That year was the happiest of my life, for the first time I felt like my existence had a semblance of some meaning and that terrible silence disappeared altogether – even if it was filled with the sound of the missus telling me to go and buy nappies. He was a right little bugger at times my son, naughty, always wanting to examine everything and everyone and complaining to high heaven if he wasn’t allowed to, but the bad moods never lasted.
He was so happy and tiny and pathetic that sometimes I used to look at him and the idea of anything happening to him used to break my heart, I don’t mean some remote mental anguish, I mean a physical pain, like a strangulation of my chest. All that innocence and vulnerability and it could be crushed in a second.
I don’t want to talk about when he got ill. For one thing, what’s the point? Unless it’s happened to you attempting to describe the pain would be like trying to make a man understand what childbirth feels like. Someone tore my heart out and my end of the world is your bedtime reading and it’s nobody’s fault.
I was sad, she was sad, but we weren’t sad together. The problem is that when it comes to grief your kid can’t just die and it’s nobody’s fault. I had to pick a tie out for my son’s funeral, and wear a suit, and brush my hair while inside I felt like I was falling off a never ending cliff. It’s so unnatural that you feel there must be someone to blame, and there isn’t, I don’t have a God to blame or to cling to, so if you’re me you ending up blaming me, and if you’re my wife you end up blaming me, too.
The day of the funeral when I was putting on my suit and trying to hold it all together for her sake, I caught her looking at me in the mirror. She was still in bed and didn’t know that I had noticed she’d woken up. My wife could never disguise her emotions, the expressions on her face change almost by the second, it’s like watching a patch of grass blowing in the wind. When I saw the look she was giving me I knew that it was over for us. See she couldn’t handle the grief, she had so much of it and she didn’t know what to do with it, where to put it, so she turned it into blame and threw it at me.
I looked back at her in the mirror. She seemed to age ten years when he died, she was still beautiful but her face became more fixed, her eyes hardened and people looked at her and saw the inevitable grief waiting for them in the future. It just came early for us, and to stop herself from falling my wife blamed me. I didn’t kill him, nobody did, but her son was dead and this useless man with the stupid name was standing in front of her, doing up his tie. Her son could have done incredible things but instead she’s left with her husband, who long ago confirmed that he would never be anything other than ordinary. Who could blame her: she felt cheated.
The sadness doesn’t end, but it stops being strange. I adapted.
I lost my job almost immediately after that – that fat heartless bastard let me go when it was the mindless routine of work which I needed the most. I couldn’t stand the idea of being at home in that silence with my wife, her eyes hardening every time she looked at me, and the weird, silent encounters in the hallway when we would accidentally meet and our bodies would brush against each other with the old familiarity but yet she was completely absent.
I wanted anything which would take me out of the house and away from her, and while I waited for something to come up I threw myself into DIY, doing all the things I’d been putting off for years and finding new jobs to occupy myself. I would spend ages painting a wall, replacing the tiles in the bathroom, I used to spin out any job for as long as I could, filling the house with paint fumes. I wanted to exorcise the place of its sadness, I think.
Every time I finished a job I’d ask my wife to come and have a look and explain in great detail how I’d done it, and why I’d chosen that colour and how we should try our best not to make any marks on the walls! I wanted to fill the silence with noise. She would listen without saying anything, looking at me with her arms crossed and all those years of pain etched in her face, the faintest of smiles on her lips. And when I finished talking she would nod, and then go back to what she had originally been doing leaving me with my freshly painted wall, and the silence.
I got a job as a taxi driver. I chose to work nights, the money’s better and it meant that me and my wife operated a shift system in relation to the bed.
I liked driving around in the darkness, listening to the radio and picking up the odd drunk every now and again. One night a young city-type in a suit who had obviously been on the piss for hours flagged me down. He stopped and staggered to the taxi and rested his left arm on the top of the car and his forehead on top of that and stared at me with his mouth open. I said what is this, a mobile peep show? and he just kept staring in an alcoholic haze. So I asked him where to? and he said home.
I said that unless he was Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II he’d have to be a bit more specific. He ignored me and moved to the back of the taxi where he fought with the door, attempting to open it with one arm while he put the other vertical above his head so as to stop his laptop bag slipping off his shoulder. I watched all this in silence, laughing to myself, and he eventually hauled himself in head first and lay down in the back.
He passed out as soon as he hit the seat, and I was left with the choice of either dumping him where I found him or trying to find something on his person with his address written on it. He’d have been stripped bare in under a minute if I’d have left him, he reeked of money, so I went through his pockets and as luck would have it found something with his address on it.
I arrived at the house and rang the bell and thankfully what turned out to be his flatmate was at home, or God knows what I would have done with his corpse. We pulled him out by the legs and I helped get him indoors and just after we threw him on the sofa he woke up briefly and looked at me and said, you’re a good man, and then proceeded to belch several times at high volume before passing out again.
I’m embarrassed to say that I found tears running down my face back in the cab, and all because of what some inebriated stranger said to me. You’re a good man. I often asked myself afterwards why his words affected me so much, why they prompted me to do what I did, why the kindness of a stranger made me stop and rethink everything. For that brief moment I realised that what me and my wife had been through wasn’t normal, it was terrible, but we had made it, and as I raced home I thought that maybe I am a good man, and more than that a man who has survived the reversal of the natural order, who has buried his son. I wanted to go home and waft away the smog of grief and make my wife see that we must be extraordinary.
But it was too late, because as I was about to put my key in the front door I looked through the side window and saw them both, him and my wife with that absent smile, and realised that death and loss and sadness is as about as ordinary as it gets.
If she ever discovered that I’d found out, it certainly wasn’t from me. I didn’t even mention the new marks on the walls. I got back in the taxi and drove around without stopping until the sun came up and then went home and went to bed without saying a word to her.
I didn’t blame her. The madness wasn’t in her cheating or our son dying, it was in that moment when I raced home and almost told my wife that our son’s death made us special, made us an unbeatable team. What a twat. How stupid of me to forget what she and her gentleman friend reminded me of, which is that I was right all those years ago on my wedding night: everything about life is completely arbitrary and meaningless, including who you wake up next to, and trying to impose any kind of order on it all is like trying to lasso your own shadow.
My feelings towards my wife didn’t change because what happened – the growing apart – was inevitable. If my son had lived or if we had more kids then perhaps it wouldn’t have happened quite yet, or maybe I would have been the one with the time and opportunity to stray, or maybe the kids would have cemented us together in a way that death couldn’t. It’s not that I didn’t love her, or that I was indifferent to her, it’s that the idea of some indestructible unit, me and her was always an illusion. Why did I marry her? Because I happened to meet her, and happened to love her, and you might call that fate but it was bloody hard work that involved convincing both myself and her that marriage was a good idea and then trying to make it work, and her getting past my name, and both of us engineering this great bloody myth of the Big Love. And ultimately getting married is what you do, isn’t it, you have to fill a life somehow and pints and kebabs every night gets boring. But us being together wasn’t fate in the same way that my kid dying was fate. We were a little manmade fiction.
All my resentment was channelled against him because every time the image of them came into my mind I saw his greasy hand on my wall.
I didn’t engineer it so we’d meet, like every other bloody event in my life, it just happened. A man flagged down a taxi in the early hours one morning, the taxi was me and the man was him. I only recognised him once he was inside and I got a proper look at him, and I realised that the spot I’d picked him up from was only a few streets from my house. He looked knackered. I asked him if he’d had a long night.
‘Something like that’ he said, and went to light cigarette.
‘No smoking, mate’ I told him, just to piss him off, and he looked round for the signs like punters always do before putting the pack of fags away.
‘Sorry about that. See I never take taxis but my car’s in the shop and Christ knows you can’t get a bus for love nor money at this time of night.’
I didn’t reply, I kept driving, looking at him occasionally in the rear-view mirror. He was a handsome git, all chiselled chin and dark eyes and powerful looking hands. I noticed them because he had the restless, searching hands of smokers denied a cigarette. He found a bit of paper – looked like an old bus ticket – in his pocket and rolled it and unrolled it endlessly. He was younger than me, and arrogant with it, with his legs splayed apart and a half-grin on his face. It gave me a mild, petty satisfaction to see that his bulk was of the type that would turn to fat the minute he turned forty.
‘You been in the taxi business long then?’ he asked, and didn’t wait for an answer. ‘I just started a new job, myself. Basically I go round people’s houses, people who’ve expressed an interest in digital telly, and I try to sell them the most expensive package. It’s brilliant, I spend most of the day drinking tea and eating biscuits with nice old ladies.’
‘And sometimes nice young ladies, I’ll bet. Or are they not interested in your expensive package.’
He gave a short, knowing laugh.
‘A bloke at work, Jason, got himself in a right pickle the other day. He was in some old lady’s house giving her the spiel when she excused herself because the phone rang. She left him sitting there with his tea and biscuits, all cosy, the electric fire going, and he fell asleep.
He wakes up and the electric fire’s still on, his tea’s cold, the house is silent and it’s got dark outside…He panics of course, doesn’t know where the hell he is at first, can’t remember where the front door is, runs around the house until he finds it and then can’t open it cos the old girl’s double locked it, hasn’t she. All he’s thinking is that he was meant to meet his girlfriend half an hour ago, she’s switched off her phone because she’s had it up to here with Jason and he’s always late or has to cancel at the last minute cos he’s accidentally fallen down a drain or something and basically she can’t be bothered with him. He’s proper useless, but he does actually love her – he’s got a photo of her on his computer desktop and she is well fit.
Anyway, he’s desperate now so he decides to try and get out burglar-style, by prising open a window at the front of the house. He pulls back the net curtain and in front of him is this huge bodybuilder bloke built like a brick shithouse about to put his key in the front door. Jason freezes, the bloke’s face slowly starts turning red and the best thing is that being the prat that he is, Jason waves, while this mountain of a man can’t get the key in the door fast enough.
See it turns out that the old girl – who’s a bit dotty – went out and completely forgot about Jason. So then her son, the big bloke, is ringing the house and gets worried because she aint answering, and Jason can’t hear it cos he was asleep and nothing wakes him, and so her son comes round to check on her and finds what he thinks is a drug addict-robber in his mum’s house, blatantly waving at him.
The bloke crashes in and Jason the prat is trying to get his ID out of his pocket which makes the bloke think that he’s reaching for a knife or something so he just literally jumps on Jason – who weighs about as much as my left hand – and squashes him. Meanwhile the burglar alarm – which the bloke didn’t stop to turn off of course – has gone off and all hell breaks loose with neighbours rushing in and someone’s called the police and Jason’s arrested on suspicion of breaking and entering. The old girl comes home in the middle of it and she can’t remember who Jason is. My boss has to cancel a golfing weekend he was going to go on and come down to the police station to vouch for him. He’s in a right nark of course, is my boss, and for about a week afterwards whenever Jason tried to open his gob he’d say, ‘shut up you! Shut up your face!’ He’s foreign my boss, comes out with some funny phrases in times of stress. Oh yeah and Jason’s girlfriend dumped him. Again.’
I wondered why he is was telling me all this, whether it was post-sex exuberance or whether he was just naturally a talker, and thought that knowing her, it probably wasn’t his looks which lured my wife in, but the way he filled space with his stories, made you forget about yourself. And the thing is the longer I listened to him, the less I thought about the way he’d entered my house and left marks on my hallway wall. Instead I thought about my wife, and the look on her face when I saw her with him, and thought that it’s no bad thing to be able to forget.
We arrived at what I suppose was his house just as the sun was coming up, and as I drove off I looked back at him in the rear view mirror, searching for his cigarettes in his pockets, and I thought of my wife at home adjusting back to reality in her cocoon of silence, and my son, and my dad who gave me my ridiculous name because he didn’t know how to be anything other than ordinary, and I conceded defeat – which is how you found me.