Squash. Now there’s a stupid game. Two frenzied frogs trapped in an airless, minute space defined by four very hard, very unforgiving walls, vying to smash a lump of spherical rubber into one of or other of them. Rackets swish and flail as rancid sweat renders the floor oil-slick-slippery. A slithering, bone-snapping collision is just as likely to bring proceedings to a premature end as a coronary. But worse than all that; it stinks. You stink. The court stinks. A zillion foetid microbes fester in the wooden floor and absorbent plasterwork, un-bleachable, immoveable, yet somehow sufficiently nimble to leap, flea-like, into clothing and hair where they live on and prosper. It’s a smell to which you never become inured and which never quite leaves your nasal lining between matches.
Still, it gets me out of the house and gives me a chance to let off steam, feel virtuous and have a leisurely beer or four - with a side of chips - afterwards, so I shouldn’t knock it. I’ve played more or less every week for eight years, but only against the one opponent: Chaz Lucerno. Don’t be fooled. He sounds like a comic-book hero or a dangerously attractive Anglo/Italian footballer but is, in fact, five foot three, bald, pale and skinnier than cheap twine. And an accountant. Ouch. I play Chaz because he can’t beat me. Never has, never will. He fizzes around the back court, gnat-like, grunting with the effort of retrieving my cunningly angled shots, while his desperate scoops float benignly up in the air for me to swat away at will. Not that I do, not all the time. Got to make a game of it, haven’t you? I’m a big fish in a little puddle. That’s my kind of sporting contest.
Notwithstanding, Chaz and I have been best friends, off and on, since we were eleven. Then, as next door neighbours, we were inseparable, and we remained close throughout our teens and early twenties, even as our paths forked at right-angles. Me scraping two A Levels, him acing four. Me, marooned in metropolitan Uxbridge studying something woolly and useless, him at trendy, cosmopolitan LSE getting a first. But we always got together when we could and never spoke about the yawning academic gap. After he qualified as an ACA, Chaz went off to work in Australia while I blazed my inexorable trail through the world of IT. We kept in touch for a while, but blokes don’t do that sort of thing very well and our initial bout of enthusiastic letter writing soon diminished until all we could manage was the odd postcard. Unimaginably, there was no email back then and phone calls cost more than a house. A quick-fire chat at Christmas at a pound a word was as good as it got. Inevitably, we lost touch altogether until, nine years ago, we both pitched up at the same ante-natal class. He was, by then, living in gated splendour in Richmond and married to Louise, a strapping Australian girl who was his first and, I’m pretty sure, only conquest. I suspect he was hers too. Sadly, Louise miscarried, but Chaz and I seized the opportunity to revive a friendship which, if anything, was stronger for the break.
I think most friendships thrive on imbalance. I was always better looking (it wasn’t difficult - big fish, microscopic puddle), wittier (same) and more confident in company. Poor Chaz was losing his hair at eighteen while I was experimenting with Duran Duran dye-jobs and Spandau Ballet fop cuts. I always had a reasonable looking girlfriend in tow and I’d sometimes invite Chaz to tag along on dates, not to rub it in, just to give him a night out. I felt for him but, on reflection, it probably only made things worse. I tried to set him up with girls - friends-of on double dates - but it never worked out. Youngsters can be so cruel, especially those of the female variety. One look at Chaz was usually enough to make them fancy me.
But he had brainpower, lots of it, allied to serious focus. He committed to his career in a way I never could, rising to junior partner in a top West End firm - with a holiday home in the Algarve - long before I even qualified for a mortgage. Soon he rose to Managing Partner and started ploughing his massive profit share into an impressively diverse private property portfolio. Meanwhile, I was fumbling along the horizontal ladder at Edmonds & White, ploughing my salary into the weekly shop at Tesco and bemoaning the lack of change.
My areas of superiority mattered more at eighteen but were almost irrelevant at forty-two. I’m sure he’d still swap a couple of my non-balding genes for a couple of his million quid, but he’ll just have to hang on for the staggeringly expensive cure he’ll well be able to afford, and glory in his perfect, sumptuous lifestyle in the meantime.
Chiswick Health Club was the preserve of the wealthy and the connected. I fell into the latter category thanks to Chaz who was, of course, a Gold Member. As was our tragic wont, we sat there, post-match in the glittering bar, phwoaring impotently at the myriad toned-looking women as they flounced past our table. Yes of course it was self-mocking. What do you take us for, sad, middle-aged husbands? Truth is, lengthy marriages can do that to a man. As can short marriages. As can any bloody relationship or lack thereof. We’re men. I’ve told you, we can’t help it. And, as a paid-up member of the weaker sex, confessing my sudden career hiatus to another man did not come naturally. We don’t do that sort of thing. We front up. But if not Chaz, who else was I going to tell?
’Fuck,’ was his pithy rejoinder.
’Yeah, I know.’
’You know why? Because I’m a dinosaur. My technical skills are out of date and I couldn’t sell a dummy to Bobby Moore. And he’s dead.’
’Oh fuck, come on.’
’I’m old, mate,’ I whined, miming speech marks in the air around ‘old’, ‘in my game, anyway. I should’ve seen it coming. Idiot. I was completely vulnerable there but I just closed my eyes hoping it would go away. And now...I’m basically…useless.’
’But apart from that, how’s everything?’
I laughed, but it hurt, saying it all out loud like that. ‘Don’t know what I’m going to do.’
’What did they give you?’
’Six months’ salary. After seventeen years. No clock, no cake, no farewell party.’
’Mate, listen. And don’t be embarrassed or too bloody proud, ok? I know what you’re like.’
Oh no. He was going to offer me money. ‘It’s all right, Chaz,’ I said, feigning stoicism, ‘I’ll survive. Lisa’s doing ok and...’
’We need a driver…for the partners. Just to tide you over.’
In all honesty, I’d have swallowed my pride and accepted a few grand, but...I mean, I’m not a snob - there’s nothing wrong with a driving job - but I couldn’t see myself ferrying smug, overfed accountants around London, doffing my cap and polishing the bumper while waiting for them to finish their Michelin-starred lunches. And anyway, you can’t do that job properly without a licence. I’d amassed a few too many points and still had a month to go before getting it back. I know, I know - shouldn’t have got caught.
’I’ll be fine,’ I said. ‘Probably have two or three interviews in the bag this time next week.’ Which was bollocks, of course.
’It’s not going to be easy for her.’
Chaz knew all about Lisa’s predilection for the expensive wine over the house red, the way she eschewed the identical but cheaper item off the internet in favour of the one from the dinky, wood-panelled shop in Harrogate. It was in her genes. ‘She’ll have to cope, won’t she? We’re not going to starve.’
Chaz nodded and consulted his phone. ‘Hey, listen. Why don’t you two come over this Saturday. How long is it since we’ve done that, eh?’
It was eleven months. I could wait another eleven years. There’s no reason why best friends’ spouses should get on but, fuck me, ours were like Israel and Hamas. Louise was earthy, tough and bloody-minded while Lisa was sophisticated, tough and bloody-minded. They shared not a single view on the state of the planet, politics, religion, Kylie’s hair - you get the idea. It must have been fun to watch, unless you were me. ‘I don’t know, Chaz.’
’Saturday after then.’
It felt odd walking the kids to the school bus stop in my track suit and trainers. For the last three years I’d carried out this pleasant task dressed in one of my mid-to-upper-range M & S suits - we’re talking three figures - pinchy leather shoes and, in winter, the fleece-lined mac my Dad left me. Today, the chill biting through my insubstantial layers, I kissed their cool, ruddy cheeks and waved them off wondering whether the other parents were watching. From the window of the bus, Millie held up a fluffy brown teddy bear and motioned for me to wave it goodbye, same as she did every day. I waved. It never felt ridiculous.
I turned and headed, unconsciously, towards the station, then stopped and turned again hoping that this somehow looked like part of the plan. How I yearned to be opposite The Smiler on the tube this morning; I’d have forgiven him everything. I trudged back towards home where I knew Lisa would be painting the finishing touches onto a face which required no make-up. We’d barely grunted at each other over breakfast, but that wasn’t unusual. It was the first day of a new term, a school day, and was typically tense and chaotic. We’d been like ships colliding noisily in the morning and getting quite pissed off about it. Lisa helped the girls with their uniforms and bags while I buttered toast, slopped juice into plastic cups and made grim packed lunches. I’m sure, when I was seven or eight, I just got myself up, made breakfast and made my way to school without troubling my parents, so either we were less mollycoddled in those days or they didn’t give a toss. Given my mother used to leave me out in the garden in my pram in all weathers (‘we all did it’), I’m plumping for the latter. Maybe That’s why I’m so hard?
I stopped off at the newsagent to buy The Times. Was the rest of the world in as much shit as me? As I emerged into the piercing January sun, I realised I couldn’t face Lisa, so I doubled back and headed for The Hungry Horse, a local workmen’s café I’d always promised myself I’d visit one day. I used to pass it on the way to the station and occasionally stop and peer through the condensation, salivating at the wall-to-wall eggs, bacon and insanely fat sausages served up by a strangely slender Italian woman in an apron. I ordered a bacon sarnie and a cup of tea of so solid a brew, I could have turned it out and eaten it like blancmange. The sandwich, loosely contained within thick-sliced bread walls buttered with great flat slabs of yellow grease, was succulent, overfilled and spectacularly calorific. Throwing caution and a probable cholesterol overdose to the wind, I ordered another. I scanned The Times, conscious of the fact that it wasn’t the newspaper du jour in The Hungry Horse, earning several suspicious glances, not least from a couple of heavily-set blokes in paint-spattered sweat pants on the next table. But it was nothing I couldn’t handle. I’m pretty tough with glances. It occurred to me that I was one of them now, a guy in a track suit who didn’t go into an office in a fancy suit, a guy who drank bitter tea in a greasy spoon and scoffed animal fat. Except, of course, they had jobs to go to. And were a bit rough.
Lisa had gone by the time I dawdled home, burping and deep-breathing all the way as I did battle with a bout of coruscating heartburn. The house was deafeningly quiet. Only the pulse beating in my ears and the faint, occasional swish of traffic outside broke the silence. I flicked the TV on for company and watched a grim confessional show while I ate a slice of toast to combat the instant boredom. If nothing else, it forced the acid back into my stomach, delaying a no doubt fiercer assault later on. I took a couple of pre-emptive Gaviscons, washing them down with a cup of tea and a Tracker.
There was no point getting dressed. Dressed for what? I was already wearing my new uniform, something entirely appropriate to my working day. I brushed my teeth, then went back downstairs to make another tea. I read The Times in a little more detail, then tidied the kitchen in the wake of the morning whirlwind. Outside, the garden lawn looked a little long. Maybe it would do me good to get some fresh air and important exercise before I got down to a hard day at the PC. Those hover mowers don’t push themselves, do they? But wasn’t that rain pattering against the window? Perhaps I should wait for it to stop and let the grass dry. I could sit and watch it dry. I’d never done that before, actually watched something go from wet…to dry, so maybe it would help me unravel the mysteries of that particular evaporative phenomenon.
All the while, in the spare room, sat the computer with its speedy connection to the outside world, a world into which I would, eventually, have to dip my toe.
Guitar, computer. Computer, guitar. The ghost of Tommy Cooper floated through the room. I made a deal with myself. Five minutes on the guitar while the computer booted up, then I’d get right down to it. Right down to it! Recruitment web sites first, picking out appropriately senior vacancies, then a trawl through companies I’d like to work for, noting key names, telephone numbers and addresses. Then, draft up a cutting edge CV, start thrashing it out and begin the whole process again to make sure I missed nothing. Look out, world, here I come! It was going to be exciting, a new start, a chance for me to decide what I wanted to do, with whom and where.
Thirty-six minutes later, I was still drowning out the gentle hum of the computer with a pleasing sequence of rhythmic, chunky chords, bellowing out songs I thought I’d forgotten. It was good to have the house to myself and really let rip after the misery of the last twenty- four hours. I needed to let it out and I wasn’t going to apologise to anyone for these few moments of catharsis before I got down to the real business of the day. I finished the last song in my limited repertoire, then sang the first one again, this time far more confidently. Followed by the second. I was beginning to flow. But, whoa, hang on, it was nearly eleven and I really had to get cracking. So I went down and made myself a cup of tea on the strict and inviolable understanding that I would sit at the desk as soon as I went back upstairs and go online. As the kettle boiled, I made a mental list of the sites I intended to visit. There was so much fertile cyberland to cover. I was feeling good about things, positive. Cup of tea, computer, all systems go.
But would you credit it? The grass was now dry, or very nearly dry, so I thought it prudent to take my chance with the mower in case it rained again later. Life’s all about grabbing opportunities while you can. There was plenty of time for my assault on the IT sector and, anyway, people were always more approachable after the morning rush. No point calling or sending them stuff too early in the day.
It took a while to extricate the mower from the miscellaneous garden tools and sundry cobwebbed paraphernalia scattered around the little wooden shed at the back of the garden. To be honest, I’d never much liked going in that shed - too many little black things with legs and/or wings ready to pounce; so much so, in fact, that I’d only ever got as far as poking my head through the door. I lugged the mower towards the house and realised I’d never used it before. It appeared to have only one lever, which I assumed was the thing that made it work. Simple? For someone with strong technical credentials, I’m a bit shit with household appliances. I unravelled the extension lead and plugged it into the nearest socket in the house, leaving the French doors open and flapping in the wind. I pressed the lever into the handle and was shaken by the sheer ferocity of the shiny orange beast before me. I could see why grass was no match for it.
Ten minutes! Ten lousy minutes. That’s all it took. I continued to go over and over the grass long after the law of diminishing marginal returns had become the law of utter bloody pointlessness. Belatedly, I endeavoured to carve out the kind of striped pattern you see on the better football pitches, but failed through lack of technique and available grass. I was in danger of burning out the motor by now. Defeated, I unplugged the cord and wound it fastidiously around a flat orange plastic coiler, much more neatly than I’d found it. It’s as well to take your time with something like coiling. I heaved the mower back into the shed and took a moment to tidy the place up - as well as I was able given my craven reluctance to go inside for longer than a few seconds at a time lest the bugs mounted a concerted attack. I even put up a couple of hooks to hang things on. I’d find stuff to hang another day. All in all, it looked pretty bloody good when I’d finished.
I ambled back to the house, slapping my dirty hands together job-done-fashion, and pulled at the French doors which had, by now, slammed shut. Irrevocably. Which idiot installed a latch and then forgot to provide working handles on the outside? Was that supposed to be some sort of security measure? Futile, surely. Any decent burglar would just break a window. They’re not stupid, burglars. There was a distinct lack of thought in evidence here. I sat on the step in front of the doors wearing a wry, just-my-bloody-luck smile, seasoned with a hint of triumphalism which should have shamed me. How was I going to get on with anything constructive now?
After pondering that conundrum for a few minutes, I heaved myself to my feet and made my way around the side of the house wondering if I had enough cash on me to keep me going in the local Starbucks for the next six hours. Which was when I spotted the wide open kitchen window, the consequence of an earlier toast-burning incident which necessitated the disarming of a hair-trigger smoke alarm by creating a draught. Dammit. I managed to crawl through the gap at the bottom of the sash, though not without incident. A bucket had given me the necessary elevation, but I kicked it backwards as I thrust myself forward thus removing all support and sending me crashing down, groin first, into the kitchen taps. Testicles are not built to withstand crushing by domestic sanitary ware. I screamed, ejecting every molecule of oxygen from my body, but discovered that my lungs were now incapacitated, no longer capable of replenishing the lost elixir. Was this where my story would end, impaled by the balls on the kitchen taps dressed in my JD Sports track suit?
I needed a reviving cup of tea after that.
The problem with the internet is there’s just too much stuff out there. I know That’s a good thing in many ways, but it’s also an unemployed, aimless, lazy man’s worst enemy. It’s extraordinary how one link leads to another and, before you know it, you’ve gone from the Sainsbury home delivery service to AnalAccess.com. I’ve never bought porn, not even as an acned schoolboy with raging hormones, but you can’t help but be curious. There’s tons of it, not all of it actually stimulating. Which means that quite a lot of it is. I defy any man whose imagination has been sexually piqued to simply let the moment pass and it’s nigh on impossible when he’s alone and the alternative is reading the report and accounts of some dreary IT company in Willesden. Wearing a loose fitting pair of sweat pants with an elasticated waist doesn’t help matters much either. Access, you see. Too easy, too convenient; you don’t even have to take anything off.
Now, we all know that any man who says he doesn’t masturbate is either a liar or doesn’t have a penis. But it was something I’d largely abandoned over the years. I suppose I’d drifted into a state of sexual ossification. Our marital bed had seen some regular action, but that was a long time ago in a place far, far away. The current and long standing apathy, characterised by resolutely going to bed at different times and rising early at the weekends, ostensibly to tend to the kids - who were, of course, much happier left alone in front of the box - was only occasionally leavened by the odd bout of furious sex. This was sex with a purpose - Lisa’s, usually - and I was merely there to provide a service when she came home frazzled. It was great, no question, perhaps all the greater for being so infrequent. Quality, not quantity. I’d settled into this lifestyle. All good things come to those too set in their ways to do anything but wait. I never instigated, having suffered too many headaches and bored rebuffs, so I’d learned to ramp up the hormones on an on-demand basis.
But now I was all alone in the house and somehow working to different rules. No rules, in fact. Lisa didn’t factor into this new equation. I had no focus and allowed myself to be sucked into the seedy underbelly of internet porn; I’m sorry, but it seemed to me that I had to release this particular pressure valve before I could concentrate on the serious work of the morning…er, afternoon. It wasn’t about pleasure or self-gratification, just a means to an end. It’s quite important to stress that I didn’t linger on the AnalAccess site in order to undertake the task. I’m from a nice family.
Ultimately, the whole operation was ill-advised given I’d been skewered by the kitchen taps not an hour before. As a younger man, I would occasionally essay a sexual position that bent bones and twisted ligaments, or required me to lift or manoeuvre my partner acrobatically. Fuelled by youthful adrenalin, I was as strong and invulnerable as Superman. Only afterwards did I notice my muscles screaming and joints creaking as the sexual novocaine leaked into the sheets. It was as well not to get stranded in one of those heroic but ill-advised standing-up and carrying positions when my moment had passed. It would then be an agonising race against time to drop my partner on the bed before she hit the floor. Well, masturbating with bruised testicles is not dissimilar. Early on, the pain seemed counter-productive, but I pressed on and was soon into the realms of reckless disregard as I headed for my Pyrrhic victory. I sat and throbbed for twenty minutes afterwards, cursing the people responsible for www.penishole.com.
Ok, lunch, a quick stroll to walk it off, and then I was going to really get my head down.
’Dad!?’ Millie’s shrill voice woke me. It was 4.15. In fact, I was sufficiently startled to fall backwards off my chair, which is what happens when you fall asleep with your legs up on a desk, balancing only on the two back legs. I’d been unconscious since around 2.30 when, following my amble through suburban Chiswick after an over-lardy lunch - Hungry Horse again: chips, omelette (ham and mushroom, so quite healthy), chips, beans and chips - I’d come back and shut my eyes for ten minutes. Millie, following the noise, found me on my back, one leg still propped up on the desk, the other with my stricken guitar on top of it. ‘Hiya,’ I said with as much insouciance as the situation allowed.
’What you doing Dad?’
’Me? Not much. Just, you know, resting.’
’You don’t look very comfortable.’
’I’m not, actually,’ I said, hauling myself upright. ‘Just testing out one of those Yoga positions.’
’You don’t do Yoga.’
’Not after that.’
’You making us supper?’
’Er, isn’t Bea here? I thought she collected you and did supper and everything.’
’Yeah, but her cooking’s shi…’
’Well she’s rubbish. It’s either, like, frozen pizza or really naff, soggy pasta. Or spaghetti carborara.’
’Sorry, darling, but I’m working.’
’Yeah, right,’ she sneered, having gone from innocent child to scornful adult in a millisecond.
’Anyway, I’m a rubbish cook, as you well know.’
’But not as crap as her.’
It was nearly half past four and I’d yet to register my name with any of the myriad recruitment agencies who were going to tell me that I was a bit senior for most of their vacancies, but that they’d keep my CV on file and let me know as soon as anything came up. But I had to do something. I dredged up an old CV I’d drafted when I applied for some out-of-my-league job six years earlier. Tragically, it required virtually no updating. Six years of standing still. I fired it off and received a handful of impersonal, auto-reply acknowledgements. I then applied for various, mostly inappropriate direct vacancies, adding, where noteworthy skills and achievements were specifically asked for, a glowing, self-congratulatory paragraph making particular reference to the excellent rapport I’d established with Virgin. Others required little more than a one-liner, and I composed a simple paragraph which felt told the story: I have most recently been a Senior Systems Manager and Sales Executive with Edmonds & White. I hoped the Proliferation of Upper Case Letters Would Obscure the Fact That I Was No Longer With Them For Some Reason.
The entire process took a little over an hour but, by God, did I feel virtuous afterwards. I pushed my chair back from the desk, took a deep breath, nodded my head in acknowledgement of a complex job well done, and picked up my guitar. I’d earned a break. I launched into a medley of my greatest hits, singing loud and proud, releasing the pent up tension of a long, tough day at the coalface. Katia and Millie popped their heads round the door, hands clamped theatrically to their ears, but I didn’t let that deter me.
Sadly, basic intelligence deserts me when I’m lost in music. There was a time to stop, a time to be staring conscientiously at my computer screen, fingers on the keyboard rather than the fretboard. That time was two minutes past seven when Lisa walked in. I could have stopped singing at five to or even one past, assumed the requisite pose and been safe. When Lisa said she’d be home ‘on time’, there was no need to check your watch. 7.02 on the nose, timed perfectly so that she arrived just as Bea was leaving to ensure their paths crossed only fleetingly at the door. Bea’s tedious, minute by minute recap of her child-minding day was most easily avoided by cutting into her own time.
’Busy day?’ smirked Lisa just as I was launching into a chorus of Hazel Green, a cheesy song I wrote when I was fourteen. Hazel Green - geddit? That was the fictional girl’s name and the colour of her eyes. I know! Breathtakingly shit, even for a clueless teenager. What was I thinking when I first scribbled these lyrics down? And how did I ever sing them with a straight face?
I caught her eye, it looked like hazel green
From where I stood it could have been
But anyway it gleamed
I stared ahead, she did not see my face
That’s good for her in any case
For I am not her ace
She never looks at me
And can you blame her?
’Ok, Miss,’ I said, schoolboy-to-teacher fashion. Would that work? ‘I’ve been at it all day. Just taking a break. Honest.’
She wasn’t amused. Would you be? ‘And?’
’I’ve made a shitload of applications, spoken to God knows how many agencies, et cetera et cetera. Broken the ice, ball rolling et cetera et cetera. It’s not going to happen overnight.’
’Who have you applied to?’
This was getting forensic. ‘I don’t know…loads of them. They’re all much of a muchness, aren’t they? It’s IT. Just got to sit tight and wait for something to come back. Throw enough mud, et cetera et cetera.’
The et ceteras were working, throwing her off. ‘Mmm,’ she mmm-ed, ‘ok, I stink. I need a shower. Coming in?’
Another tough day, obviously. But twice in two nights? Thing is, I was feeling a bit spent after my brief liaison with Andrea at penishole.com and my earlier impalement on the kitchen taps. In days gone by, the prospect of performing twice in a day wouldn’t have fazed me but at forty-two, and after a day like I’d had, it was daunting. ‘I’ve got to do some more work here. Better stick at it.’ The very fact I’d used the word ‘work’ gave it the requisite sheen of gravity.
Lisa raised her artfully-arched eyebrows and flounced out. ‘Sod you, then,’ she said, which put me in mind of my earlier passing flirtation with Mia at asspussy.net.