Maisie Pyke lies on the unmade bed smoking a Woodbine. She is unsure if it is time to get up or turn over once the cigarette is finished. It makes no difference to her, the day will run its course whatever she decides to do or not do. She inhales deeply, then releases the smoke, and watches as it rises slowly to the grey ceiling. She attempts to make rings of smoke as her father had done years before when she was child and would sit and watch him as he lay back on the old settee and release ring after ring. She thought it quite magical then, the way he made the rings, as if he were some magician conjuring ring out of a hat instead of rabbits. She smiles to herself. Funny how easily children are amused, she thinks, releasing another mouthful of smoke, trying again to make a ring and failing.
A noise outside distracts her. She looks over her naked shoulder towards the window with its shabby nets and looks at the grey sky. “Bloody pigeons,” she remarks to herself turning her head and inhaling deeply again. “Pigeons,” she says softly. As a child, she once went to stayed with an aunt and uncle in the country. The War was on and her father thought she’d be safer away from London and the dangers of bombs and smoke. “Pigeons,” she repeats. Her uncle was a sullen man and ill-humoured. His wife, her Aunt Grace, was her mother’s sister, but she was a small frightened woman who crept about the cottage like a timid child. Her Uncle Jack, as he was known, would bring home pigeons he had shot and throw them on the table and there they lay lifeless and bloody.
“Get them ready for dinner, woman!” he’d say casting a look at the timid wife as if she might dare refuse. Maisie shook her head at the memory. She could still see the lifeless pigeons now in her mind. Grey, black and red. However, it isn’t the thought of pigeons that disturbs her. It’s something far darker than that which suddenly makes her shudder and draw deeply on her Woodbine.
The cottage was miles from other cottages and was surrounded by fields on all sides. Her room, upstairs, was small and had a single bed and an old chest of draws, which had seen better days. She can see it now. The curtains, which were yellowy white, hung limply on either side of the window except at night when her aunt drew them across and kissed her goodnight. The creaky bed that made a noise each time she turned over or moved, and the chest of draws, which contained the few clothes her father had sent her with, draws a deep sigh from her now, as she holds her Woodbine up above head in a theatrical manner, as if for a few moments she was some actress alone on a stage setting a mood.
“Damn him,” she utters, in an undertone that is heavy with emotion. “Damn his eyes,” she says, lowering the Woodbine and taking a quick drag. The image comes to her as she turns and leans on her right elbow. The image opens up before her like the unfolding of a scroll. Uncle Jack leaning over as she lay in bed. She opens her eyes and he there. His dark blue eyes and thin lips inches from her face. She leaps back and stabs the Woodbine into the space where she imagines his face is, but isn’t. She draws on the cigarette as if her life depended on each ounce of smoke entering her lungs.
“Hush, Maisie,” he’d whisper, leaning towards her, his hand resting on her leg beneath the brown blanket. “Keep quiet, or you’ll wake the bloody household,” he said in a deep tone somewhere beneath his breath. And she can suddenly sense his hand move up her leg, move slowly, yet deliberately upwards until it reaches her groin and she stiffens. Had she stiffened then? she muses, looking down at her bare legs, unshaven and unwashed since the day before. Maybe she had, she couldn’t remember now. The hand moved under the blanket as if it were an explorer on an expedition to an unknown continent and needed to find out what lay in the dark areas out of sight.
“Keep still,” Uncle Jack had muttered, his hand touching her thigh now, his fingers walking upwards. She shudders and moves quickly up the bed and the Woodbine falls to the floor.
“Damn him,” she says and leans over to rescue her cigarette. She takes a drag and allows the smoke to remain in her mouth like a trapped animal. Then, slowly she lets it escape. It rises upwards and forms a poor example of a ring above her head. She wants to smile at the first ring, but can’t. Her uncle’s face leans too near and she doesn’t want to encourage him any way that will allow him to venture deep or further than he has already. Had she encouraged him? she thinks grimly. “No!” she says loudly to the room. The word echoes around the walls like a lonely child and is gone. She had not encouraged him. He had taken the liberty and ventured further than she had thought he would. She can sense his hand now, feel the fingers touching, exploring, feeling their way like blind moles across her flesh.
She holds the Woodbine stiffly and draws on it. She holds the smoke for a few moments the releases it around her tongue and watches as the smoke forms beautiful rings one after the other rising up and up and touching the ceiling with the ease that her uncle’s fingers touches her flesh and again and again and again.