My new novel, The Other Son is out on the 17th of October on Kindle and paperback.
For those who can’t wait, here’s a free, hefty excerpt of the opening chapters.
You can read it online here (below), or even download one of the following files for your e-reader.
• for Kindle ( .mobi )
(Email this file to the email address of your Kindle (specified under Your Account / Digital Content / Manage Your Content And Devices / Your Devices) or connect your kindle via USB and drag this file onto it.
• iBooks ( .ePub ) Also works for other brands of ereader.
Install the iBooks app on your iPhone or iPad, then Email this file to yourself. When you click on it the iPhone will invite you to open it in iBooks.
THE OTHER SON (Excerpt)
PART ONE – THE MARRIAGE
Alice slides the shoulder of the shirt over the end of the ironing board and slowly smoothes out the creases, working the iron gently back and forth. In front of her, beyond the window pane, the November rain lashes down, hammering the roses. They had been so pretty in summer, but now, like everything else, like her, in fact, they are merely hanging in there, waiting for winter to pass.
From the lounge, she can hear the sound of a football match on TV. She flips the shirt over and starts on the other sleeve. She doesn’t mind ironing, in fact it’s probably the only household task that she enjoys. There’s something satisfying about turning that basket of jumble into piles of neatly folded order.
She smoothes the cuff and thinks of the coming trip. For this is Ken’s best shirt, now ready for Mike Goodman’s funeral. There have been so many funerals recently and she’d really rather not go to this one. She imagines herself standing up to say a few words. “Mike was always good for a sexist joke,” she could say. “Mike never failed to turn up to dinner empty-handed! Mike could always be counted on to shock everyone with a good, juicy, racist remark!”
She glances back out at the rain, follows, briefly, the movement of a droplet as it makes its way down the glass. She wonders how long it takes to get from Birmingham to Carlisle. Too long. She’s dreading the drive. Hours and hours trapped in the car with Ken.
He scares her with his driving, always has done. He looks at you when he talks to you, that’s the thing, and on the motorway, she’d really rather that he didn’t do that. Sometimes, when he turns back to the road, he actually swerves as he corrects his trajectory, and she ends up being terse just to dissuade him from talking, just to stop him looking at her again. He gets angry in city traffic, too – turns into a monster in fact. And God forbid that she insult his manhood by asking him to slow down! At weddings he gets drunk, so at least she can drive home. But at a funeral it’s unlikely. Three or four hours each way! At home she can move to another room or she can nip out to the shops. In the car, there’s no escape.
She drapes the shirt on a coat-hanger, then fastens the top button. She unplugs the iron and crosses to the window to peer outside. She chews the inside of her mouth then turns back to face the interior, crosses to the bread-bin and, hoping for an alibi, looks inside. She needs to get out. This weather’s making her stir-crazy.
As she pulls on her coat in the hallway, Ken glances up at her briefly, but she can tell from his glassy-eyed stare that he hasn’t even assimilated the fact that she’s going out. His mind’s on the match and when his mind’s on the match it’s not available for anything else. It’s not so much that women are better at multitasking, she thinks. It’s that men can’t do it at all.
By the time she gets back, the match has ended and the presenters are discussing what went wrong. “You’ve been out in this?” Ken asks, like a hypnotist’s subject suddenly back-in-the-room now the football is over.
“We needed bread,” Alice explains, waving the carrier bag at him then shrugging out of the wet coat. “And I needed the walk.”
“It’s raining up there as well,” Ken says nodding, presumably at the out-of-sight television set. “In Manchester.”
“Rain stopped play?”
“No. Nearly. They played badly, though. They were bloody awful, to be honest. Any chance of a cuppa?”
Alice thinks that Ken could get up and make his own cup of tea, that he could even, lord forbid, make her one. “Of course,” she says, managing to say one phrase even as she thinks the other. “I was just about to make one anyway.”
She’s pouring the water over the teabags when Ken appears in the doorway. He leans on the doorjamb and looks at her blankly. He smiles but actually looks a little sad – it’s probably because of the match. Football is generally the only thing that elicits much of an emotional response in him these days.
“They’ve started selling Christmas decorations at Tesco,” she says. “Imagine that.”
“A bit premature,” Ken agrees.
“I asked the woman on the checkout if anyone actually bought Christmas decorations at the beginning of November and she said I’d be surprised. I wondered how she could tell.”
“How she could tell what?”
“Well, how surprised I’d be!”
Ken frowns at her. He has never quite grasped Alice’s sense of humour.
Alice squashes the teabag against the side of the cup thoughtfully. “Do you think Tim will invite us this year? Or should I plan to do something here?”
Ken shrugs. “We’re barely into November, love,” he says.
“I think that we’re still allowed to envisage events that haven’t happened yet, even in November. They haven’t made that a crime yet. And what about Matt? Do you think Matt will come home for Christmas?” She pours the milk.
“I doubt it,” Ken says. “He didn’t bother last year, did he?”
“Here.” She proffers the mug.
“He was in Sydney last year, so it wasn’t really an option,” Alice points out as Ken turns away down the hall. “But now he’s in…” She lets her voice fade away and exhales slowly. Because Ken has vanished from view. “Spain, maybe?” she mutters. “Or is it France?” She glances at the counter-top and wonders where Matt’s most recent postcard has got to.
She imagines Matt sleeping under a bridge somewhere, like that singer he used to go on about all the time. The one who killed himself. Nick something. She has always feared that Matt will somehow end up badly. Perhaps it’s just because every pop star he ever worshipped was dead. Nick Drake, that was the one. And that chap from The Doors. There was the guy from that Australian band, too, and the one from Deaf Tiger or whatever they were called. He talked about dead pop stars so much that she knew all their names, became quite the expert. Tim liked ABBA and ELO. He liked bright bouncy music that even she could sing along to. Whereas Matt was always drawn to the dark side. Dead poets with miserable songs. The Smiths. That was another one. What was that song he used to like? Something to do with being run over by a double decker bus. He used to sing it all the time; he sang it so much that she knew all the words as well. She became quite a trendy mum at one point, thanks to her boys.
But yes, it’s hard to wonder about Matt’s future, hard to think about his whereabouts and not feel concerned. It’s almost impossible to picture him contented and happy somewhere, not when he has spent his life pulling the plug on anything that looked like it was about to be remotely successful.
She remembers Matt, age thirteen, proudly presenting his report card to them. He had been graded ‘C’ for every subject. ‘C’ meant average, he declared, and he seemed as proud of that fact – of the universal averageness of his grades – as he had ever been of anything. It was as if being average was a new pinnacle of achievement, as if it beat, hands down, the straight ‘A’s that Tim had been getting. Ken had disowned him over that report card, had told him he was no longer his son. Which was harsh, admittedly. But they had wanted him to do better, that was all. They had been afraid for him, even then.
Alice sips her tea and remembers Matt’s graduation from university. Or rather the absence of his graduation. How she had been looking forward to that! She takes a teaspoon and taps the rounded back of it against a thumbnail. Yes, thinking about Matt makes her nervous. Sometimes, it makes her feel short of breath. Occasionally she fears that she’s slipping into an actual panic attack.
“Don’t think about him then,” Ken tells her if she ever admits that she can’t breathe properly. “Think about Tim instead.” And of course, Tim has done so much better than Matt. But for some reason, thinking about Tim doesn’t make her feel that much happier, and it definitely doesn’t stop her worrying about the other one.
“It’s over!” Ken shouts from the lounge. “You can reclaim your sitting room. The coast is clear!”
“Oh joy!” she murmurs. She glances at the clock. It’s almost time for Coronation Street.
It’s the day of the funeral, and Ken, wearing black suit trousers and a white singlet, is at the top of the stairs looking down. “Where’s my shirt?” he asks.
“Oh, I tied it to the television aerial,” Alice replies. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“The television aerial? What?”
Alice sighs. “It’s in the wardrobe with all your other shirts.”
“The white one’s not there.”
“Only it isn’t.”
Alice tuts and climbs the staircase. It’s nine already and they should have left by now. She crosses the bedroom to the open wardrobe, swipes the shirt from the rack and pushes it into her husband’s arms as she leaves the room.
“Huh,” Ken exclaims. “… must’ve been hiding.”
“Only from you,” Alice murmurs, pausing on the landing. “Now can we please get a move on? You know how stressed you get when we’re late anywhere. All we need is a bit of traffic or some bad weather and–”
“We’re sure to get plenty of both,” Ken says, now buttoning the shirt.
“I know,” Alice says. “That’s my point.”
By the time Ken has checked the locks and looked for the map, by the time he has found and jingled his keys, then lost them and then found them again, it’s ten a.m. “Ken!” Alice protests, one hand on the latch. “We’re really going to be late.”
“We won’t,” Ken says. “It’s easy to make up a bit of time on a long journey like this one.”
At the end of the street, as Ken waits to pull out into the traffic, Alice spots a length of tinsel draped across the top of the “open” sign in the Chinese take away.
A minute later, as they drive past the golf course – transformed into a lake by all the rain – she asks, “So how do I find out if Tim is inviting us for Christmas without sounding like I want him to invite us?”
She glances at Ken enquiringly and he turns to face her just long enough for her to start to feel nervous. “Please look at the road occasionally,” she says.
“Don’t start that already. We’ve barely left the house.”
“I’m sorry. But the idea of your ploughing two tonnes of Megane into a shop full of people makes me slightly nervous. I’m funny that way.”
“Don’t you want to?”
“Want to what?”
“To go to Tim’s place? For Christmas?”
“I suppose so,” Alice says. “Compared to the alternatives, I suppose it’s preferable.”
“Well, there’s always the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. But I still prefer Tim’s place, I think. Just about.”
“If you want to go then just ask him. Why does everything have to be so complic–”
“I don’t want him to feel obliged, is all,” Alice interrupts. “And Natalya was very frosty last year. Do you remember how frosty she was? Actually, frosty’s not the word. She was arctic. She was ant-arctic.”
“Yeah,” Ken says, vaguely. He’s momentarily distracted by the heavy traffic on the roundabout.
Alice runs a film of last Christmas through her mind’s eye. And yes, Natalya had been very prickly. She had left the sprouts that Alice had prepared in the fridge – a special River Cottage recipe with chestnuts it had been, too. She had “forgotten” to defrost the chocolate log they had brought as well. Fridges and freezers – that’s how chilly things had been.
“You know, she never once wore that scarf I bought her,” Alice says. In fact, it’s a general rule that nothing Alice and Ken have ever given them has ever been seen again. Perhaps she has a black hole in her chest-of-drawers, Alice thinks. Perhaps it just sucks things up and casts them into a parallel universe where they join Ken’s missing socks.
“Not that you know of,” Ken comments, checking his mirror as they merge onto the A38.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m just saying that as we’re not with them twenty-four hours a day, it’s hard to be certain that she has never worn the scarf.”
But Alice is certain. She’s perfectly certain. And it was a nice scarf, too. A very nice turquoise cashmere scarf. If Natalya didn’t want it, then she would have liked to have worn it herself. It’s particularly galling when you give people nice gifts – things that you don’t dare to buy for yourself – only to see that they never use them.
Perhaps it’s because Tim and Natalya are so well off these days. Perhaps anything Alice and Ken buy just pales into insignificance against the rest of their wealth. Perhaps they need to up their game this year, gift-wise. Then again, it’s not like Natalya makes much effort. She gives Alice a bottle of perfume every year without fail, and it’s never even perfume that Alice likes. She only wears Lancôme’s Beauty Parisienne, and she’s told Natalya that enough times. Though never at Christmas. That would be rude. Alice has lost count of how many full bottles of perfume she’s given to Dot, how many she’s taken to the Oxfam shop.
“Well, I still think she was a bit off last year. Tim was funny too. Do you remember all that fuss about the missing champagne glasses? As if it mattered what kind of glasses we were drinking out of.”
“It was very expensive champagne apparently,” Ken says.
“Oh it taste so dee-fferrent from prroper glass,” Alice says, rolling the ‘R’s, mocking Natalya’s Russian accent.
“I think they were just getting on each other’s nerves. It happens in a marriage. Especially at Christmas.”
And yes, it’s true. It happens in a marriage. Ken has been getting on her nerves for fifty years now and no doubt vice-versa. She wonders, again, why Ken was so determined to marry her. It hadn’t been for her wit, that’s for sure. He can barely tolerate that. She had been pretty enough, she supposes. But there had been prettier girls out there. It’s a strange one, because she’s never been able to detect much pleasure in the arrangement, not on Ken’s side. Not on either side, really.
Marrying Ken had not been Alice’s first choice. In fact, it hadn’t really felt like a choice at all. Her grandparents (who she never met – they had died by the time she was born) were Jews who had fled Russia in the late 1800s. They had arrived in Norwich and then the Midlands as penniless refugees.
Despite widespread myths about the wealthy, successful, business-like nature of the Jewish people, they had remained pretty much paupers their whole lives, right up until their premature deaths in their forties. Poverty and persecution do not a long happy life make, it would seem.
Alice’s own parents, her mother no longer officially Jewish (she had seen how dangerous that could be) and her father of Irish extraction, had suffered terrible deprivation during their childhoods and had barely managed to drag themselves out of the gutter by the time Alice came along. Her father was a street cleaner, so in some ways, he was still very much in the gutter.
Though Alice herself had never known hunger, she had grown up with the terrifying all-pervading knowledge that poverty was never far away. Her parents had lived as if destitution were imminent, hoarding tins of food in the cellar and worrying, to the point of near-insanity, about every political upheaval, every downturn, every distant conflict… It didn’t take much, they told their children, over and over, for everything good to vanish. All it took was an injury or an illness, or another economic depression – all that was needed was another Alexander the Third, or another Hitler for that matter, and they’d all be scrabbling around in the dirt all over again.
By the time Alice hit nineteen they had been pushing her to marry for a while. Marriage was about the only hope that people like her parents had for their daughters, and they were concerned, unnerved, by the lack of suitable suitors and by her ever-deepening friendship with Joe. Joe who came from the wrong side of the tracks in so many ways.
Alice wonders where Joe is now. She wonders if Joe is even still alive, wonders whether Joe went on to have the exceptional life that Alice always imagined.
And then Alice came home one night from the soap factory, the stink of fat and lye still on her clothes, and there was Ken, leaning on the mantelpiece, fiddling with a pocket-watch, looking suave. Her parents were smiling nervously up at her, being – what’s that word? – obsequious, that’s the one. Ken had seemed bright-eyed and smart in his Sunday best – he had always been a snappy dresser – and he’d been polite and generous towards her, even enabling, insisting, that she quit that horrible factory job. Yes, he had been nice enough, at least at the outset.
People complain about the Muslims and what-have-you, complain that they arrange their marriages, that they hang people, that they still treat homosexuals badly, that they don’t give women proper rights; but it really wasn’t that long ago that all those things happened here. People pretend to have forgotten these things because it makes them feel better, it makes them feel superior. But Alice remembers.
So yes, Ken had been polite and well dressed and, above all in her parents’ eyes, generous. He was to inherit his father’s business. He had good prospects. He was declared to be a “catch.” There was no reasonable opt-out clause.
Just after one, Ken pulls into the motorway services. They run through the drizzle and then stand in the midst of the food-court to survey the various offerings, blasts of freezing air chilling their backs every time the sliding doors open.
“Well what do you fancy, love?” Ken asks, as if choosing between these grubby little kiosks, between Burger King, or Famous Fish, or Señor Taco might actually be considered a treat.
Alice bites her lip and turns her head from side to side as she takes in the options. “Fish and chips might be the best option,” she says, thinking that at least the deep frying process will be hot enough to kill any microbes. Nothing looks very clean here.
“Yes. Fish and chips and mushy peas,” Ken says, sounding almost enthusiastic. But the girl in Famous Fish is already wiping down the counters with a greasy cloth, inexplicably closing up at ten past one, so they end up with Ocean Catch menus from Burger King which Ken declares are “almost the same thing.”
But an Ocean Catch menu is not the same as fish and chips – not by a long stretch. Alice nibbles at the bun and then samples the burnt, greasy fish-finger type thing within. She disdainfully lifts a few of the powdery fries to her lips and ponders the mysteries of British food. Because the lad in Burger King sounded a bit Italian, and the girl in Famous Fish had definitely been French. They live, after all, on an island of green fields, surrounded by seas, encircled by European countries with fabulous cuisines. Half the people in the restaurant industry are French or Spanish or Italian or Indian, and yet the entire country has ended up opting for these American food-like synthetics. Burgers and “french” fries, and tacos. It really is a terrible shame.
Alice watches Ken wolfing down his burger. He has never cared much about food which is also a shame because once upon a time she had pretensions to being a good cook. Her pies had been to die-for – everyone said so. These days, after fifty years of indifference, of hearing Ken proudly tell people that he “eats to live, not the opposite,” she has abandoned any culinary aspirations. Nowadays they mostly eat ready-meals. An occasional homemade cauliflower cheese or an actual cooked breakfast is about as adventurous as it gets in the Hodgetts household.
A child on the far side of the hall starts to scream and Alice glances over and briefly remembers Matt shrieking in a shop somewhere. She scans the food-hall again, taking in the true horror of its dilapidation: the chipped, grubby Formica tables, the economy lightbulbs sprouting from fittings designed to take pretty spotlights that once must have cast a warm glow on fresh, shiny tables. She feels a bit like the food hall – tired and worn out and a bit depressed. The food-hall suddenly seems like a metaphor for her life. Something that should be, that could be, that once was sparkly and appealing, but which is now chilly, grubby and worn out, lit with flickering, yellowish, cheap-to-run lighting. The whole place is beyond repair, really. It needs to be pulled down and rebuilt from scratch.
The door opens behind her again, and she pulls her scarf more tightly around her already stiff neck. Alice isn’t getting any younger, either. She’s getting older and achier. She remembers her parents complaining about their aches and pains, remembers thinking that they exaggerated it all. But youngsters, learn this: your body really does get older. Joints actually do creak when you get up in the morning, really do seize up when you sit in a car for two hours. She knows what’s at the end of that particular tunnel. By the time you get to seventy, by the time you’ve been to as many funerals as they have, you have got used to that idea – you’ve had time to grasp the concept of your own mortality. But that doesn’t make it seem fair. It doesn’t mean that you necessarily feel as if you have lived everything that you were supposed to live.
“You all right?” Ken asks.
“Fine,” Alice says. “Just thinking about poor Jean, really.”
Ken nods. “Yeah. She’ll be in a right state,” he says, then, pointing, “Are you eating those, or… ?”
Alice shakes her head, smiles weakly and pushes the package of fries across the table.
Yes, it feels like a small life looking back on things. Even smaller these days as the high points – the summer holidays, the days on beaches with the kids and the dances of her youth – shrink and fade in the rear-view mirror. It’s not that she aimed high and failed, she never expected much. She didn’t come from the kind of people who hoped for much more than enough to eat and a dry, warmish house. To her parents, even these things were incredible, unexpected achievements. So no, she had never hoped for miracles, never expected a vast Premium Bond win. But she did think that at some stage she would have a sense that there had been some point to it all. She thought that at some point she would be overcome by a sense of contentment, like a cat on an armchair, perhaps, in the sun. She had expected to be able to stretch and yawn and look back on it all and think, “There, I did it! Now I can relax!”
Perhaps her problem is that she never took the time to define what “it” was. If only she had defined some goals for herself, then maybe she would feel like she had achieved them.
Ken is clapping his hands and standing, so she wrests herself from her sombre revery and pulls her attention back to the here and now of this day, of this journey. They’re on their way to a funeral. Of course she’s feeling a bit down. Who wouldn’t?
“Well,” Ken is saying, “that’s put some fuel in the old furnace. Shall we make a move?”
It is still raining as they merge back onto the motorway. Alice thinks that she hates winter, that she truly, honestly hates it. She has always felt as if she isn’t genetically adapted to survive an English winter. Perhaps her great, great grandparents weren’t from Russia, but the Middle East. Seeing as they were Jewish, it’s surely not impossible, is it? She wrinkles her nose at her own shocking lack of grasp of Jewish history. Their Jewishness wasn’t something her mother ever wanted to discuss.
Ken swings out to overtake a petrol tanker and has to drive through an opaque wall of spray from the tanker’s vast wheels. Alice winces until they come out the other side and vision is restored.
She wonders how Mike felt on the night of his death. She wonders if his life flashed before his eyes as it always does in films. And if it did flash before him, she wonders if Ken featured even briefly, if it contained glimpses of their shared fifty-year careers in the tyre remould business. She wonders what his happiest memories were. His kids, perhaps. His daughter has always seemed nice enough.
Alice has had moments of contentment too. Dozing off in a deck chair on a beach when the kids were younger, swimming in the sea with little Tim clamped to her back shrieking in her ear with excitement… They went to Cornwall for a few years in a row when Matt was a toddler. Ken had found a bargain cottage to rent, and they had gone back every year until the owner sold it. It had felt quite traumatic not being able to go there once the cheap deal ended.
“How many years did we go to Durgan?” she asks.
Ken looks at her and frowns. “Four? Five?” he says.
“That’s what I thought. Four.”
“No reason. I was just remembering.”
“You remember when Matt fell down those stairs?”
Alice is surprised that Ken dares mention that day. To stop Ken looking at her, she glances out of the side window. “Yes,” she says. “Yes, I do.”
It had been a beautiful summer’s day, and Matt had been, what? Five? Six? Something like that. They had meandered through the higgledy piggledy Cornish town, bought dribbling ice creams, had Coca-Colas on the seafront… And then they had wandered along the pier. Alice had wanted a photo, so she had asked Ken to pose with the kids, but they were on a sugar rush and had run off. And while she was looking through the viewfinder framing the stunning coastline in the background, there had come a shriek from behind her. Matt, it transpired, had run straight over the edge of a flight of stairs, had somehow failed to see them, had quite simply not stopped. He had cut his forehead, grazed his knees, split his lip and chipped a tooth.
Secretly, because she would never dare say such a thing, Alice held Ken responsible. He had, after all, been staring straight at Matt. “What happened?” she had asked him. “Did you see? How did he fall?” The sun had been in his eyes, Ken said. And she was their god-damned mother, not him.
They had held onto their anger long enough to assure themselves that no bones were broken, long enough to buy sticking plasters, and long enough to drive the crying children (Tim had joined in by that point) back to the cottage.
And then Ken had started drinking. Matt had “ruined” the day, he kept telling him. It was a waste of time trying do anything nice for any of them.
By the time he had downed his third beer, the focus of his fury had turned to Alice.
Those moments of contentment, those moments of relief, were so often fleeting, so often terminated by one of Ken’s thoroughly unreasonable temper tantrums. If her life flashed before her, Alice thinks that the happy snapshots would be as rare and fleeting as the English sun that shone upon them.
Perhaps that’s the real truth – that she just needed to live somewhere warmer. Because she has always been something of a sun-lizard, has never missed a single opportunity to turn her face to the sky and close her eyes. And all of her good memories were moments that were lit by sunshine, moments eased by warmth. She remembers herself at eighteen, lying in Canon Hill park with her head on Joe’s stomach. Some kids had been playing with a football and it had whacked Joe on the shoulder. Joe, always energetic, always full of beans, had jumped up and kicked it back across the green with surprising expertise.
She tries to push the image from her mind. It’s amazing how tenacious lost dreams can be. Incredible really, that such a simple memory like that, a simple memory of a sensation of uncomplicated happiness, can still feel haunting fifty years later.
“Look at that idiot,” Ken says as one of those new over-sized cars squeezes itself into the tiny gap between themselves and the car in front.
“Everyone is driving too fast anyway,” Alice says, pointedly.
“Bloody wankers in their Porsches,” Ken says.
And it’s true, Alice thinks, that the people in the big expensive cars are always a bit worse than everyone else. They’re always a little more pushy. They probably consider themselves invincible in their big steel boxes.
“Is that really a Porsche?” Alice asks. She always thought Porsche’s were little sports cars designed for insecure, middle-aged men with shrivelled up todgers.
“Yep. It’s basically the same car as a VW Touareg,” Ken informs, as if that’s supposed to mean something to her. “They’re made in the same factory.”
“Right,” Alice says. “Well, it’s very big. It’s like a lorry almost.”
“Awful in an accident,” Ken says. “It would flatten that little Panda in a pile-up.”
From the corner of his eye, Ken sees Alice gripping the handle. “Just relax will you?” he says. “You’re making me nervous.”
“You’re just a bit close, that’s all.”
“It’s not my fault if that idiot’s inserted himself bang in the middle of my braking distance.”
“No. But you can still slow down. That is allowed, I believe. Even when it’s not your fault.”
Just as Alice says this, the Porsche lurches back out into the fast lane and accelerates away. “There,” Ken says. “Better?”
“Yes,” Alice says, forcing herself to breathe. She looks at the little boxy car in front. It’s the same type of car that she and Dot had rented in Spain six years ago. It had been such fun driving that little car around those winding Spanish roads. She’d been nervous at first, of course – driving on the wrong side of the road and everything. And she had kept searching for the gearstick and the handbrake in the door-pocket – that had been embarrassing. But once she had got used to it, it had been lovely. The car had a leaky exhaust pipe too, she remembers now. It had made it sound like a sports car.
They’d had too much fun on that holiday, really. Dot had had a fling with… Alice can’t remember his name now… anyway, he had been the father of the young man who ran the hotel bar. Now there’s a story never to be told! Imagine if Dot’s husband ever found out about that! And while Dot had been otherwise occupied with Jorge – that was his name, pronounced hor-hey – Alice had been wined and dined by Jorge’s best friend Esteban. Esteban had not been Alice’s type at all, thank god. He had been way too hairy, way too… what’s that word? Ugh! It’s so annoying the way, when you get older, the words start to hide from you. Sometimes, as she tries to explain one word, she can’t think of the other similar word either. It happens more and more with people and places too. “She looks like that actress,” Alice will tell Ken. “You know… the one who’s in that film. The film made by… oh, gosh… by that actor who’s also a film director. The one who made…” And of course, she can’t remember the film that he made either. Sometimes she has to dig down three or four levels before she can start digging her way back out again.
Anyway, Esteban had been too hirsute, that’s the term. No one says hirsute anymore. It’s strange the way words go out of fashion. Alice always preferred clean-shaven men. And the mere thought of a hairy back has always been enough to make her shudder. Beards and moustaches look a bit sinister, don’t they? But the attention – Esteban’s attention – had been lovely. So she had let him believe. She had led him on a little. She had allowed poor Esteban to take her to dinner. And then she’d pretended, once she got home, that the holiday had been uneventful, boring even. In fact she’d so overcompensated the misery side of things that it became impossible for her to justify going with Dot again the following year.
Dot’s going again next summer, but to southern Spain this time, to Alicante. It’s even hotter down there, she reckons, and Alice would love to go with her. She thinks a proper holiday in the sun would do her the world of good, reckons it would ease her aches and pains, too. But how to approach it? It’s a bit like Christmas at Tim’s. She can’t work out how to organise it, how to mention it even without sounding like she’s asking Ken for his approval. Because what if Ken says ‘no’? And he’s pretty likely to say that. He’s bound to say that they can’t afford it, or that she didn’t even enjoy it last time or something like that. Even worse would be if he decided he wanted to come along. But that’s unlikely. Ken’s not keen on foreigners.
“Where’s Matt at the moment?” Alice asks, trying to forge a bridge she can use to move the conversation towards where she’s hoping to go. “Is he in France or Spain?”
“France,” Ken says. “As far as I know.”
“He was in Spain though, wasn’t he?”
“Yeah,” Ken says. “He was in Madrid. But now he’s in France, down south somewhere. He’s been in France for a while.”
“Dot’s off to Spain next summer.”
“Dot’s off to Spain every summer.”
“Maybe I’ll go with her and meet up with Matt somewhere.”
“Matt’s in France,” Ken says again, starting to sound exasperated.
“They do share a border, you know: France and Spain.”
“What, you’re hoping to wave to Matt from over the border?”
“No… it’s got nothing to do with Matt really, I just…”
“I’m not the one who brought Matt up.”
“No. I was just thinking it would be nice to go to Spain again.”
Ken shoots Alice one of his looks – a mixture of confusion and disdain.
“So what do you think?” Alice asks. “About Spain?”
“You know what I think about Spain,” Ken says. “Sweaty Spics and girls with moustaches and greasy food and tap water that gives you the squits. That’s what I think of Spain.”
“That’s verging on racist,” Alice says.
“It’s the truth,” Ken says. “And the last time I looked, Spain wasn’t a race. It’s a nationality.”
“It’s a country, actually. Spain is a country, and Span-ish is the nationality of those who live there.”
Ken blows out through pursed lips and shakes his head. “I can’t win with you, can I? I don’t know why I still try.”
Alice doesn’t risk replying. She laughs lightly to defuse the tension.
She thinks about Matt in France. She wonders what he’s doing. She wonders if he’s OK. She wonders if he’ll ever come home again.
He’ll be working some dead-end job, cleaning or packaging sausages or waiting in a restaurant – he has done all of these things. It’s such a waste, that’s the thing. Because, like herself, he could have done so much more.
“Dot says Matt’s just trying to find himself,” Alice says, unsure even as she says it why she has chosen this particular phrase to say out loud. “But I think it’s the opposite. I think he’s trying to lose himself.”
“Dot should mind her own onions,” Ken replies, misunderstanding entirely the context of Dot’s remark. And that’s Alice’s fault far more than it is Ken’s. She hadn’t, after all, provided any context.
But Ken doesn’t like Dot much, that’s for sure. Dot is a busy-body. She’s pernickety and sarcastic. She has an over-active thyroid which she claims explains much of her nervous disposition. But whatever the cause, she rubs Ken up the wrong way. Not that he has ever really approved of any of Alice’s friends. Even Lisa, her best friend all those years ago, he hated with a passion. Though that was probably Lisa’s fault, too. Lisa certainly hated Ken first. But what with Lisa moving to New Zealand, and Jenny Mayer dying; what with Jenny Parson now a full-blown alcoholic, that only leaves Dot. So no matter what Ken thinks, Alice isn’t going to give Dot up.
Lisa has been gone over twenty years now and still Alice misses her. She was the friend Alice felt closest to, the only one who ever really laughed at her jokes. It was a shock when Lisa and Jim moved away, a shock to have to realise that your biggest, most important friendship just didn’t weigh that much in the grand scheme of things, not when balanced against a better lifestyle, a bigger house with a pool and a major promotion for Jim. It’s normal to lose friends over the course of a lifetime: you fall out with some, you grow apart from others. A few die too. But to have someone just move to the other side of the world, well, that’s tough. And one thing’s for sure – it’s less and less easy to make new friends as you get older, there are so few opportunities for it.
Still, she has Dot, thank God. Dot gets on with her own husband Martin about as well as Alice gets on with Ken, so it’s a relationship based largely on bitching. But bitching, it turns out, is a surprisingly solid basis for a friendship. At the thought of the things they say, at the conversations they have about their respective husbands, Alice snorts almost undetectably. Ken, usually so slow to pick up any kind of subtlety, catches this one immediately.
“What?” he asks.
“Oh nothing,” Alice says. “I was just thinking about those Christmas decorations in Tesco.” When you have a tetchy husband, you develop coping mechanisms, such as always having an alibi at the ready.
One time, a couple of years back, Alice had been telling Dot what a relief it was that Ken no longer wanted to have sex. Dot had been laughing, lapping it up, goading Alice to go further, to be funnier and ruder. Alice had said something about Ken’s wrinkly wiener – a phrase she had heard on an American sitcom – and Dot had spat her wine all over the dining-table. But then they had heard a tiny voice coming seemingly from nowhere. “Hello, hello?” it said. Alice finally traced the little voice to her new mobile phone in her handbag. It had somehow dialled home, had mysteriously and, under the circumstances, dangerously, called Ken.
Terrified that he had overheard part of their conversation, and wracked with guilt, Alice had literally been trembling by the time she opened the front door that evening. But she had found Ken sober, calmly watching television. He had complained about the phone bill, of course. He had reminded her “for the thousandth time” to lock the keyboard – whatever that means. But that was it. She had got away with it. She was always very careful with her mobile after that.
“Chinese tyres,” Ken says prompting Alice to look out of the side window at the lorry they are overtaking. It says “Imperial Tyres” on the side.
“Imperial doesn’t sound very Chinese,” Alice comments.
“Well it’s not meant to, is it? That’s the point. That’s why they do it,” Ken says. “So you think they’re English.”
“I suppose they did have an empire once.”
“I think so.”
“Well, empire or not, their tyres are rubbish. Dangerous rubbish, at that.”
“You just don’t like the fact that they’re cheaper than remoulds,” Alice says. She has heard Ken say this enough times to know that it is true.
“You’re right. I don’t,” Ken says. “But they’re still rubbish. That Which magazine tested them all and the braking distances on the Chinky ones were terrible.”
Alice watches as the tyre truck indicates, then veers away from them, apparently taking its slippery Chinese tyres to rainy Blackburn. It’s funny, because she thinks that she can smell the load it’s carrying from here but it’s probably just her memory, it’s probably just because of the conversation and the fact that the odour of tyre rubber has permeated their entire lives.
Even when Ken had a whole chain of Re-Tyre stores, even when he was spending all day in the offices towards the end, he still came home smelling of rubber, still sat down of an evening emanating that bitter, metallic smell of recycled tyre rubber. No, her first choice would not have been to marry a tyre re-moulder even if they are still here, fifty years later. Who would ever have guessed that they would turn out to be quite so tenacious?
It’s not that she hates Ken, per-se. She’s so used to him that it’s hard to define quite where Ken ends and Alice begins these days. He just… irritates her really. He irritates her the way certain aspects of herself irritate her. He annoys her the way that her own brain annoys her when she can’t remember a word, the way her own hand annoys her when she discovers that it has put the tea bags in the freezer or her glasses in the fridge for no reason that she can identify.
If she hates anything, she hates her marriage to Ken rather than Ken himself. She hates the opportunities, the life which marrying Ken precluded. She should have had a career, that’s the thing – that’s the real disappointment, her real mistake. She was clever; she knows that she was. She was good with numbers and good with words. Her parents used to get her to do all of the adding up in her head. She was the one who had to help Robert with his schoolwork. Yes, like Matt, she could have done so much more. That’s why his lack of ambition upsets her so much.
Alice remembers their father drilling them at the kitchen table. “Alice!” he would shout, “What’s seven plus nine plus twenty three? Robert! What’s eleven plus nine take thirteen?” And even as Alice was adding up her own numbers, she would be bracing herself for the slap, either across Robert’s hands should he dare to start counting on his fingers, or across the back of his head if (as usual) he gave the wrong answer. “Tuppence short of a shilling,” that’s what people used to say about Robert, “A sandwich short of a picnic.”
If they had known how long he was going to be around, how transient his passage on the planet would be, then they might, just might, have been nicer to him. But they didn’t know, and the truth was that their parents’ generation had no idea whatsoever how to bring up a child with what these days they’d call special needs. Other than drilling him to be better and beating him when he failed, they were at a loss when faced with Robert’s unique brand of stupidity. Sometimes Alice managed to add up her own numbers and Robert’s numbers at the same time. On such occasions, she would announce her own answer whilst simultaneously indicating Robert’s answer discreetly on her fingers. But though she had explained the system often enough to him, he was rarely sharp enough, when placed under duress, to notice the unnatural splay of her hands.
Poor Robert, he had never known when to shut up, never known how to avoid their father’s wrath. One time, he had been supposed to make a toolbox in woodwork lessons. He had gone with their father to the ironmongers for wood, and Dad had been so proud, so hopeful that for once here was something his son could actually succeed at, that he had purchased not the cheap pine specified by the school, but expensive sheets of sheer, beautiful mahogany. And that was always going to be a bad move.
Poor Robert, perhaps overly stressed by the cost of the wood, or more likely, simply no better at woodwork than he was at anything else, had repeatedly failed to dove-tail the corners correctly, and as he repeatedly cut them off and started again, his box had got smaller and smaller. By the time he was finished, it was not a toolbox he had made but a so-called jewellery box – a tiny, ugly, trinket box with inch thick walls and wonky corners that the daylight shone through.
Dad had raged about the cost and the waste, and Mum had tried to make the most of the situation. She had even fetched a pair of earrings to put in that shoddy little box – her attempt at calming everyone down.
In a chilling silence, they had begun to eat dinner, Alice nervously tapping one foot against the chair leg, silently pleading with her eyes, secretly begging Robert, opposite, to remain silent. Because that was the thing about Robert, that was the one thing he could always be counted upon to achieve without fail: once the eye of the storm had passed, when everything was done and dusted, when everyone was finally starting to relax again, Robert could and would produce the one phrase, seemingly precision engineered to make everything kick off again. Alice hated him for it. And she hated herself for hating him.
That night, the night of the jewellery box, once everything was calm again, once dinner had been eaten and the box had been moved to the kitchen counter behind her, no longer the centre of attention. Once their father had, for once without blows being administered, moved onto a different subject and their mother was serving up bowls of banana and custard (Alice’s favourite), Robert had piped up.
“We’re going to make picture frames next week,” he had said, brightly. “We have to take in a picture to frame and some lengths of special wood called beading.”
Their father had cleared his throat. The effort he was expending in order to ignore his idiot son was palpable.
“Do they sell beading at Johnson’s, Dad?” Robert had asked. “Can we get some?”
“I’ll give you beading,” their father had said, standing sharply enough to knock his chair over. “I’ll give you bloody woodwork, you cheeky little shit.”
“Don’t, please!” Mum had shrieked, moving between Robert and their father.
And Alice, hating Robert in that instant as much as she had ever hated him, had started to gulp down her bananas and custard, trying to get as much of it inside her as possible, trying to eat her favourite dessert before it was too late, before it ended up on the floor.
“Can you remember Lizzie’s kids’ names?” Ken asks her out of the blue.
Alice frowns. She had actually been having trouble even remembering Mike’s daughter’s name, let alone her children’s names. “Lizzie?” she says. “Isn’t it Linda?”
“Oh, yes. You’re right. Linda. And the kids’ names?”
“Terry, Tim? Something with a T?” Alice offers. “Tom?”
“Yes, Tom and… Lucy maybe?”
“That’s it. But I doubt they’ll be there, Ken. They’re only four or five or something.”
“They’re at least ten.”
Alice frowns. “Really?”
It’s another cliché about getting older that’s always guaranteed to get the youngsters groaning, but yes, time really does go by faster as you get older. Alice remembers when she was a child, how the long hot summers seemed endless. Nowadays, it’s winter, summer, winter, summer, like Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. And yes, it honestly does seem only yesterday morning that the kids were still living at home, Tim working conscientiously in the dining room on his homework, Matt clomping around in his Doctor Marten boots singing Smiths’ songs. She had felt terrified when Matt left home for college. Alice had always felt that the children’s presence somehow protected her, like a good luck charm. If Ken was capable of being angry and occasionally violent in front of the children (and he was) then what on earth would he be like once they were gone, once there weren’t even any witnesses to his rage? But Ken, in fact, became calmer once Matt left home, as if, perhaps like Robert, it was the kids’ presence that had been winding him up all along.
That’s not to say that Alice is happier now that the boys have gone. For most of her marriage, the children felt like the only reason she was staying. If she’s honest with herself, she has no real idea why she’s still here. At first it was because of her parents – they had wanted this so much. Once they had died she had convinced herself that she was staying for Tim’s and Matt’s benefit. After they had left home, the idea of grandchildren kept her going for a while – she had been so excited about their arrival. But now they’re seven and nine and she hardly even sees them – Christmas is not the only time that Natalya is frosty.
She glances over at Ken and allows herself to ask the question: Why are you here, Alice?
Could it really just be a bad habit, like biting fingernails? Is it really possible that she’s still here merely because she doesn’t have enough imagination to picture an alternative, because she doesn’t have enough courage to pursue anything different?
Ken clicks on an indicator and starts to pull over into the exit lane.
“Are we there?” Alice asks, trying to catch a glimpse of the road-sign they’re just passing.
“Nearly,” Ken says. “We just need to get across town now. I hope there’s not too much traffic.” He shoots her a smile and Alice responds in kind before turning back to face the windscreen.
She has, she realises, been lost in her thoughts. The rain has stopped and she has no idea when that happened. There are even glimpses of blue sky to the east.
The main reason, she decides, that she never left Ken, is that no one else ever seemed to believe in the possibility. Because yes, she had been serious about it a few times. She remembers telling Tim, perhaps ten years ago, perhaps much more – time does fly – that she was leaving his father. Tim had laughed. “You’ll never leave Dad,” he had predicted, and he had been right. Lisa, too, had said almost the same thing. “We all feel like that sometimes,” she had said, managing not to see the black eye behind the sunglasses even as she pretended that she, herself, had walked into a door. “Sometimes you just have to hang on in there until it gets better,” she had said.
If one, single person had ever responded with, “You’re right, you should get out,” or even better, “I’ll help you,” then Alice would have left – she knows that to be true. Only they didn’t. They had found it as impossible to imagine Alice leaving Ken as she did herself. And here she still is. With hindsight, it looks as though they were right. It looks as though they were all right, all along.
One part of Alice’s brain questions why the other part is pondering all of this today of all days. Because the truth is that things haven’t been that bad recently – their marriage has certainly known more challenging periods. In truth, they’ve progressively settled into a routine of old-age that one could almost call comfortable. There are few surprises, either good or bad, but the days aren’t unpleasant. Ken reads the paper and watches the football and Alice loses herself in her endless stream of novels. With the Kindle that Tim bought her (she had been struggling increasingly with the small print in paperbacks) she doesn’t even need to go shopping between books anymore. She just clicks and downloads the next recommendation and off she goes.
“She’s always got her nose in a book, Alice has,” Ken jokes, never pausing to wonder why, never stopping to think about the fact that even the grimmest of fictional realities feels like escape to her.
Alice thinks about the novel she’s reading right now – one of Dot’s suggestions. It hasn’t really been doing the trick, hasn’t quite been hitting the spot. The story – of a woman in a miserable marriage dreaming of escape – is a bit close to home, that’s the thing. But Alice will finish it when she gets back. She always finishes every book she starts if it’s humanly possible to do so, because until you get to the end, there’s still hope. Until you reach that final page, there’s still the possibility of sudden, unexpected, thrilling escape.
Alice supposes that the same principles apply to life. Until you get to the end, there’s still hope. It’s why we don’t give up on life until the very end, until life gives up on us.
“Oops… running on empty, now,” Ken says, tapping the flashing petrol sign on the dashboard.
“Why didn’t you fill up at the services?”
“Too expensive,” Ken says. “I’m not paying silly motorway prices. I’ll fill up at Asda round the corner from Mike’s.”
“If we make it that far.”
“We will. We’ll be fine.”
Running on empty. Alice runs the phrase through her mind, because it kind of sums things up. She and Ken have been running on empty for years, and it’s amazing how far you can get just coasting along on a wing and a prayer, just rolling along on hope.
Her lot has been infinitely better than anything her parents had to live through. And what her grandparents (on her mother’s side) had to survive must have been horrific. So perhaps she’s done OK after all, considering… Her parents even had to pawn their wedding rings to pay for Granny Miriam’s funeral – imagine that! They never managed to save enough to redeem them, either. It became a standing – if rather sour – family joke. “Where are you off to, then?” her Dad would say. “Me?” Alice’s mum would reply. “Why, I thought I’d treat myself. I’m off to Herbert Brown’s to get me wedding ring back.” “Ooh, pick mine up while you’re there, would you?”
Alice dreamt for years of recovering her parents’ wedding rings for them. Long after they would have been melted down and turned into something else, she was still scheming to save enough money to get them back.
Alice looks down at her hands and sees that her right hand is fiddling with her own wedding ring, twisting it around and around on her finger. Considering what could have been, she’s probably being ungrateful. She should probably make more effort to see the positives.
She tries to list some of those now.
They have two reliable cars, her little Micra and this one, the Megane. They have a comfortable home and a fair little stash of money in the bank, even if Ken won’t ever let them spend any of it.
They have two healthy sons, though one of them is married to a crotchety Russian who won’t let her near, and the other is too busy losing himself on the continent to come home for Christmas or even pick up the phone.
If she keeps tagging negatives on the ends of her positives then this isn’t going to work, Alice reminds herself. She downloaded a book about positive thinking a few months back – it had been free on the Kindle – and not tagging negatives on the end of your positives is one of the few things she remembers. She tries again.
They have two, healthy, clever sons, and two gorgeous grandchildren. They’re in good health for their age, and they have a nice home and enough money to get by. She has never had to pawn her wedding ring, or anything else for that matter, and she has never once gone to bed hungry. She has a good friend in Dot. And… She chews the inside of her mouth as she tries to think of something else, anything else, and at that moment the sun finally breaks through the cloud cover. There, she thinks. She has all of this, and the sun’s come out.
“Almost there,” Ken says. “Good job too. I’m bursting for a pee.”
Alice glances at her watch. It’s a quarter to two. They might still arrive in time.
The house, which they have visited before, is a slightly pretentious, vaguely oversized new-build. It looks a little like those houses they have in American sitcoms. They park the car and walk to the shiny, blue, Downing-Street-style door. It’s opened by a woman wearing an apron. She’s holding a butter knife and a pot of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter not-quite-butter.
“Hello,” she says. “I’m Karen, the caterer. Are you here for the funeral?”
Ken nods. “We are. Sorry love, but can I use the loo?”
“It looks like we’re a bit late,” Alice says, glancing around at the empty rooms.
“They’ve just left,” Karen tells her. “But you’ll be fine. It’s not even half a mile away.”
“Can I give you a hand with sandwiches or something?” Alice asks. “There’s no reason why I have to–”
“No. Really, I’m fine,” Karen replies. “Jean will be happier if you go. She was worried about numbers… there aren’t… you know… as many as she had hoped.”
Once Karen has given Ken directions to the crematorium they walk briskly back to the car. Though the pavement is still wet from the recent rain, it’s turning into a bright, crisp day. The clouds are rapidly dissipating revealing a light, hazy blue sky. It’s somehow the perfect kind of weather for a funeral.
Once they are reseated in the car, Ken hesitates, his hand on the ignition key. “This isn’t going to look great, is it?” he asks.
“Turning up in the middle of the bleedin’ funeral.”
“It’ll be fine,” Alice says, restraining the urge to remind Ken whose fault it is that they’re late. “She said it’s just five minutes away.”
“Yep. And it’s already five to,” Ken says.
“Just go, will you?” Alice prompts, nodding at the road ahead. “Or it will be too late.”
“You reckon? It’s not better to, you know…”
“No, Ken. It’s not. Go!”
Alice begins to feel emotional even as they are arriving in the crematorium car park. Outside the building, they pass between people gathering for the next funeral or perhaps, judging by the blurred mascara and the shiny cheeks, stragglers from the previous one. It seems to be something of a production line.
A very young man in a badly fitting suit greets them and leads them to the chapel where the service is already in progress.
Ken attempts to walk towards the front rows where the other mourners are clustered, but Alice grabs his wrist and tugs him forcefully to the nearest pews at the rear of the room. She knows the protocol for late arrivals at funerals and weddings and, despite what Ken may imagine, barging your way to the front isn’t part of it.
Jean, already at the lectern talking tearfully about her husband, catches Alice’s eye, pauses, nods, and then continues. “It’s left such a big ‘ole,” she says, sounding with her dropped ‘H’s a bit like Pat from Eastenders. “That’s the fing. It’s so ‘ard to know ‘ow to carry on.”
Alice observes Jean struggling to speak, watches the tears running down her cheeks, notes the shuddering shoulders of those in the front row, and then begins to cry freely herself.
In the car on the way here Alice had found herself thinking a shameful thought. She had wondered if she would cry if Ken died, and had found herself coldly imagining the sheer embarrassment of a funeral where she might fail to summon a single tear for her dead husband. She had pushed that thought from her mind and had labeled herself a terrible person for even thinking it, but she realises now that she needn’t worry – of course she would cry. Even Alice isn’t hard enough to go to a funeral and not cry.
She looks at the plinth supporting the coffin and wonders if it will smoothly vanish the way it did at Betty Johnson’s funeral.
That unexpected movement, that silent slither from view, had seemed creepy and somehow too smooth, too technologically perfected to be suited to the occasion, as if the process of death needed perhaps to be violent and shocking rather than sleek, sanitised and aesthetically pleasing.
She wonders, as she wondered at Betty’s funeral, if they burn the coffin – which would seem a waste – or if they remove the body and reuse it – which would be a little gruesome. She wonders what the ovens look like, if they are in the same building, wonders if they are the same kind of thing the Germans used during the war. She read somewhere that Siemens had made those. They have a Siemens oven at home. It’s very fast to heat up, very efficient. Alice shudders.
Friends are taking it in turns to speak now, and they all agree on one thing: what a marvellous guy Mike was. Despite the fact that Ken worked with Mike pretty much his whole life, Ken has declined to speak today, thank God. Ken has never had much sense of decorum and Alice can just imagine the sort of toned-down wedding speech – all anecdotes and inappropriate jokes – that Ken might have delivered.
“He was always there,” a middle aged man is saying now, his voice gravelly with emotion. “That’s the thing. You could always rely on Mike.”
Alice reflects on the fact that every person you pass on the street, every person you have dealings with at the post office, every person your husband ever worked with, has been important to someone. Everyone has, at some point, deeply touched the lives of those around them. Even racist, bolshie, flashy Mike.
The man sits down and is replaced by Mike’s daughter Linda. “This is really hard,” she says, her voice wobbling like a toy that needs new batteries. “So I’m not gonna say much, except that he was the best dad that anyone could have. He was my whole world, really…” Linda collapses into tears and is lead away by a very good looking young man, presumably her new husband. Alice pulls a tissue from her sleeve and dabs at her eyes prompting Ken to reach for her hand and she lets him take it and squeeze it.
Alice wonders if Tim and Matt would say the same thing, if they would say, “She was the best mum, he was the best dad…” She doubts it, because they weren’t the best mum and dad really, were they? Even if they did do their best.
She had been too soft on them, and Ken, no doubt about it, had been too hard. She should probably have stood up to Ken more about that, but he was never an easy man to stand up to. So no, they hadn’t been perfect parents by any stretch of the imagination, but she truly had given it her best shot.
Nobody taught you how to raise children back then, that was the thing. These days there’s the television and the self-help books, there are pamphlets to read and the school psychologist to fall back on. In Alice’s day, you just had to wing it, you just had to get on with it as best you could.
They hadn’t been exactly bad at it, either. There had been worse parents around, parents whose kids ended up killing themselves, parents whose kids died of overdoses or ended up in prison. Her own parents had been very cold, very distant – they hadn’t seemed to consider it their role to adapt themselves to their children in any way – it had been the child’s role to be quiet, to shut up, to fit in. “Children should be seen and not heard,” they used to say. “Children should not speak unless spoken to.”
At least Tim and Matt will never have doubted that they were cared for. At least they have known that they were loved, even if Ken’s parenting did become increasingly authoritarian as they got older. At least they must never have feared that their parents were indifferent to their fates.
Mike’s son is reading a poem now – it’s the one from Four Weddings and a Funeral, that poem by Auden that everyone and his dog seems to have chosen for every funeral ever to have happened since that film came out. Alice groans internally.
It’s a lovely poem, but honestly, you would think there were no other poems out there. Alice must remember to tell someone that she doesn’t want Auden read at her own funeral. She can’t think of anything worse. She wants something quirky, something unusual from her big poetry book. Something by Sylvia Plath, perhaps.
Alice wonders who will die first, she or Ken. Generally, it’s the men who go first, but you can never be sure. Betty Johnson was five years older than Will, so no one expected her to go first. It’s the men who go suddenly, as far as she can see. Like Mike, one minute laughing, and the next just gone. The wives tend to favour years of battle with repeated surgery and toxic chemotherapy drips, before finally expiring in the cold light of a hospital ward, dosed to the eyeballs on morphine. Better to die like a man, Alice thinks. Better to suddenly, unexpectedly check out. Better to go laughing, like Mike.
She tries to imagine how she’d feel if Ken suddenly keeled over, but her mind comes up a blank. Perhaps it’s just too massive to be imagined. Or perhaps it’s too insignificant. Perhaps its significance would turn out to be precisely its insignificance. She thinks of a character in a novel she read a few months back. The girl in the novel kept waiting for her break-up to hit her, kept waiting to collapse over the unceremonious way her boyfriend had dumped her (by text message) only to realise eventually that she was happier without him. Could Alice’s biggest life trauma turn out to be losing her husband only to discover that her single fifty-year relationship hadn’t been that important after all?
It crosses Alice’s mind that if Ken died, she could go to Spain with Dot. She could go to Spain every year. She could go and live in bloody Spain. Disgusted at her own thought processes, Alice glances guiltily across at Ken. He looks up at her. His eyes are shiny with tears.
“You really are a terrible person,” Alice tells herself again.
Back at Jean’s house, Alice nibbles a sandwich and makes conversation with first Jean herself (It will get easier, I know it doesn’t feel like that now, but it will) and then with surprisingly together daughter Linda and her husband, James. They’re both rather lovely.
Beside her, Alice can hear Ken having one of his pointless blokey conversations about cars and routes and traffic. Something about the A58.
“And what about your lads?” Linda asks. “They’ve got two sons the same age as me and Doug,” she tells her husband as an aside. “We used to play together when we were kids.”
“They’re well,” Alice tells her. “Tim’s married with kids. He works in finance, which he seems very good at. He was the only child I ever knew who had more money at the end of the week than when you gave him his pocket money! He actually used to lend money to Matt with interest, can you believe that?”
“I think I remember that,” Linda says. “And he’s still with…?”
“Natalya,” Alice says. “Yes. And the boys are lovely. Boris and Alexander.”
“And Matt? What’s he up to?”
Alice clears her throat. “He’s good. He’s in France at the moment.”
“France! What’s he doing in France?”
Alice licks her lips. For how can she tell Linda that she doesn’t have much of an idea what Matt’s doing in France? How can she say that without sounding like an uncaring mother?
“He’s working in a hotel,” she says finally, “and working on his French.” And it’s only half a lie. Working in a hotel is the last thing she can remember Matt doing. And seeing as he’s in France, he’s bound to be working on his French.
“And he’s still single?” Linda asks. “I was a bit in love with Matt,” Linda tells her husband in a confidential tone of voice.
“I’m not sure how I feel about that,” James says.
“Oh, it was when she was about ten!” Alice explains. “And yes. He’s still single.”
But the truth, again, is that Alice has no idea if Matt is single or not. He has been gone so long – almost three years now – and even before he left he was always such a private person, such a secretive child. Neither she, nor she suspects, Ken, ever had much of a sense of who Matt really was or what kind of person Matt would end up with.
From his lack of competitive spirit to his dark, grungy clothes (what was it he called them? Goth?) From his strange friends to his penchant for dead pop stars, he was always somehow ‘other’ to them. He was always just out of reach.
Tim had been the only person who seemed to understand Matt, and even then it was only up to a point. They had always seemed close, at least until Matt had gone travelling. But even that closeness looked more to Alice like a kind of blanket acceptance on Tim’s part than any profound understanding of what made Matt tick. “It’s just how he is, Mum,” Tim would say whenever Alice asked him about Matt. “Why is all his music so dark?” she would ask. “Why do all of his clothes have to be black, Tim?” “Why is he wearing black eyeliner?” “Why would anyone get their nipple pierced?”
“That’s just Matt,” Tim would reply. “Don’t worry.”
The one reassuring thing was that Matt did tend to land on his feet. Despite failing all of his science subjects, he had managed to get into university to study art. And he’d been good at it, apparently. When he had dropped out, Matt had been, Tim said, in line for a first class degree. It had been just months before his finals.
Alice had so been looking forward to that ceremony. She had chosen a dress for herself and had been eyeing up new suits for both Ken and Matt. She had never even seen Matt in a suit before and had spent happy hours imagining the pride she would feel when they handed him his degree.
With both sons long gone from the family home, she had been well into the lonely phase of her marriage by then, and had learned to cling to such scheduled moments of happiness like a monkey to a tree in a hurricane. But then Matt had phoned home – he had wanted to borrow some money – and Alice had asked him to confirm the dates of his final exams, and he had admitted that he wasn’t even in Manchester anymore. He was in London, he said. He was living in a squat.
The phone call over, Alice had sat and wept at the telephone table, not for Matt, but selfishly for herself, for the dress she would no longer get to wear, for the hotel in Manchester that Ken wouldn’t book, for the restaurant where they would no longer celebrate, for the pride she wouldn’t get to feel. And when she was done with feeling sorry for Alice, she had sat and chewed her nails and worried, yet again, about Matt. But Matt bounced back. Matt always bounced back, and often this actively annoyed Alice. She frequently wished that life would teach Matt a lesson once and for all. Was that mean of her, to want her own son to stop getting away with blue-bloody-murder? Partly it was, she supposes. But partly it was borne of a genuine fear that if Matt didn’t learn soon that life wasn’t all-forgiving, then he’d end up falling out of the tree.
But life, it appeared, wasn’t out to teach Matt harsh lessons. Not this time. Not, seemingly, any time. Within a month of moving into the squat he had found a job – a good, well paid job working as a graphic designer in an advertising agency. Not that he would deign to stay there for long. He must have had ten jobs in the ten years he was in London. He would just walk out of a job any time anyone annoyed him. And that was often. Yes, he would walk out and never go back, as if jobs were unlimited. And for Matt, it seemed, they were.
And now he’s travelling. Travelling! As if travelling were a “thing”. As if travelling, like life, wasn’t meant to be about actually trying to get somewhere.
“We were going to move down to Manchester,” Linda is saying when Alice tunes back in. “We even had a house lined up, but we’re thinking we might stay here a little longer now, you know, for Mum.”
“Yes,” Alice says. “Yes, I’m sure she’ll appreciate that.”
She attempts to take a deep breath, but fails – it feels as if someone is sitting on her chest. She turns to Ken, still citing the numbers of various A roads to the man beside him. “I need to get a breath of fresh air,” she tells him. “I’ll be out in the garden.”
Alice steps out of the kitchen into the chilly twilight of the garden. It’s a long strip of land leading down a gently curved hill to a pvc-and-glass summerhouse at the bottom, lit by the almost blood-red sun which is setting behind it.
Drawn by the pretty summer house, Alice starts to cross the garden, her shoes crunching on the frost of the immaculate lawn. It’s literally freezing out here, and the air makes her lungs smart as she struggles for those still-elusive deep breaths. She thinks about this breathlessness, now so well known to her, so familiarly linked to thinking about, to worrying about Matt.
But it’s not just Matt, today, she realises. It’s a kind of all encompassing anxiety about… what exactly? As she walks she tries to break down, to categorise, to analyse the component parts of this strange mix of emotions.
She’s feeling a little ashamed, she realises. That’s part of it. She’s ashamed by her lack of relationship with her second child, of her inability to even speak confidently of his whereabouts. She’s also, if she thinks about it, ashamed of her relationship with Ken.
She’s feeling jealous, too. Jealous of Jean’s relationship with Mike which, even if Alice didn’t much like him, and even if it has now ended, was apparently powerful enough to leave Jean struggling to imagine how she can even carry on without him. She’s jealous of Jean’s relationship with her daughter too. Jealousy – it’s not a pleasant feeling to have to face up to, one of the seven deadly sins. But this feeling that she is having has a name, and that name – there’s no getting around it – is “jealousy”.
Linda is so pretty and together, she makes a perfect couple with elegantly suited, affable James. Other people’s families always look smoother, look more together from the outside, and that’s only because outsiders never get to see all of the hidden resentments, all of the grimy compromise, all of the unspoken tensions that lurk behind the scenes. Alice, of all people, knows this. And as Ken would point out, she can feel just as proud of Tim, who, with slim, pretty Natalya, provides a similar tableau of success to that displayed by Linda and James. Yes, plenty of people would look at Tim and Nat with their matching Rado watches and their kids running around in those outrageously pricey Dolce & Gabbana outfits and feel jealous of her and her own wonderful, successful, well balanced descendants.
As for the other one, well, Alice loves him too, of course she does. Is her problem with Matt just that she would so have loved her second child to be a girl? The thought has occasionally crossed her mind. Alice has always believed that a daughter would have been an ally for her in that house of men, whereas not only was Matt not her ally, but he seemingly did everything he could to make himself incomprehensible to both of them. Sometimes, just occasionally, Alice had even wondered if he could really be her child, wondered if someone hadn’t accidentally swapped the name tags around in the hospital.
There’s no doubt about that anymore, though. Matt has grown up to have Ken’s humpy nose, and Alice’s strong chin, her good teeth, and occasionally, when she looks at the back of his head, she’s unable to tell if it’s Matt or Tim she’s looking at. But psychologically, it was, for much of his childhood, like having a foreigner in the house, like having a guest from a different culture, someone from a far away place with incomprehensible customs. Ken blundered through pretending that his relationship with Matt was “fine” but Alice could tell that he felt the same way that she did. She saw the difference in the way he treated the two boys.
Alice reaches the summerhouse and peers inside to look at the interior. With the exception of one of those Japanese paraffin heaters and a three piece suite of basket-weave furniture, it’s entirely empty. It must be too cold to use in winter, too cold, probably, even with the heater on. But it must be a lovely place to sit and read in summer. It’s a shame they don’t have a bigger garden. Alice would love to have a summer house. She shivers and turns back towards the wake, still thinking about Matt.
One time, Ken’s father had given the boys some money to spend and they had driven to a big toyshop – a rare treat. Tim, who must have been eleven or twelve, had chosen a Hot Wheels racing set. It had clip-together plastic tracks and a loop-the-loop and a chicane and four little metal cars to race down the slope. Cars with genuine rubber tyres being something that Ken could relate to, he had seemed almost as excited about those Hot Wheels as Tim was.
Meanwhile Matt, holding Alice’s hand, had led her on a random meander around the shop, choosing a box of water-colours and a lampshade which projected stars on the ceiling, and a fluffy, pink monkey with battery operated cymbals, and an Action Man with Eagle Eyes who came equipped with three different military uniforms you could dress him in.
At the cash register Ken had frowned in disbelief. “This is what you want?” he had asked the boy, brandishing the monkey, which looked, with its stupid expression, almost as surprised at Matt’s decision as Ken was. “This rubbish?!”
“It’s fine, Ken,” Alice had said. “He can have what he wants. That’s the whole idea.”
“A monkey and a doll and paints?” Ken had asked, struggling to hold back something akin to anger. “A bloody lampshade?”
Matt had said nothing, he had merely nodded solemnly and stared at his feet. He had looked as if he might cry at any moment.
“It’s fine, Ken,” Alice had said, again. “Let him have what he wants. He’s a child!”
“Fine!” Ken had declared, pulling the ten pound notes from his pocket. And Alice had bitten her lip and sighed in relief that Matt had not mentioned the purple plastic horse with brushable hair that he had also chosen, the one toy that even Alice had baulked at, the one thing she had removed from the shopping basket.
With the image of that My Little Pony still in her mind’s eye, Alice reaches the back door. She steps back into the kitchen.
“Oh there you are,” Jean says. She has redone her makeup and looks almost normal. “Ken’s looking for you. He says he wants to head off before it gets dark.”
“It virtually is dark,” Alice replies. “The sun’s setting now.”
“I know,” Jean says, with a shrug. “But you know what Ken’s like.”
“Yes,” Alice says. “Yes, I know what Ken’s like.”
Alice stands in front of the bathroom mirror brushing her hair. She needs to go to the hairdressers, she thinks – her roots are showing through. But she doesn’t look so bad this morning, at least she doesn’t look as old as she has been looking. Winter has never been kind to skin but the flu she suffered in March had seemed to age her by about one hundred years, had dried up her complexion and left her looking as wrinkled as a tumble-dried sheet. Luckily, this morning, it looks like she might be returning from the dead, though it could just be an impression caused by the softer glow of the sunlight filtering through the frosted window of the bathroom. Or perhaps it’s just that her mood is also lifting now that the flu is behind her, now that the days are getting longer and the first flowers are blooming in the backyard.
From downstairs she hears the sound of the front door and notices as her body relaxes. Today is Sunday so Ken will be off to the newsagent’s for his Sunday Times. It’s one of the few of his many, many rituals that Alice actually likes, because if she’s honest, she’d probably rather get up to an empty house every day. She’s not much of a morning person, never has been really, and these silent Sunday mornings where she can just stare into the middle distance instead of talking to Ken, where she can listen to the house creaking instead of struggling to ignore the bad news spewing from the television, have always felt like little gifts from God.
She puts down the hairbrush and quietly opens the bathroom door. She holds her breath and listens. She hears the central heating boiler fire up. Other than that, the house is silent. She really is alone. She exhales slowly and heads downstairs.
In the kitchen, she fills and switches on the kettle, then looks out at their small back garden. Yes, the light this morning is lovely, and it makes her want to be somewhere else, on a beach, perhaps, or in the woods. On a mountain in Scotland or on a ferry going somewhere new. She suddenly wants to be anywhere but here – a familiar spring feeling that has haunted her regularly throughout her life. Perhaps she can convince Ken to go for a drive in the country when he gets back.
Automatically, unconsciously, she pulls a mug from a hook, drops a tea-bag in and pours on the boiling water. She sits at the kitchen table and warms her hands on the cup, notices the steam rising, sees dust motes floating in the sunlight.
She reaches for her Nokia and checks the screen. She has missed two calls from Dot and has a voice message. She smiles at this unexpected good news. Dot has been strangely absent for the last two weeks – it happens occasionally, generally when things are bad with Martin. Alice smiles. She’s glad Dot’s back. Perhaps, if there’s football for Ken to watch, she can go for a walk with Dot instead.
Alice raises the phone to her ear and simultaneously raises the mug to her lips. But at the sound of Dot’s brittle voice, she frowns and puts the cup back down, somehow the better to concentrate on the voice message. Because Dot doesn’t sound much like Dot today.
“Hi Alice, it’s me,” the message runs. “I’ve finally done it. I’ve left him. I, um… I need to talk to you. I’m staying in a little place in Edgebaston. It’s near Edith’s place but don’t tell Martin, he doesn’t know where I am. Oh, and don’t tell Ken either, please. You know those two are thick as chalk and cheese. Anyway, um… call me back, will you? Bye.”
Alice lowers the phone and frowns at it. As thick as chalk and cheese? Dot means as thick as thieves, surely. She swallows with difficulty. She wants to listen to the message again, but can’t remember which button to press and can’t risk deleting it, so she hangs up and dials her voicemail again. But even on the second and third listening, the message makes no sense to her. She understands what the words mean, she can hear what Dot is saying, but their meaning seems so out of context as to be almost an impossibility. Because when Alice last saw Dot she had not been about to leave Martin, not at all. In fact no woman in her seventies that Alice has ever known has been about to leave her husband. It’s simply not something which, in Alice’s universe, happens. She hangs up then redials and listens to the message for a fourth time and then she puts down the handset and stares at it – suddenly strange, suddenly alien to her, the bearer of surreal news. Eventually, after fifteen minutes, her brain starts to adjust. The idea that her best friend might truly be leaving her husband begins almost to make sense.
She reaches for her phone again and is dialling Dot’s number when she sees Ken’s shadow fall upon the patterned glass of the front door, hears his key in the lock. “Hiya,” he says, stepping into the hallway.
“Morning,” Alice replies, putting down the phone.
Ken approaches, the soles of his brogues tapping the hall tiles as he walks. He enters the kitchen and drops the considerable weight that is the Sunday Times onto the kitchen table. “It’s all Greece again,” he says.
“Grease?” Alice asks.
“Greece. The country. The Euro and all that palaver.”
“Oh,” Alice says, nodding, still stroking her mobile phone.
“Are you all right?” Ken asks.
Alice nods. “Yep,” she says. “You?”
“Of course,” Ken tells her, pulling off his coat and hanging it in the hall before returning to the kitchen. He looks at Alice questioningly. “Are you sure you’re OK?” he asks with unusual perspicacity.
Alice forces a smile. “Yes,” she insists. “I’m fine! I, um… I was thinking that I might nip out to the shops.”
“Really?” Ken asks. “We went yesterday. We got a whole carload of stuff, nearly a hundred and fifty quid’s worth.” Trust Ken to bring everything back to money.
“I know. But I fancy some fish. You know how it is when you just fancy something, and today I fancy fish.”
“There’s fish in the freezer,” Ken says.
“I fancy some fresh fish. It’s almost a craving.”
“Maybe you’re pregnant,” Ken laughs.
“Anyway, it’s Sunday, love,” Ken says. “You’d have to go to–”
“Tesco,” Alice says. “Yes. I know.” Tesco is perfect, Alice thinks. Tesco is in Edgebaston.
Knowing that Ken will find out about Dot soon enough and wondering why she is bothering to lie to him, Alice pulls on her coat, grabs her car keys from the hook, and glances back at Ken.
“You’re sure you’re all right?” he asks one more time, frowning deeply.
“Yes,” Alice says, crisply. “I just want some fish, that’s all.” She’ll have to come clean later, but for now, she simply doesn’t want to deal with Ken’s reactions until she has at least some handle on her own.
Outside in the sunshine, in something of a daze, she slides into the car, fastens her seatbelt, and pulls sharply away. She accelerates quickly to the end of the road, drives faster than usual through King’s Heath, and then unexpectedly, even to herself, pulls abruptly off the main road onto a lane leading to the cemetery. She feels younger this morning – younger and, like life, unpredictable. It’s strange.
She parks on the gravelly hard shoulder, turns off the engine and then pulls her phone from her handbag.
Dot answers immediately. “Alice?”
“Yes, it’s me. Is it true?” she asks, aware that she’s sounding abrupt.
“I’ve been trying to phone you,” Dot says.
“I know. I heard your message. Is it true, then?”
“That I’ve left him?”
“Of course it’s true. It was the Spain trip that you know… broke the camel’s back. D’you know what that bastard did? He only went into Thompson’s and cancelled my whole–”
“Dot,” Alice interrupts. “I’m in the car. I’m on my way to Tesco’s.”
“Tesco here? The Edgebaston one?”
“Then come. I’m just around the corner. And I need to see you.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“I’m in the same building as Edith from gym class. On Skipton Road. Do you remember?”
“Yes, just about.”
“Then come. I’ll make a pot of coffee.”
“I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
“Park in bay thirty-four.”
“That’s my space. They get funny about that stuff here.”
“Oh, OK. Bay thirty-four,” Alice repeats. She clicks on a button to end the call then returns the phone to her handbag. She shakes her head vigorously as if to dislodge something, then exhales slowly, starts the engine and swings the Micra around spitting gravel as she does so.
She’s feeling most peculiar, she really is. This Dot thing has left her feeling quite shaken up. She feels jittery and nervous. Her heart is beating faster than usual. She has a bead of sweat on her top lip. And then she works it out. She’s feeling excited. She hasn’t felt excited about anything for so long that the feeling is barely familiar to her, but yes, that’s definitely it. She’s excited. But why?
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