Authors: Jim Keeble
THE A â Z OF US
Jim Keeble is the author of
My Fat Brother
, published by Penguin in 2003, and the author of the travel book
. He lives in East London with his wife and three fish.
The AâZ of Us
is his second novel.
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London
Published in Penguin Books 2005
Copyright Â© Jim Keeble, 2005
All rights reserved
The moral right of the author has been asserted
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject
to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent,
re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's
prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in
which it is published and without a similar condition including this
condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
With special thanks to my agent Stephanie Cabot for her belief, to Louise Moore and Mari Evans for their vision, and my parents David and Valerie for years of everything.
To Jessica, for your wisdom and laughter
Ian Thompson and Gemma Cook meet on their third day at university in September 1993. He is twenty and she is eighteen. They become best friends. They say they are not attracted to each other.
No one believes them.
Gemma had never really travelled. Spain, Greece, Dublin once for a hen weekend â the usual holiday destinations that seemed so dull now that you could fly anywhere on earth for the price of a coffee table. The other junior architects laughed at her because she hadn't even been to New York.
âYou haven't lived,' they declared, chuckling.
She countered by boasting that her best friend Ian was a travel writer, he'd been everywhere, including places even these geeky architects with their Hoxton fins and latest Levi's had never heard of, like Kyrgyzstan, Kiribati and the Aleutian Islands. But he was no happier for it.
âYour best friend's a bloke?' The architects smirked. âIs he gay?'
âI don't think so,' she replied, testily. âHe's been going out with my sister for the last eight months!'
âKinky,' they said.
âPiss off, idiots,' she retorted, and hurried to the toilets to worry, as usual, about her inability to come up with instant, impressive put-downs.
Gemma was afraid of travel. The word itself sounded like âtravail' â âa painful or laborious effort'. She'd looked it up once in a dictionary. It came from the Latin âtripalium', a Roman instrument of torture. Which raised the question: âwhy would you willingly partake in an activity
that derives its name from a three-pronged spear used to eviscerate Roman prisoners?'
She admitted she was nervous of things she didn't understand. She thought it was a natural human tendency â the fear of the unknown. Gemma was constantly surprised that so many people paid good money to go abroad, throwing themselves into situations that made them feel disorientated and scared.
Gemma wasn't proud of her fears. She wanted to be braver. She wanted to challenge herself. Now, more than ever.
âDon't worry about it,' said Ian. âThere's nowhere left worth visiting anyway. Everywhere's accessible, everywhere's touched by tourism, there's no dusty corner of the world that a Canon Ixus hasn't snapped to show the folks back home. There's nothing left to explore.'
Of course she nodded agreement, her instinctive reaction when faced with something she felt ignorant about. But secretly she wondered. Maybe there was somewhere left to explore. Maybe each of us explores new territory, new lands, every day.
âHow's that?' she imagined Ian questioning her, with his lopsided grin.
âLove, emotions, relationshipsâ¦' she imagined herself replying, faltering as she tried to formulate confused thoughts into words. âThere are no maps, no charts any more. We're like those people who went out to Australia in the 1800s; they had nothing to tell them what was there, they had to draw their own maps, build new roads, new towns, new railwaysâ¦ we're the sameâ¦ with relationships. Everything's new, the old maps don't work any more. Don't you think?'
It was my dream house. I felt dizzy when Raj stopped the Audi and asked softly:
âDo you like it?'
Number 26 Raleigh Street was part of a four-storey terrace on Victoria Park in one of the more fashionable streets of London's East End borough of Hackney. The property had just come on the market following the demise of its ninety-three-year-old owner, and was being sold at auction. It was run-down, âin need of considerable refurbishment', but in every other way it was as perfect as the house I'd imagined as a little girl, when I used to walk the long way home from school in Richmond in order to see the vast mansions on Palmerston Road with their long curtains and warm, inviting living rooms. I'd stand across the street, holding my satchel, and stare into them, imagining my future life with a tall, dashing husband and four picture book-pretty children in every window.
I could have
, Raj said, it would be a good investment for him, for us, in an area that was up-and-coming, just ten minutes drive from the City. He loved my style, my understated elegant taste. I knew that few of my clients would ever live in such a house, let alone a junior second-in-command architect like me.
I stood, looking up, hardly daring to believe. It was a clear winter's day. The sun glinted off the windows like
diamonds. I felt like that little girl once more, brimming with excitement and hope. Only now I knew how to build, how to design, how to plan. I knew how to make the dream come true. It would be my masterpiece. I would make Raj proud of me.
My attraction to Raj had been immediate â partly because he was undeniably handsome â and partly because there was something about him that reminded me of my father, even though Raj was dark-skinned, and hadn't been dead for ten years.
Like my father, Raj wasn't tall (in contrast to almost all my previous boyfriends), and his slender body lacked the bulk I'm instinctively drawn to. Yet for some reason, I wanted to put my arms around him and hold him tight, as the ten-year-old daughter used to do to her father when he returned from work, exhausted by numbers and deadlines.
Raj approached me at a bar in Hoxton Square. I looked round and there he was: alongside, but not too close to be threatening. He inquired whether it would be too old-fashioned to ask if he could buy me a drink. His tone was quiet, but within it I thought I detected a concealed strength. I imagined him standing in a formal garden, his slender form complementing the small slim trees and shrubs.
I asked for a vodka and soda, which was strange since I hadn't touched vodka since the Corfu debacle, seven years previously. He ordered a pint of bitter, which was something nobody under the age of forty drank. My father had always preferred bitter to lager.
âAn English tipple,' he used to say. âA man's beer.'
At the bar another man tried to push in, and Raj turned to him and said:
âExcuse me, I'm just getting my order,' in the same measured, direct tone. The man apologized, Raj made a joke and he laughed.
Later, Raj told me that he'd been drawn to my beautiful face, my lush blonde hair, and my vulnerable smile. With his small grin and careful, measured ways, he made me feel wholly and warmly significant. He was immensely polite, constantly aware of his surroundings and the reactions of others.
âThe curse of the immigrant offspring,' he would smile.
He was bright, I knew, a first in law at Oxford, a clerkship at a top London firm, with a wonderfully polished accent that sounded more English than Prince Charles's. And he worked so hard, he was so dedicated. If he showed half such devotion to me, I thought, I'd be the happiest woman in London.
He was dedicated from the outset. There was champagne, dinners and presents of gold jewellery, which I shuddered at instinctively, but grew to enjoy more and more, especially after his mother, the formidable Geeta Singh, informed me that âGold is the metal of trust.'
He needed me, I quickly realized. And I needed to prove to myself that my talent for love had not waned.
We had two weddings, on consecutive days. âTwo for the price of three!' Raj quipped, several times. On Saturday we were married in the eyes of the Greater London Authority at the registry office on the Marylebone Road, followed by dinner for twenty at an expensive restaurant in Notting Hill. On Sunday it was the turn of Ganesh,
Vishnu and Maha Lakshmi to bless us, in a wholly more gaudy, raucous affair at the Holiday Inn, Hounslow with five hundred guests, few of whom I knew. I was so laden with bullion that I almost passed out. But Raj took my hand gently, as if holding glass, and asked me so sweetly if I could manage to carry on that I threw my jangling braceleted arms around him and burst into joyful tears.
Raj left on a Saturday in August. It began, like most break-ups, out of nothing. We were disagreeing about the colour for the bedroom, in our gentle stilted way. This led to a disagreement about when to throw the party to celebrate the house's prospective completion in mid-September, which Raj wanted to coincide with his review at work, which in turn led to me mentioning that I felt Raj didn't consider my job to be as important as his own. He laughed sarcastically, and said that since he earned five times what I did as an architect, on the basis of pure mathematical equation his job was indeed more important than mine. The next thing I knew, I'd swigged a large glass of wine and told him that I didn't love him.
âI don't love you any more.'
Six words. Barely a second of speech, a second of breath. How many breaths do we take in a lifetime? How can one of them, so short, change your life?
I hadn't been planning to say it. But alcohol and truth have a strange sibling relationship. Sometimes it's hate, but sometimes it's love. There are times when all it takes is half a bottle of Sainsbury's Rioja to loosen the binds on thoughts that have been pirouetting around your head for weeks, if not months.
âI don't love you.'
I even repeated the words, for effect. I couldn't help myself. It was as if they had become malicious little children, chasing each other around my head, hell-bent on disruption.
âI don't love you, Raj,' I chimed once more like a playground bully.
I didn't expect his reaction. To be honest, I'd not thought further than the moment of releasing the words from my head. It was very unlike me.
Raj said nothing. His beautiful mahogany eyes narrowed, he breathed out quickly, and he started to pack a bag. I was impressed with his energy â he flew around our bedroom like a Punjabi Russell Crowe â before storming down the stairs, slamming the front door and speeding away in the Audi with a cinematic screech of the tyres.
The silence after he left was deafening.
I spent a careful hour checking the bedroom, methodically. He'd packed well, as I knew he would. He was organized, I had to give him that. He'd taken his three favourite ties, his new Calvin Klein briefs, and the god-awful book on cricket he was reading. He'd taken all his toiletries, even the Boots pre-shave lotion I'd bought him the previous month after he'd seen it on television.
Following my search of the bedroom, I did something strange, that I didn't know I was going to do. I checked in the medicine cabinet to see if he'd taken the condoms. It was silly, I knew, but I felt relieved that the packet of eighteen âElite Pleasure Ribbed' remained on the top shelf, unopened.
I lay on the bed until the late summer night cast shadows
up the walls. My hand touched his side of the duvet and it was cold. There was no sense of his presence. On Friday evening he'd fallen asleep next to me and I'd listened to his breathing, unable to sleep. Twenty-four hours later I was lying on top of the blanket, fully clothed and alone.