Whatever Makes You Happy A Novel By WILLIAM SUTCLIFFE BLOOMSBURY USA Copyright © 2008 William Sutcliffe
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-59691-450-6 Chapter One
Carol and Matt
seven frozen lasagnes
"Just thought I'd pop in."
Matt stared at his mother, aghast. He couldn't think of a single thing that might have prompted her to turn up, here, at his flat, on a weekday evening, uninvited, without even giving him a warning. There was no precedent for this behavior, and he immediately assumed that something terrible must have happened, something too awful to discuss over the phone-an event to be spoken of in hushed voices, with a chair at the ready and hot, sweet tea to hand. At the very, least, someone must have died.
"What's wrong?" he said.
"Is everyone OK?"
"Everyone's fine," she said.
They stared at one another across the threshold, both at a loss as to what to do next, like hikers suddenly realizing they are lost.
"Aren't you going to invite me in?" said Carol eventually.
"Yes, yes," said Matt. "Come in. I'll make some tea. Sorry, I'm just a bit surprised to see you. Are you sure you're OK?"
"Yes. I'm fine."
Hearing his mother say those words, with that particular high, clipped intonation, took him back twenty years, to his adolescence, when the word "fine" had been a key weapon in his mother's emotional arsenal. This one word had a huge variety of meanings, depending on various faint nuances of tone, as if the word was not English but Chinese. "I'm fine" could mean "I'm tense," or "I'm upset," or "I'm angry," or "Why does no one ever listen to me?" or even "Look, I'm clearing away the breakfast things that you said you'd clear away but never did." The statement, in fact, had a near infinite range of meanings, all of which had only one thing in common. They all meant, in essence, "I'm not fine."
Matt's interpretation skills were a little rusty but his best guess at her meaning on this occasion was, "I'm tense." This was something of a catchall for a number of subtler meanings and didn't say much in relation to his mother's mood, since tension played a role in her life of comparable importance to oxygen. Matt could barely imagine her not being tense. She even relaxed tensely, reading the newspaper at the kitchen table, sitting erect on a hard chair. If you persuaded her to attempt relaxed relaxation, by forcing her onto the sofa in front of the TV, within a quarter of an hour she'd be fast asleep. If you looked closely enough, at her eyeballs flicking rapidly around under their lids, you could see her dreaming her tense dreams. The only TV program she ever watched from start to finish without dozing off was the news, which she liked to see twice a night, perched on the edge of an armchair, her face a twitching mask of empathy, horror and dismay at the ever more lurid and unpredictable ways in which the world was becoming scarier.
Anxiety held Carol together. To deprive her of it would be like removing the mortar from a house.
At this moment, the fact that she appeared merely tense, rather than on the point of psychological meltdown, probably indicated that her visit had not been prompted by anything truly dire. There would be a reason that in her head was clearly something of urgent importance-undoubtedly something bizarre, possibly something incomprehensible-but Matt was beginning to feel reassured that it was nothing too close to the death/divorce end of the family-crisis spectrum.
"Take a seat," said Matt, knowing she wouldn't.
She didn't. She followed him closely to the kitchen area, in the farthest corner of his open-plan apartment.
"I'm not interrupting, am I?" said Carol.
"No, no. Nothing too important, anyway."
At the precise moment the doorbell had rung, he'd been playing on his PlayStation, but he'd been about to send a couple of e-mails, and there was a soccer score he'd been on the point of looking up on the Internet. There was also a girl he'd been half-intending to call. All in all, he had a plan for the evening-there were things to get done-and thanks to his mother there might not be time for any of them. She really did have a knack of always managing to be inconvenient.
Matt filled the kettle and tossed a couple of teabags into the cleanest two mugs he could find. He saw his mother register, with a rueful glance, the lack of a teapot. The way Carol saw the world there was an easy way and a right way of doing things. To take the route of convenience, in her eyes, was expressive of fundamental moral degeneracy. She was not just a teapot woman: teapot, milk jug and cookies laid out neatly on a plate constituted, for her, the barest minimum of hospitality.
Naturally, she had never succeeded passing on these ideals to her son. In fact, Matt had grown up with an aversion to milk jugs so strong that they awoke in him a desire to commit physical violence.
Matt knew precisely what Carol was thinking as he handed her a mug of morally degenerate tea, and he didn't care. In fact, he enjoyed her disapproval. At thirty-four, he knew he ought to be too old to enjoy this kind of rebellion by domestic niggle, but he was still fond of his inner teenager and couldn't bring himself to definitively kill him off. Perhaps he'd do her another cup later in a teapot, just to make her happy. Assuming he could find one.
"Let's go to the living room," said Matt.
"Is that what you call it?" said Carol.
"The living room."
"I don't know what you mean."
"I'm pleased, that's all. I mean, it's good. That you still call it a living room, when the whole place is ... well ..." Carol swept her arm around Matt's warehouse apartment, in the manner of an estate agent feigning enthusiasm for a tasteless, hard-to-shift property. Matt adored his flat, and loved it all the more for the fact that his mother hated it. He found it funny how the whole idea of living in a warehouse was simply baffling to her, twenty years after everyone else in the world had got used to the idea.
Whenever she visited-a rare occurrence-Matt found it amusing to sense Carol's slight pity for him: it was as if she felt he had been conned by a deluded property cult, robbed of all his money and left in a state of penury, squatting in an abandoned industrial space like a fugitive from justice. If he'd made her tea on a camping stove perched on a couple of bricks in the middle of the floor, she probably wouldn't have raised an eyebrow. She might even have been pleased to have her suspicions confirmed.
"I've never really thought about it," said Matt.
"Because I was just wondering if this is a kitchen."
"Of course it's a kitchen."
"Good. I'm glad. I thought maybe you had another word for it."
"You are brave. Living like this."
"Brave? It's a desirable flat, Mum. It was expensive."
"Well. As long as you're happy here."
"I am," Matt replied, a little more tetchily than he intended.
It was natural that she'd feel uneasy here. She looked as out of place in his apartment-in her dowdy clothes, with her body the shape of a beer keg-as his forty-two-inch plasma TV would look in her chintzy living room. If she felt how she looked, it was hardly surprising she wasn't at ease.
Matt closed the blinds on the floor-to-ceiling glass doors that led out onto his balcony. He didn't usually bother, since he liked being able to see and hear the traffic below, and the fact that he was overlooked never worried him. It wasn't as if he'd ever meet the people who lived in the block opposite, so what was there to hide? The view from his flat was the whole point of the place, especially after dark, when London twinkled and buzzed. You felt like you were part of the city, even when you were at home. But that was hardly to his mother's taste, who'd decorated her mock-Tudor suburban semi-which backed onto the Pinner high street's Pound-stretcher-to give the impression to visitors that they were in Edwardian Hampshire, right down to the Edwardian TV cabinet, the logical inconsistency of which she always refused to discuss.
With the blinds drawn, he joined her in the center of the room. Carol was perched on the front edge of his sofa, resisting the slouch-inducing pull of its soft, expensive, stain-resistant (yet stained) cushions. Matt threw himself into an armchair, showing her how it was supposed to be done.
"So what's up?" he said.
Carol looked at her hands. She was having trouble catching Matt's eye. Already, her confidence was faltering. She'd been hoping it would be possible to sit with him for a while, chatting about neutral topics, before broaching the real reason for, and intended duration of, her visit. Stupidly, she hadn't realized in advance how Matt's shock at her sudden arrival would put him in a position where he wouldn't be able to relax until he knew why she had come.
But she couldn't tell him. Not yet. Her mouth was too dry, and her heart was beating too fast, and she knew it would come out garbled and confused. She wouldn't be able to explain herself until she felt a little less on edge.
"I should have brought a bottle of wine," she said. "I mean, it's a bit of a special occasion, this, isn't it? Just me and you. When did we last have a good old private chat?"
"Wine!" said Matt, jumping at the bait. He sprang up from his chair and began to clatter through the cupboards in his kitchen. "I've probably got a bottle stashed away somewhere. Actually, why don't I pop out and get a nice one? There's a liquor store just downstairs. I'll be back in a mo'."
He already had his coat on by the time Carol could answer, "No, no. No need. I'm very happy with this."
"It's no trouble. Really. If I'd known you were coming I'd have had one ready. It'll only take a minute."
The door slammed. He was gone.
Matt needed a drink.
Nothing was going to stop him getting that wine, least of all his mother's feigned preference for tea.
The man behind the counter eyed his purchase, the most expensive red in the shop, suspiciously.
"Wine?" he said.
Matt was one of the shop's most regular customers, and in five years he had only ever bought beer.
"The mum's popped round."
"Oh, right," said the shop assistant, a hint of commiseration in his voice.
"Thought I'd treat her to something nice."
Matt wasn't sure whether this referred to his mother's visit or the wine, but either way the intention seemed vaguely sarcastic, so he slipped away with only a grunt for a good-bye.
On his way back in the lift, he started to pick off the price sticker, then changed his mind and left it on. This short time outside the flat had given him a chance to gather his thoughts. His mother clearly had something to tell him, but she didn't want to do it straight away. Her wine hint had really not been very subtle, but he was glad of the suggestion. After all, if she needed a glass of wine to say it, he probably needed two to hear it. Whatever it was, it couldn't be good news.
The best he could hope for was that it would be something that seemed bad only to his mother. He tried to lift his sense of foreboding by reminding himself that there were many, many things his mother considered appalling that were in fact utterly normal, such as drugs, swearing, all music recorded since 1965 and chewing gum. Whatever might be on her mind was clearly horrific to her, but that meant nothing. As yet, there was no reason for Matt to panic.
A light nausea, however, had settled into the pit of his stomach, and no reasoning with himself could shift it. This visit was deeply irregular. His mother would not appear at his flat without warning unless something fundamental in the order of things had altered. By this stage of life, with his parents now both in their sixties, any change could only be involuntary and for the worse. If the last ten years had proved anything, it was that his parents didn't do change, not by choice. Like skiing and Japanese food and furniture that isn't brown, it simply wasn't to their taste.
"I got a nice Italian red," he said, as he strode back in.
Carol was still perched on the sofa. She was looking at the Grand Theft Auto box, which Matt had left on the coffee table.
"Is this a film?" she said, while Matt searched for a bottle opener and some wine glasses.
"It's a game."
"A video game?"
"That's nice. Have you had children visiting? Friends of yours?"
"It's mine," he snapped. "I play. It's not for kids. It's an adult thing. The video games industry is worth more than the movie industry, Mum. In fact, I was playing it when you rang the bell." He didn't know why, but a tone of petulant defiance had crept into his voice.
"Oh. I thought they were for children."
"Well, they're not. In fact, that one's forbidden for children."
"Oh ... it's not important."
"No, tell me. I'm interested."
"It's just ... a bit violent, that's all."
"Oh. And it's about stealing cars?"
"That's part of it."
"What, you have to catch the thieves?"
"No. You nick the cars."
"That's the game? Stealing cars?"
"Sort of. And other stuff."
How was it that his mother reduced him to a child so easily? Shame was not a part of his daily life. He was thirty-four, successful, well-off, good with women; he was a swaggerer, not a skulker or a blusher or a stander-in-the-corner. His life was on track. He had made something of himself. He was living the life that most guys could only dream of. Yet within ten minutes of his mother turning up he felt like an evasive teenager, ashamed and embarrassed by his secret pleasures.
No, shame was not for men like him. He had to fight it. He wouldn't let his mother do this to him. He had nothing to hide. If she didn't like what she saw of his life, that was her problem, not his.
"Drug deals," he said. "You become a drug runner, and you go around the city doing bad things. It's fun."
His mother stared at him with an expression that was part dismay, part bemusement. It was the same face she pulled during war reports on the news.
"And that's what you do with your evenings?"
"Usually I'm out. If I'm in, it's something I might do for a bit or might not. Like the way you listen to the radio. It's the same thing."
"Is it?" she said.
Of course it wasn't the same thing. He knew that, and he instantly regretted the claim, which he now saw made him look even more corrupted and shallow, as if he really couldn't see the difference between engaging in a fantasy killing spree and listening to Desert Island Discs on BBC.
He toyed with the idea of confessing that he understood what she was getting at and he realized playing Grand Theft Auto was a dirty habit, but he didn't like where that would lead. After all, what be was doing was normal. Everyone did it. He did it less than most. And so what? It was just a game! He'd never deal drugs in real life. Not proper drugs. He had passed on the odd bit of this and that to friends, now and then, occasionally for a small profit, but that didn't make him a drug dealer. Compared to most people, he was extremely law abiding. He would never so much as hit anyone, let alone rampage around a city with a gun, beating rival pimps to death with garbage can lids. It was just a bit of harmless fun. Only an idiot couldn't tell the difference between fantasy and reality.
His inner voice was already hitting a teenage squeal. He had to stay calm and remember that, despite the way his mother spoke to him, he was an adult.
"Cheers," he said, offering up his glass for a chink.
"So," he said, slumping back into the welcoming embrace of his armchair, the brand of which-La-Z-Boy-his mother could never be permitted to know. Ideally, she'd also never find out that the arms contained a hinged compartment for as many remote controls as a man could ever dream of. The nausea was still there. He couldn't wait any longer. He had to know the worst. "What brings you here?" he said, with a tentative smile. "Not that it isn't great to see you. I mean, it's lucky I was in. I'm usually not. But we're both in luck. That's what I mean. Just ... to what do I owe this pleasure?" He was taking it too far, now. He was beginning to sound implausible, or perhaps even sarcastic.
"Well," she said, allowing her body the slightest of yields to the temptations of modern upholstery, "I've been having a long hard think, and you're my only child, and ..."
"Is someone ill? Are you OK?"
"I'm fine. Everyone's fine. I'm just trying to say that I feel as if our relationship has fizzled away to nothing. I don't think I know you anymore. And I'd like to rectify that."
Excerpted from Whatever Makes You Happy by WILLIAM SUTCLIFFE Copyright © 2008 by William Sutcliffe. Excerpted by permission.
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