A thing I wrote for Boxing News about the legendary British boxer Kirkland Laing. Was very honoured when this was reprinted in the Boxing News annual.
A thing I wrote for Boxing News about the legendary British boxer Kirkland Laing. Was very honoured when this was reprinted in the Boxing News annual.
Got a little distracted by the election and didn’t paint anything at all. Finally got back into it on Friday night. This took 6 ½ hours from start to finish. It’s Harry, my former clarinet teacher.
Chapter Two – New York
I’m in my silk dressing gown when the doorbell rings. I look around for Ania but as always she is nowhere to be seen so I move over to the monitor to check who it is even though I already know. Anthony stands shuffling and panting and wheezing by the front door, unshaven, his blue overalls splattered with white paint, which is a surprise because in the two weeks or so that he’s been working on the exterior of the house I’m yet to see him pick up a fucking brush. “Yes?” I call out in resignation over the intercom, even though I already know what he wants.
“Mornin’ Ian,” comes the response. His voice is rough, a smoker’s voice, East End, although a part of me is convinced that as soon as he’s back home he will revert to public schoolboy patois. “Mind if I use your facilities?” I know not how he comes to call me by my first name. He was never, ever invited to do so; in fact, I cannot even remember ever telling him my first name.
I check the time. It’s just gone ten. Anthony is a creature of habit because he will ring my bell at this time every morning with his fucking obligatory copy of The Sun and spend a good half-hour warming the seat of my toilet. I let him in. He looks me in the eye as he enters, challenging me, and heads off to evacuate his steaming bowels.
“Any chance of letting me know when things are going to be finished?” I ask, hoping he will not sense the desperation in my voice.
He turns to me and smiles smugly. “I reckon a couple more days and we’ll be there,” he replies, winking at me and moving off again.
“So… Hum… you’re saying that it will all be done by Friday?”
Anthony stops walking and shakes his head slowly. “Well, hopefully, yeah, weather permitting, these are big old houses you know, (pronounced” ‘hauses’) and there’s a lot of work involved you know…”
I’m not brave enough this morning to get into an argument with Anthony. Although he is not a tall man, he is stockily built with an over-developed, muscular neck. He has an intimidating air of self-confidence about him, almost as if he’s someone who is genuinely pleased with who he is.
I retreat into the living room, my coffee and my MacBook Pro. I check through my emails. Among the standard Viagra offers, messages from attractive Russian teenagers offering sex, invitations to furnish my bank details to a minor Nigerian tribal leader and messages from clients desperate for work there is an email from Mr. Tickle. It reads: “Mr. Tickle has met Mr. Happy and he is happy.” For a moment my heart leaps and then the insecurities take over. What does he mean? Does he mean that Mr. Tickle is happy or does he mean that Mr. Happy is happy? This little slice of grammatical ambiguity offers subtly different outcomes. I hastily write back: “Good or bad?”
I check iCal and that see that in addition to the New York flight I am scheduled to call Ramirez today, who is in the South of France chasing up leads. We are both aware that he is looking for a needle in a haystack but that region was – is – a favourite of Laura’s. It’s as good a place to look as any.
On a whim I launch Safari and type ‘laura south of france’ into the Google search field. The top SERP is: ‘A Journey into Matisse’s South of France by Laura McPhee’. Not really very helpful. I move on to YouTube and search for ‘Chris Waddle goal’. I watch a short grainy video of England’s semi-final against West Germany. I see the ball rebound off Paul Parker and dip crazily over the onrushing Peter Shilton, I watch England equalise with less than ten minutes to go, there is an interview with Gary Linker who tells us what he was saying to the bench after Gazza was booked for his impetuous lunge on a German. There is no sign of a Chris Waddle winner in extra time, instead we see footage of him absurdly skying a penalty out of the ground. John Motson groans and once again I’m confused. Now I search for ‘Lady Diana’ and just as it was last time I looked the top SERP is a video of Elton John singing Candle In The Wind with different, ludicrous, lyrics.
I hear a shuffling noise and realise that somebody is standing behind me looking over my shoulder at the computer monitor. I look around, surprised, somehow guilty, and see Anthony’s smiling face leering at the screen. “Like Lady Di, do you?” he says. “Pity she died. She had a nice old pair o tits. I’d of had some of that myself.”
A very, very large part of me wishes I had a very, very sharp scalpel in my hand. I try to keep calm and imagine running the blade in a precise arc beginning from Anthony’s forehead and ending up at his chin. But the smaller part of me takes control and simply says: ‘All right?” A meaningless term but really the only thing I can think of given the circumstances.
Then Anthony says: “You work with celebs, right?”
I straighten up in my seat and am about to compose a response to the question when Anthony cuts me off. “Let me tell you something about celebs,” he says, “never talk to them. It’s a fucking pointless exercise. There’s nothing to be gained from it.”
“Yes… I see what you mean…” I respond, obviously not seeing anything of the sort, bored, irritated, suicidal, nose fucking bleeding again.
“I mean, let me tell you a story… Your nose is bleedin’ you know… I was walking down through Bloomsbury a couple of months ago and I seen that bloke from The Office. You know that show from a few years back? Supposed to be a comedy but it don’t make me laugh.”
I nod my head.
“Well anyhows, I was walking through Bloomsbury and I sees that bloke – the little fat bloke who plays the boss –”
“You mean Ricky Gervias…”
“…I sees him walking along the road wearing headphones and listening to his iPod. And I says hello to him and he stops and he says alright. And then I’m sort of stumped for words so I tell him that I like The Office and I don’t normally talk to celebs. And he says, really up himself, like, well I don’t like that word, I don’t really see myself as a celebrity. And then he looks me up and down like I was made of shit and walks off.”
I snigger a little and shake my head. Anthony is made of shit. It’s pouring out of every orifice.
“So you see,” explains Anthony, “it ain’t worth talking to celebs. There’s nothing to be gained from it. You end up coming across like you want to suck their dick.”
As he says the word ‘dick’ I hear a key in front door and a few moments later Ania enters the room carrying bags of shopping. She sees Anthony and an angry look spreads across her face. “Hey, you!” she shouts, looking straight at Anthony, who starts laughing. “Go and do some fucking work! Get out now! Out! Out! Out! You’re not paid to talk you big fucking lazy boy!”
Ania is just over five-feet-tall, Lithuanian, with the face of a slightly disfigured angel. Anthony laughs even harder, enjoying the telling off, finding it difficult to hide the fact that that he obviously has the hots for her. She bundles him out of the room, pushing him in the back with both hands, which he seems to enjoy even more. I hear the front door slam and Ania returns. “Thanks for that,” I smile weakly. Ania returns the smile and heads for the bedroom. I sit at my chair smoking as she packs my suitcase for the trip.
At Heathrow I spot Paul Young queueing with all the plebs as I am politely, reverentially, ushered into the VIP section. He sees me calmly strolling by the other side of the rope and shrugs, probably embarrassed. I wave back, flashing my expensive teeth. It’s been over fifteen years since Paul has had any entitlement to this side of the rope. I feel vaguely sorry for him and idly wonder if there is anything that can be done.
In the VIP suite a fresh-faced hostess plies me with drinks. I sit in an easy chair and stare at the empty room, wondering how long I will be alone. Years ago I sat in this very same seat alongside Anthony Hopkins, a former client of mine. “I envy you,” he had said. “You have the perfect position. You have all the trappings of fame, the VIP treatment, the invitations to parties, to openings, the dinners with the right people. But none of the nasty stuff. Nobody knows who you are. You can walk down the street and, unlike me, people will leave you alone. Do you know that the other week I was stopped five times when I was walking down Oxford Street? All I wanted was to buy a new pair of shoes and I was quite unable to do so. The more people that stopped me, the more people recognised me. People were crowding around me, quite what for I have no idea. Perhaps they were hoping that I’d hiss and say ‘I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti…’. The recognition was exponential – you don’t have any of that, which is fortunate in the extreme. I envy you.”
“Yes, but I don’t have your money,” I had responded.
“What’s money?” Tony had said. “When you’re too famous to spend it?”
During the flight I put my feet up and drink Champagne and watch a movie. I fall asleep and dream of Sofia and when I awake I am greeted by the sight of a ridiculously attractive hostess hovering over me. She gives me the broadest smile and hands me coffee and food. She makes chit-chat: “Are you on business or pleasure?” she asks. I study her features: long, immaculate brown hair; smooth immaculate make-up. A natural, easy, relaxed smile that makes it easy to forget that ours is purely a business arrangement, that her job is only to serve the person with the ticket. “Business,” I reply, “Although I hope that I can make a little time for pleasure.” For a moment I toy with the idea of asking her out to dinner.
A cab ride later and I’m in the apartment in Queens. I bought the place back in the late 80s for a song, in the days when I really didn’t have to think about money. I probably stay here only two or three times a year. The place smells of damp and bleach. I pull back the curtains and stare out idly at the city for a moment.
The apartment definitely belongs to a bachelor. The floors are wood, the walls are wood panel to make things easy to clean, as I never allow a cleaner into this place. In fact, with the exception of the estate agent and a few utility companies, I am the only person on earth who ever visits this place. Not even Laura knows of its existence – and how I managed to keep her out of the loop is a story in itself.
It’s been several months since I last stayed her and there is a visible film of dust everywhere, on the floors, on the table on the stainless steel chairs. Tomorrow I will spend an hour or so putting the place back into order. Right now I have other things to do.
In July 1995 I visited the apartment to find that it had been burgled. A TV had gone, along with a CD player, some money and a few trivial personal effects. Fortunately, the perpetrator had obviously not stayed long – an in and out job – because if he had he would have discovered untold treasures that would have made his toes curl. Although I chose not to report the crime to the police, I made sure that it could never happen again. On the front door I installed a state-of-the-art quadruple tumbler system, on the windows I installed steel shutters (in case Spiderman decided to try to gain entrance to my fourth story apartment) and in the main reception area I installed no less that three separate safes. All three are built into the walls and hidden behind reproduction paintings. One is behind a Peter Blake watercolour of Alice, a second resides behind a John Sell Cotman watercolour of a Lancashire viaduct, an a third is hidden behind a large reproduction of Francis Bacon’s Screaming Pope. It is to this safe that I now go, sliding the Bacon out of the way and keying in an eight-digit password. Although I know that the safe has not been opened since I was last here I feel a strong urge to check that its contents are in intact. I open the steel door and rather like a very expensive fridge, a light flicks on to reveal an old address book, several white plastic bottles containing various stimulants, a small antique clay pot half filled with cocaine, a number of syringes, something like $10,000 dollars in used $100 bills and an ancient Nokia mobile phone and charger which I take out from the safe and plug into a socket.
I return to the window and take a seat to watch the sunrise and see the light stream into the room, dust floating in the air. One by one tiny pinpricks of light appear in the darkness as New York begins to awaken. I light a cigarette and for a few minutes I am at peace. My nose is no longer bleeding and I am locked away from the world. I think of Laura and Sofia, of Chris Waddle, of Princess Diana, of black holes and the nature of time.
David Griffin did a very English sort of thing: he sat Phillips and Moore down at his kitchen table and offered them a cup of tea. Mary Simms stayed silent in her chair watching the two strangely dressed men through eyes that gave no indication as to what was going on behind them. While Griffin fussed around in that polite middle-aged way of his, Mary lit cigarette after cigarette and kept uncharacteristically silent as the older of the two men continued his crazy story.
“Mr. Griffin, approximately three centuries ago a man named Greg Stevens was looking for fossil samples in a desert in a place that you know as New Mexico and stumbled across what we now call the Bunker.”
“Stevens was the leader of a group of geologists. He immediately saw the unique advantages that the Bunker offered. Within two years he had established a small settlement in the Bunker. Under Stevens’s direction his follower’s gradually brought the building back to life, got the power working, sorted out the water and sewage system… That sort of thing. Within twenty years several hundred people were living in secret in the Bunker. Today that figure has swelled to more than fifteen thousand. But we’re not really here to talk about the Bunker. ”
“I’m sure it’s all very interesting,” said David Griffin, placing two cups of hot tea on to the kitchen table. “But what has all this got to do with me?”
“A great deal, actually,” said Ray Moore. “More than you could possibly imagine.”
“Look,” said Griffin. “I let you into my house because you seem to know an awful lot about me. I’d very much appreciate it if you’d tell me where you get your information from.’
“That’s easy,” replied Moore. “We know so much about you because we’ve been studying you and your descendants:”
“Descendants? What do you mean descendants?”
“We mean the people who followed on from you. Your son, your daughter, your grandchildren…Their children…”
David Griffin stood in the corner of the room and studied the two strangers. There was no disputing that their appearance was odd. The men looked uncomfortable in their crumpled suits, as if they were not used to wearing such clothing. “Forgive me for saying so but I think you’re both quite mad,” Griffin said. “Either that or this is some kind of elaborate practical joke.”
Now Griffin turned his attention to the silent figure of Mary Simms. “Mary,” he said. “You’re keeping very quiet. Is all this something to do with you?”
Mary Simms shook her head and took another drag on her cigarette. “No,” she replied calmly. “I’ve never seen these people before in my life.”
“We can assure you that the girl knows nothing about our mission,” said Nathan Phillips. “In fact, it would be to her distinct benefit if she knew nothing more. Would it be impolite of me to ask her to leave?”
“She’s staying right where she is, if you don’t mind” said Griffin sarcastically. “After all, it’s not every day that you get to meet somebody from the future. I couldn’t possibly deny her this privilege.”
Nathan Phillips had known all along that this was not going to be easy. It never was. Over the years he’d read all the research material available regarding the correct protocol for making contact with pre-temporal civilisations. In the days leading up to the Great Chaos this had been a frequent occurrence, with travellers making little regard to the consequences of their actions. In the Bunker such contact was strictly forbidden except under the most extreme circumstances. Circumstances such as the one he found himself in now. That was why he had brought the gun. He pulled it from his pocket and pointed it towards David Griffin.
“Please don’t be alarmed, Mr. Griffin,” he said. “I assume that you recognise what I have in my “Hand?”
”Nathan. My God!” said Ray Moore, not quite believing what he was seeing. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Be quiet for a second, Ray,” said Phillips. “I know exactly what I’m doing.”
David Griffin’s mouth dropped open as he stared at the strange old man. The gun looked real enough to him. At least, it pretty accurately resembled the guns he’d seen on the television and in the movies. “Look, this has gone beyond a joke…” he said.
Phillips climbed to his feet and indicated for Griffin to take his seat. “It’s not my intention to use this,” he said. “But I will do if I really have to.”
Ray Moore and Mary Simms exchanged concerned glances as Griffin did as instructed. Griffin’s face had gone white as a sheet. “If it’s money you’re after,” he said feebly.
“No I don’t want your money,’ said Phillips. “It’s your attention I require. Your full, undivided attention. That’s all.”
The jump took the boy back to a very different place. Instead of the crystal sunshine of a warm summer afternoon, clouds of grey smoke blocked out the light, making it impossible to know what time of day it was. The fresh salt air carried on the coastal winds was gone and in its place was the smell of burning tar. The fumes crawled inside Winston Young’s throat and he began to cough.
The jump had been a good one; it had gotten Winston to within a couple of miles of the drop-off point. He had emerged on a hill overlooking the remains of the town. Winston knew this place. Even though there had been inevitable changes since he had last been here, Winston was able to pick out a few landmarks. In its time the town had carried strategic importance but now all that remained were the crumbling avenues of shattered masonry with the long, twisting arms of buckled metal that reached up into the skies like bizarre sculptures. The scene reminded Winston of the photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki he had seen in his history lessons.
And yet there was life among the ruins. Movement. Hazy figures in the smoke with faces wrapped in strips of cloth, powdery dust rising like steam from their ragged clothing. These people were scavengers, survivors of whatever had happened in this place. Looking for anything of value that could be sold on the black market: a strip of metal… Old, tattered clothing… Burned out electric components. Everything had its price.
Before he left the hotel, Winston had discarded his porter’s uniform and was now back in full combat gear: a grey canvas jumpsuit, pockets bulging with ammo and weapons ranging in sophistication from the soundless A-16 that he had used to kill Slater to a small pocket knife that Winston kept for absolute emergencies. Like many, Winston always felt nauseous after a jump. The effect of the best part of a month in the field, eating and drinking foods that tasted of mud and slime did not help matters. Moments after arrival, Winston was relieved to be able to rid himself of a few of these noxious substances. Nobody paused to assist him as he emptied his guts into the dust. People around here knew better than to approach a Grey – especially one so young.
Winston checked his watch: the date read 16 June and the time three-thirty but he could not be completely sure of its accuracy. Winston began walking. His first priority was to find Morris and let him know that the mission had been a success. Winston was anxious to get his money. And to get rid of Slater’s head.
Slater’s head was stored in a small portable cold box that was handcuffed to Winston Young’s wrist for safekeeping. Winston didn’t know if he was actually prepared to lose a hand in order to protect his property, but then nobody had so far been willing to put him to the test. Winston had been bred to feel no compassion but he nevertheless felt a slight pang of regret when he thought about the person whose head he carried with him. Before embarking on this mission. Winston had studied Slater’s file meticulously. It was an unusually large file, testament to the success and longevity of its subject. It was a pity to lose somebody of Slater’s calibre; men like Slater were few and far between. Slater was a brother. In another life the two men might even have been allies.
Winston walked on for several miles, oblivious to the sights, sounds and smells of the ruined town. There was nothing here that he hadn’t seen before. Other than the scavengers he saw few people in the streets; anyone who appeared brave enough to approach him was quickly deterred by the sight of his hand moving towards the A-10 strapped around his waist. The town was in even worse shape than Winston remembered: the last time he had passed through here there had been roads… cars… even the odd person out shopping. But all of that was gone. Most of the buildings had collapsed and the piles of rubble had been systematically picked apart and carted away to be bartered or sold. This place had once been a thriving cultural centre with shops, restaurants, cinemas and hotels similar to the one Winston just left. Something had happened to change things.
In the middle of town the burned out remains of a huge tower jutted out into the sky, its metal girders buckled and melted almost beyond recognition. It was, however, a landmark of sorts – something to aim for. Winston had not been given precise directions to the pick-up point, that would have been impossible – he had simply been told to head for the largest man-made structure he could see. Sure enough, Morris was waiting nearby. Winston spotted him skulking in the chalky debris. Like Winston, he wore the uniform of a Grey – although he certainly could not be described as such. Winston had already dealt with this man on three other occasions and knew he was not to be trusted. Winston approached Morris warily, his muscles tensed, ready to react.
“You’re late, kid,” said Morris. “I’ve been waiting for three days.”
David Griffin felt a sudden urge to stop and look around him as he walked along Mayor Street. His eyes fell upon the drab frontage of the Phoenix Hotel, mock Georgian covered in garish signs. He had no idea why he was drawn to this building – he walked down this street most weekdays and had never before given the place a second glance. What’s the matter?” asked Mary Simms, walking beside him sucking a cigarette. “You’re looking weird again.”
“I dunno,” said Griffin. “For a moment I had the strangest feeling… Like someone was watching me.”
“They probably were. You know that the temperature of your skin changes whenever somebody looks at you? It’s because of the light being reflected from the other person’s eye. You subconsciously sense the change in temperature and you get that creepy feeling.”
“Well somebody must have been looking at me, then. Either that or I’m going to have to stop drinking…”
Winston Young wasn’t interested in what Morris had to say. He just wanted his money. And he wanted to rid himself of the heavy box that was handcuffed to his wrist. There were too many people like Morris, filling the empty space with jabber and mock-friendliness, doling out gossip and hearsay like cheap candy. “They say there have been three actions during the past fortnight alone,” said Morris, ignoring the other man’s glazed expression. “Two minor and one that took out a whole city…”
“Keep your bullshit to yourself,” said Winston.
“One minute it was there and the next it wasn’t… A whole population simply disappeared into thin air. Think of it Winston. Think about all those women you could have ass-fucked. All those women and children. All gone… forever and ever amen.”
“My money. Where is it?”
Morris stopped talking and looked over at Winston in disdain. “Money,” he said, shaking his head theatrically. “Who wants to talk about money when the world is crumbling away before our very eyes?”
Winston guessed that Morris could not have been any older than twenty-nine. Old for someone who wore the uniform of a Grey. Old enough for the years to have carved into his features a pretty accurate representation of the sort of man Morris was. Morris was a middleman kept on a retainer by the agency. He evidently wasn’t the sort to place himself in danger – the lack of any scars on his face was testament to this – but he apparently had no problem in accepting more menial tasks such as this. He’d take this type of job on at a moment’s notice: go here, pick up this, drop off that. It wasn’t exactly challenging work. Morris was little more than a courier with a gun, permitted to wear the uniform because of who he worked for not who he was. Morris was also an addict. Winston had already spotted the telltale markings under his eyes and on his cheeks. Probably Dellamite… At the very least VCA. That was why Morris was not to be trusted. It was also what made him dangerous.
“That’s all it is to anyone,” said Winston. “Everything I do I do for money – so do you. You’ll be getting your cut from this, too.”
“It could be us next, kid. It could be you… The world is a fucked up place.”
“Who gives a shit? You wouldn’t know anything about it anyway.”
“Oh but I would, kid. I’m sure of it.”
“Just give me my money.”
Winston opened the cold box and flashed its contents at the other man. Morris reached into his own bag and pulled out a hypodermic. He inserted its thick needle into Slater’s shattered skull and took a sample of chilled brain tissue. This was not the first time that Morris had done this task. Morris pulled out a small lab kit and tested the sample. He waited for a few moments and declared: “It’s positive.” Then he turned and ran.
The first rock hit Winston on the corner of the head and staggered him. He managed to avoid the second one that was thrown. For the briefest moment Winston was in shock but then his conditioning kicked in. A quick look around told Winston that there were six – no seven – figures emerging from the rubble surrounding the tower. All were scavengers, their faces hidden beneath strips of rag. Some of them were brandishing guns – old-fashioned, antiquated looking guns such as the ones used by cowboys in old westerns. As blood dripped down from his head wound Winston took aim and easily picked off three of them. They hit the ground like sides of beef, smoke billowing from their fatal wounds.
But somebody was behind Winston. He whirled around and was dazzled by a bright flash; suddenly his right shoulder was on fire. Winston’s instinct was to feel for the wound with his good hand, find out how bad it was but instead he sought out the A-10 and began shooting in an arc around him. Several more of his ambushers dropped like stones but one managed to crawl along the ground to within touching distance. Before Winston could react the man stuck a knife into his calf. The pain was intense. Winston let out a howl and kicked out at the man, shooting him dead as he cowered on the ground.
Now more hands were upon Winston and he felt the gun snatched from his grip. Another knife slashed at him, this time at his good hand, and Winston was dragged to the floor under a pile of bodies. Winston could smell their breath and hear their grunts of exertion. Once on the ground they set about him. Quickly emptying his pockets of weapons, bludgeoning his face with their fists and kicking out at his panting body. Then, as Winston felt his consciousness begin to wane, he saw the long carving knife and realised what they planned to do with it.
From someone within the chaos Winston heard the distant voice of Morris: “Take care with the head, I’ve told you… Don’t damage the head.”
Winston felt the blade cut into his wrist. Through electric jolts of pain he fumbled for the abort button. Every Grey was required to carry an abort button. It was usually to be found in a pocket or sometimes strapped to the thigh. It was compulsory. In their line of work there were inevitably occasions when a swift exit was called for. This was one such occasion.
“Stop him!” cried Morris. “Stop him!”
Winston’s bleeding fingers found the button. He jumped.
The bundle of bodies that pinned him to the floor melted away into nothingness and Winston sucked in huge mouthfuls of air. His pulse was racing and the adrenaline had temporarily dulled the pain. The jump lasted only a split second and Winston found himself lying in lush, green grass. A gentle breeze blew against his face and the sound of running water could be heard close by. Winston’s attackers were gone and he was safe for the time being. The pain kicked in and through the agony, Winston found himself thinking about Morris, thinking about what he was going to do to him when he caught up with him. Morris was going to die a slow and painful death. He would be howling for his mother before Winston was finished with him.
Right now, however, Winston had more urgent things to think about. He realised this as he tried in vain to pull himself to his feet. The Jump had been unplanned. Random. He’d had no time to select a location. Winston knew that he could be anywhere right now. He had to think fast.
Again Winston’s conditioning took over. While his eyes scanned the surroundings for any potential danger, Winston felt for his wounds, mentally calculating how much of him was left that could be called into action in an emergency. He knew immediately that his condition was not good. Blood was coursing from wounds to his right shoulder and to both hands. One… no two of his ribs was cracked or broken and blood from the gash on his forehead was streaming into his eyes. Of greatest concern was the wrist that his attackers had tried to slice their way through. They must have severed an artery. Winston tried again to stand and for a moment forgot that he still had the cold box chained to his wrist. The metal handcuff dug into his damaged wrist causing the blood to flow faster. Like a wounded animal, Winston let out a shriek of pain. Then post-traumatic stress hit him and Winston began to sob.
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I’d be really grateful and I’d send you a virtual smile.
Please let me know.
The Do Not Disturb sign had been hanging outside the door for three days and the room had inevitably taken a turn for the worse. Not that it mattered much to Slater – his interest was location not aesthetics. Plates of half-eaten food lay in a jumble on the spare bed along with the contents of the mini-bar. Slugs of discarded tissue paper were scattered across the carpet, into which Slater had been steadily jerking away the boredom. Apart from the voices on the telephone and the boy who occasionally delivered food to the door, Slater had seen or spoken to no one since booking into the hotel. The isolation was beginning to affect him. “Fuck-king amateurs!” he angrily repeated to himself again and again. “Fuck-king amateurs!”
This job was doomed from the start: According to the itinerary, Slater should have been able to book straight into The Holiday Inn upon arrival. He couldn’t. The hotel was somehow full and he’d had to carry his bags through the streets until he found an alternative location. He ended up in a place called The Phoenix, which just about gave him a clear view of the contact point. If that wasn’t bad enough, Griffin had failed to show at the allotted time – he’d come a day later and Slater had committed the cardinal sin of not being fully prepared. It wasn’t professional. He wasn’t going to make that mistake again. No Sir.
Slater had now fixed his rifle to a portable tripod for pinpoint accuracy. But although he was ready for action he didn’t feel good. Slater had a headache from the alcohol and couldn’t stop farting. His stomach wasn’t used to what they ate here: the sticky sugars, the saturated fats, the dangerous free radicals. Slater peered through the digi-viewer and idly targeted a passer-by in the street, a young mother pushing a pram. His finger brushed the trigger. “Bam!” he said aloud, imagining what the E2.02 bullet would do to her skull. The E2.02 was a significant upgrade: it was designed to explode within 1/1000 of a second of hitting the target. It would burst the woman’s head open like an over-ripe melon.
The thought of melon made Slater feel hungry. He called room service.
“Now this, young Winston, my boy, is what you might call a 24/7 wanker,” said Lester Barnes, flicking on the speakerphone with his stubby fingers. Barnes’s torso was lodged behind a desk in the reception of the Phoenix Hotel; standing next to him was seventeen-year-old Winston Young, who, besides lugging bags and trays of food up and down the stairs for twelve hours a day, was also expected to laugh at Barnes’s weak jokes whenever the need arose.
“I’m surprised that his little winkle hasn’t withered away and died,” continued Barnes, carefully aiming his voice away from the speakerphone, his eyes demanding Winston’s approval.
This was only Winston’s third week at the Phoenix – just about long enough for him to get used to the smell of fresh paint and decaying food that permeated every brick in the building – but it seemed like he had been there forever. Lester Barnes himself had interviewed him for the job: stale sweat, cheap cologne, hands a little too friendly. Winston felt himself instinctively recoil when Barnes placed a meaty arm around his shoulders and told him that he could start straightaway. There was a self-indulgent smile on Barnes’s face as he said the words – like he was handing Winston the keys to a gold Porsche.
“Hello?” Hello?” called the voice in Room 42.
Barnes liked to keep the guests waiting when he was on reception. He liked to sit at that desk with a big wad of gum between his teeth and take his time answering their calls. Winston imagined that doing this somehow made Barnes feel important. But then Winston had probably never met anyone quite so unimportant. Loathsome as he was, it was difficult to begrudge Barnes even the mildest opportunity to boost his ego.
Sometimes the guests really lost it. They would get so fed up of waiting that they would storm downstairs and demand to see the manager. That was when a sickly smile would appear on Lester Barnes’s face. “I am the manager, “ he would proudly proclaim, daring them to challenge this blatant lie. This morning, however, Barnes was obviously feeling benevolent. He made the man in Room 42 wait for only twenty seconds or so before lowering his lips to the speakerphone:
“Good morning to you… Sir,” said Barnes, in a voice that somehow managed to both antagonise and ingratiate. “What can I do for you this fine and pleasant day?”
“I want the same as last night,” said Room 42.
“I’m afraid I’m going to need just a teensy bit more information… Sir,” grinned Barnes, covering the speakerphone with a fleshy palm and winking at Winston Young, who was listening in on the conversation.
Winston Young appeared to like that one. He let out a high-pitched chortle but was immediately shussed by Barnes.
“I want to eat what I had last night.”
“And what might that be?” asked Barnes, even though the man in Room 42 had ordered precisely the same meal for three days’ running – breakfast, lunch and dinner. “We have a very extensive menu, you know.”
The man in Room 42 put down the phone and rummaged around for a few moments to find the menu. Since his arrival at the hotel he had become the main focus of attention at reception. Barnes and Young had been using the booking computer to monitor his activities. For the first day or so the man had sat in his room watching whatever happened to be on Pay TV: a Disney film… Jurassic Park III… Then on Saturday night he’d discovered the porn channels and had been watching them around the clock ever since, never venturing out of the hotel. He’d have almighty shock when he saw his bill.
The man in Room 42 returned to the phone. “I want a Philadelphia Steak Sandwich,’ he said in monotone. “Medallions of beef fillet served in a white baguette with a rich Philadelphia cheese, mushroom and cream sauce.”
Winston collected the tray from the kitchen and carried it to the stairs. It was a hot day and the cheap nylon uniform he was obliged to wear clung to his body like a second skin. Winston was up and down those stairs at least forty times a day and he found it hard to conceal his hatred of the people he served. As far as he was concerned if this was what working for a living was all about you could stick it.
Room 42 was located on the fourth floor. Winston carried the tray through the twisting corridors and tapped on the door. The man was standing in the doorway before the third tap, his big frame blocking out any view of the interior of the room. “Your order,” said Winston, not for the first time slightly taken aback at the sheer size of the man in Room 42. He must have been at least six-four/six-five. He towered over Winston.
Slater took the tray from Winston and laid it at his feet. Then he fished into his pocket and pulled out a clump of banknotes. “Take this,” he said, awkwardly handing Winston a brand new ten. Winston pocketed the money and tried to stay calm: the man in Room 42 was certainly a generous tipper but he made Winston feel nervous. Winston was determined not to show it.
“Thank-you very much, Sir – shall I take away the trays from last night?”
Slater ate the food with his fingers, grimacing at the taste. He checked his watch again. It was 11.46. Three hours and twelve minutes to wait before Griffin was due to appear. On the TV mounted on the wall a man was penetrating a woman from behind and Slater tried to keep his anger in check. Right now he needed to stay cool and professional but he was going to let that weasel Phillips have it when he got back to the Bunker. Jobs like this rarely ran 100 percent smoothly, but to have to sit and wait for three days, well that was just plain shoddy work on Phillips’s part. Recon was by its very nature notoriously imprecise – but even so. Every second that Slater spent in this place only increased the danger of his being discovered, and he wasn’t about to let himself become another statistic. He’d have Phillips up against the wall when he got back – and he was going to claim compensation. Yessir. Time was money in this game.
“Well?” said Lester Barnes on reception.
“He wouldn’t let me in the room and he still wouldn’t let me clear away any of the plates,” replied Winston Young. “It smells pretty bad up there, too.”
“I bet it does… said Barnes, with what Winston took to be a determined look on his face. “Right…”
Barnes called Room 42. The phone rang for a few moments before it was answered. “Good morning to you once more,” announced Lester Barnes. “Terribly sorry to bother you but we were hoping that at some point in the distant future we might be able to send a maid up to clean your room.”
“The room. It hasn’t been cleaned for three days – it’s plain unhygienic. We’ll have the Health And Safety after us. Are you intending to pop out at all today – we could do it then perhaps?”
“Well maybe Margaret could just clean up around you. You’d hardly know she was there.”
There was silence for a moment before the man spoke: “Listen, you fat fuck,” he growled. “Don’t call me again. You can clean your shitty room when I’m ready.”
“I beg your pardon…”
“…And tell that boy to bring me more drinks – I’m thirsty.”
Saturday morning: 9.54 a.m.: This time Marie is in charge of things: she’s had all Thursday and Friday to prepare for it and she’s leaving nothing to chance. On Marie’s instructions I call my mother and tell her that we’re coming to visit today. I ask her if she’s sure that my father isn’t going to order me out of the house again and she tells me yes, she’s sure he won’t. She asks me what time I’ll be arriving and what I’d like for my tea, and I tell her probably early evening and not to bother because we’ll get something to eat on the way. Then she asks me how long I think I’ll be staying for and I say I don’t know, the week-end probably. Then she tells me how much she’s looking forward to seeing me properly this time and I say yes so am I, although I am not. All very civilised.
Marie and I eat breakfast and then I go and check over the contents of the bag that she packed for me yesterday. Inside are neatly folded shirts and trousers, socks rolled up into balls, a brand new toothbrush still in its wrapper, a suit protected by a plastic zip-up, some shaving foam, even a couple of ties.
While Marie locks up the house I take the bags out to the car. It is then that I realise to my horror that I have forgotten to clear away the remnants of Ralph. As soon as I open the car door I am hit by his smell; and when I look into the back seat I can see a small forest of discarded dog hair. I think for a moment and then go back inside and tell Marie that it’s probably best if we went in her car; I’d forgotten to mention that my car had started playing up on the way back from my father’s: it sounded like a gear box problem and I wouldn’t want to tempt providence by risking another long drive. She seems convinced enough by this display of fancy footwork.
It is while we are putting our coats on to leave on that a further problem emerges: I discover with some alarm that the mobile phone I am supposed to have lost in Marie’s absence is still inside one of the pockets. I get a chance to remedy this oversight a couple of hours later when we stop at a service station for a coffee: while Marie visits the ladies I quietly drop the incriminating evidence into a waste bin, carefully burying it among the abandoned burger wrappers and plastic cups.
Marie drives: it is a sort of unwritten law that only she is allowed to drive her father’s car. She drives a little slower than I do; we listen to Jazz Fm and I smoke cigarettes. It feels a little like a trip to the dentist; I am too nervous to talk very much and Marie is wise enough to leave me to my own devices, to let me make whatever preparations I need to make for what is about to happen.
Noel and Liam Gallagher… John Lennon… Mike Tyson… Jesus of Nazareth… in terms of people who ended up not seeing a great deal of their father, I’m certainly in good company. And what happened to these people? The Gallagher brothers went in the papers threatening to beat up their estranged father if he ever came near them; Lennon ended up doing Arthur Janov’s primal scream therapy in an attempt to try and exorcise his childhood demons; Tyson simply blanked the father who appeared out of nowhere at the height of his son’s fame; and Jesus of Nazareth? …well we all know what happened to him… This is what I’m thinking as the countryside flashes by.
What makes a son hate his father, and what makes a father hate his son? Actually, I’m probably ill-qualified to answer this question, because if you shone a torch into my face and applied the thumb screws I’d probably be forced to admit that whatever my feelings are or have been towards my father, hate has never particularly been one of them. Intense dislike, sure… the occasional urge to commit patricide, maybe… but never really hate in the same way that I hate semolina… or used to hate Margaret Thatcher when I was younger… or Garry Bushell… or Jeffrey Archer… or the Australian cricket team sometimes.
It isn’t really worth providing details of the journey: It’s fair to say that both of us have already been down that road before. All I know is that my mind is a lot clearer: I don’t have Carol and the does-she-doesn’t-she-will-I-won’t-I-scenario to worry about; there is no Ralph sitting in the back of the car; and I’m not pressed into the driver’s seat wondering who’s been leaving messages on my answering machine at home. As far as I’m concerned the whole world could be calling and it wouldn’t make the slightest iota of difference to the way I’m feeling right now.
We drive at a leisurely fifty-five and hit Exeter by around two o’clock. I sit in the passenger seat chewing on boiled sweets, almost into my second packet of cigarettes. I think about my father’s voice on the phone the other day: how weak and frail he sounded. I think about Carol: what an idiot I’ve been, how could I possibly have imagined that a girl like her could have been attracted to a fat old loser like me? I think about Louise in the pub last night: the tears running down her poor shattered features. I think about Marie: relieved that I’ve not lost her, that I’ve managed to salvage something from the wreckage of my behaviour over the past fortnight. And I think about my job: about how unfair the whole situation is, about how cruel people can be; and yet somehow I’m happy, I’m pleased to have found an escape route from a life that was killing me with an unremitting precision every bit as efficient as the cancer that is destroying my father. Then, at about two-forty-five, I see a red brick tower emerge on the horizon, and we’re driving into the centre of Starcross.
The sun is shining at last and there are more people about than before. The little grocery shop-cum-post office is now open and someone is inside talking to the shop-keeper. The tide is out and I can see several men wearing bobble hats scampering about in the sand looking for cockles, something which I myself used to do to pep up my pocket money when I was a child. We pass the Anchor pub and I instruct Marie to turn right, then we’re parking outside my parents’ house.
Before Marie even has time to pull on the handbrake I see the front door open and my little old lady mother is loping towards us. She comes out into the street and looks into the car, smiling. Marie waves hello to her and I open my door and climb out on to the pavement. Then, before I can do anything about it, my mother reaches out and has her arms wrapped around me, hugging me like she used to. She says: “Thanks for coming, love.”
Marie closes her door and stands across from us, watching this mother and child reunion. She is smiling, too. Then I pull myself awkwardly away and announce: “Mother… this is Marie…”
My mother stands up as straight as her little old lady body will allow and says softly: “John… please… don’t call me ‘mother’…”
Marie cuts in before I can respond: “Hello Susan… it’s nice to meet you at last…” she says warmly.
Then my mother walks over to Marie and gives her a hug and looks over her shoulder at me and says: “Are you two married, then?”
And I tell her no we’re not, although to all intents and purposes Marie is my wife because we’ve been living together for such and such a time… And my mother shakes her head knowingly and says: “You should get married, you know.… there’s nothing like a good wedding…”
We move inside the house and perch ourselves on chairs in the living room while my mother puts the kettle on and goes upstairs to inform my father of our arrival. The living room is much as I remember it: a well worn three-piece suite, large screen television underneath the front window, flowery patterns on the carpet, cheap ornaments from Blackpool or Weston-Super-Mare or somewhere like that on an old, chipped dressing table.
Marie and I sit and stare at each other without saying anything. Now that she’s finally managed to get me here I’m not too convinced that Marie is actually enjoying herself as much as she imagined she would. She seems shocked by the house, by its lack of size, by its poverty; it’s certainly a far cry from her parents’ house in nice middle-class Barnes. Perhaps she now understands why I didn’t want her to see all this: it’s not that I’m ashamed of my past – it’s just that when it’s being splashed all over the front pages I prefer to have a little editorial control.
The tea arrives and my mother tells me that my father is not feeling too good today but if I don’t mind the state of his room I could go and see him in a few minutes if I feel up to it. While she saying this to me, Marie suddenly holds her head up and sniffs the air a little, apparently she’s picked up on the cabbage smell that I noticed on my earlier visit. My mother sees her doing this and turns to towards her and says: “It’s not pleasant, is it?”
And I frown: “What is that smell?”
And she replies: “It’s him… your dad…”
I remember reading in a auto-biography of Lauren Bacall that every time she kissed Humphrey Bogart in the months leading up to his death, she could smell his cancer. This, I imagine, is what it smells like.
I tell my mother that I’d like to drink my tea first (which, I discover, has been loaded with two sugars) and compose myself a little. We make small talk. My mother asks Marie if she works for a living and Marie tells her about her publishing career. My mother looks Marie up and down, evidently impressed. Then Marie asks her what she does for a living and my mother laughs and tells her not to be so silly, that’s she’s too old to be working these days. And I interject and tell Marie that my mother used to be a hair-dresser, which I thought she already knew.
I finish my tea and look nervously at my watch, not registering what time it is. Then I stretch my arms and yawn and tell my mother that I’m ready.
Somehow I seem bigger. Not taller or fatter or larger or grander, but bigger. It’s like I’ve outgrown the place; as if I’ve taken a bite from Alice’s chocolate gateaux and my head is suddenly sticking out of the chimney stack; I’m Gulliver waking up in Lilliput: everything is smaller than I remember it, the memories scaled down.
I’m standing on the main road, the car is parked in a lay-by near the woods at the far end of the village; inside, Ralph is keeping Carol company. If I look to my left I can see the misty grey waters of the estuary creeping slowly across the familiar pockmarked pebble beach, leaving a trail of foaming scum in its wake. On the roadside, the Victorian red brick of Brunel’s infamous Atmospheric Pumping Station (infamous because he never actually managed to get the thing to work) invades the skyline much as it always did: a little out of place among the surroundings, a little out of time… a little like me. I never could understand why old Isambard chose here of all places to build his ill-fated creation – it’s rather like erecting a huge glossy, steel and cement multiplex in the middle of Stonehenge; as if a slice of the future has burrowed its way into the past.
Starcross: the seagulls sing to me as I hug my coat to my chest; in the distance I can see the old pier, rotting away, an ugly brown behemoth clinging to life with a sort of stubborn desperation, a few rowing boats tethered to its glossy wooden beams, one or two of them overturned, half-forgotten about. This is the place I call home: the place I tell people I came from whenever I’m asked.
Why am I here? What am I doing here? These questions are probably a little too fundamental for the likes of me and are best forgotten as I make the slow descent down the hill towards my parents’ house, past The Anchor on the right, where my father drinks – used to drink, past the little grocers-shop-cum-post-office that sells – used to sell – wood and fire-lighters for the long winter nights. I stop for a moment and peer through its windows: tins of baked beans, polythene bags full of muddy potatoes, family-sized boxes of safety matches: nothing much has changed here. I pass the tiny train station: little more than a glorified waiting room, really – apart from the main Exeter to Plymouth road that surrounds the village, Starcross’ only connection to the outside world. Nothing much has changed here, either.
Hidden under a tree on the corner of Shelton Street is the house that me and a kid named Brian used to fire air rifle pellets at from the railway track. We’d lie undercover in the long grass and aim for the metallic door of its garage; there was always a satisfying clang when the pellets hit their target, leaving a small dent in the paint work and a peanut-sized area of exposed metal. As I pass slowly by the house I can see the scars left by our teenage hi-jinks, they are partially covered by several layers of paint put there after I left but they’re there nevertheless. I count them: there are 32 in all. This is the village of Starcross: one road… a crappy little shop… three pubs… a wooden pier… old Brunel’s pumping station… and 32 pellet wounds in a garage door put there by me and my mate Brian long, long ago.
As if in a dream I find myself standing across the street from my parents’ house. Strangely enough I’m feeling completely calm and in control: I remain where I am for a while and look at the house for far too long, teasing myself, tempting myself to walk the twenty or so paces that separates me from my past. As I do this I’m struck by the realisation that I’ve finally got what I really wanted – because deep down I always suspected that this is how it would end: there was never any need for Marie to storm off to her mother’s like she did – I know that now; likewise Carol’s clumsy attempts at blackmail or whatever scam she was attempting to pull were also surplus to requirements, the phone calls from my mother and my responses to them were all just a part of this little game of keeping up appearances that I’ve been playing with myself since she first got in touch with me, what was it… fourteen days ago? I guess I knew right from the start that I’d be standing here sooner or later, I just didn’t want others to know that I knew – I just didn’t want those closest to me to see that I’d be ready to cave in quite so easily after all the things that I’ve said. This is what I’m thinking as I stand in the silver light and breathe in the same air that I used to breathe in when I was a child; the colours and textures and smells that surround me somehow make my senses feel at home: they recognise something here that they have long ago forgotten about.
I push open the gate to my parents’ house, which is sky blue like it always was, and walk slowly up the cement pathway through a clutch of sleeping rhododendrons, their petals blackened by the cold, salty winds. At last something different: the door to the house is no longer red, someone has painted it green – or perhaps I am seeing things in negative. The old windows that used to freeze over in winter have now been replaced by the streamlined angles of modern double glazing, there is a satellite dish anchored beneath the roof guttering. I take a deep breath and ring the doorbell, which plays a cute little tune like this:
I wait: Inside the house there is movement. Through the closed curtains of the front window I see a silhouette climbing wearily to its feet. For no particular reason I look at my watch: it’s now 8:13 p.m. – not, it must be conceded, a particularly hospitable time for a person to be calling unannounced on somebody they haven’t seen for two decades. I can almost see the expression on my mother’s face as she hears the doorbell and stares over at my father, wondering who on earth it could be at this time of night.
I hear the soft pad of footsteps moving towards the front door; I stand stock still as the person at the other side of this panel of wood fumbles with the lock. Then the door swings slowly open and I’m standing face to face with a little old lady with white hair and horn-rimmed glasses. She looks like Peter Parker’s Aunt May. “…Yes?” she asks warily.
It’s the voice that does it, because visually this person is nothing like the woman I used to know, it’s the unmistakable voice: a hint of Devon, a smidgen of some dialect or other that she picked up from some TV programme years ago and imagined that it made her sound better, more sophisticated. It’s her all right. So this is what twenty years can do to you: one wouldn’t have thought it possible that old Father Time could be quite so brutal with his hammer and chisel. My mother must be 65 now – when I last saw her she was a 45-year-old woman struggling to hold off the onset of middle-age; she had dark brown hair then (dyed), and her skin, I remember, seemed surprisingly free of wrinkles for a woman of her age, she wore make-up and lipstick and expensive (by Starcross standards, presumably) perfume to enhance the illusion of youth. Now she looks like my granny – like her mother: she looks like an old woman.
“…Yes?” she asks again.
And now I realise that she doesn’t recognise me, and I’m struck by the tragedy of the whole thing. She doesn’t know who I am: she cannot identify the features of the child that she carried in her belly for nine long months. If this were a movie or a book or something I’d probably be crying right now. Instead, I simply return her blank gaze.
“It’s me…” I say simply.
Now the little old lady is staring at me wide-eyed and suddenly breaking down and sobbing like she did on that phone message last night. The tears are dribbling down her cheeks and her glasses are steaming up. She removes them and wipes them on the sleeve of her cardigan and she says: “John… my god… look at you…”
And this is exactly what she does: she stands there on the doorstep looking at me, occasionally shaking her head sadly, until I begin to get a little self-conscious and I’m thinking to myself: surely I can’t look as bad as that? Finally she makes an effort to compose herself and even offers the briefest flicker of a smile: “You’d better come in…” she says. “…I’m glad you came…” As she finishes the sentence, she holds her arms out towards me – in order to hug me, I suppose – but without thinking I take a step or two backwards and pull away from her and for a moment it looks like someone has just jabbed her through the heart with a meat skewer. Then she reluctantly turns away from me and beckons with her little old wrinkled hand for me to follow her: she’s wearing a gold wedding ring that is too big for her finger. From somewhere else in the house I hear a male voice call out: “Who is it, Susie?”
My parents’ house – the house that I was brought up in – has a fairly straightforward layout: it was built during the late Georgian era and like many of the houses in Starcross was designed for functionality rather than comfort. On the ground floor there is a corridor which leads on to a living room, a kitchen and a small toilet; upstairs there are two bedrooms – one large and one small – and a bathroom. I follow the little old lady, my eyes drawn towards things that weren’t here before: fitted carpets and radiators and pictures on the walls, a cordless telephone, a notice board made of cork. I can’t explain it but these minor changes seem to both hearten and dismay.
I enter the kitchen, which has linoleum tiles that never used to be here and a grubby little gas cooker that did, on which a pan of stew or broth or something is bubbling away. On the sill beneath the solitary kitchen window I notice a large collection of pill bottles and medicines – there are dozens of bottles of all shapes, sizes and colours; they look like part of a display in a medieval apothecary’s cabinet. The room smells… I don’t know… of cabbage or something… but then, come to think of it, so does the rest of the house.
My mother turns and looks at me again, as if she’s trying to check that she didn’t make some kind of mistake earlier on: she’s still not entirely convinced that the heavy-set middle-aged stranger standing in her kitchen is really her son. It would have helped, no doubt, if I could have waved a card at her like people from the gas board do when they visit; maybe I should have brought my passport or driving license with me. “Do you want a cup of tea?” she asks. “Or coffee? …if that’s what you want.”
Brandy would be better… or vodka… or absinthe… or methylated spirits… “No… no thanks…” I reply awkwardly. “I’m all right…”
“Susie!” calls the same male voice as before.
My mother seems a little flustered by the sound. She starts mouthing some words over at me that I don’t understand. While she doing this she starts to look a little like Les Dawsen talking to Roy Barraclough in the laundrette.
I can’t understand you: these are the words that I mouth back at her. I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.
“It’s all right, love,” my mother suddenly raises the level of her voice and aims it heavenwards. “I’ll be up in a minute.”
So what now? I’m standing in the kitchen with a little old lady who used to be my mother. Almost half of my life has gone by since we last set eyes on each other, and a third of hers. I’ve got white hair in my eyebrows and a belly like Giant Haystacks. She’s got bosoms that have dropped down below waist level and she’s started wearing old people’s clothes (Why do old people do this? Will I one day end up wearing old people’s clothes, too? Do you reach a certain age and get ambushed at gunpoint and taken to a secret place and forced to pick out a flat cap and a pair of brown baggy nylon trousers from a great butter mountain of old people clothing?). I can’t deny that over the years I’ve played this current scene out in my mind on more than one occasion; I’ve even had dreams about what it would be like to seek out this forgotten part of my past and find out what would happen. It was never like this, but then it was never going to be, was it?
I open my mouth to speak but before I can begin my mother is raising a finger to her lips and shushing me. I instantly grasp the implications of her action: she doesn’t want me to speak because she doesn’t want my father to hear the sound of my voice, which means that all the phone calls, all the things she said about him changing and suchlike, about how he wanted to see me, are a load of bollocks. The long and short of it is that she hasn’t told him that she’s been in contact with me. Now everything’s suddenly falling into place: it’s the sort of game that she used to play when I was younger. She’s mediating; she’s playing peacemaker. Doubtless she would have warned him if I’d have made things easier for her by setting a date for this meeting, she’d have tried to ease him around slowly to the idea, she may even have been successful. But now she can’t: I’ve cooked her goose and she doesn’t know what she should do next.
I move closer to her, which kind of unnerves me for a moment because she smells just like my mother used to. “Listen,” I whisper. “I’ll go if you like … you can tell him it was a Jehovah’s Witness or something.
“No… no… don’t…” my mother murmurs gently, appearing – I think – quietly thrilled by my unexpected act of complicity, as if she believes that the gulf that separates us has suddenly significantly decreased. “Just wait here – let me have a word with him.”
But I don’t wait here. In fact, as soon as the little old lady has reached the top of the stairs I’m standing in the corridor at the foot of the stairs, my ears peeled. I hear voices: faint because she must have shut the door to the bedroom. I hear the mumble of her voice first: jittery, trying to keep as steady as possible. Then there’s a short silence followed by a grunt of surprise from the male voice: a ‘what?’ or a ‘huh?’. Now it’s her voice again: calm, reassuring: explaining things patiently, soothingly. Another silence. More talking from the male voice, gradually rising in timbre. Then my mother’s voice cuts in and both voices are speaking at the same time, Then another silence. Finally, I hear the bedroom door begin to open and I quickly retreat back to the kitchen.
My mother comes down the stairs like a little old lady, taking three times as long as she used to do to do this. She enters the kitchen looking pale and shaken. “Do you want to see him then?” she asks.
No, I don’t. I’m realising this is I stand in my mother’s cabbagey kitchen; I’m realising this more than ever. “Okay,” I nod.
“Just give him a few minutes to get himself ready,” says my mother.
We remain in the kitchen. My mother puts the kettle on and tries her hardest to avoid my eyes. To fill in the silence she asks: “How are you? What are you up to these days”
I say: “Fine, thanks. Things are okay… how about you?” This response is probably better than: crap actually, I’m thirty-eight and I’ve just lost my job and my girlfriend of six years has pissed off back to her mother’s place because of you.
She says: “Oh… you know… not too bad… considering…”
And then I ask, because I feel I have to: “How is he?”
And she shakes her head sadly and says: “Not good… I had to call the doctor in last night… they’ve have had to increase the drugs, you know…”
And I say: “Right…”
Then, inexplicably, my mother asks: “How’s London?”
And I’m struck by the sheer inanity of the question and half tempted to be nasty. But I don’t – instead I reply: “Fine.”
Am I now expected to inquire as to the health of Starcross? “This place doesn’t change.” I say.
And she replies, genuinely surprised: “Really? …We had new windows put in last March, you know.”
And I say: “No… no… I mean Starcross… Starcross doesn’t change much.”
“No… I suppose it doesn’t.”
The kettle boils and my mother makes me a cup of tea, oblivious, although perhaps understandably oblivious, to the fact that I’ve already told her I don’t want one. She reaches up to the cupboard above the kettle (Let’s see: that’ll be teabags… powdered milk… sugar… coffee… Oxo cubes… salt and pepper…) and pulls out a bag of sugar.
“Hmm… not for me, thanks,” I say, and she turns to look at me, really shocked, it seems, that I’m not taking sugar these days, as if that omission from my diet represents everything that has changed about the world since our paths last crossed.
Then, before she has the opportunity to hand me my sugarless tea, there are three sharp raps on the ceiling above me.
“He’s ready,” my mother announces nervously.
My mother leads the way, her movements in slow motion, her big, fat arse inches away from my face as I stand behind her on the staircase. I can hear my father breathing: a great coughy, wheezy, sick type of breathing; a bit like the way that those old geezers you find sitting alone in the corners of pubs sucking on pipes tend to breathe. Actually, this is a surprise: not so much the breathing but the fact that my father appears to be lying in bed in my room, that is, the room that used to be my bedroom before I withdrew my tenancy. As if she is reading my mind my mother whispers: “We had to put him in there – he was keeping me awake all night with his coughing.”
I pause for the briefest of moments at the entrance to my old bedroom. My father’s bed is partly hidden by the door; I cannot see his face but I can see the small hillock made by his feet under the bedclothes. I go into my old room.
My father lies flat on his back, his head propped up by pillows. At the side of the bed is a stack of dog-eared paperbacks; fixed to the wall opposite where he is lying is a small TV set, giving the place the look of a cheap hotel room; on the shelves where I used to store my own meagre possessions (Spiderman annuals, Matchbox cars, Airfix models) are more bottles of medicine, including, alarmingly, a small canister of… what… oxygen? …with a face mask attached to it. That same cabbage smell again.
My father stares at me. I stare at him. Neither of us says a word. Surprisingly, he looks hardly any different to how he used to: he’s a wee bit thinner, perhaps, and his face seems to have lost a little elasticity; even his hair is more or less the same as it was, a few grey strands here and there but nothing too remarkable. Unlike my mother, the years seem to have been kind to him, externally at least. We stay like this for a long time: the exaggerated rise and fall of his breathing the only sound in the room. Then he starts to speak.
First of all the words won’t come out and all I can do is stand and watch as he takes in a mouthful of air and tries to clear the grit out of his throat. He splutters a little, and then coughs, and then coughs some more. Then, finally, the words are released into the room: “Get the fuck… cough… cough… out of my house!!” he yells.