C H R I S P A L I N G
My Old Man
Transmitted on BBC Radio 4 2014
“I’m going,” Brad called at the bedroom wall.
“Going where?” Bee called back.
But by then he was already gone, just the dust of him left on the smoked perspex cover of his old hi-fi turntable, on the battered leather armchair with the torn packet of rizlas on the arm, the copy of Rolling Stone magazine rolled up and stuffed beside the cushion, the sunburst Fender guitar leaning nonchalantly against the old Vox amplifier. You’d touch Brad’s guitar at your peril. Bee dusted it once and he went ballistic. He said she’d used the wrong kind of duster and why didn’t she just grind some grit into the lacquer? When she heard him practising later that night he said she had to understand that his guitar was – “you know . . .” and left it hanging there, and somehow she did know.
It irritated Bee that Brad used the rolled Rolling Stone magazine to scratch away at the itch on his back, the itch that just wouldn’t seem to go away.
Bee came into the living room and looked through the filthy window to see Brad trying to get his car started – ramming the heels of his hands in frustration against the steering wheel, turning the key again and the engine of the old gold car churning into life. The oil sounded like sludge in an old man’s lungs.
When he drove off he left a comet of blue smoke hanging at shoulder level in the hot street. The blond-haired boy from across the way cut through it on his skateboard and Bee envied his lack of fear. She waved and the boy waved back. Something heavy in her heart made her feel the way she sometimes did when they listened to music together when they were stoned, so she went to the stack of CDs and found her precious stash of Joni Mitchell and put on “My Old Man” and enjoyed the feeling for a while longer.
Brad was driving in silence, something he rarely did. He used music to go away to places in his head, but today he wanted to feel part of the city, part of the world. He needed to anchor himself because today he was going to get the diagnosis. The diagnosis on the piece of flesh they’d taken from his arm after the doctor had talked to him about cell carcinoma.
“What?” Brad asked him. Why was carcinoma such an ugly word? Or was it just ugly because of the associations?
“It involves changes in the cells found in the middle layer of the epidermis.” The man said. Then he added, “But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s just take things one step at a time. Absolutely no need for alarm.”
“But it’s just an itch”, Brad told him, “just an itch that won’t go away.” Worse, of course, when the weather was hot like it was today, or when he’d had a row with Bee. Rowing always made the itch worse. “What could that mean?” he asked the doctor because he really wanted an answer but the man just smiled and went back to his notes and Brad knew his time was up.
“Am I going to die?” Brad asked him just before he walked out into the corridor.
The doctor didn’t answer.
That night, he couldn’t sleep so he came into the living room and he started to play his guitar – the amp turned as low down as it would go.
Playing that way was like a conversation he had to have with himself. Sometimes it helped him sleep.
Now Brad was sitting in the car park looking up at the face of the hospital. The sun was warming up the front of it, glinting off the opaque windows. Brad got out of the car and, without bothering to lock it, went towards the entrance and the doors slid open and he went in. Inside the temperature was lower than out on the street. He pushed the button and waited for the lift to the eighth floor so he could get his diagnosis. An old lady standing beside him smiled reassuringly.
Back home, after she had played her CD, Bee turned off the amp, and the red light went out. When she moved in with Brad she left her own stereo in its box in the bedroom. The day they decided to sell it was a big day for them both - almost a year since they had met in the bar where she was waitressing and he was there to hear the house band. Rumour had it that they were looking for a new guitar player but it turned out Brad had been misinformed.
He’d bought a drink from her. They didn’t talk much. He went in there again the next night but she wasn’t there. She was in the following night and that time he got up the courage to ask her if she’d like to maybe go out for a meal or a drink. She said she would because she liked his shy charm. And that was how it had all started. Three years last February.
The problem now, so far as Bee could see it, was that they hadn’t moved on in any way. She loved Brad – to the extent that she liked spending time with him and when he walked into the room she was glad he was there – but she was still waitressing at the bar and he was still working in the music store. All he seemed to do nowadays was play his guitar, imagining a life for himself he would never have. Or had it always been that way but now she noticed it more? Somehow she had felt that they should both have grown-up careers by now. But to do that would have involved making some decisions, writing some letters, getting some decent clothes and pretending a huge interest in whatever company they’d decided to work for Bee had seen herself employed by a fashion chain – maybe as a buyer. People said she had a good eye for clothes. She pictured Brad as one of those hippyish looking men on the tall stools by the window in coffee shops with their laptops; hair a little long, but in a good suit and tie that didn’t demean them. But if anything was to change they were going to have to make it change. And they were going to have to do it soon because, otherwise, ten years would be gone, then twenty, and then . . . well, Bee didn’t want to be facing forty still waitressing, still listening to him playing his guitar night after night, hour after hour. And the fact that he scratched his back all the time with that music magazine – well, that was really beginning to irritate her.
When the doorbell rang she found the blond boy on the step, smiling, asking her if she had anything she wanted doing.
“I need to make some money so I just wondered if there was some painting or clearing up you need doing.”
“Well I don’t think so.”
“OK,” the boy said, his self-assured smile not shifting an inch. He went back down the steps. At the bottom he dropped his skateboard, jumped onto it, and surfed across the street. Only when he was gone did Bee realise the boy had been hitting on her. Suddenly it made sense: how he always came out into the street when Brad had driven away, how he was always doing tricks on the street outside her window. But he was just a boy – what? Seventeen, eighteen? Hard to tell. Why hadn’t she noticed before? Then she knew: because she felt like an old married woman and she was only 25.
Bee went to the window and saw the boy skating in the street. No regrets at not letting him in. No regrets? Really? She looked at her watch. Twenty minutes, then it was time to leave for work.
When Brad came out of the hospital the sun was a little lower. He smoked a cigarette and then he got into the car. It started first time. Maybe it felt he deserved a break. He drove back home.
When he turned into the street he saw the blond boy from across the road sitting on the kerb. The boy looked up at him when he’d parked and got out. One of Brad’s grandma’s expressions came to his mind – the boy looked like the cat that got the cream.
Brad said “Hi”.
“Hi,” the kid said back. If Brad didn’t know better he would have said the boy had been smoking grass. That looked as though it was going to be the extent of the conversation, until the kid said. “Nice guitar.”
“Oh,” Brad said. “The Strat. I try and keep it down, but sometimes . . . sometimes, you know, you just have to crank it up.”
“Yeah. You do,” the boy said, smiling.
They talked for a while longer and Brad was surprised at how much the boy knew about guitars: so much so that they coveted the same model – the ’59 Strat. They watched the same clips on Youtube of the American slacker who worked in the music store and demonstrated the vintage models. Finally the conversation ran out of steam and Brad went inside.
He called Bee’s name but she didn’t answer. He wanted her with him at that moment because he knew it was time they should sit down and talk about the future. He should have told her before about his back, but he could never find a way into the conversation. Maybe he would go to the bar, but perhaps that wasn’t the place for it. If he left it too late he might just forget what it was he wanted to say.
Brad turned on his amp and reached for his guitar but he had to lean out from the chair to pick it up. Somebody had moved the stand. Bee would never do that. And when Brad found the long blond hair on the fret board he knew who’d been playing his guitar.
Brad’s back began to itch – worse than it had ever itched. The questions he asked of himself he couldn’t find an answer for. The fragile confidence he had always had in himself was gone. He picked up his guitar and laid it across his knee. He made the shape of a minor seventh chord and felt the steel of the strings cut into the pads of his fingers. He played the chord and it rang out quietly.
And then the conversation with himself began. If the boy had been in his house, playing his guitar, what else had he been up to? After all, Bee knew how much it meant to him.
He hit the strings and the jagged melancholy chord sang out across the dusty room – the chord spoke to itself, fed back on itself. Fed back to the amp until the amp screamed.
Brad ran out into the street. The skater boy saw him coming, saw something on his face and skated for the hills. Brad set off after him but then he stopped. He’d never catch the boy. He went back inside. After a while he didn’t want to kill the skater boy any more, he just felt tired and defeated. He took out the paper the consultant had given him. It told him what was going to happen next. He thought about how he’d always taken the future for granted and he realised how lucky he had been.
When Bee came home that night he couldn’t find the words to say to her and she wouldn’t meet his eye. Pleading a headache she went to bed early and Brad stayed in the living room and played his guitar. Slowly the sun dropped away.
Then he heard Bee’s voice behind him, speaking his name. He turned to see her standing like a ghost by the door in her nightdress.
She said, “I’m sorry, Brad.”
Brad put down his guitar and reached out for her across the room. She moved towards him and sat on his lap, taking the place of his guitar. “Don’t leave me,” he said.
“I’ll never leave you.”
And they slept like that all night, tight in each others’ arms.