprawl on the bales to talk. She’d ask him, ‘ever thought about getting it fixed?’ Other times, she’d shriek out if he even came close. One time, her going and hiking up her little dress like that made him damn near snap his arm off in the teacups ride. She stood there giggling while he went white with pain. Alabama was thirteen years old. She was getting in practice too. Only it sure as hell wasn’t from the hunchback kid.

4. Blaze, The Amazing Human Fireball

Alabama had her eyes on a boy named Blaze. He fire-ate. He tossed flaming clubs. He lay on nails. He ended up fucking just about every woman he ever laid eyes on. You could say he was kind of incendiary. Often, Blaze had the whole fair tearing up tent pegs and chased out beyond village limits in the dead of night. Left whole places full of splayed-out housewives, husbands hell-bent on revenge. ‘Consequences?’ Blaze would say. ‘If I can’t spell it, I can’t fear it.’

Alabama helped his show, sometimes three times daily. Squeezed in a light-blue leotard patched with animal-piss stains, she became a Starlight Sister. She stuck out a leg and made shapes with her arms. She stood against the dagger board. Blaze, blindfolded, struck her outline. Sometimes he scraped her skin, pinched an inch. She worked herself up to fling an arm. Thought, if I move, he might notice me. She watched the fire-light flit across his hard chest. He’d slap her arse, but that was all. Night-times, she hung round his caravan, hoped tonight was the night. Dropped off in the dew, her sleep was woke by screams: ‘Fuck me. Fuck me. Fuck me.’ One night, he led a middle-aged bitch from town right past. Close enough to smell her heat through her bath-froth. The bitch giggled, tugged Blaze by his arm. Blaze stood on the caravan steps. Told Alabama, ‘hey, no peeking.’ She peeked all right. Felt her eyes prick up. Decided she couldn’t take no more.

5. The Bitch

Whatever Sylvie Turpin was after, it wasn’t loving. She’d had enough so-called loving to last a life. Grown fat on its false promises. Boys like Blaze, they must have thought she still had a fair bit going for her. But the day she found herself buying size fourteen off the rails at Matalan, she cried. Came to thinking she needed a little excitement back in her life. All sicked out of fat-thigh dinners and drunk-up bedtime fumbles with that smarmy-arsed big-shot she got duped into marrying when things were still good. Not so big now since the shit hit the fan. So she took off to the fair, scoffed a couple of bags of candy floss, and sat front row for the show. First time she set eyes on Blaze, it sure wasn’t loving that crossed her mind. She stuck herself in the same seat three times a day for the whole weekend. The last night, her and Blaze rocked the caravan right off its breezeblocks. Voices cut through the night. ‘Jesus, Blaze, you split that bitch in half yet? I need my beauty sleep.’ Another: ‘then you mustn’t’ve slept in years.’ A belly-laugh, a curse. She crept out of the caravan as the sun came up. She ran right into Alabama. She was red-eyed, still squeezed in that stupid light-blue leotard of hers. Alabama stepped forward, poured a pan of cooking oil right over Sylvie Turpin. She said, ‘you’re lucky if it’s not scalding. I been out here some time.’ It still stuck enough to peel her skin. Her screaming turned on lights.

6. Mr Big-Shot

Mr Big-Shot lost count of the number of times he drove his wife for skin grafts. He got tinted windows put in for the purpose. Still it didn’t stop the pointing. The kids could do a mean Sylvie Turpin. An eye pulled one way, the mouth spilled the other. Mr Big-Shot never asked how she came to get a face full of cooking fat. He kind of figured. She used to be the shiniest trophy wife in the whole damn cabinet. He’d plucked her straight off the shop-floor, done more than his fair share for employer relations. Fed her up on fish dinners. Bought her hitched skirts and hang-out tops. Gold from behind locked glass. He fucked her over the boardroom table while the grey-faced accountants furrowed brows outside. Drove her out lunchtimes for al-fresco screws. Wiped grass stains from her knees. Figured her pooling up the excess baggage was bad enough, even before she went and got herself smelted down like candle wax.

Heading back from the skin graft runs, he came to popping in the Kwik Save for a bottle of something to ease the loss. The pain of those grey-faced accountants getting their own back.

7. Miss Fryup

She was a trophy all right: hips like handles, curves pushing out from behind her Kwik Save bib. Calves long and smooth as a sports car bonnet, guaranteed to top-speed her out of Fryup any day soon. Flickered up from her Miss Fryup entry pack, served his whisky without a word. Till the day he flashed a card and said, ‘I got connections.’

Tammy took to closing up early, parading up and down the aisles in Sylvie Turpin’s old bikinis, worn as new. Felt awkward at first, strutting past the freezer units and the penny chew tray. He fed her twenty pounds each time. He snapped pictures, said ‘we gotta get this right.’ He swigged the whisky, said again, ‘I got connections.’ Tammy figured the guy was worth the gamble. Saw his silver sports car parked up outside. A step up from the feeds trucks and souped-up boy racer junkheaps she got offered regular for more short-term rewards. She got an urge for the top-speeding out of there bit. Felt his eyes Started getting careless with her changing-out. One night, he rolled in already drunk, unshaved. He pressed a lime bikini, waved a fifty pound note. He said, ‘try topless.’ She let him put his hands on her.

8. Our Kid

Terry had never gave much of a shit that Tammy was his first cousin. He’d read up on the ratio of any bairn of theirs being born with two heads or pig-shit for brains, reckoned it was a gamble worth taking if she ever gave the fucking chance. In his head at least, he’d taken her just about every which way he could think. That was even before he’d seen her stripping. First popped down for mini battenbergs, and there she was parading up and down the aisles. He’d got enough kicks to keep him frisky all right, dream up a few new moves. He stood there watching for weeks. The night she first went nude, a different feeling spilled over. He locked up all that nude of hers in his brain for future use. Then he rattled the door, stopped the parading stone-dead. Made out he’d popped by for some after-hours stocking-up.

Tammy said, ‘Terry.’ She clasped the bib to her front. She said, ‘it’s not what you think.’

Terry looked at Mr Big-Shot, headed for the shelves. He took almond slices. He waved them, said, ‘you got nothing else?’ He fished for change. Tammy said, ‘take them.’ He said, ‘you got drink?’

They sat in the car park woods. They swigged stolen spirits till the darkness blurred. Terry blew smoke rings, watched Tammy clasp and shiver. Knew he had them how he wanted. Turned to Mr Big-Shot, said, ‘you not planning on taking her nowhere, are you?’ Said, ‘I saw what you did. There’d be folks here like to know.’

Mr Big-Shot said, ‘she’s going to be famous.’

He thin-smiled. Terry said, ‘you some kind of big shot?’

Tammy repeated, ‘it’s not what you think.’

Terry said, ‘ I know what I think.’ He reached out and took a fist-full of hair and tugged her towards his crotch. He said, ‘how about a little something to remember me by?’

Tammy lost her balance and he took a handful of the top of her blouse and pinged off a couple of buttons. Her knees creased and she struck her head on the corner of the bench arm as she went down. She lay on the slabs with her Kwik Save bib riding up around her thighs. Mr Big-Shot said, ‘shit.’ He got down and brushed her swelling. He heard Terry say, ‘fucking paedo.’ Then he saw the sharp glint of glass against moonlight and felt a dull thud, and everything went black.

Just the sight of those panties of hers had been enough for Terry Sleightholme. He locked them away, too. He reckoned if he shut his eyes tight enough he could make that fat bitch be just about anyone, even his fit-as-fuck cousin. He forced the door, unzipped his flies as he headed up the stairs. Slurred, ‘here I come, slut.’

He burst right in. He tossed the cakes. He saw the cat woman and the hunchback kid tangled up on the couch. Lorna Feargal buttoning up her top. She shifted, saw the distaste in his face. The room was ripe. She said, ‘this ain’t no Mills and Boon.’

Terry said, ‘I’m gonna spew.’

He retched up booze froth on the grubby carpet. He shook his head at the pair of them. The hunchback kid tried to pull his jeans up. Terry stared at his bare hump. He said, ‘let me see that.’

The hunchback kid said, ‘we don’t want no trouble.’

Terry laughed. He said again, ‘let me see that, for real.’ There was blood on his hands. He stepped forward.

9. Mr Kipling

The chocolate-patched stray saw Terry take a step and it took a dive from in the duvet. Terry felt a searing pain in his arse. It dug its claws in and wouldn’t let go. Lorna shrieked, ‘that a boy!’ Terry shouted, ‘get the fucking thing off me!’ He swirled and slapped. ‘Get the fucking thing off me!’ It dug in deeper. Terry swung it against the side of the bedside shelf. It smashed pot-cat trinkets, an old vase. He reached for the box of almond slices, started battering the cardboard on its skull. Lorna Feargal shouted, ‘you leave it be!’

Lorna Feargal launched herself off the couch, belly-flopped forward. She goalkeeper-saved Mr Kipling, her fat slow-motion rippling. She beached on the carpet, laid across the vase shards. Mr Kipling took her full weight. She screamed. Twenty-three stones of screaming. ‘My cat!’ or ‘My back!’ - it wasn’t clear. Either way, Mr Kipling was a goner. And Lorna Feargal was stuck fast. Terry said, ‘fucking Jesus.’ He swept the table-top for cash, pocketed a furry fiver. He spat down at the hunchback kid, banged back down the stairs. The hunchback kid stayed stooped over Lorna Feargal. He brushed her of blood and cat hairs as best he could. She sobbed, spasm-ed, accepted almond slices. The hunchback kid said, ‘I never knew you liked them. You should have said.’ She blinked up. For the first time, she saw love shine back. Outside, below, the fair rolled in.

Mark Staniforth lives in a small village in North Yorkshire, England. His fiction has been published in Night Train, Eclectica, Fried Chicken and Coffee and The Dublin Quarterly, among others. He was nominated for a 2009 Pushcart Prize.

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