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Happiness #2

“You’ve got a brick for a heart, don’t you know that?” He was crying harder now and the words were breaking as he spoke.

I was straight faced, standing above him and staring forward. He was sitting on the curb up hugging his legs to his chest. He looked pathetic. He was a muscly man, lifted weights and spent evenings at the gym. To me, he used to be a bear, now I saw him for what he was- a big soppy bastard.

“You need to see someone and sort your shit out, you know that?” he said.  I was sick of his tears, sick of him telling me who I was and what I had. How would he know, how would anyone?

I spat at him. A big foamy lump of spit landed on his already damp cheek. “You dare, you dare tell me who I am one more time and I swear…” He wiped his cheek on his sleeve.

“That was low,” he said. “Even for you.” He stayed on the curb, I expected more of a reaction to the gob on his face. I wanted a fight.

“If you don’t get up from there, I’ll get in the car and I promise I’ll run you over,” I said with my teeth gritted. He was leaning up against my car. The only way out of the space was to reverse.

“Do it, then seeing you like this won’t hurt.”

“Don’t be so fuckin’ melodramatic,” I said and kicked his foot. “I’ll make sure it hurts. I’ll run you so far into the ground that you become part of this puddle.” I skimmed by boot across the muddy water. It splashed him.

I could feel a burning in my stomach and all the muscles in my back that I had left were tightening. Anger was boiling inside me. I wanted to scream myself out of my skin. I slapped him round the ears and shouted, “Let me go and be happy.” Over and over. He curled up into a ball to protect his head and neck. When I stopped hitting him I was crying. Tears of lava were burning on my toddler tantrum face.

“I’ll let you go, soon as you get help.” He said.

“I don’t need no help. I don’t need it from them and I don’t need it from you. I fumbled around in my bag looking for the keys. The bag was deep and I could hear them chinking but couldn’t see them through my blurred tears. I tipped everything out onto the rainy road. Purse, pens, notepad, receipts, cards. My car keys landed in a puddle, next to the curb he was sitting on. He grabbed my wrist and stared me in the eyes.

“You’re not going anywhere in this state. You’re worse than drunk.”

“I’d be happier dead than sitting here with you.” He pulled me close so we were head to head.

“I’ll help you,” he said through a snot bubble. “I’ll help you sort it all out.”

“I’m sorting it out, I’m getting rid of you. You’re the problem here, not me. Let go.”

I tried to pull myself away but he dragged me closer so we were nose to nose. I could smell kebab on his breath.

“You’re sick.”

“You’re a fuckin’ bastard.” My voice was deeper and coarse from screaming at him to let me go.

I just wanted to be free. I just wanted to be happy.

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Happiness

He looked over the top of his glasses, nodded his head and made a humming noise. I don’t know why he looked at the menu, we’d gone there every week for ten years. The menu never changed, except when they introduced steak night on Wednesday, but we went on Friday so what did it matter to us? It was a long ten minutes of swirling the dregs of his beer around in his glass, and gazing over the menu as if it was the directions to the Holy Grail. He finally closed his menu and put it on top of mine.

“You know what you’re having love?” I finished off the last of my Rioja and folded my arms on the table.

“Yes, the salmon. You?”

“I’m going to try their steak and ale pie.” Try? I thought. He’d been ‘trying’ it every other week since 1998.

The waitress didn’t even change. I didn’t know what was sadder, the fact we’d been eating there for 10 years, or the fact that she’d been working there all that time. She was a bowling ball. She rolled around the restaurant, between the tight tables. “Oops, coming through,” she’d say while trying to land a plate of vegetables on one table, and navigate her obscenely big bottom around the chairs. I thought how could you let yourself get like that. Must be picking in the kitchen and it is true what they say, little pickers really do wear big knickers.

She shuffled through the tables, pen behind her ear and note pad in her hand. Her tights were like the skin you get on sausages and her skirt was showing too much of them. Her gut was tucked in to her skirt and her shirt buttons weren’t done up high enough. Cleavage was spilling out all over the restaurant. She was smiling at us. Pretty face with heart shaped lips and big eyes. Lots of make-up but that’s what they do these days. Understated is out.

“Fancy seeing you here,” she said. I smiled and Al laughed.

“Yes, fancy it,” I said.

“Let me guess,” she put her fingers to her temples and hummed, she pointed at me. “The salmon?”

“That’s me,” I said. “How did you guess?”

“And you are having…” she looked at Al and did the same with her fingers on her temples. “Now, last week you had the sausage and mash, so this week it has got to be the pie!” Al laughed hysterically, I laughed a little.

“You’re so good at remembering,” he said breathless from laughing. Had he always laughed at jokes that weren’t funny? Jokes that weren’t even jokes.

“Did you want it with all the usual trimmings? Chips and peas with the pie, new potatoes and veg with the salmon?”

“Please.” We both said same tone, same time.

She shuffled back through the tables, the glasses chinked together as she passed. One week we when we were at the restaurant I spent the entire time thinking about how the place could be arranged better. Why did they even have so many tables? The place was never full, just a couple of regulars doing regular things.

I knew Al would go and get us both a drink, he liked to do something while he waited. I told him I’d have the large red and he shuffled off to get them.

He was at the bar.

“Hello Al, me old mate,” that was the barman. “What will it be?” He knew what it will be, bet he even knew the joke, wait for it and brace yourselves, it’s a good one.

“I’ll have a large red and a pint of Frog, not in the same glass mind!” The barman was kind, he laughed. I cringed every time I heard that bloody ‘joke’. To think, all those years ago when we met I’d laughed at that. I’d touched his shoulder in the pub while he ordered the first drink we ever shared and thought it was the funniest thing. Those were the days, back then when I was in a pub with my friends, having interesting conversations.

Good old conversations.

Since we moved out in the sticks ten years ago I lost touch with everyone. Al promised me it would be nice in the country, there would be groups to join and he could get a dog. He never got a dog and I never joined a group. He got old and I got shy.

Al shuffled back, two glasses in his hands. He always placed them so gently on the coasters and had to line the rim up with the picture. He breathed heavy because he had polyps, and it was worse after any kind of physical activity- even walking to the bar. A couple of long hairs tickled his upper lip and I wished he’d used the nose hair trimmer I’d got him for Christmas. I took a sip of my drink; he took a sip of his. He looked around the room, and I did to. I lined the coaster up with the edge of the table, and counted the corners on the picture frames. I looked at my hands and stroked each soft nail, straightened my eternity ring.

Eternity means forever.  I spun it back round.

I knew exactly what he was going to say and I tried to stop him because every time he said it I hated him.

“I do love the wall paper here you know. You think we could do it at our place. Hire someone in maybe, you know I’m not too good with wall papering.” Words to that effect were said every week, every other week if I was lucky. The wall paper had been up since 2005. Big ugly flowers taking over an entire wall.

“Yes, I guess we could. We would have to hire someone of course,” I said. He nodded and took another sip of his drink. He sang along to a song he was too old to know and tapped his hand on his knee. Next, he had a choice of three people to talk about and two different topics. Either his brother giving his kids their inheritance last year, or the next door neighbor getting her teeth done.

It was our neighbor and the teeth. He was thinking about going down to talk to the dentist about his. He hated his teeth. Bit late to care now I thought, but I didn’t say anything. I nodded, smiled. He told me I was blessed with straight square teeth. Others would kill for my teeth he said, then the food came.

I didn’t see the signs, honest. I was looking down at my plate, picking at the fish and trying to remember if the salmon always tasted so bland. I was thinking what I would do if I ever got to cook something so different. I thought that rosemary and butter would make this salmon so much tastier and maybe a foil parcel would make it more moist. I decided that I’d make it for myself soon and Al could have his usual meat, veg and potatoes. I looked up to tell him how I was going to do the salmon, not that he’d care, and not that he’d react, but I had to say something.

Al looked different. His mouth was drooped at one side. His arms were heavy on his lap. “Al,” I said. “Are you okay? Is something wrong with the pie?”

He tried to speak but his words were slurring like he’d drank six pints of Frog, not one and a half. It clicked.

I threw my chair back, “Call an ambulance!” A stroke, of course. It was a blur, the staff rushing around, a couple of diners leaving their meals to lend mobiles. I didn’t know how to work it, I threw it back and said, “you call.”

When the flashing lights got there they bundled us both in the back of the ambulance, Al more carefully of course. I knew he was goner. It was how his mother went. I held his limp hand and thought how we hadn’t held hands in years.

His nose hair stopped tickling his upper lip on the road that led to the hospital. The paramedic turned to me and said, “I’m sorry, he’s gone.”

It felt like Christmas eve back when the kids were little. It felt like the weight of a 14 stone man had been lifted from my shoulders. It felt like happiness.

“Do you cook salmon in a foil parcel,” I said the paramedic, “or do you pan fry?”

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What I do since you left.

I’ve started writing shit poems. Ones full of clichés and rhyming couplets. They make me feel sick. They make me cry. What does it matter, I’m sick and sad anyway so might as well get something out of it, eh?

I spend my evenings thinking about how we danced the funky chicken at party’s way back then. How you told me I was too old for you, every day. I don’t think about the time you screamed at me in the street because I told you I wasn’t ready for fatherhood, or how you ignored me for a week because I reversed the car over the cat. A broken tail, I got it fixed.

I stroke your cardigan. That God awful one you called your house coat but still wore outside. I look at the smudge of nail varnish on the pocket- you never could wait for them to dry. But, the way I spend most of my day is by putting away your things, realising how sad and shit and dark it is without them, and taking it all back out. That’s what I do. I look at everything over and over, I feel it, I smell it. There’s this slipper, still got the indent of your foot in it but I can’t find the other. I spend so much time staring at that slipper, searching for its other half, do you know where it is?

Remember those stars that used to hang from the ceiling, you know the ones, I said that they’d be the first thing to go if you did. I get tangled up in them just like before. Sometimes I walk into them on purpose, curse you and the hanging stars and feel better for a second. I know, I hated them but now, now they are beautiful because they are so very you. I’m sentimental. I’m writing soppy poetry and crying at the news.

I don’t let the girls come to visit unless I’ve had enough notice. It’s a good afternoon’s work to get it all away again. If I come across the slipper it can take me two days, I get side tracked and frustrated and have to have a drink. If the girls caught me doing what I do they’ll think that I need to see someone. I think I do.

In the evenings sometimes I can’t get off the phone, people who never called call me weekly. To make me feel better? or to make themselves feel better? I’m not sure which.

I try to ask questions, let others do the talking so that I don’t have to admit my sorry old life to anyone who doesn’t really care, someone who is just calling to fill a spare bit of time. I’ve got all the questions to keep them busy talking, if I ever have to answer that dreaded question, “You been getting out?” I say, the park, I go on bike rides to get the paper, feed the ducks with stale bread and think about getting a dog. I tell them that every Tuesday and Saturday I go to the supermarket, there’s a quiz at the Nags Head on Wednesday.

Truth. Since you left, I’ve been out once. To the supermarket, that big one with roll back as their motto. There were so many kids in there, snotty and screaming, wearing no shoes. I liked the one we used to go in together but I thought I might break down in the bakery aisle. I’m not ready to face those cream puffs in the red and white cases just yet.

In the supermarket, I didn’t know what to buy. I brought rice and pasta along with back up ready meals, beer and vodka- you never let me have vodka. The rice was crunchy and the pasta fell apart. Good intensions but now I’m surviving on my back up, back log of ready meals. They’re salty and I don’t like it. On those dark nights, when I close the curtains and drink vodka on ice I have two of the meals. Too cowardly to do something drastic, I decide to let the salt take its toll on my heart.

The little one came round to visit and gave me a lecture about the salt- wearing her hair pinned, a pair of chinos and a shirt. My God, she could have been you 20 years back. She brought me a parsnip soup. It was thick and chunky and I didn’t know how to get rid of it without having to eat it. I blocked the sink and still haven’t had it fixed. I wash up in the bath until I can find where you kept the yellow pages, maybe they’re with your slipper, maybe your slipper is acting as a bookmark for something you needed in the yellow pages, do you remember?

When the little one came round, we talked about you, of course and we laughed at how you got drunk at Christmas and put the cheese board in the microwave and filled the tea pot up with coffee. The older one has been round too. She’s sad, of course and she misses you being but she needed to talk about her problems and I liked it. She always was a daddy’s girl. She’s fighting with Liam again and that was all she could talk about it and it was a nice change. Although, the whole time she was there, talking about Liam and how she was thinking about leaving him I was thinking about you. I tried not to, I needed a break from my thoughts but this one just crept in. I thought about that time when you said, “if it gets any worse I’m leaving.” I begged you to stay and you said I’d have to come round to it when the time comes. You gave me your wedding ring and promised I’d cope alone. I told you I couldn’t cook and you laughed and told me I’d survive on ready meals, but you said that I’d need to make sure I watch the salt. I gave you your ring back and we cuddled in front of the box.

When the older one said, “dad, are you listening?” I said yes and then she carried on telling me what he had been doing. I’ve never liked Liam and I told her. I told her she should be with someone who makes you laugh even when things are shit, when there’s no money in the bank and bills to pay. And she said, “So you want me to find someone like mum.”

I said, “if you find someone like your mum introduce me, I’m going spare, make sure she’s better looking than your mum though, want to trade up.” She got up, kissed me on the head and told me she had to go.

The phone rings on Tuesdays at 6, and Fridays at 5. Those are the days we agreed on you calling, the nurses wrote it in your diary and remind you an hour before. I watch the phone ring, imagine you sitting on the other end with your crochet blanket over your knees, shivering and bony and grey, surrounded by others just the same. I can’t pick up. I freeze. I cry.

You’re not who you were. You’re not the same person who used to paint her nails every night and pick up the fish and chips on a Friday, call me a tight bastard and laugh at my jokes. That’s not you anymore, you are not mine anymore. You belong to them now, and you’ve got to accept it. You told me that I had to let you leave if the time came and that I’d cope. I’m trying to; I’m trying so hard to move on.

I’ve got in the car a couple of times, got the map out of how to come and visit you. I never get as far as turning the key. I feel sick and my head hurts, I go lie down. I’m punishing myself because I know times a healer and if I see you all the pain that’s getting easier will just get hard again and I’m afraid of what I’ll do.

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