The New York Times
Brassby Helen Walsh
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Upon its release in the United Kingdom, British Vogue said if you want to find out what it is like to be a woman in England today [read] Brass.” Literary circles, critics, students, and readers of all stripes are talking about Brass for its raw, unrelenting, yet compassionate and utterly compelling portrait of Millie, a promising college kid drifting into a deceptively inviting world of rough hewn street culture, drug-induced adorations, and sexual hedonism.
Helen Walsh, at the age of 27, has produced a staggeringly alive debut novel that portrays a generation of youththose coming of age in the 80s and 90sthrough the prism of Millie. Millie and her best friend Jamie have been through it all together. However, as Millie is lured away from a promising academic career toward a life of numbing drugs and increasingly deviant sexual encounters, Jamie is finally settling down with his girlfriend. Millie feels betrayed by one of the few authentic and nurturing relationships in her life at a pivotal time of self-revelation.
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By Helen Walsh
Grove Atlantic, Inc.Copyright © 2004 Helen Walsh
All right reserved.
We turn onto Upper Duke Street and the view sucks the breath from my lungs.
The whole of the city is aglow and the Liver buildings, brightly drenched by the rising moon, reign magnificently in a cloudless sky. I snatch a quick glance to see if she too has been seduced by the vista but the eyes are paralysed by some chemical excess. She's at least three or four years younger than me - a child in the eyes of the law. Yet she wears the spent constitution of a woman who has lived, breathed and spat these streets out all her life. There's mixed blood in her face too, the dark complexion suggesting the Mediterranean while her narrowed eyes hint of the East. It's a good face - awkwardly composed but pretty nonetheless. It doesn't belong to these streets.
We head down towards the Cathedral which pierces the night like some majestic foreboding, and she lopes off ahead, creating enough distance between us to show we're not together. At the graveyard gates, she swings round and instructs me with the flat of a palm to hold back. I watch her elfin silhouette slide down some steps and without warning, dissolve into the petrol blue night. I doubt she'll return and I'm pricked with a mild spur of relief. The effects of the beak and the booze are fast ebbing away now and there's elements ofthe old me lurking in my subconscious, urging me to turn on my heels and flee.
The night spits her back into focus and she's standing before me again. Skinny legs and fat breasts. Coal black hair pulled fiercely into a high pony. I swoon.
She swings an arm in a beckoning arc and I follow, down a flight of uneven steps, through a dark stubby tunnel and out into a sprawling graveyard. For one lucid moment, a spasm of terror jolts my heart as I anticipate what looms ahead but as we veer down towards the right of the Cathedral which now towers high above us, the brilliance of the moon finds us and all danger is neutralised in the serum of desire. Randomly, she selects a grave, which is located at the remotest corner of the plot. It's flat, wide and practical. She removes her clothes with a routine agility. She's serviced a hundred other punters on this very slab of timeworn concrete though I guess I'm her first female punter.
'I don't do fish,' she said in a coarse Toxteth accent, 'Norra done 'ting round 'ere girl.'
And she was right. I'd scoured these streets, this city, relentlessly in pursuit of brass on many a drug-fuelled bender and only twice had I struck lucky. However, once I assured her that she didn't actually have to do anything. Just remove her clothes, all of them, and let me indulge myself, she began to crumble. I produced a fifty and she surrendered.
* * *
She lies back and the shock of the slab juts her nipples out and arches her slender back. Her breasts are large and intrusive. At odds with her pubescent framework. She has the hips of a twelve-year-old. I run a hand across the width of her navel which is hard and sticky and gleams in the moonlight as if lightly smeared in Vaseline and lower my mouth to her breasts, sucking hard at her dark nipples, manipulating them to solid black bullets. Her skin tastes of stale, salty sweat. Cheap body lotion and spent chemicals. Pungent and almost unpleasant. It drives me on.
'Look at your tits,' I whisper, 'Touch them.'
She does so, reluctant at first but wanting to be urged on. I slip an arm around her small back and flick my tongue across her flat young tummy.
'Do you like that?'
She doesn't answer. I raise my head to find her eyes roaming in their orbits. Her mouth is slack, lopsided. A stream of spittle trails her chin. I prod her hard in the navel and she protests with a dilatory flinch.
Impatient now, I part her legs which are coloured with fresh bruises. I slide a finger inside. She's dry and stiffens at my touch. For an instant, I feel I should stop, I should turn on my heels and run. But as my mouth falls upon her cunt and the smell of rubber smacks me in the face, I resume my role. Guiltlessly. As a punter. With a stiff tongue I press down hard on her clit and with short purposeful strokes, I slowly massage her to life. I feed in another then another finger and her resistance gives way to minimal yet compliant thrusts. My movements become more forceful and her juices gush freely onto my face. The body arcs upwards and outwards and holds up there as she strains against this pleasure.
I slide a hand in my trousers and seek my cunt.
The beak seems to have temporarily robbed its walls of all sensation but my clit swells beneath the clammy nest of my palm. I manipulate myself hard and selfishly, the whore becoming nothing but a body. A cunt in a magazine. My climax is powerful but as soon as those crackling shortwaves subside I'm overwhelmed by the impulse to abscond. I feel sober and awkward. I remove my hands from her body, which are lathered in our sweat and wipe them on my hips. She props herself up, fuckfaced and shining with the stench of her latest trick and stares into me. The face is no longer drug dead but wide open with questions. Her eyes stare out, large and frightened, giving me a glimpse of the girl behind the whore. She makes to speak but the words evaporate on her lips. Half of me wants to take her in my arms, the other, despises her. Once more I take in the child's eyes, the woman's breasts. I force a valedictory smile and sprint off across the graveyard, spurred on by that unique tingling and euphoria that follows orgasm.
Back on Upper Duke Street, I feel the rush of the urban glow once more. It's still early and there's a whiff of excitement in the air as taxis bundle life into the core of the city. I love Fridays. There's an infectious delirium that Saturday nights fail to deliver. Come 8 o'clock, the streets of Liverpool are heaving with studes, schoolies and nine to fivers, all drunk on the freedom of the weekend, trying to stretch the night out forever.
I'm meeting Jamie at 60 Hope Street, less than a hundred yards from the spot where I picked the whore up. The idea of walking through her patch again unsettles me so I take a circuitous route, down along Rodney Street and back up pulsating Leece Street, already writhing with bodies. The moon is behind me now, a big yellow balloon lingering on the skyline, slowly blinking the stars awake. Next full moon, I'm gonna perch myself on top of a hill - Frodsham or Wales. And get stoned. Just me and that big old moon. If I had a car and a smoke, I'd be tempted to fuck off right now, resist the lure of the city, but it would be impossible to mellow out with all this going on. Absolute torture in fact. The stifling heat of the day is only just cooling and it's the start of the weekend and the excitement of it all is sweeping the city like lava. I love this feeling. I love it.
Shite! I'm late and that'll be her on the mobie now so I'm just letting it run on to answer. Can see her now, by the way. She'll be sat there at the bar with that half irate, half betrayed gob on her and she'll be going:
'That's thirty minutes he's robbed me of. Thirty minutes I could have spent down the Blue Bar checking out the honeys.'
Ah, I love her madly though I do, bolshy little waif that she is. She's like a sister to us. Seven spanking years of history we've clocked up. That's a third of her life and a quarter of mine. And we've been through some bad shite me and Millie. Oh aye. Stuff that would've torn most friendships like wet paper. But me and her, it's only made us stronger. Invincible like.
Has to be said though, can be a nasty piece of work at times, lil' Millie.
Aye, she can be fucken merciless she can. You don't want to be getting on the wrong side of Millie O'Reilley.
This cabby's pure doing my swede in now, though. Having a fully-fledged domestic on the mobie, he is. Mad fucken Somali accent screaming into this bricksized mobie he's got. Beads of sweat oozing from his shiny aul' head. Fucken car stinks of dead animals. It does - whole thing reeks badly and I just want out, now. I winds the window down and thrusts my head out, gasping on the smoggy summer's air as if it were an inhaler. He swings round and removing himself reluctantly from the brick-like contraption gives us this big mad glower.
'Put the fucking window up la! I've got the air con on.'
Air con, by the way! This shed must be twenty-thirty years old.
He returns to the wheel just in time to see that the lights have turned red but crashes em anyway and carries on hurling obscenities into his 'phone. I ignore the cunt. The windows are staying down. But I don't want to be getting into no nonsense with the Somalis, mind you. That's one group you're best leaving alone. Fight one Somali and you're fighting the fucken lot of em. That's how it is. It's not so long since Sean had to bite that lad's face off before he'd slap the floor. He's a mad cunt Sean, used to box for England under 16s and that, but this Somali lad would pure not go down. Hit him with all sorts Sean did, but the lad just carries on and that. 'That the best you can do?' and what have you. And then, once Sean loses it and bites a chunk out of his face, he's got the whole fucken barmy army of em on his back. Tell you la, you're best just avoiding it. He's only an aul' cabby, end of the day, but I'm not fucken rising to him. And the other thing is, I don't want to be soiling my new Jil Sander kecks. Lil' Millie is going to pure love these kecks by the way. Pure fucken class, they are.
We're coming up past our aul' flat now at the top of Parlie and this big surge of nostalgia sweeps all over us. I'm like that, me you know. I'm proper sentimental. I fill up at things like that Buena Vista Social Club. Fucken too much that is - when that Ibrahim Ferrer's walking round New York. Pure fucken gets you right there it does. Slays me, stuff like that. Always has done - good films, books, tunes that take you back, whatever. Dunno, la - I'm just like that. I still gets all dewy-eyed when I see that cobalt blue door and the mossy windowpanes and the skeleton of our Billy's first car sat there in the yard. Amount of times I had to fucken kip in that car. It's only a few years ago and that, but I can't help myself - I already feel last about it. I feel like it's gone all that. I feel as though we've lost them times for good.
It was happy days back then. Me, Sean and our kid, living like fucken kings. It were all down to Sean of course. Our Billy were signing on and I was spunking half my wages from Fords on that joke night school. But Sean, he were pure rolling in it and he made sure that we all enjoyed the fruits of his labour. The fridge were always jammed full with ale and classy grub from Tezzies and Marksies. Not that we ever ate none of it. Our time was split fair and square. Half the time we was getting high, the other half we was coming down. The perks of Sean's new career extended to muchos class A, and in the two years we lived together, he must have plied us with enough gear to feed the whole of Garlands of a Saturday night. There were no protocols or anything where the consumption of gear were concerned. Oh no. And we'd think nothing of dropping one of a Monday avvy. Sean was the worst. Got so's he'd have to snaffle a line or two 'fore he read the sports pages of The Echo. Pure dependence or pure indulgence la? It's a miracle his liver is still intact after all that. And his head for that matter. There was hardly a morning back then that Billy and Sean didn't wake up with the taste of old copper in their mouths and their hearts drumming in their ears. And if I hadn't've spent most of my nights at college or up in my bedroom grappling with Keats and Hardy, I would've well gone under. Even then, though, I'd still come and find em when I was done, not wanting to miss nothing, still wanting mine like an idiot. Match nights, I was pure putty. Sean'd pop his head around the door around half-five-six, just as I was plunging into an assignment. He fucken knew it and all too, knew I didn't want no distraction. But he'd be stood there waving a ticket and a bag of beak at us and that'd be that. I was putty.
* * *
He's always been a lady's man, Sean. Still is by the way, but more so back then. Fucken effortless and all, he got himself a fan base bigger than Boyzone's. The flat were always chocker with exquisite fucken birds with flawless complexions and polished accents that he'd picked up over the water. Fucken loved him, they did. Thought he was the real thing. Of course none of em looked twice at myself and our kid. But I was just made up to sit with em and soak it all in and that. He had this aloofness about him Sean, which time seems to have diluted a little. I used to think it were manicured like, that it was all for show, something for the ladies and that, but maybe there was more to it.
He always has been a moody cunt, Sean, and we never really had any idea back then how deep he was getting in. Even when he were eckied up he kept his thoughts on a harness. Gave nothing away, Sean. Just used to sit there, mute. Them dark expressionless eyes of his impervious to the euphoria that would flush his cheeks and rattle his jaw.
Looking back though, I was a pure hypocrite where Sean was concerned. I half knew how he was making his dough, but I would never let myself dwell on it. My mind just sort of overrode it. It was Sean, my mate, just a lad what I grew up with. And I was more than happy to help him spend it. Oh yes. But not now though. Now, I always go fifty/fifty with Sean, and I don't accept freebies off him no more. Least, only the random line now and again, and even then I always feel obliged to buy him a drink and that.
So I knows full well what's going down in Flynnstrasse. But did I put up a fight when he offered my Missus a job in one of his salons? Did I fuck. Why would I?
It's a proper fucken legit business and she's a beautician, end of the day. She's doing what she's always wanted to do. Happy as a twat down that salon of his, lil' Anne Marie. Goes to work with a spring in her step and comes home beaming like a kid. I've said it. I'm a two-faced cunt. My bird works for Sean Flynn and I look the other way. I try and think of him, and us lot, how we were back then. How we was when we met Millie.
Magic times to be living through, they were. The club scene were raw and unearthly. It had a lingo of its own and those who spoke it were bound by a shared secret that welded us together like glue. It went way beyond anything you'd known. Way beyond comprehension. It was more than a deviation from my working week. It was more than just escapism. It was a way of life. When they closed down the State in 1991 after all that trouble with the Ungis, a part of us shut down too. It was only a matter of months before they reopened but it was gone la. All that energy, that arcane magic, gone. It were full of aul' heads, desperately clinging on to a memory.
Excerpted from Brass by Helen Walsh Copyright © 2004 by Helen Walsh. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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It is rare for me to find books that i do not want to put down, but this was one of them. I tend to like books that travel more towards a dark side though. I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone. Millie and Jaime's narration in perfectly on point.