THE MAN ON THE WALL – a short story
Millie cleared her slim throat, and suddenly said apropos of nothing:
“Here’s a question for you. Who’s the best-looking feller in this room?”
Millie was twenty years old, with long and fine blond hair, and the bright pink cheekbones of a quaintly antique doll. She worked as a secretary typist in the small Cumbrian town, and was friendly, smiling, and guileless, whilst also thoroughly complex. Her boyfriend Wes, 28, was my housemate, and was a garage mechanic, chainsmoking and always perspiring, and he too was friendly and smiling, albeit devious to the core. Millie lived with her parents a couple of miles off on a handy bus route, but she was strictly forbidden to visit Wes spontaneously, meaning without prior notice of 2 or 3 days at least. It was 1978 and there were no mobile phones and we had no house phone, and the reason for the interdiction was that Wes liked to play the field with other attractive women, most of them nearer his age. Wes was a gifted musician and something of a celebrity, as he had cut a record and appeared at important blues festivals all over the north, Maryport included, and was also sited at a respectable point on the publicity posters, once immediately below a veteran Chicago guitarist. His two timing aside, he and Millie got on amiably enough, and did a lot of watching the direst of TV game shows, soaps, sitcoms, and on Sunday mornings, when there was little else to pass the time before a massive and bargain pub roast, would view with frowning concentration Open University programmes about optical physics, or the blameless sex life of monophytic plants. Wes had a degree in geography and had once been a probation officer, which he now referred to as the province of ‘do-gooders’. He was from North Lancashire and had a musical and insinuating accent, and when he blasted the ameliorative professions, including social work and community work, sounded like every righteous saloon bar philosopher from the beginning of time, hanging out his prejudices on a washing line for all to see and applaud. As for his personal ethics, Wes regularly broke the law by drinking three or four pints of Guinness before driving home, and had never yet been caught, for he always took the obscurest country roads to avoid both traffic and police.
So, who was the best-looking man in the sitting room? Little did we guess it was Millie’s innocent notion of a playful riddle…
There were just two men sat beside Millie on the long brown sofa, myself and Ted Higgins. I was 28, thin, long haired and bearded, while Ted, a factory worker, was 31 and equally shaggy and hirsute. Hard and muscular and of Irish parents, his hair was shaped and fringed after the manner of Rod Stewart, appropriately so, as he sang in a band that played in the drinking clubs all over Cumbria and South Scotland. He had a girlfriend some five years older called Cherry, a single parent who worked in a shoe factory, and who both tolerated and chided his raucous banter and regular tomfoolery. Cherry, who had dyed black hair and a pretty but stern face, had been raised by her grandfather with regular application of his leather belt, she once told me dolefully. Ted lived with her in her terraced house a short walk from mine, but on occasion, after some egregious act of fecklessness or negligence, she would turf him out onto the street, and more than once he had turned up weeping late at night on my doorstep.
“I’m the best-looking bastard here,” he said with a coy if salacious smirk. “I bloody am for sure.”
Millie frowned defiantly, rather like a wise little girl in some morality fable. “No, you’re bloody not. And neither is Joe .”
Ted trumpeted his derision and told Millie she was a daft little, mad little bugger.
“So what the hell do you mean? There’s only Joe and me here, unless you’re hallucinating.”
“It’s him,” she declared victoriously, pointing over Ted’s broad shoulder. “It’s him, the feller on the wall. He’s the best-looking man in this room!”
It was true enough, that shrill pronouncement, for she was pointing at Miles Davis, or rather the inside cover of his 1974 double album Big Fun. I had pinned it prominently half way up the wall, it was so infinitely mesmerising, for in his mid-forties Miles was clad in a majestic garment apparently woven of leopard skin and straight out of the humming entrails of the African jungle. His hair was glowing, black, tightly curled, and that cover was obviously a testament to his pride in his blackness, not to mention the pungent and chromatic beauty of ancestral Africa. For comparison, only a couple of years earlier, the front of his incendiary wah-wah album Live Evil, had a beautiful and fecund black woman with a bulging belly, while the reverse portrayed a grotesque white eunuch in the form of some vitiated and repugnant monarch, bearing hideous yellow permed curls, and even a shrivelled and disturbing stub of a protruding belly button.
Ted looked briefly at the wall, “I’m better fucking looking than he is. No kidding. Well yes, alright, sure, he’s OK, the man’s OK, he’s alright to look at. But if you were to see me snazzed-up in my glitter suit and frilled white shirt for a Saturday gig, you’d bloody well wet yourself Millie, I promise you.”
As she chided the lewd suggestion of her fevered secretions, I recalled a startling dialogue between these two, from about a month ago. Millie was here on her own that day, unpartnered and unchaperoned, because then as now, Wes was away down in Colne seeing his parents, a factory fitter and a district nurse respectively. She was looking poignantly appealing with the youthful fineness of her hair, the attractively tailored red blouse, and those tight black jeans across her slim little hips. After a weekend’s drunken binge, Ted was currently in bad odour with Cherry, and had been banned from her house for the last few days. He was dossing on a factory workmate’s floor, subsisting on mouldy fridge scraps, so he claimed, and was obviously famished for both food and female warmth. His tactic then, with me as neutral witness, was to tell Millie straight, meaning well outside the realm of ambiguity.
“Millie,” he began with a serious face.
“Would you like to come for a walk with me now, up Stir Fell?”
We lived in a town that was dubbed fringe Lake District, and whose only mountain, Stir Fell, was a small but arduous climb. It was about a mile away, and it being February there was a fair chance, should Millie accept this untoward invitation, there would only be the two of them up there.
“You mean you and me alone together, up Stir Fell?”
“Exactly. We could have a nice walk up there somewhere quiet and secluded. You see, I’ll be honest with you, I’ve always really fancied you Millie, as I think you are ever such a bonny woman. I like your conversation and I really like to have a good laugh with you, as you can be really, really funny too. Then when we are up there, I would really like…well I won’t beat about the bush, I would really like to buck you, Millie…”
There you had it in black and white. Not only were there a surfeit of ‘really’s, meaning Ted always prized the adverbs of vehement emphasis, but there was also that striking infinitive verb with its undeniable immediacy of effect. I have never heard it used in the human context outside of Cumbria, and in the world at large I imagine it applies only to rabbits and deer. Though no doubt to a sensitive ear, including Millie’s, it sounded less hard and strident than the verb to fuck. I was expecting her to blush and angrily reprove him, instead of which she merely blinked and indicated a stiff incredulity. I stared at the pair of them and said:
“He doesn’t mince his words.”
Ted agreed hotly. “Like fuck I do. No fucking point, Joe.”
Millie sighed sarcastically as she glanced out of the window, “I’m flattered by the beautiful romantic invitation, Ted. Sex in the rhododendron bushes up Stir Fell, when both of us have our partners that we’d have to deceive. But it’s matterless anyway, the weather’s against you and it’s starting to spit …”
She was right and within minutes it had turned to heavy rain, and Ted in his desperation was suggesting the pair of them resort to a disused lurcher shed he knew of next to the river…
A few months passed, and Wes indicated he would be moving home to Colne by the end of the year. By a lucky chance, a friend of a friend owned the lucrative last garage before the M6 motorway, and he was in need of another skilled mechanic. Wes gave no hint of inviting Millie to join him in lifelong harmony in the Colne Valley, and surely anyone but the typist would have abandoned something that had turned into a temporary contract of such a fixed and meagre duration. But Millie was only 20, and knew little of the outside world, while Wes was a roving bluesman with a celebrity reputation, and at his musical events he encouraged a baffling entourage of inscrutable and dreamy looking women admirers. So it was that this fair-haired, pink-cheeked innocent kept clinging on with her steadfast addiction. And with only a few months to go before he exited her life, he still wouldn’t allow her to turn up on his doorstep, meaning she could only take that modest liberty when she knew he was away. She did just that one cold evening in late autumn when there was only myself in the house, and as I opened the door I realised that in all the time I’d lived with Wes, it was the first time this had happened.
One or two stark revelations came out that night, as well as something more predictable. As we sipped our coffee on the sofa, Millie told me that when Wes was 21, he had got a Colne girl pregnant and she had happened to be Millie’s age, just 20. She was called Mina, and her parents insisted that Wes who was living at home and starting work as a probation officer, should marry her. Tom, his Dad, the machine fitter, agreed, as he thought it the decent, obvious, moral thing, but Mary the nurse thought Mina, a supermarket check-out girl, wasn’t nearly good enough for her graduate son. Mary, Millie told me, was a bit of a tight-faced, old-fashioned snob, so that everything she said was double-edged, and Millie felt at bottom she despised old Tom, a shy and sensitive man who liked his working men’s club and his pint and his game of three card brag. Tom had once been hospitalised for severe depression, and Mary was scathing, even crudely mocking when she reminisced about that period. Millie also felt that Mary looked down on her, Millie, for being so young and for coming from a comical little town in comical West Cumbria. Very likely she reminded Mary of Mina, who had almost netted her graduate son, and probably she saw all 20-year olds in humble jobs as gold diggers of a kind. She could of course have asked why her son always liked girls a lot younger, and what perhaps that said about his personality, for at least in Millie’s case he often treated her like a child in the way he gave out orders, rules and vetoes. That aside, 7 years ago Wes had found himself having a kind of nervous breakdown at the terrifying responsibility of Mina’s pregnancy. Onerous fatherhood and obligatory fidelity at the age of 21, with the cradle marks still on Wes’s backside, never mind the baby’s. He went to his mother in the sitting room in a tearful mess, weeping that he just couldn’t face marrying and raising a child. His mother to his surprise, had smiled the smile of victory, and agreed to expedite matters once and for all. Incredibly she put on her coat and walked round to the supermarket, where Mina was on evening shift, and she led her somewhere private to break the news. Wes’s nerves, she said, had completely given way when it came to this crisis, and clearly he had inherited his Dad’s oversensitive temperament. He would be no good to her, Mina, the hopeless panicky mess he was in, he was not a properly functioning man at the moment, the best solution was that Mina stayed at home a single mother, with some regular financial support from Mary, and a bit from Wes once he’d started his new probation officer job.
I frowned my disbelief. “You mean he went and got his mother to tell her he was abandoning her? He didn’t go in person to tell the mother of his child?”
“It’s very strange,” Millie said, with a sudden wistfulness. “But sometimes I think I’d like to get pregnant by Wes, even though I know it’d be a disaster. Without a doubt he’d run for the hills, and it’d be the last I’d ever see of him. But I’d really like to trap him somehow…does that sound mad, Joe? because he spends all his bloody time making sure he’s not trapped by me! I can’t even come down here without advance permission, or if I do it’s only when he’s away. I’m not so bloody stupid, I don’t know what all that privacy he insists on is all about…” She turned upon me swiftly then, seized my left hand, and with a flushed effort demanded, “Tell me the names of all the women that he’s had in his bed, when I’m not here! Go on. Please. He’s fucking off for good to Colne next month, so I’ve absolutely nothing to lose…”
I looked at her distracted, as I felt the extraordinary gentleness of her touch. “Maybe you should ask Wes, straight out. It’s not my place to…”
“OK, OK. I will tell you the names of two or three of my suspects, and just nod your head if I’m wrong.”
She shivered as she named two social workers, both married mothers in their late twenties, and gulped when I did not move my head. In passing I reflected that much as Wes despised the ‘do-gooder’ professions, he did not abhor them when prostrate between his sheets. Millie meanwhile had turned very pale, chastised and uncomprehending. Her bravado was now a hapless shudder as she walked further into the quicksand.
“There are more than those? Oh my God, there are, aren’t there? Are they the tip of the iceberg? Tell me, Joe, please! If they are the tip of the iceberg, then say nothing and just nod your head …”
I hesitated then nodded my head. Millie was set to melt into scalding tears, but was also white with anger. Just then, in a single ferocious movement, she seized both my arms, putting them around her shoulders to burrow deep into my chest, as if she were some tiny fledgling craving protection from an evil predator.
The thing I saw next, and it was little short of a miracle, was that her suffering seemed to transmute into an immeasurable sensitivity, and she felt as delicate and luxurious in my arms as a piece of silk or gossamer. She looked up at me smiling an endless gentleness, and offered those tender, quivering lips. The delicacy apparent was quite beyond belief, it was surely something that was supernatural, as if she were a rare, imaginary bird or a windblown butterfly from another and a wiser world.
Because this was Millie the innocent, and yet she was beyond my understanding…
The next post will be on or before Tuesday September 3rd