The Warwick Years
The Shaking Hand ‘You okay Pat?’ Patrick looks at Tom, and says nothing. Tom doesn’t know what more to say. He walks over to the window. The guard looks just a boy. Tom remembers, the guard is just a boy. He probably doesn’t even remember the old days. The other guard is older; but doubtless, too young to have fought when the fight was good, or at least, when it felt right, when all you’d ever shared with the enemy was a language: not pews, pints, mothers and surnames. Tom looks over at Patrick. ‘Donal and Sean should be here by now.’ ‘It’s a bit of a walk over that hill. They shouldn’t be long.’ There is a look of understanding between them. Both know it isn’t true. It was just said to have something said. They left at a quarter past six. It is now half seven. It is not a long walk over that hill. Patrick knows Donal and Sean are taking their time. Good news is delivered quickly. He sits close to the fire. But his hand is shaking. He tries to hide it from Tom, but it doesn’t stop. He finishes his whiskey and pours another. He holds the glass in his shaking hand to focus his attention; but it continues unabated, becoming obvious. Patrick swaps the glass from his left hand, his shooting hand, into his right. His passive hand. The hand he uses to shake the hands of other men, the hand he crosses himself with. There is a loud snapping sound. Tom and Patrick jump to attention. Tom crouches, and shuffles over to the window. He relaxes, looks around at Patrick, and exhales. It’s just the guard boy.
Tom goes out to reprimand him. Patrick sees the bored lad breaking twigs with his feet. He envies his ignorance. Every broken twig, every crunching leaf. The war has taught caution. Ambush is common. Patrick and Tom know this better than any. They have used it more than most. Patrick finishes the measure of whiskey he just poured out. Tom shouts at the boy and tells him to pay attention. He returns to the room. He sees Patrick holding the whiskey. ‘Not too much,’ he says. He takes the bottle. Tom puts it to his lips, and drinks. He gives it back and sits on a chair. ‘You don’t have to do it, Patrick.’ Patrick stares ahead. ‘Yes I do, Tom.’ ‘No. They would understand.’ Patrick remains mute, wiping something from his thigh, something most probably not even there, a cursory action to fill the void of silence. ‘It’s your call, Patrick.’ ‘It’s orders,’ says Patrick, scared himself by how easily he can say it. ‘I can’t put that on one of our lads.’ ‘I’ll do it,’ says Tom. He chokes slightly. His eyes start to moisten and the two of them know it’s not true. Patrick shakes his head. A heavy silence hangs over the room. Peadar Sullivan’s house was always quiet, in this hidden away corner of the hills. But this quiet is different. Not peaceful, but foreboding. Peadar’s widow won’t tell anyone where they are, perhaps now more through fear than loyalty. Patrick looks out of the window, but doesn’t rise from his chair. ‘Where are they?’ says Tom.
The guard boy stands rigid, alert. Tom looks down the path towards the road. He should have seen Donal and Sean meandering around the road by now; but they don’t come. Gleams of light pour through the trees, shimmering on the path leading up to the house. The sun is rising but there is still darkness in the sky. He wishes it would stay put. But today will not be dictated by the rising of the sun. ‘They’ll not be long.’ Tom sighs heavily. ‘If this happens, the Free Staters’ will be all over us.’ ‘Will you look where we are Tom? Crawling around a cottage at the bottom of a hill, jumping out of our skins at the sound of a twig. They’re all over us now.’ ‘You know what I mean. When they find out about Cathal, they’ll turn the county upside down to find us if they have to.’
‘Thomas,’ says Patrick, aware that this is Tom’s way of filling the silence, ‘when the Free Staters lose a man, they shoot three in Dublin. When they find out Cathal Connelly’s dead, they’ll send the whole fucking army to find us. I know what it means.’ ‘He’s no normal soldier now. This’ll go all the way to Dublin. He’s made a name for himself.’ Patrick rubs his chin. ‘He did that alright. He got his glimmer of gold and his green uniform.’ Patrick looks at Tom’s rifle which stands next to the door. When they were lads, they used to shoot rabbits up on the hill. Sneaking around, hiding amongst the thicket and behind the rocks, lying silently in wait. Cathal was good with the rifle; he had a steady hand, a keen eye. He wouldn’t fire until he was certain. Cathal hated wasting bullets. He was pragmatic like that.
‘You know where those uniforms are made?’ says Tom, ‘Britain.’ Patrick looks up. ‘Sure, where in Ireland would you make thousands of uniforms? The country’s on its knees, and for once it’s not priests telling us to heel.’ He looks out of the window and laughs. ‘Ourselves alone.’ ‘I’ll give Cathal one thing. He took his time before picking up arms against his own. He did what he could to prevent it.’ ‘You did so yourself, Patrick.’ ‘But he joined them, Tom,’ says Patrick, as if trying to block out what Tom says, as if searching for a reason for the day ahead. ‘He wanted to play politician up in Dublin. He told me that Treaty was a reasonable compromise. What about Connor? What about Daniel? Did they die for compromise?’ ‘What’s Cathal dying for Patrick?’ ‘Orders.’ He looks out the window, towards the road. ‘Orders, Tom. We have ours and Cathal has his; and we’ll just carry them out till we win or lose.’
Since finding out, Patrick has wondered what this execution is for. In his mind, there is no ‘win’ to be had now. ‘It’ll destroy their morale,’ he says. ‘That’s what the O/C thinks. Just like killing Michael Collins was a blow to morale.’ ‘Will it?’
‘You don’t need morale when you have artillery, Tom.’ ‘So what are we still going for? Martyrdom?’ ‘Sometimes I wonder. We shoot men we grew up with in their beds. They have us blindfolded, shot against prison walls. Maybe that’s what we’re all made for. The Irish. A nation of martyrs.’
Today won’t be a Free State execution. Patrick comforts himself in the knowledge that he will look Cathal in the eye. He’ll do that much for him. He takes a drink. ‘All we have left is choices, Tom, that’s all. Cathal made his and I made mine. And we’ll stick by them. Because it’s the only sense that can be made.’ Patrick raises the glass to his lips. His hand is shaking; but he makes no effort to hide it anymore. He knows Tom can see. ‘My mother would kill me if I let another man lay a finger on Cathal. She’ll wish me dead; and the war will see to that. But I won’t break my promise. Do you understand Tom?’
‘I can’t say I do entirely.’
‘Neither do I,’ says Patrick.
Tom thinks about Cathal. He remembers going to school with him. They are a year younger than Patrick. They used to throw stones at British armoured cars
when they were children, from these very same hills, pelting them before making a dash behind the rocks and gorse. When they were older, the weapons simply became more powerful. He remembers the first time Cathal shot a British officer, back in Bantry. It was Tom’s first time too. It was the same ambush, the same tactics which have ultimately Cathal’s undoing. All the Free Staters’ guns and all their artillery can’t protect them from methods they themselves perfected. ‘You know, sometimes I wish we’d been born twenty years earlier,' says Patrick. ‘I could have been a priest.’ ‘I can’t see you in a cassock, Pat,’ says Tom, smiling for the first time all day.
‘He could have been a policeman,’ says Patrick. ‘Twenty years ago that would have been just fine. That’s how it used to work. Not anymore.’ Patrick finishes another whiskey. Tom takes the bottle from him. ‘It’s not fair to Cathal. If you miss, you know.’ Pat nods. His hand will not stop shaking. Patrick wonders whether Cathal has said anything since the ambush. Cathal might have left letters, he might not. ‘We could stall, Patrick. We could say Donal and Sean didn’t return. Maybe the O/C will change his mind.’
Patrick looks out once again onto the hills, hills within which he spent a childhood now long lost, meandering his way in and out, up and down, playing soldier or hunter or something that was thankfully less real than what is now.
‘No. It’s not fair to the lads to put this off. They need to know where we stand in this war. They need to know that we’re taking them all the way. Besides, there’s too few of us now, to be talking about lost orders. I can’t put Donal and Sean in that kind of trouble. There’d be hell to pay.’ It’s already been paid, thinks Tom. He looks out of the window again. The sun has almost risen. The little hand on the clock in the town hall will reach the hour soon; but the bell won’t sound. They took it out. It scared the people, too reminiscent of the peal of gunfire, the rattle of artillery. Tom has never grown used to it. He looks at the guard boy. He remembers when he was that age. Part of him remains that way. What part of a man grows used to this?
There’s a loud knock on the door. ‘Yes?’ shouts Tom. ‘It’s Donal.’ Donal Sheehan and Sean Callaghan enter the room. ‘Sergeant Connelly,’ says Donal, saluting Patrick. ‘Enough of that. What did they say?’ Donal shakes his head. Patrick looks at the floor, then back up at Donal. ‘Leave us, lads.’ The boys walk towards the other room. ‘And Donal?’ ‘Yes?’ ‘Don’t call me Sergeant today.’
Donal pauses. ‘Yes, Pat.’ ‘Sergeant,’ Patrick whispers dismissively, when he has gone. ‘They have to make sense of it too Pat.’ ‘I know.’ Tom picks up the bottle. He drinks a large gulp from it. ‘I’ll not keep them waiting like this,’ says Patrick. ‘Donal. Sean.’ They come back into the room. ‘Let’s go,’ he says, looking at Tom. The four men walk up the hill. Sergeant Patrick Connelly is flanked to his right by Corporal Thomas Ó Donnabháin and Private Sean Callaghan, with Private Donal Sheehan to his left, the same Corporal Ó Donnabháin and same Privates’ Sheehan and Callaghan he went to school with. Though a year younger, they were all in the same class. The town is too small for each age group to have its own. They are the same boys with whome he learnt to play football and hurling on the field adjacent to St. Marks’. They grew up playing with Cathal. Patrick was better at football, Cathal hurling. Patrick could run fast. He had power. But Cathal had grace and skill. With a hurley in his hands, he was deadly. Patrick could never outfox him on the field. He never thought he could outfox him in anything. Cathal was the brains. They cross the ridge. Patrick looks down the hill. He, Cathal and the other local lads trained on this hill. When the war started, they used it to fire down on
the unsuspecting British troops. Patrick would take the higher ground, looking out onto the road. There was a rock on the hilltop, perfect for a left-handed rifleman. Cathal always wanted this point, but he is right handed. He wanted to lead, to go first and protect the others. Only in bravery did pragmatism fail him. Ultimately, Patrick led the men. He was the eldest, it was his role. Patrick remembers racing Cathal up the hill when they were children, turning round at the top to find him just behind. He wishes his brother had not always followed him so readily now. He trips on a rock hidden in the grass. This land, these hills, they are rocky. Poor for cultivation. With its natural fortifications and vantage points, hill like this are perfect for war. These men were born into a land which is perfect for war. They walk down the hill, towards the house where Cathal has been kept. But they arenâ€™t going there. Half way down, they find him guarded by two men. He stands rigid, emotionless. They are men he knows. Patrick has given Cathal men he knows. Cathal knows the men who will watch him die. He will not die amongst strangers. With a flick of his hand, Patrick signals Sean and Donal to stop walking. They obey immediately. Tom continues with Patrick. When Patrick stops walking, so does Tom. Patrickâ€™s hand has been shaking all the way up the hill. It shakes as he brings his revolver out of his belt, and straightens his arm. Suddenly, it stops. He says nothing to Cathal. Cathal can see his eyes. He nods. Cathal can see his brother. Cathal can see his dead straight hand.
Do You Remember When We Use To Walk Home, Kicking Puddles at Each Other in the Rain? Michael walks slowly, focusing his attention on rolling the cigarette. He tightens it, licks the rizzler along the top edge, making sure it’s not too moist, but not too dry either. There’s an art to it. When he’s happy, he folds it over, sealing the cigarette. He checks it. It’s well rolled. Declan offers a lighter. Michael shakes his head. He has one. They walk along the Kenton Road, past the church where they were made to go to mass two or three times a year with school, up until sixth form. Declan had left by then. They start walking past the last long row of semi-detached houses before the shops, each one more similar than the last. Declan looks up to one of the windows. There is a green flag, with a red dot in the middle. ‘That Indian flag’s been in that window for years,’ he says. ‘Bangladeshi,’ says Michael. ‘Same difference,’ says Declan. ‘No it’s not,’ says Michael, sighing. Declan laughs. ‘You’d know mate. You love them lot.’ Michael lets it go. It’s too late to change his friends now. The Bangladeshi family have always had that flag there. The Indian flag’s similar enough to the Irish that even Declan should remember it. But when he says Indian, he’s not being specific. He doesn’t see much difference between the fellas in the Indian supermarket up the road, and those in the various chicken shops dotted around the
area. Halal is just a word to him which sits beside the bargain bucket ad on the menu. Michael seals the tobacco and puts it in his pocket. Declan could have started smoking by now; but he’s waited for Michael. After all, Michael rolled it. It’s like being in a restaurant, waiting for your friends’ food to arrive. In some restaurants you just tuck in, like a Beefeater. Were it a Marlborough, or a Camel, he’d hand his friend one, lighting his immediately after. Of Course, there’d be no rolling involved, but the point is, it’s a different kind of smoking. Just like a beefeater’s different to going to a good Chinese. Or Indian. Declan lights his cigarette. There’s an earthy, natural taste. Michael lights his too. They start walking at their normal pace. Michael’s freezing in just his leather jacket. Jackets are the source of their friendship. In the early ‘noughties’, bomber jackets were all the rage. The Eisenegger store in Harrow had a permanent, seventy percent sale. Might explain why they went out of business. Michael and Declan got to be friend’s after Michael accidentally ripped Declan’s jacket during lunchtime. Up to then they knew each other but wouldn’t have said they were mates as such. But Michael paid for the repair. Declan appreciated that. And then they were friends. ‘How long are you down for?’ says Declan. ‘Trying to get rid of me already?’ Declan nods. ‘After all the Stella’s I bought last night.’
Martin’s house is further up the Kenton Road. Last night they got pissed in Kingsbury. It’s a shit high street with shit pubs, but Martin had a free house. ‘True,’ says Michael. ‘I ain’t been on Stella much, lately. But I thought I’d rinse you while you’re paying.’ ‘Charming,’ says Michael, ‘I thought you always drank Stella.’ ‘It’s expensive.’ ‘Not when I’m paying.’ ‘You can’t spend all that student loan on books and pencils cases.’ ‘Shut it you chief.’ Declan laughs. ‘I didn’t get a loan for the masters anyway,’ says Michael. Michael walks ever so slightly out of his way to crunch a leaf on the ground, walking in front of Declan as he does so. But Declan would do the same, so he says nothing. ‘I need to save the pennies,’ he says. ‘Now there’s fuck all building work. I ain’t going to stop going out, but they add up, man. It’s cheaper to get Carling or Carlsberg.’ ‘Tastes pretty much the same anyway,’ says Michael.
The look on Declan’s face tells Michael he’s been away too long, tells him he’s about to get a rinsing for saying that, for reckoning Stella’s the same as Carling. Fucking student. Michael can read Declan’s mind. With a shake of the head he more or less apologises and retracts it.
‘When are you going back?’ Declan asks. ‘I’m down for around two weeks I reckon. I want to get back early and try and find a job.’ ‘I can’t wait.’ Michael shows Declan his middle finger. He looks at one of the houses. ‘Do you remember playing knock down ginger on that house?’ ‘I remember me playing knock down ginger,’ says Declan. ‘You pussies were half way up the Kenton Road.’ ‘Fuck off were we.’
The first time Michael’s mum let him walk to one of his mates’ houses after school. He stayed at Martin’s for tea. He didn’t want to get in trouble before even getting there. Declan pulled the fellas wheelie bin down when he ran away. The others weren’t that far away when he knocked on the door. Or maybe they were. Michael laughs. They walk on in silence a few moments. ‘I’ve spunked so much money this term,’ says Michael. ‘Razzle cat.’ ‘I wish. I’ve hardly been out. Bus pass was two hundred and forty five quid. I had to get a new laptop as well.’ ‘Fucking hell man. Two hundred and forty five quid. Still, cheaper than the Oyster.’ ‘You don’t notice it as much when it’s spread out though.’
‘Wouldn’t know mate, I’m rarely on the fucker,’ says Declan. Michael nods appreciatively.
‘I saved up a fair amount before I started the masters,’ he says. ‘But I don’t want be broke at the end of the year. It’s good to have a bit coming in.’ He feels tactless, but Declan doesn’t seem to notice, or ignores it. ‘I know, you saved up loads. We barely saw you. Like Casper, the unfriendly ghost.’ ‘Do one.’ ‘And when you do come out, you’re a tight bastard.’ ‘Who just bought you a pint?’ ‘T-Rex,’ says Declan, laughing. He pulls his hands close to the top of his chest, imitating a dinosaur. ‘Can’t reach your pockets,’ he says, laughing. ‘Rarer than a dodo seeing you buy a pint.’ ‘I’m not tight.’ ‘I’m joking, says Declan. ‘You’re better than me. I just can’t help razzing.’ They walk past the fish and chips shop where they used to get lunch during school break. He sees the middle aged Chinese couple inside, still running the place. Declan doesn’t say anything for a while. Michael turns around. He’s still holding his arms to his chest, waving them about as if trying to get to his pockets, pulling a stupid face. ‘Fuck off,’ says Michael. He swaps his cigarette to his left hand, and punches Declan in the arm. Declan continues grinning, a huge grin. Somehow he keeps the cigarette in his mouth.
‘They must have been running Gooseacre for years.’ ‘Yeah, it’s always packed at lunch,’ says Declan. ‘You can see what little shits we were.’ ‘We weren’t that bad.’ ‘Nah, some kids are well rude to them. We weren’t like that. But we were giddy little fuckers, being allowed out of school for lunch. I can see myself in them when I walk past.’ ‘You can see yourself in ‘em?’ ‘Fuck off. You’re the pedo.’ ‘Leave it.’ Michael doesn’t like the pedo jokes. Just for having long hair when he was eighteen, he got all the pedo jokes. Thank God he cut it. Declan looked like a pikey back then, with his bomber jacket, and his hair gelled in strands. He’d barely recognise himself now, all long hair, skinny jeans and winkle pickers. ‘But I see what we were like. They’re always smiling, that couple. I went there all the time. ‘I just went on Friday’s. Used to look forward to it. End of week treat.’ ‘Mark used to go every day.’ Michael remembers Mark walking around, with his bag of chips, his battered sausage, the little wooden fork you get inside. He didn’t like ketchup. How could you eat all those chips without ketchup? ‘I know man. Don’t know how he was so skinny.’ ‘He’s putting it on now though.’
‘He ain’t that fat.’ They walk past the hospice. It’s always quiet there, despite the main road in front. It was a good idea building a big front garden. They are hidden from the traffic, the noise, rather than the world they are leaving. Michael and Declan walk past the Kings Arms. They cross the road. Most of the shops are Asian, like the grocers. Even the funeral home. There were only a handful of Asian kids at school, and it’s just a few hundred metres away. Wetherspoon’s lies a little further down the road. Kids from their school provide a lot more business there. Michael walks to the cashpoint. He checks his balance. ‘Rich man,’ says Declan, peering over. There’s almost two grand left. ‘It goes fast,’ says Michael. He gets thirty quid out. ‘I may as well get some out now,’ says Declan. He walks up to the Cashpoint. They used to crowd around here nervously, checking their shoes and shirts were tucked in, before going into Spoons, thinking that they’re appearance counted for shit when trying to look over eighteen. Michael catches a glimpse of Declan’s account. £435 DR. ‘Overdraft. Ain’t going anywhere fast mate.’ Michael laughs nervously. Declan takes his money. ‘Remember how much we used get ID’d?’ he says. ‘It was a nightmare. Mark always wanted to go to the hill instead, with those Goth kids.’ ‘Oh yeah, he wanted to shag that Tanya bird. She had a lip piercing man. I don’t get that shit.
Michael laughs. ‘You’d struggle at Uni,’ he says. ‘There’s all sorts.’ ‘Don’t get me started.’ ‘It’s weirder than lip piercings man. There’s a society for Role Playing.’ ‘Sounds like my kind of thing.’ ‘Not that kind of role play.’ ‘What you talking about?’ ‘Like those guys in Games Workshop,’ says Michael. Declan looks at him blankly. ‘You know, the one next to Nandos?’ he says, thinking of the little shop in the town centre, between the restaurant, near the Subway where the rudeboys hang out. ‘Ah, yeah, those dickheads,’ says Declan laughing. ‘They go into the woods and pretend to be goblins and wizards and that kind of stuff. Lord of the Rings shit.’ ‘Serious?’ says Declan, puffing his cheeks in astonishment. ‘Nutters.’ Michael laughs at his friends’ diplomacy. They walk past Wetherspoon’s. It was a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire pub when they were under age. Fifty-fifty. One week you’d get in, another you’d get ID’d. It was a nightmare. Michael kissed Carly Watson outside that pub. No one saw. He didn’t even tell anyone, and she was fit. Strange, he thinks, I never think about her anymore. I was obsessed. Nothing much followed that kiss. Odd how much it affected him at the time.
‘What’s Simon doing now?’ says Declan. Simon’s a mate of Michael’s. He worked in Spoons. ‘He’s at Matalan. Sounds shit.’ ‘It’s something,’ says Declan. They near the traffic light junction. Left is the school, dead ahead is Kenton, and the ‘Joyce’, now McGowan’s’. They always go there before going into town because the Met line runs from Northwick Park. It’s always the same heads though, same pissed up heads.
Right is home. They turn right. Michael’s glad. He can’t be asked with the Joyce at the moment. ‘So, you ain’t got much work at the moment?’ ‘No,’ says Declan. ‘Industry’s fucked. Tons of sites around London, nothing happening. All the investors are waiting for it to pick up.’ ‘It will,’ Michael says, limply. ‘Yeah,’ says Declan, kicking a stone ahead of him. ‘I want to move out. Living at home’s killing me.’
Declan’s done well not to stagnate. At least he doesn’t just hang around shitholes like the Kings Arms. He gets away from the suburbs on a Friday night, even if all he does is wait each week to do it again. Michael thinks about all the things he has to do while he’s home. He might drop in on Ed’s parents.
‘Have you seen Mr and Mrs Harper?’ ‘Not in ages. Mum sees ‘em at mass. Says they seem alright. But you know what they were like. They used to be the life and soul.’ Like Ed. ‘How come you aren’t at mass Declan? You naughty boy.’ ‘I cannot be harrised with that man. Mum still makes me go at Christmas.’ ‘Do you even believe in God?’ ‘No. You reckon that’s got anything to do with Christmas mass? Don’t your Mum make you?’ ‘No.’ ‘Fucking hell man,’ says Declan. ‘Mum would go spare if I didn’t go at Christmas. Easter too.’ ‘I don’t think mine minds now,’ says Michael. ‘But you were born out of wedlock. Your mammy’s just worried about you going to hell, Declan.’ Declan bursts out laughing. ‘Fuck off you chief.’ ‘You’re going to hell, my friend.’ Declan laughs again. Something ahead of him seems to trigger a memory.
‘Can’t believe it’s been four years,’ he says.
Michael looks back. It’s an empty Space Invaders packet. He smiles. Ed would buy a pack each and every day in the little corner shop just past Wetherspoon's. ‘I know.’ The two of them are usually comfortable with silence. They’ve had to be. They’ve known each other too long to be speaking every damn second of the day. But this one is uncomfortable for them. ‘I miss him,’ says Michael, to fill the gap.
‘He was a top boy,’ says Michael.
Flicking the butt of his fag into a puddle, Michael looks back down the road, towards the junction which leads to their old school. ‘We used to walk home this way all the time, even when it was pissed it down,’ he says. ‘Yeah, Mum used to go mental when I got soaked. Like it was my fault.’ ‘Why did we do that?’ ‘The buses were always rammed, man. And full of dickheads.’ ‘I preferred walking anyway.’ ‘Because you always wanted to walk home with that Carly bird, like a gay.’ Michael can’t deny this. He was obsessed with her. The boys used to rip the piss out of him about it, shouting obscenities as they walked together. They were only messing about though. He hasn’t spoken to her for years. The lads outlasted her.
‘Yeah, I suppose I was. Do you remember when we were walking home, on days like this? Kicking puddles at each other.’ ‘Ah, it was brutal, man,’ says Declan. ‘We’d fucking soak each other. Mum used to go nuts. She always knew what we’d been up to. I’d lie about it every time, but she always knew.’ ‘They always do.’ Michael scrunches his nose, looking slightly concerned. ‘You reckon they know what we get up to these days?’ he asks. ‘The naughtiness.’
‘They must,’ says Declan. ‘I know my dad used to do it when he was young.’ ‘Is it?’ ‘Yeah, he’s sort of said it a couple of times. Trying to warn me, without saying it. Do you reckon your Mum knows?’ ‘They must have an idea. It’s just a bit of fun.’ ‘Expensive though.’ ‘Yeah, I haven’t done it in a long while,’ says Michael. ‘Too expensive.’
Declan is inclined to agree. But come the end of the week he says, come the end of the week.....
The puddle stuff was an altogether cheaper form of entertainment.
‘It was always you starting it,’ says Michael. ‘Fuck off was it.’ ‘Mate, you always started it.’ ‘No, Mum used to kill me. I wouldn’t start it.’ ‘You couldn’t help it,’ says Michael, smiling, sure he’s right. ‘You’d see a big puddle, look at my blazer, and, cheeky little fucker you are, dash it in my face.’ ‘Ed was even worse though,’ says Declan, finishing his cigarette with a last, huge drag, a sort of, inhaling sigh. ‘Yeah, he was. Didn’t give a shit about his blazer.’ There is a pause as they come to another junction. They walk past the library, and cross the road. There are three teenagers hanging around a corner, from their old school. It’s half four. Michael’s Mum would have been furious back then, if he weren’t home by now. He looks at Declan. Declan sees exactly the same thing. ‘It’d be hilarious,’ says Michael. ‘They’d beat us silly.’ ‘They’re about fourteen, what the fuck could they do about it?’ ‘Don’t you remember being fourteen? Always trying to prove yourself? You were the worst. Always getting into fights with the year tens.’ Michael beams with pride. ‘Do you remember when you pushed Roland over because you couldn’t be asked with the hassle of asking for it back?’ ‘Remember?’ says Michael. ‘Fucker chased me down the hall after lunch with a stapler.’
Declan bursts out laughing again. They walk past the teenagers without splashing them. ‘He was nuts man. He’s a dealer now.’ Michael laughs, unsurprised. They walk past a row of houses, not far from the turning to Declan’s road. ‘Do you know what you’re doing after your masters yet? ‘I might go Spain for a while,’ says Michael. ‘I picked up a fair bit of the lingo after I went to South America.’ ‘Sounds great. Wish I could do something like that.’ Of a sudden, Michael wishes he hadn’t mentioned Spain, or South America or, thereby, the gulf between which seems to grow wider year by year, a gulf they desperately try to avoid recognising. ‘I’ll see though,’ he says. ‘Not sure yet.’ Michael fancies another cigarette but it’s a cold day and he doesn’t want to make his friend get his baccy out just yet. ‘What time are we going out?’ he asks. ‘Probably leave mine around half seven, same as. Shall we have some brews at mine first?’ ‘Sweet. Are we meeting Mark in Harrow?’ ‘Yeah, whenever he turns up.’ ‘Can’t change old habits.’ ‘I don’t think the pricks ever early, unless his Mum drops him,’ says Declan. ‘I can’t believe he still scrounges lifts.’
They reach the turning to Declan’s road. Declan is walking slightly ahead of Michael. There’s a huge puddle. He must have seen it, must have ignored it as well. Too old for that now. It used to drive Michael mad the way Declan always started it. Declan turns slightly. He sees where Michael’s eyes are looking. ‘Don’t you fucking dare,’ says Declan. ‘I don’t want to get this jacket dirty.’ ‘You love the rain, Dec,’ says Mickey with a grin ‘I’ll love sparking you if you’re not careful.’ Michael thinks about what Declan would do. What he’d really want to do. He wouldn’t really think about it to be honest, he’d just do it. Michael launches his foot through the puddle, soaking Declan all over. Declan turns around. ‘You fucking bell end,’ says Declan wiping water from his face. There is a pause. Then there is a smile. Declan runs back, lamping his foot through the puddle far harder than Michael did. Michael puts his hands to his face, as if by way of protecting himself.
‘Don’t get aggy, son,’ he says, kicking the puddle, two, three, four times. ‘You started it, you started it,’ he says laughing. That he did.
The Crucible You always know what Dad’s up to when he goes into that cupboard, the one built into the wall next to the front door, facing the stairs. Its shutter doors remain unchanged from when we moved in, in the sixties. Having enough space for a cupboard was something worth talking about back then. The phone is firmly attached to the side board between the cupboard and the stairs. We only replaced the old spin dial a couple of years ago. I remember Martin Connelly calling us posh when we got that old phone. Imagine showing a child one of those now. It might as well be a loom. Saying that, my eldest has one, but it’s the thing now, the retro thing. I guess to Martin Connelly we were posh. We definitely felt that way when we got the phone. That was two years after we moved into Shelbourne Place. Two years. Dad saved everything to live here. ‘Dad, what are you doing?’ ‘These came yesterday, see,’ he said. I knew exactly what he was taking from the top shelf. I looked at the faded, coloured coat hangers inside, the same ones that had been there even before fourth October, nineteen sixty, the first date this little semi detached house in Edgware meant anything to me. In his hand he had two Scratch cards. The kind you get in the bad tabloids Mum and Dad read. ‘Dad, I’ve told you, you have to throw these away. They’re a con.’ He was confused. I’ve had this argument with him countless times, but he never seems to remember. He’s determined to make the boys millionaires before he goes. As if he hasn’t given them enough. Dad arrived from Ireland in the forties. He retired in the eighties and never earned a lot in between but he built an environment for me and my siblings to make something of ourselves, without having to break our backs each day. My boys couldn’t have such an easy life if he hadn’t struggled.
He pointed his stubby finger at the premium number. Those fat fingers are still calloused, from years on building sites. He retired over twenty years ago, but those hands, they’ve barely softened. ‘Then you get the prize. They should have something before I go.’ ‘They’ll be fine,’ I told him. ‘You can be sure of that. I’m counting on them to make me a millionaire by the time I retire,’ I joked. ‘They’ve plenty of brains between them. I’m not sure where they get it from.’ He looked over, as if to say it was me. I drew his attention to the scratch card once more. ‘It’s a con, Dad. It two pounds a minute to ring those numbers. They’ll keep you on hold for an hour, then give you some plastic jewellery.’ I took one of the Scratch cards out of his hand, and pointed to the small print. Of course, he can’t see it at his age. Christ, I can’t see it at mine. But I like to think he trusts me when I walk him through these things. When I explain them. He looked closely, though I knew he couldn’t see. ‘Bleddy thing,’ he said. ‘It’s ok, Dad. You just have to throw them away.’ He wouldn’t. His generation never throws anything away. ‘It’s a complete con.’ It’s true. They’re complete bastards these people. They know exactly what they’re doing, preying on the vulnerable. There must be thousands, maybe millions, just like Dad, who think they’re in the money. Poor man, he just wants the boys to be rich. I don’t want them spoilt with money, but then, it’s easy to say that when you haven’t had to struggle for it. Dad didn’t raise us to think it’s the most important thing in the world. But he knew what it was like to have none. It wasn’t easy being Irish, when he moved over. People forget that now. They were hated. If you kept your mouth shut, and just got on with things, you’d be alright, but that wasn’t always so easy, given the national disposition.
‘I wish I’d more to leave them.’ It’s not as if he has nothing to leave behind. There’s the house of course, but that’s being left to Me, Mary and Calum. He’s always wanted it this way. I’m glad inheritance has never caused problems in our family, like it does in others. Like it did when my husband’s mother died. I’ll invest my share in the boys’ future. Part of me never wants to sell it though. It’s not a nice feeling, knowing you’ll have the sell the house you grew up in. Not as bad as planning your parent’s funerals, picking their plot for them, helping them update their Will. Dad originally wrote it in the eighties. My children, my nieces and nephews, they weren’t even born then. I’m glad he trusted me to amend it, I’m glad my siblings did too. But it’s not nice. I don’t like thinking what it will be like when they’re not here, what I’ll do without them. ‘Dad, don’t you worry about the boys. I won’t let them starve.’ He looked around. ‘Daryl’s very thin.’ Of course, Daryl was fine. He’s just a skinny teenager. Dad’s taken me into the hallway a few times, voicing concern over his weight. He’s convinced Daryl’s malnourished. I could get offended. But he had twelve siblings, only nine of whom survived childhood. A skinny child was a sick child in those days. When I was growing up, Dad always seemed big, but he wasn’t a huge man. Sure, he’s plump now, but he’s several inches shorter than me, and I don’t think he was ever that tall. It’s why he wasn’t allowed to join the police force in Israel, when the new state was set up. He never told me that. It was one of those things he revealed out of nowhere, to one of the boys, while watching television. I think it was Daryl. Apparently they’d recruited in Ireland. It’s funny how he never mentioned it before. ‘He’s eating fine Dad. He’s the best appetite of all of them.’
This was a lie. Dad said Michael ate too much before as well. He certainly has the biggest appetite, but it’s best to exaggerate. It gets through to him that way. He smiled slightly, and looked out of the window. There’s nothing out there, except George’s wall opposite, but he just wanted to look outside. He can stare into space for ages. I guess it came from rarely being idle, from working so hard. He savours being able to just stare, to do nothing. ‘I’m losing my marbles,’ he said. He’s halfway there already. I’d never tell him that. He’s the stoic one of the two, himself and Grandma; but I know he is scared. I don’t know what to do about my father, him being scared. What does one do? ‘It’s alright Dad,’ I said, ‘you’ve got Mum. I’ll lose my marbles before she does.’ He smiled. This much was, and is true. ‘She never forgets anything,’ he said, happier. ‘She knows all the addresses back home.’ Ireland’s still home. They notice the changes back there more than those in Edgware, where they’ve lived for over fifty years. Last time they were back, Dad noticed Tim Casey’s pub was a video shop now. It hadn’t been Tim Casey’s since the late eighties. He died a long while back, but to Dad it’s still his place. Edgware’s changed far more in those years. It was very Jewish when we moved in. I used to work in Marks and Sparks. You’d get a lot of Jewish customers. They could be very demanding, shouting and pointing if you weren’t quick enough, or doing what they wanted. It drove me nuts. I didn’t like them. But often, and I mean often, I would notice something strange on their flailing or pointing arms. The tattoos. I didn’t mind their complaints so much then.
Edgware’s changed over the years. It’s very mixed now. Whenever I drive through it, I can’t help but notice to change. Daryl tells me I say it all the time, that I repeat myself. He tells me I’m becoming like Grandma. Had I not clipped him around the ear that one time, I would be inclined to disagree. ‘She’s sharper than any of us,’ I told Dad. Dad’s never seemed to notice Edgware changing. He sees the same streets, the same buildings, refusing to take in the changing owners or occupiers. One time, he went to the hairdressers. It’d been years since his last haircut. He came back, happy enough, but commented that there were a lot of black men in the hairdressers, in fact, only black men. He’d gone into an African barbers. Fair play to them, they cut it for him, and he was happy with it. He just didn’t realise that the barbers that had been there twenty years before wasn’t going to be the same now. I looked at his hair. It was getting wiry again, and he needed a shave. ‘I hate that bleddy thing,’ he said, when I brought it up. ‘I’ll do it for you, it needs doing.’ He grumbled, but I knew he’d let me. He didn’t have a choice. ‘Mum’s never let you off without shaving.’ Mum sat in her chair, in the living room. I’ve never told Dad how much that modern chair cost, with its gadgets and its adjustable positions. It’s more than he paid for the house. As you walk into the hallway, the stairs are just to your right, the living room door to your left. There’s a long mirror on the wall. Mum always wanted me to put my make up on there before going out. I didn’t like wearing make-up. She was a glamorous lady. Still is. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her out of the house without a handbag, though she never really needs it now. She’s far more relaxed in her old age.
‘Mum won’t be seen out with you if you don’t shave. You know what she’s like.’ Dad laughed. They don’t go out much anymore, but the point had been made. I knew he’d relent now. When we were children, Mum was always rushing around, cleaning, cooking, scolding, soothing. The only time she sat down was to smoke. She gave up in time, I can’t even remember when. It was just gradual. Her fingers were always so soft. I don’t know how. They were never idle, those slightly yellowed hands. Whenever I smell a cigarette, I think of her smoking, when we were children. I haven’t smoked in years. But it’s her I remember when I catch the scent. Sometimes, I used to wrap my husbands’ arms around me, and pull them close to my face, just to smell the tips of his fingers, to remind me of my childhood and the house I grew up in. Dad walked over to the stairs, just opposite the cupboard. He bent down towards the vertical part of the carpet, third step up. He pulled out an envelope from underneath. I wonder how much money they keep there. It’s the last place a burglar would look; but I don’t like it being so near the door. It has a strange pattern that carpet. Even in the seventies, when it was bought, it looked old. I’ve never understood that mixture of brown and purple, or what those shapes are meant to be. I doubt a burglar would look under there, but I still don’t like it. ‘Here,’ he said opening the envelope. He rummaged around it for a few moments, ‘here, see.’ Dad pulled out two twenty pound notes. ‘Dad, what are you doing now?’ I said, smiling. ‘Give these to the boys,’ he said. ‘Dad, they get pocket money. They’ll be wanting it bumped up if you give them any more.’ He chuckled, but pushed the notes forward insistently. ‘Alright Dad,’ I said. ‘You are a sweetie.’
He is. He always has been, but I didn’t notice it growing up. I guess because he had to do all the telling off as well. He’d done his shift, raising me, Mary and Calum. He’d done what he had to. He’d taught us values, respect. All he’s had to teach his grandchildren is which biscuits and sweets are in which cupboard. ‘Where’s my pocket money?’ I joked. He looked upset. When I went to university, he was reluctant to help with money. Dad was old fashioned, even then. He didn’t think education was for girls. He helped in the end though, he gave what he could. But he’s always felt guilty about his reluctance. ‘I’m joking, Dad,’ I said, touching his shoulder. He was the proudest man at the university the day I graduated. ‘You’re too good to those boys,’ I said, and he smiled again. Sometimes I don’t let him give them so much money. But today, I didn’t feel like telling him off. One twenty here won’t ruin the boys. I hope they know it’s not just Granddad who gives them money. Half the time he’s sent out there by Grandma. I always make sure they kiss her goodbye and thank her too. They’re good lads, they don’t really need telling. ‘It’s the fourteenth?’ he asked, peering at me with his old, blue, watery eyes. It was. The fourteenth of November. I was surprised. Dad often forgets what day of the week it is. This date is special, but I still didn’t expect him to remember. ‘Yes, Dad, fourteenth of November.’ He started fiddling about with something on the top shelf of the cupboard. I was worried his mind had wondered again, that there were more scratch cards. Instead, he pulled out a set of rosary beads. He didn’t show me though. He just put them in his pocket, and looked out of the window. ‘I think about him every day.’ ‘Thank you, Dad,’ I said with a smile. He couldn’t see. I hoped he could hear it in my voice. It’d been twelve years since Patrick’s death. I’d been to mass in the
morning. I didn’t need to tell Dad that. The boys had come too. Daryl’s stopped going to mass, but he came for me. I suppose my generation sees it as a choice. It wasn’t like that when we were younger, it was more about tradition than anything. Daryl came, for me, and to light a candle for his Dad, even if it was just a flame to him. Michael still comes to church. I don’t know what he believes, but I hope he feels he can choose, that he doesn’t have to come. My eldest had work. But he called me. They’re good boys. Dad reached out behind him, trying to grab something. Again, I thought his mind had wondered, perhaps back to the scratch cards. But no, I was wrong. It was my hand. He didn’t grab it as such in the end; but he found it, and sort of made sure his hand was on my arm, like letting me know he was there. Dad loved Patrick. They’d always got on well. I felt blessed. They’d go to the Tip on Saturdays to get rid of something, and come back with more useless tat, certain they’d find a use for it. I miss my husband. ‘I pray for him.’ Michael came out into the hall. He’d either been sent for cake, or wanted some squash. I didn’t want to start crying. He’d think I was upset. I wasn’t. I was grateful. I don’t think my middle and youngest boys understand yet that not all tears are bad. ‘Michael, darling, put the milk in the fridge.’ Dad had forgotten to take it from the porch. He took off the latch to the main door, which was on despite our visit. It helps remind Mum and Dad to keep it on at all times. He opened the door, picked up the milk and went to the kitchen. I didn’t say anything about Michael’s father while he was getting his squash. Michael returned shortly, but went to sit in the front room with his brother and grandmother.
‘Thank you, Dad.’ He didn’t say anything after that. He looked at me for a moment, than back out of the window, towards George’s wall. ‘Come on Dad,’ I said, ‘your tea’s getting cold.’ He nodded, and walked with me into the living room. The boys were sitting next to each other, their Grandma in her chair. They were watching the snooker. O’Sullivan was playing Hendry. O’Sullivan potted a red from a cute angle, taking his time with the shot, as if listening to the gentle clicking of the old clock in the living room. He was having a good day. You could see it in his stride. He went straight for the black, though the pink would be easier, got it, and moved on to his next red. ‘He’s playing well, Grandma,’ said Daryl. Dad was now in his chair, eating his mints. He gets through them by the bucket load. I think we’ll have to bury him with a packet. I have to joke when I think about them going. I don’t like thinking about it. Grandma didn’t reply. ‘She’ll not hear you now,’ he said. She has the better hearing, but when O’Sullivan plays, it’s impossible to get her attention. He chuckled. The boys laughed. Grandma just carried on watching O’Sullivan. Dad’s still sharp when he wants to be. It’s a shame the way his memory’s. going, but it was nice to see him like his old self for that moment. I’ll miss it when he can’t be like that anymore. He watched the snooker, eating his mints, contented with himself. I smiled, though he didn’t see it. I watched the telly. O’Sullivan went for another difficult red. He got it.
Fridge Magnets Sean put five beers in the fridge. He held the door open, stooped down, and placed them carefully like skittles. Sadie slid past, between his outstretched backside and the kitchen work surface. She was wearing his shorts and a T-Shirt he had owned for years. His ex-girlfriend used to wear that one too; but he never told her that. She looked good in it, better than his ex. He wasn’t kidding himself. She did. She’d been dressing like this all day for some time now. ‘Don’t they usually come in sixes?’ she asked, looking in the fridge. ‘Usually. But usually and always aren’t the same.’ She knew where the other beer had gone. She looked out the window towards the car.
‘How was the drive home?’ ‘Fine,’ he said, ‘same as always. No traffic,’ he added, as if justifying what he’d done. ‘Good. How was work?’ ‘Not bad. I was out in Alperton today.’ ‘Where’s that?’ ‘Alperton, you know where Alperton is.’ She looked at him blankly. ‘Near Greenford. If you get the 79 you go past Greenford to Alperton.’
‘I never get that bus,’ she said, as if he were accusing her of stupidity. ‘I know; but you must have before. I’m sure we’ve got that bus together before.’ ‘I don’t think so,’ she said. He wasn’t sure either. He’d just said it to say something.
‘How was your day?’ he asked her, envious of her casual attire. It was clear she had been sitting around watching television. She looked sexy though, in that baggy t-shirt and shorts. The t-shirt tightened slightly around her breasts. He felt aroused looking at her. But then he began thinking about her lazing around all day, and then he felt irritated. ‘Good,’ she said, picking a magnet off the fridge. The letter was ‘a’. She looked at the other letters, searching for a consonant that would help make a funny, vulgar, or cute word. She gave up and put it back; but not where it had been before. What had read as ‘Sean is lame,’ was just ‘S an is lame.’
Sean’s little brother had done that. Little. He was twenty one. But still the baby. It was three weeks since he’d done that. Sean didn’t know why they left the letters that way. Perhaps he liked the immaturity. It reminded him of how he used to be at that age. Sadie found it funny too. It reminded him why he loved her. Why he still loved her. They shared a sense of humour. But he didn’t feel so young now.
‘My day was fine. Quiet.’ He didn’t want to push her. But he had to. ‘Any luck with the job hunt?’ She looked defensive. There was silence. She still didn’t look at him. She carried on staring out of the window. ‘No. Not much. The computer was being really slow. You should get a new one.’ You should get a fucking job, he thought. It’s pushing six months. How can we afford to get a new computer when you’re sitting around all day not working for Christ’s sake? ‘We can’t afford one’ he said. He didn’t want to push too hard. Besides, it wasn’t her fault the people who ran Woolworth’s screwed everything up.
‘So what did you do at work?’ she asked, though in four years she really hadn’t learnt anything about carpentry. ‘Lots of planing,’ he said with a hint of enthusiasm in his voice. She liked it when he liked his jobs. ‘And a lot of measuring for the door frames their putting in. It was good. Easy day. But the couple want everything done a specific way.’ ‘Pass me a beer,’ she said. He moved towards the fridge; but was thinking to himself that it was he who had paid for them. And he didn’t like thinking that because it had never been this way before. He’d buy her anything, if he had the money. He wished he could give her the world. But six months. Shouldn’t she have work by now? Was she freeloading? ‘Sure,’ he said. He even opened it for her, thinking it was better to leave things unsaid, that it would prevent things from happening. ‘Was it cold today?’ she asked inanely. She’d have known if she’d left the house. ‘It’s November.’ ‘Yeah but still….’
He felt guilty, making her trail off like that. But it was a stupid question. ‘It wasn’t too bad. There’s no central heating in the house yet but they’ve put in lots of the insulation. There’s a good bit of warmth. ‘Oh good.’
She walked over to the table. She sat down, crossed her long legs and began flicking idly through a trashy magazine. He remembered her legs being the first thing he noticed when they met. Long, perfect legs. Their first meeting was unromantic, in a local club with poor R and B playing in the background. Their dates were better. A drink in a fancy wine bar, dinner in a pizza chain, and eventually a movie, where at one point they held hands. After that, they gradually just spent more and more time together until it felt normal to call themselves a couple. He looked at her flicking through the magazine, moving her leg back and forth as she did so. He found her as attractive as always. That wasn’t the problem. Perhaps it was him. No, if his physical appearance was the problem, she’d never have gone out with him. He wasn’t deluded. With his strong shoulders and firm physique, he could count himself as fairly good looking. But he wasn’t that attractive and he hadn’t let himself go, so attraction couldn’t have been the problem.
The problem was that the sound of his beer can opening and the sound of Sadie flicking the thin pages of her magazine felt more natural than conversation. Their conversations had been forced for months now. He warmed his hands on the radiator. They always stayed cold, long after the rest of his body had warmed up. It was freezing outside tonight. That first beer helped warm him up on the way back. He shouldn’t have. But the day had been colder than he’d let on. ‘Have you eaten?’ he asked, breaking the silence. It felt uncomfortable to talk over the gentle hum of the refrigerator, the quiet gurgling of the radiator. ‘I had a bite earlier. I’m not hungry.’ ‘What did you have?’ he asked. ‘Some crisps. I’m not hungry,’ she said, her voice urging him to drop it. ‘You should eat something proper.’ He was getting worried by her laziness, or what he at least considered laziness. ‘I’ll cook you something,’ he said. He was no cook; but any meal was better than none. ‘I said I’m not hungry, Sean,’ she shouted.
He threw his hands in the air. ‘You can’t live on crisps. You need to eat properly.’ ‘Why?’ she said, pushing away the magazine. ‘It’s none of your damn business.’ He looked surprised. She saw this and grew angrier. ‘Stop telling me what to do.’ He gripped the nearest chair with his left hand and his beer can with the right. A glug of alcohol spilled out and onto the floor. ‘You don’t do anything.’ It filled the room. It was the loudest it had been in months, maybe over a year. They’d had parties here, they’d argued once or twice here. They’d had sex here. But that was all so long ago. Before she lost her job, before rumours that the company was going bust began to circulate. When the rumours started, their relationship became strained. Just as they were getting their finances back in order, just as things were picking up again. Since then it had been indolent silence and murmured, empty conversations. ‘What?’ she asked rhetorically. Her horrified tone suggested not so much surprise but rather anger that he’d dared bring it up.
‘You just sit around doing nothing all day Sadie,’ he said. ‘You’ve barely moved from the sofa to the fridge.’ She stood up. ‘How dare you. I lost my fucking job. It wasn’t my fault.’ ‘It was six months ago,’ said Sean. ‘What have you done about it? Why don’t you go and find one?’ ‘You think I haven’t been looking?’ ‘No,’ he interjected, ‘No, you haven’t. Not for ages. It’s a tired excuse Sadie. The company went bust six months ago. You stopped trying after two.’ It was an estimate, one said in anger. But Sean figured it was about right. ‘You think you’re so fucking special because you’re still working. It’s not easy out there. There aren’t enough jobs to go around these days. Watch the news.’
The radiator made another gurgling sound, hot water rushing through it. He wondered if she’d had the heating on all day. It was justified. He never wanted her to be cold. It wouldn’t be cold at work.
‘You think I don’t know how bad it is?’ There’s three men getting laid off a week. Everyday we’re waiting for that phone call, telling us there’s no more work. And what happens if I’m not working. What will we do then? We’re up to our eyeballs in debt as it is. We’ve already had warnings from the repo men.’ ‘Well, we wouldn’t be in so much debt if it wasn’t for you’ said Sadie, the smooth skin of her forehead wrinkling, her tanned complexion turning red.
‘What?’ said Sean?
‘It’s an expensive habit Sean,’ with the tired sound of someone whose said something they can’t take back. He wrinkled his nose, frustrated with this being brought up again. ‘I quit a long time ago. You did it too.’ ‘I gave up long before you, Sean,’ she said, ‘It was me who got you off it.’ This, he couldn’t argue with. She’d made him realise that it wasn’t fun anymore, that it was a habit. But she played her part in the problem too. She indulged for a long time. And she wasn’t working six days a week to make it go away, like he was, six days a week to help them survive.
‘It was ages ago,’ said Sean. ‘And so was Woolworths. Stop acting like it was yesterday. You can’t keep wallowing like this.’ She pressed her fingers into her head, shaking with anger. ‘Stop talking to me like that. Like I’m a child.’ He looked at his beer. God, he wished he was drinking that instead of having this tired old argument. Even on this cold night, the cool beer looked appealing. Anything was better than this argument, this long awaited argument. ‘You’re acting like one. Pretending it’s ok to walk around in your pyjamas all day. You say you’ve been looking for work. I haven’t seen any evidence.’ Sadie pointed a finger at him as she screamed her reply. It was the angriest he’d ever seen her. ‘Oh fuck you. You don’t know anything. Sorry for trying to dress comfortably.’
She pulled off his t-shirt and threw it at him, standing only in a blue bra and panties. ‘Happy now?’ ‘You know that’s not what I mean,’ said Sean. ‘Put it back on.’
He threw the T-Shirt to her and immediately regretted it. Amidst all the shouting and the anger, he did not want her to be cold, yet he had managed to make it come across like an order. ‘Don’t tell me what to do,’ she said, interpreting exactly as he’d feared. There were tears on her eyelids. They hung there for several moments, before flooding down her cheeks. She picked up a glass. She aimed for the wall next to Sean; but her aim was amiss. It always had been. He’d liked that. They used to play tennis and football in the park on Sundays, when they were both off work. When weekends used to be her only days off. Her co-ordination was atrocious. He found it cute. The glass veered towards Sean, landing on the left side of his head. The glass cracked. Blood began to trickle down his cheek, like the tears in Sadie eyes, like the sweat on Sean’s beer can. Sean clasped his hand against his head and screamed in pain. The shattered glass lay all over the floor. He looked up at her. He stepped over the broken glass and moved towards the doorway where she was now standing. Sadie wasn’t scared of him. He wouldn’t do that. She was scared of what she’d done, what would happen next. She paid deference to his anger, and unblocked his path. ‘Sean, wait, please, I didn’t mean….’
But he had left, slamming their bedroom door behind him. She stood outside crying, clutching the T-shirt.
Sadie woke up on the couch. It felt strange. Usually it was the man who was locked out, left to sleep on the couch, though they’d never been in this situation before. She wondered whether the bedroom door was still locked. She was worried. Sean wouldn’t go to the doctors for such a ‘minor’ wound. He always thought he could treat these things himself. Sadie worried throughout the night whether he had bled heavily, whether he needed stitches. He’d never accept that it did. She got dressed. She had some clothes in a bag. They were in the hallway since a visit to a friend in Leeds. Sean had asked her to move them several times. She left the house with some CV’s. Sean woke up a while later. His head was hurting but the cut had been surprisingly small considering how much blood there was at first. It didn’t need stitches, he was sure of that. He’d seen enough wounds on sites to judge. He looked around to see if Sadie was still in, if she’d cared to see how he was. He left early for work, even though he didn’t have a job until eleven today.
The repo men came at half ten. Sadie and Sean were behind on several debt payments. No one was in. They knocked seven times. Paused. Knocked again, louder, for longer. They informed Sadie and Sean that they were here to speak to them. They said they’d be back. They left a note too. They came back at one. They knocked again, even louder this time. They informed the residents that they were coming to repossess some of their belongings. Sadie was still out. Sean was at work. The flat remained as she left it. The glass was still in the bin, waiting to go out, her bag was still waiting to go back in their room, which was now open. The magnetic letters on the fridge said, ‘Babe. I’m so sorry. I Luv U.’ It remained to be seen whether Sadie would arrive back before the repo men came for the fridge, thus having to hand it over. Or would Sean come back early, as he had planned, and at least get to see Sadie’s note before they took it away?
Train in the morning, pick up the kids from school, play with them, have tea, get them to bed and then watch a bit of TV
Gerry ‘d got up at six thirty almost every day for the last nineteen years. He rubbed his eyes. It was five thirty now, but he couldn’t sleep any longer. Turning over, he saw Mary, and wished he could lie next to her all day. But he had work, and she’d be up soon enough, getting the kids ready for school. Some mornings, he wondered whether they should move closer to work. Looking out the window though, towards the field, where the sun was beckoning, he thought it was a good place to grow kids. He laughed to himself, remembering his grandfather’s odd turns of phrase. Gerry often woke early at this time of year. He never let on that he was stressed, even to himself. But it was there. His boss was demanding, particularly at
this important time, but it wasn’t him he feared. He’d known the man longer than he hadn’t. The stress came from the millions of nameless faces, who watched him, judged him week in, week out.
He walked into his study, or office, as he called it. It was more a gallery than anything. Gerry rarely used the computer, or even sat at the desk, but the room’s name kept the kids out. He never minded having them around, or rarely at least. He was most happy in their presence, but it was good to have a space when he needed to go over finances, or any other important business. He walked around, looking at the photographs. Most were of his family. On the desk was one of the few exceptions. He picked up the frame. The sun outside snuck underneath, onto his thigh, making the red hairs glow. It was his favourite photograph. He found this odd, as it wasn’t one with his family. He looked at the child, kneeling down, a small, uncomfortable smile on his lips, the proud eyes as he wore that shirt. Gerry had signed his first contract that day. The man behind grinned, glad to have finally contracted Gerry.
Gerry had been trained and moulded since the age of fourteen. He was a bright talent, though it had still been a risk. Some said he was too small. He was asthmatic as well. There were worries his health wouldn’t tolerate the pace of the professional game. But he did. He owed it to that man behind him in the photograph, for the faith he held. The man could be cold, Gerry knew. He seemed driven only by success. Had Gerry not fulfilled his potential, they would not have spoken again over all these years. He liked that. It was what it was. Gerry put the photograph back on the table and looked at some of the others.
There was an inhaler on the shelf. He must have left it there a while ago. Gerry didn’t often idle time away staring at the photographs. He inhaled once, and put it back. It could have been very different. He knew the kind of life he’d have led if he hadn’t been able to play, or at least he half imagined what kind of life that would be. He would have started hanging around outside with his friends, smoking and drinking in the evenings, perhaps in the days too as he got older. There was little else to do where he grew up. But then, Sean started doing all that, and he’d been the one with the most promise. Gerry’d been smart enough to make sacrifices.
He needed to get hold of Sean. Hopefully he still had the mobile Gerry had given him. It was Mum’s birthday soon. Gerry needed to ensure that Sean would call, let her know he was doing alright. He wondered if his success made it worse for Sean, if it had caused him to spiral the way he did.
Gerry looked at a photograph of his grandmother. It was a year since she had died. He remembered the game he had played just two days later. He’d done well. He was rewarded well enough in his job not to let family matters affect him. He felt he knew the fans by now, how unforgiving they were, how little a man’s family meant to them if results went badly. Gerry understood why fans couldn’t see him as a normal person. He walked over to the far wall. Mary had pressed him for years to put a cabinet there. Not now, he thought. When it’s all done, when I’m finished, and
perhaps still wish I’m playing, maybe then. He wouldn’t savour the achievements until it was impossible to add to them.
He opened a chest on the floor. This is where he kept the medals. Ten league titles. The cup, three times. Europe, twice. He felt some pride, and was unable to fight it, knowing these years were drawing to a close. Perhaps one more, maybe two. His shelf life had exceeded all expectations, even his own. He was starting to picture the cabinet. But he closed the chest. There were ten days of work this year, and two games. Ten days work, two days play.
Gerry arrived before anyone, but still late, by his standards. The air was crisp, though cold for May. His legs shivered. He checked no one was watching, though he knew it would be a good ten, fifteen minutes before others arrived. He checked again, more thoroughly; then pulled the pack of cigarettes out from under his shin pad. He had no intention of taking it up properly, at his age. He couldn’t keep going if he did. But over the last year or so, he wondered if it had all been worth it. Everything said yes, of course. The wealth, undeniably. It was easy to criticise the professionals for loving the money but then, the journalists rarely came from the sort of background where wealth was an alien concept.
The fame he disliked, but he knew how envied and lucky he was. The titles, the adulation. He wasn’t a vain man, but vanity wasn’t a choice. Sometimes he could not help but feel good because of it.
Yet he sometimes wondered, more became curious, as to what it would have been like, to have lived a normal life. To have gone out at weekends with his friends. To have taken holidays where people usually go, and not worry about being seen. He flicked the lighter, amateurishly. Sean would laugh, watching his younger brother’s poor attempt to smoke. Gerry never had more than one a day, just before training, and only then once, maybe twice a week. It wouldn’t inhibit him, even with the asthma. He took his second drag. Too much. He coughed. Gerry wondered what the fallout would be like if he got caught. The papers would lap it up for a week or so; Gerry Collins, the clean cut midfielder, smokes!
The boss would go nuts, the lads would rip him for it, for all that talk he gave about commitment, dedication. But it would die down. The younger lads would say he was having a mid life crisis. Mary would explode. He stubbed it out.
The others arrived in dribs and drabs, each at their usual time, give or take. Their lives were run like clockwork. The younger players had everything done for them. They couldn’t cook or clean, they were bubble wrapped. Gerry worried how the game was going. Even in his earlier days he’d been a throwback, it was said. He shook his head, laughing as one of the younger boys pulled up in yet another new sports car. He was followed by Mark Cox, no less flashy, always one of the last to arrive. But he’d been here as long as Gerry, they’d grown up in the club together. They were fundamentally different, yet just as successful. Cox loved the money, the cars, the adulation, but he was like Gerry. He worked hard, he understood it meant nothing really, at least not until it was over.
Gerry enjoyed training that morning. The boss made it hard for them. He hadn’t mellowed over the years. Gerry had seen players come and go, fall in and out of favour, in and out of the fans’ love, but the boss had remained constant. He was not warm, but knew when to smile, and when to shout. Whatever got the job done. That last final in Europe though, Gerry thought, it was more than a job done. There was something, just a glimmer in the way the old man looked at them. Something approaching feeling, gratitude even. Gerry enjoyed training, because he exceeded himself. As the younger boys came through, and grew in confidence, they’d started ribbing him for his age. He enjoyed the enthusiasm with which they did that. He enjoyed putting them in their place. He tried to tell himself it was for their benefit, that his example would help them. But here too, vanity played its role. He was proud to have lasted this long. Gerry tried to put the thought out of his mind. There were two games left. These practice games, the drills, the hours listening to the boss, watching videos of opponents, they were the work. The games were the product of that work, though it was all anyone ever saw. It was the weeks of training which earned Gerry the right to run around a green field for ninety minutes each week.
As he showered, he thought about the session. It had gone well, though he tired towards the end. The others didn’t notice. He could still outdo himself, still shine in training, but he knew in himself, those slight twinges in the hamstrings, the extra seconds it took to get his breath back after outpacing a twenty year old, they were getting worse, and longer. While dressing, he looked at the clothes the younger players wore. They wasted their money. Then he thought, most probably, they are paid to wear these
clothes, or given them. Gerry didn’t like doing endorsements. They made him feel cheap. But it paid for his children’s future. It had paid to keep Sean out of trouble, many times over, and to keep Mum afloat. She wouldn’t let him buy her a large house; he knew not to challenge her pride. But she accepted small amounts here and there, when they could be taken without their dire need to be spoken. Gerry hadn’t spoken to his father in thirteen years. The papers thought it the only blemish on his perfect character, as if it had anything to do with him. Gerry ignored the papers. He did not give interviews.
Gerry hated cashpoints. Most of his teammates barely knew what one was. But his mother would never accept a cheque. She didn’t like banks. Still, he didn’t like giving her cash, not on the estate. People knew whose mother she was. There’d been smashed windows before, but any trouble was quickly put down by the lads with whom he’d grown up. He admired how they retained control, despite the young ones seeming to grow rougher with every passing year.
He withdrew the cash, glad no one else was there to recognise him. He was always polite. It was a tiny price to pay, for what he had been given. Gerry drove to the hills, and looked out over the city. It was quiet. He took out the cigarettes. He’d not had two a day yet. He felt like rewarding himself for keeping up with the youngens’. No rewards, he chided himself, not until it’s all done. His mind, body and resolve were all weakening. He was still a young man. He would do something afterwards where his age was a thing of value, not wonder. He took out one of the cigarettes. Not a reward, just fun. Gerry rarely allowed himself to have fun. He placed it back in the carton. The kids, they would smell it. He smiled and got back into the car.
Gerry enjoyed collecting the children from school. The eldest was at the age where she found it embarrassing. She walked straight from the school and got inside. He liked this, he understood how it worked, and was proud of the way she was growing. She was never rude. Gerry liked the other children’s parents. They respected his privacy, for the most part, particularly the mothers. He’d given most of the boys in the school his autograph by now. The fathers were the worst. Most tried to make small talk with him about the game. He didn’t mind, but they were aliens. It reminded him how different he was. But it was sweet, in its way. They sounded like their sons when they spoke to him. No one was ever unkind.
Gerry felt lucky. Some players received abuse in the street. Perhaps there was something about him that people liked, even when they were jealous, even when he played for a team they hated. The bricks through Mum’s window weren’t because of who he was, but for the money they thought she had because of who he was. He hated the kids who’d done it, because it was his Mum, but he understood, he had grown up there. He owed the game a lot for saving him from that. It could easily have been him. It had often been Sean.
The eldest didn’t come out to the garden after school anymore. She was growing into a young woman, in her eyes at least. But she was, he knew. It would not be long. The younger two still enjoyed playing in the garden, with their father. Football, usually. He could not help it. He tried to play the games he thought their gender warranted, but he was set in his ways, in that way. The game was all he knew, the game and this, in front of him. The girls, and Mary. He told himself
often, it could have been a house on the estate, they were all he needed. But he knew that was foolish, wrong even. He was grateful for all this comfort. He knew he didnâ€™t need it, that he just needed them, but the game had given it to him, and he savoured it.
Once they were asleep, he allowed himself a couple of hours in front of the television, with Mary. She was asleep on his shoulder. Her day must have been hard, he thought. Gerry admired everything she did. He considered going out to the car, and getting those cigarettes. Heâ€™d never done anything risky in his life. Gerry worried. Where was this desire for change coming from? The end was near. The constant in his life was drawing to a close, and he had not seen it as the constant all these years. It had been just a job. But he had enjoyed it, and when it was gone, he worried it would become his life. A life already lived. He carefully freed Mary from his embrace and left her asleep on the sofa. Gerry walked towards the front door. He looked through the window, though could not see much but blurred colours through the obscured glass. He chose not to go out to the car. He walked upstairs, into his office, and looked at the photographs. He went over to the far wall, and lifted the chest. Gerry looked in, closed the chest, and sat on it. It was dark but moonlit outside. He could just about make out the photograph on the desk. Gerry stared at the young lad, and the boss. Perhaps there was pride in the smile. Perhaps he was not so different to the boy in the photograph. It would not be long now.
The Queen of Hearts When Tina first came to the house, she was surprised that the owner had gone through an agency to find her. It looked like the sort of place which had butlers. Tina wasn’t sure if anyone still had butlers, but it looked like that sort of house. It was huge, with bay windows on either side. The brick work was old fashioned, but attractive. Tina stood at the front door for a couple of minutes before knocking. The door alone was huge, red, with a large, ornate knocker. There were flowers festooned over the door and the left side of the house had well maintained vine leaves, which looked straggly on most houses. In fact, as she looked around, she noticed just how beautiful the front garden was. There was a small rose bush in the centre, pink roses blossoming fully in the summer sun. She was nervous, but she’d been out of work for fourteen months, and resolved to hide it. ‘Come in,’ said the person who greeted her, a woman in her fifties. ‘Are you Mrs Heath?’
‘No, I am not. She’s in there,’ she said pointing down the hallway, and to the left. She left before Tina had a chance to say anything. The floor had a maroon carpet going down the middle, with gaps either side exposing the dark veneer underneath. The two contrasted, Tina thought. She walked down the long hallway, and noticed that there were no photos on the wall. It appeared desolate and bare.
‘Hello,’ she said, entering a grand living room. There was an old woman, sitting in a chair. She was playing cards, and did not look up. ‘Hello, Mrs. Heath?’ ‘The bin in the kitchen is full, and the upstairs bathroom is a state. If you don’t want me to repeat these words to another girl next week, I suggest you get a move on.’ Tina nodded. She wasn’t sure, but for a moment she thought she’d curtseyed as she left the room. The kitchen was comparatively small, but well kept and picturesque. There was a range cooker, just like her grandmother had had. Tina opened the doors and found it very clean inside, there were signs that it had been used. All the worktops were clean, but there was dust on the higher cupboards and the wooden shelves behind her.
‘I’ve emptied the bins, and the bathroom is cleaned Mrs. Heath,’ she said, sometime later. ‘I’ve also hoovered the upstairs carpet. Would you like a cup of tea?’ Mrs Heath continued playing Solitaire as she spoke. ‘The carpets in this house are clean.’
She drew an eight from the deck, placing it below a nine which was already there. ‘Yes. Tea,’ she said, placing a Jack of Clubs below a Queen of Hearts. Tina looked at the cards, laid out as evenly on the table as they would be on a computer screen. ‘I’m terrible at Solitaire, can never get my head around it,’ she said. ‘Patience.’ ‘Sorry, Mrs. Heath?’ ‘Patience. The game is called Patience. I am losing mine.’ Tina left to get the tea.
‘There you are Mrs. Heath. Is that okay?’ Mrs. Heath sipped it. ‘If okay is the standard you wish to achieve, we are going to have problems young lady,’ she said, moving another card. ‘It will do.’
Tina felt the band which kept her long blond hair tightly held back. She thought a strand of hair had come loose and worried what the old woman would think. ‘Yes Mrs. Heath. Is there anything else I can do for you before I go?’ ‘No.’
Tina left, unsure whether she was wanted back on Thursday. She heard nothing in the intervening days, and so returned. Mrs. Heath was in the same chair, still playing Patience, and barely acknowledged Tina’s arrival. A young man left the house as she arrived. Tina thought it might be Mrs. Heath’s grandson, though he looked like he was wearing some kind of uniform. She thought it best not to ask, and got to work with her cleaning, though there was little to do. Mrs. Heath was right. The carpets were spotless, as were all the work surfaces. However, Tina started to notice a pattern around the house. The floors and surfaces were very clean, but anything higher was dusty, from the windows to the cupboards and shelves in the kitchen, so Tina began to polish them. The landing was large but, again, sparse. Where there should have been photos, or at least ornaments, there was nothing, save for a vase in one corner, on a table next to the window. Tina looked out onto the garden. Like in the front, it was perfect. She was sure it could win awards.
‘You have a lovely garden Mrs. Heath,’ Tina said when she went to see if she wanted anything else. At last, the old woman looked up. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘it is a lovely garden.’ ‘How do you keep it so beautiful?’ Mrs. Heath’s face soured. ‘The gardener. You must have seen him.’ Tina looked around the sitting room. There was a television, but she imagined it was never turned on. Even in here, there were no photos of family or
friends. There was two large bookcases either side of a large fire, but no evidence of a life led, no fragments of her existence. ‘Oh yes. He passed me in the hall. I thought it might be your grandson,’ she said, though she wondered now whether Mrs. Heath had ever married. Tina was new to the agency. Perhaps they sent someone around on the first day to make sure she turned up. The woman had been so abrupt, and cold. ‘Does he look like my grandson?’ Tina felt stupid. She’d seen his uniform, but could think of nothing else to say. ‘No, Mrs. Heath. Sorry. He seems to be a very good gardener though.’
‘He doesn’t have a clue what he is doing. The chrysanthemums are wilted, the Roses are over fed. But,’ she said, moving a card from the one side of the table to another, ‘he has yet to completely ruin it.’ ‘Have you always had a gardener Mrs. Heath, or did you used to keep it yourself?’ Mrs. Heath looked up, irritated. ‘No,’ she said, vaguely. Tina chose not to ask which question this referred to. There were three empty bedrooms upstairs. The beds all looked like they’d been made years ago, and not touched since. One of the rooms was clearly a girl’s. There was a small, old music box on the windowsill, with a ballerina inside. Tina never cleaned these rooms, they didn’t need it, and she was surprised they were left open, given how guarded the old woman was. There was one room which Tina was told never to go in, and that was Mrs. Heath’s. The door was always shut.
It was dark in the sitting room. Tina offered to turn the lights on. ‘Are you saying there is something wrong with my eyes?’ ‘No, Mrs. Heath. Sorry. It’s just very dark in here. It must be my instinct. My son hates the dark. I’m so used to switching lights on all the time, I don’t know when to stop,’ she said laughing. Mrs. Heath was not amused. ‘I am not your son, young lady.’ ‘No, Mrs. Heath.’ ‘You should not make assumptions. You are not good at it. You should stick to what you are good at, whatever, if anything, that may be.’
Tina considered not coming in on Monday. But looking out of the bedsit window, towards the park, she knew she had to, for her son. She felt the stem of the flower she kept on the kitchen table, and watched him playing on the kitchen floor. Mrs. Heath wasn’t in on Monday. Instead, the cold woman who’d met her on that first day was there. ‘My mother will be back in about twenty minutes. She is at the doctors.’ She wore pearls and a dark black dress. Her hair was blonde, and set above her head. ‘Hello, are you Mrs. Heath’s daughter?’ ‘Do you think she lets just anyone walk around her house?’ It was definitely her daughter. ‘I’m here to drop off her shopping.’
‘Does she have a way of getting back from the doctors’ surgery? I can collect her if it would help.’ The woman looked at Tina coldly. ‘The doctor will drop her back. The family doctor.’
Tina was polishing the banisters upstairs when she noticed Mrs. Heath’s room was open. Either she’d left it that way when she went to the doctors, or, more probably, her daughter had been in there. Tina looked out the window from the front bedroom, to make sure Mrs. Heath wasn’t back yet. It was clear that she had three children, though Tina guessed other than the daughter, they did not come back often. Mrs. Heath’s room was in total contrast to the others. There were photos everywhere. Almost all of them were of a handsome man. In some of the pictures a young and admittedly beautiful Mrs. Heath was next to him. In spite of the smile, it was clearly her. Mr. Heath was a pilot. The Battle of Britain had been coordinated from Bentley Priory, just down the road. Tina didn’t understand what the epaulettes meant on his shoulders, but she could tell from the number that he was important. There was only one picture of a child, Mrs. Heath’s daughter, which sat on its own on the dresser. Tina heard the front door open and, as quietly as possible, left the room, closing the door behind her.
‘Ah, you must be the cleaner,’ said the doctor as he came into the kitchen to make Mrs. Heath tea. He was quite old himself; but far more mobile. Still, he appeared too old to be a practising doctor. ‘I’m very sorry,’ he said in a hushed whisper, ‘but she doesn’t do names.’
‘Tina,’ she said, extending her hand. ‘How are you finding it?’ he asked. Tina paused for a moment. ‘Difficult?’ ‘She’s very cold.’ The doctor laughed. ‘Cold’s not the word. Maggie’s always been hard work.’ He paused. ‘Oh, don’t ever call her that. It’s Margaret. In fact, best to stick with Mrs. Heath. Try not to let her bother you. She’s been much worse since Alfred died, but she was always difficult.’ ‘When did her husband die?’ ‘Five years ago. We were friends during the war. I was the doctor on the base.’ ‘How did he die?’ ‘Old age, Dear. He was ninety six.’
Tina looked around for a moment. ‘I don’t think she even checks what I’ve done. She never leaves that chair.’ ‘Oh, she leaves it alright. She’s up at seven, every morning, and cleans as much as she can herself.’ ‘So why hire me?’ said Tina, surprised.
‘Margaret was always very proud of this house. She thought it was her role to keep it tidy, to keep it perfect for Alfred.’ ‘But why am I needed?’ ‘Because you’ve the shoulders for it,’ he said, pointing to them. ‘Her arthritis doesn’t allow for high places. She can whizz that little dust buster around the carpet, but anything she has to stretch for is beyond her. The carpet itself was only put down because the floors were unsafe. Not enough grip. She hates it, but we insisted. Have you met the daughter?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Hermione’s too much like her mother for them to get along. But she does care about her. It’s about dignity to her as much as anything. Essentially, you were hired to keep up appearances.’ ‘I see,’ said Tina, beginning to understand. ‘And the garden, it’s always perfect, did she used to tend to it?’ ‘Alfred did. It was his pet,’ he said, with a laugh, the laugh of a man recalling an old, departed friend. ‘This garden boy’s the best she’s had. He’s been here a couple of years now. But no one’s ever going to reach Alfred’s standards in her eyes. He used to love talking about flowers and plants when he had free time. Even during the war, when he was quite young. It took his mind off everything. He made a lot of tough decisions,’ the doctor said, trailing off into his own thoughts.
‘Did they move here during the war?’
‘No,’ said the doctor, looking up again. ‘He was in the service beforehand, so they’d been here a few years by then. The house has hardly changed since I’ve known them. She’s kept it as close to the way it was when she and Alfred moved in.’
The doctor picked up the cup. He spoke clearly, sure that Mrs. Heath wouldn’t hear him.
‘Talk to her about the garden. She loves it. Just don’t mention the gardener. She likes to think it’s still Alfred out there, keeping it the way it was.’
The doctor took the tea into Mrs. Heath, and then came back. ‘You’ve done well to last this long,’ he said, laughing. ‘She must like you, as much as she is able. Not many people can stomach her attitude.’ ‘I can’t afford not to, Doctor.’ ‘Tina, wasn’t it?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I’ll see you next week, Tina.’ ‘Thank you, Doctor.’
Tina emptied the bins, though they had little in them, and wiped down the already clean surfaces, before going into the sitting room. ‘Good morning, Mrs. Heath.’
The old woman did not look up, but nodded slightly. Tina walked over to the window, and drew back the curtain. Mrs. Heath looked up. ‘It’s very dark in here.’
She looked up now, a face of thunder bedevilling her chin, her eyes squinting with affront.
‘Don’t you want to see those lovely flowers?’
Mrs. Heath stared at her for a few moments, before returning to her game of Patience. There was a fresh rose above the fireplace, in a china vase. Mrs. Heath’s flowers always looked fresh. ‘Mrs. Heath, your flowers never seem to wilt. You keep them very well.’ ‘Flowers never die in my house,’ said Mrs. Heath. ‘How come, Mrs. Heath?’ ‘That boy,’ she said coldly. ‘I have him replace them every few days. Flowers do not die in my home.’ Tina looked at the flower. She wanted to touch the silky pink petal, but didn’t. ‘The flowers don’t die in my house either.’ Mrs. Heath looked up again. She put down her cards. ‘No?’
‘No,’ she said, smiling. ‘They’re plastic.’ The old woman scowled, picking the cards up again. ‘Don’t you have cleaning to do?’ Tina smiled. ‘Yes, Mrs. Heath.’
Tina cleaned the windows so it almost looked like they weren’t there. The gardener was here today, quietly going about his work. Having finished, she realised Mrs. Heath’s bedroom door had not been closed properly. Inside, one of the pictures of Mr. Heath hung slightly crooked. She thought it possible that Mrs. Heath did this on purpose, to catch out intruders. Remembering what the doctor said, she reached up to the picture. Tina corrected its position, and gently removed dust from the glass. ‘Will there be anything else, Mrs. Heath?’ she said, walking into the living room. The old woman was less abrupt than usual, and took a few moments to answer, in the meantime moving a three of diamonds below a four of clubs. ‘No.’ ‘Ok, goodbye then. See you on Thursday, Mrs Heath.’ said Tina.
She heard Mrs. Heath mutter ‘plastic flowers’ dismissively as she left, and carefully closed the door, a light smile on her lips. •
Tina sat at the table, on the uncomfortable plastic chair in the small kitchen, looking out towards the park. Her son, Frankie, was playing with building blocks on the floor. She smiled at him as she held her pay check. ‘We might be able to move out of here soon, Frankie,’ she said.
He didn’t answer, but continued playing. ‘That park would be nice to go to though, maybe we’ll stay put for a while. We’ll be spoiled with money if we stay here,’ she said, laughing. The child smiled, but didn’t know why. Tina picked up the plastic flower on the table. It was kept in a clear vase, in water, to look authentic. Mrs. Heath must have an awful lot of money, she thought, to keep having those flowers replaced. • Tina enjoyed the doctor’s visits. He was always very friendly and gave her support and advice as to how to deal with Mrs. Heath. ‘Why do her sons never visit?’ she asked one day. ‘Would you? If you didn’t have to?’ Tina laughed. ‘No, but, they’re her sons.’ ‘Since Alfred died, they don’t come around much. She always expected too much from them. She wanted them to be like him, and they weren’t.’ ‘There aren’t any photos of them,’ said Tina. ‘But she keeps their rooms very tidy. I haven’t cleaned them at all.’
‘There’s plenty of photos of them. But not on the walls. She keeps them locked away. It hurts her to see them, knowing they won’t be coming around. She’s stubborn, but she’s not a monster. As for the rooms, I think that’s her way of keeping them in her mind. If only she hadn’t needed them to be so much like Alfred.’ ‘She really loved her husband didn’t she?’ ‘Margaret idolised Alfred. Everyone looked up to him on the Base. She’s very proud of that.’ ‘My husband was a soldier too.’ ‘Was?’ said the doctor
‘Yes. Was.’ ‘I see,’ he said. Looking at him, Tina believed that, had he been wearing a hat, this aging, kindly old doctor would have taken it off. Instead, he picked up his coat, looking down briefly, and flung it over his arm.
‘My Dear,’ he said,’ if you ever choose to tell Margaret your husband was a soldier, don’t say he was a soldier too. She won’t like that.’ He smiled. ‘You know how she is. Alfred was a pilot. To her there’s a big difference. No offence.’ Tina, understanding fully, returned the smile.
‘Thank you, Doctor.’
As time passed, and Mrs. Heath’s health continued to fail, Tina began to do more and more for her. The old woman’s hostility softened somewhat, though Tina didn’t know if this was due her more frequent visits or Mrs. Heath’s need for her.
Alfred’s grave was in Clamp Hill, not far from Mrs. Heath’s home. Tina drove up the narrow road, to the far end of the huge graveyard. Parking where there was space to move back out, she walked the final hundred yards. She placed the flowers exactly as instructed, roses at the head of the grave, tulips at the foot. Mrs. Heath hated tulips, but Alfred adored them, and for that she would compromise. On the first and third Thursday of each month, they were placed there, below the roses Mrs Heath wanted. Tina made sure the flowers were how she’d been told to arrange them. Contented, she opened the car door, but did not get in. She took out a plastic bag, and walked to the other side of the graveyard.
Private Smith’s headstone was very clean. It had only gone in a short while before, replacing the wooden crucifix. Tina was determined to keep it that way, though she knew its sheen would fade over time. She took the plastic flowers out of bag, and placed them just below her husband’s name, and the date he had died. She stepped back. She looked at it a moment, then at her watch. Tina walked fast towards the car.
Mrs. Heath would probably want tea when she got back.
Blades It is the last day of what has been a rollercoaster season. City are expected to cruise to victory over relegation threatened QPR. Who knows what will happen. I have learnt to expect the.... well, I shall not finish the clichĂŠ, knowing full well your distaste for clichĂŠs. What happens next is unexpected. Oh yes, they manage it; but they leave it late, with many twists and turns. Like so many things in life, the manner in which events unfold is gripping, torturous and magnificent. They will go from a goal down, to a goal up, all in the space of two minutes. In mere moments, failures will become victors, victors failures.
Every now and then they grant you an insight into the everyday goings on at a football ground, the ol’ bread and butter, the men behind the magic, as if it’s the groundsmen who make it all happen. Well, I suppose in some minor manner, it is.
I even did an interview yesterday. I know, me, who can barely string a sentence together. They asked me about my methods. They asked me what I reckoned on the score, they asked me who my favourite player was. There is an eerie silence. I can hear the quiet, continual droning of the city in the distance. The four sides of the stadium block out much of the noise; but there remains a quiet rumble. I think of you and I think of my world here and how decisions find their way of being made; and must comment on how rare it is for their reason or direction to be clear. Your secret is safe with me. I just think of you, that’s all. I’m not going to say always. Your intense disliking for the word has not left my memory. I remember. And some things are best left unsaid. I suppose the eerie quiet of the stadium, the thinly trimmed grass, if I’m being honest, brings some comfort to my heart, which remains, as always, in a perpetual state of bickering with my head.
It was Old Ben Thompson who gave me the job here, tending the field. I’d been at small clubs all my life, as you well know. Shrewsbury, Oldham, Stockport.
Respect where it’s due, they were great teams. They are great teams. My old man was a Hatter. You’re old man was a blue, wasn’t he? I wonder if he’ll smile today. But then, you never did believe in all that. Football. Afterlife. When I think of the afterlife, I think of your mother, not my own. I wonder, feeling the breeze on my arms, as the sun hides briefly behind one of the few clouds in the sky. I wonder. Is it time I sought her out again? My mother, that is. But no, I can’t. Cast us out on our heels, she did. Cast us out without a moment’s thought about where we’d sleep, about what might happen to us.
I never blamed your Mum. She was weaker than mine, if you’ll forgive me for saying so. She’d gone quietly about her life, bringing you up after your dad was gone. She was a meek and wonderful woman. But my mother, she was strong. She could have stood by us. She didn’t care for what others said. It wasn’t them that made her do what she did. But, well, let’s not speak of my mother, lest I tremble. The line whites are glowing. I’m a superstitious man, as you know. I left nothing to fate. I applied them in exactly the same way I have the previous eighteen matches. We’ve not lost a game. Do I sense a raised eyebrow? It’s not like I reckon it was me who won it.
You should see the players, it’s electric. The unity, the togetherness, the spirit. But, in my own little way....
Always the outside first. I do it twice over, going steadily at exactly three and three quarter miles an hour. Then, the middle. The centre circle comes next, followed by the penalty boxes. I have to go out of my way with my method; but nothing is left to chance. Nothing in the routine can be altered. I loathe change, I loathe inconsistencies. I feel like part of the team, in my role, just like the holding midfielder, or the stalwart defender. They have a mercurial striker, I’m sure even you have seen him on the back, or more often the front, of the tabloids. I dislike his style. It is erratic, it makes me nervous. But I am drawn to him in some way. Chaos is magnetic, even when it is unwelcome. For all their egos, their money and their celebrity, they are good boys, the players. They give me the time of day. They say hello, they ask after me. I feel like family here. Man needs family. I understand. This is mine.
Remember when we visited Scotland? Closest I ever felt to free, that was. No eyes, no possibility to be seen. It wasn’t freedom as such, no, of course we had to be careful, as always. People are wary of that sort of thing, as your mother put it, god may she rest. But at least they were strangers, there.
We took in a match, remember? I can’t even recall the teams now, strange as it seems. Me, not being able to remember? I know. But it’s true. Something about that trip makes those teams disappear from my mind. I remember telling you how I admired the pitch, admired what they’d done, given the conditions. Up there, in the cold and the snow. What did you tell them you were doing up in Scotland? They knew I was going. Did you grow tired of excuses and lies? I know I did; but where I was tired, I didn’t know you were so torn.
I often sit here, just thinking, once my work is done. Never the same seat but always the same stand, on one of these blue seats. I think of time and I think of you and I think of change. Lives changed today. Some for better, some for worse, most not at all really. But it feels like everything. Such is football’s majestic curse. You’ll never understand that and I can’t decide if you’re lucky or not. There are things I’ll never understand, like decisions, though I understand they need and needed to be taken. Today’s losers may take lessons, may grow stronger, may be kings one day yet. But others will be moved on, will be deemed surplus to requirements. Too old. Too weak in the pass, too wooden, too unreliable. Defeat brings out what is most brutal in men. Calculation. Today’s victory has had a big impact on my happiness. Never thought I could support this team. I still can’t quite understand the feeling I have when I watch them, the deep desire to see them win. Change. I cannot understand it.
Family. A wife. I do hope youâ€™re happy, John. I do understand your choice, your choosing change.
I should go. My hand grows cold, my writing becoming erratic, physically and otherwise.
Do me a favour. Tonight, flick on the TV, watch the highlights. Just sit down, watch the BBC. Tell me, silently of course, did I do a decent job? Think of me in a brief, quiet moment, as you sip a beer. Tell me how those lime whites look, in the resplendent mid-May sun. Does the grass look good? Are the blades cut fine? Is the pitch a pitch deserving of champions? Tell me these things, John. Tell me what you see, in front of you. Tell me what is real. Speak to me of what is, not what might have been.