Philip Sidney Jennings
Duncan nor Ruth said the little terraced house was poky. In their last big old
house they'd stared at the black carpet and agreed they didn't need a large
place, not at their time of life.
old," Duncan said, anxious not to be labelled old at fifty. Ruth was only
forty-seven and handsome. She pointed out he was paranoid with:
saying we are," and she looked intently at the carpet, "the two of us."
The two of
us! Duncan felt a coldness in his back and wanted suddenly to be in bed with a
hot-water bottle and a soft Ruth. It was only ten to nine. Did you have to stay
up to prove you were young? Duncan took strange heart from the question. He
straightened his sliding back. He knew he'd made her say the wrong thing, a
reference: the two of them. All the parents were sprinkled around rose bushes.
She was logically correct.
Duncan trying not to sound like one of those "really decisive men" so frequently
condemned by women but on the other hand so frequently loved in secret by
others. “We agree then, 10 Drummond Walk. There'll be money left over to do the
Ruth and she was firm. Duncan thought her chest was proud as she withdrew the
second bottle of wine from the tall white fridge.
It was a busy
time moving, as they knew it would be. But they were good at it. In the evening
after her library and his school she told him about sophisticated conversations
she'd had with solicitors.
this Mr Proffit, can you believe, that's his name, how are you, I said, how much
a minute is it costing me to be polite I said. Forget about that, he said. What
do you mean? I said. So that was it. He went back to business. Sad in a way. I
expect he'll charge us more now."
offered her a warm shrug which he saw she accepted. He wasn't blaming her for
the exchange. It didn't matter. They were really having conversations which
didn't matter. Everything was all right. No real worries.
with the minimum of pain into 10 Drummond Walk and soon picked up a different
tube routine with accompanying tales of underground misery....
escalators haven't worked there for three months.. only one lift works the doors
didn't open at there are beggars everywhere.. .the fire-brigade.. that smell"
made a positive interpretation,
"But out here
in the bricks, the train's always waiting and you get a seat."
and touched his thick hair. He was glad about his hair. He was glad Ruth was his
wife, his wife. It sometimes felt good to tell a colleague about his wife. He
liked the sound of possession. he knew Ruth liked him liking it and she told
colleagues about her husband, her husband. Yes, she had one and he was hers Her
husband. The two of them. Neither Ruth nor Duncan were averse to inviting a
couple to dinner and quite a lot to drink. After Gloria and David or Felicity
and Malcolm had left, Duncan and Ruth chewed them over at odd moments for
perhaps a week or two, at least until they were invited to "their place". And
then again there was more to talk about and perhaps a nice balanced opinion to
be reached. Usually they never met again. They never met again because after
reciprocated meals they 'knew'' each other and they'd gone as far as they wanted
could invite people to the terraced house. There was room in the kitchen-diner,
around the table, plenty of room, it wasn't a problem.
Was it work
or the caress of procrastination that held the lob list in abeyance until three
months after they'd moved in ? Neither could or would say but the night arrived
when Ruth took up her biro and pad and Duncan opened a glorious red.
It was as
though they'd been silently waiting for the house to creep up on them and
whisper its wounds and now after three months they were ready to listen. The job
list was always a special occasion. They positioned their filled glasses like
allied chess pieces, no conflict or game here, just the mutual moves for the
achievement of comfort and efficiency.
"Replace conservatory roof with glass."
get someone to do that..."
wasn't suggesting, I mean I know you're a DIY man..."
and time for a sip and a comment on the wine.
Duncan: " A
wooden toilet seat."
For winter bottoms. Paint the bedroom white, that migraine pink, I really think
it's giving me headaches.' Ruth's headaches were as serious as his mood swings.
start on that tomorrow." He saw her concerned face. " No, I will, I went to. We
can sleep downstairs on the sofa-bed.'
scribbled and Duncan poured.
"I'll do the curtains, the rails are fine. It's amazing, the carpets are so good
and black, just like we always like."
Duncan: "Yes, I wonder if it influenced us getting the place. That old shed In
the garden, the garden..."
won't even write it down, that's outside, we're not worried about outside."
Duncan wondered how carefully Ruth chose her words. As long as the inside was
O.K. they were O.K.
Ruth: "You're not having a paranoid thought are you?"
mean to give me one ?'
Ruth: "I, I
just meant the garden. We don't live in it, like the house."
Duncan " Just
kidding, you're right, no rush there. There's so little to do, in fact. Shelves
everywhere, no problem."
Duncan took such a silly pride in his shelves and needed critical praise all the
time the drill was in his hand and afterwards when he aligned the wood and was
washing his hands. He was a man and a boy crying out for acknowledgement and
recognition. She didn't think this was a bad thing. All men she had known were
like this. When Duncan put up a shelf it lasted for ever. She mothered the boy,
took the man, occasionally submitted to him in some way that made him glad. His
gladness was worth the submission and then she made her demands. She hadn't
consciously planned it this way. It happened between the two of them. Was she in
love with this jowly man? Before. things could have been different.
talk about it any more. His mood swings like a madness there I Was it still
bothering him? Bother. The middle-class weighed the distance of their euphemisms
for careful verbal survival in similar company She's drunk too much but she made
sense to herself. Duncan was staring at her. He wanted everything to be all
right. She slid her glass across the table top.. And made him grinning glad. Was
she submitting by drinking too much? As he would say: "It's the first bottle and
there are two of us."
The job list
dropped from her hand. It was a white mirror against a black carpet. They stared
at it. There was nothing further to be said. There really wasn't much to do in
the little terraced house. Duncan thought, if anything starts happening it will
happen in the upstairs front room because it's long. Ruth thought the same. They
sipped and looked at sides of each other.
On Sunday he
painted and she sewed Then she cooked She knew there was work the next day but
still she opened a bottle and she saw he was glad. In a way they were being
naughty, drinking too much, but it was all right, they needed to share something
which was theirs. Sometimes it was the illumination of one sentence in a novel.
prawns, a sip of wine, garlic prawns, a sip of wine. The two of them working,
they could eat like a cook-book. No problem.
They slept on
"I'm a bit drunk." Then she whispered, 'Take advantage of me."
nothing. He was cold and warm at the same time. Afterwards she held him and knew
he was far away. Her grip slipped. The morning in the library entered her
thoughts. Duncan was breathing steadily. He was dead to the world. Nothing
bothered him. He'd passed out. He'd flown away somewhere like a little bird. For
a moment she thought there was a bird in the room. She got up and looked down
the garden at the old shed. It was leaning, hinged on tired nails in rotten
giving wood. It didn't matter if it fell down. It just didn't matter. There was
no little bird in the room. Duncan was nearly snoring. Ruth punched him and soon
afterwards fell asleep.
up. Ruth was snoring. He hated her. Why had they got married anyway? For wine
and garlic prawns? He moved a curtain and looked down and up the road. Walk they
called it. Was anyone else looking at this time ? He was falling over. But in
the morning he felt well and Ruth, his wife, was affectionate over coffee cups.
separated from a routine kiss at the bottom of the escalator and went to
different platforms and got on a waiting train. They had on occasions met in the
evening going up the escalator, but not very often. Unless there was some
infernal meaningless meeting Duncan was home first and had a cup of tea waiting
for Ruth. "Life-saver", she'd say and Duncan would smile because he was never
sure if she meant the tea or himself.
On the tube
Duncan's spirits fell. He wasn't sure why. Was it because the train had suddenly
stopped in a tunnel? Was it the thought of teaching Lord of the Flies to
a mixture of teenage psychotics and thugs? He touched the comfortable swell of
his tummy. Could be better; could be a lot worse. But you could say that about
anything. The train sighed and threatened to move. Duncan refused to look at his
watch: it didn't help. He heard the hoarse voice of his mother rattling on her
deathbed: you take yourself wherever you go. Damn it all, he couldn't deny that.
He was going to work. If the train would let him. It moved. They were moving.
There weren't many jobs to do in the little house. He'd get them done as soon as
possible. And afterwards, yes afterwards, he'd see what would happen. It was
always like that. They'd moved nine or was it ten times in as many years?
sped and she moved with it. Sometimes when she walked up the steps to the
library she spread her arms like an opened book. "Here I am," she said, usually
aloud. She felt healthy being close to the written word. Of course there were
more videos and tapes. But things changed. She wasn't stuck in an unmoving mud.
Sometimes she took a video or tape home and they both enjoyed it or if they
didn't, spoke about why they didn't. This was life They were cultured. She
floated good-mornings and wondered if she had a slight hangover or if there was
a cargo of migraine on the horizon.
everything changed gear. Duncan started putting up shelves, changed the toilet
seat, replaced some skirting board, never let the paint brush idle. Ruth cooked
and read and congratulated. There was a momentum. Duncan said:
conservatory, if we can call it that, I've got a man to do the glasswork."
"Lovely. There's not a great deal to do, Duncan No need to rush at it."
contemplated being hurt but said:
We'll both feel better when it's done."
Ruth gave him
a quick look and they both stared at the clean dark carpet. Duncan said quickly:
spend the week-end with your sister? Come back Sunday, the house will be
complete, conservatory roof done, painting finished We won't have to worry about
another thing in the house"
after some time.
another glass of wine"
trembled as he poured it He filled the glass and Ruth drank deeply and
It's time. I will. But you know Duncan. It's John John. I know he's difficult
but if they just left him alone for a while. Even after he's gone to bed they
talk about him, where's a place in society for a boy like him? Remember when he
fell over his fire-engine ? Sheila shouted at him to look where he was going. He
said the fire-engine shouldn't be there. She said he left it there and he
actually said with a simple expression that that was no excuse. No-one
understood how he meant it. Sheila pressed him and he laughed and said he hoped
she was not frying sausages again. In fact he ordered a pizza. Derek avoided a
scene. O.K. he said, I'll have them delivered."
grinned, "His ego is extraordinarily developed."
was eventually fine.
Ruth went to
Swansea. Duncan made cups of tea for Tony, the polite glass-roofer man with an
Iranian wife and a six-year-old daughter. After he'd made the tea they had a
quick chat and Duncan wasn't bothered that time was money. But he soon went back
to his drill, sand-paper, plastic things, paint-brush, newspaper, jam-jar. Then
it was time to make tea again. He felt urgent. He wanted a perfect house ready
for a perfect wife. His wife. He communicated this urgency to Tony who shifted
his huge glasses and said although there were problems, there was nothing he
couldn't deal with. He may have to go out for a piece of wood. Duncan left spare
keys and went back to his own tasks. He didn't feel like telling Tony a migraine
shade of pink may need two if not three coats of paint to make it disappear for
ever like a memory of something which should never have happened.
In the night
Duncan heard the floorboards move. He felt himself rise and fall not stopping.
He was half-awake, half-asleep. He wanted to get up and go and look in the long
front upstairs room. But he didn't. The house was not complete. The floor-boards
Tony told him
not to worry. He'd get another man to give him a hand. They'd look into it. They
did. Tony and the bug-eyed teenager. They ruthlessly ripped up carpets.
conservatory was finished
A sort of
Sikh guru arrived. He examined the wood of the floorboards and laughed,
"Put a long
thin nail here. The problem is not the wood."
Duncan how it had gone. Duncan shrugged,
what do you think ?'
Ruth said, "I
don't think I can see Sheila and Derek again."
always say that after you've just come back."
Ruth "John he
was nine, incredible, we both forgot his birthday. You know what he said, I
realise you forgot my birthday but perhaps I'll get a bigger present now."
"Little sod isn't afraid to exist."
Ruth: " I
bought him a new bicycle."
"Jesus. He really got to you."
Ruth. " I
can't help it Duncan Can you just put your arms around me? The house is ready.
Thank you darling. Mmm, I'm glad I went. I hated it. The boy rules the house up
to the ten o'clock news. Then he goes to bed and they talk about him. I wonder
who they would be It they hadn't decided to make their son the' captain of their
close to the bone. Duncan didn't want her to go further. She didn't want to go
further. She needed his understanding He stroked her hair and they went to bed.
room is lovely."
stroked her hair and she went to sleep on a clean pillow and between warm clean
sheets Duncan had put a hot water-bottle in bed. The smell of paint was drifting
like winter. Soon the green guts of spring. She slept. Duncan heard the boards
move. He wouldn't mention it. He didn't get up He knew. He was there But he
didn't get up It was too soon. This time, in the new house; it could pass pass.
He went to sleep
the cold water-bottle at his feet. Monday morning. He was fresh and ready. The
central heating was chortling nicely in the pipes. He'd make Ruth a good cup of
coffee and bring it up to her. He contemplated a few slow press-ups and smiled:
the healthy thought was exercise enough. Maybe he'd go for a slow jog with Tom,
the maths teacher, one evening. He slipped into his long blue towel
dressing-gown and went quickly into the long upstairs front room. He walked
heavily up and down. Not a creak or sigh from the floorboards. He heard Ruth
a few things together."
done the curtains. The house is not complete."
house ever really is." He'd never said that to her or himself before. "You said
yourself we can take our time."
suddenly a thing moved inside himself.
I'll call the
It's not a duck that I want. Migraine darling, the gift of migraine. It's with
me today. Make the room dark like night. Leave me tea on a tray. Go to work.
Work hard. I'm waiting for you like a reward..."
On the tube
Duncan thought how literary Ruth sounded when she had one of her turns. He still
felt good and smiled inside : it was hardly a reward to return home to a wife
with migraine and curtains on her mind. Maybe he really would have a jog with
Tom. But he didn't. His last lesson provided a boy called Jason. Jason was
afraid of nothing. He mocked so-called punishments and he tore up a detention
slip and threw it up in the air. The class responded well to anarchy. They were
free. They could do whatever they liked, they knew it, no-one could stop them.
No-one. Duncan couldn't. A word to his superiors and he was deemed weak. The
same thing happened in their classes and they couldn't do anything about it
either. They didn't want to know. Their game of promotion which Duncan had never
played was hard enough. You didn't act, you only looked as though you were. He
contemplated a single sea-gull on the wing. It looked cold and strong though
alone not lonely. In the staff-room at break Tom had said,
up jogging. I want to concentrate on shooting all boys with the following names,
Lee, Jason, Gary, Wayne. I don't want to be sexist, I'll add Tracy and Claire."
before the end of school the siren wailed.
class had left him except the two Greek girls, "Don't worry, sir. We can't learn
because of Jason."
noticed their full young bras. It was still impossible to arrest anyone for
their thoughts. Sex and violence. He'd been thinking how nice it would be to
slap Jason a huge back-hander across the mouth.
"How are you
you're home at last. You phoned the library didn't you ?" He nodded. "Duncan, I
think I'm too tired to do the curtains tonight. the thought of struggling with
them. A house is never complete, as you said, I was lying here, all day,
thinking about that, thinking about everything, I'm a lucky woman."
you some ox-tail soup."
She ate it
all and had a piece of bread and then some tea Duncan had seen it before. It was
passing The doctor wouldn't know what to say. They'd changed doctors as often as
houses. But the doctors were like politicians: they could still look serious and
speak even if they knew nothing. The game. The teachers had theirs.
Ruth went to
work on Thursday. She did the curtains at the weekend. Duncan cooked a
devastating curry They ate and talked curry and curtains until Monday morning.
calm and ready and quiet. They were in a boat together on a flat sea. Everything
was as it should (or was it could ?) be. She was awake. She knew he was there in
the upstairs long room. She despised Duncan snoring. She saw the boy, nearly
ten, on crutches, moving thoughtfully, his eyes not fixed anywhere. They
wouldn't look at her. She knew that now. No-one had really stopped him and said:
come with us, this is who we are, this is what we are doing, who are you or is
it too soon to ask ? She got back into bed. He was there. Duncan was still
snoring. If he knew nothing, why did he follow her from house to house?
into over-drive. There were lots of small things to do: lamp-shades, the
fire-alarm, some tiles, some pictures up, the oven needed cleaning, so did the f
ridge; on and on it went until one evening, pale and drained, they went up to
bed at ten thirty.
They lay not
touching. In the complete darkness the silence boomed. A stir in Duncan's uneven
breathing. Ruth moved a hand against the covers. Nothing. There was nothing.
Silence. Darkness. Emptiness. Could they drift into the soft dream of sleep. A
floorboard cracked like a rifle shot. Another moaned. The little night-walker
was there. They both listened and knew the other heard. Duncan's mood swung
suddenly into anger and tears. He blamed Ruth but that was not fair. He blamed
the concept of fairness. They didn't want the baby boy with one arm going down
his back and the other a dead flower and the legs all funny splinters. Where
would a boy like that belong in their private or public world? Ruth was bitter.
Why hadn't Duncan just said something like: his eyes are bright. They were. At
parties he'd often lied about some old bag's slim figure.
It was a long
time before Duncan was asleep and Ruth was murmuring in the upstairs front-room.
moving anymore. We're staying here. It's a cosy house, it's not poky. The three
of us. When I'm not too tired like tonight I'll get up and talk to you. We'll
all be together." Duncan flooded the room with light. She was rambling on and
on. Migraine talk. They had to escape and be real. Real like everyone else but
without the problem of a child. Like Sheila and Derek. John. He'd taken over.
Ruled the roost.
well but in the morning they were different people. Duncan stroked his chin and
waited for Ruth to ask him what he was thinking about. The bait grew stale.
ten thousand if we sold this house now. What do you think?"
he'd be late for work but that was probably all right. Ruth said:
with the boy. I thought it was the least I could do. Of course if you want to
move out, we could probably come to some arrangement. I know you're sick of me
and garlic prawns and migraine."
protest too much. Their faces snarled silently like lions. They hated each
the house up. They threw things at each other. They intended to miss. They broke
the object or the thing behind it or both. Both was a bonus. For a moment Ruth
swirled with the knife before plunging it into an antique statue. Duncan grinned
and snapped the statue across his thigh. Ruth drove a shard of statue into a
glossy wall and swung herself up onto the curtains. She tore her dress down and
Duncan moved on arms and legs naked as a baby, towards her.
morning their eyes gleamed fiercely across coffee cups.
Let's move to the country."
would be a change."
start looking tomorrow."
have to tell the boy.'
Duncan: " Of
course the country air should do him good. That's what I was thinking. John
could visit him. Someone his own age. Company."
Ruth moved and with them went the little distorted boy, the night-walker,
pulling them out of the sockets of their structured days at the library where
Ruth opened her arms like a book and the school where Duncan tasted alone and
silently the forbidden fruits of sex and violence. They owned each other. They
were happy. They were man and woman, husband and wife. They shared the creaking
boards of nightmare wherever they went.