Cars queue bumper to bumper, edge forward, stop, edge forward again. Resting his bare arm along the open window, Nick drums his fingers. The Bigg Market on a Friday night. Litter of chip cartons, crushed lager cans, a gang of lads with stubble heads and tattooed arms looking for trouble – and this is early, it hasn’t got going yet. Two girls stroll past, one wearing a thin, almost transparent white cotton dress. At every stride her nipples show, dark circles beneath the cloth, fish rising. One of the lads calls her name: ‘Julie!’ She turns, and the two of them fall into each other’s arms.
Nick watches, pretending not to.
What is love’s highest aim?
Four buttocks on a stem.
Can’t remember who said that — some poor sod made cynical by thwarted lust. Nothing wrong with the aim, as far as Nick can see – just doesn’t seem much hope of achieving it any more. And neither will these two, or not yet. The boy’s mates crowd round, grab him by the belt, haul him off her. ‘Jackie-no-balls,’ the other girl jeers. The boy thrusts his pelvis forward, makes wanking movements with his fist.
Lights still red. Oh, come on. He’s going to be late, and he doesn’t want to leave Miranda waiting at the station. This is her first visit to the new house. Fran wanted to put it off, but then Barbara went into hospital and that settled it. Miranda had to come, and probably for the whole summer. Well, he was pleased, anyway.
The lights change, only to change back to red just as he reaches the crossing. Should be easier in the new house – more space. In the flat Gareth’s constant sniping at Miranda was starting to get on everybody’s nerves. And Miranda never hit back, which always made him want to strangle Gareth, and then it was shouts, tears, banged doors: ‘You’re not my father …’ So who was? he wanted to ask. Never did, of course.
Green – thank God. But now there’s a gang of lads crossing, snarled round two little buggers who’ve chosen this moment to start a fight. His fist hits the horn. When that doesn’t work he leans out of the window, yells, ‘Fuck off out of it, will you?’
No response. He revs the engine, lets the car slide forward till it’s just nudging the backs of their thighs. Shaved heads swivel towards him. Barely time to get the window up before the whole pack closes in, hands with whitening fingertips pressed against the glass, banging on the bonnet, a glimpse of a furred yellow tongue, spit trapped in bubbles between bared teeth, noses squashed against the glass. Then, like a blanket of flies, they lift off him, not one by one, all at the same time, drifting across the road, indifferent now, too good-tempered, too sober to want to bother with him. One lad lingers, spoiling for a fight. ‘Leave it, Trev,’ Nick hears. ‘Stupid old fart int worth it.’
He twists round, sees a line of honking cars, yells, ‘Not my fucking fault!’ then, realizing they can’t hear him, jabs two fingers in the air. Turns to face the front. Jesus, the lights are back to red.
By the time he reaches the station he’s twenty minutes late. Leaving the car in the short-stay car-park, he runs to the platform, only to find it deserted. He stands, staring down the curve of closed doors, while a fear he knows to be irrational begins to nibble at his belly. A few months ago a fourteen-year-old girl was thrown from a train by some yob who hadn’t got anywhere when he tried to chat her up. Miranda’s thirteen. This is all rubbish, he knows that. But then, like everybody else, he lives in the shadow of monstrosities. Peter Sutcliffe’s bearded face, the number plate of a house in Cromwell Street, three figures smudged on a video surveillance screen, an older boy taking a toddler by the hand while his companion strides ahead, eager for the atrocity to come.
Think. Hot day, long journey, she’ll fancy a coke, but when he looks into the café he can’t see her. The place is crowded, disgruntled bundles sipping orange tea from thick cups, shifting suitcases grudgingly aside as he edges between the tables. A smell of hot bodies, bloom of sweat on pale skins, like the sheen on rotten meat, God what a place. And then he sees her, where he should have known all along she would be, waiting sensibly beneath the clock, her legs longer and thinner than he remembers, shoulders hunched to hide the budding breasts. She looks awkward, gawky, Miranda who’s never awkward, whose every movement is poised and controlled. He wants to rush up and kiss her, but stops himself, knowing this is a moment he’ll remember as long as he’s capable of remembering anything.
Then she catches sight of him, her face is transformed, for a few seconds she looks like the old Miranda. Only her kiss isn’t the boisterous hug of even two months ago, but a grown-up peck delivered across the divide of her consciously hollowed chest.
Feeling ridiculously hurt, he picks up her suitcase, puts his other arm around her shoulder, and leads her to the car.
Fran becomes aware that Gareth has come into the room behind her. He moves quietly, and his eyes wince behind his glasses, no more than an exaggerated blink, but it tweaks her nerves, says: You’re a lousy mother. Perhaps I am, she thinks. She’s failed, at any rate, in what seems to be a woman’s chief duty to her son: to equip him with a father who’s more than a bipedal sperm bank. Of course she has supplied Nick, but he’s bugger-all use. Fantastic with other people’s problem kids, bloody useless with his own.
Back to the shopping list. Bran flakes, bumf, toothpaste, toothbrush in case Miranda’s forgotten hers, air freshener, vinegar, potatoes … Something else. What the hell was it?
Gareth blinks again, breathing audibly through his mouth.
She’s tired of the guilt, fed up to the back teeth with attributing every nervous tic, every piece of bad behaviour, every failed exam to the one crucial omission. Nobody knows. Suppose it wasn’t the absence of a father, suppose it was the presence of two mothers? God knows her mother would sink anybody. And the alternative – which it suited everybody to forget – was the North Sea or the incinerator or whatever the bloody hell they did. And he’d come within a hair’s breadth – literally – of that. Lying on the bed, already shaved, when she decided she couldn’t go through with it. She started to cry, the gynaecologist hugged her – and later sent her a bill for 150 quid. Must’ve been the most expensive hug in history. And then she got up, walked down the long gleaming corridor, and out into the open air. She stood outside the phone box for half an hour, a cold wind blowing up her fanny, before plucking up the courage to ring Mark at work. Put on hold for five minutes, she fed ten pees she couldn’t afford into the box, and listened to the theme song from Dr Zhivago. When Mark finally came on the line, he said, ‘I knew you wouldn’t go through with it.’ Typical. Mark had to be in control, had to know what other people were going to do before they did. Later, in bed, he said, ‘Fran, there’s no need to worry. I’ll marry you. I said I would and I will.’ ‘You needn’t,’ she said, pressing her hand over the place where the baby was. And he didn’t. Gone before the hair grew back.
‘Gareth, what do you want?’
Gareth’s thinking how ugly she looks, with her great big bulge sticking out. He wonders what the baby looks like. Is it a proper baby with eyes and things or is it just a blob? He’d watched a brill video at Digger’s house, when his mam and Teddy were still in bed. A woman gave birth to a maggot because her boyfriend had turned into a fly or something like that, he never really got the hang of it because Digger kept fast-forwarding to the good bits. And the maggot was all squashy when it came out, and they kept looking at each other to see who’d be the first to barf but nobody did.
‘What are you staring at?’ Fran asks sharply.
‘Have you done your homework?’
‘What was it?’
‘When’s she coming?’
‘“She’s” the cat’s grandmother.’
‘When’s Miranda coming?’
A glance at the clock. ‘They should be here now. What did you have to do?’
‘The Great Fire of London.’
‘I thought you’d done that.’
‘Not with Miss Bailes. Why is she?’
‘Why is she coming?’ Fran hears herself repeat in a Joyce Grenfell comic-nanny sort of voice – she can’t believe it’s coming out of her mouth; this is what having kids does to you – ‘Because it’s her home.’
A derisory click of the tongue. Gareth edges closer, scuffing his sleeve along the table. In a moment he’s going to touch her and, God forgive her, she doesn’t want him to.
‘What’s wrong with Barbara?’
Fran opens her mouth to insist on some more respectful way of referring to Barbara, then closes it again. How is a child supposed to refer to its stepfather’s first wife? ‘Auntie’ Barbara sounds silly. And ‘Mrs Halford’, though technically correct, doesn’t sound right either. ‘She’s ill.’
‘What sort of ill?’
Fran shrugs. ‘Ill enough to be in hospital.’
‘How long’s she coming for?’
Yes, Fran thinks. Shit. ‘I hope you’re going to make more of an effort this time, Gareth. You don’t have to play together—’
‘We don’t “play”.’
True, Fran thinks. Gareth’s obsession with zapping billions of aliens to oblivion hardly seems to count as play. ‘You’ll have to be here to meet her when she comes, but —’
‘Because I say so.’
He reaches her at last, rests his hand on her shoulder for a second while she sits motionless, enduring the contact. After a while the small warm thing is lifted off her and he goes away.
‘Sorry I’m late,’ Nick says, heaving Miranda’s suitcase into the boot. ‘Traffic’s terrible.’
‘’S all right.’
He knows she’s hoping for something to happen, a cup of tea, anything, to prolong the time alone with him before she has to face Fran and Gareth. Well, it can’t be like that. ‘Did you have a good journey?’
She gets in, clicks her seat belt. Sighs.
‘Is term over?’
‘I don’t know. I missed the last few weeks.’
‘Because of Mum?’ Nick, craning to see over his shoulder, delays reversing. ‘How is she?’
He looks at her shuttered profile. By no possible standards can a woman confined to a psychiatric hospital for an indefinite period be described as ‘fine’, but then Miranda knows that. ‘Fine’ means: You no longer have the right to know.
‘How’s Grandad?’ she asks.
‘Not good. Operation tomorrow.’
A pause. Typical of Miranda that there’s no automatic expression of sympathy. ‘Will I be able to see him?’
‘Maybe in a few days. He’ll be pretty rough to begin with.’ He glances sideways at her. ‘Is Mum very bad?’
‘No, she’s fine.’
A pursing of the lips brings the conversation to a close. Though very shy, Miranda can be formidable. And perhaps she’s justified in refusing to answer. What right has he to know? He remembers Barbara coming in from the garden one morning, complaining in that bright, jokey, hysterical way that somebody’s been putting green fly on her roses. He and Miranda exchanged glances, in it together. And then, less than a year later, he moved out and Miranda realized that while she was in it for life, he was merely in it for the duration of the marriage.
‘How’s Fran?’ Miranda asks politely.
‘Fine.’ For God’s sake, we can’t have everybody fine. ‘Tired. Jasper’s teething.’ Jasper’s always teething. It’s like hand-rearing a great white shark.
‘Has Gareth broken up?’
‘Not yet, day after tomorrow.’
Miranda receives this information in silence. She and Gareth have not so far managed to hit it off, though they’re at a stage when the sexes separate naturally; the hostility between them doesn’t necessarily spring from personal dislike, or so Nick tells himself.
‘Can I tell you a joke?’
‘Yes, go on.’ He’s concentrating on the traffic.
‘There’s this fella and he gans to a pro and he says, “How much is a blow job?” and she says, “A tenner.” So he turns out his pockets and he says, “Aw hell, I’ve only got the seven, what can I have for seven?” She says, “You can have a wank,” so he gets his dick out and she looks down at it and she says, “Here, love, have a lend o’ three quid.”’ A pause. ‘Is that funny?’
‘Yeah, quite. Where’d you get it from?’
‘Man on the train.’
Oh yes. ‘Was he a nice man?’
‘All right. Bit drunk.’
If this is an attempt to divert him from asking questions about Barbara it’s certainly succeeding.
‘What do you call three blobs on a window pane?’
‘OK — what do you call three blobs on a window pane?’
‘Did he sit next to you all the way?’
‘I got that one from school.’
He can’t keep up with the changes in her. Even if they were still living together he’d probably be finding it difficult – apart, it’s impossible. ‘Not long now,’ he says.
‘Why’s it called Lob’s Hill?’
‘Dunno. I keep meaning to look it up, but there’s so many other things to do. We’re not unpacked yet.’
They’re driving through Summerfield. Here the streets run in parallel lines down to the river, to the boarded-up armaments factory, like a row of piglets suckling a dead sow. Before the First World War 25,000 local men worked in that factory. Now it employs a few thousand who drive in from estates on the outskirts of the city.
He never gets used to this, no matter how often he drives through it. Floorboards in the middle of the road, broken glass, burnt-out cars, charred houses with huge holes in the walls as if they’ve been hit by artillery shells. Beirut-on-Tyne, the locals call it.
The traffic lights are on red, but he doesn’t stop. Nobody stops here. You slow down, but you don’t stop. It’s difficult not to slow down, there are so many traffic-calming devices: chicanes, bollards, sleeping policemen. Law-abiding motorists creep through at fifteen miles an hour. Joy riders, knocking the guts out of other people’s cars, speed along this road like rally drivers.
Leaving it behind now, thank God. He picks up speed on the hill, the houses on either side increasing in prosperity with every mile that separates them from the estate. Huge Victorian houses built by iron magnates, shipbuilders, armaments manufacturers, well away from the sight and sound and smell of money. Most of them are divided into flats now. Lob’s Hill is one of the few houses left that’s still a family home.
As he turns into the drive, branches from overgrown bushes on either side rattle against the windows. The house is big, ugly, late Victorian, the turrets at either end surmounted by faintly ludicrous towers. Nick turns off the engine. He can feel Miranda not liking it.
‘It’s better inside,’ he says.
She gets out, and stands on the gravel looking lost while he hauls her suitcase out of the boot. It’s suddenly very quiet. Even the cawing of rooks from the copse behind the house seems to drop away.
A climbing rose covers the front of the building, though the white blooms are fading to brown, seeming to be not so much decayed as melted on their stems. It hasn’t been pruned for years. At some stage a honeysuckle’s been trained over the lower branches, but now it’s died back to form a huge ball of dead wood and leaves, defended by the sharp thorns of the rose.
Yesterday Nick had spent the whole morning snipping away with the secateurs, hauling out dead twigs by the handful, tearing the skin on his arms till he looked as if he had some horrible disease. Once, thrusting his hand deep into the mass, he pulled out a blackbird’s nest, full of dead fledglings. ‘Gollies’, they used to call them when he was a child. He looked at them, at the black spines of feathers pricking through the purplish skin, the sealed, bulbous eyes, the yellow wavy rim around the beaks, and then, with a spasm of revulsion, he threw the nest on to the wheelbarrow. But at least he’d managed to expose the lintel with its carved name and date. He looks up at the house now and points it out to Miranda.
‘Like Wuthering Heights,’ she says.
Nick catches a movement behind one of the upstairs windows, a flash of light. Gareth’s staring down at them, the sunlight glinting on his glasses. He doesn’t smile or wave.
‘Right, then,’ Nick says, picking up the suitcase and putting his other arm around Miranda’s shoulders. Together they go in.
Copyright ©1998 by Pat Barker