By Tony White.
‘What’s wrong, Hugh? Are you going to tell me?’
Tom is looking out of the window through the nets while speaking, eyelids flickering slightly as his gaze moves from the brick barbecue at the edge of the patio, over the pond, to the hammock which is slung between two trees beyond the kitchen extension to the left.
‘You’ve been like this all day.’ All bloody year, more like.
The eucalyptuses are wildly out of proportion to the rest of the garden. Bloody trees. The grass needs cutting, and the pond which the two of them dug that first summer in the house is a seething mass of life. For a second or two he watches the afternoon light reflected on its boiling surface.
‘Bloody frogs. Thought they always went back to where they were born when they fancied a shag.’ He smiles to himself. ‘Someone must have told a little porkie once upon a time.’
‘What? Oh. Yes.’ A half-smile briefly flickers across Hugh’s face. He’s sitting in the Eames chair with his slippered feet on the matching, plywood, steel and leather foot stool. ‘Where’s that heron when we need him, eh, Tom? That’s what I’d like to know.’
Looking down to admire the antique olive jars against the York stone, Tom encounters a patch of condensation on the glass instead. Been standing here too long, he thinks, then notices the thin, fractally-ragged line of darker something or other between the cold glass and the metal frame, and the smell of smoke in the nets. Good taste, that’s all, and I can’t say I blame him. Which would you take, given the choice, eh? Koy Carp or a bloody frog?
Turning, he opens his mouth and draws breath as if he’s just about to say something but by the time his eyes have adjusted to the darkness of the room, he sees that the twinkle in Hugh’s eye has gone and he thinks better of it: ‘Don’t try and change the bloody subject.’
‘I wasn’t, hun. It was you that mentioned frogs.’
Tom takes his hands out of the pockets of his Levis and walks the few steps from the window to the door. ‘Let’s have a bit of light shall we,’ he says, flicking the switch. ‘Are you listening to that?’
‘Oh. She was. And I suppose I’m bloody interrupting.’
Yes. ‘No, of course not, babe. I just forgot to turn it off.’
‘Can’t we have some music on for a change? Bloody Afternoon Play. I don’t know how you can listen to that shit, sweetie.’
I like it. ‘I had it on for the news. That’s all.’ The leather creaks as he sits up and swings his feet off of the foot stool. He swivels and leans over to take a packet of Dunhill from the bed-sized, oval marble table in the centre of the room. He lights one with a Bic which he replaces in his cardigan pocket, then, blowing out the smoke he reaches across to an ashtray which he rakes across the marble with two fingers until it’s a comfortable arm’s length away. Sitting up a bit straighter he takes a drag.
‘Anyway, you said you didn’t want to come.’
Hugh says nothing, takes another drag, then watches the blue smoke curling from the tip of his cigarette.
He looks up.
‘I wouldn’t have gone if I’d thought you didn’t want me to.’
‘Don’t be silly, hun. You know I don’t mind you going out.’
Hugh gently slides the cigarette back and forth along the rim of the ashtray, until the first tiny flake of ash falls off. Tom touches the radiator which runs along the wall beneath the window.
‘Bloody heating’s not on.’
‘Freezing in here.’ He considers quoting Pynchon — ‘vuh-vuh-vuh’ on the inhale — like they used to when they went to bed on cold nights. But he doesn’t.
‘Put a jumper on, then. What do you expect, walking around in a T-shirt in March?’
‘Aren’t you cold? Oh, bugger it,’ Tom says, walking to the fireplace and fiddling with the ignition button; wincing as the basket of fake coal goes on with a whoomp of blue flame. Hands on knees he stands up then presses the ‘off’ button on top of the Roberts on the mantlepiece. Rubbing his upper arms in turn, he walks around the marble slab to the side of the room opposite the fire place and reaches up under the shade of an Art Deco standard lamp. Behind it, the wall is lined with the bookshelves which he stopped noticing years ago. He glances at the poster for Passport to Pimlico that hangs on the wall behind the Eames. The blue signature scrawled across Stanley Holloway’s face is illegible. Not even Holloway’s — just some bit-part bitch Hugh claimed to have slept with. He wonders why he once loved it, why he once loved the whole of this man’s sprawling personal mythology. Studied it like his life depended on it. Perhaps it did, once. He adjusts the cushion on one of a pair of identically upholstered chaise longues which are set on either side of the lamp. Sitting down, he runs his fingers through cropped salt and pepper hair.
‘You said you didn’t want to come,’ he says, brushing some fluff from his Levis. ‘I really didn’t think it’d bother you, that’s all.’
Hugh takes a last drag then extinguishes his cigarette with a series of stabbing movements. Puts the ashtray on the foot stool, then puts it back on the table.
‘For Christ’s sake, Tom. Stop going on about it, will you?’
Shocked slightly by the volume of his own voice he sits back a little. Elbows on the chair arms and palms together, he rests his chin on his thumbs and looks at the ornamental cigarette lighter in the centre of the slab, noticing the way that the light from the window reflects on the surface of the marble, and the rings left by two glasses where it doesn’t.
Tom stands up. ‘Keep your hair on.’
‘What time did you get back?’
Tom sits down again. ‘I don’t know. Must’ve been after one I suppose. You were asleep, babe.’
Three, thinks Hugh. Couldn’t. He rolls his eyes and begins to sigh, then stops himself.
‘I hate it when you do that.’
‘I know, hun. Sorry.’
‘I didn’t want to wake you, that’s all.’
Hugh wishes that the radio was still on. Something to fill the gaps.
‘Who was there?’ he asks without looking up.
‘Oh, that’s it, is it?’ Tom sneers without meaning to. Gets him into trouble sometimes. Like Hugh’s ‘tut-tuts’, it used to be ironic and highly endearing. Used to be. It goes un-noticed this time.
Hugh’s arm has stopped half-way to the cigarettes. He looks up. ‘Of course that’s not “it”. There is no bloody “it”.’
‘Can’t fool me, sweetie. Wish you’d tell me what’s wrong.’
Hugh is suddenly aware that he’s slightly smaller than he once was. He looks at the brown spots on the backs of his hands, then picks up the packet and takes one out. ‘There’s nothing bloody wrong, Tom. Do stop going on, love.’ Fiddles for his Bic.
‘She was there as a matter of fact. Since you ask.’
Fag in mouth. Did I? Hugh thinks, but says, ‘Mm-hmm. How is she?’
‘Don’t be like that. Nothing ever bloody happened, I’ve told you.’
Told me something, thinks Hugh, remembering. But I know it wasn’t the half of it. He wants to smile, but gloating’s Tom’s game. You’re too bloody old now anyway, he thinks. He wouldn’t touch you with a bloody barge pole and you know it.
‘Hardly spoke to her all night as a matter of fact. Centre of attention as usual. Knocking it back.’
I bet she was, thinks Hugh. Stupid little tart. ‘Works hard at it, though, Tom. You’ve got to give the bastard that.’
‘Anna couldn’t get enough of it, of course. Bless.’
‘Anna was there?’
‘That’s what I said, darling. Couldn’t believe my eyes, I can tell you.’
‘How is she?’
‘On good form, actually. Going back to the convent.’
‘She always says that.’
‘That’s what I said, but she said she means it this time.’
‘She always says that, too.’
They smile at each other for a second.
Tom leans back on the chaise longue, and rests an ankle on his knee. ‘Sinclair told her Mike’s Portobello story. Footballs over the convent wall, you know.’ He picks at a loose thread on the side of his loafer then brushes off some imaginary dirt with the tips of his fingers.
I told you that story. ‘Bet she enjoyed that.’
‘Oh, yes. Of course she did. Never played football herself, but says they had the best time. Said she never giggled so much in her life. Her eyes lit up when he mentioned Mike.’
‘I didn’t know they…’
‘Knew each other? Well, who knows, but it’s a small world now, so you can imagine what it was like then, sweetheart.’
As if I wasn’t there, Hugh thinks, forcing a smile.
‘Some pissed diarist came over. Ignored me completely, the stupid bitch. Things I could tell you, sweetie, I thought. He’s doing another film.’
Just as easy to get lost then. Thought it bloody was, anyway. ‘Oh? Who?’
‘Sinclair, of course. Asked after you, darling. Oh, don’t worry. I painted a pretty picture. Working hard, I said. In our little Hertfordshire bloody idyll.’
Stubbing out his cigarette. ‘Who’s he making a film about?’
‘Mike. That’s when Anna’s eyes lit up. Said they used to call him “More and more and more…”
‘Yes, I remember.’
‘I said he should come and see us if he’s passing. Pop in for a cup of tea and a fondant fancy.’
‘Mike? I thought he was・
‘Oh!’ Hugh practically leaps out of his chair. ‘For crying out loud, what did you go and do that for! He will now. Hope you didn’t say I was writing something. Jesus bloody Christ! He’ll ask me how it’s going and I’ll have to pretend to be in the middle of it. Jesus, Tom! He’s writing about the M25 these days, for Christ’s sake. Be knocking at the door with a bloody camera crew next, asking about the old days. Trying to connect me to some bloody conspiracy or other. And that’s all I need.’
‘Well, listen to her! Pardon me for breathing, I’m sure.’
‘Another bloody hatchet job. Jesus, Tom. Why?’
‘Thought you’d like the attention, pumpkin.’ Tom cocks his head to one side, and does his sympathetic mother voice, shaking his head a little as he speaks. ‘Tom only wants what’s best for you, sweetie. Everyone’s asking when you’re going to do something. Take a bit of credit for a change. For Christ’s sake, you could do a little Afternoon Play.’
God forbid. Hugh jumps at a barely audible noise. Then the phone begins to ring. Jesus.
Of course. ‘Hardly.’
‘No, no. You sit there. I’ll get it.’
Tom stands up and walks to an occasional table near the door. He picks up the handset, simultaneously aligning the phone and the edge of the Salisbury Cathedral placemat that it stands on with his other hand.
They won’t answer. Not to you.
It’s not you they want, you bloody fool.
‘No-one there.’ He hangs up. ‘Drink?’
That won’t help. ‘Lovely.’
Tom walks through to the kitchen. He reaches into the cupboard next to the sink to flick the switch on the thermostat, then closes the door and bends to open the dishwasher.
Listening to the sound of the kitchen drawer being opened, the dull rattle of cutlery, and the cork being pulled, Hugh wonders when they’re going to stop calling, but hopes in a way that they don’t, because when they stop calling is when they’ll start knocking on the door, and that would be infinitely worse than the silences on the line or, as happened last night, that damnable voice from, what, thirty-five, forty years ago. ‘Hello, Hughie old son,’ he’d said. Hugh winces as he remembers his eventual, faltering ‘I’m afraid you must have the wrong number,’ and the laugh which greeted this pathetically transparent lie. He’d thrown the handset down as if a cockroach had crawled out of it. As if? One had.
‘Well it’s not exactly the cocktail hour, sweetie. But I’ve opened one of the good ones.’ Tom enters the room, opening and closing the door with his right foot. The wine and two glasses are on a black and gold lacquer tray which he sets down on the marble table, grunting involuntarily as he straightens back up for a second. He looks down at Hugh then bends to pick up the bottle and pour two generous glasses full.
‘Lovely,’ Hugh nods, aware that his slightly pained smile has something of the martyr about it. He hadn’t meant it to. It was just how it came out. He hopes Tom missed it. That kind of thing drives him up the wall.
Tom hands him a glass. ‘That’s three times in the last week,’ he says, picking up his own, ‘Joke’s wearing a bit thin now isn’t it, darling.’ Tom perches on the foot stool and takes a sip of wine.
It’s not a bloody joke. Wish it were. Hugh takes a too-large swig, but then stops himself downing it like a cold beer. He realises that he can’t swallow the whole mouthful all at once, and sits there trying not to choke or spit it out. It’s making his eyes water but he manages it. He puts the glass on the table and takes another Dunhill from the packet, aware that his hand is shaking slightly.
‘Kids, probably.’ says Tom, knowing that if it was kids there’d be lots of them giggling before one of them plucked up the courage to shout ‘Batty!’
‘Yes, probably,’ says Hugh, trying to sound unconcerned.
‘Same ones that have been chucking sweet wrappers over the hedge.’
Hugh can’t help being relieved that he’s swallowed his wine. ‘What do you mean?’ Don’t overdo it, Hugh. Bit too shrill.
‘Mars bars, Curly Wurly, Boost. You’d think this was the way home from the bloody Cadbury’s factory.’
Coincidence, surely, please God. ‘When was this?’
‘Oh, only every day this week, but never you mind I’ll take care of the garden.’
Hugh feels the room swimming, and starts to take a deep breath, but realises that it would be taken for a comment on Tom’s regular rant about dereliction of gardening duty. He half glances up, but Tom is looking over towards the phone.
‘Wouldn’t be someone for you would it, hun?’
‘No. What? The…’
‘Some old flame? I don’t know. You’re a dark horse you are.’
‘You know there’s only ever been you, Tom. You’re the only man for me. You know that.’ Hugh taps his cigarette on the ashtray, confident in the truth of what he’s saying, and hoping that this truth will paper over the larger lie. ‘You do know that, don’t you?’
They both sit in silence for a while, Hugh smoking, Tom taking the occasional sip of wine, both wishing that the radio was still on but not wanting to be the one who admits their guilt by doing so.
Tom speaks first. ‘You’re not seeing someone else are you, sweetie?’
‘Oh for Heaven’s sake, Tom! Of course I’m not! Where on Earth did that come from? We’re together all the time, darling.’
Not last night though, Tom thinks. No wonder you were so bloody eager to send me off. ‘Bit of a classic though, don’t you think? Silences on the line when the wrong one answers the phone.’
‘Classic? Christ, it’ll have its own song in Diana: the Musical,’ says Hugh, smiling and exhaling at the same time, the laugh turning into a slight cough which is silenced by a quick clear of the throat.
Tom laughs. ‘Every other bloody song’ll involve telephones.’
‘In the third act they will,’ says Hugh, aware of a lingering thickness in his voice. He clears his throat again.
They’ve cast and re-cast this stage show. It’s become a fantasy vehicle for every damaged showbiz personality they can think of. Tom remembers casting Dorothy Squires as Camilla Parker-Bowles last time they played, but his knowledge was gleaned solely from Hugh’s LP collection, and the suggestion was dismissed with a shake of the head. ‘She’d make a better Queen Mum,’ Hugh had said, ‘If she were still alive’. ‘Wouldn’t have thought that would matter,’ Tom had said. ‘They could just wheel around the corpse. No-one’d notice.’
They both smile at each other for a second, then Tom takes a sip of wine and looks at the mantlepiece.
‘Play’s probably finished,’ he offers, putting his left hand on Hugh’s knee.
Hugh transfers his cigarette from right to left, then lays his hand briefly on top of Tom’s. Too briefly. More like a pat. Damn. The gesture of a distracted nurse, he thinks, registering the slight tightening of Tom’s jaw and deciding, quickly, to bring that hand to his mouth as if he were about to cough again, as if the withdrawal of his hand had been some sort of politeness reflex. Clearing his throat unnecessarily, he waits for the moment when he can replace his hand on Tom’s. ‘How about some music, instead?’ he asks.
‘Not in the mood now,’ says Tom. You never were any good at lying, he thinks, taking his hand away before Hugh can follow through.
‘Anyone else there?’ asks Hugh, in an effort to restore the moment.
Tom drains his glass in one go, and stands up. ‘No-one you’d know, darling.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tony White is the author of two pulp novellas and two novels, including his most recent Foxy-T (Faber and Faber, 2003). His short stories have been published in numerous magazines, collections and publications. Tony is literary editor of the Idler magazine and edited the Britpulp! collection (Sceptre, 1999). With Matt Thorne and Borivoj Radakovic, White recently co-edited a short story collection entitled Croatian Nights (Serpent’s Tail, 2005) which maps literary networks emerging between the UK, Serbia and Croatia. In 2006 Tony White publishes a new non-fiction work entitled Another Fool in the Balkans (Cadogan, 2006). ‘Afternoon Play’ was written as a sequal of sorts to White’s ‘The Jet-Set Girls’, which was collected in the Retro Retro anthology (Serpent’s Tail, 2000).
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 10th, 2003.