C H R I S P A L I N G
(First published in The Independent on Sunday, Talk of the Town magazine, 15th Feb 2004)
Barry didn’t usually stop for hitch-hikers but that day he made an exception. The girl standing in the rain in the lay-by looked cold and emaciated. She was sucking a strand of her long dark hair. But she was good looking. No doubt about that. She and the boy wore denim jeans, black leather jackets, tee-shirts. His face too was gaunt, the shadows of his hollow cheeks darkened by a few days growth of stubble. He looked sullen and angry. That was why - Barry told them when he shoved open the passenger door to let them in - they’d been standing in the rain by the side of the road for two hours waiting for somebody to stop.
“You two look like you could do with a good square meal inside you,” Barry said. He was a four meal a day man himself - a self-employed builder, a believer in the restorative properties of over-indulgence. Barry ate a full breakfast with his mates in the café. A fry up or a pie and three veg for lunch, sandwiches and a bit of cake for tea. His wife had a hot meal on the table for him when he got home at night - usually around seven.
“We haven’t got any money. I haven’t eaten for two days,” the girl said. Barry saw the look on the boy’s face and knew she was lying.
The girl came from money. Barry knew the sort. When he’d done jobs for people with money they always found something to moan about. And they never paid on time.
“I’ve got a daughter nearly your age,” Barry said, “Susie. She doesn’t eat. She doesn’t wear a coat when she goes out. “It’s not cool” she says. “It’s freezing” I tell her. Why do you lot have to walk round looking like you’re starving all the time?”
“I am starving.” The girl said. “He doesn’t look after me.” She hung her head and chewed at another strand of the hair which had fallen forward to curtain her face. The boy sighed hard.
“Tell you what. I’ll buy you some food. Spot of dinner. How about that?” It could have been his Susie in the passenger seat.
“Yea. Suppose so,” The boy said.
“You suppose so?” Barry echoed. “You reckon you’re doing me a favour or something do you?” The gears of the van crashed as he changed down.
“No,” the girl said quickly, smiling for the first time and her face alight with it. “He’s just in a bad mood. Aren’t you …Sean.” The boy wouldn’t look at her, but he wasn’t called Sean. Hearing the hesitation, Barry was sure of that.
“Am not,” the boy said. “It’s you. You drive me mad. You make me sick.” He made the next plea to Barry. “Sometimes she drives me round the bend.”
“Are you a builder, then?” the girl asked, still smiling.
“Yea. How did you guess?” Barry said, and they both laughed. The name of the company was on the side of the van.
“Do you like it - being a builder?”
“Well, yeah. I suppose I like it.” The question took Barry by surprise. Liking or not liking his job was not something he ever thought about. It was one of the many luxuries he couldn’t afford. “… I don’t suppose there’s anything else I could do. I’ve never tried anything else.”
“But what would you like to do? If you had the choice. Just anything.” The girl was hunched round to face him, so close that Barry could smell her hair.
“Well, I don’t reckon there’s anything I’d rather do.”
Barry felt the girl’s cold hand on his neck, her nails on the stubble of his cheek. He shivered. She pulled away to make it look as though she hadn’t meant to do it. But Barry knew that she had.
“Look out. Here we are.” With relief, Barry saw the pub coming up on the right hand side of the road: a pebble-dashed front, gold letters signed on black, window boxes looming suddenly large in the windscreen as he swung off the road and into the large empty car park with its “park prettily” signs. The boy remained silent as Barry backed the van into a space then led them into the lounge bar. He heard the two of them whispering behind him.
Barry had brought them to the Blue Boy because the food was a cut above most of the other places he used. They offered a variety of soups and advertised each meal as coming with ‘vegetables of the season’. In the Blue Boy peas and carrots were always in season. Maureen, his wife, like going there for the bar meals. Paul, the landlord, with his cravat and colourful silk shirts always made a fuss of Maureen when she went in there. He seemed to sense she was unsure of herself.
“Sit yourself down. I’ll order.” Barry rubbed his hands together, deep grained with dirt, and waved the boy and the girl to the wide draylon seat under the front window. Then he went into a huddle with Paul over what he’d recommend. In the middle of it Paul asked him who they were and Barry found himself making something up about the girl being a friend of his daughter.
Barry carried three bottles of American beer over to the table. He poured his into a glass. The boy and the girl drank theirs out of the bottles.
“I come here sometimes,” Barry found himself confiding. “With Maureen - the wife. Every week or so they have a little band on: you know a dance band kind of thing. They play all the hits.”
The girl laughed. The boy looked at her.
“Well, we enjoy it,” Barry said.
“It’s alright,” the boy said. “I like it here.”
“Do they always have Christmas decorations up?” The girl was staring up at the dusty ornate paper lanterns.
“Not always. No. Not always,” Barry said. It was October so what he should have said was ‘yes, always,’ because Paul was too fat or too lazy to get the step ladder out and take the things down.
“Tell me about Susie,” the girl asked him. She’d already finished her beer. “Is that what you christened her?”
“No. We called her Susan. Maureen did. Here.” He pulled out his wallet and his keys and slid out his favourite photo: Maureen and Susie last Christmas laughing at something they’d unwrapped together in front of the tree. He passed the photograph to the girl who took it in both hands.
“It’s all warm,” she said. “From your bum.” The girl stared at Barry then glanced back at the photo before passing it to the boy. “Nice hair,” she said.
“Her grandmother’s a hairdresser. Maureen’s mother. She’s always done Susie’s hair.” Barry took the photo back and put it back into the wallet. What he didn’t go on to say was that Susie didn’t want her grandmother doing her hair anymore but it was awkward because they didn’t want to offend her. It was only a matter of time, though. Susie was as tall as Maureen now. Soon she’d be away.
“Look out, here we go.” Barry pushed his keys to the edge of the table as Paul arrived with a tray of food.
“Lasagne,” Paul announced. “Geoffrey’s speciality.” He transferred the micro-waved dishes from the tray to the table, warning: “Mind. It’s very hot.” The steam rose obligingly, “And a bowl of French fries to come. Would you like the relish bucket?”
“Fetch us some vinegar and ketchup will you,” Barry said, unwrapping his knife and fork from the white paper napkin. “And some of those plastic salad cream sachet things.”
Paul went off to get them.
“Go on then,” Barry urged. “It’s alright. It won’t bite. It’s Italian. It’s only a bit of meat and pasta.” Barry lifted the top layer with his fork to exhibit the superheated mincemeat pooled in reddish fats beneath it. “Maureen cooks it sometimes.”
“Actually we don’t eat meat,” the girl said. “Sorry … we should have … I mean, I’m sorry.”
“She says meat is murder,” the boy said.
Paul arrived at the silent table with a bowl of chips and the relish bucket. “Is everything alright?” he asked them.
“No,” Barry said. “They don’t eat meat.”
“Oh,” Paul said, tentatively. “I can’t offer you a refund.”
“I’m not asking for a refund.”
Paul put the bowl of chips between the boy and girl and went back to the bar. The boy and girl picked at them. Barry ate in silence. When he’d finished he laid down his knife and fork and managed to stop himself burping: a reflex encouraged when eating breakfast with the boys.
“Right then,” he said. “We’ll be off shall we?”
The girl picked up her bag.
“I’ll just … ah, turn the bike round,” Barry said.
“Toilet,” Barry explained, pointing towards the gents’. “Won’t be a mo.”
In the cold, white-tiled room, to the background sounds of cysterns flushing and filling he found himself thinking about his father. He knew it was something to do with the way he was feeling about himself. He recalled his father’s face on his wedding day. The old man didn’t know what to do with the surplus knife and fork at the sit-down reception. It was only for a second, then the waitress had sorted him out. But everybody on Maureen’s side had seen. Maureen’s mother, being a hairdresser, missed nothing. She didn’t mean to be a snob. She just was.
Barry found that compassion always became a different kind of pain when he turned it towards his own father. He’d always sworn he’d never make Susie feel ashamed of him. He was pretty sure he’d never done anything to embarrass her, even when he wore his wedding suit and a tie to the parent’s evening and everybody else was in casuals. She’d just laughed and linked her arm in his and said he looked handsome and said she was proud that he was her dad.
Barry went back to the bar. He looked round but he couldn’t see the hitch-hikers. Paul was clearing the plates from the table. “They said thanks for the lift and the meal but they had to get on.”
“Right,” Barry said. “I see. Thanks.” He was sorry they’d gone. It wasn’t their fault they didn’t eat meat. “I’d better be off then,” Barry told Paul.
“See you soon?” Paul said.
“Probably.” Barry patted his pockets for his keys. When he reached the door he remembered he’d left them on the table after he showed the girl Susie’s photo. He’d put the wallet back in his pocket but not the keys.
Paul was back behind the bar loading the plates into the dumb waiter.
“Did you pick up some keys?” Barry asked him.
“On the table?”
“No. Nothing on the table.”
“Right … well, thanks anyway.”
“. . . Are you alright?” Paul asked him.
“Yeah. Touch of gut rot,” Barry said, getting one back at Paul for the dig about having to charge him for the uneaten meals.
When he got outside the van was gone. He looked at the empty space on the tarmac as if he could somehow magic it back, but it stayed gone. The loss of the vehicle didn’t bother him as much as what he’d tell Maureen about it. Because then he’d have to explain what he was doing in their favourite pub with a girl and a boy he’d never met before. She’d never swallow the line about them looking hungry and him being worried about her in the way he worried about Susie. She’d say straight away that she bet the girl was good looking and that’s why he’d stopped for them. And he’d laugh it off. But the next time they went into the pub she’d make a sly joke of it with Paul and Paul wouldn’t understand she’d set the trap and he’d confirm what she suspected. She’d smile and play along but when they got to their table they’d eat in silence. She wouldn’t dance with him when he asked her. And then he’d have three weeks of hell.
Maureen always said she’d never trust him as far as she could throw him. That was why she never worried about his weight. But he’d never let her down. Only once or twice.
He was standing, staring into space when Paul came out after him.
“Little sods, eh?” Paul said, knowing it all without having to be told.
“Come on, we’ll go and get them.” Paul dangled his keys and led the way to his red Datsun.
“You sure?” Barry asked him, waiting by the passenger door.
Paul climbed in, leaned over and let him in. “Left or right? Which way did they go?”
“Well,” Barry said, “We came that way, so I reckon they’ll have gone the other. Go left.”
They drove off in silence.
Sometimes Barry felt that his life was like a series of Chinese whispers. Each day when he woke he was sure he’d got everything all sorted out. But by the evening it had all got jumbled up and he was in a mess again.
When the van came into sight ahead of him he knew he’d been given another chance. He’d left the kids go with a ticking off. He’d ask Paul not to say anything about it. Maureen would never find out. Sometimes life wasn’t so bad after all.
By the time Paul had flagged the van to a stop Barry was wondering what Maureen was cooking for his supper.