Just Say It
The first time he asked the question it was to ActionMan. Will you marry me? he said as he sat with his blonde curls in miniature rollers, long straight legs stretched out beneath a black mini-skirt, size 4 feet soaking in soap water in preparation for the weekly pedicure; slender hands resting calmly on the arm rests, permanently manicured finger nails. ActionMan stood before him, drenched from his recent diving trip wearing that sexy short wetsuit in the middle of the salon. With his harpoon. Back then, ActionMan had flung goggles, snorkel and weapon aside, thrown himself at Barbie’s foot bath, grabbed her delicate tanned plastic hand in his larger but equally tanned plastic hand, kissed it over and over and pledged his eternal love. From the bottom of his hollow plastic chest. Barbie had squirmed with pleasure.
Much later, when he had asked the question as Philbert and not Barbie, Ken, seated in front of his bejewelled mirror in the dressing room, had looked at Philbert standing there behind him. Very briefly. And then gone back to applying his sticky make-up from the paint-size buckets. ‘Some timing’, he’d said. No goggle, snorkel and harpoon flinging had taken place. What Ken had meant was that he’d not brought the purple and gold lamé dress on time as per request. But Barbie thought she’d just picked the wrong moment to ask.
Barbie had always suspected that ActionMan’s devotion would be short-lived. Soon after accepting the proposal he made out with little sister Skipper in the backseat of Barbie’s own pink Cadillac. Skipper didn’t have a car but ActionMan had a jeep, so why couldn’t he have kissed Skipper in that? Barbie had asked. ActionMan had explained that he’d lost the keys on his diving trip in the bath tub. Unfortunately, that was his only action activity because after noticing he was permanently dressed in the wetsuit, Barbie’s mum had donated the rest of the wardrobe to the neighbour son’s Superman.
Barbie’s wardrobe on the other hand was well-stocked. And it was the pearly white bridal gown in particular that she longed to bedeck herself in. My, was it magnificent! The tulle skirt, the organza drapery, the lace body, the translucent veil. The shiny satin. It was simply stunning. Barbie would dress up every Saturday afternoon, parade around the beauty salon, where Skipper and Cindy would ah and ooh and she would be in love with her own mirror image.
After ActionMan admitted his betrayal, Barbie threw Skipper in the rubbish bin and harpooned ActionMan in the chest. Philbert had to prick a hole with the nail scissors first to get the harpoon through ActionMan’s moulded muscles, but once inside it was impossible to get out. The spearhead butterflied and the harpoon was sticking out of ActionMan’s chest. When Philbert’s mum discovered her brand new Sansome lipstick no 8 Hot Fire had been utilised in the special effects department of her son’s bedroom, on the speared but grinning plastic doll, ActionMan went the way of the rubbish bin where he joined Skipper in filthy bliss. Philbert went the way of the school counsellor. Well, she was the nursery nurse.
The second time Barbie asked Ken, Ken was a Kerry and it was an attempt at harmonising with his conventional environment that drove Philbert to commit the sin against his true identity and ask a girl. Well, she was a woman, in fact the school nurse tending his strained ankle after a cruel tackle by the school rugby team captain’s wing man, Nelson Barley. He was big and he was butch and Barbie was a bit too close for comfort so he got a booted whip over the foot. 'Ah, that boy’s smell' was the last coherent thought Barbie had before fainting with pain and being trundled off in the caretaker’s wheel barrow to the nurse’s room. While hallucinating from the heavy drugs Nurse Bellows had injected in him (a regular blood thinner to prevent swelling) Barbie thought Nelson was cradling his face in his powerful arms and declared his eternal love (Nurse Bellows was forcing fluid down his throat). Feeling thus overwhelmed with relief at having his precious feelings of undying love returned he did the only sensible thing a man could do and said Will you marry me? The nurse snorted humorously and squeezed his cheek. 'Yeah sure darling when you’re 20 years older and my old man has bit the grass.' The last bit confused Philbert in his flimsy grasp of reality and sent him into a spinning wheel of purple, blue and magenta blades of grass whirling round his dizzy head which went so fast he vomited all over his rugby shirt. The event did have the effect of spreading the rumour he was in love with the school nurse which left more than a few male teachers relieved but didn’t fool any male students who’d seen him naked (and erect) in the changing rooms.
Girls suspected nothing. Not even in high school when he dated them all because they always said yes. Who wouldn’t? He was funny (joking about the boys’ inane dress sense), considerate (would never criticise their choice of clothes when out shopping for a party, only make clever and always very accurate suggestions for better choices), and infinitely understanding about their hair issues (too short, too long, the wrong colour, the wrong style, etc.). He only asked because he was lonely and it didn’t look good to ask any of the boys. He’d tried asking them over to play, go for ice cream, play hockey in the park, but no matter how he phrased it, his sentences always sounded like he was asking them out on a date. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to sit in the sunshine for a bit?’ ‘How do you feel about a two-man match of footie?’ It wasn’t that he didn’t try, he was just somehow unable. To speak properly, to walk properly, to think properly. ‘You’re different is all’ said his Nan. ‘Don’t listen to your mum, she don’t know nothing.’ So he stopped listening to his mum but when he started listening to other people, they were saying pretty much the same. That was why he stopped listening altogether.
Only as an adult did he start to listen again. It suddenly happened, although it was probably quite gradual but it felt sudden, that someone said something slightly unusual and he enquired and discovered more people saying similar things until one day he realised he was now surrounding himself by people who said the sorts of things he had always thought. This was when he found himself working as a costume assistant at Spandexa’s Supernight SingerWringer Club in Glasgow’s cobbled Hoar Row, or Gay Alley, depending on who you were referring to the place. Possibly so named because of the atmosphere, which was quite festive, but Philbert couldn’t be sure. It had been a slow gravitation towards this particular magnetic pole over a number of years, from the distant northern hillside town of his childhood; an almost imperceptible, and certainly unaware, progression from miniature Barbie dresses to full grown human sized sequin heaven. It was Paradise!
He dated all the boys because they always said yes. No mothers or nurses or teachers (well there was a teacher from his old high school but Philbert ignored his imploring glances), and sadly, no giggly girls either, but at least no one to speak the unspeakable anymore: you’re not right, it’s not how boys are, should be, behave and so on. Whatever it was he did wrong. So although he felt more right he still did things wrong. He somehow picked the wrong dresses, delivered them to the wrong actors (if you could call them that), used the wrong colour thread when mending a ripped hem.
And with Ken he got the timing wrong. But he was besotted and unable to combine two thoughts into coherent thinking whenever Ken was about. Of course Ken didn’t answer to that name, it was Candice, but nevertheless, Candice had no time for Barbie.
Then one day there was a girl with silky brown hair and Barbie latched onto her like glue to silver glitter and she to him like a marble to a hole in a slanting street. She was a city girl and knew Glasgow like her own nether regions, explored inside out. Not all exploring had she done on her own, but she’d always requested to be fully informed of any new discoveries, and so she had been. By rich company directors and factory workers (who’d saved up six months of wages for a special occasion) alike. It had led to her theory that ‘life is a series of accidental convolutions.’ Nothing was really created, she used to say to Barbie in his secret get-up behind the three rails of show gear at the end of a night’s work when they’d share the leftover booze dumped in the corner by the ‘stars’ because they were gifts from the wrong admirers, and Barbie would be in his bridal wear. It was a different combination every time though, depending on what was available and unused. And it wasn’t strictly speaking bridal wear, just variations of white, cream, beige, pearly, satiny, the only criteria that they filled Philbert’s heart with a warm golden glow. Or it was the half bottle of single malt, he couldn’t be certain. ‘You never really know what’s around the next twist or turn, full of surprises is life, yeah.’ When Cindy was on a roll there was no stopping her but mostly she ended up lamenting her lot in life while mascara ran black streaks down her cheeks and onto her barmaid uniform which didn’t matter much as it was black. Barbie always had to be careful not to throw his arms around her at this stage because he was wearing white. He just ended up comforting her with soothing liquids out of the little paper cups the stars used for mouthwash. The unused ones of course.
When sober Cindy would come home to the little two-bed she was sharing with Philbert they would cook spag bol and play backwards-spelling Scrabble. That was about once a month. Then they would talk about futures, something Barbie had always dreamed of but in predictable monochrome and she in ice cream flavoured pastels. One as unlikely as the other. Once they’d each mentioned a parent, Barbie’s pink-mouthed grey-haired mother and Cindy’s foul-smelling belt-wielding father. She couldn’t fathom what he was doing away from his family when they’d been so good to him. ‘Good is not quite the correct term. They might be nice people but convention rules. Convention, prevention, intention all seemingly good but not particularly considerate of individuality.’
‘My dad had nothing against individuality, so little in fact he’d beat it into me.’ You’re not like the rest of us, he’d shout turning purple from the strain of bending over her lying flat on the floor. You slag, you whore, you... ‘Oh you know it was kind of all the same. So yeah, I’m individual and I have a very special place men love and pay lots for, it’s my gift to them. Besides, my dad is dead.’
Her future was a pink fluffy tail and the ears to match at a pink mansion in a far-off place she’d read about where the trees were lime green, the pool water turquoise and the towels baby blue. And everyone lived in bliss. Instead of burgundy curtains, brown floor paint and murky yellow wallpaper, where Bliss was the name of a lubricant.
‘You know how you make dreams come true?’ said Cindy one day.
‘You mean ‘come true’ true’? Barbie asked.
‘You just say it. Say what you want, and pop it happens. Just say it.’
Barbie closed her eyes and said it. ‘I am Barbie, and I am married to Ken. And we are the happiest couple on earth.’
But then came a time when
I used to love to hear the monsoon rains
Outside the door of the cabin
while inside we called people on Skype
all over the world, to ask them
how their water networks grew;
You were bored, frustrated, angry
But I was happy there. So few
things, and across the road the beach
and the warm sea, and the rest of the
world miles and miles away, us
just hanging on, in there with a thread
of wifi, careering round the island
on miniature scooters, sliding down water
falls on rocks smooth as the beginning
of time in the mountains, and really nothing
could be better but you did not love it.
Now I work all night for a cheap bottle of wine.
The teacher has been working on emotions again. Last week we had love.
‘For your next assignment do anger,’ she said.
‘like?’ said monosyllable Maloney. I could kill him the way he can say a single word and the teacher knows it’s an important question.
‘Good question Maloney,’ said the teacher, ‘Write in any literary form about something that makes you angry.’
‘No bother,’ said tough nut Tom, well out of earshot of the teacher, ‘I’ll write about you, ya feck.’
I headed home and for once I was going to do my homework. Wouldn’t you? Write about what makes you angry; piece of cake, thank you very much. All the way home and on into the evening I thought about what makes me angry. I gave Maloney permission to tell me what he thought made me angry. I promised I wouldn’t hit him no matter what he said.
‘Me,’ he said with that one word again.
‘Yes, I know that, but what about you?’ I asked.
‘Everythin’,’ was Maloney’s useless contribution, getting me nowhere.
The mother was putting on her coat when I arrived in.
‘What makes me angry?’ I asked.
‘You’re just a little bollix,’ she said.
‘Fair enough,’ I said, ‘but it’s homework, so I’ll need more.’
‘Well I’m getting my nails done and I’m late.’ She said.
I waited until my father came back from the bookies and I asked him.
‘Have people been saying stuff about our family?’ he asked.
I explained to him about the homework. Problem with having a mental defective for an auld fella is you can explain to him, but you can’t understand for him.
‘So, what makes me angry?’ I repeat.
‘You’re nature’ he said.
‘What about my nature?’ I asked.
‘You don’t have any.’
Waster. First time I ask him for help with my homework, and that’s as good as it gets. I started to think about places that piss me off.
‘Where would I get angry?’ I asked Mrs Malone next door as she cleaned her windows.
‘The cop shop,’ she said, squeezing her squeegee. All the neighbours know about my relations with the police, but they don’t know how they wind me up and make me say the wrong thing so they can thump me.
I couldn’t really write about pulling the notice board off the wall in the police station, so I tried to think of other places, but apart from the cop shop I couldn’t come up with anything. My sister came in.
‘Why do you think I get angry?’ I asked. She ignored me and I remembered that she’s not speaking to me since I told her she should consider a new hair style.
The more I tried the harder it got. You know how it is when you are bursting for a slash, maybe after stashing a flagon of cider inside you? You go into the gents toilets and there’s a geezer standing either side of you at the bowls. Your bladder is so close to exploding, that you are thinking of calling in the bomb disposal squad to render the device safe. But you just know, though the bladder may burst, there is no way you can go while those two miserables manipulate their genitals on either side of you.
‘Excuse me, I need my space to pee,’ is hardly something you could chance saying at such an unguarded moment, when your boxers are half way to your knees. Anyways, that’s what it was like trying to produce anger to order.
I mean, only that day the little tosser from Mother Akenhead Mansions was staring at me. Bloody freaks me out that does. In fairness, I think he was only trying to count the number of body piercings I have visible to the public, because his lips and his finger was moving. No matter; I’m freaked out, so I bend down and nut the little tool right between the eyes. That stopped the lips moving, like, instant.
‘I didn’t say nothing’ he said.
‘I know, that’s the problem,’ I said. ‘Just say it next time’
I really was trying to do the homework, and of course you know what happened. I finally realised there is nothing makes me angry. I know I get ratty about stuff, but there is no anger about anything.
So tomorrow I’ll tell that thick teacher what she can do with her ‘show me emotion, tra la la la, la….’ If she doesn’t like it, I’m telling you, I’ll clock the bleddin’ waster, and I’m out of that stupid kip of a school. Forever.