It’s been one of those days – you know – going back – remembering stuff. I don’t know what made me go upstairs to my old bedroom. Suppose it was just that….. any way…..I just wondered. So I left them and went upstairs. My room looked the same – except it was neat and tidy. I pulled back the green bedspread and there it was, the precise white sheet stretched across the bed, the ends wrapped as tight as a drum under the mattress, As if she’d just done it, just made the bed.
And it seemed, right, somehow, I dunno, I just did it; I took off my jacket and trousers and eased my legs under the tight sheet, it was cold, smelt of roses, I closed my eyes.
I felt like Gulliver pinned down by the Lilliputians, they dragged his hair back and hammered hunks of it into the ground with tent pegs. I winced just thinking about it. Then I heard footsteps creep up the stairs, I waited for the creak at the top, I knew it was our Jocelyn. Aunty Marge shouted out a laugh downstairs, my dad cleared his throat then coughed, glasses clinked.. there was a knock on my bedroom door.
‘Are you all right, Marty?’ OurJocelyn had been asking this question all day, first in the limbo of waiting for the hearse, then she hissed it right in my ear during the service, and again when we all trooped out into the biting wind, leaving mum behind the blue curtains listening to Don McLean singing, ‘Bye Bye Miss American Pie.’
‘Sure you’re all right, dad?’ Jocelyn stood at his side as people lined up to make sure their flowers on display outside the crem measured up, she wore her tragic face and rubbed dad’s back with her hand, up and down, up and down. ‘Sure you’ll all right, dad?’ She made me want to puke.
She knocked at my bedroom door again. ‘Marty, I know today is hard for you. It’s hard for all of us. But,’ and she put on her bossy voice, ‘but I think you should come downstairs now.’ Jocelyn is a social worker and I’ve stopped being her brother and become one of her clients, we’ve all become her clients, my dad, her wimp of a husband Trevor, everyone. We all need support.
‘Dad really needs your support, Marty, today of all days.’ I pictured her bent against the door her mind working overtime. I looked at the twin hills of my feet, mummified under the white sheet and I suddenly remember, hospital corners, mums’ trademark.
‘Can you hear me, Marty?’
‘Right then.’ The top stair creaked. I didn’t move. I liked lying there in my old bed, it was better than listening to Uncle Frank going on about Arsenal, watching dad knock back the whisky and Aunty Marge saying over and over, ‘Well, it was a nice service.’
I used to imagine the cracks in the ceiling was a spaceship, they’re not there now, smoothed away with a new coat of magnolia. My wardrobe was still in the corner near the window with a big cardboard box on the top. I once carved my initials inside the wardrobe door with my penknife, I carved them everywhere, trees in the park, lavatory doors, school windowsills. Like a dog peeing up lampposts.
The only thing different was the Windsor chair – it belonged in the kitchen. They bought two, Mum carried one and dad carried the other all the way from the auction rooms years ago before me and Jocelyn were born. Dad stripped and re-polished them and mum made the blue cushions. She’d tell us the story about the chairs over and over. I can hear her now…. ‘It was hard work carrying them home all that way,’ she’d say, ‘ we kept stopping to have a breather, and then we thought we might as well have a sit down on our chairs, your dad lit a fag, and we sat there on the path, large as life in Market Street, saying hello to folk going past. Your dad said it was a shame I hadn’t brought a flask of tea, we could’ve had a picnic.’ And she’d laugh. I could never imagine them doing something daft like that.
The curtains are the same sickly green, they flutter in a draught, I wondered where all my books were, they used to be lined up on a shelf above my bed. Robinson Crusoe, Lord of the Rings, Terry Pratchett. I thought about the Lilliputians pattering like ants over Gullivers’ body, it must have been a real big undertaking tying down a giant. I bet there was a manager sitting on his backside giving orders from Lilliput Town Hall. There’d be a foreman on the shop floor, or in this case, the body, yelling his head off, and there’d be hundreds of silly buggers actually doing the work. If I was Gulliver, I’d try and make it easy for the foot soldiers. I know what it’s like from the biscuit factory, it’s soul dead work if you let it get to you. Every day I watch thousands of wafers jostling past on the conveyor belt, my job is to spot the deformed ones and chuck them in the bin before they get coated in chocolate. Somebody has to do it. Sometimes they let me mix up the chocolate sauce in a massive steel vat until it looks like molten lava.
‘You can do better than that, Martin,’ mum said when I told her about the job. ‘You know you can.’ She was ironing a shirt, the steam hissed. Mum had a procedure for shirts, she’d iron the collar first, then arrange the shirt sideways and iron the right side, the back and then the left side, finally she’d do the cuffs and the sleeves and button it up. When I got home from school, she’d be flapping out a pillow-case or a pair of trousers, positioning them ready. ‘Let’s get these rotten jobs over with,’ she’d say. ‘You do your homework, I’ll do the ironing.
So there I was back in my bed, and I suddenly thought that my Gulliver book might be in the wardrobe. So I sat up and tugged at the sheet and swung my legs out, they felt weird as if I’d got pins and needles, I stood up, my feet felt like lumps of concrete, I fell over, crashed into the bedside table and sent the lamp flying. Feet pounded up the stairs and the door banged open.
‘Martin! What the hell are you doing? Get your trousers on for God’s sake!’
And I’m late for school and its mum yelling, yanking off the covers and giving me a clout.
‘It’s bad circulation, mine go numb as well. It’s my bunion.’ Aunt Marge sat on the bed with a glass of sherry in her hand, she had one leg crossed over the other and swayed a bit. ‘Have you got a bunion, Martin?’
They surrounded the bed and looked down at me, I felt as if I was in hospital, Dad with his glass of whisky, Uncle Frank holding the bottle, Jocelyn with a mouth like a thin red line and Trevor peeping over her shoulder.
‘Look at that.’ Aunty Marge waved her black stockinged foot in front of my face.
‘Put your shoe on, Marge and leave the lad alone. He’s had a shock.’ Uncle Frank pulled her off the bed.
‘He’s got Reynaud’s disease,’ said Jocelyn.
‘More like gout,’ said my dad.
‘It could be the onset of diabetes,’ Trevor chipped in.
‘Here, get this down you,’ Uncle Frank held out a glass of whisky. I tasted the smell before it got to my mouth.
‘He doesn’t need any of that stuff.’ Jocelyn had got her arms folded like a prison officer and the nervous tic in her left nostril was going like the clappers… her legs were firmly planted apart like tree trunks at dusk. She takes after dad, he’s a big bloke, broad shoulders and thick white hair. I used to watch him wet his comb under the tap and rake his hair so it met at the back like tufted wings.
‘And that’s not a good idea.’ Jocelyn said.
‘What’s up with you?’ Dad took his eyes off his glass which Uncle Frank was in the process of topping up and looked across at her.
‘I think you’ve had enough for one day.’ And there’s a silence in the room as if everybody’s stopped breathing. Then dad took the bottle from Uncle Frank, poured a measure and swallowed it in one go, then he filled his glass again and sat in the Windsor chair. He raised his glass to Jocelyn, ‘Cheers.’ She stamped to the window and immediately blocked out the light and what with that and all the people crammed in the room and me stuck in bed I started to feel a bit claustrophobic.
‘You’ve broken that bedside lamp, Martin.’Jocelyn snapped.
‘I didn’t do it on purpose.’ I sounded like a whining kid.
‘I don’t know what you’re doing in that bed anyway, it’s not normal.’ Jocelyn stared out the window, she was breathing heavy. There’s not much to see out there, only the street and the houses opposite. I noticed that all the curtains were closed as we slowly followed the hearse, and open again when we came back. It’s the first time I’ve ever ridden in a Mercedes.
‘Shall I make some more sandwiches? There’s loads of ham left.’ Aunty Marge tottered out the bedroom and clattered downstairs.
‘Just a minute, I’ll give you a hand.’ Uncle Frank followed her.
I sipped the whisky and waited for it to burn down my windpipe. I wished they’d all clear off. Trevor leaned against the door frame looking down at his black lace-ups. Mum used to say he was a thin poor thing, like some deprived teenager from off the estate.
She came to see me last year to look at my new flat. She said she’d catch the train and then get the bus, but I decided to surprise her and meet her at the station. It was a Saturday and there were football crowds on the platform. I was worried I might miss her. I stood up on tiptoe to see over the fans in their yellow and blue and I saw this woman in a red coat walking arm in arm with a man in a navy jacket. They were looking at each other and laughing, then he bent and gently tapped his finger on the end of her nose, she smiled up at him, and I saw it was mum. I backed off quick and waited outside the station. She came out on her own in the red coat. I waved and shouted, and she saw me, and waved back.
Jocelyn was still standing at the window with her back to us, Dad was nursing his whisky looking at nothing. I took a deep breath but Jocelyn beat me to it. ‘Go and get our holdall out the car Trevor.’ He looked at dad as if seeking permission to move. ‘Go on,’ Jocelyn said. Trevor stood up straight.
‘What do you want that for?’ Dad said.
‘Because we’re staying the night, you can’t be on your own. Go on, Trevor.’
‘There’s no need for that.’
‘Now, dad.’ She’d got her ‘I know what’s best for you’ voice on. ‘I think you need to know that there’s someone here for you tonight.’
‘To do what, exactly?’ Dad’s voice had gone very quiet, he was about to blow his top, you’d think she’d know by now.
I said. ‘I was thinking about my Gulliver book. I think it might be in the wardrobe.’ Nobody took any notice.
‘You are not staying here.’ Dad had fixed her with his eyes, he was almost whispering. I looked at Jocelyn, she was bound to crack on now. But she stood there with her arms folded determined to do her duty, whatever.
‘Go on, Trevor,’ she said.
‘Stay where you are, Trevor.’ Dad said, still looking at Jocelyn. Trevor dithered. I knew I should have said something but I’m a useless sod at times.
Jocelyn unfolded her arms and tugged at her jacket sleeves as if she was squaring up for a fight. ‘Well, I think you shouldn’t be on your own tonight.’
‘Oh? Is that what you think?’ Dad poured himself another slug of whisky ‘And you shouldn’t be drinking like that,’ Jocelyn said, ‘you should think of Mum.’
That did it. Dad struggled up to his feet and stuck his face right up against hers. ‘I don’t give a toss what you think! Not a flaming toss! Jocelyn did a backward shuffle. ‘There’s no need to shout!’
He was waving the bottle about. ‘I’m going to tell you what I think. I think you should go home and see to poor old Trevor. You know what I mean – see to him. Make him think it’s Christmas! Take him to bed!’
Jocelyn’s face was scarlet. ‘You’re drunk!’ She made a grab for the bottle and dad staggered back into the wardrobe, the cardboard box fell off the top and crashed on the carpet tipping out all my old books.
‘She was seeing somebody,’ dad said as he slithered down the wardrobe to the floor. ‘Your mother. Some other bloke. Bet you didn’t know that Mrs Smart-arse!’
Jocelyn kicked a path through the books and banged down the stairs, Trevor followed her.
Gulliver. captured and tied up by the rampaging Lilliputians, gave me a look from the pile on the floor, I knew that book would be there somewhere.