Pulp.net - Doing It

The Online Home of New Fiction

November 2008

Walter Smith
A Sunday afternoon. As
I recall, I was watching television. Joseph, my brother, rushed up to me and whispered, in a loud voice that only he can
do, ‘James, James! I think mum and dad are doing it!’

I was shocked. Disgusted. ‘Doing it?’ I said.

‘Yes!’ he said. ‘Yes — doing it!’

I was ten years old. I shouldn’t have been letting these ideas into my head. He was even younger. Surely I had a responsibility to shelter him from such crude preoccupations?

‘Show me,’ I said.

We crept to the foot of the stairs, then up to the landing. I was on my hands and knees as I peered round the corner into my parents’ bedroom. My fingers gripped the strands of the carpet. The first thing I saw was the painting. On the back wall of their bedroom, above the headboard, my parents had hung a large framed print from a gallery in Oslo. It showed a woman sitting with an open book in her lap, elbow resting on the railing. She was staring out over a city on a cloudy day. I could see the city between the curves of the balustrade. The paint was so thick that you felt it was keeping the balcony together.

The woman was beautiful. It was the rawness of her lips that did it for me, and the moody way she stared out over the cold city. A slice of daylight from the almost-drawn curtains bisected the painting.

Underneath, on the bed, the duvet was a mangled lump in the middle. There was no movement. Was it possible that my parents had ‘done it’ so passionately that they were dead? I decided it was more likely they were asleep. I tiptoed back downstairs. My own parents, doing it. Having sex. It was too embarrassing to think about. I didn’t even know what sex was. Something to do with groping and smirking, if ‘Up Pompeii’ was anything to go by.

I called Joe from the bottom of the stairs, in a whisper. He waved me away. I went up and pulled him down the stairs.

‘What do you think you’re doing?’ I said.

‘Mum and dad are doing it!’

‘Don’t be silly, they’re not doing anything.’

‘I saw them move!’ he said, waving his arms up and down.


‘Just before I came to get you.’

‘Well they’re not moving now.’

Joe scuttled back up like a lizard. I followed, and grabbed him. ‘Leave them alone,’ I said. ‘It’s disgusting.’

He gave me a pitying look and stuck his tongue out, then shook his arm free. Joe was always more honest than me. The truth is, I wanted to know what they were doing, but I wasn’t going to admit it, either to him or to myself. But I was not comfortable. It was like watching someone on the lavatory.

Again I saw the dark painting on the wall, cut diagonally by the white sunlight; a line across the woman’s neck as she looked out. Was it resentment on her face? She stared at a specific place in the city below. What was the book in her hand? A diary? There were plant pots on the balcony, but they contained only soil. I couldn’t understand that. Who would fill a plant pot with just dirt?

And underneath the painting, the bed. The duvet. Immobile.

I can see Joe now, giving me the sideways look of a sparrow, and breathing fast. His face was always frantic; he could never disguise what he felt. Whenever we played Cluedo he gave his identity away through sheer excitement. The first time he kissed a girl on the lips, outside Woolworths, he came home jumping up and down for joy. At mum’s funeral he collapsed, literally, under the weight of his grief.

Joe got married at twenty-two, to Valerie. They had children: Peter and Therese. After the divorce she took them off to France, her country of birth. Of course, they hated it at first; now they are teenagers with friends and lives of their own, they hate to come back. Last time I saw them was for Joe’s fortieth birthday. He hired a reception room in the local hotel, and provided a buffet at some expense. A chaotic band played hits from the seventies. When they ran out of songs, they started again from the beginning, even re-using the same banter. Joe enjoyed it. He dances the same way drunk as he does sober. Me, I can’t dance unless I’m drunk; and then very rarely. I made the effort for him though. I danced with Therese, his daughter. Afterwards she chatted away with her brother. They were quite rude about me. They thought I couldn’t understand French. Therese was embarrassed that I, the ‘old man’ with no girlfriend, had danced with her.

• • •

‘He’s on top of her!’ whispered Joe right in my ear. Spittle peppered the side of my face. ‘He’s on top of her!’

I stared. I couldn’t see what he could see. There was no flesh, no movement. Just a tangled duvet. Nor could I hear anything. What was I expecting to see, anyway? My exposure to the facts of life had been patchy: raw information from Carry On films augmented by school chatter. What did this strange sexual ritual consist of? Sid James and Frankie Howard leering and fondling? Barbara Windsor wriggling? Charles Hawtrey ‘d1 well, I wasn’t sure what he did. But one thing I did know: there ought to be movement involved.

I looked at Joe’s face. His eager eyes flashed white in the subdued light of the landing. ‘Joe,’ I said. ‘Perhaps they died doing it.’

He crept closer to the bedroom and stared hard at the bed, as if trying to make it levitate. He looked back at me. ‘They must be asleep,’ he whispered.

‘But they’re not breathing,’ I said, terrified at the words coming out of my mouth, but it was true: there really was no movement.

• • •

Nowadays Joe has a new girlfriend, a cheery Hawaiian lady called Angela. Like Joe, she wears her emotions about her. Happiness dangles from her, like her huge earrings.

Last year the three of us went skiing. We shared a chalet which contained one double and one single bed, all in the same room. I felt like a child, having to sleep in there with my brother and her girlfriend. When we were young Joe and I used to tell each other stories across the landing, from our respective beds. His stories would usually implode under the pressure of their wild plot lines, and I would fall asleep. Mine, on the other hand, would be so constricted by their own logic that he would get bored and fall asleep too.

Joe is something of an expert skier, having been many times before. Angela and I, however, were complete beginners, so we took lessons together, in a group of mostly younger people. I was of course hopeless, having a sense of balance as poor as my athleticism. Lessons! In school sports I was always grateful for a boy called Kelvin because he was the only one worse than me. He was always picked last for soccer teams, and the taunts from jeering spectators were directed towards him. If he hadn’t been there, it would have been me.

Well, in the skiing class, I was Kelvin. I couldn’t stand up. When I fell over, I slid further down the hill. After I’d fallen over for the umpteenth time I screamed, ‘I can’t bloody believe this! Have you all got magic skis?’ Everyone looked at me and laughed. I must have looked like a ranting child.

Angela shuffled over to me and gave me her hand. As she helped me up she collapsed too. The group laughed again. Angela was flat on her back, her skis pointing in different directions. She was laughing so much she couldn’t get up. I tried laughing too but I was kidding myself. I really didn’t want to.

That evening the three of us sat in our room drinking red wine, while Angela twanged away on the guitar she had insisted on bringing. A fog of physical exhaustion settled around me. I looked at Angela as she cuddled up to Joe. She had long black hair and a smooth, perfect face with something powerful in it, something that gave me a kick, like an extra spoonful of coffee. When they fell asleep I switched the light off.

The chalet was cold, with tiled floors that were usually wet from snow which had detached itself from the skis and boots propped in the hallway. We were three floors above the horrendously noisy bar. One night there was a fight. In the morning I woke to the racket of the other residents clunking down the stairs in their ski boots, and shouting. Not only was I out of my depth skiing, I was out of my depth socially too. Age is not looking favourably upon me. I teach art students and I don’t understand them. Worse, I don’t think they understand me either.

On the second day, after the lesson, Angela and I had a drink in the bar above the ski hire shop. It was full of our fellow learners and I didn’t want to mix with them, so we stood out on the balcony. Angela, being an open and honest lady, started to delve into my life. Why hadn’t I ‘got a woman’ yet? She works with children and has the habit of treating you like an adult but looking at you as if you are a child, head to one side slightly, as if to say ‘Are you sure you are all right?’ She asks questions and tempts the answers from you. I responded that I was just one of those people to whom women aren’t attracted.

‘You play your cards close to your chest,’ she said.

‘I know.’

‘Perhaps you should loosen up a little.’

‘I’ll try.’

We were overlooking the bottom of the ski run. Dishevelled beginners were stumbling around, trying to form a line in response to some command from the teacher. Angela turned to watch them. At that moment she looked like the woman in the painting... but now I think back on it, she looked nothing like her. She was smiling. Her hair was up. The back of her neck was exposed. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was possessed in some way.

I leaned over and kissed her there, on the neck.

She turned her head and then her body round. I backed off, expecting her to slap me. Part of me wanted her to kiss me in return ‘d1 what on earth was I thinking? She looked at me, open mouthed, trying to comprehend something. And then she walked off. Should I chase her? Try to explain?

I ordered a Scotch from the bar.

I’ve never been jealous of my brother, but perhaps that time I wanted something he had. It was a mistake for me to go on holiday with them. Sometimes I am a fool. Joe can be, too. But at least he’s a fool with friends. One could say Joe’s been lucky in love, whereas I’ve been less so. That is an understatement. As I get older, and my nose turns Ribena coloured, and my hair migrates to places it has no business being, my chances get fewer and my hopes get lower.

• • •

Joe and I stared at that mangled duvet on the bed. The woman in the painting stared away from us both, into the distance. The two of us knelt there on the landing for some time.

Off to our left I heard a clunk, then a sigh. We turned our heads. The bathroom door was shut. Monolithic, it faced us. From behind it came a female grunt and a male groan. It was my parents. Doing it.

© Walter Smith