My mother is putting on her coat. She has a plan, a life, someone to see; a friend from school. It seems the children aren’t included. I hadn’t banked on that. Frankly, I’d banked on childcare. Perhaps I should have made that clear. I make some rapid mental calculations. There is time, perhaps, to phone a friend. There’s always Daniel. I could call him. But I know he won’t pick up.
She is looking forward to her day out. To a good old natter about the old days. Judy used to take her home for tea. Tea and cakes and orange juice and scones with orange curd.
‘Orange curd?’ I say. ‘Not lemon curd? Or marmalade?’
It seems impossibly exotic.
‘Orange curd’ my mother says decisively. ‘Judy’s mother made the most delicious orange curd.’
She shuts the door behind her.
I count to ten before I call in sick at work.
Billy’s walked to school himself. He shouldn’t really. What with the main road and the junction. And the old man on the corner who always tries to share his sweets. But she just can’t face the playground. Besides, she’s busy with the house. Ironing, baking, cooking. When Alan walks back through the door he’ll find it spick and span.
There’s a pile of letters in the porch. Two early Christmas cards. One from Barton Vale Tandoori, the other from Mason’s Mini-cabs. A lavender-coloured envelope. Addressed to me. Hand-written. Makes a change. Not a bank statement or a bill or a marketing campaign. I don’t recognise the writing. It’s old-fashioned. Quite distinctive. Ink from an inkwell. A proper scratchy nib. A single sheet of paper. Four words. Capital letters. LET SLEEPING DOGS LIE.
So this is how it’s going to be. A war of words. A battle of the slogans. I wonder if they’re going to print new T shirts. Perhaps they’ll upgrade to a sweatshirt. They should do. They’ll catch their death of cold.
It’s the phone. The landline.
He says ‘Linda?’ As though she might be someone else.
She feels a great surge of relief.
‘Thank God you’re still alive. Where in God’s name have you been?’
He says ‘I thought you’d be in the shower.’
Just like that. Not ‘How are you?’ or ‘Sorry’ or ‘Please let me explain.’
She glances at the clock. She would be, in the old days. Before her husband disappeared. In the shower at 8.15. Regular as clockwork. A twenty minute slot. After Alan’s had his breakfast and kissed her on the doorstep. While Billy watches Steve Backshall’s Deadly Sixty before they both set off for school.
She says ‘So why did you phone now if you thought I’d be in the shower?’
She’s missed her moment, fluffed her lines. She’s imagined this conversation a hundred times or more. Acrimony, explanation, anger, rage, forgiveness. Not this. She just sounds petty. Irritated that he didn’t think to phone a little later. As though that’s his only crime. She wonders vaguely if the home phone has a rewind button. If you can work it like the video. Restart the conversation. Say your piece again.
Bruno says ‘We’ve changed the meeting to a conference call so you can join as well.’
I say ‘I called in sick’.
‘I know you did. But nobody believed you’.
I join the conference call. Nobody enquires about my health.
Lester wants an update on my trip to Number 29.
‘I met the wife.’ I say. ‘The husband wasn’t in.’
Lester says ‘And how did you get on?’
‘I’d say they’ll definitely oppose the scheme. It’s why they bought the house. The view. The field. The sense of space.’
‘What did she say about the access strip?’
I say ‘There wasn’t a right time to bring it up.’
I’m glad I’m at a distance. That I can’t see Lester’s face.
‘That was the reason for the visit. The only fucking reason. I don’t care about their fucking view. If we don’t get access off the High Street all the values fall apart.’
‘I called to talk to Billy.’ Says Alan. ‘To check that he’s OK.’
‘Of course he’s not OK.’
Piercing, strangled, shrill. Like the kind of woman she despises. Indecorous. Uncontrolled. What’s the word? A fish wife. If Irene could hear her now.
‘His Dad has disappeared. How could he possibly be OK?’
There’s no way she’s going to let him know that Billy isn’t home. That he had to set off early. That she’s left him to the mercy of the traffic and the man who shares his sweets.
Billy’s not available to speak.’ She says. Formal, grand, officious. Like Ellie-in-Reception in her High-and-Mighty mood.
She makes a conscious effort to adopt a normal voice.
‘You don’t walk out on him without warning and then call whenever you want.’
Alan is matter-of-fact. Decisive. Keen to make things clear.
‘I haven’t walked out on Billy. I’ve walked out on you.’
She will speak slowly, softly, carefully. Make him understand the error of his ways.
‘It amounts to the same the thing. You’ve abandoned both of us and we need you to come back.’
Dammit, it sounds like begging. She didn’t mean to beg.
There’s someone at the door. Wearing a cheap brown suit and the self-important air of a man who fully understands the gravitas of his job. Jesus. He’s a bailiff. There must be some mistake. He reels off a litany of crimes. Unpaid council tax; ignored warnings; non-appearances at court. Thank God my mother isn’t here. Thank God for Judy and her orange curd. I get Daniel on the phone. Miraculous. He hardly ever picks up. He won’t be doing that again.
Cheques are written; banks are phoned. The crisis is averted. The intruder is despatched. He leaves the house a little darker. He has cast doubts on our comfortable existence; our self-assured identity as owners of a Scandinavian table; an Italian corner sofa; the trophies of exemplary modern taste and professional success.
‘That’s not going to happen.’ says Alan. ‘I won’t be coming back.’
‘So what am I meant to do?’
Not begging. Simply asking. A reasonable request for some basic information.
‘Do about what?’
‘About everything. About the mortgage? About the house?’
‘Is that the only thing you’re worried about? The mortgage?’
Maybe not, she thinks, not the only thing. There’s the humiliation and the loneliness and the fear of the unknown. There’s the constant lying and evasion. The worry about what to say to Billy. The sleepless nights spent wondering where Alan is and why he went and what she could have done to make him stay.
But the mortgage is the main thing. Most tangible, most immediate. The thing that’s uppermost in her mind.
Alan is talking in his work voice. Efficient. Condescending.
‘All you have to do is make the monthly payments. You need to call them up and tell them that it’s your responsibility now. That’s you’ll be making all the payments from now on.’
He makes it sound so simple. Monthly payments. Just like that. She takes a long deep breath before she spells it out to him. Speaking slowly. As though she’s speaking to a child.
‘I can’t make the monthly payments because I don’t have any money. I don’t have any money because I don’t have a job. I don’t have a job because we agreed that I would give up working to look after the house. And my husband. And our child.’
Calm. Considered. Crystal clear.
I say ‘It’s not that straightforward. Even if we bought the strip of land beside the house we’d have an issue with Macey’s Patch.’
Lester says ‘What’s Macey’s Patch?’
He has a knack of not remembering things he doesn’t want to process.
‘The strip of land behind the Kirkbys’ garden. Between the tree stump and the sycamore tree. If we put in access from the High Street, the road would have to go straight over it.’
‘Would that be a problem?’
‘It would be for the residents.’
‘What’s so special about Macey’s Patch?’
‘It’s the pet cemetery.’
Lester snorts dismissively. ‘It isn’t a pet cemetery. It’s just a patch of land.’
I correct myself. ‘It’s where local residents bury their pets.’
‘We can’t let the residents think that they can use it as a ransom strip. And it isn’t a pet cemetery. I’ve looked on the survey and the OS map and there’s nothing marked at all’.
I say ‘Well no, there wouldn’t be. The Council doesn’t allocate space to bury pets. I don’t think it’s official.’
‘Then we don’t have to worry about it.’
Lester’s ‘firm and final’ voice. I know better than to argue.
‘Could we relocate the bodies?’ says Bruno. Trying to be helpful.
Lester is losing patience ‘We’re not spending Christ knows how much money to move a load of dogs. It won’t win us any friends. We’ll be all over the press as gravediggers and body snatchers. I can absolutely guarantee.’
He has a point.
‘Christ.’ He says. ‘Who calls a dog Lager anyway?’
‘Gala.’ I correct him. ‘Like Gala Pie.’
If he could just say something soothing. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t speak at all. Leaves a silence she can’t bear.
‘Jesus Alan, you can’t just walk out on your obligations. You have a wife. You have a son. Who the hell do you think you are?’
‘You could start selling things on ebay.’ He says. Which isn’t answering the question. ‘There are loads of bits and pieces round the house. You can sell my camera. Or the golf clubs. Sell whatever you want.’
Dear God, he thinks he’s being helpful.
‘I’m not going to start selling our possessions.’
‘OK don’t. Get a job; get a boyfriend, find someone else to pay the bills.’
The bright ideas keep coming. ‘Or sell the house and rent a flat.’
‘Right.’ She says. ‘And what shall I tell Billy?’
‘Tell him life’s a bitch.’
He’s back. The Harbinger of Doom. Standing at the door in his polyester suit.
He says: ‘I think I may have left my pen. I know exactly where I left it. Do you mind if I pop down?’
It’s a trick. It has to be a trick. I am powerless to stop him; I don’t know what to say. He is walking down the stairs and standing in our kitchen.
‘It’s here’ he says. ‘Look. This is me’. He is brandishing his pen; a branded pen. Purpose-made to advertise his business. ‘I’m really a magician. I do parties. Perhaps, if you’ve got other friends with children….?’
I am staring at the pen, mesmerised.
‘That’s me. They call me “Magic. Magic of Milton Keynes”. It’s got my contact details on it.’
I say ‘It’s a long way to travel. All the way from Milton Keynes.’
‘I’m here for work in any case. It’s the only way in this job. You can’t go repossessing people’s houses on your doorstep. It ruins your social life.’
Well yes, I guess it would. My job’s like that as well.
‘You can keep the pen’ he says.
‘Thanks’ I mutter weakly, ‘Thanks. I’ll spread the word’.