You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
I can still see the picture in my mind. To my left, new London, the Shard facing down its cross-river rivals, the towers of Docklands puny and distant in comparison. To my right, the mother of Parliaments, and various paeans to imperial triumph. Unblemished turquoise to the east, a few wisps of cloud to the west. Lingering on that balcony, my face greedily absorbing the first few rays of spring sunshine.
I was a few minutes late back to my seat, and by way of penance feigned attention for that amount of time. The presenter was slick, charismatic and energising, yet peculiarly anodyne. Something about leveraging our core competencies and exploiting synergies. I caricature, of course, but it scarcely made more sense at the time, and the details were lost to me as they left his mouth. This is for the pay cheque, I told myself unromantically, but was comfortable with that.
Jenny: Thatcher’s dead.
Iestyn: Sorry you’re feeling shit. In good news, though, Thatcher dead. If you want to meet up before Thursday, happy to. Just give me a shout.
Me to Iestyn: Going to see some blues on Wednesday could work. That place in Islington?
Me to Jenny: 30 years too late.
Jenny: Eagerly waiting for someone important to say something like that.
Me: I’m not important?
Jenny: Not to the news, I’m afraid. Maybe one day, Joe. Maybe one day.
Jenny: Paul just told us he wished you were here as you would’ve had a good joke about Thatcher. Does he not know you hate his guts?
I didn’t much care about Paul any more, or Thatcher for that matter. The spring sunshine and the corporate verbiage might have distracted me briefly, but the truth is I was sulking because a girl named Emma didn’t love me any more (if you stripped away all the emollient flannel). I felt raw and unshielded, yet the everyday things did not penetrate. Every single moment was a painful pang of something beautiful that we had together, and the feeling of it dying.
After the meeting, they chatted about the big new contract; about the longest winter of our lifetimes really, finally coming to an end; about the weekend just gone. I was deeply uninterested, my self-pity reinforced by the absence of anyone to pity me. But I played along for a while. For whatever reason, the hollowness of my words never tended to come across.
Eppington Colliery Working Men’s Club
It was grey in the club. It always was. And always somewhere between warm and cold, resolutely nondescript in temperature as in all else. Unusually for the place, some news of the outside world had filtered in, through which channels it is unclear. It broke the monotonic hum of amalgamated chatter. Voices were raised, passions expressed, and for a moment it felt like there might be life left in the village after all. A fifty-nine-year-old man, by tendency as weary and as unremarkably broken as all the rest, spoke with a touch more cadence than the general din.
He was proclaiming guilt for having spawned one of Thatcher’s children, at the head of the beast devouring the fruit of the honest toil of good men. The Babylon system is the vampire. And my son is down there, sucking the blood out of this region with the best of them.
But there was an affection, maybe even a kind of pride, to those words.
The two spoke a little later.
‘How you doing, son?’
‘Minutes and hours, Dad, that’s what they say. Not looking too far ahead.’
‘Any plans for the derby?’ he asked.
‘Probably just stream it at home,’ I vaguely offered. His disinterest was as infectious as ever.
‘Mmm.’ He drew out the breath.
I wasn’t really inclined to discuss it, but the silence was agonising. ‘So, I guess she finally went.’
‘Aye, son,’ he began, stirring a little. ‘She outlasted Dave by two days, the evil bitch. The doctors gave him two months, back in the summer. He was hanging on for something; you could tell he had something in mind to hang on for. Fucking shame.’
‘Well, I guess he’s…’ I groped unsuccessfully for something to say, but he was on a roll.
‘He’ll be looking down and smiling tonight. Mark my words. With Brian and Pete and them lot. Not one of them ever did a day’s work after, you know. Hollowed-out men.’ Somehow, my dad always placed himself outside of these things. Easier, I guess, to call it by someone else’s name. ‘The lads in the club raised a glass or two this afternoon, like. Gave a few of the old songs a bit of an airing. It was 1984 again for a minute there.’
‘Socialism at last.’
‘You might not like to believe you were born into it, with your shiny London life. But we imagined a different world back then, at least. There was something to build towards.’ And to get up for, he might have added. ‘We came close to it once, too,’ said the old man.
‘I’ve seen the photos, Dad. The way men dressed in paradise. The perms of the Fourth International.’ I was being a dick.
‘How’s that southern lass, anyhow? Ellie?’ I braced myself. The personal was only ever political with him.
‘I’m sure she’s fine, Dad.’
‘In mourning, no doubt. The queen of her people is waiting at the Gates of Hades. She’ll be negotiating with the doorman, “just let me take down one more decent, honest man, labouring every hour he can to put food on his family’s table”.’ The cantankerous old bastard was ranting now.
I cut him off. ‘We broke up, Dad. I told you.’
‘Oh aye. Sorry, son.’ He was wrong-footed briefly by the fleeting moment of candour. ‘Still, probably for the best.’
‘Either way, it feels like my heart is being ripped out my chest, smashed to pieces, then put back in place to start all over again the minute I’m reminded of her. And every tiny, pathetic little thing reminds me of her. Every last, pitiful second.’ The openness felt unnatural, forced.
‘Best not to think about it,’ he replied, with reassuring normality.
We shared a few moments’ comfortingly uncomfortable silence. I checked my phone.
Iestyn: Fancy a wander to Trafalgar Square?
‘Might pop down to Trafalgar Square tonight. Check out the fabled party. A lot of people have been waiting a long time for this.’ I offered a bone.
‘I think it’ll be the Saturday.’ He stopped for a couple of moments. ‘But, you know, she won. There’s not one of the bastards these days, on either side, that she wouldn’t be comfortable working with. They’ll play that turgid Elvis Costello number, bring out the banners with the old slogans, chant the old chants, because there’s nothing new. No ideas. There’s no solidarity any more, no passion to make a difference, just millions of individuals making money for themselves. With people like…’ He paused. ‘There’s no passion.’
‘People like me?’
‘Sorry, son. It’s been a funny day.’
‘No worries, Dad. You’re right.’
And he was right, my dad. Later on, as I walked up to Trafalgar Square, there was just that pitiable mass of defeated, dated looking parodies. These pallid, wasted faces on television screens. It was a sight from which to turn away, or at which to gawp in judgement.
But the people watching TV, who laughed, mirthlessly – they’d no sense of history, or of places that were. They mocked and scorned, today especially but all days, not understanding that this is how any of us might look, if you took away our pride and our meaning.
Iestyn and I entertained ourselves a little while, comparing numbers of our peoples. His tally quickly began to surge ahead. The fluttering dragons were easier to spot than the guttural consonants and flattened vowels. I called a halt to the game. Symbols in place of purpose.
In the end, there was nothing to do but wander back to the present. Restaurants, kitsch pubs, cocktail bars. Men in suits, women in spring dresses, designer clothes shops. Street mimes, fire breathers, £65-a-ticket shows. Billy Elliott was playing down in Victoria. I felt disconnected, though this was my reality.
We sat a while in a nearby chain pub, talking broken politics, shattered hearts, and plans to step aside and into academia. The Manchester derby played out in the background, sound reduced to a murmur. The working man’s escape, tax-efficient leveraged buy-out against Gulf state PR exercise, was watched placidly by a couple of guys, dressed in the lower-middle class uniform of mid-range navy suit and grey-blue polyester shirt. The resignation of a co-opted people. We finished our premium continental lager and said our goodbyes.
I reluctantly squeezed open the door. The drink had taken the edge off the cold, but the smell of damp was more persistent. The flat was as I’d left it. I sighed at the sight of its emptiness, not quite pissed enough to feel numb. I glanced over at the bottle of Speyside single malt. Another drink and I might manage to pass out, then awaken a few hours later, with my thoughts for the rest of the night. With a firm nudge, the door clicked shut.
I opened the letter in the same motion as I spotted it.
‘I talk about you every day to people and, it makes me smile… I know I have no right, to say this… You pop into my thoughts all the time… I guess that, ultimately I miss you.’
For the first time that day, I wept. I’d loved her, for a while. She’d made me believe that there was a kindness in my soul after all, when I saw it reflected back at me in her eyes. There had been a happiness, a connectedness, and a playful levity that surged through me.
In a certain way, I loved her now too; but as I read them, her words gave rise to sympathy, pity even. And the sadness I felt was one of time passed, and of moments turned to memories. Somehow, seeing it there on the page, it seemed like this was not my present anymore.
And then, her poor grammar, and especially her illogical comma usage, irritated me. The thought of meeting to talk about it all exhausted me. As I read, I could hear those Home Counties tones, with their clipped vowels, clear enunciation, and ‘dinner’ in the evening. Those playful arguments and the reflexive snobbery no longer felt endearing. It hurt still, but it didn’t wound quite so deep.
I was close to my dad that night. United by the delicious pain of getting what you want, just after you’ve stopped wanting it.