Once we hired an auditorium for a hot house
But a jealous rival went and burnt it down
— ‘The Biggest Aspidistra in the World’, Gracie Fields
At 2 a.m. Carol Dodds let Vern Jenkins – gleeful, bow-legged, old-book-smelling at just thirty and sixteen-years-dead come October – enter her marriage bed and make love to her. Let his soft woman hands between her legs. Let his whispered jokes ease the pain as he pushed inside her. Squared up against a Strangeways shark like her late-husband, Vern was lean and slight. Hopeless with his mitts. But Vern Jenkins alive or dead was twice the man her Sefton was and not just where it counted. At least her husband stayed dead and didn’t visit. But her Vern was a randy sod. Prick like the Eiffel Tower. Balls big as tangerines. Some nights he hurt her which made her glad; she never let him know because the pain was brief and rare and felt like penance. And only in the pain which Vern caused her, Carol came closest to forgiving herself. But Vern was always gentle and in the pool of her collarbone he told his daft jokes. New ones tonight. So bad they tickled her. The jokes’ vibrations tickling as much as the jokes themselves. He had to trap her mouth shut – his palm sweat tasted like Ovaltine – whispering: ‘You’ll wake the whole house, love.’
‘Sod them,’ Carol said, or tried to.
They laughed into each other’s bodies afterwards, standing in the bed as he got her out of her nightdress. Then he helped swap the bed linen.
‘Carol, love?’ he said.
‘It’s a shame I’m dead.’
‘Forgive me, love.’
She laid flat. Vern rubbed her belly. His touch painful because it was painless and not entitled like a Dodds man or a baby, not trying to grab all of her at once and keep her for only as long as she was needed. Some nights she would cross her landing, and she would nurse their delinquent daughter’s baby on her empty breast. Some nights, already fed and sleepy it would indulge her. And she would pace and remember:
Vern was gap-teethed, clever and working. Lovely, talky and daft. The librarian’s assistant learning Pitman shorthand at night school – having passed his eleven-plus and gone to St Augustine’s and wound up with three rooms of his own above a closing-down greasy spoon near Sharston Baths. In one a giant aspidistra that he crossed-his-heart-hoped-to-die had belonged to Sydney Howard. Books bricked into furniture filled the other. The first time they did it fully was on his floor, fighting to get undressed, toppling columns of Woolworths’ paperbacks, their kissing lips papercut, laughing.
Carol hadn’t seen Vern wearing clothes since 1969, even in dreams. Vern turned her body over now and fingertipped an S from right shoulder to left hip to right calf to left toe – bunching the covers away.
‘I’ll catch me death,’ she said.
Noise came from behind the wall. ‘What’s that racket?’ he said.
‘Be our Jan getting in from another night of sin.’
‘Want me to have a word?’
‘. . .’
‘She’s safer outside.’
‘Wish we’d made a baby, me and you.’
‘But we did, Vern. We did.’
‘Such a shame I’m dead.’ The words were shrugged, lighter than love. He got up and the bed rose. She had a drink of tap water on the nightstand and he downed it and glanced at her and grinned while his prick went up slowly by itself like a drawbridge in silhouette.
‘Thank me,’ Vern said.
‘Thank me,’ she said.
Vern visited her of a night not because he forgave her but because he couldn’t forgive her because he thought he had nowt to forgive. Carol was sixteen years’ sure that was it. That Vern’s forgivelessness kept her his and kept her in pain and of both she was glad.
Vern only lived between her stagnant days. Dead days in the cake factory when she had worked, and in the house; only her sleep possessed momentum. Days before their daughter’s baby stole her son’s room while her son spent a year at Her Majesty’s pleasure, before even her husband and father-in-law were killed. Before her mam-in-law moved in. Days so brutish and eventless she could barely sift them for a single feeling or memory. But her nights with Vern were printed catalogues. Black honeymoons. Bound and spined.
‘Forgot to ask you. How was the do?’
‘Messy,’ she said.
Vern stretched, unwilted. ‘I’d love to help tidy up tomorrow, like, but. . .’
‘Where was me invite?’
‘Our Nedra must’ve run out of stamps.’
‘Your Kelly’s a nice-looking lad now, isn’t he? Takes after his mam, of course.’
‘He’s not his dad.’
‘He’s turned out same.’
‘He’s young and daft but he’s out now and now he’s out he might decide he’d rather stay out, for his nana’s cooking.’
Of course, Nedra hadn’t visited him. Carol went every week until Jan had the baby. Nedra lied for her grandson and for herself and to herself and to anybody polite enough to do it back. Even Dodds women:
Eunice Barry née Dodds.
Carol’s sister-in-law; her latest letter: a tepid postcard which had arrived a fortnight ago and lived amid the saints on her clean, crowded mantelpiece of votives, idols, trinkets, bibelots, blurry snaps of Pope John Paul II in Heaton Park, and other notes from Eunice, who had emigrated to Canada, intact. Some of Eunice’s bleached correspondences Nedra hid in her bedside drawer after months on the mantel. But Carol didn’t know why.
21st April 1985
Dear Mam, Carol, Kelly & Jan,
Glad our Kelly is still doing everso well. Hope he keeps the job. Has he got himself a nice girl yet? Went to an American wedding with our Freddy last week! A feller from his works. Bride was a real Yank. We stayed on Delaware River, Trenton, New Jersey. Lovely ceremony. Freddy said she was up the junction but you couldnt tell. Lovely slim figure. Never touched her own cake! Our Freddy had plenty. Just as well. No currants in American cakes. I miss currants. Sorry we cant visit this year. I know its been forever. How is our Jan doing at school? Any boyfriend trouble? All that still to come I suspect. Hows weather? For us Saturday Fine and Dry. Sunday Wet and Windy.
Love Eunice & Freddy
Carol had read the tight chicken scrawl to Nedra first. Then reread it to herself. The postcard showed an aerial photo of a grey city river. More crime scene than wedding resort.
‘Lovely,’ Nedra said, stirring a pot. ‘Just lovely.’
‘It’s not even Stockport Viaduct,’ Carol said.
‘Doesn’t say.’ She gave it her to check.
Nedra went out, aproned, humming, to put it on the mantel altar with the rest.
Carol remembered Eunice as a fat, freckled girl of the sixties; smiley and inscrutable. A nail-chewed typist for a Jewish sewing firm in town with a week’s wardrobe of wallpaper-print blouses and suede skirts. A girl who told her own mam and dad and brother that she didn’t smoke, then showed Carol that she did without conspiracy. Eunice fled to Canada in ‘66, between Kelly’s birth and Jan’s, having eloped with this Freddy, a Protestant clerk from Heaton Chapel. They’d found that out in the post too. After that, Carol met her sister-in-law again, nine years later, when she flew back for the double funeral. Dodds women were only as good as their secrets. Freddy was fatter than Eunice. Silver tash, red sideburns. Carol suspected he was rich. Eunice had worn pink specs thicker than her mam’s reading pair. All through the Rite of Committal she whipped them off and on and off, weeping like the Italians in old films: with her whole body. Carol had wondered if it was relief. . .
Vern picked up Carol’s nightdress now and sniffed it. ‘Thought you hated blue?’
‘Our Sefton liked me in blue.’
‘He was right to.’ Vern hooped the shoulder straps over his stiff prick and hung the nightdress, then unlatched the window.
‘I wanted a different colour but it was all they had.’
‘You could change the colour yourself.’
‘Check the label.’
Vern rotated the nightdress like clock hands – from six thirty till midnight – to read the hem label by the window’s grey light. ‘We’ve been to the moon and we still can’t dye nylon or polyester.’
‘I haven’t been to the moon; have you?’ she said.
‘This is polyester?’
‘You should’ve been a woman,’ she said.
At the do earlier that evening to welcome her son home from Strangeways, a coloured lad from town, stocky, half her age, had said sweetly and confidently to her in her crowded kitchen: ‘How nice it would be fucking you.’ She’d taken his lit cigarette and walked him outside and given it back. The evening sunshine smelled of dope and wisteria and her flagstones and weeds and scrap of lawn were hidden by feet. There, off the step, they shared a bizarre moment of silent communication where he didn’t even undress her with his eyes but kept them on hers and when he broke it to finally smoke she saw the gorgeous young black girls nearest them posed with jealousy.
Carol had tripped on her own doorstep going in – and remembered: the accoutrements of jealousy. True jealousy. Colourless. Not male or female. But both reasonable and incommensurate – as in October ‘69, when her husband Sefton was freed from Strangeways on a Friday, swallowed the gossip with his mam’s cooking by evening, hunted the pubs and rallied his cause Saturday, and had a name and address by Sunday. He’d driven round on the morning with his dad, while her mam-in-law sang hymns in Saint Michael’s and confessed to not putting enough flour in the charity stall cakes. They rang Vern’s doorbell uninterrupted. They got poor Vern out of his bed. Sefton battered him to death on his own doorstep. Behind that shut greasy spoon. While Jim, her dad-in-law, dragged Carol back inside and perched her bare arsed on the cold radiator and shushed her with his savage yellow stare. A dog stare. Eating her. Vern’s bones breaking in their ears. Jimmy not hearing a thing but her. A sheer and animal auscultation. But the instant Sefton was done, or maybe not even done, just breathless or bored, Jimmy still knew because he patted her knee. Then Carol could lift herself off the radiator and put on her new dressing gown. Jim took her upstairs and packed her bags while she got her young son up and fed and her Sefton brought in the body. She rinsed the teeth and gore off the step with Vern’s sink bucket, then put on Sefton’s favourite frock. Her oldest frock. Faded navy, white polka dots. Already then too tight in the waist.
By mid morning their son, Kelly, who was crying and seven and buckled into the back of Jim’s Triumph, goes: ‘Where’s Uncle Vern?’
Carol ducked in with him and blew his nose on her dress sleeve. ‘We’re going back to Daddy and Granddad.’
Now Vern was in her house, gently swaying his tackle in front of the nightstand, seeing his death play through her mind. His grin kept. He looked on her with absolute calm. ‘“Wolves are Things. Keen and ruthless. Strong, even if they are cowards.”’
‘Who wrote that?’ Carol said, ‘Shakespeare?’
‘Will have been a bloody bloke,’ she said.
Dead Vern got in her bed for another fuck. They were gentle and giggly and he couldn’t hurt her which hurt her and the love she felt for Vern was so strong still she had to squeeze him each night until her arms were tired, just to sleep.
Image © Jude Hill