HE NEEDED TO SEE HER. Desperately. Yes, he did remember they’d promised not to get in touch, but this was different. They were following him again … Of course, he was sure. There was a man standing at the corner of the street. He could see him from the phone box. The man was pretending to read a newspaper, but kept glancing up the road towards him … Was she calling him a liar? … No, it wasn’t the same man as last time. He hadn’t seen this one before. He would tell her more when she came …. He had to be quick, they were closing in on him … She should write the address down before his change ran out … Tobago Street number forty-seven … The tall house at the end. It was easy to get to … the other side of the river, New Cross. She could be there in less than half an hour … Okay, okay, it could wait till she finished work that evening. But she would have to promise … No, promise.
Howard’s voice strained painfully through the earpiece. Pitched slightly higher than Gail remembered, his confused ramblings threatened to break down into tears at any moment. He begged her to come. She weakened. She felt her heart wring out for him. She would try to be there, but she couldn’t promise. Though chain-smoking had lent his tones a throaty edge, the same melodramatic degree of paranoia she’d heard so often remained, demanding she see him straightaway… She had to be there. It was them. Of course he was fucking sure it was them. Different man, maybe, but it was the same outfit … How could he not be sure? … Who the fuck else could it be? Hadn’t she been listening? How many times did he have to tell her? He was watching one of them from the phone box as he was speaking. Why did she think he was lying all the time?
Still the unending accusatory questions, forcing her on the defence. No, he wasn’t messing her about. They’d managed to find out where he lived again. Who could’ve told them? … How could he know how they found out? Someone must’ve told them; that’s how … No, he wasn’t blaming her, but it had to be someone … Yes, he was absolutely sure he’d told her his new address. Why wouldn’t he?
Yes, he did remember something about agreeing not to phone, why did she keep having to remind him? He hadn’t got time for all that now. Besides, she said if it was really important he should ring. If this wasn’t really important, what was? … Yes, he knew he’d said the last time had been really important too, but he managed to deal with that himself without any of her fucking help. This time was different … No, he couldn’t tell her over the phone, all sorts of people could listen in to phone calls. He couldn’t say anymore, the man was folding his paper and looking like he might head his way. He would see her back at the house. The phone went dead.
Her misgivings strengthened the moment she replaced the receiver. She cursed herself for giving in so easily after all the time it had taken to come to terms with breaking up. How could she let herself throw it all away in the space of one phone call? Running back to him at the drop of a hat.
Beaten into submsission by his continuous harrassment she’d surrendered once more. He had cajoled, he had threatened and he had begged her to come. And she had weakened. Against all the warning sirens in her head, she’d heard herself promise to go over and see him as soon as she closed the gallery that evening.
Now, she began to feel anger. It wasn’t fair, calling her just as she was beginning to get used to life without him. She resolved not to go, then changed her mind in the same instant. She couldn’t leave him like that. Say he was telling the truth this time and someone was watching him. Say something dreadful happened. If anything bad happened to him she’d never be able to forgive herself. She’d have to go and see him whatever the cost.
Gail went over the seven months that had passed since she’d last seen him. Seven months of torture. For the first few weeks she’d hardly slept. In the wild imaginings of night she’d pictured him with other women. She’d torn away the hand that strayed towards the telephone. She’d steered herself from the places she knew they might run into one another. Often going miles out of her way simply to avoid the memories they held. She thought she’d never be able to get over it.
But gradually, as time expanded the rift between them, she resigned herself to lives apart. And now, he had to go and phone her again, the sound of his voice ripping open wounds she thought healed. How could he do such a thing? Evidently, the years of his infidelities had toughened her much less than she’d supposed.
Yet, as the reality of seeing him again percolated her being, she couldn’t help her stomach from churning excitedly at the prospect. She began to think of all the times they’d spent together. Her heart started to race and she found herself willing the day away to six o’ clock.
A FEARFUL WAILING cut through the birdsong, quelling it as abruptly as the keen sweep of a conductor’s baton might. Gail swivelled her head slightly to pinpoint its source before hurrying across the fresh-mown lawn to a shrubbery at the far end. The ghoulish aria continued for some moments longer. Suspended on the barely moving air, it was almost as if the gently quivering telegraph wires in the adjoining field were acting as a score. The next instant, the wailing subsided. Right on cue the birds took up their refrain once more.
Screened by a tangle of shrubs, her father stood transfixed beneath a lilac tree. His face in his hands, he was blubbing softly to himself. A soil-encrusted trowel lay awkwardly at his feet. A few inches further away, the twitching body of a dying crow. Jet plumage flashed myriad tiny rainbows in gently dappling sunlight. Out of a black bill oozed a globule of startling crimson. Limp, black claws let life slip from their clutch as a vacant bead stared up at the skies that had forsaken it.
Taking him gently by the crook of his arm, Gail led him slowly back across the lawn towards the limestone cottage huddled against the hillside. Once inside, she sat him down in one of a pair of chintz-covered winged armchairs either side of a black kitchen range.
“Mummy!” she called, hardly betraying the suppressed impatience gnawing inside. “There’s another crow down by the lilac.”
His face back in his hands, her father rocked back and forth, moaning softly to himself, till eventually his moans ebbed away. Peering through gaps his fingers made, he groaned before saying in a muffled voice:
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, it’s just…”
“Sh, sh, it’s all right, Daddy, it’s all right.” Patting a shoulder, Gail slipped her arms round his neck. “You mustn’t think about it. It’s all right.” And yet, something about her eyes said that it wasn’t all right, that even after so many years, her father’s strange behaviour towards death still disturbed her.
Gail’s mother, a small package of a woman, whose soft, white curls permanently fell out of perm about her soft, pink face, bustled into the room wiping her hands on the starched apron she’d just removed. Without sparing her husband so much as a glance, she strode across to a window overlooking the garden.
“I’ll see to it,” she said in a businesslike manner. “Where is it?”
“Behind the shrubbery at the bottom of the lawn,” Gail told her, “under the lilac tree.” There was something of the well-rehearsed military manoeuvre in the exchange.
“It’s that damned dog from next door!” Gail’s mother threw her apron onto the unoccupied armchair. “I swear it is. The little devil gets through that gap in the hedge. You can see where it is; he’s squashed all my seedlings. He’s nothing but a damned nuisance. Really, he should be put down. I wouldn’t mind so much if he was our dog.”
“You can’t blame the dog, dear.” Gail’s father breathed wearily. “He’s only doing what comes naturally. It’s me. It’s my fault. If only I didn’t make such a fuss all the time.”
“It’s not you who squashes my seedlings.”
“Shush, Daddy, you’ll only upset yourself even more.”
Against the yielding pressure of his daughter’s restraining arms, Mr Southerne heaved himself up and out of the armchair.
“I think I could do with a drink,” he said. “Anybody else fancy one?” Gail and her mother traded anxious glances of reproof.
“It’s only half past ten, Daddy,” said Gail, taking her cue.
But Mr Southerne was quite aware of what time it was; he’d just been having a silent dispute with himself about it. “It’s only half an hour before I usually have one,” he said, giving voice to the excuse he’d been rehearsing in his head. “I nearly always have a small one at eleven on a Sunday.” He’d already reached the dark oak dresser where the drinks tray stood. “Besides, I could do with one,” he said, as much to himself as anyone. Unscrewing the top from a bottle of Gordon’s gin, he proceeded to pour himself a large one, totally oblivious to the emphatic silence boring into the back of his neck.
“Any ice, Win?” he asked.
Ignoring the request completely, Mrs Southerne composed herself in a stiff breath, before stomping off into the garden to dispose of the dead bird, taking inordinate care not to slam the door behind her.
Mr Southerne raised his eyebrows. After watching his wife stride angrily across the lawn, he turned to his daughter.
“Sure you won’t have one?” he said.
Mindful her mother was out of hearing Gail relented.
“Oh, all right then.” She made it sound as though she was being coerced. It was an act her father understood only too well. “If you’re going to get pissed on my last day I might as well join you.”
It was the last day of spring half-term. Early next morning she would take the train back to Westbourne. After a week at home she was in two minds whether she wanted to go back to university at all. There had been an argument with Howard. As usual, it had stemmed from him going off with some girl he’d picked up at a party just before the break started. Gail had ended up getting very drunk with a friend of his. Next morning, she’d woken to find they’d slept together.
Since then, she’d tried to phone Howard every day. She kept on getting his mother, a frosty woman who maintained she didn’t know where he was, or when he was expected back.
Gail was sipping the drink her father had mixed for her when her mother came back into the house. Mother and daughter paused for a moment. Even though she couldn’t see the eyes of the silhouette framed by the doorway, Gail could feel them brand her traitor as the shadowy head turned from issue to spouse sensing conspiracy. The ensuing guilt she felt swiftly turned to anger with both her parents and, to a lesser extent, herself, for having let one get at the other through her. In mitigation she protested,
“Daddy asked me if I wanted one.” But it sounded feeble and spoilt. She glowered at her father over her glass.
For her part, Mrs Southerne didn’t say a word. To have done so would’ve ruined the effect. Picking up the apron she’d discarded earlier she pressed on into the kitchen, where she’d been preparing lunch. Then, remembering Gail was going back to university the next day, she forgave her.
“Would you like some of my homemade strawberry jam to take back with you, darling?” she called. “There’s plenty in the larder.”
Strawberry jam was the furthest thing from Gail’s mind. The last jar her mother had made her take back had broken in her suitcase on the train, covering a couple of library books, which she’d ended up having to pay for. It would’ve been cheaper had she bought jam in Brighton.
“I’ve still got loads left from last term, Mummy,” she lied. Her mother made a mental note to slip a jar into her case before she left.
There came a dull and lazy ring from the hall. The antiquated phone her parents insisted on keeping. Gail rushed to answer it.
“I’ll get it!” she shouted, believing it to be Howard, as she’d believed every phone call that week to be Howard. But she hadn’t reckoned for the speed of her mother, who liked to answer her own phone herself. Gail just managed to stop herself from glaring at her crossly, mouthing noiselessly instead, “Who is it?” as soon as she caught her mother’s eye.
Averting the gaze with a downward flick of her eyelids, Mrs Southerne waved away the unwanted distraction. She began nodding somewhat pointlessly while making the odd murmuring sound of agreement that gave no clue to the identity of the caller. Gail waited until she replaced the receiver.
“Who was it, Mummy?” she said in a whine, her hopes still faintly alight.
“It was your Aunty Peggy. She wants your father to try on a pullover she’s knitting for him,” Mrs Southerne answered, despite a building resentment at being drilled about every phone call that came into the house. The thought that her mother might have a private life never seemed to occur to Gail. But then the young always were far too wrapped up in their own lives to worry about those of others.
“Oh,” Gail said. Her air was vaguely dismissive. With that she walked slowly back into the breakfast room, just in time to catch her father in the act of screwing the top back on the gin bottle.
“Who was that?” he said, not really interested, but hoping to deflect attention from what he was doing. He needn’t have bothered, for even had Gail noticed she was too preoccupied to say anything.
“Oh, only Aunty Peggy going on about some flipping jumper or other,” Gail said. She flapped a hand. It was almost as if her father might also be waiting for Howard to ring.
“She’s finished it then?” her father went on, feeling obliged to continue the sham.
“How would I know?” Gail said. “Ask Mummy, she’s the one who answers the phone all the time.” It was as though her mother had somehow managed to metamorphose Howard into Aunty Peggy simply by answering the phone.
Her father plucked a newspaper from the canterbury by the television and dumped himself back into his armchair with a weary sigh. Shaking the paper open he settled down to read it. Gail’s eyes stalked his every move transferring all the resentment she felt onto him.
“Why do you always have to get The Telegraph?” she said. It sounded spiteful. “It’s so right-wing.”
“What’s that, dear?” her father said in the familiar sing-song that meant he was busy, and annoyed his daughter so much.
“Nothing,” Gail droned.
“We’ve always taken The Telegraph.” So he had heard after all, “Haven’t we, dear?” he called out to the kitchen.
“What’s that, dear?”
“In the magazine rack by the television. I put it there this morning. Unless somebody moved it.”
“I know that, I’m reading it.”
“I can’t help it if somebody else has moved it. I have to tidy up. Nobody else in this house will.”
“It’s all right, I’ve got the paper.”
“Then why on earth do you keep on asking me for it?”
“I wasn’t. I was just telling Gail how we’ve always taken it, that’s all.”
“I can’t worry where the paper has got to each time one of you puts it down. I’ve got lunch to worry about. I haven’t even had time to put the potatoes on yet.”
“Oh, do shut up about the fucking Telegraph!” Gail said sharply. It came out nastier than she’d intended. There followed a significant silence, and so she added, with what she thought to be a fetching giggle, “You two are getting more and more like a couple of old fogies every day.” But the remark had rather more truth in it than was funny.
Mr Southerne folded his paper thoughtfully, leaned forward, and placed it carefully back in the canterbury.
“I suppose we are,” he said, his face betraying a touch of sadlness. Draining his glass, he rose from the chair and straightened his back with a groan. “I suppose this right-wing old fogey ought to see if he can’t get a few more seedlings in before lunch,” he grunted. “Call me when it’s ready, will you, old girl?” And putting his empty glass on the dresser, he went back out into the garden. Gail felt her nostrils prickle and her eyes mist over. Nobody understood her; her parents least of all.
It was late afternoon by the time the phone rang again. Lunch was long over, and Gail was upstairs in her bedroom searching for a dress she wanted to take back with her. She swore under her breath and carried on looking. If it was Howard, he could bloody well wait for a change. He’d kept her waiting long enough. Anyhow, doubtless her mother would answer it like she usually did. But the dull rings went on, four times, five times, six times. Gail was seized by a sudden panic.
“Will somebody get the fucking phone, for chrissakes!” she shouted. It was only the second time she’d used the ‘f’ word on her parents. Both times on the same day. Throwing the jeans she was holding down to the floor, she rushed out onto the landing. The ringing stopped and she could hear the measured tones her mother used when speaking on the phone to strangers, or those of whom she didn’t approve. Against all the forces pulling her in that direction, Gail turned and walked slowly back into the bedroom. She flung herself onto the unmade bed and buried her face into the pillows. With her heart thumping against her ribcage, she called his name over and over again into the pillows, where she knew it would go no further.
An age seem to pass before she heard her name being called.
“Gail!” her mother cried, “Gail! It’s for you.” But Gail was out on the landing before the summons had finished. Thumping, almost tumbling down the stairs and into the hall, a broad grin stretched across her face.
“Who is it?” she said in a loud whisper, her hands and fingers fidgeting impatiently, waiting to snatch the receiver as soon as it was offered. Mrs Southerne hated her in that moment.
“It’s some boy,” she said, barely able to conceal her disdain. “He’s in a kiosk.” She handed her daughter the phone, “at a station by the sounds of it. It’s not a very good line.” For a moment, she stood watching her daughter, as if waiting to be dismissed. Gail had turned her back on her without realising it.
“Howard!” she said, “You rat! Where have you been? Did you get my messages? I’ve been ringing and ringing. Though the voice on the other end was indistinct, the south London inflections were unmistakable.
“Gay-ooh,” it crackled, “’ow you doin’, girl?” Her whole world sank to the pit of her stomach, and she felt the colour rise in her cheeks. Recoiling with inward revulsion at her daughter’s familiarity with this boy she didn’t know, and knew she would never want to meet, Mrs Southerne slid off into the kitchen. Such outward displays of emotion towards the opposite sex dismayed her. It would never have done in her day.
“It’s Phil,” the voice crackled on, “remember?” the crackle became a cackle. “’Course, you do. What a party, eh? You weren’t arf pissed, girl. Mind you, I weren’t much better meself. Thought I’d give you a bell to see ’ow you’re goin’…’ello. You still there?” Gail could hardly speak, her mouth had dried. Then, as swiftly as she had felt hurt and pain, she felt anger.
“What do you want?” she said. No amount of distortion on the line could have masked her contempt.
“’Ave I rang at a bad time? You expecting somebody?” His voice seemed to get even further away.
“What do you want, Phil? I’m in the middle of packing. Is it something important?”
“Oh, I geddit, you’re old lady’s listening in, ain’t she? Just say, yes, or no.”
“Don’t be so stupid! Of course, she isn’t. It wouldn’t matter even if she was.”
“If it’s a bad time, I can always ring back later.” No, she didn’t want that; Howard might be trying to get through.
“No, don’t do that,” she said too hurriedly, adding in a modified tone, “Just tell me why you rang, so I can finish packing.”
“All right.” But he was suspicious now. “It’s just that there’s this party tomorrow night. I wondered if you fancied it?” A party she fancied, Phil she didn’t. On the other hand she couldn’t allow Howard to think she spent all her time waiting for him to call. It was all too confusing.
“’Ello, you still there?” She was miles away.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“Oh, I dunno, five, ’arf past. I ain’t got a watch.”
“The party, you idiot! What time is the party?” If Phil knew of a party, then Howard was certain to. How could she be seen with Phil and keep her options open at the same time? “Only, if it starts too late, I won’t be able to go. I’ve got an early tutorial on Tuesday. I daren’t be late for that.”
“Look, I ain’t got anymore change. I’ll see you in the canteen tomorrow. I’ll buy you dinner.”
“Wait a minute…” but it was no use, he was gone. She hadn’t been allowed to say she didn’t want to have lunch with him; that it was the worse thing she could think of. She felt cheated; the device had conspired to commit her to a date she’d had no intention of agreeing to. Well, she would just not turn up, that was all.
“Who was that, darling?” her mother asked on her way through the hall again. Gail was holding the phone against her chin and staring emptily into space.
“Nobody,” she said quietly setting the phone back on its cradle. “Nobody,” and climbed slowly back up the stairs. Nobody.
Mrs Southerne slipped two jars of strawberry jam into a suitcase by the door.
Copyright 2015 Bryan Hemming
Click here for: chapter three