In the sun’s last blush
streaked with pink
How she loved chrysanthemums
The man remembers
In the sun’s last blush
streaked with pink
How she loved chrysanthemums
The man remembers
In the caravan I smeared honey all over Sonia’s face. It was half past two on a grey humid afternoon. The muffled roar of traffic floated across the Thames. I should’ve been out there doing my act. I told her, ‘Honey’s great for the skin. Gives it flexibility, relaxes it.’ So she let me.
I massaged it in, pure Champagne honey. ‘Mmmm,’ she sighed, ‘I like it.’ And she lay back on the sofa and enjoyed it. I could see because she wriggled and squirmed a bit like a little girl. I had a friend once, a fag. He had a nose job and Botox pumped into his lips. His consultant told him, rub honey on your face every day. (I never forgot that.) He did. Rubbed honey in every night, lay on the bed letting it soak in. He began to look a whole lot younger than forty.
‘It’s great for the skin, see,’ I said, as my middle finger insinuated itself round the curves of her lips. She nibbled at it .
Outside the plane trees spattered the morning’s raindrops onto the stalls. Funny how people still came to the park to lug balls at coconuts and bury their faces in candy floss. All that sweetness melting into air, the promise of nothing. Ugly carousel organ music was grinding away and wooden horses hurtled round with stricken black and white eyes.
But I kept going with the honey. ‘That’s enough Wayne,’ she said when I eased a sticky palm under her T- shirt. She sat up, put her feet on the floor.
‘Come on. Stay here and get warm.’
‘No Wayne, I can’t.’
‘Oh come on Sonia, why not?’
She was washing her face. ‘I don’t know. I’m a cautious person. Maybe Wayne when you’re, like rich. Then maybe you’ll want to marry me.’
‘You mean when you’re rich.’ I stared at her.
Someone banged on the door. ‘Wayne. Wayne? Get your arse out of there. The cops are here. They’re asking for you.’
‘Oh shit Wayne, what’ve you done?’ said Sonia. She paused between mascara brush strokes, forgetting to breathe.
I ran a comb over my hair, pulled on a leather jacket. The constable looked harmless enough but the plain clothes detective had mean eyes. ‘How can I help?’ I sounded ingratiating.
They were looking for someone called Hugh O’Malley, an Irishman from Dublin.
‘What for?’ I said.
‘We want to ask him a few questions,’ said the copper. ‘We’ve heard you’re a friend of his.’
I said I didn’t know where he was. Last time I’d seen him was at the World’s End. I had to raise my voice against the blare of music and kids screaming in joyful terror. ‘No, I said, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t help you with Hugh O’Malley. He could be in hospital for all I know. Did you know he’s got a head problem? Tried to top himself two months back.’
They left saying to let them know if Hugh showed up any time.
Hugh’d tried more than once. There was that time he climbed onto the roof of a four storey in Orchard street. He was high as a kite on coke or something. They got him down as he swayed on the parapet, arms outstretched like a trapeze artist. He couldn’t stop crying back on the ground. About some posh teacher woman he’d met in a pub who ‘led him on’. He’d fallen for her. Then she dumped him – no, he wasn’t her type, she told him. He couldn’t understand it. He tracked her down to where she lived on a houseboat on the Embankment. But she’d left off living there. So he sat with her roommate, a South African exile, and they drank Teachers into the dawn. Next, Hugh was in prison for housebreaking – and he sent a letter to the teacher saying it was her fault he was fucked up and he’d get her when he was out.
Battersea Park was mayhem. I thought, I hate this place. Why was I tagging along with this fairground lark. My one-man band on a uni-cycle went down well enough with the crowds; even better when I wore the gorilla suit and played the sax. They liked that stuff, those classics I copied from ‘Bird’ and Canonball Adderley. The kids wondered if I was for real, a gorilla on a bike playing a sax. When they got close up I squirted them with my plastic water pump stuck in my buttonhole.
Inside the caravan Sonia was frying egg and bacon sarnies. The coffee smelled strongly of Colombian beans. I put a shot of brandy in it.
‘Wayne, you ok?’
‘Yeah. . . . I guess.’
‘Wayne, next time you could be more generous with the honey.’
What sort of invitation was that? What the hell. I had to get on my cycle, earn some dosh. But my head was full of Hugh – him standing high up there against the sky. Him folded up on the pavement, knees drawn up to his chest, sobbing. Anyway I wasn’t ready for marriage. Even if Sonia did get rich.
‘Ugh Sonia – I’m a cautious person,’ I said. She blinked at me.
We drank the coffee.
James Hall leaned over the rosebush and the secateurs hovered uncertainly in his plump hand. Jennifer had instructed him to prune the rose-garden. It has to look immaculate for the party, she had said, as if explaining something to a child. His white shirt glared in the sunlight. His bald patch shone damply. Disdainfully he pinched a rose stem and snipped off its dried up head. It landed with a plop in the plastic bowl he carried.
As he deadheaded another rose a loud burp broke the garden stillness.
‘Darling, I’m so sorry.’ Virginia floated across the shaved lawn towards him, her hand apologetically across her mouth. ‘It slipped out. I know you hate it but Jennifer insisted I ate muesli for breakfast. Said it’s much healthier than black coffee and Rizlas – but oats and seeds do cause wind.’
Shit thought James, and turned a false smile on her. She stood looking hopefully into a rosebush. Perhaps it would swallow her up before another burp jerked its way to the surface. James wiped his clammy face. Life – it was all disarray. The women, the roses, the thorns. His office was a haven – of order, tax forms and figures, of regimented filing cabinets. Everything in its place.
Virginia watched his stocky, dull back bending over a captive bush. She dipped her face into the maroon fragrance of a Cora Marie rose. Its deep-burning tone reminded her of father’s face. A grey beard tangled bushily around his maroon cheeks, whose surfaces flared with vivid capillaries as if the wine he’d consumed over the years had seeped upwards with joyful abandon. In protest her mother had left him. Walked out. With a lover. Afterwards he languished in the tall London house like a wreck washed up on the shore of a vanished life.
Virginia reached out a hand and almost touched James’s arm. He seemed so distant. But James looked at her fiercely. She was his aunt, however not one he would have chosen. Oh boy, weird, living in her dreams, writing books. As for her burps – digestive difficulties were no excuse. His restless irritation was palpable.
Virginia moved away from him. The heat of the morning had intensified. She looked about for a shady spot and saw a figure on the verandah. In his baggy khaki shorts and bare feet he looked like a grubby cherub. His hair hung tousled and dirty on freckled shoulders. Virginia noticed gold studs in his ears and nose.
‘Jamie, is this your aunt Virginia?’ asked the cherub. He waved a piece of frayed rope in the air. ‘Hey, what about this? It’s part of the rope that saved Joe Simpson in that crevasse. Remember him? Want to know where I got it?’
‘Yes, do tell, please,’ called Virginia from the sunlit sharpness of a shadow.
‘I was there. In the party that rescued him when he got back to the bivouac. Cut the rope from his waist.’
James ignored this. It was news to him – must be one of Edmund’s outlandish stories. Trying to be special, charismatic. ‘How are you Worthington?’ James said. Old-boy formality might deflate him.
‘Aren’t you going to introduce me to your aunt? I’m Edmund – weary traveller, farmer, and faggot when opportunity knocks. I love your books.’
Virginia had risen from the grass. In the heat she pulled her shawl from round her shoulders. They were pale and bare.
‘Don’t do that aunt,’ said James. ‘The sun’s dangerously strong. You’re asking for trouble. Here, put it back.’ She unfurled the silk shawl and the light streamed through its diaphanous green splendour. Butterflies cascaded across its centre, flashed in the corners. James watched in surprised silence the grace of the gesture, as if seeing his aunt for the first time. She was ethereal. He felt the warmth of the day on his back. It felt good, perfect for a party.
The train moved grudgingly out of Liverpool Street Station, wheels screeching, sparks showering the tunnel walls. A ponderous withdrawal. Grime had become organic to the brick and cement facades which lined the rail network, their windows staring out bleakly.
Jackson Pryde flicked a Camel out of its flimsy pack, licked the unfiltered end lightly. It hung on his dry lips. The gold cigarette lighter was heavy in his hand. He loved rolling it around between his fingers for its satiny feel. He lurched into the empty corridor, forced the security window down and blew smoke into the 5-inch gap. Tried a smoke ring, tongue folded up into a funnel. One, two, three rings, each a perfect circle before being sucked to nothingness in the metallic air.
He watched the changing cityscape which was oblivious to the steadily bolting train – drab in its mottled red brickwork; leafless plane trees struggling to survive; endless Victorian terraced houses terrorising any notion of curves, cars banked up on pavements. An occasional church spire, probably the venue of a youth club. To think he was a Londoner!. And in three hours he’d be gliding through the narrow lanes of Norfolk.
His mountain bike was securely locked up in the guards van. Soon he’d be cycling past harvest fields and up towards the Wash. He’d arrive on Big Tone’s doorstep gripping the bike’s handlebars, smiling in a self-deprecating way and saying: ‘Hello Tone, pal, here’s a surprise for you.’ And Big Tone would grasp him by the shoulders almost about to kiss him and say ‘Prydey, mate. What you doing here? Cynthia, look who’s here. Come on, quickly Cynth. Got a surprise for you. You staying Prydey, of course. Put your toe down mate – get the bike inside.’
And this would be his welcome – as ever warm and loving. Who said crooks had no heart? Big Tone had done his bit. A sort of Robin Hood. Robbed the rich – a couple of banks – which gave courage to the poor – even if they didn’t actually get the benefits of his hard work. He was a rebel, was Tone. An example to those who’d never made it. And Cynthia, well she was his support. Always well-dressed. Learnt it as a barmaid. They’d fought their way up. Done a bit inside. Now they were just an ordinary middle-aged couple living a quiet life in a quaint country village. Jackson hoped to do the same one day.
Ah, travel, walkabout. How he loved a walkabout and now he could indulge his desire. Free – he was free. No more Pamela. She’d walked out, disappeared into who knows where in the suburbs of south London. She could pluck her eyebrows to her heart’s content now and leave her toenail clippings scattered on the carpet. Only the boys left, and they were old enough to take care of themselves. Involuntarily he found himself humming a tune which matched the swaying of the carriage – ‘A life on the ocean wave. . . ‘ Blew a fresh smoke ring from a fresh Camel, this time down the corridor, and thought gleefully of his bike waiting impatiently to be mounted.