Fehtan bidden; [Old English]; a fighting girl, unafraid to use her fists. Oswald’s Almanac of Obscenities, p. 256
Camille lives in a thin strip of a house. Ice forms between the bricks and when November rolls into December, silver-limbed, loose-jointed Camille is always cold. She is named for her grandmother, a Frenchwoman, who came to Maltby just long enough to marry, shit out Camille’s father, and then leave before her accent ceased to be a novelty in the town’s Fine Fare. The girls at Camille’s school hate her for being different, for the odd intonation when she says certain words and, for a reason that mystifies her, call her Urine. Every few months there is a fight. They pile upon Camille like a squall, but she is a scrapper. She holds a girl by the throat, slapping her with a loquaciousness that makes her feel, for a change, really French. It doesn’t matter if the girl’s chums, lip-glossed and drenched in Body Shop White Musk pull chunks of her hair or scratch their nails down her face. Camille doesn’t feel it. She does what she has to do and then she drifts away. She has learned that the world is better when viewed dispassionately or as if at the end of a long tunnel.
Camille is six the first time she sees her father drunk. She’s sitting at the kitchen table colouring in the unfilled squares of the newspaper crossword – and there are many, for her mother is sweet and smells of soap, but hideously stupid – and her father roars through the door. She is seven when she sees her father fall down, steeped in ale, breath like black tar, and she turns her face away from his foulness while her mother tries to pull him up. She’s ten when she hears – hears, never sees – him hit her mother and by the time she has reached twelve, she has decided to kill him.
Boile myntan; [Old English]; to ponder angrily. Oswald’s Almanac of Obscenities, p. 192
The question is – how? It wouldn’t be like fighting the girls at school. They have long finger nails and permed hair perfect for pulling, and fight like they don’t expect to be hit back – that’s why Camille, Camille the Dirty French Whore, always wins. She knows just where to punch them – on their nipples, already tender and vulnerable due to the mortification of puberty. A blow on such a delicate part from the Scrappy Slut never fails to render a member of Maltby’s fecund youth immobile. But Camille suspects she couldn’t stun her father like that. A thump to his chest would amuse him and she’d find herself back-handed into the gas fire.
She dreams of ways to kill him. Crushed glass in his Quaker Oats, bleach in his coffee. But her mother is always there, hitched breath and jagged smile, so keen to make peace with the turd she married. Camille the Murderer cannot do what she longs to do. When her father comes home from the pit, seamed with black, she does not see honesty on his skin and cannot understand why her mother weeps over his cut and scraped body, or why the news about the bad accident – the one that killed twelve men – would make her mother vomit into the potato-peel bin. Camille wills a stall to collapse underground and kill only her father, leaving the other men unharmed. She imagines him laid out in the parlour, skin and hair still dirty, her mother wailing. If it happened, Camille would even squeeze out a few tears herself, for the show. But it doesn’t happen and her father stubbornly refuses to die.
A panc to turn the breosthard blacket; [Medieval]; a wicked plan; literally, “a plan to turn the heart black.” Oswald’s Almanac of Obscenities, p. 116
Camille is thirteen by the time she decides how to do it. In the meantime she finds it easy to be calm and distant when her father is awake, which is hard. She keeps her voice steady and uninterested when speaking to Pater. “Don’t mind, Dad, you put on whatever you want.” Because I want you to be distracted by the telly when I stick the knife into your fat, meaty head. “Sure, Dad, you can have the last of the cheese on your toast.” Because I’m to wipe the bread with tanned boot polish so you puke up your intestines.
Of course, it won’t be with a knife or with poison. She would welcome the opportunity to maim him but Camille has decided to drive her father mad. She thinks it possible. Despite the fact that he took money from her birthday cards and spent it at the bookies, she knows her father is sort-of fond of her. It’s a love one might have for a favoured cup and saucer or armchair. Oh yes, you might say, when opening the cupboard to see it there or resting the muscles of your back when sitting down. There you are. Familiar and comfortable, but if you break or the leather tears, I shan’t weep or think much about it.
Camille knows her father doesn’t think of her as being really there. Or her mother. Instead they are words, specimens. On telly one night she saw a man in a ridiculous cravat reel off how many shares he had bought in British Gas and she thought – that’s how Dad talks about me. Like I’m a line on a document somewhere. He likes having me around but I’m – she struggles for the word – expendable.
Colt; [Tudor]; to trick, fool. Oswald’s Almanac of Obscenities, p. 198
Camille knows it will take work to drive her father crazy when she means so little to him but she is a Scrappy Slut and a Dirty French Whore and sets about the task serenely but with commitment. It is a few weeks after deciding how she will kill her father that she tries for the first time. They stand together at the sink, washing up while Mum smokes a cigarette in the garden. Camille suspects that Dad is making up for something, some bedroom cruelty, for he is usually blind to housework and seems to hold her mother in contempt for caring about a clean kitchen or tidy parlour. He is staring out of the kitchen window while rubbing the filthy dishrag round and round on a plate when she whispers it.
“What did you say?” he snaps his head round to look at her.
“What, Dad?” she makes her eyes round.
“What did you just say to me!”
Camille gives a little confused smile. She sees veiny threads connect in his slow cabbage head and wonders if she’s over-reached, this first time.
“Did you – did you just call me a cunt?”
Foxship Wench – [Tudor]; a cunning girl, a woman undertaking a secret plan. Oswald’s Almanac of Obscenities, p. 347
Life for Camille comes in grey stages after that, like blocks of stale wedding cake. A wedge of time to gather mouse-droppings from the back of the cooker and add them to her father’s chilli con carne. It delights her to see him eat them, oblivious, though she doesn’t expect that he’ll vomit later, for he didn’t after the boot-polish toast. An afternoon sliced away to prise apart the heel of his shoe from the leather frame, so that it flaps obscenely when he walks Camille’s mother down to the Legion on a Saturday night. He doesn’t fall over, though, and smash in the eggshell of his skull on the side of the curb. Camille doesn’t really expect him to. She’s just – what was the expression she heard someone use at the corner shop? Hedging her bets.
She begins to love words. She borrows a book from the library, from the adult section, of obscure obscenities and reads it at night. It is pragmatic, spade work, like learning quadratic equations or the year of the Battle of Trafalgar. She makes notes of words she will say the following day around her father and rehearses them in the bathroom, standing in front of the pink mirrored cabinet. Once her father, desperate for a shit after an adventurous takeaway, bangs on the door to be let in and is silenced by Camille’s one-word response – “period.” She delights in hearing his gasp and feels incredibly powerful.
She supplements her learning from Oswald’s Almanac of Obscenities by picking through the vegetable soup of her memory for words she’d heard when groups of older boys passed by in town or shouts she’d heard on late-night films when she should have been in bed but sat instead at the top of the stairs, shadows flickering round the embossed wallpaper. Shithouse. Motherfucker. Scrag-end. She tucks them away and perfects the art of breathing them quietly, almost silently, when she stands next to her father at the sink or peeling vegetables. He frowns down at her, certain, uncertain, at the foulness coming from his daughter. She smiles back, innocent.
You fetid shitehawk. A bastard rantallion of a man. You stink worse than a dead slurry-whore.
It takes a long time to drive someone mad. But Camille is patient. One day, after tea, her mother leaves the room for a second and she sees her father wince, a preparatory movement, and she feels pleasure like never before. He is waiting for a whispered, barely audible insult that can’t possibly come from his sweet daughter but glides instead from the walls, the hissing gas fire, the pile of pound notes on the mantelpiece that will cover this week’s house-keeping. He develops a twitch.
Mooney young high-tail; [Victorian]; a young man in love. Oswald’s Almanac of Obscenities, p. 592
So it goes for three years. Camille grows into a seventeen-year-old and one day meets a boy at the swimming baths who buys her an ice cream and doesn’t mind that she won’t kiss him. She brings him home and, while Mum clears away the plates of egg and chips, mutters arsebiscuit of the Universe under her breath to her father and the boy is shocked. Camille is shocked. She hasn’t even realised she has done it. The words are an inflection now.
The boy is the first boy she has sex with so, although she is a Dirty French Whore, Camille marries him. He is kind to her and doesn’t drink too much beer or spaff away his wages at the bookies, so she thinks she might as well stick with him. And she can’t get over his dopey face when she said one word to him – “yes.” In their little terrace she finds her tongue unloosened like never before and she cannot live dispassionately anymore. It’s impossible to, with a man who swoops her up in the air when he comes home and shakes words and gasps and laughter from her. On Sunday mornings they drink coffee in bed and do the weekend crossword together, filling the squares with answers that are, almost always, right.
He wants to talk about everything. His sister calls them the Budgies. Maybe she means it spitefully, for the sister had been one of the girls Camille had slapped against the town chip shop window years before. But Camille likes the nickname. She thinks it sweet. She sees how words mean different things to different people, and that’s okay. She makes sure she calls her husband her little budgie around the sister, enjoying the woman’s frown.
They start to talk about children together. Camille’s mother starts to ask, when they visit for tea once a week. Her father, of course, says nothing. He’s grown old.
Then one day her mother calls and she can’t speak. The handset is filled instead with noises Camille hasn’t heard before. Sounds like air coming the surface when a bottle is held under the water.
Eventually. Two words that bring down a shutter and make the world unclear and hazy and grey as wet newspaper. “Pit. Accident.”
Rebecca Burns is a novelist and short-story writer. Her two short story collections, Catching the Barramundi and The Settling Earth, were longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize, the UK’s only award for short story collections. Published by Odyssey Books and Next Chapter, her novels The Bishop’s Girl and Beyond the Bay are available for purchase online. Quilaq, her latest book, will be published by Next Chapter in July 2020.
© 2020, Rebecca Burns