Cicisbeo

Cicisbeo” appears in M. John Harrison’s 2017 collection You Should Come With Me Now, published by Comma Press. We’re also featuring a review of the collection by Christopher Burke.

Summer was half over before it had even begun. With a sense that my life was in the same state, I phoned Lizzie Shaw. She hadn’t changed.

They lived in East Dulwich now, she told me, her and Tim, in a little house ‘practically given’ them by a friend. She had worked for a while as a buyer for John Lewis. ‘You’d have been proud of me,’ she said. ‘I was properly industrious.’ She had bought a Mercedes. Enjoyed the money. Missed her kids. ‘I wasn’t getting home ‘til eight. I had a seventeen year old Polish girl looking after my family, I mean can you believe it?’ Jobs pall, she said, as soon as you start thinking like that. She said she couldn’t wait to see me. ‘People count more as you get older.’ She was thirty seven now. Then she said:‘I’m pregnant again,’ and burst into tears.

That house was always full of sex.

***

You will come and see us?’ Lizzie said.

I’m not sure,’ I said. ‘Would that be a good idea?’

Please,’ she said.

I thought about it. I drove across London, intending to go there, but lost motivation somehow and fetched up in Brixton or Blackheath instead. Lizzie kept phoning. Would I go and see them again, or not?

Why don’t we meet where we used to?’ I suggested. ‘Just the two of us?’

It can’t be like that again,’ she warned me.

I know,’ I said.

I wanted to put the phone down and not speak to her for another three years.

All right then,’ she said. ‘When?’

We had lunch at Angels & Gypsies on Camberwell Church Street. She was late, a little nervous. ‘I can’t get over you,’ I said. The pregnancy threw her off-balance a little, but it suited her. ‘You look so well.’

We talked about her boys for a bit. She had got them into a good school. They were so grown up, she said. So emotionally intelligent. ‘I don’t know what I’d do without them, especially Ben.’ Of the buyer’s job she would only say: ‘I felt it was right at the time. But now I feel it’s right to be pregnant again.’

And how is Tim?’

Just the same,’ she said ‘You know Tim.’

I smiled. ‘I do,’ I said.

He’s converting the loft.’

Is he now?’ I said.

It’s such a little house,’ she said off-handedly. ‘He thought it would be a good idea. He thought it could be a studio.’ She ate some olives and then some bread. She sat back. ‘This is nice,’ she said vaguely. ‘I always loved this place.’

I knew that tone of voice.

What’s the matter?’ I said.

Oh, you know.’ She looked away suddenly. ‘It’s all he ever does now, really. The loft.’

I reached across the table and tried to take her hand. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I don’t want that.’

She told me about Tim. Something happened to him, she said, the day he was forty. He went up into the loft. He liked it there, the very first time he stuck his head and shoulders up through the trapdoor. He called down from the top of the ladder, something like, ‘Hey!’ or, ‘Wow!’ and that was it. Something clicked for him. Soon he was up there every available day, working, but not at his job. He had started out to store things up there. Then he was going to convert it. Then he was moving himself into it, bit by bit. He even had his own TV up there.

He was forty,’ she said. Looking back, you could see that’s when it began. ‘His life was so good,’ she said. ‘But something went wrong with his view of it.’

After a pause she said,‘He misses you.’

I couldn’t take that seriously.

I bet he does,’ I said.

We both miss you.’

I’ve missed you,’ I said.

I know. I know,’ she said. ‘So you will come over? To supper?’

I began to say, ‘I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,’ but she was already adding:

Perhaps you can even talk some sense into him.’

I’m not the best person to do that.’

At least come to supper,’ she said. She put her hand over mine. ‘It’s so good to see you again,’ she said.

***

I shouldn’t have gone, but in the end I couldn’t see any reason not to. I was bored. I thought she might light my life up again.

Their street was like all the others packed between the railway and the hospital. Tubs of geraniums outside narrow-fronted terraces. Roadsters parked two wheels up on the pavement. The house was nice but far too small for them. By the time you had a family you were supposed to have moved down the road to the Village, or out of London altogether. East Dulwich – or Dull Eastwich, as Tim called it – was for younger people. They would have done better, he said, in Herne Hill: but you didn’t get the resale value.

He hadn’t changed much since I last saw him. You found people like Tim all over London. They had rowed a little at school. At the weekend they wore chinos and a good quality sailing fleece. Boat shoes with no socks. They all had the same tall, polite good looks. They never seemed to age: instead, their self-deprecation matured into puzzlement. They began to look tired. Tim liked to cook. He had his treasured cast iron saucepans from the 80s, his five-hob Lacanche range. I watched him, and drank a beer, and asked him how things were.

Oh, you know,’ he said vaguely. ‘Could you pass me that? No, the little one.’

Once we sat down to eat it became harder to sustain a conversation. ‘I wish I’d learned to cook,’ I said, as if I’d lived the kind of life which makes a thing like that impossible. He didn’t know what to say to that. Who would? This left things to Lizzie, who grew impatient. ‘It’s a chicken,’ she explained to me. ‘A child could cook it.’ He was quick to agree. ‘You could soon learn, you could soon learn.’ He slotted the plates into the dishwasher while she banged pudding down on the table.

Well that was good,’ I said when we’d eaten it.

I’m glad,’ Lizzie said. ‘The kitchen cost him twenty thousand pounds.’ When he only smiled at this, she added: ‘No one puts a twenty thousand pound kitchen in a house in East Dulwich. In the Village, yes. In East Dulwich, no.’   Tim shrugged a little. He looked away. Twenty thousand pounds was an exaggeration, the shrug said. It said that if you were going to cook you should have the right things.

While Lizzie made coffee in the kitchen, he gave me the tour. ‘We’d gone as far as we could without opening the loft,’ he said. You could see they had. ‘It was a bit of a push to find somewhere for the boys.’ Tim, you sensed, had turned his talents as easily to family life as to sport: but now he wasn’t quite sure how he came to have a family in the first place. I poked my head into the little room he used as a study.

No computer?’ I said.

He’d moved it up there already, he said. There had never been enough room down here. ‘Lizzie told me you were up to your neck in it,’ I said. The study was a mess. He laughed and looked rather tiredly at the heaps of stuff. ‘Eventually all this will go up there.’ I asked him if I could see the loft. ‘It’s a bit dusty at the moment,’ he said. ‘Probably better to wait.’ I didn’t press him, even though I knew Lizzie would have wanted me to; and I left not long later. Tim had his problems, I had mine. One of mine was that I didn’t really care one way or another about him. It’s hard to hide that. He knew it as well as I did, and she was the only one pretending not to know. I kept in touch. I went over there once or twice, for a meal, then let it lapse again. I was working anyway.

***

Three months later the phone rang.

I answered it. I said, ‘Hello?’

Hi. It’s Lizzie.’

I caught my breath.

Hi,’ I said, ‘I –’

There’s someone on the other line, hang on,’ she said. Then, ‘Hi. How are you, I’m sorry about that.’

No, it’s OK.’

After a pause she said: ‘It’s a girl.’

I can’t believe it,’ I said.

I know,’ she said. ‘A girl!’

I sent flowers. I sent a card. I telephoned my friends as if I was the father. In two days Lizzie was on the phone again.

The baby’s home,’ she said, ‘but he won’t see it.’

That’s ridiculous.’

We’re both back from the hospital, but he won’t see either of us.’

He won’t see his own baby?’

He wouldn’t see his own baby. He sent notes down from the loft.

I don’t know where to turn,’ Lizzie said.

Come on,’ I tried to encourage her, ‘he was a bit like this with the boys.’

Well now he’s got a girl and he won’t come down out of the loft to even look at her. What am I going to do?’

So I found myself in East Dulwich again, hoping to get a word alone with her. The house was full of wellwishers. Her women friends had long backs and sexy voices. The men were packed with the aimless brutal confidence of people barely thirty years old earning large sums of money at banking. Even their children were successful at something. I felt old and immature at the same time. Tim was nowhere to be seen, but no one mentioned that. He was in the loft of course, but no one mentioned that either. They had called the baby Emma. I held her while Lizzie had a proper drink. I couldn’t believe her fingernails.

Look,’ I told anyone who would listen, ‘they come with a manicure!’

The boys stared at me as if I was simple, and Emma started crying. I took her outside. I brought her back in. It was no good. She looked up at me angrily and flexed her spine. Her face went bright red.

Give her to me,’ said Lizzie. ‘She wants something you haven’t got.’

This drew laughs all round.

I was there a lot the first few weeks. I helped with this and that. I learned to change a nappy. Lizzie sat up in bed, looking exhausted but pleased. ‘They’ve taken it well,’ she said of the boys. She was proud of them. After a few days, though, they grew thoughtful, painted their faces, spent money on slime. They ran in and out of the small garden whooping and shouting: but magical thinking would not save them. Change was inevitable. The tribe was doomed.

Tim watched it all from a distance. His idea, you could see, was to ride it out. Six months after his daughter arrived, the loft was his home. He cooked up there, he slept up there. ‘He’s living on baked beans,’ Lizzie said. She looked down at the baby. ‘Essentially,’ she said in a tragic voice, ‘he’s left us.’ No one had any idea what he was doing. He hauled stuff up in a plastic dustbin. Whatever it was began coming down again within a few hours. There was a lot of bumping and banging which sometimes went on all night. She asked me, ‘What’s he doing up there, with all those power tools?’

I said it could be anything.

Is this something that happens to men?’ she said viciously, as if I was doing it too. Shortly afterwards he installed a good-quality pull-down ladder, but he rarely used it himself and the boys were forbidden to go near it. He was a man living away from his family.

He might as well have gone to Blackpool,’ Lizzie said. ‘You’ve got to talk to him.’

I tried. If nothing else, I thought, it would give me a glimpse of the loft. I went up the ladder. I stuck my head through the trap door. I got a confused idea of a much smaller space than I had expected, most of it curtained off by heavy tarpaulins which sagged from the roofbeams. He had put a floor in. Piles of eurothane insulation lay about under an unshaded low-wattage bulb, everything thick with damp-looking dust. It all seemed thoroughly miserable. Tim sat at an old school desk, his legs sticking out awkwardly at the sides, writing something on a sheet of ruled A4. The computer components stacked on the floor beside him were still done up in bubble-wrap. He hadn’t even bothered to unpack them.

Hi Tim,’ I said. ‘When do you think you might be finished?’

He got up quickly.

Probably better if we talk downstairs,’ he said.

He looked embarrassed. You don’t want your wife’s best friend to see you living in your attic. You don’t want him to think about what that means. I’d hoped I might shock him into talking about things. But in the end we just stood there awkwardly on the landing looking past one another, and all he would say was:

You have to get away somehow. You have to get away from it all.’

I don’t think Lizzie sees it that way,’ I said. ‘You know?’

This sounded futile, even to me.

After a moment I added: ‘I think she’d like to see more of you. The kids would too.’

He studied the floor and shook his head.

***

But Lizzie did want to see more of him. She wanted to see more of someone, anyway. She called me.

Come and meet me for a drink,’ she said. ‘I’m in need of, oh, something.’ She laughed. ‘I don’t know what I’m in need of.’ She left a pause and then said: ‘We could meet somewhere in town.’ I didn’t ask who would look after the baby.

All afternoon she seemed nervous. She kept taking her phone out of her bag, studying it with a faintly irritable expression, then putting it back again. She swirled her drink around her glass. She looked up at me once or twice, began to say something, decided not to. She was wearing skinny, low-cut velvet jeans. When she saw me looking at them she said, ‘Do you think they’re too young for me?’ They were a champagne colour, and they fastened at the back with a lace, like a shoe. She touched my arm.

It’s odd, isn’t it,’ she said, ‘how things happen? I always loved this suit of yours. Your only suit.’

She said, ‘I’ve never seen your house, have I?’

She drove us over to Walthamstow in the Mercedes. They always called it that, her and Tim: the Mercedes. As if they had other cars, two or three of them. When I showed her into the house she said, ‘It’s bigger than I thought it would be.’ She stared into the kitchen for a moment, then out into the garden. We went upstairs. She looked at the bicycle in the bedroom and said,‘ It’s so like you, all this. Really it is.’ She got her phone out again. She put it next to her ear and shook it. When nothing happened her expression hardened. Then she laughed. ‘It’s just what I expected, all of it.’

I don’t know what I expected. I’d been waiting for her for three years; longer. After about ten minutes I said, ‘I love your neck. The nape of it, here.’   Then I said: ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ She twisted away immediately and we lay like that for a minute or two, awkward and embarrassed. My hand was still on her hip.

This is stupid,’ she said.

Why?’

Because it just isn’t grown up.’

I got off the bed angrily. When I looked back she had covered herself up with the sheet.

What do you want then?’ I said.

She shivered.

Can’t you get it any warmer in here?’

No.’

I just want him the way he was. I’ll have to leave him, if not. I don’t even know what’s going on in my own loft,’ she told me, with a false laugh. ‘Can’t you at least try and find that out from him?’

I shrugged. ‘Why should I do that?’

Don’t sulk,’ she warned.

***

The second time I went up into the loft, I heard a regular metallic scraping noise, more distant than you’d expect in a space that size. The light was off and something was happening behind the tarpaulins. ‘Tim?’ I said. But I said it cautiously, to myself, as if I didn’t want him to hear. I was curious. As much as anything else, I wanted to poke around. The tarpaulins were new, but they looked old. They sagged under their own weight, stiff to the touch, with fixed folds as if the dust had already worked its way into them. Perhaps it had. Around their edges I glimpsed the eerie white flicker of a butane lamp, or perhaps one of those portable fluorescent tubes.

I examined the desk, the abandoned computer, the piles of other stuff. Why would you keep a garden spade in a loft?

Tim?’

This time the noises stopped immediately. For a moment we were silent, each listening for the other. Then a draught seemed to go through the loft, along with a smell which reminded me of old-fashioned house gas. I saw the tarpaulins billow, hang, resettle; and he called from just behind them, ‘Hang on. I’ll be with you in a second.’ I backed away until I bumped into the desk, then descended the ladder. He followed me down and stood there rubbing his hands on an old towel as if he didn’t know what to do next. He was covered in white dust. His hands were scraped and banged, the knuckles enlarged as if he’d been doing manual work, outside work. His fingernails were broken.

I wasn’t expecting you,’ he said. ‘Lizzie shouldn’t really have encouraged you to come up.’

I couldn’t let him get away with that.

Tim,’ I said, ‘for God’s sake. What are you doing?’

I’m converting the loft,’ he explained patiently. ‘I’m converting the loft to give us more room.’ He didn’t want to be understood. He was exhausted, and that made me feel exhausted too. In the end I said:

You hire people to do the work. You don’t do that yourself.’

He shook his head.

It’s my loft,’ he said, with a certainty I admired.

While we were talking Lizzie came up the stairs carrying the baby. ‘Do either of you want coffee?’ she asked. Then she said to Tim: ‘I heard all that. What rubbish you talk.’ She began to cry. ‘You know it’s rubbish.’ Tim pulled himself to his feet and looked as if he might try to comfort her. She backed away. ‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s just an excuse. It’s just another excuse.’

Lizzie’s frantic, Tim,’ I told him. ‘You’ve hardly said hello to your own daughter.’

Don’t talk about me as if I’m not here!’ she said. She stood in front of me and wouldn’t let me turn away. ‘Can you see me?’ she demanded.

Lizzie –’

Well I’m real,’ she said. ‘You always pretend I’m not.’ Her voice went from contempt to puzzlement. ‘You’re as bad as he is.’ The baby wailed and waved its arms. ‘Now look what you’ve done, both of you.’

You asked me to come here,’ I reminded her.

I left them to it and went downstairs.

That’s right,’ she called after me. ‘Walk away. Walk away from everything, like you always do.’

After I left, I drove about in the dark, through Balham and Brixton, jumping traffic lights to the accompaniment of a Sonny Rollins CD. By the time I got home it was three o’clock in the morning, and she had left messages with my answering service. They were a mixed bunch. One said: ‘I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.’ Another said: ‘Is it any wonder no one will have you? It’s just so easy for you to leave people behind, isn’t it? Just so fucking easy.’ A third said, ‘Please don’t do this. Please answer, oh please, please.’ I could hear the baby crying in the background. ‘Please answer.’ But I didn’t; and I didn’t hear from her again for two or three months.

***

June.

The evening air was hammered like gold on to the rubbish in my front garden. I had been thinking about her all day.

Early summer had always been a dangerous time for us. Tim would be at work, we would go to the park. I would put my arm round her while we sat on a bench and watched the boys running about in the distance and she told me, at length but without ever saying it outright or irreversibly, why nothing could happen between us. ‘I’m making such a fool of myself!’ she would decide at last; then appeal, ‘But you do see some of what I mean, don’t you?’

Lizzie, I haven’t got the slightest idea what you’re talking about.’

I knew she would call, because in early summer, desperate with the smell of her, I had always been ready to give her the reassurance she needed.

Hello?’ I said.

Hi,’ she said. ‘It’s me.’

Hang on,’ I said. ‘There’s someone on the other line.’

Don’t do this,’ she begged.

Can I ring you back?’

She said: ‘You’ve got to come. It’s Tim.’

There was a confused scraping noise as if she had dropped the phone, and then all I could hear was her breathing, and a shout in the distance which might have been one of the boys.

Something awful’s happening,’ she said. ‘In the loft.’

She dropped the phone again.

By the time I got to Dulwich it was dark. The front door of their house was open on the empty street. Lizzie stood in the hall at the bottom of the stairs with the baby held along the crook of one arm. She was wearing a white bathrobe and she had her phone up to her ear. The hall seemed too hot, even for a night like that. It seemed packed with heat. Why would they have the heating on in June?

He’s up there now,’ she said.

I wondered if I should take the baby off her.

Lizzie? What’s wrong? What’s the matter?’

I thought I could get him to answer his phone. Get him to answer his bloody fucking phone for once,’ she said.

I’ll fetch him down.’

She stared at me. ‘That’s not it,’ she said.

I’ll just go up.’

There was fine white dust all over the stairs. I could hear the boys in their room, quarrelling over the PlayStation. The house seemed to get hotter from floor to floor, a dry heat which caught at your throat. ‘Tim?’ I called. Then louder: ‘Tim!’ No answer. I had caught Lizzie’s mood. I felt nervous, jumpy, angry with both of them. Why did I always have to be involved? Why couldn’t they put on their futile theatre without me? ‘Tim?’ Dust had silted down all over the upper landing. I stood at the foot of the pull-down ladder and listened. I went up far enough to poke my head into the loft. The air was full of a grey light which, dim and distributed at the same time, seemed to come from everywhere at once. I could hear a distant, measured chunking noise. It sounded like someone using an old-fashioned pickaxe to break concrete.

Tim!’ I called.

Almost immediately there was a loud crash. The house lurched, a powerful draught parted the tarpaulins. That was enough for me. As I went down the ladder I heard him tottering about up there, coughing in the dust. He seemed to be trying to drag some item of equipment across the floor. ‘Tim! For God’s sake!’ I called up from the landing. His face appeared briefly, framed by the trap.

The whole lot’s coming down,’ he said. ‘Tell her to get the kids out. See if you can persuade her to care about someone else for once.’

Lizzie, halfway up the stairs, heard this.

You sod,’ she said. ‘I’d do anything for those children.’

Everything seemed to lurch again. I got her by the arm and pulled her down the stairs and into the street. The boys, sensing the future like dogs before an earthquake, had already saved themselves. They couldn’t believe their luck. Their house was falling down. The hall was full of plaster. Cracks had opened up in the exterior walls. From above came the shrieking sounds of joists giving way under huge loads. It was so cool. They stood in the quiet street in the hot night air, staring up at the line of the roof where it had sagged into the void of the loft. Their father came running out, then stopped and turned as if he had forgotten something.

His house was done for. Window frames popped. The facade deformed and began to slip. Just before the roof fell in and it became obvious that the whole thing would come down on us if we didn’t move, I saw the tunnel he had been digging out of the loft. It hung in the air, transparent but luminous, perhaps three feet in diameter. Travelling north towards the river, it rose steeply until, at perhaps a thousand feet, it linked up with a complex of similar tunnels all across London. Hundreds of them, thousands, more than you could ever count, they rose up from the houses. A 787 Dreamliner was making its way down between them towards Heathrow, engines grinding, landing lights ablaze. When it had gone, the tunnels hung there for a moment like a great shining computer-generated diagram in the night sky, then began to fade.

See?’ Tim said. ‘What would you have done?’

We’ll come back,’ I promised him. ‘We’ll come back and find another way in –’

Lizzie didn’t seem to hear this. ‘Twenty thousand pounds on a kitchen,’ she said. She laughed.

Later, she sat on the kerb a little way down the street, with the boys on either side of her and the baby in her lap, thoughtfully watching the fire engines and drinking tea. Someone had given her a man’s woollen shirt to wear, wrapped a foil blanket loosely round her shoulders. The street was full of hoses and cables, generators, powerful lights. Firemen were picking over the rubble, and a television crew had arrived.

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