The top of First Born's head is an almost perfect oval. Spread across it, a film of bright blond hairhis mother's hair; thinner than overly thin strands that are fools for the lightest movement of air and flash iridescent when the sun stumbles into them. I have a picture in my wallet that shows his face. I refer to it from time to time, just to refresh my memory. I never see it directly anymore as First Born (Jonathan"Jon" to his posse) is six years old and has had his face craned over his Game Boy at a permanent 45 degrees since a little past his fifth birthday.
The top of Second Born's head (Peter, aged three) is rounder. His hair is even more frighteningly blond than First Born's, but more confident. It rejects the submissive, flyaway quality of his elder brother's and instead asserts itself away from his head at odd angles and in rebellious arabesques. I only see the top of his head because he's so small. He's a scampering thing that darts past me, constantly in urgent need of being somewhere else in his buttock-level world.
In temperament they are so different that, meeting them without background information, you would imagine Jonathan was the offspring of one of the Lake poets while Peter was raised by wolves. Jonathan is emotional and introspective, Peter carefully focused on learning how to kill a man with his thumbs. I see myself and Ursula clearly, clearly and equally, in both of them. Ursula herself says they're both just like me; whether she more often whispers this with a smile or bellows it angrily while jabbing a finger is too close to call.
Ursula, Jonathan, Peter and I lived together in a two-bedroomed Victorian terraced house. As the location of this house has "some bearing" on what was about to happen, I'd better explain how we came to live there.
A little over eight years ago, Ursula and I had just returned from Germany, where we'd been living. She'd walked pretty easily into a jobshe's a physiotherapist. Britain, at that time, was short of qualified physiotherapists and German ones were seen as especially attractive, being completely free from squeamishness about the twisting of the limbs of sick people in painful directions that is the physiotherapist's raison' d'être. Quite remarkably (given a social geography degree and a CV in which playing guitar in a pub band was the high point), I too had found someone ironic enough to employ me. I was working in the medical library of a training hospital.
The only difficulty was that Ursula and I were living in different places. And not just metaphorically this time. Ursula had managed to get a room in the nurses' accommodation at the hospital where she worked. I tried this at the hospital where I worked, and encountered an impassable wall of knowing looks. So I ended up lodging with some friends of mine, Martha and Phill, who were just buying their first house, could do with the extra income and also, I'm sure, felt like more of a family by having me there sitting on their sofa eating fish-finger sandwiches and (remote control readied at the TV) asking, "Is anyone watching this?" Clearly, Ursula and I needed a place of our own, a gladiatorial arena in which we could grow.
I had a look around and discovered this: houses are dead expensive. No, reallythey cost thousands of pounds. I spent a lot of time peering through real estate agents' windows and sliding a blackening finger down the property pages of newspapers, hoping I'd bump into "Three-bedroomed, detached residence in much-sought-after area. Owner has gone mad owing to a pituitary condition and will give house to first person who turns up with a bag of worming tablets and some steel wool." The daily disappointment at not finding such a thing aged me.
Finally, in classic English fashion, I met a bloke in a pub.
The bloke in question was an impressively barefaced pool cheat but, more relevantly, he was a builder working for a housing association. The government was providing grants to repair houses that would otherwise be left to fall into deeper and deeper dereliction and collect more and more urine from bored youths. They encouraged private companies to buy these houses, make sure the electrics, gas, etc., were better than potentially fatal, slap a bit of paint on the walls and tack factory-closure carpets on the floors, then sell them at cost. They made their money from the grant, not the sale of the house. Soa house you can just walk into without even having to decorate: £18,000. Thank you very much, I'll have one of those.
I tracked down the housing association and arranged a visit to a place they'd just finished. It was a fresh, sunny Wednesday afternoon when I first gazed upon what was to be our family home. The road itself was unremarkable; facing rows of terraced houses with tiny front gardens rolled out in a straight line. In the clear sunshine, it looked like the kind of incessantly amiable street you'd find in a children's picture book. The houses ended when the road decided to curve around a hospital. A huge Victorian hospital. Victorian architecture was designed to say this: "We are the Victorians. And we're here to stay." This place looked like God Himself had smashed its dark rectangle into the earth. A big, black, coffin of a building the weight of which made your shoulders sag just looking at it. In the other direction the houses were divided by two shops, facing each other. One was a standard, open-till-ten, urban newsagent's/liquor store/grocery, while the other was a standard, open-till-ten, urban newsagent's/liquor store/grocery. How did they both survive? I have no idea.
The man from the housing association (I forget his name, but let's be devils and call him "Sexton") was waiting for me outside number 74 St. Michael's Road when I arrived. He was in his late forties and possibly always had been. Too tall for his psychology, he hunched over the way the timid and lengthy sometimes do, fearful that his height might make him an uncomfortably conspicuous target if he didn't keep his head down.
He took me through the front door into the house, babbling things he'd clearly spent the journey there thinking he must mention, then half forgotten. Inside, it was a palace. A pristine palace crafted in woodchip wallpaper with magnolia emulsion and off-blue carpets so carefully free of any natural fibers that walking across just one room charged you up with enough static electricity to power every microwave oven in northern Englandby the time I'd reached the living room I had an Afro.
"If you like it, we can keep it until you have a mortgage sorted out," said Sexton. "We'd need a deposit, of course." He bit at his lip nervously. "A hundred pounds."
I tried for a wary "Hummm..." It passed from my mouth as an excited little yelp.
"I've found our home," I told Ursula. I was careful to say "home" instead of "house." Women respond to that kind of thing.
"Where is it?"
"Really close to the city center. You could go out and buy a blender on the spur of the moment."
"Has it got central heating?"
"There's a place for it." I took some milk for our tea from the fridge in the communal nurses' kitchen, using the felt pen I carried for the purpose to redo the mark on the side of whoever's bottle it was. "We can just move right in and sit down in front of the TV. Everything's decorated. There's electricity, windows, the lot."
"How do we pay for it?"
"Pfffeighteen thousand pounds. We'll be lucky if we're not outpaced by inflation. Ask for a five-year mortgage and they'll think we're dragging our feet."
I could see Ursula was starting to think about the implications of what I was saying. Always best to nip that kind of thing in the bud.
"It's got a really big bathroom too," I continued. "Absolutely massive. We could hold parties in it."
"How many bedrooms?"
"Two. But it feels like three."
"In what way, may I ask, can two bedrooms feel like three?"
"On an emotional level."
"Look, the bottom line is it's a nice place and it's eighteen thousand pounds. Eighteen. Thousand. Pounds. There are some houses that are actually on fire that cost more than that. Come on. What do you say?"
"Oh... Okay. Okay, let's do it. But I want you to know that if anything goes wrong it'll be your fault."
"Nothing will go wrong."
"I mean it. I'm holding you responsible."
"Just so long as you're holding me, my darling."
"Get off me, you're spilling my tea."
The stuff from Ursula's single room in the nurses' flats filled the entire house. Unpacking each of her boxes was like opening a parachute; I'd cut a piece of string and be immediately engulfed by an explosion of personal effects. Every last one of them a staggeringly useless piece of crap, incidentally.
Ursula is not like me. I believe effort is a finite resource, something to be used only when no other option is available. For me, halfheartedness is a full quarter too hearted. She, on the other hand, heaves herself into everything she does with the unreserved exertion of a sprinter lunging for the tape. My plans for the house stretched to buying a sofa and sitting on it, whereas Ursula's seemed to involve building on an extra wing.
First of all there was the garden. I hadn't even bothered to look out of the windows at the rear of the house to examine the garden when Sexton had originally shown me round. I'm not a garden person. When we'd gone to view the house together and, at Ursula's command, I did glance outside, it was clear that bringing it under control would be best achieved not by a mower but by several months of strategic bombing.
"Okay," I said, knowing that the job couldn't be avoided, "I'll machete everything down, then I'll lay some AstroTurf."
"Don't be stupid."
"I'm not. It doesn't cost much more than normal turf."
"I want proper grass."
"AstroTurf is better than proper grass, it's designed specifically to be better than proper grass. It has only one reason for existence, and that's to beat grass at its own game."
"You just want something you don't have to mow."
"And that makes me what? An Evil Genius?"
"How unlike you to add the word 'genius' there. What it makes you is idle. But we knew that anyway, and I am still not having a garden with plastic grass, it's not natural."
"Who wants natural? That..." I made a theatrical sweep of my arm gardenwards. "That's natural. And, frankly, I fear what creatures may lie within its dark interior. Anyway, what's wrong with not wanting to have to keep mowing the lawn? I didn't make a thing about buying a washing machine. I didn't say, 'You just want to get out of beating our clothes against a rock, you lazy tart,' did I?"
"Don't call me a tart."
"I wasn't calling you a tart. I was saying how I, unarguably, hadn't called you a tart, if anything."
"We're having proper grass."
As a compromise, we had proper grass.
The inside of the house was more of a long haul. There was, for example, a bed and a refrigerator to buy, which I'd expected. I didn't know, however, that when you get a house you also need to buy monstrous amounts of pointless rubbish. Toilet-roll holders, lampshades, a trio of candlesticks of cleverly diminishing height and Mondrian-themed coasters. There's a thin line that divides the man you were from the person shuffling around Ikea with a stupid big yellow bag and dead eyes.
Eventually, though, we reached the stage where we were treading water more or less comfortably. I had my games console set up, Ursula had her phone, we'd meet at the microwave and exchange information over the gentle domestic hum of a warming lasagna. Even with the car insurance (given the area, it approached four figures to insure our VW Polo), we weren't too badly off moneywise because our mortgage was so low. When it rained heavily the water did come in under the kitchen door, but we could afford sturdy shoes and thus our spirits remained unbroken.
We strolled along like this for some months. Then, one Saturday afternoon as I was sitting on the sofa circling programs in the TV guide, Ursula came into the room. She stopped, standing directly in front of me, as she does sometimes when she wants to say something from a position where she can block my escape. I carried on studying the guide for some time before glancing up at her (there are rules, after all). When I did so she spoke with spirit-level evenness.
"Phew, thank God. I was beginning to think all of that sex was for nothing."
She clicked her teeth. "That's good. That's really good. Because all the times I've played this moment out, practicing it in my mind, that's always been precisely the reaction I hoped for most dearly."
"Okay, come in again and try it. I'll faint or something. I'm really pleasedI mean, obviously, I'm most, most pleased. We were trying, thoughwell, I was certainly trying extremely hard, and I remember you being thereso, it's not like it's just come out of nowhere."
"Excuse me and my run-of-the-mill conception."
There was a slight pause. I think I coughed like people do before the show starts in theaters.
"Well?" she asked. "Are you going to hug me anytime soon, or what?"
"No problem." And I hugged her.
Hugged her as the music swelled, I thought. She obviously filed the moment away, however, because three years later she announced the approach of Second Born by coming into the room and saying, "I'm pregnant. And it's not yours." You've got to admire a woman who can spend three years preparing to make a point, haven't you?
That's the history of how we came, all four of us, to be living here. Ursula, however, was forthright in her opinion that here isn't where we should be living at all. As you might have guessed, the catch with our cheap house was that it was in an area of the northeast of England so dire that the government was applying for a grant from the European Union to pay for it to be placed under martial law. It was good for the shops, which was enough for me, but Ursula took exception to the joyriders, break-ins and occasional street riots. Naturally, I'd hate to admit that Ursula is ever right about anything, but one of her points was that it wasn't a good place in which to bring up children. She did have the appearance of rightness here, I'd have to concede (give the kids a cardboard box with wheels drawn on it and Jonathan would excitedly say to Peter, "Okay, you be the one who hot-wires the engine, I'll be the one who breaks the steering lock.").
Ursula had again mentioned, over the course of some forty minutes, her desire to move during breakfast. I was weakly mulling this over in my head at work as I waited for the arrival of lunch. At 1 P.M. each day I had lunch with Tracey and Roo. It was simply a question of pulling myself through the morning by my fingernails until I reached that point. And it's surprising how draining giving the appearance of doing something can be too. Sometimes, by the time I broke for lunch, my face was actually aching from maintaining the furrows that hinted at complex calculations taking place behind them. Occasionally I'd snap and just have to do some work to wind down. It always led to terrible self-recriminations, though, because there were more than enough people in the university who were devoting most of their day to finding work for me to do; to begin searching it out for myself was surely just the kind of wasteful duplication of effort that senior management was anxious to eliminate.
These were the kind of dilemmas I had to wrestle with each day until lunchtime arrived. So, obviously, thinking constructively about moving house as well would have been too much for anyone.
"You can kill one personwho will it be?" I was carrying my tea and bacon sandwich over to the table where Tracey and Roo were already seated.
"The Pope and Zoë Ball," a cloud of cigarette smoke from Roo replied.
"Technically," Tracey squinted, "that's two people."
"Whatever. I'll play my joker. There's no way I could pick one or the other, it's a real Sophie's Choice situation. If I killed just the one, the nagging doubts and self-loathing would cripple me emotionally in later years."
I spoke through half a mouthful of sandwich.
"I don't claim to keep up to date with movements in theological thought, as you know. But, you being a Catholic, wouldn't killing the Pope count as, well, a sin, really?"
"I'm sure it might if I weren't Catholic. If I weren't a Catholic it might well be seen as simply going after some old bloke in a hat. Killing some old bloke in a hat definitely is a sinthe Church is quite clear on that. But, as a Catholic, because my life is supposed to be directly affected by every wacky thought that pops into his head, I think it's simply my contribution to the debate."
Roo worked in a comic shop close to the university. And before you start picturing person-who-works-in-a-comic-shop stereotypes, let me tell you that you're entirely correct on all levels. The people of the earth were just diaphanous cutouts in the World of Roo. Perhaps we had real lives, families, a historyhe wouldn't rule it out as a possibility. But we were clearly less substantial, less solid and less genuine than, say, the Preacher or Strontium Dog. Roo himself was aged somewhere between nineteen and fifty-two and extruded into his never-varying T-shirt-and-jeans ensemble was a frame constructed entirely of bony right angles; just sitting next to him gave you the uneasy feeling that your body fat was being sucked right out of you as Nature struggled to achieve some sort of equilibrium. Also, he'd decided to go prematurely bald. It's hard to map out the logical route in any satisfying fashion, but, like a good deal of men, Roo had decided to disguise the fact that he was losing hair by shaving all his hair off. His head was a large, etiolated, shoulder joint with a cigarette stuck in it.
"I quite like the Pope," Tracey replied.
"And that has nothing to do with your liking to dress up as a nun, I suppose?" I narrowly beat Roo in replying.
"Nothing. I just think he's sweet. And he speaks all those languages."
"Imagine a man is running along the street," he said.
"What?" Tracey pulled a face at him.
"Imagine a man is running along the street."
"He's racing away, desperate to catch a bus that he sees is two hundred yards ahead of him, its indicator already flashing to pull out."
"The man sprints towards it for all he's wortharms waving, loose change flying out of his pockets."
"But, while he's still a good hundred and fifty yards away, he stumbles over a small doga Yorkshire terrier, perhapsthat disinterestedly crosses his path. He falls. Spinning awkwardly onto the pavement into the cruel oasis created by other pedestrians leaping out of the way. Failure. Wasted effort. A jagged rip in the elbow of his jacket where it's hit the ground. Ahead, unknowing, the bus pulls away and he's missed it."
"Now, instead of a man, imagine it's you, and instead of a bus it's 'The Point.'"
"Cheers for that. It's certainly cleared up a few worries I was having. Also, you're a twat."
"Who cares if he can speak two hundred languages?
"He's the Pope. Polyglot bollocks is still bollocks. I'd prefer a Pope who only spoke Cornish, but talked less crap in it."
"I'm afraid I have to agree with Roo on this one," I admitted.
"You would. Butnewsflash!atheists aren't allowed to choose popes."
"Tsh. I'm not talking about the Pope specifically, I mean the general principle. It's completely irrelevant whether he's a super-linguist or not. Look, say there's this bloke..."
"If he's running for a bus, I'm leaving this table right now."
"...and this bloke is the type who'll say, 'Aww, I know I've got a particularly heavy day at work tomorrow, but to hell with it, I'll muddle through it somehow; let's the two of us just get utterly wrecked and go out clubbing!' Now, he's exactly the kind of person who'd make a great and valued friend. But is probably not someone you'd want to be performing your vasectomy. You see? Different roles, different requirements."
"I'm starting to suspect that this is just jealousy. You're both bitter about the fact that you talk so much bollocks but no one's made either of you Pope."
"I must admit that I'm surprised that no one's made Terry Steven Russell Pope yet. He's been talking bollocks at international level for years."
"Maybe they have made him Pope. He is leaving the university, after all," Tracey replied into her tea.
"Eh? TSR's leaving?"
"Yeah, he's got another job somewhere, I think."
I looked across at Roo, who nodded confirmingly.
This was how things worked at the UoNE. Any information worth knowing surfaced in Patrick's Café long before you learned it via one of the thousand project groups and campus teams set up to ensure rapid communication at all levels. You'd buy your food next to a couple of gossiping secretaries, sit at a table behind a huddle of staff from Pensions grumbling about some new initiative that was approachingmany people even arranged actual meetings there because it was neutral territory (and they could smoke). If the UoNE was World War II, then Patrick's Café was Rick's Nightclub in Casablanca. Because Tracey and Roo spent ages in Patrick's drinking coffee and lazily eavesdropping, they were both tremendously well informedand Tracey didn't work for the university either. She was an assistant at a shop in the city center that specialized in what's known as "playwear": nurses' outfits, rubber basques and crotchless lederhosenit was a pretty buoyant market, apparently. Who bought this stuff I couldn't imagine. I'd given up after just a couple of attempts at buying Ursula very mild, lacy affairs only to have them dangled in front of megripped contemptuously between her index finger and thumb, in the fashion one might display a tramp's sockand be asked, "And somewhere in the pit of your mind you had the thought I might wear these, did you?" The sheer amount of playwear being sold means every third person you pass in the street must surely be hurrying home to slip into a latex air hostess's uniform, though. (A slightly disturbing thought, when you actually try to pick out the one in three it could be.)
"When did you hear he was leaving? Where's he going?" I asked.
Tracey shrugged. "No idea where he's going, but it's been common knowledge he is going for, oh, a week or so."
Roo, apropos of not the slightest thing, began talking about stuff he'd quite like to rub onto Anna Nicole Smith but, despite his conveying his thoughts with real enthusiasm and much evocative detail, I was only half listening. TSR leaving? He'd kept that quiet.
I tried to find him to ask about it when I returned to work in the afternoon. But he was unassailably unlocatable, and then a group of students trying to steal a fire extinguisher for a party accidentally set it off in the lift as they were leaving. The doors opened to reveal a kind of furiously angry Santa's grotto, and I got embroiled in a dispute. They argued that the fire extinguisher was unduly easy to activate and if the foam had damaged any of their property or clothing, therefore, they were going to sue the university and me personally for every penny we had. The legal arguments dragged on until I, regrettably, had to go home.
"How was work?"
Ursula was holding Second Born by the face as she brushed his teeth, the speed and vigor of the operation causing Colgate to foam out of his mouth, rabidly. He appeared to have completely given himself up to her grip, like a kitten being carried by the neck in its mother's mouth. I suspected he might just be practicing the indifferent submission to facial manipulation he'll use while being stitched up by his coach when he's fighting to retain the title of Heavyweight Kickboxing Champion of the World for the fifth time, about six years from now.
"Oh, you know, same as always."
"Uh-huh." She heaved Peter over the sink and commanded, "Ausspucken."
He ausspucked, some of the spit even going in the sink, and then his legs began to cycle in midair. Ursula set him down and they caught on the floor, sending him crashing hinge-splinteringly through two doors, laughing at the impacts.
"About now, a proper boyfriend would be asking me how my day was."
"Even if that boyfriend had had the common decency not to bother his girlfriend with meandering and inconclusive descriptions of his own work? Even then?"
"Vanessa was a cow in the hospital finance meeting, again."
"Right," I said.
"You just don't care, do you?"
"Don't be stupid, I..."
"Don't call me stupid."
"I wasn't calling you stupid, I was simply suggesting you should avoid being stupid about a specific thing."
"That's the same."
"No. 'You are stupid' is the same, 'Don't be stupid' is quite appreciably different. Now we've cleared that up, let's return to 'Right.' Which wasn't 'Right' in its 'I don't care' sense but in the more common 'I see. But we've talked about this before, at draining length, and I don't feel there's anything else I can add to where we left off after the previous nineteen discussions, so maybe we should not do it all again and just let Pel go and watch the news in peace' meaning of the word."
"You have no interpersonal skills whatsoever, do you?"
"Yes, I do."
"No, you don't."
"No, you don't."
"Let's stop right there, okay? Before this gets childish." (I whispered "I do" too quietly for her to hear.)
"Vanessa. How is she these days?"
"Vanessa told me I'd have to resubmit all this week's details and stormed out before I could say anything. I don't even know why."
"Because she hates you."
"That's no excuse."
"You arouse strong passions in peopletrust me. But that's beside the point. The point is that Vanessa looks like a baboon."
"Eh? No, the point is I'm fed up with it." Ursula took a tub of coleslaw from the fridge. "It just makes me want to give up work and stay at home with the kids."
"Yes, obviously, but we've talked about that, haven't we? Do you recall the phrase 'starving to death'? It came up a lot. Are you going to eat that coleslaw?"
"Nothing. Nothing at all. Predominantly onions and raw cabbage, isn't it? Coleslaw."
"I was just thinking about how we might have been having sex tonight."
"And you'd planned on involving me, had you?"
"You know what I hate the most?"
"Oh, come onI only asked you to do that once."
"What I hate the most is not simply that you want to control my diet for your increased sexual gratification, but that you don't just come out and say it straight. It's all 'I see you're eating curry, then' and 'Has that got garlic in it?' Like you're leaving me to take the next step and think, 'Hold ongarlic! What am I thinking?' So, I'm just going to ignore you. I'm going to eat this entire tub of coleslaw, and if you love me it shouldn't matter."
"Oh, the Love Is Stronger Than Onions defense. I'll tell you what I'll do; I'll wear these underpants for two weeks then get back to you on that, okay?"
"If I didn't do the washing, you'd always wear your underpants for two weeks and we both know it."