I’m on the sofa, Carol’s on the floor, Ralph’s in the kitchen: it’s 12.13 a.m.. There’s something about being cross-examined by somebody who knows nothing about the background information: somehow in this position you’re obliged to make your answers as clear and well-defined as possible; or maybe it’s something about Carol herself that makes it easier to talk – because you can be sure that if Marie were here right now I’d be trying my hardest to drop the subject. Once my mother had finished her sobbing, there seemed little point in trying to persuade Carol that it was just another ex-colleague on the phone who didn’t like me. She might not be particularly au fait with Greek plate hurling traditions but I doubt very much that I’d have been able to pull the wool over her eyes in this instance. Carol said very little at first, which was a clever ploy because it forced me to fill in the gaps. I did this in an unfocused, tongue-tied fashion until Carol forced a spliff into my fingers and began filling in the gaps herself. That’s where we are at the moment: Carol is lying stretched out with her heels kicked off and a glass in her hand; I’ve removed my jacket and I’m still cradling the spliff she made. Carol’s been talking for some time now but I’ve not been listening: “… and I think that you’ll regret it… I know I did… You can’t mess around with feelings like this, John – it’s too important.” What Carol doesn’t seem to realise is that I’ve done all this before: yes, I have already been informed on a previous occasion that you can’t mess around with feelings like this… or words to that effect; she’s not the first to give me this earth-shattering revelation; and I’ve lost count of the number of times that people have tried to persuade me that blood is thicker than water, etc. etc.. That’s the reason why I began telling people that they were both dead in the first place: the whole thing was just getting boring… I’d grown weary of them looking over at me like I was some sort of rebellious teenager who refused to grow up. There is nothing that Carol can say which hasn’t been said to me a thousand times before. And yet, in common with so very many people, there is nothing I can say to convince her otherwise. In view of the phone call that I’ve recently received you may find it unforgivable when I relate this to you, but it’s true to say that I’m almost on auto-pilot as I say to Carol: “Don’t you think, Carol, that I’m probably old enough to make up my own mind about my feelings towards my parents? I know you mean well but it’s really none of your business… you have no idea what I’m going through.” “You pompous git!” says Carol. “Charming,” I say. “Just because I don’t know about plate smashing in crappy Greek restaurants doesn’t give you the right to patronise me.” “I’m not patronising you, Carol,” “Yes you are… you’ve been doing it all night. You’ve got a problem, John. You’re obsessed with age – you think that because you’re older than me it automatically means that you’re cleverer.” “No I don’t.” “Yes you do.” “No I don’t… this is nothing to do with age… this is personal stuff… it’s private… it’s to do with me and my parents… no-one else. What could you possibly know about it?” “Don’t forget that I’ve been through this myself,” says Carol. “What?” “I told you… I told you the other night about my mother…” “Oh yes… God… I’m sorry. I’d forgotten…” “So you see I do know what it’s like to lose a parent. And I do know about the kind of things that you find yourself regretting later on… so don’t think that you have the monopoly on this one.” “Okay… I’m sorry… I really am… but this is different…” “And what have you got against him anyway?” What have I got against him? Doesn’t Carol realise what she’s just asked me? Is she expecting me to respond to that question with a one line answer? What I’ve got against him is that he didn’t buy me that pair of Georgie Best football boots that I wanted when I was a kid… That he smacked me on the backside when I was little for swearing… That he never used to let me watch my favourite TV programme… I don’t think that there is any straightforward means of answering a question like this; and Carol ought to know that. “How long have you got,” I sigh. “As long as it takes,” Carol says firmly.
I start at the beginning: I begin at age zero and tell my story in short bursts of detail. I tell her about the things that made me unhappy, the things that made me sad, the events that turned me into the person I am today. I tell her about my father, about the sort of man he was, about my mother and about the things she would do to find favour with the sort of man that he was. It’s not easy – obviously it’s not easy. It’s difficult because I don’t really want to be doing this, but I’m concerned that if I refuse to talk it will make it look as though it is me who is the one with the problem. We smoke and we drink and I’m struck by the notion that if I did own a copy of Jim Reeves’ Greatest Hits, now would be an opportune moment to be playing it. My soliloquy goes on for about an hour and Carol proves to be a good listener. When the sorry tale finally tapers out there is the shortest of silences and as if in a movie Carol glides over to me and wraps her arms around me and gives me an enormous hug: it’s not a sexual hug, it’s a sisterly hug, it’s the sort of hug that your mother used to give you when you were little and you fell over and scraped your knee. While she’s doing this I can smell the scent of Carol’s body, I can sense her warmth, I can feel her breasts pressing into my chest. “Don’t worry,” she says softly, “We’ll sort it out… we’ll go and see him tomorrow…”
Approximately two minutes has passed since Carol’s last sentence and our moment of intimacy is now but a distant memory. I’m sitting up straight in the sofa staring at Carol, my expression a mixture of surprise and sheer disbelief; Carol is facing me, staring me right in the eye, her expression obstinate and resolute. “I’m not joking,” she says. “I’ll do it if I have to…” “I see… so it’s blackmail…” I say, smiling a little too nervously at the absurdity of her threat. “Of course it’s blackmail – but it’s blackmail for your own good.” Carol has just made me a proposition, I’m sure she sees it as a fait accompli: she has informed me that if I do not travel down to Devon tomorrow to meet the father that I haven’t seen for twenty years she will break our agreement and refuse to leave the house. Or in other words, if I don’t do as Carol says Marie will arrive back from her period of self-imposed exile to discover that her home has been squatted by a beautiful down and out young woman and her ugly down and out old pooch. The chasm that separates Carol and I is broadening by the minute: I have no doubt that she means well but her gesture is thoughtless and simplistic – it’s the sort of thing that I might have done when I was younger and more energetic and genuinely thought, for the briefest of moments, that I had it inside me to put the world to rights. Work and life and life and work knocked that one out of me, and I rather suspect that one day work and life and life and work will do the same to Carol. “Look,” I assure her. “There’s no way it’s going to happen… so stop being so ridiculous and get yourself another drink…” “I’m not being ridiculous… I’m telling you, if you don’t go and see him tomorrow then I’m not leaving this house.” “Oh yeah… and what if I just throw you out?” “You’re not going to do that John… want to hear how loud I can scream?” “Don’t be silly…” “I’m being serious … you’re going to go and see him tomorrow whether you like it or not…” “Well I don’t like it and I’m not doing it, so stop being so stupid…” “Well all I can say is that Marie is going to have a nice surprise when she gets back from her holiday… What colour is her shampoo? Green didn’t you say?” “The joke’s over, Carol… I don’t find this very funny…” “You’re not listening, are you?” Carol sighs. “You’re father’s on the verge of death and you’re going to go and see him tomorrow… one day you’ll really thank me for this – take it from me, you will.”