The pressure was on for us to buy our house. Everyone else was,
nearly. The council - with a little encouragement from the Tory
government who’d announced all of the people had the right of home
ownership – were trying, and delighted, to sell the tenants theirs.
The longer you’d been stuck in one, the more the discount you accrued.
A life sentence could gain you fifty per cent and set you up perfectly
for a second term with, in my opinion, very little real chance of
Trudy, my wife, though, was crazy on the idea. She’d grown up on
a council estate. "A home owner," she kept on repeating: "it has
been my only dream since I can remember." I had bad feelings about
the whole idea and was trying to hold out for a proper escape.
Then the first sales went through. Gardens would suddenly – as if
by fairy magic - become neater overnight with territorial little
picket fences appearing around front lawns, windows would get changed
or just painted a different colour to those still in council strip.
Some new owners went as far as changing the exterior of the house:
sticking false bricks over the dull pebbledash, or adding so many
new colours the place began to look like a merryman’s ass. One family
even covered theirs with clapperboard and put a US style mailbox
outside. But the one thing they all did: the first thing: was to
change the front door. That was the real badge of distinction: a
solid wooden front door with a brass knocker instead of the wired,
frosted glass ones that looked as if they’d been bought as a job
lot from some institute for the dangerously insane.
The wood began to spread like a forest. Trudy noted each new one
and carried home a description of how many panels it contained or
what type of stain they’d chosen. Luckily, I still had my big excuse
for holding out.
The estate was divided into rows of four houses with roads and little
grass areas in between. Often, there were four nice, or reasonable
families in each row; sometimes though, there was a bad one mixed
in. It had been the notion of some liberal-minded councilor that
if you put a problem family in amongst normal ones you would shame
them into behaving in a more socially acceptable manner: say, like
cutting their lawns or hanging curtains. And at least, if you did
not achieve that much, by keeping them apart you would stop the
forming of another ghetto. Maybe it worked in theory. Though mostly
in practice, they either made a movable ghetto linked by ley lines
that only they could detect; or they held out in solitude and pulled
everyone around them into daily and nightly battles to resist being
dragged into their vortex of squalor.
Old Man Gains was of the latter type – a noted example in fact.
He and his tribe lived in number two of our block of four - we lived
in number four - and nobody in our row was buying. "You could never
sell if you did," was the argument: "not with them for neighbours."
We were the newcomers to this row - having been offered a transfer
from a two bedroom house to this three roomed one when our daughter
was born, because we had a son already. The man who lived in house
number one of the row, Mr. Jacks, a slight acquaintance from where
I worked came around, uninvited one evening to our old house. "I
realize that you need a larger house," he said, "but I am here to
warn you not to accept the one on the end of my row."
He was a tall, thin man with a large beard and a reputation for
being too clever by half. 'The professor', the guys in the factory
called him behind his back and took little or no note of his freely
offered – and often wise – opinions. We had been to visit the house
earlier that day and he must have spotted us. "Gains," he continued,
"is a terror. A gypsy and a cider alcoholic. Also, I have good reason
to believe that he has spent time in prison. When they first moved
in, I asked him what he was doing walking across my front lawn rather
than using the path and he called me 'Gov'. Well I knew where that
sort of expression came from, so I said: 'Where did you do your
time mister?' Of course he acted as if he didn't know what I meant.
Now we never speak."
Trudy said, after Mr. Jacks left, that he was just an old snob,
and that she could not visualize it being anywhere near as bad as
he was making out. So we moved. And it was far worse. Sometimes,
the whole family: Gains, his fat unkempt wife, two rough wild sons
and a daughter - who was rumored, though only just out of school,
to be on the game, or at least servicing half the married men on
the estate for the fun of it - would drag a tatty old sofa and arm
chairs with horse hair bursting out and grease marks coating the
cloth and sit on their front lawn drinking from a plastic gallon
jug of cider. They would have the front room windows wide open and
either the television on full or some terrible tinny country music
blaring away: songs so bad and sentimental the lyrics ate into your
brain and destroyed any other thoughts. If you happened to have
any visitors coming along the path they would all stare at them
and even make rude comments, and if any child’s toy or their game
strayed too close to the edge of their lawn they would shout and
rave - though they never cut the grass or swept their paths. You
would hear screaming and shouting right into most nights. They kept
chicken in the back garden with a rooster that got going at early
dawn. And lurchers for coursing. People said that the boys used
them to kill cats and once a sweet King Charles got savaged though
the lady who’d owned it, swore she had it tight on a lead.
Trudy tried to find excuses for everything and was constantly giving
me lectures on what a shame ignorance was and how we should forgive.
I did my own watching and saw more cunning than ignorance. And something
else: a desire to do what you wanted unencumbered by any social
or peer pressure. One time as we were driving off the estate I could
not help noticing Old Man Gains’ daughter, Esme. She was walking
along the edge of the busy road that led to the nearby town. She
had on the shortest skirt you could conceive, with a sort of pleating
that fanned it up as she walked along on very high heels. Her legs
were bare and with only a thin blouse covering her top on what was
a very cold winter day she must have been freezing. I wanted, secretly,
to shout out that it was worth the sacrifice, because she looked
great. "You think she is trying to look sexy," Trudy said, "but
those are probably the only clothes she owns. Did you ever consider
that while your eyes were popping out of your head ?" I considered
it for about three seconds until I saw the next car, a large BMW,
screech to a halt to pick her up with Esme grinning in delight at
Then the person in number three next door to us, Mr. Huxtable, bought.
He was a retired gardener and told me, "I want to be able to leave
something for my son." Though I had never seen anyone come and visit
him or his wife. "Besides," he said, "after all these years of paying
rent for nothing, it is only right." I still did not understand
the thinking behind any of it but was getting tired of arguing.
I’d tried to suggest that it was all down to a plan by Margaret
Thatcher to get the local councils to dump the houses on the tenants
before the mounting repair bills spiraled beyond the worth of the
property. That or just suck us all into the boom before it burst.
None of it worked. I was, I realized, no longer in tune with either
the surface or deeper levels of this game.
In the usual rush, Mr. Huxtable had all the windows changed and,
of course, a new door hung . Then he planted a holly bush in the
boarder surrounding their lawn. "It is my son's favourite thing,"
he told me as I walked by, " he loves to gather some in for Christmas."
They even named the place, "Holly Berry Cottage."
A while later that day I heard Old Man Gains shouting and swearing.
It was about the usual time he arrived home on the bus from town
and Esme led him in - probably drunk and unable to walk without
her shoulder was the usual opinion. He was a short, very thin man
with a swarthy complexion and ferrety features. Esme, was a nice
shape - "plenty of grippage and gappage on that," my best friend
said the first time he saw her - unfortunately, she had inherited
her father's face, only harder if anything. It was staring up at
me now as I had pulled back the net curtains to see what the disturbance
was about this time. Esme was sprawling on the path where her father
had just shoved her. Her legs were wide open and she was making
no attempt to cover herself or get up, just giving me a look that
said what the hell has this got to do with you anyway.
Old Man Gains must have brushed against the bush as he walked by.
It was, in truth, very close to his path and would obviously continue
growing. Now he was trying to get a good hold on the holly bush
and was getting stuck and clawed properly for his trouble. He was
working himself into a rage but not moving the bush. I suppose that
Mr. Huxtable, being a gardener, knew how to set things in pretty
well. He came running out with his wife following close on his heels.
"Trying to block me out of my own fucking house now," I heard Gains
yell. "None of you can leave us be to live how we choose. You and
your kind drove us here; now you want to drive us off again.”
He did not sound to me the slightest bit drunk and I was touched
by his pain and frustration. I wanted now to go out and help, but
could find no easy way of doing so. I just carried on glaring as
Esme got to her feet and managed to get her father's hands out of
the holly. He was bleeding and she had tears smearing make- up from
her eyes. I watched the Huxtables exchange sly and pleased with
themselves looks as their neighbour's door was slammed.
It was another foggy morning with a dampness rising up from the
reclaimed swamp that surrounded this hill, it seeped through your
clothes and skin coating your lungs with every breath you risked.
It had also found its way into my car engine which was refusing
to start. I kept on turning it over and over in frustration at not
being able to get away on my day off. I wanted some new books from
the library, and to enjoy the silence and solitude of one of their
reading booths – a couple of hours was usually enough for me to
find a way into the fiction that could be sustained after my return.
The noise, dulled and disguised by the atmosphere became just another
groan or sigh emanating from the estate: too sad and mournful to
rise into the fresh air, and destined as always, for the miasma
below. It was suddenly answered by a shorter, sicker coughing noise
and then a knock on the window.
Old Man Gains must have been standing a short way off at the bus
stop, hidden in the fog. I let the window down a way.
"I can smell petrol," he said: "it means that you have flooded it."
It was the first time that he had ever spoken to me or that we had
been this close. His voice was, compared to the one I usually got
to hear, gentle, almost feminine. He was wearing a brown suit which
looked too tight a fit and had a strange, wet-look shimmer to it.
Around his neck there was one of those old fashioned, high-collar
shirts with a flamboyant cravat fixed with a gold pin. His skin
was stretched, drum-tight and desiccated. Also, there was a sweet
sickly scent of, what I knew, was gentlemen's pomade coming from
his black, sweptback hair.
"Take your foot off the throttle," he ordered, "wait, now give it
three quick pumps and then turn the key on the bottom of the third."
For some reason, I found myself doing exactly as he had said, though
I knew it was down to dampness in the distributor and it wouldn't
work. The car burst into life.
"Always works," he said with an excited little laugh: "I learnt
that dodge in my travelling days." He began to move away.
"I am going into town," I said, "would you care for a lift ?"
He climbed in and sat in the middle of the seat and began tugging
at the seat belt, fighting the pressure as if his anger would force
it to give.
"Let me," I said. He leant back, stiff and formal as I clipped him
in, as if being waited on was no more than his due and something
he expected. I was glad the mist remained and hoped that no one
could see us; though I realized that his scent and the surrounding
cloud of tobacco fumes was impregnating the seat and Trudy would
"I'll be too early," he said as we reached one of the unpaved roads
that made up either our city walls or the prison bars depending
on your inclination. I guessed that he meant for the opening of
the pub. I slowed down to almost a crawl and was already wishing
that I had just let him walk off. "I will have to stand around in
the street unless I am allowed to wait in the car," he tried.
"Sure," I said, and thought about mentioning the ‘not smoking in
the car’ rule. Trudy had taken to making family and guests smoke
outside the house if they came visiting and recently, placed a bouquet
of dried flowers in the car ashtray with a red warning sign above
it. I watched Old Man Gains flick ash over them and could not help
thinking they looked a lot better for it.
"Then,” he said quietly, “you can come in and have a glass for all
your troubles." There was something that sounded like a challenge
in his voice. He carried on looking down at his dainty feet in shoes
polished until they had become black looking-glasses. I imagined
Esme working on them as he took his breakfast. I was about to say
that I did not drink in the mornings, or I never drink and drive,
and that drink goes very quickly to my head. Anything, other than
allowing an association or worse, a habit to form out of this chance
meeting that could bracket me so easily with these people. Then
it came to me as we drove along, that in truth there was nothing
I would rather do.
"I would truly enjoy that," I said, committing myself before my
courage failed. I saw a smile light briefly on those black toecaps
and then fade.
Mr. Gains made us wait in the car for about ten minutes until, by
his half-hunter - as shiny as his shoes and with some gothic inscription
that I would dearly have loved to read - the exact moment was reached.
I followed him quickly into a dirty old house on the corner of a
block of buildings that were mostly boarded-up. This was the old
part of the docks that was being slowly turned into a luxury marina.
Once, they said of this small town, that there were so many pubs
no sailor could take a tot in each of them and walk back to his
berth unaided. One of the windows was covered in rough planks of
what may have been driftwood, another, in what looked like some
sort of sailcloth or parchment. The door scraped across the linoleum
that remained defiantly stuck in patches to the dry flagstones underneath
- its pattern a faded tattoo mocking as always the vanity of its
The place was already crowded and the smell of smoke and drink washed
over us to close the door behind. So much for an opening time, I
thought. Men stood at the counter drinking from crock mugs with
small medicinal glasses of some brown liquid lined up in front of
them. Some of the men were dressed in brown, stockmen coats, others,
like Mr. Gains, in tight suits with high, choking collars and garish
neckties. On a couple of small, round tables and along a bench on
one wall there were women in fur coats, with layers of make-up and
costume jewelry - their perfume snaked in waves through the haze
with each movement before quickly drowning.
"Well," Mr. Gains asked again as I stood caught by the scene and
slow to respond. "what will you drink ?"
I looked behind the bar. A large lady with a fine down beard had
already filled a bone china, two-handled cider mug and its accompanying
chaser for Mr. Gains. Behind her there were no pumps or recognizable
bottles of drink, just a row of red plastic barrels laying on their
sides with white or opaque taps punched into them. I watched as
each one dripped into the trays below. It made me think of a clock
I had once seen emptying and filling, second by second, intricate
and balanced, each globule of liquid weeping for that lost, unreturnable
moment in time.
"Half a shandy," I decided upon, and every head in the place that
had been unmoved when I came in, now turned and noticed me. The
voices stopped and the clock's liquid pulse was racing.
"Dry, medium, sweet, medium-dry, or medium-sweet," the bar lady
listed the ciders available. “And Appleton rum 100 percent proof,
single or double.”
"Sweet," I said, hoping it would be the weakest.
“And he will take a double,” Mr. Gains said, banging a pile of coins
down on the counter.
My cider was cloudy with bits of something floating in it. The white
mug was fissured with deep ochre stains or fingerprints, the rum
burnt all the way down and then came fully alight deep inside.
By the second round it did not matter. I had almost given Mr.Gains
my complete life story and knew by his expression that it was shallow
and exactly what he’d suspected. And yet, I thought I detected something
like hope in his face when I told him about my refusal to buy our
house. I asked him to have another drink.
"I only normally ever take the two," he replied.
"But I thought," I began to say. Mr. Gains did not look offended
or angry, just, I would have said, a fraction more disappointed
in me. He handed me his cup and I made my way to the bar. I learnt
that day that he had never been to prison. That he had travelled
the world, at first with the circus and then with fairs. He had
fought in wars and loved freedom. His people had been driven by
one authority after another from every place they’d once considered
theirs by right until only the council estate remained an option:
one he hated. He knew exactly what his small acts of independence
caused everyone to think of him and claimed not to care.
How I managed to drive us home I cannot even imagine. I know that
I had told him my door was always open and I was looking forward
to another drink together.
Esme was waiting at the bus stop though it was well beyond his normal
time to arrive. She came straight over to the car and looked in
not showing any surprise. I was staring at her long white legs and
did not care if she knew. She pulled her father out and stood with
him waiting for me. Then we all started to stagger toward the houses.
Esme in the middle supporting the two of us. "He thinks you are
lovely," I heard Mr.Gains telling his daughter - which I did recall
saying to him some time. I could see people looking at the three
of us and made sure I slipped my arm around Esme’s waist all the
further. I left them at the top of their path and made a rush to
get in before I hit the ground. Trudy was out for the day and I
would have some time to get sober.I know that I got to the bed and
a short while later started being sick all over my blue suit and
the floor. Then I was being pulled around and helped out of my clothes,
my face and body was washed with a cold wet cloth.
When I woke I could sense the house was empty. I had a head with
a burning ember lodged right above my eyes that refused to cool.
The stench of stale fermented apples coated everything.
I had just about managed to look at a cup of sweet weak tea when
Trudy came in with the two children.
"Hell," she said, "you look terrible."
"Yes," I whispered, "I know." She crashed around a lot saying that
this sort of thing was self-inflicted and she had no sympathy. She
went upstairs and I could hear her opening the windows.
"God," she said, "it stinks up there."
"Sorry," I said, " but thanks for cleaning me up and everything
else – you were unbelievable."
"Very funny," Trudy said. "What a big laugh you are. And why you
put your suit in the washing machine I will never know. I imagine
it is ruined, you know it has to be dry cleaned."
I stared at Trudy trying to focus on what had happened. I had a
hazy, almost dream-like memory of making love all afternoon. I’d
been rock hard and unable to come for an age. We’d kept changing
positions – something Trudy did not normally allow – and she had
taken me in her mouth for the first time. I recalled saying to her
that it must be the drink, as she was usually in a hurry to finish
and her whispering back, “Make it last forever – it never gets any
better than this.” And I knew exactly who I’d been with and hurried
away from Trudy before she got close and could scent or sense Esme.
I never spoke to Old Man Gains again. I even deliberately changed
my times of going out so that I would not be seen near the car at
his usual times. Esme did come to our house once more. Trudy had
gone out with her mother and the children. I saw Esme coming up
the path shortly after they had left and darted out into the hallway
watching her through the frosted glass. I could see that she looked
especially smart and sexy and wondered if she had been sent or come
of her own volition. Whatever, I did not want to face her. The recollection
of that afternoon had not faded: in fact it had grown more vivid
and lurid. Its images were creeping into my marriage and tainting
what little passion there was still between us. I did not want to
add to it further by letting her in and not even having the lame
excuse of being drunk to justify what I knew would happen. I kept
perfectly still and hoped that she would not be able to tell my
shape from the empty coats hanging either side of me. Standing there,
I felt about as spineless as those empty garments and could feel
her eyes looking at me and understanding everything before she left.
Then one morning I left to go to work and noticed that the bedroom
curtains were still closed. They were still closed when I returned.
Old Man Gains had died during the night.
I peeped out through the window as the coffin was carried out and
when the family left for his funeral. Esme was in black and looked
defiantly around at all the twitching curtains. She looked straight
in at me, the delicate black web of veil unable to soften her expression
of contempt. I wished I could have flung on a black tie and took
her arm in mine. Instead, I listened to Trudy carrying on about
how this was the beginning of her dream.
Within a short time they were all gone. Mrs. Gains went - all this
according to Mr. Jacks, who suddenly seemed to be very friendly
and knowledgeable about them - to live with her sister who was a
widow herself. One of the boys went into the army; the other had
paid a deposit on a flat and had intended to move anyway. Esme married
a much older and wealthy farmer. Her photograph was in the local
paper. A big church wedding all in white, veiled again and staring
out from one of those pictures with eyes that followed me everywhere.
The new people who moved in bought the house straight away. Before
they could live there, Mr. Jacks told everyone, the whole place
had to be fumigated twice, which, I realized, made them all feel
good and justified about the supposed cleanliness of their own lives.
Mr. Jacks bought his house quickly after them. And we followed.
On the day that I was out buying our new front door, I took myself
along to the sheebeen that I had visited with Mr. Gains. I could
picture myself with those other travellers - still in their black
arm bands and mourning his passing and giving me a chance to make
amends. Instead, the place was closed and sealed with corrugated
steel: awaiting its development into something new and trendy. I
stood there – never wanting to go back now – straining to hear a
few more drips fall from that liquid timepiece with its confirmation
of movement and the endless possibility of change.
Neil Grimmett is English by birth but after travelling around
the Greek islands, currently lives in Spain. He has had stories
published by: London Magazine, Panurge, Iron, Stand, Sepia, Pretext
and Ambit in the UK. In France, Paris Transcontinental, in Canada,
Grain, in Australia, Quadrant, in South Africa, New Contrast, The
Yale Review, DoubleTake and The Southern Review. He has also been
published on the Net with Web Del Sol, In Posse Review, Tatlin’s
Tower, m.a.g., Word Riot, The Blue Moon Review, 3AM and Gangway
and others. Grimmett has a story published in the anthology ‘England
Calling’. A novel and collection of his short stories has just
been signed by The Irene Skolnick Literary Agency in New York and
Abner Stein in London. Another novel, The Bestowing Sun, was
published on Oct. 1, 2003 by Flame