Authors: James Meek
To marry, to start a family, to accept all the children that come, and to help them in this insecure world, is the best that a man can do
Franz Kafka (who never got around to it)
The story doing the rounds at Ritchie Shepherd’s production company was accurate when it appeared inside the staff’s heads, when they hardly sensed it, let alone spoke it. It was like a faint stink, clear enough to notice, too trivial to mention. All through
’s autumn and spring seasons, when they clustered round Ritchie, asking him questions they already knew the answers to, cadging compliments and begging him to give their enemies a telling-off, they watched him. They saw he wasn’t as funny as before. Was he keeping his jokes for someone else? He moved in a weird way now, they thought. He walked with an awkward bounce, too eager, as if he reckoned something had given him extra energy, or made him younger.
As long as the rumour was unspoken, the hearts of the staff ached. The rumour was this: that after a long peace Ritchie was, once again, cheating on his wife Karin, this time with an under-age girl. They felt sorry for Ritchie’s family, but what if the damage went further, to the men and women on the company payroll? They sensed a personal threat. Scandal spread from the first carrier. Everybody liked Ritchie, but they were confident that he was selfish enough to infect them all. The production company offices were intoxicated by nervousness
and suspicion. When twin fourteen-year-old girls showed up one day without an accompanying parent and asked for Ritchie, his PA Paula got up too suddenly from behind her desk, caught the trailing edge of a printed email with her thigh and upended a cup of coffee across her skirt. The chief lighting technician wrote off a fresnel worth two thousand pounds. He dropped it from the bridge when he saw Ritchie smile and touch the elbow of a lanky year ten in a short dress. ‘She had womanly curves earlier than most,’ is what the gaffer would have said in his defence, if he hadn’t been afraid to hex them all, and he only yelled ‘Butterfingers!’ while the people down below were jumping clear of chips of lens skittering across the floor. When the script editor saw Ritchie talking to a group of pert-bottomed schoolgirls in leotards she strode over and interrupted him in mid-sentence. She realised, as soon as she did it, that she was making a fool of herself. The girls’ teachers were there. The ache of fear in her heart had made her do it.
The ache could only be soothed by being put into words. The production team needed an utterance to lift the dread from their chests, and when the rumour eventually found its spoken form, it relieved them so completely that they believed it. Much better that Ritchie’s ten-year marriage to Karin should break up and that he should lose custody of his son and daughter over the pretty but older-than-twenty-one new presenter Lina Riggs than that the boss should be doing something illegal and shameful, something that would stain them all with the indelible dye of an unspeakable word. Without anyone noticing the shift, ‘I wonder if’ and ‘I bet’ and ‘You don’t suppose’ changed to ‘I heard’ and ‘I’ve got a juicy one’ and ‘I know who Ritchie’s shagging.’ Believing soothed them all.
Ritchie found that whenever he went near Riggsy a stupid smile appeared on his employees’ faces. He didn’t know how happy he was making them by encouraging them to believe he was betraying his family with a legal adult. They didn’t know that their rumour had become wrong as soon as it was said out loud, and that the original rumour, the ache of fear in their hearts, was true. They didn’t know that Ritchie was seeing a not-quite-sixteen-year-old girl he’d met when she appeared on
the previous season. He saw Nicole once a week. It was his intention to enjoy it for as long as he felt like it, then end it tenderly. Nicole would, he imagined, be moved that he should voluntarily give her up. It would be soon, and nobody would have found out. How could they? The two of them were careful, and London was a wild forest of red brick and roof tiles, where maps only reminded you how little you knew.
Ritchie woke in a soft chair in a wide, bright space. An old vinyl record spun and crackled and he heard the sound of Ruby, Dan and Karin in the orchard, three storeys below. Far away something clunked against the sides of a wooden box.
A bib of hot sunlight from the south-facing window lay on his frayed yellow t-shirt, spreading delicious warmth across his chest. The nap left him refreshed and content. His wife and children were close enough for him to hear that they were happy, far enough away to not disturb him.
Facing him, here on the mansard floor, was a ladder on a dolly and a wall lined to the rafters with shelves of records. Ritchie’s study had space to ride a bicycle in, but he didn’t have a bicycle up here; he had an adult tricycle. The tyres would hum on the waxed oak floorboards as he built up speed, dodging the stairwell that pierced the centre of the room, past the cabinets with his collection of British war comics, past the desk and the chill cabinet where he kept his beer and puddings, past the washstand that had been a Victorian church font and the toilet cubicle in an old red phone box with blacked out windows, to the guitar case. Inside the guitar case was one of two steel-stringed acoustic guitars Karin had commissioned for his fortieth birthday out of spruce and
walnut, inlaid with their names in mother-of-pearl (the other was hers); and inside the guitar a secret thing was hidden, the mobile phone he used to call Nicole.
He got up and looked down through the window. Karin and the children were gathering fruit in the orchard. Their shining hair and foreshortened limbs bobbed in and out of the shade. He could hear that they were talking but the glass muffled the words into fuzzy, friendly unsignificances. He walked to his desk, opened the chill cabinet and took an individual chocolate pudding serving from the stacks inside. He favoured a brand called ChocPot, which came with its own wooden spoon attached, so he didn’t have to hunt for one. He flipped off the lid, put down the pot and picked up his BlackBerry. He shovelled chocolate goo into his mouth with his right hand and scrolled through his emails with his left thumb. A dollop of pudding fell and landed on the shelf of his belly. He put the BlackBerry down, scraped most of the spill off with his index finger, raised the quivering dod to his lips, slurped the finger clean and walked to the font. Without taking the t-shirt off he held it under the running tap with both hands and rubbed till the brown stain almost disappeared. He wrung the wet patch out.
A desire to call Nicole, to catch her alone at home, danced in the pit of his stomach. He strode to the guitar case, flipped the catches and opened it. The guitar wasn’t there.
Ritchie’s palm and fingers pressed against the blue plush lining of the case. His mouth hung open.
He turned and ran to the stairs, clenching his toes to stop his old flip-flops flying off. He had six flights of stairs to go down without breaking his neck before the orchard was in reach: three storeys, five changes of direction. His hands clawed
for purchase on the football-sized oak globes, varnished and polished to a high gloss, capping the banister on each landing. He lost his grip, slid off the step, hurtled into the wall, landed on his backside, got up and ran on, panting.
I get out of breath when I make love to Nicole
, he thought;
might it bother her?
Amid the clatter of his feet and the pounding of his heart he replayed the sound he’d heard when he woke up, the object knocking against the sides of a wooden box. If curious hands groped inside the guitar, why was a mobile phone there? He’d failed to prepare an important lie.
He reached the foot of the stairs, loped along the hall towards the kitchen and thanked God that the garden door was open. He got to within two strides of the threshold and felt something slither over his thighs. His shorts fell down around his shins. He fell and hit his knee against the kitchen flagstones. The cold slate pressed rudely against his bare hams. He got up, hoisted the shorts around his waist, tightened and knotted the drawstring and limped on into the garden.
A gentle English heat rolled over him and he squinted in the brightness. A wood pigeon cooed from the yew tree. Karin, her back to Ritchie, stretched towards a high branch, making the tree snap and rustle as she pulled yellow plums off it. The hem of her muslin skirt climbed up her brown calves and one of the straps of her top fell off her shoulder. There was a scent of grass where the sun heated the juice from the stems his family had crushed with their bare feet. Ritchie was sorry he was meeting his teenage girlfriend later. He wished he could stay at home with his wife and children. Dan ran from trunk to trunk holding Ritchie’s guitar like a weapon, dropping to a crouch, aiming the guitar neck, lining up the sights. Ruby was heaping fruit. She saw her father and stood up.
‘Look at Daddy!’ she said. She twisted her little torso round to Karin and back and laughed.
Dan stood up, afraid. ‘Give me the guitar,’ said Ritchie. Dan dropped it on the grass and ran over to stand by his mother. Ritchie picked the guitar up by the neck, letting it swing as he raised it. There was nothing inside. He glanced down at the long grass. The phone could have fallen out, or one of his family could have removed it. The phone contained dozens of messages from Nicole so obscene that he hadn’t been able to bring himself to delete them.
‘I don’t remember you asking if you could come into Daddy’s study,’ said Ritchie.
‘You were asleep,’ said Dan. He grabbed a fold of Karin’s skirt and looked up at her.
‘Mummy, Daddy’s bleeding!’ said Ruby. ‘And he’s breathing funny.’
Karin looked down at Dan and caressed his head. ‘I don’t see why you shouldn’t borrow Daddy’s guitar,’ she said to her son. ‘He never plays it.’
‘Don’t do that,’ said Ritchie. Karin looked at him, and Dan looked, too. They shared a cool, expectant expression, like two doctors he’d interrupted while they discussed his case. ‘Don’t talk about me with Dan as if I’m not here. You’re wrong, by the way. I play it all the time.’ He raised the guitar and saw
in bright mirror writing race across Karin and Dan, reflected off the mother-of-pearl inlay, and each lift up their hands to cover their eyes as his name passed over their faces.
‘Look at it,’ said Karin. ‘The two top strings are broken and the others are miles out of tune.’
‘Mum, Daddy’s bleeding!’ shouted Ruby again, running over
and tugging the other side of her skirt. Ruby was the one who cared for him without hesitation, not out of duty, just because she did, Ritchie was sure. She was six, and he knew she would always feel this way towards him, whatever her age. He’d made a dangerous mistake in being angry with Dan, he saw, since he didn’t know where the phone was, yet Dan or Karin – or both! – might know, and were choosing their moment to confront him. He needed to regain control. He didn’t think of it as control, because his way of controlling seemed so benign: kindness, generosity. It hadn’t occurred to him that striving for a monopoly on generosity was the chief characteristic of a despot.
‘What happened to your leg?’ said Karin.
‘I slipped on the tiles. Dan, come on, show me what you can play.’ He held the guitar out towards his son.
‘I don’t want to play anything,’ said Dan, and quick as a trout shot away through the orchard, disappearing beyond the yew tree on the far side.
‘Mum, can I put some leaves on Daddy’s leg to stop it bleeding?’ said Ruby.
‘If Daddy lets you, darling.’ She studied Ritchie. Her eyes ran over the blood, the frayed clothes, the stained paunch and the bristly chin.
He was afraid Karin didn’t love him, which would be a catastrophe, because he loved her, and he loved his children, and if she didn’t love him, it would destroy the pleasure he took in cheating on her, and feeling virtuous when he returned to her, full of love.
‘Help us pick the plums now you’re here,’ said Karin. She turned her back to him and went on gathering fruit.
Ritchie put the guitar down, folded his arms and walked
in careful circles, stroking the grass with his toes, humming a song. He bent his head and watched for a hint of silver, glancing up every few seconds to make sure Karin wasn’t looking.
Ruby came to him with a bunch of greenery. ‘Mum, Dad’s been eating chocolate pudding,’ she said. ‘Why can’t we have some?’
‘It’s bad for you, darling,’ said Karin, without turning round. ‘It’s only for a treat.’
‘Why does Daddy get to have treats and we can’t?’
‘Daddy knows how to treat himself.’
Ritchie saw an opportunity. ‘Let’s all have chocolate pudding,’ he said. ‘Once we’ve harvested the plums.’ He thought Karin would like the word ‘harvested’. It sounded as if the family were doing something real together, bound to the countryside and the seasons.
Ruby kneeled in the grass next to her father and began to stick leaves onto the congealing blood on his leg. She frowned with concentration. It reminded Ritchie of the expression on Nicole’s face when she performed a certain act. He winced. ‘Ruby sweetheart, that’s much better,’ he said. ‘Go and find Daddy a nice plum to eat.’
‘I’ve got one,’ said Ruby. She reached into the front pocket of her denim dress and handed him a hard little green plum. He took it and rolled it around on his palm.
‘Thanks, darling, but it’s not ripe yet,’ he said.
‘Eat it!’ said Ruby. She laughed. ‘Go on! You have to eat it!’
‘I thought you liked the unripe ones,’ said Karin. She walked towards him. The muscles on her right forearm stood out under her brown, grained skin from the weight of the bucket full of fruit she was carrying.
Ritchie stood up. He bit into the taut skin of the plum, gnawed off a sliver of astringent flesh and chewed it.
‘Perfect,’ he said. He forced himself not to stretch his mouth wide and spit the fruit out.