OUT OF CONCERN MAR MOVES towards the field and the man she will wash. She has seen him, when she has the occasion to escape, in the town square, with wine bottles and pools of piss and beige puke at his feet, or on the outskirts, at the gate of the scrapyard where Pick Fitz’s Rottweiler barks and drools, or in the boondocks where rabbits scarper from stray dogs and feral cats. Mar knows the man needs a good wash, as all tramps do, and maybe out of concern, or love, she goes to him, sees him shake and spit and roll, the lightning they say once hit him affecting him still.
Mar is a young woman. Mar for Margaret. How an old name got lumbered on such young shoulders she is unaware, as Mar is unaware of most things, only stricken by certain concerns which she moves towards, now over the low stone wall, now in the middle of the field, now at the lone tree where the prostrate tramp emits guttural groans. She stands over him wondering how hard the lightning they say hit, actually hit. Hit hard? Mar isn’t sure, but she knows how difficult it is to stay upright on two legs and how comforting it must be to be on all fours, like a dog, somehow more balanced. They howl in the background, them dogs; Pick Fitz’s slobbering mutt can be heard for miles. Mar has no sense of history, understands not that the stumpy knob at the end of her spine once held tail, knows not plasma or peristalsis, just that she moves towards her concerns, tries to alleviate, assuage, and in her summer frock, with a cold drizzle falling on the down of her soft arm hair, and those hairs rising, and her nipples rising, and her cheek-flush rising, she sees the tramp’s dull eyes meet hers, engage, and she kneels to him.
Mar brushes the dirty clump of long hair from his brow, fixes more of it behind his scabby ears and pulls on his arm softly, to get him up and onto his rickety legs. He may be used to tugging and pulling—police or paramedics— and he obliges, like a grubby child dragged by a rushing parent, all hurry and no time to waste, to suds they go. Mar is mannered mild though, appreciates pain, and gently urges him on; his obedience heartening. A smile forms on Mar’s face, Mar who likes her wide mouth to beam, and has been doing so as often as possible for her eighteen years.
They walk through the field and struggle over the stone wall, its surface slippery, as if lifted from a river, and the earth is a soft mush underfoot, their shoes making imprints as they trudge; Mar in her new leather shoes Father bought for her birthday—Mar blew out all the candles!—and the vagabond, tatty, unkempt. They hold hands now, both staring ahead with hearts rising: Mar’s from knowing her concerns are genuine and pleased at her planning, and Tramp’s because he will soon receive relief, a scone, or tea, maybe both, soft butter, and however temporary it is still relief.
Down the road then, past the eyes of hidden, manic felines, the rumble of trucks on the overpass, and into town, where a few morning shoppers have emerged, umbrellas aloft, vinyl bags exclaiming bright brands. They pass the monument where Tramp often lies prone, Mar trying to ignore the smell of him as they move, as every shift flicks a sting of pungency her way, grating short stabs in the thin cavities of her nostrils; her mouth-breathing is a surer way to proceed. She knows anyway that soon she will rid such stink, she will cleanse and purge him of his foulness, and by doing so purge herself too, perhaps even stop the ever-gurgle of her mewling mind and its growing concerns.
She had left the door open, a boot to keep ajar, and she now leads him into the warmth of her abode and is all giggle-heart and giddy-fill that she has come so far and is succeeding. Tramp, like a kitten in a foreign domain, is nervous and feels his bowels could betray and then there’d be even more of him and his stink to erase. Mar lets Tramp take it all in, the floral lampshades, the matching sofa and armchairs, the doilies, none of which she chose, and she is glad that he is sheltered now and away from the wet slaps of winter, here in haven is, and she turns the heater up even more for him.
Mar leads him to the bottom of the stairs and they both look up, Tramp like it is a mountain, Mar like her task is about to begin and she can do what she has been planning. So they mount, up fourteen steps, then landing, and then the bathroom door pushed open: the scent of soap, shampoos, clean things, nothing off, everything just so. And she moves towards him, Mar always towards, and takes the great coat from his shoulders. It falls heavily to his feet and Tramp leaves her do more, unbuttoning shirt, loosening belt till all filthy garments are off, discarded, and Tramp, mostly dirt-encased, stands nude and decrepit before her. Mar only smiles and she urges him, gently again, into the bath where she turns on the hot water and begins to shower him; water on Tramp an alien feel as the blackness lifts off skin, is made soluble and runs and drains. Soaps and gels are applied and Mar works harder than she ever has before, scrubbing and cleaning in crevices and nooks and folds and plains and smiles as she does so. Her feet are tired, not used to the walk, but she stubbornly cleans on, and Tramp is emerging pink from the hot spray and fierce attention.
Mar pats and rubs briskly with a towel and Tramp has the beginnings of arousal, but she ignores it, for this is not occasion. Tramp says nothing, maybe surprised that there is this slight rise after the lightning hit hard and they said that neither he nor it would rise again, and Mar says nothing either, for she is doing what is required, what she has planned to do, and it is much too late to abandon now, so near is the completion.
Tramp puts socks on by himself. Also puts Father’s clean underwear on. And because his fingers are fumbly-foolish with shirt buttons, Mar takes it upon herself to finish the dressing and does so like she has never done anything else, legerdemain. A brief Burberry spray and Mar shuffles him in front of the full-length mirror and Tramp’s smile matches Mar’s for wild wideness and base beauty. Mar looks to the discarded clothes and considers getting a refuse sack for them to burn, a pile to be lost forever in plumes, all putridity erased, but the key in the door below distracts her and she thinks how lucky she is to have gotten the job done without interruption.
Voices below, raised, nurse and parents quarrel-tied and out of wits with concern. Questions pummel nurse: just how Margaret managed to escape and why her pills on the table, are on the table untaken? And Nurse Mel says she only popped out of the house to get some milk and other necessary perishables from Robert’s, and Margaret had appeared to be sedated and Mel was sure she would stay put for that brief time, was watching, at least in front of, her favourite cartoons. Father is gestic-cursing and both he and Mother look up to see Margaret and the new man descend, aghast at the sight of their daughter in flimsy summer attire. New Man says nothing but is openmouthed as if words might just emerge, but the lightning they say once struck put paid to that, and anyway the crispy critter gets no chance, for as he moves towards Father, Father begins to unleash sincere thanks for bringing the girl home safely and safely home, that she isn’t allowed out yet and they very much appreciate the kindness this stranger has shown: to go out of his way to see her home safely and safely home, and then Father begins to wonder why the man is wearing his clothes and why he stinks of his cologne.