Dan called sex ‘climbing on board’. He’d picked the phrase up form an apple-cheeked German boy with whom he’d pulled potatoes from an East Anglian field during a short, wet summer. Now when he wanted his little bit of relief he would say to Carol over supper (which they ate sitting side by side like passengers on some endless marital branch line), ‘Mind if I climb on board tonight?’ or, ‘How’s about I climb on board later, darling?’ Eventually Carol began to stare murderously at her oval platter whenever she heard the hated catch-phrase. And once, as she sawed too vigorously at her M&S Chicken Kiev, a spurt of butter marinade shot from the ruptured fowl and fell, appropriately enough, like jism on Dan’s tented crotch.
When he did climb on board Carol, the journey was inevitably brief and the transport was effected with little exertion by either party. The hospital corners of Dan’s mouth would be tucked in a little more deeply, his breathing would flute and subside. In due course Carol would roll over to avoid the damp patch.
That Carol didn’t revolt against his cramped and pedestrian sex-like was largely a function of her pacific nature. With Dan packed off to work for the day, to add serifs to the uprights of characters forming acronyms, or remove them as the case may be, Carol found herself with lovely, indolent time on her hands. Like her foremothers, she would clean and categorize the wedding chattels from Heal’s and the more recent acquisitions from Habitat and the Reject Shop. She would straighten up the maisonette. And
then, perhaps, she would take a walk in the park, or a trip to the library to exchange books. For six months Carol learnt Spanish, but she gave it up when it became too difficult. She considered getting a dog or cat for companionship but she had never liked the way that they paraded their leathery genitals, so she settled for a caged cockateel instead. Something Carol was prepared to wait for was children. This acceptable catch-all served to hide from Carol the extent to which nuzzling up against Dan had already, mysteriously, shrunk her womb. Whittled away at her capacity for selfless mothering. The way her marriage was developing she began to feel prepared to wait a very long time indeed.
After two years in London, Dan was promoted to head the typography team at work. This was very good going for a twenty-four-year-old. Coincidentally, he began to climb on board a lot less -and drink a lot more.
Dan was one of those people who change character when they drink. With Dan it was a comprehensive metamorphosis, as if he had forgotten his own self entirely and taken on a distinct new personal history. Of course a chronic sot, in his cups, has no memory beyond the previous two or three minutes of staggering and altercating. He is a short-lived thing, a May bug, born to live, grow, propagate and then succumb to the next spring shower - or, in Dan’s case, the next shower of Lamot.
Dan was a blacking-out drunk, he was a falling-down drunk. He was the kind of drunk that knelt on dinner tables, canted forward from the waist, spewing some rubbish about a girl he had once loved in Leighton Buzzard. He was also the kind of drunk who would then vomit copiously in mid-peroration. And - wait for it - he was also the kind of drink who never, ever, remembered not to eat spaghetti bolognese or chicken tikka masala before he went on a binge. To put it in the modern idiom: he was a disaster area, albeit of slight proportions.
When Dan and Carol married they had both belonged to lower-middle-class sets at their respective colleges. Lower-middle-class in terms of what used to be called, in my days as an undergraduate, ‘fastness’. I suppose that at more sophisticated institutions these children might have supped drugs. But as it was the boy students in these sets merely drank heavily and so did the girl students. Their consumption of alcohol was deemed a badge of maturity, of acceptance. So it was that in pullovers they grouped around curved, panelled bars, arms held aloft to form scenes of near-Canadian clubbability. Later, they would crash Mini Coopers into street furniture, or their hips into room furniture.
In Spring and autumn Carol and Beverly had drunk pints of bitter in straight glasses; in summer they had chug-a-lugged Pilsner larger bottles capped by fool’s gold foil; in winter they had supped on a thick barley wine called ‘Winter Warmer’, which did just that. Carol had a good head for alcohol - in fact she had a spy’s head for alcohol; for as she drank, her washed blue eyes grew flatter and beadier, giving an accurate, if tarnished reflection of some pebble-dashed saturnalia. That’s what one felt, watching her: that as she drank, she was somehow accumulating evidence against those who got drunk. When Carol married Dan, some of the hearties that had seen them boozing together quipped that it was a case of an under-the-covers policewoman having finally cornered her suspect.
He passed. It was the first gap of any significance in his speech. For the first couple of minutes that he had been speaking, I had fretted. The storyteller had cornered me in the compartment shortly after he had boarded the train at Oxford. He was like some ersatz ancient mariner; and after a rapidfire exchange of inanities re weather, travel and so forth, he had teased out what was little more than a thread of conven-
tional politeness on my party into a skein of spurious intimacy. Then he had used the train’s lurch to a standstill in the orange evening of a rape-field as a pretext to ‘tell me a story’, i.e. enfold me in this repellent tale.
It wasn’t exactly that he had spoken all of the above in a breathless hush, or as an onward galloping rant. It was rather that, despite allowing his voice the full dramatic range and life, he had then compressed this dramatic inflection into the smallest of possible intervals.
As I say, I chafed under the tale, desperate to interrupt and silence him. And then, when it became clear that he wouldn’t provide me with any polite opportunity, I succumbed to it. When the man paused, I was thrown out completely and the silence lay with the dust on the old, minute checkerboard of British Rail plush.
But the pause did give me time properly to examine my travelling companion, the creator of the bibulous Carol and her saturated spouse. He was plump and his little hands formed a fleshly cup - in direct alignment with his sagged, flannel crotch. His nutty hair rose to form two birds’ wings which swooped across the pinkish tips of his ears. His face had the wire-biting-into-Edam look of a man grown old with little physical exertion and no physical danger save for the mineral drip, drip, drip of sherry, Madeira and claret dissipation. From his grey flannel trousers and tweed jacket, I took him to be a slightly faggoty, fussy middle-aged done. Given his embarkation point and the underlying snobbery of his characterizations, this didn’t exactly constitute a great feat of detection. Nor did it take the most acute of social observers to tear away the moulded panels of his accent, in order to reveal the very chassis of his diction. Which had perhaps been spot-welded by elocution lessons, some forty years before.
From where I sat I could watch the sun, which, in sinking, touched the edge of the Number Three cooling tower ad Didcot
Power station. This rose up, over the rape, like some malevolent piece of statuary - an Easter Island god - in all its monumental bulk, evidence of some sterile and unproductive culture. The don sat in silence, his plump little arms folded.
I don’t know why; I have no explanation for what I did next. I certainly had no liking for the don’s story, but perhaps I felt like a disappointed cinema goer - having paid for my ticket I’d be buggered if I was going to walk out of the film. If I couldn’t have less„ I would make do with more. You can see therefore, how the copula naturally insinuated itself, so:
'And …?' I ventured after some time.
'What!' He started.
'And - having cornered her suspect?' What a fool! I wilfully goaded him. He thrashed at the cue, a small seal with a large fish.
'Her suspect …? Oh yes, I'm sorry, I went into a kind of reverie just then, it comes upon me unexpectedly. Just as it did then - when I am in full flood …' And he was off again, the train jerked into motion and the don and I were utterly alone, yellow-islanded by low wattage in the jolting darkness.
'I don't know what it is,' he continued, his little hands held either side of his head, as if they were contacts between which the current of thought leapt and fizzed. 'A lapse, a fugue, a thought jamming and sparking like a severed high-tension cable between the two lobes …'
Dan, then … Dan had always drunk and always got drunk. It was just another of those things that in the beginning had made him endearing to Carol. He lost himself charmingly and entirely, like a Dervish in a whirl or a swami in a trance, and then he would recover himself the next morning at breakfast, pulling o his identity like a woolly.
‘I really tied one on last night,’ he’d say, mock-shamefaced, his deft fingers tucked away in the tops of
his jeans pockets, his hair all tousled. ‘What! Doncha remember what happened?’ And whichever of Dan’s floating crowd of mates had happened to be along on this particular crawl would recount its denouement. ‘You were standing by the rack, right on the bloody forecourt of the garage, man! And you’d grabbed one of those big two-litre cans of oil. You kept shouting …’
‘Come over here and get greased … yeah, I know.’ Dan would break in in tones of genuine remorse, the one acute phrase somehow surfacing out of the sewage morass that was his memory of the previous night.
To begin with, Carol not only tolerated, she even welcomed, the mates. ‘Mates’ who were elements of Dan’s Stourbridge boozing set, now translated to London. Mates, who for convenience’s sake we shall call: Gary, Barry, Gerry, Derry and Dave 1 (Dave 1 because Dave 2 comes later). On most evenings Carol counted them all out of the flat and, five or six hours later, counted them back in again. And in the morning, when Barry lay, his fat freckled forearms slapped down on the flower-patterned spare duvet, and raw, yellow callused feet sticking out over the end of the spare futon divan bed, Carol would wish him a cheerful ‘good morning’ and bring him a mug of tea. Then she would cook Barry (or Gary, Gerry, Derry, Dave 1 - she was quite fair) an enormous fry-up. Bacon, eggs and sausages with all the trimmings, including black pudding, for which they had all gained a taste in the Midlands. Some way through the breakfast ritual Dan would make the kind of appearance I have described above.
But then, somehow, Carol lost patience. Either that, or the character of Dan’s boozing sessions with his mates changed. It was difficult to say which came first. Naturally, this very issue was the grist of the subsequent friction between them. Carol stopped Drinking (with a capital ‘D’) herself, and she stopped tolerating the Mates on the futon divan.
In the mornings she lay rigidly in bed while Dan, in the en suite bathroom, irrigated his head under the avocado faucet. The tepid water flowed over him and into the avocado bowl.
‘We never fuck any more,’ she said. And watched while Anne Diamond straightened her skirt on the television.
‘We never fuck any more. You’ve always got brewer’s droop.’ In moments of tight emotion Carol regressed to the tropes and figures of urban Poole, such as they were.
‘Don’t be vulgar,’ said Dan, and he involuntarily hawked, as if to illustrate what was prohibited.
‘You’re always pissed.’ She pursued him. ‘We used to get tipsy and even pissed pissed for fun, to be sociable. We did it as a means … [and here perhaps were some of the meagre fruits of Llanstephan] … not as an end in itself.’
‘I still drink to have fun,’ was Dan’s pathetic rejoinder. ‘Why else would I drink?’
There, you have the measure of the man. And when she pressed him further, he said, ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ and left. Which, when Carol came to think about it, had always been his stock response when anything between them that smacked of emotion veered away from a treacly gooey-goo love sentimentality, or the good companionship of hail-fellow-well-met mates.
Not that Carol longed for the two of them to sit down opposite one another and dissect their relationship together - as if it were a dish dinner. Everything in her own upbringing - and nature for that matter - cried out against such a course. This was not the Poole way. The Poole way with ‘relationships’ was a turgid misunderstanding, leading perhaps to an evening in the allotment shed shouting, or an extra Valium. So Carol let it ride.
She got another caged bird, a mynah this time. Beverly, who hadn’t been in touch for over two years, arrived in
Muswell Hill unannounced. Dan was out drinking with Gary. After an edgy evening watching a repeat of Columbo, Beverly had her way with Carol on a pile of Dan’s work shirts, which were stacked on the half-landing, freshly ironed and en route for storage.
This was quite different to Llanstephan nights. Beverly had brought a dildo with her, or a lingam, as she called it. She had been instructed in its use by a flat-faced Tamil woman who lived in Shrewsbury. It was a ghastly little knobkerry of ironwood. But despite that, with it inside her vagina Carol could feel a potential for pleasure in the internal contemplation of its ongoing rigidity; its failure to wilt, its determination to stay just as it was. If it wasn’t for Beverly’s horrible face, the schoolgirl myopia and cartoon curls (and that sour cream smell: was it sweat, or worse?), Carol could perhaps have unslipped the surly bonds of her meagre restraint and flown off into orgasmic orbit.
Carol’s head thudded against the skirting board. The lingam thudded into her. Beverly’s thumb thudded against Carol’s perineum. Dan thudded on the door to the maisonette. ‘Let us in, love,’ he called, ‘I’ve lost me key.’
He’d also lost Gary in the John Logie Baird on Fortune Green Road. However, in the Bald-Faced Stag in East Finchley, he had acquired Derek; a lapsed Methodist and fervent member of the British National Party. For good measure, by way of possessing a trinity of attributes, Derek was also a stinking piss artist.
As he came into the main room of the maisonette Derek took in the dangling strap of Beverley’s bib ‘n’ braces with fanatic eyes, from under a dead straight fringe that must have framed a million commercial handjobs. He had them sussed. Later, when several more cans had been circulated he tangled with Beverley; calling her first a commie, then a Jew and only latterly a dikey cock-teaser. Carol thought she might have to call a constabulary, and feared for their
lease. Dan slept throughout - but a man who sleeps with his head lying on a phone table can never really sleep with a clean conscience.