Crosby is a busy man – but is he coping?
Had to break off there to take a call from Nigel. I told them where I was, they know I’m not in Hartlepool; Angela knows: my diary says ‘Father’s Funeral’, plain as plain. Doesn’t anybody look? I may be a 24/7 guy, but there are a hundred and sixty-eight hours in the week. I’m allowed one hour, aren’t I? Does that make sense? Does life make sense? Calm down. I’ve got –
Calm down. Relax. There’s that pain again, across the chest. It isn’t a heart attack; the doctor said it was lifestyle. He said you only have to sit still a minute. But what if I get an attack while driving? It’s happened twice already – I had to pull in to the side of the road and sit there panicking. It was so bad the first time I switched off the engine. I knew it was a heart attack – but what could I do? I was – where was I that time? – going to Milton Keynes or coming back? Going, and I couldn’t hang about because I was late. I hadn’t got time to sit at the side of the road worrying myself to death, worrying I was on the road to death. I’m thirty-five. It was stitch, I thought, it had to be stitch. I hadn’t time to have a heart attack.
Crosby makes mistakes – like, with his girlfriend Angela in the restaurant:
I continued to stroke her hand and at some point, though I hardly noticed, she slipped in a line about how nice it would be to have someone to come home to in the evenings, and I said yes, without realizing what it was that I’d said yes to. I was hardly listening to her, to be frank, and suddenly I found we were talking about who should be invited to the wedding. By then we were speaking in such low whispers across the table that I couldn’t rear back like a startled horse and cry: whoa, this is not what I meant. What else, she would have asked, were we talking about?
Vanessa lives in the flat upstairs:
Where Angela is blonde and looks younger than her years, Vanessa has brown hair – she calls it auburn, though it’s brown to me (maybe I’m colour-blind). She’s heavier than Angela and you could say she looks her age – she’s older than me, let’s face it, approaching forty, but she carries her age well. Why her husband divorced her I can’t imagine, except . . . why did I not stay with her? She’s attractive, intelligent, knows far more about the arts than I do, yet . . . I don’t know. There’s almost too much of her, if that makes sense, a full-blooded woman, not a girl. Approaching forty, no children – which will be in the back of any man’s mind, let’s face it. Children. Last chance. She could be desperate. Life is cruel.
Then there’s his brother Milo and his girlfriend:
Last time I’d seen him he’d been at university, and seeing him now, standing in the rain and lit by a glaring carriage lamp outside the door, he looked much the same: gawky, nerdy, long hair tied in a ponytail, but this time – I don’t think it was there before – he had a tiny beard. He wore leathers and carried his helmet in his hand. Behind him I could see a girl similarly clad in leathers, detaching herself from a helmet and shaking out her long blonde hair.
“Hi, Mum.” He kissed her, then turned to the girl behind. “Coming in?”
“No, I’d rather lie in the garden in the rain.” She pushed past him to come inside. “Where’s the kitchen? I’m starving.”
“I’m Milo’s mother – ” But the girl had gone. “And who was that?”
And as for Crosby’s stepmother:
I used to take it for granted that she didn’t like me – why should she, I thought, since I didn’t like her. I was not her child, I had never been her child, and she hadn’t wanted me. I was nothing to her. My own mother had abandoned me, as she drummed into us for years: “That woman,” she called her: “That woman is dead to us now.”
In the five years Crosby has been away, his stepmother gets on no better with his sister Gina:
Within minutes of her sweeping in, Gina and Mother were having a blazing row about – of all things – housekeeping. (Two experts on the subject, not.) Mother was ‘letting standards slip’, said Gina, to which Mother screamed that Gina wouldn’t know how to switch a Hoover on, let alone use it, and Gina said that was why she employed a cleaner, and anyway it was a Dyson, not a Hoover, and she was perfectly capable of using it, thank you, and that if Mother’s cleaner knew how to operate the thing, why were the carpets dusty, why was there dirt in the front hall, and why did Mother persist with thick pile carpets anyway, when laminate floors were easier to clean?
“My cleaner was here this morning,” Mother replied. “Any dirt in the hall has been brought in by visitors.”
“My shoes are clean,” said Gina, pulling one off to wave it in the air. “Look.” It had four-inch heels.
Then she looked at me. Did they think I had brought it in? For a moment I was a kid again: anything wrong was down to me. But Mother softened: “Oh no, not Crosby. He keeps himself very clean. I’m sure Crosby’s house is spotless.”
Life gets complicated when Crosby meets Rachel in Philadelphia:
She breezed in, skirt swishing, and I was hers. I knew the second I saw her that I wanted her. She’s thirty, she’s beautiful, and she strode into the office radiating confidence and American zing. She came to shake my hand and with each stride her silky skirt moulded itself to her thigh. When I took her hand my left hand reached out automatically to clasp her arm. I stared in her face and she smiled. Maybe she thought it was some kind of Masonic handshake that she didn’t recognize, so she stood close and kept on smiling while I smiled back. I don’t know what Andy was doing, probably scrolling through his diary. But eventually she and I managed to break apart without embarrassing anyone, and Andy looked up to say she would show me whatever I wanted to see, and Rachel explained softly that she was their Director of Finance.
Crosby’s relationship with his own boss has never been easy, even when his boss invites him out to lunch:
When I arrived at the pub he was outside in the conservatory, and I’d barely sat down when, Nigel having ordered, the food arrived. I took one look. Nigel knows, or he damned well should know, that I don’t eat seafood, but he’d ordered for both of us, and I swear that some of those doomed crustaceans were alive. “Fantastic food here,” he enthused.
“I can’t eat that.”
You’d have thought he’d cooked the stuff himself. He had ordered especially, he said; he had chosen this pub accordingly.
“I don’t eat seafood. You know that.”
This particular salade au Mediterranean, it transpired, was a meal for two to share (something to do with the size of the angry-looking lobster sprawled across the top) and was far too big for Nigel to eat alone: surely I could help him out, he said, at least by eating some of the accompanying green stuff which, as I pointed out, reeked of mussels and shrimps and God knows what other aquatic slugs and snails I could see crawling through it. They weren’t shrimps, he said: surely I knew what a prawn looked like, even if I chose not to eat them. We maintained this ridiculous impasse for a couple of minutes until I realized he genuinely believed he could bludgeon me into eating the stuff. No, Nigel: to order food on someone else’s behalf is one thing but, given how many people will not eat seafood, presenting them with a thumping great dish of shells and claws unasked is plain insensitive. That was a word, Nigel informed me, that he found offensive. Not as offensive, I replied, as I found being asked to swallow a shoal of seafood. He began to sulk.
We were, in fact, the only two customers in the conservatory, all the others having had the sense to eat inside. Outside it was softly raining, although we couldn’t see much of what was outside because the glass had misted over. Our lonely table sat against a background of trickling water and an indeterminable draught. We sat for a while in silence, and I ordered something else (a ploughman’s, for the record; I thought it would be quick). He continued to stare at his seething mass of seafood. “Eat it,” I said. “Don’t let it get cold.”
“It is cold; it’s a seafood salad.”
In his car, Crosby talks into his iPhone:
Here on the road the windscreen runs with rain and if I keep breaking off and leaving gaps it’s because I can hardly see. I have the wipers on full speed – too fast for their own good, I always feel, as if one of these days they’re going to slip out of sync and meet in a tangle in the middle, leaving me blind in the fast lane of the motorway – oh God, what’s this? We’re stopping. In the rain.
It’s bound to be an accident; some idiot going too fast because he’s late for an appointment. Now we’ll all be late. Someone has become the late Mr Speedy. When they scrape the mess off the car, what do they will with the body – deliver it home? “I believe this belongs to you, Ma’am.”
Gloomy thoughts. These are the thoughts that come from sitting in a crowd of other cars on the motorway, in the rain. No police car yet, no ambulance. No traffic flash on the radio. Maybe it’s not an accident, just weight of traffic aggravated by teeming rain. We could be here two minutes; we could be here two hours. Either way, we are trapped on the motorway; we can’t turn off onto another route; we can only sit here till the traffic eases.
Then we can plough on again – or most of us can; because up at the front of this queue someone may be dead. That’s what life comes down to, a game of chance: you grind along, barely pausing to glance aside, and sometimes it rains and sometimes the sun shines and, although your eyes grow tired, you keep on going until eventually you realize that, for all the miles you’ve run, you’re going nowhere, the road leads nowhere, and when you die the road won’t end but will continue on without you. You never mattered. Every year there are more and more of us staring ahead and ploughing on, and the people right beside us hardly know that we exist. When you die the people close to you will not notice – think of that, they just won’t notice. If there’s a car crash here at the front, the only reason we notice is because death was an inconvenience.
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