‘No,’ I would always say to him when he was down on his place in life. ‘You’ve got the most important role of all: you’re my little rockstar.’
Then he would say a swooning ‘Hmm’ like he didn’t agree one bit but was too paralysed by my scratching his chest fur to respond.
Back then we lived in a little terrace house in Tunbridge Wells. It was only a pleasant five-minute walk up from my fabric shop in the Pantiles towards Mount Ephraim, past men playing cricket on the common, or children grazing their knees in the trees. In summer we had hollyhocks in the front garden, and lavender which grew like wild samphire.
It was a rotten old place when we bought it from old Mrs Levin. I only met her once to pick up the keys; she was a small thin lady who had decided she wanted to die in a quiet grotto or ditch, sold up for £90,000, and departed like an old dog into the woods. So Chris took a month off work and we—what was the word we laughed at?—we renovated the place.
We replaced the beams and joists that had woodworm and dry rot with bright pine timbers; we tore up the worn carpets and sanded the floorboards flat and straight and clean; we disconnected the leaking water inlet and outlet pipes and put on shining washers and tubes; we burst open the windows and doors all through the house for a whole week to draw new air through the dusty atmosphere; by that autumn we were experts on bricklaying and cement-mixing, installing double glazing, fuses and fuse boards, plastering, tiling and grouting, carpentry, measuring and cutting, insulating. And we did it all by aiding each other, passing liquid measures here and screwdrivers there like we were Morecambe & Wise.
He liked me in stained white overalls so we fooled about lots then too.
One September evening when the sun was sharing oranges through the master bedroom window, we were painting the walls in duck-egg and olive. Chris was putting up a Jimi Hendrix poster. On the top of the huge wardrobe we’d decided to keep, he found a tiny mouse skeleton.
‘That old spinster,’ he said, stepping off the little ladder, gifting me the bones sleeping in his palm. ‘I can’t believe she left the place like this. Can’t believe she lived in it.’
I set the mouse aside in a box to bury later.
‘Mrs Lewis,’ he shook his head, hands on hip. ‘Was that her name? What did she do to deserve this? And how do you even get a mouse to die seven feet up?’
‘Oh don’t,’ I said bathing the roller in duck-egg emulsion. ‘I can’t bear to think of her, the poor woman. Alone. Imagine how cold she was in winter, and lonely.’ I paused. ‘What do you think she did all day?’
‘Counted her regrets?’ he said. ‘What? Well she probably did. You don’t end up like that unless you’ve done something wrong. She probably cheated on her husband with some City-slicker, or turned into a spiritualist. Or a naturist. Oh, maybe she had an obsessive compulsive disorder and it drove everyone around her mad.’
‘Don’t,’ I said. I felt like he was cursing us. ‘Stop it.’
‘I’m just saying,’ he just said, ‘she was creepy. Glad we built over her, is all.’
‘Stop it, stop it! You boys, when I say stop it just stop it.’
I had no idea then how deep the immature arrogance of manhood had rotted into him.
That winter, happily, I tended the shop during the quiet months, and Chris went back to work. He was always popular in groups and, nurtured with my Victoria sponges, lemon drizzle cakes, blueberry muffins and chocolate brownies, carrot cakes, and apple and date tray bakes, the office made no exception. The trainees let him take them under wing very freshly, the top execs were always saying ‘Keep on that way and you’ll be promoted by the next quarter’. And he was in the office band. Now there’s the story.
When Chris and three other family men in middle-management had bonded over Thin Lizzy one evening at the pub they decided to start a band. Being on the brink of middle age, they decided it was either ironic or apt to name themselves The Freeholders and create a new genre called Family Rock. Family, yes: although we hadn’t talked about it, me and Chris both thought that by the end of those two years we’d have a child.
Like most hobbyists, they flung themselves into songwriting and recording with a vague and plodding enthusiasm. It was never mentionable until they had actually finished a whole album by spring, got a review in the NME—who called their music ‘wizened but wise’—and were in with the chance of a few hundred sales.
‘I’ve had a tip-off,’ Chris said smiling one crisp March night after shepherd’s pie, Rioja, and a lemon posset for two. ‘Just, trust me.’
We stayed up listening to the chart show, our legs intertwined cradling each other, whispering giggling on the sofas. When they announced The Freeholders had got to number thirty-two with their single ‘Death by Mortgage’ we jumped up in shock more than anything.
‘Oh!’ I said. I leapt onto him, arms flung close around his neck. ‘Oh! My little rockstar!’ I kissed him wet and hard and fast. Each one, I realise, was a kiss of wind to send us on parting journeys.
‘You’re a fan now, are you? My very first groupie,’ he smirked, stroking my bum.
I lowered myself to the ground. I felt all funny; I was never the type to act like a giggling schoolgirl. I was annoyed with myself.
‘Yes,’ I patted his arm. ‘Jolly well done.’
We both thought that was it, one of those odd events that would be retold in family annals by the open fire with cups of tea. Apart from. Funny things started to happen.
Chris came home in a leather jacket.
‘What,’ I said from the sink, bundling the spuds into a colander, ‘is that?’
‘What?’ he shrugged. ‘It’s just a jacket,’ and he hooked it up next to our Barbours, above our walking-in-the-rain boots. The next week he was combing his hair up and back with gel.
‘Come here, I’ll sort that out for you,’ I said with a smile one morning. ‘We’ll make you look like a proper man.’
‘No, it’s fine,’ he said by the door, glancing at his watch, ‘I’ve got work.’ We looked at each other. I felt his ego pulling against me, tearing and teasing at my perfect family, my perfect house, like a fanatic at a temple. ‘Thanks though.’
He kissed my forehead. I still wasn’t pregnant. He shut the door. My gut dropped.
All the while I thought, Oh god, what a cliché! The thought of him wearing that beaded necklace, his little stud earring, it made me sick to my stomach.
Oh but the worst thing of all was the way he started talking. I think he managed to call me ‘buddy’ and ‘mate’ twice in that really genuine pally tone before I threatened to punch him in the mouth.
‘Don’t talk to me in that lazy voice,’ I said; I know how your soul talks, and don’t pretend I don’t.
One night a week he had over the band members, people he’d met at gigs in Sevenoaks or Brighton, and local artists. There was quite a neat crowd to have beers and cigars with on the patio, and I liked most of them, I really did.
‘Hello m’dear,’ they said, and I kissed them on the cheek. I preferred chatting with a loose girl Maria in the kitchen. Out with boys; the way they indulged each other.
‘Well that’s the beast of the music biz for you,’ Chris said. And they would all reply ‘Amen brother’ and ‘She is a tempestuous one’. On any question of style they’d say things to Chris like ‘You’re the good-looking one, you tell us what people are wearing on their feet this month.’
The poor man, he had spent so long in an intimate fulfilling relationship with me that he’d forgotten how groups of friends acted. He took every compliment, every deep conversation, every gesture, like it was personal.
I wanted to open the windows and doors again.
But we’re in a supportive relationship, I would think, and if this is what he wants to do then I’ll be there for him. I’ve got my shop, my house, like I wanted, and he has supported me through that.
But listen, I said, if you’re trying to justify it to anyone, you’re trying to justify it to yourself.
Worst of all was there was too much of it. All of those little changes added up to more than the ego of a song; it was all there in his head and always had been. I had only repressed it.
On our last night we were eating conchiglioni with a tomato sauce, chillies, garlic, balsamic vinegar, some reduced passata, all topped with blue cheese and grilled to crispy brown bubbles.
Chris’ phone rang.
‘It’s Marcus,’ he said, The Freeholders’ drummer.
‘Leave it,’ I said.
‘Okay, but did I tell you about his pulling technique, basically constitutes being a single parent?’
I said a short ‘Mm’. Then I remembered, and I said, ‘Oh did you know, it’s exactly two years since we moved in here?’
‘Oh right,’ he said. He sipped his wine. He said, ‘Do we have any pudding?’
I looked at him. ‘We do indeed,’ I said, ‘though it’s only apple crumble and Bird’s custard.’ There was a steaming Tarte Tatin in the archives of my mind that I couldn’t be bothered to give birth to.
His phone rang again.
‘It’s only Mike Barlow,’ he said, from work.
‘Answer it, I need to wash up anyway.’
‘No,’ he said.
‘The Office People,’ he called them to make them sound like a species of lower-earth, ‘they’re so stupid.’
‘Don’t be silly.’
‘I’m not. They are stupid. You’d have to be to work in an office from nine until six for thirty—forty—years and still be sane.’
‘Mike Barlow’s not stupid,’ I said. ‘Why did you go on a marathon with the man last year? Or start an offshoot business with him?—’
‘Mike Barlow’s a good guy, but he’s stupid.’
‘You worked in an office for twelve years! You still do!—’
‘He’s got no art in him,’ he said. ‘Mike’s got no poetry in the way he lives his life. Office People like Mike Barlow are perfectly willing to go to work every day, go home to the family, and do it all again and again until they die or are told to retire. He just treads water. He’s not—What’s the word?—he’s not restless.’
‘I don’t see how you can—’ I said. He noticed that I was in the doorway.
‘Jenny,’ he said. He noticed that tears were crowding at my eyes and cheeks.
‘You can’t look at me like that,’ I said. I’m sure he noticed whole new things about me: the two stone I’d put on around my bum and hips, my unshaven ankles, raised cuticles on my worried fingers.
‘Like I’m the walking bloody dead,’ I said, and went up to bed.
Brushing my teeth, I half-expected to see a thin old lady in the mirror.
J. P. Aldridge is a young writer in London. He’s been published in places like The Cadaverine, The Dial, and The Frogmore Papers, and is currently looking for an agent and publisher for his first novel, Banes of Boys & Girls. He also writes Really Practical Criticism, a blog of ‘Prac Crits’ (close readings of modern life) inspired by the literary analyses from I. A. Richards’ 1929 book Practical Criticism.