No one ever called Avril on the landline apart from her father, and he’d been dead for over a year. So she surprised herself when she picked it up. A moment of terror — could it be him? — was followed by the sound of a chirpy female at the other end: ‘Is this Paul’s wife?’ Immediately Avril felt panicked. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘this is Paul’s wife. What’s happened to him? Is he alright? Has something happened?’ She thought she heard the woman holding back a laugh, then she heard her say: ‘He’s fine as far as I know. He was the last time I saw him anyway.’ ‘Oh?’ said Avril. ‘Look,’ replied the woman, sounding suddenly serious, her voice deep and authoritative, ‘there’s no easy way for me to put this so I’m just going to be completely straight, OK?’ ‘Do I have a choice?’ asked Avril. The woman didn’t answer. ‘I’m what you’d probably call a prostitute,’ she said, ‘an escort, a sex-worker, a call girl, whatever you like, and I’ve been servicing your husband on and off for the past two years. We all have.’ The words seemed to slip over Avril. Like hot liquid injected into her blood stream, she felt herself changing temperature inch by inch. Hotter, she thought. She wanted to tell the woman that she knew it was a joke, but she knew it was not. ‘So why are you calling me?’ she asked. ‘I mean, if Paul’s your customer why would you want to put your business at risk?’ ‘Because he talks about you, Avril –‘ the woman paused ‘– he talks about you all the time. That’s how I know your name. Awful things, he says. He even compares us to you and you to us. What we’re all like in bed.’ Avril grew hotter. ‘Do you mind if I sit down? Will you hold while I pull a chair over?’ The woman waited, expecting to hear Avril’s tears, but there was only silence. Then she heard the chair being dragged across the floor, the groan of wood on wood. When she heard Avril’s heavy breathing again, she continued: ‘We all agree that he’s a nasty piece of work and we wanted you to know. It does happen with certain clients. You get to know too much about them and after a while, you can’t even open your legs. Too much info for a fuck, the girls call it; others are too nice or too naive; and in-between you have the lonely, the miserable, or just the bored and that’s where we make our money.’ She paused again: ‘Are you still there?’ ‘I’m here,’ said Avril, ‘I’m here.’ ‘Good,’ said the woman. Then, ‘Sorry.’ Then she added, ‘We just thought you should know. We don’t think they should speak about their wives, and the ones who do, we dob ’em in. D’you see?’ ‘I do,’ replied Avril, a little wobbly with the news, ‘thank you.’ ‘There’s something else you ought to know about Paul,’ she replied. ‘Oh yes?’ said Avril. ‘What’s that?’ ‘He’s kind of kinky. He likes us big. I mean really big. Quite unusual that.’ ‘Yes,’ said Avril, ‘yes, kinky.’ ‘Oh, and one other thing,’ said the woman, ‘he’s always insisted on there being a duvet the colour of mustard. Took us ages to find one.’ Avril remained silent. All the woman could hear were her deep breaths heating the mouth-piece. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘then I’ll say goodbye.’
Names like ‘Gable End’ and ‘Fair Acre’ point to desires for orchards and village greens and olden days with simple ways. Times New Roman letters are carved into neutral wood then fixed to the front gate or the wall beside the garage. I spotted ‘Fair Acre’ nailed to a 1970s box-set, three floors high, each stacked neatly on top of the other like a Lego set or an upmarket favela. A slender man in his sixties, spectacled, nervous, possibly a little ashamed, was striding across his tiny front patch with a lawnmower. He was leaning into the machine as if it was as heavy as a plough. Three strides, turn, three strides, turn, three strides, and so on: I watched until he stared me off the street. ‘Fair Acre’ seemed a bit cruel and entirely self-inflicted. ‘Gable End’ made a bolder attempt at ye olde cottage. Scarlet roses climbing the front wall, an overgrown hedge hugging the gate, and blasts of lavender pouring from the beds on to the pavement. An estate agent might describe ‘Gable End’ as “mock Tudor”. “That’d be the gables,” the buyer might respond, wittily. The style is so popular here that beneath the final run of the flight path into Heathrow, new houses are being built as imitations of these 1930s family homes. ‘Mock mock Tudor’ is about right, but you’d need to ask at Apricots, which suggests a children’s clothes shop but is one of several estate agents I pass between the station and the crown court. ‘But who’d want to live here?’ That’s the question you might ask when you emerge from the tube on to the A4. Good if you’re in the double-glazing business. Nearly everyone’s got it. Double-glazing and driveways to fit three large cars nose-to-tail. Melville comes to mind, the place ‘people like us’ like to live when we end up in Johannesburg. Vanish Heathrow and the tube, this really is Melville. In parts, it’s much richer, more like Parktown, Westcliff or Houghton. Huge detached homes with gardens that require staff and spotless cars with personalised number plates like S25 and MOO 000. And like Jozi’s northern suburbs, few people here seem to walk. Those that do are mainly students from Brunel or the boys’ grammar, or the odd air steward with half a wing on his lapel and a suitcase at his heels. Where’s everyone else? At work, or perhaps indoors, dusting the pottery Doberman on the windowsill in the lounge, or the hunting hound over the fireplace, or the bust of a wealthy seventeenth-century lady placed carefully in the window half way up the stairs. We’re supposed to see these touches of taste and class. But what about what we cannot see? ‘Bunch of swingers’, I thought, although I didn’t spot any pampas. Perhaps the miniature dogs are the new nod and wink. But Johannesburg suburbs, yes, just forget the electric fencing, the 10-foot high walls, the security guards stabled at regular intervals along the green verges, the large dogs, and the light. The Johannesburg light: blinding is not too strong. Otherwise, they’re the same. Introverted, afraid, self-regarding, miserable with wealth. The hedges, the curtains, the double-glazing: are they locked in or locked out? Out of earshot of the questions and answers that continue, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, into the death of Jimmy Mubenga, the Angolan man who died on a British Airways plane in October 2010 whilst being deported from London to Luanda by three G4S escorts. It’s just a two-minute walk from the India Gymkhana Club and the church, where an obese vicar covers her breasts with a brown pullover from a local charity shop. My kidneys ache.
Everyone was listening to him. ‘A squirrel dying in your front yard, at that particular moment, may be more important and relevant to your life than people dying in Africa!’ He was a slender man wearing a loose orange jumper that signalled something erotic to B, although she couldn’t quite work out what it was. He was tanned, too, like he spent lots of time outdoors. She imagined him a sculptor working on something important and contemporary in his back yard. She imagined him bronzed and bare-chested, chiselling away at something that mattered. He was quoting Mark Zuckerberg. But as much as B wanted to see the artist naked before her, she couldn’t accept his statement. She disliked the fact he was using an African as the counterpart to a squirrel. Why didn’t he talk about a dying European? Or a dying North American? She wanted to raise her hand and make the point, but she was afraid she’d be hounded out of the gallery. Who wouldn’t care more for an African than a squirrel? She could hear him retaliating already. She felt anxious. She wondered why she’d come and looked at her legs and her hands and then in her bag, as if they might offer her advice. But nothing came to her other than the considered silence of the audience. Then she heard herself laughing, loudly, like a dog barking beside her on the bench. Everybody turned around, and stared. B felt hotter. She felt herself blushing. ‘Africans,’ she whispered. The man sitting beside her looked a bit desperate. He edged up the bench a centimetre or so, towards the younger man beside him. The artist in the orange top stood up, so he could look at her too. He smiled at her and his erotic quality fell away. B stared back. She wanted to stand up too, but she was afraid. She didn’t know how to begin to defend concern for a dying squirrel, even though she knew she was right. She smiled at the artist, terrified, and he continued to smile back. The audience seemed to relax a little. The talk continued.
From his bicycle, the crop of daisies looked like litter that had blown across the open ground that runs down towards the reservoir. He wondered if this was because he was so accustomed to the rubbish on the market that his brain no longer recognised flowers. He slowed along the road, letting the other cyclists overtake. Most of them were commuters. He kept gazing at the daisies until he’d stared so much they turned into foam blown in off the sea. He did a diagonal across the road then squeezed sharp on his brakes so he could look through the gaps in the concrete fence at the geese and the water and the herons on the island in the middle. How far’s the sea from here? he asked himself. How far can foam blow before it disappears altogether?
By the time he rode home, he’d forgotten all about the daisies. Instead, he looked up at the clouds of midges rising from the tops of the trees like smoke from chimneys stacked above the long grey road. He looked out across the northern reservoir to the island in the middle where what his nephew would have called ‘winter trees’ were growing. They’re like pins in a pin cushion, he said, wishing the words would float away from his head on the hot Tottenham air. They reminded him of the trees he’d seen in Cabinda four years earlier. On that trip he’d written in his notebook: ‘The trees seem to be drowning in the high waters along the coastline offering a metaphor of death.’
When he got back home, he locked his bike in the shed beneath the hedge in the front garden then hurried upstairs to look for the notebook. When he found it, he fingered through the pages looking for the sentence. When he found that, he took a small pink rubber from his desk drawer and erased the words out of existence.
‘No,’ said the woman, lying on the ground, her face flattened against the pavement, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine.’ Seconds earlier I had watched her falling. I’d dropped my bike at the side of the road and was now at her side saying, ‘Are you OK? Let me help you. Are you OK?’ We were both a patter of politeness, but the child was screaming and crying and hanging on to whatever bit of his grandmother he could. Eventually she let me help her sit up. The child screamed even more, throwing himself dramatically on to her lap. ‘It’s alright, Rafi,’ she said softly. ‘It’s alright.’ ‘How are your knees?’ I asked. ‘Looked like you gave them a really hard bang.’ ‘They’re fine,’ she said, as if she was defending her age, possibly her entire generation. ‘It’s just the shock, isn’t it,’ I said, changing my tone, helping her in her cover-up. ‘But you might have a nasty bruise in the morning,’ I added, perhaps to score a point. Then Rafi scrambled up from the pavement and charged off, running away from his grandmother and me, screaming and screaming. ‘Rafi!’ she called, ‘Rafi!’ ‘Oh dear,’ I said, ‘you have the accident but he has the tantrum.’ In that moment, I hated the child. His selfishness, his fear. And then I felt guilty and wondered if I should run after him. ‘Shall I go after him?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she said, still on the ground, ‘it’s fine, it’s fine. I’ll go.’ I helped her to her feet and at a certain moment, before she was completely upright, we were standing so close together, we were almost in an embrace, like mother and daughter I thought, or even lovers. I wondered if she was thinking the same thing; I wondered if anyone watching was thinking the same thing. She looked at me and I looked at her, and then at the wrinkles in the skin around her face and beneath her neck. She wore a gold chain with a small cross that was caught in her cleavage. Her hair was blonde. ‘You’ve lost a shoe,’ I said, noticing it in the gutter. I reached for it, knelt down again, and held it out for her. Her toes were covered in grit. ‘They look sore,’ I said, and brushed the grit off with my fingers, trying not to hurt her. ‘They’re too big,’ she replied, a little crossly, ‘they don’t fit. I shouldn’t wear shoes that don’t fit me.’ But they seemed to fit perfectly I thought as I held the heel out at the back so she could press down and in. She’s blaming the shoes because she’s unhappy about her age. She’s worrying to herself, ‘Is this the beginning of the end? Will my daughter stop me from looking after Rafi?’ I stood up and noticed now the grit and dirt on her face and a skid mark down her left cheek. ‘You might have a black eye in the morning, I’m afraid.’ But she wasn’t listening. She turned and began to walk and then run after her grandson. ‘Rafi, Rafi!’ she shouted, but he was nowhere to be seen.