With many of us finding ourselves at home with some extra time on our hands, I thought now would be a good time to share three of the modern-day Phil chapters that will eventually be flowed into the section of the novel which is already up on the site. However, as not to interrupt the current Gregory/Justine thread, I’m posting them here in the ‘process’ section of the website. Two of these chapters, ‘Fortune Cookies’ and ‘Jumble Sale’, you’ve already seen on this section. While ‘Jumble Sale’ has remained the same, ‘Fortune Cookies’ is now called ’02/14′, has been edited and has a new Jeannie section added to the end of it. The third chapter, ‘Hanging in the Balance’ deals with the unravelling of Phil and Claire’s marriage to accommodate Phil’s upcoming fall from grace with Jeannie once he’s got through Gregory and Justine’s sex chapters. As the story develops, I’m hoping you’ll begin to see some of the parallels happening between Phil and the people he’s reading about; different times, different style of writing, different way of speaking, but the same old human condition. Whether one’s saying “By Jove” in 1873 or “Christ” in 2019, no one is immune to the real-life dramas that translate into a tragic story. When we see ourselves in our ancestors or in people from a long-ago time, we develop a sense of solidarity with the past. So, to take you away from the current stress in the world at the moment just for a little while, here’s a glimpse into what’s happening at the Owens’ household at 17 Sorely Lane.
ADDITIONAL CHAPTER #1:
Pushing the manuscript away and rubbing his eyes, Phil thought of George and Ada strolling through Philadelphus Park, lost in dizzying conversation. Whilst he knew that George was privately besotted with someone else, he also knew that George was coming to life in Ada’s company. Despite the inevitable dangers lurking up ahead, there was a loveliness to their budding relationship. And at the thought of budding relationships, Phil thought of buds which made him think of roses like the ones in the buckets lining Dewy’s shop window, like the ones which, most unfortunately, he’d decapitated after the Valentine’s Day debacle with Claire.
Sadness came then.
Because he wished he hadn’t done such a thing.
But, recalling the dozen headless stems he’d chucked in the bin on the morning of February fifteenth, he acknowledged that, sadly, he had done such a thing as childish as it had been. His act had only served to prove Claire’s constant diagnoses of his chronic childishness true. What was that term she always used? Man-child. Yes. That was it.
Rising from the desk and looking down at Gallows through the window, Phil saw Dewy’s overpriced rosebuds stretching their arrogant little heads from the buckets as if to taunt him with his florally criminal activity. Shifting his gaze right, he then looked at Wong’s Chinese Take-Away sign glowing in pink neon. And there it was: the other reminder of the February 14th. On second thought, the day didn’t even deserve the privilege of a word so, Phil quickly demoted it to 02/14, reminding him of the numbers that appeared on mugshots and the likes. There. That was better. Phil backtracked. And there was Wong’s Take-Away, the other reminder of 02/14.
Tony Wong of Wong’s Chinese Take-Away was on to something with his 02/14 take-away specials; I mean he was so much on to something, you always had to wait an hour or two for the stapled paper bags to arrive on your doorstep. The food was delicious and reasonably priced, but that wasn’t the draw. No. The draw was Tony’s 02/14 fortune cookies. To be quite honest, in Phil’s books, they were fucking brilliant, each one with a little 02/14-ish message tucked inside.
There was no secret surrounding the fortunes.
As soon as Christmas was over, Cherise, Tony’s girlfriend of thirty years, would start typing the fortunes on her vintage typewriter. On any given night between December 26th and February 13th, you could see Cherise clickety-clacketing away behind the counter in her 1960’s winged-out glasses and her woolly tangerine hat with its oversized pom-pom. If she wasn’t clickety-clacketing away, she was cutting the individual fortunes into her buckets labelled CHILDREN, COUPLES and SINGLES. According to Tony, the fortunes were like snowflakes in that no two were alike.
The children’s fortunes were sickeningly cute with messages like “HAPPY HEARTS DAY”, “HUG A FRIEND” and “YOU ARE SWEET” typed on them. The singles’ fortunes were an eclectic mishmash of pep-talks, messages of good-riddance and mischief. Fortunes like “YOUR SOUL MATE IS AROUND THE CORNER” and “YOU’LL BE BETTER OFF WITHOUT THE IDIOT” were mixed in with phone numbers of other singles in the Heath, XXX web addresses and lonely hearts’ hotline numbers, take your pick.
But the fortunes for couples were, by far, the best. The little papers came with tips and pointers for the bedroom no average Joe or Josephine would ever think about. It boggled Phil’s mind how pom-pom bobbling Cherise could come up with such ideas; I mean the woman seemed to have a wealth of titillating brainwaves under that hat of hers. Perhaps that’s why she wore the damn thing; to keep her cerebral matter a-sizzle.
Much to his own chagrin, Phil had sometimes caught himself wondering if Cherise kept that tangerine monstrosity on during sexual research and development with Tony. And that had always posed a bit of problem. Because as he reached over the counter for the best Chinese food in the UK, he’d be imagining Cherise wearing nothing but her obnoxious vintage spectacles and the hat with its pom-pom going wild, stopping mid-gyration to scribble out the just-had sexual discovery before the moment passed.
Staring at the sign and letting his vision blur, Phil thought of how 02/14 had gone – gone the pathetic way of Christmas in fact, gone to the soundtrack of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, a song which was rapidly becoming the national anthem to his and Claire’s relationship.
If there was anything that was carved in chocolate it would be his and Claire’s celebration of the occasion-formally-known-as-Valentine’s Day, a celebration which consisted of: a dozen non-decapitated roses from Dewy’s (from him to Claire), new lingerie (from him to Claire), a new album for his vinyl collection (from Claire to him), new boxers with humorous graphics on them (from Claire to him) and, the crowning glory – the £30 Valentine’s Day Special for Two with a generous handful of Cherise and Tony’s fortune cookies for couples. I mean, who could go wrong with that? It was a layman’s paradise as far as Phil was concerned.
But, cue The Times They Are A-Changin’ because, this 02/14 gone, Phil had lumbered into the kitchen with his bouquet of roses from Dewy’s, all set to call Wong’s when Claire had come breezing into the kitchen in a skin-tight dress and black stilettos, announcing that she was off to London with her recently divorced gal pals to see yet another group of mummified popstars in coloured pants and black fedoras shaking their geriatric wares to bland, sub-standard lyrics.
“What? You never told me that?” Phil had said with a pout. “This is our day, Claire. It’s always been our day. What about our Chinese take-away and fortune cookie tradition?”
“Actually, I did tell you about this,” Claire replied, giving her hair a shake. “I told you last month when I booked the tickets. Both Sandra and Jane have gone through divorces this year and I decided to support the sisterhood for once, you know, show some solidarity.”
‘Well, if you’re not careful, you’ll end up following in their footsteps.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“If you go cavorting around with them long enough, you’ll start getting fancy ideas.”
“About divorce you mean?” she’d huffed. “Don’t be ridiculous. Divorce isn’t a fancy idea, Phil. It’s something to be taken dead seriously. Just like a man to minimise it. They’ve been through a lot, they have, and they need to let their hair down a bit, get back on their feet.”
“Right,” quipped Phil. “The stilettos will really help them do that. And if they look anything like you do right now, Rick on the synthesiser will have them off their feet and on his algae-filled waterbed from 1985 in no time.”
“Don’t be a child, Phil,” Claire said, swatting at him.
“Actually, Dad, I’m with Mum on this one,” Nico said, his Latin American bracelets rattling as he swaggered into the conversation uninvited. “I think you need to loosen up. I personally don’t know how people can stay together for as long as you have; it’s abnormal.”
“For your generation maybe,” said Phil. “How many times do you lot have to bed someone before you become – what’s that word you throw about – oh, yes – exclusive? Five? Ten?”
“It’s not a numbers thing. Whether we’ve met a person on-line or organically –”
“Organically?” Phil interjected. “In real life, you mean?”
“Yeah as in real life,” Nico said condescendingly. “And FYI, as long as you’re not exclusive with anyone, you don’t go telling prospects about other prospects. It’s understood that you’re seeing other people. Or at least that’s how it goes in our circle.”
“Right,” said Phil. “Well your mother and I met organically and have been exclusive since day one. And as far as I’m concerned, our circle includes me, her, you and James. And if you don’t mind me saying, Claire, by the looks of it tonight, you’re re-thinking the whole exclusive arrangement and are on the prowl for other prospects. But hey, I’m a modern bloke. Don’t tell them about me. I’m just the husband!”
“For Christ’s sake, Phil,” Claire fired back. “For one, I’m not on the prowl; I’m not a leopardess. Secondly, just because a woman wants to dress up and look her best doesn’t mean she’s out and about PROWLING for prospects. And how can you be so insecure as to think I’m going out with my friends to hook up with other men? What are you? Fifteen?”
“No, Claire. I’m fifty and I’m acting my age, not gallivanting around like a teenager. Hook up? What are you? Fifteen?” he mimicked. “You’re even talking like a person half your age!”
And – just in time – enter James, also rattling with his Latin American bracelets.
“You shouldn’t be so controlling of Mum, Dad,” he said. “If she wants to have a night out with her girlfriends, she should be free to have a night out with her girlfriends.”
“Ay-ay,” cheered Phil, raising an imaginary glass. “And who are you? Her lawyer?”
“No, but I can see you’re always trying to dim her light.”
“Dim her light? Dim her light?” Phil repeated incredulously. “I couldn’t dim your mother’s light if I tried. Call me old-fashioned but I just thought it would be nice to spend Valentine’s Day with the woman I’m still married to – here – at home – on the settee – with Chinese take-away.”
“But that’s the problem, Phil,” Claire cried. “That’s all you ever want to do! Sit on the settee! Eat! You don’t want to go out and experience the world! The only way you want to grow is outward.”
And there it was: the stone had been thrown.
“Are you calling me fat, Claire? Because if you’re calling me fat, that’s a great fucking way to spread the love on Valentine’s Day.”
“Well maybe if you put in the effort and got back in shape, you’d have more energy to get out in the world and grow the healthy way, like Vic for instance!”
Second stone – no – second boulder thrown.
“You know what, Claire? Fuck you for saying that. Fuck you for comparing me, your husband of a quarter of a bloody century to that kale-consuming, lizard-skinned Don Juan of all trades who sleeps with any bloody thing that moves.”
“Well you could take a few leaves from his books. I’ll tell you that much.”
“Kale leaves at that.”
And then, Claire, threw her faux fur coat around her and swiped her clutch from the kitchen counter and strutted off into the night, but not before Phil shouted, “Don’t forget your dental dam,” before she closed the door. Christ, that was the cruellest of low-blows, thought Phil, suddenly realising that low-blow was a very poor choice of words to follow up vicious quips involving dental dams. You idiot, he said to himself. What did you have to go and say that for?
James and Nico left soon after, going their separate ways, probably to hook up with their respective prospects in the prospect free-for-all apparently happening all over England and beyond. As Phil pulled Wong’s take-out menu from the odds-and-ends drawer, he wondered if his sons would be spending the evening with prospects they’d met organically or prospects they’d met on-line. And wouldn’t it be funny if on the prospect round-about, they’d overlapped here and there without knowing it? That had to be par for this obstacle course of casual hook-ups which, to quote, wasn’t “a numbers thing”.
Well, at least the lads would have company tonight.
Jabbing the numbers on his mobile, Phil got through to Wong’s but was put on hold for a quarter of an hour. To pass the time, he pictured Mistwell couples all over town breaking into their fortune cookies and practising all of Cherise’s moves and suggestions. By the time, Tony came on to take his order, Phil was thick into a vision of Cherise riding Tony like one of those mechanical bulls in American bars like he’d seen on TV with waving her tangerine hat in the air. Christ, he was losing his mind. Perhaps he should see someone before it got worse.
“What can I get for you?” Tony asked.
“The £10 Valentine’s Special for Singles,” Phil said with a lump in his throat.
Once the order arrived, Phil flopped the roses down on the settee and sat down beside them, organising the little cardboard boxes of food on the coffee table and heaping his five fortune cookies beside them. Like he’d always told himself, Tony and Cherise were always beyond generous with their cookies.
Before he dug in, Phil wiggled his headphones into his ears and scrolled through his playlist, settling on Billy Idol’s ‘Dancing by Myself’, putting it on replay for the entire meal.
Once he’d finished his dinner, he brought the roses onto his lap and bud by bud, pulled the petals from them, muttering “she loves me – she loves me not – she loves me – she loves me not” until he got down to the last bud.
“And we’ll save you for later,” he said to the bud, confirming that yes, if it had gotten to the point that he was talking to roses, he should really see someone and, preferably, within the week.
Leaving his pathetic new conversation partner on the settee, Phil struggled up and, undoing the button on his trousers to accommodate what he’d just eaten, pissed off to the bedroom, opening the wardrobe and pulling down his and Claire’s memory box. With a defiant “fuck you, Claire”, he smacked back the lid and snatched up the last of their vintage smokes. “You go ahead and dance our night away with divorcees and geezers, leaving me to rot here alone. It’s all strobe lights and cocktails for you. But hey, don’t mind me. I’ll be here covered in rose petals, smoking the last of our cigarettes.’
With the first of the smokes already lit between his lips, Phil meandered to the kitchen and poured himself the first of countless stiff drinks and puffed his way back to the settee where he sat and pulled the heap of fortune cookies in front of him. Then, in between drags and swigs, he ripped them open, lining the little papers up along the edge of the coffee table, reading them.
AN OLD FLAME WILL BE REIGNITED,
SHE’S NOT WORTH THE EFFORT, MATE.
LONELY-HEARTS HOTLINE: 0652-714835
LOVE YOURSELF FIRST.
MISTWELL SINGLE FEMALE: 0652-741938
Well, fancy that. He’d lucked out and got a phone number fortune cookie.
Picking the number up and squinting at it, he toyed with the idea of calling it.
I mean, should he?
After all, Claire was probably suffering temporary amnesia, forgetting that she was in an exclusive arrangement whilst shimmying up against a mic-clutching prospect with his privates still stuck in the 1980’s. In fact, Phil could see this weasel releasing the microphone stand, spinning around on stage in his cherry red blazer, popping a Viagra mid-spin in preparation for nailing Claire in the dressing room afterwards. What a fucking insult that Claire should be blinded by this over-the-hiller prancing about on stage as if he still had it and after how many stints in rehab? And would someone tell him what women found so alluring about these skeletons in the recovery process? Oh, he forgot, they were artistes. Creators. That was it. I mean you could be terrible at everything else, but as long as you could sing some cliché lyrics like “in your eyes” and get sexual with a microphone, you had it made in any prospect’s unmade bed.
Phil looked at the phone number again.
Christ, better not, Phil eventually said to himself, putting the number back on the table. I mean, he wasn’t ready for that. Not yet. Even if times were changing in the Owens’ household. Besides, in Tony and Cherise’s racket, you never knew who you were going to get.
“I guess it’s just you and me,” he said to the last of the roses. “But not for long.”
Then, picking up the rose, Phil resumed his petal-ripping behaviour, muttering “she loves me, she loves me not” as he tore each petal and tossed it aside. Oh, but he was playing with fire because, with the last of the vintage cigarettes clenched in his teeth, he gave the game too much power. He decided that, when it came to the truth of Claire’s devotion to their marriage, the rose would have the final word.
“She loves me not,” he said as he pulled the last petal and threw it aside.
But, as he looked at all the rubbish on the coffee table in his wife-less house, Phil concluded that the flower had only told him what he already knew.
As the memory of 02/14 faded, the sadness with which the musing had begun deepened into full-blown melancholy. I mean, where had it all gone? Where had the glue that had always bound him to Claire gone? He could feel it melting away almost of its own accord.
Was that the effect time had on people?
As Phil stood there staring down at Gallows, part of him wished he could turn back the hands of time to when he was a teenager, to when he and Claire had put the world to rights from the top of a ferris wheel or in the back seat of his parents’ Morris Oxford. Those were the days of cigarettes and candy floss, tape decks and phone booths. Those were the nights when they’d believed in forever. Cue Kiss’ Forever. Had that really been their theme song? With a forlorn shrug, Phil guessed it fucking had.
Grabbing his mobile and putting his headphones on, Phil decided it was time for some woe-is-me mental activity. Locating the Kiss song, he pushed play and watched his life with Claire rewind in slow-motion. There it was unravelling through the current emotional wasteland into James’ and Nico’s teenage ups-and-downs, back into piano lessons and soccer games straight through the bottom of the toybox into the maternity ward. Christ. And there Claire was, walking backward through her pregnancies into her jean jacket, mini-skirt and platform shoes, batting her lashes caked in bright blue mascara.
But Phil’s mind didn’t stop there.
It set the whole thing going in the opposite direction so he had the angst of watching Claire move forward through everything he’d just seen, maturing and evolving into this 02/14 just gone when she walked straight out the front door in the skin-tight dress and black stilettos all over again.
And suddenly, the epiphany hit.
He was absent from the vision, absent from the equation. Where the hell had he been throughout all of this? Here, at the station, that’s where. Or maybe, he wasn’t in the vision because he’d been the one mentally filming the whole backwards/forwards montage.
Lifting his eyes to the windowpane in front of him, Phil realised that he was already listening to the next song on his playlist: You and I by the Scorpions.
Night was starting to fall. Tony Wong’s neon light was getting brighter, staining the puddles fuchsia. Redmond’s office was becoming clearer in the glass, the Polaroid Room beginning to shimmer behind it. As the officers began to leave the floor for home or for their circuits, the room thinned out. To the steady beat of the Scorpions’ song, to the ka-pow! of the electric guitar and the abracadabra of the lyrics, Phil suddenly noticed someone.
I mean not notice-notice.
Because, at this stage, notice-noticing would be ridiculous.
No, at this stage, he was just noticing as in taking note in a benign sort of way.
But – oh, okay – he hadn’t realised just-noticing could be so engaging.
There she was in the dark blue sky, nestled in the reversed L of his left shoulder.
It was Constable Jeannie Robbins working away in her lamp light.
As Phil watched her work in middair, he found himself wondering if she’d ever heard You and I. She must have. I mean, she looked like she’d come of age in the late nineties, didn’t she? Maybe later, if she was still working, he’d ask her if she’d heard it. Not for any significant reason though. But rather because if she hadn’t heard it, she really should; it was a definitely a song worth having in one’s repertoire for daydreams, infatuations and unexpected moments of wishful thinking. Come to think of it, it was movie soundtrack material. And the lyrics? They didn’t have to mean anything much, did they? No, of course not. They’re just great lyrics, Phil told himself. Nothing to wax analytical about. Nothing to feel guilty over.
But then again –
He’d just become aware that he was humming and, for Christ’s sake, when was the last time, he’d done that? As he turned away from the woman-who-wasn’t-Claire in the sky and took his headphones off, he realised he hadn’t hummed a melody for – well – Christ – for ages.
ADDITIONAL CHAPTER #2:
Looking up from the manuscript, Phil was overcome with sadness, primarily for George. I mean he, Phil Owens of 17 Sorely Lane had never found himself in that predicament before, of having to choose between two lovers, but he knew what it was like to stick with the status quo, to go with what everyone expected. He knew what it was like to be the reliable one. It’s just in his case, unlike George, he didn’t know the price he was paying to be that member of the family who kept the home fires burning.
But to give Claire credit, perhaps he was a little on the dull side, if you compared his hum-drum life to her existence which, much like Vic’s, seemed to be propelled by the latest trends and movements, minimalism being the most recent of her obsessions. And to be honest, this latest kick of clearing out the house, almost to the very rugs beneath them, was the one disturbing him the most. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he thought it was worse than spending 02/14 alone on the settee.
Minimalism, Phil scoffed. Everything’s a bloody movement these days. Well, for everyone but you, Phil Owens, because while they’re all moving forward, you’re still stuck in the mud. And then he thought about the jumble sale he hadn’t seen coming.
He’d simply woken up one morning to the sound of people on his driveway. Donning his dressing gown, he’d shuffled to the window and peeked through the curtains to see James, Nico and Claire selling the best part of their goods and chattels in the front garden with a big sign reading, “FUNDRAISER FOR CHARITY BUILD 2019”. I mean, Christ, they were peddling things he didn’t even realise they had: old clothes and heirlooms, boxes of books – and – what was that? Rubbing his eyes and squinting to make sure – it was his collection of vinyl. They were selling it off piece by piece. And, fuck no, there was Gerry Harmer paying 50p for his Guns and Roses album. If that wasn’t grounds for some sort of family emancipation arrangement, Phil didn’t know what was. As he cursed and scrambled his way into a pair of trousers and a jumper, he couldn’t help but think of Arthur Dent in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy waking up to the bulldozers poised to bring his house down. The parallel between Arthur Dent and himself in this moment was uncanny.
Tearing down the stairs and through the front door, he stood dead in his tracks because, to his dismay, there was some eleven-year old boy walking through the garden gate, holding his Doc Martens high above his head, shouting, “Hey, Mum – can you believe it? I’ve finally found the missing piece to my punk rocker costume!”
“Oy,” Phil bellowed from the doorstep. “Those are mine!”
“Not anymore,” the cheeky bugger hollered, vanishing into his mother’s car.
Phil was so livid he could barely speak, and he felt his legs buckling beneath him as he made his way to Claire who was beaming benevolence and sunshine at every bloody person who approached the main table where she was standing.
“How could you?” Phil growled between gritted teeth. “How could you sell our sex boots?”
“Not now, Phil – that’ll be £2.00 even, Mrs. Wilkens – yes, Rodney, that comes as a set – and, well to be quite honest, Phil, we haven’t exactly been wearing them much lately, have we? – when was the last time we did that? – a month ago, maybe – Oh, yes, everyone gets a free vegan muffin – JaNi MesCo is serving them up with fair trade coffee in the garage – Phil, I said not now –”
“Unless you want me to stand on this table and shout a formal announcement about how most of these goods are stolen and they better put them back before I start making formal arrests,” Phil hissed in Claire’s ear. “I suggest you get one the offspring to man this fucking table and meet me in the kitchen.”
Claire knew him so well, she knew he meant business so, a minute later they were in the kitchen with the windows closed to duke it out.
“What’s wrong with you, Claire?” Phil had leant forward with smoke steaming from his ears. “How could you just take my things like that and start selling them to any Tom, Dick or Harriet that comes our way? Those things were important to me. They had sentimental value!”
“For one,” she shouted. “We did tell you about the jumble sale. We told you weeks ago. But the way you’ve been lately, with your head god-knows-where, you must’ve not heard us. We’re getting used to talking to a zombie, though. Because that’s all you’re doing these days, Phil. Work—work—work—work—work—work!” With every utterance, she banged her fist on the counter. “And that’s all fine and dandy, darling. But have you ever wondered what you’re working for?”
“I’m working for you lot,” he shouted back. “I’m working so I can come home and listen to my records and have sex with my girl in the Doc Martens she bought me with her babysitting money when she was seventeen. I’m working so we can live comfortably and take a break from the crazy world out there because, if you haven’t noticed, Claire, the world is crazy.”
“Let’s get a few things straight,” she said, lowering her voice into a far more foreboding tone than if she’d been yelling. “I am not your girl. I don’t know how you see me in your head, Phil, but I’m not seventeen anymore. And I’m not here to save you from the end of your stressful day. And as for your vision of the world? It may be crazy in your books. It may be something you want to escape from through me. But for me, it’s this big beautiful place that extends far beyond the walls of this house, way beyond the Heath. I want to dive headfirst into it in my new bikini, not hide from it.”
Feeling like he was fighting a losing battle, Phil needed to change directions. So, softening slightly, he pulled back from the counter and said, “Fair enough, Claire, but it wasn’t right of you to just go ahead and start selling things that you knew meant something to me.”
“But I did ask you,” she protested.
“When? When I was between waking and sleeping?”
“Not just then. I asked you several times but, as we can see now, you obviously weren’t paying any attention to me. And what I don’t get, Phil, is how you get so attached to things. At the end of the day, they’re just objects. You won’t be able to take them with you.”
“To where? To our new life as construction workers in another country?”
“Perhaps,” she said coldly. “But does it even matter? Because I’m with James and Nico on this one. We have too much clutter in this house and we need to clear it out so we can think and be free.”
“You know what, Claire?” His voice was on the rise again. “One day, we’re going to be so fucking minimalist, we’re not even going to have bodies. So, forgive me, if, while we’re on this planet for a pathetic little handful of years, I want to surround myself with some of life’s material pleasures.”
“Which will end up in a landfill.”
“No matter who owns it! So, it might as well be me!”
The conversation was going nowhere. Claire rolled her eyes and strode back to rejoin the criminal activity taking place in the front garden. And Phil pissed off back to the bedroom and flopped on the bed in the art-deco bedroom. And then it happened. This thing.
He had a memory.
And the memory was just floating there without a context.
He was sitting in his parents’ house at the kitchen table while strange men were coming and taking almost everything out of the main level. He’d been very young – as young as four maybe. But he saw the bits and pieces which had cushioned his early childhood filing out the front door into a lorry parked on the street. The biggest piece happened to be a red settee. There it was on the shoulders of the movers. But his family hadn’t been moving. His father still lived in that very house today. And that morning of the jumble sale, as Phil stared up into the psychedelic discs of the red glass discs ceiling light, he remembered looking at the barren rooms through his four-year-old eyes. He remembered being confused and sad – more than sad, though – desperate.
To the sound of the Saturday-morning buyers outside, Phil felt like he had back then, like a little boy watching helplessly as the house was being dismantled around him.
While he couldn’t place the memory in a context, he suddenly understood that his whole life, he’d been striving to fill that childhood wasteland back up with things with happy connotations. Records from the 1980’s. Cigarette boxes. The Doc Martens. The serviette with Claire’s phone number on it. Jumpers he’d worn on the best dates ever. His first leather jacket which he’d bought with Claire in Covent Garden. And, of course, all the stuff harkened back to moments he’d shared with Claire. Claire was his world and the reason he felt so sad was because he felt like she was selling off all the souvenirs of their love.
Sitting up and swinging his feet to the floor, he reached for his mobile and plugged in his earphones, scrolling through his playlist until he settled on Pink Rabbits by The National. Pressing play and piping the music in at top volume, he rose from the bed and went to the window, looking down at the scene in the garden. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Watching Claire glowing in her wonderful way in front of the neighbours with her back to the house, Phil couldn’t help but to see her as a girlfriend, as a bride, as a new mother with James and Nico in her arms. Girlfriend. Bride. Wife. Mother. Christ, he got it, right down to his core. Claire wasn’t selling off souvenirs of their relationship; she was selling off the objects associated with her roles. And, well now, let’s be reasonable, Phil, he sighed, Claire wasn’t her roles even if her roles had shaped her.
Fuck it, Phil, don’t be a child. And, he drew a deep breath that went all the way back to his childhood and picked himself back up and went out to join role-free Claire because, come hell or high water, he couldn’t afford to lose her, could he? The idea of life without her was unthinkable.
As he stepped out into the March sunlight and joined Claire behind the table, the memory of himself at four faded. “That’ll be £3.00 even,” he found himself saying to a woman holding up the footstool Claire had been sitting on when he’d asked her to marry him. “Hope you enjoy it as much as we did.”
“There,” Claire whispered in his ear. “That wasn’t that hard, was it?”
“No. I suppose not,” Phil replied, feigning a smile. Truth be told, he could already feel his heart sinking because, deep down, he knew he was swimming against the tide.
ADDITIONAL CHAPTER #3:
Phil couldn’t shake the image of Richie face-down on the red settee from his mind, nor could he shake the image of George turning Sidney away. Why did life have to be that way? Why did people let go of the ones they loved the most when there was some sort of choice involved? Or maybe there wasn’t a choice. Maybe, for any number of reasons, you simply lost a grip on the people you longed to keep in your clutches. Maybe the parting of ways was meant to be. And who could swim against that tide? Maybe that’s why he was so damn tired most of the time, because, since the tender age of four, he’d been putting his back out trying to keep a bunch of wayward souls together.
As Phil looked over Gallows at the flowers in Dewy’s shop window, he thought of the daffodils he’d planned on getting Claire for Mothering Sunday. Going to get – but didn’t. And as he thought of the unpurchased blooms, Come Back by Pearl Jam started playing in his head. I mean, Claire hadn’t left the marriage yet, but she’d been on the verge so – well – the song would do.
The memory came, unnerving him again.
“This might come as a bit of a shock to you,” said Claire. “But I’d like to give Mothering Sunday a miss this year if it’s all the same to you.”
Phil flipped down the corner of the Mistwell Chronicle and looked at her. She was sitting in the easy chair opposite, her legs tucked underneath her, a glossy magazine promoting charity builds flopped over the armrest. Eyeing the state-of-the-art promotional material, Phil was itching to point out that the money funnelled into corporate advertising would probably fund a gazillion builds but, judging by the hard look in Claire’s eye, he decided to forget it and stick with the issue at hand: Mothering Sunday.
“Why would you want to miss your day?” Phil asked.
“Well, that’s just it, Phil. It isn’t my day really, is it?”
“Don’t be silly, Claire. Of course, it’s your day.”
“No, not really,” Claire counteracted. “I’m coming to see that Mothering Sunday is just an opportunity for families to shut the mother up with the usual bunch of daffodils and possibly a dinner out. But if you think about it, that’s a pretty pathetic payback for the other 364 days of the year which go unrecognised and, therefore, taken for granted. If families showed appreciation for their mothers all the way along, there wouldn’t be a need for Mothering Sunday.”
“Tell that to Dewy,” Phil returned with a wink. “He makes a killing on his daffodils.”
“Thanks for bringing that up,” Claire said frostily. “Because that’s another valid point. It’s all big business in the end, another chance to piggyback on the public’s emotions to –”
“Bring home the bacon,” Phil interrupted, unable to resist mentioning bacon to fit in with Claire’s choice of the word piggyback. This was clearly a lack of judgment as Claire’s gaze turned to steel the moment Phil had said it.
“This is all a big joke to you, isn’t it?” she said. “I’m trying to communicate my feelings to you, to share how I feel and all you can do is to come up with stupid little jokes like that. Sometimes I wonder, Phil, if you even care about me, if you even see me.”
“Oh, I see you all right,” Phil said on the defensive. “I see you there, talking to me about big business with that –” He paused for a split-second, deciding whether to point out the hypocrisy of the situation, opting to proceed. “– million-pound brochure promoting charity work in underdeveloped countries at your perfectly manicured fingertips. So, I would say that that company is piggybacking on the direst situations in the world so its executives can drive to work in Jaguars and BMW’s. Do you have any idea what a rim for one of those luxury cars costs? The cost of a classroom for thirty children I’m sure.”
“If they don’t spend the money on advertising, they won’t get the word out,” Claire rebutted. “It’s a necessary endeavor. And as for my nails, Phil, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. You expect me to deny myself a little regular pampering to make the mundane worth it. But, oh don’t worry, because one day this year, you’ll buy me a bunch of daffodils and stick them on the kitchen table so I can watch their petals drop off one by one.”
When she said that, Phil thought about all the rose petals he’d pulled on Valentine’s Day. In fact, the damn things wafted through his brain in memory form, heaping at the bottom of his hemispheres.
“A little regular pampering, Claire? Since you stopped working at the nursery school, pampering is all you do as far as I can see. Hair. Nails. Eyebrows. Yoga. Cultural outings. Discos with the gals. Pop concerts for middle-agers. Christ, Claire. Perhaps you don’t want to celebrate Mothering Sunday because you yourself are coming to realise that every fucking day is Mother’s Day in this house. While. May. I. Add. That. I’m. Working. And. Paying.”
That was it.
Things were about to get ugly. Phil could feel it.
“How dare you, Phil,” Claire cried, un-tucking her legs and swinging them to the floor, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees and wringing her hands between them. “How dare you talk to me like that! Because not only have I worked outside our home for decades now, I’ve taken on the brunt of the work inside it too. Dishes. Laundry. Cleaning. Taxiing the boys around when they were young. Helping them with their homework. Dealing with their breakups and life lessons. Not to mention going it alone a great deal of the time whilst you’re saving this goddamn town from itself. That’s who you’re married to, Phil! You’re married to the Heath. That’s where your allegiance lies. When I think about all the trips and outings the boys and I have done without you, I feel like I’ve been a single mum. But, oh, don’t worry, I get it. You’re a special occasions’ man. Christmas. Valentine’s Day. Mothering Sunday. You think you can save up your time and spend it on those days alone. Well, let me tell you something, Phil. I’m coming to realise it hasn’t been enough. Time goes and it goes fast. You can’t get it back. And if I have thirty years left, I’m damn well not going to spend them rattling around this house, waiting for you to get home from your true wife – WORK! I’ve put so much time into you and the boys, it’s high time I put some time into myself. But not here. Not in this house.”
“Then where, Claire?”
Phil could feel his stomach churning as the rug began to figuratively shift beneath his feet.
“I don’t know where yet,” Claire answered vehemently. “I’m still trying to figure that out.”
“What are you saying exactly?” Phil said in a low voice. “Because I’m hearing the words ‘I’, ‘myself’ and ‘me’ an awful lot. We’re a ‘we’, Claire. We’ve been a ‘we’ since we were teenagers.”
“But that’s just the thing, Phil. We haven’t been a ‘we’. Not really. Because most of the time, I’ve been here, and you’ve been there at the station. And if you haven’t been there in the station, you’ve been there in your own head. And it’s complicated because, in catering to the illusion of ‘we’, the illusion of ‘us’, I’ve completely lost myself and am finally in the throes of getting myself back.”
“Getting yourself back,” Phil echoed under his breath, going in for a dramatic crescendo of a repeat. “Getting—yourself—back. Funny, that, because all these years as I’ve been working day and night to keep this ship afloat –” (And there it was: the image of a cruise ship with Claire, James and Nico sunbathing by the vegan buffet up on deck whilst he was in the infernal bowels of the ship, shovelling like mad to keep the damn thing going) “never once have I stopped to undertake the hunt for myself.”
“Most men don’t,” snapped Claire. “Because they never lose themselves.”
“I don’t have time to lose myself,” Phil shouted. “You can’t fucking lose yourself when you’re doing police work.” Exasperated, Phil dropped back down in his chair, trying to catch his breath.
And then, Claire said what Phil didn’t want to hear.
“I’m changing, Phil,” she said quietly.
Right, Phil thought, his stomach in knots. Here we go.
“Nothing feels the same anymore. I’m no longer satisfied with –” Her voice began to falter, and her eyes filled up with tears. “I’m no longer satisfied with –”
“With what, Claire?”
“Define this, Claire.”
But Phil already knew exactly what she meant; he just wanted to be a masochist and hear her say it, hear her break his heart out loud.
“All of it, Phil. Bloody all of it. I’m bored out of my mind in the Heath. I’m bored in our marriage. I’m bored with the routine. I’m bored with the day-in and day-out of JaNi MesCo. And all this stuff I’m doing? I’m doing it to distract myself when what I really want is a different life altogether.”
“A different life?” He could barely get the words out.
“Yes,” she said definitively. “A very different life.”
“Without me? Is that what you mean?”
“I don’t know – yet.”
“Yet?” His voice was on the rise again. “The answer to that question, Claire, is NO, bloody NO, I don’t want a life without you, Phil. The answer to that question is not I DON’T KNOW – YET!”
“I’m sorry, Phil,” she whispered, full of tears.
“Oh, I see it all so clearly now, Claire. You’ve been practising for months now, cutting me off and leaving me out. I mean, Christmas went the way of the dogs. And don’t even talk to me about Valentine’s Day because that was a real bloody treat. And then to see you selling off my things in the jumble sale as if I were dead. And now, lets take the axe to Mothering Sunday while we’re at it. I mean I guess if you’re planning to be out there cougaring around in the bloody prospect free-for-all with your millennial sons, its easier to throw yourself into it if you can forget about us.”
“Cougaring around? What a bloody insult. First of all, that you should even use the term ‘cougar’ and then, to have the audacity to turn it into a verb. It’s beyond disrespectful. That’s exactly the type of thing that drives me mad. Your complete lack of understanding and respect for me, not to mention your own insecurity around other men. I’m still getting over the fact you called me a MILF at Christmas.”
“Oh – here we go – here we go,” Phil said, rolling his eyes. “Digging around in the marital memory bag for more ammunition. Turning a compliment into an insult.”
“Calling me a MILF? That’s your idea of a compliment? Great, Phil. How romantic. To be quite honest, all you ever think about is sex, think being the operative word. Maybe if you didn’t have your head in your trousers so much, you’d be able to do it more than you think it.”
“What the hell’s going on?”
Fucking fantastic. Nico was on the scene, bracelets and all.
“You tell me, Nico,” Phil half-said, half-shouted. “Is MILF an insult or a compliment?”
“Leave him out of it,” Claire yelled, waving her arm in the air.
“No. Nico. Seriously. This is a major area of contention. MILF. Insult or compliment?”
“Compliment I s’pose,” Nico said.
“Spoken like a true Owens!” chimed Phil, slapping his thigh.
“Unless someone said that about Mum. I think, as her son, I’d find that a bit of an insult. Like, kind of disrespectful to our family, if you know what I mean.”
“Thank – you!” declared Claire, sniffling. “Thank – you!”
“Oh, and, by the way,” Phil added angrily. “Your mum has decided she’s a little on the bored side with us at present and would like to throw in the towel on our family for a different kind of life.”
“I didn’t say that, Phil. I said I wanted a change but didn’t know how it was going to play out.”
“Oh, but however it plays out, I reckon it’s going to involve that skin-tight dress of yours and a new pair of stilettos with a run to those London nightclubs for some geriatric pop star jizz.”
“Jesus, Dad – no,” said Nico, disgusted.
“You know, Phil,” Claire said. “The more you talk like that, the more I think we’re growing apart. Who talks to their wife like that? Especially if the marriage is hanging in the balance.”
“Oh, so that’s what we are? Hanging in the balance? Well, thanks for filling me in!”
“Yeah, Dad. Mum’s right about the way you talk to her.”
“Who asked you?” Phil growled. “Don’t you and James have a veggie-scape to curate?”
“No, Nico, please, stay,” Claire commanded. “Because I actually believe you understand me.”
“This is between me and you, Claire,” said Phil. “It’s a husband and wife thing. Not a husband, a wife and a grown son who should’ve left home last year thing.”
“It’s a family thing, Phil, not just a husband and wife thing,” Claire corrected. “I’ve given all I’ve got to this family, to the boys included, and they understand what I’m going through.”
“Right, Claire. How could a couple of twenty-something boys who are still living at home with all the perks of young children possibly understand a pre-menopausal, middle-aged woman who seems to have lost her mind and wants to leave home to find it?”
“And there it is,” said Claire. “The prime example of a man who makes a woman feel like a million quid. And you wonder why I’m not satisfied?”
“Well maybe I’m not satisfied either,” Phil responded. “Maybe I’m sick and tired of being dismissed and ignored or made to feel like an idiot.”
“Can I take the car, Mum?” Nico interrupted.
“Are you serious right now?” Phil said incredulously, turning to Nico. “Your mum is about to pull straws from our carefully constructed life and watch our house come tumbling down and all you can think about is borrowing the car?”
“It’s just that I’m going out with Kristie; that’s actually why I came in here in the first place, to ask if I could borrow the car.”
“No, Nico,” Claire said. “After this, I need some space. I need to get out.”
“Yeah, practice for later,” said Phil.
“You know, Phil, I’m done. You’re on your own!”
“Done done? Or done for tonight done?”
“For now – tonight done.”
“Right then. Thanks for the heads up. Don’t forget to let me know when you’re done done which, knowing you, will be when the movers are at the bedroom door. And speaking of movers, you can get them to take that monstrosity of a crimson light from the ceiling. I’m not an art-deco sort of bloke.”
“No, you’re certainly not,” said Claire frostily.
With that, Claire turned on her heels and stomped out of the room with Nico not far behind.
No sooner had she left, Phil went over to the TV stand and turned on the speaker, scrolling though his playlist until he landed on THE song. Half-devastated and half-triumphant, he then blared The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go at such a ridiculous volume, the floor shook harder than the rug Claire had just shaken from under him.
“This one’s for you, darling” he hollered but Claire was already on her way out the front door headed for the car. Off to God-knows-where, thought Phil bitterly. And then he pictured an emaciated ‘80’s wash-up in tight red pants and a black fedora plumping up the pillows in his London flat, readying the lust nest for the randy inauguration of Mrs. Philip Owens’ very different life. For all Phil knew, Claire had already snapped off her black lace panties in preparation for the big ta-dah. Phil could see it oh-so-clearly: the hyped-up geezer rooting through his animal-print thong collection for his last box of Viagra. That was until Phil had a harrowing thought. What if Claire wasn’t headed for an aging popstar, but for some dashing millennial eager to bridge the age gap with his younger member of the population? Christ, he hadn’t even thought of that. Why hadn’t he thought of that? I mean it really was anything-goes in this day and age, wasn’t it? At least it was for Vic and his sexperts in training. and for the decade-defying couples on the TV show Age Gap, a show which Phil had secretly binged on behind Claire’s back.
But whatever was going to happen, Phil had a sinking feeling it wouldn’t be with him. God, life sucked sometimes. It really did. As the house throbbed with The Clash’s classic ode to indecision, Phil didn’t give a damn if he was disturbing the peace. Let the neighbours call the police because –
Fuck it –
He was the police.
Turning away from the window and thudding back down at Redmond’s desk, Phil identified with Ada. I mean there she was, believing she was happily married, going about her happily-married business whilst husband George was living a double life, having it off with Sidney every Sunday night.
Surely Ada must’ve sensed something was awry.
Perhaps she had – as he had with the 02/14 debacle and the jumble sale.
But, perhaps like he had, aware that things were frayed, Ada had chosen to believe the tallest tale around, the one called Happily Ever After which couples told themselves long after the honeymoon was over. Damn this book, Phil thought, making me face the bloody truth like that because, before he’d delved into the manuscript, he’d been comfortable enough wading through the murky waters of the shallow layer of his life. It’d been easier that way: to muddle through without considering the dark spots hiding underneath the surface.
Dark spots, Phil brooded.
What were they but painful moments tucked away like boxed-up objects in an attic? Like Richie’s stuff for instance. The rock. The kite. Her artwork. Things that triggered sensations difficult to bear while managing the daily grind of ordinary life. So, that was it then, Phil concluded. One chose to forget and carry on with chronic, self-induced amnesia. It was easier that way.
And yet, as much as Phil identified with Ada, he felt Sidney in his bones.
But why? Why him? Why the man with whom George was cheating?
Was it because, deep down, there was a part of him that yearned to be the bachelor? The lover? The outsider? The person cherished in snatched moments but idealised forever? Perhaps. Because God knew he wasn’t that for Claire. She never swept him off his feet, not anymore, and of course, she’d point out why, identifying Weight Gain as the culprit in the line-up of offenders, many of whom she’d save for other justifications and excuses.
What an evening it had been.
Looking at Aubrey’s manuscript, Phil could see he was barely a third in and yet, already, by way of her narration, Aubrey had already forced him to think about his marriage to Claire and his relationship with Richie. Phil felt like Aubrey was unearthing him, exhuming things that he’d kept buried for good reason: his sanity for starters.
“Richie,” Phil murmured, thinking again of his sister, the way her long blond hair had looked that day they’d flown the kite along the coast. And then a thought occurred to him. She’d looked a lot like Claire, had Richie – the same svelte build, the same long golden hair, the same dark tan in summer. How strange that their similarities had escaped him. But what did that all mean? To be smitten with the features of his sister in his wife. It was incestuous to say the least.
That wasn’t the point, though, was it?
No, Phil thought uneasily. The point was that both women were restless souls. Richie had deserted him, and Claire was on the brink of leaving. And he was just a little boy standing in the Polaroid Room, abandoned once and scared to death of being left again.
So there you go. I’ve brought you up to date on the building tensions in the Owens’ household as Claire starts to lose steam in the marriage and Phil starts to notice (I mean not “notice-notice” quite yet) co-worker Jeannie Robbins (although you’ve already read the chapters where he does “notice-notice” her). As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve just come through 125 pages of modern-day Phil chapters so we’ll be picking up with Phil again after you (and he of course) have finished reading the love section of Gregory and Justine’s relationship. Things aren’t looking too good for Phil as he begins his Philamorphosis. In the meantime, I hope you’re enjoying reading what may well be turning out to be the most expensive rough copy in the history of humankind. Over the next few weeks, I’ll do my best to turn out and post some extra chapters and articles. Christine is busy working on the graveyard illustration right now so I should be able to share the development of that illustration with you this coming week. As always, I’m excited to see how Christine turns my words into visual art. Keep safe, take care and I’ll update you soon! -Rosemary (Photo Credit: Tanya L. Smith)