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KEN, DOREEN AND BERNARD
“Are you a churchgoer, Bernard?” asked Doreen with a gentle smile.
“No,” I said.
“Ken and I pop in on Sunday mornings when we can.”
“Please,” I said, “don’t let me interrupt your routine. I don’t need entertaining. I will be quite happy going for a walk or reading the newspaper if it’s raining.”
“No, no,” she said, still smiling. “Guests come first.”
It was then that I had a strong urge to push a bead up her nose. But I didn’t because (a) Doreen was eighty-one, (b) she was my hostess for the weekend, (c) she was my friend Ken’s wife, and (d) I hadn’t got any beads on me.
You may think me an ungrateful bastard and you’d be right. Ken was eighty-two and he had worked for me many years before. After a gap we had got in touch again and I was now spending the weekend with him and his second wife.
Doreen was, well, I suppose, old. Eighty-one is indeed old by any standard, but from what he had already told me about her I had the distinct impression that she was old old, if you see what I mean. I had taken against her during a conversation in the car on the way from the station. Ken explained that she was busy at home preparing for my reception.
“What,” I said. “Red carpet and all that crap?”
“Watch your language,” said Ken.
“What fucking language?” I asked.
“To start with - that fucking language,”
“I’m not likely to use that kind of language in front of a woman I’ve never met, am I?”
“Not just that kind of language. The Lord’s name.”
“God, you mean …?”
“Yes, I do mean.”
“So: no Christ?”
“If in doubt, leave it out.”
I looked at him. He was driving carefully, muttering under his breath from time to time at speeding motor-cyclists and errant pedestrians. His back was now permanently hunched, and I had noticed him patting his pockets from time to time as if checking for keys, spectacles, tablets and so on. His once ginger beard was now snowy white. I suspected he kept it long to hide the immense wattle below his chin.
“You’ve married a saint then, Ken?”
“I want, I need, a quiet life, Bernard, at my age. For that there have to be concessions.”
“What else do I need to know?”
“You’re a bright lad,” he said. “You’ll get the idea soon enough.”
It was no news to me, of course, that Ken wanted a quiet life. And not just because he was eighty-two. He had always wanted a quiet life. That was one of the things that had stopped him getting to the top of the tree. That and being a Northerner - one area in which he had never compromised. His Wigan accent had stayed with him belligerently from the time he uttered his first words. Me, well, there I had compromised. I, as I often told him, now spoke English.
I suddenly became aware that Doreen was welcoming me into the house. I looked at her closely.
She certainly looked her years: the stoop, the slow walk, the rheumy eyes, the irregular, yellow teeth, the heavily veined hands. And, of course, the swollen ankles. None of this her fault, of course. I often think that time deals more cruelly with women than men.
“Would you like a cup of tea, Bernard?”
“Ah, yes, please,” I said. “The cup that cheers but does not inebriate.”
“Oh, a literary man,” said Doreen. “I like that. I’ve a feeling we’re going to get on famously.”
I wasn’t so certain, but I held my peace. I’m a bit of a curmudgeon at the best of times, but I thought that this time, in deference to Ken, I ought to hold back a bit.
It was while we were sipping away genteelly in the front room swapping pleasantries - I’m quite good at that when I turn my mind to it - in front of the telly that Molly’s face appeared at the window. I recognised Ken’s daughter by his first wife immediately because she was exactly like her mother. Tall, big-breasted, fresh-faced, long blonde hair. Unlike her mother she tended to dress casually, on this occasion in a white T-shirt and denim shorts.
“Oh, dear,” said Doreen. “I wasn’t expecting Molly. Do you know her, Bernard?”
“Yes,” I said. “Though I’ve not seen her for several years. She’s a few years older than my own elder daughter.”
“She’s forty-seven,” said Doreen curtly. “She’s still recovering from her hysterectomy. She oughtn’t to be dashing about like this.”
Ken had disappeared into the kitchen to let her in through the back door. I followed him and all three of us embraced, hugging like mad.
“You old bugger,” she said, kissing me on both cheeks. “How are you?”
Ken looked around as quickly as he could, but Doreen had not followed him. He was making signs which we both understood.
“Sod it, Dad”, said Molly. “I’ve not seen Bernard for years.” She looked me over. “You seem in pretty good nick.”
“Clean living is the only real safeguard.”
“What’s that about?” she asked, clearly puzzled.
“A slogan from the distant past,” I said. “When the threat was from venereal disease, long before we had AIDS.”
“Stop talking bollocks,” she said, “and come down and see my house. You’re not here very long, so I want to steal you away from Dad for a few minutes. I’ll get you back here in time for lunch, don’t worry.”
Doreen came in and frowned at her.
“You might have rung,” she said crossly. “You know we don’t like unexpected visitors. We might have been out or having a nap.”
“I am not a visitor,” said Molly coldly. “I’ve come to see my Dad and Bernard. I don’t make an appointment to see my own father, Doreen.”
“It’s lovely to see you,” I said quickly. “You don’t mind if I pop out, do you, Doreen? Since Molly’s here I’d like to catch up with her news. All right with you, Ken?”
Ken was (there is no other word) cowering in the background.
Molly was dragging me through the door before either of them spoke.
“I’ll deliver him back safely,” she called over her shoulder. “Quick, get in the car.”
“Well, ” I said as we sped along. “What’s that all about? I get the impression that you and your step-mother don‘t exactly hit it off.”
“The woman’s a cow and a bitch.”
“An unusual combination, but your father seems satisfied. And that’s all that matters, isn’t it?”
Then she started to bend my ear. I won’t go into all the details here. There are too many of them and they would fill the rest of the page. Molly and I had this happy, frank relationship even when her mother was alive. She loved her father fiercely, protectively. This happens sometimes. You’ve probably come across it yourself.
“What about this church thing?” I said. “Your father was never into religion as far as I remember.”
“Load of crap,” said Molly. “She drags him into all these meetings, introduces him to all sorts of dreary people. Are you going to the Creatures in Distress dinner tonight? You’ll meet some of them there.”
“I don’t know what they have planned. He can always say no, can’t he?”
She looked at me. “Dad?” she said. “Say no? You must be joking.”
“Yes. I suppose I am. Anyway, tell me about you and your loved ones. Doreen tells me you’ve had what Les Dawson used to call a hysterical rectum.”
She was on husband number three. The two children from husband number two were fine. Lots more of this stuff.
When I got back Doreen was peering anxiously out of the window and seemed relieved to see me.
“I thought you might have lost track of the time. Ken does sometimes.”
“I have a watch. But better than that - I know when I’m getting hungry.”
That was the right thing to say. I knew because she chuckled.
“You men! You never stop thinking of your stomachs. I have to watch Ken carefully because of his blood cholesterol, you know. And myself, come to that. You won’t mind, Bernard, if we have just a light lunch, will you? Ken and I have arranged to take you out for dinner. Oh, and do you like ice cream? Ken’s favourite is strawberry. Would that be all right by you?”
I joined Ken in the back garden. Two pools fed continuously by a hidden pump and flanked by potted plants. Small lawn. Garden chairs arranged in the shade.
“I’d better explain about the toilets,” he said.
“I’ve used a flush toilet for many years now, Ken,” I said. “They’re much better than the old chamber pots. What you do is … “
“Shut up,” he said. “We have three toilets, one in the garage.”
“Very wise. I reckon you can never have too many of the things.”
“Listen to what I’m saying, you prat.”
“I could report that. Prat must be in the list of forbidden words.”
“Alongside your bedroom there are two toilets … ”
“One’s quite enough. Really, you shouldn’t have gone to all this trouble.”
“One of them has a shower, the other just a washbasin. As well as a toilet, that is. During the night would you mind using the one with the wash basin? That will leave the other free for Doreen and me.”
This time I didn’t interrupt him. Then the old Ken came back.
“In other words, don’t just piss out of the window.”
I clapped him on the back.
“Good,” I said. “You’ve not forgotten your time in the RAF then?”
We sat quietly for a while before he stirred uneasily.
“I’d better see if she needs any help in the kitchen.”
“It’s a light lunch, Ken. She told me. She knows how to shred a lettuce. Stay here and tell me about Creatures in Distress. Molly thinks you may be taking me to the annual dinner.”
“Lot of boring old farts, but the food should be OK. Doreen helps out at one of their shops twice a week. Do you mind?”
“Why should I mind? It’s all part of life’s rich pageant, isn’t it?”
He sighed. His eyes looked vacant. “I think it’s time for my tablets.”
Just then Doreen stepped out on to the patio waving a couple of bottles of pills.
“Time for your medication, Ken,” she said.
“Apparently it is,” I said. “You better let me have a medical bulletin, so that I can remember not to make jokes about Viagra.”
“When we’re on our own, perhaps.”
Ken, I’d better explain, was a chap who always enjoyed poor health. When we worked together he was forever consulting his GP about uncertain conditions which alarmed him. He took great comfort in bottles of pills and bubble packs of tablets.
Whether they did him any good was debatable, but, on the other hand, whether there was much wrong with him was also debatable. Like 99% of the population he suffered from a bad back. He was also prone to infections of various kinds and of no kind at all. Ask Ken how he was, and the danger was he’d tell you.
Now he was holding out his hands for pills and capsules. Doreen reminded him what each one was for.
“Good God!” I said. “I’m surprised you can still stand upright.”
I felt a sharp pain in my ankle.
I ouched and looked at him. His eyes were swivelling about in his head. But Doreen appeared not to have taken in the expletive. Or was being indulgent towards a guest.
“Right,” she said. “Would you like to come through? Lunch is ready.”
We had small pieces of ham on crackers with a side salad. Dessert was fruit cocktail and strawberry ice cream.
“Now,” said Doreen. “We’ll take tea in the front room and you can look at the wedding photographs. If you’re interested, that is?”
“Of course, I am,” I said cheerily. “Sorry I missed it. In Wigan, was it?”
“Shevington. Have you ever visited Shevington, Bernard?”
I am very good at wedding photographs and in recent years I have learnt to cope with videos and DVDs too. Before that it was slide shows on a screen, which I preferred because you are often sitting in the dark and no-one can see your face. The trick is to remember a few names (David, Margaret, Aunt Lucy and so on) and use them for anodyne comments. Unless you’re very clever, don’t attempt to memorise the relationships. This was just an old-fashioned album, so it was really child’s play.
Nevertheless I felt the need to get away for a short time and when the showing came to an end I excused myself on the grounds that I had been doing too much sitting about for one day and needed to stretch my legs.
“We usually have a cup of tea about now, Bernard,” said Doreen. “Don’t we, Ken?” But Ken had wandered off unnoticed and was not there to answer.
“Carry on as usual, Doreen. I’ll take a stroll. Be back in about an hour.”
I left the house before there could be any discussion or advice on what I should see or beware of. I hate to see elderly people bickering, don’t you?
There was little of interest to see outside. They lived in a place on the south coast of England which had been nicknamed God’s Waiting Room, and it was easy to see why. I didn’t see a single child as I wandered round, breezily responding to ‘good afternoons’ from people who looked very much like Ken and Doreen. I checked out the price range of houses in an estate agent’s window and the latest models of shiny battery-operated wheelchairs from a shop which had a disconcerting number of barely used models for sale. But it was sunny and warm, so I didn’t get too depressed.
When I got back, I entered softly, bearing in mind what Doreen had said to Molly, but they were both lingering over a cup of tea in the garden.
“Don’t get up,” I said, signalling to Doreen. “I’ll just plop myself down here and enjoy the late afternoon sun with you.”
I answered the usual questions about where I’d been and what I’d seen without recourse to bad language.
“Hadn’t we better think about getting ready, dear?” said Doreen, laying a hand on Ken’s arm.
“Ready for what?”
“Creatures in Distress, dear.”
“What?” I said lightly. “Going on a demo, are we? Off to burn a lab or two? Great. I do like a bit of excitement from time to time.”
They did not know what I was talking about, so I didn‘t pursue the matter.
“It’s at Buckfast,” said Doreen. “Dennis will be there and his wife …. ”
She gave details of several worthies, explaining their status and agreeableness in glowing terms, so that I loathed them before I had ever clapped eyes on them.
I looked at Ken. His eyes were closed.
It didn’t take me long to prepare for the car ride to Buckfast. I showered, put on a clean shirt and changed my jeans and sandals for trousers and shoes. It took Ken and Doreen rather longer, because he had to be told what to wear and then to locate each item.
I was reading a book when Ken reappeared.
“Are you ready then?” he asked.
“For the last forty minutes,” I said. “Been writing your memoirs?”
“Knock it off. Dress is important on these occasions.
“Point made, Ken. Am I OK? I’ll have to be. I haven’t brought an extensive wardrobe.”
“You’re OK. What about the toilet?”
“Watch the paranoia, Ken. Do we have to take one with us? Haven’t they got any there?”
“Shut up. You’d better take a leak. Better sure than sorry.”
“After you, dear friend.”
We arrived at Buckfast one hour and fifteen minutes before the start of the annual dinner for Creatures in Distress. I didn’t really mind. I wandered off and chatted to visitors in the abbey. It’s a lovely place, calm, restful, a very pleasant oasis on a hot summer evening. Ken had located the loos. He signalled to me and pointed and I acknowledged with a cheery wave.
When they opened the doors to the dining room we wandered in and mingled with the early arrivals.
“It’s serve-yourself,” said Doreen. “The ladies put on a superb spread every year, Bernard.”.
Indeed several ladies were busy arranging bowls and platters of home-prepared food and removing clingfilm. I was introduced to people about whom I had been told earlier. A clergyman, retired dentists, accountants, doctors, one or two former mayors and councillors. I looked round and felt depressed from time to time. If I’d been able to be free with my language and naughty asides I might have cheered myself up, but I knew I had to behave. Ken looked at me apprehensively from time to time , but I always gave him a thumbs up sign as I chatted and smiled at everyone.
Doreen was justified in her praise of the food and I managed to help myself to two desserts. This did not go unnoticed at the table we shared with half a dozen others. It may come up as a topic of conversation at next year’s dinner.
Ken and I exchanged a few words in - and this will not surprise you - the toilet.
“What d’ya think?” he said.
“Very enjoyable evening,” I said. “All the blokes peel off and get pissed in the local afterwards, I suppose?”
“Fat chance. We’ve all got to drive our womenfolk home.”
“Tough titty,” I said. “So it’s the women who …?”
“What do you think?”
But he did laugh, so I took the opportunity to tell him a Viagra joke.
When we got home Doreen spoke softly as we got out of the car.
“Did you remember, Ken?” she asked.
“Of course,” he said. He seemed very proud of himself.
“What’s this all about?” I asked.
“You’ll see tomorrow,” said Ken. “Now it’s time to hit the hay.”
I was up early to nip out for a newspaper which I was quietly reading when Ken appeared.
“I didn’t hear you get up.”
“Good. Glad I didn’t disturb you.”
He looked a bit puzzled and glanced at the clock.
“We don’t usually get up so early.”
“Then go back to bed.”
“Are you all right?”
“Why shouldn’t I be?”
“I didn’t hear you in the bathroom.”
“Then you must have been asleep.”
“When you’re ready, Ken. No rush. Follow your usual pattern. I’ve got a paper.”
I was finishing the second crossword when I heard a clatter of crockery and the whistle of a kettle in the kitchen.
“I thought,” said Doreen when she was clearing away the breakfast things, “that, since we‘re not going to church, we might use the time to catch up. What we do, Bernard, is use the recording facility on the television to tape the programmes we miss for various reasons, so that we can watch when we have the time.”
That explained Ken’s look of pride.
I said I understood what she was saying. What I didn’t appreciate was that this meant we now watched, in succession, episodes of Coronation Street, Emmerdale, Heartbeat and Eastenders. Since my attention wandered from time to time, this may not be a complete or accurate list. Ken and Doreen commented throughout on the characteristics, behaviour and likely future behaviour of the characters as they appeared on the small screen.
I spoke to Ken when we were alone in the kitchen making a cup of tea during a convenient break.
“I didn’t know you were a soap fan, Ken.”
“I’m not really.”
“Why do you watch all this shite, then?”
“Keep your voice down. Doreen likes this kind of stuff.”
“So you have to like it too?”
“More or less.”
“Lord love us!”
“Shut up and take the tea in.”
Ken ran me to the station in the afternoon after Doreen insisted that I shouldn’t ‘leave it so long next time. You know where we are now’.
“Come again, Bernard,” he said. “I know it’s a bit of a strain, but she’s a lovely woman, really.”
“I’m sure she is, Ken. And if you’re happy, that’s all that matters, isn’t it?”
“Are you happy, Bernard?”
This was a serious question. Ken had never asked me a serious question in all the years I had known him. I didn’t have a snappy answer for him. Eventually I said: “I’ve no idea. Happiness is not something I think a lot about. I seem to have so many other things to do these days.”
We left it at that as we shook hands. Possibly for the last time.
I was paying off the taxi when Heather Boyle, the woman in charge of us all, appeared at my elbow. When I first moved into Cedar Lawns I began by calling her the Wardress, but she corrected me.
“This is not a prison, Bernard. It is sheltered accommodation for senior citizens.”
“Bollocks,” I said. “It’s an old folks’ home.”
Now she was slightly cross.
“You didn’t leave an address,” she said. She had to say this. I knew the rule that anyone at Cedar Lawns who goes away for whatever period of time is supposed to notify the office. I regularly ignored it. Infringement of personal liberty I usually snorted. Sensible precaution they said. Whatever.
“Been visiting friends on the south coast. Anyone died in my absence? Mrs Bellwood wasn’t looking too good when I left. Mind you, she hasn’t been up to much in the looks department the whole of her life I would say. You’re looking OK, Heather,” I added. “You been looking after yourself, know what I mean, nudge, nudge?”
Heather is a well-stacked fifty-something year old. When the trustees visit she wears a low-cut top and her cleavage delights my tired old eyes. She knows I lust after her, and I suspect she secretly loves it. But she calls me a dirty old man and tells me to grow up. Trouble is, I never have grown up.
“Anyway,” she said. “It’s arrived and your party is this afternoon.”
“What’s arrived? And what party?”
“Don’t come the confused old codger with me, Bernard,” she said. She took my arm and guided me quite unnecessarily into the lounge.
“Your congratulatory message from the Queen arrived on Saturday by special courier and there will be a little celebration this afternoon. I want you to promise to behave. No bad language. And keep your hands off the women.”
“On condition,” I said.
“I want you to wear that low-cut glittery silk top and the black velvet collar with the cameo brooch. And lean towards me as often as you can. OK?”
She blushed. I knew she would and I love it.
It was then that I felt sorry for Ken.