Read by Elizabeth Bower
It’s Lionel Levett who releases the bull, unhitching the hasp from the ring through its nose. He watches it slip between the wooden boards of the stall and into the street, smooth as a ship launching. As it sails past he reaches up to douse its wide, warm flank with a splash of lemonade from the glass bottle in his hand.
The bull reminds Lionel of his father, and if there’s one thing in the world Lionel would like to do for his dad, it’s set him loose. Nev Levett owns a market stall selling the scrap silver that stains his hands black with sulphide. Sometimes Lionel finds his dad stretched out under the stall with a handkerchief over his face like a corpse, but he isn’t sleeping, he’s shaking. Annie, Lionel’s stepmother - that’s who Lionel blames. Annie has a sting like a gadfly when she gets going. So the bull, sweltering in its stall in the Cally Market, makes Lionel think of his dad, and so off the chain comes and out the bull goes. Lionel watches after it with the feeling of a job well done.
Perhaps lying under things runs in the Levett family. Three streets away, Frank Levett, Lionel’s older brother, is lying on his back under the kitchen table. He’s naked. The reasons for this are complex and various. Frank has liked to lie on the floor since he was a child – his mother sometimes had trouble getting him to stand or walk at all. Frank preferred to wriggle on his stomach like a snake. Things, Frank has always thought, look different from the floor. It changes your perspective, makes the familiar strange and the small familiar. Plus, it’s August, it’s hot, and the dark cave formed by the checked tablecloth is a shelter from the sun that floods the room, and from other things too. Why is Frank naked? He has just nearly had sex with his step-mother Annie. Just nearly, because Frank, standing in front of Annie’s bed with his clothes already in a heap at his feet, suddenly scooped them up and ran from the room.
Annie hasn’t bothered following him yet. In the meantime, under the table seems as good a place to consider the situation as any. Frank hasn’t slept with Annie before, but he has had what he considers impure thoughts about her. He also has impure thoughts about Sarah Davey, whose dad runs the grocer’s stall on Market Street. She has a well-developed chest for a fifteen year old, and wields it like her only weapon, standing with her hands on her hips and her legs apart like the Colussus of Rhodes. Recently he’s been thinking impure thoughts about Annie and Sarah more than he’s been thinking about cigarette cards, which is still mostly what he thinks about the rest of the time. He’s one away from the full Tottenham Hotspur set, with only goalie George Clawley missing. Frank’s dreams at night are an exciting muddle of Annie, Sarah and the elusive George.
Annie has had impure thoughts about Frank too, who’s tall for sixteen, and already has the shadow of a moustache. You can’t really blame Annie for this, in her opinion. She’s only thirty herself, and her husband Nev is a useless lug with black hands and a red forehead, and all she’s got out of life so far are two children that aren’t her own and the run of two dingy rooms above the Cally Market that stink of cow shit on Mondays and Thursdays and rattle with the racket from the silver stalls on Tuesday and Fridays. She’s entitled to a little enjoyment, she reckons. Not that she’s getting up and chasing after Frank though. He’ll come back soon enough, that’s Annie’s assessment of the situation.
So Annie lies and listens to the distant clatter and shout from outside, where the bull has reached the Market Road and is swinging down the middle of it through the crowd like a bowling ball through skittles. In the kitchen, Frank stares up at the underside of the table. It’s made from the lid of a packing crate and the word SEVILLE is stamped across the underside of the boards in a murky red ink. Frank knew the shape of this mysterious word before he could read, tracing it like the map of a torturous red road. Now he reads it with new eyes, and sees that there’s a message in it, one that’s been waiting here for him to discover all his life, hidden in plain sight. The hot red word, EVIL.
Frank crawls out from under the table and puts his clothes on. He shuts the door quietly behind him and creeps down the stairs and into the street. He can hear the market from the doorstep, the din of the crowd and the bellow of the animals, and it makes him think of hell.
Nev Levett is sitting in the Black Bull pub with his thick arms on the table, drinking porter from a pewter mug, sucking the froth from his moustache and thinking about dogs. Nev wishes he’d got a dog instead of another wife. A dog wouldn’t hide his tobacco or tell him not to grind his teeth. But his wife won’t hear of a dog. So Nev is picturing the dog he should have got, with a sagacious face and a glint in its eye, when the bull passes the window. It has just tossed over a haberdashery stall and caught a length of white taffeta on its horns, so it looks like a massive, stately bride coming down the street, with a train of boys, shop assistants and cattle drivers shouting and jostling along behind it. The bull is lost in the labyrinth of streets and pens, a hot maze at the centre of which the bull remembers its stall as a haven of cool shade. It is trying to get back there. Occasionally one or two of the braver men will make a dash for the ring through its nose and not quite reach it, ducking away from the sweep of its pitchfork horns as it turns.
The bull reminds Nev Levett of someone. He feels strangely sad, jealous almost, as if he is watching another man succeed where he has failed. He downs the porter and hurries from the pub, pulling his flat cap low over his brow and jingling the change in his pocket.
Lionel has a scientific mind. He likes to watch, to set an experiment going and follow it to its conclusion in the spirit of rational enquiry. The results may prompt him to raise an eyebrow, or nod at the confirmation of a hypothesis. Lionel has been following the bull’s path, from the stall where he set it going, to the point where it is now. Its trajectory is as interesting to him as the curve of a ball or the acceleration of a bullet to a physicist. So Lionel is in the crowd, swigging occasionally from his lemonade bottle, his cap pushed back on his forehead and his shirtsleeves rolled up in the heat. It gives him a bit of a turn to see his dad fall into step by his side, because Nev Levett and the bull have the same look of earnest confusion at the way things have turned out.
“Alright, dad. Bull’s out.”
“Son. Seems that way.”
And now, Lionel is watching his dad with renewed interest, because there’s something in the precarious in the old man’s eyes, and Lionel’s wondering what it will lead to.
Frank Levett is on Maiden Lane. The heat is opening him out like a peeled orange, tender and ripe and slightly swollen. Frank is preoccupied with the question of whether nearly sleeping with your stepmother is counted as incest. The warning message from the underside of the kitchen table is printed over everything, and when he blinks he sees Annie on the bed, breasts small as satsumas in Christmas stockings, belly button staring at him like an eye. His face is flushed, and he keeps the church steeple of St Mary Magdalene in sight like the peak of a mountain he’s climbing. He draws level with Davey’s stall, and there’s Sarah, with her red mottled arms clutched together below her chest, the top tie of her dress undone.
“Hot, ain’t it?” she says, and Frank throbs so dangerously all through his body that he runs past without saying a word.
On Market Street, Nev Levett has parted the crowd like a rock in a river and Lionel has followed in his wake. They’re right up front near the bull. Then a window in the building above them crashes open and a woman screams. Whether she’s screaming at the sight of the bull or at something more sinister inside the house is unclear, but the bull snorts and pirouettes on the spot as nimbly as a ballet dancer, so that it’s facing the crowd. And at the head of the crowd are Lionel and his dad Nev.
The bull roars. The heat, the dazzling white of the material caught on its horns, the cobbles slippery with dung and cabbage leaves under its hooves and the roar of a passing train, all send him into a frenzy. It charges.
The crowd scatters, down side streets, into doorways, through windows, behind fences. Lionel and Nev dive under a barrow. They lie in the straw and muck, staring at the wooden boards above them.
And it’s right at this moment, when the bull is spinning and roaring in crazy circles in the empty street, that Frank Levett turns the corner. Frank and the bull stop. There is something indefinable in both their eyes. In Frank’s it could be something like the recognition of a deserved fate. In the bull’s, it’s more like a pleading for peace. They face each other.
Under the barrow, Nev Levett is hanging onto Lionel’s collar .
“What about Frank, dad?”
Nev shuffles onto his side and looks him in the eye, then he’s away, rolling out from under the barrow and springing to his feet, in between the bull and his oldest son.
In this moment, from under the barrow, Lionel suddenly sees the threads between everything; the ones that move us all around in the big, beautiful puppet theatre of the world. There must be threads, Lionel thinks. What else could explain the trajectories of father, brothers and bull, here, to this street, on this sunny afternoon? Lionel knows now that it wasn’t him who set the bull going, even though his hand slipped the chain.
Nev Levett makes himself wide, flinging his arms open, because someone in the pub once told him that’s what you do with bears. There aren’t any bears in Camden, but it might work just as well with a bull, he thinks. The bull stamps its foot and starts to run. They are twenty feet apart, ten, five, and Nev is looking straight into the bull’s brown eyes, and there’s recognition there, flashing between them like a spark down a wire. For a moment Nev sees the puppet threads too, dancing him and the bull together. The bull catches Nev on its horns, twists him up and throws him casually as a bag of straw. Then it paws the ground in a puzzled manner and trots away, back to its stall. You can set a creature free, but sometimes it prefers its trap.
Frank and Lionel Levett run forward to pat and shake their dad’s broad chest. Nev is staring up into the sky. It’s far too big and deep, as if he’s looking into a bottomless pool. Vertigo grips him and he closes his eyes. That’s better. Now he sees the planks of the bottom of his own market stall above him, each whorl and line known to him like a secret language, and he feels safer; not like he’s falling at all.
The Escape by Emily Cleaver was read by Elizabeth Bower at the Liars' League Win, Women & Song event on Tuesday 13 April 2010
Emily Cleaver has had work published in Smoke and One Eye Grey magazines, performed at the live fiction events Liars’ League and Tales of the DeCongested, and is working on a collection of stories set in Victorian London. She works in a second-hand bookshop on Charing Cross Road.
Elizabeth Bower graduated from Warwick University and trained at Mountview. She has played Shakespeare's Juliet and Lady Macbeth on stage and recently appeared in the BBC4 film Micro Men and as series regular, Melody Bell in BBC1 drama, Doctors. She narrates children’s adventures for BBC7 and for Short Story Radio. Elizabeth is delighted to be reading with the Liars’ League.