Authors: Howard Jacobson
To hell with it, she thought – though she didn’t tell Ez she’d changed her mind; she didn’t want her to think it had been her doing –
to hell with it
, and instead of putting down the phone this time when no one answered, she chanced her arm.
Hello. It’s Ailinn. You remember? Thick ankles – ring a bell? To be brief about it, because she was sure his time was valuable, she wanted him to know she had inspected herself front on and sideways in the mirror, and OK – she was too thick. And not just around the ankles. He waist was too thick as well. And her neck. She had become, she realised, as overgrown as the garden in which he’d been rude to her and told her it was a joke. She was grateful, by the way, for having the principles of comedy explained. She hoped she would be better able to get a joke the next time he was rude to her.
Anyway, if it was of the slightest interest to him – and why should it be? – she had decided to take herself off to Weight Watchers on whatever day they set up their scales in the village.
That’s me. And now you. What do you intend to do about the thickness of your head?
She didn’t laugh in order to make it plain that she too had comic ways. She wasn’t going to make herself easy for him. If he couldn’t read her, he couldn’t read her. She didn’t want to be with a man who insisted she got his jokes but wouldn’t make the effort to get hers. Nor did she want to be with a man who didn’t hear how much she was risking. Without risk on both sides, why bother?
Goodbye, she said. Then feared that sounded too final. Or should that be adieu? Unless that came over as desperation. No, goodbye, she said. And wished she’d never bothered.
What good came of love, when all was said and done? You fell in love and immediately thought about dying. Either because the person you had fallen for had a mind to kill you, or because he exceptionally didn’t and then you dreaded being parted from him.
That was a joke, wasn’t it?
And she got that well enough.
Kevern picked up her message. Relieved and reluctant at the same time – mistrustful of all excitement – he rang her back. He was surprised when she answered.
Oh! he said.
Oh, I never thought you’d be there.
Good, she thought. He imagines I am out and about.
They could hear each other swallowing hard.
Don’t go to Weight Watchers, he told her. It’s a free-for-all. And besides, you are fine as you are.
More than fine. Perfect. Lovely. She should take no notice of what he had said. There was something wrong with him.
Something wrong in the sense that he said what he thought without thinking through its consequences, or something wrong in the sense that he saw what wasn’t there?
He thought about that. Both, he said. And in many more ways besides. Something wrong with him in every possible regard.
So my ankles aren’t thick?
No, he said.
And would it matter to you if they were?
This he had to think about too. No, he said. It wouldn’t matter to me in the slightest bit. I don’t care how thick your ankles are.
thick! You have simply decided that to humour me you will turn a blind eye to them at present. Which is generous, but it might mean you will mind them again in the future when you aren’t feeling generous or you are in the mood to be funny. And then it will be too late.
Too late for what?
She had said too much.
He waited for her reply.
Too late for us to part as friends.
I promise you, he said.
You promise me what?
That we won’t ever part as friends
? No good.
That we won’t ever part, full stop
? Too good. That I won’t mind your ankles in the future, was what he decided to say. Promise.
Kevern sighed. You win, he said.
I’ve won, she thought.
She’s going to be hard work, this one, he thought.
His other thought was that she was just the girl for him.
The morning after the call he sat on his bench and wondered if he was about to experience happiness and, if so, whether he was up to it. He could have done with someone to talk to – his own age, a little younger, a little older, it didn’t matter, just someone to muse with. But enter someone you can muse with and enter, with her, heartbreak. They were as one on this, he and the girl whose ankles he would never again object to, although they didn’t yet know it: to think of love was to think of death.
He rarely missed his mother, but he did now. ‘What’s for the best, Mam? Should I go for it?’ But she had always been negative.
What was for the best?
Nothing was for the best – for her the best was not to go for anything, just stay out of trouble and wait to die.
That was the impression she gave Kevern anyway. In fact she lived a secret life, and though that too was wreathed around in death, the very fact that it was secret meant she saw some risk as worth the taking. Was it because she loved Kevern more than she loved herself that she didn’t recommend risk to him?
A funny sort of love, Kevern would have thought, had he known about it.
As for his father, any such conversation would have been equally out of the question. ‘You always hurt the one you love,’ his father had said the first time Kevern was
ilted by a girl. Kevern took that to be an allusion to one of the old songs his father listened to on earphones. His father did not normally have that much to say.
‘But she’s the one who’s hurt me,’ he answered.
His father shrugged. ‘Bee-bop-a-doo,’ he said without taking off his earphones. He looked like a pilot who knew his plane was going down.
‘I’ll go for it, then,’ Kevern said to himself, as though after considering all the sage advice no one had given him. But he still wanted to run it all over in his mind.
It infuriated him when Densdell Kroplik appeared up the path, singing to himself, a countryman’s trilby pulled down over his eyes, heavier boots on than the weather merited, swinging his rucksack full of unsold pamphlets and nettle conditioner.
‘If you want the bench to yourself I’ll clear off,’ Kevern said. ‘I’ve got work to do.’
‘If I’d wanted a bench to myzelf I’d have found un,’ Kroplik said.
I see, playing the yokel this morning, Kevern thought. That wasn’t his only thought. The other was ‘Up yours’, though he was not normally a swearer.
His mouth must have moved because Kroplik asked him what he’d said. In for a penny, in for a pound, Kevern decided, taking a leaf out of Ailinn’s book. ‘I said, “Up yours.” I was repeating what you said to me in the pub last night.’
The barber rubbed his face with his hand. ‘Yeah, I sayz that sometimes,’ he conceded. ‘And a lot worse when the mood takes me.’
‘I don’t doubt it,’ Kevern said.
‘Like khidg de vey. If you knowz what that means.’
Kevern nodded, saying nothing. It was a way of getting through life: nodding and saying nothing.
‘You don’t know, though, do you,’ Densdell Kroplik went on, enjoying his own shrewdness. ‘But I’ll give yerz a guess.’
‘No doubt it means something like go fuck yourself.’
Kroplik punched the air. ‘We’ll make a local of yerz yet. Go fuck yerzelf is spot on.’
‘I didn’t bring up your abusive language to me last night so you could abuse me further,’ Kevern said. He heard how pious he sounded but there was no going back now. ‘I’d rather not be spoken to like that,’ he went on.
‘I’d rather not.’
‘Pog mo hoin.’
‘Don’t tell me . . . Your mother’s a fucker of pigs.’
‘Close, close. Kiss my arze.’
‘You are a mine of indispensable information,’ Kevern said, getting up from the bench.
‘That’s what I’m paid to be. Do you know who the first person was to say pog mo hoin in these parts?’
person I sayz.’
‘No idea. I wouldn’t have been around.’
‘No, that you wouldn’t. So I’ll inform yerz. The giant Hellfellen. That’s how he kept strangers out. He stood on this very cliff, right where you’re standing now, made a trumpet of hiz fist, stuck it in hiz backside and blew the words “kiss my arze” through it, so loud they could hear it three counties away, and you had to have a very good reason to come here after that.’
Kevern was not a folklore man. Mythology, with its uncouth half-men, half-animals, frightened him. And he hated talk of giants. Especially those who used bad language. If there were going to be gods he wanted them to be supreme spiritual beings who didn’t fart, who employed chaste speech and otherwise kept themselves invisible.
‘We’ve always known how to extend a warm welcome down here, that’s for sure,’ he said.
?’ Kroplik made a trumpet of his own fist and belched a little laugh through it. ‘Well yes, in point of fact
‘So when you tell me to go fuck myself you intend nothing but friendliness by it.’
‘Nothing whatsoever, Mister Master Kevern Cohen. Kiss my arze the same. I’m being brotherly, and that’s the shape of it. And to prove it I’ll give you a free shave.’
On this occasion Mister Master Kevern Cohen declined. ‘Pog mo hoin,’ he thought about saying, but didn’t.
His detestation of swearing amounted almost to an illness. At school, although Latin wasn’t taught, one of his classmates told him that the Latin for go fuck yourself was
futue te ipsum
which, for all that it sounded nicer, still didn’t sound nice enough. Kiss my arse the same. It wasn’t only that he didn’t want to kiss anyone or have anyone kiss him there – least of all those to whom it would have been most appropriate to say it – he recoiled from the sound of the word.
! Even cleansed of Kroplik’s brute enunciation it made the body a site of loathing. Swearing was an act of violence to others and an act of ugliness to oneself. It had no place in him.
With one exception he had never heard either his mother or his father swear. The exception – single in type but manifold in application – was his father’s deployment of the hissing prefix
before words denoting what he most deplored. As, for example, his transliteration of
IF IT HAPPENED
into the raging,
THE GREAT PISSASTER
THE PISSFORTUNE TO END ALL PISSFORTUNES
. Accompanied always by a small, self-satisfied whinny of triumph, as though putting
before a word was a blow struck for freedom, followed just as invariably by a stern warning to Kevern never to put a
before a word himself, not in private, and definitely not in public.
Otherwise the worst his father ever let drop in his hearing was ‘I think I’ve forgotten to rumple the bloody hall carpet.’
And even for that his wife reproved him. ‘Howel! Not in front of the boy.’
It was something more than distaste for bad language. It was as though they had taken an oath, as though the enterprise that was their life together – their life together as the parents of
– depended on their keeping that oath.