Unedited extract from the novel “Up the Wooden Dancers.”
“But you really must stop biting your nails,” she said, as they paused their shopping spree for a latte in Café Nero, “It’s disgusting, unhygienic, and doesn’t look good when serving food. Looks like the food’s crap and you’d rather eat yourself.”
“I know,” he said, “Pierre said so.”
“He’s a brilliant manager,” she said, “He turned that place around. I was going to sell it, not now. He does a great job for me and I pay him well for it. I’ll be paying you well too, which is why you won’t let me down.”
“So tell me a little bit more about Ryan,” she said.
When Pierre, a tall, gel-haired, smart and handsome French guy with a chiselled jaw and expensive aftershave had talked him through the job – what he expected, how he ran a tight ship, how he was fair with the rota, how there’d be training and opportunities as long as he stopped biting his nails – Judy had said he needed fitting out. She’d hailed a black cab on Whitworth Street and told the driver to drop them on Deansgate near the Arndale. The Arndale Centre, she’d said, is not what it used to be, but to him it was amazing, like spending the afternoon in a hot and exotic foreign country.
In Marks & Spencer he’d tried on about four pairs of shoes before opting for the black brogues costing £150, in Burtons he’d tried and she’d purchased a black three-piece suit, some new Calvin Klein boxers and a pack of five pairs of socks, and in Next he’d tried on a crisp white shirt collar size 14 and she’d bought three. “One more thing we need,” she’d said, heading into the O2 shop to buy him a pay-as-you-go, “Pierre will need you to be contactable.” And in these places, the likes of which he hadn’t legally darkened for years, he’d wanted to tell her how it felt. Unusual, yes. Weird, certainly. But it was more than that. He wanted to tell her how good it felt. He remembered going shopping with his mother all those years ago, when things were good, when dad was around and earning well at the toffee factory and being good with the money he fetched home, making sure his mum had enough to see her through the week, Ryan had enough to keep him heeled for school, leaving just enough for his dad to enjoy the occasional pint. Or that was how it seemed. But to be taken into Liverpool by your mum, and bought the latest trainees, the latest trackie, was a treat that until today had paled into distant memory… Today, amid the friendly ghosts of family times lost, there was all of that pleasure with the mix of weirdness, of strange discomfiture of being treated by a woman old enough to be his mother, whom he’d bumped into just a few hours before. And yet, and more than all of that, and though it wasn’t something he could easily reconcile, this was oedipal, erotic even, and at the very least femininely comforting.
Though he didn’t, couldn’t, describe any of this to Judy while they sauntered through the rails, picking out this and trying that, he’d been able to relax in her company, enjoy the laughs, welcome her blunt appraisal of anything he chose and she didn’t like, spending an afternoon that was as alien yet as normal as anything he’d known for a very long time.
And now, he was with this woman in Café Nero with half a dozen shiny bags around his feet, telling her about those times when he went shopping with his mum, and how it felt then, and how it felt the day his dad went missing, how he idolised the man, from the earliest memories he had of him saying “Up the wooden Dancers” when it was bedtime, how he read him stories when he was small, when he first taught him how to kick a ball…
“It’s a very sad story,” she said, when he got to the bit about Everton Football Club letting him go. “Imagine the fortunes you could’ve earned had you made it.”
“Thanks for that,” he said with a smile.
“I used to date George Best,” she said.
“Yea, Chris told me. A legend. What was he like?”
“Another time,” she said bluntly, drawing a thick line beneath it.
“It’s good that you and Chris are still friends,” he said, instinctively knowing he had to change the subject.
“Poor old sod couldn’t do without me.”
“I really like him though.”
“He’s a good soul. We still look out for each other. You need to in this day and age,” she added, staring into the distance as if towards something unpleasant on the horizon.
“Did either of you remarry?” he asked.
“God no. Finish your coffee, I need to get home to the dog.”
Though he did as he was asked, the news that she had to go came as something of a disappointment to Ryan, partly because he quite fancied getting pissed and partly because he quite fancied Judy. She was easy to talk to, good fun in her dry way, a straight-talker, no bullshit, and something about her told him she’d be up for it if she could only stop a bit longer.
“Don’t worry we’ll get a cab,” she said as they hit the warm air made hotter by the shopping hordes on Market Street, and seeing it was a bit of a struggle with all his bags. Minutes later, no more than five because she once again made a cab appear with some deft urban coolness, they were back in Chris’ apartment where she’d left her BMW in the compound.
“I need to come up for a wee,” she said.
One inside, they talked some more, about the job and what it entailed, and how he’d have to open a bank account and stop biting his nails. He was to stay clean, shaven, and ready to greet the customers with a smile, the smile she’d seen happen today when he got his new clothes.
“You’re a very handsome young man,” she said,
“Time’s roughened your edges but when you shave them off you’ll be you again.”
“All thanks to you,” he said, and she said he didn’t have to thank her, his part of the contract was to not let her down, but he insisted he did need to thank her.
“I think you’ll look smart in your new clothes for your first day tomorrow,” she said, “Why don’t you put them on now, a dress rehearsal?”
“I thought you needed to get home to your dog?”
“He’ll be fine a bit longer.”
“I had a dress-rehearsal in Burtons.”
“Not with the shirt.”
“I’ll feel self-conscious.”
“Don’t be silly,” she said, “You didn’t feel self-conscious in the shops. Anyway, in case you’ve forgotten, I’m your boss and this is now an order.”
“Alright,” he said, and took his bags into the spare bedroom.
“Wow!” she said, when he returned some moments later in the black, slim-fitting trousers and waistcoat, crisp white shirt, new socks and brogues, “Very smart, very handsome. You’re you again.”
“You think so?”
“So imagine I’m a customer, let me see that smile.”
“I admit it feels pretty good,” he said, and smiled. And then, all of a sudden, she rose from the settee and said, “So?”
“So what?” he said.
“So are you going to show me just how grateful you are?” And with that she kissed him, and as the kiss became passionate he lifted her onto the kitchen counter and pushed her legs apart, riding up her skirt again, still kissing and pushing his body between them.
“In the bedroom,” he said.
“No!” she insisted, “Right here!”
“Have you got anything?”
“Fuck’s sake!” she said, pushing him away. For a moment he thought all was lost, but she rooted in a kitchen drawer and found some, saying she knew Chris kept them there and they’d gone unused for too long, then dexterously bit off a corner, unzipped him, took him in her hand and curled it on.
And then she returned to the counter and they fucked, wildly at first before slowing down at her command, because she said it seemed like he hadn’t done it for years and he admitted that was true, the last time he slept with a woman they didn’t do anything because she didn’t want to.
“Well I do,” she said.
Afterwards, as she straightened her skirt, he asked if she was staying, wanting desperately to spend the night with her, just to sleep once again with a woman, wake up next morning with her in that comfortable bedroom for which her daughter had chosen the decor, as if for all the world that was normal, that was his normal life that he had found. But she repeated the words she’d said earlier, she needed to get back for the dog.
“England are playing Belgium,” he said, “I thought maybe we could watch it?”
“Darling,” she said, “Watch it on your own. Get something to eat and have an early night. And don’t let me down.”
“I won’t,” he said.
“It was a fuck, that’s all.”
“Buying you a smile doesn’t mean you get preferential treatment.”
“Good. And another thing,” she said, “Don’t forget to water the plants.”
There was nothing in the cupboards in Chris’ kitchen, and of course still nothing in the fridge besides the pair of underpants that still rested there, but there was at least two remaining pieces of bread and enough butter in the dish to cover it. But as hungry Ryan feasted, he couldn’t help thinking, or he allowed himself to think, that this was his final supper as a pauper.
He could’ve done with a drink while he watched England go down to Belgium in the academic final game of the group. But there was no drink so he went without, happy to go without given that tomorrow he was starting afresh. After the game, he went onto the balcony and smoked the last bit of blow he’d stolen from his cousin lost at sea.
Gazing down the three storeys onto the Chester Road, Old Trafford’s stands protruding proudly into the distant sky, he felt like a man, a man taking stock of a new life. While these things that kept happening were the miracles he’d been dreaming of, they had with them a murky sense of foreboding; nobody on the streets accepts a handout without expecting a smack in the mouth for dessert. Because why were these things happening? Who were these people? Who was Chris and did he really have links with the underworld? Who was Judy and did she have links also? Why did Chris take a homeless young man in, and give him food for the price of a wank? Why did Judy give a job to a homeless guy she’d never met before, and spend over a thousand pounds on clothing him and making him smile? It made no sense. And yet, if only for the moment, this was the feeling of being on top of your game, the feeling of scoring a goal and being told it was a worldy, the feeling of being told you were going places, you had a future, if you worked hard enough you could make things happen. So that’s how it was, that’s how it felt, and if it were only to feel like that for a time until someone decided it was over, Ryan was prepared to take that feeling to bed with him and dream it all over again.