There are some mothers who blow kisses into the palms of their babies’ hands to keep them safe at night.

You sell your first kisses for money. Your mother watches closely each time to make sure your lips really do touch the pig-bristly cheeks of your grandmother. A butterfly kiss won’t do. It has to be what your mother calls ‘a smacker’. Once you catch the old woman raise her fingers to her skin to feel round the spot where you have kissed her—but gently, as if she is remembering other, better, times. This is the first time you feel guilty taking the money from your mother afterwards, and later in bed you puzzle at her stupidity. At the stupidity of all people who would pay you for something you want to do anyway.

One day at school, you meet your match. At playtime, a girl called Elizabeth in the year above sets up a kiosk by the gate into the field and stands there, eyes shut, lips puckered and hand outstretched. You queue up with the other boys and know that it isn’t just in your imagination that she lingers longer with you, that her shut eyelids seem to flicker when you kiss her and that her hand flinches slightly after as you give over your money. After their turn, some boys run straight round to the back of the line for another go, but you don’t. You stand watching. You can’t take your eyes off Elizabeth.

 

There are mothers who leave kisses at night.

That night you stay downstairs after supper. Your mother tells you sharply to go up to bed. What are you waiting for? The back of her hand? She is always so tired and worried these days. You climb upstairs and think of how your mother used to close your little starfish fingers one by one around a kiss in the palm of your hand so that a part of her could stay by you all night long. You try it yourself but the kiss leaks out of your grasp. You can’t grip hard enough.

After word about Elizabeth gets round, your teacher tries to give the class a moral lesson. Love is as free as the air, she says, but also weighed down with a responsibility so great it roots it in the earth. You watch your teacher’s hands as they shape a tree, you see her eyes light up with the effort of getting across her point, while all around you, boys and girls giggle every time she says kiss because her tongue darts forward then, almost unnoticeably, between her lips, until it rests on her bottom teeth. It is like a snake. The teacher is careful never to look at Elizabeth who sits with her head in her hands. You think she might be keening slightly but it is only when you lean forward, concerned about her, that you notice she is laughing too.

 

There are mothers.

Your grandmother never manages to learn the language you speak. Your mother used to skip between the two of you with rolling r’s and guttural a’s. When your grandmother dies and you are taken to see her body, your mother tells you to bend over and kiss the cold, white cheeks. Just when you are about to, you look up and watch your father hold your mother tight in the pool of candlelight on the other side of the coffin. He is kissing away her tears, but hungrily as if he wants to taste their saltiness. Later your mother asks if you kissed your grandmother properly and you nod, lying. You do not expect her to offer you money, and she doesn’t. You think of your grandmother’s hands and how they lay folded across her chest. You wished you had kissed her. You wished you had blown a kiss into each of those hands to keep her safe.

 

The palms of their hands.

When the soldiers set foot in your town, you go to watch them set up camp. Your father is waiting for you in the kitchen when you get back. At first, he’s pleased to see you, but then he stops. He sniffs the air. He asks if that is alcohol he can smell and you nod. The soldiers gave it to you, you say, and the red in his face would be frightening if your belly wasn’t heated by the drink, and you laugh. When he asks you to bend over so he can beat you, you try to remember the last time he touched you. This is why you let him, although you are bigger than him, although he has already taught you every lesson you need to learn.

 

To keep them safe at night.

A soldier is put on patrol by the playground to your school. After a few uncomfortable days, the boys resume their football, the girls their skipping. You stay somewhere on the outside, where you’ve always been. You watch the soldier so closely, mimicking his steps backwards and forwards until you work out where he is looking. When you follow his gaze, you find Elizabeth. She is looking not at him but at you, and she has the same puzzled expression on the face that the soldier is turning on her.

The next day, there is no queue at Elizabeth’s kiosk. All the boys do is kick a ball from one side of the playground to the other. You watch the game from the edges, with your back to Elizabeth. At second break you see her playing a game with the other girls and when she runs past you, it’s not your fault that your leg shoots out, tripping her up. From the window to the sick room, you look past the nurse’s shoulders straining through her white uniform to where Elizabeth is sitting on the bed kissing her own cut knee over and over again. But nothing makes you feel better.

 

There are some mothers who blow kisses into the palms of their babies’ hands to keep them safe at night.

Your mother tells you that you must come home directly after school. She knows that it is hard not to have freedom but these are difficult times. You all spend more time together these days, although your father still can’t bring himself to meet your eyes. In the kitchen, your mother stands close to you. Silently she draws her hand from the top of her head and reaches upwards to the crown of yours. How did my baby grow so tall? she says. She calls your father in and shows him. To think there was a time when I would sit him on my knee and kiss him, she laughs. It is your grandmother you think of when you try to remember such a time.

It is hard to find a boy who admits to kissing Elizabeth. None of them will sit next to her, none will play with her at break-time. She sits in the corner with a group of the other children no one wants to be near. All they do is talk and talk and talk. It seems they want to talk themselves empty of everything that is happening to them, or might happen.

 

Blow kisses into the palms.

Your mother turns to you in the street one day and asks if you remember. When you ask what, she shakes her head annoyed and you see that the tears she shed at her mother’s funeral have engraved themselves into lines that carve through her skin. Do I remember what? you ask again and she walks on. I’ve forgotten, she says. It is as if she was waiting for her mother’s death to become an old lady herself. Now she is safe.

What you can’t remember is a time before there were soldiers at school, in the shops, in the parks. The soldiers who gave you vodka that first day have moved on now, but one day you find a soldier standing on his own outside a house. He calls you over and says he has something for you if you knock at the door and give this letter to the lady who answers it. The door opens so slightly that all you can see is a woman’s hand. You look at the soldier who nods and you pass over the letter. You walk back with the soldier to the room he is living in, with five other soldiers, and he gives you a photograph of a naked blonde-haired woman. She is leaning over a table as if she is reading a book, although her head is turned slightly so you can see her profile, and one breast. The men laugh when you take it.

 

The palms of their babies’ hands.

Your mother finds this photograph under your pillow. You do not let your father beat you this time, but your mother tells you over and over again that you must be careful. It is not your fault. She says it so many times that you think she might be talking herself into a trance but when you raise your hand to quiet her, she catches it and presses the palm against her mouth. Your father moves behind her, and you stand still as he pushes her away. You visit the soldiers again. They talk and laugh as if you are not there. One night after being with them, you say the word bitch in your mother’s house. It is your father who flinches.

 

There are some mothers who blow kisses into the palms of their babies’ hands to keep them safe at night.

Elizabeth comes over to you in the school yard one day. You are sitting alone, as you always are these days. Your grandmother was one, she says. You too. You wait for more but this is all. She turns her back on you then. Your grandmother. You too.

You ask your mother about your grandmother that evening. Do you remember how she liked my kisses, you say, but your mother moves her head to face the floor. Do not speak her name, she says. You go and beg more drink from the soldiers.

Your father has been trying to talk to you for days. You let him get as far as ‘dangerous times’ and then you lift your hand towards your face and pretend to shoot him like a machine gun. Rat-a-tat-a-tat. Eventually he asks you if you know what blood you come from. You tell him it is the blood that is spread over the floor as you shoot him. Your mother says you have never learnt to be a child, but she is wrong. You are playing now.

 

Mothers who blow kisses.

The friends who used to talk to Elizabeth disappear one by one. Your mother comes to the school one day and stands at the gate, waiting for you. You notice her shabby coat and the headscarf she wears too tightly round her face, and you take the back entrance. Your mother kisses you too often these days. You are scared she will forget and kiss you in front of the soldiers, your friends. It is not just her appearance that you are embarrassed for. She looks so much like your grandmother. You too, you whisper.

You come home from playing at the army camp one day to find Elizabeth alone in your kitchen. She talks about many things, and you are just about managing to talk back when her mother and father come out of the front room. You are annoyed at the interruption and when your father comes through, he refuses to tell you why they were there. What you don’t say is that the soldiers have been asking about your grandmother and you know now why they care.

The soldiers come to see your mother and father. You think they can’t remember you because they treat you as if you are not there, but when they go, before they let you through to see your mother and your father, one of them—the one who asked you to deliver the letter one day—tells you to be careful. If you are careful, everything will be alright.

 

Safe at night.

A different soldier calls you over in the street before school and asks about Elizabeth. You say you do not know who he means but he says you must. After all, you talked about her one day after you shared some vodka together. He sees your face and laughs. She has been selling kisses again but this time to the soldiers, he says.

The soldier wants you to point Elizabeth out. You say he knows who she is but he tells you he wants you to be the one to show him. Think of your parents, he says. Then he laughs. This way you get to kiss her. He holds out a gold coin. You think of your mother and how she used to pay you to kiss your grandmother.

 

Babies keep them safe at night.

Your grandmother is asleep in her coffin bed. Elizabeth is sitting on her own on the fourth step in the school yard. She smiles as you come towards her. Behind you, you can almost hear the breath of the soldier as he counts each step with you. In your palm, you hold the gold coin tight. Each of your fingers is curled round, keeping it safe. Elizabeth’s look of greeting turns to one of surprise as you walk straight past her, out of the school gate and into the arms of the waiting soldier.

You do not sell your last kiss for money.

 

There are some mothers who blow kisses into the palms of their babies’ hands to keep them safe at night.