England and Other Stories

E
NGLAND

and Other Stories

Also by Graham Swift

 

The Sweet Shop Owner

Shuttlecock

Learning to Swim

Waterland

Out of this World

Ever After

Last Orders

The Light of Day

Tomorrow

Making an Elephant

Wish You Were Here

First published in Great Britain by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2014
A CBS COMPANY

Copyright © Graham Swift 2014

This book is copyright under the Berne Convention.
No reproduction without permission.
® and © 1997 Simon & Schuster Inc. All rights reserved.

The right of Graham Swift to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

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A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN HB 978-1-47113-739-6
ISBN TPB 978-1-47113-740-2
ISBN E-book 978-1-47113-742-6

Typeset by M Rules
Printed and bound by CPI (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY

For Candice

 

L—d! said my mother, what is all this story about?

Laurence Sterne,
Tristram Shandy

C
ONTENTS

 

Going Up in the World

Wonders Will Never Cease

People Are Life

Haematology

Remember This

The Best Days

Half a Loaf

Saving Grace

Tragedy, Tragedy

As Much Love as Possible

Yorkshire

Holly and Polly

Keys

Lawrence of Arabia

Ajax

Was She the Only One?

Knife

Mrs Kaminski

Dog

Fusilli

I Live Alone

Articles of War

Saint Peter

First on the Scene

England

G
OING
U
P IN THE
W
ORLD

 

C
HARLIE
Y
ATES IS
a small compact man with the look such men can have of inhabiting well their own modest proportions. He’d been less at ease, once, with his name. Charles Yates, the proper version, the name he had to write on forms, was a toff’s name, a joke name. What had his parents been thinking? But Charlie was a joke name too, a joker’s name. A right Charlie. Still, he couldn’t wriggle out of it. Charlie Yates. No one else seemed to mind.

He’s fifty-seven now. He’s not quite sure how it’s happened. He was born in Wapping in 1951. The Wapping he can remember from back then was still pretty much the Wapping that Hitler had flattened. Look at it now.

He can look at it now because more than twenty years ago he and Brenda moved to Blackheath. Not very far as the crow flies, but in other ways a different country. They’d made the move because they could. They’d gone up in the world. And Don Abbot and Marion had made the same move at the same time. Don and Charlie were old pals and business partners. Bren and Marion got on with each other too.

Now at fifty-seven Charlie likes to keep himself in shape. He likes on crisp bright still-early Sunday mornings to take a jog. Not such a short one either: across the heath itself and into Greenwich Park, then through the trees to the brow of the hill where you get the view. Then he likes to sit for a bit on one of the benches and take it all in. My city, my London. He’s sitting there now.

Jogging isn’t his friend Don’s idea of how to spend the early part, or any part, of a Sunday morning, even a brilliant crisp one like this, so Charlie has never jogged with Don. He jogs alone. But every other Sunday, even after Charlie has already gone for a jog, Don and Charlie meet up and go and play nine holes. At Shooters Hill or Eltham, even sometimes, if someone asks them, at Blackheath itself—‘Royal Blackheath’. There, perhaps, he should be known as Charles.

There were never many golf courses in Wapping.

When he jogs Charlie wears a pale grey tracksuit, with a blue stripe, and neat trainers, nothing sloppy or cheap. The simple thin gold chain that it seems he’s worn all his life flips up and down at the base of his neck. He has trim close-cropped hair that’s now more white than grey, but it’s soft and fine and his wife still likes to stroke it sometimes as if she might be stroking the head of a dog.

As he sits for a while he’s hardly puffed at all. At fifty-seven Charlie’s father, Frank Yates, had been pretty much past it. But then he was a docker—or he had been—just like Don’s father. Look at the docks now.

Francis Yates. You could say that was a toff’s name too.

One fine morning in Wapping over fifty years ago Charlie Yates and Don Abbot had met in the playground at Lea Road Infants’ School and for some strange reason—a big chunky kid and a little nipper—they’d known it would be a lifelong thing. Lea Road Infants’ had later got flattened too, though not by bombs.

For his size, Charlie has quite broad shoulders. When he pushes up the sleeves of his tracksuit (or of his red cashmere golf sweater) you notice the tattoos on his forearms and that, for his size, he has large wrists and hands. He also has, for the size of his face, quite a big prominent but well-shaped nose. With his deep-set eyes this can give him, especially when he grins, a slightly wolfish expression which once used to help him with a certain kind of girl.

But Charlie would say—and the jogging, which is sometimes more of a gentle floating run, would back this up—that the most important item is the feet. The balance and the feet.

Once, for three or four years, Charlie was a boxer. Big hands, but it was really the feet. A bantamweight. He won a few fights and is still proud of the fact that he never got his finely shaped nose smashed out of true. Once he worked on an oil rig, which was when, more fool him, he got the tattoos. But tattoos had come back again now—so he’s in fashion. Once he was a roofer. That was his main thing. He was never going to be a docker at any rate. Just as well.

A roofer. He could climb like a monkey. He had the physique. Then it seemed that the roofs just got higher and higher and he became something more than a roofer, without really reckoning on it and without knowing if there was any limit to how high he could go.

He went up in the world. He discovered that he had no fear of heights.

Once, if he’d been born earlier, Charlie might have been a steeplejack, but that was a trade, even a word—like docker—that was becoming out of date. Where were the steeples? Where were the tall chimneys? But suddenly, instead, there were the towers, springing up as if it were a race, and Charlie could work at the very top of them on the exposed girders, without a moment’s giddiness or fear. A head for heights is what they say, but Charlie would say it was all in the feet. Where you are standing is just where you are standing.

He earned good money and there was no shortage of work. Some people called it danger money. Charlie didn’t like to call it danger money because that implied it was dangerous, but he accepted the basic principle: no risk, no gain. Do something special—like boxing—so you might make a bit extra and put something away, not just scrape along till Friday. Don’t be a docker.

Some people—quite a lot of the people Charlie has known—like to place bets, to put their hopes in dogs and horses. Charlie has never placed a bet in his life. He became a birdman, helping to build towers.

And there they are now, glinting in the early-September sunshine, the towers that Charlie Yates helped to build. There, beyond the hidden twists of the river, is Wapping. There’s Stepney, there’s Limehouse. There’s Docklands.

One night, when it was still only starting with him and Brenda, when it was still a bit touch and go, Brenda had said, ‘Charlie, you have lovely feet.’ It was the clincher. No one had said this to him before. It went straight, not to his feet, but to his heart, not just because it had never been said before, but because it was true. He said, ‘Brenda, you have lovely everything.’ And that was that.

Now Brenda and Marion go on shopping sprees together. Now, twice a year, all four of them go on holidays, to faraway places. Last March it was the Maldives. Charlie couldn’t say precisely where the Maldives are, but he’s been there. You get out of a plane. The others were all for going again this winter, but Charlie wasn’t so sure. He’d heard somewhere that the Maldives could be one of the first places in the world to be submerged by rising sea levels. It was hardly likely to happen while they were there. But he wasn’t sure.

Funny, the feelings you could get. He had no fear of heights, but he’d never got on with the sea. He’d known it, working on that oil rig. Once was enough. The same perhaps was true of the Maldives, different proposition though they were. And if he was honest, Charlie would say that he’d be just as happy knocking a ball around the local course with Don as he would be sitting in the Maldives. Or wherever. He’s just as happy sitting here. It’s all the same place, it’s sitting in your own body.

He’d said to Brenda, ‘You don’t have to worry, Bren, with these feet.’ As if his feet had little wings. But there he’d be anyway, safe and sound every night, cuddling up with her again. A thirty-floor tower in the Isle of Dogs wasn’t, in that respect as well as others, like being stuck out in the North Sea.

He said, ‘Aren’t you glad, Bren?’

‘Glad what?’

‘Glad I’m not on an oil rig.’

But it wasn’t fair to her, he knew, the prospect of his going off every day indefinitely to walk in the sky. He said that when he’d stashed enough away he’d fix something else up. He hadn’t a clue what. He’d come back down to earth.

At some point he twigged that those towers weren’t just built with risk, they were built for it. It was risk inside and out. They were built, most of them, to be full of people dealing in their own mysterious kind of danger money. Well, that was their business. He took his money and took the risk that one day, though he never did, he might step off into space.

But one day he took another kind of risk. He followed another lifetime hunch.

It was obvious too, once you saw it, like all the big things perhaps are. It was so obvious that his immediate second thought was: If it was so obvious, how many others might already be in on the act? But it was still early days. More and more towers. And what were those towers made of—or what did it look as though they were made of? What was it that sometimes you didn’t see even when it was staring you in the face?

He went to see Don, who was then—well, what was Don Abbot in those days? He was a wheeler-dealer, he was a bit of this and that. You might say he was going places, you might say he was all talk. They had a drink in the Queen Victoria. Don listened. He looked his little friend up and down. Then he spoke as if he hadn’t really been listening, but that was Don’s way.

‘So what are you suggesting, Charlie? That you and me should become a pair of window cleaners?’

‘No, Don. Don’t muck me about.’

Then they’d talked some more.

It became the standard story anyway, the standard line. In golf club bars. In hotel bars, by the blue pools, all around the world.

‘I’m Don, this is Charlie. We’re window cleaners.’

He looks at the towers. He’d helped to build them. And then for twenty years or so he and Don had helped to keep them sparkling.

Don had said, ‘One thing you have to understand, Charlie, I’m never getting in one of those—contraptions, I’m never even going
up
there. I’m not the kind of guvnor who likes to show everybody he can actually do the job.’