George Majestic was restless. He needed lights, movement. Pearl was watching television. He let himself out the front door, jumped a bus at the lights and got off at Ronnie’s Retro. The upstairs room was his old haunt. The red velvet interior never changed. It was womblike, a place for the lonely, for misfits. It eased chance conversations, encouraged sexual liaisons. The jukebox loomed in the corner, wide and solid, a chrome confection of art deco. He remembered the girl in the polka-dot halter-neck, that formidable cleavage. They jived to the wailings of John Coltrane. George led her into a corner and wooed her with his poetry. She liked it. She blew smoke softly at him through her lovely large lips. ‘What you really want boy?’ she breathed. That was the first of his infidelities.
Ronnie’s was almost sedate. After a few drinks, desultory conversation with the barman he returned home. In the back garden he lay on the ground. He gazed through the mulberry tree branches. Amongst its leaves stars pricked the indigo sky. He took a swig from the gin bottle. It tasted best that way.
The garden was cluttered with his collections salvaged from the river and dumpsites – rusted hubcaps and bumpers, parts of an ancient plough, tangled wire and burglar bars, a working treadle machine, and an enamel bath that he lay in when reading and thinking poetry. ‘One day,’ he told Pearl, ‘I’ll become a sculptor and recycle it all. This discarded scrap has a social history.’ On summer nights he sat with his friends around a fire that burned between fitful grass patches, bottles clinking, talking dirty between gusts of laughter, flames casting shadows on the rusting heaps. Paraffin lamps hung in trees, sleepy dark smoke curling from their yellow wicks.
George had put his beehive against the tool shed. Pearl tried to persuade him to get rid of it. ‘It’s dangerous George. What happens if those bees escape? I’ll tell you what happens – they’ll chase the people down the street and sting them and cause havoc. You’ll have bodies lying around. You’ll be blamed and they’ll arrest you. Trust me.’ He didn’t trust her. Not because he imagined she’d gone off over the years and fucked anybody else. But she didn’t love him. And he wasn’t much lovable. In spirit she’d left him years ago.
He waved his bad hand at her. Bad because two of his fingers had been shot off leaving an ugly gap of pink and violet scar tissue between the thumb and remaining fingers. He said they were shot off in the war. ‘Which war?’ asked Pearl. For distraction he enticed the bees out of their hive and they fastened themselves round his head and arms like a soft brown-fur wrap. Pearl screamed and ran into the house slamming shut the doors and windows. ‘Jesus George,’ she shrieked behind the window. We are incompatible, thought George, as he fell asleep clasping the gin bottle.
Next evening George and Pearl had supper at the Greek café round the corner. Pearl wanted to go out. They sat at a table painted in a hard bright shell of blue enamel. George drank Retsina, she toyed with a coke. She broke the silence between them. ‘You know, I feel I’ve got to get away. I need to be on my own. And I think you need me to go. You’re a kind and generous man but you don’t like me.’
George took a gulp of wine. ‘Put yourself in my shoes. This is where I’m at. Life and death. I’m not going through this again.’
Pearl sucked a prawn. ‘I want to understand,’ she said, ‘from the person I met long ago to the person you are today – you don’t come home, you don’t -’
‘I have to do my work. I’m a poet. It takes me all places. It means sleeping in the street or under an archway, hanging out in the pub.’
Pearl’s voice was rasping, ‘OK, so what are you actually saying? Are you saying I don’t treat you with enough – respect? Because I resent your absences?
‘You said it.’
‘You know George, you’re an I-person and I’m an Us-person. I always wanted us to work as a team. You don’t understand that.’ Pearl blew her nose.
‘Never learned otherwise,’ George muttered.
That night he lay in the enamel bath. The mulberry leaves fluttered. They sounded dry and tired. Like his marriage. He was physically absent but she was in a cul de sac. Then he remembered the shoebox. He’d been in the attic looking for his old Basie records. The box was tucked in a corner, WRITINGS scrawled across its lid. He adjusted the light of the paraffin lamp and pulled out a wad of paper tied with ribbon. He untied the ribbon and read ‘To my George’. To him? He sat up. Climbed out of the bath and lit another lamp. It was a love poem. He read the next page, and all the others, slowly, reading and re-reading. Several of the writings were diarised fragments – about events, the longing for a child, the miscarriages, the death of their dog Chippie causing Pearl great heartache, even a short ode to his enamel bath; the loneliness during his absences and night disappearances. Their married life recorded with a dazzling clarity.
He was seized suddenly with a choking pressure in his throat. Gripping the shoebox he stumbled upstairs, his eyes wet. ‘Pearl? Pearl, can I come in? Can you forgive me?’ She pulled him towards her. Folding her big arms round his thin body she kissed the scar tissue on his hand.
‘Get into bed George, you’re so cold.’