One Day, Page 12David Nicholls
But at other times she finds herself writing happily for hours, as if the words had been there all along, content and alone in her one-bedroom flat. Not that she’s lonely, or at least not very often. She goes out four nights a week, and could go out more often if she wanted to. Old friendships are holding up, and there are new ones too, with her fellow students from the Teacher Training College. At the weekend she makes full use of the listing magazines, everything except the clubbing section, which might as well be written in runic script for all its talk of shirts-off-up-for-it crowds. She suspects that she will never, ever dance in her bra in a room full of foam, and that’s fine. Instead she visits independent cinemas and galleries with friends, or sometimes they hire cottages, go for hearty walks in the country and pretend they live there. People tell her she looks better, more confident. She has thrown away the velour scrunchies, the cigarettes, the take-away menus. She owns a cafetiere and for the first time in her life she is considering investing in some pot-pourri.
The clock radio clicks on but she allows herself to lie in bed and listen to the news headlines. John Smith is in conflict with the unions, and she feels torn because she likes John Smith, who seems the right sort, headmasterly and wise. Even his name suggests solid man-of-the-people principles, and she reminds herself once again to look into the possibility of joining the Labour Party; perhaps it will ease her conscience now that her CND membership has lapsed. Not that she doesn’t sympathise with their aims, but demanding multilateral disarmament has started to seem a bit naïve, a bit like demanding universal kindness.
At twenty-seven, Emma wonders if she’s getting old. She used to pride herself on her refusal to see two sides of an argument, but increasingly she accepts that issues are more ambiguous and complicated than she once thought. Certainly she doesn’t understand the next two news items, which concern the Maastricht Treaty and the war in Yugoslavia. Shouldn’t she have an opinion, take a side, boycott something? At least with apartheid you knew where you stood. Now there’s a war in Europe and she has personally done absolutely nothing to stop it. Too busy shopping for furniture. Unsettled, she throws off her new duvet and slides into the tiny corridor of space between the side of the bed and the walls, shuffling sideways to the hall and into the tiny bathroom, which she never has to wait for because she lives alone. She drops her t-shirt into the wicker laundry basket – a great deal of wicker in her life since that fateful summer sale on Tottenham Court Road – puts on her old spectacles and stands naked in front of the mirror, her shoulders pushed back. Could be worse, she thinks and steps into the shower.
She eats breakfast looking out of the window. The flat is six floors up in a red brick mansion block and the view is of an identical red brick mansion block. She doesn’t care for Earls Court particularly; shabby and temporary, it’s like living in London’s spare room. The rent on a single flat is insane too, and she may have to get somewhere cheaper when she gets her first teaching job, but for the moment she loves it here, a long way from Loco Caliente and the gritty social realism of the box room in Clapton. Free of Tilly Killick after six years together, she loves knowing that there’ll be no underwear lurking greyly in the kitchen sink, no teeth marks in the Cheddar.
Because she is no longer ashamed of how she lives, she has even allowed her parents to visit her, Jim and Sue occupying the Tahiti while Emma slept on the sofa. For three fraught days they commented endlessly on London’s ethnic mix and the cost of a cup of tea, and although they didn’t actually express their approval of her new lifestyle at least her mother no longer suggests that she come back to Leeds to work for the Gas Board. ‘Well done, Emmy,’ her father had whispered as she saw them onto the train at King’s Cross, but well done for what? For finally living like a grown-up perhaps.
Of course there’s still no boyfriend, but she doesn’t mind. Occasionally, very occasionally, say at four o’clock in the afternoon on a wet Sunday, she feels panic-stricken and almost breathless with loneliness. Once or twice she has been known to pick up the phone to check that it isn’t broken. Sometimes she thinks how nice it would be to be woken by a call in the night: ‘get in a taxi now’ or ‘I need to see you, we need to talk’. But at the best of times she feels like a character in a Muriel Spark novel – independent, bookish, sharp-minded, secretly romantic. At twenty-seven years old Emma Morley has a double-first in English and History, a new bed, a two-roomed flat in Earls Court, a great many friends, and a post-graduate certificate in education. If the interview goes well today she will have a job teaching English and Drama, subjects that she knows and loves. She is on the brink of a new career as an inspiring teacher and finally, finally, there is some order in her life.
There is also a date.
Emma has a proper, formal date. She is going to sit in a restaurant with a man and watch him eat and talk. Someone wants to climb aboard the Tahiti, and tonight she will decide if she is going to let him. She stands at the toaster, slicing a banana, the first of seven portions of fruit and veg today, and stares at the calendar. The 15th of July 1993, a question mark, and exclamation mark. The date looms.
Dexter’s bed is imported, Italian, a low, bare black platform that stands in the centre of the large bare room like a stage or a wrestling ring, both of which functions it sometimes serves. He lies there awake at 9.30, dread and self-loathing combined with sexual frustration. His nerve-endings have been turned up high and there is an unpleasant taste in his mouth, as if his tongue has been coated with hairspray. Suddenly he leaps up and pads across high-gloss black floorboards to the Swedish kitchen. There in the freezer compartment of his large, industrial fridge, he finds a bottle of vodka and he pours an inch into his glass then adds the same amount of orange juice. He reassures himself with the thought that, as he hasn’t been to sleep yet, this is not the first drink of the day, but the last drink of last night. Besides, the whole taboo about drinking during daytime is exaggerated; they do it in Europe. The trick is to use the uplift of the booze to counteract the downward tumble of the drugs; he is getting drunk to stay sober which when you think about it is actually pretty sensible. Encouraged by this logic, he pours another inch and a half of vodka, puts on the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack and swaggers to the shower.
Half an hour later he is still in the bathroom, wondering what he can do to stop the sweating. He has changed his shirt twice, showered in cold water, but still the perspiration comes bubbling up on his back and forehead, oily and viscous like vodka which perhaps is what it is. He looks at his watch. Late already. He decides that he’ll try driving with the windows down.
There’s a brick-sized parcel by the door so that he won’t forget it, elaborately wrapped in layers of different coloured tissue paper, and he picks this up, locks the flat and steps out into the leafy avenue where his car waits for him, a Mazda MRII convertible in racing green. No room for passengers, no possibility of a roof rack, barely room for a spare tyre let alone a pram, it’s a car that screams of youth, success, bachelorhood. Concealed in the boot is a CD changer, a futuristic miracle of tiny springs and matt black plastic and he chooses five CDs (freebies from the record companies, another perk of the job) and slides the shiny disks into the box as if loading a revolver with bullets.
He listens to The Cranberries as he negotiates the wide residential streets of St John’s Wood. It’s not really his thing, but it’s important to stay on top of stuff when you’re forging people’s tastes in music. The Westway has cleared of rush-hour traffic and before the album ends he is on the M40, heading westward through the light-industrial estates and housing developments of the city in which he lives so successfully, so fashionably. Before long the suburbs have given way to the conifer plantations that pass as countryside. Jamiroquai is playing on the stereo and he’s feeling much, much better, raffish and boysy in his sporty little car, and only a little queasy now. He turns up the volume. He has met the band’s lead singer, has interviewed him several times, and though he wouldn’t go so far as to call him a friend, he knows
the guy who plays the congas pretty well and feels a little personal connection as they sing about the emergency on planet earth. It’s the extended mix, massively extended, and time and space take on an elastic quality as Dexter scats along for what seems like many, many hours until his vision blurs and judders one last time, the remnants of last night’s drugs in his veins, and there’s a blare of horn as he realises that he is driving at 112 miles an hour in the exact centre of two lanes.
He stops scatting and tries to steer the car back into the middle lane, but finds that he has forgotten how to steer, his arms locked at the elbows as he tries to physically wrench the wheel from some invisible grasp. Suddenly Dexter’s speed has dropped to fifty-eight miles an hour, his feet on the brake and the accelerator simultaneously, and there’s another blast of horn from a lorry the size of a house that has appeared behind him. He can see the contorted face of the driver in the rearview mirror, a big bearded man in black mirror shades screaming at him, his face three black holes, like a skull. Dexter wrenches the wheel once more without even checking what is in the slow lane and he is suddenly sure that he is going to die, right here and now, in a ball of searing flame while listening to an extended Jamiroquai remix. But the slow lane is empty, thank God, and he breathes sharply through his mouth, once, twice, three times, like a boxer. He jabs the music off and drives in silence at a steady sixty-eight until he reaches his exit.
Exhausted, he finds a lay-by on the Oxford Road, reclines his seat and closes his eyes in the hope of sleep, but can only see the three black holes of the lorry driver screaming at him. Outside the sun is too bright, the traffic too noisy, and besides there’s something shabby and unwholesome about this anxious young man wriggling in a stationary car at eleven forty-five on a summer’s morning, so he sits up straight, swears and drives on until he finds a roadside pub that he knows from his teenage years. The White Swan is a chain affair offering all-day breakfasts and impossibly cheap steak and chips. He pulls in, picks up the gift-wrapped parcel from the passenger seat and enters the large, familiar room that smells of furniture polish and last night’s cigarettes.
Dexter leans matily on the bar and orders a half of lager and a double vodka tonic. He remembers the barman from the early Eighties when he used to drink here with mates. ‘I used to come here years ago,’ says Dexter, chattily. ‘Is that right?’ replies the gaunt, unhappy man. If the barman recognises him he doesn’t say, and Dexter takes a glass in each hand, walks to a table and drinks in silence with the gift-wrapped package in front of him, a little parcel of gaiety in the grim room. He looks around and thinks about how far he’s come in the last ten years, and all that he’s achieved – a well-known TV presenter, and not yet twenty-nine years old.
Sometimes he thinks the medicinal powers of alcohol border on the miraculous because within ten minutes he is trotting nimbly out to the car and listening to music again, The Beloved chirruping away, making good time so that within ten minutes he is turning into the gravel drive of his parents’ house, a large secluded 1920s construction, its front criss-crossed with fake timber framing to make it look less modern, boxy and sturdy than it really is. A comfortable, happy family home in the Chilterns, Dexter regards it with dread.
His father is already standing in the doorway, as if he’s been there for years. He is wearing too many clothes for July; a shirttail is hanging down beneath his sweater, a mug of tea is in his hand. Once a giant to Dexter, he now looks stooped and tired, his long face pale, drawn and lined from the six months in which his wife’s condition has deteriorated. He raises his mug in greeting and for a moment Dexter sees himself through his father’s eyes, and winces with shame at his shiny shirt, the jaunty way he drives this sporty little car, the raffish noise it makes as it swoops to a halt on the gravel, the chill-out music on the stereo.
Sorted, you tawdry little clown.
He jabs off the CD player, unclips the removable facia from the dashboard, then stares at it in his hand. Calm down, this is the Chilterns, not Stockwell. Your father is not going to steal your stereo. Just calm down. In the doorway, his father raises his mug once again, and Dexter sighs, picks up the present from the passenger seat, summons up all his powers of concentration, and steps out of the car.
‘What a ridiculous machine,’ tuts his father.
‘Well you don’t have to drive it, do you?’ Dexter takes comfort from the ease of the old routine, his father stern and square, the son irresponsible and cocky.
‘Don’t think I’d fit in it anyway. Toys for boys. We were expecting you some time ago.’
‘How are you, old man?’ says Dexter, feeling a sudden swell of affection for his dear old dad, and instinctively he loops his arms around his father’s back, rubs it and then, excruciatingly, kisses his father’s cheek.
Somehow Dexter has developed a kiss reflex. He has made the ‘mmmmoi’ noise in his father’s tufted ear. Some unconscious part of him thinks that he is back under the railway arches with Gibbsy and Tara and Spex. He can feel the saliva, wet on his lip and he can see the consternation on his father’s face as he looks down at his son, an Old Testament look. Sons kissing fathers – a law of nature has been broken. Not yet through the front door and already the illusion of sobriety has shattered. His father sniffs – either with distaste or because he is sniffing his son’s breath, and Dexter is not sure which is worse.
‘Your mother is in the garden. She’s been waiting for you all morning.’
‘How is she?’ he asks. Perhaps he’ll say ‘much better’.
‘Go and see. I’ll put the kettle on.’
The hallway is dark and cool after the sun’s glare. His older sister Cassie is entering from the back garden, a tray in her hands, her face aglow with competence, commonsense and piety. At thirty-four she has settled into the role of stern hospital matron, and the part suits her. Half smile, half scowl, she touches her cheek against his. ‘The prodigal returns!’
Dexter’s mind is not so addled that he can’t recognise a dig, but he ignores the remark and glances at the tray. A bowl of grey brown cereal dissolved in milk, the spoon by its side, unused. ‘How is she?’ he asks. Perhaps she’ll say ‘much improved’.
‘Go and find out,’ says Cassie, and he squeezes past and wonders: Why will no-one tell me how she is?
From the doorway he watches her. She is sitting in an old-fashioned wing-backed chair that has been carried out to face the view across the fields and woods, Oxford a grey hazy smudge in the distance. From this angle, her face is obscured by a large sunhat and sunglasses – the light hurts her eyes these days – but he can tell by the slender arms and the way her hand lolls on the padded arm of the chair that she has changed a great deal in the three weeks since he last came to see her. He has a sudden urge to cry. He wants to curl up like a child and feel her put her arms around him, and he also wants to run from here as fast as he can, but neither are possible, so instead he trots down the steps, an artificially buoyant jog, a chat-show host.
She smiles as if smiling itself has become an effort. He stoops beneath the brim of her hat to kiss her, the skin of her cheek disconcertingly cool, taut and shiny. A headscarf is tied beneath her hat to disguise her hair loss, but he tries not to scrutinise her face too closely as he quickly reaches for a rusting metal garden chair. Noisily, he pulls it close and arranges it outwards so that they are both facing the view, but he can feel her eyes on him.
‘You’re sweating,’ she says.
‘Well it’s a hot day.’ She looks unconvinced. Not good enough. Concentrate. Remember who you’re talking to.
‘You’re soaked through’
‘It’s this shirt. Artificial fibre.’
She reaches across and touches his shirt with the back of her hand. Her nose wrinkles with distaste. ‘Where from?’
‘Only the best,’ then keen to change the subject he retrieves the parcel from the rockery wall. ‘Present for you.’
‘Not from me, from Emma.’
‘I can tell, from the wrapping.’ Carefully she undoes the ribbon. ‘Yours come in taped-up bin bags . . .’
‘That’s not true . . .’ he smiles, keeping things light-hearted.
‘ . . . when they come at all.’
He’s finding it harder to maintain this smile, but thankfully her eyes are on the parcel as she carefully folds the paper back, revealing a pile of paperback books: Edith Wharton, some Raymond Chandler, F. Scott Fitzgerald. ‘How kind of her. Will you thank her for me? Lovely Emma Morley.’ She looks at the cover of the Fitzgerald. ‘The Beautiful and Damned. It’s me and you.’
‘But which is which?’ he says without thinking, but thankfully she doesn’t seem to have heard. Instead she’s reading the back of the postcard, a black and white agit-prop collage from ’82; ‘Thatcher Out!’ She laughs. ‘Such a kind girl. So funny.’ She takes the novel and measures its thickness between finger and thumb. ‘A little optimistic maybe. You might want to push her towards short stories in future.’