Unless you are peculiarly lucky, work is something that serves to highlight the pleasure of what you prefer to spend your time doing. If it weren’t for work, you think, I could do whatever it is all day and every day. You know, though, in the back of your mind, that it would be like bathing in chocolate. Kinkily nice for thirty seconds or so before it would cloy and repel.
I was lucky, sometimes. Not that often, but it was far from uncommon. I would find myself in some drab little room, or perched on packing cases in a warehouse, and something would catch my eye. It was like crossword puzzles. Mam always loved the general knowledge type, while I preferred the cryptic ones. She would sit with a pile of books by her, of all types. Encyclopaedias, an atlas, a couple of history books; the crossword would take a couple of days, but she would plug away until she was finally finished or stuck. I did point out that there was a thing called the internet, but she simply glared at me.
“That would be cheating!”
“And all those books aren’t?”
“They’re different, aye? This is research, not cheating!”
Every now and again she would let me talk her through some of the solutions to the cryptic ones, but she could never quite pick up on the hints and clues, not even when I gave her “Girl in Crimson Rose” (eight letters, for those interested).
That was how my job spoke to me at times, and the numbers and their games would take me into such a Zen state that I would emerge to find a mug of tea, or terrible coffee, that had given all of its energy to the air. I sat one day, packing up my bits and pieces at yet another builder’s who couldn’t resist the temptation to claim all of his purchases even when the delivery addresses were places he hadn’t admitted he was working, and realised that my life was actually just like one of my puzzles. All of the elements had been there, laid out in the wrong order. All I had had to do was pick them up and reshuffle, turn it round, and bingo, solved.
Yeah, right. A few strokes with a pen, and Nye, my family and Von would have smiled sweetly in acceptance. Jill Carter, metaphors and similes are useful, but in life the clues can get hurt.
It was three weeks since we had come back south, and Mam and Raafie should be home from Mad Jorka. I smiled at the thought; the old man had declared he would be trying out every aspect of Catalan and Spanish cuisine he could, and Mam had simply said that he could do what he liked, but she wanted proper food.
It seemed her flexibility was limited. She could take on a daughter, and a new husband, but eating ‘foreign muck’ that wasn’t high street Indian or Chinese was beyond her.
Raafie had been insistent, though, just as insistent as he had been when Neil asked him, not wholly as a joke, whether we should now call him Dad.
“No. Thy Dad was thy Dad, and he stays thet way, forivvor. Thy Mam might be me wife, but yeez are his bairns”
Proud man. That image, two books on a shelf, stayed with me, as it made so much sense. What had belonged to his best friend hadn’t become his, he had simply taken it on in trust, and at that point I knew, suddenly, that I actually loved him. Sod his words, Dad he became to me, in my private thoughts, and as I looked at Neil, and heard an old woman laugh in the kitchen, I knew that he held the same thing in his soul.
Back to work, then. Rachel wasn’t exactly changed, but there was a smile to her most days that I preferred to the sometimes feral grin that she had shown so many traders, the one that had certainly shone out when she had taken her famous Rolls Royce what seemed like an eternity ago. Jim had done things for her…
I had to catch myself there, because in my current frame of mind all that led to was a string of thoughts about what he did TO her, and that was a bit too much for a workday afternoon. Sod it; pack up, ride to the office, write it up and see about another penalty for another thief.
As I loaded my bag onto the bike, my phone went. Von.
She was breathless, as if having run some distance. There were noises in the background, a garbled announcement of some kind.
“Where you at, Von?”
“Just leaving Southampton. Made assumptions, innit”
Shit. “Von, talk to me”
“I will when I get there”
There was a long pause. “Your brother rang me”
A click. She had hung up, and when I rang back her phone gave me the old “The person you are trying to call…” message. Shit. I rang Larinda.
“Von is on her way up, and it’s by train, if you see what I mean. Ian rang her, that’s all I know”
“Fuck knows, pet. But I do suspect she’s had a few”
“Ah. Want me to pick her up from the station?”
“Remind me why I love you…oh, you just did. Sorry, love, you shouldn’t have to put up with this”
“Isn’t it part of your life, Jill? In which case, well, your life, my life, all your worldly wotsits, yeah? You got any idea when?”
“I could hear station noises when she rang, so I assume she was still on the coast”
“I’ll get on the net. Laters!”
Click. I was stuffed, as for all the wrong reasons I didn’t have Ian’s number. Drunk, and on the way. Arse, once again. I got home as quick as I could, and once in the door I looked at myself and realised that my biking gear didn’t tick the girl boxes enough. By the time I heard my darling’s car in the driveway I was in skirt and heels rather than in slacks and flats. Leave no doubt in Von’s mind…
“Hey, Jill. This isn’t a problem?”
Yes of course it bloody well is. “Not for us, no. What’s doing?”
“Ian rang me”
“Aye, you said. Von….what for?”
“He’s served the papers, innit. She’s out the door”
“And what did Ian say?”
Her face twisted. “That was it, really. Didn’t say much more than that, and…”
And tears. We got her sat down, a cup of tea before her, and the story came out. Her day off, she had been making the rounds of her family by phone, including a long chat with her Baby in Newcastle, and she missed him so much, innit, but he sounded happy, aye, and she wanted him back for Christmas, cause the house was so empty, and then she had picked up the bottle of Pinot Grigio for just a glass, aye, just to relax, and with it the phone once more to speak to her Dad.
“He still rants, Jill! I tried, aye, tried to tell him it’s not what he thought, all those things at the trial, your Mam, and he just shouts that you did it all to humiliate him, and he hangs up!”
So the glass of Italian white had needed company, and she had sat for a couple of hours working through old photos, of William and his Bamps, times of laughter and joy, and the bottle had emptied, and so another had been found in the cellar, and as she opened it she hadn’t known whether her trouble with the cork screw had been through alcohol or vision blurred by the tears she was shedding.
And the telephone had rung once more. Ian, letting her know just that one small thing. He had hung up almost immediately, which had hurt, and so she had got into her car to come here, and after she had almost hit a pony realisation had sunk in.
“Where’s the car now, Von?”
“Station car park in Brock. God knows what the cost will be. Why’d he hang up, Jill?”
I looked at Larinda. She put an arm around the woman who should have been her rival, and I felt my heart swell.
“Von, love, have you heard yourself? Not just your driving, yeah? You got his number?”
“Come on. Spare room, lie down, talk later, yeah?”
She was back in five minutes. “As a sodding newt, girl! That dad of hers, fuck me. Is he terminally bloody thick or what? Lover, me or you?”
“Talk to your brother, yeah? Got to explain, she ain’t no pisshead”
Her look became far more direct. “She ain’t, right?”
“No, pet, she isn’t. I mean, she likes a glass of dry white, aye, but that’s a glass, not a bottle. We have a meal, we’d share just the one bottle, like, that be all. Never a pisshead”
“OK. Well, we ring Ian, we see what he says, yeah? I got the number off her”
It rang. “Carter”
“Oh. You heard, then”
“Aye. Von’s here”
There was a sigh, and then a long silence.
“She was pissed, Jill. I’d thought, you know…”
“Ian, that wasn’t her. She’d just got off the phone to her son, and then her dad, and then, well, you do know about what her dad did? To me? And why?”
Another silence. “Aye, Mam told us. Look, I can’t, well, I thought, like, and she was nice, and, Ellen, aye, but I can’t deal with a pisshead, not with Hays, like, and—“
“Shut up, Ian. Listen. You caught the woman on a bad day, at her worst. And you’ve seen her at her best, aye? Just think: how many years have you put up with Ellen? Think on that, and be sensible. You’re just getting out of one marriage, why are you looking at jumping feet first into another?”
“Oh bugger a hell, lad, you bloody well are! Look, for once in your life just go with the bloody flow, stop insisting that you have to be the big fat controller for everything and everyone!”
“I’m not fat”
Almost a joke. “You could do with losing some weight, bro. Look, will you talk to her, when she’s sober, like. Be fair with her, aye?”
Another silence, and I could almost see him as he worked out every ramification, every possible blow to his self-esteem.
“Oh fuck it. What’s your postcode?”
He was at the door two and a half hours later, Bethany in tow.
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