In a bed and breakfast on the Isle of Arran. I think it’s early morning, but can’t check my watch. My back’s gone. It woke me hours ago, at least it feels like it, been lying like a stiff ever since. I probably yanked it on the ferry, up the vertical stairs between decks. Should have stayed in the so-called lounge but some kid was doing a banshee impression, grating my skull. I was wrestling this vicious Labrador pup before I woke, maybe that had something to do with it. Shit! A spasm fires up and under my right shoulder blade. All I wanted was a few days, a bit of daylight between me and Christie. Now this invisible straitjacket means she’ll have to come and get me.
It’s a cheap room. Wouldn’t be spending much time in it, would I? Out in the hills, might even hire a bike. At the bottom of the bed, a dressing table with three mirrors. One of those ancient things that smells of church pews. My phone’s on top. Not that I could do much if it was closer. Stab. Fuck. A bloke can only keep so still. If they don’t clean the rooms every day, I’m stuffed.
Mein hosts, Joy and Ramsay, looked immaculate on the tourist board’s website, Ramsay obviously dressed by Joy in his checked shirt and cravat, Joy in a summer dress; hair very done. When I arrived, Ramsay had fishing net spread across the lawn. He looked up, rope between his teeth, saluted. Joy had just polished the last smear from her geranium-filled porch, sloshed the suds on the border. She grabbed my handshake with two damp hands, her sleeves rolled to the elbows. Hair a copper frizz.
Breakfast dishes clatter. Other guests pass my door, some kid touching something they shouldn’t being told off in a hushed shout. I attempt a yell, but even the deep breath gives me grief. Mud-coloured curtains keep the room dark. Nothing to focus on but the pain. Christie in my head, arms folded with her now-you-need-me face. Feels like ages before someone taps.
It takes Joy a few seconds, like it might be a game.
“Can’t move,” I say.
She opens the curtains, comes at me waving her hands like she should do something but knows not to touch. “You poor love. Your back, is it?”
She gently smoothes the covers. Like that’s going to help. “You’ll be wanting the toilet?”
I hadn’t thought, but now she mentions it.
“I’ll catch Ramsay before he goes.”
Ramsay comes in with a stainless steel jug. Motions for Joy to turn her back. He flips the duvet, tucks the jug into my thigh like an expert. It’s cold. I shut my eyes and try to unclench. Joy cuts through my concentration, she’ll call the doctor as soon as she’s got me settled. I just know she’s talking to the mirror. Ramsay pulls out smoothly; no wisecracks, no double entendres. The man’s a twinkle-fingered mute. Joy pops two Paracetamol from a blister pack, hesitates about how I’ll wash them down, but I’m so desperate I take them dry from her pine-scented fingers. Is there anyone she should call?
Joy’s got the telephone pressed to my ear. Christie sounds tired, or maybe still pissed-off. I lost my rag a couple of days ago. We were at a garden centre and she wanted the where are we going conversation, again. Right there in the plants for shade. I said I was off hiking. Flippant, I know, and I suppose this is my payback, but did she really expect me to whisk her to the love seat by the potting sheds and propose?
Christie, over the past year, has decided she wants marriage. Her view on kids remains the same as mine – neither of us could eat a whole one – so I don’t see the need to bother. Slept in the spare room the night before I left. The huffy bed she calls it. Sometimes that bed feels like all the leverage I’ve got, but back to the phone call. She agrees to bring the car.
Joy comes in with tea and a straw. I sip. She natters about unsuitably clothed tourists, four-wheeled drives, the price of bacon. She leaves the TV on to keep me company while she vacuums the other rooms. My phone pings a couple of times, on the bedside table now for all the difference it makes.
The Hoover stops. Eyes closed. It’s harder drugs I need, not small talk. In she comes, switches off the TV, pads to the side of the bed. Unfamiliar breathing. The softest of knocks on the bedside table. Is the cheeky cow checking my texts? The door clicks shut. I stare hard left at the phone, like it might tell me something.
The yellow stain on the ceiling by the window could be an orang-utan in profile. A loft hatch above the wardrobe. I imagine Joy, stuck. Under the television there’s a patch of plaster over the wallpaper painted the same colour, like someone misjudged when they mounted it. To the left of the door, a print of Goat Fell. I feel every inch of its jagged ridge. Outside, Oystercatchers screech over the Firth of Clyde.
“Ah good, Sleeping Beauty’s awake.” Joy’s back. She’s put on lipstick. Her forest fresh fingers administer more painkillers. “You’re in the right place,” she says, “fog’s rolled in something awful.” She drapes a napkin across my chest and comes at me with chicken soup she’s watered-down with milk to get through the straw. Bowl in one hand, straw in the other, she pouts in concentration; deep washboard grooves above her lip. I sip the chicken milkshake. She dabs at spillage I’m sure I haven’t spilled. When I’ve stomached as much as I can, she asks if I need a hand with you know what. I tell her I’ll save my blushes for Ramsay. “Ram’s at his boat, he’ll be a good while yet, so don’t you be afraid to ask.” She pulls off the napkin and fluffs my chest hair like she’s frothing bubbles for a bath. Before I can say hang on a minute, my phone goes. Joy looks at me for permission.
“Go for it.”
She accepts the call, holds the phone to my ear, looks the other way.
Christie’s booked on the six-thirty ferry tomorrow evening, the earliest she could get with the weather. Bet she’s loving this.
Am I still flat out?
So how did I pick up the phone?
She’s lucky my lover was still in the room. I really shouldn’t push it. The phone twitches. I look up at Joy. “She wants to speak to you.”
Joy clamps the phone to her own ear. Listens for ages without saying anything, then, “Oh yes dear, you’re not wrong there.”
Yes she is. Whatever Christie’s telling her it’s bound to be my reputation that’s suffering.
Joy agrees some more while I lie there like a kid at parents’ evening.
Eventually, she ends with, “Doctor Kinney said he’ll look in later so don’t you fret now, your husband’s in safe hands.” It’s obvious Christie doesn’t correct her.
Joy puts down the phone. I feel obliged to point out we are not married.
“No matter,” she says.
Maybe not to her. “Did she say we were?”
“I honestly don’t remember, dear. Maybe I just assumed.”
She picks up the empty bowl, cheerful in her role as nursemaid. My incapacity has put a shine on her day. Christie doesn’t realise when she’s got it good.
Doctor Kinney arrives late afternoon, prescribes morphine. Joy tells him she promised my wife she’d take special care of me, throws me a wink. What have I unleashed?
Mellow with morphine, time slows. My sensitive side bubbles up. Poor Joy, such a small life, can’t even leave the house to go to work. No wonder she’s all over me. I feel protective, have this strange need to please teacher. The pain dampened, I could lift my arms, possibly sit up, but I don’t and allow Joy to feed me supper. More soup. Tomato. The straw slips, orange drool seeps down my cheek. I just leave it, because Joy seems grateful to mop up.
Joy’s around when Christie rings again about ten. I guess they planned it. Joy tells her I’m still on my back, but comfortable.
“I’m bringing your Aunt Flo’s wheelchair,” says Christie.
“You are not.”
“How the hell else will I manage?”
“Doc says I can take an extra dose to get me home.” My voice sounds elastic. “I can lean on you, won’t be that different to a night on the pop.”
Christie has the last word. “I’m bringing it.”
Joy puts the phone back, runs a finger across the bedside table. “Missed a bit.” She leans across me, chest so close it’s out of focus, pulls the duvet up to my chin.
“Lower,” I say.
She teases it down.
“What about your teeth?”
“What about them?”
“Should I give them a brush?”
“I think they’ll survive for one night.”
Her hand rests too long on my bare shoulder before she turns out the light.
I sit up for breakfast. Joy thinks raising my arms is still an effort. I’ve moved onto solids; porridge. She offers up a spoonful and a charm on her bracelet scratches. She said I could borrow one of Ramsey’s pyjama tops, but I reckoned my naked torso wouldn’t do her any harm. She scrapes the last flecks from my bottom lip, puts the spoon to my mouth. I shake my head. Then. As normal as you like. She puts the spoon in her own mouth; swallows the dregs from mine.
What the hell?
“Oops,” she says.
I’ll give her bloody oops. If this her idea of flirting it’s borderline pervy. I imagine running in slow motion.
Joy’s smile fizzles. Her eyes wander off. The bowl is tight against her belly. “You just took me back twenty years.”
I don’t want to hear how I remind her of a younger Ramsay.
“Like I was feeding my son,” she says.
How does a six-foot specimen with two days growth remind her of her kid?
“We’d just celebrated his twenty-fifth birthday.” This hollowness creeps into her face. “Quarter of a century. At least he achieved that much.”
What’s that got to do with me?
“Ram knew it was getting too much for us, but I wouldn’t listen. Couldn’t admit it until I saw my boy lying there in that garish party hat, like it was mocking him; not able to smile on his own birthday.”
Shit, shit, shit.
“Only so many hours in a day, you see. We were on our knees. He needed full-time care on the mainland.” She goes this far, then says she doesn’t really want to talk about it.
I tell her I’m very sorry.
“Ironic,” she says. “A home full of strangers, yet we couldn’t cope with our own son. Ramsay thinks I use the guests to compensate.”
I offer a, these things are never that simplistic. As if I know all about these things.
“Ram’s guilt goes into his boat.” She rubs the bowl like a genie might whoosh out and make it all better. “Even when he can’t get on the water he’ll find something to patch or paint. You’re lucky I caught him yesterday.” I expect her to snap out of it at this point, give me another of her winks, but her eyes are still in space.
“What’s your son’s name?”
That does it. She looks at me now, like nobody’s asked in ages. “Robert,” she says, pauses for a second. “We thought about moving, to be near him, but it wouldn’t make much difference. At least the B&B leaves my afternoons free to visit.”
“Except when an idiot like me gets in the way?”
She smiles, but her heart’s not in it. “Don’t you concern yourself,” she says. “My laddie won’t have missed me.”
Christie holds the door. Ramsay pushes in the wheelchair.
“You’re having a laugh, aren’t you?”
She stops him coming any closer. “So get up and walk to me, big man.”
Legs shuffled over the side of the bed, I feel a sweat coming on. My toes almost touch the floor. If I just push into my hands… “Double-fuck-bugger!”
Ramsay leaves us to it.
She kicks off her heels, slumps into the wheelchair. “So, how are you really?” Foot across her knee, she massages her instep, a habit that usually gets on my nerves, but when she points, flexes, cracks her toes, for some weird reasons it comforts.
“Hate to say it, but now you’re here my mood’s not the only thing that’s lifted.”
She smirks. “You telling me you have to snap your spine before I’m appreciated?” She comes over, holds my face to her neck, her jugular against my cheek. Kisses me. How many years until her lips concertina like Joy’s? “You’re freezing.” She gets a jumper from my rucksack, eases it over my head, guides my arms. She wriggles a pair of sweatpants over my shaky thighs. “Want to get out of this room?”
“Not sure I can risk it.”
She knows I’m avoiding the chair.
Christie says you marry because you’re happy where you’re at, to preserve what you have already. Marriage, in my opinion, is not some magic spell that keeps a relationship in a perpetual state of wonderfulness. It’s the curse. It lulls you to become complacent. In microscopic increments you settle for less and less until, in the end, it’s like someone turned the lights down and all you’re left with is this dim flicker of what you had in the first place. She tells me it’s a clichéd point of view.
Cards, Scrabble, the kind of magazines I haven’t read in years spread across the bed. Like I’m a kid again barricaded in my room, but this time, there’s a girl. The things I used to worry about –Will the chickenpox scar between my eyebrows mean no-one will ever snog me? Does my smile reveal too much gum? – evaporated. But I’ve seen mates backslide from this post-teenage confidence, eclipsed by their wife’s shadow. Christie’s not like that, but they never are, it’s not deliberate, it’s insidious, it creeps up on you once your barriers are down. Swaddled and comfortable, I might forget to fight. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe it makes me husband material, but it scares the hell out of me at the minute.
We’ve never played Scrabble sober. Bottle of wine, half an eye on the telly is our usual level of seriousness. Nine times out of ten I win, but Christie seems to have developed a knack for pulling triple word scores out of the bag. I blame it on the morphine but she’s having none of it. When we’ve finished she pops out for fish and chips and we eat them on the bed. She tells me where to stick it when I play helpless, ask her to feed me. I love that she doesn’t take any shit. If I could guarantee that marriage would never blunt her sharper edges, then I might be more inclined.
The room stinks of vinegar. Christie opens the window. “I can sleep somewhere else if us sharing is problem?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your back, dumbnuts. Won’t I disturb you?”
Separate beds feels wrong in someone else’s home. “No. It’s fine.”
She says she’s forgotten her PJs.
Her heat, so close, and I’m unable to do a thing about it.
The extra dose for the trip home makes me numb enough to bum-step down the stairs. Christie tells me to zip it when I refuse the chair that Ramsay’s carried back down into the hall. If he thinks we’re a couple of morons, he’s not saying.
The tartan carpet in the dining room assaults me after days of the same plain walls. Joy and Christie cluck on like they’ve know each other forever. I butt in, ask if Joy’s catching the midday ferry. We could give her a lift?
Christie looks at me like I’m talking morphine.
“Joy goes visiting in the afternoons.”
Joy’s quick to answer. “Not today, dear.” She shoots back to the kitchen.
“Weird. I thought she’d be gagging to see him.”
Christie wants to know what I’m on about it, but it doesn’t feel right whispering behind Joy’s back, plus, the small issue of me imagining I was doing her a favour still sticks in my throat.
No sign of Ramsay as Joy sees us off. They seem to cope with their circumstances by shrinking to their own corners, yet this sanctity of marriage rubbish keeps them fastened to each other until one of them snuffs it. Would they have moved forward if they’d never wed?
Christie says I’m a ton weight.
“Your rod. Your back. I offered to walk.”
She comedy thwacks me across the head. “You’ll pay for this mister,” wheels me side on to the car.
Joy waves from the front porch. A wave she can never give her own son as he leaves after a visit. Close the door, pick up and shake her in a confetti of geranium petals. Her snowstorm prison.
Does she visit him as often as she had me believe? Maybe she used to. I can understand how good intentions might dwindle if they make no difference.
Christie has similar intentions. Says it’s up to us to keep things fresh. We won’t let a crust form, she keeps telling me. We just won’t let it.
Maybe it is that simple.