People will react in different ways, that’s all you can say for sure.
For Polish Ernie the worst thing about dying is that for the first time in his life he can’t trust himself to make a decision. He’s crippled by self doubt. Things have got so bad that even choosing what shoes to wear each morning proves too much for him. He’ll break down in tears over a pair of suede shoes he bought in nineteen seventy-six. He thinks: how could a pair of shoes last that long?
It seems as important as anything else.
June had found him like that one day, found him sitting on the sofa a few minutes after breakfast, head in his hands and tears rolling down his cheeks. Cigarette burning a hole in the carpet. After that she took it on herself to lay his clothes out for him every morning. She helps him get dressed and watches him leave the house and feels the sort of satisfaction that she imagines his wife must have felt when he was still married.
For his part he’s glad to surrender the responsibility. His mind is on other things.
Cockney Bob says: The last thing I need is some twelve year old telling me I need to retrain. I know what I need. I’m fifty-six years old.
And nobody is going to argue with that.
Allan Fontaine, between mouthfuls of steak and chips, smokes a cigarette thoughtfully. He’s fifty-nine.
The girl on stage, who’s probably still in her teens, takes off her bra. Nobody seems very interested. It’s Sunday afternoon and the pub is practically empty, except for old men like them with nowhere else to go if they don’t fancy going round and bothering their kids up for something to eat. Men who don’t feel like being put up with for two hours by their own flesh and blood.
The thing is, says Ernie softly, the thing is I always expected a bit more than this. I don’t know.
And then he cries into his dinner.
Cockney Bob looks away. Allan reaches across with his free hand and pats Ernie on the arm. He doesn’t know what else to do. Then he takes his hand away again.
Ernie just sits there. The song on the jukebox is Simply Irresistible. The girl on stage takes off her knickers and then walks off the stage and goes into the toilets to get dressed again. She doesn’t look at anyone.
Sorry, says Ernie.
I fancy another beer, says Cockney Bob. How about another beer?
Ernie says okay, although another beer is just about the last thing he wants.
June does the shopping for Ernie’s dinner and gets some more food in for the rest of the week too, just like she always does on Sunday. She likes to shop for a man, although these days you’re supposed to be embarrassed by things like that. June isn’t embarrassed. She’s sixty years old and she’s never had sex with a man all her life and she loves Polish Ernie. They met in the pub one afternoon when they were both the worse for wear on port and lemonade and since then they’ve been inseparable. They get drunk together and fight like dogs. When Ernie got thrown out of his flat June moved him into hers, thank you very much. He sleeps on a camp bed in the living room.
The windows on the shop are boarded up all the time these days because they’ve been broken so many times. There’s a gang of boys outside the shop and at first June thinks that one of them is her cousin Lina’s grandson. None of them are older than eleven except for one boy who looks about sixteen. He keeps smacking one of the smaller boys around the head. Whatever the younger boy is saying is making the older one angry, but he keeps saying it all the same, trying to look like he isn’t about to cry.
One of the younger boys sees June and shouts something bad but June pretends that she can’t hear him. She pretends that he hasn’t said a thing. She imagines him with his hair combed, wearing school uniform ready for the first day of school. That’s how you get through the day, June thinks. You concentrate on thinking good things. That’s called having a philosophy of life.
When she’s out of sight of the boys she opens her fresh packet of twenty Benson and Hedges and sits down on the wall outside the laundrette to have a couple of puffs. Inside, mothers with young children share fags and jokes with each other. Their daughters have clips in their hair and help with the laundry. Their sons just keep getting smacked.
When Ernie walks home across the estate a few hours later clouds are speeding across the early spring sky. It’s half past three in the afternoon. He thinks about the thing that’s going to kill him and then he doesn’t know what to think about it anymore. So he looks at the trees they planted to try and smarten the place up a bit, trees that are full of plastic bags these days, and he thinks: I wonder if I’ll see leaves. I wonder if I’ll never see leaves again.
That’s called putting things into perspective. He knows how to do that better than he knows how to think positive thoughts, although that’s what you’re supposed to do.
That night June cooks dinner for Ernie and herself and then they watch TV and Ernie cries again during the news, then apologises. That’s okay with June. She makes him a cup of tea with three sugars because of his diabetes and tells him a lot of people are praying for him.
She says: I think you should wear your blue shirt tomorrow Ernie.
Okay, he says, with a sniff.
They watch a TV program about monkeys in Africa, except they aren’t monkeys, they’re apes because they don’t have tails. Chimpanzees. June likes the fact that the old lady chimpanzees are still part of the family and help out with the kids, even if they’ve never had kids of their own. The male chimpanzees spend their time screaming and shaking trees at each other and trying to become the king, and the ones that lose have to go and live in the forest by themselves. June wonders what will happen to the baby boy chimpanzees when they grow up.
June’s cousin Lina’s grandson was killed last year driving a stolen car when he was only eleven. They called it twocking, which was taking without owner’s consent. The police were very nice about it and two of them had even come to the funeral. They buried him in a tiny coffin and he’d always been small for his age. The funeral procession had driven through the estate and everyone had kept their doors shut and some people had even said that the newspapers had paid for the funeral, which wasn’t true.
June had helped out with the food at the wake.
Kneeling by her bed June prays for all the children and dogs and asks the Redeemer to keep watch over Ernie. She wants Ernie to go with her to visit the Redeemer back in Malta, but he’s afraid to fly. June understands that. She knows a thing or two about dignity.
Ernie sits up into the small hours smoking a cigarette and thinking about his life and what it amounts to. He pours himself a gin and water and stares at the orange wallpaper. He thinks about all the songs and realises: the songs don’t make any difference, after everything’s been said and done. The songs don’t make things better after all.
The irony isn’t wasted on him.
That’s show business.
Amateur night down the Prince of Wales Arms, and when they say amateurs, too fucking right. That’s what Cockney Bob reckons. He’s still there though, getting in the drinks, just another Monday night and some poor sod up on the stage mangling a Dean Martin number. June is already rolling drunk, and like always all the words are coming out.
You dirty fuck Pole bastard.
You fuck bastard Pole.
You fucking Jew.
She knows the words because her mother used to say them all the time in the last days before she passed on. She used to call June’s Maltese Uncle Joe a dirty fucking bastard, but Joe didn’t mind, even though, June knew, he would have killed any man for saying even half that. He once smacked June’s face for calling him a cunt, even though she was too young know what it meant. Even though her mother called him it all the time. Her mother called June a cunt too, but Uncle Joe said not to listen to her.
Ernie is giving as good as he gets too. You Maltese whore. You fucking shit black Arab prostitute. You dirty fucking bitch. How much he hates June, and why he rues the day he ever got involved with her, and she’s only after his money anyway, and the rest.
And what fucking money have you got, heh? And whose house do you live in?
You fucking whore. You fucking cocksucker whore.
Allan Fontaine stares into his drink as the poor sod on the stage messes up the intro to That’s Amore. Cockney Bob comes back with a sweet sherry, a vodka and lemonade, a pint of lager, a whisky and soda. Cockney Bob’s wife is still on her brandy. Somewhere out there in the night Cockney Bob’s daughter is probably on the brandy too, getting ready to shack up with whatever bloke will take her home. Cockney Bob knows what she’s up to because she brought his grandkids round earlier, turning up just like that with another set of fucking excuses, and he’d had to take them round to their father’s himself.
Do you love me June?
I hate you.
No, but do you love me?
I hate you.
No, but do you love me?
I love you. You shit Pole Jew bastard. Ha ha ha ha ha.
If she’d been his wife Cockney Bob would have done something about it. Slagging it around town making a twat of her husband, and it doesn’t matter if he’s her ex-husband. Married and divorced twice by the age of thirty, Jesus. But she’s only his daughter and she hasn’t given a fuck about anything he’s had to say to her since she was about twelve.
The poor sod on the stage finally gives it up. And, god bless them, the audience give him a decent send off despite it all.
And then it kicks off.
Ernie is stumbling his way to the toilet when he knocks into some bloke thirty years younger than him – and, come off it, when some old drunk geezer bumps into you in a pub you just pick him up and let him go on his way.
But not this one.
This one lays into Ernie right there and then and before anyone knows what’s going on Ernie is on the floor and the bloke’s having a go at him, trying to get his foot in except that there’s too many other people around him, pulling him back.
It’s: stupid old cunt this and that etc, except that then Cockney Bob gets up, makes his way over and smacks the bloke in the face himself, and the young guy is so surprised that he’s just been smacked in the face by a pensioner that he doesn’t know what to do with himself.
He starts laughing, which is when Ernie gets up off the floor, grabs a pint glass off the bar and smashes it into his face, and as he goes over already bleeding all over the place Ernie kicks his legs out from under him, goes down on top of him and starts piling punches into the back off his head.
It takes Cockney Bob and Allan Fontaine and just about everyone else in the bar to pull him off again.
And June, like she always does when she drinks, has already passed out.
Ernie leans into the microphone and says: thank you, it’s been lovely. It’s Monday night and the pub is empty save for the usual drunks, but drunks like to listen to songs of love and loss as much as anybody else. Sometimes more. Ernie sips his whiskey and coke and somebody shouts for A Fool Such as I. Amen to that sir, says Ernie, and does My Way. He always finishes with My Way. You get to know your set and you play to your strengths. Ernie’s My Way could make shivers run down your spine. Tonight there are a few drunken tears and a fight and somebody’s dog is sick on the carpet.
Ernie and Allan sit at the bar afterwards cadging free drinks and smoking fags while the barmaid cleans up. It’s the anniversary of Elvis’s death. They raise their glasses and toast the old trouper, wherever he is.
That night at home Ernie tries to lay it out and weigh it up, which is what you do when you’re a man. That’s something he knows a thing or two about. He’s been a man since the age of nine, when his father told him that he had to look after his mother and his little brother now. Ernie didn’t want anything to do with either of them. Three weeks later he ran away and that was that.
He sits in June’s front room listening to the radio and all the songs sound the same now, and all the words doesn’t mean anything anymore.
Ernie wants someone to blame for his wife’s death at the age of forty five and for the fact that he hasn’t seen his kids or their kids in two years since they emigrated and for the fact that he wants to tell his son what’s happening to him but doesn’t have the courage to pick up the phone. He’s never thought of himself as a coward before. He’s played the club circuit for nearly thirty five years, and that’s enough for anyone, thank you, thank you.
He thinks about Elvis in Graceland in the days before his death, the King at rest. He wonders if Elvis had known that death was coming for him, as unstoppable as the Tupelo Express. Ernie doesn’t even know if there is a Tupelo Express.
He never made it to America.
Even this late on his bitterness is like a living thing. It walks around in his shadow, like the thing that’s about to kill him.
Elvis never made it to England either. Colonel Tom didn’t have a passport, and wouldn’t let the King travel without him.
Ernie starts to cough then, and he’s still coughing when June gets up and finds him on the floor with blood all down his shirt.
June sits in the hospital waiting room watching a man pushing a floor polisher around like an ice skater. She’s happy enough there. She’s never been one of those people who tell you how much they don’t like hospitals, what with all that sickness and dying. June saw enough sickness and dying when she was a child to know that it isn’t important. As long as you are loved. As long as your soul is in order. They taught them a hymn about that in school, she remembers, but when she tries she finds she can’t remember how it went.
The nurse had brought June her cup of tea and explained what was happening and June had smiled and nodded and put on her listening face. They were doing their best, she’d said. June knows that. Nurses always do their best for everyone and when she’d been young June had wanted to be a nurse but her mother had wanted her to stay at home and look after her instead, and that’s like being a nurse too. She looked after her mother for ten years until she went and by the end she was living more in heaven than she was on earth anyway. June had listened to her talking to God for months and by the time the priest came to give her the last rites they must have already said everything they needed to say to each other, because when she went she had a smile on her face like she was looking forward to meeting an old friend.
Everyone has done their best for Ernie, but it’s in someone else’s hands now, and that’s okay by June.
June gets up early, the way she does every morning, and it’s still dark outside. She loves the morning before it gets light, while God is still deciding what should be done with the day. When there’s still the chance that anything could happen, the chance for anyone to change their ways and make the best of things. She goes to the kitchen to make a cup of tea and doesn’t turn on the lights and she moves around the kitchen quietly because she doesn’t want to wake Ernie, asleep on the camp bed in the living room just a few feet away. Asleep in his clothes again.
June thinks that he looks younger in his sleep, like one of the Brave Polish Fighter Pilots who defended Malta during the war. When all of Valetta moved into the caves underneath the island. After 100 days a thousand people had been killed by the German bombs. Then after the war it seemed like everyone was moving to England and June had gone too with her mother and her Uncle Joe and moved to London. And then Soho was owned by the Maltese and Joe was treated like royalty for a while before he went to prison, and he always used to bring June presents and her mother used to shout at him and make June pray for his soul with her.
Quietly, June goes over to Ernie and strokes his hair as he sleeps and she wonders how long it’s going to be. She keeps Christmas cards up on her mantle-piece all the year round because she likes the pictures of Jesus and the snowy scenes of children playing. Nothing bad ever happens in Christmas cards. Even the crucifixion was a good thing because He died for our sins.
June had never seen snow at Christmas until she came to England. Now she tries to remember the last time there was a white Christmas. She thinks it was twenty-seven years ago, when her cousin Lina’s youngest daughter was being born, and the little girl had been a fighter even then. She’d fought her mother for fifteen hours because it was too soon and she hadn’t wanted to come out. Probably because it was so cold, they’d all said, smiling. And then they’d gone and found Lina’s English husband to tell him he was a father and he was drunk, in a pub, and it wasn’t even noon. June’s cousin Charlie had beaten him up then, and it wasn’t the first time either. And the last time he beat him up he told him to stay away from the whole family and if he ever came back he’d do time for him, God help him. And he must have believed him because he never did come back again and he only showed up again at his Grandson’s funeral and by then June’s cousin Charlie was too old to beat him up anyway.
At Eight fifteen in the morning, still asleep, Ernie breathes his last breath. June is holding his hand and she’s glad that he wasn’t alone when the angels came for him. She offers a quiet prayer for his soul and smoothes his hair down. In a few minutes she’ll get up and wash his face so that when they come to pick up the body he’ll look decent. They’ll give him a good send off and June will make sandwiches for the wake and then they’ll all get drunk on sweet wine and enjoy the day.
But for now she sits with him, and outside the plastic bags in the trees kick in the morning wind.