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THE JACKET

Jim Burns

 

It was a brown jacket, the kind with a zip and a fur collar, and it looked like the one that Jack Kerouac is wearing, in the famous photo, standing on a fire-escape in New York and gazing out across the city. His friend wore it well, but then he did wear most clothes well and he kept up-to-date and was always smart, even in casual wear. He himself didn't care too much about clothes and when he tried to they never seemed to fit him properly and, as his wife once said when she was his wife, "You shouldn't bother. Some people can manage it, some can't, and you're one of them." So, he just wore what there was to wear and generally looked nondescript and ordinary like dozens of other men. In some ways it was an advantage being like that because it made him anonymous and he enjoyed it. He didn't draw attention to himself and people left him alone.

But he did like his friend's jacket and he looked longingly at it whenever they met. He also liked his friend's wife and he often looked longingly at her without trying to make it too obvious. And he guessed that his friend knew that he envied him for having both the jacket and the wife, but nothing was ever said about it through the years they all went around together. He had made one drunken pass at the wife when he called at his friend's house and found her alone, but she had laughingly side-stepped him and men he heard his friend coming in. His friend's wife never mentioned the incident and he assumed she hadn't told her husband, but she sometimes glanced at him in a curious way, as if his clumsy attempt to kiss her had made her see him in a new light.

A few months later his friend came to see him and gave him the jacket. "I've got a new one, more modern," he said, "and I was going to get rid of this but Monica said she thought you might like to have it." He started wearing the jacket as soon as he could and he bought some new trousers and shirts and tried to take care that they went with the jacket. He saw his friend and his wife watching him one night and they whispered to each other and smiled.

It wasn't too long after he'd got the jacket that he made love to his friend's wife. They'd moved to another town and he went to stay with them one weekend. They had a meal and drank wine and talked and his friend then said he was tired and went to bed, leaving him and the wife still finishing a bottle of wine. When they both got up from the table a little while later he moved towards her and she responded, and soon they were naked and making love. It never seemed to occur to either of them that his friend might waken up and come downstairs and when they had finished they lay together on the soft rug in the lounge and talked about what they would do. She said she would soon be back in his town regularly, on a course at a local college, so they could meet and use his place. He said that was wonderful .They did meet as often as they could, sometimes just to sit in a pub and talk, sometimes to have sex in his house. It was good for a time, though he felt a bit uncomfortable when he wore the jacket and she was with him. He kept thinking about his friend and what he was doing and what she would tell him she had done that day when they sitting at the dinner-table. He stopped wearing the jacket, at least when he was seeing her, but he liked it too much to get rid of it, and in any case it was still in reasonable condition, though with a few signs of wear beginning to show. A bit like me, he thought.

The affair continued but when she finished her course it became more difficult to meet. She once or twice made up stories about seeing old friends, she told him, and they managed to spend a few hours together, and he'd occasionally visit them but they never had the opportunity to make love like they had on the first night they'd come together. And so it ended, fading out without any fuss or recriminations, and that tied in with his friend moving in different circles connected with his job and they drifted apart. They exchanged Christmas cards and he sent his friend postcards from Paris and other places, including one from New York with a scrawled comment about the jacket being there, but there was never a response.

He kept the jacket and wore it until a lady he lived with for a time pointed out that it was stained and frayed. "I don't mind you looking a bit untidy. It's what you are," she said. "But don't wear that jacket when you're with me." He hung it up in the spare room and only wore it when doing outside jobs on a cool day. And he even stopped using it for that purpose, but he still couldn't bear to part with it. It was a link to the old days and his friend and his friend's wife and he liked that. His life had offered some promise then, he thought, though if asked he couldn't have specified what that promise was, whereas now he just appeared to be locked into a routine that, whilst not unpleasant, had only the prospect of old age and what that brought.

A few years later he heard his friend was dying and he went to see him. They talked and he said, "You know, I've still got your old jacket," and his friend smiled, and said, "What did you keep that for?" though the look on his face suggested that he knew. His friend's wife brought some coffee and biscuits into the room, but she had little to say and made an excuse and left. He saw her again when he was leaving and they stood looking at each other for a moment. "I often think about the old days," he said, and she smiled and said, "Oh yes." He went to the funeral and held her hand while he expressed his condolences but mere were too many people around to say anything else and he wasn't sure what he could say. He soon decided to leave and catch a train home. He didn't know most of the people and felt out-of-place in his dark sweater and slacks. All the other men were wearing suits and white shirts and black ties. A few of them had looked at him curiously and he'd heard his friend's wife saying to one group, "Oh, he's an old friend from the past We hadn't seen him for years before all this happened." It occurred to him that he should have worn the jacket and then they really would have looked at him, but all they would have seen was an old jacket and not its story. He telephoned his friend's wife (widow now, he told himself) about a year later to ask how she was and he knew that what he was really hoping for was a chance to suggest that they should meet. She was cool, even offhand, and he heard a man's voice in the background asking her who she was talking to. "It's no-one special," she replied, "I'll be with you in a moment." The day after the telephone conversation he took the jacket off the peg and put it on, and then he went to meet some friends. In the pub one of them looked at him and said, "God help us, where did you get that? and he replied, "A friend gave it to me years ago." And someone said, "Did you ever see that photo of Kerouac wearing a jacket just like that. You know, the one on the fire-escape in New York?" Everyone started talking about Kerouac and the old days and how exciting it had all been and what great books they were. He sat, drinking his beer and listening to them, and he suddenly said, "Ah, that was years ago. Things were different then. It's just history now."

He was drunk when he arrived home and he threw the jacket onto a chair and went to bed. In the morning he got up, and he took his time washing and shaving and eating his breakfast. When he'd finished he picked up the jacket and went out of the back door to where the dustbin was. He stood there for a couple of minutes, letting a series of images run through his mind, and then he raised the lid of the dustbin and dropped the jacket in.