A group of people are gathered, shivering, outside a small town registry office. They stamp their feet and hug themselves; some try to smoke a last minute cigarette, cupping hands over lighters, the little metal wheels spinning tchh tchh tchh. It’s a grey English morning, autumn, 1962.
Bernard’s jaw aches from the chill, or perhaps it’s from the smile he has managed to fix in place since the day dawned. He checks his watch again and again, looks up to the heavy October skies. Dear God, do something now, he urges, anything. A lightning strike, a meteorite, a Commie missile. Yes, yes, that would do. Stop the damn world. Blow it all to hell.
Thirty minutes later, Jean is standing beside him, her hair piled high, her cream suit and stockings smelling of rosewater and mothballs. She squeezes Bernard’s hand. Behind them, sitting stiffly on green velvet chairs are Jean’s parents, Mavis and Ken.
The council registrar is close enough for Bernard to smell his breakfast breath. He squints at the teenagers standing in front of him, the boy licking his guilty lips over and over, the girl a little slip of a thing, clearly knocked up. The registrar has seen this all too often before, but do they ever learn? Do they heck. He recites the vows and the laws in his most solemn voice and the teenagers respond like little parrots. In no time at all rings are on fingers, they’re all drinking in the function room above the Swan, and Bernard and Jean have their whole lives ahead of them.
Bernard takes a sales position in the Ford showroom on the Solihull Road. He’s popular with his clients and earns a reasonable commission. When he returns home in the evening, he sits with Jean at the kitchen table. They eat from the dinner service gifted to them by Bernard’s parents, their conversations mirroring the cautiousness of Jean’s cooking. After supper, Bernard goes to the front room and lights a fire. It’s a cold house and if Bernard had his way he’d have a fire burning all night and day, even in the summer.
He sits back in his chair and smokes a couple of cigarettes while Jean washes up. Hanging on the wall above the fireplace is one of Mavis’s needlepoints. Five carefully stitched words curve like a rainbow over an embroidered country cottage: East, West, Home is Best. There are other needlepoints hanging around the house, too: in the bedroom: Home Sweet Home, in the kitchen: Home is Where the Heart Is, and in the hallway by the telephone table: God Bless This Home.
Bernard can hear Jean in the kitchen, the clatter of cutlery being put away, the wireless playing the theme tune to The Archers. He blows his cigarette smoke hard at the needlepoint, and watches the little stitched house, the little white fence, the pink roses, the carefully sewn ducklings and kittens momentarily blur in the blue-grey fug.
The house is on the outskirts of town, a draughty three-bedroomed terrace in a street of others exactly the same. It has a small square of muddy lawn at the back which Ken insists will do very nicely for a bit of veg. Potatoes, runner beans, onions. Sweetpeas in the summer. The house is not in a desirable neighbourhood by any stretch, but Ken stumped up half the deposit and Bernard has made his bed, and he should be damn well grateful, considering. Bernard is certainly grateful that when Ronald Kenneth arrives the following February, everyone agrees he has inherited his grandfather’s extremely handsome nose and luxurious hair. This goes a fair way towards building some sort of bridge between the two men.
Bernard has a degree of affection for Jean, but wears his marriage heavily. It is an overcoat born of lust, fabricated from duty, buttoned in monotone. It hangs in every room mocking him, goading him, challenging him to run into the summer sunshine bold and brilliant and bare-chested.
There is no passion in their marriage. Bernard knows now that the distant Saturday night when Jean mewed like a little cat, asking him if he loved her and his breathless lie that he did – that Saturday night was the only time he has ever, fully, gone the whole way. Not even on their honeymoon was there any union. Jean undressed in the boarding house bathroom, slipped into the nylon sheets then turned her back to him, nauseous and tired and scared of hurting the baby.
Now, three years later, at the age of twenty-two, Bernard has been making do. Before Jean wakes and can frown at the shape of his pyjama trousers, Bernard is in the bathroom, gripping the shower rail, losing himself in the swirl of soapy water and shaving foam. By the time Jean is up and has put her face on, he is in the kitchen feeding Ronnie milk and cereal. Ten minutes later he kisses them both, puts on his overcoat and drives to the Solihull Road.
Bernard meets Lizzie one Friday evening in the George, half a mile from the showroom. His colleague Derek is celebrating his thirtieth birthday and the whole team is there, even Tom the hom. Lizzie is known to provide discreet, affordable services for the men who travel and sell, men whose sniffy, critical wives approach the marital bed in hair curlers and face cream, men who buy top shelf magazines knowing that there is a world of pleasure out there hidden from them. Men with the cash and the courage to spend it on women like Lizzie.
Bernard drinks quickly. Lizzie is sitting over by the fireplace. Bernard catches her eye and realises she’s smiling at him and oh, suddenly he’s smiling back at her, and oh, suddenly he’s brave, he’s wiggling his hand and raising his eyebrows to indicate an offer of a refill for her. Yes? Lizzie laughs and nods, and when Bernard has managed to get the barman’s attention he orders a large gin and tonic, plus another pint for himself. He moves carefully through all the elbows and cigarettes, then places the drinks on the table mats and Lizzie pats the empty space beside her.
They lie on Lizzie’s bed, the blinds drawn, the sounds of Friday night on the Solihull Road filtering in: scooters revving, young men shouting, girls shrieking, all emboldened by drink. Lizzie’s pillows smell of lavender and soap, and are patterned with tiny white daisies. Bernard has undone the buttons on his trousers and stares at the ceiling, his heart threatening to bash its way out of his chest.
At the touch of Lizzie’s hand Bernard shudders and it is over. Dear God, he cannot help it, but Lizzie smiles and shushes him, gives him a tissue and lets him rest for a while. They will try again. She goes to the kitchenette and pours a couple of gins. A couple of stiff ones? she laughs. She has a wide, soft backside and the bed bounces as she sits down. Her hair is dyed, and the lines around her eyes describe many years lived without salons or fancy powders. Bernard walks his fingertips over the dimples in her shoulder blades, over her bra strap, inside the top of her knickers. Her skin is puddingy and smooth. He leans forward and rests his forehead on her back, breathing in the smell of her, then she turns and kisses him with her beautiful mouth which tastes cool and of lipstick and lemons.
Then at last he is there. Lizzie coos and soothes him, says his name, says my love, my love. Bernard tries to keep his eyes open but he can’t, so intently is he focusing on the sensation enveloping him. He is in an ocean of heat, hopelessly adrift, until suddenly and uncontrollably he must push faster and faster. A white light spreads out behind his eyes and with a great sigh like a whale breaking the waves he is free.
Jean is waiting up for him. She is at the kitchen table, sobbing, a handkerchief crumpled in her fist. Bernard has prepared his lie, but before he can feign exhaustion and being drunker than he is, Jean tells him that her father is dead, a heart attack at home half an hour ago. Why has Bernard taken so bloody long to get back? Why? He’s four hours late, four hours, for God’s sake. He must drive them over there now, is he listening to her? Now, now, now. Bernard can feel his own gloriously living heart thumping, nourishing him, and is aware of the smile trying to take over his face. He forces it into hiding, forces his arms around Jean and kisses her forehead. Ten minutes later they are in the car, Ronnie on the back seat, whining and confused. Jean is babbling: she knew he wasn’t right last Sunday, she said so, didn’t she? He was only fifty two, for God’s sake, fifty two.
Ken is on the floor in the front room. He looks absolutely wrong. Huge, ridiculous, a fallen tree. It is almost embarrassing. There is a smell, too, which no one mentions. Mavis is sitting on the couch, wet-eyed and trembling. Someone has made her a cup of tea but it is untouched. The ambulance staff talk to Bernard in low voices, take details, shake hands. Within the next hour, Ken is stretchered away and when all that can be done for now has been done, it is two o’clock in the morning and Bernard drives back home alone and elated.
Jean and Ronnie continue to stay with Mavis long after the funeral. Bernard visits every weekend. On Saturdays he takes Ronnie out for fresh air and on Sundays they have lunch together around the dining room table, but they all agree that it is best for Mavis if she is not alone for the time being.
Every Friday night Bernard is with Lizzie. He calls her his angel, she calls him her love. He has touched every part of her body with his hands and fingers, and, most exquisitely, his mouth. She is a landscape he cannot stop exploring. He begins to visit on a Tuesday, then a Wednesday and Thursday. He brings groceries, flowers, chocolates, gin, a toothbrush, his washing. She opens the door before he can ring the buzzer, and when they are ready to get out of bed it’s usually late and the walls have turned warm and orange from the city lights.
After Christmas, Jean decides that it makes no sense at all for Mavis to carry on living in that house with the memory of Ken on the carpet, and that she must sell it and move in with them. Ronnie needs his father and there’s plenty of room, isn’t there? And think of the money, they could have a real summer holiday, couldn’t they? All of them together, at the seaside. Bernard cannot argue, or at least he cannot argue truthfully against them all returning.
The change is a shock for him. His evenings with Lizzie must be curtailed, and the noise, the mess, the constant presence of Mavis, is an intense annoyance. She is like a portrait whose eyes follow him wherever he goes. But the worst of the changes by far is that Jean has returned to his bed.
Bernard watches her on her first night back. It has been almost a year since she slept in this house, in this room. She has showered, is wearing a pink negligee and some sweet, market-stall perfume. She sits at the dressing table with her back to him, brushing her hair very quickly. She is slim – much too slim, he thinks; her spine is a bumpy sea creature and her shoulder blades are sharp, slippery triangles. She turns to him and smiles, and it’s a different kind of smile, her head to one side. Hello again. Shall I get in? I’ve missed you. Bernard’s stomach somersaults. She is expecting him to make love to her.
It is over in minutes. Bernard groans and collapses and for the first time in his marriage he feels a stab of infidelity. He moves to the edge of the bed and turns onto his side. He cannot stop tears from creeping down his cheek.
At six a.m. he abandons the bed and goes to make coffee. The sun is rising and he takes his mug and cigarettes into the back garden. There’s a robin hopping around the nettles and brambles, dark-eyed and quick, and another bird too, absolutely tiny but very noisy. He doesn’t know its name.
He’ll go to Lizzie’s straight after work, he’ll tell Jean he has overtime, a meeting with Tom, a new vehicle being delivered, he’ll – his thoughts are interrupted by the sound of a little dry cough, and he is shocked to realise Mavis has been standing on the doorstep behind him. She says good morning, dear, did he have a good night? She smiles a small, tight smile and raises her eyebrows.
Dear God, did she hear him? Them? The woman is insufferable. Bernard stares at Mavis, unable to find any words, then pushes past her, goes upstairs, dresses and leaves the house within ten minutes.
At his desk he calls Lizzie. There’s no reply. At lunchtime he jogs to her flat and rings the buzzer. Nothing. He shouts through the letterbox, waits, knocks on the door and windows. After fifteen minutes he gives up and turns to go back down the concrete steps, and then Lizzie is there, walking towards him, carrying shopping, and he laughs, sprints towards her, wraps his arms around her. She tells him to come in, she’s got a bit of news.
Riddled. It’s a word Bernard literally cannot say. The words he has for Lizzie are ripe, earthy, yielding; words which are not even words but are imitations of words, or the beginnings of words, or are just silences, which are not the silences of absence, but the silences of completion.
They sit at her kitchen table and she explains what will happen. When she can explain no more, they lie on her bed and listen to the boys and girls of the Solihull Road and watch the walls turn orange.
Bernard visits the hospital every evening between work and home. He eats the grapes he brings, holds Lizzie’s hand, tells her about his day.
The changes come swiftly and unkindly. To the unquestioning Matron, Bernard is Lizzie’s devoted nephew. To Jean he is working longer hours, lining himself up for promotion ahead of Tom, and so as a surprise and a reward she has booked a real summer holiday for them all in Weston-Super-Mare.
Bernard has Ronnie on his shoulders. He is waist deep in the choppy sea, the thin July clouds blowing high above them. Jean and Mavis are sitting in deck chairs. Jean is flicking through magazines, Mavis is stitching a new needlepoint. Jean’s stomach is tight and swollen and she won’t step into the sea in case germs affect the baby. Ronnie is a delight, a skinny strip of energy and chatter, and Bernard is glad of his uncomplicated company. They stroke the donkeys on the beach and play the one-armed bandits on the pier.
On the Friday morning, after breakfast, Bernard says he’s very sorry but he really must make some important work calls, so could Jean possibly please – ? Jean tells him she’s exhausted, the baby is going to be a bloody footballer, she’s sure of it, and Mavis looks up from her needlepoint and agrees, oh yes, a footballer, and so Bernard must take Ronnie with him.
They walk along the seafront. Bernard finds a café close to a telephone box and leaves Ronnie there with cheese on toast and a comic. The young manageress has a nephew, he’s Ronnie’s age and a proper little scamp, aren’t they all? And she promises to keep an eye.
Two hours later the young manageress has run out of patience. She has had to close the café and there will be consequences. A mile further down the seafront, Ronnie points to a solitary figure sitting on a bench.
There he is, that’s him, that’s him.
He lets go of the manageress’s hand and runs, shouting, waving the comic.
I read it three times, dad, all the words. She’s really cross with you, you’re a bloody bugger.
Bernard fumbles for his wallet, whispers an apology to the manageress, and presses notes into her hand. The manageress takes the money, and Bernard needn’t bother coming anywhere near her café again, that’s for sure.
The seafront is packed with people: families, grandparents, teenagers, girls eating candy floss, their arms linked, boys in sunglasses, bold, bare-chested, drinking Coke. The July sun is hotter than ever.
For a few long moments Bernard continues to stare out to sea. The funfair plays songs from the hit parade and then Ronnie’s small hands are on his knees.
You’re a bloody bugger, dad.
Bernard closes his eyes and pats the empty space beside him.