The morning before . . .
It was Tuesday morning and the Bence family were sitting down to breakfast at the little circular table in the dining room – a through-room between the sitting room and galley kitchen. The sun was reflecting from the wipe-clean plastic gingham table cloth, lighting upon the daisy-yellow wallpaper. On the wall, the textured border was mounding in places and peeling away in others. The house had not once been redecorated in the twenty-five years since Irving and Elaine Bence had moved into St Andrews Street. Or at least not since Irving had painted over the patterned wallpaper, border and all. The daisy-yellow colour now appeared rather trodden underfoot in places.
Chewing on a gristly streak of bacon, Irving was playing a toe along an unravelling strip of the threadbare rug. It was just one of the places in which their dead dog Herbert had clawed through. Irving often joked with bitter humour that it was only the stains on the rug that was holding it together. Yet that stained and tattered rug was moving from beneath them. As Irving toed the loose threads, he looked into the eyes of Herbert – a Schnauzer and Westie cross, a Wauzer – in the form of Archie’s A-level painting hanging on the wall above the table. Despite the psychedelic background colours, Herbert was sitting patiently, watching the family noisily eating their breakfast in silence.
With his cutlery facing upward, Archie looked around the table. ‘Where are the sausages, mum?’
‘We can only afford bacon or sausages,’ Elaine said to the table. ‘Not both.’
‘Well can we have sausages tomorrow instead, then?’ Archie asked, scratching his spiked hair with his fork. ‘We’re posh enough to have beans served in a bowl, but not posh enough for sausages?’
‘This bacon’s rank,’ said Judy, poking it around her plate. ‘I can’t eat this shit.’
‘Judy!’ Elaine snapped. ‘Do not use that language at the table.’ She tapped her knife against her plate to emphasise each coming word: ‘Do. Not. Use. That. Language. Ever. You’ll eat what you are given.’ She looked at Archie. ‘Both of you.’ Elaine picked a piece of toast from the rack, dug her knife into the melty-soft butter and buttered it.
Judy folded her black-laced arms beneath her chest and huffed. ‘When I was round at Clarissa’s they had duck eggs for breakfast,’ she said, curling her lips, running her eyes around the circumference of the plate. ‘And edible bacon. And sausages.’
‘Well maybe you can go to Clarissa’s for breakfast from now on then,’ Elaine replied.
‘Maybe I will,’ said Judy, folding her arms even tighter. ‘Only get tight duck’s butts round here.’ Judy smiled at her mother. The vehemence of her mother’s response knocked her smile in to the tiny sitting room next door.
‘We are not tight,’ she screamed, clutching the tablecloth in a grip so tight that it wrinkled the plastic past her plate. ‘Tight? We’re broke! Absolutely skin-tight skint. Okay? You?’ she asked Archie. ‘Do you get it?’ Archie chewed on his nervous grin. ‘And you,’ she turned on Irving, leaning on his elbow, still puzzling over the forbearing painting – he could almost see Herbert shuffling forward, the way he use to when he predicted a treat. ‘Can you understand that each pint you drink means a pack of sausages for us? Can you?’
‘It really is rather good, your painting, Arch,’ Irving mumbled into his wrist. The family all joined Irving in looking up at Herbert. ‘Cool as a cat, old Herbie looks. Can imagine him with sunglasses on. Ha. He could be in a doggie version of a boy band, he could, Lord rest his soul.’
‘Dad, it’s shit!’ said Judy.
‘Can you please not use that language at the table!’ The table shook beneath Elaine’s hand, rattling the crockery. ‘What is this? What are we, this family? A foul-mouthed daughter,’ she gestured with waved hand. ‘A son who’s left university early. And a . . . ?’ Elaine looked at Irving. She looked at the buttery fingerprint on the lens of his glasses. His thinning hair; the balding crown creeping towards the receding front, leaving a little tufty island of wiry mangrove roots. His beer belly. The oil-smothered letterbox mouth – a drain hole cover in the contours of his blanched, dull skin. The spot beneath his jaw and ear that he always missed when he shaved.
Irving looked up at her. ‘What?’ All the family were looking at him. He looked at each of them. ‘What?’
‘You’ve got ketchup all over your chin, dad,’ Judy said. Archie started to laugh. Rather than use the paper napkin, Irving slithered his tongue around beneath his bottom lip, showing the white streaks of fat and bread crumbs stuck to his exploring appendage.
Elaine picked a spot on the opposite wall and tried to knock it through with her glare.
‘Eurgh, dad, that’s gross,’ Judy said, screwing up her face, turning away. Archie was still laughing.
‘Waste not, want not,’ Irving said, making the job good with his finger, ‘that’s my motto.’
‘That is so grim,’ said Archie, pushing his plate away. ‘I don’t want any more.’
‘I’ll have it,’ Irving said, reaching for Archie’s plate and scraping the leftovers onto his own, the fork screeching. ‘More for the bin,’ he said, patting his belly. ‘But less for the bin man.’
‘I can’t watch,’ said Judy, shaking her head with a look like revulsion on her face. ‘I’m going to get ready for school.’ She scraped her chair back from the table, readjusting her black leather miniskirt with a wiggle. Archie made to move too.
‘I’m off, too,’ he said, pulling up the hood on his top, turning on his MP3 player and plugging the buds in his ears. ‘Jimmy’s picking me up in a bit,’ he yelled.
Irving smacked his lips, levering the next forkful of stiffened bacon in before he’d finished his mouthful. ‘Viff iv deliffouf,’ he mumbled through his mouthful, rubbing his pudgy stomach, stretching tight his polo shirt, his now fingerprint-grubby work attire.
‘Sit back down, please,’ Elaine said, hands folded on the table in front of her. ‘I have something to say first.’ She noticed a spilt breadcrumb in front of her, dabbed it with her finger and put it on her plate.
With a sigh, Judy turned around and bumped straight into Archie.
‘Supermassive black ho-le!’ Archie screeched into her face. Judy pushed his chest. He was leaning over her, not budging an inch. With his mouth almost kissing her ear, he changed the timbre of his voice and growled, ‘Supermassive black hole.’
‘Can you just please sit down?’ Elaine asked, her shoulders slumping.
Mid-mouthful, Irving stopped chewing and looked at her. She was picking at her nails; looking from one red square on the tablecloth to the next. He looked at the kids grappling, knocking into the weary-looking dragon plant. He looked back at Elaine. She was rubbing the pendant on her necklace between her forefinger and thumb. He saw the tremor in her lips. How she inhaled long and slow through her nose. He turned back to Archie and Judy, belly squashing against the table, reaching out, opened his mouth . . .
‘Kids, I –’
‘Just sit back down at the . . . damned table,’ Elaine shouted, her hair falling across her face. ‘Now!’
Irving’s hand hovered in mid-air, halfway to Archie. Holding onto the front of Archie’s hoodie, bent backwards, Judy stopped and looked into her mother’s face: lips curled back; the loose strands of hair caught between her eyelashes shifting with each blink.
Archie pulled Judy’s ponytail, forcing her further downward. ‘You’re the queen of the superficial,’ he sang in falsetto, the beat pouring in time from his headphones. ‘But ooo, baby, I’m . . .’
‘Archie!’ Irving grabbed hold of Archie’s arm. Judy dropped to the floor, landing on her bottom in a clatter of cheap jewellery.
‘Aw! Archie, you fu –’ She could just see her mother over the other side of the cluttered table, a wild dog stalking, daring her to finish. Judy pulled a face both grumpy and pained. Once more she readjusted her miniskirt and her pink and black striped stockings. Standing, she rubbed her elbow. ‘That really hurt, you dick.’ She dared to look at Elaine, hoping that her sulky face would redirect the wrath on to her brother. Her mother was sitting with her head in her hands; her hair yet more dishevelled.
Still the sound of Muse was beating from Archie’s headphones. Now he removed one earbud, his hood halfway back on his head and a slight flush of exertion on his cheeks. Looking at Irving, staring at the empty dishes and plates, he chewed on his lip stud. ‘Whasgoinon?’
Judy pulled her chair in, jolting against the table, making the crockery clatter. Her arms found their way back to beneath her bosom. She looked at the top of Elaine’s head, rising and falling steadily, prepared for a challenge. Her lip curled as she glanced over at Irving’s belly smiling over the edge of the table. A frond fell from the weeping head of the dragon tree and nestled in the white mould on the soil. The only other noise in the room was Irving’s heavy breathing. Archie decided to break that silence.
‘What? What is it?’ No one was looking at anyone. Reaching up, Archie pulled his hood down, shook out his shoulders and held out his hands, shoulder height, as if preparing to receive the divination of the Holy Spirit. ‘Time of the month, or something, mum? Do you still even do that any more?’ Even his pierced lip didn’t raise objections from Elaine. ‘Oh-kay . . . well if I’m not needed here . . .’
Irving gripped Archie’s wrist, not as tightly. ‘Arch, just sit down yeah, mate? I think that your mother has something to say . . .’
~ ~ ~
One evening in October of 1994, Irving Bence was working behind the bar in the Student Union of the University of Hull. Or rather, he was slacking off. He had turned up for work drunk. He had continued to drink. And rather then working, he continued to party. Irving was in the final year of his three year Business Economics degree, specialising in World Economics. International currency trading: that was his end goal. Lots of jobs available; lots of money. The course was just a course; it would take care of itself. University was the time of his life.
After the first year had ended and his eyes had been opened to the freedom and independence of being a student, most of Irving’s new friends settled in to the hard work required of the second year studies. But not for Irving and his closest crew of mates. Any night away from the Union meant a trip to one of the music venues – the Adelphi in de Grey Street, The Blue Lamp on Norfolk Street (where the music was crap but the booze was cheap), Caesar’s Palace or Biarritz on George Street for a boogie, Evolution for a drug-spiked rave, Rumour’s before it was demolished – to let his thick dark hair down, a Manc bob, just like Ian Brown from The Stone Roses. But Irving was in the Union bar on that October evening when he met Elaine Jameson, a fresher, the freshest of freshers that he’d ever set his roving eyes upon.
It wasn’t just the Manc bob that attracted Irving to Elaine. Sure, he was popular, an extrovert –which, in her cashmere cardigan and her both careful and dedicated approach to her Mental Health Nursing degree, Elaine most definitely pinned her card to the introvert side of the board – but it was mostly Irving’s broad Lancashire accent that first sent Elaine all a-tizzy. Coming from a safe little hamlet outside Mildenhall in Suffolk, where the grass-fed meat came from a trusted local butcher and the groceries were delivered weekly, directly from a nearby farm, Elaine had only ever seen boys act with such carefree abandon on Thursday night’s Top of the Pops. Before university, she had only ever shaken her stuff in bedroom once her homework was completed; never in public. Yet here was a boy doing handstands on a table, showing his flat and toned stomach and the band of his supermarket-bought underwear to anyone who was watching – which was everyone. Once she had caught the eye of this dramatic character and attempted to hide behind her jaw-length hair, it didn’t start well for Elaine.
Doing an impression of Patrick Swayze sauntering down the aisle at the end of Dirty Dancing, to the rhythms of KC and the Sunshine Band’s ‘I Get Lifted’, Irving made his way over to the pretty young fresher sipping on her glass of white wine, his eyes and pout dancing up and down her body, the lights behind him red, blue and green, and he said, ‘Wow, I bet you’ve got great tits, lov’.’ So Elaine, before saying a word, threw her wine in Irving’s sweaty face. With a shake of his bob, sharing the spilling with Elaine and those around, Irving began licking his face. ‘Fanks, pet. I needed a drink, I did.’
Everyone was watching and laughing; the loud music secondary to what was going to happen next between the fresh-faced fresher and the Danny Zuko of the University of Hull, circa 1994. The faces around her were all so happy, so drunk, so vile; all of their hilarity directed at her like some silly schoolyard game. Dripping wet and caring not a jot, this wild boy was dipping and twisting to the funky guitar rhythm. Elaine could feel that she was about to cry, the first swell rising behind her eyes, pinned in the disco lights like an abductee in a B-movie. She put her hand to her mouth, her face downward towards the sticky carpet. She wanted home. She wanted a quiet late-summer garden and gentle white light. And then she was enveloped by a rather moist form.
‘Sorry, lov’,’ she heard close in her ear. ‘Didn’t mean to upset you. ‘Ere, let’s go and get some air, yeah?’ And Irving Bence took her soft-skinned hand in the palm of his sticky, sweaty one and led her, still face down, away from the crowd. ‘Get to fok, you lot,’ he added.
He was never like that again, in her presence. He was actually rather gentlemanly. When they went out to club nights it was more discotheque than rave; when they ate and drank together it was freshly prepared food and just a drink, or two at most. It was walks after her study was done and early nights when she needed it. And that was where the south side of the long road into the future began.
Elaine hated residence in halls. She had a room smaller than the pantry back home and the communal bathroom was damp, never cleaned and about as private as a public swimming baths. Other students played beer can skittles through the night, set off fire alarms for a joke, unleashed the fire hose in the corridor outside her room, had after-hours, all hours, parties after the Union had closed for the night, all screeching like she was caged in an asylum of loons. Being a couple of years older, Irving had his own room, a huge room, in the attic of a shared house in a relatively quiet area of the city. Beneath the wide sash window, with a stunning view of the city and the Humber Bridge, he had a desk that Elaine could work at. When she was studying he always gave her the space that she needed, quietly leaving the odd pot of jasmine tea at her elbow. For the quiet nights in, he had a record player and played her things like Chet Baker, Elgar, his favourite Puccini arias – always sung by “Fat Luci”, A K A Pavarotti – and old Hull alumni Everything But The Girl, music that Elaine had never heard, but adored; music that Irving’s hoards of friends didn’t know about his secret passion for. Elaine knew the secret side to this enigmatic man. She had come to fall in love with it.
They had became Irving and Elaine, names that he joked sounded like “We’re out of The Forsyte Saga, or somat.” She’d never even heard of the Forsyte Saga. When he talked to her about Hardy, Keats, Hugo, Lawrence, Dumas he became incredibly animated; he didn’t just talk about these writers and poets, he enthused. Aside from the obnoxious first comment about her tits, he was an incredibly romantic man in those early days. With the knowledge he shared, his keen sense of glorious arts that were previously unknown to her, this Northern rogue had wooed his pretty, angelic Anglian.
They chatted long into the night, listened to each other when they spoke of their worries and dreams, their passions and peculiarities. They laughed and they loved. They made love. And in that embrace of the two young lovers, carefree, so close and content, Archie was conceived.
Elaine was badly shaken by the pregnancy and hid it from Irving for as long as she could. She was torn between a career and her future. What would her mother think if she knew? But then also what would her mother think if she terminated a life? She had no one with whom she could speak. When she tried, she met on campus with a tight-lipped, conservative spinster whose only advice was to do what she thought was best for her – but that if she were in her situation she couldn’t see a future for the child and she would terminate and to be more careful in future.
It transpired that Elaine didn’t have to tell Irving, as such. With the even earlier nights, curling up to sleep in a foetal position, sobbing quietly; her sudden reluctance to share her body with him; the refusal of any alcoholic drink – even though she’d never had much of a stomach for it on a regular basis . . . Irving guessed that Elaine was seeing another man.
‘Don’t be such an idiot, you idiot,’ she said, red-faced and crying freely. ‘I love you,’ she whispered. ‘I do. It’s just . . .’
‘But Laney, you’ve been so upset lately,’ he said, rubbing her back. The scent of lavender spiralling from the oil burner filled the room. Irving breathed of it deeply. He so associated that scent with Elaine that he burned it even on the rare night when she wasn’t there with him – not that he’d ever liked it that much. It made her feel close even when she was elsewhere. He couldn’t imagine ever loving anyone as much as he did this girl. Anything that he hadn’t been so keen on at first – a little banana-shape of cellulite beneath the buttocks; the way that her jaw sometimes clicked when she was eating; the way that the tip of her nose wriggled when she spoke – he now adored; he wouldn’t live without them. He wouldn’t have her any other way. The fact that she was upset unsettled his heart. But he felt that there was a ‘but’ coming. He tried to imagine rubbing someone else’s back, comforting someone else in a time of need, someone who wasn’t Elaine. He couldn’t bear to. This shape of her, the touch of her cashmere cardigan, all of it was now a part of him, something that he longed for more than anything. He thought of all of the things that he had sacrificed since he’d met her last year: partying and all of its hedonistic attributes, nightly seeing his friends, regular (and irregular) sex, his one chance at experiencing university life proper, study – although, if he were being honest, he’d had more opportunity to study, if anything, and had instead chosen to read Penguin Classics and listen to Bix Beiderbecke. ‘What? he said. ‘What is it, then? You . . . ?’ Something clicked. Her face when she looked at him: tears streaming, red eyes, runny nose; inconsolable. Oh shit! Oh no. No. No no no. His lips began to tremble.
‘You’re . . .’ His voice cracked. ‘Ill?’ She allowed him to pull her to him, to nuzzle into his armpit. Her shoulders felt so bony, so weak, so vulnerable. He should have noticed. He should have guessed. Now it made sense. No wonder she didn’t want to drink with him and sleep with him. ‘Really ill. Oh, Laney. Oh, no.’
‘No-oo,’ she sobbed.
Through his devastation and through his confusion Irving’s mind was a-whirr. And then the something that had clicked fell into its proper place. And he thought, Oh shit. Oh shit! On no. No no no no no. What does this mean? What does this mean?
After fitfully sleeping on it, as Elaine didn’t really want to talk – and, well, she couldn’t – Irving spoke of the future, of a safety net. That it wasn’t so bad; that they could find a way. He was going to be a big earner someday, anyway, so what did it all matter, really? They were supposed to be together. This was all a little sooner than they might have expected, but they could make it right. That this was their real start.
‘What about my course, though, Irving?’ Elaine said. ‘I’ve barely even started it. I’m still in my first year. I’m only just nineteen!’
‘Well . . .’ Looking out of the window at the glistening sheet of the Humber, Irving stroked his chin. ‘There’s this thing called the World Wide Web, okay?’
‘Yes, Irving,’ Elaine replied. Even though her eyes were puffy, swollen and red she managed to roll them. She pulled the sheets up higher. ‘I have heard of the internet; I know that “Op North” you’re a little behind the times. But I hardly think that I’m going to be able use it to complete my studies at home.’
‘Not yet,’ Irving said, pointing a finger in the air, ‘but soon, my sweet.’ He sat down on the bed next to her, an arm over the duvet, trying to rub approximately where her tummy was until she moved his hand away. They both sighed at the same time. The silence in the room had a thousand questions but offered no answers. ‘If we’re going to be together anyway . . .’
‘It’s not about if we’re going to be together,’ Elaine said, turning over to face him. ‘It’s about my future. It’s about my youth. My life.’
‘One day, Lanes, I’m going to be a big earner, so –’
‘Then do it,’ she interrupted. ‘Go and do it. Because if we’re going to do this then we need to do it now. And there’s no way that we can do it now, is there? Is there?’ She rubbed his arm. She could feel that it was tense; that he’d got used to the idea already. That he liked the idea of becoming a dad. But a year ago he was doing handstands on tables and basically acting like a kid. How could she see him as a father – a kid with a kid? And she wasn’t even a year out of high-school. They wouldn’t even be forty when the baby was twenty. It was the entirety of their youth just – poof – gone. She turned away from him. ‘Irving, I’m sorry, I don’t think that I can keep it.’
Of course they didn’t terminate Archie. They’d both had to drop out of university; they even lived apart for a little while when Elaine’s mother insisted that she live at home for the duration of the pregnancy. So Irving had used that time, living in a tiny studio flat near to the River Lark in Bury St. Edmunds, to save as much money as he could, in his temporary job in a paper merchants in the Rougham Industrial Estate – even when searching for jobs in the city became easier on the World Wide Web, Irving just couldn’t find the job of his dreams. He took overtime where he could and did manage to save enough money to secure a mortgage on a little two up, two down in St. Andrews Street in Mildenhall, just like the one that he’d grown up in, in time for the arrival of little Archie.
‘It’s only a temporary measure,’ Irving told Elaine as she looked over the freshly painted dining room, babe in arms. ‘When I get the job in the city we’ll move somewhere bigger.’
‘You’ve painted over the wallpaper, have you?’ Elaine asked, looking at the visible line of the border halfway up the wall.
‘Uh-huh,’ Irving replied, arm around Elaine, looking down at their sleeping child. ‘Daisy-yellow. Do you like it?’
Elaine looked back through to the sitting room, straight through to the front door and then straight through to this room and then straight through to the galley kitchen that led straight through to the damp-smelling bathroom in the lean-to. She’d grown up in a four bedroom detached house, with a barn conversion for when the family had guests to stay, and had again lived in it for the past five months or so. Her parents had offered to convert the barn further so that Elaine could live in it with the child. The only issue was that it came with the stipulation that she leave Irving; that they help her with raising the child themselves so that she could complete her training in West Suffolk College. ‘There’s a lovely-looking course in Children’s Care,’ her mother had told her in her breathy whisper of a voice that smelled of potpourri. ‘I think that you’d make a lovely teacher,’ she told her. ‘I’m sure that you’ll meet some lovely people there.’ Elaine had never had a single doubt about staying with Irving, but she did have doubts about the dingy terraced house that she now found herself in, which was most definitely not lovely. It was only a single step up from the halls of residence. She thought of the friends that she had made there, back there again now for the second year. She itched at her temple.
‘Garden’s an alright size, it is,’ Irving continued when she didn’t answer. ‘It’ll do fine for now. At least it finds us on the ladder.’ Elaine looked at the side of Irving’s face, at the paint in his scruffy Manc bob. He was pleased about this house. She’d had friends at school who had grown up in houses just like this. It was a memory that she wasn’t proud of at all, but she’d always pitied those friends, felt so sorry for them to grow up in such wretched accommodation. It was of those friends that she thought of now. What had become of them? Their home lives had never seemed to be happy ones, the kind of “put up with our lot” parents where a trip to McDonalds was a real treat. Well she’d grown up visiting places like Longleat Safari Park as a treat, driving down for the day in daddy’s Bentley – renewed every three years, latest; on average probably less than two.
She peered through to the kitchen, the little stand up electric cooker with the glow hot plates as a hob. The kitchen cupboards were a horror, the kind of thing that one set of her grandparents had had since they’d been new in the fifties, or before: painted yellow doors and sliding reed glass cabinets. Behind her, to the right, she could see the bottom of a dark and narrow staircase, the door at the bottom with a hook-and-eye latch. Elaine looked back at the side of Irving’s face. Sensing it, he turned to face her and smiled, a quick squeeze to the shoulder. She tried to smile back, a stilted attempt. ‘Can I see upstairs, please?’
‘Of course you can, lov’,’ he replied. ‘It’s your house, you know. Follow me.’
This is my house, she thought. Oh hell.
On the way up the steep stairs creaked. The floorboards continued to creak as she followed him through the door on the left, opposite the door on the right: the upstairs. Irving had made this room into the nursery. It was bright and white, with blotchy stencils of animals on the wall. The furniture was beautiful, a handcrafted walnut wardrobe and dresser: her parents’ contribution to the move. Elaine walked over to the cot. ‘Look, your new bed, Archie.’ She put a hand on it and it rattled. As well as not feeling sturdy, it didn’t look it either. It looked like a local headline, a Watchdog article, a death trap. When Irving wasn’t around she’d have to put it back together properly. At least little Archie would only be sleeping in the Moses basket for the time being.
Irving was walking to the window. ‘Light’s good in here,’ he said. ‘Look, through the window. Caff right opposite and there’s a Wilko up the street. We’ve got it made, pet.’ She loved him very much. He was a sweet, sweet man. But she’d have to find out how temporary temporary was. ‘Now for the master bedroom,’ Irving said, affecting a southern accent, hand on his flat stomach.
They stepped over the top of the staircase and through to the second bedroom. It was exactly the same size and shape as the nursery, a fairly good size double bedroom, but the furniture was nothing like as nice. The bed was a divan that, again, might have been handed down from an elderly relative. The wardrobe was just a frame with a fabric covering, a roll up front and slatted shelves. There was no furniture covering the chimney breast in here, just a vent in the wavy plasterboard.
‘The curtains came with the house,’ Irving said. Elaine could smell the dust from the curtains from where she was standing – in the doorway. Looking at the heavy, brown lined curtains that were about as old as the Bayeux Tapestry, but way more faded, Elaine began to wish that perhaps they hadn’t got the house unless the previous owners – if they had, indeed, walked or shuffled out and not had to have been carried to a waiting ambulance – had insisted that the sale not go ahead unless they could take the curtains with them. Archie sneezed. She readjusted him on her hip. ‘You know, we can change them later. They’re only temporary.’ Elaine bit her lip, for now. ‘And through here is your brand new dressing room!’
So transfixed was she with the grim gift of the curtains, Elaine hadn’t even noticed the additional door on the far side of the room. She followed Irving around the bed, through a sag in the floor, and down two creaky steps through to the added-on room, above the lean-to bathroom. ‘So, the damp seems to have come back through already,’ Irving said as Elaine noticed the brown, green and yellow patches forming on the interior walls, ‘but I’ll soon fix that. And from here you can see right down the garden, look.’ Sure enough, the view was over all of the long, narrow gardens, peering straight on to the high wall of the petrol station at the far end, just beyond the shed with the holes in it.
‘It’s a bit –’
‘Yep, it’s overgrown just at the moment,’ Irving finished. ‘Won’t be but a morning’s work.’ Smiling, he gripped her shoulders. ‘Once we’ve done a bit of work on the place, it’ll be right grand, you’ll see.’ He kissed Archie on the head. ‘You’ll love it too, little man. Here . . .’ Irving took Archie in his arms and showed him the window with a view. ‘What do you reckon, lad? Kick a ball around out there with the old man? Huh?’ Archie looked from Irving to the garden to Irving to the petrol station wall, betraying no emotion. He looked at Elaine. She saw, in that look, that he had her genes. ‘You could even get a desk in here, if you wanted, lov’. And it will be your dressing room only, just yours.’
She was looking at the picture that he had hung on the wall, his arm around her in the Union: her looking demure and Irving pouting, drunk, in his Violent Femmes tee-shirt.
‘Irving,’ Elaine said, surveying the virulent-looking damp, ‘it hasn’t got any curtains. I don’t want the neighbourhood looking in at me when I’m getting changed.’
‘I know,’ he said, ‘I know. I’ll get you some this weekend. In the meanwhile I’ll take those net ones from the sitting room and string them up in here, or something. Just as a temporary measure.’
~ ~ ~
At the breakfast table, Archie slumped back down in his chair, knees against the table, rocking on the back legs. Judy was glaring at the shiny tablecloth. Playing with his protruding nose hairs, Irving was looking at each of his kids in turn, and then he stared at Herbert’s portrait. Unfurling her hands, Elaine looked up at Irving, at the second and third chins brought on by his posture, at the stained polo shirt, the dimples in the landscape of the disappeared cheekbones. And she asked herself the question again, the one that had recently been asking of her with regularity.
Elaine loved her both of her kids, always had, and that could never be bought to question. She would do anything for them, anything at all; nothing was boundary to that love. It had been their choice, her and Irving, to bring them up in this house, always waiting to move onwards and upwards. Except for the ladder that Irving had assured her that they had found themselves upon nearly twenty years ago proved to be a step ladder of few rungs. In fact, with each time that they’d had to remortgage, Elaine had found that the ladder had a greater length below ground level. Sure, the kids had loved their family treat of a trip to fast food restaurants when they’d been growing up, but in that was where the real issue lay: Elaine had become the terraced house nuclear family that she had looked upon with such pity in her youth, the ones who put up with their lot. Temporary had become interminable.
Elaine had been thinking of her sister Penelope more and more. They had been brought up with the same basic moral values – or judgement – so she knew what her sister thought of her stuck in this house as she rode her horses from the paddock adjoined to her land and out through the Kentish countryside on any day of the week that she wished. Both of Penelope’s children had received the very best education and would soon be furthering that at either Oxford or Cambridge, whichever they decided to choose. Archie had left Leeds University after two semesters, and when Judy was asked if she wished to go to university she always answered “Don’t see the point.” Which was probably a good thing, as how many times could one couple remortgage a house? When does that two-way ladder reach the absolute bottom? Because it was surely within just a small drop. Whilst her sister had gone from Jameson to Launceston, Elaine had gone from Jameson to Bence.
To stay with Irving, as the father of her child, those twenty years earlier had not just been proving a point to her parents – and later her sister. She had wanted him to be the man who would help raise her children. Yet he had promised her temporary measures. The only promise that he had really been able to fulfil was to replace the net curtains in the dressing room with a pair that were less than opaque. Those same net curtains still hung in the sitting room. The only use for net curtains was to shield yourselves from the ignominy of people looking in through your front window. You didn’t need them if you lived in a four bedroom house with a driveway, for goodness sakes. Lately Elaine had started buying lottery tickets, just on a temporary basis, hoping that someone somewhere – Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere or Merlin – would realise that she deserved more than this. So, as she looked at Irving she wondered about that question, once more: if she really did still love him.
He still worked at his temporary job in the paper mill, his only promotion in twenty years being to floor supervisor, where the requisite attire was still only polo shirt, and a fleece in colder weather. He was devoted the children, always had been, but was absolutely useless where it came to encouraging them to better themselves, to set and achieve targets, forever reassuring them with “Well, your mother and I left university early and it didn’t do us any harm.” To contest that was almost to deny Archie his right to an existence. But to agree with Irving was to neglect the chance for their children to live a life better than this: one of merely living; and not altogether happily. Elaine wasn’t yet forty years old. Her figure was still slim – alongside her youthful appearance, the one thing that she’d been able to maintain – and she didn’t feel old. She still had friends who went out three nights a week looking for their next hot date! And sometimes she caught lingering looks from some of Archie’s friends. Irving was only just the other side of the landmark age, yet he looked all but fifty. Her father had been completely bald by the time he was in his late thirties, just the half-circle of hair from ear to ear, yet it had lent him an air of superiority, a great distinction reflecting his affluence. Irving just looked as though his Manc bob had fallen out sporadically through lack of care and ill diet. Alongside his beautiful hair, it had first been his Lancashire accent that had sent her all a-tizzy those years ago. Now it just sounded like the steam from a hotpot.
‘Can you please stop pulling at your nose hair, Irving,’ she said. ‘Go and trim them if you must, but not until we’ve had a crisis meeting.’ Looking at Elaine, Irving attempted to stuff the offending hairs back into his nostrils, ran a finger quickly back and forth beneath his nose, and then, with a sniff, folded his arms over his belly.
‘What crisis, mum?’ Judy asked. ‘I’ve really got to get ready for school.’
‘You mean that Kenny Drew’s waiting for you on the corner,’ Archie said, biting his lip and grinning simultaneously.
‘Piss off,’ Judy sneered.
‘Right,’ Judy said. ‘That’s enough now. Both of you. Archie, turn off your music. And that is the last time that I ever want to hear any of that language at the table. Okay? I’m not having it any more.’
‘Your mom’s right, kids,’ Irving whistled. ‘It’s no way to behave at the table.’ Stroking a thumb over one of his bulging man breasts, Irving nodded sagely at Elaine. She took a quick sip of tea from a teacup, rather than a mug as Irving preferred.
‘This is about you, too,’ Elaine told Irving. She put her fingertips together in kind of two-barrelled gun and tapped them on the table at each of them in turn. ‘This is about all of us. It’s not just the language, the behaviour, it’s how we live. This house is not big enough for the mess that you all create. And then you just expect me to tidy it up after you. A maid probably gets better pay than I do at the college’ – rather than enrolling as a student after Elaine first gave birth to Archie, she had found a part-time job as enrolment secretary at West Suffolk College; so, in a way, her vocation was in children’s care, after all – ‘and yet still I’m the main breadwinner of this family.’ This comment was aimed towards Irving, even as the fingertip gun was pointing towards her own chin. ‘Yes,’ she continued to Irving, ‘I have been endlessly wondering if I’d be better off on my own, starting anew, rather than supplying for those who don’t appreciate it, who have no get-up-and-go, who just take me for granted.’ Elaine looked at each of the dumbstruck faces looking back at her – or at the portrait of Herbert. No one could look her in the eye, it seemed, like catching a chubby thief outside the bakery with crumbs around their mouth. ‘So, if things don’t change then I will go. I’ve not had any new clothes for myself since . . . I don’t know when. All of my money goes on keeping you lot. You, Irving, just go out drinking with your friends. Judy . . .’ Elaine waited for Judy to lift her sulking head. ‘You expect anything that you want when you’re here, even though you just hide out in your room. And when you leave the house you’re dressed like a harlot.’ Her bottom lip sticking out, Judy picked at her lace sleeve. ‘And Archie.’ Elaine narrowed her lips. ‘Archie, please stop smirking at me. If you want to know how serious I am then just carry on as you are and see what happens. You’re out at all hours, God knows where, doing who knows what.’ Archie just continued to play with his headphones and swaying on his chair. Shaking her head, Elaine closed her eyes. ‘Well? Anyone got anything to say?’
No one did say anything, only shared fleeting glances with Elaine, until they saw that she was looking at them. Except for Archie who, chewing his lip stud, just continued to rock, looking bored. Leaning on his elbow, Irving was licking one corner of his lips. Judy was the only one who added any kind of noise to the room with her heavy sighs.
‘So you’re all happy living here, like this?’ Elaine continued. ‘Archie, you’re content with your single bed in the little dressing room off Judy’s that you’ve had since you left university?’ No response. ‘Jude, you don’t mind Archie walking through your room to get to his room at any hour of the night?’
‘No,’ Judy replied in a deep, abrupt tone. ‘I hate it. Drop out,’ she said to Archie.
‘Harlot,’ he shot back.
Elaine closed her eyes. She could feel the tears that she wanted to cry. It was all hopeless. ‘Well, if you are all happy with the situation that we’re in, then I will just leave you to it. If you want to try to create some semblance of a life, then we all need to chip in, you two included,’ she said to Archie and Judy. ‘You’re both old enough to get jobs. You’ll both have to start paying your way towards living costs. We need a secondary source of income. If not, then you can all scrape by together in this house, but without me.’
Like the dust mites in the morning sun, silence descended upon the kitchen once more. Elaine had hoped that by venting all of her fears and frustrations the family might spring into action. Hope, indeed, was futile. But the thought of moving on from all this did have hope. She’d be better off in so many ways. Perhaps only once she had moved on was when they would all realise, would all finally change for the better. Everything in life truly was temporary, she realised, as even this unenviable living situation could just not last forever: either the bank would kick them out or she’d walk out. It seemed, her piece said, that those were the only two options. At least she had finally done something about it, given temporary a shake, jerked the ladder. Even now it was as if they were all waiting for her to tell them what to next.
‘You’re right, lov’,’ Irving spoke quietly. ‘Does no good all of us living here under this little roof.’ He stroked her arm. To her it felt like being stroked by the chef in a local café or by one of her father’s friends: not quite appropriate. ‘Let’s all of us give it a little thought, eh, pet? Kids?’
Judy huffed another sigh. ‘I’m dancing tonight,’ she said, unfolding her arms and standing up from the table with a screech of the chair. ‘Might be a late one. Could I have some money for subs, please, mum?’ she asked with a sweet and sarcastic smile.
‘And I’m going round to Jimmy’s house,’ Archie added, dropping his chair forward with a bang. ‘Might be a late one too.’
‘I’m, eh . . .’ Irving pondered for a moment. The family waited as he rubbed his belly. He tilted his head at an angle to reflect Herbert. ‘I’m out too, lov’,’ he said directly to Elaine.
And with that, everyone left the table. Only the dirty dishes and Elaine remained.
~ ~ ~
That evening . . .
‘Yeah,’ he said, walking along the street a few beers to the good. ‘Said she’s going to leave unless things change.’
‘Jesus, really?’ Mike put a hand on his shoulder and a beer in his hand. ‘Do you think that she will?’
‘Well, with the amount of moaning she does I’m not sure that it would be a bad thing, to be honest,’ he replied. ‘I’ve been thinking of leaving that damned place myself! Can’t stand it any more, being made to feel like a waste of space in my own home.’
‘That bad, huh?’
He looked at Mike, eyebrows raised, and cocked his head to the side. ‘You have no idea. Anyway.’ He chugged on his beer. ‘I’ve come out to forget about all that for five minutes. Strip club, yeah?’
‘Oh yes.’ They knocked their beers together. ‘Oi, lads!’ Mike called out. ‘We’re going to Heaven, yeah?’ And they all cheered.
The evening was cold, but all of them were wearing only polo shirts or shirts, excepting the odd Harrington jacket. The street lights glowed orange as they tumbled down the road towards the Gentlemen’s Club. For a Friday night it was quiet in town. Even so, the queue for the upstairs club was already snaking along the street, way past the plastic barriers that someone had pushed into the road works. The group continued past the queue for the club and descended the stairs into the dim red comfort of Heaven.
As Mike, who had the whip, ordered a round of beers with tequila chasers, the five other members of the group slunk over to a red leather sofa and dropped into the seats, lit from above by an LED downlight. A girl wearing stockings and a sequined bra danced over to them and offered them a private dance. ‘Maybe in a bit, lov’,’ one of the group answered. ‘Beers to be had here first.’ With a shrug, she sauntered away with their laddish laughter lost behind her, just as Mike returned with the drinks and the next girl appeared on the small stage beneath the heavy drapes. The disco ball began to spin. Speckled light travelled over the booths with their black-glass tables.
‘So,’ said Julian, raising his shot glass to the height of his thick-rimmed glasses. ‘Here’s to a long night after the longest week of my life.’
‘Why the longest week of your life, Jules?’ Colin asked, adjusting the curtains in his hair and then lifting his glass with the others.
‘Becky did a pregnancy test today,’ Julian said, peering at his reflection in the mirror behind Mike.
‘All clear, all good,’ Julian beamed. ‘Bottoms up, lads.’ They all cheered, drawing looks from other tables, and downed their tequilas with winces and screwed faces. The DJ turned the music up, a Rhianna tune, and the girl on the stage began to engage with the pole. ‘Mike, my man, what’s up? You look like you’ve seen a car crash.’ Julian looked over his shoulder towards where Mike was looking. Julian adjusted his glasses. His eyes widened behind the lenses. His mouth became an O, before splitting into a banana-shaped grin. And then they all turned to look at Archie, deep in conversation with Jimmy, his hood in its usual place halfway across the dome of his head and Jimmy with his ponytail tucked down behind the collar of his shirt. Between glances at Archie, the other lads couldn’t help but gawp at the stage, not sure if they should still be looking once the girl had removed her bra, her glistening skin dotted with passing silver shapes of light reflected from the mirror ball. Mike was prodding Archie.
‘What?’ Archie said to Mike, at his left side. ‘Stop fucking poking me.’
‘Arch, man.’ Mike wasn’t looking at Archie, so Archie following his gaze to the girl on the stage.
‘What? Yeah. Fit,’ he said, queuing not-quite-nervous laughter. And he stopped halfway to reaching for his beer. He peeled back the hood and lowered it to his shoulders. He pulled at the piercing in his lip. In the white LED light he went pale; in the red dome light he turned red. Through the dry ice, Archie left his trail as he sped out of the basement room.
Colin was scratching his head. ‘Who is she?’ he asked as the girl on the stage span around the pole with her legs straight out, her hair not moving an inch out of place even when she landed and whipped her hips one way and her hair the other in time with the R&B beat. ‘His girlfriend, or something?’
‘Man . . .’ Jimmy said. ‘Wow. Shit!’ he added.
‘No, you idiot,’ said Mike. ‘That’s Archie’s mum!’
Sitting in the flower arrangement outside of the library a few doors away, Judy leaned down and kissed Kenny, standing between her legs and holding her thighs, as a figure sprinted towards them, streaming obscenities. Kenny turned to look. Judy hid her face behind Kenny’s neck, holding him close. Both of them watched as the running man sped down the high street, the occasional swear echoing off the gutters.
‘Prick!’ Kenny shouted after him.
‘Hey,’ Judy said, sticking a finger into his shoulder. ‘That’s my brother,’ she said.
Kenny turned to face her. He leaned back. ‘You mean the biggest drug dealer in town is your brother?’
Sipping from her bottle of cider, the pear-flavoured liquid fizzed in Judy’s mouth. After finally swallowing, she nestled the bottle into the soil beside her and frowned. ‘Archie’s not a drug dealer.’ Beneath her lace-lined arms her skin turned to goose-flesh.
‘He def-in-itely is,’ Kenny said, moving his hands to Judy’s waist. ‘He sells to all the kids at college. Even some of the schools. Apparently he can get anything you want, too. Anything. I heard that he’s got tonnes of cash, not that you’d think it to look at him. No wonder, the amount that he sells for. Always under, too. He’s really your brother?’
Judy looked down into the face below her: the dark eyes, the quiff hairdo, the Greenday tee-shirt, the strangely attractive speckling of spots on his cheeks, no trace of amusement. ‘Really?’ she asked. ‘Arch? I don’t . . . Really?’
‘Uh-huh.’ Kenny pulled Judy closer. The scent of her Taylor Swift Wonderstruck perfume mingling with the squashed and displaced flowers. She placed her arms around his neck and smiled. And then she frowned.
‘Why did you call him a prick, though?’ she asked, stroking a thumb around the curve of Kenny’s ear.
Closing his eyes beneath the orange streetlight, Kenny leaned into her thumb, rolling his head as she caressed his shaved hair. ‘You really wanna know?’
Kenny looked into Judy’s eyes. He began to grin. ‘Sure you wanna know?’ Judy said that she did. ‘He took some pictures of a friend of mine. Naked pictures.’
Judy curled her lips. ‘So?’
Kenny breathed in deeply. ‘A . . . male friend of mine. At a party,’ he added. Judy held her breath. ‘Anyway, your brother knew that he was he gay, so he lured him into a bathroom, took some compromising pictures of him, and then shared them around the school, when he was there, just for a laugh.’ Judy did laugh. Kenny wasn’t laughing. ‘Thing is, my friend was so traumatised that he tried to kill himself. He didn’t succeed but he was sectioned for a while and has never been the same since. You should see his parents. So . . . it’s not really so funny.’
Judy stopped laughing pretty quickly. ‘Archie did that? Shit. I’m sorry. He really can be a dick sometimes.’
‘Anyway.’ Kenny pulled Judy close to him, legs against his chest, and kissed her, his hands moving over her body, up her jumper. She clenched from the feel of his cold hands, but then slipped down from the flowerbed and pushed herself close against him. ‘What do you want to do?’ he asked after they had finished.
‘What did you have in mind?’ she replied. ‘I suppose that I’ll have to go home soon. I told mum that I was out dancing tonight.’
‘Well . . .’ He reached into his pocket and pulled out a note. ‘I’ll give you a fiver if you show me your fanny.’
She pushed him in the chest. ‘Kenny.’ And then she pulled him close again, looked up into the dark eyes, at his strong, spotty jaw. ‘Is a fiver all of you got? Couldn’t you afford more?’
~ ~ ~
The morning after . . .
Wednesday morning. The Bence family were sitting down to breakfast at the little circular table in the dining room. Spare light was coming through the window that led down the side alley of the galley kitchen. The sky was overcast and grey, a light rain spotting the window. Next to the wilting leaves of the dragon plant the lamp was on, flickering occasionally, but at least the meagre light was kind on the discoloured daisy-yellow wallpaper. Judy looked at Archie – who was rather subdued that morning – chewing on his lip piercing and glowering at the table. She could not help herself but keep looking him up and down: at his hoodie, at his phone on the table, at the angry scratching of his face. She noticed that Archie kept glaring at Elaine. He was pulling on his fingers, popping them, as he looked at her chest, at the way that she kept fiddling with the pendant of her necklace. The tight-lipped expression would just not leave his face, if anything only increasing in vitriol. He was rocking his feet, one over the other, finding it consistently harder to even look at his mother, sitting there with her eyes closed for long periods, playing with her necklace or the buttons of her cardigan. Elaine was not looking at anyone, reserving her glances for only the crockery on the table. She had put the radio on this morning, Radio 2: usually not allowed when sitting at the table, which was family time. It always had been before the previous night, but now a new light was settling over the Bence’s breakfast table. It would be Irving who would break the steel silence. From his designated position facing the wall, he was once more staring at Herbert’s portrait.
‘How much do you think Herbie’s picture would fetch?’ he asked.
‘Don’t know,’ said Judy,’ how much does a firelighter cost?’
‘Now now, Jude,’ Irving said. ‘What do you think, Archie, monsieur artiste?’
‘How the . . .’ Archie looked at Elaine. They made eye contact for the first time that day. When she smiled at him it almost made him throw up. ‘How the heck should I know? Probably enough for a round in a strip joint.’ Now Elaine looked at him. Her lips were slightly parted, as if she was about to ask something of him. But she just froze in that position, her hands working overtime at the necklace and buttons.
Irving laughed. ‘We’d best take it to the auction house then, hey, Arch?’ he said with a wink. ‘Eh, lad?’ Archie return Irving a pitying look.
‘I’m going to go out and buy sausages today,’ Archie said, beginning to find it strange that Judy looked away from him every time he looked in her direction. ‘And, er . . .’ He reached into his pocket. ‘Here’s a grand,’ he said and deposited a bundle of mixed notes on the kitchen table. ‘I’d been saving up to go travelling, but I’ve still got a bit more stashed for that. So, it’s . . . my contribution to, you know, what, er . . . mum said yesterday.’
‘Where did you earn it, Arch?’ Irving asked, frowning at the crumpled money. ‘That’s an awful lot of cash just to pull out of your pocket.’
‘I sold a lot of my paintings,’ he replied. ‘That’s what we do round Jimmy’s: paint and then do the occasional exhibition, and that.’ He saw Judy’s narrowed eyes. ‘What?’
‘I also . . .’ Elaine began. The responsive looks from her family felt so hot that she could feel her make up beginning to bubble. ‘I’ve been doing a little extra work at the college, so . . .’ she laid five hundred pounds neatly on the table alongside Archie’s contribution. ‘I’m not certain how much of it I will be able to bear, with those long hours . . .’ She could sense Archie’s stud-chewing attention from her right. She chose not to look at him. ‘But once we’ve paid off some of the debts then perhaps I could find some hours that suit me a bit better.’ She cleared her throat.
‘There’s twenty quid,’ Judy said, throwing a balled-up note into the middle of the table. ‘The dance class won a competition, so we all got a bit of the winnings.’
‘That’s great, Jude!’ Irving said. ‘A selling artist and a dancer’ – Archie shot a glance at Elaine, who caught it – ‘under one roof. You’ll be our pension at this rate, you two.’ The table moved by the weight of Irving’s guts.
‘And I applied for a job in the pizza shop,’ she added.
‘Well done, kid,’ Irving said, creating peril over the table as he leaned over to kiss Judy on the cheek. ‘Good for you.’ With a broad smile on his face, Irving looked at each family member in turn, staying a moment on each of them. Judy was in one of her sulks. By the way that she kept looking him, Archie had clearly done something to upset her. Archie was popping his fingers like crazy, possibly dreaming up his next masterpiece, looking for the world like the moody artist. And Elaine, she just seemed overwhelmed by it all, by the sheer response to her crisis meeting twenty-four hours before. ‘You lot all seem to be worn out by your nocturnal exertions, by the quiet in here today, eh?’ Glances and glares shot all around the table, ricocheting from son, to mother, to daughter, to brother, to sister. Even Irving caught a few in the stomach. His smile slithered from his chin, over his contours and down to the floor. He wiped the sweat from his top lip.
‘Look,’ he began, gaining a little attention. ‘I’m not proud of this, but there’s something that I want to tell you that has to be said, here, today.’ All other family members leaned their elbows on the table, cheek upon hand or wrist, and looked at the head of the little circular table. ‘You’ll have noticed that I have put on a little weight –’
‘A little?’ Judy said and sniggered. Even Elaine smiled when she did.
‘Thank you, Jude,’ Irving said. With his toes, he played with the worn threads of the rug. ‘Okay, so I have put on rather a lot of weight. And there is a reason behind this. Elaine . . .’ Stroking his chubby hand over his chin, Irving looked at Elaine. ‘I knew about the money problems, of course. I’ve been doing my best to bring in a little extra cash myself.’ At this, everyone shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. ‘I’ve not been out at nights, drinking with the boys. I’ve been doing shifts behind the bar in the local snooker club. Yes, I’ve been drinking whilst I’ve been working, which is why this thing has grown.’ Irving shook his stomach around, causing great rippling about his physique. ‘But the pay’s all right, and I’ve nearly, nearly earned enough of some shrewd stock investments to pay off the debts and a chunk of the mortgage. I didn’t want to tell you until it was done, because, you know, I’m a proud man’ – everyone took a glance at the fresh stains on his paper mill polo shirt – ‘and should be able to provide my family with everything that they want.’ More uncomfortable movement around the table. ‘What’s more,’ Irving continued, waving all sorts of round digits around now that the hefty weight of his secret life was being revealed, ‘one of the locals in the club has been teaching me all about the Foreign Exchange market and he reckons that he can pull a few favours and get me job.
‘So, it is embarrassing to admit to you all that I’m working behind a bar whilst you’re all earning by selling your arts, your skills and your hard work and I’m just out there pulling pints as a secondary source of income. But, you know, it’s only temporary, mind.’