issue 36: may - june 2003 

 | author bio | extract from Tilt

Iain Bahlaj


 And isn’t it ironic, Alanis Morrisette is singing. Since Mike gave her the album it’s all Shirley plays. She’s more into old school happy-hardcore/rez stuff – Ultra Sonic, TTF, QFX – but this album has something different, something personal, something she loves. It’s almost drowned out by the bass sounds from next door, so Shirley turns it up and returns to what she’s been doing. Her reflection’s all haggard and weird, twisted and witch-like. She remembers herself as being a lot better looking than that. At school, she wasn't one of the fat/ugly girls who had to hand out sex favours to get/keep a boy interested; she only did it because she wanted to. Right now, her fingers running over her blotchy cheeks and onto her blackhead-plagued nose, it’s like somebody else’s memory.
      She’ll have to work on it. Some foundation, mascara, lipstick . . . she can look back to her best for tonight.
      In the next moment – with the way her head is turned and the patchwork wall behind her – her thin cheekbones, pale lips, and misty green eyes will  make a sad, tragic sort-of, image.
      But Shirley never sees it. Her head is tilted, as if to amplify the sounds she’s hearing; a new sound has crept in under the singing and over the bass from next door.
      It’s her son, Lee, screaming.
A love story:
      Lee’s dad is the same man Shirley lost her virginity to. She was fourteen, and pissed on vodka and coke at a party in Glenrothes. When she regained consciousness he was on top of her. His name was Russell.
      Eight years and thirty-odd men later, they met up at the Alpha, went home together. Shirley got pregnant, refused to have an abortion – she wasn’t going to kill it, it wasn’t its fault. Russell played dad for a few months, moved into the Chinatown house with her, and then left to go with some tart from Glenrothes who was built like a house-end.
      The guy was a prick anyway. Good riddance.
      He doesn’t want to see Lee, and if he did, it wouldn’t matter, because he wouldn’t be allowed to.
      Lee sticks his hand out. There’s a patch of virgin skin littered with grit.
      ‘WHAT HAPPIND?’ She has to shout to make herself heard. When Lee gets going it’s like a foghorn or siren. His words come in spurts.
      ‘N WHAT?’
      He breaks into a fresh crying fit, rubbing the front of his dungarees. His mouth’s open, snotters are hanging from his nose. Like Russell, Lee isn’t the best-looking. Like Russell he’s a sap, like Russell he can also look evil at times, his eyes narrowing to slits when he grins that grin.
      Still, he goes on:  ‘WAAARRRGGGGGHHHH.’
      ‘SHUT YIR PUS, NOW.’
      When he cries like this she wants to make it worse. Like she says, give him something to really cry about.
      She walks across the kitchen towards him, noticing him flinch, and shoves her hand down inside his dungarees, grabs hold of his nipple –he’s chubby like his dad– and twists.
      The screams rise in volume; Shirley leaves him and goes back to the bathroom.
Karen arrives at the back of four, still in her school uniform. She’s Shirley’s brother’s daughter, but there’s no real family resemblance. That might be more to do with Karen’s puppy fat. Shirley’s a rake.
      They have a close relationship. Karen’s a pretty intelligent, level-headed girl – she reads, big books too, Stephen King. She’s still a virgin. She comes over every night and sits with the odd fag or joint, telling her auntie about all the gossip: who shagged who, who fought who. They both laugh about it. But Shirley worries . . . she’s been a story, Karen hasn’t.
      ‘What time is it yi’re gaun oot again?’ Karen asks. She’s at the kitchen table, fag in hand, copy of More! in front of her.
      ‘The table’s booked fir half-six.’
      ‘It the Vic?’
      ‘How many times’ll that be yis’ve went oot?’
      ‘Fourth, fifth.’
      Shirley’s been in the shower, so she’s in an old housecoat and has her hair back. She combs it hard, forcing out the tangles.
      ‘R yi gonnae shag um the night?’
      The word ‘shag’ never sounds right coming out of Karen’s mouth, to Shirley anyway. If Karen noticed she wouldn’t say it so much.
      Shirley shrugs; ‘Ah dunno, do ah!’
      ‘Well, it’s up ti you. Ah bet yi he wants ti.’
      ‘How di you ken?’
      ‘Well,’ – Karen jerks her ear towards her shoulder – ‘ih’s male fir a start.’
      ‘Nah, he’s different.’
      ‘What? Ih’s no male?’
      ‘Nah, ih’s . . . Ah dunno. Ih’s no evin tried anyhin yit. Nuhin.’
      ‘N dis that worry yi, like?’
      ‘Mibbe ihs wife left um or cheated oan um or somehin n ih’s findin trouble trustin women again.’
      ‘Ih wis nivir mairried . . . bit ih’s hid girlfriends. Wan ih thum wis in your dad’s year it the school.’
      ‘Well mibbe ih’s . . .’
      ‘Mibbe ih’s what?’
      ‘Yi ken.’
      ‘Gay! Nah, ih’s no gay . . . his voice is deep n that, ih’s nuhin like that. Thir’s just somehin aboot um.’
      ‘Ih’s quite rich yi said, ih? What is it ih dis?’
      ‘Jist business stuff,’ Shirley says; she’s totally ignorant of his working life.
      ‘What age is ih again?’
      ‘Ih’s no that auld.’
      ‘N ih’s no braw.’
      ‘Nut. Ih’s jist . . . ah dunno. Ah mean, ah kin mind ay um fae the After-School Club n that. Ah always liked um n that. Ah always thought ih looked like a cartoon character, yi ken?’
      Karen’s laughing.
Shirley’s ready. She looks good. She’s wearing a tight black top and black trousers and shoes. An office girl on a staff night out.
      ‘Yi look great, really,’ Karen says. She has Lee sitting on her knee, his back arched so that his head’s against Karen’s chin.
      ‘Aye, totally.’
      ‘When did he come in?’
      ‘Jist ten minutes ago. Ih wis showin mi ihs sair hand.’
      ‘You calmed doon noo?’ Shirley asks her son. ‘You calmed doon noo? Yi finally cheered up?’
      Lee stares back.
      ‘Tell yi, ah think ihs goat that behavioural hing or somehin,’ Shirley tells Karen. ‘The wiy ih goes aff . . . Ah seen a programme aboot it, n it wis jist like what ah hiv wi him.’ She turns her attention back to Lee. ‘That’s yir mum away noo, son! Yi gonnae gie yir mum a kiss!’
      She leans forward for a kiss. Lee grimaces, struggles. She grabs hold of him and smooches his left cheek.
      ‘That’s mingin,’ Lee says. He rubs his mouth with the palms of his hands.
      ‘Anywiy, ah’m away.’
      ‘Yi gittin the bus doon, like?’
      ‘Nah, jist walkin. Em, yi ir takin Lee up tae yir mum n dad’s ih?’
      ‘Aye, ma dad’s comin doon fir um it half-nine.’
      ‘Well mind n lock the door, ih? Stick the key under the slab.’
      ‘Dinnae shag um too hard,’ Karen shouts as Shirley leaves. Shirley cringes.
Mike waits in the bar with a pint of Special, catching his reflection. He can strike a pose at home, in the mirror. He can suck in his cheeks, or tilt his head to one side. Sometimes that can give the illusion of cheekbones. But, catching himself unaware . . . then he knows how ugly he is.
      He’s a fat man, a balding fat man, with a moustache. When you look at him you wonder if he was ever young. It seems more likely that Mikes hatch from eggs in some fucked-up farm.
      A man who looks like Mike has no business going out with a girl who looks like Shirley. Mike knows that. He first met her at the After-School Club – years back, Mike, using the KHS gym, took charge of fourteen-to eighteen-year-old boys after school, refereeing football games, teaching a bit of boxing, basketball. After a while girls would come to watch – Shirley one of them. She was around fourteen, and already well on the way to being beautiful.
      When he met her in the pub four weeks ago those looks had faded, been roughed up a bit, but the basic bone structure was still there.
      And now she’s here. She sees him sitting at the bar and walks over, her white denim jacket open, her slim figure wrapped in black. Another man might consider it sexy.
      When he asks her what she’d like to drink his hands are shaking.
They both have melon starters. Mike has steak and chips, Shirley goes for chicken with white wine sauce. Mike can’t eat a dessert, through nerves. Shirley has a banana boat.
      They talk about the After-School Club.
      ‘Dean, mind ih him? Dark hair, skinny, looked a wee bit like Jimmy Nail.’
      ‘Aye ah mind ay him,’ Mike says, pissed off, angry at the memory of Dean. ‘A trouble-makin cunt.’
      ‘Well, ih’ll no be makin trouble noo. Ih’s deid.’
      ‘Aye? How, what happ’nd like?’
      ‘Killed ihsel.’
      Mike raises his eyebrows. There’s silence.
      ‘So, how’s Lee?’
      They’ve met once or twice, Mike and Lee. Mike gave him an Action Man. He’d bought if off Billy, a smackhead shoplifter, and the same guy who’d sold him the Alanis Morrisette album. He didn’t tell Shirley that, not that he thought it would bother her if she knew. It wouldn’t, he just . . . didn’t tell her.
      ‘Oh, ih’s awright. Jist playin wi ihs pals n that, watchin ihs teletubbies. Yi ever watched thaim? They’re freaky, like. La-la, Dipsy. Wan ih thum’s goat a handbag, n it’s a boy!’
      ‘The hings thi watch, ih . . .’
      ‘Aye. Thi’re no is guid is the programmes we hid.’
      Shirley’s thinking of Lee. Mixed in with Russell, she can see a lot of herself in him. She loves him so much; sometimes she wants to throw him against a wall.
      ‘Well, ah’m a bit aulder thin you,’ Mike reminds her.
      ‘Aye? What were the programmes you hid like?’
      Mike thinks back, then shrugs.
Shirley has a few more bottles of Hooch, Mike a few more Specials, they wonder (Mike wonders, hopes) whether to go to Caesar’s or Jack’s; they decide against it – it’s a Thursday, student night.
      ‘Yi intae gittin a taxi up tae ma bit?’ Shirley says.
      ‘What aboot the babysitter?’
      ‘What, Karen? Shi’s it ma brither’s.’
      Mike takes a deep breath and exhales.
      ‘Aye, ah suppose so.’
      ‘You smoke dope, ih?’ says Shirley.
      ‘Me, aye.’
      ‘Yi wantin ti skin up while ah’m makin the tea.’
      Mike looks around the living room: drug paraphernalia: bongs, skins, loose tobacco, a plastic Coke bottle cut in half.
      ‘Ah cannae skin up.’
      ‘Well, yi wantin a pipe?’
      ‘Aye, goan then.’
      Shirley finds the pipe, the dope, and has hers first. A deep inhalation, then a few seconds of holding it in, then a confident, easy exhalation.
      Mike’s the opposite. He burns his lips, poisons his lungs, goes into a coughing fit, and has to have a drink of water.
      ‘Fuckin Christ,’ he says, staring at the pipe. ‘Ah think this hing’s fucked . . .’
Mike’s on the chair, he sat there on purpose. There’s a two-seater couch – worn green leather, the chairs aren’t leather or green, they’re grey – and Mike’s willing Shirley to sit down on that.
      She doesn’t. The telly’s on when she comes through, something about Take That’s last single.
      ‘They’re fuckin fannies, ih?’ Mike says.
      He’s hoping it’ll be a comment she hears as she passes, on the way to the couch. He’s forgotten about the tea, which she has to stop to hand to him.
      Then, unexpectedly – for Mike – she lowers herself onto her knees, at the side of the chair, so that she’s facing Mike, and then turns to face the telly.
      ‘Ah always liked thaim.’
      ‘Did yi?’
      There’s silence. Onscreen, teenyboppers are bubbling in the streets. Shirley reaches up and touches Mike’s hair; Mike flinches like Lee flinches. She keeps touching, running her fingers through it.
      Mike softly takes a hold of her hand and turns to look at her. His piggy eyes, his bushy moustache – they’d be amusing if they weren’t so serious and solemn.
      ‘Ah’ve goat somehin ah want ti tell yi,’ he says. ‘It’s aboot . . . us n that.’
      The atmosphere is heavier. Mike feels it against his chest.
      ‘What aboot us?’
      ‘Well, it’s no jist aboot us. It’s aboot . . . sex.’
      Shirley grins, can’t help it.
      ‘What aboot it?’
      A pause, then:
      ‘Di you think it’s serious, ti you?’
      ‘What di yi mean?’
      ‘Ah mean, could you go oot wi somebody, live wi thum, withoot it.’
      ‘Withoot shaggin?’
      She laughs, out of nerves. Mike starts touching her hair. She’s drunk, so everything’s a bit hazy.
      Mike thinks it’s better to blurt it out: ‘Ah really like you, Shirley, and ah’d like us ti keep seein each ither. Bit the thing is, ah’ve goat somehin wrang wi mi. Ah’m impotent, yi see. Ah cannae hae sex.’
      Shirley’s confused, trying to take it all in. She likes the feel of his fingers in her hair, though, she likes that.
      ‘So, the hing is, ah’d like us ti keep seein each ither. Ti be like boyfriend n girlfriend – ah ken this is weird – n that, n ah’ll help wi Lee, ah’m guid wi bairns, you ken that – this is weird, like – bit jist that wan hing. We dinnae dae that wan hing.’
      Shirley’s pretending to think, waiting for the right moment to talk.
      ‘Ah mean,’ Mike improvises, ‘if yi wantit, really wantit, ti go wi somebiddy else, then ah’d lit yi, ‘s long is it wis just fir that wan hing. N is long is yi didnae rub it in ma face. If yi really wantit . . .’
      ‘Aye,’ Shirley says, finally. She’s nodding. ‘Aye. N ah dinnae think ah’ll need that.’
      ‘What?’ Mike asks.
      ‘Gaun wi somebiddy else.’
      Mike smiles, and ruffles her hair.
      ‘Hiy! It took mi ages ti git the tangles oot ih this!’ Shirley tells him, running her own hands through it.
      A moment of panic for Mike, he’s forgot to ask -
      ‘Wan hing ah want yi ti dae, though, is promise yi’ll nivir tell anybody.’
      Another pause, something like that should never be replied to straight away.
      ‘Aye, ah promise. Ah’ll no tell anybody.’
      A few more words and the whole moment’s finished with, but it hangs around. It needs something to ease it along, something to change the atmosphere.
      Shirley offers to show Mike how to take spats, and that’s just what it needs. It lifts, they go through to the kitchen, where Mike, holding his breath at the wrong time, blows his straight off the knife.
Mike is okay about cuddling women; non-sexual, no feelings of revulsion there, it’s fine, so long as he doesn’t think of wombs, gall bladders – Mike often wonders why women are so specific about a sore belly, a pain in ma gall bladder; makes him sick – ovaries and all the other stuff slithering around in there . . .
      And everything’s gone better than feared, so he’s happy and contented. At two a.m. he ends up lying on the couch, watching the telly, with Shirley lying on top of him. He has his hand wrapped around her neck and can smell her smoky breath fighting with his Aramis and her perfume. The Cable’s back working, and they’re watching MTV. Mike’s mumbling his opinion on a pop star, how he’d like to knock seven bells of shit out of the guy.
      Shirley’s laughing, contented. Occasionally there’s been boyfriends long-term enough to enjoy moments like these; occasionally.
      A minute later they’re both slipping away into sleep.

Iain Bahlaj   2003

See also an extract from Tilt
For a look at the author’s Literary Top Ten, visit PULP.NET

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author bio

Iain Bahlaj lives in Fife, Scotland. His short stories have appeared in Front & Centre, Fife Fringe, Chapman and The Macallan Shorts 3 and 5. His novel Tilt was published in 2003 (Pulp Books, London). The short story "Sugar" is a prequel to Tilt. Iain currently works as a night-shift shelf-stacker, while working on a football screenplay in his free time. e-mail: iainbahlaj@hotmail.com

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 tbr 36           May - June 2003 

Short Fiction

  Iain Bahlaj

     Tilt (novel extract)
  Ron Butlin
   Vivaldi, The Jumping Cardinal, God, Clint and The Number Three

  Greg Chandler
     Bee’s Tree

  Abelardo Castillo
     Ernesto’s Mother

     Girl from Somewhere Else

    Picks from Back Issues

  Anne Donovan

  Steven Rinehart
     Burning Luv


  Gretchen McCullough May 2003: Letter from Cairo


   Answers to last issue’s quiz, All About Books

Book Reviews

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Tilt by Iain Bahlaj
Shoedog by George P. Pelecanos
Harry and Ida Swop Teeth by Stephen Jones

Regular Features

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

Home | Submission info | Spanish | Catalan | French | Audio | e-m@il www.Barcelonareview.com