goosified (adj.): affected with 'goose-flesh'
When it was his turn to talk to Hayley, Murray stretched the phone-cord until it could reach the hall cupboard. Then he spoke to his sister in a whisper, so that he wouldn’t be heard by their mother.
‘How’s university?’ he asked.
‘Turns out the most complicated books have the least to say,’ she paused. ‘How’s school?’
‘Fine,’ he said. ‘Complicated.’
The wall of the cupboard held the chill of outside. Beyond it, Murray could hear the inhale-exhale of the waves and the clang of the ferry against the slipway; the ferry that brought Hayley back less-and-less often.
‘Hayley,’ he asked. ‘Is it right that when you fall in love your skin prickles and your hairs stand on end?’
There was silence, but only because she was thinking. She was good like that – never questioning his questions.
‘I’m no expert,’ she said. ‘But I guess it is that. It’s a mixture of excitement and fear, right enough, and it sends a chill through you but you’re smiling at the same time.’
‘Like I say, I’m no expert.’
Murray was curious because of Sara. She lived in the flat above the pub. Their mums said the two of them were destined to get married – together they’d used the shells and stones on the beach as teething aids; the hill down from the kirk as a tandem-track; the seafront wall to swing their legs until the mortar showed the dent of where their heels hit.
Sara obviously had similar thoughts, because she’d asked Murray if he wanted to be her boyfriend. It was in full view of everyone, although he wasn’t sure if they’d overheard. He told her that he’d ponder it, and then wondered where that word had come from.
He liked Sara, no doubt. She had a curl to her dark hair and eyes that creased down to slats when she laughed. He felt a shiver when she sang Nina Simone, softly, on the walk to school and they would share a smile as they sent skimmer-stones out into the bay. But, love?
In the days that followed, Murray decided to experiment. He needed something for comparison, so he thought back to when he’d had goose-flesh in the past and then set about raising the pimples of it again.
First, he turned the radiator in the bathroom off and then the hot water on full. His right foot was near-numb as he lifted it into the bath. He held it there as it poached. He got his other foot in too, but then he had to run the cold tap. Next day he had a chilblain like a polished stone on his instep.
Cold to hot hadn’t worked, so he tried the opposite. Bundled up in all the jerseys and coats he owned, he walked, sweat-slick, to the shore. It was only ten paces from his front door. He stripped to his boxers and splashed into the foam until he was in up to his shoulders. It knocked the breath from him and sharpened the pain at his ankle until it was as keen as a knife-wound. He gasped his way back out.
That night, in bed, he read the book Hayley had given him for his birthday. Atonement, it was called. He remembered feeling something when he turned the final page; a wash of elation that had also brought tears to his eyes. Re-reading the first twenty pages did nothing, though.
He decided to redouble his efforts. In the morning, he paced up into the fields above the village and found the one with the bull. There was certainly a tinge of fear as he held his hand out towards the electric fence. He paused, felt the bull’s brown eyes on him. With the first touch, his hand snatched itself back. The second – held for longer – left him on his backside in the bracken. Still, he felt nothing except his thumping heart.
That afternoon, he sat on his bed with his headphones on and listened to ‘Mississippi Goddam’ at full volume. He thought of Sara, certainly, but also of Hayley, who’d given him the CD. With his eyes closed, he resolved to move the experiment on to its acid test.
The ferry took the last of the daylight with it and also, thankfully, the gusting rain. There were lights in most windows, but the brightest came from the pub. Those too young to be inside stood at the corner and listened for the belch of conversation and laughter that came whenever the door opened.
Sara stood on the fringes. Murray walked up to her and held out his hand. She took it and he half-pulled her to where the melted-butter of the light on the pavement faded into shadow. He had to stoop slightly to bring his lips to hers.
There was a cheer behind them, an attempt at a whistle, but Murray felt no knives at his instep, no backside in the bracken. His heartbeat was neither thumping nor stone-skipping. She tasted of aniseed, faintly, and her lips were cracked and dry.
‘Does this mean I’m your girlfriend?’ she asked, and he shrugged and felt the itch of the chilblain on his ankle.
‘How’s university?’ he asked Hayley, on the phone, the next day.
‘I’m looking forward to coming home at Christmas.’
‘Only three weeks,’ he said.
The cupboard smelt of peat. It probably came from his mum’s boots, kicked off against the side-wall. Murray wondered whether Sara had a smell and whether the aniseed taste had been a coincidence or if she would always hold that flavour.
‘I was talking to mum…’ Hayley said, on the other end of the line. ‘And asking her if you could come back down with me after the holidays. For a wee visit, you know, to see a show and visit the big shops.’
‘Yes,’ Murray felt as breathless as after his sea-swim. He closed his eyes. ‘And?’
‘She said she didn’t see why not,’ she paused. ‘So how does that sound?’
Murray didn’t answer for a moment. He was savouring the sensation.