We knew he’d make it, and when he did, we drank to our own success as much as his. He’d done it in all our names, and though we understood he would be leaving, as leave he must, we bathed in the certain knowledge that he’d be carrying something of ourselves with him, just as there would be a trace of himself left behind. Like the scene of any crime.
As a boy he’d been something of a boxer, blond and broad, his flesh lying heavy on a frame made to take a man’s blows, but blessed with that surprising agility that can sometimes be allied to weight. He danced through all his schooling like that, always quick, always sharp, eyes set to challenge, hands held down by his side, Muhammad Ali style, as if to prove his unbreakable confidence, his unnerving speed. In the ring, out of the ring, it was all the same to him, the space he governed, the room he made for himself, forcing his opponents back onto the ropes, into the corner, any place where they found no defence. There was nothing malicious in it. Power simply rested in his half-clenched hands, his watchful eyes. Girls, too, he treated to the same skill. One round, two, he’d have them flat on their backs by the third at the very latest, bells ringing in their ears. They couldn’t get up even if they wanted to. Not with that weight on top of them. Large we called him, large as life, not solely on account of his size but also for the view he took of the world around him, its fruit, its pleasures, how it all seemed ordained to fall within his grasp. Large we called him, and Large he became, the name we wrote in our year books, the boy most likely to, the name that appeared under the newspaper photograph of his inter-county boxing championship, the name that Sophie Marchand foolishly tattooed at the base of her spine in a vain attempt to make their connection permanent, as if even the most exquisite buttocks in town could keep him from his destiny.
I’d known him then, naturally, though not as well as I imagined others did. I wasn’t on his register, that’s what I put it down to then. I wasn’t a rival, or someone he liked to fool about with in class, or later, in one of the pubs that were supposedly off-limits to us sixth-formers. Some obeyed, many didn’t, but none held court in the back of the Merry Boys as he did, chewing his way through a plate of tomato sandwiches which Pat would make him for free, her husband dewy-eyed with the prospect of an evening in the company of this magnetic young mauler, the crowd he could pull. Even at seventeen, they’d come in to watch him drink and hold forth, dropping his aitches, munching his food, pouncing on any subject under the sun. How had he gained so much experience that he could hold forth on cars and women and the state of the nation with such confidence? Who had taught him all those worldly jokes, those quick asides, those half-believable tall stories which suggested an adult life way beyond his years? He’d stand there, his back leant against the bar, pint held in the crook of his arm, his hair gelled but left deliberately unkempt, flirting not so much with his audience, but at the very prospect of himself.
‘Don’t you ever use a mirror?’ Pat once joked, as he took the proffered plate.
‘What do I need of a mirror,’ he told her. ‘You’re my mirror, Pat, every time I look at you,’ and she fussed about with the bottles and glasses trying to hide her blushes. And we looked at him and wondered how it was that he should be such the red-hooded cockerel in the midst of such well-bred fowl.
We knew part of the reason – where he came from. London chuck-outs, we called them. They had estates built for them on the far edge of town, circles of semis, with concrete drives and built-in garages underneath the front of store, third bedroom, lying all lumped together brash and red-bricked, like sunburnt tourists herded onto a package-holiday beach. We didn’t like it. Ours was a market town. It had settled ways. What industry it had once had (a goods yard, a farm-machinery plant) had long since closed; the yard morphed into the site for the monthly livestock auction, the factory bulldozed to make way for new council offices, in which my father once sat as a councillor, and for one long triumphal year, as mayor. Their arrival was sanctioned the year of his departure, the first estate built and occupied a year later. The notion that he had let the town down in its hour of need never left him. It was that which broke him, as much as later, more obvious events.
‘Your grandfather had the right idea,’ he would mutter. Back in the thirties, my grandfather Clarence and a group of like-minded householders had stolen out one evening armed with sand, cement and bricks, and built a eight-foot wall across their residential road in Oxford, thereby separating themselves from the newly built council houses on the other side. Their stand against planning laws, aesthetic balance and ordinary human decency sounded a chord which set the strings of middle-class Britain humming. They all wanted walls like that, thousands of them. The wall was torn down, but they had made their point. They didn’t like it, integration, never would. My father was of the same mind, but had no course to mortar. So on they came, spilling into our lives, down the supermarket aisles, into the bars, swarming over the brand-new sports centre, with its pool and family crèche, that my father and his fellow councillors had envisaged for our exclusive use. That was not all. Suddenly we had a bowling alley, a video mart, a dingy nightclub with fights outside. Suddenly the town was not ours any longer. It was like one of those fifties science-fiction films that regularly surface on late-night television. Even when I see one now I am reminded of that sense of outlandish intrusion hanging over the town like a poisonous cloud. An alien race had descended, their misshapen customs brought out at night from the boots of their cars like spores from another planet. In time we would all be infected. You only had to drive down one of their roads to know what we were in for; flash new motors, white vans and sightless rust-buckets up on breezeblocks: dodgy money, dodgy trade and a complete aesthetic bypass. The more they filled the streets, the emptier the town became; the more the shops multiplied, the less there seemed to be on offer. At Christmas time, though the lights shone ever brighter, never had the town’s prospects appeared so dim. My father began to take my mother and me abroad, five days stuck in a succession of palm-strewn hotels which studiously ignored our Yuletide needs; Lake Como, Interlaken, once disastrously in Ireland, somewhere west of Skibbereen, where he regarded the black pudding sat upon the table with the eye of a surveyor who has discovered a seismic fault line running under the family home. He might not know when the catastrophe would strike, but come it would, tumbling about his ears. There was only one saving grace in all this mess. The schools. Though he could do nothing to save the town from its fall, at least the schools would keep their offspring safe.
There were two schools then; the minor public school, of which my father was a governor, with its fake motto and inflated history, and the comprehensive. No prizes for who went to which. Large was the exception, the boy who had rowed in from the other side of town on the raft of a sports scholarship. Not simply boxing, but hockey, judo and surprise, surprise, cricket.
We knew he was coming. I can’t quite recall how, perhaps through Ben, whose father taught us history, that third eye which has been rendered sightless on every subsequent generation, but in the days leading up to that autumn term there was a good deal of discussion concerning his impending arrival. Not there was much debate about who this interloper would turn out to be; we knew that, someone thoroughly undernourished, a product of frozen pizzas and chip-fat culture. It was more a matter of the degree to which we would be prepared to accommodate such an imposition. A sports scholarship? We had our own champion, Tommy Nikolides, the Greek boy, who we called the Turk. His father, who, rumour had it, could barely read, owned the local hardware and garden shop. His wife had left him years back, and he’d had to work hard to keep his little family going. You’d see him standing behind the counter in what he took to be a suit, but was in fact a jacket and trousers of various shades of blue, running his thick, stubby fingers over catalogues and order books, his mouth labouring over the words. Mr Nikolides was acceptable, our pitied immigrant making good. We made fun of him behind Tommy’s back, but we liked him and his industrious, respectful ways. We had all grown up with the Turk. The Turk was destined to become our hero, the boy who worked his way up, played by the rules, bearer of our democratic banner, the ambitions of our town personified. The Turk had a future. It was written on every hopeful mother’s face, every disappointed father’s too. He would play cricket for the county, perhaps beyond. He would become wealthy, mildly famous, rise through the housing ranks of the town. Why, he might even carry off Sophie Marchand. We all dreamt of carrying off Sophie Marchand, though most of us recognized that a dream was all it could ever be. Only the Turk had a chance. Only the Turk was given a chance. Until Large.
I remember that first time I saw him, the rest of us clustered round the desks in little groups, exchanging gossips, renewing rivalries, oblivious to the change that was about to be wrought upon us. I was talking to Sophie at the time, beautiful, dazzling Sophie, who with her blonde hair and her clear skin possessed an ease which rendered her intelligence almost invisible. She was describing a curious fish she had seen that holiday while diving off the Corsican coast. In those days I professed an interest in such things, though in truth was I was more interested in the diver than the fish. Despite her status, Sophie had a soft spot for me, or so I believed. Perhaps she just felt sorry for me, or was paying the family back for the good turn we had done her. We had a lake at the back of the house, stocked with trout and tench, and the previous spring my father had given her a free run of it to study their breeding patterns. It was her thing, aquatic life, marine biology. Not surprising, really. Sophie was built for water. Contemporaries of mine might have fixed posters on their wall of bare-buttocked tennis players, but I simply closed my eyes and pictured Sophie diving off the jetty in the late afternoon, proud like a yacht with its full sails billowing. A truer sight you could never hope to see. That morning her hand was stretched out, demonstrating the shape of the creature’s fins, its strange corkscrew motion as it swam along the sea floor, when she froze, the story draining from her lips. I turned. There he was, framed by the doorway studying us, both the portrait and the painter, Sophie struck momentarily dumb as she absorbed the tailored cut of his regulation-colour suit, the swaggered knot of his school tie and the sparkle of a gold wristwatch that hung loose over the swell of his hand. Even from a distance you could sense the power in those hands, their capability for destruction and other forms of distraction. Whether there was a smile on his face I cannot truthfully say, but certainly that is how I remember it, careless, quizzical, as if it was him about to take us into his fold, rather than the other way around.
He pushed himself off and ambled over. He had a kind of swing to him, as if walking to a rhythm that only he could hear, his head inclined a fraction, seemingly relaxed but listening out, assessing the hidden dangers, the sudden opportunities, his bulk nourished not simply on the fat of the land but by his place on it. He could have been in a Western. There was no hesitation, no embarrassment. He came up straight to the two of us, and stuck out his hand to the most accomplished, most assured, most unobtainable girl of her year.
‘Clark, Clark Rossiter,’ he said. ‘Pleased to meet you.’ He looked around. ‘Tell me, which one of these fellas would be Tommy Nikolides.’ He dropped his eyes onto me then back to her. ‘Tell me it can’t be him.’
Sophie laughed and pushed back her hair. ‘This is Charles. Tommy’s the one over there,’ and she pointed across the room.
‘That’s more like it,’ he said. He turned to me, amused by the prospect. ‘If it had been you, I’d have asked for my money back.’ He punched me lightly on the shoulder and without waiting for any further introduction, crossed the aisle.
‘Did you hear that,’ Sophie said. ‘My money?’
We watched as he singled the Turk out. Tommy was a good-looking lad, better looking than Large, olive-eyed, sculptured, with his curly black, devilish hair cut just a little too long; a body made for cling film, Sophie used to tease, but here he was up against someone who was carrying much more, an access to a world whose power and charm and love of danger we could only guess at. Tommy was the school’s top sportsman, a fabulous player, football-mad long before the disease infected the whole country. He supported Luton, for reasons too arcane to remember, their success or lack of it weighing heavily on his mind. Large gave us a wink and stuck out his hand.
‘I hear you’re the man to know, when it comes to the football team. The thing is . . . ’ He dipped his hand into his jacket, brought out what looked like a ticket. ‘Luton Town. Up to the end of the year. Complimentary, see?’
How he found out Tommy’s name or what he looked like or who he supported no one knew, but there he was, squaring up to him with that dominant charm that was to become his trademark. He laid the ticket out on the adjacent desk, a pearl fished up from the deep. The Turk looked around, not knowing what to do. What was this, exactly? Some sort of cheap trick? A crude inducement to friendship?
‘Are you trying to bribe me?’ he demanded, his voice primed with indignation. The classroom went hollow. This boy had just crossed the threshold, and was trespassing on our hallowed soil. He laughed, a barrel of a thing with a touch of asthma about it.
‘Why would I do that?’
‘Because you aren’t any good?’
Sophie’s voice came through loud and clear, argumentative, protective. It was only a matter of time before she and Tommy made it official. We all waited. It was a good question. Was he any good? He didn’t look like a footballer. He picked up the ticket and stuck it in Tommy’s top pocket.
‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘I’m not. But I’m lucky to have around.’
Did he see it all then, who he would take as companions, who he would seduce, who were the also-rans? I think that must be so, for the swift have to move with assurance, and he possessed a superfluity of both those traits. Ben, Duncan, Laurie, how quickly he gathered them in, how quickly they became subordinate to his will. Paula, Rachael, the buck-toothed girl who died a year later of leukaemia, what could they do, confronted with such infectious insolence, such relentless patience, such huge demanding hands? One by one they toppled. It was all they had to offer this self-sufficient young man, or so it seemed, and they gave it up willingly enough. It didn’t matter to them that it meant nothing to him, a dip in the sea, something bracing, something to leave feeling good, shaking the drops off. It was Large at play, transient, just like any other game (save boxing), and like all games had its rules, its customs, its fixed frame of time. Indeed his take-it-or-leave-it attitude made him all the more attractive, all the more of a challenge. They knew it. That was the whole point. Our very own rock star, in town for the taking for one night only. And Sophie? He took one look at her that morning, her assured success as tantalizing as the fine hair on her suntanned arms, and wrote the time of her eventual bedding right there and then. He was in no hurry. As for the Turk, Large was games captain in all but name before the term was out and no one batted an eyelid, least of all Tommy. The Turk could play, the Turk could lead, but Large could inspire. He could trot onto a field, sniff the air, carve up the moment and hand it out like cake. He could twinkle his eyes, raise you up just by looking at you, the only man I’ve known to do that. That summer he’d stroll out onto the cricket pitch and stand at the wicket like a bullfighter in the ring, sideways on, inviting destruction. It was the stand of someone who cared but didn’t care, who played by the rules yet broke them, who respected tradition yet cocked a snook at it. He broke three bats, and was bowled clean out more times than was deemed prudent, but we loved him for it. Or so we believed.
How can I convey it all, the whirlwind he brought into our lives, how caught up we became in his relentless energy, everything we had known or expected thrown into the air; how exciting he was, how fresh he smelt, the fun he was. That’s what the year was all about as far as he was concerned, and we were like overeager TV contestants, throwing ourselves into a kind of prolonged game show, with him both the winner and the prize. Girls, drink, locker-room camaraderie, he was on a never-ending roll. In the classroom it was much the same. He was quick with figures, but that was about it; he worked hard enough but he was average, nothing more. It didn’t matter. While others outshone him, myself included, such success no longer carried the same weight. He gave the impression that if he chose to, he could do it all, but as it was, academic success was simply loose change in his pocket. And thus, with one deprecating laugh, one shrug of the shoulders, one condescending clap on the back, he devalued the currency for all of us. When it came to university, he was equally dismissive. ‘Them students haven’t got a clue,’ he announced one night in the Merry Boys, to a chorus of approval. ‘They screw a few birds, take a few drugs, and think they’re living. On a grant. Where’s the sense in that? I’m going to screw a lot of birds, take a lot of drugs and make some serious money. Now whose round is it?’
Everyone liked him. Everyone had to. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. He got that from his parents, and they in turn got it from him. He was an only child, after all. They had that loud familiarity that comes from living in a capital city, his mother, his father. They were from the north, Acton way, one of those faceless outposts with not even the dubious grace of the East End to save them, Carl, his old man, one-time foreman of a maintenance gang, working nights on London’s underground, then a ducker-and-diver, a jack of all trades, a lathe operator, a butcher’s van driver, even, Large told us once with a smattering of pride, a door-to-door salesman selling soft drinks to London housewives. He had that restless romance in him, the father, romance touched with violence. You could see it in the way he attacked the Merry Boys’ piano, standing half bent over the keys, press-ganging all and sundry into the obligatory Friday-night sing-along. Before their arrival I don’t think any of us understood what a sing-along was – fascism in its purest form. Never drunk anything but Guinness since he was twelve, that was Carl’s boast. Rhoda, his wife was called, similarly boastful, a five-a-night brandy-and-soda woman. Before I saw her, I had always pictured her as someone rolling, voluptuous, with a girth broad enough to have produced such a tonnage of a son, but she was nothing like that, top-heavy maybe, but pert and wily, a harder-edged version of one of my father’s favourite British comedy actresses, Liz Fraser. ‘Pure shop-girl,’ my father exclaimed, when she first appeared at the one of the school carol concerts. Why they had left London was never clear, though something dark and cancerous had thrown its shadow over their departure. They hadn’t come for the fresh air, that was clear. They had that indoor pasty look, brought about by years of game shows and instant gravy. They were serial smokers too. You could always tell when anyone had been over to his house; they came back reeking of it.
I was not a regular there, but I remember one time, the afternoon of the inter-school county boxing championship match. Large had made it to the final. He was famous by then. He’d forgotten part of his gear and asked me to go over, to pick up his spare trunks, his spare pair of gloves. I was grateful to be asked, a small satellite to his star. Rhoda answered the door. She had a towel on her head, her face hot as if fresh from a shower, and a kimono wrapped around an obviously bare body. It was half-past one on a Wednesday afternoon, and it unnerved me to see someone so undressed at such an hour. I introduced myself and blurted out my mission, conscious of the colour rushing to my face. I stood in the hall as she sashayed up the stairs to fetch the bag. There was a photograph on the wall of Large’s father standing at the end of a pier holding a giant conger eel. Frank Sinatra was playing somewhere. Fly me to the moon. Carl was smiling, but it was the smile of a hard and unforgiving afternoon’s work, barbed and steely, like the hook through the monster’s jaws. A glass of half-drunk red stood on balanced on the radiator, left over I presumed from the night before. Somewhere I imagined there’d be an overflowing ashtray or two. The house smelt of cigarette smoke and air-freshener and something else, a cloying thickness that gave the air a sour solidity. I thought it might be her cooking. It was only when she came back down that I realized what the smell was; Large, the work of his thick, oily body as it negotiated its way from one cramped space to another. Upward mobility, no wonder it loomed so prominently.
‘So, Charles, you’re a friend of Clark’s?’ she enquired, handing it over.
‘Not really,’ I stammered. ‘Just doing him a favour.’
‘That’s our Clark, always getting someone else to do his dirty work.’ She wagged a ringed finger at me. ‘Stand up for yourself. Don’t let him take you for granted.’
It sounded friendly enough, but it was a belittling remark. I knew what she saw when she opened her front door, an errand boy, doing her precious boy’s bidding, a smile of satisfaction flitting across her face. I might have had the right start in life, but her son had me beat by a mile. Always would do.
‘Will you be going this evening?’ I enquired. I had been brought up to be polite, whatever the provocation.
‘Me?’ She poked a foot out from underneath the kimono and wriggled it up and down. Her toenails were painted in the school colours, egg, green and egg, my father called them. ‘Take a wild guess.’ She winked.
I left, angry, vowing never to be used like that again. Forty minutes later I was in the changing room, where Large had completed some essential pre-match preparation. He was sitting on the bench, soaked in sweat. Ben was kneading his shoulders.
‘Charlie,’ he said. ‘My main man.’ He threw a playful punch in my direction. ‘Is that my gear?’ He took the bag and checked the contents. ‘Nice one. You got any change?’
‘Yeah. Fifty-pence pieces. I need them for the machine. This side pocket is quite empty.’
‘You shouldn’t be smoking now, surely.’
Ben started to laugh. Large squeezed his nose between thumb and forefinger, holding his own back.
‘Not that machine. The one next to it.’
I blushed and dug into my pocket. I had three fifty-pence pieces. He took them all.
The match took place in the new Pemberton Sports Centre. The Olympic-sized swimming pool had been boarded over, the ring erected, Large’s father towelled up in a livid pea-green shellsuit, revelling in the prospect of a legalized punch-up. The town was out in force, an uneasy mixture of bigotry and brass, both camps lorded over by the newly installed mayor and his lardy wife (herself a towering example of both qualities). My father had absented himself on the grounds of an upset bowel. The truth was he couldn’t bear to see the project he had spent years nurturing and which was named after him being legitimized by the very people whose presence he resented so much. Relinquishing the mayoralty eighteen months before, he was still on the council, a force to be reckoned with. Any potholes in our road got mended double quick. So absence noted, there we sat, the town worthies, the school sixth-formers and their parents, to one side; the family’s entourage, their fly London cousins, the estate, on the other. For the old town, those not in school uniform wore sports jackets, casual trousers, open-necked shirts; they wore suits to a man, dark and striped, their jackets hanging down like lengths of corrugated iron, their women decked out as if bound for some Las Vegas casino, all bosom and bangles, and slabs of raw meat. The mayor, seeking to satisfy both factions, hung his chain of office, with its gold links and moderately obscene pendulum, around Carl’s neck, clutching his hands in the air in a manner he had doubtless seen on television, but which on him looked ridiculous. The cheering that greeted this flourish was as caustic as it was raucous, though the sarcasm was lost on him. Small wonder that come the council elections the following year he would lose, provoking a similar gesture from my father. All that though, even then, seemed rooted in the past. Here the future beckoned. This was what the world was waiting for now, boys like Large, and the men they would become. This is what counted now, the swagger, the upper cut, the quick careless laugh as you wiped the blood away. The lights dimmed, and on he strolled.
His opponent was from the coast, a freckled lad with red hair, a farmer’s boy, heavy, cumbersome, slow to anger. His hands were made for felling rather than fighting, arms more suited for splitting logs than the flurries of activity he might expect in the ring. Before the match began, as they stood, heads bowed, listening to the referee, he leant across and whispered half a dozen words into Large’s ear. It was reminiscent of that electric moment in Zaire when Ali told Foreman of his coming doom. Large had been given Mailer’s book on it, The Fight, the paperback as often as not stuffed into his jacket pocket. When he’d had a few, he’d read passages out loud in the Merry Boys. It was one of his star turns, particularly the passage concerning the fifth round, where Ali sinks back on the ropes, inveigling Foreman to expend his fury. Sometimes Carl accompanied him on the piano, a regular music-hall double-act. Perhaps this lad had read Mailer’s book too, or at least had heard of Large’s affection for it. No matter his reasoning, he decided that what had worked for Ali would work for him. He licked his fleshy, dew-drop lips and said his piece, Large staring ahead, unblinking. Whatever the sentiment, it was not well chosen. For the next eighteen minutes Large laid siege to the boy, possessed by an indignation that could barely be assuaged, his face flushed, his fists heavy, the boards creaking under the weight. The freckled lad stood there, unable to comprehend the speed, the skill, the sheer cruelty that struck him from all sides, a beleaguered ox danced and jabbed at, confronted by his own gullibility, caught in the headlights of rage. Round upon round he rose slowly from his corner to face yet another bewildering assault, eyes blinking, arms moving first this way then that, in a fruitless attempt at protection, Large darting out from invisible alleyways, from unseen shadows, pounding, smothering, blocking his retreat, one arm locked around the boy’s head while his mouth delivered his own half-spat taunts. Rounds two and three he worked on the body; rounds four and five he reserved for the face, opening up a cut over the left eye, which by the opening salvo of the sixth had the eyebrow practically hanging by a thread. Even then, when the referee stepped in, Large pushed him aside, for one more blow. It struck me then that I’d never seen Large angry before, barely in control, overwhelmed by a sentiment that for the most part he kept under lock and key. Here was an opponent, I thought, who when riled would give no quarter, who would hunt you down to the ends of the earth, drive a stake through your heart, bury you in an unmarked grave. That night, when he appeared at the Merry Boys, his hands were so swollen he could barely lift his pint. Sophie Marchand held his glass for him, nestled between her breasts. A cigar stuck out of his top pocket. The Turk was nowhere to be seen.
‘Large,’ I called out. ‘Congratulations.’
‘What?’ He turned round. ‘Charlie! My main man,’ and feigned another blow. ‘Let me buy you a drink,’ I offered.
‘Nah. This is on me.’ He took out a roll of five-pound notes. ‘Sophie, get the man a drink.’
Sophie turned to the bar. He looked at her rear end and winked.
‘There’s gold in them there hills, Charlie. Just needs some good spade work, wouldn’t you say?’ He kicked the bag at his feet and winked again. I was at a loss for words. She was well within our hearing. The trophy peeked out amongst his soiled clothing. It wasn’t important to him any more. There were banknotes there too, lying carelessly at the bottom.
‘Is that money?’
‘Course it’s money. Two hundred and fifty quid.’
‘I didn’t know there was a financial prize.’
‘There wasn’t. My old man laid some bets on. Round six I predicted, just like Ali used to do. This is my cut. He should have given me more, the cheapskate. I’m worth a lot more than this.’
‘Still, it’s a lot of money.’
‘You hear that, Sophie. Charlie here thinks this is a lot of money. You know what I think?’ He delved into the bag, pulled out a twenty-pound note and took a match to it. Then came the cigar. It took time to light, Large inexperienced as to the vagaries of cigar-lighting. By the time it had taken, the note was ash on the floor.
‘I’ve always wanted to do that,’ he said. ‘Looks like all my wishes are going to come true this evening.’
‘What did he say?’ I asked.
‘Your opponent. What did he say?’
Large smiled. ‘Something he shouldn’t have.’
Sophie returned with my pint. I never liked the stuff much, but it’s what we drank in those days. Large’s glass was conspicuously empty.
‘Aren’t you having one?’ I asked. He laughed.
‘More than one, wouldn’t you say, Soph?’
She punched his arm, a conspiratorial protest which brought a sudden blush to my cheeks. Large tapped her on either side of her head.
‘You’re going to have to do most of the work, though,’ he added. ‘Putting the glove on.’
I gradually edged my way out as others joined in the laughter. It wasn’t so very bad, I suppose, but I was with my father on this one. I didn’t like this new way of things, the ease with which such language unlocked such guarded doors. But that’s how such things were going to be done in our town now; manners, propriety out of the window; everyone punched on the arm, press-ganged into having a good time. Mexican waves, sing-songs, package holidays. They all come from the same family tree.
So the school year ended. We had all made our plans. Voluntary work overseas, college, the armed services. I was going to Durham to read law, Sophie to Keele to study marine biology, the Turk to Exeter to read civil engineering. Most of us had something lined up. That’s how it went. Except Large. Large took a job with the council, working for Parks and Maintenance. I’d see him behind one of those giant Atcos, mowing verges, or bouncing on the back of the trailer amongst plants destined for the municipal gardens. Sometimes I’d wave, sometimes I would pretend not to have seen him. It depended on who I was with, what car I was in. I didn’t want to embarrass him, or me. Then one morning I stepped outside the front drive and there he was, sitting by the side of his machine, having a smoke. It was about half eleven. I was on my way down to have coffee. Ben and one or two others would be there, maybe even Sophie. I was taken aback. I didn’t know whether he knew where I lived. Certainly he’d never visited it.
In those days we lived in one of the larger houses on the south side of the town. Beyond us lay fields and farms and the beginnings of the small run of villages that led down to the sea. In one sense the house was nothing, just a collection of walls and stairs and draughty corridors; not a pretty house, not particularly comfortable. It was large, overbearing, built in the twenties I imagine, with a dark wood interior that lent gloom to the brightest of days, adding to the feeling of helplessness whenever my father felt that life had somehow taken a turn for the worse. But there were things about it that made it wonderful, almost magical, a house that suddenly, inexplicably came into its own, when days in it would somehow turn into drifting journeys, as if one was on one of those lovely old-fashioned boats you find in the south of France, idling on the still water, floating along on a dreamy summer’s afternoon. There were attics and cellars, back stairs, front stairs, a landing with mullioned windows, a drawing room with French ones. There was a washroom, two cellars, an attic schoolroom for me, a room for my mother to paint her watercolours, another for my father to lock himself away and work his way through his recordings of Bach and Maria Callas. There was a huge kitchen that one walked down into, with a Welsh dresser and an antiquated Aga; there was a dining room with the Regency heirloom table, with chairs to match, and in the heyday of father’s mayoral and business duties, company to sit round it. Outside there was the lawn and behind it the sunken square of grass on which to play croquet; to one side of it lay a old rose garden suffused with blooms of red and white, on the other a small orchard of apple and plum; finally stood a walled kitchen garden and beyond, the lake. It had a finality to it, a beginning and an end. There were days when you felt you need never leave it, others when it held you within its walls, a prisoner. It was an English house of silences and depth, of umbrella stands and wet dogs and odd rooms with no visible point to them whatsoever apart from the ability to absorb junk. It was a house where one’s future seemed laid out as clearly as the patterned tiles in the hall. It was our house. My house. And there he was, outside it.
‘Large,’ I called out. He looked up and waved.
‘Charlie, my main man!’
I crossed the road. We made conversation. I inspected the machine, professed admiration in his ability to master its gears and levers. I thought of inviting him in. It was a hot day. Then I remembered my mother in her gardening clothes, my father fussing about the house with his papers, Callas’s 1961 recording of Norma drifting down the corridor. I didn’t want Large barging in, forcing them to have to confront the brute reality of their vanquished town.
‘Could I get you something?’ I asked. ‘A glass of water or something.’
‘Water?’ he scoffed. I corrected myself.
‘No, not water. A beer. A can of lager.’
‘Can of lager.’ He punched me on the arm. ‘Now you’re talking.’
He got up and without asking, walked across the road and into our drive. I followed, my equilibrium unsettled. I took him through the kitchen, drew out a couple of cans from the tall, twenty-year-old fridge and handed one over. We could have gone straight out the back door into the garden, but now he was here I wanted him to see it, the furniture, the pictures, the cabinets full of good glass. We walked down the corridor, past the open dining room and my father’s closed study door, across the long drawing room, the fire as always laid for an unexpectedly cold night, out onto the flagstone terrace. We had one of those old-fashioned swing seats there, frowned on nowadays, too floral, too fussy, too like a drawing room, but I always liked its slow, cumbersome swing, its unapologetic ugliness. Large sat down and with his feet sticking out, started to rock back and forth as if he was on a playground swing. Beyond the lawn and curved flowerbeds at the entrance to the rose garden stood a wheelbarrow, half full of weeds.
‘Do you do this all yourself?’ he asked.
‘How do you mean?’
‘The lawns and flowers and that. Must take some doing. Them hedges, looks like they’ve just been to the barber’s.’
‘It’s all my mother’s doing really, apart from the lawn. My father does the mowing, when he’s a mind to.’
‘Got one of them ride-ons, I’ll be bound. Got no stripes, though.’
‘He doesn’t like stripes. He thinks stripes are vulgar.’
‘Does he?’ He took a swig. ‘Nice, though. I could live here. All it needs is a swimming pool.’
I bridled. ‘This is south-east England, Large, not the Costa del Sol.’
‘Ah, but think of the pulling power.’ He waved the can at me. ‘I’ll tell you what would happen. In the afternoon, when it’s hot, you’ll be thinking, why doesn’t she take her top off, there’s no one about, but she won’t, see, ’cause she knows that’s what you’re thinking. She’ll just play with the straps and that and hang over you asking for a light. But come midnight, a nice warm evening, a bottle of wine, a bit of weed and she’ll strip the lot off before you get time to work out the colour of it. Stick it over there, instead of that grass. What’s that you got on there, croquet?’ He snorted. ‘They won’t take them off for that, Charlie. Get your old man to stick a pool in. Tell him it’s a necessary part of your education.’
I looked out at the garden, its deceptive simplicities, its unexpected splashes of colour, my mother’s hat bobbing in the distance. She hadn’t seen us, or was making it appear so. I tapped my watch.
‘Don’t want to rush you, but I’m due in town in a minute,’ I said. ‘Meeting Ben and the gang. Sophie said she might join us.’
‘Is that right? Now, if you had a swimming pool you wouldn’t have to go down town, hanging around in hope. She’d be up here, getting out of her togs day and night. You’d see as much of her as you want. And there’s plenty worth looking at, I can tell you.’ He chugged down his lager and burped. ‘Best get back. It’s a great responsibility, cutting the grass, trimming the verges, cleaning up the dog shit. I’ve a little bag for that you know, slung over the handle. Two or three a day I fill up, all these stuck-up ponces and their dogs. Don’t get up. I’ll see myself out.’
I waited until I heard the mower start up again and the whirr of its blades fade into the distance before moving. I was late for coffee. Sophie never showed.
My father took the family on holiday on the Isle of Wight, our traditional obeisance to the English summer and Britain’s redolent past. It was the last one we ever had together. The Isle of Wight in the eighties was like Britain in the fifties. Shopkeepers still sold their goods in brown-paper bags. People rode around on bicycles with wicker baskets at the front. In one of the many second-hand bookshops I found an antiquarian oddity entitled The Constituencies of the Fish, with intricate engravings of bone structure and type definitions, perfect I thought for a late birthday present for Sophie’s eighteenth. It cost me fourteen pounds. I returned two weeks later to the news that not only had Large taken a two-room flat above the town’s only decent fish-and-chip shop, but that Sophie Marchand had moved in with him, three days after blowing the coming-of-age candles out. There’d been a scuffle between the two fathers on the pavement outside, Large piling down in his underwear to separate them.
My contemporaries couldn’t get enough of it. To them it was everything they dreamt of, independence and defiance, glued together by a surfeit of brazen, profligate sex. Ben, Laura, Duncan, half the class, even Tommy, would troop round after the pubs closed, to watch Large and Sophie holding court, playing records, rolling joints, drinking, smoking, talking raucously into the night. Come one or two, when the drink had been drunk, and the drugs smoked, and Sophie had made sufficiently obvious eyes to her grinning trophy-holder, Large would shoo them out with a laugh and a wave and they’d wander home to their single bedrooms with their posters and record collections and shelves of childish artefacts and lie there, imagining their once-uniformed school friends, so nakedly entwined, not half a mile away. I was forbidden to go, my parents close friends of the Marchands. It confirmed all their worst fears. ‘The ability of these people to corrupt,’ my father pronounced, ‘is infinite.’ I half agreed. It was one thing to indulge in the quiet activities of which one’s parents would not approve – but to flaunt it in their faces seemed wilful, ungrateful and, more importantly, unnecessary. It never occurred to me that she might be in love with him. It was an act of rebellion, I assumed, not romance.
But I did go there the once, after a desolate evening at the Merry Boys, walking along the High Street, the excuse for my visit still wrapped in its brown paper. I was conscious of what I was taking with me and what I could bring back. I saw myself rescuing her from her own folly, gaining the gratitude of both our parents and maybe, in later months, Sophie herself.
There was no one else about. It was about half eleven, the night warm, the town’s nightlife for some reason suspended. I’d drunk a little more than usual, but nothing to worry about. The chip shop had just closed, the heat from the ventilator set into the wall still seeping out into the night. The upstairs light was on, a thin yellow curtain stretched across the window. A bag of discarded chips lay strewn outside their door, a ribbed boot-print clearly visible across the squashed paste. I rang the bell. There was no reply. I rang again, longer this time, my finger pressed down on the buzzer. The door was pulled back abruptly, as if the doorframe was warped. Large stood bare-chested, slightly out of breath, a pair of baggy shorts pulled up over his stomach.
‘Charlie Pemberton!’ He looked out, half expecting to see the others behind me. ‘What brings you here? All on your lonesome?’ He settled back, full in the doorway, blocking the entrance.
‘I was passing, as they say. Fancied some chips. But I seemed to have arrived at the wrong time.’
‘You could say that. Monday is our quiet night. When we like to be alone. Most of the gang knows that, but as you’re here.’ He turned and shouted. ‘Sophie. You got a visitor.’
There were sacks of potatoes in the hall, the smell of cooking oil hanging on the stairs. Sophie was sat up in a large double bed, plates of half-eaten toast and empty cigarettes packets strewn across the sheets. I shuffled in, willing my eyes still, trying not to register her naked shoulders, her naked, mussed-up hair and the stark outline of her naked, thick-nippled breasts, covered by a hastily gathered stretch of sheet.
‘I’ll just pop down the road for some more fags,’ Large said. He grinned and looked at me. ‘Got any change?’
I fumbled in my pockets.
‘Not you, Nefertiti there.’ He caught the look on my face. ‘That’s my new name for her. She was married to Akhenaten, you know.’
‘A bit of a boy in his day. Upset the order of things. I like that in a man.’
Sophie fished about in her bag before throwing him her purse.
‘Put something on,’ she said. ‘You’ll catch cold.’
He patted his paunch. ‘Not with this I won’t.’ He turned to me. ‘She’s got to learn to love the fat, you all have. Fat is good for you. Fat feeds you, gives you a cushion. You got to be good and fat if you want to push your weight around. She tries to stop me eating chips, but she won’t, will you, Nef, not if you promised me the Nile.’
We listened to the thump of his feet down the stairs.
‘Well,’ I said. ‘This is a bit of a surprise.’
I looked about. A television with his silver boxing cup balanced on the top, a crimson bra hanging down its side; an expensive stereo deck, a rack of Sophie’s clothes fixed between two walls where a bookcase had recently stood; that picture of a whale’s tail on the wall above her head. In the far corner lay a loose scatter of coloured underwear, and by the bed a pack of lager and a stack of paperbacks on top of which stood a spotted mug, cigarette ends floating at the bottom. Wedged down the side, half opened, the unfamiliar packet of three, one of the foil wrappers torn open. It seemed to me even then such a loathsome object, revolting to handle, awkward to administer; demeaning and desperate. What could be more absurd than the little bulb at the end, ready to catch the futility of it all.
‘You OK?’ she asked. I swallowed and held out my parcel.
‘I brought you a birthday present. I would have come earlier, but . . . It’s a book. All about fish.’
I handed it over. She tore open the package and flipped through it like she might a fashion magazine at her local hairdresser’s, idly, her mind on something else entirely.
‘That’s great, Charlie, thank you. Come here.’
Holding the sheet against her body with one hand she held out her arm. I walked round, bent down and kissed her on the cheek, my hand resting on her shoulder. I could see down her length of back, below the press of a bare haunch. I stepped back, not knowing where to sit.
‘Have you been in contact with your—?’
‘No,’ she interrupted. ‘They had a fight, you know.’
‘Yes, I heard.’
‘Can you believe it? My dad and Carl. It’s lucky they weren’t arrested.’
‘They’re worried about you, Sophie. We all are.’
She stared at me. ‘You think I’m here under duress?’
‘No, but . . . ’
‘Well, what, then?’
What could I say. Because you’re being penetrated night and day by someone not of your class? Because you live above a fish-and-chip shop? Because your fingernails are dirty. Because you’ve gone against the rules. Because it’s all so predictable, the world falling for this loud-mouthed charm. Because it’s an affront to my eyes.
‘I’m surprised, that’s all. I mean it’s one thing to . . . To go out with someone, it’s another to set up shop so blatantly.’
‘Set up shop? What year were you born in? What are you trying to say. That you disapprove?’
‘No, of course not. It’s great, but what about Keele, your career? Or is this your future now?’
It was the wrong thing to say. As soon as I said it I knew it was the wrong thing to say. And yet it was the right thing to say. What was to become of her? She looked at me again, a hardness creeping into her eyes. She was older than me. Always would be.
‘I’ll let you into a little secret. We’re all going to be fucked by the Larges of this world one way or another. I thought I might as well get to the head of the queue.’ She leant back a bit, her head to one side, and opened her legs under the sheet. I’d never seen anything so depraved in all my life.
‘Isn’t that right, Large?’ He was standing in the door.
‘What’s that?’ He threw the cigarettes at her and plumped down beside her.
‘We’re all going to be fucked by you.’
‘I bloody hope so.’ He put his hands behind his head and winked at me. The hair underneath his arms was ginger. I found the sight of it almost pornographic.
‘You been trying to mend her ways?’ he asked.
‘Not exactly. I’m concerned, that’s all. As a friend.’
‘Ah, a friend.’ He threw me a can. ‘Go on, Nef, show him my birthday present.’
She wriggled round to face the wall, and with one hand across her breasts eased the sheet down. His name ran along the base of her spine in old-fashioned scripted letters, the kind you find on invitation cards, the capital L echoing the curve of her hips. Large ran his hand over it before giving it a seigniorial slap.
‘Neat, eh,’ he pronounced. ‘I’m going to take a photograph of it and send to her folks, like a postcard. “Bet you wish I wasn’t here.” Drink your beer.’
I sat down on the edge of the bed and drank my beer. Neat? There was nothing neat about it. I could see the edges unravelling already. The two of them started to argue which late-night film to watch. It was as if I wasn’t there. I drained the can as fast as I could.
‘Finished? Large said.
‘Good. Now piss off out of it.’