Chris Sample set off for church at quarter past six as usual. It was February and chilly so he wore his dark overcoat, as he always did when it was cold. Beneath was his blue serge suit, which he always wore to church. He’d eaten a tea of tinned salmon and salad, which his mother always prepared on Sundays. He gave out hymn books on the door to the small congregation, as ever; and he sat on the back row on the left, where he’d sat every Sunday for years. But this week, something was different: the girl who sat beside him had never been there before.
"Hello," she said, as she sat down.
She was very slim, her hair was light brown, short and shone from brushing. He noticed she was flat-chested. But she was pretty and nicely self-contained, chirpy and confident. She sang very sweetly too.When they left, Sample was on his way to the pub.
"I’m Carol, by the way," she said and held out her hand.
Her skin was beautifully soft and in spite of the weather she was warm.
"Are you walking home ?"
"I’m heading to Cop Lane."
"Oh. Well, I’ll walk with you. If that’s okay."
"That’s nice of you."
He was taken aback by the generosity of her compliment. She turned to him with a friendly smile. Nice teeth . And her eyes were blue and wide. There flashed into his mind the picture of those soft, warm hands stroking his hard cock.
She lived in one of those small, three-bedroomed semis built between the wars, all almost identical and facing one another across a narrow road. This was the territory that depressed him. He preferred even the terraced streets of the town. These were the prissy dwellings of the dull-witted, nine-to-five Tory voters that made his blood run cold.
"This is mine," she said.
"Not very nice, really is it ?
"Yes, I suppose it’s okay. It’s a place to live. If you can call it living. I can’t invite you in."
"My dad’s very strict."
"He used to be a policeman."
"Did he ? What does he do now ?"
"He has half shares in a pub. With my uncle. He lives there. My dad helps him run it and takes a cut of the profits."
"My mum’d let you in."
He looked at her. She was leaning against the gatepost. She reached down and scratched her calf , still looking into his eyes. He resisted shifting his gaze to her leg.
"We can sneak round the side if we’re quiet."
"Can we ?"
"They won’t see us. They’ll be in the back room watching telly. They’ve just got colour. My dad thinks it’s a miracle."
"Well, science is pretty amazing."
"Come on !"
She went on tiptoe down the path and unlatched the gate between the house and garage. He came through and she closed it after him. She put her finger to her lips and went delicately along the flagstones that led round the back of the prefabricated concrete building. It was quite dark.
"Bit nippy, isn’t it ?"`she said.
She leant back against the garage wall and smiled at him. How sweet she was ! He put his hand on her waist.
"You don’t mind, do you," she said, "not being able to go inside ?"
Her lips were very warm and soft, like her hands and she kissed very gently, very responsively. After half an hour she said:
"I’d better go in. They’ll be wondering where I’ve got to."
"Do you want to go for a drink ?"
"I’m not allowed."
"My mother’s a Methodist. She doesn’t approve of drinking."
"But your dad runs a pub !"
"I know. She’s disgusted. You should hear her go on."
"You’re old enough to make up your own mind."
"Oh, I do. But they don’t know that. I try to keep them happy. That way they stay off my back."
She led him to the front gate, pecked him on the lips.
"See you next Sunday."
When Sample got to the pub, his mates were about to leave.
"Where’ve you been ?"
"Just got held up a bit."
Sunday became their regular thing. They sang hymns, prayed then snogged behind her garage. But the evenings were getting lighter. It wasn’t possible to sneak round the back. Carol took him into the house.
"This is Chris, I met him in church."
Carol’s dad was a caricature of an ex-copper. He was huge. His hands hung at sides as if his fingers were filled with uranium. His chest could have housed the Liverpool Phil. He had a black goatee streaked with grey and his head was cocked back slightly as if he was ready for a fight.
"About time you got a haircut, isn’t it lad ?" he said.
"I had a trim last week."
"Trim ? Short back and sides is what it needs."
"Would you like a coffee ?" said Carol.
"Tea, please. Black. No sugar."
"And what do you do with yourself, young man ?" asked her dad.
"I’m a clerk for the Transport and General Workers’ Union."
"My God, mother, our Carol’s brought home a communist !"
"He’s a Christian, dad. How can he be a communist ?"
"There’s no lengths they won’t go to infiltrate. Tell me straight lad, are you a member of the Communist Party ?"
Sample had never been a member of anything, except the cubs, and they expelled him for insubordination.
"As a matter of fact," he said as Carol handed him his mug, "I used to be but they kicked me out."
"What for ?"
"I was too left wing."
Carol’s dad stared at him for a moment.
"Put that mug down and leave my house."
"Walter, you can’t kick the boy out !" said Carol’s mum.
"Why can’t I ? It’s my house."
Sample put the mug down on the table.
"Goodbye Mrs Nobbs."
Carol followed him out and to the gate.
"Don’t worry, my mother will talk him round."
"He doesn’t mean anything by it, he’s just insecure."
"That’s what they said about Hitler."
"I can get out on Wednesday."
"You make it sound like prison. Does he give you remission for good behaviour ?"
"I’m only seventeen. He thinks I’m still his little girl."
"Wednesday ? We could go to the flicks if you like."
That week, Sample found the address of the Communist Party and wrote for details. When the package arrived, he applied for membership of the Young Communist League. At work he asked one of the old hands where he could find out about communism.
"Read Marx, lad. Horse’s mouth."
He went to the library and got a copy of The Communist Manifesto. It didn’t make much sense on the first reading but he went through it several times and it began to come into focus. One evening he was watching the news and Harold Wilson said:
"We can’t take lectures from people who don’t do a hand’s turn.."
and something fell into place in his head.
He met Carol more often. Whenever she could get out they’d find somewhere quiet. All through the summer they snogged behind trees, round the back of shops, in empty bus shelters and through her thin dresses and skirts and blouses he got to know the distant territory of her lovely body. He took her home to meet his mother who gave them tinned salmon and salad for Sunday tea. Mrs Sample thought her a grand lass, especially as her mother was a non-conformist.
"Why don’t we go back to my house ? My mother’ll be in bed at half past nine."
"Why not ?"
"I don’t know. I don’t like to."
The autumn came round again and winter closed in. They were behind her garage after church. She took his hand and pressed it to her crotch, so he worked up her skirt and slipped into her knickers. When his finger went in she let out a little cry.
"You okay ?"
"Yes. Go on."
Her excitement rose in little gasps and squeals until she clung to him and went taut. As he walked home, the picture of her sweet cunt was in his head. He was very pleased and proud. In bed he read a few pages of The Acquisitive Society. The words swam in his head but little by little they were coming to create a pattern. The old bloke at work was feeding titles to him, lending him paperbacks from his collection. He was starting to like two things above all: Carol’s body and reading.
In church they sat together on the back row. It was a plain, Congregationalist chapel, whose straightforwardness he liked. There was no pomp or elaborate ritual and the vicar was a literary man who made reference to Shakespeare, Hazlitt, Chaucer, Goldsmith, Eliot, Lamb, Crabbe and a Frenchman called Sartre. Each week, Sample made a note of the names and went to the library to find their books. There were three second-hand dealers in the town. Every Saturday he went to browse and began to build his own modest collection. When he read Existentialism is a Humanism, he wondered why a vicar should admire Sartre. God, who had been a presence in his life since he mother gave him an illustrated bible for Christmas when he was six, evaporated like an early mist on an April day.
But he kept going to church. He liked it. It was a little hour of asylum. He enjoyed the singing even though some of the hymns were foot-dragging dirges. He knew all the people and the vicar was feeding him new literary names week by week. In any case, it was pleasant to sit and listen to a sermon about a god in which he didn’t believe. A lot of it became ludicrously hilarious. And, of course, there was Carol.
One Sunday, behind the garage, she lifted her skirt and stepped out of her knickers. He began the usual, delightful stimulation of her gorgeous cunt. Previously, she’d run her hand over his hard cock through his bulging trousers. Now, she unfastened them, pulled them down and caressed his erection and his balls. He was amazed that in spite of the near freezing weather, her hand was beautifully warm. She wrapped her fingers round and moved rhythmically back and forward till he spurted against the garage.
"Here," she said, handing him a tissue.
When he was all fastened up again and she had her skirt pulled down and her knickers in her bag, they kissed.
"For next week," she said, "why don’t you buy some condoms ?"
He thought of getting some from the barbers, but he didn’t want a haircut and the thought of walking in, picking up a pack of three and paying with all eyes on him, and maybe little kids there, and maybe even a little kid with his mum, and maybe some little kid he knew and whose mother knew him ! He pondered. Then he remembered Phil Carter who was reputed to have done it with Diane Slinger, the ugliest, dirtiest, most vulgar girl in the fifth form. He’d said you could get them from the Surgical Stores by the station.
He went after work on Thursday.
The woman behind the counter was about forty. Short, fat, dark-haired and pillow-busted she ogled him through her glasses as if he were a specimen.
"Hello luv !"
"Hello," he said.
"What can I get for you, luv ?"
"Would you have a pack of three ?"
His politeness sounded absurd and he blushed.
"Gossamer or Fetherlite ?"
Before he could think he blurted:
"What’s the difference ?"
"None as a can tell, dear. They all feel the same to me, but it’s you who’ll be wearin’ em."
"I’ll have the Fetherlite," he said definitively.
"You’re probably right, luv. Probably give you more sensation."
She handed them over and he paid with a ten bob note and had to wait about three weeks for her to find the change.
"There you go, sweetheart. Enjoy yourself."
He went out into the street and to the bus-stop with the little packet tucked in the palm of his hand shoved in his trouser pocket. Into his mind came the picture of Carol, her face in pleasure, her little squeaky sounds of ecstasy and he felt very proud and inordinately excited in expectation of Sunday.
As they stood up for the first hymn ( The Day Thou Gavest Lord Is Ended) she whispered:
"Did you get some ?"
"How many ?"
"That won’t last us long."
"They come in packs of three."
"They must come in bigger packs than that ! People are doing it all the time. They’d have to go to the chemists five times a week."
"Hardly anybody does it fifteen times a week !"
"Just you wait !"
He looked at her and she smiled as she opened her mouth to sing: "Thy praise shall sanctify….
Behind the garage he pulled the rubber on and awkwardly positioned himself to slip in. It was lovely but over too soon. They tried various strategies till finally Carol turned to the wall, put her palms against it and bent double. He slid into her with ease he couldn’t have imagined and rocked backwards and forwards as her hips swayed like the tide coming in at Blackpool on a calm day in June.
"Oh, that was it," she said afterwards, " that was just right."
The previous Saturday afternoon, Sample had found a copy of Britain For The British by Robert Blatchford. The title made him suspect something reactionary but scanning a page or two he was taken by the writing and ideas. He read it in two sittings and all the half-formed ideas floating in his mind came together. "I’m a socialist," he said to himself.
The winter of behind-the-garage sex was coming to an end and they were going to have to find new venues.
"We can go to my house," said Sample. "My mum’s always in bed by ten."
"No. I don’t want to."
"It’ll be warm."
"That doesn’t bother me."
"We can’t go on having sex outside for ever."
"Can’t we ?"
He looked at her. She smiled in her charming, innocent way.
They had sex in the woods, in the bandstand on the park, in the beer garden behind The Brown Cow after closing time. Sample was puzzled by Carol’s reluctance to go indoors but he was more worried about how he was going to tell her he’d become an atheist. One Sunday, on the way to the woods he said:
"You know, I don’t believe in god any more."
"Nor do I," she said.
He turned to her in surprise.
"So why do you go to church ?"
"Why do you ?"
"Habit. And I enjoy it. It’s a social occasion. I know everyone. I like to say hello. I don’t know. I like just to sit there and let it wash over me."
"But why did you start coming ?"
"Oh, you never know who you might meet on the back row."
He went quiet for a few minutes. Had she known he would be there ? But how ? Had she come to church just to meet him ? He was amazed.
"I’ve been doing some reading lately," he said.
"I read this great book called Britain For The British."
"You should lend it my dad."
"No, it’s about socialism. It’s great. I’m a socialist."
He thought she might react negatively but she said:
"Do you know what socialism is ?" he said.
"No idea. Except my dad doesn’t like it."
Little by little their social life become more open and regular. They went to the pictures, to the pub, they got well in with the young crowd in The Brown Cow and invites to parties became frequent. Sample didn’t like parties: people just stood around, got drunk, showed off, got aggressive, tried to get off with someone. But there was usually an opportunity for intimacy. Once, they went to a do at the house of lad whose dad ran a building firm. It was a huge, seven-bedroomed place with a swimming pool. People were making use of the space and comfort.
"Come on," he said.
"Why not ?"
"Let’s go outside."
"Outside ? We can be warm and comfortable."
"I like it outside. There’s bags of room."
So they went out under the clear sky full of cold stars and a nearly full moon and found a space behind the double garage.
"This is nice," she said.
"Come on. Let me warm you up."
The more Sample listened to Harold Wilson, the more he doubted the leader’s socialism.
"We want a society where people can get on," the Prime Minister said, drawing on his pipe.
Where people can get on ? Didn’t he just mean where people could make money ? He wasn’t sure what was wrong with that, but it troubled him. He ran it through his mind all the time: on the bus, in the office, in the pub having a pint with his mates, behind the garage with Carol. He liked the idea of getting on himself. Wouldn’t he like to have money and be important ? But in his little thought experiment where he imagined himself well-off and examined his feelings, they disappointed him. He was turning in on himself. There was no thought for what was beyond him. In a flurry of happy brain activity he saw that it was getting on together that was really exciting. It was making a better society which made him feel good.
"Would you like to be rich ?" he said to Carol.
"Why not ?"
"Because of what you have to do to get rich."
"You could win the pools. That would be easy."
"Yeah, but just as bad."
"But you could do what you liked. We could have a garage of our own."
"It’s the way we trick ourselves," he said. "We think life would be wonderful if we had money, but it’s not money we want, it’s a wonderful life."
"Can’t we have money and a wonderful life ?"
"I don’t think so, because one person’s wealth is another person’s poverty and you can’t have a wonderful life against other people."
They were behind the garage when they heard a noise. Sample yanked up his pants and Carol smoothed down her skirt. When her dad appeared they were fully clothed.
"Get inside, Carol," he said.
"Carol ! I’m telling you ! Get indoors."
"You go home," he said to Sample.
"I’ll come with you," said Carol.
"You won’t, my girl."
"I’m not your girl, dad."
"Aren’t you ?"
"Not in the way you mean. I’m grown up."
Mr Nobbs snorted.
"But I can think for myself."
"Think for yourself when you’ve left my house."
She looked at him.
"Come on, Chris."
Mr Nobbs lowered over them as they edged past him. Carol walked briskly.
"Where the hell are we going ?"
"Can I sleep at your mum’s ?"
"On the sofa."
"For a night. What then ?"
"We’ll have to get our own place."
"We earn enough. Just about. We’ll get a little flat. Maybe
we can even find one with its own garage."
"But I earn hardly anything !"
"There we are. We’ll never be rich. But maybe we can have a wonderful life."
"You’re mad !"
"Am I ? Is there room behind your mum’s garage ?"
She strode away. He hurried to catch up with her.
"Anyway, you’ve always avoided coming to my mother’s."
"No, I’ve avoided making love to you at your mother’s."
She hurried on.
Mrs Sample was watching the telly.
"Mum, Carol’s dad’s kicked her out."
She took her glasses off and looked at the pair of them.
"Hello, Carol luv. Why’s he done that ?"
"He doesn’t like me. He wants us to split up," said Sample.
"So what do you want to do ?"
"Can Carol stay here tonight ? She can have my bed. I’ll sleep down here."
"There’s a mattress under my bed. Put it in the spare room. I’ll get you some sheets. But Carol’s got to tell her parents where she is."
Carol stayed at Sample’s mum’s for seven months. The lad whose dad had a building firm went round in a little Bedford van and picked up her stuff for her. Sample’s mum grew very fond of her and they hit it off like kids at a birthday party. Carol was diplomatic and polite. She made herself useful about the house but never imposed. She was like a daughter to the widow whose own daughter was grown, married and gone. Nor did Mrs Sample need to worry about shenanigans under her roof: when she was in bed, the couple sneaked out of the back door and squeezed between the garage and the shed.
They found a tiny flat over a bank. Mrs Sample was sorry to see them go. She went round and cleaned everywhere, scrubbing the tiles of the little kitchen on her hands and knees. There was a living-room, a box of a bedroom, a bathroom with a shower but no bath, and the diminutive kitchen where they bumped into one another as they cooked. And also a fire escape leading down to a secluded little yard, which was the next best thing to a garage.
Carol’s father didn’t visit but her mother came round secretly with a casserole or an apple crumble and was glad to see her daughter happy, even in a tiny flat over a bank, even working as a poorly paid clerk in a travel agency, even living over the brush with a young man of dubious convictions.
Ivy Lodge was attached to the school, on its eastern flank, and had its private garden with a neat square of lawn, tall privet hedges, a flowering cherry and borders tended by the groundsman. Beyond the hedges, further east and south, the broad, long school lawns dotted with crooked little apple trees ran towards the sports fields and the meadows where Merrick Smallhart was fond of walking his terrier. The governors hadn’t wanted to let him have it. They felt it anachronistic in 1980. It could be used for teaching. Money could be raised. It could be converted. But they had needed to advertise twice. The application wasn’t strong. Smallhart pressed his case and they gave in. He had a six-bedroomed house rent free. There were no neighbours of course, so his wife was isolated. But the church was a mere two miles away. She could get to know people there. Smallhart felt at home. The Head of his own public school had lived on the grounds. This may be a Voluntary Aided county maintained school, but he needed the reassurance of a few private sector perks.
As far as he could, he ran the place on public school lines. Yes, he believed in free schooling for all. Yes, he was sympathetic to the comprehensive idea. But he wasn’t going to let go of the side and swim for his life in the deep-end of the public sector pool. Not with so many of the lower orders sharing the water. So he established himself as the chief of his little fiefdom. He played the governors off against the staff, the staff against the governors, the school against the county, the parents against the trustees and the trustees against the parents, till he was able to make all the decisions himself. As for the unions, which he insisted on calling the associations, to distance them from the working-class, he listened attentively to the reps and sent them away with: “Thank you very much for bringing that to my attention. I shall give it due consideration.” And did nothing.
Things rolled along swimmingly. At ten-thirty, when the boys were bent over their book or causing mayhem for some poor devil of a low-grade teacher, Smallhart could be seen leaving the grounds by the back gate, his little brown and white terrier on its lead trotting charmingly beside him. When the bell rang for lunch, before the pupils had packed away their books, he was locking his study door and heading for Ivy House where Ona had a three-course meal waiting. On a Friday afternoon, a member of staff would come looking for him only to notice his car and caravan had gone from their parking spot. Every September the staff returned to find their timetables still not ready. Smallhart was in charge and did things in his own way and time.
But Stanalee Grammar couldn’t buck the trends. It might have retained its name and its Latin motto, but it was a comp. It had held out till the late seventies, but in the final wave of egalitarian elevation of the secondaries, the choice had been stark: go private or comprehensive. The Head and governors had explored every means of independent viability, but finally it was clear. The money couldn’t be raised to buy out the county. They bit their lips and accepted the encroachment of despised social democracy. When local management of schools arrived, however, the finances took a nose-dive. Smallhart played poker. He robbed Peter to pay Paul. He hid money in an array of accounts. He spent the same money twice. It was no good. The school was quickly half a million in debt and the county closed in. Matters had to be set to rights.
For two years, as things had got worse and
worse and he had concealed his creative accounting from everyone, Smallhart had
appeased his staff: “Don’t you worry about the budget. You carry on with your
teaching. Leave the rest to me.”
Aye, Stander would think, done right by you,
mate. He was disaffected. Seventeen years in the school and denied promotion
within or without it, he had experienced the slyness of Smallhart and didn’t
trust him in the least. They came from different worlds. They might have come
from different planets. Stander had been born in the mean streets of the little,
northern working-class town to a Methodist mother from the proletarian
aristocracy of hard-working, self-educated, self-improving trade unionists, who
had made a bad marriage to an orphan brought up by dipsomaniac grandparents
whose fantasies of himself as a go-getting entrepreneur led him from one
disastrous business venture to another. Blenching from his father’s waywardness,
the lad had found refuge in the solid principles of trade union collectivism.
Bright and musically gifted he had fought through to a degree and had landed at
Stanalee as a stop-gap, broke and needing to earn. Seventeen years later he
seethed with frustration and bitterness at the way Smallhart had thwarted him.
But he was right. Smallhart came from a culture of deference and expected due obsequiousness. Stander came from a culture of vertical invasion and despised deference of all kinds. People, Smallhart believed, were made by and for institutions. Institutions, Stander believed, were made by and for people. Between these two views there could be no peace. But Smallhart had power and he used it.
When the doddery Head of Music dropped dead
of a stroke and Stander, twelve years in the school, applied for the job,
Smallhart, exulting in his ability to put the upstart in his place, refused him
So when Smallhart announced there were to be redundancies, when he sat before the staff and told them they must live in the real world, Stander, the NUT rep, went straight to the phone and alerted Regional Office. Smallhart knew their was a statutory process of consultation but he had grown so used to having his own way, he had managed to duck and weave so successfully , and apart from one perilous run-in with a group of discontented governors, incensed at not being consulted over crucial decisions, had always got away with it so easily, he imagined he would simply brush the trade unions aside and sweep majestically on to make redundant those teachers he most wanted to be rid of, including Stander.
At ten-thirty, he could still be seen
heading for the meadows with his cute little pet. An hour before the first
consultation, Stander met the union delegation in The Hand And Dagger.
The lunch was on them, but true to his strict principles of the common good
before private advantage, he had a modest tuna sandwich and coffee. Lawrence
Rise, the Regional Officer, ordered lasagne, salad, garlic bread, raspberries
and ice-cream and a cafetiere. Tall, with a heavily pock-marked skin and round,
gold-rimmed glasses he was constantly pushing up his nose, he was brisk and
Rise shook his head as he scanned the
Smallhart and his little delegation were
last to arrive. Around the table were the union people, being kept waiting. When
he entered, Smallhart was careful not to make eye contact. His secretary sat
beside him, a middle-aged woman, thin and hesitant, dressed in a smart suit for
the occasion and carrying a bundle of papers under her right arm. The two dark
suited men from the county were to his right and a clergyman and teacher
governor to his left. The secretary began, as if from a script:
Presently, the county suits returned. Trevor
Grubb, the Advisor and the more senior of the two, smiled complaisantly as at
the wedding of a long-lost relative. They sat down.
There followed what is usually known as a frank exchange of views but Rise had the better of the argument and the county men could only nod and smile and make tentative little objections. They left to convey the news to Smallhart. Coffee and biscuits appeared as out of nowhere, on trays carrying delicate little flower-patterned china cups and saucers normally reserved for the visits of Bishops or MPs or officials from the Dfe.
Forty-five minutes later, an abashed
Smallhart returned. His dutiful delegation sat down and silence slowly followed.
Jenny Fine smiled at Smallhart who was bent over his papers. He made an effort to reciprocate but his face contorted into a sad and ugly grimace. He wanted to insult Rise as he had insulted Stander. He wanted to say something demeaning, humiliating. He wanted to hide behind his status and put him in his place. He was being told what to do in his own school by a trade unionist ! He was Headmaster after all ! He’d been educated at Westminster and Balliol ! He looked across the table at the man who was chewing on his custard cream as he talked to his colleague and he saw how confident he was, how secure, how he had won a fine little victory and he hated him. At that moment his hatred was pure because he felt thoroughly humiliated. Grubb had told him: he couldn’t select whom he liked for redundancy or Rise would have him sacked. Smallhart resented to his very marrow that he had ever entered the public sector. He wished he had stayed in the private-school arena he knew. He despised these people, he despised them thoroughly. They were his inferiors.
In the event, seven members of staff took severance or voluntary redundancy. Stander was closely involved in the negotiations. From Rise he learned the county had offered Smallhart a package but he refused to go. The scandal of a sacking was a step too far, so he hung on. For five more years. As he put it to the staff, to see this process through.
The loss of staff, the increase in class sizes, the make-do-and-mend of herding boys of widely varying abilities into cramped classrooms with poor resources made life hard . More and more Smallhart remained apart. At ten-thirty he could still be seen setting off towards the meadows with his faithful dog. If rain threatened, he’d be wearing the waxed jacket, tweed cap and superior green wellingtons which made him look one of the country set. When staff knocked on his door the red engaged light would appear. The office staff would convey that he was working at home. He began to absent himself from parents’ evenings. He sent his apologies to staff meetings. He was rarely seen around the school. A pupil was heard to comment, leaving an assembly: “Who was that man on the stage ?” Heads of department would recount with a groan to their colleagues in the staff-room that money for new equipment had gone begging because Smallhart had failed to do the paperwork on time. And when he finally retired and gave his farewell address to the assembled school, boasting that in his career he had produced twenty-nine timetables; when his rotary mower leaving gift was presented at his valedictory dinner which twenty-two members of staff and their spouses failed to attend; when his card circulated for signing and Stander didn’t bother; when his job had to be advertised twice and one of the candidates turned down first time was subsequently appointed even though he had told the appointment panel on the first occasion he thought the school stuck in the past and felt the job probably beyond my capacities because of years of mismanagement ; it was discovered he’d had one of the electrical sockets in Ivy House connected to the school’s supply and no-one, not even the county auditors, ever got to the bottom of just what had happened to the money.
Gordon Snipe had always
believed illness was something to be ashamed of. Not that he’d ever consciously
thought the idea through: it was an unacknowledged assumption. So when his wife
was diagnosed with cancer he was confused by his own reaction.
No husband could have been more attentive or concerned. Yet he couldn’t help feeling let down. The notion came to him that Janet was from inferior stock. He had chosen carefully. He would never have considered a wife from the lower orders. She was resolutely upper middle class. Perhaps he should have married into the aristocracy. At Oxford he had known the daughter of a baronet whose striking good looks had made her sought after. But she had gone into the theatre which seemed disreputable and perilous. Weren’t actors notoriously promiscuous ? Janet’s father was a banker who at seventy-six still played golf three times a week. Her mother was forever busy with church matters. Her three brothers were in robust health. How could cancer grow in his wife ? She didn’t smoke, she ate well, her drinking was no more than two glasses of white wine a week. How could God allow it ? He realised he had always believed his faith would protect him. Yes, God’s ways were beyond human comprehension. He could even send cancer into the guts of a devout and obedient woman as part of his plan. Or was it the work of the Devil ? Yes, sometimes the Devil could get the upper hand. He turned to his theology : didn’t Julian of Norwich write of a sickness sent by God? Might it not be a sign of election rather than shame that his wife was ill ? Didn’t Thomas a Kempis write of the value of adversity ? Perhaps this was a test of his faith.
Then something amazing happened.
He received an application for the vacant post in P.E. from a young man in remission from leukaemia ! Surely it was a sign ! Before the interview-letters were posted, he decided he would appoint him.
There were four interviewees.
Three of them seemed poor to Snipe at first sight. They were young men who bristled with energy. Their faces had that clean, tight, gleaming look characteristic of athletes. They filled their dark jackets and trousers like risen dough fits a tin. Their short necks were fastened tight in their crisp collars. They exuded military obedience. But when Snipe looked at Christopher John, he experienced a sense of revelation. He was short, dark and hirsute. His hair was close cropped and his brown eyes had a fierce intensity. He was from the north-east, his Geordie accent almost incomprehensible to the Home Counties Snipe. Yet surely he was God’s emissary ! And his name, bearer of Christ !
Before his wife’s illness,
Snipe would have refused to interview a candidate who had been seriously ill.
Now, however, Christopher’s
illness seemed to pick him out positively. God was sending a message: show
compassion to the sick candidate and your wife too may be spared ! What had once
seemed a deficit now appeared an advantage.
But between Christopher’s
appointment and the start of term, he suffered a relapse. Snipe rang him
frequently. He spoke to his parents. He prayed for him daily. And he held the
post open for him.
His confidence was rewarded: Christopher pulled through. He was well enough to start at the beginning of the next school year.
Snipe took the first assembly. There were three new teachers.
“We have a special new member of staff starting today. Mr John has had a serious illness. But he has recovered. He is in remission, which means there is no sign of the illness in him any more. We held the job here open for him for a year. That’s how much we value him. I’m sure he will be a great asset to the school and that you will soon appreciate his outstanding qualities. We are all praying that his illness will not reappear.”
All the same, Janet deteriorated. They operated and removed most of her bowel. She came home weak and incapable which made Snipe ever more careful of her. He did all the cooking. He employed a cleaner. When his children were back from university they were fastidious. And the rest, the care, the good food improved her. After a few months, she was able to walk to the corner shop. They went to Scotland for a fortnight. She was stable. But she was an invalid and Snipe’s sex life was over.
He accepted the inevitable with Christian resignation. Yet he felt the unfairness of it. After all, he was still healthy. He wasn’t yet fifty. Most men of his age could look forward to years of sexual activity. But it didn’t matter. Janet was his wife, the mother of his children, his life-long companion. They had been joined in the sight of God for better or worse. But this was worse than he could have imagined. It wasn’t supposed to happen to people like him. He began to notice the young women teachers. The sway of a pair of hips, the heaviness of breasts in a tight blouse, the thick health of auburn hair falling onto white shoulders. One day, in town, he found himself in Addison’s Court, an alley known to be frequented by prostitutes. He had no idea why he’d taken that route. He told himself it was a short cut. He walked slowly carrying the bags of shopping from Marks and Spencer. Janet had sent him on the errand. He was attracted and appalled by the atmosphere of the scruffy little passageway: all backs, the unseen, uncared-for underbelly of commercial glitz. There were strange little recesses, odd nooks. In a doorway a brazen young woman in a red skirt and white stilettos was smoking. He looked away.
Nevertheless, he went back. Once, when it was dusk he slipped between the narrow walls. The cobbles were greasy and a curious, unfamiliar odour of staleness, brick and traffic made him uneasy. In a dark corner of a garage without doors a couple were having sex. She was panting and squealing. He hurried on, disgusted. That was his last short cut.
Janet needed more chemotherapy which made her violently ill. It was mortifying to see his wife so reduced. She vomited for hours and the indignity of her skinny body hanging out of the bed to be sick into a bowl, her head collapsing onto her pillow as she groaned with pain almost made him question his faith.
In assemblies he would refer to
Janet seemed to be slipping
away. The doctors told him they held out very little hope. Occasionally, there
might be spontaneous remission, but it was rare. Snipe began to think it was
God’s will. In a matter of months she might be gone. Then he would be free. It
was no sin to take a second wife. The thought of it cheered him a little up in
the midst of his bitterness, anguish and melancholy. Then one day he had a visit
from a County Hall official. There were new accounting regulations and she was
to explain them. He dreaded it, but when she arrived he was delighted to find a
pretty woman in her early forties, neat and quick, very courteous with bright
eyes and a quick smile.
The atmosphere in the house was terrible. They were waiting for death. Janet never mentioned it nor did she complain. She endured all the suffering and the animal humiliation without ever losing control. But sometimes the pain was so bad her face was contorted, all the restraint gone, the gentle traits of the middle-class woman who took the Christian injunction to love your neighbour as yourself seriously, twisted out of recognition as the raw fact of encroaching, agonising death took over. Then Snipe couldn’t sleep. He paced the house. He read St Augustine but found no comfort. He turned to the Bible. What good was it ? He dropped the black book onto his chair, got down on his knees and prayed but his prayers turned into sobs and once in desperation he said: “Damn you, God ! Damn you for letting my wife suffer like this !”
It took him a long time to get over his blasphemy. He couldn’t come to terms with the emptiness of his feeling: it was completely new. The universe had always seemed to be organised for his success and contentment. Now it delivered nothing but upset. He had to accept that somehow it all fitted God’s plan.
Christopher was doing well.
Every time Snipe ran into him he stopped to speak. He invited him into his study
and ordered coffee.
Then came the complaint.
The pupils had got hold of that
prevalent idea let loose into the education system by a punitive inspection
regime, that teachers had little power, and they were running with it. Parents
backed them up. Christopher gave a boy detention for failing to bring his kit
three lessons in a row. The mother wrote to complain: her boy couldn’t stay
after school. He lived two and a half miles away. If he wasn’t on the school bus
he’d have a long wait. She wouldn’t agree to him doing the detention unless
Christopher was willing to give him a lift home. And anyway, why couldn’t he do
it at lunchtime? Christopher put the boy in lunchtime detention. He failed to
arrive. When he was challenged he became truculent.
With any other teacher, Snipe would have issued a formal warning. He met the mother and apologised: teaching was a stressful job these days; sometimes a teacher could forget himself; the member of staff concerned was young and inexperienced; he would be warned. When he spoke to Christopher, however, he was as complaisant' as possible. He knew the illness was to blame. It was a moment’s lapse. He was doing a good job. The incident would be forgotten.
In fact, Christopher was in the
habit of swearing at pupils. He was short-tempered and still had some playground
bravura about him. Knowing that Snipe was on his side made him more reckless.
When a pupil called his first name in a mocking tone behind his back, he turned
quickly, spotted the boy, ran after him as he fled and took him into an empty
classroom. He closed the door.
There was another complaint but Christopher denied everything. The lad had made it up. Snipe wrote to the parents explaining their son had been caught after insulting a member of staff; he was trying to compensate for his guilt. Mr John was an excellent teacher who maintained the highest standards of behaviour. The pupil could produce no witnesses. The matter was closed.
It was just at this time that Janet’s health began suddenly to improve. Her appetite returned bit by bit and as she ate more she grew stronger. The disturbed sleep that kept her shifting and fidgeting faded away and she was able to go to bed at ten and get up at eight, refreshed and able to face the morning. Each day she went for a walk, a little further every time. She took up reading once more and went through the whole of Jane Austen in a fortnight. The doctors were amazed. But Snipe knew the answer. He felt very pleased with himself for having read the signs correctly. God had spoken to him and he had known how to respond.
The woman from the County made more visits. Snipe still had no sex life. Janet’s recovery didn’t go that far. He had allowed himself to think this woman might one day be the second Mrs Snipe. Was she married ? She wore no ring. But sitting alone in his draughty living-room while Janet lay dying upstairs he had allowed his fantasies to bring him comfort: such a pretty, sweet little woman ! Imagine her busying herself around the house. Imagine that charming face and that chirping little voice across the table every day. Imagine her in bed, that energetic body yielding. Now he looked at her and realised it couldn’t be. It almost made him regret Janet’s recovery.
The cancer was in remission. Janet still tired easily. She needed to be carefully looked after. But she could live a normal life, almost. Snipe sometimes still wondered how it all fitted God’s scheme of things. But he knew it was useless to speculate: God’s will was inscrutable and feeble human understanding mustn’t presume to understand. What he did understand, though, was that it was no coincidence that Christopher had come into his life. Suppose he had turned him down ? Suppose he hadn’t forgiven his small mistake of swearing at a pupil ? Janet might now be dead. He might now be married to the gorgeous little woman from accounts. But his wife was saved. That was what God had wanted.
After just four terms, Christopher handed in his notice. He had been offered a job in a private school in Cumbria. His father was an old friend of the Head. Snipe had felt sure he would stay. He looked at Janet who was reading A Pair Of Blue Eyes and felt a twinge of concern: with Christopher gone, what would he do if she had a relapse ? She looked up and smiled. The agony had vanished. It was the face of an intelligent, kind, upper-middle-class, Christian woman. His wife.
Abercrombie was convinced Bechara was having sex with his wife. He wasn’t interested in having sex with her himself, but she was his wife, after all. He had long since substituted the beer bottle for the vagina and thought a day when he didn’t get legless a waste. Maddy had put behind her the humiliation of trying to stimulate his reluctant cock. If it did rise, like the stock market, it fell in no time. Night after night he drank himself into a stupor and collapsed on the sofa or into the bed. When she met Bechara, she couldn’t wait to get her legs round him. He hardly drank. His cock stayed hard for an hour at a time. He was halfway good-looking. She was having all the sex with him she could.
“What are you doing this afternoon?” asked Abercrombie.
“Oh, just walking the dog, getting some food ready. Why?”
He put down his wine glass and looked at her over his specs. She wasn’t going to tell him, was she? She wasn’t going to say: ‘I’m going round to Bechara’s and he’s going to lick my clitoris for twenty minutes.’ He wanted to throw his glass at her. The bitch! She was his wife, after all.
“I was thinking we could do something together.”
“Together? Like what? Me watching you get pissed?”
“We could go for a walk.”
“To the Black Horse?
“By the river. We haven’t walked down the river for ages.”
“You haven’t walked down the river for ten years, George. You’d probably fall in. I walk by the river every day.”
“I’m not drunk yet.”
“It’s ten past eleven.”
“Well then what?”
“We’ve got plenty of time for a walk.”
“Okay. Okay, George. We’ll go for a walk. Are you ready?”
“What’s wrong with now?”
“I’m not ready.”
“What do you have to do, finish the bottle?”
“I was thinking we could walk this afternoon.”
“So we wait till one minute past twelve?”
“About two. Have a bite to eat. Go out about two.”
“Fine, George. What d’you want to eat?”
Maddy busied herself in the kitchen. Her Dalmatian lay in his basket by the door.
“George is coming with us today, Legs. That’ll be fun. He’ll be rat-arsed, of course, and he’ll have a bottle in his pocket. We’ll probably have to fish him out of the river, or leave him there? What d’you think?”
When she finished she went through to the lounge with a plate of food. The wine bottle was empty. George was snoring on the sofa.
“For fuck’s sake!”
She left the plate on the coffee table and went with Legs to Bechara’s. Ten minutes later she was naked in his armchair with her thighs open as he licked her clitoris.
“Do you want me to leave?” she said.
“No, it’s okay.”
“How will you explain me away?”
“I’ll say you’re a married woman whose husband is an alcoholic and we give one another comfort.”
“Is that what you call it!”
Bechara was tidying the small living-room. There were books piled here and there and newspapers strewn.
“My dad’s very tidy. Broad-minded but tidy.”
“He must be used to you.”
“Aye, but best not make him feel uncomfortable. He doesn’t visit much.”
“Perhaps I should go.”
“No, stay. He’ll be glad to meet you. He likes meeting people.”
Bechara had been briefly married to a childhood sweetheart. They conducted an on and off relationship from the age of sixteen and, suddenly, when she hit twenty, she decided she was on and wanted marriage and children. Six months after the ceremony, she changed her mind as rapidly and decisively, walking out to live with a self-made bricklayer who had just built himself a six-bedroomed house. Dismayed and disoriented, Bechara found refuge in science. At least the universe was predictable, to an extent. He’d drifted out of school at sixteen and had a string of unsatisfactory jobs but always hankered after doing a degree. He studied night and day and was accepted on a Physics course in Manchester. Now he was teaching A Level in a local college and feeling things were drifting again: changes crashed in like meteorites, initiatives fired off like rockets on 5th November: so many mirrors in which politicians and bureaucrats could preen. Meanwhile the students complained, this is too hard!, and demanded good grades. When he tangentially mentioned Relativity and told them nothing can travel faster than light, one student protested, I don’t agree with that! He and Maddy met through the Labour Party. They both joined in 1979. They both had the feeling the achievements of the 1945 lot, and even of the sixties lot, were about to be overturned. They saw a very nasty, greedy form of capitalism waiting in the wings and they wanted to bring down the curtain before its entrance. Instead, they ended up in bed together.
Bechara’s dad was about to arrive and he was a sick man. He’d been a sick man for years and Bechara had expected him to die any time. But he clung on. His legs were done for and he shuffled along on sticks. His lungs were in tatters. But he still fancied himself. He’d once had a reputation with women. Only death would convince him it was finished.
He arrived in a taxi. Bechara and Maddy helped him into the house.
“Thank you! Thank you! Agh!” he gave a little gasp of pain as he sat down. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Maddy. Good that this long streak of piss I call my son has found himself a real woman at last.”
“Can I get you a drink?”
“Yes, my dear. That’s very kind of you. Tea. Milk, no sugar. That’ll be wonderful.”
They talked about his ailments. He still had his deep, rolling voice full of backstreet chutzpah. Bechara listened with a mixture of pity, contempt and amusement to this old man he’d never really known who’d grown in poverty in the rough part of town, brought up by neglectful, hard-drinking parents and so was an opportunist through and through, grabbing what life had denied him. And what he loved to grab most of all was women. He couldn’t help but show off in front of them. Once handsome, he was now shrunken and weak. His silver hair was combed forward and when he smiled he showed the gaps where his fine, white teeth had been, gaps as dark as the grave. His hand trembled a little as he lifted his cup but his blue eyes flashed desire each time he looked at Maddy.
“My legs, you see. My legs are the worst. Yes, I was so quick on my pins. I was a good sportsman. But the pain. It brings it home to you, what physical creatures we are.”
There were things Bechara had to buy if he was going to cook.
“I’ll nip into town. You two will be all right for an hour won’t you?”
He was glad to get away. He strode towards town, following the river. When the tide was low it gave off an unpleasant, rotting smell. On the other side of the road he noticed someone dodging behind a tree. He knew at once it was Abercrombie. Should he cross? Should he greet him with an easy smile and ask him what he was up to? Maybe that wasn’t wise given he’d just been inside his wife. He walked on. As he turned to cross the road, he saw Abercrombie ducking behind a nearer tree. Surely he wasn’t going to follow him? And supposing he went to his house? He’d find Maddy and his dad. What would he make of that?
When Bechara returned, Abercrombie was still there. He was leaning against the thick trunk of a horse chestnut smoking; as soon as Bechara turned the corner, he hid himself.
Into Bechara’s mind drifted the previous Tuesday when they’d been at a Branch meeting . The General Election was approaching. There was no doubt they’d hold the constituency, this was Labour territory; Kier Hardie had stood in the early years of the twentieth century; the sitting member was on the left; she criticised the armaments industry on which thousands of local jobs depended; but it was solid. The question, then, was where to devote their energies. They all knew Michael Foot couldn’t win but they hoped for a miracle. In those brief few weeks of flux when a parliament has been dissolved and another not yet elected, there is something akin to real possibility. In theory, anything could happen. If the right people stay at home. If the swing is unpredictable in key constituencies. They clung to the fantasy that something might save them from a drubbing because if they’d admitted what was ahead, they wouldn’t have had the stomach to keep working.
They decided to leaflet their ward once and get the vote out on the day. The rest of the time they’d work in the neighbouring Tory held constituency.
After the meeting, they went, as usual, to the pub. Abercrombie began pouring beer down his throat.
“Let’s go,” whispered Maddy.
“Come on! I want to suck your cock.”
“People will suspect!”
They were a dozen. They sat around two little, circular tables talking politics.
“Massive public spending!” said Abercrombie.
“Nationalise the commanding heights,” said a union man, pot-bellied and bearded whose consumption was matching Abercrombie’s, pint for pint.
“It’s the fucking Tory press. How many papers are against us?” said another as he counted them on his fingers. “Not to mention all the local rags and the tv. We’ll never win till we get democratic media.”
“But we’ll win here,” said Bechara. “Why? People are made by their conditions. It’s as precise as calculus.”
Abercrombie went to the bar.
“Come on,” whispered Maddy.
Bechara left first, claiming work to prepare. Maddy gave him ten minutes. She arrived at his house with the dog, took her lover straight upstairs and threw off her clothes.
Bechara arrived with the shopping to find Maddy cross-legged on the rug in front of the fire and his dad holding forth about the old days.
“We didn’t have the opportunities, you see. Seventeen I signed up. It was that or conscription and I wasn’t going to be cannon fodder. I got into the RAF because I was bright, but they never made use of me. I wanted to learn languages. They taught me to type.”
“Oh,” she looked up at Bechara with eyes as sad and pleading as her dog’s.
Bechara prepared simple food: baked potatoes and salad and the three of them ate with plates on their knees. The old man lived alone and cooked for himself, but it was such a task he’d often make do with a ham sandwich or a few slices of toast. Bechara’s mother had divorced him when she found him in bed with the sixteen year-old from next door. He’d never remarried and had slipped into lazy, bachelor habits. To sit with his son and eat a meal made for him, to have the company, to be in a warm house, to be able to reminisce, made him feel almost as if life might spark up in him again.
“So what’s going to happen in the election?” he asked.
“We’ll win the constituency. Things don’t look good nationally,” said Maddy.
“A thrashing,” said Bechara.
“I don’t understand it,” said his father. “What do people want?”
“They don’t know what they want, that’s the problem,” said Bechara.
“Surely they can see where their interests lie?”
“It’s no easier than seeing that mass and energy are the same thing.”
“You know, I remember when they built the council houses in Flett St. We were amazed. They had bathrooms! People were open-mouthed. Bathrooms. Now they’re sellin’em off.”
“Well, I have a mortgage. You own your own house. Everybody’s out for a bit of property.”
“Yeah, but not against other people,” said Maddy.
“No-one think it’s against anyone,” said Bechara. “That’s the trick of the propaganda. Just look after yourself. The propaganda denies that we’re social. Bevan should have nationalised the housing stock.”
“I’m going to die in a country where the rich are richer than ever and the poor getting poorer. I never thought I’d see it. Shame for old Footy. He’s a good man.”
Bechara liked Foot too. He was a good man, as men go. But was his father? Hadn’t he got into bed with any woman he could lay hands on? Hadn’t he made a woman twenty years younger pregnant and left her to bring up the child? Hadn’t he run his little businesses, shops, cafes, in the hope of making his fortune? As for Maddy, hadn’t she modelled when she was a teenager. Demure stuff, but all the same, making money from her pretty face and her slim waist. And himself? Didn’t he wish he was a professor of Physics with a nice big house and enough money in the bank not to worry?
“Ah,” sighed the old man, “this country needs a bloody revolution!”
When the dark settled, after they’d finished their food and their cups of tea and the conversation was waning, Bechara called for a taxi. He didn’t run a car, as a way of economising, and cycling and walking kept him fit. They helped the old man into the back seat, told him he was welcome any time.
Indoors, Maddy took off her clothes and lay on the rug.
“Oh, it’s so good to be here, to be naked, to be warm, to be with you.”
He looked down at her long white body. She rocked her bent knee enticingly.
“Make love to me, Becha. Come inside me.”
She clung to him and kissed him frantically and her hips rocked like cams. It was unnerving the way she threw herself at him. She was like a Labrador puppy that leaps up and licks your face and won’t stop. Nice in its way, but in the end you want to push the little thing away. Wasn’t she just on the run from Abercrombie? He pictured him ducking behind the trees. Maybe he was there now, waiting to see her leave. Perhaps he was propping up a tree, pissed, dragging on a fag watching for evidence that she was getting into his bed every time she could.
“Oh Becha! Yes, Becha! Darling!”
A week or so later he was leafleting with Abercrombie. They hurried up and down the terraced streets. When their hands were empty, they headed back to the committee rooms.
“I could do with a drink,” said Abercrombie.
“When we’ve finished I’ll buy you a pint.”
“You’re not a drinker yourself.”
“What are you?”
“I mean, what are you. Really. You’re a bit of a mystery to me.”
“Yes, you’re a bit of an enigma. I mean, what makes you tick?”
“I’m a physicist. That’s my passion.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“I don’t see how anyone could get passionate about bloody Physics. But that’s my artistic bent I suppose.”
“Maybe. How’s the work coming along?”
“The work is fucked.”
“Really? Why’s that?”
“Because I’m never sober long enough to do any bloody research. The university’s cut off the funding.”
“That’s a shame.”
“It is for you, I guess.”
“Frankly, I don’t give a toss. Who wants to read a thesis on Louis fucking Zukofsky anyway?”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Drink. My lovely wife will teach and bring home the bacon and I’ll go to the pub and get pissed. There’s a marriage for you.”
“Well, if it works.”
“If it works!” Abercrombie laughed raucously. “What about you?” he said.
“Yes, what do you do with your sexuality?”
Bechara turned to him. Behind his glasses his narrow, dark eyes were hard.
“At the moment, nothing.”
“At the moment? You mean, you’re in sort of semi-retirement from sex.”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“What would you say?”
“I’d say I’m just unattached at the moment.”
“Unattached! Oh, come on! You can do better than that. When did you last have a good shag?”
Bechara looked at him again.
“About an hour and a half ago.”
“Christ! Who was the lucky girl?”
“A gentleman doesn’t betray a lady’s secrets.”
“What kind of bourgeois fucking crap is that! Spill the beans. A good fuck is she? Someone I know?”
“As a matter of fact, yes.”
“Why the big secret? Who is it? Does she suck your cock for you?”
They were outside the terraced house that served as committee rooms.
“Yes, she does. She does it very nicely, actually.”
“Well, actually, does she take it up the arse?”
Bechara went indoors.
When the job was over and they’d been to the pub and Abercrombie had staggered home and collapsed on the sofa, Maddy was in Bechara’s bed, the duvet pulled up to her chin.
“I wish I was as slim as you,” she said.
As he came over to the bed she reached out and felt the muscles in his thighs.
“Those muscles! So hard!”
“They’re not hard. They’re just ordinary thigh muscles.”
“No, they’re hard. Like your cock.”
Bechara was glad she liked his thighs and his cock but he wondered how long this rhapsodising could last.
At midnight she was getting dressed to leave.
“No, he doesn’t.”
“He does, Maddy. He spoke to me tonight.”
“What? He said he knew.”
“What did he say?”
“He asked me what I do with my sexuality.”
“He was pissed.”
“No. While we were leafleting.”
“Well, what does it matter?”
“He’s your husband.”
“He’s not married to me, Becha. He’s married to booze and his mother.”
“But he still thinks of you as his wife.”
“Let him think. I’m tired of him. He’s a baby.”
“It’s getting to him.”
“That you’re having sex with me.”
“George can’t have sex with anyone. He can’t get a hard-on, Becha. It’s pathetic.”
“Maybe we should cool off for a bit.”
She stopped and fixed him.
“Till his suspicions die down.”
“I don’t give a fuck about his suspicions!”
“Just a short time.”
“Do you think I want to stay married to him, Becha? That miserable little soak!”
“Okay. Okay. But let’s just be careful for a while.”
At six in the morning Bechara got a call from the hospital. By the time he’d cycled there, the screens were round his father’s bed. A young doctor, slim, calm, with a very intelligent face assumed a demeanour of dignity as she approached him.
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
It was an expert professional apology.
For the next few days he scurried round arranging the funeral, getting documents to the solicitor, clearing his father’s house. He avoided Maddy. When the funeral was over he got a sicknote, packed a bag and took the train to Munich. He wanted to the visit Einstein’s childhood house. From there he wrote to Maddy.
Hope all’s well with you and that George isn’t too much of a pain in the arse. I’m okay here. It’s good to be away. I don’t think I can come back. My dad’s death has changed things. I don’t know why, but I don’t belong in the old place any more. When the house is sold I’ll have a small inheritance, probably more money in one go than I’ll ever see again. I’m going to make the best of it, sell up and find myself a university job somewhere in Europe. Physics is international. We can talk it over when I’m back, but my mind’s made up. I can’t stay.
When he got home, Maddy was sitting on his sofa.
“How did you get in?”
She held up a key.
She flew at him with an anger even more overwhelming than her passion. He was destroying her. What was she to do? Did he expect her to go back to Abercrombie? Did he really think he could live without her? Legs got up from the floor and came to stand by her. Was she just someone who came and went? A passing thing? It was outrageous!
She stormed out with the dog.
He couldn’t face work so he disappeared. In London he stayed in a cheap hotel near Euston. From there he went to Maidstone to visit an old university friend. Then he jumped on a ferry and wound up in Paris where he slipped into the role of flaneur, stayed in cheap room in the Quartier Latin and ate on the streets. He came back to England two days before the election, didn’t take part, but stayed up to watch the results. At three in the morning there was a knock on the door. He let her in and she handed over the key.
“What a disaster!”
“It was inevitable.”
“What’s going to happen?”
“Who can say? There’s an evil mood in the air. It’ll live itself out.”
“Is that it? It’ll live itself out. Isn’t there anything we can do?”
“Nothing we do will change much. We’re a minority. People have chosen to foul their own nest. We’re like Galileo: we may be right but the world is against us.”
“But everyone accepts Galileo now.”
“Most people have never heard of him.”
She sat on the sofa. There was a brief shot of Michael Foot looking tired and defeated on the screen, quickly replaced by the triumphal celebration of the remarkable victory.
“ I’m scared, Becha.”
“Fear is their weapon. The war of each against all. Don’t expect the rest of your life to be lived in pleasant social conditions. Where’s George?”
“Unconscious on the sofa. He predicted a hung parliament.”
“I predict a hangover.”
“I’m kicking him out. Tomorrow. Enough is enough.”
The next day, Bechara put his house on the market. He went off again, visiting friends here and there and, once both houses were sold, he rented flats and moved from town to town picking up stupid work: sitting on the tills in supermarkets, driving little delivery vans, serving behind bars. All the time he was hoping something was going to change. Finally, he found a job teaching physics and maths in a school in South London. There was big sixth-form so he thought it wouldn’t be too difficult. But the pupils didn’t want to learn. The daily battle defeated him. Kids of perfectly average intelligence would wilfully resist understanding the difference between parallel and series. He gave up and simply went through the motions. The years went by and things got worse and worse and more and more he wracked his brains to think of a way out, a means of taking cover till the social madness had receded. Then one day an angry parent demanded to see the Head and once in her office, drew a Sabatier and stabbed her in the heart. His son had been suspended for extortion.
Bechara handed in his notice. He moved back to the north and bought a tiny house in a collapsing town in East Lancashire. When he introduced himself to his neighbours, the husband said:
“Not a bad street this. No pakis.”
Bechara took out a subscription to Searchlight.
Sir Stephen Gibley already had
control of three Academies. There’d been some fuss, of course, over his
fundamentalist views. An Oxford professor of biology had written to The
Guardian, which Gibley viewed as a communistic journal. But for a mere six
million, most of which he hadn’t even yet handed over, he’d appointed the
governors and the staff and set the curriculum in all three. In his less
restrained moments, he imagined his reach extending over the entire school
system. In the foyer of Queens, his first acquisition, was a commemorative stone
on which was carved in gold letters: Established to the greater glory of God and
opened by Tony Blair. He was on the verge of endowing his fourth but the parents
were resisting. He’d met the Prime Minister who’d said: “Don’t worry. We know
how to bully people into accepting these things.” But the campaign hadn’t
evaporated. Behind it were two women, one who worked in a Welfare Rights office,
the other in a supermarket. The kind of people Gibley would sack and send on
their way without a qualm. He was beginning to get frustrated.
Students were arriving by car, bus and train, lugging heavy suitcases, wheeling trunks on battered, tilting, squeaking trolleys ; there were rucksacks, holdalls, shoulder bags, carrier bags, Gladstones, clydes. The campus swarmed. Concerned parents followed their offspring across the square and into halls: brick-built, three-storey blocks, mostly, where ten students shared a floor. Mrs Treanor was following her son who was six inches taller and whose stride was long and swift. She’d expected him to go to Oxbridge, or at least Durham . Being married to a minor diplomat, her children were educated in private schools at the expense of the taxpayer, an arrangement she thought excellent. That the children of the working-class were educated at university by the same means, she thought of as Bolshevism. Still, here they were, in Lancaster. It was a university, apparently. As she entered her son’s college, she crossed paths with a startlingly good-looking girl. At once it struck her that her son might soon be in bed with such a young woman. Or even that very one! This was 1972 after all. The sexual revolution had happened. He was no longer in the exclusive atmosphere of a public school. And this was the north! He might mix with all kinds of riff-raff.
The riff-raff in question was Ann Leakey and John Treanor did end up in bed with her.
They were both studying French and Russian. Ann was the outstanding beauty of her year. Slim and dark with wide blue eyes she looked lovely in the downbeat clothes she usually wore. She was also stunningly intelligent and whipped through Proust as if it were the Daily Mail, while her fellow students struggled, looking up every tenth word. Boys were after her, as they’d been for years. Most of them bored her. She was looking for something different, though she didn’t know what. She just had a sense, like someone who has grown bored of a repetitive diet, that something unusual was necessary. John had noticed her on the first day. When she’d appeared in the lecture theatre for the talk on Charles Peguy, his heart quickened. He got to know girls on her floor. He was in their kitchen with a bottle of Sauternes when she came in. She was unobtrusive but unmissable. She went to her cupboard and took out her mug.
“I was hoping my father would get posted to Paris,” he said loudly. “I’d love to live in Paris. Madrid is fine, of course, but I adore Paris.”
Ann quietly made a cup of coffee. One of the girls asked her what she was up to and she said she was translating.
“Oh, I love translating!” said John. “I was always the best in my class. But I agree with Voltaire about translations, don’t you?”
Ann disappeared. As she went down the corridor, she could hear John’s loud, annoying voice. He was tall and strong and intelligent looking. But his loud, intrusive arrogance put her off.
A few days later she was buying a TLS when someone hissed. She turned round. It was him. He stood over her with a big smile, as if he were posing for a camera.
“What are you buying?”
She looked at the paper.
“That’s very intellectual.”
“That’s an exaggeration.”
He laughed loudly and nervously.
“Are you going to the disco tonight?” he asked.
“Maybe. Or maybe I’ll finish L’existentialisme est un humanisme.”
He laughed loudly again.
“I think I prefer a disco to Sartre!”
“Do you? I’m still trying to decide.”
“Are you walking back?”
“When I’ve paid for this. I’m not shoplifting.”
“No!” he guffawed. “I’ll wait outside.”
Ann joined the queue. She wished one of her friends would appear. She’d met two or three girls she got on with brilliantly. Like her, they were from unpretentious families. If only one of them would arrive now and they could walk back together.
“By the way,” said John as she came out of the shop, “you wouldn’t have a clothes brush I could borrow would you?”
“A clothes brush?” she put her change in her purse wondering if she should lie.
“Yes, my jacket got amazingly dusty in the bar last night. Things got a bit hectic and my jacket fell off the chair and everyone walked over it. It’s a real mess!”
She glanced up at him. He was one of those fine specimens the English public schools turn out: tall, clean, smooth and lacking in character like a newly-built house. Without knowing it, she dropped her guard a little. She found herself thinking he was a buffoon, but harmless, and her natural generosity took hold. She was like a boy who ventures out onto a frozen pond , and has no idea how it might feel to be in the chill water, beneath the ice.
“As a matter of fact, I have. But it’ll cost you.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” he said loudly, “I’m loaded.”
She made him wait outside while she searched. He tried to peep through the door left ajar. She remained inside and held the brush out to him. The electric light caught her eyes and made them shine bright blue. He stared at her.
“Here. I hope it does the trick.”
He took it from her and stood awkwardly.
“Do you fancy the disco tonight?”
He had the big smile again and his eyes were wide. She looked up at him and blenched a little as she might from a garish neon sign.
“As a matter of fact, I fancy Jean-Paul Sartre. He’s gorgeous.”
John looked bewildered.
“Good luck with the jacket.”
All the same, she turned up. She was with her friends, the girls he’d got to know. The disco was in a college bar and the place was packed, noisy, drunken and reeked of alcohol. John had drunk a bottle of Sauternes and was loud and staggering. He watched Ann as she danced with her friends. A boy moved in and tried to talk to her as he jigged to the repetitive beat. When the song ended, she walked away. He lost sight of her and pushed through the crowd to find her.
“I see that Ann Leakey’s here!” one of his mates shouted into his ear.
“I wouldn’t climb over her to get to you!”
John rocked with laughter. Where was she? He tried to keep her in his view and to summon up courage. Each time he caught sight of her his heart raced. She seemed different from minute to minute. He couldn’t look at her enough. Her beauty defeated looking. At last, he approached her.
“I thought you were reading Sartre!” he shouted.
“I’m a fast reader!”
He rocked with laughter again.
“Do you want to dance?”
“No, I want to elaborate my own project.”
“I’m pissed. I’ve drunk a whole bottle of Sauternes.”
“You obviously have refined tastes.”
“What are you drinking?”
“Dandelion and burdock.”
He walked her back. Outside her room he tried to kiss her. She allowed him a peck on the cheek and disappeared. He knocked on her door.
“No home to go to?”
“Can I come in?”
“Of course not. I’ve got Jean-Paul Sartre naked in here.”
Before going to bed, Ann decided to keep her distance. He was handsome enough, but empty, and something about his behaviour disturbed her, like an alarm heard faintly which keeps sounding through the night. She turned out the lamp and was quickly asleep.
In spite of her resolution, he seemed more present than ever. He was always in the kitchen, talking loudly and laughing in his embarrassing, raucous way. The more time she spent in his company, the more her original irritation and defensiveness waned. Like a bad smell which strikes you when you enter a room but which fades as you get used to it, his intrusive, insensitive manner became less noticeable. And he pursued her. The phone rang: it was John wanting to know if she’d done the Russian assignment. There was a knock at her door: could she help him translate a difficult sentence into French? In her easy-going way, at first she thought these requests were genuine. When she realised their ulterior motive she pulled up short with a little shock. The lads she’d known at home were more plain-dealing.
“My mother has just got a new Mercedes for going shopping,” John said.
He was sitting at the table by the kitchen window, his long legs outstretched.
“My mum goes on the bus,” said Ann, “ it’s too difficult to park the Rolls near the market.”
“Why don’t you come and visit us in the vacation? You’d like Godalming.”
“Mmmm. But Godalming might not like me.
She looked at him. He really was a buffoon. His mind was as flat and clear as the Antarctic wastes. The blind whiteness of snow stretched endlessly and the certainties were thrown off harshly. It made her wince, that public-school assumption and arrogance, that psychological and emotional tundra so typical of the English upper classes. She was used to the relaxed warmth of a working-class home. Her people had no opportunity to think of themselves as superior. They got by as they could and valued closeness and friendship. And as insult usually drew a sharp response and unpleasant consequences, they avoided it. Her father was a common northern joiner, but his manners were impeccable.
“People fit their circumstances and my circumstances don’t fit with Godalming.”
“We’re all socialists where I come from.”
“You should talk to my father . He’d straighten you out. He says five million on the dole would teach the unions a thing or two.”
“ He should patent that theory. He could make a fortune.”
“The thing is,” he intoned, “only the Conservatives can run the economy. You see, they’re the people who understand about money.”
“Oh, they understand that all right.”
“Without the rich, no-one would work. They organise things, you see. They’re the movers and shakers. It’s just ingratitude that makes the workers bolshie. And envy.”
“What an original mind you have,” she said.
Did he really think she could envy him? Did he imagine he was remotely the man her father and brother were? She looked at him as if he were an exotic creature, some anthropological discovery.
“Have you started Germinal? she asked.
“No. Have you?”
“I’ve finished it. You’ll love it. It’s all about the movers and shakers.”
After that, she decided to have nothing to do with him. They came from different planets. But he stuck. She came out of a lecture on Stendhal and he was waiting.
“Hi, Ann! Fancy a coffee?”
“Are you paying?”
Why did she accept? They sat in the crowded college bar. She loved the activity and the people. She was at home with the coming and going of crowds. As a child she’d watched the men streaming from the factory round the corner at five. It was life. People together, working or enjoying themselves. John talked loudly about himself. But he couldn’t reduce her mood. What a fool he was! What a harmless, purblind fool. In this mood, her fondness and generosity overcame her.
The days and weeks went by and John was always there. He bought her coffee and beer. She explained the origins of the French Revolution. They went to the cinema together to see Last Tango In Paris. During the sex scenes he froze.
“Bit raunchy,” she said as they left.
Then one evening when she’d had too much to drink and he walked her back from a disco, she found herself kissing him. In spite of herself, she enjoyed the closeness. He was heavy on top of her. His kissing was clumsy but she hadn’t kissed for months. When he tried to unhook her bra she said:
“Would you like me to do that?”
For her, the warmth of intimacy swept away superficial differences. As their love-making continued, she grew more relaxed. She laughed at his blundering ways and his blimpish opinions. She was enjoying herself in that untroubled way she’d learned in the streets, the back-alleys and the woods across the river, when parents were far away and freedom seemed endless.
Then one evening he was supposed to arrive at seven and didn’t turn up. She fretted. At ten she went to see if the light was on in his room.
“Lost your watch?” she said when he opened the door.
“ A la recherché du temps perdu. About three hours in fact.”
Her eyes hardened.
“You should see a psychologist about that complaint.”
“Aren’t you going to let me in?”
“What’s her name?”
“I could murder a cup of coffee,” and she pushed the door quickly and slid past him.
The pages of a hand-written letter lay on his desk. He gathered them hurriedly and pushed them in his drawer.
“Writing to mother?”
“Let’s go and sit in the kitchen.”
“Oh, let’s not. It’s much nicer here. I’ll wait while you brew.”
He took the pages from the drawer, folded them into an envelope and sealed it.
“Come in the kitchen while I make the coffee.”
“I’m comfy now. I’ll stay here. Off you go.”
He went stiffly, with sullen obedience.
She looked around the neat room. On the bookshelf was a row of swimming trophies. She imagined him diving like a gannet, powering the lengths. She saw the smirk of self-satisfaction on his lips when the cup was handed to him. There was a framed picture of his class. All the boys had that air of assumption public-school pupils can never shake off. She got up and took the envelope out of the drawer, turning it in her hands, feeling its small weight as enormously significant. She almost felt she had the right to open it. Her heart raced and she wanted to go. She put it back, closed the drawer and sat down. John appeared with two steaming mugs.
“Does absent-mindedness run in your family?” she said.
“I just forgot. Okay.”
He had his back to her, looking out over the quad.
“Do you think it’s genetic or a product of your upbringing?”
“Can’t we let it drop?”
He turned to her and she saw the shadow of an ugly expression in his eyes and on his mouth.
“Sure. Letting it drop sounds a good idea to me.”
She put the mug on the floor, got up and went.
She closed the door of her room behind her in a rage of self-accusation. Still, that was that. The fact that it was over meant she could pull herself up from the humiliation. But each time she thought of it, she was angry and ashamed. How could she have been such a fool? All the same, there was no doubt she’d revelled in the intimacy. She couldn’t sleep and curled in her armchair with Le Neveu de Rameau. Every time her thoughts began to drift, she forced her attention back to the book and the good intellectual effort calmed her down.
The rapping on her door woke her up. For a few seconds she was disoriented. Where was she? What day was it? Who was knocking? Then all at once her full consciousness returned, she got up throwing the blanket she’d had round her shoulders on the bed, put the book on her desk, and quickly straightening her hair in mirror, opened the door.
“Can I come in?”
“I’m surprised you can remember where I live.”
“Have you prepared for the seminar on Rimbaud?”
“The real seminar is elsewhere.”
“Finished your letter writing?”
“That was nothing.”
She sat in the chair and he perched on the bed.
“Of course. Who was it to?”
“Wow! Writing nothing to no-one. You could be the next Samuel Beckett.”
“Okay. It was to my ex-girlfriend.”
“Who is no-one, of course. What’s no-one’s name?”
“She’s at Oxford.”
“That’s quite a name.”
“I thought we could keep it going but it’s no good.”
“Thanks for telling me.”
At once she felt a twinge of regret. Why was she asking him to be considerate? He made an apology of sorts and came over to her. She went stiff and cold enough to keep him at a distance. He sat on the bed again and they talked till two. He was restrained and quiet but she wouldn’t relent. When he left, she went to bed resolved to keep him at a distance.
The next day he came striding up as she was leaving a lecture on Les Contemplations. He was full of that intrusive, toothy cheeriness which made her cringe and laugh at the same time.
“Hi, Ann!” he called. “I haven’t seen you for ages!”
“You saw me on Tuesday.”
“ Do you suffer from juvenile dementia?”
“ Oh yes, I remember. We talked in the library didn’t we.”
“We did. Libraries being ideal places for conversation.”
“Fancy a coffee?”
“You should try a variation on that line?”
“Actually, I’m just going to meet a couple of girls in Bowland bar.”
“Mind if I tag along?”
She stared at him. He stood tall and a little gangly, his big white teeth on display. There was something too present about him. In fact, everything he did was an exaggeration. He couldn’t lift a cup without looking as if he was acting out, as if he’d just read a book entitled How To Lift A Cup In Polite Society So As To Reveal Your Class Origins And Intrinsic Superiority. She was amazed.
“By all means.”
They sat in the far corner of the busy bar, their cheap white mugs and saucers on the low table. The girls chatted away inconsequentially with that female genius for emotional communication which leaves men bemused.
“I haven’t even learnt all my lines yet!” said one of them who was playing Martha in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.
“I played Hamlet in the sixth-form,” John interrupted. “I was pretty good, actually. I learnt the lines in bed.”
“I suppose it whiles away the time when you’ve nothing better to do there,” said Ann.
“Actually, I thought I might try my luck on the boards once over.”
The girls tried to imagine him on stage. All they could see was a wooden, amateur-dramatics ham. They smiled indulgently but he didn’t get it.
“What’s it about anyway, this play you’re in?”
“Well,” began the girl, “it’s not easy to say…”
“The poisonous centre of the sugary delicacy known as The American Dream,” said Ann.
“The problem with America, of course, is its lack of tradition,” said John.
“Or its lack of socialists,” said Ann.
“It’s a great country, but they need to learn how to be less vulgar,” said John.
“It’s hard not be vulgar when your existence revolves around making money,” said Ann.
“People of real class have money without making a fuss about it,” said John. “It’s only the nouveaux riches who need to be ostentatious.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Ann, “Buckingham Palace is hardly a paradigm of modesty.”
John waxed on about the responsibilities of wealth and how the country would go to the dogs if people who didn’t understand the value of money were allowed to have influence. The girls ignored him and drifted back to their light-hearted chatter, so seemingly trivial, so actually vital. They ignored him and he sat aside trying now and again to find a foothold in the conversation but failing because he didn’t grasp that conversation isn’t a philosophy seminar.
Ann was pleased he’d been discomfited. In her room she sat at her little portable Remington to bash out an essay on portraiture from David to Delacroix. She enjoyed work. The research could be tedious but the challenge of writing she relished. It was a great feeling to get to the end of a five thousand word essay, re-read it, re-work it and hand it in. So she liked these hours alone with words and she disliked being disturbed.
As soon as she heard the knock, she knew it was him.
“I’m not disturbing you am I?”
“I just wanted to talk.”
“I’m writing an essay.”
“Paper. Come in.”
She was mildly irritated at herself for giving way, but he looked so pathetic, like a boy who’s lost his mummy at the fairground, and in truth she was ready for a break, having hammered away for two hours or so. She made coffee and sat on the bed propped by her pillows while he sat in the chair.
“I wanted to say sorry,” he said.
“I’ve been a bit of a cad.”
She almost laughed out loud. A what? He talked as if he was straight from the pages of Billy Bunter! His ridiculousness made him unthreatening and she felt herself relax. She was trusting and easy-going because it was the way among her people. The old cliché was true, in the street where she grew up people did leave their front doors unlocked. Kids were always out skipping, playing hopscotch or Queenie-o-coco. Adults were always keeping an eye. Everyone watched out for everyone.
“Don’t worry, we know how to cope with cads in the north.”
“I was hoping we could have another go.”
“You know, start again.”
He was so preposterous she wanted to bustle him out of the door. But she let him stay and the time ran on. They went out to eat in the refectory, bought a bottle of Bordeaux on the way back and tired, tipsy, full of her native generosity, she let him into her bed.
Then things ran along quite well for a few weeks. Gradually, she was teaching him how to be in less of a panicky hurry in bed, though he couldn’t yet satisfy her. He would roll off , blow a great phew from his pursed lips and say:
“That was fantastic, wasn’t it?”
“It wasn’t too bad,” she’d say.
She didn’t really know where this was going, but for the moment she didn’t worry. She felt she had the measure of him and without being fully aware of it. She believed she could chip away at his ludicrous upper-middle-class assumptions and postures and make a straightforward human being of him.
Then the Easter holidays came round.
“I’ll give you a ring,” she said
“No, don’t do that.”
They were sitting in the bar that was already sparse. It was the last day of term and those who could had escaped early. She looked at him. He was staring blankly ahead.
“I might not be at home.”
“What is it, emergency surgery?”
“I just might not be at home, that’s all.”
His petulance and distance disturbed her. Like a lone yachtsman who senses a dangerous change in the wind and tacks for the shore, she should have made for safe ground; but she was too at ease. She dismissed her fretfulness.
“You can write to me though,” he said.
All through the Easter holiday she was on edge. She took a job in a café and had a great laugh with the other waitresses. The work was tedious - serving, wiping, collecting, - but they joked their way through the days making quiet fun of the customers. There was a man who came in every day, bought a small coffee and sat at the same corner table to read the paper for an hour. They invented an elaborate, mysterious, sinister or romantic life for him.
“Small coffee?” one of the girls would say as he came to the counter and the others would hide their suppressed giggles by bowing their heads and looking busy.
But when she was alone her doubts gnawed away at her until she sat down and wrote a brief note. She didn’t like him being incommunicado. What did he have to hide? In any case, they belonged in different worlds. Forget it. A reply came by return:
Ann, you bugger. Nothing’s going on. I’ll see you back on campus….
She felt suddenly unfair and silly. Too willing to give others the benefit of the doubt, she left herself exposed and accused herself of hurt to others when she was merely engaged in justified defence of her own feelings. In her relief, she expanded into wild affection. She was desperate for the start of term.
On the first day, she was delighted to meet all her friends and to chat away. But where was John? She knocked on his door. She went to the bar. Then on her way to the library she spotted him striding across Alexandra Square. She smiled at his ludicrous purposiveness. He walked as if he was on his way into battle to save the world from aliens. She went towards him but as he spotted her he veered away and then walked straight past her as if she didn’t exist. She stopped and turned, watching him stride on, amongst the students milling in their appalling ordinariness. She went to the library and sat down with Les Illusions Perdues but the surging of her emotion, the pounding of her heart, the humiliating image of him powering past her as if a complete stranger, melted her concentration. She sat and stared. Then she jumped up, stuffed the book in her bag and in a white, eyeless rage went straight to his room. His door was open. She heard voices and laughter. He was playing cards with a trio of his rugby pals.
“Poker. All right, Ann?”
“Fine. You’ll need a straight face not to be fleeced with a hand like that,” she said to John, standing behind him.
“Play poker, Ann?”
“Oh, I’m an expert. Bluff and counter bluff. I can take John to the cleaners any time I like.”
“No, I’ve got more important games to play. So, how was your holiday, John?”
The three mates exchanged looks.
“Excellent. How was yours?”
“Wonderful. I was just wondering about the deterioration in your psychological condition.”
“Come on, play!” said John.
“Yes, come on, play. There’s a game on here all right and someone’s going to lose their shirt! You should get to the medical centre as soon as you can, John. I mean it’s only four weeks and you’ve completely lost any memory of me whatsoever. A degenerative loss like that at your age! You need acute psychiatry.”
The game stopped. One of the lads put down his cards.
“I’d better be off. I’ve to see my tutor about missed essays.”
“That’s a problem,” said Ann, “but it’s nothing compared to John’s deficiency. He could be utterly gaga in a fortnight.”
The other two lads stood up.
“We’d better make tracks too, mate.”
“There’s no need to go,” said John.
“No need at all,” said Ann. “Take a ringside seat. Seconds out.”
“You’ve no right..” he began.
“Don’t walk past me as if I’m a piece of furniture and then start talking about rights.”
He got up and turned away from her, making as if he needed to tidy.
“So where did you spend your holiday? On top of She’s-at-Oxford?”
“None of your business.”
“It is my business when I write to you telling you things are over and you reply like lover-boy of the century!”
“Can you get out of my room.”
“Can you get out of my life.”
He swung round suddenly and grabbed her by the wrist. She was stunned by his cowardice. His face was contorted into an ugly sneer. Behind the guffawing, socially gauche public schoolboy was this vicious, spoilt, violent little boy who must have his own way in all things.
“Stop poking your nose into my affairs,” he said his gleaming teeth clenched.
She yanked her arm away and strode out. There were red marks on her wrist. She rubbed them as if they were poison. In her room she closed the curtains, slumped in her chair and sobbed.
Three weeks later, on a Wednesday, at six in the evening, she walked into the porter’s lodge.
“Sorry to bother you, Bob, but I’ve left my file in my boyfriend’s room and I need to get on with an essay. I don’t suppose there’s any chance you could come and open his door for me?”
“No, I can’t leave the lodge, luv. If you can wait till eight Tom’ll be here to start his shift and I can go with you then.”
“Damn! I just need to get stuck into this work.”
Bob was very fond of Ann. She was down-to-earth and often made him a brew on nights when he was on patrol duty. He’d sit in the kitchen with her and she’d ask him about his family and his hobbies and had a way of listening that cheered him up.
“You couldn’t…Look, it’s my boyfriend’s room. I’m in there all the time. God knows where he’s gone. If I could just have the key…”
“I can’t, luv. I’m not allowed.”
“’Course not. But am I going to tell? It’s B53. I’ll be there and back in less then a minute. I wouldn’t ask, but I just have to get this work done and there’s my file, I can picture it, sitting on the desk, with all my beautifully written notes…”
She tilted her head like an inquisitive pigeon and smiled.
“If anyone asks you…..”
Bob reached behind him and took the key from the hook.
“You’re a luv, Bob, I’ll remember you in my will.”
She sprinted across the quad to B block and panted up the stairs. Pulling open the right-hand drawer of his desk, she saw the little stack of envelopes. She took hold of the first one and pulled out its two-page contents. It was a conventional love-letter signed Marie-Eve. She memorised the address, shoved it back and rifled through the rest. She found one that contained the lines: and now you say you’re drifting away from me, John. And for who, for a bitch of a student, a working-class slut…..A sudden calm came over her and a clear resolution. She put everything away, closed the door behind her, scooted to her room to pick up her file and back to the porter’s lodge.
“Got it Bob! You’ve saved my life, again! No-one spotted me. Your secret goes to the grave with my corpse.”
“You’re too young to think about such things!”
Back in her room she sat quietly at her desk. She had a fountain pen and a pad of good quality note-paper which she kept for official letters. She wrote her address and the date in the top corner. Then she began: Dear Marie-Eve, and paused. There were so many things she could say, but she wanted one sentence that could say everything. Finally she put down: I’m enclosing a letter John Treanor sent me during the Easter holidays. I thought you might find it of interest. She put the two letters in the little blue envelope, sealed it and wrote on the front the address she’d had no difficulty remembering.
The next morning she took it to the post-office and then went to the library where she read Balzac intently for four hours.
It was almost a week before the knock came on her door. She opened and stood back. He was in the corridor with the envelope and letters in his hand. She looked into his eyes and saw the anguish. He was about to cry.
“How did you get her address?”
“It was in your drawer, John. All her letters are in your drawer.”
“How did you get into my room?”
“You let me in. Don’t you remember? We beguiled a few vagrant hours in bed together. You were clumsy but you can’t be blamed for that. A public school education is a poor start in life.”
“She wants to finish with me now!” he roared.
He lurched into the room and threw himself down in her chair.
“You bitch! She wants to finish with me!”
His mouth pulled down at the corners and she saw his bottom lip quiver.
“Write to her, John. Say something like, Marie-Eve, you bugger…”
He leapt from the chair and grabbed the mug from the edge of her desk raising his long, swimmer’s arm in the same action and swinging it down to try to smash into her head. She flung herself onto the bed and the mug crashed onto her bedside table leaving him holding the handle in his fingers.
“You’d better get out of here before I call the police,” she said.
He was standing over her, the tears squeezing from his eyes, his mouth like a distressed baby’s, his chest starting to heave, the letters in one hand, the little china handle in the other. Slowly he turned and dragged out, slumped like a man whose entire life is bereft. She closed the door behind him.
“Buffoon!” she said to herself. “What a complete buffoon!”
Hal Boston’s life revolved around sport. From his earliest years he was never without a ball and he brimmed with energy he needed to work off on a field, in a game, in competition. At primary school there was no-one to touch him for enthusiasm in anything physical. He passed the 11-plus, went to the grammar school, was picked at once for the first teams in rugby, football, and when the spring arrived, cricket. He played for the county’s first fifteen and first eleven and football clubs took an interest. At fifteen he had trials for Chester and was offered terms. But rugby was his first love he turned it down. His father was pleased.
“Do what you believe in lad, don’t just go after the money.”
His parents were Labour folk. They had that ingrained disdain of cheap go-getting that was so common among the northern working-class in the post-war years and which the young today find incomprehensible. They watched their lad thrive during the peaceful 1950’s when weariness with war and the disciplines of rationing made people truly grateful for peace and relative plenty. In the sixities he grew his hair and listened to The Beatles. They indulged him: these were harmless, passing fads. He did well enough at school and went to university to train as a town planner. But at nineteen his girlfriend got pregnant. They married and struggled through. For a time, they came to live with Hal’s parents who made a great fuss of the little boy. At length the young parents could afford their own house, in the suburbs, not far from the child’s grandparents. Everything settled down. Another child was born, a girl this time who looked just like her father who was doing well in his job with a local authority only twenty minutes drive from home. Sally found part-time work in administration in a local college. And Hal played on. Football and rugby and cricket and tennis and badminton and table tennis. He was small and muscular, like a terrier, and he ran at life with the same kind of gusto. Always at the peak of fitness he prided himself on being able to drink eight pints on a Friday and run himself breathless for ninety minutes on Saturday afternoon.
They had two more children, both boys. Hal couldn’t have been more content. He’d always known how to get his satisfaction from life, had barely lived through a miserable day and if he did feel low or at a loose end, there was always sport. If all else failed he would go for a run or get out his bike and honk over a few big hills.
But when his third child was eighteen months , something went wrong which he struggled to understand and which changed his life forever.
“I’m not going to work today,” said Sally.
He was standing naked at the foot of the bed after his shower drying himself on a white bathsheet as big as a sail. She looked at him. He was vigorous and without an ounce of fat. His black beard was thick and heavy and the black hair grew profusely on his chest and belly and legs and arms. She looked at his flaccid cock and the dense, black pubic mass. His masculinity disgusted her.
"I can’t stand it,” she said.
“What d’you mean?”
He was genuinely puzzled and didn’t intend to goad. He really didn’t understand how she couldn’t get through the day. He attacked work like he attacked a ball. Nothing got on top of him.
“I mean I can’t stand it. Don’t you understand English.”
“So you’re giving it up?”
“What about the money?”
“Well, I don’t think they’ll go on paying me when I don’t work for them any more.”
He paused a second.
“No, I mean what will we do about the money?”
“We’ll have to cope.”
“But we only just get by from month to month now.”
“You work it out.”
She took the babies to her in-laws as usual, came home and collapsed in front of the television. The emptiness of the programmes was what she needed. The dross washed over her and she switched off. While she followed the game-shows and the chat-shows and the adverts her mind was relieved of the necessity to struggle with her difficulties. She made herself a cheese sandwich and a cup of tea for lunch, went round to the Spar to buy a few things and watched the television till it was time to pick up the children. The few hours between collecting them, the return of the other two from school, and Hal getting back from work were terrible. She’d lost interest in her children. They seemed to her impossibly and endlessly demanding. On her own with the four of them she feared being overwhelmed. There was no joy any longer (what was it like, that joy?) in simply being with them, in the daily task of seeing to their needs, in the exhausting round of constant attention. Worst of all was her third child, Sam. The youngest was like his father, energetic and independent. If he had something to play with he could keep himself intensely focused for an hour at a time. But Sam was a clinging boy who wanted her always to be with him, always talking to him, who seemed never to be able to go away into his own child’s world and leave her be.
“Go and play, Sam,” she said as he tried to climb up next to her on the sofa and she pushed him away.
He fell onto his backside and began to wail which she ignored in the hope he’d go and find comfort from his sister and brothers. He looked up at her, crying and crying to the point of hysterical distress. She pressed the button on the remote to turn up the volume. At length the child crawled away to find his siblings and she heard with relief his sobs retreating down the hallway. When Hal came home the children assailed him and he rushed around making food, tidying up, getting them bathed, settled and into bed. Once the house was quiet, all four asleep, he came downstairs.
“Are we going to eat?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Have you had something?”
“I had a sandwich at lunchtime.”
There were three crisp packets on the floor.
“I thought you might have made something.”
“I’ve told you, I’m not hungry.”
“Sal, I’ve done a day’s work, come home to find the kids neglected and fractious. I’ve sorted them out, tidied up. It’s half past eight. Couldn’t you have made some bloody tea?”
“Stop going on at me !” she snapped.
“Going on? What do you expect me to say?”
“I don’t expect you to say anything. Just stop having a go at me.”
“All I’m saying…..”
“I hear what you’re saying. Make you own fucking tea. Why should I do it? Am I your servant?”
“For fuck’s sake….”
She turned up the volume so it was booming.
“I’m trying to watch the television. Can’t you leave me in peace?”
He went into the kitchen and prepared himself a lonely meal. Sitting by himself in the dining-room with a plate of pasta and tomato sauce , he scanned the years of his marriage and courtship, searching for a pattern or a clue. Little by little it came to him. There had always been a reluctance, a slight distancing and holding back; but in his headlong approach to life he’d failed to respond. That was Sal. It didn’t bother him. It hadn’t even bothered him on their first night that after he’d worked away on top of her for twenty minutes and she’d then climbed on top of him, she fell onto the mattress beside him and complained:
Now he saw the scene clearly, and looking on it as an observer, seeing her on her belly, her head turned to the wall and himself lying next to her still with an iron hard-on, he realised what it meant. At the time, he’d taken her at her word. She was exhausted. Now, in a sudden, terrible insight he knew the truth. As he washed up and tidied, he ransacked his memories and one by one the awful recollections shocked his brain and sent his heart thumping heavily. Wiping his hands, he looked out of the window onto his garden, the long lawn with the swing at the end, the lilacs and rhododendrons before the tall privet hedge. He liked living here. It was pleasant to have a decent-sized house and a bit of space. But if it hadn’t been for the four children upstairs he would have walked out there and then.
Sally retreated more and more into her television world. The idea of missing an episode of Neighbours or Coronation St made her anxious. She had little desire to go out. Now and again she would go to a quiz night at the pub with two or three friends, but all the while she was thinking of what she was missing on t.v.. She began to drink at home and the combination of sinking into the warm and comfortable sofa, of leaving behind her own life with its demands and problems and entering wholly into the world of vivid images on the screen, together with the cosy glow of the first effects of the wine or vodka and the ultimate oblivion of unconsciousness as the bottles were emptied, provided her with just the relief she needed. She couldn’t drag herself out of bed in the morning. Hal’s mother came to see to the children. Every evening he came home and picked up the pieces. What was to be done?
“She needs professional help,” said his mother.
“She won’t listen,” he replied.
It was true. To every offer of help she replied:
“Stop having a go at me. What are you picking on me for? Leave me alone.”
The weeks and months went by until one night the ambulance had to be called. Her stomach was pumped. She was referred to a psychiatrist and diagnosed an alcoholic. She was given medication and took part in group therapy. For a month or two she didn’t drink and seemed almost to be returning to the family. Once or twice she showed a remotely motherly interest in her children. The one day she said:
“This therapy isn’t doing me any good.”
“Why not?” said Hal.
“It’s crap. Sitting around talking. Anyway, I’m not drinking.”
“But maybe it’s best to go through with it in any case.”
“No, I’m not going any more. And if you don’t buy any booze, I can’t drink, can I?”
She returned to her long days on the sofa. It was as if the house and the people around her didn’t exist. She never made a meal or tidied up. She was interested only in that other world which the machine in the corner delivered to her endlessly, that better world, that world of good-looking, happy people where there either were no problems or they were solved as in a dream. Then one day, Hal’s mother brought the children home after school to find two empty vodka bottles on the carpet and Sally unconscious before the blaring television.
It was hopeless. The marriage had to end. The divorce was protracted, messy and bitter. Sally was given custody.
Hal got a mortgage on a little terraced house close to an established area of expensive semis and detached places, near the river, away from the estates with their reputations for drugs, crime and violence. Sally moved in with one of her friends, a divorcee with no children. Hal’s mother still helped with the children and he saw them every weekend. Often three of them would stay in his little house on Friday or Saturday night. But never Sam. In spite of everything, three of them seemed to be coming through. Hal was relieved every time his kids just behaved like kids. When they were lost in play, unselfconscious and happy he felt the disaster he’d feared wasn’t going to happen. Except for Sam.
Sometimes he took him out on his own and because sport had made him so absorbed and happy as a boy, because all he’d needed was jumpers for goalposts, a plastic ball and a couple of mates and blissful hours could go by, he thought Sam might be the same. He took him to the park.
“Three an’ in ! Come on, I’m goalie.”
The lad made half-hearted attempts to score and in the end Hal let the weak shots roll over the line and called:
“Goal ! Brilliant. Your turn.”
Or he set up the stumps and bowled slow, easy deliveries for his son to thrash around the park. Instead he poked at them unwillingly and the energy ebbed away.
“Fancy a cornet, Sam?”
They walked to the town’s oldest café where the Italian owner made his own ice-cream. Hal put his arm around his lad’s shoulders.
“Fantastic isn’t it, Sam? Never tasted better.”
The lad licked in silence and walked along with a dragging gait.
One day, coming back from the park, a jay winged noisily out of a tree and flew ahead.
“What kind o’bird’s that, dad?”
It was the first time Sam had shown a spontaneous interest in anything. Hal took him off to the woods, showed him how to climb trees, made a rope swing over the stream and flew out on the end in a great, slow arc, running madly with small steps to stop himself when he hit the steep, clay bank.
“Are you havin’ a go?”
The boy shook his head.
He found a blackbird’s nest and pulled aside the branches so the child could see three blue eggs nestling in the hollow.
“Put your fingers in. They’re warm.”
Gingerly, Sam felt the eggs then turned away and sat on a fallen tree trunk, silent and disconsolate. Hal sat beside him.
“Hey,” he said, “the fair’ll be coming soon. Fancy goin’?”
They sat next to one another, the boy looking at his shoes on the grey, dry earth. Hal felt a terrible distance from his own child, the distance that had come between him and his wife and which, with anguish, he’d realised had always been there.
“What d’you like doin’ best, Sam?” he said.
“What d’you like best about yourself?”
The shock that ran through Hal silenced him. They sat on for five minutes while the father struggled desperately to find what to say.
“Come on then, let’s get home shall we?”
As they walked, Hal was turning over in his mind the idea that he was to blame. Was it his aggression the child had picked up on? Was it a bad example to be the scrappy, fighting little footballer and rugby player he was? Surely not. This boy he’d brought into the world seemed to have no connection with him. There seemed to be no point at which he could engage him. It couldn’t be the child’s fault and he was tormented by the thought he’d let him down.
From his first days in school, Sam brought complaints and concern from the teachers. He’d hit one child, kicked another. Then he bit the teacher and had to be kept at home for the rest of the week. Hal went in to talk to them.
“He’s very sullen, Mr Boston. We find it hard to get him to take an interest in anything. Except fighting.”
“I know. You’re right. He’s the same with me. I’m not making excuses. I apologise for his behaviour. Biting a teacher and hitting other children are unacceptable. You have my full support. But Sam seems to have been hit hard by his mother’s problems.”
“Yes. And the others are such lovely children.”
It sent a jolt through Hal that Sam could be compared to his brothers and sister in this way. He was his lad. He loved him as he did the others. He rejected his behaviour but not his son.
Sam was referred to the Educational Psychologist, then to a child psychiatrist. He calmed down for a short while but one day, when he was in Year 6 and had developed the same strong, tight frame as his dad, the teacher kept him behind at break and asked him why he hadn’t done his work. He picked up her heavy, wooden chair and swung it fiercely into the side of her head. As she staggered and fell she saw his eyes widen with a delight he’d never shown before and a little smile of childlike joy play on his lips.
He was taken out of school and sent to a unit where he had one to one contact. Forced to work he made some progress and was endlessly praised. They told Hal he was clearly a bright boy who was deliberately and perversely holding himself back. He remained gloomy and uncommunicative but one day when the teacher was pressing him to try harder at his arithmetic he said:
“Why don’t you leave me alone you fucking cunt?”
Hal made one of his infrequent visits to Sally.
“Do you know what he said?”
“Is it my fault if the teachers can’t control him?”
“I’m not blamin’ anybody.”
“Yes you are. You’re on my fuckin’ back as usual.”
“I haven’t been here for months !”
“So much the better.”
“He’s your child, Sally. You’re responsible.”
“Oh yeah, that’s you every time isn’t it, Hal? I’m responsible. Leave the kid alone. He doesn’t give me any trouble.”
“That’s because you pay no attention to him.”
“Maybe he’s happy having no attention paid to him. Just get off his back.”
Because Hal had been a pupil there and his elder brother was on the roll, Sam went to the ex-grammar at eleven. Hal hoped the place might change him. Above all, he hoped the sporting excellence might lift him, if only he could get a place on a school side. He went to the first rugby turn-out and was chosen.
“Brilliant !” said Hal. “You’ll love it, and you’ll make some good pals.”
But on the Saturday morning when Hal arrived to pick him up, he was still in bed.
“Get him up quickly !” said Hal to Sally.
“He doesn’t want to get up.”
“For fuck’s sake, get him out of bed ! This could be the making of him !”
“Rugby? Just ‘cause you’re a fanatic.”
Hal pushed past and bounded up the stairs. Sam was curled beneath his duvet on a mattress on the floor strewn with clothes, empty cans, half empty glasses.
“Get up, Sam ! Come on, we can still make the kick off. I’ll buy you a drink and a chocolate bar on the way.”
There was no answer nor any movement.
“For god’s sake get up !”
He yanked back the duvet. The naked lad grabbed it and tried to wrap himself. Hal took hold with both hands and pulled it away. The boy tucked his knees up to his belly and buried his head in the pillow.
“Sam, people are waiting for you. People are relying on you. Show a bit of spine. You want to be a man you’ve got to learn not to let people down. Come on.”
He reached down and took hold of his arm at which the boy sprang up like a cornered viper and swung a fine right hook. Hal danced out of the way and stood with his back to the wall. His naked son was facing him looking like an ambitious young aspirant to a title, his left foot forward, his guard up, his fists tight and ready, his chin down, his eyes fixed on his opponent.
“Maybe you should take up boxing.”
The lad didn’t move.
Hal drove to the school. The teams were warming up . They were just kids, hardly able yet to master the rudiments of the game, but to see them running and passing brought the old thrill. He saw himself as he was at eleven, the small, strong, energetic scrum-half for whom happiness was a clean pass or a swift run. Then the thought of what had just happened brought tears to his eyes.
“All right, Hal?”
“All right, Mick?”
“Where’s your lad?”
“Ill. I’ve just been to pick him up. He’s bad. Sick all night.”
“That’s a bugger. First match too.”
Sam went to no more turn-outs. Nor did he appear for the football matches with the local team. His first high school report was restrained but negative. All those telling little phrases by which teachers indicate serious problems on the way – he’s not as attentive as he could be, sometimes he lacks focus, on occasion he has been oppositional – flattened Hal’s expectations. He put the booklet on the little table which sat by the sofa and looked out of the bay window of his small, two-bedroomed terrace. It caught the morning light and he enjoyed sitting with a book or the paper when that soft, honeyed sunshine of the early day began to warm the room. He thought of his own school reports. They were always good. He was solid all round. Even in French and Latin, which he hated, he came through with decent marks and positive comments. As for P.E., he was always excellent: Hal is a first-rate sportsman who makes a splendid contribution to school teams. Those comments had lifted and sustained him, term in term out. Everything was okay. The way he saw himself, what he felt good about tallied with what the school admired. He realised that in spite of all the ribbing of teachers he and his mates had gone in for, his school years had been blithe. What had he ever had to worry about? Now and again he missed a homework and got detention. Once or twice he was caned for a bit of unruliness. But he had friends, he was learning, he was excellent at sport, he could feel good about himself.
So how had this happened?
His mind went blank and tears came to his eyes. Somehow, he’d imagined the world wouldn’t change. His children would grow up just as he’d done, with parents who quietly did what they had to, didn’t fuss or push, with a school that taught trig and geog and biol and even French grammar and his kids would find their niche. But his son was out on a limb, nothing about him corresponded to anything society saw as positive. He was at a loss to understand. Sure, Sally’s breakdown, or whatever it was, her drinking, had done him harm. But it seemed to go beyond that. Somehow, the ground on which Hal had always walked had crumbled. How had it happened?
He was overcome by a sense of dread. How would his life ever again be carefree and easy?
Sam’s first suspension came for selling cigarettes to other boys, his second for telling his music teacher to fuck off, his third for putting his hand down his trousers during a maths lesson taken by a female supply teacher and saying: Do we have sex in heaven? Towards the end of year nine, however, things took a step upwards: a teacher found him selling something in the toilets, took the packet from him and Sam attacked him breaking his nose and knocking out a tooth. He would have been permanently excluded but the Head wanted to keep it quiet. The school relied for its intake on its reputation for academic achievement and good discipline. Though the latter was breaking down, the name of the game was to underplay the decline to avoid giving an advantage to neighbouring schools. The teacher agreed to take no legal action. Hal met him and apologised abjectly.
But Sam couldn’t make it through to his GCSEs. He skipped lessons, then whole days, did no work in class, no coursework, no homework and when he beat up a prefect for sending him out of the building, he was put on extended study leave so as not to become an exclusion statistic.
“You’re going to have to find yourself a job,” said Hal.
“What d’you mean why? How do you think we live?”
“I don’t want a job. Working’s crap.”
“Maybe, but it’s not as crap as living on the dole.”
Sam switched channels. Hal stood by the mantelpiece wondering what he could say to make contact.
“What you need is a skill. Get a skill and you can earn decent money.”
Sam made no acknowledgement. Hal looked at the screen. It was some American series whose name he didn’t know. The accents and the obviousness of the dialogue irritated him. He suddenly recalled some of the things he’d watched as a child. Robin Hood with Richard Greene, William Tell, Dan Dare and he remembered a serialisation of Kim which he’d followed with delight until one Friday at seven thirty he’d turned on to find an episode of Coronation St. How could they replace his charming programme with this? He recalled how he’d stopped dead with a little shock. Why did his children now watch American programmes day and night? They were steeped in a culture which was alien to him and which left him feeling lonely and excluded. Sam especially withdrew into a private space built from the cheap, crass images of popular culture.
“I could ask Howard if he’d take you on. Get trained as a lecky, you’ll be fine.”
Sam didn’t respond.
All the same, Hal had a word with his mate and Sam was taken on as an apprentice electrician. It was good to see him out of bed at seven. When he came home grubby and exhausted and fell asleep on the sofa, Hal felt he was maybe on his way to a life with a bit of toughness. Was he right to be glad of that? Or was it a failure in him that he celebrated that kind of challenge he’d loved in sport? He worried that he was imposing his own preferences on his son but finally, seeing him pick up his canvas bag and go out of the front door with a piece of toast in his hand, he knew he was right. Things settled down for a while. Sam, it seemed, was a good worker. He was learning quickly and had an easy aptitude. Hal began to think that school had simply been wrong for him. Who was to say all kids should adapt to school’s demands? Maybe the discipline of work and the business of struggling with inert physicality - chasing out brick, prising up floorboards, stripping wires rapidly with side-cutters – was exactly what he’d needed. He saw Sam turning into a responsible tradesman, setting up his own business, making his way, finding a wife. Ahead stretched long, steady years of effort and success. He would be proud of him. He imagined turning up at Sam’s big house. He would have renovated it himself and built a fine extension. Surrounded by neat lawns and flower beds full of colour, the house was warm and lived-in.Three or four children ran in and out with their friends while he, getting on now, sat on the sofa with a cup of tea made by Sam’s down-to-earth wife, watching the cricket or football.
Then one evening he opened the door to a policeman.
“That’s right .”
“We’ve got your son at the station.”
Sam had been found in possession of a kilo of cannabis.
“What’s wrong with it?” he said once they were home.
“It’s against the bloody law.”
“So you get caught they’ll send you to prison.”
“Stupid. You buy booze. What’s the difference?”
“Stupid. What harm does it do?”
“What do you know about how much harm it does?”
“What d’you know about booze?”
In truth, the father didn’t disagree with his son. In an academic argument he’d say too that booze is just as harmful. But this wasn’t pointing up contradictions in order to score intellectual points, this was life in the raw: police, courts, a prison cell.
“Using the stuff is one thing, dealing it is another. If you’d been caught with an ounce you’d’ve got a caution.”
"Someone has to sell it.”
“Leave it to the bloody gangsters.”
“Yeah, they make all the money.”
Hal stopped pacing and turned to Sam who slouched on the sofa. The boy looked up at him with that curiously empty gaze which made him wince.
“You’ll be lucky if they don’t send you to prison.”
“What do I care? You can do lots o’drugs in prison.”
He was given a suspended sentence.
He moved in with Hal, went on working and stayed out of trouble for six months then Hal came home after work to find he’d gone. He’d left no address or note. Hal rang his ex-wife.
“Do you know where Sam is?”
"He’s not moving back in with you, is he?”
“Not as far as I know.”
Hal went to call on all of Sam’s pals. One after another said they’d neither seen him nor heard from him. He knew he should report it to the police. What if the lad had crossed some psychopathic drug dealer? What if he was lying dead somewhere? But he dismissed these thoughts as melodramatic. One Saturday evening he settled down with a beer to watch Match of the Day. Once, it had made him happy. The weekend. The kids in bed. His wife beside him on the sofa. A hard fought match on the t.v.. Having played so much himself , he was intuitively responsive to the moves, the tackles, the shots. It was as if he could feel the weight of the ball on his foot or smell the damp grass as he slid into a tackle. But now, even his beloved sport let him down. His thoughts kept swinging back to Sam and little surges of worry ran through his veins and made his heart race. He jumped up, switched off the t.v and got in his car. Where did the junkies hang out? Oddly, he wasn’t afraid as he walked down the unlit, damp Bashful Alley. He still had the physical courage that had made him such a good scrum-half and opening batsman. He was still strong and muscular and didn’t carry an ounce of fat. He would still have fancied himself in any scrap.
In a doorway was a lad about Sam’s age drawing on a spliff.
“I’m looking for Sam Boston,” said Hal. “D’you know him?”
“Fuck off !”
Hal grabbed the lad’s clothes at the throat and pushed him hard against the wall.
“Just tell me if you know where he is, you little cunt !”
“Awright ! Awright !”
Hal let him go.
“You’re fuckin’ dangerous you are, man. You’re a fuckin’ psycho.”
“ Where is he?”
The lad was pointing to the derelict building on the opposite side of the alley.
“How do I get in.”
“Climb up the fuckin’ drainpipe.”
Hal grabbed the spliff, threw it to the floor and twisted his foot on it.
“You bastard !”
“Yeah, I’m a bastard and a psycho. Now how do I get in there? You tell me or I’ll put you under my foot.”
“Door down the end,” the lad held out a skinny finger.
Hal headed away.
“I’ll get you, mate. You watch it. I’ll fuckin’ have you.”
He didn’t look back.
The door was locked. He stood back and kicked against the lock with the flat of his right foot. It shook but didn’t give. He kicked again and again and a voice called:
“Okay ! Okay !”
When the door opened Hal pushed past and sprang up the stairs. The junkies were congregated on the first floor. The place was a mess of mattresses, sleeping bags, discarded food, bodies, cups, bottles, cans, plates, clothes. The demented chemistry of preparation was taking place around a candle in the middle of the room. Hal went from one body to another. Hal was curled in a grubby sleeping bag in a corner. He pulled the bag from him, dragged him to his feet.
“Hey, man, what the fuck you doin’?” called one of the spectres from the middle.
Hal ignored him. He threw his inert, heavy son over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift and went down the stairs. In spite of the awkward weight, he could do it without difficulty. His legs were strong. His heart and lungs were still good and fit. When he lay Sam on the back seat of his car, he felt a curious sense of achievement, as if he’d just scored a try or a stunning goal. He drove home, packed a holdall threw it in the boot and headed north. By the time Sam came round, they’d just passed Dumfries.
“Where the fuck are we?”
“Shit ! What’re we doin’ up here.”
“We’re going for a holiday.”
“I don’t need a holiday.”
“Well, you’re gettin’ one anyway.”
“It’s February. It’s fuckin’ freezin’ in Scotland.”
“We’ll keep warm.”
“I wanna go back.”
“It’s a long walk.”
“You can’t take me away. It’s kidnapping.”
“Yeah, report me to Interpol.”
Hal’s problem was where to stop. He need to book somewhere but he didn’t dare leave Sam alone. He parked up.
“I’m stayin’ in’t car.”
He opened the rear door. Sam refused to move so he grabbed his feet and dragged him out. The son put up a bit of a struggle but Hal overwhelmed him and pinning him down on the car park said:
“You’ll do as I say. Just as I say. Get it?”
“You don’t know what you’re doin’, dad.”
“And you do?”
They went to the little Tourist Information Office and Hal asked if there was a cottage they might book, somewhere remote, somewhere they could walk and be lost in nature. They put him in touch with the owner of a place north of Ullapool. He booked it for two weeks.
“Two weeks !” said Sam on the way back to the car. “Where’m I gonna get me fuckin’ gear?”
“You’re going to climb a thousand foot peak every day before breakfast and for that you’ll get two paracetamol. Then you’ll jog five miles before lunch and for that you’ll get two more. The you’ll chop wood for an hour before tea and for that you’ll get another two. The only drugs you’re gonna see for two weeks are pain killers.”
“Your fuckin’ nuts. I’ll die.”
“If you do I’ll give you a good funeral.”
They stopped at a little roadside store and bought bread, potatoes, carrots, turnip, peas, tomatoes, rice, oil, tea, coffee, sugar, oats, honey, milk and painkillers. The cottage was truly remote. The nearest village was fifteen miles. There was no television. The back door was dead-locked and Hal had the key under his pillow. He moved his bed and slept hard up against the front door. There were the windows, but upstairs was pretty impossible and if he came down and tried he was sure he would wake.
Hal had to phone work and tell them he wouldn’t be in for a while. Family crisis. Two weeks would take some explaining. He may face a disciplinary, but they wouldn’t sack him.
The first morning he was up at five. It was utterly dark and stark cold. He’d never experienced darkness like it. It made him realize how the town never has a night. He went outside. There was not a glimmer anywhere. He brought in wood and lit the fire and made a big pan of steaming porridge.
“Come on, breakfast’s ready.”
Sam was huddled beneath his duvets.
“What time is it?”
“Fuckin’ hell !”
“Come on, get up.”
He pulled the covers away.
“What’s the point of getting up at six?”
"That’s when the day starts.”
“It’s the middle of the fuckin’ night.”
“Okay, but that’s breakfast time in this hotel, so get up and eat it now or you go without food till lunch.”
Sam came down in the only clothes he had. He was slow, limp and slovenly.
“Here,” said Hal, “put these on,” and he handed him a thick, long-sleeved vest and a heavy sweater.
At the table, Sam prodded his food and turned down the corners of his mouth.
“I can’t eat this crap.”
“Here, stir some honey into it. It makes it sweet and it’ll give you energy.”
“I need gear, not fuckin’ porridge !”
“Porridge is your gear. Get it down your neck or you’re gonna be really knackered climbing that hill out there.”
“I’m not climbin’ no hill !”
“Tomorrow you’re gonna climb it before your porridge. Today I’m being soft. Eat.”
It was one of those February days when the clouds promise a bit of relief from the cold but a vicious north wind cuts through the thickest layers and it seems impossible to believe in the warmth of spring or the scorching suns of August. Hal set the pace to produce a bit of animal heat but Sam was sluggish and reluctant. Panting after a stiff push up a steep part of the lower slopes, Hal stopped and looked down. Sam was taking slow strides, his shoulders hunched. His feet couldn’t seem to find their hold. He stumbled, put his hand out to save himself and found it sliding into mud. He stopped, wiping himself clean on the rough grass. Hal looked at his son and felt disappointment and disgust. He was just so lacking. Life itself seemed to have failed in him and he dragged himself through the world like a sick animal looking for a quiet corner in which to lay down and die. He had brought this child into the world and expected he would grow happy, healthy and vigorous. How had this happened? He felt injured in the essence of his being. It suddenly struck him that being a husband and father had been the most important things in his life. What was a job compared to fatherhood? What was a career compared to living successfully with a woman? Yet he’d failed. With his wife and this child he’d failed utterly.
“Come on ! You’ll freeze if you don’t get some pace up !”
“I’m going back.”
“You can’t get in the place. You’ll be starved. Get up this hill and you’ll work up some heat and get tired. When we get back, you can sit by the fire. You’ll feel much better. Make your mind up. I’m going to the top.”
He turned his back on Sam and pressed on. Was he following? It was impossibly cold. Maybe this was mad. Was his son in any sort of condition for a thousand foot climb in such bitter weather? His thighs tightened and hurt as he quickened. He felt that delicious strain he’d always enjoyed in physical effort. He liked pushing to the limit of his power and stamina. Once he’d recuperated, his body was flushed with a sense of strength and well-being. Was this just cruelty? Had he any idea what he was doing? He went on, up and up, feeling his calves clench, his breathing getting shorter and shorter, till he was at the top. Only then did he look back and see Sam half way up, struggling, weak, buffeted, lost in this remote and unforgiving environment. He sat down and waited, but his son was so slow he began to feel a chill creep up his spine. He went down to meet him, took his hand and hauled him along. He was a father. He was helping his son. He was strong enough for the two of them. He dragged him to the summit.
“You made it ! Well done !” he put his arm around his shoulders.
Next day, he made him climb the peak before breakfast. In the afternoon, they went jogging and before tea, they chopped wood together, sharing the axe. As he handed it over, Hal had a moment’s hesitation. He looked his son in the eye:
“Work. It’ll do you good.”
“I feel lousy.”
“You’re bound to, but your body will fight back. Once you’re over the worst, you’ll start to feel great.”
That night, Sam was violently sick and ran a raging temperature. He was rambling and hallucinating and Hal pinned him to the bed and fought to restrain him for hours. In the morning, he was calm but washed out.
“I’m going to die,” he said.
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Eat your porridge.”
But he couldn’t eat.
Hal made him climb, but at two hundred feet he collapsed. Carrying him down over his shoulder, Hal was tormented by the fear he would die. He would have killed his own son. The tears flowed warm and unstoppable down his cheeks. A welter of ideas: police, courts, coroners, press reports, tv news, undertakers, coffins, graveyards, ran through his head. But he calmed himself. If Sam died, it was better to die like this than of an overdose on a dirty mattress in a derelict building. He put him to bed but the lad shivered uncontrollably. He filled the bath with hot water, lifted him from bed, stripped him and lowered him into the water. He relaxed, but he didn’t seem to know where he was. Hal kept the water hot and let him soak for half an hour then he pulled the plug, lifted him out, rubbed him roughly with a heavy bathsheet, dressed him in the warmest clothes he could find , put him on the rug in front of the fire covered by two duvets. His face was white. His teeth chattered. He trembled. Hal wondered if he should call for an ambulance but an idea restrained him: it was the wider world that had ruined his son. Something evil in the general run of things was destroying him. He was going to fight it and he was going to fight alone. It could be done only by standing up to the way of things, by resisting the present.
There followed three terrible days.
Sam became weaker and more inert. When Hal tried to take his pulse, he couldn’t find it. He ate and drank nothing. He was cold and clammy.
But on the fourth day he got to his feet.
He looked terrible, gaunt and ashen and his eyes seemed to be seeing the world for the first time. He began to find his appetite and he slept well. A few days later, he climbed the thousand feet before breakfast. The two of them stood on the summit. Hal’s heart beat with effort and relief and happiness. His son was back and he was going to be okay.
“Fancy some porridge?”
By the time they set off home, Sam could get through the day without pain killers. A sense of alertness was beginning to return to his body.
“Get back to work, make some money. You know what you should do? Buy yourself a house. Little terrace needs doing up. Fettle it yourself. You’ll enjoy it and independence will make you feel good.”
Hal turned to see if Sam was taking any notice but his face was averted. He was looking out of the window and his expression contained the boredom and sullenness which always switched on a little current of fear in his father.
All the same, he went back to work. He was up at seven every morning and came home dirty and exhausted. Hal bought fewer cans of lager when he noticed how many Sam was drinking as he flopped in front of the t.v. and he cooked him healthy food in great platefuls to build him up.
“What you need now,” he said “is some exercise. Something really tough. You were doing great up that hill by the time we left. You should do something to push up your fitness.”
“I’m too knackered. Work is knackering.”
“My work is knackering and I’m nearly fifty. The point about excerise is it perks you up, even when you’re knackered from work.”
“It perks you up. You’re addicted to it.”
“You’re an exercise addict. You always have been.”
“I like sport, that’s all. There’s no need for amateur psychology.”
“Sport is all crap.”
“Oh, come on ! You used to like it. You could play a good game of rugger.”
“I didn’t like it. I hated it. Being put under pressure and all that shit about being an ambassador for the school. They were just using us. They don’t care about us having fun. They just want the school to look good.”
“Bollocks ! Sport is great fun. You’ve just got to take it the right way.”
“You can’t anymore. This isn’t the nineteen fuckin’ fifties. Evrything’s about money and winning. There is no sport anymore. It’s just a fuckin’ war.”
“Well, do something on your own. Go for a run. Get your bike out. It doesn’t have to be a competition. Just enjoy it. It gives you a great lift.”
“It always was a competition for you. You were as aggressive as hell on the field.”
“You know you were, dad. You broke people’s legs.”
“I tackled hard. That’s the game, Sam. I never intended to hurt anyone.”
“It’s all gone to fuck. A simple thing like football. It’s all screwed because they can’t leave it alone. It has to be about money and glory and little kids have their parents on the touchline shouting them on to play dirty. No-one plays by the rules and what happens to a game if you break the rules? Everyone just wants to win. It’s fucked up. It’s completely fucked up.”
“Like I say, forget competitive sport. Just get off your arse and go and do something hard. It’ll make you feel great.”
“No it won’t. I don’t feel great about feeling great. You don’t get it do you, dad? I don’t want to feel great. Not like you.”
“How do you want to feel?”
“Out of it.”
“Out of what?”
Hal went into the kitchen in bewilderment. Was it true that sport was a mess? He couldn’t see it because for him there had been too many fine moments over the long years of playing virtually every day. Was he a cheat? No. Maybe he’d pulled a shirt once or twice but he wasn’t systematically dirty. He did play by the rules. And was he aggressive? Yes, but in the right way. Wasn’t that what sport was for? It was a game, it was outside the serious business of life, so you could throw yourself into it, lose yourself. Yes, he was aggressive in that sense. But he couldn’t understand what was in Sam’s head. It was true, there was too much money in football. He had no truck with the wheeling and dealing. But rugby wasn’t like that. And wasn’t cricket pretty clean? And wasn’t it just so much joy ! That’s what it was to him. Tying his boots and running onto the pitch was meeting joy and freedom. He was stunned at Sam’s attitude. He had no idea how to connect with him.
A few weeks later, on a Friday, Sam didn’t come home . Hal told himself it was nothing . He was off drugs. He was working. He’d probably just gone out drinking with his mates. But by Sunday night he was worried. The days went by. Sally didn’t know where he was. Hal asked for a couple of days off work but they refused. His fortnight away had been accepted, given Sam’s problems, but enough was enough. It was three weeks before he heard from him. The phone rang at eight on a Thursday.
“Where the hell are you?”
“What’re you doin’ there?”
“I’m with some mates.”
“I didn’t ask who you were with, I asked what you’re doin’.”
“I’m just chillin’.”
“You’ve just thrown away your fuckin’ job !”
“I need some money.”
“I’ll pay your train fare.”
“I can’t. Just send me some money.”
“I’m not sending money. Get yourself home….”
The line went dead.
The next time Hal saw him, he was in police cell in Camberwell. He’d got into a taxi, ridden to his destination then mugged the driver. The poor bloke had a broken jaw and two teeth missing.
“And you say I’m aggressive.”
He was sentenced to six months, of which he served three. Hal visited him every weekend.
“Are you doing drugs?”
“What else is there to do in here?”
Hal got his solicitor to protest to the prison authorities. Nothing happened. When Sam was released, he came home. After three days he stole Hal’s credit card, cheque book, two hundred quid and disappeared. The next Hal heard, he’d been arrested for mugging an old woman on the street. She was seventy-four. Her skull was fractured.
He’d never imagined he could feel so ashamed.
He went to prison for two years. Every weekend Hal drove the hundred and twenty miles to see him. Now and again he took his mother. She wept all through the visit.
“I don’t understand it, Hal,” she’d say on the drive back. “He didn’t want for anything.”
“I don’t understand it either.”
Throughout the two years, he hoped something might change. He was getting older. Maybe he could put this dark period behind him. Maybe he could have his son back. But on his release he disappeared. Months went by and nothing was heard of him. Finally, the call came from the police. Sam had turned up at his mother’s, beaten her unconscious and stolen everything in the house he could sell for a few quid. Hal pulled on his jacket and picked up his car keys. Man United were on the television, winning one nil. What had happened to the life when watching a match was enough to make him forget his petty worries? He switched off the set. He would have to tell his mother and father and his other kids. He left the hall light burning and went out to his car. A group of young lads, their hoodies covering their heads were drifting sloppily and noisily down the street. One of them grabbed the daffodils that had just begun to flower in the small front garden of a house across the road, yanked them out and strew them across the road. About to open his car door, Hal almost intervened, but his spirit sank. He started the car and pulled away. Had he become a coward? Was he afraid of a few cocky kids showing off? Why could they get away with that stuff? It was trivial but typical. Shouldn’t he have given them a tongue lashing and sent them on their way? Turning a corner he came across a couple of kids kicking a ball around. He slowed down and they moved out of the way. He acknowledged them as he drove past. Sam had never done that, never even kicked a ball about under a street lamp for a bit of fun. Hal realised with a terrible sense of heavy fate that for the rest of his life he was going to be hiring solicitors, turning up at police stations, appearing in court, making prison visits. He had wanted to be an ordinary father, like his dad had been to him. Just a dad. But something evil was abroad. He didn’t know what. How had this happened?
He turned on the radio. Man United had won, two nil.
At twenty-five, Liz Loveland had married the only boy who had ever shown an interest in her and it had failed. She had two children within two years, named them after Catholic saints, and watched as the once devoted Simon, the big, gangly, slabbering lad who had been so puppy-dog eager, grew cold and distant till he told her bluntly he loved someone else, and walked out. The suburban four-bedroomed had to be sold; the dreams of ever-increasing prosperity, of a new car every two years, of ever more frequent and exotic holidays shrivelled; she decamped with the children to a modest semi on the edge of a not-too-undesirable area.
That was that. Life had to go on, if you could call it a life. But she went on as she always had: she did what she was supposed to do. The long days came and went. The exhausting weeks at school. The weekly confession: Forgive me Father, for I have.. She trawled the internet for lovers; she joined a singles network; she tried speed-dating. No good. Her heart remained cold. She put on low-cut dresses to reveal her small breasts; she had her hair dyed black and crimped; she bought thongs and fishnet stockings but took them off alone. Nothing happened. She had run aground. She had always done what she was supposed to do and she had no idea what she was supposed to do now.
When Longshaft moved in next door, she smelt the opportunity in seconds.
The house had been empty for months. Its widowed old owner had lived alone for her slow-dying years and had let the place decline with her. The gutters spat great stuttering waterfalls, slates slipped revealing the woodwork beneath and cocky pigeons flew in and perched on the upstairs windowsills; the unpainted woodwork fell away in chunks. But Longshaft was handy. He was one of those men who demolish physical work like a plate of chips. It was play; climbing a ladder to strip a patch of slates; laying a block-paving driveway; building a tidy little garden wall topped by neat white coping stones. He threw himself at work and loved it. He liked the sense of command. And the feeling of getting something done. The satisfaction of an ending.
He was there as she came in and out but too absorbed to take much notice . She watched him. He was quick. He knew what he was doing. She thought he looked a cut above the average builder. Perhaps he was the self-improving type. But now and again she spotted him scratching his backside or his crotch. Once he had a Daily Mirror sticking out of the back pocket of his jeans. She watched him roughly throwing rubble into a skip. And he smoked. Little cigars. She saw him through the bedroom window. He was taking a break, his mug of tea steaming on the unfinished gate-post. He was leaning against it and dragging on the Hamlet. He spotted her and waved. She did the same hastily, and pulled back. Then she was in the bedroom when he was up a ladder. Something fell to the ground with a crash. “Oh for fuck’s sake. You clumsy bastard!” he shouted. The first time he spoke to her she was shocked by his directness.
“Hello !” he called, and came over to the dividing wall.
He held out his hand but she hesitated.
“Oh, sorry,” he laughed, “I didn’t think about t’muck.”
“No, not at all,” she said and put on her best smile which pulled her mouth into an ugly shape.
He looked away.
Indoors she was agitated. The way he looked at me ! God, he was looking right into me, right into me ! He might as well have been inside me ! The cheek ! Him! Nothing but a hairy-arsed builder ! And she went banging about the kitchen getting the tea ready, snapping at the children for getting in her way.
Next day there was an awful Year 9 lesson which left her nerves frazzled. That evening she fussed around putting the house to rights but nothing settled her and she was short and complaining with the children, who stayed out of her way. She went into her front garden with a glass of red and began pulling the dead heads from her rose bushes. She tugged and the bushes stretched and shook. There was one she couldn’t reach. It got to her. It had to be done. She believed if it wasn’t, there’d be no flower next year. She thought of asking him. By her door was a honeysuckle she’d planted in the first year of her marriage. In the evening air its scent was spreading. She sipped her wine. It was pleasant to be among the plants, but she was always at them. She feared them growing wild. She had an itching need to tame her garden and the sight of the slightly overgrown lawn-edges drove her for the strimmer. She wielded it like a weapon. A few unruly leaves in the hedge and she assaulted them with the clippers. A stray weed in the flower-bed, she attacked it with the spade. The anxiety was always at the back of her mind that things were about to run amok.
She heard a sound from the house next door. Longshaft came out followed by a young woman. She was small, athletic and pert. Her face was framed by her short, straight auburn hair. She smiled. On her upper arm was tattooed a large C. She wore a short white skirt and was balanced on flimsy white heels. Her legs were bare.
“Hello there !” called Longshaft with a wave as he headed for the gate.
The woman raised her right hand and wiggled her fingers. Liz managed a delayed, half-hearted “Hi”. She went indoors. Had she given herself away?
“Mum, Henry won’t let me watch Big Brother !”
“Oh, don’t bother me ! Switch it off. I’m sick of it. You do nothing but bicker over it !”
And she rushed to the set and pulled the plug.
“I was watching that !” called the outraged Henry.
“Get to bed !”
“ But it’s only…”
“Get to bed !”
Once the children were settled, she went to bed herself. It was a warm night and she lay naked on the mattress. At least the fresh cotton sheets felt cool . She picked up her book, Birdsong, but the words didn’t hold her attention. She was reading it because she thought she should. Everyone was. But it didn’t appeal . It was just words. Why was it so popular? She took up her glass. She sniffed the wine as she’d seen them do on the tv. She thought it might have a hint of gooseberries. She swilled it round the glass to see if it had legs. But she couldn’t honestly tell. She ran her hand across her belly and between her thighs. Then she heard the click and slam of Longshaft’s front door. So he was back ! Vaguely, she discerned footsteps on the stairs. He mustn’t have fitted a carpet yet. Then voices in the bedroom - muffled and distant – and now and again the spurt of feminine laughter. She sat on the edge of the bed. Quiet. Getting up she pressed her ear to the wall and could make out, barely, the inarticulate, helpless sounds of a woman’s pleasure. The randy little bitch ! Her heart beat heavily. She listened. At moments there was a sharp rise in the tight little gasps. She padded downstairs and returned with a glass. Pressing it to the wall she could hear more clearly yet still as if far away, through an ocean. Not only the woman’s pleasure but Longshaft’s grunts . It seemed to go on for hours. For god’s sake ! The little slut ! She stayed with her ear pinned. The woman’s cries got piercing and more frequent until the final exclamations dying into a whimper. She drew away looking at the wall. In her mind’s eye she could see what was on the other side. She imagined Longshaft naked; saw him standing up from the bed, his body taut and full of energy; saw his limp cock that had given such pleasure to that common little woman and she sat down on the bed then sprang up and put on her clothes. She hurried down to the kitchen, filled her glass and went into the front garden, pretending to busy herself inspecting her plants. She had no idea how much time went by. The night began to close in. She shivered in the chill.
At last she heard them approaching. She glanced at the door. The woman came out first. Liz looked intently at her face. The woman gave a little shrug of her shoulders and smiled widely. She seemed to want to make herself insignificant. And shouldn’t she, after that performance ! It’s a wonder the whole street didn’t hear ! Longshaft followed. He was toying with his car keys. She noticed his wide shoulders and slim waist. He was what she lacked. She felt his masculinity was a signal.
“Bit late for gardening !” he called with a smile.
She hesitated. She almost wanted to reply “Not too late for screwing though !”
“Got to fit it in while I can !”
As he went through the gate, she glanced at his buttocks.
His car pulled away. She went indoors.
That night she dreamed George Clooney came into her house. He was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and he carried a clawhammer. He climbed a step-ladder and started banging in nails. She lay naked on the bed but he ignored her. He stood by the window and smoked a cigar. She had her legs wide open but he didn’t even glance. “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” she called out. “You clumsy bastard !” He didn’t hear. He was drinking tea from a mug. He took a copy of The Sun from his back pocket and began to read.
The following weekend Longshaft was busy. His torso bare he was in and out of the house and up and down ladders with the energy of a boy. She loitered in the garden once more.
“Must be hot work,” she called
“Aye, but I’m used to it.”
“Yes, I can see you know how to go at it hammer and tongs.”
“I am. It’s all I’m good for !” and he laughed in a way which made her bristle.
“Would you like a cup of tea. I’m just putting the kettle on.”
“Aye, I’d love one !” he called. “I’m always at t’tap in this weather. White, no sugar.”
In the kitchen she grabbed her mobile.
“Ted ? Could you have the kids for an hour I’ve just got something on ? Would you ? I’ll send them round. They’ll be there in two minutes. Watch for them will you ?”
She sent the children off to uncle Ted’s with the excuse that she had to nip to the supermarket. Upstairs she stepped into a black thong and a short red skirt, took off her bra and pulled on a thin sleeveless white top. She spread on bright red lipstick and sprayed herself with the Chanel her mother had bought her for Christmas. As she made the mugs of tea in the kitchen, she watched herself in the mirror and hurriedly applied more make-up. Outside, mugs in her hand, she was all cool composure. Longshaft came to the low wall. He’d put on a loose green t-shirt.
“Aye, that’s grand. Very good of you. Spike Longshaft by the way,” and he held out his hand .
She shook it. So strong and warm ! It was rough from work which made her recoil slightly. She tried to convince herself he was good looking. Perhaps he had a hint of George Clooney around the eyes.
“Liz Loveland. You’re coming along amazingly with the work.”
He went on in his deep voice and his drawling intonation about all he’d done and what still remained and she feigned interest in the details of roofing, flooring and rebuilding chimney breasts. She noticed how he looked at her, as simply as he might look at a nail or a hammer ! What kind of brute was he ! No wonder that little woman was nearly cracking the windows !
“Why don’t you come round for a minute. We can sit in the back.”
“I wouldn’t want to push in, like. And I’m still in me scruff.”
“Oh, it’s no intrusion. I’m on my own for an hour. The children have nipped to my brother’s. They can’t stay away, he spoils them to death. And look at me ! Not exactly Posh am I ?”
“Aye, okay then. ”
He cocked his leg over the wall and followed her . She was aware of her hips and buttocks. She felt his eyes on her. How did she compare to Carol ? Was he watching her sway ? Was he noticing the rise and fall? She exaggerated her movement. She still had a neat figure. She could wear a tiny skirt as well as the next woman. She led him to the tidy patio. There was a little white metal table in the centre and a brightly striped canvas chair either side.
“You’re private here all right,” he said looking her in the eye and smiling broadly as he sat down . “Aye, you could do as you like in this little spot.”
“Yes, I am. It is. It’s perfectly private, actually. I like my little garden. I don’t have time to do enough. I’m a teacher. Quite boring really. Boring life I lead, lesson preparation and marking books till all hours. I’d like to do more. I’d like to plant more. You know, so that I’d get the colours all seasons….”
He sat and listened as she rattled on. She talked and talked for fear of a silence. What did she think he might say if she stopped ? She fired away as he responded with little nods and smiles and polite little laughs at her jokes. She was watching him. What was he looking at ? Had he noticed she wasn’t wearing a bra ? Why didn’t he stare ? He looked straight into her eyes. She put down her cup and leant deliberately forward so that her loose top fell away and her breasts were on show . She seemed to hold her pose for a week. Surely he was looking now! Yet, she could always claim it was nothing. She leant forward, that was all. These days women show their breasts all over the place and no-one bats an eye. She glanced to see if he had a hard-on. Her little breasts were hanging free and visible, the nipples quite hard. She almost wanted him to reach out and grab them.
When she sat back she looked straight into his eyes. Her nipples were still erect. He looked back into her stare, as calm as you like. She went on talking, and as she did so she touched her breast with her fingertips and then stroked her thigh. When he said something mildly funny she threw back her head so her streaked black hair hung over the chair and her throat was stretched. She let her knees fall apart so that a glimpse of her black thong was visible. She noticed something caught in the privet hedge, a wrapper which must have blown in. She got up and bent over the flower bed to reach it and her little skirt rode up so that her white buttocks were revealed with the thin black strap between them. When she sat down again her heart was racing so madly she thought she might faint and when he said he must go and finish off, she wanted to open her legs wide and pull off her thong. She wanted to be as crude as possible. As available as a woman can be. Would he be able to resist? Would he have any defence ? Would he want to go back to that little chav? She wanted to say something crude. She wanted to provoke him beyond his limits. That would settle the matter.
All the same, politely, he went.
Later, she heard him leave. She lay on the bed, waiting. Sure enough, after an agony of anticipation, he came back. She heard the voices outside. She went to the wall with the glass. She heard their conversation, barely. The little female fireworks of laughter. The silence. Then the same sounds. The mounting pleasure. On and on. Was she insatiable ? Did he have no taste ! It seemed to last forever. Finally, the peak and then the odd murmur of after-pleasure.
That night she couldn’t sleep.
At work, things went very badly. Her classes seemed more oppositional then ever. Her patience ran out in minutes. She forgot to take photocopies or books to her lessons. She lost the thread of what she was doing. She set the class a task they had no interest in and found herself gazing dreamily out of the window.
For a week or two she spoke to Longshaft only as they came and went. And three or four nights a week she had her glass to the wall listening to what drove her mad. She took the glass downstairs and put it back in the cupboard. But hearing a small disturbance she flew down and retrieved it, pinned it to the wall. In her dreams, Clooney returned. He filled the room with the smell of his cigars. He pulled off the skirting boards, ripped up the floor, sawed, hammered, planed but paid no attention to her. He was a builder intent on his work. “Look at me, George ! Look at me !” she called. But he went on working.
Finally, it was Saturday morning and she was tending her roses. Longshaft came round the side of his house carrying off-cuts of clean timber.
“Hello !” she called. “How are you ?”
“I’m fine. You okay?”
“Oh, sort of,” and she felt herself ignite at her boldness as she perched on the wall, one leg either side.
Longshaft laughed. It made her stiffen the way he laughed. It was almost an intrusion.
“Only sort of ? Why ? What’s up ?”
She looked at him with all the frankness she could muster.
“Is it your wife I’ve seen coming and going ?”
“ Wife ?” he laughed again and looked at her through his narrowed eyes. “No, I’m not wed. Divorced,like. No, she’s just a friend, Carol. Just a friend of mine.”
“Oh, I see. I thought she might be your wife, keeping an eye on how things are coming along here.”
“No, I’m my own man. I’ll be living alone. Once bitten twice shy, sort o’thing. That wife of mine was real cow. My children’ll visit. Otherwise I’d’ve bought summat smaller.”
“Yes. Is she coming tonight, your friend, Carol ?”
“Tonight ? No, we’ve not fixed owt yet.”
“Only I’m free. My kids are with their dad. Every three weeks they go. He lives in Yorkshire, you see. On the coast. It’s a trek. He picks them up. Last night he came for them. So I’m on my own till Sunday. I was going to have a barbecue but the forecast said maybe thunder. And I’m in a cooking mood. I could cook for you. If you’re free. If Carol isn’t coming, that is. If you dare risk my food !”
She laughed and he smiled . He lowered his eyes. Could he say no? Could he prefer that vulgar woman ? What if he turned her down ? Her mind raced to think how she would play it if he refused. He looked up. She was trying to read his eyes.
“Aye, sounds fine. As we’re to be neighbours, like. We should get to know one another, sort o’ thing. What time?”
“Oh, say seven-thirty or eight ?”
“Reet. Till later, then.”
And he went slowly round the side of his house to get on.
All day Liz worked frantically at her cooking and cleaning and making the house and herself perfect. Every time she looked at the clock another two hours had disappeared. It seemed to her as seven thirty threatened, the place was in chaos. Nothing was right ! Least of all herself! Still, she had her best, burgundgy cotton sheets on the bed, and perfumed candles to be lit. And flavoured condoms in the bedside table. Longshaft arrived at a few minutes past eight, when she had despaired of him, a bottle of Dog’s Bollocks in one hand, a six pack of lager in the other. He was clean and neat and casual .She wanted to lead him straight upstairs.
She fussed and chattered compulsively through the watercress soup, the halloumi and vegetable kebabs, the salmon in a parcel, the juicy raspberry tart. Longshaft ate heartily and was full of compliments. He asked which was the right spoon for the soup. He dipped his walnut bread and tipped the dish towards him. He asked if she had any white sliced. Between the first and second courses he said: “I’ll just go and empty me clog.” He picked up the raspberry tart in his fingers. He drank a glass of red in one gulp then wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. They went to the living-room for coffee. They’d finished two bottles of red and Longshaft had drunk four lagers. He was happy with the cans but she insisted on a glass. He put it aside and drank from the can. She spread herself on the long, pale sofa.
“Oh, it’s lovely to be able to relax in your own home !”
“Aye,” he said. “I’ll be glad when I move in. I’m sick of livin’ in a bloody caravan. I’m beginnin’ to feel like a gypsy.”
“When will you ?”
“Oh, I’m near finished. Come on, I’ll show you round, if you fancy.”
He put his empty cup on the coffee table. She was suddenly flustered but she couldn’t find a way to refuse. His house ! But she’d got the bedroom all set up !
“Are you sure ? So late ?”
“It’s only next door !”
So she went. Now it was his turn to talk. He showed her the laminated floors which she thought cheap. Why hadn’t he stripped and varnished ? He told her where he’d had to rebuild walls which she found as interesting as a lecture on cement mixing. He’d built his own kitchen units. She found them ugly and tasteless. He was proud but she found the place ludicrous. The walls were freshly painted but the colours ! He’d put in a pair of plastic French windows ! The living room fireplace was fake marble surrounded by a cheap MDF mantle. She’d change everything.
Then they went upstairs.
“Which is the bathroom ?” she cried, not wanting her desire for the bedroom to be obvious.
There was a bath and a separate shower and black slate tiles on the floor and a wash basin and bidet and the walls to the ceiling tiled in white with a little silver border half way to break the effect. She thought it lacked imagination. On the washbasin sat a tin of Swarfega. A dirty towel was crumpled on the floor. He’d kept the old central heating radiator which he’d painted. Her heart sank.
“ Well, it’s big, isn’t it ?”.
“Aye, for’t kids. They need t’space.”
At last they arrived in his room. She tried not to appear too eager. It was unfinished. The walls were lined but not yet painted. There was a pine double bed spread with a red duvet and a pine chest of drawers, a little bedside table on which were a packet of Hamlet , a can of lager and a tube of Anusol . An opened bag of plaster sat in the corner and a little heap of its contents had spilled. There was a carburettor on the window ledge. So this was it ! Not exactly inspiring surroundings ! His clothes were strewn about. A pair of dirty boots sat by the bed. She looked at the bright red duvet which she felt belonged in a child’s room. Into her mind came the little cries and the image of herself holding the glass against the wall. Well, at least her bedroom was decorated ! She turned to look at the point on the wall where she would have been, two brick widths away. If this was their privacy, they deserved to have it invaded! Longshaft had moved to one of the two tall windows which looked out onto the avenue. She turned to look at him. There he was, George Clooney. She went dizzy and sat on the end of the bed. She looked at him and felt a faint disgust, as at a bad smell. Her face was blank. He closed the curtains at both windows. He came over to her and kissed her mouth. She could taste tobacco and lager. He pulled off her flimsy top by the hem. She wondered if he was comparing her to Carol. He unbuttoned and yanked down her skirt and dragged her red thong down to her feet and off. She lay back on the duvet, just like the other woman must have. He took off his clothes quickly. He was strong and muscular all right and fully erect. There it was, proud as the Mayor of Blackpool in his chains. No wonder that greedy bitch was as noisy as a cow in labour! She let her knees fall wide apart. He fixed his gaze. What did he think of her ? Was she more tempting than Carol ? He pushed his finger in and she let out a long groan of pleasure. Then he was on top of her. She ran her fingers through his cropped hair and her nails down his strong back and across his tight buttocks. She dug them in. She wanted him to be marked. How would he explain that to Carol ! And when he was inside her working, back and forth, as if he was sawing timber ,she heard herself imitating the sounds Carol had made. Yes, just like her. Was she as loud ? She increased the volume. “George !” she cried. Longshaft kept going. A new image came into her head: Carol on the other side of the wall, her ear to a glass. Carol listening for every sigh, every gasp. Carol standing seemingly for hours, on and on listening. She smiled. Even in her intense pleasure she found the means to smile at the discomfiture of her rival. She imagined her anguish growing with every small sound of mounting tension.
At the moment of her climax, she saw Clooney’s face, huge, floating above her, but his features suddenly transformed into Longshaft’s. And then she could have sworn she heard the click of Longshaft’s front door. She listened.
“Aw reet now,” he said, “or just sort of ?”
“No, much better.”
“I’ll be moving in soon,” he said.
“Oh that’s nice,” she replied. “It’ll be good to have a neighbour, at last.”
“Aye, and I’ll have plenty to keep me busy !”
“Oh, yes. You will. You will.”
Mrs Hill, who had kept her married name though she’d been divorced for twenty-seven years, was pushing her granddaughter through the centre of town on a bright Wednesday morning in May, when she spotted Guy Baines crossing the road and was whisked back forty years. He’d looked after himself. He was still trim and quick and with his grey hair and mature demeanour made her feel regretful. When she’d met him he was a beautiful but callow little boy. Too innocent. Too good. She knew well enough how women despise good men. Nothing pleases a woman more than feeling she’s brought a wayward man to heel. At least, that was her perception. That’s why she’d shunned Guy and gone after Gary Gilkes, who went off to sea, had women all over the world, got a dose of syphilis, fought with knives in seedy dives and threatened to black her eye when she sent him packing. After, that she’d flitted from boy to disappointing boy and had one or two perilously wayward lovers before settling on the moody and taciturn Rob Kempster who forever had his nose in The Sporting Life, was anxious if he was more than a hundred yards from a bookies and drank himself senseless every night in the Green Dragon or the Malt Shovels. She married him at twenty, went to live with her ever-fighting in-laws, had two children and sank into tedium. One Friday evening bumping into Guy in a pub, she threw herself at him, got him to walk her home and on the park, on the damp grass which muddied her white blouse, began the brief and desperate affair which remained the best of her love life.
How strange that now at fifty-four she could encounter such a vivid part of her past so the intervening years could telescope and in a second she was fifteen again and seeing the gorgeous boy for the first time. Could she be back in the youth club again, could she be looking into his big brown eyes, could she have the chance to dismiss all other possibilities and hang herself on him, she would. But life had tossed her around all right. The bitter divorce. The years on her own. The struggle to make ends meet. The sorry affairs. And finally the polite and perfectly friendly arrangement with Rick. She liked him. They got on well. The sex was okay. But she wasn’t taken out of herself. That was all in the past. How could she have let that go ?
She went on walking, the child happily twittering in the push chair, but in her head she was a teenager again, with all the marvellous, terrifying and bewildering possibilities of life ahead of her.
She left school at fifteen in 1966 and, like all girls of her kind, northern secondary modern failures taught that education wasn’t for them, made to feel inferior to their grammar school peers, she took whatever job came along, went looking for a good time and vaguely believed marriage and children would come along and make her happy. The offices of Worldwide Shopping Orders were in a seven storey oblong, planning permission for which was granted by the far-sighted, imaginative luminaries of the Labour Council in the interests of bringing employment and prosperity to the town. It took on three hundred, almost all girls aged from fifteen to twenty-five, though all the managers were men and made fine profits for its directors and shareholders most of whom weren’t sure where in the curious region known as the north it was. The work was impossibly routine and boring, even for girls. Even for secondary school girls. Even for girls with no O Levels. Not even the collusion of the entire education system in the lie that eighty percent of the population are congenitally stupid and capable of nothing more than repetitive tasks that would make a gorilla weep, could conceal the fragmentation of this work into operations unfit for human execution. Linda couldn’t take it seriously. She lived for the laugh with the girls, for the breaks, lunchtimes, evenings, weekends, holidays and, of course, in hope of love.
It was a long bus ride into town. It gave her time to think. She sat upstairs and lit a cigarette. The morning was so mild, the sun promising a continental afternoon, she felt flat at the thought of the office. She didn’t know why the idea of Guy came into her head but suddenly she was thinking of him with a slow, soft, stirring interest. What would he be doing ? She realised he’d be free. He’d finished his exams. Someone had told her he was starting work in September. She got off the bus at her usual stop but instead of heading towards Enlightenment House, she went to the nearest phone box.
“Hi Guy, it’s Linda.”
There was a little pause.
“Hello. Are you okay ?”
“Yeah. I didn’t get you out of bed did I ?”
“No,” he lied. “I was up.”
“Are you doing anything this afternoon ?”
“This afternoon ? Aren’t you at work ?”
“Oh, I should be, but you know. I can’t be bothered. Work. I like to take an afternoon off now and again, just so I don’t feel too much like a slave.”
Another little pause.
“Yeah. Where shall we meet?”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I’m in town now.”
“Yeah, well I got the bus. I was going to go to work but, it’s such a nice day and I thought…..”
“Okay. It’ll take me a bit. Where shall we meet ?”
“The kiosk, in the arcade. I can kill an hour.”
“See you there, then.”
As soon as she stepped out of the booth, she wondered if she’d made a mistake. For a second she thought she’d stand him up. She crushed her cigarette-end under her purple shoe. People were hurrying across the square on their way to work. She liked the scene, but only because she wasn’t part of it. The thought of work ! It struck her as bizarre, all these people pressing on to dull, boring jobs. The heaviness of life ! She craved lightness. The sunlight was so sweet. There was a quietness to the start of the day. She felt fleetingly happy, easy and she didn’t understand why life didn’t respond to her mood. She had the confidence of the outsider. Her society had defined her. She was a failure. Her father drove a bus, her mother was a school cleaner. What was she ? She knew with absolute certainty what she didn’t want: this mad routine of work. She wandered a little. Most shops weren’t yet open but she found a newsagent and stood perusing the magazines for a few minutes. They all seemed meaningless. Where did this odd mood come from all of a sudden, this sense of distance from ordinary life which made her want to revolt? She was seized by a momentary anxiety which sent her out onto the street. It almost made her panic, this curious sense of lostness which was at once so full of possibility and terror. She walked through the shopping centre and back to the square where an old woman was feeding seed to the great flock of grey, nodding pigeons. She sat on a bench and lit a cigarette. Almost, she began to cry. She was at a loss to know why. Something was terrible about this beautiful morning. She needed something she could rely on, something on which she could lean and know it would be absolutely certain, yet everything seemed insubstantial, as if the very buildings might melt. Her heart was beating too fast and too heavily. If she had known where to go, she would have fled but all destinations were as alien as the present. Perhaps she should have gone to work after all. Maybe its very dullness gave her surety.
It was a long hour till she made her way to the kiosk.
She arrived late, of course, and he was loitering with his hand in the pockets of his cords as she approached. She noticed how her mood changed as soon as she saw him, this dark slender boy who was so strange, so much a law to himself and who made her feel at home.
“Hi ! Been here long ? I’ve just been looking in the shops. I lost track of time. Did you get the bus ?”
“Isn’t it lovely today? Too nice to be working. I believe you’ve got a job. Is it September you start ?”
Without deciding, they wandered off and as they went she chatted, throwing out this battery of words behind which she felt safe. Words that meant nothing. Mostly he was quiet. He listened. He nodded. He turned to look into her eyes. He smiled in his small, quiet, crooked way. They went into the Kardomah and sat at a dark, wooden table for two in the corner. She stirred her coffee and rambled away, feeling all the time that the words in their banality kept her safe. She wasn’t making contact. But every time he looked into her eyes, her defences faltered and some spirit of surrender ran through her which made her talk all the more while he nodded and smiled and sipped and made the occasional comment. The coffees finished they walked through the town, gliding into shops, flicking through records together and she at dresses and tops.
“Oh, that’s nice ! What do you think ?”
In this way, they wasted the morning. But it was hard work, much harder than the stupid things she had to do for Worldwide Shopping Orders. This was life ! At last. And he was so good. The way he let her talk and talk. His sweet little smiles. This was work for which she was properly rewarded. Yet, just the two of them, the intensity of spending hours with him, it was beginning to exhaust her. She felt herself running out of talk, which was of course impossible. All else failing, she would have talked about her verrucas.
They bought a sandwich each and as they ate them in the little cobbled side street he said:
“Fancy wandering down to the river ?”
She could have thrown her arms around his neck but she responded coolly:
“Yeah, I don’t mind.”
There was a park, endowed by a nineteenth century philanthropist which sloped steeply down to the dirty river polluted by the industry which had made the nineteenth century capitalist’s money and permitted him to endow the town with the oasis of green in the midst of industrial black. They had it almost to themselves. The very sight of the trees swaying sensuously in the warm breeze made her want to take off her clothes. The idea of nature seized hold of her. Wasn’t nature true and good ? But then she thought of the town, so close, of Enlightenment House and all the girls working away at idiotic tasks and her mind swam with confusion. All the same, she was here. The park was lovely and Guy was gorgeous, sweet, funny and hers.
They lay on the steep river bank of coarse grass. What was she doing here ? Shouldn’t she be at work ? She wondered at herself that she could be so coolly bold to sneak the day off and then find herself anxious at doing so. Where did that anxiety come from ?
“I love it here,” she said.
“Don’t you ?”
“Sure. It’s fine.”
“I’d like to live in the country. I almost do. We’re quite far out. My house is down a little lane. But I’d like to live properly in the country.”
“I don’t know.”
“Why not ?”
“I guess I would. I like the countryside. But I don’t belong there. I feel at home in the town.”
“Do you ? But isn’t it dirty and scummy ?”
“Some of it. That’s what we’ve got to change. I’ve got a nagging feeling about changing things.”
He was sitting up, his arms hooked round his knees stripping long grasses with his thumbnail. She had a sudden fear that she didn’t know him at all. What was it he wanted to change ?
He turned to pay attention to her, supporting himself on his elbow, looking into her eyes. She was at once lifted out of her doubt but another fear ensued. His effect on her was too swift and deep. It robbed her of control and made her fight to regain it which gave her voice and manner a sharp edge she didn’t intend.
“Why did you nick off work today ?” he asked.
“I get bored.”
“What with ?”
“Everything. Work is a joke. You just do the same thing over and over and the supervisors are always on at you. I nip to the toilet for a fag whenever I can. It’s stupid. Sometimes I just get this feeling that I could drop everything and go off. Go off for good.”
“Go off where ?”
“God knows ! Blackpool.”
She laughed, that deep, gritty rolling laugh which he liked because it seemed to stop at nothing.
“Wouldn’t you like to just go off ?” she said.
“Not to Blackpool.”
“St Ives,” she said. “I believe it’s great down there.”
“Have you been ?”
“No but I believe it’s great. In the summer. Lots of young people, you know. You can get a little job and a room and enjoy the beach and the….life. I could fancy that.”
“What about the winter ?”
“Don’t be so pessimistic.”
He was close to her and she wanted him to kiss her, but at the same time she didn’t and when he did she was glad, yet she wondered if she should be glad. Still, how pleasant it all was: the sunshine, the warmth, the quiet park, the lazy day, Guy and his gentle kissing. She could have let go and gone on falling forever, except, if you let go, where do you land? His hand was on the meander of her waist and she liked the sense of her flesh being taken from her. It was just the lightness she craved.
“Come on let’s walk for a bit,” she said.
They followed the disused railway line now overgrown and bordered by wild shrubs and unruly trees. She liked it. It chimed with her feelings. He put his arm around her waist and periodically they stopped to kiss. She liked pressing herself against him and being held. She liked the whole experience so much she could almost have handed herself over to him for good.
“Why did they shut this railway line ?” she said idly.
“It was Beeching.”
“Dr Beeching. They want everything on the roads.”
“Do they ?” she asked as if she cared.
“Railways are quick and safe but they don’t like them ‘cause they’re nationalised.”
“What’s that mean ?”
“The government owns them.”
“What’s wrong with that ?”
“Politics gives me a headache,” she said.
He didn’t reply and she felt his silence as a rebuke. What was he thinking ? She was always wondering what he was thinking. It disturbed her that he seemed to have something on his mind all the time, some secret ideas which were forever turning over in his brain. She didn’t know anyone else like that. Everybody was just what they were. It was odd, this quietness about him that was remote and this thinking which he didn’t put into words, or seemed not to.
“You’re quiet aren’t you ?”
As soon as she’d said it she felt it was too direct. He gave her a sideways look and smiled.
“Am I ?”
“Everybody says you are.”
“Do they ?”
She couldn’t tell if it bothered him, which infuriated her.
“We’d better go back.”
“We can carry on this way and do a loop.”
“No, it’s too far. I’m not used to walking.”
They turned their steps around and as they walked and he put his arm round her and they kissed, she began to feel more and more flat. The magic of the day had disappeared like a tiny puddle in the blazing midday. As they neared the town and she heard the traffic, a heaviness of familiarity and routine descended on her. She had a sudden desire to walk away from him, to leave without a word but she had no idea why. Once they arrived amid the afternoon bustle, she’d had enough. What did she want to do ? If only she knew. She needed a fag. She wanted a drink. She would have liked to get into bed with Guy. But he wasn’t going to do that, was he ? He wasn’t even going to try. In that lack of eagerness she sensed an assumption. Did he think he had a right to her ? That she was to be his for the long haul ? Why didn’t he just try to get his hand up her skirt like other boys ? At least they weren’t wanting to tie her down.
“What shall we do now ?” he asked.
“I’m going home,” she said bluntly. “Gonna get the bus.”
“Okay. Doing anything tomorrow night ?”
“No thanks,” she said. “I don’t want to get tied down.”
And she strode away unceremoniously.
All the way home she seethed. She hated Guy. Why ? She didn’t know but she didn’t want to see him again. She wanted to do something reckless. In the house she was as restless as a nest of wasps. She had to sit at the eternal kitchen table and eat fish and chips with her mother, father and brother.
“Pass the ketchup.”
“Get it yourself.”
She was dressed, made up and out by six thirty.
She called on her friend and they wandered to the park where the lads hung out. Gary Gilkes was there, smoking and strutting in his denim jacket and jeans.
“Hi Gary !”
Her merciless flirting brought sideways glances from the other girls. She didn’t care. As a matter of fact, she didn’t care about a thing. All she wanted was to fly in the face of everyone and everything and do what the hell she liked. It took no more than an hour to peel Gary away from the rest and the two of them went from the park into the dense little wood, over the stream, into the dark mass of rhododendrons where they found a little, secluded clearing. He stubbed his cigarette out underfoot.
“Don’t start a fire !”
“Why not ? I like starting fires.”
“Do you ? You’re bad.”
“I am bad.”
His kissed her roughly, pushing her head back as if he were trying to break her neck.
He pulled her to the ground and within seconds was on top of her, his hands inside her blouse and fumbling to get up her skirt.
“No ! No !”
“Why not ?”
She found it funny, his mad but incompetent rush. It was flattering, in a crude way, and so much easier to deal with than the contained inscrutability of Guy. Boys like Gary were as predictable as the phases of the moon. It allowed her to fall back into a sense of control, while Guy unnerved her and made her wonder. It was even easy to hold Gary at arm’s length. In truth, he was a baby. A pushover.
She shoved him off, stood up and straightened herself, feeling a little pleased with herself at her own recklessness. Defeated in what he took to be his masculinity, Gary tried to look sure of himself and in command. She found it inwardly hilarious but at the same time disappointing. Was Gary, or a boy like him, her fate ? It seemed so. She wanted her fate to be realised. If that was what had to be, let it come. Let her find out what it all meant.
“Come on,” she said, “let’s go back to the others.”
She took Gary’s arm and began to chatter inconsequentially. When she looked up at him she could see he was discomfited and she relished it. But later, at home, the flatness came over her once more and she had a terrible desire to rush at life, to have everything over with in a flurry, as if life could be lived in the way she talked. In bed, in the few minutes before she fell asleep, Gary seemed foolish and inadequate and she wished she’d stayed away from him.
Soon she was going out with him but her feelings were always up and down. The one good thing was the sex but between one bout and the next she was tormented by negative thoughts. And so she went on for nearly two years till she ran into Rob Kempster and was taken by his quiet sullenness, his curious ability to be elsewhere and his apparent undemandingness. Within a year, she was married. Within two, she had a pair of children. She paused to take stock. How had she got here ? Why was she married to this man ? She had a horrible feeling she was living someone else’s life.
In this mood she went out. It was Friday. She always met the same two friends. They crowded into The Fighting Cock and the crack was fine. She smoked and drank and laughed till her mind switched off, which was just the oblivion she needed. But when Guy came in, her mood suddenly switched. She found herself intensely focused on him. The girls no longer mattered. She hadn’t seen him for so long ! She couldn’t let this go. She had no idea why.
In the most casual way, as if just going to the bar, she spoke to him. Her mind raced with the new information. He was studying English in Manchester. He was hoping to lecture. Out of these snippets she built the picture of his life. It appealed to her. The high seriousness of his reading. The quiet application. The remoteness from vulgarity. She decided she was going to seduce him.
Although she was very nearly wide-eyed and legless, as she liked to say, she composed herself. She struggled to keep her speech clear and steady. She tried not to sway or stagger.
“I’m bored in here now,” she said.
“Are you ?”
“Yeah, I think I’ll go home. You wouldn’t walk me to the taxi rank would you ?”
Once outside she quickly began to be suggestive enough to leave him in no doubt.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to walk by the river now,” and she hoped he’d remember the day.
So they did. They stood side by side on the narrow footbridge and heard the swirling river below. They walked the paths they’d walked before she was married. They held hands. He put his arm round her waist. They kissed. And finally she was on her back, her skirt bunched up round her midriff, her white knickers hanging from her left ankle while he made hurried love to her in fear of being disturbed. There followed months of frenzied deception, rushed encounters, desperate pledges, tormented farewells, ecstatic love-making, convoluted scheming, terrible frozen hours at home in the presence of the bemused Rob who saw what he had taken for granted disappearing for no reason he could understand, searing rows which created an atmosphere so potentially murderous no tender reconciliation could ensue, and finally a sense of decline and defeat as she and Guy realised their lives were heading in different directions.
She caught the train to Manchester one evening and they met in the Sawyers Arms. Usually, they would go straight to his room.
“Are we staying here then ?” she asked.
“I think so.”
It was awful to think of the journey home alone on the train but far worse to imagine entering the house, closing the door and knowing never again would she hurriedly leave, almost run to the station and get on the train to love, away from boredom, flatness and passionless routine.
Those things we really need to say require such discipline of expression they are seldom said, so they talked in desultory, meaningless circles for a hour.
“Shall I come on Friday ?”
“I think it’d be better if you didn’t.”
“Do you not want me to come any more, then ?”
The question was so direct and naïve, he couldn’t reply. On the train home, she had to hide her tears.
She embarked on an odd phase of chasing men, as if the very machinations of adultery were enough to provoke love. But it got her nothing but inadequate affairs and humiliation. She had to make her peace with Rob, to keep going as best she could, until they were unable to share the same house and she took the children to her mother’s. It was very strange to be home after such a short, hectic, confusing emotional journey.
Now, she was a grandmother and her daughter was divorced. She had just seen the man whom, she felt, might have been the husband she should have had, cross the road as casually as a cloud crosses the sky and disappear into Marks and Spencer. She was pushing her granddaughter through the streets and the thought came to her that this child might also grow up to experience divorce, strife and confusion.
She went into her favourite café.
The child was happy with an ice-cream float. Linda lit a cigarette. She must give up. She had given up so many times. She was a grandmother the wrong side of fifty and a part of her past had just risen from out of nowhere and overturned her feelings. She had that old, odd sense that she was living out someone else’s experience. Alice was making a glorious mess.
“Oh, look at you ! Let grandma give you a wipe.”
Everyone said the child looked just like her grandmother, and it was true. There was something solid, something real, something that, surely, was meant to be. Was it all meant to be ? Could it have been different ? She had a moment of panic which she calmed by fussing over the child. She drew on her cigarette. Surely it could have been otherwise? She could have seen the real value in Guy. She could have stayed with him, married him, she could have been his lifelong wife. The idea sustained her, for a few seconds. Then at once, on it heels, came the question: why hadn’t she ? If she could go back, wouldn’t she just do exactly the same again ? Wasn’t that the awful truth ? Wasn’t that the terrible truth of life ?
“Goodness, Alice ! What a sight ! Come on, let’s go and wash those hands.”
She walked the child to the ladies, ran the water over her sticky fingers, washed the sugary residue away from her mouth.
“Come on, sweetheart, time to go !”
She walked briskly through the familiar town. This was her life. This tiny, brief spell of unavoidable mistakes. If only she could explain to her grandchild. If only the young could experience life like the ageing. If only the old could relive their youth. But it was all impossible and awful. She been driven though her own life as if a hand placed between her shoulder blades had pushed her every inch of the way. She strode on, determined, wanting to make a difference, hoping that any second she might bump into Guy.
Politics had never been of much interest to Bill Gowdy. Brought up in a Tory household, educated at Ampleforth, he found no reason to put the beliefs that sustained his privilege and pre-eminence in question. But at the age of fourteen his father, an energetic and thrusting little barrister with a thick head of dark hair, the fixed eyes of a fanatic, an almost permanent little smile and a sharp impatience with people who didn’t take their opportunities and get on in life, had a heart attack. For twenty-four hours it looked as if he wouldn’t come through. What would happen ? There was insurance of course, but the family prepared for the worst. His wife had no career or training. There would have to be restraint. The big house would have to be sold. Bill would have to be taken out of school. It sent a terrible shock through the boy who had always believed such tragedies happened to other people. He felt somewhat guilty and ashamed to have a sick father. His rational mind told him anyone can get sick, but it made no difference. He had a horrible fear he was going to fall among the poor. It took hold of his thoughts and grew into exaggerated fantasies of rented accommodation where the water ran down the peeling flower-patterned wallpaper chosen by the sneering landlord who stood in the darkness on the step, a cigarette hanging from his lips demanding the arrears; of a school full of roughnecks who would taunt him for being a toff; of holidays in cheap resorts where tattooed, hard-drinking fathers lay on the sands reading The Daily Mirror, their huge beer bellies bulging threateningly above their cheap trunks. He couldn’t stop his mind. His thoughts raced away and he woke in the night, his heart like a mad, trapped bird in his chest. He prayed for his father to pull through. And god must have been listening.
All the same, there was to be serious and dangerous surgery.
The private health insurance didn’t cover it and “Foxy” Gowry had to fall back on the NHS. The first time Bill went to visit his father in the public hospital, he expected the worst: a dirty, smelly place where coughing, wheezing sickly people, the unclean and nasty poor of his fervid imagination were living out their last, sad and worthless days. When he found it to be modern, efficient and the staff friendly, brisk and hard-working he underwent one of those small adjustments in thinking which neurotics always take for spectacular conversions. Coming at that time when intelligent young people start to ask questions about the world about them, it jolted him into finding out why the society outside his own, narrow, private enclave proved to be much less threatening and vile than he’d thought. He found out about the NHS and was thrown into confusion: it had been established by socialists ! This was a discovery as overwhelming as a child’s first intimations of the dark world of sexuality. Vaguely, he had imagined socialists to be vicious, wicked people, no better than thieves, underhand, sly, wretched people whose business it was to pillage the wealth of hard-working, respectable men like his father. But they had created the National Health Service ! They had built hospitals ! And without those hospitals, what would have happened to his father ? It was terrible ! The world had exceeded his conception of it and his brain was thrown into turmoil. As his father slowly recovered and was able to walk a few steps, as his strength increased by minute degrees daily, as he became capable of eating with a little relish and was, eventually, able to potter around the garden and pull up the odd weed, Bill strained his entire mental capacity to comprehend what he’d discovered, to find a way of accommodating these unruly facts to his neat conceptions.
He was watching, on Top of the Pops, a recording of The Beatles playing I Feel Fine, which had just hit number one, when the revelation came to him: weren’t The Beatles from modest backgrounds in Liverpool, after all ? And wasn’t Liverpool full of the poor ? And weren’t they now amazingly rich ! That was it ! That was how the circle could be squared ! There was no contradiction ! The socialists had been right to build hospitals, but what were the hospitals for ? They were to help people get on in the world. They were to keep people healthy so they could get on with making money ! It calmed his troubled thoughts as surely as any tranquiliser. It no longer seemed terrible that the socialists had created a publicly funded health system. They were wrong. They thought they were building a new world. They thought business and social provision were at odds. But Bill had worked out that social provision needed to be run on business lines. Its purpose, after all, was to make business more efficient.
The following term ( his family having scraped together the money to keep him there) there was a mock election at school. He stood as the Tory candidate and argued till it made him sweat the obvious case for public services run as businesses. He won magnificently.
It was pleasant to be a school celebrity but his interest in politics evaporated as rapidly as it had arisen. The earth had resumed its steady course through the heavens after his reconciliation of the claims of money and justice. What truly interested him was Hollywood. He was a great fan of Rock Hudson who embodied for him the possibility of inordinate fame on the basis of minimal talent and moderate effort. He auditioned for the part of Hamlet in the school play but was given the role of Laertes. He dried twice and complained the role was too petty for him:
“I was bored, I mean, Hamlet, you can get your teeth into. You’ve got to know your lines. But Laertes, well, who’s going to notice ?”
“Well, I noticed, Bill,” replied his room-mate.
“The point is, you know, if you’re the star you’ve got to perform !”
He joined an amateur group when he was at home during the holidays, but was wooden and unable to get into character. Like all people who are stupid about theatre, or performance of any kind, he thought acting was merely showing off, an activity for thoughtless extroverts, and in every role, was unable to conceal his personality. It convinced him he should be a film actor. He’d read an interview with a minor English cinema star who’d said working in films wasn’t really acting, more a form of behaviour. The problem was how to break in.
Inevitably he went to Oxford and inevitably he studied Law. For a dangerous moment he thought of taking English so he could get to know the history of the theatre, but what if he didn’t make it in films ? At least as a barrister he could earn plenty, even if fame avoided him. These two sirens, money and fame, drew him with their seductive music and he was helpless, but like an alcoholic enslaved by the bottle he strongly protested his freedom of choice and was convinced that what ensnared him was his liberation. So, driven by compulsions he had no insight about, he sought out students who were into film. There was a funny, dark-haired, bespectacled little guy from Manchester who wanted to imitate the social realism of Saturday Night And Sunday Morning and A Taste Of Honey. He’d hustled money, made a few shorts and told everyone he was going to be a new Tony Richardson.
“Hey, Gary, if you’re looking for actors, I’m your man !” said Bill smiling widely as he always did without knowing why.
“Can you act ?” said Gary furrowing his brow and pushing his glasses up his nose.
Bill despised him instinctively and felt, therefore, all the more comfortable about making use of him.
“Sure, I’ve acted in all kinds of things.”
“Such as ?” said Gary, screwing up his face a little and pushing the big, black heavy glasses once more.
“Well, I’ve done Hamlet for example. And comedy. I was in The Way Of The World.”
“Did you play Hamlet ?”
Bill was about to tell the truth but realised it would show him in a poor light. What did it matter ? He was convinced he could play the role. To tell the truth would diminish his opportunities, which was a guileless attitude to life. Everyone had to present themselves as best they could. That wasn’t really lying. It was the way life worked.
“Of course !” and he smiled that big, empty smile which was the shield behind which into he went into battle.
On the basis of this interview, Gary gave him a part. He’d written a script about a hard-drinking, Labour backbencher trapped between his socialist principles and his ambition who has to condemn a strike by low-paid, female workers in his constituency in order to retain a chance of promotion. Bill was to play the owner of the small business, a jumped-up, self-made man who plies the collapsing MP with food and drink. He was useless. Gary emerged from behind the camera.
“Don’t look at the lens, Bill.”
“You keep looking right at the lens. It’s fundamental. Get into character and stay in character.”
Bill had no idea how to get into character. He just spoke the lines as he thought the factory owner might, and hoped for the best. He wanted to be a star, and the essence of stardom was, of course, empty adulation. What did the masses know about acting ? They loved Rock Hudson because he was handsome, enviable, rich and smooth. Bill wanted to be loved in the same way. He craved the fawning admiration of millions, of those ill-educated, easily-duped hordes whose emotions could be engaged in support of almost any delusion if they were expertly flattered and cajoled. If he’d had the least talent for music, he would have become a pop star. But even three-chord, three-minute nursery rhymes defeated his tin ear.
“Can you stop smiling, Bill,” said Gary in exasperation.
“You’re smiling. That huge smile. It’s just getting in the way.”
“But don’t you think I’d be smiling ? I’m a successful man.”
“You’re a bastard, Bill.” Gary very much enjoyed speaking those words.
The filming went on for seven weeks at odd moments caught between lectures and supervisions. When Gary ran the cuts, he held his head in his hands.
“He can’t act to save his bloody life !”
“Didn’t you know ?” asked his assistant.
He turned to look at her.
“He told me he’d done lots of stage work. Hamlet and all sorts of stuff.”
“He’d say anything to get what he wants.”
“The little cunt,” said Gary watching the passing frames of his ruined film.
He stopped them and ran them again. There was something about Bill that fascinated him. He was appalled by his own fascination but he couldn’t stop watching him.
“Who does he remind me of ?” he wondered out loud.
“John Wayne ?” said Annie.
“John Wayne could act, at least a bit.”
“Yeah, but he was always John Wayne.”
“No, it’s not an actor,” said Gary. “Look, that gesture, and the way he can’t stop preening. Look how he holds his arms slightly out from his body and puffs up his chest. See ! He deliberately gives himself an athletic demeanour. But it’s entirely phoney.”
He ran the film back again.
“Did you see that ? Look how he raises his chin, as if he’s looking into far distances. As if he’s addressing a rally.”
“Nuremburg,” she said with a little laugh.
He stopped on a frame showing Bill with his chest raised and his head aloft like a well-fed Trafalgar Square pigeon.
“I’ve got it !” he said.
They ran through the frames over and over and stopped on those which revealed Bill in his clearest pose.
“Amazing !” she said.
“Power,” said Gary, “that’s what he’s interested in. He hasn’t got the faintest notion about acting.”
Gary was so fascinated by the similarity, he found stills of the strutting fascist to compare. He even managed to get hold of some old footage.
“So, how’s the editing coming along ?” said Bill with a big smile.
“The editing’s had it,” said Gary.
“Why’s that ?”
“Useless. The whole thing’s useless.”
“Are we going to do something else ?”
“What makes you think you’re an actor ?” said Gary looking him in the eye and taking a swig of his beer.
“Hollywood is the great love of my life ! Films mean everything to me.”
“You know what Brando said about Hollywood ?”
“That it has no hold over him because it runs on fear and love of money and he doesn’t love money and isn’t afraid of anyone.”
“That’s great !” said Bill, smilingly widely.
“It takes a long time to learn to act,” said Gary with a hint of dismissiveness in his voice.
“I know. I’m on a learning curve,” replied Bill.
“I’m not doing anything in the near future that’ll have a part for you,” said Gary.
“Okay. That’s okay.”
It was anything but. Bill couldn’t find his way into anything other than petty roles. At auditions he was offered walk-on parts which he refused on the grounds they wouldn’t teach him anything. He was beginning to feel he might have to give up his ambition when he realised his mistake. What he needed was control. He needed to be in power. If he ran his own film-making company, he could take the plum roles for himself. He applied for every penny of available funding and got together just over two thousand. It was barely enough to make a start but his break came when he met Elliot Day. Tall and gangly with a little Trotsky beard, a hangover from his fervent sixth-form Marxism, long, blonde hair in a pony tail and an odd, convoluted way of talking which made it difficult for him to finish a sentence, Day was the son of a tycoon who’d made his fortune in holiday camps and cheap flights. Even among the privileged of Oxford, he was exceptionally rich. Like Bill, he’d tried acting and found himself hopeless, but fascinated by performance and stardom saw himself as an impresario.
“Hey, listen, I’ve got this idea for a movie,” Bill felt that movie gave more of an authentic feel to the project. “It’s about a guy who has a heart attack in his mid-forties and is on the verge of losing his career but who climbs back and makes it to the top of his profession.”
“What is his profession ?” said Elliot.
“I haven’t decided that yet. But, you know, it’s a typically British story. Coming through against all the odds. It’s full of British values which should make it a big hit.”
“Yeah, but how do we….I was thinking….you know casting and…..well there’s a lot…..it’s not easy….at least I imagine….”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got lots of experience,” said Bill.
He appeared so confident and knowledgeable, Elliot was convinced. He might have been convinced by the fairy from the top of the Christmas tree, so urgent was his desire to make a start.
He lavished money on the project from the account provided him by his father. Bill cast himself as the star and director. Having no idea how to make a film, he relied on the cameraman, a diligent and competent chemist whose obsession was photography and who kept things going when the cast were at loggerheads, the script passing through its thirtieth re-write and Bill strutting round the set as if he was about to conquer Asia. The grandiosity of the scheme together with the hopelessness of its conception, ensured it absorbed money like a neophyte assimilates dogma. But as the conviction of the economically naïve is that whatever requires great expenditure must be of great value, they pressed on in the firm belief that Eisenstein himself had never done better. Day hired a cinema. They pitched the price of the tickets at the market rate. Thirty three people turned up in addition to those whose arms had been twisted. Seventeen of them walked out before the end.
“The problem is, people have no appreciation of art !” said Bill.
“We should make a blockbuster,” said Day.
So they did.
It cost Day £237,000. Its box-office came to £684.70.
He moved his money out of film and into racehorses.
The failure threw Bill into a gloomy mood, for ten minutes. Then he realised it was a sign ! He’d always believed God moved in mysterious ways. It wasn’t that he’d failed. He hadn’t misconceived the project and overestimated his abilities. No, it was that God needed him elsewhere. The thought cheered him and raised him to that level of invincible elation which made him so charming, so plausible and so dangerous. He went about with a sense of absence: he was called but he didn’t know the purpose. All the same, it was reassuring to know he was chosen.
As soon as he’d graduated he found himself chambers. His father, now fully recovered and earning well was delighted to fund his pupillage. Bill forged ahead with his career, imitating his father’s bluster, pushing aside all difficulties like a snowplough. Was he going to spend his life as a barrister ? Despite the theatricality of the courtroom, he felt disappointed at the thought. He could make himself rich but he would never be famous outside the narrow circle of his profession. The nagging sense of being summoned by God only to spend his days as an obscure advocate left him with a feeling of waste. It seemed to him the world was divided between the big people and the little people. The big people were made for the big things and the little people for the little things. In his innermost thoughts, he couldn’t help despising the little people. They had to exist, of course, more or less. And they had to get on with their little lives, but they were impossible to admire. Only the few big people with money and power were truly worthy of admiration. He was tormenting himself with thoughts of how he might become one of the truly big people when he met Aimee.
What appealed to him when he first spoke to her was her curious smile. It was most definitely not a smile of happiness. On the contrary, it seemed distorted and concealing, as if behind it was a disdain for people altogether. Her father was a minor rock star who’d lived the requisite chaotic life, recovered from an addiction or two and fathered eight children, none of whom he’d raised. Bill thought this glamorous.
“Hey, why don’t we have a bit of lunch together today?”
He took her to a pub where the chef knew Mick Jagger. In the hubbub of the business lunchtime, Bill felt at the centre of things. This was London. These were people who worked in the City. This was where money was moved around and the world shaped like a vase in a potter’s hands. He loved the feeling of being among the people who matter just as he feared the world of the little people, those insignificant lives that brought him a feeling of faint disgust.
“So it must have been exciting growing up with a famous dad !”
“Not really. I hardly ever saw him. I was brought up by my mum.”
“What did she do ?”
“She was a school cleaner.”
Bill almost choked on his filet steak.
“That must’ve been hard,” he said, chewing self-consciously.
“We lived in a flat over a bookmakers. It was grotty as hell. But my dad paid the fees for me to go to private school. That was the only good part of my life.”
“That’s great ! He did the right thing. Which school was it?”
“St Agnes’s Catholic School For Girls.”
She looked up from her smoked salmon and he raised his eyebrows and smiled in spite of his disappointment that she’d been to a non-descript place.
“I thrived there,” she went on, “because I was clever, but they hated me for my socialism.”
Bill concentrated on his steak.
“Yes, I suppose they would,” he said.
“We were poor as buggery and poverty makes you feel lousy. My mother did her bit for the Labour Party so I joined as soon as I was old enough.”
“Yeah, that’s great.”
“What about you ?”
“I went to Ampleforth,” he declared.
She looked at him blankly and he felt de trop.
“I was nearly expelled for ragging the teachers !” he blurted.
“Were you ?” she said palely.
The more they got to know one another the more Bill felt they would make a fine couple. The problem of her socialism disturbed him for a few months but then it dawned on him it might provide just the opportunity he needed. She was eager to stand for parliament, having a barrister’s easy way in advocacy, but Bill could see her old-style Labourism was impotent against rampant Thatcherism. He admired Thatcher. Wasn’t she right after all that unions were malevolent organisations? Bill couldn’t see trade union leaders as other than stupid. The way forward was to bring the dynamism of the business world into the public sector. The notion of a struggle of contending class interests seemed to him absurd. There were little people and big people and workers were obviously little people. To try to behave like big people was to subvert the natural order. He despised unions and the idea of workers’ struggle. All that was needed was a sensible framework of rights. That workers should stand up for themselves was madness. All the paraphernalia of banners and galas and sentimental solidarity made him sick. People must get on as individuals not huddle together for protection. Getting on as an individual, he believed, was the best way to help the community. But Aimee still talked the old socialism. He felt his opportunity lay in the gap in the political market: a new brand, a politics in tune with people’s desire to make their own choices in the market, a politics that would make the public services function like a supermarket, a recognition, finally, that capitalism is the natural order to which everyone must submit.
So he joined The Labour Party because he despised it and he worked hard to secure a parliamentary seat because he wanted to wipe socialism off the political agenda.
Meanwhile, he and Aimee grew closer and spent more and more time together. Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts came to their wedding, invited by Aimee’s father and Bill, who couldn’t keep away from anyone famous, was almost more thrilled by this than by the fact of being married.
While Michael Foot, a civilized literary intellectual at sea in the maelstrom of the vicious, gutter politics of the early eighties, fought to keep the Labour Party from disintegration, Bill and Aimee each contested a by-election in a no-hope constituency. Though he hated canvassing for his wife, Bill loathed much more the humiliation of failure. He received two thousand four hundred and seven votes out of nearly thirty thousand.
“But we have to stand in these seat,” said Aimee. “We must have a national presence.”
“Of course !” said Bill with a big smile. “But once is enough. Next time I’m going for a safe seat.”
He didn’t agree that a presence in every seat was important. Those old ideas about giving all Labour supporters a chance to vote struck him as foolish and sentimental. What appealed to him was electoral arithmetic. Most votes made no difference. In particular most Labour votes made no difference. He looked on the old Labour heartlands where millions cast their votes almost in their sleep with a slight sneer, as at a bad smell. What mattered were the few votes in the small cluster of seats whose results settle elections, and these were predominantly middle-class . The road to power lay in skewing every policy towards the interests of the comfortable. When he told his wife this she said:
“But what about the traditional Labour supporters ?”
With a slight curl of the lip he replied:
“They’ve no-one else to vote for.”
Being an Oxford graduate and a barrister, he found it easy to get his name on the list of favoured candidates. The Labour Party, supposedly committed to bringing to parliament men and women from the least economically favoured sections of society, was in thrall to the quasi-mystical overtones of the resonant names of private schools and Oxbridge colleges. Above all, Bill understood, it believed in ability. In the dull branch and district and constituency meetings he attended to try to convince people he supported party democracy, he was astonished at how often local councillors or petty party officials would raise the issue of ability. With his vulgar capacity for exploitation of common ignorance, he saw this as an opportunity: because Labour Party members and supporters understood the tightness of the political struggle, they sensibly wanted competent people as leaders; but this tipped into a fond over-estimation of those who could talk glibly and strut with confidence. These people were easy meat. Not to take advantage of them would be a crime.
“What do you do?” he asked a young woman during a gathering in the pub after a branch meeting.
“I’m a nurse,” she said.
He looked into her face that was lifted towards him and without thinking he said:
“Isn’t that very badly paid ?”
“I don’t do it for the money.”
“Of course not !” and his face broke into its usual
wide, unconvincing smile. “Excuse me.”
It baffled him how people lived on such low incomes. What was wrong with them ? He had difficulty imagining them constrained by circumstances they hadn’t created. Their low economic status was their identity. Could it be anything but fixed and necessary ? This idea wouldn’t let go of him. It must be true that society is a sorting mechanism which allots people to their rightful place. How else could the gradations, the inequalities, the huge discrepancies be accounted for ? But what then was the meaning of justice ? It could only be to give everyone a chance and to allow the strong to prevail. As for the weak, he wasn’t opposed to preventing them falling into destitution, but the idea of equality was alien to him. He relished inequality. It provided the incentive to the big people, to people like himself. He wanted to be a millionaire, to own a fine house in one of the select areas of London, to be forever in the company of the famous and powerful. Wasn’t that what everyone wanted and wasn’t talk of equality mere sour grapes ? He was overwhelmed by a desire to press ahead. He felt himself chosen. He had the feeling there was nothing he couldn’t do.
When a safe constituency in the north became available, he felt fate was calling him.
There was a democratic rigmarole.
“Why do we have to waste so much time on this nonsense,” he said to Aimee.
“Things have to be done properly, Bill. People have a right to their say.”
“I know, I know.”
But it frustrated him terribly.
At the first branch meeting there were seven members: a councillor in her seventies who had held her seat, despite reorganisation and redrawn boundaries, since 1945, who had met Nye Bevan and whose husband was a cousin of Mannie Shinwell; a local official of ASLEF who was in the chair, one of those salt of the earth Trade Unionists who left school at fifteen and had found in the Labour movement a chance for responsibility denied him elsewhere; a middle-class, professional couple in their thirties who felt embarrassed by their parents socialism but couldn’t quite bring themselves to leave the Party and were hoping for a new settlement in which their vulgar materialism wouldn’t be disdained; a somewhat demented looking man of about fifty with wild hair and foam at the corners of his mouth who twitched like a sparrow and raised constant points of order until the chairman threatened to have him removed; a fresh-faced girl of about seventeen, full of idealism and enthusiasm and still naïve enough to imagine the world would thank her for it; and a quiet, thoughtful, intellectual-looking man of thirty who unnerved Bill immediately by his poise and self-possession.
He had to introduce himself and put his case. These people would decide the nomination and the more branches behind him, the better his chances. He shook hands, he smiled broadly, he explained why he wanted to stand:
“I wasn’t born in the Labour Party,” he said, “I chose it.”
He thought this a clever and winning formulation.
“What I believe in,” he insisted, pressing his four fingers against the pad of this thumb and forcing his hand forward, “is community. A community that is strong and supports the individual. You see, there’s no contradiction between the two. We must promote the individual by building strong communities.”
The elderly councillor nodded sagely, the professional couple smiled complaisantly, the wild man took notes, the young girl batted her eyelashes and the intellectual fixed Bill with his clear stare. When it came to questions, they were feeble and undemanding and he rose to the full heights of his barrister’s glib eloquence which cost him so little and behind which there was neither thought nor conviction. Until the intellectual spoke.
“Mr Gowdy, I look at your CV. You were educated in an expensive private school, you went to Oxford, you became a barrister. We’re socialists here. What does socialism mean to you ?”
“Well !” said Bill smiling widely.
The intellectual looked at him impassively.
“You see,” said the candidate “it’s the social in socialism that means something to me. Community. Strong. Strong communities, strong individuals.”
“Sure,” interrupted the intellectual, “but your private school was a community, and no doubt a strong one. What it did was to turn out people who believe it’s their right to rule the world. Just evoking community doesn’t get us very far. The people who vote Labour in this town don’t send their kids to fancy schools. Most of their kids won’t get near a university. Average earnings here are below the national level. Unemployment is high. What are you going to do, Mr Gowdy, to help the folk at the bottom ? You’re a clever man. You’re a lawyer. No doubt you see yourself in government. Well, what would you do in a practical way to help the poorest people in this town ?”
“Look,” said Bill, “I’m a straight kind of guy. We’ve got to win elections. You can’t win elections by representing the poor. There aren’t enough of them. You’ve got to….”
“You don’t need to patronise us, Mr Gowdy. We know how hard it is to win elections. We’re the foot soldiers. We knock on the doors. We turn the vote out for local by-elections on rainy nights in February. But we win elections for a reason. Because we’re socialists. We believe in equality. Equality isn’t without its costs, but we believe it’s essential. People are made by their circumstances. All ideas and values are social. Inequality is social and because it’s socially created it can be socially cured. We think it needs to be cured because inequality humiliates people. What we want to know is what you will do to promote equality and democracy because those are the things we believe in.”
“I don’t,” piped the professional woman. “I mean, I do but only to an extent. I want a society where people can get on.”
“That’s right !” said Bill. “People have got to get on. We don’t want destitution, but we’ve got to embrace people’s aspirations.”
“What’s wrong with the aspiration to equality ?” asked the intellectual.
“We don’t want the Soviet Union,” responded the professional woman.
“You see, it’s not our business to punish the rich…”
“It’s a matter of arithmetic, Mr Gowdy,” interrupted the intellectual. “This is a wealthy country but if some folk have hundreds of millions, others will be lucky to have a hundred a week. It’s just arithmetic.”
“But if people have worked for their money,” said the professional woman.
The spat ran on for a few minutes until the chairman moved progress. There were four other candidates. The nomination went to Bill, four in favour and three against.
He had to go through eleven of these tediums and at each one his sense that these people were easy to manipulate grew. It seemed progressively more absurd to him that anyone could imagine them capable of taking, or being involved in, decisions of any magnitude. What democracy meant was merely their right elect those better than themselves, who should make such decisions; but then it seemed to him hardly worth the trouble. As they must inevitably be ruled by their betters did it really matter which ? Wouldn’t the outcome be more or less the same if their betters were left to get on with things ? He realised this was the genius of democracy as he and his kind practised it: the masses were provided the illusion of participation, while in fact the big people ran the world as they liked.
Eight of the eleven branches nominated him. He was a private school toff with virtually nothing in common with these people. They lived little lives in small places. Their existence was defined by insignificance. Yet, overwhelmingly they had chosen him to go forward. Wasn’t that proof enough of the inevitable, the eternal, the natural election of his kind ? In addition, one of the branch secretaries had volunteered to be his agent if he won the final nomination. David Collier joined the Party at sixteen. Coming from a mining family and winning a place a Grammar School, he’d gone to training college and become a woodwork teacher. It was bliss to him to be in the workshop with the lads and later, the girls. He loved their skill and their simple enthusiasm. To teach a rough lad who was forever in trouble to make a neat dovetail joint seemed to him a form of redemption and many of his pupils had gone on to be hard-working highly trained men and women and responsible, happy parents. This was his vision of socialism. It was a form of love. The vicious power struggle of politics was alien to his nature. With enough goodwill the world could be made beautiful and the most recalcitrant character turned to generosity and beneficence. He was impatient with theory, had never been able to read more than a few paragraphs of Marx, but he knew that poverty and exclusion hurt his people and like a good child who brings a posy of flowers to his upset mother, he wanted to heal the grievance.
“The Party has to change,” Bill said to him. “Militant must be expelled and people must be made to see what the real choices are.”
“That’s right,” replied David. “We’ve had enough of that nonsense in Liverpool.”
To him, Bill seemed straightforward. He was clever and affable and full of thrusting energy.
“You’ll be lucky though,” he said. “We don’t elect posh folk up here. All our candidates are working lads and lasses. We like trade unionists and people who know what it’s like to struggle through from week to week.”
“Well, I’ll need your help then !” and Bill broke into that wide, toothy smile which had always been his defence against reality.
At the constituency meeting to make the final selection there were four candidates. Apart from Bill they were local, working-class and convinced a Labour government must tax the rich more, spend more on public services, strengthen the influence of trade unions, extend democracy, negotiate nuclear weapons out of existence and make aid and development the cornerstones of foreign policy. Bill believed the rich should be left alone, public services must prove their worth, the trade unions must be shuned, democracy is a simple convenience, nuclear weapons keep the west safe and Britain must fall in line with the USA in order to maintain its global influence. If he spoke his mind plainly, he didn’t have a chance.
“Change !” he declared. “We must have change. Strong communities, strong individuals. The majority not the few. Efficient, modern public services.”
David Collier counted heads. He knew every member and how they would vote and he knew his man was doomed unless he could sway them. He sat in the middle of the hall on an uncomfortable plastic chair. Around him were people he’d known all his life. He liked all of them, even those he knew to be unpleasant. These were his people. He wanted to do the best for them. Was it the best to select Bill ? He had a moment of mental agony when he wondered if he was giving his support to a shallow opportunist; but it dissipated quickly as he imagined his man taking his place in government. Wouldn’t that be good for these people ? Didn’t they deserve an M.P. with real influence ? Wouldn’t it raise their self-esteem to know their man was in the Cabinet ? Looking to his left he met the eyes of Liam Higham. He’d heard about the awkward questions he’d put to Bill at his branch. Liam was straight and a clear thinker. David trusted and admired him, but this time he thought he was wrong because the choice was the same old rhetoric and electoral failure or something new and catchy and electoral success. What was the point of all this effort if power wasn’t the result ? He’d been humiliated by 1979 and he knew an even deeper humiliation was on the way. The only thing that mattered was to win. The only unforgivable thing was defeat. Was he betraying his people ? Part of him felt it was terrible to support a slick, private-school outsider whose vocabulary simply didn’t include socialism or equality; but a greater part of him wanted victory so badly, wanted merely to see Downing St occupied by someone associated with Labour that he would have renounced his own faith in socialism to achieve it. He stood up.
“Friends ! We have a momentous decision to make today. A decision which may have implications far wider than this constituency. I believe today we can change the course of our party’s history. We have a candidate who can be much more than just our M.P.. I have here a note,” and he waved a paper, Chamberlain-like, “ a note from Michael Foot. Don’t we all trust him ? Don’t we all admire him ? Isn’t he a man of principle ? Don’t we have faith in his honesty and his judgement? Well, this is what he says: I believe Bill Gowdy should play a major role in the future of the Labour Party. Friends, if Michael Foot puts his faith in Bill Gowdy, shouldn’t we ? Let’s look a little further than our own back yard. Let’s choose the man who can take his place on the Labour front bench. I urge you, vote for Bill Gowdy.”
He sat down, his heart pounding. He knew from the attentiveness of the faces turned towards him he’d done enough. He looked down at the note Michael Foot had penned. It read: I believe Bill Gowdy could be an asset to the Party.
His man won the nomination by two votes.
Outside, in the chilly dark Bill shook his hand vigorously.
“Thanks for that, David. That was brilliant.”
“Forget it. But just make sure you help us back to power.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t let you down,” said Bill. “And did Michael Foot really write that about me?”
“More or less,” said David screwing up the note in his pocket.
Bill’s taxi arrived to take him to the railway station and back to London where his future lay. He shook David’s hand again.
“We’ve a long journey ahead,” he said.
“Aye, and let the destination be victory.”
Bill slammed the door and sat back in the leather seat of the old black cab. He was glowing inwardly with the sense of his own success. Once more he felt justified in his conviction that the destiny of the world should be in the hands of the few like himself. The big people. His thoughts ran ahead of him. He was sure of a seat in parliament, now he needed to hustle for a shadow cabinet job. Perhaps, in the long run, with a bit of luck, he could bid for the leadership and turn the Labour Party once and for all away from socialism and its delusion of equality. He felt inordinately sure of himself, capable of almost anything, and as the cab sped on through the insignificant streets, was without the least inkling of the cataclysm that lay ahead.
When the Americans invaded Vietnam, John Shelley felt immensely relieved. He was twenty-three and in the first year of his study for a Phd in Physics. Spending long hours in the laboratory and slaving over calculations which made his head ache ( like Einstein, he wasn’t particularly gifted at maths), puzzling away at the behaviour of electrons, he found escape in his fervent religion. He was a Congregationalist because that was the denomination he’d been raised in. As a matter of fact, his mother was a Methodist, but as there was no church close to home, she took her son to the next best. When he was six she bought him an illustrated Bible on the flyleaf of which she wrote in biro : To John, with love from Mummy, March 1947. It sat on his shelf among his impossibly difficult Physics books. Now and again he would take it down, look at the pictures, remembering how the vivid colours and simple shapes had appealed to him as a boy, read a verse or two, scan the inscription and return it with a lump in his throat. It reminded him of how simple and clean the world had once been. Now the free world, the Christian world, was fighting for its survival against atheisitic communism. Thank God, he said to himself, for America.
“You know,” he said to his girlfriend Diane, “we should try to get bibles to those poor communists.”
“Which poor communists ?”
“All communists, I suppose. But I was thinking of the communists in Vietnam. They’ve been brain-washed. If only we could get Bibles to them, they would see the light and lay down their arms.”
“Well, they might. But how do we get bibles to Vietnam? It’s a long way from Manchester, John.”
But John wasn’t going to be defeated by mere distance. He was a Physicist, after all. He was used to dealing in unconscionable figures. A few thousand miles were easily traversed thanks to modern technology. It was merely a matter of having the will. He put it to the members of his little bible group who met every Thursday evening at St Ann’s.
“We need to raise the money to buy bibles. In bulk they’ll be cheap. Then all we need is a contact group in South Vietnam and we can fly them out there.”
“But how do we know they’ll get to the North ?”
“We have to put our faith in the people at the other end. If they’re devout Christians, they’ll find a way.”
“But you know there’s religious intolerance in the South. The Buddhists have a hard time.”
“What’s that to do with us ?” said John.
“Well, we’re for religious tolerance aren’t we ?”
“Yes,” said John. “But we’re Christians.”
“We don’t want to see Buddhists persecuted do we ?”
“Of course not, but Buddhism isn’t going to save the world from communism.”
“Is that the brief of Christianity ?”
“Communists are atheists. If they take over the world, the Devil will have won.”
“They aren’t going to take over the world, John. Not even Stalin believed he could do that.”
“It’s the domino theory. One country falls and many others follow. It’s our duty to stop them.”
“Well, I think this is getting paranoid. Really.”
“They’re trying to take over Vietnam !” declared John.
“But look at the history. Vietnam has been under foreign rule for centuries. And the French treated the Vietnamese appallingly. You can’t blame them for wanting independence.”
“They’re not fighting for independence. They’re fighting for communism.”
“That’s what the propaganda tells you, John, but my guess is, you let them have independence and they’ll settle down to looking after their own affairs. I don’t think they’re going to be steaming up the M6 in tanks in six months time. Anyway, count me out. Bibles for communists isn’t my affair.”
The dissenter got up and left.
John was glad to see him go. Though he came regularly to the bible group and was a genuine Christian, he supported the Labour Party, which John saw as dangerously close to communism. And it was known that he slept with his girlfriend and had had others before her.
Under John’s guidance, the group worked intelligently and energetically and soon thousands of bibles had been flown to their contact in Vietnam. Girded by this success, John drove them on to greater fund-raising. They ran jumble sales, coffee mornings, they made and sold jam and cakes, they organised raffles and discos and bibles flew off to Moscow, Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, Bucharest, Sarajevo, Berlin and Peking. John imagined benighted communists in their chilly flats, reading the gospels by dim light during cold winter nights and undergoing sudden conversion to the Truth which he had always known. It gave him a good feeling as he walked down Deansgate, it lifted his morale when his calculations went wrong, and it helped to overcome his intense sexual frustration as his eternal engagement to Diane dragged on, awaiting the award of his doctorate and his first university post so they could afford to get married.
But things didn’t turn out so well. He was awarded his Phd but his work was second-rate. Five universities turned him down. In disappointment, he applied for a job teaching Physics in a grammar school and though it was hard to turn his back on the idea of a professorship, it permitted them to set up home as man and wife, and being a Church of England school, he felt at home and was soon running the Junior and Senior Christian Union.
More than anything, it was his intense Christianity which won him promotion. He wasn’t more than an average teacher and, in truth, was bored by having to teach boys the difference between series and parallel. On the other hand, when the Head asked him to take an assembly, he was thrilled and spoke to the school about bibles for communists, and the terrible threat of encroaching left-wing atheism. It went down very well, with the hierarchy. John was made Head of Year which meant he had to deliver an assembly every week and never a Thursday went by without a prayer for the poor communists, brain-washed into believing in materialism, and in need of Christian enlightenment. Being efficient and diligent, John was soon advanced to Deputy Head. He was nominally in charge of curriculum development, but the curriculum took care of itself , so he concentrated on his everyday little responsibilities like looking after cover, did his ten hours a week of teaching and felt, after all, things had worked out very nicely.
Diane too had fallen lucky and found herself a job teaching English in an all-girls, private school. They bought a comfortable three-bedroomed semi, took pride in decorating and furnishing, were happy in one another’s company; their sex life rolled along pleasantly (though both of them secretly wondered what all the fuss had been about), and after eighteen months, Diane discovered, with delight, that she was to be a mother.
It was a girl and they called her Mary Diane. Two more children followed in the next five years, both boys. John wrote a textbook for GCE Physics as a substitute for publishing in scholarly journals and it sold in tens of thousands which allowed them to build a two-storey extension. And all the while, bibles were being shipped to communists in the benighted parts of the globe and John was delivering his assemblies on the evils of materialism and the wickedness of equality.
In 1973, he watched the images from Chile as the Allende regime was removed by the CIA. He heard Henry Kissinger declare: You can’t let a country go communist just because of the irresponsibility of its people.
“He’s right, of course,” he said to Diane.
“But wasn’t Allende elected ?” she said.
“Of course,” said John, “but that’s Kissinger’s point. Those people have been brain-washed. They aren’t responsible. You can’t let atheism take over. It’s a Christian responsibility to intervene.”
Nevertheless, at home there was a Labour government, which made him fret, and every time he saw Tony Benn on television he feared the arrival of the Anti-Christ. He was sympathetic, all the same, to policies of social justice and would happily have voted Labour if the moderate, Christian voices could have prevailed; but Benn, the trade unions, strikes, militancy, all these were the work of the Devil and must be stopped. Not wanting, however, to appear reactionary and being genuinely sorry for the poor, he placed himself firmly in the middle and gave his support to the Liberals. He was sure for the most part they must be Christians and they had the irresistible attraction of being unable to win power, so he would never see the policies he had voted for traduced in government.
Though he didn’t like her, thinking her strident and lacking modulation, John was glad when Mrs Thatcher came to power. He was convinced the unions had gone too far. Once, of course, they had been necessary. They were a force for good in Victorian times. They helped to shorten the working day and improve factory conditions. But all that was gone. What role did they play now ? Wasn’t Thatcher right that they were merely wreckers ? They’d got too big for their boots and needed putting in their place. It seemed to him that with a few minor adjustments, Britain could be, like the porridge in the fairly tale, just right. Above all, middle-class life struck him as beyond question, or his own, middle-class life. As for the lower orders, they should accept their lot. Yes, it was right to keep them from destitution, but someone had to do the menial work and menial work could attract only poor pay. That was a simple law of economics. A law which the socialists, in their materialist lunacy, wanted to overturn.
It was shortly after Thatcher’s first victory that Max Stein was appointed to teach Physics. He was the only candidate with a degree in the subject so, despite the Head’s reservations, despite his thick, untrimmed black beard, despite wearing a CND symbol in his lapel at the interview, he was given the job. John disliked him at once, in a personal way. He was one of those people who seem to brim with life, which unnerved John in his reliance on convention. And he spoke his mind. In his very first staff meeting, when it was pointed out that boys were starting to sport badges of various kinds and the practice should be curtailed, he asked if that included the little Christian fish symbols. It was discovered he was a member of the Labour Party. He took over as union rep ( because no-one else wanted the role). Above his desk in the science workroom he pinned a picture of Karl Marx beneath which was the quotation: Personally, I’m not a Marxist.
“It’s not appropriate in a Church of England School,” John said to the Head.
“No, I agree, John. But he’s got a contract and unless he does something unprofessional, there’s nothing I can do.”
Edwin Nightingale was part of that generation which was at university in the sixties, and though his background was thoroughly conservative, including a prestigious private school and one of the better Oxford colleges, the atmosphere of those times had nudged him in a liberal direction and he prided himself on his sang-froid before labour agitation and socialist rhetoric. He believed Britain’s old, established institutions were too entrenched to be shaken by a few proletarian agitators and speeches full of sound and fury. Of course, he had never had any contact with the working-class, never met an agitator in the flesh, never had to negotiate with an astute and determined trade unionist and had really no idea of what the rhetoric of equality meant to the natives who lived in the terraced streets. But in his little enclave, in this fiefdom where he was lord, he had nothing to fear and could dispense liberality like awards on prize day. All the same, it registered that Stein should be watched. In a brief conversation at the Head’s annual start of term gathering, when the staff sipped cheap wine and nibbled robust cheese on cocktail sticks, he had told him his father had been on the last train out of Czechoslovakia when the Nazis arrived. Though Edwin could appreciate this was an unpleasant experience, he saw no reason to recount it in polite company.
One day, when Stein had been working in the school for six months or so and was proving himself a perfectly competent teacher, John was rushing from the staffroom, talking to a colleague who was sitting at one of the tables and pestering him about some exam matter for the thirteenth time as he went, and the younger man happened to be in his way. Without thinking, he put his hand in the middle of Stein’s back, between the shoulder blades, and pushed him aside. He bumped into a chair and stumbled as John rushed out of the door, heedless. Stein steadied himself and looked round. There were three or four teachers in the room. They looked away.
Two days later, Stein came to see John in his office.
“You owe me an apology, Dr Shelley.”
“I’m sorry ?”
“You pushed me.”
“You pushed me out of the way in the staffroom. You put your hand on my back and you pushed me. I stumbled into a chair and almost fell over.”
“Did I ?”
“You don’t remember ?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Well you did, and there were three or four people in the room at the time who must have seen.”
“I’m sorry,” John laughed, “but I find this a bit silly.”
“Dr Shelley, you pushed me. You used physical force. You put your hand on me and shoved me out of the way. What right do you have to do that ?”
“I don’t believe I did.”
“Well, why would I lie about it ?”
“I’m not saying you’re lying.”
“But would I come here and say this if it wasn’t true?”
“No, I don’t suppose you would. But I think you must be mistaken.”
“How could I be mistaken ?”
“I may have bumped into you, accidentally. You know what a crush there is in the staffroom at break time. If I did, I apologise unreservedly. But I wouldn’t push you deliberately. That’s not the kind of thing I do.”
“But it’s exactly what you in fact did.”
“I can see you’re upset,” said John. “I apologise. If I bumped into you or if I inadvertently made physical contact with you, of course that’s the wrong way to behave. My sincere apologies, Max. I assure you I didn’t intend to cause any offence.”
“Apology accepted, but it’s hard to believe it was inadvertent. You put your hand on my back and pushed.”
“Well, I suppose we’ll have to see it as a matter of intention and perception, Max. My apologies once more.”
Driving home that afternoon, John strained to recall the incident. It hadn’t cost him much to apologise to Max. As a matter of fact, seeing him sitting in his office, clearly hurt and fighting for his dignity had given him a certain satisfaction. He felt, barely without knowing it, that Max was an affront to the school. He knew that a contract of employment is exactly that and the school had no right to demand that its staff hold particular views or have particular character traits; but though he knew this consciously, though he agreed with it intellectually, another part of his mind fought violently against it. Yes, Max had a degree in Physics. Yes, he knew his subject well. In fact, he’d corrected John when he was talking about matrix mechanics and had made a mistake in an equation. Yes, he was a good teacher and the pupils seemed to respond well to him. But he just wasn’t right for the school. If there had been an easy way to get rid of him, John would have been in favour. He could go and teach in a working-class school, after all. A state school with no religious affiliation. Wasn’t that where he belonged ? He knew, all the same, that he was qualified and competent and therefore, had a right to teach in the Grammar, even if he was a leftie atheist. But it just wasn’t right. John’s final feeling was that the school should be able to exclude those who didn’t subscribe to its views.
Try as he might, though, he couldn’t bring to mind the event in the staffroom.
“You know,” he said to Diane when they were relaxing in the living-room after their evening meal, “a very funny thing happened today.”
“What’s that ?”
“Max Stein came and complained about me.”
“What’s he got to complain about ?”
“He claims I pushed him.”
“Yes,” John laughed. “He says I pushed him out of the way in the staffroom.”
“You can’t let him get away with that !”
“Oh, I’m not going to make anything of it. I don’t believe I did push him, of course. That’s not how I behave. I’ve never laid hands on anyone in my life. And I just don’t remember the incident at all. But he was clearly very upset.”
“So what did you do ?”
“I explained that I didn’t think he was right, that it must be a misunderstanding. Maybe I bumped into him in the break-time melee. It’s always like Piccadilly station when everyone’s rushing for their coffee and so on. So I said I was sorry if….”
“You shouldn’t’ve done that.”
“No, I may have knocked into him. It happens. But you just don’t notice or remember, especially when you’re in a hurry. But I apologised, in case. Funny though, he obviously thought I meant it, that there was malice behind it. As if I’m that kind of person.”
The following day, John noticed a change in Max. There was a closed, silent quality about him. He went about his work but he was on guard. Nor did it relent. They spoke when they needed to for professional reasons, otherwise Max said nothing. Also, he began to turn up in John’s assemblies though he wasn’t required to be there as he wasn’t a form tutor. He stood at the back, in the corner, leaning against the wall, his hands in his pockets, his head cocked slightly backwards as John talked about bibles for communists.
“In the communist countries,” he said, “ people aren’t allowed to think what they like. Imagine that. Here, we are free to have our own opinions. No-one comes knocking on your door at three in the morning and takes you away to prison if you criticize the government. We have freedom of speech because we are a democracy. And you know, democracy is a Christian value. Now, in the Soviet Union, you’re not allowed to read the Bible. People aren’t allowed to worship as they wish. The government wants to control everything. It tries to make people think only what it wants them to think. People are brain-washed. This is very hard for us to understand because we give people their freedom. We let people work out their beliefs for themselves and we don’t punish them if they don’t believe the same things as us. That’s why we send bibles to communist countries, so people can discover the truth of Christianity. You can’t buy a bible in the communist countries. You can’t read it in a library. This very week we have sent three hundred bibles to Yugoslavia to bring light to souls darkened by materialism. Let us pray….”
A few weeks later, Max came to him as he was marking books in the workroom.
“I’m applying for a job,” he said.
“Oh, really. Where’s that ?”
“Darkinson High. Second in department. Can I ask you for a reference ?”
“Of course, of course,” said John.
At first he was glad, but little by little doubts began to burrow into his mind. Darkinson was a middle-class school, after all. True, it wasn’t a church school, but all the same, it served a very well-heeled area. Why didn’t Max go and teach in some run-down place where he couldn’t do any harm ? Darkinson was one of the best schools in the county and sent almost all its sixth-formers to university. It seemed to John that if Max were teaching pupils who were going to work in factories, on building sites or drive buses, it didn’t matter so much that he was a socialist and an atheist. But to have such a person teaching young people who were going to have influential jobs. It wasn’t right. Not in a Christian democracy.
“I don’t think he’s ready to be second in department,” he said to Edwin Nightingale.
“Nor do I.”
“He’ll only have been teaching a year. It’s not enough.”
“Exactly, I think you’re right, John. I’ll put a caveat in the reference. They won’t interview him.”
At once John realised the problem in hobbling Max.
“The problem is…” he said.
“Spit it out.”
“Well, we’re stuck with him.”
“Isn’t he doing his job ?”
“Oh, he’s a good teacher, but he’s just not right for the school.”
“Well, I’ll speak to him when I explain the reference. Obliquely, of course. I’ll see if I can do enough to make him understand.”
“Yes, he’d be better off teaching in Salford or a rough part of Liverpool or somewhere.”
“I couldn’t agree more, John. It would suit his personality.”
John felt very satisfied with his action. It was for the best. He really didn’t want Max to stay. After all, he was a young man; if he got comfortable he could be there for decades. He felt he’d done the good thing, the moral thing. Christianity, after all, was under attack across the globe. The forces of communism, of materialism, the vulgar popularisers of Darwin were making fun of revealed Truth. His genuine feeling was that Max should never have been appointed, but the school had been in a corner. Physicists weren’t easy to come by and Max was well-qualified. He didn’t like this feeling, the sense of weakness that went along with it. He didn’t like it at all that the school had more or less had to give Max the job. Still, that could be rectified by making him move on. It was fair. He was just the wrong type. It was as simple as that.
The following day, Max was summoned to the Head.
“Come in, Max,” said Nightingale. “Sit down.”
Max perched awkwardly on the stiff chair pushed hard up against the wall. He hated these set-piece, formal occasions. The artificiality of it made his pulse race. In this little room, in this little school he was Nightingale’s inferior. But, change places and handy-dandy: the lines from King Lear drifted into his mind. His girl-friend had taken him to see it in Stratford and encountering it for the first time, he’d been struck by how its sensibility touched something essential in his own:
There was Nightingale, the dog in office and Max must obey. It was really too ridiculous. Why continue with this preposterous dumb-show ? Sometimes, like Lear, he felt he was losing his mind. The established relations of power seemed to him obviously empty. Yet, we must all behave as if men like Nightingale had a right to their power. What was it, the divine right of management ? It seemed to Max medieval and quite out of touch with his feelings. There was nothing Nightingale could understand that he couldn’t. As a matter of fact, the reverse was true. Nightingale’s degree was in Theology. He would have been lost amongst the complex equations of Max’s beloved Physics. Yet, here Max must sit, a supplicant. And opposite him, the man, the mere man, granted power over him in this setting. He felt his shirt sticking to his armpits.
“Darkinson have taken up your references,” said Nightingale.
He peered over his spectacles and thrust his face forward.
“That’s good,” said Max.
“Yes, that’s good. But I wonder, have you thought about this job ?”
Max felt his heart give a surge.
“How do you mean, exactly ?”
“Well, it’s a second in department and this is your first year in teaching.”
“But they know that.”
“Of course they do. But it’s my responsibility to ensure that people move on when they’re ready. A second in department job isn’t a sinecure.”
Max felt his pulse beat more heavily.
“I didn’t imagine I was applying for a sinecure, Mr Nightingale. I’m applying for a job.”
“Yes, but a second in department is an important responsibility.”
Nightingale leaned back in his chair, stuck his thumbs in the band of his trousers and swivelled a little, like an oil magnate contemplating his profits.
“It takes experience to be able to run a department…”
“I won’t be running it, I’ll be second.”
“And if the Head of Department is away ?”
Nightingale leaned forward again with an expression of revelation on his face as if he’d just solved Unified Field Theory. Max paused.
“What are you getting at ?” he said flatly.
“Don’t you think you might be more suited to a school in one of the less salubrious parts of Liverpool ?” said Nightingale.
Max’s overwhelming desire was to fly at him with his fists.
“I’m sorry ?”
“This is your first year of teaching. You’ve made a good start but it’s only a start. I think you need experience in helping to run things before you take on a responsibility like second in department. You see, management is a skill and it has to be learned…”
“But Mr Nightingale, they know that and they still want to interview me. Isn’t it your responsibility to give me the best reference you can ?”
Nightingale stiffened, the corners of his mouth pulled down slightly, his eyes widened.
“No. No, my responsibility is to ensure only the right people get promoted.”
“Darkinson are relying on me. They don’t know you. It’s up to me to make sure they get a proper and full picture of the sort of person you are…”
“The sort of person I am ?”
“What I mean by that is the kind of teacher you are. Teaching, as you know, has this special arrangement. You aren’t free simply to apply for whatever post you like, you have to get the support of your Head. The purpose of that is to ensure that only the best people are picked out.”
“Are you saying I’m not one of the best people ?”
“I’m saying you need experience. I, myself…”
“But if we look at this objectively, Mr Nightingale, Darkinson are interested in me. They’ve got my application. They know this is my first year. All you need to tell them is whether I’ve been any good here and objectively, what reservations can you have ?”
Nightingale narrowed his eyes and leant forward.
“I make decisions about appointments and promotions on subjective grounds. We aren’t a factory turning out screws and washers.”
Max paused. He almost couldn’t reply.
“So will you support me ?”
“I’ll have to put a caveat in your reference.”
“But you know that means they won’t interview me.”
Nightingale sat back slowly and swivelled, like a child trying an executive chair for the first time. Max sat and stared at him, overcome by a sense of impotence. Nightingale continued to swivel slightly and then looked away to the picture window beyond which was a lawn and tall fir trees swaying gently. Max knew there was nothing he wanted say that he could say. He wouldn’t be interviewed. Did that mean at least another term here ? Another two ? Another year ? Or if he found something else , would Nightingale find some reason not to support him ? And suddenly he thought of John. He must have talked it over with Nightingale.
“Thank you,” he said, and walked out.
The following day he was marking books in the workroom when John breezed in.
“Morning !” he called.
“Morning,” said Max, “how are you ?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine, thanks.”
Max stopped and pushed the open exercise book away from him, like a plate of unappetising food.
“I spoke to the Head about the Darkinson job yesterday.”
John stood a few yards from Max, his back to the door. His face betrayed nothing. His demeanour was that of an obedient schoolboy. He had about him that dangerous lack of self-awareness of people who take their tone entirely from the institutions that form them. He had never put in serious question any of the assumptions with which he’d been raised.
“Did you speak to him ?” said Max.
“Yes, we had a chat.”
“A chat ?”
“Yes, we discussed it.”
“Can I ask you what you said ?”
“What I said ?”
“Yes. What you said. About me. About the job.”
“I supported you.”
“You did ?”
“I said you were doing a good job.”
“Only the Head isn’t supporting me ?”
“Isn’t he ?”
“No. He thinks I lack experience.”
“Does he ?”
“Yes. Do you think that ?”
“But did you say so ?”
“Did I say so ?”
“Yes, to the Head. Did you say I lacked experience ?”
“No, I didn’t say that.”
“Did you express any reservations ?”
“About you ?”
“What else ?”
“No, I don’t think I did.”
“Don’t you remember ?”
“Yes, I remember. I said you were a good teacher. I definitely said that.”
“You didn’t say I should be teaching in Liverpool ?”
“That’s what the Head said. He said it would be more my line. A rough school in Liverpool.”
“Did he ?”
“That’s what he said.”
“Well, if that’s his opinion.”
“It’s his opinion. But his opinion is one thing, his responsibility another.”
“So I’ll be staying here, for a little while.”
“Unless I can find something else.”
“Well, you should look. For promotion, I mean.”
“Yes, when I’ve got a bit of experience.”
That evening, John was making notes for his next assembly. He had to announce that a thousand bibles were on their way to Leningrad.
Christianity, he wrote, is founded on respect for the individual while communism values only the collective. In this country, thanks to our Christian way of life, people have opportunity. In the Soviet Union the State decides where you will work, where you will live. Communism is a threat to our way of life and to our belief in God. But while we go on sending bibles to those poor people whose freedom has been taken from them, there is hope. We are the lucky ones and we must do all we can to help those who don’t enjoy our freedom and our opportunities. Let us pray.
“Do you want a cup of tea ?” asked Diane.
“Yes, please dear.”
He put his papers aside. Another day was coming to an end. The conversation with Max played itself over in his mind. He understood his sense of grievance, but the world was as it was. He had quickened too many pulses with his unapologetic atheism and his easy-going leftism. It was out of place in the Grammar as it would have been in Darkinson. He took off his reading glasses and put them in their case which closed with a reassuring click. It was for the best, he was sure of that. It was certainly for the best.
Gordon Leggit was a big fan of globalization, though he wasn’t sure what it meant. He liked it because the rich and famous made a fuss about it. It was the new thing, the modern thing, and above all Leggit wanted to be new and modern. What he feared most was being left behind. That was why he’d tried to make himself a computer expert. He’d failed. He didn’t have a technical brain. He bought himself an early Amstrad and read the manual in bed. He believed Alan Sugar was a genius. When Amstrads became obsolete he bought a state-of-the-art model. He was always buying state-of-the-art. He would have bought state-of-the-art eggs if he could have. He read so much about computers, he believed he knew all about them, though he knew nothing of Alan Turing. If it had been suggested to him that Alan Sugar was a vulgar money-grubber and Turing a real genius, he would have been speechless. Who was Turing ? Was he a millionaire ? Was he a businessman ? Leggit read the Daily Mail from cover to cover and he’d never come across a word about Turing. But he believed he knew how to build a computer. When his neighbour’s 486 went on the blink, he offered his services:
“I’ll rebuild it for you. Be good as new in no time.”
He took it home and dismantled it. It was as easy as boasting. Yet when he tried to replace the mother-board and to spark the thing up, it was as inert as money without a market. The screen stayed determinedly blank. The machine was as silent as a Trappist. Every day his neighbour asked him how things were coming along and every day he reassured her:
“Fine. Fine. Just one or two minor problems to finesse. It’s very technical. I won’t try to explain.”
He became more and more desperate. Finally, he took it to a computer shop.
“I’m having a little problem with this,” he said. “A friend of mine put a new mother-board in it and now it doesn’t respond at all.”
They kept it. Two days later they rang him.
“About your computer.”
“Some idiot’s made a real mess of this.”
“Can you get it going ?”
“Oh, we can get it going all right. But it’ll cost you.”
“How much ?”
“About six hundred quid.”
He retrieved it. Six hundred pounds was out of the question. He carried round to his neighbour and lowered it onto the kitchen table.
“Bad news, I’m afraid.”
“What’s the matter ?”
“Well, I thought it was just the mother-board. That’s usually what it is with this kind of problem. Unfortunately, in your case, someone has been abusing this machine.”
“No-one’s used it except me !”
“Are you sure ?”
“Of course I’m sure ! What do you mean by abuse ?”
“Well, modern computers are very complex. There are only a few of us in the world who really understand how they work. That’s why Bill Gates is so rich, you see. Now, it’s easy with such a complicated machine, in the hands of someone with no technical expertise, for the thing to be asked to do things it just isn’t capable of.”
“I’ve only used it for word-processing.”
“I know. I know. It’s hard for someone like yourself to understand, but believe me. This machine is ruined.”
“But you said you could fix it.”
“Sharon, Steve Jobs himself couldn’t fix this. Trust me. Buy yourself a new one. Get something state-of-the-art.”
“That cost me five hundred quid ! I can’t afford another.”
“Well, all you’ve got there, Sharon, is a very expensive paperweight.”
After that, Leggit gave up trying to build computers. All the same, he prided himself on being able to use a computer more efficiently than anyone he knew. He tried to build a website for his business, but it looked appallingly amateurish, so he paid two thousand to have one professionally done, and told everyone he’d done it himself. Leggit was trying to break into the big time. He ran a corner shop selling vegetables, groceries, newspapers and wine which he imported himself from France. Every few weeks, he said goodbye to his wife and daughter and drove to Calais in his Transit, filled it with a selection of reds, whites and roses and came back to offer wine tastings and to sell what he’d bought cheap at great profit.
“The secret of business,” he said to Caroline, “lies in domination.”
“Make us a brew, will ya ?” she said, and rolled over.
“Who else round here imports their own wine ? That’s what gives me the edge in the local market, you see. And if you’ve got the edge in the local market, there’s no reason why you can’t have the edge in the global market !”
He loved the word global. As often as he could, he’d use the term globalization in his conversation.
“Have you got any Cox’s Pippins ?” a pensioner would ask.
“Not today,” he’d say. “I’m having trouble with the deliveries. It’ll all be different once globalization has succeeded.”
“I say, globalization will make things more efficient.”
“Efficient ? There’s nowt bloody efficient these days. And shall I tell ya why ? Too much sex on the television. It’s addled the brains of the young. This country’s going to pot.”
“The free market will sort it out, mark my words. Let business flourish and everyone will be better off.”
“Business in’t for’t likes of me,” said the pensioner, shuffling away empty-handed.
Leggit’s problem was that a corner shop couldn’t easily become part of the global market. There was always the chance he might become the next Lady Porter , but it could take a very long time. What he needed was an idea ! He needed something he could put into the market and which would take off like a Harry Potter wizard. He needed something that would allow him to dominate the market and to eliminate his rivals. Didn’t the Americans talk about full spectrum dominance and weren’t they the richest nation on earth ? He wracked his brains.
“What I need,” he said to Caroline, “is a killer idea!”
“Pass us the tin opener, chuck,” she said.
He handed it to her. It was one of those very simple tin openers you can buy for fifty pence in Wilkos.
“What happened to that state-of-the-art tin opener I bought ?” he asked.
“Broke ? That cost me ten quid !”
“They saw you comin’, luv.”
“Well, where is it ?”
“In the bin.”
“You didn’t chuck it, Caroline ! I might’ve been able to fix that.”
“I don’t think so. It was about as much use as a concrete mattress. They make ‘em to break, that’s how they get rich.”
“That was a Conran. I bet David Beckham opens his beans with one of those.”
“He’ll go bloody hungry, then. Fill the kettle will ya, chuck ?”
Leggit was surprised at how gloomy the broken tin opener made him. It was the second state-of-the-art model he’d bought in six months and its failure rocked his faith in the absolute superiority of everything technically advanced and expensive. He concluded that Caroline, being only a woman and unable to understand the intricacies of mechanical things, had broken it through misuse. The idea was a sedative to his fraught nerves. It brought him back to his obsession: his need for an idea which could launch him onto the global scene. He was watching a report from Iraq where yet another car bomb planted by mad, ungrateful insurgents (what exactly was an insurgent ?) had ripped bodies to pieces, created widows, orphans, distraught grandmothers, heartbroken fathers and left human flesh on the street, like so much litter after a busy Saturday in town, when a flash of inspiration came to him. Shock and awe ! That was the stuff ! Weren’t those Asians round the corner up to something fishy ? How come they managed to sell their veg so cheap ? They must have some dodgy supplier, while he, the upright, straight, clean, Anglo-Saxon, free-market, free-world, self-made-man had to buy from the regular wholesaler and couldn’t make a profit at their prices. They were distorting the market. As a matter of fact, they were probably simply crooked, part of the Asian mafia. And were they Muslims ? He had no idea. What was a Muslim ? Were all Asians Muslims ? In any case, the old guy wore a long white dress and had a beard like Bin Laden, so it was a fair guess they were Muslims. They might even be terrorists. After all, it’s a small step from selling cut price veg to blowing up trains and buses.
“I’ve got it !” he said to Caroline.
“Is there any tomato puree in that cupboard ?”
“It’s the Muslims !”
“What’s the Muslims ?”
“The Muslims are holding me back.”
“Don’t talk soft. Have you found it ?”
“Think about it !”
“Think about what ?”
“How do they sell their veg so cheap ?”
“Maybe they grow it themselves.”
“Don’t be ridiculous ! It’s obvious.”
“What’s obvious ?”
“They’re criminals !”
“Are they buggery. They run a bloody corner shop, Gordon, like you. Just find the tomato puree will ya!”
“They’ve got an illegal supply, that’s how they do it.”
“I don’t think so, Gordon. They just stay open twenty-four hours, seven days a week and all the Asians shop there. They work bloody hard. You shut up and go to watch the football every second Saturday. You’re never gonna beat Sainsbury’s with that strategy.”
“Football’s important to me.”
“Why not pay someone to mind the shop?”
“I can’t afford it.”
“Then accept your situation. Parekh Stores is open longer hours, that’s how they make more money. Have you bloody found it ?”
“It’s not in here.”
“Get out the way !”
Caroline reached into the cupboard and pulled out the tube.
“Scotch mist ?” she said.
“I know what I’m talking about,” he said.
“Good. Tea’ll be ready in ten minutes. Go next door and fetch Laura.”
On his way, Leggit dismissed his wife’s objections. She was just a woman, after all. And she was naïve, an idealist. She always tried to think well of people and give them the benefit of the doubt. What way was that to get on in the world ? She understood nothing of the ways of power and business, while he, being a cut-throat businessman himself, knowing the sharp tricks and the sly ways, as a matter of fact, admiring a businessman for his ability to get one over on his rivals, well, he could see as clear as ugliness what those Asian terrorists were up to.
Laura was playing with Pragna in the little walled garden in front of her house. The two were inseparable, at school and out. Leggit looked at the lithe Asian child with her long, sleek, black hair, her wide brown eyes and her slightly crooked white teeth that always seemed to be on show as she hardly ever stopped smiling. Was she a Muslim ? He’d never been curious to find out about his neighbours’ beliefs. Her dad, Bhavik, was a bus driver. He was friendly enough but didn’t drink and had no interest in football, so aroused no fellow-feeling in Leggit who liked a man who could swill six or seven and shout obscenities at a referee.
“Laura, your tea’s ready !”
“Just a minute, dad !”
“Never mind just a minute. Your tea’ll be getting cold.”
Bhavik came out of the front door, yawning. He was wearing sloppy black trousers and a crumpled green shirt.
“Just been napping, you know. Napping. Sat down to watch the news and fell asleep. Early shift today, you see. Knackered.”
“Yeah?” said Leggit.
“How are things down the shop ?”
“Brilliant, mate. Fantastic. Couldn’t be better. I’m expanding, you know what I mean ? Taking advantage of globalization.”
“Globalization ? That’s a lot of crap, innit ?”
“Crap, mate ? It’s the future. Markets. It’s about a world market, and those who get in on the ground floor are gonna make it big, pal. And when I say big I mean big, you know what I mean ?”
“It’s just America, innit ? They want to rule the world. All this war in Iraq an’ that . They just want the oil, innit? That’s what I think, you know. It’s George Bush, innit ? All for the rich he is.”
“There’s no resistin’ it, mate. It’s the comin’ thing, you know what I mean ? When somethin’ takes off you’ve gotta go with the flow or get left behind. Look at Harry Potter. It’s a big thing. You can’t hold it back. I’m gonna be part of it, mate.”
Bhavik was stretching sleepily and rubbing his eyes. Leggit wondered if he might have some useful information.
“Hey, you know Parekh’s Stores ?”
“Are they Muslims ?”
“Muslims? I don’t know. I don’t the family.”
Leggit was surprised. He thought, somehow, all Asians must know one another.
“Come on, Laura, tea-time !”
The child skipped along with her father .
“What’s for tea, dad ?”
But Leggit didn’t heed her question. His mind was thickened with thoughts of how to eliminate his rivals. He sat down opposite Laura who was twisting spaghetti around her fork.
“Mmm, pasta ! I love it, do you, dad ?”
There was no doubt Parekh’s Stores was his main rival, and if they were undercutting him by illegal means, didn’t he have the right to retaliate ? The idea seemed wonderfully simple and Leggit craved simplicity. Sometimes, when he heard talk of globalization and inward investment in developing economies and so on, he felt very small and weak. There were people out there who knew the game. They were the wizards who controlled the world. Wizards ? Harry Potter ! Yes, it all fitted together. No wonder the book was such a success. It was true, life for most people was dull and drab. People had no control over anything; they just went about doing what they were supposed to do, doing, in fact, the bidding of the wizards who run the world. It depressed him to think he was one of the weak people, the people with no influence. It was terrible to spend your life not understanding how the world was run, not controlling anything. He wanted to be a wizard. He wanted to make things happen. But he was thwarted. He’d worked in his corner shop for eleven years and all he did was make enough to keep the family ticking over. He’d dreamed of expansion. One store can easily become two and two four and four eight. Isn’t that how Sainsbury’s became so big ? What was the secret ? Wasn’t it only that something was standing in his way ? He seemed to be getting nowhere. He was a businessman. He was prepared to be ruthless. He wanted money, big money. And yet it didn’t happen. Wasn’t it supposed to fall into place ? Wasn’t this supposed to be a society of opportunity ? Something was wrong. He’d heard Tony Blair on the television saying terrorists were trying to destroy our way of life. There were evil forces out there and he felt they were restricting him. As a matter of fact, they were out to destroy him. At this very moment those terrorists from Parekh’s Stores might be plotting to set fire to his shop. Who knows what weapons they might have ? Maybe they had a direct line to Osama Bin Laden himself. Supposing al-Qaida was plotting to take over all the corner shops in Britain. Imagine that ! Weren’t most of them run by Asians anyway ? Maybe the whole corner shop culture among the Asians was nothing but an Islamic fundamentalist front. Sooner or later they would own all the supermarkets and they’d be selling the Koran and prohibiting wine. Wine ! Yes, that’s what they’d do. They’d close down his little sideline and he’d lose his neat income. Blair was right ! These people were trying to destroy his way of life. This was a fight to the death. There could be no compromise with these fanatics. They were irrational. They didn’t think like us. No, it was victory or death. What would the world be like if these people won ? Life wouldn’t be worth living. That was the point. It was a simple choice: our way of life or no life at all !
“What’s for afters !” said Laura.
“Rice pudding,” replied her mother.
“Yummy ! My favourite. Is it your favourite, dad ?”
“Yes,” he mumbled through a mouthful of pasta.
After tea, Leggit took a little walk. He went past Parekh’s Stores. It was open, as ever. Didn’t those people ever sleep ? Didn’t they ever have a holiday ? No, of course they didn’t. Terrorists never sleep! He retraced his steps and went in. The tiny shop was packed with produce. By the little counter were boxes full of vegetables: sweet potatoes, okra, aubergines, carrots, cabbages, cauliflowers. There were yams and mangoes. At the back of the store, great bulging sacks of rice were piled to the ceiling. There were industrial tins of tomatoes or curry sauce, five litre tubs of natural yoghurt, huge misshapen chunks of ginger, fat bunches of garlic, taut plastic packets of turmeric, rust-coloured curry power and paprika. But what interested him was the rear door. He could see it wasn’t too robust. He bought a lemon from the old guy at the counter who spoke virtually no English, and left.
As he was about to fall asleep, Caroline beside him already breathing rhythmically in her doze, an idea shook him awake. Into his head came the image of himself and his mates, aged fourteen, climbing into the toilets on Wolsley Park, planting the little homemade device, lighting the fuse and running for it to hide behind trees as the green door blew off and smoke billowed out into the dusk. It was a stupid act, but they were young. The important thing was the bomb. Simplicity itself: a length of copper pipe, weedkiller and sugar. The next day he searched in the shed and ferreted out a good length of copper pipe which he cut down to size with a hacksaw. He closed the shop at twelve and, saying nothing to Caroline, nipped into town for weedkiller. The sugar he took from his own shelves. In the little yard behind the shop he hammered closed one end of the pipe, mixed the two chemicals ( he tried to remember the bit of chemistry he’d learned at school but all that would come back to him was something about hydrogen having one proton or neutron or nucleus or something ) poured them with great care into the pipe, fearing that any moment they might react and blow off his hand, fitted a length of string soaked in petrol as a fuse and hammered closed the other end. Perfect ! The neat little bomb rested gently in his palm. He was proud of his handiwork. It made him think of the great days of British rule when, by virtue of superiority in skill, invention and firepower, Englishmen had dominated the globe. He felt himself to be one of them, those great men of bygone times who had made England rich and powerful. It was only a small, homemade bomb, but with it he could fight back against the incursion of terrorism. He knew that taking the law into his own hands was a dangerous course, but weren’t we at war, after all ? Didn’t he hear everyday on the t.v. of the war on terror ? And were the Americans playing by the rules in Iraq ? You can’t trust people like Bin Laden to fight fair so you’ve got to fight dirty before they get the chance to do you real harm. It was true he might set their shop alight and people could be killed, but was it possible to stand for the free market, for our way of life, without being willing to kill people for the greater good ? Leggit had been a good citizen all his adult life. He’d worked, taken his family to church, voted in every election, and where had it got him ? There were drug dealers in his area driving round in BMW convertibles. It was an insult. What was it all about ? Why get up every day and do your job and try to be responsible when criminals get rich overnight ? And now there was the Taliban and Bin Laden and thousands of Islamic terrorists and we were having to fight for our survival. Those Islamists round the corner were preventing him from expanding, they were standing in the way of his full spectrum dominance. If Parekh’s Stores closed down, their business would come his way. That would be a lot of people. It was simple economics. The Americans needed oil to protect their way of life and Leggit needed customers.
At two in the morning he pulled back the duvet with surgical precision.
“Where you going ?” said Caroline.
He crept along the landing, looked at himself in the mirror and flushed the toilet. He would have to go back to bed. At the head of the stairs he hesitated, then he padded quickly down, grabbed a pair of jeans and a t-shirt from the wash basket in the kitchen, pulled on his trainers and his outdoor jacket, grabbed his keys and left by the back door. It was quite warm under the cloudy sky. The street was as quiet as a spider. He liked being out while everyone was in bed. It reminded of his paper round as a teenager. It always gave him a feeling of power, being on the street before the day had started. He went quickly to the shop and picked up the bomb, slipping it inside his coat. Turning the corner into Stefano St he was amazed to see the lights on in Parekh’s Stores ! Did they really stay open twenty fours hours a day? He pulled up his hood and went quickly past. The old guy was behind the counter. He could nip round the back, light the fuse and skedaddle. But the codger would ring the police and the car might be there in minutes and if they passed him running down Mill Hill ……
He took the bomb back to the shop and jogged home.
“Where’ve you bin ?”
“I thought I heard somethin’.”
“Heard what ?”
“I dunno. Someone creeping round the house.”
“A cat, you fool. What took you so long ?”
“I thought I’d have a look down the street, see if I could see anyone.”
“Who were you expectin’, the Easter bunny ?”
“Better safe then sorry.”
“Better asleep than playing cops and robbers at two o’clock in the mornin’.”
The next day, business was slow. It was one of those Thursdays when a bloke nips in for a Daily Mirror and doesn’t buy any fags, a woman comes in for a pint of semi-skimmed, talks for twenty minutes and ignores her child’s insistent demands for chocolate. He locked up and went round the corner. A huddle of Asian women were chatting outside Parekh’s . He walked past and looking in the window could see at least half a dozen customers. Was that unfair competition ? They were keeping their prices low till he was out of business, then they’d shove them up. People would be sorry when his shop closed. But that was human nature. When though, would he get a chance to plant the bomb ?
He went back to his shop and made himself a cup of tea. He was drinking it and idly scanning a piece in the Sun about how Muslims hate the British police, when he remembered the cellar. He put down his cup, turned the key in the creaking white door, flicked on the neon light that spluttered like a heart about to fibrillate and kicked in brightly, and went quickly down the stone steps. Because the cellars were prone to flooding, the Victorians had built little trap-door outlets that gave onto a trench about three feet deep which carried the water away. He pulled open the iron door that weighed more than guilt, crouched down and squeezed himself through. There was a trickle of nasty-smelling water in the trench. He ignored it and went on his hands and knees into the darkness. He wondered for a second if he should go back for a torch, but his excitement was too much. He shuffled along, panting, catching his head on the bricks above him, his trousers soaking. At length he heard voices above. Asians ! This was the spot. He needed to leave something to remind him. He could barely get his hands in his pockets, but they were empty anyway. There was nothing else for it. With his right foot he worked loose his left shoe. It was impossible for him to turn round, so he went in reverse. It was terribly difficult and at moments he wondered if he hadn’t strayed along a branching track. His heart beat madly. But eventually he backed into his own cellar to hear a voice calling:
“Shop ! Hello ! Are you open !”
He hobbled up the stairs and emerged into the light, one shoe on and one shoe off, like in the nursery rhyme, his trousers dripping, his hands and face black, and blood trickling down his left cheek from a scratch on his head.
“Good God !” said the customer, an old guy who came in now and again for a tin of beans “Have you been robbed ?”
“Robbed ? No, I’ve just been looking for something in the cellar.”
“You’re bleeding !”
“Aye, caught me head on the door frame. What can I get for you ?”
“You’d better take care of yourself, mate. You’ve only got one shoe.”
“Have I ?” said Leggit, looking down at his feet, “that’s funny.”
When he looked up the customer had gone. He went to the cubby-hole washroom and cleaned himself up. He found a pair old trainers he’d been meaning to throw away, blew off the cobwebs and put them on. Back in the shop with another cup of tea he waited for customers. After half an hour, a woman came in, talking to herself.
“Bastards, fucking bastards, bastards !” she was saying.
“Can I ‘elp ya, luv ?” he asked.
“I ‘ear you’ve been burgled.”
“No, no ! Nothing’s happened ‘ere. I just ‘ad a bit of a problem in’t cellar.”
“It’ll be those bastards !” she said. “I can’t get ‘em out of my house !”
She walked around the shop for ten minutes cursing and imploring unseen forces, before leaving having bought nothing.
Ten minutes later two young boys came in.
“What can we buy for ten p ?” one of them asked.
“Ten p each ?” said Leggit.
“No, ten p.”
“Not much. Can’t you ask your mum for a bit more ?”
“Can I have a packet of crisps ?”
“They’re thirty-eight p !”
“I’ll bring ya twenty-eight p tomorra.”
“No, go and get it now…..”
The kid grabbed the packet, slapped the coin down on the counter and the two of them sprinted out and down the street at Olympic pace. Leggit went impotently after them shouting:
“I’ll call the police !”
Back inside he reflected that inviting the police onto the premises wasn’t a good idea. But was he doing anything wrong ? It was against the law, sure. So what ? Weren’t they saying the Iraq war was illegal ? The point was, he had legitimate interests to defend, just like the Americans. Who could argue against that ? When it came down to it, everything was a matter of superior force. The strong rule the world and the strong always win. That was simple. But he realised that one bomb wouldn’t be enough. Planted outside their back door, it might blow it off its hinges and start a nice little fire that would quickly catch, but down there it would need a good explosion to blast the floor away and turn their shop into rubble. He’d need maybe six, eight or perhaps a dozen devices. He bought copper pipe from the plumbers’ merchant, stocked up with weedkiller and discreetly assembled ten sturdy, impressive explosives. He felt he was part of something much grander than a mere scheme to blow up a corner shop. Like those American troops in Iraq, powering through the streets in their Humvees, fearsome as charging rhinos, dressed in their combats and wearing shades like Hollywood stars, he was fighting for justice, democracy and freedom for our way of life ! It brought a feeling of humility: to be a player in something so important was truly humbling.
He went home for his tea.
Sitting at the table with Caroline and Laura, eating, for the second time that week, baked potato, cheese and beans it seemed heroic that he had to keep his secret from them. Of course, he was doing it for his family. He imagined customers streaming through his door, queuing to be served while he chivvied his staff to be more efficient. Little by little, his lines would become more varied and adventurous; the fame of his modest store would spread through the town and people from the well-heeled suburbs would arrive in the BMWs and Mercedes to buy his wines or the curious delicacies he would import from Turkey or Madagascar. He would buy the house next door and expand but soon he would be forced to open another shop and another and before long he’d commission a supermarket made to his own design, on a site with plenty of room for parking and open aspects, so once their shopping was done people could take a walk in a little corner of nature. He would specialize in fresh local produce and this, combined with his judicious imports, would win him an enviable reputation. In expensive restaurants, over lunches lasting till four, he would discuss with venture capitalists the investment needed for the expansion of his empire. Twenty stores across the region would see him living in a big house in the country. He’d buy a farm, have all the buildings demolished and erect one of those red-brick palaces with white pillars at the front door and a sweeping drive down to the electronically operated gates guarded by two fierce, well-fed Rottweillers. There’d be a horse and stables for Laura, of course, an indoor pool and a full-sized football pitch where Rooney and Ronaldo would have a kick around after a summer barbecue. In the double garage there’d be a Rolls, a Mercedes for Caroline and enough room to tuck in an Audi A2 as a runabout for Laura as soon as she turned seventeen. When his stores moved south, colonizing the old industrial areas of the Black Country; springing up in the relaxed suburbs where young entrepreneurs of the communication revolution moved to get their children into the best schools; eventually arriving in London where he would provide swish convenience outlets off Oxford St or The Strand frequented by busy, important people who would relish his range of sandwiches and snacks; then he’d float on the Stock Exchange and, retaining a majority holding, would see his fortune swell like a force-fed goose until an aggressive bid would be made and he’d sell for two, three, four, five, who could say how many billion, buy himself an island, invite Richard Branson for his holidays and basking in the sun, a bottle of Bollinger leaning cheekily against the side of the ice-bucket, Laura and her friends from the best private schools frolicking in the pool and Caroline ordering furnishings from around the globe on her mobile, would consider moving into airlines, or banking or perhaps would buy up steel mills or mines in China.
“Can I have some pop, dad ?” said Laura.
“You can have all the pop you like,” he replied.
At four in the morning he got up.
“Where you going now ?”
“I thought I heard something.”
“You’re hallucinating. Get back into bed you silly bugger.”
“I’ll just check.”
He pulled on an old track suit which he hadn’t worn since the time he’d trained for the London marathon and given himself a rupture, slipped out of the back door and ran to his shop. The copper pipes with fuses already fitted were piled behind the cellar door. He tucked them under his arm, checked he’d got matches and went down. Dragging through the trench with the weight of the bombs under one arm was a painful struggle, but the dream of his future and the righteousness of his cause drove him forward. The stone hurt his knees and he wished he’d thought to put on pads. Where was the shoe he’d left as a marker ? He seemed to have been squeezing along for hours. He could see nothing. He had to feel every inch of the way. Just when he was almost convinced the shoe must have been taken away by a rat, he felt it beneath his hand. He stopped and let his breathing calm. Not a sound. Was the old man up there, sitting behind the scruffy counter pulling at his white beard ? What did it matter ? So much the better if the building fell and crushed him. These people were criminals. They were terrorists. He had the evidence: they undercut him on almost every product. It was a disgrace the police hadn’t shut them down. But he was justified. All across the world Islamists were planting bombs. On the t.v. every day you saw some new atrocity. They were ruthless and vicious people and they were here. They were running corner shops and planning to take over the world .
He lay the explosives cross-wise over the little stream of damp. But how to light the fuses ? By the time he lit the last, the first might have burnt down and he would take the blast full in the face. He arranged the petrol-soaked strings so they converged at their end and squeezed them between his thumb and forefinger. He’d brought a box of long matches which he wrestled from his pocket. As he was about to drag the sulphured end along the sandpaper, he realized the momentousness of his action. He could still stop. He could go home to bed. He could get on with his little life as shopkeeper, father and husband and let the wizards rule the world. But why should he ? Why shouldn’t he do something historical ? Why should he be a nobody living out a life of no significance? He struck the match. It gave enough light for him at last to be able to use his eyes. He set the flame to the fuse ends. They took and at once he realised that he’d got to get our fast. He began shuffling madly backwards. He clonked his head and scraped his elbows and knees. He could see the fire rapidly eating away the inflammable rats-tail fuses. He worked frantically to get himself away. In which direction would the blast fire ? He’d no idea. Would it bring down the building above or would it shoot along the trench and set him alight ? He began to panic. Sweat broke out all over him and he couldn’t hold back little whimpering cries which surprised and alarmed him. He pushed harder and harder but his progress seemed to slow. Then the blasts went off, one after another. He heard each one distinctly though there was no more than a second or so between each. The force knocked him flat and the smoke choked him. The skin of his face and hands was burning. He began to sob. For a few moments he thought he was going to die, down there, alone, his wife a widow, his daughter fatherless. The fumes were tightening his chest. But he fought to keep going and inched his way back till the light from the trap-door gave him relief. He dragged himself up into the cellar. Someone was banging. The door. Was it the police ? He saw himself hauled off to the station, the headlines in the Evening News, the shameful trial, the long prison sentence. What had he done ? Distraught, he clambered the stairs. He was coughing and retching. He needed fresh air. He yanked open the shop door and stumbled into the street and there, his face alive with dismay, was the old guy from Parekh’s. There were two younger men with him, in their night clothes.
“What happened ?” one of them said.
“Gas,” said Leggit, not knowing where the words came from. “Gas explosion in the cellar.”
“We’d better call the police.”
“No !” protested Leggit “No, unsafe premises. They might close me down. Please. Keep it quiet. I’ll get it sorted.”
“You should go to the hospital. Look at your hands.”
Leggit looked down at his parched, blackened skin.
“It’s nothin’,” he muttered. “Thanks for your help. I’ll be okay. Honest. I’ll be fine.”
“Come round the corner to our shop. We’ll clean you up.”
Leggit locked his door and went unwillingly. They sat him in their little kitchen lit by an unshaded 60 watt and bathed his hands and face in cool water. They made him a cup of tea and asked if they should ring his family. Their kind attentiveness made him sob. He hung his head on his chest and cried uncontrollably. After an hour, they helped him into their battered old Honda and drove him home.
“Where the hell have you been !”
“At the shop.”
“What for ?”
“I was checking.”
“Why did you come home by car ?”
“There’s been a bit of a mishap.”
“What kind of mishap ?”
“Have you called the police ?”
“Well don’t you think you should ?”
“Not unless you want to visit me in Wormwood Scrubs.”
“I’ll tell ya tomorra.”
He climbed into bed and curled up, his back to her. His face and hands were still stinging. The tears welled. His bottom lip trembled. He fell asleep at six.
When he woke up, Caroline had gone. He rushed into his clothes and went downstairs but she wasn’t there. Looking in the mirror, he saw his reddened face, as if he’d been under a sun-lamp too long. He hurried to the shop. Caroline was serving a young woman.
“Have you been in the cellar ?” he asked.
“You should’ve left it to me.”
“The trap door’s still open. It smells terrible.”
He went down and poked his head through the trap door. The stench of smoke, fire and chemicals was awful. He closed it up and went back upstairs. The shop was empty.
“You go home, I’ll look after things,” he said.
“What the hell have you been doin’ ?”
“Nothin’. It was gas. I’ll get it looked at. Best keep it quiet. Don’t want any trouble.”
“Best seal that trap-door up if you ask me.”
She picked up her bag, gave him a look and left.
Leggit rang one of his mates, an electrician who could turn his hand to anything practical.
“You couldn’t give us a hand could you, Bill ? Bit of a problem at’t shop.”
The next day, Bill tore off the cast-iron trap-door and bricked up the aperture.
“Smells like the old weedkiller and sugar bombs down there !” he said.
“Yeah,” said Leggit, “I was messin’ around, remindin’ meself of the old days. Say nowt to Caroline. She thinks it was gas.”
A week later, Leggit went round to Parekh’s with a big box of Milk Tray and a card.
“Thanks for you ‘elp,” he said. “Best keep the matter quiet though. Know what I mean ?”
They smiled, shook his hand and graciously accepted his gift and on his way home Leggit reflected that they weren’t bad folk after all, even if they were criminals and terrorists.