By Sam Smith
Published: February 21, 2008
Updated: October 27, 2008 PrintEmail
Part One: A love story.
Many love affairs can be conventional. None are typical. These two candidates for love worked in an ordnance factory. The factory was on the edge of a marsh a few miles outside of town.
He was on a government training scheme for the young jobless.
Classified as neither apprentice nor as unskilled labour, the factory did not seem to know what to do with him. He was as unsure of his role, felt that he had been foisted on the factory by someone in an office somewhere else.
The older men in the factory resented and patronised him in equal parts. They resented him because he represented the threat of cheap labour. They patronised him because he was young and therefore ignorant of many of the ways of their world. Left forgotten in a shed he spent the whole of one afternoon pondering the apparent innocence of acid's pale viscosity.
The only good thing to have come out of the job and the government training scheme, so far as he was concerned, was that he had been given free driving lessons and, the first time of taking it, he had passed his driving test. He wasn't, though, paid enough to be able to buy or to run a car. He owned a yellow moped.
He was tall and skinny and seventeen years old. His name was Paul.
Her name was Julie. She was twenty one years old and worked in the ordnance factory's canteen.
Julie worked to escape the inside of her flat and the company of her four year old son. She was small and compact, her dark hair clipped, her clothes pressed.
At work Paul wore a baggy blue boiler suit. Julie wore a green and white tabard.
In this prelude to the two days, in this history of histories, let us first tell of Julie's.
Julie was divorced. Her ex-husband was a big man. He had been a big man when Julie had met him. She had been fifteen then. In those Bridgwater pubs to which he had taken her, everyone had seemed to respect, if not to fear him. His parents had long been divorced and he had had his own 'flat'. She had conceived in the grubby single bed of that beer-smelling bedsit.
He had married her. Others, male, had expressed their surprise at his doing that. Julie hadn't considered that he would or that he wouldn't. As she hadn't considered falling pregnant. It had happened. She had been young. The young are passive. Life happens to the young.
At sixteen she had been working as a shelf-filler and living at her mother's. She had had no practise in controlling her own life, nor had she examined the world which had been controlling her. Without question she had accepted that, in her 'condition', she would go to the top of the council house waiting list. As she had also accepted the interest that she would have to pay on the credit that she would have to have to buy the furniture. She had not, however, accepted her husband's idea of marriage.
As she had become more pregnant, and less able to go to the pub, she had been left alone with the unpaid-for furniture. And, as she had become less able to go to work, she had become more aware of their finances. Their outgoings had soon with her diminishing wages and even before he went out for a drink been more than their income. Julie had tried to talk to her husband.
What she had seen before as his attractive and manly taciturnity, she suddenly perceived as his being stupid and surly. What she had seen as his masterful domination of her, now became pure and simple bullying. What had been a flattering lust for her, now became but beered-up randiness.
But, she told herself, this was the world of adults. Her mother lived on this same council estate. This was where, all her life, she had heard women complaining of their husbands. Julie hadn't wanted to be like them. But when, finally, her own husband did come home, all that he too had wanted was to screw. Even if he was incapable.
Her contempt for him had grown with his every unsatisfactory performance. So had she come to notice that the beer was swelling his belly at about the same rate as her pregnancy had been swelling hers. She had been sixteen. He had been twenty.
Julie's belly had gone back to flat after she'd given birth. His hadn't. And he'd been drunk elsewhere at the time.
He had hit her the first time during her pregnancy. And he'd been apologetic for days afterwards. He had even promised to sort out some of their debts. They had been behind with the electric as well by this time. He had worked overtime, had drunk less for a few nights, had gone out later, had come home earlier.
Before her bruises had faded, however, he had again been coming home only to eat and sleep; and she had been left with her worries and the television, unpaid for and unlicensed.
She had had to stay at home with the baby. The only time she had been able to talk to her husband sober had been when he had come home for dinner. His single response had been to tell her to stop nagging. Occasionally, and always grudgingly, he had given her a few extra pounds.
Such became the habit of their life together. If she refused him sex when he came home beered-up he had hit her. With contempt for herself for staying, consoling herself that this was the real world and not some glitzy soap, she had fatalistically accepted the thumps and bruises on her small frame, even the occasional swollen lip and black eye. As payment she had emptied his trouser pockets just as soon as he had been snoring. And, by way of remorse, of apology, he had never questioned this morning absence of change in his pockets. So had she kept the creditors at bay. So had they continued for a year and more she and the baby inside the house, he out drinking.
By backwards logic she came to view the odd bruise and beery screw as the price she had to pay for peace of mind so far as the creditors were concerned. And, not wanting the world to know what had become of her, she had confided in no-one, had admitted to no-one her hurts. (Julie is one of three sisters, the three each having a different father: her mother having been passive too, so far as men were concerned.)
Then, one night, Julie's two year old son had been awake with a fever when the father had come home wanting to screw. The child's being awake, and the child's condition demanding his mother's exclusive attention, had infuriated the father. He had punched both wife and son.
Injury to herself Julie could accept: it was her own fault, she had allowed it to happen to her. Her little boy, however, had not asked to be born. She had taken herself and the boy screaming through the empty streets of night to her mother's.
It took her groggy husband a half hour to realise what had happened. He had then pursued them. Julie had refused to let him in. Roaring he had banged on the door. Michael, the boy, had screamed. Child abuse had been in the news. Julie's mother had called the police.
The police had taken the husband away. Julie had refused to return to the matrimonial home unless he was kept away from it. The police had been able to offer no such guarantee. She had stayed in her mother's house. Her mother told her that she couldn't live there indefinitely.
So had Julie and Michael entered the world of Social Services.
Julie, it has to be said, saw here the opportunity to be rid of the matrimonial home and its debts. So she became obdurate in her refusal to return to her own house. Every offer of reconciliation and promise of reform from her husband she rejected out of hand. She wanted her whole life divorced from him, to be disassociated entirely from him.
Her husband could not understand her unflinching refusals, came beer-fuddled to bang on her mother's door. Julie called the police and had them remove him. She made sure that the Social Services knew of the every latest episode. They found her a flat on the other side of town; and she was left on Benefit, but otherwise in charge of her own finances.
At first it had been enough, on her own, to make an independent home for herself and Michael. But a toddler is no company and the Benefit didn't stretch to much. Julie's being a single parent, however, meant that Michael was now eligible for a State nursery place.
Solely to get out of the third floor flat, she looked for a job. The only job going, whose hours matched those of the nursery, was at Puriton. So that Julie could travel the four miles without relying on bus services or lifts, her mother leant her the money for a secondhand moped.
Julie's canteen wages were deducted from her Benefit. So, although her income was officially only a few pounds more, and the expense of the moped accounted for that, she was still better off because she was able, like the other canteen women, to take home the odd left-overs and the cakes and pies past their sell-bys. She also ate her main meal in the canteen, as did Michael at nursery school, so she could go weeks sometimes without buying any major groceries. Within six months she had paid her mother back the loan for the moped.
Her ex-husband had inevitably discovered where she had moved and, occasionally, he came a'maudlin banging on her door. Only twice did she have to call the police. Other times a threat had been sufficient.
Most evenings, however, she still had to stay at home alone with Michael. Her mother refused to babysit, as did her two sisters, just in case her ex-husband came around. Nor did she have any female friends who would babysit. She had been at school when she had got pregnant. Thus had she abruptly left childish things behind. Those schoolfriends had been children with her. She had talked to no female friend of known adult life.
Such had been the state of her affairs when she had become aware of Paul.
Julie had noticed Paul on the other side of the canteen counter initially only as one of the younger faces. She had noticed too, but only because she had one, that he too came to work on a moped.
One afternoon her blue moped sputtered to a standstill. Cars went whooshing past her on the straight flat Bristol road. In the kerb were drifts of gravel and chippings. Beside the road was a long ditch and some spindly desolate trees.
She was stood there, looking around her, not knowing what next to do, when Paul stopped, climbed off his yellow moped and unplugged his head from a black helmet. He took three minutes to find the loose lead. He told her, blushing, that in his spare time he made and mended motorbikes. Julie passed no comment on his yellow moped. She had to collect Michael from the nursery and left quickly on her blue moped.
The next lunchtime in the canteen Paul blushed when Julie brightly said hello to him. The other trainees made hooting noises at him.
Julie had never seen herself as having power over another adult. (The responsibility she felt for Michael at times overawed her.) But, thereafter, she took pleasure in making Paul blush, in watching the blush start part way up his long white neck and spread out over his face. The other kitchen women took to nudging her when Paul came into the canteen. Similarly, when she was clearing tables on the other side of the counter, Paul's workmates nudged him as she approached. Those times too he blushed. Thus, by their contemporaries, if only for their amusement, Paul and Julie were already viewed as a pair.
Paul and Julie's only meetings outside the canteen took place on the road. Both finished at about the same time. Over the noise of their whining engines, through the padding of their helmets, the shouted conversations comprised mostly his asking if the moped was alright these days. She'd shout thank you. Paul did manage once, when they both happened to be getting on their mopeds at the same time, to convey to her that if her machine ever went wrong she should bring it to him and he would fix it for her.
He blushed those times too.
Susceptible to blushes he may have been; but Paul was no virgin. Because he then lived with his mother, however, and he didn't want any girl to meet her, he had nowhere to take a girlfriend. And the possible girlfriends, who still also lived at home, were all getting a bit old now for the walk down by the canal or for ungainly fumbles on their parents' sofas. Consequently, apart from the nudges of those he worked with, apart from her smallness among all those stout kitchen women, it was her having her own flat which most attracted Paul to Julie.
Paul's, though, were the small bounded territories of youth. He did not know how to approach a woman the word itself denoting her remote status those colossal four years older than himself. From the factory gossip, which had told him of her flat, he also knew that she had been married, that she had a little boy, and that her husband used to beat her up. Such experiences were but stories to him.
Nights he lay awake fantasising about her, attributing to her all kinds of social and sexual sophistications. Until his mind could bear such fruitless conjecture no more. He had to make at least one attempt to have her; and, failing as he knew he must thereafter put her beyond his reach and out of his mind.
Pretending he had a fault with his moped he waited for her in the carpark. He was trembling when she came. Luckily alone.
"Hello," he said. Neither had yet used the other's name, "Fancy coming for a drink tonight?"
"Sorry. I can't," she said.
Paul accepted that as a total rejection of himself as suitor. And stood there in his boilersuit, beside his yellow moped, he tried to accept her rebuff with a throwaway insouciance.
Julie felt sorry for him. Tall, white and skinny he may have been, but he was the only one his age in the factory who hadn't been making fist-fucking gestures behind her back.
"I have a little boy," she explained, "I can't get a babysitter."
"Oh," Paul said, realising that her refusal was not absolute, but not knowing where to go from there.
Telling Paul of Michael, Julie conjured up a vision of her evening alone again indoors.
"Tell you what," she said brightly, "seeing as you fixed my bike that time, (a token excuse to give her invitation some respectability), why don't you come round for a meal?"
"Shall I," he'd heard this line before, "bring some wine?"
"If you like. But food's all you're getting."
Food was all that he did get. He expertly uncorked the wine, grunting without farting; but neither of them drank much. Which realisation let Julie relax. And in his own clothes Paul looked more of a piece, not the white stringy being trying to escape the blue boiler suit.
All they had to talk about, though, was the people at the factory. And where they had both been brought up and gone to school. And they talked of television, comparing likes and dislikes. He noticed that she didn't have a video. He said he knew where he could get one cheap for her. At half ten he left.
The next day Julie didn't serve him in the canteen, was busy out the back. Paul, though, couldn't let what had just begun end there. He realised, however, that she had no other excuse to invite him to her flat. So that evening he arrived at her door with a video recorder. Michael was still awake.
"I can't afford it," Julie blushed. Frightened of debts and of those things she couldn't there and then pay for, Julie was out of step with the credit times.
"It's a spare one," Paul mirrored her blush. (The video recorder was his mother's. His mother, though, didn't know how to use it; and he had too much surplus energy to sit before a video for two hours.) "You can borrow it till I need it back." He dumped it, trailing wires, on top of her telly.
"Thank you," she said, "Like a coffee?"
While the coffee cooled Paul talked to four year old Michael. This visit, with the excited and exuberant Michael to fill the gaps, Paul and Julie's conversation was less noticeably strained. When Michael's bedtime could no longer be postponed, Paul left, pleased with himself.
Julie was waiting for him by the mopeds the next afternoon.
"I can't get the video to work," she worriedly told him, "I can't make out where all the wires go."
"I'll come round later," he indicated that his boilersuit stank, that he wanted to change.
He got there just as Michael was being put to bed. Michael insisted on kissing Paul goodnight as well as his mother. This embarrassed both Paul and Julie it betokened an unconfirmed intimacy. Paul hurriedly set up the video. But he had to wait while Julie read to Michael. Then Julie wanted to be shown how to work the video. This entailed recording bits of programmes and playing them back. After that she made him coffee. It was gone eleven by the time he left.
The next day he again missed her in the canteen. Then came the weekend. All that he usually did of a weekend was insufficient. Added to which, most of his usual crowd seemed to be away that weekend. He mooched around the town, mooched around his mother's flat, tinkered with a motorbike that he'd been renovating the last six months, and mooched off up town again. That evening he found himself in the back of a car heading for Taunton. But the three others in the car were looking for trouble more than a good time. They found it. He ducked away, ended up walking back from Taunton. He got home at four in the morning. And he didn't mind because it had filled the hours.
He slept late Sunday. Still he awoke thinking of her. Except that now it was as a real person, not some factory fantasy conjured out of his frustrations. And he wanted to be with her, the real person. But he had no further pretext. She was that much older than him, didn't frequent the same streets nor know the same people. Nor did he want, by some inept advance, to make a complete fool of himself, to have her and the canteen women all laughing at him. He rode his moped up into the hills; and, looking down on the town, all that he saw was her block of flats, its tiers of brown and white concrete panels, and he ached wondering what she could be doing.
Monday lunchtime she was again out the back of the canteen. Monday evening he began walking towards her flats, reached the canal bridge, abruptly turned and walked home again.
Tuesday lunchtime she served him. Neither smiled. From the inside his face seemed an immovable mask. Her pale face too was rigid and expressionless. He couldn't eat the sandwich he had bought.
Only late at work that afternoon did the realisation come to him that, if her expression had been the same as his, then maybe so too were her feelings. Heart hammering he waited by the mopeds.
"Can I come round this evening?"
"Make it eight. Michael should be asleep by then."
Julie too had missed him. Her weekends were usually busy. On Saturday there was the shopping to be done, then the housework and the ironing. And on Sunday she and Michael usually went over her mother's. But this weekend her mother's new man had been there grumbling and opening beer cans. So Julie had taken Michael to the park. Michael this Sunday, though, had tired of the swings before she had, and she had been back in the flat sooner than she had wanted; and with nothing to do. Only then had she realised that her weekends were busy only because she had made them so. And she had made them so only to hide her loneliness from herself.
She had looked forward to seeing Paul on Monday, had been ready to flirt with him; and, as repayment for his blushes, she had intended inviting him round for another meal a thank you for the video had decided to try cooking a curry, had even looked up the recipes. But the manageress had picked her, that Monday lunchtime, to go out back and prepare the teas; so the moment had passed. And it was a job Julie usually preferred to being on the counter; back there she could chat easily to the other women, did not have to fend off the banter and bellyaching of the men at the counter.
That Monday Julie had waited by the mopeds when it came time to go home. But Paul's yellow moped had still been there when she had had to leave to collect Michael. The depth of her disappointment at not seeing Paul that day had surprised her.
"He's only a kid," she had told herself that evening, "A boy still." He had been eleven when she had been fifteen and falling pregnant
Monday night her ex-husband had come a'banging on her door. There had followed the usual shouting match through the thin piece of wood. With the threat of the police being called, with Julie's frightened neighbours shouting at him, he had left. She had stayed awake most of that night.
On Tuesday she saw Paul not blushing, saw an echo in his blanched features of the tension that was making her feel sick; and she wondered, again with surprise, if she had found someone in this big ungainly boy like herself. When he asked if he could come round, and her telling him when, they seemed to be just the words clothing decisions made lifetimes before.
So it was, with the trepidation of all new lovers, of those about to step into another's life, to take on a new status, to alter themselves, that they met in her small square living room. And for all her years of marriage, for all his canalside tumblings, they were both inexperienced lovers. After the first shocking touch of one another, they groped and slavered on her sofa for an hour or more before making it into the small square bedroom.
New lovers are always intimate strangers, know so little of this person they take naked to their bed. So it has to be. So it was, due to their inexperience and delay, that their first coitus was over too soon and was therefore unsatisfactory to both. What they lacked in expertise, however, they both made up for in energy.
Paul didn't stay the whole of that night, nor the next. Thursday night, bothered by their age difference, Julie accused herself of cradle snatching. Atop her Paul told her that he was man enough; and she smiled happily at his boast.
All her romantic storybook notions of love had been destroyed by her husband. Coming to Paul she had told herself that she knew what to expect of a man. And, not wanting to be disappointed, she had expected him to turn out ultimately like her husband. For the moment, she had told herself, all she needed of Paul was his company and sex was the price she had to pay not to be lonely. But Paul was not at all like her husband, was gentle and considerate in his lovemaking, and she found herself enjoying it as she had not considered she was capable of such pleasure taking.
Not until Saturday did Paul stay until morning, and then it was because her ex-husband had come again banging on the door and had this time refused to be put off by threats of police.
By repute the man beyond the door was one of Bridgwater's more fearsome brawlers. Paul, though, knew that his future self-esteem left him no choice. So he dressed himself, opened the door, punched her ex-husband on the nose, kicked him in the stomach as he went down; and he breathlessly told him that if he ever came round here again he'd get more. Pushing Julie back inside, he closed the door.
Julie stared up at him.
"My oh my," she smiled, "You are man enough." She hugged him around the waist. "You alright? You're shaking."
"Desperation measures," he told her, "I was scared shitless."
Covering their sniggering, lest the man retching beyond the door should hear and it add to his humiliation, they slid together to the floor.
Paul moved in on the Monday evening.
Paul played rough and tumble with Michael. But he did not ask for Michael to call him 'father'. Nor did Paul bring any stern or sentimental notions of fatherhood to the flat. If Michael wasn't doing as his mother told him then it was because he wasn't doing as his mother told him: Paul, being young, accepted everything at its face value.
Although Paul told Julie of his punk phase, and showed her a photo of himself with an orange cockade; although he told her of his motorbike phase, and showed her the white scar on the bridge of his nose where he'd crashed; and, although he told her of his smoothy phase, told her of the girls he'd pulled, Julie knew that those phases had lasted but a few weeks at the very most and that she was his experience. And, realising this, not wanting to cheat him of the moment, feeling that he ought anyway to know, Julie told him of her ex-husband's beer-smelling brutality and of his sexual inadequacies apparent to her only now through her experiences with Paul.
At the factory they told no-one of their new domestic arrangements. Apart from the tea and coffee transactions in the canteen, the only words Paul and Julie exchanged inside work were when they were alone by their mopeds.
Eventually, however, those who cared about such things found out. So Paul rose in a few of the younger men's estimation. So did a few of the canteen women wonder about Julie's taste.
Julie shrugged off their whispers with the confidence that comes from happiness; because, never in her 21 years, had she been so consistently happy. Paul went out alone only to his mother's. The rest of the time he was near Julie, within touching distance, to be talked to, or teased. She had never felt so young in her life, not even when she had been young. Then uncertainty of herself had marred her pleasure in the moment. Now she, Paul and Michael went rolling in a tickling ball of limbs around the flat. And, when Michael was asleep, she flung wide her legs and gripped Paul in the wet maw of her love.
Paul, for his part, lost his inhibiting reverence for her being older, forgot his gratitude for this endless supply of sex; and, growing bold in his lovemaking, he, one memorable night, picked her up and played her like a guitar, fretting her nipples and strumming her pubes.
Wrapped around and in him, soothed and excited by him, surprised by her own capacity to take and to give love, Julie felt loved as she had not imagined love could exist. And that love, the lengthy twilit sensualities and experiments apart, came about through such small gestures, such small considerations a cup of tea in her Saturday morning bed, an apology for an imagined hurt... a single word can last a long time in any love affair... and not only did Paul have little in common with her ex-husband, Julie realised, he was also unlike those others on the factory job scheme, unlike even those male others in Bridgwater.
Words he sometimes used, quiet attitudes... he looked the same, dressed like them, but with intimacy there was so much about him that she found to be different. Nor did her certain knowledge of the future, that given his age their love couldn't last detract from the wholeness of their present love, where to love gave as much pleasure as being loved.
The whole of her life had never been better. Their combined wages lifted her from the floor of subsistence they were able to treat one another to little luxuries items of clothing mostly, a toy for Michael, or an adult video for them to puzzle over and to later giggling emulate. And Julie had the freedom, conferred by company, to take walks where before she would have felt conspicuous or afraid with just her and Michael. But with Paul to talk to, an arm to hold, a face to smile at, her self-consciousness and fears were forgotten.
Not that Julie wholly believed in Paul's skinny powers of protection. Because her ex-husband had again come a'banging on her door. Not wanting Paul damaged in a brawl she had light-heartedly told the mumbling oaf outside to go away or she'd set her lover on him again. Paul had laughed aloud at her choice of words; and that laughter had been more successful in sending the husband away than ever had been her or the neighbours' threats to call the police.
Julie had nightmares in which Paul changed into her husband and kicked her in the stomach. She had nightmares in which Paul sneered at her nakedness and punched Michael in the face. Julie knew that the affair must end, had foreseen from the start the time when Paul would tire of staying in with her, would want to get out and be with people his own age. The end of the affair, though, or that episode of it, came about not as she had imagined or feared.
Out at Puriton there was rumour of the factory being privatised. The workers feared that privatisation would do away with their nationally negotiated wages. The managers, however, earnestly believed in the imminence and, therefore, the desirability of private ownership. They envisaged higher salaries and improved career prospects for themselves; aside from which the privatisation seemed politically inevitable and their careers would not benefit were they seen to be obstructive. So, to make the factory a desirable prospect for privatisation, they decided to present a streamlined operation. To achieve this 'streamlining' they resolved to do away with several of the factory's accepted practises.
One accepted practise was for the casings workshop to save all the brass filings and sell the accumulated brass to a scrap merchant. As Paul was surplus to working requirements it had become Paul's job to take the week's collection into town in the firm's van. The four men, including Paul, got on average about a fiver each for that bag of brass filings.
When the memo came telling all factory hands that such perks would cease forthwith, there was much grumbling in the casings workshop. Paul didn't pay much heed: the three older men had many such arcane and downhearted discussions. From one such discussion, they unanimously decided, and heatedly informed the foreman, that the brass filings had become theirs by established right. So, as usual, the bag was filled and Paul was sent off in the van to town. He ran many such errands. This day, beyond the factory's wire fence perimeter, the police were waiting.
The two policemen stopped the van and questioned Paul about the van's ownership and contents. They asked Paul where he was going and what he was going to do when he got there. Also in the van was a hydraulic jack being taken for repair, some parcels for posting, and he had to collect some printed stationery. When the two policemen's attention became fixed on the oily bag, Paul belatedly realised their intent and said no more. They told him that he was being silly; but they appeared to feel more sorry for him than angry at him.
They took him to the police station. The bag of filings was dumped on desk after desk. A statement was written out for him to sign. It said, more or less, what he had already told them.
All the policemen were polite and friendly. At half past four they released him on bail.
Paul arrived at the flat to find Julie in tears. He smiled at her. He couldn't believe what was happening to him. He couldn't understand why she was so upset, intimated that she shouldn't cry in front of Michael, that they'd talk about it later. But he didn't. There was too little to say. It was all too preposterous. It was all too ordinary. He could not believe that the police, or his bosses, could be serious.
Even when, the next morning, the two security men wouldn't let him through the gates; and a suited manager wheeled his moped over and told him that his official notice of dismissal would be sent to him through the post, he still could not believe that they meant it. Even though he mounted his moped and, not knowing what else to do, went to the Job Centre, where they told him that his Benefit would be stopped because he had technically by his 'alleged misdemeanour' made himself unemployed, he still did not wholly believe that this was happening to him. This was not the world that he had known when he had left for work yesterday morning. His life had dramatically changed, and that change had all been achieved so politely and so without passion that it did not seem possible.
The management had not set out to deliberately trap someone on one of the schemes for the jobless. But, having so caught Paul in the act, they had to go ahead and charge him. And, having once done so, the realisation came happily upon them that charging a Job Centre trainee might actually work in their favour. The union made noises; but Paul wasn't one of their paid-up members so they weren't dutybound to represent him. And Paul's stubborn loyalty to his workmates, his refusal to name the other three so obviously involved in the 'theft' of the filings, made both management and unions feel safe. Paul was not going to muddy their waters.
Nor were the men whom Paul was protecting going to make trouble. They were sorry he'd been caught, but they were not sorry enough to put their own jobs in jeopardy. As another of the older workers said,
"If it had to be someone, better someone who won't lose their redundancy." In the management's streamlining process, job cuts were also threatened.
On the Thursday of that week, on his way back from delivering Michael to the nursery, Paul met an old motorbike friend. The friend needed some help on his windowcleaning round. He paid Paul cash.
That same day Julie realised that no-one in the factory was going to come to Paul's help. When the three casings men came to the counter Julie thanked them for sticking by Paul. The rest of the canteen turned to look at her immobile white face and hard words. She was disliked for the shuffling embarrassment she caused to the three men.
Later the canteen manageress took a quiet opportunity to remind Julie of her own leftover perks, pointing out that the sneaked-out sell-bys weren't strictly legal either.
Julie took her indignation home to Paul. With cash in his pocket he told her not to bother,
"What can they say? It's the way things are."
In all subcultures the grass, the snitch, the telltale, the informer is the lowest of the low. And the irony of it was, Paul intuitively knew, that the men hadn't so much taken the brass filings for the money, but as an underhand gesture of their independence and individuality, to show to themselves that they were not wholly owned by their bosses. Now they were humbled men, and their self-respect was of no consequence.
"Why should you be the only one with principles?" Julie asked of him.
Julie did not want Paul to be like those shamefaced men. But neither could she forgive those men. To her it seemed that all in the factory on either side of the canteen counter had had a hand in sending Paul to trial. So she thereafter wore a harsh mask in all her canteen and counter dealings.
While he waited for his trial Paul continued to help his friend on the window-cleaning round. They also painted and papered someone's living room, laid a carpet in a bedroom and put up some garden fencing. Paul discovered that for working fewer hours he was being paid more than he'd received on the training programme.
At the factory, in the week preceding Paul's trial, the worry of the job cuts, threatened by the streamlining process, led to a spontaneous strike. The picket line and its florid uncouth faces made the television news. And, because privatisation of ordnance factories was on the political agenda, it also made the privately owned national newspapers. Thus, in the magistrates' minds, when it came to sentencing, Paul represented a whole host of inarticulate troublemakers. Added to which, by not naming his fellow conspirators, he had brazenly refused to co-operate in this public administration of justice. Thus, for his being faithful to a sense of honour, for his doing what he thought was honourable, Paul was given a six month prison sentence.
In the courtroom Julie crying cursed him for a fool. But Paul still had more respect for himself than for those three cringing old men whom his sense of honour had protected. He heard of his 'crime' in court, of those 'unnamed fellow conspirators', and those words had no connection with what had happened to him; nor could he believe that those solemn-faced magistrates and earnest solicitors took themselves seriously. The language and the consequences were out of all proportion to the act. His solicitor, aghast at the sentence, wanted to appeal.
"Absurd for a first offence," he kept telling Paul. Paul agreed, until he found out that the appeal wouldn't get to court for another six months, by which time he would have completed his prison term.
Julie was allowed to quickly see him before he was taken off to Bristol. She continued to be angry at him for his continuing refusal to name the others,
"They don't give a damn about you."
"Doesn't matter," clean and proud he replied, 'I've got to live with myself."
"Who'm I going to live with?"
The following lunchtime Julie announced to the crowded canteen,
"Thought you might like to know! Paul get six months yesterday. Thank you very much!" No-one asked her for details.
The next morning a couple of oafs came to the counter and asked her for porridge. And again the next morning. It was their lifetime's one joke. Julie handed in her notice and got herself a job in the jam factory.
The sugar-scented jam factory offered no perks. Nevertheless Julie and Michael visited Paul at every opportunity during his four months incarceration in Bristol. It would have been less, but someone somewhere forgot to make an application for a good behaviour early release.
Those four months apart became the crucible of Paul and Julie's partnership, made their being a couple something worth fighting for, made them important to one another above and beyond sexual gratification and social need.
To Paul in prison Julie came to symbolise freedom. She was his other self out there, living a life he knew and could imagine from within the confines of his cell. While, to Julie, Paul became a symbol of innocence wronged.
"A man got fined sixty quid last week for careless driving. He killed someone. And you got six months for what?"
"Careless stealing?" he smiled. Julie, though, refused to be mollified, added to Paul's prison bemusement by being fiercely indignant on his behalf. He consequently felt mothered as his apathetic mother had never mothered him. Indeed Julie's maternal care and concern for him was more real than ever that of his wishy-washy mother. His mother had never stood up for him, "Should've looked where you were going..." "I 'spect you deserved it..."
At home Julie refused to drift back into her isolated life, kept her anger alive by reading what fines and sentences others received for other crimes; and, relating to her mother and sisters the injustice done Paul, she cited example upon example of the idiosyncratic administration of justice in Sedgemoor Magistrates Court...
In prison Paul drifted through the weeks, kept his conversation for Julie. Sex was not allowed on visiting days: the only intimacy they could therefore achieve was through the baring of their every thought and feeling. Thus it was, in those four months, that Julie and Paul learnt to talk to one another. So it was that, on his release, they found that the talking had become as important as the sex. Especially as they were now to spend their days apart.
In Britain in the eighties unemployment was running at over three million. Paul had a recent criminal record, no skills, and no chance of any of the few jobs on offer. All he and Julie had were his unemployment benefit, her jam factory wages and her single parent benefit, which she would lose if they discovered that Paul was living with her.
They nevertheless re-established their previous domesticity. Paul looked up his windowcleaning friend and began helping him again on dry days. Through him Paul met a jobbing gardener and began giving him a hand occasionally for cash. Julie's mother's man had a van and did removals. Paul also began helping him. Soon, on a good week, he was bringing home almost twice as much as Julie.
Although the memory of their recent separation still lay occasionally like a sadness between them, one that could suck the joy out of an embrace, Paul and Julie began to relax and look to the future. Paul talked, after good weeks, of coming off Benefit altogether and becoming self-employed. Being able to make his own working arrangements already meant that Paul could often be at home to look after Michael when Michael was on holiday from the nursery, which meant that they didn't have to pay a childminder. Then there'd be a week with no work. Then he got a few days labouring for a brickie, who was also working on the side. In between times he finally repaired the motorbike he kept at his mother's and sold it. With some of the proceedings he bought another two MOT failures, rebuilt and sold them, sold Julie's moped, bought another MOT failure, repaired and sold that...
Their lives were busy and complete. For a while building or decorating work would dominate Paul's life, then it might be a run of removals. Most of the removals were local, introduced him to others' taste in furniture and to turnings off roads unnoticed before; or, the van crammed with a whole household, he trundled down gravelled tracks and around wooded corners, where previously only his imagination had ventured.
To have his income on a regular footing Paul still applied for whatever jobs were advertised. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, according to the woman in the Job Centre who filled out the forms for him, did not apply to him. But there were so many other applicants; and, insofar as rumour and repute went, Bridgwater was a small town, and Paul didn't even get interviewed.
Some weekends Paul and Julie borrowed her mother's boyfriend's smaller van and drove around the coast to Minehead, on to Porlock, or down the motorway to Dawlish. They took Michael to Bristol ice rink; and, with Michael sleeping across the front seats, they slept in the back of the van; and, the next day, they went to the zoo and to the camera obscura. Julie liked to believe that it was in Bristol, fraught with squeaking springs and involuntary yelps, that she conceived.
Paul was arrested that week for fraud.
The DHSS investigators said that he had not declared his earnings from some windowcleaning, nor had he declared the proceeds from the sale of two motorbikes and one moped. The moped had been Julie's. The solicitor got that taken off the charge sheet. For the rest the DHSS declared themselves determined to prosecute.
Paul felt innocent; but already he knew that that was no indicator, and so he took his solicitor's advice and pleaded guilty.
The magistrates were again incensed by Paul's refusing to incriminate his fellow undercover windowcleaners, and by his generally uncooperative attitude towards the police and the hard-pressed DHSS investigators. (Paul was surprised when the magistrate said that: the police had been friendly to him, offering him cups of tea and fags; and he had been polite to the DHSS, even though they'd been rude to him.) For his defrauding the DHSS of a 'known' £283.53, Paul was given a year's sentence.
Paul accepted the sentence with a shrug and a shake of the head. He was, with his record, after all, a proven criminal. The disproportionate sentence, he knew, had nothing to do with justice, everything to do with the bad luck of getting caught. Everyone he knew in Bridgwater broke laws, laws which were acceptable to break. They sold drink to minors, solvents to children, drove over the limit, turned a blind eye to their own taking of perks; and the magistrates and their rich friends all used the cowboy builders, the cheap removal firms, the undercutting decorators and the jobbing gardeners. They had to know that, at those prices, all of those services were dole-subsidised and, therefore, strictly speaking, illegal.
They also had to know that they, the casual employers, would not be the ones who would be prosecuted for defrauding the DHSS, only the poor saps for whom there were no other jobs and no other means of a decent income.
Paul's being a non-violent criminal, police and prison officers told him, he should have done his time in an open prison. But there were no places in any of the nearest open prisons. So he was sent back to Bristol. With remission he'd be there for nine months, maybe less.
His sentence being twice as long as last time, he approached this prison term with a different frame of mind. This time he couldn't just shut down for four months and ignore those about him in the belief that he would never see them or their like again. Nine months was a lifetime, was the gestation period of the child within Jackie's womb.
Nor would Julie be able to visit him as often as before, there being that many more visits she'd have to make. This time Paul would have to do his time mostly on his own.
So Paul learnt what doing time was. That Time existed as an enemy, as a wilderness to be navigated, as a featureless ocean to be crossed. Slowly. Time: every second a step, every minute a hill, every hour an Everest... but an Everest without achievement, an Everest unrecalled, an Everest forgotten in the next blank minute. Time, as palpable and as oppressive as a thunderstorm which never came a whole day didn't bear thinking about beforehand, let alone a week. As for a month entire... And some of those men had already been incarcerated for years, seeking forgetfulness of unmemorable Time.
Paying heed to the few facilities on offer Paul took up a book for the first time since leaving school. He also forced his body to gasping exertions not experienced since the school gym.
Paul paid heed too to the men about him, to the upright frightened wardens. But he saw only their uniforms, their function. Mostly he studied his fellow felons, dishonoured men all. Because these common criminals, with whom he shared cells, believed themselves to be men without honour, and so they took a pride in being without honour. Paul, though, much to his own puzzlement, still held intact a sense of honour.
How others chose to perceive him, however, was of no account their vision he had already found to be faulty. His own vision couldn't be: he had to be honest with himself. That honesty required that he maintain his self-respect and, thus, his sense of honour.
In prison all that he had to take a pride in was his body and his mind. So he carne to furiously dislike being bested in any argument over facts. Nor did he like to think of himself as being physically weaker than any other. In an all-male society all that counted was his muscular masculinity and an uncluttered mind.
Still the ache of loneliness could squeeze all sense from him. In the long nights and the weekend bang-ups his every tissue cried out to be close to Julie, his imagination tortured by the knowledge and number of cold walls between their two warm bodies.
He tormented himself too with his fears for her, his worries that her ex-husband might call; his fears that another male, some man unknown, might take his place in her bed, between her legs.... (Being all men in prison they had reduced all women to the singular idea of a hairy avid vagina; and Paul had known Julie like that, a wet vacuum drawing all the strength from him....)
In recompense for his treacherous thoughts because he had knowledge of other Julies Julies that were stiff-backed, frigid, independent and proud he tattooed in blue biro and letters large her name upon his left forearm. To give his being balance, to further punish himself for having thought of his slight Julie in such a grossly singular fashion, he pricked the same tattoo upon his other forearm and secretly wore the two discoloured scabs beneath his sleeves.
When Julie next visited, and Paul shyly pushed up his cuffs, she was not flattered by the blue disfigurement. Offended that he found it necessary to prove his affection for her, she suspected too that the pain he had inflicted upon himself had been meant for her, to punish her for not having been to see him for the past three weeks.
Paul vowed to have no more tattoos. She was his, he had no need to brand himself with her name to claim his ownership of her. Sight of her swollen abdomen was reassurance enough.
In that room of tables they were not allowed to kiss. A greater intimacy was for him to place his hand upon her tight belly and to feel there the tap of the foetal heartbeat, like a hard-beaked chick pecking inside a warm soft egg.
Doing his time Paul talked, for distraction, to other prisoners. So he often broke the supposed code of prison reticence. That code existed, though, only in order that inmates could keep themselves in safe ignorance; an ignorance that did not know, for certain, that they shared their cramped living space, breathed the same tired air, as a child rapist or sadist of some other order. Any such knowledge might require dangerous action from them. Better not to know. Except that only a minute and a half had passed and words, any words, were easier to bear than silence. And most prisoners, once approached, were only too pleased to talk. About their obsessions granted. But talk they did.
"You've been convicted of your crimes," one cellmate said over and over again, "now count the crimes committed against you."
Nor were those cellmates sinister in the least. Murderers, cut-throats, thieves and robbers they may have been, but without knowledge of their past skullduggeries they appeared ordinary. Only when he knew some of what they had done, did he credit their features with the ghost of an evil leer. But he too was in here, and being covertly studied by others like himself... Whatever they had done, it was in the past. And everyone has a past. Here and now, suffering this present, they were all just sad and lonely men like himself, pathetic and pitiable, inside and out.
In the gym one man sat and watched him as he sweated and trembled at the weights. Paul suspected a voyeuristic sodomite. Instead the man said,
"If you could run for as long, as cunningly and as fast, as the great Alberto Cova; if you had such ιlan, such economy of movement, such ramrod elegance; then you'd be off across the fields out back before anyone noticed you'd gone. Think you're going to lift up the walls?"
A moment in one long moment, but nothing profound.
On compassionate grounds they allowed Paul an early parole. Released suddenly from that crowded prison, he stood alone in the street beyond its walls, aware of his awful isolation under a vast sky, saw Julie and Michael and ran to them to seek again the warmth of his own small herd. Two days later, wearing a green mask, he witnessed the slippery birth of his pink daughter, Alice.
Now a father he mentioned to Julie the desirability, the convenience, the possibility of marriage. Julie said no. Never again would she tie her fate in with another. If it wasn't booze stealing her man away it was prison. She had to remain in control.
To soften her refusal she told Paul that, in her vocabulary, husband was a dirty word. She didn't want to think of Paul as her husband, or to have others call him by a dirty word.
Paul allowed her that; and, being now four, they applied for a three bedroom council house. His probation officer found him a job in the wire factory. To get there he bought a pushbike. He painted, polished, and added bits to the pushbike; and sold it for four times what he'd paid for it. Michael already had a pushbike. Paul bought one for Julie, added a babyseat for Alice, and walked to work until he found himself another cheap bike.
The wire factory laid him off. He and Julie were offered a council house off Parkway, near her mother's. Her mother's old boyfriend leant Paul a van. Paul removed himself, signed on, drew Benefit, sold his pushbike and bought another. Julie told him to be careful.
"Providing," he told her, "I buy and sell only the one bike at a time, I'm just trading in one bike so I can buy another." And, scavenging bits from tips, doing up the current pushbike, no road tax, no MOT, no records, the occasional £20 he added to his dole took them above subsistence living.
Julie cycled to the mushroom factory, climbed rotten ladders, crawled around in warm compost and came home smelling of mould. Michael didn't like mushrooms.
As Paul had taken on muscles and maturity Julie had become more confident in him, more sure of him, less aware of their age difference. Indeed so small and slim was Julie that she looked younger than him. It did embarrass her, though, to see her name branded upon him every time that he rolled up his sleeves. So, as a Christmas present, she paid for him to have the two tattoos disguised. After several sessions Paul ended up with a basking butterfly and uncoiled cobra upon the right arm; a leaping panther and pouting cherub on the left. And, thereafter, Julie smiled to see the tattoos, because they hid a shared secret like their clothes hid the delightful knowledge of their sex, an intimacy and nakedness purely their own.
When the dole began to push, Paul stepped up the rate of his applications for jobs. So did he get taken on at the cellophane factory; and, last in, he was first out when orders for cellophane tailed off. So did he go cheerfully back to claiming Benefit and buying and selling his one bike.
Occasionally, when on the dole, he helped with a removal or a small decorating job; but always now on the clear understanding that, if any authority came asking questions, no money had changed hands.
Paul was no longer prepared to be the end of the line man, the only one who went to prison. Never again would Paul let himself be deceived by humbug or bullshit. Never again would he let the assumptions made in manly asides, and their inherent expectations, lead him back to jail; so he asked always for clarification, spoke the incriminating words,
"Is this legal?"
"Not strictly speaking," said with a wink, a grin, or pursed lips.
"What happens if we're caught?"
"We're not going to be."
"What happens if we're caught..?"
Paul took his desire for exactitude from there to those other aspects of life where the words were not spoken. No more would he make dangerous assumptions.
"A bit what? You saying he's a homosexual?" And for legality and sexuality the response to his words were often blushes and stammers. But Paul did not go back to jail.
Paul's regular jobs were about as lasting as a film star's marriage. Soon the pattern seemed to be six months out of work, six months in. He worked in a car repairshop for longer, got to use some of the cars at weekends, took the family on trips. That business, though, went bust.
The family's only other day trips were on the railway to the flat white town of Weston, with its grey sea miles away, beyond the khaki sand. On the little two carriage train Michael liked to stand behind the driver looking down the straight miles in front of him, the rails widest apart under him, meeting in the distance in front and behind.
A stint in a furniture factory supplied their house with a few reject sticks. But that was seasonal. The scent of sawdust, however, was preferable to the smells of the chemical factory; and there Paul didn't share the foreman's high opinion of himself. And Paul smiled because that bullying foreman was afraid of Paul's muscular tattoos. 'This ex-jailbird,' the foreman had working for him, 'has his girlfriend's ex-husband going in fear and trembling of him, and that ex-husband is no mean brawler himself...'
Paul pitied such fools impressed by such nonsense. His muscles may have been begun in prison, but he only kept them with a routine of regular exercise: such muscles could belong to anyone physically fit and sufficiently angry. And Julie's husband was more afraid of the alcoholic phantoms inside his own head that he was of the flesh and blood Paul.
But in his every job his prison past set Paul apart from the other men. Knowing its history Paul despised both their superstitious awe and their physical fear of him. Unequal, they were as uncomfortable with him as he with they. Both, consequently, welcomed any excuse for a parting of the ways.
He was glad whenever he returned to the dole, to the daylong company of his bright little daughter, to the freedom of time and roads to cycle down. Then came a stint on a building site down by the docks. They laid him off from there because he didn't want to go self-employed: Paul didn't trust to the probity of tax and insurances, nor to the prospect of unlimited employment.
Julie had meanwhile moved from the mushroom factory to the cellophane factory, with its giant rolls of clingfilm like a slug's roller-coaster. From there she had started going to evening classes to get herself some GCSEs to take her into an office. For the moment, though, at the start of these two days, she is back among the stainless steel vats of the jam factory.
Occasionally, on quiet evenings, Paul and Julie glance back through the brief history of their life together, smile often and reaffirm their love for one another. Against all the odds... They have fought and they have won, and in the lottery of love they themselves are the prize.
During such bouts of self-congratulation they pity their current acquaintances who have not found their match, or who are trapped in partnerships they loathe. Consequently Julie doesn't envy them the cars and the houses that they own, nor the mortgages and loans they have to repay. Her bleak council house is more her home than are their repossessible des. res. assets. Paul is more her man, too, than are their trimmed and travelling husbands.
In the summers Julie thinks Paul, with a tan and his hair blond and bobbing, better looking than her small dark and dowdy self. Winters, though, he goes mauve and blotchy and his nose dribbles. Then Julie, from behind her make-up, knows that she is the more attractive. This seasonal seesaw equality sees their partnership settled.
Thus, reborn seasonally in them, is the mutual amazement of new lovers that the person they so desire should so desire them. What a happy fluke love is...
Yet Paul and Julie have few of the illusions of their time. After two spells of prison and the habit of contemplation begun therein, Paul has no intention of throwing over that hard-won freedom of the mind to lose and entrap himself among comforting untruths. So do both he and Julie know that present actions have to be paid for, that there is no endless credit, no infinite dodging of consequences
On the morning of the first of these two July days, a Thursday, Paul is again unemployed. He is twenty one years old. He has a three year old daughter, an eight year old son and a twenty five year old common law wife, who, last night, unprovoked, told him that she loved him. So here they are stuck in Bridgwater, trapped in love.