Rosie looks at me with a strange intensity. An enormous smile spreads across her tired face and she says.
“Oh God, it’s so hot! I never thought it would feel like this. Look at it pouring out. It’s almost gushing.
She has a look of almost childlike wonder on her face.
“I can’t believe I am actually looking forward to washing the dishes!”
“I know!” I say happily while kneeling on the floor in front of our multi fuel stove shovelling more coal into it. The heat is fearsome and I can feel the hairs on my arm singe. I don’t care. All I want is for the smile to stay on Rosie’s face. For that to happen I have to keep hot water coming out of the tap and for that to happen I have to keep the stove hot. I am shovelling like a stoker on the Titanic.
We look at each other across the room. Rosie is wearing grubby combats and an ill-fitting, stained and ripped fleecy. I wear something similar with the addition of a thick layer of coal dust. We both look utterly exhausted and unbelievably happy. There is almost a moment where the unspoken but often thought comment of “how did we end up here?” is uttered but there are dishes to be washed and a stove to be stoked.
How did the best thing in our lives become hot water coming out of a tap?
It is a dark midweek evening in early 2003. I am sitting slumped in my car, arms folded, staring sullenly out of the window. Rain speckles and blurs the glass. The wipers intermittently clear the screen. I can’t get the variation in the timing of the sweeps quite right and every so often the blades screech and judder their way across dry glass.
I am half a mile from my house, in fact can see the back of it. As the crow flies it’s only about a quarter of a mile. I have been able to watch the house for 20 minutes now. It is as dark inside the house as it is outside. Nobody home yet. I can see the steam rise from our central heating boiler vent. At least it isn’t a cold dark house. Just dark and empty. I wonder why my wife Rosie isn’t home. I am in a queue for the last of the 16 roundabouts that turn the 17 miles between work and home into such a misery. My work is as dreary, unrewarding and frustrating as the journey to it. I am stuck waiting for whatever is blocking the very last roundabout. One more to go but I am trapped in my car, in the dark and the rain. I am going nowhere. It seems to sum up everything. A metaphor for my life. I am very depressed.
The radio is no help. It broadcasts the news of impending war in Iraq interspersed with gloomy travel reports telling of congestion and delays, cancelled trains, blocked roads and broken ferries. The news reports then breathlessly return to Iraq. I sit in my sullen silence. I have passed the frustrated stage and now grudgingly accept this as just another part of a life that is out of my control. It’s a chance for a working day to heap a little bit more misery upon me after it’s supposed to be over. I can see my home, I should be there, in my sanctuary, pouring a glass of wine for Rosie and opening a bottle of beer for myself. We should be sitting at the dining table with our shoes kicked off, telling each other of the annoying, the ridiculous and the pathetic things that happened at work that day. Swapping war stories from the battlefields of our banal and unfulfilling theatres of employment.
I am close to home, but I may as well be miles from it. I wish I couldn’t see it because knowing that nobody is home is worrying me. I know that it isn’t just that Rosie hasn’t turned on the kitchen light. She likes all the lights to be on. I have a good idea where Rosie is and there is nothing I can do about it.
Rosie is standing on a train. It isn’t the train she was meant to be on – it was cancelled, as was the one after it. That’s why she is standing, there are many frustrated people on this train. The train goes somewhere near to where we live, not near enough but Rosie thinks it’ll be okay as I will come and get her. I always do when this happens, which is far too frequently. She has left me a message on my mobile and the answering machine at home. she knows I should be home by now. After another dispiriting day at work it will be nice to see me waiting outside the station with the door of the warm welcoming car open for her.
It’s a pity then that I have been sitting for twenty minutes in a signal blackspot.
The one good thing about that is I won’t be able to get my nightly call from my mother. She will be unable to tell me how inconvenient life is without my Dad who died the year before. What she means is that she misses him and is lonely but it wasn’t that kind of marriage, no room for sentiment. Well, there is a little sentiment now but that is only self-pity from both of us. I miss my Dad too. I ponder this, which is a highly successful way of depressing myself further. I light a cigarette and feel guilty about smoking. I open the window a crack, enough to let the smoke out and a little of the rain and traffic noise in.
I switch from the radio to a CD. “Who Are You?” by The Who charges out of the speakers. I sing along hardheartedly until it gets to the line “God, there’s got to be another way” where I stop. I look around at the confusion of rain refracted lights in the dark and open the window some more to let the smoke out. A light spray of cold water patters down the side of my face. It feels refreshing. Then a lorry roars past. My cigarette hisses and I blink and flinch as a wave of dirty road water comes in the window. I run a hand down my face and think “You’re so right, Pete. There really has to be a better way…”