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Authors: Andy Jones

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BOOK: The Two of Us
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‘I meant me . . . I’m sorry about me.’

‘It’s fine.’

And I wait for thirty seconds, but Ivy doesn’t say I’m lovely too.

And of course I’m in no hurry to know Ivy’s favourite Take That song; and I don’t
care what GCSEs she sat, or what her first cat was called. But there are other
details – trivial, too, in their own way – that it feels almost negligent not to know.

‘I don’t even know when your birthday is.’

‘October twenty-ninth,’ she says.

There’s a beat of silence. Ivy glances sideways, holds my gaze for a second, cocks an eyebrow incrementally. Something resembling a smile tugs the corner of her mouth. ‘I’ll be
forty-one,’ she says, turning her attention back to the road.

Eight cars, two vans and two wagons pass us before I formulate a response.

‘Cool,’ I say. As if, instead of her age, Ivy has just nonchalantly disclosed some impressive talent or skill:
I used to play guitar in a heavy metal band, I ran the marathon in
2:58, I can assemble an AK47 blindfolded.

But this information has thrown me (not that it would take a great deal to upset my precarious equilibrium this morning) and neither of us says another word for the next thirty miles or so.

Ivy will be forty-one on her next birthday, making her over nine years older than me. When she was my age, I was twenty-two. When she was twenty-two, I was thirteen. And, moving in the opposite
direction, when I’m the age she is now, Ivy will be fifty – and cut that cake any way you like, that’s old. I don’t want to think about how old Ivy will be when I turn fifty
– fifty is a good age for men: a time of distinguished grey highlights, and not so much wrinkles as lines of hard-won wisdom. How old Ivy will be when I hit my half-century gives me the
heebie-crawling-jeebies. She doesn’t look old; her body is firm and her skin, where it’s not crisscrossed with scars, is smooth. I am fighting a strong urge, now, to turn and inspect
the corners of her eyes for nascent crow’s-feet. Things will even out, I imagine, when I turn eighty. Also, women tend to live longer than men, so Ivy being almost a decade older than me
improves the chances of us dying together, holding hands on the sofa in front of a slowly fading log fire in our retirement cottage on the coast. So there’s that.

We stop at the services for a pee, and Ivy takes so long to pay her visit that I begin to worry she has either been abducted or simply taken a lift from a handsome stranger. When she does get
back to the car she looks, if anything, more dejected than she has all morning. I’ve bought her a massive bag of Skittles, which I now present with a chimp-like grin, but Ivy says she’s
feeling lousy and asks will I drive. She makes an improvised pillow from a folded jumper, reclines her seat as far as it will go – which isn’t far – and closes her eyes. And so we
put more miles behind us, cars and motorbikes and vans honking their horns and pulling goon faces from the windows as they tear past.

Where did it all go wrong?
is the question I keep coming back to. Surely our little spat last night, if it even qualifies as a spat, can’t be responsible for Ivy’s sudden
withdrawal. We have just spent the most romantic, loved-up, slightly sickeningly blissed-out three weeks of my life together. We have not left each other’s side, we started calling each other
‘babe’ without feeling completely silly about it, we made love every day, we made toast in the nude. And now . . . just nothing. The paranoid snob inside wonders can it be the peeling
paint on Dad’s front door, the Formica kitchen units, the loose loo seat; but I know it’s not. And if it is, then Ivy isn’t the person I thought she was. Maybe she feels awkward
about her age. Maybe I simply annoy the hell out of her and she’s only just realized it. Maybe she looked at my dad buffooning around the kitchen and saw the future me. Or maybe she is simply
premenstrual – and I’m so desperate to know what’s bugging her, I’m sorely tempted to ask. But I suspect the question would be unlikely to reverse Ivy’s current

By the time we cross the M25 and re-enter London’s gravity, I’ve eaten the entire bag of Skittles and I feel sick. And without any prompting, like she hasn’t been sleeping at
all but simply sitting still with her eyes closed, Ivy straightens in her seat and cricks her neck from side to side.

‘Morning,’ I say, more brightly than I feel.

‘Hey,’ says Ivy. She smiles, but there isn’t much behind it.

‘Your place or mine?’ I say, but I already know I’m not going to like the answer.

Ivy has work tomorrow, she tells me, she’s tired, she needs to do laundry, take a bath, feed her goldfish, etc.

Her flat is opposite the fourth lamppost on the left, down a tree-lined street in Wimbledon. We had our first kiss right here, in this car, beside this lamppost. But whatever
crackled about us then, it’s been replaced with a glutinous awkwardness. I get out of the car and remove Ivy’s bags from the boot. She takes her suitcase, declining my offer of help,
and we stand clumsily on the pavement, Ivy not inviting me in, and me not asking. A wave of indignation surges through me, sweeping away the introspection and doubt, and leaving in its wake
annoyance, disappointment and scraps of broken ego.

‘Right then,’ I say. ‘Suppose I’ll be off.’

Ivy puts her suitcase down, gives me a silent hug and kisses the side of my neck. She holds it for a count of seconds, for about as long as you’d hold a final goodbye. She puts a hand to
my cheek, smiles with her mouth but not with her eyes, says: ‘I had a nice time. Thank you.’

‘Sure,’ I tell her. ‘Enjoy your bath.’

We kiss once more, Ivy turns to cross the road and I’m gone before she gets her key in the door.

Chapter 2

‘Get r. . . get rid that pi. . . pnapple.’

El can’t always access the words he needs; and when he can, he can’t always get them out of his mouth. It’s much more than a stammer. The effort shows on his face as he
attempts to force a word out against the kind of resistance you might encounter trying to blow syrup through a straw. Even so, manners cost nothing.

‘Magic word?’ I say.

‘P. . . p. . . fuckig pronto.’

‘That’s better,’ I tell him, plucking the chunks of pineapple from his slice of pizza.

El opens wide and I feed the tip of the folded slice into his mouth. His head wobbles but he succeeds in taking a bite without getting any more tomato sauce on his already smeared face. Beneath
the sauce he has a deep tan, but it’s not enough to create even an illusion of health. El and his partner, Phil, returned from a holiday in San Francisco two days ago. It’s unlikely El
has deteriorated significantly while he’s been away, but his twitches and wobbles and speech do seem worse.

‘Wh. . . wh. . . wh. . .’

‘Who?’ I try, and El shakes his head. ‘What?’

El shakes his head again. ‘Lass one,’ he says.


El nods. ‘Why? Why would you p. . . put pnapple on a p. . .’ He points a trembling finger at the pizza sitting between us.

‘It’s a Hawaiian,’ I tell him. ‘You ordered it.’

El shrugs. ‘Like the name.’

Like all best friends living within ten miles of each other in London, El and I used to see each other about three times a year. But there’s nothing quite like terminal illness to cure
apathy. So around two years ago, when the Huntington’s disease began to sink its teeth into him, we got into a routine of meeting every Tuesday. Initially we’d go to the pub, but as
El’s condition progressed he lost his tolerance for drink along with his inhibitions and grasp of social niceties. We changed venue to the local curry house, arriving early in the evening
when the place was empty and El could swear, twitch, stammer and drop his glass without an audience. But in the last few months, even that has become too difficult. So now it’s pizza and
alcohol-free beer in El’s own living room.

I suppose that somewhere in my mind he exists as the ten-year-old boy I rode my bike with, the teenager that I bought stolen pornography from, and the man who used to make me cry with laughter;
and it’s as if all the decline El has endured in the last few years – the constant twitching and jerking; lack of co-ordination, balance, and empathy; the weight loss, the loss, in
fact, of all the subtleties and nuances that make El
– it feels today as if all the damage has been compacted into the three weeks he’s been away. And whilst I know it
hasn’t, his speech is undeniably worse. Before he left for the pub, Phil told me he’s finding it increasingly necessary to help El find his words, form his thoughts and understand what
other people are saying to him.

I help myself to a slice of Quattro Formaggi, fold it in half, take a bite.

‘Still f. . . fuckig that g. . . woman,’ El says, looking at me, amused, waiting for a reaction.

‘I don’t remember saying anything about fucking.’

‘P. . . P. . . Pippa, wasn’ it? Bounthy bounthy!’

‘Ivy,’ I say, wincing inwardly. ‘Her name is Ivy.’

‘G. . . g. . . grows on you,’ he says, and although, like so many others, he said it the first time he heard Ivy’s name, it makes me laugh because it’s evidence that the
old El is still – at least partially – with us.

‘Wh. . . wh. . . wh. . .’

‘Who? What? When? W—’

‘When! When d’I get to meet her?’

Good question.

After my last girlfriend, Kate, walked out on me, I did what any recently humiliated idiot would do. I slept with the receptionist at work. Pippa had an endearing but amusing habit of lisping
‘Bounthy bounthy’ whenever she went on top. Which was quite often. Which . . . I told El. I know,
I know
– but he’s my oldest friend and I couldn’t resist.
Well, the indiscretion has come back to punish me, because her name has lodged where so little else will – firmly in El’s head. Unless my next girlfriend is a trampolinist called Pippa,
it would probably be a mistake to introduce her to him.

El looks at me:

‘Soon,’ I say.

El narrows his eyes. ‘Sh. . . she d. . . d. . . d. . .’

‘Can you spell it?’ I ask, remembering what Phil told me about how to tease the words from El with various ‘cueing’ techniques. ‘Or spell how it sounds?’

The tendons on El’s skinny neck stand taut with effort as he galvanizes himself for another attempt. ‘Duh. . . d. . . u. . .’


El nods. ‘Mmm. . .’ He twists his neck far to the left, his lips working mutely as if trying to snatch the next letter from the air, ‘P . . . D . . .’


El swings his hands together, connecting just enough to consider it a clap. ‘She d. . . dumped you. . . f. . . figured y’out. Ha ha ha.’

‘How’s that funny?’

‘S’pose it’s not really,’ he says, suddenly straight-faced. ‘Sad, tragic, pred. . . pred. . .’


El jabs a finger at me like a game-show host pointing out a winning contestant.

‘I hate to burst your miserable bubble,’ I say, ‘but Ivy has not dumped me.’

‘Ye. . . ye. . . y. . .’

I know what the bastard’s driving at, but I’m damned if I’m going to make it any easier for him.

‘Fuck it,’ says El. ‘D’you think you cn carry me?’

I doubt El ever achieved his teenage goal of reaching five-foot-six, and he was skinny before the Huntington’s began eroding him. He can’t weigh much more than one of my 10-year-old

‘I’m pretty sure I could throw you clean out of the window,’ I tell him.

El contemplates this. ‘B. . . be quicker,’ he says.

The house El shares with Phil ranges over five floors. The front door sits atop a short flight of tiled steps leading to the drive and the busy road that runs past the house. El wants ‘f.
. . fresh air’, so I pick him up, carry him down three dozen steps and set him gently down on the threshold. It turns out he’s lighter than he looks, but the effort has my arms

After some initial difficulty, El removes a packet of cigarettes and a lighter from his pocket. ‘L. . . light one f’me,’ he says.

I do as I’m asked and pass the burning Marlboro to El. ‘You don’t smoke,’ I tell him.

El holds up evidence to the contrary and blows smoke in my direction. The traffic here is relentless, so the face full of smoke amounts to little more than an insult in the cloud of pollution
that surrounds us on this balmy August evening.

‘Well, you didn’t three weeks ago.’

El inhales deeply, holds the full-tar smoke in his lungs, widens and then crosses his eyes. I wait for him to turn green, cough, splutter – like they do in the movies – but El merely
opens his mouth and lets the smoke slowly escape his lungs. ‘W. . . wan’ one?’

‘No, thank you, filthy habit.’

‘Thass what Phil says,’ he grins. ‘But they do make y’look c. . . f. . . cool as f. . . fuck.’

‘That they do,’ I tell him.

Pollution aside, it’s pleasant sitting on the steps and watching the folk and traffic move by at approximately the same pace. El is on his third fag when we see Phil shuffling back to the
flat. He shakes his head when he sees us, then flicks me a small wave.

‘Boys,’ he says, mounting the steps. ‘Having a party?’ And he tuts as he collects El’s butts and folds them into a paper tissue.

‘Thank you, d. . . darling,’ says El.

‘You’re most unwelcome,’ says Phil, sitting between us and plucking the cigarette from El’s fingers. He takes a drag and passes the cigarette back to El. ‘Filthy
fucking habit.’

‘All the b. . . b. . . bess ones are,’ says El, winking at me.

‘True enough,’ says Phil.

‘What’s brought all this’ – I waft cigarette smoke away from my face – ‘on, anyway?’

Phil looks at the ground and shakes his head again.

‘Member that S. . . Smiths song?’ says El.

‘“Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want”?’ offers Phil with a sly smile.

‘“Bigmouth Strikes Again”?’ I try.

‘Pair of f. . . fuckig jokers. N. . . no. “What D. . . Di. . . Diff. . . fuckit!’

‘I know,’ says Phil, gently. He takes the Marlboro from El and takes a deep pull before passing it back. ‘“What Difference Does It Make?”.’

BOOK: The Two of Us
4.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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