Cleanliness is Next to Godliness, short story
Scott stands beneath the shower rose. Clouds of steam rise from the angry jet of water. The steam billows and expands, filling the small room and pressing against the ceiling and cool tiled walls, reverting to its origins in drips and rivulets which snake submissively down the ceramic surfaces.
Scott’s head hangs low. Water splutters and hisses as it rushes to splash onto the raised white blotches and cherry red skin of his shoulders and neck. He scrubs his forearm with a wooden backed nailbrush; the suds stained pink from the wounds on his arm. He changes arm and grates the brush back and forth, back and forth as if he is trying to erase himself. Rinsing his brush and rubbing it fiercely into the block of soap again, he lifts his head and starts to scrub his cheek.
The girls were waiting for him again, by the underpass, after school. They were there every week, spitting at him and taunting him.
He only knew one of the trio: the sister of a girl in his class, Rachael, who led the taunts and laughed loudest. The others echoed her insults, which would later echo again, through his dreams. Rachael had mousey hair and a pinched face. Her clothes looked old and faded; the part-unravelled hem of her skirt hung unevenly around her thin legs.
The graffiti covered underpass stank of urine. Those lights, which had not yet been smashed, gave off an eerie green glow which reflected weakly in the noxious puddles. Before Rachael and her friends made Scott their target, he would walk through as quickly as he could. For the last five weeks he walked slower and slower through it, reluctant to face the abuse which awaited him at the other side.
Scott brushes along his hairline, across his nose and behind his earlobes. His eyes shut tightly against the stinging alkaline soap. Swapping the nailbrush for a soapy toothbrush, he presses deep inside his ears, forcing the bristles as far into the cavities as he can. He does the same to his nostrils and blood streams from his nose into his slightly open mouth. He chokes on the hot liquid as it hits his throat and coughs it into the bath. The blood and spit splatter his toes and he moves his feet to let the slippery liquid wash away.
Unable to delay his exit any longer Scott lifted his hood and stepped out from the underpass, back into the cold, darkening winter’s afternoon. The expected battery of taunts and spit was delayed and Scott wondered for a blissful moment whether he had been reprieved. Maybe his seemingly impotent policy of ignore them and they’ll go away had actually worked.
He chanced a glance towards the grass bank then quickly looked away. Rachael and her two friends were there. Staring at him, they held in their hands three plastic bottles of cloudy yellow liquid. He felt the inevitable horror of his situation. He could not fight them, even if he had been stronger, more physically confident; they were girls! Running away might delay what would happen but it would only give them more ammunition. Telling anyone what was happening to him would be worse than useless.
Scott’s brain told him to keep walking, but his legs wouldn’t listen. As he broke into a run his hood slipped down. He felt a plastic bottle hit his head and sticky liquid drench his hair, face, jacket and hands. The smell of ammonia made him heave but he kept running. Two other bottles hit his leg and heel as he sprinted away from the underpass in his sodden shoes. He heard Rachael’s voice, cracked with laughter, shout after him.
‘Maybe you prefer your showers golden?’
Scott grabs the nail brush again and scrubs his scalp. The tightly packed bristles catch, pulling clumps of his blonde hair from the roots as he drags and tugs the brush over his scolded head. He feels no pain or rather the pain inside dominates all consciousness. He desperately wants to feel clean again.
It was near the end of the school day. Boys jogged over the frosted grass and along the concrete path, back to the P.E. building. Once inside their loud voices, some low, many still high, echoed in the hall. Hot, sweaty bodies massed together as they filtered into the changing room.
‘Hit the showers, boys!’ shouted Mr Matthews, the P.E. teacher, with an Aussie lilt. ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness.’
The usual murmur of dissent from a few boys was ignored. Muddy garments were stripped off and dropped in piles on the floor. A disorganised huddle of boys formed, leading to the shower room. Some boys stood proudly naked, others were wrapped in towels, shivering in spite of the heat.
Scott didn’t follow the throng. He diverted into the toilets. He paused there for a few moments, wet his hair in the sink and scurried back into the changing room, careful to keep to the edges. He changed quickly, half hidden by the hanging coats and bags, away from the watchful eyes of Mr Matthews. The teacher was monitoring the communal showers, his eyes passing from one naked boy to the next. Scott shuddered and finished changing.
Scott sat, fully dressed, on a low wooden bench beneath the outer clothes and satchels. Wet feet slapped under the naked boys. White and brown toes paraded past. Some with neatly clipped toenails, other bruised black and purple, some were smooth while others showed signs of newly sprouting hair. He could feel the boys’ warmth next to him as he stared at the glistening puddles left by their footsteps. He tried not to smell the soft musk. Instead he concentrated on the rhythmic rubbing of towels.
Scott sinks to the base of the bath. His body and face blistered and bleeding. His eyes wet from the shower and tears. He lets the water fall on him, cooler now he is further from the rose but it still stings his sensitive skin. The blood from his scalp and nose mingle with the water to create dark streaks down his face, chest and shoulders. His body shakes; his eyes glaze over and he passes out.
Scott is not aware of the bathroom door being broken or being cradled by his weeping mother or even the ambulance arriving. He is vaguely aware, much later, of waking for a moment on a hospital bed with very itchy skin. Reality fades in and out for a time and nothing feels solid. Everything Scott sees and hears seems to drip slowly into oblivion.
A week goes by and Scott is well enough to leave the hospital. Doctors assure him that his hair will grow back and that the redness of his skin will fade in time. Scott does not ask but they reassure him anyway.
Winter passes into Spring and when Scott is strong enough he goes back to school; his mum takes him and collects him in their car. Each journey is the same. Scott’s mum talks to him about school, about how much better he is looking, about friends and family and today’s news. The monologue bounces around the car unheard.
One morning Scott wakes earlier than usual. As he stands under the shower he remembers the day his blood mingled with the water. He imagines the water falling now is blood. Not his blood but hers, Rachael’s. He feels a sudden and overwhelming hatred for Rachael. It rushes from behind his eyes, over his tongue, down his arms and legs, heating his body and strengthening it. He tastes iron and is empowered by the ferric blood roaring in his veins.
This morning Scott asks his mum to drop him at the street before the school. He watches his mum drive away then sits on the wall and waits.
Scott’s head sways side to side like a cobra’s, letting the waxy leaves of the privet tickle his ears and the scalp between his now closely cropped hair. Three girls walk towards him. He feels afraid as they approach. Still reluctant to face them, Scott’s palms moisten and his throat tightens. He turns away and the younger girls walk past, not noticing him. Rachael walks a few paces behind. She watches a raven picking at carrion on the tarmac. The raven takes flight at the sound of a speeding car. Scott reaches out, hesitates a moment, then stands up bumping hard into Rachael’s shoulder. Rachael stumbles, loses her footing and lurches into the road and the path of the car. Her body is lifted up as if she too will fly away then it plummets, bouncing on the car roof and landing on the road behind. Before walking away Scott looks at the broken body of his tormentor. Her limbs and neck are oddly angled, her face awash with blood. He feels something sticky on his cheek. Touching it tentatively with his index finger, he realises it is Rachael’s blood. He feels another drop, cold this time, then another. It is raining.
Scott turns and walks away. He passes Rachael’s friends who stare at her body in stunned silence. They shrink away giving him plenty of room. The cold and heavy rain washes his face and hair, cleansing him with each step he takes. He looks back and sees a crowd gathering by the roadside. The rain washes the dark stain of Rachael’s blood into the gutter and Scott can hear the approaching wail of a siren.