To Jay, it seemed like a good idea at the time. The tree was not very tall, the ground beneath it was soft and grassy, and she was bored. Staying at Gran and Grandpa's was always boring.
"Watch yourself, dear," her mother said. She and Gran were in garden chairs, sipping tea, while Paul, Jay's younger brother, played on the grass at their feet. And of course Grandpa was there, slouched in his old deckchair, saying nothing, as usual.
Jay tested the lower branches. "I'm alright Mum."
"She'll be alright, dear," Gran said, wanting to get back to the story about the smoke-alarm salesman.
Jay began to climb. She wasn't used to climbing trees. The first few branches were easy enough, and she was just beginning to think she must be a natural at this sort of thing when she found herself in difficulties. She had, somehow, got her ankles hooked over a branch slightly higher than the rest of her. She'd been intending to arch her back and hand-spring to the next branch up, but that, she realised, was a little beyond her seven-year-old strength. The trouble was, now she was in this position, she couldn't get out of it.
She had two choices. She could call for her mother to come and help her, or she could let go.
It can't be that bad to fall, she thought. The ground's not too far away, and it is grass.
So she let go. Her mother screeched. Grandma's flow of words didn't stop or slow, it just changed subject and started repeating itself: "Oh dear, oh dear, is she — is she alright, is she? Oh dear."
"I'm alright, Mum," Jay said, looking up at the sun-edged silhouettes leaning over her. The whole world seemed to be slewing clockwise.
"No you're not. Don't move. Is anything broken? Can you get up?"
"I don't know." There was a dull ache in her left leg, which had somehow ended up beneath the rest of her in the fall. Perhaps it had been a slightly longer drop than she'd thought. Perhaps the ground wasn't so soft after all.
Grandma provided a bit of practical wisdom, and soon Jay was up and they were testing each of her limbs. They discovered her left ankle was sprained.
"Really?" She'd never had a sprained ankle before, and knew only of boys that had. It felt dull and heavy, like a lead shoe.
"Let's get some ice to that foot."
Five minutes later she was sitting on a garden chair listening to the rest of the story about the smoke-alarm salesman, with her ankle sandwiched between a bag of frozen peas and a bag of frozen cabbage, bored again.
Grandpa stared at her. He said nothing. The only thing he did was take his pipe from his mouth and replace it a few moments later. It wasn't lit — Gran hated the smell — but he apparently needed something in his mouth, just as Paul still needed his thumb every now and then (Jay had long since given that up).
"How's the foot?" Mum said.
"I can't feel it."
"Oh — dear," Mum said, and looked at Gran.
"You won't," Gran said, calming them both. "And you won't be walking around for a bit, either."
"And we were going to go shopping this afternoon," Mum said.
"Can't we go anyway?" Jay said. "I'm sure I can walk."
"No walking on that foot," Gran said.
"I could hop."
"You'll do no such thing. I guess we'll just have to call off shopping."
There was a general disappointment.
Then Grandpa removed the pipe from his mouth and said, in his growly voice, "You go. I'll stay back with the child."
Gran and Mum looked surprised — as much at the fact that he'd spoken as at what he'd said. Gran recovered first. "Very well. You, me and Paul can go; Pa and Jay can stay home."
Jay scowled, but her mother ignored her.
As soon as the two ladies and Paul had gone, silence settled over the house. Jay had been set up in the living room, on the settee facing the TV, but Mum had said she wasn't to watch it unless there was something worth watching. Jay had decided to wait till they were gone, then turn it on, but Grandpa came in and sat in the chair opposite her.
He put his pipe in his mouth and stared.
He didn't stare at anything, it was more a state for his eyeballs to be in. They were slightly yellow, as if stained by years of pipe smoke. The irises were a murky green, and his eyebrows were like scrap-ends of iron wool.
The clock ticked. Dust settled. Grandpa's lips made the slightest of "pah" sounds as they parted to allow the removal and replacement of his pipe.
Jay bit her lip. "Can I watch TV, Grandpa?"
He chewed his pipe. "Anythin' on?"
"I don't know."
"Nothin' on." He resumed chewing his pipe.
Jay stared at the wallpaper. She sighed.
"Bored?" he rumbled.
He removed his pipe and raised his head, rolling his eyeballs to look down his nose at her. "Wundaseesummin?"
"Said, want to see somethin'?"
Grandpa remained motionless for a moment, then lifted the hand that was free of his pipe and started to pull his eyebrow upwards. At first, the eyelid merely raised, and she saw the top of his eyeball and the pinkish, inner flesh of the upper lid. It was the usual gross-out trick the boys at school did, and she'd seen it a dozen times before. Jay guessed he used this sort of thing to impress Paul and her other cousins — who were all boys, and likely to be impressed by it.
But he continued to pull. He pulled until she could see the edge of his skull under the flesh of his brow, then pulled some more till he revealed his temple, naked and white. His eyeball was completely bare now; it sat in its socket like a soft-boiled egg in a delicate cup.
He let go of his eyebrow and the flesh snapped back into place with a wet slap.
Jay stared at him.
Grandpa put his pipe back in his mouth and said nothing.
Jay lifted her fingers to test her own eyebrow, but it seemed as taut and firmly attached as it had always been. She looked back at Grandpa.
He took his pipe out of his mouth again, and used his free hand to grasp his bottom lip. This time, he pulled downwards, first showing the edge of his dentures and the blood-flushed gums beneath, then continuing to pull, until he was peeling the flesh right off his chin, showing the bone beneath, and then down to his neck, where she saw the thick arteries and veins laid bare, and his windpipe gaping into his lungs.
He let go, and his flesh rolled wetly back into place. His lower lip drooped, overstretched, and stayed like that when he put his pipe back in.
Jay put her hand over her mouth.
He was silent for a long time. She wondered if she was going to be sick. Was this some sort of punishment for spraining her ankle? Or was it supposed to be entertainment? Could all old people do this sort of thing? Was this one of those adult secrets only old folk who are slightly senile let on to the young ones?
Grandpa's lower lip had shrunk back now, and he removed his pipe again, ready for some more stretching.
"Don't!" Jay squeaked, and cringed as he reached for his right ear with his left hand. She looked to see if he had obeyed, and found he hadn't. He'd grabbed his right ear and pulled it round. His whole face had shifted over the contours of his skull so the flesh of his nose was hanging limply where his left ear had been, and she could see the workings of his jaw behind the seamless skin of what had been the side of his neck. He was breathing through his right ear.
A muffled voice said, "Better than TV, innit?" then his face slid back as he released his ear — but again, not quite. His nose looked slightly leftwards, and both eye sockets showed half eyeball, half pink inner-flesh.
"Don't Grandpa, it's disgusting," Jay said, and covered her face with her hands. For a long while she stayed like that, breathing through the cracks between her fingers until her hands and face where damp with breath.
"Want to know how it's done?" he said, when she peeked out.
He chewed his pipe for a moment. Then, as if what she'd said hadn't made the slightest difference, he leaned forward in his chair and reached for her face. Jay hid behind her hands again, but Grandpa's hard, leathery fingers removed them.
"Sit still," he said, and grabbed her lower lip.
She looked up at him, horrified.
With perfect calm, as if he were gluing the last matchstick to a scale model of St Paul's, he started to pull her lower lip upwards.
She gagged as the whole of her flesh shifted. She could feel it stretching all the way down her front and crinkling at her forehead. She tried to say something but her jaw was held firmly shut. Still he pulled, until her lower lip covered her eyes, and all she could see was pinkish red.
She made a desperate sound and he let go. Her lip snapped back like a wet balloon, and then she leant forward and coughed over Gran's dusty old living room floor and gasped in air.
When she looked up, Grandpa was watching her as if nothing had happened. She moved to the other end of the settee, as far away from him as possible. "When're they coming back?" she asked quietly.
"Reckon five," he said from around his pipe.
It was two fifteen, barely a quarter of an hour since they'd gone.
"Please don't do that again," she said.
His right eyebrow rose. He passed his pipe from the left side of his mouth to the right. "Don't like it?"
"No. Please, Grandpa."
"Don't like this?" He reached up for his face and she buried hers in her hands and counted to thirty. She peeked out again when she'd heard nothing more, afraid he might be reaching for her again. He'd done the eye-trick again, only this time with both hands. When he saw she'd seen, he let it all slip back into place.
"Don't like that, hm?"
"No," she sobbed.
He thought about this for a while, then shrugged. "Reckon you can watch TV then."