Doglike and Un(in)formed

Poetry chapbooks by Bearded Badger Publishing Company – reviewed.

Bearded Badger Publishing Company has chosen two contrasting chapbooks to open the account of its poetry press TRA[verse]. As a writer of prose which wants often to arc-spark across into poetry, reading verse is for me an inspirational walk through the landscape of language. We really all should go there far more often.

In her collection Un(in)formed Becky Deans employs traditional forms (sonnet, villanelle, haiku) but is not excessively formal about metre, and I find her poems sound great when read aloud.

There’s a tension in the language, behind the early Midlands mentions: Leicester, Codnor – concrete confinement and limiting labels, the brutal regimentation behind the Pantry door. And there, just past the middle of the chapbook, When Did You Stop Learning Baby? and the follow-up Domestic set out very plainly the (lack of) distance travelled since the days of those force-fed suffragettes. The focus is on the quotidian, for how else are we bound but by the closest things around us?

Environmental concerns make themselves felt across the opening poems, amid car parks and concrete, taking us to threatened countryside for Pastures New, and culminating in Slab, when at last “Concrete pervades everything” and we see where the process is leading. Suppressed nature, in both human and environmental terms.

It would be great to hear Becky read some of these poems aloud herself soon, along with others.

There’s more concrete, and more car parks, in Doglike by Rory Aaron. Yet these poems aren’t urban in the sense of hip-hop vernacular; indeed, they’re quietly erudite, picking up on the oaken aspect of the River Derwent’s name, for example.

But those moments gleam like broken glass under sunlight in the streets roamed by the Doglike characters, voices cracking and fractured through short, fragmented lines, arguing and hectoring as they sprawl and brawl across the pages. Or pause, as in A year of minor heart attacks, Saying hello and the closing Small city, for descriptive passages that still speak rhythmic and raw from the page. Read aloud, dear reader, read allowed!

The central Dog figure doubles as a modern manifestation of Ted Hughes’s Crow, engaged in metaphysical conflict with God, against whom (spoiler alert!) he triumphs, reigning over a wasteland. These poems feel like part of a wider narrative – I would not be surprised to read more about Dog, and I would be very disappointed not to see lots more from Rory Aaron.

The Old King

New beginnings and a strange visitor at a Derbyshire pub.

Lisa wished she’d worn another skirt, this one was shorter than her coat. The good thick tights would keep her warm, but she worried how she looked, giving it all the legs, at her age.

   ‘This,’ she said, breath misting the cold air, ‘Is where I should tell myself I look great, build up my confidence.’ Hands in pockets she strode along the jitty by the side of the railway cutting, talking to herself. Knew she was doing it, but when you spend a lot of time alone it’s sometimes nice to hear a voice.

   She crossed Field Lane and kept quiet on her way through the car park. There were plenty of people on King Street, out celebrating with four days to go before Christmas. Halfway along Strutt Street Lisa had another word with herself.

   ‘Well, you look no worse than some of that lot.’ Chuckled and waited to cross Cheapside to Days Lane and the Old King’s Head.

   Inside the door she unbuttoned her coat and looked for Nick. No, just a couple of solitary drinkers. Checked her watch and yes, it was a minute or two to eight.

   ‘What can I get you, duck?’ said the lady behind the bar.

   ‘Gin and tonic, please.’ Lisa watched the drink come together. ‘Think I was last in here at someone’s eighteenth. Long time ago.’ The pub was decorated, festive. Nothing too glitzy, not over the top.

   ‘It won’t have changed much,’ said the bar lady. ‘You been away?’

   ‘Yes,’ Lisa nodded. ‘Lived in Chester over twenty years now.’

   ‘Back for Christmas?’

   ‘No, it’s my mother.’ Handed over a note and took change. ‘She died in October and I’ve been sorting things out.’ Lisa still hadn’t picked up her drink. ‘I only work Monday to Wednesday now, so I can do a lot of it myself.’

   ‘Sorry to hear about your mum,’ said the lady. ‘I’m Betty, by the way.’ Friendly smile.

   ‘Lisa. I’m here to meet a friend.’ Paused. ‘Well, he was a boyfriend once, but that’s ancient history.’ Took out her phone and checked their texts. No, there it was – eight o’clock.

   ‘That’s right, sneak to the bar while I’m at the gents.’ Nick put a hand on her shoulder. Lisa went back in her bag, found the purse. ‘Only kidding,’ he said. ‘Got most of a pint still, over here.’ Pointed to a table by the window as Betty gave him a dark-horse look.

   Lisa sat down, wishing they were nearer the fire.

   ‘I think the old girl knew you were in the toilet,’ she said.

   ‘Should think so, she pulled me this pint.’

   ‘I mean she was just letting me talk.’ Lisa sipped her gin at last.

   ‘Well, you do enjoy talking,’ said Nick. Took a drink.

   ‘Look, I can just go, if you don’t want company,’ said Lisa, missing his smirk. ‘Plenty to do back at my mother’s.’

   ‘You’re not stopping, then?’ he asked. And she knew. Not tonight, he meant here, in town, in Belper.

   ‘I’ll stop for a bit,’ she said. That ought to hold him. It wasn’t that she thought he was still, you know, interested. Just didn’t need anything complicated to think about, not now. Not yet. They’d had a couple of coffees since she’d been coming back at the weekends, which had been nice, but this was the first time at night, so it felt a bit different.

   ‘Are you ready for Christmas?’ she smiled. ‘Or denying it, as ever. Pretending it’s not happening.’ Wide eyes as he nodded. ‘Just like my ex.’

   ‘And you sound like mine.’ Both took another drink.

   ‘Tell you what,’ said Lisa, ‘we’ve got a type, both of us.’

   ‘What type?’ said Nick.

   ‘The wrong type!’ Laughed. ‘All my boyfriends were like you, and so was my husband.’

   They were both divorced. Lisa had left her husband a couple of years ago, and Nick’s wife had taken off before that, to be with someone else. Lisa had left to get away. Her husband wasn’t violent or unfaithful, just controlling, manipulative. She put up with it for far too long, but once decided it was easy. Easier than Nick’s divorce, anyhow. They had children.

   ‘How are your lads?’ she asked, thinking Nick might take some thawing out before he gave much away, or maybe a pint or two more inside him.

   ‘Alright,’ he said. ‘James is still studying. But Billy’s business is doing brilliant. Folk always want electrical work done. He’s taken on two more since summer, and they’ve got another van. Be moving to some bigger premises next year.’ Smiled, happy. Supped the last of his beer and stood to get another, bringing another gin for Lisa after chatting for a minute with Steve Toplis, one of the other drinkers.

   ‘Thank you,’ Lisa took the glass. ‘Better not have too many of these.’

   Nick shook his head, sat down and tasted the first of his new pint.

   ‘Anyhow,’ he said, ‘I’ve been offered voluntary redundancy.’ Put the drink down. ‘Our Billy says he could use me for some of the week at his place, driving and that. I’ve had a look at what they’re offering, and it’s nearly as much as I’d take home between now and the finish, anyhow.’

   ‘So you’ve said yes.’

   ‘Not yet.’ Moved the glass without picking it up. ‘Offer’s open till the tenth of January. Going to give it some thought, over the break.’

   ‘Not much to think about, surely?’ Lisa sipped her drink.

   ‘The money’s one thing, but I’d like to know what I’ll be doing, how my life’s going to be.’ Pointed at his beer. ‘I’m off this week, and I was in here yesterday afternoon at three o’clock. I can’t be doing that every day.’

   ‘Oh, you’ll find plenty to occupy yourself with.’

   ‘Like you have? What about when your mother’s place is sold and you’re back in Chester, by yourself.’

   ‘I’ve got friends,’ Lisa said. ‘Although most of them still work full-time. Everyone I’ve known the longest still lives here.’

   The wind had got up outside, and a lot of it blew into the pub as the door was held open by a curious character. Straggly grey-white hair ran from under his battered hat, icicled on the shoulders of his overcoat. His beard was nearer white, hid his neck and most of what looked like a red scarf.

   ‘Do you allow birds?’ he called across the room, voice booming and not local. Betty looked at him funny.

   ‘Women, you mean?’

   ‘No,’ he said, ‘birds.’ Pulled his other arm in and there at the elbow sat a raggedy crow, moving its head from side to side without breaking eye contact with Betty.

   ‘Ooh no,’ she said. ‘We’re not having that thing in here.’

   ‘All right,’ said the man to the crow. ‘You’ll have to wait outside.’ To Betty: ‘I’ll put him on the window ledge.’

   Lisa pulled a face and hoped it was going on the other ledge, not the one under their window.

   ‘Won’t it just fly away?’ said Nick, as the man came back inside and closed the door.

   ‘Never has before,’ he said, rubbing his hands together on the way to the bar. Nick finished his pint. Stood to get another, wanting to see and talk to the newcomer.

   Betty passed the man a pint of cider, getting a crumpled note in return and going for change.

   ‘What’s the crow’s name?’ Nick asked.

   ‘Crow,’ said the man, ‘they’re all called Crow. Don’t like it if you give ’em a name.’ His boots looked wet. Today had been damp, but the night was clear, frost tingling in the air. Nick could feel the cold coming off the man’s overcoat. He held out a big rough hand for Nick to shake.

   ‘Oliver King,’ he said. His hand was very cold.

   ‘Nick Lovell.’

   ‘Nice in here,’ said Mr. King. Pointed round the room, at the holly twigs, then the little sprig in his top pocket. ‘Got that from the Holly Bush,’ he said.

   ‘Well, obviously,’ said Nick.

   ‘No,’ Mr. King laughed, ‘the pub. The Holly Bush in Makeney. I was there earlier, walked here.’

   ‘You must be thirsty,’ said Betty.

   ‘I’m always thirsty,’ he grinned and went to sit by the fire. Lisa nodded over at him, as Nick returned with his new pint.

   ‘Was going to suggest moving to that table,’ she said. ‘Too late, now.’

   ‘Never mind,’ said Nick, ‘the gin’ll warm you up, if you sup it.’ Watched her nursing the last one. ‘When’d you start drinking that, anyhow?’

   ‘Got sick of bad wine in pubs,’ she said. ‘I must be getting old.’

   ‘Rubbish,’ said Nick. ‘I still feel seventeen, in me head.’ Smiling eyes. ‘And we should be talking about the future.’

   ‘It’s only just begun!’ Noddy Holder assured them, over the speakers.

   ‘There you go,’ Nick said, and they chinked glasses. Lisa stared over at the old man by the fire, now warm enough to take off his coat. Kept the scarf on though, above his dark green jumper and brown cord trousers.

   ‘I used to drive down and fetch Mum to Chester for Christmas,’ said Lisa, ‘take her home before New Year. Not anymore.’

   ‘So what will you do?’

   ‘Not sure,’ she said. ‘You?’

   ‘I’ll be at our Billy’s. His mother never comes back here, always thought she were too good for Belper.’

   ‘You used to say that about me too,’ Lisa reminded him, ‘whenever I came back here.’

   ‘Sorry. But you said it yourself enough times, before you left.’ Nick had almost finished his drink. ‘What do you make of the old town, now?’

   Lisa looked over at him, light flickering in her eyes.

   ‘Nick, I never stopped loving it. Just tried to tell myself I’d moved on.’ Eyes wetter, now.

   ‘Hey, don’t get upset,’ he said. ‘Let me get you another.’

   ‘No,’ said Lisa, standing. ‘It’s my turn.’

   At the bar she was joined by Mr. King, returning his glass and refusing a refill.

   ‘No, thank you,’ he told Betty. ‘Still got some way to travel.’ Left his glass on the bar. ‘I’m off to the Royal Oak, now.’

   ‘On Mill street?’ said Betty. ‘You’ll have a job. It’s a house now, not been a pub for over ten years.’

   Mr. King’s face was very still as he took this in.

   ‘But that’s where I go,’ he said, staring.

   ‘Not no more, you don’t!’ called Steve Toplis from his table. Mr. King turned and stared cold into him. Steve looked down at his paper.

   ‘I think I will have another pint, please.’ Mr. King put money on the bar and blew out sad air. Betty finished taking Lisa’s money and got him a new glass.

   ‘There’s still lots of pubs,’ Lisa said. ‘You could try the Nag’s Head, or the Grapes.’

   Mr. King shook his head.

   ‘Thank you, but that really won’t help.’ He took his glass and turned to speak with her, voice lower now, and friendly. ‘I’m on a long journey, and it helps to have familiar names along the way. Means a lot to me.’

   ‘Where are you headed?’ asked Nick from the table, wanting his beer and Lisa to sit down.

   ‘A long way and back,’ said Mr. King. ‘But not so far as you.’

   ‘Me?’ said Nick.

   ‘Yew, the tree.’ A long drink of his cider. ‘I’m walking the wood road, so I see a lot of trees.’

   ‘Where are you staying?’ Lisa asked. He didn’t have a bag or anything.

   ‘Here and there,’ he said. ‘I know a lot of places, and they all know me.’ Back to his chair by the fire, but his voice had grown quieter and he didn’t stay long afterwards. Pulled on his overcoat and wished everyone well before closing the door behind him. Steve peeped out through the curtain to confirm that he’d taken the crow.

   ‘Funny feller,’ said Betty, relieved about the bird. ‘Seemed right upset about the Royal Oak.’

   ‘Can’t have mattered that much,’ said Steve, ‘if he’s never been for ten year.’

   ‘Maybe he liked out-the-way sort of pubs,’ said Nick. ‘Holly Bush, here, Royal Oak.’

   ‘Mentioned something about a wood road,’ Lisa said, and Steve stood up.

   ‘Still got those maps on the shelf, Betty love?’ he asked. She went to get them and Steve looked over at Nick. ‘Kev Freeman leaves ’em here, so we can plan walks and stuff.’

   Betty handed over the maps and Steve found the largest-scale Ordnance Survey sheet showing Belper – not recent, but good enough for the job. Nick and Lisa took their drinks over, to see what he was doing.

   Nobody had a ruler, but Steve snapped the rubber band from the sheaf of maps and stretched it between the Holly Bush at Makeney and the corner of Mill Street and Pingle Lane, where the Royal Oak used to stand.

   ‘Look at that,’ he said. Even Betty came to the table as Nick pointed.

   ‘Right through this place.’

   ‘But you can’t walk it in a straight line,’ said Steve. ‘That’s just on the map, you know.’

   ‘As the crow flies,’ said Betty. They all looked at one another.

   ‘So what’s the connection?’ Lisa asked. ‘Why these pubs?’

   ‘Should have asked before he left!’ said Steve.

   ‘Holly and Oak,’ Nick wondered. ‘Trees. And his name was King.’

Later, under the cold stars outside her mother’s house, Lisa found herself asking Nick if he wanted to come in. Had the key in her hand ready.

   ‘Better not,’ he said. ‘We don’t want folks talking. I’ll give you a ring.’ They nodded. ‘Will you wait a bit to put it up for sale?’

   ‘The estate agent I spoke to said February’s a good time.’ Lisa could see her breath under the streetlight. ‘But it’s been nice, staying here in Belper at weekends.’ Looked at him. ‘I’ll miss that.’

   ‘Don’t say any more.’ Nick stepped away. ‘Goodnight.’ Waved from the gate.

   ‘Goodnight,’ said Lisa. ‘And thank you.’

   Nick watched until she was inside.

   On Green Lane he put his hands in his pockets, looking forward to the warming climb home. They hadn’t stayed late at the Old King’s Head but the roads were quiet and there was nobody ahead as he started up Mill Street. Smiled as he passed the house that used to be the Royal Oak, then stopped and turned at what sounded like a baby crying. Surely nobody would have a window open in this cold?

   There, on the windowsill of the former pub, perched a crow. It was staring back, head swaying. Without walking closer Nick pulled out his phone and took a picture. Even the flash didn’t scare the bird away, so he went nearer and took another. Still not bothered.

   ‘Bloody hell,’ said Nick to himself and the bird. ‘Lisa won’t believe this.’ Was about to call her, then decided to wait until morning.

   Then he could ask all the other things, too.

Jitty

Jitty

My short story Jitty has been published in Issue 41 of The Blue Nib, and you can read it here.

JITTY

What am I? The spirit of the jitty, of all the jitties, all over this town. I expect there are more like me, in towns and cities, wherever there’s a jitty. In other places they call them alleys, ginnels, snickets, twittens, shuts. I know these names from people who pass with different accents, and say the wrong word. You can tell when someone’s from further away sometimes, even before they speak.

What sort of a thing am I? Just this, what I’m telling. The spirit of all that has passed here, through these channels, these back ways, these jitties. The trace, the track, the leaving. So I’m anxious, nervy, hurried and furtive. I’m hopeful, excited and full of desire. Then the darker meat: plotting, suspicion and deviance. But try not to judge me. I’m only the sum of my parts, which are your parts. The parts you have played, as you pass along the jitties of the town, on your way home, out shopping, or drinking, to meet with your friends, with your lovers, to follow and spy on your enemies.

Oh, I know spite and resentment, the spurned, deceived lovers tailing new couples, the fear and the hope in the breathing and voices of people who hide their love here. Not everyone comes from the jitty the same as the person who walked there and talked, stopped and waited. Met others, another, embraced and wished they could shrink back into the cracks of the walls as I can, who pass past their passing and see as they come and they go. The men wait for women wait for women wait for men wait for men wait for women wait for women wait for men wait it’s easy to stick in a cycle like that one, a loop, for a long time. Forever, I’m sure, if you don’t find the will to break out of it. A circle of words can fill all of the dark between days, between dark, between days, between dark, between days, when there’s nobody passing. But those nights are rare. The jitties draw people, invite them like lovers, inside.

Love is love in the jitty, took quick, maybe stolen. In these shaded places, some people reveal themselves. Friends enter jitties, and so friends emerge, but between, within, sometimes, they’re lovers. The touch, the kiss, the sudden swell and press of warm desire. The drunken screws, quick, clothed and hungry. Shared minutes of passion in lifetimes of guilt and denial, perhaps. Or sometimes they can’t wait, can’t carry their lust up the valleyside home, and stop here in the darkness instead, to unleash it. Laughing and pouting, up against the wall, gritstone against shoulderblades as they press together, hidden here, unknown except to me.

I’ve no wit of my own, I’m not clever. I know only what you tell me, in passing, as you pass. I expect there was a time when I didn’t use words, hadn’t learned them from you, from your fellows and forebears. I know plenty now, more than some of the people who walk here. Time’s been on my side. And stories, I know lots of stories. They’re snippets and snatches, small scraps of your lives, just the times in the narrow gaps here between buildings, the passages passed in the passage. The jitty, my realm.

I can zip about easy enough, and unseen, or at least nobody ever stops to talk to me. No, wait. That’s not true. You do get odd poets and singers, or drunkards, who say out loud how much they love this jitty. But I know they don’t mean me, they mean the stones, the steps, the way plants grow from the wallstones either side. Not me. They haven’t seen me. Come to that, I haven’t seen myself. Sight’s not my strongest sense, I’m more a feeling, smelling, hearing thing. I listen, to the wind and traffic sounds that blow and bounce from off the bricks and stones, but more keenly to the footfalls and talk of the people who pass. They speak alone, into phones or to themselves, and then some of them sing. I’ve known a good few that way, because they sing the same songs, often at night, on their way home, pulling up the valleyside between the houses, singing. One that I remember used to sing himself a song about the town:

Somebody told me you lay there like poetry:

Cotton-tied, the river’s bride, riverside the cottoned widow.

And that’s the way you promised that you’d stay,

But now you’re changing, and pushing me away.

For all the warmth in his voice, those words used to hurt. He wasn’t singing to me, although I do change, I have changed, can’t help it. But as for pushing, never! If I could catch and clutch you all to me, how I would show you my love. See there, that’s me and him both singing and sighing after the same old forever thing – all that we lose and can’t get back again.

It was a sad song, of loss and longing, but the sound of him found its way into the stones, and I feel the vibrations he left, in quiet times along these ways. He would sing of separation from the home he had known, and although I have never had a home beyond these ways, I still feel the pain of estrangement. For this is what I feel, from the world outside the jitty, the world that I know must go on all the while, but of which I hear only what wind and the walkers bring here to me.

Sometimes, it would be a long while between his visits, but my memory is very good, and when he came back with another verse, his voice heavy with drink, I caught and kept it. Here was an exile, returning infrequently, but never fully gone, not inside himself. It’s hard to leave this place, properly. It follows, and calls you back. So back you keep coming, down your days.

I share special moments in young people’s lives. The times that your parents don’t find out about. The first can of beer, shared between friends, one of whom has pinched it, warm perhaps and not unshaken, from a parent or sibling. The first cigarette, sucked at and coughed over, with friends who knew this would happen, but not that the moment might colour your view of their friendship. Shared bottles of stronger drink, before school discos from which you would later be ejected, for turning up drunk. Oh yes, I’ve heard, smelled and known all of these. I am only what you have made me – the traces of your passing. The moments of your life you left behind, here in the jitty.

And later, older, still you took these short cuts to the taverns of the town, and pulled your way back up the valleyside along the jitties, home. But still your leavings stain and scent these channels, where you couldn’t hold it in, and stopped to piss, or should have held back in the boozer, spewing what your gut could not accommodate. Dropped bottles, too, smashed in the dark. The people in the morning taught me words to describe you, but I’m sure you don’t need to hear those again, and I’m certain you’ve learned at least some of the lessons of youth.

For me, time is nothing. I know, and remember, but little is new. Different words to call alcohol, new words for men and for women, new fashions that don’t quite recapture the fashions they follow. New ways to say what you want from each other, although most of it boils down to something eternal and unified:

‘Hold me.’

Which is what I do, or what I would do if I could. I’d hold you all, my children, kids of the jitty, their mothers and granddads and all. But you pass, and the price of my timeless long life is that you move beyond, take a place in the world, and I cling to the scraps that you leave. Did you know that your cast-off emotions, your misjudged encounters and mistaken affairs, were precious enough to be my very being? Your follies, failings, your loud drunken songs. All of these I have taken to heart, and I care about you all. Have never wanted you to feel pain, to hurt yourselves or one another, but like the timid older relative I feel myself to be, I can’t stop any of these things. Only you can do that.

And you do, most of you. The days are longer than the nights for half the year, and then you pass in greater numbers. Mothers, singing to their babies, people talking to their dogs, and older feet that go more slowly, clicking sticks between the steps, and breathing laboured, but the same affection for the town, its stones and passages, its alleyways. The jitties.

Still the children keep coming, on the walk to school and back, hatching plots and learning these ways through their town, the ways they’ll walk for decades, choosing jitty over pavement, quiet shade over traffic and noise. You see, like a jitty, this works in both directions. The people leave their traces here, and these become me. But the jitties shape the people who pass along them, making them to some degree as I am, shy and furtive, unkeen to be seen, afeared to be heared, not wanting notice. So all of you – some more than others – have jitty inside you. How else could it be? I am a part of you, just as my parts are yours. I’ll be here as long as there are jitties, and people walking. They never stop walking. Here comes a boy, not five years old or else he’d be at school, trotting ahead of the lady he’s about to call Granny. Listen.

‘Granny?’ Stops and turns, waiting for her.

‘Yes, duck.’ Hand on the handsmoothed rail.

‘I love this passageway.’ Puts her other hand down to his shoulder.

‘Jitty, duck. It’s called a jitty.’

Commentary: Pedigree

Rifleman's ArmsThis story was published last year by The Blue Nib.  Marston’s Pedigree is a well-known beer in the East Midlands, celebrated as a local legend and denigrated as headache-brew, in roughly equal measure.  Pedigree is still served at the Rifleman’s Arms on Bridge Street in Belper, where the story begins.

Amongst my short stories, Pedigree has some of the closest links to The Wood Road North and its counterpart To Hawthorned Door, of which more later.  But the story is familiar, ancient and eternal.  A woman of a certain age feels the biological clock ticking down, and her husband is no help.  She takes matters into her own hands, finding a way to get what she wants, and at the same time giving something back.  So to speak.

Despite telling a story, framed by a bedroom scene, Pedigree is another slice-of-life window into the life of a character who might otherwise be seen as minor, socially as well as in fiction.  And the constraints are on show again – Angie’s rings, and the scale of her home – but here these are barriers which present opportunities, requiring secrecy and allowing for comings and goings.  So to speak.  Angie couldn’t carry on like that if her house was overlooked by neighbours.

Pedigree has attracted several compliments about the feat of writing from a woman’s perspective, but I think Angie pre-empts this herself when she considers whether Andy will boast to his friends about their encounters.  She decides they won’t believe him, and I think the same events, told from the young man’s viewpoint, would suffer the same fate.  The two characters share a physical experience, but for Angie that’s only a small part of the story.

Angie appears briefly in The Wood Road North, but Andy will play a bigger part in To Hawthorned Door.  For now, mine’s a pint of Pedigree.  What are you having?

Pedigree

Pedigree 1

My short story Pedigree has been published online by Blue Nib in the first issue of their Intermission supplement.

Read it here: Pedigree

PEDIGREE

   ‘Was that all right?’ he said, panting anxious. ‘Did you like it?’ Angie plumped her pillow as he eased away.

   ‘Oh, it was fine.’ She breathed in and out. ‘I just need to lie here for a bit, I think.’ He smiled, pleased with himself on the king size bed, yards of carpet away from the dressing room and the chaise longue. Through the doorway was an en-suite bigger than the lounge at his parents’ house, a big claw-footed bath in the middle and a separate wet room the size of the bathroom at home. Andy had never been anywhere like this. He lay looking at the moulded ceiling, heard the breeze push and pull the curtains through the open windows, felt sweat trickle behind his right ear. Beside him Angie lay still, saw him glance across her tanned body, hoping he didn’t see its flaws as she did. Held his hand. He was twenty, bless him. Any younger and he’d be half her age. She was already old enough to be his mother, which after a fashion was why they were here.

   Last Friday night she’d been out with three of the girls in Belper. They were celebrating Tanya’s new job, but Angie had also been looking for a likely young man. She spotted him on the way to the Ladies in the Rifleman’s Arms and knocked against his elbow on the way back, spilling his drink a little. Apologised and insisted on buying him another, got him over to the bar, away from both sets of friends, bought him a pint of Marston’s Pedigree. He was on his summer break before the last year of university and kept her chatting, not making her feel stupid. She hated it when they did that. Asked was he staying till last orders and he said probably. Said she’d see him later and went back to the girls, kept glancing over from their table. He was looking back each time. By half past ten the others were ready to go home, but Angie said she’d finish her drink and call for a taxi, having further to go. Instead she went to the bar and waited. A couple of minutes later the lad was at her side, offering to buy her one back while his mates played pool. She accepted, dry white for her and more Pedigree for Andy, now she knew his name. They stood at the bar talking again, and she did a bit more looking. He was taller than her, slim not skinny, shy around the eyes and hair a bit too long, but he’d do. She touched his hand and looked into his eyes, knew it was going to work.

   ‘Would you walk me up to the Market Place after?’ she said. ‘I live just out of town, you see. Need to get a taxi.’ Did the eyelashes too, it couldn’t hurt. Before the first lad, Jamie, she’d worried about being obvious, but that didn’t seem to worry the men. She’d been planning to try and look a bit classier once she turned forty, but now she was nearly there it seemed forty five might be soon enough, if not fifty. Classy could wait, at least till she got what she wanted.

   She kissed him twenty paces along the footpath between Field Lane and the railway station, that way being more private than the car park. Just stopped and turned to him, would have pushed him up to the fence had he not held her against the wall, keen and strong as their mouths came together. She’d made sure he wasn’t a smoker, but he tasted of beer until their tongues had been at work for a minute, then it was lost in the wine and her lipstick. She could feel the gritstone against her shoulder blades as he pressed against her and she moved her thighs apart as much as her skirt would allow. His breathing made it hard to hear anyone coming down the path, but she was nearly done. He rubbed himself against her hip, full of rush and hurry, and the rest.

   ‘Not now,’ she said. ‘Not tonight, I can’t.’ He understood, except of course he didn’t. She wanted him sober. Kissed him again, straightened herself up and gave him her telephone number, told him to ring at half past nine on Tuesday morning, when she’d receive him at home. He’d have noticed her left hand already, but she made sure now, held the rings between their faces.

   ‘You’ve seen these, right? You’re a sexy lad, but you’re no use to me if you can’t keep your mouth shut. So if anyone asks, any of your friends, you walked me to my taxi and got nothing, which is how it’s going to look now, if anyone sees.’ Fixed her lipstick in the compact mirror under the next light and they walked on. At the Market Place she made him stand and watch as she got into the taxi, said a friend lived nearby and she couldn’t be seen with him. Blew a kiss through the back window though. Andy stayed leaning against the corner of the White Swan.

   She thought he might not call – two of the others hadn’t – but on Tuesday morning the phone went and she told him to come here, the big house in its own grounds a little way along Jackson’s Lane. Did he know where that was? He said yes, but then had to look it up, felt sudden guilt about asking his mother. On the bus he paid all the way to Heage, not sure how far it was. Got off at the stop before the lane-end and walked the rest of the way on tenterhooks. He looked at the house, checking over what Angie had told him on the phone, felt a suspicion he was being had. Go through the gate, she’d said, come to the door and knock. In his imagination over the weekend, Angie had answered the door of a more modest house in less modest attire. He looked as he had on Friday night, but she stood smiling in a clinging black dress with bare feet and red painted toenails. She turned away, figure distorted by no visible underwear.

   ‘Close the door,’ she said, ‘and follow me.’

   She couldn’t help comparing them. Andy was sweet, thin and wiry, wisps of hair starting at his chest. Nothing like the size of the last one, but more caring and unselfish. Of course none of them could compare to Adam for selfishness generally, but then he was also a great, exhausting lover. Anything he did now, with her or anyone else, wouldn’t teach him anything new. Except fathering a child. That would be a novel experience, and not one he wanted. He never said at the start, but every time it was mentioned later on, even in passing, he said he didn’t want them, couldn’t bear the thought of children. A lot of men said that, she told herself, he’d change his mind once she was pregnant. Only she wasn’t. She wasn’t on the pill either, hadn’t been for ages, but Adam didn’t know that. She played it straight and tried to trick him fairly, first. Made sure they did it every ovulation day, sometimes either side as well, to be sure, for over a year without success. She knew how to arouse him, would do what she just did to young Andy, who couldn’t believe his eyes, nothing under her dress, waiting for him to notice. It didn’t take much to get Adam so keen that he’d ask no questions, just wanted her there and then. He was a shallow man really, for all his pretence. There was hardly a room in this house where they hadn’t done it, she really could have him whenever she wanted. Ensuring he came where she wanted was trickier – he liked variety, you might say. That was the advantage of a young lad. Andy felt lucky enough to be in there at all, same as the rest had been.

   She knew he’d tell his mates, no matter what he promised. It was up to Angie to make sure they didn’t believe him, make it seem like a fantasy. Life with Adam had made sure she blushed at nothing, and she’d do whatever the young lad liked, plus a lot of things he’d never have imagined, as long as he gave her what she wanted on the days when it mattered. That was all she needed, a bit of luck to give her that one thing, more than ever, now she was close to the end of the years. The idea came first, then the planning, and only after working it all out the thought of bringing up a stranger’s child, not Adam’s. What if she didn’t know who was the father? She had to keep screwing her husband, too. Didn’t want this to begin, but it started. She waited for weeks, persuading herself that the lineage didn’t matter, just the luck. Just the one bit of luck. And the child would still be hers, she’d really be a mother, no matter what.

   Sometimes she wondered if Adam was really so bloody unkeen he’d had a secret vasectomy. Could even he manage that? Or, increasingly, if he just had no seed, no swimmers, couldn’t do it if he wanted to. Maybe not wanting children was a pose to cover his shortcomings. She didn’t like thinking that, on their bed, beside the young stranger. But how could Adam know, how could he be sure? The rest of the time she’d worry it was her, lay thinking of it at night, going round and round – in a cycle, appropriately enough – moving from his fault to hers, blaming him for resisting, herself for not insisting. When she saw how she circled, she wanted to break out of it, or at least test which one of them it was, if either. If it was her, fine. Not fine, she’d never be able to have children, not with anyone. But at least she’d know, as well as she’d ever know, since Adam wouldn’t go near a doctor for anything, let alone this. And nor could she. The doctor still thought she was taking the pills, too.

   Adam found it easy to have other women, too easy to resist. At work all day, only in the office half the time, then out with clients, or at the gym. So he said. He kept himself fit, worked off all the drink at least, and he also met women, she knew, or suspected. But only this year she’d realised their house was perfect for daytime infidelity, a distance down the lane and standing by itself. Adam never came home until the evening and her friends always telephoned first, never just turned up. Mostly. Kate had once dropped by to show her some fabric samples when she had young Mick with the tattoo upstairs in bed. She’d told him to stay put, wrapped herself in a towel and wet her hair, told Kate she’d just been getting in the shower. Still took ten minutes to get rid of her, and all the time Angie was wondering if she could smell the sex and aftershave, see the red flush she felt in her cheeks and at her throat.

   Andy was working behind the bar at the Nag’s Head for the summer – she’d been lucky to meet him on a night off – so he was free most weekdays, which suited her. In October he’d go back to University and it would all be over. She’d tell him it had been fun, but that he should find a girl his own age. Lucky little cow, he’d be streets ahead of anything else as young, by the time Angie was done with him. But if this worked, one time – and it only needed to work once – there she’d be, pregnant. It’d all come out then, if there was anything to come. Well, she’d cross that one when she got there. She wouldn’t be alone anymore. Besides, she was having a good time, feeling desirable and feeding her desires. Not that Adam didn’t pay her attention, he complimented her all the time, but it was always physical, never about the things she said or did, so it sometimes felt like an insult, especially when she’d heard him say the same to other women.

   ‘Me and Adam have an arrangement,’ she said. ‘Not that we’ve ever talked about it.’ Andy felt her hand on his abdomen. ‘He sees other women, I know he does, but he keeps it clean and says nothing, and nor do I.’ She stroked his thigh. ‘Don’t think he’d mind me going to bed with another bloke, but I’m going to keep it nice and quiet, same as him. He never got jealous before, and we used to get up to all sorts.’ Waited. ‘But that was open, not behind one another’s backs, like this.’ Waited again, but he didn’t ask. ‘Now he just likes to be out drinking with his clients and cronies – half of them are both – and only drags me along when he needs someone on his arm and there’s no chance of pulling something younger.’ He looked. ‘Oh, don’t say it. And don’t blame Adam. In a way, I can blame myself, because like I say, we used to get up to all sorts when we were younger.’ Emphasis on the sorts, this time. ‘Very free and easy, we were. You wouldn’t believe some of the things we did.’ Still no question. ‘But I grew up, wanted more stability. Not Adam. He’s never going to grow up.’ A car passed outside, the first they’d heard in over an hour. ‘Don’t get me wrong, it was fun back then, a lot of fun.’ Her fingers stirred his pubes. ‘So thank you for reminding me.’ Kissed above the hair now, hand below. ‘I hope I haven’t disappointed you.’ Knew she hadn’t, but she wanted to hear it. He shook his head, said no, no. She felt him firm again, ready. Kept him waiting. Considered telling one of the stories he didn’t dare ask about, wondering what he’d like to hear and how far to embellish, how much to hold back. But young men could be so moral, idealistic. She could tell him all those things later, show him most of them. Just kept stroking. It was doing the job. She’d give him something to remember now, keep him ready for next time. That would have to be sooner than she needed, but not sooner than she wanted. She couldn’t wait a month, didn’t want to keep him waiting that long, either. He was nice, this one, and she was going to treat him nicely. They wouldn’t have long together, after the summer she’d be looking for another. Although with any luck he’d be the last. With any luck.

– The Wood Road North – Soundtrack –

Fancy a virtual pub crawl, in 1996?

Here are some tunes you might hear on one of those new-fangled CD jukeboxes.

Selected Top 20 hits from the year. Pub soundtrack to my novel.

The Wood Road North – Pub Soundtrack

01. DREADZONE – Little Britain
Britain today is a powerhouse of ideas, experiments, imagination.
02. LIGHTNING SEEDS – Ready or Not
I’ve got a million thoughts.
03. GARBAGE – Stupid Girl
A million lies to sell yourself.
04. SPACE – Female of the Species
She deals in witchcraft.
05. MANIC STREET PREACHERS – A Design for Life
We only want to get drunk.
06. THE PRODIGY – Firestarter
I’m the pain you tasted, well intoxicated.
07. JX – There’s Nothing I Won’t Do
Anything you want me to.
08. THE WANNADIES – You and Me Song
And we’ll always be together.
09. CAST – Walkaway
Now the words just slip away.
10. DAVID BOWIE – Hallo Spaceboy
You’re released but your custody calls.
11. ELECTRONIC – Forbidden City
Too much to drink, but not enough to lose.
12. LIVIN’ JOY – Don’t Stop Movin’
Mystical, magical, physically phenomenal.
13. KULA SHAKER – Tattva
The truth may come in strange disguises.
14. RADIOHEAD – Street Spirit
Form a circle, before we all go under.
15. ROBERT MILES – Children
16. SUEDE – Trash
Our nowhere towns, our nothing places.
17. BABYLON ZOO – Spaceman
Beyond the black horizon, trying to take control.
18. SNEAKER PIMPS – 6 Underground
I’ve got a head full of drought.
19. FAITHLESS – Insomnia
Keep the Beast in my nature under ceaseless attack.
20. SHED SEVEN – Chasing Rainbows
I don’t keep my secrets there. I hide them everywhere.
TWRN 3