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Authors: Clare Chambers

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At fifteen Gerald was introduced to religion by a couple who lived up the road and belonged to one of these
quirky evangelical sects not governed by the Council of Churches. My Catholic School blazer, happily, placed me beyond their attentions. The leader of the outfit was a man of about forty called Vivian, who lived in Camberwell with his elderly mother. To my mind he was every bit as repellent as the Christian Brothers, though in quite a different way. They were cold, remote and had an obvious aversion to humanity. Vivian, on the other hand, was brimming with love for all mankind, which expressed itself in over-affectionate advances towards total strangers. I only met him once, when he dropped Gerald off after a service of healing and insisted on being introduced to The Family. The experience would have been enough to put me off religion for ever if the Christian Brothers hadn't already got there first. Dad held out a tentative hand by way of greeting and had it batted aside as Vivian moved in for a rib-cracking hug. He was a big man, with meaty arms and a paunch, and Dad's feet nearly left the ground. This would have had me in stitches if I hadn't been up next. I tried with the outstretched hand as well, but he just used it to pull me towards him. I could feel the leather-covered buttons of his coat digging into my face. He smelled surprisingly sweet, as though he'd been sweating syrup. He gave me a last squeeze, which made the gristle in my nose click, before releasing me.

I found it hard to believe that Gerald had ever allowed himself to be subjected to that sort of mauling. He suffered the occasional hug from Mum with extreme frigidity, and wouldn't be touched by anyone else.

‘If heaven's full of people going around doing that, you can keep it,' I said, when Vivian had gone, but loud enough for Gerald to hear.

‘Don't worry, you won't get in anyway,' he replied, which made me wonder if he saw heaven as a giant grammar school in the sky.

6

GERALD
'
S SILENCE WAS
beginning to unnerve me. Two weeks after I'd left him that message asking him to call back I'd still heard nothing. I'd tried ringing intermittently, at increasingly antisocial hours, but there was never any reply and the answering machine was now, infuriatingly, switched off. Since Gerald was regular in his habits, and not generally one for staying out late, I found his inaccessibility baffling. It was the more annoying as he had been the one to press me for an early reply to his letter, and I couldn't help interpreting it in a sinister light. He was probably researching ways to consolidate his occupation of Gleneldon Road, in order to force me to accept his terms. On the other hand, he might have fallen and broken his back and be lying at the bottom of the stairs, helplessly awaiting rescue, or be walking the streets of
Streatham, lost in concussion and amnesia. I would have to go there myself and check that nothing was seriously amiss.

This was a task I didn't relish. Having moved away from London I found it more crowded, polluted, ugly and alien on every subsequent reacquaintance. I'd never made much use of its amenities: shops, theatres and restaurants weren't adequate compensation for that suffocating feeling brought on by environments where nature has been subdued by concrete, and masses of strangers are forced into reluctant proximity. In any case, in recent years visits had not been especially pleasurable: those grim, after-divorce Christmases with Mum and Dad when I'd nowhere else to go. For them it was a triumph to have me home for this great family festival, but for me it had been a symbol of my abject failure. Later on, homecomings took on an even more dismal cast: sickbed visits, deathbed visits, funerals, and now this.

I started to feel my regular aversion to the place – experienced as a downward pressure on my ribcage – just outside Stevenage. A grey sky was made greyer by the film of filth on the train windows, which gave onto a grim dystopia of identical biscuit-coloured houses, with patio doors like gaping mouths, and tiny shrubless gardens in which aluminium whirligigs of laundry bloomed in place of trees. On either side, the embankments of blackened brambles were strewn with discarded beer cans,
broken bottles, car tyres, wooden pallets and whatever other trash the local residents could heave over their back fences.

The sense of loathing for mankind that this scene provoked was out of all proportion, and I had to go and get a Jack Daniel's from the buffet to restore my spirits. I'd brought a thriller to read on the train, picked up from the limited selection in the mobile library. It was a broken and much-borrowed volume, its pages limp and furry from over-handling, and it gave off a faint smell of mushrooms. I was about halfway through it and only moderately engaged, when I came across two pages fused together by a liquorice allsort, and realised I'd read this same book last year, and abandoned it at this very point, then as now.

I let myself drop off and came to just as the train was approaching King's Cross. It must have been the slight change of rhythm or the movement of people gathering their belongings from the overhead racks that disturbed me. Or maybe it was the same subconscious sensitivity to endings which always made me wake up during the credits of the late film.

The concourse was a shifting mass of bodies, and I noticed, as I dodged and tripped my way to the underground, how many people – even perfectly able-bodied men – were pulling along little trolley cases, classier versions of the tartan bag-on-wheels which Mum used for her grocery shopping during her years of infirmity. I couldn't help feeling there was a subtle connection that
I couldn't quite explain between this form of indolence and the tossing of household rubbish onto railway embankments.

I could have done with another Jack Daniel's to fortify me against the misery of the underground, but half the day had elapsed already and I still had some way to go. The last thing I wanted was to be delayed and end up staying overnight at Gleneldon Road. I had deliberately come empty-handed to make such an outcome as inconvenient as possible, but disincentives were hardly necessary. I took the Victoria line to Brixton, reacquainting myself with the distinctive quality of the air in the underground – stale, cool and rubbery – and the plangent sound of a subterranean saxophone. I stepped over a teenage beggar at the exit, and then went back and gave her a fiver. Her face seemed to melt with relief and surprise, and I remembered that period in my life when I had been literally penniless and entirely dependent on the goodness of others.

I got the bus the rest of the way, passing the familiar haunts of my youth with a growing feeling of alienation – the Ritzy Cinema, the ABC, the Silver Blades Ice Rink, the Kentucky Fried Chicken where Ann Capper and I had exchanged our first greasy kisses – and marvelled that I could once have roamed these streets with such a sense of belonging. There was Alma Road, where I'd spent the best and worst year of my life. Just the sight of the ancient iron nameplate, high on the red-brick wall of the end house, made my pulse gallop.

I wondered whether my sense that the area was ‘going downhill' was just the typical superciliousness of a returning emigrant, and whether it had in fact always been this shabby. Perhaps committed city-dwellers saw it all differently; perhaps if they came to Hartslip they would see only bleak moorland, rain and sheep shit.

This attack of counter-nostalgia brought me to Gleneldon Road, a deep gorge of tall red-brick semis with small front gardens and steps up to the doors. It seemed to shrink slightly on each visit, an effect no doubt of the ever-expanding girth of the cars parked end to end on both sides of the street.

Number 76 had an air of abandonment that was not necessarily incompatible with Gerald's residency. The curtains were all half drawn, in a non-committal way, and there was a pile of broken glass on the path where a succession of milk bottles had fallen off the top step and smashed. A newspaper hung, ragged-edged, from the jaws of the letter box. I pressed the bell, but it made no sound. I wrenched the paper, which felt strangely damp, out of the way and bellowed, ‘Gerald! Are you there?' through the flap. This courtesy having been observed, I prepared to let myself in.

It says something for my unsuspicious nature that it took quite a few fruitless minutes of waggling the key and reassuring myself I'd brought the right one, before it dawned on me that the lock had been changed. Gerald had changed the lock! Now that I came to look more closely I could see it was rather shiny and unscratched.
For a moment I was too staggered by the hostility of this manoeuvre to do anything but stand and gawp at the now obsolete key in the palm of my hand. I felt a sense of indignation at being shut out of my boyhood home that was thoroughly at odds with my earlier determination to spend as little time there as possible. If there had been a piledriver to hand I would have battered the door down without remorse. As it was, I would have to call out a locksmith.

Before resorting to this time-consuming measure I decided to check the back of the house for any vulnerable points of entry. The gardens on our side of the row gave onto an alleyway which had once served me and other local kids (Gerald excepted) as a cycle track, smoking area and loitering point. I walked between the houses to our gate, my mind still turning on the implications of this latest development, and when I tried the latch the answering clunk of a heavy padlock didn't come as any surprise.

In clambering over into the garden I caught my jacket pocket on a nail and tore it loose so that all my change fell out into the alleyway. I suppose it was my own carelessness that was to blame: I didn't want anyone mistaking me for a burglar, or seeing what heavy weather I was making of getting over a six-foot fence. The back door was no less fortified than any other and there were no windows ajar – it was January after all.

I retraced my steps to the street. The immediate neighbours were out, but in the third house I managed to raise
someone: a woman in a nylon overall and rubber gloves who looked Greek or Turkish. She answered my polite request for a look at her local phone directory with an apologetic murmur. I wasn't sure if she was the householder or just the cleaner, but my presence was clearly making her nervous, so I backed away, smiling.

It was the newsagent on the corner who finally lent me a Yellow Pages when I'd explained my predicament, but the locksmith was not nearly so helpful.

‘Got any ID with your address on it? Driving licence or something?' he asked. Reception was poor and he kept breaking up. I was having to walk further and further from the house in search of a signal.

‘What? No, no, I don't live there.'

‘I can't get you in if it's not your house, mate,' he said, reasonably.

‘Well it is my house, technically. Half of it. It was my dad's, but he's dead and now my brother lives there but it was actually left to us jointly . . .' I blethered. I could tell I was losing him.

‘Yeah, whatever,' the man said. ‘I can't do anything without ID. It's illegal. Anything with your name and address on – council tax bill, gas bill . . .'

‘I don't carry my dead father's gas bills around with me,' I said indignantly, thinking
you bastard, Gerald.
‘All that stuff would be in the house. If you let me in I can get you one.'

He laughed thinly. ‘Sorry mate,' he said, and hung up.

Fifteen minutes later I was standing in an inch of water in the wreckage of my former home.

Having come this far I had to satisfy myself that Gerald wasn't inside, dead or injured, however unlikely that was. I suppose I was motivated, too, by the less noble impulse to assert my right of entry and find out just what was going on in there. Back I went to the alley, and over the fence, taking care this time to avoid the protruding nail. It was easily visible this time, now that it had a scrap of my pocket hanging from it. I looked around the garden for a suitable tool. It would have been too much to expect to find a hammer or a crowbar lying around, given Gerald's mania for security, and the best I could do was half a brick, which I managed to liberate from its setting in the crumbling back step. Holding it in my right hand, I wrapped my fist and lower arm in my jacket for protection and slammed it into one of the panes of the kitchen door. The whole structure shuddered in its frame and my knuckles rang with pain. Toughened glass. Breaking and entering always looked so easy on television: bolted doors yielded to the merest nudge, and windows crumbled when tapped. Perhaps because it was my house, and I knew that any damage I inflicted would have to be repaired, I lacked a proper burglar's wholeheartedness.

At last I succeeded in breaching the French doors to the dining room, which were older and more rotten. One of the panes already had a crack across it which someone (Gerald) had attempted to disguise with Sellotape. I hurled the brick at it and the whole sheet fell out into
the room. I managed to get my head and one arm and shoulder through the gap to reach the key, noticing, as I did so, an unpleasant, stagnant smell. I opened the door and stepped into the room to find water lapping at my shoes. Whole sheets of wallpaper had peeled away and were hanging at half mast. Above my head the ceiling bulged menacingly. The top of the piano was corrugated with damp. A few framed family photos, blurred with condensation, lurched tipsily on this uneven surface. As I moved into the hall I could hear the plip-plip of water dropping from the light fitting. I tried the switch. Nothing.

On the front doormat was a soggy pile of post – mostly free newspapers, flyers and charity begging letters. These I ignored, but on the window ledge, beside the dead telephone was a hand-delivered letter addressed to me care of 76 Gleneldon Road. The envelope was soft with damp and the handwriting was neat, feminine and unfamiliar. I put it in my pocket for later.

The sitting room, though also flooded to a depth of an inch and a half, was less damaged, the water having come in under the door rather than through the ceiling. Gerald's salvage operation had progressed no further than an attempt to preserve the furniture – three-piece suite, coffee table, grandmother clock, bureau – by raising it up on bricks. Other threatened items – a plant stand, video recorder and a large urn of dried flowers – had been dumped on the couch. I noticed with amusement that a set of leather-bound hardbacks, purchased by Dad in instalments from a mail-order company, part of a series
entitled ‘Books That Have Changed Man's Thinking' – all immemorially unread – had been left on the bottom shelf to take their chances.

BOOK: The Editor's Wife
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