Gary had hated Sundays for as long as he could remember. When he was a kid Mum would run a piping hot bath and scrub him with a loofa that felt like sandpaper. He’d be made to eat boiled meat and sprouts while Patsy Cline sang on the radio. Before bed he’d have to catch up on homework. But even bed was preferable to Sunday night television: Gary had no desire to watch pensioners hurtle across the Yorkshire moors in a converted bathtub. Almost three decades had passed and he still hated Sundays. Tomorrow, instead of double geography, Gary had to face Topper and the Board. There was a downturn of ten per cent and Topper wanted Gary to answer for it. Of course it wasn’t Gary who’d overspent on a fleet of new cars or a failed bid to break into the French market, but it was Gary who’d have to explain the loss. He played out the scene in his mind. Topper would make him wait outside the office. Gary would finally be called in and left waiting in silence while Topper ignored him, scratching away with his fountain pen. Gary would hear the roar of blood in his ears. He’d be forced to stand, head bowed in contrition, taking all of Topper’s ‘constructive feedback’ on board. Gary’s chest would tighten, he’d fight the compulsion to take a deep breath and he’d rock a little on the balls of his feet. Stress made Gary light-headed and he’d wobble and sway ever so slightly, so he was never sure if people could tell. Perhaps they thought he was a secret drinker, the type who covered his habit with a splash of aftershave and a ready handful of mints. Topper was expert at grilling people. Topper would tap his pen on his teeth, wait a little longer and then give his verdict.
‘Ten is a problem, Gary. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say we can’t live with ten.’
There was no ‘we’ of course. But Topper didn’t need to wait for his Board’s view. Gary pinched the bridge of his nose, took a deep breath and exhaled, imagining he was releasing the tension out through his fingers and toes the way he’d been taught in class, as if his fingers were rustling leaves on a huge oak bending with the wind. We bend so we don’t break. If only Topper shared that philosophy. Gary flicked the kettle on and rummaged in the cupboard for teabags.
‘I’m going for a bath,’ Joanne said.
‘That’s not like you. You usually have a wallow later.’
‘Well, I’m going now.’
‘Have your bath later, love. I’m just putting the kettle on.’
Joanne frowned. She was in the pink, fluffy dressing gown Gary had bought her for Christmas. She pulled the gown tight across her chest, just in case he got ‘ideas’. Joanne didn’t like Gary getting ‘ideas’ and was adept at discouraging them. He always joked he should’ve been an inventor. Then I’d always be getting ideas.
‘I thought we could have a chat,’ Gary said.
Joanne had made frothy hot chocolate with marshmallows on top. She’d made this part of the ritual she called me time. She blew on the chocolate.
‘I’m having my bath now. It’s already running.’
‘I just wanted to talk,’ Gary said.
Joanne turned the bathroom door handle. A rich lather of foam and bubbles lapped at the edge of their roll-top bath. The steam carried the scent of lavender.
‘Maybe we can chat after, then,’ Gary said.
‘I’m not being timed, Gary.’
‘I know, love.’
My Sunday bath is the only pleasure I get.
‘Only my Sunday soak’s the only pleasure I get.’
‘I need to talk to you, Jo. It’s important.’
Joanne pulled a face.
‘My programme starts again tonight. You know that.’
Joanne shut the door, flicking the brass lock into place. Gary sighed and sat down on the landing, rubbing his temples.
‘I’m going to get sacked tomorrow, dearest. There’ll be no money coming in and that means no more haircuts or lunches with your friends. We’ll probably lose the house and car, but….’
Gary stared at the bathroom door, unblinking. Joanne never wanted to talk. And tonight, to make things worse, he was going to be subjected to another hour of women in bonnets. He’d made the effort to watch once, peering over the Sunday Times, to see what the fuss was all about. Joanne would sit cross-legged, hands clasped around her knees, eyes fixed on the screen. Gary was bored within minutes.
He stared out of the window. The bloke from three doors down was soaping the bonnet of his BMW. Number 23 were coming back from the supermarket weighed down with bulging bags of groceries. They had a second home in Brittany, but they never missed a discount loaf or a reduced apple pie. Gary didn’t know the first name of anyone in his street, so he’d given them nicknames instead. There was conversion couple (the first to make their garage into a fourth bedroom), 1980s woman (she had a Bonnie Tyler perm), the Compulsive Shoppers (enough said) and Happy Families (who wore their smugness like a direct challenge to anyone who’d had a bad day). He stared at the magnolia wall and decided he had to get out.
‘I’m taking Jasper down the lane,’ he said.
Jasper padded into the kitchen, paws slipping on the new quarry tiles. He danced from paw to paw and nudged the third drawer down, where his lead was kept, leaving a sticky print on the handle. The kitchen suite had been part of a range called Pembroke farmhouse. It was only three years old, but Joanne was keen to upgrade to something called Breton Mist.
‘I’m just off,’ he shouted.
Joanne didn’t answer. He clipped Jasper to the lead and stepped out into the rain, dipping his chin into his jacket. As he did so, Number 23’s door slammed shut.
‘Don’t worry. I don’t want to talk to you,’ Gary said.
It seemed there were ghosts all around him. Gary heard car alarms bleep, doors slam and mobile phones ring, but he rarely saw people. Jasper shook out his fur and tugged toward the rusting gate that led to the lane. Faint rain slanted in from the west. The estate had been built on the site of a meadow that was once bursting with wildflowers. The flowers and rabbits and badgers had been replaced by block-paving and wheelie bins, but the builder had chosen names like Bluebell Covert and Poppy Way so people in gleaming BMW’s could believe they were closer to nature.
Blackberry Lane was an ancient, rutted mud track that led from the edge of the estate onto the marshes. There’d been houses down there once and you could still see their foundations; low, crumbling brick walls thick with nettles and foxgloves. A drainage ditch ran alongside and a patch of wild wasteland that was teeming with pheasants, foxes, badgers and squirrels. Gary ducked through the gap in the hawthorn hedge. Rain fell like birds’ feet on a rusting sheet of corrugated iron. He unclipped Jasper. Gary was dipping a hand into his pocket in search of a mint when a shaft of sunlight poked from behind the clouds. He unbuttoned his jacket and let it fall into the long grass. The sun warmed his shoulders. A train rattled past. What a luxury it would be, Gary thought, to catch a train and not care where it went. The carriages would be empty, with Sunday supplements scattered across the seats. There would be no tomorrow and no ten per cent. He glanced up and saw Jasper panting. The old dog had a sniff of rabbit and was circling a bank of hawthorns trying to get closer to a burrow. A young rabbit broke from the slope and darted through the thistles. Jasper gasped and romped after him, but the rabbit shot into a gorse bush. Gary crossed the field and sat down on the riverbank. The river lapped at his pale feet. The thought occurred to him that he rarely, if ever, went barefoot these days. The grass and dock leaves tickled his ankles. Gary unbuttoned his shirt and folded it, laying it down among the cress and daisies. He wished he knew more about the plants and flowers, but he hadn’t bothered to learn. It struck him that much of the knowledge he possessed was pointless, but people had been willing to pay for it. He knew there was bluebells along the lane, growing in the shade of the hedgerow. He knew cow parsley and he knew poppies. There was a pink flower that grew on the marshes and it helped you to sleep, but Gary didn’t know its name.
He lay back in the grass and felt the sun on his chest. In the distance he heard the rumble of trucks and cars snaking along the M6. As a child he’d built a tree-house in the meadows beneath the motorway. He’d sat for hours, guessing where the trucks and cars were heading and staring at the sea of headlights that swept over the ridge in the gathering gloom. Gary could hitch a lift and there would be no school; instead he would visit the Lakes or the Scottish Highlands or maybe Blackpool. Gary had always dreamt of escaping.
Gary tugged a smooth pebble from the riverbank and tossed it into the water. The pebble plopped and sent ripples into the shallows. Ten per cent was pretty insignificant really. It didn’t matter what Joanne spent or what Topper decided, the river would always be here. Gary took off his trousers. A woman was walking a dog faraway on the cemetery hill, but there was no one else in sight. Shielded by the bulrushes and reeds, Gary stepped out of his boxer shorts. He balled them in his fist and threw them so they landed in a pile with his other clothes. He was naked, except for his wristwatch. His skin tingled. There was a patch of dry, flaky skin on his thigh. Gary gasped as he sat in the frigid water. It was amber, like whisky in the sunlight. He took a deep breath and sank beneath the surface.