Authors: Mike Gayle
Also by Mike Gayle
My Legendary Girlfriend
Dinner for Two
His ’n’ Hers
Brand New Friend
Wish You Were Here
Life and Soul of the Party
The Importance of being a Bachelor
Men at Work (Quick Read)
The Stag and Hen Weekend
The To-Do List
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Hodder & Stoughton
An Hachette UK company
Copyright © Mike Gayle 2013
The right of Mike Gayle to be identified as the Author of the Work
has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright,
Designs and Patents Act 1988.
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 without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be
otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that
in which it is published and without a similar condition being
imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance
to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library
ISBN 978 1 444 72098 3
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
338 Euston Road
London NW1 3BH
‘I found a really long grey hair and it kind of flipped me out. It’s not my first, but it’s the fact that it was so long. I was like, “Oh that’s been there. How many others are there, and what does that mean?” It actually brought me to tears slightly.’
‘I liked turning forty. Maybe I had a crisis earlier or something. Maybe I had it in my thirties. One thing that sucks though is that your face kind of goes, and your body’s not quite working the same. But you’ve earned it. You’ve earned that, things falling apart.’
Grateful acknowledgement is made for permission to use extract from the following copyrighted work:
The Velveteen Rabbit
by Margery Williams.
First published in Great Britain in 1922. Published by Egmont UK Ltd London and used with permission.
In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
For everyone who’s turning forty –
the only way is up.
Thanks to Sue Fletcher, Swati Gamble, and all at Hodder; Ariella Feiner, Simon Trewin and all at United Agents; Phil Gayle, the Sunday Night Pub Club, Blake Woodham, The Board, and above all to C, for everything.
Wiping my hand against the steamed-up window of the taxi I press my nose against the cold glass to get a better look at the worn but sturdy façade of my destination: 88 Hampton Street, the three-bed Victorian terrace that my parents have called home for over forty years.
It looks exactly the way I left it following my last visit at Easter: same windows, curtains, and front door and even though I haven’t lived here in decades, it still feels like coming home.
The cabbie waves the receipt I’ve requested (more out of habit than a desire to keep my expense records up to date) under my nose and I hand him a twenty-pound note and unload my bags on to the pavement. A smart young couple I don’t recognise carefully navigate their neon coloured state-of-the art pram around me and up the path to the house to the left of my parents’ that will for ever be known to me as the O’Reillys’. I watch surreptitiously as they open their front door and manoeuvre the pram inside. I feel envious. A happy couple, a young baby, and a family home: all the boxes of adult life ticked off one after the other. Compared to them I’m a walking cautionary tale.
The cabbie is holding out my change. There was a time when I wouldn’t have given the handful of shrapnel he was proffering a second glance. Not any more. I have to make every penny count. I scoop up the change and funnel it deep into the pocket of my jeans. As I head up the icy front path I spot my mum’s Capodimonte figurines collection on the windowsill. Despite my current gloomy state of mind the tramp on a bench, the cobbler mending a boot and the Edwardian lady posing with an umbrella actually manage to bring a smile to my face. I’ve lost count of how many times my siblings and I accidentally broke off the odd limb only to have my dad Evo-stick them back together. Ugly and damaged as they are, it’s reassuring to see them again. In a city that feels increasingly alien it’s an apt reminder that there are still a few things in my home town that thankfully will never change.
I take a deep breath to bolster my spirits as a sharp gust of October wind sends a shudder through me. Everything’s going to change once I open this door. Nothing will ever be the same again. Maybe I should’ve called to let them know I was coming up after all. I tried a couple of times but didn’t get much further than staring at their number on the screen of my phone. For a moment I seriously consider running after the taxi and getting him to drop me back at the station but then the front door opens to reveal my dad, disconcertingly dressed in a thick brown cardigan, jeans and market-stall trainers.
‘All right, Dad?’
His face lights up. ‘Matthew! What are you doing here? I was hoping you were the postman. Your sister ordered me a new pair of slippers off the internet. I could really do with them coming today. You haven’t seen him, have you?’
‘Ah, well,’ he shrugs, ‘maybe later. To what do we owe the pleasure?’
‘Just passing through, Pop. Thought I’d swing by and say hello.’
Dad makes a great show of leaning to one side to get a better view of my bags. ‘For someone who’s just swinging by, you’ve got a heck of a lot of stuff with you.’
‘You know me, Pop. I’m like the Boy Scouts. I like to be prepared.’
He looks back up the path. ‘Where’s Lauren?’
‘Back in London.’
‘You didn’t bring her with you?’
‘She had to work.’
Dad looks disappointed. Despite Lauren’s innate poshness they really hit it off on our first visit to the UK. It wasn’t just that she was easy on the eye (though Dad never could resist a pretty face) it was that she made such an effort to make Dad feel comfortable. He couldn’t stand being too formal and the fact that Lauren mucked in getting dinner ready with the rest of the family increased her standing with him more than a million perfectly selected Christmas and birthday gifts could ever have done.
‘You should bring her with you next time,’ says Dad forlornly. ‘Your mother would love to see more of her.’
I hope this might be an end to his questioning but as I open my mouth to suggest that he might actually let his first-born son inside the house rather than interrogating me on the doorstep like a rogue double-glazing salesman, he sparks up with another.
‘Where’s the motor?’
‘It’s gone. I gave it up, Dad.’ I mentally picture the pristine basalt black Porsche 911 Turbo that was my pride and joy. It almost brings a tear to my eye. ‘I came up by train.’
Dad’s disappointment once again becomes apparent. ‘That’s a shame. It was a lovely little number you had there! So what’s that company of yours giving you next then? I bet it’s a cracker! I can’t believe some of the flash cars they’ve let you have!’
‘They gave me an allowance and I topped it up out of my wages. Thought a nice car would compensate for the fact that I’d part-traded my soul. As for the new motor, there won’t be one.’
‘How come? Won’t you need one? I suppose not given how often you’re gallivanting around the world these days. You’re barely ever in this country.’
‘It’s a long story, Pop, I’ll fill you in another time. Are you going to let me in or do I have to tell Mum you made me stand out here so all the neighbours can see our business?’
‘Your mum’s not here,’ says Dad, putting his huge hand in mine, ‘but come in if you must.’ We shake hands awkwardly but it doesn’t feel like near enough contact. I give him a one-armed hug and he tolerates it with the grace of someone who, while loathing the awkwardness of physical exchanges, has at least learned to appreciate the sentiment behind them.
Dad insists on carrying my bags inside and then ushers me into the kitchen. He runs the tap and fills the kettle.
‘Still not much of a tea drinker?’ he asks, setting down the kettle on its stand and flicking the switch.
‘I have one now and again,’ I reply, ‘but I’m more of a coffee man these days. Can’t make it through the day without at least half a dozen.’