A series of connected short stories by Andrew Cooper
1 Dead Leg
There’s a hydrangea she bought for his birthday, geraniums in a terracotta pot with openings around the side. From one of them a gladioli has sprouted, the white bloom contrasting with pinks, carmine, letter box reds. The stem cannot support the weight of the whole plant, so it has bent double. For some reason he thinks of his parents’ funerals. The two are confused, though they happened twenty years apart. He concentrates but has no recall of any flowers at either. Instead he remembers his aunt saying she’d looked across at him and thought how like his father he was. This was at his mother’s funeral. He wore the black suit he’d bought for his brother’s cremation three months earlier.
It’s as though he’s observing the scene himself. The crowd of mourners at the far end of the open grave in which his father’s coffin had rested all these years. Himself, apart somehow, at the other end, in his black suit, looking like his father. He doubts it was really like this.
Last summer he’d stayed with friends in France. They’d driven up to the Aubrac plateau and Tom photographed him in profile, head back, eyes closed, soaking up the sun. When he sees the photo it’s a shock because he’s looking not at himself, but at his father. He never saw his father’s dead body, but made sure to see his mother laid out in the funeral parlour. Her face was sparrow like, her nose bony and hooked as he never saw it in life. In the photo his nose which he believes is large, bony and straight, Roman he likes to say, is gently curved like a Saracen’s.
The doorbell rings. An unfamiliar postman in baggy, badly fitting shorts and T-shirt clutching a pile of letters, a pen between his teeth.
‘Do you live here?’
‘Can you sign for this?’ He looks at the slim package. It’s his address, but not his name. He stares for a moment. The postman is holding out his device. For a moment he’s tempted.
‘This is not me.’
‘Who is it then?
‘I don’t know.’
He removes the pen from his teeth, looks down the street. ‘No one you know, down this road?’
‘No one, I don’t recognise the name’
The postie grunts, sighs. As he turns and moves away he sees the man is limping, one leg almost straight. He wonders, how much pain does he endure each day, just to do his work?
A bee lands on the crooked white gladioli which flutters momentarily. The bee disappears into the mouth of the end most flower. He’d like to know – what flowers were placed on the coffin lids? He hasn’t visited the grave for years. Last time he noticed that someone was still tending it, mowing the surrounding grass, shaving the mound, cleaning the stone of moss and algae.
He reaches into his pocket for a crumpled tissue, blows his nose, and tries to imagine dragging around a dead leg each day, for miles and miles, rain or shine.
2 Police and thieves
Jane found him sitting on the hall floor against the radiator with the front door open. Beside him was a bowl of water, cloths and a bottle of ketchup. She stopped dead near the bottom of the stairs.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Thinking about stuff, he said. He smiled at her.
‘Careful no one sees you at it. They might send for someone.’ She made for the kitchen.
He was cleaning the strip of corrugated copper that formed the threshold floor piece of the inner front door. A curious, probably original feature of the house. It started to gleam and he was struck by a mild anxiety that it would attract a thief or burglar. Daft, but they’d been burgled twice in quick succession a few years ago. Repeat victimisation, it’s a problem, one of the policeman had said. He could still detect the scarring in himself, small acts of irrational vigilance before leaving home. Then he remembered.
The old priest looked up towards the roof of his church. In the strong beam of the policeman’s torch his hair was whiter than ever. The other cop was searching the ground, his flashlight moving steadily, systematically, in long raking strokes.
‘There’s damage to that old gargoyle, and the parapet. Poor old fellow, half his face knocked away.’
‘Where they rested the ladder,’ the cop said.
‘Did you know, those craftsmen used to make their gargoyles in the image of local people. Parishioners, rogues maybe, I don’t know.’
‘That so? Like puppets, Spitting Images huh?’
Jake doubted the old priest would get the reference.
‘Well, it’s a kind of afterlife, I suppose,’ said the priest.
‘But not eternal’. The cop was looking up at the damaged face.
The priest brought out a pack of cigarettes, took out two, gave one to Jake. The lighter flared close to the old man’s face, then his own. He proffered the pack to the policeman.
‘On duty, sir.’ He looked as though he hadn’t wanted to refuse.
A good strong fag in the middle of the night was one of the perks of these occasional sorties. Twice in the last three years. They lived next to the vicarage, and the priest and his wife had no children at home anymore. So when the call came, lights seen, the lead stripped from the church roof, it was him who accompanied the priest at four in the morning. He wondered who had raised the alarm. They were on the far side of the church, hidden from the quiet road. Across the fields just one or two faint lights glimmered. The sky was overcast, of course. The opposite of a hunter’s moon.
‘There.’ It was the second officer. They all turned. His torch beam picked out a pile of gleaming turds a few feet from the churchyard wall, between two graves. A proper desecration he thought. But the first cop said,
‘It’s normal. They get scared, have to relieve themselves.’
In the ghostly half light he thought the priest’s eyes were tear filled now. He felt choked himself. Then a faint breeze stirred the air carrying the stink of the excrement across to where they stood. It seemed to signal the end.
‘Not much more we can do tonight sir. Harry, any sign of anything else?’
‘Not really. Trampled grass, the odd lump of lead that’s sheared away. Nothing we’ll get prints off I don’t reckon. We could ask for forensics in the morning.’
‘See what the governor thinks.’
The little party broke up, the police to their car, himself and the reverend to the ancient Ford. There were three churches in his ministry, and this one lay a couple of miles from the village where home was. Up on the hill opposite, overlooking the river, he could make out the stumpy spire of the third, the only remaining building of a lost village, abandoned in late medieval times.
They drove in silence at first till Jake said,
‘You’ll call in the surveyor tomorrow? Is the insurance all in place?’
‘After this it won’t be affordable. Anyway, time to use some different material. Last time the church council wouldn’t agree.’ He sighed heavily. ‘Do you remember the last incident?’
‘Of course. It’s not every night I get to stand around in a graveyard with a vicar and two cops. Smoking Capstans.’ The priest chuckled.
‘Would you like another?’
He lights up for both of them as the outskirts of the village appear.
‘You don’t seem too upset. What got me was that pile of…’
‘Yah, well, when you’ve been in this game as long as me, you’ve seen and heard worse. I am distressed. After a time you come to feel a church building is part of yourself, like an extension of your own body, and soul. I’ve arrived at a deep love for each one I have been a minister for, even though one of them was little more than a tin shack on a bit of wasteland.’
He recalled now that the priest had started life in northern Ireland, Belfast maybe. You could still detect the faintest of accents. They pulled up outside the vicarage. In the eastern sky, the first, faint light of the dawn.
‘Thank God I don’t have a service later this morning. And thank you Jake, you’re a comfort to me.’
He wondered why he recalled everything in such detail. The priest and his wife retired and bought a small bungalow just round the corner. His own mother and father lived in the village until the end of their lives. He went back on one occasion and his mother said,
‘Reverend Taylor is not so good these days, dementia’s got him it seems. Poor Martha is having a struggle’.
So he made a call. Martha took him aside in the kitchen and whispered so the reverend wouldn’t overhear, supposedly.
‘He’s a worry to me the whole time Jake. Be thankful for your own parents’ good health. He forgets most things I tell him, has no idea of the day of the week. If it’s the past then he remembers better. I told him you were coming, and his face lit up for a moment, I’m telling you. He can be awful to live with, if truth be told. He cusses at me, terrible words. This from a man I never heard use a crude word in his life. And, he smears his faeces on the toilet wall, wees on the floor. It’s hard sometimes not to believe it’s deliberate. Do you think it could be?’ The woman’s eyes were teary. She’s worn to the bone he thought.
‘I doubt it, I really do Mrs Taylor. Surely he was devoted to you?’ He had no idea what the best thing to say might be.
In his armchair the old priest was a wizened figure, shocking how he’d shrunk. His face was hollowed out, but when he saw Jake his eyes twinkled.
‘Reverend Taylor!’ He was dressed, still wearing his dog collar he noticed, though it hung loose round his scrawny neck.
‘Jack!’ He looked anxious.
‘Jake it is.’
‘Jake, of course! My old brain box is not what it was.’
‘Never mind. I’m pleased to see you.’
The man seemed lost for words. Then he reached to his chairside table.
‘Capstan? Go on now!’
‘Ah, Reverend. I gave them up a while back.’
‘Did you? Well Lent can be a help to us. In our struggle with the devil. But not on this count, not for me. Can you give me a hand just getting it lit?’
Was it Lent? He didn’t think so. Martha appeared in the doorway.
‘Oh, now someone has to sit with him while he smokes. We’ve had more than one accident. I have to hide them at night. I’ll empty that ash tray.’
The priest’s eyes followed her. He looked thunderous.
He left after a cup of strong tea and a home baked scone. He felt flat and sorrowful.
Three months later his mother phoned to say the priest had died. At home, peacefully enough.
‘Well that’s…something’, he’d replied.
He went back to burnishing the strip of copper. It was one of those small tasks you only got round to in holidays. He hadn’t attended the funeral, and rarely visited his own parents’ graves, just a few plots away. Each time though, he’d been to look at the other grave, where Martha’s name had been added to the stone two years later.
Now a fire burned up in him. He’d kill anyone who despoiled the place, should he hear of it. He’d wanted to kill the people who’d burgled his own home. He still did.
3 Pretty no more
He woke in the night realising he’d overlooked saying a proper goodbye to her. It was a confusing time, working on screens with groups of people, a kaleidoscope of faces, flicking about as one came and another went or someone suddenly switched off the camera. He’d been about to a take holiday himself and wouldn’t see this lot for a while. Some were moving on in the coming weeks. He waved goodbye and everyone replied, but fleetingly he thought he saw disappointment in her face.
Then it all rushed back in. His first proper job after college. Spells as a kitchen porter, then looking after kids in care in a home. He’d not been cut out for it, and though he thought the other staff liked him well enough, looking back he reckoned everyone just tolerated him. He was over educated, too high minded, soft, little more than a lost child himself. The place was run by hard men with kind enough hearts, down to earth, no nonsense types who looked forward to a lot of drinking at the end of a long shift. ‘Copious amounts of alcohols’ as one ebullient Geordie repeatedly put it.
Some younger staff had families and lived in. He soon understood there was an inner group who’d worked together in other places. It was a travelling circus. The rest were young women, a few men, and they also liked to present themselves as hardened, seasoned, thick skinned. He saw they didn’t know much about these children, or how to help them, beyond a few tried and tested methods of keeping order and dealing out sanctions. But he knew no better himself, and had less experience to draw on.
He had been good at getting to know some of the kids, the boys, reading to them at night, letting them talk freely as they took walks through the green corridors of the urban sprawl to some play park or boating lake. He drew out their vulnerabilities and a smidgen of their pain and desolation. When he spoke about these conversations and the neglect or abandonment he’d heard about the others mostly didn’t seem to hear. He has to learn to take responsibility, that was the commonest refrain. If a kid broke down in tears, she or he would be comforted, but then the wall of deafness came up again.
The older boys were full of bravado. Ask Tommy about his weekend at home and the most likely reply would be, I got done for GBH. There’d be talk of knifings, robbery, but the kids’ files told a different story. They would test the staff with obstinacy, opposition, insult, refusal. He tried to reason with them. A colleague said
‘You just have to say no, and stick to it.’
She was a large woman, intense, kindly and thoughtful. A different type from the usual. The children called her Haystack.
It came to a head in the middle of one night. The boys were up and about, someone knocked on his door. In the corridor, Tommy and a few others were mingling. He could sense the suppressed excitement. Around the corner, through the glass panel of the door to the girl’s wing he caught a fleeting glimpse of a face. The night nurse would be on duty there. Male staff didn’t cross into their corridors at night except in an emergency.
‘Back to bed’ he commanded.
‘OK Penguin’ Tommy replied. Penguin, on account of his long nose. Tommy smirked but went back to his room. The rest grinned and skulked off too. He stayed around for a few minutes then went back to his room.
Did he hear movements outside in the hours that followed but fall back to sleep? He can’t recall. In the morning they found Mrs Topping the night nurse, half conscious, face beaten to a pulp. By ten o’clock Tommy was on his way to a secure unit. A fearful hush settled across the place. He remembers giving a confused account of the night to the head of home. In the end no one seemed to blame him, except himself.
He’d been applying for other jobs anyway, and a few weeks later worked his last shift. He waited, but no one remarked on it being his last day. No card, gift, gathering, speech, nothing. Everyone had forgotten. He walked out into the afternoon sunshine, as desolate as he could ever recall.
A few days later a large brown envelope arrived by post. There was a card signed by a few of them, and a cheap gift, a set of pens bought from a high street stationery chain. The wife of the head of home had written an apologetic note. It all made him feel worse, and also just a bit better.
In those days he didn’t think much of himself. He probably hadn’t made any fuss, whipped up expectation. Laddishness didn’t sit well with him, so he’d been an outsider. Awake in the night now, a new thought sends a shiver down his spine. If those boys had turned on him that night, would he have defended himself? There was that film about a violent boxer, Raging Bull. He fights a young good looking pretender, a pretty boy. The boxer’s wife remarks on his good looks, so he beats the kid’s face to a pulp in the ring. At the ring side, a man looks on, awestruck, frightened, whispers, ‘He ain’t pretty no more’.
The surveyor rang their bell. At the front door he said,
‘I’m nearly done. I want you to look at something though. We need to cross the road.’
Across the street, standing between two of the London Planes that lined each side of this pleasing avenue where they lived, the surveyor pointed to the roof.
‘Can you see the sag in the roofline? It’s concrete tiles.’
‘There was a time when they were popular. Mad. The weight is too much. Have you ever held a clay tile? Square foot for square foot, those up there are about half as heavy again.’
‘So what’s the damage? Is it dangerous?’
‘Your roof beams are under strain. There’s no immediate risk. No one’s going to die. But you need a new roof or longer term it will become dangerous.’
The surveyor looked at him. ‘Hard to say exactly without a lot more investigation. You might be alright for a few years. But no one’s going to sign anything saying that.’
‘How does it happen, that they allow that kind of thing?’ They owned a flat in the imposing four storey semi detached house. They had bought the freehold with all the other tenants. Dissent and wrangling loomed.
‘Huh. Building regulations are a nightmare, shifting sands, moving goalposts, ambiguity, and deals done on the sly. Those kind of tiles were approved but never tested properly. Oh, and they’re cheap. The real problem is that your roof frame wasn’t reinforced to bear the extra weight.’
‘It’s not going to be cheap to replace that roof. Will we be forced to do it?’
‘No enforcement on a thing like this. You’re the owners, collectively. It’s your responsibility. But each time someone sells or buys any decent surveyor will note it. The rest follows.’
‘So, it’ll be in your report.’
‘’Fraid it will.’ He smiled a thin lipped smile.
A few weeks later Jane woke him. ‘There’s a tower block on fire in West London. People trapped.’ She’s staring at her phone.
He walked to his car to drive to work. Above the furthest rooftops, he could see a shadow, a smudge against the sky. Was it his imagination, or were there tiny flakes of ash falling silently, settling unseen in the gutters, on the fading blooms in the council flowerbed at the end of the street. He got in the car, switched on the news as he did every morning.
5 A break in the clouds
‘You do seem in a bad mood’ she said. He was cleaning his teeth at the time. He spat into the sink then washed his mouth with water.
‘I’m exhausted, that’s what I am’. He felt riled. He couldn’t help it. ‘I’m no more in a bad mood than you often are when you’re tired.’
‘OK, turn it back on me then,’ she replied.
He spat again, looked in the mirror. She was standing behind him, removing makeup with a cotton pad.
‘Sorry if it’s hard to live with.’
‘It is a bit,’ she answered.
He thinks, all those nights when you’re knackered, tense, abrupt. Till you fling yourself into bed, and then the sudden shift of mood. A softness returns instantly. Like the two ways of being don’t connect, have never met, spoken to one another. He lets it go.
He wonders where it goes to. Does he ever completely let go of anything, does anyone? Lately, long ago lovers and friends have come back to mind. He wakes at night aching from loss, overcome by might-have-beens. Feelings he didn’t feel enough at the time. Now he does, can. He wonders if it’s because he’s more secure now that these things come alive, wake from the dead, walk his mind. With some he has no regrets, others he sees it was about his own failures of courage. He didn’t have a go, stand there like that woman in a bookshop in a film he can’t name saying ‘I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy asking him to love her.’ With yet others he did have the guts, but mostly to get away. Going for the big prize and risking failure was where he’d failed. He falls asleep.
He wakes up thinking about Louise. She was beautiful, and intelligent. They’d been friends. She’d been good to him, looked after, and out for him. Louise smoked Camels. He liked that about her, and a lot else too. He never could work out, did he actually fancy her? Somehow she was too good to be true. Too sane. He’d known he was a mess, knew she knew it too. So desire never truly took flight. He adored her but made himself safe from the impossibility of love, and disappointment. Instead he went for messed up women like himself, and his life was unsettled for many years.
Beside him she stirs.
‘What time is it?’
‘I’ll make tea’.
The house is quiet, children still sleeping. The water comes alive, thrums, bubbles, steams. He makes her cup the way she likes it, teabag first then milk, water last. He does it differently, water first, then milk. Can she tell the difference? He doesn’t believe so. She says her way stops a scum forming. His way is quicker, more logical, because the teabag infuses better in near boiling water. Her way the water is cooled by the milk. Who cares? He can’t stop himself arguing the point with her though, the simple physics of it, but silently.
The cat bleats. ‘ You’ll have to wait.’
He trudges upstairs, bleary, taking care not to spill tea. Usually she’s up first, bustling and energetic. He’s a night bird. Their different rhythms pull them apart. She accepts the tea gratefully. He smiles at her.
Last evening floats back to mind. As he grew older his mother grated on him more and more, so he got angrier with her. Mostly he held that inside, but he knew she could sense it, which made her worse. He was angry with her, she with him, back and forth, till he lost his way. Sometimes he could trace it all to a wellspring. The way she’d jumped out of the door to stop him flicking his pen knife in the ground, breaking up the party with his friends. Or be outside his bedroom door, sighing and banging just to let him know she was working and he was still in bed mid morning. She never just came out with it, unless the anxiety overcame her.
It became a mess he lived inside, as it inhabited him. A few women suffered the consequences, as he tried to work it out. Mostly she’s quieter now in his mind and through the calm he gets glimpses of the other person she was, bright, curious, devoted, original. He knows his debt to her in those moments. If the clouds never broke up how would you know there was a sun giving warmth?
Across the bed she stirs again, hoists herself up, gulps tea. Her right arm rests by her side. He takes her hand, and she caresses his own, lightly, with her thumb.
‘That’s good tea’ she murmurs distractedly. Half awake, gazing ahead, her moving thumb comes to rest. A fragment of his restless mind might take this as a rejection, a signal to retreat, but right now he takes the other path. He won’t let go. He holds on.
He found he could hardly stand to be with her. She meant little to him but the same wasn’t true for her. She was his student and she wanted what he could give. The trouble was there seemed to be so much more going on.
She’d sit in the chair opposite, in her very short dresses, top thighs exposed. The effort of keeping eye contact, of not letting his glance stray, was continuous. She’d cross and uncross her legs from time to time. He kept his gaze steady but even with peripheral vision her cellulite was visible. It seemed to draw his eyes like a magnet. She talked, he listened, thinking about her ideas and the ups and downs of her research but simultaneously wondering about this other relationship they seemed to be having.
He wasn’t stupid, and knew it was really nothing to do with him. It was something she carried about with her, like body odour, hoping someone would respond, pushing her body at you and repelling you at the same time. Repulsive, that’s the feeling he had about her. Which made him ashamed.
He’d heard she’d been infatuated with a colleague, a self-centred rake of a man who liked to prey on the more vulnerable students, by turns seductively and sadistically. He had a wife and a daughter, so his behaviour was egregious, contemptible. He tried not to feel the same about this woman, and wondered what had befallen her earlier in life.
Who could you talk to about it? Pick the wrong person or the wrong moment and you’d land in a heap of trouble. Then he was talking things through with Liz, who he’d known forever and trusted.
Liz said, ‘How’s Mandy getting on?’
He sighed, stretched his legs. ‘Her work is fine, OK. I find it hard being with her.’
‘Well, what do you make of her, as a person? As a woman?’
‘ Do you mean what do I as a woman make of her, or what do I make of her as a woman?’
‘Either. Both I guess.’
‘What do I as a woman, make of her as a woman?’ Liz raises her eyebrows. ‘It sounds like there’s something you as a man find difficult about her as a woman.’
‘That’s it. There is something.’ What words could he find? ‘It’s like she’s sitting there talking about neuroscience or whatever, and it’s all coming from up here’, he tapped the side of his head, ‘but her body is talking some different talk. I feel like she would happily jump me right there in my office if I gave her the right, or maybe the wrong, signal. Desperate it feels. But also nauseating. I can hardly stand it.’
Liz eyes him for a few seconds, then drops her gaze towards her hands which are lightly folded on her lap. Such a characteristic gesture. She is thinking. He contemplates her. She exudes nothing remotely similar, carries herself with poise, a kind of understated elegance. Is she different with other men? He’s never noticed it to be so, even with her husband who he’s met a few times. She is, he searches for the phrase, comfortable in her own skin. Other women come to mind, who capture him and everyone with continuous warmth, generosity, a flow of unselfconscious sensuality which you could mistake for flirtation. You make this mistake if you mix up your own erotic need with their behaviour, don’t get they’re that way because they’re confident, happy with themselves. He’d learned this, in the end.
‘People live in the world with their bodies in a whole lot of ways.’ Liz’s words interrupt his musings, as though speaking his own mind. ‘How they do it gets mixed up with how you do it yourself’.
When he was thirty he had his ear pierced. His highly respectable uncle Jack, married, a prosperous accountant, started propositioning him. He’d gifted him a modest sum of money when things were tight. He resisted politely until one evening, dropping him off at his flat, uncle Jack had leaned over, fondled his balls, and said ‘you don’t mind if I do this?’ He did mind, and said so. In a phone call soon after Jack said ‘but you are gay aren’t you’. He’d been hopelessly naive. On the other hand did people think he was gay? Well, he doubted it. He just couldn’t believe he transmitted those messages. It was uncle Jack, living under the furtive camouflage of a suburban marriage and a daughter, who was confusing everything. Could he really have entertained starting an affair with his own nephew?
‘What I mean is they’re relating to other people all the time with their bodies, in their own particular way. I’m not talking about sport or jogging. You can read a person’s sexual way of being from how they are in everyday life.’
‘You can? You do?’ He’d felt suddenly alarmed.
‘I reckon so. Isn’t that what you’re asking me about?’
He wanted to ask, so how do you read me?
‘So, desperate she is…’
‘Yeah, but for what? Take care with the nymphomaniac cliché.’
‘Maybe not. But many blokes would. Didn’t she have a crush on wotisname? He would. Interpret her messages as sex starvation. With him as the banquet.’
He laughed. Liz grinned fleetingly. ‘You think men don’t send out difficult messages? Of course you think they do. We, women, are picking up the radar all the time, we have to, sorting the innocuous from the dangerous, from the pathetic and bizarre. And occasionally there’s the truly appreciative and generous. It’s like wine tasting I imagine, a spectrum from astonishingly subtle and beautiful through to puke up acidic and corruscatingly impaltable.’
He chuckled again, uneasily. She’s a clever woman he thought. She carried on.
‘Mostly what you pick up is a helpless little boy lost feeling. They might be drinking in your tits on the sly, following your arse with their eyes when you turn your back. Or someone else’s while you’re talking to them. So once you get over the indignity of it all, the intrusiveness, you find this feeling, a kind of panicky sadness. Like a fraught toddler. Where’s mummy? I need her here with me to get through the next minute.’
He thought, I ask her about my struggle with Mandy, now I’m in a tutorial about myself. Was she doing this on purpose?
‘Which bit of all this applies to me then?’
‘I thought you’d never ask! I could put that question back to you…’
‘You’ve done enough of that already today.’
‘Alright, but the important bit of the game is about when, or whether, your dots join up with my dots, with everyone else’s.’
‘There can’t be just one way to join the dots.’
‘Maybe not, but if so then the mystery becomes how do we achieve connection to any one.’
‘Which we do’.
‘Which we do.’
‘I think I’m mostly in the helpless little boy category,’ he said. ‘But it can shift around. Sometimes there’s more of a hungry monster.’
‘Probably when you’re desperate. Out of control. Searching so hard, you don’t even know what you’re looking or any more.’
‘Like her, you mean.’
‘Could be. I know her a bit, don’t I? I agree she’s pretty tricky in some ways. But glad to see me usually. And, yeah I see she responds to blokes differently. We’re all watching this stuff all the time too. Women watching women watching men watching women. Huh, can drive you nuts if you don’t look out.’
Liz turns her head, gazes out of the window. He studies her profile. He finds her elegant, and what seems to be her inner calm is reflected in her skin and posture. There are few creases, lines, straining tendons. His own face couldn’t be more different, bony, angular, pitted, stretched neck muscles, a permanent puffiness taking hold under his eyes. Was he attractive to anyone any more? Or was he looking in the wrong place to ask and answer the question?
‘How do you grow out of it?’
‘You live in your own skin, with knowledge of your losses, and gains.’
Losses. He remembers now that she had a brother who died young, of leukemia. Twelve years old. Long ago she told him of it, and her sorrow filled the room. He forgets this about her. She must carry it inside herself like a child of her own.
Mandy comes for her appointment a week or so later. She breezes into his office. It’s a warm day and her dress is floaty and flared. Already he sees her differently, like he’s more relaxed in some part of himself.
She talks enthusiastically about understanding her data. She’d interviewed fourteen women ex-prisoners, trying to understand the meaning of the experience in terms of their lives and personalities. He realises he’s bored by what she says. It’s because she’s trying to impress him, pushing words and cleverness at him. She herself is nowhere present. There’s an emptiness which is somehow filling up the space, and filling him up with anger. He thinks about Liz and what she might do.
‘Good’ he says, ‘but tell me something else. How did these women touch you. I mean not literally, how did they affect you, move you? I’ve read these stories…’
‘I’ve tried to keep myself out of it. That’s really what the advice is. Of course I think about my, you know, positioning, I’m privileged, white, educated, all that.’ She forces the word at him. He feels slightly sick.
‘Anyway, ignore what the books say. So, these difficult and painful lives, full of struggle and as you say resilience, but agonising stories most of them. How did they touch you?’
Mandy looks perplexed. He waits. She looks lost, bewildered. He smiles at her. After maybe a minute, two, he can’t tell, she says.
‘There’s so much death. And other kinds of…’ She tails away. He nods. She seems unable to continue.
‘Loss?’ He says.
‘There was one woman, a migrant from Eritrea. She’d endured terrible experiences on the journey, rape, near drowning, starvation…but she retuned over and again to talking of her mother. She’d died in childbirth when this woman was thirteen. She wept and wept, said she misses her every day. I got the impression she’d fled to maybe get away from all that. It was,’ she gulps, wipes at her left eye which is twitching, ‘completely raw. I could hardly stand being with her.’
She is breathing faster. He waits, thinking, should I be doing this? Is this out of bounds?
‘I wondered several times doing these interviews, should I be doing this? But then I couldn’t figure out whether that was because it was hurting me too much or I was hurting them. You see…’ and now her eyes leak silent tears, ‘my mother died too, when I was eleven. Did you know that?’
Mandy leans forward in her chair, head in hands, and weeps silently.
‘I’m sorry. These things just carry on hurting.’
She nods without looking up. ‘I’m a mess. I keep searching for answers in all the wrong ways, wrong places, wrong people. How do you get beyond it all?’
He thinks, I don’t know. He’s looking at himself in a black suit standing apart, as his mother is lowered into the grave where his father was buried so long ago.
7 The Blessing
‘You’re gonna go bankrupt!’ His son’s head appeared briefly over the raised side of the swimming pool then disappeared. They’d all broken off a game of Monopoly to take advantage of some respite in the weather. Jane and Amy were playing crazy golf.
Across the surrounding lawn another family were grouped around their sunbeds, parents and three young children. The man was sitting on the edge of his bed, chewing his fingernails. Now he looked up, towards the pool, then back in his direction. He was about forty, thinning sandy hair, eyes made narrower by the bags beneath them. He pulled at a can of lager.
He was aware of the man standing, moving in his direction.
‘I’m sorry to hear of your situation. Mind if I sit down?’
He looked up. With the sun behind him the man was a looming black silhouette, then he sat down.
‘I’m in deep myself. Mind you I’d burst a blood vessel if anyone spoke like your boy did just then. Cruel, eh? This bloody virus has wiped my business out near enough.’
A powerful reek of stale lager floated in the space between them. The man smoothed back his hair and you could detect the slight tremor in his fingers. Caught off guard, there was a need to recover, and head off the embarrassment that loomed. But the man plunged ahead.
‘I left the company I worked for five years ago, wanted to go it alone, be my own boss. Going alright it was. We make parts for washing machines, lot of precision engineering, machine tooling. It’s skilled work in my view. A millimetre out and you’ve gotta load of duds on your hands, waste. Good blokes I employ, hand picked ’em myself. All laid off now. Till the manufacturer decides to expand again. But the costs of standing idle, rent going out, all that….’ he tailed away momentarily, then swept his hand toward the pool and the hotel in the background. ‘Paid for this months ago, in case you’re wondering. Insurance company wouldn’t budge. Rip off merchants, travel insurers. So here we are.’
The man’s eyes were a little bloodshot, and small purplish arteries showed through his sunburn. He hadn’t made eye contact yet. Across the lawn his wife was sitting up, wrestling a t-shirt onto the smallest child, but looking over to where the two of them sat.
His son’s face popped up again, white teeth gleaming, swimming goggles pushed up. ‘Ha, ha!’ he intoned and disappeared again.
‘Jeez!’ The man’s head snapped round, then back again. ‘Why d’ya put up with it, huh?’ Now he was focused, and there was malice in the air. His fists clenched.
‘Look, I’m so sorry to hear about your misfortune, but there’s been…I’m saying, I think you misunderstood. We were playing a game. My son was taunting me about the game we were playing.’
The man stared, and his mouth set hard, then he exhaled, slowly and long.
‘Mon-o-poly. Christ, I hate that game. You’ve been up in your room, throwing dice, buying dinky green houses, playing banker, probably…probably thinking you’re educating your kids about the exciting world of business and finance. Crap. Total…’
The man gulped. ‘I feel about’, he placed forefinger and thumb very near each other, ‘this big’.
‘Me too’ he replied.
‘How so?’ The man inhaled through his nostrils. ‘OK, OK, yeah I kinda see. I suppose. I jumped the gun a bit.’
‘How many blokes do you employ?’
‘Five, and a woman as it happens. She does admin, accounts. I got my family to worry about. But I’m sick for all these people, they’re all struggling. I lie awake at night, feeling useless. Truth is I think of them all like family. One of the guys phoned me, hysterical, said his wife had talked about, you know…’ he glanced over to his wife, lowered his voice, ‘going on the game. Just to keep afloat. And I’m here, thinking I did this to you. I took you on, trained you up, then laid you off.’ He snapped his fingers, hard. ‘Just like that. That was the worst day of my life, closing up the factory, cancelling the wage payments. I tried to be, you know, a decent employer, the kind of boss you’d be in the pub and say, he’s alright, treats us well.’
‘The kids are hungry, Sean.’ His wife is gathering up clothes, toys, towels. Her face is flushed, tense. She eyes the scene between them suspiciously he senses. Sean seems not to hear
‘Alright, I heard you!’ But he shows no sign of moving. ‘Let me tell you, if it came to that with us, I’d die of it. The shame. Only it’d not get that far because…’ the man looks him hard in the eye, draws his finger across his throat, ‘See?’
Sean’s eyes are brimming, his voice has turned hoarse. From the corner of his eye he sees the man’s wife has observed all that has just transpired. His daughter, maybe seven, breaks away and runs to where they are seated.
‘Daddy, come on. Mummy’s crying. We’re hungry.’
‘Jeez.’ Sean mutters under his breath. The girl looks crestfallen. She turns towards her mother. Sean gets up, takes the girl’s hand.
‘Nice talking to you’, he says, and forces a smile. They amble over to where the others are gathered, the mother loaded up with bags, towels, and children clinging. As they move off she brushes away the arm he places across her back. He hears her. ‘What you doing, telling that man our business? Don’t tell me you weren’t.’
He watches them go as James comes hurtling across the grass towards him, breathless, flinging water droplets in all directions, face shining.
‘Come on daddy, let’s go back and find the others, finish the game. I’m going to smash you’.
She was leaning on the balcony, smoking and wishing they’d never come on this holiday. It was the worst she’d ever known and she’d taken up smoking again after years of pregnancies, raising babies and infants. She was smoking, Sean was drinking, though he’d deny it was any more than usual.
By the pool she could see the man he’d been spilling his guts to yesterday. It mortified her, though he wouldn’t say exactly what he’d divulged. Just stuff about the business, he’d said. But she knew there was more. Why did he think she hadn’t seen that gesture he’d made, dragging his finger over his throat. It made her nauseous, her stomach had actually heaved and she’d instinctively put hand to mouth. Not that he would have noticed.
The man was kidding around down below with his wife and two children. It was the boy who somehow started it all but she’d missed what he’d said. Thomas had been tugging at her skirt, or mewling, she didn’t recall. She was the kind of person whose antennae were divided. She could focus on something while a part of her attention was on everything else happening around her, upstairs, outside, over there. Her friend told her it was a woman thing, because you had to be listening out for whatever your kids were up to, scanning for danger. It made sense. But still it wore you out.
The man had said hello to her this morning at reception, smiled, cast his eye over the kids. She hadn’t trusted it, and probably seemed aloof in return. She thought he was quite good looking, and for a moment there’d been a tingle, which came as a relief, reminded her she might still be human somewhere beneath everything that tormented her these days. Months it had been now. She couldn’t see into the future any more, which made her realise how much she depended on that, on the certainty of what you knew was coming, on the way you made plans and then looked ahead. Looked forward.
The kids were in clubs for the morning. She heard the door open then click shut. Even from this distance the odour of stale beer drifted ahead of him. Her reflex was to stub out the fag before he came on her. Then she thought why? Nothing so bad in it was there? No point in secrets or half secrets. He came up alongside her, leaned on the balcony.
‘Alright?’ She said.
‘I slept better.’
‘That’s good then.’
They both looked out at the scene, the pool, the hydrangeas, pink and brilliant, the undulating hills beyond. A church tower poking its head above the trees in the valley where the village must lie. Seagulls wheeling, crawing, drifting on the breeze.
‘You wouldn’t ever do it would you?’ She felt him tense up.
She paused. ‘Top yourself.’
Just stick to what you have to do she told herself. Beside her he was still as the dark night. Then she felt the motion, and turned her head. Tears were streaming down his face. After maybe half a minute he said,
‘I love you Laura.’
She inhaled. ‘That’s not what I asked Sean. I need to know. I’ve got twenty years of the kids ahead of me. It’s a stretch.’
‘It’s because I’m angry the whole time.’
‘You’re angry because you think everything’s your fault. No one can carry all that, and it isn’t ‘.
She’d maybe never spoken so clearly, bravely in her life.
After a while Sean said, ‘I doubt I’d have the bottle.’
‘You doubt. I can’t live with more doubt. D’you get that? It’s a decision I reckon. I know you’ve hit the bottom. But what you gonna do? Sink or swim?
Then he slipped his arm around her said, ‘Swim. You know why I can do that?’
She shook her head.
He said. ‘Because you’re my rock’.
He’d woken in the dead of night thinking about the man Sean. He realised that somehow the guy hadn’t learned a single thing about him, hadn’t asked. But what woke him was a knot of anxiety in his gut. What if the man meant it? Was lying in a deadly drug and drink stupor with slit wrists right now, or worse hanging by the neck in a store cupboard. He sat up in bed. He should have done something, told someone. But it wasn’t like the guy had taken him aside, said, I’m off now to commit suicide. If it came to that I’d die of shame he’d said, except…so, only if it came to it then, not right now. He’d not been clear what that was, the man hadn’t, leaving him hazy in his turn. He felt a bit calmer. But what did he know about people in that sort of state? Was the man hoping he would do something? He thought of waking his wife, Jane. She had a good way of thinking things through. But then again what could she add to what he already knew? He was used to weighing up difficult decisions of other kinds and usually he allowed his gut feeling to lead the way in the end. He wasn’t often wrong. And surely, the man’s wife would know how bad her husband’s mind state was? It was in her court really. And there was a detail that niggled here. He remembered now. Mummy’s crying the girl had said, in the same breath as I’m hungry. The woman must have seen the grisly gesture. He lay back and slipped into a troubled sleep, full of confused dreams.
So he’d been relieved as hell the next morning, first to come across the guy escorting the kids somewhere. Sean had waved at him, seemed a whole lot more cheerful, or was it a performance? But he was alive, anyway. And then he’d seen the wife at reception, smiled at her although she’d hardly reciprocated. Over breakfast, Jane said,
‘You seem distracted. Is something up?’ But he wasn’t going to start on the whole story now, and definitely not with the kids there. In the bustle of family activity he’d not told her anything the previous day.
‘I had a strange conversation with a guy yesterday. It left me a bit bothered is all.’
He glanced around the room, but they were nowhere in sight.
‘Who, what man?’
‘Later’, he said which was their not very sophisticated code for not in front if the children. But James was eyeing him, chewing on a croissant, hollowed out and filled with honey.
‘Can we go to the pool again?’ James looked from one parent to the other. ‘All of us?’
He tensed because he didn’t want to encounter the guy another time. Not yet anyway.
‘Sure, it’s another good day for it. But remember, we have to take turns with other people.’ Jane had jumped in.
‘Because of the virus? Amy piped up.
So they were playing cards, sitting on sun loungers waiting for their turn in the plunge pool. He looked up and saw the woman and the man Sean on their balcony, on the floor beneath their own room, further towards the end of the wing. A wisp of bluish smoke drifted up. They were both looking ahead, out to the hills behind him, but talking he thought.
‘Dad, it’s your go!’ James agitated. So he laid a card.
Looking up again, he saw what momentarily he felt might be a hallucination. The man put his arm around the woman’s waist, said something. After a pause she leaned her head on his shoulder. A few moments later the guy seemed to see him, and raise his hand, palm facing out, like a blessing. He’d raised his arm in return, but already the balcony was empty.
He laid another card and wondered how it worked, whether yesterday’s conversation, if you could call it that, was anything to do with what he’d just witnessed. Why would it? Don’t imagine you’re at the centre of everything, he’d learned that much in his lifetime.
All he knew was that in the days and weeks that followed, this man and his family were often in his mind, in his sleep and dreams. He didn’t want to keep thinking about them, but something had lodged itself deep inside. He was anxious for people in a way he hadn’t known previously, and couldn’t figure out whether this was a benediction or a curse.
8 Dark matter, very complicated
It was during the strange time everyone called lockdown. He wondered why people adopted the name so readily, and why they all started doing the same things to occupy themselves. Making sourdough bread? It made him think of sewing mailbags. People were fairly happy to go to jail, at least those who didn’t lose their jobs and had gardens to relax in. He spent a lot of time in his garden just looking and thinking.
Dexter and Bailey, the family’s cats seemed happy to have everyone around more. He was discussing them with his son James.
‘Dexter has yellow eyes.’
‘He wears contact lenses’, James quipped.
They laughed. Such moments filled his heart with delight.
In year seven James was given a project, to sit quietly somewhere and just observe, then write about what he’d noticed. He sat outside the back door on a late September evening. I learned something about the behaviour of my cats, he wrote. Jake said well why don’t you mention what it was? His son could be a boy of few words. A facility for economy and abstraction supported what he suspected was a tendency towards laziness. He knew he shared this trait with his son, so he didn’t press the point.
At the start of his first A level year Jake forgot the first history essay was due until the night before. The question said ‘Was there a revolution in Europe between…’ He couldn’t now recall the exact dates. So he gathered his three textbooks, looked up the relevant pages in the indexes and came to a conclusion. He wrote the conclusion in the first sentence. ‘In this period there was a huge amount of change in Europe, but it did not amount to a revolution.’ Then he justified his statement.
The essay came back with a giant red tick by the opening sentence, and the comment ‘Yes! I think this is the point!’ It was graded straight A. He never looked back. You studied the facts, the stories, and allowed the pattern to spring forth.
The two cats had made a path from the bottom of the garden to the steps leading up to the deck and the back door. It meandered slightly for no obvious reason, but they both trod this path precisely and repeatedly. After he’d mown the lawn it was still visible, like a medieval roadway or a sunken path at the edge of a field worn by generations of carts or walkers. This is what James had observed.
He was a boy of few words sometimes, but rarely doubted his feelings. He argued, defended his position, felt injustice keenly, fought his corner, yelled at his friends, and never bore a grudge for long. All this amazed his father. He’d learned to be more direct as the years went by, but that he could raise a child so free with his aggression, and yet so kind, seemed a triumph.
He’d say things like,
‘When I get married and have a kid I’ll make sure he supports a decent football team.’
As though there was no doubt at all that marriage and kids would happen for him, that he would guide his son (who also appeared as part of this pattern of inevitability) in the right path. Who knows what changes, revolutionary impulses, or daughters, might yet emerge, but his unthinking assumption that he would replicate his own state of childhood as night follows day was a further source of astonishment and satisfaction. Somehow, things had turned out well.
The cats came from the rescue centre. They’d been abandoned, ill and neglected. They loved each other like true brothers, grooming, washing, nuzzling. They only fought when hungry and then quickly made up. In character Dexter and Bailey were poles apart, the one aloof, solitary, adventurous, edgy, the other nervy, needy, companionable, cautious.
His mediations led him to a conclusion. Things evolved, developed. As they did so they sometimes diverged and sometimes converged. So the two kittens had the same beginning but grew into very different cats, also never losing their filial affection. He and his son had very different starts in life but became very similar in some ways, different in others. He closely studied a pot of Sweet Williams on his deck where he sat soaking up the endless sun of that summer. No two were the same, but none were anything other than what they were, Sweet Williams. Difference and similarity, and their relations, these were inscribed at the heart of everything. You could see the pattern if you looked closely, waited for it to appear.
He read a novel about a pandemic in another time. One passage said,
‘The human race settles on terms with every plague in the end, the doctor told her. Or a stalemate, at the least. We somehow muddle along, sharing the earth with each new form of life.’
Were we coping better with this struggle than in past ages? Not much it seemed.
He had a wife who he loved, children too, a garden that bloomed and bore fruit. All of it came to pass because he worked, like everyone, to bring the future into being in the way he wanted, hoped for. Others worked and it came to much less because the world placed unjust obstructions between their dreams and the fulfilment of these. He was fortunate, but he was also just passing through.
His daughter Amy appeared one evening when she couldn’t sleep, sat on the sofa and asked
‘Do you believe in heaven?’
Soon they were discussing the origin of the universe, black holes, the solar system.
‘Now,’ Amy said, ‘dark matter, very complicated.’
So he ordered a book for her, astrophysics for kids in a hurry. They sat on the deck while she read it aloud and he tried to clarify and explain when she puzzled over something, though what did he really know? Amy seemed truly astonished at the idea that the universe had once been condensed into a space millions of times smaller than the dot at the end of this sentence.
‘It’s a great mystery, he said. What else could you say?
The sky darkened. Nearby the two cats were stretched out, black shapes barely visible against the wooden decking. He hoped, with tears in his eyes, that one day she might look back, remember this evening, and feel some gratitude for his interest in her interest in the nature of things.