It wasn’t squeamishness on my part. I was well-used to the idea that my father now slept with women who weren’t my mother. But to his credit he had always kept his new single life safely to himself, and my memories of him as a sexless, inconsequential loner were allowed to survive mostly intact. So when a strange female voice called me from his house, the feeling I had was more of a gentle fracturing, a crack spreading across the polished pane of my immunity.
I was at a party my friend Altaf had thrown against the will of his girlfriend Gemma, who had just published a chapbook of poems with a local small press. We were on their tiny roof garden, facing west over London. A summer evening with music. I had to strain to hear the call.
‘This is Richard?’
‘You’re Richard.’ Her voice was firm, rehearsed. ‘My name’s Lena. Do you know who I am?’ I heard the ghost of an accent – Scandinavian? German? – in the upswing at the end of her name. Len-ah.
I told her I didn’t know anyone called Lena.
‘Well, I’m a friend of your father’s and I’m very worried about him,’ she said. ‘He and I live together, do you understand? We live together, but he hasn’t been here, back to the house, for more than a week, Richard. I want to ask you if you’ve heard from him.’
I was lying in a deckchair under a pergola strung with pink fairy lights that muted the glow of the city beyond the roof. The sky was a bright pale orange and the sad little squares of light from still-active offices made the skyscrapers, in silhouette, look like bombed-out ruins that the sun shone through. I didn’t speak.
‘I’m sorry, Richard,’ she said, her voice losing its composure slightly. ‘I know I’m calling you out of nowhere and we’ve never spoken before and you think there’s not a reason to speak to me now, but I’d say this is urgent. Your dad – helps me – in lots of ways; I need him here. Please.’
‘He was down here about a week ago,’ I said. ‘I haven’t heard from him since.’
I was surprised at how easily she’d gotten me to give this information out, so I overcompensated by hanging up before she could ask me anything else. For a few seconds I felt guilty, which made me indignant. The sun was now all the way down.
A girl from the publisher – a friend of Gemma’s, who’d given me something chalky and yellow to swallow earlier in the night – appeared proffering beer.
‘And how are you feeling?’ she asked.
‘I’m okay. Weird phone call just now’
‘I guess my dad’s girlfriend? Or the woman he lives with anyway. She says he’s disappeared.’
The girl swallowed the rest of her drink and pulled me out of the chair onto an empty part of the roof that had – by mutual, silent consensus – become a dance floor.
‘Okay, Rich, here’s what we’ll do,’ she said. ‘I promise we’ll talk about that properly tomorrow. And now you promise not to think about it anymore tonight. It’s a party and I want everyone to have a good time.’ She squeezed my hand and kissed me hard on my cheek, close to the eye. Tomorrow. We started dancing.
‘My name’s Cate by the way.’
I did stop thinking about it. I stopped thinking about anything and danced. The pink lights were floating down from the bare rafters like moths. The fluorescent squares of the office windows were stacking up in patterns in my head. The whole city was calmly fading to white.
I had told Lena the truth; my father had, to my astonishment, been in town a week earlier.
He had an exile’s hatred of London, and hated every other English city for living in its shade. In the five years since I’d moved down he’d visited just once for a hot and noisy weekend that had ended with us rushing him to the station a full three hours before his train was due.
His most recent visit had been different. He’d called me from a payphone in King’s Cross station (he hated mobiles too) and invited me to join him at a pub he remembered nearby. When I got there, he was sitting by the window, looking very bald in a rhombus of slanting sunlight. We embraced.
‘God, this place is different. They used to pass round a collection tin for the IRA in here,’ he said happily. Then, turning his intense smile on me, he asked how long it had been since we’d seen each other face-to-face.
‘I can’t remember,’ I said. It had been eighteen and a half months. I’d schlepped out to his house on Boxing Day to give him a bottle of scotch and we’d eaten frozen pizzas in front of the TV.
‘Long enough anyway,’ he said. ‘And this is going to have to be a short visit – another train to catch. Let’s have some lunch.’
‘Well, okay, but–’
‘I know, I know,’ he said. When he stopped smiling, his features slid measurably down his face. ‘I’m seeing an old friend, down on the south coast, all very last minute. I didn’t have time to call you. Look, I didn’t even pack anything.’
He waited for me to glance under the table to confirm the absence of a bag.
‘Now,’ he said, getting up, ‘we’ve got some sandwiches already ordered and on their way, I’ll get a round in and it’ll be a nice time.’
The table was strewn with the coffee-stained wreckage of a weekend newspaper and a small fan of train tickets, which I picked up and started to shuffle through. He’d worked his way down the country on slow trains with weird changes, towns I’d never heard of. The last ticket, however, went direct from London to Penzance and the train left in half an hour.
‘You can have the rest of that paper,’ he said, setting down two headless pints.
‘Dad you’ve got to go, look at the time.’
‘And you’re going to Penzance? That’s, what, a five-hour journey?’
‘Five and a half,’ he said proudly, scooping the tickets into his pocket. ‘I suppose we’ll have to do this better next time, won’t we? But look, you get two chicken clubs and two drinks, and–,’ fishing in his pocket, ‘–twenty quid from your dear old dad.’
He hugged me through my protests, and then he was gone. The food, when it arrived, was terrible.
Cate, who had been snorting into her coffee during my story, now put her cup on the floor and wrapped herself around me again. It was too hot for sheets or clothes and our skin stuck together eagerly wherever we touched. The room was sun-bleached and salty, like an empty beach.
‘This is nice,’ she said. The inside of her thigh was still damp and slippery where it crossed my hip and I started to pull gently on her calf until she smiled and slid on top of me. ‘Don’t you want to talk anymore?’
‘We’ve been talking,’ I said, tracing a finger down her breastbone.
‘Don’t you want to talk about what happened next?’
‘I don’t know what happened next,’ I grumbled. ‘I mean, fucking hell, I’d rather not know what’s been going on between them. And if he was in any trouble that I could help with, he could call me. He does call me now and then.’
‘Alright, well, I’ve fulfilled my promise. Now I need to talk about something else.’ She held my hands still on the tops of her buttocks. ‘That stuff I gave you last night, did you like it?’
The visuals had died down after a while but the high had been clean and sustained. I remembered dancing with Cate and Altaf and Gemma, and then Gemma reading from her book amid a palpable tide of love and appreciation from her guests. There’d been much kissing and hugging and promises to call when Cate and I had left, and when we’d arrived back at my flat we’d fucked fiercely for what felt like a long time. I’d woken up clear-headed, with a normal pulse, feeling, more than anything else, healthy.
‘So, you’d do it again?’ she said seriously. She was examining me closely, like she had the night before when she’d given me the stuff.
‘Shit,’ I said, unwittingly shrill. ‘Are you dealing?’
She rolled off me with a sigh and climbed the three steps into the bathroom.
‘No, Richard,’ she said over her shoulder, ‘I eat and pay the rent with all the money I make printing poetry books.’
She closed the door and I heard the shower spit into life.
I lay a while, staring after her and trying to think of a way to dispel the impression I’d just created of myself as prim and naïve. Maybe I could barge in there and bend her over against the wall and–
‘Towels?’ she called.
‘Big drawer under the sink.’
I lay on the bed.
When she was finished she got dressed quickly. The weekend, naturally I supposed, was a busy time for her, but before she left she told me about a friend’s band who were playing the following night. She’d kissed me on the forehead and said I should come. I pulled at her t-shirt and kissed her on the mouth. She said she had to go.
I had expected I would become a journalist after university, but had taken a job writing product overviews for a directory company. I worked from my flat and picked my own hours and if anyone asked I told them I was a freelance copywriter.
I was sitting up late, writing about industrial air compressors, when Lena called again. The comedown from the night before was setting in, and I was drafting and editing the jokes I would make about it when I saw Cate. I had a shining headache and a giddy, plunging feeling in my stomach that I thought could just have been excitement. When the phone rang I snatched it up straight away.
‘Richard, are you busy?’ Her voice was looser now, less controlled, and the accent came through more strongly. I guessed she’d been drinking.
‘Isn’t it Saturday?’
‘For another twenty minutes it’s Saturday, yes.’
I decided that whatever she said I wouldn’t hang up this time. I could handle her. If necessary I could deliver a few withering words to shut her out for good.
‘You are writing, I think. He calls you Our Southern Correspondent. Do you know what he calls me?’
She laughed. ‘Very good, but wrong. He calls me The Import, like a car.’ I heard ice cubes rattle and a little satisfied sigh. ‘This is probably not late for you, not in London. Yesterday I heard music–’
‘Yesterday you interrupted a party.’
‘And didn’t I apologise?’ she barked. ‘And didn’t I explain that it was serious? Oh, he told me you were like this, that you were a difficult boy. He keeps you here on speed dial, number four, but says you don’t talk because he can’t please you.’
I breathed. ‘He called me though. We had lunch together.’
‘Yes, I suppose you did,’ she said, her voice evaporating. I pictured the little terraced house, modest from the street but with views down the valley from the back porch, every room stuffed with books, the upright piano, the collapsing grey sofa. I saw the shape of an old woman on the hall phone, lit weakly from behind, slumping her shoulders.
‘Didn’t he leave a note? Something?’
‘It would do no good, I think.’
‘I’m going blind, Richard’ she said flatly. ‘Do you think I would call my lover’s son if I could read a note? Do you think I would even be here anymore, in this house? I’m not a girl, I would not humiliate myself like this, pressing buttons in the dark, speaking to your father’s dentist, if I could still see my hand in front of my face.’
We were silent for a while. The ice cubes rattled on the line. I read the first sentence of my article over and could make no sense of it, like a book in a dream.
‘In the summer we sit in the garden in the evenings, you know the wicker seat? We share a bottle of wine and he talks to me about the light in the valley, the sun going down. I close my eyes, and pretend I’m just closing my eyes.’
I lost count how many times I threw up that night. Whenever I tried to lie down new waves of nausea crashed over me and sent me reeling back to the bathroom. Pain strobed behind my eyes when I retched and left behind blooms of throbbing neon that swerved across my vision so violently they made me dizzy and sick all over again. The tiny window was grey with morning light when the last of the spasms passed, and the room stayed still when I closed my eyes.
I woke up on the rug by the shower at five in the afternoon. While I was asleep, my body had redistributed the sickly jabbing feeling from my stomach into the muscles across my back and arms, and I trembled with the effort of pulling myself upright and into the shower. Cold pain still radiated inside my head. I was due to meet Cate in two hours.
I decided to walk along the canal, thinking it would be cooler and quieter than the street, but it was clogged with bikes and pugs, and pedestrians were forced into a single-file trudge along the extremes of the path. I had the same desperate, exhausted feeling I used to get when my father would take me for long walks by the river behind his house. Any time spent out of the city when I was a sixteen was a cruel deprivation, but it seemed to me that his motives for dragging us out on those slow, mostly silent afternoons came from a place inside of him that was utterly alien and perverse. The outings were of a piece with his decision to move out of the family home, to leave teaching for a job in a garden centre, to whitewash himself out of his own life.
Eventually the path broadened into the entrance to a park, and I hurried through whorls of barbeque smoke to the pub. Moving from the street into the dark of the barroom, I felt my pupils ratcheting open painfully.
She was standing with a man who carried a guitar case high on his back. They were in the middle of the bar crush, but looked perfectly insulated from it. She was holding his forearm and looking intently at him. I watched her lips form, unmistakably, the words ‘I promise’.
Eventually she broke away and began a complicated circuit of the room, speaking first to a tattooed girl lugging drums onto the little stage, then to a group of older men who sat tightly around a table full of empty glasses, then on again. She gave everyone she talked to an immense hug.
‘Cate,’ I called as she was passing my end of the bar.
She spun to face me and planted her feet squarely, with false gravitas. ‘Richard.’
I took a step towards her but she didn’t move, and I realised then that there was no going near her anymore. I thought of myself in bed the previous morning, grasping after her and pulling her down to me like a drowning man.
‘Hi, Cate,’ I said. ‘Uh, are you – selling?’
We went out into the garden and she lit cigarettes for appearances. Then she fished a tiny baggy out of her sock and slid it into my hand.
‘That’s thirty,’ she said, and I handed the money over without saying anything. I wanted to tell her that the stuff was poison, that she was going to end up killing someone.
‘What should I call this?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know. They bring it in from Europe somewhere, so it’s got this weird name,’ she said. ‘They’ll probably just make something up, something sparkly, y’know –’ she held up a fist and flicked her fingers out a few times to simulate a pulse of light ‘– that’s what everyone says.’
‘You’ve not tried it?’
‘What? No, I’m not a fucking idiot.’ She stood up and smudged out her cigarette. She was looking back into the pub. The band was tuning up.
‘She called again,’ I said. ‘Lena. She called last night when I was working.’
‘The woman, the one who called me.’
‘The woman who called you called you? Well, that’s hard to argue with.’ She started across the garden. ‘Call Gemma if you want any more, she’ll pass it on.’
Back in the park the sunset was so advanced that it was hard to find a spot that wasn’t smothered in the elongated shade of the trees. The last of the picnickers were breaking camp, balancing their rubbish on the overflowing bins. It was Sunday night after all; the edge of the coming week was there among the shadows.
But not for me. I sat on a log by the boating lake and slid open the baggy and shook its contents out onto my tongue.
The sky in the water was wide and naked and very pink.
I called my father’s house. The voice on the line sounded sleepy.
‘Close your eyes,’ I said. ‘I’m going to tell you what I can see.’
RICHARD WOOLLEY was born in 1985 and grew up in Doncaster. He lives in London with his children and works as a legal journalist. He has previously published one very short story online at The Pygmy Giant.