He had a group of friends, male friends, and they would walk through town in neat shirts and sheepish bravado, carefully laughing at anything serious. He liked them, but he also didn’t like them. He sometimes wondered if they all felt the same way. Occasionally, he would find himself with just one of them, and the conversation stuttered awkwardly. Somehow, their friendship worked as a group, but individually, they had little to say to each other.
On their nights out, they would talk about women. They would egg each other on to approach women at bars, but rarely did so. There were certain women on their course, and in their halls, and in their wider circle, who they agreed were fit. They would talk about them with crude bluntness, undercut by fear.
When he kissed her, in the union bar, he knew he was transgressing in some way. He didn’t call her. He held off for a week. One night, after a few drinks with the boys, he walked home along the canal. The night was warm, and the weedy bank of foliage smelt rich and green and seedy. He texted her.
When she spoke about him, she often started with a criticism, proprietary, fond, qualified at the end with, ‘but I do love him’. When he was with the boys, he tried to avoid discussing her, but when he did, his face went red. Sometimes, at night, when they lay in bed face to face, he felt himself dissolve into her. He found it hard to believe in both parts of his life at the same time – the days of unease and banter, the nights of quiet, overwhelming intimacy.
After university, he stayed in contact with the boys, but their friendship fell into a specific pattern. Once in a while they would all meet, for an occasion, or just an agreed night out. They would greet each other with loud cries. They would hug, backslapping. They would drink, and talk in mockery and reminiscence. Through the evening, he would sway from a deep glow of acceptance into an awkward sense of dislocation. When they parted, with more hugs, he had the sense of fulfilment after a difficult task completed with no injury.
Most of his life was with her. They constructed it together. A house, bought with a mortgage and a loan from her parents. Furniture, discussed, bought, admired, looked after. A shared calendar. He loved the quiet embrace of routine, and it seemed to both of them that what was between them was real.
At night, he dreamed of women he saw on the street, women with long legs and bright hair that tumbled on bare shoulders.
When he proposed to her, he did so with a deep seriousness. He cried. He felt that barely discernible doubleness, that he was both entirely in the moment, and also aware of how he would remember this moment. He knew they would both say how he had cried when they told the story, and they both did.
He cried again at the wedding. He believed in their life together. He believed he had made a good choice, and that she gave him what he lacked. He believed they were a good team. Deeper than that, he knew she gave him safety from having to pretend to be something he was not.
When he remembered his stag night, he shuddered.
They took three years before consulting a doctor. In that time their life had settled firmly into shape. They went on adventurous holidays, carefully planned. They upgraded things in their house. There was a scale of stuff, like a pay scale, that they felt impelled to move up. IKEA was at the bottom, followed by branded stuff bought at John Lewis, and ending in a few special things bought from designer outlets or antique shops.
In that time, the taking of a pregnancy test became a routine disappointment.
Her friends began to have children. They came for dinner, round, glowing, with the same conversation repeated. Due dates, names, nurseries. He was angry with her that she was so upset. He didn’t see why it mattered what they had. At least, he said he didn’t see it.
The boys took him out to let off steam. They drank steadily. He was the centre of things. They were gentler with him than sometimes. At ten thirty, they had some shots. At twelve, he was drunk, with a wild, whirling intoxication he’d never felt before. At three, he kissed a girl with tanned shoulders and fat knees.
In the morning, he could smell her still.
The third round of IVF worked. The baby was red and wrinkled, like all babies, but it moved with delicate shivers. He cried when it was born, because he expected to, but when they were back home, and he was holding his son, it seemed to him that if this was what he had been waiting for, it wasn’t enough.
When his son smiled, though, six weeks later, something very different happened. The love that struck him was so intense, and so impossible to measure, that he realised every other time he’d felt love was nothing.
And when his son was eighteen months old, and walking, he realised that, although he loved him, it still wasn’t enough. And so he left.
Their friends were shocked. She lived with a rage that bubbled out incontinently in every conversation. It pushed her into corners and held her under the surface of her daily life. She watched people, normal people, from the depths of anger, as from the bottom of a clear pool, holding your breath until your temples are hot and your chest tight and you rise and inhale fury, clear and fresh as air.
He got a flat. He furnished it cheaply. He had to. There was no money for branded goods, and he was happy with IKEA.
The boys settled into relationships. They seemed less embarrassed about it than he had been.
He had his son on alternate weekends. Two weeks was long enough for him to forget how to hold him, and increasingly, as his son grew up, this meant they rarely touched. They spoke about topics, or activities. They often had fun together. Sometimes it seemed to him that he had the best deal of anyone he knew. He watched other men, other friends, struggle with young children, and he revelled in the space he had to be himself.
When he remembered marriage, it was as a series of decisions not made by him. It seemed that everything they had been together was something decided by her, and he simply went along with it. But when he reached thirty-nine, he looked back at the last five years, and now it seemed to him that in her absence, all the decisions he had made were wrong.
He went out with the boys for his fortieth. They had a few drinks, but the night ended early. They all had families to go to.
A few weeks later, he met someone new. There had been brief flings before, two, three nights, seasoned with disappointment and selfishness. But this was more. His new girlfriend – that was what he called her – was lean and boisterous, with a streak of savagery that lit up a strange feeling of adulthood in him.
They drank together. They drank white wine in pavement cafes and kissed sweet-breathed vinegary kisses, arm in arm, on sunny benches. When they fucked it was akin to wrestling. He saw himself, male, next to her. She smelt rich and female.
They moved in together, and the flat grew thick with rugs and fabrics. He had a gut, now, and he wore jackets over T-shirts. His son came to stay for a night or two every now and then. When he met the boys for a night out, they looked both old and young to him. They walked like men defeated. He had a swagger now, in his forties, he’d never managed when younger. He grew a beard.
One year they met at midsummer. He was forty-six. A picnic had been arranged, and for the first time in many years, they all gathered with their families, apart from him, of course.
He came with his girlfriend.
They met on a curl of the river. The grass was neat, down to the muddy edge. At one end of the green was a willow. Within the bounds of the willow tree, the rhododendron bushes, and a bank of laurel, the families let their children roam. Most were between four and eight. The parents sat on rugs, next to baskets, occasionally rising to intervene.
He lay back, his head on his girlfriend’s thigh. The sun was warm on his face, and he allowed himself to feel that he was happy.
Sometimes his eyes were closed, and sometimes they opened. He watched the boys. He had known them for twenty-seven years. It was hard to say when changes happen – when hair recedes, or grey begins, or a chin thickens – but they were all different. He looked from face to face. He imagined himself at nineteen.
His girlfriend rested a hand on his forehead. In the first few seconds it felt blissful, but then the weight and heat of it began to press down on him. He moved her hand away. The place where it had been felt different. They broke up later that day.
The first of the boys to die was Harry. They met, as they felt they ought to, in the pub afterwards. They sat carefully, guarding their solemnity. They were in their fifties, now. They were men, whether they felt it or not.
He looked across the table. Their faces were marked. They were not old men, not yet, but they would never have been mistaken for young. They talked, quietly. After a pint or two, the stories loosened into tearful laughter.
He listened more than he spoke. He listened to stories of Harry. Harry had two children, he had a wife, he was loved. He had a job, a home, hobbies. He was kind.
He had never known Harry.
That night he called his son. He was at university. They spoke about food, and work. They spoke about football. He held the phone to his cheek. As he spoke, he pinched the bridge of his nose between finger and thumb, as if by squeezing, he could hold the grief in.
Image © Deiby Chico
This story is taken from Test Signal: Northern Anthology of New Writers, published by Dead Ink Books and Bloomsbury.