- 'Where do you want to put the fridge?'
-'I really don't care, in fact, just leave it I'll do it!'
I was sharp with him. You can't blame me. I didn't need or want help, especially his.
He was helping me to move into my new bed-sit. I'd already caused quite a scene outside my former home in Hampstead. My share of the marital spoils decorating the pavement in front of the privet, a grown man screaming, shouting and yes, crying, beside a decrepit Luton box-van. My wife had insisted he help me move all this stuff; a huge HD TV bigger than the longest wall in my bed-sit, double door American Fridge with Ice Maker. I could have laughed. What good was that lot to me? He was as uncomfortable as I was.
-'Let's get on with it,' he'd said, as he kept moving stuff into the back of the van.
As if by doing something he could take his mind off what he'd done to me, to us, to my marriage. He let the fridge fall with a heavy clump, in the damp stairwell.
-'Just grow up, for Christ's sake!' he said.
We’d been friends once, a long time ago. Not school-friends, but near enough. He went to the posh fee-paying school and I had scraped by at the local comp. But we saw each other even then. Our educational aims were further apart than our schools. He was clever, breezing through exams whose subjects I couldn’t even spell. Didn’t even have to swot, really. That’s the real reason our friendship started. He had time to swan about my local café; I hung around it instead of attending classes in “vocational” subjects for kids who didn’t care with teachers who didn’t mind. There was no immediate connection. I thought he was only half as clever as he did and he, no doubt, couldn’t believe I was as loutish as I looked. The ice broke over a record on the juke box. Mod anthem “David Watts” came on and I said
-‘I bet you are the captain of the team.’
He gave an insufferably smug look,
-‘Well I don’t fucking wish I could be like you!’ I jeered.
His lop-sided smile promised friendship and complicity.
–‘No mate, I’m not David Watts, more Richard Cory’.
I didn’t have a clue what he was on about.
I took my end of the ‘fridge, we had it doors up, the flex and plug flopping immediately to the ground. It would have been sensible to change our grip, adjust the ‘fridge so it was side up. I couldn’t bring myself to talk to him. I’d rather have tripped on the stairs and killed us both. We got to the foot of the first step, before he said:
- ‘David, wait. Let’s get hold of the lead, you don’t want to fall’
I shoved him backward with my end of the fridge.
- ‘C’mon, give us some room. I can’t turn it here.’
He gave me a look that I recognised. Schoolteachers and policemen had given me the same all my life. I dropped the fridge. Nearly hit my foot. He stifled a laugh. I nearly killed him then.
Once, I would have laughed too. Like when we first met Julia. In the café. At our table, between that juke box and a tired pinball machine. She walked in accompanied by… who? I can’t tell you. It must have been a friend. Ask Richard, maybe he’ll remember. She floated over to the table. Her look was anything but dated, but no way was it fashionable. Punk might as well not have happened. She had an Indian print dress over some hydrant-red drainpipe jeans. She wore a hat. No girl I knew ever wore a hat. This one had a feather curling over the brim; God knows what bird it came from. Some mythical purple bird, I suppose, as exotic as she was. He didn’t move: I, however, leapt to my feet, intending to pull out a chair; awed into a courtliness alien to me, if not to Richard. I knocked over squat glasses of de-fizzed pop and chipped mugs of coffee, splashing unappetizing sauce- and grease-stained plates. Richard, me, Julia and whoever burst out laughing. Julia stopped suddenly and performed a deeply mocking curtsey. We laughed again. They sat down; conversation erupted between the three of them. I listened, feeling like a kid eavesdropping on the stairs. Every so often she would look appraisingly at me. And that was enough.
‘You go first; it’s the left hand door at the top. It’s open. Nothing worth stealing there yet’
Richard looked around him, as if seeing the place for the first time. Stained woodchip on the walls; carpet on the stairs an off-cut from one thrown out of an East End pub.
- ‘We’re a long way from Hampstead,’ he offered, almost daring a smile.
- ‘Yeah.’ I gave him nothing, face shut, and he hefted the fridge, stepping carefully backwards up the stairs.
I left school at sixteen, unqualified, unmotivated and unemployable. One of Thatcher’s real children. Life didn’t change much for me; I hung around the café. Julia and Richard still came, less often, being busier ensuring they got into the right university. When they did come it was the same. They never came together. Sometimes, I admit, they arrived within minutes of each other. By 1979, I was almost employed by the café owner. I cleared the same glasses and chipped mugs and wiped the tables. I got free meals and kept the rare tips left by the customers. One day in September, Richard came in at a run.
‘Coffee, David. Quick, you have one too. Got to talk!’ it came out at a gallop. Without his usual measured cool.
‘With you in a sec’, although I was bursting to know what was up.
Richard and David are not our real names. It had just seemed a good joke for us once, to use those names.
‘I’m in David, I’m in!’ Richard was smiling now, beaming, rapturous.
‘In what? Trouble, the club? What?’ I really did want to know, I was interested in everything about Richard.
‘LSE, man LSE! Where it happens. We can change the world from there.’
Richard always talked like this; I didn’t follow most of it. I just liked the fact he bothered to talk to me. I wondered idly if Julia was turning up today.
Only…’ he hesitated, as if it were some bad news for me. ‘It’s Julia, she’s... um…pregnant.’
I felt sick. There was no clue that they had a relationship. I swear. They’d never so much as hinted at it.
‘What will you do?’ I asked, seeing weddings and flowers and happy ever after, for him.
‘I’ve done it. I mean - we’re doing it.’ No hesitation, just like that.
‘Marriage, you mean?’
‘No, I mean… you know… Dad’s an anaesthetist at the General. He knows someone... it’s almost too late.”
‘Lucky’ I said, not sure for whom. David drained his mug, stood up
‘I just thought you should know, about the LSE I mean.’
He was gone for good then, The uni holiday visits didn’t count. Julia came in the next day, pale and red-eyed.
‘I’ve got a cold’ she said, although I hadn’t mentioned it.
‘Coffee? I can stick a slug of brandy in it.’
She was quiet then. The silence was comfortable, certainly for me, I had never contributed much.
I enjoyed watching her drink coffee, do anything, really. She started to come every day. At the end of September, I asked her when she was going to Uni.
-’ Not going’ she said.
-‘ Why?’ I asked.
She looked uncomfortable, evasive.
-‘You’d look after me, wouldn’t you?’
-‘As If! What could I do for you?
And then I knew. It was like breaking your leg as a child and being given a bike to cheer you up. We both knew I would marry her anyway.
It was the making of me. No flowers or white wedding. Registry office with a tent for a dress. “Daddy” made me a loan and I bought that café. I learned to cook. I bought another. I was an 80’s success story. We ended up in fashionable Hampstead. We had no more children. If I did see Richard we never mentioned Julia. In fact, I don’t think he saw her for 20 odd years. Julia gave me an education of sorts; as if by teaching me she could make up for her missed opportunity. The child grew up and went to university. Durham; a good university, real distance finally matching emotional. I had money, a good reputation and a beautiful, intelligent wife.
We made it to the top of the stairs. I was out of puff. We both leaned on the fridge, trying to catch our breath. Richard rolled his eyes.
‘We’re too old for this!’
He was right. I was too old for all of it.
- ‘yeah, well, let’s just get this in the kitchen’
Richard turned and looked into the flat. It was empty, completely unfurnished. The kitchen was a single drainer sink and one lonely square metre of splash tiling in the corner of the one room visible from the door. I felt ashamed.
- ‘Come on then, we’ll get it plugged in straight away,’ he said.
We dragged it over, untangled the flex from our legs (lucky that didn’t happen on the stairs after all). I opened the door and piled beer into the fridge.
In 1986, I lost touch with Richard. He just disappeared from my life… From then on I only saw him on television; at Greenham Common, at a mine near Doncaster, at close quarters with a policeman in riot gear, (but not for long). He was always holding a placard, always “down with” something, anything, everything. Right up until 1997 and the greatest of right-on victories. He just vanished from view. He had been famous- in a minor way- in those circles.
As far as I know, it started when Julia began helping at the local shelter for the homeless.
Phone calls finished as I walked through the front door. Mail was sorted on the way back from the mat.
‘Just junk mail.’
I didn’t ask. You don’t do you? One wrong answer and the citadel falls. Then it was overnight at the shelter. Duty volunteer. Until one day, I came home and Julia was there. The old Julia; dressed in a quirky, I-don’t -care-what–you-think way that I hadn’t seen since she became the wife of a successful restaurateur.
- ‘It’s not you…’ she started.
And of course it wasn’t; it was someone else. Richard, in fact. Richard the dosser. Richard the stray. A new Richard; as needy and wanting as I had been all those years ago. A good lawyer, the fact of ‘Daddy’s” stake money in starting up my business and I was a new tenant in Benefitland.
-‘They’re cold already…. Would be in this dump, wouldn’t they? C’mon let’s have one.’
I offered him a beer.