Lately I’ve managed to spend quite a lot of time with Lucy and the others but I don’t seem to be able to shake Ray off even so. Evenings, if I go to the bar at all, I get hauled over to their table. I politely (almost inaudibly) decline but they won’t have it. They cajole and jolly me along, get my drinks ready for me, play only the games I can tolerate, share their disgruntled opinions on everything – the food, the other travellers (some of whom appear to be foreign), the guides, the weather. But if this sounds cosy, it’s really not. The whole performance carries such an undercurrent of resentment, exasperation and what I can only call contempt – on their part, not mine, that I just sit, tense and bewildered through the whole performance, wondering what they can possibly want from me, and how long it will be before I can politely scarper.
Today Harry is snarling sarcastically about how long it takes him to get to work, what with the traffic these days (as if it’s something he’s going to have to do again soon.) He goes on to complain about people driving too slowly, so he has to keep using his brakes and that’s more wear and tear. I know he speeds everywhere because he’s told us, so that sounds like a recipe for disaster.
‘What I really hate is these berks stopping suddenly right under your fucking nose. I feel like getting out and taking my wheel wrench to their windscreen – see how they feel about picking the glass out of their stupid faces. If they don’t know how to drive they should just stay off the fucking highway. And another thing...’ I sit there, watching him. I look at Sol, who appears to be entertained by all this. I glance at Liz, who’s trying to look busy. Harry seems to like talking about how stupid other drivers are. It’s his favourite topic. I can see Liz doesn’t like it but he doesn’t care. Once before, he told us about how he ran someone off the road, literally, in his Range Rover and then went over to the driver, who was injured, sitting there at the wheel, and told him what a fucking wanker he was and how he deserved everything he got. Then he drove off and left him. Ray and Solly were laughing but I’m never sure if they laugh because they think it’s funny or because they’re scared of him. Sometimes I think they’re laughing at him, like the time Harry was complaining about how rude all the other drivers were – always blaring their horns and yelling and I’m thinking I’ve never noticed that but I don’t say anything and Ray and Solly seem to be trying not to laugh and Harry asks what’s wrong and everything goes quiet and Solly and Ray just look at each other, like they don’t know what to say and then Solly goes ‘Fucking wankers’ and Harry takes a moment and goes ‘Yeah, fucking wankers’ and they all carry on with the conversation like nothing’s happened.
They move on to talking about receptionists and shop assistants (not for the first time) and how sluggishly and sullenly they got served in various shops and restaurants back in the world. Brenda is with him all the way. They fume at all the stupid, fat and usually foreign checkout girls and waitresses they have had to deal with over the years. Brenda hates having to wait for anything at all it seems. What could possibly be worse? Why should she have to wait? They do it on purpose, the shop girls apparently, because they know she’s better than they are. They should get off their fat arses. Then there’s public transport and how much she hates having to wait for the bus. ‘I can’t think of nothing worse’ she says. Then there’s having to sit so close to other people, and their belongings. She makes it sound like they’re all carting their dead and decomposing pets around with them in bin liners. She goes on to tell us in miniscule detail about the time her car was at the garage, having to sit in a crowded bus, her face near to the bottom of a black man in overalls after he’d stood up to let her sit down. She tells us word for word about the stand up row she had with him and the driver as if it was a great and moral victory, and how everyone on the bus looked at her afterwards with satisfaction and respect. I somehow doubt it. Sol gives us his analysis of the problem (not enough road building) and Harry adds his usual fascist two-penny-worth about human sewage and where they should all be sent. Ray sits and smiles, as usual.
Normally I listen but try not to get involved. I rearrange my hand, sip my drink or whatever. Anyway, I keep quiet. This evening though, I don’t know why, I say, quietly but clearly, ‘Brenda? Why does all this upset you so much?’
‘Having to wait for things. You seem incredibly angry.’
I don’t know what got into me. It just came out. I tried to say it conversationally, casually, but it must have been obvious to everyone how I really felt. I just felt really irritated with her. I was just sick of listening to her bitching about how things aren’t quite the way she likes them when there’s so much real misery in the world and she’s whinging about having to stand in a queue. She’s just so spoilt. And so’s Harry – complaining about people driving too slowly for him. I just had to say something. I’d tried to be tactful but there it was.
‘So I suppose you enjoy having to hang around, queuing for hours for every little thing Gabriel’ says Brenda angrily.
I consider my response carefully. It’s like how time is supposed to slow down when you’re in a car accident. You can watch everything happening. You can’t stop it, but you can study it.
‘I didn’t say I like it’ I say. ‘I just think sometimes, there’s no point getting upset about it. It’s just the way it is.’
You could cut the atmosphere with an ice pick. I sit and wait, studying my cards.
Finally Harry feels he has to say something. ‘Well Gabriel’ he says looking at me very intently, and smiling as you might to a very silly child. ‘Perhaps some of us haven’t got anything much to occupy ourselves with. Some of us, on the other hand, are extremely busy.’
‘Well I have a lot to do too...’ I say, quite reasonably I think. I feel oddly calm – in free fall. ‘I just think sometimes you can’t avoid having to wait. That’s all I’m saying. Brenda seemed upset about it. I’m just saying if I have to wait for something I take the opportunity to do some reading. Or do a bit of thinking.’ I look at Brenda, then at Harry, then back at my cards.
‘“Thinking”?’ he says eventually, laughing a little nervously I thought, like I’ve suggested he try defecating in Woolworth’s. ‘Thinking...’ he repeats vaguely, shaking his head, as if he’s heard of it somewhere but can’t remember exactly what it involved.
‘We don’t have time to think Gabriel’ says Brenda.
‘No’ I say, nodding, trying to look sympathetic. ‘No, I can see that.’
It occurs to me as I say it that I could be taken to be implying she’s not very bright. She’s not sure.
‘Boredom I’d call it. Nothing better to do. I...’
‘But I don’t get bored’ I insist, looking directly at her now. ‘I’ve got plenty to do.’
‘What, art you mean?’ smirks Sol, contemptuously.
‘Yes, amongst other things’ I say, again reasonably but even as I do it I know – it isn’t that I’m trying to be reasonable. No, I’m trying to wind them up but in such a way that any attack from their side will seem extreme and unprovoked.
‘And you still reckon you’ll make money that way?’ says Ray.
‘I don’t think that’s the point’ I say, shrugging.
‘You don’t think that’s the point.’ He looks around at the others, as if I’ve just said something very comical.
‘What about when you get yourself a mortgage then, and a family?’ says Harry, leaning into my face and with some menace in his tone. ‘I worked bloody long hours to keep them...’
I watch him talk at me for a while. I’ve heard it all before – ‘Blablabla... sweat of my brow... blablabla.... fingers to the bone... all the hours God sends... blablabla...’
What does he want, a medal?
‘...with bloody little gratitude I can tell you.’
Liz is dragging feebly at his sleeve. He swipes at her and she ducks back. ‘You do your best for them and what do they do? Chuck it back in your face.’
I observe his boiled pork face engorge and splutter. I keep my mouth covered so his spit doesn’t land inside.
‘But you weren’t forced to have children were you?’ I say, all innocence. I don’t know where this came from. It just came out.
‘What? No. Course not. What are you on about?’
‘It’s just... You’re always going on about how having kids affected your life so badly. It just sounds like you didn’t really want them around, like they were forced on you. I mean surely you knew what it might involve?’
Liz and Brenda both look keen to intervene, to explain things to me, but Harry won’t let them. Ray and Solly, I note, stay well out of it.
‘What it involves...’ he begins, but doesn’t seem to have anything to add. Instead he rudely shushes the women again and goes back to telling us how hard he worked, as if I should admire him for that or be hugely grateful somehow.
‘But you chose to have children’ I insist. ‘Nobody forced you to work all those hours. You didn’t have to make all those sacrifices. It was your choice. You must have known what it would be like. I don’t see why you’re complaining.’
‘What I’m complaining about...’ He sits back heavily, very angry. ‘Will someone explain to him?’
‘I don’t think you understand what it takes to bring up a family young man’ said Brenda firmly.
‘Yes I do’ I say. ‘It’s bloody hard – I know that. I’m not even sure I'd want to do it myself.’
‘You selfish little shit’ shouts Liz suddenly, as if a devil as sprung up and is sitting smirking before her.
‘But you did want children’ I insist, leaning forward. ‘You chose that path. What did you expect? You can’t blame them for their own existence.’
‘What the fuck are you on about boy?’ shouts Harry. Everybody’s huffing and shifting about in their seats, ready to have a go. People at some of the other tables are looking uneasy.
I lean back and cross my arms, observing the consternation. His face is really dripping. He must have been heading for a heart attack when he died.
‘Answer me this’ I say, glaring back at him. ‘Why did you choose to have them? What did you want them for? What did you think they’d do for you exactly? Huh? Or did you even think about it at all? What exactly were you expecting from them?’
I come to a halt. I feel my heart going so fast, so hard and I’m hyperventilating a little. I hope they can’t tell. I collect myself. I press on. I know I’m talking too loud but I really don’t care.
‘So you have all these children and you act like you’re doing them a big favour and they should all be grateful to you and be nice quiet little miniature versions of yourselves and do as they’re told and make you proud. But we’re not your little toys. We’re not here to make you feel better about your life. We’re here to be us and you can’t fucking stop us. Don’t talk to me about selfishness’ and I push my chair back hard and stand over them. I hear the chair fall over. I ignore it and turn to go.
‘You don’t know what the fuck you’re on about’ shouts Liz at my back. ‘You think you’re better than us. You spit on our lives, on our families...’ and she turns and cries on Harry’s chest and he makes a big show of holding her tenderly.
Ray stands up and turns to me and says ‘I think you should leave son. Go see your... friends.’
And suddenly I get it, why they’ve wanted me around all this time. I look around at them, one by one, at their outraged incomprehension and I see – what? Parental disapproval, that’s what, after they’ve tried so hard. I’m just so ungrateful.
I calmly pick up my drink and head for my cabin. It’s late. And I feel bloody brilliant.
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