(An excerpt from the novel)
George looked carefully at the job advertisement. ‘Earn Extra Cash. Paper Delivery. Hours Flexible, Easy Round.’
Maybe he could do it. If he could get four quid an hour it wouldn’t be a bad rate. His eyes flicked over the other cards which hung in Collins’ window. ‘Child’s bike, £15. Bedspread, hardly used. Bridesmaid dresses, set of three. Unwanted wedding. Lost. Black and white terrier. Answers to “Boy”. Needs medication.’
The door to the shop opened. A woman in a washed brown coat pushed past George, her head bowed into the wind which was rushing along Corporation Road.
The woman looked up but didn’t smile.
‘You still around then?’
Her head dipped. She pushed on.
George returned to the window, then checked his watch. Another twenty minutes and he would have to be at Andy’s house. He straightened his collar, catching his reflection in the dirty glass. He had never been good at job interviews. A tin bell rang twice as he entered the shop.
A man stood behind a rack of brightly coloured chocolates and sweets. He looked up as George walked towards him. George knew the man by name but he had never been in the shop before.
‘Collins, isn’t it?’
‘Yeh, that’s right mate. Can I help you?’
‘Enquiring about the job.’
‘The one in the window.’
‘Paper deliverer?’ The man looked suspiciously at George. ‘Aren’t you a bit old for it?’ He had seen George around but had no idea who he was.
‘Didn’t say anything about age.’
‘I know that. I was just expecting a… er younger man. School kid perhaps.’
George straightened his black tie. He could sense he was making Collins nervous. The newsagent shuffled a stack of magazines on the counter.
‘It’s been up there three weeks.’
Collins stopped shuffling the magazines and rearranged his chocolate display. He was sure one of his customers had told him a story about the man in front of him. It was a funny story but it had made him uneasy and now he couldn’t remember what it was.
‘You can’t find anyone and I want to do it.’
‘Deliver papers?’ Collins dropped a Mars bar behind the counter. He hurriedly bent down to retrieve it but when he stood up again George was leaning over the counter, inches from his nose.
‘Unless you have something else?’
‘No, that’s it. Only job I’ve got left.’ He backed away from the counter but continued talking. ‘Papers come in on a Thursday morning. Round’s along the Embankment, a few in the Close and most of the flats by the Gardens. You know the ones?’
‘About ninety houses in all, should take you about…’
‘Yeh, about that.’
‘And the pay?’
‘I can’t afford that. Ten’s the rate.’
‘Of course you can.’
Collins stared at George. Dark, fast-moving eyes stared back at him and smiled. What was that story? ‘Twelve, cash?’ Collins clutched his magazines.
‘Fine. Thursday afternoon then.’ A bright smile cut across George’s lips. He turned to leave.
‘Er, your name?’
‘Right, I’ll expect to see you about two then?’
George looked across at the newsagent. Collins edged further back against the rows of cigarettes which hung above him.
‘One more thing. I’ll be bringing a friend along. Help me out a bit.’
‘It’s the same rate.’
‘That’s alright, we’ll split it.’
George cranked his smile another tooth before turning for the door. He’d got the job.
Outside two cars edged forward, slowed by the lights. A woman pushed a pram along the pavement. Two kids, playing, shouting and pushing, ignoring George as they ran past. He pulled his coat tight around him, feeling its weight. The wind was strong but he could sense the spring rising with the big tides on the river. Saturday, the clocks would go forward.
Andy is watching television. It is Sunday night. Andy watches television every Sunday night; Kaite claims he laughs louder on a Sunday night than any other night. Mike thinks he may laugh louder on a Wednesday night but not every Wednesday. Some Wednesdays Andy doesn’t laugh at all.
Andy laughs at Keeping up Appearances, he laughs at Eastenders and Coronation Street, he laughs at The Bill. He laughs at World in Action, but he hates The News. The News curls his face into a tight twist of concern that becomes distress until Kaite or Mike or Angel change the channel. But usually he laughs a high spiralling laugh that rises out of his thin chest to splash around any room in which he happens to find himself.
Tonight being Sunday, he is in his own living room. A small but comfortable room, it bears the tawdry emblems of a small but comfortable income. Tonight being Sunday, he shares the room with Kaite but he could be sharing it with Mike or Angel or George. He likes them all and does not discriminate.
His latest burst of mirth has failed to evoke any response from Kaite, who sits across the room from Andy indifferently flicking through a magazine.
Mike had once asked Kaite her age, to which she replied, ‘Mind your own fucking business,’ in a tight Armagh accent that dissuaded him from ever asking again. She has lived in the city for three years and it suits her. Its tight impersonal streets, full of low-rent flats and split houses sate her need for constant, moving, change and easily smudges any traces of Ireland. Her accent remains but she has learned to use that. Everyone likes the Irish.
She looked up from her magazine as the credits flowed from the end of one programme into the next, but the change failed to hold her interest, and she returned to her shallow reading. Andy noticed her reaction, twisting his torso towards the settee, his mouth open as if to ask a question, but when her head dipped back he returned to view the screen.
The coloured television is accompanied by a hired video recorder with a fall of cassettes that spill over onto the carpet. The settee which shelters Kaite and her magazines looks clean and new, which it is. A smoked glass coffee-table separates the reader and viewer, supporting two mugs and an unused ashtray with Gran Canaria painted across the front in clear white letters. The walls are white; a bland print of a meadow in France is centred opposite Kaite, while threatening Andy is a hideous, framed wedding photograph of a couple in their late twenties, searching uncertainly for the camera and the future. A set of Venetian blinds are drawn down to shield the room against neighbours and the glare of headlights, but Sunday nights in this area of the city are as quiet as the tide which slithers up the mud-banked river from the bay.
Kaite sleeps at Andy’s house at least three, sometimes four, nights a week. It is a small bungalow, but the weathered tile roof shrouds three bedrooms. She has been sleeping at Andy’s since she first arrived in the city. On the nights she’s not at Andy’s she returns to the flat she is briefly renting off Corporation Road, or on the Park, or near the Spar. She is always moving. It is a passion she feeds every five or six months, when she decides her flat is too dark or damp or close to the by-pass or the river or the park. Andy’s place is the only constant in her itinerant new life in the city, and she loves him for it.
Tonight she is returning to her own flat, which is temporarily on the third floor of a Victorian terrace above Merches Gardens. Her last flat had boasted a back garden overlooking the park, but the school holidays had provoked a virulent rash of children that played and fought its way late into the long Summer evenings. The new flat had attracted her with a view over the slate rooftops to the river, but once the leaves had fallen from the high sycamores she could see the brewery and in the mornings a thick sweet smell of brown sugar and yeast settled over the flat like a veil.
Kaite dropped her magazine onto the pile which sprawled out across the settee and looked languidly up at the clock on the wall.
‘Almost six now, Andy.’
There was a tired boredom in her voice from the flow of her reading but Andy didn’t notice as he swung his head away from the screen. He looked at her expectantly, urging her to continue, which she did after allowing him enough time to reply.
‘George will be here at six.’ Andy’s face immediately broadened into a smile which cracked into a stifled laugh followed by a twist of his neck. Kaite smiled at the reaction, pausing before she continued.
‘You like George, don’t you? You like his cooking.’ She lowered her voice closer to herself, ‘Can’t think why, fifty-nine varieties of meatballs with beans and potatoes.’ She looked at Andy carefully, willing him to answer but her confidence in the one-sided conversation had waned.
Andy returned his attention to the television, tiring quickly of the sounds in Kaite’s voice. His head moved, slipping towards his shoulder but he was only following the flickering colours of the screen. Kaite turned away, sensing she was again filling time.
She pushed herself up from the settee and walked over to Andy. She was a big woman and Mike would not have been alone trying to guess her age, which could be thirty or forty. Standing above Andy, she caught the question in his eyes as he looked up at her. She bent over, kissing him gently on the crown of his head before he brushed her away. Laughter comes quietly to her features.
Her thoughts were cut by the sharp trio of notes which announced the doorbell. Andy shivered with the noise and slipped lower into his armchair. A red belt stretched across his waist tightened further as it held onto its captive.
Sounds of a greeting drifted in from the passageway before George appeared in the doorway. Andy’s face fired in enthusiasm as George lifted his arms in greeting.
‘Awright, Andy? How’ve you been, mate?’ George walked into the room and found a space on the settee between the cushions and the magazines. Kaite walked on into the kitchen.
Andy began another cackle of laughter as his hand came up from his side to frantically brush his nose. The laughter fell away but he had slipped further down into his chair where his stomach bulged out under the constraint of the red belt.
‘Do you want a cup of tea?’
‘Love one, Kaite, put one on for Andy here as well.’
‘He just had one.’
‘Just me then.’
Andy twisted his head back towards George.
‘How’s he been?’
Kaite shouted in from the kitchen. Their speech cut quickly across Andy who tried to follow the sounds as they talked.
‘He’s been okay. We had a walk down to the pier this afternoon. He got a bit cold in the end though, didn’t you, Andy?’
‘How’s his bowels been?’
‘He had a movement this morning but that’s the first for three days. I’ve been feeding him prunes but they don’t seem to have had much effect.’
Andy drifted between the speech and the flickering faces on the screen. Unconcerned. It’s Sunday evening, soon he will be going out.
‘I’ll change him before tea now. Init, Andy? Quick change and you’ll be all set for tea.’
Kaite returned to the living room and passed George a cup of tea. She sat on the settee next to George.
‘You had a good weekend?’
‘Yeh, awright, you know.’
‘Nah, couple pints in the pub on Saturday. Nothing special. Yourself?’
‘No. I was working yesterday as well. We went over the market, bought myself some cheap nylons.’
‘Keep meaning to go but I never get round to it.’
‘You should take Andy one Saturday. He likes it.’
‘Yeh, I will.’
A tight silence slipped uncomfortably into the room as the people who could speak thought of something else to say.
George took a drink from his tea. Kaite glanced at the screen. The pictures move.
‘Well, I’ve got to be going. I’m off out tonight.’ She was lying but it came naturally and was easier to say than that she was staying in alone with the television and a bottle of red wine. She didn’t want George to know that. She picked her leather bag from the side of the settee before striding over to Andy.
‘See you then, Andy.’ Andy looked up as Kaite bent over and kissed him lightly on the top of his head.
‘Have a good night then.’
She smiled at him before heading for the doorway. One night she would have to talk to George. Talk about that night in her flat on the park. It was just the one night but he couldn’t act as if nothing had happened.
George waited for the door to slam.
‘What’s got into her then, Andy? Something you said?’
Andy smiled at him.
‘Never mind, it’s just me and you now. U’are, ‘ave some tea.’ He picked a plastic beaker from the table and poured some of his own tea into it. The mug had a funnel-shaped adaption which he inserted into the side of Andy’s mouth. Andy’s head tilted back as he began to swallow the tea. The gulps were hard and quick, his eyes swivelling from side to side, still watching the screen while watching George. A hard swallow was followed by a gulp and a harsh retching splutter as the flow of the tea overtook him. He dribbled tea back onto his jumper.
‘Shit, sorry, Andy, a bit fast for you there, was it?’ George hurriedly wiped the spilt tea further into Andy’s jumper with a towel that was kept for the purpose, stuffed down the side of his armchair.
‘Bit slower this time, is it?’ George re-inserted the cup carefully, watching how Andy reacted. Andy had been here before. He allowed the funnel to slip easily back into the side of his mouth.
‘Chapel tonight, Andy. Fancy a bit of singing?’
He paused but knew there wasn’t going to be a reply i from Andy whose attention was edged between the screen and the dribbling mug of tea.
‘Anyway, finish your tea.’ He allowed Andy the opportunity of one more swallow before he put the mug back on the coffee-table and removed the now sodden towel j which he had left around Andy’s neck as a bib.
‘C’mon then, Andy.’ He stood up and positioned himself ; on Andy’s right side, before bending over to unbuckle the belt at his waist. He placed one hand behind Andy’s back, his 1 fingers curving around to grip onto his chest. He j manoeuvred his other hand under Andy’s knees as he bent j lower, before straightening his back in one clean movement I which lifted Andy out of his chair.
‘There you are Andy, quick change. Then we’ll smarten you up a bit.’
He handled Andy’s weight with ease as he walked across j the room and out into the corridor towards Andy’s bedroom beyond.