Arthur sits alone at the oak dining room table looking at black and white family photos on the wall. Autumn sunlight from the French windows makes them glow. Library books lie in neat piles, unread. Crosswords cut from The Daily Mail are clipped onto a board behind a sharpened pencil, left undone. A pork pie from yesterday lunchtime sits on a side plate, half-eaten.
A knock at the door is followed by the clicking of a key turning in the lock. His daughter, Sue, comes in smiling, carrying an armful of clean laundry.
‘Oh, hello dear… was I expecting you?’
‘Yes, you were. Of course you were. It’s Tuesday.’
She sighs and looks out of the window to see the last remaining leaf on the sycamore tree in the back-garden fall onto the lawn.
‘You need to get dressed Dad. We’re at the doctor’s in fifteen minutes’.
At the surgery, they sit in the waiting room until the nurse calls them in.
‘Hello Mr Saunders,’ says the nurse.
‘Have we met?’ he says.
‘Oh yes. We see each other every week. Don’t you remember?’ she says. ‘For me to check your blood pressure.’
‘Do we?… Yes, so we do!’ he says.
Sue can’t help rolling her eyes and gives her bobbed hair a wipe over, her palm coming to rest propping up her forehead. The nurse glances at Sue as she takes Arthur’s blood pressure and the machine bleeps.
As they get up to leave she touches Sue on the arm gently.
‘Are you alright?’
Sue looks at her. A tear beads in the corner of her eye.
‘Thought not,’ says the nurse. ‘Cup of tea?’
Arthur tucks into a chocolate digestive biscuit and sips his tea. ‘Mmmm,’ he says.
Sue and the nurse talk about what the nurse calls ‘difficult choices’. Arthur listens without appearing to. In the past month, it’s been getting worse. Sue doesn’t know how much longer will he be able to live on his own. He drives her mad, but she can see no way out of his living with her and her family.
‘Couldn’t you get a carer in?’ the nurse asks.
‘We can’t afford that. Anyway, I’m not sure he would like a stranger coming in,’ says Sue.
‘Depends on who it is,’ says Arthur, cutting in.
‘Wait a minute,’ says the nurse, picking up a local paper from the table in the waiting room. ‘What about this?’
She shows Sue a small box ad towards the back of the paper.
Home Share Agency
If you are a senior wanting company
Or a young person wanting a room
Call us on 010-244-6231
Sue decides to call the number when they get home. She finishes her tea, pulls Arthur from the biscuits, and they go out to the car.
Back at Arthur’s there’s no time like the present. She calls the number. A polite young man answers straightaway and he tells her all about the home share idea. It’s brilliant. Young people can’t afford to buy or rent their own places so close to London, and older people on their own want company and some help with the chores. Matches made in heaven. She makes an appointment for the next day.
They set off in Sue’s Volvo. He’s dressed in the clean clothes she laid out for him on his bed. A clean handkerchief pokes out of his pocket. His hair is brushed.
‘You’re sure you’re OK with this Dad?’
‘Yes. I’m looking forward to it. Nice trip out.’
‘They’re going to ask you lots of questions. Please try to sound normal,’ she says.
Arthur turns and gives her a look. ‘What do you mean normal?’ he says.
He didn’t think he had ever been ‘normal’.
The young man on the phone is at reception. He’s maybe twenty-one or twenty-two, skinny, smiley, coffee-coloured with tight, curly, black hair.
He says, ‘Arthur! Can I call you that?’
‘Cool! I’m Karl. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.’
Arthur’s eyes open wider. ‘Erm… Good morning… Karl.’
Karl steps round the reception desk and takes them over to some plush armchairs arranged around a coffee table. Once Arthur has arranged his coat and stick by his chair, Karl passes him some papers.
‘OK Arthur, I just need you to fill out these details for me,’ he says. I can do it with you if you like. No problem.’
Arthur smiles thinly at Sue. Karl explains that it’s a bit like a dating agency. They will try to match Arthur up with someone suitable for him. For the best chance of a match he should only tick the attributes he feels most strongly about. Each tick narrows down the field.
Sue surveys the many testimonials on the walls. Successful matches did occur somehow.
Karl pulls up to Arthur’s chair and reads out each attribute to him, then ticks it if Arthur wants to specify it. Karl certainly has a way with him. They chortle together as they work down the sheet.
A week later Arthur gets a call from the agency. They put all his ticks into the system, and the perfect match turns out to be Karl the receptionist who is looking for a place himself.
Arthur, Sue and Karl meet in a pub the next day. Arthur likes pubs. Sue says it’s the only time he comes alive. She has a Pinot Grigio, Arthur has a glass of house red, and Karl has a Malibu and Coke. She goes to the ladies’ room before they settle down.
Arthur leans over to Karl. ‘She’s told me not to talk about you being black.’
‘That’s good,’ says Karl. ‘Because I’m not black. I’m mixed race.’
Arthur raises his eyebrows. ‘Oh… any Anglo-Saxon in there?’
‘Anglo-Saxon is about as common as you can get actually,’ says Karl. ‘So yes, probably.’ He looks Arthur in the eye.
‘Yes… I suppose you’re right, now I come to think of it.’ Arthur leans back as Sue returns to the table.
Sue is keen to set some boundaries, as she calls them. Karl calls them rules, but he goes along with it. They talk about (not) coming in late, (not) bringing friends back, chores, TV, noise, use of the garden, laundry, cooking and money. Karl listens as she goes down the list, nodding. Arthur says nothing.
Karl says,’ OK, and what about my boundaries?’
‘What do you mean?’ she says.
‘Well, I reckon you’re getting a pretty good deal here, Sue. I look after Arthur here for you. You don’t have to be around so much. He gets some company (and trust me, he will now). So, don’t I get some boundaries too?’
Arthur puts his glass down, smiles to himself, and looks at Sue.
‘Well yes,’ she says. ‘I suppose so…’
‘And shouldn’t our boundaries be about me and Arthur? Rather than about you?’ says Karl. He turns to Arthur. ‘Is that OK with you man?’
Arthur says, ‘Yes… That’s OK with me… man.’
A week later Karl moves in. He chooses the room giving on to the garden – he likes the idea of waking up to the sounds of nature. He carries a suitcase, a laundry bag (half full), a huge, bubble-wrapped flat-screen TV, a crumpled lampshade with burn marks on it, a laptop in a case and a plastic packing box full of pens, pencils, crayons, brushes, paints and paper.
Arthur is sitting in the hallway watching these items as they pass by and up the stairs. Sue stands next to him shifting her weight from foot to foot.
‘Mind the paintwork, Karl!’ Arthur says.
‘Don’t worry Arthur, I’m good at this. I’ve been moving this stuff around for years,’ says Karl.
Arthur and Sue hear bumping upstairs as Karl sets things down and shoves them into place. He’s talking to himself very quickly in a syncopated monotone.
‘What’s he saying?’ asks Arthur.
‘I think It’s rap, Dad.’ says Sue.
They have a month to see how it works out. The next day Arthur gets up as usual at seven. Karl doesn’t. He has to get to work by ten and ends up rushing out of the front door eating a piece of toast at nine-fifty. Arthur gets up to close the door behind Karl, shaking his head. Karl leaves a smell of coconuts in his wake which Arthur quite likes.
When he gets back from work at five, Karl carries in some groceries in plastic bags.
‘Ready for some tea Arthur?’ he says.
‘It’s a bit early for me to be honest. I usually go up the pub for a glass of red before dinner. Could we do that first?’ says Arthur.
‘OK, as long as I can have a bag of crisps – I’ll be starving otherwise,’ says Karl.
The pub is too far to walk but not really far enough to drive. Nevertheless, they go in Arthur’s blue Fiesta. As they walk in under the gaily-coloured flower baskets the chatter inside goes down a notch.
‘Usual, Arthur?’ says Tom the barman. Arthur nods.
‘Nice lad. I’m not sure about that tattoo on his neck though,’ Arthur says, a bit too loudly, to Karl over his shoulder. ‘What would you like anyway?’
‘Oh… just a Coke please,’ says Karl. ‘And a packet of cheese and onion.’
They take the drinks over to a table in the bay window next to a log-effect gas fire.
‘I love it here, ‘says Arthur. ‘It’s a real village pub. Not many of those left you know.’
Karl takes this in. Everyone looks well-off, well-fed and white. A group of late-middle-aged men crowd at one end of the bar. They are wearing garish, multi-patterned sweaters and trousers. They greet Arthur.
‘Oh my God. What have they got on?’ says Karl.
Arthur laughs, ‘They’re golfers.’
‘Do you play golf then?’ says Karl.
‘Oh, I used to, yes, of course. Not for a bit now though. My knees can’t take it anymore,’ says Arthur.
‘In that gear?’ says Karl, sniggering.
Arthur doesn’t want to go into how you can tell a lot about a man from his choice of golf clothes: it has got him into trouble before in here.
On the way home in the car, Arthur suddenly thinks how quickly today has gone.
Inside, Karl cooks them some sausages and mash which Arthur tucks into, making this-is-tasty noises. They chat about Arthur’s family. His wife of 60 years died three years ago. Sue is their only child. She can be a bit edgy, intense even. Karl says he thinks Sue is lucky. He doesn’t know who his father is – never met him, doesn’t know anything about him. His mother lives in Brixton with his younger brother and sister. She is a cleaner. He doesn’t see much of them. His mother works long hours and the children go to his auntie’s most of the time.
Arthur says, ‘I’m sure she’d like to see you, even so. She must get lonely sometimes.’
‘I s’pose,’ says Karl, picking up the remote. ‘What’s on TV tonight?’
On Friday night, they are in the pub again. Karl is starting to enjoy this part of their evenings. Arthur is not saying much and gazes out of the window. Karl says, ‘Alright?’
‘Yes. Yes. I was just thinking about our chat the other night. Look, would you like to see your mother tomorrow? I mean… we could go. In the car. You know? It’s not that far.’
Karl looks up suddenly. ‘Look! I haven’t been back there for over a year now. There’s a reason for that. Leave it, man, OK?’
The golfers fall silent for a few seconds, twisting round to look at them.
Arthur puts his hands up. ‘OK, OK!’ he says, trying to contain his voice in a whisper.
Karl sucks his teeth and shakes his head. He finishes his Coke and stands up. ‘I’m going to walk home. Don’t wait up for me.’ He strides out of the door.
Arthur finishes his red wine and gets in the car. Oh dear. He was only trying to be helpful. There’s no sign of Karl on the way home. He lets himself into the dark house. He doesn’t feel like eating, but there’s no point in going to bed. He won’t sleep anyway. He turns on the TV and sits with a rug over his knees. The evening has become heavy.
Arthur wakes in his chair. Eleven o’clock. No Karl. He goes upstairs to bed.
In the morning, he goes down to make a cup of tea. Should he knock on Karl’s door? He doesn’t think so. That was one of the agreed boundaries. What if Karl doesn’t come back? Or what if he decides to move out? Arthur rests his head in his hands on the table.
Just then, there is movement upstairs. Arthur lets out a long breath and looks up. He hears footsteps coming down the stairs, and Karl walks in. They look at each other. Karl nods hello. He sits down opposite Arthur. ‘You gonna make me a cup of tea then?’ he says. He smiles.
‘I’m sorry I upset you last night,’ says Arthur, avoiding eye contact. ‘It’s none of my business. I should never have brought it up.’
‘No, Arthur. I’ve thought about it. And you are right. I should go and see her. It’s been too long.’
Arthur raises his eyebrows.
‘Anyway. I thought you weren’t good at remembering conversations the next day.’
‘Oh no. I remember them. If they’re worth remembering, that is.’
They find themselves outside in the Fiesta at ten o’clock. Karl says he knows the way from Brixton station, so they are going to head there first. Arthur gets the map out of the glove compartment and puts it on Karl’s lap. ‘Pretty straightforward really,’ he says, pointing out the route with the end of his car key.
‘We’ll see!’ laughs Karl, who has not done much map reading before, except on the tube.
‘How can you get through life without a map?’ says Arthur.
Arthur hasn’t been to South London for a long time. He was born, and grew up there. Karl can’t imagine Arthur as a boy. They reach Brixton without mishap.
‘Arthur, do you mind if we stop for a coffee before we get to my mum’s?’ says Karl.
Arthur looks at him. ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’
‘Yeah, yeah. I just need to get my shit together first, man. You know.’
They park in a side road and find a small cafe on the corner. They sip cappuccinos and Arthur tackles a slice of Victoria sponge. He watches Karl as he looks out of the window at the passers-by. ‘Nervous?’ he says.
‘Not really. It’s just … a lot’s happened round here for me,’ says Karl.
‘Me too,’ says Arthur. ‘I used to cycle past here every day on my way to school. I don’t think I would do that nowadays.’
Karl smiles. ‘I used to walk to school. When I went, that is. I hated it. Most of the time we just used to bunk off.’
Arthur says, ‘On the subject of bunking off, Sue’s a bit put-out I think.’
‘I think she is surprised I’m with you… doing this. I normally go over to hers today. I spoke to her while you were getting ready.’
‘Maybe she’s jealous,’ says Karl.
Karl’s mother lives in a council tower block a few minutes away from the cafe. They pull into the parking area. Arthur has never been in a tower block before and he’s looking forward to the ride in the lift.
‘You’ll be lucky!’ says Karl. ‘It’s never working.’
But it was.
When she answers the door, Karl’s mother is short but large, in a floral apron. Her round, red-rimmed eyes open wide and her mouth sags, soundless. She has no phone. She had no idea Karl was coming.
‘Hi Mum,’ says Karl.
She is crying, tears rolling down her cheeks. Her whole body seems to heave with her sobbing. Her ample arms fold Karl’s head into her neck so that he is bent over as if at a drinking fountain.
‘Mum. This is Arthur. Arthur, this is my mum, Lydia.’ He hadn’t really thought about what to say next. ‘Erm… Arthur is my…’
‘… Friend,’ says Arthur. ‘Look, I can wait in the car, Karl. It’s no problem.’
‘You will not!’ says Lydia, standing back from the door and wiping her cheeks with the apron. ‘It’s nearly lunchtime. You must stay. Karl! Move those toys off the sofa so your friend can sit down.’
‘Can I look at the view first?’ says Arthur.
They stand in a row, Arthur on the left, then Lydia, then Karl, looking out of the wide east-facing window. She holds both their hands.
They stand staring in silence, connected.
Lydia squeezes their hands. ‘When you’re down there it’s pretty ugly and dirty. From up here it always looks beautiful.’