Here is the fifth extract from my book ‘Albatross – the scent of honeysuckle’, recently published on Amazon. The link to Extract 1, for those who want to catch up is – https://besonian.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/albatross-extract-1/
The interior of the house in Endell Street was green. Everywhere painted green. An oily green which had been applied over layer upon layer of previous colours so that the mouldings on all door and window frames were smoothed to a shine. And washing drying – always there was washing drying. Towelling nappies, babygrows. Everywhere the smell of baby powder. I hear his crying in the night, waking us from sleep. Me first, most times, being the lighter sleeper. I walk around in the night jiggling him up and down in my arms hoping he’ll soon go down again, then sleep, letting me get just a little more. The floral wallpaper in the bedroom, with those strange, orange leaves. The sounds of late-night people outside, going home. That’s where he began. So that, I guess, is where I too should begin.
In this age of the computer I should be able to do it all from my armchair. It’s all out there. Information on everything imaginable. But I hate computers and the only one I have – in my study in Ludlow – hates me back. I’ve had it two years and have hardly used it, and then only when I’ve had no other option. Most of the time at Westminster I got others to do that sort of thing for me – often a little grudgingly, but I made the most of my ignorance, smiled nicely and applied a little charm. It worked. OK – it’s all very well. But that way you either forget how to do things for yourself, or never find out in the first place.
I know how to read, write and send an email. I can look up a website. If I had to, I might even figure out how to use one of those memory sticks. Beyond that I flounder. I could learn. I could take a course. But I couldn’t sit with other people in night school or an internet café. I’m no celebrity politician but my face is still enough known for me to be recognized. And even if all that were surmountable, there’s another thing. Computers aren’t that clever. Despite their mind-numbing speed and ingenuity, they can be manipulated – so I’m told – by any devious chancer with the appropriate technical know-how into coughing up all your personal information, down to credit card details and which keys you’ve pressed on the keyboard. That on its own would be, for me, a deal breaker.
Where does that leave me? Halifax. Endell Street. Number 26. I need to see the house again. To look at it from the other side of the street. The privet hedge that bordered its front garden. The irregular raised lines in the road which marked where once had stood the outside walls of the wartime air-raid shelters. The recreation ground at the end of the road. With the two slides – one for the ‘big kids’ and one for the toddlers. I used to take Matt on the toddlers’. Put my arms around his warm little body and hold him tight on my lap as we slid down. That slide wasn’t much taller than me, but to him it was an Everest and he loved and was terrified by it all at the same time. “Again! Again!” I wearied of it long before he ever did. I never knew in those days what all that meant to me. As I think about it now I’m often overwhelmed with such sadness I feel sometimes my heart will break. God, what have I done?
I have to go to Endell Street.
Stella was working class, her father a bus driver. We met when we were both at Oxford. We had a fling. We spent a lot of time walking hand-in-hand through Christchurch Meadow, punting on the Cherwell, drinking in the town pubs and doing the things undergraduates do. We also spent a lot of time in bed. In those days it was not easy. Colleges were gender-specific, as the toe-curling jargon goes. Trinity was all men, St Hilda’s all women. The opposite sex was banned from undergraduates’ rooms after about ten o’clock in the evening. It was a brave or desperate couple that ignored it. But then, in those days, most of us were pretty desperate, if not actually brave. If you were caught, the person of the offending gender would be summarily kicked out of the building and the other, as likely as not, booted out of the university. Or at best, rusticated, sent down, summarily sacked.
After our first swift, guilt-ridden and panicky encounter in my cupboard of a bedroom overlooking The Broad, I found us a hotel – a mile or so up the Iffley Road. It was a fleapit. But during our six months together it served its purpose. The end came when Stella suspected I was two-timing her. I was. The lady in question being Licia Harper-Downes.
Licia was a postgraduate student at Somerville College and daughter of Sir Gregory Harper-Downes, a faded member of the landed aristocracy. It had, said Stella, to be all-Stella or no-Stella. I didn’t like ultimatums so opted for the latter.
She was a lovely woman, Licia. Strong, proud, sexy and with great integrity. I liked her a lot. But in sheer emotional maturity she was in a league beyond me. We lasted a year. I hardly noticed in those far off days qualities she had which when I look back, cause me even now to regret just a little her passing so soon from my life. But I was lured away by Susie – a curvaceous, flirtatious sexual plum. She hung ripe from a very willing tree. All I had to do was reach out and pick it.
Susie worked in one of the huge vehicle manufacturing plants at the far end of the Cowley Road. They were powerhouses where men earned huge wages. They ran 24 hours a day, weekends included, as they struggled to meet the global hunger for British made. Laughable now. Susie and I met in the Post Office in St Aldates one Saturday morning. One of her heels had broken off. I persuaded a nice lady cashier – it was easier in those days – to lend me some glue and a roll of sellotape with which I stuck the heel back on again, enough at least to get her home.
Susie was cheap, ebullient, provocative, just a little coarse and a pathological flirt. She was irresistible. She’d probably had it off with half the shop floor, and if she hadn’t, that was the impression she set out to give. She was good for a thrill. That’s what we had, and that’s all we had, and it burned itself out in a couple of months. I entered my last term at Trinity – my Finals’ term – womanless. A good thing.
After our split, Stella and I had avoided each other for the final eighteen months of our time at Oxford. But something of her was always with me – some trace in the air, some will-o’-the-wisp. I would find myself thinking about her at odd moments – sometimes even when I was in bed with Susie. I’d wonder how she was, what she was doing, who she was with. So it was with utter astonishment, about a year after we’d both gone down, that I bumped into her in a pub one lunchtime – in Halifax of all places. I was nine months into a management trainee course in that town and she was visiting a client on behalf of the textile company she worked for some fifty miles away. She was as delighted as I was. Fate, it seemed, had brought us back together.
Trouble lay ahead. Doesn’t it always. Mother had become more British than the British. She seemed to have acquired the belief that if, like us Marshals, you owned your own business, had a big house, a large car and a lot more money than most, then something in the air in this land automatically elevated your social status.
I loved my mother. But her snobbery hurt and embarrassed me. She’d had grandiose plans for me. Her only begotten was to sup at high table. His path into adulthood was to be Rugby School and Christchurch College Oxford. Thence onward into the Civil Service in which he would become a famous diplomat, perhaps an ambassador to some ‘important country’, as she put it – whatever an ‘important country’ was.
But already I had punctured many of her illusions. ‘Rugby, Christchurch, the Civil Service’ was a mantra, burned into her brain which irritated me even in my teens. I asked her where she’d got it from. It was meaningless.
She drew herself up to her full height. “It is well known in all the world,” she replied with a splendidly vacuous hauteur, “that Eton, then Christchurch College, Oxford and the English Civil Service is the best.”
“The best what?” I’d asked.
“The best education – what you think? The best there is in the whole world!”
“So where does Eton figure in, ‘Rugby, Christchurch, Civil Service’”?
She thrust her still beautiful face into mine and hissed, “You want not to go where your father went?? What is the matter with you?”
I made Rugby. Dad had been educated there – and we had money. They appeared to be the main requirements. I didn’t make Christchurch College, Oxford or the Civil Service. I made Trinity College, Oxford which was just as good and more than I’d ever hoped for. As for the Civil Service, I made no attempt. At the end of my three years at university, the thought of working in an office, travelling to it en masse, decked out in bowler hat and striped trousers, looking forward, at the end of it all, to a glass or two of sherry and a carriage clock, filled me with dread. I applied for, and was accepted, as a management trainee with an engineering firm in Halifax.
“For pity’s sake!” shrieked Mother. “Not content with doing some working class thing, you go to live in the North!” She spat the word out as though Halifax were only just this side of the Arctic Circle. And with that, Mother’s dreams for me were almost in tatters. Though not quite. That was soon to come.
Dad was no more pleased than Mother, though for different reasons. I had long ago made it plain to him that, despite the pressure he put on me, I was not interested in working alongside him in his textile business which he’d hoped I would ultimately take over. Industry had never attracted me – so I’d claimed and so I’d believed. Dad’s round of conferences, hotels, big lunches, lobbying dressed up as entertainment, golf, dinner parties with freeloading sycophants, long-haul flights and never-ending office meetings was no more my idea of a life than the Civil Service. So when I announced I was, after all, going into industry – but not his industry – I felt the depths of his disappointment. Even so, he had the grace to mumble, with just a suggestion of a smile on his face, that at least – as he put it – I’d joined the boys.
I’d surprised even myself. But the fact was I’d had no burning ambition to do anything in particular – par for the course with the vast majority of us in Oxford in those days. All my personal associates, with the one exception of dear Licia, acknowledged they wanted a career. They just didn’t know which one. There was no pressure. In those days, it wasn’t a question of ‘if’ you got a job – simply of which job you would get. Consequently, the criterion generally became what convivial, well-paid working life could one achieve, doing whatever, wherever. And that is the impression I got of the Halifax job, from the then Careers Office in Oxford. For a traineeship it paid well. Halifax, as I discovered when I went for the interview, was an attractive town, and it was far enough from Northampton for the parents not to be tempted to come a-visiting too often.
Then to cap it all, there, by one of those chances – or is it? – which fate throws in from time to time to confuse you, I meet in a pub one lunchtime, my old flame, Stella. We met up again after work for a drink. We went on to a restaurant and from there to my small bedsit. She returned by cab to her hotel in the early hours. We were on the road to being, once again, an item. A month later, I announced to my parents my intention of marrying her.
That was the final nail in the coffin of Mother’s dreams. Her only begotten son really was going to be carried off and cared for by another woman. And a working class woman at that – the final indignity. Right up to that moment I think she had somehow, despite all the evidence, deceived herself into believing that the life she had so long wanted for me – and therefore for herself by proxy – one of prestige and society glamour, independent in most practical senses of Dad – could somehow, in some fantastical, never-never land still happen, thus bypassing the wasteland into which she saw herself otherwise headed. But that closed the door on it. Before her lay a future of making small talk with a bus driver’s family.
Stripped of her illusions, she was devastated. She had little to fall back on. Her marriage was one in name only; her wounds from the past were still open and weeping. I feel even now a great sadness. For all her overweening pride and authoritarian arrogance, she was at heart a hurt, confused and seriously wounded little girl. She did only what she could do. None of us can do more.
The rain pounded on the window.
“Draw the curtains, Al!” she whispered hoarsely. “The curtains.”
He glanced over his shoulder. “They are closed.”
“Not properly, they’re not.”
He rolled off the bed and scuttled across the room in his underwear. He peered out through the narrow gap between the cheap, floral curtains.
“Still pissing down.” He drew the curtains together. Then hurried back, dragging his Y-fronts off as he went, and throwing them with a flourish across the room.
“Oooh!” she exclaimed gleefully, “look at that!”
“Full of eastern promise, my dear.” He scrambled onto the bed beside her.
“Now there speaks a real advertising man!”
“That’s me. Always on the job.”
Shrieking with laughter, she threw her arms around his neck.
He nuzzled into her. “You know what they say about real admen, don’t you?” He took one of her nipples gently in his mouth.
“No. What do they say? Oi, karamba! Tell me quickly before I lose interest.”
“Let me show you.” He took one of her hands and placed it gently between his legs.
A little cry escaped her.
He grinned. “Life is short. And lo, the bird is on the wing.”
“Come on then, big boy.”
He lowered his body down and slowly, gently entered her.
Her head went back, her eyes closed.
“Christ Viki, you feel good.” He began to move gently.
She groaned quietly.
His movements speeded up a little.
“Not yet. Not yet.”
“Gently. That’s it. Ooh, Al.”
He took a deep breath. Paused.
They remained still. The rain beat on the window and the thin roof.
She put her lips to his ear. “You,” she whispered, “are the fuck to die for. Did you know that?”
He moved once more.
She responded, and though unsure of each other and a little out of sync they were nevertheless moving towards a more or less joint climax when her eyes shot wide open and her body beneath him went rigid as a plank.
“Christ!” He froze. “What??”
“’Listen’? What d’you mean?”
“There’s a noise – listen!” She pointed to the wall just behind her head. “There!”
“It’s the rain, for Christ’s sake. Come on.” He moved again.
She tried to extricate herself from under him.
“Fuck’s sake Viki, what the – ?” But then he too heard it and stopped. He stared at the faded wallpaper above their heads.
Viki’s eyes were wide. “What is it?”
He moved away from her. They both stared at the wall.
“Sounds like an animal.” His voice was shaking.
It came again. A short, whimpering cry. Then a long, guttural cough.
The hairs on the back of Viki’s neck rose up. “Jesus Christ.”
Al bit his lip.
“Do something,” she whispered.
“I don’t know.”
They looked at each other. The rain battered the roof.
“A man, Al? Is it a man?”
Al put his ear to the wall. Then pulled back, grimacing.
“Let’s go!” Viki was off the bed and throwing on her clothes. “Get dressed! Let’s get out of here.”
“We’ve got to do something!”
“Like what? You said there’s nothing we could – ”
“I didn’t say there was nothing – I said – ”
“Fuck it. Let’s go.”
Al, protesting, started to dress. The sounds continued. Viki shoved her feet into her shoes. Then grabbed her briefcase, went to the door and flung it open. She looked back at Al struggling into his jacket. “Get a move on!” She ran out through the rain to the car. She didn’t have the keys. She stopped and looked back. “Hurry up! I’m soaking.”
He came out shoving his briefcase under his arm. He slammed the door behind him, went to run towards her, then turned back and went to the window of the next room.
“No Al! No!”
But already he had his nose to the glass.
“It’s nothing to do with us!”
He turned from the window and stood looking at her. His face was ashen. He made no attempt to join her.
She ran back to him. Went to grab him by the arm, but he threw both arms around her body and tried to manhandle her towards the window of the next room. “Look! Look in there!!”
“I’ve got enough problems!” She tore herself free. “Let’s get out of this place.”
“Oh, Jesus.” Stunned, he allowed himself to be led back to the car.
They got in. He switched the engine on then sat staring ahead.
“Al? Please, let’s go.”
“This isn’t right.” He turned to her. “There’s a man in there. And what looks like a lot of – ”
“Drive, eh? Just drive.” She reached across and placed his hand on the gear lever.
He took the wheel. Put the vehicle in gear.
“Al,” she said, reassuringly, “it would fuck everything. Your job. Mine. The whole works. They have staff here. It’ll be alright.”
He put his foot down. The black Jaguar took off, throwing up water and gravel. Splashed and rocked over the rain-filled potholes, narrowly missed a small blue car pulling in by the office, and swung out onto the main road.
Stella peered emptily from the train window. Patches of late winter snow lingered under hedgerows and in the corners of fields. Leafless trees stood out against an overcast sky. She looked down at the small child, asleep under a blanket by her side. He rocked gently back and forth with the train’s movement. One little hand lay outside the blanket. She touched the tiny fingers. They flexed just a little. He didn’t stir.
She resumed gazing out of the window. Her mother was still on her mind. Scarborough seemed a nice enough town. Just around the corner there was a nice view over the sea. The staff appeared quite caring. And her mother liked them. She didn’t like many people these days. It was obvious she was fading. Simply sitting with her in that sweltering room was a form of torture. Her sight was poor, her mind wandered, it was hard to understand what she was trying to say. Then she would stop in mid-sentence as though someone had turned her switch off, and stare into space.
“Mum,” Stella would say.
Then a sudden, “Eh?”
“Are you alright?”
“Shouldn’t I be?”
“You were saying something.”
“No. I didn’t speak.”
Sharon’s Dad had to be carried these days by a nurse either side of him. From his invalid chair to the table. From the table back to his invalid chair. To bed, to the toilet. Is that how it was going to be? She prayed not.
The train slowed down as it approached Halifax. Surprisingly, almost on time. The child stirred. Stella picked him up. Then made her way awkwardly with him and the folded pushchair along the corridor.
On the platform she flipped open the pushchair and sat him in it. Tucked his legs up and wrapped his blanket around him. Woken suddenly from sleep, his face began to crumple. She chucked him under the chin. “Not long now, munchkin. Soon be home.” She set off towards the barrier.
She was cold. She had no winter coat. One wheel of the pushchair wobbled and squeaked. It embarrassed her. She had been meaning to oil it. The big clock over the booking office said just after six-thirty. If they were lucky and got a taxi fairly quickly, they’d be home by seven.
The child whimpered. She reached forward and tucked the blanket further in around his neck.
They joined the taxi queue.
The newsagent on the corner was open.
“Drop us here, please,” she said. “I want a newspaper. We’ll walk the rest of the way.”
She paid the driver, went into the shop and bought her newspaper. Then set off down Endell Street. There were no lights on at number 26. She was disappointed. He’d said at breakfast he would try to get back before her and put the heating on. On the other hand she was an hour or so earlier than usual. They’d forgotten to let her know her mother had been booked for the physio, which meant that she – Stella – had not needed to stay on till they served dinner. It was a relief. Watching her mother pick at her food with hands she couldn’t control was too distressing.
The hinges of the garden gate squeaked. Something else that needed oiling. At the front door of the house she lifted the child out of the pushchair and planted a kiss on his cheek. Balancing him on her hip she put the key in the lock and opened the door. She was surprised to see there was in fact a sliver of rather dim light beneath the closed door of the living room. In her hurry to leave and get the train this morning, she’d probably forgotten to turn the little table light off.
With her free hand she dragged the pushchair in off the step, and leaned back against the door to close it with her weight. Then stopped, stared at the strip of light under the door. Shadows were moving across it. She frowned. Sounds of movement. Silence. Then an unthinkable horror. Struggling to control her breathing, she clutched the child closer. Approached the door, reached for the knob, hesitated, then in one movement, grasped it, twisted it and flung the door open.
The only illumination was the soft glow from a small table lamp on the TV in the far corner. In this half-light, at either end of the table by the curtained window sat two people – Barney and a young, dark-haired woman. They both had the look about them of people who had been where they were for no more than a second or two. The woman’s face was flushed, her long hair in disarray. They both looked at Stella with simulated openness.
“Stell!” said Barney, brightly. “Hi. And Matty. Hi, Matty.”
The woman mumbled something inaudible.
Stella looked from one to the other. “What’s going on?”
“This is Miriam,” said Barney, clearing his throat. “From work.”
“Oh yes?” said Stella, cradling the child’s head in her hand. “And what’s Miriam doing here?”
Miriam herself made no attempt to reply.
“Ooh,” Barney gave a dismissive wave of his hand, “there were a few documents needed dealing with. You know – urgent stuff – and we thought it better to bring them here. It’s a madhouse at the works with this new contract on the go, and – .”
“Documents?” Stella looked around. “I don’t see them.”
“No – well we’d largely finished. And – ”
“In this light? You were working on documents in this light?” And to make the point she reached to one side and switched on the overhead light.
The pair at the table blinked.
“Or perhaps you have very good eyes, Miriam.”
Miriam’s face had turned white.
The boy started to cry.
“Poor Matty,” said Barney. “He’s tired, look.” And he stood up and started towards Stella and his son. But she raised a hand and stopped him.
The boy stopped crying and looked at his father. Stella pressed his small face to hers, transferring his tears to her own cheeks. “Well,” she said to Barney who stood, thwarted and spare, in the middle of the floor, “at least you did what you said you’d do.”
“I’m sorry. What do you – ?”
“You said you’d try and be home before me. You were.”
He went to speak, but no words came.
She studied him with a contemptuous, hurt despair. Matt, overwhelmed with the vibes, began to howl.
Miriam scrambled up from her chair, knocking it over. She bundled her coat up in her arms and made for the door. On her way, she snatched up from the carpet a piece of black, lacy material. Shoving it under her coat, she hurried from the room.
Stella pulled Matt closer. Barney reached out to touch the boy but she held him off.
The front door slammed.
“You too,” she said to Barney, indicating with a sharp movement of her head the direction of the sound.
Barney’s brows knitted.
“Go!” She pointed back towards the front door. “Get out!”
“Wait a minute. It’s not what you think. If you’ll – ”
“Get out!! Get the fuck out!!” And with her free hand she aimed a blow at Barney’s head, catching him on the lip and drawing blood. As he spun away, Matt began to scream and kick.
Barney, blood running down his chin, stood looking in wide-eyed disbelief at his wife and distraught son. This could not be happening. This surely was a corner of hell.
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