Sunday, July 21

Stuck With Me

I CAME IN FROM the back garden, where I’d been drinking with my father on the decking, discussing all manner of things. My nan was sat in the conservatory, staring with her blind brown eyes that had clouded into bluey-grey pearls, and I was rolling a cigarette when the doorbell rang. I answered it—
There stood my cousin, whom I never really understood, and even less so after she became a born-again Christian. She was turned sideways in the manner of someone torn between proceeding and fleeing; a look guilty of intruding. We greeted each other—‘We were in the area, and thought we’d pop in … to see Nan … is that okay?’ I assured her that it was, but that my mother was in the shower and my father was sleeping. ‘The children are in the car … we’ve just come from the pier … we’re staying at the caravan park around the corner.’ I knew it well. ‘We won’t be long … just to see Nan.’ I invited her in, we kissed hello, and she went in to the conservatory where I heard—‘Who’s this? Who’s this? Oh, hello!’ In a mixture of recognition and affection, my nan put her old hands upon my cousin’s face.
I finished rolling my cigarette, then her family entered the house.
My cousin’s husband, Richie, came out to speak to me. I felt slightly ashamed, for some reason, to be caught drinking at that time of the day. I told him the truth about something—‘I look for you everyday. I never see you. I walk past the bank everyday but I never see you.’
‘Yeah, they moved me inside.’
‘Wow, really? Damn, the scenery’s just picking up.’
‘Ha, yeah, I know.’
‘You really surprised me last time I saw you—’ a month previous, eleven at night—‘I was very drunk. It had been a mate’s birthday party … well, not a party, but, you know, their birthday.’
‘You hid it well.’
‘I did? Didn’t feel it. I was with a bad influence; she kept making me mix my drinks: tequila, wine, beer.’
His young daughter was crouching around his ankles, holding on, eyeing me up & down. She had a habit of exposing her gums when she smiled and laughed, both of which appeared to be performed theatrically. His son, seven-summers old, came out, and began performing tricks. Both children clung to their father. Neither particularly liked me and I could tell from the way they stared that they were very interested in my acne.
The son asked me for a game of table tennis. I anticipated an insurmountable tedium in such an undertaking, but I was jolly from the drink and agreed. He chose his paddle and the ball and we begun. A rally was never achieved. It would have been unbearable to watch, but luckily everybody else was inside, talking to my nan. As the ball went from one end to the other, seldom hitting the table, we talked, our eyes on the ball, not each other, just like the professionals. It was the most I had talked to him in his life. Of course I was under no illusion: if there had been anyone else there, he would have been talking to them. As it was, he was stuck with me.
‘I’m telling you, the wind is making this more difficult than it should be.’
‘Okay, the wind is on your side, these bushes are on mine.’
‘I don’t think the wind is on either one of our sides.’
When he remembered that this was a sport, he asked—‘What’s the score?’
I made it up because I wasn’t keeping track—‘It’s twenty-two—eight-four to me.’ I’d always change it—‘It’s two-hundred-and-sixty-three to you; you’re leading by three-hundred points … ah, that’s a fifty-point bonus to me! … Back to zero when it hits the window … You can’t do that! … you hit my beer, that’s a two-thousand point penalty … ah! you get thirty-four-hundred points for hitting that flower!’
‘Because if you tried to do it again, you couldn’t.’
What had started as a test of my patience settled into an enjoyably relaxing to-and-fro. We were picking up the ball as often as we were hitting it to each other. ‘This game is going to have to end soon; I have to pee.’
‘That isn’t the end of the game!’
‘O, yes, it is! Every sport ends when someone needs to go to the toilet, haven’t you noticed?’
‘No, it doesn’t! You go and then you come back.’
‘How’re you enjoying your holiday?’
‘It’s good. Our caravan’s much nicer this time because Meg isn’t with us because she died.’
‘Yeah, I heard about that. Sorry, man. I know what it’s like to lose a dog. It’s horrible.’
Pretty soon his mother came out and told him that they were leaving. ‘Thanks for playing with him,’ she said. I told her it was nothing, was my pleasure.

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