- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Harvey's 24-karat British procedurals (Living Proof, 1995, etc.) have always led the field, but in his eighth he's surpassed himself with a likely Edgar nominee that just might win him the audience he's always deserved.
The last words Norma Snape said to her youngest that Thursday: "You let me get my hands on you, you little tripeshanks, and I'll wring your miserable neck!" Like so much of Norma's life, their memory would haunt her, words like angry fingers down her throat, again and again until she all but choked. And Nicky—it's doubtful if, between the slam of the door and the ring of his own high-pitched laughter, Nicky heard a thing.
It had started the way it so often did, the four of them tumbling over one another inside the small, flat-fronted terraced house: Nicky's sister, Sheena, out of the bathroom at last and slamming from room to room in search of a clean blouse, her green factory overalls, a right shoe; Nicky, barely fifteen, down the stairs three at a time, chanting along to the Walkman that hung from the belt of his jeans. "Mum, you seen my blouse?" Sheena called. "Mum, where's all the toast?" "Mum, I thought you were going to iron these?" Only the eldest, Shane, fair hair and slate-gray eyes, eight days short of his eighteenth birthday, was still flush in the center of the worn settee, eating toast and drinking his third mug of tea while he watched The Big Breakfast on TV.
Norma, hair not combed out, still not properly dressed, opened the back door to let out the gray cat, and the dog, which had been scratching at the outside of the door unheeded, scuttled to its empty bowl and began to bark.
"For Christ's sake," Norma said. "Don't you start."
On the enamel drainer alongside the sink, used tea bags bled orange onto spilled milk; a half-eaten bowl of soggy Coco Pops sat speckled with coffee granules. Shane's best shirt hung drying from the back of a chair; cotton knickers made a patchwork quilt along the radiator top. Norma pulled a can of dog food from the back of the fridge and began to search for the opener.
"Nicky, get out of my bloody way!" Sheena's voice.
"Get out of the way yourself!"
From the other room, Norma heard a punch and a slap and then, above the sound of the TV, Shane's warning shout. Norma stubbed out the smoldering end of the cigarette she had lit earlier and forgotten, and fished another from the packet. Unable to find her lighter, she bent her head and lit the cigarette from the stove.
"Mum, I thought you were going to iron this blouse?" Sheena stood in the doorway, cream blouse in one hand, outline of her ribs visible between her off-white bra and the top of her short black skirt; she still didn't seem to have found her other shoe.
"Will you cover yourself up, for Christ's sake," Norma said.
"Yeh," said Nicky, pushing past her into the kitchen, "nobody wants to see your feeble tits anyway."
"No? Then how come you're always hanging round outside the bathroom every morning?"
"'Cause I'm nearly shitting myself, that's why, waiting for you to plaster your spots with Polyfilla."
Sheena swung out at him with her blouse, flicking it at the kidney-shaped burn mark discoloring the left side of his face. Dancing out of the way, laughing, Nicky collided with the table and then, as he stumbled off-balance, kicked the dog's food all across the floor.
Jesus, Norma thought, when's he ever going to grow up? "Right!" she shouted. "That's enough. Nicky, you get down there and clean up that mess. And Sheena, get shifting out of here or you'll miss your bus. A few more times late and you'll be for the sack."
"Again," laughed Nicky.
"Shut it!" Norma said.
"I don't suppose," said Shane, stirring himself during a commercial break, "there's any more tea in the pot?"
"That's right," said Norma, "there's not."
As Nicky went to move the dog's bowl, the animal nipped at his hand and Nicky hit it smack on the nose with the bowl's edge. Straightening its front legs, the dog showed its teeth and growled but then, thinking better of it, backed off into the corner and whined instead.
"Pick on someone your own size," said Shane, fetching his brother a kick in the shin.
"Nicky." Norma pointed from the doorway. "I want that cleared up by the time I'm back down here. And you can sort out that crap by the sink as well."
"Why bloody me?"
"Because I told you to, that's why."
Shane chuckled and went back to watch the TV.
When Norma came back down ten minutes later, wearing an old jumper and sagging stretch pants to do her morning stint of cleaning in the pub, she found Nicky with his hand inside her bag, purse open, the last ten pounds she had about to make their way into his pocket.
"You scuttering little bastard! What d'you think you're doing?"
They both knew the answer to that.
Fear for a moment brightening his eyes, Nicky squeezed around the back of the table and made a dash for the back door. For a big woman, Norma moved fast, faster than Nicky might have thought. He had the door six inches open when with the flat of one hand she slammed it shut and with the other she slapped the side of his face, where the skin wrinkled liverish up from his neck.
"You thieving geck!"
"Here." Nicky held the two five pound notes towards her, high above his head.
As Norma reached for them, he swiveled fast and left her catching air, the door yanked open wide enough and then pushed shut.
"You let me get my hands on you, you little tripeshanks, and I'll wring your miserable neck!"
She followed his laughter out into the yard, the bins and the empty rabbit hutch, the rusting trolley that had somehow found its way from Kwik Save and never made its way back. Stepping through the gate into the narrow alley that ran between the rows of houses, she started after her son as he ran, not hurrying now, a lazy jinking step between the dog shit and the broken glass. At the alley's end he stopped and waved the stolen money once in triumph, before disappearing from sight into the street.
Norma shivered and turned back towards the house.
"Locking up, that's what he wants." Sheena was standing with her overall buttoned, ready to leave.
"Here," Shane said, offering his mother his packet of Silk Cut. "How much did he get this time?"
Lighting the cigarette, Norma drew in the smoke and slowly exhaled. "Only all I had." And then, as she lowered herself onto a chair, "You'd think somewhere along the line he'd learn his bloody lesson, wouldn't you?" But even the petrol bomb, thrown by an angry neighbor whose house Nicky had burgled twice within the same week, hadn't done that. Oh, yes, when he'd been laid up in the hospital, sure enough, Nicky had confessed the error of his ways; and those evenings when Norma had patiently tended to the burn marks on his arms and legs, blistering across his chest up to his neck and face, then Nicky had promised her, time and again, that he would change.
From his trouser pocket, Shane took a small fold of tens and twenties and pressed one of the twenties into her hand. Norma looked into the gray of his eyes. Don't ask, a voice told her, if you don't want to know. "Thanks," she said. "Thanks, love. Thanks."
Norma had grown up in Rotherham, the daughter of a steelworker and a mother who, in the lengthening intervals between six children, had worked behind the counter in the local shop. Norma had been the last born, the one who broke her mother's spirit and finally her heart.
By the time she was three years old, her father had thrown in his lot with a wall-eyed girl of seventeen who had come to the house one evening selling lucky heather; Norma knew him only as a memory, an envelope of curling photographs, an edge of bitterness, sharp on the blade of her mother's tongue.
So Norma had spent her early days in a carry-cot beside the jars of sweets and newspapers on the counter, alternately fussed over or ignored. Whenever she cried, she was passed from one customer to another, the recipient of much chin-chucking and baby talk, a great deal of cupboard love and all of it transitory; her mother was ever the last to pick her up, the first to put her down.
"It was you, drove your father away." The accusation, for years unspoken, had been present only in her mother's eyes until the day, slipping back from the shop unsuspected, she had caught Norma and the ten-year-old Gary Prout, exploring each other behind the living room settee, Norma's gray skirt inelegantly hiked over her face. "You, you little slut, it was you!"
Norma was nine and she thought her mother was probably right; after all, two of her brothers had been feeling her up for years.
When Norma was thirteen, the family upped and moved to Huddersfield, a house in Longwood with dark corners and the persistent smell of damp. The two eldest had left home long since, one pregnant and married and miserable, the brother off in the army, drunk in the pubs of Aldershot or Salisbury more nights than not. Norma was filling out fast, almost full-grown; with a little makeup and heels she could pass for sixteen, eighteen even, in pubs and she did. Men nudged one another in the street and stared. Hands going nineteen to the dozen, older lads bumped into her in the corridor at school. One of Norma's biggest thrills, the one she remembered because it involved neither hurt nor harm, was waiting until the lights went up in the interval at the pictures, and then, in the tightest of sweaters, walking slowly, left to right, across in front of the screen. Like a movie star, Norma could feel eyes following her every move.
Of course, as her mother never tired of warning her, there was only one way for it to end. Norma hid the pregnancy successfully for almost seven months, wore her clothes loose, a fat girl getting fatter, nothing more.
When the baby came, three weeks early, it seemed to slip from the folds of her body like a fish, bloodied and wriggling, sliding between the midwife's hands. They let Norma hold it for a minute, wet against her neck and cheek. Too long for what they meant to do.
"Baby's small," the midwife said. "Tiny. We'll have to pop him into an incubator, just for now."
Her mother and the hospital arranged for the adoption: there was no need for Norma, under age, to sign the forms.
"Forget it, lovey," her married sister told her. "Plenty more where that came from, you'll see."
There were but she did not.
Michael. In that brief time that she had held him, she had known his name. Spoken it to him, soft and wondering beneath his cries. Michael. She never saw him again, nor knew where he was. And although now, she supposed, there were ways she could take and means, she had never tried to track him down. Norma liked to think of him happy somewhere, content: a grown man he would be, maybe with a family of his own.
When her mother's man friend, the reason they had moved to Huddersfield, backed Norma up against the cellar wall one night and tried to squeeze her breasts, Norma hit him with the coal scuttle hard below the knees and told him if ever he touched her again, she'd cut off his dick and feed it to the ducks. After that, he could never walk in the local park without his eyes beginning to water. And Norma learned there were things in her life she could control if she tried.
So when she became pregnant again, so stone in love with Patrick Connelly she could no more think of life without him than the air that she breathed, it was a fully thought-out, premeditated act. On Norma's part, at least.
Patrick was part-Irish, part-Scottish, part-wild, at twenty-nine, almost ten years older than Norma herself; he had drifted from Cork to Edinburgh to Glastonbury, a gentle hippy with the most violent of tempers, a musician with a raw and rudimentary guitar technique and the voice of one of Satan's angels—or the lead singer with the Stylistics, at least. Weekends, Patrick would take the train to Manchester or Leeds and busk; midweek, he sang with an uneven eight-piece soul band in the local pubs. One night, eyes closed, when he was singing Al Green's "Tired of Being Alone," Norma, emboldened by the drink, walked up to the stage and stroked the inside of his thigh.
They lived in two furnished rooms above a shop near the station. Sometimes, Patrick hit her and she hit him back; a big girl—a big woman—growing bigger, Norma was learning to punch her weight. When, one night, blissed out on the after-effects of some good grass, Patrick said that what he wanted most in the world were children, a family, Norma took him at his word.
During her pregnancy, he left her four times, staying away the Lord knows where for weeks, before moving his few things back in again. He tried to talk her into an abortion and when it was too late for that, pushed her down the stairs of a double-decker bus, traveling between Paddock and Longwood.
Norma took out an injunction against him, but once Shane was born, he began deluging her with flowers stolen from nearby gardens, sang to her from the corridor outside the ward. Five months after they moved back in together, Patrick shook Shane so hard to stop him crying that he cracked three of the baby's ribs.
Norma had a friend in Nottingham, Rosa, who had two kids of her own, but was otherwise living alone. It took Norma no time at all to pack her belongings and the baby onto the bus and travel south. They shared expenses, shared the chores, complained about the social—miserable, conniving bastards, how're we supposed to live on this?—sang in the pub on a Friday night, played bingo, watched TV. This was it, Norma decided: men were shit.
She met Peter at Rosa's sister's wedding; after the reception they went back to the house together, Norma and Peter, Rosa and some bloke none of them had set eyes on before or since. Rosa found a bottle of Drambuie and they drank it from chipped mugs; the man nobody knew passed round a few splifs. When they paired off, Norma went with Peter. What harm was there in that? A quick shag between friends.
The harm was she fell in love.
Small and gentle was Peter, with delicate fingers that could read her body as if it were Braille, soft dark eyes and lashes, long and curving like a girl's. Whenever Norma rolled on top of him in the night, she was frightened she might crush the breath from out of him.
He played with Shane and rocked him on his knee, even though Shane was slow to laugh and quick to cry. Norma read the look in his eye. Sheena was born when Shane was two, and Nicky no more than eleven months later.
It was you drove your father away.
Nicky screamed whenever Peter touched him, kicked out if ever he picked him up. It got so that he would start to cry whenever Peter walked into the room. The only one who could quieten Nicky was Norma herself; his eyes would follow her from place to place, as soon as he could crawl he would only crawl to her, the only way she could get him to sleep was to take him into her bed.
Peter spent nights on a borrowed mattress laid on the floor, nights on the couch, nights away from home. "I can't take this," he told Norma. "I can't take this any more."
"It's all right, love," Norma said. "Nicky'll come round, you see. You're his dad, after all."
But Peter stopped coming round himself before the boy had the chance. When Norma arrived back from the shops one afternoon, all of his things had been cleared out of the cupboards, the suit he had worn for best, so strangely like the one her own father wore in one of those old photographs, no longer hung in its place inside the wardrobe.
There was no note. Twice a year, Christmas and birthday, he would send a card to Sheena, always with a different postmark, never with a return address.
Norma told everyone she didn't care: hadn't she and Rosa always said, men were shits. But when Shane suddenly went off the rails a few years later, she was forced to admit she couldn't cope, not with them all, and Shane went off for the first of his two spells in care. Just to give your mum a break, love, the social worker had explained. He's a good lad, she'd said to Norma, I'm sure he understands. If he did or not, Shane never said. Especially after being released back home the second time, Shane never said much at all.
"You not going into work this morning," Shane asked, "or what?"
Norma was sitting at the kitchen table, smoke drifting from her cigarette. "Yes," she said. "Yeh, soon."
Shane shrugged. "Suit yourself. I'm off out, right?"
Norma nodded: one more cup of tea, one more cigarette, one more something, she'd pick herself up and get on her way.
Excerpted from Easy Meat by John Harvey. Copyright © 1996 John Harvey. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.