He'll be here before seven thirty. I wouldn't bet my life on it but he'll be here. Of course, if he's no here by then I'll have to pay a forfeit. That was always the rule when we were kids and I don't see the point in changing it now. There has to be something to risk. What was that game called? Truth or Dare? People think that gambling's something just adults do but it's no. Adults have just turned it into a science that's all. They don't see it as a game.
I remember a Starsky and Hutch episode once where they were trying to wheedle their way in this gambling syndicate and, to prove they were hardened gamblers and all that, they had this bet as to whether a drop of sweat would fall off the end of one of their noses. They were in a sauna at the time - I don't know what the sauna was to do with the plot - but I thought I was going to wet myself with excitement and I was just watching. We talked about it at work―me and the other girls―but they just didn't seem to be on the same wavelength. I was fair scunnered with them. They were my mates - I wanted to share. All they could go on about was which one they wanted to shag.
So, what'll I do if he's late? I don't know. It's just a bit of fun. It's no the main event or anything. I'll just sit here on the floor by the door and think of something. I like sitting here waiting. It's part of the game and I like the kind of game where you can make up some of the rules as you go along. That's what was always so great about the games we used to play as kids; the rules weren't etched in stone or anything. It's exciting in its own way, sitting here, waiting for my man, waiting for him to come. It reminds me of a song. He always comes on Tuesdays. That's our day. He turns up at other times too but I don't wait for him on any other day. To be honest, on those days I could see him as far. Usually, on those days, I'm still in bed when he comes.
It makes me feel like a little girl again, all this waiting. Kids hate waiting. I remember my mum saying that you should only tell a wean that you're going to have another baby say a month before you're due because nine months is forever when you're that wee. She says I used to ask her eleventy-nine times a day when the baby was coming, if it was going to be a sister for me, could I get to hold her? I don't remember and, to be honest, I don't remember that much about our Kate being born.
God, my bum's getting numb. I should've brought my tea with me but I'm here now. I know it doesn't matter whether I'm here or no. He'll come and go just like any other man, no that I know that much about men. I wonder where my George is these days? You'd think he might've stood by me when he found out but there you go, that's men for you: bastards. It wasn't as if I'd been unfaithful or anything and I could've been. That guy down the newsagents is always flirting with me, says I'm his best customer, sneaks a peek down my cleavage and thinks I don't know. Whatever turns him on. Every now and then he's slips in an extra or maybe he just can't count. That'd be more like it. I mean, he's pleasant enough. I think he's a widower come to think of it but I don't want to get involved with him. He's no my type. God, it makes my skin crawl just thinking about doing it with him.
Seven-twenty. OK kid here's what we'll do: if he's no turned up by half-past you'll take off your dressing gown, no that he'll notice, but it's a bit risqué. It reminds me of the Truth or Dare days. I wonder if weans still play that? I saw a group spinning a bottle in the lane a while back. They were only young. God, it takes me back. The time I remember was out on the golf links that once―there were just the four of us, Jamie, Kevin, Fran and me―far too old to be playing Tig but it was just an excuse for touching. I got to put my hand down the front of Jamie's trousers and we let both of them feel our tits. I wonder where they are now? I bet none of them's sitting on the floor in their halls just now. I know Fran went to uni in England somewhere―I got talking to her mum outside Boots―but I never saw either of the lads after Fourth Year. Kevin was into astronomy―fancied himself as the next Patrick Moore―but Jamie was just a wanker.
OK girl, you make your bets and you pays your debts. Half past and he's no here: cough up―ra ta taaaa, ta ra ta taaaa―God it's freezing. Still, a bet's a bet. I never understood that expression. It's like saying a dog's a dog. What else would it be for Chrissake? I must get an electric card this week. I must. I must...I must, I must improve my bust. Right, if he's no here by quarter-to we'll get an electric card. Come on son I feel a right tube sitting here like this.
Maybe he's been. No. I would've heard him. He's no exactly light on his feet even without the bag. Besides, he's always here at this time. Always. Like clockwork. It's no like I'm going to have to sit here freezing my arse off all day. He'll be here. Stay cool. Only bet on certainties in this life. Life and death, they're the only real certainties and that says nothing about the quality of life or the quality of death. My life's going to get better. It's got to. The only way is up and all that crap. I can feel it in my bones - or is that just the cold, stupid bitch that I am - and the first thing I'm going to do is bin this linoleum and go for a nice shag pile. I don't care if it is the hall. What am I saying? Sod this place. The first thing I'm going for is a new place, with a bathroom and a loo. And a bidet, like our Kate's got. I've always fancied one of them. Where is he?
I need to be good this week. I'll need to take control. I can do it. I've got self-control. It's no as if it's got a grip of me. No way. You can't be controlled by anything that doesn't have a mind. Anyway, I don't need a big win this week. A hundred would be good. Let's no be greedy. I could pay back Morag the twenty I owe her and get an electricity card and there'd still be seventy left. The rent's no due till the eighteenth so I'll have had another giro by then so we're laughing. Seventy pounds! You've got a real chance of winning with there. I'd get a tenner win for sure and so we could call it eighty. Oh God! I'm dizzy just thinking about it. Come on Mr Postman. Come on.
Winning's no everything of course, just like the Olympics. Winning's a bonus, like coming during sex. You can lose and still feel your heart pound. It's no the winning. It's the chance of winning and that way you can never lose. There's always the chance you'll win. The way men talk about it you'd think sex was everything. I mean I like it as much as the next woman but this is different. With these I don't need anyone, well, maybe the newsagent. You don't even have to get your knickers off. And if he runs out there's always the garage. I don't like going there unless it's late and Bert's is shut. It's no so bad unless I get that snooty bitch and she just looks down her nose at me. I know what she's thinking too―"Loser."―but I'm no a loser and what would she know? I bet she fiddles the till and everything. I bet that's how she gets her kicks. She looks the sort. Cow.
Where the fuck is he? Sod this. I'm no sitting here with my tits out for no man. It's my giro. Where is he? It's no funny anymore. Bet's off. Game's a bogey! I need my money. I bet it's that bloody buroo again. They can't get a fucking thing right. No a thing. I bet someone's shopped me. Her next door more like. I bet she's told them what I do with my money. Well it's my money goddamit! I can piss it away any way I like. They can't do this. It's no right. It's no right. It's no right.
Our Father who art in heaven, please let the postman come. Please. This'll be my last week. I promise. I promise I'll be good. Just please let him come. I'll call Gamblers Anonymous and everything. I just need to get through this morning that's all.
God? Are you there God?
Originally published in The Ranfurly Review Issue 2, March 2008
One would have thought that a prerequisite for being a primary school teacher, even before one starts to look at qualifications and experience, might be a fondness for, or at least not a total loathing of, children. This, strangely, has never been the case and I'm sure your childhood is replete, as is mine, with wicked old spinsters who just happen to have ended up responsible for entire classes of innocent children. Of course, they're never what we believe them to be, they have lives and loves and hopes and fears just like the rest of us but they seem a breed apart, not like the rest of us, caricatures, the butt of many a joke, sketch or skit on TV. Vivienne never cared to be reduced to a stereotype even if there was some basis for the reduction.
Have you ever caught a glimpse of yourself and seen yourself for what you are, seen beyond the façade? Vivienne had. In fact, it was all she ever saw in the mirror. I still catch her looking from time to time with that question mark hanging over her head. I asked her once what exactly she was looking for but she said she didn't know because every time she looked it wasn't there. She wanted to be more than the sum of her parts, not less. The sum of her parts was not great however: age―wrong, always wrong, she had always been the wrong age at the wrong time; intelligence―bright but lacking in common sense; personality―in need of a good service; sexuality―still hanging in there, but only allowed out to play on certain occasions and never when she had company; looks―attractive but only to those who like that sort of thing; social skills―wanting but not knowing what; interests―horticulture, flowers.
There's a school of thought that says you should talk to your plants, that they respond to positive vibrations or something like that. Vivienne didn't and doesn't. She looked after them but she didn't talk to them. They were like the parts of her body that she fed and cared for. If the flowers grew too big she re-potted them, if the shrubs needed training then she trimmed them in much the same way as she modified her wardrobe during certain times in the month when she felt bloated and always kept her hair shoulder-length and manageable. She looked after herself without seeming as if she actually cared. It was a job of work to be carried out, one of her daily chores, and if you did it correctly then... then... but there was no one to give her a gold star or the smiley face some of the newer teachers used. She said her children were just like a flower garden which sounds poetic but what she meant was they came and they went. The class filled up every year and it was always filled with the same, but different faces. It was her job to look after them for the year.
The conservatory wasn't hers. She had inherited it―she owned it flat out―but it never felt hers. The plants had been her father's and, even several seasons on, as far as she was concerned they were still his. A greenhouse―even one with a fancy name―is a hard thing to personalise I would have thought - I mean, they're just plants - but not so I'm informed. A part of her wanted to clear out the thing straight after the funeral but it seemed a shame to do away with all his hard work. Besides she had no idea how to actually go about such a task so, until she had a clear plan of action, she took to caring for them as best she knew how. At the time, pottering about in the greenhouse seemed to help her get over her father's death - her mother had already gone - and, after a while, she found herself taking an active interest, looking up books, subscribing to journals. If she kept it alive then she was keeping something of her father alive which I never understood because she rarely has a good thing to say about him.
Did she have a favourite plant? Actually, yes, she said, much to my surprise―I'm not even sure what brought up the subject in the first place―it was about a foot tall with spotted, bright yellow leaves that flourished in the shade. Vivienne said it was the first one she actually went out of her way to get, the first one that was for her alone and not a hand-me-down: it was a jewelweed.
"The jewelweed", she explained to me, "is a very special type of plant. It's common name is 'touch-me-not' and it's called that because, like other varieties of Impatiens, its seed pods, when ripe, will burst open at the slightest touch; that's where they get the name from, because they're impatient."
Vivienne didn't know this when she bought the thing and the shop-keeper who sold it her neglected to pass on this germ of information but she found out soon enough that Autumn when, as she examined the plant for damage or infection, it exploded in her face. To her surprise, rather than be shocked, she laughed out loud, the first time she could remember doing so in a long time. Apparently, she just sat there on the floor and laughed till the tears flowed. It was a sound none of the plants was used to but it seemed to do them no harm.
Of course, I found out about all of this at a much later date. I'm not part of this story yet but I am the catalyst. I wish I'd been there to see it. I can get her to laugh sometimes but I just know there's more in there. A lifetime's laughter.
Vivienne was also nominally religious, she went through some of the motions. She attended church every Sunday barring illness, listened to the sermon, sang a few hymns, dropped whatever would salve her conscience into the collection and hurried home. It was what she was used to doing so she kept it up, like being a teacher, being alone and not knowing what else to be. The first thing you see when you enter her hallway is a painting of Jesus following his resurrection talking to Mary Magdalene. It has a title too, in Latin, "Noli me Tangere" which Vivienne says means, "touch me not." I never cared for it but it does set the tone of the place. It's an old house, far too big for her alone, but it must have been her home for a long time. She certainly never speaks of any other place but dragging the past out of her is like pulling weeds. I've never seen a painting like it but it's clearly a cheap reproduction in an expensive frame. In time I managed to get her to move it into the spare room―I had to redecorate the entire hall to do it―but I don't think she'll ever get rid of it anymore than she'll shake the need to get up every Sunday morning and go to St Therese's.
We met at a conference, one of those chance events that could just as easily have never happened. The truth was I tried to get out of it and couldn't. I'm sure she's never questioned it as much as I or wondered about what our lives might have been like if we hadn't met but that's the difference between the two of us and differences are good; opposites attract.
Now, don't get me wrong. The first time I saw her if you'd said that within six weeks she would have given up her forty year old virginity to me across a creaky kitchen table one rainy Saturday afternoon I might have been shocked but a part of me would also have been intrigued at the possibility. It would have just seemed the most impossible thing to envisage but then I guess that's why I've always found wedding rings a strange source of fascination. Why? Because that's a sign to everyone that they've done it―with a man―probably more than once, possibly the previous evening and yet you see them all over the place on the bus or the train, sitting behind typewriters and addressing hoards of schoolchildren and you can't tell―but you know. When I met Vivienne I couldn't imagine her with anyone. The only wedding ring she had was on a chain between her breasts and they were well covered up. The thought simply never crossed my mind to be honest. It was a very pleasant surprise indeed to find she still possessed a fine cleavage indeed. Afterwards - to be blunt it didn't take too long - we gathered ourselves together but when she took one look at me with my hands on my knees and my trousers still at half-mast, wheezing like an old bull did she not burst out laughing? You know, that kind of infectious laugh that makes you giddy. I just looked back at her hanging out of her dress―I'll never forget the look on her face―and I was off too. I think that was when we fell in love, if you really wanted to pin things down to a moment in time, as if any one moment in time is that important.
We weren't actually introduced in the traditional way, not at first in any case. It was one of those sessions where we all took turns to stand up and deliver a short spiel about who we were, what school and/or discipline we represented, how long we'd been in the profession and so on and so forth. You get the idea. Vivienne had no sooner got to her feet than she seemed to be sitting back down again and I have no idea what she said about herself but one could not accuse her of loquacity, if anything, quite the opposite. Most men complain that their wives have to much to say about everything and take too long saying it but not mine.
Of course, when I look at Vivienne now I know I'm judging myself. I'm pretty sure a lot of people think I've settled and she's just dug her teeth in and hung on like crazy in case her last chance got away but it wasn't like that. Actually, it was a plant that got us together, a busy lizzie so she told me. I just remember a thing with sort of red leaves I think. It was perched on the window ledge behind me and, during one of the breaks I came back in early to get something, a diary I think, and there she was carefully dribbling water from a polystyrene cup into the pot. I thought it was such a compassionate thing to do―I hadn't yet come to terms with her practical nature - but it started us talking.
When I called on her the first time―unannounced I have to admit and without any clear intentions―I can't say I was received too well, nor was the potted plant I proffered. Well, what do I know about plants? It was clear she was not used to entertaining and had to go searching for the good china. At least I had enough gumption not to take cut flowers. That would have put the kibosh on things there and then I'm quite sure.
Nature is a funny thing. Theologians talk about God working in mysterious ways but naturalists could say pretty much the same. Vivienne's tried to educate me but to be honest I let her talk―it's nice to see her get excited about something―and make the appropriate noises when I sense the need to: she'll never teach me because I don't understand Nature in any of its guises, especially human nature. My wife is a flower, a late bloomer to be sure, she has a flower's beauty and its fragility, she does not do well in public places; you can see her visibly wilt as the day goes on. No one knows what she is like when we are together. She calls me Sunshine and I call her Petal. They're not just pet names. We never sat down and discussed what to call each other but we knew when it was right. It still feels right.
Tommy Stephens annoyed her today and not for the first time. He's not a stupid boy so she tells me―if anything I think she has something of a soft spot for the boy though she'd bitterly deny having a favourite―but it does seem he's the kind of child who enjoys tormenting helpless creatures be they insect, minor sibling or school teacher. The topic under discussion was English grammar, not a favourite of the class or of any class I can think of. Even when I was a lad―when more attention was paid to these things―I remember, with a fair amount of dread, being commanded to perform acts of conjugation before an entire class. Vivienne has similar memories. Perhaps that's why this is one of the few topics where an element of empathy has crept into her teaching. Tommy, however, had yet to develop his perceptive skills and he read empathy as weakness and went for the jugular.
"But, Miss, what about nothing?"
"What about nothing?"
"What is it?"
"What do you mean, Tommy?"
"Is nothing a noun or what?"
"Of course it's a noun, an indefinite pronoun to be precise."
"But, Miss..." (God! I can just hear myself as a kid whine that). "Miss! You said that a noun was the name of a thing."
"So it is."
"But nothing isn't anything so how can it be a noun if a noun is a thing? It doesn't make sense."
Touché. Well done, Tommy.
She's out in the conservatory just now―it's where she goes―clipping away for all she's worth and all that other stuff she does to keep herself sane. I'll take her a wee drink in a bit, when the time is right.
Originally published in Static Movement September 2008
Jack: It's fair to say Ah fully expected this to be a wan-night stand. That wis the least Ah had hoped fer based oan ma previous performances. The beginnin of a long an fruitful relationship wisne even a consideration. Ah've never been into test drivin hings, even cars. Ah feel Ah aywis want to apologise to the car dealer fer the need to see how 'she' handles. Ah should jist be content to jump in, start her up an aff we head into the sunset. An that's a point, why are cars aywis female? Maybe they're no. Maybe the sleazy auld salesman suggests to those of his clientele who jist happen to be of the female persuasion that they take 'him' fer a wee spin around the block. Naw, doesne sound right but perhaps that's cause Ah'm a man an Ah simply canne, even wi the best will in the world, put masel in a wuman's place. Ah feel like Ah'm in drag an all Ah'm doin is lie here in bed thinkin about it. Ah wunner if she's awake yet?
Jill: God Ah feel sick. Ah think Ah'm havin wan o them full-body hangovers again. Ah am never drinkin again. Never. Shit, he's still here. Well, that's fuckin marvellous. Well as long as the wee bugger jist lies there an doesne start snorin or fartin then fine. Ah can deal wi him later. That's it old girl, nae more wild nights fer you. Yer gettin far too long in the tooth fer all this. Even when you were young enough you were too old: completely wrong metabolism. Thank you, God very much. Anywan else who did whit Ah did last night would have lost a stane an a half oan the dance floor an at least another in the bedroom. Nae me. Never me, pair little ol' me lyin here wallowin in a big bag of fat. Christ whit an image.
Jack: Whit's she jerkin about fer? Could be a nightmare. Maybe she's goin to spew. Fuck it. If she does then Ah am out of here faster than you can say 'fornicatin wee shite.' All Ah can say is Ah'm glad she's facin the other way. She is facin the other way isn't she? Aye, she is. Ah can feel that great big arse of hers in the small of ma back. Ah never realised it wis so ruddy huge last night. Still, the tits made up fer that. By Christ they did at that.
Jill: Ah wonder who's bed we're in? It feels like mine. God, Ah hope it is. Ah'm in nae condition to get up an dressed. Ah don't care who he is or where he lives, Ah'm here fer the rest of the day an that's that. An that's a point. Ah wonder who the hell he is. Please let it be the bloke wi the tattoo an no that mate of his wi the glasses. Ah thought Ah'd heard every slang expression fer top heavy till Ah heard him. Please, please let it no be him.
Jack: Whit day's today? Sunday. That's right. Thank Christ. Ah don't have to be at oor Lynn's till tea time. Ah'm glad the footie got cancelled. There isne a pig's chance in hell of me bein able to field anythin today.
Jill: So girl, let's see whit we can remember about last night. We went to Reflections fer a bit but it wis dead fer wance so then Laine suggested jumpin in a taxi to Malarky's. Fine, that's wan thing settled, we can blame her fer landin us right in it. An whit the hell were we doin there oan Seventies Night too. God Almighty, we were in nappies when most of that stuff wis in the charts. Ah only know half of the crap cos Dad insists oan haulin out all his Glam Rock LPs every Christmas. An every year without fail does he no go oan an oan an oan about how Suzi Quatro wis the template fer all of today's bands: "Aye, lass, you widne have yer Spice Girls or nothi' withoot oor Suzi."
We hadne even got the gear oan either. Ah felt a right tit but Ah wis damned if Ah wis goin home at that time. Sod ma biological clock, ma menstrual cycle wis tickin away an if Ah wanted a shag any time soon then it wis goin to have to be this week, take it or leave it. Ah'm sick of Laine's jokes about that vibrator in ma knickers drawer. Ah keep tellin her it wis a free gift fer hostin that Ann Summers Party.
Jack: The $64,000 question is, are you gonna hang about to see how things go? An the answer is Ah havene a fuckin clue. Ah mean, the sex wis good as best Ah can remember it, a bit heavy goin in places but Ah've had worse. Ah seem to remember we had a fair giggle an that. She laughed at ma jokes mostly an Ah sorta liked it that Ah kept it goin to get her attention. Or is that jist me all oer the back, desperate fer any attention Ah can get as long as the person givin the attention is of the right gender? You're thinkin too much, Jack. Stop thinkin. You only ever get into bother when you think too much. You were jist in the right place at the right time last night. You went out wi your mates to get lumbered an you got lumbered. Fine. Mission accomplished. Now it's jist a matter of gettin back to base in wan piece.
Jill: Come oan you wee shite, get up an piss off will you? God ma head! Ah don't need this. Come oan son, you've got whit you came fer an you dinne have to fight fer it (which makes me an easy lay but it's me that's got to live wi that an no you) so will you please jist get your arse out of this bed an bugger off?
Shite, Ah need to pee.
Jack: Should Ah stay or should Ah go? That's a song isn't it? Who the hell did that now? Some punk outfit. The Skids Ah think. OK, ten reasons to stay. Ah can do that. Wan: she's got huge tits, two: she laughed at your jokes, three: she's OK in bed, four: she'll fill the gap till you bump into Little Miss Right at the dancin, five: it's been far too long since you had a real girlfriend, six: she hasne got nuthin pierced - Ah hate body piercin, seven: she likes you - that's important - I think she likes you, eight: she disne punce me out the door as soon as we'd done the business - another plus, nine: her pal went off wi Mikey so Ah'd better no drap her till Ah see whit the score is wi the two of them an ten: sod it, Ah'll give her tits two points - they fuckin deserve it.
Ah guess that means Ah'm stayin put.
Jill: This is gettin serious. If Ah don't pee soon Ah'm no goin to be able to get up to do it. Fuck! Ah don't care. Ah am goin to have to get up.
Jack: Reasons to go. Wan: it's the easy option an we do like takin the easy option, two: that arse of hers - all Ah could think of when Ah saw it wis that Billy Connelly joke, the wan he told oan Parkinson, about the guy wantin to park his bike somewhere, three: she might have been easy to get into bed but she wis damn hard work when she wis there... uh oh... she's moving.
Jill: Shit, shit, shit. Christ it's cold. Fine, at least Ah know Ah'm in ma own place. Thank Fuck fer that. Oh God, Ah don't think Ah'm goin to make it.
Jack: Fuck's sake! Ah've never seen that amount of flesh move so fast! Ah guess that takes care of four through ten. OK pants, where the hell are you? Come on, Jack, you can do this. It's jist dressin-by-numbers. We've done it a thousand times before. Shoes, shoes, shoes... Fuck! Where're ma glasses? Right, we are history.
Jill: Never again, never again, never again. This is no worth it. From now oan it's jist Eastenders an half-an-hour wi Pokey Pete before bed. God, this is no normal. No wan should be able to pee fer this length of time. Where the hell do you put it all, Jill?
Jack: Oh fuck. She's flushin the loo. Sod it. Sod it. Where's the ruddy front door? Shite! This better be it.
Jill: Whit wus that? Did you hear somethin? Whit the hell if you did? Right, let's go an chase the wee prick out of bed an be done wi it. Well, whit do you know? He's scarpered. Thank fuck. That must've been him when you were in the loo. Wee shite, at least he could've made me you cup of tea an left it beside the bed. Aw well, lass. It's the game we play, even if they make up the fuckin' rules as it goes on.
Jack: This only happens oan the telly. No wan is goin to believe me if Ah tell them an there's nae way in hell Ah'm sharin this wi anywan. How the fuck did Ah end up in this stupid closet? Right, jist give it a minute. Let her get back into bed. Can you hear anythin? No. Coast's clear. God that wis close. Right, that wan's got a letter box so that's a pretty good bet to be the way out. Yes! An we are off!
Jill: Prick. A wee cup of tea wouldne have been much to ask, would it? Not much at all.
Originally published in The Ranfurly Review Issue 2, March 2008