The Nightingale and the Swallow

The Nightingale and the Swallow
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Picture Credits: Chiara Cremaschi

The one, transformed to a nightingale,
made for the forest, the other flew at the roof as a swallow.
—Ovid, Metamorphoses,
Philomela, Procne and Tereus,
Book 6, lines 668–669.

Laura’s got a boyfriend. Her first serious one. She’s lost it to him. I know this even though she doesn’t talk much anymore. We still share a room but she doesn’t like me getting into her bed these days.

“What kind of name is Terence?” I ask.

“Isn’t it awful? What possessed his parents? But he carries it off?”

Yes, he does, but I remain silent. I don’t like the way she talks about him. And she’s started to wear makeup. A bit of clear mascara – which makes her lashes look wet. Lip gloss. She doesn’t need much. Her hair is thick and shiny and straight. Mine is tight curls. Wiry. Almost pubic.

The phone rings.

Dad shouts up, “Laura. For you. It’s the tosser.”

She takes the stairs two at a time. I can hear her breathy giggles in the hallway. Dad won’t let her bring the phone upstairs.

“How far have you gone?” Laura’s friends crowd our room every day. An older boyfriend – in a band! She’s popular. I wish they’d go home.

“He likes it when—” she drops to a whisper. I grip my Jane Austen. I’m all fists and ears. Straining to hear. She commands awed silences.

*

Laura is two years older than me. When we were younger, we slept in bunk beds. A couple of years ago Dad took them apart and set them side by side. I remember descending the ladder at night and crawling in with her. She told me stories. There was one about a girl who loved playing in the woods. The girl had no interest in boys and all that. One day a god chased her. He really fancied her. She ran away from him until they were both so knackered they couldn’t run any more. She begged her dad for help. He turned her into a tree! I thought of her buried to the waist in earth. Scabbed over with bark. Such a relief but also, like being paralysed. Rough justice.

“That’s fathers,” Laura says.

Laura also says, “So what if Ariadne found a way out of the labyrinth? I’d knock it down. I’d blow it up. Half-brother and all.” And, “Ariadne and Phaedra were sisters. Theseus had them both. Seedy bastard.” At this, we are quiet. Amazed at his cheek. Astonished by the thought.

Laura’s started locking the bathroom door. She used to like chatting while she showered. I sat on the brown cork tiles, which bowed around the toilet – swollen and water-wobbled. It was in the bathroom that Laura taught me stuff. Like— everyone pees in the shower. Like— wash inside your belly button or it’ll get the same fermented whiff as front-bottom. Not long ago she’d say, “Come talk to me while I poo.” She gripped my hand when she couldn’t get it out. Her eyes would dilate when it came and she shivered at the pleasure of it.

*

There’s a party at her friend’s house to celebrate the end of their GCSEs. Mum and dad say I’m allowed to tag along. At first Laura’s pissed off – she had to haggle for every extra minute of her curfew. I get it so easy. Riding her coat tails. I’m allowed to go to pubs and clubs – the ones where we know we’ll get served – Jeez, at her age, I had to be in at nine. But she calms down. She lets her new friends play with me, like I’m a doll. They make up my face and I sit like a plastic bust – a Girls World. They straighten my hair. Laura lends me a dress with a low-cut neck.

I have huge breasts but behind my bra they are clawed red in stretch marks – from sprouting so fast. Last week, dad walked in on me getting changed. He did his thing – he breathes really loud – like he’s trying to breathe fire. He stamped downstairs. Through our bedroom floor, I heard him growl to mum. Her soft voice – explaining what it is. That no boys have been scoring my tits. My red, red beating cheeks—

*

Terence plays the drums.

“Like Animal,” I say.

“Grow up,” says Laura.

He likes bands from New York; mainly bands with no words; or bands with whole tracks of reverb. Laura loves words but still makes us listen to his mix tapes. She doesn’t tell him that she knows all the lyrics to Pulp’s Sisters EP. Secretly, she still flicks her hands like Jarvis when we pogo our beds – “I know you won’t believe it’s true; / I only went with her ’cos she looks like you—”

“Seedy bastard.”

“—My God!”

There is a girl in Pulp, she plays keyboards. She is called Candida, which is also thrush – a yeast infection you may get in your vagina – not a bird. Pulp are mine – and Laura’s – favourite band. We worship Jarvis. I think Laura’s worse than Peter for denying him. It’s like denying everything she is. But according to Terence, Pulp are mainstream now they’ve been on Top of the Pops.

*

The female nightingale is mute. Scientists don’t understand why. Most female songbirds in the northern hemisphere don’t sing. Or they sing very rarely. It’s not that they can’t. They have the organs and they know the tunes. They choose not to.

*

One Saturday morning, I get out the shower and they’re on her bed. Dad says they’re not allowed in our room without me to chaperone. They’re kissing. Loud. Dad must be out.

“You sound like you’re eating soup,” I say, snatching my dressing gown out of our louvred wardrobe.

He starts doing it louder.

That’s my sister. She is not food.

His feet hang over the end of her child-sized bed.

He rolls on one side and looks at me. Laura sits up.

“You look like Laura when your hair’s wet,” he says. I don’t think Laura should like the way he’s looking at me. She doesn’t seem to mind.

“I told you she was pretty,” she says.

“You don’t notice under the Chewbacca wig,” he says.

“Don’t listen to him. I wish I had your hair. Boys only tease when they like you,” she says.

I grab the wrong clothes. I’m blushing so hard my cheeks have swollen my eyes into slits.

*

I started blushing when I was eleven and my cheeks have been red ever since – for one thing or another. My period came on my first day at secondary school. It began as an ache somewhere between the bottom of my stomach and lower back. A part I didn’t know I had. By lunch my pants were sodden. Like my crotch was sweating the pain out. I headed down to D-Block Girls’, where hard year-tens – all wet look perms and spray-crusted quiffs – compass-and-ink lines into the laminate doors. Jeanie Wilson gives it brown. They climb up and peer over cubicles. They time how long you’re in the bog and shout that you’re having a shit. I was quick—

I flicked the lock. Tights – rolled down. I knew what this was. I’m no Carrie – yet hadn’t expected those offal blobs – like stewed berries. The blood wasn’t liquid. It was sticky and nearly as solid as skin. Smell of raw meat and earth. I wrapped waxy paper around my pants. It was the anti-bunging kind. The stuff they buy to avoid blocks. The blood would slide off. I broke out – to find Laura. I knew where she’d be. She was always in the library.

She didn’t have any towels and neither did her friends. They weren’t due on. She led me down the brown corridors under the gym to find the school nurse. Smell of sweat, leather and plimsolls. Fluffy grey smell of pommel horse. She called us in. Smell of TCP. A white metal cupboard stuffed with crepe bandages. The nurse tied up my wet things in a scented bag. This is a tampon. She gave me cotton pants covered in tiny blue flowers – primary school pants stuck to a winged pad. A leaflet – I stuffed in my bag. I was late for French. The nurse pulled Mr. Roberts out the door. Mutters behind hands.

When dad picked us up he’d already been told. The nurse spent the whole afternoon telling. Phoned home. Poor little thing. On her first day! Dad asked if I was alright.

“Fine.”

He squeezed my shoulder and looked relieved. We drove home.

After tea, Laura and I walked the dog to the park. Some boys from the estate:

“She was scrating at school ’coz her fanny was bleeding.”

“Ignore them.”

I walked faster. Looked down. Said nothing.

“This estate,” Laura said.

“Oh God, Laura. The smell. Can you smell it? Everyone will know—”

“Everyone does know. The nurse told them.”

“Oh God.”

“Don’t worry. Everyone hates her. She’s a witch. She’s got drawers full of STIs. Like porn. She loves showing off knobs covered in warts.”

Even while my pores were blowing bubbles of sweat and sticky red blobs were rolling out of me – I could feel it sliding out! – Laura made me laugh. I felt lighter.

“Don’t be ashamed.” She slipped into that voice. Some women in India are shut in a hut while they bleed. It was the same voice she used to persuade me to skin-head Barbie with a pair of secateurs.

*

I have a dream where we’re in the woods. Crouched where the root bowl of a fallen tree left a hole in the earth. Amongst the crisp packets and cans, we cosy up. Bracken blankets – playing house. Or soldiers in a trench. Camouflaged in fern. Laura jumps on me, tickling my pits. I tip into the black earth. Flat on my back with Laura straddling my legs –pinging at my knicker elastic. We are laughing so hard we can’t catch the next breath.

“Show me,” she says.

I push my hands up my skirt and rip the towel out. Toss it on the ground. It thumps the floor – swollen – fatted. Lying on the leaves – glistening black, like a rabbit turned inside out. A spout boils and seeps – russeting the leaves beneath me. Laura picks up a stick. She stabs it and raises it on the end like a spit. She brings it close to her lips. Licks.

I can’t remember the rest but I imagine her daubing her fingers in my blood – smearing it down our cheeks. Budding her soft lips and perching them on my nose. And we track through the woods, Laura holding the stick before us like an Olympic torch. And we burst from the trees. And she lobs it, like a grenade, at the boys from the estate. Unfurling in air. It flaps. It glides. It lands. When they see what it is, they burst like pigeons or scraps of bonfire – combusting. I imagine it springing to life and running after them. Snapping little teeth at their heels. And Laura laughing. Us laughing like a couple of harpies. I try to make myself have the dream again by telling it in my head when I can’t get to sleep. Or sometimes I think about, “He likes it when—”. I feel that twitch between my legs. I want to touch it but can’t make a sound because Laura’s awake in the next bed.

Sometimes, when I look in our bedroom mirror, I’m startled by looking so familiar. And when Laura and I catch each other, I see the same look on her face.

Laura is clever-clever and school-clever. Her head of year loves quoting her Mensa score in assembly. None of the teachers know my name, You’re Laura’s sister aren’t you? I like borrowing her status but I’d like my own name.

*

At the party I drink too much. Too fast. The floor is sloping. Laura’s friends have all lost interest. I’m leaning on the door jamb between kitchen and sitting room. I’m thinking about water. How much I need a glass. I’m also considering fruit salad. There’s a cut-glass bowlful on the kitchen worksurface. I want to push my tongue into it. Terence comes over. He taps up my chin and asks if I’m alright? Laura’s probably asked him to look after me. Her friends will be thinking how sweet. Like a big brother. I feel sick.

I tell him I’m spinny. I need fresh air. He brings me a tumbler of water then he takes my hand and leads me into the garden. There’s a brick outhouse at the end of a concrete path. It’s a bit more than a shed. Terence opens the door and tugs me inside. It feels secret, which makes my skin tingle, a feeling that’s halfway between scary and nice. Like shimmying up to the highest branch and looking down – holding on tight and shivering with the leaves. Blood fizzing; stomach churning. Like Christmas Eve and the night before an exam. I can never split that feeling. I want to go in.

Inside the shed: smells of lawnmower petrol and compost. Shelves of plastic plant pots. Broken spider webs gummed with dust and pasted on the walls. Garden forks. Spades. Rakes. Trowels. It’s cold – like a cave.

He shuts the door. I sit in a deckchair. When he turns around, he has it in his hand. The end bulges. Shiny. Opaque like oiled meat; or like a skinned animal – he looks so helpless. Holding it. His eyes saying please. Like when a dog rolls over and shows their underside – the warm belly where the organs flutter close to the surface. He touches the back of my head. Gently. He likes it when— I open my mouth?

I don’t think anyone sees us come back. I don’t think anyone misses us. I don’t talk to Laura all the way home. Then it’s days of silence.

My heart is arrhythmic when he’s on the phone. I’ve developed a rash on my chest – pink and white mottling. I’ve discovered that I can make myself sick if I put my fingers in my mouth and tickle that wobbly droplet of flesh at the opening of my throat. Warbling vomit.

I dream about that night. In my dream Laura pours the fruit salad into my lap. Tinned peaches and pears sludged onto my legs. On Laura’s dress. The syrup soaks through. When I stand up, my thighs are wet and sticky and I leave a puddle of juice. Everyone laughs. I grab fistfuls of fruit and chase her trying to get her to eat it from my palms. Grabbing her and trying to force the grainy, mushed up fruit into her mouth. Her lips are pressed tight and she snaps her head from side to side.

Days of silence.

After a week she corners me in our room. I’m lying on the bed. I’ve let down the hem of my school skirt and I’m hand stitching it.

“What are you doing?” she asks. She sits on the end of the bed.

“Making it longer.” I’m doing invisible stitches. The way mum taught me. I’m doing a pretty good job.

“Why? Have you been told it’s too short?” She picks up Bomber, the heavy teddy that was mum’s, then hers, then mine. None of us can bear to throw him out.

“No,” I say.

“It’s not too short,” she says. She puts Bomber under the sheets and tucks him in at the end of my bed.

“I just want to,” I say.

“Why? You’ll be able to see the old holes. It’ll look shit.”

“I want it a bit longer.”

“But it’s long enough. It reaches your knees. What’s the point?”

I’m pulling the fabric as far down as it will go and rolling a tiny hem.  She sits on the end of my bed and slips into mum’s you-can-talk-to-me voice.

“I’m not angry with you.”

“Sorry?”

“I’m not angry with you but you need to tell me exactly what happened.”

“Nothing.”

“But it did.”

“What?”

“What did he do?”

“Nothing.”

“You can tell me.”

I’ve run out of thread. I unwind the bobbin and suck the end of the cotton to make it stiff. My mouth is dry. I rethread my needle and tie the cotton in a knot. I push the needle under the very top layer of my skin on my left index finger, not quite piercing or drawing blood. It’s a party trick – I pull the thread through – look I’m stitching skin.

“Don’t do that. It makes me feel weird,” she says.

My skin snaps, leaving a frayed edge.

“He did something. I’m not angry with you but I need to know,” she says.

“No. He didn’t.”

“He did. I’m not angry with you. I’m angry at him.”

She’s stands up and presses her back against the door. She folds her arms. She looks like a bouncer. I sew my right index finger. Pop. More frayed skin.

“I’m not angry with you,” she says.

“Please, please don’t be angry,” I say.

I don’t know what word to use. The only ones I know sound absurd. Stupid words – I can’t use any – my throat has closed.

I tap two fingers on the back of my left hand. She understands.

“Two words,” she says.

I tap one finger on the back of my left hand.

“First word,” she says.

I fill my cheeks and expel the air – slowly – through pursed lips. She folds to the floor and puts her head between her knees. “I’m going to be sick,” she says.

“I’m so sorry.”

“I’m not angry with you.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“I’m not angry with you.”

“It is my fault. I made him.”

I’ll take this blame if it makes her feel better. I want to make it hurt less but I still want him to disappear. This will make him disappear. This will make him disappear.

*

Long silence. Her breathing with her head between her knees. In. Two. Three. Four. Out. Two. Three. Four. Her fists clench and unclench. The breathing slows down. I unpick my line of stitches. Slowly, I peel the hem apart and listen to the little pops of cotton. Penelope sewed by day and unpicked at night. Weave. Unpick. Delay. Pricked, pierced, sewn, unravelled. I pull the knotted end and roll the spent thread as tight as a hair ball and flick it onto the carpet.

Eventually, she looks up. Her eyes are red but her cheeks are dry.

“You’re coming with us to the pub tonight,” she says.

“God, Laura. No, I don’t want to see him.”

“Shall I speak to dad about—”

“No.”

She waits for me to say it: “I’ll come.”

We’re in the pub. I feel like I’m watching TV. She looks so pretty. Shampoo advert hair. Her freckles scattered like sand on her nose. A couple of his friends. Me. Her. I’m imagining what he’ll say when she tells him. He’ll do one of three things: he’ll deny it (bad for him); he’ll pretend it was a drunken mix up – comedy – like Shakespeare (bad for him); but he might… He might not give a shit.

I start to think she won’t do anything. Maybe she’ll shrug it off. But then she smiles at me like we’re in on something. She puts her hand on his thigh. She looks at him and cocks him a lopsided smile that dimples one cheek. She raises an eyebrow and stands up. He follows her out the fire escape. I look at the dirty, flagged floor – tacky-black-beer-smears. My stomach muscles try to curl.

It feels like an age until she slips back into her seat and gobs something viscous into his half-finished pint. She does it casually. His friends shuffle and laugh. With a black, plastic stirrer, she swirls it around before he slopes in. Sucking in his stomach and tucking his T-shirt into his jeans. Exaggerating sheepish – like everyone is counting his luck.

She says, “Come on. Drink up. On to The Bell?”

He downs it.

His friends fall apart.

“What?” says Terence.

Silence from us.

“She doesn’t swallow,” one friend says, which cracks them up.

She stands and turns to me.

“We’re going home.”

Laura leads us onto the amber-wet pavement. She doesn’t need a ball of wool or pockets stuffed with pebbles. She doesn’t link arms. She walks ahead and when we get to the bright lights of the house, I fall back so I don’t have to see her wet cheeks.

Stephanie Limb

About Stephanie Limb

Stephanie Limb graduated in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Warwick in 2003. She worked as an English teacher for a while. She is now working towards an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham. She writes poetry and fiction.

Stephanie Limb graduated in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Warwick in 2003. She worked as an English teacher for a while. She is now working towards an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham. She writes poetry and fiction.

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