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STATE OF ENGLAND
I. MOBILE PHONES
Big Mal stood there on the running track in his crinkly linen suit, with a cigarette in one mitt and a mobile phone in the other. He also bore a wound, did the big man: a shocking laceration on the side of his face, earlobe to cheekbone. The worst thing about his wound was how recent it looked. It wasn't bleeding. But it might have been seeping. He'd got his suit from Contemporary Male in Culver City, Los Angeles-five years ago. He'd got his wound from a medium-rise car park off Leicester Square, London-last night. Under high flat-bottomed clouds and a shrill blue sky Big Mal stood there on the running track. Not tall but built like a brick khazi: five feet nine in all directions . . . Mal felt he was in a classic situation: wife, child, other woman. It was mid-September. It was Sports Day. The running track he was strolling along would soon be pounded in earnest by his nine-year-old son, little Jet. Jet's mother, Sheilagh, was on the clubhouse steps, fifty yards away, with the other mums. Mal could see her. She too wielded a cigarette and a mobile phone. They weren't talking except on their mobile phones.
He put the cigarette in his mouth and with big, white, cold, agitated fingers prodded out her number.
"A!" he said. A tight sound, sharp pitched-the short "a," as in "Mal." It was a sound Mal made a lot: his general response to pain, to inadvertency, to terrestrial imperfection. He went "A!" this time because he had jammed his mobile into the wrong ear. The sore one: so swollen, so richly traumatized by the events of the night before. Then he said, "It's me."
"Yeah, I can see you."
Sheilagh was moving away from the clump of mums, down the steps, toward him. He turned his back on her and said, "Where's Jet?"
"They come up on the bus. Christ, Mal, whatever have you done to yourself? The state of your face."
Well that was nice to know: that his wound was visible from fifty yards. "Load of bollocks," he said, by way of explanation. And it was true in a sense. Mal was forty-eight years old, and you could say he'd made a pretty good living from his fists: his fists, his toe caps, his veering, butting brow. Last night's spanking was by no means the worst he'd ever taken. But it was definitely the weirdest. "Hang about," he said, while he lit another cigarette. "A!" he added. Wrong ear again. "When's the bus due?"
"Have you had that looked at? You want to get that sorted."
"It was dressed," said Mal carefully, "by a trained nurse."
"Who's that then? Miss India? What she call herself? Linzi . . ."
"Oi. Not Linzi. Yvonne."
The mention of this name (wearily yet powerfully stressed on the first syllable) would tell Sheilagh its own story.
"Don't tell me. You were out rucking with Fat Lol. Yeah. Well. If you've been with Fat Lol for thirty years . . ."
Mal followed her line of reasoning. Been with Fat Lol for thirty years and you knew your first aid. You were a trained nurse whether you liked it or not. "Yvonne sorted it," he went on. "She cleaned it out and bunged some stuff on it." This was no less than the truth. That morning, over tea and toast, Yvonne had scalded his cheek with Fat Lol's aftershave and then dressed it with a section of kitchen roll. But the section of kitchen roll had long since disappeared into the wound's gurgling depths. It was like that film with the young Steve McQueen. Oh, yeah: The Blob.
"Does it throb?"
"Yeah," said Mal resignedly, "it throbs. Look. Let's try and be civilized in front of the kid, okay? Come on now, She. We owe it to Jet. Right?"
"Right. Now give me my fucking money."
"Whoff fucking money?"
"Whoff fucking money? My fucking money."
She hung up and so, unsuccessfully (and murmuring, "Where are you mate?"), he tried Fat Lol-tried Fat Lol on his mobile.
Moving in a broad arc, maintaining a fixed distance from his wife, Mal trudged along the track and then closed in on the far end of the clubhouse. The clubhouse with its black Tudor wood: maybe they had a bar in there. Mal hesitated, and even staggered; the coil, the spring in the person was winding down awful low. And here were all the other dads, on the steps round the side, with their mobiles.
Delaying his approach, Mal tarried on the verge and tried Linzi on her mobile.
Jet's school, St. Anthony's, was a smart one, or at least an expensive one. Mal it was who somehow met the startling fees. And showed up on days like today, as you had to do. He also wanted and expected his boy to perform well.
During his earliest visits to the parent-teacher interface, Mal had been largely speechless with peer-group hypochondria: he kept thinking there was something terribly wrong with him. He wanted out of that peer group and into a different peer group with weaker opposition. Mal made She do all the talking, with her greater confidence and higher self-esteem-deriving, as their marriage counselor had once phrased it, from her "more advanced literacy skills." In truth, Mal's writing left much to be desired, to put it mildly. Not what you'd call overly clever on the reading, neither. Either. Confronted, say, by a billboard or the instructions on a Band-Aid tin, his lips moved, tremulously, miming his difficulty. He spoke bad, too-he knew it. But all that prejudice against people such as himself was gone now. Or so they said. And maybe they were partly right. Mal could go to virtually any restaurant he liked, and sit there surrounded by all these types squawking and honking away, and pick up a tab as dear as an air ticket. He could go to this or that place. And yet nobody could guarantee that he would feel okay in this or that place. Nobody could guarantee that, ever. Big Mal, who grunted with a kind of assent when he saw a swung fist coming for his mouth, could nonetheless be laid out by the sight of a cocked pinkie. A! Always it was with him, every hour, like an illness, like a haunting. Go on then-stare. Go on then: laugh. Why else d'you think he'd loved the States so much? L.A., mate: working for Joseph Andrews . . .
Mal felt he was a man in a classic situation. He had run away from home (five months ago) and moved in with a younger woman (Linzi), abandoning his wife (Sheilagh) and his child (little Jet). A classic situation is, by definition, a second-hand situation-third-hand, eleventh-hand. And more and more obviously so, as the aggregate climbed. Late at night, Mal sometimes found himself thinking, If Adam had left Eve, and run off with a younger woman-supposing he could find one-he'd have been stepping into the entirely unknown. Call Adam a cunt, but you couldn't call him corny. Now all that was just routine: stock, stale, dead. And nowadays too there was this other level of known ground. You'd picked up some information from all the studies and the stats: and there you were on TV every night, in the soaps and the sitcoms, generally being played for laughs. One out of two did it: left home. Of course, not leaving home was corny, too, but nobody ever went on about that. And Adam, by sticking around, remained in the entirely unknown.
He sensed he was a cliche-and sensed further that he'd even fucked that up. Let's think. He ran away from home and moved in with a younger woman. Ran away? Linzi only lived across the street. Moved in? He was at a bed-and-breakfast in King's Cross. A younger woman? Mal was getting surer and surer that Linzi was, in fact, an older woman. One afternoon, while she was enjoying a drugged nap, Mal had come across her passport. Linzi's date of birth was given as "25 Aug. 19 . . ." The last two digits had been scratched out, with a fingernail. Under the angle lamp you could still see a dot of nail polish-the same vampiric crimson she often used. Opposite, staring at him, was Linzi's face: delusions of grandeur in a Woolworth photo booth. All he knew for certain was that Linzi had been born this century.
A! Wrong ear again. But he wanted the wrong ear, this time. For now he was about to join the dads-the peer group; and Mal's mobile would help conceal his wound. Mobiles meant social mobility. With a mobile riding on your jaw you could enter the arena enclosed in your own concerns, your own preoccupation, your own business. "Cheers, lads," he said, with a wave, and then frowned into his phone. He'd called Linzi, and was therefore saying things like "Did you, babes? . . . Have a cup of tea and a Nurofen . . . Go back to bed. With them brochures . . . They the Curvilinear or the Crescent? . . . Are you, darling?" Hunched over his mobile, his knees bent, Mal looked like a man awaiting his moment in the shot put. He was doing what all the other dads were doing, which was putting in an appearance. Presenting an appearance to one another and to the world. And what did Mal's appearance say? With fights and fighting, this was ancient knowledge. When you received a wound, you didn't just have to take it, sustain it. You didn't just have to bear it. You also had to wear it, for all to see, until it healed.
Nodding, winking, grasping an arm or patting a shoulder here and there, he moved among them. Blazers, shell suits, jeans and open shirts, even the odd dhoti or kaftan or whatever you like to call them. The dads: half of them weren't even English-thus falling at the first hurdle, socially. Or so Mal might once have thought. "Manjeet, mate," he was saying, "Mikio. Nusrat!" Socially, these days, even the Pakkis could put the wind up him. Paratosh, for instance, who was some kind of Sikh or Pathan and wore a cravat and acted in radio plays and had beautiful manners. And if I can tell he's got beautiful manners, thought Mal, then they must be really ace. "Paratosh, mate!" he now cried . . . But Paratosh just gave him a flat smile and minutely re-angled his stately gaze. It seemed to Mal that they were all doing that. Adrian. Fardous. Why? Was it the wound? He thought not. See, these were the nuclear dads, the ones who'd stuck with their families, so far, anyway. And everybody knew that Mal had broken out, had reneged on the treaty and gone non-nuclear. These men, some of them, were the husbands of Sheilagh's friends. Clumping and stamping around among them (and trying Fat Lol again now), Mal felt ancient censures ranged against him in these faces of ochre and hazel, of mocha and java. He was pariah, caste polluter; and he thought they thought he had failed, as a man. Awkward, massively cuboid, flinching under a thin swipe of dark hair, his fingers hovering over the contours of his damaged cheek, Mal was untouchable, like his wound.
Other dads talked on mobiles, their conversations, disembodied, one-way. For a moment they sounded insane, like all the monologuists and soliloquizers of the city streets.
2. ASIAN BABIES
Linzi's real name was Shinsala, and her family came from Bombay, once upon a time. You wouldn't guess any of this, talking to her on the phone. Most of the foreign dads-the Nusrats, the Fardouses, the Paratoshes-spoke better English than Mal. Much better English. While presumably also being pretty good at Farsi, Urdu, Hindi, or whatever. And he had to wonder: how could that be? How come there was so little left over for Mal? Linzi, on the other hand, prompted no such reproaches. She spoke worse than Sheilagh, worse than Mal. She spoke as bad as Fat Lol. She spoke straight East End, with only this one little exoticism, in the way she handled her pronouns. Linzi said he where an English person would say him or his. Like "compared to he." Or "driving he car." Same with she. Like "the way she wears she skirts." Or "I hate she." It sometimes gave Mal a fright, because he thought she was talking about She. Sheilagh. And Linzi was always threatening a confrontation with She: like today, for instance. Mal didn't want to think about those two getting together. A!
But now the big man was shouldering his way indoors. He passed a Coke machine, bulletin boards, the entrance to the changing rooms, a snack hatch and its hamburger breath. Jesus. Mal wasn't a big boozer, like some. But last night, after the smacking they'd taken, he and Fat Lol had got through a bottle of Scotch. A bottle of Scotch each. So he now had the notion that after a couple of pints he'd feel twice the price. He peered round a corner, paused, and then strode forward, jangling his change. Everything in him responded to what he saw: the fruit machine, the charity jar full of brown coins, the damp gray rags beneath the wok-sized ashtrays, the upended liquor bottles with their optics on the nozzles, guaranteeing fair trading, guaranteeing fair play. And here was the ornately affable barman, plodding up through the floor.
He turned. "Bern, mate!"
"All right? How's little Clint?"
"He's a terror. How's . . .?"
"Jet? He's handsome."
"Here, Mal. Say hi to Toshiko."
Toshiko smiled with her Japanese teeth.
"Nice to meet you," said Mal, and added, uncertainly, helplessly, "I'm sure."
Bern was the dad that Mal knew best. They'd rigged up an acquaintanceship on the touchline of yet another sports field: watching their sons represent St. Anthony's at football. Clint and Jet, paired strikers for the Under Nines. The dads looked on, two terrible scouts or stringers, shouting things like "Zonal marking!" and "Sweeper system!" and "4-4-2!"-while their sons, and all the others, ran around the place like so many dogs chasing a ball. Afterwards Mal and Bern sloped off down the drinker. They agreed it was small fucking wonder their boys had taken a caning: nine-nil. The defense was crap and midfield created fuck-all. Where was the service to the lads up front?
"I heard an interesting thing the other night," Bern was suddenly saying. Bern was a photographer, originally fashion but now glamour and social. He spoke worse than Mal. "A very interesting thing. I was covering the mayor's do. Got talking to these, uh, detectives. Scotland Yard. Remember that bloke who broke into Buckingham Palace? Caused all that fuss?"