No 163 - 2001
My Gary Blue: An Extract
Despite the late night the night before, as well as the complete absence of a night twenty fours preceding that, the next morning I rise early, speeding on sleeplessness. The first thing I do, at seven thirty, is phone Susie’s housemate. I don’t go into why I want Susie’s number, I just say I want it, and I’m given it politely, no questions asked.
Half an hour later I call a rented apartment in a block outside Malaga. Susie picks up the phone, half asleep and hung over. ‘Oh hi,’ she says when I tell her who I am, as if I’m just a mate phoning up for a chat. (Maybe good holidays allow you to take even the most surprising of occurrences - your boss’s wife phoning you on holiday first thing in the morning - in your stride.) I have only spoken to her twice before - once when Gary went to Argentina, once when she delivered some mail round to the house. There’s a gasped ‘NO!’ when I tell her Gary has gone missing.
‘Do you have any idea where he is?’
‘No. I don’t. He was meant to be with you, on holiday.’
‘Was there anything, anything at all, unusual about the last few weeks?’
‘Hang on,’ she says, putting her hand over the receiver. There’s a muffled murmur of voices, a thud of a door shutting, before she replies, ‘No. Nothing.’
‘Anything from further back in time? Go back months. Go back all the time you’ve known him.’
There’s another pause - seconds which feel like minutes. ‘Nothing. But can I take your number? I don’t have it with me. I’ll call you.’
I give her the number.
‘You know how to get into the office? You got the keys?’
‘Let me get this right. You just woke up and he wasn’t there?’
‘And he said nothing. Nothing at all?’
‘And there’s no note. No explanation?’
‘This is weird. Really weird.’
I’ve not eaten since yesterday lunch, when I grabbed a cheese sandwich from a garage where we filled up with petrol, but I’m not hungry. Wanting the children to sleep as much as possible, I tip toe past their rooms, then go into Gary’s office. I sit at the desk, aware that my body in this seat is a first, and that I’ve never lorded it over this territory before. Gingerly, I slide open the drawers.
In the top drawer I find;
1. Twenty drawing pins (without a pin board to stick them into).
2. A ball of blue tack, of perfectly rolled proportions.
3. Two HB pencils, both new and long, sharpened to fine points.
4. One gold plated Sheaffer biro (medium thin, black ink).
5. A pad of cream vellum writing paper, only a few pages used.
6. A school photograph of Dominic, still wrapped in cellophane paper.
7. An office stapler - grey, weighted.
8. A silver letter opener.
9. A selection of brown and white envelopes, of varying sizes.
In the next drawer down I find;
1. Three chequebook stubs.
2. A current chequebook, as well as a paying-in book.
3. A sheaf of bank statements (collated in a plastic file).
4. Another file containing old household bills.
5. A birth certificate - his.
6. A birth certificate - Leah’s.
In the third drawer down I find;
1. Letters from the solicitor concerning the purchase of 28, Charles Square.
2. Household insurance policies.
3. A life insurance policy.
4. Receipts and guarantees for major household items - TV, video etc.
5. A book on weight training.
6. A pocket size Oxford English Dictionary.
What I do not find is the passport. By now I’m not expecting to.
I pull the files out, place them on the leather covered desktop. I begin to sift through the tiny figures of the bank statements. They show predictable receipts - from the gym, from the café, and predictable outgoings, again to do with the same concerns. At nine, I phone the bank, and ask whether any transactions have been made on our joint account. None have. The teller is able to say that the last settlement made on Gary’s personal account took place the day before we went to Cornwall, when Gary withdrew two hundred pounds from a hole-in-the-wall on Oxford Street. He would have stood at the cash point, taking his time to slide the crisp thin notes into his leather wallet, confident and poised in a drafty location that casts most of us furtive and nervous. The teller isn’t able to tell me details of the business account, though she does say, off the record, that nothing is amiss.
Next I phone the gym.
The bookings’ girl chimes, ‘Good morning. Iron Works!’
‘It’s Claire, Gary’s wife. Just to let you know that he won’t be in. He’s still away.’
‘Fine,’ she replies. ‘We’ll get by without him. When can we expect him?’
‘I’m not sure.’
I sense her surprise at my uncertainty, kick myself for conveying it, and therefore round up with a semi-confident, ‘But if there are any problems, can you call me?’ The tactic works. ‘Sure will do. Have a nice day!’ she sings.
Later that day, I slip Dom a fifty pence piece, and ask him to watch Leah for half an hour whilst I make some calls. He stares at the big shiny coin that I press into the palm of his hand. ’Wow! All this, just for watching her?’
In the living room, perched on the arm of the sofa, phone hooked under my chin, dusting the slats of the Venetian blinds with my fingers, I dial the Office For Missing Persons.
‘Date of birth?’ the counsellor asks me.
It is as if I am talking to a stranger, of a stranger. I might be organising a funeral. A job must be done, done well.
Talking to a voice trained to deal with both the missing and the misser, there would be space for gusts of emotion - if I felt them, if she felt for them: neither of us do.
She doesn’t want me to come in person. Forms, in whose empty spaces I must write, will follow. Once these have been processed, I can make the pilgrimage South of the river, to the source of the voice, to discuss the case further.
She asks for documentation. She wants the paperwork that tells where a life has been lived and suggests at what point it might have become lost. ‘Any passports? Birth or marriage certificates?’
‘No passport. But I’ve got the rest here.’
‘Did he have any previous convictions?’
‘None that I know of.’
Next I phone Cathy.
I recount the story, such as it is.
‘Jesus fucking Christ! Are you OK?’
‘I’m coming right over.’
At teatime, there’s a long buzz on the front door bell. Dom runs to answer. Cathy and Jack stand on the porch. Cathy’s arms are weighed down by a plastic bag, out of whose split side pokes the spikes of a pineapple and whose base is bulging with fresh fish, a bag of potatoes, and a salad. She hugs me, kisses Dom.
‘You been through some bad times, hey?’ she asks him, ruffling his hair.
Dominic nods. It’s the first time he’s heard Gary’s disappearance directly referred to as being ‘a bad time’; he looks like he might cry.
‘Let’s go down,’ she says, diverting Dom’s attention, nodding towards the kitchen. ‘Can you carry this?’
Dom takes the bag. Leah toddles out of the living room, arms outstretched, wanting to be picked up. Cathy swings her up over her hip, then rests a hand on Dom’s shoulder. ‘Lead the way then,’ she says. We follow.
In the kitchen I sit at the table, semi-dazed, watching Dom and Jack peel and scrub potatoes. Leah sits up on the kitchen top, waving a wooden spoon, without a care in the world. Though Cathy and I don’t get a chance to talk, it doesn’t matter. It’s a relief not to have to be in charge.
Over the next few weeks, whenever the phone rings, I run to answer it. Several times I trip over myself - grazing elbows and knees - in an attempt to reach it by its second ring. Twice within the first month, someone hangs up.
Both times I am certain that the caller had been Gary. Having buckled up the courage to phone me, his courage failed at the last minute. If I had just managed to get to the phone earlier, we would have spoken and he might be home.
Both times Dominic finds me holding the humming receiver in my hand, crying.
‘What is it?’ he asks.
He is used to seeing me crying. Every day, all of the time, I am either crying, am just getting over crying, or am just about to cry.
‘Gary phoned. He hung up.’
Dom’s nine-year-old eyes widen.
‘He phoned. What did he say?’
As soon as Dom realises that I haven’t actually spoken to Gary, he sees what is probably true - that the phone call was most likely made by a stranger; that in the course of a month one receives, on average, at least two or three such calls and that his mother is clutching at straws.
Gary might approach the house; sense the thunderous purple, red and black cloud buzzing around it like a bee swarm and, out of legitimate fear for his safety, flee. If he walks through the door, I will certainly assault him - first with words, then with hammering fists and lastly with the feline weaponry my mother taught me of - flailing legs, pointed knees and scratching fingernails. I will draw blood and I will inflict bruises. I will hurt him as much as I can do, and by so doing, it will be me who deals the deathblow to our marriage. Gary will be branded by all a long-suffering, yielding punch cushion and me, I will be the crazy one, the open gate with a broken catch who is swinging wildly in the wind.
Then there are the other days. There are days when I am so sad that my tears would make the ground that Gary walked on slippery; he wouldn’t be able to get a grip, or to even stand. My salt waters would wash him right off the pavement, into the gutter, down the drain.
One morning, I find myself in SW1 with an hour to fill before a dental appointment. The appointment was booked months ahead. Just to keep the arrangement assures me that I am holding things together.
I emerge, blinking like a newborn pup from the underground, and look for a chemist to cash in the Diazepam prescription which the GP scribbled when I burst out in tears at her surgery on account of Leah’s verruca. Around the station there are newsagents’ stalls, numerous shops selling cheap nylon bags and theatre tickets, several bureaux de changes, but not a single chemist.
The pavements are full of office workers on their lunch break. I am walking too slowly; they too fast. They irritate me with their ruthless certainty: I aggravate them with my lack of purpose.
Then I come across Westminster Cathedral. I turn into its pebbled forecourt, at first simply to escape the aggressive pedestrian traffic. In the distance there’s a bench which is two thirds empty, one third occupied by a woman who is crouched double to avoid the wind, and who is munching her way through a sandwich. Before I reach the bench, I am diverted, drawn through the open Cathedral doors.
Once you have required the habit of prayer, you never forget it. Before you have even reached the puddle of Holy Water that awaits your fingertips at the entrance to the nave, you are accosted by a sense of sin, and by a virulent need to alleviate it.
The Cathedral smells damp and musty, with an engrained base note of burnt incense. At the Shrine of Joseph, I light a candle, thinking of nothing than my own hopelessness and imploring Joseph to do something about it. When he doesn’t immediately respond - and I want a rapid response; I am praying for miracles - I walk down through the nave, pausing at the alabaster Shrine of Our Lady Of Westminster. The Virgin looks as if she had nodded off mid-reverie, never to return to full consciousness. In front of her three elderly ladies are genuflecting enthusiastically. One of them makes room for me to kneel. I whisper ‘Please make Gary come back!’ to Mary, and am struck by the childish simplicity of my request.
From this point of gloom, my eyes are caught by the glitter and sparkle of the well-lit Lady Chapel. I stand, and walk towards it. Inside, I sit down close to the altar and stare up at the many depictions of Mary’s life which are revealed in the detailed mosaics of the tympanum and its adjoining walls. I whisper my prayer again. In each picture, our Lady’s face is tilted heavenward. In each picture her expression is one of sad, controlled acceptance with her lot. I wonder if Mary would have been thus immortalised had she raged at the cruelty of her son’s death. I mean, truly rage - screaming, yelling, kicking, and shouting. What would have happened if she had demented herself with the fury and anger that was surely her right to claim?
When Dom goes back to school, I have whole days alone with Leah. I do a thing that I never did with my son; I hire a nanny.
Maria is Turkish. Her father runs an import business off the Dalston road. Once I’ve given the go-ahead, she regularly takes Leah down to his warehouse, where my baby sits on a bag of wheat, is feted by a large extended family, is fed spoonfuls of tahini, chews the papery skin off fresh dates, sucks at their sweet flesh and spits their long pips down at the floor.
Leah takes to Maria immediately. Dominic, whom she collects from school - who doesn’t like dried fruit, or sesame seeds, who doesn’t like being fussed over by legions of cheek-pinching Aunties - reserves judgement.
I like her.
Most days, I walk along the pavements hoping that I’ll see him.
Once I did see him. Once I was on board the number 38. We had just come down Rosebery Avenue and were turning right on to Theobald’s Road and there on the left, beside the long grey wall which shields Gray’s Inn from the heavy flow of traffic, I saw Gary striding along, without a care in the world. I banged on the bus window but he didn’t hear. He went on walking. He was wearing the blue trousers that I had bought him. I ran down the bus stairs and stood in the middle of the coach, at the exit door. I started hammering on it with my fists. ‘OPEN UP, WILL YOU? I’VE SEEN SOMEONE I KNOW!’ The driver said, ‘Stop shouting.’ He rolled his eyes and muttered something which the woman sitting closest to him sneered at, and he went on driving. Gary ducked left into Gray’s Inn. By the time we came to the bus stop and the doors finally whooshed open, we were a quarter of a mile further on up the road.
I ran back along the pavement, pushing through the dawdling pedestrians, towards the gateway which I had seen Gary disappear into. I turned into Gray’s Inn. I ran down the side of a large building which had all its lights on. Everyone was inside that building. No one was outside. Rain was bringing down the maroon maple leaves. They stuck to the slabs of stone paving. If you tried to nudge one off with your foot, it stayed put.
It was him.
For a whole fortnight, when I could have gone round to the gym, and checked it out in the absence of Susie or of Gary, I stayed away. The fact that I might be missing clues as to Gary’s departure might have worried me more than it did, had it not been for the fact that when I handed Wood a jangling bunch of keys which would open up the gym, he handed them straight back. ‘Don’t want them,’ he muttered, ‘No need.’
Susie returned on September the fifteenth. She telephoned the next morning.
‘Is Gary back?’
‘No, he’s not.’
‘No...have you thought of anything to tell me?’
She hadn’t. She wanted to know whether she should go into work the next day.
‘Yes. I’ll meet you there. Say, ten?’
The office was above the gym. The entrance - glossy and red - was from a cobbled alleyway. In the doorway a young lad lay sleeping, an Alsatian sprawled across his legs. I gave the boy a pound coin. He stood up, pulling so hard on the dog’s lead that the animal coughed and spluttered. I pressed the buzzer.
Up stairs there was a large, single room. At one time it had probably been two or three rooms: it had three tall sash windows that looked over the grass-tipped V where Upper Street joins Essex Road. There was a pair of twin leather sofas (upon one of which Susie was sitting as I entered), a desk, two pot plants that were more like trees than plants, and a computer terminal.
‘Take a seat,’ Susie said. ‘Relax.’ She smiled, fanning her arm out towards the spare sofa.
This is what I intended to do: appoint a manager to stand in for Gary, and run the business for as long as he was away. After niceties were over - after I had been offered a drink, and had enquired about Malaga and whether the coastal road was still as deadly as ever - I asked Susie whether she knew anyone up for the job.
‘Charlie Wharton would do it.’
‘Who is he?’
Charles managed a successful concern in Notting Hill. Ex-army, ex-public school, he was, Susie said, a confident survivor of the British tradition of cold baths, overcooked vegetables and lashings of hard discipline. After leaving the army he had used his father’s money to buy two businesses in West London. He was an affable chap, and a keen businessman, one of those rare ex-army types who actually manage to find a place in the world beyond the barracks. She scribbled down his number on a piece of paper, stood up and handed it to me. As she was standing, me sitting, she shot down a semi-question, semi-statement whose harshness was offset by a smile, ‘My job’s guaranteed, I take it?’
She turned and meandered back to the sofa, nudged off a shoe, and sat with one foot and one leg tucked underneath her. I met her eye to eye.
‘No job’s guaranteed. I won’t sack you unless you mess up.’
Her eyebrows levitated at the word ‘sack’.
‘Why? Are you a company director?’
‘Why haven’t you been in before? Why don’t you sell up? Close the business down. You can do that, can’t you? If he doesn’t come back...’
‘It’s way, way too early to do anything like that. Besides which, he’ll be back.’
‘Really?’ she replied.
Behind her head hung a print of Allen Jones’s muscular calved, pink-stockinged legs. I remembered Gary saying he was thinking of buying it. I had told him not to.
‘I’m sorry. I must seem rude. I’m just puzzled. Curious why you’ve never been in before. Puzzled by where Gary has gone. Puzzled by the whole damn thing.’
Later, she took me around the gym. The building was T-shaped, with a promontory that jutted out at the back, housing a cigar shaped pool. A machine that manufactured strong currents made swimming from one end of the pool to the other impossible. Whilst we were watching, a man jumped in the water and began to do a vigorous front crawl yet progressed nowhere. A second swimmer slithered down into the water, a few feet away from the first man. Both men swam perfect strong strokes, yet both of them remained in the exact same position as they had been in when they first got into the water.
‘I’m still amazed you’ve never brought your son here.’
‘Gary didn’t want me to.’
‘And you didn’t press him?’
I found myself stroking the costume wringer. Its steel arms shone brilliantly; its surface was scratch free.
‘You never had an inkling that anything unusual was going on?’ I asked.
‘You mean in terms of the business?’
‘Business or women. No funny calls you had to put through?’
Her eyes were sturdy and sure - brown olive rather than aqueous. She reminded me of a cross between a successful estate agent, a Barbie doll, and a dental assistant. We were poles apart, yet despite her initial reserve, and even prowess, I liked her.
‘You promise you’re not covering for him?’
‘I’m not covering for him. He seemed devoted to you. Always talking about the kids, always referring to you as the woman he’d met who had turned his life around. Really, that’s what he said. Honest.’
On the phone, and later in person, Charlie Wharton was just as Susie described. If there is a redeeming quality of the British Public School it might be manners and civility and Charlie possessed both in abundance.
I met him at his home just off the Fulham Palace Road. He led me into a living room whose curtains were striped terracotta and cream and whose soft furnishings were covered in matching fabrics. The furniture bore a hallmark of family inheritance. I noted a delicate Queen Anne bureau, upon which rested a Waterman fountain pen, and in the bay of the window, an oval, walnut occasional table - late Georgian. Two or three paintings of chestnut racehorses hung on the walls, all of which were lit from below by brass covered tubular lights.
I told Charlie about Gary. He looked startled (which he couldn’t have been: he had spoken to Susie), and then steered the remainder of the conversation along as neutral lines as possible. Not once did he ask me where I thought Gary might be.
‘Will you take it on?’ I asked. ‘Will you manage it?’
‘Depends on the cut.’
We shook hands. His ring hurt as he clasped my fingers too tight.
Soon afterwards, a conversation with Wood ran along these lines.
‘It’s like this, love. If he’s been gone five years, then he’s presumed dead.’
There was just he and I, alone in his office. The office was much same as it always was - three chairs, one desk, a cream coloured telephone. One thing had altered: the calendar on the wall now showed a couple of stags head butting against the backdrop of auburn woodland, not the otter eating the salmon.
‘Did he make a will?’
‘Who are the benefactors?’
‘Well then, I’d advise you, in the light of the fact that it seems that your husband was a very wealthy man, not to divorce him. Do you see why?’
It was clear; if I divorced Gary, I wouldn’t stand to inherit a penny.
‘I wasn’t thinking of divorcing him.’
‘Though you could, after just two years.’
‘Don’t let anyone persuade you otherwise.’
‘And concerning insurance policies, the same legislation applies. Wait five years. Then your husband will be presumed dead.’
Weeks would go by when I didn’t hear from Wood. Occasionally we might talk on the phone, but for the main, he stayed away. The one time that he sat up fast was when I telephoned him about the gun. It was about three months or so after Gary had left.
‘I’ll be round,’ Wood said. He was, within an hour.
‘Why didn’t you mention this before?’ he asked.
He hovered on the doorstep, waiting for a formal invitation to cross the threshold. The sun glared bright behind him. He was a navy blue figure standing against a burning sun. For a few seconds all I could see was dark versus light. Once the door was shut and the glare of the sun excluded, I was able to recognise the details which made him familiar - the sculpted features of his face, the dust on his highly polished shoes, the pale blue of his eyes, the Paddington Bear tie, a wiry hair poking out of his right nostril.
I led him into the living room.
‘Why are you telling me about this now? Why not before?’ he repeated.
‘I wasn’t ready to.’
‘May I?’ he asked, nodding to a chair.
He sat down. I ran upstairs and fetched the black velvet bag.
‘It’s a Luger,’ I said as I handed it to him. He took the gun. As he examined it, he began to smile.
‘It’s not a Luger. This is a new gun, say six or seven years’ old. A Ruger. A P89. As a rule of the thumb, cattle stations don’t have Rugers. You say he bought it over from Australia?’
From the moment Gary had first showed me the gun, from the lazy afternoon when I had tailed grey sea gulls through the viewfinder from the twenty third floor of Sharp’s Point, something about his story hadn’t felt right. I wondered how I had missed the bold lettering of the word RUGER that I now saw was so brazenly engraved on the gun’s shaft.
‘Gary always said that his father had smuggled the thing over from Australia.’
‘But interesting enough for you to do anything with?’
He shook his head, cradling his chin in one hand. As he moved his face, his beard rasped against the dry skin of his hand like sandpaper. ‘Don’t think so. Did he ever use it?’
‘Not that I know of, no.’
His eyes moved upwards and to the right. They hovered on a single thread of spider’s web that Nina’s feather duster must have missed.
‘Without a licence, I’ll have to take the thing away. You know that, don’t you?’
My marriage’s first proven lie, its first proven betrayal; I wanted the gun gone. ‘Take it,’ I said.
At the door I asked, ‘Don’t you need to find out how the gun came to be here? Why my husband needed it?’
Maybe he wanted to say yes but couldn’t. I could sniff the restraint of limited budget in every lead that I served him and that he handed straight back.
‘I think Gary’s dead.’
‘Mrs Blue,’ Wood finally answered, repeating a train of thought that I had heard several times before, ‘I’m afraid we have to adopt the view that your husband’s not dead unless we find a body. Without one, there’s everything to suggest that he’s alive.’
‘Except my instinct, growing by the day, that Gary is lying on the bed of the Thames.’
He smiled. A courteous smile designed to close the conversation.
‘Want to keep this?’ he asked, holding up the velvet pouch in front of me as he slotted the gun into his inside jacket pocket.
Ambit was the first to publish Sophie Frank with a story called Birth, in 1987. Her first novel, set in the Australian sex industry, The Mattress Actress, was published by Faber in 1993. She wrote nothing for six years. My Gary Blue, a book about possession and loss, is her second novel. She is working on her third novel, set in 1373.
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