FICTION: Death and the Teenage Stripper by Sian Hughes

Iola Reynolds steps into the bay of her bedroom window from where the funeral goers will see her strip. Undeterred by the gauze-like layer of dust from the crematorium smokestack already clinging to the windowpanes, she presses ahead with the striptease, angling her body towards a Mercedes Benz hearse that crawls cockroach-like towards her window. Unhooking one eyelet after another, she is about to show herself to the mourners, show she’s alive, when a sound from the landing stops her dead.

‘There’s stuff to come in from the line’, yells her mother.

Iola freezes. The idea of being caught, mid-strip, by her mother, makes her want to scrape her skin off, amputate her tits, hand them over on a platter, like John the Baptist’s head.

‘Yeah, okay. Be there in a minute,’ she says.

The desire to strip in front of the funeral corteges had first taken hold of Iola a week or so after her gran, Violet, had moved in with them. In the beginning, it was exciting to have her living with them; she’d even helped her mother carry a Z-bed and a two-bar heater into the dining room. But then, when gran’s coughing fits escalated, her mother blamed the dust from a recent expansion that had doubled the crematorium’s capacity; a kind of panic had taken root in her stomach. Around the same time, her secret boyfriend Barry, who was sixteen and a trainee incinerator, had told her this story about a dead girl who got lost up a mountain.

‘Fifteen she was. This mountain rescuer, jammy bastard, had to lie down next to her, bollock naked, warm her up,’ he’d said. ‘We fire her up right, when fuck me, she bounces up like, in the fuckin updraft! Shoulda seen it. Nearly shat myself!’

The next day, Iola had found herself standing in her window, stripping. It happened as she was undressing, in a way it was accidental; the hearse driver hadn’t even seen her; but it left her feeling oddly triumphant, as if she was ahead in some game she hadn’t been aware she was playing.

When she finally reaches the garden, her mother is standing next to the rotary line. The blue of her sweater makes her look like sky that’s been tethered. A kind of grainy sediment, Barry called it bone sherbet, has fallen on the hydrangea bushes, the swing seat, the orange space hopper languishing by the shed.

‘Get the old sheets first’, says her mother.

On the line are rows of sheets, old people’s clothes. Nighties. Thermals. Long Johns. The best sheets hang on the outside, whilst the older ones; gaunt, and shiny, hang on the inside, like bats.  Iola unpegs the sheets, dropping them into the basket. As she does so, she has the impression of moving through layers of skin and time towards some place she can’t imagine.

‘I don’t want them getting dirty again’, says her mother. ‘Hurry up!’

They carry the laundry basket towards the hovering darkness of the back door. Her mother pops her head into the dining room.

‘I’m off to get your prescription mum,’ she says. ‘Won’t be long.’

‘Make her a cuppa while I’m out,’ she says to Iola. ‘And keep an eye on her.’

In the kitchen, whilst boiling water for her gran’s tea, Iola’s thoughts return to Barry, whose tendency to poke fun at the funeral goers, somehow comforted her, made her feel safe. Once she was done, she would go and see him; there was time. She makes her way to the dining room, holding the tea tray.

‘You shouldn’t be in here,’ says her grandmother. ‘Girl your age should be out playing.’

Iola recalls how she loved playing in the front garden as a kid. The steps were good for flying practice. When, at the age of five, her mother told her to go indoors; her behavior was becoming more and more disrespectful to the passing corteges, it was gran who had come to her rescue. ‘You’ve got it wrong Fay’, she’d said. ‘It’ll cheer them up. And it won’t harm the child either.’

‘I’m going out in a minute gran,’ says Iola. ‘I brought you tea.’

Iola places the tea tray on a coffee table wedged between the headboard and an armchair. To make room, she moves a photograph of her gran, astride a bike, wearing trousers. According to Auntie Beattie, not her real auntie but a woman who used to live by her gran and wore damson lipstick all the way around her mouth, gran was the first woman in the village to wear trousers, bootleg numbers that she made from parachute panels. Gran lifts herself into a sitting position.

‘Three gear Ladies Royal Sunbeam’, she says, pointing to the photo. ‘Used to ride it to the pier after work.’

She begins to cough again. A cough that is so sudden, so ferocious, that Iola finds it hard to believe it is the product of some benign internal reflex. It rages like a fire through her gran’s body, leaving her curled-up, small, on the pillow.

‘What are you waiting for? Go have some fun!’ she says.

Barry is holding the hoe he uses to pick out bone fragments when she gets to the crematorium.

They make their way to a bluebell copse outside the cemetery gates.

‘Got summit to tell ewe”, he says, as soon as they’re settled. ‘Should’a seen the one we burned this morning. Tits exploded mun’.

‘Tits don’t explode,’ she says. ‘Idiot.’

‘Pop, pop, pop, like bastard bubble wrap,’ he says.

He pulls a 7 Up from the inside pocket of his jacket, takes a swig.

‘Got something to tell you too,’ she says.

She desperately wants to tell him about the striptease. She desperately wants him to be as impressed by the striptease as he is by bouncing corpses, exploding tits, and stupid bone sherbet. She starts to tell him about the corteges, when an odd cracking sound startles her.

‘What the hell was that?’ she says.

Barry emits a leisurely burp before looking in the direction of the disturbance.

‘Can’t see nuthin’, he says. ‘P’raps it’s dead fuckers.’

A massive shape has come to a standstill on the boundary with a field Barratts bought for new houses. Within seconds, a second, tan-black shape, emerges from behind an adjacent tree. An Alsatian is standing on the edge of the copse beyond the bluebells, next to an Akita.

‘Ha. I seen them round,’ says Barry. ‘Proper bastards. Know the bony bits that get left in the sherbet? They munch em up like doggie biscuits! Mutates their DNA!’

The Alsatian brings its paw down, walks towards them. Terrified, Iola runs in the direction of the cemetery, with both dogs loping towards her through the bluebells. When she has reached the cemetery entrance gates, she dives into the back of a sprawling hawthorn hedge. Seconds later, Barry joins her.

‘If they bite we’re fucked,’ he says.

The dogs close in on them, burying their snouts in the foliage. The hedge is overgrown with brambles, nettles, which combine with a sharp, rootsy stink that oozes up from the ground. Iola turns to look at Barry, whose tongue is wedged into a gap between his front teeth, like ham. His mouth is dry in patches: no wider than his nose. Outside the hedge, the dogs mop up the sugary blood of a few nearly ripe blackberries.

‘Al, Elvis, c’mon now boys”, she hears a voice say. ‘Come away from there!’ Reluctantly, the dogs pull themselves out of the hedge, barking furiously. Barry leaps out seconds later. Iola waits for the throbs in her body to subside. Through the foliage, she watches Dave the cemetery warden heading to the small folly that is his house, dogs in tow. When she emerges, Barry, who has gone to stand against a headstone, is smirking at her.

‘What the cowing fuck are you laughing at?” she says. ‘You were as scared as I was. Pussy.’

She saunters away from him towards the exit.

‘I’ll get you dock leaves”, he offers, catching up.

A nettle rash is stealing its way across Iola’s body, colonizing her arms and legs, mapping out the extent of her cowardliness, her fear.

‘OK but you got a minute max’, she says.

They sit on a memorial bench in the Babies Garden of Remembrance, behind the car park. Barry shuffles through the dock leaves he retrieved from alongside the hawthorn hedge.

‘I’m a dickhead,’ he says. ‘Sorry.’

She watches him pick at a patch of sore skin at the root of his fingernail.

‘Mami says they can turn in the heat, Alsatians,’ she says. ‘My auntie Beryl’s dog did. Had to keep her lip in the chest freezer til the ambulance came.’

‘Shouldna been snoggin him, dirty cow!’ says Barry, laughing.

‘You’re the dirty cow,’ laughs Iola.

A green light, reflected upwards from the angled glass surfaces of the grave chippings under the bench, bathes their bodies in a translucent otherworldly glow. Barry pushes one of the leaf blades through the vintage fishnets Iola got from Winkie’s Emporium. Her knee goes spongy where he touches it. Within seconds, his hand has reached the gusset of her new hi-leg knickers; she feels his fingers, hooking around the side elastic. Something sweet, analgesic, moves through Iola’s body, first in small ghostly waves, then with greater frequency.  She guides his other hand towards the narrow gully between her skin and the under-wiring of her bra. When he reaches her nipple – she has a vision of him sucking on it, extracting darkness – it occurs to her that what she is feeling is simply a larger version of the energy she feels during the striptease.

‘I didn’t finish telling you about the striptease,’ she says, later, when he is pulling his jacket on. ‘I do this thing where I take my clothes off in front of the mourners, from my window.’

‘Christ on a fucking bike!’ says Barry. ‘Why?’

‘Dunno,’ she says. ‘It’s hard to explain. It’s like sticking two fingers up at death. Makes you feel alive, like you’re showing them how alive you are.’

‘You’re a freak but I like you,’ he says.

The drone of another funeral cortege surfaces from beyond the cypress trees.

‘Shit!’ says Barry. ‘Frying time.’

’Wait! Tell them your watch was slow! I dare you to stand on the bench and just wave at them. Go on!’

’No can do, nutter’ he says, kissing her. ‘Gotto go!’

Back at home, a combination of guilt, restlessness, and disquiet, spurs Iola into making another cup of tea for her gran, even though she won’t have finished the first one. When she gets to the dining room, gran is asleep in a chink of light from between the curtains. Iola kisses her on the forehead; next to the mole she played games with as a kid.

‘Wake up gran’ she says. ‘I have more tea.’

But gran’s skin is too soft and too hard. Something brown, gassy; a kind of irretrievable heat, fills the room. Seconds pass, then minutes. Nothing happens except for a thudding sound in the fireplace behind the two-bar heater, where dead crows were always landing. When her grandmother still doesn’t move, Iola remembers the story Barry told her, about the girl on the mountain, and the rescuer. To rescue someone you had to take your clothes off, lie down next to them, share your heat. Iola strips down to her underwear, pressing herself into her grandmother, until there are no gaps. In the distance, she hears the shuffle of keys, something being dropped, a series of primitive clicking noises as the deadbolt opens.  She hears it as though it is happening somewhere else.  Her mother walks into the dining room.

‘Thought I heard something?’ she says. ‘A banging noise?’

Her eyes flit across Iola, and her grandmother, as though they’re sifting through darkness.

‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ she says. ‘What are you doing?’

Iola can’t be sure to whom, or what, her mother is speaking.

‘I think something happened to gran,’ she says, finally.

The last cortege of the day is already approaching the wings of the Close by the time Iola reaches her bedroom. Iola knows that soon, very soon, she will go downstairs, into the future. But for now, she wants to stay inside the pale warm bay of her bedroom window. Angling her body towards the dual carriageway, she watches as a Volvo hearse turns into the cul-de-sac.

‘I don’t know what to do Iola”, says her mother, banging on the door. ‘I’ve called the doctor.’

‘I’ll be there in a minute mum,’ she says. “I promise.’

A foam heart of aster, myrtle, and wax flowers, spelling out the word GRAN, presses down on Iola’s sternum. She remembers Barry saying how everybody “burns different”, how, with some people, flames shoot out of their orifices, like they’re mad as hell, how others just burn quietly. For the last time ever, tears streaming down her face, she steps closer to the dusty windowpane, into a slant of lilac afternoon light, before slowly, defiantly, unhooking her bra.

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Sian Hughes

sianhughes
Sian Hughes is a creative practitioner who facilitates creative writing workshops. Her stories have been dramatised for TV and radio, and have appeared in online magazines. A recipient of a ‘Literature Wales’ Writers Bursary, she is currently working on an MA in Creative Writing and Scriptwriting. When not writing, she spends her time picking up after three children, a husband, and a menagerie of other animals.

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