I felt my world wobble for a moment, before Keith simply tugged at my sleeve.
“Come in and sit down, Mike. I’ll talk you through it. Not what it sounds like”
I was lost. How could it not… Penny? Gone? They were joined at the bloody hip, for god’s sake. He towed me into the living room, pushing me down into one of the armchairs, then disappearing into the kitchen for a few seconds before returning with a couple of bottles of Shefford Old Strong and a pair of glasses. I found myself on autopilot as I used the bottle opener that lived on my key ring, poured and sipped.
“Um, yeah. Was after the last climbing trip. Not what you’ll be thinking”
“What will I be thinking, Keith?”
“That she’s fucked off. Am I right?”
“Well, yeah! Of course I am! Talk straight just this once”
He settled himself into the other armchair, staring at the mantlepiece for a moment, where their wedding photo stood.
“It was that last trip, mate. We met someone”
I must have twitched, because he was suddenly waving a hand in denial.
“No, not like that. Someone that let us see a bit more clearly. Mike, can I be rude?”
“You often are, so why change?”
He sat looking down at his cup for a few seconds before raising his eyes again.
“You and Carolyn. Did you, you know, did you want? Kids?”
Hit me where it hurts, mate. Thanks.
“I think you know the answer to that one”
“Sorry, but… Penny’s the same”
“I always knew that, Keith. Just had to watch the way she was around other people’s children. I assume you saw the same thing I did, being closer to things”
He sipped his beer before nodding.
“Yeah, exactly. What she said, mate, a bit soppy”
“I get that. She can be right soft for such a strong woman”
“Yeah, that’s the whole thing. Something we talked through when we first, you know, realised it was a serious thing. The two of us. Together”
“And? What was this thing, this person you met?”
“Ah, long story, not really the point here. Just someone we met who had been through… No. Someone who was just starting to come out of a shitty place. Pen, she has a chat with me afterwards, sets out her thoughts on stuff. Mike, be honest: what do you think of the blokes I work with?”
“Bunch of arseholes, self-selected. Anyone who has half a brain cell gets out of there as soon as--- sorry. Not thinking”
Another, longer swallow of his ale, then a twisted smile.
“That is sort of Pen’s thing, mate. Her point, if you will. She said I was getting infected, was becoming someone different to the man she married. That she loved”
He blinked rapidly, clearly fighting tears, so I looked down at my lap to give him a chance to settle again. Once the silence had gone on long enough, I asked the obvious question.
“What exactly has she said, then? And done?”
That twisted smile once more.
“Packed up and left. Left Luton, that is. Not me. Not yet. She says… She is sorting out somewhere for us to live, somewhere better than this shithole, finding a job as well. Once she’s sorted, then, well, that’s her ultimatum. I join her, or that’s it for us. Says the man she married will make the right choice, and if I don’t, well, I’m not that man. She’s renting a place for now, looking for a proper job. Actually running a till in a supermarket for the moment”
I stared at him for another long moment as I gathered my thoughts.
“Who is paying her rent, mate?”
“Joint account, Mike. Me, I suppose”
“You’ve decided, haven’t you?”
“Of course I bloody have. She’s right, isn’t she? I mean, my temper, my tolerance, all draining away. Self-control, I mean, and sometimes, when I can, I have moments where I sort of stand outside, listen to myself, and it’s not good. I hear Derek and Simes there, instead of my own voice”
Another swallow, another wry smile.
“Sorry, mate, but not really in a pub mood tonight”
My own smile felt better than his had looked.
“Understood. How many bottles you got in?”
“More than enough! Fancy a walk to the chippy in a bit?”
“Fine by me. If you don’t mind, though, bit of info? Knowing you two, her idea of a decent place would be somewhere with Scenery. Lumpy bits. Peak, Scotland or Wales?”
“Um, Snowdonia. Hence that stuff over there”
He pointed at a small pile of books on the dining table, the thickest being something called ‘Y Geiriadur Mawr’. There were also boxes of cassettes.
“You really going for it? Language and all?”
“Yup. Pen’s idea, really. Got both her ‘teacher’ and ‘respect-the-locals’ heads on. If we settle there, it’s a Welsh-speaking area, and she wants our kid to fit in”
“You’re really… she’s really planning ahead”
“Yup. You know Pen: once she decides on a course of action, then it gets done. I am sort of spinning in her slipstream. She’s right, though. Fitting in will be important for our kid, and the language will be the key”
I couldn’t argue with that one, so I moved the conversation on, waving an arm at the room.
“And this place?”
“Going on the market next week. Estate agent’s already been round for a rough valuation. I have a sort of plan about work”
He told me, and I nearly snorted up my beer. We had pie and chips, and more beer, and I made my own plan to invest in popcorn.
Work was getting busier as the weather warmed up, and my own house-hunting finally bore fruit in a reasonable terraced place in Crookes, to the West of Sheffield. Cellar, three bedrooms courtesy of an extension to the rear, and a reasonably quick drive out to Stanage and the other nice bits. If I took my time, I’d even be able to cycle to North Leas rather than drive. Even closer was Rivelin, so I had more than enough to keep me happy.
I knew one or two of Keith’s colleagues as a legacy of my own period of servitude there, and I made sure I earwigged every so often, just in case someone had picked up on Keith and Penny’s plan, but there was nothing in the mill that came anywhere near me. I had managed to get my deposit down on the Crookes place, and as my employer was actually paying for the move, I was more than relaxed about selling my place in Luton.
We had stopped our Sundon pub trips, as they would never be the same without Penny, but the walk across the fields to Cockernhoe and the King Billy still drew us every so often, especially as we were unlikely to run into any of our acquaintances there, for most of them were more attracted to the lager palaces in the town centre, with the attendant joys of Jimmy’s Kebabs or the multiple late-night curry houses. Those evenings let us refine our strategy.
Keith had picked up on my use of that word, but I shut his objections down.
“Here’s the plan, as I see it, mate. Pen’s got that flat, am I right? In Bangor? One bedroom?”
“Yeah. Told you that lots of times”
“So where are you going to store your stuff? Not in a one-bed place, that’s for sure”
“She’s looking for a self-store place, or a shed somewhere. Garage”
“Well, been thinking. I’ve had an acceptance from the people in Sheffield, for my offer. My people… I’m on a bridging loan, mate, and work is paying for it. I can take my time selling this place. My offer is simple: you shuffle your bits and pieces over to mine once I’ve cleared it of my own stuff. I can doss on your bed for a while, until you get a new place sorted properly”
He stared at me for a few seconds, then shook his head.
“Pen was right about me”
“What do you mean?”
“I was just about to ask if you were serious, why would you do that sort of thing, all that sort of shit, and then I realised I was thinking like the people I work with, not like me”
He took a mouthful of beer, swallowed, and smiled at me.
“Be nice getting back to myself, mate. Thank you. That will really help. And there’s news, about a new place. Think we’ve found it, and it’s more than we were hoping for. Not just a house, but a business. Going concern”
“Really? You sure? Not the same, working for yourself. What sort of business?”
“Terraced house, three bed, usual extension out the back to give us that extra. Bit like that place you’re buying, just without a cellar. Business is a bunkhouse”
“Ah, Penny’s found a berth as well, at the University. Doing TEFL and admin. Er, teaching English as a foreign language”
He snorted, as his thoughts caught up with his words.
“Which it bloody well is, going on what I heard when I was up there last. Remember Bethesda?”
“Bloody insular, that place”
“Yeah, but this house is up in Gerlan. Bit of a hippy colony, by all accounts. Once I’ve washed off Derek and Simes, we should fit right in. And there’s a folk club. In a pub”
“All necessities on hand, then?”
“Married no stupid woman, mate! Be good…”
I realised his eyes were a little moist, and he reached out to squeeze my hand, then grinned.
“No, not like that, me. Just feeling like a trap’s finally opening. Would have said cage, but this place, it’s worse than that. Right. When are we moving your own shit? And no arguments about that---we do it together”
“Not going to turn down an offer like that, as long as it goes for both loads. And if you are going to have a bunkhouse, I might just feel a need to test my waterproofs again. I know what the weather’s like over there”
I got the keys to my new place a fortnight later, and drove up with Keith to meet the removals van outside it. The men were efficient, my stuff left where it was, packed away in boxes, as Keith and I returned to Luton down the M1 the next day, and his own stuff went over to my old house a lot less efficiently in a hired box van.
Two weeks after that, he exchanged contracts with the new owner of what had been a home for him and Penny. When I asked how he felt about that, he simply grinned and shook his head.
“Shelter, mate, not home! This town will never, ever be that, and certainly not after next week. I have my departure planned, and the resignation letter written”
“What are you doing about notice?”
“I worked out I have enough Time Off in Lieu of overtime, and unused annual leave, to, well, it’s more than the notice period they require. Once I give him the letter, I’m gone”
“Busiest time of the year, mate. Whichever one’s in charge of his head, they’ll go spare”
Keith sat back in his chair, grinning, my old mate shining through again.
“Well, what I say is, every silver lining’s got a silver lining! Another pint?”
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