We wake sore, wracked up on the sofa, watched by the bloodshot eye of TV standby. Morning elbows its way in and kicks up dust, reorients it on the face of the furniture. Outside the air is stale with what has passed: the imperceptible shuffle of one year into the next. Threatening rain is the whelk-coloured sky. Dead factories lie in wet cotton heaps. A while ago this town folded like paper, yet this is the place that holds us, and sometimes the prodding finger. The accusatory wag.
Sometimes it is something else altogether.
Signs of hopelessness are everywhere we can bear to look. There are no management, no operatives, no labourers or lackeys. Certainly no microwavable success. Machinists and cultivators have left since nothing is engineered or grown, apart from the children. We wake when we wake, roll out of bed, tie ourselves in knots. The kids are kept late for arriving late, but what is there to be timely for? No one stays indoors looking at four walls, at all they own and all they don’t. Souped-up Sky discs listen like ears. Roughcast cladding, crocodile cracking, Boston Terriers. People not born here come and don’t stay long. Nothing exists till we do. We call ourselves a community, watch out for each other. January to December, young and infirmed, all of our lives we have looked after our own. You can’t ask for much more than that.
Ian left his home and headed for town, his clothes pasted to him. He hardly felt the cold though his arms were bare, his t-shirt torn at the seams and splashed with blood. If Ian had been in his right frame of mind he would have noticed the by-passers in cars, the people coming home from night shift, and in taxis business folk heading to catch their morning flights, slowing their shared towrope to watch Ian. The cars like links of a platinum and pewter chain.
The pavement felt as though it was going forward with him. On his rubbery legs Ian walked, intoxicated by the nostalgia evoked in every square inch of his small town. He passed the park where he’d had his first proper fist-fight at twelve years of age, and then behind the park, in the alleyway, he’d lost his virginity to Cherith at sixteen. Then there was Foster’s, where he was headed, where he first laid eyes on Dominique.
That was a Friday night six months before. Ian had sat with his mates supping cheap ale. Once Dominique’s friend had left to go to the gents, Paddy shouted to her, Tell your mate to do one. You want a real man.
Dominique gave him a bitter look. I’ll not find one hanging round here that’s for certain! She sounded as angry as Ian had felt for months. He imagined she had the same ball of spite fizzing in her chest that he was always trying to choke back. Those black stones in the centre of her eyes held a mirror to him.
Paddy had chuckled to himself. I did ask for that, didn’t I? he said.
No, Ian told him. She’s a slabber.
Ian rattled the last coins in his jeans pocket, his round next. He looked across to the table to where she sat, a look on her face like she would quite happily punch him in the mouth. Her anger was magnetic. The guy rejoined her. Ian didn’t recognise either of them. He watched as the man hitched his hand to Dominque’s arm, she seemed to flinch ever so slightly yet she stared into his eyes as they spoke intensely and surreptitiously, making Ian feel as though he had no right to be in his own local with his lifelong mates, observing this intimate knot. Ian despised the look of the guy in his tight muscle-strained t-shirt, even though Ian had no right to feel resentful when he had Demi-Rose and their kids back at home.
Ian, look at your face. Les laughed. You’re really hacked off.
Ian felt himself get heated again, like before he’d left home when Demi-Rose had criticised him for not being helpful, rhymed the usual about him needing to get a job to support his social life, yet Ian knew there were no jobs to be had since the factory closed months earlier. Almost a year ago now. He once taught kids to swim, but now the leisure centre was boarded up and Ian wouldn’t give up his weekends to travel elsewhere for a youngsters’ gig.
Ian remembered that humid night, he’d noticed Dominique straight away. She was wearing a short floaty dress that clung to her in all the wrong places—or all the right places if you were a man like Ian, whose head was steeped with all things unfamiliar and unobtainable. He could tell she didn’t normally dress up like that. She looked uncomfortable and it made him glad.
When Dominique left her table she caught Ian’s eye, he followed her into the corridor. Dominique was leaning against the cigarette machine in the nook outside the gents. She covered her free ear while she spoke in a low voice on her phone, drowning out the music playing in the bar. There was a hush as Ian approached her.
Yes? Can I help you? She sneered at him. He curled his lip at her like he had noticed shit on his boot. Creep, she muttered under her breath as he entered the toilets.
For a moment he stood behind the door contemplating telling her she was lucky she wasn’t a bloke, but he’d never hit a woman or even threatened one. Ian wasn’t about to start, no matter how low he had begun to feel. He was a lot of things, but not that.
The next morning Demi-Rose had taken the kids to her mum’s, then she slunk back into bed with him. She rubbed her hand under the good shirt he had fallen asleep still wearing, her hand on his ribs. Demi-Rose kissed Ian on the neck. Are we mates again? she whispered, leaning over him to peer into his face.
Ian’s eyes were two slits, his face puffy with sleep. Aye, we’re mates, he said rolling over to put his face into Demi-Rose’s hair. He imagined it was Dominique’s. Ian wrapped Demi-Rose’s hair around his fist while they had sex, carrying on his dreams that had recurred all night. Afterwards, Demi-Rose asked, Is it my turn now?
Ian turned his back. When Demi-Rose sighed, Ian heard it. He tried to ignore her disappointment.