One time I seen Shaun’s dad in a dress. Well, that’s not true, Gary seen him. I just heard about it. But, another time, I did see him talking to Mr Walker who lives up May Road. Dad said never to go up May Road. That’s where all them sorts go. I’ve done nowt but walk past, cos’ of what Dad said about it, but I still seen him once talking to Mr Walker, and everyone knows about him.
Anyway, Gary said he went round Shaun’s last Monday to knock for him, and he weren’t in. And then his dad answered the door in a dress.
“It was blue and yellow,” he said, “with little frills on it, like me mam’s apron.”
His eyes lit up all excited, and he traced this outline with both hands and stuck his tongue out. I said that Father O’Cane says liars’ll perish in eternal hellfire so he’d better stop pulling me leg.
“I don’t care about Father O’Cane, me mam’s a protester anyway.”
“You mean a prot-es-tant, y’idiot. And protestants still gan’ to hell.”
He shrugged then, and we kicked the bark off the tree in Mrs Muller’s front garden for a bit. He kicked off a cracking bit, and said he was taking it home. I said to him to do what he wanted with that bit of bark and he said I was jealous cos’ I couldn’t kick off shit with them knock-offs. So I stood on his bit of bark.
Then Gary said he only went round Shaun’s cos’ Shaun’s older sister promised she’d take her bra off for him. Shaun’s older sister always has the top three buttons of her school shirt undone, smokes menthol fags, and is in the top set for maths. Plus, Shaun says she’s got a boyfriend in the Navy, so I knew Gary was making it up. I told him she wouldn’t show him her tits if he were the last beggar for five million miles. “And besides,” I said, “fornicators go to hell ‘an all.” He shut up after that , and we went off to pinch crisps from the shop at the corner.
But the next day was when I seen Shaun’s dad talking to Mr Walker outside the shop that sells carpets. He wasn’t wearing ne’ dress. He was wearing trousers and a shirt. He had his hand on his hip, like ladies do in the pictures. Mr Walker had his hand on Shaun’s dad’s shoulder. They were laughing, but more like giggling, like when someone lets rip a fart during Boxing Day Mass, and you can’t help but squeal because you know it’ll be all them sprouts from Christmas dinner what’s done it.
I ran straight back to knock for Gary, to tell him that he was full of it cos’ Shaun’s dad just wears normal clothes but, as I ran past mine, I could hear Mam shout ‘us in for tea. She’d done spam and egg but by the time I’d washed up me egg had gone cold. Dad was back from the quayside, and he was thick with dirt, except for where he’d washed his hands.
“What you been doing the day, lad?” He asked.
I told him about finding some good skimmer stones by the roadside, and about how Mrs Ramsay’s cat had its kittens already. He nodded and asked if I’d said me prayers this morning, and I said yes I did, sir, but I hadn’t.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell him about what Gary had said, so I just asked him what Shaun’s dad did for a job. Mam had sat down to eat then, and when I asked Dad that, she looked up at him. She answered me.
“Never you mind what other people do for work. Just mind yourself, and the Lord will mind you.” She said. “Eat your egg.”
I looked at Dad, but he just kept on looking at his plate, breathing out and chewing at the same time. The silt from the quay had turned his hair black. I tried to imagine him in a dress, but I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see Dad’s brown hands buttoning up a blouse. I couldn’t see him patting down a hem against his thick legs. The colours of a dress seemed wrong, against the colours of him. Dad was black, and dark brown, and red. He was nothing like Shaun’s dad, who combed his hair into a middle parting like Mam did, and wore shoes without laces.
Later that night, I heard them both arguing. Dad’s voice sounded like a ship’s horn up the stairs. I heard Mam say, there’s no harm in his asking. I made a fort out of me bedding and was reading one of me annuals when he came in and I heard him sit down on the bed. He smelled like the cupboard I’m not allowed in.
“That man…” He started. His breath was hoarse from shouting. “Don’t you ever go up to see that man, or go near where he lives. Do you hear me, lad?”
He never said his name, but I knew straight away who he meant.
“The way some people live their lives…” I saw the outline of his back, hunched over and quivering with rage. “Well, it just makes me sick to me stomach. Don’t you ever let me catch you consortin’ with him or his. Do you hear?”
I said okay, Dad. Then he sighed, got up, and shut the door behind him.
The next day, Gary asked if I wanted to come and see Shaun’s pigeons, but I knew he really wanted to see if he could peep in Shaun’s sister’s window again. Shaun kept pigeons in a wooden cage he built. In the summer holidays, we’d helped him nail the wire to the front. I remembered what Dad had said the night before, and told Gary that we shouldn’t be consortin’ with them and theirs.
“Don’t be daft,” he said. “You’ve just gone wimpy about what I said.”
He started kicking an empty crisp packet up the street. He was smiling cos’ he thought he’d spooked me, and I was scared. Only, it wasn’t Shaun’s dad that had scared me.
“To hell with that, I’m not scared of nowt. I just don’t care about them manky pigeons.”
“Suit yersel’ then,” he said, and legged it off up to the top of the road.
When I got back, no one was in. Dad was back at the quay, and Mam had started her shift at the chippy. The house felt really quiet, and calm. Straight away, I went to the cupboard where Dad keeps his bottles. Father O’Cane called it the devil’s drink last Sunday at mass. He told us all about this story of a man who drank so much he turned yellow and it killed him, and about how that man was in hell now. I’d told Gary the story after, and he’d been impressed. He’d reckoned he could drink as much as he liked and never die. I bet him I could drink more.
I undid the cap of one of the bottles and glugged the hot, bitter drink back until me eyes watered and I had to stop. It licked back up me throat and spat out me nostrils. Suddenly, the room felt warmer. I wiped me nose on me sleeve, and tried it again.
It was already dark outside when I went to Mam’s wardrobe. It smelled like it always did, like sweet, wet paper. I traced me fingers back and forth against the nylon dresses, and wooly cardigans, and slick, cool slips. It took no time to pick one out and, as I unhooked the hanger from the rail, the room swung out of focus for a second. It was like the way it feels when you get off the teacups at the Hoppin’s fair. Dad had taken us last June. He’d smoked a tab while me and Mam went on the teacups. I’d loved it so much, we went on twice again and, afterwards, I threw up in the car on the way home.
Dad had said, “Pull yersel’ together, man.”
Later, he’d said the teacups were for girls anyway, not men like him and me. I thought about this, as I looked in the mirror at the way the fabric bunched in unfilled ripples across me bare chest. I thought about how I’d never seen it in the Bible about not wearing dresses. I thought about Shaun’s dad, and Mr Walker, and whether they had their own dresses or borrowed theirs from their mothers too. I thought about everything, and how the colours in the mirror were the colours of me.