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“Pruritus.” Raymond offers the word not as a diagnosis, but with a snarl.
I peer over the bannister and look down the communal stairwell. “Yes, pruritus,” I whisper.
“That’s what the Doctor said. Not once telling you there was anything wrong.” Raymond sighs. “There’s no cause. No problem, in effect.”
“When it’s at its worst, it tingles, like insects are crawling across my skin.”
‘It’s all a question of your mental state.”
“These stiff manners of yours.”
“Medicine at Imperial College affords me certain privileges, I suppose, and chief among these is knowing when a man suffers from sickness. You know you’re not to visit.”
“I’m Jonathan’s grandfather. I can do as I please.”
“You’re a hazard for goodness sake.” With his slicked-back hair and Clark’s desert boots, Raymond turns swift on his heels and slams shut the collapsible lift door. My front door closes with a bang, but my keys are inside on top of the hallway chest.
I’ve been out of The Scrubs for a few days and I want to burrow like a mole. I’m staring at the same door I walked through, into my home, I hasten to add, not Raymond’s, free of judgement, for the seven preceding years. My son – lecturing me on “moral codes.” I must have appeared such a wretched sod, scratching my wrists and stretching out the hairs of my moustache to check for lice.
I hear footsteps. It’s the thickset woman who lives at number six, still jowly, with bags full of groceries. She sees me from the landing below and averts her gaze. Mrs. something-or-other. That’s the other victim of these past two years, my memory, what with my jaundiced eek and thinning ends. A haggard old sort. Raymond enjoyed the upper hand, I must confess, quoting Parliamentarians, regaling me with their speeches, and what will always be improper. He wanted to leave my window open, to “expurgate” the air. A word he would have underlined in a library somewhere.
A glass of Chianti would be a tonic, a medicine no one would ever prescribe. Fitzgerald, the prison doctor, told me to stop scratching so much and even then, stop imagining the drink would be a “cure.” Medicine is hardly the law when it comes to the leading professions. Into the drizzle, across to The William Wallace at 44 Manchester Street. Iain will call for a locksmith.
Sylvia, his wife, beckons me to the galley exit. “Abram darlin, come round here.”
“Lovely to see you again, my dear.” Football commentary fills the air.
“You seen all the woes of the world in there, I bet, over at Wormwood?”
“Sylvia, why are we having this tête-á-tête half on the street?”
“It’s me old man, Iain, you know, it’s–” Men cheer in a neighbouring building. Everywhere, chants.
“I’d even order a Spanish Sauterne if we hurried to the bar. Anything dear, to stop frayed tempers.” I peek at the contents of my wallet. “Ooh, I have a funt. Yiddish, don’t you know, for one English pound?” I pretend to polish it with my silk handkerchief and smile, channelling my inner Fagin.
“Iain doesn’t want you in here, he heard you’d been—”
“Well, I’m back. How shall I say this, quite the civilian.”
Sylvia is holding the door open. The smooth consoling motion of her palm steadies into a firm press to my shoulder. “It’s what you were convicted for, that’s all.”
“I’ve only gone and locked myself out.” I point to my fourth-floor bedsit.
“It’s best we don’t have a scene, Abram. Iain’s watching the match.”
“I used to be a patron here when I was a young man.”
“Why not go down to Piccadilly, and you – you take good care of yourself.” Sylvia’s palm feels far too firm.
What I’d do for a bath, to ease some of these stinging sensations, these pinpricks, the furrowed pain of missing my Jim. He could pick locks, Jim, and do anything he could put his mind to over at The Wallace Collection. I want to hear the groans that his wife Sally couldn’t engineer. The snort as I circled his nipples with my tongue and performed acrobatics, twisting to face his groin, lifting my hips for his face to get near.
I turn right down Marylebone High Street which is puddled. The streetlights flicker crimson overhead. I had my path. There was Raymond’s mother, then there was Raymond’s birth, and I’m hardly unusual for any of that. Inside The Beehive, I ask for a Rioja, and I can’t pretend to be surprised. “If you want something fancy,” it’s Tio Pepe, the barmaid tells me. I quickly knock back a Scotch, then a second. My gullet warms like a hearth.
“Charlton’s scored!” Like chirping birds, the men on the street outside exchange firm handshakes.
In the Standard, there’s an article about Harold Wilson, a vote to censure him, and oh dear, Frank O’ Hara has died. The journalist states that for company, O’ Hara was with his “male companions.” I flick through a few more pages and there’s talk of an upstart backbencher, a Leo Abse MP, pushing through his Private Member’s Bill to decriminalise homosexual “relations.”
“A third please,” I shout to the barman as I head to the toilets.
A man appears wearing brothel creeper shoes and sporting a pompadour. I stare at the tiled wall in front of my urinal. He’s not butch; he’s not quite how I like them. I know better than to get in trouble, I convince myself, as I scratch my left ankle with my right foot. He might be the Lilly Law.
“What on earth do you think you are doing?” I ask.
“I’m washing my hands.” The man looks at me as he lathers his fingers with the pub’s cracked bar of pale pink soap, the same soap we had in The Scrubs.
“You weren’t even being subtle about it.”
“What are you talkin’ about?”
As he leaves the pub, I take to my seat. Perhaps he was minding his own business. I order a fourth scotch and shiver, resting my cheek on my fist.
The publican slaps the backs of two young men. “Hurst, Bobby Moore, it’s only us Irons that have gone and won it. If it wasn’t for West Ham, well, where would England be?”
Jim used to go to Upton Park, but he never bothered me with the fripperies of matchday scores. There was little time, so there was little time for nonsense. My feet take me to Jim’s place over in Kentish Town. I’m sure Sally still lives there with their girls.
“Goodness, Mr. Finn, you gave me a right shock, ringing the door at this time of night.” Sally’s hair is greyer. “We had gotten off to sleep.”
“I wanted to come right over and pay my condolences. Right over. I was released this afternoon.”
“Well, it can’t have been easy for you either, for none of us really.”
“I am sorry to say this, but it is cold out here, and I don’t have a place for the night.”
Sally joins me on the doorstep and pulls the door so our noise won’t carry upstairs. “You look poorly.”
“It would only be for the night. I’m moving to my son’s in the morning. Raymond’s.”
“It might frighten the girls.” Sally tugs at her scarlet dressing gown and drapes it higher over her shoulders, looks in both directions down the street and invites me into her and Jim’s living room. She switches on a desk lamp that illuminates her and Jim’s wedding photo. He was quite the Teddy Boy.
“Released today, did you say?”
“No need to worry about me. But a scotch wouldn’t go amiss.”
“Jim said you’d been sent down for libelling someone.” Sally edges out of the room, takes a nervous glance up the stairs and comes back, closing the living room door behind her. “He only ever saw the good in you after you paid the deposit on this place, well – after you cleared him. And for a while, so did I.”
I hear the hungry boiler upstairs, the faulty one my money couldn’t replace.
“It’s nothing to do with me,” Sally continues. “A policeman in a public convenience. I always thought, nobody’s business.” She catches me gazing at their wedding portrait.
“Do you mean to say you accept me, Sally?” I’m shocked by my reflection in the living room mirror. I’m a Francis Bacon portrait.
“Acceptance has nothing to do with it. It’s all the nonsense that frustrated me. He was so affected by it all, cursing the lawyers you had, pretending it was something to do with fraud against you. Believing his own stories.”
I see the light from the desk reflected in Sally’s overworked eyes. I edge nervously to the door.
“This home is – you originally paid for it, didn’t you?” Sally starts.
“And I used to wonder why.”
I step into the hall.
“I wasn’t just a bit on the side, you know, Mr. Finn, I wasn’t stupid.”
“I know all that, Sally.”
“There were compromises, there were. And you managed to avoid him prison time, even after all that controversy, after he was discharged.”
“Well, you know what you were like.”
“A bloody good barrister.”
“Sleep on the sofa, but please, as soon as the birds are cooing, up and out. I don’t want the girls to know you stayed. I’ll fetch you a sheet. You’ll be needing an undersheet as well.”
“As dawn breaks. Sally, this is most kind. I wouldn’t have asked except for the rarest of circumstances.”
“And this will have to be the rarest of circumstances.”
“I promise. You will never see me again after this evening.”
“I’m not one for promises, Mr. Finn, not after all the ones that counted got broken.”
“What do you mean, dear?”
“I think you know very well.”
I take the sheets and down the whiskey, which she hands over.
“Till death do us part,” Sally continues. “That’s the vow, and Jim only blooming croaks it. Of all the ways to go. It’s those promises, Mr. Finn, those promises are the ones he only gone and broken.”
“Don’t flatter yourself that I might be referring to anything else.”
“It’s just – hearing he’d died. That’s why I came.”
“Please, Mr. Finn, first thing.”
On the desk, an album has been left open on a page where Jim’s photographed dressed as a sailor in a striped marinière at a fayre, and there’s one facing, of him and Sally at a tea dance.
As I settle on the settee, I look across to the framed portrait. Jim’s beaming. Sally’s a foot shorter than him, even with heels on in their wedding suite. It’s a charming picture, but nothing like the paintings we used to stop and stare at late at night. Jim would smuggle me into the Wallace Collection’s Great Gallery. I used to call him my very own Laughing Cavalier.
A mental image now, not of his wedding portrait, but of him calling me “Milord” as he crawls over me and works his hands up and down my thighs as we play the Edith Piaf track on vinyl. I lean back on Sally’s cushion. I’m left imagining the physical pains, the ones I willed as I urged him on, as Jim pummelled away, slobbered over me like a Doberman, and not this incessant itch.
My eyelids shut, and I imagine I’m on the Heath. I’m far away from my cell. I’m a flitting Red Admiral with proud wings. My scabs have disappeared. Sinking lower still, I hear the cries of the football fans, feel the spray of the bitaine by the urinals, jolt on feeling Sylvia the barmaid’s pushing palm pressing into my spindly shoulder. I’m about to sleep on the sofa of my lover’s widow.
“I’m a widower,” I whisper.
I scratch my shoulders and say the words out loud, so Sally can hear them up the staircase.
“I’m also the widower here, remember.”
Sally’s door opens and shuts again. I vow in the morning, once I sober up and pay a locksmith, I’ll find this MP, the Leo Abse fellow, or write to him at least. The Marylebone Library will have the details. I’ll try to claim my pension, I’ll certainly steer clear of the cottage in Covent Garden, and late in the afternoon, for tradition’s sake, I’ll visit the Wallace Collection.
It’s the final day of July, and the birdsong is sweeter than I remember it. I open my eyes and concentrate on the dawn chorus. My itch won’t last, I tell myself. It’s a question of perseverance. I mustn’t lounge in my pyjamas in the mornings. I’m only 67. I mustn’t sift into retirement, not if I want to find another Jim.