Authors: Gaynor Arnold
First published in UK February 2011
by Tindal Street Press Ltd
217 The Custard Factory, Gibb Street,
2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1
Copyright Â© 2011 Gaynor Arnold
The moral right of Gaynor Arnold to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or any information storage or retrieval system, without either prior permission in writing from the publisher or a licence, permitting restricted copying. In the United Kingdom such licences are issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency, 90 Tottenham Court Road, London
All the characters in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental
The following stories were previously published: âMouth' was first published in the anthology
(TSFG, 1996); âHeart Trouble' in
Raw Edge Magazine
1997, also in
Going the Distance
anthology (Tindal Street Press, 2003). A shorter version of âIn the Street of the Rose-gatherers' was published in
(Cannon Hill, 2006) as âGuns and Roses'. âTaking People In' appeared as âHospitality' in
(Tindal Street Press, 2002). âLying Together' was first published in
February 1997 and in
The Warwick Review
Vol. IV No.2 June 2010.
A CIP catalogue reference for this book is available from the British Library
: 978 1 906994 11 2
Typeset by Alma Books Ltd
Printed and bound in Great Britain by
CPI Mackays, Chatham
For Marjorie Thomas
vie's been going round all her friends. Asking for advice, rejecting it, crying a good deal, losing weight. We all feel helpless. Unsettled, too; we've got problems of our own. But at least we don't have to deal with Radnor.
âHow well do you know him?' says Marsha. After a particularly hard three-hour session with Evie, she rings me up at work to discuss it all. She's only known Evie for two years. They were both working for the same company and did a marketing campaign together holed up in Marsha's flat in Moseley every day for the best part of three weeks. To start with, Radnor was simply a name, someone Evie couldn't keep out of her conversation. Then, Marsha remembers him on a couple of occasions suddenly turning up, sliding his black Volkswagen into Marsha's parking space, sounding his horn in three sharp blasts to summon Evie, who was out of the door in seconds:
Honestly, it was like a rat out of a drain. Like she was terrified of keeping him waiting.
Marsha'd only had an impression â pale face, a shock of pale hair â as he opened the car door the second Evie appeared and revved up the engine the moment she was inside.
âNot that well.' I click through some invoices. I don't want to talk about Radnor, particularly at the end of the month when I have to balance the books. Does Clive
send out reminders? I tap quietly at the computer keys, hoping Marsha won't hear.
âShe said you were both students together.'
âMmmmm. Sort of.'
, Anne? Don't be evasive, darling. I'm relying on you for input. I'm trying to counsel in a vacuum here.'
âMarsha â we shared the same territory at roughly the same time. He was a couple of years ahead, in fact.'
âSo that makes it â ten years you've known him?'
âI suppose.' Barretts haven't paid for the last three months, and Clive is still giving them credit. I send them a quick email, in my best frightener manner.
âBefore he met Evie, then?'
âYes. A year or two.'
âAnd ever since?'
âOn and off.' I drain the last drop of cold coffee, get back to the keyboard. Bellingham's overdue too. I'll really need to speak to Clive about all this.
âSo is he as sexy as she makes out?' Marsha's voice takes on a voyeuristic tone, so God knows what Evie's been saying.
âHow sexy is that, then, Marsha?'
âOh go on. You know how she talks. And what a state she's in. I mean, what man is worth all this grief?'
âThe man you love, I suppose. Just a pity it's Radnor, but then Evie always had bad taste.' Whoops, bitchy.
Marsha gives her smoker's chuckle. âWho'd have thought it? In the year 2000? It's pathetic.'
âYes. Like that old joke â you know â fish and bicycles.' We both laugh.
I think about it, though. On the way back across the city centre, driving on autopilot till I wake up outside our house and see from the darkness that Steve is on a late job yet again and I've got to start the supper. And then, when I'm slicing onions for the pasta sauce, my eyes start weeping so much I have to go outside and lean against the wall of the kitchen, blinking at the blurry masses of the stars. And then after supper, when Steve slumps in front of the telly and starts coming up with some tired old crap about not having the time to fix a piece of carpet on the landing that we've both been tripping over for days, I find myself getting angry. I find myself shouting, âOh God, you men are
all alike!' And I stomp off to the bathroom, bang the door, shoot the bolt, and grab my toothbrush. Its bristles are splayed and soft. It needs replacing. Like the carpet. I brush aggressively, tears flowing down my cheeks, swathes of foam dangling from my lips. Marsha's right. What man is worth all this grief? I spit blood into the basin. Evie's my best friend, and yet I can't help her.
You don't understand how I feel
, she keeps saying.
You don't know what he's like
. I can't bring myself to say anything. She doesn't listen anyway. That's how it was before. I tell myself this new crisis is nothing to do with me. And I'm not going to get involved.
As I rinse out my mouth I can hear faint tappings on the landing outside. I whip open the bathroom door. Steve's squatting with a mouthful of tacks, fixing the carpet. He looks up, gives a metallic grin. Even with the tacks between his teeth he still manages to look good. I want to smile with the pure pleasure of seeing him, but I carp at him instead. âSo I have to lose my temper, do I? Before the great British workman pulls his finger out?'
He spits the tacks out into his palm. âYou're still upset, then?'
âYes. I'm still upset.' I'm angry too, because we're supposed to be avoiding stress just now; relaxing as much as possible. But Steve's idea of relaxing seems to be closing his eyes at the earliest opportunity. Duffing out. Leaving me to get worked up about things like the carpet.
He sighs. âIt looks as if I'll have to end it all, then.' He starts to swallow the tacks, knocking them back, swallowing and wincing with pain. His sleight of hand is convincing for a moment. But only a moment; Steve can never keep a straight face and starts to laugh. And I do too. If it had been Radnor swallowing tacks, I'd have been expecting to ring the ambulance and stay up all night in Casualty feeling guilty as hell. But it isn't and I'm not, and it's suddenly great to be laughing and have Steve drop the hammer and put his arms around me. And go to bed and have nice uncomplicated sex involving only two positions and no angst at all.
âPenny for them.' Steve is watching me, propped up on his elbow, smoking.
âI wish you'd give up. It makes the bedroom stink.' I take the fag from his fingers, grind it out into the huge onyx ashtray Tom and Deirdre bought us for Christmas. The butt end smells worse dead than alive. I push it as far away from me as I can get it. This involves me lying right across Steve's body. He's warm, smelling faintly of sweat, faintly of me. I hear his voice tickling in my ear, his fingers tickling under my outstretched arm: âThat's not what you were thinking about.'
âOne of the things.' I roll back, keep my eyes away from him.
âAnd the other?'
âOh, just Evie.'
âYou mean Radnor.'
âGod, Steve, you're obsessed with Radnor.' Just because Radnor has a Ph.D., and Steve is a plumber with six O-levels, he's always imagining I'm comparing the two of them; can't wait to slip something into the conversation to catch me out.
obsessed?' Steve snorts.
âI don't care a twopenny fuck about Radnor. He can cook his own goose. But Evie's my best friend.'
âSo you say. But I've never understood what you have in common.'
âWhat don't you understand?' But I know what's coming. She's outgoing, glamorous, a bit ditzy. Not like me at all.
Steve puts his hands behind his neck. He furrows his brow, his fiercest expression (genial, bland, furrowed: that's Steve's repertoire). âI don't know. It just doesn't fit. Mind you, she doesn't fit with Radnor either.' This is loquacious for Steve. I wonder what's got into him. I know he's always loathed Radnor, but I really can't make out what he thinks of Evie. He's always nice to her in a way I know she takes for granted from men.
Steve's such a doll
, she's always saying, implying that I'm lucky to have him with his nice brown eyes and his nice big muscles â but with the added implication that, of course, she's luckier to have Radnor. Until now, that is. Until these last weeks of crying and moaning. But I've always had a feeling that Steve's uneasy with her, keeps his distance, as if her sex appeal might be poisonous to the touch. Whenever she comes round, he goes off to watch telly.
âSo?' I set my alarm. It's a fiddly little thing with lots of buttons.
âSo she's the last person I'd have thought you'd have taken to.'
âShows how little you know.'
âAha. Well, I'm only a man.'
âYup.' I put down the alarm clock, slide down the bed, stroke his belly appreciatively â but only just enough to distract him from further thoughts of Evie. He gives me a squeeze in response, and we curve into each other, ready for sleep. I put the light out, and soon Steve is snoring quietly. He never has trouble sleeping. I'm the insomniac. I start thinking about Evie. And, of course, Radnor.
I don't want to think about him, but he enters my mind unbidden, with his beautiful, bone-white face and crown of flaxen hair. I see him sitting in the sparsely-attended lecture hall, tall, straight-backed, taking careful notes. I see him look across at me. I see him come towards me, holding out his hand, asking if I would like a coffee. He's saying, âI'm Radnor, by the way â that's spelt R-A-D-N-O-R. People are always getting it wrong.' And my heart starts to beat wildly as I touch his delicate long fingers, and I blurt out, âI'm Anne' â adding foolishly: âThat's spelt with an e.'
And he's looking at me so intensely and taking me by the arm so tightly I almost gasp. âThen come along, Anne-with-an-e. Let's get you a cream bun and the finest coffee money can buy. I need to know everything about you.' And sitting at a rickety table in the student union, I tell him everything. I tell him my whole life: my divorced parents, my mother in Strasbourg, my father in Hong Kong. And how miserable and lonely I'm feeling, in a city so alien and so far from home.
âIt takes time,' he says. âYou'll get used to it, find a soul mate. Believe me, Anne, you'll be all right.' He smiles then, for the first time. And it almost takes my breath away.
I get into work early. I have a go at Clive as soon as he arrives, before the phones start to ring. I tell him about the mess the invoices are in. He says he's no good at paperwork and that's why he employs me.
âBut then you do things behind my back and agree to terms that we
give â even to our oldest customers. For example, all that Italian mirror-work for Bellingham's on a sale-or-return basis! What on earth possessed you?'
âGoodwill, duckie. You know how important that is. You want to listen to your marketing friend, Evie. Talking of which â a little bird has told me that she's having a few problems with that awful man of hers, the one with that ridiculous name who looks as though he's been in the bleach too long.'
âThat's the fella. What did a lovely girl like that ever see in him? Dry old stick, or am I wrong?'
âWho told you, anyway?'
âRichie and I were in the White Swan last night when Tom and Deirdre came in, long time no see. They were full of it. Richie said why doesn't she just leave him? And Deirdre says it's much more complicated than that, and Tom raises his eyebrows like he's had enough of that topic for one night, so I never got to know the details â¦'
âYes, well, it has got pretty boring these last few weeks. I think we've all rehearsed the issues five times over.'
âNow, now. Don't be cynical. Let me make you a lovely cuppa and you can tell old Clive all about it.'
âNo thanks. I've just spent half the night thinking about it. I've come to work for a rest. I don't mind the cuppa, though, as you've offered.'
âOh, yes. Use me, I'm only the boss.' He bustles off but I know he'll come back to it. And I'll put a bit of pressure on in return. This job's only meant to be temporary, just to tide me over after giving in my notice at the school. But I'm feeling the grass grow. I've done all the work he begged me to take on (not just the accounts but a whole new ordering system), and I feel frustrated. I'm a mathematician, not a bookkeeper, but it's all numbers to Clive. He likes the selling side, swans off around the country at every opportunity.
Once they see what I've got to offer, it's no contest. Quality merchandise, you see.
He's doing well; he's got an eye for what's wanted. Meanwhile I'm stuck in the office like a lemon, getting sourer all the time. I keep telling myself it can't be for much longer.
âOkay, I'll tell you about Evie if you take me out on the road with you once in a while. I might even be an asset.' After all, I know every bit of the business; every item that passes through stock. Name, number and code. Material and colour. Manufacturer and delivery times. Cost to us and cost to the customer. And my party trick â doing the VAT in my head.
Clive pokes his head out from the little cubbyhole where we keep the tea things: âGo on, then.'
âBut will you? Seriously this time?' He's reneged before. He's a bit of a one-man-band, likes the matey first-name stuff, doing people favours. He thinks I'll be too stern, won't engage in banter or haggle just to make people feel they've got a bargain. He's a market trader at heart.
âOkay. Don't nag. As long as we don't have to leave Eileen on her own to answer the phone. I'll have a word with Luke, see which days he can cover. Now, come on, what's with the lovely Evie?'
I take the tea from him, give him the edited version. I tell him that Radnor wants a baby. And that Evie can't have one. And she hasn't told him yet.
âIs that all?' Clive stirs his tea with disappointment, sucks the spoon.
âIt's clear you don't know Radnor. He's likely to chuck her when he knows. She's completely hysterical.'
âShe does tend to exaggerate, doesn't she? Anyway, can't she have treatment? Or adopt or something?'
I wish I hadn't said anything. Clive doesn't understand the issue. He and Richie don't plan their lives around it. I'm angry with him sitting there so plump and complacent. âYou think it's that
, do you?'
He raises his eyebrows. âI've no idea. I'm just â'
âExactly. You have
what you're talking about.' I take a deep breath. I have to remember, it's Evie's problem, not mine. âAnyway,' I say, âRadnor wouldn't want anybody else's child.' Oh no. Definitely not.