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issue 19: july - august 2000 

spanish translation | author's bio

These Lovers
by James Meek

 

Gordon's son Kenneth was coming round for dinner with his new girlfriend. The bell rang at eight. Gordon went to get it. He had a glass of Grouse with ice in his hand. He was wearing white slacks and a scarlet v-neck with a white poloneck underneath. He opened the door and Kenneth and the girl were there.
      Fucking hell, said Gordon.
      Eh? said Kenneth.
      Good to meet you, said Gordon, stretching his hand towards the girl.
      Did you swear just now? said Kenneth, standing there in a purple linen suit and green silk shirt buttoned up to the neck.
      Good to see you, said Gordon.
      Hi, said the girl, grinning. She was -You jammy bastard, his own son. His own flesh and blood. Was there not a law, if your own son had a woman in his legal father's house and his legal father lawfully wanted to take her upstairs. Those legs, the black dress, the breasts on her, it was unfair, it was so unfair after all these years. The boy had no right.
      This is Julie, said Kenneth.
      Hi, said Julie, grinning and bending her head forward a bit. She was tall!
      How old, said Gordon, and took a shot of the whisky, not taking his eyes off Julie, his hand still somewhere out there in her direction.
      What's old? said Kenneth.
      How old is it. How old it is, said Gordon, looking at him and frowning. Come in.
      Have you been on that stuff all afternoon? Kenneth was nudging his dad back down the hall and Gordon was trying to stay where he was, letting his son go on in so's to be able to touch Julie. Kenneth shuffled round and eased Julie in, keeping his body between her and Gordon, so for a moment the three of them were wedged in to the hall together. Julie giggled and jumped for freedom. Stiletto heels! No, no, no. He'd given birth to a monster.
      Mary appeared in the hall. Julie! she said in a long low voice with a grin fixed to her face, chin tucked into her chest, fingers locked together, earrings trembling.
      Mrs Stanefield.
      Mary. Julie!
      Mary clamped her hands on Julie's shoulders and touched cheeks. Julie. Mmuh! Mary shook her and held her stiff at arm's length, staring and grinning like she was miming the Snow Queen at the mirror.
      You must be frozen in that dress, Julie, said Mary. My goodness Kenneth's a lucky man, eh Gordon.
      Aye.
      What's wrong with you? Come on and get the young ones a drink. Where was it Kenneth said you were from, Julie?
      Darlington.
      Darlington! The north of England. It's not so grey and industrial now, is it.
      They went into the lounge and sat down in separate puce leather suite items. Gordon went for the big settee but Julie sat by herself in an armchair. By God that boy of his had her on a short leash. There was a law. The right of seniority, it was called. It'd be to be found in the library.
      Drinks, said Mary.
      Ah come on Smithie.
      Mary got up, leaned over close to Gordon and murmured in his ear. If you call me that one more time in front of your future daughter in law I swear I'll have you committed. Get the drinks. She whiplashed back, locked her nails together and smiled at Julie.
      There were two ways Gordon could deal with the situation. One was to shoot off to his local, lean against the bar, ask for a pint of the usual, shake his head at Jimmy the barman and say These lovers, eh. Only he'd never had a local. There was only the golf club and it was a different young lad behind the bar each time. They didn't get lassies any more. He didn't have a usual either. He liked trying the different German lager beers.
      Mary had a gin and tonic. Kenneth had a Perrier because he was driving. Julie had a glass of white wine. Gordon sank down into the settee, leaned forward with a squeak of his slacks against the leather, took a drink of Grouse and feasted in silence on Julie's thighs.
      I'm dying to know how you two met, said Mary.
      It was the conference centre, you know, Mum, said Kenneth, looking down into the bubbles. We're both on long-term contracts now. It was environmental consultants.
      No Kenny, it was fast food franchises.
      It was environmental consultants, Jul. Not remember that guy who got electrocuted by the model rainforest.
      It was fast food franchises, Mrs Stanefield, said Julie. I remember cause they had their own catering, tacos and root beer and buffalo wings and stuff The environmental consultants had a bulk order of Liebfraumilch.
      That's one of the German lager beers, said Gordon.
      It's wine, said Mary.
      It's beer.
      It is wine, Dad, said Kenneth. It is German, though. The name means young girl's milk.
      There was silence for a time.
      Where'd you leave you car? said Gordon.
      In the street outside the house.
      It won't be safe there. Folk've had their tyres slashed.
      This is a neighbourhood watch area, isn't it? All these bungalows with burglar alarms on them.
      That's just what attracts them.
      How come you've got one then?
      And there's joyriders.
      They'll not get much joy out of a 1.3 litre Vectra, said Kenneth. Different next month when I get the Puma, eh Jul. Out on the old autobahn.
      Maybe you should take it up into the drive if it's not safe, said Julie, turning to look at him and fidgeting with her wineglass. She glanced at Gordon, crossed her legs and stretched the hem of her skirt towards her knees. She let it go and Gordon gazed at the elastic material as it crept back, millimetre by millimetre.
      It's the first thing I've heard about slashing, said Mary. You sometimes leave your car out there.
      I've not told your mother everything that goes on in this neck of the woods, said Gordon. He put his whisky down on the coffee table and got up. I'll just go and check everything's OK.
      I'll go myself, said Kenneth.
      Och, just relax. You've come a long way.
      What, from Barnton?
      Relax, said Gordon. He turned and smiled at Julie's thighs and went out of the lounge, closing the door. He went into the cupboard under the stairs and hauled out a cardboard box marked Windward Islands Bananas. He plunged in his hand and groped among the squirming nails and screws and hinges till he felt the fat smooth handle of the Stanley knife in his palm. He pulled it out and put it in his pocket. He took a hand drill off one of the shelves and went upstairs, stepping on the sides of the stairs so's the creaking ones wouldn't be heard. He went into Kenneth's old room and put the drill down on the carpet next to the skirting board on the wall going through to the guest bedroom. He went back downstairs and out into the night.
      What a grand smell that was, that November smell of burned leaves on a frosty night. He'd need to burn some leaves. He'd go down the garden centre tomorrow for a big bag of them, the proper autumn leaves. They had them by the shovelfull in big barrels. Serve yourself. He couldn't remember how you stopped them falling through the holes in the shopping trolley. His daughter in law! See even Mary understood the point of law. She understood things. That was the way it was with your pals. That November smell, mind how they used to buy a big box of fireworks when they were wee and the two of them. What was it they used to do. The Catherine wheel, what a racket it made, and so bright. Him and Smithie.
      He opened the gate and stepped out into the street. Kenneth's car was right there. He squatted down by the first wheel and slid the blade of the knife out by two notches. He put his left hand on the tyre and leaned on it to steady himself and pressed the point of the blade into the rubber. The blade bent and made no impression. Gordon sniffed, shifted his feet, wiped his nose with the back of his left hand and moved round so he was side-on to the wheel. He took hold of it again and drew the knife firmly towards him from the far side of the tyre, pulling and pressing in at the same time. The blade scored smoothly into the rubber and dived deep inside. Air sighed out into the night. He waddled over to the next wheel and did the same thing. The Cavalier settled comfortably down against the kerb. Fuck, there were some kids coming. Willman's sprogs, the specky ones.
      Look, that's Mr Stanefield slashing a man's tyres, said the older boy.
      Evening lads, said Gordon. Out late, eh.
      We've come from scouts, said the wee one.
      Scouts, eh, said Gordon. Was there not some child abuse scandal up there recently?
      What're you doing? said the elder boy.
      What, don't tell me your dad's never let you help him let the summer air out of his tyres? When it gets to winter, like now, you see, frosty, you have to let the warm air that's been gathering in there all spring and summer escape. Otherwise the tyres would just explode. Pfoo! Come on round here, you can give us a hand. Come on.
      They went round together to the other side of the car. Scrunty little spies that they were, everyone was out to betray you in this street.
      He held the knife out to them. The wee one snatched it from him and his brother fought him for it and won.
      Here! That's enough now, said Gordon. There's a tyre each, you can both have a shot. And mind that knife, it's not a toy. Come on down here. They squatted down together.
      Watch your breeks, said Gordon. I don't want your father on at me for ruining your trousers. And don't be too long or you'll catch your death. He took the boy's small cold hand in his own, eased the blade out, guided it onto the rubber and began the cut. Gordon let go, stood up and watched him digging away. They were good lads.
      I'm away inside, he said. Bring the knife back when you've finished. Don't be too long and mind and give your wee brother a go.
      Gordon returned to the lounge. Mary was talking. She stopped and they all looked up at him.
      Looks like you'll have to spend the night here, said Gordon. They're out there now, slashing your tyres. He sat down and took a sip of Grouse.
      Eh? The fuck they are, said Kenneth. He jumped up and went to the bay window. He pulled the gold velvet-effect curtains aside a few inches and pressed his face against the double glazing.
      You'll not see anything from there, said Gordon. There's the hedge.
      I'm calling the police, said Mary, getting up.
      Kenneth stood looking out for a bit. He turned round and undid the top button of his shirt. I'll sort them out, he said, taking off his jacket, folding it carefully and laying it on the back of a chair. Julie got up and took it from him.
      Let the police handle it, Kenny, she said. Have you got a hanger for this? she asked Gordon.
      Gordon got up and moved towards her. Come on upstairs, there's a wardrobe free, he said.
      Kenneth moved between them. How many of them are there? he said to Gordon.
      Couple. Local youths, I think.
      Fuck's sake, bungalow psychos, they're the worst.
      They had identical jumpers on and they were wearing these kerchiefs.
      Jesus, radge casual bastards in gang colours. Have to put the old thinking cap on here. Don't want to go piling in too soon.
      The doorbell went.
      That'll be them, said Gordon.
      Oh my God, said Julie. She grabbed Kenneth's forearm. Gordon knocked back the whisky sharply and stared at her fingers pressed into his son's flesh. It'd been different in the old days, when you'd had the power of life and death over your kids. If you didn't like your son, or he was being a pain in the arse, they'd take him away. There was a bit of paperwork and you were free. Smithie'd never had kids. Only Smithie was still around, was he not? Ach, he was married to her. So what was Kenneth all about, eh, turning up on your doorstep and nabbing all the lassies? There were things it was hard to tie together. The autumn leaves and the shopping trolleys, for one.
      Don't answer it, Kenny, said Julie. They'll leave. The police'll come.
      How old would you say they were? said Kenneth.
      One was about 12, the other was a wee bit younger, said Gordon. Are you OK? You've an awful sweat on you.
      12, said Kenneth, nodding, and began inhaling and exhaling deeply. 12. 12. He raised his forearms, clenched his fists, closed and opened his eyes, ran out of the lounge and down the hall and pulled the front door open. Gordon was reaching out to take hold of Julie's bare shoulders when Mary came back in and said the police were on their way.
      They heard children screaming and Kenneth shouting from the front door. Oh God, said Julie, putting her hand over her mouth and looking at Gordon and Mary. The sounds moved outside for a few seconds, then the door slammed and Kenneth tramped back into the lounge, grinning and wiping his troubles off the palms of his hands.
      What a fright you gave us, said Mary, hand on chest. Daft laddie. Did you give them a battering?
      Julie went and hugged him and stepped back, looking at him, holding her throat with one hand, stroking him with the other, biting her lip.
      Don't think they'll be coming down this street again in a hurry, said Kenneth. He reached into his trouser pocket and took out the Stanley knife. That's a handy piece of equipment, eh.
      Julie put her hand on her mouth and invoked God again. Gordon took the knife from him. Kenneth's hand was shaking. Gordon wiped the knife carefully with a paper napkin and gave it back to Kenneth.
      Here, he said. Souvenir for you. Kenneth grinned and put it back in his pocket.
      Might as well have something stronger than water, eh, said Gordon, pouring him a big tumbler of Grouse and handing it over.
      Might as well, said Kenneth. He sat down and Julie clung to him.
      Is that blood on your hand? said Julie.
      Kenneth looked at his knuckles. Ah, must've been where I hit the boy's glasses.
      What if he was HIV? said Julie, moving so there was haff an inch of air between her and Kenneth all the way down.
      It's my blood, said Kenneth. I'm not sure they were old enough. I mean of course they were old enough but they didn't look like poofs or junkies is what I mean. But the
      menace of them, Jul, the sheer menace. You know you see it on the videos when they come for someone that's defenceless and they enjoy it, don't they, they drag it out and they taunt him cause they know he can't get away. I opened the door and there's this boy with specs - they weren't real specs, you understand that, they just wear them with plain glass in, it's a fashion - and he's holding out the knife towards me and he says Finished. Like that. Finished. It was a kind of low voice, low and soft at the same time. Low and soft and like cold.
      You'd best all come and get your dinner, said Mary.
      They went through to the dining room and ate smoked salmon. Mary cleared the plates away and brought out a casserole and the police came. Gordon went to the door. It was two constables, a man and a woman. He invited them through to the lounge.
      We were just having dinner, he said.
      Your wife called us, said the man constable.
      You must know my brother Bruce, said Gordon. Bruce Stanefield. He's CID.
      It's all under investigation, said the woman constable. We can't say anything just now. I'm sure he'll be back at work soon enough.
      He's on full pay while he's suspended, said Gordon.
      I never knew him personally, said the man.
      I wondered whether maybe the lads were getting together some kind of support fund for his family while he's suspended, said Gordon. I'd like to contribute. He pulled a folded 50-pound note out of his pocket and held it in the air between the three of them. Nobody said anything for a bit.
      Kind of support fund, said Gordon again.
      We're from the uniform branch, said the man. You should
      go to plain clothes directly. He glanced at the woman. Right Wendy?
      Aye. You're best going to them, Mr Stanefield. See we're not supposed to carry messages from the general public. I know the DI's your brother and that but there's all sorts of rules about us taking money, eh Lindsay.
      Fair enough then, said Gordon, putting the note away. Was it my son you were wanting to see? It was his car got its tyres slashed.
      Aye. Aye, said Lindsay. Only we got another call from your neighbours up the road, the Willmans, saying your son beat up their kids. They came home with their faces all bruised. And the kids say it was you that slashed the tyres.
      It's awful cold out tonight. I'm not a young man. I'm a pensioner. Where's the motive, eh, son? Where's my motive?
      You understand we had to ask, Mr Stanefield, said Wendy.
      You know the things kids'll say.
      Och yes but we had to ask, said Lindsay.
      That's OK, said Gordon. I went out to check my son's car was OK and I saw these two shadowy figures slashing the tyres and I went back inside.
      Could you give us a description?
      No. They were like I said shadowy. But I remember there was this strong smell of burning leaves.
      You don't think your son'd mind popping down to the station with us for a chat?
      It's not the best time but what can you do? I'll go and fetch him.
      He's never been known to be violent, has he? Aggressive?
      Kenneth? Our Kenneth? Aggressive? The boy couldn't punch his way out of a meringue cake.
      Right.
      That's maybe why he carries a knife in his pocket. Selfdefence, I suppose.
      A hunting knife?
      No, nothing like that. One of those DIY tools, what's it called, a Henley knife. I mean when you've had a bit to drink like he has tonight you can lower your guard maybe and then you need some extra protection, right.
      The constables stood up and put their hats on. If you'd just fetch him, said Lindsay.
      Gordon went back to the dinner table. They want you to nip down the station with them, he said to Kenneth.
      You what? I just about got fucking killed back there.
      Language, Kenneth, said Mary.
      I can't help it, Mum, you know that, when I feel strongly about something. I haven't even started on the casserole. They should be out chasing the psychopaths that slashed my tyres.
      They'll be wanting a statement, I suppose, said Mary. You remember how your uncle Bruce used to operate.
      Christ if Uncle Bruce had anything to do with it I'd need a crash helmet before I went down there.
      That's no way to speak about your uncle. He's twice the brains his brother has and it's not his fault about the alkie.
      Can I go with him? said Julie.
      Best not, said Gordon. They'll bring him back soon enough.
      I'm not budging, said Kenneth.
      Don't worry, we'll look after Julie, said Gordon. You'd both best spend the night here, you can have the spare room.
      Maybe they could interview you here, said Mary.
I'm not going anywhere, said Kenneth. He started cutting up a piece of meat on his plate.
      They'd think you were hiding something if you didn't go, said Gordon. That's what J'd think.
      It's really delicious this, Mum, said Kenneth.
      Might affect your insurance, said Gordon.
      OKAY! shouted Kenneth, throwing his knife and fork on the floor. OKAY! I'LL GO, RIGHT? Keep your bloody shirts on. He stomped out. They followed him. The police were waiting in the hall. Their blue lights flashed through the glass in the door.
      Mr Stanefield? said Lindsay.
      OK, I'm coming, I'm coming, said Kenneth. This'd better not take long.
      Gordon caught Wendy's eye and made a gesture. It'll be all right, he said. That shouting was completely out of character. He didn't think, the wee brat'd never been able to hold his drink. God if his brother'd been on duty he'd have been on the phone, out with the balaclavas and teach his nephew the difference between a boy and a man and not to poach his elders' and betters' women.
      You'll bring him back, won't you? said Julie to Wendy. Of course, said Wendy. It's all routine. They went out to the police car and drove away.
      I'll get a taxi home, said Julie.
      You will not, said Gordon. You'll stay here with us till Kenneth gets back. We can't have you sitting at home on your own worrying about him.
      I should have gone with him.
      Gordon's right, love, said Mary, looking at Gordon and narrowing her eyes. Come on and we'll have some Bailey's and coffee. We've got some Amaretto if you want.
      Gordon yawned and stretched. I'm off to bed, he said.
      At ten o'clock? said Mary.
      It's been a long day.
      You didn't get up till half nine this morning.
      I've been to work.
      You haven't been to work. You haven't got any work. You're retired. Never mind him, Julie, let's go through and get a drink.
      Night night, said Gordon.
      Night, said Julie, looking over her shoulder at him and smiling. Gordon went upstairs to the room where he'd left the drill, picked a spot at eye level and began drilling a hole in the wall. The work went well. In a minute he'd penetrated the first layer of plaster. He got stuck in a bit of timber. Christ why did they not just make walls with holes in so folk could watch each other? They did it with doors. He moved a few inches and started on another hole. This was the one. Straight through.
      What the hell are you doing to my walls? said Mary.
      Oh fucking shite Smithie, can you no leave me alone even for a minute? said Gordon, stopping the drilling, leaving the bit stuck in the plaster.
      I'm not Smithie. I'm Mary, your wife. Smithie's dead. D'you not remember? He stuck a shotgun in his mouth and blew his head off. Mary came over and took the drill out of the wall.
      These lovers, eh, said Gordon, putting his hands in his pockets and looking at her, puckering his lips. How'd she crept up on him like that? Jungle training she had. Moving without the snap of a twig. She'd been practising. While he'd been out on the golf course she'd been practising moving silently round the house. It wasn't fair.
      You won't get a glimpse of Julie's knickers that way, said Mary, leaning against the doorframe and toying with the drill. It's all fitted wardrobes on the other side.
      Gordon sat down on the chair at Kenneth's old desk. There was still that Iron Maiden poster hung up over it. The boy'd never had a poster of a lassie hung up there and he got a Julie. The injustice of it was so terrible Gordon felt like greeting.
      These lovers, eh, he said, turning to Mary. How old it is.
      

2000 James Meek
Second story: And The Days Grow Shorter

"These Lovers" appears in the collection The Museum of Doubt published by Rebel Inc/Canongate Books, Scotland., 2000. This electronic version is published by The Barcelona Review by kind arrangement with the publisher. Book ordering available through www.canongate.net or  Amazon.co.uk

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author's bio

 
James Meek was born in London in 1962 and grew up in Dundee, Scotland. He has published two novels, McFarlane Boils the Sea and Drivetime, and a collection of short stories, Last Orders. He contributed to the acclaimed Rebel Inc anthologies, Children of Albion Rovers and Rovers Return. He has worked as a newspaper reporter since 1985. During the 1990s he lived in Ukraine and Russia. He now lives in London, where he writes for The Guardian.                                
navigation:                         barcelona review #19                    july - august 2000
-Fiction James Meek: These Lovers
James Meek: And the Days Grow Shorter
Lynn Coady: Jesus Christ, Murdeena
David Ewen: God's Breath
Patricia Anthony: Owl Says
Abel Diaz: Comfortable
-Essay Barbara F. Lefcowitz: Rope, Pockets, The Bidet
-Interview Patricia Anthony: Worlds at War
-Article July and August in Barcelona
-Quiz Toni Morrison
Answers to last issue's William Faulkner Quiz
-Regular Features Book Reviews
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