Something Hard Inside Him (Part 2)
The pain beneath his ribs woke him at 6 am. He emptied his bladder again (had he really drunk so much ?) and heard movement in the house. This surprised him - he’d expected everyone to be sound asleep. He made his way downstairs and entered the kitchen where he discovered Don wearing a brightly coloured pinnie laying the breakfast table.
‘Robert - how’s tricks ?’ Don asked and then, without waiting for a reply: ‘There’s a bit more color in your cheeks, I reckon. Fancy a cuppa and some toast ? Or would you prefer something else. I think there are some prawns left over from yesterday if you’re interested.’
Don gave a mischievous grin and set an array of boxed cereal on to the table. ‘Or what about an egg ? I think I’m going to indulge. How do you like them ? Soft or hard ?’
Robert sat and watched as Don dropped two white eggs into a pan of boiling water. Don was obviously a morning person, unlike Robert’s ex-wife. Don was also a talker and something of a fuss-pot. As he laid the table he began explaining in great detail his daily routine as well as the convoluted office politics at his place of work. Robert did his best to look interested but wondered why Don was telling him these things. Was it nerves ? Marking territory ? As Don told him all about staffing problems in HR and the new procedures he would implement, if he was able, in order to make the department run with greater efficiency, Robert decided that Don’s incessant chatter was a symptom of insecurity. Was this, Robert wondered, the type of man his ex-wife had wanted him to become ?
As they ate their boiled eggs, and dipped their breaded soldiers into their golden yokes, Don moved the conversation, if you could call it a conversation, on to the changes that he had undertaken in the house since he moved in – the painting and re-decorating, the improvements and minor repairs. He also began to talk about the garden shed. ‘It was in a terrible mess. I spent a whole weekend clearing it out. All kinds of stuff – half empty paint tins, old rusted tools that hadn’t seen the light of day for years. I put new felt on the roof and bought a new worktable. Oh, the difference! You wouldn’t believe it. Now it’s like the Tardis – much more room. When we’ve finished breakfast I’ll show you – honestly, you won’t recognise it.’
Robert didn’t mention that the tools and half empty paint tins were the remnants of his own time at the house - tools and paint that he, a DIY incompetent, had occasionally used during his own failed attempts to mend and repair. Instead he followed Don across the garden towards the shed, the inside of which, with its pungent aroma of creosote and thick films of dust, he recalled, always made him cough, splutter and hold his breath each time he went in.
‘Can’t be too careful’ Don said knowingly as he unlocked a large silver padlock that secured the door and then: ‘I suppose, technically speaking, it’s no longer a shed at all – at least in the traditional sense. I prefer to think of it as a work station or else - what do they call those places ? - my man-cave.’
They entered. There was no doubt that the shed had been transformed. It was spotless. A rug had been laid on the floor and instead of traditional tools such as chisels, hammers and saws, an array of small stainless steel instruments hung on the wall – instruments that to Robert seemed to belong in a dental lab. ‘I’m a taxidermist’ Don announced. ‘Only an amateur, of course, but it’s a wonderful way to relax.’
In the corner of the shed was a large freezer in which, Don explained, freeze-dried animal carcasses were kept. ‘And this secondary fridge here is where I keep my recently finished art-works. Come and take a look.’
Don opened the secondary fridge door. Lying on the shelf was the remains of a small brown animal. Its paws and hind legs were stiff and stretched into contorted angles. Don took hold of the carcass and stood it upright on the worktable. Then, from a draw, he took out a tiny straw hat and a tiny pair of sunglasses which he promptly fixed on to the dead creature’s head and face. ‘Stoat at the seaside’ he chuckled. ‘What do you think ? It’s a commission for a friend of mine.’
Walking across the garden back to the house Don asked Robert if he had any hobbies.
Robert answered that he didn’t. ‘Too busy with work’ he said and blushed as he always did when he lied. The truth was that Robert had plenty of time on his hands these days. And what’s more he did have a sort of hobby, a hobby that entailed standing on his own at a bar each Friday night.
Because his lecturing hours had recently been cut, and because he was tired of meeting highly strung, highly intelligent female academics, he’d become a member, in this his forty sixth year, of a singles club. He’d invested in some new rather expensive clothes and become a regular at one of the weekend discos in the surprisingly small city-centre space that acted as the group's headquarters, slipping effortlessly into a line of mournful-looking men hoping to get noticed at the bar. There he drank pints of weak bitter and tapped his feet in time to songs that twenty five years previously he prayed that he’d never have to listen to again. A mild mannered man by nature, by midnight he would scour the tables asking women if they’d care to dance. And when someone - anyone - succumbed to his invitation the hardness - the pain - below his ribs seemed to miraculously disappear.
One woman who succumbed on a number of occasions was a thirty-something shoe shop manageress named Barbara. She was a slender woman with short dark hair, parted to one side, giving her a boyish quality he found strangely erotic. Three months ago, in the early hours of a wet Sunday morning, they stumbled into a taxi which took them to the apartment block where Barbara lived with her eleven year old son. As he undressed and lay down beside her he felt the pain beneath his ribs return.
He began to see Barbara away from the claustrophobic singles club. They met in bars and Italian restaurants and went for long Sunday afternoon strolls in the city park. She told him her story and he told her his, and he was grateful for this honest, unrehearsed conversation with its absence of one-upmanship - so different from his place of work. Occasionally Barbara’s son, Joe, was allowed to tag along. The boy was lively and asked a lot of questions, many of which Barbara was unable, or simply reluctant, to answer. Robert and the boy grudgingly came to accept one another although this was occasionally tempered on both sides by moments of frustration.
‘He’s like that because of his father’ Barbara would say, applying her own brand of shoe-shop psychology to justify one of Joe’s outbursts.
Robert’s own frustration seemed much more difficult to explain: like the hard pain beneath his ribs.
Two weeks prior to his son’s eighteenth birthday Robert told Barbara that their relationship had to end. He camouflaged his decision with bumbling concerns about the gap in their ages, about Joe, about not being able to commit to anything long term, about a possible job at another university. After they separated he expected the hardness beneath his ribs to swell and possibly even explode. Instead it disappeared right up until he was served prawn cocktail in his ex-wife’s garden.
Robert didn’t leave the house until after lunch. Don and his ex-wife insisted that he stay and help them finish off the leftovers from the party. ‘There’s a ton of salad’ said Don ‘and enough cold pork and chicken to feed an army. You haven’t got to rush back for anything have you ?’ Robert said no, he didn’t have to rush back, and thanked them for their hospitality. And while Don and his ex-wife busied themselves setting a table in the garden - his ex-wife resplendent in white summer lace, Don honest and efficient in his pinnie - Robert and his son went upstairs and made a successful long distance call to the States.
Robert had never cared much for this garden during the years when he lived here but now he observes every movement and drinks in every scent as though it’s his last day on earth. Maybe it’s because his ex-wife has just mentioned that she and Don are thinking of buying somewhere smaller. It makes sense, of course: Robert’s daughter has already spread her wings and Don says it won’t be long before the boy does so too. Robert’s son, feigning offence, accuses Don of trying to get rid of him. Don laughs, puts a fatherly arm around the boy’s shoulders and tells him he’s got the wrong end of stick.
Driving home, to his empty apartment and reduced lecturing hours, Robert wonders whether he and his ex-wife ever loved one another. They must have done at some point - a point in time near the very beginning of their relationship he suspects, but a point in time he simply can’t recall. It all seems so long ago. And yet two healthy, well-adjusted children have been brought into the world and surely that counts for something. He wonders if, with time, he could ever love Barbara - if he could ever love anyone. He wonders if Joe would allow him to put a fatherly arm around his shoulder.
As he drives along the motorway he thinks of these things, one hand on the steering wheel, one hand pressed flat just beneath his ribs.