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Authors: Colin Bateman

Divorcing Jack

BOOK: Divorcing Jack
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Colin Bateman was born in Northern Ireland in 1962. For many years he was the deputy editor of the
County Down Spectator.
He received a Northern Ireland Press Award for his weekly satirical column, and a Journalist's Fellowship to Oxford University.
Divorcing Jack,
his first novel, won the Betty Trask Prize in 1994.

Cycle of Violence

'Fast-paced, very black and very funny: Roddy Doyle meets Carl Hiaasen'

Independent on Sunday

 

'Terrific, mordant wit and a fine sense of the ridiculous . . . The writing is great'

Evening Standard

'Bateman's is the ultimate word on the insanity of the Troubles: no one has done it better

Scotland on Sunday

 

Of Wee Sweetie Mice and Men

'Fast, furious, riotously funny and at the end, never a dry eye in the house'

Mail on Sunday

 

'If Roddy Doyle was as good as people say, he would probably write novels like this

'
Arena

Empire State

 

'Bateman on epic form in gloriously over-the-top saga'

Daily Telegraph

 

'A hugely enjoyable novel . . . Blessed with a beautiful sense of irony . . . It's like Carl Hiaasen, Tom Wolfe, and Roddy Doyle at their best'

The Herald

 

By the same author

Cycle of Violence

Of Wee Sweetie Mice and Men

Empire State

Maid of the Mist

COLIN BATEMAN
DIVORCING JACK

 

Harper Collins Publishers

77-85 Fulham Palace Road,

Hammersmith,

London W6 8JB

A Paperback Original 1995

13  15   17  18  16  14

Copyright © Colin Bateman 1995

The Author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 0 00 647903 0

Set in Linotron Meridien by Rowland Phototypesetting Ltd Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Printed and bound in Great Britain by Caledonian International Book Manufacturing Ltd, Glasgow

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted,

in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers.

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

For Andrea

I was upstairs with a girl I shouldn 't have been upstairs with when my wife whispered in my ear, 'You have twenty-four hours to move out.'

If I'd broken off then, chased after her, perhaps things would have turned out very different for everyone. But I didn 't. I was lost in an erection powered by alcohol, unable to say no. The girl was aware but unmoved by the interruption. She was clamped to me like a limpet mine. We weren't even in bed. We were in my study, standing silhouetted in the doorway, the party booming beneath us, kissing, only kissing, like school kids behind the bicycle sheds. Innocent, almost.

I have never been a ladies' man. Perhaps in my private moments I liked to think of myself as a sexual wildebeest - no body as such, but a lot of horn - but it was a delusion born of marriage. Patricia was my first girlfriend, lover, my wife. I had never wandered before. Neither, to the best of my knowledge, had she. I had never considered being unfaithful, or, at least, not with anyone I had any remote possibility of getting; fantasy is the justifiable preserve of the married man. This girl was a toe in the polluted ocean of romantic betrayal.

In that moment I lost one beautiful woman and gained another, an acquaintance of a few hours who would change my life, and lose her own.

 

1

The waiter had permed hair which was turning grey. He slammed the chopsticks down on the table and said in a better Belfast accent than mine: 'This is a Chinese restaurant. No bloody knives and forks.'

I managed a weak smile for Maxwell and under my breath cursed China in general and Patricia in particular.

I have two troubles in life, and sometimes they converge. I have always had a problem with foreign food. I was brought up with Protestant tastes. Plain and simple. Nothing fancy. Of course I could see the attraction of Chinese food: the taste of the Orient, that whiff of intrigue you get in a Chinese restaurant. The same as with an Italian restaurant: you always have that thought at the back of your mind about whether they are tied up in some way with the Mafia. Were the Chinese, with their incessant gambling and bloodcurdling yells from the kitchens, really gangsters? It's a relief that they never moved into the hairdressing business. It would be difficult to take seriously threats issued by the Curling Tongs.

My problem with foreign food - sometimes I can't even manage a German biscuit - coincides with manual illiteracy. I cannot change a fuse, a tyre or a light bulb. I cannot build a wall, unblock a sink or complete a jigsaw. The reason I have my garden tarmacked is that I know if I attempted to combat the jungle that was, I would somehow contrive to cut off one of my feet in the process. Chopsticks, long silvery gripless ones, are a pain.

Maxwell looked happy enough. He was already playing with his, picking up a little salt cellar with consummate ease. He was plump, maybe edging fifty. His black blazer hung over the back of his seat. He wore a white shirt that marked him out as a bachelor: the front was ironed perfectly but the sleeves were badly creased and the collar stuck out at mad angles. His front six teeth were capped, a vanity that did not sit well on him. His accent wasn't Belfast, but it wasn't country enough to be annoying. He drank Ballygowan Spring Water. I ordered a shandy.

He looked a little surprised. 'Your column makes you out to be a hard-drinking man,' he said.

I shrugged. 'Artistic licence,' I said. 'I'll maybe go to an artistic off-licence on the way home.'

He grinned. 'Quick. I have a good sense of humour, you know. I read
Punch
and
Private Eye.'

I nodded. Frankie Woods didn't have a sense of humour either. He was, indirectly, responsible for me making a fool of myself with a pair of chopsticks.

Frankie, God love him, spiked me. I had this idea about swapping the terrorist wasteland of West Belfast for the Guinness Brewery in Dublin. They could have our troubles and we could drink theirs. I mean, it was only an idea. I put it in writing, but Frankie killed it. He said he was trying to build up the circulation in the west of the city. I told him he paid me to write stuff like that and he said no, he paid me to write stuff that was funny. It's all a matter of taste, really. Anyway, to cut a short story shorter, Mike Magee saw me in the dumps and suggested a different way for me to make a bit of money. I liked Mike. He looked like a rugby player who'd done too much drinking at the bar; squat, with the hint of a double chin. He wore a crumpled cream sports coat with wide collars and a cream open-neck shirt. His trousers were brown cords, fading at the knees. Nike trainers. His voice was verging on BBC plummy, but he would lose that under pressure. He poured me a cup of coffee from the percolator at the back of the newsroom. It was quiet. Cleaners were moving between the rows of computer terminals. Only a couple of them glowed green. The computers, not the cleaners.

He offered me the cup. I shook my head. 'You know I never touch the stuff.'

He tutted. 'Sorry, Dan, I forgot you were a Coke and Twix man. Any joy with the Coke machine yet?'

'Blank wall. I tell them it's a health drink - says right there on the can, made with vegetable extracts - but I'm getting nowhere.'

'Don't give up, Dan, we're all behind you.'

He put both cups down. 'How's Pat?'

'Fine. Fine. Y'know. Can't live with them, can't live with them.'

'Yeah,' he said, shaking his head ruefully, 'I know the score.'

'You'll have to come to the next party.'

'You threw me out of the last one.'

'I threw everyone out.'

'That's true. Things did get a bit out of hand.'

'Par for the course.'

A sheepish grin slipped onto his face. 'I couldn't help overhearing Frankie having a go at you.'

'Ah, not really. You know Frankie. About as funny as a fire in an orphanage. Still, looks like it's cream crackers for dinner.'

That bad?'

'Nah, not really.'

'How's the great Ulster novel coming?'

'Great Ulster sonnet at the rate I'm going, Mike. Too many distractions, y'know?'

'Tell me all about it.'

So he got to talking about working for the Government. He did a bit of it himself, but he had a full-time job on the

Belfast Evening News
and couldn't make much of a go of it, but he reckoned a freelancer like myself was tailor-made for it.

With the elections just round the corner the city was being swamped with foreign journalists looking for a story, so a bit of local knowledge was at a premium. I knew the city like the back of my hand, and the rest well enough to bluff my way. The Government press office - or the Central Office of Information as it styled itself - was on the lookout for dependable people to guide visiting journalists round the country, advising on background and generally putting across the Government's optimistic views on the chances of this latest initiative working. I have never been described as dependable, but I was interested.

I got straight to the point. 'What's the money like?'

'It's not bad. You won't make your fortune, like, but it'll probably appeal to you for the same reason it appeals to me - it gets you out from under the wife's feet and the food and drink go on the expenses. Get plastered for Ulster, Dan.'

He said it wasn't just a matter of a twenty-minute briefing. More shadow work. All day and all night if need be. I nodded enthusiastically and he fell for it and offered to arrange an interview for me. 'A word of advice,' he cautioned as I went to move on, 'if you get it - one, you owe me a pint or two, and second, in the interview, presuming I can swing it for you, they're not just looking for knowledge about the North. Show them you know something about another country. Remember you'll be dealing with foreign correspondents. A bit of repartee goes a long way.'

Patricia thought it would be a doddle. But she didn't have to do it. She had visions of moving out of the Holy Land. The interview was set up; Patricia got me a junior guide to the disintegration of the USSR and told me to learn it. America was too obvious. It took me a couple of hours, but by the end I reckoned I knew enough to hold my own with an above-average five-year-old.

You can walk almost anywhere in Belfast worth walking to in twenty minutes. I went down the Ormeau Road, fighting a biting wind the whole way, then through the Short Strand onto the Newtownards Road. Traffic was stalled at the foot of the road; soldiers were lazily checking IDs. There was rarely much trouble in this Protestant heartland and they knew it. As I dodged shoppers I tried to concentrate my mind on the fall of the Communist empire: on Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Stalin, Lenin, big fat women and black-market vodka. An old man fell in beside me. He wore a battered ulster and clutched a brown paper bag containing a bottle of Concorde. The fool.

'Can you lend me 20p for a cuppa tay?' He asked, his voice nicotine rough.

'If you can show me where you can get a cup for 20p, I'll join ye, mate,' I replied, and quickly regretted it. I felt curiously nervous. I gave him a pound, but he wasn't that easy to shake off. He puffed along beside me.

'Did ye see the match last night?' He rasped. 'Them Brazilians are magic, aren't they?'

'Didn't see it, mate,' I said. I took advantage of a break in the traffic to nip away from him. When I looked back he , gave me the fingers.

I turned left onto the Holywood Road. The Dragon Palace was about halfway up. It was garishly, freshly painted. Outside, workmen were completing a bargain basement improvement to the footpath, changing cracked concrete slabs for gentrified cobbles, row upon row in sickly yellow, like a giant bar of Tarmac. My old dad would have called it mutton dressed as mutton.

My stomach rumbled for the first time as I opened the door, which I thought was pretty good timing. A swarm of flies flittered about the glass like anxious relatives at an incubator. A scowling waiter took my coat, his hands lingering long enough on my body for me to realize I was being searched. It was a bit of a surprise. It didn't happen much, except on the way out.

Neville Maxwell wasn't fooled by my shandy or my artistic licence. 'A hard drinker and a confirmed Unionist' he said lazily, still tinkering with his chopsticks. 'You think that's a suitable background to be showing folks round the country with?'

'You're judging me by my column again. Like I say. It gets a laugh.'

He ordered for both of us. I thought things progressed well. He'd ask three or four innocuous questions then slip in a serious one. I could tell they were important by the way his pupils receded to tiny points as he sized up my replies. We passed on starters. I thought it wise to pass on another drink. I was thinking of the money.

'Your column seems to have quite a following.'

'Yeah, well, y'know. What can I say?'

'But you'll agree it portrays an image of you that...'

'I don't think your visitors would be aware of that.'

'True.'

'I mean, I don't mind a drink. But it doesn't interfere with my work.'

'I had a chat with Frankie Woods.' Oh-oh. 'Dear old Frankie.'

'Full of praise.' I nodded. 'Surprised?'

I laughed. 'Not at all. Nice guy, Frankie. Honest.'

'He says you're only part time.'

'Yeah. I don't like to be tied down.’

'So what else do you do. Freelance?' He looked like he already knew. 'Yeah. Anyone that pays. Can be
The Times
one week.
Sewers and Sewerage
the next. The rough with the smooth. Like I say, anyone who pays, within reason.'

'What's within reason?'

I shrugged. Nobody had yet tempted me to something without reason. Getting a cheque had its own kind of reason. 'Well,' I said, 'I wouldn't work for
Republican News.
But then I doubt they'd ask me.'

'That's what I'm trying to get at, Dan,' he said, jabbing his chopsticks towards me, 'you're not really impartial, are you?'

'Who is? I have my views. I don't let them get in the way of my work - apart from my column, which is supposed to have a particular viewpoint. Unionist with a sense of humour, if you like. It's balanced by the fascist on the opposite page and the loony Republican at the back.' I leant forward. He withdrew his chopsticks. 'I'm a professional journalist, Mr Maxwell. I wouldn't work for
Republican News
because it supports terrorism. Simple as that.'

He sat back in his chair and absentmindedly scratched at a permanently furrowed brow. 'You think you could stick to the Government line?'

I shrugged. I gave him a little grin. 'Up to a point. Lord Copper.'

His mouth widened into a grin. It made his face look like a split melon. 'Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of Waugh,' he said.

I nodded appreciatively. 'Matched and maybe beaten. Very good. I like that. Tommy Waugh, of course, used to play for Linfield.'

He took a big gulp of his water, I sipped my shandy. 'With your reputation ...' he began.

'Such as it is ...'

'Such as it is ... you wouldn't be worried about going into Nationalist areas?'

'Not at all. I get more flak from Unionists. More tightly strung. The other lot enjoy a good argument. Although they do tend to have you shot afterwards.'

He shook his head slightly. 'Like I say, I've a sense of humour. But I keep it under control. You can do that?'

'Absolutely.'

Laughter erupted from behind me. I glanced round. A group of six business types were cackling over something. One banged the table with his fist; another took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Maxwell said, 'Tell me, do you have an interest in any other country besides Northern Ireland?'

Gorby. Trotsky. The Baltic states. Yeltsin. 'Yes,' I said confidently, 'Brazil.'

I looked him dead in the eye and thought passionately about leaving the table and punching the first pensioner that hobbled into view.

'That's an unusual choice.'

I reached up to push a dank strand of hair from my brow. As I brought my hand down I cracked my glass and it toppled over. I watched helplessly as the dregs fanned out across the table towards Maxwell. I mumbled an apology and began to dab at the mess with my napkin. I trained my eyes on him again, staring the way I had at girls as a youth to overcome my shyness. It hadn't worked then either.

'Uh, yeah, Brazil. A great football team. I'm really keen on football.'

Maxwell set his chopsticks down in front of him. They formed a little dam before the sop of shandy. That was a great match the other night, eh?'

'One-a-the-best.'

'Did you think it was in?'

'No shadow of a doubt.'

'Then if you do join us, the first thing we'll get you is a pair of glasses,' he chortled. I was pulling it round.

'What about Germany?' He asked.

Football or politics? Trivial or serious? The effortless goal machine or European inflation? I shrugged. 'What can you say about the Germans?'

'That's what I'm asking.'

'Well, you have to take them at face value.'

'What do you mean exactly?'

The food arrived. A pork dish. Lots of noodles. I lifted my chopsticks for the first time. Smooth as silk. I dropped one. Maxwell was already tucking in. His eyes didn't leave me.

'I mean ...' A piece of pork nearly reached my mouth, it was stretching out its arms to me and my lower lip was curling out to grasp it when it fell, bouncing from my left trouser leg. '... That there's very little pretence about them, whether you're talking football or European Parliament.' As nonchalantly as possible I reached down to retrieve the pork from my shoe.

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