©1987 by Michael Skywood Clifford
After weeks of continual drunks he had stopped. He had had to. His money was nowhere and his days were becoming unendurable agony. Hangovers had become intolerable and they usually chased him out into the night for curative alcohol and company. But not tonight: no way.
David Basnett looked out into the suburban night. Below him the estate windows reflected lamplight. Occasionally a dog barked. His eyes traced their way up the hill, over the rain-blackened leaves on the grass, back up to the wing of his block of flats. The panorama was quite empty, he could see no one. He realised how conspicuous he would be to any passers-by had there been any: a tall guant man nailed up against a window pane silhouetted in a second floor window.
He looked – he always looked – like he needed a week’s sleep. His sallow features contrasted with his broad shoulders and solid build and at first gave the impression that he was familiar with building site work. His checkered shirt and jeans fitted well but their cut and pattern seemed sadly nostalgic, a hankering for old student days of Tariq Ali anger.
Restraint wasn’t easy. His head hurt and the Harpies of Kowloon stalked him, like evil guardians writ somewhere out through these big glass windows on the night’s black sky. A nauseas fear of remembering was ever present. He had some hope – just enough – that he could control the fear. He had to hold back.
After seven years of marriage his wife had gone, just like his father had before. He flinched at the comparison. He had ended up deserting the city and had come to this dreary Leicestershire town and this second floor council flat. He had no job and was running up unpayable debts. ‘ When the going gets tough the tough get going,’ he remembered from a pop record – but all he felt inclined to do was drink.
The past – as always when he was attempting to dry out – battered on his door, unrelenting, refusing to believe he was out.
His father was in America or had probably died; he didn’t know and didn’t care; he didn’t need any more funeral wreaths, daddy, thank you. His inept and pathetic mother had overdosed on religion eons ago. His brother? His brother, well, he was dead enough, wasn’t he? His talented wife – the doctor with the best bedside manner – had left her departure note for him ten years ago. He had never had any contact with her since, apart from through a third party: Burton and Worth: specialists in divorce. She’d gone south. He sighed; successful people were depressing.
No one really knew him: all his old friends he had apathetically left behind and they wouldn’t talk to him now in any case. Chancey Walters came into his mind. He had no idea what had had happened to him. He smiled at the name.
Sometimes he just didn’t know what he was. He was a shell: the animate part of him having been removed, torn away. He was a bottomless empty shell – something he poured beer into.
Some of the people he had met in bars suggested he should get a job. He knew he could get one if he really put his mind to it; but he had enough to concern him without the problems of work. He went through the motions of filling in application forms but he never really sold the idea to himself; in fact he went out of his way not to follow things up. He felt relieved when a job went to someone else.
He didn’t want to design any more garbage housing estates. How could he believe that he ever had any real socialist principles and have done that to the public? The plans for his own dream house came into his mind, but he shrugged the thought away. Dream house was its apposite title. He’d sketch some new ideas at some stage, but architecture wasn’t his priority any more. How could you design dream houses when your foundations were crumbling beneath you? He wasn’t utterly burnt out; he still has some ideas left – but they could wait. He’d get round to earning a living doing something else rather than selling out again. He’d put all those sort of things off until he had solved his problem.
He tried to define it.
His problem, he said quietly to himself, was that he had to cut everything away. No, it wasn’t forgiving his wife, he’d already done that. He had to forget her? Maybe. Forget, forgive himself? That was difficult.
Sometimes things would get difficult. Sometimes anger would well up and he would kick the chair – a pathetic gesture – and watch it tumble away from him and crash on the floor and the anger usually led to a bar somewhere.
Occasionally he took a girl to bed with him but these encounters had no lasting consolation. Often they had made him feel worse, more lonely. The affection, the sweet lies, the swimming oblivion of physical love, the hopeless attempts at tenderness; it reminded him later of the things he had lost: a sense of the importance and meaning behind the lust. He knew a part of himself, a large slice of his ability to feel had been amputated and would never be replaced. He didn’t want to be reminded of it. It was difficult to remember exactly what life had been like with that extra arm or leg. He had to face up to his situation and the first way to do that was to stop drinking.
Later, contemptuous at the inability of the radio to amuse him, he snatched it off and grabbed some paper from a drawer. He frantically scribbled down a list of insects and animals and entitled it ‘Beaver food’. He sucked the end of his pencil. Ideas didn’t come easy.
He’d loved beavers as a child: their homemaking, their mating habits, their industriousness, their ingenious dams, their bolt-run defences, their prey, etc. His fascination had been sown by a geography project at Farnham Secondary and had blossomed when Uncle Roger had bought David a beaver in the local zoo. David – and sometimes his brother, Sandy – had visited Dobie until her death two days after David’s nineteenth birthday.
David had built up a mass of research to write a book on the subject, to be illustrated by his own photographs. Half way through the first draft his wife had pulled out the cohabital plug. He still had all the material for the book but the muse had left with his wife. He’d been promising himself for years he’d return to it. He’d return to it now. But all he really felt like returning to was a bottle of whiskey.
It was 11.30 pm. Usually by now he’d be leaving a pub to find a party, a nightclub, someone’s house, or returning home with a clutch of cans and a gaggle of can-emptiers.
He discarded his notepad and lay back. His hangover bit hard. His irises were marbled, his retinas were branded and the screw forever tightened on the skull-clamp. All he could do was go to bed.
An hour and a half later he still wrestled in the sheets.
He conjured up love again. Could sweet words really amount to anything. The more they were believed the more pressure was applied to both partners. His wife – irrespective of any lover she had found herself – would eventually discover the illusion of something seemingly so real: it was always wonderful to discover who you were born for, and so sad to discover you weren’t born for them at all.
Love was the abdication of one’s responsibilities to someone else. It was the ultimate con, the greatest method of self and dual-illusion in the human race. His domineering self-righteous and self-immolating mother and all her ‘love’ was proof of that.
This was the truth. He knew it but he didn’t want to know it. Right now he wanted it.
David had held back from alcohol for the longest time for over a year: three days. During this time he’d had a couple of brief visits from other flat-dwellers. From one he declined a smoke; he knew that a joint would finish him. His landlord, Mr Bostock, came twice for outstanding rent. David assured him he’d pay him as soon as his Giro came on Saturday. He didn’t say which Saturday.
He had too much time on his hands. He borrowed several Graham Green novels off a neighbour; reading was difficult at first but gradually, his concentration seemed to improve.
But there were times when he crashed. Gradually by trial and error and a will-power he’d forgotten he had, he found various strategies to ease himself through these periods.
One day he found writing down his feelings softened his anxiety – exorcised it somehow. Relief was strongest when these outpourings took the form of letters.
On Wednesday he’d written : “I feel so ill and so old. Why do I feel so futile, so useless? Why not simple oblivion?”
Only an hour later he wrote again: “I seem to be at the whim of my moods, of which I seem to have little control.”
Although he put these letters in white envelopes and addressed them to Bernard Willis he had no intention of posting them. He put them in a special drawer earmarked for the purpose. Each letter began, “Dear Bernard,” and ended “Yours inestimably, David.” The fiction of Bernard Willis amused him – for he knew of no Bernard Willis whatsoever – and began to look forward to his one way correspondence.
On Thursday week he described an unusual dream in one of his letters. He wrote:
‘…I was in a wood with two girls. One was about seven but very mature in her behaviour. The other was about fourteen. I was was my actual age but felt very young at heart. We strolled along a path, passing under trees which shaded us from the sunlight. The girls advised me which path I should take. They went back a few yards and turned off. I carried on.
After a few minutes walk in the wood I came out from the dark trees into glorious sunlight. Ahead of me stretched a grass carpet which rose up hiding the land beyond and making a straight horizon against the sky. I climbed up. As I approached the horizon it began to lower against the sky and I could see over the ridge. What presented itself was awesome in the extreme.
Heaven was below me. Down below me, stretching to infinity on all sides. Here was the most elegant spread of English trees, hedgerows and fields that ever could be witnessed. Rubens and Constable had combined together. Green landscape was everywhere. It was a part of heaven. A voice told me it was the ‘Plain of Hope’.
One day I knew I would return.
David wrote that after this dream he had felt more relaxed than he had for weeks. But later as his dimpled chin stared back at him from the shaving mirror he laughed. Heaven? Christ, he’d seen enough of that, thanks. No thanks!
Abstinence began to loose ground to restlessness after twelve days.
For a long time David had suspected that his solitary nature was probably the cause of all his excess. Now – it seemed – a deeper understanding of his loneliness was striking home. In his letters he began to include observations about himself that he found himself writing down without knowing why. It was almost as if his subconscious were writing things about him that his conscious mind had never understood. He wrote an account of the days in the ‘Bird in the Hand’ in Guildford where he and Chancey Walters used to go to pull the birds. Every Thursday and Friday they’d be in there slinking around, very successfully, in front of all the talent.
The pub had been very aptly named.
Even though this and other memories occasioned the wry smile to his lips it didn’t soften the words that he wrote. They were not biography but reportage; severely self-critical at times. Then he began to feel rather embarrassed by what he was writing. This self analysis was getting on top of him. He’d stop writing for a while: he’d take up a hobby: he’d get out of this damn flat. He’d do two things: he’d meet some new people and he’d avoid booze. It didn’t occur to him that there was irony, contradiction, in his resolution.
On Friday afternoon he sat in the clammy atmosphere of the laundrette reading the Independent. He only noticed the woman when she stood before him; the proximity of her soaking raincoat making him feel clammier than ever. She had a squirrely face, and looked a typical married, Hovis-eating, mother of two kids who must have had perfect teeth. She could have been anywhere from 35 to 40. Would he help her to carry in a crate of washing in that had been left outside, she asked.
He helped her to bring it in and put it on the counter.
“Thanks,” she said, “There’s no way I could have managed that lot. Fancy putting your washing in a wooden box. Some people!”
At least they didn’t put a body in it,” he said, trying to make a joke.
He noticed her eyes glancing at him uncertainty.
Later when she was at the far end of the laundrette. David followed the rhythmical movements of her arms as she fed bundles of clothes into a machine. Is she happy? Does she think? Does she worry about her family, her kids, aware that its all a waste of time? Mortality staring at her in every bowl full of Kellogs. She didn’t have that hint of sadness about her, like the average housewife, but there was something perhaps old-fashioned about her. Yes, he considered, she would have been of his generation, or perhaps a bit later. Sergeant Pepper hadn’t seemed to have caused her any damage. He turned back to the newspaper article again but before long her voice disturbed him again.
She was behind him now talking to another woman. David understood from their conversation that she worked in the laundrette and this was confirmed when the laundrette emptied leaving only David and her together. She went round singing and checking all the machines. Then surprisingly she stopped and apologised.
“I’m always making too much noise, my husband’s always telling me off for humming, he can’t stand it,” she said. David craned his head with some difficulty to look at her. She must have taken his movement as encouragement for she continued talking.
She told him about her time in Dorset ten years ago when her singing had irritated her husband so much he had gone home. They had laughed about it later, and they had compromised: “You can sing anything as long as it isn’t Gilbert and Sullivan, and it aint too damn loud,” she said immitating her husband’s Geordie accent. She had agreed. David nodded exaggeratedly, as if he were listening to a foreigner. “We had some good times then. Its funny how all the best days in the past seem faultless somehow, isn’t it? Oh, I’m sorry, I’m disturbing your reading.”
“No, its alright.”
She looked at him, and then after a second turned back to the spin dryer. There was an awkward silence. A self-consciousness.
He asked her if she worked. She worked her fingers to the bone, she complained, doing washing here and then she’d go home and do even more looking after her thankless family. He asked some more inane questions trying to develop the conversation but now she cooled; she became laconic in her answers. He escaped into the newspaper again and quickly began reading an article he’d already read.
He felt uncomfortable now that their conversation had become stilted. He always started off fine, but it was always too much effort to continue for both parties, and then there was this uncomfortable air of ‘not talking.’ The silence seemed to gleefully criticize the superficiality of his life. Its silence wept for his youth, and for all the broken eggs of its expectations. It was time to go, whether his washing was done or not. He left with his throat aching for a whiskey. Why did such small encounters throw him awry? He’d collect his washing tomorrow. He explained this and hurriedly left.
But he didn’t get away that easily. She was out in the street shouting him, calling him back. He felt angry. Why didn’t she leave him alone? What point was there in trivial lives crossing? She was still calling him. He caught his reflection in the newsagent’s window. He looked old: seven o’clock shadow, hair almost as brittle as the hairs on his chin. He would have made a perfect New York private eye, apart from his ill-fitting jacket from a Nearly New Shop. He didn’t look too good. And yet he hadn’t had a drink for ages. He was supposed to look better for it, and yet he felt worse. His whole body was aching from some internal neuralgia, some great ache like arthritis. It was difficult and boring being good. He could stand the restraint but not the feeling of trying to be perfect. When you’re perfect there was no where else to go. You had to have problems to conquer, without those you only had two choices: face yourself or make new problems. Something like that. He couldn’t think it out clearly. A whiskey would help him to figure it out. He’d only have one whiskey.
He squared up to the squirely faced woman, and hoped his compulsion to escape couldn’t be read in his eyes. Minutes before she was okay, but now all she did was annoy him.
“You left these keys and your newspaper. I assumed it was yours. “
“Thanks,” he said.
“Where do you live?” she asked.
“In the flats on the estate.
“On the Jelsen estate?”
“Forgive me for saying, but you don’t look too well. Are you alright?”
“yes, thank you.”
“Are you sure? You don’t look as if you’ve had a good meal for weeks? Have you got anyone back at home to look after you?”
“Yes. Thanks. I’d better be going.”
“Yes. You’ll be back for your washing tomorrow?”
He was off. Soon he was round the corner and out of her sight.
He couldn’t stand it any longer. He wanted to feel alive again.
A tennis ball was in his eyes. He was pissing in the headmaster’s garden under a sky bright with pain. His fingers groped in his sockets to free himself but the ball turned to grit and rolled about, scratching at his cornea, desperate like a trapped animal. Now it had blocked his throat and began to consume his face. The false leather of the settee puckered up under his nails. The…the bathroom…..
In the blackness of the corridor he groped along until he homed in on the gaping greasy toilet bowl. Sick! And sick again. Somewhere his throat had been acid-etched and remade with fur and glass. Back on the settee, feeling the cold, he covered himself with several blankets. He also grabbed his jacket and clung to it but it was smelly and covered in mud. Unable to stop his feverish thoughts he threw it aside and went into the kitchen.
From the last tea bag and inch of sour milk he bodged up a mug of tea which scalded down his throat. His wildcat thirst now satiated, the physical pains and guilt began to sharpen.
He couldn’t remember where he’d been. He couldn’t remember a bloody thing. He knew he had gone to a pub to get a drink, but which? He could recall London Road and the traffic lights. The Holly Tree, or the New Inn? He had only two pound coins left. It was Saturday. His Giro should arrive today. His mind was racing.
The Giro was accompanied by three other letters.
One was from Lloyds asking him to settle his overdraft. Another was a library reminder for a previous tenant, and the other was hand written in stylish fibretip, postmarked Birmingham.
David read the Birmingham letter twice. He took a deep breath to steady his concentration, and read it again.
He found it incomprehensible.
He had assumed that his father was dead. He had seen him only once since his twelfth birthday and that was at his mother’s funeral twenty two years ago. He had heard from him at another death seven years ago; a wreath had arrived for Sandy’s funeral. He would never recognise him.
His father was in England on business and he wanted David to visit him. Would David phone him at his Birmingham hotel to arrange a visit for next week? David knitted his forehead. His father?
He put the letter down on the table only to pick another up. This one hadn’t come by post. He scanned it and recognised it was his own work. It was one of his ‘Dear Bernard,’ letters. The contrast between this letter and his father’s was rather comic. He must have forgot to drawer this. But wait a……he didn’t remember this one.
His lips pursed as he read more of the letter. He vaguely understood the reference to a squirrel-faced woman. It seemed to be a description of the previous night but it brought back no images; it left him feeling as remote from the previous evening as he had before he read it.
The letter went:
I’m in trouble again and feel I have to write to let you know what’s happened. I think I’ve fallen in love.
The fair ground was wheeling with crazy music and impossible crowds. It was deadly but joyful. The mechanical laughter of the clown made the night dance with joy. Claudia was a darling hanging on my shoulder like a bee-bop girl and should have worn a polka-dot dress to fit the picture.
What a night, what a glorious night. And I almost fell in love with the squirrel-faced woman too. How dare she ask me if I’ve eaten well. Such cheek, but such compassion in those eyes. And her laughter surely sets my world on fire. She is the birth of my poetry. A fine macabre time was had by all.
The letter – like the letter from his father and his lack of recall of the night before – made his sit down and breathe slowly.
He read it again.
He had no doubt he had written the letter in drink. His style was notoriously over the top when he was pissed.
When had he written it? Hangovers that completely obliterated memory of the previous night were new. Usually there were conversations he couldn’t remember very clearly, or meetings with people that he had forgotten until he had met them again. Even on the worst occasions he could usually remember the pub where he had started out, even if he couldn’t remember how he had ended up. Hopefully his night on the tiles would probably come flooding back to him when he saw someone who he’d been with. Take it easy.
A decision about his father could wait until he felt better.
A lie-down wasn’t enough to quell the ravages of his hangover; the winged beasts were descending. The only way he’d get through the day was to imbibe. He wouldn’t go over the top; he’d have just enough to pacify the crawling ague of his body and the chaos of his mind. The failure of his recent campaign of sobriety was depressing but his only need was not to feel like this.
With the collar of his leather jacket up hugging his neck – now he did look like a private eye – he searched for his mottled scarf. Had he left it at the launderette? He must have lost it.
In the Haystack, David stood by the bar with a pint of Pedigree bitter in his hand. Allan was the first person to shed any light on the previous night.
Allan Yates was a tall, raven-haired fitness fanatic. He was moaning about garage repairs.
“How much is the damage?” asked David.
“£300 is what he estimated. He also said I could pick up a better car for #150. I just haven’t got that sort of money.”
“Perhaps you could curb your taste in expensive women. God knows why they come out with you in that clapped out old Austin I can’t imagine.”
“I’m a curve crawler, they know it and like it.”
“Who needs Marlon Brando when you’re around?”
“Marlon Brando? Isn’t he one of the Perishers?”
“Very funny. Were you out last night?” asked David.
“Of course. I’m out every night, doing my curve crawling. It’s my only real profession.”
“You didn’t happen to bump into anyone you know did you? Like me for instance?” David explained his defective memory.
Allan couldn’t help sniggering and pushed his hands firmly into his pockets as if he were trying to prevent himself soaking his trousers.
“Is you’re hangover that bad, eh? Can’t remember what we did last night, eh? And you have the nerve to criticize me and my lifestyle. Yeh, I saw you, but you didn’t see me. You were pretty happy.”
“And where was this?”
“In here. You were sitting with a girl. Over there. I didn’t know her. I decided not to come over and queer your pitch. I wondered where you’d been for a while. You dog. I’d not seen you in the Barley Mow for ages. You found yourself some candy, eh? You really can’t remember?”
“Not a thing. I can’t remember coming in here, and I can’t remember the girl. What did she look like?”
“Is this some sort of game? Her identity certainly wasn’t in question last night. You were being very smoochy. Smiling at her like you’d discovered some new brand of toothpaste and playing footsy with her top bits.”
“Are you sure it was me?”
“Course I am.”
“Well go on. Describe her.”
“I didn’t pay too much notice. I’m not that nosy. She was blonde, slim. Couldn’t see much of her face from where I was, and the place was pretty packed any way. It would have taken me ten minutes to climb across the room to you. She was, say, mid-twenties.”
David found this all a bit hard to believe. Allan once again insisted that he hadn’t mistaken his identity. “Sounds like you had a real binge, if you can’t remember any of it at all. It couldn’t have been that late. It was only…let me see now…somewhere between eight thirty and nine. Perhaps a bit earlier.”
David tried to let the subject go. It was too taxing and Allan was enjoying it too much for his patience. Allan was becoming more interested by the minute.
“It seems a bit odd that you can’t remember anything about her,” he was saying. “I mean I was in here for an hour and you two were sitting over there. I must have arrived about seven forty five. You were still there when I left. I left before you did, but Dean was still here when I left. Perhaps he might be able to tell you who she was. He’s over there. Ask him. He usually sits it out in here all night. Ask him. I’ll get you another.”
Dean Herriman had a ginger mop and a gummy grin. His eyes never seemed to focus.
“You were sure enjoying yourself last night, eh? She’s quite a lady. How did you find her then?” he asked.
“Don’t ask him that. He can’t remember who she is. He can’t even remember being in here last night, ” interjected Allan.
“You were pretty pissed. It must have been that bottle of Shampoo that did you in.”
David laughed nervously and then groaned.
“Okay. You’re serious? Take it easy. You’ll remember when I tell you. Don’t get uptight.”
“Remember I came in here and Allan came in later. We sat over here and didn’t speak to you two at all. Allan left to go and see Liz about an hour later and I stayed behind and just had a pint on my own. Bob came in later so I had some company. Don’t you remember coming over when Bob and I were playing that stupid game with the folded paper, with those two students. You must remember that! Cor! Karen was a corker. You remember Karen and Michella. You don’t? Oh well, all our brain cells rot eventually, it just seems that yours are going before time. Okay, okay, take it easy. I’m telling you. You came over and you seemed in really high spirits. Like you’d won a sweepstake or something. You said you were celebrating. You said you’d like to introduce us to a great new friend. We said sure. You came back about five minutes later with this blonde you’d had stashed up in the corner for the previous two hours – and a bottle of champagne. Everybody went wild. Don’t you remember the cork hitting that fat old bloke on the head. And Karen got soaked with all the champagne spitting out everywhere. I’m not making it up. You really don’t remember any of that. None of it? It’s as true as the mole on my winky. You must remember some detail. You must remember that crazy porg at the coconut shy? What?”
David sipped at his new pint that Allan had passed him.
“Don’t tell me. We went to a fair.”
“You see, you do remember some of it.”
“Oh yes,” said David feeling sure he was being set up.
“And what happened at the fair.?”
“We went along as a sixsome. Bloody Karen kept giving me the eye but when it came to the crunch I went home to the comfort of self-abuse as usual.”
“What happened to me? And this blonde.”
“Claudia, you mean – don’t tell me you can’t even remember her name?”
“Claudia? I see. Did she wear a polka dot dress? Did she look like something out of the fifties?”
“Well. No, about the dress. Could have looked like that. Don’t know about the clothes. I’m pretty hopeless describing women with clothes on.”
“Well, what did we do? How did I get home?”
“I don’t know. We had a lot of fun at the coconut shy, and then we went for a mad ride on the dodgems and then you two got lost in the crowd and the next time I see you is now and you’re asking me all about it, as if it never happened.”
David took his fourth pint off the bar. His body felt better now, his mind felt more at ease, but the complete loss of a whole night alarmed him more than he understood. He could think more clearly about it now submerged in the clear fog of the alcohol. He’d had a crazy night with a beautiful girl. To have no recollection of it at all, and not to know who the girl was, where she lived, or whether she’d spent the night with him was off the wall, completely. Allan and Dean were both laughing at him.
David Protested they were winding him up. Eventually they convinced him that they told no lie.
“Haven’t you any idea of the girl’s surname?” scoffed Allan. “I don’t suppose you even know if you’ve arranged to see her again? You probably have – but you can’t remember!”
“I’ll come in here tonight, and see if she turns up. As we most spent most of last night together in here I can’t imagine where else I’d meet her. If she doesn’t turn up I’ll leave a message behind the bar in case she comes in on another night.”
“Sounds a reasonable idea.”
“You say she seemed keen on me?”
“David, m’boy, she wanted to eat you alive. You were well in.”
“I shall laugh about this all day,” said Dean.
David begged sleep to take him that afternoon. It would have held him longer but he was woken by his radio alarm clock which had gone on the blink. It going off at five thirty, only seemed a trivial madness in his world at present. For his hour of sleep he felt little refreshment, but his eyes refused to close again. This wasn’t unusual; when overtired he often suffered from insomnia, too conscious of wanting to sleep.
In the kitchen he discovered he was out of both tea and milk. With his jacket on and cursing the irritation of his still missing scarf, he went down the stairs. He struggled over the grass and down into the valley of Outlands Drive.
Drizzle rained down into the greyness of the estate, and dribbled down his neck into his lining. The hum of nearby building construction juddered the earth. The houses were ghost-less with no window snoopers.
In the supermarket checkout queue he began to search desperately from pocket to pocket to find some loose change. His jean pockets provided what he thought was paper money. He uncrumpled what happened to be a scribbled telephone number: ‘Claudia. 634689’. It was on a cigarette paper in black streaky ink.
“One pound and a penny please,” the vexed check-out girl said to him for the second time.
Her X-ray eyes penetrated him and he knew the aliens had the upper hand. The queue behind him were now grumbling with impatience. He could feel the pores open, a clamminess on his face. He was upstage and he had forgotten his lines. His pockets couldn’t produce enough change. His money had gone down his throat at the pub and he had forgotten to cash his giro. He began to apologise, promising to bring in the extra later. The girl, tut, tutting, and ignoring all his assurances, called the manager and his address was taken. It was shit! The humiliation! Twenty one pence! He was never going in there again.
In his flat he stared at the phone number again.
He would go into the Haystack that night and see if Claudia was there. If she wasn’t he would probably telephone her.
At eight thirty David stood in the Haystack sipping a spritzer. No beer tonight; he didn’t want to feel ill the following day.
As time passed the bar filled up, but there was still no girl fitting Claudia’s description. He considered whiskey but resisted and ordered a Marston’s. Later, he ordered another. He liked beer; he liked whiskey; he liked soul. He was beginning to feel good. What the hell! It put a little sunshine into his life. Neither the landlord and barmaid could remember any girl called Claudia. Sorry.
At nine fifty he concluded it was unlikely she would arrive. Two blondes had come in since, but both had a man in tow, and neither had spoken.
He watched the smoke of his cigarette twizzle up like a genie. He could sense a wave of vexation creeping inside, anger for being in here. His resolutions and intentions to begin his book were tapping on his shoulder. Pah!
Where was his ambition? What had happened to all his ideals and aspirations he’d had as a boy, a youth, at Canterbury? Sandy would be disappointed. Okay. He’d give all this crap up. He’d have a beer and then he’d go home and change his life.
He lit another cigarette as if it were an anaesthetic before the op.
He wasn’t convinced any more: he’d broken the rules so many times that his allotted nine lives to change were diminishing yearly, and had probably run out years ago anyway. He knew that every time he broke a good intention his degeneracy increased by an inverted proportion. Come in, slob no 9! Somebody at sometime had nurtured and rarefied his talents, yet life had programmed him to fail as an individual; what could be more sadistic. Failure was his birth name: no one had wanted him. He knew his mother was turning in her grave in empathy; she knew all about his pain and he knew all about hers.
And his wife, if she could see him now, how would she respond? Whatever her mouth said, and however engagingly it said it, it was a foolish man who believed it. She always had to have the best, and he didn’t qualify anymore. He couldn’t bear the humiliation of her seeing him like this. Bitch. He couldn’t imagine anyone more destructive than his wife with her weaponry of calculated noble feelings and little-girl sillies. He knew she’d overpower him with her champagne bubbles and purry voice. He was getting angry. He’d buy a bottle of whiskey and drink himself to sleep. Tomorrow, he’d look after himself and start work on a fantastic book.
He turned away from the bar and made towards the door when someone greeted him. It was a fat woman about forty. Sophia Loren? Her wide mouth smiled a blaze of Terracina sunlight.
He was back on honeymoon: Italy 1973.
Palm trees were playing against blue skies. Ferny trees flickered in the breeze. White and grey Mondrian hotels decked with canopied balconies of roses were topped with whipped cream clouds.
He remembered how they had laughed at the lampposts: plants with three stems each carrying a light.
Beyond the palms and the hotels stood a mountain wall of dried green and hazy blue patches. At the summit a row of ancient arch doorways; secret, mysterious, magical.
Accompanied by an incomprehensible throng of Italian chatter, a sea of floral striped and bright pink sun-shades floated on the beach. Small mopeds and scooters buttressed the sea walls; ‘Titti al mare’ was written loud on childrens’ buckets; Cressi-sub flippers stuck in the sand. Parasol spokes became beach clothes horses; from them hung towels, beachwear and water bottles. From the young spaghetti mommas hung flesh bronzed men wearing golden crucifixes. All around them spume, racket games and the tops of single swimsuits – wet only around the breasts. David remembered it all like yesterday: the brown lean twelve year olds, girls protected by their fathers and the breeze smelling of vanilla. The distant roar of motors.
Vivien loved fucking on a motorboat.
“Hello,” said the woman.
“Hello.” He hesitated, then went out into the corridor. He continued out into the cold air where he stopped and tried to remember who she was. Did she know if he had been in here last night? How the hell should she know? It was all too stupid.
He felt himself feeling sick again, but different, like when he’d drank too much cider at teenage parties and was beginning to spin. It wasn’t quite the same: it was an Orwellian rat sleeping in his stomach; it would frequently wake up and turn round. It wasn’t the movement that nauseated but the thought of the rat’s teeth.
David bought a bottle of whiskey with a cheque but drank only a glass before falling into his unmade bed. He wanted to wake refreshed and shiny new. Tomorrow was going to be different, tomorrow he was going to show the world he had something to offer!
He woke just after eleven but kept between the covers for another half-an-hour and wondered what to do with the yawning Sunday. He’d go for a walk. Maybe.
In the bathroom mirror he studied himself for wear. His cheeks which had won that little doctor’s daughter into his life many years before were still taut. His hair was greyer than he remembered. He washed it quickly, rinsed it and then swept it back with an old comb. He liked his hair swept back; it reminded him of GI blues. He loved old Elvis films.
It was mid-day when the Harpies of Kowloon began to cloud over. There was little respite these days. His hangovers usually came on mid-morning and got progressively worse through-out the day.
They first materialised in the kitchen. He wondered what to cook when a voice, his mother’s, began telling him off.
She hated dirt.
This kitchen is quite disgusting!
He could see her black skirts, the vicar’s daughter a throwback from Victoriana, warning him that Satan loved dirty children. It occasionally helped to remember that her diatribes and fanatical comments were usually at times when she was avoiding tears. Pathologically insecure after Garath abandoned her she had replanted him firmly with God. From then on her life’s work was to relentlessly inculcate David, and Sandy – she did insist on calling her other son by his Christian name, Sansom, which he loathed – with a fundamental biblical indoctrination. No son of hers was hell bound. The guilt had chained him in childhood; it was making him uncomfortable now. The squalor he lived in was sometimes ugly but he refused to follow his mother’s requests, however reasonable they had meant to be. He had wanted her affection. She could never give it. Acquiescence with detergent was acquiescence with everything she stood for.
He looked out into the sunshine. A few minutes later he looked down again at dirt.
Perhaps he would clean up. Perhaps he’d do his mother a courtesy. Perhaps. Breakfast first.
Friday night was straightening out in his mind a little. What was the fuss? Claudia had obviously been good company. The whole incident was beginning to take on a humorous light that Allan and Dean had obviously enjoyed. He considered binning her phone number, but didn’t. It felt comfortable in his watch pocket.
Outside cold air slapped his face. He liked its sting. With his collar pulled up he set off towards Stoke Golding. He needed to burn off adrenaline. When the fire hit him only exercise or booze could quell it.
Walking was therapeutic like his letters to Bernard Willis. It allowed his subconscious to bubble up and semaphore with his conscious. He always felt better for the effort, although there were times when his internal wrestling walked him too close to a thin line.
The wind was up and was bearable but the sun shone glaringly bright. The dew-covered heath was soft to shoe impressions. The southern sky was a radiant and new born blue.
As he trudged along the road his wife’s face came to face him. She was something unresolved. How could such tragedy happen over such a short space of time? His emotions were on ice, still unable to grasp it: it was a fiction, an unreality.
David remembered one Sunday he had felt the irrepressible urge to walk. He had worn shoe leather for hours tapping through Leicester’s streets, along its grey canals, past its small ethnic shops until he eventually returned to the flat in the dusk. He chain smoked for an hour and then wept. It had been the first time he had shed tears since his mother’s funeral. None had come since.
There was no reason to feel so jittery. He didn’t have a relationship in crisis, and he didn’t have any immediate problems, apart from keeping off alcohol and late nights, and keeping himself healthy, and money.
He’d pay the rent from his next giro.
He still wasn’t sure whether to see his father or not.
David watched a passing tractor’s exhaust shimmer silver. A magpie flew off from under a hawthorn hedgerow.
As miles slipped under his feet his spirits began to change; the demons were back again had taken hold and were settling in. He began to feel like something musty, like something that had been brought out of the cupboard after twenty years of neglect, like his clothes had been dragged through a hedge. He felt like he had spent an age sleeping on damp benches layered over in newspaper. Nothing fitted properly, even his skin. This inner layer of loose clothing felt as tattered and desiccated as his outer one. His face had become a desert of arid skin and dandruff. His body felt less controllable, and his movements felt slow, as was his face to show expression. As if his face had been plastered over with a face pack, like starch, or egg white and had set. He felt he should be hidden away, like a decrepit and corrupted sixty year old bookie.
There was no outward sign of the underlying furnaces burning. Indeed there was no madness, he said aloud to himself, only courage. Who else could defend such a forceful attack on their sanity. He could beat the Harpies. Get thee Satan behind thee! He was certain there was no difficulty in this. Not like the real madness he’d known for all those years when he’d given his trust generously. There was no reason for it in his life anymore. He had to forgive himself. Sanity? madness? Which was which? There were two sorts of mad people; the psychotics who thought they were perfectly sane and went about running the world like a pig sty, and those who let them.
The colours of late autumn were a tapestry. The sky keeled precariously with a promised benignity. Yet the countryside was sterile with beauty.
He received a glimmer: he was still in control of his freedom: he was neither chained to a factory floor nor to a yes-sir-no-sir-three-bags-full-sir career. Yes freedom.
But there was something wrong.
He walked over the pebbles and up the grass. He stepped up onto the bank of the canal. He kicked a stone into the water. He found another and sent it skimming across the surface. He decided to bask for a while in the cold sunlight. He sat and looked at the the water swirling past. The water swirled past.
New Street Station: after David had disembarked the train he was eager to escape the platform. Embassy posters, pushchairs and mascara. Students returning to plead for more paternal grant and holidaymakers wishing they weren’t with their in-laws. Young lovers who had no idea of love, just G spots. Executives on the wrong platform looking for an open buffet. Adverts claiming the Times was well informed.
Women with eroded faces, resigned to live alone, struggling to cope with demanding toddlers. Some of these faces had been happy once, thought David, but had chosen wrong somewhere, sometime and had shelved happiness for this sourness. The only solution seemed to be a magazine with its promises shouting from its cover. A cure to anaesthetise the wretched present and protect yourself for the future. Is your man a Rambo in bed? Have you invested your equity wisely? An update on Feminism and Social Security. How to make-up like Samantha Fox, How to spend less and eat better, blah blah.
David escalated upwards towards daylight.
It was Monday, mid morning.
It had been prearranged that they would meet near the ticket counters.
“Its David, isn’t it?”
David found his hand being shaken.
It took David a while to find the old face in the new one.
Garath Basnett’s had puffy cheeks which had dropped which made him look tired, but his mass of left-parted grey hair made him look much younger than his 68 years.
For David there were echoes in his roman nose, in the top lip that pointed down, in those hooded, baby wet eyes, in the left eye working while the right one took it easy. His well built body, clad in something expensive from suitland, stood flight lieutenant erect.
“Its good to see you again. Hello David. I hope you had a pleasant journey.”
“Hello,” he said.
“We had better move, David. Sylvia is waiting for us outside in the car. Where’s your luggage?”
“I didn’t bring any.”
As a toddler David had upset a tin of paint over kitchen flagstones. It was the first time he tasted his father’s rage. His mother protesting screams were still in his ears.
His childhood became a snapshot album of thrashings. Once delivered the punishments would never again be mentioned. Once he bitterly complained at the injustice of a severe beating for a broken cloche in a neighbour’s garden he’d been nowhere near. His mother became angry and told him he should concentrate less on the faults of his father and more on the virtues of Jesus – God had been more than a twinkle in her eye even before she found herself husband-less. The more David tried to reason the angrier she became until she had ended up shouting him out of the room. He learned the knack of never getting caught but it didn’t stop the occasional unfair beating.
Sandy’s childhood was a different story. David’s brother was never touched. His kid-glove treatment was probably due to him being the youngest, and because of the terrible bouts of melancholia he had been inflicted with since his fourth birthday. David hated the love, the fairness that Sandy got. Even now he couldn’t push away that residue of resentment. It was the law of the household: he could do no right and Sandy could do no wrong.
Garath Basnett’s complexion was ruddier than he David had imagined it. His left eye glinted somehow; it wasn’t so much the glint of an ambitious sales manager for Unilever – his job after Sandy was born – but the glint of confidence gained through success. It was an eye that had enjoyed counting a lot of money.
“Get in David. We’ll take you for a meal. I know my request to see you must have come as a shock. I’m glad you’ve come. You might as well enjoy it the best you can, after all I’m paying.” His words fluttered along at a considered pace. His tone was fluid, gentle and hypnotically persuasive, like a councillor, or a preacher. David could even hear a murmur of Sandy’s tone in it. Weird. “Oh, by the way, this is Sylvia, and I can honestly say that she is the light of my life.”
“How do you do,” she said as David climbed into the taxi beside her.
From her black berret hung a gauze veil that only partly covered one eye and a small portion of her cheek. It was difficult to establish her age; somewhere about late forties. She held his eye tight, flirtaciously – almost with a hint that she was in the market for a toyboy – but there was a respectable motherliness as well. She nodded with a delightful grin, that smacked of cheap sherry. Her presence somehow made the taxi elegant: it became a vehicle for royalty. David liked her instantly. Garath Basnett, David’s father, told the taxi driver to take them to the Bellevue Hotel in Pinnington Street.
In the taxi David traveled backwards and faced the two older passengers. He tried to look comfortable, but he felt awkwardly lost for words. His father casually took Sylvia’s hand, a hand well adorned with metal bands and glistening stones, and clasped it to his hip pocket: He smiled at her and then looked out of the cab window at the passing suburban villas.
David didn’t care for his father’s nonchalance. His arrival was a favour, and his father should be aware of it; he had not even the courtesy to put him at his ease, or, more appropriate, to get down on the tiles at New Street and to lick his boots for turning up. But no, his father, as he now clearly remembered always strove to control, and had a blind spot to showing his emotions, to his second son at least. When a situation was entirely out of hand and all about were losing their heads Garath Basnett could sit and whistle a tune and concentrate on a cryptic cross word. If the bomb were about to drop Garath Basnett would express concern but it wouldn’t stop him also remarking on the pleasant colours of a passing awning before oblivion.
Having arrived at the hotel David was given a plush room only several doors down from the double suite that his father had booked for himself and Sylvia.
Later they sat around a dinner table in the restaurant waiting for their main meals. Garath had been talking about America, but eventually he got to the point..”Anyway, David, you don’t want to hear all about my travels, you want to know why you’ve traveled here; isn’t that right?”
David nodded. He still found it difficult to say much. He knew he’d say the wrong thing, but he was trying to get his timing right; to place his spanner in exactly the right works.
“There are two reason’s why I wanted to see you, and I won’t beat about the bush. The first reason is that I have become rich and I want to pass some of my good fortune on to you. I’ve a little proposition to make.You can afford to smile a little more than that. But its not all hand-out, you’ve got to work for most of it.
“Alright Sylvia,” he said, pushing her arm away, as she nudged him in the side, “I think I can do this my way.
“The second reason,” he continued, “is that you’re my son. I’m not usually prone to getting reputations for sentimentality – but damn it! Its important. I know you never liked me too much, and maybe there’s some sense for you to feel like that, but let us not dwell upon that at the moment. You are the one remaining member of my family and I’m you’re father. I’m pleased to see you David. Very pleased. “
“Its not just a transaction of cash. As I say its more of a proposition. Ah, here’s the main course. It smells good. Lets eat.”
Sylvia began to talk. She began with her appreciation of England. It was only her second time she’d been; the first time had been in 47. She talked along happily, cheerfully, a glutinous musak, which wasn’t there to be listened to, or to be even conversed with: it was to take the pressure off David. He understood it well, but he also appreciated it. He couldn’t figure out what all this was about. Proposition? What was he up to? He didn’t like it at all, smelled something decidedly fishy, and it wasn’t what he was eating. His father was talking again and asked him what line of work he was in, and what had happened to him since his divorce.
“You heard about that?”
“Yes. I’m sorry for that. These things do happen. Anyway, what have you been doing? We’ve so much to catch up on in each other’s lives. It really is a delight that you’ve come over. I’ve wanted to see you for years but I’ve always felt worried of how you’d be.” He touched David’s sleeve. “It was Sylvia here who said I should try and see you. She said the Lord would give me the strength to see you. You’re my only child, David. I’d like to say thank you for coming. It means a lot to me, whatever you think of my proposition.” He patted David’s hand which lay out stretched on the table. “So, come on, tell me about you.”
David couldn’t help remembering and inwardly sneering at the genteel way his father euphemised everything; it was a family code: if you have bad news, either keep it to yourself or euphemise as best as possible. He was going to break that now. He’d tell him the harsh truth. Nothing like a bit of drama to liven things up. Both sons had been pressurised to do well, and here was the only one left and he was an abject failure; it gave David pleasure to think of how his father would probably choke on his soup. He’d give his mother a bit of her own back.
“As you know Sandy died.”
Garath slowly swallowed. “Yes,” he said slowly, then, “I couldn’t come over. I was ill. I regret that bitterly.”
“It couldn’t be helped, darling,” said Sylvia soothingly, “You were in hospital,” She flashed her eyes up at David, “Carry on David,” said Sylvia, desperate to move on.
“I was in a mess. Then Vivien left me and then several weeks after that I lost my career. After that my ambition to be the world’s greatest architect folded and then I worked non-stop at being a failure. I was successful at at. I then moved from Leicester to a town called Hinckley. Since then I’ve learned the art of drinking more and more and doing less and less. You could say that I hate the world for its illusions, its betrayals, its deceptions and its cruelties. I would be cynical if I could be bothered to be but I’ve developed idleness of thought and mind to such a high degree that it all seems like too much of a task. I’m no longer a paid up card-carying member of the communist party – like I was when I was a student – of course you won’t remember any of that, will you? That was long after you left. I left because they expected me to take it all so seriously. I couldn’t even be successful at hating the system. That was a long time ago. There you are. That’s about it.”
There was a short silence. Garath sipped his soup.
“Well well. A speech maker. Very impressive stuff,” said Sylvia, smiling at Garath. She looked over,”You poor, poor boy,” she cooed to David.
“So you haven’t fallen into the clutches of the Victorian capitalists?” asked David’s father.
“I’m amazed at how anyone can become so bitter and twisted at such an early age.”
“Now, now, Garath,” said Sylvia, her eyes focusing sharply on his face.
His father was thoughtful for a moment and then began again articulating his words very slowly and then with more acceleration as he went on. “You know who I mean by Victorian capitalists? They are the people who wash themselves, get up early, behave politely, dress smartly, get to work on time, and organise things in such a way as to provide something for the general public that the general public wants. You haven’t fallen into the ways of those lousy capitalists whose main enjoyment is to lie in bed at night and worry about all the money they are responsible for, and all the financial decisions they have to take, and ultimately worry about all the people in their employ whose jobs will be lost if they make any managerial mistakes. You haven’t fallen into the vices of these bourgeois capitalists who sell their filthy food and clothes, develop their filthy technology, from which they provide national wealth which can then be taxed to finance state benefits. Now I know you live on state benefits but don’t worry, I know you didn’t contribute the original wealth that creates them so I won’t confuse you with the capitalists.
“Yes I see your position. I’ve seen it in the youth all over America, and quite honestly I don’t go for it much”
“Hold on, Garry. Don’t take on so. He’s cute. He’s just winding you up.”
Garrath Basnett had gone a little flushed in the face. He turned to Sylvia and tried to smile, but it was rather diluted.
He turned back to his son. “Actually I’ve asked you over here to ask you to join the capitalist classes. It doesn’t look as if we’ve started from very much the same side of the fence does it.”
“To be honest, I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
“That’s simple: I’ll explain.” Before he did so he took another spoonful of soup. “I’ve set up a vast manufacturing and distribution network in the states. Its big, David, very big. You’ve probably heard of it: Holders and Initiates PLC.” David hadn’t. “We created a variety of food products in the states that are super-successful. I’m a rich man now, David. Very Rich.” Garath looked hard into David’s eye. “There are many American products which we can successfully market over here. One product, which is particularly successful over there has, I believe, a massive big market potential in Europe. Its an American dark beer called ‘Montegno’. We’ve done all the feasibilities, and marketing and there’s minimal re-advertising and redesigning required to make a hit according to our advertising executives and marketing strategists. We can almost move the whole product over with only minimal changes to make a killing. Its a completely different style to the other American lagers and beers. Its a winner. Well – I’m offering it to you.”
“Thanks. Now tell me what you’re talking about.”
“Your father means is that he’d like you to coordinate the whole shindig-“
“yes. That’s right. Its easy. All you have to do is be there. You’ll have all the experts you want. All the team are ready – unless you want to pick you own – which I wouldn’t advise at this stage. I’d just like you to oversee the whole thing. I’d pay you well.”
Over the next thirty minutes Garath Basnett outlined the general approach needed for the operation. Intensified by the pink light of the dining hall Garath’s and Sylvia’s faces loomed up towards David like two blancmanges, wet, sticky and repulsive; he felt pressurized, threatened. He tried to grasp what they were saying. None of it made any sense. Sylvia stopped Garath short of the distribution details.
“Leave him, Garath. The poor boy’s tired. He can always read the spec. Its surely not necessary to blind him with science.”
“Yes. You’re right, Sylvia. You always are.”
“Your father wants you in the business, David. Its a neat number. Your father isn’t going to live for ever, David, and your his only son.”
“You want me to run a business,” said David trying his hardest not to laugh.
“Your father’s got angina.”
“And I’ve already had two heart attacks. That’s the reason I couldn’t come to Sandy’s funeral. Three months ago in Washington I had another.” Garath looked up. David thought his eyes were wetter than ever.
“You will think about it David.” said his father, It wasn’t a question, it was a mild command.
David couldn’t suppress a smirk. “I’ll think about it. Give me some time to think about it before I give you a definite yes or no.”
“We’re leaving for London on Wednesday, so if you could we’d appreciate it if you’d let us know by then. At the moment you’re booked in until tomorrow night, but we can extend your booking as long as you like. Don’t go off and consider this offer without taking the Spec I’ve prepared, which is in my room. It lays the whole thing out in black and white.”
David reached over and poured himself another glass of wine. It was fizzy, fruity and French. A strange wine in a strange place with strange people. It was like some kind of fairy tale where the world could be yours if only you could get back by 12 o’clock.
David had done exactly as his father had suggested. He’d collected the portfolio and had found a bar off New Street down some old creaky steps selling ‘Davenports’. Gone to ground in the dimly lit basement it felt good to get away and be anonymous again. He’d forgotten how used he’d become to his own company. Too long with people and he became edgy.
He tried to think seriously about the proposition. He tried but got the irrepressible urge to laugh. It was ridiculous. He couldn’t really believe that he’d been given all this paper work to look at with any serious intent. He kept tumbling through it, from cover to cover, as though it were a flick book. It was crammed with charts, figures, accounts and lots of people with qualifications longer than their names. He felt envious about these: throwing up his course for that job had deprived him of these magical letters.
He pictured himself in the elevated position that his father was offering: a key executive of an international lager firm. With his problems he would end up drinking all the product! He laughed out aloud and in so doing spilt his beer over one of the two old ladies sitting next to him. Still smirking, he apologised, gulped down the remains of his pint and climbed out of the cavern.
He remembered Birmingham from his commuting days. He’d always enjoyed aproaching New Street Station at about five in the evening because all the birds would alight on the eaves of the buildings at the corner of Corporation Street and make one hell of noise. The whole ornithological clock disintegrated out of time. It was Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ except that it was a happy movie. He considered abstractedly: sometimes you pictured how things should be; and they actually were.
So what was he going to do? Nothing. Simply nothing. Since the meal he had known he intended to abort. He knew enough about business than to believe they would really offer him such a chance. Even if the prize were genuine he still didn’t want it. He’d eventually decided to come over to see his father for a motley bag of reasons: vengeance was obvious, amazement was another, curiosity another and – from some deep seated liberalism – perhaps to hear the other side of the story. He didn’t like to dwell too much in the past – it brought back unpleasant images and feelings of longing and inadequacy.
The vengeance that he’d built up over the years had waned considerably in the few hours he had been here. He now felt a sort of pitying resentment about the way he and his mother had been treated. She was never far from his mind.
David’s father – just after he had moved out of aeroplanes and sideways into managing NAAFI supplies for various European bases – had met Rebecca Willman, daughter of Anglican vicar, John and his wife Edwina (nee Wilman) at a RAF dance in 1947. How Gareth had managed to get such a god-fearing creature so quickly into coital position David had never understood but he had. Two months later – due to Rebecca’s passion and her parent’s outrage – they were shot-gun married. Seven months later David arrived. Two years later, mid-century, Sandy followed. Three years later his mother had a break down. From the start Gareth was hyper-critical of her. Gareth left her in 1960. After his departure she gave the almighty God so much room in the house there was little room for anyone else. The stronger her Christianity the weaker she became. She died in 1965. Garath came to the funeral, but he stood alone. Agatha Read wouldn’t let him talk to the children. She said his mother had died of a broken heart, and no one had disagreed with her.
David and Sandy had watched her wither away, as she tirelessly dedicated herself to writing tract-like articles for church magazines, running fund-raising events and singing hymns louder than anyone else. She encouraged hellfire and brimstone upon herself and those around her with missionary zeal. David had once heard her praying aloud and from what he heard he suspected that as a child she had always regarded her father’s death (when she was seven) as a heaven sent punishment for neglecting god. She had become quite deranged.
All through his years with her more than anything he wanted her to be happy. But she was ill. He hated his father who had done this. “Never blame your father,” she used to say when he used to get angry. “We shouldn’t judge others.” Bullshit. One day he was going to kill his father. He told Sandy. Sandy had listened carefully and then laughed.
David rationalised that his vengeance had diminished because his father no longer had any dominance over him; in fact the man was rather pathetic. The only vengeance left was to leave him as he was. He might have vast wealth and riches across the lands of America, and have all the greatest social contacts that panache, persuasion and money can buy, but it still left him yearning for something, and that desire made him vulnerable; it had stripped him of real authority.
David played with these thoughts as he leaned against a railing and looked down into the circular shopping arena that united four entrance points of the subway. The moonlight had cut through the clouds and was skimming across the tiled floor. He was finding the city much less threatening than the country. Probably why I chose architecture, he thought.
He could do with a drink.
The self-evident conclusion was that he had two great aces denied to his father. Youth and freedom. His father wanted to buy up him up and deprive him of the two things that he was deprived of. People spend all their lives trying to gain status, only to later discover that what they really valued was their sense of sexuality and their freedom. The falacy is that money buys freedom, but in fact it only buys slavery to making money and to spending it on those things which show wealth; somewhere or other personal freedom goes out of the window.
David remembered the greasy pole people in the planning office. What transparencies they were. The only sense of humour they had was one which meant laughing at the bosses jokes. They were always alert to the formation of a crowd, (a crowd meaning more than two) and one always had to make a showing. They all had crowd personalities: the clown, the innuendo flirt, the organiser, the moralist, the committee member, and the ‘I’m a friend of the mayors’. People who like crowds have a strong need for status. They estimate their own value by the volume of crowd applause. There was no sense of personal value or success; it could not be conceived. David didn’t like crowds, he didn’t really care what people thought of him. Or was he lying to himself? He kicked a stone and continued walking.
Later David lay awake and wondered who his father was and where he intended living out the rest of his life. How long had he been in England. Who was Sylvia? She seemed to have a firm hold on Gareth but he didn’t think she was a gold digger. She was sharp but human. There was a quiet power about her. Her presence had undoubtedly warmed the reunion. His stilted conversation with his father would have dried in minutes if Sylvia hadn’t been hovering around in the background. Funny things women, he mused.
He’d tell his father in the morning to stuff his business proposition, He should redress past wrongs and admonish his father in a caustic exhibition of rage and have done with him for ever but he wouldn’t. His father was real not imagined. He had never considered his father having failings before. Perhaps David would keep in contact with him for a while.
“You’re not on drugs, are you?” his father asked tersely over breakfast.
David smiled. He looked up and tried to find what sort of anxiety hung upon his father’s face but the stern gaze of his father made him look away again. “Pass me another piece of toast, please.”
“I assume by that scowl on your face that you wish me to mind my own business.”
“No. Of course not. I’m not on drugs. For Christ’s sake, look at me. Do you think I could afford to cocaine it every night? I can’t even afford my rent. Thanks.” He took the toast and buttered it.
“If you were in any sort of trouble like that we could fix it for you.”
This was a perfect example of his father’s pathetic-ness.
“Thanks. Its okay I’m not into fixing either.” He laughed again.
“What’s wrong with you this morning? Got out of bed the wrong side? You come down here and the first thing you say is: ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with your lager company.-“
“That’s exactly right!”
“But you won’t explain what the problem is. Is it the money? Is it the nature of the appointment? If its some feeling that you don’t have any real managerial power you’re wrong.”
David didn’t feel quite so calm and collected about his father this morning. It wasn’t that his desire to twist the knife had grown but that this was such a rare opportunity in which to do it. David had doubts about his new found tolerance. It would destroy his life. He was beginning to be so tolerant that he might end up letting anyone do anything. As his principles slipped out the front door tolerance came in the back door. Tolerance stripped him of a crusading cause because he was too permissive to the opposite cause. Tolerance was a long term recipe for muddleheaded blandness. Ugh!
“Would you like another?” , he asked, pouring from the teapot, “No? Don’t be impatient. I am trying to explain.
“The simple truth of the matter is that I am not interested in this business idea of yours. Yes, I can hear you. I am not probably a fool I am definitely a fool, but that’s my choice. I’m not interested and that’s immutable. I realise that I am broke, and idle, but at least I am me. I don’t want to have a boring argument about this. I’d rather not make it personal. All I will say is this: I don’t wan’t to be your puppet. You say I’ll be my own boss, but you’ll be paying me. I haven’t got two halfpennies to rub together but I’m my own man. I don’t want to be catapulted into the big-time. To be quite honest I can’t imagine what talents you think I possess to offer me the position? I think you must be off your rocker.”
Gareth’s remonstrations subsided much sooner that David expected. He had girded himself for third degree persuasion from the moment he declined the offer to the moment he departed. He remembered his father well enough to know how he hated to lose; it was unusual for him to back off so soon. Perhaps he was boxing clever.
His father was talking again.
“I didn’t only invite you over here to talk business. I also invited you over because I also have some bad news and some good news.” He put down his spoon with which he had been mildly augmenting his words like a conductor with his baton.
“My sister, Aunt Anne has died. I received a letter from her solicitor in America last month. She had the dreaded disease and was in great pain at the end, so it was a blessing that the Lord took her earlier than he might. As she had no children she’s left her estate to me. The most desirable chunk of the estate is her house in Woodhouse Eaves in Leicestershire. Okay?”
“I don’t need the house. You can have it. It needs a bit of tidying up but its furnished and pretty habitable as far as I’m informed. I owe you a lot David. I’ve not been a good father to you. Its the least I can do to make myself feel a little better about the past. I still want you to take on my business idea. But this house has nothing to do with that whatsoever. This is not a bribe of any sort. You can have the keys now. Here they are. You’re not going to turn this down as well are you?”
“I don’t know.”
“For god’s sake….how long will it take for you to think about this one?”
He remembered Aunt Anne. She had covered him in sand at Bournemouth once. Sandy had liked her.
“I’ll think about it and phone you here tomorrow from Hinckley. Will you still be at the hotel?”
“Look, take the keys,” Garath said pushing them along the table nearer to David. “If you decide against it send them back, although for the life of me I can’t imagine why you should. Its not everyday someone gives you a fantastic home. The address is on the tag. We’ll be here until next wednesday then we’re off to the Savoy. I’ll leave my forwarding address and room number with reception.”
“Okay.” David sat back in his chair. His stomach suddenly tightened as if it were going to burst. The feeling passed as quickly as it came.
“Let me know if you need any help from me in tidying up your affairs. I’d like to help you to sort your life out. You can also take that business package away with you. Have another read of it.”
David had the luxury of the compartment to himself on his way home. He watched the countryside roll by like a film, something he always enjoyed about railway journeys. A yellow mining construction, a war-of-the-worlds martian, came into view as the train slowed down to negotiate a sharp bend. Then peppermint fields edged with waify trees, then an occasional greetings-card homestead slipped past the window frame. David sprawled his legs up on the opposite seat and kept watch for the conductor. He suddenly felt hot.
He was sweating all over.
The train emerged from a tunnel and houses were there, banks of ugly houses, steeped rows of houses, banked, rolling down the side of a hill, their windows all staring at him, accusing eyes. And there were pictures in his head. Realer than life. A caravan. He was trying to be sick. A girl was holding the hair out of his face. His throat was constricted. He just kept spitting. He felt himself pulling the scarf tighter around the neck.
Sweat was pouring down his face. He was in a train rushing past houses. Their turquiose windows shivered at him. Cracked doors were twisting, olive green gates were distorting, crabby snowcem peeled like leper’s skin. The train pulled away in wide angle. The rickety superstructure of the carriages juddered as the acceleration increased. Window pictures became too fast to edit. Photomontages blew by; pedestrian bridges, football fields, canals, gas stations. His internal gyroscope had failed; he didn’t know if he were being flung forwards or backwards. Then a hiss of brakes. A jerk back. A minute later the train came to a stop.
As he stepped down on to Hinckley station the world around him was an idea. The weather smelt of disturbance. His head still smoked, the images still smouldered. It had been a memory of some part of Friday night – it had been too acute to be anything else. Only a vestige of the stomach-punch had remained. Like the old faded photos of the times he had spent together with his wife and brother – it terrified him.
He remembered Sandy’s cat. It had been an accident. It pricked his memory; he didn’t want to think about any of it. Forget Friday night.
There was a possible cure to all this anxiety. He could phone Claudia and ask if it was her who had looked after him on Friday and had taken him home. He would. He didn’t much like mysteries. He had felt uneasy before about Friday night, but the sudden flashback on the train had thrown him into near panic. He’d ask to meet her. If she was so wonderful, and they had got on so well, what harm could it do?
As he walked through the town, he tried to link the girl with his newly acquired residence. Thoughts of an idylic happy couple, living in a Charnwood Forest cottage, became a seductive goo in his mind.
He fished her number from his pocket and phoned her from a public call box on Hollycroft hill.
“Hinckley 67584. Who is that?” It was a woman’s voice. It sounded elderly, and croaky.
“Hello. Could I speak to Claudia please.”
The phone line crackled and buzzed. For a moment he thought he’d been cut off, but he could still hear the woman wheezing.
The wheezing changed into a gulping sound, as if the woman was trying to catch her breath. A few seconds later this was followed by a whining noise.
“Hello?” he asked again
“Who is it?….who is it?.” More swallowing.
“…I’m a friend of Claudia’s. You wouldn’t -” he began, but his words were met by a sudden burst of sobbing. The old woman was crying her eyes out. David slammed down the handset as if it were contaminated.
His eyes shifted around to see if anyone had seen him handle the disgusting thing. Compulsively he was out of the phone box and half way down the hill.
The telephone call had been a stupid idea. Don’t get panicky. Something was very wrong. He felt as if he were sliding away, as if someone else was controlling the events around him. This godforsaken town was tearing him apart; he had to fight.
For the first time in his life he felt grateful to his father. He had an escape route. Could it be true that his father given him his aunt’s old house?
Things went from bad to worse from the moment he arrived back in Hinckley. The flashback on the train and the the telephone call had heightened his anxiety state and the sobbing woman had switched his nerves to high voltage. To arrive at his flat and to find a police car parked outside, and then to subsequently discover they were knocking on his door was almost enough to push everything to overload. He could hear them talking outside his door just above him but couldn’t make out what they were saying. He didn’t wait around to discover what they were after. He quietly but speedily slipped out into the cool evening and headed down the decline towards the supermarket. He’d lie low in the estate pub and then go back about an hour later. He didn’t like the look of things at all.
At the back of the supermarket was the ‘Flintlock’. It was an awful pub but at least the seats were comfortable and he was grateful for the cold pint of nectar that slid down his neck; after two his nerves began to settle down. It was all too queer. To have a whole night missing in his mind, and then to hear that woman crying on the phone was all a bit much. And then there was the police. At first he wondered if his landlord had carried out his threat and sent the police round to collect the rent – but but then he realised police don’t come round on civil matters only criminal ones. It was like an old fifties movie where the plots was related to Freud or psychoanalysis in some way. The main character had done some foul deed which had been so foul that he had wiped it completely out of his mind. Don’t be daft. The top of his head felt ready for launching into space. Its okay, relax. Have another beer. Think about something else.
But things didn’t get any better, but decisively worse: his fears had some grounding in reality.
“I’m surprised you’re still wondering around a free man,” whispered a familiar voice. Roger Dilton squeezed between him and the overhanging plastic flowers on the window sill. “Where have you been?” he was saying.
David stared open-mouthed as if Roger’s head had been cut off and served on a plate. It took him too long to speak.
“The police have just called round my flat.” he said at last.
“Thats not surprising. They’ve been looking for you since Friday. Where have you been? You sure are in a jam?”
David asked Roger to explain.
“You do know about the murder of the girl down the fair ground on Friday night? The police want to talk to you. Its a messy business. She was strangled with a scarf. They seem to think its yours. And you can’t remember anything can you? You’re in a bit of jam, as I said.”
David remembered his scarf. His name had been sewn on it.
Still David didn’t speak.
He thought about the word innocent for a moment. It danced around in his mind. Innocent.
“Come on man! You can’t believe you’d do something like that!”
“I think I’d better go,” said David a few minutes later.
“Have another beer. I’ll get you one.”
But David, his leather jacket now on, had already began heading to the door.
As he walked he became aware of all the babble. It was like a hangover, when the slightest noise was deafeningly loud and and the brain couldn’t focus on any one voice. He could feel everyone watching him leave. They had all fingered him. He was the one, the scoundrel, the alien, the child-torturer, the job-stealer, the exploiter of people’s pain. He knew they were all just about to dash out of their seats and tear him to pieces. Only twelve more yards of crosses-to-bear to go to get away. Roger was already probably out in the back corridor phoning the police. Six more yards. Then he passed through. No immediate change of pace at first as his feet first hit the gravel of the car park. It was like building up to a jog. Slowly at first. Don’t overdo it. Leave the pub car park with some dignity, and dignity is very much related to fluidity of movement.
At the top of the hill his dignity was yards away.
He was running in the darkness, running from the pub and running from himself. Don’t think, just act. He checked the landings for police. He moved cautiously up to his flat and let himself in. He had to move fast.
Loose change, cheque book and card, travelling bag, toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush, socks, pants and sweaty pair of pumps. Three shirts – one of them clean, an old pair of clear sunglasses – because they looked like ordinary glasses – a paperback and some cords.
How could he have ever have boasted to his father that he was his own man.
He had to take care. If they were looking for him they’d check all the departure points. Taxi drivers would be clued up. He would be the talk of the town – and everybody would notice him. The darkness would give him some protection. He would walk through the fields and catch a bus from Earl Shilton through to Leicester, and then to Woodhouse Eaves.
He grabbed his bag, hurriedly pulled his door to and quietly descended the stairs.
Earlier that afternoon a woman in a white blouse and denim dungarees lay nibbling at her thumb nail on a sofa. Outside rumbling up from below she could hear the London traffic climbing up Dartmouth Park Road. She had received a phone call. It had intrigued her; it had also worried her because she knew what she must do.
She had been asked to make a visit, to conjure up the long ago and far away; to reopen pandora’s box. She flicked back the mousey hair that flounced by her cheek and sighed heavily. It might clear a lot of things up. The consultancy owed her some time so she could arrange a couple of weeks off. She would do it. It wouldn’t be pleasant but it had to be done. Things had never been properly settled. She phoned Tom Jefferies. “When are you going?” he asked.
“Today,” she said.
“Christ, you give me a lot of notice don’t you.”
“I could leave it for a few days.”
“How long do you want to have off?”
“Okay. I can always get Jessica in to help. I thought you said your mother was coming down at the weekend.”
“Oh damn! It gives me a good reason to put her off.”
“Okay. See you in two weeks. Bon voyage.”
She rang her mother in Cheltenham. Yes, mother, everythings all right mother. No mother. Of course I’ve been looking after myself. I’m sorry I won’t be here but I’ve a pressing engagement. Of course you don’t need to come down and look after the place. I’ll tell you about it when I see you. Its a client mother.(She certainly wasn’t going to tell the truth). Look I’ll come over and see you very soon. No, I can’t be precise mother. But it’ll be soon. How’s the garden? (That took the pressure off. Her mother’s life was her herbaceous border and green fingery and the mere mention of a plant or vegetable would always calm her down.) Of course I’m eating well, mum. I am a doctor, remember? Bye, see you soon, take care. She knew her mum meant well but sometimes she wondered how her father put up with her overwhelming strangling concern.
When she packed, she remembered to include the batch of statistics that had just come back from the lab. She could do a bit of work when she ran out of friends to rediscover. Her days at Leicester University floated past beckoningly. Many of the staff would have moved on, although some would still be there. A 1st degree honours in Medicine and Surgery, sigh. She remembered an evening in 72 when he had starred into her eyes and mimed, ‘Your Song’. Her tomboy nose flared at the nostrils. It wasn’t going to be easy.
She booked a first class train to Nuneaton. The service was awful. It was about time they privatised the trains as well, she thought. She would hire a car, something suitable, a Porsche if she could get one. She’d enjoy that. She’d use it over the fortnight and then go back to London in that.
As the train skirted over points into Leicestershire she hummed Elgar to herself. The countryside made her think of Sandy’s depressions. This was going to be cruel.
When she arrived at David’s door that night she found the door unlocked and slightly ajar. She cautiously entered and found no one in. She switched on the lights and after checking all the rooms for a sign of life she located the telephone. Perhaps she had made a mistake, she thought to herself. But it was too late, she was here now, and it was as a doctor that she was required. She dialled a number and waited for it to be answered.