Rebuilding coventry, p.1
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       Rebuilding Coventry, p.1

           Sue Townsend
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Rebuilding Coventry




  A Tale of Two Cities

  To Geoffrey Strachan — he knows why

  1 Yesterday I Killed a Man

  There are two things that you should know about me immediately: the first is that I am beautiful, the second is that yesterday I killed a man called Gerald Fox. Both things were accidents. My parents are not good-looking. My father looks like a tennis ball, bald and round, and my mother closely resembles a bread knife, thin, jagged and with a cutting tongue. I have never liked them and I suspect they don’t like me.

  And, I neither loved nor hated Gerald Fox enough to want to kill him.

  But I love my brother Sidney, and I think he loves me. We laugh together about Tennis Ball and Bread Knife. Sidney is married to a sad woman called Ruth. Ruth sighs before she speaks, and when she has finished speaking she sighs again. Sighs are her punctuation marks. Sidney is besotted with her: he finds her melancholia to be deeply erotic. They have no children, and don’t want any. Ruth claims to be too afraid of the world, and Sidney wants frightened Ruth all to himself. They make love seven times a week — more if the weather’s hot — and when they go abroad they hardly leave their hotel room. Sidney tells me nearly everything about his marriage, although he is surprisingly squeamish about money. ‘No, no,’ he says, and shudders away from financial talk.

  He is a sales manager in a store selling electrical goods in the city where we were both born, a dab hand at selling cameras, compact disc players and portable colour televisions to people who can’t afford them. Sidney is successful because, like me, he is beautiful. He has a smile that customers can’t resist. They are hypnotized by the deep brown of his eyes, and the lush growth of his eyelashes. As they sign the credit arrangement they admire his hands. They don’t mind when he tells them that the consumer durable they have just purchased, and want immediately, will not be delivered for a fortnight. They are too busy listening to his heartbreaking voice with its charming hesitations and throaty catches. They leave the shop in a daze. One woman walked backwards out of the shop still waving to Sidney and backed onto a motorbike which carried her fifteen yards before throwing her into the gutter. Other people in the shop ran out to help her but Sidney stayed inside to guard the till.

  Sidney has a very cold heart. He has never suffered himself and is irritated by other people’s pain. He has refused to watch the television news ‘since they started clogging it up with films of bloody famine victims’. I once asked Sidney what he wanted out of life. ‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘I’ve already got it.’ He was thirty-two then. I said: ‘But what will you do until you die?’ He laughed and said: ‘Make more money and buy more things.’ My brother is pragmatic to a fault. He doesn’t know I killed a man yesterday. He’s on holiday in a villa on the Algarve and he won’t answer the telephone.

  Sidney is the only person in the world I know who won’t be shocked that I am wanted by the police. I am almost pleased that he has no principles; unprincipled people are a great comfort in times of crisis.

  I have an unusual Christian name: Coventry. My father was visiting Coventry on the day I was born. He was delivering a lorry-load of sand to a bomb-site. ‘Thank God he wasn’t on an errand to Giggleswick,’ my mother used to say at least three times a week. It is the nearest she has come to cracking a joke in the whole of her life.

  Sidney was also named after a city: my father saw a picture of Sydney Harbour Bridge in Tit Bits and fell in love with it. He knew its weight and length and the frequency with which it was painted.

  When I grew up I was puzzled at these quixotic choices. With the cold eye of adolescence I saw that my father was stultifyingly dull and possessed no imagination whatsoever.

  Naturally Sidney and I have always hated our names. I longed to be an anonymous Pat, Susan or Ann, and Sidney wanted to be called Steve. But then every man I’ve ever known has wanted to be called Steve.

  So there you are. I have an extraordinary face, body and name, but unfortunately I am a very ordinary woman with no obvious talents, no influential family connections, no qualifications in anything at all and no income. Yesterday I had a husband and two teenage children. Today I am alone, I’m on the run and I’m in London, without my handbag.

  2 Night Out with the Neighbours

  They had been sitting in the pub, Coventry Dakin and her friends. It was Monday evening. Coventry was not enjoying herself. Derek, her husband, had raised his voice to her before she left home. He was going out to the Annual General Meeting of the Tortoise Society and he thought that Coventry should stay in with the children.

  ‘But Derek, they’re sixteen and seventeen, old enough to be left,’ whispered Coventry.

  ‘And what if a gang of violent yobs decide to break in and beat John up and rape Mary?’ Derek hissed. Neither of them believed in arguing in front of the children, so they were in the back garden in the tortoise shed. Outside was the glooming night. Derek had picked up a lettuce during his last speech and was carefully peeling away leaves and feeding them to his beloved tortoises. Coventry could hear their shells clacking together as they rushed towards Derek’s hand.

  ‘But there aren’t any violent gangs around here, Derek,’ she said. ‘Those gangs drive round in cars, Coventry. They come out of the inner city and pick on affluent suburban houses.’

  ‘But this is a council estate, Derek.’

  ‘But we’re buying our house, aren’t we?’

  ‘How would a car-load of yobs know that?’

  ‘Because of the Georgian doors and windows I’ve put in, of course. But if you want to leave John and Mary alone and defenceless, then go ahead. Go out drinking with your common friends.’

  Coventry didn’t defend her friends against this charge because they were, undeniably, common.

  ‘Anyway, I don’t like to think of you sitting in a pub.’ He was sulking now; Coventry could just make out his pushed-up bottom lip in the dark.

  ‘Don’t think about it, then. Concentrate on your slimy tortoises. She was almost shouting.

  ‘Tortoises are not slimy, as you would know if you could ever bring yourself to touch one.’

  There was a long silence between man and wife which was broken only by the surprisingly loud crunching noises made by the feasting tortoises. For something to do Coventry read the beasts’ names, which Derek had written immaculately in fluorescent paint on each shell: ‘Ruth’, ‘Naomi’, ‘Jacob’ and ‘Job’.

  ‘Shouldn’t they be hibernating?’ she asked her husband.

  This was a sore point. There had already been several frosts but Derek kept putting off the evil day. The truth was that he always missed them during the long winter months.

  ‘Allow me to decide on a suitable date for their hibernation, will you?’ said Derek. But he thought to himself, ‘Must get some straw on my way home from work tomorrow.’

  Derek was worried. A series of disastrous summers had put his pets off their food, thus leaving them short of body fats and jeopardizing their chances of surviving their winter sojourn in dreamland. He’d tried force-feeding them but had stopped when they’d shown obvious signs of distress. He now weighed them daily, noting their respective weights in an exercise book. He blamed himself for not noticing their anorexic condition earlier, though how he was supposed to see through their thick shells he didn’t know. He didn’t have X-ray vision, did he?

  ‘Now, if you don’t mind?’ Derek had held the shed door open for Coventry. She had squeezed past him through the narrow opening, not wanting to touch or be touched by him, and walked across the dark, damp grass where the tortoises sported during the summer months, and went into the house.

  The pub Coventry and her friends were sitting in was calle
d Astaire’s. It was a theme pub. The theme being the cinematic persona of Fred Astaire. The brewery’s designer had razed the old name, the Black Pig, from the exterior and the sturdy wooden tables and comfortable bench seating from the interior. Drinkers were now forced to crouch over pink and chromium coffee-tables. Their large bums lapped over the edges of tiny, pink Dralon stools. The refurbishment was meant to represent a nineteen-thirties Hollywood night-club, but the clientele remained stubbornly unsophisticated; spurning all inducements to buy cocktails, preferring to swig beer from straight glasses.

  Fred Astaire costumes had been provided for the bar staff, who had worn them for the first week until, irritated beyond endurance by the inconvenience of wearing top hats, starched collars and tailcoats, they had rebelled and reverted to wearing their own clothes.

  Greta, sixteen stone and a barmaid at the Black Pig since leaving school, had resigned as soon as last orders were called on the night of the reopening.

  ‘I looked a right bleddy prat in a top ‘at,’ she said outside on the pavement.

  ‘You did an’ all, Greta,’ said one regular, who had missed looking at her comfortable cleavage.

  It took Derek a full five minutes to settle Ruth, Naomi, Jacob and Job down for the night and then another few minutes to bolt and padlock the windows and door of the shed. Tortoises are now rare and valuable animals and tortoise-rustling is all too common in Britain. So Derek took no chances. He didn’t know what he would do if his quartet of animals were stolen from him. Apart from loving them, he could never afford to restock. When he went back into the house he found that Coventry had disobeyed him and gone to the pub.

  ‘I’ve got to go out, sorry, but it’s the Annual General Meeting,’ he explained to his indifferent children. ‘Will you be all right?’

  ‘Course,’ they said.

  When the Georgian door had slammed behind Derek, the children opened a bottle of their father’s elderflower wine and settled down, drink in hand, to watch a semi-pornographic video called Vile Bodies.

  Because of the row with Derek, Coventry was ill at ease. To make things worse one of those conversational voids had occurred. To fill it she gabbled the first thing that came into her head. ‘How old was Jesus when he died?’ she asked.

  ‘For Christ’s sake!’ Greta rasped in her sixty-a-day voice. ‘I’ve come here to enjoy myself, not to have a bleedin’ religious discussion!’ Coventry blushed, then tried very hard to stop blushing. She had read that day that with positive thinking your body could be made to do anything.

  ‘He didn’t die, he was murdered,’ said Maureen, who was thin and careful about detail.

  ‘He was thirty-three,’ said Greta in a hostile, warning tone. She clicked her handbag shut with an air of finality.

  Coventry looked at Greta and thought that she was a bully. She imagined Greta’s big, squashy body wearing skinhead clothes instead of her usual polyester afternoon frocks and the picture inside her head made her smirk. A hairy man with sideburns who was lounging with his back against the bar smirked back at her, so Coventry quickly looked away and pretended to search through her handbag for something.

  Maureen laughed quietly and said, ‘Eh, it looks like Coy’s clicked. That bloke in the overalls just smiled at her.’

  Greta lit a cigarette and, through an exhalation of dirty smoke, said: ‘That’s Norman Parker. He’s a compulsive gambler and he’s got the worst-smelling feet of any man I’ve ever known. Keep clear of him, Coy.’

  The three women looked at Norman Parker’s feet hidden inside industrial boots. Noticing their glance, Norman shouted: ‘You wouldn’t know me when I’m washed and done up. Cecil Parkinson’s got nowt on me.’

  Mr Patel, the landlord, looked up from the microwave where mysterious rays were warming a shepherd’s pie for Norman’s supper. He didn’t like raised voices in his pub. In his experience raised voices were a prelude to calling the police, before locking himself in the stock-room with the contents of the till.

  Gerald Fox crashed into the bar from the street and stood looking around importantly, as though he were about to announce the outbreak of war. ‘Bung us a sausage roll in the micro, Abdul,’ he shouted. Mr Patel whispered bitter words under his breath. He hated to be called Abdul. Why couldn’t this man learn to pronounce his given name properly? Was Parvez too difficult for his clumsy tongue?

  ‘Would you like anything else, Mr Fox?’ enquired Mr Patel.

  ‘Well, Abdul, I wouldn’t mind a night with your missus. I’ve heard that she’s some goer.’ Gerald laughed long and hard, and Norman Parker joined in to be sociable.

  But Mr Patel was not smiling. After the laughter had died away he said: ‘You have been misinformed, Mr Fox. You must have been told that my wife was from Goa, as indeed she is. Goa was her place of birth; it is a small territory next to the Indian Ocean.’

  The ping of the microwave called him away. Coventry laughed and clapped her hands and exchanged smiles with Mr Patel. Gerald looked over his shoulder and shouted: ‘Well, if it’s not Coventry Tittie … sorry, I mean City.’ Once again Norman Parker echoed Gerald’s laughter. His mouth opened and closed, displaying half-chewed bits of shepherd’s pie. Gerald turned his back and ordered a pint.

  Maureen said, ‘Shall we move on somewhere else, girls?’

  Greta said, ‘No, why should we? We was here first.’ Then, to Gerald Fox, ‘If I had a mouth like yours I’d donate it to the Channel Tunnel project.’

  Norman Parker, always obliging, laughed. Gerald turned, took a deep drink of lager and said threateningly: ‘Now then, Greta.’

  Coventry was still blushing to the roots of her naturally blonde hair at Gerald Fox’s allusion to her breasts. She folded her arms over them, as she had done millions of times since the first schoolboy had shouted ‘Coventry Tittie!’ in the street twenty-seven years ago.

  Norman and Gerald were talking at the bar, swopping lies and bragging about money earned, personal strength and women conquered. Gerald told Norman the terrible lie that Coventry had been his mistress for over a year. He elaborated: ‘I see her on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, but the rest of the time we have to pretend that we don’t get on.’

  Norman said, ‘Well, she had me fooled. To be quite honest, I thought she looked like she hated you.’

  Gerald lowered his voice. ‘She’s crazy about me, always on at me to leave my missus, but I said to her only last Wednesday, I said:

  “Coventry, don’t ask me to leave my kids; it would kill me.”‘

  Norman Parker nodded sympathetically. He had left his kids two years ago and now, made maudlin with drink, he briefly regretted it.

  ‘I live opposite her, you know,’ said Gerald. ‘Which is quite handy … saves petrol.’

  Norman understood this convenience; his own marital infidelities had been with girls who lived out of the district. The back window of his car was constantly full of give-away gifts from petrol stations.

  Greta got up from the table and went to the bar. She watched as Mr Patel removed the cellophane from a sausage roll and put the pink and brown object on a cardboard plate for Gerald to devour. She was going to say something, she didn’t know what, or to whom, but she was going to manufacture a small drama out of this tense atmosphere between the small groups of men and women. Greta needed drama in her life, it was oxygen to her. Without it she slumped, pale and lifeless. She was a big woman who needed big events. She felt she was born to star in La Traviata, but always seemed fated to sing in the chorus of The Gondoliers. She picked on Norman Parker.

  ‘I see your ex-wife has done all right for herself,’ she said. ‘Undermanager at Tesco’s now, isn’t she?’

  Norman’s face set hard, his toes curled inside his industrial boots. ‘Must be hard up if they have to promote her,’ he growled. He spun out drinking the last of his beer to give him time to think but nothing came to him. Gerald helped him out.

  ‘Everybody knows how your wife got promotion,’ he said.

  ‘How d
id she?’ asked Norman, who genuinely didn’t know.

  ‘On her back, of course,’ said Gerald encouragingly, trying to catch Norman’s eye, but Norman was looking away.

  Greta ordered two vodkas and orange for herself and Maureen, and a port and lemon for Coventry. Mr Patel busied himself at the optics and tried to look inconspicuous. He thought, ‘I would kill a man who insulted my wife, even my ex-wife, in such a fashion. I would chop him into small pieces and feed him to the large goldfish who swim in the ornamental pond in the foyer of the restaurant owned by my brother-in-law.’

  Norman turned, grim-faced, and said, ‘How do you know?’

  Gerald laughed cynically and said, ‘Norman, it’s common knowledge. She’s not known as “The Grand Canyon” for nothing.’

  Norman’s knowledge of geography was not extensive but he sensed a terrible insult and hit Gerald Fox on his upper arm.

  Mr Patel’s finger was already dialling the first of three nines. Coventry rose to go but Greta pulled her down, saying, ‘Finish your drink. Port doesn’t grow on trees, you know.’

  Coventry sat back and thought, ‘Port does grow on trees … initially.’

  Maureen, who was a wrestling fan, was shouting encouragement to Norman, who was pummelling Gerald around the shoulders. Gerald was trying to soothe Norman’s pride (and save wear and tear on his suit) by saying: ‘Only a joke Norman, only a joke.’ But Norman’s fist caught him a cruel blow, on the side of his neck and made reasoning difficult. So Gerald was obliged to start fighting back. The men were well matched in build and weight and were still fighting when two spotty policemen came into the bar, carrying their peaked hats under their arms like rugby footballs.

  Greta sat back in her seat, satisfied and happy. There was no blood, but the strong possibility of an arrest and a subsequent court case, with herself as star witness. She would wear her black and white hound’s-tooth checked suit. It would contrast nicely with the dark panelling of the magistrates’ court.

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