Neil Grimmett

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 parole.

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 the situation.

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 know.

"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 ageing wearer.

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 Books.



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