Philip Sidney Jennings


Neither 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.

"We're not 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:

"I'm not 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.

“Right," said 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 jobs."

"Yes," said 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.

"He said, 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."

Duncan 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.

They moved with the minimum of pain into 10 Drummond Walk and soon picked up a different tube routine with accompanying tales of underground misery....

"The 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"

Then Ruth made a positive interpretation,

"But out here in the bricks, the train's always waiting and you get a seat."

Duncan nodded 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 to.

Still, they 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.

Ruth : "Replace conservatory roof with glass."

Duncan: "I'll get someone to do that..."

Ruth:     "I wasn't suggesting, I mean I know you're a DIY man..."

Mutual smiles and time for a sip and a comment on the wine.

Duncan: " A wooden toilet seat."

Ruth:     " 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.

Duncan: 'I'll start on that tomorrow." He saw her concerned face. " No, I will, I went to. We can sleep downstairs on the sofa-bed.'

Ruth scribbled and Duncan poured.

Ruth:     "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..."

Ruth:  "I won't even write it down, that's outside, we're not worried about outside."

Worried. 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?"

Duncan risked moving close,

'You didn't 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."

Ruth smiled. 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.

They didn't 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.

Garlic 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 the sofa-bed.

Ruth said: "I'm a bit drunk." Then she whispered, 'Take advantage of me."

Duncan said 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.

Duncan got 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.

They 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?

Ruth's train 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.

Then 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:

"The conservatory, if we can call it that, I've got a man to do the glasswork."

Ruth: "Lovely. There's not a great deal to do, Duncan No need to rush at it."

Duncan contemplated being hurt but said:

"It's okay. 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:

"Why not 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"

Ruth said after some time.

"I'll have another glass of wine"

Duncan trembled as he poured it He filled the glass and Ruth drank deeply and immediately.

I should. 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."

Duncan grinned, "His ego is extraordinarily developed."

Everything 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 worried him.

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.

The 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."

Ruth asked Duncan how it had gone. Duncan shrugged,

"Look around, what do you think ?'

Ruth said, "I don't think I can see Sheila and Derek again."

Duncan "You 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."

Duncan: "Little sod isn't afraid to exist."

Ruth: " I bought him a new bicycle."

Duncan: "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 ship?'

Ruth was 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.

"The white room is lovely."

Duncan 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

Duncan felt 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 moaning.

"Duncan. Duncan."

"I'm here darling."

"Where were you ?'

"Just putting a few things together."

"I haven't done the curtains. The house is not complete."

"Well, no house ever really is." He'd never said that to her or himself before. "You said yourself we can take our time."

He saw suddenly a thing moved inside himself.

She was delirious.

I'll call the doctor.'

"No Duncan. 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,

"I've given 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."

A minute before the end of school the siren wailed.

Duncan's class had left him except the two Greek girls, "Don't worry, sir. We can't learn because of Jason."

Duncan 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 darling?"

"Duncan, 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."

"I'm bringing 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.

They were 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?

They went 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.

"We're not 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.

They slept 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. Duncan said:

"We'd make ten thousand if we sold this house now. What do you think?"

Ruth thought he'd be late for work but that was probably all right. Ruth said:

"I'm staying 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."

Duncan didn't protest too much. Their faces snarled silently like lions. They hated each other.

They smashed 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.

In the morning their eyes gleamed fiercely across coffee cups.

Duncan: " Let's move to the country."

Ruth: "That would be a change."

Duncan: "I'll start looking tomorrow."

Ruth:" I'll 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."

Duncan and 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.