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I posted Chapter 1 way back on 13 January. Subsequent chapters have appeared each Friday, and will continue to be posted until all 50 have appeared here. You can find those already posted via the archive; just search for the chapter you want to read.
Missed the start? Find it here: http://stuartaken.blogspot.com/2012/01/read-free-my-novel-here.html
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Monday 3rd May
Leigh had no jobs, as it was a bank holiday, and was in the studio with Netta. Mervyn had come in to complete a large order for Leigh to deliver the next day when he went to Carlisle. I was finishing the order as he printed it, even though it meant working closely with Mervyn.
‘Show us yours an’ I’ll show you mine.’
‘I’ve seen more of it than I care to, Mervyn and I’m not impressed. Mine, on the other hand, will remain hidden.’ But an audacious idea began to form from his constant demands to see me naked. I was desperate to impress Leigh, and one way I might do it was by learning to print his photographs to a high standard.
Mervyn was foul as a man but brilliant in the darkroom. If I could learn to do what he did, Leigh would value me very highly. At the back of my mind rose the thought that I might also replace Mervyn and get him out of Longhouse for good. I shuddered at the thought of what I was about to propose but steeled myself by imagining Leigh’s delight when I succeeded. Mum had said that love meant doing what the loved one wants, not what you want for yourself. It was a sacrifice I would make for Leigh.
I took a deep breath. ‘I’ll make a deal with you, Mervyn.’
He was all attention.
‘I’d never let you see me in the flesh but, in exchange for a favour, I might let you have a picture of me, in my bra and pants.’ I was trimming the excess white borders from prints that had come off the glazer.
Mervyn had just finished in the darkroom, having started early so he could go back home for some unspecified purpose. He was tidying up, ready to leave. ‘Seen all on you any road. Just wanna see it a bit closer, that’s all.’
‘You most certainly have not!’
‘Have! Seen your twat and your arse and your little tits. Bigger now. Seen every little bit on you.’
‘Don’t be disgusting. No one has.’
‘Cept your pervert father every time ‘e stuck it up your spastic sister. Any road, I ‘ave. Seen you swimmin’ in that little lake.’
I very nearly chopped in two the print I was trimming. It had never occurred to me that anyone could have watched me swimming. Blood flushed my whole body and I felt unclean at the thought of his eyes on me. I wanted to be free of him, wanted to shower myself clean of his prying eyes on me in that private place. But I recalled Mum’s words and my ambition for Leigh, bit my lip, swallowed and continued to persuade him.
‘If you do as I ask, you can have a picture. That must be better than a snatched glimpse from the trees up there with me in the water.’
‘What you want, then?’
Netta used her body to get round Leigh and I wondered if I could do the same with Mervyn. I would have to be very careful not to make him think I was inviting his touch. I shifted my stance and put my weight on one foot, throwing my hip out and resting my hand there as I had seen Netta pose. ‘I want to learn to print. Not to do you out of a job, Mervyn. Just to print some pictures of my own. If you agree, you can teach me using a picture of me in my underwear.’
He licked his lips lasciviously until I felt sullied and defiled. But I’d do almost anything to win respect and admiration from Leigh. It need not take long. Once Mervyn had taught me the basics, I could learn the rest on my own.
‘Who’s gonna teck the picture?’
‘I’m perfectly capable of taking a self-portrait. But you must promise to say nothing to Leigh. He mustn’t know anything about it. Agreed?’
‘No undies. Full frontal. Starkers wi’ your legs spread wide.’
I glanced at the pictures behind him on the wall. Some of the women were displaying just their breasts. I wondered; could I do that?
‘With my bra off, then.’
‘Piss off. All or nowt.’
‘You want a picture of me naked before you’ll agree?’
‘Full frontal. Twat, tits, everythin’.’
I would feel defiled, abused, reduced and violated as he showed me how to print, using pictures of my naked body. I thought about Leigh’s expression of delight when he discovered I could print. Maybe I would do well enough to get rid of Mervyn from Longhouse forever. But, more than anything else, Leigh would be proud of me; he would admire my skill and notice me again.
‘If that’s the price.’
‘Fuck me! You mean it, don’t you?’
‘I want to learn. Leigh says you’re the best there is.’
‘Fuck me! Legs apart, mind. No ‘iding owt behind your fingers.’
‘You’ll see everything. Now, promise you won’t say anything to Leigh?’
‘Yeah. Don’t see why you care, mind.’
‘I care, and that’s reason enough. If you say a word to Leigh, I’ll tell him how often you swear at me. And you know what he said about that.’
‘Don’t threaten me, twat. I can keep a promise. When you gonna do it?’
‘I’ll take the picture later and you can start by showing me how to develop the film. We’ll have to work together when Leigh’s out so he won’t know.’
‘Sounds fuckin’ good to me. Have to be in the dark together.’
‘I’ll make one thing quite clear, Mervyn. Looking is one thing, but if you so much as touch me, I’ll make sure you’re out of here forever. Understand?’
‘Keep your fuckin’ tits on. I know ‘ow to behave.’
‘You’ll do it, then?’
‘Try an’ fuckin’ stop me!’
It was as much as I could take. I left the prints and him without another word. I could return to finish off when he’d gone.
On the small landing above the ladder, I paused to still my breathing and collect my thoughts. My stomach was churning. Leigh and Netta were no longer in the studio and I guessed they’d gone to the bedroom to have sex.
I went through the kitchen and found them having coffee with Ma. In spite of the weather, I left for the garden and stood there breathing in the cool damp air, letting the rain wash me free of the dirt I’d let Mervyn plaster on me. It would be worth it, I kept telling myself; worth it to see Leigh’s delight at my skill. Over and over, I said to myself that Leigh was worth the sacrifice.
‘Come in, Faith. You’ll catch your death!’ Ma was at the back door that led from the utility room, squinting out to where I stood. She waved and I started across the short grass back to the house.
I realized I was soaked to the skin and wondered how long I’d been out there. Old Hodge shook his head at me as I crossed the kitchen floor on my way upstairs to dry and change. Leigh and Netta had returned to the studio.
In the bathroom, I peeled off my wet clothes and towelled my skin dry. Mervyn’s words assailed me again as he admitted to his voyeurism at the tarn. And I considered my deal again; to show him a picture of my naked body in exchange for learning his skill.
Sex and nudity. I seemed unable to escape these everyday obsessions. I was exposed to them everywhere. I had resolved to educate myself by reading and by watching films on the idiot’s lantern but my environment was determined to show me the facts more brutally than the works of others ever could.
I draped my towel over the heated rail in the bathroom and left my clothes to drain in the bath as I went across the corridor change. Again, coincidence, fate, whatever influence was at work, caught me out. I came face to face with Leigh as he walked the corridor from his bedroom to the bathroom.
My instinct was to cover myself with my hands but I brazened it out in this house where flesh was always on display. Though my mind told me to run, I let my heart slow me and make me saunter, pause at my door and half turn to face him over my shoulder.
He gazed at me in such a way that blood flushed through me in a sensation that was as exciting as it was disturbing. Leigh’s admiring stare, I discovered, was as pleasant as Mervyn’s mental undressing was vile.
‘My God, you’re lovely, Faith.’
He would have stared at me forever had I not gone into my room.
I sat on the edge of my bed and tried to make sense of what was happening around and to me. It was so difficult to know how I really felt, what I thought, what I wanted, even. Confusion was my chief experience of life.
From my reading, I recognized something of the bewilderment suffered by adolescents. Nearing twenty-one, I lacked the background and experience to understand the changes that effected my behaviour and affected my moods and thinking. Although the hormonal changes of adolescence had long been complete, Heacham had stifled my emotional development and only now was I learning what most women learned in their teens.
Why, I wondered, had I been unembarrassed, unconcerned even at Leigh viewing my nude body, yet reacted with almost physical nausea to the mere idea of Mervyn seeing a picture of me naked. Did my being in love with Leigh make the difference?
‘No point sitting there thinking Leigh’ll see you and be impressed. You have to pose and flaunt yourself, spread your thighs and take him inside if you want him to notice you at all.’ Netta broke into my thoughts. ‘Course, you’re not about to follow my example, are you? Far too special and choosy to do that. Fine. I don’t care, Fay. The less others have of him the more there is for me. Ma asked me to tell you lunch is ready, by the way.’
‘Am I pretty?’ I stood for my sister, determined to discover the truth.
She assessed me and a wicked smile played on her lips before she abruptly became serious and looked into my eyes. ‘I could tell you anything and you’d believe me, wouldn’t you? I hate to admit it, Fay, but you’re just like all the women in our family, bloody gorgeous.’
‘Is that the truth?’
‘Unfortunately.’ And she was gone.
I thought about her reply. Had she told me the truth? Was her opinion valid anyway? What would a man think of me? What I really wanted to know was what Leigh thought about me. And, I realized with a sudden shock, he had declared that I was lovely. I smiled and pulled some clothes on. I was not ready to wander about the house half naked like Netta and Abby and most of Leigh’s other women. Would I ever be ready for such a public display?
‘Mervyn’s got his eye on you.’ I told Netta in the kitchen. ‘He was watching you pose for Leigh and he told me he…well, I can’t repeat his words, but what he said made me shudder.’
‘Ta for the warning, Fay, but I can handle Merv the perv. Rattles you, though, doesn’t he?’
‘I can’t stand the great lout. He’s foul mouthed, vulgar and lewd and I believe he’s dangerous. I wouldn’t want to be alone with him away from the protection of Longhouse.’
‘Trouble with Merv is he’s scared stiff, or more likely, limp, of women. Likes to look but terrified to touch. Merv’s a classic peeper, a voyeur. If you were naked at his feet with your legs wide apart, he’d run the other way. I bet he spies on women whenever he gets the chance.’
‘That’s what I’m always telling her. I hate the sod’s attitude to women, but he’s a bloody marvellous printer; brilliant. I’m sure he’d never harm anyone. Like Netta says, he’s a coward at heart.’
I wondered why Leigh and Netta couldn’t see the mean hatred and lust for revenge that haunted Mervyn’s eyes. I was as certain of his menace as Leigh was convinced of his harmlessness.
‘What did you do with those wet things when you took them off, Faith?’ Ma’s sudden question broke into my thoughts.
‘They’re draining in the bath, Ma. I’ll bring them down when they’ve stopped dripping.’
‘Good lass. Not like Netta. She don’t wear a lot, but what little there is she spreads over the whole house. If you’re not careful, young lady, you’ll end up doing your own laundry. And that’ll mean washing and ironing Leigh’s shirts to the standard he likes.’
Netta gave a meaningful look at Leigh.
She was unhappy about that. Ma caught my eye and grinned at Netta’s obvious discomfiture.
The phone rang in the office. I found Zoë wanting Leigh. He went straight to the phone, much to Netta’s annoyance.
‘One of Leigh’s girlfriends; a very attractive woman who lives in London. He went to college with her.’
Ma nodded. ‘Lovely lass, Zoë. I’d hoped they’d marry at one time.’ She looked at me. ‘But now there’s someone better for him right under his nose.’
Netta snorted. ‘Leigh’ll never marry Fay! He likes big tits and women who love to screw…’
‘I like all breasts. Size isn’t an issue. Quality is what counts, and Faith has very lovely breasts. In fact, she’s a very lovely woman all over.’ He’d come back through to speak to Ma.
‘Seen her tits, have you?’
He looked at me and I knew he wouldn’t answer for fear of offending me.
‘Yes. Leigh’s seen all of me, if you must know.’
Netta was shocked into silence and I exchanged a knowing glance with Leigh.
‘You okay for another mouth next weekend, Ma?’
‘Zoë coming up for your birthday?’
‘Always welcome, is Zoë.’
He went back into the office, closing the door behind him.
‘Leigh’s birthday? He never said anything to me!’
I smiled. For once, I knew something my sister did not. ‘Leigh’ll be thirty on Sunday.’
A look of calculation crossed her face, making her appear rather mean for an instant. ‘Is he having a party?’
‘Course he is! I’d not let Leigh’s birthday pass without celebration. And be warned, young lady, a lot of his previous girlfriends will be here. He always parts with them on good terms and they’re usually glad to come back to see him. No one owns our Leigh, so don’t run away with the idea that he’s yours exclusively.’
‘Whatever made you think that? As long as there’s enough for me, I don’t care who has a piece of him. His popularity and the fact that he’s irresistible are part of what makes him attractive.’
‘Mebbie. But will you ever have enough of him?’
‘I always say you can’t have too much of a good thing.’
‘I just don’t want you making trouble. Especially not on his birthday. Understood?’
‘Wouldn’t dream of it, Ma.’
But Netta’s eyes made me feel she wasn’t telling the truth and I wondered what she was scheming.
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