I ducked as a jet of fine mist shot towards my face from the automatic air freshener on the medicine cabinet. I shook the remaining water off my hands and stepped to the other side of the bathroom. Pssssssshhhhhht! Another shot fired from a second air freshener on top of the toilet cistern.
I crouched and shielded my eyes, peered up through the gaps between my fingers. Above me a nimbostratus of ‘Cashmere Woods’ began to precipitate.
‘All right in there?’ My dad’s voice on the landing beyond the door.
I unlocked the door, opened it. There he was in his green plaid shirt, grinning, hunched, visibly thrilled he’d heard me swear.
‘Sorry, Dad. It’s like an FBI training zone in here.’
He backed up against the wall and made his hands into a gun shape. ‘Come on, Clarice. I’ve got your back.’ The effects of the chemo were showing. His hair was thinner and ashier, the skin mottled on his cheeks, dark umbra eclipsing his eye sockets. He darted his eyes back and forth and jerked his head.
I walked ahead of him down the stairs. His downward pace was fast for a man of his age in his condition, and I wondered whether he was trying too hard, which made me think of something my mum said sometimes—partly to embarrass him and partly to endear him to us. He follows you and Melanie round the house, you know, whenever you come home.
Home. It was and it wasn’t, any more. (Hovis Presley helped: Wherever I Lay My Hat, That’s My Hat.) My old bedroom had been redecorated and besides I’d only spent a few years in Middleton before moving away to Edinburgh and university. Most of my childhood memories were from the house before, where I’d lived from the age of eight to sixteen—in fact, my child-self was attached to the terrace in Crumpsall so tenaciously that a few times on my way home from the doctor’s in my mid-twenties, fever-dazed and comfort-hungry, I’d given the taxi driver directions to Crumpsall only to get halfway there and realise that I lived in the other direction entirely, as a grown-up.
Down in the hall, which reeked faintly, perennially, of mice, Jim was helping my mum put on her coat. I rotated Jim and Tyler as my date for family meals—it seemed only fair. I’d taken Tyler before I met Jim and it felt wrong for him to suddenly usurp her, and besides her mum had moved to London to help Jean so Tyler didn’t get many dinners out. I didn’t like to admit it but the meals with Jim were easier. He was golden amongst the Joyces; they hung on his every word, saw him as a bona fide exotic mystery. It was a different relationship to the one I had with his family, which had been sullied from the start. That memory! How it burrrrrrrned.
We were on the M6 on the way to his folks’ place in Birmingham when I’d felt a sudden painful and irrepressible need.
Darling, I said, I need you to pull into the next Services.
But we’re nearly there.
No—I mean I REALLY need you to pull in. This isn’t desire. It is necessity.
Fifteen minutes and we’ll be there, Laur. Can you not wait?
I hung on against my better instincts, hunching and groaning and cursing and feeling magma shifting inside. I loosened my seatbelt and hooked it around my knees but it didn’t help. As we got close to his parents’ cul-de-sac Jim handed me his keys and I held them in my sweating hand, ready to run. When we pulled up outside the house I threw the door open and toppled out before the car had come to a halt.
Top of the stairs and first left! Jim shouted. They won’t be back from church yet.
I ran to the front door and fumbled the Yale key in the lock, swearing. I ran up the stairs, pulling down my pants, swearing and shaking. I dived into the bathroom and sat on the toilet, releasing a Niagara of scalding diarrhoea. When it was purged I exhaled with relief and wiped the sweat from my brow. I turned to unspool some toilet paper, only to see Jim’s dad sitting in the bath next to me, a white-knuckled flannel obscuring his nethers, the newspaper limp in his hand.
They hadn’t gone to church that day. They’d prepared an extravagant Sunday roast instead. And what an awkward occasion that was. No gravy for me, Mrs. Partington . . .
‘Thanks, love,’ my mum said to Jim when her arms were in her coat. She touched her hair and I saw the mauve veins of her inner wrists bulge and flatten between her bracelets. Quiet and proud (my mum hardly ever drank but when she did it was as though every thought she’d had for the past forty years spilled out), it was only her love of outlandish costume jewellery that might direct a stranger to the Sixties fairground of her heart—the heart that had fallen for and stuck with my dad.
A copy of the Daily Mail sat folded on the sideboard, its masthead scowling out in Satan’s own handwriting. Mel and I—liberal upstarts that we were, politics worn as flashily as our Levi 501s and Doc Martens—had been so pleased with ourselves when we’d convinced our parents to stop buying the Sun. And what had they started buying instead? Oh, Universe. You and your jokes.
My mum batted non-existent dust from her shoulders and set about buttoning her coat. ‘Jim, be a love and close the Very Front Room door, would you? Give it a good slam. It’s started to stick and Bill—well, there, yes, that’s it. You are a marvel.’
The ‘Very Front Room’ was the result of nobody knowing what to do when we moved into a house with two front rooms (although crucially did this mean two TVs?), but one was at the front of the house and one was at the back, so we christened them accordingly. At the time it seemed like logic but now, like so many things that had once seemed logical, all that was left was a needling sense of the surreal. The Very Front Room was kept for special occasions like when Dad got three balls on the lottery and threw a bit of a party. There was an uncomfortable antique sofa in there, thick-veined with loosened springs, and a throttle of disintegrating bulrushes in a pure 1970s vase.
I got in the back of the car and put my seatbelt on. Jim drove us to the restaurant—a Tex-Mex place a few miles away. As we passed the Baptist church on the main road I read out the billboard, which was always comical.
‘WHAT IS MISSING FROM CH CH?
‘Puh,’ said my dad. As a child I’d questioned him—repeatedly—on his upbringing and all he’d said was: Religion trains you to take things personally.
Before I started at the grammar school I was buddied up with a Jewish girl called Dina to ease me into the new regime. I went round to her house with my mum in early September before term started. Our mums talked at the breakfast bar while Dina and her younger sister Danielle took me upstairs to a bright pink bedroom full of Barbie vehicles and voile fabrics. I was wearing a Garfield digital watch at the time—a cumbersome thing I adored, with a plastic Garfield-in-relief face that flipped open to reveal a liquid crystal display. Dina and her sister were admiring it when I heard myself say: Oh, this thing . . . they were giving them away at our local kosher butchers . . . I trailed off, let the suggestion hang there. Dina and Danielle looked at me. You’re Jewish?! they exclaimed. I pouted, looked around the room. After an hour or so they dropped it.
When I actually got to prep school it wasn’t by accident that I made best friends with Jessie Roberts—a tall, Poochie-fringed Catholic girl. I bought garage freesias for her mum and complimented her dad on his cooking. Eventually she said I could accompany her family to church one Sunday. They expected me to just sit there and take it in, sing the songs, kneel during the prayers, but I got so involved (rituals had me rapt) that I followed them up to take communion. I saw Jessie’s dad glance at me curiously from where he stood further up the queue. I finally gave the game away when I said Thanks to the priest instead of Amen, the host melting helplessly on my tongue like a very thin ice cream wafer soaked in Calpol. The priest looked to Jessie’s dad, who shrugged and then glared at me. They didn’t invite me round again. I seethed, silently, about it. I had a right to be there, didn’t I? MY FATHER WAS AN ALTAR BOY. And so it was my dad I took it out on, making excuses to go up to my room straight after dinner. He won me round with fishing trips, Sunday drives, trips into town to see the retired satellite, a glinting blue drum of circuits, at the Science and Industry Museum. What else did I try? I had a friend who was a Methodist (the church hall was dull; the nativity was lively, but I abandoned my faith when I was told off by the minister for wearing earrings in the shape of a cross—a bizarre humiliation). Another friend was a nerdy Quaker, and made a convincing case for how to be religious and scientific at the same time, but her pervy uncle put me off the meetings. Another friend was Muslim (I over-appraised the self-discipline of fasting, I was dismissed as a creepy little voyeur). In GCSE Maths I sat opposite a big-eyed Sikh girl who I was obsessed with but never plucked up the courage to talk to. I realised what the awful feeling was when Rajveer asked everyone else in the maths group to go and watch Batman Returns for her birthday: God was just another party I hadn’t been invited to.
At the restaurant, Mel and her boyfriend Julian were waiting for us in the foyer. Mel waved when she saw me. Julian stood with his hands in his trouser pockets. Melanie, two years older than me, was still in many ways my idol. I always thought I’d catch up height- and beauty-wise, but never did. That’s not false modesty; it’s irrefutable fact. I was always able to live with it because: a) I loved my sister; b) I wasn’t that superficial most of the time, most of the time; and c) Julian was The Most Boring Man On Earth. He wasn’t unkind (or we’d have had him killed), but I’d never felt so genetically alien to my sibling as when Julian had come round to the house for the first time and spent three hours telling my dad (who didn’t have a pot to piss in after forty years’ window-cleaning) about his new foray into property development and why now was the time to BTL. My dad and I had briefly rendezvous’d in the kitchen for a large whisky, and neither of us had felt the need to speak. But Melanie loved Julian and we had to give her credit for her choices—after all, she was thirty-four. So I stopped appealing to her with my eyes whenever he launched into a tirade about one of his many problematic tenants (they never sounded particularly unreasonable in their requests to me as a lifelong renter) but I couldn’t help but wonder about her private happiness. I mean, what was he like in bed? If he wasn’t forthcoming with boiler repairs then it didn’t bode well for cunnilingus.