S. KADISON

YET MORE STORIES


 

DEFEATING FINNEY

 

More than one premiership footballer lived within walking distance of John Little. He was proud to be amongst some of the richest people in the country. But when one of them was humiliated in the press for his antics with prostitutes, it wasn’t pleasant. Little wasn’t rich and hadn’t come by money easily. In his early days as a teacher, with a mortgage and one child, he used to play guitar in a rock band three nights a week around the pubs. The money paid a bill or two. His promotions had come relatively quickly and once he’d decided he was going to climb, there was no turning back: he had to do what had to be done. He was twenty when Thatcher was elected. Harold Wilson’s two victories in 1974 made him think the tide of policy was going to continue what the previous thirty years had established: a steady closing of the wealth gap, the acceptance of a large, strong public sector, and the permanent power of organised labour. Coming from modest circumstances in Cheetham Hill he voted Labour like he spoke with a Mancunian accent but he wasn’t deeply political. He didn’t think about the struggle for power every day. He was simply moderately well-disposed to the Labour party and the idea of greater equality, democracy and openness. What preoccupied him was God. His parents, also reflex Labour voters, were devout Anglicans. Steady in their adherence to democratic equality, the secular couldn’t rouse them to passion. It was the glory of salvation which animated them. John and his sister grew in this atmosphere of fervent belief. There was always, therefore, a sense that life hadn’t really begun. This was mere preparation. Only when the burdens of the flesh were cast off could the spirit soar and the burdens seemed to weigh heavily on his mother and father. His dad began his working life in the Co-op, educated himself at night school and became accounts manager for a regional building firm. His mother worked part-time in a florists. Neither had any enthusiasm for what they did. They bore the weight and routine of it like an ass loaded with a pack it knows nothing of. There was a grim tenacity about his father on work days. He moved as if an evil spirit he didn’t dare disturb squatted on his shoulders. His tweed jacket became for John a symbol of some mysterious compulsion. What was this curious thing work which made people go about like zombies ? His father’s face was pale. His mother exhibited a nervous busyness and became ill-tempered. Yet it was instilled into him that he must work hard at school to secure a good job. What was a good job ? It was obviously to do with money. His father earned enough to move them to a modest semi in Didsbury. School and his family conveyed the same message, sometimes explicitly, sometimes tacitly: education was the means to a better job and a better job was what everyone wanted.

So John worked very hard and did moderately well. He was privately tutored for the 11-plus and spent hours working through books where shapes had to be imagined turning through ninety degrees, or sequences of numbers completed and definitions chosen for words. It struck him as a bit strange and unconnected. He liked to read, especially about the universe. Reading was exciting if it was something you wanted to now about. But why was it important to be able to choose the best definition out of three for competent ? He found it boring but he accepted it because his parents and teachers said it must be done and was the way to good results and a better job. He passed and went to the Grammar school where he turned out to be was quick and accurate at maths and good enough to hold his own in English, though having to write essays on Richard III left him staring out of the window at the little garden wondering if there were any birds’ nest in the hedges. Latin and French though made him want to cry. He was put in the C stream because he couldn’t master them.

“Remember,” said his father, “you’re in the top twenty per cent by being in the Grammar. Even in the C stream you’ll get eight O Levels and be able to do A Levels. But if you try really hard you might get moved to B.”

His elder sister, who produced Latin at the tea table to get on his nerves, was recruited to help him.

“Pecunia viro atque puellae dabitur quod puer aeger est !” she would say irritably as she back-combed her hair. “It’s the dative you nit-wit ! To the girl. Get it ? The money will be given to the girl ?”

 He didn’t get it. He didn’t get French either. Why was it le crayon but la règle?  It didn’t make any sense. The teacher said to forget male and female, it was just a way of distinguishing words within the language but it didn’t make it any clearer. He could never remember which was le or la but worse, he didn’t know why they were needed. When he had to learn verb forms his brain swam with confusion. It was always a great relief to have an equation in front of him or to be looking through his logs to work out an angle.

He failed Latin and French at O Level, but passed seven others. Because he was only average in the sciences, he decided to take Maths, Further Maths and Economics for A Level. He liked Economics because he could do the maths easily and it started to make clear to him why it was important to get on. It was a set of rules. He came to it as he came to religion, willingly and unquestioningly. He responded warmly to the graphs and he loved the push-pull aspect of it: if you do x to interest rates y will happen to inflation. It was like a machine ! The idea appealed to him. The economy was just a big machine which needed to be kept running: the right amount of oil here, the input of fuel there, a tweak of this screw, a tightening of that bolt and it chugged along like a steam engine. He began to understand why his mother and father approached work as they did: what were they but parts in the machine ? Everyone had to perform their function. It was greatly reassuring. He began to think of his own role. He would have to find a place in the engine. He wanted to be amongst the few who made the decisions. That was how it had to be. A piston didn’t question why it moved up and down in a cylinder and people shouldn’t question what they had to do at work. Behind it all was God. The universe ran according to laws God had created so the same must be true of the economy. His text-book didn’t mention God but it did talk of the invisible hand. Wasn’t it more or less the same ? It couldn’t simply be that all these people working like ants gave rise to an over-arching scheme. The scheme must come from outside, it must be imposed. God made the economy work just as he made the planets move. But in the economy there had to be people in charge. That was obvious. There had to be people who imposed what was necessary. That was what was meant by a good job.

He didn’t make a single decision to become a teacher: the idea formed in his head slowly. By the time he did his O Levels teachers had received a big pay award. His dad said they were doing very nicely. He could teach in Church of England schools. It tallied with his inclination to Labour. So when he’d finished his degree in Economics he stayed on to do the PGCE and it was during that year he met Ruth. His girl-friends had been just that: there’d been no passion, none of the delirium that was supposed to accompany being in love. They’d gone to the cinema, held hands, kissed like statues and after a few weeks or at best a few months it’d become too much of an effort. But Ruth ignited something in him. She was sullen and uncommunicative. He had to flit around her attending to her needs. She had no interests or enthusiasms and worked doggedly at her Biology and educational theory as if she had no choice. It appealed to him greatly. That same mulish application to work, which became an attitude to life for  his parents, was replicated in Ruth. It was as if her inner life were stilled. She might be under a spell. Some malevolent force had enchanted her and dictated she should go through life like a spectre. He jigged about excitedly over one thing or another: the new rock band he was playing in, the good marks he was getting for his essays, while she remained rock-like; a pale presence, somehow not there yet inordinately demanding. They went to church together. They went for walks by the river when the weather was good. They kissed with the passion of refrigerators.

They were virgins when they married which though it may have pleased god rendered the wedding night somewhat hasty and inadequate.

It was decided early but without any explicit discussion that John’s career would take precedence. The first child was born after two years and Ruth took the full maternity leave. There was the necessary scrimping and scraping and John felt quite grown up having to worry about the bills and the mortgage and getting enough together for a holiday; but his parents bought the cot and the pram and drawerfuls of baby clothes and every now and again a cheque for a hundred pounds would arrive. He was in his first job. He made it clear to the Head he was looking  for promotion:

“I want to take on responsibility,” he said.

“Of course,” replied the Head sitting upright and dapper behind his desk. “We’ll do what we can. Of course, Economics is a small department….”

John began to panic.

“I think I should retrain,” he said to Ruth.

“What as ?”

“A Maths teacher. Every school teaches Maths. All pupils have to do it. My opportunities are limited in Economics.”

So he took a two-year, part-time course and once he’d got the certificate applied immediately for a Head of Maths post. He was interviewed but didn’t make it. The fact he’d been teaching Economics went against him. His panic began to mount: what if he couldn’t make the switch ? What if he had to remain an Economics teacher and the openings were few ? What if he couldn’t get on and climb to Deputy Head or Head ? He had a horrible vision of himself at fifty-five, grey, tired, thirty-odd years in the classroom behind him and still having to face classes every day; but much worse than the humiliation of not having power was the thought of a modest salary. If he was to be the main breadwinner (the word made him think of his parents, of the atmosphere of his early years, of the sense of oppression which seemed to seep from the very wallpaper ) how would they be living if he had no more than a classroom teacher’s salary ? He saw the unprepossessing semi in a reasonable suburb, the small garden in front with a neat little lawn and flower beds where lily-of-the-valley would nod in January; the sectional garage at the end of the little drive and the back garden surrounded by privets where they would sit out in summer drinking home-made lemonade at a little picnic table bought second hand from an ad in the local paper; he imagined the comfortable but small living-room, the dining-room used only for special occasions because the oak table and six chairs were far too dear for everyday wear; the little kitchen with a functional table where they usually ate, the bedrooms, one a fair size, the second cramped and the third no more than an expanded cupboard and the bathroom rendered as pleasant as possible and lined with big tiles to make it seem roomier. They would be middle-class, or at least lower middle-class. There might be a solicitor next door or across the road. But perhaps a bricklayer too. Maybe a lorry driver who worked all hours. Perhaps a taxi driver. A mechanic. What would the schools be like ? Might immigrants start moving in ? John rejected racism utterly, but he worried. An area could get a bad name. House prices could fall. You had to look after yourself.

This prospect of himself thirty years on depressed him badly and gave him a restlessness and impatience which disturbed him. One evening he visited the Deputy Head’s home. They weren’t friendly but his son was starting to play guitar and John was invited round to give him some tips. It was a detached place on a quiet avenue close to St Mary’s, the old Anglican church perched on a hill overlooking the river two miles outside town. Twenty yards back from the road, it was tall and assured. In the front garden was a maple, an oak, a sycamore. The windows were leaded lights. Inside, a huge hallway with a polished parquet floor let him pause to look up the broad staircase. The living-room ceiling was eleven feet high with a beautiful old rose from which hung a chandelier of six lights. They wandered through to the kitchen. It was as big as his living-room and dining-room combined. The cupboards were hand-made. The appliances expensive. Through the window he saw the garden stretching thirty yards to a row of tall poplars. As he drove home he felt sick. Was that going to be denied him ? Had he made a terrible mistake by choosing Economics ? The disturbing thought came to him that he was being punished. Was it God’s will he should be a failure ? In the great machine of the economy should he be a small part ? Would he spend his life wishing for a bigger house, a newer care, more affluent neighbours ?

He gritted his teeth and applied for every Head of Maths post he could find.

“But I don’t want to move to Bletchley,” said Ruth.

“We have no choice,” he said. “The economy doesn’t give us that much flexibility. If I’m going to get a Headship, I have to make my ay quickly. We’ll just have to accept that if a promotion comes up which I can get, I’ll have to take it. The prize will be a big house in the best area. You want that, don’t you ?”

 

She wanted it but she wanted also to be able to choose where to live. When he was appointed in a school in Rotherham she was almost in despair.

“What kind of place is Huddersfield ?”

“It’s just an ordinary, working-class Yorkshire town like any other. We won’t be there long,” he reassured her. “I’ll be going for Deputy Headships after two years.”

So they moved to a bigger house and they had more to spend on furniture and holidays and a better car but Ruth complained.

“I don’t know anyone and I don’t like the town.”

“Well, don’t go into town. I don’t.”

They’d chosen a village where he wouldn’t encounter pupils . He was very anxious about running into them outside school where his authority no longer applied. He’d known colleagues who’d had eggs thrown at their windows, their cars scratched, found kids climbing on their garage roof or ripping up the flowers in their garden. He wanted a strict division. He never went near the areas the school drew its intake from.  His dread of meeting pupils on the street turned him pale and cold. Many of them were polite enough of course and understood social context sufficiently not to be troublesome; but there were the few who felt a teacher in public was fair game. He’d heard the tales of the insults shouted across the street in a crowded town centre on a Saturday afternoon, of the boys who followed a teacher and his wife around for hours, evening loitering outside the pub where they sought asylum. Within the bounds of the school he had a range of powers: he could suspend, call in parents, even begin the process of exclusion; but on the street he was vulnerable and the pupils all potential enemies.

The effect of his promotion surprised him. He was filled with a sense of election. He was Head of Maths. Along with English it was the biggest department. He was, therefore, together with the Head of English, the most senior departmental Head. After the Head, the two deputies and the Heads of year, he was the most senior member of staff. That made him the ninth most senior person in the school. He found himself pulling away from his inferiors a little. Towards the eight more senior colleagues, however, and especially the Head, he was as complaisant as possible. He nestled. He liked to find himself with two or three of them especially when they fell to talking about the shortcomings of the rest of the staff. He had a problem with one of the women in his department who began an affair with a younger teacher.

“Between you and me, John,” the Head said, “she’s as mad as a box of frogs.”

The remark delighted him. It seemed to open up at once a chasm between him and the junior staff. He was taken into the Head’s confidence. How many other teachers did the Head disdain ? He liked being part of a judging elite. Yet the old anxiety crept up on him. What if this was as far as he got ? What if he were never to have the power of the Head ? What if he could never close his office door, sit at his desk and think about which staff he favoured and which he would like to be rid of ? What if he should be an underling till retirement ? But he wasn’t really an underling. He was part of the hierarchy. Yes, but it was petty. How many secondary schools were there ? How many Heads of Department per school. Tens of thousands. To be one among tens of thousands, what good was that ? Again the idea of money made his guts churn. The gulf between his salary and the Head’s was big. Why shouldn’t he have that money ? He was being tested and he had to prove himself.

If there was a course in school management, he enrolled. He ingratiated himself with advisers. In front of the Head he was a performing poodle. He filled in application forms every week. He was turned down and turned down. It made him want to cry. Internally he was weeping. He would have liked to tear out his own heart. They were killing him. It was murder. Those polite letters of rejection were daggers which slid between his ribs. His warm blood ran from him. His scarlet shirt stuck to his flesh. He did his job. He made love to Ruth. He looked after his children. But he was being savaged. Society was a rabid pit-bull and its teeth tore at the flesh of his exposed chest. Every time he posted an application he was holding out his beating heart in his cupped hands and every time he opened a rejecting letter it was seized by a neglectful hand and thrown in the nearest bin. He wanted to cry out loud. It was unjust. It was cruel. He had a dream in which he dug and climbed into his own grave. When he looked at Ruth he saw a stranger. His children were a burden. They sucked money from him. They ate into his time. He would have liked to be rid of them. He wanted to live alone. To close the door on the world. To blacken the windows. He wanted no more contact with vicious humanity.

Then he was called for interview.

It was an ex-secondary which served a poor catchment. The exam results were awful.

“Do you want to be associated with failure ?” said Ruth.

“It’s my chance. If can prove myself I could be a Head within five years.”

There was an emergency during his interview: boys were smashing windows in the sports hall. The Head was called away. Everyone looked at the floor. He was appointed.

They moved again, this time to a sweet little town forty miles from the school. It was well worth driving eighty miles a day to be sure he wouldn’t meet a pupil or parent in the newsagent. These were people at the bottom end. He was wary of them. They were ignorant, feckless, violent. The drug sub-culture was rife. It was his Christian and professional duty to try to educate them, but personally he wanted nothing to do with them. He wanted his children to be kept away from them. The idea they might become part of his private life made his muscles shrink. They were awful. He despised them. But professional help was a clinical matter. A teacher no more needed to like the children he taught than a doctor the patient whose appendix he removed. Behind his professionalism he was safe. He intervened therapeutically. That’s what he was paid for, to try to cure the problems of these people through education. But in truth he knew it was hopeless. What he could do was advance his career. John Major had just been elected. John had hoped Kinnock would win. But he adjusted. Ofsted was established. He saw the way ahead clearly: everything would be measured; those found wanting would be sacrificed; henceforth, what mattered was how things appeared; the public had to be convinced schools were getting better and better; it was all smoke and mirrors but if he wanted a Headship he had to play the game. He realised the dream of every child attending the nearest school because all schools were good was dead. Had it ever been realistic ? It was too big a question and he feared it. Why should he trouble himself with tormenting ideas ? His role was to serve. Other people disposed. He’d made it to Deputy Head but in a poor school. He wasn’t going to stay long. This was his moment. One last leap and he would be among an elite. How many secondary Heads were there ? A few thousand. That was something. To be one of only a few thousand in a population of sixty million. That was election. It was God’s will. He must make it happen.

The staff’s constant complaint was that the pupils’ behaviour was awful. He knew it was true, but it was no longer politic to say so. Pupils were customers. If they behaved badly, it was because the lessons weren’t interesting. But he still had to do some teaching himself and he had one truly impossible class. Because maths was such a vital subject, because all pupils needed it to be able to go on to college or into decent jobs, by and large they worked hard. It wasn’t like languages. They were mocked like an Arab in a synagogue. By Year 9, most pupils had decided not to carry on with French or German. They were hard. To get a good grade you really had to work. Why do that when Media Studies or IT were much easier ? Released from the pressure to succeed, pupils ran wild in French and German lessons. The management turned a blind eye, until the inspectors arrived. Then the linguists had to perform. John knew how hellish it could be for the French and German teachers, but when they came to him in desperation, he put up the defences: it was just the way the pupils presented; a good teacher had to deal with it; the school couldn’t sanction sloppy classroom management. Yet his own little Year 9 Maths class was out of control. There were seven of them. They were very weak. Some of them still couldn’t grasp a simple concept like a third. But their intellectual limitations weren’t the problem: at the centre of the disruption was Henry Driver. A tall, gangly lad whose big, raw hands stuck out of the sleeves of his too small jacket like weeds sprouting between bricks, he could never find room for his long heavy legs and constantly had to sweep his thick, curly, black hair which hung onto his shoulders from his eyes. He never brought books. He never had a pen. He couldn’t stay still for more than twenty seconds. He must be the centre of attention. His needs were importunate. He lashed out at the slightest provocation. He cursed liberally. Born to a seventeen year-old mother who had two younger children from different fathers, he lived with them in his grandmother’s house where she presided. A brittle, high-handed little woman she accepted criticism from no-one. Her husband who had dropped dead of a heart attack in the pub, was a great admirer of Franco. They went on package holidays to Mallorca or the Costa del Sol. He thought Spain a great country thanks to Franco. What Britain needed was the same kind of strong leadership. He despised communists and socialists and liberals of all kinds. He hated niggers. It was a good thing they put a bullet through that Martin Luther King because he’d gone to Memphis to support a strike. He was a communist. Mrs Dyer was very proud of her husband. She thought him a real man. She shared his opinions. She imposed them on her children. If they misbehaved, which meant doing something to annoy her, she gave them a slap. That was what children needed to teach them the difference between right and wrong. When her daughter became pregnant by a seventeen-year-old without a job or qualifications who made money selling dope on the estate and had a swastika tattooed on his forehead, she kicked her out. They baby was born. The boy turned violent and the daughter came home.

“If you live under my roof, I’m in charge !” declared Mrs Dyer.

She resented the presence of the baby. She was forty. Her first child was born when she was nineteen. He was in prison for drug dealing and grevious bodily harm. Her second son, born a year later, went wild at the age of fourteen and was diagnosed bi-polar. He turned to drink, sank into alcoholism, now worked as a gardener for the council and lived alone in a flat above a betting shop. Kirsty was her third. She was a timid baby and Mrs Dyer tried to put some fire in her. She shouted at her and slapped her in the hope it would make her more assertive, but the child became withdrawn and weepy. Mrs Dyer concluded she was hopeless and paid her as little attention as possible. Now she had this baby. He woke up at four in the morning:

“Shut that fucking baby up !” she cried. “I’ve to be at work at half past eight.”

But Kirsty couldn’t cope and she had to drag herself out of bed.

“Here ! Give the little bastard to me ! Are you gonna shut up you little bugger ! Shut up ! Stop that fucking noise !”

And she held the baby tight in her hands, up in the air and growled into his face as he screamed and the mother stood aside in her faded nightdress, yawning and scratching.

As the boy grew, so did his grandmother’s bitterness. She wanted some time to herself. She wanted to bring men home. She still had something to offer. She could open her legs as well as the next woman. She might find a nice man. Someone with a bit of money. Someone who could buy her a big white, leather sofa and a huge plasma television, take her on three cruises a year, keep her well stocked with gin. Her life wasn’t over. But with the kid in the house it was a nightmare. If she brought a man home there were toys all over the floor. He’d be bumping away at her when the baby would start screaming. Kirsty would knock on the bedroom door.

“Can’t I even have a shag in peace !” Mrs Dyer would hurl.

The child cried all the time. She shut him the garden. He hammered at the back door:

“Let me in ! Let me in, grandma !”

“Stay out there till you learn to shut up !”

 

Form the first, Henry was in trouble at school.

John Little attempted to cajole him. He had a long talk with him in his study. The boy sat opposite him and fidgeted. He looked out of the window. His pushed his great, ponderous lock of hair from his eyes.

“I mean, don’t you want to be here, Henry ?”

“No,” said the boy with an idiotic smile.

“Where do you want to be ?”

“Smoking dope in my bedroom.”

In the classroom, his size gave him a presence which intimidated, and his behaviour was so utterly remote from all social sense, the other pupils were amazed.  He climbed on the desks. He took off his shirt and ripped it up. He scrawled:

Mr Little is a cunt

in huge letters in indelible pen across the whiteboard. He took his cock out in the lesson and said to the boy next to him:

“D’you wanna suck it ?”

He was suspended for three days, five days, ten days. When he came back he was worse. Mrs Dyer was called into school:

“Why can’t the teachers control him ?” she said.

“Mrs Dyer,” said John patiently, we are getting close to permanent exclusion.

“Just try it. I’ve got all the evidence I need against this school. I’ve already been to a solicitor.”

“What for ?”

“Assault.”

“Assault ?”

“Mr Wilmer hit him. I’ve got witnesses.”

“That’s already been investigated. There was no case against Mr Wilmer.”

“You try and exclude my grandson and you’ll find different. Make the teachers do their job properly. It’s what they’re paid for.”

John couldn’t ever get the lesson started. The pupils learned nothing. There were two other boys who imitated everything Henry did. The rest treated it as spectator sport. If he got through the hour without a serious incident John thought he’d succeeded. For the Ofsted inspection he ensured Henry and the other two were not in the room.

And after two years he applied for every Headship available.

He was well thought of by the County. He knew how to toe the line and deliver. He understood that was the important matter: delivery. Above him was the Head, above whom were the Advisers, above whom was the Director of Education, above whom was the Chief Executive, above whom were the junior ministers, above whom were the cabinet ministers, above whom was the Prime Minister who was supposed to do the people’s will. Whose will was being done ? God’s. John had no doubt about that. But in the Great Chain of Being stretching from the lowliest teaching assistant to the PM, who was making the decisions ? Often, the feeling came over him that no-one was deciding but everyone was behaving as if someone was. He dismissed this disturbing idea. He had to focus on getting on. There were no second chances and the losers got it in the neck. The adviser for his school tipped him off about a rich promotion. An ex-grammar in a well-heeled catchment thirty miles away was about to advertise for a Head. He applied, was interviewed, they didn’t appoint. The adviser told him to apply again. He did. He was interviewed and appointed.

It wasn’t a big school so his salary was £65,000 which disappointed him. He began to worry: he was forty-four, he might be in this school till retirement, he’d be one of the lowest paid Heads in the County. He had the compensation that Blackwell Grammar produced consistently excellent results. All the same, he didn’t like it when he went to area Heads meetings and talked to colleagues he knew were earning £15,000 or £20,000 a year more. Were they looking down at him ? He drove a new Toyota but some of them turned up in Merecedes, BMWs, Jaguars. It nagged away at him that though he’d made it to Head, he still had a sense of inferiority and dissatisfaction. His governing body though had the discretion to award more pay for recruitment and retention or special contribution. He put together a case, discussed it with the Chair. A sub-committee was set up which made the decision. The full body was asked to rubber stamp. His salary was increased to £75,000.

John began to think, as soon as he was appointed, that this could be a nice stepping  stone to something better. Maybe senior adviser. Maybe Head of a very big school, or a high-profile Academy. Perhaps he’d been in line for an MBE. Perhaps even a Knighthood. Sir John Little. He liked the sound of it. He liked the idea of being addressed as Sir John. But first he had to ensure Blackwell was classed outstanding in the next inspection. The problem was the staff. He’d always viewed his colleagues with suspicion. They were rivals for limited promotions. He’d kept an eye on them, tried to ingratiate himself with power, constantly compared himself to teachers he thought of as lazier, less dutiful, more likely to question. Now he was in charge, his staff seemed to him nothing but a burden and a problem. They arrived too late, left too early, spent too much time talking or reading the paper in the staff-room, expected to have a lunch-hour, didn’t like staying for meetings, and worst of all, taught boring lessons. The culture dictated: if pupils did badly or misbehaved, it was the teachers’ fault. Pupils could no longer be required to behave. To insist they work hard was passé. They were consumers. They must be pleased. School must become as attractive to them as McDonalds or an amusement arcade. He stood in front of his staff and said:

“We are here to entertain them.”

He established a Teaching and Learning Group which met after school every Wednesday. Attendance was voluntary but anyone who refused to attend wouldn’t pass through the Threshold or get promotion. He stood at the gate in the morning. Any member of staff not on the premises by 8.35 was sent a warning letter. The weather turned icy. It snowed. Mrs Hoque was two minutes late. She came to his office with the letter in her hands:

“I had to clear the snow from my drive. Then the traffic was at a standstill. I set off half an hour earlier than usual.”

“Set off an hour earlier tomorrow.”

“This is unfair. I’ve never been late in seven years ! A warning letter !”

“I can’t accept people turning up late. A rule is a rule.”

He had cameras fitted at all points of entrance or exit. His excuse was security but he briefed his secretary whose computer received the images:

“If any member of staff leaves the premises during the school day tell me immediately.”

Helen Hicks was spotted getting into her car at 3.16. He called her in.

“Did you leave the premises early yesterday, Helen ?”

“I don’t think so.”

“You did. School ends a 3.20.”

“That’s when I left.”

“No. 3.16.”

“Oh yes, I may have been a minute or two early, but I was putting books in my car…”

“We don’t leave a minute or two early, Helen. No-one leaves before 3.20.”

When word came that the GTC was tightening up on teachers’ conduct outside school, he spoke to his staff.

 

“If you were on holiday, on the beach, and some of our pupils were there, I would expect you to leave.”

There was a moment’s silence, as if a universe was about to be born.

“Why ?”

“It wouldn’t be appropriate. Female members of staff perhaps in bikinis, or even men in trunks. It’s not the right setting.”

“But,” said an older member of staff, “we have a right to be on holiday. If pupils happen to be in the same place, that’s too bad.”

“Well, we have a responsibility to behave properly. I wouldn’t expect you to stay in a restaurant for example, if you were there, eating and drinking and some of our pupils came in with their parents.”

“You’d expect us to leave ?”

“Yes.”

“Even if we hadn’t finished our meal ?”

“Yes.”

“Look,” said a younger teacher, “I go around the clubs. I often run into our sixth-formers. What do you expect me to do if I happen to be in the same place at three in the morning ?”

“Go home.”

John didn’t like the older staff. They knew the previous culture. They disliked the way things were going. They raised their voices. As far as he could he appointed and promoted young teachers. One of the neighbouring Heads said to him:

“They’re cheap, compliant and this is all they know.”

John thought it sound advice. By the time Ofsted were due he felt everything was in place.

“It’s all in the self-evaluation,” he said to the little SLT he’d established to protect him . “Even if the staff let us down, we’ll come through.”

His anxiety was that he’d get a good or good and improving. But that was what his predecessor had managed. To be no better than that would be a humiliation, and if he wanted to move up…… It was crucial lessons should be at least good. He ran through his staff list. Who could he rely on ? Who would let him down ?  A worrying number of people had been classed satisfactory during his observations. He set aside the list when he came to Kevin Finney. Fifty-seven, a lefty of the unreconstructed sort, John despised him. If there was anyone who’d take the inspection nonchalantly it was him. Not that he was a bad teacher. John had observed him and the lesson was fine. Delivered by a favoured teacher, he’d have given it good. But he needed to diminish Finney. He rated it satisfactory but divided the category into a, b, and c giving Finney the lowest rank. Word came back: there was no need to use Ofsted gradings for in-school observations. That was government advice. Finney rejected the grading. John paced his office. He was Head. Staff should know their place. If only he could find a way of getting rid of Finney. He almost wished the inspectors would find against him.

The school was deemed outstanding. The only negative was one lesson considered unsatisfactory. Unfortunately, it wasn’t Finney’s.

Helena Main had been in the school only two years. She’d resigned from her previous school because of bad behaviour and worked as supply. John took her on when a Maths teacher suffered a stroke, first part-time and temporary, but in her second year permanent and full-time. The lesson scaled unsatisfactory was with a small Year 9 class. Two of the girls had police records. One had been found unconscious and marinated in booze behind a supermarket after her parents reported her missing. The other assaulted a pensioner for her purse. One of the boys had been suspended for setting fire to a science teacher’s hair. Then there was Kirsty Slinger. She refused to wear uniform, arrived in tiny skirts and tottering heels, unbuttoned her blouse as low as she dared, wore thick make-up, false nails, chewed gum and responded to all attempts to make her work with the same:

“Too fuckin’ borin’ !”

She was known to have offered boys blow-jobs for money. She caused uproar in a History class by blurting:

“Eh, I’m skint, sir. Fancy a fuck ?”

One of five sisters, all with names beginning H, her mother left home when she was seven. Her father drove lorries, was often away, and depended on his ageing mother, who cooked bacon and eggs or chips and fish fingers, then settled down in front of the television. A wiry, energetic little man, he’d shaved his head and had it tattooed with the names of the Manchester United first team. His chest was a shrine to Elvis Presley and his back to Sylvester Stallone. He came into school in a T-shirt which read:

Made to be laid.

“I don’t know what I can say, like. I can do nowt wi ‘er. She’s a good lass, in her way. But she’s wild. ‘Er mother’s same.”

John felt sorry for him. The girl exhausted three final warnings. When the inspection was due, Helena Main came to see him.

“Can we get Kirsty Slinger out of my lesson during the inspection ?”

“We have to educate everyone, Helena.”

“Yes, but just for one lesson. She’s beyond control.”

“No child is beyond control. It’s just the way they present.”

“I know lots of them just play up, but she’s disturbed.”

“Even disturbed children deserve an education.”

“Of course, but I can’t control her. If I’m seen for that lesson, it will be unsatisfactory.”

“Not if you make it interesting, Helena.”

She looked at him over her heavy glasses for a second, then fell silent.

“If I say yes to you, I’d have to say yes to everyone. You know what I mean ?”

She nodded.

One unsatisfactory lesson. Perhaps he could let it pass. But the annoyance of it wouldn’t leave him alone. He had to take action. He made drop-in visits to several of Helena’s lessons and decided two of them were unsatisfactory. She was told she was being placed on informal support; there was the inevitable grisly meeting with John, her union representative and the HR woman from County. She was given the usual  programme for improvement. Six weeks later came the predictable review and she was ineluctably moved to formal support.

John told himself that if she improved, he would back off; but he hoped she wouldn’t and knew it was unlikely. It would send the right message to the staff if he got rid of her. There were to be no unsatisfactory lessons in his school. They would watch their backs a little more. He liked the idea of his staff being ill-at-ease, even anxious. Wasn’t that, after all, how he’d got on ? Hadn’t he always worried about what his bosses were thinking of him and hadn’t that been the spur ? Or perhaps the spur was money and he’d been careful of his bosses as a way to get it ? He read in the paper that only 4% of the population earned as much as him or more. The thought of  tens of millions of people who were worse off than him was very comforting. He deserved his success. He had special talents. He’d worked hard. He’d made a contribution to society. But when he read of the incomes of the top 1% he was filled with a sense of injustice. His £75,000 seemed paltry, feeble and insulting . How could anyone be worth that much ? £2,000,000 a year ! £3,000,000 ! He did the arithmetic quickly. £250,000 a month gross. How much net ? Who could spend that kind of money ? It was outrageous. And he’d worked as a classroom teacher for no more than £30,000 a year. The thought of his widowed mother surviving on £15,000 came to him. It was wrong ! There was no need for such gross disparities. What rational economic or social purpose could they serve ? But against this tide of indignation came the eddy of ideology: surely the market must decide. It was subjective preference. If folk wanted to reward the best people this way, who could argue against it ? And if that argument was permitted, who knows, it might be decided he was earning too much. It was horrible to be denied access to the highest wealth, it belittled him. Were those bankers any better than him ? He understood economics just as well, he could work just as hard, he could be ruthless. Why had he chosen teaching? He realised his background had been against him. The modesty of his circumstance had made him think a Headteacher’s salary generous. What a fool ! He should have aimed higher. Imagine being one of those untouchables. You could simply pull away from the mass. There would be no need to rub shoulders with them. Everything about your life could become exclusive. You could move in a circle of wealth, fame and power. It was heartbreaking to realize he would never make it. Yes, he lived on a gated estate. Yes, he was well away from the chavs, the plebs, the low-lifes. But the super-rich were well away from him. No doubt they looked down on him. £75,000 ! They would scoff. And he had to work hard, day in day out, for that. He was on the verge of tears. Yet it had to be tolerated. Once intervene armed with ideas of fairness and justice, once cross that Rubicon and where was the line to be drawn ? If we decided to cap the incomes of the rich, why not of the not so rich ? If we judged they received too much, why not that others received too little ? And what agency could do anything about it but the State ? And what mechanisms did the State possess but taxes, benefits and enforced limits ? No ! It was better to accept the free- for- all of the market and a huge gap between rich and poor, even if it meant his own mother was pinched. Yet his economist’s brain told him the market was rigged. Every event in the economy flowed from decisions made in boardrooms, by managers, by investors. He was no economic innocent. He knew the theory of markets was as full of holes as a tramp’s underwear. He knew decision was behind all activity. The question was: should decision be left to the few, the rich, the powerful ? What was the alternative ? Economic democracy ? The idea made his mind melt. Imagine it ! Imagine a school being run democratically.  No. Democracy must be driven to the periphery and at the centre must lie the decisions of the worthy. And democracy itself must do no more than provide people the illusion of power. Let the masses vote by all means, but let their votes elect an elite. Yes. It was terrible. He hated it. But it was the way it must be if he wasn’t going to lose his advantage. So he was right. His staff must be made to feel uncomfortable. That was the nature of work. It wasn’t supposed to be enjoyable. It was a struggle for place. Everyone had to understand they were being tested and those found wanting would be sacrificed. As God cast his judgement on sinners so the economy judged those who didn’t perform. His mind began to recover its poise. He was in the top four per cent after all. The majority were his inferiors. It was something never to forget.

Helena Main’s union representative argued it was one bad class that was ruining her. John countered that there are no bad classes. The union man produced evidence of the detentions and suspensions the pupils had been given. John said the children can’t be blamed. The union man had chapter and verse on Kirsty Slinger. John said a competent teacher must be able to manage any child.

She was given a compromise deal: £8,000 and a good reference. There would be no more unsatisfactory lessons.

It was shortly after this Finney came to see John. He was tall and hefty, and had never tried to expunge his lower-class origins from his demeanour or accent. He had big, strong hands like a plumber or bricklayer. He looked odd in a suit, as if it constrained his power, as if he wanted to cast it off , throw away his tie and roll up his sleeves. He spoke with the heavy accent of his small, down-at-heel town. John recoiled from him. He still had an indelible trace of Manchester in his own speech but  tried to sound neutral. Above all, he tried to look as though power came naturally. Finney would have been at home eating a hot meat pie on a football terrace or among the noisy throng of tipsy travellers on the last bus home at midnight on Friday. Yet he was intelligent and well-read. John saw him as one of those men who have thrown away their chances. He spoke bluntly his opposition to policy. He refused to comply with the school’s systems if he thought them stupid. He asked awkward questions in meetings. He left school at three twenty every day eating an apple and caught the bus with the pupils.

He had a letter in his hand.

“I’ve come by a copy of this,” he said, “ about the County wanting to avoid redundancies and the possibility of bumping.”

“That letter was for Headteachers,” said John, slightly shocked.

“Aye, but I’ve got a copy. I’m interested. If it could be bumped. I’d go. Are you willing to look into it ?”

John found the request insolent. He’d deliberately kept the letter from his staff. How had Finney got a copy ? He wanted to say no. He wanted to deny him. He would have liked to have said: “That letter is nothing to do with you. It’s not for your eyes. It’s for those of us who make decisions. Give it to me !”

“Yes,” he said, “I’ll look into it.”

“Good,” said Finney. “I’ll come back in a week or two.”

“Yes,” said John.

He had no intention. There were serious job losses pending in a school at the other end of the County. Heads had been asked to do what they could to avoid people being forced out. But John wasn’t going to accept someone onto his staff just because they were surplus elsewhere. He wanted to select carefully. And why should he help ? If some teacher was made redundant in a school thirty miles away, what was it to do with him ? As for Finney, he wouldn’t yawn to help him. He wanted him out, but not at the cost of appointing someone he might have doubts about. No. He wouldn’t do a thing. But he had to be careful because the County was working hard to avoid compulsory losses.

Two days later another teacher in his late fifties appeared in his office with the letter in his hand.

“Kevin Finney gave me this,” he said.

“That letter was for Headteachers.”

 

“Well, Kevin Finney gave it to me. I was wondering…my health isn’t good. I’ve got my back problem and high blood pressure and this might be a way out…”

“But you’re only fifty-three,” said John. 

He was furious with Finney. What was the point of being a Head if your authority could be challenged by someone like him ? Of course, he knew he ought to have told his staff about the letter. He was paid by the Authority after all. He insisted his staff do everything by the book but that wasn’t reasonable for himself. He’d spoken to a couple of local Heads who’d said they’d keep the letter quiet. It was perfectly easy except for a troublemaker like Finney. He’d’ve got the letter from the union. Driving home John reflected on his impotence . He couldn’t discipline Finney. What could he do ? He’d promised Finney and was worried he might kick up a fuss if he just did nothing. But he’d call his bluff. He could always claim he’d investigated. How would Finney know ?

Two weeks to the day, Finney came back.

“Did you get anywhere with the bump redundancy ?” he asked.

“No.”

“You did look into it ?”

“Yes.”

“That’s not what I’ve been told.”

“Sorry ?”

“I e-mailed Tom Newman. He told me it could go ahead. It just depended on you, but he hadn’t heard from you.”

John would have liked to thump the table and order Finney out of his office. His raised his eyebrows and picked up his pen.

“I made a few enquiries,” he said.

“But you didn’t speak to Tom Newman.”

“I didn’t need to.”

“How can you not need to speak to the man responsible ?”

“I asked a few questions and decided it wasn’t right for this school.”

“But if you didn’t speak to Tom you couldn’t know the details. They’d found a Physics teacher willing to come here. You just needed to interview him.”

 

“I know that.”

“How could you if you didn’t speak to Tom Newman ?”

“I made enquiries.”

“There isn’t anyone else to make enquiries of. I’ve exchanged e-mails with him. He told me you hadn’t been in touch so you didn’t know what was going on.”

“That’s not true.”

“Well, are you willing to interview this bloke ?”

“No.”

“Why not ?”

“As I say, it’s not right for this school.”

“But County are trying to stop people being forced out and if you won’t say yes, this guy is going to lose his job and I lose about ten grand in redundancy pay. Why not just interview him ? If he’s no good you can turn him down.”

“I’ve told you my decision. It isn’t right for this school.”

 

Why did a low-level nobody like Finney think he had the right to e-mail the County’s Head of HR ? Did he know him personally ? John seethed for days. This wouldn’t do him any good in the eyes of the County. Suppose Finney told Newman what he’d said. Would there be repercussions ? It gave him a very ugly feeling. He’d always done everything demanded of him to please his superiors. Of course, what his superiors didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. In any case, the final decision was with the Head, so what did it matter. He’d simply made an early final decision.

Within a week Finney was in his office again.

“I’ve decided to go. I’m taking the reduced pension. I think you need this.”

He handed over the completed form.

“Fine. Yes. I’ll see to that.”

“Not getting the redundancy costs me ten grand. I’ll lose two a year on the reduction so another six on the lump sum. If I live twenty years that’s forty  thousand down on the annual pension. About fifty-six grand in total. At least.”

Finney sat, his huge hands on his thighs, staring straight at him.

“Well,” said John, “the reduced benefits scheme is good. You’ll have a decent pension.”

“Thirteen thousand three hundred. How would you like that ?”

John laughed. Finney got up heavily and left.

John arrived home that evening in a very good mood. He hardly thought about Finney but months later when he had to draft the advert for his replacement he paused. £13,300. It wasn’t much. What would he expect ? He’d bought added years. By the time he retired he should be earning a good £90,000. He wouldn’t expect a pension of less than £45,000. The lump sum of £135,000 he’d invest. People like Finney just had to get by. That was the way of things. Nothing could be done about it. His pension was liveable. He could take part-time work ? What did his wife do ? John  had no idea. It was none of his business. In fact, whether Finney managed or sank into poverty was none of his business. He was an employee soon to become an ex-employee. It wasn’t an employer’s business to worry about the personal finances of employees. Employees were there to do the job. They got the market rate. That was the end of an employer’s responsibility. He went back to the advert. He’d defeated Finney. He felt very pleased with himself. He was a manager. A good manager. He knew how to keep staff in their place. His decision had been right: he’d forced Finney out. He could replace him with someone young, cheap and compliant. That was good management.

It was a few months later the papers were full of the football scandal. The tabloids ran pictures of the prostitute who’d sold her story. It was a sordid, cynical business and it bothered John. When he walked to the patissierie on Saturday to buy a tarte aux fruits for Ruth, or to the newsagents to pick up a paper, he passed the huge house behind electronic gates where the footballer lived. He’d bought an old, six-bedroomed Georgian place, had it demolished and replaced by a vast, thirty-roomed edifice with a swimming-pool, stables and garaging for seven cars. Though John thought it vulgar, he liked being close to such obvious signs of success. When his children were younger, he’d enjoyed pointing places out and saying, such-and such lives here, or such-and- such lives there.  The association with low-life was troubling. When he passed the house now he looked resolutely at the pavement. And he hoped they would soon move. If the marriage cracked up, surely they would ? The waters would close over the affair. The house would sell for £3,000,000 or so to someone who deserved to be admired. John hoped it would happen quickly.

 


 

 A LOVELY IDEA

 

Having no understanding of music, Laurie Wynter dreamed of being a pop star. What fascinated him was the hold pop stars had over their audiences. He was ten when The Beatles took off, and the sight of young girls in their thousands working themselves into hysteria in front of four young men of dubious talent sowed in his  mind during the next few years the notion of easy success, adulation, and wealth.

“Why don’t we start a band !” he said to his friends.

“What do you play ?”

“Nothing. But I can learn !” and his characteristic, unconvincing smile stretched over his uneven teeth.

 But music couldn’t seize his attention and make him work. He tried piano but the fag of scales and arpeggios bored him. He couldn’t see any relation between these strings of notes and a tune.

“What’s the point of playing scales ?” he asked his music teacher.

“The point ?” she said. “This is what music is made of. If you don’t know this, you’ll never be a musician.”

 He wondered if it would be easier to go straight to melodies on the guitar, but it was even worse. The contortions of his fingers to produce even a simple chord sequence made his hands ache. It wasn’t worth the effort. The music wasn’t worth the effort. He would’ve tolerated the discomfort for fame and money. Yet he just couldn’t get near the music. He couldn’t make it part of him. It was a strange, alien thing.  He loved pop music. He thought Lulu a great singer. When The Monkees appeared he bought all their records. He was an ardent fan. But he wasn’t  competent enough in music to dare play rock n’ roll in a pub.

It was a tremendous disappointment because he couldn’t tolerate the idea of not being famous and rich. It seemed as obvious as night and day: the only thing worth doing in life was pursuing money and attention. He was bright. He was in one of the best private schools in the country. A place at Oxbridge was more or less guaranteed. When he was fifteen he read in The Daily Telegraph about lorry drivers going on strike for an increase to fifteen pounds a week. He thought strikes a disgrace but at the same time he wondered how people lived on fifteen pounds.

“Why do these lorry drivers earn only fifteen pounds a week ?” he said to his father.

“That’s how the market works,” he replied spooning two more roast potatoes onto his Sunday dinner plate. “Labour is a commodity like any other. Its value is determined in the market like any other. Now, if you can predict how currencies are going to move, your market value will be very high. But any idiot can drive a lorry. That’s why they earn so little. Because they’re idiots.”

 The explanation appealed to him. It struck him they must be different: they couldn’t be like his family. Something about them must make fifteen pounds a week appropriate. He knew his father who lectured in Economics earned seven thousand a year, but then he had income from books. His Men and Markets had sold tens of thousands in paperback. He was also invited to lecture abroad and made a lot in fees and expenses. He’d laughed at the dinner table about making £500 for an hour’s talk in Paris. It was strange. Why was the world divided between people like them and lorry drivers, coal miners, factory workers, shop girls, milkmen, postmen, joiners, all kinds of people who earned next to nothing? It could only be that it had to be. It was the way things were and it couldn’t be that the way they were was a mistake. Such an idea would have shaken his faith in life too radically. For a moment the horrible possibility had emerged  that those lorry drivers were hard done by. Their lives must be restricted. They must struggle. But this was an idea which couldn’t be permitted to mature. Having pictured their misery utterly clearly, he had to deny it. His diligently formulated defence was that God intended the world to be this way. The rich deserved to be rich just as his father deserved to be well-off. And those with little had their rightful place. It was scheme of things which couldn’t be altered. Of course, people had the right to better themselves. It was a phrase his father used often. That was fair. Everyone had the right to better themselves but some didn’t make it. Fate decreed they must be at the bottom. Then that life must be right for them. They couldn’t be allowed to starve of course. There was a Christian duty to keep people from absolute poverty. But it was clear to him things were as they were for a purpose. A force greater than himself had chosen him to be among the best. Who was he to deny it ? It would have been perverse. It would have been to fly in the face of the facts.

These ideas made him comfortable and confident. He would do well. He’d make money. He’d fulfil the destiny decided for him by God. But what troubled him was fame. He had a sense he was destined to be famous. If he joined the Civil Service of the Foreign Office, if he went into business or the law he could make big money. He had to make big money. Imagine being like one of those lorry drivers or even a teacher or a lecturer. Oh, you could get by. But the humiliation of seeing others with millions. The shame of living in a world where fabulous wealth was possible and to have nothing more than a decent semi in the suburbs, a car, a caravan, holidays in Cornwall. It was too distressing to think of. It was wrong ! It was unjust ! People like him were meant to be very wealthy. It was the working out of what was written in his nature.

“What do you think you’ll do in life ?” he asked one of his classmates.

“Foreign office.”

“Why ?”

“My father has contacts. I’m a linguist. If I’m lucky I’ll get an Embassy. Paris would be nice. Keep ypour nose clean and it’s a cushy life.”

“Yes,” said Laurie, “but don’t you have a desire to be known ?”

“By whom ? The plebs ? Who cares about them ?”

 

For a while, he thought of becoming an actor. He enthusiastically pushed himself forward for roles in school plays. He was The First Knight in Murder In The Cathedral, Bagot in Richard II and finally, in the upper sixth, Tesman in Hedda Gabler. But acting made no more sense to him than music. Acting out , he understood intuitively. Enacting little mental fantasies and then behaving according to them. He did that all the time. Wasn’t that how life worked ? Didn’t everybody do it ? Acting though, this business of getting into character and having to take that seriously. It was a lot of hard work for little reward. Nor did he understand what a character like Tesman was all about. It seemed hopelessly silly, and on stage professional actors were seen by a few hundred people each performance. Six times a week for a run of two months. You might be seen by no more than thirty thousand people. What good was that ? He thought of football crowds, pop concerts, the Nuremburg rallies. Those were audiences worth having. Hollywood actors could attract such adulation. He read in a Sunday supplement about the young Marlon Brando being handed keys to hotel rooms by women he didn’t know. The idea of that power fascinated him. He wondered if he could attain the same kind of effect: if he became a sort of celebrity within his circle, would the girls all want to go to bed with him ? It was an intoxicating idea, but it wasn’t intimacy which appealed to him but power. It was the fact that women who had never met Brando were willing to have sex with him just because he was famous. It was strange. People were prepared to hand themselves over to those who had achieved fame or notoriety as if by so doing they gained a little of the fame themselves. Fame was even more attractive than money. Of course, he read in the Sunday papers too about rich men who had strings of women. But didn’t fame and money go hand in hand ? He tried to think of someone famous who didn’t have money. He’d been told Mozart died a pauper and he knew artists and writers could be ignored and left in poverty. But that was different. Most people took no notice of them anyway. Who but a few precious intellectuals or pious social climbers listened to Mozart or read James Joyce ? No, in the culture that mattered, popular culture, the famous were all rich.

By the time he got to Oxford, he’d put stage acting behind him. Music and theatre had let him down. What else was there ? He worked away at his degree, had one girlfriend after another, found the whole business a bit disappointing, and began to think he would have to resign himself to being rich. Yet every time he watched the television he was hurt by the thought of his potential obscurity. He could go through life, make a fortune, live well, have houses in several capitals, drive a Rolls, fly around the world, but what did it all mean if his name wasn’t known ? What were the lives of obscure people worth ? They lived, they died, they were buried. They mixed with the earth. It was as if they had never been. A few relatives retained their memory, but what good was that ? Did he know anything worth knowing about his great-great-grandfather ? The aristocrats treasured their lineage. But the common people ? They were forgotten, dismissed, their memory wiped out. He didn’t think of himself as one of the common people, but he wasn’t aristocratic. He wished he was. How easy it would be if you were born into royalty, even into a minor branch. Money would be yours, contacts. You were important by birth. The fact was, most people weren’t important. Their lives were worthless. In truth, only those who had a place in history were worth anything.

In his final year he was delighted when he met Caroline Winstanley, daughter of a Duke. He visited the seat in Berkshire. At once he felt lifted out of ordinariness. He soon discovered the family had contacts in every important arena of life. Caroline’s brother-in-law ran a television company. Her uncle was in finance. There was no door the family couldn’t open. She was the girl for him.

Her uncle found him a job in merchant banking.

“What exactly is merchant banking ?” he asked naively.

“Banking for the rich,” replied her uncle pouring another glass of Veuve Cliquot. “Banking is a bit of misnomer but it sounds respectable. People think of suburban managers of impeccable probity. What we do is get round the law to make the rich richer.”

The idea appealed to him. He was as complaisant as possible and this flexibility, his absolute lack of principle which made adjustment to every circumstance easy, served him well. The complexity of some of the finance was a little troublesome, but he discovered no-one cared too much about grasp of detail: commitment to the cause was what mattered. His work was all about gambling on the economy. Would this flourish, would that fail ? There were wonderful little tricks by which great fortunes could be made.  What pleased him most was how it was all a mystery to the general public. They might fool themselves about democracy, they might believe their votes made a difference, but they were dupes: the people who ran these elevated, obscure financial institutions had much more power than mere MPs. They could make or break entire nations. In fact, they could bring the whole world economy crashing around the ears of the benighted masses. And why shouldn’t they ? There was a powerful attraction in the idea of ruin. To lay waste the planet rather than give up having things your own way ! Wasn’t that a marvellous notion ! The power was vertiginous. By the time of his sumptuous wedding to Caroline he was earning £100,000. She was working for her brother’s company. They bought a huge town house in South Kensington. There was no doubt about the millions to come. Sometimes he wondered if he might even be a billionaire. Yet the nagging sense of obscurity dragged him down. He read about criminals who served their sentence and wrote their memoirs. They were celebrities. Didn’t people love and admire the Krays? It really didn’t matter how fame was attained. Once you had it, its effect was magical.

He was tormenting himself over ways to attain fame when the news came that his father had suffered a stroke. The doctors saved his life but he was paralysed down his left-hand side. Curiously, he denied the deficiency. The specialist explained that the damage to the right-side of his brain had diminished his sense of reality. Laurie was amazed. There were so many things he barely understood. He paid for the best care but the initial intervention had been by a public hospital. Without the ambulance, the doctor, the nurses, his father would have died. The fact of having him moved to a private facility as soon as it was safe couldn’t obliterate the fact. It troubled him enormously. It made him feel he had some intrinsic connection to those foolish millions who relied on public services. If only his father had taken out insurance and been taken straight to a private bed.

“He was lucky to be brought here,” the doctor said to him.

“Why’s that ?”

“We’re the best in the country. It’s our speciality. No-one else in the region can do what we can do for stroke victims. If he hadn’t come here the outcome might have been very different.”

“Unless he’d gone private,” said Laurie.

The grey-haired doctor raised his brows and gently shook his head.

“No. There’s no private facility he could have got to in time which can do what we can” he said with a quiet smile.

Laurie was appalled. Was that true ? It shook his faith very badly. It seemed terribly wrong that public money should buy better care than private millions. It was an insult. Then it struck him that it was just what was wrong with the country ! People could work hard to make fortunes yet any low-level nobody, any unemployed bricklayer or unambitious school cleaner who fell ill might get better care from the State! It made a mockery of everything he believed. What was the point of driving for money and fame if they didn’t bring great advantage ? He realized in a flash of insight that the whole idea of a free, universal public sector was a mistake. Services should be businesses ! If people can make money from them, then they will work as they should. Most importantly, people shouldn’t take them for granted. They must accept business as the model of provision or renounce provision altogether. The ideal would be to close down the public sector and make people pay. No-one expected to have their shoes provided by the State, why then education or health care ? And wasn’t it obvious people were willing to spend their money on cars or holidays or booze while expecting other people’s taxes to provide services ? But once his ideas had run to this extreme he began to temper them with objections. Children had to be educated. It couldn’t be left to the market. Nor would it do to let people die of appendicitis. So a half-way house was necessary. The public sector needed to lose its dull character. It was a heavy, oppressive beast which squatted in the middle of the economy like a hippo in a mud pool. It needed to sharpen up, put on a smart suit, take on some of the grinning chutzpah of popular culture; it needed to be run by people with business brains and above all the people who used it needed to be customers.  A customer, after all, was empowered. When he went to buy a new car, he could make demands because he was handing over £15,000. A customer has the right to be uppity, bolshie. Yes, that was where it was right to be up in arms, to be importunate and demanding. The foolishness of trade unionists was their dispiriting collectivism, their ponderous insistence on rights in the workplace, their perpetual criticism of successful people who had made fortunes. People as individual customers, that was the point. Once they were consumers of education or healthcare, well, the schools and hospitals would have to operate like businesses. Let money follow the customer. The bad schools would close, the poor hospitals decline, people would have real choice.

During his father’s long, slow recovery, he began to pay more attention to political speeches. He thought Mrs Thatcher marvellous, especially the feeling of the sermon in what she said. In her tone of voice he could hear a disdain for debate. Her intonation contained no acceptance of dissent. He liked this sense of a message, a revealed truth which must be directly communicated. Then one evening, at the height of the bitter struggle within the Labour Party in the early eighties, he went with some friends to hear Tony Benn, just for the sake of it. Though he disagreed with almost every word and was mystified by the idea of a struggle between left and right he was mesmerised by the delivery. To be able to speak like that ! To move audiences, and through electronic media to be able to influence millions at a time; there was power !

“What’s all the stuff about left and right ?” he said to one of his banker friends over a drink afterwards.

“Jealousy,” the young man replied. “That’s what they mean by the left. They’re envious of our success and want to take our money from us. It’s nothing less than theft.”

“I just don’t get it,” said Laurie, “ the idea of some showdown between irreconcilable interests. Why don’t they just get on with things ? Make it work.”

“They don’t want it to work. They want to ruin the economy just because they’re losers. That’s why we need strong laws to keep them in their place.”

“Funny though. A man like Benn. Tremendous talent. Why does he talk all that rubbish ?”

“Oh, he thinks he’s some kind of messiah, I suppose, come to save the poor from the dreadful rich. Where would the oiks be without the likes of us, eh Laurie ? Swinging through the trees and living in caves. No gratitude. That’s the problem with the masses.”

Laurie thought hard about these questions. He began to read around politics. Whenever he came across terms like alienation, exploitation, class struggle or even capitalism, he wanted to laugh out loud. What was it supposed to mean, alienation ? He had no idea. Even capitalism. Why did left-wing intellectuals use it as a term of criticism ? What was to criticize ? It was the most natural thing in the world. Getting on. Doing the best for yourself. Making your way. Doing better than your neighbour. That was just human nature, why call it capitalism and try to analyse it ? Intellectuals made him impatient. Once, he’d tried to read Einstein’s Relativity, out of a belief that as a well-educated young man he should know what it was all about, but it was so searingly objective, so bereft of anything personal, he couldn’t find a way to accommodate it. He put the book aside with the sense that physics was for a handful of weirdos. He began to develop the same feeling about politics. Normal people had no interest in it. Really, there was no need for it. Why didn’t we all just get on and do what needed to be done ? Whenever he heard someone like Benn or Foot he was deeply uncomfortable. The suggestion that something was rotten in the state of the nation; it made him wince and his mouth curled into a little snarl of distaste. The essential was to be always positive and how could you be positive if you thought the system, or whatever it was termed, was flawed ? No, he couldn’t stand it. It sickened him. What he loved was the endless glee of popular culture. Pop music in particular. And didn’t people like it ? Weren’t people more interested in Donny Osmond than Neil Kinnock or Brenda Dean or any of the rest of the dull tribe of naysayers, do-gooders, reformers or would-be revolutionaries ? That’s how politics should work ! Give the people what they liked ! Give them what they wanted ? Who wants the pain and trouble of thinking about how bad things are and having to struggle to find answers ? In any case, things weren’t bad. Things were just great ! And then the idea came to him: politics was the way to fame !

When he told Caroline he was going to join the Labour Party, she was taken aback.

“To change it,” he said. “You see, what’s the point of joining the Tories. I mean, I’d be just another Tory. I think like a Tory. The thing is, the Labour Party needs to be changed. We need to get rid of all this stuff about socialism and turn it into a party which gets on with things.”

“But they’ll never accept that,” she said. “They’re always banging on about the poor and closing the gap and that kind of thing. They’ll never listen to you.”

 

“Well, I’m not going to tell them ! That would be guileless. I’m not going to say I want to eliminate all trace of socialism and all talk of equality from the Labour Party and make it a party the rich are happy with. You have to say what your audience wants to hear. Then once you’ve got a bit of power, you do the opposite. But no-one remembers what you said anyway !”

“I don’t see why you can’t join the Tories if you want to attack Labour.”

“You know,” he said blenching as if from a blow, “I wouldn’t have as good a chance of getting on in the Tory party. I can be the new man in Labour. I can be the man who stands for change. They’ll lose the next election badly. Foot is hopeless. That’ll be my opportunity. They’ll all be down in the mouth and looking for a way to win elections again. I can do that. You see, the way to win elections is to stop talking about politics. No-one likes it. No-one wants to hear it. Like that speech by Jimmy Carter. That was terrible. No-one wants to know the country’s suffering from a moral malaise or a crisis of confidence. People want cheering up.”

“He was talking about the energy crisis wasn’t he ? That’s a real problem.”

“Not if we assert ourselves ! Look, we are the democracies. We have the moral right to lead the world. If other countries try to get in our way, we just have to tell them no. It’s a simple as that. The important thing is to stop all this talk of left and right, rich and poor, private and public. It’s all one. It’s all about aspiration. That’s the key. People getting on. If you make them feel they can do that the problems will evaporate.”

He sent off his application and the secretary of his local branch came to see him. He had to go to the meetings. He had to show willing. It depressed him terribly. The people were wretched. He talked to a nurse who devoted hours of her time to the party. He could hardly keep from sneering at her. How did people live these reduced lives ? Was that the limit of her ambition ? To work as a nurse and push leaflets through letterboxes at election time ? Why didn’t she start a business ? Why didn’t she have some push ! But he had to smile and pretend he was comfortable. He heard arguments which made him want to thump the table or walk out. People kept talking about unemployment and poverty, this protest and that demonstration and how Thatcher was destroying manufacturing. It all seemed so silly. What was Thatcher doing but modernising ! These people talked as if we were still in the nineteenth century. Thatcher was right: strikes and unions and restrictive practices were ruining the country. Who needs manufacturing ? There was a bright new dawn ahead in financial services. If only people would back Thatcher instead of sniping at her, then unemployment would fall. People could get jobs in banks or insurance companies. These people were starry-eyed about coal miners or ship-builders. And they despised the rich. Whenever he heard one of them talk about closing the gap between rich and poor it set his teeth on edge. Why should the gap be closed ? The rich deserved their money and they were something for the poor to aspire to. The poor, after all, were just a set of miserable losers. What hope was there for a political party which focused on them ?

All this low level, disheartening stuff had to be escaped as soon as possible. He was searching for a safe seat. It meant being friendly to trade unionists he despised. One of them, Ken Topping, a life-long TGWU man, took a shine to Laurie and offered to help him. The MP in his constituency was stepping down. He’d put the word out.

“Why do you think he likes you ?” said Caroline.

“Oh, because I’m young and bright and he sees that I might do well in parliament. You see, that’s human nature. He’d like me as his MP so he can feel close to power. He’s more interested in that than justice or equality.”

To try to work out how to hone his speeches he went to hear other MPs and candidates. John Prescott, in jeans and an open necked-shirt, called for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy. Laurie was appalled. Surely Mrs Thatcher was right about that. The days of nationalised industries were over. Privatising was the way to forge ahead. He thought Prescott ridiculous, but what he liked were the jeans and open collar. That was the way to relate to the people ! That’s what the country needed: a Prime Minister who wore jeans in Downing St. He went to listen to Dennis Skinner and though he found him amusing was shocked. What bitter antagonism to the rich ! What irrational prejudice ! Why did people elect such a man ? It was from people like Skinner the Labour Party must be saved. What was he but an ignorant, old-fashioned, cloth-cap demagogue ? And he criticised America ! The richest country on earth. What kind of fool criticised that sort of success ! It was beyond belief. But it was listening to Neil Kinnock which really made his heart shrink. He was smart enough to do very well, yet he retained his boy-from-the-valleys demeanour. He spoke for the poor minority. Didn’t he get it ? The poor were no more than twenty per cent ! How could you win elections appealing to them ? In any case, who else could they vote for ? The clever thing was to take the votes of the poor for granted and skew your politics to the middle-classes. And Kinnock invoked the memory of Nye Bevan who stood for everything Laurie hated. It was a great pity he hadn’t been expelled from the party. He was a disgrace. Calling the Tories vermin ! Establishing a health service which had become a bureaucratic monster. That was socialism. From the first, Laurie believed, health care should have been privately delivered. And the better off should have been able to buy better treatment. He thought the NHS as conceived by Bevan a disaster. But Kinnock loved this stuff. Laurie thought him laughable.

“You know,” he said to Caroline, “I really have a sense of destiny about this.”

“Destiny ?”

“Yes, as if God wants it to be.”

“If he does, he’ll find some way to reveal it to you.”

“I know,” he replied excitedly, “I think he already has.”

“How ?”

“Well, you know, just the sense of rightness. I’ve prayed for guidance and I’ve never had a moment’s doubt. Now if God didn’t want me to do it, he’d find ways to make me doubt wouldn’t he ?”

“We shouldn’t presume to know the ways of God, Laurie.”

“Of course not ! But we expect guidance don’t we ? We expect a spiritual crisis over a choice which entails moral peril. But I feel nothing but assurance.”

“Perhaps you should talk it over with Father Noblett.”

“Yes. I will.”

Caroline’s father had married a Catholic and converted. Mother and daughter shared a devout, nervous faith. Laurie had renounced his Anglicanism after his wife convinced him that to presume direct contact with God was blasphemy. The Protestant notion of everyone making their own pact with God effectively made a church and priests redundant, and why would Christ have founded a church if he’d wanted that? Laurie discovered he agreed. The idea of a Pope who had special access to God appealed to him. Protestantism was a kind of anarchy and it embraced the plain, non-conformist denominations he’d always disdained. They were the religious equivalent of socialists. The authority of the Catholic church reassured him. He saw the connection between Church and political party: a strong, central authority was vital.

“I have a sense of being chosen, Father !” he said with his fixed smile in place.

The elderly priest looked at him over his glasses. Huge, ungainly, the athleticism of his youth had long left him. After God, food was the great love of his life. His enormous belly made him move slowly and puff and wheeze. He sat down. On the little round table in front of him was a plate of sliced fruit cake, chocolate cake, scones filled with luxurious jam and cream, chocolate biscuits and two vanilla slices oozing yellow custard.

“Would you like a vanilla ?”

“No thanks, Father. I try to stay trim.”

“Every credit. A young man should. You don’t mind if I….”

“Not at all, Father.”

The older man bit into the confectionery making the custard overhang and plop onto his black cassock. He scooped up the blob with his fat index finger which he sucked with relish.

“Chosen ?” he said once his mouth was half empty. “What makes you think so ?”

“Well, you know. I have no doubt. That’s what impresses me, Father. No doubt at all. I’m absolutely convinced it’s the right path for me.”

“Sometimes our minds play tricks on us.”

The remaining half of the cake was shoved into his gaping mouth and slowly chewed. Little bits of pastry and icing clung to the corners of his lips.

“Yes, but I suppose it’s like you. You must have known you were intended for the priesthood.”

Father Noblett nodded as he drew the back of his hand over his mouth. He reached for a slice of chocolate cake.

“Help yourself.”

Laurie shook his head.

“Intended for the priesthood ? I wish, like you, I’d been without doubt.” He laughed. “My life has been continual doubt. A torment.”

He licked his fingers, bent forward to study the plate and picked up a scone.

“Don’t assume,” he said before the first bite, “you can know what God intends. If you feel called to politics then to act on that is sensible. But the Devil’s temptations can leave us just as convinced as God’s guidance.”

“Of course, Father. But I’m a convinced Christian. I can’t imagine God would leave my prayers unanswered.”

The priest lowered his head to peer at the young man.

“Sure you wouldn’t like a scone ? My housekeeper makes them. A most obliging lady.”

He ate a second scone without speaking, picked up the big, china teapot and poured two cups.

“So what’s your ambition ?”

“Well, you know, to get as far as I can and make a difference.”

“Prime Minister ?”

“Who can say !” and the great billboard of smile was on his face.

“For a Catholic, the church must come first. You will have to make your politics fit your faith. Consider abortion, for example.”

“Yes, I’m opposed to it,” said Laurie. “Of course, I wouldn’t be able to abolish it. We have to be realistic. But I’d campaign for a lowering of the legal limit. We must make it difficult for women.”

“Good.”

The priest having drunk half his tea, reached for a chocolate biscuit which he slipped whole into his mouth as if a holy wafer.

“It’s true,” he said as he chomped, “in certain places the working-class have always seen the Catholic church as a friend. It’s a great help to us.”

“Of course.”

“So long as we don’t dally with Godless socialism or that Liberation Theology rubbish. The point it to sympathise with the lot of the poor the more completely to have them in our power.”

He lifted a second biscuit, bit it in half and laughed.

 

The business of finding a winnable seat meant he had to address little branch meetings and sound like a socialist. He even used the word and though at first he felt acutely uncomfortable, little by little he was able to produce it as if he meant it. Part of him concluded people were infinitely gullible, but another that he was extraordinarily convincing.  It was really just a matter of selling yourself. It simply was salesmanship !

“You know,” he said to Caroline, “most people have no interest in politics.”

“I suppose they find it boring,” she said.

“No, it’s not that. They’re just focussed on other things: their gas bill, promotion, getting their kids into school, sex, friends. Politics isn’t on their radar.”

“They leave it to the professionals.”

“That’s right. But, you see, why should we be interested in politics if the people aren’t ?”

“If you’re going to be a politician, Laurie, you’ve got to be interested in politics !”

“Why ? Look, if we take the politics out of politics, what are we left with ? Management. That’s what we should do: manage the country. That’s the way to put an end to all this left right nonsense.”

“I wouldn’t say that in your selection meetings.”

He laughed.

“I’ve discovered I’ve got a real talent for convincing people. I think I could convince them I can walk on water. The thing is, we’ve got to get the people who think politically out of the leadership of the Labour party.”

“That’s not going to be easy,” she said brushing burgundy varnish onto the nail of her big toe. “It’s a political party, it attracts people who think politically.”

“We’ll change the culture. What we want is people who are looking to get on. Politics is a career like banking or the law. It’s a job. We need people who think of it that way. All this hysterical stuff about changing the world has to be cast aside. What matters is being modern. Keeping up with the trends.”

“But they’ll find you out. You won’t be able to pretend to be apolitical for very long. You’ll have to vote in parliament and they’ll watch you.”

“Oh, I can vote for this and that to keep them off my back. The important thing is to get power. It’s like the church. A few people at the top make the decisions. You just have to be one of those few people and you can change things.”

“You make it sound easy, but I don’t think the Labour party is going to give up on socialism overnight.”

“They will if socialism loses elections ! That’s the trick. Win elections. That’s the thing a party has to do and if we can do that we’ll be untouchable.”

“Do you really believe winning elections is easy ? If there were some formula, someone would have found it by now. People don’t vote rationally, Laurie. If they did, elections wouldn’t be necessary.”

“No, there isn’t a formula but look, Labour appeals to the twenty per cent at the bottom. Very clever. You have to win the middle-ground. Give the middle-classes what they want.”

“You aren’t even an MP yet. There’ll be a hell of a fight for the leadership if they lose the next election.”

“There’s no if, Caroline. They’ll get slaughtered. That’s what gives people like me the chance. Of course, they’ll probably do something mad like electing Kinnock leader. So we’ll have to wait for him to lose, but in the long run we’ve got  a real chance.”

“I don’t see it. They’ll always be socialists.”

“On the other hand, they’ve never been socialists ! When they get power they have to make things work. Denis Healey isn’t a socialist, he’s a reformed communist and they’re the most reactionary of all. You see, the system just makes it impossible for them to do anything really radical. One the one hand, there’s too much careerism and self-seeking in the party, on the other, they’ve got to get on and manage the economy. The really radical thing is trade unionism in the workplace, but Thatcher is dealing with that. By the time we get our hands on power the unions will be decimated.”

“Isn’t is all Buggins’ turn ? You’ll have to wait and you might be too far back in the line to get any real power.”

“Well, you have to subvert all that stuff. It just takes a few people willing to conspire in the right way. You see, when you have a Buggins culture no-one expects you to defy it. That’s what Thatcher’s done. She’s ridden roughshod over the polite deferences of the Tory party. I’ll do the same. I’ll ambush them. That’s what life’s about after all, taking your opportunities. To do that you have to take people by surprise.”

“But if they see you coming, Laurie, do you really want to spend your life as a backbencher or a junior minister ?”

“Oh, I’ll get promoted to the Shadow Cabinet. I’ve got the skill, you see. I can talk. I can convince people. And you know what the secret is ? A little judicious slyness. Never quite say what you mean and you can convince people you stand for anything. You see, they project their hopes and ideas onto leaders, then they really believe the leaders are saying what they think. It’s the way celebrity works. Everyone pours into the celebrity their own potencies, dreams, aspirations, and all the negative stuff too. I suppose it’s a kind of social madness or mass hysteria as they used to call it, but who cares if it works ?”

“Well, I’m still going to vote Tory.”

He laughed again.

“If I succeed, there won’t be any need to vote Tory. I’ll offer everything the Tories stand for. It’ll be the abolition of politics. The murder of everything left of centre. Isn’t that a lovely idea ?”

“Yes it is. It is.”

And she added the final stroke of varnish to her little toe.


 

A GOOD START

 

“Do you mind if I tell my mother we’re going to get married?”

“Why should I mind?” 

Sue Carlisle left her boyfriend’s little house five minutes later and drove in her old Corsa to her mother’s bungalow where she announced the engagement.

“Where’s the ring?” said her mother.

“We haven’t got one, yet.”

Her mother’s partner, Stan, tried to look pleased. When Sue sat down on the kitchen stool and hooked the heels of her suede boots over the spar, he cast a quick, sly glance at her crotch. She still had that girlish, heedless way of sitting which left her underwear visible.

“Where shall we have the reception?” said her mother, picking up the Yellow Pages.

Within half an hour she’d telephoned twenty places and Sue had scribbled a guest list of ninety-seven.

“What about Paul’s side?”

“Who cares?” and Sue scrawled another name in her hurried way as if the destiny of the world depended on it.

She was in the house a little short of two hours but already the date was decided, the reception venue provisionally booked, the wedding cake ordered, the cars reserved. One thing troubled her mother though:

“Registry Office? It’s not the same.”

Driving back Sue thought through how she would tell Paul they were going to get married in a Catholic church. He was reading, stretched in the armchair drinking tea. She closed the door with a bang.

“We’ve decided on 15th April. We’re having the reception at Tipley’s.”

She stood legs apart a great smile on her face as he put his book aside. She noticed the title: Cold Spring Harbor.

“What?” he said.

“Me and mum have sorted it all out. Well, not all but the date and reception, cars and stuff. Mum asked me about the ring.”

“Ring?”

“Well, it’s normal to have an engagement ring!” and she let out a wild, hollow guffaw.

He stood up and pushed his hands into the tight pockets of his jeans.

“We just made a decision in principle. That’s all.”

“But once you’ve decided, no point hanging around is there? Let’s go and celebrate!”

“April is only two months.”

“I know. God, it’ll be frantic. I’m going to have an antique wedding dress. There’s a place near the market. Lovely things. We’ll go tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? But I’m skint.”

“Oh, put it on a card. Come on, Paul. Let’s go and eat and have some champagne.”

“I just think we need to slow down a little,” he said, like a condemned man talking to the executioner.

Sue’s mood suddenly darkened.

“It’s too late for that. I’ve told my mother. She’s in charge now. She won’t rest till every detail is sorted.”

“I just think…..”

“Well, stop thinking. You think too much. Come and get in the car. I’m hungry.”

She went, banging the door behind her. He heard the engine start up. The horn began to sound importunately. He lifted his jacket from the back of the chair, gathered his keys from the mantelpiece and went out. Before he’d managed to close the passenger door she pulled away, the rear tyres letting out a little scream. He clicked his seat belt into place as she shot an amber light. 


A RESCUE 

“The best leader Italy ever had was Mussolini and they hung him from a lamppost,” said Tommy.

He was sitting on the edge of the narrow boat as it slowed before the lock. His pot belly hampered him as he stood up to give his stepson advice about steering. He had a thin moustache which he was very proud of and trimmed carefully every morning. His wavy brown hair which was still thick was brushed back from his low forehead. He wore brown trousers a blue shirt and a thin red cardigan, unbuttoned because the day was warm. No-one responded to his provocative remark but his son-in-law who was sitting in a folding chair reading a paperback Complete Plays of Joe Orton, looked up at him, squinting because of the sun.

“Slower, slower!” called Tommy. “Bring her to your left. That’s better.”

His wife was making lunch having just finished clearing up the breakfast things. She was always making lunch, or dinner, or tea or breakfast or a snack. She shuffled about in the narrow little galley. Her hips were stiff. She was waiting for replacement surgery. A little, overweight woman of fifty, she’d married Tommy sixteen years earlier when she found herself pregnant. Having been a widow for seven years, when he showed an interest in her, she couldn’t resist. She was so keen to have a man in her life, she let him bully her children. He cuffed her sons round the ear if they annoyed him. As for her daughter, the mother was blithely unaware of what was going on. She gave birth to a third son six months after the wedding. Tommy went along with it because he read the Daily Mail and knew the meaning of respectability, but he resented her. He’d always seen women as fair game. All women. He wasn’t fussy. If he could get a woman in bed, why shouldn’t he? Beryl was just another conquest though he found her neither attractive or congenial. Her twelve year-old-daughter though, svelte, shy, her little breasts starting to show beneath her blouses and t-shirts, he found very appealing.

The son-in-law put down his book and went to the bow where his wife was nestled in a corner smoking a joint.

“Where’s mum?” she said.

“Cooking. Where else? Your step-father is lecturing on Mussolini.”

Lynn drew on the spliff and narrowed her eyes to look at him. She was slender, blonde and looked much younger than nearly thirty. Something girlish remained about her and when she moved she still had awkward, adolescent self-consciousness in her limbs.

“We could have sex here,” she said and let her knees fall apart so her leather skirt rode up nearly to her waist.

“Your mother will be sounding the gong in a minute.”

“Well?”

She lifted her backside and pulled down her knickers, kicking them off her feet and over the side. She giggled as she drew in more smoke and stroked herself between the legs.

“Come on.”

Tony, hearing something, looked to the stern.

“It’s Malc.”

Lynn tugged down her skirt and crossed her legs. Her brother arrived, smiling, big, full of false confidence.

“Dad’s sacked me. He’s doing the steering.”

“Are we going to moor and have a walk to a pub?” said Lynn.

“Yeah, we’ve just got to get through this lock.”

Malcolm heard his mother call him.

“What now?” he smiled again and went gingerly along the side.

Lynn finished the joint, threw the stub in the water, hitched up her skirt and lay down in her little corner.

“Quick, before we have to eat.”

Tony stood looking down at the beauty of her slim hips, her long legs, the  exposed sex whose lips she was pulling apart.

Then there was a loud splash and a cry. He went as quickly as he could to the stern and as he put his feet carefully on the narrow board, the image came into his head of Tommy falling backwards, his great, ungainly bulk thrashing in the water and he slowed down. He was first to the rudder. The older man, who couldn’t swim, was slapping  with his arms and kicking madly to stay afloat, but his head kept bobbing under the black, dirty, cold water.

“Hang on!” called Tony. “I’ll get the lifebelt.”

He jumped up onto the roof where the belt was fixed. It didn’t come easily from its hooks and he took his time. Malc had rushed up from below.

“Quick, Tony,” he called. “He’s going under.”

“Here!”

Tony threw the belt to Malc who dropped it, picked it up, tossed it to Tommy, hanging onto the rope. But the drowning man reached for it and missed. The belt began to drift. Malc pulled it in and threw it again but Tommy was in such an exhausted panic he couldn’t grab it. Malc launched himself feet first into the canal, grabbed the life-saver and forced one of his step-father’s arms through it. Beryl was now on deck with her youngest son, Peter, who looked on dismayed and helpless.

“Oh, my god!” she shouted and began to weep.

“We’ll need an ambulance,” shouted Malc.

They couldn’t lift the sixteen stone, fully dressed soaking man from the water and had to wait for the firemen. By the time they arrived he’d passed out. They put him on a stretcher wrapped in blankets and hurried to the ambulance parked on the crest of a little bridge. Beryl and Peter went with him. Lynn returned to her sunny, private corner in the bow and rolled another joint. When the call came through, Tony went to her.

“He’s had a heart attack. It’s touch and go.”

“Really?” she said. She drew on the cigarette. “Oh, it’s so nice here. And I’ve still got no knickers on. Look.” And she hitched up her skirt and opened her legs and smiled.

 


LIBERATION 

Though she didn’t bother to read The Female Eunuch, Sue May absorbed its lessons by osmosis: men are bastards, marriage for fools and, because they are victims, women beyond criticism. It was a heartening message for a twenty year-old from a poor background, raised in a devoutly Catholic household ruled over by her mother and grandmother. Her father died when she was three. Her mother took a job, went out every night and left the home to the older woman who lived in fear of the priest and treated her husband as a figure of ridicule. Marriage was a battle. A man expected to be master in his own house. He had to be disappointed. Any means a woman could use to get the upper hand were fair. Mrs Heaney used sexual starvation. By the time Sue went to university, she hadn’t had sex for forty-two years. Her humiliated husband, Billy, took refuge in the bookies and the pub, cultivated a devil-may-care demeanour and a silly laugh which he used to fend off all seriousness. But he was a broken man. Denied since the age of thirty, he’d known a brief spell of relatively regular physical togetherness with Mary, which though inadequate as she was unresponsive and awkward, was at least enough to make him feel he was as well looked after as his workmates; but the long years of living with a woman who hated to be touched had shrivelled and embittered him. He’d never had the courage to take a lover. It wasn’t done. He was a Catholic. Marriage was supposed to be the salve.  He slept a lot. In truth, he was looking forward to death.

As a student Sue discovered radicalism drugs and sex. She hoped the radicalism would give her a career: there were great openings in the Labour Party. The drugs calmed her frenetic activity and reminded her of the incense of church and the curious visions evoked by reading the Bible: she used to believe that Christ was walking above the clouds, supported by a floating floor in a place of permanent sunshine and happiness. Sex was a great competitive game: she had an affair with a professor who complained about her lack of arousal and banged away for hours trying to give her a climax. He finished sweaty, smelly and disappointed. She went to bed with her friends’ boyfriends. She got engaged for the fun of it and broke it off because marriage was stupid. She fell in love with an unceremonious actor and had two abortions.

Before she knew it she was thirty, sharing a house with a drug dealer and a coke addict, conducting the on-off affair with the actor, earning a living by lecturing part-time in Sociology and starting to worry she might never have children. The anxiety had hit her suddenly. For years, the idea of motherhood had never entered her head. But as her fourth decade approached, she began to notice babies. The streets seemed to be full of young mothers pushing prams. The notion formulated itself in her head that having children would make her happy. She told the actor she wanted a child. He stopped seeing her. She took more drugs and went to bed with her Head of Department.

Then one weekend she went home. It was one of those dutiful family visits which bored her immensely. On Saturday lunchtime she went to a lively pub in town hoping to find a man she could shag the afternoon away with. But she bumped into Gaz Bleasdale. She stayed sober and tried to appear calm and respectable. She told him how bored she was and asked if there was anything happening in the evening. Well, yes, there was a concert of chamber music, in a local church. A few people he knew were going.

Chamber music!

She went along. Afterwards a group went for a curry. Gaz gave her a lift home.

“If you fancy a weekend in London……”

So he came. She arranged with the dealer and the addict to have the house to herself. She hired a cleaning company to bottom it. She was going to shag him and he didn’t have a chance.

Once she’d got him into bed she drove things hard. He insisted on using condoms but she yanked them off his erection and said:

“Put the thing inside me for God’s sake. I want it flesh on flesh.”

But he’d pull on another and she’d lie flat with her legs stretched and taut and say:

“Haven’t you finished yet?”

Then an idea came to her. She snipped open a foil, pulled out the strawberry flavoured item and cut off the tip. Then in bed she said:

“I’ve got a nice trick for you.”

She reached for the packet in her bedside drawer, slipped the end between her lips and rolled it over his cock. She sucked and licked and played with his balls before climbing on top and slipping him in. It worked like a dream so she did it again and again and again till she was able to stand in front of him and say:

“I’m pregnant.”

“What do you want to do?” he said.

Oh, he was so nice, the fool!

“We’ll have to get married.”

On the wedding day she got very drunk and smoked a few joints in the room of the dealer. Her husband spotted her staggering up the stairs and followed. She went into their room. She was sitting on the end of the bed.

“Are you okay?” he said

“What the fuck do you mean, okay?” she said

She tried to stand up but fell in a heap, laughing manically. He was beside her looking down at her anxiously.

“It’s your misfortune to get caught up in this,” she said and let out a cracking, thin splinter of a laugh. “Help me up for fuck’s sake.”

He took her hand and pulled her to her feet.

“I think you should stop drinking now,” he said.

“Who gives a fuck what you think?” she said, straightened her dress and tottered out.


LA ROMANCE DE PARIS

 

There were forty-three undergraduates in the second year in the French Department and they had to apply to spend the following year in France or a French-speaking country. The applications were handled by a bureaucracy called The Central Bureau for Visits and Exchanges which was based in London and staffed by people from London or nearby. Only five of the students came from north of Birmingham and only four of them weren’t middle-class. There were thirty-eight girls. Three of the boys Tom Lederer, Jon Gray and Billy  Brown wanted to be together in France. Jon  came from Rochdale, Billy from Rotherham and Tom’s father was a bus driver in Reading.

“Somewhere in the south,” said Billy. “Where it’s warm.”

“Good idea,” said Tom.

“Do you know Montpellier?” said Jon.

“Lovely place,” said Billy. “And if we don’t all get sent there at least we might get places near one another and we can visit.”

So they filled in their forms.

In the long anticipation they dreamed of sunny days together in the spring. They would sit at café tables with a bottle of red. They would splash in the Mediterranean. They would be flâneurs in the sun-filled streets. They would meet dark-eyed French girls and pass languorous afternoons in their chambres meublés behind volets fermés.

Jon Gray was sent to Saint-Denis, Billy Brown to Clichy-sous-Bois                                   and Tom Lederer to Carmaux, a little mining town near Toulouse. At least Jon and Billy would be in Paris.

The girls got the places they’d asked for: Rosie leach was sent to Nancy. Val Salmon to Bordeaux. Helen Hayes got Rouen. Marie Jackson was given Grenoble. Denise Henderson got Perpignan. Francoise de Milan was sent to Tours. Angela Holmes got Caen. Michelle Stanton went to Aix-en-Provence. Jenny Williams was given Dieppe. Mandy Whillock got Lyon. Sioux (Sue was too common) Delafield went to Strasbourg. Ruth Bruzzese went to Châteauroux. Kate Harris got Aix-les-Bains. Stella Bates was sent to Toulon. Christine Griffin got Amiens. Maggie Wharton went to Brest. Rachel Flowers was given Orleans. Frances Addison got Besançon. Heather Wood got Toulouse. Janet Milligan was off to Dijon. Millie Wilson was sent to Limoges. Caroline Vincent was given Avignon. Jill Givens went to Bayonne. Hilary Vickers was sent to Poitiers. Debbie Taylor went to Reims. Babs Dallas was given St Malo. Edwina Edmondson headed off to Mulhouse. Paula Brimley was sent to St Etienne. Pam Slinger went to Nîmes. Jane Durran was given Troyes. Liz Capstick went to Angoulême. Janice Platt went to Nantes. Diane Virgo was given Le Mans. Helen Dransfield was sent to Rennes. Vicky Murphy got Narbonne.  Annette Ainsworth was sent to Auxerre. Polly Nickeus got La Rochelle and Lisa Hunt was sent to Montpellier.

Jon arrived at his school by taxi because he’d travelled overnight, had two heavy bags and was tired. The pupils formed a long, mocking line and followed him across the yard. He was made to wait half an hour. The directeur waddled in smelling of wine, took him into his bare office and asked him if the trunk sent to the school was his. Yes, it was. Did he have somewhere to stay? No, he didn’t. Well, it was a bit his fault. He went out and came back with the caretaker and the blue trunk on a two-wheeled trolley.

“Get this out of my school.”

“But I’ve nowhere to stay.”

The directeur pointed in the direction of the foyer des jeunes. The pupils mocked Jon’s ludicrous progress across the playground.

It was a walk of a mile.  A flight of thirty concrete steps led to the entrance. A friendly man who asked “il est coupé en six ou en quatre?” helped him. At the reception the employee shook his head. Jon pointed to the trunk.

“See that? It’s mine and it’s staying there. I have no room. When I find one, I’ll come back.”

The frantic employee ran off for the directrice who arrived calm and smoking. She was dark, like the girls Jon had dreamed of, but fifty, scrawny and coughed like death lived in her chest. She had a room. The deposit took almost all his money. He wheeled the squeaking the trolley back to the school where the directeur told him to take his bags and come back in a fortnight.

“A fortnight? I’m supposed to start teaching tomorrow.”

“I haven’t even thought about your timetable. Go and sign up for a course at the Sorbonne or something.”

Jon and Billy had arranged to meet at 7.30 p.m. the next day outside the Gare du Nord. Jon hung around for an hour. They hadn’t specified which entrance. He had no phone number for Billy just his address. The next two days he spent trying to convince himself this was going to work out but not being in school, not having been shown round, not having met any staff, gave him an ominous feeling. He sat in the Deux Magots reading L’Existentialisme est un Humanisme. He wandered Le Marais. He went out to the Buttes Chaumont and told himself walking in the fresh air would calm his nerves.

The next day, in the afternoon, he was sitting with a young electrician he’d got talking to in the common room watching drivel on tv when a message came over the Tannoy.

Visiteur pour M.Gray à la reception. Visiteur..”

It was his father, kicked out by his mother eleven years earlier for an affair with a cross-eyed blonde, who had just spent a week in a monastery in Brittany. They mooched round Paris together for three days, Jon acting as guide and interpreter. When his father announced he was heading back the following morning, Jon said:

“I’m coming with you.”

He went to see the phlegm-chested directrice:

“Je dois rentrer avec mon père. J’ai des chagrins.”

“Oh, je suis desolée.”

Her tense, hard expression softened. She gave him back his deposit.

Jon and his dad dropped the trunk in the boot of his little car. They had difficulty finding their way to the autoroute and when a policeman stopped them for going the wrong way on a roundabout they both pretended to know no French. Once they were well out of Paris, Jon started to worry about what he would do now. What would he say to the university? How would he spend the year? How, he wondered, was Lisa Hunt getting along in Montpellier?


LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP

 

There was always something going on in Steve Dick’s head, or so Angie thought. It was that serious way he had about him, though he was joker. It made her feel he might have the answer to her riddle, which was: why couldn’t she get started in life? Why did everything seem so provisional? Why, really, did nothing seem to matter? Dick was a leftie like her boyfriend. But he had much more of a passion for it and was more incisive. He was in love with justice which was partly why she fell in love with him. The other part was his good looks and it was a big part. Dick and her boyfriend Ian were good friends, though in truth Ian never really felt they hit it off completely: Dick was too far gone in his ideas, too terrifyingly capable of being utterly alone.

It was the early seventies and one of those self-contained campuses which let the students feel they were remote from the rest of life, and at worst, superior to it. Angie and Ian had been together since their first term while Dick had thrown himself headlong into a couple of doomed relationships and waxed about the neurosis of modern culture when they failed. Angie got into bed with him shortly before they graduated. He really was extraordinarily good-looking. Ian took it in the best liberal fashion. His girlfriend of three years and his mate who railed against exploitation and cruelty in bed together: he wasn’t going to display old-fashioned jealousy or give Dick the punch in the mouth he deserved.

Ten years later Dick asked him to be his best man. Ian sneered at the letter and accepted. He met the fiancée, a neurasthenic actuary huddled into herself who spoke in tiny voice as she sucked on a cigarette and brushed her dry, blonde hair from her eyes. Her parents were loaded so the reception was lavish. Ian enjoyed the food, the drink, the nice room and meeting up with some old mates from university. Angie wasn’t invited. He got a taxi to the station early in the morning, before Dick and his bride were up.

“That marriage will never last,” he said to himself watching the fields and woods rush by. “And serve the bastard right.”

                                                                   


          

MORAL FIBRE 

In the worst possible way, Brian Grindle gave away the fact he was homosexual: he made a pass at Peter Hemmings. It was one of those Friday drinking sessions the men engaged in and after the pub they all went back to Grindle’s flat for a final few glasses of wine and maybe a coffee. Hemmings happened to find something interesting in the paper and was still in the armchair waiting for his taxi when the others left. It was nothing too direct. He didn’t kiss him on the mouth or grab his crotch. He just stood in front of him as he put the paper aside and ran his hand over his erection. Hemmings looked vaguely disgusted, got up and said:

“I’ll wait for my taxi outside. See you Monday.”

From that moment , Grindle feared and hated Hemmings because the tide of liberal views on sexuality hadn’t reached Parlick Grammar and though the pupils were taught about homophobia in PSE and punished for it if they bullied, among the staff the taboo remained. As a Deputy Head his position was in jeopardy. So when Hemmings, the best looking man on the staff who always had opportunities, began an affair with the new young English teacher twenty years his junior, Grindle sent an anonymous note to the Reverend Alan Jellicoe, Chair of Governors.

Hemmings was made to answer. He was a married man; a Subject Leader; this was a Christian school; the pupils were bound to find out. He was given a final written warning. His wife discovered and kicked him out. He left the big house in the suburbs for a flat in the town centre. A year later he handed in his notice and moved away. People heard he was doing supply and drinking too much.

“He never really was a Parlick person,” said Grindle. “Too free-thinking, too subversive. Not enough moral fibre.”

 


MUM 

The old man was dying and Bernard felt duty bound to visit. Not that he owed him much, though having given him a roof was better than nothing. Could he say he’d ever loved the bastard? He’d depended on him and he’d feared loss. If his mother could walk out of his life, why should his grandfather remain? As for his grandmother, she paid him no attention. The drink absorbed her. She was long gone but the old man was still in the house where Bernard had grown up: the cramped, damp, shabby, stinking place. It wasn’t so bad now of course. The factory had closed so the rattle of machinery no longer shook the walls. They’d had a bathroom fitted and halved the bigger bedroom, small though it was, to make two spaces barely able to fit a bed. It wasn’t so bad now. No cockroaches, no cold arse in the middle of the night on the outside lav, no tin bath in the scullery. No, things had moved on since the war. This was 1960 and social progress was unstoppable. But he was dying, the old fighter, the old boozer. Once he’d stood in the road outside the pub on Saturday nights, fists up to take on anyone who dared. He was famed across the town. Now he couldn’t get out of bed. He was alone. In a few days he’d be gone. He refused to go to hospital. He would die there in that stinking, lonely place after a life of hard work, fighting, booze, unhappiness, and bafflement.

“We have to go and visit someone,” said Bernard to his son who was sitting quiet and good on the leather seat.

“Who?”

“An old man. A very old man.” He paused. “My grandfather.”

He looked at boy who stared out of the windscreen.

He was a strange boy, very self-possessed, very quiet and with an intelligence Bernard found unnerving. What was he thinking? What did he make of being told about a grandfather he’d never heard of before? Was there love between them? Bernard cherished him. He was a fine-looking boy, well-behaved, polite. He would grow to a fine man. Yes, he cherished him but he felt strangely remote. He was his mother’s child.

“He lives in a small house. A very small house. It may smell a bit, but he’s old. That sometimes happens to old people’s houses.”

He pulled up outside the row of terraces. There were only five left standing. This was where he’d gone barefoot as a boy. This was the milieu of his humiliation. He got out and straightened his cravat. He pulled open the passenger door and the boy slid out. He noticed the grazing on his knees: he’d fallen off his trolley again.

“This is it,” he said and smiled.

The boy looked serious and bemused.

“Come on.”

He took his hand.

The front door was open. In the tiny living-room was a bed, an armchair and a table. The boy stood by him. The old man, aware of something, flickered open his eyes. The boy looked up at his father who smiled.

“How are you granddad?”

The old man couldn’t speak. He looked into the boy’s eyes and Bernard saw the shock on the lad’s face. He put his arm round his shoulders.

“This is Will, my son.”

The old man looked up at Bernard then fixed his eyes again on the boy. His face was hollow, his hair white, thick and ruffled. The rest of him was hidden beneath the sheets. He stared at the boy and a single tear rolled from his eye.

“Is there anything you need?” said Bernard.

Five seconds later they were getting in the car. Bernard started the engine and pushed the gear lever.

“That was my granddad, Will,” he said. “He’s very old. And sick. My granddad, you see. Don’t tell your mum we came to see him.” 

 


MUMMY’S NEW BOYFRIEND 

Every April in the late 1960s a group of easy-going teenagers from a little, industrial Lancashire town took off for St Ives, found jobs and rooms and stayed till the end of September. During the winter they hunkered down in the northern cold and damp, lived with their parents, worked in shops, offices, factories, on building sites and met up a few times a week to reminisce and plan. Most of them were run-of-the mill youngsters, but two were out of the ordinary: Meg Park who could sing like a diva and Jem Illingworth who drew  beautifully and fluently.  Meg sang outside The Sloop, on Porthmeor Beach in Fore St among the holiday crowds accompanied by one guitar player or another and Jem drew portraits which he sold to the subjects for half a crown. They were the only two who didn’t need to work and the others who did split shifts in hotels, bars, restaurants and cafes admired and envied their talent and income. They were all trying to be bohemians, but serving egg and chips on rainy lunchtimes or changing beds in a little guesthouse were serious dampers on the sense of living beyond the customary routines and values. Of course, there were the beach parties, the little fires lit at balmy midnights, the cannabis and the sex. The idea of free love was in the background like a tiny cooling breeze on a sultry day, but they paired off and felt reassured by faithfulness. It was only three or four summers. Jobs and marriage broke the group up. But it was something to look back on, something not to have missed.

Meg Park married a fireman and sang in pubs until her daughter was born and Jem Illingworth went to art college only to find there was no work afterwards but teaching. Teaching art in schools he couldn’t think of: he was too gentle to discipline children and his own schooldays had been marked by resentment of teachers who threw their weight around. He couldn’t see why school shouldn’t be voluntary, which made him an outsider. He freelanced a bit as a teacher of drawing and then uncomfortable with squatting in his parents’ house took a job as a draughtsman for an engineering firm so he could afford his own flat. He disliked the routine and found his colleagues frosty. He liked them as people and tried to get on with them, but as employees they were wary of him. His attitude wasn’t right: they were trying to make careers and he was trying to enjoy life. One of the other draughtsmen said to him:

“We’ll never make the big time working here.”

“Maybe not the big time, but a good time,” said Jem.

The restless months went by. He drew and painted in the evenings and at weekends; he met up with the old crowd and relived for a few hours the atmosphere of heedless enjoyment and anticipation of a different world. But Monday morning soon came round. He was at the bus stop at seven thirty. He’d come to rely on the salary. The months became years and somehow it seemed life had slipped away from him.

He was twenty-seven when he met Louise.

She wasn’t arty, rebellious or restless; she worked at the Town Hall in administration. She’d started there at sixteen and being intelligent, diligent and ambitious had risen to a senior post. But Jem didn’t think about that. She was pretty and charming and after years of come-day-go-day relationships it was a delight to have someone he could feel committed to. She complained his flat was messy and she didn’t like him spending long, intent hours drawing but she was so touchingly slim and shapely and they spent such carefree evenings and weekends together, he shut out all thought of anything negative and let himself enjoy the ecstasy of new love. She was twenty-seven too and eager to start a family, so within a year they married and bought a little house in the quiet suburb where Jem’s parents lived. When she became pregnant Jem was thrilled and watching his little daughter come into the world, seeing the woman he loved sweat and strain and grunt and tear to deliver this wrinkled little package of joy was the best and most transforming experience of his life. That everyone on earth had come into the world in the same way meant nothing to him; it was newness. He was a father. He was lifted out of himself and Holly became the centre of his being.

When dark clouds began to assemble in the sky of his happiness he ignored them. All his life he’d ignored unpleasantness: violence, greed, exploitation; they weren’t part of his sensibility. Oh, they were real enough, but he had one life and couldn’t change the world, so he made a small enclave of generosity, friendliness and tolerance and felt that was the best he could do.

“It’s too small,” Lousie began to say.

“It’s fine for three of us.”

“But what if we have another? Or two more?”

“We’ve got three bedrooms.”

“Look at the size of them.”

“Who needs a big bedroom? All you do there is sleep.”

She threw the comment back at him and they didn’t have sex. His sweet, joyous satisfaction turned into dismal misery and on the long walks he took alone by the river to calm his frustration, he realised how he’d let his happiness depend fundamentally on their intimacy, her generous opening to him, and for that he’d been willing to treat her materialist conformism as a midge in summer. He agreed to moving house and increasing the mortgage. She wanted him to push for promotion. They needed two cars. Her friends all had more than one holiday abroad . She wanted a new bathroom and then a new kitchen.

“What does all this stuff matter?” he said flopping onto the sofa and opening a book about Goya.

“It matters more than those books you’re always reading.”

Had it not been for Holly, he’d have cleared out, gone back to a little one- bedroomed flat and pseudo-bohemian relaxation although there was no bohemia in this little place . He realised they’d been trying to do the impossible. The conditions that sustained alternative communities were being wiped out. He’d been sucked into a system he despised. What kept him going was his love for his daughter. That outweighed the irritations of conventional marriage by far. Louise, he realised, wasn’t relating to him. He was husband. He took on in her Catholic mind the characteristics a husband must have. She spent more and more time at her mother’s. They went shopping every Saturday. They came home and talked about what needed to be done around the house. Louise made a list of things he should be getting on with: the bathroom tiles, painting the kitchen…..He found a quiet corner and read about Chagall.

But the hours he spent with Holly were bliss. At home together he read to her for as long as she liked. He drew for her and showed her the rudiments. By the time she was six she could sketch impressive cats, tigers, rabbits, robins, daffodils, trees. He smiled to think she might have his talent. He took her to the best parks, the library, the nice old Italian café which served home-made ice-cream. She held his hand as they walked through town and he imagined everyone must look at them and be charmed by the bloom of their simple mutual love. And the child did love her father. She climbed on his lap and snuggled to sleep and then none of the cares of his life counted for a fig.

Shortly after Holly’s seventh birthday Louise announced she was going back to her mother’s and taking the child with her. He remonstrated and pleaded the girl’s well-being but she insisted she couldn’t live with him: they were incompatible; the marriage was a mistake; she didn’t share his values; she wanted to find someone like herself and be happy again. She went. The house was sold. He got his portion and moved into a little flat where he could do what he liked. He saw Holly every Tuesday and Thursday evening and every second weekend she came to stay. He tried to make things just like they’d always been. But little by little he noticed changes in her he couldn’t fathom. She was less affectionate and responded indifferently to his suggestions for fun. The hours went by so fast he’d hardly  time to start getting on the old footing than she was away. One Saturday she said to him:

“Mummy’s got a new boyfriend.”

“That’s nice,” he said. “What’s his name?”

“Colin.”

“Is he good fun?”

“Mummy says we’re moving.”

“Does she? Where to?”

“Spain.”

He put the plate he was wiping in the drainer and turned to the window. His heart was thudding to break his ribs.

“I don’t want to go to Spain, daddy,” the child said and started to cry.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” he said, picking her up. “You don’t have to go. You can stay with me. We’ll have great fun, eh?”

When Louise came to collect her he said:

“What’s this about Spain?”

“You’ll find out. All in good time.”

“Holly doesn’t want to go.”

“She’s a child. She doesn’t know what she wants.”

But when they were alone he lost his temper:

“For fuck’s sake, Louise. I’m her father.”

“So?”

“So she needs her fucking father. Children need fathers.”

“Do they?”

“I think so.”

“Are you sure it’s not you who needs a daughter?”

“Well of course I need her. She’s my fucking daughter. It’s my place to bring her up.”

“She’ll be fine. She’ll have everything she needs.”

“Except me. Don’t you think she needs to keep her relationship to me?”

“No, I don’t, Jem. Frankly I think you’re bad for her. She’s a bright girl and she needs to be pushed. She can get on in life. All she learns from you is how to sit around reading and drawing.”

“Picasso spent his life sitting around drawing.”

“At least he made some money from it. You don’t make a penny. It’s a waste of time. I don’t want her to grow up like you. I want her to get on.”

“You should want her to be happy.”

“Oh, happiness. You don’t live in the real world, Jem. Everybody manipulates everybody to get what they want. Don’t you understand that?”

He couldn’t answer. His nerves were badly shocked. This pretty, apparently charming woman he’d loved was a monster. He was bereft of means to make contact with her.

He discovered Colin owned language schools in Madrid, Barcelona and Bilbao, employed young linguists with TEFL certificates and made a fortune. He went to a solicitor to see if he could stop Louise; it cost him thousands to lose the case. The arrangement was he would fly out to see Holly once a month. She would stay with him for a few days at Christmas and for a week during the summer. He comforted himself with the thought of his monthly visit. He booked no frills, stayed in a cheap hotel, explored Madrid with her. But a visit was cancelled because they were going to Malaga and another because she was to stay with Colin’s sister, then he was ill, he didn’t have the money. Three months went by and he didn’t see her.

His little flat was full of pictures of her. He sent her sketches of birds, flowers, trees, people. He recorded messages on tape telling her all he’d done and everything that was happening and asked her to do the same for him, but nothing arrived. He wrote to Louise to protest she was turning the child against him. She didn’t reply. One wet, windy October evening he followed the swollen, swirling river to the old, wooden tram bridge. Through the gaps in the boards he could see the mad water smashing its head against the pillars and the white crests rising up defiantly, falling back to join the next surge. He jumped up onto the barrier, stood still for a second then launched himself headfirst. He was swept fiercely away and his body jammed against a pillar of the next bridge.

They resuscitated him but knew he had brain damage. He was unconscious for three weeks. When he came round, the doctor was surprised he could speak. She asked him what year it was. He had no idea. Who was Prime Minister? He said Harold Wilson. What was his phone number? He didn’t know he had a phone. His physical recovery was relatively rapid. He was able to walk around the grounds, his appetite was good; be when he was taken back to his flat he didn’t recognise it. A clinical psychologist worked with him for months and little by little he pieced together a picture of who he’d been.

“Who is this child?” he asked holding a picture of Holly.

“Your daughter.”

He shook his head.

Going back to his job was impossible. He’d accumulated a little pension and with benefits had enough to exist. Every day he went for a long walk by the river and once, coming back through the town, someone he didn’t recognize stopped him on the street.

“Jem! How are you?”

He smiled and shook the proffered hand.

“Remember me?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Vic. Vic Toulmin. We used to go to St Ives together. I played guitar for Meg Park. Remember. We shared a room one year.”

Jem looked into the man’s face and in his head there came a series of images:  a beach, breakers rolling in beneath a blue sky; a fire at night; a girl on the street singing; a young man with long hair in torn jeans and a t-shirt sketching holidaymakers; a pretty girl with a slim waist; a birthing room and a baby’s head stretching the lips impossibly to force its way into the world.

“Vic?” he said. “No, I’m sorry. I don’t remember.”

He let go of the hand and walked on.

 


FATKEGS

 

For thirty-five years the girls had mocked Mr Bradford as Fatkegs. He wore trousers which bagged hopelessly in the backside and flapped about his ankles.

“Has his cat died ? His bags are half-mast !”

He taught German in the old, grammar-school style, standing at the blackboard with a primer held aloft, enunciating the rules, scrawling conjugations in his flamboyant hand. The girls carried off brilliant results.  They were the cream of the comfortable suburbs, daughters of doctors, bank-managers, engineers. He sent dozens to Oxbridge. The years after  the war, before comprehensive schools appeared, were halcyon. He taught the same thing in the same way year in, year out. The girls were so bright their brains soaked it up, their work so accurate marking took no time at all. Wednesday afternoon was devoted to sports. In winter he went out to watch hockey or netball. In summer, athletics and tennis. The short maroon skirts flipped  to reveal navy blue knickers. The young breasts bobbed in the white tops. He’d perfected the art of the hidden camera. In his bedroom, where his mother wouldn’t find them, he had hundreds of photos  . At night he wanked off over the thighs and buttocks and breasts of girls he’d taught adjectival agreements and past participles.

It was well known he had to be kept on a high shelf.

“Did you see Fatkegs on the touchline ?”

“Yeah, dirty old git !”

“He was looking right at your bum every time you bent over.”

“He should be reported. He’s a public nuisance.”

“He should be castrated ! He’s a bloody pervert !”

The girls stayed out of his way, but occasionally he’d find the opportunity to touch a buttock or a breast.

“God, he touched me ! Ugh, he’s disgusting !”

“Where ?”

“On my bum.”

“You should report him. You should tell your dad.”

“He’d say it was accidental, and you know what they do. The teachers are never wrong.”

“It makes me sick. Touching up. He should be sacked.”

But there was no doubt he could teach. Even the girls who despised him and were physically revolted by his presence were impressed by his grasp of his subject and his ability to convey it. As for the school, they viewed him as a great asset. And he was a churchgoing man. For years he’d been a diligent scoutmaster. He led boys on night hikes; took them for camping weekends where they fell in love with the great outdoors; taught dozens how to tie a good sheepshank. The old folk loved him too. He organised beetle drives and sing-along evenings when  he played the out-of-tune piano. All the nostalgic songs of their youth. At Christmas, he organised the dinner, carved the turkey, served the teas. They all agreed he was a wonderful man.

And no son had ever been so attentive to his mother.

He lived with her in the solid, stone terrace where he’d grown up. She’d been a widow since he was fourteen. His father was a heavy-smoking bank manager with a taste for strong beer. Quiet and exasperated by his wife’s tense command of every household detail, he spent his evenings in the Cross Keys. He died like Felix Faure. It was the scandal of the district. His widow had never suspected. Thinking about his low infidelities was like thinking about the desert. It created a blank in her mind she was never able to fill.

Bradford was dutiful to a fault. Every Saturday he took her shopping to the local market. She clung to his arm.

“Give those tomatoes a squeeze, John ! `Are they firm? I do hate a squashy tomato.”

Mothers of less duteous sons envied Mrs Bradford her good fortune. In summer he could be seen up a ladder, sanding and painting. He took his mother on holiday with him. They cruised the Med or the Nile.

“Has John found himself a lady friend yet ?” a neighbour would say.

“He’s quite happy living with his mother,” Mrs Bradford replied and minced away.

It never occurred to her there might be anything odd about his behaviour. She liked having him around. He chauffeured her to the supermarket, to town, to church. She cooked for him and he ate appreciatively.

“Very nice that, mother ! Hot pot is one of your best.”

She took away the dishes with pride.

In the evening she watched t.v. while he was busy in his room. She assumed he had school work. But he was company even so. She wasn’t alone. Her daughter  married at twenty-two and went to live in Brighton. Why so far ? Couldn’t she have found a house round the corner?  She saw her once or twice a year. Was that any way to treat your mother ?  To John she said sharp words about his sister.

“Let her be,” he said. “We’re fine here.”

The activity they enjoyed most together was gardening. They spent long hours hoeing the beds; the greenhouse filled with turgid cucumbers and crisp beef tomatoes. They perused gardeners’ catalogues, chose seeds and bedding plants. For long hours they planned the changes to be made. As soon as the first days of spring arrived, they got busy. All day Sunday they would be intent. At five, she broke off and went indoors to make a roast dinner. They sat opposite one another and ate their own beans, peas, carrots , apples and blackberries pies. Mrs Bradford’s pies were legendary.

“There’s nothing better than eating from your own garden,” he’d say.

In his job, Bradford was conscientious to a fault. The girls’ books were diligently marked every week. He knew the standard of every one of them. He could remember the precise mistakes a girl had made:

“Christine, you need to think hard about this. You made mistakes with relative pronouns in your last unseen.”

The girls were amazed by his memory. They sat quiet and rapt at his clear explanations. And there wasn’t a detail of grammar he didn’t know. Susan Howe, whose father taught languages, tried to catch him out:

“Sir, if I’m writing trois metres carres do I need to make carre agree ?”

But it was childs’ play and chided her for not being able to think it through herself.

 

So when a complaint was made, his supporters closed ranks.

It was the era of the mini-skirt and despite the best efforts of the Head, girls would come to school in little grey numbers well above the knee. Bradford found that a negligent sixth-former, intent on her work, letting her knees fall apart, would be showing her crutch. He would spot a little triangle of white and move his chair. He grew bold and took the hidden camera into class. One day he’d been ogling a pair of heavy thighs and a navy blue V. The girl was slow to pack away.

“Did you follow that, Pamela ?”

“Yes, sir.”

She stuffed her things hastily into her bag.

“I could go over it with you one lunchtime if you find it hard. The subjunctive can be confusing.”

“No, it’s okay. I get it.”

“What’s that badge ?”

He ran his hand across her breast where the little shield was pinned to her blue cardigan. She pulled violently away.

“Don’t touch me !”

“I didn’t touch you ! I was just looking at your badge!”

She dashed from the room.

Bradford found himself in Mrs Gowling’s dark-panelled study.

“So you didn’t touch her, John ?”

“My hand may have brushed her accidentally. I was interested in her badge. You know, trying to make a bit of conversation, keep the girls on our side.”

“What was the badge ?”

“I don’t know. It was a little, blue, triangular thing.”

“It wasn’t simply the school badge ?”

“Oh no ! I’d recognise that, of course.”

“Pamela says it was.”

“Oh no ! Definitely not.”

“But the school badge is a blue triangle.”

“Yes, it’s coincidental.”

“Perhaps you were mistaken.”

“No, I don’t think so. But maybe. Perhaps the light was hitting it at a funny angle.”

“So you may have touched her.”

“I might have brushed her, as I say.”

“Where ?”

“Where ?”

“Yes.”

“Room 22.”

“Where on her body, John ?”

“Oh ! Perhaps her arm. I don’t know. I don’t think I touched her at all. I don’t remember doing.”

“Only she says you touched her breast.”

“Ha ! That’s ridiculous !”

“You might have touched it accidentally.”

“No ! If I’d touched her breast I’d’ve known. I mean you know if you’ve touched a breast, don’t you. I mean, a man does. Ha ! No, really. It’s absurd. You know what young girls are like about their bodies. No. I might have brushed her. Her arm, something like that. Nothing like her breast. Nowhere near. No, that’s ridiculous.”

Pamela was interviewed, accompanied by her parents. It was put to her that she might have been mistaken: maybe Mr Bradford brushed her arm.

“He touched my breast ! He went like that.”

It was suggested that maybe she was wearing something other than the school badge. After all, Mr Bradford knew the school badge perfectly well and he was sure it was something else. He’d been trying to see the badge, that was all.

“It was the school badge ! I’m wearing it now. It was pinned to my cardigan just like this.”

 

It was explained that Mr Bradford was an excellent teacher who had a first class degree from Cambridge. Such accusations can ruin a teacher. And the reputation of the school would suffer. She was, after all, a pupil in the best girls’ school in the county. It was a privilege to have such an education. Should it all be undermined because of a misunderstanding ?

“But he touched my breast !”

Pamela’s parents were nervous of a scandal. Maybe she was mistaken. They didn’t want to accuse Mr Bradford unfairly. On the other hand, they had to take their daughter’s complaints seriously. She was angry.

“Of course she’s upset but Mr Bradford has apologised for any distress. He was merely trying to show an interest. It’s always a little tricky when a male teacher finds himself alone with a girl. And adolescent imaginations can be fanciful.”

It was agreed to accept Mr Bradford’s apology. Nothing more would be said. The school’s reputation was safe. As was Bradford’s career.

But for a while, he left the camera at home.

Once the dust had settled, he fell back into his old habits. Pamela left and went to read Modern Languages at UCL. With her went the memory of his close shave. But the story was part of folklore. Everyone knew Bradford was a bender. One day, he was sitting in front of a class of fifteen sixth-formers. At one of the front desks was Rachel Ashcroft whose blonde hair, large breasts and shapely thighs made her the fixation of dozens of lads at the local boys’ grammar. She probably stimulated more masturbatory fantasies than the rest of the sixth-form combined. She played hockey for the school and the county. Bradford stood on the touchline amazed at her speed, vigour and skill. Sometimes she passed close, running hard, panting, controlling the ball and as she whacked it across the field her skirt would give a little wave and  there it was: Rachel Ashcroft’s arse. He clicked the shutter as he felt his cock growing taut.

Now she was beavering away at a translation and as she reached for the dictionary, looked something up, scribbled out what she’d written, the much longed for slight parting of her knees took place. Amazing ! There were her lovely tanned thighs and the sweet little inverted tent of  white beneath which nestled, oh it was too delicious to think of ! He coughed to cover the edging of his chair to the best vantage point. His cock was a poker. He sat with his legs apart relishing the view. Suddenly she looked up. Her wide blue eyes looked right at him. He tried to smile but her glare flicked down to the bulge in his crotch. She looked up, her eyes on sticks. He crossed his legs. Rachel turned round.

“Just get on with your work, Rachel,” he said. “Only ten minutes to go.”

She looked at him again and he could see the anger. He stood up and walked to the back of the room where he shoved his hand down his underpants and adjusted his cock. He loitered there until the erection subsided then came and sat once more at the front, his legs crossed.

“I tell you, he had a big hard on. It was sticking right up in his kegs !”

“ The dirty old bastard !”

“Someone should cut it off !”

“Rip it off, like in Zola,” said Alison, who devoured literature as eagerly as the other girls read teenage mags.

“What ?”

“There’s a scene in Germinal where the women hunt down their enemy and one of them tears his balls off with her bare hands.” 

“Is that possible ?”

“Anything’s possible in  a book.”

“I’d like to cut Fatkegs’s chopper off with a rusty knife. The slower the better.”

But these rants in hope of retribution came to nothing. Bradford sailed on till the school was forced to go comprehensive. He was fifty-nine. Had it survived as a Grammar, he might have gone on for a few more years. The work was easy enough and the thighs and breasts and the sweet young voices were plentiful. His picture gallery ran to thousands. All the same, he belonged to the past. He would retire and offer himself for supply. He would keep the hidden camera beneath his shirt and  would go on clicking and wanking towards seedy old age.

They held a special assembly. Bradford was on the stage to receive the cheque to which the girls and their parents had contributed. The staff  bought him a Leica. They knew his taste for photographing birds. Mrs Gowling gave the valedictory speech:

“ We are very sad today to be saying to goodbye to an institution. Mr Bradford will be talked about for years to come by the girls who have known him best. There is no-one like him. His kind are rare and we have been lucky to have had him with us for thirty-five years. Just think of that girls, half a lifetime…”

“Yeah, just think of it,” whispered a fifth-former, “it’s enough to make you sick on the carpet.”

“Half a lifetime of dedication to this very special place. There are many girls whose lives have been changed forever by their contact with Mr Bradford. They will never forget him. They have gone out into the world as different people. I have lost count of the girls he has helped to get into Oxbridge……”

“Has she kept count of the girls whose knickers he hoped to get into ?”

“As you know, Mr Bradford is one of the old school…”

“As we know, Fatkegs is an old perv !”

“..he has no truck with trendy theories. He believes in standards and he has kept his standards up for the whole of his three and a half decades in this school. That’s what we believe in at Williamson Grammar. Our standards remain whatever happens elsewhere. Of course, we can’t keep the world at bay completely. What goes on in the streets finds its way even into our classrooms and corridors at times. But we will not give in. We will stand on our mettle and defend our very special way of doing things. And I’m sure you will all agree there is no member of staff more special than Mr Bradford….”

“ You’re not kidding !”

“…I consider myself lucky to have worked alongside him for the whole of his time here. He and I are almost of the same age and we come from the same vintage. We know and respect the value of tradition. Williamson is going to change. We can’t help that. Forces beyond our gates are responsible. But I will do everything in my power to ensure that all Mr Bradford represents continues to flourish in this school. There have been many occasions when I have been touched… ”

“There’s many occasions when we’ve been bloody touched ! Silly old cow !”

“…by Mr Bradford’s kindness. His thoughtfulness. He is a true Christian who always puts the needs of others as high as his own. He is an upstanding member of the community…”

“Yeah, and he’s  an upstanding member all right !”

“…and an example to all young people. In this selfish age of ours, people think too much about their immediate satisfactions..”

“He thinks about nothing but our knickers !”

“…but Mr Bradford represents a sterner age, when self-discipline was the norm. He was himself educated in a fine public school and no doubt had a many a cold shower at six in the morning..”

“And many a hot fantasy at eleven at night !”

“…His character was moulded in one of our best private schools, which is why he is the man he is. And generations of Williamson girls have had the benefit of his careful attention. We now, unfortunately we are seeing the end…”

“Ugh !”

“..of a truly brilliant career of dedication. I am pleased to tell you the governors have agreed to the erection…”

“They should agree to his bloody gelding !”

“…of a small statue in the school grounds. A small reminder of Mr Bradford’s hard…”

“God, don’t remind us of that, you silly bitch !”

“…work on your behalf…..”

 

Bradford was handed an envelope containing a cheque. He stood  in his gown and the brown trousers whose crutch hung halfway to his knees and which stopped two and a half inches short of his shoes. He talked of the privilege of service, of the unflinching support of his colleagues, of the pleasure the girls had given him.

“Not half as much as he’d’ve liked !”

He promised he would be a frequent visitor, that he would return on supply, that he would always take a keen interest in the girls of Williamson. He told them he had a photo album…

“He’d better make sure the police don’t get their hands on that !”

He knew, in old age, he would be able to look through the many pictures he had taken over the years and relive his happy days in the classroom.

“I bet all the bloody pages are stuck together !”

He told them he could remember girls he taught thirty years ago and he wouldn’t forget them. He told them teaching at Williamson had been an ideal job.

He was replaced by a woman of thirty.

As good as his word, he made frequent visits to the school. He often turned up on a Wednesday or a Saturday to watch the hockey. He was relaxed, in a good mood. He would sweep his thinning hair across his head, sink his hands in his overcoat pockets and shout encouragement. The school used him frequently for supply. He enjoyed himself. It wasn’t really teaching. A day here, a day there. He was easy-going and chatty with the girls. They responded shortly and got on with their work.

Then word came from the county that under no circumstances must he be employed.

It was a mystery, but Mrs Gowling had the answer. He’d been out photographing and had wandered inadvertently onto railway land. They’d taken action and he’d been fined. That would be the explanation. The county couldn’t be too careful. Anyone with a criminal record was banned from schools. The staff agreed it was petty. A shame to lose a good teacher over such a bagatelle.

A few months later though, the report appeared in the paper. Bradford had been prosecuted for sexual assault on a teenage girl. He’d invited her to his house to take photographs. He was given two years.

No-one said a word. His name was never mentioned again. On his release from prison he went back to live with his mother. They sat opposite one another at the table in the evening. He chomped on his pork chop, sliced his new potatoes.

“Going to be cold tomorrow.”

“Is it ?”

“Have to turn the heating up, mother.”

“I’ll not go out if it’s icy. I can’t stay on my feet.”

“I’ll nip to the shop.”

She never mentioned prison.

They watched the television. She liked Coronation St and murder mysteries but she couldn’t stand the news. She went to bed promptly at nine with a milky drink. He stayed up late and hoped for soft porn on the telly. One morning he failed to appear. She knocked on his door:

“John ? It’s after nine, John.”

She went in. His room was foreign territory. It was gloomy and her eyes adjusted slowly. His head was thrown back on the pillow, his jaw loose. She went very close and touched his face and his hand. The cold shocked her. It was the promise of loneliness. Spread on the duvet were photographs. She collected a batch and took them downstairs where she rang her daughter. As she waited, she put on her glasses and looked at the pictures. They were all girls. Thighs. Breasts. Buttocks. She studied them. Before her daughter and the police arrived, she cut them up and dropped them in the bin.

The church was packed for his funeral. Many of his ex-colleagues turned up. The vicar spoke of his long years of dedicated service.

When his sister cleared his room she found his photograph albums. She sat and went through the pictures over and over. Many of these girls were now women. They were mothers and wives. They had children of their own. She had thought his offence with the girl the aberration of a frustrated old bachelor. But some of these photos went back to the start of his career. She had been proud of her elder brother. He did a hard job well. He was highly thought of. She went out into the garden and made a little pyre of sticks and dry leaves. She placed the albums on top and soaked them in petrol. Then she threw on a burning rag and watched her brother’s shame flame and twist and shrivel. But she was never able to burn those pictures from her mind and she would sometimes wake with a pounding heart and the image in her head of her brother bearing down on some young girl with his camera in his hands, the girl’s features distorted in fear and disgust, as he clicked away at her breasts, and crutch and backside. 

 


                                                                                 

BLUE CARPET

 

Mike Braun bounded up the narrow stairs past the Head of Sixth Form’s office. As he arrived, Hiscock appeared. He seemed surprised, pulled himself to his full height. Braun paused.

“All right, Dave ?”

Hiscock nodded and peered through his glasses. The two men hesitated. Hiscock straightened his jacket and went quickly down. Odd ? What’s the matter with him ? Braun loitered for a minute or two in the classroom beyond. The office door opened. Aye, aye ! A female head peeped out.

“Oh, hello, Mike. Have you seen Dave ?”

“No,” said Braun, “not at all.”

Mrs Twinklekeys emerged holding her note-pad and pen.

“I’m supposed to be doing shorthand.”

“Ah, shorthand.”

“I’d better go and find him.”

“Yeah. I haven’t seen him. Maybe he’s in the staffroom.”

“He’s never where he’s supposed to be.”

“No. So it seems.”

She trotted nimbly down and Braun noticed little bits of blue carpet fabric stuck to her back. She was gone in a flash. She was trim and quick all right for a woman beyond forty.

Two minutes later, Braun was in the P.E. office.

“Hey, hey, hey ! Guess what I’ve just seen ?”

The two young P.E. teachers stopped what they were doing.

“Tina Twinklekeys coming out of Dave Hiscock’s office with bits of carpet stuck to her back !”

“He’s been shagging the arse off her for ages !” said one of the others with a hint of disdain.

“You knew ?”

“Everybody knows.”

“How did you find out ?”

“I bumped into him in town, going the wrong way down Butler St.”

“With her ?”

“No. Going. She lives that way. Since her marriage broke up. One of those ancient terraced places on Old Mill St. So I says to him ‘Where you off, Dave? Not your neck of the woods.” And he says ‘For a drink.’ ‘A drink,’ I says. ‘Down here !’ ‘Yes,’ he says, defiant, you know. And then shuts up. ‘Well, watch yourself,’ I says. ‘Crack a tenner in The Rosebud and they’ll mug you on the doorstep.’ And off he goes. Well, I knew all right. Nine o’clock. He’s been dipping his wick for years.”

“Well, he’s doing it in school hours now. He’s getting paid for it !”

“Forty quid an hour. Nice work if you  can get it !”

“His wife’ll find out sooner or later.”

“Bet she knows already.”

“She’s blind if she doesn’t.”

The three of them went back to their work.

That week Eric Brain, Headteacher of Chipping Grammar, was checking the accounts. He’d done the calculations seven times, like a writer dissatisfied with a manuscript. Always the same result. A thousand short. He summoned the bursar.

“There’s a discrepancy. See what you find.”

She was away for two hours.

“A thousand down.”

The office staff had to be questioned. One by one he called them in. Tina Twinklekeys, sixteen years in the school, devote Anglican, Guide mistress, diligent to a fault, secretary to both Brain and Hiscock, was above suspicion. He called her last. No sooner had he mentioned the sum than she broke down. She was sorry; she had only borrowed it; she was going to pay it back; she’d got into trouble with her credit cards; she meant no harm; she’d resign immediately; being a single parent was hard.

Brain sat impassive as the dapper little woman  dabbed her eyes and blew her nose. He was a Christian and what was a Christian’s duty in such circumstances ? Wasn’t his faith being tested ? Wasn’t this an opportunity ? He felt that sense of superiority which floods the minds of the religious when they defend their belief against sceptics or offer forgiveness to sinners. He heard God speaking to him. God’s ways were so mysterious he could even turn secretaries into thieves so the wonder of Christian charity might be revealed. Nothing happened on earth, after all, without God wishing it to be so: not Nazi gas chambers, nor Hiroshima, nor Stalin’s mass murders. No. Hard though it was for non-believers to understand, these were the ways God permitted his goodness to be manifest.

“Calm down, Mrs Twinklekeys,” he said in his thin, mousey voice. “I understand your predicament. What you’ve done is wrong. No doubt about that. It’s a crime. A moral lapse. You do appreciate that ?”

“Yes. I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”

“Temptation,” Mrs Twinklekeys. “The devil goes round like a roaring lion.”

She looked up, startled.

“I’m going to forgive you, Mrs Twinklekeys.”

He felt himself rise. He was a mile nearer heaven. He imagined paradise as the Home Counties, without rain. Everything was orderly and moderate. Moderate was one of Brain’s favourite words. It excluded all he despised: socialists, the working class, argument, modern music, cities. He conceived the afterlife as Sunday afternoon in an upper middle-class home on the Sussex Downs: replete, quiet, contented, superior. He saw himself as God’s right-hand man. His place was secure. And all his enemies would be consigned to the flames of hell!  Heaven had to be a very exclusive venue.

Tina Twinklekeys felt awkward. She stopped crying, sniffed a few times and looked Brain in the eye. She wasn’t sure she enjoyed being forgiven.

“You must repay the money in full.”

“Of course.”

“How much can you afford per month ?”

“Would a hundred be okay ?”

“Ten months. That seems fair. But there must be no lapses. I’m afraid a repetition and I’d have to ask for your resignation.”

“No. I won’t miss a payment. Thank you very much Mr Brain.”

“That’s all right, Tina.”

She stiffened a little at his use of her first name: he was such a formal, buttoned-up character. She felt humiliated. She was glad she was to keep her job but she disliked his attitude. In a way, she wished he’d told her to hand in her notice. At least that was straight. The business of being forgiven pulled her mouth down at the corners. She left.

Later that day, collecting his mail from the tray in the office, Brain found a small white envelope marked Mr E.Brain, Private and Confidential. The handwriting was familiar but he couldn’t pin it down. Inside was a note:

Mr Brain,

                                            I think you should know that David Hiscock and Tina Twinklekeys have been having sexual relations on school premises during the school day.

Brain sat back in horror. The image came into his head of Hiscock on top of Twinkelkeys, her legs around him, his buttocks thrusting away with the regularity of an ink-jet printer, his trousers round his ankles, and she trying to suppress her little squeals of pleasure. Where! Where on these premises were they engaging in this foulness? He paced his office. He wanted to confront her. He wanted to thrust the letter into Hiscock’s hand. He sat down. He was full of rage and disgust. This was his school ! A Christian school ! He had just forgiven Twinklekeys ! But he couldn’t forgive her this ! Sex during the school day ! On the premises !

He was so beside himself he had forgotten that in his drawer was Hiscock’s letter of application for the post of Assistant Headteacher. When it occurred to him he almost fell to his knees to thank God. Wasn’t this too coincidental ? Didn’t it point to divine intervention ? Hadn’t he been intending to give Hiscock an interview ? He had always known, of course, that the two of them were closer than they should be but he’d never imagined it had gone so far. But he had the perfect means to discomfit Hiscock. He scribbled a note:

Dear David,

                                         Thank you for your application for the post of Assistant Headteacher. I’m afraid I’m unable..

He stopped. He went over to the window and looked at the weeping willow and the lawn. Wasn’t this a little corner of paradise ? A pupil walked by on some errand. An innocent boy of twelve or thirteen. He stood for a long time. Someone knocked at the door and he ignored it. The phone rang and he refused to pick it up. He sat down. He was resolved. He screwed up the note and dropped it in his bin.

Two days later, Hiscock walked into the staffroom and saw a new notice pinned to the Headteacher’s notice board. He knew at once what it was and rushed to read it. The interviews were to take place next Thursday. There was a timetable and a list of names. He read it. He read it again. He read it over and over. It was as if he had been physically attacked. He felt under threat and in need of fighting back. He wanted to walk out. Someone approached and asked him a question. He looked her in the eye but didn’t answer. He turned on his heels, marched out and went and shut himself in his office. But the day went on. He had matters to attend to. People came looking for him. A student knocked on his door and getting no answer poked his head round:

“Get out ! How dare you !”

Hiscock leapt from his chair and went after the lad. He stood inches from him.

“I’ll wipe the smile off your face, sunshine !”

 But the nettle had to be grasped. He postponed as long as he could, but at two thirty he knocked on Brain’s door.

“Come in !” trilled the thin little voice.

Hiscock closed the door behind him.

“Hello David. Do have a seat.”

Hiscock sat down without a word. He was too angry to dare to speak. He sat upright in the low chair. He was a big man with broad shoulders and heavy thighs. He seemed too large for the seat. Little beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. He looked at Brain who lay back in his swivel chair in his favourite executive pose. He wore a grey suit and one of those odd-coloured cotton shirts he favoured, a sort of greeny grey, indeterminate and dull. His hair was perfectly neat and trimmed as ever. At fifty-two his face still had something of a little boy. It was the face of an obedient choirboy or boy scout but the jowls were beginning to droop.

“What can I do for you, David ?”

“I think you know.”

Hiscock felt his pulse race. He would have liked to have punched Brain in the nose. He would have relished a playground scrap. He was bigger, fitter, younger. He would have laid him out and left him bloodied and defeated.

“I’m sorry ?”

“Oh for God’s sake !”

Brain sat forward and adopted a serious expression.

“Could you restrain your language, please. This is a Christian school.”

“I’ve read the notice about the interviews. I’d like to know why I’m not being considered.”

“Well, why should you know ?” said Brain in a tone of absolute reasonableness. 

“It’s customary.”

Hiscock was holding back as best he could.

“But if you’d applied for the post of Assistant Head in another school, you wouldn’t expect to be sitting with the Head discussing why you’d been turned down, would you ?”

“That’s different.”

“Why so ?”

“Because the Head of another school wouldn’t be writing a reference for me for any future job I applied for.”

“Oh, are you thinking of leaving us ?”

Hiscock paused. He looked Brain in the eye. The other man looked back at him undaunted, secure behind his status. Hiscock realised how much he hated him, a violent and destructive hatred. He would have gladly murdered him and felt no remorse.

“If I applied for an Assistant Headship elsewhere, would you support me ?”

Brain entwined his fingers, cat’s cradle style. He swivelled in his chair to face the window. For thirty seconds he held the posture. Turning back he said:

“You’d have to come to see me and we’d build your platform.”

“And what might be wrong with my platform ?”

Pinchbrain looked down at the blotting pad on his desk. He used it only to dry his signature. He was fond of his signature. He’d spent many hours refining it. It was a symbol of his status.

“I don’t trust you.” he said looking up, and before Hiscock could respond he added, “By the way, did you get that message from Mrs Twinklekeys this morning ?”

He looked hard into Hiscock’s eyes. Knowing what was going on, the other man felt suddenly subordinate. His mind raced. How had he found out ? Maybe he didn’t know at all. Maybe it was bluff. Maybe he merely suspected. Perhaps he should defend himself. He was on the point of saying: “Are you conniving at a relationship between me and Mrs Twinklekeys ?” when he realised how dangerous it might be. He would have to see it through. He would have to deny everything. What if they’d been spotted together ? What if someone knew about the sex in his office ? Suddenly he remembered Mike Braun. The image sprang into his head like a startled rabbit from a hedge. Had he suspected ? Tina had still been in there. Had he seen her ? He was swamped by confusion.

“Well ?” said Brain.

“Yes,” said Hiscock.

“Is there anything else ?”

Hiscock got up and left. He seethed with anger, hatred and humiliation. He was ready to murder. His face had taken on that ugly sneer that meant he wasn’t getting his own way. He experienced his impotence as a terrible threat. His very existence was in danger.  He went straight to Mrs Twinklekeys.

“Can you come and take some dictation in my office, please.”

The two other clerks looked knowingly at one another as she took up her pad and pencil.

“ Did Mike Braun see you coming out of my office ?”

“What ?”

“Think for fuck’s sake, Tina ! This is important. One day I met Braun at the top of the stairs. You were still in here. Did he see you?”

“Yes. He was hanging around when I came out.”

“Shit a brick !”

“What ?”

“Why didn’t you stay in here till the coast was clear ?”

“How did I know ?”

“Use your fucking brain woman ! You do have a brain don’t you ?”

“Don’t talk to me like that !”

“How are you going to stop me ? I’m your boss. Remember ?”

“You may be my boss, David, but you’ve had me on this carpet. I’ve sucked your cock while you sat in that chair. Mind how you talk to me !”

“Are you threatening me, Tina ?”

“I’m telling you to watch your tongue !”

“You can’t do a fucking thing, Tina ! You’ve stolen from the school. You’ve no power. You’ll do what I fucking-well tell you.”

“No I won’t ,Dave. You listen to me. I’ll tell Brain  you seduced me. I’ll say you used your position to screw me. I’ll tell him you fucked me in this office while the kids were in the classrooms. He can sack me if he wants. But he’ll sack you too. I can get another job on thirteen grand a year tomorrow, but where are you going to get one on fifty. Just back off, Dave, or I’ll finish you !”

Hiscock sank into his chair.

“Get out of here.”

Mrs Twinklekeys hesitated. She played the pencil between her fingers.

“You’ve had me for the last time. But just remember, treat me well or I’ll tell him everything.”

She was gone.

The interviews took place and a devote Christian was appointed. A`woman ten years Hiscock’s junior. He shook her hand and congratulated her. That evening he went  to town alone. He told his wife he was going out with colleagues.  He visited some dives. The drinkers were mostly rough and ready men but there were some raucous, boozy, smoking, tarted-up women. He looked at them and wished he could fuck one of them in a doorway.

At school, he kept an eye on Mike Braun. One day, he missed a break duty. Hiscock went straight to the new Assistant Head:

“He needs speaking to. It’s not the first time.”

Then, out for a curry with some of the blokes, he heard the story of Braun having had sex with a sixth-form girl. How hadn’t he known ? He was Head of Sixth-Form after all. How had he kept it quiet ?  He wanted chapter and verse but pretended to be blasé.

“Who was it ?”

Someone came up with a name.

“Was she eighteen ?”

There was a silence.

“No,” someone said after a few seconds. “She was Year 12. Seventeen at the most. Probably only sixteen when he started.” 

“Christ ! Was Mike married at the time ?”

“No, no ! It was when he was still single. You know what he was like then. Anything in knickers.”

The next day Hiscock ransacked the files stored in the old boiler room. He found what he wanted. From her picture he recalled her. She had been excellent at sport. No doubt that was  how Braun got his chance. But he would need more than hearsay. Discreetly he spoke to staff.

“Hey, did you know about Mike Braun ?”

“What’s that ?”

And he would tell conspiratorially what he knew hoping for some detail in return, but nothing emerged. His colleagues were cagey. Finally, he went to the new Assistant Head.

“But this is years ago !” she said.

“Does that matter when the good name of the school is at stake ?” 

“I’ll speak to Eric.”

“No ! Talk to Braun first. Get some evidence. Don’t go to the Head till you’ve  a real case.”

He waited but nothing happened. Should he go back to her ? He didn’t want to seem too eager. Weeks went by. He began to lose hope. Then came just what he wanted. A pupil accused Braun of having hit him. Everyone knew it was malicious but Hiscock volunteered to investigate. The Assistant Head, run off her feet and thinking it trivial, let him get on with it. He talked to all the boys who had witnessed the exchange:

“What did you see ?”

“Mr Braun was shouting at him, sir.”

“Just shouting ?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Was he close to him ?”

“Quite close, sir.”

“How close ?”

“I couldn’t say, sir.”

“This close ?”

“Not as close at that, sir.”

“Did he raise his hand ?”

“Kind of, sir.”

“What do you mean, kind of ?”

“He sort of went like that, sir.”

The boy jabbed his finger.

“So he poked Lygoe with his finger ?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“Well think. Did he touch him? That’s what matters. Did he make contact with him ?”

“He might have done, sir.”

Hiscock went to the Assistant Head. He had the evidence. A boy had seen Braun jab Lygoe with his finger.

“Let’s play it down,” she said.

“The parents have a right to know. Their son has been assaulted.”

“Assaulted is an exaggeration.”

“Would you say so if it was your child?”

“Above all we have to make sure there’s no publicity. You know what happens if the local rag gets hold of this kind of thing.”

“Sure. We have to keep it quiet. But he needs to be dealt with. Take it from me, he’s a loose cannon.”

She looked at him. He knew the school much better than she did. Was he telling the truth ? Hiscock stared at her. A little smile crossed his lips. He felt things were moving his way. He could feel his advantage growing greater. He would fuck that Braun good and proper. He would have the bastard sacked.

Everything had to be handled very formally. The letter to Lygoe’s parents was typed by Mrs Twinklekeys. She kept a copy for herself. At luchtime she went out alone and had a sandwich in The Dog and Gun. She took the letter from her handbag. It was to be signed by Brain, but she knew who had composed it. She had also typed the letters inviting the interviewees and the offer letter to the new Assistant Head. She knew how devastated Hiscock was and she knew too the ugly side of his character. She folded the letter and put it away. In the afternoon she spoke to Mike Braun:

“How are things, Mike ?”

“Fine. How are you ?”

“Oh, okay. Except for that moody bugger, Hiscock.”

“Is he on your case ?”

“He’s on everybody’s case !”

“Yeah ?”

“He’s been impossible since he didn’t get an interview.”

“Well, that’s understandable.”

“I don’t get why they didn’t invite him. He’s been here so long. And he’s Head of Sixth Form. Somebody must know something.”

“You think so ?”

“You know what Dave’s like. He gets on the wrong side of people. I can easily imagine someone wanting revenge.”

Braun had had several run-ins with Hiscock. Once he had  said to him, in the staff-room, in front of other staff: “Your name is mud, Mr Braun !”

 The Lygoes came into school. He had to account for himself. Hiscock was in the meeting. He pushed the issue of the jabbing finger.

“No,” insisted Braun. “I waved a stiff finger at him but I didn’t touch him.”

Hiscock looked down his nose.

“In any case,” continued Braun, “the lad’s story is that I hit him with my right hand. That’s impossible.”

“Why ?” asked Hiscock.

“My right arm was in a sling that week. I sprained my wrist lifting a weight.”

The Lygoes looked at one another. Hiscock studied his papers. Braun was found not to have touched the boy.

One afternoon he was bounding up the stairs to Hiscock’s office. They met at the top. Hiscock refused to stand aside. Braun waited a second and eased round him. The big man went rapidly down the stairs. A few seconds later, Tina Twinklekeys appeared from the office.

“Hi Mike !” she called.

She tripped down  nimble and athletic . He turned to watch but there was no sign of carpet fabric on her back. 


 

 

MY IDEA OF HAPPINESS

 

The teacher set them an essay: My Idea Of Happiness. It was the kind of thing she liked. She could challenge them but it was personal. OFSTED liked personal. She got lots of accounts of how great it would be to become rich and famous. Kerry Meakin wanted to be a pop star and marry a footballer. They’d be like Posh and Becks. She’d have three Ferraris and two Rolls-Royces, a private jet and an island in the middle of an ocean where they’d invite other super-rich celebrities. Their children would go to the most expensive schools. She’d start her own fashion line. Her husband would retire from football and become a Hollywood actor. It would be hard work and they’d have to deal with the paparazzi but she’d do charity work. She’d help poor children in Africa and Aids victims and she’d raise money for women with breast cancer. Ms Hamblin thought it a very good piece. She liked the imagination and gave it an A, adding a long paragraph of praise, as OFSTED liked. George Powley wanted to be CEO of a big computer company. He would be the Bill Gates or Steve Jobs of the future. His products would be the most popular in the world and he would earn billions. He’d marry a glamorous wife, meet Presidents and Prime Ministers. He’d have his own golf course and tennis courts and houses in New York, Paris, London, Sydney, Moscow and Madrid. He’d buy country estates in Scotland and the Home Counties and would spend months every year travelling the globe on his ocean-going yacht, the biggest and most expensive in the world. Once he’d become the richest man ever, he would establish charities and give away billions , but he’d be so rich that no-one would be able to equal his wealth even if he handed out three quarters of it. Ms Hamblin liked this. She praised his realism in understanding how important computers were and his ambition in wanting to be richer than anyone the world had known. She congratulated him on his compassion. His style too was uncluttered and effective. Jordan Hodgson wanted to make a fortune from porn. He would turn Kerry Maidstone, the most physically developed and precocious girl in the class into a porn star. He would have sex with hundreds of hot girls and all the drugs he wanted. He’d drive his Maserati at a hundred and twenty through thirty mile an hour limits because he’d be so rich the fines wouldn’t bother him. He’d have bodyguards and he’d carry a gun and if anybody crossed him they’d get it right between the eyes. Ms Hamblin had to condemn this: it was right to be ambitious and there was money to be made from porn but it wasn’t good to be violent. It was nice he wanted to do well in life but he needed to stay on the right side of the law. Some of the writing was good though so she gave him a C. Sophie Aspin was going to marry Johnny Depp, then dump him and marry Keanu Reeves, then dump him and marry Leonardo Dicaprio. She’d be in the magazines all the time and everyone would say she was a real bitch but she wouldn’t care because she’d have so much money she could do what she liked. She’d have affairs with lots of men but if her husbands had affairs she’d say they were love rats and not let them see their children. She’d go on a diet and be super thin and everyone would be saying she was anorexic and wondering if she was going to die. She’d never wear the same pair of shoes twice and all her clothes would be made by the best designers. Ms Hamblin rather liked this. She thought it expressed female ambition well but she had to question the morality of serial marrying and dumping. All the same, Sophie was clearly a modern girl who knew what she wanted and wasn’t prepared to accept second best. She gave it a B. The first line of Tom Casson’s essay read: My idea of happiness would be communism. Ms Hamblin went to make a cup of coffee. She’d always thought Tom a strange boy. He seemed clever but he didn’t care that he did well. He was usually top of the group and though he obviously liked it, he treated it as a joke. In fact he treated life itself as a joke. As she bit into her Jaffa Cake, she realised he annoyed her. He had no ambition. He awakened in her a terrible fear of failure. It was very odd, because he succeeded. He could write well and his comprehension skills were excellent. When they had to do a spoken English exercise he talked about Helena Bonham-Carter; he knew her biography and her connections to Asquith, all the plays and films she’d been in and explained what he thought made her such a good performer. He spoke for twenty minutes without notes, made the class laugh and seemed perfectly at ease. Yet he had none of her own intense desire to be noticed. He could take or leave the approbation. She jogged her mug and made a small splash of brown liquid on the parquet floor, thinking she must mop it up later. At her table she picked up the essay again:

Money doesn’t make people happy even though they think it does. I think it would be much better if we all had the same. It’s a pity communism didn’t work in Russia. I think wanting more money than other people makes us unhappy. If we didn’t have to worry about how much we had we could enjoy life more. The best things don’t depend on money. I couldn’t buy my family and friends. I know you can be rich and have family and friends too, but it’s not the money that makes you happy. Everyone talks about getting on and what they mean is getting more money than other people or having a better job and being in charge but if you spend your life doing that you don’t pay attention to the things that really make you happy like love and friendship. I think I would be much happier if we were equal because there would be no snobs. I don’t like snobs. Some people think they’re better because they’ve got a bigger car or a nicer house or have more holidays but those people don’t make me happy. I stay away from them. It doesn’t bother me whether people have money or not. I don’t choose my friends because they’re rich but because they’re nice people. I have a friend whose parents are rich but that’s not his fault. He’s a good friend and we have fun together. We go out on our bikes and play football and cricket on the park. My family isn’t rich but he doesn’t care because we’re good friends and that makes us happy. I have a baby brother and that makes me happy because I can play with him and show him things like how to kick a ball. I’m happy when I’m with my mum and my little brother. I don’t know why but it just makes me feel contented. I saw on the news that a politician has been sent to prison for getting money he shouldn’t have had. Will that make him happy ? He was probably pretty rich and he had power but I bet he’s sorry now. Why did he want money ? Everyone thinks it will make them happy. I collected money for the Pakistan appeal and a boy I know kept some of the money he collected. Will it make him happy ? I don’t think so. It would make me unhappy because it’s a bad thing to do and knowing you’ve done something bad gives you a horrible feeling. Like if you tell a lie to make things better for yourself . I think people get fancy ideas about happiness. I think it’s very simple. It’s just being with people you like and doing things you enjoy. I’m happy playing footy with my mates on the park. I play for Bispham Boys too and I enjoy it but sometimes the other team plays dirty. They kick your shins or grab your shirt and that annoys me. What’s the point ? I like to win but I don’t mind if we lose. I just enjoy playing. I don’t think it would make me happy to win by kicking people in the shins. That’s why I think communism is a good idea. We should all be equal so we can all be different but not snobs. I’m cleverer than my best mate but I’m not a snob about it. I don’t think I should have more money than him because I’m better at English. I think that’s a stupid idea. What’s money for ? It’s so we can buy food and clothes and have a house and the things we need. Everybody needs those things. If you’re a snob you want to look down on other people because their house is smaller or they’ve got no car. I think that’s really stupid because you might be looking down on a really nice person who could be a good friend. Some people say that people who don’t have money are lazy but my family work hard and still don’t have money. I don’t think it’s about hard work I think it’s about snobbery. That’s why I like the idea of communism because we can all work and share everything. Then there’d be no snobs and that would make me happy. This is just my opinion and lots of people would say that being able to become rich makes them happy. I think it’s hard to be rich and not be a snob, which is why I disagree. Anyway, Jesus said give your money to the poor and I think he was a good person.

Ms Hamblin was inclined to put two red lines through this drivel. Was Tom Casson mentally disturbed ? She found it very unnerving to read his little essay. She was going to give it an E and write a derogatory comment but she resisted and instead wrote simply: Speak to me.

At the end of the next lesson Tom hung back.

“I can’t speak to you now, Tom. Come and see me at the start of lunch.”

He knocked and she called. She had his essay on the desk in front of her.

“Sit down, Tom.”

She turned to look at him and smiled.

“Are you okay ?”

“Yes thanks, miss.”

He was a small, slender boy but well-proportioned and personable. She became aware of her own size: she was six feet two and thirteen stone but carried no fat. Lots of the boys were tall and hefty and Ms Hamblin was glad she had an impressive build. It had become part of her way of dealing with pupils but now it seemed de trop. It was curious he could make her feel like that. She sat up straight and took the paper in her hands.

“ I just wanted a word about your essay.”

“Yes,miss.”

“The ideas are very interesting.”

“Thank you, miss.”

“Very unusual.”

He laughed.

 

“All the essays are pretty much the same, in a way. But yours is very different.”

He laughed again.

“I thought your view of things was very intriguing.”

“Thanks, Miss.”

“I don’t really understand it myself, you know what I mean ?”

“Yeah.”

“I suppose what I’m saying is it’s not the way I think.”

“No.”

“Not many people think like that, at least I don’t imagine they do.”

She looked at him and noticed how there was the hint of a smile about his face. His lips were always almost smiling and he had a sparkle in his eyes which pleased her. He was such a lovely boy, to look at. She pretended to read the essay again.

 

“I’d like to give it a good mark,” she said.

“Thanks, Miss.”

“The problem is what other people might think. You know what I mean ?”

“What other people ?” he said with a little laugh.

“Well, OFSTED inspectors for example. You know all about them don’t you ? What worries me a bit, Tom, is that an inspector might think I’ve been teaching you these ideas.”

“Oh, I’d never say that !”

“I know you wouldn’t, Tom. You’re an honest boy. And you’re one of the best in the set. Probably the best, actually. But I’m the teacher and an inspector might wonder where these ideas have come from.”

“They’re my own ideas,” he said.

She looked at him and smiled.

“Do your parents talk to you about these kinds of ideas?”

“No, Miss.”

“Where’ve you come across them ?”

“I don’t know, Miss. Nowhere really. We’ve done about the Soviet Union in History. But it’s just what I think myself really. I don’t like snobs.”

“Neither do I,” she said, laughing. But at once she thought about her new BMW. All the pupils had been excited when she arrived in it. She was very proud of it. She’d had to take out a loan of £20,000. The rest  came from her grandmother’s legacy. Did Tom think of her as a snob ? “What makes a person a snob?” she said.

“I don’t know. Looking down on other people and bragging about money. I just don’t like it. I don’t care about money.”

“I wish I could say the same !” she said swinging back in her chair and guffawing. “But I’ve got a mortgage to pay. That’s life I guess, Tom. We all get caught up in it, don’t we ?”

“I suppose so, Miss.”

She noticed how he’d slipped the fingers of each hand through one another and was rolling his thumbs together.

“You see, I was thinking you might like to rewrite this, Tom.”

“I don’t think so, Miss.”

“No. It’s unfair. You’ve done the work like everyone else. But I was thinking you might like to make it more personal. You know what I mean ?”

“No, Miss.”

“Well, for example, what would you like to own that would make you really happy ?”

She leant forward, pushing her elbows across the desk, smiled and tilted her head.

“I don’t know, Miss. Maybe a new bike.”

“Yes !” she said, sitting upright and clapping her hands together. That’s it. You could write about that. A new bike and why it would make you happy.”

“I don’t think it would make me happy,” he said and moved uncomfortably.

“I know what you mean. Yes. But at least a bit happier.”

“Yeah. Well, I’d like a new bike. Mine’s a bit old and it’s only got ten gears. Some of my mates have got twenty-seven and carbon frames and all that stuff. I’d like a bike like that. But my mum can’t afford it. So it wouldn’t make me that happy, it’s just something I want.”

“Of course. But getting the things we want makes us happy, doesn’t it?”

“No.”

“It’s not everything. You’re right. But it does help, doesn’t it. Like I was happy when I got my new car.”

She looked into his eyes. Boys usually loved to talk about cars and hers being expensive and fast, she could usually be sure they would respond, but there was a hardness in his eyes that disturbed her and his face showed no emotion.

“What kind of car do you have,Tom ?” she said, realizing at once she might have made a terrible mistake.

“We don’t have a car, Miss. My mum can’t afford it.”

“Well, that’s okay,” she said, picking up the essay again. “So long as you can get around.

She sat for several seconds pretending to read. What should she say next ? She couldn’t give it a good mark because she feared what might happen if anyone thought she’d put these ideas in front of her class. She felt bound to challenge their naivety. Yet at the same time she felt unfair. She couldn’t tell the boy what to think, though she wished she could. What kind of life was he going to have if he thought like this ? He ought to be ambitious. He should be thinking about making money, getting a big house, an attractive wife. There was something morbid about a teenager thinking such thoughts as his. It was neurotic, or something. He must be very lonely.

“What does your mum do, Tom ?” she said, still looking at the paper.

“She’s a cleaner, Miss.”

“What about your dad ?”

“He’s in prison, Miss.”

A sudden shock went through her which she fought hard not to show. Why didn’t she know ? Why hadn’t it been announced ? God, this place !

“I’m sorry about that.”

She set the essay down on the table.

“Well, Tom. I’ll give this the best mark I can. The writing is okay. You’re a good writer, usually. But what I’m trying to explain is….I could get into trouble. You see, we’re not allowed to tell pupils what to think and these ideas are so off the wall, someone might think I’ve been trying to influence you. You know what I mean ? Teachers have to be very careful these days.”

“Yes, Miss.”

“So if you wanted to rewrite it, you know, something about getting a new bike or maybe your mum buying a car or something like that….”

“My mum couldn’t afford a car, Miss.”

“No, but you see what I mean. Something that might make life a bit better and so make you all a bit happier….”

The boy looked down at his hands. She noticed how long his eyelashes were. He really was a very attractive young man. He turned his face to her and she saw the hard look again in his blue eyes.

“I think I’d be happy if there were no snobs,” he said. “That’s what I don’t like. I think about it a lot.”

“Yes,” she said, “yes. But perhaps you should think about yourself a bit more. There are lots of opportunities for a young man like you. You’re bright, Tom. You could get on. Then you could buy your mum a car !”

She laughed, leaned back in her chair and ran her long fingers through her blonde hair. The boy studied his hands for a few seconds.

“I don’t think it’s a car she needs, Miss.”

His look, so fixed, so sure, so adult unnerved her.

“Well, I’ll mark your essay, Tom, and let you have it back.”

“Thanks, Miss.”

As soon as he was out of the door she scribed a red E in a circle and began her comments:

Though this is quite well written, the ideas are bizarre and not what I expect from a boy of your age. I expected you to write about your personal desires and ambitions, the normal things that everyone aspires after. I wasn’t expecting you to write from a political point of view, especially one so far from the mainstream. This gives me a difficulty because…..

She stopped, packed away her things, picked up her bag and went to the staffroom. She would have something to tell her little corner circle of colleagues today. “Guess what…” she would begin.  

 


 

STITCHED

 

The Bridge Motor Company had four categories of worker: skilled, semi-skilled, unskilled and women. The last two blended: it was taken for granted women were unskilled, or at least, if they had skills, they shouldn’t be paid for them. When Daisy Sherwood applied for a job she had to show she could operate three machines. Essentially, they were different types of sewing machine. She enjoyed demonstrating how she could handle them. She got the job and started on thirteen shillings and eightpence an hour for a forty hour week.

 She was thirty nine and her children nearly grown. Married at twenty, she had her son at twenty-one and her daughter at twenty-three. Her husband had worked as a paint sprayer in the Bridge factory since he left school, but Daisy had been in all kinds of places. All her jobs had been low-skilled and low-paid but she’d put up with it because she was a part-timer, wanting to be able to devote proper attention to her children, and a woman. It was a fact of life women were low paid. Daisy didn’t put it in question, except in a grumbling way. Out for a drink with her pals when she was young and cleaning offices for an agency, they’d say:

“Why should men get paid more for doin’ same ?”

“’Why should they ? I’ve been asking those whys all my life and I’m no nearer an answer.”

“What’s right is right but making what’s right what happens is harder than teaching a fish to walk.”

“Or a man to admit he’s wrong.”

“Get another round in then we’ll change the world.”

But it seemed an unchangeable fact of existence. When she ran it through her head in a clear and simple way, it was obviously wrong. She packed chocolates for six months and the men earned ninepence an hour more. Why ? She did exactly the same and just as well. That it was wrong was beyond question, but what could she do about it ? It was when she moved from the crystal recognition of its injustice to the idea of changing it that her thoughts broke down. It was as immovable as Everest. There was nothing to do but get on with life as best you could. She enjoyed working. It got her out of the house, gave her a bit of independence, she made friends, the women always had a good laugh. The unfairness of being paid less than men for the same work drifted into the background of her consciousness. All the women went along with it. You couldn’t spend your life trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon. Take it as it comes. Have a laugh. What else was possible ?

The female seat-stitchers at Bridge were employed on B grade and the men on C. The lowest grade  A, was reserved for the most menial work. The highest grade was G , for men who were paid nearly five shillings an hour more than Daisy and her work pals. For a long time the women complained. It was a sore that wouldn’t heal. They talked about it over and over and the same arguments, the same sentences, the same words, the same aggrieved tone, the same anger, the same frustration were repeated and repeated and repeated. But no-one ever said they should take action because no-one knew what action they could take. They all belonged to the Motor Industry Auxiliary Workers Union but the convenor didn’t mention their pay status. Across the company’s factories workers were fighting for re-grading. Who was going to listen to a few hundred women ? They were small fry. They were plankton. They existed to be devoured by the sharks. The big beasts made the running and the big beasts were men. There was nothing to be done.

Then one day, out of nowhere, without quite knowing why, they walked out.

“You’ll have a fight on your hands,” said her husband Len.

“Will you join us ?”

“You’ve got to do what you think right. If the union calls us out, I’ll walk.”

“The union won’t call you out, Len. We’re on our own.”

“You won’t win on your own. We only win when we stand together.”

“We’ll stay out as long as it takes. If we never go back we never go back.”

“They’ll get scab labour.”

“We’ll picket.”

“You’ve got to persuade the union to back you. Get all the unions on your side. Bring all the blokes out. Shut the thing down for a few weeks. Once they’re losing millions they’ll pay you ‘cos it’s cheaper. Bosses always do what’s cheapest. And they can never afford to improve pay or conditions until they’ll lose more money by not doing. You’ve got to twist their arms. It’s not about winning an argument, it’s about force. You’ve got to drive ‘em into a corner.”

Why hadn’t she thought that through ? Why had her husband thought about it more than her ? She realised that just as women were supposed to do the low-grade work for low pay, or the same work as men for less, so they were supposed to leave the union business to the men. But she could work it out just as well as Len. She’d simply never bothered and she’d never bothered because she’d thought it wasn’t her place. The idea made her laugh. Not her place ? Once she’d dismissed that fool’s notion, she began to think about it every day. She talked and talked to the other strikers. She felt suddenly confident. She had an argument and she wanted it refuted or accepted. Why couldn’t her skills be recognised ? Why was she treated as unskilled when it was plain she needed skills to operate the three machines ? How could she have ever imagined it wasn’t her place to take these arguments to the bosses ? Why should it be left to the men ? Didn’t the women have tongues ?

She spoke to the convenor.

“Our case has never been put, Eddie. The union has never gone to the bosses on our behalf. When there’s a discussion of re-grading, it’s always about the men. It’s never about us. We want you to take our case. We’re determined but we don’t want to stand alone. I’ll tell you, Eddie, they won’t get me back in there without re-grading.”

“You’re right, Daisy. Your case should be put and the union should do it. I’m on your side and I’ll do all I can but take my advice. Don’t try anything wild. Stick to your guns. I’ll try to get the union to recognise the dispute and bring in national negotiators.”

Anything wild ? What did he mean ? She was handing out leaflets in the town centre under the June sunshine, by the trees in the square. It was a working day. She should be at her machine thinking about tea-break and what she had to say to the other women. Oh, there’d be a good laugh as always. But here she was. It seemed almost like a crime. Since she left school she hadn’t spent a single day away from work except for holidays and the birth of her children. Now she was on the street at ten o’clock in the morning because she’d walked out ! It made her laugh. It was really astonishing. She, little Daisy Sherwood, had defied the Bridge Motor Company; one of the biggest employers in the world, a huge multi-million outfit; and simply by taking a small decision, along with all the other women, she’d escaped its tether like an animal which gnaws at its bind.  It struck her that this was the very first time in her adult life she’d been free. How strange to be here doing something she’d chosen. The world was a different place. Why, under the blue sky she might do just as she liked. She might take a walk or a nap. She might sit in a café and drink a cup of tea. She might go and see a film. But to do that someone else had to work and in working would they be as aggrieved as her ? What a strange thing it was to be employed. There were jobs galore but only one she could do. What did all the blather about opportunity come to ? Millions of people fitted to a small function like a plug into a socket. What opportunity did most of them have ? Who did she know who had any opportunity worth speaking of ? They were always wittering about it as if you could change your job like your knickers; as if things were organised so women like her could pick and choose; as if more money and more interesting work were just round the corner; but the truth was you got a job and you stuck at it; you kept going. That’s what people did. Week upon dull week, year on exhausting year. There was no chance of anything better. You couldn’t think of moving to a new town. The big nobs might flit, but not the millions. Opportunity . What a fraud. Yet this really was different. And she’d brought it about herself. Not that she wasn’t working hard. She’d been up at six to get leaflets from the printer. They’d had a meeting at eight to decide what needed to be done that day. She’d be talking at meetings at two and seven to drum up support and money. Then the women’s strike committee would meet again to plan for the next day. If she was home for ten she’d be lucky. She hadn’t seen her husband for days. It was hard work but it wasn’t employment. She didn’t clock in. She didn’t feel like a thing. She wasn’t used. She was working hard for something she believed. Did she believe in seat covers ? People wanted cars and that was fine. Even Len had a second hand Anglia. There was nothing wrong with the convenience of being able to drive yourself here and there. But sewing seat covers didn’t feel like something she was called to do. She enjoyed the skill and she was good at it. She’d always been neat with her hands. There was a simple enjoyment in any task, in seeing it through and producing something. But how many thousands of covers had she sown ? And where were they ? All over the country under people’s backsides. What she worked for was money and that too was why she was here, smiling at passers-by and offering them a flyer. But there was something else the money stood for. Getting a proper grading wasn’t just about having more in her purse on a Saturday; it was about not being humiliated, not being deemed second-class; it was about standing up for yourself against a bully; it was about coming together for everyone’s dignity and well-being. The odd thought went through her head that the grading would be worth fighting for even if it didn’t bring more money but she’d never have thought of that at her machine. There was something about the factory, about work, about employment that shut down the best parts of your mind. When you were working you couldn’t think. Not really think. All you could do was turn the same silly notions around in your head over and over: what shall I make for tea ? when shall we book a holiday ? how long to tea-break ? can I afford some new shoes this week ? It was all stupid stuff. But now she was thinking. She’d begun with a small and simple idea: why shouldn’t she be graded like the men; but now she was wondering why being employed was so odd and she was beginning to think the women could run things for themselves. They were always made to think they could do nothing without the bosses. From the directors down to the supervisors, it was those in charge who made everything happen. But now the company was panicking because eight hundred so-called unskilled women had stopped working. Suddenly she was significant. And running a strike was no easy matter. She’d never realised what was demanded. She’d watched men on the telly walking out of their factories and  thought they just went and sat at home, did a bit of fishing or went to the bookies. She’d never realised how much thought and effort was needed to keep everyone together, to work through your strategy, to figure out what the bosses were planning, to think on your feet, and simply to do the exhausting leg work to pull in support and, vitally, money. It was ten times harder than sewing seat covers but a hundred times more interesting. And if the women could run a strike, why couldn’t they run their own factory ?

“If you get the grading you’ll have done bloody well,” said Len. “Turning Bridge into a women’s co-op, that’s a nice idea, but maybe in a few thousand years.”

“I know, I know. But it’s true, ain’t it ? They tell us we can’t do things for ourselves. Your machine tells you that every day. I sit there sewing and the rattle of the needle tells me that’s what I was made for so I never think I can do anything else. I’m not clever. I’m not educated. But I’m learning now. That’s what it is, Len. They don’t let us learn and they tell us we’re too stupid to take decisions.”

“’Course they do, otherwise some bloke from the factory floor would be Prime Minister and turn Buckingham Palace into a swimming baths.”

“Or some woman.”

“Yeah, I’ll vote for you, girl ! Get yourself elected and give Wilson a kick up the arse.”

“I don’t know, Len. We’ve elected working-class folk to parliament but it don’t seem to do no good. We always get let down.”

“They’ve got you by the short and curlies once you’re in that place, Daisy. It’s in the factories and on the streets you’ve got to change things. Build the pressure so they’ve got to change the law. That’s how I think. The law just accepts what’s happening. People start striking so they pass laws to make striking difficult. What we’ve got to do is fight so hard they’ve got to change the law the other way: to make it hard to treat workers badly and pay them next to nothing. That’s how I think. It don’t matter who you send to parliament if our movement’s strong.”

The action was in one factory and the women were worried the company would bring in seat covers from elsewhere, but out of nowhere the women in the country’s second biggest factory walked out too. Daisy and her workmates were amazed. They’d brought two factories to the point of closure. The production line was slowing. Without seat covers the cars couldn’t be delivered to the retailers. The men were put on short time. As the second week of the strike began, the management announced the closure of the plant. The factory in the north closed too. Bridge’s entire national operation was halted. When Daisy came out of her house, the pavement was packed with journalists.

“Think what you’re going to say before you open the door,” Len had said, “and stick to it. Those bastards will try to catch you out.”

It was very strange to see herself interviewed on television. It was usually only famous or important people. Yet there she was, and millions of people watching. She was important enough to be on the telly but who was she ? Just a woman who sewed seat covers in a factory; a woman who would live and die and be noticed by no-one; one of history’s nobodies. But now she was a somebody. Was that true of all the somebodies on the telly ? They were just nobodies with a camera pointed at them ? Or was it that the idea of important and unimportant people was just daft ? It was hard to work out. Some people were important. Shakespeare or Florence Nightingale. They did something special. Was she doing something special ? Well, she must be. It wasn’t everyone who brought a company as big as Bridge to a standstill. But she wasn’t really special as a person. It was just circumstances. If she hadn’t become spokeswoman for the strikers, someone else would have. But being on the telly made you seem special because you could be in a million places at once. It was a kind of magic. It gave you a power no-one really had. And then she realised it wasn’t herself that was important or special, but the idea she stood for. It was that. The idea that women should be graded like men in their jobs. That’s what all the fuss was about. As for herself, her personal self, she was just like everyone else, except circumstances had made her act.

“Two weeks ago, no-one took any notice of us. Look at us now !” said Daisy to the five other women with her in the pub.  

“Yeah, we’re important because they’re losing money.”

“Hit ‘em in the pocket, that’s their language.”

“We’ve not won yet, girls. They’ll try to starve us back.”

“I know. I’ve already spent the Christmas money.”

“They’re bastards.”

“’Course they are. That’s why they’re rich. You don’t get to be a millionaire by being Jesus Christ.”

“But the unions are on our side. The men are with us. That’s a big victory. They don’t ignore us any more,” said Daisy.

“Do you think we’ll win, Daisy ?”

“No idea. I’ve never done this before. But we don’t go back without the grading. We have to stick to that and we have to persuade all the women to stay out.”

“It’ll be hard if we’re out for months.”

“Some of ‘em will crack,” said Daisy. “But we’ve come this far. We’ve got to keep going.”

They all knew the hardest days were yet ahead. So far, the women had stuck together. Not a single one had broken ranks. But they feared the spread of cynicism and defeatism. Day by day they sent out the message of strength and hope. They had to counteract the media who claimed they were lazy, did low-grade work, wanted to be paid for skills they didn’t have, were holding the country to ransom. They had to maintain spirits and discipline. Two weeks without wages was hard for a lot of the women. They had no savings. Some of them were down to coppers by pay day every week. The strike fund didn’t go far. Children were being fed by grandparents and neighbours already. If they were still out at Christmas there would be a crisis of morale.

Then, once again as if by a miracle, they were given a boost: Linda Bellis, the Minister for Employment, invited them to meet her.

“Can you believe it, Len ? Suddenly even cabinet ministers want to know what we think !”

“Democracy in action, Daisy ! Like I say, they only act in our interests when we make ‘em.”

Six of them took the train into London. As soon as she was inside the Ministry, Daisy was struck by the atmosphere of power. The factory was nothing like this. It made you feel small. Everything about a factory was designed to push you down. You had a machine. That was your little spot. That was your place in the universe. You had a job to do and it needed the same actions over and over. You made seat covers but you didn’t make seats. How were they made ? As for the engines, she didn’t even know where they were made. That was the factory. It pushed you into a  corner, told you not to think any further. That’s why the women went to bingo, watched rubbish on tv, smoked, drank: those things were allowed. They were encouraged to be unthinking. Someone else made the decisions and they fell in with them and somehow felt that was freedom. But this place exuded command. Just being inside it made you feel important. It was quiet. People were busy in offices. A man in a dark suit appeared through a heavy door with papers in his hands and walked at a stately pace ahead of them along the carpeted corridor. It made her think of hospitals and doctors taking life or death decisions. That’s what happened here. If you were one of the big-wigs in this place you could make a choice that would affect the lives of millions for better or worse. And if you were Linda Bellis, you were in charge of all this. How strange. What was so special about her ? Oh, she could talk bricks to powder, they could all do that. What were they, politicians, but people who knew how to wrap a simple idea in so many words you couldn’t see it any more ? They’d all swallowed dictionaries and could talk for an hour and half about how to boil an egg. But so what ? Did that give them the right to have so much power ? Why should millions like her vote and all the power end up in a few hands ? Her she was, invited into the citadel, on her way to talk to a minister ordinary people usually only see in the papers or on television, and simply because she’d stood up from her machine and said enough is enough. She hadn’t asked to speak to Linda Bellis. They’d been invited because it was a crisis. Well, maybe that’s what people in factories should do: maybe they should create a crisis for the people in power every week until things changed. She’d voted Labour in 1964 and 1966 and expected things to change. How ? She was just vaguely aware of expecting life to be different but she couldn’t say how. But now it had changed. Her life had changed utterly. She was important because she wasn’t working. Wasn’t she important when she was  ? That was how it happened: while you were at your machine they took you for granted, they made use of you. You sold the skill of your hands, the precision of your eye, your stamina, your speed, just like a woman sold her body on the street. And you did it for the same reason: because otherwise you starved. And only when you stopped and the rich got worried about their profits did they start to see you as a human being.  Linda Bellis wanted to speak to them because she was worried about votes. It was disappointing. It made her sad and angry. But she wasn’t going to miss the opportunity. She was going to speak her mind.

Bellis was a spare, quick little woman with a theatrical voice, beautifully coiffured bouffant auburn hair, a smart twin-set and high heels which clicked authoritatively on hard floors. Over the years she’d cultivated a disarming smile which creased her attractive face, mostly to fend off the condescension of men. She’d had to fight every inch of the way to a ministerial position and the hard-headed ambition she’d had to cultivate robbed her of gentleness and the ability to grant others the space she demanded for herself. She covered this ruthlessness by being compulsively busy and as she worked she talked. She came into the room laden with papers which she lowered heavily onto the table. At once she was in charge and organising. Move these chairs here. Gather round. Who wants tea and who coffee ? She apologised for being late but a minister had so many things to attend to. Had they found the place easily enough ? Did they often come to London ? But when the women answered she wasn’t listening. She tried to establish an informal atmosphere. She even let a hint of a cockney accent appear in her well-groomed speech. The tea and coffee appeared. Daisy noticed Bellis didn’t thank the woman who brought it. She began to talk about the strike. She was sympathetic. She was on the side of women after all. She knew how hard women had to struggle. She wanted to help.

“What  is it you want from this dispute ?” she said and sipped her tea from the bone china.

“Equal pay,” said Daisy without thinking.

The women had never talked about equal pay: all they wanted was the same grading as the men. The principle of equal pay for equal work had never come to the fore. The union had told them over and over not to expect too much and to keep the boundaries of the dispute clear. Getting the grading didn’t mean equal pay, just better pay. Daisy had stuck her neck out and she expected Bellis to chop her head off.

“Couldn’t agree more !” said the minister in her resonating tones. “No argument against it. I’m with you all the way in that fight, but you know..” she put down her cup and saucer, wagged her finger and subjected them to a five minute lecture on how difficult it would be to get men on their side.

“My husband agrees with it,” said Daisy. “So do lots of men I know. After all, most of us are married. We get equal pay, the family’s better off. Men’d be daft to be against that.”

“They would,” said Bellis. “But we have to ask how we’re going to do this. The public expect things to be conducted in a proper way. You see, I don’t have the power to tell Bridge what to do. So I suggest we set up a court of inquiry into re-grading. That way, people can see things have been done fairly.”

Daisy couldn’t have been more shocked if Harold Wilson himself had come through the door naked with his pipe in his mouth. She stared at Bellis. Did she really think they were so stupid they didn’t know a court of inquiry would be as biased as a bowling ball ? She was so angry she could have smashed the dinky cups on the floor and walked out. What they’d fought for was being taken from them. Why had Bellis invited them here only to tell them they’d wasted their time. It was a disgrace.

“What if we say no ?”

“Well, I have to do something. You see, I’m responsible. Every day that goes by and the factories aren’t working people are looking to me to do something. I can’t sit idly by…..”

“You could tell the bloody management to give us the re-grading,” said Daisy.

Bellis laughed, as if she was one of the girls, as if she found it funny. 

“But you see, I can’t. I can only bring pressure. I can’t tell a private company how to act.”

“What do we elect you for then ?” said  Daisy.

Bellis laughed again.

“Look, equal pay legislation is what I intend. I’ll try to push it through. A law against separate pay scales for men and women.”

“We need something sooner than that.”

“I know. That’s why I’m offering a court of inquiry. All parties will have to accept its findings. In the meantime, you can get back to work and start earning again.”

On the way back Daisy set a brisk pace.

“What d’you think ?”

“Bloody rubbish !” said Daisy. “Court of inquiry ! Here’s the noose, stick your head in it.”

“Yeah, as if the buggers who’ll sit on that are on our side.”

“We’re not going back to work for that.”

“Too bloody right.”

“What we gonna do ?”

“We’ll have to put some pressure on management, but we’re not going back just because a bunch of blokes in suits are going to sit on their bums for a century and talk about our gradings. Bugger that.”

She was washing up when Len came in.

“Court of inquiry. Waste of bloody time,” he said.

“Isn’t that what they always do ? Shove things to one side. Let balloon lose its air and then offer nothing ?”

“Oh, they’re foxy bastards,” said Len wiping the plates and stacking them in the cupboard. Nothin’ straightforward about ‘em. Power. That’s how it works. You can’t want power and be straightforward. It’s even true in the union. Wherever there’s an opportunity there’ll be a rat gnawing at it.”

“I don’t want people to be saints, Len, I just want my case recognised.” 

“I know girl. Problem is you want it recognised by people in power. It’s like asking a cat burglar to watch your house while you’re away on holiday.”

“What else can we do ? There’ll always be people in power.”

“Until we kick ‘em out. You know what I’ve always said, Daisy. We have the workplaces, they can keep parliament. That’s how the workers let themselves down. You work. I work. Why isn’t what we make ours ? How many cars a week come out of that factory ? How much do they sell for ? How much do we get ? They’re takin’ the piss out of us, Daisy.”

“It’s hard enough getting the buggers to think about changing our grading. Taking over the factory, Len. Like you say, give it a few thousand years.”

“Yeah. In the meantime, drive a hard bargain.”

 

The next day Daisy and her delegation met the management. She could tell at once they thought they’d won. They were relaxed and that air of command they customarily wore had returned. They smiled complaisantly. She knew they were expecting her to accept the court of inquiry, the women would go back to work and months downstream the court would rule in management’s favour.

“We want ninety-two per cent of the men’s rate or we don’t go back.”

“But the court of inquiry, Mrs Sherwood ?”

“Ninety-two per cent or we pay no attention to the court.”

The management offered ninety per cent. Linda Bellis rang Daisy and said if she could guarantee a return to work she’d press the management for ninety-two. Daisy called a meeting and put it to the vote. They were heavily in favour.

In the morning she was back at her machine. The newspapers weren’t interested in her any more. She’d never again be invited to meet a cabinet minister. She was a nobody. She was a worker. All that was required of her was that she sew good covers. Apart from that, Bridge Motors had no interest in her. They didn’t care if she lived or died. As she threaded her needle and pulled the fabric back and forth she thought about the millions of other workers doing little jobs like hers in factories in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Glasgow, Bristol, Cardiff, Coventry, Wakefield…Where was Wakefield ? She’d never been to many of the places in her own country where people like her worked and lived. She occupied a tiny bench in a factory, went to and fro from  home, visited the local shops and pubs and bingo halls. |It was a miniature world she occupied. She was a miniature. Everything about her life cut her down. She was trimmed to fit a system controlled by others. Her life was controlled by others. But for a moment she’d broken free. Eight hundred insignificant women on strike for three weeks had spread panic. The management had taut faces. The papers were hysterical. A government minister had reached down from the forbidden heights of office to chat with women whose voices were never heard. If only eight hundred women could do that by simply refusing to work, what could eight thousand do, or eighty thousand, or eight hundred thousand or eight million ? The needle rattled away. The thread formed a straight, neat seam. She was proud of that. She was quick. She could turn her hand to almost anything. Could the men who earned more come and sit at her machine and do the same ? Could Linda Bellis ? Could Harold Wilson ? And as she worked confidently, tossing the finished covers onto the pile at her right, she imagined the working women of Britain walking out of their factories, shops, offices, hospitals, schools; millions of them laughing and joining arms in the sunshine of a lovely June day, filling the streets of the towns and cities, bringing the traffic to a halt, bringing everything to a halt, waving banners, cheering, happy in their solidarity and freedom; the working women of Britain standing for the right to earn the same as men for the same work; but more, much more; together to say when we work, what we make is ours and we will not have it stolen from us however legal the theft; we want a new law, a new world and we won’t go back to work till we get it.

 


 

A GOOD REPORT

 

The old man lived in the front room. When his daughter and her husband had moved house, he’d refused to come if he was shoved in the back. In fact, the back room was big, comfortable and its wide square bay looked out on the long garden which ended with the tall lilacs he loved so much; but in the working-class culture he came from the front had status. It was a good room. The semi-circular bay had leaded lights and the avenue was wide so he wasn’t overlooked. There was a young ash tree in the grass verge, roses in the little garden and a low privet hedge. After a lifetime of tiny terrace houses with mean back yards and front doors straight onto the street, it was uplifting. He had a bed, an armchair, a big tv with both channels, a little dining table. And his daughter made his meals. His diet had to be regulated because of his diabetes. She’d known he wouldn’t manage if they’d left him in his own little house which was what allowed him to twist her arm.

When her children brought home their school reports she sent them straight to her father. She remembered her own schooldays: if she scored nine out of ten for a spelling test, he’d say:

“Why not ten ?”

Her boy had been sent to the Secondary Modern, like his elder sister. She tried hard to prevent him feeling humiliated. She spoke well of the place. He was in the top stream.

“Better to be in the top stream there than the bottom stream in the grammar,” she said.

But they offered him a transfer. He came home with the envelope in the penultimate week of the year.

“It’s my report.”

“Go and show it your granddad.”

The boy pushed open the door which released the metal draught excluders tacked to the frame so they creaked loudly. He closed it by banging his backside against it. His grandfather was in the armchair filling his pipe, an opened book upside down on his lap.

“I’ve got my report granddad.”

He held out the white envelope on which he’d written his name with his Parker fountain pen.

“Eh ?”

The old man looked over his glasses.

“My school report, granddad.”

The boy threw himself on the bed and stood on his head, his heels against the emulsioned wall. His grandfather pulled out the report, pushed his glasses up his nose and read.

“What do you think, granddad,” called the boy

“Champion,” said the old man still reading.

“I came top in maths.”

“Aye.”

“And English.”

“Grand.”

“And science.”

“Champion. Aye, champion.”

The boy went and stood by the chair. He liked his grumpy grandfather because he knew behind his bad temper was kindness, which made his moods funny.

“Do you think it’s good, granddad ?”

“Aye. I do. Champion. What does tha mother say ?”

He held out the envelope. The boy took it without saying anything. He threw himself onto the bed and stood on his head again.

“Can I watch the television, granddad ?”

When his mother called him for tea, he gave her the envelope. An hour later she gave it back without a word. He put it in the drawer in his bedroom with his underpants and socks then went to kick his ball around in the garden.

The next day he was called to see the Headmaster. He was a tall, thin, stiff man with white hair and a loud voice, but he was kindly.

“Sit down, boy. Sit down. Now, you’ve done well. You’ve done very well, boy. Top in everything and top of the year. That’s very good. You’ve been told you can have a place at the grammar school in September haven’t you ?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you discuss it with your parents.”

“With my mum, sir. I haven’t got a dad.”

The man looked down at his papers.

“Yes. With your mother. What did she say ?”

“Nothing, sir.”

“Nothing ?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, what do you think ?”

“I’d like to go to Town Grammar, sir.”

“Town ? You can’t go there, boy. You don’t live in the borough. The place is at Barton Grammar.”

“I don’t want to go there, sir.”

“Why not ?” the Headmaster sat very straight in his chair.

“My cousin’s at Town, sir.”

“Your cousin ?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m afraid that makes no difference. You don’t live in the borough.”

“But David Hughes goes there, sir, and he doesn’t live in the borough.”

“Who’s David Hughes.”

“I was at primary school with him, sir. His dad teaches at Town.”

“Well, that’s why he’s got a place.”

“But he doesn’t live in the borough, sir.”

The Headmaster set his elbows on the desk.

“There’s a place for you at Barton Grammar, Hudson. Do you want it?”

“No, sir.”

“If you don’t take it, you’ll stay here.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you want to stay here ?”

“I don’t mind, sir.”

That evening he went into his granddad’s room and stood on his head on the bed. The old man was smoking his pipe and watching the news.

“I’m staying at the Sec, granddad.”

“Aye ?”

“I can’t go to Town because I don’t live in the borough.”

“Aye ?”

“Is there any football on, granddad ?”

“’Appen.”

His mother called the boy for tea. He said nothing about his interview with the Headmaster but later his father turned up. Since the divorce he’d arrived intermittently to face his ex-wife’s frostiness. The boy showed him his report.

“That’s excellent,” he said. “That’s really excellent.”

“I could go to the grammar.”

“Could you ?”

“Barton. But they won’t let me go to Town.”

“What does your mother say ?”

“Nothing,” said the boy.

“Why don’t you want to go to Barton ?”

“They’re all snobs. They wear gowns and the prefects can whack you. I wouldn’t let ‘em whack me.”

His father looked at him and tried to smile.  He read the report once more before folding it and slipping it in the envelope.

 


DEMOBBED

 

When Freddie Cunliffe was demobbed in 1946 he had nowhere to go but his fiancé’s house. It was an end terrace right next to the wood-yard where the rats were big enough to scare the cats; but an end terrace brought status: it was one step from semi-detached. There were four rooms and six people: Mary, her mother and father, her brother Henry and his wife Ethel and Freddie. The bigger bedroom was for the mother and father, Henry and Ethel had the smaller, Mary slept on the couch in the front room and Freddie on the floor in the kitchen. There was a terrible draught from under the back door. He fitted an excluder but the wind still made its way in. He pulled the itchy blankets over his head and smiled to himself. After six years in Egypt and Italy even a draughty kitchen floor was a relief, and he was used to miserable conditions: his mother, who had him at nineteen, left him with her grandparents when she found a husband. He was three. His grandparents were diligent drinkers. His grandfather earned decent money as a brass turner, but he was in the pub every night. His mother didn’t work, so she could drink all day. The house was filthy and stank. He stank. When he was left alone at night, he amused himself by banging the fire surround with his clog and chasing the cockroaches across the flagged floor.

But the world had changed. Clem Attlee had won and there was no going back to unemployment and poverty. There were opportunities for young men willing to do what was necessary. Freddie had no manual skills. He could write, but he’d left school at fourteen. He’d have been a journalist if he’d known how. You needed qualifications and he hadn’t time to get those. He needed work fast. One thing they’d taught him in the forces was to drive, so he applied for a job as a commercial traveller and was the first person in the street to have a car parked outside the house. He sold wallpaper, but it didn’t matter. He’d’ve sold anything. He had no interest in wallpaper or interior décor. What he was interested in was selling. The knack of it was to sell yourself: a timid or self-effacing salesman couldn’t sell the best wallpaper in the world; but a confident salesman, well-dressed, slick, with a thoroughly rehearsed patter could sell a lousy product to the most discerning shopkeeper. He invested in three smart suits.

“How much !” said Mary.

“It’s a tool of the trade,” he said. “Henry has a bagful of plumbing tools. Well me, I need smart suits.”

He bought the most expensive Loake shoes, Real Brook shirts, gold cufflinks and cravats. He considered the cravat a coup: the other commercial travellers he knew wore ties. They were smart enough, but a cravat was classy. He accumulated fifteen.

“You can only wear one at a time,” said Mary.

His confidence was justified: his boss was delighted; he increased sales by more than a half. He was given a rise. He celebrated by buying an overcoat.

“We’re supposed to be saving up !” said Mary.

When they got married, he was still sleeping on the kitchen floor. He kept his clothes in a cardboard box. But he no longer stank. He washed conscientiously at the kitchen sink each day and took no chances: he had a good stock of after-shave, talcum powder and masculine eau-de-cologne. The crisis arrived, though, when Mary and Ethel became pregnant within a month of one another. Freddie went in search of a rented house but mostly they were in poor condition, over-priced, damp, infested or in the very worst parts of the town. Henry did the same. His boss owned a few small terrace houses and because Henry was a good worker, strong, skilled and fast, he offered him one at low rent. It was a tumbledown place with dry rot in the floorboards and a roof the rain poured through. Henry asked if he could do the work. His boss paid for the materials and by the time their baby was due, the couple moved into a cosy, clean, dry home with a bathroom and inside toilet.

“If they can do it why can’t we ?” said Mary.

“I’m not a plumber !”

“But you earn more than Henry.”

“I can’t afford to pay a tradesman to do the kind of work he did.”

“You can afford fancy clothes and jazz records.”

Freddie had bought a little player and was accumulating a collection of 78s by Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden and The Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Mary, who had no feel for music other than the hymns of Charles Wesley, thought it a foolish extravagance. All the same, when Henry and Ethel moved out, Freddie and Mary got the front room. They bought a put-u-up sofa which folded out on squeaky springs  and stiff metal joints to make an uncomfortable bed with a great ridge across the middle which made Freddie wake with an aching back each morning; and a van arrived with a wardrobe he’d ordered. He hung his suits and shirts. His cravats were folded in a drawer. His seven pairs of shoes sat beneath his clothes.

“Why did you need something so big ?” said Mary.

“It’ll last a lifetime,” he said.

Shortly after the birth of his daughter, Freddie took his courage in both hands, borrowed thousands from the bank and opened a wallpaper shop in the town centre.

“We should be getting our own house,” said Mary. “And what if it fails ?”

But it didn’t. Freddie was a brilliant salesman. He smiled obligingly at his customers. Nothing was too much trouble. He was always smart in his expensive suits and silk cravats. It was, he knew, the women who made the decisions, and they liked him. In fact, he knew they liked him more than the wallpaper. He took out a mortgage on a three-bedroomed house in the suburbs, had two more children, bought a new Hillman Minx and could hardly believe he’d once lived in a slum. He employed three  female assistants. Two were married but the youngest, Elspeth, was nineteen and free and easy. She was cross-eyed and not noticeably pretty, but her body was firm and curvaceous. She leaned over the counter and he was transfixed by her behind. In summer she wore blouses which revealed her gorgeous cleavage. He asked her to stay late to help with stock-taking and as she was atop a three-rung step-ladder, ran his hands up her skirt and when she giggled pulled down her knickers.

He had no idea how Mary found out. He had to leave. He took a dingy flat not far from the shop. There was damp in the corner of the bedroom, it was impossible to keep warm and one night, when he got up to get a glass of water, he found a cockroach scuttling across the lino.

 


THE LIKES OF US

We never see Mike Harkin, our MP, except at election time and even then he doesn’t knock on our door because this ward doesn’t vote for him. We get the flyer.  You might think this area would be favourable because of its rows of terraces, most of them 19th century, and average prices of £80-100,000; but that’s just this part of the ward. It also takes in Halstead Park where the communities are gated, the drives  long, the gardens big, the conservatories plentiful, the garages double, the kids in private schools and the BMWs shiny. There aren’t enough votes there to keep him out but the buffer zone of little semis, small gardens, second-hand Mercedes, and coach lamps at either side of the front door does the trick. Harkin has been our man for twelve years. We vote for him because we think he might do something for the likes of us but once he’s in London the likes of us are a long way from the likes of him and the likes of him mix with the likes of them who don’t mix with the likes of us; so though its our votes, those of us who live in the terraces and do the low-grade jobs for poor money, which send him to Westminster, the likes of us have done our bit for democracy, the economy and the country once we’ve voted for the likes of him who tell the likes of us to vote for them because the other lot do nothing for the likes of us and the likes of them don’t understand the lives of the likes of us; so the likes of us just get a leaflet and the likes of him who claims to be doing what he’s doing for the likes of us get a fat salary, expenses, status, rubbing shoulders with the rich, famous and powerful while we get to work in factory, our living standards cut, our pensions cut, our services cut and Big Brother.  After twelve years I suppose Harkin is pretty well a millionaire and by the time he’s finished he’ll never come near the likes of us but some other of the likes of him will smile up at us from a glossy flyer on the doormat. The likes of us aren’t taken in by this. We aren’t taken in for a minute. The flyer is in the bin.

Now I’m going to vote.

 


 

MALCOLM LOWRY AND THE BEAUTIFUL BOY

 

It was one of those crisp autumn days when the cloudless sky and the still air bring memories of summer but the chill made him wrap his brown scarf round his neck, pull up his suede collar and the anticipation of wind and rain brought him a quick shudder ; the campus was swarming with warmly-clad students and as Frank Womack emerged from the little newsagent in the corner of the square, he was overwhelmed once more by the sense of possibility they presented. He tucked his TLS under his arm and following a huddle of chatting, lighthearted undergrads, tried to appear mature and professional, to assume a preoccupied air as if thinking of James Joyce’s prose style or the architecture of The Fairie Queen. On his short journey to his room, he noticed three or four particularly attractive young men. Being small, he’d always been impressed by height. They almost frightened him, but it was a delicious sort of nervousness. What he noticed about the boys was the thick, shining health of their long hair, or the boyish freshness of their complexions, or the quick strength of their stride; and there were so many of them, so many young men, each with something beautiful or at least attractive about him; his mind dissolved at thought of this cornucopia . In his room, he quickly prepared himself for his seminar. This would be his first encounter with the group of freshers who had been lectured on and were supposed to have read Under The Volcano. Most wouldn’t have got to grips with it;  he could lord it. He would, as usual, quote from his own study of Lowry. The experience would be a mixture of frustration at the poor quality of undergraduates and delight in his own use of language and ability to appear a towering intellectual before these sons and daughters of largely provincial, predominantly middle-class, intellectually limited parents. He would lounge in his armchair in the corner (it was important his skill seemed effortless); he would be polite and solicitous; he would talk slowly and adopt a far-away look at his moments of supreme inspiration. He placed a copy of the novel on the desk beside his chair. There came a timid knock at the door.

Meeting a new group of students was always exciting, unnerving, slightly tedious and ultimately disappointing; he always hoped the group would include a mind to match his own, a boy or girl with a passion for literature who had read more than the set texts and could speak well; or  a beautiful boy, a slender, untried youth he could impress and corrupt. But year in year out the undergraduates were neither brilliant nor beautiful; they were ambitious, relatively diligent, plain, ugly, taciturn, willing to please, on occasion stunningly poorly read and for the most part highly forgettable. This group came in rather sheepishly and stopped talking before crossing the threshold, laden with ring-binders and unthumbed copies of the novel.

“Do come in, do come in !” he called. “Make yourselves at home. Shall I close this window, there may be too much of a draught ? What do you think ?”

He directed his question at the plump girl in the green coat whose brown hair fell in unwashed strands along her cheeks and touched her narrow shoulders as she was about to take the seat with its back to the window. She turned her head, looked at him with flushed cheeks and smiled.

“I’ll close it then, shall I ? Come in everyone. Is there room ? I think so. We’ll just about fit in won’t we ?”

He popped his head into the corridor and looked both ways before closing the door with that fatal little click which meant the next hour might be one of atrocious boredom and frustration. The students were entirely silent. Most had kept their coats on.

“Do take off your coats if you feel like it. It’s warm enough in here, don’t you think ? I’ve closed the window, we don’t want anyone catching the flu do we ?”

One girl slipped off her brown, waisted jacket and hung it on the back of her chair; a boy unzipped his anorak. Womack sat down, crossed his legs, rubbed his palms together in his characteristic way and began:

“Well, we should get to know one another a little shouldn’t we ?”

He looked round at the thirteen students and his heart almost stopped. Twelve were the normal run, but in the corner, his chair pushed back a little from the circle, the books stacked high on the shelves behind him threatening to totter if he nudged, was the beautiful boy he’d dreamed of.

“Oh, do be careful there !” he called leaning forward, “ those books above your head may topple if you push your chair against the bookshelves.”

The boy looked at him with big, round blue eyes which captured the light from the window opposite, and gave a tiny smile of recognition.

“Perhaps you should pull your chair forward just an inch. I would hate you to be clobbered by the Nonesuch Donne in your first seminar !”

He’d hoped there might be some recognition of what he thought of as wit, but the students remained silent. The boy edged his chair forward a little.

“As you know, I’m Dr Womack and I’ll be your tutor for the year. After each lecture you’ll have seminar with me in which we’ll try to discuss what you’ve read in some detail but I’m quite happy to spend more time on the authors which interest you most. Today, of course, we’re going to begin with Under The Volcano. How, have you all managed to read it ?”

The novel was included at his insistence. Some of his colleagues had protested:

“It’s a hard text, Frank. As the first novel they encounter. We should ease them in gently.”

But he stood his ground. Lowry was the subject of his Phd, of his only book, of a little snowstorm of papers and the fact it was hard reassured him. The students needed plenty of exposition, Lowry was new to almost all of them. Lawrence, Joyce, Conrad, Murdoch, Lessing, Golding, they might have encountered at A Level, but this took them into new territory: a great but not popular novelist and a minority taste because he was difficult. Womack liked to bring attention to minority tastes, it was almost a compulsion.

“ We’ll get to know one another as we go, shall we ? So who would like to begin ? Tell us what you make of this book. Anything at all, anything that struck you when reading it? Mmm”

And he brought his hands together as if in prayer, his thumbs tucked under his chin. He knew there was going to be one of those long, awful pauses after which he’d have to wade in and explain what his writer was about. He thought for a second he might fire a set of questions around the room: when is the novel set ? how long a period does it cover ? who are the major characters ? what would you say are the major events of the book ? But he dreaded the lowered eyes, the embarrassed fiddling with papers, the flushed cheeks, the silence . 

“Lowry,” he said, lowering his hands, “there he is,” and he pointed to the famous print of the author looking rather Hemingwayish, reclining in his shorts, his glasses in his hand, a book resting on his thighs, half literary intellectual, half Hollywood pin-up, “was, of course, like Geoffrey Firmin, a troubled man. An alcoholic. In Firmin’s drinking we have a metaphor for a sense of malaise creeping through British society. Firmin is an ex-Consul, a minor diplomat, a representative of his country, but a man broken by drink. A man who knows at every minute of the day exactly where every drop of alcohol in his house is hidden. Obssessive. An addict. He can’t help himself. His cravings destroy him yet he can do nothing about them. Mmmm? Aren’t we all a little bit like this ?”

There was the expected silence and no-one met his eyes. He paused a few seconds, entwined his fingers and was about to go on when the beautiful boy spoke. He had an obvious northern accent but Womack couldn’t place it and he spoke slowly and without apparent effort.

“Maybe a bit, but Firmin isn’t typical. He’s too extreme a case for us to feel much sympathy with him.”

“Oh, but we do feel sympathy,” said Womack, “it’s an inordinately touching portrait of a man pursued by his demons. You see, in taking the extreme case and your right, you’re quite right…I’m sorry, what’s your name ?”

“Joe Bryning.”

“Yes, Joe, sorry.Yes. In taking the extreme case, Lowry illuminates the ordinary. Pathology is the royal road to understanding health. And Firmin is a man who seeks out hell. Remember. He says that. He says he loves hell. Now, that’s the mystery. How can we love hell ? How can we shun what brings us happiness and run headlong to our misery and destruction ?”

“He couldn’t be an alcoholic if there was no alcohol,” said the beautiful boy.

“Sorry ?”

“It’s cultural. He needs an alcoholic culture to destroy himself. If he lived in a country without alcohol, he couldn’t do it, or he’d have to find another way.”

The other students were looking at Joe. One or two of them made notes.

“That’s true, Joe. That’s a very good point.”

There was a catch in Womack’s voice which suggested the opposite.

“But it’s a sociological point. Not that I’m putting that down. Only, this is a book which deals with the tortures of the human soul. Geoffrey Firmin is one of God’s creatures. The essence of the novel supersedes sociology and takes us to that territory where we live very much alone. It’s the spiritual torment that involves us. You see, Firmin is a kind of Christ figure, wouldn’t you agree ? Only his cross is booze.”

He lifted his praying hands to his pursed lips and looking at Bryning, nodded slowly.

“Perhaps he just needs a good psychiatrist,” said Bryning.

“Don’t you think his problem is a little beyond psychiatry ?”

“Well, he’s a portrait of Lowry, more or less. He was an alcoholic. We can probably find the cause of his problem in his upbringing or his culture. Or maybe he was just predisposed to addiction.”

“Predisposed ?”

“Perhaps some people are, like some are more likely to have heart attacks or hay fever.”

Womack threw back his head and laughed loudly, a cracking almost unhinged laughter that made the students sit straight in their chairs and widen their eyes.

“Yes, that’s good, Joe. But you know, a great spiritual crisis is a little more overwhelming than hay fever. Predisposed to drink or otherwise we are dealing with a man tormented to the point of despair by his demons and we are forced to see this as struggle between good and evil. Firmin is, after all, an essentially good man, but a man with a fatal weakness.”

Bryning raised his eyebrows and tilted his head in grudging agreement. Womack looked him in the eye. Their exchange required it. He felt no embarrassment, even though he held the look too long and the beautiful boy looked down at his red ring-binder. He really was extraordinarily beautiful, unearthly: his long blonde hair and clear blue eyes, his slender frame and artistic hands seemed sent to torment him. Before the seminar was over, he was in love with him, and when he said to his wife at the table that evening:

  “There’s a very bright young boy in my new first year group. I can’t remember anyone making such an impression on me for years.”

He wasn’t thinking about his peculiar comments on Lowry, but how it might be, at last, to get into bed with such a creature. Had he known that at that very moment the beautiful boy was in his room with a stunningly pretty girl who, like Womack, wasn’t able to hold back; had he known she was unbuttoning the white top which clung to her narrow waist, was revealing herself and surrendering because he was the most attractive boy in the year and in that curious quirk of the mind which makes people choose partners of comparable attractiveness, she felt impelled to possess him; had he known the beautiful boy was without defence against her and was falling headlong, he would have got up from the table without touching his meal, would have left the house, would have flown into one of those inaccessible moods which set him at odds with his wife for days. As it was, he was running through little scenarios of seduction which softened his mood and made him complaisant as a well-fed dog.

He met the group once a week. He was careful to dress attractively. They moved on from Lowry to Yeats, Conrad and then Gerard Manly Hopkins. Though Womack hadn’t published on him, he liked to linger over his work. The students said they’d like to study Beckett, Joe Orton and Brian Patten. Womack hated Beckett  who lent himself easily to atheistic interpretation, had a horror of Orton for his remark “I think Christianity is a mistake” judging him a superficial farceur, and considered Patten’s work unable to sustain serious interpretation. He spent one seminar on Waiting For Godot, which he dismissed as the literary equivalent of executive toys; one on Patten who he claimed couldn’t hold his own with the great poets any more than pop music could compare to Bach, and ignored Orton altogether.

He devoted five seminars to Hopkins.

“Praise him,” he said. “Praise him. It’s direct, isn’t it. But its directness is prepared by the preceding lines. It is the only  possible conclusion. And therein lies the genius of the poem.”

No-one said anything and feeling himself on the cusp of one of those few minutes of dazzling brilliance which left him light and at ease for days, he was about to continue when the beautiful boy said:

“I don’t think it’s the only conclusion.”

“Don’t you ?”

“Well, if you see all the things he mentions as products of evolution, they’re even more amazing.”

Womack threw his head back and laughed once more.

“Yes, of course. But Darwin merely uncovers a mechanism. He can’t tell us what’s behind the mechanism.

“Perhaps there isn’t anything.”

“But that just leaves us with an absence, doesn’t it ? And Darwin has explained nothing. No, we have to see that what Hopkins is pointing to is the mystery of beauty. Why do some things strike us as irresistibly beautiful ? Why are we unable to restrain from crying out at the sight of a truly exquisite wonder of nature ? We are taken out of ourselves, our hearts are ripped from our breasts, we are no longer in control…..”

“But all that could be explained by evolution.”

“How ?”

Womack’s abrupt question and his staring into Bryning’s eyes discomfited the student and he struggled to find a response.

“No,” the academic resumed, “we have to put evolution in its place. It fails to explain our spiritual responses. That’s what Hopkins is getting at: our spiritual response to beauty.”

“Maybe it’s just a trick of the brain.”

Womack was taken aback. The reduction of the most refined human responses to a debased materialism struck him as profoundly cynical. And that such vile thinking should come from his beautiful boy !

“Praise him, praise him,” he said to recover his sang-foid, “that’s the way to keep cynicism at bay.”

Bryning looked him straight in the eye, but said nothing.

That week, Womack set their first essay: Attempt a definition of the short story. He knew its abstraction would trouble them, that most would struggle and the marks would be low, but he liked that. Some of his colleagues set straightforward tasks: From the stories you have read, explain what you consider to be the major preoccupations of Conrad. How successful is he in realizing these artistically ? Then they would mark them generously and the most diligent would achieve 75% or better; but Womack liked to make the students aware of his intellectual superiority and the process of dealing with an aggrieved undergraduate desperate to know why their work was worth no more than 37% and worried they were going to fail the year, always gratified him. They pleaded, he shrugged. They objected, he smiled wanly. They cited their hours of effort, he pointed out university wasn’t meant to be easy. It was true, his students usually had the worst results in the year, but most scraped a 2:2: in his view, all they were worth. Occasionally, a very good student would get a 2:1, but he drew the line at a First. Having achieved that himself, he considered it reserved for a very small elite, and in his twenty-three years teaching had never encountered a boy or girl up to his own standard.

When the work arrived, he was delighted to find a number of abstract responses. He was able to make dismissive, derisive remarks: You should have referred to the work of a number of writers ! This isn’t literary criticism, it’s cod philosophy ! Even those who’d taken some stories by Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield or Henry James and examined them in detail were given short shrift: This is all well and good at A Level, but I know the stories ! What about answering the question !  An essay which left specific work aside to try to pin down the abstract essence of a short story, failed as inevitably as one which stuck to the particular but made no attempt to pull together an overarching definition. He left Bryning’s essay till last. It began:

To attempt an abstract definition of the short story would invite failure. All we have are the stories written so far. By examining some of the best in detail we may be able to tease out some general characteristics, but to go further would be to risk a foolish prescriptiveness. What will the short stories of the future be like ? We have no idea….

He went on to analyse Odour of Chrysanthemums, The Secret Sharer, The Lady With The Little Dog, and No Pain Whatsoever. Womack hadn’t read the Richard Yates and was about to underline in red and scrawl Who wrote this ? when he paused. He wondered if his assumption that it must be some second-rate piece by an unworthy populist might be mistaken. Who was Richard Yates ? Before he could mark, he had to find out and the trip to the library, looking up the references and finally sitting in his armchair after dinner with a glass of red reading the story itself left him badly annoyed, so in spite of himself he refused to see the story’s excellence. When he went back to the essay, he was infuriated by its diligent explication of technique and little sentences like, Perhaps we could say that Lawrence’s maxim of adorning a tale and pointing to a moral is a defining feature of the short story, made him want to cry aloud. He put a double red line under this particular example. Pure Lawrentian bunkum ! What moral is pointed to in The Secret Sharer ? Once again, he hesitated a moment. Perhaps there was a moral in Conrad’s piece, but he’d run out of patience, and fifteen pages of sedulous first-year tutor-pleasing left him in that sullen frame of mind in which he felt he was wasting his life on trivialities.

“These students drive me mad !” he said to his wife. “I should be writing books for a living, not wearing out my eyes reading this drivel.”

The following morning he put his highest mark on Bryning’s essay as he ate his toast: 41% You evade the question and stick to safe specifics. There is no definition of a short story here ! To his surprise, the beautiful boy didn’t come to see him. Three or four of the group arrived. One girl who received 31% was in tears. She’d got an A at A Level ? How could she be doing so badly ?  He explained she’d probably come out with a pass degree, which was better than nothing. But why didn’t Bryning turn up ? He’d been sure he would. How could he be satisfied with 41% for all that effort ?

“Everyone happy with their essays ?” he chirped in the following week’s seminar.

Bryning didn’t meet his eyes.

Womack fretted for a few weeks over the boy’s lack of response, but having turned to drama and studied The Wild Duck and Hedda Gabler , the students were ready for their second essay. He typed the title and pinned it to the notice-board:

Greek tragedy is the tragedy of necessity, Christian tragedy is the tragedy of possibility. Discuss.

What would the beautiful boy make of it ? It’d become clear he was an atheist. Disappointed, Womack nevertheless still found himself imagining an affair. Did Bryning suspect ? Was that why he hadn’t come to see him ? He’d made his interest clear enough, he supposed, but surely hadn’t given himself away entirely. He dreamed of Bryning handing him a thick manuscript, written in a tiny, neat hand. It took him days to read and revealed a huge knowledge of western drama. When the boy came to his room, he attacked him with it, beating him around the head till he fell to the ground. Instantly, he was naked. Womack woke with the image of the beautiful, long, pale body in his head; the buttocks were small, tight and round and the prostrate boy’s face was buried in the carpet.

When the essays came in, he marked Womack’s first. It began with Aeschylus and followed with long paragraphs on the major Greek dramatists; the influence of the Greeks on Seneca led to a discussion of what Shakespeare had taken from the Latin writers; a survey of dramatists from the Miracle Plays to Arthur Miller came next and  in conclusion he argued that determinism was at work in western plays: in the Greeks it was more obvious because of their mythology, but wasn’t the death of Willy Loman just as inevitable as Oedipus’s murder of his father ? Womack gave it 30% and scrawled across it in his most hurried, academic hand: Not enough stress on the Christian element. 

Bryning came to see him.

“Come in, come in, Joe. Do sit down. Turned much colder hasn’t it ? Is it warm enough for you ? I’ve a little heater I can plug in.”

The boy settled himself and unbuttoned his coat.

“So, Joe. What was it you wanted to see me about ?”

“I wanted to ask,” he said, “why I got 30% for this essay.”

“Didn’t I put a comment on it ?”

“Yes.”

“What did I say ?”

Bryning read the comment.

“Ah, yes,” said the little academic, bringing his praying hands up to his lips. “The title does make that clear doesn’t it ? I was looking for a discussion of Christian drama.”

“What falls within that definition ?”

“Well, all western drama since the birth of Christianity.”

“But some of that was written by avowed atheists.”

“Oh, but that makes no difference. The form of drama Brecht is working with,for example, is part of the Christian tradition. His atheism is super-added. The essence is that Christianity brought to drama the sense of free will, of Christian conscience and that shaped the form. That’s what I was asking you to get at.”

“Yes, but Shakespeare isn’t a Christian writer…”

“My goodness !” exclaimed Womack. “He’s altogether a Christian. His work is replete with Christian references.”

“I know what you mean, but in what way does King Lear express a Christian view of things ? It’s about power and how it drives people mad.”

“Of course it is, Joe, but within a Christian frame of reference. It’s men who make the decisions. The gods are no longer in control.  Free will rules the world because that is the gift of the Christian god.”

“I see what you mean, but it stretches the definition of Christian drama a bit thin…”

“No, no, not at all Joe. You’re quite wrong. That’s why I used that form of words in the question. You see, you’re only just starting out. You’ve got a lot of reading to do. You don’t yet understand just how overwhelming the Christian contribution to our culture has been. But I think you’ve got potential. You’re a bright young man, Joe. In fact, if you like we could meet and I could help you with your essay writing. You could come to my house for example, one evening. A more relaxed setting than a seminar. What do you think ? Mmm ?”

He leaned forward, his elbows on his thin thighs and peered into the boy’s exquisite face. It was extraordinary just how the simple symmetry of that little bit of flesh and bone could strip him of all will to resist. It was as if Bryning had been made for him. How could he believe otherwise when the mere sight of him sent his desire to such a pitch, nothing else mattered ? Yes, even now, staring into his eyes, having just invited him to his home, he knew he would be in trouble if the boy reported him. It was a proposition and he could lose his job; but what was his job, his wife, his publications, his reputation, what was any of it compared to possession of such beauty? To run his hands over that slim body, to kiss those gorgeous lips, above all to be on top of him, pressing down on him.

Bryning sat quite still and composed staring back at him.

Womack’s sense of command suddenly left him. He collapsed inwardly like an animal shot through the brain. He’d seen in Bryning’s eyes a confidence and refusal which stunned him. This was nothing but a boy ! An eighteen year-old fresh from some dull sixth-form and here he was, in a position of superiority ! A dreadful panic seized the academic’s mind. He stood up, began to busy himself with papers on his desk, then slotted some books into his shelves.

“So I think that’s all, is it ?” he said, his back to the student.

“I’d like this essay remarked by another member of staff.”

Womack turned and confronted Bryning, his face taut with indignation.

“Are you putting my professional competence in question ?”

“No,” said the young man calmly, “but I think your own convictions prevent you seeing the value of my work.”

“The value of your work ! Young man, let me tell you. Your work has no value. Objectively, no value at all. You’re a first-year undergraduate who’ll be lucky to come out with a 2:2. That’s how much value your work has. When you’re set an essay, your business is to answer the question. All my colleagues will support me. Your essay simply fails to address the issue of the difference between the determinism of Greek tragedy and the possibility of Christian tragedy. I’ve offered to help you. Here, this morning, I’ve offered to give up my time and energy to improve your essay writing. That’s because I’m behaving professionally, because I recognise you’ve some potential. But potential comes to nothing without hard work and the right guidance. At the moment, your work is no better or worse than the general run of undergraduate essays.”

“All the same,” said Bryning, “I’d like a second opinion.”

“Then get one ! By all means. Go ! Go and get your second opinion.”

The door clicked. Left alone, Womack went on tidying compulsively but what the papers were he didn’t know. His mind was in the grip of the fear that Bryning was knocking on the Head of Department’s door. Asking for a re-mark would get him nowhere: Walter Byron was as dismissive of student complaints as himself. But if he mentioned the invitation ! It was innocent. He was trying to help the boy. He’s misinterpreted it. He’s too immature to comprehend. You know what undergraduates are like, their heads are full of sex. I’m a married man. My wife would be at home. We’d give the boy a meal. I was trying to help him along because I can see he could make something of himself. As a matter of fact, I mentioned it to Sue. I told her I had an exceptional boy in my group. Now, would I say that if I had designs on him ? Absurd !

He went to Byron’s room. No answer and it was locked. Heading for the Senior Common Room he crossed Frances Povey carrying a little burden of files.

“Morning Fran ! Hard at it ?”

He was impressed by his everyday cheerfulness but his heart beat fast and heavy.

The Common Room was a low-ceilinged, depressing oblong with round, squat coffee tables dispersed to look casual and impossibly uncomfortable orange chairs with wooden arms. As usual, Colin Kirkwood, taking a break from work on the fourth volume of his history of the Russian Communist party was smoking his pipe in the corner next to Ernie Staples, the Cambridge-educated Marxist whose recent book, Marxist Poetics, was selling thousands. Womack hated the pair more than he hated the place. He looked round as he approached the counter and spotted Walter Byron peering through his glasses at the arms-length TLS.

“Hello, Walt.”

“Morning ,Frank.”

He sat down with his coffee and sighed like a man whose genius could save the world if only the world would listen.

“Essays! It wouldn’t bother me if I never marked another.”

“Did you know Somerset Maugham was a faggot ?”

“Yes.”

“I didn’t. Seems he had a taste for little boys. Should cut their bollocks off. What did you say about essays ?”

“You might have a student coming to see you.”

“I’ll keep my door locked.”

“He thinks I undervalue what he calls “his work”.”

“What did you give him ?”

“Thirty per cent.”

“Must’ve been bad.”

Byron turned to look Womack in the eyes and the younger man could see the scepticism in his glance.

“Oh, you know me Walt, I like to chivvy them along. I don’t give marks for nothing and he hadn’t answered the question. I offered him extra tuition. The boy is bright, but he needs forming.”

Byron shifted in his seat. His heavy bulk twisted towards Womack as he leant over the arm of his chair. Womack noticed the thick, black hairs which sprouted from his ear. He found Byron’s physicality obscene. He was sixty-two, bulky and slow, stank of stale tobacco and poked his finger in his ear, wriggling it vigorously in complete disregard of others.

“This extra tuition. Knock it on the head. Seeing students outside the allocated hours is risky. Remember what happened to Stan Heron ?”

“Oh, I’m not up to anything like that ! In any case, I never invite girls.”

He met Byron’s eyes, in anticipation of confirmation, but there was an incipient sneer on the old buffer’s lips and his dull eyes under their drooping lids refused to be convinced. He felt small and accused.

“What’s the little bugger’s name ?”

“Joe Bryning.”

“If he comes to see me, I’ll send him away with a flea in his ear. Have I time for a drink ?”

Reassured, Womack got on with what he had to do but at moments the melting thought of Bryning taking a complaint to the Dean turned his intestines to slush. In seminars, the boy never spoke, but sat self-possessed and incredibly handsome, as if to taunt him. He thought of firing questions at him, of trying to make a fool of him, but resisted. |He hoped one day he might bump into him, in the library or the bookshop and start an inconsequential conversation which might lead to inviting him for a drink, or, even better, the knock would come and the beautiful boy, a timid supplicant would enter and say:

“About the private lessons.”

When his third essay arrived ( he allowed them to devise their own title and Bryning came up with: Saint Joe: innocence in the plays of Joe Orton) he read it with disdain. The thesis was inane: Orton’s theme is abused innocence and he leads us a merry dance through corruption and manipulation the better to reveal what it means to be pure of heart ! Under normal circumstances, he’d have awarded 25%, but he forced himself to give 44, one short of a 2:2. 

Then he waited.

Bryning made no complaint nor did he contribute any more to seminars. One day, Womack was heading to his car parked on one of the outer bays when he came across him hand in hand with his girl. He stared at her thick auburn hair, her green eyes, the lovely white teeth of her big smile, her sweet little pointed chin. Looking into Bryning’s face, he knew he must be giving himself away badly. He couldn’t speak or acknowledge the boy. He slammed into his car and drove too fast down the quiet lanes home.

“If students devoted as much time to reading as they do to sex I might have some essays worth marking,” he snapped after his meal.

His wife took away the dishes.

It was the custom in the department for exams to be marked blind. Tutors took home bundles of essays by students they’d never taught. Bryning’s end of year exam was marked by Fran Povey. The scripts went straight to Walter Byron.

“Looks like we’ve got a genius on our hands,” he said to Womack as he joined him in the Common Room.

“Really ?”

“Your young Bryning, Fran Povey gave him over eighty per cent for each of his three essays.”

Womack swayed a little in his chair.

“That’s absurd. He must’ve cheated.”

“How ?” said Byron abruptly, fixing him with his ugly, bulging eyes.

“I don’t know. Who knows what students get up to these days. They’re high on pot and LSD half the time and the other half they’re occupying the administration building.”

“I’ve read the essays,” said Byron without flinching, “the boy’s bloody good.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear it,” said Womack picking up his coffee, “if he’s got his head down and done some reading at last, so much the better. Good for him. Yes. Good for him.”

 


 

THE MAN IN THE MIRROR

 

When Teresa and Stan went out together his mother came too. She was a big woman with strong features. She had the face of a boxer or a rugby player and her shoulders were broad, her hands big. Her son had inherited her frame, and from his father the sporting ability which made him good at football, tennis and golf. Teresa, on the other hand was tiny. As a child she suffered a hormonal deficiency which stunted her growth. She was in hospital for a year. The science of the disease was shaky in the pre-war years and they tried odd things like putting her legs in splints because they feared she might grow bandy. At twenty she was just four feet six. It was because she was small Stan was attracted to her. It was such a contrast to the huge-boned muscularity of his own family. The other thing that attracted him, he didn’t like: she was high-handed like his mother. She liked to be in control and if she didn’t get things her way she was unpleasant and a dull, ugly, murderous look appeared in her eyes. It terrified him and gave him nightmares. His mother was the same: one day she threw all his dad’s clothes in the dustbin. He came home from the factory and there was nothing. Not a sock.

“I’ll buy your clothes in future,” she said.

She dressed him in suits he hated, shoes that made his feet ache, tight collars, hats that fell over his eyes, cardigans too small to button, ties he thought effete, and an expensive overcoat he feared to wear because he might ruin it. No-one was allowed in the kitchen, not to even to make a cup of tea. She had the radio on night and day listening to the Light Programme. When Walter changed the tuning she said:

“Keep your hands off my radio.”

“It’s our radio,” he said.

“What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine,” and she laughed in that curious inward way, which made Stan’s mind stop.

She took all the space in the wardrobe and the chests of drawers so Walter had to keep his clothes in suitcases. When he told her he was going to the pub for a pint with Bert Turley she said:

 

“Not tonight you’re not.”

“But I’ve arranged it.”

“You don’t want to go out,” she said.

“I do.”

“No you don’t.”

She let him go to the pub once a month on a Saturday. He had to be home by ten. As for sex, once she’d had her children she wasn’t interested in intercourse. She preferred to rub herself off. Walter lay beside her, erect. When she’d finished she grabbed his cock and tugged vigorously.

“You’ve messed the bed again,” she said, and turned over.

Stan couldn’t help himself. He hated Teresa’s bossy unfairness, but he was pulled to it like a planet to a star. It produced an odd feeling in him: she was unhappy, she lacked confidence, she needed to be loved so she could blossom into sweetness; but the more he prostrated himself in love of her, the more importunate and brittle she became. The marriage was decided by Teresa and his mother. They sat in a little tea-room in Blackpool and discussed the arrangements for the day. When they walked by the canal on Sunday they decided on a honeymoon destination. In the Doctor Syntax, they settled on four children. By the time the wedding day arrived, Stan felt a stranger to himself. Who was this man in the mirror ? His wavy, fair hair was Brylcreemed and brushed. He’d put on his best horn-rims. His dark, double-breasted suit had a white carnation and a cheeky green sprig in the buttonhole. His white collar was starched and his blue tie fastened in a neat Windsor. But who was he? The entire day passed as if it was moving and he were still. He might as well not have been there. He was a fool in a suit, a dummy dressed for show. He smiled, shook hands and made a speech people laughed at and applauded; but it would have been all the same to him, and to Teresa, if he’d disappeared after the ceremony. When he took off his suit and stood naked in the bedroom of a boarding-house in Skegness, he regained a sense of reality. This was him; these big shoulders, the full chest, the flat stomach, the turgid thighs and the fine erection. It was the first time he’d seen Teresa undress. She kept her back to him as she pulled on her nightgown. He stood by the bed. She looked at him as she pulled the covers up to her chin.

“I’m too tired for any of that hanky-panky tonight,” she said.

All the same, their first child was born within a year, then two more before their third anniversary. It was strange. Who did these children belong to ? He couldn’t connect their existence to his unsatisfactory fumblings and hurried couplings with Teresa.

“I think we’ll stop at three,” she said.

“I thought you and your mother had decided on four ?”

So sex came to an end. Stan began to be afraid of his children. He didn’t know why but he was haunted by the thought he might harm them. Some terrible damage might come to them and he was their father. He must protect them. He began to formulate elaborate means of keeping them safe: he wouldn’t pick them up in case he dropped them, he wouldn’t cuddle them in case they were crushed or suffocated. They weren’t allowed to toddle in the street or the yard in case they fell and hit their heads. His little daughter would climb on his knee and he would put her down beside him on the sofa. She cried but he insisted it was safer. The two boys wanted rough and tumble but he made them sit still. Teresa didn’t know what to make of it. Stan’s mother said it was good for the children: they would grow up obedient. Still, Teresa worried that it was going too far. She picked the children up if they cried for attention. She cuddled them on her knee. But Stan insisted it was dangerous. He wouldn’t let them play with other children in case they caught something and having other children in the house was forbidden because they might have a terrible accident and he would be blamed. He started to panic about germs. Their plates and knives and forks had to be disinfected every day. He wiped the door handles with bleach so the house reeked. They weren’t allowed to listen to the radio because their minds would be poisoned by secret messages and books couldn’t come into the house as they were written by perverts and criminals who used pretty pictures and sweet stories to snare their prey.

One Saturday morning Teresa nipped to the shops. When she came home Stan was at the front door. He had a faraway look in his eyes and an idiotic smile on his lips.

“They’re safe,” he said

“What ?”

“Nothing can harm them now.”

She bustled past him. In the little front room the three children were laid out beside one another. Each had a white sheet wound tightly round them so only the head was visible. Their eyes and lips were closed, their faces pale. She was too shocked to scream. She staggered into the tiny hallway.

“What have you done ?”

He had the same absent, angelic expression.

“I’ve looked after them, Teresa. They’re innocent children. They’ve gone to glory.”

She ran into the street and began to shout. Her husband stood in the hallway, huge, at ease, satisfied.

 


THE PRICE ON HIS HEAD

 

“Why should I be told what to do by a suit who knows nothing about medicine ?”

“That’s the way the world is, Sally. Stop railing against it or you’ll give yourself hypertension.”

Without trying, Sally Peet had become a radical. There was nothing in her background or makeup to predict such an outcome. She was one of those very bright girls who got a good grammar school education and made the best of it. The little town retained two selective schools, one for boys and one for girls. The waters of comprehensivisation hadn’t quite washed this far and her parents were glad. Diligent and thriving on praise she excelled at science, and though not being best at English and languages rankled, she made a decision early to become a doctor so she could play down her tiny shortcomings by saying all her effort went into physics, chemistry and biology. By the time she got to A level there was no-one to touch her and her fierce intelligence, instinctive competitiveness and machine-like determination left no doubt. She especially enjoyed being better than the boys. They thought physics was as much theirs as football. She sensed herself they had on average a better grasp of spatial relations and equations, but who cared about averages. She would have stayed up all night getting her maths right before she would have let one of the boys get better marks. Naturally she carried off four As, but getting into Oxford required more. She turned her intelligence to the question of interview technique. Why did everyone call it that ? It wasn’t a matter of having a simple knack, like getting a cork out of champagne bottle. It was about passion and absolute confidence. There was nothing she wanted to do but medicine. It was her es muss sein. She didn’t need a technique to convince people of that ! It shone from her like her youth.

She got a place.

All through those long years of study and training, the tedious hours mugging up anatomy, the eternal nights on the ward as a junior, it never occurred to her medicine was anything but an infatuation. The winsome flirtations of boys were a bagatelle compared to the lovely smite of science. Of course she had her love affairs like everyone. She married. She had children. And these fundamental fulfilments of her nature gratified her and made her bloom so her features showed the mature composure of a woman who has faced life’s great demands and risen to them with courage and imagination. Yet what would she have been without medicine ? It was as native to her as her love of her sons. She was as committed to it as Petrarch to Laura. It could move her to bliss and ardent desire. And it could cast her into hopelessness and despair.

How had it come to this ?

 

She was walking to the tube. Whenever she could she left the car at home, not so much out of piety about exhaust gases, but because being on the street amongst people gave her a sense of reality. It was curious how all her life she’d wanted to rise and now, one the most eminent paediatricians in the country, she felt this need for tarmac. The brute, brass tacks of life settled her. Her feet hitting the pavement; the weight of her laptop in her hand; the brush of a stranger against her in the crowd; the smell of the traffic; the flesh and blood ordinariness of the folk. It was like the stubborn facts of knowledge. There was nothing so bracing and fixing as running your mind up against the intractable truths of being. Mel warned her about blood pressure. Well, maybe the stress was pushing it up. When did she last have it checked ? Fifty was a risky age. The walking would do her good. Cut out salt. Don’t eat liquorice. Liquorice? Where had that come from ? She tried to remember when and where she’d learnt that liquorice poisoning could push up blood pressure. It amused her that she couldn’t. But what was she worrying about ? Her blood pressure was probably normal, and in any case a simple chemical channel blocker would do the trick . She went down the steps into the underground and at once wanted to turn back. There was faint music coming from below, the plaintive cry of a clarinet. The heat enveloped her and she wanted to rush back into the open air. Turning left she saw the musician, a scrawny young man with a straggle of black, unwashed hair. His dirty jeans hung loose, as if made for someone much bigger, found in a bin or discarded on the street. He wore a black, zip-up, cotton jacket and his shoulders were hunched  from too common cold or fear. There was talent in his playing but he was lost. It made her wince and think again of how certain it was something was going to go badly wrong if things didn’t change. She’d seen too many children lost before their lives had begun to have any illusions. One day soon they’d get the terrible news. But how could you convince a suit ?

“Mel tells me to forget it,” she said to her husband. “He thinks I’ll push up my blood pressure.”

“He would,” said Terry attending to something sizzling in the frying pan.

“I think I’ll go to the papers or something.”

“Mmm. Think it’s a good enough story ?”

“It’ll be good enough when some little kid’s dead, Terry.”

Hearing the strain in her voice he turned to her.

“Sure, sure. I’m not saying don’t. If you think it’s right.”

“The whole problem is management don’t listen.”

“They’re paid not to listen.”

“Are you paid not to listen ?”

 

He looked at her again and stopped stirring.

“Of course I am, Sally. I’m paid to tick boxes for OFSTED. If I listened to my staff I’d get the sack.”

“Well isn’t that just atrocious !”

He went back to the food with a little grunt of a laugh.

“It’s atrocious from one point of view, but things get done.”

“Yeah, well, things get done and kids get murdered.”

“Let’s not be melodramatic.”

“It’s not melodrama, Terry, it’s reality. You know one of the juniors examined a kid and missed her fractured skull ? Reason ? Because the place is in chaos. No-one has time to do anything properly and why ? Because the suits have to tick the boxes so the politicians look good.”

He laughed.

“That’s good, Sal. You always did have that cynical way of going to heart of things.”

“Cynical ?”

“In the nicest possible sense. Not being taken in by the powerful.”

“Power corrupts, as whoever it was said. But this is supposed to be democracy. These people are supposed to serve us.”

“They do, they do. I serve the people, Sal. They read the OFSTED reports. They move house to get their children into the best schools. They want people like me to tick the boxes. They like it when teachers get it in the neck. It gives them the feeling something’s being done and things are improving.”

“Smoke and mirrors.”

“Sure, but people are stupid.”

“And I’m a cynic.”

“We have to do what we can where we are. If we waited for things to change, we’d do nothing. I’m a headteacher and I dance to the government’s tune or I don’t have a job. Your suits are just the same. They know bugger all about medicine and they don’t care. They care about their careers and their pensions. You’ve just got to do what you can in the circumstances.”

 

“But I’m telling the management that one of these badly abused kids is going to be dead before long. The media will go frantic. The politicians will be spewing self-righteousness. Someone will lose their job. It doesn’t need to happen. We can stop it but management have to listen to me because I do the job.”

“You should tell them to turn the hospital into a workers’ co-op !”

“You’d think that’s what we we’re after. But I’m not going to shut up any longer. They can sack me if they like.”

“Don’t talk so glibly about a hundred grand a year !”

“My mind isn’t for sale, Terry.”

 

 

Mandy Cargill worked in one of those modern offices which give the impression of clean efficiency. She matched it in her dress, speech and demeanour. She was always mega busy, every decision was executive and she was committed to brutal honesty. Part of her was in awe of her own power. She bought suits which made her look severe. She avoided eye contact with inferiors. She took her job in NHS administration straight after her Business and Management degree and though her ambition greatly exceeded her talent , hoped she might make her way to a decent middle-management post. When New Labour came to power there was more money around and all the talk was of private-public and making public services function like supermarkets; she quickly mastered the jargon and pushed. To her surprise, she found it worked. It was a matter of looking and sounding good, being absolutely obedient to ministerial diktat and believing in the divine right of management. As the hospital’s Chief Executive, she had to enforce her plans on highly qualified and experienced clinicians. At first, she had a residual nervousness. These were the professionals after all. But she soon rationalised it by dismissing them as managerial idiots: let the clinicians have their way and they’d ask for eternal life ! They could see nothing but their patients’ needs. They had no sense of the drive to ration resources. To listen to them you’d think the NHS was Jesus ! They weren’t in touch with the real world, they were egg-heads, absent-minded professors with a naïve faith in the power of science. Put decisions in the hands of people like that and the system would collapse. Her role was to be hard-headed or as she liked to say tough to be tender. She’d heard too much bleeding-heart pleading from doctors who thought if one of their patients died it was always because of lack of resources or administrative chaos. What did they know about management systems ? She’d done her MBA. She earned £120,000. She gave it to them straight.

“Nice to see you, Sally. You’re looking well. Take a seat. What can I do for you ?”

The brisk, no-nonsense tone gave Sally the creeps. She knew at once it was going to be like explaining to a teacher why you hadn’t done your homework or to a bank manager why your account was overdrawn again. There was no point in niceties or gentle persuasion.

“Did you know Alistair Duke examined a two-year-old a week ago and missed a fractured skull ?”

“That’s a clinical matter.”

“No. He’s perfectly capable of spotting a fracture if he’s got time.”

“Then he needs to organize himself properly, Sally.”

“Yes, and if only the poor weren’t so feckless they’d be driving Rolls-Royces.”

“I don’t see the connection.”

“People do what they do in circumstances. Ask Alfred Brendel to play Beethoven on a pub piano and it isn’t going to sound too good.”

Mandy wasn’t sure if she should have heard of Alfred what’s-his-name, but she laughed to show she could take a joke under pressure.

“This is one of the best hospitals in the country, Sally. Clinicians queue up to get jobs here.”

“Okay, this dialogue of the deaf could go on all day. The point is I’m going to blow the whistle. Some child is going to end up dead and soon. I could give you names. We don’t have what we need to make sure those kids are safe. Some of them get examined in ten minutes. That’s crazy. The way this place works needs to change or we’ll all be running for the fire exits.”

“Your job is to do the clinical work, my job is administration. The systems are perfectly adequate if they’re used properly.”

“Perfectly adequate ? It’s chaos. Our clinical needs come second to ticking boxes for bureaucrats.”

“We don’t tick boxes, Sally, we ensure best practice.”

“How do you know what best practice is ? You sit in an office all day.”

“We have objective measures. We know what works. We have all the data. By all government measures this is a very successful hospital.”

“The government measure aren’t about good hospitals, they’re about convincing the voters the government is doing a good job.”

“What’s the difference ?”

“Oh, for example you publish death rates for different hospitals but you don’t bother to tell people one of them deals with many more critically ill patients than another. The raw stats give people a skewed view, and that’s just what the politicians want. The point is, we are the people who do the job and if we say we can’t do it properly it’s sensible to listen.”

“But wouldn’t everybody say that ?”

“People try to do their jobs well, Mandy.”

“We can’t rely on that. We have to measure them. Management must make the judgements about how well people are doing their jobs. Everyone will claim they’re doing their job well and they’ll claim they need more resources and time. That’s human nature. But if we measure outcomes there can be no argument.”

“I can tell you an outcome you’re going to measure here before long. A child is going to dead. Some of these abused children we see need very careful examination over a substantial period for us to know just what’s going on. What we’ve got is no better than a production-line.”

“But every case is allocated time according to a standard model. Clinicians agreed that.”

“No we didn’t.”

“I’m afraid you did.”

“We had our arms twisted up our backs.”

“It was a negotiation.”

“What’s needed is simply to trust us.”

“That’s a rather out-of-date view. This is the public sector. We have to be accountable. Everything has to be policed. The only way you can do that is to measure. People have to accept that if they work in the public sector, their performance will be measured. There’s nothing in our data which suggests clinicians are under too much pressure. There’s an optimum pressure. Too little and people get lazy, too much and they go under. We think we’ve got it just right.”

“I’m not talking about clinicians going under. I’m talking about children being murdered.”

“That’s a little melodramatic.”

“What till it happens and watch the headlines.”

 

“It won’t happen if everyone follows procedure.”

“I predict it will. We miss things. We can’t follow up. We don’t have time to see a child over and over and that’s what we need to do.”

“If that’s what’s needed, you must make the time.”

“Okay. But I shall blow the whistle.”

“That’s your choice, but be careful not to breach the terms of your contract.”

“Thanks for the tip.”

 

In spite of her resolution and her declarations, Sally wondered if she wasn’t doing the wrong thing. There lingered in her mind that faith in the rationality of authority which had guided her when she was young. How could she have worked hard at school, slogged through university, battled through those sleepless nights on the ward as a junior if she’d believed the system was corrupt ? There had to be some room for faith or motivation simply dried up. In spite of her commitment to her patients she could walk away. She was only fifty but it was true. She’d never imagined she would feel negative about medicine, though it wasn’t medicine which nauseated her but the system in which it was carried out. She’d always thought she’d work on, into her sixties, to seventy and beyond still doing a bit of consultancy one or two days a week. Like children, medicine was a lifetime’s attachment. Yet now she looked back in horror on her innocence. It made her want to weep but she’d become too hard-headed for tears. To get things right was really simple: clinical decisions must come first. Yet how could that fit with a world of limited resources ? How did it tally with the political struggle ? The fine enterprise of medicine was dragged down by the low machinations of power. Oh, it was true enough her profession was essentially conservative, but a politically conservative doctor could be clinically radical. The important thing was to let doctors get on with it. Such had been her belief. Now she saw it was an illusion. Had she known at fourteen it was going to be like this, what would have happened to her ? It made her laugh cynically. The fight for power had everything in its grip, but for life to go on people had to believe it wasn’t so. Good people. People who got up in the morning and did their job, whatever it was, cleaning floors, serving chips or heart transplants, with a sense of trust. Was she an exception in having misplaced her trust ? Was she a freak ? Why didn’t she just get on with it ? Did everyone else have no inkling of how distorted things were ? All these people going busily about their affairs on the streets of London, did life make sense to them ? She found herself coming round to the view that people were badly deceived. They were dupes of a system organised for the benefit of a few very rich people and everything else span around that fact. It was the system’s speed of light. Nothing could escape it. But she herself was well-off ? How many people earned over a hundred grand ? She was probably in the top three or four percent of earners. Was she just hypocrite ? But it wasn’t about money. It was about that high-minded ideal of medicine. Yes, she’d always known she would earn well and she did take her fine life for granted, but she couldn’t have done some job without ideals to earn as much or more. Shifting money around in the city or advising millionaires how to avoid tax. Tush ! She’d have been a nurse before she’d have done something like that. And now she discovered that her high-mindedness was redundant. The system just wanted operatives. It tore the heart out of her and filled her with pity for the naïve girl she’d once been. She’d spent her life making not a career but a mind. She was world-minded. She realised that without thinking about it, without real conscious effort, she’d come to think of humanity as one and all boundaries as false. Was it because of her scientific view ? We were one species. That’s what we evolved to be. What were differences of race, religion, class, wealth. So much fluff. The hard fact was our DNA. The world’s divisions and conflicts were finally nothing more than the result of immaturity. What are we but tiny blobs of biological matter in a vast universe which will one day burn us up like a ball of paper thrown on a blazing fire ? And in the face of that how can we kill one another for land or property or money ? It was too silly. It really was silly ! So much misery for nothing. One day, and soon in the span of the universe’s age, our species would be nothing but a thin layer of deposit in the rocks. What matter then your royalty, your fine houses, your private jets, your fat salaries, your pathetic need for fame? Turn away from all that, from its stupid puffed-up pride, turn away and see that your humanity lies in the tender games you play with your children, in the warm, caring bliss of a love affair, turn away and see that the proper activity of humankind is an afternoon snooze in the chair, not strutting armies and the lunatic pursuit of wealth which doesn’t add a jot to your happiness. She listened to herself and wondered if her mind was breaking down. Was she going mad ? She felt alien. Yet she felt also liberated. Her doubts wouldn’t leave her. Perhaps it was a mistake. But she was going to do it. She was going to blow the whistle. Straightaway.

She drafted a long letter which she was going to send to the national press. Terry looked it over.

“It’s good. Very good.”

“But ?”

“Do you want to lose your job ?”

“They can’t sack me, Terry ! Look at my experience.”

“It means nothing to them. What matters is that they look good, keep their jobs and please their superiors.”

“If they try to sack me I’ll fight them.”

“They may be cleverer.”

“I won’t be bought off.”

“They can find the money for the things they really want to do.”

“Let them stuff it.”

“It’s a way out.You could drive a hard bargain.”

“I don’t want to walk away, I want to change things.”

“You sound like a student radical ! We can’t change the world, Sally, we just have to live with it as it is.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Not even if they offer you two hundred grand ?”

“Not even for two hundred million.”

 

Before she’d e-mailed her letters, news broke of the death of baby A, the boy whose fractured skull hadn’t been noticed.

“Oh, Christ !”

She heard it on the radio on the way to the hospital on one of those rare mornings when she took the car because of the weather. Mel was waiting for her.

“You’ve heard then ?”

“Isn’t this exactly what I said would happen ?”

“You’re a seer, Sal,” he said, “but the point is to play it down.”

“Play it down, Mel ? The child is dead !”

“Precisely. It’s too late for him. Now we’ve got to watch our backs.”

“You watch yours, I’m beyond that kind of stuff.”

“Mandy wants to see you.”

“I bloody well hope she does !”

She threw her car keys on the desk and said to herself she must remember she left them there.  Heading for Cargill’s office her mind was so blank with outrage she didn’t ask herself how the interview might go. She was ready to explode. After all she was justified and the thought of the child painfully dead at the hands of his parents when he could have been saved if they’d had time to spend with him made her want to tear down the hospital with her bare hands.

“Morning, Sally. Take a seat.”

“What did I tell you ?”

“This is no time for recriminations. We got to defend ourselves.”

“No, we had to defend the child. That’s my job. Looking after the well-being of children. Now all he needs is an undertaker.”

 

“The media will crucify us if we’re not careful, and the government will want a scapegoat. We’ve got to be sure they don’t find one here.”

“For Christ’s sake, Mandy, can’t you start thinking like a human being!”

“I’m paid to do my job. Have you blown the whistle yet ?”

“I didn’t get the chance.”

“Good. We’ll pay you a hundred and twenty thousand to keep quiet.”

 “Couldn’t you rustle up thirty pieces of silver ?”

“You’ll have to leave of course. Sign a compromise agreement. We’ll give you an excellent reference.”

“Very big of you.”

“Okay. Will you sign it now ?”

Mandy held out the papers. In that instant Sally knew her ideal was dead. Even if she managed to hold onto her job she would never be able to think of herself as infatuated. Henceforth, it was either the end of her serious work or the cowardly agreement with a corrupt bureaucracy which spoke in the disembodied voice of a political elite as detached from the people it served as it was attached to its own rewards.

“Is that how much his life was worth, Mandy, a hundred and twenty grand ?”

“I’m not here to engage in undergraduate moral debate. Sign it. It’s the best for all of us.”

“No Mandy, it’s the very worst. The very, very worst.”

An hour later she was ordered to leave the premises. The next morning a letter arrived: she was suspended indefinitely on full pay pending investigation. Investigation of what ? She hired an employment lawyer but soon discovered  the law was weighted like a wheel to run in the employer’s groove. She sent her letters to the press; a campaign quickly grew up around her; she was becoming a little cause célèbre; the BMA and the Lancet flexed their respectable biceps in her defence. Her days passed in bitty defence: e-mails, letters, phone calls, interviews. She began to feel like a politician and the insistent need for rhetoric, the pressing anxiety to persuade wearied her and made her long for the quiet objectivity of science. She was ill-fitted for the role of campaigner with its glib point-scoring and its constant attention to public opinion. Frankly, public opinion was stupid. Opinions were ten-a-penny but insights were hard-won through long, dedicated work and thought. She read the hysterical newspaper reports and editorials and it horrified her that a child’s life was made use of for political advantage. The Secretary of State was flinging self-defensive accusations like a footballer after a dirty tackle.  She was in the middle of a maelstrom caused by others and the sweetness of her love-affair with medicine was over. There was no question of giving up. This was a battle she had to win, though what would winning mean ? Big compensation ? Her job back ? Ha ! They’d make her life impossible. This was what she was going to be remembered for. Not the years of unspectacular dedication but this grubby, nasty affair. The change in herself from competent, assured, meticulous clinician to victimised public figure altered her demeanour, her tone of voice, her facial expression, her gestures; everything was different, every thought, every reaction, every emotion. Her life had been turned upside down, and by what ? By the mendacity of self-seeking politicians and the pusillanimity of time-serving bureaucrats. Yet every time her ill-mood touched self-pity, she reminded herself of baby A.

There was nothing to do but carry on. Her picture appeared in the paper and she hated it. As if she was a celebrity ! One day, a young mother with a little girl in a pushchair got on the tube and sat opposite her. She was quickly on her mobile:

“Nar, I can’t be arsed pissin’ about wiv it,” she shouted. “I’m goin’ ‘ave a fag then I’m goin’ ‘ome.”

Then turning to the child who was whining to be picked up:

“Stop pissin’ ‘bout wiw yer ! Yer gettin’ right on my tits !”

Sally got off at the next stop. The horrible thought occurred to her that all her values had been widdershins; the culture was turning in the opposite direction. She was outdated. Everything was driving down to the lowest impulses, the most vulgar motivations. And the lowest and most vulgar of all were the suits in charge. She wondered what she would make of herself if she were a bright fourteen-year-old girl today, in love with science. But the thought was just too awful. She walked on. She had a destiny to fulfil, though not one she relished or had chosen.

 


 

WORTHLESS LIVES

 

 

When Sumner Frank heard about the crisis he knew he was going to have think fast.

The next day he got a text from his brother: Just seen queues outside Nrn Rck. How bad is it ? He was about to reply: V fckn bad ! When he corrected himself. Why tell the truth to a socialist like Clark ? He’d only fall into the old clichés and start talking about the need to nationalise the banks and make finance serve the needs of productive activity. This was no time for theory or debate.

“We may be hours from the fucking ATMs being empty,” his boss  said to him. “We’ve screwed the financial system inside out. Only the government can get us out of this, and if they don’t do it fast and if they don’t get it right, we’ll all be going to the woods for our dinner.”

Sumner had made a very great deal of money since deregulation, especially since the invention of the derivatives in which he specialised and nearly understood. The truth was no-one really knew what happened to the money. Nor how much was out there. It’d just got easy to bundle things up and sell them on and make a shedload. But he knew his job was about to evaporate. Worse, someone might uncover his dodges. He was by no means alone. Who could finger them when the products were so complex? Coppers couldn’t understand them. It’d take years for the scams to come to light. That’s what he’d believed anyway. Now he wasn’t so sure and he was going to leave the country.

“What about the children ?”said Louise.

“They’re young enough to adapt.”

“But changing schools, leaving their friends behind, a new language. It’s a huge upheaval.”

“Lou, my job is gone. That’s bad. But I’ve been breaking the law. Lots of us have. It’s been so easy. It’s been the rule. My guess is they won’t come after us. The crisis is so big they’ve got their work cut out saving the economy. A couple of dirty million in my bank account. Who’s going to care about that when they’ll have to throw hundreds of billions at the banks ?”

“Shit, Sumner ! Shit !”

“You weren’t complaining when the dosh was raining in the windows.”

“I didn’t know you were crooked.”

 

“Well you should have. No-one makes that much money that fast without bending the rules.”

“Christ !”

Breaking it to his wife was bad but breaking it to his mother was impossible. They drove up to Yorkshire for the weekend. Clark  and two children turned up. His wife was visiting a friend. The house was bursting.

“Well, it’s terrible, terrible,” said his mother. “How was it allowed to happen ?”

“It’s all very complicated, mum,” he said as he bit into her homemade fruit cake. “ You know, high finance. These things are delicately balanced.”

“I blame the Labour government,” she said. “This would never have happened under Mrs Thatcher.”

He was relieved to hear her fall back onto her reassuring prejudices. He’d feared she might start criticizing the banks. But she’d been reading the Daily Mail as diligently as ever and her faith in the instinctive moral superiority of the rich was unshaken. At sixty his mother was still trim and quick. She’d been a walker all her life and loved the English countryside. Since the death of her husband from a brain tumour, she’d walked more, lost a few pounds she didn’t need to be rid of, and increased the haughty dignity of her bearing. Grief had made her more self-possessed and even less sentimental. She was as beautifully coiffured, manicured and turned out as ever. Her house didn’t show a speck of dust though the cleaner came only once a week. Mrs Frank was the daughter of an Anglican vicar. At twenty-three she married Roland Pickering who had come home after university to take over his father’s three butchers shops. Roland had read PPE at Balliol was armed with the knowledge of how to make money and the conviction that doing so was the moral way to act and so  set about turning the little business into a fifty shop empire. He made his million. He moved in the best county circles. He supported worthy charities. He went every Sunday to St Michael’s. He rode to hounds. He raised a toast to the Queen at every opportunity. At fifty-eight he dropped dead.

It was a terrible shock. Mrs Frank had imagined longevity was a right of the rich. Her husband had done everything he should and the chiming of the music of his life with the essential facts of existence seemed to her the guarantee that just as he was pre-eminent in society, so he would be favoured by creation. Sometimes in town she would see shabby men who were obvious failures yet who appeared seventy or over. Why should they live while her husband died ? It was terribly unjust. She felt it must have something to do with Labour government and Trade Unions. They were being kept alive by the National Health Service paid for out of the taxes of hard working people like Roland. They would probably have died at forty-five if they hadn’t been given heart surgery or drugs for high blood pressure. And the longer they lived the more of a drain it was on the pockets of those who had provided for themselves. It was unnatural. They should be left to die if they couldn’t pay their way. It was all wrong that money was taken from independent, respectable people to feed clothe and house the feckless. It upset her terribly. She read in the paper that families were receiving hundreds of pounds a week in housing benefit. She spoke to Trevor Heaton about it. One of her husband’s close friends, Heaton had started life as a bricklayer but built a property portfolio which included two hundred and more houses for rent across the county. It was true, he told her. It was a disgrace. People should stand on their own two feet. Mind you, he’d added with a smile, he’d made a lot of money from renting to claimants. A bit of a bonanza in fact. It was better than building council housing, he told her, because at least entrepreneurs had a chance to get their hands on the money. She was reassured that people like Trevor were doing well from the system but it seemed an appalling choice: either take taxpayer’s money to build houses for the hopeless or give them handouts that were as big as the wages some people earned for forty hours a week. She came back to her hobby-horse: there were just too many people. The poor should be sterilised at birth. Health care should be withdrawn from them. The population needed to be culled. Decent people couldn’t go on for ever supporting millions of worthless lives.

She was delighted when Sumner got a job in the City just as she was devastated when Clark became a sociology teacher and socialist. The City was a healthy place full of energetic, confident people determined to make something of themselves. She was very proud of Sumner’s wealth. He sent his children to a private school. They had a two million pound house in Chelsea. The more money he made, the greater her pride. But Clark. Oh, the shame ! He took a job in a college in Manchester, married a social worker and said the Labour Party was too right-wing. They lived on an estate in Withington where youths gathered in the evenings, their hoods pulled over their heads, smoking, shouting in their rough voices, riding their silly little bikes up and down the pavement.

“It’s the system you support that produces kids like that,” Clark said to her.

“How can you blame me for their vulgarity? It’s nothing to do with me.”

“It’s everything to do with you, mum. If those kids didn’t exist, the Daily Mail would have to invent them.”

“It’s the parents who are to blame. They should discipline their children. But they’re all in  the pub I suppose, spending their benefits.”

“The family’s a social institution, mother. Parents can’t kick against the pricks of an entire culture.”

“If children are brought up properly, they turn out right.”

“Like Sumner.”

“Exactly.”

“But not like me.”

 

She turned an expression of severity and surprise on him and he laughed.

“Don’t look so affronted. It’s not personal. Society made me what I am. You didn’t fail.”

But it puzzled her. She believed Clark was simply badly behaved. He’d been given every advantage. He was educated at Repton and Cambridge. He could have had a glittering career. He was just a wilfully disobedient child. Yet she was his mother and she believed children turned out as they did because of their parents. Was she then to blame ? Had she gone badly wrong ? But Sumner had turned out perfectly. He was a model son. He gave her no reason to criticise or to feel a moment’s shame. Had she treated them differently ? She couldn’t think how. It bothered her very badly but then she read in the paper about a successful solicitor who killed himself because he was suffering from bipolar disorder. Perhaps Clark was mentally ill. That would explain his odd choice of career and his socialism. Yet there was no mental illness in the family. Perhaps it was mixing with socialists that had driven him mad. In any case, if he had a mental defect she was not responsible. She’d been a good parent. Sumner was the proof.

“Have you told her we’re leaving the country ?” asked Louise.

“Not yet.”

“She’s going to love it, Sumner.”

“She’ll be okay. I’ll tell her I’ve got a job in banking. More money. More prospects. She’ll be happy with that.”

It was growing dusk and the children had started to fight. Tristram had called Danny a chav and Danny had retaliated by calling him a snob. Felicity had joined in and said  Danny’s school was rubbish because they didn’t learn Latin and Sam had jumped to his brother’s defence and said  Tristram was a cissy

“Anyway,” said Tristram, “my dad’s a millionaire and he says your dad can’t even afford a new car.”

“Who wants a new car !” said Sam.

“You’re dad’s a crook !” said Danny.

“Get a life !” said Tristram.

Their grandmother arrived to separate them.

“Goodness me !” she exclaimed. “It sounds like a council estate in here.”

“Danny says daddy’s a criminal,” whined Felicity.

 

“Daniel, that’s a wicked thing to say ! Your uncle Tristram is a banker and a very successful one.”

The rivals were sent to different rooms. When Louise came to gather her pair for dinner Felicity said:

“Why does Danny say daddy’s a crook, mummy ?”

“Did he say that ?”

“Yes, because Tristram called him a chav.”

“You shouldn’t say that Tristram.”

“Why not ? You say it all the time.”

“Yes, but not about your cousins.”

“Well it’s true. They’ve got no money. Danny’s jeans are from Primark.”

“People aren’t chavs just because they wear jeans from Primark.”

“Why are they chavs, then ?” said Felicity defiantly.

“Because of the way they behave.”

“What way ?”

“They’re vulgar,” said Louise searching for some infallible definition.

“What does that mean?” said Tristram.

“They show off,” said Louise.

“What have they got to show off about ?” said Tristram.

“Come on,” said Lousie, “it’s dinner time. And don’t upset grandma. Behave yourselves and be polite.”

Polite they were, but sullen. Felicity in her Laura Ashley floral dress, her lovely fair hair in a half head, the wisps curling delightfully on her nape, put on her best how-obnoxious-it-is-to-have-to-share-the-world-with-such-people demeanour. Tristram simply let his ugly mood appear on his features.

“Pass us the salt, dad,” said Danny reaching across the table.

“Daniel !” chided his grandmother. “Don’t stretch across the table like that. It’s most bad manners.”

“Listen to your grandma,” said Clark, “you’ll never get invited to Buckingham Palace if you don’t leave your Manchester manners behind.”

“Honestly, Clark,” said Mrs Frank, “do you want the boy to grow up not knowing how to behave.”

“Calm down, mother. He behaves perfectly well. He’s ten. He wants the salt he reaches for it. It’s not a moral failing.”

“But it’s very bad manners.”

“Manners are cultural. Danny lives in Manchester so he’s impeccably polite. Unlike members of the Bullingdon Club.”

“Oh you’re always topsy-turvying. It might be very clever but the facts are the facts.”

“Indeed they are. Danny, pass me the salt.”

When the dinner was over the children were allowed to watch tv while the adults stayed around the table. Mrs Frank refilled the big chrome coffee pot and the little white cream jug. Sumner went into the garden to smoke a small cigar. Through the patio window Clark could see him contemplating the heavy crop of green apples on the flourishing tree.

“What kind of apples are they, mum ?”

“Bramleys. I think. Yes, I think they’re Bramleys. They make the loveliest pies.”

“And crumbles,” said Clark. “Sumner seems interested in them. Perhaps he’s developed a late affinity for nature.”

“I don’t think so,” said Louise turning to look, “he’s a city creature.”

“Yes,” said Clark pouring himself his third aromatic cup, “and what do you make of what’s going on in the City ?”

“Well, it’s worrying. Of course.” She cast a glance at her mother-in-law. “But they’ll find a way out of it. The clever economists. They know what to do.”

“Of course they do,” said Mrs Frank. “Leave the decisions to the experts. People who’ve made money know how to look after money. That’s the problem. Socialists and trade unionists interfering in what they know nothing about.”

“But now the American government is interfering. Why did they rescue AIG and let Leheman Brothers go to the wall ?”

 

“Well, they can’t rescue everything. The country would be bankrupt,” said Mrs Frank.

“What d’you think, Louise ?”

“They must have their reasons.”

“They must, but it’s funny isn’t it. The home of radical neo-liberalism insists on saving an ailing insurance company having just let an investment bank go to the wall. Looks like they fear the entire house of cards might be about to tumble, eh?”

“You always look on the dark side, Clark. I don’t know where you get it from,” interjected his mother testily.

“On the contrary, I think it’s hilarious. What’s funniest of all is the mountain of intricate and dishonest theory under which they bury the simple truth.”

“Which is ?”

“That no economic theory in the world, or any part of any theory, prevents people being kind.”

“I don’t understand that,” said Louise.

“He does is deliberately,” said Mrs Frank. “He thinks it’s clever. He always has to fly in the face of what everyone thinks.”

“Well,” said Clark smiling, raising his eyebrows and holding out his palms, “doesn’t everyone believe kindness is a good thing ? Doesn’t everyone like to be treated with kindness ?”

“You can’t run the economy on kindness,” said Louise.

“Of course you can’t,” said Mrs Frank. “It’s just common sense. You have to run business as business not charity.”

“But why can’t businesses be run on kindness ?”

“That’s a ridiculous question !”

“Of course it is. That’s why it’s important. ”

“Don’t pay any attention to him, Louise. He just does it to annoy people.”

“Businesses have to make money,” said Louise. “It’s not a matter of being unkind, it’s just the way it is. Business people have to make tough decisions to keep the businesses going. That’s all it is. It’s not a matter of kindness or unkindness.”

 

“Yeah,” said Clark, “but look what they’ve been doing. Credit derivatives are just ways of making lots of money fast but they knew they were risky as hell. They knew they were playing roulette with the world economy. What’s business for ?”

“Clark, I won’t have you talk about Sumner like that it my house. Stop this at once. Come on, Louise. Let’s go and see the children.”

Clark was left alone with his coffee. He chuckled quietly to himself as the women went. Sumner, he could see, was pacing the garden. He knew him well enough to detect tension and anxiety in his movements. He’d always had a heedlessness about him, an intense, blind drivenness. He was the oldest. He had absorbed his parents’ ambitions more completely. Being second-born, Clark had been slightly sheltered from the goading missiles of his mother’s Daily Mailism. He’d always felt slightly aside from his family and though it was disturbing to experience yourself as an outsider among those closest to you, it was also funny and exhilarating. He found his mother ludicrous. He loved her as any boy does his mother, but as soon as she opened her mother to start opining he just wanted to roar with laughter. As a youngster he made friends with a boy from the village whose father had lost his job as a sales manager for a tyre firm. They scrimped. The carpets and furniture were threadbare. They never had holidays. But Howard was a great friend. They went off to the woods looking for birds’ nests; they jumped on their bikes, bought a bottle of fizz and some Mars bars and rode out into the hills for the day; they swam in the forbidden river and played interminable games of three-and-in and tip-and-run on the park. Mrs Frank wouldn’t let him come to the house.  So early on Clark had put in question the hierarchy of money. His parents’ values came from outer space. At Repton he joked his way around the stiff and fierce Toryism of his peers and every holiday met up with Howard and wondered why he couldn’t just go to the local school as well. When he asked his mother if he could leave Repton she almost dropped dead. He father talked to him sternly about the expense of his education, the special place Repton was, his ingratitude in wanting to leave.

“But I don’t like it,” he said, “it’s full of snobs.”

His father drew back from him and his face lost all energy. He wasn’t allowed out for three weeks.

Poor Sumner. Clark really did feel sorry for him. He had to carry the ton of clay that was other people’s ambitions on his sorry back. Clark had escaped. He had no ambition. He enjoyed teaching. He read whatever he fancied. He was in love with his wife. His kids were wonderful. He was too lost in enjoyment to be ambitious for anything. His mother said it was irresponsible. He earned £35,000 and when a promotion had become available had refused to apply because he didn’t want to have to implement policies he thought stupid or to treat people as idiots. He saw no reason why relations at work couldn’t be kind. It was all bullshit, the theory that said otherwise. Modern economics was like medieval theology: you had to believe in god or capitalism for them to make sense. Being rough-tongued and ignorant with people in the workplace was passed off as good management and silly little gaggles of SLTs set themselves off from the rest and handed down policy like Moses himself. It made him laugh out loud. But then it was tragic too. The colleagues who cracked under the direct bullying or the sly undermining. The big lie that it was about raising standards. And the thread went straight back to Wall St, The Stock Exchange, Canary Wharf, that world which meant so much to Sumner and which to Clark was beneath disdain.

He went into the garden. Sumner was pulling leaves off the apple tree and tearing them into angry little bits he let fly from his palm with a flick. Clark had nothing to say to him. He was his brother, but apart from genes, they were strangers. They were strangers socially. The hard thought brought an access of sentiment. This was Sumner. They grew up together. It was too ridiculous. He walked towards him.

“I managed to drive the women away.”

“Oh yeah.”

“Old habits die hard.”

“What d’you mean ?”

“It’s a joke.”

“ Ha fucking ha.”

“What wasp has stung you ?”

“I suppose you think it’s a big fucking laugh, eh ? The credit crunch ?”

“As usual it’s hilarious and atrocious at the same time.”

“Bollocks.”

“Why is it bollocks ?”

“It’s just the kind of bollocks you talk Clark, that’s why. You always did.”

“Did I ?”

“Yes, taking the piss out of school or the Archbishop of Canterbury. Making a joke of everything. You wouldn’t be fucking laughing if you were in my shoes.”

“No, I’d cut my losses, retire to La Rochelle and spend the rest of my life sitting on my backside reading Kropotkin.”

 

“While someone else makes the wealth.”

Clark laughed.

“The people who make the wealth were queuing outside Northern Rock to withdraw their little five grand before the masters of the universe brought the sky crashing down.”

Sumner reached for a fat apple, tugged it free and flung it over the high fence beyond which lay the road.

“Don’t start that socialist shit. You know fuck all about economics.”

“Okay, Sumner. And the people who do are running around with fire up their backsides trying to save the system their economics has brought staggering drunkenly to the edge of a pit of quicklime.”

“We know what to do. We understand money.”

“Well, the bankers aren’t going to rescue us are they, Clark.” He laughed. “Socialised wealth will have to do it. And then the game will start up again, the bankers making slick fortunes and the people who produce the wealth feeling lucky if they get five hundred quid a week.”

A magpie settled on the fence. They both stood and watched it as it bobbed and shifted. Sumner grabbed another apple and launched it at the bird. Clark shook his head and laughed.

“Bloody awful shot !”

“Still a twitcher ?”

“No. Danny likes climbing trees and getting his arms scratched raw looking for nests though.”

“You should move to the country, like me. But you need money to do that. You need to work in the City to afford the country.”

“Yeah, land should be taxed. Ten quid an acre on the big landowners and we could abolish council tax for the millions on their postage stamp estates.”

“It’s a lost cause. Why do you cling to it ? You’re going down. Socialism is dead. All this crap about equality is finished. Capitalism is an economic fact. You’d better face it or you’ll be fucked.”

“Economic facts are inventions of theorists and the theories are just excuses for greed. There’s no economic law which forces us to be greedy. We choose it and like most of our choices we do it out of weakness and ignorance.”

Mrs Frank appeared on the patio.

“What are you two doing out here ? The children are getting fractious. Come inside. I’ll make a pot of tea.”

Clark went to get his children ready for bed. Sumner went upstairs and Louise followed him.

“When are you going to tell her ?”

“Once the kids are in bed.”

“I don’t want to be there.”

“Fine.”

“You know she’ll go apeshit.”

“Then let her.”

“I don’t think you realize the mess we’re in, Sumner. She dotes on you. Clark disturbs her. But you’re the son she wanted. She dotes on the kids to. We take them to the other side of the world, she’ll be devastated.”

“Don’t exaggerate. Lots of people do it. There’s e-mail, mobile phones and aeroplanes. She’ll get used to it.”

“She’ll take it personally, Sumner. She takes everything personally.”

“Shut the fuck up, Louise ! Don’t insult my mother. I’ll deal with it.”

The children were slow to settle. Sam was in and out of bed and up and down stairs with the quickness of a vole. Mrs Frank berated her son for being unable to control him. Felicity had tummy ache and insisted on some medicine so they gave her Calpol and hoped she wouldn’t be sick. It was nearly ten before the house was quiet. The adults sat in the living-room. Mrs Frank turned up the gas fire. Sumner wanted to watch Match of The Day but Clark wasn’t interested and excused himself, went to the kitchen, made a cup of tea and read the paper. After ten minutes, Louise came through.

“What’s the score ?” said Clark

“No idea.”

He folded the paper out of politeness, lifted his mug and smiled.

“Sumner is going to tell your mother we’re leaving the country.”

“The country ? Is it that bad ?”

“It’s very bad, Clark.”

“He’s losing his job ?”

 

“Oh yeah. But that’s not the half of it. Lots of them will lose their jobs but they’ll get others. That’s how it works. They all know people. The real problem is he’s been breaking the law.”

“I see.”

Louise had always despised Clark. Ever since she met Sumner she’d sided with his disdain for his brother’s views and ways. She thought of him as one of those jealous, malicious people who wanted to take away from others what they couldn’t have themselves. But she needed to confide in someone. She was afraid. Sumner liked to take risks. He believed he was untouchable. He came from an untouchable class. She put her faith in him and he’d rewarded her. Yet now it was all precarious. They were going on the run like common criminals. She couldn’t think of Sumner as a criminal. Even if he’d broken the law. Yet her anxiety got the better of her. The law was a cold instrument. If they came after him, they could lose everything. Clark was sensible. He was straight. If you gave him the keys to the bank of England he’d laugh and hand them back. If you gifted him a million pounds he’d donate it to Oxfam. She wanted him to do something. Could he talk to Sumner ? Could he sort out the mess ? Her ideas were confused but the worry was crippling her. Clark wasn’t too bad. He had a good side. Maybe he could help.

“I don’t know how. It’s all complicated financial stuff. But he’s got millions that don’t belong to him.”

“Millions.”

“Well, two million is what he said. I don’t know. Maybe that was just a figure off the top of his head. I don’t know.”

“Sit down.”

“Oh, Clark ! They won’t send him to prison will they ?”

She began to sob and through a great effort pulled herself round.

“No, I’m sure it won’t come to that.”

“What should he do ?”

“I’ll talk to him. There may be a way to pay the money back.”

“Pay it back ?”

“Yes, do the honest thing. If he pays it back my guess is they won’t be able to prosecute.”

“He’ll never pay it back, Clark. He’s worked hard. He thinks he deserves it.”

 

“He can’t deserve what he’s stolen, Louise.”

“He doesn’t see it as theft. It’s just a bit extra. A reward for knowing how to bend the rules.”

“The law won’t see it quite that way.”

“That’s why he wants to go abroad.”

“Where ?”

“I don’t know. He doesn’t say. I don’t know. Maybe South America or something.”

“What do you think ?”

She broke down again.

“I don’t want to go. What will it do to the children ? Where will we end up ? I thought we had a good life. I thought it would last.”

“I’ll talk to him.”

“It’s changed him. He’s….inward. He flies off the handle.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll have a word with him.”

Meanwhile, in the living-room, Sumner had turned down the sound.

“Louise and I are thinking of moving.”

“Oh. Where ?”

“We haven’t decided yet. Somewhere different. She wants a change. Maybe abroad.”

“Abroad ? What about your job ?”

“Everything’s up in the air because of this crisis. It’s a good time to move on. There are two sides to it you see. Lots of losses but lots of gains. It’s just the right moment to go for a big job.”

“Couldn’t you find something in London ?”

“Of course. But the really big jobs are abroad. You know, a couple of million a year plus bonus. I’ll have to be prepared to move to make that much.”

 

“But you don’t need the money.”

“Maybe not, but it’s ambition. If it’s there you go after it. I don’t want to stagnate. I’ve always wanted to get on.”

“Oh yes. I know. You should want to get on. But what about the children ? They’re in such good schools.”

“If you can pay you can get a good school anywhere in the world. They’ll enjoy it. If we end up somewhere really different. Brazil or….”

“Brazil ? You can’t move to Brazil, Sumner ?”

“Why not ?”

“It’s the other side of the world. When would I see you ? When would I see the children ?”

“Any time you like. I’ll pay for the flights.”

“But Brazil ? Isn’t it all drugs and violence ? How can that be better than Berkshire ?”

“But we’ll live among the rich. We’ll have gates and dogs and guards and guns…..”

“Guns ? Sumner, do you really want your children to grow up around guns.”

“That’s the way the world is, mother. How do you think we maintain our nice life in the Home Counties ? By behaving like Jesus Christ ? You have to use force to be as rich a country as we are. Violence makes the world go round. That’s how it is.”

“That’s nonsense. We don’t kill people so we can make fortunes from drugs. We only use violence against those who attack us. We defend ourselves. That’s an honourable way to use force.”

“You’re starting to sound like Clark.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Clark is a socialist. I don’t have anything to do with ideas of equality. I’m a Tory and a patriot and I think we are right to use force to defend our interests against….”

“Against any fucker who challenges them !” He was on his feet. She gasped and pinned herself against the armchair.

“Do you think it’s a church picnic ? It’s a war. A constant war. I’m in the middle of it. We fight for money. That’s what happens, day in day out. And sometimes the fight comes to real, direct killing. But we’re killing people anyway. If I cared about the effects of what I do on the poor I’d never make a penny. If people knew, if you knew what bankers do to make money, we’d be lynched. It’s a dirty game and I play it. And if I have to play it in Brazil and carry a gun to do so I will.”

He slammed the door and she heard him go out of the house. She sat still. Her heart was fluttering like a leaf in the wind. She wanted to go to Clark. He was her son. But she didn’t trust him. Where was Louise ? Surely Louise would talk sense. In the kitchen she found her wiping her eyes.

“What’s the matter.”

“Nothing,” said Clark. “She’s okay.”

“What’s going on,” said Mrs Frank gripping the back of a chair. “Sumner just swore at me and stormed out.”

“Oh Christ,” said Louise.

“I’ll go after him.”

Clark was glad to leave the women. He went out into the dark. The night was cool but calm and pleasant. He almost wanted to get his children out of bed, bundle them in the car and drive back to Manchester. The avenue was quiet. The big houses stood peacefully and assured, as if since the start if time they were meant to be here. This was a nice place to live. He liked it even though he knew the people who lived here were his political enemies. He laughed to himself at the thought. Enemy was a strong word. In truth there was a tiny difference in thinking between them. How those tiny differences became exaggerated. Yes, it was true, these folk hid behind their money, but that was just insecurity. Life was an appalling fact. The universe, these huge forces which had thrown us into existence, blind, groping, a poor little species lost in a baffling world; how hard it was to have courage. How much bravery it took to get out of bed every morning.

He walked down the drive, opened the gate and went into the garden. Sumner was by the fence, looking out over the silent road. The tip of his cigar glowed in the night. He didn’t turn as Clark crossed the damp lawn.

“Louise tells me you’re thinking of going abroad.”

“Does she ?”

“She’s upset. So is mum.”

“That’s women for you.” 

“I know the mess you’re in.”

“I’m not in any mess. You’re in the fucking mess, Clark.”

 

“How’s that ?

“Because you’re broke. Your kids live next door to chavs. You’re going nowhere. They’re going nowhere. I’m doing fine.”

“Sure, but running abroad to escape the law, Sumner….”

“I’m not running anywhere and the law isn’t on to me. You know nothing, Clark. You work in the public sector. You’re a wanker like all the other wankers in the public sector with their do-gooding ideas and their pissy pensions. Well the public sector’s going to get it. You just watch. You bastards are going to pay for this crisis because you’re too fucking stupid to know how the world works.”

“Yeah okay. But come inside and talk.”

“About what ?”

“If you’ve stolen money, Sumner, you need to come clean.”

Sumner threw back his head and let out a long howling laugh.

“You fucking boy scout, Clark.”

“Give the money back.”

“You think I’ve been stealing from the tuck shop ?”

“It doesn’t matter. Give it back. If you do that they can’t come after you and your conscience is clear.”

“Fucking conscience. You talk crap, Clark. Who wants a clear conscience and a life like yours ?”

“Sumner, you’re my brother…”

Sumner’s right hand had curled round the handle of a spade left upright in the earth. He yanked and felt its good, balanced weight lift. In the same movement he swung it with all his strength pivoting on his left foot so its blade followed a clean arc and smashed with a thick crack into the side of Clark’s head. He went down with an animal grunt , jerked three or four times and lay still.

Sumner finished his cigar and flicked the stub over the fence. He dragged the spade behind him to the house and went into the blinding light of the kitchen where the two women sat side by side, silent and pale.

 


 

THE RUINED INNOCENCE OF JOHNNY COLQUHOUN

part one

 

The front door of number 23 was open all day. There was a little square porch and then the glass door which too was unlocked except at night. It was a habit Mrs Colquhoun brought from Good St where people nipped freely in and out of one another’s houses. The middle-classes of Sycamore Grove were more confined: they kept their gates latched and their storm doors locked. The hedges, the drives, the trellises all had something to protect. In Good St there wasn’t much to defend, except  neighbourliness.

Johnny Colquhoun came and went as he liked. His friends had to go in and out of their back doors and take off their shoes, but he ran in the front, grabbed a pint of milk from the marble slab in the pantry, swigged a glass and ran out. Once, when he went to call for Pete Samuels he knocked on the front door. It was a big house in an acre of land: Pete’s dad owned a car dealership selling Jaguars, Bentleys and Rolls-Royces. He came to the door with a frown on his dark brow.

“Is Peter playing, please ?”

The man looked down at the skinny boy in short trousers and a washed-out jumper. He knew he was one of the crowd from the modest houses the other side of his private wood.  Sometimes a dozen would gather in the garden to whack a cricket ball around and their shouts reaching him in the kitchen or his study made him come to watch for a minute. Though he paid for his son as a day boy at the most expensive school in the county, he couldn’t stop him mixing with grammar and secondary school lads. He seemed to prefer the easy-going camaraderie of what his wife called these rough-and ready types. Yet most of them came form respectable backgrounds, except this scrawny, little blond lad and the Polish boy whose father was unemployed. Peter’s four sisters were very particular: they wouldn’t have anything to do with girls who weren’t privately educated. They had no friends from the local avenues and drives, the three-bedroomed houses with their decent gardens back and front. They associated with the daughters of men like himself: businessmen of real wealth, barristers, consultants. Samuels disdained the comfortable livings of most of the people from his suburb. As for the people from the terraced streets over the river, they were probably dangerous and to be shunned. The boy in front of him looked like one of them. He had the neglected, couldn’t-care-less demeanour of the street kids Samuels saw when he drove through to the town to his garages.

“Can you come to the back door next time ? Only important people come to the front.”

He went inside leaving the boy facing the blue door. Johnny Colquhoun never forgot that experience: important people come to the front door, the rest go round the back. But nobody went to the back door of his house. It would have been rude to send people down the path and into the little sloping-roofed shelter the dustbin sat next to. The front door was open to everyone. There were no distinctions between the welcome and the unwelcome.

Pete Samuels’ dad was right: Johnny Colquhoun did come from the streets. His parents had moved when his grandfather died and left them his house. He was one of those sober working men who never earned much but, raised in habits of frugality and thrift, could stretch little far. His two up two down was well cared for and brought a thousand. Jennie and Cliff Colquhoun decided the best for their children was to move to a good area. But they soon discovered what was meant by good didn’t exclude the snobbery which made them feel they didn’t belong.

“This is a great place to live,” Cliff would say. “Pity about the people.”

Johnny Colquhoun turned out to be a bright little boy with a talent for languages and a clever imagination but he saw no reason to push these things and his parents left him alone. He didn’t like the atmosphere of the grammar school. The masters and prefects wore gowns and wielded the slipper and the cane with relish. They played rugby and the PE master recycled the glibness about a game for ruffians played by gentlemen and vice versa. When he was selected to play for the under 12s Johnny said:

“I can’t, sir. I play footy on Saturday mornings.”

“You play what, lad ?”

“Football, sir.”

“For whom ?”

“Hillside Rovers, sir.”

“You’d rather play football with a gang of scruffs than rugby against some of the best schools in the county and beyond ?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then there’s no hope for you lad.”

Nor was there. When he had to write an essay on Palmerston during his O level year, he included: Though he thought himself a Liberal, Palmerston belonged to a backward-looking class. He had no understanding of the social forces being born in the making of Victorian industry, no inkling of the rise of socialism.” His  History master took him to task for his tendentious view of one of Britain’s great statesmen. In English he wrote a composition about a family who moved from the down-at-heel streets to a blossoming suburb only to find themselves victims of snobbery and the son, winning a place at grammar school, became unhappy because of the casual bullying, commonplace snootiness and unjustified assumption of superiority. The English master told him his view was “jaundiced” and he should be “grateful for the opportunity to get on.”

In the final term of the fifth year most boys were made prefects in preparation for their ascension to the sixth-form. Johnny Colquhoun and four others were left out. He passed eight O levels including German, French and Latin at the highest grade but the thought of two more years in the place depressed him so he took a job in a bank on £520 a year and everybody told him what good pay it was and how fine his prospects were. He had to wear a suit and collar and tie but he got to walk round town in his lunch hour and there were pretty girl clerks in the branch who caught his eye. Chris Blackstone shared his irreverent sense of humour and they would eat their sandwiches together on a bench in Starchhouse Square. She was tall and dark with a quiet brooding quality which cleared like clouds in April when something amused or animated her.

“Have you ever thought how much money passes through our branch in a day ?” he said.

“Thousands.”

“Banking is a big scam.”

“Everything’s a scam according to Johnny Colquhoun.”

“Everything is. What’s that tree made of ?”

She laughed.

“Wood, you fool.”

“But what’s wood ?”

“What trees are made of, idiot.”

“Carbon. Or put another way, congealed sunlight. That’s what a tree is essentially. A column of solidified sunlight.”

“You can’t get a tan sitting by it though, can you ?”

“No, but you can kissed lying under it.”

“More than kissed if you got half a chance.”

“But when you look into things, they aren’t at all what they seem.”

“Then don’t look into them. It takes the charm out of life.”

“On the contrary, some things get more charming the more you concentrate on  them.”

“Just concentrate on your sandwich for the moment.”

“Sinclair says to me: “You could have a great future in banking, John. We need bright young men like you. Play your cards right and you could end up in the City.” Ridiculous.”

Christine laughed again.

“You find everything ridiculous.”

“There are some things I take perfectly seriously.”

“Well, just forget about them for the time being and eat your lunch.”

“It only seems to me if people thought about it. If they knew what was happening to their money, they might look at things in a new light. Just like you think differently about a tree when you realize it’s just solid sunlight.”

“People prefer to see a tree as a tree. Why should they think any further ? It won’t make them any happier.”

“It might. If they thought enough about enough things.”

“Anyway, why shouldn’t you have a career in banking. You could make someone a good husband with a banker’s salary behind you.”

“No, I’d be the grumpiest bastard on earth. I just do the job for money. I can’t believe in it. You’d have to be mad to believe in banking.”

“Then two-thirds of the world is mad.”

“More than that.”

“Or Johnny Colquhoun is mad.”

“Only north-north-west. When I look in a southerly direction I’m restored to sanity.”

“Just keep your eyes on the north for the time being.”

“I think Sinclair imagines I actually like the job. As if anybody likes work. We all just do it for money because that’s how the system works. But hardly anyone really believes in their job. We’re just drones buzzing away to get the dosh to pay the rent and the gas bill.”

“I don’t mind my job.”

“But think what you’d rather be doing.”

“You can’t do that eight hours a day, Johnny.”

“You wouldn’t work if you won the pools, would you ? It makes me laugh. Sinclair’s in the syndicate. If he won half a million we’d never see his backside again. But he puts on a front of being committed. People like him should be committed.”

“Society would be one big lunatic asylum if you had your way.”

“If I had my way we wouldn’t be going back to the bank this afternoon.”

“If you had your way I’d end up pushing a pram and washing nappies.”

“I’m perfectly familiar with the technology of prevention.”

“Well, that’s better than cure.”

“I sometimes look at him and think: God, imagine ending up like that. Thirty years in the same branch, shiny trousers, a semi in the suburbs and a wife whose greatest passion is whist.”

“How do you know ? They might be very happy.”

“Take a look at him. Do you know what William Blake says about what a woman desires in a man ?”

“I’m not interested in the opinions of your drinking mates.”

“He’s a poet, you nit-wit. ”

“I was joking.”

“He’s a kind of ghost, Sinclair. Everybody’s a kind of ghost at work. We switch off our humanity and become little machines that serve the big machine.”

“We’ve got five minutes to get back or the big machine will sack us and then we’ll be little machines in the queue at the dole office. Come on.”

He sometimes thought if it wasn’t for Chris he would hand in his notice. She was a good reason to stay at the bank and the one thing (apart from Judy Edmondson, Janice Barratt and Susie Quinlivan) that allowed him the think about it positively. But if he chucked it all in, what would he do ? Young men were supposed to be ambitious but he had no ambition at all, except to get into bed with Christine and to read more books. Perhaps that’s how he should make a living ? He thought about his old school mates who were now at university: John Wiggins doing Greats (whatever that was) at Oxford, Stephen Gilkes doing biology at UCL, Dave Hothersall doing German somewhere or other. Maybe he should go the same route. But he had no inclination. He liked to read what he fancied. Wouldn’t university be like school again, being told what to read and having to write clever dick essays ? The thought revived an unpleasant feeling: pleasing teachers and being judged. He’d wriggled free of that but the fire of the bank was just as maddening as the frying pan of school. Perhaps Christine was right: all the world was awry except him. All the same, it didn’t put an end to his restlessness and desire to find some straightforward way of living outside all the fuss. Why was it he thought everyone engaged in a lot of unnecessary fuss ?

“You know,” he said to Christine, “ I could fancy being a kept man.”

“Don’t look at me.”

“You like work. Your tea’d be on the table when you got home. I’d do the ironing.”

“No you wouldn’t. You’d read books all day and leave the house in a mess. I’ve seen your bedroom.”

“All too briefly.”

“It’s no place for a woman of any discernment.”

“I can tidy it up.”

“You can, but you find other things more pressing.”

“I’m a young man. Other things are more pressing.”

“Don’t press them on me, I’ll have egg mayonnaise all over my blouse.”

“It puzzles me why I find work so laughable.”

“You have a twisted sense of humour.”

“I was thinking maybe I should go to university. See if I can earn a living from books.”

“Where would you go ?”

He detected a little disappointment in her voice and looking at her saw in her eyes something too assured.

“Where would have me ? Universities are probably like girls. You have to try and try before they let you in.”

“You can get in if you have the right qualifications.”

“But would I get in where I’d like to go or have to settle for second best ?”

“Nothing’s certain in this life.”

“Pity it’s the only one we have.”

The thought of university kept nagging away at him and he kept dismissing it but one day Sinclair called him into his office.

“I think it would be very good for you, John, to take the banking exams.”

“I see.”

“You’d find them easy enough. You’re a bright lad. One of the brightest we’ve had in the branch. It’d be very good for your future and we’d let you have day release.”

“Oh, thank you.”

“To be honest, I’m surprised you haven’t shown an interest before now.”

“It’s never really….crossed my mind, Mr Sinclair.”

“You must be ambitious, John. Time and tide, you know.”

“Yes, I know.”

“One other thing. It might be better if you had your hair cut. It’s getting a bit long and we do like to keep up standards for the customers.”

“I was going to let it grow. I do amateur dramatics and it’s for a part.”

“What part is that ?”

“Jesus.”

“Is it a passion play ?”

“I hope not. I don’t want to end up on a cross.”

“When’s the performance ?”

“End of the month.”

“When it’s done you can have a trim.”

“Yes, of course.”

 

Johnny Colquhoun, his elder sister Kate and his young brother Billy were sitting at the tea table with their mother and father at five o’clock on Sunday afternoon. His mother made a hot-pot every week, and rice pudding or apple pie for afters and they all had to be there and on their best behaviour. She came and went busily while her husband read the sports pages.

“Put the paper away, Cliff,” she said as she placed the heavy Pyrex dish in the middle of the table.

“Mmm. Looks good,mum,” said Johnny and leaning towards his brother, “bags the crust.”

“Johnny can’t have all the crust, can he mum ?”

“Don’t torment him.”

“He deserves tormenting, don’t you Billy smelly pants.”

“Stop it, John. We’re eating,” said Kate.

“Listen to your sister, Billy,” said Johnny.

“It’s not me, it’s you.”

“It’s you, you little crust-scoffer.”

“Don’t encourage him, Johnny,” said his mother.

“I’m not to encourage you, so keep your mucky mitts off the crust.”

“Put some on Billy’s plate will you, Cliff ?” said Mrs Colquhoun.

“Can I have lots o’crust, dad ?”

“The boy has no manners,” said Johnny. “Where was he dragged up ?”

“Can have I some more, dad ?”

“Eat that first.”

“Your eyes are always bigger than your belly, Billy,” said Johnny. “You’ll end up fat and spotty like your sister.”

“So long as he doesn’t end up like you,” said Kate.

“Stop squabbling,” said Mrs Colquhoun going once more to the kitchen.

“Sit down, Jennie,” said Cliff.

“I’m just going for the pickles.”

“Let them get their own pickles,” said Cliff.

“Yeah, mum. Let Kate get the pickles. The exercise will do her good.”

Mrs Colquhoun left the room.

“The bank want me to do exams, dad.”

“About time you did some work,” said Kate.

“You call backcombing and putting in curlers work ?”

“Are you going to ?” said Cliff.

“I don’t think so.”

“God ! Tell him, dad.”

“Why not ?”

“I don’t want to be a banker.”

“You work in a bank. You are a banker,” said Cliff.

“Only half a banker. I just work there. It doesn’t really have anything to do with me.”

“You’re just lazy,” said Kate.

“Opportunities aren’t ten a penny, lad.”

“I know. But I’m not a banker at heart.”

“You’re a layabout at heart,” said Kate.

“You think I’m a joiner at heart ?” said Cliff.

Mrs Colquhoun came in with the pickles.

“Red cabbage, Cliff ?”

“Unfortunately, no-one will pay me for lazing around. Harold Wilson is a great disappointment.”

“It’s the Labour government not the layabouts government,” said Kate.

“The bank wants Johnny to do his exams,” said Cliff.

“That’s good. They must like you, Johnny.”

“Mr Sinclair thinks I’ve got the makings of a banker but the thought of being like him fills me with despair.”

“Why ?” said Mrs Colquhoun.

“Sit down and eat, Jennie,” said Cliff.

“Do we need a serving spoon ?” she said.

“We’re all right. Sit down.”

“Can I have some more crust, mum ?” said Billy.

“Do you want to be as fat as your sister ?” said Johnny.

“I’m not fat !”

“She’s not fat,” said Johnny to Billy. “She burns off all that chocolate doing perms and highlights.”

“You should do the exams, Johnny,” said Mrs Colquhoun. “Bank manager is a good job.”

“If you don’t mind being a zombie.”

“A job’s a job,” said Cliff.

“Yeah, but you like yours.”

“You think so ?”

“You like what you do. You fettle in the garage in your spare time. I don’t do double-entry book-keeping for fun.”

“You don’t go to work to have fun,” said Kate.

“Why not ?”

“Don’t be stupid.”

“I don’t fettle at work. I fit skirting boards. You think it’s fun nailing skirting boards in Wimpey houses eight hours a day ?”

“More fun than banking. At least you hit your thumb now and again which reminds you you’re alive.”

“Lots of people would be happy to have your job,” said Kate.

“Lots of people buy Cliff Richard records.”

“That’s a stupid thing to say,” said Kate.

“Just eat your dinner and stop annoying one another,” said Mrs Colquhoun.

“Yeah, stop annoying everybody, Billy,” said Johnny “and get that crust in your gob.”

“Johnny, don’t use such language when we’re eating.”

“Sorry, mum. It’s sitting next to this little animal. I’ve seen hyenas eat with more restraint.”

“He enjoys his food, don’t you Billy ?”

The boy, his mouth full, nodded.

“So if you don’t do the exams, what will you do ?” said Cliff, twisting the top off the jar of red cabbage.

“I might go to university.”

“Oh my God !” exclaimed Kate and put down her knife and fork.

“How would you pay your way ?” said Mrs Colquhoun.

“If you’ve worked for more than three years, you get a full grant. You can sign on during the holidays, though I’d work the summers…”

“Probably for a fortnight,” said Kate.

“No, the summer vacations are long. I’d find something to bring in a bit of money. And I’d be okay. My material needs are modest.”

“I suppose you’d come him in the holidays,” said Kate.

“Maybe.”

“And expect mum and dad to keep you.”

“No, I’d pay board like I do now. And I wouldn’t leave my knickers on the bathroom floor or pat my face with a clean bath towel and throw it in the wash.”

“I don’t leave my knickers on the bathroom floor.”

“Billy, have you started pinching your sister’s underwear ?”

“Johnny ! Don’t put such ideas in his head,” cried Mrs Colquhoun.

“What would you study ?” said Cliff.

“Latin,” said Johnny.

“Have you heard him ?” said Kate, pointing her knife at her father who gave her a long, disapproving look. “Well, what use is Latin ? What kind of job are you going to get with that ?”

“Perhaps I could be a hairdresser,” said Johnny. “I believe there’s a great demand in Manchester for barbers who can chat to customers about Terence.”

“Can I have some more crust ?” said Billy.

“Don’t doctors have to know Latin ?” asked Mrs Colquhoun.

“They write the prescriptions in Latin so you don’t know what they’re poisoning you with,” said Johnny. “Nye Bevan should have sorted that out.”

“He just wants to laze around for three years at university,” said Kate.

“Three?” retorted Johnny. “Two for an MA, three for a Phd. I could be nearly thirty before I need a job again.”

“He admits it !” said Kate.

“Better than admitting you want to be employed,” said Johnny.

“How do you think you’d have dinner on the table if people didn’t work ?” said Kate, pointing her fork.

“Work is one thing,” said Johnny, “employment another.”

“If that’s what you want to do, lad. You do it,” said Cliff.

“What are you going to do when you grow up, Billy ?” said Johnny, “Apart from eating ? You could join a circus. Roll up ! Roll Up ! Come and the see the boy who never stops chewing, and his fat and spotty sister.”

“I weigh eight stone,” said Kate.

“Get the scales seen to at once.”

“Eat up,” said Mrs Colquhoun.

“Can I have some more crust ?” said Billy.

 

 

Baines College, named after a local nineteenth century capitalist philanthropist ran a one-year A Level re-sit course.  Johnny wrote to ask if he could sign up for three subjects and he was invited to an interview. The woman fussed around trying to find her papers and sat behind the desk, her glasses half-way down her nose.

“So you’ve been working in a bank for three years,” she said.

“Yes.”

“You’re going to find coming back to full-time study very hard.”

“I read a bit.”

“Yes, but you want to study French, German and Latin. We don’t do Latin.”

“I see.”

“There’s no call for it.”

“French, German and English then.”

“Have you done any French and German since you left school ?”

“No.”

“None at all ?”

“None.”

“I’m afraid you’d find it too difficult. In one year. Why not do two subjects? We can offer British Constitution.”

“I’d rather have a go at the languages. I did well at O Level.”

“Yes, I see that. But three years without practice.”

“I think I can do it.”

The woman was about thirty, dark and petite. She curled her hair around her ear with a swift finger. Looking over her glasses she smiled. Johnny wasn’t sure if he should smile in return. She rolled back on the castors of her chair and crossed her legs. Her skirt was short and tight and Johnny noticed how full her thighs were. She cocked her head to one side and bit on the end of her biro.

“You know,” she said. “I think I’ll give you a go.”

The first person he told was Christine.

“Very good,” she said biting into her chicken roll.

It was raining, chilly and windy so they were sitting in a steamy, depressing little café where shoppers stopped for a cup of instant coffee and a cigarette. He was surprised at her abruptness.

“We can still meet every day,” he said.

“Oh, there’ll be lots of girls at college, and much brainier than me.”

“I’m not interested in your brains,” he said, realizing his mistake at once.

“I’ve noticed. Unless you thought my brains were under my skirt.”

“No, what I mean is, you don’t have to be brainy.”

“So you think I’m thick.”

“No. You’re not thick. You’re clever.”

“Not clever enough to do Latin at university.”

“I’m not doing Latin. I’ll probably take English, if I get in.”

“You’re bound to get in. You’re a brainbox.”

“I’m leaving the bank, not you.”

“I work in the bank.”

“But you aren’t the bank.”

“I’ll still be there when you go to university. If I haven’t got married.”

“Who are you thinking of marrying ?”

“Oh, I don’t know. But I don’t want to wait forever to have a family.”

For months he’d been trying to get her into bed and done no more than kiss her and fondle her breasts through her clothes. Now she was talking about babies. It was an assumption too far that she was upset enough at his departure to want to manipulate him, yet he couldn’t help conclude she was troubled and in that he found both disturbance and hope. It seemed to him he understood her mind better than herself and the arrogance of that conclusion made him shrink. He wanted her to be in control of her own mind yet it appeared she was thrown by his announcement. The vulgar thought came to him that this would be a good time to get her to agree to make love to him; he pulled back from it because this was Christine. His affection for her was so much greater than his desire, if she’d said she would never allow physical intimacy he would have wanted to stay close to her.

“Would you prefer it,” he said, “if I stayed at the bank ?”

“God no ! You’ve got to do what you want to do.”

“If you wanted me to stay, I would.”

“Don’t be stupid.”

“What’s stupid about that ?”

“If you don’t know you are stupid.”

“When I go to university, you could come with me.”

“When you go to university, Johnny, there’ll be hundreds of pretty girls to choose from.”

“Chris, I don’t get it.”

“Don’t get what ?”

“Well, you seem upset that I’m….”

“I’m not upset.”

“Aren’t you ?”

“Why should I be ?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’m happy for you, Johnny.”

“Are you ?”

“Yes. You’re doing what you want to do, and I’ll do the same.”

“What’s that ?”

“ Have babies and get married.”

“Isn’t that putting the midwife before the groom ?”

“Marriage and babies go hand in hand, Johnny.”

“But you’ve never even….”

She gave him a hard look.

“What ?”

“Well, we’ve never….”

“And ?”

“Nothing.”

“We can go back to my house after work,” she said. “My parents are away.”

“Are they ?”

“They’ve taken my little sister to Scarborough. Isn’t that sweet ?”

“I guess so.”

“Do you want to ?”

“What ?”

“Come back to my house ?”

“Yes.”

“You sound a bit nervous.”

“I am.”

 

Christine lived in a new bungalow her parents  moved to three years earlier from the little rented cottage at the end of a lane where they’d lived since getting married. It was one of those low dormers built in the mid-sixties with an open plan square of lawn in front and half-way decent garden at the back. The suburb, which had once been a village, was three miles from the town centre. At its heart were two pubs, The White Hart, which sat stately, huge and mock-Tudor in its upper timbers on the main road to Liverpool and attracted passing trade and The Cock And Bottle where the locals held sway and eyed icily any interloper. There was a post-office, two churches and a Co-op. It was the kind of place where Johnny was uneasy. He felt almost as if he was intruding. This was where people lived, not a shared space. It didn’t have the easy manners of the town but was sunk in its own formalities and rituals. He’d visited only once or twice when the house had been full of her family, the telly twitching, her mother fussing but today they were alone, as if the house were theirs. The living-room was cold so she lit the gas fire. He sat on the sofa while she made coffee. The same kind of dread he felt about turning out like Sinclair came over him at the thought of ending up living in a house like this. Not that it wasn’t comfortable and homely, but there were none of the things which appealed to his mind. No books.  The pictures on the wall were trite: little country scenes, a sentimental painting of a horse looking over a fence with the town in the distance.

“Do you want a biscuit ?” said Christine, handing him his mug.

“What have you got ?”

“Custard creams, chocolate digestives, rich Abernethy.”

“I’ll dunk a chocolate digestive,” he said “just like home.”

“You’ve the manners of a cockroach,” she said.

“On the contrary. I come from the northern working-class so my manners are impeccable.”

She held the plate of biscuits out to him.

“You can have one only if you promise not to dunk it.”

“Are you intent on denying me my favourite pleasures ?”

“I don’t know what your favourite pleasures are.”

She sat in the armchair with her knees tucked under her. He felt isolated on the vast expanse of the sofa, the stranger in her space where she seemed so at home and perfect.

“This is a nice little house,” he said.

“Liar.”

“Why ?”

“It’s not your kind of house at all, Johnny. You’d rather live in a flat in the middle of town and have books piled to the ceiling.”

“I would,” he nodded, “I would. But this is okay.”

“Okay for my parents.”

“Don’t you like it ?”

“I’ve outgrown it. We trip over one another. It’s time for me to get a place of my own.” and she threw her legs over the arm of the chair.

“You should go to university.”

“And do what ?”

“What are you good at ? Art. You can do that.”

“  I wouldn’t have the confidence.”

“Be cockier. It’s our problem. We come from the working-class and live in the north. We think we don’t deserve and can’t do.”

“ I’ve never thought of university.”

“That’s because your dad’s a warehouseman and your mum a cleaner.”

“And what would I do afterwards ?”

“Have exhibitions and become the Frida Kahlo of the north.”

“Who’s she ?”

“Painter.”

“Do you like her ?”

“Never met her but I like her paintings.”

“What will you do ?”

“Write novels and be the D.H.Lawrence of Manchester.”

“Not ambitious are you ?”

“Not in the least. Funny isn’t it ? Why am I not ambitious, Chris ?”

“Because you’re mad.”

“You think so ?”

“Completely crackers.”

“It’s frustration that’s ruined my sanity.”

“Well, a girl could wait forever for a kiss over here.”

Half an hour later she led him up to her bedroom.

“The things is,” he said.

“What ?”

“I haven’t got, you know, something for the weekend.”

She sat on the bed.

“Well, you’d better go and get one hadn’t you ?”

“I will.”

As he went out of the front door, he realised why he preferred the town. It was blush-making enough to buy condoms there , but at least there was the surgical stores in Churchill St where you sneak in and out unnoticed or a barbers where you could grab a packet of three, so long as there were no little kids waiting for a trim. Here there was nothing. What could he do ? Maybe they’d have a machine in the toilets at The White Hart. He pushed the dark, rotating door and found himself in a huge room from whose high ceiling hung dirty chandeliers in which some of the bulbs had blown. The carpet was a grubby blue with an indecipherable pattern. There were little round tables with planished copper tops and at the long, heavy bar, two old men in suits that looked as those they’d been worn for gardening or muck-spreading. The barmaid was about twenty, buxom and dark with a clipped little fringe and a big stack of backcombed hair. She wore a pink, angora top, low-cut to show off her cleavage and a black mini-skirt whose hem he glimpsed as she moved towards the pumps. He ordered half a bitter and turned to the two old men with a smile. They didn’t respond but went on staring. He handed over his shilling and at once realised his mistake: did he have change for the machine ? At a little table by a window whose leaded hatching was awry and peeling he went through his pockets: a ten bob note, a florin and two sixpences. There was just a chance it might take florins. He couldn’t decide whether it would seem more natural to finish his beer and then go the gents, or nip in half way through. In either case, gulping the drink down would look suspicious. He took a sip. The glass smelled and tasted stale. The beer was weak and tart. He got up and walked as slowly as he could to the toilet, pretending to take an interest in the décor. Once through the first door he yanked open the next; there it was, on the wall next to the urinal. He couldn’t believe his luck. There were so few pubs with machines. Even in town they’d only just begun to appear and there’d been letters in the paper about the encouragement of licentiousness and the threat to family values. He pulled out his coins and was about to read the instructions when he heard the door opening behind him. He quickly turned to the urinal and unzipped. One of the old men from the bar stood beside him, hawked up a great bolus of green phlegm which he spat fiercely into the trough and began to piss copiously while Johnny stared at the wall and produced not a drip. He’d nipped to the bathroom before leaving Chris’s and couldn’t have delivered an egg-cup full if Hitler had ordered him. The old man coughed as he shook the drips away and Johnny felt a tiny dampness against his lower leg. He was astonished when the old fellow began to wash his hands. There was nothing he could do but stay with his cock between his fingers, dry as the Gobi and wait. As soon as the door closed he turned to the cream machine. It accepted only shillings and sixpences. Dare he ask at the bar ? He imagined the heavy-breasted barmaid taking the florin from him. Would she smirk ? And the two old guys watching him like snipers. He stood immobile with the coins in the palm of his hand thinking about Christine in her bedroom. Was she naked ? Was she between the sheets expecting him back any minute ? He heard the door again and put the coins away. He was about to stand at the urinal and unzip when he realised how absurd it would seem if the old men shared their stories. The second of them came in and glared at him before standing at the urinal and delivering a cascade.

“Excuse me,” said Johnny.

The old guy ignored him. Johnny waited till he’d finished.

“Excuse me.”

The man turned to him slowly and took a step in his direction. He had one of those faces marked by years of thoughtless acceptance, toughened by wind and sun, the face of man who has lived sixty years and more yet has no inkling about the essential processes he is part of and lives according to a set of brutal assumptions which are as natural to him as breathing.

“You couldn’t change a florin, could you ?”

He looked down at the coins in Johnny’s hand, raised his eyes to his face and said:

“What d’you want change for ?”

“The bus,” said Johnny.

“What bus ?”

“To town.”

“No bus to town for an hour and more.”

“No. I’ll have to wait.”

“They’ll take a florin on’t bus.”

“Will they ?”

“Aye.”

The old man stared at him. Johnny was about to give up when he thought of Christine.

“I need a shilling for the machine,” he said.

“Machine ?”

“This,” said Johnny. “Durex. I need a Durex.”

“What for ?” said the old guy.

“Do you have a shilling ?” said Johnny.

Bewildered the old man drew his coins from his pocket. They were mostly coppers, but there, shining like deliverance in the middle was a beautiful shilling.

“You have !” said Johnny. “Here, I’ll give you a florin for your shilling.”

He was about to take the coin when the other closed his fist.

“A florin ?”

“Yes. I need a shilling. I’ll give you two shillings for your one.”

The old fellow stood like an oak and stared into Johnny’s eyes.

“What’s your game ?”

“No. I really need a shilling. It’s an emergency.”

“Emergency ?”

“Look. Here’s a florin. You can buy a pint of mild with that. I’ll give it you if you let me have that shilling in your hand.

Reaching with his thick, stiff fingers, the old chap took the coin, examined it as if it came from another planet, put it between his teeth, bit on it and weighed it in the palm of his empty hand.

“Are you married ?” he said pushing his face towards Johnny.

“Married ? No. I’m engaged.”

“Then what’s tha want them for ?” and he pointed at the machine.

“For my dad,” said Johnny.

“Yer dad ?”

“Yes. He’s sprained his ankle and he needs to… well he wants to.. you know……things have to carry on even if you’ve got a sprained ankle, don’t they ? And my mother won’t take no for an answer. She’s that kind of woman. Very demanding. And if I don’t get back to my dad with a…..thingy, I won’t get any pocket ,money for a month.”

Lowering his head the old man looked at the coin with an intensity usually reserved for objects of love. He remained transfixed for several seconds. Johnny watched him, thinking of Christine and the seconds slipping away.

“It’s yours,” he said. “Just let me have the shilling.”

“You don’t live round ‘ere.”

“No. I’m visiting.”

“What you buying johnnies for yer dad for if yer visitin’?”

“I’ve got to get home. Fast. He rang me. It’s a marital crisis. If I don’t get it to him she may divorce him.”

“Divorce ?”

“Yes. She’s like the Queen. She gets her own way all the time.”

“The Queen ?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sayin’ the Queen uses Durex ?”

“I don’t know. Does it say by royal appointment on the packet ? They must use something. Unless they abstain. But you wouldn’t want the Queen to be frustrated would you ?”

“Frustrated ?”

“Yes. She’s the Head of State after all. We wouldn’t want her being wound up like a clock spring would we ? We want her relaxed and satisfied so I suppose they use something though she’s probably a bit old for getting pregnant now but you never know. A mate of mine’s mother got dropped in the box at forty-five. We wouldn’t want that to happen to the Queen would we ? I mean she has a busy schedule. But if you give me the shilling you can go and buy yourself a pint with that florin.”

“I don’t approve,” said the old guy, wrapping his fingers round the two bob, “of sex outside marriage.”

“Nor do I !” said Johnny. “No. Not at all. I’m a good Christian and Jesus didn’t go around…..well….you know he didn’t have girlfriends did he ? No. I agree. Marriage is the place for sex and my dad is married. Obviously. To my mother. Of course. And they want a bit of….well, you know, when you’re married God doesn’t mind how often you do it. And with a sprained ankle, well my dad’s getting a bit twitchy so if you could let me have that shilling you might prevent a rise in the divorce rate.”

“I’m not givin’ you a shillin’ to go shaggin’ some schoolgirl.”

“Schoolgirl ? I wouldn’t dream of it. No. I never shag anyone under sixteen. I mean, if I was to shag anyone they would be sixteen. And married. To me. You know. To one another. Oh yes, that’s a sine qua non for me.”

“A what ?”

“A necessary condition. You know. Something I insist on. I never shag anyone I’m not married to. I mean I wouldn’t. That is I’ll wait till I’m married before I start. Like you.”

“Me ?”

“Yes. I can see you’re a good Christian who didn’t have sex till he was married.”

“I’ve never been married.”

“That’s great !” said Johnny with a wide smile, “then you’ve never had sex. That’s excellent. You’re a great example to the young. Of restraint and…..that kind of thing. I shall try to follow your example.”

“You’re engaged.”

“Yes I am. To a lovely girl. Very religious. She wouldn’t think of shagging before she’s married. Well, she might think about it but, you know, she’d never do it. Condom or no condom.”

“I’m a Catholic,” said the old fellow narrowing his eyes. “You burn in hell for using those things.”

“You do. Though these days God is more lenient. He moves with the times. I mean, hell would be pretty overcrowded if all the folk who use condoms where shoved down there. Not to mention those on the pill or wearing a coil or having abortions…”

“Abortions ?”

“Not that I approve. Oh, no. I’d never have an abortion. I mean not me personally. But I agree with you. Abstinence is a great preventer of unwanted pregnancies. But my dad’s got to satisfy my mother and she has healthy appetites. You should see her demolish a box of Milk Tray.”

His interlocutor studied the florin once more, as if he expected it to come to life or deliver up the secrets of the universe. He opened his other hand, took the shilling and handed it to Johnny.

“It’s my round,” he said.

“Good. Good. Yes, you enjoy your beer. With your friend. That’s great. Thanks. Thanks very much.”

Johnny stood and smiled. The old guy’s glum expression didn’t change. After thirty seconds he turned and pulled open the door. Johnny urgently shoved the shilling and a sixpence into the slot and yanked on the drawer. It jammed. He tugged and struggled. Hammered the machine with his fist. In anger and exasperation he strode to the bar.

“The machine’s taken my money and hasn’t given me my….my….goods.”

“What machine ?” said the girl.

“The one in the gents.”

“I didn’t know there was a machine in the gents. What’s it for ?”

He looked her in the eyes. She was pretty and fresh and he wondered if she used condoms. Maybe she was a Catholic like the old guy. Maybe she would laugh at him.

“Chewing gum,” he said.

She began to say something about having to wait for the manager but Johnny turned away and pushed through the revolving door. Too bad. He would tell Christine there were no condoms to be had in the village, then he would make love to her anyway. If she got pregnant, he’d offer to marry her. But she wouldn’t. Not the first time. Though she might. Biology was biology. But it would be bad luck. Or maybe they could do everything but, to be on the safe side. Or would she hate him for that ? She wanted to have sex him. He had to do it.

“Hello Mrs Blackstone.”

As he went in by the back door she was standing at the sink. Chris was sitting at a little formica-topped table in the corner.

“This is Johnny, mum. Who I told you about. He works in the bank and is going to university.”

“Oh, yes. Nice to meet you, Johnny. Sit down, love. Would you like a cup of tea ?”

“I can think of nothing better,” said Johnny, sitting opposite Christine. “Nothing better.”

“Biscuit ?” she said.

II

 

The September morning was bright and chill. Johnny set off at half past eight and walked into town. The shortest route was by the main road but he cut through the avenues and legged down the steps in church woods where he’d played as a boy and where the odour of wild garlic always reminded him of those carefree times. He’d put on jeans, a polo neck and his old suit jacket from the bank. His hair had grown well over his collar. He was already starting to feel a little bohemian as he walked past the big, detached houses of King’s Avenue, his second-hand briefcase containing his set books and his pad of narrow feint and margin in his hand. Sparrow House was an uninspired oblong of red brick and small windows on a busy roundabout across from the old college buildings, endowed in the nineteenth century. There were thirty-odd re-sit students assembled in a little lecture room to be addressed by the Head of Humanities. Johnny was older than most of them and wasn’t re-sitting. Four years in the bank meant even the absurd exhortations of the Head:

“This isn’t mission impossible but it’s mission bloody difficult..”

were easy to take. Compared to work, this was freedom. Simple. He was going to spend a year reading, writing and being talked at. What was hard about that ? The morning hours passed like minutes.  It was lunchtime, in the common room where the students gathered at one end and the staff at the other, eating his egg and tomato sandwiches and talking to Liz Willoughby, a slim, somewhat nervous girl with curly brown hair and slightly prominent teeth, before he thought about Christine. He’d promised her they’d stay in touch and to her protests that it wouldn’t work and their worlds wouldn’t meet, he’d insisted he’d make the effort and they’d find the time to meet up; but already he was wondering when they’d get together. He wanted to get down to hard work. He’d read all the set books but was eager to re-read and above all he needed to get writing. He had that sense everyone has when they encounter something they know they’ll be good at: the need to get to grips with it and see just how good you can get. He’d spent thousands of hours reading and while he didn’t imagine that he’d ever match Lawrence or Byron or Chaucer of Jane Austen or Maupassant, he thought he’d be okay as a critic. He could write about Lawrence’s novels or put together a decent biography of Maupassant if he worked hard enough. But he knew the ambition to improve, not an ambition for money or status which he disdained, but just the will to master what he felt was a potential, would keep him away from Christine. In the bank they had to meet. Yet he knew he didn’t want to lose touch with her. He experienced a horrible moment of doubt when he thought what he was aiming for might destroy something good. Was he about to develop one aspect of his mind at the cost of another ? Was there always that trade-off ? He put away his sandwiches and went outside.

The roundabout was busy with traffic. So many cars, vans, taxis, buses. So many people. It created a sense of possibility. Urban life was full of that sense, which was why he favoured it. But a contrary idea sprang up: these people were doing what he used to do at the bank; they were going through the motions; everyone was employed in some small and relatively tedious function; no-one really had any freedom. What did it mean, anyway, freedom ? Doing what you like. Ridiculous. No-one can go through life acting on whims. Only children behave like that because they know little and are dependent. No, freedom had to be more demanding than it. It had to be about having the right to face up to life’s demands. The problem was, first of all you had to know what they were. What time was it ? What would Christine be doing ? Maybe she was in the park, on their favourite bench, eating her sandwiches alone. If he ran he might just catch her. And the idea pleased him so much, he convinced himself she really was there; so he set off at a good pace. It was no more than half a mile. He dodged women with prams ,old ladies with walking sticks and arrived puffing by the empty bench. Maybe she’d left. He looked at  his watch. Perhaps he should go the bank, but he realised how awkward that would be. She’d be starting work again in ten minutes. He stood, looking round as if expecting her to appear on the path or from behind the bandstand. He’d ring her that evening. He strode energetically back to college and in the first lesson, being told by a young, small, pleasant, articulate rather hesitant woman that they would study Hamlet till Christmas, he realised a distance had already arrived between himself and Christine and he could never regain the closeness they’d known as devil-may-care, day-to-day workmates. It bothered him even though he was excited by his new start. Walking home at the end of the too-slow day he thought he’d lope round to her house later, but once he’d eaten and settled to his reading, he found the time had run on and he didn’t have the will. A few days passed and hadn’t seen her. He decided he’d be at the bank when she arrived. He was leaning against the tall columns by the heavy wooden, double doors which tried to make the provincial branch look important. When she noticed him her expression didn’t change. She seemed more charming than ever. Strange how the simplest things, the way her fringe fell over her right eye, the slight turn inwards of her right foot, filled him with delight. He smiled.

“ You doing here ?”

“ Planning a raid but they won’t let me in.”

“Shouldn’t you be reading Shakespeare ?”

“Read him.”

“All of it ?”

“Twice.”

“Quick work.”

“ Always was impatient.”

“ Got to get started.”

She rang the bell.

“Meet you at lunchtime ?”

“Can’t.”

“Why not ?”

She turned to him. Her stare was  cool and considered.

“What makes you think you’re allowed to ask that ?”

“It’s me, Christine.”

“It’s you, Johnny.”

“ Could help with my essay.”

“Can’t write.”

“You dictate.”

“Be late if I don’t get in.”

“One o’clock ?”

“Busy, Johnny.”

“At lunchtime ?”

“At lunchtime.”

There was a very bright girl in his class, small and dark with glasses and plump cheeks that reddened easily. She liked to sit next to him during breaks and seemed to find him congenial and amusing.

“With a voice like that,” she said to him, “you should be on the telly.”

She gave astute answers in lessons, had a good vocabulary (she was the first person he’d heard use the word jejune) and got high marks for the essays she wrote in a tiny, neat hand in black ink with an expensive fountain pen. But she wasn’t quite as good as him. He dismissed his advantage by reasoning he was a few years older and had more experience. She asked to read his essays and handed them back saying he had an impressive style and made terrifying judgements.

“Terrifying ?”

“Yes.”

“Why ?”

“Because you don’t depend on anyone else.”

Her intelligence impressed him but otherwise she didn’t appeal. It was important not to betray any sign of interest; she was a young girl after all and might get the wrong idea and he knew how excited young girls could get over a good-looking, intelligent, self-possessed young man. The idea went through his head quite often that she was more intellectually attractive than Christine. They could have talked about literature till libraries crumbled. They understood one another intellectually but sitting next to her didn’t make him mischievous like Christine did. He didn’t want to tease her. Her femininity had no appeal for him. He puzzled over it. Was it just that she wasn’t good-looking ? Christine, after all, was striking with her big brown eyes and her wide smile and her lovely hair. Was it really as mean as that, that she couldn’t arouse his masculine desire and affection because her looks were ordinary ? But he realised that wasn’t the explanation. Babs Mimmack didn’t do the trick either and she was as beautiful as peach blossom. She’d shown an interest in him too but she was such a flat, predictable, commonplace character he had as little to do with her as possible. Everything she said seemed to drag interest back to herself. She was more beautiful than Christine. She had one of those extremely delicate and pretty, little girl’s faces, long, smooth, light brown hair and a figure glamour photographers pay thousands for. There was no doubt that to look at she was a feast. But as soon as she opened her mouth the charm dissipated. With Christine it was the opposite: her beauty attracted him but when she looked in his eyes and spoke it was displaced by the charm of her personality. He wondered if he would like Christine so much if she were ugly. Supposing she looked like Janet Wilson, the intellectual girl. Would he still be attracted to her? He tried to form a composite in his mind: Janet’s plain face and dumpy body and Christine’s easy-going, funny, generous character. But he couldn’t make it work. The conundrum defeated and troubled him: was he finally in love with Christine because of her eyes, or at least, without her eyes and her white teeth and her long hands, would he be unmoved ? It was shocking. He didn’t know himself. He didn’t know how it came about that Christine seemed so right, even though she wasn’t mad about books like him. He tried to imagine what she would be like in twenty years and how they would be different. How many books would he have read by then ? Would he be a writer ? Would Christine still be happy with whatever was on the telly or at the cinema ? Would there be such a gulf between them he wouldn’t be charmed by her any more ? But what did it matter ? Twenty years was an age, long enough to marry and bring up children. What mattered was that it was right. It felt right here and now. What more did he have to go on than that ? He got up from the armchair and looked out into his parents’ garden. Did they know why they’d been attracted to one another and stayed together ? Did anyone ? Life didn’t provide such surety. You had to take it on the fly on make the best of it. What was the best of it right now ? He picked up the copy of Hamlet from the little table. He knew every line. It was terrific to have such a play in his head. It was extraordinary to think of a future of reading and writing, teaching, talking. But was it better than Christine ? Did he have to sacrifice one for the other ? Why ? Couldn’t Christine come with him ? Why should he have to leave her behind ? She was as much part of the delight of his life as Shakespeare. He was overwhelmed by a desire to see her and tell her. At once his heart raged anxiously. Tell her what ? They’d never needed to say what they both knew. Why was it necessary now ? He sat down, saying to himself that dashing to her house unexpectedly, knocking on the door and making some declaration was ludicrous. But seconds later he was taking his push bike out of the garage and tucking his jeans into his socks. He hardly rode it any more, but it cheered him up and gave him confidence. He followed the path through Hudson Grange, the park which undulated for a mile and a half between Stag Lane and Crombleholme Road. He was a teenager again. How the carefree days of heedless boys’ summers could be summoned simply by feeling the pressure of the peddles against his feet, the catch of the wind in his hair and the smooth gain of speed as he topped an incline, leaned into a left turn and swooped.

He knocked at the back door.

Luckily, Christine answered. She was in her slippers and gave off that comfortable acceptance of life which amused and charmed him.

“It’s nearly eleven o’clock,” she said.

“Time for cocoa and prayers.”

“I don’t drink cocoa or believe in god.”

“Nymph in thy orisons….”

“What ?”

“Fancy a walk in the moonlight ?”

“There’s no moon.”

“We’ll invent one.”

“You’re mad.”

“North-north-west.”

“I have to work in the morning.”

“The moon doesn’t care.”

“I have to get to bed.”

“Got a spare pair of pyjamas ?”

“I don’t wear pyjamas.”

“Nor do I.”

“Go home, Johnny.”

“Without a biscuit and a glass of milk ?”

“My parents are in bed.”

“I’ll whisper,” he whispered.

“What brought you out at this time ?”

“Must be love.”

He saw a small change in her expression which frightened him, a tiny shift towards fear and defensiveness.

“You’re crazy.”

“Can I use the bathroom ?”

“Pee in the garden.”

“I might get arrested.”

“With a bit of luck.”

“Put your shoes on and come out.”

“Why ?”

“It’s not cold. Indian summer. Look, the sky still has light.”

“I’m tired.”

“You can rest your head on my shoulder.”

She looked at him with a woman’s seriousness which made his confidence ebb. He wanted to stop joking and just tell her, like a little boy who’s hurt and must tell his mum.

“Five minutes.”

“I’ll summon the moon.”

She appeared in a big sweater and they walked to the end of the garden where a little oak tree grew in the hedge and lilacs hid the houses beyond. She dug her hands into the pockets of her jeans and looked at him. Her eyes were huge in the semi-darkness. He wanted her to speak.

“How’s the bank.”

“Fascinating.”

“The organization of the economy is a wonder.”

“How’s Shakespeare ?”

“Tragical, comical, tragical-comical, historical, tragical-historical-comical….”

“Met any girls ?”

“Yes. Janet Wilson. She has a brain as big as Russia and a personality the size of Lichtenstein.”

“  Pretty ?”

“ As Salford on a rainy Sunday.”

“Nice.”

He’d never thought before that Christine was essential but now, seeing her in the garden, so charming and easy to be with, a woman, enough of a woman for him never to need another, it seemed he couldn’t do without her.

“I’m not in love with her.”

“Surprise.”

“Not even her brain.”

“ Not even that.”

“It’s size means nothing to me.”

“You wouldn’t want a woman with a small brain, would you ?”

“Don’t confuse sublimity with magnitude.”

“Isn’t her intelligence sublime ?”

“She’s a provincial genius which is about the level of metropolitan mediocrity.”

“Where does that leave me ?”

“You have a different genius.”

“Really ?”

“Really.”

“For what ?”

“Congeniality.”

“What’s that ?”

“I’ll buy you a dictionary.”

“I’ve got one.”

“I’ll buy you a better one.”

“I don’t want a better one.”

“You should.”

“Why ?”

“Words, words, words.”

“I’ve got to go to bed.”

“I’ll tuck you up.”

“Bed’s all made.”

“Still need tucking up.”

“You need your sleep. Go home.”

“I could stay awake all night.”

“You’d fall asleep in your lectures.”

“Do that anyway.”

“What’s happened to your ambition.”

“I don’t have any ambition.”

“You were going to be the D.H.Lawrence of Manchester.”

“I’m tending more to the Alexander Pope of Ancoats.”

“Goodnight, Johnny.”

She took a step towards the house. He put his hand on her arm.

“Chris.”

She looked at him in the old way but he knew this was different. Then it had seemed they could just jog along, but now he felt he had to force progress.

“I don’t love the brainbox but I am in love.”

“Congratulations.”

“Can I see you tomorrow ?”

“No.”

“Why not ?”

“I’m washing my hair.”

She went quickly to the house, locked the back door and he watched as all the lights went out. He tried to tell himself he hadn’t been a fool: his declaration had been oblique enough to save him humiliation. But it didn’t work. The garden was no longer pleasant and familiar but alien and evil. The cloudy sky seemed to mock him. The solid bricks of her house could have melted like jelly in boiling water. He tucked his socks in his jeans and got on his bike. The saddle was uncomfortable. The tyres felt too soft. The brakes weren’t sharp enough. The ride through the park was hard work. Every little incline was a one in four. At home he dropped his clothes on the floor and pulled the bedclothes over him without cleaning his teeth. He woke up at five. The first thing that came into his head was that he would never see Christine again. He got up, made toast and tea and sat at the kitchen table with Hamlet. Oh, that this too, too, solid flesh…He knew every word. He was getting eighty per cent for his essays. He threw the book aside, grabbed his coat and spent the entire day walking through the city, till he arrived home at half past eleven, exhausted and fell asleep on the sofa.

 

III

 

Kate Colquhoun didn’t get up for work one morning. Johnny didn’t think much of it, though she was seldom ill and dragged herself to the salon with colds, sore throats and high temperatures. When he came home his mother was in tears.

“Kate has to go into hospital,” said his father.

Johnny was about to make a joke about plastic surgery but pulled back.

“What’s the matter ?”

“They don’t know.”

“The doctor found a lump,” said his mother.

“It’ll be nothing,” he said. “She’s young and healthy.”

His mother was crying into a man’s handkerchief and looking pitifully at him, his father and Billy. The young boy was standing next to his father, his plastic football in his hands.

“Don’t worry, mum,” said Johnny. “They can cure almost anything these days.”

Billy was watching him, pale and silent.

“Come on,” said Johnny, “let’s have a kick around on the park.”

He put his arm round Billy’s skinny shoulders and led him out. Johnny strode away in front of the privet hedges, the cars in the drives, the grass verges and trees whose leaves were beginning to turn yellow or brown, Billy trotted beside him bouncing his ball.

“What’s wrong with our Kate, Johnny ?”

“Nowt, Billy.”

“Why’s she going into hospital then ?”

“Because she’s so ugly. They’re going to do tests to see why.”

“Mum says they’ve found a lump in her stomach.”

“It’s all those chocolates she eats. She’s got Cadbury’s tattooed on her bum.”

“Stop it, Johnny. Mum says she might have cancer.”

“Give us a kick.”

“What’s cancer, Johnny ?”

“Nowt to trouble you. Come on, I baggsy being George Best.”

“Will she die ?”

“When she’s a hundred. Kick that ball.”

“Mum says they might have to cut her open.”

“For Christ’s sake,” said Johnny half to himself.

“Why will they cut her open, Johnny ?”

“ Might not.”

“ Why do they ?”

“ Have a look inside.”

“Will she bleed ?”

“Not much.”

“I don’t want ‘em to cut our Kate open, Johnny,” and Billy began to sob.

“Eh, eh, eh,” said Johnny crouching and wiping his tears, “come on Bobby Charlton. She’ll be fine, Billy. The doctors are dead clever. If she’s poorly they’ll make her better.”

“Why’s she poorly,Johnny ?”

“Well, Billy, people get poorly sometimes. You get a cold. Dad gets hayfever. Some things get better all by themselves but sometimes the doctors have to make them better. With medicines.”

“Why don’t they give our Kate some medicine then ?”

“They will. But sometimes they need to take people into hospital because they’ve got lots of good medicines there, and lots of doctors and nurses so they get better more quickly.”

“Why will they cut her open then ?”

“ Might not. But if they think she’s got something inside her making her poorly, they can cut it out.”

“Will it hurt ?”

“No, they’ll put her to sleep. When she wakes up she’ll be better.”

“Will she be better soon, Johnny ?”

“Yeah. No time at all. Then she’ll be back home as ugly as ever. Come on.”

There was a group of lads on the park playing an improvised game between pullover goalposts. Johnny joined in with Billy and once he was playing happily with the bigger lads, slunk away to the swings where he sat and watched. He didn’t know a damn thing about cancer or what might be wrong with Kate.  He wished he was a scientist and could explain it all to his mother, though he knew a scientific explanation wouldn’t calm her. She would go to church and pray. She would pray every day for Kate and she would ask them to do the same. He’d say he would but the idea of it made him cringe. His mother’s god, who oversaw everything and ensured finally good must prevail struck him as inane. Kate was ill because biology was imperfect, like everything else. There was no law that everyone should get three score years and ten any more than illness was a sign of corruption. Biology was a raffle. His grandad had perfect teeth. Why ? Something to do with genes. He wished he had some real idea of how it all worked. All he had in his head was random vocabulary: chromosomes, genes, DNA. What the hell was DNA ? He needed to find out quickly. He didn’t want to be like his mother, ignorant of the science and reliant on medieval religious mumbo-jumbo. He wanted to know. If Kate was in danger he wanted to know.  He watched Billy chasing the ball. He was a quick, skinny little kid with good balance and plenty of skill. The simple pleasure of football. He remembered the blissful forgetfulness of a soccer game when he was a nipper. To be lost in that, all the troubles of the world to be lifted simply by being able to run with a ball at your feet across the lumpy grass of a little park; never again would he know that. Poor Billy. Poor little bastard. If Kate were to die. But the thought was morbid. He was starting to think like his mother. The quack had found a lump. It might be benign. She might be right as sunshine and as annoying as a loose shoe in no time. But watching his brother he was unable to fight the sense that his young life might be about to change. What a bastard. Poor kid. Poor bloody, skinny, little kid.

Later his father was looking for weeds in the garden, trimming the perfect hedge here and there, edging the geometric lawn. Johnny didn’t understand gardening. He liked the little lawns, three of them, one long and narrow and two tiny squares, divided by flowerbeds; he liked the colour in spring and summer and the castle-wall thickness of the privets; but what he didn’t get was the satisfaction. It was obviously important to his dad that his little bit of England should be perfect. He’d’ve been ashamed if the grass didn’t get its first cut in April and stay as lush and smooth as a bowling green. He pushed the mower back and forth, adjusted the height and cut the grass as close as it would go; he opened and closed the hedge clippers, snip, snip, snip till the tops were flat and the edge a perfect right angle. Johnny had an impulse to let the place grow wild. The neatness, the control, though he liked the effect irritated him. But for his dad, it was important. It was his place. He could impose his sense of order. He could work hard and see results he’d intended. Watching him Johnny was struck by the genius of an economic system which gave people just enough to keep them from acting on disaffection. There was no existential difference between his dad’s petty garden and a thirty acre estate: it was his own; he could admit and exclude who he liked; he could do with it what he chose; here he was king and the silly old cliché had some validity. Johnny was constantly hurt by his parents’ condition. How much value did his dad’s work produce ? All those hours fitting skirting-boards and window frames, hauling timbers up onto roofs; of course his dad was glad to work and proud of doing things well. He never complained. He was in the union but not out of any sense of injustice or a need to change things radically, just a sense of camaraderie, especially in hard times, working men sticking together to help one another out. Johnny was impatient with it all and he knew his impatience was a fault; but at the same time he knew things weren’t right. His parents had done okay, but not as okay as lads he was at school with; Eddie Pomeroy for example whose dad ran a garage selling second-hand cars and who was rich. Why should a man get rich for doing that?  His dad actually made something. People had a roof over their head thanks to his effort and skill. Johnny’s mind was drawn inexorably to the rightness of that; no matter how low a task, if it was done well and with the right motivation, it was admirable. It was the motivation that mattered. To do something, anything, with the ulterior thought I’m doing this for the money was vulgar and unpleasant. Yet something more than that bothered him. He could work for money. What else had he done at the bank? No, it was thinking of other people as a means to making money which troubled him. He ran through his head the idea of treating his friends as sources of enrichment. It was embarrassing. Then he remembered the bloke he’d got to know at the tennis club who got friendly, asked him if he fancied a drink, and when they went to the pub, tried to sell him insurance. Johnny could have spat in his face. Christine came back into his mind. The very thought of her made him smile and relaxed him. What was it? Just that there was nothing ulterior about the relationship. It was complete in itself. It would have been crazy to ask: What do you love Chris for ? There was no for. How long was it since he’d seen her ? It had failed. Was he wrong then ? Was there always an angle ? Did Chris have an angle ?

“Looks good, dad.”

“So it should.”

“Want me to do a bit ?”

“Stick to the books.”

Johnny laughed.

“Yeah. I’ll never be a gardener.”

“Each to his own.” 

“What d’you think about, Kate ?”

“You’re mother’s distraught.”

“They don’t know yet. Something and nothing.”

“You know your mother. It’s always the worst.”

“She’ll be okay, dad.”

His father pulled a stray leaf from the hedge.

“Hope so.”

“These days. She’s young. And if they’ve got it early.”

“Say it’s more aggressive when you’re young.”

“What ?”

“Cancer ?”

“Who says  ?”

“What d’ you think , Johnny ?”

“ Not a doctor.”

“Something in your mother’s attitude: expect the worst and if it’s better you’re relieved, if not you’re ready.”

“Okay. But even if it is they’ll sort it out.”

“Wish I could take it from her.”

“I know.”

“Llife ahead of her.”

“She’ll be okay, dad.”

Johnny went up to Kate’s room. She was sitting on the bed listening to records.

“Hello ugly,” he said.

“What d’you want ?”

“Can you lend me two quid ?”

“I wouldn’t lend you a hairgrip.”

“I’d give it you back.”

“Twisted.”

“What’s this crap ?” he said, pointing to the record player where a stack of half a dozen 45s was suspended over the spinning turntable.

“It happens to be number one.”

“God, who’d think there were so many idiots willing to pay good money ?”

“You’re a snob, Johnny.”

“I’m not, Kate. I’ve been known to listen to Tchaikovsky in extremis.”

“Is that supposed to be funny ?”

“Well, it is funny. If you get it. It’s all about the frame. You know. Context. But it is funny if you know Tchaikovsky is a much lesser composer than Mozart or Beethoven or….”

“I don’t like that stuff.”

“I don’t like liver.”

“What ?”

“It’s full of iron but I don’t like it. Now if I was dying of anaemia…”

He realised at once his flippancy had led him once again onto the wrong territory.

“Let me listen to my records in peace.”

“Sure. What did the quack say, Kate.”

“Not much.”

“Billy says mum says he found a lump.”

“Why did she tell him ?”

“ Know her. Tell her a secret at nine by ten they’ll know about it in Peking.”

“What does Billy think ?”

“Oh, he’s fine. He was kicking a ball around, blithe as you like. He’s good. One day he’ll play for Accrington Stanley.”

“What do you think ?”

She looked him straight in the eye and he realised how pretty she was. She was young and full of life and promise and should have been out with some young bloke who melted when he looked at her.

“I think your ugliness is incurable.”

“Like your stupidity.”

“You’re right. You’ll be okay, Kate.”

“Think it’s cancer ?”

“Christ no ! A lump.  Anything.  Sort it in no time.”

“Not cancer what is it ?”

“Benign as freckles.”

“Still have to operate.”

“Maybe. All kinds of treatments these days.”

“Been there months.”

“Yeah ?”

“Thought it’d go away.”

“May do.”

“I feel lousy, Johnny.”

It was hard for him to respond. She was his big sister and since he began to speak he’d teased and mocked her. He’d never seriously thought about his affection for her or hers for him. They were very different: she took school seriously, worked very hard, wanted to please her teachers and do well and came through as above average. He found school a restraint and a bore, worked when he felt like it, couldn’t care less what teachers thought of him, and sailed through with brilliant results. She read what he thought of as silly women’s magazines and knew exactly what was happening in Coronation St. He thought The New Statesman light reading and Ena Sharples and Elsie Tanner ludicrous caricatures of northern life. Like a lot of people in the north she rallied to their sentimental portrayal in the arts and media. Johnny hated all that we-were-poor-but-we-were-happy stuff. He didn’t like being working-class. In any case, they’d left the poor streets and graduated to the suburbs, even if his dad did earn his living with his hands. But Johnny felt the clinging to the definition of working-class and the idea that among the hard-up was a real sense of community which compensated amply for poverty was a conservative position, as if men in the north should be eternally Andy Capp and have horizons bounded by the betting-shop, the pub, the football stadium and the strip club; and the women should be domestic dictators in curlers as diligent in their attendance in the bingo hall as in church.  It was a kind of cowardice; a refusal to resist the present and its stupidities; it provided people with an easy way out. Anyone with any dignity, imagination and courage would rebel against the mean conditions of working-class life. His mother would talk about not having had a bathroom till 1955 as though it was an achievement. It was a kind of appeal for sympathy, as if being at the bottom of the economic pile should elicit pity and help arrive as urgently as a fire engine. It was like Christ on the cross. But Johnny was cynical. He’d been to church and knew most of the worshippers were self-righteous hypocrites. Hadn’t some of them walked out of the youth service when Ian Nash read a poem by Roger McGough ? Didn’t they all have their nice houses and cars ? How many would seriously have given their money to the poor ? It was all empty piety. It seemed simply obvious to Johnny that if people had an advantage, any advantage, they would distort the truth to hang onto it. It followed that people without advantage could look at things more straightforwardly. But then they would engage in their own kind of distortion: though they could be direct about the advantages of others, they twisted their own disadvantage in the way his mother did; as if to be a victim offered privileged status. It made him laugh out loud. He almost couldn’t take it seriously. In fact, if tragedy hadn’t been the outcome, he wouldn’t have taken it seriously. Without the tragedy life was a joke. But Kate took it all seriously. She could never respond to his sense of absurdity. Like her mother she was proud of  her working-class roots, as if wearing yourself out for someone else’s enrichment and living on a postage stamp plot, bringing up your family in a house barely big enough for one and having to settle for second best in everything was something to be proud of. In Johnny’s view she’d fallen for the myth of getting on: society was supposed to be some huge sorting mechanism where everyone competes for money and place and finds their right level. The notion struck him as infantile. Who would want to get on if it meant being like Sir Gerald Nabarro or Rhodes Boyson ? The point wasn’t to make your way in this stupid culture but to oppose it, to improve it, even at the cost of personal loss. That’s what she couldn’t understand about him and what infuriated her: he was clever but he didn’t use his brains to get on. He knew it disappointed her: she would have liked nothing more than to tell all her friends that her little brother was a qualified accountant or lawyer or barrister. She would have been proud if he’d made a million by thirty and come home in a Rolls-Royce. But Johnny would have been uncomfortable being rich and the idea of driving a Rolls was as absurd as converting to Catholicism and becoming a priest. He saw himself marching to Aldermaston alongside Michael Foot or lost in a confusion of books and papers working happily away at writing. Those things didn’t touch Kate’s imagination.   She listened to all the latest pop records. He had a brief infatuation with The Beatles but at seventeen  sold all his records and went back to Mozart. She read The Daily Mail and watched the television news as if they were as objective as physics. He couldn’t resist deriding them and pointing up the skewed view of the world they offered. She looked at him disapprovingly when he said he wouldn’t wipe his backside on The Daily Mail. Watching at her now and thinking she might be seriously ill he felt he was unfair: she was just a run-of-the-mill northern lass; why should she be interested in Kafka or Dryden ? He was so steeped in his fascination with literature he forgot that for most people John Skelton was as obscure as quantum mechanics. She was part of the large majority for whom intellectuals were freaks. Woman’s Own connected her. She was like millions of other women who thought no further than the next hair-do. She wanted her thinking done for her. She voted for Harold Wilson because her dad did. She liked him because he came from the north, seemed homely and smoked a pipe like her granddad. But she could no more have explained socialism or the difference between socialism and social democracy than she could have given a lecture on the Periodic Table.  Johnny realised she was the kind of person his socialism was for. She would never be in streets carrying a banner; she’d never read Tawney; she’d rather go to a Cliff Richard concert than hear Jack Jones speak. But what was socialism if it wasn’t for her ? He wondered if the pity he felt for her was misplaced. He pitied her illness, but further , her limited intelligence and cultural interests. Was that right ? Did they deserve pity ? What if people like Kate held sway ? Didn’t they ? Wasn’t the entire culture organising itself around pusillanimity ? Did he think Kate pusillanimous? She was his sister after all. But it was true, she was small-minded, like his mother who said, what good are books ? Could it ever change ? Would a different culture make even his mother and Kate eager for serious learning and debate ? He didn’t know.

“Someone as ugly as you is bound to.”

“What will they do if it’s cancer ?”

He realised she was paying a compliment to his intelligence and reading, but he was ignorant about medicine. He understood no more than she did.

“Who says it’s cancer ?”

“Wouldn’t feel so ill if it wasn’t bad.”

“Cure rates are fantastic. I was reading it the other day.”

“Cut me open I’ll have scars.”

“Make you look tough.”

“Never be able to wear a bikini again.”

“That’s a blessing.”

“How long will I be in hospital ?”

“Five minutes.”

“Be serious.”

“You’ll be okay, Kate.”

 

Mrs Colquhoun continued to sob into her handkerchief and moan:

“It’s a terrible shock.”

Johnny was walking to college one morning thinking about his mother’s attitude. There was hard nub of dishonesty in it: she was worried for Kate and wanted the best for her but the crisis, if that’s what it turned out to be, gave her an opportunity for self-dramatization. There was a posture of oh-what-a-sensitive-and-suffering-soul-am-I about it which made him angry. He couldn’t help thinking that in the end this was more important to his mother than Kate’s health. It embarrassed and troubled him. She was his mother after all. Was she really finally so self-centred she could see even Kate’s sickness as an opportunity to attract attention to herself ? She made a great show of concern but the show was more important than the concern. It brought a feeling of enormous loneliness. He loved his mother yet he knew he’d always run up against this resistant ore of self-orientation. The thought of his father calmed him. He wasn’t absent and hidden in the same way. Yet his mother had always tried to shoulder him aside; she wanted to be the important presence in the house and his dad went along with it. It was good he was easy-going enough not to create a fuss, but at the same time Johnny felt he was humiliated. His mother was always making everything a crisis or a source of exceptional excitement, but if it didn’t show her in the right light, she would ignore even the most stunning events. He puzzled over it. He despised the posturing. Yet he couldn’t despise his mother. It left him with that sense he’d always had that she needed curing of something ? Was it a neurosis ? Why was she always apparently so anxious ? Was it factitious ? In any case it was terrible. Poor Kate was sick, possibly seriously sick. She needed her family to be calm and supportive. He tried hard not to show his worry. He behaved to her as he always did. Wasn’t that best for her ? But his mother was weeping helplessly, taking her grief to the neighbours, to church, seeking sympathy and, it seemed to him, a kind of power through suffering. The image that came to him was of a thief, hunched and sly, casting a sideways look when no-one would notice. Was that what his mother was like ? He tried to chase the image away or at least not to pursue the thoughts it suggested. Yet he trusted it. The images that came vividly and without conscious effort were always the most reliable guide to the truth. His ideas were elaborated out of them. It was possible to generate a set of ideas  that denied them but he knew that was dishonest and mind-destroying. The best was to stick with them, to hold onto them and to build ideas around them. It was true, he could lapse into some commonplace view of how you should feel towards your mother, but the truth was more complex; the commonplace ideas were tendentious after all; the kind of notions produced by newspaper editors. No, it was necessary to grasp the truth, however hard and contradictory it might be. The searing contradiction was that he loved his mother yet he despised the dishonest bid for power he saw at the heart of her behaviour. It might be she was unaware of herself. Perhaps she behaved under some compulsion engendered by her own upbringing. But he could have told her. He could have spoken to her simply, directly and out of affection:

“You shouldn’t use Kate’s illness as a way of getting attention for yourself, mum. That’s not right.”

Yet he knew how she would react: with wild upset and fierce denial. Wasn’t this how she ordered her life: to ensure she could never be challenged ? Wasn’t there a kind of Stalinism in the household, a limit on what could be said ? No-one was allowed to criticize Mother in any fundamental way. Mother was an absolute. It was a category inscribed in the stars, eternal, immutable, untouchable. The tactic imposition of that definition meant everyone crept round its periphery and Mrs Colquhoun resided at its centre revered and feared in equal measure. It was the fear of her reaction, the menace of unconscionable emotional violence which kept everything in its orbit. It occurred to him how like a totalitarian State this was: the great leader, genuinely loved but despised just as authentically, kept in place for decade after decade despite lousy government by the threat of violence no-one was willing to risk. Surely it was better to let things roll along as they were, inadequate and unjust as they might be, rather than to risk death and destruction ? That was how his family worked. There would be a kind of horrible emotional slaughter if his mother’s right to rule were challenged. But what did it mean, her right to rule ? Simply that her emotional needs, though childish and narcissistic, must never be put in question. It was appalling. It was laughable. It was the way things were and not remotely close to the tosh about the sanctity of the family or the family as the basis of the good society. What struck him most though, was how little people were conscious of it. Kate would have been astonished if he’d explained his thoughts to her. His dad would have told him to keep his theories for his essays. He was terribly, terribly alone in his thinking. Did it make him despair ? No, what was the point of that ? He would become like his mother, throwing himself around in tortured states to attract attention and make everyone comply. Despair was no sensible response. Rather he relished his aloneness. Finally, aren’t we all alone ? Every one of us makes an agreement with existence which is unique, it was just that in his case his uniqueness shared little with most people. That was fine. He liked his own company. What disturbed him though was a feeling that he should make something of what went on in his head ? Should he seek some way of creating an impact on his culture ? But how ? Who was he but Johnny bloody Colquhoun from the backstreets of Notown, whose dad was a joiner and mother a divinity-pestering philistine ? People like him didn’t get anywhere. The country was run by the toffs. Oh, The Beatles had become rich and famous and we were all supposed to believe that lads from humble roots in Liverpool could change the world. But they changed nothing. They were a commercial phenomenon. A product. And though they composed some nice tunes, there was nothing in their music which would rouse Beethoven from a snooze. Harold Wilson had been Prime Minister but all his civil servants were public school boys and girls. The Establishment was lodged in the country’s backside like a fecal impaction and no-one was going to get their finger up there to remove it. Tories ranted about the permissive society but a more accurate description was the constipated society.

With these things going through his head he approached college. The roundabout was busy with traffic. Men in suits and women in clicking high heels were hurrying to work. He liked the activity. He liked the morning and the people. He knew moist of them were going to do work as stupid and dull as what he did in the bank, but he shut that thought away for the time being. It was lovely to be in town in the fresh new day and to see so much that was charming and interesting. Yes, life was fascinating if you could simply observe it. But not simply observe: observe and then make something of it. A poem. A story. A novel. A play. Wasn’t that the nature of his mind ? Did he want to wear a suit and rush to work every day ? One part of him did. To be involved, to be like everyone, that was a powerful impulse; a temptation. But to be like himself was a sterner injunction. He liked stern. He liked his grandfather who was a stern, laconic man. What way was there to be an observer of life and yet to make a mark upon it ? But why did he need to make a mark ? He didn’t know, but he needed to.

Lucy Delafield had a habit of preparing a significant sentence by hanging onto a word of no import and uttering it several times, as if preparing a spitball, before letting the mellifluous and clever formulation fall.

“But, but, but,” she said, “isn’t Hamlet, the character, the young mind in its essence: idealistic, tending to absolutes, troubled by the impositions of a culture it hardly yet comprehends, eager for experience yet trammelled by the expectations of elders ?”  

Johnny liked her a great deal. She exemplified a set of values he held in high esteem: serious intelligence, hard work, modesty of reward, concern to pass on knowledge and a refusal of all pretension. He wasn’t attracted to her sexually. She wasn’t a noticeably pretty woman, though she was neatly made and had a charming smile; but the fact she had no romantic or sexual appeal for him yet he liked and admired her so much made him reflect on his attitudes to women. He wished vaguely he had a mother like her but more troublingly he wondered why he’d be unlikely to choose someone like her as a sexual partner. It would mean putting respect and admiration for intellectual and moral capacities before sexual desire and he knew he couldn’t do that. It simultaneously cheered him up and dragged him down. It made him think he was a healthy young man whose appetites were wholesome. Shouldn’t a young man, after all, follow the promptings of his delight in a lovely face, inviting breasts, slim and strong legs, a tight backside ? It would be a kind of cowardice not to. Everything had its place and in a sexual relationship the power of sexual attraction was primordial. He knew well enough it couldn’t provide the complete basis of a relationship that would endure, but he wasn’t thinking of striking up with a flibbertigibbet who shared none of his values or preoccupations. No, it wasn’t a question of making sexual attraction a sufficient condition but it was necessary. Such were his virginal musings. He didn’t know that sexual pleasure has the power to drive through barriers of physical indifference or even revulsion. Perhaps if he’d been to bed with Christine he might have had an inkling that a woman like Lucy could be passionately desired once she was naked, the lights off and restraint set aside. As yet he was still convinced that the puppy-love charm he found in Christine’s eyes, mouth, hands and voice were the sine qua non of physical fulfilment and physical fulfilment the sine qua non of love.

After the first lecture he had an hour free so went to sit in the work-room behind the little cafeteria to make a start on an essay. The question was: Discuss the nature and significance of Hamlet’s “antic disposition”. He enjoyed tossing the ideas around and liked to try to find a well-formed sentence to encapsulate his thought. Hamlet is aware of the type of man he is and how difficult he shall find the.. What was the noun from avenge ? Was there such a word as avengement ? It sounded wrong. Should he write avenging or should he rework the phrase ? He was thinking this through when Liz Willoughby appeared beside him. She’d put on make-up and her lips were a delicate pink, her eyelids had a stroke of blue, and her lashes were dark with mascara.

“Hello.”

“Hi.”

“Doin’?”

Hamlet essay.”

“Already !”

“Like to be ahead of myself.”

She peered over at what he’d written. He noticed her red and black blouse was unbuttoned to her cleavage and he could see her small breasts in her lacy white bra. They were attractive and he could imagine handling or kissing them. Nothing like as generous as Christine’s they were just as capable of arousing him as he looked at them and thought of how it might be to go to bed with Liz. He knew she was aware of his look. Had she put on make-up and unbuttoned her blouse for him ? He pushed the thought aside as too arrogant. Yet at the same time it was clear she knew her breasts were on show and she made no attempt to hide them or to rebuke him. Then, as she sat up straight again he noticed her make a millisecond glance at his crotch. It surprised, excited and worried him that she was looking to see if he had a hard-on. What did he think of Liz ? What did he feel for her ? He’d known her only a few weeks but she often spoke to him, teasing out his views on the play. Occasionally they’d strayed into politics when Johnny was reading the paper at lunchtime and she’d express conservative opinions. She thought Ted Heath a good leader and his views those of most British people. His problem was the unions who were always going on strike and wanting more than the country could afford. Johnny thought this laughable.

“Well, I’m sure we could take a bit more from Cliff Richard and give it the workers. He wouldn’t miss it.”

“It’s his money. He earned it.”

“Well, he got it. Whether he earned it is another matter.”

He found her funny when she got on her high horse: she straightened her back and reproduced her parents’ opinions which they’d culled from the Daily Mail. It was charming in an odd way to see her defending something she hadn’t worked out for herself. Essentially it bored him. It always did when he heard people rehearsing views they felt they ought to express. His mind only came alive when he could hear the thought behind a person’s speech, and that happened so seldom, he was usually bored by people’s opinions. Conversation was different. To hear someone tell you what they’d done at the weekend was always interesting in some small way. But it struck him that people felt they had to express opinions, as if it was the only way to be taken seriously or be authentic. Curious because it prevented him taking them seriously and showed them as phoney. But Liz’s opinions were neither here nor there. What he was trying to see was how she might respond as a woman. Would it be good to have his first sexual experience with her ? He didn’t feel the strong pull and the sense of easy affinity he’d known with Christine; but then he’d been wrong. He’d never thought she would simply cut him loose. It was his fault of course. What else could he expect when he took off in a new direction which meant they didn’t see one another every day? She’d taken it as an insult and in a way she was right. Maybe he should make a play for Liz then, as she was obviously interested.

“Good,” she said.

“Thanks.”

“Always get good marks.”

“Genius.”

“Wish I could write like you.”

“My rates are competitive.”

She was leaning close to him with her head tilted and face almost offered, when the door opened and Janet Wilson came in. She laughed in her odd, nervous way on seeing them.

“Hi.”

Liz sighed and sat back in the chair. She looked very uncompromisingly at Janet and said:

“He was about to kiss me then.”

Janet giggled, sat down and took her books out of her bag. Johnny could have laughed out loud. Did she really think he was going to kiss her ? Was it true then she had engineered the encounter to tempt him ? It struck him as incompetent to have blown her cover with such an abrupt declaration to Janet. It made him much less likely to kiss her. Yet at the same time it made him think that maybe he should take this opportunity. She had a sweet, slim little body. He could easily imagine being between her thighs and that high-in-the range voice of hers would probably produce appealing little cries of helpless pleasure. From that day on they sat together more. Their shoulders touched. He put his hand briefly on hers. She touched his knee as she got up.  

In bed the thought of her soon got him erect and feeling his good hard cock he thought the next day he would ask her; but between the simplicity of lone arousal and the complexity of her being and his becoming one, there arose a perilous doubt. She was bent over her work. The room was empty. He put his hand on her shoulder. She looked up surprised:

“Oh, it’s you.”

“Oh, it’s me.”

She was working on the Hamlet question.

“Stuck,” she said.

“Looks okay.”

“What should I put ?”

He didn’t know what to say because her answer struck him as immature; the kind of thing he might have written at fifteen. It was like her opinions: what she felt she ought to say. It lacked attractive style because it was done out of duty and ulterior motivation  (she wanted to pass the exam, to go to university, to have a degree, to get a good job, to make money and live in a nice house) and so there was no tight conjunction of ideas, feeling and expression which makes writing sing.  It struck him than none of that came into play in his own essay-writing. He wanted to pass the exam and go to university so he could learn more and write more and get better at  both. But when he was working on an answer, he was thinking of nothing else. It struck him that Liz didn’t have that capacity in great measure. She was intelligent and could see the issues, but she didn’t have that passion which loitered in him and which sprang to life and shut out all other thoughts when he was intent on literature. What could he do but write the answer for her ? What was the point of that ? She had to do it for herself. She had to own it and it was better to own something unsophisticated than to pretend to own something subtle. Wasn’t that how life worked out ? Everyone had to make their own agreement with it according to their endowment. Did it make him superior to Liz that he could write at a higher level ? As far as writing went it did, but that was a particular realm. He wasn’t superior to her per se, as a person. Weren’t all those ideas about superiority badly mistaken ? Beethoven was a superior musician to just about everybody, but that didn’t make him superior as a human being. All notions of superiority were empty and all hierarchies founded on them false. Kings and queens weren’t superior, they just had power and they had power by force. That was the horrible truth about human life: history was founded on terrible violence. But what to say to Liz ?

“Hamlet is as mad as a wasp in a bottle. He needs a straightjacket and a psychiatrist.”

She slapped his arm.

“Finished yours ?”

“Yeah.”

“Been at it ages.”

“Take a break.”

They went out. The day was cloudy but there were winks of blue sky which shed a hopeful light on the dull buildings. They lived in one of those northern places dragged up by its roots in the nineteenth century because its dampness stopped the cotton threads snapping. Prior to the spinning jenny it had been a pleasant market town surrounded by charming woods sitting on the western bank of a clean river. In decades it had been turned into a booming, rattling, stinking, sleepless money-pit of mills and slums and had never recovered from the assault. Johnny couldn’t walk on the pavements without being reminded of this. He carried his history like he wore his jacket and, hardly travelled and never having lived anywhere else, he had little sense of how many people there were in Britain who would have found his identity alien. Once outside, he felt his sense of her change. They were in the street together. They might have been taken for a couple. He realised how he’d always liked that with Christine. She was so pretty and charming, such a warm woman in all her touching simplicity, he relished the thought of people seeing them together and thought of them as one. But he was suddenly disturbed by the thought people might think him Liz’s boyfriend. He’d thought of going to bed with her. His cock had been hard at the idea of having sex with her. But now they were in public he became aware he wouldn’t want anyone to identify him with her. It made him realize what a mistake it would be to have sex with her. Even to kiss her or hold her hand would be crossing a barrier which absolutely shouldn’t be breached. Liz walked beside him with little steps and her curious air of being permanently slightly offended by the world. She was one of those people whose encounters with others are always fraught with the possibility of conflict. There was tension about her and an importunity, as if her needs and desires were sure to be thwarted and she had to have her claws ready. Johnny, on the other hand, was always ready to walk away. Not that he was a coward but because he could spot the difference between a fight worth pursuing and one worth nothing. It was like those fights that used to flare up at school, stupid, senseless affairs in which lads would batter one another till their lips and noses were pouring and teeth were loosened. And for what ? A perceived slight or some crass piece of petty bullying. Violence was always in the background. The permanent threat of some horrible assault was part of the culture. Why couldn’t people rise above that ? They were worse than monkeys to keep that menace constantly in place. It was a stupid culture, a culture of no imagination which needed to keep this strutting, shoulders-back, chest out, ready-fisted mentality in place. It came from a kind of hurt; an entire people diminished by a culture which treated them as dispensable, people shamed and humiliated and constantly on the qui vive, trying desperately to find some secure sense of identity. Liz had something of it about her though her background was resolutely middle-class. Was life always like this ? Was this how things had always been and always had to be ? Surely that was too despairing a view of humanity. Surely there was something in the idea of the Fall: humanity had inherited the possibility of an idyll and had turned it into hell by allowing the worst in human nature to predominate. Wasn’t it always a question of choice ? Whatever the circumstance wasn’t there always the possibility of choosing the better over the worse? Wasn’t it simply a question of seeing that ? But of course, people chose evil, which meant simply they knew something to be wrong but did it anyway. Behind it was always power. Curious how people constantly fought one another for petty advantage. Did he do it ? He must, in ways he wasn’t aware of. But at least he rejected violence. What good end could it ever be used for ? It was always the tactic of people seeking power and that was as true of lads in the playground as Statesmen claiming to have the interest of the world at heart. But here he was with Liz, suddenly feeling it was a mistake to be in public with her. It was a kind of declaration. How odd it was that all our behaviour could be so articulate. It was impossible to do the simplest thing without it being replete with meaning. Yet wasn’t this intimacy ? Could intimacy be publicly determined ? It struck him all at once that it was: what people did in the bedroom was no less determined by social convention than what they did in The House of Commons, The Ritz or at Old Trafford. That was why he felt uncomfortable. There was no utterly hidden, thoroughly private corner where he could retreat with Liz to engage in activity which wasn’t socially determined. Even to fly in the face of convention was to be guided by it. He’d thought he could have sex with her more or less experimentally, without it taking on much significance, but it was impossible. The significance of an action is not something we determine for ourselves. Nor was it a question of fastidious attention to Liz’s sensibilities. It was himself he was thinking about. To go to bed with her in order to find out what it was like would damage him. The damage would arise from his unwillingness to grant the action its full social significance. It would be furtive. Simply he would be a hypocrite, having sex with her while wanting not to be intimate and have that intimacy socially advertised. How strange it all was.

They went to The Well With Two Buckets. It was one of those pubs were office workers and the odd lorry driver or postman came to lunch on meat and potato pie, chips and peas. There was a one-armed bandit and a juke box. Johnny felt half at home in these places. They were the comforting asylums of people whose lives had little emollient. There was a certain soft lapsing assisted by alcohol and company without which the routines of work and domestic responsibility would have been unbearable. At the same time, he couldn’t see places like this as his future. On the contrary, he identified them with that vague but insistent sense of impending cataclysm which must effect some fundamental change, because it was without doubt that change was necessary.  Liz sat pert on her little stool. She didn’t seem at ease. The place was too anyone-can-come-through-the-door urban for her. She lived out of the city in one of those suburbs where the houses were far apart, had big gardens and tall trees on the verges in front and looked down on the terraced streets Johnny originated from.

“Fancy pie and peas ?”

“No.”

“ I’m starvin’.”

“Never stop eating.”

“Me hormones.”

“Skinny as a drainpipe.”

“Brain work. Burns energy like a rocket.”

“Decided where to apply ?”

“Who’ll have me ?”

“Get As.”

“Maybe. The snobs won’t like me all the same.”

“Should try for Oxbridge.”

“Fish out o’ water.”

“My uncle teaches at Cambridge.”

“English ?”

“Biology.”    

“Biology’s all chemistry, chemistry’s all physics, physics is all maths. Hopeless.”

“Could get you in.”

“Think so ?”

“Knows the right people.”

“Easy as that.”

“Got my cousin’s friend in.”

“Biology ?”

“German.”

“Smacks of corruption.”

“Why ?”

“Supposed to be a process.”

“Everybody does it.”

“Everybody farts, doesn’t make it pleasant.”

She slapped him on the arm.

“Could ask him if you like.”

“No.”

“Should apply anyway.”

“Can’t play the Eton wall game.”

“That’s an old-fashioned view.”

“Old-fashioned view is wanting to go there.”

“Get a better job.”

“Better than who ?”

“Not ambitious enough.”

“Too ambitious.”

“What’s your ambition ?”

“Change society.”

“Why ?”

“Needs it.”

“Don’t think so.”

“Can’t lie in the same sheets forever.”

“Change what ?”

“What happens to wealth.”

“Why ?”

“Too much in a few hands.”

“It’s theirs.”

“Only because the law says.”

“Human nature.”

“Changes like the weather.”

“People want to make money.”

“Everybody ?”

“Yeah.”

“Not many do.”

“Don’t work hard enough.”

“Miners work hard.”

“Anyone can do that.”

“Fancy it ?”

“Any man.”

“Skinny weakling like me ?”

“You’re intelligent.”

“So’s Mick McGahey, in spite of his communism.”

“Can’t pay miners as much as doctors.”

“Why not ?”

“Haven’t got the skills. And training. Wouldn’t work.”

“Our system works ?”

“Yeah. You can get on.”

“With one another ?”

“Why not ?”

“Money gets in the way.”

“ I don’t think so.”

He didn’t want to argue with her but at the same time he thought a distance between them was a good thing. In twenty minutes his attitude had changed fundamentally. It was curious and difficult trying to know his own mind. Why shouldn’t it be possible to make a decision to have a relationship with Liz ? Why couldn’t such a decision lead to something that worked ? Was it a daft idea he entertained that a decision was too cold and calculating ? But what was falling in love all about if it wasn’t losing the ability to choose ? Wasn’t that supposed to be the joy of it ? Wasn’t it supposed to be the delightful madness whose power would propel you through decades of life together so by time you stopped to think about it you were old and wrinkled and you’d shared so much you couldn’t imagine being apart ? How could a decision, made in full control of rational faculties equal that ? Yet was it true that all married couples had experienced the exhilarating lunacy of love ? Those picture he saw in the local paper of young men in ridiculous suits and their brides with fixed smiles as they gripped their train or clung to a bouquet, were they people who’d gone through the extraordinary, inside-out, roller-coaster of love ? Or where they just conventional young folk doing what they thought was expected of them ? Was the wedding day more in the minds of the women than the decades of intimacy to come ? Would the men soon retire to the pub to cultivate pot bellies while their wives went to the bingo and complained about the off-putting habits of their spouses ? He’d read a line in Lawrence about a young wife who would soon hate her husband for the way he walked across the floor and it had shocked him. But was Lawrence right ? Was marriage a horrible farce and love a miserable convention ?  And hadn’t he been wrong about Christine ? He was in love with her all right. There was no need for any conscious choosing. Being in her company was enough. But he’d never imagined she would simply shut him out and not want to see him. He asked himself if she’d stopped liking him and though one part of him explained away dislike and saw it rather as her response to what she saw as his betrayal in leaving the bank and therefore her, another part of him said he must take her behaviour at face value. There must be a degree of dislike for her not to want to have anything to do with him. Maybe the madness of love was out of fashion. Perhaps the modern way was rational: thinking about joint salaries, calculating the number of children, permitting all the practical matters to rise above the wheeling impracticality of passion. All the same, he looked at Liz and knew it was impossible. If he chose someone like Liz as a wife, he would hate her for the way she walked across the floor in no time. The sense of irresistibility had to be present. Love must be beyond choosing, for him at least. Let the rest of the world do what it liked. The thought struck him that he might never meet another Christine. Why should there be any guarantee ? Perhaps there were people who simply never fell in love. Perhaps he never would again. Yet surely it was propelled by need and surely as the needs accumulated the likelihood grew greater. It wasn’t the one-person-in-the-world-for-me nonsense. It was a question of conjunction: the intensity of the needs and the belief in the loved one as the means of their satisfaction. Strange then that this couldn’t be done consciously. But there it was. And he felt suddenly very sorry for Liz because he knew she was falling for him. He realised it’d been a terrible mistake to come to the pub with her. He’d given the wrong impression. But it was only once he was in public with her he’d realised fully how she could never be anything to him. What a pity it was his sexual ideas could float free, that he could imagine getting into bed with her though she couldn’t stir him emotionally. Sex was such a primordial power. It was a brute need for reproduction. Were human beings, with all their high-falutin’ ideas about themselves ultimately no better than dogs on heat ? It was the ultimately which was misleading. There were many gradations before the ultimate was reached and the task of culture was to shape impulses to higher ends.

“Better get back to your essay,” he said.

“Help me ?”

“Sure.”

So they went back to the workroom and he sat beside her making mostly facetious suggestions which at least made her laugh. Laughter was a way of keeping her serious intentions at bay. They didn’t get far with the essay and Johnny was relieved when it was time to go to his next class.

Once a week Stewart Hollis treated them to a lesson on French grammar. He usually began by giving out a set of sentences in English for translation, hand-written things produced on a Banda machine. Johnny enjoyed translation and spent a happy twenty minutes with the dictionary and grammar book, but he was sometimes short of vocabulary and ran out of time. He realised his years away from study left him at a bad disadvantage in this regard so resolved to learn ten new words a day. He talked to himself in French wherever he went and when he found himself searching for a word, made a note and looked it up later. He liked Hollis. He was about thirty, dark, good-looking, friendly, modest and tending to the intellectual. He composed sentences which needed the imperfect subjunctive or the past anterior and went for slightly recherché lexis to keep the students on their toes. Johnny thought of his time in the bank. How much better to be here turning ten sentences into French and thinking about keeping the adverb close to the verb. There was a kind of bliss in learning language because it was his es muss sein. He could have happily spent Saturday night translating Balzac. He loved the passages in Whitmarsh and Jukes drawn from literature, some of it great, some middle-brow, which he had to render in French. The artificiality of the process was a delight, the apparent uselessness. To translate documents, contracts, business language would have irritated him to homicidal impulses but retaining the tone and beauty of the original was anything but utilitarian. It took him to that little space in his head which was remote from the routine and the banal. And Hollis was a sympathetic character. He’d left school early like Johnny and started his degree when he was in his mid-twenties. One of those post-war products of working-class families who’d got into grammar school and pulled themselves out of the conditions their parents couldn’t escape, he was a thorough Francophile, played them George Brassens songs none of them could follow, talked of Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus, and told them stories about his year at the Sorbonne. Johnny could smell the fresh bread, croissants and coffee of the early morning Quartier Latin. They were studying La Peste . Johnny was struck by the nobility of its heroes, Rieux and Tarrou They were the kind of people he would like to be: serious, self-possessed, unconventional, capable of working out a view of life and a modus vivendi for themselves. In the midst of the plague they never thought of their own safety or advantage, but did what had to be done without egotism or sentimentality. They were the kind of people Johnny expected leaders to be. Yet when he saw Harold Wilson or George Brown on tv, they didn’t rise to the level he yearned for. His imagination was preoccupied by high-mindedness, but he was too naïve yet to understand how literature is driven to the margins. It seemed to him that everyone should want to live like Jean Tarrou. It was a way of living which kept you apart from the worst in human nature. Tarrou had no indulgences. He was stern with himself and kind to others while it seemed to Johnny that those who were stern with others were usually soft on themselves. Hollis talked about literature as if it mattered, as if it connected to the everyday: the choices facing Rieux and Tarrou were those we all faced, though in a less extreme way, in our petty lives; but we all had the chance to be like these secular saints; men who did the right thing not because they calculated on some eternal reward, but because it was the right thing. One day, Hollis said:

“Of course these characters are more the embodiment of ideas than real people. They aren’t like the whisky priest. They have no failings and that’s not how we are. Look at Tarrou, for example, he seems to live without women for example. He’s philosophy made flesh.”

Johnny was a little shocked by the idea at first. It was true, Tarrou was ascetic, yet there was something about him which hinted at the ability to satisfy his needs without fuss. He realised he’d assumed he must have women in his life, but there was no need for Camus to elaborate. A man like Tarrou attracted women. His love affairs were dignified. He brought to his relations with women the same principle and straightforwardness he displayed in his work against the plague. For Johnny he was the adult version of his admiration for Robin Hood. The defender of the poor, the enemy of corrupt power, a man who never did a mean thing, who was loved by his friends and  who loved a beautiful tender woman; this was the hero of his childhood thinking. For Johnny he was a real man while the Christ of church and school, the man he admired for his moral genius and his willingness to face down the powerful, was a mythic figure, a spiritual presence, a man who had left the earthly and become ethereal. Yet Hollis was right: Tarrou was more of an idea than a man, yet the man he was fascinated. Wasn’t it true we were all embodiments of ideas to some extent ? Didn’t we all try to live out  a vision of what it means to be human ? Hollis was right but too crude: Tarrou was both the embodiment of an idea and a convincing human being. The comparison Hollis had drawn with the Graham Greene character, as he knew they were going to study The Power And The Glory, wasn’t quite convincing: it wasn’t necessary to be deeply flawed to be human. It was possible to be like Tarrou, however demanding it might be.

When they’d finished their translations and Hollis had collected them, he began to explain the use and form of the subjunctive. It was clear he was slightly dismayed they weren’t all in command of it.

“Look,” he said, “you write things like this: Je veux vous aller en ville. No, no, no. You cannot do that. You must have the relative pronoun and that introduces the subjunctive……”

Johnny enjoyed his exasperation and his high expectations. He felt he should work hard to meet them. At grammar school there’d been a toughness: the masters slippered and caned the lads for minor misdemeanours. He’d been caned by Fowler (who they nicknamed Foxy) because he stopped between lessons when he heard someone playing the piano in the hall. He was edging the door ajar to see who it was when Foxy appeared, grabbed him by the ear, dragged him to his study and gave him three. But the view of education was soppy. The work was hard enough: they were driven through Latin verbs like cattle across the American plains, they pored over logarithms and were expected to memorize the Periodic Table; yet it was all done in the name of conformism. They were expected to go to university before dutifully taking their places as lawyers and accountants and civil servants. It was all a bit like the Boy Scouts: dib-dab-dob and I’ll do my duty to God and the Queen. Johnny went along with it but it rankled. There was a lingering dissatisfaction which was the tenor of his life and without him knowing why, like thousands of other adolescents, at fourteen he kicked against the pricks. Lacking the maturity to discriminate between the stupidities of control and the valuable learning, he rejected it all. The cane and the slipper kept him doing the minimum but leaving and getting a job was a liberation. Now though, in the classroom with Hollis, all was different. The only punishment was letting yourself down. There was no uniform. Hollis wouldn’t have cared if he’d turned up in his swimming trunks. And learning was for anything but conformism: it was rather the means to challenge every convention, to put every assumption to the test. There was enough of the intellectual about Hollis for Johnny to seize on it. When he talked about Camus or discussed the ideas in Brassens, it was pure intellectual activity. There was nothing ulterior. It would have been potty to imagine studying Sartre as a prelude to life as an accountant. The freedom of that activity and its closeness to the artistic impulse was what appealed to him. It had no connection to earning a living. If it ended up making you money, well, that was incidental. The important thing was the pursuit of truth. There was a little bit of that even in French grammar. You had to get it right. It was objective. Your opinions mattered for nothing. The subjunctive was the subjunctive whether you liked it or not. There was something bracing and wholesome about that. It was an escape from tortured self-consciousness and the sickly pursuit of self-interest. He thought of his mother who lacked almost entirely the capacity for objectivity. Every idea must return to her self-interest. He remembered her saying If we evolved from monkeys why aren’t monkeys still turning into people ? It was the kind of horrible ignorance she was capable of and  wasn’t it the result of the revealed truth of religion on the one hand and lack of education on the other ? God and the Queen. Johnny was an atheist and a republican. The idea of revealed truth nauseated him. All insight was hard won and provisional. But the struggle to shed a bit a light of reality was worthwhile. It endowed nobility and courage. Intellectuals weren’t secular saints by nature, but they could be. They could have something of Jean Tarrou. That’s what he was learning here, in this modest little college. Johnny Colquhoun, a little nobody from the north was daring to think of himself as the same kind of man as Camus’s hero. The idea made him laugh as it lifted him. There was a life in that. There was something to take hold of and strive for. He was very grateful to Hollis.    

IV

There weren’t many nights out for Johnny because he was doing three A  Levels in three terms, which meant effectively two and a half, and was short of money. During his time at the bank he got into the habit of going out every Friday, Saturday and Sunday and usually one night during the week. Pete Samuels, who’d turned into something of a black sheep, or at least a light shade of grey, was always around as was a little coterie of congenial mates including Karel Wasilewski who lived round the corner and who Johnny had played football and cricket with during his days at the grammar. Pete always had a car: though his parents disapproved of his friends and unwillingness to carry on with his education, they thought indulging him the best way to keep some control. Unlike the middle-classes who see the importance of moulding and educating their children, the Samuels had the habits of their working-class origins. Wilf Samuels had made good after the war by trying his hand at buying and selling cars. He was living with his parents in a two-up-two-down when he began, renovating engines in the back-alley and flogging cars on the street. It was mostly cash in hand and he quickly got a reputation: he was a good bloke to deal with; he’d get you a decent car at a reasonable price; he knew his way round the mechanics; he wasn’t a fly-boy. This combination of quasi-legality and bourgeois reliability served him well. His business expanded in a way he couldn’t have imagined. He’d thought he would make a bit on the side from dealing and get himself a factory job; but as the number of people eager and able to afford a car grew, his enterprise took off, and never one to let an opportunity pass, he was soon running a garage, servicing cars for the well-heeled of the expanding suburbs, and little by little pushing into the luxury car market. By the early sixties he was a millionaire. It took him by surprise. Why had this happened to him ? Was it his destiny ? Did he have special qualities which fitted him for wealth ?  He’d never paid much attention to politics. His parents voted Labour because they were hard-up and he did the same when he was demobbed. But as the money poured in, he began to attend to those voices which talked of free enterprise, entrepreneurialism, the rights of wealth creators, the damage done by trade unions, the threat of communism and the politics of envy. He began to see himself in a new light. He was one of those people who knew how to run a business. It was a talent, like being able to play the violin of play football. Businessmen were special. Society should grant them a special status. At times it seemed wrong to him that everybody had only one vote. Feckless people from the back streets had as much influence over who was elected to parliament as he did. That couldn’t be right. The old idea of a property qualification was surely a good one.  But John Dunderdale, who ran a big carpet business in the city and who he met in the Chamber of Commerce, said to him:

“Don’t worry about democracy. We tell ‘em how to vote. They read newspapers owned by men like us. Can’t think for themselves. Too stupid.”

Wilf liked the idea. It was a clever ploy to give people the right to vote but at the same time create a context in which their votes didn’t count for much. The important thing was to keep power in the hands that mattered: businessmen. Britain was built on business. The future was business. Why should a man like him who’d worked hard and made his money honestly have to pay taxes so idle and hopeless people could have schools and doctors ? Where would it all end ? They’d come for his property. They’d seize his house and empty his bank accounts. That was what the socialists wanted. They’d bring everyone down to the same level. No-one would be able to get on any more. They were jealous of men like him, men with energy who made things happen. They would take away his freedom. That was socialism. The end of freedom.

Pete, who’d heard these arguments over and over, repeated them if conversation ever strayed near politics. Johnny found them ludicrous, but he liked Peter. He was easy-going and beneath his acquired snobbery, an instinctive egalitarian who liked people and judged them according to their character and behaviour regardless of money. They had in common that greatest gift of life: youth. All was promise and in the pubs filled with young people the sense of  possibility which so much young energy gathered in one place engendered, lifted their susceptible spirits and filled them with joy and ease.  It made Johnny think of Prince Hal. He’d read Henry IV at school and the combination of carefree youth and impending responsibility had left its mark on his mind. There were serious things to think about. He was diligently reading Lawrence and Kafka and Whitman and even Jane Austen, whose talent he thought as astonishing as her milieu disheartening; but his work in the bank wasn’t serious. It was a means to an end. He went through the motions like he supposed millions of other people did every day; but it left him with an odd feeling of dissatisfaction, as if his life was yet to begin, and that made his mood frivolous, cynical, devil-may-care.

They had their favourite haunts. For some reason no-one understood, the young people had made The Boot and Shoe one of their favourite pubs. It was one of those nondescript places in an unprepossessing part of the city, with a small bar as you went in by the revolving door and at the back a huge room with flowery wallpaper and an equally flowery carpet, little round tables with copper tops and a dartboard in the far left corner. Before the youngsters laid claim, it was a place for locals and regulars, mostly folk over fifty, and the big room would garner no more than twenty or thirty on a Saturday night. Once they’d made it their own, two hundred of them would push in and be hemmed shoulder to back and back to belly; the fight to the bar could take ten minutes and the landlord, who couldn’t believe his luck, had to employ half a dozen more handy barmaids and lads. He installed a juke box which played music he hated: the gamut of pop which, with its essentially sunny overtones, it’s life-is-fun outlook and its musically simple structures, was as pleasant to consume and as easy to digest as a milk-shake; it was a commercial creation of genius. Centuries of musical development, the complexity of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, the stunning developments of twentieth century music, the innovations of Stravinsky or the challenges of the proponents of the twelve-tone school; all were condensed into three minute, instantly memorable songs whose purpose was to provide the soundtrack to millions of lives; and it worked. By the time they were eighteen the youngsters were already listening nostalgically to records The Beatles or the The Kinks or The Rolling Stones or The Supremes made three years earlier. It wasn’t the music they attended to, it was their own emotions. A few bars of simple guitar were enough to evoke the entire atmosphere of a period; and things changed so fast as they moved from childhood to adulthood that the songs were an anchor. Even for Johnny, who couldn’t sit at home and listen to it anymore the sound of From Me To You in a crowded pub on a Saturday night was enough to bring to life his first years at the grammar. The simple, meaningless song, a trite product put together to make money, was a lifebelt in the welling sea of adolescent turmoil. In place of rights of passage, the culture had created a sop: a pop song was like the mother’s breast and millions of young people sucked on it to avoid the despair of a culture which didn’t know what it wanted of them. The one thing the culture could be sure of was that young people now had a bit of money and that was something to go after. Pop music exploited a set of serious needs: the kids needed to know how they were supposed to think, feel and act. What were the right emotions ? What was the right way to behave towards your parents, your teachers, your friends, your neighbours, strangers ? What were the important ideas ? The culture had nothing to offer but cheap ideology, ephemeral slogans of right, left and centre, the promise of rampant sexual liberty on the one hand, and the frown of bourgeois, religious disapproval on the other. So the teenagers grabbed at what they could and made the best of it. Most of them were at sea. They wore Che Guevara t-shirts and wanted the best possible exam results. They played air guitar to the bad-boy Rolling Stones in their bedrooms but hoped for good job in sales or insurance or the civil service. And music was at the heart of the painful confusion because of its power to  evoke emotion so quickly, its ability to lodge in the mind, and its capacity to arouse genuine feeling through inauthentic means. Pop music was like the rhetoric of a demagogue: it promised more than could be granted, played on real needs to make its false impact and simplified every feeling, idea or concept so that the most unformed minds could feel themselves possessed of the insight of genius.

One Saturday night at nine, because he’d worked almost all day, re-reading Hamlet, mugging up on French grammar and making notes about La Peste, he walked into the city and wandered into The Boot and Shoe. He was intending to have a slow pint and walk home. The place was sardined, the roll of the talk too loud for him to make himself heard at the bar and the jukebox thumping. There were faces he recognised. He felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Karel Wasilewski. He was a few inches shorter than Johnny, dark and devastatingly handsome. Even one of Pete Samuels’s sisters, who were purified snobs, dared to fancy him. What Johnny liked about him was his irreverence, his lack of egotism and his wayward sense of humour. They fought their way to the corner where Karel had a table with his sister, Nadia and her friend . On the way Johnny said hello to half a dozen people he knew by sight or in passing. It struck him that he’d lost to some extent his pleasure in passing acquaintance. It had been one of the things he’d liked about going out with his mates every weekend: they knew hundreds of people in the most superficial way, but having those faces, or the people you exchanged no more than two sentences with as part of your social landscape provided a kind of reassurance. Every week the same people turned up in the same pubs and at the same parties and it was easy to feel that, however fleeting and insubstantial these contacts might be, they provided a background, a more or less secure milieu within which more substantial and lasting relationships could be built. And just as Johnny recognised hundreds of faces, so he knew he was recognised by hundreds. It provided the same kind of sense of belonging the grammar school had offered: most of the lads in his year he never spoke to. His friends numbered no more than four or five. But the other eighty or so boys were part of his world: he knew all their names, what they were good at, who their brothers were, who to avoid and who to nod to. They had an identity because other people knew who they were, and the same was true for him. He was Johnny Colquhoun, the bright linguist who everyone went to if they were stuck with Latin or French. Johnny the handy tennis player. Easy-going Johnny who always had a smile and a joke and was never looking for a fight.  He didn’t choose his identity; it was made for him by the recognition of others.

He sat at the table and Karel introduced him to Nadia’s friend. As a regular visitor to their house, he’d got to know Paul and Nadia quite well. When he last saw her she was a willowy, leggy, bud-breasted teenager who blushed easily and chewed the ends of her blond hair. Now she was a full-breasted woman with a warm, confident smile which creased up her eyes, and a subtle demeanour of promise and satisfaction which made him want to stare at her in that way we always want to fix our gaze on whatever attracts or fascinates us but leaves us unable to understand the attraction or fascination.  She shook Johnny’s hand and the touch of her soft fingers made him suddenly conscious of his virginal celibacy. It wasn’t so much the simple absence of sex: he could have had sex any day he liked. He could seduce Liz Willoughby on Monday and there were other girls who would be glad of him as a boyfriend and would be quite physically willing; it was rather the rare combination of the desire for intimacy, tenderness, and interest. Seducing women was an easy matter. The image of Tony Tasker came into his mind. He was a clerk in the bank, a lad from the mean streets, brought up in a strict Catholic family by a mother who idolized the royal family as much as the Pope and a more or less absent father who escaped his wife’s pretensions by haunting the pubs where he had a reputation as a darts player and won a few bob a week by fleecing unsuspecting customers. Educated at St Pius’s Grammar among mostly middle-class boys, he’d left at sixteen, taken the clerk’s job and like his father spent every evening in the pub where he downed eight pints in the proper manly fashion, smoked twenty John Player’s and pursued every available woman. He rated all the girls in the bank for their shagability and treated Johnny to his reflections on how he’d like to have this girl just once or that girl from behind, claiming to be able to tell whether they would go like a bunny or be cold as yesterday’s meat pie. Yet in spite of his blather, he was engaged to a girl he didn’t go to bed with, as his Catholic mind told him a wife should be a virgin, and his actual seductions were rare. At the Christmas party he would lead some very drunken seventeen year-old into a cubby hole, strip off most of her clothes then find her fiercely resisting when he dropped his trousers. He’d recount the tale to Johnny with a regretful: Nearly there, Johnny. Everything but. The girls flirted and giggled most of the time, because they didn’t want to appear prudish. But it was obvious to Johnny most of them weren’t interested in inadequate fumbles in cupboards and Tony’s strategy as a seducer was hopeless. There was one woman in the bank who really would have been easy to seduce and who Tony left alone. The story was she’d been married to someone rich who had abandoned her for a young woman and disappeared to America. She was left with a daughter who she brought up alone and who went mad at fifteen. Lydia worked to support the two of them, smoked, drank alone, and elaborated a cool cynicism which was expressed most hauntingly in her laugh which crackled and rang in solitude and went on far longer than it should. She would sidle up to Johnny when he was at his desk and rub her crutch against his shoulder while saying:

“How’s my Johnny today ?”

in a voice attempting to imitate the ember-like passion of a Hollywood star. Her slow walk back to her position, her long thin legs pulling tight the narrow circle of her shin-length skirt told of her desperate loneliness and her heart-breaking willingness to take off her clothes for any half-way attentive male. Yet Tony stayed away from her. Johnny once provoked him:

“You know, the woman you should go after is Lydia Park.”

“Too old, Johnny. I like it soft as a mouse’s ear-hole.”

But Johnny knew  he was afraid of her shredded emotions. Tony liked to claim all he was interested in was seduction. Any woman was fair game. If she had the necessary in her knickers, what else mattered ? But a woman’s heart terrified him. Age had nothing to do with it. Tony reduced women to tits and cunts because the territory of a woman’s inner life frightened him like the dark frightens a nervous child.  

Nadia wore her femininity as comfortably as her dress. Johnny realised she’d always had an eye for him, but in the manner of older boys who disdain the interest of awkward girls who aren’t much more than children and whose shy glances and embarrassed silences, abrupt and thoughtless teenage boys have no more interest in than embroidery, he’d never given her a second thought. Now, he talked to Karel, looking at him as though their old friendship, the camaraderie of the cricket bat and the casey, was more fascinating than her blossomed womanhood. He had to hold back his desire to turn to her and ask her all about herself. He would have liked the others to disappear. Yet he recalled her as not particularly bright, not the kind of girl who could be a good intellectual companion. Was he simply overwhelmed because of his sexual abstinence? Was it simply the warm physicality of her, her shapely arms, the flesh of her neck and exposed upper chest, the enticing softness of her pink lips, the thought of the buffer of her big breasts with their hardened nipples against his chest; was it simply this which had coursed through his blood like a drug ? Would he be making a terrible mistake by trying to get off with her ? Would going to bed with her be something to regret ? He sipped his beer and looked at her as she chatted. How could it be ? She was beautiful but also everything about her spoke of her charm and delicacy. She was one of those women who express a graceful concern and a captivating lack of self-consciousness or self-interest in even the simplest gestures. How could it be a mistake to be intimate with such a remarkable young woman ? Still, there was Karel to think about. How would he respond to his old mate teaming up with his sister ?  And wasn’t he congenial company because he was so open and easy-going and straightforward ? Johnny could think of hardly any friend he’d liked more. The Wasilewksi’s were a welcoming, working-class family who lived in a big house their father’s brother had bought for them. Like Karel’s father, he settled in England after the war, set up a business in the Midlands making industrial clothing and found himself wealthy, unlike his brother who took whatever jobs he could get, mostly unskilled, until he got settled work as painter and decorator in a biscuit factory where he climbed perfidious ladders to refresh the drainpipes and re-papered the manager’s office when the weather turned uncooperatvie. The house was always a little untidy, which Johnny greatly liked; some of his neighbours had front rooms they reserved for special visitors , pristine little arenas where the sofa was never sat on, the carpet untrodden, where the odour of new leather and fabric lingered like a classy perfume; mausoleums opened only to impress and where, over tea or coffee in best china, the polite conversation of ladies in their best dresses and men in uncomfortable suits, tinkled like the spoons in the saucers.

At length, without seeming importunate or intrusive, he was able to spark up a conversation:

“So what are you up to these days, Nadia ?”

“Just work in an office,” she said with delightful nonchalance, as if the whole desperate business of business, the entire neurosis of work and career had touched her as negligently as pollen sticks to a bee, and blithely unaware of society’s injunction to pursue status and income with the ferocious doggedness of a lion stalking its prey, she treated work as an inconvenience which had the happy consequence of providing money for clothes, records, make-up and nights out.

“Interesting ?”

“’S’okay.”

“What’s the firm ?”

“Deliveries. Big warehouse and lots o’ vans. Karel says you’re a student.”

“For my sins.”

“What you studyin’?”

“English, French and German,” he knew at once he should merely have said English. It was curious how people responded to the discovery; languages were a closed book to many, and failure to master a language at school, for the minority who’d been given the chance, left them with a sense of mystery, as if linguists possessed some secret knowledge or formula, or as if it required a special and high intelligence to become fluent. To Johnny there appeared no difference between being able to join wood and conjugate verbs; he was hopeless in the workshop; the grammar school kept the boys well away from manual accomplishments of course, but it wasn’t that he lacked training or instruction; his dad had shown him how to make mortice and tenon or dovetail joints, but when he tried, there were gaps big enough to drive corporation buses through and his joints had to be glued and nailed to give them any firmness. He watched his dad assemble wardrobes for the recesses in his bedroom; he measured, took the pencil from behind his ear, cut and joined and the fit was perfect. Johnny’s admiration for this simple skill was as deep as that shown to him for his ease with language. It was as if his dad had access to some arcane intelligence which he was denied. When he reflected on it, he thought it must be true that his dad’s brain worked differently from his own: he’d have struggled to get him to understand the difference between the perfect and imperfect in French, just as his dad couldn’t get him to cut a neat joint. Surely it was because the range of skills we need is distributed across the population, and surely that was because we lived socially so it wasn’t necessary for everyone to be able to do everything. It struck him as an exciting insight, something he’d found his way to on his own. All the same, he’d read enough to know the idea was no doubt already part of someone’s theory. Insights were very hard won. But it was an idea to hold onto and develop and he liked it because what it said to him was we had evolved to be social. It must be that our brains are adapted to understand and deal with the world, but each brain is different. It’s collectively we have all the skills and capacities we need.

“Was useless at French,” she said.

“I could teach you.”

“Couldn’t teach me. Didn’t get it.”

“I bet you.”

She laughed.

“Be wastin’ your time.”

“No. Tell me what you want to be able to do. I guarantee I can teach you.”

“Don’t go to France anyway. Go to Spain.”

He wished he was studying Spanish. How he would have loved to sit beside her and see her lovely head bent over a book as he explained some simplicity.

“Been to Paris ?”

“No.”

“I’ll take you.”

She laughed again, pulling back on her stool, unable to help herself. It reminded him of Christine and he felt a moment’s tugging regret. If he’d let the feeling seize him it’d have dragged him down and he’d have drifted into reminiscence of his days with her. How odd, already, his life barely begun and his physical love life not begun at all to have a heavy burden of regret which could snag on his feeling like brambles on your jumper or trousers. He had to fight it away and think of Nadia and the moment. It was true she was less intelligent than Christine who, though she dismissed any notion of herself as intellectual, was capable of reading a serious book and responding to it or of thinking through an argument; but was it true he granted her greater powers than she possessed ? He was aware it was his tendency. He often found himself having to adjust his assessment of others having initially endowed them with too much wit or sympathy or insight or gentleness. Perhaps it was a way of defending himself against a kind of loneliness; maybe he attributed to others those aspects of himself he most wished to develop in an attempt not to be left alone elaborating a sensibility others couldn’t relate to. Maybe now he was doing the same with Nadia. He was aware that the subtle effect of her beauty on him wasn’t matched by the impact of her mind; yet some stubborn part of him wanted it to be true that her mind was as charming as her smile. It was wrong to judge her by the triteness of her tone of voice or the commonplace nature of her habits; package holidays in Spain were Johnny’s idea of hell, but people couldn’t be thought less of for going along with what the commercial culture plied. They had to live after all.

“You’re mad,” she said.

“North-north-west.”

“What ?”

“Paris is a great city to walk round. We can go from café to café. We might meet Sartre in the Deux Magots.”

“The what ?”

“It’s a café. In St Germain. Not like the sandwich bar on the bus station. You can’t get sausage egg and chips at seven in the morning.”

“How come you know so much about it ?”

“I went with the school. Lovely place.”

“I’m sure.”

“Romantic.”

“Fancy.”

He began to sing like Charles Trenet:

C’est la romance de Paris,

aux coins des rues elle fleurit,

ça met aux coeurs des amoureux,

un peu de joie et de ciel bleu...

“ What are you on about ?”

“I can play the accordion too.”

“No end to your talents.”

“Still swim ?”

“What ?”

“I remember when we used to go to Paul St baths. You were a good swimmer.”

“Yeah. Now and again.”

“Didn’t you swim for the school ?”

“I did. I swam for Lancashire.”

“Wow.”

“I wasn’t very good.”

“You were a salmon.”

“Thanks,” she said sarcastically.

“Only in the sense of being graceful and swift.”

“Still play tennis ?”

“A bit.”

“Used to come and watch you.”

His heart gave a little spurt. He recalled how she would come and hang around the pavilion when he and Karel and a few other lads were having a knock. A tennis club was one of the advantages of living in a middle-class area. A few houses away from Johnny, he played almost every day during the season. It belonged to the Congregational Church where Johnny’s mother went because there was no Methodist church nearby. He went dutifully too and was confirmed at fourteen. He took the plain, stern religion seriously and liked the vicar, Mr Wilderspin who had a taste for literature and dropped quotations from Eliot or Byron into his sermons. The demands of non-conformism, its refusal to offer easy salvation, its insistence on individual conscience and its unadorned ceremonies, had helped to form his mind and he relished its discipline and above all its lesson that saying no was a liberation: going along with the majority, doing what everyone else did, using the collective as an excuse for failing to work out your own morality, these were disdained and he found that strenuous drive to strong individual discrimination empowering. The ability to stand alone and on principle and to know that no force in the world could defeat you, even if they put you to death, shaped his radicalism and the moral courage which provided a little nugget of golden confidence to carry him through life. When the religious husk fell away, the absurd notion that the Bible could offer any sensible account of how life appeared on earth and the childish belief in a single deity, an old man in the sky, an eternal father figure who would offer  reward without end, like some kind of spiritual Father Christmas, the worthwhile, character-making demands and exigencies remained. And it was because of the church too he’d had the chance to play tennis. If they’d stayed in the terrace street of his early years, he’d have had nowhere but the park with its cracked, tarmac courts, and sagging nets; but belonging to a club with two shale courts and a pavilion, where people took the trouble to look after the place, where he could turn up with Karel, drag the weighted sacking to even out the red dust, push the heavy roller to flatten it and carefully brush the plastic lines clear; or at the start of the season, hammer down the tapes and help repaint the umpire’s chair; where he could be part of a culture which supported his love of the sport, made all the difference and once April had arrived and his membership was paid from his paper round money, he loved to rush home from school, pull on his Fred Perry shirt, his little white shorts, his Dunlop tennis shoes and ankle socks, grab his Maxply and get behind the baseline, whacking the Slazenger balls and skidding across the grit. He remembered Nadia. She would sit on the pavilion veranda, her feet up on the wooden frontage, eating sweets or sucking a lolly. Sometimes she would do cartwheels or handstands on the little, overgrown, grassy area next to it. Her thin, loose dress would fall away and her knickers be on show. Or when he and Karel took a breather she would sit chewing her hair as they talked and her knees would swing apart in the nonchalant innocence of childhood. He’d never imagined then that she was there to watch him. He’d thought she was just dragging along with her elder brother who’d been told to keep an eye on her. At times she would bring a friend, usually a wild girl with dark hair, much more mature and knowing who would come onto the courts and start pushing the roller while they were playing, or pick up little scraps of shale and throw them at the boys and Karel would tell her off and make her sit with his quiet, biddable sister. It came to him, suddenly, that when he’d played in the final of the singles competition at seventeen, she’d been there, not actually in the club but watching between a gap in the hedge, and when he’d left with the cup she’d been hanging round the gate and had congratulated him. But he’d thought nothing of any of this because she was a child. But now it occurred to him that when he was seventeen she must have been fourteen, and well beyond thinking of herself as childish.

“Must’ve been short of something to do.”

“Remember my friend, Diane.”

“The dark one ?”

“Yeah.”

“She was nuts.”

“She was mad on you.”

“Thank god she didn’t get near me.”

“Lots of the girls liked to watch you play tennis.”

“Studying my backhand, eh ?”

“Something like that.”

“Lots of the boys liked to watch you swim.”

“Fibber.”

“You could swim the Channel. I’d meet you in Calais. Save on the fare.”

“How many times you been to Paris ?”

He began to count on his fingers.

“Twice.”

“Maybe one day.”

“Let me know. I’ll be your interpreter and guide.”

The little group shared a taxi home. They went to Karel’s where the two lads sat in the kitchen drinking beer and chatting. They were the kind of young people who couldn’t keep away from serious subjects for too long. If they talked about Manchester United for a few minutes, they’d soon exhausted what there was to say and they would veer back to some demanding territory; often it was political because all serious questions are touched on by the way we are governed, but both of them had an instinctive disdain for the political process. The kernels of truth contained in rhetoric and policy were dried out within the unflinching husk of power. They were already cynical enough to know democracy was a sham; government was shrouded in secrecy as if the most banal questions of debate over policy were a threat to security and at the mere mention of shifting more administration to the regions, the Soviets would be polishing their warheads and climbing into the cockpits of their Migs.

“Macleod wanted to abolish the OU,” said Karel.

“I know. What’s more dangerous and laughable than an oik with education ?”

“Every improvement we win they have to devalue.”

“Yeah. But they have to live with what’s changed.”

“For the time being.”

“They’ll never shift the NHS, or free education. Little by little we can move wealth and power our way.”

“Too optimistic, Johnny. I don’t trust the bastards.”

“Think I do ?”

“You have faith in the system, I don’t.”

“You’re an anarchist.”

“Tories are anarchists.”

“Discuss.”

Karel laughed.

“Yeah.”

“Heath is hopeless. Trying to take on the unions. It’ll bring him down.”

“Aye, but who gave the buggers the idea ? Barbara bloody Castle.”

“I know,” said Johnny. “Government can’t cope with folk doing things for themselves.”

“Working folk. The rich get away with it.”

“I read something in William Morris. The idea that the workers should have stuck to their union guns and never bothered forming a political party. You know. Something in that, maybe. Elect a lot of careerists to parliament and what they do ?”

“Let ‘em do what they like. Important thing is to organize in the workplace.”

“What do the blokes at yours think of the IRC ?”

Karel worked for a big engineering firm which made printing presses. Their machines went all over the world. Almost every newspaper used something they made. It was one of those firms which took on a little swarm of apprentices each summer, lads with no or few qualifications but plenty of manual skill. They put them through an internal test which determined if they were able to handle tools and machinery easily, work accurately, cope with basic maths and get along quickly. Moody, disaffected lads of sixteen who had nothing more in their lives than tight jeans and leather jackets, fags and knuckle dusters, a second-hand BSA Bantam and a season ticket for United or City were transformed in a short three years of hard work among men who took no lip and insisted on high standards and consistent graft into proud young men earning good enough money to get a mortgage on their first terrace, get married and start a family. Karel had finished his apprenticeship and though he spoke disparagingly of the management and was a diligent trade unionist, he was glad of the training and education the company had given him. Recognising his intelligence, they’d insisted he take day release and study for an HND. Fascinated by the maths, he’d followed it up himself and had a bookcase full of volumes on pure maths which he pored over in secret, solitary hours. Like many of the blokes he worked alongside, his attitude to his employer was ambivalent: coming form the mean streets and knowing how people had to struggle to get by, he despised the injury to the feelings of his fellow workers in the existence of a separate canteen and toilets for the managers and draughtsmen, the fancy Jags and Rovers the big-wigs arrived in which cost more than he earned in two years, the notion that because he worked on the shop-floor, because he used his hands, because he made something, something real and mechanical, something that worked, something made of metal, of cogs and bolts and wires, and circuits, something that required just as much intelligence to conceive and put together as a poem, he was thought of as a lesser human being. His life was a concatenation of petty humiliations. He was never allowed to forget he was working-class. The very way he spoke defined him as inferior. Yet at the same time he was grateful for the opportunities work had given him. He enjoyed his skills. He liked to work with a group of men who knew what they were doing. The machines they made were the best in the world. They were the result of centuries of accumulated and applied knowledge. There was a real thrill in thinking that a press he’d help make would print newspapers in America or Australia. His life was worth something. He contributed to something important. He had a place in society and at the end of each day and each week he could hold his head high knowing he’d done his best, thinking of the excellent work, that he’d changed the world a little, and a little for the good through the discipline of serious effort. What rankled was the division between workers and management, the owners and the blokes. He vaguely understood ownership, the relation between the directors and the shareholders. Of course, it wasn’t explained to the workers. No-one tried to make it clear. It was obfuscated by ideology and secrecy and the powerful unspoken injunction that it wasn’t something for working men to bother their heads about; it was properly a matter for the high-ups, the big-wigs, the people who knew about money.  More than anything it was this sense,  this assumption ( as irrational in his view as the assumption of a universe made and ruled by god) that there was a given pecking order in which he should know his place and which he should never question that riled Karel and pushed him to little fits of temper. Why shouldn’t he know and question everything ? Who had a right to tell him what he should and shouldn’t think ? He did back-of-an-envelope calculations one lunchtime to work out the value of the machines the factory turned out each year, the amount paid to the workers, and the discrepancy. When he spoke to his workmates about the figures as they chomped on their sandwiches and read The Sun or The Daily Mirror, they kept their eyes lowered or made little grunts of acknowledgement; but when he began to warm up:     

“They’re taking the piss out of us. It’s our work makes these machines. It’s our work produces this money. And look how much we get. They could pay us five times more. We work to put money in the pockets of shareholders.”

they responded with sluggish and dismissive:

“Not as simple as that,”

or

“Sound like a commie, lad.”

or

“Want to live Russia if you think like that.”

These were the blokes he worked with, they were skilled and diligent, he liked them, but they were cowards. It broke his heart they could accept so bovinely what he thought of as their exploitation. He wanted to throw down his tools and walk out, set up his own little workshop and work on his own account so what he made he kept. But what could he do ? Something small, insignificant. To work on printing presses, to build fine, advanced machines needed a big outfit, many workers and organization. There was no return to some sentimental cottage industry and he’d be frustrated working in a converted garage turning out nuts and bolts or fiddling small parts for bigger enterprises. He loved being part of a big company which produced high quality machines which needed the contribution of hundreds of skilled workers, but why couldn’t that company be a co-operative ? Why did there have to be a division between machine and money ? Many times he’d heard the glib argument about free enterprise but there was no reason everything made in factories, every service provided by offices, couldn’t be organized co-operatively; co-operative enterprise didn’t mean the end of markets or of freedom or enterprise; on the contrary it was the way to make everyone feel engaged and to get the best out of them and it was the way to greater democracy and transparency. What was talk of free enterprise but an excuse for the rich ? The economy was founded on the right of a very few people to get very rich out of the work of a very large number of people, calling it free enterprise was like calling arranged marriage free love. Thinking these things over put him in an ugly mood and when he began to talk about them his voice grew harsh and his gestures over-insistent. He disliked himself in that mood, but what was he to do ? To think about the system he was part of brought on those feelings; and then he realised why his workmates remained like cattle: they were afraid of their own anger; it was easier to go along with things; they were like a hen-pecked husband who puts up with his shrew of a wife to avoid the upheaval of divorce. But Karel couldn’t live like that: if upheaval was necessary to be rid of injustice, then upheaval must be faced.

 

“Most of ‘em think what The Sun tells ‘em,” he said.

“Bring back The Daily Herald I say,” said Johnny.

“Bosses aren’t stupid. Mind control’s what matters most.”

“So much for democracy.”

“Think about it,” said Karel leaning forward over the table and pointing a stiff index finger, “if we had democratic media, a people’s media, owned collectively and everyone able to make their voice heard. Think how people’s minds would change.”

“Yeah. Capitalists own the media that defend capitalism. It’s medieval. They have as much control as the church in the twelfth century.”

“I know bugger all about the twelfth century,” said Karel, “but I know this: they won’t let our voice be heard, those of us who are saying the economy needs to be co-operative. They say we’re Soviets, we want dictatorship. Russia gives ‘em the excuse to claim every socialist is a Stalinist.”

“Aye, but all the same Heath is on a hiding to nothing. It’ll blow up in his face and if Wilson gets back in things’ll move bit by bit in our direction.”

“Till they find a way to stop it.”

“Problem for the Tories is they need to look like what Harold says Labour is, the natural party of government. You know, being toffs, public school and Oxbridge and all that. Looks bad if they’re stuffed by a party led by a grammar school boy.”

“He went to fuckin’ Oxford too.”

“Aye. but Frank Cousins didn’t. If they lose next time it looks bad for ‘em. Labour will have won three out of the last four elections. Keep closing the gap between the rich and the rest and the Tories’ll find it hard to push their policies.”

“Blokes I work with will vote Tory if they cut taxes.”

“Think so ?”

“Fuckin’ know so. Wage is what they work for. More in the packet each week and they’re happy.”

“They want schools for their kids and hospitals though don’t they ?”

“Think those are secure. Who’s gonna dare take ‘em away ? That’s the fuckin’ problem Johnny, they think they can have it both ways: welfare State and tax cuts. They read The Sun, it addles their brains.”

“All the same, people won’t vote for their impoverishment in the long term.”

“I know, but they’ll vote for some other poor bugger’s. That’s what’ll happen, Johnny. Labour’ll be a victim of its own success. Folk get better off they’ll vote with their self-interest. There’ll be the super-rich, a bulge in the middle and the poor bastards at the bottom’ll get it in the neck.”

“Think so ?”

Nadia came into the kitchen with her friend who was about to leave. For a few minutes, Johnny had almost forgotten she was in the house.

“Better be goin’ too,” he said.

The girls went out of the back door and he followed them down the drive. The friend was quickly away. He called goodnight to her.

“ ‘Night,” said Nadia.

“Your friend got far to go ?”

“No. Be home in two minutes.”

“All right on her own ?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Wouldn’t like her to get jumped ten yards from her front door.”

“She’s fierce. She can fight like a terrier.”

“What’s her name ?”

“Angela.”

“Should be Boadicea.”

“Who’s she ?”

“ Warrior.”

“One o’ those all right.”

“Should join the army.”

“Can’t stand discipline. Like me.”

“Never had you down as a rebel.”

“No, not a rebel.” She paused, looking round her at nothing in particular. “I just get bored easily.”

“With what ?”

“Everything.”

“Need variety.”

“I do.”

“’appen that job’s not good for you.”

He found himself lapsing into the street vernacular because he was aware his speech had changed since his days at school. The masters at the grammar use to correct him for saying summat and nowt and aye and getten. His granddad still said champion as the highest form of praise and would ask him ‘ast getten bread for me lad ? He was at home with the ease and warmth of common speech and he liked the way it created a barrier between the culture of the terraces and the back to backs and the posh culture of the BBC, the television and everything that was thought of as superior and educated; but he was aware that the way he talked was changing as he worked hard at his studies. It was impossible to think through the sentences and paragraphs of his essays by running his grandad’s kind of speech through his head. By its nature it was a limited way of talking: it was meant for the street, the pub, the factory, the docks, the kitchen table and the football crowd, but it didn’t have the reach to embrace subtle and difficult ideas and discriminations. When the idea occurred to him he wondered if he was becoming a snob. He had to work the ideas through in a painful little struggle till he realised it was nothing to do with snobbery. He was right. His grandad’s very way of talking had been formed by his lack of opportunities. He’d left school at twelve and gone to work in the cotton mill. His place in life was decided for him by the economic system. Men like him, born in the back streets of northern industrial towns and cities didn’t go to university, they didn’t have jobs which required them to command others by the use of their tongues. They were expected to live narrow, stupid lives and the way they spoke reflected it. Was that true of accent too ? Was his grandad’s accent redolent of stupidity while the mouth-full-of-pebble voices of the Third Programme exuded intelligence ? The notion made him angry. Yet he couldn’t see how it worked. How did accent get ingrained and why did different accents entail differing assumptions ? It was one of those questions he didn’t have the means to answer but which troubled his brain and made him anxious for more education.

“Is any job ?”

“Karel’s.”

“Just likes playing with machines. Not work for ‘im. He’d do it anyway.”

“Kind o’ work you want.”

“Yeah. But they won’t pay me to drink rum and black.”

“Get yourself some qualifications.”

“Too lazy.”

“Lazy and bored all the time ?”

She laughed.

“Not entirely. I have my moments.”

They were standing by the brick gatepost and the open double gates in the light thrown by the street lamp. She was softening to him and making those barely discernible changes of demeanour and expression which women can turn on instinctively; tiny signals which men respond to without knowing it and which have them stepping over a cliff edge they didn’t see coming and falling helplessly either to plunge in the deep, warm waves below or to be crushed on the sharp, dark rocks, older than humanity by millennia, which wait with malicious patience century upon century to perform their unintentioned task of destruction. She was suddenly so overwhelmingly beautiful in his eyes he felt he should take her hands and kiss her, but his timidity held him back. It was the reverse side of his naïve enthusiasm, his willingness to believe the best of the world and of others. His cynicism oozed from every pore like sweat from a parched man in the desert leaving him with only the thirst as insistent as toothache. It was one of those pure moments which arrive rarely in life and which register on our minds with a vivid permanence granted to hardly any memory, like seeing your child born or your mother die. The experience of no longer being in control yet being calm and happy was exquisite.

“You’ve grown up, Nadia,” he said without thinking and put his hand on her waist.

“Have I ?”

She didn’t resist so he knew he dared kiss her. It was a dry, gentle kiss. He pulled her to him. The pressure of her breasts and her warmth against him were lovely. Their lips were conjoined for a thousand years.

“ Better go in.”

“It’s nice out here.”

“ Need my beauty sleep.”

“Beautiful enough.”

“Give me a ring.”

“Tomorrow ?”

“If you like.”

How much room there is for misunderstanding between an offer and its reception even in the least essential of relationships; when our happiness is at stake, we are prone to attribute a fatal significance to the slightest apparent openness or kindness. For Johnny, the invitation was the opening of a door which might admit him to his fate; it provided a lifelong vista and the possibility of certainty of direction. How important it was to have that certainty. Life was a limp and miserable business if your actions were controlled by others. Going through the motions wasn’t living, it was existing like a cow in a stall: put out to graze, herded for milking, presented to the bull when a calf was needed. Only when you found what you knew was yours, only when your nerves were alight with anticipation and you knew no effort was too great in the fulfilment of this destiny was life worth something. He’d found literature. As long as he lived it would provide him with fascination and passion. It wasn’t a hobby. It was genuinely fatal. Now perhaps Nadia would be the same. Maybe she was to be for him emotionally and physically what poems, novels and plays were intellectually. He was too inexperienced for a voice of restraint to sound in his head, too generous in his feeling to impute anything ambivalent to Nadia. Had he known that as she went to bed she was thinking of ways to avoid answering the phone, that for her the if you like represented a shifting of all responsibility to him and a refusal of responsibility on her part; that she felt she’d made it clear he could ring tomorrow if he wanted to but she didn’t guarantee to be in, nor to show any interest if she was, he would have shut down his surging feelings, turned off his exorbitant expectations, and consigned her phone number to the darkest corner of forgetfulness.

In the first week at college, Hollis had given him back a set of translated sentences covered in red ink with the comment at the bottom in a firm, clear hand: A long stony road ahead.  Johnny was shocked by the words, but when he looked through his mistakes, adjusted his feelings: mostly they were petty, genders or adjectival agreements. The serious mistakes were with forms of the verb: he’d made the frequent faux pas of writing disez rather than dites. But he knew this was because he’d been away from the subject for four years. There was a myriad of little rules he had to bring to the forefront of his mind in order to get everything right, and Hollis marked everything wrong which contained a mistake: a sentence which lacked an accent got a cross, so Johnny scored only four out of fifteen. It was disheartening but he knew Hollis was wrong: the road wouldn’t be long and stony; he would work like an ant to get these thing right. Every spare minute he would open the grammar book. Everything he didn’t understand he would struggle with till it was fixed in his brain. He vowed to himself he would turn his performance round in a matter of weeks. Little by little it had come into focus. He sat with the dictionary and the grammar beside him whenever he worked at translation or writing and checked and re-checked every verb, every gender, till his mistakes began to become minimal, his marks lifted and he was scoring seventeen out twenty or nine out of twelve. It still annoyed him that he couldn’t eliminate errors altogether. Now and again he scored eighteen or nineteen out of twenty which reminded him of his grammar school days when he’d hit ten out of ten or twenty out of twenty again and again with barely any effort. He realised he’d been a fool to let his grasp slip but his discomfort in the system had overcome his enjoyment of success. And then his parents didn’t seize the nature of learning. His father encouraged him gently, but foreign languages made him nervous. During his time in Italy as a serviceman he’d tried to come to terms with the language, but had got no further than a few basics. His mother rejected such things. “I’m too Lancashire,” she’d say in one of those typically defeating displays of self-obsession which disappointed her children so often. Maybe if they’d understood and really got behind him it would have made a difference. Then there were the masters at the grammar who looked down on him because he came from the mean streets and spoke common; they had ways of letting the working-class lads know they didn’t really belong; some of them saw the 1944 Act as regressive and were nostalgic for the years when only boys whose parents had money came through the gates. It was a pity these things had got in his way and separated him from studying language which was as much fun to him as playing tennis. It was hard work but like all hard work in pursuit of a desired, rational end, greatly enjoyable. Now he had the hammer in his hands and he was determined to strike well.

“You’ll ruin your eyes on those books,” his mother would say, and a little current of humiliation would run through him . The only thing she would be happy for him to read was the Bible. She’d thrown out his copy of Lady Chatterley, saying there was no place for it in a house with children. Her adherence to ignorance was terrible. It made him feel almost that his learning was a betrayal. But he felt sorry for her. He softened his feeling at the thought of the wicked restrictions of her life. It was criminal that born in 1922 she should have gone to a school which inflicted religion as revealed truth but never said a word about Darwin. What kind of education was that ? Darwin was as important a scientist as Newton or Einstein. It was not merely stupid it was vicious to deny children access to the best the human mind had produced; and without it, what happened ? His mother’s mind was a source of shame to him.  He was patient and kind to her but it was difficult to live with her faith in revealed truth. Somehow, the idea which had been instilled in her as a child that the Bible told the entire truth of the universe, that there was nothing more to discover, or no need for anything beyond it, led to her believing that whatever went through her head must be true; as if she was some recipient of god’s wisdom. There was an incident when Billy was doing some homework and asked his mother what the human body was made up of.

“Well, there’s the skeleton.That’s your bones. Then there’s your organs.Your heart and liver and so on. Then there’s muscle and flesh and fat and skin.”

Johnny, who was reading in the corner chipped in:

“Muscle and flesh are the same thing.”

“Don’t be stupid,” she said.

Billy looked at his elder brother, then at his mother. Johnny saw the confusion on his face and for a moment thought he should let it pass, but the thought of the lad going to school with nonsense in his book made him go on.

“Well, what’s flesh ?”

“It’s what we eat. When you eat beef, you’re eating the flesh of the cow. When you eat pork you’re eating the flesh of the pig.”

“That’s muscle, mum. That’s why lamb is more tender than mutton.”

“Honestly,” she said, sitting up straight in that attitude of offended righteousness she always assumed when she thought the devil was doing his work nearby, “he’d swear black’s white. It’s flesh. That’s what we eat. Muscle is muscle and flesh is flesh.”

Johnny looked at Billy and wished his mother hadn’t been there. Why hadn’t he just asked him? He could have opened the encyclopaedia and shown him. It was awful the child should be caught between his desire to get the work right and his mother’s insistent, woeful ignorance.

“So what is flesh ?”

“What d’you mean what is it ?”

“Muscle lets us move. We lay down fat as a way of storing energy. What’s flesh ?”

“I’m not talking to you, Johnny,” she said in a little outburst of temper. “You’re as bad as your father when you’ve got an idea in your head. Write it down, Billy. Flesh.”

The boy looked at his brother for guidance. Johnny smiled then lowered his eyes to his poetry. The child wrote what his mother had told him. She put on her glasses, tucked her feet underneath her and picked up the local paper.  Johnny wanted to leave the room but he pretended to be intent on his book. Once more he felt inordinately sorry for his mother. She wasn’t a stupid woman by nature, if she’d had the education he’d had she would be much more intelligent. Had she sat in Whiplash Wilson’s biology lessons, she’d have known the basics of human anatomy; but her intelligence had been denied. Society had deliberately made her stupid. He was reading an anthology of English poetry from Chaucer to the present day and was at that moment working through a handful of poems by Donne. Centuries of high intellectual effort preceded his mother’s birth; there were libraries full of learning; yet what had been forced upon her was a fairy-tale simplicity in which the world was made in a week and the devil went round like a roaring lion trying to tempt dutiful Christians into sin. It had left her immature and confused. Fear of punishment ate away at her confidence while expectation of reward swelled her arrogance. At times he feared for her sanity. And wasn’t it the verge of madness to cling to a conviction which had no basis in evidence or hard thinking ? Where had the idea of flesh as something other than muscle come from ? It was simply that she didn’t know the first thing about biology. She wouldn’t have been able to explain the circulation of the blood or the structure of the heart. There was nothing wrong with. There were millions of people who lived perfectly sensible lives who wouldn’t have been able to either. The problem was believing you knew when you didn’t. Of course, her ignorance was a source of shame to her to. She’d left school at thirteen. She’d never tried algebra or trigonometry. He wondered why she didn’t respond to that shame by working to educate herself; the library was free; there were night school courses in all kinds of subjects. Then it struck him she didn’t have the confidence; she didn’t feel it was her right; somehow she had been left with the conviction that people like her didn’t deserve an education. Johnny was riled at the idea. He put his book aside quietly.

“Fancy a walk to the park, scruffy ?” he said to Billy

“Gotta do my work.”

Johnny walked quickly to try to calm himself. It wasn’t right to be angry at his mother. She was as she was because society had formed her. He despised the thought of the narrow-minded teachers who’d battered religion into her, taught the basics of reading and arithmetic and left her to flounder. He thought of himself reading Hamlet and Camus and Alexander Pope, picking up on existentialist ideas, reading Lawrence and Kafka and John Skelton in his spare time. Why shouldn’t his mother read those things ? Why did she have a sentimental view of Dickens who’d been read to her while she sat stiff-backed with folded arms in school ? Wasn’t it because she adhered to what the culture dictated ? Wasn’t it that the culture had told her that working-class girls like her from the back streets of Manchester shouldn’t get education ? But what was life without education ? It was mindless. He recalled a phrase from Lawrence: something about Hardy’s characters not being concerned with money but with coming into being.  Wasn’t that it ? Didn’t you need a mind to come into being and didn’t that require some kind of education ? His head and his heart were sore with the trouble and grief of these questions. He walked on rapidly and found himself in the woods behind the grammar school. He remembered Wilson asking him in class:

“What’s a tree made of, Colquhoun ?”

“Wood, sir.”

“You’re a genius, lad. And what’s wood made of ?”

Wasn’t the bafflement before that question what education was all about ? Didn’t his mother fear that bafflement and fight it with conviction and arrogance? How odd it was to know someone to be so flawed and yet to love them. 

 

All day he thought about Nadia. She wasn’t a distraction from his work but a complement. On his way home he went into a phone box and rang her. It was Nadia herself who answered:

“Hi, it’s Johnny.”

“Oh,” she said. “I didn’t think you’d ring.”

He was at a loss. He asked her what she’d been doing. She was uncommunicative and bored. The receiver weighed like lead in his hand. He tried three or four times to say something amusing to get her to respond. He feared putting the receiver down. Finally he said:

“See you ‘round.”

“Yeah.”

When he went into the booth he was the happiest man alive. Two minutes later he felt he had no right to be on earth. How odd it was that a few words from another person could so disrupt our feeling that in no time at all we could pass from joy to misery. It made him realize how unstable everything was. Apparently, the world was steady: the cars still passed on the road in front of him, people were going in and out of the post office, a child was riding his bike along the pavement with a Strawberry Mivvi in his hand, the tops of the elms in the garden opposite were swaying in the breeze; but his feeling about all this had changed completely because his feeling about himself had changed. He was easy-going and carefree by nature. He found it easy to be happy. Wasn’t that true ? Yet wasn’t it just as true that his mother could make him suddenly miserable by one of her insensitive interventions ? Didn’t she have a horrible blind-spot which allowed her to ignore how what she said might touch other people’s feelings ? Was that the case with Nadia ? Had she deliberately wanted to make him miserable ? He couldn’t believe it. He walked away from the phone booth with no sense of where he was going. He could go home but it would be terrible to be in the house and unable to think of anything but that phrase, I didn’t think you’d ring: it would be atrocious to have Nadia repeating it in his head. He could hear her voice clearly and precisely. How strange that was too that when we want to summon up someone’s voice or exactly how they look, we can find it difficult, but when those things are a torment to us, they inflict themselves on our minds with cruel vividness. But did she want to hurt him ? Yes, in so far as she was trying to put him off and that impossible without disappointing him; no, in so far as had she known some other way to do it, she would surely have chosen it. But was that so ? Maybe there was satisfaction in the petty humiliation. What puzzled him most and angered him to the point of madness was why she’d encouraged him; it would have been easy to give him no encouragement and he wasn’t so stupid he wouldn’t take a hint. Oh, it was a triviality. Why had he taken her invitation seriously ? Was it his fault ? Should he have remained cool. As a matter of fact, should he have failed to ring her just to show he knew how to play this game ? But the idea jarred. He didn’t like to let his friends down. If he made an arrangement he stuck to it. Didn’t he expect the same from his friends ? Didn’t he avoid people who were unreliable ? Wasn’t failing to live up to your own expectations in these things the short route to unhappiness ? And did she have to say that ? She could have been honest and straight. She could have said: I’m sorry, Johnny but I’ve changed my mind. I don’t like to disappoint you but I’m afraid I don’t want to see you. Why would he have felt better ? Because she’d have been taking responsibility. As it was, she’d humiliated him by suggesting he’d misunderstood. He’d taken her seriously when she asked him to ring. She was suggesting that was foolish. Part of him wanted to go back to the booth, ring her and tell her she was in the wrong. But the very thought of talking to her made him tense and bitter. Yet at the same time, another part of him wanted to plead with her. Was that what she wanted ? Did she want him to run after her like a dog after a bitch on heat ? Did she want him to beg, to demean himself ? It was all too ridiculous. Then there welled up the memory of her beauty, her soft lips, her sweet voice. He had no chance of keeping his disgust and outrage alive in the face of his delight in her young femininity. He found himself walking by the river. Was this it ? Was this what relations with women were going to be like ? He was overcome by a powerful desire to see Christine. There’d never been this kind of ambiguity with her. But then, it’d gone sour. Even Christine, who he loved and who was his best friend, wanted to have no more to do with him. It was utterly terrible. He wished he could renounce women. Why couldn’t he ? Why couldn’t he turn to his books, work and work, write and write and forget having anything to do with women ? But that was like resolving never to eat fruit again, or never to pick up a tennis racquet, only much, much worse. He had no control over what impelled him towards women. It was as automatic as his heartbeat. That was how life worked wasn’t it ? That was the truth of our life. We didn’t choose to be alive either as individuals or as a species. We were made and driven by forces we didn’t control or understand. But if we worked with them, if we accepted what we are, life would throw up happiness. If we tried to be more or other, misery came down like rain in Salford. At least he could resolve to have no more to do with Nadia. But it was a resolve. It went heavily against his desire. If only he could have genuinely not have wanted any more to do with her. Why did he ? Because she was beautiful ? No, he couldn’t help feeling he knew her mind better than she did. He was convinced she wanted to see him. So what held her back ? There was some horrible ambivalence in her mind. If only he could help her through it. But then he revolted against the idea. He had to take her at face value. It was arrogance to think he could see into her motivation. He must act on what she said and she said she didn’t think he’d ring. He was feeling hungry but his legs were still full of energy. He wanted to be tired so he could go home fall asleep. He increased his pace. He was ust passing under the railway bridge at the entrance to the park when a gang of lads appeared. They were about age for the most part, though at the head of them was a tall, broad bloke with shoulder length hair who looked twenty-five or so. As Johnny passed them their leader called out:

“Yeah, he’s a fuckin’ queer all right.”

Johnny looked over his shoulder and the big bloke was standing facing him, his legs planted wide apart, while the others hovered near. It was one of those stupid events which are best ignored, but it caught him at a bad moment and he had a sudden impulse to shout back and run. He was confident he could outrun them all and he knew the park well. But he mastered his anger, turned and walked on while the insults echoed beneath the bridge:

“Fuckin’ pansy ! Goin’ to meet yer boyfriend.”

His anger hurt his chest and made him clench his teeth. What pleasure could there be in calling insults at a stranger ? What perversity of human nature made people behave in such crass ways ? He tried to feel superior and justified, but part of him wished he was a hard-case, hard enough to turn round, walk confidently up to the big bloke, nut him and watch him fall. But would it make him feel better ? No. He would feel only worse at the thought of inflicting injury on someone. Life was impossible, at least when in the space of an hour you had to talk to Nadia and encounter a gang of idiots.  

V

 

Kate Colquhoun went into hospital. She had a malign tumour in her abdomen and they had to operate.

“Well, Billy,” wailed his mother, “it’s a terrible thing to lose your sister, but God is good.”

The boy started crying. Johnny put his arm round him and pulled him next to him on the sofa.

“She’s not going to die, mum,” he said.

“How do you know, Johnny ? How do you know ?”

“She’s young. They know what they’re doing. They’ll cut it out and she’ll be fine.”

“You read in the paper every day of people dying of cancer.”

“Aye, and most of ‘em are seventy-five. She’ll recover. We’ve not seen the last of her ugly gob yet, Billy.”

“Don’t talk like that !” snapped his mother.

“Well, don’t upset the boy.”

“I’m just telling the truth.”

“You don’t know what’ll happen.”

“I have a feeling.”

“Forget your feelings and listen to the doctors.”

“There’s more to it than the doctors know. If it’s god’s will…”

Billy was sobbing onto Johnny’s shirt.

 

 


EUNUCHS DON’T HAVE BABIES.

 

Angela Tiplady was convinced by The Female Eunuch : marriage was a trap.  All the same she felt she should find a husband. The wild dreams of her early twenties: success, money, drugs, live-in lovers, a life lived above the boredom of the majority, had left her sharing a house with a drug dealer, a manic depressive who sat at home all day smoking dope and playing chess against himself ,and a second-hand car dealer who had spent six months in prison for fraud. She worked as a para-legal in a law centre where the solicitors smoked spliffs, there was pay parity and the clients were mostly living in a hell of poverty and hopelessness. On her thirtieth birthday she went out for a meal with these friends, got very drunk and more stoned and was overcome by the horrible sense that life was speeding by as she stood still. Above all, this feeling gathered itself into a knot of horror at the thought of childlessness. It was true, Germaine Greer had written that women should forgo motherhood. Weren’t Angela’s two abortions testimony to her efforts to live as a liberated woman ? All the same, the horrible witch of barrenness followed her everywhere, black-cloaked, cackling, old, repulsive. She couldn’t see a baby without being assailed by a sense of injustice. The world was denying her biological rights. How had this come about ? It made her panic. She reached for the bottle and the spliff. She saw women ten years younger pushing prams. A decade had gone so quickly. The next ten could disappear in the same way. The idea of having her first baby at forty was out of the question. She needed sperm.  Not just any sperm. She wanted a lovely baby, an intelligent child. She needed a man who could make the kind of baby she would be proud of. But a man wasn’t a husband. She could be a single mother. Then the awful thought of domestic responsibility descended like an iron collar. No ! She must have her career. She must qualify in law. She must earn a big salary. She needed a man to take on the domestic chores.

In this frame of mind Angela went home one weekend to her mother, her step-father and her younger half-brother. She made these trips away from London under the weight of oppressive duty. Her mother exerted a magnet pull. She could never feel she had the right to her independent life in the capital. Hadn’t they bought her a car as a bribe to make her drive home regularly ? The people she used to know in the little town had moved on or were married. She would have to eat interminable meals and watch the television and hope her step-father didn’t try to get his hands on her. When she arrived at nine on Friday evening, the big table was laid in the dining kitchen. Her mother was in her dishes and her step-father dutifully helping. She went through to her half-brother’s bedroom. There was the usual stale odour. He was playing games on his computer. He was a boy with few friends, badly bullied by his father. His mother had an unspoken way of discouraging disloyalty. There was a quiet murderous violence which rose into her eyes at what she disapproved of. She expected her children to put her first. Jonathan had always feared breaking away from her so his relations with other children were odd. He couldn’t take pleasure in their company. He expected them to conform to his needs. He spent a lot of time with his videos. 

“Hi Jonathan !”

“Hi Angela !”

Jonathan was the result of a hole-and-corner affair between Rita and Stan who was one of those men who have to try to seduce every woman they meet; but an unattached woman was more than potential for seduction: she was to be preyed on. It was a kind of insult that a woman wasn’t being made use of. When he met Rita she’d been a widow for seven years. Desperate after the death of her first husband in a car crash she had a few discreet liaisons with unsuitable men. Apart from one they were platonic: she enjoyed the company, liked walking into the Rosebud on a Saturday night on the arm of a man in a nice suit with his hair well-combed. She’d broken off with Arthur when she found he was married, though she liked him. He was a gentleman and had a nice Jag. It was a relief to have sex again too. When she met Stan she’d been celibate for nearly four years. He was slender and cocky. His thick dark hair was brushed back from his sloping forehead and a pencil-line moustache followed the contours of his top lip. He smoked heavily and drank every day. His boast was that he could eliminate ten pints and still drive home.

“Why should I have to blow into a breathalyser ?” he said.

“Well, yes,” said Rita.

“It’s my freedom. If I want to drink and drive it’s my choice. I can drive perfectly well after ten pints.”

“Yes,” said Rita.

“Mussolini would never have introduced breathalysers.”

“No,” said Rita.

“That’s the trouble with this country. The freedom of the individual counts for nothing.”

“Well, yes,” said Rita.

Stan drove a van for an electrical supplier. He had three sons from his first marriage which had ended when his wife found him in bed with her sister. He met Rita at a dance, showed her what he thought was his expert quick-step and didn’t apologise when he stepped on her toes. At ten thirty he led her into an alleyway lit at one end by a dim lamp . Up against the wall he kissed her ferociously and pushed his hand up her skirt. She was glad of the attention but when he dragged down her knickers and began to unfasten his trousers she protested.

“Not here. Not here, Stanley.”

“But I’ve got a big hard-on now,” he said.

He was strong and pressed himself against her and shoved his fingers inside her.

“We can go back to my house,” she lied.

“I can’t  wait that long.”

His breath was beer. He grabbed her under her thighs and jabbed his erection into her. After that she tried to avoid meeting him where he might take hurried advantage. She encouraged him to come to her house and meet her children. He resisted. But the job was done.

“I’m pregnant, Stan.”

“How do you know it’s mine ?”

“What d’you mean, how do I know it’s yours ? It’s yours !”

It was the first time he’d heard the note of petulant intimidation in her voice or seen the look of murderousness in her eyes, but he would see and hear them much more. He didn’t want to marry her but his belief in convention overcame all his feelings. The alternative was a termination and he didn’t believe in that. Women were meant to have children and if they were pregnant, they must accept the fact. He steeled himself. He would have to do what had to be done; but when he visited her house for the first time, his thinking began to change. Rita was an only child. Her mother, a somewhat demented old woman who had worked all her life packing chocolates and who took the Bible literally, lived with her. She was one of those neurotically pernickety women who can’t see a crumb on the carpet without dashing for the vacuum. As soon as he put down his cup she whisked it away. He saw the advantage at once. Rita’s aunt, the old woman’s elder sister, believed she was related to the royal family. She married a builder who set himself up in business and made a little fortune cornering Catholic contracts: he built schools, repaired churches, added community centres, and once he had the capital, moved into speculative housing which made him rich enough for her to fully indulge her aristocratic fantasies. She refused to sully her hands with domestic tasks, except cooking, which she saw as a high-class accomplishment. She would spend six hours in the kitchen to produce cottage pie and rice pudding. Her husband didn’t complain: he thrived on plain, plentiful food. Nor did his money attenuate his working man’s habits: he drank copiously, smoked forty a day, ate steak pudding and chips late at night and dropped dead of a heart attack at fifty-one. For the next fifteen years the crazy aunt went through his fortune as if every pound spent would be replaced by two. When she herself died of a stroke, the hundreds of thousands had dwindled, but all the same, the legacy came to Rita: a house worth forty-thousand and seventy-seven thousand in cash. She bought a four-bedroomed dormer with a big garden, filled it with the best furniture, went on a Caribbean cruise with a friend from church, and continued the family tradition of treating money as if it grew like weeds on wasteland. All the same, she still had tens of thousands in the bank and the house was better than any Stan had ever lived in. He could sell his little terrace, invest the funds, move in here and be a kept man. Rita noticed the change. He would do what she asked. She wanted to marry in church but the priest refused because Dan was divorced. Outraged, she made do with the registry office and stopped going to Mass. Soon they were settled. She went off to her job in the tax office every morning. He lorded it at home. Rita’s three children learned to live in fear of him. The boys got a cuff if he was in a bad mood and Angela had to fit a lock to her bedroom door. One morning, when the old woman annoyed him by taking his plate before he’d finished, he pushed her and she fell. She said nothing to Rita but the children knew.

When Jonathan was born, it fell to Stan to take care of him. At first, he was quite fond of the boy, thinking he might turn out like himself. He could make a man of him. Take him drinking. Get him interested in girls. Explain why immigrants should be sent home. But little by little it became clear the child was of a different stamp: he was quiet and played on his own; when he went to school he didn’t fight; he had no interest in engines or machines but liked to make patterns with felt or to paint pictures of the flowers in the garden. Stan concluded it came from his wife’s side and enjoyed belittling and clipping the lad who grew up cowed and didn’t make friends easily.

In spite of her disdain for her step father and her dismay at her mother’s witlessness, Angela was tied to her family. The thought of definitively leaving it behind by starting a family of her own filled her with horror. She felt she had to protect her mother and her little half-brother, though he wasn’t little any more: six feet two and fourteen stone he could have floored Stan effortlessly. Laziness and rich food had made the older man fat and slow. Each day he filled his huge pot belly with bacon, sausages, fried egg, fried bread, mushrooms, tomatoes, toast and marmalade, chocolate digestives at eleven, burger and chips at one, beef, lamb, pork, chicken, mashed potatoes, roast potatoes, saute potatoes, duchess potatoes, peas, carrots, broccoli, sprouts, beetroot, gravy, queen of puddings, bread and butter pudding, spotted dick, rice pudding, sticky toffee pudding, shortbread, fruit cake, Victoria sponge, custard creams, Jaffa cakes, red wine, white wine or beer for dinner and for supper ham sandwiches, chicken sandwiches, beef sandwiches, pork pies, pickles, and without fail a side plate of chocolate fingers and a big mug of sweet tea.  He could barely bend down to pick weeds in the garden, and one Christmas when he went to climb the ladder to fix trimmings over the door, found his belly hit the rungs and Jonathan had to do it for him.

“I never thought I’d see the day I couldn’t climb a step ladder,” he said.

“You’re getting old, dad,” said the lad going back to his televison.

“Don’t be so bloody cheeky,” and the father lashed out at the teenager’s head.

But the youngster danced away.

“Too fat for that now, dad !”

Stan’s sex life was reduced to Rita stimulating him by hand once or twice a week. His girth was so great and Rita so slight he couldn’t get between her legs any more. She’d begun to get stiff in her joints and spreading her knees wide was uncomfortable. So he lay there while she toyed with his erection for quarter of an hour before vigorously working her little fist up and down to make him spurt. He greatly regretted his days of seduction. He was still full of zest. It was Rita who caused the problem. But his chances were few. He didn’t work anymore and Rita wouldn’t let him out of the house alone. She controlled him with food. In the first days of their marriage, he’d suggest walking down to the pub on Saturday evening, but she rose up:

“You’re not going down there on your own ! Have you seen the riff-raff spilling out at closing time ?”

He didn’t dare controvert her because he found her bullying, vicious temperament too much for him. She went mercilessly for his nerves. She would say anything to win an argument and could keep going for hours.

“You’re always heading off on your own.”

“On my own ? I never get out of the door on my own.”

“Yes you do.”

“When ?”

“All the time.”

“Give me an example.”

“I don’t give examples to you or anyone else.”

“But what you say is rubbish.”

“What you say is rubbish. You are rubbish.”

“What do you mean I’m rubbish ?”

“I mean what I say.”

“I’m just saying I’ll go to the pub for a pint. What’s wrong with that ?”

“You’ll not get in when you come back.”

“Why not ?”

“Because I say so.”

And on it went for hours. Nor was she averse to physical violence. He questioned how much she was spending on clothes and she swung round with the potato masher and clunked him on the side of the head. Humiliated and constrained he prowled his little territory like a bear but any woman who came through the door was potential and Rita, as naïve as she was vicious, invited her work-mate, Kathleen. She was a spinster, one of those women who hold back from marriage in the hope of encountering a very special man only to find the chances have passed. Like Rita’s aunt she had airs and graces, tried to “improve” her accent, and always dressed as if she was on the way to a Buckingham Palace garden party. Stan, with his crude, predatory instinct saw through her posturing and when he was left alone with her in the garden while Rita went to make a pot of tea, grabbed her backside and roughly pulled her to him. She made no protest so he shoved his hand inside her blouse, ripping off one of the little pearl buttons. When Rita dozed off in the armchair after dinner he took Kathleen into the bathroom, dragged her clothes off, rested his vast belly on her bare arse, and came from behind as she steadied herself against the washbasin. After that she became a more regular visitor, always prim and smiling her correct little smile as she readily agreed with Stan and Rita about the unions, immigrants and the Labour Party.

Angela was complaisant to her step-father for the sake of her mother. He made no passes at her any more, but he ogled her breasts and put his thick, heavy arm around her waist so she had to wriggle away. When she was twelve or thirteen and he’d chased her round the house he’d sneered at her threat to tell her mother. She knew he was right: her mother was so besotted with the idea of herself as a wife, she wouldn’t have listened. The evidence, after all was as clear as it could be. She was married to a sexual brute but her need for respectability overcame all else. So long as she could present the appearance of marital normality, she wouldn’t have objected if she’d found Stan having sex with the neighbours’ dog.

On Saturday morning, Angela ate the lorry driver’s breakfast her mother put in front of her. She usually had no more than a grapefruit and some cereal or a slice of toast. The sight of the food made her almost nauseous, but she forced herself because she thought she should; because her mother had gone to the trouble and afterwards, slouched on the sofa watching children’s programmes, she experienced that painful overfullness she knew so well from her mother’s cooking. Bored around the house she took Jonathan into town in the afternoon: he wanted to browse in the electronic games shop; she walked round  hoping to bump into someone she knew, had a cup of coffee and carrot cake in British Home Stores and, dreading the evening, was on her way to meet her brother when cutting through Marks and Spencer she bumped into Dave Quilliam buying underpants.

“Hello !” she said drawing her head into her shoulders in that making-herself-small gesture she always used when she wanted to ingratiate herself.

“Hi,” he said, holding out the blue underpants to the assistant. “Home for the weekend ?”

“Yeeees,” she said, tilting her head, smiling and twisting her body in a curious effort of self-effacement.

He took the bag from the shop-girl.

 

“Just buying myself some underpants,” he said, holding his trophy aloft.

“So I see,” she laughed.

“How are things ?”

“Okay. Okay.”

“Still in London, then ?”

“Yes, still there. What about you ?”

“Teaching,” he said.

“Really ?”

“Yeah. For my sins. Don’t know how I ended up doing it really. Still, keeps me off the streets. What  you doing ?”

“Oh, got a temporary job.  Going to qualify as a human rights lawyer.”

“That’s good.”

“ Just going to meet my little brother. He’s in the video shop.”

“Staying with your parents ?”

“Yes. Pretty boring.”

“I guess.”

“ You living at home ?”

“No. My own house.”

“Oh ! Whereabouts ?”

“By the river. Little terrace place.”

“ Like it down there,” she said. “Nice and quiet.”

“Yeah. Suits me.”

“Still active in politics ?”

“Oh, do a bit.  Labour Party. Amnesty. CND. Same as ever. Pushing the same water uphill.”

She had the feeling he was ready to be on his way so needed to keep him . What she said didn’t matter. She began to talk about her parents’ house and how they’d had an extension; what did matter was that she smiled and shrank and made herself appear sweet, willing and available. Quilliam was five years older. She’d met him when she was eighteen and he was a long-haired, articulate, handsome, radical student home for the vacation. He was friendly with some of the Catholic boys in her circle so their paths crossed and once she found herself in someone’s living-room after midnight listening to Blood On The Tracks, drinking cheap read wine while Quilliam took on the conservative arguments of the middle-class lads who’d been educated in snobbery and obedience at the Catholic College. They all lived in Hartingham, a suburb which had grown out of the original village since the end of the nineteenth century but whose development had taken off between the wars. There were avenues and groves of detached and semi detached places with big gardens and spacious garages and a good percentage of professionals and business folk who voted Tory, stuck their noses in the air, went into town to earn their living or buy their furniture but wanted nothing to do with its people who worked in the factories and shops and lived in the endless, treeless streets of little terraces. Quilliam didn’t share their push-pull, reactionary views because he’d come from the town. His family were all skilled working men: joiners, electricians, mechanics, but here and there the genes threw up a brainbox like him and his cousins who were a doctor and a professor of physics. She liked him because he put clearly and simply all the arguments against her parents’ idiotic racism and prejudice; but though this was what she thought she liked most about him, she was fatally attracted by his good looks and his free and easy ways. He was one of those people you couldn’t imagine being unwelcoming to anyone. She was struck by his politeness, which made her giggle, and she compared him to her step-father whose ego was as swollen as his belly and whose deepest thoughts were lifted from a Daily Mail editorial. Quilliam said things like: “Well, to exist is to engage the destinies of others.” Goosebumps appeared on her arms and the hairs stood up on the back of her neck. She would have liked him as a lover because he would have been courteous and obliging and she could have taken him home to annoy her parents. But the idea of a husband was at that time a long way from her mind. All the same she got engaged during her A Level year. It eased the tension and made her briefly the centre of attention. Once the exams were over she gave the boy his ring back and giggled at his surprise.

Now her feelings were very different. She’d been talking to Quilliam in Marks and Spencer for two minutes and already she saw herself married and pregnant. The problem was domestic burdens. Though she’d rejected the radical feminist view that having children was a form of patriarchal oppression, she cleaved to the notion that women must reject the demeaning, low-level drudgery of the home; an intellectual position which coincided happily with her inveterate untidiness and squeamishness about physical reality. In her shared house, she never cleaned the bathroom. The thought of wielding that brush in the toilet bowl almost made her vomit. So if she found it too disgusting, she would complain to one of the men or take a bullying tone with the mentally feeble doped-up chess player:

“Can you clean the toilet, please? It’s disgusting.”

“Why can’t you do it ?”

“Because I can’t. Go and do it now. I need to use it.”

“Why me ?”

“Because I say so. Go and do it.”

And whether from a befuddled sense of chivalry or because he couldn’t stand the unpleasantness, he would drag his skinny frame upstairs and squirt and scrub till the enamel gleamed.

The terrible thought was at the back of her mind that if Quilliam took his polite leave, she might never see him again. After all, it was years and this kind of coincidence never arose when you most wanted it. He wasn’t going to ask her unless she came across as exceptionally glad to see him, interested in him, feminine, charming and sweet-natured. She would have liked to order him to ask her out, like her mother ordered her step-father. If only she could have said:

“I’m not doing anything tonight. Why don’t you invite me out ?”

And if only he’d been so desperate and hopeless he would obey. But there was nothing desperate or hopeless about Quilliam. He exuded a kind of ease with himself and the world which infuriated her. He would have been quite capable of smiling and saying:

“Nice to see you. Take it easy.”

He could have left without a qualm though her every movement was intended to convey sexual availability. Most men, faced with such unequivocal invitation would have taken her off to a pub by now and would be thinking how quickly they could get her to bed; but Quilliam didn’t seem to care. Of course, he was handsome. He was charming. He was intelligent. No doubt lots of women showed an interest. He probably had offers like hers every week. But wasn’t she pretty ? Didn’t she have a million-dollar figure ? That irresistible, overwhelming rage she experienced when she was controverted began to rise in her, but she couldn’t act on it: if she snapped at him or flounced away, she’d gain nothing. That was for later.

“What are you doing now ?” she said.

“Right now ?”

“Yes.”

“Go home. Have a bite. There’s a play on tonight. Semi-professional outfit at the arts centre. Arthur Miller. I’ll go along to that. Faute de mieux.”

“Which Miller ?”

“View From The Bridge.”

“Oh !” she said, as if she was familiar. “Do you need tickets ?”

“No. Pay on the door.”

“Sounds interesting,” and she tilted her head, opened her eyes wide and made herself as small as a wren.

“Come along.”

“Where shall we meet ?”

She noticed a little shock in his face and knew she’d pushed on beyond what he intended.

“Well, we could have a drink beforehand. Say in The Horse and Farrier?”

“What time ?”

“Half seven.”

 

It was a matter of principle to be late and turn up in a fluster as if she’d thought about the rendez-vous for no longer than five minutes and had far more important things on her mind. The nervous turmoil of positive and negative possibility drove her witless. She came into the pub running her fingers through the still wet hair she’d ineffectively tried to dry with her car’s fan. He was sitting at the bar as calm as a well-fed lion. It infuriated her. She also disliked what he was wearing. He’d put on the same  cheap, zip-up jacket he’d had on in the afternoon. It was obviously bought from some chain and she thought it tasteless. She wanted to say:

“What are you wearing that thing for ?” and give it a tug, but it was too early for that kind of insult.

She did well in restraining her intrusions through the evening. The play was moderately well performed but creaked  and they’d had trouble finding someone who could rise to the demands of the role of Eddie Carbone. The actor struggled valiantly but his exaggerated Italian accent made him sound like a dud comic taking off an ice-cream vendor and the tortured emotions of an immature man at a loss to understand himself were beyond him. Afterwards they went for a pizza in one of those middle-range restaurants which make most of their money catering for late-night groups of folk spilling from the pubs on Friday and Saturday in provincial towns: the food was edible, but it was a bit infra dig. She wanted to say:

“Is this the best you can do ? Is this the kind of place you bring a woman to impress her ?”

Not until they were in The Flying Fish and she was about to finish her second gin and tonic did she lose control and say, a propos of nothing:

“Are you a very repressed person ?”

He looked at her and laughed.

“Yes, Dr Freud,” he said.

She made herself small again but this time more with a look of an animal at bay and dangerous. It was curious how it didn’t seem to unnerve him.

At three in the morning she got out of his bed.

“Where are you going ?”

“Home.”

“Why ?”

“I have to.”

He got up and wrapped a towel round himself to see her downstairs and to the door.

“I don’t understand why you have to go now.”

“I have to.”

She tottered to her little car on her high heels and waved as she drove away. Her mother wouldn’t be able to assume she’d been to bed with him. If she crept in quietly enough, she might not even know what time she came back. Though she rejected intellectually her mother’s Catholic priggishness, her willingness to pry and condemn, she feared her disapproval so viscerally the earth itself seemed to fall from beneath her at the thought of it. She would play the dutiful daughter throughout Sunday. She would tolerate her step-father’s loud, ignorant comments on the contents of the Sunday Mail. She would sit at the table and stuff herself as required. Her mother expected everyone to eat their fill and more. A guest who ate enough insulted her. Forcing a second helping of queen of puddings was a sign of approval. Her Sunday meals were established for that: she was in charge; everyone must approve of her cooking and that meant eating till you could eat no more. She would flop on the sofa for the afternoon as her mother and step-father dozed in the armchairs, farting like cows in their sleep; and she would tell her mother about her evening with Quilliam, though not, of course, about its culmination.

She took her shoes off at the door. The house was dark and still. She crept down the hallway, through the living-room, into the bedroom and let her clothes drop on the floor. The sheets were cold but it was good to be in bed and alone. It was strange how the presence of a man bothered her. Though she was tired she lay on her back and rubbed her clitoris. There was nothing like it. It was nice enough to have Quilliam’s cock in her but only her own fingers could give her an orgasm. She thought of him as she worked away. He’d wanted to lick her but she couldn’t kiss him if he’d been down there and anyway she didn’t enjoy it.  The taste and smell of it she didn’t like. She’d always found the smell of her cunt on her fingers unpleasant. Why did a man like a cunt ? It was beyond her. It was a nice additional sensation to slip her finger in but it was merely ancillary: pressing her fingers hard on her clitoris and working ferociously from left to right was the real pleasure. Who needed a man for that ? Why did she need a man ? Sperm. Nothing more. Her legs stiffened and her back arched. What would Quilliam say if she asked him for sperm ? It was an exciting idea. But when she’d suppressed her little squeals of pleasure and her breathing had calmed down, she pulled the duvet round her and thought how nice it would be to marry him: she’d invite three of four hundred people and would arrive at the church in a horse-drawn carriage. The reception would be in a big hotel in the country where silver service waiters would put plates of exquisite food before the guests and the seven tier cake would sit on the top table between herself and her groom. She would have a dress made by a top London designer in the fashion of those old, high-necked ones she’d seen for sale in antique clothes shops and she’d force Quilliam to wear coat-tails and a wing-collar, though she knew he’d hate it. There’d be caviar and champagne and she’d get very drunk, then she and her friends would go up to their rooms and smoke dope. She’d invite the most fashionable people she knew: Peter Purkis who had just been selected to fight a parliamentary seat for the Liberals; Willy Swindlehurst who managed bands and knew Mick Jagger; Val Trist who was a producer for the BBC and whose husband was a QC. She would dance and drink till the early hours before falling, fully clothed into her four poster. Quilliam would have to peel the clothes off her limp body. In the morning she would order champagne in bed then would invite all her friends into her room while she wore nothing but a silk dressing-gown. The men would ogle her figure and she would let the belt loosen and the wings fall apart to reveal acres of white thigh. Once all the guests had gone, she and Quilliam would drive to the airport and fly to the Bahamas or Bali. She would ban condoms on the honeymoon, insist on sex three times a day and announce her pregnancy a month after their return. They’d live in a big old house near her mother. She get up in a fluster every day and dash off to do important work kissing her infant on the forehead as she rushed for the door. Quilliam would have to see to it. She’d come home late after hours of stressful work, kiss the child before Quilliam took it up to bed and reach for the wine or the gin. She’d make her way quickly in a forward-looking firm. Once she was a partner, they’d move to a bigger house. By then she’d have three or four children. They’d cry for her as she grabbed her coat and car keys in the morning:

“Mummy must go, darling. Mummy has important work to do.”

Quilliam could give up work. He’d make a good house husband. She fell asleep imagining herself elevated to High Court judge, her children grown, her mother living with them and Quilliam an obedient shadow who she might have to divorce if the right opportunity came along.

Over the next few months she made it clear to Quilliam she was in love with him but that was partly a ploy. She was in love, but he infuriated her and she didn’t want to live like him. What she picked up on was his politeness. She knew he didn’t like being dragged to her parent’s for the gargantuan Sunday binge, but he never uttered a disobliging word and her mother thought him a real gentleman. Yet beneath the politeness, Angela knew, was a sharply critical mind. He was simply one of those people who think it tactless to be critical in personal relations, while she felt it requisite. On the Sunday after their first night together, for example, when she arrived at his house at seven thirty and found him ironing shirts, she said:

“Why are all your shirts such awful colours ?”

“Are they ?”

“Look at that. What sort of dirty red is it? I don’t know how you can wear it.”

She criticised his furniture, his kitchen, his décor, his carpets, his curtains: she’d  learned well from her grandmother how to go directly for the nerves. That was the cosi fan tutti of her family: either there was a strange truce in which they all seemed to withdraw into their private worlds or they were going for one another mercilessly. All her previous boyfriends had risen to the bait, defended themselves, and she’d been able to drag them down into a spitting, scratching pit of accusation and recrimination where she knew she could always come off best. What she thought laughable about Quilliam was his refusal to get unpleasant. It bored her. The idea of getting along nicely bored her. He seemed to be perfectly at ease with himself and liked to be with people who didn’t disturb his equanimity. So she kept him away from them. She challenged him. She piqued him. She behaved in ways which were intended to be humiliating and preened over the fact he never turned nasty. If he raised objections, they were reasoned and reasonable, as if there was anything reasonable about sexual relations. Her Catholic education; the statues of the Virgin in school and church; the crude message that women were either virgins or whores; the restriction of sex to reproduction; and then the experience of the intrusive, animal attempts at seduction by her step-father; all this had left her with a muddled view of sex and men. On the one hand, she longed for the innocence of the little girl who had dozed amid the incense and candles, her dreams rising like the gentle pillars of smoke into the high nave, the sense of an ecstasy beyond the physical melting her flesh; on the other, she knew the vicious reality of desire, the madness of jealousy and the unbridled manipulations of power.

She was in London, he was three hundred miles away. He came down on the train, she raced up in her car doing ninety in the fast lane all the way, and the relationship jogged along gently; but one day it struck her he was happy with that. It suited his easy-going character. She saw in an instant he would be content to let it go on like this for years and a sudden bitter resentment ran through her nerves, like the sharp shock of sourness in your mouth when you bite into a lemon. That afternoon, in his house, when she was about to leave to eat at her mother’s and he was settling down with a book she said, as nonchalantly as she could:

“Do you think we should get married, in the long run ?”

“Sure.”

“Do you mind if I tell my mother that ?”

He looked up and she made herself small and innocent.

“No.”

Three hours later she came back with a date, a list of her guests, three possible venues for the reception, quotes for cars and flowers and a sketch of her wedding dress.

“But……” he said, looking at the pencil drawing.

“But what ?” she snatched the paper from his hands and pushed her face towards his. It gave her an ugly feeling but she liked it. “You said I could tell my mother.”

“I did….”

“Well, I have.”

She turned away for two seconds, then, facing him again, smiled and tilted her head.

“Isn’t it wonderful ? Let’s go and celebrate.”

Prior to the decision to get married, Angela hadn’t met any of Quilliam’s family but now she was going to have to.

“I’m not sure I want to meet your family,” she said as Quilliam was taking away the breakfast dishes.

“Sorry ?”

“Well, I don’t know them,” and she looked at him with an expression as frank as she could make it, as if she’d discovered a clinching argument or irrefutable proof.

“That’s the idea.”

She giggled.

The introductions proved to be less of a facing than she feared but his family was his. She wanted to stay firmly in her own territory. Even her bastard of a step-father was her family. She had no intention in marrying of creating a new family which lived differently from her own. Her mother was the centre of her life. The fear of offending her, of being on the receiving end of that vicious rejection she’d known as a child and which had made her insides melt, kept her in awe. Did Quilliam imagine he could replace that ? He was a man. He was a stranger. How could a stranger ever come to mean to her what her mother meant ? Angela had a sense that to outgrow her family, to pull away into independence would be to arrive at nothingness. She’d stunted herself to fit beneath the low beam of her mother’s ignorance and prejudice and now it was too late to grow. She disdained her mother’s mind. She never read anything worthwhile. She couldn’t put together an argument. Her views were cheap and off-the-peg. She was a tittle-tattle. In truth, Angela despised her. Yet she feared her more, or rather, feared some indefinable loss which was associated with her coldness and withdrawal.

“Have you noticed,” Quilliam said, “how your mother can never finish a sentence ?”

“Why are you insulting my mother ?” she answered with a sneer.

“I’m not insulting her. But she has a problem with language.”

 “What about your mother ?”

Quilliam looked at her.

“She has a problem with everything. I’ve never met a more neurotic woman.”

And that brought one of those silences which were more and more common between them.

Angela was happy when Quilliam was quiet or if she knew she’d wounded him. What she didn’t like was when he seemed content or beyond her control. She knew he was unhappy with the way she and her mother had taken command of the wedding arrangements, but she enjoyed seeing him discomfited. One day he said:

“Don’t you think you’re being a bit extravagant ?”

“What ?”

“Champagne on arrival and with the meal. Nearly a hundred guests.”

“And what would you give them ?”

“What’s wrong with a good wine ?”

“You don’t know good wine from ditchwater. If it was up to you we’d get married in the Miners’ Welfare.”

“What would be wrong with that ?”

“You understand nothing about me,” she said and slammed the door as she left.

As the day drew nearer and her nervousness greater, she resented Quilliam more and more. Why couldn’t he understand he was instrumental ? Two days before the wedding, so tense she hardly knew who she was she turned to him:

“It’s my day. You do understand that, don’t you ? Just stay out of the way.”

It was a terrible inconvenience that his family and friends had to be there but she ignored them. Once the Registry Office ceremony was over, she ignored Quilliam too, but half way through the afternoon she staggered up to the bridal suite because her shoes were impossibly painful. Quilliam followed.

“What are you doing here ?”

“I came to join you.”

“What for ? Where are my white shoes ?”

“Which white shoes ?”

“What d’you mean which white shoes ? I’ve only got one pair.”

“Where did you put them ?”

“What kind of stupid question is that ?”

She threw everything out of the suitcases.

“They’re not going to be in my suitcase,” he said.

“Shut the fuck up.”

She yanked the sheets off the bed and threw the pillows on the floor. She opened all the drawers and left them dangling like cars over cliff edges in cheap films; she threw wide the wardrobe doors, overturned the upright chair which sat by the dressing table. At last she found the shoes in the bathroom.

“How the fuck did they get there ?”

But when she sat on the sofa to try to put them on, she was so drunk and stoned, lifting her foot unbalanced her and she fell and sprawled. Quilliam stood and watched as she crawled and pulled herself up.

“Put these fucking shoes on for me, will you ?”

He shook his head. She struggled, fell again, dragged herself onto the sofa and finally, unable to fasten the straps, wobbled to the door, the shoes slapping her heels with every step. She tugged on the brass handle, and swaying as she held the heavy door ajar called:

“Goodbye,” and waved as if to the cameras.

When the two of them came to bed at three in the morning, Angela’s friends having retreated to one of their rooms to smoke more dope, she was so incapable he had to pull off her dress and lift her onto the bed.

“Too tired for consummation, aren’t we,” she laughed.

He was taking off his suit and hanging it carefully.

“Tell you what, Quilliam,” she called from the bed, raising her head two inches from the pillow, “you married the wrong woman.”

She giggled and wound the duvet round her so that when he came to get in there was no edge for him to get hold of.

He was up early and went for a walk around the hotel grounds where there were peacocks and a pond with mallards and moorhens. When he got back to the room, some of her friends had arrived and she was on the floor among the presents in her little nightgown. As she moved it rode up and little flashes of her pubic triangle were visible. Vaguely aware but hardly concerned she tugged at the hem now and then. Soon the room was full and Angela was the centre of attention. Most of her friends were mystified by her choice of Quilliam and paid him  no attention. They were making their way in the capital. There were big money and important careers to be had. Why should she choose an unambitious, provincial teacher ? When someone said they were going to miss breakfast, they began to mill away, and Angela, eager to get dressed pulled her nightdress over her head and went naked to the bathroom as the guests were still leaving.

Angela’s grandmother had given her a thousand pounds as a wedding gift. She said nothing to Quilliam but during the week’s honeymoon in Rye spent recklessly.

“Is that really necessary,” he said, when she left a twenty pound tip in an Italian restaurant.

“I’ll decide what’s necessary.”

She engaged him in as much sex as possible and one night, after he’d performed twice and was dozing, took his cock and balls in her hand.

“Quilliam. Quilliam,” she urged. “Think you can do it again ?”

“Let me sleep a bit.”

“What a disappointment to me you are.”

All the same, two months later, when they went to her mother’s for Sunday lunch, she was able to say,as they were about to leave:

“I’ve got some news. I’m expecting.”

And she made herself small, just as he remembered her on the first day.

“Why do you say “expecting” ?” said in the car. “It’s old-fashioned.”

“I’ll say what I like,” she answered. “when I’m talking to my mother.”

When her baby son was born she was glad to see he bore little resemblance to Quilliam. She breast fed him for three months, but sick of the rigmarole and the tiredness, gave up and told Quilliam he’d have to bottle feed.

“We’ll alternate nights,” said Quilliam.

“Will we ?”

He would dig his elbow into her at four in the morning:

“The baby’s crying.”

“Go and fucking feed him,” and she’d pull the duvet over her head.

She knew Quilliam resented the responsibility falling to him and when the little boy began to step tentatively and let go of the furniture, his father allowed him to wrap his little hands around his index fingers and walked him from one end of the house to the other.

“He must walk miles !” said Angela’s mother.

“Yeah, he’s so bloody soft,” said Angela.

The older woman nodded and the two of them laughed.

Throughout the week, Quilliam had to look after the boy. When he started nursery, he had to take him in the morning and pick him up in the afternoon. Not once in three and half years did Angela relieve him and when he said:

“Why can’t you pick Dylan up for once ?”

she replied:

“I can’t get out of work. I’ve got an important job to do.”

She regularly came home at eight, nine or ten in the evening but every Sunday she dressed the lad as soon as she was out of bed, put him in the car and drove to her mother’s.

“Every Sunday ?” objected Quilliam.

“My mother expects me.”

“But you’re married.”

“What ? To you ? Do you think I’m going to disappointment my mother for your sake ?”

“I never see Dylan on a Sunday.”

“Then come to my mother’s”

“Why should I ?”

“Then you don’t get to see him.”

Angela was disturbed if she found herself doing housework. Wasn’t it demeaning ? Wasn’t it sexist ? She was a mother, but she still wondered if Germaine Greer was right. Her career was progressing. She worked for a big firm and was promised partnership. But when a younger and less experienced woman was promoted before her, and when she found she was being paid a lower salary than three solicitors who joined the firm after her, her resentment fell on Quilliam.

“If it wasn’t for you, I’d be a partner by now.”

“What have I to do with it ?”

“You’re such a misogynist.”

“What evidence do you have for that ?”

“I don’t need evidence. You’re impossible to live with. You really are.”

She felt better for convincing herself Quilliam was to blame. He expected her to do the shopping after all, and he even suggested they wash up in rotation.

“Do you imagine I’ve time for washing up ?” she said as she turned her back.

She was a mother. She no longer had those horrible feelings of inadequacy and loss which used to cudgel her on seeing mothers with prams or toddlers. But she still despised biology. How could there be equality if women had to bear children ? Sometimes she felt she hadn’t been tough enough: she should have disdained marriage and refused childbirth. She might be a QC. Yet an alternative set of feelings and ideas soon arose. Weren’t women supposed to have it all ? Why shouldn’t she ? And why shouldn’t Quilliam pay the price ? He was a man after all and they were responsible for centuries of female oppression. She would have another child or maybe two more. She would show the world she could be a career woman and mother. She grabbed Quiliam’s cock at every opportunity. She tickled his balls, sucked him, rubbed him with lubricants of every sensation and flavour, but if he tried to put on a condom she yanked it off and hurled it across the chaotic bedroom. She climbed on top of him at five in the morning and slipped his cock inside her.

Soon enough she was pregnant.

“You’ll have to do more round the house,” Quilliam said.

“Why ?”

“Because it’s unfair to expect me to do it all.”

“I am unfair. Why shouldn’t I be ?”

And she closed the door and headed for the office.


 

ANY OLD AFTERNOON

 

It was any old afternoon when an unexpected knock came at the door. Mrs Spacroft knew who was likely to arrive: the window-cleaner wasn’t due, the vicar had called yesterday, and anyway, he always telephoned first. She wiped her hands as she left the kitchen. It bothered her that she couldn’t picture who it would be, but not so much as discovering who it was.

Eleven years earlier she’d started teaching English.  Miller College suited her fine. She worked two and half days, so could organize things around her two young children. Her mother and Colin’s parents stepped in. They didn’t have enough money because Colin wouldn’t work full-time. She’d been attracted to him when they were students together in the sixth-form not only because he was clever and obviously going to have a lucrative career, but also because of his caution. Like her, he was afraid of life. In her case, the disappearance of her father when she was a girl of five and the later stories from her mother of what an unpleasant character he was, had filled her with a sense of dread: as if something of his badness lurked within her and would one day find its way into the light. And her mother rebelled against her own foolish choice and her abandonment. She turned into one of those women who cherish their resentment. Wronged and righteous, she inflicted on Marianne and her sister her sense of hurt and unhappiness and they grew with a little knot of funk in the solar plexus. In Joyce’s case, it turned into teenage recklessness: she was in bed with her first boyfriend at fourteen, went through six or seven others by the time she was nineteen, found herself with herpes after cunnilingus with a one-night stand and pregnant by an unemployed van driver six years her senior at twenty. They made a brief and hopeless attempt at co-habitation in a flat over a butcher’s shop. He twisted her arm up her back when she tried to slap him across the face and she came back to her mother’s with the baby. The mess and shame made Marianne’s heart shrink and she drew closer to Colin who was as likely to make her pregnant as the Pope. Though he went to university in London and she was in Bristol, they remained faithful. Weeks would go by when they wouldn’t see one another and she would drink her coffee and chat to her friends and now and again see a good-looking boy and wonder. But though there was something missing with Colin, she had no idea what. If there’d been some other boy, if she’d met someone and fallen in love, she would have known what to do. It would have been easy. A woman in love is justified in everything. She would have written frankly to Colin:

I’m sorry to tell you, Colin, but I’m in love with someone else. It’s the real thing and I know I have to follow my heart. I’m terribly sorry, but you and I….

What a relief to write such a letter. The trouble was she wasn’t in love with anyone else and if what she felt for Colin was love, it was a disappointment. She tried over and over to convince herself the feeling was right, but the doubt persisted. Before she knew where she was, she’d been his girlfriend for five years. What would she do if she finished with him ?

Colin’s parents were traditional. His father, who worked in maintenance on the railways, had been brought up strictly, punished with a belt if he strayed, and  was convinced the lashes across his hands and backside had made him the man he was: a devout Methodist and staunch Labour voter. He’d never touched alcohol, wouldn’t buy a raffle ticket, and refused to go shopping on Sundays. When his sons were born he feared they’d turn out badly if the narrowest limits weren’t placed on them. Both boys were clever which gave him the chance to enforce a regime of hard study from their early years;

“It’s a gift from God,” he’d say. “You must use it for the good of your fellow man. Work hard. Learn well. But remember, the world is full of clever devils.”

The boys thrived intellectually under this regime, like Beethoven whipped to the piano. They were top of the class and tipped for great accomplishments. But the crisis came when they wanted to go out, to visit the youth club, to hang around with their pals and get back late. Their parents envisaged sexual debauchery, drink, crime…They were allowed out only under the tightest constraints. Colin came out of the youth club at dead on nine on a Sunday to find his dad waiting for him.

“Let me come home on my own, dad.”

“I’ve seen some of the roughnecks that come to that place. You don’t want to get beaten up do you ?”

“I can look after myself.”

His father walked in silence beside him. He was thinking how naïve his son was. Look after himself ? He was nothing but eight stone of skin and bone. Decades of hard physical work, shifting sleepers, wielding spanners his son would be hard pushed to raise with one hand, had made him strong and tough. Broad, barrel-chested and thick-thighed, he knew he was a match for most men. But Colin was like his mother. He had the hands of a ballerina, He was as skinny as a lath. His future was in a university. He needed to be kept away from the rough lads.

“I’ll come home with Steve and Pete. We’ll be okay. They’re rugby players.”

His father relented. But if he came through the door later then ten past nine, he was in the hallway with the belt.

Marianne was sure all the discipline had been good for Colin, and there was no doubt he lived by his principles. He never drank. He got up at six. He worked hard. She couldn’t have hoped for a more reliable man. But she dreamed of one less reliable. A man she would have to win and keep would have brought her to life. Colin was a pushover but having pushed him over she found he bounced back as a dictator. The strictures imposed by his dad had become strictures he imposed on himself and as his inner life was ruled by the need for tight rules, he expected Marianne’s life to be ruled the same way. Before they started having sex it wasn’t too bad: he’d object to her going out with her friends during the week but she would laugh it off and go anyway; he’d sulk if she arrived five minutes late for a rendez-vous; if they went to a party, she wasn’t allowed to talk to other men if he wasn’t beside her but she’d flop on the sofa next to some half-way attractive bloke, throw back her head to show her strong white throat and dismiss his moaning on the way home. Once they’d done it things changed. It was in her house. Her mother and sister were out. She was tired of the tame kissing and lay on the rug with her legs apart. Colin got very agitated. The crutch of her knickers was on display and he’d never seen that before.

“Oh, I’d just like to take my clothes off now,” she said.

“Would you ?”

“Mmm. To be naked on this nice warm rug in front of the fire. Wouldn’t you like to take your clothes off ?”

“You mean have sex ?” he said.

“I suppose it might lead to that,” she said.

“Yes.”

“Shall I take off my bra ?”

He sat on the sofa unable to reply. She slipped off her cotton blouse, unfastened the bra and let her huge breasts fall. Colin looked as if he was about to be horse-whipped.

“What do you think ?” she said.

“Very nice.”

“Are they big enough for you ?”

“They’re big.”

“Don’t stay over there. Come and kiss me.”

He took her breasts in his big hands like he was grabbing a fleeing animal. Once they were both naked and he stood in front of her with his erect cock pointing to his belly button she realised she’d always imagined it would be like the rest of him, long and thin; in fact it was quite fat and stubby. It amused her. His big balls amused her too. She wanted to get her hands on his cock to see how hard it felt. But he was standing like a dumbstruck child, unable to act.

“What’s the matter.”

“I don’t have a condom.”

“Don’t worry. Joyce will have some.”

She skipped up the stairs to her sister’s room while he perched on the sofa. He looked down at his erection as though it didn’t belong to him. In a way it didn’t. Had he been able to decide, he wouldn’t have had an erection. He would have told Marianne they needed to wait a while; but the thing just sprang up as soon as he saw her knickers. Her white thighs seemed like expanses of magnetic temptation. The soft flesh of their insides and the little bulge in the cotton knickers were like a force acting at a distance. His physics came back to him. Sex was like gravity. It was irresistible. Life was founded on sex like the universe was controlled by gravity. All the lessons of control he’d learnt from his father and the church melted like chocolate in the sun. His cock was throbbing rhythmically. He counted the beats. The little jogging movement it produced was beyond his control. Marianne came back in. She was completely naked and crossed the rug to stand in front of him, holding out the little foil packet. He looked at the vast territory of her flat white belly. She lay down on the rug and swung her thighs apart. His eyes couldn’t move from the thick black triangle and the tiny glimpse of pink.

“Come on.”

He stood up, but the excitement he’d managed to contain while holding himself tense on the sofa flooded through him, his cock jigged three or four times and blobs of spunk shot out and landed on the maroon rug next to Marianne.

“Oh dear,” she said.

Colin looked down at his throbbing erection. In spite of his ejaculation it had lost hardly any tension. Marianne got up quickly and came back from the kitchen with a damp cloth. She rubbed at the rug while he stood behind her looking at her arse. As she moved he could see her cunt and his cock seemed harder than ever. There she was a vulnerable, white, beautiful, live, animal thing, her waist slim, her haunches wide, her back and shoulders strong. Her thick, brown hair fell across her face as she rubbed away. This was Marianne. But it wasn’t. It was some curious revelation, some creature which existed within the everyday, clothed Marianne and had a power to close down all his usual thoughts. She stood up with the cloth in her hand.

“I hope that does it. If there’s a mark, I’ll say I spilt some yoghurt.”

He stood looking into her eyes. Then he stared at her breasst and crutch. She cast the rag towards the door.

“Can you still do it ?”

She lay down again on the rug and opened her legs. He tore at the foil but it wouldn’t rip. He turned the packet round, tugged again. It wouldn’t tear.

“Give it me.”

He handed it to her and she used her nail as a blade. When she gave it back he pulled out the johnny and struggled to roll it over. He lay on top of her and began to kiss her mouth frantically. She took hold of his cock and found it as hard as a bone. Amazing. She guided it and he slipped it in and at once let out a little cry. She felt the pulse and spurt. He lay there, a great weight on her, inert, finished. Ah, well, at least she knew how a hard cock felt and what it was like to have it inside her. It wasn’t painful as she’d thought it might be and the hot fullness of it was thrilling. But would it always be like this ? She patted his back and stroked his hair.

“You okay ?” she said.

He raised himself on his arms and she realised: he hadn’t bothered to take his glasses off.

After that they did it as often as they could and Colin could keep going for five minutes or so once he’d come and got erect again. In the long run, maybe she’d have an orgasm with him inside her but he could never approach her with a contained passion. Somehow the excitement exceeded him. She only had to stroke the tip of his cock a few times and he spurted like a whale. But now they were lovers, his expectations of her were multiplied. The helpless lover, this great vulnerable, naked, at-a-loss victim whose cock sprang up like a jack-in-a-box at the sight of her taut nipples and who shot over her belly before she had time to slip on the sheath, was as vigilant as the staff of a nuclear power station. She’d imagined that sex might change things. She’d thought he might become more relaxed and easy-going and that the intimacy would reassure him and he wouldn’t need to hold onto her so fiercely. But the terrible realization came to her that what he was like was what he was like: sex had no transforming power. Why had she imagined it would ? It was as if she had a gap in her mind. Somehow, the idea had got there, had been put there, that sex was a liberation, a force to overthrow what people are like in their everyday selves; but she knew now it wasn’t true. People were in bed what they were at work, on the bus, in the pub, in the street. She let her mind dwell on the notion. Colin’s parents. Their sex life must have been as tightly ruled as everything else. Those vulgar men with fat bellies she saw coming out of the pub, unsteady and raucous must have been the same in the bedroom. It was a terrible disappointment. Not that Colin was disappointing, though his over-excitement, rush, and early ejaculation didn’t fill her with delight. No, it was sex itself. It was a big fraud. She let her mind accept the fact of the raw physicality of the act. And that was the truth: it was like pigs rutting in mud. There was no necessity of a transforming  elevation, no inevitable finer feeling, no exquisite transport to a realm of gentleness and sweetness. Somehow, she’d always thought things would be different between herself and Colin once the Rubicon had been crossed. She’d thought her reservations about him, the patience she had to exert not to be exasperated by his excessive caution, would be consumed in the fire of passion; he would become the imperturbable man she dreamed of, indulgent of her whims, careless of her heedless flirting, sure of himself because at the end of the evening she would be stripping off and opening herself to him. And she would be able to live without a care, because he could accept everything she was and the two of them would sink into a enduring bliss which would colour all their activity and make the gray, everyday world recede so that the burdens of work and domestic responsibility would be gathered up into the rolling clouds of mutual joy.

“I wasn’t flirting with him,” she protested at one of Colin’s accusations.

“You were. You were leaning forward so he could look down your blouse.”

She let out a laugh of derision.

“My blouse. Honestly.”

“I saw him. I was watching his eyes. He kept looking at your cleavage.”

Her mood suddenly darkened.

“ What’s wrong with it anyway ?”

“I’m not having it.”

“ Expect me to dress like a nun ?”

“You can wear something that doesn’t let other men ogle your breasts.”

“ I’m comfortable in a blouse with the top buttons undone. And it doesn’t trouble me at all that Stu or some other man wants to admire me.”

“ Troubles me.”

“Why should it ?”

“I’m your boyfriend. No-one else should be looking at your breasts.”

“I can’t hide myself away because you’re my boyfriend. And anyway, it’s you I go to bed with so what’s to worry about ?”

“One thing leads to another.”

“I didn’t even notice Stuart looking at my tits. And if I had it doesn’t mean I’d be wanting to get into bed with him.”

“He might want to get into bed with you.”

“Lots of men might.”

“That’s the point.”

“What’s the point ?”

“It’s provocative.”

“What’s provocative ?”

“Letting other men see your tits.”

“  Bit of cleavage. Grown up men aren’t going to get excited over that.”

“ They are.”

“The Taliban.”

“I know what men are like.”

“So do I.”

“Take a hint.”

“Not hinting.”

“They think so.”

 

Though she went on a contre coeur, she could see no way of ending the relationship; as a matter of fact she didn’t want to end it. The thought of Colin not being there filled her with fear: she would be alone and where would she find another man of such incontestable dependability ? Once more, she found herself perversely wishing for a man who might let her down. Colin would never be unfaithful. She knew that if a beautiful young woman made herself available he’d turn her down. But  might it be better if she had a man who strayed or at least was capable of straying. If she knew Colin was faithful in spite of strong attraction to other women and many opportunities, she might feel less oppressed. Yet she wasn’t oppressed. He supported her. He was always there. He was just nervous and over-cautious. It was unreasonable of her to feel so negatively. All the same, she would like to appeal to some independent third party. She would like to have her case heard and responded to. But what was her case ? It was hard to pin down; a background sense of dissatisfaction; the feeling of going through the motions but never arriving at reality; she was unreal and unrealised. Yet what would reality and realization be ? She dropped heavily on the sofa. It was curious this ponderous sense of not living, of never having lived, of wanting life to begin. But the days went by and inevitably she married Colin. It was as if a hand had pushed her. It wasn’t her own volition. She’d never excitedly wanted to be married to him or to be married at all. Yet she’d been drawn into it like a stranger pulled to some intriguing quarter of a foreign city who finds herself suddenly amidst danger. The danger she faced was having to feign love. She had two children in quick succession. Outwardly they were a model family. She tried hard to see it this way. They had a good income, a nice house in a quiet lane, two lovely children. All the same, there were days when she could have walked out never to return and she knew she wouldn’t miss it. Terrible. She looked into herself and asked if she was to blame. Did she lack some fundamental feeling ? It was true, she wouldn’t miss Colin if she never saw him again. Her son and daughter she clung to. Nevertheless, she could thnk about living without them and it didn’t trouble her. The mystery of it defeated her and she carried on doing what was expected , what she expected of herself., ignoring as much as she could the void at the heart of it all.

Now Anton Bellis was at the door.

She threw back her head and laughed as she always did when things were too much for her.  

“Hope you don’t mind,” he said.

“Not at all. Just washing up. What am I like ? Come in.”

It was ten yards from the front door to the kitchen and as she crossed that short distance with Bellis behind her, the whole of her life fell away.

“Cup o’ tea ?”

She’d rather have asked if he’d like to ravish her. She’d met him when she began at Miller. At first she simply noticed his better-than-average looks and flirted a little like she always did with men who might be attractive to women; but then she found herself thinking if anything happened to Colin….The thought surprised her, as did her conviction she’d marry Bellis, especially as he was already married. All the same, the notion seized her mind with the ferociousness of a hawk’s claws on its prey. Yet she daren’t act on it. When Bellis said:

“Fancy a drink ?”

after an interminable parents’ evening in a frozen January, she zipped up her blouson, smiled and gave a little shake of her head.

“Not allowed.”

“Who says ?”

“ In enough trouble already.”

There were other little occasions and each time her heart surged, her mind filled with excited images of a new life and she said no. She felt almost as virtuous as Emma Bovary in her religious phase. But desire was stronger than virtue. It was all well and good to elaborate a view of herself as the dutiful wife and mother, but she’d only to look at Colin for her heart to beat heavily with regret. At every opportunity she flirted with Bellis, but if he moved a millimetre towards taking what she offered, she shrank like a snail before salt.

They went into the lounge. The great bay window let the light flood in. She sat on the sofa, illuminated. The warm sun played on her auburn hair and she knew its shades would attract him. When he looked away for a moment she shook her mane free so it hung in abandon. She let her decorated slipper dangle from her toes and drew attention to her dainty feet. Inevitably, she threw back her head because she knew how lovely was her slender neck and her vigorous white throat. All the same, when he came over to her, she wanted to push him away, to run from the room shouting:  

“But I’m a married woman.”

She wanted to bat her eyelids and wave her marriage certificate.

There was a second when she might have refused and he’d have pulled back in humiliation, but somehow she let it pass and he took the opportunity to lift her thin cotton skirt, pull down her thong and kiss her. So on any old afternoon Mrs Spacroft became an adultress. At last she had Bellis where she wanted him. Potentially, this was the start of a new life. Physically it wasn’t vastly better than sex with Colin. Bellis was better looking and that enhanced the pleasure. Yet it wasn’t her physical arousal which was transforming, it was her sense of emotional rightness. Bellis didn’t have a possessive or controlling atom in his cells. If she’d told him while they were still naked she was nipping next door for sex with her neighbour, he’d have remained calm and pleasant. It was the escape from Colin’s anxious control which made her happy.

“Going back tomorrow ?”

“Have to.”

“ Up again ?”

“Do my best.”

“Things to sort out I suppose.”

Bellis’s father had died. The cremation had been the previous day.

“Sister’ll look after it.”

“Not be here often then ?”

“Not for that.”

“Job’ll keep you busy.”

“If I still have one.”

Bellis had moved to a school in South London, a very different place from middle-class Melling College where the results were always good. Grosvenor Business and Enterprise Academy which had been a secondary modern till 1978 was full of kids from poor homes and struggled to hit the national targets. Its academy sponsor was ex-Eton Eddie Dowling who set up a car phone company when the trend was obvious with twenty thousand borrowed from his dad and was now the multi-millionaire owner of Phones Galore. Bellis led the campaign against the change.

“Keep your nose clean.”

“Pretty impossible.”

Marianne experienced a little shudder. His recklessness was exciting but scary.

“I was in favour at first,” she said.

“Nothing to be in favour of.”

“No.”

She wasn’t at all sure Bellis was right. Why not just let it happen ? It seemed to be the natural flow of things. That’s how life seemed to her. She thought of social events like she thought of the weather. A tsunami or a hurricane was terrible but there was nothing to be done. Things happened. As the Americans fatalistically said shit happens. It might be sad. It might be wrong. But it was life. Bellis wasn’t like that at all. He resisted. He seemed to resist the present and it puzzled her. It seemed like resisting rain. Why was he so opposed to Academies ? She couldn’t bring it into focus. The arguments about changes to teachers’ conditions swayed her. She wouldn’t like to be forced to work longer hours and the protection of national conditions reassured her. But what if Academies really were better for children ? What if they were the cure for failing schools ? She really didn’t know. Why was Bellis so sure?

“Sack me they sack me.”

“Can they ?”

“Sack anyone. Claim incompetence.”

 

“But they’d have to prove it.”

“Nothing simpler.”

“You’re not incompetent.”

“They say you are you are. Stalin says you’re a traitor you’re a traitor.”

It couldn’t be true. Her mind swam. She thought of Caroline Nightingale who’d had to leave Melling because of competency procedures. Surely she was incompetent ? Then she remembered how people had whispered about her being fifty-seven and the school needing to trim its budget. Thirty-five years work and no serious problems. Was it true ? Did they invent incompetence to force people out ? She couldn’t believe it. It was too awful.

“Not as bad as that,” and she threw back her head and laughed.

“Know what it’s about Marianne ?” he looked at her in that calm way which seemed so full of affection. She let her slipper dangle again and her dressing gown fall away from her knee.

“Not really. Politics baffles me.”

“ Threat to the rich is the public sector.  More we expand it, the less territory there is for them. Last thirty years wealth has moved upwards. At the bottom an underclass is being created. People like us are the target now. Failure is the smokescreen. Improvement is the big lie. Modernisation. Reform. Liars words. How can they tell the truth: we want the rich to profit from your schools and hospitals; we want to cut your pensions and move the wealth to the bankers, the CEOs, the celebs ? It’s a fight between the market and democracy. Public sector was built by democracy. So the threat to the rich is democracy. That’s what it’s about. Take schools out of local democratic oversight. Make each one a free floating, quasi-private affair paid for by the taxpayer. Undermine democracy. That’s the fight: democracy or property. Whose side are you on ?”

She rocked her white leg and the little slipper waved and threatened to fall.

“Yours,” she said.

He came over to her and unfastened the cord of her gown. Opening it up he smiled at the sight of her breasts, her belly, her pubic hair and parting her legs tugged off his t-shirt and jeans. His cock was tight and throbbing.  He stroked her wet cunt and let his finger penetrate.

“Why not come on the London demo on the 26th ? There’ll be half a million of us.”

“I will,” she said with a little gasp.

 


 

THE JUDGE

My ex-husband had just left with our son. A model of modern manhood, he takes him every second weekend, usually collects at midday on Saturday and returns about three on Sunday. It almost makes me agree with that nice Mr Cameron but Stalin himself couldn’t force my ex to be a better father. Maybe it’s his genes. Maybe it’s his mother. Maybe it’s society at large. Maybe, maybe, maybe. But I had a bit more than twenty-four hours to myself and though I always missed little Guy (we named him after Maupassant) I was going to enjoy it. The house was a depressing mess. Not a deep mess, just the superficial spread of toys and clothes and bits that take ages to clear away and can be replenished by an energetic, happy three-year-old in five minutes. But tidying could wait. I sat in my comforting corner of the sofa with a cup of dark tea and opened the London Review of Books. Small joys. That’s the clue to life. My life at least. My first boyfriend at university, who looked like George Clooney on a good day and had a brain Sartre would have killed for, used to say life’s a bag of shit.  He was the most carefree soul I’ve known. I loved him. I ditched him. I couldn’t have kept him. That’s what I feared anyway, so I ditched him before some Simone de Beauvoir with the figure of Penelope Cruz came along. You’ll be sorry, he said. Sorry ? I could cry five oceans. But I often hear his voice: life’s a bag of shit and wish I had his talent for a cynicism so comprehensive it made life one long party.  In the LRB there was a ten-mile piece by John Lanchester about Greece and the euro. A risible letter from David two-very-small-brains Willetts in response to a piece by Howard Hotson taking apart the government’s higher education policy ( a somewhat grandiose term for an on-the-fly, hotch-potch of half-cooked ideology). I flicked to the ads. I like reading the lonely hearts. Maybe someday I’ll meet a kindly man with brains. Maybe someday I’ll exceed the speed of light. I spotted the ad for the Manchester Story Competition. Prize of ten grand for three thousand words. I could get the rotten window frames replaced, put in a shower, buy a new bed for Guy and decorate his room. We could go to the seaside for a week. Sure. Except my chances of winning were as great as Guy’s father saying: Hey, Sal, what if I take Guy every weekend ? And here’s an extra fifty quid to get him some shoes. All the same, someone had to win. It was like the lottery. It was a lottery. Except I can write. I can write the arse off….well, a lot of those folk whose books are piled up three for two in Waterstones. So, you say, what are doing living in a two-up-two-down terrace, working as a supply teacher and avoiding the bailiffs by milimetres ? Why aren’t your novels in every bookshop from Alice Springs to Alnwick ? Think about it: would Ulysses have won the Booker ? Would Madame Bovary have been longlisted ? Did publishers form a queue at Proust’s door ? Did Richard Yates spend thirty years failing to get into the New Yorker ? Who would have put Whitman between covers if not himself ? If literary prizes discovered genius, Emily Dickinson would have sold more books  in her  lifetime than Maeve Binchy. Am I saying I’m a genius ? Of course I am. I have to work many hours for ten grand. Three thousand words. I’ve written seventy short stories and six novels. Three thousand words is no big task. Ten grand for three thousand. That’s three pounds thirty three pence per word. Fifty words is what I earn a day. I finished my tea, put down the LRB and went to the kitchen.

The kitchen is where I work. On a little table looking out onto our little yard where Guy has a sand-pit and a plastic red and blue slide. This is my little patch of England and I don’t even own it. People tell me this is an overcrowded island but when I put Guy in his bike seat and peddle five miles out of town for a picnic, there are thousands of acres of  unused land. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m not. Ten grand for three thousand words. I was about to become a literary whore. I’d rather sell my words than my body. My words are mine but if some fat, smelly, vicious man reads them, so what ? I opened my laptop as reluctantly as a whore her legs. Ten grand.  This is what I wrote :

William Offley pulled up the blinds and looked out over the park. Beyond was the river, the little bridge the trams had once rattled over and the meander before the water rippled past the modest semis of The Esplanade out into the countryside he never visited. He was a city man but he’d landed back in his home town because he couldn’t afford London any more and he couldn’t afford London any more because of the drink. He went straight out. It was early enough for the fresh air to sting his nostrils. His hands were shaking and his legs wobbled as he tried to stride down the slope to the path by the river. A couple of lads shot by him on mountain bikes and skidded wildly on the newly laid shale. The council had done a good job on the improvements. There was a low-roofed, intriguingly shaped, wood-clad pavilion for concerts and plays, and a little café where you could sit and watch the river or the couples on the grass or the impromptu football games. They’d planted four thousand trees and thirty thousands shrubs and plants. It was a lovely oasis in the middle of the town and he wanted to enjoy it but his head hurt, he felt sick and weak and his heart was beating so fast he wondered if he’d make it to the bench. He sat down and lit a cigarette. Was the café open ? He could have a strong coffee. That would kick him back into life. Maybe he could eat something. But tapping his pockets he realised he’d come out without money. Should he go back and get some ? But he knew once he was in his flat he wouldn’t have the will to walk down here again. He’d open a bottle, sink in the armchair and let the drug gently ooze through his veins till he felt numbed enough to sit at his computer. Then he’d write for a couple of hours, enough to get a thousand words down. Once that was done, the rest of the day didn’t matter. He’d drink at home or he’d get a taxi and drink in The Fox or The Wagon or The Stars. Where didn’t matter. But he’d drink.  

The cigarette was good. The smoke hurt his throat and lungs which let him know he was alive. He felt his heart pause, leap, and accelerate. He drew hard on the filter. How many fags had he smoked in his life ? He began the futile arithmetic: thirteen when he started. Maybe five a day in the first years…

“William !”

He looked up at a woman in her early fifties whose face was bright with the effort of walking briskly in the fresh air. She held a slender, eager Dalmation on an extendable lead. He felt at once reduced, inadequate, wrecked, hopeless.

“Hi.”

“What are you doing here ?”

“I came back.”

“When ?”

“Six months. Maybe a bit more.”

“I thought you’d never come back. Your books and success…”

“Well, yeah.”

“Out early.”

“I was…..thinking of breakfast, but the café’s closed.”

“No it isn’t. It’s just opened. I could manage a coffee.”

“Yeah ? Me too. Mmm… thing is I’ve no money one me…I..”

“I have.”

“I don’t want to…”

“No, come on.”

As soon as he’d seen her he’d remembered they had sex first on this park. Where ? In the shelter near the entrance or in one of the rocky nooks ? He couldn’t be sure. They’d had sex here lots of times. How many ? Twenty ? No, it had to be more than that. How long did the affair last ? Two years ? Eighteen months ? How often did they have sex ? Three or four times a week. How often here ? Once a week. How many was that ?

“Where  you living ?”

“Oh, little flat. Just up the top there.”

“On your own ?”

“Yeah, yeah. What about you ?”

“Smallwood. With my partner.”

He struggled to think of her husband’s name.

“Right. Peter wasn’t it ? He still…”

“No, no. We were divorced years ago. My partner’s Tom.”

“Good, good. What’s he do ?”

“Psychiatric nurse. Shall we…?.”

 

They sat at a circular table by the window and read the menus. He was thinking how beautiful she used to be: big brown eyes, lovely white teeth, full lips and a sweet smile and of course her nakedness, those big, welcoming breasts, her flat, lovely white belly, the perfect roundness of her buttocks, her gorgeous, dark pubic triangle. And he was slim and energetic. How they used to go at it and how he could keep it up. The bed would be a tangle of sweaty soaked sheets and the two of them exhausted. Why did he stop seeing her ?

“What’ll you have ?”

“Oh, coffee. Capuccino. Toast, maybe. Some toast.”

“They do lovely scrambled egg on toast.”

“Yeah ?”

She ordered from the waitress and he noticed how calm her voice was, how sweet and how she hadn’t lost that little throaty rumble which always excited him.

“So, tell me,” she said, “how did you end up back here ?”

“Well, it’s a long story….”

An hour later they were in his flat. The dog lay on the rug in the living-room. There were books everywhere and by his armchair a pile of manuscripts. She sat on the sofa, smiling in that inscrutable and charming way he’d always loved. She was still an attractive woman. She’d looked after herself. She was slim and her clothes were neat and clean. When did he last have a shower ? Was it yesterday ? No, he drank all day. The day before ? What did he do the day before?

“Drink ?”

“Alcohol !”

“No, no. Whatever. Tea. Orange juice.”

“I’m okay for now.”

“Me too. Me too. Look, sorry about the mess.”

“I’ve read all your books.”

“Really ?”

“They’re so good.”

“You think so ?”

“What are you reading there ?”

“Those ? Oh, stories. For a competition. I’m a judge.”

“You’ve got to read all those ?”

“More. But I don’t read them all. I mean. You know, three thousand words is the limit but after a thousand, five hundred with some, you can tell… you know.”

“Sure. Are they any good ?”

“Here, take a look.”

He grabbed a manuscript at random from the pile. She put on her glasses and he realised he’d never seen her wearing them before. He sat opposite her. She attracted him liked she had when he was sixteen, when she was twenty three and her marriage was already failing and he’d had the affair with her. Thirty-five years ago sitting watching her he’d have got a hard-on. Now nothing stirred.

“Read it to me,” he said, “save me the trouble.”

“Okay.”

She began: My ex-husband had just left with our son. A model of modern manhood

He held up a cigarette to ask permission. She nodded and he lay back drawing long on the sweet poison. Now and then he laughed and gave a slow nod. When she finished she lay the manuscript on her lap and took off her glasses.

“What d’you think ?”

“Not bad. Interesting conceit: story within the story. And the erstwhile lovers, rings true.”

“It does. I like it. Will you put it to the top of the pile ?”

“Maybe not the top.” He looked at her and she was as calm and desirable as in the old days. Why did he abandon her ? “Near the top. Maybe the top. It’s a good story. She can write.”

“Not like you though.”

“She probably doesn’t drink enough.”

“You should cut down, Will.”

The use of the familiar abbreviation brought back the old delight in intimacy with her, the laughing hours they passed in pubs, theatres, cafes, cinemas, parks. How did that all disappear ? How did he end up a drink-sodden, internationally famous, very unhappy, literary genius ? He got up and went over to her.

“How lovely you are, Pam.”

He bent down to kiss her but she put her palms gently on his shoulders and held him back.

“I don’t know if we should.”

“Nor do I. Let’s decide afterwards.”

She laughed and let his smoky mouth meet hers. He wondered if she was accepting him because of his fame and his supposed wealth. The millions had evaporated like his happiness. He slowly took off her clothes and in the chair, white and exposed, he saw the girl he’d first seen naked at seventeen. They went through to the bedroom. He dropped his clothes on the floor and hauled the duvet over his shoulders. She was as responsive as ever. Her hips rolled like the ocean as his finger moved gently inside her. But still nothing stirred. She took his flaccid cock in her hand, ran the pad of her thumb over its tip, slid down and put her lips around it, flicked her tongue over its length, but it remained as soft as an over-ripe pear still on the branch.

“Maybe we need some lubricant,” she said.

“Maybe I need a drink,” he said, folding back the bedclothes.

She unhooked his dressing-gown from behind the door. When she went into the lounge he was in the armchair with a cigarette burning and glass of whisky in his hand. He didn’t look at her.

“It’s okay, Will,” she said as she gathered her clothes.

“Is it ?”

The dog shifted and yawned.

“No big deal.”

“No ?”

She went into the bedroom with her clothes. He tried to remember the last time he’d had an erection. Was it with that young actress in Pittsburgh ? What was her name ? Did he have sex with her ? They were naked, that was for sure. She spent the night in his hotel room. Didn’t she ? Maybe if he gave up the drink. He took a sip of  whisky. How had he ever been able to get through a day without recourse to the forgiveness of this beautiful liquid ? He had as much chance of getting back to the, slim, energetic young man he’d once been as winning the Nobel Prize. He was doomed. This exquisite drink was the love of his life. The only thing on which he could depend. Even writing let him down. He was slipping down his publisher’s list. His agent wasn’t inviting him to dinner any more.

Pam reappeared, smiling, brisk and competent. She made a little clicking sound with her tongue and the dog got up and walked to her.

“ Got to go, Will. Nice to see you again.”

She held out her hand. He’d forgotten she was left-handed. He noticed the ring.

“Look,” he said, getting up, “this is terrible. I’m sorry. You know, I had a bad day yesterday and….”

“Sit down and finish your drink. See you sometime.”

She was gone before he had time to think of something else to say. Here he was, the great master of language, tongue-tied, defeated. But the whisky was good. When he finished he’d do a thousand words then walk to The Angel. Walk ? How far was it ? A mile. No, more than that. Nearer two. Two miles ? He’d get a taxi. Maybe not The Angel. Perhaps The Lane Ends. Quieter. He could sit in the corner and watch the boats on the canal.  He nudged the pile of manuscripts with his foot and they tumbled. His heart sank at the thought of having to read through them. He searched for the one Pam had read to him, sat back in the armchair and turned to its last page:

She was gone before he had time to think of something else to say…..

“Bullshit,” he said flinging it across the room. “Bottom of the pile bullshit.”

He swigged the last of his whisky and sat down in front of his laptop.

 

That’s what I wrote. As he sat down at his laptop, I closed mine. The whore’s legs. Ten grand. Some chance. But I still had about twenty hours to myself, the sun was shining and there was thirty quid in my purse. My lovely little Guy would be back tomorrow. I grabbed my bag and my mobile phone, went out of the door, saw the bus coming and ran to the stop. I went upstairs and sat at the front. With ten grand I could buy a car, but I wouldn’t. I like buses. I like the characters. I like the dialogue. Buses are good for writers. And am I a writer ? Too bloody right I am.

 


 

A DISTANT COUNTRY

 

The Soviets had just invaded Czechoslovakia. Katie was on her way to work on the number 8 bus which went north out of the town past the two big council estates her mother talked of as trouble, onto the road to Longridge and the hills beyond.  The little industrial estate where she worked, just after the crematorium, was a mile from the village of Grimsargh where they sometimes went at lunch for a snack and a drink in The Plough. The landlord, Harry Barker, was a Tory councillor; a pot-bellied, short-sighted, spluttering, man who treated his customers as an inconvenience, a perilous river to be traversed between him and their money. Katie was thinking about him as she read Loving, because he’d stared at her crutch yesterday while she sat on a stool opposite the bar eating her prawn sandwich. It was disgusting to be ogled by a fat, ugly old man. She didn’t wear mini-skirts to attract him. Being ogled by Billy Capstick was another matter. He was sitting next to her reading The Daily Telegraph which he bought for the crossword.

“Bastards,” he said.

“Who ?”

“Soviet Union.”

“Why ?”

“They’ve just invaded Czechoslovakia.”

“Where’s that ?”

He folded the paper and turned to her.

“A distant country of which we know little.”

“What ?”

“Our stop.”

He followed her down the stairs. She was aware of him looking at her hair which she’d brushed for twenty minutes before leaving home. It went right down to below her waist but she tucked it inside her leather coat to keep it neat. She knew he liked her hair because he’d said to her:

“A wig-maker would pay a fortune for that.”

She’d hit him, as she often did when she thought he wasn’t serious enough. On the other hand, his seriousness frightened her. She’d been reading an article about sexual positions in her magazine. A girl said she liked it from behind: she put her face in the pillow and her backside in the air and her boyfriend slid it in and, apparently, it was wonderful. She’d never done it that way but was thinking she should. If other people did it, if it was the thing to do, she didn’t want to miss out. The problem was, she’d finished with Barry and wasn’t having sex in any position just now. Sex with Barry was okay. She had orgasms often enough. But he didn’t turn her on. She felt being turned on was essential. She wasn’t sure what it meant but it had to be something more than the mere physical fulfilment of sex with Terry. She felt awkward afterwards. She liked to get away from him. Something wasn’t right about that. But she wanted very badly to be turned on.  It was the kind of thing her mother would disapprove of. The kind of thing her mother approved of was being the first in the avenue to have colour television, never having been without a fridge, having a holiday every year and a car not more than three years old. Katie was bored to the point of insanity by carpets and three piece suites and wallpaper and double-glazing. She was itching and she needed to scratch; but just what she was itching for she didn’t know. She was eighteen and had decades ahead of her to find out. For the time being. she had to work. Billy was walking beside her tapping his thigh with his rolled paper and whistling in his irritating way.

“Stop it,” she said.

“Don’t you like Mozart ?”

“No.”

“Shall I whistle Beethoven ?”

“No.”

“Verdi ?”

“Don’t whistle at all.”

“I can’t go into work quiet. Brydon might think I like being here.”

“Don’t you ?”

“Do you ?”

“I don’t mind.”

“Not minding is typical northern resignation. You put up with it, but do you like it ?”

“You’re getting on my nerves.”

He held the door for her.

“The canapés and champagne are to your left, madam.”

She ignored him and went into reception where Bernadette was already at her typewriter. She trilled a cheerful good morning, as she always did and Katie did her best to sound happy. She took off her coat, hung it on the back of the door and sat down. A terrible sense of closure descended on her. What was she doing here ? The typing had nothing to do with her. There was a little pile of the yellow Vehicle Hire Forms by her machine together with hand written details. It would take her the first hour to get them done. But what connection did she have to them ? It would’ve been all the same if she’d been typing death warrants. There was no link between her activity and the purpose it served. She was sure the forms must be necessary. Once they’d been signed by Mr Brydon they went up to Billy and Leo. What did they do with them ? They must keep one copy and send the other two out. What did it matter ? Her business was to type them, what happened after that didn’t need to bother her. She tried hard to forget her disturbing thoughts, what her mother called those funny feelings we must ignore. If she could just get through to the arrival of the tea trolley, a Kit-Kat, a sweet tea and a chat to Bernie might do the trick. But things were different for Bernie because she was having an affair with Mr Brydon. She could get whatever she wanted. Katie knew her colleague was being paid more than the deputy depot manager while she was getting only £600 a year. Of course, money wasn’t everything: she was living with her parents and they asked for only £3 a week; all the same, Bernie was on £1,400 and that was a big difference. Vaguely, Katie felt if she had more money everything would be easier. She didn’t think through how, but she felt it might even help her get the right boyfriend and feel really turned on. By the time Mrs Rutherford arrived with the tea and biscuits she was ready to pull on her coat, walk out and never come back. One of those women who had left school without any education to speak of, Mrs Rutherford had made her way as best she could. She ran the canteen though her cookery skills were negligible.  Katie had asked her many times for weaker tea, but the brew still made her shudder and left a bitter film in her mouth. Even the Kit-Kat snapped with a soggy sound. The sight of the big woman in her white coat, her thick hands gripping the cups and the money, her huge backside waddling as she pushed the trolley to the lift, depressed her. It was a horrible lonely feeling. Mrs Rutherford was a widow bringing up two teenagers. How did she scrape by ? Might that happen to her ? Might she marry some good-looking boy like Billy, someone full of life and fun only to be left on her own with no money and children to look after ? It made her feel it was hardly worth setting out on life’s adventure. She’d left school at sixteen hoping work would be exciting and she’d meet all kinds of interesting people, but it was worse than being in the classroom. She was eighteen. How long was she going to spend her days like this ? What was the way out ?

“And I said to him, I’m not going there. You can take me somewhere better than that. Have you seen it ? Coons go there.”

Bernie was talking about her boyfriend Ian who ran a car business and drove an Alfa Romeo. He was always asking her to marry him but she rebuffed him, made him buy her ever more expensive presents, take her on flashy holidays and to posh restaurants, while two or three times a week she took her knickers off in the back of Mr Brydon’s car.

“Oh.”

“I said to him, I said, I like a nice place. High class. I like to be seen among the best people. You can’t take me to a place full of niggers.”

“Is it full of niggers ?” said Katie.

“Well, my friend Wendy, you know Wendy the one with the big breasts and the funny teeth ? She went there and she said there were four coons at the next table. Ruined her night. Well, it would wouldn’t it ? You don’t pay good money to eat with savages do you ?”

“No.”

Katie didn’t like coons either. Her mother was very proud of living in an area without blackies. Sometimes Katie wondered if niggers were as bad as her mother said and Terry had a West Indian friend who was nice and bought her drinks and was always laughing and smiling. But she thought that must be an exception. When she saw coons and pakis on the street she felt it wasn’t right. They should be in their own country. What were they doing here ? When she was a girl there were no pakis in the town, then suddenly she would see these women in their bright dresses walking down Market St or across St John’s Sq. How did they get here ? It was all a mystery to her, but it seemed wrong. This was her town. There were no black people where she grew up. Her parents bought one of those little three-bedroom semis built between the wars; in truth no bigger than some of the terraces in the town, but with a garden back and front, a garage and privet hedges, they granted status and allowed their occupants to identify with the rich who owned the six bedroomed places with an acre of lawn and a garage big enough for two Jags. Mr and Mrs Heywood inherited £600 when her father was killed at work by a falling steel beam. They used it as a deposit on 17 West End Way, took out a mortgage for the remaining £700 and felt they were safe. Brian Heywood was a traveller for a fabrics firm. Duteous, obedient and with a faith in business as unflinching as a medieval peasant’s belief in god, he worked his way up to Regional Manager which meant when Katie was thirteen they were able to build an extension.

“Four bedrooms,” said Mrs Heywood as they ate braised steak and chips one Friday tea-time, “not many people have four. And a garden back and front. Think yourselves lucky.”

But Katie didn’t feel lucky. Even at thirteen she felt oppressed by her mother’s snobbery and ambition for her and her brother. Neither of them was clever. They progressed from St Theresa’s Primary to Blessed Edmund Campion, worked hard and left with a couple of O Levels each.

“You don’t need qualifications to make money,” said her mother. “Look at your father. He left school at fifteen and we’ve never been without a fridge since the war.”

Her brother trained as an electrician, set up on his own and was soon earning £100 a week. Katie wanted money too, but not the boredom of work to earn it. There was another world. The first record she bought was Livin’ Doll by Cliff Richard. She played it over and over on the radiogram. Then she bought Helen Shapiro’s Walking Back To Happiness. Perhaps she could be a singer. Then she would receive the attention she felt she’d always lacked. People would love her. Her picture would be in Loving, Living and Woman’s Own. She’d earn millions and be able to live exactly as she liked. She practised singing and making the right movements in front of the mirror. She felt she’d perfected an agonised facial expression which fitted perfectly w the strained emotions of the hits she sang. But how to move from bedroom performances to the real thing ? She had no idea. She supposed she might need a manager. How to find one ? Then there was the question of her singing: was it any good ? She knew nothing about music so was nervous about approaching musicians. What did it mean to sing in this or that key ? When she was sixteen she met Roy Askew who played folk guitar and wrote his own songs. She was taken aback by his playing. He invited her to his house and in the front room he finger-picked and played nifty chord sequences which took her breath away. She confessed her desire to sing but when she tried one of his songs, she ran out of high notes and collapsed into coughing. He explained she needed to start lower. She couldn’t get enough volume. He told her she needed lessons to build the dynamics of her voice and he offered to teach her music. He gave her a set of songs to practise but she found they undermined her confidence. The thought of standing in front of people and finding her voice diminishing to a squeak. or being unable to sing loud enough for people to hear brought the carefully assembled dream of adulation and wealth crashing into a nightmare of humiliation and rejection.

She renounced her ambition to sing and replaced it with the idea of becoming a groupie. There was a rock group in the town which had recently made a record. It was called Soft Orange and consisted of four men in their early twenties, the customary assemblage of rhythm guitar, lead guitar (and vocals), bass and drums. The drummer, who was small, muscular and energetic, modelled himself on Keith Moon: if he wasn’t drunk he was stoned, at the end of each performance he threw his kit across the stage, and he seduced any willing girl or woman. Katie and her friend Alison started to follow them. They hung around. They smiled. They made it clear they were available. But they weren’t. The first time they were invited backstage, Colin Wignall, the stocky, wild little drummer, grabbed Alison and shoved his hands up her jumper. She hit him with her ineffectual fists and backed into the corner as Terry Millom, the tall, slow, bearded singer whose hair came halfway down his back, pulled him away and shook his head wisely. Pale and shaking on the bus home Alison said:

“That’s the last time I see them.”

“I know,” said Katie, but she couldn’t give up on the possibility of attracting Terry, who seemed to her the embodiment of rock stardom. If their record was a hit, they might become millionaires. He would buy a stately home or a chateau in France. They would drive everywhere in his white Rolls. They would fly in his private jet to Sydney or California. She would never need to work again. Her photograph would be in Loving; arm in arm with the tall, inscrutable guitarist, she would look out defiantly at the world which would envy her. She would be the centre of interest. Everyone would treat her with deference. She understood Alison was upset: Wignall was a madman and it wasn’t nice to have a rampant lunatic grab your breasts in front five other people, especially when he didn’t even know your name; but she felt she was exaggerating. This was the nearest Katie had ever been to fame and wealth and she wasn’t going to let it slip because Wignall was a sexual molester. To give up on this was to contemplate years of dull office work and, if she was lucky, marriage to some halfway decent joiner or postman and the comfort of small snobberies which were all that kept her mother from despair.

“I should report him to the police,” said Alison.

“Yes,” said Katie.

“Little pervert.”

“I know.”

Katie tried to interest other friends in following the band, but they quickly became disillusioned and fell away. There were long hours of hanging around before being invited backstage or into a van for a spliff, a snog and a grope. Katie wasn’t sure she liked sitting on Terry’s knee while he ran his hand up her skirt in front of the other band members and their girls, but she reasoned it was one of those things you had to put up with in order to arrive at something better, like boring lessons, incomprehensible Latin masses and hours of stupid work. She felt if she persevered, she would become his girlfriend, rather than just the girl he favoured for an after-gig bit of heavy petting. It was difficult though to balance the degree of her willingness with the extent of his commitment; he was as uncommunicative as a wall. His conversation was carried out in a few grunts and the odd word, winks, a toss of the head, a shrug of the shoulders. She went along with it, curtailed her chatter, tried to make herself as intriguingly laconic as him. When she finally gave in to him and he seduced her in the back of the van, between two towering speakers, her head jammed against a guitar case, he slipped inside her without a condom and she spent a worried two weeks.

“What if I’m pregnant ?” she said.

He shrugged and lit a spliff.

Henceforth, she insisted on protection and though the sex was frequent, she felt he was becoming less intense. Perhaps she should let herself get pregnant, then he’d have to marry her and if the group became rich and famous she’d be able to hire a nanny and not need to attend to the baby. She was thinking she might do this when one night, after a gig in Barnoldswick, he ignored her and went off with a black girl in a skirt so short she couldn’t sit down without showing her crotch. Katie went backstage.

“Where’s Terry ?”

“Shaggin’ in the van,” said Wignall.

She went out to the battered, white Bedford. The doors were locked. She hammered on the side, lit a cigarette and waited. When Terry came out of the back doors with a spliff in his fingers, he nodded at her and walked on. The black girl trotted behind him on her stilettos. She thought she would go backstage and give him tongue-lashing, but she knew he’d sit and smoke, nod and wink and her words and the anger and humiliation behind them would run off him like rain off new slates.

“Coon,” said Katie to Bernadette as she bit into her Mars.

“No !”

“Yeah. In the back of the van.”

“Fancy doing it with a coon. He’ll be sorry if he catches something.”

Katie was almost tempted to say, so will you, but she held back. To her knowledge, Bernadette had had sex with Brydon, her boyfriend, Stan Glynn the office manager, Tom Sutcliffe the cold-store supervisor, Jack Minshall one of the lorry drivers and Dick Wheeler the soap powder sales rep. That was in the past eighteen months and they were the ones she knew about.  She wondered if they always wore condoms because she knew Bernie was on the pill. Still, she wasn’t likely to catch anything from Brydon who probably wasn’t even having sex with his wife anymore, but Stan Glynn was known to be putting it about.

“I hope he does,” she said.

“He deserves to. Some people have no morals.”

Katie had to give up following Soft Orange which brought her anguish when they had a record in the top hundred and a double-page picture in Loving. She read they’d met the Beatles and the horrible sense of missing out ran through her veins. Was that randy little coon meeting John Lennon just because she was willing to open her legs in the back of a van ? But then she’d done just that and got nowhere. Did coons have something white women didn’t ? It was all too horrible to think about. She wondered if she should start going to their gigs again. Maybe Terry was missing her ? But the need to save face was more powerful that her distress and she renounced her life as a groupie once and for all.

It was at this time she started going more regularly to the youth club. It was housed in a little building on the corner of Church Lane and the main road so the youngsters hung around watching the traffic, leaning on the safety barrier, smoking and looking cocky. There was a small room downstairs with a tall bar which served coca-cola in plastic cups. The DJ had his turntable behind it. The amplified music made conversation impossible. The room was dark except for flashing purple lights which sent intermittent beams criss-crossing so that faces were suddenly lit up ghoulishly. The girls wore mini-skirts. The boys tight jeans and leather jackets. Upstairs was  table-tennis in a bare space lit by a single neon tube. But for the young people of the suburb, this was the place to be. The other youth clubs were tame by comparison. Only St Jude’s had a darkened room and thumping music. At the Congregational club they had a Dansette and a snooker table in a dusty scout hut. But Jude’s had the feel of an ante-room to a night club. They could begin to feel grown up. They were on the cusp, though of what they weren’t sure but it felt exciting and a bit dangerous. Everyone knew that after Jude’s the next step was the town pubs, The Fish and The Joiner’s Arms where the jeunesse dore, or at least silver-plated, gathered at the weekend and where the supped-up minis and the MG Midgets roared away in a little cloud of fumes and a screech of rubber while the carless stood by smiling enviously.

Billy Capstick was a regular. She quickly realised he was sought-after. He was good-looking enough but he had an easy, friendly way which charmed the younger girls. As soon as she knew most of them wanted to go out with him, Katie decided she would target him. One Wednesday she was sitting with Alison, a cup of coke in her hand, the music shaking the walls, when he walked in. She caught his eye and smiled thinking he would understand. He smiled, nodded and walked straight past her to go and talk to Janice Bush. Katie was offended because she thought she looked particularly attractive that night. She’d washed and brushed her long blonde hair, taken a bit of time over delicate make-up, chosen her clothes to match perfectly and was in that mood where she believed no boy could look at her and not be moved. It wasn’t her way to smile first. She cultivated an aloof demeanour. She expected to be paid attention and if a boy exuded the right degree of willingness to please, she might give him a nice smile, eventually. To come right out with it and smile at Billy was such an unusual act, so much of her self was given away by it, she couldn’t believe he would walk by. And Janice Bush ? What was special about her ? Katie had always thought she was vulgar. She might be quite pretty but she wore that garish red lipstick and her thighs were too fat. It was hard to accept Billy could prefer her.

She was so mad she convinced herself she wanted nothing to do with him; but then he started to pay her a bit of attention at work. At the Christmas party he held a sprig of mistletoe over her head and kissed her on the lips. Sex was taking place in darkened corners all over the depot but Katie had had enough of that kind of thing in the back of Terry’s van. If things were going to kick off with Billy, she wanted them to have a chance of lasting but she wasn’t at all sure she did want them to kick off. He was a strange boy. She was never sure of what he meant and he talked about things she didn’t understand. Then one evening when she was working late. catching up with typing, an evening when Bernadette was entertaining Mr Brydon, Billy appeared from upstairs already buttoned in his navy-blue overcoat, a scarf wrapped roughly round his throat and leather gloves on his hands.

“Overtime ?” he said.

She refused to look at him, sat primly on her stool and typed as if she believed in it.

“Obviously.”

“You’ll be having tax problems.”

“Like you.”

“Like Bernadette.”

She refused the dangled, tasty fly.

“You must be the fastest typist in Europe.”

“I am.”

“You should ask for a bonus.”

“You don’t get one for fast typing.”

“What do you get one for ?”

She refused again. He turned his back on her and looked out of the tall, wide window at the dark industrial estate. She raised her eyes to look at him and it struck her how handsome he was from behind, how his thick, brown hair shone and nestled gently on his collar. He was tall and nicely slim but his shoulders had a look of strength and vigour which pleased her. Then she noticed he’d spotted her reflection. Damn ! She pretended to focus ever more intently on her work. He turned and looked at the clock.

“Next bus is twenty-five minutes,” he said.

“Better get walking.”

“Could do with some company.”

Her heart gave a little kick.

“Frightened of the dark ?”

“Need someone to hold my hand.”

“Cissy.”

“I might get attacked out there. Things you read in the papers.”

“Should be able to take care of yourself.”

“I can run fast but I don’t fight. I’m a pacifist.”

“What’s one of them ?”

“Someone who doesn’t believe in war.”

“How can you not believe in it ?”

“Cissies like me think there are alternatives.”

“You’re crazy.”

“You’re the second person who’s said that to me this week.”

“Who was the first ?”

“My psychiatrist.”

“You pay someone to tell you you’re mad ?”

“No, I pay him to make me sane.”

“He’s a failure.”

“You should have seen me before he started.”

“I did.”

“Then you’ll have noticed the difference.”

“You get madder by the day.”

“There are no degrees of insanity. It’s like virginity. You are or you aren’t.”

“And you are.”

“How did you know I’m a virgin.”

“You’re not a virgin, you’re mad.”

“Do you mean if I was a virgin I’d be sane ?”

“You’d be mad to be a virgin.”

“But I am a virgin.”

“You must think I’m mad to believe that.”

“I think you’re perfectly sane, but I’m mad.”

“You’re driving me mad.”

“It’s a quality of madness, it’s contagious.”

“If it was contagious everyone would be mad.”

“Chickenpox is contagious but I haven’t got it.”

“Did you have it when you were little ?”

“What, madness ?”

“No chickenpox.”

“I’ve no idea. I’m too mad to remember.”

“I think you should go home.”

“You’d send a madman out in the dark on his own ?”

“Why not ?”

“Who knows what I might get up to.”

“Behave yourself or you’ll end up arrested.”

“I am arrested. At least my development is. According to Dr Freud.”

“Who’s he ?”

“A psychiatrist. He had to flee the Nazis.”

“Why ?”

“Because he was Jewish.”

“I don’t like Yids.”

“How many do you know ?”

“None.”

“How do you know you don’t like ‘em, then ?”

“I don’t need to put my hand in the fire to know I don’t like being burned.”

“You’re a catholic .”

“I am.”

“Jesus was a Jew.”

“Was he ?”

“You should know, he wants you for a sunbeam not me.”

“Don’t you go to church ?”

“They kicked me out.”

“Why ?”

“For being a communist.”

“Are you ?”

“Only during the week. I’m a liberal at weekends.”

“Are you a member ?”

“I used to be a member of ABC minors but I tore up my card.”

“Why ?”

“I couldn’t stand the bad behaviour.”

“You’re mad.”

“This conversation is going in circles. Harold Pinter couldn’t put up with it.”

“Who’s he ?”

“A writer sympathetic to communists.”

“He should live in Russia.”

“They wouldn’t have him.”

“Why not ?”

“He’s a communist.”

“The Russians are communists.”

“So are the Czechs.”

“Who ?”

“The people the Russians have just invaded.”

“If they’re communists why have they invaded ?”

“The Russians don’t like communists.”

“They are communists.”

“Only at weekends. During the week they’re straightforward tyrants.”

“It’s too complicated.”

“It’s very simple. The world is mad but only the mad can see it.”

“You’re interrupting my work.”

“Work is a waste of your youth and beauty.”

Her pulse accelerated again.

“I want to go home.”

“Let me escort you.”

“I’m going to miss the bus if you keep talking to me.”

“Will it arrive later if I’m quiet ?”

“It’s time to go, Billy.”

“I’ll wait for you in perfect silence if you let me buy you a drink on the way home.”

Her fingers flicked out more quickly from the home keys and her eyes focused more resolutely on the words being imprinted on the yellow form:

For the provision of one ten-ton, uncovered trailer and driver for 8 hours on 2nd October 1968……

In less than a second the thought of sitting in a nice pub, nestling next to Billy drinking a lager and lime made her breath quicken but at once the idea of being grubby from work and still in the clothes she’d worn all day, her hair unwashed since the morning filled her with dread.

“I’m in a hurry. I’m washing my hair tonight.”

“So am I.”

She didn’t look at him. He stood by the window for a few more seconds.

“See you tomorrow,” and he was gone.

She banged furiously at the typewriter. Each little form seemed to take an hour. She yanked the completed one from the roller, turned the serrated black knobs to insert another. How she hated those forms ! She was alone in the depot now apart from Willie Crawford the warehouse supervisor who appeared in his white coat, rattling his keys.

“I’m nearly done.”

Three minutes before the bus was due, she pulled on her coat, switched off the light, skipped down the steps and ran to the stop, expecting to see Billy. He must have set off walking. She peered down the darkened road. It was getting chilly. She lit a cigarette and waited till the tall, illuminated, slow number eight appeared round the bend. She put out her hand. She was the only passenger upstairs all the way to town.

It was a month later her mother bought her a car. She didn’t like her travelling on the bus and a car was sign she was getting on in the world, a little. An insurance policy matured, there was a bit of spare money. They bought her a mini, taxed and insured. She had the pay the running costs. Every morning she passed the stop where Billy waited with his rolled newspaper in his hand. The first few times, she pretended not to see him. Then one day, when the queue was small and he was leaning against the shelter in that careless way she liked so much, she pulled into the lay-by and he climbed in.

“Won the pools ?”

“Robbed a bank.”

“You should’ve robbed a bigger one, there’s hardly room for my legs.”

“Don’t complain or you can walk.”

“ I’m not complaining.” He paused. “How comfortable is the back seat ?”

“Billy !” she reprimanded.

She arranged to pick him up each morning and things went well for three weeks, till she had to give her mother a lift into town because her dad was ill.

“Do you give Billy Capstick a lift every day?” said her mother over beefburger and chips at tea-time.

“Yes.”

“How much does he pay you ?”

“I don’t charge him.”

“You should. What’s the bus fare ? Ninepence into town and a shilling out to the depot. One and nine a day. That’s eight and ninepence a week. Nearly two pounds a month. That’s twenty-four pounds a year. The cheeky monkey. He could have offered something for petrol.”

“He did.”

“Well, why didn’t you take it ?”

“I’m going there anyway. What difference does it make ?”

“What difference ? Twenty-four pounds a year that’s what difference. He can pay up or you don’t take him anymore.”

“I can’t ask him now.”

“Why not ?”

“Because he’s a friend.”

“He’s a free-loader. Either he pays or you don’t take him. Just remember who bought that car.”

Katie picked him up a few more times, but she knew her mother would find out and she wouldn’t put it past her to take the car off her.

“I can’t give you a lift tomorrow,” she said as they got out at the depot.

“Okay. Why’s that ?”

“I’m not coming by car anymore.”

She knew it was a stupid thing to say but she couldn’t think of better. All day she tried to work out a route which would keep her from passing his bus stop. Or she could set off earlier. But then he’d see her mini in the car park anyway. Why didn’t she just ask him for the money ? She didn’t understand why but she didn’t want him handing notes and coins to her every Friday. She didn’t want to feel like a taxi driver. She’d rather not take him than take money. The next day she pretended not to see him as she sped by the stop where was leaning nonchalantly as usual. Contact between them at work dwindled. Months went by, she still had no boyfriend though she’d tried half a dozen, and Billy no longer joked with her.

“Can you work late tonight, Katie ?” Bernie said to her one lunchtime as they were eating their sandwiches in the sunny reception.

“I’m going out.”

“Where to ?”

“Pictures.”

“Who with ?”

“A boy.”

“Is he nice ?”

“He’s all right.”

“What time’s it start ?”

“Don’t know. About half seven.”

“Oh, you could stay till six.”

“What about you ?”

“I’ve got to go to a meeting with the boss.”

Meeting ! Katie bit into her prawn sandwich imagining the pot-bellied manager, his y-fronts round his ankles, his trousers round his knees, his jacket on the front seat, his tie on the floor, his shirt unbuttoned and his string vest on show, grunting as he pushed in and out of the squealing Bernie whose buttercup yellow mini skirt was up round her waist. And for that, she had to work late. How could she do it ? How could she let a leering old man like Brydon do it to her ? She wondered what they got up to ? Did she suck him off ? It was disgusting. She put her sandwich back on the plate.

“Where’s that ?”

“Oh, Manchester or somewhere.”

Manchester ! Parked up by the canal or behind the depot. She felt impossibly lonely. Why was it Bernie was shagging with Mr Brydon and she, who really wanted a boy she could love, was all alone ? Was this how the world worked ? Should she be getting her knickers off for Brydon too ? Should she be increasing her salary by stroking his balls ? It was too atrocious. She felt as if the world were spinning away from her. Were all her feelings wrong ? Was it better to be like Bernie ?

“So you can stay till six then ?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Make sure all those VHRs are done.”

She would have liked to have said, Make sure you give him a good time, but she picked up her mug of coffee and turned the pages of Loving.

When she left the depot at five past six she could have cried with weariness, boredom and isolation. She revved the engine of her little car and zoomed off down the quiet road. She wanted to drive impossibly fast, to screech round the bends and bang through the gears at roundabouts; but as she was nearing the motorway bridge she caught a figure in her headlights, walking briskly, swinging his newspaper. She smiled and her heart began to thump with excitement. She passed him. There was a lay-by. She pulled in. In her mirror she could see him walking. Then he began to trot. She smoothed her hair. Was her mascara smudged ?

“Thanks,” he said, out of breath. “Very kind of you.”

“S’all right.”

“Drop me at Midgery Lane if you like. Plenty of buses from there.”

“I’ll take you home.”

“Get some petrol on the way. I’ll pay.”

“Don’t need any.”

 

They were heading for town. She wanted the journey to last but the road seemed to be gobbled up, even at thirty. Once they hit the centre there’d be nowhere to stop. She wanted to stop. She wanted to be parked up somewhere quiet with Billy. Right now Bernie was doing it with Brydon. She was letting him stick his dick in her so she could get more money and do what she liked at work. But Katie wanted to be with Billy because she liked him. She did like him. He was handsome, funny and kind. Even if he did have strange ideas. He was the sort of boy her mother disliked. So much the better. She wanted him to kiss her. She wanted to climb in the back seat and let him take her knickers off. As she approached a roundabout an idea seized her.

“I’ve forgotten something.”

She did 360 degrees.

“Must be important.”

“It is.”

“ Your make-up.”

“No.”

“Fags.”

“Got ‘em.”

“Must be your purse.”

“Nope.”

“I give up.”

“I’ve forgotten to leave a note for Bernie,” she blurted without thinking.

“Will she miss you that badly ?”

She slapped his leg.

“Something she has to do. She’ll be in before me in the morning.”

“Wasn’t she working overtime ?”

“Gone to a meeting with the boss.”

“Ah, if that’s a meeting, I know it well.”

“What ?”

“Are you familiar with The Ecstasy of St Teresa ?”

“No.”

“It’s worth getting to know.”

The depot was in darkness. A dismal, two-storey, squat building made up of offices at the front and a warehouse behind, it looked more depressing in the dark. At least during the day there might be a little sunlight hitting the windows or with the lights on at dusk you could project a degree of warmth onto its brutalist structure. The big, grey metal gates were padlocked. She pulled up outside, turned off the engine and the headlights. All the other buildings on the estate were closed for the night. The place was black and deserted. It had served its daytime business function. The workers had gone home. With that violent division between working life and the rest, the estate became a lonely, empty, threatening locale, a no-place between the town and the villages people who could afford it lived in to fool themselves into the myth of perpetuating rural life. The street light outside the depot was out. A single, sad orange bulb glowed forty yards in the distance. A few cars sped by on the main road: workers from the town heading home. Katie stared ahead. This was a horrible place. The horrible place she came to every day. Why did they build these things outside the town ? It would be much better if she worked in the centre. What was she doing in this place ? Billy was beside her. He was looking up at the darkened windows.

“Who was in when you left ?”

“Willie Crawford.”

“Not there now.”

“No,” she said, “but we are.”

She didn’t move. She imagined her meaning was clear. It was an invitation. How could he resist ? She thought he would lean across and kiss her or touch her thigh. She would let him do what he liked. She wanted to be naked with him, even here in the sordid circumstance of her car parked outside the depot. She thought he couldn’t fail to understand. To turn to him, to look him in the eyes and smile would be going too far. She’d said what she’d said. That was enough. She waited. Hours went by. He didn’t touch her. He didn’t lean over and kiss her.

“Want me to break in ?”

It was all she could to hold back her tears. She didn’t know if he’d failed to grasp or wasn’t interested. Could it be the latter ? She’d never let the idea pass through her head. Ever since she’d smiled at him at the youth club and he’d started to be more friendly to her at work, she’d assumed he would climb barbed wired walls to get at her. It was a terrible shock to think he’d changed his mind. She couldn’t believe it. But why was he so stupid ? She was there, she was sitting waiting. What did he think she was sitting there staring out of the windscreen for ?

“No.”

“Guess Bernie’ll have to go without her note.”

“You think so ?”

“Unless you stick it to the front gate, but then anyone could read it. Some bloke walking his terrier at midnight would stop, pull off the sellotape, get his torch out of his pocket and read, Bernie, don’t forget to water the aspidistra. He’d think it was code and the Soviets were about to invade, charging up the M6 in their T54s Next thing you know, the depot’d be surrounded by marines. We’d arrive in the morning and they’d arrest us as spies.”

“You’re mad,” she started the engine and switched on the lights.

“You’d be okay because they’d look in your bag and find a copy of Loving. But when they pulled Theses on Feuerbach from my pocket, I’d be done for.”

She didn’t reply. What was he talking about ? She’d just offered him her body. She just offered him love, albeit on the back seat of a mini, and he was too stupid to understand. What did he expect ? Did she have to take her clothes off in the front seat? She hit the roundabout a forty, touched the brake and the car screeched and rocked.

“Who’s after us ?” he said.

She didn’t speak. The journey lasted years. They climbed the hill to the suburb where they both lived. She pulled in outside the chip shop ; kids were hanging around on their bikes.

“Steak pudding, chips and peas ?” he said.

She turned to him. For the first time since he’d got in the car, she met his eyes. He really was very handsome, and nice. She smiled. For a second she hoped he wouldn’t get out.

“Okay. Thanks for the lift. See you in the mornin’”

She wanted to say: No, don’t get out. Let’s go for a drink. Or park up somewhere. I could go home and get changed. We could meet in The Plough. Or I could pick you up. But he was gone.

Her mother had made fish for tea.

“That’s fresh salmon. Do you know how much that cost ?”

“I don’t bloody care.”

“Katie Dyet, don’t you swear at me ! Your own mother.”

When she’d eaten Katie had a shower then sat on the sofa with a mug of tea. Her father was watching the news. There was something about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. She went up to her room and read an article about how to turn men on in Loving. When she switched out the light and pulled the duvet round her shoulders an inexplicable tear trickled down her cheek.

Next morning she pretended not to see Billy at the bus-stop. He never travelled in her car again.


 

A NAZI HELMET

 

In the wooden garage were a gas mask and two helmets: one the standard issue Tommy’s tin hat ; the other a black, close fitting, stylish Nazi model which covered your ears and protected the back of your neck. The swastika was undamaged. When little Paul Hawes played soldiers with his friends, he always wanted to wear the Nazi helmet; the British one reminded him of a plate; it sat on the top of your head like a recently-landed flying saucer; he thought it dim and plain. The Nazi one, on the other hand, spoke of intelligence and distinction. It was made not just to protect your head well, but to look good. Paul imagined that the men who wore the British hat must have been slow and helpless, like the boys in school who couldn’t yet recite their tables, but the black helmet must have belonged to someone quick and independent who knew how to look after himself. Because he was a well-brought up boy whose mother insisted he observe Christian virtue, he never took the black helmet for himself but always offered his friends first choice; all the same, he would say:

“Which helmet do you want?  This is the British one.”

Usually that did the trick, but one or two boys would reach for the Nazi hat and Paul would feel humiliated: he thought he looked ugly and stupid in the green helmet. They played in the garden. There was a square of crazy paving in front of the oblong bay of the back room and a little rockery which dropped down to a five yard stretch of lawn, to the left of which ran the path of flagstones his dad had laid. To the right was a flower bed of mostly roses behind which was the thick privet separating the garden from the Haldane’s. Then came the big square lawn where he played football and beyond that the lilacs and rhododendrons where he thought he’d seen a snake so his dad put on his boots and grabbed the hoe from the shed and came to sort it out; but it was merely a fallen black branch dotted with white fungus. All the same, Paul thought his dad a fearless hero. He’d been in Italy during the war and had told his son about getting up in the morning and lifting the snakes from his tent. What was a possible adder in the undergrowth to such a man ?

The garage was to the left if you were facing the garden from the crazy paving and attached to it was a little sloping-roofed shed one of his dad’s relatives had built. Paul loved both these constructions: the garage was a frame of thick beams to which tongue and groove had been nailed and the corrugated roof was held in place by a strong timber triangles  joined by heavy nuts and bolts. It fascinated the boy. Someone had sawn the timber, measured and joined and made this splendid thing stand. It seemed to him more marvellous as a construction than the house because its innards were visible. And the little shed too where the smell of the wood was still fresh and the joints fit together perfectly made him think it would be wonderful to grow up and be able to build such things. He had a little joiner’s kit his uncle and auntie had bought him for Christmas and he sawed and hammered but nothing he made ever looked neat or held firmly. It was a mystery. One of those puzzles adults don’t talk about, as if garages and sheds were the most natural things in the world.

On the crazy paving, Paul had built a den. He’d disobeyed his mother by moving some of the flagstones left over from the path, then in the garage he’d found a long piece of black hardboard which he used for the roof.  He felt bad about not doing as he was told, but his mother said if he tried to move the stones they would fall on his toes and he’d have to go to hospital like David Bernal who fell out of a tree and broke his leg. It wasn’t true. He’d moved them and his toes were fine. They weren’t the full big stones. Just the bits his dad had broken off, so even he could move them though he was still only five and a half. He liked to sit in his den even when he was on his own. He had made it. It was his. Not even his big sister was allowed in it without his permission. It was much better, though, with a friend, even a friend he didn’t like very much such as Nigel Heath. It was hard to find a friend you really liked. Most of Paul’s friends were all right. The important thing was to have someone to play with. Paul knew he had to be kind, even to people he didn’t like, because his mother told him that was a good thing to do and Jesus would love him for it. So he was kind to Nigel, most of the time. He let him wear the Nazi helmet if he wanted and he let him sit in the den, though Nigel said it wasn’t much of a den because it only had three sides and no door or window. Paul wanted him to punch him. He’d worked hard to move the stones and the thing about a den was you could hide there, even if it didn’t have a door or a window. Nigel was always saying things weren’t very good. He lived in a big house at the end of the avenue and they had a lounge where children weren’t allowed to go. Nigel took him in there one day. It was just a big new-smelling room with a carpet, a sofa, two armchairs and a coffee table, but Nigel told him not to touch anything and to take his shoes off before he went in. Paul thought this very strange because children were allowed everywhere in his house. He could climb on the sofa with his shoes on and so long as they weren’t muddy his mother wouldn’t say anything. There was no room kept closed and giving off the odour of a furniture shop. Nigel said his mum and dad came and sat in the room on their own; his dad would drink whiskey but he wasn’t allowed to smoke his pipe. The children had to stay in the long, narrow room at the side of the house. Paul liked that much more because the carpet and furniture were worn, there was a toy chest and you didn’t feel as if you’d be sent to prison if you made a mess.

The day they went in the special room, Nigel showed him how to play a simple tune on the piano. It needed only one hand and three keys but Paul thought it  remarkable. Why was there no piano in his house ? He remembered his mum saying something about uncle Harry having piano lessons because he was the oldest; she never got a chance. She said it in that funny tone of voice she used when she talked about things or people she didn’t like or which got on her nerves. Was that why they didn’t have a piano ?

One day they were playing wars and Paul had the Nazi helmet. Nigel had no helmet at all because John Champland had taken the British one; instead he had Paul’s dad’s RAF cap. It opened out like an envelope and sat softly on your head. Paul said it had to be worn at an angle because that’s how he’d seen it in a photo of his dad during the war. Every time Nigel ran to attack the McKernan’s, the cap fell off. If he stopped to pick it up, he got pelted with clods.

“You wear this,” he said to Paul.

Paul looked at the blue-grey object. It offered no protection. It wasn’t the kind of thing to wear in battle. But it was his dad’s. He’d worn it when he was fighting in Italy and Egypt, which were countries very far away where it was very hot. He took off the Nazi helmet, handed it to Nigel and pulled on the cap. He wondered if it made him look like his dad; but when he charged up the avenue towards the McKernan’s it fell off and lay on its side in the road.

That night, after tea, he sneaked into his parents’ bedroom and looked at the picture of his dad on the dressing-table. He was smiling in a special way; a big, beaming smile. It made Paul think of sunshine and happy days. His dad was young in the picture and very smart in his uniform. The cap perched on his head at a cocky angle. At the other side of the dressing-table was a picture of his mum and dad on their wedding day. His mum was very pretty and slim. Her dress had a long train and in her hands was a big bouquet. She was smiling too, the crooked little smile that everyone said he had and was just like hers. His dad wore a dark suit and very shiny shoes and his smile was as broad and sunny as in the air force picture.  He heard the door open. His sister’s head appeared.

“You’ll get killed if they find you in here !”

By the time he was ten, Paul no longer played soldiers. The helmets were still in the garage somewhere, but he never thought of them when he parked his bike or turned it over to take off the wheels and clean it from one end to the other. His dad had taken him to a big warehouse to buy it. Whenever there was something to buy, his dad always knew someone. Paul got his football boots from Tommy Henderson who used to play in the first division and now had a little sports shop on Chapel St, on the way out of town. Henderson was a grumpy man and Paul  hung back behind his dad.

“How are you, Tommy ? Some boots for the lad. What have you got ?”

The men shook hands but Paul noticed Henderson didn’t look his dad in the eye. He disappeared into the back of the shop. Paul’s dad looked down at him and winked. Henderson appeared with three boxes. From the first he took a pair of sleek, black and white boots in soft Italian leather with Di Stefano’s florid signature in gold on the side. Paul tried them on.

“How do they feel ?” said his dad.

“Fantastic.”

“We’ll have ‘em, Tommy. Usual discount ?”

Paul saw a shadow cross the shopkeeper’s face.

“Not lost your cheek, Bernard.”

“Get nowhere without it, Tommy.”

Paul carried the boots to the car in the box. He couldn’t wait to run out on the field in them, but at the same time there was a strange feeling hurting him. Later that day he heard his mum and dad arguing:

“Why can’t you pay like everyone else ?”

“What’s wrong with it ?”

“It’s embarrassing, Bernard. You do it everywhere. When we went to the Vic and Station with Neville and Kath you had to go and find the chef and ask for ten per cent off.”

“He’s an old friend of mine. We were in Egypt together.”

“And what did you get up to ?”

“Don’t start that.”

“And Paul with you. Do you have to do such things in front of the child ?”

“I got twenty per cent off those boots. Paul loves ‘em.”

“We aren’t paupers. We can afford a pair of football boots for the lad. Have some pride. Pay the full price.”

“What good’s that ?”

“What good is it ? It means you can hold your head high.”

“I can’t ?”

“It’s demeaning.”

“Why ?”

“Because it’s almost begging. And it’s making use of people. Tommy Henderson is supposed to be a friend of yours.”

“He is a friend. He got me free tickets to the cup final three years running.”

“That’s not what friends are for.”

“I don’t understand you, Jessie.”

“I don’t like it. It’s not right. Just pay the asking price.”

“What if people offer me discount ?”

“That’s different. If they offer you accept with grace. But to ask is …..”

“Is what ?”

“It’s not the way I do things.”

“No, but it’s the way I do. I’ve saved us a lot of money. When this house was rewired…..”

“Yes, and you expected our Bill to do the joinery for nowt.”

“He’s your brother.”

“That doesn’t mean he should work for nothing. I wouldn’t ask him. You shouldn’t.”

“I don’t understand you. I don’t understand your family.”

“Don’t understand just do as I ask.”

 

Paul went to his room. He took the pristine boots from their box and ran his thumb over the leather. They were the most stylish boots he’d ever seen. None of his mates had any so neat. But what his mother had said troubled his heart. He hadn’t liked what had happened in the shop. He would have been happier if his dad had just paid the money. It made him feel ashamed that Henderson had called his dad cheeky, his face had been stern and he’d kept his eyes lowered. He lay on his bed and thought of the day they went to the big warehouse. His dad walked in as if the place was his and bounded up the stairs. A man in a brown overall stopped them:

“Can I help you, sir ?”

“Where’s Stan Billington ?”

“He’s in his office, sir. Can I get you something ?”

“I need to talk to Stan. Tell him Bernie’s here.”

“Bernie who, sir ?”

“Just say Bernie’s here. He’ll know.”

The man walked away across the cold wooden floor while Paul’s dad started to lift and stack them on one side. He found what he wanted.

“This is the one, Paul. A belter ! What d’you think ?”

The frame was wrapped in brown paper so Paul couldn’t tell the colour but it had drops and ten gears and was much smarter than the second-hand tracker he was riding round on. Billington appeared, a tall man with a bald head in a dark suit and shoes whose heels clacked rhythmically on the boards. He approached quickly and held out his hand to Paul’s dad.

“Bernie, how are you ? Haven’t seen you for years.”

“Fine, Stan. Bike for the lad. He likes this one. Can you do me twenty per cent ?”

“Twenty per cent ? That’s our mark up.”

“Aye. For an old friend, Stan. You want tyres you know where to come.”

“Fifteen.”

“Done.”

The men shook hands and smiled. Paul’s dad took out his wallet and counted the pound notes. He wheeled and carried the bike to the car and once home, Paul peeled off the brown paper to reveal the shiny blue frame of a BSA Golden Fifty. He rode it round the block. He went to the park to show it his mates. He cleaned it after every outing. But now he was confused: he loved his bike but he the way his dad had behaved made him feel small. And what had he been getting up to in Egypt ? Paul felt his mum was right, though he wasn’t sure why. His dad was almost a stranger. It was funny how he was sometimes frightened when he was with him. He tried on his boots. They were belters all right, even if his dad had made Henderson sullen and grumpy.

One morning, Paul’s dad wasn’t in the house at breakfast time. His mum and his sister said nothing but he knew something was wrong. Then his dad didn’t come home some nights and when he did he didn’t stay very long or was gone in the morning. When he got up one day, still in his pyjamas, Paul sneaked into his parents’ bedroom. The quilt and the covers were pushed back on both sides. He shoved his hands under and felt the warmth. Both his mum and dad had slept there. He was glad. There was something about a mum and dad sleeping in the same bed that was very good. He wasn’t sure what it was but it made things feel better. Nigel’s mum and dad had single beds and Paul thought that was strange. Nigel told him that sometimes his dad slept in the spare room and Paul puzzled over that. He pulled the door to quietly but when he got downstairs his dad wasn’t there. He took a slice of toast from the plate in the middle of the table and sat down. His sister was reading a girls’ magazine and his mother was fussing over breakfast.

“Get dressed, Paul. You’ll be late.”

She brought him a mug of tea, as he liked it, black and sweet.

“Did you see her ?” she said to his sister.

She nodded.

“And what is she like ? A tart no doubt.”

The word he didn’t understand stabbed at Paul’s heart. The way his mother said it was so full of cold hatred he froze inside though he kept on chewing his toast. Who was she talking about ? He knew it was something to do with his dad. He went off to school with his new boots in his duffle bag and during the day the thought of what had happened at breakfast time dwindled and he was happy with his friends busily getting on with his work. After school there was a match against Sacred Heart. There was always a special kind of rivalry when they played against Catholics. The Catholic boys called them proddy dogs, and sometimes, walking home on his own they would shout at him as they passed on their bikes:

“Hey, proddy dog !”

It was puzzling to him. He was friendly with Mark Clapham who went to Sacred Heart and with Joe Bylinksi who went to St Teresa’s. It was queer to call people names because of the school they went to. All the same, he felt a little more nervous than usual about the match. It was six-a-side. Every year there was a tournament in the town and some schools struggled to get eleven players, so they made it six. Mr Keogh chose the best six players and they practised every Thursday night. Paul was ball monitor and took his responsibility of inflating the leather “casies” and keeping them dubbined very seriously. It was one of the nice things about Mr Keogh: he gave everyone something to look after so everyone had a little bit of importance and they all worked happily together and were an industrious and smiling class.

He laced his new boots tight, pulled up his blue and white socks, folded them over and adjusted the elastics his mother had made for him to hold them up. When he ran out onto the field, they felt so light and comfortable he seemed to move more swiftly and dribble more skilfully. He was on the right wing. Rob Kellman was on the left. Mr Keogh had taught them to get the ball to the wingers, take it wide and fast and cross it to Marty Nelson who was tall and strong and could jump for high ones. Paul loved those moments of zipping down the line, outrunning a defender and whacking the ball so it floated in front of goal. They were some of the most blissful seconds of his life. He didn’t care about winning or losing, it was the sheer joy of having the ball at your feet, feeling the strength in your legs and getting things right; but he enjoyed the competition too. He liked to scrap for the ball, to fight off a shoulder charge, to leap over a sliding tackle.

The pitch was wet and muddy. The ball soon became heavy. He ran and ran and crossed and crossed till at last Marty leapt like a salmon and slapped the forehead covered by his blonde fringe against the sodden surface. The goalie threw himself towards the post but the ball sailed into the corner and Marty ran over to Paul, his face spattered with dots of rain-sodden earth. They scored six. Marty got four, Paul one and Rob one. They won six four. Paul’s boots were wet and filthy. In the classroom where Mr Keogh had oranges for them, he took off his kit and pulled on his clothes. He walked home happy with his duffle bag over his shoulder. 

His dad’s car was outside.

He went through to the kitchen. His mother was doing the washing-up and crying. He stood and watched her a few seconds.

“We won six four,” he said. “I scored one.”

“Go and talk to your dad.”

“Where is he ?”

“In the front room.”

Paul put down his duffle bag. He went reluctantly through the little dining room and into the front room. His dad was sitting on the sofa wearing his dark overcoat.

“How’d you go on ?” he said.

“Won six four.”

“D’you score ?”

“One.”

“New boots, eh ?”

Paul sat next to him and looked at the coal fire his mother had set and which was flaring vigorously.

“Has your mum said anything ?”

“No.”

“Well, your mum and me aren’t going to live together any more.”

The boy sat quietly but didn’t listen as his dad talked some more. At length, his dad got up and left the room. He heard his parents’ voices and then the click of the front door latch and the sound of his dad’s engine.

“Come and get your tea,” said his mother.

In the days that followed a quiet gloom descended on the house. His mother went about her housework with a closed face and mouth and his sister washed her hair, put in rollers and sat at the table reading a girls’ magazine as usual. He went out in the garden in his cleaned and dubbined boots to kick a ball around, or carefully rubbed between the spokes of his bikewheels with a cloth hooked over his index finger. One night, when he thought of riding to the park, he realised he needed new batteries  and went to his mother.

“And where d’you think I’ll get the money for those ?” she snapped.

He went back to the garage and polished till his bike gleamed from crank to gear lever. In his bedroom he counted the notes and coins he kept in the top drawer of his tallboy; then he worked out how much he could save from his pocket money; but a terrible thought seized him: what if she didn’t give him any ? He wasn’t old enough to get a paper round. Perhaps he should sell his tracker. It might bring a few shillings.

When he got up next morning and went down for breakfast, his sister was already in her grammar school uniform and his mum had a letter beside her on the table.

“Sit down and get some toast. Here,” she said, taking half a crown from the pocket of her apron, “that’s for some batteries.”

“Thanks.”

He put the coin in the breast pocket of his pyjamas.

“This letter is about school,” his mother said, picking it up. “You’ll be going to the secondary modern. You’ll be all right there. Howard goes and he’s doing fine.”

Howard was his cousin, his mother’s brother’s eldest son, a talented artist who’d won a prize in the county competition. His sister chewed her toast and turned the page of her magazine.

“I’ll make you a cup of tea,” said his mother. “Then get dressed quickly it’s nearly half past.”

Paul went off to school with his boots and his ball in his duffle bag. He didn’t know what to make of the news. There was something bad about it. His sister went to the grammar school and he knew it was supposed to be better. He knew that failing to get in was a bad thing but he was friendly with lads who were already at the Sec like Andy Black and Brian Gillespie who he played football with on the park and they were all right. In the playground, everyone was talking about the letters.

“Have you passed ?” was asked a hundred times.

Nigel Heath came up to Paul and asked the question.

“No.”

“You’ll go to the thicko school. That’s what my mum calls it.”

Paul would have liked to punch Nigel’s pink lips, but he turned away, took his ball from his bag and began kicking it against the school wall.

The following Saturday Paul was in the garage when the door opened and Nigel poked his head in.

“Are you playing ?”

“Yeah.”

“Have you still got those helmets. We could play war.”

Paul went to the old cupboard with the rusty hinges, pulled open the doors and rummaged. He found the Tommy’s hat first. Next to it was the RAF cap. The Nazi helmet had been shoved behind some half empty tins of paint. It must have been his dad.

“Here,” he said, and he held the Nazi helmet out to Nigel. “You wear this.”

Then he pulled the RAF cap down tight at the same angle as in the picture that used to sit on the dressing table and smiled as broadly as he could.

 


 

A FRIENDSHIP

 

The two boys were going from one lesson the next. The smaller, who was slight and short for his age, tripped as someone clipped his ankles . He looked round to see a lad from the year above, much taller and broader and with an ugly sneer. He ignored him. Immediately, his friend stumbled, stopped and turned.

“Piss off,” he said.

The smaller boy looked up at the two lads squaring.

“Or else what ?” said the ankle clipper.

“I’ll knock your spuggy out your mouth.”

The tripper was taken aback for a second, stopped chewing his gum, pulled up his chest and started chewing again. The culture dictated that older lads picked on younger ones. A third year didn’t stand up to a fourth year, especially a fourth year with friends. And Forton had friends: John Alston who’d pulled a knife on a lad at the youth club and was on probation; Alec Tasker who broke a first year’s nose in the toilets. When you had friends like those, you did what you liked.

“Go on then,” said Forton, sticking out his chin, and faster than he could have imagined Arkwright’s big, tight fist smashed between his eyes. His head flew back and hit the lockers. He rocked forward. For a few seconds he looked as if he would fall. Life was sucked from his face like sparse rain hitting a parched desert. His eyes rolled upwards. Little Glasson looked on in amazement. Forton reached out to steady himself. Arkwright stood tall and strong and said nothing. The victim leaned against the lockers, ran his hand over his face. Blood had begun to drip from his nose. He raised his head and looked at his assailant but didn’t dare speak. Arkwright turned and walked on and little Glasson hurried to walk beside him.

“Bastard,” said Arkwright.

“Yeah,” said Glasson.

“He tripped you first didn’t he ?”

“Yeah.”

“Don’t let the bastards bully you.” Arkwright looked down at his little friend. “Nobody bullies my friends,” and he put his strong hand on Glasson’s skinny shoulder.

The event was a wonder to Glasson who had never hit anyone in his life. It wasn’t just that he was small and skinny because he was quiet skilled and fast. He was the best tennis player in the school and a handy, neat footballer. Had he wanted to he could have swung a good punch and his speed would have kept him out of a lot of trouble, but he didn’t like the idea of hurting people. Forton was a notorious bully and there were half a dozen like him in every year. Glasson knew you had to stay out of their way and if they provoked you it was best not to retaliate; but he couldn’t help feeling excited about Tom’s punch. He knew he was strong: he was left-handed but could arm wrestle anyone in the year with his right hand. He was very quick over four hundred yards. He built his strength by lifting the old square and oblong weights in his dad’s garage. But Glasson had never thought he was a fighter, certainly not the kind of fighter to take on someone like Forton, and he was in awe of the power and swiftness of the punch which had left the bully reeling.

Arkwright liked Glasson because he was the only person he knew who didn’t threaten him. Physical threat didn’t worry Arkwright. He knew how strong and fast he was. There wasn’t a boy in the school who he feared. Not long before the incident with Forton, he’d been riding his bike home one evening when a gang of lads outside the chip-shop had shouted abuse. He turned back, got off his bike and confronted them. The quartet looked at one another. Who was this ? Did he think he could take on four ? One of them told him to fuck off and without a word Arkwright head butted him. Blood spurted from his nose. He crumpled. His chips were scattered on the floor. The other three stepped back. The chip-shop owner came running out.

“I’ll get the police !” he called.

Arkwright calmly mounted his bike and rode off.

He mentioned the event to no-one but it bolstered his conviction he could take on anyone. It was important because people were menacing. They were full of nasty emotions: greed and envy and resentment. Arkwright had the feeling people were against him. His dad talked about it; the pakis arriving in droves and taking over the country, doing nothing all day and getting money for it. He found it worrying. Surely the adults were supposed to stop that sort of thing; surely they were supposed to see that things were fair. Glasson was the only person who didn’t make Arkwright uneasy. It was nothing to do with physical threat; after all, Glasson was five feet two weighed six stone and couldn’t even do ten chin ups; Arkwright was five feet ten, eleven stone, without an ounce of fat and already stronger than his dad. No, it was that Glasson was genuinely a happy person. It puzzled Arkwright but he liked it. Little Glasson was always laughing. He seemed to laugh his way through life. When Arkwright was with him, he felt happy. He thought of Glasson as a good person and that was rare. People weren’t good, they were out for themselves. They were out to get you. But Glasson wasn’t like that. He liked people. He liked to ride his bike and kick a ball. He liked the girls. He liked music and he liked to have a laugh. Glasson was all right. There was no doubt about that. He was all right. Arkwright was glad to have him as a friend.

One Saturday morning they were in the woods behind the school. Glasson was running through the rhododendrons while Arkwright was hanging around with three other lads by the stile that led to the farmer’s fields.

“Watch this,” he said

He picked up a big, round stone that weighed nicely in his palm. When he glimpsed Glasson through the thick dark leaves he launched it with his all his strength and skill. He was aiming at the tall sycamore just in front of his friend. He wanted to give him a little fright and then they’d all have a good laugh. The rock flew fast and straight, hit the tree and ricocheted. Then they heard another strange noise and looked at one another. Arkwright went quickly through the bushes. Glasson was flat on his front in a little clearing of clayey earth, blood pouring from his head. What if he was dead ? Arkwright was filled with fear. Had he killed his little friend ? He stood still as the other lads joined him. Should he pick him up ? He didn’t dare touch him. Little Glasson. Poor little Glasson. Then all at once the body stirred. The boy got to his feet, stumbled a little, put his hand to his face and looking at the blood covering it, turned to Arkwright:

“Tom ! My head ! Carry me, Tom. Carry me home.”

Arkwright shook his head in terror.

“Come on,” he said.

He waited till Glasson was beside him and headed quickly out of the woods.

“Help me, Tom,” said the little lad. “Carry me.”

“Come on,” said Arkwright. “I’ll take you home.”

Just as they emerged from the woods, where the few big houses stood at either side of the little, unmade road, a man was about to get in his car. Glasson ran towards him.

“Can you help me ! Can you take me home !”

The man turned from putting his key in the lock, stared at the lad and said:

“My god !”

 He got in and drove away. Glasson turned to Arkwright.

“Come on, Smiler,” said the big lad. “I’ll take you home.”

They ran the length of the avenue of little semis, Arkwright terrified his friend wasn’t going to make it. There was so much blood. It soaked into his windjammer. It ran down the arm the little chap held up to his wound. Arkwright looked at him as he ran. What would he do if he collapsed ? Would he pick him up ? He could easily do it, he was such a skinny thing. But supposing he died. Supposing he just fell and died, here on the ordinary pavement on an ordinary Saturday. Supposing he picked him up and carried him home dead. He had a horrible feeling that if Glasson fell he would leave him. He would leave him and run away and hope no-one would ever know he threw the stone. But the other lads would tell and what then ? Would he go to prison ? Was he a murderer ? Was he going to be the murderer of his good little friend, good little Glasson who wouldn’t harm a flea ?

They passed a woman with a shopping basket over her arm. She took one look at the bleeding boy and turned away.

“Keep running,” said Arkwright. “It’s not far. We’ll soon be there.”

“Carry me, Tom,” pleaded Glasson. “My legs are jelly.”

“You can do it, Smiler. Keep running.”

They crossed Crow Lane and came to Greenlands Drive where Glasson lived. It was fifty yards to his house. Surely he couldn’t die before they got there. He was crying and staggering. Arkwright put his arm round him, tucked his hand under to support him.

“Nearly there. You can do it.”

Then a horrible thought came to him: what if there was no-one in ? What if his mum had gone out shopping and the house was locked ? What would he do ? Who would help him ? Two adults had already turned away. What if Glasson died on his own doorstep. Why did he throw that stone ? He hadn’t meant to hurt his little friend. This was Glasson. He loved him. He was shocked to find himself thinking that he loved his little friend. It wasn’t something he’d ever thought of. Lads were mates. That was that. But poor Glasson. Surely there’d be someone at home.

Glasson went up the drive. Arkwright stayed at the gate. The little lad pushed the front door.It opened. He went inside and Arkwright felt a great relief. But he couldn’t go. Maybe there was no-one in and his mum had left the door on the latch for him. He couldn’t go and leave Glasson to die alone in his own house. He waited an age before Mrs Glasson appeared. He thought she was going to tell him off. Maybe she’d call the police. She was a little woman, skinny like her son, but with a very pretty, serious face. She came to the gate and smiled.

“Thank you for bringing him home, Tom. You did the right thing, luv. You’re a good lad.”

Arkwright nodded.

“Thank you, Tom. He’ll be all right. I’ve called for a taxi. I’ll take him to the hospital. You go home, luv.”

Arkwright nodded again, tried to smile and walked away.

It was a mile and a half home. The other lads had made off when they saw the bloodied Glasson holding his hand to his head. Arkwright went back through the woods, but he avoided the spot where he’d thrown the stone and the little bare patch where his mate lay as still as dead. He’d winged the stone to hit the tree. He couldn’t have known it would rebound and hit Glasson. It was true he’d thrown it hard; and he was showing off. He could throw further and harder than any lad in the school. He entertained his mates by launching stones from one bank of the river to the other while most lads couldn’t even get half way. Had he wanted to hit little Glasson ? The idea made him panic. Why would he do that ? He was his mate. He looked after him. But he couldn’t kill off the notion that he’d legged the stone with a hidden intention to hit his friend. He’d thrown it in his direction. He’d seen him leap through the rhododendron and he’d fired the little rock at once, right at the sycamore the boy was headed for. If he’d seen anyone else do that, he’d have thought they were trying to hit him, or at least, knew they might. The thought made his insides heavy. He thought he was going to cry. He hadn’t cried since he was ten. One day he’d said to himself “I’m never going to cry again”, and from that day he hadn’t shed a tear. He’d thought about how it might feel if his mum died and imagined himself at the funeral, the only person who didn’t need a handkerchief. All the same, he felt like crying. Would little Glasson be okay ? Maybe he’d be permanently damaged ? And everyone would know he threw the stone. The other lads had seen him and they knew he was showing off. If they told, everyone would think he aimed at Glasson. If it had been Forton or one of those bullies, he’d be proud to have split his head. To throw a rock that left Forton flat on his face in a pool of blood, that was an idea Arkwright liked. Forton deserved it. All those bullies deserved it. Lots of people deserved it. But Glasson. He didn’t want to hurt Glasson in any way. He wanted to care for him. He wanted to protect him. It was odd. He didn’t understand it. But he’d lobbed the stone. It was a good shot, no doubt about that; he knew as soon as it left his hand that he’d done it well. Was he trying to hit Glasson ? No,no,no ! He wanted to give him a shock. He wanted to see him coming out of the bushes with a look of surprise on his face saying:

“Fuck ! That nearly hit me.”

Then they’d all laugh and Glasson would come running up to Arkwright and try to hit him and Arkwright would push him away, like a father play fighting with his little boy. But if he’d wanted to nearly hit him maybe he wanted to really hit him. Maybe he’d gone too far because he was showing off. Suppose Glasson died. Suppose on the way to the hospital he just passed out and never came round and the other lads told everyone he’d thrown the stone and everyone would say he was a murderer. He wouldn’t care if he murdered Forton or Alston or Tasker; he’d be proud. People could call him a murderer. Those bastards deserved to die. All the way home the picture of Glasson lying on the floor troubled him, the image of him with his hand to his head and the blood flowing like water from a tap, his worried voice saying: “Tom, carry me…. tortured his consciousness. He could have carried him. He should have. He should have picked him up and run home with him. He should have done that for his little friend.

He said nothing to his parents and all weekend he worried. What would happen at school on Monday ? Glasson would be absent. People would be talking. They’d know. They’d be saying it was him. He did it deliberately and now Glasson was dead, or nearly dead or his brain didn’t work properly anymore…

In the playground everyone had gathered round the little lad with the bandage on his head. It stuck up oddly from the site of the wound where they’d shaved his hair and ruined his quiff.

“What happened, Smiler ?”

“I got hit by a stone, in the woods. Seven stitches.”

“Who threw it ?”

“Dunno.”

Arkwright came up slowly with his loping stride, his demeanour of contained energy. He was very smart in his uniform. He liked uniforms and he liked to look comme il faut. His black blazer hugged his broad shoulders and strong chest, his white shirt was ironed to perfection and the creases in his grey trousers sharp as the morning’s frost; yet what you noticed first were his feet, not only because of the military shine of his shoes, but also because his feet were big yet not clumsy; they hit the ground with a surety and definiteness of presence which was at once impressive and threatening. He hung around on the edge of the crowd till little Glasson noticed him and smiled. When the bell went and the rowd dispersed the two of them walked to the boys’ entrance together.

“Did the stitches hurt ?”

“Yeah. Nurse was tasty though.”

Arkwright laughed and put his great, strong hand, the hand that had thrown the stone on his friend’s shoulder.

“Thanks,” he said, as they were going through the double doors into the boys’ corridor and past the toilets where the first thing that hit you was the smell of disinfectant mingled with the faint hint of urine , “for not telling anyone.”

Glasson looked up with the charming smile Arkwright liked so much and which won him his nickname.

“Okay.”

The little lad was pestered all day: “What happened, Smiler ? Who did that to you ? How many stitches ? “Stone ? Which bastard threw it ?” But he didn’t give away his secret. The lads who’d been in the woods heard him say he didn’t know and decided to reveal nothing. Arkwright in his turn said nothing to them but it was a strange and marvellous thing that no-one would ever know he was the culprit. Why hadn’t Glasson told anyone ? He couldn’t work it out: maybe because he suspected his injury wasn’t entirely accidental and didn’t want to get Arkwright in trouble; maybe because he knew, somehow, how bad Arkwright was feeling about things. In any case, it showed what a good person he was. There was no-one quite like him, Arkwright thought. Sometimes, he felt he could take on the world. He had that odd sense that everyone and everything was against him and he would gladly have punched everyone he met in the nose. But Glasson was the exception. He wasn’t like the other lads. Even the things he was good at he just laughed about. Everyone went to him when maths homework was hard. He could solve equations as easily as eating ice-cream and when lads said: “How did you do that ?” he just threw back his head and laughed, like he did when he got his report and was top of the class in nearly everything. It was queer. There were lads like Pete Norgate who was good at English and would stick his nose in the air and who had that funny little smirk when he got an essay back with an A or A+; but Glasson would have laughed if they’d given him the Nobel Prize. Arkwright felt a lot better. Glasson was his friend. He’d smashed his head with a stone but it had made no difference; the little lad was still the same; he still smiled, and he still always did the good thing. Arkwright was puzzled by that. How did Glasson know how to behave  ? It would have been easy for him just to tell everyone what happened in the woods. He wouldn’t have been blaming Arkwright. Most lads would just have told the tale. But there was some little difference in Glasson: he thought about other people and somehow he could read their minds. It was odd but it delighted Arkwright. If everyone was like Glasson, he wouldn’t need to have his fists ready, he wouldn’t have to practice his swing on the punchbag in the garage; he would have been able to relax and laugh his way through life like Glasson himself.

It was a few weeks after Glasson had the stitches out before his hair grew back and his quiff was in place. Arkwright was glad to see him looking like he should.

“Does it still hurt ?”

“Itches,” said Glasson “You can feel where the stitches were.”

Arkwright ran his finger over the little arc of a bump under Glasson’s hair. It was odd to think he would have this scar all his life because of the stone he’d thrown. Even when he was an old man, he would still be marked by their friendship.

“When you go bald everyone will see it,” he said.

“I won’t go bald. You will.”

And they began their play-fighting routine, Glasson running full pelt and throwing himself at Arkwright who caught him and tossed him aside as if he were a pillow, the two of them laughing as if the world would never end.

Some months later, in the spring, Glasson cycled to Arkwright’s house after tea. He was building a bike in the garage and Glasson went to watch and pick up tips. Arkwright’s father worked in the aircraft factory, one of those men whose manual skill and mechanical intelligence allowed him to make or repair anything. From an early age he’d taught his son and Arkwright was quick and adept. He had the bike frame hanging from the trusses and was spraying it with a device his dad had rigged for him. It was plugged in the kitchen and the flex crept through the opening light and sneaked into the garage through the gap between the door and the frame. The nozzle delivered a fine mist and Glasson stood back and watched as the bare metal turned metallic blue. It was a wonder. When it was done, Arkwright showed him how to respoke a wheel. He had it fixed horizontally in a jig on the bench. He fed the spokes through the holes in the rim, attached them to the hub and secured them.

“You’ve got to tighten ‘em one by one, you see.”

He spun the wheel, stopped it, made an adjustment, spun it again.

“How can you tell if it’s right ?”

“Look,” said Arkwright, “it’s easy. Watch here.”

Glasson watched but still wasn’t sure how Arkwright knew just which spokes to tweak. When the wheel was spinning true, Arkwright went over to the punchbag and started whacking his fists into it.

“Have a go, Smiler.”

Glasson’s punches made hardly any impact and the two of them rocked with laughter at the difference between Arkwright’s big, heavy fists and Glasson’s thin, log-fingered hands. They decided to jump on their bikes and go to the woods. There was a fallen tree across the stream and they could balance from the roots to the branches. The clay banks were dry and there was sweet odour in the air of the fructification of spring. They knew the seasons. The rank smell of decay in autumn. The metallic cut of winter air in your throat when you ran along the paths in January. They sat on the tree with the slow-flowing stream beneath them. They could see, through a break in the trees, the field where the cows were grazing and beyond it, the corner of the school building. Arkwright spotted someone.

“Hey, it’s Norgate”

They stood up to get a better view. A lad was walking hand in hand with a girl, stepping high over the coarse grass and the bumpy surface.

“He’s with Janice Nash.”

“Yeah,” said Glasson.

Arkwright had an instinctive dislike of Norgate. He was one of those lads who made him feel he just wanted to punch them in the face. He was captain of the football team and thought himself a great sportsman, but Arkwright knew he was stronger, faster and more skilled. He had little feel for team games and certainly didn’t like pleasing P.E. teachers. He was the best runner in the year but was never picked for the cross-country tram because Horseman didn’t like him. He had his favourites. His flatterers. Arkwright felt it was stupid: he could have won every cross-country race for the school but because he didn’t suck up to Horseman he was left out. Arkwright looked at Glasson who was watching the couple. There was a hint of seriousness in his face he’d never seen before. A grown-up look. He turned back to watch and saw the lad and lass kissing. Janice Nash was pretty enough. She was shapely and knew it and she could toss her blonde hair to break a young lad’s heart. Arkwright knew Glasson liked her. He had a sudden surge of protective feeling towards him.

“Shall we give ‘em a surprise ?”

“No,” said Glasson who sat on the trunk and turned his head away.

Arkwright looked over at the kissing couple again. He would have liked to go over and head-butt Norgate, to lay him flat in front of the girl. He didn’t like her either. She’d flirted with him as she did with lots of the boys and he knew she’d batted her eyelids at Glasson to get him to do her homework. Poor little Glasson had taken it seriously but Arkwright knew a girl like that didn’t like any boy as much as she liked herself. She and Norgate made a good pair. Arkwright had never thought much about Glasson’s crush on Janice, but now it struck him she was a bitch. She played hockey for the county and her dad was friendly with Beech, the Headmaster; they were members of those funny organisations his dad was always ranting about: Masons or the Round Table or something like that. Arkwright didn’t know anything about them but he knew the kind of people in them and he didn’t like them; people who lived in big houses and went to church and looked down their noses at men in factories like his dad. Janice fancied herself. She was a snob. She knew she only had to stick out her chest and tilt her head like an inquisitive dove and any lad in the school would be following her around. Except him. Poor little Glasson thought she liked him because she nestled close to him in registration and got out her maths book. That was Glasson’s trouble: he thought other people were as good as him. He thought she was honest. Arkwright knew a girl like that was as slippery as a pike. Some poor bastard would marry her. He’d never marry a girl like that. She’d give you the run around. He’d marry a girl who did what she was told.

“Let’s go to the swing, Smiler.”

Glasson got up and Arkwright saw real hurt in his face. That bitch. He’d like to sort her out. If she stuck her tits out at him again she’d be sorry; he’d shove his hand straight in her blouse. He’d show her not to mess with him. They followed the path to the big clearing where the light brown, dry bank cut away steeply on both sides. Arkwright had rigged a rope swing. He’d climbed the big oak to hook the rope around the branch. It hung three feet from the ground.  Lads would take hold ran with it as fast as they could around the curvature of the sloping bank until the ground disappeared beneath their feet and they flew out over the stream, narrowly missed the willow as they swung back and arrived, slowing themselves with hurried little steps where they began.

“Get hold,” said Arkwright.

Glasson took the thick rope in his slender hands. Arkwright pulled him back, edging up the slope with the weight of his friend on his right arm. When the rope had reached its limit, he launched it with all his might and Glasson, dangling from its end orbited, his legs almost horizontal, in a great whooshing arc till he came back to base and Arkwright grabbed him and stopped him abruptly. The two of them laughed madly. Glasson rubbed his palms on the thighs of his jeans.

“Get on again,” said Arkwright, and he sent his little friend flying once more, watching him like a father watching his child rise and fall on a swing in the park, catching him in his strong, sure hands as his nimble feet struck dust from the dry clay. On they went till Glasson’s arms could take no more. He lay flat on his back.

“Oh, my arms !” and Arkwright laughed to see how quickly he got tired. He was happy. It was easy to be happy with Glasson. It was odd: how could happiness depend on such a small, skinny, insubstantial thing ? But it did. It was a miracle. He had no idea how it came about, but he was glad he’d met Glasson. He was the only friend he could trust absolutely. The only friend he knew would never let him down. Arkwright took the rope. He ran with a great, powerful, animal stride and launched himself and then still running when he hit the bank set off again and again and again round and round his strong arms holding him easily as Glasson watched and smiled and wished he were big and strong like his mate.

Just as they were about to go, Norgate and Janice Nash appeared from the bushes. He had that smirk on his face Arkwright wanted to wipe off and she looked coy and coquettish, pushing her hair behind her ears and stuffing her blouse into her skirt. Arkwright looked Norgate in the eyes and said:

“Been for a shag, then ?”

Janice brought her hands up to her mouth and let out a little squeal. Norgate’s face took on an expression that was half smile, half grimace.

“Like you,” he said.

“Calling me a homo, Norgate ?”

“What if I am ?”

“Better send your girl-friend home before I break your teeth.”

Janice looked suddenly serious and afraid. She tugged at Norgate’s arm. Norgate turned to Glasson and said:

“She doesn’t like you, you know. She thinks you’re a shrimp.”

“He’s a better person than you, Norgate,” said Arkwright.

Norgate laughed, that smirking, mean laugh Arkwright hated so much.

“She’d need a magnifying glass to find your dick.”

Arkwright took a step towards Norgate. Janice pulled him away.

“Come on, Pete. Come on.”

Norgate grinned, turned and the two of them disappeared into the bushes. Glasson was sitting down, his arms round his knees, looking at the ground. Arkwright almost went after Norgate. He would have liked to break his nose. But he didn’t want to fight him with Janice there. It didn’t seem right. Girls shouldn’t be around fighting. It was for boys. But one day he’d get Norgate. On his own. He’d make him sorry. He looked at his friend. He felt pity for him that he was small and skinny and underdeveloped. It must be difficult when so many lads were big and muscular, almost men at fourteen. But Janice was an idiot. Who’d spend time with a bighead like Norgate when they could have fun with someone like Glasson? But in an instant he realised she wouldn’t think like that: she wouldn’t want to be seen with someone who looked still boyish and unready. She was playing at being a woman and wanted someone who was playing at being a man.

“Getting dark, Smiler. Got your lights ?”

A few weeks later Glasson was at Arkwright’s again in the evening. His dad had got him an old motorbike and was showing him how to strip it down and rebuild it. Arkwright had the engine laid out in bits on the bench. He explained to Glasson how it all fit together and what you had to do to keep an engine running well. Glasson picked up the clean, cold parts and examined them. He had little feel for mechanical things. He could do the maths to tell you how much energy the engine would use, but the physical matter of taking one to pieces and reassembling it seemed almost arcane. He wasn’t too interested. What he liked was being around Arkwright. He liked the slow way he moved and the serious look on his face when he was paying careful attention. Arkwright was a good mate and Glasson was one of those people who learn quickly that all other advantages are worthless if you don’t spend your time with people who make you feel good. The two lads, so different in such fundamental ways, were happy just to be in one another’s company.

When it grew dusk and time for Glasson to go, Arkwright rode to the end of the avenue with him, to the little ginnel which led to the main road and there they said goodbye and Arkwright watched hi skinny little friend stand up on the pedals to ride away done the narrow path. He went back to the garage to make sure everything was neatly put away, but he found himself wondering if Glasson would get home all right. Why shouldn’t he ? He’d done so dozens of times before. He couldn’t understand why he was fretting, then he realized that while they’d been chatting at the end of the ginnel, he’d seen a lad pass by at the other end, a tallish, broad lad with his head tossed back cockily who’d looked their way as he took a drag on his cigarette. He was just the kind of lad to look for trouble. You could tell at once he was a bully. He fancied himself. You could see it in the way he stuck out his chest and the slightly sneering expression of his mouth. Arkwright jumped back on his bike, balanced along the little snicket and emerged onto the main road where he stopped. Thirty yards away Glasson was paused at the bus-stop, his legs astride his crossbar, talking to the smoker who stood too close to him. Arkwright knew what was going on. Glasson looked in his direction. Arkwright nodded and Glasson nodded in return. The big lad rode up to the pair. As he approached and the bully turned to see him, he stepped towards the kerb and craned as if to see if his bus was coming. Arkwright pulled on his brakes and stopped next to his friend. He was wearing a yellow woollen polo neck his mum had knitted for him. It was a little tight and showed the round profile of his biceps, the square strength of his shoulders and the athletic tapering of his torso.

“Trouble, Smiler ?”

“Yeah.”

“What d’he say to you ?”

The stranger was moving from foot to foot. He kept his back to the pals and kept looking for his bus.

“Asked me where I lived and what time I go to bed at night.”

Arkwright got off his bike which Glasson held by the handlebars, he put his big, heavy hand on the intruder’s shoulder.

“What to pick a fight, lad,” he said, “pick one with me.”

The other lad didn’t turn. He continued to crane and to smoke.

“Bully my little pal, I’ll put that fag out up your nose.”

Just at that moment the bus appeared. The stranger jangled change in his pocket. Arkwright removed his hand but stood beside him. The bus pulled in and he stepped on.

“Lucky for you it wasn’t late,” said Arkwright.

As the great, slow, red double-decker pulled away he turned to Glasson and smiled.

“Be okay now ?”

“Yeah. Thanks, Tom. See ya tomorra.”

Riding home, Arkwright wished he’d had the chance to punch the bully. He hated those people. Whatever he was, he wasn’t a bully. He’d never pick on a little lad like Glasson. He’d never want to frighten or hurt someone smaller or weaker than himself. But a bully set his nerves alight and his fists itched. Glasson, on the other hand, was glad there hadn’t been a fight; but he was chuffed Arkwright had come to his rescue. What would have happened ? He knew those kind of bullies well enough. He might have hit him, or tried to pull him off his bike. It wouldn’t have been too bad. He’d have got away; but he might have had a thick lip or a black eye. Arkwright had saved him and that gave him a good, warm feeling. Tom was a good friend. He’d put himself in the way of a fight to save him. Not that the other lad would have had a chance, but that wasn’t the point.

Not long after this, the friends began to drift apart in that inadvertent way teenagers do. Arkwright spent more time with his engines and Glasson played more tennis; new friendships arose and though they had plenty of laughs together at school, they seldom saw one another at weekends or in the evening. They both left school at sixteen; Arkwright went to train as a ship’s radio officer and Glasson took a job with a firm of accountants which he left out of boredom, got himself some A Levels and went to read maths at university. It was five years later, when Glasson was back at home for a while and got off the bus late one afternoon that he saw coming towards him a slow, broad, strong figure in a white naval officer’s cap and  blue gabardine. He recognised him at once and waited. Arkwright didn’t hurry. He held out his hand:

“All right, Andy ?”

“Aye. Nice to see you, Tom. How’s things?”

“Oh, not bad.  Been to visit the folks. Don’t see ‘em often. Just got over a dose of the clap.”

Glasson laughed.

“Not funny really,” said Arkwright, “like pissing razor blades.”

He went on to tell his adventures around the world, how he’d caught the syphilis from a whore in Mauritius who’d no doubt been performing on stage with a donkey; the fight he’d had in a bar in Sydney when a sailor had told him to get out of his space at the bar, whipped out a knife and nicked his cheek before he got in the punch which broke his jaw and knocked him out; the scrap he’d had with a ship’s engineer who’d told him he was going to kill him and how he’d punched him from one end of the ship to the other till he was so bad they had to get him to hospital. Glasson smiled and nodded. This was his friend. This was good Tom who had looked after him and probably still would. Glasson explained about his dull work in accountancy, his time at university thanks to Harold Wilson’s programme of expansion and how he was now training to teach F.E. .

“Aye ? You’ll be good at that. Not wed ?”

“No. What about you ?”

“Aye. Baby due in January.”

They chatted some more both wishing they could have longer time. There were the old days to bring back; so many little incidents. What a laugh they could have had.

“Better get on, anyway,” said Arkwright. “Got to be on board by seven.”

“Where you goin’ ?”

“South America. Pakis in the crew. I hate ‘em. Throw the buggers overboard if I get the chance.”

Glasson tried to smile.

“Well, good luck to you, Tom. Take care of yourself.”

“I always do.”

“Hope to see you again.”

“Aye,” and Arkwright gave a little salute before setting off with his long, slow stride.

Glasson went down the lane of little semis and bungalows. It was safe and peaceful here. He was going to his parents’ house where tea would be ready for him and  he’d read Wells or Tawney or Lawrence and maybe go to the pub for the last hour; but he could hear the sound of the crashing ocean, feel the pitch of the ship in the unforgiving waves, see his friend with the earphones on his head, sending signals across the globe from his cramped cabin, smell the Tequila on the breath of a sultry, enticing, hip-waving girl in Lima, taste the blood that poured from the nose of some poor Asian sailor as the great, tight, hammer fist smashed into his nose, touch the soft pillow where Tom would lay his head in his narrow bunk dreaming of return to Lancashire to hold his new born baby in his powerful arms.


A FLOOR

 

The telephone interrupted Jack Wesham’s reading. He reached out and picked up the receiver. It was his younger daughter. She was living with her boyfriend in his flat on the other side of town. His elder daughter was at university. He enjoyed the space and peace.

“Hi, dad.”

What did she want ? It was usually some triviality which annoyed him if it made him break off from a good book or disturbed his train of thought.

“I’m pregnant.”

It wasn’t the first time. She’d had a termination some months before.

“What are you going to do ?”

“I’m going to have the baby.”

“Are you sure ?”

“Yes. I’m sure.”

“You don’t have to. You know this will change your life and…”

“It’ll be fine.”

That was Emily’s mantra: everything would always be fine. As if life didn’t throw up insuperable difficulties and impossible choices. A Sunday afternoon phone call to tell him she was pregnant left her as blasé  as if she were telling him she was going to the cinema or for a curry. He would have to pass the news to his wife. She was at work. She was always at work: Sunday afternoon, three o’clock in the morning, bank holidays. It made him think of Lawrence’s frequent comparison of people in the grip of a compulsion to a horse in a gin. An outdated image, but work discipline had won, as he knew only too well from the constant observations, inspections and impositions at school. He’d dug in his heels over the requirement to write WALT and WILF on his whiteboard at the start of every lesson. What did they stand for anyway ? The Assistant Head, a punctilious little woman with an imagination the size of Liechtenstein and an ego the size of Africa, had told him it was a requirement. “Well,” he replied, “it’s a requirement I don’t require.” And now Emma was pregnant. Dread came over him. What was going to happen to the child ? He put his glasses in their case, set his book on the pile, put on his shoes and went out.

There was a park not a quarter of a mile from the front door, a hundred acres given to the town by a Victorian benefactor, beyond which was the canal where you could get your shoes covered in dog shit or be harassed by a Rottweiler whose distant and ineffectual owner would assure you with a smile, once he’d got his fingers in the snaring animal’s collar and yanked it away, that it was a big softie and only playing. He walked smartly to try to quell his wrongly-beating heart. It was warm. The park was open and pleasant. Kids were shouting and running around in the play area. What was going to happen to this child ? Wesham had no faith in Emily’s boyfriend. He was pleasant enough in his rather mindless way but he had that modern inability to recognise generational difference: he treated Wesham as a mate and his house as if he owned it. He had a job as a barman in a nightclub but called himself the Deputy Manager, earned little and saved nothing and had a conviction for driving without insurance. He had no idea what he was taking on. Wesham knew his daughter. Compliant, blithe and diligent to the age of fourteen, she escaped him like a runaway horse before she hit fifteen. It wasn’t that his relationship to her changed, it ceased. Her schoolwork went awry, she stared having sex, she stayed out till the early hours and became utterly unreachable. In the hopeless search for explanations he came down on the idea of a quirk in the brain exacerbated by a culture of entitlement and narcissism. But what good were explanations when you had to deal with the problem, day in day out ?

His thinking ran ahead of him: neither Emily nor Jason were up to the job or parenting. She was still at college trying to get some A Levels. They couldn’t possibly afford a place to live. Would they go to his mother’s ? She was a divorcee living in an ex-council house on a grim estate on the edge of town. For a few seconds, he thought that might provide a solution. They would live there. The child would get some sort of upbringing. He wouldn’t be responsible. It was their choice. They were over eighteen and he couldn’t stop them so no more could he be responsible for the consequences of their recklessness. But this rationalisation couldn’t endure even a minute. The terrible prospects were obvious: for his daughter, her boyfriend, the child and everyone around them. Twenty years of diligent fatherhood had brought him to this. He almost wished he hadn’t bothered.

A week later Wesham and his wife were talking seriously to their daughter and grinning Jason, who Wesham nicknamed the ventriloquist’s dummy because of his fixed rictus and his inability to speak without producing received ideas.

“This is a twenty year responsibility,” said Wesham.

“It’ll be fine.”

“No more going out on the town. No more money to spend on clothes.”

“I know. It’ll be fine.”

“Where will you live ?” said Carol Wesham.

“At Jason’s mum’s.”

“Won’t it be a bit crowded ?”

“It’ll be fine,” and the heavily made-up Emily whose thick, black eyelashes were longer than garden spiders’ legs picked at her fish pie. “What’s that ?”

Her mother rubbernecked to see.

“A pea.”

“I don’t like peas,” she declared as if the servants would come running to offer her another dish, and pushed away her barely touched meal.

The weeks went by and Wesham began to feel better. There was disaster up ahead but he was going to avoid it. He’d done what he should. He’d brought up his children. Something beyond a father’s love and care was at play. Let it take its course. He was impotent to stop it. He trned to his books and let the matter sink to the sump of his mind.  But in her fourth month of pregnancy, Emily arrived while he was reading during the afternoon. It was a half-term holiday when he always took the opportunity to read for hours at a time to bring himself round from the fierce anti-intellectualism of the education system. She sprawled on the sofa with a pint mug of tea and a packet of Jaffa Cakes.

“I’ll have to move back in here,” she announced.

“Sorry ?” Wesham put down his book.

“Jason’s mum says she doesn’t want a screaming baby in the house when she has to get up for work in the morning.”

“Ah. So you mean you’ll move back in.”

“Me and Jason.”

“Do I have any say in the matter ?”

“What ?”

“ Not so simple, Emily. You can come back. This is your home. But if Jason is to move in everyone has to agree: me, your mother and Jane.”

“What’s she got to do with it ?”

“This is her home too. If she doesn’t want to share it with Jason, he doesn’t come.”

“But she’s at uni.”

“Haven’t you noticed they have vacations ?”

“Yeah. But she’s moved out. I don’t see why she should have a say.”

“Well, she does whether you see why or not. So you’d better think carefully.”

“Where else can we go ?”

“You should’ve thought of that before you got pregnant. You can come back but the idea you come here as a family is a different matter.”

Emily chomped a trio of Jaffa Cakes in quick succession and looked sullen.

“And if everyone did agree, there’d be rules.”

“What rules ?”

“Well, I’d make the rules, or me and your mother would. This is our house. We’d make the rules and you and Jason would agree to them or you wouldn’t live here.”

She stuffed another biscuit into her mouth, swilled a mouthful of tea, set the mug on the floor and left the room.

So it was agreed they would move in.

Wesham thought about it. If they were to have Emily’s bedroom and share the rest of the house it would be terrible. They’d be guzzling popcorn and chocolate digestives as they watched Dragon’s Den or Britain’s Got Talent while he was trying to read Roberto Bolano or Elfriede Jelinek. There had to be separation. So he put it to Carol they should move out of the big bedroom which ran across the front of the house and whose two south-facing windows made it the most pleasant room, sleep in the back half of the long lounge, put up a curtain to divide the two halves, let Emily and Jason have her bedroom as a nursery;  that way the young people would have their own little suite,  share the kitchen and bathroom and Jack and Carol would have the lounge-bedroom to themselves. She agreed and there began the task of clearing the bedroom, neglected for twenty years. His desk, thick with dust, books and papers which was pushed up against the chimney breast had to be cleared as carefully as lifting warm eggs from a blackbird’s nest. On the opposite wall were four tall Ikea bookshelves, as overcrowded as a Victorian slum. In the corner by the window was a pretty, walnut wardrobe Carol’s grandmother had bought her when she got married; the drawer which sat beneath it had fallen apart through being over filled and left to dangle like the tongue of a thirsty Alsatian; on top were piled clothes, boxes, sheets, pillows, blankets, hot water bottles and inside was a jumble of skirts, blouses, jumpers, dresses, jackets, shoes, boots, socks, knickers, stockings, bras, suspender belts, nightdresses and coats. The vacuum hadn’t passed under the bed in the two decades since they moved in; newspapers, tissues, wipes, empty condom packets, body sprays, talcum powder, unused nappies, discarded underwear, half-used tubs of body lotion, aerosols, books, magazines, hairbrushes, mascara, nail clippings, foot files, a glove, an ear-ring, a high-heeled, black, suede shoe lay beneath the dust that had gathered in clumps as big as a man’s palm. Next to the bed was Carol’s cabinet. She’d inherited it from her grandmother and wouldn’t part with it. It was a battered little white object with imitation carved feet, an impossibly stiff door and a silly little pendant handle which slipped through your fingers; one of those ludicrously pretentious pieces of furniture the lower classes buy as if in anticipation of a visit by royalty. Its matching chest stood between the windows. One of its drawers had lost both its handles. Filled to capacity and forced closed it was an hour’s work to get it open. The others were a jumble of thongs, basques, jumpers, underskirts, diaphanous night-clothes, gloves, handbags, combs, purses, bank statements, credit card statements, photographs, letters, necklaces, bracelets, headscarves, rings, brooches, bracelets, eye-liner, lip-stick and ointments. The floor was a foot deep in Carol’s clothes. The curtains hung perilously from poles balanced on brackets whose fixings had come loose. The walls were covered in lining-paper. There was yellow stain on the ceiling to the side of the chimney breast.

Wesham got Jason to help him carry the books and shelves downstairs.

“Have you read all these books ?” said the young man with a grin.

“About as many as this but not all of these,” said Wesham.

“Some of ‘em are pretty old. Why d’you keep ‘em ?”

Wesham was up the step ladder handing volumes to his ersatz son-in-law who stowed them in a red plastic box. He climbed down with a dusty hardback in his hands.

“See this,” he said. “How much would you give me for it ?”

The young man took it in his hands, turned it one way and the other, flicked through the pages some of which were foxed at the edges.

“Dunno. Looks pretty knackered to me. Couple o’ quid.”

“Look,” said Wesham. “Dickens. It’s a first. Probably about two hundred and fifty.”

“Christ !”

He pointed to a shelf.

“See these. A hundred and twenty, four hundred, seventy-five, ninety, sixty each, fifty, a hundred and fifty..There’s a thousand quid on that shelf. A well-educated burglar could walk out of here with two plastic shopping bags and get two grand from a dealer.”

“How much are they all worth then ?”

“God knows. Maybe twenty thousand at auction.”

“Why don’t you sell ‘em ? You could buy a beamer !”

“I could, if I was insane. Here, put this in the box.”

The books were transferred to the lounge. Wesham wobbled at the top of the step ladder to put up a dividing curtain. The bed was dismantled and reassembled, the bedside cabinet, chest of drawers and wardrobe hauled down amidst grunting and trapped fingers. Wesham’s desk found its new home by the patio door in the dining-room; the young people slapped paint on the bedroom walls, bought a bed as wide as the Loire, put up some flimsy, pink curtains. They were home.