When Gordon Ran Away

Annie waited for them to leave. She woke herself up early, so she could listen out for them getting ready. First mum, then Joel, leaving her alone, the house to herself. Mum was driving to Heathrow. She was a useless driver – she said so herself. She’d wanted Joel, the lodger, to drive her, but he couldn’t, he was working, so she’d be going at 40 miles an hour all the way along the M4 and leaving hours more time than she really needed, if she’d been a normal driver. ‘You’re useless,’ she’d said to Joel. Annie had tried to soothe things between them. ‘You wouldn’t let him drive fast anyway,’ she’d pointed out. Mum always had her foot on an imaginary brake, it used to drive dad mad. Joel had laughed, ‘in my car, she lets me.’ Mum had given him a look. ‘I’m better off going alone,’ she’d said, ‘you are only the lodger,’ and she’d walked off, more angry than before.

Mum was flying to Paris to collect Gordon. To fetch him home again. It wasn’t just Gordon she’d gone to get, there was Melody Hunt too. They’d run away together. Nobody thought it was romantic. Mum was angry. Annie felt cross too, because Gordon had got mum going again and nobody had talked about anything else for weeks. Even teachers at school had been asking her, when she was trying to get a break from it all. She was glad it was half term. Dad thought mum was over-reacting. ‘About time the boy got his leg over,’ he’d said. ‘He is 17.’ Everyone seemed to get her going.

They’d been gone for almost a month, at the coldest time of the year. Every time they woke up to frost mum said ‘I hope his balls shrivel up with the cold.’ Then she’d tracked them down. They were stuck in a tiny room in a huge hotel on the outskirts of Paris. Mum said it was soulless. She seemed glad.

When mum came in to say goodbye she stroked Annie’s hair and kissed her forehead. Annie pretended to be asleep. She could hear mum breathing loudly through her mouth. She dozed after that, waking to hear the regular noises of Joel getting up for work. The sounds from his room; the creak from his mattress, the hollow dunt of the loose floorboard by his bed as he stood up. He never missed it. His yawn as he stretched, it was so loud, like it took over his body. Then the latch lifting on his door and for a moment he was outside her room. He’d be in the kitchen for a while, but Annie couldn’t make out any sounds. She imagined the toast crumbs at the corners of his mouth, she liked to think of him lonely at the table and with nothing to read. Finally the front door, clicked shut. He’d pulled it to gently, so as not to wake her.

She lay in bed still, stretching out so her feet touched the sides. She had the whole day to herself. Joel would be home first, at six. Mum wouldn’t be back until ten, eleven even, at night. She wasn’t to wait up. She didn’t want to anyway, seeing Gordon all pale from living in empty hotels and only white bread to eat.

There was no need to get dressed straight away, she didn’t even have to eat breakfast. She could just eat toast, there was no one to check. She got up and stood at the top of the stairs wondering what she’d like to do first. Joel’s door was open, by at least a foot. She edged it open another few inches so she could see in. Just to make sure he really had gone to work, that she’d heard the sounds right.

His bed was unmade, the curtains half shut, his bedside light still on. His room was always a mess. Mum complained about it but Joel laughed and teased her, said she loved it, didn’t she, being the stern landlady. Then mum would laugh too, she didn’t want to be stern with him at all. She’d come and do it herself, she said, when he was asleep. Joel said he wouldn’t mind. She hadn’t done it last night though, judging by the heaps of clothes on the floor.

There wasn’t much to look at – a record player on the floor and a pile of L.Ps. She didn’t recognise the name of the top one. Jethro Tull; a picture of a man in a wood sitting by a fire. What would it be like to listen to the records together? To like them as much as he did, to sit together saying nothing, just listening. If it was what they did together in the evenings – him choosing one then her. Maybe they’d sit on the bed. She sat on the edge of the mattress, but it was awkward, still having her feet on the floor. She brought her legs under the duvet, they’d be right next to each other now, probably with their legs touching, it was a narrow bed after all.

She couldn’t work out whether to have her hands under the duvet or on top. Underneath she felt like a little girl, waiting for a night night kiss. On top and she was like a patient in a hospital bed. Maybe it was because her hands didn’t have anything to do. Maybe it was because of the frilly nightie she had on. Mum liked to buy them for her even though she wanted pyjamas. It wasn’t the sort of thing she’d be wearing with Joel, sitting in bed, listening to his L.Ps.

She pulled the nightie over her head. She wouldn’t be naked of course, she’d have on something silky with ribbons for straps. In cream. He wouldn’t be wearing anything on top, men didn’t have to. Without her nightie her breasts and belly, both rounder than she’d like, were out. She’d rather have had them under the blankets, but then she’d have to be practically lying down and they wouldn’t be lying down, to listen to his L.Ps. There was nothing for it but to have them out and just pretend they weren’t there. She closed her eyes, which helped, and pictured him next to her. The sound of his breath, his hands near hers, doing something ordinary, because this was their habit, especially on Saturday mornings. They couldn’t stay there for ever, of course. She got herself back into the nightie, rearranged the bedding how she’d found it and started into the empty house.

It hadn’t been any quieter without Gordon. They hadn’t even noticed he’d gone to begin with. He was always hiding in his room. Mum went in with some clean, ironed clothes and he wasn’t there. His window was open and a rope was hanging from it. Annie thought this was stupid – Gordon and his fancy knots. Why couldn’t he have just sneaked out through the garden like any normal person. Gone outside to fetch something and then just left through the garage. That’s what she’d have done. Gordon just wanted to make a great escape, as if he’d been imprisoned in a tower.

Mum had freaked out. When she’d screamed Annie had come running and found her with the rope in one hand and a note in the other. ‘I thought he’d tried to hang himself,’ she sobbed. Joel had come in and comforted her; she’d cried with all her face hidden in his chest. Then she’d begun to read out the note and Annie could tell she was going to be angry. ‘ ‘We’re really sorry but we have to get away. We need some space to ourselves. We’ll be OK, don’t worry about us. We’ve got some money.’ That was when she’d really started yelling. ‘What does he mean, space?’ Annie hadn’t said anything, it wasn’t a real question. Joel hadn’t answered either. ‘Why does that have boy have to talk in clichés? I’ve no idea what he means. Doesn’t he have enough space from us, shut away in here all day? We hardly ever see him. That bloody girl.’ She’d meant Melody, mum had never liked her. Annie didn’t much either, though she was pretty. Melody only wanted to be Gordon’s girlfriend. She was going out with someone else. Someone stupid called Dave who wore leather clothes. Gordon pretended not to mind, though he wasn’t friends with Dave.

Annie had to go past Gordon’s room on her way down to the kitchen so she had a look in. It was a mess too and it was beginning to smell. Mum had refused to tidy it. Sometimes mum had been so angry she didn’t even want to look for him. But then she didn’t want him to get away with it either. And it was February. He’d be cold, even in France.

It wasn’t the first time Gordon and Melody had tried to run away. Mum had caught them at the bus stop, trying to get to London. It was just after Joel had moved in. Annie had been away visiting dad. Gordon had refused to come. Annie had felt annoyed when she found out why. She’d wanted to stay at home too, what with Joel being so new. But she’d gone because of dad – she’d felt bad for dad, sorry for him. He must have thought Gordon didn’t want to see him. She’d made up an excuse for him about school work. Dad would want to believe that – Gordon never usually did any. She’d gone to all that effort and it wasn’t that he didn’t want to come at all. It was just an excuse. She’d been glad they’d been caught. She wished she’d seen the shouting after.

By the time she’d got home mum had stopped shouting and had started worrying instead. She’d got a theory about Gordon and Melody. Gordon only wanted her because he couldn’t have her. She was unobtainable. It was a thing people did, she said, ‘love hopelessly.’ Mum was worried because Melody was his third hopeless love since he’d turned 16. Mum said Gordon was like her when she was in love. Vernon had been the most recent. ‘Some people need to love in vain,’ she said, ‘it’s safer.’ ‘What about dad? You didn’t love him in vain.’ ‘No,’ mum sighed, ‘and look what happened there.’
Gordon still had a photo of the first on his bookshelf. Theresa. Annie picked it up and rubbed the dust off with her nightie. There wasn’t a photo of Justine, mum wouldn’t have allowed that. There were two of Melody though, one even had Gordon in it and they almost looked like a couple. Gordon was gazing at her and she was smiling back. It wasn’t fair, Melody being so friendly with Gordon when she didn’t want him. Though Annie could see why. He never came out of his room for a start and he never said much. He would be boring to go out with. Annie looked round the room trying to feel like she’d missed him. Gordon’s metal bed, the red paint chipped. She had one the same only hers was blue. Gordon wouldn’t want to be back at home. Especially with mum being angry. That would go on for days, maybe even a week. Annie wondered what she’d do while mum was being angry. She couldn’t side with Gordon. She didn’t want to, it was all his fault in the first place. Not that siding with Gordon would stop the anger anyway. It would probably make it go on for longer. They’d be two of them getting it.
Once they’d run away together. Gordon had packed Annie’s rucksack for her and woken her up when it was time to leave. She’d been pleased he’d wanted her to come though she’d not had any real reason to leave. She’d only been nine. What had been Gordon’s reason? It had been before dad had left. They hadn’t even managed to get out of the front door. It should have been late enough but mum and dad had been still up, talking. There’d been double the shouting – most for Gordon but Annie had got her share too. She couldn’t remember dad saying anything. He’d taken her back to bed though and carried their bags back upstairs. That was the sort of thing he did.

‘I needed someone practical,’ mum would say when she was trying to work out why she’d gone for dad in the first place. But then other days she’d say ‘I was such a fool, you should never pick a man for his DIY skills.’ Maybe Melody would go out with Gordon if he was more practical. But then knots were a practical kind of thing, especially if you had a knot for all situations, like Gordon did. Melody obviously didn’t need any knots tying. Annie turned the radiator back on as she left the room.

As she had the house to herself Annie thought she’d use mum’s bathroom. It had black and white tiles up to the ceiling. You could see your face in the black ones. She liked it when the door was ajar and she could see mum in her bedroom, folding clothes, putting them away. The sound of the wardrobe door opening and shutting.

The first phone call had come like that, when Annie was in the bathroom and mum was in the bedroom, changing the sheets. The phone was right by the bed but mum had pounced on it. She’d been doing that for weeks; waiting for the phone to ring then pouncing. Occasionally, when she was feeling really angry, she’d ignore the phone ‘a woman’s whole life is about waiting,’ she’d say, ‘waiting for men and jumping to their every call. I refuse to do it.’ The phone would ring and ring and ring and then stop. Then she’d feel terrible and she’d ring the operator to ask who had phoned and it’d be Susan Carey from across the road, or someone from the library and she’d be angry with them then, for hogging the line. Didn’t they know about Gordon?

This time mum did answer and it was him. It wasn’t a clear line. Annie, in the bath, could hear mum shouting ‘Gordon? Gordon? Is that you?’ Annie flattened the water very gently with her hands and watched the bubbles disappear. Then, when mum knew it was him, ‘where the hell are you?’ A pause. ‘Just tell me where you are and I’ll send the money.’ Another pause, Annie rested her hands on top of the water and listened harder. ‘Darling, I need to know where you are, that you’re safe. I can’t give you money without knowing that. OK, I’ll write it down. What? Yes, got it. 34971. Sweetheart, I love you. We miss you. Can’t you just come home?’ Annie paddled the water with her knees to make it feel warmer. ‘Just tell me where you are.’ Mum was shouting again. ‘Oh God, why are you doing this to me? Gordon? Gordon? Are you there? I hate you!’ And then Annie heard the phone falling to the floor and her mother in tears.

She went to her, still wet, with the towel half round her and comforted her. She wished they could forget all about Gordon. That it could be just the two of them, looking after each other. Though Joel could live upstairs. ‘It’s OK,’ she said, stroking mum’s hair and kissing her forehead.
Out of the bath, she sat at mum’s dressing table with an orange towel wrapped round her. It was one of her games, sitting on the round three-footed stool in front of the mirror. You could spin it to get to the right height.

Annie was almost as tall as mum now; she only needed one spin. Mum’s earrings were in boxes on either side of the mirror. She laid them out, putting the pairs together, and chose the heaviest, to feel how they stretched her earlobes down. Three gold balls with green feathers in between. Then she went to mum’s wardrobe and took out the fur coat. It had been a present from Vernon. It was made from 60 rabbits. Mum said Vernon was good at ‘grand gestures.’ She didn’t really like it, but she wanted it in her wardrobe. After Vernon, she’d got it out again and tried to wear it but it had just made her cry. Then Joel had tried to get her to wear it too. He liked it, he said it was glamorous and that he’d like to take her out it in, her arm hooked round his elbow. Mum had managed to get to the front door with it on. Joel had his cowboy boots on with the heels so he was taller than usual. He was taking her out in his car. They weren’t going to be back late. Then at the last moment she said she couldn’t do it. It was making her uncomfortable, it was too hot. Joel had just laughed. ‘Stop it,’ mum had said, ‘you’re just the lodger.’ Annie had taken it upstairs and hung it up back inside the wardrobe.

Annie took it out and tried it on. She got some of mum’s heels out of the wardrobe. Mum never wore them either. Joel had been encouraging her but she refused. She’d tell him he was just the lodger and to stop commenting on her clothes but Joel just laughed and said somebody had to. Annie walked up and down in a black pair, looking at them in the mirror from all angles. They didn’t look like her feet. Her body had disappeared under the coat. She looked like she had too much skin. Or fur. The earrings made her look foreign.

She wondered about Gordon, living in a foreign country for all these weeks. Mum had got the operator to trace the phone call, that’s how she’d found out they were hiding in Paris. She had wanted to go straight away but Joel had persuaded her to stay. ‘Paris is vast,’ he’d said, ‘you’ll never find them.’ Mum had cried and ranted for hours after the phone call, well into the evening. Firstly in the bedroom with Annie, then at the kitchen table, then into Joel’s chest, again. She’d stop for a bit and Annie would think it was over. So did Joel and he went off to his room. But then she started again. Annie could never work out how long it would go on for. There weren’t any signs. The best thing was to just wait and not expect anything. It always stopped suddenly, just when she’d settled in for a night of it.

Annie was hungry so she got into her own clothes and went downstairs to the kitchen. It was lunchtime but she had her breakfast, with an extra slice of toast. There was still the whole afternoon to wait, until Joel came home. He’d said he’d bring back fish and chips for them both. Just the two of them eating together. By the fire would have been perfect but she didn’t know how to light it. The table would have to do. Maybe they could light a candle. That’s what mum always did at tea time. It would be hours till mum got back, with Gordon. They could sit at the table for hours, watching the candle burn down. She must remember not to play with the dripping wax.

The second phone call had come a week after the first. This time it had been from the British Embassy in Paris. Gordon and Melody had come in looking for money. The British Embassy had found out where they were staying. Mum span around the house packing her bag, phoning the travel agent, phoning dad and everyone else. Everyone else who’d left her on her own to cope, shouting at them, crying with relief on Joel’s shoulders, hugging Annie, kissing her lots of times on the head, playing Nina Simone very loudly on her stereo, making chicken soup for Gordon. It seemed she’d forgiven him already. Joel went out after a while, he had things to do. Annie tried to help, but mostly she sat – at the kitchen table, on mum’s bed, on the sitting room floor – watching. Mum was to fly to Paris to get them. Annie held her breath for most of the day waiting for mum to leave.
She could breathe properly once she’d gone, once the house was empty. But by the time she’d finished eating she was waiting again. Hanging on. Waiting at the window seat for Joel to come home. Waiting for their hours alone. Waiting for mum to ring, waiting for her to come home, waiting to see Gordon again. Waiting for it all to begin again, for it all to be going on around her.

First published in New Writing Scotland 26

Daphne du Maurier Gets the Jail

Eight sex offenders in Barlinnie Prison, Glasgow, and me. We’re sitting round a table about to embark on the first session of our new reading group. Their preferences lurch from the very real – true crime, history, footballers’ lives – to the very unreal – fantasy and science fiction. None, it seems, wants much to do with literature. But that’s what I’ve brought them. I’ve got six texts with me – all short stories, chosen because I can bear to read them and the writing is good. Spread out on the table are Daphne du Maurier Don’t Look Now, a James Kelman Selected, Alan Spence The Colours They Are Fine, Ernest Hemingway Men Without Women, Alice Munro’s Runaway and Joyce’s Dubliners. No one’s read any of them, though some have seen the film of Don’t Look Now and others watched a recent documentary about Du Maurier’s Cornwall on TV. That’s all there is to do in prison at the weekend – they’re locked up for 23 hours a day. They don’t much like the look of Alice Munro – the stories seem vast and, well, women, Canada – they’re worlds away. Hemingway – the title makes them laugh. But they decide he reminds them too much of school English classes. Kelman – a couple have heard of him. One read an interview with him in the Glasgow Herald that week. Sex offenders read the broadsheets. I tell them about Alan Spence and his seminal collection of stories about Glasgow and sectarianism. They tell me – and I’m embarrassed I don’t know – that the title is from The Sash, the Ulster loyalist anthem. For some it’s the world they grew up in – the brutality, the bigotry. They hate it. Why would they want to read about it? They flick through the Kelman book, suspicious for the same reasons. They want to get away from all that gritty realism. But then a few of them read a page or two and see that he’s funny. They’ll give him a go. Du Maurier gets their vote too – she’s a proper writer after all. They remember Hitchcock’s The Birds – none of them knew that was her. She likes a bit of suspense and they want that.

So we start with Kelman and to begin with it’s fine – a light-hearted story about workies cleaning out a tank, getting in trouble with the tight gaffer. It’s a world some of them know. Others – the middle class ones – puzzle over whether Kelman’s language is ‘authentic.’ The second story is called ‘The Hitchhiker’ about the same group of men. The story’s eponymous character is a French woman travelling Scotland on her own. She’s out at dusk, looking for a bed for the night. She’s suspicious of the workies – thinks they might attack her. And suddenly we’ve got to a different level of realism. It’s not just the dialect now. Or the swearing. It’s rape.

I don’t know what any of my students are in jail for. Occasionally, a gossipy officer lets slip. But on the whole, they know, and I know, that it’s best not to know. But these are sex offenders – it’s quite possible that there’s a rapist in the group. In the story, the men sense the woman’s fear. They sympathise and one of them gains her trust and finds her a place to stay. My group seem to understand too. We ponder the perennial difficulties between the sexes. How intentions are misconstrued, how communication fails. Except, I can’t help thinking, there may be women out there who didn’t misconstrue the intentions of one of these men. A woman whose fear was justified.

I talk to one of the social workers. Should we be reading this stuff? Should I censor our material – cut out all stories with children in them? Or women? Or sex, relationships? I might be safer with Terry Pratchett after all. I ask if he would read some Kelman stories and advise me but he brushes the book away, saying that I should be normal. Reading material that shows ‘normal’ relationships and attitudes towards women and sex is just what they need, he says. And anyway, they get to watch TV 24 hours a day. Plenty of ‘abnormal’ relationships portrayed there. As long as you’re comfortable, he said.

And in the end, I am. Kelman is just such a damn fine writer, My favourite is a tale called ‘Lassies are Trained that Way’ – a cringe-makingly good example of misunderstanding between men and women. It’s set in a Glasgow pub. A man is drinking, alone, at the bar. A woman comes in on her own. She orders a drink and waits, awkwardly, for her friends to arrive. The man starts to talk to her. She thinks he’s trying to chat her up. ‘Has he stood you up?’ You can feel her discomfort. Eventually, when he won’t shut up, she’s forced to be direct. ‘People should be able to stand at a bar without being pestered.’ You feel for her.

My students know how he feels. The story is from the man’s point of view – it’s the pesterer’s tale. He’s not really trying to chat her up. He’s lonely. His wife’s left him. He misses his long-dead mother. He’s trying to make a connection. ‘We have to live with one another. Come on, if we aren’t even allowed to talk!…We’re drawn to one another. There’s bonds of affection. And solidarity.” I’m moved by this story – how we’re made to feel for them, how they’re both suffering yet unable to ease their own, or each other’s, sadness or isolation. It’s what this group is about. A form of solidarity.

We finish with Kelman and I’m quite relieved. Daphne du Maurier next – taut plots and tense pacing, that’s her thing, isn’t it? I can have a break from empathising. I can stop worrying whether my students are dangerous or damaged. We can just engross ourselves in a good read. That’s what I’m hoping.

We start with ‘The Birds.’ Strange goings on but an oh-so-ordinary family. Traditional roles too – mum at home, dad at work. Everyone in their place. Maybe this is what the social worker meant by normal. The birds are behaving oddly, of course, but the humans are being good and moral. Sort of. They can only afford to take care of themselves. That’s what the story’s about – isolation, the breakdown of community. There’s no reaching out to anyone else here. It’s each for his own. The story ends on a note of claustrophobia. They endure each attack from the birds as best they can. Recover and wait for the next. There’s no means of escape, no sources of sustenance or help. Rather like prison. The threats to my students lives are somewhat less immediate, there are guards there to protect them, but they are surrounded by hundreds of other prisoners who see it as their duty to rid the world of ‘beasts.’ Prison isolates them, like the family in ‘The Birds.’ It sends them back to themselves. Who else can they trust? It destroys community.

They focus on the ending. I wonder if endings have particular significance in jail. That’s all there is to focus on – lib dates – however far away. They don’t like stories that are left hanging in the air, unresolved. Kelman’s good at that. The ending of ‘The Birds’ is gloomily predictable. The family waiting for the next attack. The relentlessness. And Nat, our hero, smoking his last cigarette. ‘He reached for it, switched on the silent wireless. He threw the empty packet on the fire, and watched it burn.’ What despair – and yet endurance too. There’s no surprise but the men find it bleakly satisfying.

We’re all a bit nervy after ‘The Birds’ – it’s so intense – but they want more; du Maurier’s got them gripped. We try the other story they’ve heard of – ‘Don’t Look Now.’ Immediately, someone brings up the sex scene – it’s what everyone remembers – it is what made the film infamous – though fortunately no one recalls the details. I’m hoping du Maurier won’t linger too much. When we get to that bit we have a laugh at how short it is. How very unexplicit:

‘Now’ he thought…’now at last is the moment to make love, and he went back into the bedroom, and she understood, and opened her arms and smiled. Such blessed relief after all those weeks of restraint.’

It’s not about sex at all – it’s about love. About intimacy refound after months of grief and suffering. It’s sex as healing. How normal. How far away from sex as harm.

The story is about what grief can do. The husband has been tending his wife – supporting her though the shattering loss of her child. But it’s his loss too and in Venice his own suffering can no longer be restrained. It is him who sees the ‘child’ in it’s red coat dashing across the canals. It is him who, fatally, follows the child. The group know grief. They’ve caused it. They’ve known it in their own pasts. They know it now – separated from their families in jail. Some will never see their families again.

Du Maurier’s done it once more. The plot, the fantastical story line has drawn them in but quietly she has returned them to their own experiences. And in this group we have the space to live with our losses for a while, to endure, together.

Kate Hendry

Published in The Reader, Issue 34, 2009

Guessing Weather

I miss most waking up to turn my head,
glimpse through pillow-level port hole
rain-hit swells or air-stilled calms
or wind-thrown waves. Knowing first thing
the kind of day we had.

I miss, as much, dealing with heavy rain.
Pinning the corners of plastic bags to cracks,
trimming the bucket’s position to catch the drips.
Tensing tarpaulin ropes. Bailing out.
Rain so loud there’s no talk of method.
I miss postponing everything
for urgent weather-proofing.

Now back on land, under a holeless roof,
I peer at huddled trees for slanting rain.
If I’m quiet I can hear tyres splashing puddles.
If I’m still I can smell city-muted dampness.
Today the wind is up. Some roads are flooded.

Eight miles west a storm mauls your boat.
With bag in one hand, pins in the other,
I think of you inventing practical tricks
to keep the weather out, patch up the leaking deck,
ensure you’re dry, today.
I open wide my squarely-fitted window,
feel drizzle spot my face. The clouds are moving fast.

Published in The Rialto, No.48