The last time I saw Vin and Jackie we were killing slugs. The three of us had been smoking outside and then Vin had gone home early, leaving his wife and me alone in the porch light. Across the paving stones I could make out a long, sleek line inching out of the glare.
‘Come and look at this,’ I said to her. ‘They say you should put salt on them.’
‘Why? What happens?’
‘I don’t know.’ I’d never put salt on a slug before. ‘It kills them,’ I said.
She stood right next to me and our coats brushed together, making a whispering noise that we both pretended to ignore.
‘I could fetch some,’ I said. ‘I could fetch some and see,’ and then disappeared inside.
‘This’ll do,’ I said, returning with a large vat of table salt, unsure, thinking really I should be using something else. But I said it would do anyway, because it never does to look hesitant. Uncertain of your next move. I opened the spout on the packet and poured a stream the length of the slug. It squirmed a little, lifting its head and tail into a kind of crescent moon and as we looked on it gradually dissolved before our eyes. Dissolved into nothing but a patch of wet salt on the paving slabs, foaming at the edges.
‘That’s done it,’ she said, lighting another cigarette. We did the same to a couple of others. Then we went inside.
There wasn’t anywhere to park when I arrived at theirs. Cars end to end and up on the pavement. Many of them bearing scars from running too close to the wall or where the thick, overhanging brush plants had scratched their paintwork. I reversed as far as I could back down the road and then got stuck. Vin leaned out of the window of their house and called at me to wait. I turned off the engine and got out to meet him. He had a can of beer in his hand and it slopped against my jacket as we hugged each other. Then we both got back into the car and he told me where to park.
‘It’s awful,’ he said. ‘There’s never anywhere. We should try another road and walk back.’
A little kid ran past without any shoes. Vin said a lot of them were like that, always playing in the road without shoes or clothes.
‘It’s the area,’ he said. ‘We’ll move in a few years.’
He opened the window and then gestured down a side road, as though indicating for oncoming traffic. We pulled up and I looked out across the valley. At the rows and rows of houses edging down towards the town.
‘Good view,’ I said, my voice sounding flat.
‘Yeah. I suppose it is. If you don’t look at the car park.’
‘I hadn’t seen that,’ I replied. The car park was off to our left and seemed to double as a tip, with a couple of rusty skips in one corner and a pile of rotting tree branches. ‘But still.’
‘Yeah. It’s alright,’ he said. ‘It’s alright. We’ll probably move soon. Give it a few years.’
We went inside and I nodded as Vin told me a list of things they’d have to do to the place. I ran my hand along the wall as he spoke, rapped my knuckle on the doorframe. I could see it would be nice.
‘Want a beer?’ he asked and I said cheers, even though I was driving. But I thought one before lunch wouldn’t matter. There were piles of magazines on the floor and Jackie lay on the sofa, rubbing at her temples. She had a blanket around her legs and pulled it up to her neck with little fists like a child.
‘I had one hell of a night last night,’ she said.
‘Both of you?’ I asked.
‘No, he had to work this morning. An old lady who can’t wash herself. Every morning. He has to wash her there, don’t you darling?’
I looked over at him. She often got drunk when he wasn’t around.
‘He doesn’t like having to do that. Makes him nervous.’
He shook his head and I laughed, thinking it might be a joke. At that moment a cat came in from outside and as it passed me it pressed itself low to the floor and ran up the stairs.
‘He doesn’t like men,’ she said. ‘Vincent wanted a cat so much. It was his idea. He was so excited when we got him and yet he won’t even let you near him, will he?’
I nodded like I’d heard all this before and then had another swig from the can of lager. She always called him Vincent but no one else did. I thought it funny that his real name should be a term of endearment.
‘What’s he called?’ I asked.
‘Arthur,’ she said.
‘That’s a nice name.’
‘As in Arthur Miller.’ She pulled a face but I wasn’t sure what it meant. ‘We didn’t name him. That’s what the previous owners called him. They didn’t want him anymore so Vincent said we’d have him. You were so excited weren’t you love?’
Vin stared up the stairs. There was no stair carpet.
‘My mother wants to re-home her dog,’ I said, not knowing why. ‘She says he always smells. I’ve told her to put him outside. That dogs can go outside but she says she doesn’t want to. That he’ll get cold. She says he’s an inconvenience too. That she can’t do all the things she’d like to do. Like go away or take a train. She can’t do that with a dog.’
‘You can take a dog on a train can’t you?’ Jackie asked, pulling at the blanket again.
‘Yes,’ I said. My mouth felt furred up from the beer and I ran my tongue about my teeth. ‘She had a dog before and got rid of it. Said it was too difficult to handle. It was always running off and tearing at the furniture. She said then – with the other dog – that she wanted her life back. To do things. But after a few months on her own she got this dog – the one she’s got now – because she said she was feeling lonely.’
‘Ah. I see,’ said Vin, and I looked over at him. I’d forgotten he was there.
‘He died this year, didn’t he?’ Jackie asked and I asked who she meant. Who had died this year.
‘No,’ I said. ‘No I’m sure it was longer than that.’ I felt really definite about it, like it mattered. ‘I love Arthur Miller,’ I went on. ‘If he’d died this year I’d have done something, I know I would have. Something so as I’d remember it. Mark it. Like posted about it on facebook or something. I’d have done something like that.’
Everyone went quiet then and I looked down at my drink, into the can and fiddled at the ring-pull so the hinge made a springy sound. There was no other noise in the house or outside then. Just that and the faint hiss of lager.
‘It’s been a while since you two have seen each other, hasn’t it?’ Jackie began. I could see then that she was wearing pyjama bottoms. I’d not seen her in pyjamas before. ‘You can sit down you know.’
I looked about me, wondering where. The only other chair was covered in clothes and the sofa next to her was piled with magazines. She pushed them onto the floor and I sat next to her whilst Vin looked on. I saw he had suit trousers on with an old rugby shirt and I wondered why, when it was a Sunday and they didn’t go to church.
‘No, it’s been a while,’ I agreed.
‘So what’s been going on with you?’ he asked, leaning back in his chair so I felt a little uncomfortable and as though I should lean forward.
‘Not a lot. I drove my father to visit his brother in a nursing home the other week.’
‘A long drive: three, maybe four hours.’
He nodded again, as though this were impressive.
‘Actually, you’ll like this,’ I said, turning to Jackie as well. ‘It’s a funny story. Four hours, this drive. A long way, and every forty-five minutes my father would ask me to stop the car, making a grab at his groin and I’d pull into a lay-by or onto the hard shoulder and he’d get out and have a piss.’
I stopped again, looked at them both. ‘He’s not well,’ I explained. ‘And I told him that if he opened the back door as well as the front it would make a kind of cubicle so no one could see, because quite often he was pretty exposed standing there. But he couldn’t always manage it. I pretended not to see the time he leapt out, pissing over his shoes before he’d reached the kerb. I just looked in my overhead mirror at the cars pulling by, their passengers looking over to the side and thinking that if we’d stopped before he could have got out sooner. Could have opened the backdoor too.
‘Anyway, we got to the nursing home. One of those out of town places that look like an office park. No one came when we pressed the buzzer. A couple of nurses walked by and I smiled at them, you know to suggest they let us in but they only smiled back. Like they thought we must be outside having a cigarette or something. We only got in when another family entered.
‘My uncle was in a small box room without a window. No pictures or anything. Just a dirty, russet wallpaper. It was also really hot in there, but a dry heat from the central heating, and I took off my coat and folded it and lay it on the arm of one of the two chairs and then sat down. Then I wish I hadn’t, like my uncle should ask us to sit down first, like it was the only privilege he had. My Dad just stood, bent over and they shook hands, only briefly, and as ever I marvelled at how long my uncle’s fingers were. He has these long, thin fingers, with great bony knuckles, and I wondered whether this was arthritis or whether he just had great big knuckles. Like a boxer. Not that he’d ever boxed.
‘Anyway, besides the two chairs there was only a bed and a small chest of drawers with a television on it. The television was one of those combi things with a DVD player and my uncle got me to show him how to turn the programmes over. I asked him how he’d managed before and he said he didn’t, he just never switched it on. I didn’t really want to be talking – I felt my Dad should be doing the talking. It was his visit, and his brother. But he just kept looking around the room.
‘“When’ll you be home?” he’d keep saying and my uncle would reply that he wasn’t sure he’d be going home. But my Dad said, “Well we’ll come and visit you when you’re back in your own home. You’ll be there before you know it,” and my uncle never seemed to know what to say to that. That was sad, I guess.’
I stopped and took a drink, feeling slightly embarrassed and wondering whether to continue my story. And at the pause Jackie peeled back the blanket and stood up. Went over to the sink.
‘I need some water,’ she said, filling a glass before drinking it right down, leaning over the sink with her back to us. We could hear her smack her lips and then the water hitting the sink as she filled the glass again. Once she’d drained the second glass she came and sat back down.
‘That feels better,’ she began. ‘Although I feel a little sick now.’
Then I remembered that the last time I’d seen her she’d had a hangover too. Another morning.
‘As my father and uncle spoke I looked at the bed my uncle was sat on. It had a bright duvet cover on it and the duvet was folded under the mattress so you could see the bed frame underneath. It didn’t even look like a proper bed, but one with foldable metal arms, painted black. There were places where the black paint had been scratched off and for some reason this struck me as really important and I wondered how old the beds were or whether this was only a temporary bed, which they’d replace if he had to stay there.’
‘They’re all like that,’ Vin said. ‘Easier to move.’
I nodded, not sure what else to say. Because he hadn’t understood what I was driving at.
‘“How’re your mother and brother?” my uncle asked and we told him that they were both well and that they sent their love.
‘“How nice,” he went on. My brother got married in the summer, by the way, and this gave my father an opportunity to talk about the wedding and to get me to do an impression of my sister-in-law – his daughter-in-law, which always makes him laugh. My uncle looked on, nodded like this was a factual piece of information for him to remember.
‘We’d only been there forty-five minutes when my father looked at his watch and said it was probably time for us to go, that it was a long drive back for me. I said I didn’t mind but my uncle said that it was a very long way and that he didn’t want to keep us. My father asked to use the loo before we left, saying that he’d had four cups of coffee that morning before we set off. I told him that if I’d known that I wouldn’t have been so ready to stop on the way and he asked why and I said that coffee is a diuretic and that it was no wonder he needed the loo if he’d drunk so much. He pulled a face at this and my uncle nodded like he agreed with me and that this kind of thing was typical of my father.
‘As we left we all shook hands again. My uncle thanked us for coming such a long way and said he really appreciated it. That he didn’t get many visitors and again my father told him he’d be up and about before long.
‘“The next time we come down you’ll be back in your own home,” and my uncle looked sad and turned his head away, to where a window might have been in the long expanse of wall.
‘My father was already in the corridor by then and, as he took my hand, my uncle said that he was really very fond of my father even if he was always very rude to him and I told him that we were all very rude to my father but that I thought he quite enjoyed it. My uncle laughed at this, more than at anything else we’d said for the entire visit, and he lifted his head up from his neck and his stomach shook a little and I could see his tongue, lolling pink in his mouth. I wanted to give him a hug then – he still held my hand – but I wasn’t sure he’d want me to so I said again that we were all very rude to my father and he nodded and let my hand go.’
I stopped. Vin was over by the french windows, where the cat was sat and it pressed itself against the glass as he stood there, relaxing when he walked away.
‘All that way, all that driving. The driving and stopping. All that for just forty-five minutes,’ I said. ‘Isn’t that funny? My father hardly spoke. All that way.’
Jackie lit a cigarette and patted my arm, leaving her hand there so I was worried the ash would drop off the end of her fag and burn my skin. After a short while she raised her hand again and the cinders dropped onto her blanket and she was forced to brush them away.
‘I’m playing again,’ Vin said into the silence. ‘It’s been ages, but the other week I picked up the guitar and strummed a few chords. It all came back. I’ve started a new song. First new song in a couple of years. It’s not much. Not much to listen to. Just a verse and an idea for a chorus. But it’s there. I’ll keep doing it. Keep strumming away at the chords.’
I smiled at him.
‘You’ve played a few gigs as well, haven’t you?’ Jackie said, looking at him.
‘Yes I’ve played a few gigs. I did a gig a few months back. Nothing big, just a solo thing in our local one Friday night. A few Beatles covers, that sort of thing.’
‘They liked it, didn’t they?’ she said, wrapping herself up again. It was cold, in spite of the sun pouring through the windows. But then it was a winter sun, all powdery yellow. ‘Asked you to play again. A couple of people even danced,’ and she put her hand on my leg at that and smiled. I smiled back and then at Vin, not really sure of what was going on.
‘Yeah it was alright,’ he said. ‘Not like the old days though. Not like playing your own stuff.’
‘But still,’ Jackie said, smiling at him. ‘It’s something isn’t it,’ and with that she squeezed my leg and then took her hand away, under the covers like a child hiding a toy.
‘Do you see much of the others?’ he asked.
I shook my head.
‘I thought I’d keep up with all you guys,’ he said. ‘I left Steve a message a while back. I don’t think he can have got it. Or maybe he’s busy. I didn’t think we’d see each other a lot but I thought maybe once a year or something. Bit of a sing-song, you know? Drink in a pub, that sort of thing.’
I said yes, I knew. The cat came back into the room and then waited for Vin to turn away, to look out through the french windows, down to where the houses tiered off into the valley, before crossing the floor.
‘It’s not often you find a connection with people, is it?’ he said into space. ‘I didn’t with all the guys. Old-George I could have left. But you and Steve — with you two I thought I’d found something. You know – the way you do.’
‘Yeah, it was good,’ I said, agreeing with him.
‘But even you and me don’t see each other much,’ and he turned to look at me.
‘We speak quite often, though. I enjoy those joke messages we leave for one another – about going on tour. “Tonight we’re in…” You know, all those.’
‘Yeah, that’s good,’ and he threw himself back in his seat and drank and drank from his can.
The cat was at the edge of the sofa now and looked up. Its face was pulled into a sort of grimace so I didn’t want to touch it, thinking it might bite me. Or maybe it was just that it looked ugly or ill. I’m not very good with animals.
‘Is he ok?’ I asked.
‘Oh he had a tooth removed,’ Jackie said, patting a cushion. ‘It makes his mouth a bit funny.’
‘Like a hair-lip,’ added Vin.
The cat jumped onto the cushion and she stroked about its neck and ear. He was a big cat with matt-grey fur and after a little while he let me touch him and as I did so I looked over at Vin.
‘Why does he let you touch him?’ he joked, but there was also something pained in his voice.
‘Maybe he thinks I’m a woman,’ I said.
‘He never lets me touch him. Never. He always runs away.’
‘You clomp about the house too much,’ Jackie said. ‘You’re always running up and down the stairs. I don’t think he likes the noise.’
‘Maybe you’re light-footed,’ Vin nodded at me. Then he finished his drink and laughed. But he didn’t laugh long, just looked out the window again, to where he said you could see the river on a clear day.
We went out for lunch, down into the town. The cat followed us out and Vin was nervous about letting him go, saying he’d not been out before. But Jackie said it would be fine. We were gone for some time. I didn’t know where to stand in our walk there and back, behind them or between them. The path was narrow and cars kept passing. I fell in behind and tried to keep up with what they were saying.
It was cold when I left. The sky was clear, a pale blue like duck eggs and clouds formed streaks across the sky. There was still no sign of the cat and Vin kept saying his name over and over like a small child.
‘I hope he comes back,’ I said and Jackie reassured me that he would. But you wouldn’t have known from the look of Vin. He was preoccupied, opening the french-windows and standing out on the veranda.
‘Arthur,’ he called. ‘Arthur.’
Jackie and I left him, walking out front. Three boys walked past the front door, one carrying a bright green football. You could hear Vin’s voice from the back and they looked at us oddly, like we were doing something bad and Jackie flushed as she turned to me.
‘Come again,’ she said.
‘Oh I will.’ I put my hands in my coat pockets just as she put her hands forward and then, not knowing what to do with them, she pulled the edges of my coat together, like she was preparing me for school. Maybe she had the same idea, because she laughed a little under her breath.
I looked out down the road, as though checking for my car, not wanting to catch her eye. And then I checked it for real, staring for any scrapes or bumps while it had been parked there. Vin joined us and told Jackie there was no sign of the cat.
‘He’s never been away before,’ he said. ‘He might not know to come back.’
She kissed me on the cheek and went inside and shortly after we could hear her voice, shriller than Vin’s, calling Arthur. It rang clear down the hill and through the clear blue sky. I looked at Vin – at his rugby shirt and suit trousers. He was only in socks and I wanted to ask if his feet weren’t cold.
‘Don’t be a stranger,’ he said.
‘I won’t,’ I replied, hugging him. And we held each other for a long while, as though afraid of the other letting go or something. And when we each let go I felt that either something had been secured or fallen away altogether. I just wasn’t sure which.
I turned and walked for the car, my steps heavy. I glanced over my shoulder.
‘Bring the guitar next time,’ he called. ‘Bring the guitar, we can have a sing-song.’
I smiled and waved, even though I wasn’t that far from him, and my car keys clanked in my hand. I looked back again, but this time he wasn’t looking. He was staring up the hill, at the steep footpath between the houses.
‘Arthur,’ he shouted. ‘Where are you Arthur?’ and then Jackie’s voice echoed a reply from the back garden. I started the engine and drove off, leaving them both standing there, one looking up, one looking down, divided by the house, calling.