Kids lift your spirits, don’t they? No matter how low your ebb, the sound of your own child’s sweet, innocent voice will always drag you up like ballast from the deepest grunge-filled pit.
’Hi Dad. You look really shit,’ chirped Millie as I sloped through the front door and into the kitchen.
It was midday. I’d spent an hour or two sitting catatonically in Starbucks in Kingsway before dragging myself down into the crater of Holborn station to begin the slow trudge home. The Tube is a very different animal mid-morning. Half-empty, eerily quiet, infrequent as hell, catering only to tourists and flotsam and jetsam with nothing much else to do. And now me.
’Thanks. And stop saying shit.’
’You do. All the time.’
’I’m forty-two. I’m allowed.’
’I’m seven, I’m…’
’I hate you Dad,’ barked Katia as she entered the kitchen holding an open paint pot at a precarious angle. Like Millie, she seemed blissfully unfazed by my premature return. ‘You said you were going to take us skating on Saturday but, like, I just spoke to Mum and she says you were, like, lying? because you’re going to football?’
’You’re going to watch that rubbish team you support. Mummy says.’
’Lying? She actually said lying?’
’That’s not a lie I must have forgotten I had a match on Saturday.’
Bea pottered into the kitchen. A student studying something that
didn’t actually require her to attend an educational establishment, Bea looked after the kids during holidays and after school. She was nineteen going on a very prissy eleven. ‘Hello Mr Kenton.’
’Bea. Everything all right?’
’Millie’s been a bit difficult this morning, haven’t you Millie?’
Millie snarled under her breath as she wrestled with a doll. I’m sure the word ‘shit’ was in there somewhere.
’You’re early, Mr Kenton.’
’Bea, come on, call me Mike, please.’
’Michael, at least.’
’It’s not appropriate,’ she frumped as she tucked her too-tight blue jumper into her even tighter, violently clashing blue corduroy trousers which were a good four inches too short in the leg.
’Should I go?’
’No. No, of course not. I didn’t expect…I finished early. I’m sure you’ve got a whole programme of exciting things lined up to do with the kids today.’
Bea shrugged her meaty shoulders. ‘We got a DVD. Shrek 2. You can watch it with us if you like.’
Millie screwed her face into tight knot and was only just polite enough not to voice her objection. How could she tease and torture Bea if I was sitting there?
’Er, no, thanks. I need to do some things upstairs so...I’ll leave you kids to it.’
Another shrug. ‘Ok, Mr Kenton.’
I heaved myself up the stairs as though my pockets were weighted with breeze-blocks and sloped into the bedroom, closing the door behind me. I ripped off my tie, threw my jacket on the floor and slumped onto the bed face down.
And then I cried into the pillow.
’Pete? How could he, the bastard,’ growled Lisa.
’Ach, don’t shoot the messenger.’
’All those years. For what?’
’I know. Great start to the New Year.’
Lisa was prowling around me like an angry cat as I lay prostrate atop the duvet in my faded blue towelling robe and M & S moccasins. I’d hardly moved all afternoon, emerging from the bedroom only briefly for a quick shower which, rather than refresh me, had dampened my spirits still further. If Norman Bates had pitched up in Chiswick for some reason and found his way into the bathroom with his stiletto, I’d have let him get on with it.
’Didn’t you tell him we’re going to struggle financially?’ said Lisa.
’He knows That’s not true.’
’They’re not running a charity, are they? What do they care?’
’Well what the hell are you going to do?’
Lisa was already thinking beyond the emotional impact. Ever the practical one. ‘I don’t know. I’ll have to find something.’
’I mean, seriously, we can’t afford to be smug about it. It’s all very well saying we’re ok, but when you add up the school fees and the mortgage and the council tax and…all the other stuff we have to pay for…’
She was right. My salary tipped us into the warmer climes of comfortable; without it, there would have to be sacrifices. Maybe the exquisitely tailored Jaeger suit Lisa was wearing would have to last her a while longer. Just as well there were another twelve in the wardrobe.
’Why you?’ she said.
’I don’t know. I keep asking myself the same question.’ Even though I knew the answer.
Lisa smiled, her features softening at last, along with her tone. ‘I kept telling you, though, didn’t I? You were always vulnerable. You’re not a salesman, Mikey.’ Her first response was always that of a street fighter in the face of adversity, but she knew when to don the kid gloves. She draped her jacket neatly over the chair in the corner and sat in it, crossing her slim, shiny legs with a swish. She wasn’t quite ready to offer a consoling cuddle.
’Why didn’t they fire Arnie? He’s useless.’
I shrugged, but he was making the company some money, useless or otherwise. What did that make me? ‘Thought I was doing ok. I nearly got Virgin.’
’But…you said they blew you out of the water after the first submission.’
Oh yeah, of course I did. That’s not what I told Pete, mind. Sometimes it’s difficult to keep track of which fib you’ve spun to whom. ‘Yeah. Ok, they did. But if I’d got in to see Branson…’
I’d have had more chance of running Branson down on my bike in a Wolverhampton cul-de-sac.
’Don’t want to be...I mean, I did tell you to go back to hands-on IT maintenance, didn’t I?’ said Lisa. ‘You’re a geek.’
’That’s a compliment, right?
Lisa arched her perfectly plucked eyebrows with mild amusement. ‘So, have you been in touch with any recruitment agencies or looked on the internet…or have you just been lying there feeling sorry for yourself all afternoon?’
’Lying here feeling sorry for myself. Ok? Leese, I’ve just lost my job after 17 years. My career’s in tatters. I have no income. And I’m forty-two, which makes me…unemployable. Probably need a day to absorb that little feast of good news?’ I snipped.
Lisa rose regally from the chair, her lustrous, mid-length black hair swaying like liquid silk around her chiselled face. She floated to the bed and smiled, then deposited a tender kiss on my glowing cheek. ‘Tomorrow, then,’ she said.
And then we had sex. Now I recognise that any neutral observer would identify this as the most blatant pity-fuck in history. But it wasn’t. Honestly. Lisa occasionally came home from work bristling, hackles proud and prickly, raw edges sticking out at awkward angles, and the only way to file them down into little soft bumps was a bout of fierce intercourse. Great marital sex is usually the first thing sacrificed at the altar of children, mortgages, pensions, work…life. Or so I’m told. Well not in our house. Everything else might have been up in the air, my career down the pan, our relationship on the brink of flat-lining, but sex, when it happened, was always electric.
We lay there afterwards, Lisa caressing my chest with her efficient, warm hand while I stroked her damp neck with the back of a finger. It was perfect but transient, the nagging ulcer of our new predicament hanging over us like a pall. Downstairs, shirty little voices were beginning to rise, the familiar genesis of a major row over nothing. Time to get up and referee. I disentangled myself from Lisa’s luxury limbs and swivelled, ready to stand. Lisa placed her hand on my back and whispered, ‘I still love you Mike. Don’t worry, you’ll muddle through.’
Still? It wasn’t the most ringing endorsement. I stood up with a grunt and started to put on my towelling robe, but a fierce bang foreshadowed the puce-faced Katia who barrelled through the bedroom door yelling, ‘Mum, she just took all my yellow paint and chucked it in the sink…’
Millie clattered in behind her. ‘No I didn’t - I was painting and she just…’
Both of them stopped in their febrile tracks, eyes wide, horror-stricken, as I hurriedly covered my crotch with the robe. But the damage had been done, prompting a sudden volte-face. They fled, a fiery ball of revulsion, their exaggerated screams turning, eventually, to mirthful mockery and cries of ‘yeugh, gross! Oh. My. God!’
Sadly, it wasn’t the first time my genitals had engendered ridicule.
How do you tell your kids, who love you unreservedly and think you’re invincible, that you’ve got no job, no income, no prospects and your pride has been blown out of the water? Answer. You don’t. They don’t care. They care about kids’ stuff like what’s for supper, where’s the remote and why do you always blame me when she did it? So I told them I was taking a break from crappy old work and, while I bet all their friends’ dads would be mightily jealous of me lounging about at home all day, I’d rather you didn’t mention it to them thank you. Although I was trying to act as if everything was normal, we did order pizza, on a Monday night, so they must have sensed that something was up, although their faces were buried too deep in pepperoni to care. They’d already had their supper, but Bea’s cooking was a shade uninspired, even for the relatively unsophisticated palates of kids aged seven and eight, so they were only too delighted to tuck in.
I was dreading their going to bed, taking with them their animated chatter and bubbly innocence, leaving Lisa and me alone with only a chilly silence to fill but, as if I hadn’t suffered enough bad karma for one day, Shrek 2, a horrifying glimpse of my tackle and a surfeit of pizza dough had knocked the stuffing out of them. For possibly the only time in living memory, they volunteered to turn in without being asked. I followed them up, helped them with their teeth and pyjamas and tucked them in. I’ve always loved that last cuddle of the day; Millie, with her sweet, chocolatey breath who always turns to soft, wet sand in my arms; Katia, bouncy, giggly, ticklish, inviting a tussle. Lisa always complained that I got her too excited, but our little routine invariably drained the last vestige of energy from her little body; fizzy to spark out in seconds.
I shouldn’t have felt less like a man for being jobless, not in this day and age, but I’m old fashioned about things like that. I couldn’t look Lisa in the eye when I came back down and finally entered the silent vacuum of grim reality. Lisa made no attempt to rekindle the what-do-we-do-now? conversation. It could wait. There were no pat answers. Maybe she was being sensitive to my predicament, but I sensed something else in her demeanour.
I had done this to her.
I need to be honest here, so bear with me. Our marriage had been uncomfortable for a while. No, ‘a while’ doesn’t quite do it. I’m talking years. Lisa’s burgeoning career as Assistant Creative Director of the up-market Marc Rouillard fine art gallery in Mayfair was her raison d’être. Aside from her general duties, which made full use of her agile, organised, creative mind, she mixed daily with artists, showbiz types, minor royalty and people famous for being famous - or twats - and then came home to solid old me. She was a good mother, strong, loving, solicitous, and always made a point of doing interesting things with the girls on the weekends she wasn’t working. But I was still, and always would be, Mike, the humble plodder, employed by a dreary company struggling to compete with slicker, smarter outfits. And now I couldn’t even boast that withered feather in my cap.
Ours was the classic mis-match. She got an upper second class degree in Fine Art from Cambridge while mine was a dodgy 2.2 in Computer Studies gained at the revered academic hothouse that is Brunel University. Her parents lived in a large Tudor house with grounds (a ‘hice with grinds’ as her father, an old school investment banker, would have it) in rural Somerset, while mine were of solid, stolid Stoke Newington stock, an area which had become gentrified in spite of them. We’d met nearly eighteen years earlier when I was a struggling IT contractor in what was a relatively underdeveloped industry, singing for pennies in a faux French brasserie in Crouch End. I’d harboured dreams of pop stardom for too long and was finally coming to terms with the fact that my core audience had settled at around nine devotees. On a good night. Including my parents. I’d found my level; a garlic-soaked greasehole where, every Thursday, I arrived straight from work in my grey BHS pinstripe, having humped my guitar case to the office and thence out to north London on a succession of over-crowded trains. They gave me my own stool, of course, on which I would perch whilst singing standards for an hour. Easy Like Sunday Morning, Broken Wings, Careless Whisper, crap, really, but easy, accessible crap.
One rainy February night, Lisa arrived with a bunch of posh girls on an initially genteel but increasingly raucous hen night. And she’d got drunk and fallen for the singer in the corner. It started as a joke - landed gentry bonks bit of semi-rough - but, unbidden, our relationship acquired a momentum that neither of us had anticipated. It was love, fiery, molten, inexorable.
How do you explain chemistry? Trick question. You can’t. That’s the whole point. It’s ephemeral, beyond reason. Objectively, there was nothing to bind us. Our backgrounds, education and interests were so radically different, we often wondered, with the smug assurance of people secure in the knowledge that it didn’t matter, exactly what it was that kept us together. But we made each other laugh, enjoyed each other’s company, had an uncanny meeting of minds on political and social issues - I’d come in a shade from the left, she a long way from the right - and we rarely argued. Somehow it worked. More than worked.
We married a year later and bought a compact but pretty little garden flat in Chiswick. By then I was a junior systems technician with Edmonds and White earning sufficient money to eke a mortgage out of the Abbey. I was happy to support us while Lisa worked her way up from PA to Assistant Creative Director in record time. Ever the flyer. And it was idyllic, two young newlyweds with a bit of money, boundless ambition, terrific prospects - hers, increasingly, more exciting than mine - and very little responsibility.
We talked about children, often, but entered our thirties still feeling too young, too immature, too burdened by the need to lay foundations to take such a life-changing step. But, in hindsight, maybe we were already thinking it might not be forever and that kids would only complicate things down the line. Then along came Katia. She was unplanned, of course, but the news that she was germinating inside Lisa hit me like a wrecking ball. I remember crying with joy, then bewilderment, then abject inadequacy. How could an idiot like me possibly be a father? What did it entail? How the hell would I cope? But nature kicked in and I embraced it with an élan I didn’t know I possessed. We both did.
We gave Katia every bit of ourselves, but when Millie arrived 16 months later, she proved that you always have more in the tank. Love doubles rather than halves. I guess it also triples, quadruples, quintuples, et cetera for the contraceptive-shy masochists among us. But so does fear, desperation and the pressure to earn more just to stand still.
The kids, like giant Hoovers, consumed so much of our time and energy that our relationship slipped onto the back burner. There was no time for introspection. Parenthood acted like a pause button, leaving those nagging questions about ‘us’ in abeyance as we struggled to cope with its demands.
It’s difficult to pinpoint any derailing incident or chain of events. I just know I felt a sea change a couple of years before Katia was born, a time when the electricity was fading and we were rolling gently downhill. We had no obvious problems, nothing you could put your finger on. We still went out, saw films, sat and read the papers together on Sunday mornings. We got along. Maybe that was the problem. What incentive was there to confront the underlying apathy, to fight? Perhaps a little friction might have stirred something up, a little nit-picking, but that wasn’t in our DNA.
Maybe chemistry has a shelf life. You stick two compounds together in a test tube and they fizz, over-excitedly at first, then settle down with a few bubbles nestling at the top. Eventually, the mixture becomes cloudy and inert. That was us, and getting inerter by the minute. We were just a couple sharing common causes now, getting by, doing ok, bringing up the kids, retiring, dying. If we got that far together.
Thing is, in spite of everything, I still loved Lisa. I always loved her, couldn’t imagine being without her. I think she loved me too. Maybe like a brother, or like the father of her children. And that can sometimes be enough.
I’m just not sure she respected me any more?
We sat watching the news for a while, exchanging the odd monosyllable whilst staring resolutely at the screen as though God himself had stepped in for Huw Edwards. Around ten thirty, I got up to make some tea and Lisa followed me into the kitchen. She sat at the table as I pottered about and, perhaps uncomfortable with the idea of going to bed with so much left unsaid, we finally got around to talking. I started it, uttering some platitude about it being for the best, how it was a dead-end job with no prospects, a welcome and necessary kick up the arse for me. Tomorrow was another day, she chimed, the slate was clean, it was an opportunity not a disaster. But when Lisa, cradling her empty mug, yawned ostentatiously during one of our growing silences, I smiled and told her to go up.
I was relieved to find myself alone with only Paxman for company. Not many people would admit to that. He was needlessly haranguing a water company executive who was clearly unsuited to public flagellation. It wasn’t his fault it didn’t rain last summer. Or maybe it was. Did I give a fuck? But I needed some background noise to drown out the voices in my head. Never mind the positive words, the cautious optimism, I knew I was finished, at least as any kind of player in the IT world. I’d peaked, barely halfway up the ladder. It was over. I was forty-two. I think I may have mentioned that.
I flicked off the TV and lights and trooped disconsolately up the stairs, my legs leaden, my head just opening the door to a vicious, jagged headache. I crept into Millie’s room and sat on her bed watching her breathe as she lay cocooned inside her duvet. I stroked the peach-fuzz skin of her forehead, pecked her on the cheek and left. Katia, as usual, was all arms and legs, duvet everywhere but over her body, her eyes half open on the lookout for anything suspicious. I rearranged the duvet around her, but she was already kicking it into a crumpled heap as I closed her door.
I hesitated outside our bedroom door. A light was on but I knew Lisa would be asleep with a book open across her breast. I couldn’t face going in there. Even asleep, I feared her opprobrium seeping across the mattress and drowning me. So I headed for the spare room. I hadn’t been in there for months. At one time, it was a haven, a personal space where I would pick up my acoustic guitar and sing a few songs. I might even record something on the PC. But I’d lost all inspiration a long time ago; couldn’t see the point of it any more. No-one was listening, not even me. I closed the door softly behind me and nestled into the spongy sofa-bed which sat tight against the back wall. My guitar lay slumped at a sad angle on its stand and seemed to be pleading with me to pick it up and give it some TLC. I couldn’t let it down.
I started strumming and was surprised to hear that only a couple of strings were out of tune. I fiddled with the peghead until every note was where it was supposed to be. E-A-D-G-B-E. Ready. Now, a song. What song? I’d written at least a hundred as a young man but couldn’t think of a single one, maybe because ninety-four of them were shit and had been auto-deleted. I dabbled with a couple of simple riffs, delighting in the pain in the tips of my now softened fingers as I pressed out the chords. I’d always loved that sound as it swilled around the wooden hollows of the body before spilling out, like a wine taster, savouring every musical flavour, every nuance, before proclaiming it suitable for aural consumption. My own hands, working together, were creating something harmonious in my now discordant life. A song started to form as I played - In Love We Trust - something I’d written for a girl called Faye but never had the balls to play to her. She’d been a fellow student at Brunel, a girl whose heart I was forever trying to capture but who resolutely overlooked me in favour of safer bets. I pictured the eternally pretty nineteen year-old Faye as I sang, dousing myself in the memory of her sparkly green eyes, olive complexion, curlicued lips and throaty laugh. I often thought about Faye, my one remaining fantasy of perfection in an increasingly imperfect life. Where was she now?
In Love We Trust was a mid-tempo number which I sang, initially, in a half-whisper, not wanting to wake the kids or, God help me, Lisa. But soon I was lost in the sheer joy of the music, the release. The lyrics were second nature, the chord pattern innate. I strummed and sang with increasing gusto, tension lifting, cutting through the misery. The door creaked and I stopped, mid-falsetto, tailing off like a dying cat. It was Lisa, sinewy, naked, bleary-eyed. Was that a hint of a smile playing about her lips?
’Can you please shut the fuck up. I’ve got work in the morning.’