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This is the first place where they live together, two rooms high up in the house, odd shaped, with sloping ceilings. See – they’ve painted the walls yellow to reflect the sunshine which comes in the dormer window. That’s where they sleep, the mattress on the floor, pushed up against the wall. Not much room for anything else, only that cheap chest of drawers in the corner. He has to climb over her to get in and out of bed and she grabs his bare legs and pulls him down on top of her. They make love, but you shouldn’t be looking.
On the weekends they sometimes lie in until mid-afternoon, when hunger forces them into activity. She cooks pasta in the grubby little kitchenette on a gas oven sticky with ancient grease. If they leave saucepans out overnight there will be mouse droppings in them by the morning. They eat at the little Formica-topped table which wobbles under the weight of their elbows.
The bathroom is shared with downstairs and there are always pubic hairs to be flushed away or a rim of soap scum to be scrubbed off before they can use the bath. This does not dent their optimism, however, as those yellow walls will have told you. One day curiosity drives him to put down the toilet lid so that he can climb up and look out of the window. She laughs when he comes back upstairs, the bottom of his jeans wet where the lid has cracked and he has fallen through.
‘And what, pray, did you see out there? Was it worth it?’ You can tell from her tone that she is mocking him. But he doesn’t mind.
‘There’s a sort of shaft,’ he tells her. ‘Not much light and no way into it except through the toilet windows. But there’s a bicycle down there and an old armchair.’
‘So, is your scientific curiosity satisfied?’ she asks. ‘Your quest for knowledge?’
She is wearing only a faded bedspread, wrapped around her like a sarong. It is patterned with peacocks and trailing vines that swell and sink over the curves and hollows of her body. She thinks she looks rather beautiful.
‘How on earth did they get there,’ he asks.
He is long and lanky, nearly a foot taller than her. From which you can tell that their story begins some time ago, before we went metric. A foot is thirty centimetres, in case you didn’t know. When she falls behind him in the street the sight of his long legs and little bum pleases her. They are physically so different that he tells her they should keep having children until two come out the same.
‘They’ve got a very interesting genetic pool to choose from. Different heights, hair colour and eye colour; ectomorph versus endomorph…’ She kisses him into silence, but you will have noticed that they are at the stage of thinking about having babies so it’s looking pretty permanent. When they next have the discussion – well, it’s him talking and her listening – he muses on their different ancestry. They are down the pub, sitting outside in the fading daylight, and he covers the Vikings and the Picts and the Celts, and she enjoys listening. He knows so much, he has lots to tell her. But part of her is thinking about learning to knit. You should be able to knit when you have babies and she has never progressed beyond purl. Or is it plain? And how do you cast off? She has decided to find someone to teach her and is planning this as they walk back along the canal. He is telling her about the stars. They stand still, holding hands, looking up into the dark sky. Of course she is listening as he points out the constellations. But she is distracted by the fluff of cloud that drifts across the moon and the gleam of lights on the water.
They progress from renting to buying, but always in the poorest quarter of the city. This is all they can afford but they do not think of themselves as poor. At the end of the day, the stallholders in the market sell off the leftover fruit and veg cheap. Their furniture is minimal – and this is before minimalism was fashionable, remember. They sit on cushions on the floor and do not yet have a television. They find an old trestle table in a skip and wrestle it free, which is not easy. It is sticking out from beneath old timbers and lumps of brickwork. But she is determined.
‘I can sand it and stain it,’ she tells him. ‘Then we’ll have a dining table.’ Now it is his turn to mock her.
‘Yeah, and then we can have dinner parties.’ They laugh at the idea, the picture of their ‘guests’ kneeling on cushions, trying to eat off the table. But gradually they acquire chairs, from family, from second-hand shops. And the children come too. She is out with her first son one day when they see a chair on the pavement outside a junk shop, green leather seat and back, old studs to keep the leather in place, dark wooden arms. The seat is sunken but comfortable and it looks handsome. They buy it for five pounds and get it home between them. Her son is small, only four years old, so she pretends he is helping as she lugs it along. When they stop for breath she tells him,
‘See, you always wanted a pet.’ They cannot have one because of the flat. They are on the first floor, with no garden, and it wouldn’t be fair. At least, that’s what she tells him. But you know the truth is her memories of all the pets in her own childhood which she neglected to clean and often forgot to feed. It fell to her mother to look after them and she’s not going to get caught the same way.
‘Well, this has got four legs and we are taking it for a walk. So the chair can be your pet.’ The boy realises that this is a joke. He still hopes for a pet one day.
Have you noticed that the father is not about much anymore? That happens when the children start coming. The mother’s focus shifts, their relationship changes. Also, he is working longer hours. He likes his work. It is orderly, satisfying. And he is doing well. There have been promotions and this means more money. The company sends him north, which he likes because now he has more responsibility, more people under him. But he claims it is because his roots are there. She hates it, however, hates the disruption and all the things they have to leave behind. The table does not go with them, the long dark piece of wood that she had sanded and stained and varnished. It can accommodate all of them, the three boys ranged down one side, which she finds satisfying. They had dragged it out of the skip and lugged it through the market, hot and dirty with brick dust. She had decided that it was their public declaration of coupledom.
Or is it couplehood? She thought that passers-by smiled on them indulgently and knew they were in love. Now, though, they drive up before the removal van, in his company car, and you can see the neighbours at their windows, taking note of the new arrivals.
The house echoes to their footsteps and she is lonely for London. But she is adaptable and eventually settles in. Of course, when they are moved back down south again, a few years later, she finds that she hates that too. But he will earn even more money. The opportunity is not to be missed, therefore, even though the children are upset at having to leave their friends. Well, can’t be helped and you’d probably have done the same. They live in Islington for a while, and now the boys are settled in school, so she starts her interior design business. She rents an empty shop, single-handedly clearing out the rubbish because she is unable to tempt the boys to join in. He is away often, too jet lagged to be useful when he is home. He has to fly off all round the world, meet important people, and solve their problems.
She doesn’t miss him much, she is busy with the new shop. Surveying the windows she has just cleaned, admiring the fall of sunlight across the floorboards, the memory of their first home startles her. Thinking of dinner for the boys as she walks home along Upper Street, fragments of a song torment her. It was a lover and his lass, with a hey and a ho and a hey nonino, then something about the spring. She feels rather melancholy.
When he comes home, she likes to meet him at the airport, making it into a game. She stands beyond the barrier with an absurd name scrawled on her placard, pretending she does not know him. But he is tired. When he lands abroad he can dispel his fatigue in the Jacuzzi or the sauna. But now, here, he doesn’t want to talk or play games. All her bits of news go over his head and, anyway, he has already heard most of them over the phone. I expect you can predict what comes next. He decides to have the company car collect him in future.
‘No need to be dragging you out at this time of night. I’m not great company and if I can just sit back, not talk to the driver, well, it gives me time to switch back to being … er, the dad, the husband. D’you know what I mean?’
Yes, she knows what he means.
You see what’s happening, don’t you? Drifting apart, going their separate ways. There’s lots of money, very nice holidays abroad once or twice a year, all of them together. But mostly, her life now is just her and the boys, and the lovely interiors that she creates for others. And she doesn’t really know what his life is. Lots of work brought home at weekends, so he doesn’t sit around after dinner but retreats to his study with files that look very important. Meetings after office hours. In fact, they don’t see a lot of each other. You are wondering if he is having an affair with his secretary. But you don’t know the secretary. An embittered old battle axe who came with the job and he doesn’t like her but can’t get rid of her. She’s very efficient and very sarcastic, and she pricks his self-esteem at every opportunity. So, no, they are not having an affair. Anyway, he is too tired and too busy to have the energy for such duplicity.
Still, against all the odds, they rub along together. And ‘rub’ is the right word because sometimes there are tensions, snappy comments when they rub each other up the wrong way. Uncomfortable isn’t it, when couples snipe at each other in front of you, so that you have to pretend to be examining the books on their shelves? You would prefer that they quarrelled in private. But you do acknowledge that, despite their differences, they have managed well together for decades. They are materially successful and you think the house is rather nice. It’s bigger than yours, actually, and has featured in one of those ‘At home’ things in a colour supplement. There are no bright yellow walls, however.
The boys are grown, married, and having children. He is winding down his work commitments and she takes on fewer commissions. So, from this point on, it could go two ways. It might be that they get on each others nerves so much that a divorce is inevitable. But when they sit out together in the garden, in the late summer sun, this seems unthinkable. He is into gardening now and the borders are blooming and sweet scented. There is a worldwide shortage of bees and yet their garden is full of them, drunkenly nuzzling their way into the blossoms.
‘I need some early flowers, lungwort and such, to bring the bees in next spring. Where, do you think? Down that border?’ She looks where he is pointing, and nods. But really she is wondering what next year will be like if he is always at home. He tops up their wine glasses and cannot help feeling smug at the beauty of their surroundings. So, perhaps no divorce. But they have both thought the unthinkable. They have imagined being free and solitary. They have imagined the lack of pressure, the sheer relief of not being together anymore.
And the other way it could go, to stay a couple, decline into the winter of their old age and slip into senility together? Will they choose this, the easier way? She thinks about it in bed when she cannot sleep. She has drunk too much wine and it makes her thirsty, so then she drinks water and has to keep getting up to pee. He has rolled onto his back and is snoring. Annoying, isn’t it? Even if it’s not very loud, the sound of your partner sleeping contentedly, when you cannot, is irritating. When they were younger and she could not sleep, she told herself stories. Sometimes it would be winning the pools – this was before the lottery – and planning how to spend £75,000. More modest times, you will note. If she did that now, she’d have to spend £50,000,000 and she’d never get to sleep.
Sometimes she would create her ideal house. It was always hidden behind great banks of laurel bushes. There were steps up to a porch wide enough to house two benches for sitting on. These, however, she covered in pots of bulbs, crocuses and daffodils and tulips. She could never decide which was best, to have their pale spears just breaking through the soil or to be greeted by the glory of their golden heads as she came up the steps. Pushing the heavy door open, she would walk through the rooms planning the décor. She usually fell asleep during her tour of the first floor.
Now she has plenty of money and is living in a perfect house, so these stories will not work any more. She finds she worries about leaving the grandchildren too much money and spoiling their futures because they do not have to work hard. She sits up and wriggles out of her nightie to cool her warm, fat flesh. Yes, she is fatter than she used to be. He is still tall and skinny, but age pulls him down a little closer to her height. She looks at the dark shape of him and thinks about their past.
Is this what sends her up into the loft the next day? It is usually his task to climb the ladder and risk the spiders and mice which she suspects inhabit the dark corners, though she has not had to live with mice since they left Islington. There are still some boxes up here, although she has been good about not accumulating what he calls rubbish. He does not see the point of keeping things that are not used, no matter how beautiful they are. She ducks under a beam to drag a box into the light, kneeling down to tug at the tape and wrench the flaps open.
The square of cloth is folded on the top. They used to lie in bed in that little yellow room, and this piece of fabric was suspended in the window, draped over a string between two stick-on hooks. They would lie apart after the first lovemaking of the day, silent, watching the sunlight move into the room through the piece of patterned blue chiffon.
‘Pretty,’ he says, ‘but not very functional as a curtain.’
‘Look,’ she points. ‘See how it moves in the breeze, how the gold threads dance in the sunshine. It shimmers like silk.’ He is interested and follows her gaze. They lie close, their bare arms touching.
‘Oh, yes,’ he tells her. ‘That’s the diffraction of light on the fibres.’