Sunday: After I’ve tried everything that I can think of and can finally take no more I decide to go out for a walk on my own. It’s hardly, it has to be said, walking weather: the wind is blowing up a gale and it’s threatening to rain at any moment. Anything, however, has to be better than sitting at home with the Ice Queen, who has not spoken a word to me in twenty-six hours.
She’s good at this, Marie: she got gold and silver medals at school for endurance ignoring. When I hung up on my mother yesterday morning the water proof doors we immediately hoisted down; had the Titanic been equipped with Marie’s water proof doors it would never have sunk. Since then she’s read, she’s watched TV, she’s gone shopping, she’s taken a bath, and she’s retired to bed – all without uttering a single solitary syllable in my direction. This sort of thing is no good at all for your sense of well being.
Last night it was spare room time for me – a spare room equipped with a bed that Marie originally chose when we moved into our house about five years ago. A bed, it seems to me, specifically selected because it was just about the right length to make it impossible for me to sleep on it with any relative degree of comfort. It feels like the Burundi Drummers have been dancing on my spine all night. I’m getting too old for this, this lack of comfortable sleeping business.
Why on earth did the government decide that people wanted to shop on Sundays? I used to quite enjoy walking down Upper Street in Islington looking at all the things I couldn’t buy. Now there’s no excuse not to buy them and there’s a lot more people around than there ever used to be, which is kind of inconvenient if you’re in the mood for a little self-contemplation. Still, I suppose it must help unemployment figures or something. I walk past an expensive flower shop, open on Sundays for people who want to buy expensive flowers, and on a whim decide to get a bunch for Marie. I really don’t know why I’m doing this because I know that such an acquisition will leave Marie unmoved. She’s not one of those women who likes flowers, I’m glad to say. More than anything I’m probably buying them because that’s one less thing she can accuse me of not doing when peace talks eventually break out.
I get the girl behind the counter to make me up a bunch for about fifteen quid. She wraps them up in paper and cellophane and ribbons. “Any message?” she asks.
“Erm yes… can you put: ‘Talk to me, you bitch’.”
“Huh?” she says.
“Only joking.” I reply.
I head towards Highbury Corner clutching the bunch of flowers, which is already fighting a losing battle with the elements. I toy idly with the idea of walking up to the first attractive women that I see and handing them over to her with a flourish to prove, like in the old ad, that she’s not wearing hairspray. Then I spot Carol in the distance sitting in her usual place under the cash dispenser. “All right, John?” she asks as I approach, a little less sprightly than usual, her voice almost lost in the howling wind. Curiously, there is no sign of her tatty dog.
In addition to her standard outfit, Carol is wearing a matching khaki-coloured cap today, presumably to keep out the weather. Her right eye is horribly swollen; there is an ugly graze on her chin. “Carol,” I exclaim, “What’s happened?”
Carol shakes her head, like she’s fed up of answering this question: “I had a bit of an argument with someone,” she replies, brightening up a little when she spots my bunch of flowers. “Oh, John – you shouldn’t have.”
“Carol, who did this to you?’
“Oh, you know…” she says.
“No I don’t.”
“Oh, it was just some guy…”
“Just some guy. He’s gone now. He’s a bit of a prat, really.”
“Sort of… well, not really.”
I take Carol for something to eat. We look a bit of a strange sight: me with my bunch of flowers, wrapped up in my long overcoat like Colombo, Carol with her silver boots and her nose ring and her black eye. It could have been worse: it took more than a little effort to persuade Carol to abandon the piece of cardboard that she usually sits in front of under the cash dispenser. Understandably I have no great desire to parade along Upper Street accompanied by a banner that reads ‘No money. No food’. “I’ll buy you another,” I almost said.
I can’t help feeling like a punter who has just picked up a lady of the night. I’m sure that’s what some people must be thinking as we pass them in the street. Far, far worse, I have the vague suspicion that one or two might even think that I’m Carol’s father. Surely not?
We find a café that’s open (why is it still so difficult to find a café that’s open on a Sunday?) and grab a table. I order a tea and a cheeseburger for myself and Carol, who looks like she hasn’t eaten for a week, asks if they have a vegetarian menu. Surprisingly, they do; although it turns out to be exactly the same as the non-vegetarian, carnivorous menu, minus any meat products, a situation which I suppose Carol must be used to by now. She orders a tea and a cheese sandwich.
I ask Carol for the whole story: “Oh… it’s just a guy I’ve been seeing,” she says. “He gets a bit drunk sometimes…”
“And he hit you?”
“Well… not really. He didn’t mean to hit me. He just wanted some money and… you know… got a bit carried away with things.”
Then I pause for a moment and I ask the question that I’ve been meaning to ask ever since I first noticed Carol in her spot under the cash machine six months or so ago: “Look… what’s a girl like you doing living out on the streets? It’s dangerous you know.”
A shy smile comes to Carol’s battered face: “And what sort of girl am I?” she says.
“Oh, you know what I mean… you’re young… you’re intelligent… you’re pretty – you should be doing something else.”
“Like having a job or something. Having a nice flat… a boyfriend who doesn’t hit you and steal your money… the normal things, I guess.”
Carol thinks for a moment. “Thanks, John,” she says finally.
I laugh a little. “For what?”
“For sorting out my life – now that you’ve told me what I should be doing everything is suddenly a lot clearer to me.”
“Oh come on Carol. You know what I mean.”
“Yes I do know what you mean. Unfortunately things aren’t as simple as that. Even if I did want to get a job who in their right mind’s going to want to employ me?”
“Well I would for starters.”
Carol squints over at me, a little surprised. “And what do you do?” she asks.
“Oh nothing too spectacular,” I say, suddenly claming up. “I work in publishing.”
“Nice,” says Carol. “And you want to give me a job, do you?”
“Yeah – I’d give you a job: I couldn’t promise, mind you, but you know, if you cleaned yourself up a little…”
“Cleaned myself up?” Carol raises an arm and pretends to sniff under her armpit. “What is it? Do I smell or something?”
“No… No… You know what I mean: get rid of the nose ring, get a more… a more, well, normal haircut.”
“No… not like mine but, you know, more normal.”
“You seem to like that word.”
“Normal – you can’t stop saying it.”
“All right then, standard – get yourself a more standard haircut.”
“Standard means normal, doesn’t it?’
I shake my head: “You can mock if you want, Carol. But I’m sitting here now looking at a bright, obviously educated…”
“Oh, yeah…” she scoffs, interrupting me.
“…I’m sitting here now looking at a bright, obviously educated… pretty young women with a black eye and a nose ring who doesn’t have a pot to piss in.”
“Very eloquently put,” says Carol. “You can see that you work in publishing.”
I glance at my watch. It’s two-thirty. We have been sitting here in this café for almost twenty minutes. The owner has noticed that our plates are empty and is looking over at the oddly matched couple in the corner of his café suspiciously. Even though I’m not particularly thirsty, I order some more teas.
“What sort of things do you publish?” asks Carol.
I tell her about the partwork business, about the sort of things we publish. About how crappy they are, about how the people are all right, about how the money isn’t so bad for what you have to do for it.
“And that’s what you reckon I should do?” says Carol.
“Well you could do a lot worse.”
Carol shifts in her chair. “It’s hot in here,” she says, removing her army surplus jacket. Actually, it’s not hot at all. I assume Carol must be used to the cold. Me, I’m sitting here hugging my Colombo overcoat to me like it’s the middle of winter, which it almost is. Then, without even thinking about what I am doing, I suddenly find myself running my eyes over the T-shirt that Carol is revealed to be wearing beneath her jacket. Obviously it’s bright red or something and has the occasional hole here and there and has a loud slogan emblazoned on the front: but I’m suddenly more concerned with what’s underneath; Carol’s breasts are fuller than expected and her nipples are erect. It takes only a nanosecond for me to absorb this information, and for me to cotton on to what my eyes are doing but already it is too late, Carol spots what is happening straight away but says nothing.
“What are you reading at the moment?” she says unexpectedly, breaking the momentary tension.
“What are you reading – what book are you reading at the moment?”
“Hmm…” I think for a moment. What book am I reading? I know that there’s a pile of books by my bedside and I know that there’s certainly no absence of books on the shelves in the living room… but what am I actually reading at the moment?
“Well?” says Carol.
“Hmm… something by Martin Amis.”
Carol grins at me. “Something by Martin Amis?” she says. “I’ve never heard of that one.”
“Time’s Arrow,” I say.
“Time’s Arrow?” says Carol. “Hmm… interesting… How far have you got with it?”
“Um… not too far… I’ve only just started it.”
“What… a page? A chapter?”
“A couple of chapters…”
“What’s it about?” asks Carol mischievously. “I’ve been thinking of reading it myself, actually.”
“Oh… you know… it’s hard to say: the usual sort of Martin Amis stuff.”
“Yeah… you know.”
“Want to know what I’m reading at the moment?” asks Carol.
“Yeah… why not?” I say, happy to change the focus of the conversation.
“I’m reading Don Quixote… ever read it?”
“No I can’t say I have…”
“Know who it’s by?’
“Erm… Lerner and Loewe… um… I can’t remember.”
“Let’s see: last week I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Jane Austen – ever read that? Life A User’s Manual by George Perec… Germinal by Zola and, oh yes, The Invention Of Solitude by Paul Auster… ever read any of those?”
“No… I don’t think so… I might have read the manual one, I can’t remember – what difference does it make?”
Carol straightens herself up in her chair, forcing me to immediately look away from her in an effort to make some kind of amends for earlier eyeballing a women who is young enough to be your daughter. It is, of course, a completely ridiculous thing to do and only serves to exaggerate my awkwardness.
“I’ll tell you what difference it makes,” says Carol.
“Go on,” I say.
Carol spills a little sugar onto the table and idly makes circles in it with her fingertips as she speaks. “Let’s suppose,” she says, “that I get rid of my nose ring and get a normal haircut just like you want me to. And then I go and get a job working in… what is it?”
“…And then I go and get a job working in partworks… what would be the real benefit to me in, say, fifty years from now when I’m standing there ready to meet my maker? Who would have accomplished more? The woman who spent her life reading the classics – Cervantes… Joyce… Hazlett… Homer: the woman who spent her time doing what she wanted to do, experiencing the world that she wanted to experience? Or the woman who spent her life churning out rubbish about teddy bears or how to boil eggs or whatever it is that you write about? What would be the real benefit to me of living life in the way that you do?”
“Well, you wouldn’t have a black eye for a start and you’d have somewhere decent to live.”
“And those are your criteria for living a stimulating and fulfilled life? No black eyes and a nice warm flat in Chiswick?”
“Not really… not at all…”
“Not really,” says Carol. “Not really – that says it all doesn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“What I mean is that people like you go through life thinking that what you do is the only way to do things. You’re too arrogant, too full of your own smug self-importance to actually consider that other people might have a better way of doing things.”
“What… and sitting out on in the rain begging for money is a better way of doing things?”
“No, it’s not a better way of doing things: it’s the only way of doing things if I want to live the kind of life that I want to live.”
“Oh, come on, John. I’m only twenty-one. I don’t know what I want to do with my life yet. All I know is what I don’t want to do.”
“That’s all very well and good, Carol, but you have to get a job if you want to eat.”
“Do I?” she says, looking down at the remains of her cheese sandwich. “Aren’t I eating now?”
“Yes… but only because I just bought you a sandwich and a cup of tea.”
“Yeah… and somebody else will be along to buy me another later.”
“Woman cannot live on cheese sandwiches alone,” I announce pompously, immediately regretting the comment.
Carol ignores my comment and starts rolling herself a cigarette.
At a little after 3.00 p.m. we leave the café and Carol heads of back to her pitch, telling me that she intends to put in another couple of hours before returning to her squat. I awkwardly hand her what remain of the flowers and get ready to return to the silence that awaits me back at the house. Then, unexpectedly, Carol reaches up to me and gives me a gentle peck on the cheek. “Thanks for the sandwiches and the tea, John,” she says softly.
“Oh, there’s no need for that,” I reply, all embarrassed.
“It’s the least I can do for the first man to ever buy me flowers,” she smiles.
I bid my farewells to Carol, who, to her obvious relief, has noticed that her cardboard banner is still where she left it. (Are there actually people around who would steal this sort of thing?)
“One more thing…” she says as I start to walk off. “Got any spare change?”