Authors: Martyn Waites
The house was cut from the same 1930s semi blueprint as the others in the street. They all looked identical; even the small attempts at individuality, such as replacement windows or different-coloured garage doors, seemed uniform. There was an air of comfortable achievement about the street, as if driving a Mondeo and reading the
were hard-fought-for rights.
Larkin pulled the Saab up in front of number 52, got out, rang the bell before he changed his mind. In the drive was a year-old Ka. Figures, thought Larkin.
The door was opened by a woman a couple of years younger than Larkin but not yet looking her age. Her once-long hair had been cut short but was still dark, perhaps even darker than it used to be, thought Larkin. She had put on weight since the last time he had seen her, but it wasn't much and she carried it well; not fat, just rounded out. She was dressed simply in faded jeans, trainers and a T-shirt, her make-up light and strategically positioned. A middle-class wife and mum who still made time for herself. She looked good.
âHello, Louise,' said Larkin.
Her jaw actually dropped. âMy God â¦'
âHow you doing?' Larkin smiled. âI was just passing, thought I'd drop in.'
She opened the door wide. âCome in.'
Larkin followed her in. The hallway was neat, airy and tasteful.
Louise led him to the front room, sat him down on a beige Jacquard sofa. She asked if he wanted tea. He did, so she disappeared into the kitchen. He looked around the room. Again neat, airy and tasteful. A touch of classical here, a dash of ethnic there. Nothing forceful or overpowering. Louise soon emerged bearing a tray holding mugs, milk, sugar and biscuits and set it down on the middle table of a nest of three. Larkin picked up his mug. Louise sat in a chair, did likewise. They looked at each other, smiled, felt the gap between them larger than physical space, sought for polite ways to bridge it.
âSo â¦ how are you, then?' she asked.
âFine,' replied Larkin. âStill working. Still freelance.'
âStill at the same address?'
He told her about the move. âI'll give you my new address. How about you, what are you up to?'
Louise was working part-time in a call centre which brought in a little extra, gave her something to do and allowed her to be home in time to cook the tea. He enquired about the kids. Ben was fourteen and doing very well at school, Suzanne was fifteen and would soon be sitting her GCSEs.
Larkin smiled. âGood â¦' He was drying up. They had never had much in common, but this wasn't just small talk, it was practically microscopic. He imagined Louise was finding it equally painful and awkward.
âSo how'sâ' fuck, what was his name again? ââyour other half?'
âOh, fine,' replied Louise.
Larkin thought he caught something, a ripple of disturbance pass over her face, but it was over so quickly he wasn't sure.
âStill working hard?' he asked.
âOh yes. He's area sales manager now,' she answered with pride. Larkin remembered she put stock in such things.
Larkin had no idea what he was actually area sales manager of, but from Louise's tone felt he should. He skated over it. âOh, good.'
The conversation then ground to a dead halt. Larkin looked at his tea, willing it to cool down so he could drink it and leave.
âSo,' said Louise, equally grasping, âwhat brings you round here?'
âWork,' replied Larkin, pleased at last to be on familiar territory. âI'm doing a job down the road in Coldwell. Profile. Actually, you know the guy.'
Louise's face suddenly tightened. âWho?'
âOld boyfriend of yours. Tony Woodhouse.'
A glob of tea fell from Louise's mug on to the patterned mustard-coloured rug. She ignored it. âTony Woodhouse? You've spoken to him?' A sudden, barked laugh. âHaven't seen him in years.'
âYeah?' said Larkin. âThat's where I've been this afternoon.' He noted her reaction then continued. âHe asked after you, by the way.'
âWhat did he say?' she asked too quickly.
Larkin shrugged. âJust hello.'
âAnd that's all?'
âYea. I'll be seeing him again, though, if you want me to pass on a message.'
âA message?' Louise's eyes darted around the room, as if checking for eavesdroppers. âNo, no message. Well, hello. Just tell him I said hello back.'
âOK, then.' Larkin said nothing. His tea had cooled. He began sipping it.
She smiled, barked a sudden, hollow laugh. âTony Woodhouse. Feels like yesterday I was with him. You were with Charlotte.' She gasped. âI'm sorry, I didn't â¦'
âThat's OK. All done with now. All in the past.'
She smiled. It was shaky. Then the subject changed, the small talk started up again. They were both grateful for it. They sketched in the blanks, filled in the years. Larkin kept his accounts deliberately oblique. Louise admitted she read his journalism, admired his angry, political pieces.
âIt's not my thing, as you know,' she said, âbut I was very proud of you.' She smiled.
Larkin returned it. âThank you.'
His mug now drained, it was time for him to leave. The meeting hadn't been unpleasant, he thought, just awkward. Two people without much in common, talking as if they should. Louise seemed equally relieved that he was leaving.
She walked down the hall with him, showing him to the door. As she opened it, a car â something sleek, shiny and Japanese â pulled up just behind the Saab, music pounding out loud enough to damage the subframe, crack the tarmac beneath. A girl emerged from the passenger side and headed for the house. Tall, attractive, carrying an air of experience her youth couldn't match, a mesmeric swing in her hips. She had the teenage pout down to textbook perfection and the lips to carry it off. She looked, thought Larkin, just like Louise at that age.
âOh, here's Suzanne,' said Louise with a cheeriness so sudden it had to be false. âHello, Suzanne.'
Suzanne swept into the house offering a grunted greeting but no eye contact to Louise.
âThis is your uncle Stephen â¦' Louise began, but Suzanne wasn't listening. She swept up the stairs, ignoring him.
âOh to be a teenager again,' said Larkin, aiming for lightness.
The car outside sped noisily away. From upstairs came a door slam and the sudden, rhythmic thump of garage.
Louise gave a smile, but it didn't reach her eyes. âYes,' she said, and gave a small, dry laugh.
Larkin decided it was time to leave. He made his way to the car and, with a final wave, drove off.
So Louise has got her middle-class dream, he thought to himself, and there seemed to be cracks in it. He sighed. But it's not my problem, he thought. It's not my problem.
There are few things, thought Larkin, more depressing than seaside towns out of season, and Whitley Bay was no exception. The seafront seemed a world away from Louise's tidy little area. As he drove along, the spring sky was muddying with dusk, holding not promise but threat, pointing up a tawdry strip of cheap amusement arcades, their fronts in terminal repair, their interiors deserted, interspersed with germ warfare labs masquerading as burger bars, boarded-up seafood stands that probably glowed in the dark, and dangerous pubs. The Spanish City, with its yellow stucco peeling, its domes and minarets crumbling and its roller-coaster looking as if it wouldn't last another ride, hadn't just seen better days; it had waved them off at the station, knowing they would never be back.
Stretching further on was a row of bars and nightclubs, biding time until the night when, gauded up with neon, they would become magnetic north for cheap possibilities, first base for one-night stands, guilt-ridden sexual affairs or emergency trips to the A & E.
In this stretch stood Rio. Larkin remembered it from the 1980s when it had been in its aspirational glory, a pastel and neon shrine to Thatcherism. Now it looked almost as bad as the Spanish City. Scrolled ironwork, pitted and flaking, seeped rust down peeling walls, paintwork having gone one makeover too far. Still, thought Larkin wryly, the perfect shrine to Thatcherism.
He slipped a tape in the deck. The Go-Betweens:
Sixteen Lover's Lane.
Something else from the 1980s. âStreets of Our Town' started up, the beautiful, simple melody brimming with feel-good nostalgia, fatally punctured when Grant McLennan started singing about butchers sharpening their knives in a town full of battered wives.
Larkin sighed. It's not my problem, he thought. It's not my problem.
Ponteland golf course looked like a colour sup photoshoot for the
Mail on Sunday.
Stereotypical Sunday-morning suburban golfers, all pastel and Pringle, dotted the fairway, their pre-lunch clubhouse drinks beckoning, their voices a veneer of moneyed bonhomie, their wives invisible. The grass immaculately manicured, the club fees well spent. The surrounding trees kept out unwanted sounds, sights and people, kept members cosseted and enclosed. Newcastle, sprawling and unacknowledged, was just down the road.
The breeze was sharpening and the temperature sliding, but the golfers ignored this. They played on, wringing the last drops from a disappearing summer, not surrendering to the coming autumn.
Tommy Jobson parked the BMW, cut the engine. The car park was chocked with other Beamers and Mercs, smattered with GTIs and Subarus, tolerant to a couple of imposter Acclaims. He got out, checked his hair, suit and tie in the car's reflection, strode towards the fairway. He hated golf but knew that one day he would be expected to join a club like this. Still, Dino and Frank loved the sport, so it couldn't be that bad.
Although not a member and clearly not there to play, no one questioned him or looked directly at him. Tommy's pores secreted strength and violence. Internally, Tommy felt something different. Fear. Given who he was meeting, it was well justified.
On the sixth hole he found who he was looking for standing with another man who looked vaguely familiar to Tommy. Clive Fairbairn was tall, lean and tanned, hair swept back from his forehead, slightly greying temples. His clothes matching and complementing pastel yellows and pinks, his shoes gleaming white. He carried himself with poise and assurance. He looked more like he belonged on the deck of a yacht moored on the Riviera or a Marbella marina rather than just north of Newcastle. The other man, by comparison, looked like the ugly best friend, only there to make the handsome one more handsome. He was short, rounding, with a Bobby Charlton combover. His clothes were similar to Fairbairn's, but where the former's fitted and complemented him the latter's just appeared mismatched and ridiculous.
As Tommy approached, Fairbairn swung. The ball sliced straight down the fairway, as the other man looked on admiringly, making an attempt at a hearty one-liner which Fairbairn ignored. The other man, reddening slightly, silently tee-ed up and stood over the ball, ready to swing.
âTommy! Over here!'
The man swung and mis-hit, sending his ball into a clump of trees.
âBad luck,' said Fairbairn heartily but insincerely. âI think you'd better go and look for it.'
The man, glancing at Tommy and knowing an exit line when he heard one, sloped off into the trees with his bag dragging, taking random swings at the grass with his club.
Fairbairn kept the smile in place until the man was out of view. âTedious little fucker, but still,' he shrugged, âa local councillor is a local councillor. Handy when you need one.' Fairbairn's voice was used to being listened to and not argued with.
Tommy nodded in agreement.
âLet's walk.' Fairbairn set off down the fairway. Tommy matched his stride, not speaking until spoken to.
âBeen hearing good things about you, Tommy,' said Fairbairn, âvery good things. You're taking care of our little problem.'
âTh-thank you, Mr Fairbairn.' Tommy felt his cheeks flush, his butterflies subside a little.
Fairbairn stopped walking and looked about, filling his lungs with air. To anyone watching he was just another Sunday golfer. âLike your style. Very positive. Sends out a strong signal. Reinforces the chain of command. Keeps them in line.'
âThank you, M-Mr Fairbairn.'
They reached the spot where Fairbairn's ball had landed.
âBut,' he said quietly, eyes seemingly engrossed with choosing his next club from his wheeled bag.
Tommy swallowed, tried to quell his sudden shakes.
âBut, Tommy, you slipped up. No money back, no product.'
The butterflies returned. âI gu-gave him a time limit, Mr Fairbairn.' His voice trailed off as his mouth dried up. âI scared him. I'll get it.'
Fairbairn smiled. His teeth were shark-sharp. âYou did scare him, you're right. Unfortunately our friend Neil's still in the General after a week. Maybe staying longer than we anticipated.'
âS-sorry, Mr Fairbairn.'
Fairbairn moved his face close to Tommy, his voice dropping. âNever apologize, Tommy. Never. Sorry is for wimps.'
Tommy nodded. Fairbairn gave him a thoughtful appraisal.
âI like you, Tommy. A lot.'
Fairbairn smiled, assumed an air of avuncularity. Tommy, wasn't fooled.
âNow, you know me, Tommy. I'm a businessman. And so are you. Now, selling the stuff you sell's a young man's game. That's why I've got you doing it. You do what you do in the way you do it, it brings the money in and that's all I care about. But it's still business.' The avuncularity faded. âLucrative business. My business. And if you're working for me, you need to find your limit. Keep control.'
Tommy nodded. âWhat d'you want me to do? Wait until he's out? Pay him a visit?'
Fairbairn flung his arms wide in an expansive gesture. âMaggie would say to write it off as misplaced venture capital.' Fairbairn screwed up his eyes, looked down the fairway, saw something there no one else could see. âBut much as I admire the bitch, I couldn't do that.'