Suchen und Finden
Part I – London
Welling, southeast London
There is a corner of southeast London which has never deigned to align itself with the perceived wisdom on global warming. A place which stubbornly shuns the long, warm, sun-filled October days promised by environmentalists and doomsayers alike.
Cold, wet, miserable Welling. Southeast London to dyed-in-the-wool Londoners; northwest Kent to the pretentious. Although both camps tasted the same exhaust fumes, the self-proclaimed residents of the Garden of England somehow inhaled a superior class of carbon monoxide.
Alan Big Al Bannerman lifted his six-foot-three, seventeen-stone frame from the complaining Ikea armchair, ambled across to the bay window and gazed out onto a murky, drizzle-drenched Fairham Road.
Suburbia at its most mundane.
The autumnal, Saturday afternoon light was beginning to fade as his eyes followed a middle-aged woman, weighed down with Lidl shopping bags, shuffling along the shiny pavement in her long, grey trench coat. She waddled into the short driveway of number twenty-one opposite. Wrestling the keys from the depths of her coat pocket, she clicked the lock, pushed the door open and disappeared inside. Within the next minute, Big Al imagined, she would have the kettle on and be preparing for herself a tasty snack. He turned away from the window and peered into the gloom of the dimly lit room.
“No chance of a cheese sarnie, I suppose?” he sighed. Words wasted, he knew, but he needed to say something; anything to break the monotony of the match commentator’s vacuous ramblings.
Dave lay on the sofa supping from his umpteenth can of beer. The fifty-inch, HD, flat-screen provided the illusion of actually being at the game. But White Hart Lane was the last place Dave Simpson wanted to be. To Dave, the screen’s vividness merely amplified the slings and arrows of the outrageous misfortune of yet another Tottenham defeat at the hands of arch-rival Arsenal.
“Do me a favour, Al. Sit down, shut the fuck up and drink your beer. You’re making the place look bloody untidy.”
Big Al exhaled an exaggerated sigh of boredom, moped across the room and slumped into the leather armchair. He was not a fan of the so-called beautiful game. Far from it. According to Big Al, professional football was awash with overpaid sissies and cheats.
Now rugby was an altogether different kettle of fish; a real sport for real men. Big Al’s battered ears and crooked nose attested to his pursuit of choice, albeit in the past. For now, at forty years of age, his body would be unable to snap back from the knocks and bruises of tackles, falls and punches which were part and parcel of that fair game. His old rugby boots, confined to the top shelf of a bedroom wardrobe, could only kick at the accumulated dust of time.
Big Al shook his head and sipped at his beer. He admired his little pal’s multiple alliances when it came to sports. Football, basketball, rugby, golf; anything with a ball, Dave would follow it. In Big Al’s case, it was either rugby, rugby or … female beach volleyball. Much to his displeasure, however, precious little female beach volleyball was ever shown on the BBC.
“Blimey! I haven’t seen such a convincing dive since Michael Phelps did the …”
“Al! Shut the fuck up!”
“Pansies, the lot of them!” mumbled Big Al. He took another swig of beer. Football. A game for hooligans played by girlies.
Bored out of his mind, Big Al surveyed his immediate surroundings. Tatty magazines and out-of-date newspapers lay scattered across the chairs and dining table. Empty beer cans stood next to books and rugby trophies on the shelves. Shed clothing lurked in the recesses of what had once been a spotlessly clean lounge. Each week showcased a fresh smudge on the carpet accompanied by the malodorous whiff of some new, indistinguishable strain of takeaway; pungent testimony to Dave’s progressive disintegration into domestic chaos and despair.
Unsurprisingly, the last of a long succession of cleaners had resigned three weeks ago. Big Al cringed at the thought of what might lie beyond the kitchen door. He did not dare imagine the bedrooms either. Curtains, permanently drawn across the windows of the extension at the back of the house, served to blot out the wretched state of the garden.
Here, in the lounge, the meagre selection of framed photos shepherded into one corner of the shelving units never failed to sadden. Every Saturday for the past ten months and countless other midweek evenings, Big Al, from that same chair, had clocked those images. In particular, the most tragic of centrepieces: a snapshot of a proud couple standing in front of their new home. This home. It was the only dust-free photo. One of only two objects in the house Dave ever tended to; ever cared about. That second item sat a couple of metres to the left of the photo. The bright-yellow, plastic toy took its incongruous pride of place at the centre of the mantelpiece. Melancholy swept over Big Al at the very sight of it. He glanced down to his hands and fiddled with his beer can.
“ … gifting another free kick to Spurs two metres outside the Arsenal penalty box. Only a few seconds of extra time to go, so they’re going to have to make this one count.”
Dave sprang from his seat and clenched his free hand into a fist. “Come on, my sons! Come on!”
“ … and as he steps up to take the kick … Ouufff!”
The shout of the mob behind the Arsenal net rose to a crescendo as Dave turned away from the set and aimed a foot at the settee. “Bollocks!”
“… and that’s it. Arsenal win by a goal to nil as the referee blows his whistle on a somewhat uninspiring game …”
Dave reached for the remote, pressed the mute button, chucked the unit on the coffee table and collapsed on the sofa.
“Oh whoopy-do! The end of another scintillating afternoon in the company of my best mate watching yet another skull-numbing session of pansyball,” said Big Al sarcastically. “I could hardly ask for a better way to spend my Saturdays, could I?”
Dave ignored his friend and swigged at his beer.
“Think I’ll give Kylie a bell and see if she fancies leaving Wembley stadium a bit early. You know, join in the fun,” continued Big Al. “Of course I’d be the perfect gentleman. I’d make her a lovely cuppa and knock her up a tasty cheese and pickle sandwich. Then, as she luxuriates in her good fortune, I’d whisper sweet nothings in her ear and – Bob’s yer proverbial.”
Dave shook his head and said nothing.
“Likely won’t happen, though,” muttered Big Al.
“It won’t happen, Dave, because of technical issues. First off, your kitchen doesn’t know what a teabag looks like. Second, on the off-chance that your fridge might be stocked up with your favourite Dairylea triangles, I suspect the shit would be a festering, furry-green mush by now …”
“Wrong! I bought some a few months back. They should be …”
“And finally, mate. Fi-nal-ly. There’s no way anyone with Kylie’s class is ever going to dare venture into one of your bleedin’ bedrooms. Is there?”
“That’s right, shit-for-brains. Blame me for torpedoing another one of Big Al’s Improbable Shags.” Dave nodded at the crumpled can on the table. “Re-fill?”
“Go on. Twist my arm.”
Dave slid off the sofa and slouched out of the lounge. He paused at the door to the kitchen and inhaled a lungful of air, bracing himself for what lay beyond. The dirty plates piled up in the sink. The waste bin overflowing with polystyrene boxes stained with exotic hues of Indian sauces and pebble-dashed with putrefying grains of egg fried rice. Escaped socks from haphazard attempts at loading the washing machine shared the floor with the odd grateful cockroach scampering back beneath the fridge, weighed down by its noxious plunder of lamb jalfrezi leftover.
Dave suffered an anxiety attack every time he pushed open that door. It was not just the diabolical aesthetic and sanitary considerations which panicked him. It was that the whole friggin’ mess served as a constant reminder of just how much Michelle had organised his pathetic life for him.
The clinking of pots and pans rattled through the open kitchen door and into the lounge. Big Al winced at the nerve-jangling clatter of something heavy and metallic hitting the deck. The big man shook his head, lifted himself from the armchair and wandered back towards the bay window with its panoramic view of Fairham Road. One of Welling’s better middle-class addresses, he thought, gazing across the street at the row of identical houses opposite.
His best mate had bought the 1930s, three-bedroom semi eight years ago, a couple of years into his relationship with Michelle. He had spent a lot of money on the place since: knocking out walls, building a new garage, putting in a new bathroom, kitchen and rear extension. Projects which, while daunting to most men, were a labour of love to a totally loved-up Dave Simpson.
Testimony – Alan Big Al Bannerman
I remember the new carpets had just been laid. A professional job. Invisible joins. Cream-coloured, though; designed to accentuate even the lightest of stains. His choice. Not Michelle’s. Obviously. The silly sod wouldn’t allow people through the front door until they donned specially procured carpet slippers.
As a piss-take he bought me a pair of those orange...