Lisa was meeting her father for supper. She was glad to have an excuse for going out and she took the tube into the West End. Lisa rarely saw her father without her sister Ruby. Secretly she thought of him as Ruby’s father and felt uncomfortable about seeing him alone, even a little treacherous. After all, it was really only Ruby’s tenuous link that bound them together.

They were having dinner in a fish restaurant. Lisa arrived to find her father sitting drinking Pernod with a girl she knew. ‘Hello, Dad. Hello, Sarah.’ She stood awkwardly at the end of the table.

‘Oh, has it been raining?’ her father asked, and Lisa looked down at her bedraggled coat and the boats of her shoes and wished she had washed her hair.

The waiter pulled out a chair and tucked Lisa in with a thick white napkin opposite her father. Sarah crinkled up the eye nearest her in a smile. Lisa ordered a Pernod too and picked at the radishes and bread sticks that adorned the table.

‘I was just walking along and I saw your father leap out of a taxi.’ Sarah laughed, and then added, ‘I hope you don’t mind, I’m starving.’

Lisa didn’t mind. In fact it was nice to have a buffer between her and her father and the inevitable pauses.

Sarah was a year older than Lisa and she had known her on and off since she was seven. They had met at an Easter egg hunt in Scotland in the garden of Sarah’s family home. Lisa had had the great luck to meet up with the owner of a telescope–a man who led her to various eggs nestling in the low branches of trees, on window ledges and scattered in the grasses of the outer lawn. Lisa had collected so many eggs she couldn’t hold them all in her arms and a bag had to be found to carry them.

‘Are you living in London now?’ Lisa asked Sarah, and Sarah said she was working in a clothes shop on the Fulham Road. She stood up to show Lisa a pair of maroon corduroy jodhpurs she had bought there at a discount.

‘And how about you?’ Sarah asked. ‘How long have you been in London?’

‘Three weeks.’ Lisa felt anxious about having a conversation that didn’t include her father. She looked at him from time to time and smiled expansively. ‘I’m doing a drama course. At a college in King’s Cross. I’m about to start any moment.’

The waiter arrived to take their orders. Lisa’s father ordered oysters and so did Sarah, but Lisa couldn’t quite bring herself to the challenge and asked for a prawn cocktail. She knew it was a childish and unsophisticated starter but she loved the sweet pink mayonnaise of the dressing, and in a defiant mood she followed it with fish cakes.

Lisa sat at the table and blushed to think how she had suggested only the year before they meet for supper at the Wimpy, Notting Hill Gate. She had seen its red and glass exterior from the top deck of a bus on several visits to London and her longing to go there was overpowering. Brought up in the country on a diet of brown rice and grated carrot, a cheeseburger and chips were her idea of gourmet delight. The Wimpy had in fact turned out to be a success and Lisa even heard her father exclaim over the deliciousness of the hot apple pie spiced with cinnamon, served in little cardboard packets.

 
Sarah and Lisa’s father were discussing the people on the next table. Sarah giggled and pointed out the sharp line of the man’s curling, auburn wig. The woman, Lisa’s father said, looked as if she had been recently discovered under a large rock. He said it was enough to put him off his oyster. Lisa sweated for them.

‘Ruby sends her love,’ she attempted to pull the conversation around.

‘Oh, how is Ruby? I haven’t been able to get hold of her.’

Lisa explained about the flat, and Ruby’s boyfriend’s father getting out of jail, but it turned out that Ruby hadn’t mentioned Jimmy to their father and he was under the impression she was living with a girlfriend.

‘Oh, well maybe she is … ‘ Lisa didn’t want to betray Ruby’s confidence, let alone disagree with her father. ‘Well, she probably is by now.’

Lisa drained her Pernod.

‘What’s Ruby up to, anyway?’ Sarah asked.

‘Music.’ Lisa jumped at the question. ‘She’s going to be a singer, she’s got a friend who says when he can find a band talented enough to play with her . . . ‘ Lisa broke off. She was only repeating what she’d been told. It was strange how much more convincing things sounded in other people’s mouths.

‘I think I bought her a guitar last Christmas,’ her father was saying, and Lisa nodded, knowing he had, and knowing also that it had been stolen or swapped or lent to someone glamorous like Mick Jagger’s brother or a roadie from The Clash.

Lisa’s father insisted she try an oyster. ‘Just swallow it, with a passing bite,’ he said.

Lisa swallowed it so fast that she didn’t even get a chance to graze it with her teeth and she was left with the sensation of having sea water in her mouth and a pebble on her heart.

‘Not quite sure about that,’ she said with a grim smile.

Sarah slurped her oysters joyously. ‘It’s an acquired taste.’

Lisa braced herself for news of Sarah’s brother Tom. Lisa had been in love with Tom, among others, ever since she could remember. Once, on a holiday in Wales they had lain together on a tartan blanket, Tom, Sarah and herself, and she and Tom had held hands and talked about how many children they would have when they were married and what they would call them. She couldn’t remember the names they had chosen now, but there were to be three and they had been in complete agreement over every last detail of their upbringing. Lisa could almost see the stars in the black sky, how they had looked that night. Clear and calm and full of promise.

‘You know when you stick your finger up your bum?’ Tom had asked.

‘Yes . . . ‘ Sarah spoke as if she were waiting and eager for him to continue.

‘Lisa?’

‘What?’ She unclasped her hand.

‘What I just said.’

Lisa refused to be drawn. She stood up and wandered off across the lawn to lean against a box hedge as high as the first floor of the house. Lisa hated conversations like that. She couldn’t help herself.

‘So how’s your brother?’ she asked, when the waiter had cleared away the plates. ‘How’s Tom?’

‘He’s fine.’ Sarah looked at her with a sly expression that made her wish she’d kept the question to herself. ‘He’s learning about farm management in East Anglia. He’s living in a cottage on the estate with Lenny. In domestic bliss.’

‘Who’s Lenny?’ Lisa’s father asked for her.

‘Lenny is a man Tom met at the Marquee. He’s black and incredibly good-looking and Tom thought it would be fun to have someone around to keep him company.’

‘So what does Lenny do all day when Tom’s at work?’

‘It’s hard to tell,’ Sarah laughed. ‘The last time I went down there I arrived at four in the afternoon and they were both still asleep. I can’t help feeling that Tom probably isn’t cut out to be a farmer.’

It was only once they were out in the street that Lisa realized how drunk she was. Her head felt as though it was full of cotton wool, and her ears wouldn’t pop.

‘Which way are you heading?’ her father asked her, hailing a taxi.

‘Old Street,’ she said.

The cab stopped and Lisa’s father kissed her very lightly on the forehead. ‘Do you mind if I take this? I’m meant to be somewhere.’ And he glanced at his watch. He pressed a twenty-pound note into Lisa’s hand. ‘Will you take the next one?’

Lisa nodded.

‘Goodbye. Goodbye, Sarah,’ he said and he jumped in.

‘Thank you . . . and thank you for supper,’ Lisa shouted through the closing door of the cab and she waved at his back in the low back window as he sped away.

Lisa and Sarah walked towards Leicester Square. Lisa weighed up in her mind the quandary of the journey home. If she took the tube, she could avoid breaking into her twenty-pound note. A taxi might be three or four pounds, whereas the tube, especially if she got a half ticket, would only cost her ten pence. Lisa was small anyway and if she bent her knees and looked with wide eyes into the little window, ‘Half to Old Street please,’ she found it never failed. ‘If I were to buy some trousers like yours, how much would they be?’ she asked Sarah.

‘About nineteen pounds.’

‘You wouldn’t mind, would you? I’d get a different colour.’

‘Listen,’ Sarah said when they reached the station. ‘I’m going to stay with Tom at the weekend. Why don’t you come?’

Lisa’s heart began to pound. ‘All right,’ and they kissed each other on both cheeks and said goodbye, separately bracing themselves for the last tube home.

 
Sarah’s shop was a boutique not far from the Fulham Road cinema. Lisa had managed to keep her twenty-pound note intact by travelling half fare to college and back, and using the luncheon vouchers they handed out to each student to buy her midday meal.

Sarah’s trousers were undoubtedly the highlight of the shop’s collection. They came in three colours: maroon, mustard or a grey-green which reminded Lisa of lichen.

‘You’ve got to have the green ones,’ Sarah said. ‘To bring out your eyes.’

Lisa kept them on, packing her skirt into her bag with her nightie and her copy of Stanislavsky’s My Life in Art. They caught the train from Liverpool Street. Sarah had some grass, which she rolled into a joint under the train table. She suggested they smoke it in the Ladies so they’d be in a good mood when they arrived. Lisa crouched up on the lid of the toilet seat and Sarah leant against the basin.

‘Can I ask you a question?’ Sarah said, the smoke billowing out of her mouth. Lisa’s stomach tightened. Her head began to click with the first bitter inhalation of smoke. ‘It’s a question from Tom.’

‘All right.’

‘Tom wants to know . . . ‘ And Sarah began to giggle.

‘What?’

But Sarah couldn’t bring herself to tell her. ‘He can ask you himself,’ she said.

Instead Sarah told her about her cousin Tanya who was still a virgin and ashamed of it and was coming down next weekend in the hope that Lenny would deflower her.

Lisa hated that word, ‘deflower’. It made her squirm. Sarah looked hard at Lisa through the smoke and Lisa knew what she was wondering. She pulled on the joint and kept the smoke inside her lungs as long as she was able.

 
Lisa hadn’t seen Tom for over a year and he was taller than ever and thinner. His long, grey eyes drooped at the corners. Lisa and Sarah climbed into the front seat of the Land Rover, Sarah shuffling behind so that Lisa had to climb in first and squeeze right in next to Tom. Their legs pressed against each other and the musty oilskin smell of him tingled in her nose. Sarah leant over the seat to talk to Lenny, who was lying stretched out in the back.

‘How’s it going, Len?’ she asked him.

‘Not so bad, and you?’ Lenny said. Lenny was smoking, and every bit of energy in his body was concentrated in the hand that lowered and raised the cigarette to his mouth.

‘Tanya sends her love,’ Sarah said, and Tom sent out a peal of cruel laughter that made Sarah twist round to hide the blush that spread over her face.

They were driving out of the small town through flat, green fields dotted with barns and farmhouses and wispy autumn trees.

‘So, when are you going to be a famous actress?’ Tom jerked his leg against Lisa’s.

‘I don’t know. Never, I expect,’ Lisa stammered. Secretly she hoped that she was going to be a famous actress, or even an actress of any kind, but after one week of Full Time Speech and Drama she couldn’t imagine it.

‘Don’t be all floppy,’ Tom broke in. ‘You’ve got to play the part. You’ve got to sleep with important people and say “Darling” if you want to get anywhere. Have you got an agent?’

‘No,’ Lisa said.

‘Do you hear that, Lenny?’ Tom shouted over his shoulder, and Lenny said, ‘Yes, sir.’

 
Tom’s cottage was on a road that led past the gaunt family house of the estate. It was beyond the farm buildings and was surrounded by fields. For Lisa, an air of glamour hung over Tom’s house like mist.

It was dark when they arrived. Tom opened the door and flicked on a light. The sitting-room was barely furnished but the floor was so littered with moulding cups of coffee and dirty plates that it gave the impression of clutter. A stale smell of fried food hung in the air.

Sarah showed Lisa round the house. The kitchen was a bomb-site with every piece of cutlery caked in butter or jam, and each surface supporting a toppling tower of plates and pans and half-empty cans of baked beans and rice pudding. The cupboards hung open, and proudly empty.

Upstairs there were two bedrooms. An unmade bed in each. Lisa refused to catch Sarah’s eye and looked instead into the bathroom, noticing a spray of blood on the wall beside the sink that made her duck back on to the stairs.

‘It’s great,’ Lisa said, as she came back into the sitting-room.

Tom was making a fire with half a packet of fire-lighters and what looked like the remains of a chair.

‘How’s Ruby?’ he asked.

‘She’s fine . . . she’s. . . ‘

‘What?’ Tom watched her suspiciously and Lisa wondered whether or not to tell him how Ruby had arrived at Bunny’s the night before they moved out with her arm slashed and dripping blood. She had knocked on Lisa’s window and, under strict orders not to wake their mother, Lisa had walked with her to the Whittington Hospital where she received a tetanus injection and five stitches. Ruby had made her swear not to tell anyone. At the time Lisa had interpreted ‘anyone’ as Marguerite and their father, but that was because she didn’t know anyone else in London she could tell. Tom, she felt, could only be impressed by the news.

‘She got into a bit of a fight last week,’ Lisa told him, lighting up a cigarette.

‘With who?’

‘With a bread knife.’ She felt proud of that remark.

At first Ruby told her how she’d been slicing bread when the knife slipped and caught the side of her arm, but later, worn down by painkillers and the long wait in casualty, she had confessed that during an argument with Jimmy she had stabbed at herself in a moment of despair.

‘Seven stitches,’ Lisa told Tom, and Tom looked suitably impressed.

‘You should tell her to come and stay,’ he said, and his eyes softened. For a moment Lisa remembered what she had suspected since they were children, that really Tom was in love with Ruby. Something heavy pulled inside her chest and she pushed the thought away. She inhaled deeply. She could feel Tom watching her out of the corner of his eye. It was Tom who had taught her how to smoke. Or at least how to inhale. Before Tom took her in hand, shortly after her thirteenth birthday, she just used to swallow the smoke, gulping it down like a drink and then waiting for a respectable length of time to elapse before letting it out again. This method of smoking invariably resulted in draining the blood from her face and making her feel sick.

‘It’s interesting how you inhale,’ Tom had said to her. She was on holiday with Sarah and Tom’s father on the Isle of Man, where all there was to do was smoke cigarettes and read aloud to each other from the Thirteenth Pan Book of Horror. ‘You see, whereas you swallow the smoke, I breathe it in.’ He hadn’t said it in a sneering way and he demonstrated ‘inhaling’ to Lisa with all the gentleness of an elder brother. They sat by the side of the sea experimenting with smoking styles until Lisa felt so dizzy she almost fell into the waves. Tom had to hold her steady with his hand. It was the summer after that they had named their children on the tartan blanket.

 
Lisa waited until the last possible moment before going to bed. Sarah had gone up first with a cheerful goodnight and Lenny had followed shortly after. Eventually Tom drained his can of beer. ‘I think you’re staying in my room,’ he said and with that he disappeared up the stairs.

Lisa changed into her nightie in the bathroom. She brushed her teeth and, as there was no sign of a towel, shook her hands until they were dry. She noticed the blood had been wiped from the wall.

Tom was lying in bed, a long thin shape under the blankets. Lisa slipped in beside him. The moment she touched the sheets she began to shiver.

‘Are you cold?’ Tom asked, his voice unfriendly from the other side of the bed, and she had to stop her teeth chattering to answer.

There was nothing comfortable about Tom’s embrace. When he put his arm around her, the bones and sinews of his long limbs bit into her flesh. They lay still, Lisa’s neck resting in the crook of his arm, his hand icy on her shoulder. Lisa stared up at the ceiling. Her mind raced with the beginnings of a conversation. Any conversation. Tom twisted on his side and reached his long arm swiftly down to the hem of her nightdress. Lisa doubled up and clamped her legs together and gripped his wrist with both hands. She strained with every muscle to pull his hand up above the covers. She turned on his trapped arm and faced him and dragged at his free hand with gritted teeth. Finally his resistance went and she raised his arm up like a trophy and rested it on her shoulder. Lisa’s chill had left her. She could feel Tom’s hot breath on her face. She folded her arms in front of her, holding them out like breakers against her breasts. Tom kept his hand where she had placed it.

Words Lisa could not get a grasp on burnt in her throat and dissolved. She leant forward and kissed Tom on the side of his mouth. She wanted him to know that she loved him whatever he did. She wanted to tell him that she didn’t really care about the sex except she couldn’t stand it all being over, as she assumed it would be, and then they weren’t due to get the train back to London until Sunday. Lisa released one of her hands and stroked the hair back from his face. His breath came hot and fast, and with no warning his free hand slipped off her shoulder and lunged down the front of her nightdress.

Wordlessly they fought, Lisa tugging at his iron wrists and all the while rolling away from him with her knees bent up to jab him in the stomach. As she struggled, she caught his smile in the filtered light from the window. ‘It’s me,’ he seemed to be saying, and she relaxed in his arms and grinned stupidly back at him.

‘Couldn’t we just go to sleep?’ She turned and pressed herself warmly into the curve of his body.

‘You should have said,’ he whispered, touching her ear with his lips and they lay awake until morning, on guard for each other in the tangle of the bed.

 
Lisa and Sarah walked aimlessly along the fenced edges of one field after another.

‘Did you sleep well?’ Sarah asked. ‘Last night?’

Lisa ignored the light in her eye and the stress of her words. ‘Yes,’ she said. She knew she was treading close to the edge of Sarah’s patience.

They walked on in silence.

Tom had had a meeting at midday with the farm manager. He got up at five to twelve, pulled on his clothes and roared away in the Land Rover. Lenny was on a day-trip to London and wasn’t due back until the evening.

‘Do you think Lenny likes me?’ Sarah asked when they’d walked so far in a circle that they could see the back of Tom’s cottage three fields away. She sounded as if she had reason to believe he didn’t.

‘Of course he does,’ Lisa said automatically. ‘Why shouldn’t he?’

Encouraged, Sarah linked her arm. ‘And Tom, I know he likes you. He told me.’

Lisa decided against believing her. She couldn’t imagine Tom coming that close to a declaration of love. His conversation was almost entirely made up of little cryptic phrases. ‘Really?’ she said.

 
Lenny arrived shortly after dark with a gram of heroin. ‘H’ he called it. Tom shovelled it into four lines with a razor-blade and snorted his share into his nose with a rolled-up pound note. The insides of Lisa’s head began to shrink and crack and the burning ice that had lifted seeped back into her skull.

Tom smiled at her with his elder-brother eyes. ‘It’s all right,’ he said.

Lisa didn’t know you could snort heroin as if it were cocaine. Ruby, she knew, injected it into the veins in her arms. She had tried to get Lisa to share a needle with her but Lisa had lost her nerve at the last minute. Ruby was like Tom. They hated anyone to be left out.

‘Come on, Lisa Lu.’ Tom crawled across the floor to where she was leaning against the legs of the sofa. ‘You won’t regret it.’

Lisa’s stomach turned bitter and she needed to go to the toilet. ‘Is it like . . . like . . . ‘ She could hardly say the word. Tom bent his head down to hers. She lowered her voice. ‘It’s not at all like . . . ‘ she whispered what was on her mind, ‘acid?’

‘My God, not at all. It’s literally the opposite,’ Tom reassured her, pressing the rolled-up note into her hand.

‘So you don’t hallucinate or anything?’ she persisted faintly.

Tom shook his head.

Lisa gave in and sucked the powder up into her nose, using one nostril and then the other in an imitation of Tom. Tom took the magazine off her lap and patted her leg like a schoolteacher. He pulled a blanket from the sofa and spread it over the four of them as they lay in a circle in front of the electric fire.

‘So when did you take acid?’ Tom wanted to know. He sounded annoyed. Tom liked the idea of having introduced Lisa to everything illegal she had ever done.

‘About a year ago.’

‘What was it like?’ Sarah asked.

‘All right . . . ‘ and then, admitting a fragment of the truth, she added, ‘A bit scary.’

The heroin was beginning to take its effect. Lenny, whose line had been fatter than the others, lay back with his eyelids heavy and a dark smile on his lips. Tom sank his head on to his chest and was silent. As far as Lisa could tell, it wasn’t affecting her, but then the thumping of her heart had subsided and, apart from the occasional click, the inside of her head was as soft and safe as history.

‘I had an aunt,’ Sarah said, ‘who took acid. Someone put it in her drink.’

‘Really?’ Lisa asked. ‘What happened?’ A pinpoint of fear was fighting with the milk in her veins.

‘She went crazy. She tried to eat a biscuit tin and then she walked to the nearest station and boarded a train. She jumped off just outside Audley End.’

‘Was she all right? I mean, did she ever recover?’

‘Never, not as far as I know. Tom, did Aunt Bird ever recover?’

‘What?’

‘From whoever spiked her drink with acid.’

Tom raised his head and looked at her with cat’s eyes.

‘Never,’ he said, and he smiled a thin smile as if he were in some way responsible.

 
When Lisa woke the next morning she was lying on the floor, her head under the crook of Tom’s arm. She scrambled free and stood up. She thought for a minute about what she would do if the others all turned out to have died in the night, but the very fact of having survived made her feel so cheerful that without even checking on their pulses she went upstairs to the bathroom.

Lisa locked the door and ran herself a bath. She felt thin and white, and when she lay face down in the water the bones in her hips pressed against the bath’s bottom and her empty stomach lifted away like the curve of a bowl. She washed her hair and brushed her teeth and put on a clean shirt with her green trousers. She sat outside in the sun. A sense of calm spread over her body. She knew what it was. She had taken heroin and survived and now she would never have to take it again. She had proved herself. Like a Red Indian coming of age and scarring his face with warlike marks. She was sixteen and she had tried every drug she had heard of. She was free to begin her own life.

 

‘Lessons in Inhaling’ is taken from Peerless Flats, published by Hamish Hamilton (1993).

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