HE HAD LOOKED forward to this all weekend. He had looked forward to it throughout his solitary walk across the river, a chill spring wind snapping at his legs. Now, as he saw Jeremy at their usual table in the corner, he looked forward to the next two hours. After so much of his own company, a good lunch was just what he needed. Already Sandy was wondering how he might extend proceedings into the late afternoon.
Time spent with Jeremy was the only constant in his life, sanctuary against an ominous pile of debt, a divorce he never wanted, and children he found increasingly difficult to understand.
“So, what will it be?” asked Jeremy, waving a dog-eared menu. “I’m for the usual sausage and mash. What about you?”
“Same,” said Sandy, stretching his legs under the table.
Eating at Arthur’s was like enjoying a family meal cooked by a beaming grandmother, except you paid at the end. Arthur had cooked in the same cramped space in Royal Hospital Road for thirty years. Apart from the fraying edges of the napkins, nothing had changed. The walls were the same tobacco color. There were never any substitutions on the menu of grilled brown food. The concept of rainbow cuisine and cantilevered vegetables would never reach this room. No diner would ever wear a black T-shirt or fiddle with an iPad between mouthfuls.
It was safe, comfortable, and predictable. Like the friendship between Sandy and Jeremy, it was based on the solidity of shared time. Arthur didn’t rate his clients by postcode or job description. He just liked to look out from his kitchen and watch people enjoying themselves.
Manuela, Arthur’s daughter who had begun serving them as a blushing teenager and was now a stout mother of three, appeared at the table with a bottle of Rioja. She knew them well enough to anticipate their order.
“To us,” said Sandy, filling their glasses. He had been drinking too much lately, but Jeremy wouldn’t say anything, at least not until Sandy fell off his chair. Even then, perhaps not.
Jeremy made his usual salute and conversation resumed. Chelsea’s chances at the weekend? Which was the better long-term investment, heavy metals or wind farms? The two of them didn’t go in for revelations about feelings and motives. The well-worn chat about football scores and stock prices gave them all the support they needed. It was an arrangement that had suited them since school.
“How are the kids?” asked Jeremy, after he had analyzed the weekend game.
“Emily’s off to India next week,” Sandy replied. “A self-discovery thing. On a one-way ticket.”
“Always something to worry about, these children,” said Jeremy. “Rosie is so involved in her property deals that she got her assistant to text me last week saying she was sorry not to have been in touch.” There was a pause. “And my godson?”
Sandy knew from Penny that Matthew was struggling to stay out of trouble. He wondered if somehow Jeremy had heard about it. No, that was impossible. Sandy was being paranoid. And he didn’t want to confide in Jeremy about his son, or himself. “Matt’s doing great.”
Their food arrived, shiny fat sausages curved beside a mound of mashed potato flecked with brown mustard seeds. A bowl of steaming peas came separately. The restaurant was now full, warmed by a comforting fug of food and people sitting close to each other. Sandy rubbed his feet against the leg of the table, feeling the last of the chill seep away. He should get out more.
Jeremy was holding forth on his latest theory of economic opportunities offered by recession. “McDonald’s and Microsoft started during hard times,” he said. “Chances to create new businesses are everywhere.”
Jeremy had always been one for positive thinking, even after what happened at university. Nothing, it seemed, could shake the knife creases from his trousers, his perennial air of prosperity. Jeremy was his very own rock. Perhaps that was why Sandy had come to depend on him so much, particularly in the last year.
There was a couple sitting on the other side of the room, the woman about Penny’s age, early fifties. There was something of Penny about her neck and jawline, the way she fiddled with her earring. She was gazing into her companion’s eyes, hanging on to his every word. Penny used to look at Sandy like that.
He put down his fork, already speared with the end of the sausage, the chewy part he liked best. He was no longer hungry. He drank some water and then more wine, before remembering to offer the bottle to Jeremy. But Jeremy glanced at his watch and signaled Manuela for the bill. “No more for me. It’s a frantic afternoon. There’s a load of conference calls to get through.”
Sandy couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a frantic afternoon. He arranged his face into a smile and slapped a credit card from his wallet on the table before heading downstairs for a quick pee. Back at the table, an embarrassed Manuela was holding his card between her thumb and forefinger.
“I’m sorry, Sandy, it’s been declined.”
Jeremy handed Manuela a fifty-pound note. “Bloody banks. Always getting it wrong. Couldn’t organize a piss-up in a brewery. We’ll sort it out later.”
Before Sandy could say anything, Jeremy slapped him on the back and was gone. Sandy found himself alone on the pavement. It began to rain, first a light spatter, then a heavy downfall. Water began to creep through the soles of his shoes and he wished he’d remembered an umbrella. There was the usual jangling chorus of sirens and straining bus engines. He rocked back and forth on the edge of the pavement, rain dripping down the back of his neck. Should he go back into the restaurant and wait it out? Have a coffee or perhaps another drink? But the idea of sitting alone in a room full of people, especially near a woman who reminded him of Penny, wasn’t appealing. He shook his head like a dog and walked towards Battersea Bridge.
By the time he reached the river, the rain had stopped as suddenly as it had begun. There was some slight warmth at the back of his neck from the afternoon sun, but his feet rubbed against his damp shoes and his big toe, the gouty one, began to throb. He headed towards the cluster of shiny apartment buildings sprouting on the other side of the bridge, the sun glittering on their balconies. None of them had existed when he and Penny moved to London nearly thirty years ago, when they held hands in the street and she was always smiling. There was the Battersea Power Station and the redbrick mansion flats along Prince of Wales Drive. That was it.
Two joggers pounded by, neon Lycra flaring against an insipid sky, a sharp tang of sweat in the air. Their energy exhausted him. A year after the divorce, the pain of Penny’s wanting to end their marriage just as he was finally ready to commit to it was acute. He buttoned his coat, dug his hands into the pockets, and felt the frayed lining come apart.
He thought back to the autumn evening when he had come home early. He’d had this idea of eating supper in the basement kitchen with Penny and the children, the four of them, the way they used to when everything was fish fingers and ketchup, with the old upright piano in a corner behind the table. Walking back from the bus stop, he saw them through the window. Penny had her arm draped over Emily’s shoulder. They were smiling and listening to Matthew. Sandy hurried downstairs to join them, the warmth of the flat flushing the cold from his cheeks. The three of them had looked up from their Thai takeaway, surprised. He might have been a burglar.
It was as if a family trinity had formed during his surreptitious affairs, his trips away, and his boozy nights out with Jeremy and the others. Now that he had tired of all that, he couldn’t manage to rejoin his own family. Penny and the children weren’t interested in his clumsy overtures: invitations to films they had already seen, exhibitions in which they had no interest. He was the outsider trawling the perimeter.
Sandy was halfway up the hill now and his calf muscles were straining. He kept on along the uneven pavement, his gouty toe jarring with each step. Threads from his torn coat pockets clung to his fingers and he couldn’t rub them off.
The problem was that he had been away too long. It appeared Penny thought the same thing, but she had a different solution to his dogged efforts. “I don’t want to be in this marriage anymore,” she’d said, looking straight at him, not busying herself with kitchen tasks as she usually did when she wanted to talk about something.
She might have rehearsed a speech in front of the bathroom mirror. “There is no one else. I just want to be on my own. It would be better for all of us.” He had protested of course, told her it would hurt the children. Penny sighed. She spoke slowly and clearly in a low voice that was foreign to him. “They’ve grown up now, in case you haven’t noticed. Emily is about to graduate and Matt is working. They’re ready to move out. We all need to get on with our own lives.”
In an uncharacteristically efficient way, she’d hired a lawyer to divide their assets, diminished by the huge mortgage on the flat in Onslow Gardens. Within months, Sandy found himself living in 545 dilapidated square feet in the outer reaches of Battersea, his collection of framed gold records gathering dust on top of the cupboard.
At the top of the hill, he paused for breath. On the common opposite, two men were pushing those newfangled buggies, high off the ground with three large wheels, like luxury wheelbarrows for babies.
He knew the divorce was more his fault than hers. He could have tried harder. But still. He kept saying that to himself. But still. It hurt. He tried writing a song about it, the way he used to write songs about his feelings when every stray note that came into his head turned into an international hit. Nothing happened. All his best songs, the ones that had topped the charts, had been written with Penny beside him.
The men with the buggies were saying good-bye to each other. They peered down at each other’s babies and embraced in that modern male A-frame way before turning in opposite directions. One of them carried a rucksack with a large teddy bear sticking out of the back pocket.
Then Penny had moved to France, on her own, away from the familiar streets of West London. “Surely it’s not that bad, that you have to move to another country,” he’d asked after the final round of documents were signed.
“You have all your friends here,” replied Penny. “Jeremy and Peter and Tim. I want a new start.”
Sandy wanted a new start as well, but with his wife of twenty-eight years beside him, not on his own. Faced with that new steely gaze of hers, he didn’t have the nerve to tell her.
He thought about walking around the common, but his feet hurt and he’d done that yesterday. He might stop at the pub across the road. Just for the one, to delay going back to his flat.