Three cold kisses
With a flick of his thumb, Jim sent ash from a Players cigarette towards the battered round receptacle he’d borrowed from the Chalk Farm Tavern, and turned another page of the Melody Maker.
“You’ve missed,” said Jeanie, stuffing a bundle of clothes into an aluminium-framed orange rucksack, “it’s landed on the carpet. Again.”
She lifted a finger and pointed towards the floor.
“Your ash. It’s all over the carpet.”
Jim brushed his lank, greasy hair off his face and glanced to the side of the bed, trying to locate the offending specks amid the swirls of purple, orange and green.
“Oh, right. I’ll sweep it up when you’ve gone, OK?”
“Please do,” said Jeanie, opening the first of several drawers in the hunt for the cards she needed to take. “Otherwise old Dodd will be on our backs. We’re due an inspection after Christmas.”
Jim scanned the listings. Status Quo at the Sundown, Mile End. Yes at the Rainbow. Rory Gallagher, Pink Fairies, Judas Jump, Wishbone Ash. All worth a look. Or he could ring that biker chick he’d met at the Strawbs gig at the Roundhouse last Tuesday? He lifted the cigarette packet from off the floor and casually peeked inside. Yes, her number was still tucked in there.
“So when are you back?” he said, palming the fags under the eiderdown.
“Dunno. Fortnight maybe? Depends how long I can stand it. Wish you were coming.”
“What, back there?! Oh yeah. Sitting with a paper hat on, my old man moaning about dirty longhairs, your lot running to church every five minutes. Fab.”
“You could make an effort,” Jeanie said, fastening the belt of her mauve coat. “I mean, if you had a job.....London was meant to be the new start.”
Jim stared fixedly at the photo of Lou Reed. “Don’t bum me out,” he muttered. “Have a good time. And don’t hitch. Get the train. The parentals will cough up.”
She picked up the orange rucksack and kissed the top of his head. “Everyone hitches,” she said. “I’ll be fine. Call you when I’m home.”
“Well.....do you like them?” Sophie smiled as James lifted the present from the gift-wrapped box.
“Binoculars....” he said, turning them over and over. “Thanks.”
“They’re lightweight,” she said brightly, “just the job for...well, anything really. Birdwatching, plane spotting..”
He looked through them the wrong way round. “They’re shit,” he said, “Get them from the garage, did you? Free with every ten litres of diesel?”
Sophie ignored the comment and stared out of the kitchen window, towards the thick clouds gathering purposefully beyond the wood. An Environment Agency vehicle sped up the lane, throwing floodwater back into the drowned fields. Thank God she’d dragged the sandbags to the door.
“Merry Christmas, James,” she whispered. “At least I tried....”
Jeanie was almost home. She’d struck lucky, thumbing down a woman in a Hillman Hunter by Camden Lock and getting a ride all the way to Heston Services. From there, a GPO van had taken her to Bristol Temple Meads. Now she could get the connecting train to the station three miles from Saxton, where her dad would pick her up. She rooted in her purse and found the two coins needed for the fare.
As she walked towards the platform, she stopped suddenly. Why the rush? Shouldn’t she just nip into town and have a quick one? She chewed the quick of her thumbnail, and thought of home. The brown sitting room, the slow, dead hand of the mantle clock ticking away lives lived in absolute modesty. A stiffener or two before all the parental fuss, and the suffocation of feeling 12 years old again, wouldn’t hurt.
‘Bugger it,’ she thought. ‘Just the one, then. I’ll easily get a hitch from Baldwin Street...’
And off she marched, platform boots making light work of neon-flooded puddles.
“Dunno know why they’re bloody bothering,” said James, slamming down the binoculars and picking up a sandwich from the plate she’d just brought in. He turned it over, opened it, sniffed the contents. He knew what it was, but.....what was it? Yellowy, something from something in a field. Unbitten, he put it back on the plate.
“Cheese, darling,” Sophie said, “your favourite. Remember?”
“What’s that in the middle? Red thing. Frogspawn stuff around it. Disgusting...”
“That’ a slice of tomato. You are enjoying those binoculars, aren’t you? Remember the big heavy pair we had at the end of 70s? We took them to festivals. Then we decided we looked like straights. I think we left them at Stonehenge in ‘78. Happy days....”
“Sod off,” he said, tearing the sandwich in half and shoving part of it in his corduroys pocket.
She smiled. The neurologist had warned them that nasty, unwarranted outbursts of verbal abuse were common during early onset of the illness, even among the most reverential and puritanical of sufferers. Not that James could be counted among that congregation. Sometimes it was hard to tell if he had a disease, or was just being his usual self.
“Let’s have a gander,” she said brightly, picking up the binoculars. “Ooohh....Fire brigade are here again, pumping out. Do you think the river’s rising any further? They say it’ll be through the wood if it rains tonight. Trees down. Electricity too, if they hit the pylons. What do you think? James?”
“I don’t know why they’re bothering. Give me the sodding things back, and piss off.”
“Yes, darling,” she said. “Anyway, I’m going out. To Betty’s. I’ll only be an hour. I’ll keep the door locked. Please try not to climb through the window.”
She pecked his cheek and lifted her cardigan from the back of a kitchen chair.
“Don’t leave me.”
“One hour,” she said, raising a solitary index finger.
Jeanie opened the door of the Crown and Dove and pushed her way through a fug of smoke and damp fake-fur coats. Slade’s ‘Gudbye T’Jane’ was pounding from the jukebox. A swirl of men whirled round office girls who spilled Babycham and Cherry B and squealed as they were lifted off their feet. Jeanie’s bum was pinched about four times in as many seconds. From the crowd, a drunken bloke lurched forward and planted a wet, beery kiss on her cheek. She whipped round, trying to find her assailant, then pulled herself up.
‘Get a grip, Jeanie,’ she thought, ‘it’s only Bristol......’
She pushed her way to the bar, squeezing in next to a bearded man in a blue car coat, reading a Daily Mirror.
“Bloody place,” she said, dumping her rucksack down by her feet, “full of octopuses.”
“I think you’ll find it’s octopi,” he said, smiling and showing off a gap in his front teeth.
“Whatever they are, they’re a dirty minded lot,” she said. “I only came in for a quick one.”
“Now don’t say that in here,” laughed the man, “they’ll only get the wrong idea. Want a drink?”
“Go on,” she said, “if I buy you one they’ll think you’re with me, and you’ll get no more hassle.”
She thought for a moment. Would Jim mind? The guy now flagging down the barmaid with a pound note wasn’t bad looking, but not her type. One from him drink wouldn’t hurt.
“Alright then,” she said, “I’ll have a cider and black.”
“Good girl,” said the man, grinning and again revealing the gap in his teeth.
Mid afternoon. Already the light was fading. Rain hurled itself against the kitchen window. James wandered into the study, then upstairs and into the bedroom. He couldn’t figure out where she’d gone. One finger, that she’d raised slowly. What did it mean? What had she told him not to do?
He needed her. All this water. How could she have disappeared without him noticing? He stumbled downstairs, unidentifiable fear creeping though him. Through the window he saw a murder of crows lift from their roost high up in the wood and bear down as one upon a lost starling.
He picked them up, placing the strap around his neck. Sophie would be out there somewhere. He’d see her, and they’d be alright. He raised the viewfinder, scanning the field and the wood beyond.
There she was, by the clump of trees closest to the river, their trunks already three feet under the water. She seemed to be searching for something, then turning to peer over her shoulder. He squinted, adjusted the focus and looked again.
No. It wasn’t her. This woman had brown hair, not grey. She was younger - much younger. Her clothing was.....all wrong. She seemed troubled, rubbing her hands together in anxiety. Then she turned in James’s direction. He glimpsed her face, and the binoculars dropped to his chest as he gasped.
‘Jeanie,’ he whispered, ‘it’s Jeanie....’
He looked through the glasses again. Yes. There was no doubt. Long, centre-parted hair, and the mauve coat that belted at the waist. Her mouth opened and closed as though she was shouting but he could hear nothing except for the crows high above the wood, cawing and tumbling in the wind.
“Jeanie! Jeanie! Where’ve you been?! Are you all right?!”
Then came a sound that crawled up his spine and into his brain, imploring and begging...
‘Jim! Please...Jim....help me...oh God, please help me.....’
Now he remembered. The sodding door was locked. He stared at the window for a second, then hurled the binoculars right through it, shattering a large hole in the centre. Automatically he climbed through, shards of glass ripping clothes and flesh. Dropping heavily into the front garden, he picked himself up, ran up the path, across the lane and plunged into the field that had become a lake.
“Hang on, Jeanie!” he screamed into the wind, “hang on! I’m coming for you!”
A fortnight later, silent onlookers behind a ‘Do Not Cross’ line watched police extricate the sodden body of a 66-year-old man from under low tree branches finally exposed by the receding flood. Two yards away, an unremarkable shard of deeply rusted aluminium, unearthed by the force of the water, stuck out of the mud at an acute angle. Attached to it was a tiny scrap of material, all but faded but just about identifiable as orange nylon. A distress signal that had gone unheeded.