White Space (Words 4291)
By Mark Burrow
White Space (4291)
Lee Walker pressed down, down, down on the list of names until he saw Taylor Ball. He hesitated then dialled.
After five rings, a voice: "Lee?
"Mate, yeah. It's me, Lee.
"Lee, how's it going?
"Good. Yeah. Top times, yeah, said Lee, and he laughed.
"It's good to hear from you; been a while.
"Too long. Too long. I'm a slacker when it comes to keeping in touch.
"Ah, we're as bad as each other.
"True enough, I s'pose. How's the wife and your boy?
"They're good. I'm parking up now, about to go in for some dinner.
"I should've asked if it's okay to talk.
"It's okay. I'm parking up. We should meet up soon for a bevvie.
"Yeah, that was why I was calling like.
"Good, good. Let's do that then.
"What time can you meet, half seven?
"You're not keen?
"I'm keen, but¦It's gone six already, you know. Shirley's cooking and that. Luke'll want playing with¦Tonight, I don't think I can do tonight.
"Next week a?
"Next week'll be good.
"You okay with that? I don't mean anything by it.
"No it's short notice. Not a problem.
"Don't take it the wrong way.
"I'm not. Not in the least. You know what it's like when you fancy a pint. Getting a thirst and that. Lee laughed. He heard the car door.
"Shall we meet next Thursday?
"Yeah. Listen, I better let you get to it then. Dinner and that.
"Bye then. Good chatting.
"It was, next week is a definite.
Lee didn't speak. He scratched the right side of his nose.
"Next week, said Taylor.
"You know I was thinking, like, it's stupid, though.
"No it's just that we've known each other since school. That's mad isn't it? To know each other that long?
"I suppose so.
"Yeah. Bye then.
You alright Lee?
"I'm good. Top times. Fighting fit and raring to go. Just fancied a beer and a chat, you know, with my oldest mate, that's all.
"Sorry mate. Take care.
"Will do. You too, said Lee and he pressed the button to end the call. He scratched the right side of his nose. The shelves in the living room were empty. He moved to the window and looked at the clean white circles on the outer ledge where Nancy's three pot plants had been set. He glanced around, seeing the television stand which lacked the television.
There had to be someone who'll come out for a pint tonight. I can't be that much of a loser. He flicked names on the phone: Barry; Rhys; Jonathon. They're only people I work with. Not friends. And they won't want to talk. They'll take the Mick. Think it's all a laugh.
You're not laughing now are you, eh? Not so funny now: Rhys'll say.
Couldn't keep it in yer pants: Barry.
Lucky she didn't cut it off: Jonathon.
Predictable. You don't have to be a clairvoyant or anything like that to know what they'll say.
Mum too: You've only got yourself to blame.
And what's done me in, what's done me, what's doing me in is that they're right. They're not wrong too. Not one bit.
Luke was watching a film. Taylor kissed his son on the head. "How was school? he asked.
Don't be so bloody rude, thought Taylor. He walked up the stairs and hung his suit and jacket on a wooden hanger and put the hook over a rail in the wardrobe. He scrunched up his pink, stiff-collared shirt and put it into the dark wicker laundry basket and pulled on a pair of jeans and a tee-shirt.
Luke and Shirley were eating dinner when Taylor walked through the kitchen and into the dining room. "Smells nice, he said.
He picked up the knife and fork and started to eat. "Good day? he asked.
The legs of the chair Shirley sat on scraped on the lino floor as she shuffled the chair closer to the table.
Taylor looked at his wife.
"Did you tell dad what happened at school today? she said.
"Let him tell you.
Luke swallowed a floret of broccoli. "They put me in maths class 3C, he said.
"The lowest class?
"He hasn't been doing his work.
"That's not what the teacher told us.
"Teacher told you when?
"Mrs Keane, said Shirley.
"Mrs Keane what?
Shirley gazed at the cupboard fastened to the wall. Luke cut into the pork chop.
"We'll speak to the teacher, said Taylor, "and we'll see what we can do. I'm sure it can be solved. You're bright enough. You can do sums.
"I can't. I hate it. It makes me feel stupid.
"That's not a reason to run away from it, said Shirley.
"I'm not running away from it.
"We'll sort this out. Discuss it after dinner.
Shirley lumped a spoonful of hot apple sauce onto a chop.
Taylor smiled at his son and winked. "It'll be fine, won't it mum?
Shirley picked up a short glass of water. She sipped and turned to Luke. "Everything gets sorted out in the end, she said.
Taylor gestured to Shirley to pass the bowl of apple sauce. He spooned a portion onto the side of the plate. "How's your mum doing? he said.
"She's mum. Same as ever.
Taylor paused. Luke glanced up at the two of them.
"Didn't she go to the doctor's today?
"That's what I meant.
"I drove her up.
"I know that. What did the doctor tell her?
"The specialist said she needs a hip replacement.
Taylor poured water from a clear jug into a glass.
"Will nan have an operation?
"Eventually, but it's okay, she's had this one once before.
"That's right, she has hasn't she? said Taylor.
Shirley nodded, mashing a roast potato into the dark gravy.
"Can I phone nan?
"Not tonight. She'll be very tired and will want to watch her soaps. We'll go over on Sunday though.
The knife Taylor used scraped against the greasy bone of the chop.
"You'll be able to come on Sunday? she said to him.
"Not a definite then?
"Need to make sure first. We're on this deadline thing.
"You might not then?
"I never said that did I?...I might. I might not.
Shirley sniffed. "I think you should come.
"I want to. I do.
"Honestly, truly, really ' if you know what is good for you, you should come.
Luke saved his roast potatoes until the rest of the food was eaten. He then mashed them with the back of a fork into the gravy.
"I'm sure I will, said Taylor.
"You don't sound sure.
"Deadline is deadline.
"Can I leave the table? said Luke.
"Thanks mum, said Luke.
Taylor cut a crispy piece of fat from the chop and ate it, tasting the juices.
Shirley put her knife and fork side-by-side on the plate.
"Sunday will be fine.
She reached across the table for Luke's plate and cutlery.
"The project is nearly over.
"For three months you've told me that one. Any more weekend trips planned?
"A one-off. No. That was a one-off. Do you think I want to spend weekends away working, is that it?
"Plus late nights. Don't forget the late nights working when you come home stinking of wine, which you never drink.
"What is this? That's just a couple of drinks with work mates. It's not forever. It's this project, you know.
"Oh I know: your special project.
Shirley stood up, holding the plates, and then walked into the kitchen.
There was a lot of food remaining on Taylor's own plate. The hunger he had before the meal was gone. He tried to jimmy free with his fingernail a strand of meat stuck between his front teeth.
Shirley came into the dining room. She held out a phone. "It's for you, she said. "A blast from the past and he's already asked me if you can go for a beer and I've said I don't mind in the slightest.
He took the phone.
"Mate, yeah. It's me.
The pub was next to the over ground train station. Taylor parked his car in the train station's car park. Lee sat by the wall-mounted TV which showed the Monday night football game.
"Didn't realise this was on, said Lee, standing up to shake Taylor's hand.
"What you drinking? Lee pointed at his own pint of lager.
"Bottle of Bud for me thanks.
"Not a pint?
"Alright, said Lee, moving round the long table.
Taylor slipped out of his jacket and rested it over the stool before sitting down.
Lee paused. "Hey, he said.
Taylor tilted his head. "Yeah?
"Thanks for coming.
"No, I wanted to. Definitely.
"No but thanks.
"Don't be daft. Get me a lager. I'm gasping.
"Sure you don't want a pint?
Lee walked to the bar, gagging for a cigarette. Although quitting was such an effort. They say it's one of the hardest addictions to break. One fag, though. One fag. It's not gunna kill me. "A pint of Krone. A bottle of Bud. A half ounce of baccie, a pack of papers, green, and a box of matches, said Lee to the barmaid.
"Don't sell matches, she said.
"Lighters are a pound.
"I'll have one.
The away team hit the post from a freekick.
"That was close, said Taylor, sipping the lager.
Lee nodded, crumbling tobacco evenly onto the rolling paper.
"It's been yonks since I watched footie in the pub.
"Don't you go out much now?
"I suppose the family and all that takes up your time.
"It does. Luke's getting on now. More independent.
"How old is he now?
Lee shook his head, lighting a cigarette. "You've been with Shirley for donkey's years, he said.
"Twelve years, said Taylor.
"Twelve, that long?
"I remember you two when you first met.
"Same for anyone when they first meet.
"I don't know. You were close, like, very close.
Taylor raised the bottle to his mouth and watched the screen. He felt his mobile vibrate and knew he had a text message.
Lee swallowed four mouthfuls of lager. "That's going down too well, he said.
"See you haven't lost your flip-top head.
The referee blew the whistle for half time. The score was nil-nil.
"How's work? asked Taylor.
"So, so. You?
"Same. Been there a while now.
"You wanting to move on?
"Not really, just¦work is work.
"I fancy upping sticks. Going abroad, that'd suit me I reckon.
"Middle East maybe.
"Middle East, the way things are now?
"It can happen anywhere, though. Papers exaggerate.
"Admittedly, it's not ideal but I'm just weighing up my options. Lee breathed out and drained his pint. "Don't want to rush anything like. A mate of mine in IT went over there and likes it.
"I've heard quality of life is different class.
"Me too. It is, like, from what he tells me, although there is stuff going on, obviously.
"It's what you said though, those things can happen anywhere nowadays.
"Fancy another? asked Lee.
"My turn. My turn. What you having?
Taylor walked to the bar.
Lee tried to listen to the half-time analysis from the studio pundits. He pulled out his mobile phone: no messages. He thought about whether to send a text message.
"You don't want to go to the Middle East, said Taylor, positioning the pint on the ale beer matt in front of Lee.
"I just feel like a bit of a change. A change of scene, you know?
"What does your girlfriend think about it? What's her name, Nancy?
"Nancy, that's it.
"What's she say? She's a solicitor isn't she?
"She is. She doesn't mind in the slightest.
Lee laughed. "She couldn't care less if I bought a one-way ticket to Timbuktu or the dark side of the moon.
"Oh. Sorry mate.
"Fine, fine. Had to happen.
"Been together a while, eh?
"Three and a half years.
"Not pleasant. When did she end it?
"Day before yesterday.
Taylor pulled the bottle from his lips and held it chest high.
Lee went on: "Came home from playing footie and the flat was cleaned out and she was gone.
"Out the blue?
"Not out the blue, no. I knew it was on the cards and it was alright, said Lee, relighting the rollie.
Taylor wondered who the text message was from. He swigged from the bottle.
"We've been mates a long time, you and me, right? said Lee.
The second half of the match kicked off.
"Since kids, yeah. Weird, eh?
"We're not that old.
"No, we're not, it's weird feeling things ticking along, going by, passing; knowing things have happened in your life, like¦And that's you, that's it, stamped, who you are. Done. Like a coin.
"I need a wazz, said Taylor.
Voices were raised from the bar at the screen.
The home side scored.
"Cracking goal, said Lee.
"A cracker, said Taylor. He watched one replay and walked to the Mens, seeing the message on the mobile was from Charlotte. He stared at the message, aiming into the plug hole of the urinal, listening to the sound.There was a cheer in the pub. Different voices, fewer. He guessed the away side had scored an equaliser.
"Was it a good one? asked Taylor, sitting back on the stool.
"Lucky, shouted someone from the bar.
"Pure skill, yelled another.
Taylor smiled at the two men.
Lee said: "Header from a corner. Keeper came for it and flapped outside the six-yard box.
They watched the screen.
Lee said: "You and Shirley, have you always like, been honest?
"You know, honest.
"What do you mean?
"Honest. Faithful. Have you ever cheated on her?
"She on you?
"I know, yeah. It's a long time though.
"What are you trying to say?
"Nothing. I don't mean anything by it like.
Taylor sipped from the bottle. "No, I haven't cheated on her. Nor she on me.
"What about lying? You ever lied to her?
"I'm watching the game Lee.
"Right, right. It's just that sometimes, sometimes it gets like you can't stop yourself from thinking.
Taylor blew into the hollow of the bottle and air whistled between the brown fluted glass. "It happens. You're upset, he said, shrugging.
There was a cry from the men in the pub. A midfielder from the home side surged forwards. He exchanged a one-two pass with a striker by the D of the 18-yard box, creating space between himself and two defenders. The return pass was inch perfect. Swinging back his leg, the midfielder connected the leather of his studded boot sweetly onto the ball which swerved low and hard beyond the goalkeeper's reach into the bottom corner of the goal.
The stifled cry of the men became a yell and cheer.
"A pearler, said Taylor.
"Some player that number eight.
The players in red shirts jumped on the scorer, slapping his head, hugging him, all smiles.
Lee swallowed half a pint of lager and said: "You want another?
Taylor dangled the bottle between two fingers and gave a shake of the head. "I'm alright. It's over half full.
"Positive. School night.
"You'll be fine.
"Seriously. I'm good.
"Fair enough, said Lee and he went to the bar.
Taylor pulled out his mobile. He re-read the text message from Charlotte and pressed reply. He looked at the blank screen, paused, and then started to tap with his thumb.
Lee interrupted. "There you go, he said, putting a bottle next to the one Taylor was drinking from.
Lee sat on the chair, opened a bag of crisps, splitting the pack and peeling each half apart. "Help yourself, he said.
"I've eaten already, said Taylor.
The away team launched an attack.
Taylor eyed the crisps, raised a hand, hesitated, and then took a handful.
"Do you keep in touch with that lot we used to know? said Lee.
"Lenny. Purse. Emma.
"You're joking right?
Lee laughed and rubbed the right side of his nose.
"Lost contact with that crowd ages ago. Purse and I had that falling out, remember?
"What was that over again?
Taylor paused. "You know what? I can't think for the life of me what it was.
"You came to blows didn't you?
"Nearly. Very nearly. Couldn't have been that important though, could it?
Taylor took more crisps. "They're good.
"Who were you texting?
"Ah, no one.
"Just a mate like.
"I thought you didn't have mates.
"Work. It's a work thing for tomorrow.
"A work thing...I keep checking mine to see if Nancy's got in touch.
Taylor nodded and watched the screen.
"I'm such an idiot. Can't believe what an idiot I've gone and been.
Taylor sipped from the bottle.
"She found out what I'd been up to. It wasn't like she caught me or anything. I was and I wasn't messing her about. All I could think of was someone else and Nancy could see that, that I wasn't interested in her, that I was somewhere else. She put up with it too, as I kept denying when she asked me if something was up. She believed me and then one day she just flipped. You can't lie to a person who you have been with for a long time. They just know, you know, they sense you and the feel is different, they know that whatever you had between you has changed.
Lee swallowed a couple of mouthfuls of lager.
A striker found space in the area and a defender lunged, mistiming the tackle. The ref blew for a penalty.
"What on earth was he thinking? asked someone at the bar.
Taylor said: "Loose.
Lee laughed¦Scratched his nose.
"What's the face for? asked Taylor.
"I don't know what you mean.
"If you did the dirty on her what do you want me to say?
"I know that. God's sake.
"You got caught. She upped sticks. Lesson learned. Still early days as well; she might think twice and come back.
"No Taylor. See, that's what I mean.
"Here we go.
"You're not listening. She didn't catch me. She had a sixth sense. She knew because she knew me inside and out.
"Did you admit to it?
"More fool you.
"What was the point in denying it when they know already?
The penalty was scored: 2:2.
"Should never've admitted it.
"There'll be no getting back together. It's gone.
"Why'd you do it if you liked her so much?
"That was it though. I thought I didn't like her.
"Grass is always greener.
"No. Maybe. It's the lying. I¦Ah, it's done.
"Am I¦Do you think I'm...
Taylor stood up. "I need a wazz.
Lee rolled a cigarette. Music came on. A barmaid told one of the men on a stool at the bar to calm down.
Taylor, in a cubicle, replied to Charlotte's text:
R u free Sunday?
He pressed send and watched an envelope appear on the screen and a horizontal bar extend until the Sending altered to Sent. He put the phone in a jeans pocket and walked to the table. "I'm going after this, he said.
"Can't you stay for another?
"Nah. I'm over the limit as it is.
"You bring the car?
"Public transport's for poor people.
"I must be poor.
"Give you a lift if you want.
"That's alright. Thanks though.
Taylor swallowed a long mouthful of lager.
"In a rush?
"Don't be like that.
Lee picked up his pint glass, burping.
"What you being like that for?
"I don't know what you're on about.
"You know what I'm on about. I've got to make a move.
"Why did you come if you didn't want a chat?
"Do I need this? I've got a family to go home to.
"And I haven't? You're throwing that in my face? Nice one.
"What is it that's niggling you?
"Ooo, let me think. Take a guess.
"What do you want me to do about it?
"Do? Do? I don't expect you to do anything about it Taylor. Why would you, eh?
Taylor swirled the dregs of the drink in the bottle.
The ref blew the whistle for full time.
Taylor finished up. "You want a lift? he said.
"Nah, the fresh air'll liven me up.
"Come on. Let me give you lift. I don't want to end on a downer. We can get a kebab.
"I'm fine. Don't worry about me. I fancy another pint and I've still got that to read, said Lee, pointing to the newspaper on the unused stool.
Lee went to the bar.
The barmaid placed a pint glass under a plastic nozzle.
He paid for the pint, noted the small amount of change and sat at the table. There were no girls in the pub. You couldn't class the barmaid as a girl. That wasn't fair though. She was pleasant enough, chatty. In her day. In her day. But then, every one has their day, and then it goes.
He turned the pages of the newspaper. He could give her a call. Say he was sorry. For things to be mended and alright. It was only a phonecall away. It was a blip. A mistake. He was only human, after all. I'm sorry for what I have done to you. But she said: "I need time. Don't contact me until I'm ready. If you respect me don't contact me until I'm ready. If you have any respect, which I know you don't have¦.
"I do. I swear to you I do.
"Show it to me by not calling until I am ready.
That might mean she wanted me to call. That it was really a test. If I told her I was sorry and I spoke to her and let her know that I can't deal with not hearing from her, then she might know that I mean it when I tell her that I am sorry. Do I want to speak to her though? Or do I just feel a bit lonely? A bit sorry for myself.
He finished the lager and sipped the froth on his new pint. Lying, it's poison. He wished he knew why he had lied, turning to the pages at the back of the paper, reading about rugby union, not rugby league...scratching the side of nose.
The night air was warm on Taylor's arms. He tasted sticky alcohol on his teeth and gums. The mobile in his pocket vibrated and began to ring. He pulled out the phone and saw it was Shirley.
"Still in the pub?
"In the car driving back.
"Early for you.
"Anything you want on the way back?
"I'm going to bed. Be quiet when you get in.
"Will do, night. Give my love¦
Shirley hung up.
He pressed the button and the lights flashed and alarm beeped and the central locks clicked.
Even her name was annoying, Shirley. It used to mean something but now it hardly registered. Shirley. Shirley. It could be spoon. Fork. Soap. Shirley. Hanger. Shirley. Knife.
The engine revved and the radio came on. He popped a mint into his mouth and listened to the electric window slide into the car door.
Shirley and Taylor.
Made for each other.
He checked the rear view mirror and reversed the car.
Luke though. Kids made a difference. Made you think. Took you out of yourself.
Two cars and a lorry passed before Taylor pulled out. He pressed for the volume to go up and drove faster.
Tell her on Sunday. Let her know that this can't go on. I'll go round, but then. Shirley said that was it, finito, if I did go. Her way of giving an ultimatum. Subtle and unsubtle. Clear as mud.
If I called it a day with Charlotte, can I be alright with Shirley? What used to be there is lost, stolen, missing. Went astray about two years ago. Three perhaps. Don't know. Lee. Always analysing. Can't stop himself feeling sorry for himself. Kind of understandable and that but¦Life goes on. Had to. It's not like he's got a kid; all he has to look out for is number one: easy.
Traffic lights ahead shifted to red.
The car slowed.
Shirley knows what I'm up to. She can see through me. She's not daft. Every time I lie to her, it's insulting her intelligence, rubbishing her, cheapening it, the feelings, love, whatever. Poxy Lee and his analysing. It happens.
The bloody lies though, eating into you. You forget what you've told in the end. Shirley's wise to it.
I should spill the beans. Bring it all to a stop¦.
Shirley must mean something. She must do.
Taylor smacked the steering wheel with the palm of his hand.
"This is all Lee's fault, he said, wanting another beer. Whenever he gets in touch, he puts me on a downer. The bloke's a jinx. He really is an out and out jinx. If she knows, then there is no point in telling her.
I'll call it off and move on. Words are nothing. She'll forget the lies. Tomorrow is another day, although I've said that once too many times before. Shirley and I, we were close. We can be close. At the very least, closer.