A little snort woke Terry...and he realised it was his own. Something small, knotty, irritating was pressing into his neck: his wife’s Guatemalan worry dolls. He slid the strip of crocheted figures under the pillow, suitably smothered. Why the hell did she need it in bed?
A more sinister sound brought his bleary glance towards the window-pane: a patter of rain, mild in itself, but then a gushing of water, mid-pane. Shit —he should have cleaned out the gutters weeks ago.
How often a tiny happening lulls you into complacency, quietly escalates then later shatters you with a catastrophic outcome.
For a few minutes he tried to sink back into sleep but habit and necessity defeated him. He rolled out of bed into the suburb of his everyday life.
It took four steps from his bed to the window where the wet April morning awaited him the other side of the velour curtains. He tweaked them open an inch and watched the rain wash his small front garden, an oblong of gravel lined by pebbles, one of forty-six identical houses in Colliers Row. He’d bought a cement planter to differentiate his patch. This held a hosta whose limp leaves were not rising to the challenge. Sad droplets of rain slid off them and disappeared into the gravel. A pale sun snaked slowly over the horizon. It fell a trifle short of his patch.
Next door, behind the laurel hedge planted for privacy, a white plastic chair awaited a warm moment so that its obese occupant, Maxine Rolls, could sit reading Bella while chomping Maltesers from a maxi-bag. Across the road the net curtains twitched, sure sign of the weather check by the grizzled couple, still strangers after six years. They even avoided nods of acknowledgement. No sun fell in their garden.
Terry sighed and went to find some underclothes. Another work-day. Some people, utterly ordinary one day, were famous the next. They'd won the lottery or were selected for reality TV; they’d witnessed a murder or, at very least, spotted a celebrity in their local. Their lifestyle and opinions were then broadcast, their wishes recorded, their personalities discussed. They gave up their jobs—too rich to work, bought a mansion with a pool and hot tub, parked a gleaming Lamborghini in the drive. This was never him; always other people. He closed his sock drawer.
Gudrun was near to waking. She usually did around this time. She lay face down across the bed, arms spread as if fallen from a great height. Once he’d found a young sparrow on the pavement in just that position. He gauged the number of minutes before he had to leave for work, and the size of bed area he might be able to lie on if he snuck back. Dumping his clean socks on the floor, he slid back into bed, in case. He placed his butt on the bottom right hand corner and made a gesture towards one of Gudrun's arms, but without much confidence. Gudrun’s lack of response did nothing to increase it. He lay like a pin in the available bed space, arms tightly by his sides. Second by second he shifted his whole length until at last he had sufficient purchase on the bed to unlock his muscles. There had been times when he had fallen – clonk – onto the floor after such a manoeuvre. He moved closer, stroked Gudrun’s back, then the nearest arm but it remained still as though it belonged only to itself and not to the rest of the body. After several minutes, he gave up. His wife was not a woman hungry for sex and it was too early in the week for him to plead necessity. He got out of bed again, not so gently. After all...
He took his underclothes out to the passage, past the spare room that pre-Gudrun, had been occupied by his best mate, Leon. Such a good time that, two lads setting out in the world, building their lives, sharing the house. The wall-sized Abstract Woman poster was long gone together with the tri-game table where they'd slammed each other at ice hockey, and the Bropener that had saved all the surfaces in the house (“the EASIEST, MOST SATISFYING and FUN way to open a bottle!!!”) Post-Leon, this room could have been painted pale blue. He and Gudrun never entered it now if they could avoid it.
In the little brown-tiled bathroom they’d completed together last week-end, Terry peed into the new beige toilet. He turned the shower full on to experience the very satisfying difference between the new and the old: ultrasonic railgun versus cap pistol: schwoom, schwoom. It raised the spirits.
Back in the bedroom, it didn’t take him long to dress. Choices were limited, his wardrobe small. He took out his jacket, clean shirt; his trousers hung on the back of the wooden chair from last night. The same greenish tie would do. He checked himself in the mirror. Now dressed, he could be in yesterday as much as today. He looked exactly the same.
Gudrun stretched and sat up. Did she only feel safe to do that once he was fully dressed? He was quite capable of throwing his clothes off again given an encouraging look from beneath the eyelashes, but Gudrun hadn’t ever engaged in eye play.
‘I'll get some tea,’ she said.
‘...and then I'll put on the eggs,’ he predicted silently.
‘and then I'll put on the eggs,’ said Gudrun.
There were times he felt forty-eight not twenty-eight.
She got out of bed and moved past his ready-in-waiting arms to the door. She smiled as she slid her feet into brown moccasins and pulled on the muddy-coloured robe from Oxfam. Eggs were waiting to be poached.
He took out his diary to check his TODO list. Rehearse positive thinking mantra was the first item, and Clean the gutters was the second, with Must finish project, third. They were all repeats from the previous day.
When he went down to the kitchen, Gudrun was busy with spoons and saucepan, cups and kettle. She looked up at his reflection in a brown-framed mirror. It advertised stout and showed a rosy cheeked farm-girl enjoying it. The mirror wasn't an antique, but made some reference to a past neither of them had known. She put his mug down, stirring it first.
He sat. His home-maker handed him the plate with his two poached eggs on toast. He punctured the yolks and anointed his toast. This should be a satisfying start to any morning.
But while he sipped his tea, Terry thought about the sex he hadn’t just had. About seven times a month he and Gudrun made love. She said that was what you’d expect of a married couple. How did he know whether she was right? The guys’ boasts at work, their rundown of positions, durations, gyrations, that was just talk, wasn’t it?
Gudrun took away his whistle-clean plate. ‘Is it your appraisal this week?’
From one downer to another. He grimaced about the one he could discuss. ‘Maybe. I must finish the Middle East project. It’s already six months late. So I don’t rate my chances of promotion. As for my self-ratings, I can hardly put Excellent…’ he scratched his cheek, ‘…not even Working Towards unless I write that final section.’ He stood and stretched, ready to go. ‘Trouble is, rating myself Normal won’t do for Lings.’
Gudrun stepped close beside him, looking at their joint images in the mirror. The rosy-cheeked girl appeared to sit between them. ‘Normal’s good,’ she said in a tone of great satisfaction.
He frequently couldn’t read her. ‘So did you choose me for my normality?’ He gave her a nudge and laughed. Then without receiving an answering laugh, shrugged the thought away. ‘You off to college today?’ Hopefully, she was. Better the arty Gudrun, eyes distant and dreamy, wielding a paintbrush or digging into the latest damp bundle of clay, than the stressed Gudrun, assistant social worker. That work seemed to overwhelm her. Evenings could be filled with diatribe about targets, schedules, client demands. It had been even worse when she was employed full time. After her... break, he’d call it, she’d gone part-time. “Then take up a satisfying hobby,” he’d said. Art college was the result. Now her work seemed to have changed, ad hoc client-sitting, even care-giving. He wouldn’t risk asking her if she’d been demoted. It didn’t matter. It was his salary they lived on.
She was washing up already. ‘No, I’m home today but on stand-by. If I’m not called out, I’ll work on my sculpture. Until it comes indoors...'
‘Right.’ He swallowed a groan. He’d made a space for her to work in the garage but she said it was the wrong ambience. Therefore, once she had sufficient clay on the support frame, the sculpture had to come indoors to be brought to life. Its trail of grey dust suggested the opposite to Terry.
‘…so if I do, can you bring in my latest?’
He tried to avoid pausing. ‘Okay. Yes, of course.’ Arty tasks were making her happy. He put his arms round her, his woman whom he must put to rights. She seemed to commune with herself and Terry’s hold felt loose and ineffective. He slid on his jacket. Time to go. Another time, when the moment was right, he’d move on to other purposeful things that would land them both in bed. He kissed her, a little harder than usual, breathing in her dandelion smell.
She stepped back. ‘Watch the time or you'll be late again.’ She handed him his folder. ‘I’m going to make that plum chutney you like, after I’ve washed up.’
He smiled. ‘Great. We’ll have a cheese-board supper this weekend, then.’ She really cared for him so much. Married guys at work had to do all this domestic stuff, “take their share.” He wasn’t into that, and Gudrun didn’t make him.
He strode across to his shabby Seat parked outside the set of six garages opposite. Driving off down Colliers Row towards Hossington station, his universe seemed as good as could be expected, except for a sluggish clutch.
Expected, excepted; words so near, so far apart. As good as you can expect. Or—good, except for riches and fame. Secret fantasies lurked beneath his thrifty life. His own house, like his parents’, had been chosen for practical, not aesthetic reasons. His more-or-less admin job, working for Lings Pharmaceuticals was uninspiring perhaps because he hadn’t put much into it for a while. In his day-dreams, there were whiter walls, brighter colleagues, wider pavements, bluer skies, and he bought new instead of second-hand, wore smart not shabby, chose top of the range, bottom of the menu, back of the brochure, enjoyed the first issue, latest model and above all, had the freedom to choose.
The Seat groaned to a halt in sympathy. Terry parked near the station. He joined the usual press of people at the underground, down the stairs and along the platform to the overflowing tube. The doors closed. The tube glided off like toothpaste fitting neatly into its tunnel, no space wasted. Terry squeezed into a gap between strap-hangers, held upright by the bodies pressed around him. Swaying, he fell into his semi-dream world, the only way to make rush hour travel bearable. He ignored blokes with back-packs who might end whatever sort of life he was going to have.
Stations came and went. He dared not move a foot in case it trod one of the shoes just beside it. A coated arm-pit pressed his left cheek, frizzy hair swept his eyes if he turned. Breathing was difficult.
In one of those catatonic stares where the eyes glaze over and see without registering, his eyes lodged on one person and remained there while the press of people swayed him to and fro. The tube reached his stop and Terry jerked forward.
His glassy fixation cleared. A second glimpse and he blinked with shock. That person was someone he knew. The man started to move towards the door, ready to alight. Terry almost yelled ‘No!’ There were only seconds before other bodies blocked his view. He pressed forward urgently. He couldn’t think who it was, who it could be. His brain felt detached from his cramped body. The man was someone so familiar, yet never dreamed of; someone he’d never met but somehow sensed, someone so close that he need not put a name to him.
Was he gazing intently at himself?