Karen starts it.
‘Tell you who’s got loads of money,’ she says, ‘that Jim. Hasn’t he, Des? Bloody minted he is.’
Lorraine, Karen’s mother, pipes up next. ‘Who’s Jim?’ she asks. ‘He one of your mates, Des?’
They are in Des and Karen’s kitchen. The women are sat close, crossed legs, elbows on the table, a bottle of Blossom Hill between them. Des is at the sink moisturising his knuckles. Eczema flare-up. His hands are raw and flaky, skin like cracked pavement.
‘They grew up together, didn’t you babe?’ Karen says. ‘You known him what – fifty years?’
‘Forty,’ Des corrects her. ‘We were at school together.’
‘Rich man is he?’ Lorraine asks. Then, pretending to look nonchalantly at her nails, adds, ‘Married…?’
The women fall about themselves laughing, necks floppy like nodding dogs. Des says over the top of them, ‘Yes he is. Same wife he’s always had.’
He leans across the sink, pushes open the window. The room is warm, has the claggy stench of leisure centre swimming pool.
Earlier Lorraine bleached Karen’s hair. Karen had sat on a foldout chair on the patio facing the garden fence, patch of dry earth in front of it. Lorraine stood behind her, transparent gloves on hands, holding a small bowl and using a toothbrush on her daughter’s head.
Des watched from the bathroom window upstairs. He noticed how much his wife used her hands to speak. Her hands moved in circles, they opened and they closed, they pointed and spread stiff, jewellery winking in the sunlight, gold bracelets jangling up and down her wrists. He wondered what she was speaking about. He wondered if he could open the window to listen. The index finger of her right hand pushed against the pinkie of her left, then her wedding finger, then her middle finger. Was she making a list? One, two, three. Three strikes and you’re out. Was she talking about him?
The bathroom was cold, still, just the dull burr of extractor fan. Des felt strange standing there alone, peering down on his wife and her mother like he was spying on a neighbour.
Now, Karen’s in her dressing gown, pink towel round her shoulders. Featherweight boxer. Her hair – short, damp, spiky – looks white against her tanned skin.
It’s early evening and they’re waiting for Chinese.
‘She’s got a funny name though, his wife,’ Karen tells Lorraine.
‘It’s short for Harriet,’ Des says.
‘But they call her Harry!’ Karen says, pulling a face.
Lorraine smiles, lights a cigarette. ‘So what’s he do then Des?’
‘Internet,’ Karen says. ‘He’s got, like, a website, doesn’t he Des?’
‘I forget what it’s called,’ Des says. ‘One of them sites you use to look at prices of stuff.’
‘Oh yeah?’ Lorraine waves a limp hand in front of her face, wafting away the first fog of smoke.
Des goes to the fridge and takes out a bottle of beer. His fingers leave greasy smears on the green glass and he has to put the bottle between his thighs to open it, wipes his palms on his jeans.
‘So how comes I’ve not heard of this rich Jim before?’ Lorraine asks.
‘Well he never came to the wedding,’ Karen says. ‘To be fair though,’ she taps a cigarette from the packet, ‘we never actually invited him.’
‘Why not?’ Lorraine asks, eyes bright, looking from Karen to Des to Karen. Karen gives her a look. ‘Oh…’ Lorraine says. And then, ‘So they went to your first one Des?’
‘Harry and Des’ ex are very close,’ Karen tells her mother, talking slowly, raising her eyebrows.
‘They used to be close,’ Des interrupts. ‘I’m not sure they still are. Besides, I was closer to Jim back in them days.’
‘They were mods together weren’t you, Des?’ Karen smiles. ‘Tell Mum. Show her that photo.’
‘Your mum knows all about mods, she don’t need to see a picture of me dressed as one.’
‘I was a bit of a mod myself I’ll have you know,’ Lorraine says. ‘I was one the first time round. Sixties. Proper mod.’ She rests her cigarette on the ashtray and walks to the fridge. Her sandals make a hard clip-clop on the vinyl floorboards. ‘So he’s done well for himself then,’ she says, pouring a tumbler from the water filter.
‘He has now,’ Des says, scratching his elbow. ‘That’s recent really. Last ten, fifteen years. Reckon I made more than him when we were thirty.’
‘Ha!’ Lorraine says, ‘How things change!’ And she pokes Des in the ribs, winks at him as she returns to her seat.
It doesn’t hurt, and it does.
‘So was he there last night?’ Lorraine asks. ‘At the party?’
‘Yeah,’ Karen says. ‘You couldn’t tear them apart!’
Des goes back to the sink. He puts his beer down and brings the bottle of moisturiser he’s been prescribed closer to his face; reads the ingredients. Hydrocortisone. Urea. Lactic acid. He squeezes more out onto his knuckles, pats it gently into the skin, enough to ease some itching.
He knew Jim would be there – everybody would be there – but it still surprised him.
‘Not seen you round these parts for a while,’ Des said to him, cowboy-style, as they stood shoulder to shoulder, elbows on the bar.
‘Not since the funeral,’ Jim said. ‘Trying to stay out of trouble.’
They laughed. Des ironed out a tenner between two fingers.
‘You get down here much yourself nowadays?’ Jim asked.
‘Not since I did my ankle in,’ Des said. They both looked down at his ankle, as if his strain would be visible – bright red, or scarred. ‘Better players than me now. I’m an old man, even for the Veterans.’
‘Wouldn’t know it,’ Jim said, and he slapped Des on the back – once, twice – his hand resting there a small moment.
The bar was busy. Only two young girls were serving, teenagers really. They were having trouble with the till. Des noticed green tinsel dangling like long hair around the plastic clock positioned on the wall at the back of the the bar. He wondered if it had always been there. They wouldn’t have put tinsel up for a memorial party, would they?
‘Karen’s looking well, mate,’ Jim said.
‘As does Harry, mate.’
‘Yeah. Yeah no, she’s good.’
‘Good. Good,’ Des nodded his head. ‘We should do something really. Get together, the four of us.’
‘Yeah,’ Jim nodded. ‘Yeah, that’d be nice.’
For a moment both men were quiet. Then Des gave Jim a nudge, asked, ‘What you drinking?’
‘No, I’ve got it, my round.’ Jim said, straightening himself up, hand going to back pocket.
‘I’ve got it,’ Des said. ‘What you having?’
Karen is telling Lorraine where Jim and Harry live.
‘They’re North London now,’ she says. ‘Something-hill didn’t they say?’
‘Muswell,’ Des says.
Lorraine scoffs. ‘Well that don’t sound that nice! You think he’d get a place in Sevenoaks or something if he was that rich.’
‘He’s got about three houses Mum!’ Karen says. ‘Villa in Cannes. Mansion near Hastings– ’ She starts to do the list with her fingers again. Pinky, ring finger. ‘– Harry was telling me,’ she says, clasping both hands together.
‘You were asking,’ Des says.
‘Alright! I’m not saying she was bragging. Thought they were very down to earth, considering. Well. He was anyway. Still talks like he’s from round here. Still supports Millwall doesn’t he?’
‘Hardly a true fan,’ Des says.
‘Now you’re being mean,’ Karen says. ‘You loved seeing him really, admit it.’
Des slides his wedding band off his finger, rinses it under the tap. ‘He was my best mate,’ he says. ‘Course it was good to see him.’
Karen tips her head to one side, scrunches her nose and gazes at Des with a smile.
Des changes the subject. ‘Longest day of the year today,’ he says.
The three of them turn, stare out the window. The sky is still blue – just a stripe of white contrail streaked across it.
Lorraine sighs. ‘Sounds like he’s a clever one though. That Jim, if you know what I mean.’
‘What do you mean?’ Des asks.
‘Well not that it was your fault,’ she says, ‘going into property, you weren’t to know. But websites, Internet, all that. That’s where the money is nowadays.’
‘Mum,’ Karen says, and she looks at Des.
Des necks the end of his beer, gets another out. He looks at the clock hung on the wall above the table. It’s a gold clock, Roman numerals instead of numbers, bought from a shop called Abracadabra on Telham High Street. Karen calls it ‘antiquey’. Des has to check it against his watch every time.
‘When did we order this food?’ he says, one hand scratching the other. ‘I’m gonna go past hunger soon, won’t want anything. Waste.’
‘It’s Saturday night babe,’ Karen says. ‘It’s busy. Come sit down.’
Des remains standing. ‘I’ll get out the plates.’
Lorraine leans forward, lights one cigarette for Karen, one for herself.
‘So it was actually a memorial, this party you went to?’ She asks her daughter. ‘One of Des’ mates, yeah?’
‘His mate Tony. From the football club,’ Karen says. ‘Cancer. I forget which kind.’
Lorraine bites down on her lip. ‘He die recently?’
‘Last September. Didn’t I tell you about the funeral? Sad, wasn’t it Des?’
‘They do tend to be,’ Des says.
‘Anyway,’ Karen says. ‘his wife and daughters organised the party last night. One of them was my age actually wasn’t she Des? One of his daughters. Think she said she was thirty-six.’
‘You lost your stepdad when you was twenty-five,’ Lorraine says, pointing her cigarette at Karen. ‘And he was basically your dad.’
‘I told her that,’ Karen says. She blows her smoke upward toward the chandelier, shakes her head. ‘I’m not sure she appreciated it.’
Des clunks the plates down between them on the table. He moves the ashtray and bottle of wine to the kitchen counter.
‘So. Was it a heavy night?’ Lorraine asks, eyes following ashtray. ‘Any tears?’
‘Not really. More of a fun night weren’t it Des?’ Karen says. ‘Mostly dancing and that. I didn’t see anyone look upset. There was a raffle. Raised some money.’
‘What for the family?’ Lorraine says.
‘They were raising money for charity, Lorraine,’ Des says. ‘Cancer Research.’
‘His family didn’t keep any of it?’
‘The night was a charity fundraiser,’ Des says. ‘You raise money for a charity.’
Lorraine pulls a face. ‘People can be charities.’
Des drops the cutlery. Knives and forks and serving spoons scuttle across the floor.
‘It’s alright!’ Karen says, quickly up and over, squatting down to gather them up. Karen puts the cutlery in the sink and picks out a clean handful from the dishwasher.
‘It’s these slippery hands,’ Des says, ‘This bloody cream.’
Lorraine is standing. She moves to the kitchen counter, flicks her cigarette in the ashtray. ‘Sit down Des,’ she says, watching him. ‘I forgot you wasn’t well.’
‘I’m fine,’ Des says. He’s wiping his hands on a tea towel.
‘Sign of stress, eczema,’ Lorraine says. ‘Yous two need a holiday.’
Karen rests the cutlery on top of the plates then walks back to Des, folds her arms round his waist. She is silky and soft and her hair smells of clean bathrooms. He can’t help but hold her.
‘We do,’ she says, cheek on his chest, mouth next to his armpit. ‘Talked about going Sharm-El-Sheikh in September, didn’t we?’
‘Or go and stay in Jim’s villa,’ Lorraine says, and she tops up her wine, sits back at the table.
Karen looks up at Des and sighs, ‘Imagine!’
Des meets his wife’s gaze with a look of bewilderment, brow furrowed, eyes squinted. ‘I’m not asking Jim if we can stay in his bleedin’ villa,’ he says, and he moves Karen off him, walks back to the sink.
‘Course we won’t ask,’ Karen says.
‘Course you won’t ask,’ Lorraine repeats. ‘You’ve just gotta hint. I mean what? He’s got three, four houses? How much of the time do you think he’s in all of them? I bet they’re looking for people to stay in them. Keep ‘em tidy, keep the cobwebs away.’
‘You know where she said it’s not far from?’ Karen says. ‘St Tropez. Imagine who’d you spot, Mum.’
Des pours himself a tumbler of water, downs it in one, tipping it back so it barely touches his gums. He interrupts Lorraine as she lists the celebrities she expects will be there. ‘How much have you drunk?’ he asks, wiping his mouth against his forearm. ‘You’re being ridiculous.’
Lorraine rolls her eyes, picks something out of her tooth. Karen goes back to the table. ‘I just thought you’d like to stay in touch with him,’ she shrugs.
‘I would,’ Des says. ‘But I’m not asking for his holiday home. Not when I’ve not seen him in years.’
‘We saw him at the funeral. You saw him last night.’
‘It’s not the same.’
‘Fine,’ Karen says. ‘But unless we book something soon we won’t be going anywhere this year.’
Karen takes a sip of wine, swallows, purses her lips together. Her eyes glint and she sniffs, blinks quickly, moves her tongue over her teeth.
Des is leaning against the sink. He looks at the floor where he dropped the cutlery, wishes it were beer he’d spilt so he could mop it up now, have something to do.
The doorbell chimes.
‘Finally,’ Des says, ‘I’ve got it.’ He pats his pockets. ‘Where’s my wallet?’ he asks.
‘Here, in my bag still,’ Karen says, and she stands, fingers through her bag, passes Des his wallet.
Des takes out three notes, holds Karen’s eye. ‘Cheers babe,’ he says.
He goes to the front door. The Chinese deliveryman is older than Des expects him to be. Old enough to be the manager.
‘Cheers very much mate,’ Des says, and they swap the carrier bag of takeaway for the notes in his hand. ‘That’s thirty,’ he says, ‘twenty-six fifty I think your lady said.’
‘Twenty-six fifty,’ the man repeats, and he takes from the inside pocket of his jacket a purple silk purse, opens it and shakes it about. He pours coins into his palm, lips moving silently as he counts, as he moves the coins from one hand to the other, rooting around in the purse a little more. Des stares down at the purse. It’s the shape of a tiny envelope, a cluster of flowers sewn in on the front, gold tassle fastened to the fold. He thinks suddenly of the porcelain dolls his mother used to keep. Pictures them lined up on a shelf in the spare room.
‘That’s fine mate,’ Des says, ‘whatever’s there, that’s fine.’
The deliveryman looks up at him, confused. ‘You want three fifty? I got two and ten here.’
‘Two pound ten, that’s fine, that’s fine,’ Des says, avoiding the old man’s eyes, opening his hand. His fingers twitch, quiver, like legs of a spider. As soon as the change is in his palm, he clamps it shut, nods a thanks and closes the front door. He pushes the coins into the pocket of his jeans and for a moment he waits, still facing the frosted glass panel of the door. His breathing feels short, heavy. He drops his head, shuts his eyes.
‘How much?’ Jim asked.
They’d moved outside, to the car park, stood in a dark shadow between a silver Saab and a silver Golf. The raffle was over and a conga line danced briefly out of the clubhouse, bringing with it the abrupt sound of Rod Stewart singing ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ The line had threatened to do a round of the football pitch but a few women – bare-foot and blistered – forced it back inside, screeches of pain and laughter.
‘Forty. No – fifty,’ Des said, swallowing hard. His shoulders were hunched, fists dug deep inside his jacket pockets. He looked down at the gravel, ground a cigarette butt back and forth with his foot. ‘Fifty grand. Just to get out the mess. And that’s all it is. A bit of mess.’
Jim was staring out, across the football pitch. The sky above it was orange and pink, as though something faraway was on fire.
‘What is it?’ Jim asked. ‘Horses? The pools? William Hill on the High Street or you doing it all online now?’
‘No. I promise you Jim,’ Des said, looking back down to the ground. ‘It’s these cards. These bloody credit cards, you know what they’re like. The interest!’
Jim rubbed a hand over his face. ‘Things change, Des. I’ve got three teenagers now, mate. You got any idea how much the schools cost that Harry sends them to? Kelly’s about to start her first year of uni at Edinburgh. Edinburgh, Des.’
‘All I’m asking for is a loan, Jim. Just a rope. A ladder. Just to get me on my feet again. I’ll get it back to you by Christmas, you know I will. I’ll get half of it back by September. I wouldn’t ask if -’ Something got caught in Des’ throat. He swallowed. ‘I wouldn’t ask you mate, if I didn’t need it.’
Jim said nothing. His hand was covering his mouth. Des kept his eyes to the ground, rolled his shoe over the cigarette butt again and again. The sound of the A2 grumbled in the distance. Finally, Jim placed his hand on Des’ shoulder, squeezed it.
When Des walks back to the kitchen the women are beaming.
‘I’m sorry,’ Karen says, ‘It was in the drawer, I had to show Mum!’
Des puts the takeaway bag on the counter and looks down at what they’re smiling at. It’s a small yellow-tinged photograph of two boys on a scooter. Jim is the one at the front, standing, chest puffed out, hands on the steering. Des is on the back, sat rigid, feet up, ready to go. They are outside Des’ old house. His mother’s net curtains are in the background. Jim has come to collect him, to give him a ride. Their v-necks are slim on their skinny frames, collars of polo shirts poking out. Des’ bony ankles can be seen between his trousers and boots. He is trying to look serious but Jim has a grin. ‘Get another once we’re up the street,’ he’d said to Des’ father, ‘Try and get it of the neighbours watching.’
‘He’s a looker that Jim,’ Lorraine says, ‘Wish I’d known him when I was a girl.’
Karen snorts, slaps her mum’s knee. ‘Give him a call Des,’ she says. ‘I know you’ve missed him.’
Des clears his throat, moves the photograph to the kitchen counter, starts unpacking the plastic containers of food onto the table. ‘Not now,’ he says.
‘Why not?’ Karen asks.
One of the containers – sweet and sour chicken – has leaked luminous, sticky jam all over Des’ fingers. He holds his hands out, palms to ceiling as though waiting to catch something, for something to fall.
‘You don’t have to chat,’ Karen says, ‘Just invite them over. Invite them round to ours sometime. We can have a barbecue or something.’
‘Good idea,’ Lorraine says, pointing with her fork.
‘It’s Saturday night,’ Des shrugs, pulling off a sheet of kitchen towel and blotting his fingers. ‘He’s probably out. Busy.’
‘Just try him,’ Karen says. ‘Or you never will. You’ll put it off, I know you. You’re always talking about ‘me and Jim done this,’ ‘me and Jim done that’. Now you could do it all again. Get bikes out even, you know, hire them.’ Karen and Lorraine are looking at each other, nodding, ‘Drive to Brighton or wherever it was you went.’
‘I’m not doing that,’ Des says. He goes to the sink, collects his beer.
‘Oh go on Des,’ Karen says, sinking her shoulders, sticking her bottom lip out, childish pout. ‘If for nothing else, do it for me? Or else…’ she says, ‘I could give Harry a call?’
That does it.
‘No. No, no. No,’ Des says. He puts his beer down, spreads two hands in the air. ‘Listen. I’ll call him, I’ll do it.’
‘When?’ Lorraine asks, opening the box of seaweed and spilling it onto her plate.
Des is no longer hungry. His stomach feels empty, wobbly, like the waterbed he’d struggled to sleep in on honeymoon with Karen two years before.
‘Now?’ Karen asks, and she smiles up at him hopefully.
Des licks a tense tongue over his bottom lip, takes the phone from the cradle, opens the address book on the kitchen counter. ‘He’s probably changed his number,’ he says, ‘I didn’t get his new one last night.’
He finds the name easily. Jones, Jim and Harry. His fingers, his hands, feel like they’re crawling with insects. Ants. Spiders. Blue-bottles. He wants to smack them, scratch them, peel the skin off, shed it all, like a snake.
‘Always good to have friends in high places,’ Lorraine says, dunking a spring roll into a polystyrene pot of sauce.
Des dials the number, his thumb leaving a waxy blur over each digit. Karen sits forward in her chair, smiling, hands clasped together under her chin. Des looks at her. What blue eyes she’s got. He calls them Honeymoon Blue: the colour of the sky in Turkey, the hotel pool she’d dived into. Who knew girls from Woolwich could dive?
He listens. There’s a moment’s pause then it starts to ring. Through the sound of the ringing, he hears the thumping of his heart, feels it in his chest, his stomach, the tips of his fingers. The ringing stops, clicks, and a man’s voice answers.
Quickly, the phone still pressed against his red hot ear, Des turns away from the women, hangs up, hears the dead hum of dialing tone, looks down into the sink at the scattered knives and forks, leans on it for support. Says, ‘Jim! It’s me. It’s Des.’