Outside, the world which seemed to press in on them from all sides finally fell silent. Or as silent as it ever got in this part of north London; there was a constant background drone which never quite went away, punctuated by the occasional siren. As a child, Rob had loved the sound of sirens; they seemed to conjure up a glamorous world of cops and robbers, or the drama of Casualty or London’s Burning; programmes his parents had watched with almost religious ritual. As a teenager, he had come to fear the two-tome and multi-tone sounds; not that he was ever involved in anything too likely to get him in serious trouble with the police, but groups of restless youths could all to easily be blamed for things, and the restlessness could quickly transition to shiftiness when the larking had gone a little too far. More than once, he had been required to give his name to a policeman; once or twice, he had been escorted home and quiet words had been exchanged on the doorstep.
Tonight, there were no sirens. And by now – Rob didn’t know; didn’t want to know, what time it was – the relentless random pops and crackles of the early fireworks had subsided. Even the most recalcitrant of restless teenagers was home, or holed up on a floor somewhere, by now. Rob considered this; last year, he had still been a teenager. All this – the flat, the body in the bed beside him, the unspoken bond between them – had been new and thrilling. He was in love, and he was going to make everything right. It was hard and it was going to be hard; they talked about it, and Sharon – he never called her Shaz, even though she seemed to prefer it – agreed. They wanted to do things right. Yes, they were young, but they knew enough about things; how it would be – Sharon had a baby sister who she had changed and fed, and got up to in the night; she could cope, and Rob – Rob knew things; he could make things work.
Rob and Shaz – it seemed so unlikely. Shaz was the quiet, unobtainable one; always on the fringes of things, never saying much. When they were all old enough to be going to pubs, Shaz would sit quietly in the corner; if they went on to a club – not that often, but on special days, or holidays – Shaz would tag along, then drop off the back of the group before they got there. Rob barely noticed her; he had eyes for the same girls his mates did; the ones who made the special effort; who polished themselves and arranged themselves; who coloured their hair and cantilevered their chests; who were out to get ‘a man’ in spite of their own youth.
The unspoken truths were always left at the door on these nights out; the getting of a man was, as Rob and his mates knew, the preface to getting pregnant – one relatively sure route to having a flat of your own, and enough money to live on. The lads were careful, reminding each other constantly not to forget – ‘Don’t get her up the duff; you’ll be stuck with it for the rest of your life, and it’s what they’re all after’. Rob’s experience seemed to suggest otherwise – most of the girls he knew, or met, were out for a good time, just as he was. Of course there were the occasional slip-ups; he knew a couple of girls from his year at school who had given birth, one while still at school, but they both still lived with their own mothers; three generations getting by in their council flats. Neither of them seemed to have gained much from the experience, and the tales of handouts and benefits – even flats of their own – for young mums seemed to be as mythical as the supposed desire for pregnancy which fuelled them.
In truth, they drank like young people the world over did – to have fun, and to blot out parts of their lives. In Rob’s case, he tagged along to the pub because he could afford to, and because it gave him a sense of belonging he had somehow missed out on growing up alone. Most of the kids he knew at school had brothers or sisters; Rob had none – he had never quite understood why, his mother always said that he was perfect, and they didn’t need more; his father never talked about it. The groups of kids his own age who hung around in scrubby play areas or poorly-lit street corners evolved imperceptibly into groups of mates who went to the pub when they had the money, but these groups, perhaps because of the alcohol, or because of the shared sense of recklessness which came with underage drinking, were closer friends than he had ever had before.
Rob’s old man was a grafter – never out of work, he liked to boast, although he had no specific trade – and Rob inherited that much from him. As soon as he could he was out in the working world; menial jobs mainly, sometimes doing relief shifts delivering the post, or fetching and carrying in the storeroom of some nebulous enterprise in Dalston. Now he worked harder than he ever had in his life, but he hated the work on the bins, and he’d change it in an instant if there was somewhere to go. But Shaz and the baby had changed all that.
He turned over to face her, reaching out tentatively; perhaps hoping that she would also be awake and would talk to him, but his touch found only her cotton-covered back; she didn’t move and he sighed quietly. She had taken to sleeping facing away from him, and he hadn’t noticed how much it bothered him until now.
He’d known Sharon for years, it seemed, without ever really talking to her. When they were in the first flush of their love for each other, she would tease him about how he would ignore her in class, or kick one of those big plastic footballs at her in the playground. He, of course, remembered nothing of this; she may have been making it all up, but somehow he didn’t think so. She it was who had approached him. Not in the pub; most of the group had no money, and so had reverted to their earlier stereotype; hanging out on street corners, kicking empty plastic bottles around and talking nonsense about inconsequential matters. She seemed to single him out that night, sliding silently up to him and mumbling ‘Alright, Rob?’ He had been standing slightly apart from the group; feeling a need to be alone for a moment, even contemplating going home to see what his dad was watching, and she took him by surprise. He started, and she laughed. He turned to look at her, and in that instant saw her properly for the first time.
Not pretty, like her friends, but something else – striking, his mother called it, but there was an undercurrent of meanness to that description – Rob realised that something about her appealed to him; perhaps her short dark hair, the polar opposite of the way everyone else wore it; perhaps her slightly crooked smile – he’d never noticed it before, perhaps he’d never seen it before.
She started to talk to him on some pretext or other – that’s how these things work; he thought, even as it was happening – something about one of her friends and one of his; whether they would ‘get it together’ or not. Rob had very little interest in the goings-on between his group; his few liaisons had been with girls (and they were girls, not yet women) he met in pubs or with the defences down, in the local club. If you’d asked him, he’d have said it was too weird, to go out with someone you used to push over in the playground. But Sharon – she was on the fringes; he’d never really talked to her before, and anyway, she wasn’t really his type.
But they walked and talked for a while, and then did it again the next day, and after a week or so, he reconsidered what ‘his type’ was. Sharon talked to him, and she listened – maybe that was more important than how she looked. Maybe her quiet reserve was more important than the willingness to go out and get drunk. Maybe the way she looked at him, and kissed him, meant more than the random bouts of tongue wrestling which would happen at chucking out time. Maybe this was a transition from ‘I fancy you’ to something else. Maybe.
The first time they had sex, it felt different, too. Not just because he had got to know her beforehand, not just because it had seemed inevitable to both of them, but because it felt like he understood what ‘making love’ meant. He fell in love; how could he not?
And she fell in love with him, too. After that, it all seemed to happen quickly. There had been the days and weeks of delirious, sometimes furtive, sex – her mum’s place always seemed to be full of people and children, and while it meant they could be unobserved at times, Rob always felt in danger of being walked in on; his parents’ was so quiet, any extraneous noise would provoke calls of ‘are you two alright in there?’ from the living room. But they managed, and in doing so, managed to make her pregnant.
Sharon told him one Friday night as they lay in his bed together – his parents had gone out, and so they had been able to have a little more freedom than usual, even if the narrow confines of his bed made the whole process somewhat awkward. Looking back on it, Rob projected expressions of fear and anxiety on to her face; the emotions he knew must have been there, but he knew that was not what he had seen at the time. She had simply sat up, her movement forcing him to turn on his side as he looked up at her, and told him. She was calm and in control of the situation: “I’ve known for a week or so, Rob, and I’ve thought about it. I want to keep it, and I want us to be together”.
In that first instant, he was stunned and almost uncomprehending. Later, after he had walked her home and kissed her lovingly, tenderly on her own doorstep, he examined the kiss rather than the fact of the pregnancy. As he walked home, he decided that the kiss meant that he loved her, and that that would be enough. He would make it work.
The baby – Rosie, they called her – was born in the October, and after an uncomfortable few weeks in her mum’s flat, they got one of their own. The paperwork and interviews needed to get there had seemed tortuous at the time, but the payoff had been more than worth it. Rob worked the extra hours delivering Christmas post on top of his bin job, and Sharon seemed to thrive on motherhood. They bought a car, and he learned to drive it – it wasn’t much, but it meant that they weren’t confined to the flat – and he continued to put in as many extra hours as he could, working as he saw it, to provide for them all. And to provide for one other thing, too.
At the end of the summer – Rosie was showing signs of urgently needing to be able to walk, and they would take her out in her pushchair to crawl around in the park – he presented Sharon with a ring. He’d carefully put the money away each week, and had somehow managed to gather enough to buy a proper ring – one with a diamond and a certain stylishness – Rob had always had a good eye for design, he thought. When he presented it to her – down on one knee in the park, with London spread out behind him, she burst into tears. Rob had learned not to be too alarmed by Sharon’s tears since Rosie had been born; the health visitor had explained that this was perfectly normal; all new mums get emotional for no reason at times, and they both need to understand this and work round it. But Sharon’s tears this time, he felt, were probably joy and happiness. “We can’t afford this”, she said, trying to smile through her tears, and Rob kissed her and assured her that they could, and that he had already taken care of it.
That night, they had made love tenderly and in a way they had not been able to since the birth. Rosie slept peacefully all night for one of the few times in her short life, and her parents slept soundly together possibly for the first time in their relationship.
But after that day, Rob could feel things slowly slipping away. Sharon was more tired than before, and somehow less happy. She stopped talking to him at the end of the day, wandering off to bed before he had properly begun to relax – he still hated his work, and it seemed to take more out of him each day. When he joined her, she would more often than not be turned away from him, and already asleep. He always woke early – the first shifts started at 6 – but increasingly she was already up and sitting with Rosie, playing or reading. He noticed that he had not been up in the night with his daughter for weeks, and wondered if it meant she was growing out of that stage, or if Sharon was silently dealing with it, and letting him sleep.
He started to redecorate, but the cost of materials was slightly more than he had expected, so put it on hold for a while – next month’s pay will cover it, he thought, although an increasing amount of what came in to the flat went more or less straight out again to pay for things Rosie needed. He wasn’t quite as in control of the money as he had been, and that contributed to his sleeplessness.
As Sharon slept, he felt for her hand, finding the ring still securely in place. This seemed to calm him, and he could feel himself drifting off to sleep. He’d talk to her tomorrow; they’d figure out what was bothering her, and he’d make it all right.
Sharon lay awake as usual. After Rosie’s birth this inability to sleep had bothered her, but now she accepted it as normal. She would sleep at some point, she knew, but not just yet. Although his presence beside her was comforting in a way, she wished she had more space. She had taken to coming to bed early in an attempt to find that space, both physically in the bed and mentally. Her life was not at all what she had expected, and even though many of the choices which had landed her here – many of the bad choices – were hers, she couldn’t help resenting them. She heard a siren and winced; she still felt that all of her troubles were down to the day she had killed her grandfather.
She was, of course, the only one who thought of his death in those terms, but she had blamed herself then and she blamed herself now. She’d been so excited to be spending the day with her grandparents – at the age of ten, she had never been away from her flat for a whole day before – and a visit from her almost mythical grandparents was a rare treat indeed. These were her father’s parents. Daddy was something of an enigma to her; she knew that, like a number of her friends, she had no dad living at home, and that her dad was not the same as her younger brother’s dad, and that the man who seemed to be around now was neither of those. None of this bothered her particularly; mum was a solid enough presence, and her Granny and Granda were always around, so she barely noticed the gaps in her life.
Then one summer day, mum had explained that her other grandparents were coming to visit, and that Sharon could spend the day with them if she wanted. Sharon did; she barely remembered her Nan and Grandpa, but she had always loved the memories she did have of them. Dad wasn’t coming, for reasons which weren’t ever really explained to her (“he’s been locked up”, her brother claimed, but she didn’t think this could be true), but the day would still be a treat.
And it had been – they went up to town; Sharon was taken to museums and parks, and treated to a pizza lunch, something almost unheard of in her experience, eating pizza in a restaurant. The day had flown by, and Sharon had been in some awe of these older people who seemed to be somehow in control of their lives. Then, as they were driving home, Sharon asked her Grandpa a question just as he was negotiating the traffic at Swiss Cottage. He turned to look at her as he answered, but in doing so he swung the car into the path of a motorcycle. The bike managed to avoid them, but the over-correction her grandpa applied put them in the path of a bus, hurrying to make up time lost to the traffic in St John’s Wood.
What she remembered was the glass. Not the sound; not the screams – her own and her grandma’s; the glass which showered in on them all like frozen rain. She sat, petrified, on the floor in front of her seat and tried to make sense of the way the world suddenly looked to her. After a while, she heard the sirens approaching, and then the strong, capable hands were rescuing her. It wasn’t until she had been assessed at the hospital and released into the arms of her terrified mother that she thought to ask about her grandparents.
“Grandma’s OK, darling, and grandpa’s upstairs. They’re looking after him.” Something in her mother’s voice caused her to look up sharply, and she saw a strange expression – enough to make her ask “Is he going to die, mum?”
“I don’t know, darling. That’s the honest truth. Nobody knows. He’s hurt bad, though.”
No one told her when he died – perhaps they felt they were protecting her – and the first she knew of it was when she heard her dad’s voice in the hallway of the flat, shouting and cursing like he had never done in the house before; whenever she thought of her dad, it was of a sad and quiet man; today he was enraged. Sharon assumed that because she had been the one responsible for the accident, she must be the object of his rage, and made to hide, but her father was cursing his own father for putting his daughter’s life at risk. Only by analysing the shouts and fragments of conversation later did she manage to piece together that grandpa must have died.
Although he had been in the house, her dad had not come to see her, and she never was able to understand that. From that day on, Sharon retreated into herself. Always a thoughtful little girl, she became almost silent. She had friends who valued her for what she knew, and was therefore able to get them through exams with, rather than who she was. Life mainly passed Sharon by until she left school.
She might have had dreams before the accident, but she couldn’t remember them now. Her life revolved around helping her mother with the baby and avoiding situations where she would have to talk to people. Although she had done well at school, she couldn’t face the idea of either carrying on with education or of finding work in a place where she would have to interact with people. As a result she took a job in a biscuit factory, packing the biscuits as they came off the end of the line. Contact with her co-workers was minimal, partly due to the fact that they all spoke a variety of languages and partly due to the general noise levels. She kept her head down, got through each day and revelled in her solitude.
All that ended, however, when she got pregnant. She had no memory of whose party it was or of how she had been invited – often she would go along to these events and stay long enough for whoever had dragged her there to be drunk enough not to notice her absence, then slip quietly away and walk home. This particular night, however, she had been latched on to by an older boy – a man, perhaps – and he had been persistent in getting her defences down. He had plied her with some kind of foul-smelling spirit, but she didn’t blame the drink for what had happened. She had been in some kind of control of the situation, and had been aware for some time what was likely to happen if she continued to fail to discourage him. She seemed to be outside her body somewhere, watching proceedings in a detached manner, as he steered her to a dark corner of a bedroom and dropped all pretence of being interested in anything about her other than how far she would let him go.
When she thought about that night later, she blamed her own curiosity as much as anything – what would it be like, she wondered; what was all the fuss about? Nothing much, seemed to be the answer – it hadn’t hurt so much as being faintly ridiculous and uncomfortable. She had, however, liked the sensation of having someone to hold on to, and felt a quiet desperation take over when her lover – whose name she didn’t even know – withdrew and sat up. She reached up to pull him back to her side, but he merely smiled:
“Hey, love, don’t go getting all clingy on me, will you? Just a bit of fun, you know?” He stood up, and adjusted himself – she briefly saw what had been in her, slick with her secretions, and shivered – then went, he said, to get her another drink.
Sharon didn’t want another drink; she wanted that fleetingly apprehended closeness again. But her fleeting lover was nowhere to be seen, and although she spent some time looking for him, she wasn’t entirely confident that she could identify him again in her dazed state, and eventually she quietly let herself out and walked gingerly home, damp and sticky in a way she hadn’t expected.
It was only a week later that she had approached Rob. He’d always been on the fringes of the group she hung out with, and he had always faintly appealed to her. She had woken the morning after the party with the realisation that she might easily be pregnant; she had never seen the need to take precautions when there was nothing to be protected against. Her panic lasted only a few hours until she resolved to find herself someone who she could at least pin the blame on, even if whatever relationship they might have was only short, like her mother’s tended to be.
Sharon stirred in her half sleep. Rob was there, behind her. Had he just come to bed and woken her, or had he been there for some time? Was the fact that she didn’t know the answer indicative of her having slept for a time, or was the blankness she felt just part of the general blankness of her life? How had they come to be here? The baby might have been in the plan, but all this? A boyfriend? A fiancé? A flat? A car? A – she paused, and rotated the bloody ring again, as she had done a thousand times since he had given it to her – a ring?
She felt him softly touch her back, but she had no need for his closeness now. It was almost as if she had had that; experienced what was possible and absorbed it. Now it was time to move on to – what? To new experiences, she told herself, but the idea of doing anything outside her daily routine filled her with dread. She just wanted to be alone again; to have her familiar solitude back.
At first it had been extraordinary. She had read about what love was like, and about how the romantic novelists presented the act itself as some kind of elevation to a higher plane. She had read these things, and dismissed them. Real people don’t behave like that, she thought. But it had all surprised her. She knew that she needed to get Rob to sleep with her as quickly as possible, so that any possible discrepancies would be minor enough to be overlooked, and she had been surprised at how easy it had been. All men are like that, perhaps; only interested in one thing, and not likely to stop and ask questions if you are willing. But once they were there; in his ancient narrow bed, with his parents only feet away in their sparse living room, she had been almost overpowered by how intense the whole experience had been. Rob was patient and careful, and something in her responded to his genuine, earnest, niceness. She quickly found that the comfort she took from having someone to hold on to was only a small part of all the emotions she experienced. She had expected the sex to be a necessary part of the process, but had been surprised to discover how much it became an end in itself.
So, because of that, she allowed herself to be swept up in being in love with this person. Part of her refused to accept the ‘in love’ diagnosis, but she kept a lid on that, and allowed herself to believe all manner of things about her and Rob. The pregnancy didn’t deflect him; he seemed to embrace it and when she told him that she wanted them to be together – in her mind, part of the plan to ease him back out of her life – he had responded enthusiastically, and started work on finding them somewhere to live. She panicked only briefly, then decided that it would all eventually resolve itself, and set about appearing to be part of his enthusiasm.
As soon as the baby was born, however, she knew that it had all been a mistake. She was 20 years old; she didn’t want a baby, and she didn’t want to be living in a dingy flat with this overgrown boy. Rosie was not a particularly difficult baby; her own sister had been much harder to manage, but still she felt overwhelmed by the position she had put herself in. Rob was patient and thoughtful as well as being wonderful with the baby, but none of this mattered. What was important was that she was stranded in a flat she hated with the prospect of many more years of nothing much to come.
She kept this as best she could from Rob. As she got to know him she discovered that she quite liked him, even at times felt that she might, in time, come to love him properly, but she knew that making that kind of commitment at her age was ridiculous. In all her years of grey solitude, the one thing which had kept her going was the determination to be someone; to be a success on her own terms, yet here she was, entirely as a result of decisions she had made. The thought of it all pressed in on her and kept her from sleeping in spite of her thorough exhaustion.
When Rob presented her with the ring – you could hardly call it a proposal; it was more a kind of earnest pleading, revoltingly puppy-like in its determination to please – she had to hide her feelings of panic and revulsion. The detached part of her took over, and while it could not prevent her from crying, she managed to present the tears as some kind of reaction of happiness, if not outright love. She knew that the one remaining thing she could do to retain some measure of self-respect was to try not to break Rob’s heart in an entirely callous manner – she needed to be as nice to him as possible while removing herself gradually from the situation.
So she allowed, even encouraged, his embraces that evening and for a brief moment or two imagined that she felt the connection she had been seeking, the rock to which she could anchor herself for the rest of her life. But even as she reached for it, it was gone, and when they were done, she dressed quickly and turned to the wall cursing herself for making things worse.
She began to salt money away, rather in the manner he must have done to afford the ring. Every now and then she would catch herself looking at the ring and imagining how most girls of her age and in her position would react. It’s every girl’s dream, she would tell herself, but she didn’t feel it. And she didn’t particularly care for the ring; it was too modern and sleek, she would have preferred something more traditional. Still, she thought, it’ll probably sell for almost as much as he paid for it.
She had a figure in mind; an amount of money she would need to be able to get away and stay away. She had worked out a kind of vague plan, but the saving was taking longer than anticipated – they always seemed to need something else; painting the hall was just another expensive scheme of Rob’s which could have been designed to thwart her. She had started rehearsing the escape; getting up early in the morning and packing everything she would need without disturbing either Rob or Rosie. After a month, she had it down to around 15 minutes; she could even unpack and replace everything in no time at all, and if her movements disturbed the baby, then it was time they could spend together, in some way making up for the fact that she planned not to be part of Rosie’s life for much longer.
“You’re better off without me, babe”, she would say to the girl, “your dad’s just great at looking after you; much better than I am; and at least you’ll have two grandmas to help out.” Only occasionally did she pause to consider that Rosie – born only 8 months after she had first slept with Rob – was not his child, and that by abandoning her she would be depriving her of her only natural parent. There was still a chance, she kept repeating to herself, that he is the father after all, and he’s definitely a better parent than either of her real ones, so it’s all going to work out.
She felt Rob move his hand over her back and along her arm. He brushed the side of her breast briefly, but moved on without a pause until he found her hand and the ring, which he caressed with his thumb for a moment. She suppressed a shiver, and thought of the door which must be here somewhere; the door which led out on to the rest of the world. She quickly rehearsed the money situation again, but the conclusion was inescapable; she was months, if not a year, away from being able to go, and meanwhile she would have to make the best of it. Perhaps she should talk to Rob in the morning; try to find some way of making her existence more bearable for however long it took. She felt sleep gradually claim her while she held on to the promise of freedom.
Rosie began to scream at some imagined terror, but Sharon heard nothing. As her fiancé struggled out of the depths of his sleep, and got up to tend to another man’s daughter, all she registered was that there was suddenly room for her to stretch out, and she turned to face the emptiness, and stretched her arms out as if to welcome it.
Tender Blue by Everything But The Girl from the album ‘Eden’ (Blanco y Negro, 1984). Words and music: Ben Watt.