Tinder – Ch 3 – Dee
By Mark Burrow
My younger brother Mike has a terrific sense of humour. He has this infectious laugh that cracks people up. He makes me die he does. I’m much closer to him than my older brother, Eddie, who’s a law unto himself. All Eddie’s interested in is going to the pictures and watching films he’s seen before.
But Mike I was close to. We can talk. Or we used to be able to until he married that Kat and started to go into his shell. On the outside, he’s all smiles and funny stories but inside he’s not at the races. A couple of his friends passed away and he keeps thinking too much about his own weight and his high blood pressure and how he can’t stop eating. I’ve never seen someone go through a pack of biscuits like Mike can.
I wanted to try and talk to him, though. There was a lot of stuff that I wanted to get off my chest and he was the only person I could really tell…who I thought might listen to me.
I was watching my soaps when the phone went. I could tell from the ring that it was Dave. ‘What do you want?’ I said.
‘What sort of way is that to answer?’
‘I wanted a chat.’
‘Don’t be like that.’
Dave was living at his mum’s after I found out he was seeing that slag of a barmaid Deirdre at the Blue Lion. He had promised it was over and I believed him. More fool me.
‘I can’t stop thinking about us, Dee.’
‘Yeah, what I ever saw in you.’
He made a tutting sound.
‘I’ve told you not to phone. I’ve nothing to say to you.’
‘But you and me and little Oscar, we’re so right for each other.’
‘You should’ve thought about that first then.’
‘I know. You’re right. I know I was mad to do what I did. I destroy everything. I’m weak, Dee. I keep asking myself: “You’ve got a good thing here. Why would you jeopardise what’s most precious to you? Why would you risk losing everything you value the most?” And I’m terrified Dee, terrified that you really mean what you say and things can never be like they were.’
In all likelihood, he was telling the truth. How he thought such words could make a difference was beyond me (part of me did want to believe him though, that was what was funny).
‘When you say “like they were”, do you mean before you first started ‘avin it off or after the second time? I did forgive you the first time, remember? When you gave me the exact same sob story you’re giving me now.’
‘Dee, I know, I know…I know I’ve made a big mistake.’
‘You’d still be sneaking around behind my back and lying to me if I hadn’t found out what was going on.’
‘No, I was going to end it.’
‘Pull the other one: a leopard never changes its spots. You’re such a liar.’
‘I was going to.’
‘And the rest. I don’t believe anything you say,’ I told him, getting upset as I remembered how he strung me along with talk about overtime at the caretakers and extra darts practice for the pub team.
(I found her dirty undies in one of the pockets of his donkey jacket when tidying up the gas meter cupboard).
Thinking about them made me want to throw up.
‘Dee,’ he was harping on. ‘Speak to me. You know I hate the silent treatment.’
I could hear pots and pans in the background. His mum was cooking dinner. She didn’t approve of me. Didn’t think I was good enough for her boy. Like she was posh or something special.
‘What do you expect me to say?’
‘But I can change.’
‘You said that before.’
‘But I know I can for real.’
‘Good for you. I’m sure you’ll make someone very happy, but it won’t be me.’
‘Why did you have her knickers in your work coat?’
‘You must do.’
‘Stop going on about that.’
‘Why though? Was they a momento? Did you get off on them?’
‘You’re like a dog with a bone. Let it go woman.’
‘You found her dirty draws better than me?’
He hadn’t changed.
‘YOU ALWAYS MISS THE POINT.’
‘That’s right, I’m stupid, I forgot.’
‘You go on and on.’
‘Put me in my place, why don’t you. What Dave says goes, as always.’
There was a pause. I heard him do his ironic sighing. His tutting. He had this air about him so that I constantly felt on edge. Like I was misbehaving. It’s hard to describe. I had to be at his beck and call and if I asked him to do any of the chores in the house or to help at all he would go ballistic, telling me I was nagging. That he was the one working and all he wanted to do was unwind.
‘None of this would’ve happened if you weren’t so….’
He was whispering. He didn’t want his mum to hear.
‘If I weren’t “so” what?’
I let him talk.
‘Since Oscar was born it’s like the physical side doesn’t exist for you. It’s not even on the map. How can you just not do it and expect me to go, “Fine, that’s alright then.” When I tried to discuss it with you, you never wanted to know. And if we ever, by some miracle, actually do it, you’d just lie there. You might as well be putting the milk out for all the enthusiasm you showed.’
‘I see,’ I said, marvelling at how he had turned it round and made me the scapegoat for his cheating. I nearly took the bait. Going to tell him that if he made an effort then I might have showed some enthusiasm, as he liked to put it. But I couldn’t honestly say his stinky ripping blow offs, nose picking, greasy hair, swearing and constant boozing put me in the mood. He treated me like a skivvy. He never bought me anything nice. Well, apart from those flowers on Mother’s Day, and they were from the garage. ‘I have to go,’ I said.
‘Don’t hang up.’
‘I have to go now.’
He kept ringing for the next twenty minutes. I watched the soap that was on which, funnily enough, was about a rat cheating on his wife and saying he was sorry.
Oscar should’ve been home. He was coming in later and later since he met that scruffy darkie who always looked like he was up no good. This bloody estate was no place for a boy to grow up. Nor adults either. I begged Dave not to move here when I fell pregnant. Pleaded with him to let me stay at my mum and dad’s in Purley so we could save properly and then get a place of our own somewhere nice like Croydon, near Mike. But Dave wouldn’t listen. “It’s a stepping stone,” he told me as we drove over to view the flat in his work van.
“To what?” I said. “Off of a cliff?”
“It’s a stepping stone off of a cliff is what it is.”
He didn’t like that. “What you on about? You’re so negative. Be excited for once. This is our first place. It’s going to be lucky for us. I can feel it in my bones.”
We drove into the estate. It was pouring with rain. I looked at the high rises and the tower block like an awful watchtower in the middle and all I could think of was that it was sort of a prison. There was an old lady pulling a tartan shopping trolley, heading for the shops. She took these slow, pigeon steps. You felt every step was an effort. The rain was falling heavier. She looked at me and she had the saddest, most haunted face I’d ever seen. I smiled at her. She looked right through me and when I checked in the wing mirror she had disappeared from view…melting away like a ghost in the rain.
“You always have to find something to moan about,” he goes, switching off the radio and pointing out a playground and a pub where we could go for a “quiet pint and a spot of Sunday lunch”. He invited me once to the Blue Lion and I wanted to leave the second I walked in there. It was full of wall-to-wall losers. A rough house that I wanted no part of.
Our luck changed alright…for the worse. The council estate made me nervous and I wasn’t a nervous person. I never felt safe there. Hardly anyone talked to you and if they did it wasn’t in proper English or any friendly talk, just nosiness. I’d never known anything like it. It was weird. I felt utterly by myself and also like I was always being watched as wherever you went you was overlooked.
There was a woman called Trudy who lived next door for a while and she tried to be friendly with us but I didn’t want a thing to do with her sort. She went on about my nets in the kitchen. “They’re so clean,” she said, dripping with sarcasm. “I can see you’re house proud. Don’t let my Roger come in here. It’ll give him ideas and I’ll get it in the neck.” Dave was laughing. I couldn’t for the life of me think why. She was having a dig at me and being catty.
“I’m not house proud,” I said. “I just don’t like living in a total shithole is all.”
She got what I was saying alright.
“My place isn’t a shithole,” she goes. “I’m just not – you know.”
“Tidy, is that it?”
Dave was giving me a “shut up” stare.
I asked her about her food. “That ain’t half strong, innit Dave, that smell when Trudy’s cooking?”
“Ah, I love cooking. Too much, you might say.” She laughed and patted her hanging gut.
“No but Dave and I were saying, weren’t we Dave…”
He shifted upright in the chair and the legs grated on the floor. “Dee,” he said.
“No, but we were though, weren’t we? We was just sayin’ about how strong the smell is from your kitchen. It don’t half pen and ink some, don’t it Dave?”
He lit a cigarette and stared at me.
“Stink?” said Trudy.
“The pong comes in here and it’s there in the morning still. I guess you must put a lot of funny stuff in your food and that’s why the stink just lingers like it does.”
“It’s how we cook. We like flavour in our food. Spices.”
“So do we. I’ve got nothing against flavour, clearly,” I said, gesturing at the Scooby Doo salt and pepper shakers and the bottles of ketchup and brown sauce and salad cream. “I’m not having a dig, Trude, all I’m saying is maybe you want to keep your windows shut or else try cooking some nice English food instead. Food that doesn’t stink the place out. We’re in England, not Africa, after all.”
“Could you be any more ignorant?”
“I’m not being arrogant, babe. I’m not havin’ a dig, I swear. Come on, don’t get the hump. You’re taking it the wrong way.”
And off she waddled, her fat bum wiggling in her tight red trousers.
Dave went to the fridge and opened a can of bitter. “Brilliant,” he said, sitting back at the table which had to be pushed against the wall, so we could only have three chairs round it. “You couldn’t keep that shit in, could you?”
“You agreed with me.”
“What the fuck, Dee? That’s not how you go about it. Now we’ll be known as the racists in flat 23.”
“It stinks, Dave. Why should we have to keep quiet about it?”
“You don’t speak to people like that. They’re entitled to cook whatever they please.”
“But why do we have to smell it?”
“Because this is where we live and they’re our neighbours.”
“Exactly. It’s not natural being on top of each other like this. I hate it here. I hate it. I’m not racialist either. Don’t call me racialist. I never wanted to move here in the first place.”
“So we’re back to that.”
I recall running to the bedroom. Oscar was playing with his cars in the hallway. I trod on one and hurt my foot and yelled at him, saying he was too old to be playing with toy cars.
Crockery smashed in the kitchen. Dave shouted that I was a “fucking bitch from hell”.
I wasn’t sure what I had become.
I left school at 15. I worked as a typist. Then I worked with mum and dad at Wain Shell, making the material for the tailors in Saville Row who made the suits for city gents. And then I met Dave in the pub near where we worked and me, mum and dad, Eddie and Mike used to go drinking there on Fridays. Those were fun days. I loved going to work because there were such fun people there. How we laughed. And Dave too, he was daft and could do these funny foreign accents that had me rolling up. He used to sing too. I noticed him properly when I saw him stepping up to sing Ten Guitars. He was shy about his voice but I thought his singing was magic. And he was tall and fit too as he played lots of football before his knee went.
Those were good times.
I can’t put my finger on what happened to me over the years. The person I used to be has sort of faded and I’m not sure what or who is here instead. I am a stranger to myself. It’s like I’m that old lady melting in the rain. The idea of talking to people when I leave the flat makes me nervous. No one speaks English anymore, me included. I do what I can to avoid the neighbours. Keep my head down when going to the shops and I pretended I was sick when it was Oscar’s parents’ evening at his school, so Dave had to go by himself and he hates teachers as much as I do.
I spend my evening watching soaps.
My hair keeps falling out in clumps.
The phone rings. I feel a sense of power ignoring Dave.
He’s not used to it.
I go to the kitchen and use a butter knife to spread cream cheese on crackers and I decide to treat myself to a snowball. Then I go back to the living room and put the tele on mute and give Mike a try.
‘You picked a choice time,’ he says.
‘Shall I call back later?’
‘If you want.’
His voice is trembling.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Tis-Was got run over.’
‘No. Is he…’
‘He’s been missing for two days. Kat said I should go and see if I can find him. I found him alright. In the road at Lombard’s roundabout. What was left of him.’ He began to sob. Proper, hearty sobs that only someone of his size could do.
‘He was such a lovely cat too,’ I said. ‘At least you’ve got Tigger.’
‘He won’t eat. He misses Tis-Was.’
‘It’ll be fine.’
‘I guess. What a state to get in over a poxy cat, eh? Daft, I know.’
‘It’s not daft. You do grow attached to them. They become part of the family.’
‘Shall I call back later?’
‘No, it’s fine.’
‘What have you been up to? I’ve been trying and trying to get in touch.’
‘Have you? Must’ve just kept missing each other then. We’re off to Cornwall next week.’
‘That’ll be nice.’
He told me about the holiday and his photography course and how he wanted a new job as delivering barrels of beer was causing havoc with his back. I wondered why he never invited me and Oscar on holiday with him. I’d always dreamed of going to Cornwall. It’s supposed to be lovely up there, especially when the weather’s nice and sunny.
‘Oh,’ I said.
He talked about visiting mum and dad and a row with them over Eddie’s rudeness.
‘You didn’t?’ I said.
On he talked.
I waited for him to ask about me.
Oscar came home and I heard him rooting about in the kitchen for food and then troop upstairs.
There was no room for me in Mike’s life now. He would only talk about himself.
His blood pressure.
His fantastic new video shop where they have “great pirate videos”.
I imagined him saying:
How are you getting on?
How are things with Dave?
Would you like to come and live with us in Croydon?
Questions that never arrived.
When we said goodbye, he thanked me for phoning.
‘I enjoy our chats,’ he said.
That was the funny part. I knew he cared about me. I was sure he thought the world of me, in fact. But with some people, as they grow older, they become more obsessed about themselves, not less. Mike had become so self-absorbed it was untrue. He didn’t even try and make me laugh anymore.
The call finished.
I gazed at the screen on mute and an ad for a telephone directory.
Some of them were really clever.
Most of the adverts I know off by heart.