Jealousy (a nightmare)
(with due apology, if you should ever come to read this)
The girl must have come on to Josh, because on our second morning the boy had just come straight out and asked me if I had a condom he could use. My first reaction had been: at his age, what did he even need a condom for? Then it occurred to me that this was the world I’d dreamt of all those decades ago. Then finally ‘fuck! that cocky little bastard, as if a boy of – what? Eight? Nine? – could fill one of my condoms’.
But I kept a professional mouth on me, hid my discomfiture behind a workman’s bluff worldliness and said “no, a married man carrying one of those around’s like a burglar walking into a police station wearing a sign saying “I’m a thief, arrest me”.
The girl had looked disappointed; no – ‘resentful’, ‘hateful’ even; as if I’d spoilt their fun. Jules just looked on, his hammer wilting in his slackening grip, it finally falling to the floor with a metallic clatter.
He hadn’t pick me up on the way I’d implied I was married – hell, I’d not even had a girlfriend in the last 15 years. I guess that he knew that even a bad joke needn’t go to waste out of too strict a reverence for the truth. Or maybe he was too amazed at the boy’s effrontery to even notice my lie. We were struggling to get used to this kind of thing.
The next morning we made an early start. When we came into the lounge to measure up the partitions, the girl barely gave me a glance. She was wearing the excessive make-up that had fast become a badge, a declaration of intent, for girls like her. She continued to dance, in her underpants, her school shirt knotted up at the front into a kind of halter, thrusting in time to the rappers on the big screen. I must have been staring because, with a knowing look, Jules said “stop drooling” and “don’t forget – you can look but you can’t touch”.
Margaret popped her head round the door and told the girl that Dylan would soon be picking her up for school. Sat on the floor, still facing the screen, she pulled on a little grey, pleated skirt, undid the knot in her shirt and started searching around for something. ‘You looking for this, Chantelle?’, asked Jules, and she seemed surprised when he held up a well-filled little pink back-pack that had fallen down behind the sofa near where he had been working.
The days passed and we worked away steadily. After the exchange in the kitchen, whenever Chantelle was in the room, Jules would get out one of his magic tricks. She’d stop dancing, her gymnastics, texting, checking herself in the mirror – whatever she was doing – and come over to him, intrigued.
The tricks irritated me. Whenever he did them to me they left me feeling I’d been made a fool of, been conned, laughed-at. And when in company he’d use them to refocus everyone’s attention back onto himself, should it have drifted away.
I forgave him this: he wasn’t just my business partner: he was my oldest friend. He had remained loyal all those years ago when, at the age of sixteen, I’d told him that I’d fallen in love with a blue-eyed girl in the first form, a girl five years my junior. And when it soon became clear that this kind of thing wasn’t a one-off – that this was who I was and always would be, having become infatuated with other first-form girls, and even a girl from the local primary school – his friendship hadn’t flinched.
Even when my desire had turned on his little sister he did not reject me, though my timidity and his little sister’s limited interest in me had maybe spared us the severest test the situation could have set our friendship.
He held a shrewd line between a stubborn condemnation of my desires in the abstract and an unquestioning acceptance of me, provided, he said, I didn’t act on them – and even then I suspect that this arose mainly from a fear of his family’s reaction to him having such a friend, if I were ‘outed’.
On reading “The Radical Case” he admitted that the arguments seemed ‘plausible’; but I guess that, being a magician, even an amateur one, he’d come to look upon ‘plausibility’ as just another veil behind which ‘deception’ conceals itself. And despite us engaging in many long, intense arguments over the decades, I never managed to dent the certainty of his condemnation.
At university he launched himself into a reasonable, but not excessive, curriculum of heterosexual relationships, and eventually got married to a Polish girl, fathering two sons, whom I’d occasionally babysit.
The house was quieter than usual. The big screen downstairs had been switched off and it seemed that Dylan (a boy-band look-alike in his twenties) was helping Chantelle with her homework: their voices rising up to us through the floor, muffled and indistinct, as they took turns reading from a book out loud.
We were mapping out, amidst soft-toys, dolls, posters of baby animals and boy-bands, a route for some cabling through the ceiling of Chantelle’s room. On our first entering, Jules, with a nod, had drawn my attention to the tiny empty packets of Smudgies Kiddydoms in the waste-paper basket. These kids may be sex-mad but at least they seemed to be taking safe-sex seriously.
The silence which had imperceptibly, as we worked, replaced the voices downstairs, was broken when the bedroom door opened and Chantelle came in, and, on seeing him, exclaimed “Jewels!” and bounced over to him to beg him to do another trick. But she hesitated, stopped and skipped back to the door and said to someone standing outside on the landing – I guess it must have been Dylan – “We can’t – Jewels and the other one are working in there”.
And now, whenever Dylan dropped Chantelle off from school, brownies or gym class, she’d run up to him like this and, regardless of whether he was working or not, pester him to do another trick. He didn’t seem to mind. And, of course when she begged him to tell her how the trick was done, he’d refuse, and she’d insist till Margaret would call her for tea, or Dylan for a bath.
And, predictably, before long, she’d progressed from this to jumping on him in mock frustration and trying to play-fight the secret out of him. I’d find myself watching, for a short while, as he’d tip her over onto her back and tickle her belly whilst, in self defense, she wrapped her little legs round his arms or tried to get them round his neck, or he’d dangle her by the ankles till she begged for mercy – all games he’d played with his sons when they were young. Then I’d take myself to work in another room, and if I could still hear her laughter and squeals, I’d make myself a coffee and go sit in my car, turning up the stereo.
Then there was the afternoon when he did the trick with the tumblers and the pea.
Margaret and some others had been there. He’d repeated the trick a few times and each time let Chantelle ‘find’ the pea. Then he told her that if she got the next one wrong she’d have to kiss him. Inevitably she guessed wrong and, giggling, not sufficiently reluctantly, she went to give his bent over and awaiting face a kiss. I made some excuse and left the room.
Outside I pounded on the blind-side wall of the outhouse, whilst from the lounge a louder surge of laughter, outrage and merriment timed itself to something rising in me like nausea, something only pain could help me ride out – the realisation that my celibacy, those five long decades of it, was not, as I had long convinced myself, something I’d chosen, but was in fact the testament to failure, weakness, to fear and my unattractiveness. Things that in my youth I’d briefly struggled to escape but which had, time and again, dragged me back till, exhausted, I’d resigned myself and let myself go under.
Saturday was our last day. Margaret had to go out and asked us if we could keep an eye on Chantelle for an hour or so. She told Chantelle not to bother Jules and sat her down in front of the big screen in the lounge and put on one of Chantelle’s favourite films.
We were a bag of plaster short and Jules was about to start painting over a section that seemed to him to be ready, so it made sense for him stay on to finish that whilst I went to the depot across town. Whilst I was there he texted me, saying that I might as well stop off at a take-away on the way back and pick up a couple of pizzas for later on.
The pizzeria was shut, and I wasn’t going to drive round some unfamiliar neighbourhood looking for one. I came back to a seemingly empty house and, whilst looking for Jules, caught them at it. They must have been expecting me to be out longer.
“Eddie..!” Jules called after me from the landing – but I was already out of the door and heading for my car.
For an hour or two I drove slowly through suburbs, the phone constantly ringing on the seat next to me. I switched it off when I’d had enough.
The suburbs: at first there were the familiar, melancholy cries of children playing in deep back-gardens – distant, as from another world, or the past. Then the gardens and parks were no longer empty but seemed filled with children playing, laughing, singing, hand in hand, and there were the men who could have been fathers, big brothers or, now, a new thing for which the world hadn’t yet found a name. And then the children went into their houses, for the evening light had thickened into night, and the lamps in the living rooms had flickered on and the curtains were drawn on those unknown lives, and a hunger in me turned the wheels of my car to an outskirt where I knew of a hotel with a half-decent restaurant where I could see out the night.
The next morning I set my phone to play through the messages, carefully balanced it on the stool by the bath and drowsed in the warm, soapy water…
“Eddie, it’s me. Call me…I don’t know what came over me…you’re not angry are you..?”
“…I’m not like that…I couldn’t help myself…”
“I’m sorry, honestly…I wouldn’t have done it if I knew…”
“…it’s not like it’s illegal anymore…”
“…why did your react like that..?”
“Eddie, it’s you who always said it was ok. Why would it be ok for you and not for me..!?”
“…Eddie! fuck you, Eddie…”
“…I thought you’d have been happy for me…”
“Eddie. Are you there?”