Charlie Llewellyn awoke to the thunder of Jacs’ twins racing to the bathroom. He pictured the tussle to be first to the loo, and then Megan yelled, in her best tearful voice:
‘I’m telling Charlie on you, poo-face!’
‘And I’m telling on you for saying poo-face!’ retorted her defiant sister.
Charlie pulled the duvet cover over his head to shut them out, knowing as he did so that it was a hopeless task. In some ways they had adopted him as a father more thoroughly than their mother had adopted him as a lover! He heard the bathroom door open and braced himself as Bethan leapt on top of him.
‘What horrible brat did that?’ he growled.
‘Me, Charlie, me,’ she sang gleefully. ‘Get out of bed sleepy-head. We want breakfast!’
He pulled down the duvet and opened one eye at her grudgingly.
‘Okay, okay, I’ll be down in a minute. Go and watch cartoons or something.’
He sat up tentatively as Bethan went skipping through the door and disappeared downstairs. His head felt alright, but he was dying for a cup of tea. He groped for his dressing gown and fumbled his way into it as he made his way to the bathroom. While he ran hot water into the sink for a shave, he inspected the face that stared back at him from the mirror. The eyes were a little bleary, but not too bad; certainly not bloodshot. He scooped up some water and splashed it on his chin as memories of the night before pieced themselves together.
He had gone down to the Railway with Jacs and Eric while Eric’s missus, Gwen, kept an eye on the twins. She was good like that, but then she never did like pubs much, and, of course, not having kids of her own, the twins could do no wrong. He spread shaving foam along his jaw with the brush. There had been a quiz on organised by the P.T.A. at the twins’ school which he’d forgotten about, so they’d joined up with Jenks and a couple of boys in the front bar to form a team. He had a hazy memory of coming last, or was it second to last? There seemed to be a lot of questions involving soap operas, film stars and pop music.
He tried a couple of experimental scrapes with his razor... Hardly specialist subjects for two builders, a scaffolder and a struggling sculptor he decided... Shit! He hardly felt any pain, but he knew that was going to bleed. He watched to assess the damage as blood welled from his top lip. A large drop formed and fell into his shaving water as he groped for a piece of toilet paper. Damn, it was deep!
When he got downstairs with a wad of tissue hanging from his lip and the taste of blood in his mouth, the twins had already made themselves breakfast. Charlie began resignedly to clean up the mess.
‘Charlie. I’m bored of Rice Crispies,’ complained Bethan, ‘can we have Chocolate Nesquicks next time?’
‘If I remember when I’m shopping,’ he replied, hedging his bets, and smiling ruefully at the careful arrangement of coffee maker, mug and spoon from the night before. That was a sure sign he’d had a skinful. Whenever he returned home hammered he became convinced that he was going to benefit in the morning from a cup of strong black coffee and prepared accordingly. As always, he reached for the teabags.
‘That’s it, I’ve got diarrhoea!’ announced Megan, abruptly. ‘No I haven’t!’ she contradicted herself, bursting into mad laughter. ‘I’ve got a runny nose!’
‘Make your mind up, lovely,’ replied Charlie, drily. ‘You’ve either got green stuff running out of your face or brown stuff running out of your bottom. Which is it to be?’ The word ‘bottom’ sent the pair of them into fits of giggles and Megan’s attempt to negotiate a day off school passed unsuccessfully as usual.
Gwen had bathed them the night before so he gave their faces a quick swipe over with the flannel and picked up the cup of tea he had made for Gareth, his nineteen year old son from his first marriage. He headed upstairs to collect the uniforms Gwen had put out for them. He knocked Gareth’s door, paused for the sake of decency and looked in. The place was a tip as usual and there was a heap lying on the bed. It could be his nineteen year old son, he reflected, but his nineteen year old son plus duvet normally made a bigger heap than that. He picked his way carefully through the clothes, CDs and assorted magazines, with which Gareth liked to decorate his bedroom floor, and confirmed his suspicion that the bed was empty. Empty of his nineteen year old son at any rate.
He collected the twins’ uniforms and headed back downstairs, trying not to spill the unwanted cup of tea. He was annoyed about the tea. Gareth was old enough to stay out if he wished, but as long as he officially resided at home, he could damn well have the courtesy to keep him informed of his movements. Before he swelled with too much righteous indignation, however, a guilty voice in his head reminded him of a remark about staying over in Bishopston, thrown over a nineteen year old shoulder, which was only now swimming back into his muzzy memory.
He washed their cereal bowls, gave their shoes a less-than-vigorous brushing and shoved a bundle of dark washing into the machine. He was just adding powder when he heard Megan shout out ‘Letters!’, then he heard her scrabbling at the latch as she stretched to reach it. They had begun fighting over who was delivering what before they were out of the porch. It was developing into a tug-of-war over a piece of junk mail about replacement windows. We’ll be needing some, if one of them suddenly lets go, thought Charlie, as he used his second strongest ‘Oi! Pack it in!’ to cut through the din. Megan dissolved into recriminatory tears.
‘It’s not fair! I never get to do the letters on my own!’ she wailed in abject misery, as her sister bounced up and down with excitement.
‘Charlie, Charlie, this one’s got a picture on the front!’ she yelled, waving a postcard above her head.
Charlie crouched down by Megan and hugged her, as he held out his hand for the card.
‘There, there, lovely, don’t you worry about the letters. You do lots of busy jobs for me. Now what’ve you got here?’ She was still clutching the twisted remains of the mail shot from a double glazing centre in the Hafod. ‘Would you like to open it for me?’ The misery cleared almost instantly from her face, as she attacked the wrong end of the envelope.
He rose and accepted the rest of the mail from Bethan, who was gazing at the postcard, trying to work out how to ‘pronounce Tenerife, ‘A Welcome To’ was splashed across a picture of Mount Teide set against a sumptuously blue sky. He flicked through a fistful of bills and decided to deal with them later.
‘Can I see that, Beth?’ he asked, holding out his hand.
‘Ten-er-if,’ she pronounced haltingly.
‘Nearly, darling,’ he encouraged. ‘If you are Spanish, like the people who live there, you say Ten-er-ree-fay. Other people say Ten-er-reef.’
‘Ten-er-ree-fay,’ she said slowly. The she repeated it twice, more fluently. ‘Tenereefay,’ she announced firmly. ‘I’m going to say it properly, like the Spanish,’ she declared with the sudden, stubborn determination that reminded him so much of her mother, Jacs.
He’d brought a hairbrush from the kitchen and with unthinking opportunism he began pulling it through her mop while he had her in reach.
‘Ouch! You’re hurting me!’ she exclaimed, plaintively.
‘I’m sorry, my love, the pug fairy really got to you last night. Now can I see that card please?’ She had already turned it over and was doing her best to read it as he attempted to pull the brush painlessly through the knots and tangles.
He snatched the card from her more abruptly than he’d meant to.
‘Hey! I was reading that!’ she exclaimed indignantly.
‘What does it say Charlie? What does it say?’ demanded Megan, who had finished picking apart the mail shot and had discarded the ‘Unbeatable, Unrepeatable Autumn Double-Glazing Offers!’ on the floor. Charlie looked at his watch. There was a quarter of an hour before they needed to leave for school and the girls were more-or-less ready.
‘I’ll tell you in a minute, lovely,’ he replied. ‘Just get your bags and practise reading, while I get your shoes, okay?’ The twins nodded and hurried about their new task as Charlie headed back into the kitchen and shut the door behind him. He sat down at the table. Whatever she had to say, there was a lot of it, crammed onto the available space in her small, spiky handwriting. He absently noted the Spanish stamp and Tenerife postmark, then began to read:
I am writing to let you know I want a divorce. You may deny it, but I know you have been having an affair and I am also sick of you using my money to bail out your rotten business, while you drink the profits. Gareth is a total liability and is going to land himself in serious trouble any day now. I am staying out here until Friday. Hywel has agreed to act for me and I will be talking to him regarding the above when I get back. Juliet.
He reread it, and then slipped it into his trouser pocket safe from young, prying eyes. It was hardly surprising that Preece was to act as her solicitor, but why the trip to Tenerife? To the best of his knowledge she was ensconced chez Councillor Preece in Derwen Fawr, not sunning herself in the Canaries. Along with his recovery from the nightmare of Baghdad had come the realisation that they were incompatible and now in the cold light of divorce there were aspects of her behaviour that were downright inexplicable.
The postcard itself was a stroke of genius. It didn’t stand a hope in hell of making it past the local gossips and she knew it. She couldn’t have attacked him more publicly if she’d taken out a page in the Evening Post.
The van coasted along the line of parked cars in search of a space. It was always a nightmare trying to park outside the school, particularly if you were running late. Fortunately, Charlie was so late that the punctual parents were already leaving. This was out of character for him, but then a postcard like that did not drop through the letter-box every day. He spotted Jane Gorman pulling out in her posh new four-by-four and prepared to nip into the vacant space.
‘Right you ’orrible lot,’ he barked in his best Sergeant-Major’s voice, as he hauled on the hand-brake and stuck the van in gear for good measure, ‘prepare to move out on the count of three; three!’ He noticed he was relying on his regular routines to help him ignore the tightness in his chest. There was the usual commotion as they struggled out of their seat-belts and fought over whose bag was whose. By the time he had got out and walked round to the pavement, they were spilling out of the back. As a true measure of their lateness, he spotted the Jenkins boys ahead hitting lumps out of each other as they fought their way to school. They lived nearer than anyone and they were always last.
‘Quick,’ he exclaimed, ‘Luke and Josh are ahead of us!’ The twins went flying off in pursuit and Charlie lengthened his stride.
Again, he found himself wondering how quickly news of the postcard would spread. Still, this was Upper Killay so he was kidding himself if he thought his affair with Jacs wasn’t already common knowledge. He nodded good morning to Denise Perkins as she hurried across the road to her car. She didn’t see him. Or was she ignoring him? For Christ’s sake man, get a grip; he’d only had the postcard for half-an-hour!
He turned to the voice. It was Jacs. When she wasn’t his lover she was the school’s lollipop lady and made a point of treating him like the other parents. It was all a bit silly because the whole village knew the Twins were hers and that she and Charlie were an item; it just seemed a bit unnecessary to flaunt it.
‘You alright, babes?’ she enquired. He realised he was frowning fiercely and tried to relax his expression.
‘Sure, just something on my mind luv. Juliet is demanding a divorce and she doesn’t care who knows. Hey, are we out to play this evening?’
‘Spect so. I think my mum’s having the twins for me’.
‘Great, I’ll see you down the pub when Johnny and I are finished at the chapel.’
He heard the bell ring and hurried across the playground, nodding to various parents heading in the opposite direction. Jacs was an old friend and a new lover. They had grown up together on the estate at the top of the village and, for a while, had exchanged some early teenage fumblings. That ended when Jacs was enticed away by one of the bikers who used to hang around outside the Railway in those days. At fifteen, Charlie was philosophical about losing out to an older teenager with a Kawasaki. The disapproval of the local gossips became deafening when it became common knowledge that she had started smoking exotic cigarettes and stopped wearing knickers.
Fortunately for Jacs, she was not riding pillion when her biker hit a sheep as he tried to break the land speed record across Fairwood Common one night. Unlike the sheep, he survived, but he broke both his legs and his pelvis, which rather curtailed his sex-drive for a while. Unfortunately for him, Jacs had no desire to start wearing knickers again and rapidly moved on to a sailor. He was a tidy bloke as Charlie recalled. He bought her an engagement ring and promised to buy her a wedding ring on his return from the Gulf. Whether Jacs could have contained her urges that long was academic, because the poor bastard was clipped by an RAF Jaguar taxiing on-board ship after the Mina Saud engagement.
She seemed to take this as a warning to stay away from tidy blokes, or perhaps she was just unlucky. Either way she developed a knack of picking shits and idiots. That lasted throughout her twenties, then, shortly after her thirtieth birthday, at the New Year’s fancy dress party in the Railway, she arrived dressed as a schoolgirl, collared Terry Humphries behind the toilets in the garden and married him in the spring before the bump began to show. They seemed happy enough and the twins came along. Then she brought them to school one morning wearing sunglasses. It was a rainy day.
Charlie and Jenks hung the bastard upside down over the railings on the bridge by the Railway one night and had a chat with him about hitting women, and the beatings stopped. Instead he took up with a barmaid from Gorseinon. Finally, Jacs kicked him out, so he got his accountant to show the garage was making a loss, and when the CSA wouldn’t fall for that, he sold the business for cash to a bloke he met in the Spinning Wheel and buggered off to America. Jacs was left with the twins and a mortgage she had no chance of maintaining. Now she was back renting a house on the estate where she had grown up.
She deserved better, Charlie thought, but was he the one to provide it? His marriage to Juliet had broken down quite rapidly as he recovered from his experiences in the Gulf and Jacs had more than filled the gap that Juliet’s disappearance into the arms of Preece had left, but was it fair to lead her on? Feelings aside he had business to attend to and if the relationship continued on its current heading he could only see her getting hurt. Should he end it while he still could? Christ knows! With a mental shrug he followed the twins into the playground.
‘Jesus, butty,’ grunted Johnny, ‘there’s some weight in this fuckin’ thing, mun. They look like poxy little chickens when they’re up.’
The two men were manhandling the chapel’s new ‘cockerel’ weathervane out of the back of Charlie’s van.
‘That’s from fifty feet away, mate,’ gasped Charlie, as they struggled up the path with the iron casting and its legend: ‘God Tempers the Wind’. ‘This one’s made for the greater glory of God and Minister Hughes, though probably not in that order. It’s got to be bigger than anyone else’s’. They reached the front wall of the chapel and carefully lowered the casting to the ground. Johnny stood back and inspected it thoughtfully.
‘If God tempers the wind, why don’t ‘e do somethin’ about your arse?’ he enquired. ‘I was scared to light a fag in the van, in case you took my eyebrows off!’
‘That’s bloody good coming from you, you toxic twat!’ retorted Charlie. ‘Stop chopsing and get on the end of that rope!’ He grabbed the end of the rope that hung from the block and tackle they had erected on the chapel roof, and threaded it through the letters of the casting. He tied it off and gingerly tested the weight. Satisfied he finished the rig and handed Johnny the line.
‘Right,’ he instructed, ‘I’ll get up top, you pull on this’. He clambered up the ladder and climbed over the parapet on which the casting was to sit. He grabbed the rope, pulled it tight and shouted ‘Ready!’ The block and tackle creaked and groaned as Johnny hauled on the rope. Charlie peered over the parapet and saw the casting rise slowly towards him. Gradually it crept higher. He put his weight on the line to maintain the tension between each of Johnny’s efforts. It was a bright day and the view out to the Gower from the chapel roof was magnificent. He automatically followed the line of houses as they ran up the hill from the Railway to Fairwood Common. Halfway up he spotted his own house and frowned. What was that pick-up doing parked on his drive? He squinted and made out two men lifting something off the back of it. As it came upright, he recognised the unmistakeable red of a Dawlishes’ For Sale sign. One of the men produced a sledge hammer and began knocking it into his lawn.
‘Hang on there, mate,’ he instructed Johnny as he slid down the ladder and sprinted for his van. ‘I’ll be back in a minute!’
He pulled up outside the house just as the men were standing back admiring their handiwork. He parked across the drive to block them in and jumped out of the van.
‘You can’t stop there mate,’ called one of the men, ‘we’re just leaving.’
‘No you’re bloody not!’ retorted Charlie. ‘Not until you’ve explained what the hell you think you are doing planting that bloody thing in my lawn!’
The man eyed him warily, weighing up the likelihood of violence.
‘Just doing my job mate,’ he replied coolly. ‘Here,’ he reached through the window of the pick-up, pulled out a clipboard, and stepped towards Charlie, holding it out. ‘Right address isn’t it?’
Charlie glanced down the list to where he was pointing.
‘Yes,’ he agreed, ‘it is.’
The man sensed that he had taken the initial steam out of the situation and decided to keep it that way.
‘Geraint,’ he called to his partner, who was collecting up their tools to throw in the back of the pick-up, ‘this gentleman doesn’t think we should be putting up a sign outside his house. Get on the blower to Susie at Dawlishes and find out what’s going on will you.’ Geraint straightened up and fished out his mobile. He pressed a programmed number and held it to his ear. He spoke for a moment, and then turned to Charlie.
‘They say there’s no mistake. They ‘ad the instruction in this mornin’.
Charlie’s voice rose again.
‘Look, this is my bloody house!’ he began, and then made a visible effort to steady himself. ‘Can I talk to them,’ he requested more calmly.
‘Sure, mate, her name’s Susie.’ The man handed Charlie the phone. He took it and put it to his ear. ‘Hello, hello,’ he said.
‘Can I help you?’ replied a voice at the other end.
‘Yes, my name is Llewellyn, and I want to know why your men have just put a For Sale sign outside my house without my instructions.’
‘Well we were told to put the property on the market this morning.’
‘Who told you to?’
‘I’m not sure I can give out that sort of information, sir.’
‘Well, if you don’t, I’m instructing my solicitor to sue Dawlishes immediately for trespass.’
‘Hang on a tick.’ The line went dead as she consulted a superior. A moment later a man came on the line.
‘Mr, er, Llewellyn, we appear to have a problem?’
‘Too right we do. Some joker has told you to stick a board up outside my house and I want to know who.’
‘I see, sir, understandably. Well, we wouldn’t normally divulge such information, but, under the circumstances, would it help if I told you the person was a Mrs Juliet Llewellyn? We were instructed this morning by her solicitors, Semple, Tucker and Preece.’
Charlie paused – this wasn’t on the agenda.
‘She can’t do that!’ He blurted finally.
‘If you say so, sir, but please bear in mind that we have only acted in good faith. If there’s a problem, perhaps you should contact your wife...’
‘Don’t you worry mate, I bloody well will! In the meantime, tell your blokes to get this damn sign off my lawn, or you’ll be hearing from my solicitor.’ Charlie handed the mobile back to Geraint. I’ll move the van, you move that thing!’ he ordered. He sat and watched, as they pulled up the sign and headed back down the Gower Road towards town.
When Charlie arrived back at the chapel, he found a granite headstone in the shape of a cross dangling halfway up the wall as a counter-balance to his iron cockerel. Johnny had obviously chosen an inadequate anchor point when the weight became too much to bear. He grinned at the unintentional inscription on the headstone: ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ – well nearer by a good fifteen feet if that made any difference. It would take both of them to get the damn thing down. He headed for the Railway in search of his AWOL assistant.