One Day, Page 32David Nicholls
But what if she is unwell? Could be colic, he thinks. Or teething, is she teething? Anxiety is starting to grip. Should she go to hospital? Perhaps, except of course he’s too drunk to drive now. Useless, useless, useless man. ‘Come on, concentrate,’ he says aloud. There’s some medicine on the shelf, on it the words ‘may cause drowsiness’ – the most beautiful words in the English language. Once it was ‘do you have a t-shirt I can borrow?’ Now it’s ‘may cause drowsiness’.
He bounces Jasmine on his knee until she’s a little quieter, then puts the loaded spoon to her lips until he judges that 5ml has been swallowed. The next twenty minutes are spent putting on a demented cabaret, manically waggling talking animals at her. He runs through his limited repertoire of funny voices, pleading in high and low pitches and various regional accents for her to shush now, there there, go to sleep. He holds picture books in front of her face, lifting flaps, pulling tabs, jabbing at pages saying ‘Duck! Cow! Choo-choo train! See the funny tiger, see it!’ He puts on deranged puppet shows. A plastic chimpanzee sings the first verse of ‘Wheels on the Bus’ over and over again, Tinky Winky performs ‘Old MacDonald’, a stuffed pig gives her ‘Into the Groove’ for no reason. Together they squeeze beneath the arches of the baby gym and work out together. He stuffs his mobile phone into her little hands, lets her press the buttons, dribble into the keypad, listen to the speaking clock until finally, mercifully, she’s quieter, just whimpering now, still wide awake but content.
There’s a CD player in the room, a chunky Fisher Price in the shape of a steam train, and he kicks through discarded books and toys and presses play. Relaxing Classics for Tots, part of Sylvie’s total baby-mind-control project. The ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ sounds from tinny speakers. ‘Tuuuuuune!’ he shouts, turns up the volume by way of the steam train’s funnel and starts to waltz woozily around the room, Jasmine close to his chest. She stretches now, her tapered fingers balling into fists then flexing, and for the first time looks at her father with something other than a scowl. He catches a momentary glimpse of his own face smiling back up at him. She smacks her lips, eyes wide. She is laughing. ‘That’s my girl!’ he says, ‘that’s my beauty.’ His spirits lift and he has an idea.
Draping Jasmine over his shoulder, banging against door jambs on the way, he runs down to the kitchen where three large cardboard boxes temporarily hold all his CDs until the shelves are up. There are thousands of them, freebies mainly, the legacy of when he was held to be influential and the sight of them sends him back in time to his DJ days when he used to wander round Soho wearing those ridiculous headphones. He kneels and fishes through the box with one hand. The trick is not to make Jasmine sleep, the trick is to try and keep her awake, and to this end they’re going to have a party, just the two of them, better by far than any night-club Hoxton can offer. Screw Suki Meadows, he’s going to DJ for his daughter.
Energised now, he quarries deeper through the geological layers of the CDs that represent ten years of fashion, picking out the occasional disc, stacking them up in a pile on the floor, warming to his plan. Acid Jazz and break-beats, 70s funk and acid house, give way to deep and progressive house, electronica and big beat and Balearic and compilations with the word ‘chill’ in and even a small, unconvincing selection of drum and bass. Looking through old music should be a pleasure, but he’s surprised to find that even the sight of the artwork makes him feel anxious and jittery, tied up as it is with memories of sleepless, paranoid nights with strangers in his flat, idiotic conversations with friends he no longer knows. Dance music makes him anxious now. This must be it then, he thinks, this is getting old.
Then he sees the spine of a CD; Emma’s writing. It’s a compilation CD she made on her flashy new computer for his 35th birthday last August, just before his wedding. The compilation is called ‘Eleven Years’ and on the homemade inlay slip is a photograph, smudgy from Emma’s cheap home printer, but nevertheless it is still possible to make out the two of them sitting on a mountainside, the peak of Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano that looms over Edinburgh. It must have been that morning after graduation, what, twelve years ago? In the photo, Dexter in a white shirt leans against a boulder with a cigarette dangling from his lip. Emma sits a little distance away with her knees brought up to her chest, her chin on her knees. She wears 501s cinched tight at the waist, is a little plumper then than now, gawky and awkward with a ragged fringe of hennaed hair shading her eyes. It’s the expression that she has used in photos ever since, smiling one-sidedly with her mouth closed. Dexter peers at her face and laughs. He shows it to Jasmine.
‘Look at that! It’s your godmother, Emma! Look how thin your dad was. Look – cheekbones. Daddy once had cheekbones.’ Jasmine laughs soundlessly.
Back in Jasmine’s bedroom he sets her in the corner and takes the CD out of the case. Tucked inside is a tightly written postcard, his birthday card from last year.
1st August 1999. Here it is – a homemade present. Keep telling yourself – it’s the thought that counts it’s the thought that counts. This is a loving CD reproduction of a cassette compilation I made for you ages ago. None of your chill-out rubbish; proper songs. Hope you enjoy this. Happy Birthday, Dexter, and congratulations on all your great news – A husband! A father! You will be great at both.
It’s good to have you back. Remember, I love you very much. Your old friend
He smiles, and puts the disc in the player that is shaped like a steam train.
It starts with Massive Attack, ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ and he picks up Jasmine and bounces at the knees with his feet planted, mumbling the words into his daughter’s ear. Old pop music, two bottles of wine and no sleep are combining to make him feel light-headed and sentimental now. He cranks up the Fisher Price train as loud as it will go.
And then it’s The Smiths, ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’, and though he never particularly cared for The Smiths he continues to bob around, head down, twenty again, drunk at a student disco. He is singing quite loudly, it’s embarrassing, but he doesn’t care. In the small bedroom of a terraced house, dancing with his daughter to music from a toy train, he suddenly has an intense feeling of contentment. More than contentment – elation. He spins, and steps on a pull-along wooden dog, and stumbles like a street drunk, steadying himself with one hand against the wall. Whoa there, steady boy, he says aloud, then looks down at Jasmine to see she’s okay and she’s fine, she’s laughing, his own beautiful, beautiful daughter. There is a light that never goes out.
And now it’s ‘Walk On By’, a song his mother used to play when he was a kid. He remembers Alison dancing to it in the living room, a cigarette in one hand, a drink in the other. He settles Jasmine on his shoulder, feeling her breath on his neck, and takes her other hand in his, kicking through the debris in an old-fashioned slow-dance. Through the middle of exhaustion and red wine he has a sudden desire to talk to Emma, to tell her what he’s listening to, and as if on cue his phone rings just as the song fades. He forages amongst the discarded toys and books; perhaps it’s Emma, calling back. The display says ‘Sylvie’ and he swears; he must answer. Sober, sober, sober, he tells himself. He leans against the cot, settles Jasmine in his lap and takes the call.
At that moment Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’ suddenly kicks out from the Fisher Price, and he scrambles to jab at the stumpy buttons.
‘What was that?’
‘Just some music. Jasmine and I are having a little party, aren’t we, Jas? I mean Jasmine.’
‘She’s still awake?’
Sylvie sighs. ‘What have you been up to?’
I have smoked cigarettes, got drunk, doped our baby, phoned old girlfriends, trashed the house, danced around mumbling to myself. I have fallen over like a drunk in the street.
‘Oh, just hanging out, watching telly. How about you? Having fun?’
‘It’s okay. Everyone’s off the
ir face of course—’
‘I’m too exhausted to get drunk.’
‘It’s very quiet. Where are you?’
‘In my hotel room. I’m just going to have a lie-down, then go back for the next wave.’ As she speaks, Dexter takes in the wreck of Jasmine’s room – the milk-sodden sheets, the scattered toys and books, the empty wine bottle and greasy glass.
‘She’s smiling, aren’t you, sweetheart? It’s Mummy on the phone.’ Dutifully he presses the phone to Jasmine’s ear, but she remains silent. It’s no fun for anyone, so he takes it away. ‘Me again.’
‘But you’ve managed.’
‘Of course. Did you ever doubt me?’ There was a moment’s pause. ‘You should get back to your party.’
‘Perhaps I should. I’ll see you tomorrow. About lunch time. I’ll be back at, I don’t know, eleven-ish.’
‘Fine. Goodnight then.’
‘Love you,’ he says.
She is about to hang up, but he feels compelled to say one more thing. ‘And Sylvie? Sylvie? Are you there?’
She brings the phone back to her ear. ‘Hm?’
He swallows, and licks his lips. ‘I just wanted to say . . . I wanted to say I know I’m not very good at this at the moment, this whole father, husband thing. But I’m working on it, and I’m trying. I will get better, Sylv. I promise you.’
She seems to take this in because there’s a short silence before she speaks again, her voice a little tight. ‘Dex, you’re doing fine. We’re just . . . feeling our way, that’s all.’
He sighs. Somehow he had hoped for more. ‘You’d better get back to your party.’
‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’
‘I love you.’
And she is gone.
The house seems very quiet. He sits there for a full minute, his daughter sleeping now on his lap, and listens to the roar of blood and wine in his head. For a moment he feels a pulse of dread and loneliness, but he shakes this away, then stands and raises his sleeping daughter to his face, loose-limbed now like a kitten. He inhales her scent: milky, almost sweet, his own flesh and blood. Flesh and blood. The phrase is a cliché but there are fleeting moments when he catches sight of himself in her face, becomes aware of the fact and can’t quite believe it. For better or for worse, she is a part of me. He lowers her gently into her cot.
He steps on a plastic pig, sharp as flint, which embeds itself painfully in his heel and, swearing to himself, he turns off the bedroom light.
In a hotel room in Westminster, ten miles further east along the Thames, his wife sits naked on the edge of a bed with the phone held loosely in her hand and quietly starts to cry. From the bathroom comes the sound of a shower running. Sylvie doesn’t like what crying does to her face, so when the sound stops she quickly wipes at her eyes with the heel of her hand and drops the phone onto the pile of discarded clothes on the floor.
‘Oh, you know. Not really. He sounded pretty drunk.’
‘I’m sure he’s fine.’
‘No, but really drunk. He sounded strange. Perhaps I should go home.’
Callum belts his dressing-gown, walks back into the bedroom and leans at the waist to kiss her bare shoulder.
‘Like I said, I’m sure he’s fine.’ She says nothing, so he sits and kisses her again. ‘Try and forget about it. Have some fun. Do you want another drink?’
‘Do you want to lie down?’
‘No Callum!’ She shakes his arm off her. ‘For Christ’s sake!’
He resists the temptation to say something, turns and walks back to the bathroom to brush his teeth, his hopes for the night evaporating. He has a horrible feeling that she is going to want to talk about things – ‘this isn’t fair, we can’t go on, perhaps I should tell him,’ all that stuff. For crying out loud, he thinks indignantly, I’ve already given the guy a job. Isn’t that enough?
He spits and rinses, returns to the room and flops onto the bed. Reaching for the remote, he flicks angrily through the cable channels while Mrs Sylvie Mayhew sits and looks out the window at the lights along the Thames and wonders what to do about her husband.
SUNDAY 15 JULY 2001
He was due to arrive on 15th July on the 15.55 from Waterloo.
Emma Morley got to the arrival gate at the Gare du Nord in good time and joined the crowd, the anxious lovers clutching flowers, the bored chauffeurs, sweaty in suits with their handwritten signs. Might it be funny to hold up a sign with Dexter’s name on? she wondered. Perhaps with his name spelt incorrectly? It might make him laugh, she supposed, but was it worth the effort? Besides, the train was pulling in now, the waiting crowd edging towards the gate in anticipation. A long hiatus before the doors hissed open, then the passengers spilled out onto the platform and Emma pressed forward with the friends and families, lovers and chauffeurs, all craning to see the arriving faces.
She set her own face into the appropriate smile. The last time she saw him, things had been said. The last time she saw him, something had happened.
Dexter sat in his seat in the very last carriage of the stationary train and waited for the other passengers to leave. He had no suitcase, just a small overnight bag on the seat next to him. On the table in front of him lay a brightly coloured paperback, on the cover a scratchy cartoon of a girl’s face beneath the title Big Julie Criscoll Versus the Whole Wide World.
He had finished the book just as the train entered the Paris suburbs. It was the first novel he had finished in some months, his sense of mental prowess mitigated by the fact that the book was aimed at eleven- to fourteen-year-olds and contained pictures. Waiting for the carriage to clear, he turned once more to the inside of the back cover and the black and white photograph of the author and looked at it intently, as if committing her face to memory. In an expensive-looking crisp white shirt she sat a little awkwardly on the edge of a bentwood chair, her hand covering her mouth at just the moment that she burst into laughter. He recognised the expression and the gesture too, smiled, and placed the book in his bag, picked it up and joined the last few passengers as they waited to step down onto the platform.
The last time he had seen her, things had been said. Something had happened. What would he tell her? What would she say? Yes or no?
While she waited she played with her hair, willing it to grow longer. Shortly after arriving in Paris, dictionary in hand, she had plucked up the courage to go to a hairdresser – un coiffeur – to have her hair cropped. Though embarrassed to say it out loud, she had wanted to look like Jean Seberg in A Bout de Souffle, because after all if you’re going to be a novelist in Paris you might as well do it properly. Now three weeks later, she no longer wanted to cry when she saw her reflection, but even so her hands kept going to her head as if adjusting a wig. With a conscious effort she turned her attention to the buttons on her brand new dove grey shirt, bought that morning from a shop, no, a boutique, on Rue de Grenelle. Two buttons undone looked too prim, three undone showed cleavage. She unfastened the third button, clicked her tongue and turned her attention back to the passengers. The crowd was thinning out now and she was starting to wonder if he had missed the train when she finally saw him.
He looked broken. Gaunt and tired, his face was shaded with scrappy stubble that didn’t suit him, a prison beard, and she was reminded of the potential for disaster that this visit carried with it. But when he saw her he started to smile and quicken his pace, and she smiled too, then started to feel self-conscious as she waited at the gate wondering what to do with her hands, her eyes. The distance between them seemed immense; smile and stare, smile and stare for fifty metres? Forty-five metres. She looked at the floor, up into the rafters. Forty metres, she looked back at Dexter
, back at the floor. Thirty-five metres . . .
While covering this vast distance, he was surprised to notice how much she had changed in the eight weeks since he had last seen her, the two months since everything had happened. Her hair had been cut very short, a fringe brushed across her forehead, and she had more colour in her face; the summer face that he remembered. Better dressed too: high shoes, a smart dark skirt, a pale grey shirt unbuttoned a touch too far, showing brown skin and a triangle of dark freckles below her neck. She still didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands or where to look, and he was starting to feel self-conscious too. Ten metres. What would he say, and how would he say it? Was it a yes or no?
He quickened his pace towards her, and then finally they were embracing.
‘You didn’t have to meet me.’
‘Of course I had to meet you. Tourist.’
‘I like this.’ He brushed his thumb across her short fringe. ‘There’s a word for it, isn’t there?’
‘Gamine. You look gamine.’
‘Not in the least.’
‘You should have seen it two weeks ago. I looked like a collaborator!’ His face didn’t move. ‘I went to a Parisian hairdresser for the first time. Terrifying! I sat in the chair, thinking Arrêtez-vous, Arrêtez-vous! The funny thing is even in Paris they ask you about your holidays. You think they’re going to talk about contemporary dance or can-man-ever-truly-be-free? but it’s “Que faites-vous de beau pour les vacances? Vous sortez ce soir?”’ Still his face was fixed. She was talking too much, trying too hard. Calm down. Don’t riff. Arrêtez-vous.
His hand touched the short hair at the back of her neck. ‘Well I think it suits you.’
‘Not sure I’ve got the features for it.’
‘Really, you’ve got the features for it.’ He held her at the top of her arms, taking her all in. ‘It’s like there’s a fancy-dress party and you’ve come as Sophisticated Parisienne.’