Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Nick charged about the kitchen frantically attempting to put the evening meal on hold. He glared at his watch for the twentieth time in twenty minutes. You tried to do your best for your family and what happened?

“Bastards,” he hissed loudly, “Bastards, bastards, bastards.”

They were ten minutes late already. The frozen petits pois were soft and overcooked even though he'd strained them in cold water and put them to one side on the draining board. He’d bought them as a special treat, after much prevarication, down at the local Spar shop. They should only have been blanched for a minute or so to make them al dente which was absolutely the way they were supposed to be. Then served straight away with a nob of butter (or marge in their case) and a twist of coarsely ground pepper.

Now they were ruined, and with them the meal, and with the meal his attempt to create a safe haven for his family in a dangerous and demented world. Nick cursed himself for his own stupidity. He shouldn’t have put a heat under the peas until he had actually seen their headlights coming up the farm track. It was always a mistake to rely on other people. He screwed up his eyes in despair. He could weep at the way everything was always going wrong.

"You're late," he snarled when they finally lugged their baggage into the kitchen, "Why didn't you phone me on your mobile? These bloody peas are ruined."

Maureen hoisted a heavy bag of shopping onto the table, covering the place mats he'd arranged with such care. "We got stuck in traffic," she said calmly.

"Don't put that bag there," he snapped, furious at them for spoiling his painstaking preparations for a perfect meal. Why was Maureen was always late? She seemed to have no sense of punctuality whatsoever. Not like him, he was never late. In the time before the business had gone bust he was famous for his punctilious timekeeping. Whenever he made an appointment with one of his customers he always made a point of being early so as not to inconvenience them in any way. Equally he was careful never to be so early that he became an embarrassment. It was just good manners, that's what it came down to in the end. It was obvious. It was what made civilisation work. But Maureen just didn't seem to bother or understand. She seemed to drift through life without a care in the world. She didn’t notice how much she hurt him, how much her lack of consideration for his efforts devalued his struggle to be a good and caring husband. Sometimes he thought she did it deliberately just to annoy him. Only it did more than annoy him. It drove him crazy. Right round the bend. Sometimes she made him so furious that he wanted to kill her. Really wanted to…not just a figure of speech.

"And shut that bloody door," he yelled at Martin. "You'd think you were born in a bloody field."
At sixteen years of age Martin was acutely conscious of the unfairness of life. He slouched back through the hallway and shut the inner glass door, a long-suffering look on his face. He was used to his dad's temper tantrums. When they were really bad they were scary, but mostly he reckoned his dad just made a fool of himself. Martin had learned to make allowances.

Maureen smiled bravely at her husband. "I bought you a present."

She held out a new canister of Gillette shaving foam for sensitive skin. Nick looked at it in dismay, feeling his skin prickling. He didn't want to appear ungrateful but he resented her spending money on luxuries. Especially since he was trying so hard to economise. Christ, he'd given up breakfast because they couldn’t afford it. He always bought the cheapest, most disgusting sandwich pastes he could find for his lunch just to save a few pennies. What’s more he now only shaved every second day, unless he had something special on. Which had only happened twice in the four months since the business had failed. He stared at the canister of shaving foam.

No matter how frugal he was it made no difference. Maureen still leaked money from their joint account. She might have been a lottery winner the way she splashed out. Hardly a day passed when she wasn’t frittering away their overdraft on food and shoes, shirts, bras, school uniforms, council tax demands, telephone bills, electricity bill reminders and now fucking shaving foam. Christ, if it wasn’t for the fact that he might one day actually have to attend a job interview again he would have grown a beard by now. Shaving foam. SHAVING FUCKING FOAM!!

And why was she trying to be nice to him anyway? He didn’t want presents. He didn’t want to be patronised or bought off like some rich man’s mistress. Like a kept man. He just wanted her to come home on time and eat the bloody meal he had slaved all afternoon over for Christ’s sake. Just keep her side of the marital bargain. Was that too much to ask? Was he being unreasonable? Simply by being punctual they could have had perfect peas ten minutes ago but now it was all ruined. Completely and utterly ruined. With a supreme effort Nick stopped himself from throwing the peas into the waste bin.

He felt dizzy with anger and had to hold onto the side of the cooker to stop himself from falling over. Took a deep breath. When he closed his eyes he saw stars. His heart was pounding. Sweat dripped from his face. Another deep breath. Staggering across to the sink he poured himself a glass of cold water. Water was free, it came from their own well. How long can you live on water? Thirty days and thirty nights? If they got any poorer his fasting would reach biblical proportions.

While Maureen and Martin hauled their bags through to the sitting-room he gradually calmed down. Staring down at the small pyramid of overcooked peas in the colander he shook his head, despairing at his own stupidity, the way he got everything out of perspective. Maureen meant well. Her motives were good. It was just that her direction was all wrong. Spending money on luxuries they didn’t need. Her eternal bloody optimism. As if she was some bleeding Salvation Army general offering hope to a bloody down-and-out or something… If only she would listen to him instead…really listen and get some sort of handle on the mess they were in. Instead of throwing money they didn’t have at a problem they weren’t addressing. Try as he might he couldn’t make her see what she was doing to him by her crazy spendthrift behaviour. That every penny was vital. She was so bloody calm about it all. She had no insight whatsoever into the panic he was feeling, the waves of desperation in which he was daily drowning.

When Maureen returned to the kitchen he held out the canister of shaving foam. "Thanks," he said gruffly, "But shaving soap would have done just as well."

Maureen sometimes felt she could do nothing right as far as her husband was concerned and this display of ingratitude was typical, if characteristically unpredictable. If only he could see that getting into a state didn’t help matters. She hid the hurt look on her face as she turned away and took off her old anorak.

"Why do you always have to be so bad-tempered, Nick?" she said, struggling with only partial success to keep the irritation out of her voice, "It's not our fault we're late."

"It's his bloody fault for not shutting the door," Nick shouted back, glaring at his son, immediately on the defensive. He was perfectly aware that he had become increasingly bad-tempered and petty and stupid but he couldn't stop himself. By being late they undermined his efforts to make himself useful and valuable. Knowing this didn't stop him expressing his anger and bitterness.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so stressed out. I didn’t mean…”

Maureen sighed. "I'll take it back if you like and change it for shaving soap."

Nick pursed his lips in irritation. Now she was the one who was being petty, turning their poverty into a battleground. It was bad enough that he had to fight the outside world, the massed forces of impending economic disaster, of high prices and artificial demand, of structural unemployment, of imports and balance of payment deficits and a sheaf of threatening letters from the bloody bank manager and the credit card bloody usurers without her acting as some sort of fifth columnist trying to undermine his position from within. A bloody war on one front against the massed ranks of their creditors was as much as he could handle at the moment, and he wasn't even sure about that.

In grim silence he served up their meal and they took it through in the sitting room. They ate with their plates balanced on their laps, in front of the television. Nick had already eaten - yesterday's corned beef leftovers fried up with a finely chopped onion and a clove of garlic - but he sat with them for company and watched the news for the fourth or fifth time that day.

“The peas are all right,” said Maureen, by way of gentle reproach.

“They’re great. Just the way I like them,” agreed Martin, wolfing down the peas which he had mashed into a lumpy, gelatinous mass topped with lashings of tomato ketchup.

Nick was too weary to argue about the peas. He didn’t really care about the food any more, nor about the people eating it. No, that wasn’t true. He loved them, of course he did, but right now he was too tired to care. About them. About anything. The battle against imminent bankruptcy was almost lost and in a way he almost welcomed defeat, would be glad when it was all finally over. What did it matter anyway? So he fucked up his life. Only a small tragedy, not many killed. Whose fault was it anyway? Was it the hand he had been dealt had he screwed up on his own by being totally feckless? Or too ambitious? Or stupid? Whatever the reason, he had reached the stage where he was prepared to face the consequences, whatever they might be. Making one more supreme effort, in an attempt not to appear churlish, he turned to Maureen.

"How was work, love?"

It was the same question he put to her at this time every night.

"Fine," she said, as she always did.

That was it. During the remainder of the meal she never took her eyes off the television. End of conversation. They might as well have been strangers at different tables in an empty cafĂ© in a nameless city. Except that they loved each other. That’s what made it worse. Just by being there she made him feel lonely, much more lonely than when he was on his own. A situation made worse by his discovery after the business had folded that Maureen was his only real friend. All the rest, colleagues he had worked with for years, had deserted him.

In quiet desperation he turned to his son. Martin was a tolerant child. Nick felt tolerated by him. Theirs had never been an equal relationship but recently the balance had changed and now he increasingly felt like the junior partner. He was the one who needed support and understanding.

He watched Martin cramming food into his mouth. He had always loved the child more than anything else in the whole world. Looking at him was like seeing himself at that age. He had wanted desperately to ensure that his son had a happy childhood, a good start in life. Failing him as a father was the thing that hurt most of all. In some ways their relationship had been a history of failure, a mutual inability to communicate their love for each other. Even, on many occasions, to communicate at all. Nick had always tried to give the boy unconditional love but the reservoir from which he drew this most basic human emotion had been too shallow – leaving them both starved of affection.

He sighed.

Being a good father nowadays was an almost impossible challenge, both materially and spiritually, when there was so much that was out of your control, so much more that could go wrong, so many material distractions that made you irrelevant. Like any father he had wanted give his son the best possible start in life – the start he had never had – but the reality was that it took money, a commodity that was now in very short supply. Thank God they’d paid this year’s school fees in advance before the business went bust. At least that gave them a few month’s breathing space. What would happen after the summer holidays was anybody’s guess.
Martin’s higher education was a looming problem that seemed insoluble. A bright kid – a very bright kid – he wanted to go to University to become a doctor. His teachers all said he had it in him. No-one argued with that. The problem was how they could possibly afford it. Just thinking about the cost brought Nick out into a cold sweat. It was a classic case of Catch 22. Maureen’s nominal salary meant that they wouldn’t get a grant to defray the costs. Nominal because their joint personal guarantees meant the bank was threatening to take almost half her income. You didn’t have to be an accountant to work out that what would be left would fall far short of what was needed to pay for Martin’s university education. And it went without saying that Nick’s chances of getting a job at his age that would allow him to pay off his huge business debts and leave enough to cover the fees and their living expenses were virtually non-existent. Martin would have to live in either Aberdeen or, his preferred choice, Edinburgh, supposedly a more prestigious university in the medical field.

Nick bit his lip.

The truth was they should never have moved out into the country ten years earlier. That was yet another one of his bright ideas. As far as he could remember now he had harboured some sort of romantic notion that his son would benefit from a bucolic upbringing out in the middle of nowhere, away from the temptations and the ugliness of the city. As it turned out, entirely predictably, Martin hated the countryside. All his friends were in town. He even continued to go to school in town, travelling in and out every day with Maureen. In his eyes the countryside was barren, boring and, above all, naff.

The answer, of course, would be for them to up sticks and move back into town. Which might indeed be the eventual outcome once the bank repossessed the house and they were forced to look for rented accommodation. Always assuming of course that Maureen would agree to move back into town which was by no means certain. In the meantime they were stuck here, in the middle of nowhere, in limbo.

Struggling to hide his inner turmoil Nick fixed a smile upon his face and leaned across to his son.
"What about you, Martin? How was school today?"

"What?" said Martin, not taking his eyes off the television news, graphic images of further atrocities committed during the so-called peace in Iraq.

“School. You know. That place you go to every day. How was it?”

Martin’s gaze remained fixed on the television, a forkful of bloody-looking peas suspended in front of his open mouth. Nick regarded his son with distaste. Sometimes it was hard to love even the person you cherished above all others. And because he loved his son so much he wanted him to be perfect. Unfortunately the reality fell a long way short of the ideal. The reality was a person whose table manners left a an enormous amount to be desired, creating a hole in his affections the size of Denmark.


“What? Oh, fine.”

“Fine? Fine? Is that it? Is that all they’ve taught you to say after all these years? Fine!”

Martin turned and regarded his father with barely disguised contempt. “Chill out, dad. It’s school. That’s all it is.”

“I’m just trying to make conversation. You know, quality time. With my family.”

“Leave the boy alone,” said Maureen, without looking up.

“All right, dad. Fair point. How was your day?”

“Fine,” said Nick, before he could stop himself.

Martin sniggered and turned back to the television.

Within seconds the vacuum that surrounds all families enveloped them once more, deadening their affections. Nick stared at the television, numbed by the repetitive images of death and destruction. Maureen continued to peruse the paper and Martin, who had cleared his plate in a matter of seconds, was already bounding up the stairs to the fastness of his bedroom for the night. The highlight of their day – breaking bread together - was already over and now there was nothing left to say. Nick got up and started clearing away the dirty dishes. He couldn't go on this way. There had to be more to life than this, even for someone who had failed as badly as he had.

He jumped as he heard Maureen speak. “Have you had any news on the job front, Nick?”

Nick froze, paralysed by the direct brutality of the question. “Er…”

“Any replies at all?”

“Replies?” He was immediately on the defensive, tiptoeing around this thorny subject.

“No interviews coming up or anything?”

“Interviews?” Exposed and vulnerable, Nick was unable to recall the previous gloss he had put on his job hunting progress.

“How many jobs have you applied for this week?”

“This week?”

“Nick, you need to start bringing in some money soon. We can’t survive on what I earn. Not with the bank taking…”

“I know, I know,” he interrupted. “The trouble is nobody seems to be hiring at the moment. Not people my age anyway. If I was twenty years younger it might be different. Lots of other people my age are in the same boat.”

“What about the employment agencies?”


“The Job Centre? Were you there today?”

Nick hated the Job Centre. An hour on the bus and then into a building that felt like something out of Eastern Europe, full of strange and frightening people. He found the whole process degrading, humiliating.

“Did you go today, Nick?” Maureen persisted.

“I was busy doing things to the house.” This much was true. He had kept himself busy doing all the things Maureen had been nagging him about for years. Broken towel rails, a noisy central heating pump, loose tiles in the bathroom, a leaking tap. The list was endless and despite his efforts had grown longer since he became unemployed. Sometimes he imagined the house was afflicted by some sort of sick building syndrome. Maybe it had a virus. The unemployment virus. The antidote for which he had yet to discover.

“Finding a job is more important than faffing around the house all day.”

“I fixed the leaking tap in the bathroom.”

“Nick, you’ve got to get a job. I don’t give a damn about the tap in the bathroom.”

This was the first time Maureen had pressed him on his search for employment, the first time she had refused to be fobbed off by his vagueness. She was obviously getting seriously worried about their situation. He had always found it impossible to tell what Maureen was thinking. She was deep, very deep. But the fact that she had been brooding on his failure to find a job was unnerving. If she was worried about his unemployability that was ominous. For weeks he had clung to her equanimity like a lifebelt.

“I’ve been thinking about having another go at running my own business,” he said eventually.
Maureen looked aghast. “No way, Nick. Absolutely not. I couldn’t go through that again. I just couldn’t.”

“No, listen. I’ve learnt a lot over the past few months. I wouldn’t make the same mistakes again, believe me.”

“What kind of business?”

“I don’t really know. Anything. I’ve got the whole world to choose from. I could do anything.”

“What about capital?”

It was typical of Maureen to get bogged down in detail. “I’ve got intellectual capital. I wouldn’t need money.”

“We need money now.”

He gave up. Since she obviously had no faith in him any more there was no way he could convince her that he could still rescue them from their plight. He would show her though. Once he had thought of something he could do. Consultancy maybe. Corporate troubleshooting. Management temping perhaps. Anything in fact. Any bloody thing at all.

While Nick was washing up Maureen came through to make herself a cup of tea. The draining board was already dangerously crowded. He stacked another pan precariously on top of the pile, hoping that Maureen would notice his predicament and give him a hand instead of just taking him for granted, treating him like some sort of nearly-invisible domestic help. Maureen seemed unaware of the incipient dish crisis as she glanced through the mail.

Through gritted teeth he muttered, trying to suppress his anger, "It might help if you dried a few dishes."

She didn’t look up, "Just leave them to drain. They'll dry themselves."

This was perfectly true but Nick had set himself the task of clearing up the kitchen speedily. He was determined to show her it would always be neat and tidy under his regime. Her refusal to co-operate in his self-imposed pursuit of perfection infuriated him. Grabbing a tea towel from off the chair on which she was perched he ostentatiously started drying the dishes himself.
Maureen appeared not to detect the significance.

"What was in your mail today?" she asked.

Nick’s heart sank. That morning he had opened a letter from the credit card company which had exploded in his head like a letter bomb, destroying in one blinding flash the illusion that he was safe at home. He had been so upset that he had forgotten to hide the rest of his mail which now lay unopened on the window sill. There were several obvious bills and, worst of all, an unopened letter from the bank. Panic washed over him and he had to restrain himself from running out of the house and being sick. "I haven't had time to open it all," he lied, lamely.

“You haven’t had time?”

He laughed sheepishly. He was feeling faint again and held on to the edge of the sink to steady himself. “I just never got round to it.”

Maureen worked her way through the pile of unopened bills, frowning, but saying nothing. Nick watched her furtively out of the corner of his eye while he cleared the draining board. The tension in the room mounted as the pile of letters accumulated at her elbow. With each new envelope she opened he became more and more anxious. The dishes he dried felt as fragile as antique porcelain in his shaking hands. Where had all the bills come from? He had bought nothing in the last month so she couldn't blame him. Just existing these days, just breathing and living on bread and water, seemed to cost a fortune. There was no way of avoiding bills while you were still alive no matter how hard you tried. Which was a bloody good reason for being dead, he thought, not for the first time.

Nick dried the last plate very slowly, watching Maureen’s face as she read the letter from their bank. He saw her turn pale.

"What is it?" he asked, his heart thumping.

"It's the bank. They want to speak to us. We've gone over our limit and they've put a stop on the account."

It was the news he had been dreading.

"Jesus," he groaned, feeling as if the ground had opened up beneath his feet, as if he was sinking into quicksand, "Jesus Christ Almighty."

“It says we’ve ignored all their previous letters and if we don’t respond they’ll have no choice but to place us in the hands of their debt recovery agents. What letters? We haven’t had any letters from them, have we?”

“What the fuck are we going to do?” groaned Nick.

“Have we, Nick?”

“What? I don’t know. I’ve been bombarded with letters. I can’t remember. What the fuck are we going to do?”

“First you’ll have to talk to them. Then you’ll have to get a job. We can’t go on like this.”

“I can’t get a job, Maureen. I keep telling you. I’ve tried. I’m too bloody old.”

He slumped into a seat at the table and cradled his head in his hands. His heart was thumping so violently against his chest that he could hardly breathe. With their hugely diminished income they were bound to run out of money eventually but he thought they might have survived for a few more weeks. Time for something to turn up, for a miracle to happen. They were living beyond their means, that was the problem. He had warned Maureen continually about spending money but she wouldn't listen. The shaving foam was a typical example. Now they had dug themselves into a hole and there was no way out. They were going to lose everything.
In a matter of days the bailiffs would arrive. First their furniture would be carted off. By the end of the month they would be out on the street. After that the best they could hope for was bed and breakfast accommodation in some ghastly place full of DSS claimants. Then if they were lucky a council house on a crime-ridden housing estate where teenage gangs and drug addicts roamed the streets and people were mugged and burgled and threatened by neighbours from hell on a daily basis. And still they would be left with massive debts hanging around their necks. Debts that they would be paying for the rest of their lives.

"Christ," he groaned again, "I knew this was going to happen. I fucking knew it."

Maureen flinched. “There’s no need to swear, Nick,” she chastised.

Her apparent calmness infuriated him. It was all very well to adopt a reasonable and rational approach to their problems but that didn’t actually help in the slightest as far as solving anything was concerned. Her demeanour was as much use as staying calm in front of a firing squad. What he wanted was solutions, not sweet reasonableness.

“What are we going to do?" he blurted, his voice rising as hysteria swept over him, "What the fuck are we going to do? Is there anything we can sell? If only I could get a job. What about your parents? Will they lend us money? We could sell the furniture. I've got an old insurance policy somewhere. What about the house? We'll have to sell the house, that's the only thing left."

"We can't sell the house, you know that. The bank won’t let us. Have you spoken to the lawyer again?"

“He said he’s still looking into it. He didn’t sound very optimistic. Christ knows how we’re going to pay his bill, that’ll be the next thing.”

“What about going bankrupt? What did he say about that?”

“We’ll still be stuck with those personal guarantees. Whatever happens we’re going to lose everything.”

Maureen stared at the pile of bills. “We’ll have to do something.”

Nick thrust his right hand to his mouth and bit hard into his knuckles.

"Why has this happened to us?” he moaned, “Why us, God? I mean it's not even as if I spend any money. I mean you can't accuse me of being profligate can you? Can you?"

Maureen continued to stare down at the pile of threatening letters. "I’ve never accused you of anything," she whispered.

"I mean I don't spend any money do I? I don't drink or gamble or go with women do I? I don't have expensive hobbies do I? I gave up going fishing because I couldn't afford it. I haven't had a holiday for years. I don't go out with my mates do I? Christ, I haven't even got any mates any more. They're all out there at their golf clubs having a good time, spending a fortune at the bar and look at me. I don't even smoke because I'm too mean to buy fags. When was the last time I went out for a meal, go on, tell me?”

“Nick, stop it.”

“Jesus I’ve been living on bread and water for the past month. I’m starving myself to death. Christ, I hate spending money now. I've become the meanest fucking man you'll ever meet. And all because I had a bit of ambition, because I wanted to do my best for my family. But I flew too close to the sun, didn’t I? I had it coming, isn’t that right? Go on, tell me, it’s all my fucking fault."

Maureen was looking increasingly distressed. "This isn't helping, Nick."

"Nothing's fucking helping, that's the problem," he shouted, hitting his forehead with his fist. He knew he was getting hysterical but he couldn't stop himself, there was nothing else left, nowhere else to turn. "I fucking wish I was dead," he continued, "I wish I had never been born. All these fucking years for nothing. All that struggle for what? For this?"

Alarmed, Maureen kept her voice soft and calm. "You'll have to get a job, Nick, that’s the only solution."

Her words sent a chill through him for what they left unsaid. Get a job...or else, that was what she meant. Or else what? What would happen to him if he failed to find work? Nick knew the answer. His wife would leave him, that’s what. Taking Martin with her. Abandon him. The thought terrified him.

Upstairs Martin was playing some kind of bloody rap music at full volume. When he was young, Nick had loved music too, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, had believed in them somehow, believed that the world was full of promise and opportunities and endless excitement. Now he just hated them, hated their fatuous lyrics, their absurd optimism, their hypocritical wealth. Hated Martin too if it came to that, that bastard who thought of no one but himself, the child whose education had become a monkey on his back. Hated Maureen as well for the way she took everything in her stride, leaving him to do all the worrying, making himself sick with worry. Hated the bank, the credit card company, those mercenary bastards, the electricity board, the coalman, the garage, the milkman, the newsagent. Hated all those other fucking leeches with their fat prosperous lives and their thin, insistent demands. Hated himself too for failing to cope with them. Above all hated that bloody nightmarish racket banging on above his head. The whole fucking thing was a bloody nightmare.

To his horror Maureen started crying, something that only ever happened at the very worst times in their lives, like the dreadful night their baby daughter had died eighteen years earlier. The sight of his wife’s heaving shoulders as she sat at the table cradling her head in her hands scared him, the whole bloody business scared him. He didn’t think he could take much more.
He stood up.

"Where are you going?" sobbed Maureen looking up at him, her blue eyes bloodshot.

He struggled into his old Barbour, tugging at it until his arms hurt, almost ripping off the sleeves as he wrestled it over his head.

"I'm going out for a walk," he gasped, fumbling with the zip that no longer worked properly, jerking it frantically, tears of frustration in his eyes, using all his strength, tearing the fabric, tearing his muscles in frustration, "Jesus, I can't take any more of this. It's driving me totally totally fucking crazy."

Nick stormed out into the crisp, starlit night, slamming the door behind him. As the sound of his footsteps crunching on the hard snow died away Maureen closed her eyes and slumped forward, her forehead resting on her clenched fists. After years of putting up with him and his unpredictable emotional demands and endless dramas she had finally reached the point where she too knew she couldn’t take much more.