Finalist: The Favour

Eric calls: Big, big favour love. Can’t tell you on the ‘phone.  Meet for lunch today?  I’ll come down.  Club at one.  Call me at B.H. if you can’t.  Okay?

She can never say no.  That’s her trouble.  Damn Eric.

One o’clock.  Bloody worst time to meet anyone in the BBC club.  The crowd at the bar jams up—four deep and people behind you yelling orders and getting them first if they’re actors or producers or directors or the smart-alec P.A. who yells, and take a double for yourself, mate.

Sun’s about.  It’s May and warmish, so Joss scrubs the bar crush, sod it, Eric can treat her and she heads through the glass doors onto the roof garden and nabs two chairs at a round metal table painted white with a hole in the middle; someone has snitched the stripy brolly.  She sits on one chair, puts her feet up on the other.  A woman with frizzy hair and psychedelic hot pants gives her a sour stare but Joss ignores women with frizzy hair and hot pants: she lounges back and tilts her face to the heavens.  Clouds hang above the smoke-ruined skyline and threaten the milky sun.  Joss waits.  The murmur from the other tables, clink of glass and cutlery on plates, distant hum of traffic from Shepherd’s Bush Green, a persistent starling somewhere gets her nodding off in the tepid sunshine —not a snort, a guffaw, or a noisy greeting can halt the luxurious torpor until Eric pushes her feet off the chair and lowers his lankness onto same, putting his Campari on the white table that glares into her eyes, blinding her.

Sorry, Joss.  I’m late.  You got a drink?

No, Eric.  Shading her eyes with both hands. Thought I’d wait for you in case, you know, you didn’t show up.

Shit, love.  If I’d known––would have got you one but—.

Don’t worry.  I’ll go get my own.  Shoves back her chair with a loud scrape across the tiles.

Wait.  He jumps up, takes a slug of his Campari.  Stay right there, I’ll be back.  Double vino blanco, right?

While he’s gone she looks around, picks up his Campari, takes a sip.  She savours the hint of bitter and the sweetness of stealing from the pompous ass.  The woman with frizzy hair smirks at her.  Joss takes another swig and beams back.

Here’s yer plonk.  Eric puts the wine glass in front of Joss and takes off his old boy blazer, black with red and green braid round the edges, pulls free his red and green school tie so it hangs about his neck à la Dirk Bogarde, his idol.  But he wears buff-coloured cords and socks with sandals, trademark of a Beeb radio lackey.  Joss takes a sip of the cold white wine.  Ahhh.

So what’s up?  More kindly disposed to him now.

Eric’s good-looking in that ‘anyone for croquet’ upper crust—though he’s not—way.  He’s a grocer boy, a middle class chap from Putney.  He still suffers the occasional boil and pimples.  A cluster of them has invaded the cleft in his chin.

He takes in the frizzy-haired woman who slips off her flatties and settles her pink and white feet on a chair, then he leans in to whisper the story, something about a Polish boy he’s madly in love with, can’t live without, this is the one, my dear, and so sexy.  Trouble is, the boy’s a student and his time in dear old Blighty is up.  Finito.  He has to go back to Warsaw where his call-up papers await.  Bloody Gomulka wants to send him to bloody China to fight pretty Chinese boys––oh-oh-oh, it’s all too tragic for words.  He picks up Joss’s left hand and cups it in both of his.

Would you marry him, Joss?

You’re joking!

She’s flummoxed and he sees it well.  He mashes her fingers and glassy beads glisten in the flaxen hair that sticks to his brow.  She waits for him to say, I got you the job at Auntie, love.  It’s the least you could do for me.

Instead he says: You’re not attached at present, Joss.  It’s so convenient.

Sore point.  Joss is definitely not attached.  The affair with Anna has been over for months and is still painful to think about even.  So convenient hah.

It would solve everything, Joss.  You’d be saving a penniless student from communism and the army!  Jesus, love.  You’re as anti-war as the rest of us.  You watch telly.  You’ve been on marches.

No, I have not, she wants to say, but doesn’t.  Other people go on marches––her friends go on marches.  She meets them afterwards in the pub and they tell her who got thumped or arrested.  No, she does not go on marches.  Not ever.

Will you think about it?

Yes, I’ll think about it.  Like hell, I will.

I’d love you to meet him?

She just looks at him.

Will you please at least meet him?

What’s his name?

Pavel.  Like Saint Paul.  You know.

Yeah, she says.  The twit who fell off his horse and became a Catholic.

They meet in Solo’s, a noisy coffee bar disco in World’s End hopeless for conversation under any circumstances and worse, no booze.  The sixties are changing everything; gritty old pubs are being gentrified, boutiques spilling out of Chelsea––just twenty years ago the policemen had to walk in threes down the Fulham Road––so says Florrie her landlady who has lived in Parson’s Green all her life.

Eric fights his way through the gyrators on the dinky, sub-lit dance floor to where Joss sits spooning the skin off her milky coffee.

Meet Pavel.

The tall youth in Eric’s wake shows perfect teeth and dimples and bows in that European way.

Pawol ees Eenlish.  Pavel ees Polski, says the youth.

He struggles with the language, mispronounces words charmingly, but gets the gist of what is said.  He’s very respectful; hops up when she gets up to go to the Ladies, and again when she returns.  Joss likes his looks.  If she could be a feller, she wouldn’t mind being Pavel.  About twenty-five, she guesses.  Six feet plus not too chunky, the shoulders broad enough.  He wears a chequered lumberjack shirt, buttons undone almost to his waist, a smooth muscular chest, tight jeans, maybe the legs too Johnny Weissmuller for the small hips and bum.  He tells her he’s been a ski instructor in Poland, like his father.

Yes he’s handsome; has a well-shaped head, curly blue-black hair, and eyes warm as toast and sexy.  He uses them and the dimples unabashedly to win her over. Hah!

Eric prattles non-stop.  Besotted.  Tells her she has nothing to lose: her entire family is in Rhodesia, a few thousand miles away.  She could be married and divorced in the space of two or three years, however long it took, and her family need never find out he beseeches her.

Her family.  Blimey, that’s why she left home in such a hurry.  If Ma and Dad were a couple of flies on the wall right now . . .

Her parents:  stalwart, straight-backed as Queen Mary and consort, on the railway platform.  As they recede her father salutes and her mother waves a lacy hankie.  Bye-bye, folks.  You couldn’t be queer in Bulawayo, couldn’t be yourself at all.

Joss, Joss, says Eric.  Please, won’t you think it over?

A divorce takes longer than two or three years, surely?  She tries to pin Eric down.  He waves away her questions and promises to find out ‘exactly’ what’s required so that she needn’t fret so.  Pavel leaps to his feet several times to ask her to dance.  Not right now, she says.  The evening takes a pleasant turn when two Australians, friends of Eric, window-dressers, turn up with a fifth of Bacardi and a fifth of Johnny Walker stowed in a Harrods shopping bag.  They all doctor their coffees, all but Pavel that is, who doesn’t drink or smoke, and later when Dusty sings The Look of Love, Joss, well plastered, does dance with him. His chest smells of Eric’s cologne, Taylor’s of London, but it smells sturdy and fresh on Pavel.

A month later Eric calls during camera rehearsal for Science Today.  Irene H. from S.M.Tel. hauls her out of Studio 4 half an hour before recording, saying Eric from Bush House has to speak to her urgently.  The nerve!

Can you do it next week, love?  They’ve sent over his call-up papers.

Do it?  Who are they?

The Polskis.  The enemy.

Oh Jesus, Eric, I don’t think so.

Please, Jocelyn, please.  Save the dear boy from the Reds.  A political gesture, in these dashed inhuman times.

Jocelyn! He’s losing it.

I have thought about it, she says, and I can’t do it Eric.  Seriously.

Oh dear.  What’ll I tell Pavel?

Listen, Eric, can’t talk now.  I’ve got to finish setting up.

Joss, there’s only you.  He wants you.

That evening Pavel calls her:  Haylo, my lavly wife.  I am hoping this will be marriage for us.  Plis be so kind for me to do this thing.  I can make up you some special gift.

I don’t want any gift, Pavel.  I can’t be marrying you, either.

In Poland I am artist.  I produce good broch.

Broch?

And niclass, and brasslet and fa-bo-loos pin.

Oh right.

Pavel is a ceramic and lacquer artist.  He’s built a kiln in his South Wimbledon flat.  A women friend called Irma does the designs and he fires them––brooches and pins and stuff, ladybirds, tortoises, butterflies, serpents.  He flogs them to camp boutiques and does a roaring trade Sundays on the Bayswater Road––all according to Eric.

I have a bungle for you, Pavel says.

Ten minutes of his broken English does her in.  Just for the hell of it Joss decides, why not?  It’s her life and she can do as she pleases.

She has nothing suitable to wear.  She complains to Eric.  I last wore a dress two years ago for my Beeb interview, a plain denim job that I’ve since chucked out.  Eric laughs gaily, no matter, my love.  He ‘phones his smart friend, Ellen, who loans her a dress.  It’s a cream-colored suit, skirt and jacket and a silk saffron blouse, almost elegant on Joss if it were not for her hair.  She’s worn it short since she was twelve, resisted her mother’s pleas right through adolescence to grow it, curl it, perm it—do something with it!  Her hair is a disaster as far as weddings go.  Just twelve days ago she’d had it cut, her usual near as dammit crew cut, and Pavel, when they meet to discuss the details of the nuptial, blanches and takes her off to Selfridges in search of a suitable wig.

My family will think I marry pretty man, he tells her, laughing but serious. Joss feels like a saboteur so she goes along with him:  What a joke. Pavel spends more time trying on hairpieces than she does.  She hates every wig he chooses for her.  She looks like a man in drag.  Is it her bony cheeks, deep set eyes like her dad’s?  Pavel surrenders but obviously whines to Eric because Eric’s friend Ellen comes up with the hat idea.  She calls Joss at work on Friday, and suggests she bring it along for the ceremony.

It’s a lovely hat, Ellen says, I call it Old Yeller.  I bought it for the garden party at Buck. Pal.  Ellen used to go out with a Household Cavalry officer called Charles.

We’ll see, says Joss.  But something nags at her.  Not the hat.  Something that feels so not right.

Saturday dawns and she gives herself a pep talk as she dresses in the cupboard of the flat she inhabits on Coptic Street:  Remember that you’re doing Eric and Pavel a big favour, so stop your nonsense, this minute!  She feels sneaky. She feels miserable. Her stomach’s queasy.  What she’d give for a drink.

Wedding guests assemble outside the High Street Registry Office.  Mad Jane and Tilly, the window-dressing queens, Ellen with her actor lover, Gerald Somebody.  Ellen is clutching a wide-brimmed straw hat.

Meet Old Yeller, and she pops the hat on Joss’s head.

Yoohoo.  Lucille, Joss’s once-upon-a-time paramour, now straight, rattles up on a milk float.  Barefoot, draped in a clingy T shirt, tie-dyed shades of orange and yellow, that only just covers her bum, her eyes, black as coals, a white daisy in her thick, uncombed hair.  She’s carrying a canna lily with its head bowed.

Oh Joss, she cries.  A perfect day isn’t it––for a wedding?  Oh this is Walter––She hugs the milkman’s face to her lavish breasts and his cap topples into his lap; a scrap of hair stands up of its own accord on his pate. The darling gave me a lift all the way from Barons Court.

Walter winks.  To Joss he looks more like an undertaker; cavernous cheeks on a long face that he does not remove from Lucille’s orange-yellow bosom.

How do?  Whosit what’s tyin’ the knot then?  Walter asks in a squashed, cheerful voice until Lucille releases him and steps off the float and gives Joss a kiss.  She is.

Ooh, luvly.  And where’s his nibs? Asks Walter.

Joss notices what a long man Walter is, too long for the float, his knees higher than the little steering wheel.

Not here yet.

Oy, oy then!  Still out with the lads?

Walter winks again, taking in the crowd.  You’ll put a stopper in that now, won’t you, darlin’?  Ah well, good luck, love.

Bye Walt.  Kiss kiss.  Lucille leaves a red raspberry smear on the tip of Walter’s nose.  He salutes and whines away in his little electric cart.  Like Koko the clown.

Oh stop it, Joss and be merry for God’s sake.

O it is a perfect June day.  The sun full and jovial sparkles in the pavements, makes shopkeepers beam, drives the sparrows into frenzied chirping, encourages the pensioners in the park to skip and dance and chat to passersby.  Men loosen their ties, undo top buttons, and move more leisurely to appointments they’d as soon as not keep. Hah.

The Registry Office is a perfectly plain modernish structure, situated square and proper, well back from the High Street, where it maintains an air of respectability and officialdom.

Inside, the waiting room looks like a Quaker meeting house with two-dozen straight chairs lined up either side in rows of six before a large, judicial-looking podium.  A notice on the wall behind the podium reads:  Quiet please—next to a small brass plaque inscribed: Registrar.

Eric has invited the guests.  Two more Aussies making four, some radio and TV people—fifteen in all and Lucille, of course.  Joss has refrained from asking anyone to the event. It’s all too naff for her to handle.  Her co-workers think she’s bent.  She’ll wait until it’s a fait accompli.  Oh, by the way, I got married last month.  You what!  You dark horse, you!  Likewise, the bureaucrats in studio management—contact them after the deed––ask the necessary questions.  How does marriage affect my tax status?  Etc. etc.  No sense getting embroiled in paperwork until one absolutely has to.

Where is the groom and best man?  Everybody waits.  For a blissful moment Joss believes Pavel and Eric have copped out, but alas, a cab hurls up with five minutes to spare and the two emerge, immaculate tuxedo’d twins decked out for Glyndebourne.

The registrar, a blunt-faced man in a dark suit, enters the room.  He wears a bushy moustache and a small RAF pin in his left lapel.  His voice is nicely modulated and middlebrow; he reviews the proceedings with considerable care, saying to Pavel after every sentence, do you read me, sir?  Pavel haughtily replies, yiss, of coors.  It’s obvious that he thinks the registrar a tiresome minion, which only adds to Joss’s uneasiness.

When the registrar asks, will you take this woman for your lawful wedded wife? Pavel says ‘awful wedded wife’ three times in a row and the room convulses.  The registrar is furious and shouts, Quiet!  This is a solemn procedure.  At his words Joss feels her gut lurch and she wants to throw up.  This is not a lark; this is nuts.  Eric clicks his camera at her.

The room quiets down until someone’s giggle starts them all off again and the Registrar resigns himself to chaos.  The ceremony is expedited and the parlour cleared.

Eric and the actor, Gerald Somebody, take more photos outside the office and the wedding party repairs to The Saracen, a pub with a garden and there with butterflies flitting amidst the peonies and geraniums they get pretty bloody drunk.  Joss ditches Old Yeller under a pub bench and tries to ignore the onset of nausea.

Cheese!  Eric takes another bloody picture, then he sits beside her on the bench looking tortured.  What’s up? She asks and he bursts into weeping.  Pavel has a lover, he moans. He’s flying in this evening from Barcelona.

Oh shit, Eric.  You mean I needn’t have bothered?  Thanks a-bloody-lot.

The lover from Barcelona shows up with Pavel at Ellen’s flat in Bayswater where the wedding party celebrates anew.  Manolo is matador slim, an elegant man in an elegant suit.  He speaks English with hardly any accent, but his shapely mouth turns down into peeve every so often.  Joss suspects he doesn’t approve of Pavel’s strategy, probably wanted him to settle down in Barcelona. Hah. Too bad.

Numerous odd bods, garnered during the afternoon’s pub hop or invited at the last minute, have shown up.  No one is sure who is who at this stage.  It’s chaotic and raucous.  Tilly has stripped down to a G-string and is performing a tease with his ostrich feather fan while Lucille sings, The night is bitter, the stars have lost their glitter . . . The lights are low and the dancers tilt and stagger.  In the kitchen Ellen feeds her King Charles spaniel.  She’s pinned his ears together with a clothespeg so they won’t droop in his doggie dinner.

Eric and Joss slosh down a couple of bottles of champers.  They sit out of the way under the booze table from where they can watch Manolo and Pavel paw each other on the sofa until Eric cannot stand it a moment longer and with a sort of swaying dignity, leaves without a goodbye to anyone.

Joss blacks out for a couple of hours, comes to, sitting on the steps of Ellen’s building, which faces the Gardens.  Tall, somber oaks look down at her on this fresh-breathing night—or morning—for it must be three or four o’clock by now.

The door opens behind her and out come Pavel and Manolo.  Oh hi.  She stumbles to her feet and falls over.  They run to catch her.

How you go home? Asks Pavel.

Can we all get a taxi?

I have a car, says Manolo.  He waves over to a green MG on the other side of the road.

Oh good.

––It’s a two-seater.  He purrs with regret.  Do you mind?  Please?  You understand I have not seen this handsome boy for two months?  He takes Pavel’s hand and puts it on his crotch.  Pavel giggles like a girl.

She wants to say, and I’ve just bloody married your handsome boy to save him from the Army!

Thank you, my wife.  Pavel hugs her, brushes his lips across her ear.  He flashes his teeth and dimples then crosses the road with Manolo.  They leave, waving, blowing kisses at her.

Well, fuck you, Ada!  She yells as the MG takes off with a wheel spin. Then she realizes she hasn’t enough money for a taxi, and unless she’s prepared to go upstairs again and cadge a lift with someone else she will have to hoof it back to Bloomsbury.  She sits down again on Ellen’s steps, hating herself.  What was it her grandmother used to say?  A silly action curses the guilty and the innocent.   Shit. Shit. Shit.

Pavel contacts her once a week after the ceremony—to exchange information, he says—just in case.  In case Scotland Yard does a check, which apparently they like to do after a couple of months when you aren’t looking, to see if you are really, truly cohabiting with your new spouse.  Birthdays and nicknames and relatives, habits and favourite colours etcetera—have to be memorized.  He wants her to come over to his place.

A nuisance, but she treks out to Pavel’s little flat with back garden in South Wimbledon.  Walks the place over, leaves some of her gear behind in various cupboards, although she needn’t have bothered; Pavel has already given the place a feminine touch––Ponds Dry Skin Cream and Oil of Olay, Tampax and lubricants in the bathroom cupboard, his razor and manly deodorants in the wall cabinet.

A dainty floral pinafore on a kitchen chair, another in the laundry basket.  Nylons, dresses, stilettos and pumps in the bedroom closets, underwear strewn on the bed––everything just predictably so.  All garments appropriately ‘worn.’ How jolly practical: obviously suits his newfound circumstances; he can dress up and play.

Well, Scotland Yard is the least of her problems.  The arrival of Ma and Dad is a serious blow.  Her parents had planned to visit Europe this time round, Heidelberg, where her father’s grandfather was born, then Vienna and Rome and home to Africa.  But four days in London is included in the tour!  And we can’t wait to see you, writes her mother.

Joss thinks at first she might keep mum about the wedding, but damn it, she’s already changed her bank account to her married name, Mrs. Jocelyn Grotowski, believing that in a couple of years, after the divorce, she’d change it back again.  Damn, damn, damn!  The Standard Bank (S.A.) will be the first place Dad will visit when he arrives in London since he’s worked for The Standard Bank (S.A.) in Bulawayo the best part of his life; he’ll want to go in and talk cricket with his London counterparts.  Oh why didn’t she choose Barclays?

Nothing else for it.  She’ll have to confess and introduce them to Pavel.  She dreads asking him but when she does, Pavel is delighted: Oh my wife, I shall so much like to meet new mother and father. I am happy take care of this for you.

He promises to be with her and her parents every day for the four days in London.  Joss takes comfort in this.  For a poofter Pavel is very family-minded, very Catholic.

She tells them as soon as they arrive at Heathrow.  Sits them down for a cup of tea, and announces it.  They go groggy, as if she’s stunned them both with a sledgehammer.  Then they gabble.  You what?  When?  Why on earth didn’t you let us know?  You didn’t mention you were engaged?  Why couldn’t you wait?  Joss tries to make it sound a rushed and urgent affair, which of course it was after all . . . Pavel’s a student and his visa was up and it was simpler to get married right away, else he’d have had to leave the country and who knows how long before they’d give him another visa?  She tries to get as close to the truth as possible.

Is he a commie? Inquires her father.

Of course not, Joss tells him.  The very reason he came to England was because he hated the communists and would rather be in exile than live oppressed.

Her mother looks at her, oddly.

Pavel’s an artist, says Joss, to round things off.  He can work freely as an artist in England.  It’s not so easy for him in Poland.

They board the airport bus and her mother has to know about the wedding of course, so Joss weaves a lovely story about the perfect summer’s day, the cream suit and yellow hat.

Hat? Her Ma exclaims, no doubt remembering the fuss Joss had made about wearing a little pillbox affair when she’d been roped in as a bridesmaid for Aunt Thora’s wedding.

Yes, I actually wore a hat.

Hope you took some photos, says her mother, her eyes suddenly glistening.

Yes, there are a couple of photos with the hat.

When do we meet him?

He’ll come over after work.  Joss explains about his being a potter in Wimbledon.

Are you living separately? Asks her mother after a pause.

Shit.  Joss has to manufacture a yarn about her lease and his lease, and how they are both frantically scouting for a place big enough to suit them both––with space for a kiln, she adds for good measure.

 

Her parents are booked into a low-key hotel in Victoria.  Tiny lobby.  One cramped lift off a minuscule breakfast room with four tables.  Strip of blue carpet up the stairs to the third floor.  Their room smells of stale cigarette smoke: it’s small and sparsely furnished; one gauzed window attempts to disguise a brick wall outside.  There are twin beds with pale blue counterpanes, a table and bedside lamp between, a burly dresser with a flagon of water and two glasses.  The lav and bathroom are down the hall.  Joss feels inadequate and unbearably homesick.  Her parents deserve better than this.  They look old and tired. It’s been seven years since she’s seen them.

 

She meets Pavel outside the British Museum and they take the tube to Victoria.  They cover the ground.  His parent’s names: Stanislaw and Maria, a sister, Regina, a brother, Polykarp.  The old house in Warsaw on some street she’ll never remember.  No matter they won’t ask about the street.  At Victoria Station Pavel buys a bouquet of freesias and spidery ferns.

It’s not as awkward as she imagined.  Pavel is genuinely delighted to meet her parents.  He kisses and hugs her mother and gives her the flowers; then with a flourish presents her with a lovely butterfly brooch and a bangle—green and white ceramic on copper.  Her mother of course is bowled over.

Pavel hugs her father too, and it so surprises the old man that he walks around the room in tight circles, clearing his throat.  Well, well he mutters, there’s a thing.  He asks about Pavel’s father and beams when he hears that he is an athlete and hockey coach. Joss has to concede that Pavel is very good-looking and that smile!  His broken English doesn’t bother either of them.

The next morning, Joss and Pavel pick up her parents and they walk along the Chelsea Embankment.  Her mother has found a kindred spirit in Pavel.  Turns out that he adores gardening and talks about his little patch in South Wimbledon and how Matka must come visit again when the Chelsea Flower Show is on.  They pass by Oscar Wilde’s house on Cheyne Walk.  Her father says, Oscar Wilde?  He was a queer wasn’t he?  Pavel laughs outright and Joss says he was also a famous writer, Dad.

They walk up the King’s Road and Pavel insists they have tea at Harrods.

Her mother wants them to come out to Africa and have a proper church wedding and meet the rest of the family.  Pavel agrees with enthusiasm.  He has always wanted to see the ahneemals in Africa.  Before he actually suggests a date, Joss interrupts him:

Pavel, no!  I mean . . . we’ll have to discuss it.  It’s not something we can do just like that.  She snaps her fingers, sees her mother give her a curious look.  I mean it’ll take some arranging.  I’m under contract to the Beeb and we’ll need to talk to your family in Warsaw.

Pavel looks cowed.  Our family, yiss.

Yes, Pavel, says her father, you should discuss it with your family.  We’d like to meet them.

When is Pavel’s birthday? Her mother asks, quite suddenly, sotto voce. Jesus!  Is she checking up?  March the um sixth, I think.  I’m hopeless with birthdays, she stammers.  He’s a Pisces.  Pavel, March sixth is your birthday, isn’t it?

Pavel blushes for her.  You forget my birthday, wife?  He laughs.  I do not forget your birthday.  Owgus fourteen.  I give you broch!

Joss’s mother smiles and writes in her pocket diary.  Oh Lord, I hope she’s not going to send him presents. Her mother pats the ceramic butterfly on her lapel.

I’d like to see your brooch. I’ll bring it with me tomorrow, says Joss.

Bring the photos, too, says her mother and pops her diary in her mushroom leather handbag.

Back in the cupboard of a flat on Coptic Street Joss lies awake in her narrow bed listening to the late, wet traffic hissing along Great Russell Street to Southampton Row.  She wonders if dragging old Pavel to Africa on a visit mightn’t be a bad idea after all.  For the first time in years she thinks about the one-horse-town she grew up in: one hot-dog stand, one drive-in cinema, one jail, one library––but God-knows-how-many sports clubs––the town was stuffed with no-neck rugger buggers.  Dad would cart him around to play cricket, hockey, tennis—whatever was in season.  Pavel might enjoy all that brawn and musculature.  Hah!

And her mother would show him off to all her gardening cronies.  He said he wanted to see the ahneemals.  Well, hey, they’d camp in the Matopos hills, lie out in the wild, pitch-black night, stars in their glittery hordes an arm’s length away––Joss can already smell mealies roasting in the braai pit.  Though, hang on, things have changed since she left home.  It’s not so safe now––the civil war’s still going on . . . Still, there is a natural history museum in Centennial Gardens, and an African crafts workshop on the edge of town.  Pavel might like to toss a couple of pots with the locals; he needn’t be bored silly. She’ll ask him. Tomorrow.

Sunday is her parents last day in London. Joss and Pavel plan to take them to Speakers’ Corner, Hyde Park and afterwards, a late lunch in Soho.

Pavel doesn’t show up to meet her in the small cafe in Pimlico.  Joss orders a second Kona coffee.  Twenty minutes go by and she calls the South Wimbledon number.  A woman answers.  Is Pavel there or has he left?  He’s left, says the woman.

Do you know how long ago?  I’ve been waiting for three-quarters of an hour.

Are you a friend of Manolo?

Manolo?  Wait.  Are you Irma who designs the jewelry?

Yes, says the woman.  I’m staying in his place until he gets back.

Gets back?

From Barcelona.  He’s away for a week.

SHIT!

Yeah, the woman agrees. All a bit sudden.  He only told me at three this morning.

How dare he!  Off to Barcelona without a word to her.  Joss hangs up.  Rage, and unaccountably, grief, overwhelms her.  What to tell them?  He’s meeting an important customer . . . and he’s terribly upset that he can’t be here to see you off.  That will have to do.  They’ll be disappointed, specially her mother who has a sixth sense about things.

Joss remembers to take along the brooch Pavel gave her, oh and the wedding photos that her mother wanted.  She goes through the envelope of photos that Eric had given her.  She’s been meaning to ditch a perfectly hideous one taken at the pub.  Ugh.  Horrible: someone has put Old Yeller askew on her head.  In it Joss looks dead-eyed drunk and old and sad.

Eric lends her his old green Morris so she can drive her parents to Gatwick.  Sorry he got her into this quagmire and he should be.  He even suggests he accompany her, which is almost considerate of him, but she turns the offer down.

She lets the old man load the boot.  Yesterday they’d bought a cheap holdall for the excess souvenirs, presents and goodies from Marks, cardigans, socks and blouses.  Her mother sits upright and silent most of the way to the airport, her father chatters like a magpie, notices every bump in the road––careful! Comments upon the traffic, must have said watch your speed two dozen times.

They have time for tea and sit at a mucky table, holding thick porcelain mugs, waiting for someone to come their way to mop up the tea puddles and remove the plates.  Her mother stirs her tea far too long, eventually speaks.  Wish you’d both come and live at home.  Can’t think why you’d want to stay here.  It’s no place for family.  Joss pats her hand, notices the brown spots, the thin wedding ring, wonders if it has actually ‘thinned’ over thirty years of marriage.  If they get to fifty years it may disappear altogether.

We’ll visit very soon, Ma.  Who knows?

Every word she utters enters her heart like a needle.  Lies all lies.

The cleaner arrives. She wears a sari with a pink nylon cleaner’s coat over it, flip-flops on her hennaed feet.  She doesn’t hurry, picks up each item separately, and places it in the trolley sink.  She wipes the table with a grimy dishcloth, rubs the Formica surface until it squeaks.

They wait until she has finished.

Here, says Joss’s father pulling out an envelope from the inside pocket of his blazer and handing it to her.  We want you to take this.

Joss opens the flap and unfolds a piece of paper; a typed bank cheque made out to her for five hundred pounds.

For you and Pavel.  A marriage gift.

Joss pushes the cheque back across the still damp table at him.  No, I can’t, Dad.  I don’t, we don’t want it. Bile rises in her throat.

Nonsense. Her father remonstrates, embarrassed by the interest of an elderly couple at the next table.

No, No.

Take it!  Right now!  Her mother is hissing at her.  Joss can see her teeth clamp, jaw tighten.  Her eyes glint yellow as a panther in the cruel indoor light.  She knows, she knows. Why must she rub in salt?

Thanks, Ma, thanks, Dad, she can hardly spit it out.  Shame and misery ride her as she puts the money in the back pocket of her jeans.  No! Her mother will not have it.  She must open her shoulder bag and put it safely in her wallet.  The Judas cheque.  If she burns it, will the shame leave her?  Her father is nattering again, why don’t she and Pavel open a savings account towards a house?  They’ll want a family, soon.  She feels, momentarily, a rush of affection at her father’s good-natured bumbling, half of his shirt collar is over his blazer lapel, the other half is under; he’s buttoned his shirt wrong, third button hole to second button.  Her eyes fill up and she swallows.  Seeing her emotion, he babbles all the faster about children and savings and being secure.  None of it makes sense; he’s doing it because the silly sausage doesn’t want to cry either.  Her mother tells him to shut up, she cannot hear if that was their flight announcement.

They say goodbye at the gate, stand to one side as others hurry past.  Joss wants it over as fast as possible.  Goodbye, Ma, she whispers in her mother’s ear and her mother holds her just a little longer before she lets go.  Her fierce green eyes are wet.  Come on, she calls to Joss’s father.  He too gives Joss a long hug and reminds her to put the cheque away safely as soon as she gets home.  It’s your nest egg, remember.  He waves and limps away after his wife.  Joss stays long enough to see their hand baggage go through the detector machines.  Just when she thinks they will not her mother turns and waves, just once.

 

She cannot leave the airport.  She hangs over the rail on the second floor balcony, looks into the abyss of seething humanity, airport travellers, burdened and not burdened, endlessly in motion.  Where on earth do they think they are going?  All that effort to make these painful journeys possible.  Tall pillars break up a long green corridor, fend off the natural glow from outside. Public phones line the wall beneath her railing, small head-high cubicles like large blue ears, people shouting their nonsense into the vortex of each.  In front of the ears, a bank of blue airport armchairs where these terminal people sleep or eat or read books, papers, magazines.  Overhead speakers blurt gobbledygook at them.

For a split second she considers toppling over the rail.  A moment of rushing descent, crack, oblivion . . . But it is only one short ‘floor’ to down there.  She’d cause a stir for about five minutes and have to spend time in hospital with a broken limb or two.

She needs a drink.

She takes the down escalator. An unearthly soft green light pervades, like being underwater or in a giant fish tank. At the news kiosk she buys a paper and heads for the bar. A large white wine she tells the barman and looks at her newspaper, reads a headline halfway down:  Dr. Spock Arrested for Anti-War Activities. That’s why I don’t go on marches she says when the barman sets down her wine. She points to the paper. No good deed goes unpunished.

The barman has a cheerful whatever-you-say countenance. He shrugs. That’ll be five and six, luv.

Damn. She’s only got a few bob in change––enough for the car park.

She pulls out her wallet.

Can you cash a cheque?  She asks the bartender.  It’s a bank cheque.  Good for five hundred quid.  You’d be doing me a big favour.

The barman turns the cheque over, the hairs on the back of his hand glow under the bar lamp.  You’ve gotta be joking.  He looks at Joss sorrowfully, like he gets it.  Slides the cheque over.  Nah.  Go home, luv.  Put it in your piggybank for another day.

She fumbles with her wallet. Puts away the cheque, starts to go.

Hey, says the barman. His eyes are gentle and merry and he nods at the glass of wine.  Have it on me.

No thanks, she hears herself say.  Is that her voice?  She’s making for the escalator, white noise singing in her ears . . . now she stops, looks back at her drink on the bar, the amber liquid glowing under the flashing neon.  The barman smiles devilishly and beckons her.

She shakes her head––No.

That’s a first, she says out loud.

And she’s on the escalator going up.

She feels light and happy . . . and tears, inexplicably, spill down her cheeks.

 

 

 

 

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