SEEING CONOR OFF
It was last winter – or was it autumn? I’m not really sure when the one season ends and the other begins to be honest.I know that it was November though – November 14th to be exact, and if that’s officially winter then there you are. But it wasn’t cold. Not the sort of cold you normally associate with winter months anyway. More that chilly, damp, misted-up-windows type of weather that reeks of rotting leaves clogging up the gutters and grids or mulched to a sludge on the pavements – you know the kind of thing I mean. And to me that smell belongs to the autumn. Personally, I like the autumn best. Well, I’d rather have the stink of rotting leaves up my nostrils than the stench of dog-shit baking in the summer sun, wouldn’t you?
I remember that it was November 14th because that’s when my brother has his birthday and, as usual, I’d forgotten to send him an email or text or anything. He lives down in Bristol now, you see; has done for the past three years. ‘Out of sight…’ as they say. Anyhow, when I saw the date on the front of the newspaper that Saturday evening it clicked.
“Hey,” I said, “it’s our Harry’s birthday today!”
Nobody seemed surprised by the announcement – nobody being my mum, dad and little sister, Sandra by the way. They just sat around the room with the dirty dinner dishes at their scattered around them, each making their own particular contribution to the lack of discussion. Dad was the one reading the newspaper, looking for the kick-off time in the TV listings, mum sipping her cup of tea and watching some moronic game show on the tele, Sandra stuffing the left-over cake into her mouth and playing a game on her ipad at the same time, and me, waiting for someone to say something.
It occurred to me all of a sudden, like finding a spot on your face you hadn’t noticed before, that nothing had been said since I first came into the room and sat down. No, I thought, that can’t be right, could it? So I did another scan through my memory, more carefully this time. Nothing! Not so much as a ‘pass the sauce please’. I started to think back over the day to see if I could pinpoint when exactly the words had dried up. Then I realised that not one single thing had been said to me atall since I crawled out of bed at two o’clock that afternoon. And I hadn’t even noticed, that’s what made me feel such a dill doll. I’d come down, made myself some lunch, just beans on toast and a cup of tea and sat and watched an old film on the tele. At half-four I’d gone back to my room and browsed on the internet for a while and listened to some music. And then it was tea-time and here we were.
I suppose my mind must have been somewhere else. I only wish my body had gone along to keep it company because I had a feeling there was a storm sneaking up behind this calm and it was heading in my direction. The expression on my sister’s face confirmed my suspicions. She kept looking from mum to me, to dad to me, and back to mum again, with a sly little smile on her cream clotted gob. Sandra was a late arrival in the family – six years younger than me. She’s just twelve now and hates my guts for being eighteen. Loves to see me in trouble though and she was loving it now.
So this silence we were all choking on wasn’t caused by any lack of words: they’d built a dam to stop them up and were waiting for the right moment to open the sluice-gates and drown me in a flash-flood of noise Bollicks to that, I thought. Just keep your mouth shut and don’t give them the opportunity, that’ll teach them to play silly games. But I’m too curious for my own good, me. Couldn’t resist egging them on. So I asked if they remembered to send our Harry a card. That game them the excuse they were looking for.
“Of course we remembered,” mum spat back at me as if forgetting was something you could only do deliberately. “We sent a card off last Thursday. Haven’t you sent him one?” She knew very well I hadn’t.
“Nobody reminded me,” I said, and that’s when dad chips in with, “You shouldn’t need reminding about something like that,” and flops his paper down on the coffee-table, right on top of his plate which was swimming with tomato sauce and egg yoke.
“Remind him!” my mother says, “I can’t even speak to him anymore. He just ignores me. Walks away when I’m talking.”
I knew what was coming next. All the usual stuff about ‘taking us for granted’ and ‘changing his attitude’ and ‘never lifting a finger’ and ‘those friends he hangs around with’. It’s always the same. They never come straight out and tackle me with whatever it is that’s on their mind. Instead they go through this same routine every time. There I was stuck in the middle, with both of them looking at me but talking to each other. I felt like a wall in a squash court and it was dad’s turn to serve again.
“About time he started doing a bit around the house instead of having us run round after him. Treats this place like a doss-house!....” and so on and so on. It’s no wonder our Harry moved to Bristol.
I could have argued back but I just wasn’t in the mood. Anyway, they can shout louder than me. So I decided to make a strategic withdrawal. Their anger would have to simmer in their pressure-cooker brains for a bit longer. After absorbing fire for a while, I said, “Looks like Everton have signed that Southampton centre-half they’ve been after” and pointed to the back page of the paper on the coffee table.
“What?” dad said, and that was all I needed. I’d put him off his stroke for a second or two; just long enough for me to stand up, give them a smile and walk away.
“Never mind the bloody football…” he said but his shot fell short.
Mum tried one last salvo before I got through the door, “See what I mean!” she screams, “just walks away when you’re talking to him.” Talking! Talking for christ’s sake. They call that talking
While I was in the hall, slipping on my jacket, I could hear them moaning at Sandra about the mess she’d make on the floor with the cake crumbs. Serve her right too. I slammed the front-door shut behind me and walked along to the bus-stop. On my way, I sent Harry a text and wished him a happy birthday. There, job done and I somehow managed to catch a bus to Andy’s straight-away. Things were looking up.
I was calling for Andy because I always call for Andy on Saturday nights. Well, ever since things broke up with Clare anyway. Andy is one of those friends I ‘hang around with’. He lives the nearest to me in Anfield, which is only a few bus stops away. From his house we carry on into town, meet up with some more of our mates, have a few drinks, sniff aroud the girls and, sometimes, try our luck in a club, but not often. We’re usually too skint for their prices and, anyway, it’s always a bitch getting past the bouncers on the door because none of us look any older than we are. All except for Andy that is. He could easily pass for twenty-one because of his size, and for sixty-one because of his cough. It’s a real smoker’s bark he’s got. He told me once that he’d had bronchitis bad when he was young and that he’s suffered with a bad chest ever since, especially when the weather turned damp. I told him I had the same kind of problem with tonsillitis which laid me out with a fever every year without fail, but usually when the weather turned warm. Andy asked me why I hadn’t had my tonsils taken out when I was a kid and I told him I didn’t know. So I asked him why he hadn’t had his chest taken out when he was a kid and he didn’t know either. We have a lot in common.
I got to Andy’s about quarter past seven, which was about normal, and Andy wasn’t ready when I knocked, which was also normal but still annoying. He had shaving foam all over his chin when he opened the door and looked at me as if to say ‘you’re early’. Cheeky bastard. I went in, sat down and waited. The house was empty. Andy just lived with his dad now. His mum died when he was about eight I think and his two older brothers and his sister are all married and have moved away. Sophie, his sister, only went about six or seven months ago. She and her husband Harry had to live at Andy’s for over three years while they were looking for a place. They had a baby too, and another one on the way before they finally got a flat in Huyton. I’m still not used to it being so quiet when I walk in.
On Saturdays, Andy’s dad usually goes out about seven o’clock with some of his friends to the pub around the corner. The Raglan it’s called. Sometimes we see them in there if we go for a pint before catching a bus into town. Danny, his name is. He seems alright to me though to hear Andy talk you’d think he was a cross between Scrooge and Count Dracula. They just leave each other alone most of the time and I don’t think they meet up much except at meal times; one or other of them always seems to be out whenever I call anyway. Danny is always leaving notes for Andy pinned up over the fire-place cause he can’t text very well. There was one up there this day with something scribbled on it that I couldn’t quite make out. I picked up Andy’s guitar and strummed a few chords and wondered what it must be like to have the whole house to yourself.
When Andy had finished shaving, slipped on his shirt, combed his hair, stopped the blood from the shaving nick, found his coat, collected his money from his jeans, gone back for his phone, and sneaked one last look in the hall mirror, we were ready to go. All of that took till eight o’clock. Where to go first usually took us another half hour of texting to find out where everyone was and trying to catch up with them before they moved on. This particular night though, Andy knew exactly where we were going without touching his phone.
“Connor’s home, you know,” he says as he strides off straight away in the direction of Connor’s grandma’s place.
“Is he?” I was surprised. I hadn’t seen Connor since the summer when he got his A level results and now he was at Newcastle Uni studying chemical engineering and living in digs there. “How’s he doing now?”
“Seems alright. My dad said he was starting to talk with a Geordie accent.”
I laughed at the idea of Connor with a Geordie accent after just a couple of months living there. It was just like him to join in though. We’d known Coonor all through school but he’d stayed on to get some qualifications while the rest of us left as soon as we were allowed to. Seemed to know what he was about, Connor; knew what he wanted to do and went and did it. I reckon his dad had a lot to do with it. He was something to do with engineering. Maritime engineering. Went away to sea a lot. Me and Andy still haven’t made up our minds what we wanted to do yet.
“He rang our house cause he hasn’t got my new number but I couldn’t ring him back cause I lost all my old contacts when my sim broke.
“Oh yeah. I remember now.”
Connor’s grandma lives in a maisonette a few streets away from Andy’s and that’s were Connor stays whenever he comes home. In fact, he’d more or less lived there ever since he was fourteen. That’s when his dad had married again. Connor’s elder sister lived there too but he also had two younger brothers who were with his father and stepmother. I didn’t know too much about the family relationships really., only having met Jessica, his sister, once and Connor hardly ever mentioned them, at least to me.
Andy led the way, a half pace ahead, knowing all the side streets and short cuts better. We exchanged our latest bits of news, mostly about things that had happened to us at work. I told him about the heavy drinking session I’d had the night before when one of the other placements invited us to his leaving party. Managed to get himself a real job. We went to the pub straight after work to celebrate. I only intened to stay for an hour or so, just a few pints, but one thing led to another and I blew most of my pay. I didn’t get home until after eleven, in a bit of a state too. Ended up staying in bed until two o’clock, sleeping it off. I told Andy about my ordeal by silence at tea-time and how I hadn’t even noticed. He laughed.
It was ten past eight when we got to the maisonettes. Inside it was pitch black because all the lights in the stair-way were broken. Andy pounced up the steps two as a time and I followed, pattering out the off-beat. We had to walk in single-file along the balcony. Andy leading the way again with me trying to keep up with him – his stride measures nearly two of mine. He knocked on the door and then stepped back as if it was bad manners to breath in the door’s face. A light went on inside and flooded out through the glass-pane onto the landing, filling us full of colour. We heard a catch slip and then the door opened very slightly. I could just make out an old lady peeking out at us through the gap. “Who’s there?” she said.
“It’s Andy, Mrs Lawler,” Andy said in this dead polite voice that he always puts on when he’s talking to other people’s relatives, “Is your Connor in?”
The door opened wider then. Mrs Lawler is only small with grey hair turning to white but she’s slim and moves in quick spurts, not slow and cautious like most older people you see, who creak like an old bed every time they move a finger. She had to strain her head back to talk to Andy though, him being so tall. “He’s not in lad,” she said, “He’s gone up to Fazakerley to see his dad. Went straight after tea. He tried phoning you?”
Andy nodded, “Yeah. I’ve got a new phone. Any idea where they’re going?
“The Chaser I think he said.”
Then Andy said, “Okay, thanks,” and we both said, “Goodnight,” and made our way back along the balcony to the stairs. The light went off behind us and we became black blobs in the dark again.
When we got down into the street we had to decide what to do. If we went up to Fazakerley we would have to give the rest of the lads a miss. On the other hand, Connor doesn’t come over all that often. But then, did we really want to sit drinking with his old man all night. We couldn’t make up our minds. We just stood there starring one way then the other as if looking for something to make the decision for us. And something did too. I saw a Kirkby bus coming towards us and, just out of curiosity, asked Andy what bus went to Fazakerley from here. Andy turned round and saw the Kirkby bus too. “That one does!” he said and without another word from either of us, we both started running for the stop which was about a hundred yards away. We only just made it.
We must be terrible out of condition, the pair of us because we were huffing and puffing all the way to Fazakerley, which is a good distance, even on the bus. And sweating too. It was pouring off us. We had to laugh at ourselves. Andy said, “This is embarrassing. We’ll have to start playing footy on Sundays again to get fit. Either that or start smoking so we can give them up.”
We used to have some good football matches on Sunday afternoons at one time. Over in Stanley Park. It was nothing formal. Just anyone who bothered to turn up could join in on one side or the other. Sometimes it would be as few as three-a-side. Exhausting affairs they were. First team to score twenty goals won. Then we would all collapse on the grass for about an hour. About tea-time we’d grab something to eat; a burger or some chips and then just disperse. We don’t seem to do that anymore. I started going out with Clare, that’s how I came to stop. But after we’d split up, nobody else seemed keen. Some of the others had girl-friends on and off or something else happened. One of the lads, Simon, had joined the army just after his eighteenth birthday, which took us all by surprise. And then, of course, there was Connor who’d gone off to Newcastle.
The bus stops right outside the Chaser and, with not knowing the area all that well, the bus was right on top of the place before we realised we were even near. So we had to leap up and make a rush for it. The driver was just ready to move off as we came clattering down the stairs. He shook his head at us as we jumped off.
Andy poked his head inside the door of the lounge to see if he could see Connor but the place was packed and he couldn’t make out anyone. It was Connor who saw him first and called over from the table where he and his dad were sitting. We went in, grabbed some stray chairs from other tables, dragged them over and sat down. I felt really awkward, shy, not having met Connor’s dad before but he seemed friendly enough. Asked us straight away what we wanted to drink and then went over to the bar to get them. I didn’t say much at first, I just couldn’t get over the change in Connor. He seemed so different. He dressed like a student now but it wasn’t only that. He looked older somehow and seemed relaxed and full of confidence. He was full of chat anyway, asking us how we were getting on and how our families were. It made me feel a bit like a kid being spoken to by an uncle I hadn’t seen for years. And he spoke with a slight Geordie accent too, just like Andy said. Then his dad came back and Connor introduced me just like older people do, “This is Gerry,” he said to me and then to his dad he said, “This is Paul. I used to go to school with him.”
“Nice to meet you Paul,” his dad said and I nodded and said, “Yeah.”
After that though things got alright. Like I said, Connor’s dad was dead friendly and easy-going. He asked Andy what had happened to his beard and that caused us all to snigger. Andy’s hair is brown, see, but there’s a slight tint of red in it and when he started growing a beard a while back, it came out ginger and looked really strange, like he’d just stuck it on. Everyone pulled his leg about it but that only encouraged him, thinking it made him look distinguished. Then, when we’d all grown used to seeing it and didn’t mention it anymore, he shaved it off.
By closing time I was beginning to feel more relaxed . Then Connor’s dad said,”Listen, you lads go and get something from the dhippy while I nip back and tell Angela you’re coming back,” and he handed Connor a few notes.
Connor tried to hand it back and said “Its ok dad,” but his dad told him not to be stupid and to get enough chipsw for Michael and David too.
So we set off for the chippy. On the way Connor started telling us about things in Newcastle. Then, just casually, he mentions that he’s been living with some girl for the last month or so. Her name is Sharon and they were sharing this flat together. They met at a party, he said. She was a second year student and had the place to herself after her friend had failed her first year exams and had decided to pack it in. They got on well together so she asked him to move in. I was staggered. I just didn’t think that kind of thing could happen, not to someone I knew anyway. Talk about a fast worker. He hardly set foot in the place and already he was shacked up with someone. And someone older too. I was almost nineteen and I’d never managed to get past the touching, stroking stage. I never even got that far with Clare. Nothing more than a handful of breast anyway. She had strong restraining hands, did Clare. Now here was Connor telling us about his relationship in this sort of matter-of-fact way and we were hanging on every word. We kept asking questions, trying to get more details. Trying to picture him with her.
Apparently, they’d both decided to go home for the weekend though I got the impression it was her who had decided. Something about the way Connor told it. She lived in York and I wondered if she had wanted to cool things off. But Connor changed the subject after that and started telling us about the Uni again and about the lectures and the work they were doing. But I was too preoccupied to pay much attention to it all. I was still trhying to develop this picture in my mind of Connor and Sharon in a flat together. Well, not so much Connor. Actually, I was trying to superimpose myself into the scene.
We got the chips and headed back to the house and there I had to go through the embarrassing introductions again, nodding hellos to Connor’s step-mother, Angela, and his two brothers, Michael and David who were made to unsprawl themselves from the couch so we could sit down. It was funny, they were like miniature versions of Connor, only slightly imperfect ones. Michael was the most similar, sharing all the same facial features but with different coloured hair. David had eyes set different and was lanky and awkward. They were both embarrassed too and after they’d eaten their chips, they threw quick goodnights to us and slipped upstairs to their room.
Connor’s dad brought out a bottle of whiskey from somewhere and started telling us about some of the funny incidents that had happened to him when he’d been away at sea as a young man, travelling all over the world. He works for a local haulage firm now, servicing their trucks and I could tell he missed the travelling from the glint in his eye when he recalled one of his little adventures. And after each little anecdote hed’ top up our glasses while we were still laughing. After a while, angela brought us in a cup of tea. I think she was hinting that we’d had enough whiskey for the night. I think she was right.
It was about one o’clock in the morning when Connor’s got a text from Sharon and his mood suddenly changed. He’d seemed happy enough though a bit withdrawn, smiling at his dad’s tales which he must have heard hundred’s of times. Then, when he’d read the message, he perked up. Started to talk about catching a train back to Newcastle. He checked the train timetable on an app he had on his phone and said he needed to get back to his grandma’s to pack some things. Andy and me both said we’d go with him and give him a send-off at the station. Connor rang for a taxi. When it came he said goodbye to his dad and Angela and they said good night to us all and we left it at that. We were all pretty stoned by this time and tired and Connor was talking about Sharon again, only this time we weren’t paying the same attention. We just nodded sympathetically as he indulged himself and the cab bumped along the road.
Connor had a key to his grandma’s place so we didn’t need to wakeanybody and we sat in the kitchen while Connor did his packing. When he joined us about half an hour later, he was bright and bubbly as though he’d had a week’s sleep. Andy was managing to stay awake and keep up the conversation but I was fading fast and eventually I just slumped forward and fell asleep with my head resting on the kitchen table.
I woke up about an hour or two later to the smell of bacon sizzling i9n the frying pan. Andy was standing over the cooker teasing the bacon rashers about in the fat with a long fork and Connor was pouring out the cups of tea. We had the vbackon with baked beans and fried bread, gulpijng ot down us as though we hadn’t eaten for months. Connor kept checking his phone for the time as we ate. We washed up the dishes and then put on our coats while Connor slipped into his grandma’s room and said goodbye. Then he grabbed his backpack and crept out into the balcony.
It was really chilly outside in the street and we were shivering, waiting for a taxi to come by. Connor felt the cold the most and his teeth were chattering. I suppose he was anxious too. Eventually a taxi came and we piled in, glas to be out of the cold. We arrived at Lime Street Station at five past seven which gave us plenty of time to spare. The train was already waiting at the platform and there swere only a few people on on-board so we found him a good seat and then stepped back onto the platform. We stood and talked about this and that then, just before it was time to go, he stepped back on the train and said he’d give us a call when he was coming over again and then he shook hands with us. That felt really strange. We stood then feeling a bit awkward until the doors closed automatically with a hish. Connor went to his seat and waved to us as the train pulled out. We stood and watched until the train was out of sight. It had been nice seeing him again. It made a nice change.
Whe we walked out of the station it was a bright daylight and a white frost had appeared on the ground. The whole town seemed clean and fresh and we shivered in the cold. It made me feel good. I decided that I was going to get away and do something with my life too and I told Andy what I was thinking. He said he’d been feeling the same. “We should try our hand in London,” he said and I said, “just pack our bags and go?” and he said, “Yeah!” and I agreed. We talked about it some more and then we thought about other places we could go, like Bristol. I said, “Our Tony might put us up for awhile”. We both had this strange determination as we crunched our way through the frost with our hands in our pockets and our breath turned to mist, soaking in the bright, cold sunshine that filed us with warmth inside.
We reached the bus-stops and waited awhile talking about what things we could do and then my bus arrived first. I said a quick goodbye and told Andy I’d call him during the week to sort out some arrangements. On the way home all sorts of exciting ideas kept racing through my head, things I couldn’t wait to share with Andy.
As I walked up our road the frost had all melted away and the ground was wet and dull and my heart sank when I thought about what was going to face me when I walked in the house. I was beginning to feel very tired again. It came over me all of a sudden and my legs felt like lead. By the time I reached the door all my energy had drained away and it was all I could do to keep my eyes open. My mum came out of the living-room when she heard the front door open. She had a big scowl on her face but she never said anything and neither did I. Without even thinking, I just slopped up the stairs and into my bedroom. I dragged my clothes off and fell into bed.
Just before i dropped off to sleep I caught a glimpse of the small change that had fallen out of my trouser pockets onto the floor. It was all I had left of my wages. Two nights out on the run and taxis everywhere had skint me for the month. By Tuesday I wouldn’t even have the bus fare to get me to work never London or Bristol. And how would I keep myself even if I did get there. But I was just too dog tired to even feel depressed anymore and I drifted away. It was three o’clock in the afternoon when I got up and came down the stairs to face the music.