SATURDAY IN THE 'SAC (a complete story)
This Saturday is different from the start: when we come to there's no Philip Schofield going on downstairs and no stream of hot water being used, no yells, no music, no arguments.
'The kids are out,' I say to Denise, 'how about coffee in bed?' I don't say breakfast, neither of us eat it. Coffee and a fag. 'I'll bring an ashtray up.'
'The shopping,' she calls. 'We've done it,' I shout from the stairs. Housework, gardening, fixing the bathroom, shovelling the catshit from our entry. Always something, but she's saying yes more these days and when I get back her face is warm from sleep still. We sit there legs out in front of us talking of our childhoods. I spent mine here in 'Oxford Place, Cul-de-Sac' - I say it like I used to as a child, when I'd reel off the full address, ending with 'the Universe'. Dee's was spent a mile or two away. Two weekend sounds recall her childhood - the bells of three churches competing, and the Saturday market at 6 p.m.: the stacking of scaffolding, tarpaulin into the backs of vans. We haven't done this for so long, chatted like this, all kids and favourite TV programmes you can't miss, so I'm wondering how it will turn out. I can feel her soften with nostalgia as we talk and I reach out from our pasts to her breast and she moves so my hand slips further and further down.
So Saturday begins. There's nothing on this weekend besides a trip to Denise's mother, Sunday. The pull-out table and place mats with old cars on them. The home-made pineapple cake for afters which I will say is 'deli-lish-us', a word stumble I made twenty-odd years ago at my first meal in that house. The kids bored. Her dad and I might slip out to the pub, walking through street still full of bells. But Saturday looked like gardening, sunbathing - hopefully - with a can or two, checking the pools. Later a film with - how do you pronounce it - Cherie Lunghi in it. When the kids do return noisy as ever we are up singing ' She was just seventeen, you know what I mean', but soon TV, music upstairs and Louise's friends coming by drive me out into the garden. The usual Saturday in the weak sun or else real cold that passes for summer. The usual: cutting brambles, considering how Dee's warm bra-marked flesh would feel through the creased pair of gardening gloves and wondering whether she would object to me finding out. Gagging as I shovel up catshit and bury it while the sun slips higher and burns away cloud. Leaning on the fence talking to Brian, he still wearing an anorak with 'Fat Willy' on the back. He's recently out of a job, and putting on a brave face - a throat laugh that goes on too long, a grin that stays, as when his wife upped and left taking the kids with her and people who didn't know called 'All right Brian!'
He tells me old Barry Moore's house (Lionel to us kids) has been boarded up, padlocked and grilled ( I picture a slice of house in a toaster). Christ didn't I hear the council making that racket this morning? Working on a Saturday, must think we're bad. Kids - not Louise or Blake he adds quickly - are already there, spraying and smashing. I'll give 'em child abuse. Brian getting warm enough to unzip.
Then on this Saturday when everything seems to happen, music beginning to blow from every open window - Blake's - a seagull drops into Brian's pond and stabs out the goldfish one by one. Bloated, it falls in. A seagull with indigestion in a 2' by 2' pond, no response to my neighbour's shouts and hand claps. 'I wouldn't mind,' Brian says, 'but we're nowhere near the fucking sea.'
And what's this my daughter's saying to me an hour later, make up looking weird, saying to me of her friend, 'She earns £200 a week on them chat line things and what do I get: £7 a day on stupid Community Industry.'
Seven Pounds a week was my first wage and I know this can't be right thirty years later and think nothing much is right thirty years later although we all thought it would be. I feel for her - her hair making her look like something left out in the wind, but 'Those things aren't right,' I say. 'Anyway you're only sixteen.'
'She's seventeen, but she passes for older,' she says as if this makes a difference, ' I don't look it do I?'
She wears a black and white mini which reminds me of the sixties, reminds me of Denise, but Lou's thinner. I thought at one time 'anorexic' but she - and Denise - assure me she isn't.
I go in after that to Blake's gatling-gun rap music - at his age.
The rest of the day comes blue, bluer, bluest as the temperature rises. It's maybe the first of many such days, or more likely a one-off. All day I'm in and out of the house, getting out of it in the cooler front room looking out of the bay at the sky, blue fingers dipping down among the houses. The city centre like a fortress in a haze away to the left.
The houses round here have that grey pebbledash which cracks and falls off in slices. Stub of lawn at the front, longer at the back. Not as bad as some places - a towerblock, say - but ageing is always a problem. Not as bad as Brian makes out, I always thought, but it's looking worse than I've ever seen it in the glare of light. They used to cut the grass in the middle, place to play games in my youth, but now it's overgrown with thistles, mounds of rubbish appearing and earth and grass and flowering weeds. Young kids like tunneling in it. Today one kid runs round and round the green, now precariuosly on the kerb, now off. Alexandra Stadium to him. The kids all wear baseball caps these days, American slang - Blake. (And very young girls get their hair permed - Louise.) 'Look,' I say to him when he appears slack-clothed from his music-drenched room, ' why don't you go out on a day like this? Or help in the garden?' He goes out.
When I look out later I see he's only got as far as the boarded-up house. The end one at the neck, the exit/entrance to the cul-de-sac, a bit bigger than the others, an extra bedroom and a side garden with a tree. Denise used to go by saying 'Covet, covet.' For as long as I remember it was occupied only by Barry Moore, who'd always looked the same to me: huge black eyebrows and hanks of grey hair either side of a small head (though in forty years his appearance must have changed.) Lately he'd taken to stopping me and muttering some stuff about a football team I used to play in. It was a daily ritual, always on my way home from work, my gate in sight and with weariness instead of blood circulating in me I'd nod him on, nod him on. I was some link to his past: we were the two remaining original occupants of 'Oxford Place, Cul-de-Sac'. Then, last week, he died.
I walk down the outdoors for some cans, but more to see what's going on around that house (there's graffiti already on one boarded up window - I LOVE MYSELF), and to have a glance at Blake. His gang are chucking stones into the middle of the green where somebody has made a little sculpture of bricks, tins and lino. At least there are no glue bags in sight. 'Pack it in,' I shout at them to no effect, although Blake stops. He nods at me like some distant acquaintance. I remember practising with a ball out on the green when they used to cut it, trying to teach him to kick with both feet. That was my trouble - I got into the school team, left midfield, but couldn't progress because I was too one-footed.
To the outdoors, looking forward to the beer, having cans in the fridge for later; Denise'll have one with me. The sunglasses of the Marlboro ad reflect a landscape not of the flyover that rises in the air above our heads, but of somewhere hotter. Desert. That outcrop of rocks Indians always hide behind.
Coming back there's a jagged hole in the empty house door. Axed through by the look, padlock still holding the frame in place. There's a boy in the tree, breaking off twigs and small branches and throwing them down. I don't recognise him. No sign of Blake.
Out the back with the beer and a lie in the sun with the newspaper. Sounds from the 'Sac echoing down our entry and the occasional squawks from the fat seagull next door send me into a snooze over next week's TV. I'm woken by Denise saying the Australian results are on and I should check them. She's pulled out a deck chair and has on a bikini top and shorts. I wonder how long she's been there, and touch her neck to see how warm she is.
'Louise phoned. She's staying with 'Lex.' Alex? Isn't that the name of the friend she told me about in the garden, the one who speaks dirt down the phone? I can't help imagining what she might say. But Denise says at least she phoned, and I feel relieved it isn't worse news - I am pregnant, or I have AIDS.
Marian draws up in a K-reg car, on her way somewhere. Dressed up to show off to Denise and Louise (the two eeses, she calls them). She worries about the car, she wonders how we can live here, why don't we move now both of us are earning? Of course we've thought about it and might still, have to see how secure these jobs are. 'It's not that bad,' I say. She asks is something going on because half the street's milling about outside.
Then she settles into some office gossip, they both work at police headquarters in the city. 'Anita says, "I suppose you don't get that problem do you, at your age, the uniformed men eyeing you up." The cheek of it.' I see the two turn and wrap themselves in slanderous conversation.
I look out for Blake. Three sets of music come from around the 'Sac. Older men in unbuttoned shirts lounge on someone's step in the sun. After Marian goes we have a laugh, but Dee is thinking life can be good for a divorcee maybe and I need to touch her and see her eyes look at me square again. Of course when I sit next to her Blake drifts in.
'What's going on out there?'
Brian comes round too, should we call the police? Apparently they were round earlier. Brian says we should at least get Blake away, and although I think it will come to nothing, we decide it might be for the best. I ring my brother across the city and he says fine, Blake can stay. He will enjoy it, we think, thrashing his cousin at Sonic Hedgehog ('Sonic the Hedgehog,' he corrects me). But he's reluctant and we bribe him - Dee's idea - with a stop at the drive-in Macdonalds, not long open, and still of interest to him.
We drive round on the ring road to the big yellow M. I give our orders to the hatted girl behind the automatic window and moan to wife and son. 'America!'
'This used to be a cinema.' I say this every time we pass here, and say it now to tease Blake. Denise and I swap titles of films we'd seen when we were 'courting'. 'Barbarella.' 'Midnight Cowboy.' '2001.'
'Your mother was a film fanatic, we were the only couple that didn't snog.'
When we get the order we drive to the car park, eat our Big Macs and watch other cars come and go. It's still blue outside. I share a milkshake with Dee. We can't resist cigarettes. We, who love smoke curling from our mouths too much and forget about the smell and the stain and the lung damage. We'll reform, we'll stop, we'll do it we say - and the years pass.
'Open the window then.' Blake disgusted.
We drop him off all right and drive back feeling light. 'Shall I stop for some more cans?' I say. Which we do.
Then, when we're nearing a lane I know, that loops down behind a garage and ends at the canal, I say 'do you want to park up?' Denise laughs - it was what was said after those cinema nights when, still discussing the film, she'd give me what I missed in those back rows and more. We sit silent for a while at this unexpectedness, and then re-live a long ago night with its early slow caress, and fiddling with clothes. She ends up on top, not moving much, jammed on to me, head bent with the roof. We swap teenage giggles, hold each other steady. When I've come I notice her eyes look down on me and wonder if she's seeing all the days since that first time in the car - and what she makes of it all. Us.
We come apart slowly, in stages. We're happy as we rejoin the road. But blue light and sirens, a fire engine and police riot vans, force us to park up again. And when we get moving a helicopter comes steadily above - with a searchlight making shop fronts brilliant. It swings over the rooftops. We turn off and there is the rocking machine, balanced at an angle on its cone of light, above our corner.
The police are erecting a barrier and say we can't get in the 'Sac now. Overturned cars are across the entrance, I recognise Brian's. I look out at bands of policemen, shields resting on the vans, milling amongst the vehicles.
'What will you do?' Denise asks across me, she knows the policeman from work.
'Take it easy, see what happens.'
He won't tell us much about what's happening in there, just keeps advising us to go elsewhere. We drive off but decide to circle round and come into the estate another way. Denise reckons Pat will let us through her back garden - if the police aren't there - and we can get into Brian's and then our own.
Pat thinks we're mad to go back - 'Stay here the night!' We hurry through the gardens and although its not yet quite dark I misjudge a jump and get a sogger in Brian's empty pool. No sign of him.
When we get into our place I see the Cherie Lunghi film finishing - we've left the television on. My insides are sliding as we go to the front window and stand side by side to watch what is outside.
A whole industry going on out there, people buzzing around Barry Moore's house. Not only kids as you might think, but the adults who've finally had enough of waiting for the break, of keeping themselves and their kids occupied, and now organise them in the dismantling of the house.
People carry out doors, chopped-up stairs in bundles, window frames and skirting boards. They throw them on the fire on the green, half the size of a house, and boosted by unwanted furniture, fences, the tree in lengths and set fire to with syphoned petrol probably from the overturned cars. Flame bearing heat to every surrounding window shoots up. This on a day still hot and light pouring down from a helicopter. A cheer goes up as the helicopter moves up and across out of the way of a high reaching flame. That's done it, I think, the police will pile in now. I'm wondering what to do and notice something familiar on the TV screen. 'Look,' I say to Denise. I'm seeing what I never thought I would see. Live TV pictures from our corner.
Originally published in Malahat Review in 1993, and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 the same year this story opens my collection 'Taking Doreen out of the Sky'.