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Hilltop: A Literary Paper. Volume 1 Number 1

In the Beginning

page 23

In the Beginning

The boy pulled at the plug chain and the steaming water emptied from the bath. 'Moisture stood out on the white-enamelled walls and the mirror over the wash basin was clouded. The water had reddened his body and so warmed it that he felt no cold as he stood naked on the bare linoleum. He took a towel from the rack and dried himself. Then, after wiping the mirror clear, he carefully combed back his hair, wet and close to his head. He donned his long-sleeved singlet and flannel pyjamas, warm from the drying cupboard, put on his slippers, and walked into the kitchen.

His mother was knitting, his father reading the evening paper. As he came in his mother stood up and went to the coal box for more fuel for the range. With the small poker she lifted the ring from the stove and the flames gushed up, reaching for the coal. She poured it in and replaced the ring.

"I hope you washed yourself thoroughly," she said. "Did you rinse your hair with fresh water?"

"Yes, mother, I rinsed it."

He sat down and gazed through the grate at the red landscape of the burning coals. Arms round his bent knees, he looked around him, as he did so often because there was nothing else to do, at the familiar room. The sideboard with its shelves neatly lined with oilcloth, racks for the plate and saucers, and green-enamelled hooks for the cups. Part of two shelves had been glassed off to the left for the best china.

Over near the back door were three wooden bins, containing respectively flour, cereals, and fowl feed; in the dining alcove a large worn table with a marble slab for rolling pastry; on a shelf above it an old radio tuned to soft comfortable music. It was many years since the panelled walls of the kitchen had been varnished, and the stain had faded until now it was almost black. Three pictures were on the walls: one of a puppy on a flight of steps sniffing at a butterfly, beneath it the damp-spotted caption: "What Is It?"; another of a gaunt angel, standing against a background of black drapings, looking upward into a beam of light; and a third, coloured this time, of farmers tying wheat sheaves in bright yellow fields.

The kitchen was always warm because all cooking was done on the range. In summer his mother would work over it, the doors and windows wide open, her face glistening in the heat. Just now there were golden syrup biscuits baking in the oven and the sweet scent filled the room. The boy looked at the windows with their heavy curtains and tattered blinds, hearing outside the beginnings of a storm. A few splashes of rain beat against the glass. His short hair began to stand up on his head as the water dried out of it. His father turned a page of the paper and his mother looked up from her knitting.

"You're getting tired, I can see that," she said, smiling. "I think you'd better get away to bed now."

"I'm not tired," he said, although he was beginning to feel drowsy. "Can I have a biscuit?"

"You can when they're ready. Then you must be off to bed."

She laid her knitting down on the floor beside her chair.

"How about coming over and sitting on mum's lap?"

His father looked up from the paper. "You spoil the boy, mothering him like that. He's growing up now, so let him sit on a chair so his back will grow straight."

"But he likes it so much. He's his mother's boy. His mother's only boy. Come on over here," she said.

He stood up, the heat making him feel dizzy, and walked across and sat on her lap. She put her arms around him and he lay back, cushioned in the softness of her body. "You like just being lazy and sitting here in front of the fire, don't you?" she said, pre-tending to be stern, but smiling at him. "You're my boy."

His sleeves slipped up and he put his bare arms around her neck and pressed his face on her face. They remained motionless, his warm flesh pressed against her flesh, cool and soothing. She kissed him on the cheek. He page 24 stretched once, making himself perfectly comfortable, and then closed his eyes. The almost airless room closed in on him and he felt himself slipping into sleep.

Suddenly he thought he was falling and woke abruptly. "What's the matter, darling?" the voice asked, and he answered drowsily: "I thought I was falling," and pressed him-self tight against her, seeking solace for the little hurt. Then there was the voice again. "The biscuits must be done by now, darling. You'd better let me up or they'll burn." He felt himself being lifted and then put down again into the empty chair. Through the thin surface of partial sleep he heard the click of the oven door and his mother walking across to the table. He opened his eyes and saw her put down the tray of neatly-spaced, round, light brown biscuits. With a knife she lifted one and brought it across to him.

"Be careful, now. It's hot."

He juggled it from hand to hand. He took a bite and the biscuit was so hot that it sent a little wave of pain into the nerves of his teeth. "Now I must put some water on for your hot-water bottle," his mother said. She filled the kettle at the sink and put it on the stove.

The boy stood up to allow her to sit down again and settled once more into the comfort of her arms. Here was always protection and peace, and he had come to look forward to it as a part of every evening. Sometimes during the day at school he would think of it with a vague feeling of excitement in him.

His father sat reading still, not even looking in their direction. A few minutes later the steam started to bubble up from the kettle and his mother took the bottle from its hook by the sideboard and filled it. "You really must go to bed now," she said. She took his hand and led him to the door of the hall.

"Good-night, dad," the boy called.

"Good-night, son."

He walked along the hall with tired steps, his hand in his mother's. On either side were dark, empty rooms. This nightly walk, without his mother, would be a thing of fear. Outside the last door his mother took away her comforting hand for a moment and switched on the light. She turned back the covers and pushed the hot-water bottle to the bottom of the bed. Then she went around the bed, tucking the blankets under the mattress so that the only opening was one at the top of the bed, so small that he could only just ease himself in. He sat on the edge of the bed, took off his slippers, and put them together on the floor. He slid his feet in between the sheets until they touched the scalding heat of the bottle. She leaned over him, pulling the covers up under his chin.

He was held tightly in the grip of the bed, scarcely able to move. The perspiration began to start out on his face. The soft pillow billowed up around his head and his mother was standing a little way off and everything became hazy.

Then her face became clear again as she bent over him.

"Is my baby good and warm?"

Her face was directly above his face and her lips were coming down to meet his. The warm, always exciting pressure of her mouth on his.

"Sweet dreams."

He did not hear her move away. The light went off and he relaxed completely in the exquisite comfort of the bed.

The door closed and he was alone.