I was peering out the open back window, trying to look into the bedroom directly across from us. Sometimes the lady who lived there neglected to shut her curtains all the way and I got to see her getting dressed or undressed. From that angle, I figured she probably had no idea I was there. And I knew I couldn’t be seen at all from down below, where my parents were sitting in dusky silhouette under a tornado-green sky.
There were two empty beer cans on the ground and I watched as my father worked his way through a third. That surprised me because he wasn’t much of a drinker and I had never seen him drink the day before a shift behind the wheel. His life was already a struggle without the added complications of alcohol that had reduced his own father, my grandfather in name only, to a mere shade among shadows. Having worked fourteen-hour days, six days a week, for more than two decades, my father, still in his thirties, had nothing to show for it except a gammy hip and a mountain of unavoidable debt he would never be able to get rid of.
My mother, at forty, looked older than her years. She was dressed in a long-sleeved blouse and full-length skirt, with a soft hat on her head and. She was using the ringed fingers of her left hand to fiddle with something white and red hanging from the closed palm of her right hand. Rosary beads, of course.
They were close together, their faces almost touching, deep in conversation.
‘We need to wait and see what the doctor thinks,’ my father said, lighting a cigarette. ‘Nothing else we can do.’
‘I know that. I’m just glad I went and got it checked as soon as I noticed the lump,’ said my mother. ‘Can you imagine if I hadn’t gone and got it checked? God forbid.’
She blessed herself twice.
He waited half a cigarette before answering, ‘I know. Jesus. I don’t even want to think about it.’
‘I’ll keep saying my prayers and I’ll light a candle to St. Anthony when we go to mass again this week.’
None of what they’d said made much sense to me.
My father put his can down, the crude tattoos of black crows that covered both wrists clearly visible even from a distance, and leaned over to give my mother a peck on the cheek, then a long kiss on the lips. It was one of the few times I ever saw any genuine affection between them, making that glimpse as troublesome as it was rare.
I closed the window and went inside. I’d forgotten all about the neighbour and the prospect of some forbidden flesh.
The following day, a Friday, was a big day at school. I’d been worried about it.
Lined up along the wall outside the school nurse’s office with the rest of the boys in my class, I glanced around and saw they were all as terrified as I was. Rumours had been going round the school for weeks about what was going to happen. Still nobody knew for sure but I had heard enough to have a fair idea.
We were in for the dreaded cold-spoon test.
We were to be taken in to see the nurse one at a time. We were to take down our trousers and pants when she told us to and she would then place a spoon on our testicles. The spoon lived in the fridge. If you got an erection while the cold spoon was against your testicles that meant you were a homosexual and you would be put in a special class with other boys who were also homosexuals.
My main concern was how I was going to avoid getting an erection while naked from the waist down in a room with a woman. It didn’t seem possible. Also, I was confused about how getting turned on in front of a woman made you gay but there were all sorts of things I didn’t really understand so I put it down as just another one of those.
The line was getting smaller and smaller. I was getting more and more nervous.
The boys who had come out were grinning and giving the thumbs up and they teased those of us who had still to go in. They must have passed the test, I thought. They were definitely straight, then. Lucky bastards.
Before I knew it, it was my turn.
I shuffled in and my heart sank: the nurse was gorgeous; a real piece of work. No wonder they called it a test. I was already starting to feel a little turned on, still fully-clothed, and hadn’t even seen a spoon yet.
‘Don’t be shy,’ she said in a posh accent that definitely wasn’t local. ‘Come right in and take a seat.’
I sat down across from her in the only chair.
‘Your name is Leonard Tootle, is that correct?’
‘Yes, miss.’ My mouth was stale. I could hardly get the words out. ‘But most people just call me Lenny.’
‘Right. And what is your date of birth, Leonard?’
‘Seventh of the twelfth seventy-eight, miss.’
‘Okay, if you could just get yourself ready while I give my hands a quick wash.’
She turned to face the sink.
‘Yes, miss,’ I said to her back.
This was it. The moment of truth.
I pulled down my second-hand trousers and threadbare pants and stood there trying not to get an erection. I decided to do what one of the other boys had suggested by thinking of something else: I closed my eyes, waiting for the feel of metal, and began thinking of Celtic’s legendary double-winning 1988 centenary team.
Bonner, Morris, Whyte, Aitken, Burns…
I’d got as far as Paul McStay when the nurse started shouting, ‘What on earth are you doing, boy? Have you gone completely mad?’
I opened my eyes. She was facing me now, looking at some fixed spot over my shoulder. I couldn’t see a spoon.
‘I’m sorry, miss. I thought…’
‘I am sure I don’t care what you thought. Put that thing away at once, young man.’
As it turned out, there was no such thing as the cold-spoon test. I was there to get a jag. A vaccine against tuberculosis, she explained. No wonder the boys before me had come out smiling; either they had been in on it all along or, more likely, they were just as relieved as I was.
After the initial shock had worn off and my genitals were safely tucked away, the nurse was actually fine about the whole thing. She made a little joke of it and then let it go at that. No doubt she has had to deal with a lot worse before and since. She jabbed me in the top of my left arm with a great big needle – this caused a temporary raised blister and I still have the scar – then gave me a sugar cube to suck on and sent me on my way with a promise not to tell anyone about what had happened.
I was glad I wasn’t in trouble and couldn’t get tuberculosis and I felt very relieved I wasn’t a homosexual, but I didn’t come out of there laughing and joking the way the others had done.
Never mind cold spoons and contagious diseases and sexuality, I had a much more sinister thing on my mind. I’d looked the other way as the nurse was sticking me and some information on what girls should do if they noticed a lump caught my eye.
I’d just found out from a poster on a wall at school what my parents’ conversation had been about.
Christopher P. Mooney was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1978. At various times in his life he has been a paperboy, a supermarket cashier, a shelf stacker, a barman, a cinema usher, a carpet-fitter’s labourer, a foreign-language assistant and a teacher. He currently lives and writes in someone else’s small flat near London and his debut collection of short fiction, Whisky for Breakfast, will be published later this year by Bridge House.