Andrew Humphrey has been published widely in the Independent Press over the past four years, most notably in The Third Alternative, Crimewave and Roadworks. He was the featured writer in the first issue of Midnight Street. His collection, Open the Box and Other Stories, was published by Elastic Press in 2003 and his debut novel, Alison, is due to be published by TTA Press in the near future. He lives and works in Norwich, where he is currently writing his third novel.
She was in her mid-fifties, I suppose. Very prim. Austere, even. Dark hair, flecked with grey, scraped back into a tight bun. An ivory-coloured blouse, buttoned at the sleeve and throat and a pleated, below-knee length dark woollen skirt. Black tights. Sensible shoes. Spectacles. She sat in a corner of the dentist's waiting room and I gave her a brief, meaningless smile as I entered then took a seat in the opposite corner. Apart from us the room was empty and the silence was awkward. I hate waiting rooms. After them the dentist's chair is almost a relief.
She caught my glance and I cleared my throat and stared at the watercolour print on the wall next to me. It was a view of Norwich cathedral. Most original.
I heard a rustle and glanced at my companion again as she put the magazine she was reading back on the table. Then she folded her hands in her lap and said, 'You should ask her out.'
After a moment I said, 'What?'
'Becky. You should ask her out. You'd be pleasantly surprised.' Her voice was a conversational monotone. She stared at the empty chair opposite her as she spoke.
'Do I know you?' I said.
'The age difference bothers you,' she said. A pause, then, 'No, that's not quite right. You think that it will bother her. It won't. Just the opposite. She likes you very much. You could be good together.' Another pause. 'A good...fit. But you must be brave. Take a chance. You'll be rewarded.'When I was sure she'd finished I said, 'You're a friend of Becky's, then? Or this is some sort of joke? I don't…'
The intercom cut me off. It called Judy Byatt to Dr Calder's room. It startled me into silence. Across the room Judy Byatt's hands clutched the arms of her chair and she sat upright and looked at me as though seeing me for the first time.
She smiled and said, 'Goodness. That made me jump. I must have dropped off.' Then she stood, smoothed her skirt over the backs of her thighs and left.
A little later I had a couple of back teeth filled under a local anaesthetic. I'm not sure I needed it, though. I'm not sure I'd have felt anything anyway.
The next day, at work, Becky brought me a cup of coffee at ten-thirty. 'Your turn, I think,' she said, clunking the mug onto my desk, 'but a girl could die of thirst waiting for you.'
'Sorry,' I said.
'I cleaned your mug as well. I think I wiped out at least three new life forms in the process.'
'What can I say? I'm a busy man. Time is money and all that.'
We both looked at the Word document open on my PC screen. A report on a site investigation at a building site just outside Dereham. Fascinating stuff. Becky peered closer. 'Hold on, you lazy sod. You haven't done anything. You're still on the summary, same as before you went to the dentist yesterday.'
'Tangibly, I haven't done anything,' I said, 'but I've been thinking really, really hard. Pretty deep stuff. Can't expect a slip of a girl like you to understand.'
She cuffed my head gently. 'Cheeky bastard.'I quickly checked our medium sized, open plan office for any sign of my boss, before closing Word and checking my e-mails. Becky moved closer still and her arm touched my shoulder. She wore some kind of fruity, summery scent and I tried not to breathe it in too deeply.
'That's an interesting e-mail,' she said, pointing at the screen. 'Increase the size of your penis. Open that one.'
I deleted my junk mail rapidly. 'Entirely unsolicited, I assure you.'
'I'll take your word for it,' she said.
Becky was twenty-two. I was forty. Her fiancé, and childhood sweetheart, had ended their engagement a couple of months earlier. I'd spent the last three years piecing together the remnants of my ego after my wife had left me for my former best friend.
Becky was radiant. And she didn't seem to realise it, which made her even more radiant in my eyes. She had short blond hair, parted in the middle. A dusting of understated freckles. Blue eyes. An easy smile. White teeth. Snub nose. All delectably arranged. I yearned for her hopelessly, silently. My heart twisted at the sound of her voice or the smell of her perfume as she approached my desk. I felt like a pathetic old fool.
Just before twelve-thirty she came to see me again. 'What are you doing for lunch?'
'I was going to work through,' I said, 'thus exhibiting my undying commitment to the company.'
'Ok. I'm walking into town. Going to wander around some bookshops. Want to come?'
'Sounds good to me,' I said.
It was an anonymous spring day. No wind. A little sun. Some random, half-hearted cloud. The air tasted and smelled of nothing.
'How did you get on at the dentist?' she said.
'Why?' I looked at her face. Her expression was guileless.
'It's a simple enough question.'
'Great,' I said, 'it cost me thirty quid to be injected and prodded and drilled.'
'What's up, Cam? You seem a bit odd.'
'I'm always odd.'
'That's a very good point. But, no. Odder still.'I shrugged. 'Dunno. Must be my age. Maybe it's the menopause. Or Alzheimer's.'
There must have been something in my voice. I felt her look at me. 'Don't be silly.'
'Anyway,' I said, 'how's Steve.'
We were opposite Ottaker's now. When Becky spoke her voice was small and cold. 'Steve's history. I don't talk about Steve. You know that, Cameron.'
'Just showing concern, that's all. Being a friend.'
I stared at the display in Ottaker's window. I felt her eyes on my face.'No you're not. I don't know what you're doing. Shall I ask you about Sarah?'
'Be my guest. Sarah's fine. Better than fine. Last I heard she was three months pregnant.'
'Shit. Really?' I nodded. 'Cameron, I'm so sorry.'
I closed my eyes and leant my forehead against the window. 'No. I'm sorry.' I said shit and bollocks a few times. I congratulated myself on my literacy and intelligence. 'Just ignore me. Or shoot me. Or both. I'm just a silly old sod.'
'Not so much of the old,' Becky said. 'We'll agree on silly sod for now.'
'Cheers,' I said.
A little later we sat upstairs in the Starbucks next to Norwich market. Becky sipped her hot chocolate then tongued a line of whipped cream deftly from her top lip. 'How long have you known?'
'About a week,' I said. 'Sarah phoned me. Said she didn't want me to hear it from anyone else.'
'That's nice of her.'
'I think she meant it. She seems to have mellowed.'
'Or maybe she feels guilty. You wanted kids so badly and she said she didn't. Even Sarah's got to realise how much this will hurt you.'
'Actually, I'm fine about it. I wish them well. I told her so. I think she thought I was taking the piss but I wasn't. People change, that's all. She shouldn't feel guilty.'
She looked at me for a moment, her expression neutral. 'That's such bollocks, Cameron. I mean, top marks for the stiff upper lip, but cut the crap. It hurts. You're upset. It's allowed, you know.'
'I'm not upset. Not about Sarah.'
'And when the baby's born?'
'Too far ahead to worry about. Her and David are talking about moving, anyway. Manchester. He's been offered a job there.'
'Out of sight out of mind?'
'Something like that.'
'Speaking of which,' she said. She cradled her mug in both hands and chewed her lip.
'I've handed in my notice.' She offered me a quick smile. 'I'm going back to college. With a bit of help from mum and dad. Time I stopped pissing about and thought about a career.'
'I would have said something earlier, but...'
'That's ok. It's good. I'm pleased for you.'
'Shit. Look at the time. We'd better be getting back.'
I stood but she remained sitting. She tipped her head to one side and smiled at me. Her freckles darkened slightly when she smiled and deep dimples formed in her cheeks. 'Do you ever say what you really think?'
Becky stood quickly, still smiling and reached a hand out and touched my cheek in an odd, tender gesture and I blinked twice, rapidly. 'Nothing. Nothing at all. Come on. Let's get back to the shit-hole.'
I followed her down the steep stairway and out into the feeble sunlight.
We were quiet on the way back to the office. Eventually I said, 'We're friends, though, right? We can still meet up after you've left. Lunch and stuff.'
She half-laughed. 'No,' she said, 'we can't.' She shook her head. 'Friends, indeed.'
Stung, I turned towards her. 'What the hell is that supposed to mean? I don't get you, Becky.'
'I know you don't. We're not friends. Lunch?' She sneered around the word. 'Is that what you want? Coffee once a month? Fill me in on the office gossip? No thanks.' I felt my cheeks redden. We walked in silence for a minute then Becky said, 'And don't sulk. It doesn't suit you.'
'I'm not sulking. I don't know what to say.'
'How do you feel, what do you want? So you've been hurt. Stop hiding behind it.'
'For fucks sake, Becky.'
'What? And by the way. I leave tomorrow.'
'Yes. It's Friday. I'm admin, remember. Unimportant. Only had to give a weeks notice.'
The office was approaching fast. 'Come out with me then. Sometime.'
'Out? Out where?'
'I don't know. The cinema? A meal?'
'Lunch, you mean? As friends?'
'If you like..'
'Cameron! Fuck lunch. Just say it. Last chance.'
We were at the glass doors that led to our office. She went to open them but I stopped her. 'Ok. A date? Is that what you want to hear? You can wear a nice dress. Maybe I'll splash out on a new shirt and some aftershave. And there'll be that awkward bit at the end of the evening when I won't know whether to kiss you or not.' I had my hand on her arm. I pulled it away.
'That's it exactly. Well done. And I'm free this Saturday. Thanks for asking.' She was beaming at me.
'You sadistic bastard,' I said.
'Now you're getting it,' she said.
I touched her arm again. 'But you mean it? About Saturday?'
'Of course I do.'
I grimaced. 'But the age difference. Doesn't it bother you?'
She laughed. 'Have you listened to yourself recently? What bloody age difference.'
'Just don't say the 'S' word,' Stuart said.
'What?' I said.
'Soulmates,' Stuart said. 'If you say you and Becky are soulmates I'll throw up, I swear I will.'
'You're just jealous,' I said. It was a month after I first asked Becky out and Stuart and I were on the Riverside development, in one of the glitzy, soulless new pubs that he liked.
'I don't think Becky's quite my type, love.'
'Well, no. But as we've been here for an hour and you haven't mentioned Jason yet, I'm guessing he's blown you out.'
Stuart sighed theatrically. 'Unfortunate choice of words, but yes. He left a week ago, just after we got back from Portugal. Bastard. Made sure he got his holiday first.'
A small shrug. 'Don't be. He was never my soulmate, that's for sure. Plenty more fish and all that.' Stuart sipped a coke. He was a few years older than me but looked younger. He was tanned and slender with black hair cut very short. He wore a collar-less white shirt and black jeans. 'So. You and Becky. The real thing, is it? Do I get to be a bridesmaid at last?'
I looked into my beer. Stuart was being particularly camp this evening and it made me uncomfortable. I had no idea why it did and I would never have admitted it to him. 'It's a little early for that, I think.'
'Still. I've never seen you so happy.'
'No. Me neither. It's very odd.'
'Try just relaxing and enjoying it.' He arched his eyebrows. 'And yes, I do say that to all the boys.' At a nearby table a young couple glanced at us and sniggered. I drank most of my pint in a single swallow and said nothing. 'I'm not embarrassing you, am I, Cameron?'
'Of course not,' I said. Stuart smiled and fished a slice of lemon from his drink and dropped it into an ashtray. I leant forward. 'You don't think it's creepy, do you? The age difference?'
He rolled his eyes. 'Jesus Christ. Not this again.'
'But she could be my daughter.'
'But the point is, she isn't. It will only be a problem if you let it. Which I suspect you will. I think you're allergic to being happy.'
'I wish I hadn't asked.'
'So do I, my dear. So do I.' He sipped his coke, seemed to savour it. 'You know, I've been dry more than ten years but sometimes I can still taste the Jack Daniels.'
'Do you miss it?'
'Every day.' He gave a wry grin. 'Don't miss the black outs, though. Or the lost weekends.' He raised his glass. 'A toast. To you and Becky.' I drained my pint obediently.
'And that mad old woman at the dentist who started it all,' I said.
He grunted. 'I rather hoped you'd forgotten that.'
'Why? Don't you believe me?'
'It's not that. I don't like the thought of my best friend being delusional.' 'I didn't imagine it.'
'Of course not. I expect she's a serial matchmaker. Goes from waiting room to waiting room, putting people together. Pity you didn't get a card. I might have given her a call.'
'I know how it sounds.'
'I doubt that you do. But just forget it, Cam. It's not important. The way you tell it, you and Becky would have got together anyway.'
'I suppose you're right.'
'Of course I'm right.' He grinned and slid his glass towards me. Raising his voice, he said, 'now shut up and get your Auntie Stuart a drink.'
I fetched our drinks and went to the toilet. As I pissed mindlessly a tall, powerfully built man wearing cream-coloured chinos and a black t-shirt stood a couple of feet to my left and started to do the same. I finished what I was doing and tucked myself away. I gave my companion a tentative glance. He'd finished as well, apparently, but he stood with his cock out, his arms at his side, staring at the white tiles in front of him. Then the air around him changed and I knew what was coming. 'You're very ungrateful,' he said. I recognised the voice, the monotone.
I sighed. 'What?'
'I understand denial,' he said, 'especially when it's encouraged by foolish friends. It serves no purpose, though. Best go through life with your eyes open, Cameron. Don't you think?'
I washed my hands and splashed cold water over my face. In the mirror above the wash-basin I could see the t-shirted man in profile. He was motionless still and a thin line of drool hung from his mouth. I turned away from the mirror. 'Yes. You helped very much. I appreciate it. Becky and I are very happy. Thank you.' Afterwards, thinking back to what I said, it seemed absurd. It didn't at the time. I was humouring him. I didn't know what else to do.
'Oh dear,' the man said. 'You still doubt. Very well.' He was quiet for a while but I knew he hadn't finished. There was still a tension in the air, an electricity; something like the feeling you get just before a storm. Eventually, 'Your friend. Stuart.' For the first time the monotone broke slightly. As he said my friend's name I sensed a hint of contempt. 'His mother will die a week next Thursday. In the afternoon. I could give the time, to the second, but that seems unnecessary.'
'That's not funny,' I said, then the man stirred, shook his head, glanced down in bewilderment at his exposed cock. The door to the toilets opened and two half-pissed youngsters almost fell through it. I grabbed it before it closed and left, hoping they didn't see the expression on my face.
'You took your time,' Stuart said. 'Did you get lucky or something?' Then, 'Shit, are you ok? Your face is white. I mean even whiter than normal. Sit down before you fall down.'
I did as he said. I looked at my pint of lager and pushed it away. 'Don't feel too great, now you come to mention it. Something I ate, perhaps.'
'It came on bloody quickly, mate.' The campness had gone and I was touched by the concern on his face. 'No pizza and a movie for us tonight, I fear.'
'I think not. Sorry.'
'Hey, I'm used to being stood up. Will you stay with Becky tonight?'
'No. I'll have a night on my own.'
'God, you must be ill. You'll be ok, though?'
'Of course. Don't fuss.'
'Come on, let's get you a taxi before you throw up.'
I let him lead me outside. The air was warm and sweet as dusk fell and I felt a little better. I followed Stuart towards the taxi rank then drew alongside him. 'How's your mum?' I said, as casually as I could.
I shrugged. 'Yeah. Just wondered.'
'She's still a bitch. Other than that she's fine. Thanks for asking.' His eyes narrowed. 'Why, though? Let's try and remember the last time you asked about my mother. That's right. Never.'
'I've been thinking about mine, that's all. Things I wished I'd said, stuff like that.' I struggled not to blush at the lie. 'No offence meant.'
'Of course not. You just threw me, that's all.' He laughed. 'Actually, she's a bloody embarrassment. I've lost count of the men she's been through since dad died. And it's me that's let the family down.'
'I'm sorry, Stuart.'
A black cab pulled up to the taxi rank and Stuart hailed it. 'Don't be silly. Give Becky a kiss from me. No tongues, though. I've got my reputation to think of.'
He walked back towards the pub. The taxi driver gave me a look and I shrugged and climbed into the back of his cab.
There was a storm the day Stuart's mother died. I was at work and I saw the thunderhead approaching through the large window next to my desk. The first crack of thunder sounded just before noon. It was loud enough to make every head in the office turn. The sky was plum-coloured, heavy with cloud. I watched the first bolt of lightning, ragged and melodramatic. Then the rain came; torrential, apocalyptic almost. I thought of Becky, temping somewhere across the other side of the city, and of how utterly mundane the office seemed without her. I didn't think of Stuart's mother. I'd put her firmly out of my mind; dismissed the incident in the pub toilet as a delusion borne of an imminent fever.
Yet when the personal call was put through to me just after two that afternoon, as the rain was clearing and thin sunshine was filtering through the retreating cloud, I knew instantly who it was.
Stuart's flat was pristine as always. Every surface polished, the carpets immaculately hoovered, no magazines or newspapers slung across the arms of chairs or the glass-topped coffee table. Stuart sat neatly in an armchair. I stood and waited for him to say something. Eventually, 'Go to the pub, will you? I'll catch up with you later.'
'No,' I said. 'Not yet. Talk to me. You buried your mother this morning. You haven't said a word. Not today, not since…' I let the sentence tail off.
'Perhaps I don't want to talk, Cameron. Have you thought of that?'
'You stayed with me all night when my parents died. Broke a hot date if I remember correctly.'
'Well, I'm just a wonderful person, aren't I?'
I ignored the bitterness in his voice. 'I'm not leaving you like this.'
He sighed. 'If you're staying, sit down. You make the room look untidy.' The leather sofa squeaked as I sank into it. It was more comfortable than it looked. 'She even died stupidly,' Stuart said. He loosened his black silk tie and undid his top button. 'My father fought cancer for ten years. My mother slipped in the shower and broke her neck. I got to say goodbye to dad. Trust my fucking mother to deny me even that.'
His voice broke and he put his head in his hands. I told myself that this was not my fault. That Stuart's mother's death was not related to the message I'd thought I'd received. It was all a stupid coincidence. I couldn't have stopped it. I told myself that again and again.
Later we went to a nearby pub. It was early on a Wednesday evening and we had the bar to ourselves. Stuart sent me to a corner table and fetched the drinks. I hadn't eaten since breakfast and after half a pint I felt light-headed.
'I resent it,' Stuart said.
'Caring this much. About someone who didn't give a shit about me.'
'I'm sure that's not true.'
He gave me a look. 'Even before she knew I was gay I was never good enough. And she blamed me for dad's illness.'
'Of course it is.' He closed his eyes. 'Do you know what she said once? I've never told anyone this.'
He opened his eyes again but didn't look at me. 'She said dad had AIDS. The doctors were covering it up. I'd given it to him, of course. Breathing the same air, eating at the same table. She wanted me to move out before I gave it to her.'
'Jesus Christ. I'm sorry, Stuart.'
His face was expressionless. He wouldn't meet my eyes. I think he felt he'd said too much. Perhaps that partly explains what happened later. He drained his coke. 'Another drink?' he said, pointing at my glass.
'My turn,' I said.
'I'll go,' he said, and he was at the bar before I could stand.
'Did you know I should have had a brother?' Stuart said a little later. We still had the bar to ourselves. I shook my head. 'Stillborn. When I was two, apparently. His name was Brian. I mean, for fuck's sake. Brian. What sort of name is that? I expect mum thought it was my fault she lost the baby. Everything else was my fault, after all. Every-fucking-thing.'
His eyes were damp and out of focus. Belatedly, something clicked into place. 'Stuart? What's in the glass?'
He gave a tight, humourless grin. 'Put it this way. I no longer have to imagine there's Jack Daniels in my coke.'
'Stuart. Ten years. Ten dry years just chucked away.'
'Really? Well, who gives a shit?'
'I do. You should.'
He snorted and drained his glass. 'Tell you what, you get a heck of a hit after ten years.' His complexion had changed and his hands were shaking slightly.
I'd known Stuart when he'd been a drunk but never realised the extent of his addiction. He told me the details later, when he was sober. Twice waking up in the Norfolk and Norwich hospital after grand mal seizures. Days, sometimes weeks of his life missing. Mornings spent shaking and dry-heaving until the first shot of vodka or JD snapped the world back in focus. 'I can't sit and watch this,' I said.
'I'm not asking you to.'
'Why, Stuart? I know it's a shock, but you didn't even like your mother.'
'No. You're quite right. I hated her, in fact. And everything she stood for. Small-minded prejudice and bigotry. That was her agenda. But it seems I loved her, too. That's the shock. After all she did to me, I still loved her, she can still reduce me to this.' He slammed his glass onto the table. An ice-cube spilled out of it and slid onto the floor. 'What sort of person does that make me? That's why I'm drinking. I need it and I deserve it.'
He stood and made his way to the bar. 'Don't get me one,' I said, 'I'm not staying.'
'Fuck you, then.'
'That's all just self-pitying bollocks.'
I felt a stab of anger. 'We all have skeletons, Stuart. My parents..' I closed my eyes.
Stuart came back to the table. We were both standing now. 'What? Come on. Mr Perfect. You never talk about mummy and daddy, do you? What little secrets have you been hiding?'
'Nothing,' I said dully.
'Fine,' he said. He planted a hand on the back of his chair to steady himself. He turned his eyes towards me slowly and they shone with a strange light. I tried to remind myself that this wasn't really Stuart at all. 'And you knew, didn't you?'
'What?' I said. I felt something lurch in my stomach. Guilt must have radiated from my face.
'A couple of weeks ago, when you asked how mum was. What was that all about? You knew something was going to happen.'
'Listen to yourself. She had an accident. How the hell could I have known?'
'Dunno. Call it female intuition. I'm right, though. It's written all over your face.'
'It's the drink, that's all. You'll regret this tomorrow.'
'Will I? You're the expert now, are you? Get out of my sight. You make me sick.' I stood there and looked at my friend. 'Go on. We're through.'
'You don't mean that.'
He took a step towards me and there was real anger in his eyes. 'Don't I? Why do you give a shit, anyway? I only embarrass you. What am I, your token gay friend? Probably scared to turn your back on me. Think I have wet dreams about you, don't you?'
'Tell you what, if you were the last bloke alive I'd go and have a wank. Sanctimonious prick.'
That was all I could take. I stumbled out of the door. The last I saw of Stuart he was leant against the table, pointing at me, his eyes wide open and staring.
The air was cool and although I'd had little to drink my legs felt weak and my head was spinning. I walked about half a mile, taking no notice of where I was going. I turned a corner and bounced off a large middle-aged man walking a golden Labrador. 'Watch it, mate,' he said, as his dog yelped and side-stepped inelegantly, hind legs tangling in its lead.
I started to apologise then I saw all expression drop from the man's face and his eyes grow dull and I groaned and said, 'No. Not now.'
'It's for the best,' the man said.
'Leave me alone.'
'You don't need the shirt-lifter. It's all for the best.' The dog whimpered and tugged at the lead. The voice wasn't entirely a monotone this time. There was a hint of glee; minuscule, but unmistakable.
I stared at the blank face. 'Just fuck off,' I said. I ran.
Six months after our first date Becky and I drove to Alnmouth on the Northumberland coast. It was November and the weather was cold and still. On Saturday morning we left our hotel and walked through the village to the beach.
'This was your idea,' Becky said. 'Just remember that.' She was hunched inside a vast padded jacket.
'You don't like it, then.'
'What's to like?' Her scarf covered most of her face, but I could guess at the expression. Pursed lips, pinched cheeks, hooded eyes. After six months Becky no longer seemed quite so radiant.
Miles of beach lay before us. The light was blue-grey, the sea motionless, the sky enormous and unblinking. 'I like the bleakness,' I said.
'You live in Norfolk, Cameron. How much more bleakness do you need?'
I glanced at her and felt the distance grow between us. It was a good question.
When I first met her parents, after I'd recovered from the shock of them being only five years older than myself, I was struck by their eagerness to accept me. I found it touching at the time and I remember how much it pleased Becky that we all got on. Once, after Sunday lunch, her mother told me how glad she was that Becky had found someone reliable.
'Thanks. I think,' I said with a grin.
'Oh, it's definitely a compliment,' she said. 'After Steve..' her voice tailed off.
We were in the garden. I could see Becky and her father through the kitchen window. They were chatting animatedly and out of earshot. 'She never mentions Steve,' I said.
'No. Neither do we, I suppose. He mixed with the wrong people. I blame most of her problems on him.'
She blushed and smiled to try and hide it. 'You must have noticed her little moods.'
'No,' I said.
She looked into my face and for a moment she looked much older than forty-five. 'You will, Cameron. You will.'
A fortnight later, just after we'd made love, Becky said, 'You were thinking of her then, weren't you?'
'What?' I was half-dozing. I sat up. Becky had her back to me.
'Sarah. When you came, you were thinking of her. I could tell.' Her voice was flat.
'Don't be stupid.'
She turned on me. Her teeth were bared. 'Stupid? I'll give you fucking stupid.' She slapped my face so hard it sounded like a gunshot. Her hand came up and I grabbed it. 'You're hurting me,' she said. I let go of her hand and she hit me again.
I got out of the bed. 'Just go,' I said.
'Or what?' Her face was crimson, her eyes wide open.
I could feel the imprint of her hand on my cheek. I was close to tears. 'Go,' I said.
'Fucking wimp,' she said, then her expression slackened and she said, 'God. What have I done? I'm so sorry.' She put her hands to her face and tears spilled through her fingers. I went to her and she put her head on my chest and cried for twenty minutes.
We walked for miles across the sand without speaking. Neither the sea nor the sky seemed capable of movement. The light had an alien quality. Sometimes I forgot that Becky was beside me. All I could hear was the sound of my own breathing and I could taste salt although there was no breeze.
I liked Becky's silences. At least I could pretend they were neutral. Her mood changed abruptly, usually without warning. I learnt to avoid certain subjects; Steve. Sarah. Stuart. Becky's parents. Money. My parents. But sometimes her face would change anyway, her voice would deepen and an unreadable hatred would flicker in her eyes. And I'd brace myself and wait for it to pass.
At some point, on the way back to our hotel, Becky snaked a gloved hand into my coat pocket. I felt my stomach and shoulder muscles relax. I hadn't realised that I'd been tensing them.
Later, in bed, Becky lay with an arm across my chest. I could smell her perfume and her sweat. 'Why do you put up with me?' she said.
I almost said that I had no idea. That was the truth, but it seemed best avoided. 'I love you.'
'Yes.' I stared at the ceiling. It was nicely artexed and painted the colour of weak coffee.
'There is no why. You either love someone or you don't.' My voice was a monotone.
'Do you really believe that?'
'I love you,' Becky said.
'Right,' I said.
Months earlier, after a grim, seemingly endless Bank Holiday weekend, I'd asked Becky if she'd consider seeking professional help.
'Why?' she said. It seemed a strange question. On the Saturday night she'd bitten me twice on the forearm, drawing blood. I wore long-sleeved shirts buttoned to wrist for a month, waiting for the scars to fade.
'Your temper,' I said.
It was Monday evening and Becky was calmer, washed out. I was still wary, though. I was always wary. 'You think I need help?' She nodded slowly. 'This from the man who receives messages from strangers?'
'That's not fair. I told you, that was all a mistake. False memory. Things got mixed up, that's all.'
'I wonder if Stuart sees it that way.'
'That's not the point. Stuart's an alcoholic. That distorts everything.'
'Does it now?'
'Yes. And stop changing the subject.'
'Is that what I'm doing?' she said. She laughed bleakly. 'We make a good couple, don't we?'
I looked hard at her. I saw that she meant it.
Before she slept Becky ran through her usual check-list. Her mouth was next to my ear. 'Have you phoned Sarah today?'
'Have you thought about her?'
'How about a while ago? When we were making love? Did you think of her then?'
'Have you phoned Stuart today?'
'Good boy,' she said. She kissed my cheek. 'Night.'
She was asleep within minutes. I eased her arm from my chest and she grunted and turned away from me. I went back to staring at the ceiling. It hadn't changed much. I tried to think of Sarah then, but I couldn't. She remained at the back of my mind, along with Stuart and my dead parents. It was getting crowded in there.
I took a walk along the beach in the morning, before breakfast, while Becky slept in. There was some wind now and the sea was dotted with small, foam-flecked waves and occasional clouds gusted across the monochrome sky. I found a coffee shop just down from the front and sat at a corner table. I was the only customer. The air around me changed as the waitress approached me. She was sixteen at most, short and plump, dressed in dark trousers and blouse with a white apron tied around her waist. Her rust-coloured hair was fixed in an off-centre ponytail. She looked at me, eyes vacant, mouth open.
I waited. 'You have a message for me, don't you?'
The girls cheeks flushed pink. 'A message? I just want to take your order.'
'My order? I'll have a coffee. White, no sugar.'
She nodded and turned and shuffled away.
I closed my eyes. 'Oh, fuck,' I said.
She was back only moments later. I smelled the cigarette smoke and sweat on her clothes. She dumped a mug of coffee onto the table in front of me. 'Careful,' I said.
'Becky's pregnant,' she said, her voice without inflection. 'She might keep it. She might not. She hasn't decided yet. She's too scared to tell you.'
'Becky's frightened of you.'
'Right,' I said.
'As your mother was.'
'My mother? And dad as well, I suppose.'
'Your father loved you. Despite everything. He was simply a weak man.'
'And my mother? Did she love me?'
The girl was quiet. I looked up into her face. She blinked twice and frowned into the middle distance. Without warning she put her hand on my shoulder. I bit my lip to stop myself screaming. Her nails were bitten to the quick and freckled with specks of purple nail polish. 'Your father loved you,' she said.
Then the hand was gone and I turned and she was gone, too. I gripped the tabletop to stop my hands shaking. Then I reached for my cup, but it wasn't there. I heard a sound behind me and a moment later the girl was by my side again. She placed a dark green octagonal mug on the table in front of me and filled it with coffee from a stainless steel container. She smelled of Juicy Fruit chewing gum. 'I'll bring your milk in a minute,' she said. Then she saw my face. 'Are you ok?'
'I'm fine,' I said. 'Fine.' I gave her a smile. God knows what it looked like. She backed away from me as one would from a lunatic.
I found a telephone box on the way back to the hotel and, for the first time in six months, dialled Stuart's mobile number. Just as I was expecting the message service to cut in a bleary voice answered. 'Do you know what time it is?'
A pause. 'Bloody hell. This is a blast from the past. How are you doing?'
'Yeah, great. Look..'
'You two tied the knot yet?'
'Not quite. But she's meant to be moving in with me next week.'
I took a breath. 'Stuart, I want to apologise.'
'Apologise? For what?'
'How we…how we parted. It was my fault. I'm sorry.'
'Sorry for what? You got yourself a girlfriend, we drifted apart. These things happen. I'm pretty pre-occupied myself these days. The reason I'm keeping my voice low? Carl here's like a bear with a sore head if he doesn't get his beauty sleep.'
'But..' I closed my eyes. 'Your mother..'
'My mother? Don't talk about my mother. She only went and re-married. We keep our distance these days. It's best that way.' I started to say something then stopped. Stuart said, 'You ok, Cameron? Have you been drinking? It's a bit early, isn't it?'
'Is it?' I said. 'How about you? Are you dry again?'
'Again? Cheeky sod. I've been dry eleven years next week. Cameron? Are you crying?'
'Look, call again soon. We'll get together some time. Ok?'
'Yes,' I lied. 'I'll do that.'
I broke the connection. I stepped out of the telephone box and faced the beach and the increasingly restless sea and wondered if they were real at all.
I was ten when my mother first hit me. It was during a school holiday. It was mid-Summer and stiflingly hot. She stood in the kitchen, smoking a cigarette, staring at the white tiles above the draining board. Her hair was uncombed and she smelled of sweat. Later I found out that this was the beginning of her five-year addiction to prescription painkillers. If someone had told me that at the time it would have meant nothing to me. I was ten and selfish and bored. I can't remember what I said. I wanted to go out, I think. Perhaps I was after some money. She sighed and mumbled something. I whined some more. And she hit me in the face.
I remember the shock rather than the pain. And the expression she wore when she hit me again, in the chest and stomach. No expression at all. Her face was blank, her eyes empty. I sat in a corner of the living room for a long while, too stunned to cry. Later my mother helped me up and hugged me and told me she loved me really.
She went to the shop when dad got home and I rushed to his side the instant she was gone and burst into tears and told him everything.
As I walked back to the hotel I wondered if Becky was real. Perhaps I'd get back to my room and find it empty except for a single bed. I wasn't sure which option I'd prefer.
But she was there; dressed, arms folded, waiting for me.
I loved my father. He was blandly affable, always smiling, ruffling my hair. He took me to football matches and greyhound races at Great Yarmouth and Swaffham where I'd eat hotdogs and drink Coca-Cola while he bet randomly and almost always lost.
He held me as I cried and I smelled his after-shave and made his shirt wet where I pressed against him. 'I'm afraid your mother's not very well,' he said eventually.
'Why? Is she going to die?'
'No. But she needs our help. I'm sure she didn't mean to hurt you, Cameron.'
'She did, dad,' I said. I lifted my shirt and exposed the bruises just below my ribs. 'Look.' I blinked away fresh tears.
'They'll soon go,' he said and his voice seemed suddenly brisker, harder. I'm not sure the bruises registered at all. 'You've got to be brave. This will be our secret. I'll speak to your mother. This won't happen again. You'll see.'
I started to say something else, but he was already standing, turning away from me, rubbing his hands together as though cleaning something small and distasteful from his skin.
Two days later she hit me again.
'Where have you been?' Becky said.
'I've been worried about you.'
'Right,' I said. But there was something in her voice and I stopped bracing myself and looked into her face. Her expression was one of concern.
'You look awful.' She walked up to me and I stiffened. 'Are you ill?' she said. She put her arms around my neck and kissed my cheek.
'Actually, I think I might be,' I said. I placed my hands on her waist. I glanced over her shoulder at my left arm, looking for the faint scar she'd left there when she'd bitten me three months earlier. The skin was unblemished. I gripped Becky tightly. I clamped my eyes shut and took a deep breath but the tears came anyway.
When I turned sixteen the beatings, which had become progressively less frequent during the previous year, stopped completely. My mother received treatment for her addiction and made an almost complete recovery. The three of us lived together, in a state of complete denial, for four more years. Then, one hot Sunday afternoon my parents took a drive to the coast. Dad asked me if I wanted to go but I said I'd stay at home and watch the cricket on TV. While they were getting ready I went into the small, cool garage and drained almost all of the brake fluid from my dad's Austin Allegro. They got as far as the Acle straight before their car left the road, hit a tree head on and exploded. I made no attempt to hide my guilt and even as the police were telling me of my parents' death I expected my arrest to follow. It never did. Perhaps the car was never examined properly. Perhaps it was too badly damaged. Perhaps I never bled the brake fluid at all.
It's dusk and Becky and I are on Alnmouth beach again, hand in hand. We spent the day visiting Dunstanburgh Castle. It was bleak and deserted and Becky loved it.
'We need dogs,' she says suddenly.
'Yep. Labradors, I think. At least two. One chocolate, one golden.'
She laughs and breaks free of my hand and runs towards the water's edge. The sun is setting gaudily, staining everything pink and crimson.
I think of Stuart. He's an alcoholic. Maybe it's his reality that's altered, not mine. I watch Becky as she runs. Maybe I'll ask her if she's pregnant later. Maybe not.
My shoulders and back are still tense. I'm waiting for the world to tilt again, for all perspectives to shift once more.
Becky turns and grins at me. Caught by the sunset, her face and hair are the colour of arterial blood.
(C) Andrew Humphrey 2004
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.