THE WORK ETHIC – Part two
Home seemed the only option. How tranquil it was shut off from the road by the rhododenrons. How smooth the manicured lawn. At least Vriony’s car wasn’t in the driveway. In the hallway he passed the table with the silver tray and felt the pang that went back two years. Saw the sun pouring into the lounge through the French windows, causing the upholstery to glow with welcome. But it didn’t seem right, sitting there in his boiler-suit. In the kitchen he loaded the percolator, sat down on a hard chair, waited, sipped from bone china. Reminded of the coffee he’d drunk earlier that morning.
Half an hour later Vriony’s high-heels clacked over the quarry tiles and she dumped Waitrose bags on the kitchen table. Dully he looked up at her impossible blondeness and asked himself: why did I ever think it would work? Realised the question was irrelevant. None of it had been his decision. He had been her experiment.
“I tried your mobile but it’s no longer operative,” she said.
“Did you change your mind?”
She flapped a hand dismissively. “Things needed tying off. Notably this place. I’m moving out shortly but it’ll be too much for you. Take your time, it’s worth big bucks. We’ll go halves as we did with your flat.”
That surprised him. “Will that fit in with the divorce? Husbands tend to get pushed around I believe.”
Now she stared. “You don’t imagine I’d take your money. I may be an impulsive bitch but I’m not a greedy bitch.”
He pointed to the shopping bags. “You planning dinner? Want me out of the way?”
“I’m not trying to punish you,” she said irritatedly. “I’ll do dinner, I’ll even sit down at the table with you. That’s if you want me to. I’ll understand if you don’t.”
There was asparagus and rack of lamb, both favourites of his. With a bottle of New Zealand pinot. And, as if in celebration, she’d groomed herself for the occasion, exposing most of her shoulders and sweeping her blonde hair up into a coronet. On the verge of paying her a compliment he changed his mind: not glamorous but expensive. Oh, and remote.
“Why did you ever imagine it would last?” he asked, comically rueful.
She smiled, catching the tone. “So it was my decision alone?”
“You know it was. You were the one with all the muscle,” he said, waving a hand at her regal appearance.
“Strange how men equate prettiness with power. Most of the truly beautiful women I’ve known were pathologically uncertain.”
“All right, then. What do I know? But surely I was fish in a barrel.”
“And that’s another male failing. All men who lack regular features assume they’re unattractive.”
He protested. “Oh come on. All these bones, this large hooter, they’re way south of just irregular features.”
“It’s too late to argue but looks are the first hurdle in any relationship. If you’re honest you’ll remember we were ‘mutual’ within half an hour.
“I take it my ‘mutual’ face hasn’t changed.”
She paused, holding a forkful of spinach, scanning his face. “Not in the slightest.”
“So it was something else that drove in the knife?”
Now she laid down her knife and fork. “I told you over the phone. It was fun to be talking economics with the chap repairing the shower. Talking economic good sense, I might add. In my experience economics is a lonely as well as a gloomy profession; not the jump-off for random conversation. I warmed to you, I freely confess. Went on warming.”
“Warming to a redundant economics teacher?”
“No, not at all. All right, you taught yourself plumbing while on the dole, and made a success of it; that was pretty impressive. True I wasn’t all that excited about plumbing as such but I saw it as symbolic. If you could convert to something as way out as that - by an effort of will - I felt you could turn your hand to most things.”
He said, “Perhaps I could.”
“Perhaps. All I can say is that after six months of marriage I could see economics was a mere – almost accidental – phase in your life. A way of passing through academia and finding a job tout de suite. You were far more proud of being a plumber. Oh how you talked about plumbing’s realities, its honesty and its usefulness. Turning it into a theory for goodness sake.” Vriony picked up her knife and fork. “As I said, you are – presently - a plumber, nothing more. OK for some, but the Dead Sea for me.”
He slept in the spare room and, as usual, by the time he woke she’d left for the bank. Something about the markets, she’d always said when asked, except that now there might be another more emotional reason for leaving early. The shock of her announcement was still there but he had no curiosity about his replacement. In any case a plan was beginning to form; still in his pyjamas he switched on his desktop.
Mid-afternoon he dressed in casual Saturday morning clothes, then packed a suitcase sufficient for three days away from home. For some time he held the boiler-suit at arm’s length then thrust it into a Waitrose bag together with his Totectors. Took it with him. The van was there on the driveway and he had the option of Vriony’s second car, the Clio, in the garage. But the Clio would have been tactically wrong. The van said more about him.
This time it wasn’t her legs that greeted him but her bum, her head deep in the bowels of a Ford Escort, prime-coated in grey. He was careful to remain outside the workshop, calling in through the open door. “You said take it or leave it. I’ve decided to take it.”
Her head stayed hidden. “You brought a cheque?”
“No, but I could write one.”
“Leave it on my desk. See me in two weeks’ time. Better still, phone.”
Discouraging. He was glad he’d worked on the research. “As you say, I’m a feller. You don’t want me around. But there’s info I need to pass on. Concerning Rover V8s and re-furb gennies, though I’d prefer to say re-furb alternators. Being pedantic that is.”
Slowly her head emerged from the Ford’s engine compartment. The John Deere cap hadn’t changed. The orange boiler-suit – Guantanamo Bay style – was filthy but with today’s filth not yesterday’s. It had been changed.
It wasn’t in her nature to hang back. Again she stood in front of him though not this time with her hands on her hips. “What’s all this babble?”
“Stuff that could help. Get things done quicker, save you hassle.”
“How would you know?”
“How would you know plumbing?”
She recognised the sprung question. “What’s this about?”
“Just this,” he said vigorously. “If your boiler went AWOL I suspect you’d look at it yourself. Boilers are technical not mystical and you’re in the technical line. Boilers and cars – not a million miles apart. You see me as a gentleman plumber which is your doubtful privilege. But I’m still a plumber. And cars aren’t a closed book to me. Which is why, for instance, I can say that the juice in the Chimaera comes from an alternator not a genny.”
“You’re just being argumentative. You know I know the difference. You also know genny is casual. After all alternators generate juice.”
“Damn right I’m being argumentative. But I needed to grab your attention. Otherwise I’m off your site and short a thousand-pound cheque.”
The stubbornness began to dissipate. “You trust me with your cash, don’t you?”
“Shit, Myfi, I’d trust you with my life. The Chimaera isn’t just about me: it’s about both of us acting a little strange. Practical people behaving impractically.”
Myfi took off the John Deere and was about to run fingers through her black hair. “Don’t do that,” he said urgently. “You’ll oil it up.”
“So what? I wash, I shampoo.”
“Those aren’t yesterday’s overalls.”
She smiled and the teeth shone in all their wonder. “Perhaps you’d better come inside. Have some coffee.”
“I’d like to but we need to straighten something out first. About fellers.”
Myfi shook her head. “You said you didn’t know me well enough when I asked a similar question.”
“Well I know you well enough now. I’ll tell you over coffee. Then I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether it’s a good trade.”
By now he could tell the tale in six sentences. Finishing with: “Two points: Why did I, a more or less unreconstructed bachelor, crumble so quickly? Answer: Vriony’s stunning and articulate, I never stood a chance. What was in it for her? She’s a high-flying economist for a merchant bank and her social circle consists of more of the same. I was different, marrying me could be seen as a measure of her intelligence, her broadmindedness. And it seemed I spoke her language. Yesterday, over dinner, I asked her about my looks, my presentability. She implied that come nighttime, with the light behind, I could pass. That surprised me. I’ve got many faults but vanity’s not one of them.”
“Were you humiliated?”
He spoke reflectively. “Not quite. More a feeling of hopelessness. An underlying belief that I shouldn’t have been sharing her bed anyway. That she had the right to drop me and I had an obligation to go.”
“Suppose she rang this very moment. Said it had all been a terrible mistake.”
“Couldn’t happen,” he said laughing. “I smashed up my mobile when she first phoned. When she let me go.”
“That doesn’t sound like good sense.”
“Suppose not. It may say I’m capable of passion, of a sort. But the short answer is no, I wouldn’t go back. She fired me coolly, without passion. I could see that happening again. No strain at all,”
Throughout Myfi had sat in profile at the other side of the desk, as if to concentrate only on the sounds of what he was saying. The brown sheen was prominent on the side of her nose and on her temple. Where did it come from? Was it a specific to protect her from rust? Maquillage for a mechanic?
Without monitoring her hand slid towards the Marlboros then stopped. “No,” she said. “I never asked you before. I should have.”
“Go ahead, smoke. It’s your office. Besides I suspect there’s a need – perhaps to do with the feller thing.”
She smiled slyly. “You’re a clever old sod, aren’t you?”
“Dunno. But I’m here because I want to be.”
As she started on her explanation the tone of her voice told him that it was one of those grim fables of the times. So commonplace that anyone listening would have a hard time simulating surprise. If that person was a man.
“I worked for a BMW dealer for eighteen months. Deliberately. The training’s terrific and however good you are you need to stay up to speed with the digital techniques. I was sorry to leave. But I fancied working with rarer stuff, like the Chimaera and other supercars. The principle being if you can handle them you can handle anything. As it was I never got to test it properly.”
She paused. Long enough for him to ask, “Perhaps I don’t need to know all this. Perhaps you’ll be sorry you told me.”
“Let’s see. Trouble is with supercars there wasn’t too much choice. I was lucky to get an offer, even if it meant living in one room near Guildford. Under instruction I rebuilt a Lamborghini Countach and that was more or less the end of the fun. Need I say that it’s a man’s world? That a woman who complains is not regarded as a good sport? Tends to get fired.
“I’m surprised I stuck it for as long as three months. The ironic thing is that to survive you have to pretend you aren’t a woman, but that’s when it’s one on one. Two on one and it’s better to drop out of the human species altogether. In the end I complained, I was canned, and went on to a sort of black list. That’s why you see me here, under the arches, patching up cars that should have been junked ten years ago.”
He nodded. “Nothing I can say to any of that. Nothing that would make the slightest bit of difference to you. I won’t insult your intelligence. This morning I did some research about the Chimaera. The Rover V8 is moderately available and one specific deal could solve the fuel injection situation. As to the alternator, there’s an improved version which fits without modification. That may be the way to go. Those are just details. Here’s what I’d like to do, see what you think. If it’s a no-no then you take over.”
Continued in THE WORK ETHIC – Part three