‘In a way he was like the country he lived in, everything came too easily to him.’ Mrs McFarlane told me she heard someone say this in a movie. There was nothing in the movie that wasn’t just rubbish, she said. But the afternoon she heard those people talking on the screen it made her upset and she said it was bad for her to get upset.
It was all to do with the Living Channel. (A nightmare if you ask me: a television station devoted to making people feel crap about their domestic circumstances.) The Living Channel came on in the morning and everybody was suddenly enthusiastic about fancy cakes and the latest in babies’ names. Mrs McFarlane’s son Angus got the dish put up as an early Christmas present – a gift of gab – and ever since that day the wallpaper had seemed wrong, the dishwasher out of date, and Mrs McFarlane’s face made up of wrinkles, the kind of wrinkles, she now suspected, which required the special properties of a miracle cream invented by some guy at Nasa whose face got burned in an accident. Lying in her bed at night she could see the dish jutting out from the side of her building. She could see the sky out there.
Her bed came from the Kays catalogue and the lamp was from a thing called Innovations. It had a timer that turned the lamp off after half an hour. It merely clicked: the bedroom went dark and she said she fell asleep thinking about the bloke with the sore face who had made a million dollars from seaweed cream. There were televisions through the wall; she could hear them blaring as she drifted off. Sometimes she dreamed of the sound of wind coming through the keyhole, or another noise, a sonar pulse, like you heard in old movies about what happened to the submarines during the war. All the connections in her life were a bit like this, baffling, half-loony, tried and tested, a bit furious, but good company as she lay in her bed.
Mrs McFarlane was 82 and she travelled up and down the stairs in a Stannah Stairlift. I only came round to check she was all right and give her a covered dinner and a bag of magazines. While I was there she would tell me everything that happened in her life. She told me about the Living Channel and the film she watched. She said she had thoughts about the man from Nasa and the special face cream. She talked all the time about noises through the walls and dirty children who knocked on her window at all hours and ran away laughing.
‘You’ve a lovely cow’s lick,’ she said to me. ‘People used to try and brush them out but I’d say show them off, they’re lovely.’
‘You’re a frightful fidget, Mrs McFarlane,’ I said. ‘Watch yourself with that cup, it’s boiling hot.’
‘I don’t feel the hot of things now,’ she said, ‘not like I used to. It used to be I wouldn’t have thanked you for a cup of something hot. Every time it touched the mouth it would scald the tongue off me. I just drank water out the tap, which they now say is good for the skin, but then it was only water, and no better or worse than anything else. Except tea. I won’t take tea. Hot drinks can burn your insides if you’re not careful.’
‘Take it easy,’ I said. ‘Anything in the magazines?’
‘Go into that drawer will you and get me a handkerchief. Third one along, that’s the one. They’re all clean.’ Mrs McFarlane had chests of drawers all over the house. It was all proper wood. Every drawer was stuffed with tablecloths and skirts she never wore. More than one of the drawers in her bedroom was kept for handkerchiefs.
‘There’s never anything in them magazines,’ she said, ‘except holidays. I like the holiday ones, with Spain and that. You can go to Spain now as if it was Scarborough. For the price of the bus fare and a flask of something nice I’m telling you. They all go to Spain now as if it was nothing. They all love Spain.’
‘Not just Spain,’ I said. ‘Some people go to New York just to visit the shops of a weekend.’
‘They should be shot down with slings,’ said Mrs McFarlane. ‘You don’t get anywhere by just flying about the place. My Angus went to Southend to buy me a telephone table and I said: “Angus,” I said, “you can get that out the catalogue, you’ve no business driving the van to Southend.” You can even ring the free number and you don’t need a stamp or fuss of any kind. The catalogue brings the thing to the door and they even put it in for you, upstairs and everything.’
‘You wouldn’t say no to a bit of Spain, though, would you?’ I said.
‘Not me. Nobody ever had a good time in Spain. You get off in the middle of some of these places and it’s just dirty. The food they give you is covered in flies and you can’t go to the toilet because it’s filthy and some of it is half-built anyway. There was a thing on there’ – she pointed to the bedroom television; it was on with no sound – ‘about a young couple who spent a fortune on a bed and breakfast and it was all just ants. The sink was all ants and under the bed. You don’t want to go all the way to Spain for nothing but ants. You might as well just stop here if all you want is ants. The poor young couple spent a right fortune and all they could do was go and buy powder and that to put down. They was in the pillowcases and everything. You know what ants is like. They don’t like the British in these places anyhow. They think we’re snooty, and, you want to know something, we are snooty, and every right to be an all, when it comes to these places with their ants.’
I went into the hall to roll my eyes. There was a strong smell of washing that had been left too long in the machine. I looked down the stairs and thought about how easy it would be to leave if I wanted to. But I was fine there. All I wanted was to stare at the brown carpet for a minute or two. ‘You can smoke out there if you want to. It doesn’t bother me,’ she shouted from the bedroom.
‘It’s OK, Mrs McFarlane,’ I said over my shoulder. ‘I don’t smoke cigarettes.’
‘I don’t know why not,’ she mumbled. ‘Young people should smoke. They should be made to smoke. If you’re young and daft that’s what you should be doing, smoking and walking about with girls. And driving fast up the road if you know how to drive fast.’ I cleared my throat and walked back into her room. She was sitting on the edge of the bed. ‘A so-called plumber came here when you were away,’ she said, ‘and he smoked as if he was eating them. I phoned them to say there was something wrong with that toilet flushing. Know what he did? He took it away. Away it went in a puff of smoke. He put in something else but it was not the one he took away. I shouted down after him that the one he left was plastic and the one he took away was Armitage Shanks.’
‘What’s the difference?’ I said.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘there is a difference, but I don’t expect you would know anything about that. The good bit was the smoke. Even this morning when I woke up I could still smell it about the place.’
There were always boxes of papers on Mrs McFarlane’s sofas and chairs. Her old biscuit tins were overflowing with policy books and birth certificates. There were stamps as well and mass cards, piles of guarantees under a veil of dust. Most days she seemed to sit with the television on and the papers spread out in front of her, and one day when I came in she just held up a flapping book of cheques or something and waved them at me from her chair. ‘Robert,’ she said, ‘we’re in the money. Today we’re a couple of rich kids you and me.’
‘Is that a chequebook?’ I asked.
‘These were before chequebooks,’ she said. ‘This is savings stamps from the old Midland Bank machine on Queenstown Road. Each page is a pound and there’s’ – she licked two of her fingers and slowly counted – ‘there’s 15 pages,’ she said. The guarantees were spread over the floor at her feet. I picked some up. ‘Watch where you’re going,’ she said. ‘I’m making sure these things are up to date. You need to know that you’ll find these things here in an emergency.’
‘Toasters from yonks,’ I said, lifting another handful. ‘These are out of date.’
‘Give me them,’ she said. ‘You never know when things will need fixing. These companies just laugh at you if you don’t have the bit of paper. Now what about all these stamps. Can we cash them?’
I looked at the book. The blue stamps were discoloured and some of the pages were tacked together with remnants of glue. The stamps seemed to suggest other days – days to do with multiple tasks and long-term plans, thoughts once had about rainy days. They seemed sensible and good in their uneven rows and it made me stop for a second and imagine the person who liked to put something away.
‘Will they take them?’ asked Mrs McFarlane.
‘They bloody well should,’ I said. ‘You saved them up didn’t you? You didn’t draw them in there with a crayon did you?’
‘No’, she said, ‘they were saved up. Put them in the purse.’
There was now and then something fresh and pointed about the old lady’s resentment, times when I felt she was angry with me, or bored with my attitude. She never asked me anything private but just assumed absolute knowledge, the quick throwing of a finger in my direction a sign for me to shut up, leave well alone, or go away. One time I told her to fuck off and she just sniffed. Fuck off was no good with her; besides, I’d become really interested – reliant, maybe – on her talent for making me feel responsible. I don’t mean work-responsible, or trustworthy in a nine to five way, but just, well, answerable. What can I say? Something about her habit of going on had the effect of cancelling my own preoccupations, or shifting them for an hour or two. The dull afternoon became an outpost of unspecified commitment. I was happy to be there, that was all.
The day she flapped the Midland stamps a man came to the door and delivered more parcels. Mrs McFarlane was always getting parcels and I spent half the time helping her with scissors and bits of Jiffy bag. It was all Kays and Innovations and some woollens place she’d got into called New Perthshire Knits and Tweeds. ‘Here’s a pair of socks for you,’ she said, handing me a polythene bag. ‘They’re all just one size so they should do you fine.’ In one of the other bags there was a tiny machine that could take the fluff off jumpers, also a box of candles and some bath-salts. The big parcel was a food mixer.
‘You can set that up for me,’ she said.
‘Are you going to start cooking now?’ I asked.
‘All in good time,’ she said, gathering up the wrapping. ‘There’s all these great things you can make and put into bags for the freezer. They show you how to do it step by step. Half an hour for most of the things. But you need this. You wouldn’t want to waste anything mashing it up with a fork.’
I carried the food mixer into the kitchen and put it on the side. You never saw a kitchen so gleaming before. Brand-new pans. Toasted sandwich makers, woks, fish-poachers, rows of spices with the seals unbroken, colanders, and rows of knives sunk in their wooden blocks. I stood for a while in the cold, glinting kitchen, where everything seemed stranded in the daylight. The rubber floor was yellow and made for shadows. I followed the length of myself across the floor and stopped at the taps. A neat cloth hung over the spout, and a cup stood on the drainer, next to a pile of magazines from Horizon and Thomas Cook. The water hadn’t gone near them. ‘Do you want anything from in here?’ I shouted through.
There was no answer. I put my head round. She was sleeping.
The next Tuesday was the second of January and Mrs McFarlane said could I come over early and help her round to the shops. I had a bad hangover. Walking through my living-room in Brixton it was all broken bodies on the sofas, roll-up papers and burst cigarettes on the table, piles of empty bottles and a half-memory of laughing and shouting until four in the morning. My friend Julie opened her eyes as I fished around for my wallet.
‘Lucozade,’ she said.
‘Not now,’ I said. ‘I’ve got to go to Vauxhall.’
‘You’re not on duty,’ she said. ‘You can’t be.’ Julie worked for a telesales company in Clerkenwell and she hated everything to do with work. ‘Lucozade,’ she said again.
‘I’ve got to pop over to Vauxhall,’ I said.
‘Pop over? Is it work?’
‘Sort of,’ I said. ‘One of the old ladies.’
Julie climbed out of the sleeping bag and reached out to the table in a knackered kind of way.
‘Your old ladies,’ she said. ‘You’re not being nice to them Bobbie. You’re only being nice to yourself.’
‘Fuck off,’ I said.
I wasn’t supposed to be working that day but I got in the car anyway and headed to Vauxhall. At the lights beside Clapham North some fanny came flying in and scraped my side. We each slammed on the brakes. The other guy got out and I rolled down the window. It was his fault. He was already telling me I’d run a light as he walked over. ‘The light was green you fucking prat,’ I said. ‘Get back in your car.’ He just stood there wagging his finger. ‘Name and address,’ he said. I opened my door just a little bit and then swung it back and forward a few centimetres. When he was close enough I pushed the door hard and fucked him right in the knees with it. He fell backwards and I pulled it shut. ‘Get a life you prat,’ I said.
‘You’re fucking dead,’ he shouted up from the road.
I drove off.
Mrs McFarlane was already dressed in her furry coat and scarf, and she wore the pinkest lipstick I’ve ever seen. As I went to make sure that the back door was locked I noticed the television was still on and said I would turn it off. ‘Leave it,’ she said, ‘it’s fine as it is.’ And for a moment before we left we both stood watching the telly – some intelligent young woman was talking about the effects of chemical weapons on veterans of the Gulf War. The pictures showed bombs going off in a desert somewhere. Then we were back in the studio and the presenter was saying something about what to do with your Christmas leftovers. I sniggered.
‘Let’s go,’ said Mrs McFarlane, suddenly annoyed. ‘Is there anything that isn’t a joke to you people?’
She said could we park close to Clapham Junction. She knew it was busy round there, but just park anywhere, she said, just say you’re with an old-age pensioner. As I locked the car I noticed a dent in the driver’s door. Mrs McFarlane wanted to look in the window of Argos and then go into Woolworths and we stopped for a breather on a bench between the two. ‘Why are they all shouting?’ she said.
‘Them,’ she said, looking up at the kids going past in their big anoraks and trainers. ‘Where are they all going anyway?’
‘They’re all mad,’ I said, ‘and they’re going to Argos, the same as you.’
‘I’m not going to Argos,’ she said, ‘I’m going to Woolworths. Come on before we get stuck.’
As we walked around the shop Mrs McFarlane told me she’d watched a thing on the Living Channel about a bunch of people who won everything they owned in competitions. ‘Every sodding thing,’ she said, ‘cars and fridges and whole new bathrooms. You wouldn’t believe it, Robert. Deckchairs. Potatoes for a whole year. Tins of beans. Toothpaste for life!’
‘You wouldn’t mind a bit of that, would you?’ I said.
‘Not me,’ she said, ‘I can’t even do the Evening Standard crossword. Hopeless at all that, me. Angus once said I was good at knowing film stars’ names. I could tell you who played what in what, but not much else. I’m hopeless at puzzles and things like that. Them books. I don’t know the first thing about history you know. I can’t do a competition unless I already know the answer.’
I looked at the boxes of chocolates, reduced.
‘On that Living thing as well,’ she said, ‘the same one, they said about people stealing everything that was in their houses. Everything. I mean. How do you get away with it? How do you steal beds and toilet cisterns and everything that’s in your house and get to tell all about it on the Living programme?’
‘That’s a tough one,’ I said.
‘Mm,’ she said, ‘but I suppose they’d already have things like toilet cisterns.’
In the stationery aisle she picked up some jotters and pencils. Then she wanted some green paint and a packet of adhesive hooks to hang dishtowels on. She wandered off down one of the aisles and came back with a pair of socks. ‘These are for you,’ she said, ‘they’re meant to fit everybody, and you’re not that tall are you? You wouldn’t say you were a giant.’
‘Thanks, Mrs McFarlane,’ I said, ‘but don’t go wasting money. I don’t need any socks.’
‘Shush,’ she said, ‘they’re just a present for you.’ At the checkout she leaned against the belt and smiled up at me, whispering: ‘The people on the telly don’t have much use for this bit.’
When we were back outside and walking up the pedestrian zone towards the place where I’d left the car, Mrs McFarlane took my arm. And then after a couple of metres she stopped. ‘What?’ I said, the bags and the tin of paint swaying at my side.
‘Is that a nightclub?’ she said. The place was called Ruby Tuesdays.
‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s just a bar.’
‘And open all day as well as the night time?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Will we have a drink in there?’ she said.
My chin snuck back for a second. ‘Of course,’ I said, ‘is that what you want to do?’ She shrugged.
The music was loud as we came through the door. There were a couple of steps so I had to help her up. Once we got to the bar she put her bag down on a stool and took out her purse. She opened it up and I could see it was stuffed with money, like spending money for a holiday, and nestling with the money was the book of Midland savings stamps.
‘I’m getting these,’ I said. Mrs McFarlane didn’t smile. She just put the purse away and rubbed her mouth with the back of her hand. Unsurprisingly, she seemed quiet in the bar, the music was so loud and everyone seemed to be laughing in their groups. I had to bend my head down to hear her. ‘I want a Tequila Sunrise,’ she said.
‘Me too,’ I said. And when it came she didn’t budge for a moment. She looked over at the rows of bottles and the boxes of crisps. She took a drink from the glass and put it slowly down on the bar.
‘Are you all right there?’ I said.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It tastes nice.’