Just back in from work that very moment, Jack, standing in the hallway, and although he hadn’t been round the flat yet, hadn’t even taken his jacket off, although the flat was making all the noises it usually made – telly buzzing, fridge wheezing, waterpipes, the lot, he sensed in an instant –
“Nina? Ben, where’s ya mum?”
“Dunno. Said that she was going out n that you’re not the only one who’s got cronies.”
With a sigh, expelled from the caverns of his fed up lungs, Jack:
hung his jacket up next to her empty peg,
pushed his working boots into place along the skirting board next to where her outdoor shoes were missing,
threw himself into a chair in the kitchen.
Them in the flat upstairs, trampling around again. Why couldn’t their kids just
and behave themselves, sit down and watch telly quietly like his kids did.
“Oi! You up there!” One hand cupped over his mouth. An angry voice carries far. Propels saliva. Turns the veins that scale the temple hard, blue.
Pack of anti-social bleeders! What he wouldn’t give to get off that council estate, but it was hopeless; with only two kids? They’d need another three before getting on the list for somewhere bigger. He felt sorry enough as it was that his two had to stay cooped up in the house all evening, all day when they were on school holidays, but he would not have them mixing with the kids round there. A few months back it must have been by now, when Ben had run in crying; some of the boys on the estate had thrown stones at him. His father had simply tutted with even greater disdain for his son than he had shown for the gratuitous violence impregnating the headlines of his local newspaper, had just said, “Stop crying, you sissy. They’re just jealous. Riff-raff like that don’t know the meaning of the word family. Next time they chuck stones at you, you pick up a couple yourself and pelt them back good and proper.” The following evening, braving the cold, Jack had gone down with Ben to practise pelting, some of them council kids watching at a distance.
“Look at em,” Jack head-butted their way, “gawping like they’ve never seen a son having fun with his dad before.”
Ben pelted, harder, like a cricketer, imagining them council kids yelping every time he slung a stone, every time he got them right where it hurts, egged on by his dad, teaching him the right angle, guiding his pitch. Inside, behind the ostentatious ruffling of hair or vocabular praise, it pained Jack Dunbar to have to teach his son how to pelt other boys, poor little bleeders they were, with all the cards stacked against them no wonder they turned rough. Father and son pelted for ages, till their shoulders ached and them council kids had wandered off, one by one, driven home by hunger and the cold. The next time Ben asked if he could play out, his father still said,
Them in the flat upstairs didn’t stay quiet for long. Jack’s ceiling shuddered as they chased each other up and down, knocking over furniture. What could a man do but sigh?
A slip of paper at the other end of the table. Swallowing down that something inside him which recoiled from the idea of having to make a move, Jack finally managed to pull himself to his feet after a minute. Or two.
I’m fed up with this mess, it said. Need a change. A good one. A bloody long one. Near the bottom: Monica. And below that: dinner is in the oven.
Note gets flung at the window. How long would she be gone this time? Maybe she’d creep in tonight at four o’clock in the morning by God he’d let her have it this time, whenever she came back!
“Ben, what time did your mother leave, then?”
“What d’you mean you dunno? What time did your bloody mother leave?”
“I don’t know!”
“Come ’ere when I’m talking to you!”
Ben: drags his feet from the sofa, over the carpet, across the lino, blinks up at his father.
“Sorry, son,” Jack pulls up a trouser leg, bends down to Ben’s level, tries again, “it’s not your fault… now, try again. Try to think,” he puts his arms around his son, rubbing him gently. “Were you watching telly when your mother left?”
“Thanks, son. You’re magic!” Smack on Ben’s bum.
Boy turns to leave.
It was then that Jack first noticed the pile of dirty dishes in and around the sink. Dinner in the oven was still warm, give her that; fish fingers, potatoes and green peas. From a can. A skin had formed on the gravy.
“You two already eaten?”
The phone booths were always pissy round here, and the doors too heavy to be kept ajar with your heel. Monica had to leave her overnight bag:
a pair of slippers
two pairs of nylon tights
a bundle of underwear (her best ones)
a dress (she was wearing one already)
a photo of the children in their school uniform
another one of the two, taken by the door-to-door photographer in August
outside on the pavement. She dialled the number; had wanted to laugh, to sound carefree, yet no sooner had the receiver been picked up at the other end, then shame, rage, helplessness and all sorts of other vehemently felt inarticulations raced in a salty flow from her eyes and nose, so that all she could splutter was thanks, she knew she could count on her. What? Oh, just a couple of days, she said.
( from Long Time Walk on Water)
‘Words dance, breathe, rejoice, titillate, pulsate, quiver in this brilliantly crafted volume of what may be her best-loved novel. Couldn’t put it down.’ (Amazon)