That they had once been in love could no longer be taken for granted. They were certainly done with all that business now, so only the mining of memory gave an indication one way or the other. "I'm mad for you, do you know that?" he'd once said, and maybe he had been, in that moment. But later there was the violence, thoughts of which caused Jean to shake her head, no less in anger than to dismiss the images. More a track record of hate than love, then. Was that Greene? "So this is a record of hate far more than love." It is not an easy thing to admit after forty years of marriage.
Now in their mid-sixties, they rarely argued, it seemed pointless, at least about the big stuff. Though there had been words recently over the enormous new television Arthur had gone and bought. In Jean’s eyes the man was having a late-life crisis; so late that she thought he’d be late all right by the time it was sorted. For his last birthday he’d got himself an Omega watch, paid a packet for it, and if that wasn’t bad enough, he’d made it a James Bond special edition. James Bond, honestly! “Johnny English would’ve suited your style more,” she had suggested, and Arthur, who’d been polishing the glass, stopped to give her a look. When he passed it to her, it was like being handed a hundredweight. She said for that money they might have made it lighter, and gave it back.
Jean’s worry was that he’d want to try out the action hero persona. Several times she’d caught him in staring contests with local kids, teens who he said walked around the estate with a sense of entitlement, or stood about with bad intentions. She’d give him an elbow and tell him to let it go, it wasn’t worth getting into all that now. He said he wasn’t having any of it, kids getting fresh, not anywhere, and certainly not around where they lived. It was, in his assessment, a rearguard action anyway. When he and Jean were away in Morecombe Bay last year, Arthur seemed to find it impossible to tell people home was Camden Town without the ironic addition that if the name suggested tranquility and a traditional way of life, that’s exactly how it was. Then he’d get Jean involved: “It’s not a jungle at all, is it, Love?”
There was something with David Attenborough later Jean had pointedly said she wanted to watch, so Arthur focussed. He could see nothing on the front panel. He ran his finger along one edge, amazed that a television could be so shallow. The old cathode ray set had a deeper than wide box. He made another pass, and this time went all the way around the gigantic rectangular frame. What was it, four odd feet by about two? Absurd dimensions for a television really. The surround was faintly ridged and made of metal, testament to the quality, the salesman had said. Arthur could only nod in agreement. He stood up, and said, “Bollocks.” He couldn’t find the power button for the damn thing. Taking a step back, his heel knocked the near telly-sized manual he should have been looking at. Behind him lay a mountain of cardboard and polystyrene, the rubbish heap of his earlier enthusiasm.
The two delivery boys had offered to set it up. “We’ll get it going, shall we?” one of them, an oversized black, had said in a loud voice. The presumption, that Arthur was deaf and dim, really was too much. He declined, saying it was similar to his last one, and made an L shape with his arms, encouraging them to leave. Better do it himself than be condescended to in his own home by a couple of ignorant kids. He then regretted his decision, feeling in some way duped and not getting his monies worth. Installation was part of the package he’d paid for. There was another thought. He was sure he’d get caught out as a liar. The old television was sitting by the rubbish bins outside, not far from where the delivery van was parked. Arthur had dumped it in the morning, and got a chill for his troubles. In an effort to avoid being seen, he’d gone out at first light, the December air coarse against his uncovered skin. It was only after putting the set down and straightening up, a wince at the pain in his lower back, that he realised it was right under the ‘Fly Tippers Will Be Prosecuted!’ sign. With the side of his leg, he slid the box into the bin shed, and then behind one of the stinking metal cylinders; it was one thing to break the rules, another to look like you were taking the mick while doing so.
Not that some of the other residents were bothered about lessening their crimes. Only last week there were planks of wood, a headboard, and a soiled mattress left scattered about the estate. Another day he’d almost lost the contents of his stomach at the sight of a used condom in the communal stairwell. For all Arthur knew, the two were linked. Consequences, those prosecutions announced with exclamation marks, meant nothing more than slapped wrists by the law. PCs gone pc, was one headline he recalled seeing on the TV. It was a jungle, no doubt about it, grown as immigration turned up the heat, and your British Bobby wasn’t up to the job.
Arthur thought if Jean came in and saw he still hadn’t got it going, she’d shake her head and make a sarcastic comment. “Next thing you’ll be getting one of those clever-phones,” she’d said when he was looking through the PC World catalogue. “Smart, love, they’re called smartphones,” he replied, and then added, “One word, by the way.” He could be snide too. It was hard to understand how she could be content to live alongside this new world of technology and know almost nothing about it.
In some ways it was a bit like the Sixties and Seventies, when the blacks were being shipped over. Arthur had seen pictures of de-boarding passengers, the men intimidatingly dashing in their suits, the women smiley and demure. One family had settled a few doors along and their presence was a constant source of discussion in the area. You could call people of colour anything and everything in those days: Arthur and his mates had given it a good go. It wasn’t so one label might settle, they weren’t like explorers debating over the naming of a new species, but the opposite. They wanted to prevent familiarisation. When someone ran into the pub one night shouting a group of Teddy Boys had done over a fucking nigger, there was whooping and applause. Who’d have thought that after the inventions, some amusing, a few baffling, the whole thing a bit laborious by the end, it was Delbert, Antonia, and similarly mundane names for a brood of kids, which would stick. Del had introduced himself one day on the landing, shouting, “Hello, neighbour!” and almost making Arthur jump out of his skin. If all these West Indians brought with them were good spirits on a miserably cold and dark morning, then they were welcome to stay.
Getting acquainted with this new technology was going to be trickier. The light in the room had dimmed so Arthur went over to draw the curtains. When he turned back, he noticed how at odds the shiny black object was with its surroundings. He thought about it for a moment, and came up with the number twenty-five. A quarter of a century separated television and furniture, and it showed. It was 1989, the date set in his mind forever as his one and proper infidelity and the near collapse of his marriage, when, gripped by a need for renewal, he had persuaded Jean to change the suite. In Heal’s along the Tottenham Court Road, he’d seen a white leather two-piece in the window that he fancied, and was going to recommend it to Jean, but on second thoughts he considered it too loud, with maybe a faint whiff of sex about it, to suggest in the current circumstances. In the end he let Jean chose and she went for a fawn coloured three-piece not far removed from the one they were replacing. “If that’s what you really want then fine, I guess,” Arthur had said, the guilt which had trapped in his chest such strong feelings of empathy and love for the past week beginning to seep out. It was on the way home, a long silence in the car, when he understood, or felt he understood, Jean’s choice might have come from a lack of confidence in the future, their future together, and instead played safe by looking back to happier times.
Their sex life, already in decline then, came to an end a decade later; it was with a heady mix of alcohol and optimism at the Millennium celebrations they had last done it. Done it. That had been Jean’s euphemistic phrase. He had adopted it as ill-temperedly and antagonistically as he had taken on chastity. “Do it, shall we, Jean, or do it not, Jean?” he would mock her, putting on a posh voice, mostly after a few pints. He’d push his hips backwards and forwards saying, “Do-it-do-it-do-it-do-it.” More often than not, she would get up and silently leave the room.
Next January he was going to be sixty-six. The end might come and it might be said - as his so-called best mate Jim had done so on many occasions - he’d had a good innings. He wasn’t into cricket but sixty-six sounded like a mediocre score. Snooker was his game and any break below a ton didn’t cut it in the modern game. He saw age in those terms. Advances in medicine, better information about diets and exercise, talk of silver tsunamis, had added to expectations. Old age had come of age, he thought, and smiled. The resignation among his friends, the giving up of ghosts, was a singular frustration to Arthur. He was vain and he was virile and he wasn’t about to make any apologies, and certainly not for waking with an erection two, sometimes even three mornings a week. Any other time of day was a bit of a struggle, the testosterone levels weren’t there anymore for a swift and unaided boner. Not so long ago temptation had got the better of him and he’d purchased a porno magazine from Mehmet’s corner shop. Arthur paused in the doorway before entering, and gave a redacted speech (admonishing a child relation) to someone unseen outside. Behind the counter, Mehmet, who forever looked like he needed a good night’s sleep, said it was healthy for young boys to have a butchers at stuff like this. Arthur considered him an intelligent man and sensed that Mehmet was colluding in the lie to make it easy for the punter. Half an hour later, when the deed was done, so was the magazine; he shoved it down to the bottom of the waste bag and took it straight out, all before Jean got in from the hairdresser’s.
He had slowed down, that was natural, and he enjoyed his afternoon naps, which was fortunate as he sort of shut down for half an hour around four o’clock whether he liked it or not. At the same time his body had never been quicker when it came to relaying issues, joints and muscles making themselves neurotically felt from almost the moment he woke.
“Ah, there you are, you little bugger.” He saw the circle with the line halfway in, the tiny switch sitting flush with the frame. He smiled, a sense he had initiated himself into something new and exciting.
Jean closed the front door and was glad to have left the fire on in the hall. It was freezing outside. She had played it safe and dressed well, not having heard the weather report due to the telly, a perfectly good and working set, having been removed from the house in the small hours. She did think that while Arthur was in this mood she might suggest they get a car, a sporty one, of course, an open top even, just to make it more appealing to him. From where they were, it was a short distance before they were among the fields and villages, the landscape of her childhood, of Hertfordshire. When Arthur retired there had been talk of their moving somewhere quieter, with the West Coast seeming the likeliest destination, though he said they should wait a while, without saying what it was they were delaying for. Waiting had become entrenched for Jean, who looked for the smallest signs Arthur was still interested, that something concrete (or rather bricks, mortar and thatch) was about to happen. For years she had watched him go over the Sunday newspaper supplements, eager and anxious for him to throw off the sport section and take up home, to call her over so she might sit next to him and together they look for their next home. It had come to nothing, for whatever reason, but with Arthur holding the bulk of the money, holding and owning, as he’d reminded her on more than one occasion, Jean felt powerless to push the subject; but she still felt the odd palpitation when he got in from the newsagents.
Clearly she was still annoyed with him. Jean had walked into the front room, picked up her glasses from the sideboard, and left again, only saying “Still at it, are we?” “It’ll be sorted soon, and then you’ll thank me,” he’d replied, and thought it wasn’t like the Antiques Road Show, Countdown and Grand Designs weren’t the markers the silly woman’s day were measured by. She was content to spend her entire life indoors, in front of the telly, so why not in glorious Technicolour. They still had ten, fifteen, who knows, twenty-five years left! Twenty-five was maybe pushing it, at least not twenty-five with good health. Fifteen… Eighteen years at least, but he’d rather have that aneurism now, get it over with, then spend it within these four walls. Go back as many years and he was working, still pushing for promotions, bantering with male colleagues about the latest barmaid at the George & Dragon, having crazy drinking sessions about which he couldn’t remember much afterwards. It was a bloody good time in life. The mortgage was practically paid off, there was money in the bank, he and Jean went on a couple of holidays a year, and were more or less free to do as they pleased. It should have been better now; there was the gold-plated pension and all the free time in the world. So why had life contracted to the odd night in the pub and a yearly trip to the same B&B in Morecombe? A motorbike might open up their horizons. In twenty minutes they could be at Maureen’s. She was their only child and had moved to Bushey Heath after getting married. It was a lot further away than he and Jean would have wanted, but Maureen, who had been such a home-loving girl, arrived late to the rebellion thing and the frictions with her parents persisted into middle life. She was in her twenties when she uttered the first hurtful words to her mother. At university she’d started hanging about with a smug, and from what Arthur could tell, faintly Marxist bunch. They always seemed so disdainful when they visited the house, as though they were in on something the rest of the world, or perhaps just the generations above, would never understand. Knowing he was likely to clobber one of them, preferably the frazzle-haired and downright obnoxious Mike, Arthur had taken to making himself scarce when they were around. One night he returned from the pub in an antagonist mood and was disappointed to find the commies had already left. Over dinner, Jean wasn’t herself and he knew something had happened. The cause turned out to be Maureen, who had told her mother to fuck off, all because Jean had the nerve to knock on Maureen’s door and ask if the kids might want another bowl of peanuts. Jean being Jean, she had taken it badly but silently, and he had to drag it out of her. He waited up for Maureen that night and confronted her when she got in around midnight. It got horribly heated and he had hit her. In the following few days they avoided each other as much as possible. One morning Maureen walked into the kitchen, saw him seated at the table, and with a roll of the eyes turned on her heels. Arthur tried to reason himself into sitting the girl down and apologising, and was encouraged to do so by Jean. He shouldn’t have hit her, for which he believed a man might be jailed, but every time he thought about some of the things she had said, the anger returned. Wanting his entire generation, by implication he and Jean, to quickly die off so the wrongs of the world might right themselves, how disgusting, and how stupid. Jean, who hadn’t been able to sleep, coming and going with offers of tea and mitigation, as he sat rigidly in the front room, would have heard and been wounded. Why, he’d replied, so a bunch of no good layabouts could run the world? What would be their cause? That everyone smoke pot and become as thick as they were? What had he or Mum ever done, what exactly was their contribution to the human race? Maureen wanted to know, and answered the question herself. A decently cooked potato in her case and delivering mail in his. Pigeons had once done that, she added, and crooked her neck forward, her chin jutting out. A huge bullseye. For a second Arthur was conscious of having crept to the edge of restraint, and he knew from past experience the resulting fall, with arms and legs flailing, would take him to some black places, from where even memory could not always escape. The moment passed, and over he went. He swung at her, connecting with the side of her face, and as she fell sideward gave her a kick up the arse, then another as she stumbled away. Covering her head with both hands and stooping, she ran out of the room, crying for her mother. “Now you want your mother, do you, you stupid cow? Now you want your mother?” He screamed after her. Alone in the room, the tension quickly eased, but his only regret was the last Tequila shot Jim had insisted on. His mouth was dry and he had a headache. It was when he raised his hand to feel his temple that he realised it was clenched. He thought he might have hit his daughter with a closed fist. What he’d once thrown at a twenty odd stone bloke at the footfall, with the one knuckle taller than the others for having broken and not set properly, when he’d decked a guy outside a pub, he’d used on his skin and bones daughter. In the following days he was surprised the old bill didn’t show up to take him away.
Maureen was closer to him these days than she was to Jean. His career, line manager at a Royal Mail sorting depot and not technically a postman, had provided her with a generous allowance over the years and a lump sum for the deposit on the new home. Jean, well Jean still made a good spud, which Maureen and her husband enjoyed one Sunday a month.
“Think it’ll be ready to watch anytime soon?” asked Jean, who was dusting the picture frames on the wall. The menu screen was full of text Arthur was reading through and he had to concede it probably wouldn’t be. “Well perhaps we can retrieve the old one from the rubbish,” she added, and was perhaps serious. “I thought the man at the shop said it was user friendly?” she asked, but Arthur did not take the bait. “It must be the user, then,” she concluded.
They ate a dinner of lamb chops, boiled potatoes and peas, Arthur’s in a lagoon of gravy, on trays in the front room. Coronation Street was showing in high definition, the northern light never looking more gloriously grey. The number ‘3’ would not disappear from the top right corner of the screen but Arthur, reluctant to touch anything in case he lost the picture, would leave that until tomorrow.
Jean had to admit the picture quality was wonderful. The sound was impressive too, as Arthur had demonstrated by turning up the volume to a deafening level. Combined, those qualities might have driven her mad last Saturday. Technological advancement was one thing, but it couldn’t paper over the gaps left by the imagination, and nothing better illustrated that than the pain of sitting through that God awful transforming film with her ten-year-old nephew, Tom. Maureen had dropped him off with his nan for the afternoon, along with a bag of his things and some rather unnecessary instructions. Really, thought Jean, did she have to be told by her daughter not to feed the boy too many sweets and not to let him watch too much TV? The girl then contradicted herself by putting television and sweets on the menu should Tom start playing up. There were packets of brightly coloured sweets, DVDs and a video game machine in the satchel she handed Jean. Tom was obviously aware of the bag’s contents because he made a fuss about wanting to watch a film from almost the moment his mother left. When Jean suggested they go out to the park or play a game of Monopoly, which had been his mother’s favourite when she was around Tom’s age, and that they still had that very same board, the response was a deep frown and a shake of the head. In the end he became so sullen and uncommunicative that Jean had to relent. She went through his things looking for a suitable film, but the choice wasn’t very broad, or encouraging in subject matter. Car racing in public streets, angry looking men doing kung fu and another with robot giants – for a split second Jean’s spirits lifted thinking it was a remake of the Iron Giant. Sadly not. With her looking despondently between the covers fanned out in front of her, it was Tom who made the decision, plucking a case from out of her hands. The following two hours were an assault on the senses, not in the emotive way Bambi or Ted Hughes’s story were, no this was an artillery barrage of nonsense. At the final credits rolled she felt battered and bruised. Jean loved the boy dearly and did not get to see him nearly often enough, so she sat next to him, his small body stretching from her shoulder to past her knee, occasionally turning to kiss his head, and watched together. There was also a nagging sense of responsibility that, when the awkward questions came up, on a character’s death or the film’s fantastical nature, she should be ready to assuage and assure. But the video mesmerised Tom with its visuals and asked no human questions. When it was over Jean let out a sigh of relief, and was going to insist now it was her turn to choose what they did next. She thought they might draw together, something from their imaginations, perhaps an alien or a spaceship. On one visit, Tom had been told by his mother that his nan was an artist, you know, drawing and painting, and that she was really good. Encouraged by Maureen, Jean had led the boy to the spare room, where she kept her work. On their return, and with much coaxing from his mother, Tom agreed Jean was brilliant and, again prompted by his mother, said he’d like to be taught by her. But Jean was never able to interest him, to find him in a less than hectic state of mind, or to bring that about herself, so they might contemplate a blank page. By the time she twisted round and retrieved a pad and pencil from a chest of drawers, Tom was searching through the bag for another film, and Jean felt she had lost the battle of wills and could not regain it in the short time available without upsetting the boy and ruining his time with her. There was a further worry. He was at that dichotomous age where children are both gullible and wily, so while he entered the world of the gigantically absurd robots and believed it to be real, he was capable of the very early trick of bad-mouthing her to his mother so she wouldn’t bring him again. Jean had to admit, and felt terrible for it, that she was glad when Maureen turned up some five hours later, laden with shopping bags from the West End. About five minutes after waving them off Jean was in bed and fast asleep.
Arthur knocked back the glass of wine and took the bottle for a re-fill. He topped up Jean, whose mouth was full and who could only sound the dot-dot code for no. “Oh just have it,” said Arthur. “It’s good for you.” He leaned back, almost knocking off the remote control perched on the armrest. Taking a hold of it, he said, “This thing’s so long I could probably change channels manually from here.” He saw Jean look over the TV, presumably for station buttons that, unlike the last model, weren’t there. Outside a girl made a series of screams, a couple of short screeches followed by a drawn out yell. The flat was on the ground floor of a two-storey building and it often got noisy at night as kids gathered in the area, to do nothing, as Arthur spied from the window, other than push each other around and laugh like hyenas. He turned his head, waiting for the next sound, which was the same girl saying: “You proper fucking scared me, you cunt.” There was laughter.
Arthur wanted to turn up the volume, but his pride, at its most swollen around Jean, prevented him from doing so. It would be an admission the goings on outside had intruded in on them and that he wasn’t doing anything about it. When he spoke, it was with an unnaturally loud voice, and the things he said were silly and trivial, as he overplayed his indifference. He thought so long as he seemed all right then Jean would be fine. It wasn’t a vain notion so much as a contrived one; he supposed she’d be more worried about her temperamental husband feeling frustrated than any bother she was feeling herself. “Oi, you fuckin’ comin’ out, or what?” a boy shouted from what at first seemed right outside. Arthur’s heart began to race thinking they had got into the garden. He and Jean looked at each other; a breach had occurred, possibly of their private property and certainly of the pretence he’d been putting on. The urge to act, driven both by a chemical awaking and a sense of the no-nonsense man he was in people’s eyes, was now too strong to resist. “Right,” he said. “If they’re in the garden, I’ll whack someone, Jean. I will.” He got up and went over to the French Doors, throwing open the curtains, and being stunned by the burly silhouette right in front of him. It was his own reflection. Visoring his eyes from reflections, he leaned forward. The front gate was closed, but it was low enough that anyone, including young children, could easily jump over. Several of the other ground floor residents had put spikes and anti-climb along the wall, a few going as far as fitting heavy iron gates, which resembled portcullises, against balcony and front doors. Medieval aesthetic, was how Maureen had described the trend. The umbra rosebush was in the far corner of the garden, it’s stalks a foot taller than the wall, and wavering, were they? Had they seen him before his eyes had adjusted and legged it? He opened the door and yelled, “If I catch anyone in here…”
Later Jean was clearing the dishes from the coffee table and asked if she should take away his wine glass. Arthur was perched on the edge of the armchair and leaning back, his legs stretched out in front of him, a horrible sense of feeling expansively tipsy and lethargic at the same time. He patted his belly and nodded, and said, “I think I’ve had too much to eat.” Watching Jean leave the room, her calves and ankles visible below her nightdress, he’d have said those legs were little changed from when they first met. The rest of her was faring almost as well, the redistributions of age still quite innocuous with Jean, only really showing in the lighter, bonier, chest and shoulders, and the fleshier upper arms.
God he wanted to do her.