Tuesday 11.03 am.: The redemptive powers of an early morning shag: unless the person you are sharing the experience with happens to go by the name of Louise, there is nothing that can touch it. I’m having breakfast with Steve and Flynn and Carol; I say breakfast, although to call the weak black tea and whole grain toast and Marmite that were thrust in my direction a few moments ago breakfast is actually a gross misrepresentation of the facts. But I don’t care: Steve and Flynn could have given me a bowlful of curried Weetabix and I would still have wolfed it down like it like it was prime Foie Gras set on a bed of sweet orchids. This is not because I am hungry – although actually I am – it’s because I’m satisfied: every pore… every molecule… every atom… every quark in my body is feeling like it has just won the lottery. I am alive… I’m turbo-charged… I’m hyped-alert… I’m super-blessed… I’m ready to run a marathon carrying Jimmy Saville on my shoulders… I feel like I could rip through the Times crossword in world record time… All this because of a shag.
The other person who has just had a shag is sitting across from at the breakfast table, also putting the finishing touches to warm tea and toast and Marmite. If it is at all possible she looks even more beautiful than ever: and if it were possible to rid the breakfast table of the intrusive presence of our hosts, there is every chance that I would be attempting to stretch her over it at this very moment. What a different world it would be if someone like Carol was available on the National Health: there would be no crime, illness would be eradicated, life expectancy would triple; the world would be a better place. I have an idea that Steve is quietly agreeing with this premise as he steals occasional glances at me and then Carol over the table. From the look of him and the flabby hunk of perforated Welsh flesh he shares his bed with, it is fairly apparent that he didn’t get a shag last night. I can almost hear the questions running through his mind: What’s Carol doing with him? What’s he got that I haven’t? Why can’t I get to go to bed with Carol? It’s a pity he can’t hear my responses: Because she’s chosen to be with him. Carol. Because she hasn’t chosen to be with you. It’s the kind of dialogue that I enjoy.
We say goodbye to Steve and Flynn. Carol gives them both a hug and I shake their hands rather too formally and thank them, offering them money for putting us up, which they decline. We walk slowly through the streets, which are largely deserted, and Carol surprises me by putting an arm through my own. To the occasional straggler that we pass we’re now an item, we’re together, we’re a couple. I’m a dirty old man with a hot young chick in tow, a thought which both excites and appals me.
We stroll like young lovers to Jez’ place, which, I discover, is only about five minutes away from Steve and Flynn’s. We knock two or three times and Jez eventually answers the door dressed in an old woollen sweater and white underpants. When we go inside there is a girl lying asleep in his shitty bed. Ralph sees Carol enter and leaps to his feet to greet her. Jez peers at me even more suspiciously than yesterday, like I’m a member of the drugs squad or something.
We have so more tea, which either makes Jez a liar or someone so innately accommodating that he got up early this morning to buy tea bags so that that old bloke who went off, presumably to have sex with his friend Carol last night, can have a cup of tea when they come to pick up the dog that they abandoned in his bedsit. We share one of his spliffs and talk about things I have already forgotten about. Then Carol gives Jez a hug and thanks him for everything and we get ready to leave. I thank Jez for everything, too, and tell him to enjoy what’s left of his life before those planets line up in April and the earth blows up or whatever. He is not amused. We find the car and head off back to London.
Except we don’t head off to London. Because before I can even start the car Carol leans over to me from the passenger seat and kisses me tenderly on the side of the face. Then she says: “John… you’ll probably think that I’m being a bit cheeky… but can I ask you a favour?”
“That depends…” I reply mock-suspiciously.
“Well…” she continues. “We’re only about quarter of an hour away and… well…to come all this way and not go would be such a shame…”
“Well… we’re so close… would you mind driving me to my dad’s house? If he ever found out that I’d been down here and not paid him a visit he’d be really upset…”
I pause for a moment before I answer: “Don’t you think it’s a little early for the meet-the-parents bit? I mean, at least let me take a shower.”
“No… silly!” laughs Carol. “You won’t have to see him – you can wait outside in the car like I did with you… I won’t be there long… I promise… look, you don’t mind do you?”
Of course I mind. I mind because I want to get back home, I want to get back home and begin repairing some of the damage that lies there waiting for me; amongst other things, I want to get back home and wipe Louise’s message off the answer phone before it falls into the wrong hands. But of course I don’t mind. I don’t mind because I don’t want to be separated from Carol for an instant; I don’t mind because I’ve just had sex with this person and I want to have some more if possible; I don’t mind because every fibre of my being wants to do nothing that would displease this woman sitting beside me.
12.16 p.m.: We arrive on the outskirts of Dartmouth and Carol outlines her plans to me: I’m to park the car at a suitable distance from her father’s house and wait inside while she pays a visit on him and Kitty, the elder sister who lives with him. She’s going to keep this endeavour as brief as possible: she’ll have some more tea, give him a cuddle, tell him everything’s all right in London and then we’ll scoot off back home. It shouldn’t take more than an hour or so.
Carol directs me through the twisting country roads, occasionally pointing at buildings and places that she used to know: the school she attended, her first boyfriend’s house, her best friend Sarah’s house. Actually I’m a little surprised because this is obviously one of the more affluent areas of the town. The houses around here are set in vast grounds; all the occupants seem to be two or three car families and own a Land Rover. We turn up a very long and very narrow country lane: if another car were to approach in the opposite direction one of us would have to back up. We turn to the right, then the left. Then the left again. Then we are suddenly arriving in the gravel driveway of an extremely generously proportioned house – at least five or six bedrooms – and I’m pulling the car up and a man holding a pair of garden shears and a walking stick is limping slowly towards us.
I wrench on the handbrake and Carol flings open her door and runs towards the stranger with her arms outstretched. He greets her with a hug and a broad smile: he is about sixty years old or so with a pink bald head and weather-beaten features; I can’t quite put my finger on it but there is something that I find familiar about him. The two of them talk for a few moments, all grins and kisses; I watch from the driver’s seat as the man pats his heart to illustrate his surprise at seeing Carol turn up out of the blue. Then Carol twists towards me and points a finger in my direction and the man peers short-sightedly over at me, then at her again. Now she is motioning for me to leave the car and join the two of them.
I gingerly open my car door and walk over to them, not knowing what I am going to say or do: as I get closer I see a figure in the corner of my eye emerge from the front door of the house, it waves at Carol and she waves back, smiling. “Dad…” says Carol as I approach. “This is my boyfriend… John.”
“So how did you two meet?” asks Carol’s father in a BBC announcer voice that seems curiously at odds with his physical appearance.
We’re sitting in the morning room drinking yet more tea, courtesy, this time, of Carol’s elder sister Kitty, who is almost the spitting image of Carol but has brown hair and doesn’t wear a nose ring and is dressed in chic designer clothing that makes it look like she works on Wall Street: with a little encouragement this is what Carol could look like. The morning room itself also has its fair share of designer accoutrements: the table we are sitting around is made from finest Italian pine and fashioned in such a way as to suggest that it wasn’t picked up on the cheap from the local Argos; the cups we are sipping from are made from delicate Swiss china, etched into their undersides is the signature of the person who made them; standing on a bookshelf that is stocked with a large collection of coffee table art books is a stainless steel reproduction of a sculpture by Brancusi, I think. On the wall are several fine art prints: Picasso’s dove, Matisse’s paper cut-out snail, something by Klee, a line drawing by Schiele. They could almost be real. I don’t know what Carol’s father does to finance such opulence but one thing’s for certain: it’s nothing to do with sitting under cash dispensers.
“John was looking for illustrators for a book he was producing and we got to know each other through that…” Carol answers for me.
“Oh…” says Carol’s father looking towards me with interest. “So you’re a writer are you?”
“No… silly,” says Carol. “John’s an editor with Kingfisher… he produces children’s books.”
“Oh… really…” says Carol’s father, not even bothering to feign interest.
In an episode from that long-running 1970s serial called Kung Fu, which had David Carradine in it, I always remember for some reason a scene at the end of the show in which a young Kwai Chang Caine is being given his usual lesson in philosophy from that bald headed guy with ping pong ball eyes. After Kwai Chang has been robbed while delivering something to a nearby village he is asked: ‘And so, Glasshopper… what lesson have you learned today?’. ‘I have learned to expect the unexpected,” replies the boy.
This is the lesson that I too am beginning to learn the more time I spend with Carol. I am become increasingly aware that where she is concerned it’s probably best for your sanity if you try and get used to expecting the unexpected. I really don’t know what she hopes to achieve by putting me in such an awkward position as the one in which I now find myself: is this a test of nerve or something? Because if I stumble over this one, if I fluff my lines and reveal myself as the impostor I am, it’s going to be she who ends up looking all stupid and embarrassed in front of her father, not I. What she’s doing is rather like playing Russian Roulette for a bit of fun when you’re alone at home and there’s nothing on the box. The only possible outcome in a situation like this is a bad one.
Nevertheless, I grit my teeth and try. I’m sitting here with my girlfriend Carol, who I apparently employ to illustrate the children’s books that I edit for Kingfisher, and I try. I have no RADA training and the last time I stepped on to the stage I was playing one of the three wise men in the school nativity play but it’s the best I can do under the circumstances. “So…” I say. “What’s your line of business mister… um… mister…”
It is at this juncture that I recognise the fundamental flaws inherent to a question such as the one I have just asked. First of all, if I’ve been going out with this man’s daughter for, what shall we say… at least a few months… (certainly long enough for Carol to deem it appropriate for me to be introduced to her father) wouldn’t I already have a vague sort of idea about the line of business he happens to be in? Furthermore, wouldn’t it also be likely that I know his surname by now?
“Call me Reg…” says Reg, sympathetically allowing me, it seems, to loosen the noose from around my neck and wrench my dribbling jaw-line clear of danger.
We drink our tea: Carol fills in Reg and Kitty about how her art college career is going: about how she’s only got a year of the course to run but thanks to John here there’s a job waiting for her as soon as she graduates. Reg mutters something about nepotism and I tell him jokingly that if you can’t keep it in the family who can you keep it for. Reg asks Carol about where she is living and she goes into elaborate detail about our cute little house in Islington and says he should come and visit sometime – yes, that’ll be nice, I say. Then Reg points to his knee joints and says he would if it were possible and that maybe in the summer his arthritis will be a little better and he will be able to – I tell him let’s hope so. Then Kitty asks some questions about what films we’ve seen lately and how often we get up to the West End theatres and whether there’s any good exhibitions on at the moment. I make up some answers and sneak a look at my watch: we’ve been here over an hour.
Carol notices me sneaking a look at my watch and decides to put me out of my misery. She asks me what time it is and then tells the other two: “Well…um… I told you it was only a flying visit… we’ve got things to do back at the house, I’m afraid…”
She tells them how great it is to see them both and that she won’t leave it so long next time. Then she starts to get to her feet but before she can Reg stops her: “I’ll… hmm… just walk John back to the car,” he says. From the tone of his voice it is clear that Carol and Kitty are not invited to walk alongside us. I smile nervously and say: oh… yeah… great. I leave my chair and follow Reg as he limps slowly out of the morning room. As we exit I turn for a little moral support for a moment towards where Carol is sitting,; but she is not looking at me, she is smiling at her sister who is smiling back at her and, inexplicably, mouthing the question: thirty-two? at her.
Outside, back on the gravel driveway, I walk alongside Carol’s father, my shoulders towering over his. The leaves are fluttering in the wind and there is the smell of freshly-cut grass in the air. Just before we reach the car – in which Ralph, out of boredom or a desire to freak out the neighbours, has relocated himself in the driver’s seat and is currently sitting behind the steering wheel waiting to pick up his passengers – Reg turns to me and speaks:
“Listen, young man,” he says. “I don’t want to get all fatherly on you but I have to say I’m not very happy about the age difference – how old are you… thirty-five… thirty-six?”
“Thirty-three,” I say, tempting providence.
“Thirty-three… huh… well… whatever… like I say I’m not happy that you’re so much older than Carol… however, you seem like a decent enough sort. You’re certainly an improvement on the last one.”
“You just make sure you look after her… she’s got too much of her mother in her for her own good… you just make sure you keep an eye on her, that’s all.”
“I will,” I say, as Reg takes hold of my hand and holds it in his own.
“You just make sure that you do…”
It is only when he turns back towards the house to call the other two out that I suddenly realise what it is I found familiar about him earlier on: he looks like I do – an older, balder, shorter, squatter version of me, maybe – but it’s me, all the same.
We sit in the car and smile and wave at Reg and Kitty as I start up the engine. They smile and wave back at us and we turn right, then right again, then left and find ourselves back on the long and narrow country lane that leads to civilisation. When we are safely out of earshot I say: “What the fuck was all that about?”
Carol giggles just like she did when she pulled the duvet off me on Sunday morning. “I’m sorry…” she says. “It’s just that I knew you’d never go through with it if I warned you.”
I shake my head in mock exasperation: “And since when did I work for Kingfisher, editing children’s books?”
“Oh… yes… I’m sorry… I thought that since you didn’t have a job at the moment it would be best if I gave you one I knew he’d be impressed with… you know, he’d only have gone on at you if he found out you were working on those horrible partwork things.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“Look…” Carol continues. “You’ve just done him a real favour… I know he worries about me being up in London all on my own… now he’s seen you he’s going to feel a lot happier about things. I’m sure he’d rather I was with someone responsible like you than with someone like Jez.”
“Jez?” I exclaim.
“Yeah… those two almost came to blows when we came to visit the Easter before last.”